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Book of Mormon Evidences, Part 2 presents more of the factors that suggest the Book of Mormon may be an ancient document. It is a continuation of Book of Mormon Evidences, Part One. See also Book of Mormon Evidences, Part Three. These pages are written by Jeff Lindsay, a Book of Mormon aficionado, who takes full responsibility for the statements and opinions offered on this page. This page is neither sponsored nor endorsed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (see the official LDS Web Site).
Mormanity is my LDS blog, in operation since 2004. Numerous Book of Mormon issues have been discussed there. Also see the Neal Maxwell Institute, FAIRLDS.org, SHIELDS, the Book of Mormon articles at BYU Studies, Mormonism Researched and The Backyard Professor.)
You can order a free Book of Mormon at Mormon.org.
Parts of this page are translated into Spanish: see Evidencias del Libro de Mormon by Marco Royo.
Much more can be found in Part One, including evidence from the Arabian Peninsula. Also look at Part Three, which includes more information on Mesoamerican connections, word print studies, etc., and links to many related sites and articles.
A long-ridiculed "anachronism" in Book of Mormon is the reference in Helaman 3:9-11 to cement work among some of the ancient inhabitants of this continent in the 1st century B.C. At this time, many Nephite people moved into the north lands (probably southern Mexico). Trees were very scarce there, apparently because of environmental irresponsibility among a previous, fallen civilization (I refer to the "Jaredites," probably correlated with the Olmecs). While taking care to protect and nurture trees for the future, the Nephites used other materials to build their cities. Buildings made from cement are specifically mentioned. For decades, this seemed like a mistake.
There is near consensus among LDS scholars that Mesoamerica (e.g., the region now occupied by southern Mexico, Guatemala, etc.) is the best candidate for the New World setting of the Book of Mormon. In this paradigm, Book of Mormon lands are viewed as having a limited geographic scope--a few hundred miles of north to south extent versus a continental scope. One version of this model is impressively explained in John Sorenson's book, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985) and in David Palmer's In Search of Cumorah (Springville, Utah: Horizon Publishers, 1981). Mesoamerica fits the general setting required for the Book of Mormon in many ways such as providing a region with an ancient tradition of written language, the existence of ancient temple building, many of the elements of civilization described in the Book of Mormon, ancient practices of warfare and fortification, implications regarding climate, the presence of volcanism, etc.
However, there is a recently popularized alternate theory that puts Book of Mormon events in the Great Lakes region of the United States. This fails on numerous counts such as the lack of a history of written language in the region, but has been buttressed by drawing upon alleged statements of Joseph Smith and other Church leaders that supposedly show they were "revealing" divine information about Book of Mormon geography. Such claims are highly misleading. In fact, there is support from statements of Joseph Smith and other leaders for Mesoamerica as a candidate for Book of Mormon geography in the New World that should immediately rebut any claims that Mesoamerica has been ruled out by divine revelation. In 1842, after receiving a copy of John Lloyd Stevens' work, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, Joseph Smith was impressed with the detailed new knowledge about ancient civilization in the New World, and saw in these works supporting evidence for the plausibility of the Book of Mormon. Joseph wrote in a letter that this book about ancient Mesoamerica "supports the testimony of the Book of Mormon." He also said we would do well to compare the lands described by Stevens with those of the Book of Mormon. See "Joseph Smith, John Lloyd Stephens, and the Times and Seasons" by David C. Handy (Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum, 2010)--an important resource in understanding the fallacy of the arguments used in buttressing the weak Great Lakes theory based on claims to revelation about the topic of Book of Mormon geography. I recommend reading David Handy's article on this topic. Its purpose is not to prove any one model for Book of Mormon geography, but to disprove the irresponsible claim that revelation has ruled out Mesoamerica.
For more information, see the FAIRLDS reviews of Rodney Meldrum's DVD, DNA Evidence for Book of Mormon Geography (Meldrum is a key promoter of the so-called Heartland model). Also see Gregory Smith's review, "Often in Error, Seldom in Doubt: Rod Meldrum and Book of Mormon DNA." Also see "A Brief History of the Limited Geographic View of the Book of Mormon" by John Tvedtnes, Meridian Magazine, April 2009. Be sure to see look at John Sorenson's latest work, Mormon's Codex, when it comes out in 2012. For now you can see a preview of his arguments in his presentation, "Reading Mormon's Codex" from the FAIR 2012 Conference.
