Evidence #75 | September 19, 2020

Subscriptio

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Scripture Central

Abstract

The Book of Mormon’s use of subscriptio (placing introductory material at the end of a text) provides evidence that its authors inherited an ancient Near Eastern literary tradition.

In Words of Mormon 1:1–11, Mormon explained how and when he found the Small Plates of Nephi, described how they became part of the larger archive at his disposal, provided a summary of their contents, and gave his reasons for appending them to his larger record—in short, everything a reader would expect to learn in an introduction. Yet Mormon puzzlingly placed his explanatory material at the end of the Small Plates.

Image via churchofjesuschrist.org.

A similar phenomenon can be found in relation to the Title Page of the Book of Mormon, which contains the names of the record’s primary abridgers, a summary of its contents, the source texts from which it was derived, and its fundamental purpose—to convince “the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God.” Joseph Smith declared that the Title Page is “a literal translation, taken from the very last leaf, on the left hand side of the collection or book of plates.”1 Thus, once again, an introduction in the Book of Mormon can, according to the prophet’s description, be found at the end of a record.

This is similar to a practice that seems to have originated in Mesopotamia and then spread to other parts of the ancient world. Karel Van Der Toorn explains, “The cuneiform equivalent of our title page is the colophon. The colophon is a scribal note at the end of a text, separated from its main body by a single or double marking.”2 Colophons, like title pages, would typically provide the title of the work, its subject, and the author, editor, or scribe who wrote that work or made that copy (usually designated as “by the hand of so-and-so”).3 

Classicist Walter Burkert cited this practice in Greek writing, known formally as subscriptio, as proof of ancient Near Eastern influence on Greek literature and culture:

It is the practice of the subscriptio in particular that connects the layout of later Greek books with cuneiform practice, the indication of the name of the writer/author and the title of the book right at the end, after the last line of the text; this is a detailed and exclusive correspondence which proves that Greek literary practice is ultimately dependent upon Mesopotamia.4

Commenting on Burkert’s statement, William J. Hamblin has argued,

If the existence of the practice of subscriptio among the Greeks represents “a detailed and exclusive correspondence which proves that Greek literary practice is ultimately dependent upon Mesopotamia [via Syria],” as Burkert claims, cannot the same thing be said of the Book of Mormon—that the practice of subscriptio represents “a detailed and exclusive correspondence” which offers proof that the Book of Mormon is “ultimately dependent” on the ancient Near East?5

Conclusion

While the presence of subscriptio in the Book of Mormon may not amount to definitive “proof,” it is certainly consistent with the text’s own claims about its ancient Near Eastern origins. Moreover, subscripitio would have been counterintuitive in Joseph Smith’s day, when title pages were typically placed at the beginning of a book.6 As a good case in point, the Book of Mormon’s own title page was placed in the front of its first edition for publication, despite having originally appeared at the end of the record.

Book of Mormon Central, “Why Is Words of Mormon at the End of the Small Plates? (Words of Mormon 1:3),” KnoWhy 78 (April 14, 2016). 

William J. Hamblin, “Metal Plates and the Book of Mormon,” in Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon: The FARMS Updates of the 1990s, ed. John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999), 20–22.

Title PageWords of Mormon 1:1–11

Title Page

Words of Mormon 1:1–11

  • 1 “History, circa June 1839–circa 1841 [Draft 2],” p. 34, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed August 24, 2019, online at josephsmithpapers.org.
  • 2 Karel Van der Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 31; emphasis added.
  • 3 See Van der Toorn, Scribal Culture, 31–32. Van der Toorn’s discussion of Mesopotamian colophons is part of his discussion of anonymity of texts, so emphasizes the usual lack of author. Others, however, have noted the reference to authors in some colophons. See Csaba Balogh, The Stele of YHWH in Egypt: The Prophecies of Isaiah 18–20 concerning Egypt and Kush (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 69. Also note that while Van der Toorn stresses the occurrence of Mesopotamian colophons at the end of a text, both he and Balogh note that colophons could also appear at the beginning of a text, as they do sometimes in the Book of Mormon (such as 1 Nephi 1:1–3). For treatments of colophons in the Book of Mormon, see John A. Tvedtnes and David E. Bokovoy, “Colophons and Superscripts,” in Testaments: Links Between the Book of Mormon and the Hebrew Bible (Toelle, UT: Heritage Press, 2003), 107–116; Thomas W. Mackay, “Mormon as Editor: A Study of Colophons, Headers, and Source Indicators,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2, no. 2 (1993): 90­–109; John A. Tvedtnes, “Colophons in the Book of Mormon,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon: A Decade of New Research, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992), 13–16; John A. Tvedtnes, “Colophons in the Book of Mormon,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon: Insights You May Have Missed Before, ed. John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1991), 32–37; Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert/The World of the Jaredites/There Were Jaredites (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988), 17–19.
  • 4 Walter Burkert, The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age, trans. Margaret E. Pinder (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 32, emphasis added. It should be noted that when making this comment Burkert was summarizing the research of Carl Wendel.
  • 5 William J. Hamblin, “Metal Plates and the Book of Mormon,” in Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon: The FARMS Updates of the 1990s, ed. John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999), 21–22.
  • 6 Since subscriptio can be found in many Greek and Roman sources, well-trained classicists in Joseph Smith’s day were surely familiar with it. Its connection to the ancient Near East, however, has only come to light fairly recently.
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Editing
Subscriptio
Book of Mormon

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