“I, Nephi” – Just Made Up?

One recent comment asked why the phrase “I, Nephi” was so common, and stated that this just sounded made up, as if it were a catch-phrase to make Nephi’s writing sound different than other books. The writer has a point: “I, Nephi” is a remarkably common phrase, found 89 times, 88 from the first Nephi, but only once from one of the later Nephis (Helaman 9:36). It’s not just a phenomenon with Nephi, though he’s the most prominent user of such phrases. The other authors of the small plates of Nephi used this style a lot: “I, Jacob” occurs 16 times, the short book of Enos has “I, Enos” five times, Jarom has it twice, and even Omni begins with the formulaic “I, Omni.”

After the small plates of Nephi, things are different. In the Book of Mosiah, there are no occurrences of “I, Benjamin,” “I, Mosiah,” or “I, Limhi,” but Zeniff uses that form twice in his account. The large Book of Alma has “I, Alma” only four times. That book, not the Book of Helaman, is where we find the only two occurrences of “I, Helaman” in an epistle. Throughout the Book of Mormon, both Mormon and Moroni identify themselves in that form 16 and 17 times, respectively, most of which are done in the role of editors to make it clear who is speaking. The phrase “I, Ether” does not occur at all.

It seems that the person who raised the objection based on “I, Nephi” noted this difference in style between Nephi’s writings and the other parts of the Book of Mormon. I think because it struck him as an “obvious” difference, it seemed “made up” – and thus evidence of fraud. There may be something of a circular argument here, or a catch-22 from Book of Mormon critics. If the style of two writers seems the same, it shows that there was one author, making the book a fraud. If the style seems obviously different, it’s evidence that style differences were just made up, making the book a fraud.

Can only unnoticeable differences count in favor of multiple authorship? If so, once they are pointed out, I suppose they would no longer qualify since they have been noticed and are now “obvious.” Actually, the importance of subtle, hard-to-notice and hard-to-fake differences is the premise in the computerized wordprint analysis done a number of years ago by John Hilton (using improved methods relative to an earlier effort known as the Larsen study). See John L. Hilton, “On Verifying Wordprint Studies: Book of Mormon Authorship,” BYU Studies, 30 (Summer 1990):89-108. An analysis of subtle patterns in language – things that are very difficult to consciously control – can be used to identify characteristic patterns of different authors and to statistically distinguish authors. Based on that work, there is good reason to believe that there were multiple authors of the Book of Mormon, and that these authors were almost certainly not Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, or Solomon Spaulding. (BTW, my wife’s masters’ thesis in statistics was a wordprint study advised by Dr. Hilton on the writings of Paul.)

This issue of “I, Nephi” shows a minor but important difference between the books from the small plates of Nephi and the rest of the text. For example, Brant Gardner’s Multidimensional Commentary on the Book of Mormon for First Nephi 1 has this to say about the opening verse that begins with “I, Nephi”:

Hugh Nibley first identified 1 Nephi 1:1-3 as a colophon, a structured and typical identificatory passage used at the beginning or end of many ancient documents (Nibley Since Cumorah, 1967, pp. 170-171). The essential elements are the identification of the writer, the writer’s lineage, and at times a statement of the veracity or trustworthiness of the written text. . . .

The hallmark of the colophon is the personal introduction of the material by the writer. While Nephi’s introduction is clearly the most formal, the introduction to the written text by the writer continues for most of the material from Nephi to the end of Omni (Jacob’s personal introduction is perhaps the least formal, and the furthest from the structures of a colophon). Once the Book of Mormon picks up with Mosiah, however, the personal introductions cease, and are replaced by a typically chronological introduction (Alma 1:1 “Now it came to pass that in the first year of the reign of the judges….”; Helaman 1:1 “And now behold, it comae to pass in the commencement of the fortieth year of the reign of the judges…”; 4 Nephi 1:1 “And it came to pass that the thirty and fourth year passed away,…”). None of these qualifies as examples of colophons, and even the personal introductions lack the formulaic precision of Nephi’s introduction.

The first clear division can be made between the personalized introductions of the 1 Nephi through Omni material, and all books which follow. This division is precisely that between the small plate material and the large plate material. The small plates were written in the first person, and the large plates were abridged. More will be said later about the structure and content of these different sources, but for now it is sufficient that the introductory material for the books in each section is clearly different, and follows a different literary imperative.

I hope that provides some helpful insight into the “I, Nephi” issue and the complex styles and structures of the text.

So, if I may ask, are such stylistic differences evidence that the Book of Mormon was just made up to appear to have different authors? And are the more subtle, less-obvious differences detected by computer analysis of patterns involving minor words also evidence that the book was made up? Is the presence of sophisticated Hebraic patterns like chiasmus also evidence of fraud? Really, I’ve encountered a few examples where critics point to Semitic elements in the text as examples of fraudulent borrowing from the Bible, and when they don’t find enough Semitic elements (like details on how the Law of Moses was observed), they find that as evidence of fraud as well. To me, the zealous effort to reject the Book of Mormon no matter what represents a modern “marvelous work and a wonder,” though I question the inspiration behind it.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

15 thoughts on ““I, Nephi” – Just Made Up?

  1. Yeah. Once on my mission I went skimmed through the Book of Mormon lookig for phrases like “I, Nephi”, and “I, Mormon”, etc. I was surprised at how common it is. The Bible doesn’t seem to have this as much, but then again, most Biblical books (as we have them) seem to be from a third-person rather than a first-person “I” perspective. On the other hand, the phrase “I the LORD” does appear 50 times in the Old Testament when the Lord is directly quoted.

