Some Book of Mormon “Hits”
Some Book of Mormon “Hits”
Transcript of the September 2003 BMAF Conference
by John Tvedtnes
I am fascinated to see how much serious attention is being given to the Book of Mormon in recent times. I do not mean that everybody comes to believe its teachings and join the Church, but at least in the belief that it is a serious subject for study. Over the last few years there have been several developments on serious, scholarly Book of Mormon study. For instance, there was a conference in 2003 at Yale University, two seminars at the University of Nottingham, and one at Oxford University. These conferences are aimed at non-Mormons, people who are not believers, so it is interesting to see those taking place.
Terryl Givens of the University of Richmond, Virginia, has had two of his books published by Oxford University Press. One is called Viper on the Hearth, which is basically a history of anti-Mormonism. His second book is called By the Hand of Mormon, and it is quite well done. He takes both sides of the picture- the LDS side and that of the critics - - and shows how the disagreements have shaped. Terryl is LDS, but he tries not to lean in one direction or the other, though those who know the Book of Mormon sufficiently will be well-impressed by this book. Much of what he says is evidence for the Book of Mormon.
Two years ago I was asked to give a paper on Hebrew names in the Book of Mormon at the World Congress of Jewish Studies held in Jerusalem. I think that was the first time that that organization of scholars from all over the world, most of them Jewish, had invited someone to discuss the Book of Mormon as one of the serious topics in that scholarly forum.
Let's look at some of the things that I consider to be “hits” in the Book of Mormon, declarations that can be verified by outside means. We are only going to be able to scratch the surface of this huge topic here.
A Night without Darkness
Samuel the Lamanite prophesied that there would be a night without darkness at the time of Christ's birth. There are several possibilities of how that took place. I am not trying to say that there is no miraculous nature involved here, but the Lord uses natural means to accomplish things. There are, for example, glowing night fogs that have been observed in various places. The cause is unknown although it is thought that it might be electrical in nature. The phenomenon was first described in 1982 by meteorologist William R. Corliss. He discovered that there were a number of such instances that had occurred in the past. One was a luminous fog that extended from Africa to Sweden and throughout North and South America. That is a gigantic fog, and it glowed in the dark. It also appeared in a few other places, for example, in 1783, in the Alps as well as in valleys nearby. A similar fog was observed in Western Europe in August 1821. An 1831 fog was almost world-wide. Corliss concludes that “nights were so bright that the smallest print could be read at midnight.” In 1890, the engineer and passengers aboard a Houston, Texas, railroad train reported a glowing arch having the appearance of a mist in the moonless night, low enough in the atmosphere that the train actually passed through it or beneath it and came out the other side. Beneath the mist everything was pale like under a full moon (the moon was not out that particular night). A similar occurrence was reported by another train on the West Meridian Railroad in Pennsylvania on 2 May 1919. This was transparent but bright enough to block out any of the stars that were behind it.
There is also something that is called “earthquake luminosity.” For example, on 9 December 1731, following an earthquake in Florence, Italy, luminous clouds appeared over England. Several days prior to an earthquake that hit England on 2 March 1750, residents of London reported seeing reddish bows in the air that took the same direction as the shock wave when it finally did come. On 23 August 1750, there was another aurora accompanied by a quake at Spalding, England. Then, a month later in September, at Northampton, there was another small earthquake (these were probably all related). A Dr. Doddridge reported a fireball that morning, a red sky the following night, and then following that “the finest aurora I've ever seen.” Similar things have happened in places like France and South America. In fact, it is very common in South America where it is called the “Andes glow.” Earthquakes are also much more frequent in the Andes than they are in Europe, and so during times preceding and during earthquakes this glow appears, and sometimes follows the mountain ridges for as much as 300 miles in length.
In 1908 there was a period of time during which there were some very, very bright skies. That was the year when an object burned up in the atmosphere and exploded over the Tunguska region of Siberia. There have been various theories put forth as to what it was, but most scientists now believe it was a comet or asteroid. The topic has been seriously studied since 1937. Though most Europeans did not know about this explosion over Siberia until after the word got back into Russia, then spread to other parts of Europe, the nights were very bright after this explosion. Later, meteorologists looking at this thought this was probably reflected sunlight, but, sometimes it lasted all night long, covering most of northern Europe, parts of Asia and North America. The sky glowed with red and yellow hues even when it was overcast, so it was bright enough to shine through the clouds. It also affected the weather in some places in the northern hemisphere. In the British Isles the northeast sky was tinted red, and people in Scotland reported that in rooms facing north objects cast shadows at night. In London it was possible to read the small print in the London Times at midnight. On 1 July 1908 a reader wrote to the Times, “A strange light in the sky that was seen last night by my sister and myself appeared about midnight. The sky for some distance above the light appeared to be as blue on the horizon as in the daytime, with bands of light cloud of a pinkish color floating across it at intervals. Only the brightest stars could be seen in any part of the sky although this was an almost cloudless night. It was possible to read the large print indoors at 1:30 a.m. The room was quite as light as if it had been day.” Photographs were taken by this natural light at 1:00 a.m. at Stockholm, Sweden, and also at Novorzhev, Russia, and they look like a bright summer afternoon (I have actually seen these photos). One Russian man reported that the brightness woke him up at 1:15 in the morning and he spent half the night reading by this light. He said that at 1:45 a.m. the whole sky was a delicate salmon-pink. A British artist in Chelsea painted a series of pastels based of the glowing night sky. So, you can see that it is certainly possible, even in a purely naturalistic view, that there could be a night without darkness at the time of Christ's birth, as Samuel the Lamanite had prophesied and that actually took place.
Three Days of Darkness
Samuel also prophesied that there would be great destuction at the time of Christ's crucifixion, and that there would be three days of darkness. Everything that is described in the early chapters of 3 Nephi, particularly chapter 8, regarding the destruction that is described there, can be explained in terms of a volcanic explosion. Most of us are used to seeing pictures of volcanoes, like the ones in Hawaii, where lava spouts out. That is not the kind of volcano we are talking about. This is an explosive volcano, where the pressure builds up beneath, then the whole mountain just blows up. Mount St. Helens was one of those, and it was very small compared to other similar volcanoes. Still, in daytime, it was pitch black in Yakima, Washington, when people were gathering up the dust and ashes. Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines is also of this type, as are several volcanoes in the Caribbean.
Here are some of the things that happen with an explosive volcano: first of all there is a strong wind-blast that comes from it. The Mount St. Helens explosion, which, as I mentioned, was not one of the big ones, actually devastated something like 200 million trees-just knocked them over flat. Things up to 40 miles away were flattened by the shock wave that came from the mountain. There were also pyroclastic clouds, that is to say clouds of burning fire that look like fire mingled with smoke that rolled down the hillsides with rapid speed, sometimes up to 200 mph. They just burn and destroy everything in their path. (During the eruption of one of the Caribbean volcanoes, a pyroclastic flow wiped out a whole town.)
Other things that are produced by these volcanoes when they explode are tornados and firestorms. Firestorms can occur under other circumstances as well. Following an earthquake in Japan many houses took fire because they cook on open coal stoves. During the shaking, these coals were knocked off and ignited the wooden frame houses with the paper walls between rooms, typical of Japanese houses until very recent times. People were gathered by the tens of thousands in a large park in Tokyo, which happened to be the worst place to go. Although there was no fire at that location then, the firestorm swept into the area and all these people died instantaneously.
Hurricanes, as well as volcanoes, can spawn tornados, so there may be several tornados on the outskirts of a hurricane. Tornados can carry houses, vehicles, animals, and people away, as described in the Book of Mormon. These explosive volcanoes also send ash clouds high into the stratosphere, which is what causes the darkening to take place, so that daylight can become pitch black. There have been several examples in historic times of this darkness lasting for three days, which is as long as it lasted in the Book of Mormon account.
Lightning is also mentioned in the Book of Mormon along with these other great catastrophes. Lightning occurs in the clouds that are formed, both in the high stratosphere from the explosive elements going up, and in the pyroclastic displays. There were some men on a hillside about 30 miles away from Mount St. Helens when it exploded. They saw the cloud heading right toward them, with lightning flashing all throughout the cloud. Most of these explosive volcanoes do produce lightning. In 1964, the volcanic island of Surtsey burst from beneath the waters of the Atlantic Ocean near Iceland, taking three and a half years before the eruption ended. Lightning was observed in the clouds that were being shot up into the air.
