Evidence #160 | March 1, 2021

Wordplay on Nephi

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Scripture Central

Abstract

Nephi is an attested Egyptian name meaning “good,” “fair,” or “beautiful.” Examples of wordplay involving this name in the Book of Mormon help further establish its authenticity.

Attestation and Meaning of the Name Nephi

According to Egyptologist John Gee, “Nephi is an attested Syro-Palestinian Semitic form of an attested Egyptian man’s name dating from the Late Period in Egypt.”1 This Egyptian background is noteworthy considering that Nephi introduced his record as having been written in the “language of the Egyptians” (Nephi 1:2).2 Nephi’s name most likely derives from the Egyptian term nfr, meaning “good,” “goodly,” “fine” or “fair.”3 By Lehi’s day, the -r in nfr had come to be pronounced -i. Thus, at that time, the name Nephi would likely have been pronounced as nefe or nafe, as many Latin American and European Latter-day Saints pronounce it today.4

Nephi’s Good Inclusio

Matthew Bowen has shown that Nephi introduced his book with what appears to be a deliberate wordplay on the meaning of his own name: “I Nephi, having been born of goodly parents … yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God, therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days” (1 Nephi 1:1).5

Lehi and Nephi. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Furthermore, when commanding Nephi to make a record upon the small plates, the Lord said, “thou shalt engrave many things upon them which are good in my sight, for the profit of thy people” (2 Nephi 5:30). Concerning the words of Isaiah, which Nephi quoted extensively, Nephi similarly explained that “for [my people’s] good have I written them” (2 Nephi 25:8). And in his closing remarks, Nephi affirmed that his words would persuade his readers “to do good” (2 Nephi 33:4) and “teach all men that they should do good” (v. 10), followed by a warning to those who “will not partake of the goodness of God” (v. 14). As explained by Bowen,

Nephi’s framing or bracketing of the body of his writings with clusters of the term “good”/“goodness” (1 Nephi 1:1; 2 Nephi 33:4, 10, 14) constitutes a literary device known as inclusio. Nephi’s use of this device establishes “good”—including doing “good” and “the goodness of God”—as arguably the key theme of his small plates record, which is particularly appropriate given that Nephi’s own name is best explained as a form of the Egyptian word nfr, forms of which denote “good,” “goodly” and “goodness.”6

Wordplay in the Book of Helaman

Nephi Praying upon His Tower, by Jody Livingston.​

Another example of good-related wordplay can be seen in the words of Helaman to his sons Nephi and Lehi:

Behold, I have given unto you the names of our first parents [Lehi and Nephi] who came out of the land of Jerusalem; And this I have done that when you remember your name ye may remember them, and when ye remember them ye may remember their works; and when ye remember their works ye may know how it is said, and also written, that they were good. Therefore, my sons, I would that ye should do that which is good, that it may be said of you, and also written, even as it has been said and written of them (Helaman 5:6–7).

This wordplay, with its particular emphasis on names being associated with goodness, works particularly well for Nephi, Helaman’s oldest son, as a play on nfr meaning “good.” The hope of Nephi’s father was fulfilled when Nephi was confronted by false accusations from wicked judges. Those who came to his defense cried out, “Let this man [Nephi] alone, for he is a good man” (Helaman 8:7).7

Wordplay Involving “Fair” and “Beautiful”

Evidence of wordplay can also be found in texts that link the name Nephi with the concepts of “fair” and “beautiful,” both of which are entailed in the Egyptian word nfr.8 Nephi described the future gentiles who would inherit the land as being “exceedingly fair and beautiful, like unto my people [the Nephites] before they were slain” (1 Nephi 13:15).

During a time of conflict, the Nephites and righteous Lamanite converts united and were numbered together. “And their young men and their daughters became exceedingly fair, and they were numbered among the Nephites, and were called Nephites” (3 Nephi 2:16). During a period of righteousness following the visit of the resurrected Jesus, “the people of Nephi did wax strong, and did multiply exceedingly fast, and became an exceedingly fair and delightsome people” (4 Nephi 1:10). Perhaps the most emphatic example can be seen in Mormon’s lament following the destruction of his people, the Nephites, at Cumorah:

And my soul was rent with anguish, because of the slain of my people, and I cried: O ye fair ones, how could ye have departed from the ways of the Lord! O ye fair ones, how could ye have rejected that Jesus who stood with open arms to receive you! Behold if ye had not done this, ye would not have fallen. But behold, ye are fallen, and I mourn your loss. O ye fair sons and daughters, ye fathers and mothers, ye husbands and wives, ye fair ones, how is it that ye could have fallen! (Mormon 6:16–19).

Mormon Bids Farewell to a Once Great Nation, by Arnold Friberg.

