Resolving the “six hundred years” Problem of the Book of Mormon

In keeping with the fact that Nephi did not slay Laban in vain to obtain the books of Moses (engraved upon the “plates of brass”); that the LORD really did lead Lehi’s company to a land where they could keep the Law of Moses “in all things”, including seasonal ordinances based in the temperate Northern Hemisphere; even with these constraints, a challenging Book of Mormon chronology problem is resolved.

The Book of Mormon records that “a Messiah” would come “six hundred years” from the time that the Israelite prophet Lehi departed Jerusalem. (1 Nephi 10:4; 19:8; 2 Nephi 25:19) The ancient American historian, Mormon further records that Lehi and his family “came out of Jerusalem in the first year of the reign of Zedekiah, the king of Judah.”   (Genealogical preface to 3 Nephi)

Some early historical works list Zedekiah’s reign as commencing 599 years before the “Christian era”. (Appendix Dissertation V to The Complete Works of Josephus; translated by William Whiston, 1867 – 1752) Assuming that the Lord was actually born near “Anno Domini” in 1 or 2 CE, this appears to support the “six hundred years” mentioned in the Book of Mormon. No problem - right? Well, not exactly. More recent estimates of Zedekiah’s first regnal year mark 597 BCE (Before the Common Era), and many now see the birth of Yeshua fitting closer to 5 BCE. (Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, Princeton University Press, 1964, pp. 320-323, 325) In that case, the Book of Mormon prophecy appears to be off by as much as eight years!  

In reading the Book of Mormon, have you noticed that while Lehi’s company were journeying to the Promised Land, they didn’t describe the passage of time in terms of months, but in terms of “days” and “years”? (1 Nephi 16:15, 17, 33; 17:4, 7, 20-21, 52; 18:9, 23)

At times in their journey, the seasons and phases of the moon stopped making sense to them - until they arrived in the Promised Land!

“Shanah” comes from the Hebrew word for “change” (שנה). The Hebrew word “shanah” is translated “year”, but “shanah” is not quite the same as a year in the modern sense defined by the Gregorian calendar.

The Promised Land “shanah” or Israelite year is variable at 12 or 13 lunar months (true “moonths”). How long the Promised Land “shanah” is depends on agriculture – in particular the ripening of barley in the fields. The Karaite Jews, who rely almost exclusively on the Torah (Law of Moses), understand this. They understand that before the Babylonian captivity, the designation of the first month, year to year, depended on a particular crop. (Click here for more on the meaning of "aviv" and the importance of barley in ancient Israelite culture)

The simplicity and genius of the LORD’s Promised Land calendar is that it is able to designate months by the moon, yet track the seasons by adding a leap month as needed.

The divinely appointed first month in the Promised Land always occurred in the spring of the Northern Hemisphere following the “aviv” of barley. “Aviv or “Abib” (KJV) is a key stage of barley ripening. Ripened barley was essential for a springtime grain offering performed yearly by the Priesthood in the Temple during the month of the “aviv”. (Exodus 12:1-2; 13:4, 10; 23:15; 34:18, Leviticus 23:10-12, Deuteronomy 16:1) This was a requirement of the Law of Moses that must also have been satisfied in the American land of Israel – “choice above all other lands”. (2 Nephi 10:19) Certain Priesthood ordinances could only be performed at “the place which the LORD thy God shall choose to place his name”. (Deuteronomy 16:5) The Book of Mormon indicates that the LORD had chosen to place his name in more than one land.

The Book of Mormon symbolically relates the springtime “first-fruits” barley offering to resurrection. (2 Nephi 2:8-9, Jacob 4:11) The wave offering of barley occurred prophetically on the first day of the week (the day following Shabbat) during the week of Passover. (Leviticus 23:10-11)

If the barley in the fields (Mosiah 9:9) was not mature enough at the end of the twelfth month, then the designation of the first month of the year had to be postponed an extra month. (Alfred Edersheim, The Temple – Its Ministry and Services As They Were at the Time of Jesus Christ, Ch. 10, pg. 136)

When Lehi left Jerusalem in the first year of the reign of Zedekiah [1], being on a journey, Lehi and his company were excused from observing certain seasonal ordinances on time. (Numbers 9:9-13) There was even a reasonable provision in the Law allowing them to eat forbidden things (including blood) in order to save their lives. For a man is to “live in” the statutes of the LORD - not die because of them. (Leviticus 18:5, 1 Nephi 17:2)

Nephi had killed a man (Laban) so that future generations in the Promised Land would have the Law of Moses in detail to obey. (1 Nephi 4:14-16) Nephi would later attest that the LORD had in fact led his people to a land where they could keep the Law of Moses “in all things”. (2 Nephi 5:10)

Until they and their seed from Jerusalem could be established in the Promised Land, they could not fully observe all of the ordinances of the Law. Much of the Law is Promised Land based. (E.g. Leviticus 19:23; 23:10; 25:2) While journeying, Lehi was not always required to keep track of seasons and months – nor indeed could he! The strange and varying seasons encountered during their travels could not be counted on for ordering the year.

During their voyage, the progress of the lunar phases appeared to change from right to left (seen from the Northern Hemisphere; same as the direction of Hebrew writing, and the writing on the Book of Mormon plates; History of the Church, Vol. 1, pg. 71) to left to right (seen from the Southern Hemisphere), back to the familiar right to left again, as they arrived in the American Promised Land. In the American Promised Land, the constellations and lunar phases were again familiar, but during their voyage, The cycles of the moon (about 29.5 days per cycle) would not always coordinate with the seasons – so the pilgrim Lehi could not rely on cycles of the moon and seasons to accurately tell the “year”.

Months are never mentioned in the account of Lehi’s journey. The units of time that were kept track of were “days” and “years”. If agricultural seasons could not be relied on to determine the length of a “shanah” (“year”), how did Lehi measure “shanim” (“years”) during his travels to the Promised Land?

Lehi’s company could always discern the passing of days. The journey “shanah” must therefore have been based on a set number of days. Lehi could have relied on a fixed number of days to define a “shanah”, independent of the cycles of the moon and the seasons.