Earthquakes often accompany the destructive forces of these explosive volcanoes, and if near the ocean can cause tsunamis. These are shock waves sent through the water at rates up to 200 mph across vast expanses of ocean, especially in the Pacific, which is quite wide. Hilo, Hawaii, gets hit by them from time to time when there are coastal earthquakes in the Americas. Incidentally, the biggest earthquake in U.S. history did not take place in Yellowstone or in Alaska, where we had some huge earthquakes back in the 1960's. It occurred in 1811 in Missouri. (I hope the next one occurs before any of us are asked to go back there.) It was accompanied by storms that resembled tornados, the sky was filled with black clouds and fierce lightning (this is from eye-witness accounts), swamps were drained and swampy areas became dry; and large tracts of land rose or fell. For a time, sections of the Mississippi River actually flowed upstream. The epicenter was at New Madrid, right on the Mississippi River in southeast Missouri. There were two temporary waterfalls actually created on the river during this time. Of the nearly 2000 tremors that struck the area during the next few months, the strongest flattened hundreds of square miles of forests, altered the course of the Mississippi, turned thousands of acres of prairie into swamp, submerged whole islands, produced massive landslides, and destroyed the town of New Madrid by lowering the ground beneath it by 15 feet. Finally, the most powerful earthquake of the series occurred February 7, 1812, and was felt over one-half million square miles-nearly half of the continental United States. It caused church bells to ring in Charlotte, North Carolina and in Boston, Massachusetts. Now that was a really strong earthquake! It was not, however, associated with a volcano.
One of the largest volcanic eruptions in modern times was in 1815. The island of Tambura, which is a volcanic island in Indonesia, literally blew its top. Shock waves were sent around the world and were felt in various places. Water levels temporarily rose in Scotland by four inches. The sound of the eruption was also heard 1600 miles away in the Indian Ocean. This volcano poured ash into the stratosphere by way of wind currents and covered most of the northern hemisphere, even though the volcano was in the southern hemisphere. It produced a year of winter in many places. In parts of New England, there was frost or snow every day of the year, even in summer. It was during this time that the Smiths were living in Vermont, and they had crop failures three years in a row. People in the eastern U.S. called it the year without a summer, because there really was no summer that year. This is why the family of Joseph Smith moved to New York, because they had lost so much during the three years in Vermont.
In 1883, the volcanic island of Krakatoa, also in Indonesia, blew up. There were 10,000 people in one town 50 miles away that simply vanished when a huge tsunami raced across the strait, hit the village, and washed all the people and their buildings inland for quite some distance. Many of the villages on the coast of nearby islands were also hit and affected, killing some 30,000 people. This volcanic explosion was very much like what happened in the Book of Mormon.
This last example is in late April to early May 1902, when a volcano, Mt. Pelée on the West Indian island of Martinique, began rumbling and spewing hot ash. On 2 May, the mountain shot up a dense, black cloud with brilliant lightning. For several days, ash fell like snow on the nearby port city of St. Pierre. On 5 May, a mass of boiling mud rushed down to the sea carrying 50-ton boulders. Two days later, La Soufriére, a volcano on the nearby island of St. Vincent, erupted and sent a steam cloud 30,000 feet into the air. Hot falling ash destroyed vegetation over a third of the island. A 50-foot mass of boiling mud formed in a dry river and flowed down hill. On May 7, the same day as the previous eruption, a black cloud, full of vivid lightning arose from Mt. Pelée. At 7:52 the next morning, the side of the volcano burst open and a huge ball of fire from super-heated steam, gases and ash rushed down the mountainside at an estimated 100 mph (this was actually filmed at the time from a boat in the harbor). As the fireball came down it engulfed the port city of St. Pierre, instantaneously carbonizing many objects and killing all but two of the inhabitants. One of them was grateful that he was locked in the dungeon of the local jail, while the other was a dog. All other living creatures were wiped out. When it hit the town, this huge, hot mass of gases burned up all the oxygen, so that even if someone had survived the burning, it would be difficult to survive not having the necessary oxygen. As soon as the cloud passed over the city, suddenly air rushed in to fill up the vacuum caused by the sudden lack of oxygen, and created some fierce winds that knocked over some of the structures in the town.
Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon
The Nephites obviously spoke Hebrew (Moroni says so in Mormon 9:33) and, of course, they came out of Jerusalem. One of the things that strikes me is that some words in the Book of Mormon reflect a Hebrew background rather than an English background. This is due mostly to wordplays and to ranges of meanings of the words. For example, in English we have the word “snow.” We know what snow is: it can fall from the sky; it can be just one flake; it can be a cluster of flakes; it can turn out to be rather hard snow. The Eskimos, who have a lot more snow than we do, have many different words for “snow.” They have separate words for falling snow, drifting snow, snow that is settling on the ground, the frozen crust on top, and so on. This is because of their environment. On the other hand, Arabic has only one word that covers snow, frost, hail, anything that is frozen. Here are some examples from the Book of Mormon: In Alma 49:4, the Lamanites attempted to cast their stones and arrows at the Nephites atop the city wall of Ammonihah (see also Alma 49:22). I can imagine throwing stones, but have you tried throwing an arrow? It may seem strange for them to be throwing stones and arrows. John Sorenson has suggested that maybe they were using the atlatl, which is a spear-thrower or arrow-thrower. It gives the warrior more length to his arm, so that when the arm comes around, the projectile can be hurled with greater velocity than just by throwing alone, so there would be greater distance and more power behind it. However, we don't even have to go that far, although that is a possibility. Even if they used bows (frequently included in the inventory of Nephite and Lamanite weapons, especially in the book of Alma), that is also fine, because in Hebrew, the word “to throw” (root y-r-h) is the same word meaning “to shoot” an arrow. Here is where the range of meaning of the word fits Hebrew better than it does English.
In 1 Nephi 1:6, Lehi prays to the Lord and “there came a pillar of fire and dwelt upon a rock before him.” I usually think of “dwelling” as purchasing or building a home and moving in. Fire obviously was not dwelling on the rock in that sense. The Hebrew word (root y- sh -b) means both “to dwell” and “to sit.” They are not separate words in Hebrew like they are in English.
In Helaman 9:6, a Nephite judge is “stabbed by his brother by a garb of secrecy.” We have the critics getting on us all the time about this one. Garb? That means garment; it means a piece of clothing. How do you stab someone with a piece of clothing? Well, you don't, obviously. But, it does correspond to the English term, 'garb of secrecy' or 'cloak of secrecy' and a few other similar terms. However, a Hebrew word (begged) probably fits this case much better. The word can mean not only “garment” but it also means “treachery.” Here the Nephite judge is being killed by treachery.
One that has struck me is the Hebrew word maqom, which literally means “place of arising.” It comes from a verb meaning to arise, stand up, stand on one's feet. It is interesting that in some Bible passages it should be referred to as a grave or a tomb, such as in Job 16:18; Ezekiel 39:11; Ecclesiastes 3:20; 6:6. Sometimes it is used as a place where the spirits of the dead go. In Phoenician, which is related to Hebrew, using the same ancient alphabet and spoken in ancient Lebanon and Canaan, the term is used only for a gravesite. There are number of tombs of Phoenician kings that have an inscription reading “Do not disturb this maqom.” What interests me here is that in the Book of Mormon I found eleven places where the word 'place' (which is the usual translation of maqom in the Bible) is used where someone has died, or where he was buried, or where his spirit went after he died. So it's used in that range of meanings, and in Joseph Smith's day nobody had ever suggested that those were meanings applicable to the Hebrew word. All that came about long after his time.
