Readers of the Book of Mormon often take for granted that it was written at all. In our modern age where literacy rates are high, it is almost inconceivable to imagine a society where perhaps a mere 10 percent of the population are literate (such as in ancient Israel).
It is therefore stunning that Nephi was not only capable of reading and writing, he also was a brilliantly competent writer who created some of the finest literary beauty and artistry that the world has ever known.
The fact that Nephi was literate might initially seem improbable in ancient Israel, where many people lived hand to mouth, eking out a subsistence lifestyle based on what they could farm or herd. Reading and writing would be a luxury. What would be the purpose of literacy? So that one could enjoy fine literary pursuits as a pastime after a long day of work? Unlikely.
Why did Nephi know how to read and write?
Being a scribe was an entirely viable profession for the youngest son in a wealthy or elite family.
For example, one of the great Neo-Assyrian kings, Ashurbanipal (668 B.C. to 627 B.C.), himself the youngest son and therefore least likely to inherit the throne, was trained in the scribal arts of writing, reading and other educational pursuits. In fact, Ashurbanipal was so capable in and fond of beautiful and important literature that once he became king of the Assyrian Empire he collected one of the greatest libraries in the ancient world, the library of Nineveh. A significant portion of what we know of the ancient Middle East is due to Ashurbanipal’s literary preservation effort.
Similarly, without Nephi’s literary and cultural training, the words we so deeply appreciate in the Book of Mormon would likely never have been written.
So just what did it mean to be a scribe? Scribes often practiced their craft by impressing characters on wet clay with a reed stylus. Or they might use a form of ink to compose their texts on papyrus. (Incidentally, our modern word “paper” derives from the word “papyrus.”) As they practiced writing, Israelite scribes typically were taught and fully immersed in the principles found in the ancient wisdom tradition, copying passages from wisdom literature as a way to learn not only the language but also the moral and cultural values. The Old Testament Book of Proverbs is a good example of the types of wisdom principles scribes would be expected to write, copy, know and live.
One piece of evidence in favor of Nephi’s training as a scribe in the ancient Near Eastern wisdom tradition is this: Nephi says that he writes his record with “knowledge” (1 Nephi 1:3).
In Hebrew, the word “knowledge” is expressed as daat. This is a key word in the wisdom literature section of the Old Testament (Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon). There are some 89 occurrences of daat in the entirety of the Old Testament, and about 70 percent of these occur in the wisdom literature section. Nephi’s claim to draw upon “knowledge” may be influenced by his scribal training in the wisdom literature tradition.
Another brilliant but subtle example of Nephi’s training as a scribe occurs when Nephi was building the boat. His brothers refused to help and instead threatened to harm Nephi. In commanding faith, Nephi declared:
“In the name of the Almighty God, I command you that ye touch me not, for I am filled with the power of God, even unto the consuming of my flesh; and whoso shall lay his hands upon me shall wither even as a dried reed; and he shall be as naught before the power of God, for God shall smite him” (1 Nephi 17:48; emphasis added).
Nephi would know of dry reeds since they were used to inscribe tablets. Even more compelling and potentially significant is this: In the ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature, humans were poetically identified with cane reeds that wither, fall and die. As a trained scribe who may have had familiarity with such ancient Near Eastern scribal poetic expressions, Nephi could not have found a more striking, poetic and ultimately contextually appropriate metaphor for what would happen to his brothers if they touched him.
As intriguing as these details are, perhaps the most important question to ask is, why did Nephi write?
Nephi’s response: “For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23).
If Nephi was in fact a scribe, he used his professional training to bless the lives of millions.
More on this topic can be found in an article written by Brant Gardner called "Nephi as Scribe," published in the 2011 Mormon Studies Review from the Maxwell Institute at BYU.
Taylor Halverson (Ph.D., biblical studies, instructional tech) is a BYU teaching and learning consultant; founder of Creativity, Innovation & Design Group; and travel leader to Mesoamerica and Middle East. Taylorhalverson.com. His views are his own.