Feast upon the Word Blog

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What Are “Lawyers” in the Book of Mormon?

Posted by joespencer on February 2, 2010

Along the trajectory of a series of podcasts on Alma and Amulek that I’ve been working on (which can be downloaded here), I’ve stumbled on a question I’d never thought to ask before: What are “lawyers” in the Book of Mormon? Glancing around the obvious sources (Nibley’s writings, the Book of Mormon Reference Companion, FARMS’s various journals and resources, Signature publications that might at least shed some light on the nineteenth-century understanding of the term, etc., etc., etc.), I’m beginning to think that nobody has really raised this question in print (I did find about two pages dedicated to the subject in Jack Welch’s recent book on Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon). So I’m going to use a blog post shamelessly to generate a bit of discussion that might help me sort out the options and possibilities. What follows, then, is a brief discussion meant to provoke others to contribute their thoughts.

First, a couple of exegetical details.

The term “lawyer(s)” only appears in two narratives in the Book of Mormon. It appears first in the Alma-and-Amulek-in-Ammonihah story (eight times in Alma 10, and then five times in Alma 14), and second in the story of the illicit murder of prophets in 3 Nephi 6 (where the word appears five more times). Outside of these three chapters, the word never appears in the Book of Mormon.

A couple of questions immediately follow from these initial facts. Are “lawyers” a recent or relatively recent invention in Alma 10? Are they something that were at that time unique to Ammonihah? Are they to be connected to Nehor, who had influenced the social and religious outlook of the people of Ammonihah? And how might the destruction of Ammonihah (in one day!) have affected the craft? Does the term not appear until 3 Nephi 6 again because there was a general recognition that the “lawyers” had been a major part of the problem that led to the “desolation of the Nehors”? What led to the resumption of the practice in or before 3 Nephi 6 (if it was ever left off)? Why don’t “lawyers” appear anywhere else in the Book of Mormon?

Turning to a second set of exegetical details, it should be noted that there was a KJV precedent for the term: “lawyer” translates the Greek word nomikos whenever it appears in the New Testament (most of these appearances being in Luke). The word nomikos, however, doesn’t mean anything like what we today mean by the word “lawyer.” As most modern translations recognize, the word has reference to “experts in the law,” specifically “experts in the Law of Moses.” (Even Wycliff translated the term as “wise men of the law” long before the KJV was produced.) The “lawyers” of the Gospel of Luke are thus the “scribes” of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark (though Luke sometimes uses the word “scribes” as well).

A couple of questions follow from this point about New Testament usage. If the Book of Mormon so generally follows the KJV in its rendering, would it be profitable to assume that the term “lawyers” in the Nephite record has reference to something like the NT scribes? What was the status of the law of Moses among the Nephites, and could that status have supported this kind of usage? Would it be better, perhaps particularly given the “rule of law” that seems to have been instituted with the cessation of the reign of Mosiah, to associate these “lawyers” with the law of Mosiah (rather than with the law of Moses)? In fact, does the simple pairing of Nephite “lawyers” with judges (both in Alma 10-14 and in 3 Nephi 6) suggest that the usage is at some distance from the New Testament?

This calls for a third set of exegetical details. When the “lawyers” are introduced for the first time in Alma 10, they are described as “lawyers, who were hired or appointed by the people to administer the law at their times of trials, or at the trials of the crimes of the people before the judges” (Alma 10:14). The really odd thing about this description is that the lawyers seem to have an official function: they administer the law. A quick Google Book search for the phrase “administer the law” in publications from 1750-1850 makes clear that as much in Joseph Smith’s time as in our own, “administering the law” is an official function, usually associated with the judicial apparatus. This has led Jack Welch (in the two pages I mentioned above) to the conclusion that the Ammonihahite “lawyers” are functionaries of the state, likely legal experts of some kind or another. (Welch argues that “lawyers” must be distinguished from “judges” and “officers,” two other titles that appear alongside of “lawyers” in the Book of Mormon. But if one assumes that Nephite judges are something like judges today—which may be a problematic assumption—and that Nephite officers were something like today’s court officials, one can only wonder what function the “lawyers” had. The whole legal complex in the Nephite system needs to be carefully analyzed.)

