Evidence #20 | September 19, 2020

Symbolic Time

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Scripture Central


A repeated sequence of years (first year, second year, ninth year) in the chronology of 4 Nephi is clearly intentional and makes sense as a symbolic representation of the passage of time itself.
Pay y Felicidad by Jorge Cocco.

Mormon’s summary of Nephite history in the book of 4 Nephi is notably condensed. He covers nearly 300 years in a mere 49 verses. One interesting aspect of this account concerns its sequencing of years. After reporting that the 38th and 39th years had passed away, Mormon explained that the “forty and first, and the forty and second, yea, even until forty and nine years had passed away, and also the fifty and first, and the fifty and second; yea, and even until fifty and nine years had passed away” (4 Nephi 1:6; emphasis added).

Readers may wonder why these specific dates are being mentioned at all, seeing that nothing transpires during them. Lest this sequence (first year, second year, ninth year) be written off as mere coincidence, it should be noted that the pattern occurs again in verse 14: “And it came to pass that the seventy and first year passed away, and also the seventy and second year, yea, and in fine, till the seventy and ninth year had passed away.” So, altogether, 4 Nephi contains the passing of the following sequences of years in a way that says essentially nothing about them except that time itself has passed:

41, 42–49

51, 52–59

71, 72–79

Concerning this chronological anomaly, Brant A. Gardner has commented,

Christ in the Land Bountiful by Simon Dewey.

This repeating pattern occurs three times in 4 Nephi and never anywhere else in the Book of Mormon. The triple repetition confirms that it is not random and not associated with Mormon’s source text. Mormon is telling us something. Actually, he is telling us nothing. Intentionally and markedly. I hypothesize that he names years for which there are no events to signal that these empty years are placeholders in a pattern. He has moved from “real time” into “symbolic time,” or from history into story. The repetition of seven-year gaps (42–49, 52–59, 72–79) suggests that he is deliberately using the spacing symbolically, likely to mark a “week of years.”1

Gardner’s hypothesis is appealing because seven is indeed an important symbolic number in the Book of Mormon, just as it is in the Bible.2 After highlighting and analyzing a number of examples of this phenomenon, Corbin T. Volluz concluded,

Applying the tools of ancient Hebrew numerology to the Book of Mormon … reveals frequently occurring but rarely noticed seven-based architectural elements in the text that shape and mold many parts of this narrative. In various ways, Nephite writers, including Nephi, Jacob, Benjamin, Alma, King Anti-Lehi-Nephi, Amulek, Nephi the son of Helaman, Mormon, and probably others, made effectively meaningful use of the symbolism of the number seven. Seeing this increases modern readers’ appreciation for the beauty and complexity of the Nephite record and allows them to identify passages and words of special importance and symbolic significance to its authors.3


It can’t be proven that the odd sequencing of years in 4 Nephi is meant to signal symbolic time. What seems beyond doubt, however, is that this pattern was intentional. Whatever its exact purpose or meaning, it suggests that the Book of Mormon’s chronology can, at times, have its own narrative significance.

Corbin Volluz, “A Study in Seven: Hebrew Numerology in the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies Quarterly 53, no. 2 (2014): 57–83.

Brant A. Gardner, “Mormon’s Editorial Method and Meta-Message,” FARMS Review 21, no. 1 (2009): 99–105.

Brant Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 6:24–27.

4 Nephi 1:6, 14

4 Nephi 1:6, 14

Symbolic Time
Book of Mormon

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