The journey “shanah” may have been divinely appointed. (1 Nephi 19:8)

When did Lehi start counting “years” to Messiah’s coming? From his Jerusalem departure we are told! (1 Nephi 10:4; 19:8, 2 Nephi 25:19) It must therefore have been the fixed journey “shanah” and not the adjustable Promised Land “shanah” that was the prophetic unit of time marking the Messiah’s coming in “six hundred years”.

The Nephites could have easily distinguished these two units by masculine and feminine plural endings. Prophetic journey “years” would be “shanim”, and Promised Land years would be “sh’not”. Both of these plural forms are found in Hebrew scripture, and both are translated “years”. The distinction is lost in translation; but it is possible to discern between the two measures of time in Nephite scripture. Lehi’s prophetic shanim are always measured from the time he left Jerusalem.

Remember, “shanim” (pronounced shah-neem) is Hebrew for “years”. The masculine plural ending (-im) is appropriate in light of the count to his (Messiah’s) coming. Examples of “years” spelled “shanim” in Hebrew scripture are: Exodus 21:2, Leviticus 25:21.  

“Sh’not” (pronounced “shehn-oat) is also Hebrew for “years”. The feminine plural ending (-ot) is appropriate for designating years in the American Promised Land following the divine Israelite calendar. (Psalm 104:19) The covenant land (ha-aretz) is spoken of in Hebrew scripture as feminine. (E.g. Leviticus 25:22-23; 26:34, Helaman 11:17) Examples of “years” spelled “sh’not” in Hebrew scripture are: Deuteronomy 32:7, Isaiah 38:15.

Faithful Nephites in America continued to tally Lehi’s journey “shanim” long after settling in the Promised Land. They did this not as a requisite calendar, but for the sole purpose of counting “years” to Messiah’s coming. Lehi’s journey “shanah” could not be used to establish months of the festival calendar, so the count of “years” from Lehi’s departure wasn’t so much a calendar as it was a tally.

Once the Nephites were established in the Promised Land, the Law of Moses set the practical calendar which became Nephite custom. The calendar became convention whether or not the people were righteous, as in the Biblical Promised Land. (Isaiah 1:11-17) The passage of time measured in Lehi’s journey “years”, on the other hand, became a purely religious exercise with an eye single to Messiah’s coming.

Nephite months in the American Promised Land were essentially the same numerated Promised Land months or Israelite months that we find mentioned in the Bible. The very same calendar was used by the Nephites that is so integral to the Law of Moses – for they and converted Lamanites strictly kept the Law “in all things”. (2 Nephi 5:10; 11:4; 18:10, 19-20; 25:24-30, Jacob 4:5, Enos 1:20-21, Jarom 1:5, 11, Mosiah 2:3; 3:14-15; 24:5, Alma 25:15-16; 30:3; 31:9, 34:14, Helaman 13:1; 15:15, 3 Nephi 25:4, Ether 12:11)

The estimated birth of Messiah near 5 or 6 BCE (having an uncertainty on the order of about a year; Matthew 2:16) is based on the lunar eclipse of 4 BCE, observed in Palestine near the time of the death of Herod “the Great”. (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Chapter V.)

Nebuchadnezzar (“Nebuchadrezzar”) is believed to have ascended the Babylonian throne in 605 BCE. (Richard A. Parker and Waldo H. Dubberstein, Babylonian Chronology 626 B.C. - A.D. 75, Brown University Press, 1956, pg. 12) Subtract 19 years from 605 BCE to estimate the time of the fall of Jerusalem and the end of Zedekiah's reign. (Jeremiah 52:8-13) Add 11 to this results for the years of Zedekiah's reign (Jeremiah 52:5), and we arrive at the first regnal year of Zedekiah commencing in  597 BCE. (Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, Princeton University Press, 1964, pp. 320-323, 325)

In order to determine the possible number of years between the first year of Zedekiah's reign 597 BCE (first regnal year) or 598 BCE (year of accession) and the birth of the Anointed, we should know the precision or uncertainty of the ~598, 597 BCE date.  If the precision of this date is based on astronomical observation relating to the kings of Babylon (i.e. records in the Babylonian Chronicles), this would tend to make the estimate rather precise (being based on celestial mechanics); compared to say, the radiocarbon dating of an archaeological artifact from the same time period. We need to know quantitatively how uncertain the date of Zedekiah’s first year of reign really is! Given this information, we may better propose the number of days in the journey “shanah”. Short this information we can proceed with a test based on a reasonable estimate of how many days may have composed Lehi’s journey “year”.

Let’s suppose that the journey “shanah” given to the pilgrim Lehi (his “prophet’s time”; Doctrine and Covenants 130:4) was a “perfect” period of exactly 360 days. An ideal year of 360 days is a good average between a purely lunar year (~354 days) and the solar year (~365.25 days). The number 360 is completely divisible by 12. It is the traditional number of compass degrees. By comparison the divine lunisolar Promised Land year (which tracks the seasons of the temperate Northern Hemisphere) averages out in the long-term to about 365.242 days per year.

IIn anticipation of Messiah’s birth, all the Nephites had to do was to keep counting and recording days in groups of 360, calling them shanim “from the time Lehi left Jerusalem”, and then to keep this prophetic tally separate from the months and years (sh’not) that pertained to the Law of Moses.

In review:

         Lehi could not have relied on the divine Israelite calendar to determine “years” while he was journeying far from both Promised Lands. He could not tell from the seasons in foreign places whether the year should be defined as 12 months or 13 months. Time from his Jerusalem departure is never given in months - this is a clue. Lehi likely relied on a revealed fixed number of days to define a year during his journey. After Lehi’s people settled in the American Promised land, they were able to keep “the commandments of the Lord, in all things according to the law of Moses.” (2 Nephi 5:10) The Nephites continued to count Lehi’s shanim separately as a prophetic count to Messiah’s coming. (1 Nephi 10:4)

        IIn the American Promised Land, Nephites and converted Lamanites referenced the lunisolar Israelite calendar as they strictly kept the Law of Moses on a daily, monthly and yearly basis. (Mosiah 13:30-31) You cannot strictly keep the Law of Moses in all things and omit the divine calendar. The LORD would not have led Lehi’s people to a land where they could not have kept all the commandments. (2 Chronicles 8:12-13, 2 Nephi 5:16)

Here then are the proposed rules for Nephite scripture:

      All “years” measured from the time Lehi left Jerusalem are 360 day shanim.