A few consequent questions follow. Is there any non-official way to make sense of the phrase “administer the law”? If there isn’t, should one presume that the people of Ammonihah had locally expanded the judicial/legal apparatus officially organized by Mosiah? Is it possible that the Nephite judges served in a broader capacity than do judges today, and so that they were hiring out “lawyers” to take care of what we would today regard as their strictly judicial work (this seems to be implied by the strange relationship between the talk of “lawyers” in Alma 10 and the explanation of the judges’ pay in Alma 11)? How would such an expansion have been related to the Ammonihahites’ studies “to destroy the liberty of th[e] people” (Alma 8:17)?

A fourth exegetical approach deserves attention. Hugh Nibley, in one of the few printed discussions of the Nephite “lawyers” (it is found in his four semesters of Teachings of the Book of Mormon), suggests that the “lawyers” were something like ancient Athens’ sophists, against which Plato had to wage constant philosophical battle. In other words, he suggests that the “lawyers” were the direct cultural descendants of Nehor, a traveling teacher who garnered a good deal of money by instructing others in the art of rhetoric. Perhaps supporting Nibley’s interpretation is Alma 10:15: “these lawyers were learned in all the arts and cunning of the people; and this was to enable them that they might be skilful in their profession.” Nibley’s case is thus that the “lawyers” were teachers of youth or instructors in rhetoric who had come to be popular and successful enough in Ammonihah that they had come to command the interpretation of the law, and so were hired out for official functions.

A few other questions need to be listed. What is ultimately meant by the phrase “the arts and cunning of the people”? Whether or not it is appropriate to compare the “lawyers” to the Greek sophists specifically, might Nibley nonetheless be quite right about the connection with Nehor, about the process of increased popularity, and about the consequent official installation of the “lawyers” in the judicial apparatus? If the “lawyers” were merely functionaries of the state, as in Welch’s approach, why would their profession call for “all the arts and cunning of the people”? If these words do not point to the sophistic enterprise, might they suggest that it is worth thinking of Nephite “lawyers” as something similar to today’s lawyers (and so of “administering the law” as just a sloppily employed phrase that should actually be read as “arguing about the law before the judge”)?

All of the above are pathways worth treading. I haven’t here even really begun to raise questions about Alma 14 or 3 Nephi 6. But I want to see if this can’t generate some discussion. Thoughts, everyone? Does any of the above have particular purchase? What other approaches might there be to the question of the Nephite “lawyers”?

12 Responses to “What Are “Lawyers” in the Book of Mormon?”

  1. Nitsav said

    Excellent work. I’ve asked this question myself, but never vocalized my questions quite so clearly.

  2. RobF said

    Joe, I like these questions. For further enlightenment I think we should also to look at Mesoamerican legal systems (see a bibliography here). The Aztecs provide a post-Book of Mormon time period example that might preserve or echo earlier practices–while this article claims that lawyers did not appear in Aztec courts, but friends could “bring a friend or relative to help plead their case,” the Florentine Codex clearly shows attorneys and describes them here.

    Lots more to look at in this context, including the status of attorneys within the stratified Mesoamerican nobility. You raise the prospect of the Nehors–something we still know precious little about, but clearly a huge key to understanding what the Nephite prophets and rulers were up against within their surrounding culture.

    Once again, I plead for more Mesoamericanists!

  3. Robert C. said

    Joe, great questions. I’ve wondered about a related issues pertaining to the use of the term “priestcraft” which occurs in 2 Nephi, and Alma 1 (re Nehor), but then not again until 3 Nephi. I’m inclined to think that the meaning of the term “priestcraft” becomes muddled after the reign of the judges begins when a secular-religious split seems to occur. That is, before there were lawyers, there were those who practiced priestcraft. However, with the rise of a society that tolerated pluralism, the sinful connotations of priestcraft were no longer relevant. And so, the modern term “lawyer” is apt in this sense: it is not a sin to teach secular topics and to be paid for it, as it is with religious teachings, though there is a kind of sinful danger associated with the rise of class distinctions, etc. that were also not really existent (at least in the same way) before what was effectively the rise of the secular state among the Nephites.

