We here at FAIR Blog are pleased to report on the latest Olivewood Books fireside featuring BYU law professor John Welch. In case you missed it, we have covered past speakers John Sorenson, John Gee, Mark Wright, and Daniel Peterson. If you live in the Utah County area and don’t want to miss out on future events, you may consider bookmarking this informative site and checking often.
Ever the prolific scholar, Welch authored a recent book examining legal cases in the Book of Mormon. Since attending his lecture, I have read the new book, which will inform my recap and commentary. Welch related the story of how Rex E. Lee recruited him to teach at to work at the fledgling BYU law school in 1979. Lee’s pitch was that if Welch taught a designated course he could teach whatever else interested him. Welch half-jokingly suggested Babylonian law as it relates to the scriptures and Lee responded that that was exactly the type of course BYU needed.
Law students taking Welch’s course over the years have been asked to write papers on the topic and a large collection has been archived in the HWH Law Library. Welch dedicated his book to his former students and identified a couple of them in the audience. He repeatedly referred to one of the papers addressing the transistion from kings to judges to provide background for Alma the Younger’s cases. Mosiah’s reforms enabled freedom of belief, so precedences had to be set for when beliefs led to criminal actions (Nehors slaying of Gideon and enforcing priestcraft by the sword) and belief in the form of freedom of speech (Korihor’s speech incited others to criminal actions).
Cases in the Book of Mormon include Jacob vs. Sherem, the City of Nephi vs. Abinadi (continued through Mosiah 17), the City of Melek vs. Nehor, the City of Ammonihah vs. Alma and Amulek, Alma vs. Korihor, the People vs. Paanchi, and the People vs. Seantum (see also selections from Helaman 8 and 9). At least these are the texts that Welch reproduces in an appendix in his book. Ten other incidences round out a list expanded to include legal procedures such as imprisonments and executions (p. 100): 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 . Welch indicted that biblical legal proceedings have provided fertile ground for scholarly explorations in the last few decades. So while I am at it, here are 15 cases Welch lists (p. 78) from the Bible: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12a 12b 13 14 15 .
Hebrew rîb is likely the word underlying contend wherever it appears in the Book of Mormon and it signifies a legal controversy. The plaintiff was called an adversary or attacker (Hebrew satan). Does that make it easier to see why contention is said to be of the devil or the Ammonihah lawyers were said to inspired by the devil? Even though a judge was not present in Sherem’s contention against Jacob, Welch argued that it was nevertheless a legal controversy. Sherem levied charges that are based on Mosaic legal codes: 1) causing apostasy (Deut. 13:1-10), 2) false prophesy (Deut. 18:20-22), and 3) blasphemy (Lev. 24:16). The penalty each of these crimes was death. After some divine intervention, Sherem’s confession uses a chiastic structure, convincing Welch that Sherem truly was good with words. Welch compared the restoration of peace in Jacob 7:23 with Bovati’s insight into the overarching purpose of ancient trials to restore peace and justice in a society (p. 133).
I learned about the differences between ancient and modern judicial culture. Oath taking was much more serious. Releasing prisoners of war on their word that they wouldn’t continue fighting would not fly in today’s world. We have a low threshold for getting into legal disputes with no penalties for losing a frivolous lawsuit. In the ancient world, an accuser had to worry about suffering the punishment prescribed for the crime, if he lost. In the ancient world there were no lawyers, so everyone argued their own case. If the defendant remained silent he was presumed guilty.
Susanna and the Elders, case #15 above, was told by Welch to illustrate the importance of multiple witnesses and the fate of false accusers. Susanna rebuffed the two elders’ sexual advances made under the threat that they would accuse her of adultery. They figured that their double witness would convict her. Daniel foils their plans by tripping up in the world’s first recorded cross examination. The multiple witness concept shows up in a few places in the Book of Mormon. The solitary Moroni calls upon the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost to back him up. Alma used the earth as another witness in like manner.
Responding to a tangential question about Nephi’s slaying of Laban, Welch referred us to his previous work in the inaugural issue of JBMS, but said it needs to be updated. He expects to write a couple of more books discussing legal issues in the Book of Mormon that aren’t centered around cases. Jerusalem’s lack of reception to prophetic lawsuits set the stage for Lehi’s family’s difficulties. Prophets prior to Lehi had been brought to trial for false prophesy and false witnessing. Urijah (case 13) was sentenced to death, while Jeremiah (case 14) used his connections to royalty to get off. Lehi needed little incentive to flee a similar fate. Laban was able to charge Lehi’s sons with being robbers because they were a roving band. Nephi’s killing follows the code in Exodus 21:12-14, because he did not plan before hand. Nephi probably had such passages memorized because they had less scriptures in those days.
Abinadi’s case involved interesting Juridictional issues. King Noah handles charges against his person, as reviling against the king was a serious crime. Meanwhile the priests handle charges like blasphemy and false prophesy. A tradition among the Sanhedrin was that the youngest renders judgment first so as not to be unduly overwhelmed by seniority opinion. Alma was probably the youngest member and he spoke up in Abinadi’s defense.
Due to time constraints the other cases were not covered in the same detail. Alma and Amulek’s trial is actually a text book case of what not to do according to Exodus legal codes. Especially offering bribes.Welch quipped about the predominance of trial reports in Alma the Younger’s record even after he stepped down from being Chief Judge. “You can take Alma out of the bench but you cannot take the bench out of Alma.”