Evidence #3 | September 19, 2020

Doubled Documents

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Scripture Central


Several lines of evidence help identify the Book of Mormon as a doubled, sealed, and witnessed document, similar to many such documents that can be found throughout the ancient world.

Ancient Doubled Documents

In antiquity, the practice of “doubling” a document (creating a second copy of it for safe keeping) was widespread and could be used in a variety of official or legal contexts.1 The earliest known instances of this phenomenon are found in cuneiform legal tablets from Mesopotamia, showing up in the textual record as early as 2900 BC.2

Encased cuneiform tablet. Image via Wikipedia.

The first part of these documents was typically impressed into clay with a wood or reed stylus. But because “it would have been easy to add or subtract from the contract before it dried out, a second lump of clay was formed into a case tablet” which was folded around the first tablet.3 In these examples, the seal and inscription of the second document was a verbatim copy of the first, so if any dispute arose about the contents of the outer tablet, it could be broken open and then compared with the inner one.4

Similar doubling practices using a variety of materials were later used in other literary cultures. As explained by ancient legal scholar John W. Welch, “Double documents could be inscribed in various fashions on papyrus, parchment, metal tablets, or clay-case tablets. Although the particular details of implementation varied to suit the available writing media and sealing materials, the underlying concepts remained essentially the same.”5 The secondary document often contained the exact same content as the primary or sealed document, but in many cases the secondary or outer document was shorter, functioning as an abridgment of the sealed portion.6

Knowledge of doubled documents comes from both archaeological remains and textual evidence.7 A key example derived from textual data can be seen the writings of the prophet Jeremiah. To reinforce his prophecies about the eventual revitalization of Israel (despite the impending Babylonian invasion), Jeremiah purchased a field in the land of Benjamin. He described the legal deed to this purchase as being composed of two parts—one part “sealed” and the other part “open”:

So I took the evidence of the purchase, both that which was sealed according to the law and custom, and that which was open …. Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel; Take these evidences, this evidence of the purchase, both which is sealed, and this evidence which is open; and put them in an earthen vessel, that they may continue many days. (Jeremiah 32:11–14)

While there remain many questions about the exact nature of Jeremiah’s deed,8 it shows that doubled documents were a part of the Israelite textual and legal culture as early as the sixth century BC. Another biblical example of what appears to have been a doubled document, with writing on the inside and the outside, comes from Ezekiel 2:9–10: “And when I looked, behold, an hand was sent unto me; and, lo, a roll of a book was therein; And he spread it before me; and it was written within and without: and there was written therein lamentations, and mourning, and woe.” Eventually, the practice of doubling documents “expanded into the Hellenistic world and throughout the Roman Empire.”9 

Ancient Sealed Documents

Image from the BYU seals display. Online at http://exhibits.lib.byu.edu/romanplates/index.html.

Jeremiah referred to one part of his deed as being “sealed.” The prophet Isaiah also spoke of a “book that is sealed” (Isaiah 29:11). John the Revelator mentioned seven seals in his apocalyptic visions (Revelation 5:1–4). And sealed documents, generally speaking, are well attested in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish legends, pseudepigraphic writings, and ancient repositories from various times and locations.10

The manner of sealing or enclosing clay documents by enfolding one over the other has already been discussed. As for texts written on papyrus or parchment, Welch has described them as having a fairly standard method of sealing:

Typically, these documents have a horizontal slit from the edge of the papyrus to the middle, between the two texts. The top half was rolled to the middle and then folded across the slit. Three holes were punched from the slit to the other side, thin papyrus bands were threaded through these holes and wrapped around the rolled-up and folded-over upper portion of the document, and on these bands the seals (wax or clay impressions) of the participants were affixed. In other cases the documents were just rolled down from the top without a slit and fold, and the top half was then sealed. … The use of three seals was common, but sometimes four or two are also found.11

