1 Nephi 9:5-6 — LeGrand Baker – “The Most Correct Book.”

1 Nephi 9:5-6  

5 Wherefore, the Lord hath commanded me to make these plates for a wise purpose in him, which purpose I know not.
6 But the Lord knoweth all things from the beginning; wherefore, he prepareth a way to accomplish all his works among the children of men; for behold, he hath all power unto the fulfilling of all his words. And thus it is. Amen.

The instructions to create the small plates came 30 years after Lehi and his family left Jerusalem. Nephi apparently spent the next ten years writing and polishing the book that we call First Nephi.{1} If, as we suggested above,{2} Nephi was about 14 when he left Jerusalem, he would have been about 44 when he received the instructions to begin, and about 54 when he finished engraving the finished work into the sheets of gold.

His age is relevant, because First Nephi is clearly the work of a mature mind—one who knew first hand the beauties and dangers of this world, and the goodness and power of God.

Fifteen years later, when Nephi was almost 70, he gave the plates to his brother Jacob, with the instructions that he was to add only “a few of the things which I considered to be most precious” (Jacob 1:1-4). Jacob’s descendants kept them until they came into the possession of Amaleki, who gave them to King Benjamin (Omni 1:24-25). They remained in the royal archives until Mormon searched and found them there. Mormon did not abridge them, but bound them with the gold plates that Moroni would entrust to Joseph Smith (Words of Mormon:1:6-7).

It is an important part of the story that Nephi did not know why he had been instructed to write them, and Mormon did not know why he was including them in his own bound record, but both testified that it was for a wise purpose that was known to God.

About 2,300 years after the Lord instructed Nephi to write them, he explained his reasoning to the Prophet Joseph. Martin Harris had lost 116 manuscript pages Joseph had translated. Thereafter, the Lord explained to the Prophet why he was not to re-translate the lost portion (D&C 10:38-45).

In that explanation, the phrase, “until you come to that which you have translated, which you have retained” tells us that of the parts Joseph had already translated. He had unknowingly given Martin only the pages that could be replaced by the small plates.

Mormon’s decision to include the original small plates of Nephi presents an interesting problem when we analyze the prophet Joseph’s translating skills. Mormon tells us that he is writing in “reformed Egyptian,”which may be an amalgamation of Egyptian (quite possibly the script) and Hebrew (possibly the underlying language, perhaps in the way that Yiddish is an amalgamation of Hebrew script and a Middle Germanic dialect or Persian or Urdu is an amalgamation of Arabic script and an Indoeuropean dialect. A written language retains its integrity over the years better than one that is not written. (For example, the Mulekites, who did not have a written language, were no longer speaking a Hebrew that was intelligible to the Nephites.) But during a period of the thousand years even written languages change a great deal. Computerized wordprint study of the Book of Mormon shows that different authors had distinctive writing styles.{3}

The retention of those different styles in the Book of Mormon is evidence that Joseph Smith did not compose the book, but it is also evidence that Mormon did not rewrite the earlier sermons and records in his own reformed Egyptian. Implicitly, what he did was include the sermons and letters just as King Benjamin, Alma, and Helaman and others had written them, and the words of the Savior just as Nephi III had recorded them. That is, on Mormon’s plates, Alma’s sermons were written in Alma’s dialect, and the Savior’s words were written in the dialect of the Nephites in the meridian of time. To get a notion of what that means, we might compare it with English. If we assume Mormon’s reformed Egyptian was in about the same stage of development as twenty-first century English, then, in this analogy, it was as though Alma had written in Elizabethan English, and King Benjamin might have spoken in the archaic language of Chaucer.

For Joseph to have translated such diverse dialects into the English of the King James Bible so that his translation not only retained the profound surface-text meanings, but it also retained the sacred subtextual code words that are also found in the Bible, and the same encoded temple language spoken by the prophets on both continents. When Joseph found the small plates, he was confronted with an altogether different linguistic problem. That is, the small plates were written in Egyptian, so it would not be a stretch to say that Joseph was working with variants of three separate languages —classical Egyptian, 6th century B.C. Hebrew, and Reformed Egyptian, including the whole spectrum of evolutionary changes that eventually developed into the latter.

Given those challenges, and knowing how perfectly Joseph performed his task, it seems that Joseph’s appraisal of his work and of the Book of Mormon might be a bit of an understatement. “I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man could get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.”{4}

Even before he received the plates, Joseph probably had some knowledge of the Nephite language.
His mother reports that during the evening conversations with his family, Joseph told them about the culture of the people whose history was in the book that still lay buried in the box on the hill. She wrote:

He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of traveling, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life among them.”{5}

For Joseph to have known the ancient Americans that well, his tutorials with Moroni and perhaps others must have been as vivid as movements through time.

One might enquire, “Who, besides Joseph Smith, was responsible for translating the Book of Mormon into the English language?” The quick and easy answer is, “Moroni, he taught him how to use the Urim and Thummim”; but a full answer might also include Nephi, Alma, another Nephi, Mormon, Moroni, and others of the ancient prophets who were the original authors of the Book of Mormon.{6}

One can hardly read the Book of Mormon without noticing the Lord’s promises to the prophets that their messages would be passed on to people in the last days.{7} It is not surprising, then, that those same prophets who wrote those messages should be present with Joseph while he was translating their own writings. If the original authors did help in the translation of their own parts of the book, that would guarantee that the English version of the Book of Mormon says just exactly what the authors wanted it to say.

If it were that important that the words in the Book of Mormon say precisely what they were intended to say, then it is just as important that when one reads the book, one reads to learn—with real accuracy—what it says.

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FOOTNOTES

{1} See Nephi’s explanation in 2 Nephi 5:28-34.

{2} See above: 1 Nephi 1:4, reign of Zedekiah.

{3} “Who Wrote the Book of Mormon? an Analysis of Wordprints by Wayne A. Larsen, Alvin C. Rencher, and Tim Layton,” BYU Studies, vol. 20 (1979-1980), Number 2 – Winter 1980.

{4} Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 4:461.

{5} Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith by His Mother (Salt Lake City, Bookcraft,1954), 83.

{6} For a discussion of Nephi and other’s possible personal involvement in the English translation see Baker, Joseph and Moroni, 91-98.

{7} For examples see: 2 Nephi 33:3-4; 3 Nephi 5:18; Mormon 8:12, 9:30-31; Enos 1:15-16; Ether 12:25-29. See also, 2 Nephi 3:19-21, 26:16, chapter 27; Mormon 5:12-13; Mosiah 1:7; D&C 17:6, D&C 10:46-53.

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