There are 15 thoughts on “Literacy and Orality in the Book of Mormon”.

  1. Thanks Brant.

    A couple of observations from a tourist in the field.

    The notion of resumptive repetition referred to above possibly signals the role of an editing scribe providing clarification or a material or theological interpolation to shape the text in a particular way. It is arguable whether or not these interpolations were considered to be corrections.

    With respect to the notion that Nephi had scribal training, have you considered that Nephi in his exalted position (king), may have had scribes compiling records at his direction? Such could be the case for any of the BoM writers.

  2. One particularly handy example of how Old World texts were read aloud occurs in Acts 8, starting at verse 27. When Philip runs up to the chariot of the Ethiopian eunuch “he heard him read the prophet Esaias, and said, Understandest thou what thou readest?” We are told that the eunuch was a powerful court official and, presumably, was more than ordinarily literate. Yet even this well-educated individual — he was reading Esaias, after all! — was reading aloud sufficiently that Philip, running alongside his chariot, could hear what he said. This was no mere muttering under one’s breath.

  3. Brant,
    In making your case for “oral primacy,” you say:

    “In spite of the difficulties of engraving, it appears that Mormon did not have a full copy of his text composed on perishable form and then simply copied to the plates. Although the elements of oral primacy might still have informed his draft, the presence of these self-corrections point to changes made as he composed. They would have been easily caught in the copying process and we would have copy errors in the text rather than self-corrections.”

    However, as Grant Hardy points out, we do have a clear-cut copy-error made in antiquity (probably by Mormon) in the transition from Alma 13:12 to 13:16, which clearly should have been inserted immediately following 13:12, but was instead dropped during ancient copying due to a Nephite scribal failure to maintain the proper verse sequence since verses 12 and 16 have the same final line (homoeoteleuton), i.e., the Nephite scribe was unable to maintain sequence while moving his eyes back and forth from one text to the other, although he finally noticed his error and picked up the lost verse three verses later. See Hardy, “The Book of Mormon as a Literary (Written) Artifact,” JBMS, 12/2 (2003):107-109,118.

    • And this is a case of a writer thinking about one aspect of the text and not mentioning another. The issue mentioned occurs in the midst of a quoted sermon. I do believe that Mormon copied the sermons. I don’t see any evidence that he copied them first to paper (most likely perishable form) and then to the plates. I think they may have come from plates to plates.

      When Mormon himself is writing, I don’t see any evidence of copying, and a lot that shows him extemporizing on his outline. However, he does show tremendous respect for the sermons he includes, and I believe that the way he handles those indicates that there was a conceptual shift in the source/method when he used the quoted sermons. When Mormon breaks chapters, he tends to do so at sermon boundaries even when the event flow would include more introductory or concluding information. It was an odd enough division that Orson Pratt “fixed” them when he recut the chapters.

      • I agree that Mormon (and other editors and redactors) used a variety of media, but the popularity of bark-paper codices in ancient Mesoamerica certainly suggests (and Jacob 4:2 alludes to) record-keeping upon perishable materials. That is a more economical and practical approach, as is the existence of oral and written traditions in tandem — each conditioning the other, and each with a separate purpose.

        As Lord & Parry demonstrated so many years ago (with Bosnian ethnography), in oral tradition there is no “original” but only an individual recreation of the epic using recurrent formulaic phrases and stock themes & motifs in an array of genres and rhetorical structures, all controlled by the maestro who passes it on or commits it to text.

  4. Excellent study, Brant.
    However, two things:
    (1) What happened to the pagination in the margins?
    (2) When Nephi laments that “neither am I mighty in writing, like unto speaking” (2 Nephi 33:1), and when Moroni later follows suit (Ether 12:23), it might be well to consider the possibility that their speaking language was their native Hebrew, while their writing was in the space-saving (and therefore highly ideographic) “reformed Egyptian.” Moroni himself says, “if we could have written in Hebrew, behold, ye would have had no imperfection in our record” (Mormon 9:33).

    Eggington seems to suggest that something like logographic writing took care of whole phrases in some cases. I have heard John Gee and John Sorenson make a similar suggestion.

  5. Thanks for the answers and comments. On Isaiah 6, my guess would be that Bokovoy’s response would be that this may still have been written by a scribe other than Isaiah… or that one chapter does not constitute a genre of autobiography, whereas the Book of Mormon as a whole is written in the first person. Hopefully I’m not misinterpreting Bokovoy on this however. And I do think that’s an interesting theory that Nephi might have picked up on Egyptian first person writing, Stephen.

    I am aware of the Cascajal block and find it interesting that Mesoamerican writing could potentially be pushed back further. Hopefully future research and discoveries will tell us even more. It would be cool to see the gaps between the Book of Mormon account and present scholarly understanding decrease in the future.

    • Eric, thank you. I appreciate the response. And yes, one chapter doesn’t make a genre. I think the issue is not whether a scribe wrote something or not, but rather whether principals or scribes wrote using the first person. Isaiah 6 is a key event–a vision seeing God–for Isaiah. It was special for him and whoever wrote it, wrote from the Isaiah first person point of view.

      Nephi had Isaiah–although, I concede, maybe not Isaiah 6. But, if he had Isaiah 6, he would have had an autobiographical account as an example to follow. Proving that the early Jewish writers didn’t write autobiographically is proving a negative, hard to do and a single example can disprove the theory.

