A precise Nephite calendar is proposed which provides exact dates from Lehi to Christ. The dates for King Benjamin’s speech and for the angel’s visit to Amulek witness that it may be correct.
The Book of Mormon contains a totally self-consistent Nephite chronology throughout their thousand-year history, but scholars have been unable to agree on exactly how that chronology corresponds to our calendar. The confusion arises because some Book of Mormon dates for occurrences in Jerusalem do not all appear to agree with accepted dates for those events. Let us first briefly review a simple solution to the discrepancies, propose a possible Nephite calendar which provides precise dates, and then see how sacred calendars witness to the accuracy of that calendar.
The 600-Year ProphecyThe Book of Mormon states that the Lord commanded Lehi to depart from Jerusalem, and that an angel told him that his departure was 600 years before the coming of Christ (1 Nep. 2:2-3, 10:4). That belief was taken so seriously that for over five centuries the years were all reckoned from Lehi’s departure (Mos. 29:46). Even though years were later reckoned from the “reign of the judges,” the people noted when exactly 600 years had expired and still the sign of the birth of Christ had not been given (3 Nep. 1:1,5). Clearly this prophecy should be a huge clue to when Lehi left Jerusalem. Moreover, it is a clear statement that there were more than 600 Nephite “years” between Lehi’s departure and Christ’s birth. Let us now review the two problems which have kept scholars from agreeing on a Nephite chronology.
Timing ProblemOne problem is that it has appeared impossible to squeeze 600 years between Lehi’s departure from Jerusalem and the birth of Christ. Nephi states that Lehi began to preach after the first year of Zedekiah had begun. The beginning date of the first year of Zedekiah is known with as much certainty as any event in the Old Testament: Sat 10 Mar 597 BC (all dates in this article use our modern Gregorian calendar). It is known so well because the precise day is recorded both in the Bible and the Babylonian Chronicles. Scholars place the birth of Christ somewhere in the range of 6-1 BC, but that entire range allows a maximum of about 596 years from Zedekiah. So how could the Nephites have reckoned more than 600 years in that interval? Several researchers have addressed this problem, usually suggesting that the angel referred to some sort of “short year.” Before discussing any solution, let us first consider another serious apparent problem.
Prophecy ProblemLehi prophesied that Jerusalem would be destroyed and the many would be taken captive to Babylon (1 Nep. 1:13, 1 Nep. 10:3), which sounded ludicrous to his sons Laman and Lemuel (1 Nep. 2:13). The problem is that Jerusalem suffered huge destruction in Dec. 601 B.C. , which was understood at the time to have fulfilled Jeremiah’s prophecies that Jerusalem would be destroyed (2 Kings 24:2). Moreover, “all Jerusalem” was taken captive at the same time that Zedekiah began to reign in 597 BC (2 Kings 24:14). Thus, it is difficult to see how Lehi could prophesy the destruction and captivity of Jerusalem after both had already happened. So what is going on here? Is there any way that one explanation could resolve both problems?
Proposed SolutionThere may be one simple solution to this double discrepancy. What if the “Zedekiah” to whom Nephi referred was the king now known as Jehoiakim, who began to reign in 608 BC? If that were the case, then both problems immediately evaporate.
The first destruction of Jerusalem occurred in Dec. 601 BC. No matter what date one accepts for the birth of Christ from 6 to 1 BC, a date for Lehi’s departure could be chosen from 606-601 BC which would have been exactly 600 years before Christ’s birth. So this proposal allows ample time.
Moreover, the entire second problem is resolved because Nebuchadnezzar had not even started to reign in 608 BC, the first year of Jehoiakim. The Bible explicitly states that the prophets Jeremiah and Urijah began to prophesy of the destruction and captivity of Jerusalem at that very time (Jer. 26:1,9,20), and that the Jews responded by mocking and seeking their lives. The incredulity of the people is totally understandable because Jerusalem had withstood the attacks of Assyria and seemed unconquerable with Egypt as its ally. Nephi tells the same story for the first year of Zedekiah: prophets began to preach the destruction and captivity of Jerusalem and were rejected by unbelievers who thought such predictions were impossible.
