What better place to start than at the beginning? Not the beginning of my journey, but that of the Book of Mormon. As his record begins, he mentions that many prophets began to prophesy “in the commencement of the first year of the reign of Zedekiah”, prophesying destruction unless the people repent. (1 Nephi 1:4.) Often, critics of the Church will say that this is an obvious mistake, for, they say, in the Bible, Zedekiah does not start his reign until after the Babylonians destroy Jerusalem the first time. If Jerusalem had already been destroyed, how can it be that Laman and Lemuel could not believe that it was possible for Jerusalem to be destroyed? (1 Nephi 2:12-13.) Some also point out that Lehi has wealth (1 Nephi 3:16), something that would seem odd, if not impossible, after the destruction of Jerusalem. Is this proof that the Book of Mormon is false?
If anything, this is proof in favor of the Book of Mormon. First, it must be recognized that not all of the kings of Israel and Judah reigned alone. Sometimes, a co-regent was appointed. In the records that have been preserved, there is no consistent way of recording such a reign. Sometimes, the total years of a king include his period as co-regent, and sometimes it does not. Other anomalies appear sometimes. A more thorough discussion of these anomalies may come up in a future post; suffice it to say that such does occur, and, I would argue, occurs with the reign of Zedekiah.
First, the narrative straight from 2 Kings chapters 23 and 24:
King Josiah dies, and the people anoint his son Jehoahaz as king.
Jehoahaz was 23 when he started his reign, and he reigned for 3 months before being taken captive into Egypt by Pharaoh-Necho, who places Eliakim/Jehoiakim, another son of Josiah, upon the throne.
Jehoiakim was 25 when he started his reign, and he reigned for 11 years. His rebelled against his feudal lord Nebuchadnezzar, who then destroyed Judah according to the prophesies. Jehoiakim is slaim by Nebuchadnezzar, and the people place his son Jehoiachin upon the throne.
Jehoiachin was 18 when he started his reign, and he reigned 3 months. Nebuchadnezzar took Jehoiachin into captivity, and placed Mattaniah/Zedekiah, another son of Josiah, upon the throne.
Zedekiah was 21 when he began his reign, and he reigned 11 years, ending when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem a second time. His sons were slain, and Zedekiah was carried captive into Babylon.
Now, when this is the only information available, it would appear that Zedekiah started his reign after Jerusalem was destroyed. But the ages of the sons of Josiah are very interesting: they all started their reign in their 20s, despite one of them allegedly starting his reign 11 years after the previous one. Was Zedekiah really that many years younger than his brother Jehoiakim?
1 Chronicles 3:15 sheds some light on this:
And the sons of Josiah were, the firstborn Johanan, the second Jehoiakim, the third Zedekiah, the fourth Shallum.
Jehoiakim is definitely older than Zedekiah, according to the Bible, but who is Jehoahaz, the first of the sons of Josiah to reign? If the account in 2 Kings is to be believed, then Jehoahaz is younger than Jehoiakim by up to 2 years. This would suggest that Jehoahaz is the same as Shallum. This supposition is supported by Jeremiah 22:11-12.
For thus saith the Lord touching Shallum the son of Josiah king of Judah, which reigned instead of Josiah his father, which went forth out of this place: He shall not return thither any more; But he shall die in the place whither they have led him captive, and shall see this land no more.
The only other son of Josiah taken into captivity was Zedekiah himself, but this prophetic statement was given by Jeremiah to a reigning king, meaning Jehoahaz is the only possible identity for Shallum. The LDS Bible Dictionary entry for Shallum also states that he is one and the same as Jehoahaz.
What do we have now? We now have the ages of three of the sons of Josiah at the time they began to reign in Jerusalem, along with their birth order:
Oldest: Eliakim/Jehoiakim 25
Next oldest: Mattaniah/Zedekiah 21
Youngest: Jehoahaz/Shallum 23
These ages and birth order only makes sense if Zedekiah began his reign at least two years before the beginning of the reign of Jehoahaz, which would make him a co-regent with his father Josiah. This is also supported by the reference to the people anointing Jehoahaz, possibly suggesting a rebellion against Zedekiah.
Where does this leave Nephi and the Book of Mormon? The first year of the reign of Zedekiah is now placed at around 2 years before the death of Josiah. The first destruction of Jerusalem occurred more than a decade later, meaning there is no conflict with the apparent prosperity of Jerusalem in the beginning part of 1 Nephi and Biblical chronology.
More can be said about the implications thereof, but this is sufficient for now.