Other useful resources:
"That does not affect my faith one particle. I read the Book of Mormon prayerfully and supplicated God for a testimony in my heart and soul of the divinity of it, and I have accepted it and believe it with all my heart." I also said to him, "If my children do not find cement houses, I expect that my grandchildren will." He said, "Well, what is the good of talking with a fool like that?" (April 1929 Conference Report, p. 128 ff.)
President Grant's statement was prophetic. Today, tourists to Mesoamerica can find ancient cement work in abundance at Teotihuacan (which is clearly "in the land north" according to modern models for Book of Mormon geography). Mesoamerican cement was being used at least by the first century B.C. (David A. Palmer, In Search of Cumorah, Horizon Publishers, Bountiful, UT, 1981, p. 121). Palmer shows a photograph of cement used to surface a temple at the Chiapa de Corzo site. Palmer also cites Monte Alban, which is south of Teotihuacan but still in the "land north," as another example of ancient cement work. Several examples of cement work use tiny volcanic stones (0.5 to 2 mm diameter) mixed with clay and lime to produce the cement. Cement was also used in the ancient city of Kaminaljuyu (modern Guatemala City).
Mesoamerican work with cement involved more than merely applying a veneer to buildings. Important structural elements were made with cement, and the use of cement in Mesoamerica dates to about the time when the Book of Mormon reports its development (46 B.C.). John Welch provides further data in his article, "A Steady Stream of Significant Recognitions" in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, ed. D.W. Parry, D.C. Peterson, and J.W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2002), pp. 372-374:
No one in the nineteenth century could have known that cement, in fact, was extensively used in Mesoamerica beginning largely at this time, the middle of the first century B.C.
One of the most notable uses of cement is in the temple complex at Teotihuacan, north of present-day Mexico City. According to David S. Hyman, the structural use of cement appears suddenly in the archaeological record. And yet its earliest sample "is a fully developed product." The cement floor slabs at this site "were remarkably high in structural quality." Although exposed to the elements for nearly two thousand years, they still "exceed many present-day building code requirements."  This is consistent with the Book of Mormon record, which treats this invention as an important new development involving great skill and becoming something of a sensation.
After this important technological breakthrough, cement was used at many sites in the Valley of Mexico and in the Maya regions of southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras, which very well may have been close to the Nephite heartlands. Cement was used in the later construction of buildings at such sites as Cerro de Texcotzingo, Tula, Palenque, Tikal, Copan, Uxmal, and Chichen Itza. Further, the use of cement is "a Maya habit, absent from non-Maya examples of corbelled vaulting from the southeastern United States to southern South America." 
Mesoamerican cement was almost exclusively lime cement. The limestone was purified on a "cylindrical pile of timber, which requires a vast amount of labor to cut and considerable skill to construct in such a way that combustion of the stone and wood is complete and a minimum of impurities remains in the product."  The fact that very little carbon is found in this cement once again "attests to the ability of these ancient peoples." 
John Sorenson has further noted the expert sophistication in the use of cement at El Tajin, east of Mexico City, in the centuries following Book of Mormon times. Cement roofs covered sizable areas: "Sometimes the builders filled a room with stones and mud, smoothed the surface on top to receive the concrete, then removed the interior fill when the [slab] on top had dried." 
Footnotes for the above passage:
1. See Matthew G. Wells and John W. Welch, "Concrete Evidence for the Book of Mormon," Insights (May 1991): 2.
2. David S. Hyman, A Study of the Calcareous Cements in Prehispanic Mesoamerican Building Construction (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1970), ii, sec. 6, p. 7.
3. George Kubler, The Art and Architecture of Ancient America, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: Penguin, 1975), 201, emphasis added.
