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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Some notes on the name Nephi

The Book of Mormon starts with a narrative written by a man named Nephi. Nephi, in the opening verses of the Book of Mormon writes the following:

"I Nephi, having been born of goodly parents..." (1 Nephi 1:1)

What is interesting (aside from the fact that Nephi here in his introduction from verse 1 to 3 is employing a perfect example of an Egyptian literary device known as a Colophon) to note is the possible meanings of Nephi's name. Latter-day Saint scholars are - by and large - in agreement that Nephi's name is of Egyptian origin. This should not be surprising, as not only was ancient Israel saturated with Egyptian influences during Nephi's time, but that Nephi himself gives indication that he and his family had knowledge of Egyptian culture and language (See, for example, 1 Nephi 1: 2 and Mosiah 1:4).

But what does Nephi's name mean in Egyptian? There are several possibilities. John Gee, a scholar at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute, for example, says the following (found here http://farms.byu.edu/publications/bookschapter.php?bookid=&chapid=618):

"Three of the four etymologies proposed for the name Nephi are Egyptian; these are the Egyptian names Nfr "good," Nfw "captain," and Nfy "wind.""

Dr. Gee then concludes:

"Thus, one may confidently conclude, whether from Nfr or Nfw, the name Nephi is an attested Egyptian name."

The late Latter-day Saint scholar Hugh Nibley agrees with Dr. Gee, as is detailed in his book Lehi in the Desert, page 27.

What is also interesting to note is that Nephi's choice of the word "goodly" to describe his parents may be a play on words. Brant Gardner, in his recent Book of Mormon commentary Second Witness, notes the following:

"Is there a possibility that "goodly" is a play on words? Matthew L. Bowen noticed an interesting correlation between the plausible etymology of "Nephi" as a personal name and this description of "goodly" parents." (Vol. 1 page 60)

Gardner then quotes from Bowen, whom I shall quote in full:

"A proposed etymology of the Book of Mormon name Nephi is that it derives from the ancient Egyptian word nfr which is an adjective that means "good," "fine," or "goodly" and as noun denotes "kindness" or "goodness". By Lehi's time, this word was probably pronounced "nefe" (NEH-fee)...Nephi's use of words that translate into English as "goodly" and "goodness" makes this passage even more beautiful and meaningful if we also understand the name Nephi to denote "goodly" or "goodness." The wordplay perhaps suggests why the name Nephi so befits its bearer: he is nf, or "goodly", because he was born of "goodly parents" and is one endowed with a "knowledge of the goodness and mysteries of God.""

This is an interesting insight to the Book of Mormon that not only gives us a more deeper appreciation for it as a literary work, but also is further internal consistancy that rules out Joseph Smith - or any of his contemporaries, for that matter- as a likely author of the Book of Mormon.