Source:Echoes:Ch11:16:Doubled and sealed documents

Doubled, Sealed, Witnessed Documents

Doubled, Sealed, Witnessed Documents

A final example of an archaic practice employed in Israel around 600 BC and only recently understood through archaeological discoveries was the use of doubled, sealed, and witnessed documents. These documents had two parts: one was left open for ready access while the other was sealed up for later consultation by the parties or for the conclusive use of a judge in court. This widespread practice may illuminate the way in which the plates of Mormon themselves were constructed.

In an intriguing but opaque Old Testament passage, the prophet Jeremiah relates an event that occurred about 590 BC. Pursuant to his right of redemption within the family and with prophetic foreknowledge of the transaction, Jeremiah bought from his cousin a field located at Anathoth in the lands of Benjamin. His willingness to make this long-term investment was supportive of God's enduring promise that "houses and fields and vineyards shall be possessed again in this land" (Jeremiah 32:15), notwithstanding the prophecy that Jerusalem would also soon fall to the invading Babylonians (see v. 3). In order to memorialize his purchase as impressively and as permanently as possible, Jeremiah as purchaser drafted and executed not just a single document but a two-part deed. One part of its text "was sealed according to the law [mitzvah] and custom [Huqqim]," and the other part of the document "was open" (v. 11; compare v. 14). Jeremiah signed this double document and sealed it, as did several other people who witnessed the transaction and subscribed the text (see vv. 10, 12). Moreover, in order to preserve this evidence of his purchase, Jeremiah took his doubled, sealed document and, in the presence of his witnesses, securely deposited it with both of its parts in a clay jar, "that they may continue many days" (v. 14).

Jeremiah's detailed account reflects many interesting legal technicalities that were evidently well known and customary in his day.64 As John Bright says of Jeremiah's text, "Technical legal terminology is no doubt involved," even though the precise nature of this practice cannot be ascertained from the Hebrew text alone, let alone the ordinary English translations.65 Only because of several archaeological discoveries in the twentieth century can we now understand this interesting form of ancient legal documentation.66

When written on parchment or papyrus, legal documents were written on a single sheet, but the text was written twice, once at the top and again at the bottom of the sheet. The repeated text could be either a verbatim copy or an abridgment of the full text. The document was then folded so that one part was open for inspection and use, while the other part was protected and sealed.

A similar procedure was followed when important records were written on metal. In that case two or more metal plates were used. For example, two bronze tablets of the Roman emperor Trajan, with a Roman date equivalent to AD October 103, present the full text of an official decree neatly lettered on the open side of the first bronze plate and then repeated exactly in more hurried lettering on the inside faces of the two plates.67 Having an open version and also a sealed iteration of important documents served several purposes, and in some cases following this convention was legally mandated.

Sealing (closing) the document was also essential, and the manner of sealing papyrus or parchment documents was relatively standard. Typically, these documents have a horizontal slit from the edge of the papyrus to the middle, between the two texts. The top half was rolled to the middle and then folded across the slit. Three holes were punched from the slit to the other side, thin papyrus bands were threaded through these holes and wrapped around the rolled-up and folded-over upper portion of the document, and on these bands the seals (wax or clay impressions) of the participants were affixed.68 The manner of sealing metal documents was functionally the same.

Witnesses were necessary, and their number could vary. In one Assyrian agreement on a clay tablet from 651 BC that documented the sale of a property, twelve witnesses were listed.69 The Babylonian Talmud stipulated that "at least three witnesses were required by law."70 Accordingly, in most Jewish texts three witnesses were common, and it appears that normally not more than seven were used,71 although in principle one witness was required to sign on each fold and "if there are more than three folds more witnesses must be added, one for each fold."72

When and by whom could these seals be opened? It appears that only a judge or some other duly authorized official could break the seals and open the document. In Babylonia, if a dispute ever arose concerning the correct wording of the contract, a judge could remove the outer envelope and reveal the original tablet.73 John the Revelator, seeing the book sealed with seven seals, "wept much, because no man was found worthy to open and to read the book" that he beheld, until "the Lion of the tribe of Judah . . . prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof" (Revelation 5:4–5; compare Isaiah 29:11).

The legal use of doubled, sealed, witnessed documents during Jeremiah's (and Lehi's) lifetime in Jerusalem, together with the secular use of such instruments throughout much of the ancient world and the religious utilization of this formalism in biblical and intertestamental literature, raises the distinct possibility that Lehi knew of this practice and that Nephi and his successors had this form of double documentation in mind when they contemplated the preservation of their own records, constructed and assembled their written texts, and ultimately sealed and deposited the Book of Mormon plates (see 1 Nephi 1:17; 19:1; 3 Nephi 5:18). The Book of Mormon prophets, like Jeremiah, saw the final Nephite record as having two parts, one sealed and the other not (see Mormon 6:6; Words of Mormon 1:3, 6). Consistent with the ancient practices and requirements, witnesses were promised; in particular, at least three witnesses were stipulated. Others would be provided for, according to God's will: "as many witnesses as seemeth him good" (2 Nephi 27:14) to "testify to the truth of the book and the things therein" (v. 12).

Yet this widespread ancient legal practice was unknown until long after the Book of Mormon was published. In the summer of 1995, I visited several curators in famous museums in London and Oxford in an effort to locate examples of such doubled documents, but none of those curators had taken notice of these artifacts. Soon I found myself at a seminar in the library of the Papyrological Institute in Leiden, Holland, where quite by good fortune a large collection of sources on this very subject stood right before me.

From this research I conclude that Nephi was familiar with the Israelite legal practice of using double documents or deeds and that he instructed his posterity to construct the Nephite record in a fashion that would comply with that tradition.74 In conformance with the concepts of the double deed, the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon will confirm the truth of the open and available portion. Moroni himself indicated that the final judgment will have legal elements, that we will see him "at the bar of God," and that God will verify the truth of the words "declare[d] . . . unto you" and "written by this man" (Moroni 10:27).

Nothing could reflect the ancient form of doubled legal documentation more genuinely.[1]


  1. John W. Welch, "A Steady Stream of Significant Recognitions," in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, edited by Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2002), Chapter 11, references silently removed—consult original for citations.