Most scholars assume that the type of Judaism Jesus encountered had its main development during and after the Babylonian exile. When we read the Old Testament, especially the books of Moses, it appears as if they were written as a single text. However there are compelling reasons to believe they were composed out of multiple texts and traditions by groups with competing religious views. The Book of Mormon itself suggests problems with the editing and redacting of these texts. Speaking of the Bible held by the gentiles, Nephi is told it “containeth many of the prophecies of the holy prophets; and it is a record like unto the engravings which are upon the plates of brass, save there are not so many.” (1 Ne 13:23) So at a minimum the brass plates held many writings not in the Bible, such as Zenos quoted by Jacob. Obviously many texts like Ezekiel weren’t written until after Lehi had left Jerusalem.
Even before Lehi left Jerusalem there were controversies over the canon and the very nature of Jewish religion. As Assyrian influence in the land of Israel waned, the king at Jerusalem, Josiah, started introducing significant reforms. This was around 623 BC and thus just before Lehi left Jerusalem. According to 2 Kings 23 (itself likely composed during the exile) he removed idolatrous items from the temple and removed more Canaanite religious practices from the land. Purportedly an old book of the law had been discovered in the temple that didn’t line up with Judaic practice. (See 2 Kings 22:8-13 and 2 Chronicles 34:14-20 although the two accounts don’t line up exactly) This led to significant changes in cultic practice. Not all Jews agreed with these changes. There appeared to be some considerable tension over Josiah’s reforms and the traditions that continued from them. Often scholars call the tradition tied to this continuing movement the deuteronomist tradition. When scholars examine what we call the Old Testament they tend to see many passages as coming out of this tradition often competing with other traditions (one called the priestly tradition, an other the Yahwist and the Elohist).
People doing scholarship on the Book of Mormon often bring up the place of the deuteronimist tradition in the text. (See for example Neal Rappleye’s “The Deuteronomist Reforms and Lehi’s Family Dynamics” or Kevin Christensen’s “The Deuteronomist De-Christianizing of the Old Testament“) Many of these arguments owe much to the work of noted Methodist scholar Margaret Barker. The elements Barker sees removed from Judaism by the deuteronomists often appear to Mormons either characteristic of elements of Nephite workship or else have uncanny echoes of our views of temples and deity. The typical view is that Lehi would have opposed the deuternomists.
That said many of Barker’s conclusions are controversial so we should be cautious in how we approach such parallels. Consider this blog post by Bill Hamblin noting many problems with Barker’s view. By extension applying it too uncritically to Lehi and Jeremiah is also problematic. Jeremiah started his ministry right around the time of Josiah’s reforms. Lehi seems to be following Jeremiah but with Jeremiah we oddly find no criticism of the Josiah reforms but rather texts like Jer 3:6-11. Whether this was because of redaction when the Old Testament was put in its current form or because Jeremiah is fine with Josiah’s reforms isn’t clear. While Jeremiah warns of the coming destruction by Babylon, it’s worth noting that refugees from the north blamed Josiah rather than listening to Jeremiah. See Jeremiah 44 especially verses 15-16. They don’t blame Josiah by name but blame the change in worship. So I want to be clear that how we approach the deuteronomists and the Book of Mormon is by no means a settled issue.
I bring all this up to note that at the time of Lehi Israelite religion was already in great flux. During the exile and return it changed even more, having to explain the exile. After the exile Judaism becomes a strongly monotheistic religion and most scholars see a lot of influence from Babylon religion in the development of Judaism of that time.
