This is the first in a series of books from the Neal A. Maxwell Institute meant to seek “Christ in scripture by combining intellectual rigor and the disciple’s yearning for holiness,” (page vii) and focusing on theological aspects of the Book of Mormon. “In this case, theology, as opposed to authoritative doctrine, relates to the original sense of the term as, literally, reasoned ‘God talk’” (page viii). This volume is by Joseph Spencer, an assistant professor of ancient scripture at BYU and the editor of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies.
At 146 pages, the book is indeed brief. It is a small paperback, but it has a lot of nice features. The front cover is embossed and both the front and back covers have flaps that can (almost) be used as bookmarks. There are woodcut illuminations matching those in the recent “Study Edition” of the Book of Mormon, also published by the Maxwell Institute. And the text has orange highlights and notes throughout.
The book has two parts. The first part, “The Theological Project of 1 Nephi,” was the most interesting to me. It talks about the original chapter breaks, and how they made it easier to see that Nephi intentionally structured the book to have two parts. The first part is an abridgment of the record kept by Lehi, and the second part, beginning with the original chapter three (now chapter ten) is about Nephi’s life. “The first half of the book prepares for the second by explaining how Nephi’s family came to possess the two key prophetic resources [the brass plates and the vision of the tree of life] essential to Nephi’s own subsequent ministerial efforts. The second half of the book then recounts Nephi’s ministry to his brothers, built on parallel expositions of the two key prophetic resources from the first half of the book” (pages 19-20). This is all shown in two diagrams, which explain that each of the original chapters had a theme and how they relate to each other.
The theology comes in here with Nephi’s and Lehi’s visions of the tree of life which the author argues he is likening to Isaiah: “…Nephi worked to draw out a comparison (a likeness) between prophecies he found in Isaiah regarding Jewish history and prophecies he himself set forth regarding the history and fate of Lehi’s children” (page 21). He goes on to suggest that rather than likening the journey along the iron rod to ourselves, Nephi’s purpose was to show the future history of his people. In fact, it is pointed out that Nephi is told to bear record after he sees Jesus descending from heaven. But he first sees Jesus in Mary’s arms, then being baptized, ministering to the people, and being lifted up on the cross before finally seeing him descend to visit the Nephites, which is to Nephi the main event. “In the world’s history as he witnesses it, the first key moment in the Lamb’s work occurs when he visits the remnant of Israel in his New World” (page 31).
The author then turns to a discussion of the Nephites’ understanding of the Godhead, the Abrahamic Covenant, and the baptism of Jesus. Several pages are spent discussing the names of Jesus that Nephi uses (Lamb of God, Messiah, Son of God, Lord, Redeemer, and Christ) in comparison with other scripture and what Nephi is trying to tell us with these titles. “Thus for 1 Nephi, as for the Bible, to speak of the Messiah is to speak of the future and of anticipation. It’s also therefore to speak of the incompleteness and brokenness of how things are at present” (page 52).
There is further discussion of the confusion many have with the way the Godhead is described and it is pointed out that Joseph Smith made some clarifications after the first edition. The author concludes by saying, “Throughout 1 Nephi, we might say, the whole of the Godhead works conjointly to set the Lamb of God before the world. Israel’s God, for Nephi, is first and foremost Jesus Christ, Lamb and Messiah, and the Father through the Holy Ghost works to make this clear to the whole world” (page 61). Brant Gardner addressed this topic much more thoroughly in his 2003 FairMormon Conference presentation.
Part II is titled, “The Theological Questions of 1 Nephi.” It is basically a discussion of several questions that the author’s students have had about 1 Nephi: Laban’s death, the roles of Laman and Lemuel, and the apparent lack of women. To me, this is the weak part of the book. The concerns are largely due to presentism (looking at Nephite culture with a 21st century point of view), and there are good explanations already available. Fortunately, the author at least puts some of them in the footnotes. However, the author’s answers in the book tend towards eisegesis, with the most egregious example being a very modern feminist discussion about women not playing a more prominent role in the Book of Mormon. See “Nephite Feminism Revisited: Thoughts on Carol Lynn Pearson’s View of Women in the Book of Mormon” for a rebuttal of some of the source material Spencer used.
Sandwiched between the endnotes and the index is a helpful discussion of the editions of the Book of Mormon. Besides giving a brief history of the editions and changes through 1879, it mentions the work done by Royal Skousen and Grant Hardy. For scholarly audiences, Hardy’s “A Reader’s Edition” and Skousen’s “The Earliest Text” are recommended. And the recent “Maxwell Institute Study Edition” by Grant Hardy is said to be “the most significant edition of the Book of Mormon deliberately constructed for a lay reading audience” (page 136). Readers may find Book of Mormon Central’s “ScripturePlus” app to be more accessible.
Overall, this is an interesting way to help us think more about what Nephi might be trying to tell us. As pointed out early in the book, many of us have read 1 Nephi more than any other part of the Book of Mormon, yet there may be some things we are missing. I do think a more balanced approach, using available scholarship regarding the history and culture of the time, would have been helpful, but the author did point out several things I thought were particularly interesting that made me glad I had read the book. And I was delighted to find that the audio version is read by Bruce Lindsay, who I grew up watching on KSL TV news in Salt Lake City.