  All other years (e.g. relating to the reign of kings or judges in the land, wars etc.) are sh’not measured according to the Israelite calendar. Nephite  sh’not therefore consist of either 12 or 13 months, tracking the seasons of the temperate Northern Hemisphere.

It’s ok for a verse to reference both measures of time./span> Let’s demonstrate how these different measures of time, both translated “years”, fit scripture:

We read that Mosiah son of Benjamin began to reign “in the thirtieth year of his age”, meaning that he was between his 30th and 31st birthdays in the land. He was 30+ Promised Land “sh’not” (Promised Land years) when he began to reign. We also read that this event corresponded to “about” 476 journey “shanim” (journey “years”) from Lehi’s departure. (Mosiah 6:4)

We read that Mosiah died in the 33rd Promised Land year of his reign.  He was between 63 and 64 Israelite years old when he died. We are told that this event corresponded “in the whole” to 509 “years” from the Jerusalem departure. (Mosiah 29:46) We conclude that the “five hundred and nine years” is estimated in Lehi’s prophetic journey years – “shanim”.

It makes sense that in the Book of Mormon, time from Lehi’s Jerusalem departure is always measure in Lehi’s prophetic “years”; which he started counting after leaving Jerusalem; whereas months and other historical events in the land are measured according to the Israelite calendar. Again, the number of days per Israelite year, averaged over many years, is about 365.242.

The relation between king Mosiah’s age (ש1) in Israelite Promised Land based years, and time from Lehi’s departure in journey “years” (ש0), can be mathematically modeled as a simple linear function having slope m = 365.242/360 and intercept b1. Like this:

(1)     ש0  ≈  m ש1  +  b1

This does not mean that the Nephites had to use linear functions to keep track of time. Simple linear functions are effective for testing and for showing how scriptural dates fit.

Because b1 is constant, an interval of time in Promised Land years (Δ ש1) corresponds to an interval of time in journey “years” (Δ ש0) according to the following basic formula:

(2)     Δ ש0  ≈  m Δ ש1

Must we deal with formulas to resolve these matters?

Well, there’s the risk of oversimplifying the problem if we don’t. Here is an example of an overly simplified argument:

       Mosiah began his reign 476 years from Lehi’s departure. (Mosiah 6:4)

        Mosiah died 509 years from Lehi’s departure. (Mosiah 29:46)

        So Mosiah reigned 509 – 476 = 33 years.

Ah, but there’s a problem here: Scripture teaches that Mosiah died in the 33rd year of his reign. (Mosiah 29:46) The 33rd year of Mosiah’s reign started 32 years after he became king, so Mosiah actually reigned less than 33 years.

We see that oversimplifying a problem can lead to inaccurate conclusions. We need to use exactness and care in these matters. We need to be mindful of margins of error and approximations. We need to be careful how we mix similar but not identical measures. For example: 476 yards + 33 meters is not equal to 509 yards, neither is 476 shanim + 33 sh’not equal to 509 shanim.

To demonstrate a more excellent and exact approach let’s suppose that king Mosiah reigned about 32.62 years in the land. The scripture says that Mosiah died “in the thirty and third year of his reign, being sixty and three year old; making in the whole five hundred and nine years from the time Lehi left Jerusalem.” (Mosiah 29:46) If Mosiah reigned ~32.62 Promised Land years, this of course satisfies the scriptural requirement that he died “in the thirty third year of his reign…” But how many prophetic journey “years” elapsed during Mosiah’s ~32.62 year reign in the land? The answer is about 33.1 journey “years”. Here is how this was calculated:

(365.242/360) x 32.62 ≈ 33.1 journey “years”.

So the passage of about 32.62 years in the land corresponded to the passage of about 33.1 prophetic “years” of the type measured by Lehi during his journey. Can this fit the other scriptural requirements? Let’s see:

Suppose 475.5 journey years had passed when Mosiah began to reign. [2] This arguably satisfies the requirement that it was “in the whole, about four hundred and seventy-six years from the time that Lehi left Jerusalem” when Mosiah began to reign. (Mosiah 6:4) When Mosiah passed away, how many journey “years” would have elapsed (from Lehi’s departure)?

The answer is 475.5 + 33.1 about 508.6 journey years, or as the scripture says: “making in the whole, five hundred and nine years from the time Lehi left Jerusalem.” (Mosiah 29:46)

It is unlikely that Mosiah passed away precisely on the anniversary of Lehi’s departure. Mormon’s expression “making in the whole” indicates some kind of rounding process. It is likely that he perceived 508.9, 508.8, 508.7, or 508.6 as “making in the whole” 509.

Time from Lehi’s departure is never expressed in months because a 360 day “year” is not exactly divisible by the lunar period. Nephite sh’not, on the other hand, are composed of months - true lunar cycles. (E.g. Alma 14:23; 16:1)

It is clear that Mormon did not arrive at 509 “years” by mixing units in over simplified addition:

476 + 33 = 509

For one thing, Mosiah son of Benjamin did not reign exactly 33 years.

If Mosiah was 30.39 Israelite years old when he started to reign, “in the thirtieth year of his age”, he would have been about 30.39 + 32.62 or about 63.01 Israelite years old when he died; or to put it as simply as scripture does: “sixty and three years old” when he died. Given such information b1 can be estimated from equation (1), but we don't need to do this here. Let’s continue.

Some have gotten the impression that king Mosiah’s reign ended and then the reign of the judges commenced. This isn’t quite correct! King Mosiah was alive when the first year of the judges commenced. (Alma 17:6)

The expressions “year of the reign of the judges”, and “year of the judges” are synonymous. (Alma 16:1, 9; 53:23; 54:1)

Scripture indicates that the last days of Mosiah’s reign and the commencement of the reign of the judges were not mutually exclusive. (Mosiah 29:11) They overlapped. (Mosiah 29:39-41) The reign of the elected judges was commenced at the request of king Mosiah. It was his laws, the laws of his fathers and of God, that the judges were obliged to enforce in the land. (Alma 1:1, 14; 11:1, 4; 27:9) It was king Mosiah who caused that the people should be governed by their own voice. (Alma 10:19)

It is true that the death of Mosiah son of Benjamin “ended the reign of the kings over the people of Nephi”. (Mosiah 29:47) He said he would be their king the remainder of his days; but before Mosiah died, judges were appointed and put in office “to rule”. (Mosiah 29:11, 30, 41-47) It is clear that “the reign of the judges” actually commenced before the death of Mosiah, (Mosiah 29:44-47) and that Mosiah died sometime in the first year of the judges. (Alma 1:1-2) Illness could have incapacitated Mosiah in his final days.

