Evidence #223 | August 9, 2021


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The evidence for lawyers in ancient Mesoamerica is consistent with the Book of Mormon’s discussion of lawyers.

Lawyers in the Book of Mormon

When Alma and Amulek preached to the people in the city of Ammonihah, they encountered significant opposition directed by some who were termed “lawyers.” These officials were prominent in the role of accusing these prophets of crimes in order to turn the people of the city against them. According to Alma’s record,

Nevertheless, there were some among them who thought to question them, that by their cunning devices they might catch them in their words, that they might find witness against them, that they might deliver them to their judges, that they might be judged according to the law, that they might be slain or cast into prison, according to the crime which they could make appear or witness against them (Alma 10:13).

Such “lawyers” and other officers were known among the Nephites until shortly before the death and resurrection of Christ (3 Nephi 6:10, 27).

Some readers of the Book of Mormon have wondered why the Nephite text would mention lawyers, as this might seem to be a modern idea.1 John W. Welch cautions that when dealing with translations of ancient texts, words such as lawyer “have definite meanings in modern society, but they presumptively mean something quite different in the ancient world.”2

For example, while witnesses are mentioned in the legal proceedings in the Book of Mormon account, there is little indication that those termed “lawyers” acted on the part of the defense. Lawyers, rather, are portrayed primarily in a prosecutorial or adversarial role in the Nephite text (Alma 10:31–32; 14:18, 23). While we still have much to learn about pre-Columbian legal systems and how they may relate to the Nephite law in the Book of Mormon, there is evidence to suggest that some form of attorney existed in ancient Mesoamerica.

A judge speaking with Zeezrom. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Aztec Lawyers

The Aztecs of Central Mexico had a sophisticated judicial system, although there are aspects of it that are unclear to modern historians. Francisco Avalos claims that while “there is no evidence of lawyers” during Aztec times, at least in the modern sense of that term, that “a defendant or plaintiff could use a friend or relative to help him plead his case.”3 Bernadino de Sahagun, whose important compendium collected and recorded many pre-Columbian beliefs and practices in ancient Mexico provides an entry for the attorney which suggests that some form of the profession was known before the arrival of the Spanish:

The attorney [is] an agent, an intercessor, an appealer, and offerer of rebuttals, a proclaimer, a deputy, a drawer of recompense. The good attorney [is] a discreet person. He is discreet, able, astute, diligent, constant, unflagging, sharp-tongued, contentious, wrangling, ingenious, persevering, audacious, unyielding, persistent, dignified, solicitous, careful of things. He is solicitous; he is careful of things. He offers rebuttals; he appeals, he pleads. He bows in reverence; he humbles himself. He ensnares, he accuses. He solicits things; he shouts; he is daring, compulsive; he misleads one; he contends; he contends, emerging victorious, triumphant; he is aggressive. He collects tribute for one. He consumes a tenth of it—he draws recompense.

The bad attorney [is] one who takes things from others by fraud. [He is] a persistent beggar, an excessively importunate one; [he is] one who spirits things away by deceit, who travels the road with cunning. He is a hypocrite—lazy, lukewarm, negligent, deceiving, two-faced, inconstant, squandering, dumb, mute. He is a hypocrite; he distracts; he deceives one; he takes things from others by fraud.4

Mariano Veytia affirmed that in pre-Columbian Mexico there were those who were like advocates and prosecutors and in support of this view referenced a Nahuatl word meaning “he that speaks for another”5

A depiction of what has been interpreted as a scene from an Aztec trial (from the Florentine Codex). Imave via mexicolore.co.uk.

Maya Lawyers and Prosecutors

Historical sources on pre-Columbian Maya practices suggest a similar role was known in the Yucatan. According to Diego Cogolludo, “In order to try the case, other Ministers were appointed who were like Advocates and Constables and who always attended in the presence of the judges …. All was set forth in words by means of the Ministers before referred to, and what was then and there determined remained valid and permanent without either of the parties venturing to work against it.”6 To settle disputes, wrote Gapser Antonio Chi, “others were appointed who served as advocates, witnesses … and (constables) who were always in attendance before the judge.”7 Those on either side of the dispute were expected to bring a present for the judge “even though it was of little value.”8

Among the pre-Columbian Maya in Highland Guatemala, there was an official who functioned as a sort of court prosecutor on behalf of the ruler. According to Sandra Orellana,

The office off k’alel (calel) mentioned in the Relacion Tzutijil corresponds to the Quiche office of K’alel (“courtier”). Among the Quiches the K’alel attended the ajpop in public matters, acting as a chief judge and counselor. His role was to explain, question, witness, and denounce and to assist the ruler in making decisions. The office of k’alel also existed among the Cakchiquels, and was filled by the son of the adjunct lord.9


While it may seem strange to the modern reader to find a term such as “lawyer” in the Book of Mormon, evidence suggests that lawyers in the sense of prosecutors and possibly even defenders of the accused, actually existed in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Importantly, at the time of the Book of Mormon’s translation in 1829, sources which address this topic were not translated into English or published.

John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013), 375–378.

John W. Welch, The Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2008), 51, 255–257.

John L. Sorenson, Images of Ancient America: Visualizing Book of Mormon Life (Provo, UT: Research Press, 1998), 116–117.

Alma 10:14Alma 10:15Alma 10:17Alma 10:24Alma 10:27Alma 10:29Alma 10:30Alma 10:32Alma 14:2Alma 14:5Alma 14:18Alma 14:23Alma 14:273 Nephi 6:113 Nephi 6:213 Nephi 6:223 Nephi 6:27

Alma 10:14

Alma 10:15

Alma 10:17

Alma 10:24

Alma 10:27

Alma 10:29

Alma 10:30

Alma 10:32

Alma 14:2

Alma 14:5

Alma 14:18

Alma 14:23

Alma 14:27

3 Nephi 6:11

3 Nephi 6:21

3 Nephi 6:22

3 Nephi 6:27

  • 1 Thomas Key, The Book of Mormon in the Light of Science, 15th edition (Marlow, OK: Utah Missions, 1997), 65.
  • 2 John W. Welch, The Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2008), 52.
  • 3 Francisco Avalos, “An Overview of the Legal System of the Aztec Empire,” Law Library Journal 86, no.2 (1994): 267.
  • 4 Bernadino de Sahagun, General History of the Things of New Spain, 13 vols., trans. Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J. O. Anderson (Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research, University of Utah, 1961), 10:32.
  • 5 Mariano Veytia, Historia Antigua de Mexico, 3 vols (Mexico: Juan Ojeda, 1836), 3:207.
  • 6 Diego L, Cogolludo, Historia de Yucatan, 4, chapter 3, in History of the Spanish Conquest of Yucatan and of the Itzas, Frank Ainsworth Means (Cambridge, MA: Museum, 1917), 13.
  • 7 Gasper Antonio Chi, Relacion, in Landa’s Relacion de Las Cosas de Yucatan, ed., and trans. Alfred M. Tozzer (Cambridge, MA: The Museum, 1941), 231.
  • 8 Chi, Relacion, 231.
  • 9 Sandra L. Orellana, The Tzuttujil Mayas: Continuity and Change, 1250–1630 (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984), 91.
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