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  • Writer's picturestephenstrent7

Plates, Jews, and Josephites


Ketef Hinnom KH2 Silver Scroll Amulet,1 now located in the Israel Museum


Where Science Meets the Book of Mormon: Come Follow Me Lessons: January 15-21; 1 Nephi 6-10


We read in 1 Nephi 6:1-2, “And now I, Nephi, do not give the genealogy of my fathers in this part of my record; neither at any time shall I give it after upon these plates which I am writing; for it is given in the record which has been kept by my father; wherefore, I do not write it in this work. For it sufficeth me to say that we are descendants of Joseph.”


We learned in 1 Nephi 5:10-13, “And after they had given thanks unto the God of Israel, my father, Lehi, took the records which were engraven upon the plates of brass, and he did search them from the beginning. And he beheld that they did contain the five books of Moses, which gave an account of the creation of the world, and also of Adam and Eve, who were our first parents; And also a record of the Jews from the beginning, even down to the commencement of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah; And also the prophecies of the holy prophets, from the beginning, even down to the commencement of the reign of Zedekiah; and also many prophecies which have been spoken by the mouth of Jeremiah.”


These scriptures talk of three different sets of plates: the brass plates obtained from Laban, the plates of Lehi, and the plates of Nephi. Nephi does not specify from what material his or his father’s plates were made. He also does not specify when those plates were made. We tend to think of the Book of Mormon story as beginning just before Lehi took his family out of Jerusalem and into the desert, but Nephi was a young adult at the time and Lehi was an older adult. It is reasonable to think that their plates had been made at some time previous to their leaving Jerusalem — and we are not even told that they made their own plates — they may have been purchased from a merchant or merchants in Jerusalem or elsewhere.


Whether the plates spoken of in 1 Nephi 5 and 6 were made by Nephi or were purchased is irrelevant, because we are told in 1 Nephi 19:1-2, “And it came to pass that the Lord commanded me, wherefore I did make plates of ore that I might engraven upon them the record of my people. And upon the plates which I made I did engraven the record of my father, and also our journeyings in the wilderness, and the prophecies of my father; and also many of mine own prophecies have I engraven upon them. And I knew not at the time when I made them that I should be commanded of the Lord to make these plates; wherefore, the record of my father, and the genealogy of his fathers, and the more part of all our proceedings in the wilderness are engraven upon those first plates of which I have spoken; wherefore, the things which transpired before I made these plates are, of a truth, more particularly made mention upon the first plates.”

 

These verses tell us that Nephi had the skill and knowledge of metal-working such that he could manufacture his own metal plates from ore. As a younger son, Nephi would not have been in line to inherit his father’s holdings and, therefore, would have needed his own profession. We are not told what his profession had been before he left Jerusalem. We, or at least I, have tended to think that he just sat around home watching TV before he was taken into the wilderness by his father. Perhaps Nephi was a professional metal-worker by trade, or perhaps an apprentice metal-worker, and perhaps Lehi was a metal-worker as he had his own plates — we simply do not know the back-story.

 

So, let’s talk about the plates and records kept upon them. Let’s first deal with the issue of brass plates. Brass, which is a combination of copper and zinc, was first created around 5000 BC.2 Bronze, on the other hand, which is a combination of copper and tin, was not developed until about 2500 BC.3 We were told in Exodus 27:6 that the “staves for the alter” were made of “shittim wood” overlayed “with brass.” We learn in Exodus 38:11ff, that the portable desert temple had “sockets of brass” atop the pillars holding up the walls. And then in Numbers 21:9 that, “…Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.” These events occurred sometime around the twelfth to thirteenth century BC.

