1 Nephi 1: 1-2 — LeGrand Baker — Temple Code in the Book of Mormon

In his introduction in 1 Nephi 1:1, Nephi wrote, “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.” Those are his primary objectives: to teach of the goodness and the mysteries of God. He tells us at the outset—then immediately shows us—that he intends to write in “double-layered discourse.” He will use the surface text to show the goodness of God, but he will reserve the most sacred things—the mysteries—to a subtext that can only be seen and read by those who know the depth of the ancient Israelite temple drama. He wrote,

1 … 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.
2 Yea, I make a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians (1 Nephi 1:1-2).

Yea is a very important word here. It is “used to introduce a statement, phrase, or word stronger or more emphatic than that immediately preceding.”{1} So, the words following yea are not simply the conclusion. They are the culmination or crest of the ideas that introduced it.

Verse 2 does not say, “I make a record in the language of my father, which consists of a mixture of the languages of the Jews and the Egyptians.” It says he will write in a dual language using the same words to convey two separate meanings.

In verse 2, Nephi is giving us a clue to understand his sacred subtextual record. There are two distinct elements of his writing, the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians. At that time in the Israelite world, Egyptian was a dominant language, just as English is now. It was a language that many who were educated and literate could speak and, possibly, could read and write.

Nephi was a prophet, and his language, like that of Lehi and Isaiah, was the language of temple and priesthood—the learning of the covenant Jews—an audience blessed with “eyes to see.” Thus Nephi’s work is filled with language that is dualistic and symbolic in its meaning. In the record we have today, English functions much like Egyptian, allowing people who read it to understand the “goodness of God.” But the code language is still there and deals with the “mysteries of God.”

There are two main themes woven into the First Nephi narrative—the ancient Israelite temple drama and the Atonement of the Messiah. When woven together, they become the golden thread that runs through the entire narrative of First Nephi, giving continuity and purpose to the surface text and to the equally important subtext, each independently but with perfect harmony.

Nephi’s first objective: to teach about the goodness of God— is accomplished by his repeatedly reminding us that notwithstanding all the roadblocks that were thrown in front of his father and himself, the Lord intervened to help them overcome those hindrances and fulfill their assignments.

Nephi’s second object: to illuminate “the mysteries of God,”is transmitted to us through its inspired translation. One of the greatest miracles of the Book of Mormon is that it was translated into King James English so we can move from the Bible to the Book of Mormon and back again, knowing that the meanings of the words in one are the same as the meaning of the words in the other.

That being so, all we have to do to know what Nephi meant by the word translated mysteries is to find out how that word is used in the Bible. What we find is that every time mystery is found in the New Testament, it is a translation of mysterion, which means “a secret or ‘mystery’ through the idea of silence imposed by initiation into religious rites.”{2}

The distinguished Biblical scholar, Raymond E. Brown, has shown that the meaning of the Greek word mysterion (translated “mystery” in the English versions of the New Testament) and of the Hebrew word sode (translated “secret” in the English versions of the Old Testament) is essentially the same. Mysterion is more specific since it refers to secrets disclosed during initiation into sacred religious rites, while sode is more general in that it refers to the deliberations (or decisions) of either a religious or a secular council. Brown observes that the New Testament mysterion refers to the Council in Heaven. He shows that in the Old Testament sode sometimes refers to that Council or its decisions (as in Amos 3:7), though it is sometimes used to describe any gathering, whether legal, or illegal and conspiratorial.{3}

Understanding these words casts a fascinating light on the manner in which the Book of Mormon was translated. The Nephites most likely spoke Hebrew or some other Semitic language, not Greek, so the Greek word mysterion was probably not a part of their language, whereas the Hebrew word sode (with its English equivalents) was likely familiar to the ancient Book of Mormon peoples. In the Book of Mormon, as in the Bible, sode might refer to a Council in Heaven sode experience, or a ceremony related to the temple drama representing a sode experience, or even the secret decisions of conspirators. In this, the English translation of the Book of Mormon is very precise. When the underlying word sode is used in the negative sense, it is translated as “secret,” as in “secret combinations.” However, when the underlying word sode is used in the positive sense—indicating a temple or temple-like experience—it is always translated as “mystery,” equivalent to the English New Testament translation of the Greek mysterion. Thus, Nephi writes of “having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God” (1 Nephi 1:1). Read that way, one can find references to the ancient Christian rites throughout the New Testament, and references to the ancient Nephite temple rites throughout the Book of Mormon.

Nephi was probably about 45 years old when he wrote in his very first verse that he had “a great knowledge of…the mysteries of God,” he was declaring that he understood the ancient Israelite temple drama, ordinances, and covenants.{4}

Nephi says he was very selective, not only about what he wrote on the small plates, but also about how he wrote it. In both the surface and the subtext, he told only sacred things that would fit into the temple pattern he wished to illustrate. The English translation accurately transmits all of that to modern readers. This being so, we would do well to look very carefully at what he says, but even more especially at how he says it.

{1} Oxford English Dictionary, definition 3.

{2} The Greek dictionary at the back of James Strong, The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, 3466. For a more extensive discussion of the sode experience as it relates to the Council in Heaven see the chapter called “Sode Experience” in Who Shall Ascend into the Hill of the Lord, First edition, p. 195-208; Second edition, p. 139-148.

{3} Raymond E. Brown, The Semitic Background of the Term “Mystery” in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968), 2-6.

{4} That pattern of using a sacral subtext to teach and explain the ancient Israelite temple drama was used by the prophets throughout the Book of Mormon. The entire last half of Who Shall Ascend into the Hill of the Lord is a careful but undisclosed analysis of that Book of Mormon subtextual message.


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