Sunday, October 12, 2008

John W. Welch Lecture Notes

Here are the notes that I took at the Oct. 8th, 2008 lecture of John W. Welch on The Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon at Olivewood Bookstore.

The Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon 

John W. Welch 

Olivewood Bookstore 

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 

lived in.

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: 

1.False Prophesy 

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 

found guilty. 

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. 

 (Jacob 7:17-19) 


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 

and Amulek? 

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.

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