Internal Textual Evidence for the Egyptian Origin of Nephi's Name
By Matthew L. Bowen
A proposed etymology of the Book of Mormon name Nephi is that it derives from the ancient Egyptian word nfr,1 which as an adjective means "good," "fine," or "goodly" and as a noun denotes "kindness" or "goodness."2 By Lehi's time, this word was probably pronounced "nefe" (NEH-fee).3 Two Book of Mormon passages contain strong evidence for such an etymology.
In the opening verse of the Book of Mormon, Nephi introduces himself as follows:
I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, . . . was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father; and having seen many afflictions . . . [and] having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God, therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days. (1 Nephi 1:1)
Nephi's use of words that translate into English as "goodly" and "goodness" makes this passage even more beautiful and meaningful if we also understand the name Nephi to denote "good," "goodly," or "goodness." The wordplay perhaps suggests why the name Nephi so befits its bearer: he is nfr, or "goodly," because he was born of "goodly parents" and is one endowed with a "knowledge of the goodness and mysteries of God."
That Lehi would give his son an Egyptian name is not unlikely, since Lehi's language "consist[ed] of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians" (1 Nephi 1:2). One reason Nephi was quick to point out his father's knowledge of Egyptian may have been to explain the origin of his non-Hebrew name.
More evidence surfaces in Helaman 5:6-7, where Helaman explains to his two sons, Nephi and Lehi, why he gave them their names:
Behold, I have given unto you the names of our first parents who came out of the land of Jerusalem . . . [so that] ye may remember their works; and when ye remember their works ye may know . . . that they were good. Therefore, my sons, I would that ye should do that which is good, that it may be said of you, and also written, even as it has been said and written of them.
Where was it written that their namesakes were "good"? In 1 Nephi 1:1, Lehi is called a "goodly" parent, and Nephi's name corresponds to the Egyptian word meaning "good." Helaman 5:6-7 implies that Helaman was aware of the meaning of the name Nephi and that he hoped this honored name would also befit his own sons by virtue of their good works.
The wordplay in 1 Nephi 1:1 and Helaman 5:6-7 is not unlike that of the name etymologies in the Hebrew Bible, particularly in Genesis. Genesis 3:20 states that "Adam called his wife's name Eve; because she was the mother of all living" (emphasis added). Here the Hebrew name hawwah ("lifegiver") is juxtaposed with the substantive participle Hay ("living"), both of which derive from the triliteral root Hyh or Hwh ("to live"). Many such examples could be cited from the Bible.
As research on the text of the Book of Mormon continues, evidence mounts concerning its antiquity and textual complexity. The interplay of the name Nephi with words that are translated "goodly," "good," and "goodness" provides further evidence that the Book of Mormon is, in fact, translation literature. !Notes: