I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents

I remember when I was in seminary having learned that the English BoM translates back into Hebrew smoothly and easily, like slipping a hand into a glove. This was taken as evidence that the English BoM came from Hebrew in the first place. I’ve heard this idea repeated my whole life. It derives in the first instance from Herman Miller, the first translator of the BoM into Hebrew, and was popularized by Sidney B. Sperry.

Well, this past week I read four different Hebrew translations of 1 Nephi 1:1 (Miller’s from 1922, Yonatan Shunary’s from 1981, The Chronicles of the Nephites from 1988, and Tom Irvine’s from 2007). And I”m here to tell you that translating the English BoM into Hebrew isn’t like cutting into butter. It is probably just about as difficult and challenging as translating that book into any other language. To illustrate the challenges, consider the opening (and surely most read) words of the book:

Nephi. How should we spell this name? Of the four translations, there are three different spellings. The two most recent translations are into Modern Hebrew, and both spell the name nun-seghol-peh-yod. My background is in the biblical, not modern form of the language, and I used to think Chronicles was mistaken in not including a chireq under the peh, and that Irvine simply followed that mistake. But I have recently learned more about the differences between Biblical and Modern Hebrew, and I now think this is simply a reflection of modern transliteration conventions that attempt to represent the spelling of foreign words. Thus, the final yod without a preceding chireq is simply an attempt to represent the final “i” of the name Nephi. This is the same kind of transliteration methodology that would be applied to representing names like Tommy, Steve, or Kevin for that matter. In other words, Nephi is treated as a foreign name. There is no attempt to represent what the ancient spelling of the name in a Hebrew text might have been. Shunary does represent the chireq and is the spelling I would have assumed. Miller inexplicably represents the name as Nepho (pronounced neh-FOH). I wish I knew what he was smoking when he came up with that one.

Knowing how to represent the name in Hebrew would be a lot easier if we knew what language the name Nephi comes from and what its etymology is. There have been both Semitic[1] and Egyptian[2] suggestions, but no certainty. Therefore, all we can do is make our best guess for how to spell the name in Hebrew letters. Personally, I prefer Shunary’s spelling (but comparing Biblical and Modern Hebrew is in many respects comparing apples and oranges).

having been born. The English text of the BoM is characterized by lots of long sentences with complicated subordinate clauses; 1 Nephi 1:1 is an excellent illustration of this. Hebrew style, however, requires more coordination than subordination. Miller, Shunary and Irvine all translated with Hebrew expressions that we would reverse translate simply as “I was born,” and not “having been born.” Were I translating this, I would do the same. (Chronicles seems to punt on this point and simply describes Nephi as ben, “son of….”)

goodly. I was curious how these translations would deal with the relatively recent modern debate over the meaning of the word “goodly,” as to whether it is a faux archaism for “good” or an actual archaism for something like “possessed of goods”; i.e., “affluent.” This has been discussed a number of times on the Nacle; see for instance here. (Personally, I am open minded but agnostic on the issue. My working assumption is that it means “good,” but I am open to the other reading. I just don’t think it has been demonstrated yet.) The two modern translations both rendered “good.” Miller evaded the issue by inserting his own nuance with nikbadim “honored,” and Shunary just followed Miller and used the same word. It’s tough to translate an English word when you’re not even sure what it is supposed to mean.

parents. This is a surprising challenge to deal with, because there isn’t a word for “parents” in Biblical Hebrew. (If you do a search on parent in the KJV OT, you’ll see the word never appears in that entire literature.) This isn’t a problem for the modern translations, since Modern Hebrew has since supplied a word for parents, horim. Chronicles oddly has “I, Nephi, son of good ones (good parents).” Why they felt the need to put “good parents” in a parenthetical is beyond me. Irvine has “I, Nephi, was born of good parents.” Since Modern Hebrew has filled in this linguistic lacuna, it is not a problem for these modern translations. But what about the Biblical Hebrew translations?