      The idea that Nephi was trained as a scribe is intriguing. He clearly knew how to write in Egyptian. I had always assumed that that had happened because of his father’s business–whatever that was. But, on reading here about Nephi might have been a trained scribe, led me to wonder whether this was a difference he had with his older brothers. When one couples the idea of Nephi having training as a scribe with the claim that he was still young when they left Jerusalem, the possibility that he was a scribe in training might explain a lot. He may have learned principles about what it means to write, without being fully immersed in the culture.

  6. Interesting overview. It’s definitely helpful to keep in mind the culture of Book of Mormon people (to the extent that we can make any conclusions about the culture) rather than reading our current culture into the past. To me Alma 36, with its chiastic structure, represents a good example of how an oral transmission from Alma to his son was later written down in a more poetic way than originally delivered. At least it makes more sense to me that this was how it was done rather than Alma composing in written form what he wanted to tell his son.

    One partly related question for you. Having recently read Bokovoy’s “Authoring the Old Testament”, he argues that the autobiographical voice of Book of Mormon authors is an anachronism and therefore likely reflects the modern translation/revelation of the original record. Any thoughts on this? Bokovoy argues that such an autobiographical voice was not part of Israelite writing until later, when influenced by the Greeks. Do you agree with Bokovoy? Do you think it possible, knowing the severe limitations of evidence, that the Mayans (with whom the Nephites likely interacted) may have had an autobiographical voice at Nephi’s time?

    Finally, I’d also be interested in any thoughts on the plausibility of the brother of Jared writing a record and how far back Mesoamerican/Olmec writing (or complex writing) goes. Perhaps an idea for a future post?

    • Interesting questions. I’ll give you my opinion, understanding that it is only my opinion. As for the autobiographical voice, the suggestion is that we don’t see it in other early Israelite writing. While that is true, the situation we have in the New World differs from the scribal community from which the Lehites came. Nephi (I believe) was trained as a scribe, which certainly would suggest that he would lean to what he knew. However, he was also now writing for himself and not serving as the writer for another’s story. The essence of Nephi’s record is his own story. That suggests to me that there is a direct causal link between the need and the nature of the autobiographical nature of what we have as 1 Nephi. With that very important beginning point, the new tradition begins. So I don’t see the autobiographical history of the Old World as particularly determinative for what Nephi needed to do.

      There is nothing of which I am aware that would have much of an autobiographical voice in Maya literature. That would also follow from the need of a scribe to write down someone else’s deeds.

      The brother of Jared would have brought a writing tradition from the Old World and it may or may not have have shifted to a New World writing system. We don’t have much information. There is currently no clear indication of Olmec writing. However, we didn’t have clear information about the Maya glyphs until after the time of Christ. That changed with the find at San Bartolo, which clearly pushed Maya writing to at least 100 B.C. The important information about that find is that the writing was painted rather than carved. That strongly suggests that there was a lot more writing that simply didn’t survive until the time they carved the words in stone–and that they wrote on perishable forms prior to the time they carved in stone. That also suggests caution is declaring an absence of an Olmec system based on the lack of early writing. There was one early Olmec stone that might have had some glyphs, but it is currently debated as to whether or not it represents writing.

    • Erik,

      You ask, “Having recently read Bokovoy’s ‘Authoring the Old Testament’, he argues that the autobiographical voice of Book of Mormon authors is an anachronism and therefore likely reflects the modern translation/revelation of the original record. Any thoughts on this?”

      While this question was directed at Brant, I’d like to briefly chime in.

      First-person or “autobiographical” writing may have been a late convention for Israelite scribal/authorial practice, but it is well-attested in Egypt from the Middle Kingdom onward, even if it is often highly formulaic. Egyptian texts from the Middle and New Kingdoms (e.g. Sinuhe, Shipwrecked Sailor, Wenamun) usually begin with a third-person colophon introducing the text or identifying the speaker and then switch quickly to the first-person for the rest of the account. While not exactly the same as Nephi’s method, there is some precedence for what’s going on in 1 Nephi from the ancient Near East. Could Nephi have picked up this convention as he studied Egyptian? Perhaps. I think it’s a possibility, but it must remain a speculation.

      Just a couple of thoughts.

      • Pretty good “speculation,” Stephen, but maybe not so speculative, given that (as Brant has pointed out elsewhere) Lehi & Nephi were likely trained scribes, able to read the Egyptian on the Brass Plates as well as to make additional engravings thereon when necessary.
        You mention Sinuhe, which is not only autobiographical, but shot through with literary topoi and formulaic expressions which also appear in the Book of Mormon. Take a look at Richard Parkinson, The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems, 1940-1640 BC (Oxford Univ. Press, 1997), and you will see what I mean. Such literary texts were part of the curriculum of any scribal school, and students learned by copying the old texts.

    • Erik, I also just got David Bokovoy’s book and it is fabulous! Do you mind pointing me to the page where you read the part about Nephi. I just got it yesterday and would be interested in reading that part also. Thank you.

      • Jason, it is a very good book – neither apologetic or critical, it’s just great for introducing biblical scholarship to an LDS audience and such scholarhips’ implications on LDS scripture. See page 192 and onwards on what Bokovoy says about autobiographical writing.

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