Scripture does not tell us the month Mosiah died in. It appears he died before the trial of the murderer Nehor, which we only know occurred sometime in the first year of the judges. (Alma 1:1-2)

Again, oversimplifying the facts can lead to dubious conclusions. Consider for instance the following facts:

      The LORD told all Israel when the year was to begin.

       Zedekiah's first regnal year started at the time designated as the first of the year.

       Lehi left Jerusalem in the first year of Zedekiah's reign.

       Mosiah died ~509 years after Lehi's departure.

       The 92nd year of the judges (91 years after the start of the first year) started ~600 years from Lehi's departure. The 92nd year is the year of the Savior's birth.  

509 + 91 = 600

So, can we conclude that Mosiah died on an anniversary of Lehi’s departure, which happened to be the start of the year - the first year of the reign of the judges?

No - such a conclusion ignores the fact that Mosiah died after the commencement of the reign of the judges. It was not the start of the reign of the judges that scripture says happened about 509 “years” from Lehi’s departure, it was the passing of Mosiah. His death came to pass after the commencement of the reign of the judges. (Mosiah 29:44-47, Alma 17:6) The Nephite (Israelite) year in which the judges came to power started before the sons of Mosiah went up to the land of Nephi. (Mosiah 28:9-10; 29:1-3 Alma 17:6) The year did not start with the death of king Mosiah, or with the reign of the judges. The year started at the appointed time set by the LORD in Torah. (Exodus 12:1-3; 13:4)

The fact that Mosiah died about “five hundred and nine years from the time Lehi left Jerusalem”, and that the 92nd year of the judges commenced about “six hundred years from the time Lehi left Jerusalem” (3 Nephi 1:1) fits the fact that Mosiah passed away in the first year of the reign of the judges. (Mosiah 29:44-47, Alma 1:1; 17:6)

Care must be taken in comparing years of reign and “years” from Lehi’s departure. Even though both are translated “years”, comparing sh’not and shanim is again like comparing meters and yards. 509 shanim + 91 sh’not is not equal to 600 shanim! The values need to be properly converted before operations are performed.

The reign of the judges was counted in ordinal years: 1st, 2nd, 3rd ... In other words, there was no year zero starting the reign of the judges. The reign of the judges commenced with year one. The first year of the judges was the year in which the reign of the judges commenced, but this does not mean that the reign of the judges commenced exactly at the start of the year. We know in fact that the sons of Mosiah took “leave of their father, Mosiah, in the first year of the judges”. (Alma 17:6) Therefore the sons of Mosiah departed to the land of Nephi, the reign of the judges commenced, Alma the elder and Mosiah son of Benjamin passed away, and Nehor was tried, all in the first year of the judges.

“Years” from the Jerusalem departure are not ordinal but cardinal numbers. Time zero was at the start of the journey. Relating years of the judges to Lehi’s prophetic “years” requires another linear function similar to the one relating king Mosiah’s years of reign to “years” from Lehi’s departure.

Let ש2 represent ordinal years of the reign of the judges in the land, commencing with year one (ש2 = 1). Then:

(3)     ש0  ≈  m ש2  +  b2

Again m is (365.242/360), and b2 is the new intercept to be determined.  

King Mosiah could have died in the first year of the reign of the judges near 1 + .65 = ש2, which is about eight months into the first year of the reign of the judges. This fits the time window of Mosiah 29:44-47 and Alma 1:1-2.

We can solve for the intercept b2 by rearranging equation (3) - like this:

(4)     b2  ≈  ש0  -  m ש2  

b2 turns out to be about 506.92 journey “years”. Here is how it was computed:

b2  ≈  508.6 – (365.242/360) x 1.65 ≈ 506.92 journey “years”

With the intercept b2 computed based on a possible date of king Mosiah’s death, we can estimate the prophetic “years” from Lehi’s departure at the end of the 91st year, start of the 92nd year of the reign of the judges. We use equation (3) to do this, plugging in the value of b2 which we just computed. We find that the commencement of the 92nd year of the judges in the land corresponded to about 600.26 prophetic “years”. Here is how this was computed:

(365.242/360) x 92 + 506.92 ≈ 600.26 prophetic “years”, or, as scripture says, “six hundred years from the time Lehi left Jerusalem.” (3 Nephi 1:1)

The ancient Israelite year always started in the spring of the Northern Hemisphere. This was a directive given to all Israel. (Exodus 12:1-3) As long as we are consistent, we may let the Israelite year in the calculation above, be at its latest in the spring. The Hebrew year could have commenced a month earlier (~30 days earlier) in the spring. The position of the Hebrew month in its season can shift by about 30 days. This makes a difference in the decimal of about 30/365.242 ≈ .082 Promised Land years. We can use equation (2) to estimate how much this would affect the prophetic years or shanim. We find the decimal is affected by as much as .083 journey “year”. So, had the first of the Hebrew year started a month earlier, the start of the 92nd year of the judges would have been about 600.18 prophetic shanim from the time Lehi left Jerusalem.

And some said, “Behold, the time is past, for the words to be fulfilled …” concerning the coming of Messiah. (3 Nephi 1:5) But their doubt was premature - the prophecy was soon fulfilled!

Keep in mind that the Israelite Promised Land year could be a minimum of about 29.5 x 12 = 354 days. The Israelite year could occasionally be a maximum of about 384 days. Over a long time, the average Promised Land year would effectively work out to be about 365.242 days per year. But because the ancient Israelite year is based on agriculture (i.e. the “aviv” of barley), in theory, weather and climate vicissitudes could lead to a string of shorter 12 month years. Over crucial intervals of time in the above calculations, it is possible that the average number of days per “year” could have been less than 365. This means that the decimal after the 600 prophetic “year” could be even less.