Miller has something like “I, Nephi, was born beside honored fathers (aboth),” using the plural of ab “father.” This is in many ways a reasonable approach, since linguistically a masculine plural of such a word can be understood as including the feminine, and this usage for “parents” is indeed attested in Modern Hebrew. The problem is that such a usage is simply unattested in the Hebrew of the Bible, and the plural form aboth is quite common. Presented as Biblical Hebrew to someone who did not already know the BoM story, the reader would understand Nephi to be saying he was descended from honorable male ancestors, in a tribal sense. I suspect this is why Miller employed the (at first blush odd) conjunction etsel “beside”; I think the idea was to try to limit the “fathers” to Nephi’s most immediate and present forebearers, namely, his parents.

Shunary is supposed to be writing in Biblical Hebrew, but he just gives up and uses the modernism holim: “I, Nephi, was born to honored parents.” (His use of modernisms in what was supposed to be a biblical translation was controversial at the time.)

Who would have thought that something so seemingly simple as rendering the English word “parents” would have been such a challenge? Yet stumblingblocks like this lurked at almost every turn.

Please understand that none of this necessarily means the BoM is not a translation from Hebrew, but if it is, the language has been sufficiently anglicized in the translation process that it is no easier to render it back into Hebrew than it would be to render it into any other language.

[1] Paul Y. Hoskisson, “What’s in a Name?” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9/2 (2000), here.

[2] John Gee, “A Note on the Name Nephi,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 1/1 (1992), here, as supplemented by John Gee, “Four Suggestions on the Name Nephi,” in John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne, Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon (Provo: FARMS, 1999).


  1. nice.

  2. Nice. I’m looking forward to the follow-up post, “And my father dwelt in a tent.”

  3. Fascinating. I’m very much looking forward to your paper.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    OK, this will freak you out. What if Nephi really wrote aboth “fathers” and really meant his male ancestors in a tribal sense, his progenitors of the tribe of Manasseh? And what if Joseph, in translating that into English was influenced by his own culture to render “parents” in a nuclear family sense?

    That’s enough to blow your mind.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Actually, Kaimi, that expression is repeated several times in what appears to be a formulaic fashion. [Kent Brown is the one who first pointed that out to me.] So one actually could write a little paper on that sentence!

  6. You rock, Kev (#4). That’s what one would actually expect to see in the manuscript, isn’t it?

  7. I think there is real merit in the “goodly means affluent” argument. The discussion is of “goodly parents” – “therefore” being “taught in all the learning of my father” – which includes the “language of the Egyptians”. The “goodly” is tied directly to the “learning” (including the unique access to Egyptian) – not to any personal characteristic of virtue.

    BTW, a further complication would be the learning of the Jews being expressed in the language of the Egyptians. Which parts in the translation reflect the learning of the Jews, and which parts had to be altered slightly and/or condensed in order to render them in the Egyptian? Was Joseph translating the plates directly from the Reformed Egyptian, or was he translating back to the original Jewish meaning behind the engraved words?

    Anyone know the answer to the last question? I have no idea.

  8. Ray,

    We debated that goodly=wealthy connection about a year ago here. I personally don’t buy it but others do.

    Kevin — Your #4 is a cool idea.

  9. Ray, I follow something like Kevin’s mixed translation/expansion theory, but in any case, Joseph didn’t really look at the plates during translation. All the translation accounts that I remember note that he simply dictated the text. I don’t think Joseph was cognizant of the linguistic mechanics.

  10. Eric Russell says:

    The problem with the goodly as wealthy theory is that, in the English language, goodly doesn’t mean wealthy, nor did it ever. That kind of throws a wrench into things.

  11. #9 – I know about the method, and I doubt JS was aware of the linguistics as he translated, but I wasn’t sure if he said anything about it at any point later. I figured maybe Justin was aware of some obscure quote about it.

  12. Smith never claimed to retrieve the Hebrew. The only claims he made were that he decoded the hieroglyphs. it’s extreme to say he never looked at the plates. he clearly did. but the connection between the glyphs and the bulk of the translation is complex; the accounts we have are inconsistent but do suggest some kind of hieroglyphic decoding, though I argue that in general for Smith hieroglyphs were a special type of relic rather than a simple linguistic object.

    as for dwell in a tent, i’m pretty sure Nibley strongly emphasized it as suggesting a near eastern provenance.

