Culture: Sherem, a stranger, comes among the Nephites as a religious preacher, and his message is the specific contradiction of one of the main Nephite teachings: that of the Messiah. Obviously, then, Sherem is familiar with Nephite teachings or he could not preach against them. He must have learned of the Messiah prior to coming among the Nephites, and where would that have been? There are only two possible sources: from the Nephites or from the Lamanites.
It is remotely possible that Sherem might have learned of this doctrine from the Jaredites, but the differences in language and culture strongly suggest that they were not the source. Messianism, per se, is not characteristic of the Jaredites. Sherem may have learned about the Messiah from the Lamanites, because they would have known about it, even though they rejected it as a true doctrine. However, Sherem confirms to Jacob that he believes the scriptures (v. 10). The only writings called by that term in the New World are the brass plates. The Nephites possess the plates themselves, since they form part of Mosiah2’s coronation ritual (Mosiah 1:16).
Therefore, the most logical source for Sherem to learn about the scriptures and about the Messiah is from the Nephites. If he himself is a non-Nephite, then he must have been in the extensive trade relations between the city of Nephi and the surrounding communities. Religion, backed up by the scriptures, has obviously been one of the exports in the region. Copies of the brass-plates scriptures have gone, with trade goods, to a community at some distance from the land of Nephi. In Sherem’s community (if not in the city of Nephi itself), the orthodox Nephite religion has been reinterpreted. This new interpretation rejects the prophecies of the coming Messiah and instead concentrates on the brass plates’ version of religion—the same version prevalent among the Jews who misinterpreted the Messianic meanings of the texts and rejected Lehi’s efforts to call them back to those truths. (For more information on this version of Hebrew religion, see “Excursus: Religion of the Nehors,” following Alma 1.)
Thus, Sherem is a convert to the brass-plates religion; but without the living oracles present in the city of Nephi, he has become someone with the ability to discuss scripture with Jacob but denies the very teachings of which Nephi and Jacob testified so fervently. Instead, he has constructed his own religion that blends the brass-plate scriptures with the cultural and intellectual constructs of his own city. He is aware of Nephi’s and Jacob’s Messianic teachings but does not have copies of their sermons and visions. It seems likely that he has learned versions of their teachings from Nephites who have verbally passed on these newer teachings.
The only other hypothesis that might fit these facts is that Sherem was an apostate Nephite who left the community, then returned to challenge Jacob. However, since he is a contemporary of Jacob’s, it seems unlikely that Jacob would not have known him or known about him—including the likely dramatic circumstances of a voluntary or involuntary exile. Because Jacob and Sherem are clearly strangers to each other, it virtually guarantees that Sherem is a foreigner.
The next interesting piece of information about Sherem is that he preaches “flattering things” to the Nephites. Jacob does not describe these teachings, but to be flattering, Sherem had to tell the people complimentary things. It wouldn’t be hard to see that a man from a trading community, who has seen enough value in the cultural artifacts of the Nephites, and even in their religion, could find things to praise about the Nephites.
Jacob has previously preached against the pride of the Nephites. It is quite likely that Sherem preached to it, using the Nephites’ opinions of their prosperity as evidence of their blessedness before Yahweh. The fact that Sherem preaches from their own scriptures is not only flattering, but a point on which the people may accept the flattery, believing that they are maintaining their scriptural heritage. The preaching of flattering things is precisely what one would expect of a Sherem with the hypothetical background here ascribed to him. It positions him to be believed.
Now Sherem has come specifically to preach—not against the law of Moses—but against the Atoning Messiah about whom Jacob and Nephi taught. Why would he focus on these newer teachings? I have suggested that Jacob’s sermon recorded in Jacob 2–3 pits Jacob directly against an influential trading class in the city of Nephi. (See, for example, commentary accompanying Jacob 2:32–34.) Jacob condemns their practices. As traders, they would have been the source for the brass-plate texts that Sherem has studied learned. Thus, Sherem’s understanding of the religion to which he converted was a skewed version, one that reflected beliefs of the traders who were in conflict with Jacob. Because Sherem specifically seeks out Jacob, the implication is that he wants to discredit Jacob’s teaching, reduce his authority, and thereby decrease Nephite internal opposition to the practices of the prideful traders.
As noted, Jacob apparently bid his people farewell as their chief priest. If this is, in fact, true, then it was because the rich and influential traders had succeeded in removing Jacob from office. However, his continued preaching in unofficial capacities would have still influenced some members of the community, most likely the majority who were not sharing directly in the trading wealth. It does not seem far-fetched to see Sherem’s mission as the surreptitious effort of the traders to further decrease Jacob’s influence.