 

We are told in 1 Kings 7:13-14 that, when Solomon built his Temple, around 957 BC, he, “…sent and fetched Hiram out of Tyre. He was a widow’s son of the tribe of Naphtali, and his father was a man of Tyre, a worker in brass: and he was filled with wisdom, and understanding, and cunning to work all works in brass. And he came to king Solomon, and wrought all his work.” He made “ten bases of brass” (v. 27); “And every base had four brasen wheels, and plates of brass…” (v. 30); and “Then made he ten lavers of brass: one laver contained forty baths: and every laver was four cubits: and upon every one of the ten bases one laver.” (v. 38). The scribe concludes his review of the Temple in 1 Kings 7:45-47, “And the pots, and the shovels, and the basins: and all these vessels, which Hiram made to king Solomon for the house of the Lord, were of bright brass. In the plain of Jordan did the king cast them, in the clay ground between Succoth and Zarthan. And Solomon left all the vessels unweighed, because they were exceeding many: neither was the weight of the brass found out.”

 

When Nebuchadnezzar’s army captured Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple in 587 BC (2 Kings 25:7), “…they slew the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, and put out the eyes of Zedekiah, and bound him with fetters of brass, and carried him to Babylon.” Then we are told in 2 Kings 25:13-17 that, “…the pillars of brass that were in the house of the Lord, and the bases, and the brasen sea that was in the house of the Lord, did the Chaldees break in pieces, and carried the brass of them to Babylon. And the pots, and the shovels, and the snuffers, and the spoons, and all the vessels of brass wherewith they ministered, took they away. And the firepans, and the bowls, and such things as were of gold, in gold, and of silver, in silver, the captain of the guard took away. The two pillars, one sea, and the bases which Solomon had made for the house of the Lord; the brass of all these vessels was without weight. The height of the one pillar was eighteen cubits, and the chapiter upon it was brass: and the height of the chapiter three cubits; and the wreathen work, and pomegranates upon the chapiter round about, all of brass: and like unto these had the second pillar with wreathen work.”

 

Therefore, we see that brass was a common but very highly valued material in the first millennium BC, and that everything from the pillars and brazen sea in the Temple to the handcuffs placed upon Zedekiah were made of brass.

 

We are told, for example, in Exodus 38:10-12 that other parts of the Temple were made of silver. Furthermore, we read of Solomon’s Temple in 1 Kings 6:22, “And the whole house he overlaid with gold, until he had finished all the house: also the whole altar that was by the oracle he overlaid with gold.” It appears obvious from these scriptures that the Israelites were skilled at making many objects from brass, silver, and gold. We have essentially no archaeological evidence for such metal craft because, as one example, the Babylonians took all the metal from the Temple and elsewhere in Jerusalem and repurposed it for their own use. Furthermore, there is reason to believe that Nephi may have been one of the skilled metal-workers in Jerusalem. For example, he was the only one in his family with a “steel” bow (1 Nephi 16:18) and he forged the tools for making a ship 1 Nephi 17:9-10). Later, we read in 2 Nephi 5:15, “And I did teach my people to build buildings, and to work in all manner of wood, and of iron, and of copper, and of brass, and of steel, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious ores, which were in great abundance.” These issues will be discussed in later blogs.  

 

But what about records? We are told in 2 Kings 25:8-9 that then “…came Nebuzar-adan, captain of the guard, a servant of the king of Babylon, unto Jerusalem: And he burnt the house of the Lord, and the king’s house, and all the houses of Jerusalem, and every great man’s house burnt he with fire.” So, it appears that anything that was not hauled off to Babylon was destroyed by fire — unless certain items — perhaps the most valuable, such as some records, could have been hidden away. It also makes sense that there were multiple copies of the sacred records — perhaps written upon many substrates.

 

As I pointed out in my blog last week, we read in Nehemiah 8:1-3, “And all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the street that was before the water gate; and they spake unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded to Israel. And Ezra the priest brought the law before the congregation both of men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month. And he read therein before the street that was before the water gate from the morning until midday, before the men and the women, and those that could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law.”