  13. #8 – Thanks. That was an interesting discussion – and it highlights my point, I think. The meaning of “goodly” is not cut and dried.

    #10 – dictionary.com lists three sources. Each one of them lists a variation of the following as the first definition:

    “of good or substantial size, amount, etc.: a goodly sum.” Given that definition, “goodly parents” easily could mean “parents of substantial size, amount” – or “wealth”. It is the “therefore” linked to learning a foreign language that stands out to me.

    I don’t feel strongly enough about this to insist on it, but I don’t think it can be dismissed easily.

  14. #12 – Nibley also used the tent description to argue for a wealthy traveling merchant who was able and prepared to pack and move his family at a moment’s notice.

    I know this is a threadjack, but it’s interesting.

  15. Eric Russell says:

    Ray, I looked through all the examples given in the OED for that instance of the word and couldn’t find any that were synonymous with wealthy.

    So while it’s possible, so far as I can tell it’s unprecedented.

  16. BTW, how is the issue of spelling Nephi’s name in Hebrew affected if it was Egyptian-based? I’ve heard that argument before (Nibley, perhaps); it’s in the thread that Geoff linked; it makes sense. Again, I’m not convinced to the point where I would argue about it, but how would it affect the spelling in Hebrew if it isn’t a Hebrew-based name?

  17. Sam, I think that he definitely was quite cognizant of the plates and their hieroglyphs (the Anthon interaction being quite illustrative). I note that you state that it is complex, which is fair, but I am interested in your perspective on Smith’s use during the dictation of the Book of Mormon.

  18. Kevin Barney says:

    You know, some time someone really needs to do a print article on the whole goodly thing. There has been a huge amount of discussion of it, but almost all of that has been on the internet. There have been a lot of good arguments made from various perspectives, but it is kind of tough to find it all because the arguments are spread out all over the web. I think it would be great if someone would sort through the arguments in a piece for, say, the JBMS.

  19. Kevin Barney says:

    Ray, I’m partial to Gee’s argument that Nephi derives in some way from Egyptian nfr “good.” (Hoskisson seems to pooh pooh that possibility.) The “r” looks to be an impediment, but Gee shows that in Coptic texts Egyptian nfr was vocalized as noufi.

  20. “parents of substantial size, amount”


  21. Not to mention Nephi is in the Apocrypha as a transliteration of Naptha, so it could also be related to that word origin…

  22. And my father dwelt in a tent

    I wrote a post by that topic recently, FWIW…not a paper by any means (this post is more in brain-dump mode), but I found the study interesting anyway.

  23. #20, “I, Nephi, being exceedingly young, nevertheless being large in stature…”

    and now we know Nephi’s Frieburg muscles were inherited.

  24. #20 – Yeah, that thought crossed my mind, but I just can’t picture Sariah as an Amazon warrior. I can see Lehi as a large, over-bearing man, but that’s a different discussion altogether.

  25. I know almost nothing about Hebrew (biblical or otherwise) but I was speaking with a Hebrew Bible professor in my wife’s department the other day. He had previously read some parts in the BoM and seemed to think that it had a Hebrew “rhythm” to its prose. I am not sure how to take that, especially in light of the whole “reformed Egyptian” thing, but I guess the reform could have been the use of Egyptian characters and Hebrew syntax. I am sure someone smarter and more literate in these things than I has already posited such a theory (or something like it).

  26. Joe Geisner says:

    Thank you Kevin. This is a very interesting post and I have learned a great deal from your comments.

    I am curious Kevin if you have been able to include in your research John Walker’s A KEY TO THE CLASSICAL PRONUNCIATION OF GREEK, LATIN, AND SCRIPTURE PROPER NAMES, published in 1823? Walker has the reference to the Apocryphal name Nephi on pg. 81. It uses the same pronunciation rule “Ne´ phi” which is used by us today.