An alternate way to look at it, which only occurred to me after the rest of this article was written, is to note that Nephi makes the statement that in the first year of Zedekiah “there came many prophets, prophesying unto the people that they must repent, or the great city Jerusalem must be destroyed” (1 Nephi 1:4). Without even reading further to Lehi’s experience, we can simply ask if Nephi’s observation is confirmed in the Bible. As far as I can tell, the answer is no. Instead, the Bible does explicitly state that at the beginning of the reign of Jehoiakim that two prophets (Jeremiah and Urijah) preached exactly that (Jer. 26). Thus we have instant evidence that Nephi’s Zedekiah might be the Bible’s Jehoiakim. Moreover, after the main captivity began, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and even Nephi agree that the next time Nebuchadnezzar would destroy Jerusalem there would only be a few captives taken (Jer. 21:7, Ezek. 5:12, 1 Nep. 17:43). And to emphasize the interchangeability of the names, the next chapter (Jer. 27) also begins talking about Jehoiakim, but there it appears that it really refers to Zedekiah (Jer. 27:3, 12, 20). This all may be confusing, but in order to understand the chronology, it is imperative to understand what Nephi was trying to communicate.
Thus, let us adopt the working hypothesis that Nephi is referring to 608 BC as the first year of Zedekiah, and that Lehi began to preach before Nebuchadnezzar appeared on the scene in 605 BC. Let us now pick some anchor dates as a foundation for a precise Nephite calendar.
Anchor DatesEven though scholars don’t agree on all three of the Nephite dates which are anchored in Old World chronology, the sacred calendars discussed in my articles witness to all of the dates. Whereas all agree on the dates of Jehoiakim, let us now turn to the other two anchor dates.
Death of Jesus ChristThe Book of Mormon records the exact date of the destruction which occurred at the death of the Savior: the fourth day of the first month of the 34th year of Christ (3 Nep. 8:5). Scholars have narrowed down the date of the Crucifixion to only two likely days, either Fri 5 Apr AD 30 or Fri 1 Apr AD 33. While most scholars opt for the first choice, sacred calendars and much other evidence testify that the second date is correct. Thus, one anchor date in my proposal is that Fri 1 Apr AD 33 is the Nephite day “4 First, 34 Christ.” Here I use the proposed notation that the Nephite months be formally named “First”, “Second,” etc., with the day shown numerically (in this case “4”). Similarly “34 Christ” means the 34th year from when the sign was given, which began the counting as the year “1 Christ” (3 Nep. 2:8).
Birth of Jesus ChristEven though scholars don’t agree on the date of the birth of Jesus Christ, the evidence from the sacred calendars discussed in my articles seems overwhelming to me that the Savior was born after sunset on Wed 5 Apr 1 BC. That began the Hebrew day of Passover on Thu 6 Apr, so his birth would be celebrated that following day. That same tradition is observed when Christmas is celebrated on the day after Christmas Eve. The Nephite version of the same story would be that the night which was light all night (3 Nep. 1:15) would have been the night beginning on Wed 5 Apr, and his birth would have been celebrated the next day, on Thu 6 Apr (3 Nep. 1:13).
Lehi’s DepartureIt has already been proposed that Lehi left exactly 600 years before the birth of Jesus Christ, during the night preceding Sun 6 Apr 601 BC. That not only makes the words of the angel exact, using seasonal years, but it also fits well with Passover symbolism. That is, Lehi’s departure is compared in the Book of Mormon to that of Moses at Passover (Alma 9:9, 26:38-39). Let me now refine that proposal to be accurate to quarter-day precision. Let’s postulate that Lehi left after sunset on Sat 5 Apr 601 BC as Passover began, exactly 600 years (within a quarter-day) before the birth of the Savior. Now let us turn to the problem of proposing first a Nephite year length, and then an entire Nephite calendar.
Proposed Nephite CalendarThe Book of Mormon provides precious little detail about the Nephite calendar. While their monetary scheme is explained explicitly (Alma 11:5-19), it appears to be simply assumed that how the calendar works would be common knowledge. That implies that Mormon didn’t think the Nephites were inventing a new calendar. Here are some details which can be gleaned from the text.
