Nephi as the first autobiographer?

One of the most interesting things about the small plates of Nephi is the first person narrative which recounts his own life. The text begins famously “I Nephi,” and gives a personal account of Nephi’s family history, personal reflections, and all this is done in the first person. This is extremely rare in ancient and classical literature. What are we to make of this?

I don’t know every ancient text, of course, but I am not aware of any Ancient Near Eastern literature in the autobiographical genre. In Greek and Roman literature, this is also relatively rare. Josephus wrote about his own life, but it is more of an extension of his Jewish War. The famous Antiochene orator Libanius wrote about his own life. Augustine’s Confessions are frequently considered the first “true” autobiography because of its introspective character.

Prophetic literature is not typically autobiographical. There are episodes of personal narrative, but this is not the focus of the prophetic drama. The closest you get is that some apocalypses or heavenly journeys are described in the first person, like 1 Enoch, History of the Rechabites, and others. While Nephi offers his own account of a heavenly journey, the difference is that he is actually writing his own, while the others are most certainly pseudepigraphical. Not to mention that these are later texts.

So, we are left with something that I am not sure what to do with. 1 Nephi seems to belong to a genre of autobiography that is anomalous among ancient literature. Not only that, but this genre is incredibly frequent throughout the Book of Mormon, interrupted only by Mormon’s editing, but then returns in Mormon and Moroni. Is the Book of Mormon the first ancient autobiography?

  • http://www.newcoolthang.com Jacob J

    Nephi the first autobiographer? Hardly.

    In the land of the Chaldeans, at the residence of my fathers, I, Abraham, saw that it was needful for me to obtain another place of residence; (Abr. 1:1)

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com TT

    Jacob J,
    Let me put it another way: Is Mormon ancient scripture uniquely autobiographical among other ancient texts?

  • Sterling

    I wonder if Nephi picked up the autobiographical style from his father. Maybe it tells us something about the historical consciousness of Nephi.

  • http://ldstalk.wordpress.com/ Tim

    Or maybe it tells us something about Mormon scripture as ancient text.

  • Kevin Barney

    TT, I seem to recall Nibley making a claim that this was a period characterized by autobiographical writing. You might do some searching in his BoM writings to see precisely what he had to say about it. I recall doing some looking and, like you, not coming up with much, so now I wonder whether I am remembering Nibley correctly.

    As I recall, either the Apocalypse or Testament of Abraham is written in the first person; that would be about six centuries after Nephi.

  • Kent

    Well, just a quick Google search brought this book up:

    Ancient Egyptian autobiographies chiefly of the Middle Kingdom: A study and an anthology (Orbis biblicus et orientalis)
    by Miriam Lichtheim

    So, I would say that since the Middle Kingdom started around 2000 BCE it would be safe to say that Nephi wasn’t an innovator in the genre. I suppose looking even further than Wikipedia is required to solve this great question.

  • http://mormonmetalilty.org a random John

    Do we know if the record of Lehi in the lost 116 pages was autobiographical? Had that record been abridged by Mormon?

    A doubter might say that Joseph Smith Jr. changed both the narrator and the point of view (assuming that Lehi wasn’t autobiographical) for the re-write of that section in order to more easily avoid repeating phrasings from the lost pages.

  • http://mormonmetalilty.org a random John

    Furthermore, is it possible that more of the books of the BoM were originally autobiographical but Mormon’s editing rendered it in third person?

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com TT

    Sterling,
    That is an interesting suggestion, but I think that this just defers the problem to whether Lehi is the first autobiographer. What do you mean by “historical consciousness”?

    Tim,
    That is certainly a possibility.

    Kevin,
    Thanks for the suggestion. I think I found the reference in Nibley in Since Cumorah, 151-2. Speaking of the “colophons” in the BoM, he says:

    This complacent advertising of one’s own virtues, in particular one’s reliability, is a correct and indeed a required fixture of any properly composed Egyptian autobiography of Nephi’s time – a time at which the writing of autobiographies was very fashionable.

    He then cites the Brem[n]er-Rhind Papyrus (4th c. BCE), Sinute (?), the Prisse Papyrus (Middle Kingdom- c. 2000-1600 BCE), the Man Weary of Life (also Middle Kingdom), and the Shipwrecked Sailor (2200 BCE).
    I wouldn’t exactly consider the Middle Kingdom “Nephi’s time” by any stretch of the imagination, so I am not entirely sure what to do with this claim. On the other hand, the Papyrus Bremner-Rhind is a little closer, but I would like to see more analysis.