Although functionally similar, metal documents necessitated different methods of sealing. One intriguing and especially well-preserved sample comes from a set of bronze Roman plates that were donated to the library at Brigham Young University. The plates contain a military diploma which grants the rights and privileges of Roman citizenship to the recipient. Concerning the manner of their construction, Welch and Lambert write:

On the back of plate 2, running down the middle of the witnesses’ names is a two- to three-centimeter vertical band that has unique patination and preservation. This area is where the seal fastened the two plates together. Wire strands were strung through two holes punched along the center line of each tablet. The wire was then twisted together to fasten the plates tight to each other. Over the knots of wire binding the plates together, wax was poured, “on which the witnesses impressed their seals. A half-cylindrical bronze seal was soldered over the wax for protection.”12

Image via John W. Welch and Kelsey D. Lambert, "Two Ancient Roman Plates," BYU Studies 45, no. 2 (2006): 58.

These types of Roman military diplomas are abundantly attested,13 demonstrating that the sealing of metal documents must have been widely known in antiquity. While the “practice of documenting citizenship on a bronze tablet first appeared in 89 BC”14 there is reason to believe that the “documents written on tabluae were traditional creations far older than the imperial dates of the surviving examples would suggest.”15


Sides A and B of bronze Roman plates, awarding citizenship and other honors to retiring soliders. Image via John W. Welch and Kelsey D. Lambert, "Two Ancient Roman Plates," BYU Studies 45, no. 2 (2006): 65–66.

Ancient Witnessed Documents

The names of seven witnesses are found at the conclusion of the abovementioned Roman military diploma.16 Similar signatures of witnesses can be seen on doubled and sealed documents spanning a variety of cultures, languages, and textual media.17 For example, an Assyrian clay tablet from 651 BC has twelve names listed.18 “In Egypt it was common to use five or, most often, six witnesses.”19 And “in most Jewish texts three witnesses were common, and normally not more than seven seem to have been used.”20 The witnesses’ signatures “are typically found on the back of the document, on the sealed part in early times, and on the open part in later times.”21

Welch has noted that the “functions of witnesses could vary”:22

In some cases (demotic and Mishnaic) all of the witnesses attested to the entire document, whereas in other Jewish cases one witness affirmed each line of text (after each line on the recto a witness signed on the verso). Some witnesses testified to the execution of the document or formation of the contract; others certified the correctness of the content of the document.23

Doubled, Sealed, and Witnessed Documents in the Book of Mormon

A sealed record is mentioned in the Lord’s instructions to the brother of Jared in Ether 3 and also by Moroni in Ether 4–5. Moroni even commented on the sealing and witnesses of the Book of Mormon specifically.24 But it is Nephi’s statements about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon in 2 Nephi 27 that have the most similarities with known examples of doubled, sealed, and witnessed documents from antiquity.25 This may be due to his direct familiarity with this Old World practice.

Nephi prophesied that “the book shall be delivered unto a man, and he shall deliver the words of the book … unto another; But the words which are sealed he shall not deliver” (2 Nephi 27:9–10). This indicates that, like the deed spoken of by Jeremiah, the Nephite record was a two-part document, with one part being sealed and the other open. This is reaffirmed later in the same chapter: “wherefore thou shalt read the words which I shall give unto thee. Touch not the things which are sealed” (vv. 20–21). Eyewitnesses of the Book of Mormon affirmed that a portion of the plates was indeed sealed and could not be opened, just as Nephi prophesied.26

Replica of the gold plates by David Baird. Photograph by Daniel Smith.