Twelve MonthsThe Nephite year seems to consist of twelve months because the eleventh month was “nearly at the end” of the year (Alma 46:37, 49:1). Although the twelfth month is never mentioned, nor any higher number, nearly all ancient calendars had twelve months in the year. Thus, let us adopt a model with twelve months in a year.
365-Day YearThe latter-day apostle Orson Pratt first proposed that the Nephite calendar probably had exactly 365 days, the same as the Egyptian civil calendar in use at Lehi’s time, and also the same as the Native American calendar used thereafter. His suggestion now appears to be correct for the following reasons.
Perfect Fit. John Lefgren first pointed out that a 365-day calendar would fit to the very day between the date given for the death of Christ in the Book of Mormon and the traditional LDS date for the birth of Christ. That is, given that Fri 1 Apr AD 33 is day 4 First, 34 Christ, it turns out that the day Thu 6 Apr 1 BC would be 1 First, 1 Christ. (using my new notation). So even though the Book of Mormon does not explicitly state that the morning after the sign was given was called the first day of the first month of the first year of Christ, that turns out to be true anyway, given a 365-day year. And Mormon may have indeed meant just exactly that when he stated that “the Nephites began to reckon their time from this period when the sign was given” (3 Nep. 2:8).
Timing of Fulfillment. A 365-day Nephite year would also explain why 600 Nephite years expired some months before the birth of Christ. Such a calendar would drop behind our Gregorian calendar by about one day every four years because it has no leap-days. Thus, if the day 1 First, 1 Lehi was in early April in 601 BC, then after 600 years the day 1 First, 601 Lehi would occur about 150 days (about 5 months) earlier in early November 2 BC. So a 365-day year explains why the Nephites reckoned that 600 years had expired several months before Christ was actually born. The angel had been talking about exact Hebrew years (Passover to Passover), but the Nephites had been using a slightly shorter Egyptian year, so it looked as though the Savior had delayed his coming.
Seasonal Warfare. It has been observed that modern-day native warfare in Central America, where most scholars believe the Book of Mormon took place, is mostly confined to a few months of the year. Moreover, the warfare in the Book of Mormon also appears to have occurred in only a few months of the Nephite year. Thus, assuming those are the same months, it has been proposed that at the time of Alma, that the Nephite year began near early December. Let’s see how that conclusion might affect our proposal.
New Year’s Day. The Book of Mormon does not state that the first day of the first month of the first year of Lehi occurred on the day he departed from Jerusalem. Perhaps he just used the standard Egyptian civil calendar and noted the day on which he left. That calendar is well known, so let’s consider that possibility. New Year’s Day (1 Thoth) on the Egyptian civil calendar occurred on Tue 14 Jan 601 BC. If that was the calendar Lehi was using then the New Year’s Day on which Amalickiah was found dead would have been Thu 7 Sep 68 BC (Alma 52:1). That is three months earlier than the seasonal warfare result of early December, which seems too far off to be correct.
On the other hand, suppose Lehi did indeed reckon the day he left as the first day of the first month of the first year of Lehi. It was known that the Egyptian calendar drifted through the seasons so there would be no reason not to reset it at his departure. The Hebrew feasts could still be kept according to the separate Hebrew Calendar which is tied to the seasons of the year.
If so, then the day Sat 5 Apr 601 BC would have been the day 1 First, 1 Lehi. Note that the Egyptian civil day began at dawn, not sunset, so his day of departure would have been Sat 5 Apr, rather than Sun 6 Apr, as it would have if he had used the Hebrew calendar. If Sat 5 Apr 601 BC was 1 First, 1 Lehi, then the New Year’s Day at Amalickiah’s death (1 First, 26 Judges) would have been Mon 27 Nov 68 BC. That fits very nicely with the results of the seasonal warfare study, being nearly in early December.