    Kent,
    Thanks for this valuable reference, but as I said above, I am not quite sure what to do with evidence that comes from 1000+ years before Nephi. This is the same distance between Nephi and Augustine, and I wouldn’t dare to use Augustine as evidence of “Nephi’s time.”

    arJ,
    I have understood the Large Plates of Nephi (aka record of Lehi) to have been edited by Mormon. In the Words of Mormon, this seems pretty clear. My guess is that it was less autobiographical based on Nephi’s description of it, but that is just a guess. I think that we are both suggesting that Mormon’s narrator voice may have obscured autobiographical elements of the BoM, which is certainly possible. I would like to see some close readings to demonstrate that hunch though.

  • http://www.newcoolthang.com Jacob J

    TT (#2), I was with you, I fear the tongue in cheek nature of my comment didn’t come through.

  • http://ofreadingandhometeaching.wordpress.com holdinator

    The narrative of Jeremiah has some autobiographical feel to it but uses third person narrative as well. This is, from what I understand, because Jeremiah had a scribe, Baruch. Presumably, then, Nephi could have been writing in a similar vein as Jeremiah (the plates of brass contained some of Jeremiah’s stuff) but did so without the benefit of a scribe (Nephi was likely as educated as anyone in his group).

    Maybe I’m way off…

  • http://www.TempleStudy.com Bryce Haymond

    The apocryphal Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs are almost all written in an autobiographical manner, some fantastically similar to the pattern that Nephi used to begin his record.

    Testament of Levi – “I Levi was conceived in Haran and born there, and after that I came with my father to Shechem. And I was young, about twenty years of age, when with Simeon I wrought the vengeance on Hamor for our sister Dinah…”

    Testament of Reuben – “And he said to them, My children, I am dying, and go the way of my fathers…”

    Testament of Simeon – “Hear, O my children, hear Simeon your father, what things I have in my heart. I was born of Jacob my father, his second son; and my mother Leah called me Simeon, because the Lord heard her prayer…”

    Testament of Judah – “I was the fourth son born to my father, and my mother called me Judah, saying, I give thanks to the Lord, because He hath given to me even a fourth son…”

    Testament of Issachar – “Hearken, my children, to Issachar your father; give ear to my words, ye who are beloved of the Lord. I was the fifth son born to Jacob, even the hire of the mandrakes…”

    Testament of Zebulun – “Hearken to me sons of Zebulun, attend to the words of your father. I am Zebulun, a good gift to my parents. For when I was born our father was increased very exceedingly, both in flocks and herds, when with the streaked rods he had his portion…”

    Etc…

  • Brant Gardner

    There is a plausible reason for Nephi writing an autobiography. If you need a biography to support your position as a king, you will often have someone else write it. However, in early Nephite society, the number who would be sufficiently literate in the language and writing system would have been limited to his family, and in most cases to family that hadn’t been involved in some of the events Nephi wanted to emphasize. I suspect that the problems of creating a way to live in the New World were enough for most people and Nephi was probably one of the few who had the time (and in his case, the reason) to indulge in the writing effort.

    I strongly doubt that the large plates of Nephi held more than scattered autobiographical entries. It would surprise me if there were several from Nephi himself, but rapidly diminishing after that time.

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com TT

    Wow, I am way behind on responding to these…

    holdinator,
    The Jeremiah/Nephi connection is interesting, and could have some potential. Do you have some examples that you think make the case?

    Bryce,
    These are indeed interesting suggestions. There are two points to consider. First, these texts come from the Greco-Roman period, and so are not really contemporaneous with Nephi. Second, these are pseudepigraphal. As I noted in my original post, pseudepigraphal autobiography seems to be fashionable, but actual autobiography even in the G/R period is much more rare, and completely absent in “sacred” literature from this period.

    Brant,
    This is an interesting suggestion, although Nephi is writing the small plates 30+ years after these events took place. http://scriptures.lds.org/en/2_ne/5/28-34#28 It seems that by then, there would have been sufficient time to train more scribes. At the very least, we know Jacob was literate, and he was definitely old enough.

  • tophinator

    We know that Adam kept a book of remembrance. This may well have been the archetype for all literature and writing including the autobiographical.

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com David Clark

    but I am not aware of any Ancient Near Eastern literature in the autobiographical genre.

    Just out of curiosity, why doesn’t Nehemiah count?


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