How reliable are chronological dates in the Book of Mormon?

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“How reliable are chronological dates in the Book of Mormon?” Ensign, Sept. 1977, 38–39

Chronological dates are recorded at the bottom of the pages in the Book of Mormon. How reliable are these dates? Are there any that need to be corrected?

Stan Larson, coordinator of standard works translation, Church Translation Services In a very real sense, the Book of Mormon has always had its own chronology. Built into its text are three different chronological dating systems: the years since Lehi left Jerusalem, the years of the judges, and the years since Christ’s birth. From our perspective today, it is convenient to convert all dates to years B.C. and A.D. This was first done in the large-size edition of 1888. In that edition the dates were placed in the margin next to the verse involved. The large-size edition was reprinted in 1906 with some modification of the dates. Then, starting in the 1920 edition, revised chronological dates were placed at the bottom of the page, and every page of the text (except Ether) had a date assigned. One real advantage to this system is that the reader can see immediately during what time period the events occurred, rather than have the dates interspersed throughout the text at only certain points.

The Nephite year seems to have begun in the month we call April. (3 Ne. 8:5.) Thus, if a reference is made to “the commencement of the fourteenth year” (3 Ne. 2:17), that fourteenth year began in April of A.D. 14 and continued through March of A.D. 15. The same situation is found in B.C. dates, since the tenth year of the reign of the judges begins in 82 B.C. (Alma 8:3), but the tenth month of the same year is in 81 B.C. (Alma 14:23).

Another fact that helps us to understand the chronological dates is the special meaning attached to the word about. Most of the time about means any time during the last nine months of the year mentioned and up to the first three months of the next year. Thus, a phrase such as “about B.C. 83” does not imply that it could be a few years on either side of this date, but rather indicates that the time of the events narrated fits somewhere in the period April 83 B.C. through March 82 B.C.

The general rule is that the dates show the time period involved for the events narrated. However, there are certain cases that do not follow this pattern and perhaps need a little clarification. In 1 Nephi 9:2–5 [1 Ne. 9:2–5] information is related that apparently was not known until around 570 B.C. (2 Ne. 5:28–30), though the date on the page indicates “between B.C. 600 and 592.” Also, the Isaiah material in 2 Nephi, chapters 12 through 24, having the dates “between B.C. 559 and 545,” does not indicate either when Isaiah wrote these things or when they happened, but rather the approximate time during which Nephi copied them onto the Small Plates. [2 Ne. 12–24] The Words of Mormon [W of M 1] is dated “about A.D. 385,” but verses 12 through 18 discuss the early reign of King Benjamin, which ended in 124 B.C. Chapters eight and nine of Moroni present two of Mormon’s letters to his son and the dates “between A.D. 400 and 421” indicate the approximate time Moroni transcribed them onto the plates, since the letters must have originally been written sometime before the hill Cumorah battle of A.D. 385.

It is the inspired translation of the Book of Mormon proper that is scripture, and the other things such as verse divisions, chapter summaries, cross-references, and chronological dates are additions intended to help the modern reader. These chronological dates at the bottom of the page may be helpful, but of course they are only as accurate as they properly reflect the information in the Book of Mormon text.

There are a few difficulties with the present dates. Sometimes they are due to an error in arithmetic, such as thirty years having passed away making 569 B.C. instead of 570 B.C. (2 Ne. 5:28.) Another example is that Ammon left with his men in 121 B.C. (Mosiah 7:2–3), but the present dating indicates that they arrived back after rescuing Limhi and his people a year before they left (Mosiah 21:22)! Obviously the date for the latter event needs to be lowered at least one year. The events in Mosiah 23:25–24:25 must be dated at least 121 B.C., since the army that found Alma was the one that had been hunting for Ammon and Limhi (Mosiah 22:15–16; Mosiah 23:30, 35), and based on the information in Alma 17:6, the date of the departure of the sons of Mosiah should be changed to 91 B.C. (Mosiah 28:9). Also, since the events in Alma 36:1 to Alma 43:2 occurred in the eighteenth year of the judges they should be dated “about B.C. 74.”

All of the dates in our present Book of Mormon represent the chronology as established by the Book of Mormon committee responsible for the 1920 edition.