Sealed Documents

At the age of three, Liz Muir moved to the house just outside of Salt Lake City where she spent the next fifteen years of her life. At the age of five, she decided that her life goal was to know everything. Despite being confronted many times with the fact that this goal is not precisely realistic, she hasn’t stopped trying to obtain a generalist education in a specialist world. To that end, Liz is currently a junior at BYU, studying Chemistry and English, and in her spare time enjoys watching PBS (especially Nova), knitting things that by some definition might be sweaters, and theorizing on Harry Potter.

I’ll admit that I was pretty skeptical about the relevance of the Two Ancient Roman Plates exhibit that recently opened at BYU’s Harold B. Lee Library. The interest in ancient metallic plates seemed like just another attempt to stretch for historical justification for the Book of Mormon–interesting as a speculation, but “like most speculations has very little reference at all to the actual facts of real life, as we know them” (Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest). I was happily surprised to come away from a discussion with John Welch, the exhibit’s curator, with some interesting insights into the ancient concept of sealed documents, particularly some speculations (see above quote) about the relation of these ideas to the Book of Mormon. Three interesting principles I’ve gleaned from the discussion and the exhibit:

  • Sealed documents contained a duplication of the original. The duplication might be word for word, or else a summary or expansion on the open document. The purpose was to provide security against alterations in the public copy of a document. As long as the seal remained unbroken, the document could be guaranteed to be authentic. I can see two possible applications of this principle to the Book of Mormon. First, the Book of Mormon itself acts as a sealed book, verifying the original doctrines of the gospel which have been lost or changed in the Bible. Second, the words in the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon will act as a witness of the truthfulness of the translated portion. The sealed portion could be a duplicate copy of the translated text, or perhaps a more complete history of the Nephite civilization.
  • Sealed documents could only be opened by a judge or other legal official. A judge would open the sealed document when verifying the completion of the terms of a contract or when judging a dispute. Again, this can be applied to the Book of Mormon itself–being opened by Joseph Smith as a prophet called to judge the people–or to the sealed portion–perhaps to be opened by God in the final judgement of what the saints have done with the Book of Mormon.
  • Sealed documents usually had witnesses. This could possibly relate to Moroni 10. Moroni’s famous promise comes directly after his statement that he will seal up his record. Could his exhortation for the reader to seek confirmation from the Holy Ghost originate from his desire to provide additional witnesses to his sealed book, which would be invalid without them?

Perhaps this is all basic to the rest of you, but it was certainly a revelation for me, having previously thought of the sealed portion as containing doctrinal mysteries rather than as a verification of the translated portion. It’s an interesting line of speculation, if nothing else. It would also be interesting to think of these principles in reference to the seven seals in Revelation, but I’ll leave that to someone with more scriptural experience.

If you’re in the Provo area, I highly recommend the exhibit, which will be on display at the library until March 2008. I’m also anxiously awaiting the resource library of articles related to the topic.


  1. Welcome to BCC, Liz. I’m glad you got to chat with John Welch, who’s a charming gentlemen. As a fellow traveler with him in the realm of ancient legal history, I always enjoy ideas like this.

  2. Thanks for the post, Liz. I love to speculate about the sealed portions of text like Revelations or the Book of Mormon, or even better to gape at the notions of “wagonloads of plates” or the records of the Lost Tribes that are coming our way. Rhetorically it’s a tremendous boon to a writer to use those sealed portions as a reference — “there’s so much more out there about Jesus, but it’s sealed! Sorry.”

  3. There is a certain magic to ancient artifacts as well. As YM Pres. we built a presentation on these plates into a youth conference we had last summer. Crowding the youth from our SLC ward and a neighboring ward into a room of BYU law school to hear Prof. Welch talk about these plates and the topics you have mentioned, coupled with the possibility of seeing the plates themselves up close, made a lasting impression on some of the youth. The plates are an important addition to BYU’s collection and are not irrelevant to the issue of ancient peoples writing on metal plates and sealing a portion thereof. These plates contained a very important message — the granting of Roman citizenship to soldiers who had served in the conquest of Romania. Other metal plates from the past have carried other important messages. Their size and shape are also not dissimilar to the size of the plates that came into Joseph Smith’s hands. There is value in object lessons. I hope that you will not approach every museum exhibit at BYU with such scepticism as to its relevance.

  4. John, even after hearing about this (which I find quite enlightening) I still am fairly skeptical as to the possible relation to Nephite plates. How exactly does Roman practice relate to Nephite practice?

    That said, I think it is wonderful that BYU has acquired the artifacts and is doing such a great job with disseminating the information regarding them.

  5. I’m struck in early Mormonism by the notion of sealed records as representing the stilling of the voices of the dead by the grave. The exegesis on Isaiah 29 is fascinating in this respect, though it proves to be much larger than just that reenvisioned scripture.