Where did Ezra, who lived around 465–424 BC, obtain the book from which he read? There are three possible answers to that question: 1. What is now the Old Testament, at least the Pentateuch, existed in some form before the captivity and it was that “book” or some revision thereof from which Ezra read. 2. The entire Old Testament was written, perhaps from some oral traditions, during the captivity. 3. Some combination of 1 and 2.

 

In a 2013 blog, Krista Wenzel stated, “There are actually two major views among archaeologists and Bible scholars on Israel’s early history. One view is called biblical maximalism which holds that the Biblical text, archaeological and historical data are in general agreement. The other view is called biblical minimalism and holds that there is virtually no correlation between the Bible and history at all. Biblical minimalists are historical revisionists and believe that much of what we think we understand about the Old Testament needs to be completely rewritten. The Old Testament is epic poetry, and nothing more.”4 


Biblical minimalism is not actually a unified trend, but rather a derogatory label coined by biblical maximalists, who, in turn, were given the label of minimalists, and applied in the 1990s to several scholars at different universities who held opinion that the idea of “Israel” was historically problematic and that the bible is not a historically reliable source. The most notable minimalists were Niels Peter Lemche and Thomas L. Thompson at the University of Copenhagen. For that reason, the minimalist ideas have also been called the Copenhagen School. Minimalism had its roots in the early part of the 20th century, when the stories of the CreationNoah's ark, and the Tower of Babel — Genesis chapters 1-11 — became open to greater scholastic scrutiny. Throughout much of the century, archaeological finds and sociological data repeatedly failed to substantiate many biblical stories. Since the 1990s, some minimalist arguments have been seriously challenged or rejected whereas others have been refined and adopted into mainstream biblical scholarship.5 Today, most scholars agree that history-writing is never objective and that the accuracy of any historical account should be questioned.


I tend to agree with a statement by Peter Enns, “The Pentateuch was not authored out of whole cloth by a second-millennium Moses but is the end product of a complex literary process-written, oral, or both—that did not come to a close until the postexilic period.”6 Therefore, I tend to accept my hypothesis 3. “Some combination of 1 and 2,” as stated above. I believe that Moses may have begun the process of writing the Pentateuch, but that many additions and other changes have been made down through the years.


Given those cautionary statements, I will address this issue of biblical minimalism, especially the idea that the Pentateuch was written during or after the captivity as follows: It is interesting to note that Ezra, who lived around 465–424 BC, after the captivity, has a parallel in Josiah (c. 640–609 BC), before the captivity. We read in 2 Kings 23:1-2, “And the king [Josiah] sent, and they gathered unto him all the elders of Judah and of Jerusalem. And the king went up into the house of the Lord, and all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem with him, and the priests, and the prophets, and all the people, both small and great: and he read in their ears all the words of the book of the covenant which was found in the house of the Lord.”


According to some biblical minimalists, this story of Josiah reading “all the words of the book of the covenant” would have been a complete fabrication, concocted by some scholar or group of scholars during the captivity. So, are there any extant archaeological remains of Hebraic writing dating to the time before the captivity? The answer is that there are very little archaeological finds of records from before or even after the captivity.


The world's oldest complete extant Torah scroll is the Bologna Torah Scroll (also known as the University of Bologna Torah Scroll, circa 1155–1225 AD). The scroll contains the full text of the five Books of Moses, written in Hebrew.7 Six of the nine oldest copies of fragments from the Pentateuch (including the Bologna Torah Scroll) date from after the time of Christ. Two, the Nash Papyrus and the Dead Sea Scrolls, date from around the second century BC or later. Only the Ketef Hinnom Silver Scroll Amulets are older, dating from around 600 BC.8 Those are two very small fragments of silver, containing writing, which is are possibly blessings from an early version of the Book of Numbers. That’s it. There is no extant manuscript of any kind dating to when Ezra read to the people in around 465–424 BC (Nehemiah 8:1-3) and only tiny silver fragments from when Josiah read to the people around 640–609 BC (2 Kings 23:1-2). Because of the paucity of archaeological data, it becomes very difficult to make any definitive statements about what scriptures were or were available to the Jews (members of the Kingdom of Judah) before their Babylonian captivity.


