“A Commandment Concerning the Small Plates”

Brant Gardner

Text: Nephi never specifically called his plates anything other than “plates of Nephi.” Jacob designates them as the “small plates,” although for Jacob it appears to be a physical description more than a name. It is not surprising that Jacob called them “small” given that another set existed which he had seen. The difference between the court record and the lineal record would suggest that the large plates were “large” because there were more of them. Think of two books of the same general size but one with several times more pages. That would be the large book and the other the small book, even though the basic dimensions of each page were the same.

It seems surprising that Nephi needed to give Jacob formal instructions concerning the small plates, as though Jacob did not know why Nephi was keeping them. Surely he knew of their existence; Nephi would have had no reason to hide them, and in a small community most things are known. Perhaps Nephi’s instructions were a formality to mark the transfer.

The large plates were almost certainly the primary and public record. Jacob would have had many opportunities to see them, although he never gives any indication of having read them, as he certainly has the brass plates. It also seems probable that the large plates would have recorded little or nothing about Jacob, since he was not in the ruling line and would become increasingly marginalized, according to his eponymous book.

Literature: Jacob’s introduction to his own section on the plates is stylistically very different from Nephi’s formal and formulaic introduction in 1 Nephi 1:1. Nephi followed the Old World tradition of the colophon, which he would have known about by training with and having access to texts. Jacob, in contrast, did not. He spent no time in Jerusalem. He was born in the wilderness and spent his youth in the harsh desert crossing to Bountiful, and his manhood dealing with the challenges of the New World. Obviously he was taught to read and write, but it seems unlikely that he would have been exposed to the same breadth of records as Nephi. Except for the brass plates, we know of no other written records that the Lehites possessed.

S. Kent Brown, professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, argues convincingly that Lehi kept a written record during the trek to the New World, but a family on the move would probably not have placed a high priority on the extra bulk and weight of more books. Thus, Jacob learned to read and write from the materials at hand; and with the exception of Nephi’s small plates, they presumably did not include texts with colophons, save Nephi’s alone. Nevertheless, Jacob introduces himself as the writer, and other informal colophons also appear in his successors’ records on the small plates.

Jacob seems to see his record as a continuation of Nephi’s record rather than his own work. Where Nephi’s introduction formally presented his name as author, Jacob gives his name almost as an afterthought.

Chronology: Jacob’s record apparently begins when Nephi delivers the small plates to him, fifty-five years after the departure from Jerusalem. Using Spackman’s departure date of 587 B.C., Nephi gave Jacob the small plates in 532 B.C. (See commentary accompanying 1 Nephi 10:4 for information on how this commentary calculates Nephite years.) Sorenson’s estimate of the ages of Lehi and Sariah’s sons yields about a twenty-year difference between the ages of Nephi and Jacob. Thus, while Nephi was an elderly man, approaching death, it was reasonable to give the plates to Jacob, who was almost a full generation younger (Nephi also gives them to Jacob to create a secondary transmission line for the small plates; see the commentary accompanying Jacob 1:9). Assuming that Nephi was about sixteen at the time of the departure from Jerusalem (again following Sorenson), he would be about seventy-one at this point, and Jacob would be about fifty-one, with at least thirty years of service to his people as their primary religious leader.

History: John S. Tanner sees Jacob as a very sensitive man:

Half the book’s references to anxiety occur in Jacob, and over two-thirds of the references to grieve and tender (or their derivatives), as well as shame, are Jacob’s. He is the only person to have used delicate, contempt, and lonesome. Likewise, he is the only Book of Mormon author to have employed wound in reference to emotions; and he never used it, as everyone else did, to describe a physical injury. Similarly, Jacob used pierce or its variants frequently (four of the ten instances in the Book of Mormon), and he used it exclusively in a spiritual sense. Such evidence suggests an author who lived close to his emotions and who knew how to express those emotions.

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 2