Evidence #87 | September 19, 2020

Thieves vs. Robbers

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Scripture Central


Ancient Near Eastern writers made a consistent legal and social distinction between thieves and robbers. A similar distinction can be found in the Book of Mormon.

For speakers of modern English, the words thief and robber are typically used interchangeably. Most legal systems in the ancient Near East, however, made a notable distinction between these terms. According to John W. Welch and Kelly Ward,

A thief [ganab] was usually a local person who stole from his neighbor. He was dealt with judicially. He was tried and punished civilly, most often by a court composed of his fellow townspeople. A robber [gazlan], on the other hand, was treated as an outsider, as a brigand or highwayman. He was dealt with militarily, and he could be executed summarily.1 

In simple terms, a thief was a community insider who usually acted alone and a robber was an organized group of outsiders. Welch has noted that the “terminology might change from culture to culture but ancient languages regularly used two different words to convey the persistent social and legal distinction between neighborhood thieves and outside bands of robbers.”2

After carefully studying theft and robbery in the Book of Mormon, Welch discovered that this same ancient distinction is consistently found in its pages.3 In several cases, an ancient Near Eastern legal context even helps explain some of the Book of Mormon’s otherwise odd or subtly consistent details.

[It] explains how Laban could call the sons of Lehi “robbers” and threaten to execute them on the spot without a trial, for that is how a military officer like Laban no doubt would have dealt with a robber. It also explains why the Lamanites are always said to “rob” from the Nephites but never from their own brethren—that would be “theft,” not “robbery.” It also explains the rise and fearful menace of the Gadianton society, who are always called “robbers” in the Book of Mormon, never “thieves.”4 

It isn’t likely that the Book of Mormon’s distinction between theft and robbery was derived from the common law of Joseph Smith’s day because its definitions of these words were “inconsistent in many ways with usages found in the Book of Mormon.”5 Moreover, if Joseph Smith had relied upon the “King James Bible for legal definitions of these terms, he would have stumbled into error, for that translation renders ‘thief’ and ‘robber’ indiscriminately.”6

Book of Mormon Central, “What is the Difference Between ‘Robbers’ and ‘Thieves’ in the Book of Mormon? (Helaman 6:18),” KnoWhy 432 (May 10, 2018).

John W. Welch and John F. Hall, “Two Profiles of Robbers in the Ancient World,” in Charting the New Testament (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2002), chart 3–12.

John W. Welch, “Legal and Social Perspectives on Robbers in First-Century Judea,” BYU Studies 36, no. 3 (1996–1997): 141–153.

Kent P. Jackson, “Revolutionaries in the First Century,” BYU Studies 36, no. 3 (1996–1997): 129–140.

John W. Welch and Kelly Ward, “Thieves and Robbers,” 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), 248–249.

John W. Welch, “Theft and Robbery in the Book of Mormon and Ancient Near Eastern Law,” FARMS Preliminary Report (1985), 1–41.

1 Nephi 3:13Alma 11:2Helaman 2:10Helaman 3:23Helaman 6:18, 20–21, 37Helaman 7:4Helaman 11:2, 26–28, 30–323 Nephi 1:27, 293 Nephi 2:11–12, 17–183 Nephi 3:1, 11–12, 14–15, 17, 203 Nephi 4:1–4, 7, 14–15, 18–20, 25–263 Nephi 5:43 Nephi 6:33 Nephi 13:19–203 Nephi 27:324 Nephi 1:17, 46Mormon 1:18Mormon 2:8, 10, 27–28Mormon 8:9Ether 10:3, 33Ether 13:26

1 Nephi 3:13

Alma 11:2

Helaman 2:10

Helaman 3:23

Helaman 6:18, 20–21, 37

Helaman 7:4

Helaman 11:2, 26–28, 30–32

3 Nephi 1:27, 29

3 Nephi 2:11–12, 17–18

3 Nephi 3:1, 11–12, 14–15, 17, 20

3 Nephi 4:1–4, 7, 14–15, 18–20, 25–26

3 Nephi 5:4

3 Nephi 6:3

3 Nephi 13:19–20

3 Nephi 27:32

4 Nephi 1:17, 46

Mormon 1:18

Mormon 2:8, 10, 27–28

Mormon 8:9

Ether 10:3, 33

Ether 13:26

Book of Mormon

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