4. Tatiana Proskouriakoff, An Album of Maya Architecture (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963), xv.
5. Hyman, A Study of the Calcareous Cements, sec. 6, p. 5.
6. John L. Sorenson, "Digging into the Book of Mormon," Ensign, October 1984, 19.
A question arises about the use of wood in the production of cement. If timber was so scarce in the area where cement was made, as the Book of Mormon indicates (Helaman 3:6,7), then how could the locals make cement? I have previously suggested that making cement does not require high-quality timber suitable for making buildings, but merely material that can burn. There can be a shortage of high-quality trees yet plenty of flammable material that can support cement making. However, based on what scholars have learned about the region in southern Mexico where cement was used anciently, it appears that the deforestation problem mentioned in the Book of Mormon was at least partly caused by the high demand for wood to support the manufacture of cement. On this interesting topic, Brant Gardner has an excellent essay on Helaman chapter 3 and the issue of cement manufacture that shows some of the scholarly support for the issue of deforestation and cement making in a region that fits the Book of Mormon's description, with the suggestion that Mormon in Helaman 3 was describing the land as he knew it after 300 A.D., and not at the time when cement making was first started there.
As to the possible importance of Teotihuacan itself, consider the following tentative suggestion from Michael J. Preece (Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Vol.3, 1991, p.38):
The Book of Mormon text often speaks of a mysterious land. It may be referred to as the "land which was northward" (Alma 63:4) or simply the "land northward" (Alma 63:5-8, 10; Helaman 3:3-4, 7, 10-11). In another place it is referred to as the "northernmost part of the land" (3 Nephi 7:12). It is possible that this land is in the same location as the "great city of Jacobugath" (3 Nephi 9:9). Dr. Allen suggests that this mysterious land might be the ancient city of Teotihuacan, built in the valley of Mexico, near where Mexico City lies today.... The ancient culture which inhabited this city had its beginnings about 150 B.C. and fell about A.D. 750. The circumstantial evidence that Teotihuacan may indeed have been the "land northward" includes the fact that between 55 B.C. and A.D. 29, the Book of Mormon mentions several migrations into this land where large bodies of water were found. This is the same period when Teotihuacan was experiencing a high growth rate. The valley of Mexico contained many lakes, and in fact Mexico City is built on a dry lake bed. The Book of Mormon speaks of the people in the land northward building houses out of cement because timber was scarce in the land (Helaman 3:7, 10-11). The archaeological site of Teotihuacan contains many buildings made of cement, and timber is indeed scarce in the valley of Mexico...."
On a related note, the Book of Mormon speaks of highways and roads (3 Nephi 6:8; 8:13). Some LDS people have pointed to the discovery of cement roads among the Incas as supporting evidence, but the Inca empire was too far south to fit into a modern understanding of Book of Mormon geography. However, lime-surfaced causeways (called sacbes) have been discovered in Central America, some dating to Book of Mormon times. Researchers at Tulane University found one from near 300 B.C. (E. Wyllys Andrews V et al., "Komchen: An Early Maya Community in Northwest Yucatan," presented at the 1981 meeting of the Sociedad Mexicana de Antropologia, San Cristobal, Chiapas, p. 15, as cited by J. Sorenson, Ensign, Oct. 1984, p. 18). Another in Belize was used between 50 B.C. and 150 A.D. (Andrews, "Dzibilchaltun," in Supplement to the Handbook of Middle American Indians, ed. J.A. Sabloff, vol. 1, Archaeology, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1981, p. 322, as cited by Sorenson, 1984, p. 23). South of Mexico City are about two miles of ancient paved roads(American Antiquity, Vol. 45, 1980, p. 623), while one roadway in Yucatan is over 50 miles long (A. Bustillos Carillo, "El Sacbe de los Mayas: Caminos Blancos de los Mayas, Base de su Vida Social y Religion," 2nd ed., B. Costa-Amic Editorial, Mexico, 1974, p. 23, as cited by Sorenson, 1984, p. 18). As we learn more about these ancient roadways and their uses, we hope to understand more about Book of Mormon peoples and their lives. In any case, the mention of cement work and roadways in the Book of Mormon appears plausible today, but was implausible to experts of the past.
By the way, the ancient adobe pueblos that existed in Mexico as well as the US Southwest could also qualify as "cement" houses. The word "adobe" was not commonly used in Joseph Smith's day, was not in the 1830 Webster's Dictionary, and did not appear in print in English until 1834 (B. Stubbs, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1996, p. 39). If Joseph did not have that word in his vocabulary, the word "cement" in the Book of Mormon could also include adobe. Perhaps the adobe builders were linked to Book of Mormon peoples.
A FARMS publication online also discusses cement in the Book of Mormon.