By calculation, we have found that the end of the 91st year of the judges corresponds to about 600.18 “years from the time that Lehi left Jerusalem”. How big of a margin of error accompanies the 600 year prophetic estimate? Does scripture give us any indication? Is a margin of .18 of a journey “year” acceptable?

The English translation of the Book of Mormon never says, …from the day Lehi left Jerusalem, but rather, “from the time …” Nephi in fact notes the passing of thirty years “from the time we left Jerusalem.” (2 Nephi 5:28) Did Nephi have his wife and Zoram in mind when he wrote “we”? (2 Nephi 5:6) As long as his sons were at Jerusalem, did Lehi consider himself completely out of the city?

3 Nephi 1:2 mentions: “…all those things which had been kept sacred from the departure of Lehi out of Jerusalem.” The sacred things referred to included the plates of brass and the ball or director. Lehi’s departure out of Jerusalem apparently encompassed the time when his family acquired the sacred records and the director. Evidently, Lehi was only in the process of departing Jerusalem until he had “fulfilled all the commandments of the Lord”, concerning the records and his sons. (1 Nephi 16:8) At that point, Lehi was commanded “that on the morrow he should take his journey into the wilderness.” (1 Nephi 16:9) It was then he was given a “round ball of curious workmanship… that pointed the way… into the wilderness.” (1 Nephi 16:10)  Preparations, travel days, impediments and delays all considered, “the departure of Lehi out of Jerusalem” could have had a temporal margin of several weeks if not months.  The duration of .18 of a journey year is roughly equivalent to a couple of month’s time.

Continuing with scripture and calculations:

The passing away of the 99th year of the judges roughly corresponded to about 608.38 prophetic “years”. Here is how this was computed:

(365.242/360) x 100 + 506.92 ≈ 608.38 prophetic “years” from the time Lehi left Jerusalem. (3 Nephi 2:4) About 608.29 prophetic shanim if the 101st year of the judges started a month earlier.

And also a hundred years had passed away since the days of Mosiah, who was king over the people of the Nephites.” (3 Nephi 2:5)

The expression, “since the days of...” (מִימֵי) is not numerically precise. It doesn’t exactly mean “since the death of...”. See, for instance, how this expression is used in Ezra 4:2; 9:7, Nehemiah 8:17, Alma 40:18; 50:23, Helaman 8:19, 3 Nephi 24:7, Ether 1:4 etc.

The passing of a hundred years “since the days of Mosiah (3 Nephi 2:5) connotes a range of days, not a precise date. If we argue that it means from his death, this would suggest about 610.05 prophetic “years” from the time Lehi left Jerusalem. Here is how this is estimated:

(365.242/360) x (100 + 1.65) + 506.92 ≈ 610.05 prophetic “years” measured from the time Lehi left Jerusalem. About 609.97 shanim, if the 101st year started a month earlier.

But the words, “since the days of Mosiah, who was king over the people of the Nephites” could simply be another way of saying, from about the first year of the reign of the judges (which included the last days of Mosiah), this works out to be about 609.39 journey “years” from the time Lehi left Jerusalem. Here is how to calculate this:

(365.242/360) x 101 + 506.92 ≈ 609.39 journey “years” from the time Lehi left Jerusalem. About 609.31 shanim, if the 101st year started a month earlier. In other words about “six hundred and nine years … since Lehi left Jerusalem.” (3 Nephi 2:6)

But we may also estimate the date passed the 99th year of the judges, that more precisely correlated with 609 shanim, this may in fact be closer to the date 3 Nephi 2:5 is referring to. The date is about 100.61 in the 100th year of the judges. Here is how to compute it using equation (3):

(609 -  b2)/m  ≈  100.61 in the 100th year of the judges.

This date was 99.61 years from the commencement of the reign of the judges (which started year 1). 100 Israelite years before this date in the 100th year of the judges, definitely reached into the “days of Mosiah”. We assume here that the 100th year started at its latest in the spring. Had the year commenced a month earlier, the estimate would be closer to 99.7, or almost 100 years from the start of the reign of the judges.

It is curious that in 3 Nephi 2:5, Mormon chose to use the less specific phrase “since the days of Mosiah...” instead of referencing the year of the judges as he did in the verses before. Perhaps he was intentionally trying to match sh’not with the passing of “six hundred and nine” shanim from Lehi's departure.

This brings up an important point on the accuracy of the above estimates: The above estimates are based on the long-term average of 365.242 days per Promised Land year. It is likely that the nine years starting from the year of the sign consisted of seven 354 day years and two 383.5 day years. This yields an average of about 360.56 days per year. [3]

The scripture continues:

“And nine years had passed away from the time the sign was given” that is from the event in the 92nd year of the judges. (3 Nephi 2:7) This nine year anniversary of the sign could have occurred between about 609.31 journey “years” and (365.242/360) x 102 + 506.92 ≈ 610.41 journey “years” from the time Lehi left Jerusalem. (3 Nephi 2:7) [3]

Thus we see that all the times listed in 3 Nephi 2:5-7 are proximal – occurring at close to the same time. The scripture is not saying that the hundredth year from the days of Mosiah, and the six hundred and ninth “year” from Lehi’s departure, and the ninth year from the bright sign of Messiah’s coming, all happened simultaneously. The scripture (3 Nephi 2:4-7) lists events that came to pass; three of which occurred near each other, that is, near the 609th journey “year” from Lehi’s departure 

Journey “years” are still being mentioned by Mormon at this point in scripture (609th to 610th years of the judges), because the start of the Nephite calendar had not yet been re-ordered from “the period when the sign was given…” (3 Nephi 2:8) 

After the Nephite calendar was adjusted, there was no need to continue tallying Lehi’s prophetic shanim. The need for keeping track of Lehi’s journey years had been fulfilled – the Messiah had been born! This had been the purpose for tallying Lehi’s prophetic shanim all along. Never again are “years” since Lehi left Jerusalem mentioned in the Book of Mormon.