Proposed ModelThus, combining all of the above results, it is proposed that the Nephite calendar from the time of Lehi to the coming of Christ to the Nephites had twelve months of 30-days each, with 5 days at the end of the year, as did the Egyptian civil calendar, with the day beginning at dawn. Let us call the twelve months “First,” “Second,” etc., with the last five days being like a 5-day month named “End.” The correlation to our calendar is that the day Sat 5 Apr 601 BC was 1 First, 1 Lehi. On the day which would have been 1 First, 510 Lehi, the Nephites began to number the years from the reign of the judges, so let us call that day 1 First, 1 Judges (the New Year’s Day was not changed). Lehi’s 600 years thus expired on the day 1 First, 92 Judges (601 Lehi), which was Thu 11 Nov 2 BC. When the sign did not materialize, finally Nephi prayed at Passover, the day to hope for deliverance. He prayed on Wed 5 Apr 1 BC, which is 14 Nisan or Passover on a calendar which begins at sunrise. That day was 27 Fifth, 92 Judges on his calendar, and that night the sign was given.
A few years later the Nephites reset their calendar so that the day after the sign, Thu 6 Apr 1 BC was 1 First, 1 Christ (3 Nep. 2:7-8). That reckoning was used at least until the death of Christ which occurred on Fri 1 Apr AD 33, or 4 First, 34 Christ. After Christ came he taught them many new things and there are not enough precise dates in the rest of the book of Mormon for me to propose what calendar might have been used thereafter.
Now let us look at how the known sacred calendars testify that this Nephite calendar is correct.
Sacred Calendar WitnessesThere are several precise dates given in the Book of Mormon. Some of them are dates on which a letter was received or military actions took place (Alma 14:23, 16:1, 49:1, 52:1, 56:1). We would not expect those days to be anything special on any of the Lord’s sacred calendars. On the other hand, a few precise dates are given for events which might well be meaningful in a celestial appointment book. While some of those dates have already been thoroughly researched, such as the birth and death dates of Christ, some are unique to the Book of Mormon. Let us consider two dates in particular, both of which are associated with the appearance of an angel. As has been noted often in my work, angels tend to appear on holy days.
Angel visits AmulekThe new convert Amulek who immediately became Alma’s missionary companion provided us with many inspired sermons. In one of his first, he told how an angel of God appeared to him and told him that Alma would soon visit him. Fortunately, he gives us the exact date on which the angel appeared: It was 4 Seventh, 10 Judges (Alma 10:6-7). His conversion story follows, but what is of interest here is that the precise date of the appearance of an angel is given.
Now we have a model for the Nephite calendar which identifies exactly what that day was on our calendar. We need not make any assumptions about what year it might have been, or what time of year. Given the model already described in this paper the date is determined to the very day: it was Sun 2 Jun 83 BC. So was that day anything special?
Moreover, the day was also Firstfruits on the Enoch Calendar. The Enoch calendar Firstfruits only coincides with the Pharisee celebration about once every fifteen years. And if the angel appeared before noon, then the day was a triple major holy day, also being the day 1 Malchijah on the Priest cycle, one of the six principal holy days on that 168-day cycle.
What are the chances that a random date would be a major holy day on at least three sacred calendars? That is a more difficult calculation than I wish to do while preparing this article, but there is a quick way to estimate it. Let us ask instead, how many days in the year 2004 are major holy days on at least three of the sacred calendars? That question can answered quickly by referring to my new 2004 Wall Calendar which has just been published. It turns out that there are only two days this year which qualify (Tue 16 Mar and Sun 11 Apr). So if this year is an average year, then the chances are only about 2 in 365 of having a given randomly chosen date be such a winner. The fact that the odds are so great against it being due to chance, qualifies this angelic visit to be a witness of the correctness of the proposed Egyptian-like model for the Nephite calendar.
King Benjamin’s SpeechOne of the great discourses in the Book of Mormon is the amazing speech delivered by King Benjamin on the occasion of his son Mosiah’s coronation (Mos. 2-4). Upon closer inspection, it turns out that part of his speech was so great because it was written by an angel (nearly all Mosiah 3; see Mos. 3:2, 4:1).