A recent discovery is that ancient Middle Eastern poetry--including the Bible--often used a poetical form called chiasmus, a form of parallelism in which key ideas are structured in a mirror image reflective form such as A,B,C,C',B',A'. Some of the most powerful and beautiful examples of this ancient form are found in the Book of Mormon (first discovered in 1967 by John Welch). The importance of chiasmus in ancient Semitic writings has only been recognized in this century, and still today very few educated people have ever heard of it. Its strong presence in the Book of Mormon is evidence that its writers possessed an ancient Semitic literary tradition, as the Book of Mormon claims, and (in my opinion) single-handedly refutes the claim that the Book of Mormon is the product of a 19th century writer (though there are numerous other factors that refute such a claim). Alma 36 is a classic example. For details--fascinating evidence that the Book of Mormon is an authentic ancient document--see my "Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon" page and see, for example, the classic 1969 article by John Welch that announced this discovery (here is a direct link to the PDF for the Welch's article). Also see "A Masterpiece: Alma 36" by John Welch.
Jacob chapter 5 in the Book of Mormon offers a detailed description of practices regarding the cultivation of olive trees. Jacob explains that the lengthy passage is taken from a Jewish text by Zenos that was among the sacred writings available on the brass plates that Lehi brought with him from Jerusalem. Information about olive trees in the text agrees well with what is known of ancient olive cultivation in ways that seem far beyond what Joseph Smith could have known. For details, see the Book of Mormon Nugget, Olive Trees and the Book of Mormon (April 2008).
The Book of Mormon does not say that the Nephites raised olives, however. For more information on the issue of plants and animals in the Book of Mormon, see my LDS FAQ page on that topic.
A fascinating issue on climate is the seasons of war described in the Book of Mormon, mostly between Alma 9 and Alma 47. Several examples provide specific months and days of the battle (e.g., Alma 16:1). Many others indicate the general time of year (e.g., Alma 44:22-24). In over 30 places, war action is described as taking place near the end or beginning of the year. Sorenson has compiled information from the text about the month of the year various military skirmishes are mentioned. Almost all occur between the 11th and 3rd months, with a small number reported in the 4th, 5th, and 10th months, and none mentioned in the 6th through 9th months. Why this pattern? Well, the text also makes reference to cultivation of food a number of times in the 4th through 9th months. The problem of getting food to the troops is mentioned as a concern mainly in the twelfth through 2nd months. Thus it seems that the harvest may have been in months 10 through 12. (Summary: Nephite cultivation of fields: months 4-9; main harvest: months 10-12; time of warfare: mainly months 11-3).
Now several insights arise:
But how do Nephite months correspond to ours? In Mesoamerica, May though September is the best time for growing crops (heat and moisture available). October through April is fairly dry. We also know that before Columbus, military campaigns in Central America occurred mainly between late October and February (again, farmers were then free of agricultural duties and food could be gathered--or captured). Likewise, soggy land from heavy rains was now drier and more passable (and made living in tents easier). These considerations lead Sorenson and others to conclude that the Nephite year may have begun in late December, perhaps with the winter solstice (Dec. 21/22), as did many other ancient peoples.
Now here comes an intriguing insight which bodes poorly for the theory that Joseph Smith made the Book of Mormon up. A significant battle scene (one in which the long-term survival of the Nephite nation might have been at stake) is described in Alma 51 at the end of the year--ca. December. After heavy fighting and major marches, both sides were very tired because of their "labors and heat of the day." This takes place on the east coast, "in the borders on the beach by the seashore" (Alma 51:32). At this season, the rain-swollen rivers have subsided, but the east region (Isthmus of Tehuantepec area) is still rather wet, low, and hot. The hottest weather was still months away, but down on the coast it was hot and muggy enough to contribute to the fatigue of the rapidly traveling troops.
Alma 51 shows that the land of the Book of Mormon peoples was not a cold, snow-covered place in winter, as upstate New York was for young Joseph Smith. If he made up the book based on what he knew, he would have had fighting occur in the summer, not during winter. The internal consistency of many passages dealing with war during the proper season of war for Mesoamerica is also remarkable--and has not been noted or recognized until the last decade or so. Though it is a minor point in the text, the geographical and climatic information provided fits and makes sense. It must be considered as one of the many "mundane" but powerful evidences for authenticity.