Years and months in the land continued to be recorded. The Nephites had the calendar they needed to carry on with recording their history, and to anticipate the dark time when Messiah would die. They had the divinely revealed Israelite calendar, based in the Promised Land of the temperate Northern Hemisphere!

The Nephite first month could have lawfully and typically started a month later than the Jerusalem first month, but, given the variation in the start of the year, there had to have been years when the American and Jerusalem first month coincided. The paramount thing was for the LORD’s Passover to be kept “in his season”, according to the designated days of the month. (Exodus 13:10, Leviticus 23:4, Numbers 9:9-13, 2 Chronicles 30:1-3, 15)

Samuel the Lamanite “strictly” kept the Law of Moses. (Helaman 13:1-2) Again, it is  impossible to strictly keep the Law of Moses and not observe the calendar revealed to Moses and Aaron. (Exodus 12:1-2) Samuel the Lamanite’s “five years” Messianic prediction therefore involved “years” defined by the Mosaic calendar. (Helaman 14:1-2) The same is true for the predicted years to Messiah’s death (also prophesied by Samuel the Lamanite, 3 Nephi 8:2-3).

The time of the Messiah’s death was reckoned by the Lamanites and Nephites in Promised Land years, much the same as in Palestine; except that the Nephites started numbering the years from the “period when the sign was given” of Messiah’s birth. The first month of the year continued to be reckoned in the spring as commanded. (Exodus 12:1-3, Leviticus 23:5-14) This of course implies a temperate covenant land in the Northern Hemisphere - a land which actually experiences a spring at the same time as the annual commemoration of Israel’s deliverance. (Exodus 13:4, 10, Numbers 9:3, 5)

According to the Book of Mormon, Messiah’s death occurred in the beginning of the 34th year. About 33 years had passed - starting from the ordinal year of the sign of his birth. The first year (the year of the bright sign) must have commenced in the spring, as did all Israelite, Nephite years. Sometime during that first year, the sign of the Savior’s birth was given. This means that Yeshua was 32+ going on 33 years of age when he was crucified.

If the Savior was born in 5 or 6 BCE as some estimate, this would mean that he was crucified in the spring of either 29 or 28 CE.  The interval of 6 BCE to 28 CE is a possible fit for ST John’s account. The Apostle John relates that the Savior was actually crucified on the preparation day (ostensibly the 14th day) before the Sabbath, near the time of the Full Moon in the first month, when the Passover was sacrificed. (Exodus 12:6) The synoptic gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark and Luke) seem to contradict ST John on this point, and have the trial and crucifixion occurring post Passover. (Frederick Farrar, The Life of Christ, Appendix, Excursus X. (page 555); “Was the Last Supper an Actual Passover?”, pg. 691. For a contrary opinion see Alfred Edersheim, The Temple – Its Ministry and Services As They Were at the Time of Jesus Christ, Appendix, “Did the Lord Institute His “Supper” on the Paschal Night?”, pp. 246-251)

The actual observance of Passover (the Feast of Unleavened Bread) could in theory, have been pushed forward by as much as a day or two if the sighting of the first waxing sliver of the moon (the “new moon”) had been postponed in the preceding months due to overcast skies, or other problems with reckoning. The accepted number of days in the Hebrew month could be either 29 or 30. The start of each month depended on observation. (Alfred Edersheim, The Temple – Its Ministry and Services As They Were at the Time of Jesus Christ, Ch. 10, pp. 136-138)

After these millennia, it is difficult to prove absolutely that the seven day week in ancient Jerusalem was in phase with current days of the week. Yeshua rose on the first day of the week (B'sorot Matti (Hebrew Gospel According to Matthew) 28:1) but does that day truly correspond with our modern Sunday in Europe and the Middle East? How do we know that with the passing of wars, plagues, the commotions of men, nations and nature, and with the ever-present potential of human error, that the days of the week have not shifted?

Mormon expresses some uncertainty as to the exact Nephite “reckoning” (3 Nephi 8:2), Even so, the fact remains, Nephite months were typical of the Israelite calendar. The Law of Moses had not been fulfilled when the need to count “years” from Lehi’s departure had come to an end. (3 Nephi 1:24-25) It is no coincidence therefore that both the Book of Mormon and the Bible place the death of Yeshua in the first month – the month of Pesah (Passover), the month of the “aviv” in the temperate Northern Hemisphere. (3 Nephi 8:5, Helaman 14:20) Mormon, in fact, may have been right in noting the possibility of a “mistake” in the date of the Savior’s death. (3 Nephi 8:2) The “fourth day” should in all likelihood read “fourteenth day”. (3 Nephi 8:5, Numbers 28:16) This would be an easy mistake to make if the number 14 were recorded tersely as the Hebrew letters “yod dalet”. Omitting the “yod” (translated “jot”; “jot” = 10; 3 Nephi 1:25) leaves “dalet” = 4. A similar transcription error exists in the Bible. 2 Kings 24:8 records that Jehoachin was eighteen years old when he began to reign...” The numbers 8 and 10 are explicitly written. 2 Chronicles 36:9 however, states that “Jehoachin was eight years old when he began to reign...” In this verse, the Hebrew number 10 has been dropped.

Nephite record keepers were not beyond making an omission here or there. (3 Nephi 23:12-13) Some Nephite records were definitely written in a form of pre-exilic Hebrew. (Mormon 9:33) The Nephites knew “jot” and used Hebrew letters (which are also numbers). (Alma 34:13) Set by essentially the same phases of moon, the Jerusalem and American Israelite first month could differ by about a month, but it is impossible that they should differ by ten days! The LORD chose the “fourteenth day” of the first month for a reason. (Exodus 12:5-6)

The Savior predicted that the Son of Man would be “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40) His words should be taken seriously, even though they do not seem to fit well with common interpretations of the timing between the crucifixion and the resurrection. The Savior’s “three days and three nights” prophecy fits the prediction made by Samuel the Lamanite in the American Promised Land:

“…in that day that he shall suffer death the sun shall be darkened … and there shall be no light upon the face of this land, even from the time that he shall suffer death, for the space of three days, to the time that he shall rise again from the dead.” (Helaman 14:20)

Could it be that the Savior actually held the Passover supper with his disciples at the appointed time according to the divine calendar (Exodus 12:6, Leviticus 23:5-6), but because of imperfect lunar observations that year, the proclaimed celebration at Jerusalem was not observed until the following evening?

