“Let Them Be of Whatever Name They Would”

Brant Gardner

Culture: According to this verse, Nephi becomes a title, rather than a name. This connection between name and title will be lost by the time Mosiah1 becomes king in Zarahemla. The long separation of the name and title allows Nephi to reappear as a personal name at the time of Christ. (See the books of Nephi, our 3 Nephi and 4 Nephi.)

Even more interesting, however, is that this description of naming the kings is in the past, suggesting that Jacob knew at least two kings with the throne-name/title of Nephi. Jacob clearly knows that the second king was called Nephi, but being able to confidently state that the third was also called Nephi would require that he had seen the third. Of course, the statement could reflect an intention, but Jacob’s language is more certain than a mere proposal would warrant.

Taking this past tense literally, then, Jacob is writing on the plates years after they have been given to him. The writing must be chronological, but the events he is writing about do not, because they are written not only after the fact, but probably long after the fact.

We do not know the precise date of Jacob’s death. The next specific date is just prior to Enos’s death where he notes that 179 years have passed since the departure from Jerusalem (Enos 1:25). From the time of Nephi’s death until Enos’s death (assuming it came soon after he completed his record) are 124 years in which only two writers work on the small plates. This span of years requires advanced ages for both Jacob and Enos. Splitting the difference between them gives each a lifetime of about eighty-seven years, a significant but not improbable age for the ancient world (though it requires that Jacob sire Enos near the end of his life). Of course any revision of Jacob’s probable date of birth to a later year makes this span shorter. This long lifetime makes it tempting to posit a lost generation in the record. This possibility, among others, is suggested in a section analyzing this particular issue by an anonymous author at the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS):

We must take into account that the Hebrew term ’ab, generally rendered “father,” can be used of any male paternal ancestor, while the term ben, generally translated “son,” means any male descendant. Thus, Enos, Lehi’s grandson, wrote of “our father Lehi” (Enos 1:25). When Jacob wrote that he gave the plates to “my son Enos” (Jacob 7:27), we need not understand that Enos was his literal son; he may have been his grandson or even his great-grandson. Similarly, when Jarom wrote of “my father, Enos,” he could have been referring to his grandfather or great-grandfather. Consequently, Jarom could have been removed from Lehi by as many as six to eight generations, which is not unreasonable for a period of 238 years.
Alternatively, one could conjecture that if Jacob received the plates from his brother Nephi in the 55th year since the family’s departure from Jerusalem (Jacob 1:1), since Jacob was born during Lehi’s eight-year sojourn in the wilderness (1 Nephi 17:4, 18:7), his minimum age at the time he received the plates would have been 47. If he lived to be 90 years of age, he would have passed the plates on to Enos in the 98th year. We don’t know how old Enos was when he received the plates, but we do know that Mormon was given charge of the record at the age of ten. If, again, we assume that this was a reasonable age to be handed custody of the plates, if Enos were ten when Jacob gave him charge of the plates, he would have been 91 when he gave them to Jarom in the 179th year. Jarom retained them for another 59 years, until the 238th year. From this, it is clear that we could reduce the age at death of Jacob and Enos or increase the age of Enos when he received the plates and still be within acceptable limits. (italics added to Hebrew terms)

Given this proposed life span, Jacob would have been the record’s keeper for nearly thirty-six years. Jacob would therefore make his record near the end of his life, having witnessed at least two anointings of kings after Nephi. Who might this third king have been?

In the ancient world, the most prevalent reasons for a king’s short reign are his death by illness, war, or intrigue. Jacob does not mention internal rebellion, which is usually associated with a larger population. Therefore, I think it is safe to eliminate this possibility, leaving illness and war. I would lean toward war as the more likely alternative, since the Book of Mormon speaks little of disease and since at least Nephi and Jacob have lived significantly long lives. Given the fact that Nephi engaged in personal combat in his armed conflicts, it seems possible that his successor-kings would also have been expected to fight personally. Even though he would have had soldiers and bodyguards, our understanding of Mesoamerican warfare suggests the possibility of a king’s death or capture in battle. A king’s death due to conflict seems the most likely reason that Jacob would see the anointing of a third Nephite king.

These kings continue to be anointed “according to the reign of kings.” There is no definition of what that means. Nephi certainly had an Old World model of kingship and how power was passed from father to son. Mesoamerica is beginning to define its kings during this time period. The New World kingship was also passed from father to son in most cases, but also allowed for the rulership to be passed to a brother. There is no reason to expect that the early Nephite line of transmission was other than father to son, but later situations will indicate that passing rulership to a brother also become viable. (See Alma 50:1–3 where the Lamanite king Amalickiah is succeeded by his brother, Ammoron.) Thus, the next king would be the son of the second, or the grandson of Nephi. Even though youths could and did sit on ancient thrones, Nephi was certainly of an age where he could have had one or more mature grandsons.

Variant: The typesetter used the word “whatever” instead of “whatsoever.” Royal Skousen notes: “The word ‘whatever’ never occurs in the original text, it’s only ‘whatsoever.’” There are only two instances of “whatever” in our current text and 72 occurrences of “whatsoever.” The presence of “whatever” represents a scribal error in copying from the original to the printer’s manuscript.

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