There are many aspects of ancient warfare in the Book of Mormon that show strong evidences of authenticity. Interesting parallels occur in recent discoveries about the widespread nature of war in ancient Mesoamerica and especially the use of fortifications in the Late Pre-Classic and Proto-Classic periods (corresponding with Book of Mormon times). The several types of fortifications described in the Book of Mormon have been found in Mesoamerica dating to the appropriate era. Especially interesting is the recently discovered use of earthen mounds or walls coupled with timber work on top, much as described in Alma 50: 1-6. This topic is discussed more fully in John Sorenson's article, "Fortifications in the Book of Mormon Account Compared with Mesoamerican Fortifications" in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin, Deseret Book, SLC, UT, 1990--a book that abounds with other fascinating insights and evidences related to the Book of Mormon as an authentic ancient document. Other insights in this volume deal with the nature of guerrilla warfare and the Gadianton robbers, the use of weapons in the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerica, military organization and strategy in the ancient world, legal aspects of war, and more. Highly recommended for serious students of the Book of Mormon.
It is worth noting that Mesoamerican culture and Mayan culture in particular was once viewed by the "experts" as being overwhelmingly peaceful. In their view, the extensive warfare depicted in the Book of Mormon was out of place. In recent years that view has been radically altered. As Michael Coe now explains, "The Maya were obsessed with war. The Annals of the Cakchiquels and the Popol Vuh speak of little but intertribal conflict among the highlanders, while the sixteen states of Yucatan were constantly battling with each other over boundaries and lineage honor" (Michael D. Coe, The Maya, London: Thames and Hudson, 4th ed., 1987, p. 160).
Exciting and fairly recent discoveries in Mesoamerica which have caused a complete paradigm shift in the thinking of scholars. Until recently, experts believed ancient Central America and southern Mexico (Mesoamerica) to have been a peaceful, tranquil place during the times that the Book of Mormon speaks of frequent, large-scale wars. Now it is known that warfare was relatively common. Further, the discoveries of ancient fortifications that fueled the paradigm shift are remarkably consistent with descriptions of fortifications given in the Book of Mormon. Together, the evidence about ancient warfare and fortifications in Mesoamerica strengthens the case for the plausibility of the Book of Mormon as an ancient text. For details, see my Mesoamerican Fortifications page and the more recent essay of John Sorensen, "Fortifications in the Book of Mormon Account Compared with Mesoamerican Fortifications" in Warfare in the Book of Mormon.
Critics continue to mock the awkward grammar of the Book of Mormon and the many changes that had to be made in later editions to correct problems of punctuation and grammar. In so doing, they call attention to what are actually strong signs of authenticity. Yes, punctuation was a problem in the original manuscript because it was dictated (translated) without punctuation. Punctuation had to be added and then further corrected. That sounds crazy for anyone composing an English document--but ancient Hebrew and other Semitic languages were written without punctuation, and a relatively direct translation would likewise not have punctuation in it.
As for the grammar, there certainly were many strange and awkward structures in the original manuscript that needed improvement. For example, instead of the normal "if ... then ..." construction, the Book of Mormon had a multiple phrases with "if ... and ...." such as "if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, and he shall manifest the truth of it unto you" (Moroni 10:4, 1830 edition). That's completely unacceptable English--but it's very good Hebrew, known as the Hebraic conditional (see "Hebraic Conditionals in the Book of Mormon," in Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon, edited by John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1999), pp. 201-203; also see "Poor English, but good Hebrew — a divine hint of Book of Mormon truth?" by Daniel Peterson). Another example is 1 Nephi 17:50, which Joseph initially translated as "if he should command me that I should say unto this water be thou earth, and it shall be earth." When Oliver Cowdery prepared the printer's manuscript from the original manuscript, he deleted the word and to improve the English. Thirteen other examples printed in the 1830 edition were later changed by Joseph Smith for the 1837 edition, including Moroni 10:4 (ibid., p. 202). Examination of the text and the original and printer's manuscripts suggests that this was no simple scribal error, and Joseph's own dialect of English did not include this awkward construction, nor does the King James Bible provide language that would motivated a forger to include Hebraic conditionals. So why do they occur in the original Book of Mormon? Is any explanation more plausible than a somewhat literal translation of the Hebraic conditional from a Semitic text?