When was this landmark speech given? While the Nephite date is not included, other than it was in the year 476 Lehi (Mos. 6:4), many researchers have noted that the speech was clearly given at the Hebrew Feast of Tabernacles. Thus, while the Book of Mormon only gives the year, the context implies the day of the year, provided that the Nephites used the Hebrew Calendar to celebrate their feasts. The indicated day was Sat 2 Oct 126 BC (15 Tishri).
Are there any other witnesses that this day is correct? Yes, it was also a holy day on at least three other sacred calendars. It was also the Feast of Tabernacles on the Enoch calendar, it was the Spring Equinox on the Enoch Fixed Calendar, and it was the day 1 Eliashib on the Priest Cycle. Thus, it was a rare day indeed, which is another witness both that we have found the correct day for his speech, that the Nephite year is correct, and that the Nephites indeed used the Hebrew calendar for their feasts. It is not, however, a witness to the correctness of the Egyptian calendar model for the Nephite calendar because the day 26 Tenth, on which it would have occurred, is not mentioned in the Book of Mormon.
ConclusionA detailed model for the Nephite Calendar from the time of Lehi to Christ’s appearance to the Nephites has been presented which is totally self-consistent with other dates published by this author for the departure of Lehi, the birth and death of Christ, and all internal Nephite dates of the Book of Mormon. It is based on the Egyptian civil year, which would have been well-known to Lehi, and which was so universally known that it would explain the lack of details provided in the text.
Two witnesses testify of the correctness of this model: the visit of the angel to Amulek and the date of King Benjamin’s speech. Both occurred on multiple holy days on the sacred calendars which have also been described by this author. These witnesses do not prove that the proposed model is correct, but both offer supportive evidence that it might be correct. More research is needed before we can know with any certainty just what calendar the Nephites actually used.
Here is a table summarizing the results.
- The solution is presented in detail in Pratt, John P., “Lehi’s 600-year Prophecy of the Birth of Christ“, Meridian Magazine (31 Mar 2000). The problem was also reviewed in Pratt, John P., “Book of Mormon Chronology“, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Daniel H. Ludlow, ed., (N.Y.: Macmillan, 1992), vol. 1, pp. 169-171.
- Technically, that was the day of the capture of the former king, Jeconiah, also called Jehoiachin. But Nebuchadnezzar installed Zedekiah as the new king immediately thereafter. See Pratt, John, P., “When was the Seventy Year Captivity of Judah?” Ensign, 28, No. 10 (October, 1998), 64-65.
- One real problem here is to explain what both the angel and Lehi understood by the word “year.” The Mayan prophetic year of exactly 360-days has been proposed, 600 of which fit nicely between 597 BC and 5 BC, the year most scholars believe Christ was born (Huber, Jay H., “Lehi’s 600 Year Prophecy and the Birth of Christ,” Provo, FARMS, 1982.) This proposal could work for “angel reckoning” because there is evidence that angels have used the word “day” or “time” to refer to a 360-day year (Rev. 12:6,14), but is difficult to imagine that the Nephites would use such a year as their civil year. It has also been proposed that Lehi might have used a 354-day year of 12 lunar months, never adding the needed leap month to give a 365-day average. That would fit neatly between 588 BC (the time of Jeremiah’s imprisonment, 1 Nep. 7:14) and 5 BC (see Spackman, Randall P., “The Jewish/Nephite Lunar Calendar” The Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 7, No. 1, Fall, 1998, pp. 49-59). But here the problems are even worse because from the time of Moses an extra month had been inserted about every three years in order to keep the feasts aligned with the seasons. That was necessary because some holy days required offerings such as the firstfruits of the grain, which couldn’t be made until the grain was ripe. Even though Lehi might not have known the calendrical details of exactly when to insert the extra month, he would certainly have been familiar with one practice, which was that if the grain was not ripe, an extra month was inserted. Thus, there is no reason to think that either the angel or Lehi would think of a year as being 354 days.
