How rapidly did the threats to Zarahemla’s unity begin? The very first year of the reign of the judges sees a challenge to some of the principles providing order for the community. Nehor is the individual in question, but his name, bestowed on a system of belief and its adherents, will outlast his own life.
The fact that Nehor was brought for judgment assures that many in the community saw him as violating either a specific law or a community norm so important that challenges to it seemed criminal. What type of law might this have been? What crime might he have committed? An obvious cause was his murder (or manslaughter) of Gideon (Alma 1:9–10), but a fascinating amount of time—in fact, most of it—is spent on his other crimes.
Significantly, Mormon takes the time to include a personal description: Nehor was “large, and was noted for his much strength,” details obviously taken from Mormon’s source plates. Why did the ancient writer include Nehor’s size and strength?
I hypothesize that Nehor’s personal endowments were considered explanations of his success. In the ancient world where virtually all labor had to be done by human muscle (Mesoamerica at this period lacked draft animals like camels, horses, or oxen), Nehor must have dominated the average working man, not simply the pampered nobleman. His physical presence was noted, probably admired, and almost certainly feared. And, although this point is completely speculative, he apparently had a personal charisma that complemented his dominating physical presence. Bruce J. Malina, a professor of theology at Creighton University, and Jerome H. Neyrey, a professor of New Testament studies at Notre Dame, describes the ancient pan-Mediterranean perception of physical size: “The designation of a man as ‘tall’ or ‘short’ may not be realistic or accurate and may actually be intended to convey information about character, rather than stature.… Generals and warriors are often portrayed as ‘tall.’” This Mediterranean mode of personality assessment may not be directly applicable to Mesoamerica in Alma’s time, but the point about Nehor’s strength suggests at least the possibility that his physical form was read back into his personality.
Verse 3 suggests the dimensions of the Nehor “problem.” The case against him begins with Nehor’s attack on Nephite priesthood as an organization. The priests of Benjamin and Mosiah2’s reigns were egalitarian and self-supporting. Nehor was preaching a professional priesthood. He also had some doctrinal differences, but Mormon’s first concern (likely reflecting the priorities of his source plates) was the conflict between the lay and professional priesthood. As we work our way through his case, note how often it is this type of problem and not the murder of Gideon that is described.
Variant: The 1830 edition reads for verse 3: “they ought not to labor with their own hands.” The word own was removed from the 1837 edition, probably an accidental omission. Given the high political and religious charge placed on these words for Nehorite doctrine, the emphatic “own hands” perhaps gives a better sense of the intent.