There are dozens of examples of expressions and grammatical structures in the 1830 Book of Mormon, many of which survive in the current printing, that are unusual or awkward in English but are natural and proper in Hebrew. The simplest explanation is that the text was dictated as a translation from an ancient Semitic document. Critics have been unable to explain away these and many other signs of authenticity (Edward Ashment tried, as discussed by John Gee in "La Trahison des Clercs: On the Language and Translation of the Book of Mormon," Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 6, No. 1, pp. 51-120, esp. pp. 88-91.) It's much easier to just mock the poor grammar and punctuation, or scream about the many minor changes that were needed to make the Book of Mormon text more properly comply to basic standards of spelling, punctuation, and grammar. (Please don't let them know about the many textual problems in the surviving Hebrew and Greek manuscripts for the Bible--we need your help to keep their bubble intact.)
An excellent source on this topic is "Hebraisms and Other Ancient Peculiarities in the Book of Mormon" by Donald W. Parry in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon. Another outstanding article on the topic of Semitic influence in the Book of Mormon text is John A. Tvedtnes, "Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon: A Preliminary Survey," BYU Studies, Vol. 11, no. 1 (Autumn 1970), pp. 50-61; see also John A. Tvedtnes, "The Hebrew Background of the Book of Mormon," in John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne, eds., Rediscovering the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1991), pp. 77-91. Tvedtnes shows that strong evidences of Hebraic language show through Joseph Smith's translation. It makes no sense if the book were a fraud. Also of value is Richard Grant's page, "Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon, and a short article, Hebrew Writing Styles and Idioms by Russell Anderson. The language of the Book of Mormon cannot be explained as the English of Joseph Smith or the King James English of the Bible. It's more Semitic than either. (See also Book of Mormon Authorship by D. Brent Anderson in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, "Enallage in the Book of Mormon" by Kevin L. Barney, and some info from John Tvedtnes in an Ensign magazine.)
Hebraic word pairs (words commonly used together in parallel structures) represent an important device in Hebrew poetry that was only recognized by scholars long after Joseph Smith's day, but such pairs are found abundantly in the Book of Mormon in ways that conform with Hebraic use. See Kevin Barney's impressive article, "Poetic Diction and Parallel Word Pairs in the Book of Mormon" published by the Maxwell Institute, 1997. This is a must-read for those interested in the issue of vestiges of Hebraic language structures (Hebraisms) in the Book of Mormon. More recently, see James T. Duke, The Literary Masterpiece Called the Book of Mormon (Cedar Fort, Springville, UT, 2004). Chapter 13, "Word Pairs and Distinctive Word Combinations" builds upon Barney's work. See also his shorter article, "Word Pairs and Distinctive Combinations in the Book of Mormon," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, vol. 12, no. 2, pp. 32-41, 2003. (The link is to a PDF file; there is also an HTML version without the important tables of word pairs.) Duke provides extensive helpful background information and many new insights. For a collection of other resources on Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon, see FAIRMormon: Book of Mormon/Evidences/Poetic forms.
A recent contribution to the topic of Hebraic influence in the Book of Mormon and among Book of Mormon peoples is the work of Brian D. Stubbs, one of the few linguists working with Uto-Aztecan languages (covering the US Southwest down to southern Mexico). He wrote a ground-breaking article, "Looking Over vs. Overlooking Native American Languages: Let's Void the Void," in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring 1996, pp. 1-49 (a PDF version is also available), which makes serious, systematic comparisons of ancient Hebrew words and forms to those of Uto-Aztecan languages. Stubbs is among a small handful of people who know both Semitic languages and Uto-Aztecan languages. Most linguists dealing with the Book of Mormon have approached it with backgrounds rich in Semitic languages but lacking in New World languages. Stubbs' pioneering work opens the door for further studies, pointing to some interesting possibilities. (You can also see Brian Stubbs lecturing in a video presentation on this topic.)