The sealed portion, however, will not be sealed forever. Nephi predicted that eventually “the day cometh that the words of the book which were sealed shall be read upon the house tops; and they shall be read by the power of Christ” (2 Nephi 27:11). As explained by Welch, this suggests that “Christ, as judge, maker, and sealer of the document, would have the authority to open and disclose the sealed text.”27 Presumably, the sealed portion will help validate the contents of the revealed portion, just as the sealed portion of an ancient text could be called upon to settle any dispute about its unsealed contents. Nephi never specified how the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon relates to what Joseph Smith would be given power to translate, but there is some reason to believe that the two parts hold similarities.28

Nephi also affirmed that the divine authority of the Book of Mormon would be certified by witnesses, and that specifically “three witnesses shall behold it, by the power of God, … and they shall testify to the truth of the book and the things therein” (2 Nephi 27:12). Nephi even hinted of more witnesses to come, declaring that “in the mouth of as many witnesses as seemeth him good will [God] establish his word” (v. 14). Welch comments,

As in the ancient practice, the total number of witnesses mentioned by Nephi was not rigidly fixed, although he gives assurances that more than the required minimum of three would be provided. The testimonies of the Three and Eight Witnesses appeared at the back of the first edition of the Book of Mormon, just as the signatures of witnesses stood at the end of ancient documents, marking the conclusion of the document.29

Side D of the ancient bronze Roman plates, containing the names of seven witnesses. Image via Image via John W. Welch and Kelsey D. Lambert, "Two Ancient Roman Plates," BYU Studies 45, no. 2 (2006): 68.

Nephi invoked a curse on any who would reject the words of the book, signaling that it as an official, divinely commissioned record and that its words are binding: “wo be unto him that rejecteth the word of God!” (2 Nephi 27:14). According to Welch, part of the binding nature of the document resulted from the signature of the witnesses:

Unwitnessed statements could be disregarded at one’s own discretion, but witnessed documents were far more authoritative. Disregarding them was tantamount to rejecting the validity of the entire legal system and of the deity in whose name the witnesses swore; thus, rejecting sworn testimony would amount to a denial of the whole word of God, warranting the curse.30


As the above similarities demonstrate, there are good reasons to believe that the prophet Nephi was indeed

familiar with the Israelite legal practice of using double documents or deeds and that he instructed his posterity to construct the Nephite record in a fashion that would conform with that tradition. His discussion in 2 Nephi 27 not only expands on Isaiah 29 but also draws on Jeremiah 32 or the general tradition of doubled, witnessed documentation, one part of which was sealed and the other left open.31

Nephi Creating Metal Plates. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org.

Amplifying the plausibility of such a conclusion is that the Book of Mormon contains the type of content that was deemed worthy of such formalities. Welch notes,

the Book of Mormon is indeed a binding document, a legal warning, a proclamation, a testament, covenant, and contract. Its provisions are about covenants of the Lord. It has much to do with rights of land possession, and it contains the terms and conditions that the owner of the land of promise requires those who occupy that land to obey. In other words, the religious and secular spheres were not widely separated in antiquity, and the Book of Mormon presents sacred materials often by using legalistic forms or concepts. These factors may well explain why Nephi would associate this legal form, typically used for legal contracts, with the final presentation of the Nephite records.32

Finally, it is noteworthy that doubled, sealed, and witnessed documents are found anciently on metal plates—the specific medium upon which of the Book Mormon was written—and that few examples of such documents were known before 1829.33 “Because the majority of known plates have been discovered in the last one hundred years,” concluded Welch and Lambert, “most serious scholarship on Roman bronze military diplomas could not have begun until the twentieth century—making these artifacts virtu­ally unknown in Joseph Smith’s day.”34

John W. Welch and Kelsey D. Lambert, “Two Ancient Roman Plates,” BYU Studies 45, no. 2 (2006): 55–76.

John A. Tvedtnes, “Sealed Books,” in The Book of Mormon and Other Hidden Books: “Out of Darkness Unto Light” (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000), 59–73.

John W. Welch and Gregory J. Welch, “Sealed or Sealed-Up Documents,” in Charting the Book of Mormon: Visual Aids for Personal Study and Teaching (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999), chart 118.

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

2 Nephi 27:6–24Ether 3:21–28Ether 4:1–5Ether 5

2 Nephi 27:6–24

Ether 3:21–28

Ether 4:1–5

Ether 5

Records and Relics
Book of Mormon

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