    But really, I think the first question to work through has to do with this rise of the secular state, as I’ve termed it, more generally. I haven’t thought or studied this larger question all that much, so I’m anxious to hear others’ thoughts on this broader topic also….

  4. RobF said

    Not sure how much we can really take the Mosiahan reforms to indicate a secular-religious split, or what those reforms really actually meant in terms of a change in governance of Nephite society–and they were surrounded by other societies and claims to alternative leadership–so it was a volatile situation. Perhaps the “priestcrafts” refer to priests operating within traditional stratified Mesoamerican social systems dominated by divine rulers and their priests, as opposed to a more rank or tribal Nephite society in the time of the Nephis up through Mosiah? As Nephite societies became more stratified in the time of Mosiah, encompassing multiple hierarchically organized cities rather than one major city (Nephi or later, Zarahemla), perhaps they converged more with their surrounding Mesoamerican societies. More than anything else, Mosiah seems to have tried to institute a new model of government to rule multiple cities, and to avert Mulekite claims to rulership in the absence of a legitimate Nephite hereditary ruler (his sons having abdicated the “kingdom”). Whatever “lawyers” are, I think we have to see them in light of these changes that took place in Nephite society and the interactions with competing regimes and neighboring polities.

  5. RobF said “Once again, I plead for more Mesoamericanists!”


    As to the discussion at hand, I am very inclined to believe the translation say’s lawyers precisely because the function, while allowing for some cultural diffrences from our own, is decidedly the closest possible equivalent.

    Joe asked, “why would their profession call for “all the arts and cunning of the people”?”

    In the realm of ancient peoples/even pre-televised people the man who speak well, wins their hearts. I am suggesting this in contrast to pre-packaged speeches and makeup and spin-doctoring of today. Yes the concepts are the same as they ever were but I am talking about a man who can say witty things on the spur of the moment, a great orator etc. An example of the Lincoln/Douglas debates are the absoltue exception, not the rule.

    A great book of Mormon lawyer who could speak flatteringly (this is everywhere in the B of M) would/could/did manipulate the people for their own ends. Of course he would have to up onthe latest of fashions, art, expressions and concerns of the day. He would have to speak very well and look good doing it.

  6. joespencer said

    Nitsav, thanks. :)

    Despite justified misgivings, I’d like to see in greater detail what you’re thinking about here, Robert. I’ve toyed around with a kind of “postmodernization” of Nephite culture in the Book of Helaman period, but I’m intrigued. What more can you say about your ideas here?

    Rob, your helpful links, etc., remind me that I should have looked at Brant Gardner’s commentary before writing this post. I’ll be up at the library this afternoon, and I’ll see if he has anything to say about Mesoamerican connections while I’m there.

    I think I’m inclined to agree, David, that the question of “arts and cunning” points inevitably in the direction of “lawyers” meaning something akin to our own (or at least the nineteenth century’s) conception of “lawyers,” though that leaves us to grapple with the language of “administering the law.” I’ll have more to say on all this soon, I hope.

  7. I guess I would still think that “administering the law” is what he does-in that he cites precedant cases and judgments to the gathered audience but most especially to the judge.

    Seems the judges are the final say-there are no mentioned juries, so perhaps the lawyers are administering the law but (I’ll bet) using rhetoric as Nibley suggested to sway their sides of each case. And of course the better the lawyer, the more expensive he becomes until Nephite law could largely be a travesty of who can pay for the best lawyer.

    This only makes me think on how much stronger the messages/lessons of the Book of Mormon strikes us deeper today, it has more resonance with today than it would have in Joseph’s. Comparitively we are a very litigious society in contrast to the founding of the Churchs era. Perhaps I ought to explore Nephite lawyers sueing “Church Members” into the poorhouse in my fiction.
    Thanks for making me think of more angles, Joe.

  8. kirkcaudle said

    This is excellent Joe, and I hope these questions lead us in some worthwhile directions (as they already are).

    I really like what Nibley has to say about lawyers in terms of them being like the Sophists. I would tend to agree. I also like what he says about them being descendants of Nehor. The lawyers as descendants of Nehor brings me to a theory that lawyers acted somewhat as a Lehite Sanhedrin.