The Problematic Nephite View of Themselves

Bowen observed, “just as we see a consistent pattern throughout the Book of Mormon of the Nephites being associated with the descriptions ‘good,’ ‘fair,’ and ‘beautiful’—all within the range of meaning of Egyptian nfr—we see an almost equally consistent pattern of prophetic criticism levied against the Nephites for failing to live up to the standard implied in that name.”9 For instance, Nephi warned the wicked Nephites against “that pride which ye have suffered to enter your hearts, which has lifted you up beyond that which is good because of your exceedingly great riches” (Helaman 7:26).

Samuel (ironically a Lamanite) warned the people of Nephi that notwithstanding they had been a chosen and favored people of the Lord, they would be destroyed if they did not repent. To be like Nephi was to be good, and lasting goodness was a matter of choice, not inheritance.

He hath given unto you that ye might know good from evil, and he hath given unto you that ye might choose life or death; and ye can do good and be restored unto that which is good, or have that which is good restored unto you; or ye can do evil, and have that which is evil restored unto you (Helaman 14:31).

The people of Nephi, at one time a righteous and delightsome people (Moroni 9:12), eventually reached such a state of rebellion, perversity, and wickedness that, in an ironic reversal of the meaning of their namesake, “they delight in everything save that which is good” (Moroni 9:19). As explained by Bowen, this reversal highlights a key message of the Book of Mormon:

The “good” or “fair ones” eventually “fell” because they abandoned the doctrine of Christ (2 Nephi 31–32). That doctrine teaches men and women how to come unto Christ and partake of his “goodness” (2 Nephi 26:28, verse 33; 33:14; Jacob 1:7), to do “good” (2 Nephi 33:4, verse 10), also teaches them how to “lay hold on every good thing” (Mormon 7:19–21, verse 25) and “every good gift” (Moroni 10:30) … Without the doctrine of Christ, the gospel of Jesus Christ, and his atonement, we will all alike “perish from that which is good, and become miserable forever” (2 Nephi 2:5). Rather than “revile against that which is good” (2 Nephi 28:16), all of us need to recognize that “all things which are good cometh of Christ; otherwise, men were fallen, and there could no good thing come unto them” (Moroni 7:24).10

Conclusion

That Nephi’s name most likely derives from an Egyptian word (nfr) seems fitting, considering that one of the first thing Nephi tells us is that he was writing in the Egyptian language (1 Nephi 1:2). Importantly, this name is attested at the right time and place, which means it would have been known in this form when Lehi would have named his son. Examples of wordplay in the text based upon the name’s range of meaning add substantial support for its authenticity and for the Book of Mormon’s ancient Near Eastern origins.

Book of Mormon Central, “What is So Good about Nephi’s Name? (1 Nephi 1:1),” KnoWhy 445 (June 28, 2018).

Matthew L. Bowen, “Nephi’s Good Inclusio,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 17 (2016): 181–195; reprinted in Matthew L. Bowen, Name as Key-Word: Collected Essays on Onomastic Wordplay and the Temple in Mormon Scripture (Orem, UT: Interpreter Foundation, 2018), 1–15.

Matthew L. Bowen, “‘O Ye Fair Ones’: Revisited,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 20 (2016): 315­­–345.

Matthew L. Bowen, “‘He is a Good Man’: The Fulfillment of Helaman 5:6–7 in Helaman 8:7 and 11:18–19,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship17 (2016): 165–170.

Matthew L. Bowen, “‘O Ye Fair Ones’: An Additional Note on the Meaning of the Name Nephi,” Insights: An Ancient Window 23, no. 6 (2003): 2–3.

Matthew L. Bowen, “Internal Textual Evidence for the Egyptian Origin of Nephi’s Name,” Insights: An Ancient Window 22, no. 11 (2002): 2.

John Gee, “Four Suggestions on the Origin of the Name Nephi,” 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), 1–5.

John Gee, “A Note on the Name Nephi,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 1, no. 1 (1992): 189–191.

1 Nephi 1:11 Nephi 13:152 Nephi 5:302 Nephi 25:82 Nephi 33:42 Nephi 33:102 Nephi 33:14Helaman 5:6–7Helaman 7:26Helaman 8:7Helaman 14:313 Nephi 2:164 Nephi 1:10Mormon 6:17Mormon 6:19Moroni 9:19

1 Nephi 1:1

1 Nephi 13:15

2 Nephi 5:30

2 Nephi 25:8

2 Nephi 33:4

2 Nephi 33:10

2 Nephi 33:14

Helaman 5:6–7

Helaman 7:26

Helaman 8:7

Helaman 14:31

3 Nephi 2:16

4 Nephi 1:10

Mormon 6:17

Mormon 6:19

Moroni 9:19

Linguistics
Wordplays
Wordplay on Nephi
Book of Mormon

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