  2. Amazing! English speakers have to waste five whole syllables to say “And it came to pass,” but Spanish speakers can say “Y aconteció” in only FIVE syllables.

  3. The point being that in Hebrew or reformed Egyptian it could be just one or 2 symbols. I think the number of syllables is not relevant. Big whoop.

  4. Actually, the multiple authorship of the Book of Mormon goes very well to establish that Joseph Smith did not write it himself. I can recall a fireside given by Elder Gerald N. Lund were he discussed the Book of Mormon from a writer’s point of view. He mentioned the multi-authorship as an element to consider when studying the Book of Mormon. He said that the style of a writer becomes like his finger prints, the use of adverbs, puntuaction sings, and so forth. Even if you utilise all the grammatical rules, there is still space for individual expressions of each author. And the computer study by J. Hilton came as a ‘proof’ (that wasn’t his biggest case, though, but it was an element to consider. Plus, the major part of the audience were investigators/converts). The study revealed that the books in the Book of Mormon had a distinct character, meaning, that it wasn’t the style of only one writer. That would certainly throw away the claims of ‘authorship’ to Joseph Smith. How, then, can it be explained?

    Did Martin Harris, David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery also ‘wrote’ the Book of Mormon? Oliver was given the gift of translating the plates (D&C 8:1, 5 – 8, 11). This thesis would have the critics delighted, but there are many aspects that would not dismiss it. For one, sections 8 and 9 were given on April 1829. Did Oliver translate the golden plates? There is no indication of this (D&C 9:10) So I do not think that other that Joseph, many did translate the plates. If Joseph Smith was the sole translator, how is that there are several styles in the Book of Mormon?

    There are many indications that the Book of Mormon can be construed as a record of a Semitic origin. The usage of the conjunction ‘And’ is one that Elder Lund gave. The Old Testament, a more Semitic text than the New is full of ‘ands’. Just see Genesis 2, for a taste. Do that with the book of Mormon and you will find that the the number of ‘ands’ are quite high. This is another element to consider. But all this facts are just for a ‘mental’ conversion, i.e., prooving that the BoM is in fact of Semitic origin, that it plausible in the American continent, etc. The real conversion comes through the testifying of the Spirit that the Book of Mormon is the Word of God revealed through prophets in the American continent.

    On a lighter vein, you could argue that the phrase “Y aconteció” has four syllables. The first “Y”, pronunced in Spanish akin to ‘E’ links to the first syllable of the word ‘aconteció’. When you have two syllables that end and begin with vowels (or vowel sounds such as the ‘y’) syllables are united. it is called ‘diptongo’. So, the syllables would be: Y a/ con/ te / ció.

  5. I definitely find different styles of writing when I read the Book of Mormon. I find 1 Nephi to be rather dry (as it is pretty much a journal describing a trip) and Alma to be very eloquent and easy to read. In fact I usually start at Mosiah or Alma rather than 1 Nephi when I read it. I can’t remember who said that the first 10 chapters of 1 Nephi were the most well read part of the BoM, because that’s as far as a lot of people get in reading!

    And what about that Mayan glyph that has been translated as “And it came to pass.” I found that interesting.

  6. good points, AG, except for one minor detail. the book of mormon manuscript originally didn’t HAVE punctuation. normally you can analyze punctuation tendencies to determinte authorship, but not w/ the BoM since all punctuation was added by the printer and later (I’m sure) modified by church leaders. I’m not even sure how accurate a wordprint would be if it utilized the current book of mormon, since there have been so many minor changes in word-use and grammar; i believe the original byu study did use the newest edition. i’m not sure if they updated their study using the original manuscript.

  7. Hilton’s work was based on the primitive Book of Mormon text obtained from the printer’s manuscript, the 1830 printed text, available portions of the original mansucript, and the first edition printed by Wilford C. Wood. Editors prepared a composite file based on the oldest sections available to make the best possible primitive text that they could. This was what was analyzed.

  8. My family is just finishing reading 3 Nephi together out loud. We noticed that there was a real difference in the flow of the text when it came to the portions where the Savior is quoted directly. While most of Alma flows relatively well, as does Mormon’s editorial insertions, the speech pattern of the Savior was much harder to read out loud. We all found ourselves stumbling over it. It has a very different set of attributes than any of the other Book of Mormon text.

  9. I think it was I who made the comment, but I was not trying to catch-22, promise! I was only thinking that if I were to make something up and pass it off as real, and I needed alot of material and so alot of filler would be nice, and it would be a supposed collection of writings that needed to sound like it was from different writers, I could kill a few birds with one stone by coming up with phrases like “And I, Nephi” and “And it came to pass” for at least a book or two (but not too many or that would be obvious!)

    I realize that to be fair and honest I’m going to need to read the BOM straight through and pray about it again before passing judgment.

  10. 2nd Nephi has some of the best summations of the plan of salvation that there are, particularly chapter 9.

    The very first time I started reading the Book of Mormon, I read 3rd Nephi chapters 11 through 26, which is what the missionaries suggested. Then I read it straight through front to back.

    I’m glad I read it straight through a few times before I heard anyone say that 2nd Nephi was “hard.”

    Geez. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. It you think it’s difficult, it will be.

    Personally, I think the Lord had a reason for having Nephi put the quotations from Isaiah there. They’re important

  11. I personally Love reading through the first part of Third Nephi. It’s the easiest for me to read as a real, true story, and it gets me in the mood for readnig anything else.

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