One of the first dramatic episodes in the Book of Mormon is the story of how Lehi's family was able, with God's help, to obtain the Brass Plates from their custodian Laban (1 Nephi 3 - 5). The plates later played an important role in the religious life of Lehi's righteous descendants, the Nephites. However, very few facts about the plates are known, and what the Book of Mormon tells us about them brings out some problematical questions, summarized below. First of all, a listing of all known facts, taken from the Book of Mormon text.
Facts about the plates:
- Laban had the "record of the Jews" and a genealogy of Lehi's (and Laban's) forefathers (1 Ne 5:16, 1 Ne 3:3)
- The record was engraved on plates made of brass (1 Ne 3:3)
- Laban kept the plates at his house (1 Ne 3:4)
- Laban was keeper of the records because he was a descendant of Joseph (1 Ne 5:16)
- Plates contained "the language of our fathers" (1 Ne 3:19)
- Plates were written in Egyptian (Mosiah 1:4)
- Plates contained all the words of the prophets down to Lehi's time (1 Ne 3:20, 1 Ne 5:13)
- Plates contained the law (1 Ne 4:16), the "five books of Moses" down to reign of Zedekiah, and prophecies of Jeremiah (1 Ne 5:11-13)
- Plates also contained writings of other prophets, some otherwise unknown (Zenos, Zenock, Neum, Ezias, Joseph) (1 Ne 19:10, 2 Ne 4:2)
- People cannot know the Law without having it written (1 Ne 4:15)
- Plates would "go forth unto all nations, kindreds, tongues and people who were of his [Lehi's?] seed" (1 Ne 5:18, Alma 37:3-5)
- Plates would "never perish" or be "dimmed any more by time." (1 Ne 5:18-19)
- Plates were handed down to Mosiah from Benjamin (Mosiah 1:16), to Alma (Mosiah 28:11, 20), to Helaman (Alma 37:13); to Nephi3 from Nephi2 (3 Ne 1:2)
- Plates were like today's Bible, but more than the Bible (1 Ne 13:20-23)
- Plates contained prophecies regarding Christ (1 Ne 19:10-22)
- God delivered Laban into Nephi's hands so that he could kill him to obtain the plates, which he did (1 Ne 4:6-18)
- Nephi obtained the plates by deceiving Laban's household, pretending to be Laban (1 Ne 4:20-26)
- Nephi copied many chapters of Isaiah from the brass plates onto the Plates of Nephi (1 Ne 19:23; long passages appear as 1 Ne 20, 21, 2 Ne 12 to 24; many shorter passages from Isaiah were also copied by later writers)
Questions and problems:Was there only one copy, and only on brass?If the brass plates were the only copy, then by taking them Lehi would deprive the Jews of the record. (Remember that without these scriptures, a nation will perish - 1 Ne 4:13, 15) If there were other copies, why didn't Lehi try to obtain one of those, instead of getting a copy at the cost of a man's life?Why would such important records be kept in a private home?Important religious and historical records in Jerusalem were kept in the Temple, in the custody of the priests.Why would the records be engraved on brass plates?Even the most important records, especially records of any length, were kept on papyrus or parchment rolls in Lehi's time. Why should this one record be different?As a collection of sacred books, the plates would have been the first Jewish "canon."No mention of such a canon or collection appears in any history of the Jews. The earliest such collection was the Septuagint, the Greek translation of Hebrew sacred books, made in the third century BC.Why would Laman expect Laban simply to hand over these records? 1 Ne 3:11-13Mormon apologists seem to be aware of the stupidity of this part of the story and have offered as explanation that the plates originally belonged to Lehi, and Laban stole them from him. However, there is nothing in the text to hint at that. And Lehi obviously has never seen them before; he is surprised at their content (1 Ne 5:14-17).Why would Nephi think Laban could be bribed? 1 Ne 3:21-26Laban was a wealthy and influential man. Why would Nephi think that the custodian of such important records would risk everything in order to add to his wealth?Why would a prominent man like Laban go out at night drinking without escort? 1 Ne 4:7-10, 19, 22The fact that he was armed and wearing armor would indicate that it was not entirely safe to be abroad. A prudent man of his wealth and position would have been accompanied by private bodyguards.Why would it be necessary to kill Laban to obtain the plates? 1 Ne 4:10-14Is that the only solution that God could think of? The excuse given by the Spirit to Nephi ("...better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief" - 1 Ne 4:13) is the same excuse given by the high priest Caiaphas for killing Jesus ("...it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not" - John 11:50).Why would Laban's clothing not be bloody after being beheaded? 1 Ne 4:19If it was not a bloodless beheading, Nephi would be wearing Laban's bloody clothes when impersonating him later at his home.Did Nephi have any difficulty putting on Laban's clothes?Nephi was unusually large in stature (1 Ne 4:31). Unless Laban was the same size, his clothing would not have fit Nephi.How could Nephi have impersonated Laban so as to fool Laban's servants? 1 Ne 4:20-27This is one of the many "tall tales" in the Book of Mormon. Acting deceitfully is "contrary to the order of heaven" (D&C 129:7)Why would not the discovery of the naked, decapitated body of an important man such as Laban stir up an immediate search for his killer? And for the missing plates and servant?