Among his tentative conclusions, Stubbs finds that Uto-Aztecan "as a language family exhibits more similarities with Hebrew than could be attributed to coincidence; nevertheless, that Hebrew element is obviously mixed with other language elements very different from Hebrew." While no UA [Uto-Aztecan] language shows the same level of derivation from Hebrew as Spanish does from Latin, there are still many traces of similarity suggesting some degree of contact or derivation. Over 1,000 similarities have been derived, enough to merit further investigation. Examples of similarities include the plural suffix "-im" in Northwest Semitic (the branch to which Hebrew belongs), and "-ima" in many UA languages; the passive prefix "ni-" in Northwest Semitic and the prefix "na-" in UA; Northwest Semitic "yasab" as the perfect form of the verb to sit or to dwell, compared to "yasipa" in UA; "adam" meaning man in Hebrew compared to "otam" in UA; Hebrew "katpa" for shoulder, compared to "kotpa" in UA; ya-'amin for "he believes" in Hebrew compared to "yawamin" in a northern UA language; etc. Stubbs' article delves into 100 of the over 1,000 areas of similarity. It is technical but worth the read.
In addition to examining Uto-Aztecan languages, Stubbs has another worthwhile article from the perspective of a linguist in "A Lengthier Treatment of Length," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2, 1996, pp. 82-97 (also available as a PDF file to better display the information). He responds to Edward Ashment's attack on the Book of Mormon which claims the long, awkward sentences found in so many Book of Mormon verses are much different than the short, concise sentences found in the Old Testament, supposedly showing that the Book of Mormon was not derived from Hebrew. Stubbs shows that the short sentences alleged to be characteristic of Biblical Hebrew may be characteristic of the King James translation of the Old Testament, but are not characteristic of the actual Hebrew. In fact, numerous sentence structures in the Book of Mormon show much more in common with genuine Hebraic sentences than with the English of the King James Bible or with the English of Joseph Smith's day.
Many Book of Mormon verses have series of verbals introducing clauses, such as: "Zeniff . . . he being over-zealous, . . . therefore being deceived by . . . King Laman, who having entered into a treaty . . . and having yielded up [various cities], . . . ." (Mosiah 7:21-22). This type of structure is an ideal way of translating the typical Hebrew hal-clause (or circumstantial clause), which Stubbs discusses in detail. Many English sentences in the Book of Mormon that an English editor would tear apart are perfectly acceptable Hebrew structures, appearing to be fairly literal translations. The King James translation loses much of the literal flavor of such passages, but they are present in the original Hebrew. Thus, we have the interesting situation of the Book of Mormon being more Hebraic in its use of complex sentences that the King James Bible--which not only strengthens the claim the Book of Mormon was derived from a Semitic text, but further undermines the long untenable claim that the Book of Mormon can be explained away as a derivative of the King James text.
The complex sentence structures of the Book of Mormon not only correspond with those of Hebrew, Arabic, and Egyptian, but also resonate with the structures of many Native American languages. Stubbs concludes:
In light of patterns inherent to Hebrew, Arabic, Egyptian, and many Native American languages, the copious presence of certain long, awkward structures in the Book of Mormon, in my opinion, speaks much more for the text's authenticity than would a lack. The lengths of awkward English might be deemed by some as poor grammar or weakness in writing (Ether 12:23-26,40); but as a linguist and student of Semitic and Native American languages, I find these lengthy structures to be quite intriguing, significant, and reassuring."
Very few Mayan documents survived the ravages of the Spanish Conquest, but some brave Mayans did record and preserve a sacred text based on an earlier sacred book in their tradition. The text that has survived, the Popol Vuh, is one that should be considered when we ponder the Book of Mormon. In my Mormanity blog post of Aug. 8, 2012, "'You Make Them Live Again by Speaking Their Words': The Popol Vuh and Respect for Ancient Scripture," I refer to Dr. Allen J. Christenson's recent translation of the ancient Popol Voh, a sacred text from the Mayan people. The translation was published in 2003 and electronically in 2007. It is entitled POPOL VUH: Sacred Book of the Quiché Maya People (Mesoweb Publications, 2007), available at "http://www.personal.psu.edu/abl128/PopolVu/PopolVuh.pdf" and also at "http://www.mesoweb.com/publications/Christenson/PopolVuh.pdf." Dr. Christenson is LDS. Some of his comments in his preface might be especially interesting to LDS audiences, though they should be interesting to all readers.
The Popol Voh has often been of interest to LDS people if only for the fact that it reminds us that some ancient Native Americans prized the written word and kept texts that described the Creation and other important events. It also reminds us that traditions not just of writing but of sacred scripture and prophecy were had in Mesoamerica.
