1 Nephi 1:1 as an Ancient Colophon — LeGrand Baker

1 Nephi 1:1

1. 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.

Anciently, writers often used a literary device called a colophon at the beginning or end of a document. It identified the author, declared his authority, and briefly stated what he was writing about.{1}

Verse 1 of First Nephi is an impressive ancient colophon. Standing alone, it is sufficient evidence that the Book of Mormon is an ancient document. It is a bit awkward for us to read today, but it is the awkwardness that makes it so important. Its language would be perfectly at home tucked amid Plato’s writings, but there was nothing in Joseph Smith’s New England backcountry culture that could have caused him to write the sentence in that way.

Another example is the beginning of Zeniff’s autobiography:

I, Zeniff, having been taught in all the language of the Nephites,
having had a knowledge of the land of Nephi…
having been sent as a spy…
Therefore, I contended with my brethren…. (Mosiah 9:1-2)

Another example is this exchange of official correspondence:

14 Now I close my epistle. I am Moroni; I am a leader of the people of the Nephites.
15 Now it came to pass that Ammoron, when he had received this epistle, was angry; and he wrote another epistle unto Moroni, and these are the words which he wrote, saying:
16 I am Ammoron, the king of the Lamanites; I am the brother of Amalickiah whom ye have murdered. Behold, I will avenge his blood upon you, yea, and I will come upon you with my armies for I fear not your threatenings.

Nephi’s colophon is awkward to us because it seems to be logically upside down. If we, or the Prophet Joseph, were to write those ideas we would say:

I am Nephi, and I am writing for the following five reasons:
.        First…. I was taught in all the learning of my father.
.        Second….I have seen many afflictions.
.        Third….I have been highly favored of the Lord.
.        Forth….I have a knowledge of the goodness of God.
.        Fifth….I have a knowledge of the mysteries of God.

However, Nephi’s colophon is not like that. Rather, it is written in a Greeklike logical pattern whose structure is like a simple addition problem with five points and a conclusion:

I Nephi
.        having been taught in all the learning of my father
.        plus … seen many afflictions
.        plus … highly favored of the Lord
.        plus … knowledge of the goodness of God,
.        plus … knowledge of the mysteries of God,
conclusion : Therefore I write.

This second pattern is the same structure as a simple addition problem, which is the same pattern as an ancient logical argument. It would be very comfortable among the works of Plato, but sounds awkward to us just as it would have been awkward to Joseph Smith and his contemporaries. Even though there was nothing in Joseph’s own background to cause him to write a sentence in that form, it is the form in which Nephi’s well educated contemporaries would have written. Therefore, the structure of Nephi’s colophon is convincing evidence that we are dealing with an ancient text.

Of the colophons in the Book of Mormon, Nephi’s is the most significant and by far the most interesting because of its structural completeness, its window into Nephi’s purposes and personality, and especially because of its multilayered meanings.


{1} The first chapter of Revelation is an excellent example. The author identifies himself as John the apostle. He has been instructed by an angel to write, and his writings will testify of the Jesus the Savior

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