- This proposal is discussed in detail in my paper referenced in footnote 1. Joseph Allen first suggested that Nephi’s Zedekiah was really Jehoiakim, noting that Nebuchadnezzar might have changed Jehoiakim’s name to Zedekiah (Allen, Joseph L., Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon Orem, Utah, S.A. Publishers, 1989, pp. 22-25). That seems likely to be correct because it was customary to change a king’s name when he became a vassal king. In fact, Jehoiakim’s name had been given him by the former Egyptian Pharaoh Necho, having changed it from Eliakim (2 Chron. 36:4), and Nebuchaddnezzar would likely have wanted to remove any vestage of Egyptian rule. Allen suggested that the name change occurred in 601 BC after the destruction when Nebuchadnezzar’s domination was undeniable, and that Nephi’s “first year of Zedekiah” might have referred to 601 BC. My alternate proposal is that the name change occurred in the summer of 605 BC, shortly after the Battle of Carchemish, when Nebuchadnezzar conquered the entire region and took Daniel and other princes captive to Babylon and changed their names (Dan. 1:1-2,6-7). So even though Jehoiakim’s name might not have been changed to Zedekiah until 605 BC, Nephi would still refer to him by that name, because he is writing after the name change. Because Lehi left before the destruction of Jerusalem in Dec. 601 BC, Nephi would not have known that in 597 BC Nebuchadnezzar would change the name of Mattaniah to Zedekiah (2 Kings 24:17), and that (perhaps to avoid confusion) future Bible authors would revert to using the name Jehoiakim for the former king.
- Pratt, J.P. “The Restoration of Priesthood Keys on Easter 1836,” Ensign (June 1985), pp. 59-68.
- The scholarly choice of 5 BC depends almost entirely on the first century historian Josephus who placed the death of Herod in 3 BC, which scholars have changed to 4 BC because of a lunar eclipse and the claimed reigns of Herod’s sons. It now appears that Josephus was wrong and that the death of Herod occurred in Feb AD 1. See Pratt, John P., “Passover: Was it Symbolic of His Coming,” The Ensign 24, 1 (Jan 1994), pp. 38-45 and “Yet Another Eclipse for Herod, ” The Planetarian 19, No. 4, (Dec 1990), pp. 8-14.
- Pratt, “600-Year Prophecy“, section 2.2.
- Lundwall, N.B., compiler, Masterful Discourses and Writings of Orson Pratt, Salt Lake City, Bookcraft, 1962, p. 59, quoting Millennial Star 28:808-11 (Dec. 22, 1866).
- Lefgren, John,April Sixth (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1980).
- Here the importance of leap-days becomes apparent. From Thu 6 Apr 1 BC to Fri 1 Apr AD 33 is five days less than 33 years on our Gregorian calendar. On a 365-day Nephite calendar which does not insert 8 extra leap days (29 Feb) in 32 years, the interval would be 3 days more than 33 years.
- Sorenson, John, “Seasonality of Warfare in the Book of Mormon and in Mesoamerica,” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. S. Ricks and W. Hamblin (Salt Lake City: FARMS, 1990), pp. 445-77.
- Parker, Richard A., The Calendars of Ancient Egypt (Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1950), p. 10 states “That the day in Egypt began at dawn, and was reckoned from one dawn to the next, has been fully demonstrated.”
- This model will later turn out to be important when we discover that the 7,000-year history of the earth can also be divided into twelve parts or HOURS with a little season at the end. After all, the Egyptians did get their calendrical wisdom from Abraham (Abr. 3:15).
- Pratt, John P., “2004 Sacred Calendar,” described, along with how to obtain one, at www.johnpratt.com/items/calendar/wall_cal.html
- Tvedtnes, John A., “A Nephite Feast of Tabernacles” in Tinkling Cymbals (Provo: n.p. 1978); Welch, John W., comp., King Benjamin’s Speech in the Context of Ancient Israelite Festivals (Provo: FARMS, 1985).
- It was also the last day of the Oil Harvest on the Jubilee calendar, which is something like a Day of Atonement, and which occurs on the day prior to the equivalent of the Feast of Tabernacles on that calendar. That calendar has not yet been published, but I hope to do that this year. Thus, the day was a holy day on at least five sacred calendars.
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