    Rick Grunder has detailed this in his Mormon Parallel’s in M.P. 453. I seems that this could mean Nephi fits in to Greek or Latin better than Egyptian?

  27. Why do we care at all about Hebrew when it comes to “translation” of the BOM? I am not as well read as all of you, but I am not aware of any evidence, either in the BOM itself, or from comments of others that would suggest that there was anything other than “reformed Egyptian” on the plates. Or is this a subtle argument against the primary language of the Nephites being Hebrew, because if the various writers spoke/wrote Hebrew, translated their thoughts to “reformed Egyptian” which was then “translated” by JS into English, it should be easier than it is to get back to Hebrew?

    Smith never claimed to retrieve the Hebrew. The only claims he made were that he decoded the hieroglyphs. it’s extreme to say he never looked at the plates. he clearly did. but the connection between the glyphs and the bulk of the translation is complex; the accounts we have are inconsistent but do suggest some kind of hieroglyphic decoding, though I argue that in general for Smith hieroglyphs were a special type of relic rather than a simple linguistic object.

    Sam, all the accounts of “translation” I am aware of (those cited in RSR) claim that after Olivery Cowdrey became scribe in 1828 the plates always sat covered on the table or somewhere else in the house (and, if you believe JS’s father-in-law, sometimes buried in the woods) during the time of “translation”/transcription. Can you elaborate further as to why you believe JS was doing any type of “decoding”?

    Wouldn’t we be better off if we stopped thinking about translation at all, and accept that the BOM came through a revelatory process and not one of translation? Maybe we should think about the plates in the same manner that most now think about the papyri that prompted the BOA?

  28. Kevin,

    My understanding (very little and imcomplete, I am sure) is that the Pentateuch didn’t come together as a book of scripture until after the return of Judah to Jerusalem in the late 6th centure BCE. This process was one of scribes correlating both written and oral traditions and essentially codifying the history/myths of Israel.

    My knowledge of linguistics is essentially nil, so I have to ask. Is this the time to which biblical Hebrew can be traced, or is it more ancient (or more modern)? If it can only be traced to the late 6th century BCE or later, is it possible that between the time Lehi left Jerusalem and the return of Babylon that Hebrew changed enough that the Hebrew you are trying translate the BOM into is not the Hebrew that Lehi and his family were using?

  29. I’ve been arguing for some time now against the entire notion that we should expect Hebrew elements in the Book of Mormon. I am mystified as to why this expectation is so pervasive. I can discern nothing (aside from Moroni’s passing lament that acknowledges his and his father’s familiarity with Hebrew) that would suggest a dominant role for Hebrew among the Lehites. To the contrary, every reference to their language, both in terms of Lehi’s “fathers” and its preservation to his “children”, is Egyptian.

    Nevertheless, it almost seems to have become axiomatic that we should look for Hebrew elements in the Book of Mormon. To me, this is a mistake that willfully defies the book’s authors own statements about their language.

  30. Kevin Barney says:

    We don’t really know what the original languages of the BoM were. LDS scholars have debated these points.

    One school of thought championed by Nibley is that Reformed Egyptian originated simply as Egyptian.

    Another school of thought championed by Sperry is that Reformed Egyptian originated as Hebrew transliterated into Egyptian.

    Whatever the origins of the language, it experienced about a millennium of linguistic evolution and development coupled with substantial creolization with New World languages.

  31. Kevin (#30):

    Of course, you make a valid observation about the possibility of the creolization of language over the course of time. However, there is a constant element that weaves its way through BoM history: the plates of brass. Indeed, their very purpose seems to have been (in addition to preserving the “Law” and the prophecies) to preserve “the language of the fathers” down through the generations. Midway through the millennium to which you refer, we find King Benjamin teaching his three sons to be “men of learning” in order to read the plates of brass. So, regardless of what form the common language took in 130 B.C., it would appear that the study and knowledge of the Egyptian on the plates of brass was still of paramount importance.