According to the Beloved Apostle, the day of the Savior’s trial and crucifixion was the proclaimed preparation day of the Passover. (ST John 19:14, 31 click on LDS edition footnotes b, c, and d) The first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread was designated a day of rest whether or not it coincided with the seventh day of the week. (Exodus 12:16, Leviticus 23:5-7)

Could it be that “three nights” (not just two) really did pass as prophesied between the Savior’s death and his rising on the first day of the week? [4]

 

In Summary:

We see that the ideal 360 day “year”, used to count “years” during the journey to the Promised Land, satisfies scripture; and was likely employed by the Nephites alongside the Israelite calendar. We see that the Israelite calendar was used by the Nephites to keep track of months (true lunar cycles), to chronicle their history, and to faithfully observe the ordinances of Torah.

Journey “shanim” were used by the Nephites only to carry on the count of “years” from the time of Lehi’s departure. This was done with an eye single to Messiah’s birth - anticipating a full 600 prophetic “shanim” at his coming. These nomadic units of time translated “years” were not and could not be the basis of a sedentary, seasonal calendar. During the journey to America, Lehi was obliged to define a “year” as a fixed number of days. He could not rely on the moon and seasons in foreign places to tell how long a year should be. Specific and implied mentions in the Book of Mormon to “years” from the time Lehi left Jerusalem, and to “years” passed in journeying to the Promised Land, are moonless fixed shanim relating to Lehi’s pilgrimage and prophecy.

The record from the smaller plates of Nephi has many references to time from the Jerusalem departure. (2 Nephi 5:28, 34, Jacob 1:1, Enos 1:25, Jarom 1:5, 13, Omni 1:3, 5-6) The reason the smaller plates of Nephi have so many references to shanim from Lehi’s departure is because this record has a particular focus on the prophetic mission of Messiah. (1 Nephi 19:8, 2 Nephi 4:14; 5:33)

There are more references to sh’not on the larger plates; pertaining to the historical record of kings, judges and wars etc. Unlike shanim, Nephite sh’not are composed of months (true lunar cycles)! (E.g. Alma 14:33; 16:1) Promised Land “sh’not” (also translated “years”) consisted of either 12 or 13 months each, depending on seasonal, agricultural need.

We read that the Mulekites and Nephites counted “moons”. (Omni 1:21) The very Hebrew word translated “month” derives from the word for “new”, connoting “new moon”. Scriptural “months” are inextricably tied to observed lunar cycles.  Chronicling lunar cycles, was both a practical and religious undertaking in agrarian Israelite society.

As in the Bible, months and years of the reigns of kings and judges were based primarily on the calendar the LORD revealed to Moses and Aaron. It is this divine and practical calendar that the followers of Nephi were able to re-establish by lunar and agrarian observation, once they were settled in their inheritance. In America, they found everything that was needful to strictly keep the Law of Moses in all things.” (2 Nephi 5:10)

How does Lehi’s prophetic journey “year” resolve the “six hundred years” problem of the Book of Mormon?

If the first year of the reign of Zedekiah commenced in 597 or 598 BCE as recent estimates suggest, it would have been a little after this date that Lehi started counting days to the coming of Messiah. The relationship between years Before the Common Era (YBCE) and ideal “shanim” as counted by Lehi, is roughly given by:

(5)     YBCE  ≈  597  –  m-1 ש0  

Expressed another way:

ש0  ≈  m(597  -  YBCE)

Given that Messiah was born near 5 or 6 BCE, how many prophetic “years” would have passed from Lehi’s departure? The answer(s):

(365.242/360) x (598 – 6) ≈ 600.62 journey “years”.

The same answer results from:

(365.242/360) x (597 – 5) ≈ 600.62 journey “years”.

Using 6 BCE we obtain:

(365.242/360) x (597 – 6) ≈ 599.61 journey “years”.

Using 598 BCE for the start of Zedekiah’s reign we obtain:

(365.242/360) x (598 – 5) ≈ 601.63 journey “years”.

Keep in mind that since Lehi left Jerusalem after the start of Zedekiah’s reign, the above estimates should be slightly reduced. The “six hundred years from the time Lehi left Jerusalem” indeed seems to fit; give or take a year!

If the 92nd year of the judges corresponded to either 5 or 6 BCE, then Lehi left Jerusalem in approximately 5 + 600.18/m ≈ 596.56 BCE, or else 6 + 600.18/m ≈ 597.56 BCE, respectively. Note that these estimates are based on the 92nd year of the judges commencing at ~600.18 journey “years” from Lehi's departure.

The purpose of these exercises has been to demonstrate that a teaming up of the ancient biblical calendar and the prophetic 360 day “year” can satisfy Book of Mormon accounts. Annotated dates in recent editions of the Book of Mormon are error prone.

 

The scenario is open to adjustment

Famine between the 73rd and 76th years in the land impacted the growth of “…her fruit, and her grain in the season of grain” and therefore may have impacted the “sh’not” (“years”, feminine) of the agrarian Nephite calendar. (Helaman 11:5-6, 13, 17) There were numerous mouths to feed in the land and little food. Thousands perished in “the more wicked parts of the land.” Decimated were those who depended on the fruits of others.

People abandoned their dry, wasted lands and congregated near bodies of freshwater such as the “sea west”, where they could quench their thirst and irrigate their crops. Where does scripture hint that “the sea west” was an inland freshwater sea? When the famine abated, we read that the people began again to spread upon the face of the land, “from the sea west to the sea east.” (Helaman 11:20) The situation calls to mind the biblical famine in the land of Egypt, and the regions round about, where even the effluence of the Nile, a river called a “sea” in scripture, did not yield enough by way of irrigation, to feed the multitudes during the drought. (Genesis 47:18-19, Isaiah 19:5))

The years of drought may have had premature springs and shorter cold seasons, with minimal to no precipitation. Crops failed in the extended dry warmer months. If the drought had begun in a twelve month year, the calendar may have been allowed to cycle through an unusually long sequence of twelve month “sh’not”. A twelve month Israelite year is only about 354 days. The Nephites did not follow post-exilic calendar rules. A thirteenth month was added to the year only when agricultural need required.

