John W. Welch
October 8th, 2008
Notes taken by Stephen O. Smoot
John W. Welch, Robert K. Thomas Professor of Law at Brigham Young Universityʼs J.
Reuben Clark Law School, is editor of BYU Studies and the founder of the Foundation
for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS). His newest book, The Legal
Cases in the Book of Mormon, was published earlier this year by FARMS and was the
subject of this lecture at Olivewood Bookstore in Orem, Utah.
The premise of Prof. Welchʼs book (and subsequent lecture) is that the Book of Mormon
accurately portrays ancient Near Eastern civil and theological legal systems and
practices and that therefore this serves as another link between the Book of Mormon
and the Ancient Near East.
N.B. These notes have been modiﬁed slightly by me to add clarity to some of Welchʼs
comments that I recorded.
Question: How long did it take Prof. Welch to write the book?
Answer: 28 years. Prof. Welch indicated that his work on this subject began in the
1980ʼs with a group of law students of his who began collecting material on ancient law
from the Near East.
Question: Why should we care about the legal cases in the Book of Mormon? And why
should we read the Book of Mormon as an ancient historical book?
Answer: Because we gain a better appreciation for the ancient context of the Book of
Mormon and the real people that it describes. In other words, it is important to know that
the Book of Mormon peoples were real and to understand the ancient world that they
There are seven legal cases in the Book of Mormon. They are:
1.The Case of Sherem
2.The Trial of Abinadi
3.The Trial of Nehor
4.The Trial of Alma and Amulek
5.The Trial of Korihor
6.The Case of Paanchi
7.The Trial of Seantum
The world “contend” in Hebrew means “to bring legal action against someone”.
Therefore, when the Book of Mormon describes how Sherem “contended” with Jacob,
this means that he brought forth a legal case against him.
According to Lev. 24 and Deut. 13, there were three main theological violations that
warranted capital punishment:
2.Leading others into Apostasy
There was, according to Welch, a “high threshold of Litigation” in the Ancient Near East.
Most trials or accusations included invoking an oath to a deity (Deut. 19) and the
punishment for an plaintiff who failed to prove guilt was to take upon him the
punishment otherwise reserved for the defendant if the defendant had been proven
guilty. In other words, if X accused Y of blasphemy but could not prove it, Y would be
acquitted and X would take the punishment of death that Y would have taken had Y
been proven guilty.
The story of Susanna in the Apocrypha (The History of Susanna) illustrates this. In this
story, Susanna is spied upon by two lustful men who, in an attempt to force Susanna to
have sexual relations with them, promise to bear a false witness of adultery against her
if she will not submit to their will. Susanna refuses, and the case goes to court. If
Susanna can be proven guilty of adultery, she will be executed. However, once the two
men are cross examined separately by a man named Daniel, their scheme is uncovered
and they are executed because they could not prove Susannaʼs inﬁdelity.
This applies to the case of Sherem and Jacob. Sherem accused Jacob of all three
theological violations, but could not prove his guilt. Therefore, Sherem was forced to
take the punishment (death) that normally would have gone to Jacob had Jacob been
In the account of Sherem and Jacob we are told that Sherem was good with words and
able to ﬂatter many with his speaking skills. We see this in Sheremʼs usage of chiasmus
in Jacob 7:17-19. It reads:
I fear lest I have committed the unpardonable sin,
for I have lied unto God;
for I have denied the Christ,
and said that I believed the scriptures;
and they truly
testifed of him.
And because I have thus lied unto God
I greatly fear lest my case shall be awful; but I confess unto God.
This comes on Sheremʼs deathbed, which shows that Sherem was a master rhetor until
the day he died.
Welch then quoted from an Italian historian, Pietro Bovati, who wrote that the purpose of
all legal actions in the ancient world was to restore peace. This, Welch noted, is exactly
what we see Jacob reﬂecting upon (i.e. the restoration of peace amongst the Nephites
after the Sherem ﬁasco) in the end of his account.
Question: What is the signiﬁcance of Mosiahʼs legal reforms beginning in Mosiah 25?
Answer: These reforms are important because they established religious and political
freedom for the Mulekites and Nephites in Zarahemla. They are also important because
they laid the foundation for later Nephite laws forbidding religious or political
Welch then turned to the trial of Korihor. He noted that Korihor took advantage of
Nephite laws of religious freedom to preach his blasphemous theology. Welch further
noted that there was a big controversy amongst the Nephite judges whether or not
speech was considered an action or not, since, while freedom of religion was permitted
in Nephite society, the action of leading others into apostasy was not. It was not until
Korihor began leading others into apostasy that legal action was ﬁnally taken by the
Chief Judges and Alma the High Priest. Korihor ﬁnally received capital punishment
because it was determined that he led others into apostasy.
Question: Is Nephiʼs slaying of Laban an example of this procedure of inﬂicting the
intended punishment of the defendant on the plaintiff?
Answer: Probably. Laban had falsely accused Nephi and his brethren of being robbers
and had stolen their goods (both of which were punishable by death in ancient Near
Eastern civil law) and thus perhaps this is why he was killed.
Welch then turned to the case of Alma and Amulek in Ammonihah and commented on
how it is a classic example of what happens to “apostate cities”. The legal and religious
system in Ammonihah was extremely corrupt in many ways.
1.The priests and lawyers broke all three theological violations that warrant capital
2.Zeezrom attempted to bribe Amulek (Alma 11) which is forbidden in the Law of Moses
and punishable by death.
3.The people would not repent even after prophetic warning.
Therefore, Ammonihah was destroyed (like Sodom and Gomorra) by the Lord because
no one would repent and turn to the Lord.
Question: What is the signiﬁcance of the priests and lawyers spitting and slapping Alma
Answer: This was a method of indictment in the ancient world.
Question: How much about ancient Near Eastern law was known in Joseph Smithʼs
Answers: Not much would have been readily available to Joseph Smith. Not only that,
but to bring everything together so perfectly like in the Book of Mormon is simply
incredible. Only someone extremely familiar with these complicated ancient laws could
do it so masterfully.
Question: Why should we know all of this?
Answer: Because if we know that the Book of Mormon is true then we need to
understand it as an ancient record describing real people.