    For it were not possible that our father, Lehi, could have remembered all these things, to have taught them to his children, except it were for the help of these plates; for he having been taught in the language of the Egyptians therefore he could read these engravings, and teach them to his children, that thereby they could teach them to their children … even down to this present time.

    As for the Sperry school of thought, I have never been able to ascertain upon what basis they justify an argument for Hebrew transliterated into Egyptian. I assume it all goes back to the statement of Nephi:

    Yea, I make a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians.

    I’ve just never thought this statement could be reasonably interpreted in a manner to suggest the conclusion being advanced.

    To me, old Ocham’s Razor seems to dictate that, if Nephi says he’s writing in Egyptian, and if Benjamin says the plates of brass are written in Egyptian, we should simply take them at their word and not try to layer any unwarranted complications onto the question.

  32. The evolution of Japanese as a written language is a fascinating example of something similar. It easily can be classified as “Reformed Chinese”.

    What is most interesting to me is that spoken Chinese and spoken Japanese are as different from each other as they are from English. Also, while many of the modern Japanese characters that originated from the Chinese are still identical to the original, many of them have been simplified so much over the centuries that many Chinese wouldn’t recognize them anymore in isolation, out of written context. When you add the two alphabetic systems in Japanese (that designate conjugation forms, articles, punctuation, etc. and spell foreign words) that do not exist in Chinese, you end up with something very similar to what I envision with Reformed Egyptian.

  33. Kevin Barney says:

    Will, yes, the Sperry approach in the first instance starts from that statement in 1 Nephi.

    Also, there has been an absolutely huge literature on Hebraisms in the BoM, starting even before Sperry. The existence of this literature has been influential in the argument.

    Of course, most BoM Hebraisms would also be “Egyptianisms,” but historically a lot more people have known Hebrew than have known Egyptian, and as they say if all you have is a hammer then everything starts to look like a nail.

  34. Kevin: I remember speaking with the gentleman that was hired by the Church to do the original translation of the Book of Mormon into Hebrew. He had the same reaction — he told me that it had to be in Hebrew originally because of the construction and ease of translation. If I recall his last name was Hanna or something like that. He joined the Church. Do you recall his name and are you familiar with these events?

  35. One thing I have been seeking — so far pretty much in vain — is some scholarly reference to the extent of Israelite (northern Kingdom) repatriation (as it were) in Egypt during the period immediately preceding the Assyrian conquest.

    We, of course, have all the references in the OT. And those are good because they definitely show that there was an Egyptian orientation among those who would have been inclined to flee. And, if we assume that the plates of brass originated with Joseph in Egypt and were passed down through his lineage, and were greatly valued by their possessors, it is logical that they would have viewed a refuge in Egypt as a means by which the plates could be protected.

    Of course, the question becomes: why would Israelites maintain, with great difficulty, a record of their scriptures, written in Egyptian, and inscribed on metallic plates? I think there are logical reasons why this would be. Of course, Ephraim and Manasseh would have both been native Egyptian speakers. And, it could be logically concluded, their descendants for many, many generations would have been native Egyptian speakers — at least until the Exodus. Indeed, after 400 years living in Egypt, who among the Israelites would not have been an Egyptian speaker? Probably very few, if any. The real question is how long it would have taken before Hebrew (and/or its variants) became the lingua franca in the “Promised Land?” Even in Israel today, there is great difficulty in getting new immigrants to quickly acquire Hebrew proficiency. It takes multiple generations.

    I can also easily envision a scenario where the keepers of the plates of brass would have felt a certain scholarly snobbery about their fluency in the ancient Egyptian script of the plates. They many have regarded the language as inherently superior to the Hebrew-esque dialects being spoken by the masses, and therefore have proudly recorded their scriptures in it much as Medieval monks methodically maintained the Bible in Latin.