  6. And, Staples, you may want to consult the highly influential writings of Josiah Priest who offered clear evidence of the intermixing in ancient America of a rather dizzy array of visitors from the Old World. His American Antiquities is the best starting point. He is preferred as a starting point to ole Solomon Spalding because he was writing non-fiction.

  7. With my background in computer networking and security, I am intrigued by the concept of a “sealed document”, containing duplicate information that could only be opened by legal officials with witnesses involvement. Sound very much like data encryption, with certificate authorities and hash codes to authenticate the encryption and decryption have been done correctly. These are key underpinnings of ecommerce and online banking, for example, or of transmitting documents electronically, and verifying that they have not been tampered with in transit.

    Thanks for an interesting perspective for me on the “sealed” portion of the Book of Mormon, Liz!

  8. Kevinf – From what I know, which is admittedly little, it was a lot like data encryption. There’s apparently a pattern of similar systems with clay tablets, scrolls, and sealed letters. It was the main way of verifying business transactions.

    Which sort of answers Stapley’s quip–sealed documents were a common practice throughout the ancient world dating back to before Lehi left. Admittedly, I’m not sure how far back the specific tradition of metal plates goes, but similar document verification practices would have been taken with Nephi to the new world. John Walsh also related this whole issue to some things in 1 & 2 Nephi–for instance Nephi’s duplication of his record, albeit in an abridged format, and the need for having witnesses.

  9. I’m always skeptical of appeals to the unitary “ancient” world. Rome wasn’t a player in 600 BC, right?

    On the other hand, it sounds like a fascinating exhibit.

  10. Liz,

    I’ve since followed the links, and it really does look similar to using a hash code to guarantee authenticity. Anytime you download software, you not only get the program, but an embedded encrypted value, called a hash code. After the program is downloaded, the same set of instructions is run to produce a new hash code, and it is compared to the original. If the hash codes match, the download was successful, and from the intended source. In some instances, a certificate authority verifies the authenticity of keys and controls the distribution of the keys used.

    All of these encryption schemes are based on sometimes ancient cipher schemes, dating back to Roman times at least. Most of the types of modern algorithms were developed by the 19th century, and have only increased in complexity due to the advent of faster and better computers.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for this report, and for the link to the website, which I had not seen.

    Anyone interested in this should consult the following:

    John W. Welch and Kelsey D. Lambert, “Two Ancient Roman Plates,” BYU Studies 45/2 (2006): 54-76.

    Michael J. Dorais and Garret L. Hart, “A Metallurgical Provenance Study of the Marcus Herennius Military Diploma,” BYU Studies 45/2 (2006): 77-87.

    John W. Welch, “Doubled, Sealed, Witnessed Documents: From the Ancient World to the Book of Mormon,” in Davis Bitton, ed., Mormons, Scripture, and the Ancient World (Provo: FARMS, 1998), 391-444.

  12. Interesting stuff, Liz. Thanks for sharing the links and your synopsis.

  13. Hello, Liz! What an interesting topic. I must admit that I’ve walked past the exhibit dozens of times and wondered what possessed the higher-ups to endorse such a display (especially one featuring a teaser video comprised of Seminary video extras dashing around in cheesy “Roman-era” costumes). Your post was certainly enlightening! Thanks for the new perspective and the excuse to spend some time at the library. I’ll have to check it out sometime.

  14. I think the reason some apologists raise examples like this isn’t to demonstrate causation but to make a claim about more general cultural trends in the ancient near east. They are, by their very nature, more ambiguous than finding it among ancient Israelites of course. But then actual evidence of what pre-Babylonian Israelites did is astoundingly difficult to find in practice. A lot of theories are made from very little direct evidence.

  15. “…more general cultural trends in the ancient near east…”

    Clark, this is the kind of claim that makes me very nervous. Rome during its high period wasn’t even part of the ancient near east, for example.

  16. JNS,
    You can let evidence from an unrelated place act as a catalyst for discussing evidence from somewhere else. So, for my dissertation on Babylonian slavery (600-400 BC) I am using some of the framework used for Roman law. Ancient legal historians do this all the time. There were sealed documents in the 1st millennium BC Near East for sure. It’s just that the Roman plates look cooler than, say, a cuneiform tablet.

  17. Marginscribbles says:

    Last year I came across an exhibit in the Louvre in Paris which displayed copper/bronze, silver, and gold plates full of writing, dated 713-706 BC, from Khorsabad. You can see a reasonable quality photo of the gold plate at

    I certainly am no scholar of this period, but Sargon II (721-705) is mentioned in Isaiah 20:1 and is thought to have led the Israelites into exile after the fall of Samaria. Given that these artifacts are from his palace, the possibility of bronze/brass and gold plates from his kingdom being introduced into the Jewish world that Lehi/Nephi knew seems quite feasible. Still doesn’t indicate that Israelites used gold plates, but clear evidence that those who they are in (forced and regular) contact with did.

  18. Ronan, thanks for that perspective. That is what I was hoping for.