Evidence #256 | October 15, 2021

Priestly Records

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Scripture Central


The Pontifical Chronicle known as the Annales Maximi, a record kept by Roman priests and recorded on bronze plates, has several parallels with the small plates of Nephi.

The Small Plates as a Priestly Record

The prophet Nephi recorded that after he and his followers separated from the people of the Lamanites, he consecrated his younger brothers Jacob and Joseph to be “priests and teachers over the land of my people” (2 Nephi 5:26). Shortly before his death, Nephi entrusted his smaller plates to the stewardship of Jacob and his descendants. Jacob recorded,

Nephi gave me, Jacob, a commandment concerning the small plates, upon which these things are engraven. And he gave me, Jacob, a commandment that I should write upon these plates a few of the things which I considered to be most precious; that I should not touch, save it were lightly, concerning the history of this people which are called the people of Nephi. For he said that the history of his people should be engraven upon his other plates, and that I should preserve these plates and hand them down unto my seed from generation to generation. And if there were preaching which was sacred, or revelation which was great, or prophesying, that I should engraven the heads of them upon these plates, and touch upon them as much as it were possible, for Christ’s sake, and for the sake of our people (Jacob 1:1–4).

The practice of keeping a priestly record inscribed on metal plates is known from the ancient world.

The Roman Pontifical Chronicle

One of the most important records in the history of the Roman state was the Annales Maximi, a record kept by the chief priest (pontifex maximus).1 The origins of the record are believed to go back to the founding of Rome and to have continued for hundreds of years. “At the beginning of the republican era the Pontifex Maximus took over from the king the duty of drawing up the calendar of religious festivals and the court days for the ensuing year—that is, the days on which it was right (fas) or not right (nefas) to transact public business.”2

View of the Roman Forum from the Capitoline Meseums in Rome. Image via Wikimedia Commons. 

Each year the Roman pontiff recorded important events which related to or required ritual activity by the priests, and entries for each year were prefaced with the name of the consul in office during that time. This record documented events such as temple dedications, vows and their fulfilment, wars, military triumphs, omens, eclipses, and unusual events that required expiation.3

The Roman Senator Cicero noted the importance of the Annales for Roman history:

For history began as a mere compilation of annals, on which account, and in order to preserve the general traditions, from the earliest period of the City down to the pontificate of Publius Mucius, each High Priest used to commit to writing all the events of his year of offices, and record them on a white surface, and post up the tablet at his house, that all men might have the liberty to acquaint themselves therewith, and to this day those records are known as the Pontifical Chronicles.4

At the end of each year, the writings on the white wooden tablet were then inscribed on bronze tablets so that the yearly record could be preserved and publicly displayed on the walls of the Regia.5 Historian Gregory Bucher argues that the record must have “consisted of multiples plates, with each new plate being added as called for.”6 This priestly record covered events over a period of several hundred years and was inscribed by many different hands during that time.7

Bronze tablet engraved with a speech by Roman emperor Claudius. Image and caption info via wikidata.org. 

For Roman historians, the Annales provided a skeletal framework upon which later histories could be written.8 According to Bucher, “the importance of such a chronicle cannot be overstated, for here would lie the ultimate chronological authority behind the annalists’ works, written down contemporaneously (or nearly so) with events, and having the names of the eponymous magistrates of the year at the head of each entry to serve as a chronological framework.”9 At about 130 BC, the pontifex maximus Mucius Scaevola reportedly organized and published the entire record up to that point, which then comprised eighty books and two-hundred and eighty years of Roman history.10 According to Cary and Scullard,

Since it comprised eighty books, some scholars have argued that Scaevola must have added more material from the Pontifical archives, but in fact he may well have merely reproduced the content of the tablets, which may have grown fairly full of daily events in more recent years, while of course we have no idea as to the length of Scaevola’s ‘books’ which could have been relatively short.11

Unfortunately, although historical sources attest to its existence, that record has not been preserved.12 The plates themselves are believed to have been destroyed in 36 BC, when a fire in the city destroyed the Regia and its records.13

Comparison with the small plates

Although there are distinct differences between the Roman Annales Maximi and the small plates of Nephi, significant correspondences are notable. First, the fact that both records were inscribed over a period of several centuries is significant, although the Roman plates were publicly posted on walls and remained stationary, while the Nephite plates were portable and could be moved about when necessary.14

Like the Pontifical chronicle, the small plates of Nephi were a priestly record. Jacob is specifically called a priest (2 Nephi 5:26; Jacob 1:18), and some of his prophetic descendants may have also been priests. Moreover, like the Roman record, the small plates were kept over multiple generations—over several hundred years by different writers. It is also significant that the Roman record was apparently initiated by Roman rulers, but later turned over to priests who continued the record. Similarly, while Nephi, the first ruler of his people, created and wrote upon the plates, he subsequently turned them over to his priestly brother Jacob and his descendants (Jacob 1:1–4). Nephite kings kept a separate historical record from that point forward (Jacob 1:3; 3:13; Jarom 1:14).

Although they did not record events every year as did the priests of the Roman chronicle, the Nephite scribes who kept and preserved the small plates recorded the names of each record keeper, Nephi (1 Nephi 1:1), Jacob (Jacob 1:1), Enos (Enos 1:1), Jarom (Jarom 1:1), Omni (Omni 1:1), Amaron (Omni 1:4), Chemish (Omni 1:9), Abinadom (Omni 1:10), and Amaleki (Omni 1:12). They also, like their Roman counterparts, frequently provided dates when important events occurred (1 Nephi 1:4; 17:4; 2 Nephi 5:28, 34; Jacob 1:1; Enos 1:25; Jarom 1:5, 13; Omni 1:3, 5).

