Doubled, Sealed, and Witnessed Documents
|The process of preparing ancient legal documents involved writing the text in two parts and then sealing one part for future reference. Illustration by Michael Lyon.|
A distinctive legal practice in Israel around 600 B.C. 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. As recent research has shown, the parallel to the Book of Mormon is apparent.1
In an intriguing but only recently understood Old Testament passage, the prophet Jeremiah tells how he bought a field about 590 B.C. from his cousin. In order to memorialize his purchase as permanently as possible, Jeremiah drafted and executed 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” (Jeremiah 32:11; compare v. 14). Jeremiah signed this double document and sealed it, as did several others who witnessed the transaction (see vv. 10, 12). Moreover, 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 customary in his day.
Several archaeological discoveries made in the 20th century shed considerable light on this interesting form of ancient legal documentation. These documents, when recorded on parchment or papyrus, were written on a single sheet, with one iteration of the text at the top and another at the bottom. Some times the two texts were identical; other times one was an abridgment of the other. Two bronze tablets of the Roman emperor Trajan illustrate how this procedure could be used on plates as well. In that case the full text was written on the open side of the first plate, and then it was repeated in spread-out lettering on the inside faces of the two plates, which were then sealed together.2 Two wooden tab lets in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, show that the same practice also could be implemented in other media.
Sealing such documents was essential, and the manner of sealing was relatively standard. Typically, parchment documents have a horizontal slit from one edge to the middle, between the two texts. The top half was rolled to the middle and folded in at the slit. Three holes were punched from the end of the slit to the other side, and strings were threaded through these holes and wrapped around the rolled-up and folded-over upper portion; on these bands the seals (wax or clay impressions) of the participants were affixed. The manner of sealing metal or wooden documents was functionally the same.
Witnesses were necessary, and their number could vary. In one Assyrian agreement on a clay tablet from 651 B.C. that documented the sale of a property, 12 witnesses are listed. In Jewish law the Talmud stipulated that “at least three witnesses were required by law.”3
When and by whom could these seals be opened? It appears that only a judge or another authorized official could break the seals and open the document. If a dispute arose concerning the correct wording of the open portion of such a contract, a judge could break the seals and compare the sealed portion with the open portion. John the Revelator “wept much, because no man was found worthy to open and read the book” that he beheld, until “the Lion of the tribe of Juda . . . prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof” (Revelation 5:4, 5; compare Isaiah 29:11).
Similarly, Nephi envisioned the final Nephite record as having two parts, one sealed and the other not sealed (2 Nephi 27:8, 15). Furthermore, witnesses were promised; in particular, at least three witnesses were stipulated, while other witnesses could be added to “testify to the truth of the book and the things therein” (v. 12). From this, one may well conclude that Nephi was familiar with the ancient use of double documents and that he expected his posterity to construct the Nephite record in a fashion that would conform with that practice. Indeed, its words will serve legal purposes at the final judgment, just as King Benjamin’s recorded words “shall stand as a bright testimony against [his] people, at the judgment day; whereof they shall be judged” (Mosiah 3:24). Moroni himself concluded, “Ye shall see me at the bar of God; and the Lord God will say unto you: Did I not declare my words unto you? . . . And God shall show unto you, that that which I have written is true” (Moroni 10:27, 29). Perhaps one role of the sealed portion of the Nephite record will be to validate the truth of the open portion that the world now has.
1. For an extended discussion of this topic, see John W. Welch, “Doubled, Sealed, Witnessed Documents: From the Ancient World to the Book of Mormon,” in Mormons, Scripture, and the Ancient World, ed. Davis Bitton (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1998), 391-444.