This leaves us with the question of what the Law of Moses was like for Lehi. Further, we have to assume that Lehi and Nephi’s journey changed how they viewed the Law. We know that the vision by Nephi and Lehi of the Tree of Life introduced new ideas and made the religion much more Christian from our perspective. It seems fair to assume that as Nephite culture developed further changes took place. (Just as happened in Palestine to Jewish religion during the same era)
In Michael Austin’s recent post at BCC on Korihor I noticed something very interesting about the narrative. Mormon goes to great pains to explain that there was no law against belief. Now earlier King Mosiah had ushered in reforms that ended the Kingship started by Nephi and appears to have attempted to mimic public life on the era of the Judges from Israel. The main issue for Mosiah is due to kings instituting their own laws, which constitutes inequity and captivity as opposed to the liberty of following the original divine laws. (See Mosiah 29 especially verses 23-25) When Korihor is brought up before the judges he is never accused of a crime. Even Alma, the high priest but not chief judge, sees the problem primarily in terms of consequences to Nephite civilization rather than a violation of the law. The problem is that under the Law of Moses as we have it in our Old Testament there are plenty of laws that Korihor has violated. The worst one is apostasy which carries a capital offense although he also is caught in false witnessing.
What’s interesting about the laws Korihor violates though is that they are all laws in the Deuteronomist tradition. Consider Deut 13:1-10 and Deut 17:2-5 where teaching apostasy is punishable by death. For that matter Korihor’s teaching that the priests and judges were enriching themselves was false witness. According to Deut 19:15-21 this also is against the law. While it’s possible to read Alma’s actions in terms of those traditions it seems more natural to read Alma 30 such that the law of Deuteronomy simply isn’t followed by the Nephites. Historically there are good reasons for this. Most scholars assume Deuteronomy was composed during the Josiah reforms (especially chapters 5-26), possibly in no small part influenced by the missing book of law Josiah has. It appears largely based upon Assyrian suzerain-vassal treaties, only with the covenants to God rather than the Assyrian King.
The question then remains. What was the Law of Moses like for the Nephites? Further, how much did it change and evolve as Nephite culture changed. (Consider at minimum the reforms of Mosiah)
It seems safe to assume that the parts of the law developed by the deuteronomists would have been viewed with suspicion by at least Lehi and Nephi. (Although we should be careful to note this doesn’t mean that there weren’t things believed by the deuteronomists that Lehi wouldn’t have deeply sympathized with) At a minimum the centralization of the temple cult in Jerusalem by Josiah was rejected by Lehi. Lehi continues to make sacrifices outside of Jerusalem. Some time after reaching America the Nephites build a temple modeled on the Jerusalem temple. (2 Ne 5:17) This would have been forbidden by deuteronomist law.
We know there are traditions among the Nephites that appear to mirror commands from the Law of Moses. Some apologists suggest that King Benjamin’s speech appears to be a feast of the tabernacles. (See Mosiah 2:6 and John Tvedtnes’ “King Benjamin and the Feast of the Tabernacles”) There are other feasts such as Passover we have hints of in the text. (Although to be fair none of these are unambiguous)
Overall though we simply don’t know a lot about the Law the Nephites followed. Further Nephite culture quickly become syncretic picking up other traditions. Consider Mosiah 12:29 which can easily be read not just as Abinadi condemning Noah’s priests for fornication but as doing what the priests Josiah had killed were doing in Jerusalem. Abinadi saw the priests as mixing Judaism with what he saw as idol worship possibly with cultic prostitution. (See especially verses 35-37) It would not be surprising that the reformed religion Alma creates upon his conversion is still affected by these other cultures. (Much as Judaism was affected by Babylonian religion during the exile) While the text doesn’t state it, I’d be shocked were the priests of Noah not following a syncretic form of Judaism heavily influenced by indigenous Olmec/Mayan traditions. Since Alma becomes the High Priest it’s worth wondering just how much Nephite religion shifted in this period. First by Mosiah’s reforms then by religion of Alma. It’s even worth reading much of the conflicts in the book of Alma as primarily a conflict of an idiosyncratic form of Olmec/Mayan religion that’s highly Jewish with the larger religious culture.
Given all this, the Law in the Book of Alma might be quite different from that practiced by Nephi even if Alma is following the Law as written on the brass plates. Interpretation is everything after all – how we read the Law of Moses is undoubtedly different from how a Sadducee living in 100 BC would have read it or how a Jew living a Qumran would have read it.