According to the Law of Moses, priesthood holders had to be from the Tribe of Levi. Lehi was from the Tribe of Joseph, so that’s a problem. Nephi built a temple on the model of Solomon’s Temple. So how did the Nephites get priesthood? Historian Don Bradley says the answer might be in the lost pages, and speculates how Nephite priesthood functioned.
Don: That model of priesthood, where you have a king, who is a priest, has biblical precedent. The precedent is not ancient Israel’s Levitical priesthood. The precedent goes back earlier to the time of Abraham, when you have Melchizedek who is portrayed as a king and a priest. So the idea of people being ordained kings and priests, the gendered equivalent of which might be queens and priestesses, might be familiar to some people associated with Mormonism. I don’t know, maybe, the model for that, and one that Joseph Smith explicitly invokes in Nauvoo, talking about people being made kings and priests, queens and priestesses is Melchizedek.
So the model of priesthood among the Nephites is not Levitical. They replace a Levitical model priesthood with a Melchizedek model of priesthood. Those terms, Levitical or Aaronic, among others, are so familiar to Latter-day Saints. But they’re kind of familiar to us mostly in a different context that would give a different twist on what they mean. The model of priesthood here is Melchizedek in the biblical sense of Melchizedek being both King and high priest. So that’s the Nephite model of Priesthood.
One of the most sacred relics in the Book of Mormon is the Liahona, a compass-like object that Lehi found outside his tent while leaving Jerusalem. The details of this object are not described very well in the Book of Mormon. Don has uncovered records that give more details about this mysterious object.
Don: In Gladden Bishop’s description, he says that around the outside side of the Liahona, and it’s still difficult for me to picture exactly, what it was supposed to look like, but it sounds like he’s talking about a face like maybe a compass face. There are 24 diagrams or symbols around that central circle. So the pointers can point to these symbols. He doesn’t go into detail about how the Liahona functions, but picture it as having these symbols along the outside of a circle, and then having two spindles on it. Suppose that Lehi and his family want to go get food or suppose that they’re going to be led to get food, how will they know what the Liahona is pointing them to? How will they know if it’s pointing them to the promised land or to food or to water or to some other necessity? Well, the pictures around that central circle could be pictures telling what it’s pointing to. So one pointer could point to a picture of wild game, and then another pointer points the direction, so that the function of the two spindles would be, it points them to something and also tells them what it’s pointing them to.
Of course, not everyone agrees with Don. Some people call him an apologist for his seemingly too rosy view of the Book of Mormon. Some apologists think he is stretching to far to explain what is potentially in the lost pages of the Book of Mormon. What does Don have to say about this?
Don: One thing I would point out that they may not be aware of is my personal history, when it comes to these subjects. Actually, when I started this project, I was in the church, but I was very much a doubter. I wasn’t coming from a place of belief. Subsequently, I came to be completely disillusioned. For a good several years, I left the church officially. I had my name removed from the church records, and was out of the church for five years before returning. The thing is, I’ve continued this project in basically the same kind of way the entire time. So, if they’re thinking that it’s a question that the question of what was in the lost pages is somehow uniquely tied to a worldview perspective, they’re mistaken. My worldview has changed dramatically across the course of doing this project, but the project itself has continued and the findings that I made while I was out of the church, about was in the lost pages, still hold water for me. I didn’t change my mind about those or anything.
Part of the reason why it’s possible, in the first place, to shift worldviews but continue the same historical project is that the project isn’t about ancient Nephites in Mesoamerica. I’m not doing faith-based archaeology or something looking for Zarahemla. As you were indicating, I’m trying to figure out what was in a certain lost manuscript. Now, while it’s controversial whether there were Nephites, it’s not controversial that there was an initial Book of Mormon manuscript that got stolen. So what I’m trying to do is figure out what was in that manuscript. So for that question, it’s really irrelevant whether one thinks that we’re Nephites or not. For that question, It’s iirrelevant whether there were Nephites or not. It may be very important for other issues, but it’s not important for knowing what was in the lost pages.
What do you think of Don’s reconstructions? Does he take the Book of Mormon too seriously? Does he go too far in his reconstruction?