I did a paper on this some years ago when I was taking a course in Hebrew etymology from Professor Haim Rabin, who was president of the Hebrew Language Academy. He really loved it when I threw in Book of Mormon references. He used to give a lecture every year to all the American students who would come to study at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. (There were about 7000 American students there at any given time, with about 2000 new ones every year.) His lecture was always on the history of the Hebrew language, which was his specialty. In about 1970, I received a letter from a friend who was attending the lecture that year, and who told me about it. He said that Rabin was quoting a scriptural passage to them to illustrate the use of the conjunction “and” in Hebrew. Because these were new students from America, most of them didn't know Hebrew, so he was giving the lecture in English. That's why he was quoting in English. He wanted to illustrate that used the word “and” in Hebrew in a lot more places than we would use it in English. Some of you who have read the Book of Mormon a lot know that there are many instances of “and this and this and this,” and keep going on. This is very common and is a typical feature of the Hebrew language. As Rabin was reading this, my friend, “Wait a second. He's not quoting from the Bible. That's a Book of Mormon passage.” When Rabin finished quoting that passage, he said, “I know some of you have read the Bible and have never seen that passage there. And I just have to tell you it's not from the Bible, it's from the Book of Mormon, but is another example of this kind of thing.” I took half a dozen classes from Rabin while I was living in Israel and I often drew on the fact that I knew he liked the Book of Mormon and believed it to be an ancient authentic document.
Here's an example of Hebrew wordplay type: In Alma 32:21, Alma tells the Zoramites, “If ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.” The Hebrew words for “faith” and “truth” come from the same root. “If ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.” So this makes a lot more sense in Hebrew than it does in English. It suggests that one cannot have faith in untrue things. You may hope for them, you may believe them, but faith in the scriptural sense is not what we have in things that are not true.
One of the things that has fascinated me over the years came to my attention about 1969-70. This is the use of Egyptian characters to write Hebrew and related texts. Hebrew is part of the language family called Northwest Semitic. Actually, Hebrew, Canaanite, Phoenician, Moabite, Edomite, and Ammonite are all basically the same language with dialectical differences, such as using a different accent, or somewhat different words. The Canaanite languages are the same as Hebrew, written in the same alphabet. Canaanites and Israelites could talk to each other. In Mormon 9:32-34, we have the statement by Moroni about using reformed Egyptian, and he also says that they also knew Hebrew. In 1 Nephi 1:2, Nephi says “I make a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians.” This always made me think that actually what we have here is probably a combination of things. We might have Hebrew written in Egyptian characters. Or, that we might have a mixture of the two. As it turns out, all of these are possibilities.
Egyptian actually had three different writing systems, each distinguished by the names given them in Greek. The first, which you have all undoubtedly seen, is hieroglyphics, which are the sacred writing using drawings of birds, animals, and humans and various body parts, furniture, and things found in nature. They used this mostly for engraving on stone, although you will find it written on parchment and papyrus, also.
The second is a cursive form called hieratic, which means “sacred.” Hieratic is a lot like the hieroglyphic, but is a faster way of writing things, so some things might be obscured in our day if we don't study both systems.
An even more common abbreviated form of Egyptian writing is called demotic, meaning “popular.” This came into use about 800 B.C. So, it had already been in use for about 200 years before Lehi's time. By the way, all of the ancient texts written in Israel, whether Jewish or Israelite in the north, used Egyptian characters for numerals. Although the Hebrew alphabet has 22 characters, when they wrote numerals they used the Egyptian characters. This has been known from as early as the 9th century BC. What's more surprising is that there are, in fact, texts that have been found that are in Hebrew or a related language that are written in Egyptian characters and not in Hebrew characters. Let me illustrate this way: I can write a Hebrew word in English so that you would recognize it but it's not the way they would write it in Israel. If I were to write shalom (meaning “peace”) in Hebrew, I'd use the Hebrew letters. The English letters don't belong in the Hebrew alphabet but we can still use them to represent Hebrew words.
The same is true of texts using Egyptian characters representing Hebrew words. For example, there is the London Magical Papyrus of the 14th century BC, found in Egypt; and the Harris Magical Papyrus found in the next century B.C.; Papyrus Anastasia I, also found in the 13th century BC; and an ostracon in the Cairo Museum (No. 25759), of the 11th century BC. All of these have Hebrew-like text written in Egyptian characters. If you know Egyptian, you can pronounce them but you don't know what they are saying because they are not Egyptian words. If you know Hebrew, you can't read it because the characters are not Hebrew characters. So, you have to know both languages in order to be able to read them-the writing system that was used as well as the language itself. That explains why King Benjamin had to teach Egyptian to his sons, because they had to understand how that written system worked in order to deal with the records, which had been started by Nephi in imitation of the Brass Plates, which we're told in Mosiah were also written in this Egyptian form (Mosiah 1:2).
