Mosiah 9:1 — LeGrand Baker — Zeniff’s colopnon
1 I, Zeniff, having been taught in all the language of the Nephites, and having had a knowledge of the land of Nephi, or of the land of our fathers’ first inheritance, and having been sent as a spy among the Lamanites that I might spy out their forces, that our army might come upon them and destroy them–but when I saw that which was good among them I was desirous that they should not be destroyed.
This verse is in the form of an ancient a colophon. It is the introduction to Zeniff’s short autobiography, and its very structure precludes the possibility of its having been written by the Prophet Joseph.
A colophon is a formal introduction or conclusion to document, in which the author identifies himself and tells his authority and purpose for writing. In other words, it is an introduction which establishes the credibility of the author and also of the words in the document itself. Beginning a document with a colophon was an important practice in times when there was no such thing as a copyright to help confirm authorship. Its use was further necessitated by the fact that all copies of a manuscript were hand written, so the legitimacy of a copied document had to be established by the text itself, because that legitimacy could only rarely be established by the handwriting of the original author. Last week I wrote about how prophets would sometimes encode a sacred sub-text into their introductions so that anyone who could read the code would know the document was written by a prophet. This week I would like to discuss the literary practice of using colophons like the one with which Zeniff introduces his autobiography.
Our modern culture has pretty much abandoned the use of colophons, except for some legal documents such as wills. For example, “I, so-and-so, being of sound mind, etc. make this will, etc. ” That is the essence of a colophon. So-and-so gives her name and establishes her authority and credibility, and the legitimacy of her last will and testament will by the affirmation that she is of sound mind. Then she says what the document is about. Anciently, letters were written that way also.
A New Testament example of a simple, but complete colophon is the first verse of Ephesians: “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, to the saints which are at Ephesus, and to the faithful in Christ.” Paul says who he is, establishes his authority by his apostleship, and says what he is doing.
A good example of a colophon in the pseudepigraphal literature is the beginning of the book of Enoch. It reads: “Enoch a righteous man, whose eyes were opened by God, saw the vision of the Holy One in the heavens, which the angels showed me, and from them I heard everything, and from them I understood as I saw, but not for this generation, but for a remote one which is far to come.” Even though it begins in second person, it quickly shifts to first, identifies the author, gives his authority, and tells what he is writing.
The colophon at the beginning of Isaiah asks questions as well as informs. It reads: “The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.” Unlike the other examples, this one is not written in first person, and it dates the writings over a the period of the reigns of several kings. It obviously describes a compilation, rather than a single writing. It establishes that the author is Isaiah, and the fact that Isaiah wrote it is a sufficient statement of authority. But one cannot tell whether it was Isaiah himself or some other editor who pulled the book of Isaiah together and arranged his writings in this manner.
But half way through the book of Isaiah there is an even more interesting colophon. Beginning with chapter 40 and continuing to the end, Isaiah is a review of the principles, ordinances, and sacred rites of the ancient Israelite New Year’s festival. The colophon which introduces that portion of Isaiah reads:
1 Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God,
2 Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins (Isaiah 40:1-2).
Here, “God” is translated from the Hebrew, “Elohim.” The word “ye” is plural. In the Old Testament, whenever Elohim talks to a group of people, that group is always the Council in Heaven. In Elizabethan English, the word “comfort” has to do with empowering (see OED), as in Isaiah 61:2-3 where to “comfort” means to make one a king or queen by performing the ancient coronation rites of washing, anointing, clothing, crowning, and giving a new covenant-king-name. The word “double” (also used in Isaiah 61) is a reference to the double portion of the birthright – in this instance the birthright blessings of Abraham. In our verses, that “double” is given in exchange for one’s sins, and it is given “of the Lord’s hand.
If these two verses are, in fact, a colophon introducing the remainder of the book of Isaiah, then it is extraordinary indeed. It establishes the author as Elohim, establishes the authority of the writing as God and his Council, and it identifies the purpose as to “comfort” the people so that they can receive the birthright blessings of Abraham from the Lord’s hand.
If one takes that seriously, and accepts that as a colophon which is a legitimate statement of authorship and authority, then it establishes the remainder of Isaiah as an awesome example of sacred literature.
There are a number of colophons in the Book of Mormon. The best example, and most important is Nephi’s: “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father; and having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days; yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God, therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days. ”
It is significant that when we encounter Zeniff’s autobiography, he also begins with a well structured colophon: “I, Zeniff, having been taught in all the language of the Nephites, and having had a knowledge of the land of Nephi, or of the land of our fathers’ first inheritance, and having been sent as a spy among the Lamanites that I might spy out their forces, that our army might come upon them and destroy them–but when I saw that which was good among them I was desirous that they should not be destroyed.”
Zeniff’s colophon merges into his story, just as Nephi’s and others do, but that first verse deserves some close examination.
Zeniff identifies himself and establishes his authority by writing “I, Zeniff, having been taught in all the language of the Nephites, and having had a knowledge of the land of Nephi,…” The phrase, “all the language of the Nephites” is an important key here. If “all” means “all,” then by that phrase Zeniff has probably written everything which he thought was necessary to establish himself as a member of the royal house – probably as a Nephite prince.
The first thing Mormon tells about King Benjamin’s sons (Mosiah 1:2) is that their father “caused that they should be taught in all the language of their fathers. (Same phrase as the one Zeniff uses)
In the next few verses we learn that this education was necessary because the brass plates were written in Egyptian, just as we learn elsewhere that Nephi’s small plates were also written in Egyptian. It appears that, like the ancient Egyptians, the ancient Nephites used at least two, and perhaps more concurrent languages. There was the every-day language which had its roots in Hebrew, and the sacral language of the scriptures which was Egyptian. It is likely that some of their first and second generation records were also written in pure Hebrew – the Hebrew which came with them from Jerusalem, before it was altered by additions from Lamanite dialect, Mulikite dialect, and (judging from the introduction of Jaredite names) the Jaredite language as well. So by the time of king Benjamin, there are at least three languages (Hebrew, Egyptian, and the contemporary mixture- like our contemporary English is a mixture of Celtic, German, French, etc) which a well educated Nephite would have to learn.
If just everyone learned all of those languages, then such an education would have been assumed, and there would have been no point in Mormon’s telling us that king Benjamin made sure his sons were taught “all the languages.” It is that implication of the uniqueness of the king’s son’s education which suggests that if Zeniff had a similar education, he may very well have had a similar birthright – may have been a prince in his own right – perhaps even the younger son of King Benjamin’s father, Mosiah I. (After all, Zeniff was the one chosen to go back to lead the reoccupation forces, and to be the new king when his Nephite followers returned to the original land of Nephi)
If I have read the statement of Zeniff’s authority correctly, then Zeniff’s colophon is another perfect example of that important ancient literary form. He identifies himself, tells his authority, and tells why he is writing. The information in that colophon not only establishes his legitimacy, but it also establishes the legal authority for the new Nephite colony – the implications of that stretch on into the Book of Mormon story for at least four or five more generations, and probably continues through the entire Book of Mormon.
Once again, the Prophet Joseph never misses. Zeniff’s colophon — but more especially the very fact that it is there where it is supposed to be, and says what it is supposed to say – is just one more little evidence that the Book of Mormon is an ancient text, and could not possibly be the product of Joseph’s backwoods New England culture.