Jacob teaching at the temple. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Additional correspondences involve the kinds of content found on both records. Nephi recorded the building of a temple (2 Nephi 5:16), and various wars are mentioned (2 Nephi 5:34; Jacob 7:24; Enos 1:24; Jarom 1:7–9; Omni 1:3, 10, 24). Prodigious or miraculous events and blessings were also included. Jacob mentioned, for example, that through faith and the power of God, “we truly can command in the name of Jesus and the very trees obey us, or the mountains, or the waves of the sea” (Jacob 4:6). He also recounted his ordeal in which Sherem was miraculously confounded and smitten by God (Jacob 7:15). Other writers also mentioned miraculous examples of preservation (Jarom 1:9; Omni 1:7), as well as destruction among the Nephites because of their wickedness (Omni 1:5).


Correspondences between the Roman Pontifical Chronicles and the small plates of Nephi suggest that both sets of plates, though obviously part of separate literary traditions, may share a common heritage in the ancient world, where valued documents recorded by priests were inscribed on metal plates for permanent preservation.

Book of Mormon Central, “Is the Book of Mormon Like Other Ancient Metal Documents? (Jacob 4:2),” KnoWhy 512 (April 25, 2019).

Book of Mormon Central, “Are There Other Ancient Records Like the Book of Mormon? (Mormon 8:16),” KnoWhy 407 (February 13, 2018).

William J. Hamblin, “Sacred Writing on Metal Plates in the Ancient Mediterranean,” FARMS Review 19, no. 1 (2007): 37–54.

H. Curtis Wright, “Ancient Burials of Metal Documents in Stone Boxes,” in “By Study and Also By Faith”: Essays in Honor of Hugh Nibley, 2 vols., ed. John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1990), 273–334.

H. Curtis Wright, “Metallic Documents in Antiquity,” BYU Studies Quarterly, 10, no. 4 (1970): 457–477.

1 Nephi 1:11 Nephi 1:41 Nephi 17:42 Nephi 5:162 Nephi 5:262 Nephi 5:282 Nephi 5:34Jacob 1:1Jacob 1:3Jacob 1:1–4Jacob 1:18Jacob 3:13Jacob 4:6Jacob 7:15Jacob 7:24Enos 1:1Enos 1:24Enos 1:25Jarom 1:1Jarom 1:5Jarom 1:7–9Jarom 1:9Jarom 1:13Jarom 1:14Omni 1:1Omni 1:3Omni 1:4Omni 1:5Omni 1:7Omni 1:9Omni 1:10Omni 1:12Omni 1:24Omni 1:25Mormon 4:23Mormon 6:6

1 Nephi 1:1

1 Nephi 1:4

1 Nephi 17:4

2 Nephi 5:16

2 Nephi 5:26

2 Nephi 5:28

2 Nephi 5:34

Jacob 1:1

Jacob 1:3

Jacob 1:1–4

Jacob 1:18

Jacob 3:13

Jacob 4:6

Jacob 7:15

Jacob 7:24

Enos 1:1

Enos 1:24

Enos 1:25

Jarom 1:1

Jarom 1:5

Jarom 1:7–9

Jarom 1:9

Jarom 1:13

Jarom 1:14

Omni 1:1

Omni 1:3

Omni 1:4

Omni 1:5

Omni 1:7

Omni 1:9

Omni 1:10

Omni 1:12

Omni 1:24

Omni 1:25

Mormon 4:23

Mormon 6:6

  • 1 M. Cary and H. H. Scullard, A History of Rome Down to the Reign of Constantine (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1979), 58–61; Gregory S. Butcher, “The Annales Maximi in the Light of Roman Methods of Keeping Records,” American Journal of Ancient History 12, no. 1 (1987): 1–61; Ronald Mellor, The Roman Historians (New York, NY: Routledge, 1999), 12–14.
  • 2 Cary and Scullard, A History of Rome Down to the Reign of Constantine, 59.
  • 3 Cary and Scullard, A History of Rome Down to the Reign of Constantine, 59; Mellor, The Roman Historians, 13; Butcher, “The Annales Maximi in the Light of Roman Methods of Keeping Records,” 3–4.
  • 4 E. W. Sutton, trans., Cicero: On the Orator, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA and London: Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1948), 2:237.
  • 5 Cary and Scullard, A History of Rome Down to the Reign of Constantine, 59; Mellor, The Roman Historians, 13.
  • 6 Bucher, “The Annales Maximi in the Light of Roman Methods of Keeping Records,” 33–34. “Aside from the temporary year-long publication of information on an album, a running copy was kept on large bronze tabula (or perhaps more likely, a series of tabulae, with each new tabula being added as the previous one was filled) on the front of the Regia, just off the via sacra” (p. 4).
  • 7 Bucher, “The Annales Maximi in the Light of Roman Methods of Keeping Records,” 33.
  • 8 Cary and Scullard, A History of Rome Down to the Reign of Constantine, 59.
  • 9 Bucher, “The Annales Maximi in the Light of Roman Methods of Keeping Records,” 4.
  • 10 Cary and Scullard, A History of Rome Down to the Reign of Constantine, 59; Mellor, The Roman Historians, 14.
  • 11 Cary and Scullard, A History of Rome Down to the Reign of Constantine, 59.
  • 12 Cary and Scullard, A History of Rome Down to the Reign of Constantine, 59.
  • 13 Mellor, The Roman Historians, 14; Bucher, “The Annales Maximi in the Light of Roman Methods of Keeping Records,” 37–38.
  • 14 Plates were carried by Nephite prophets from the land of Nephi to the land of Zarahemla (Omni 1:25) to the hill Shim in the land northward and finally to the hill Cumorah (Mormon 4:23; 6:6).
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