Personally, I think there were many copies of various writings had among perhaps several families in and around Jerusalem before the captivity — although perhaps most were not combined as a single document. One clue to the existence of such material is the statement by Nephi in 1 Nephi 5:14, “And it came to pass that my father, Lehi, also found upon the plates of brass a genealogy of his fathers; wherefore he knew that he was a descendant of Joseph…” We see a parallel in Matthew 1:1-16 where the genealogy of Joseph, the husband of Mary, is given all the way back to Abraham. A somewhat different genealogy is given in Luke 3:23-38, suggesting that genealogies were important to the Jews, perhaps even before the captivity, as the pre-captivity lineages are given in both New Testament accounts.


It appears that Lehi discovered that he was descended from Joseph only after reading from the plates of brass, as recounted in 1 Nephi 5:14. Nephi refers to “Jews” as early as 1 Nephi 1:2. He stated in verse 4 that his, “…father, Lehi, having dwelt at Jerusalem in all his days…” When the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were separated, the greater part of ten of the tribes were included in the Kingdom of Israel, whereas the Kingdom of Judah consisted of mainly the tribes of Judah and Benjamin.


According to the definition in Wikipedia, “The term Jew is derived from Hebrew יְהוּדִי Yehudi, originally the term for the people of the Israelite kingdom of Judah. According to the Hebrew Bible, the name of both the tribe of Judah and the kingdom of Judah derive from Judah…” Furthermore, “The English term Jew originates in the Biblical Hebrew word Yehudi, meaning ‘from the Kingdom of Judah.’ It passed into Greek as Ioudaios and Latin as Iudaeus, which evolved into the Old French giu after the letter ‘d’ was dropped. A variety of related forms are found in early English from about the year 1000, including IudeaGyuGiuIuuIuw, and Iew, which eventually developed into the modern word.” “The term Yehudi (יְהוּדִי‎) occurs 74 times in the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible. The plural, Yehudim (הַיְּהוּדִים‎) first appears in 2 Kings 16:6 (around 754–732 BC, although some scholars claim that the book of Kings was not written before the captivity — so we return to the minimalist/maximalist debate) where it refers to a defeat for the Yehudi army or nation, and in 2 Chronicles 32:18, where it refers to the language of the Yehudim (יְהוּדִית‎). Jeremiah 34:9 has the earliest singular usage of the word Yehudi. In Esther 2:5–6, the name ‘Yehudi’ (יְהוּדִי‎) has a generic aspect, in this case referring to a man from the tribe of Benjamin…”


Because Lehi spent his entire life in Jerusalem, which was the capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and apparently didn’t know he was descended from Joseph until after he left Jerusalem, it seems only natural that Nephi would refer to his family as Jews.

  

 

 

Trent Dee Stephens, PhD

 

References

 

2.     Ye, Ronan, What is Brass: History, Types & Applications, 2023; 3erp.com/blog/brass/#:~:text=The%20history%20of%20brass%20dates,ores%20during%20the%20smelting%20process; retrieved 9 January 2024

4.     Wenzel, Krista, Was the Old Testament Invented During the Babylonian Exile? The Answer is No, 2013, crossexamined.org/was-the-old-testament-invented-during-the-babylonian-exile-the-answer-is-no; retrieved 9 January 2024; I recommend reading this entire blog for a more in-depth review of Wenzel’s opinion

5.     Moore, Megan Bishop; Kelle, Brad E., Biblical History and Israel's Past, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company Grand Rapids, MI, 2011

6.     Enns, Peter, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn't Say about Human Origins, Brazos Press, Ada, MI, 2012 

7.     Colefor, Diane, Carbon Dating Confirms World's Oldest Torah Scroll, National Geographic, May 31, 2013

8.     oldest.org/religion/torah; retrieved 9 January 2024

 

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