Why did Nephi only summarize Zenos and Zenock, but chose to copy long passages of Isaiah word for word? 1 Ne 19:23-24Didn't he know that Isaiah's words would be well-preserved in the modern Bible, but Zenos and Zenock would not?How could the plates contain whole chapters from Isaiah that had not yet been written?Lehi obtained the plates about 600 BC, just before the capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the exile of the population to Babylon. Biblical scholars are almost all agreed that the present Book of Isaiah contains some writings by the prophet written pre-Captivity (up to chapter 35 or 39), but that chapters 40 to 66 could not possibly have been written before the Babylonian Captivity, since the situation described in those chapters does not reflect pre-Captivity circumstances. However, the Book of Mormon contains several whole chapters from this so-called Deutero-Isaiah, supposedly copied from the brass plates:How could some of the prophets whose writings appear on the brass plates have Greek names?
Also, many individual passages from Isaiah's chapters 52 and 55 appear scattered throughout other books in the Book of Mormon.
Isaiah 48 = 1 Nephi 20 Isaiah 49 1 Nephi 21 Isaiah 53 Mosiah 14 Isaiah 54 3 Nephi 22"Ezias" and "Zenos" are Greek names. But the Hebrews of 600 B.C. had not had any significant contact with Greeks. Why then would Hebrew prophets have Greek names?Why would those records be written in Egyptian and not in Hebrew?The impression is that the plates were official or semi-official records. Jews did not keep important records such as that in Egyptian. Hebrew was the national language. There would be no reason to use Egyptian.Was Egyptian the "language of our fathers"? 1 Ne 3:19Nephi says that having the plates would enable them to "preserve unto [their] children the language of [their] fathers.." But the language of their fathers was Hebrew, not Egyptian. If the plates were written in Egyptian (Mosiah 1:4), how would that help Nephi's descendants know Hebrew?Were no copies made while in the custody of Nephite prophets?
This appears to be an example of how the 19th century author of the Book of Mormon simply forgot, when writing the one passage, that it contradicted the other passage. (Scholars generally agree that Mosiah was dictated by Smith before he dictated 1 Nephi.)
The plates (presumably the originals) were handed down through the Nephite generations, although not every transfer is noted. The latest custodian mentioned is Nephi3, who was one of the twelve disciples at the time of Christ's appearance (about 33 AD). Moroni, writing supposedly about 421 AD, quotes two Isaiah passages (Moroni 10:31 = Isaiah 52:1-2 and 54:2), so he either had the original plates or a copy. If the content of the plates was intended to teach the people, copies would surely have been made and distributed among the Nephite millions. But there is no mention of that.Where are the plates now?There is no firm information about where the plates are now. One might suppose that they are in divine custody, along with the gold plates which Joseph Smith had, in a cavern inside the Hill Cumorah, as described by Brigham Young, quoting Oliver Cowdery. (Journal of Discourses 19:39) According to Cowdery, the cavern contained "many wagon loads" of plates, as well as the Sword of Laban.How have the sacred teachings of the plates gone forth "unto all nations"? 1 Ne 5:18, Alma 37:3-5
James J. Strang, who claimed to be the legitimate successor of Joseph Smith, claimed to have translated passages from the "Plates of Laban" and included them in his scripture Book of the Law of the Lord. Witnesses testified they had examined the plates and described them in detail. The present whereabouts of those plates is unknown.Obviously, they have not. Whatever teachings have "gone forth" it is due not to the preservation or going forth of the brass plates, but by means of the Bible and the few passages from Zenos, Zenock, Neum and Joseph which are briefly summarized in the Book of Mormon and which do not amount to more than a few sentences with prophecies no different from others by later Nephite prophets.
ConclusionFor all the importance which was attached to the brass plates, and in light of the prophecies about how they will never be "dimmed by time" but rather "go forth," containing all the prophets and prophecies not included in our present Bible, it seems that the brass plates have utterly failed in their modern mission. It does not even appear that these scriptures were known by any of Lehi's descendants (supposedly the Native Americans) after the Nephites disappeared about 420 AD. They are gone. Not even the modern prophets of the Mormon church can tell you where they are, or give details about what they contain. Apparently they were not so important, after all.
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