Special thanks to Ken Chamberlain who first suggested to me that the “six hundred years” problem of the Book of Mormon might be resolved by a 360 day year.

 

Final notes:

[1]     Biblical scholars are mainly aware of the imprisonment of the Prophet Jeremiah in the “tenth year of Zedekiah king of Judah”. (Jeremiah 32:1-2) I accept footnote d of 1 Nephi 7:14, which tacitly relates Jeremiah 37:15(15-21) to an earlier imprisonment of Jeremiah near the time of Lehi’s departure.

 

[2]    Using the departure date estimates (either ~596.56 or ~597.56 BCE) we can approximate the date BCE when Mosiah son of Benjamin began to rule. This is based on the first regnal year of Zedekiah (in the spring of either 597 or 598 BCE). Assuming that Mosiah began to reign 475.5 journey “year” from Lehi’s departure or “about four hundred and seventy-six years from the time that Lehi left Jerusalem” (Mosiah 6:4), we estimate that Mosiah began to reign about:

596.56 – (360/365.242) x (475.5) ≈ 127.89 BCE, /span>

or, based on a departure date of ~597.56 BCE: ~128.89 BCE

An earlier departure of Lehi (e.g. ~597.73 BCE) could place the commencement of Mosiah’s reign after the first of the year, in the spring, near the time of the Paschal Temple convocation. See note [4].

  

[3]    Assuming seven years of (12 x 29.5) = 354 days per year, and two years with leap months of (13 x 29.5) = 385.5 days each, the average becomes:

(7 x 354 + 2 x 385.5)/9 ≈ 360.56 days per year.

Given that from the start of the reign of the judges, 91 years had passed corresponding to about 600.18 shanim (3 Nephi 1:1), The 100th year from the reign of the judges would then be about:

(360.56/360) x 9 + 600.18 ≈ 609.19 journey “years”.

Nine years from the ending of the 92 year (the year of the sign) would correspond to:

(360.56/360) x 10 + 600.18 ≈ 610.19 journey “years”.

So nine years from the sign could have occurred sometime between journey “years” 609.19 and 610.19.

 

[4]    WHEN EXACTLY WAS THE CRUCIFIXION?

Modern historical sources put Zedekiah’s first year of reign at either 597 or 598 BCE. (King James Translation - LDS edition, Chronology – Bible Dictionary) Zedekiah’s first regal year is estimated to have started on the first day of the first month of the Hebrew calendar in the spring  of 597 BCE. (Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, Princeton University Press, 1964, pp. 320-323, 325)

Zedekiah was installed by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon prior to the start of the year. (2 Kings 24:17, 1 Chronicles 36:10) Why is there no mention in Nephi’s account of the mighty Babylonian army besieging Jerusalem? Could it be that Lehi and Nephi regarded the Hebrew year of Zedekiah’s accession to the throne as his first year of reign, even though Zedekiah had not reined the entire year? If so, Lehi may have actually departed Jerusalem before Zedekiah was installed, and later learned of Nebuchadnezzar’s appointment. (1 Nephi 5:10-13) Nephi then identified the year of his father’s departure with the year in which Zedekiah began to reign.

The birth date of Yeshua is estimated at either 5 or 6 BCE based on the Gospel of Matthew account, and the eclipse of 4 BCE, which according to the Jewish – Roman historian Josephus, occurred near the time of Herod’s death. (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Chapter V.)

Six hundred journey years had passed from the time Lehi left Jerusalem to shortly before the sign of Messiah’s birth. (3 Nephi 1:1, 5) If we grant that the year of the sign commenced 600.26 journey years from Lehi’s departure (fitting the scriptural requirements above), this is equivalent to 600.26/m ≈ 591.65 sh’not or Promised Land years. Add six years (if Messiah was born in 6 BCE) and we get about 597.65 BCE for the approximate date of Lehi’s departure.

Remember, the first month of the Israelite calendar (later named Nisan) is in the spring. The first of the year is not regarded here as starting in January. If the year of Lehi’s departure commenced a month earlier (still in the spring) then Lehi could have left Jerusalem as early as 597.65 + .082 or about 597.73 BCE.

According to 3 Nephi 8:2-3, thirty three years had past, starting with the year of the Savior’s birth. Shortly thereafter the Savior died and a great and terrible destruction ensued in the American Promised Land. This places the Savior’s death at the time of Passover in the year 28 CE.

Allowing for a leap month, we find that the Savior would have been right to conduct the Passover meal with his disciples on what is estimated to have been a Wednesday evening.  The actual 15th day of the first month, would have started the night of Wednesday the 14th, according to exact lunar calculations. See table below:

Passover in 28 CE

Special thanks to Ken Chamberlain for providing the above table of information

Owing to less than ideal lunar observations that year (28 CE), it is entirely possible that the proclaimed celebration of Passover was set instead for the following evening (Thursday). Having observed the Passover meal with his disciples on the evening of the correct day (counted from the time of the true new moon), the Savior was taken, tried and crucified on what was proclaimed to be the 14th day of Nisan (in reality the 15th day). The 14th day of the first month is the preparation day of Passover - the day on which the lamb is slain - “in the evening”. (Exodus 12:5-6) The next day (deemed the 15th of Nisan - a Friday) was proclaimed a day of rest – an effectual Sabbath. (Exodus 12:16, Leviticus 23:6-7) The regular Sabbath followed, followed by the first day of the week (a Sunday) on which Messiah rose! Thus “three days and three nights” had passed as prophesied. (Matthew 12:40, Helaman 14:20)

It is likely that the day of rest, following the Savior’s crucifixion (which was in reality the designated first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread) eventually became confused with the regular Sabbath of the seventh day, and hence the inaccurate perception that Yeshua was tried and crucified on a Friday before the Sabbath. (ST John 19:14, 31 especially click on LDS edition footnote c) The Savior in fact gave up his life precisely at the time lambs were slain in preparation for Pesah (Passover), and he had with exactness and much desire kept the Passover Seder with his disciples the night before. (Luke 22:15)

 

 Vincent Coon      וִינְסֶנט כּוּן    Copyright 2012

 

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