    Now I understand that the Sanhedrin was a post-exilic Hellenistic invention of the Jews, so I am not saying the two are perfecting linked, but I am suggesting they make have a few of the same functions.

    Because lawyers came from Nehor, I would assume they carried a modest amount of learning in the realm of theology. The lawyers also appear to have some say in serious political matters. However, like the Sanhedrin, their power only extended so far, they were a government within a government. Unlike the Sanhedrin, the people elected the lawyers, so I would assume the theology of the lawyers would reflect the majority of the voting population.

    -Does the term not appear until 3 Nephi 6 again because there was a general recognition that the “lawyers” had been a major part of the problem that led to the “desolation of the Nehors”? What led to the resumption of the practice in or before 3 Nephi 6 (if it was ever left off)?

    If am a going to follow my Sanhedrin theory then I would say the lawyers survived only as they were relgiously and politically able to survive (they would need both). The Jewish Sanhedrin disappeared and then reappeared quite a few times for nearly 2,000 years! Even Napolean took a shot a reviving it.

  9. joespencer said

    Interesting further thoughts, David and Kirk.

    I did a little looking in Gardner’s commentary yesterday. He suggests that the term “lawyer” must be read in light of the New Testament usage of the same term, and hence interprets them to be “scribes.” He then gives a bit of background about the scribal traditions among the Maya, suggesting that the lawyers in the Book of Mormon have so much sway because they would have been part of the nobility, etc.

    I think I find myself, for now, settling down somewhere in the middle of all the positions set forth: I like Welch’s idea that they are actual functionaries of the state; I like Nibley’s reading that connects them to the Nehor sophistics; I like Rob’s interpretation of them as actual lawyers, though in a culture we aren’t nearly so familiar with; I like David’s interpretation of them as actual lawyers, though in a culture and setting we should be familiar with today; I like Robert’s emphasis on the possibility of a rise of secular culture after the dismantling of the (sacral?) kingship; and I like Kirk’s parallel with the Jewish Sanhedrin.

    I assume, in the end, that the Ammonihahite model would have differed in important ways from all of these, simply because it was unique to Nephite culture, and perhaps to one city within Nephite culture. But I think that all of these ideas likely are helpful for making sense of the role of the lawyers.

    What more?

  10. FMaxwell said

    I’m not sure that looking at the way “lawyer” is used in the New Testament is the right way to understand “lawyers” in the Book of Alma. Alma 10:26 and 11:20 indicate that the lawyers of Ammonihah were directly involved in conflict resolution (and conflict generation, as well). 11:20 even refers to “suits”, which sounds like lawsuits. Were the “lawyers/experts of the law of Moses” in the N.T. employed in these type of activities? If not, then Gardner might be wrong in equating Ammonihahite lawyers with N.T. scribes.

    In regard to the phrase “administer the law”, I’d be curious to find out how that English phrase was used in the 1500s & 1600s, in connection with Royal Skousen’s conclusion that the Book of Mormon vocabulary seems to derive from those eras, and not from the 1800s. Could it be that “administer the law” is the equivalent of today’s lawyers being “officers of the court” today even if they’re not technically employees of the court? And being officers of the court does not prevent today’s lawyers from “getting gain according to their employ.”

    It’s interesting to note that during the first century B.C., lawyers in Rome were already charging fees to plead their client’s cases — overlapping the corresponding time period in Ammonihah and Nephitedom. Maybe the word “lawyer” is used in the Book of Alma because it’s the modern term which best describes what they did. So perhaps even though a Nephite “horse” was not what we’d call a horse, a Nephite “lawyer” was indeed what we’d call a lawyer.

  11. joespencer said


    (1) I’m inclined with you against the NT connection, for the reasons you mention along with others.

    (2) Nice point about looking at 1500s/1600s uses of the phrase “administer the law.” I’ll do some checking on that possibility. Obviously, Google Book is less helpful for material that old. But I’ll see if the OED can’t help on that point.

    (3) Nice point also about Roman lawyers. My suspicion has come to be that the Nephite “lawyers” were something not unlike (but not exactly like) today’s “lawyers, but as you make clear, there are avenues still to be explored in thinking about all this.

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