    In any case, it is my opinion that the Book of Mormon is all but explicit in telling us that the language of Lehi’s fathers was Egyptian. This seems to presuppose that they actually lived in Egypt. And knowing, as we do, that there were many northern Kingdom refugees in Egypt for at least a few generations before Lehi, it then becomes logical to connect the dots and accept the possibility that Lehi was an Israelite born in Egypt, undoubtedly to parents also born in Egypt. And while they undoubtedly retained their religion and cultural identity (“the learning of the Jews”), they would have been Egyptian both in language and residence, much like modern Jews in the diaspora.

  36. Kevin Barney says:

    You’re thinking of Sami Hanna. (His comments were based on Arabic rather than Hebrew.)

  37. Who (#34),

    You’re referring to the story of Sami Hanna. But your details on the story are largely inaccurate. You might want to check out this article:


  38. Kevin Barney says:

    Will, I like your scribal/intellectual snobbery argument. That’s the kind of thing we can understand and relate to even today!

  39. Will,

    Is it not conceivable that, in light of the “facts” as we understand them regarding Joseph’s translation process (revealed through the seer stone, rather than decoded), that the language was revealed to him as Mormon’s native language, which was Hebrew based? Mormon laments in several places how insufficient and cumbersome the reformed Egyptian is in expressing his ideas. Perhaps to make up for this fact the book was revealed as he would have expressed it verbally. Just a thought.

  40. MattG (#39):

    I think I can easily envision a scenario where the spoken language has evolved greatly — beyond the capability to easily express it using the archaic script they’re using on their permanent (metallic) records.

    And I don’t dispute that Mormon and Moroni obviously were at least familiar enough with Hebrew to recognize that it would have lent itself better to recording the kinds of things they were writing about. Moroni also laments his inability to write like the brother of Jared, who obviously would not have written in either Egyptian or Hebrew. I guess the bottom line is that I don’t read too much into what Moroni says about “if we could have written in Hebrew …” To me, it says nothing more than that Moroni was a multi-linguist who had a certain personal affinity for Hebrew. And this single reference to Hebrew in the entire book is simply not enough, in my estimation, to override the Egyptian predominance in every other reference to the language of the Nephites.

    As for Joseph’s translation process, I have to admit that I’m a convert to the Skousen “tight control” theories. I don’t think Joseph Smith was given anything more than just the plain English translation that appears in the first edition of the BoM. I certainly don’t believe that there was any “language” revealed to Joseph, and I don’t have any reason to believe that the language of Mormon was “Hebrew-based.” At least, I don’t know how someone could justify such a conclusion.

  41. Christian says:

    OK, this will freak you out. What if Nephi really wrote aboth “fathers” and really meant his male ancestors in a tribal sense, his progenitors of the tribe of Manasseh? And what if Joseph, in translating that into English was influenced by his own culture to render “parents” in a nuclear family sense?

    That’s enough to blow your mind.

    No, it makes sense; that was my first impression too when reading the facts in your article. The term “fathers” would be a literal translation but not convey the Nephi’s reason for why he was educated. “Ancestors” is closer to the mark, but again, doesn’t communicate the idea of the whole sentence to the reader of Joseph Smith’s time.

    What I think that your analysis is missing is that “goodly” in the language of Joseph Smith’s day, meant prosperous, didn’t it?

  42. Christian says:

    I’d inferred that the book of Mormon was written in at least one Hebrew dialect (which probably changed over the centuries) in hieratic or something like it. I just can’t resist an egyptian compact language without punctuation that has a single symbol for “and it came to pass.”

  43. Renato Marini says:

    I think the translation of JS from the plates was something like “taking 10 out of 1” process. The original language was much more compressed than our modern languages. In ancient Hebrew each letter had a meaning, so their words were like sentences for us.
    Trying to put back 10 into 1 is not at all easy, having we little knowledge of the ancient cultural meanings.
    To produce a modern Hebrew version of the BoM I would simply use modern Hebrew and forget about original language.
    I think the “Hebrew flavour” of the BoM comes from words like “I have dreamed a dream” and “I have seen a vision” where the same word is used for the action (verb) and the object of that action (noun); as far as I know, this is not done in English, but it is done in ancient Hebrew.

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