History: Nephi reinforces his personal testimony of the true Messiah by citing his sources (“the words of the prophets”). His statement that the Messiah will come six hundred years from Lehi’s departure is either a general round number (which is perfectly acceptable in prophetic declaration) or an indication that a New World “year” was measured differently from the Old World. (See commentary accompanying 1 Nephi 10:4 and 19:8.)
Randall P. Spackman, an attorney, has done some interesting work on this prophecy of six hundred years:
In counting and recording the passage of time for hundreds of years, Lehi’s descendants obviously used some type of calendar accurately. We are led to ask what kind of calendar they used because dates derived from well-attested external history establish a time window several years too small to allow for the full 600 years stipulated in Lehi’s prophecy. Did Lehi mean that the Atoning Messiah would come in about 600 years, or must we look elsewhere for an explanation?
Evidently, Lehi was not simply approximating the time of the Lord’s birth, because the Book of Mormon records that the heavenly signs marking that event appeared after the passage of an even 600 years—that is, in the 601st year, matching the prophesied time frame with precision (see 3 Ne. 1:4, 21, 26). This brings us back to the Nephite calendar, which was surely quite different from our modern method of reckoning time, and a crucial question arises: How long was a Nephite year?
After discussing the external evidence requiring the foreshortened year count, he concludes: “If the Nephites measured the 600-year period preceding Christ’s birth with a lunar calendar composed of twelve ‘moons,’ there is no discrepancy at all in the counting of 600 years. A twelve-moon calendar averages only 354.365 days per year, eleven days fewer than a solar calendar, which averages 365.2422 days per year. Between 597 B.C. and 5 B.C., ample time existed for this lunar calendar to measure all 600 years.” Spackman’s assumption of a lunar calendar is used in this commentary to mark the years. Sections marked “Chronology:” provide the correlation of years to the Nephite counts. These counts confirm Spackman’s assertion that “ample time existed” to fit the lunar calendar into the 600 year prophecy.
Translation: Most problematic for modern readers is Nephi’s final assertion: “his name shall be Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” It certainly is no problem for a prophet to know a future name. The problem is in the conflation of name and title as though it were a given name and a surname: Jesus Christ. “Jesus” is the proper name. “Christ” is the title, and one derived from the Greek translation of the Hebrew. (See commentary accompanying 2 Nephi 10:3.) When translated directly from Hebrew rather than through Greek, this title would appear as “Messiah.”
Edward J. Brandt, who holds a Ph.D. in ancient scripture from Brigham Young University, examined this question and noted that verse 19 contains “both the English transliteration of the Hebrew term for ‘the anointed one’—Messiah—and also the transliteration of the Greek term extended to the English for ‘the anointed one’—Christ.” Brandt therefore accurately recognizes the problem, but his answer is irrelevant to the question: “The continued use of the name Jesus Christ in the Book of Mormon, in view of all of the other names and titles used in the scriptures, shows it had an important influence on the Nephites throughout their history.” He argues that “Christ” (the title) is used frequently in association with the concept of “name.” As an example, he cites Mosiah 15:21, which reads: “And there cometh a resurrection,… even a resurrection of those that have been, and who are, and who shall be, even until the resurrection of Christ—for so shall he be called.”
Brandt emphasizes “for so shall he be called” as justification for using “Christ” in this declaration. He concludes: The Nephites “knew as Peter knew that there was no ‘other name given under heaven save it be this Jesus Christ,… whereby man can be saved’ (2 Ne. 25:20; compare Acts 4:12; see also 2 Ne. 31:20–21; Mosiah 3:17, 5:8; D&C 18:23; Moses 6:52, 57).” Acts 4:12, to which Brandt compares the quoted scripture from 2 Nephi, reads: “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” The sentiment is clearly the same; but it is only in the Book of Mormon, not in Acts, that “Jesus Christ” is used as a name rather than as a name and title, which would be the only possible explanation for the occurrence of both “Messiah” and “Christ” in the same sentence.
Brandt is answering the wrong question. He suggests that “Christ” was a known title, and so it was. That does not mean, however, that “Christ” is an ancient word and not a transliteration of Greek. In all of Brandt’s texts, “Messiah” fits equally well. The difference is that Joseph Smith used the more familiar “Christ.” Brandt’s arguments do not answer or address the reason for the dual presence of “Messiah” and “Christ” in the same sentence.
He may believe that “Christ” is a personal name and not a title, but such an approach raises too many other questions. Why would Jesus have a last name in the New World, but not in the Old World? Why would Jesus be the only person in the entire Book of Mormon to have a last name? Why would his last name be the same as his title, but only as a transliteration from Greek rather than being Hebrew like his given name?
A more economical explanation is that this passage provides additional evidence that Joseph Smith participated in creating the Book of Mormon text. His own probable confusion between the titles—or at the very least, his much greater familiarity with “Christ”—explains his introduction of the term, not the rather strained hypothesis that “Christ” had been revealed to Nephi as Jesus’s surname.