What this demonstrate is that there were some Egyptian scribes who were sufficiently skilled in Northwestern Semitic languages, Hebrew and Canaanite, that they were able to transliterate using their own writing system. However, we now have similar writings from ancient Israel, in which Hebrew texts employ Egyptian characters. The first one comes from a place called Arad, which is about 24 miles south-southeast of Jerusalem. Several Hebrew letters written on ostraca were found there in 1965 dating between 598 and 587 BC. In that same year was found an ostracon that has purely Egyptian hieratic characters and Egyptian words, as well. However, in 1967, two years later, ostracon having a combination of Hebrew and Egyptian was unearthed. It is not one text then a translation of the same text into another language. The information was written in both sets of characters. There are 17 words on it. Of these, seven are written with Hebrew letters and ten are written with Egyptian characters. But the text itself is Egyptian. Even the words written in Hebrew letters are Egyptian words, not Hebrew.
In the 1970s, excavations in northern Sinai, known to the Israelites as Kadesh-barnea, where the Israelites had their main camp during the exodus, several ostraca of the 6th and 7th centuries BC were found. Some of them were scribal exercises only. One is the hieratic text including a column of Egyptian measures and five columns of numbers. Mingled in with these are some Hebrew characters, including the Hebrew word for one thousand, which is found on three times on the ostracon. The Hebrew word for “shekel” appears 22 times. There is one ostracon with three columns of numbers; the left-hand column has the Hebrew word for the smallest weight measure in use, and it immediately follows an Egyptian hieratic numeral. The interesting thing is that all of these were in use at the time of Lehi.
My friend and colleague Matt Roper has coined the term “boomerang hits” for criticisms of the Book of Mormon that were, with the passage of time, not only proven unfounded, but in which they provide evidence for the Book of Mormon. Three of the most prevalent criticisms are:
o Ancient peoples never wrote on metal plates.
o There is no such thing as “reformed Egyptian.”
o The ancient Israelites never hid away sacred records so that future generations could find them.
The first of these assertions has been proven false time and again, as many hundreds of metallic records have been found, mostly in the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, including Israel. Some of them were even found in stone boxes, like the one that concealed the plates from which Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon.
The oldest documents containing biblical text fit the pattern of the Book of Mormon. The oldest example of a biblical text written in Hebrew was discovered in 1980 in a tomb beside the Scottish Presbyterian Church of St. Andrew in Jerusalem. The tomb itself dates to the end of the 7th century BC, i.e., about 600 BC. There were two rolled-up pieces of silver with writing on them. Each one of them had the priestly blessing from Numbers 6:24-26. So, the oldest known documents containing a Biblical passage are written on metal plates.
The second oldest of the Jewish texts is the Amherst Papyrus 63, which was found in Egypt. It was written in Egyptian demotic characters but it doesn't say anything in Egyptian. The underlying text is Aramaic, which is a sister-language to Hebrew. Aramaic is the language that was beginning to be very popular back in the 8th century BC among most people of the ancient near-east, including the most educated among the Jews. By the 5th century BC, the Jews spoke Aramaic instead of Hebrew and had borrowed the Aramaic form of the alphabet to write Hebrew biblical scrolls. This is the alphabet used to write most of the Dead Sea Scrolls and it is still in use in printed Hebrew Bibles and synagogue texts, in addition to being used iun modern Hebrew. The papyrus is from the 4th century BC, and includes a quote from Psalms 20:2-6. So, the second oldest document with biblical text on it, is actually written in reformed Egyptian, because demotic is a form of reformed Egyptian using cursive script.
The third oldest document with biblical text on it would be the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in 1947-48, although some were recovered as late as 1985-1956. These were hidden in jars in caves preserved for future generations to discover. They were probably written by people who were fleeing the area. One of these scrolls contains the book of Exodus 4:2-17, and was written in the middle of the 3rd century B.C., so it is one of the very earliest copies of a Biblical text and one that was hidden away to be discovered by future generations.
So, these criticisms leveled against the Book of Mormon have come back to bite the critics and to demonstrate that the oldest Bible texts follow the same pattern as the Book of Mormon.