In considering where in the Americas the Book of Mormon might have taken place, one of the many factors pointing to Mesoamerica is the existence of ancient writing there. Established traditions of advanced writing systems flourished anciently in that region. Christensen (p. 23) observes that the Mayans had an advanced writing system combining phonetic and logographic elements capable of writing any word that could be spoken (p. 23):
The Mayans apparently had thousands of texts when the Spaniards came. One of the greatest tragedies of history was the wanton destruction of Mayan records by the Spanish, wiping out almost all their writings, including sacred texts (p. 23):
Las Casas was particularly impressed by the fact that the Maya could write "everything they desired." The Maya were, in fact, the only people in the New World who had a writing system at the time of the Spanish conquest which had this capability.
Only four lowland Maya codices are known to have escaped these purges. We can only add our own laments to those of the Maya over the irretrievable loss of a people's literary heritage. Of the many hieroglyphic books that once existed in the highlands, including the Precolumbian version of the Popol Vuh, not a single one is known to have survived.
A Scared Book from Across the Sea?
A few things of special interest to LDS readers crop up in the Popol Vuh. On page 23, Christenson writes:
In the preamble to the Popol Vuh, its Quiché authors wrote that the contents were based on an ancient book from across the sea (p. 64). In a later passage, the source of these writings is identified as Tulan, which they located across the sea to the east (p. 259), apparently a reference to the Maya lowlands of the Yucat·n Peninsula. The Quiché lords held these "writings of Tulan" in great reverence and consulted them often (p. 287).
I cannot help but wonder if that land across the sea to the east, the source of the sacred book that the ancients used to consult often, might have been a little further east than Yucatan. Say, perhaps, Jerusalem? Well, that's just hopeful speculation for now, so I'll have to settle for the Yucatan.
Scripture and Sacred Stones as Instruments of Vision
Another interesting little gem, so to speak, comes from pages 24-25:
The fact that the contents of the original Popol Vuh predated the Spanish conquest gave them an aura of mystery and power. Its authors referred to the ancient book upon which the Popol Vuh was based as an ilb'al, meaning "instrument of sight or vision" (p. 64; lines 51-52).
The word is used today to refer to the clear quartz crystals that Quiché priests use in divinatory ceremonies. It may also be used to refer to magnifying glasses or spectacles, by which things may be seen more clearly. Thus the rulers of the Quichés consulted the Popol Vuh in times of national distress as a means of seeing the future:They knew if there would be war. It was clear before their faces. They saw if there would be death, if there would be hunger. They surely knew if there would be strife. There was an instrument of sight. There was a book. Popol Vuh was their name for it. (p. 287)
LDS readers might recall the discourse in Alma 37 (and elsewhere in LDS scripture) that links the special interpreters, the stone, with the revelatory gift of seeing or prophecy and with translation of scripture. Also related is the topic of the Urim and Thummim or also the seerstone, tools used to help a seer see. Interesting, in my opinion.
Beware: The Redundant and Repetitive Text Is, Uh, Repetitive and Redundant
One of the most common complaints against the Book of Mormon can also be fairly lodged against the Popol Voh. Christenson explains the "problem" with the Popol Voh on page 34:
Yet the beauty of Quiché poetry may sound awkward and repetitive when translated into European languages. Some translators in the past have ignored or failed to recognize the poetic nature of the Popol Vuh, particularly its use of parallelism, and have tried to improve its seemingly purposeless redundancy by eliminating words, phrases, and even whole sections of text which they deemed unnecessary. While this unquestionably helps to make the story flow more smoothly, in keeping with our modern taste for linear plot structure, it detracts from the character of Quiché high literature. Welch points out that "in many ancient contexts, repetition and even redundancy appear to represent the rule rather than the exception" (Welch 1981, 12).
Yes, he's quoting John Welch of chiasmus fame. And yes, chiasmus is one of the forms of parallellism found in the Popol Vuh (see pp. 37-39 of the Introduction), as in the Book of Mormon, and in ancient Hebraic Poetry. Cool.
Anyway, I am grateful for the beautiful translation and respectful introductory comments that Professor Christenson has offered, and thank him for his service to the Quiche people. By helping to preserve and share the words of the ancients, he has helped them to live again for their descendants and for us. I hope you'll read at least some of the Popol Voh and be grateful for the miracle of its preservation. I hope you'll be even more grateful for the miracle of the preserved text of the Book of Mormon, a sacred text from ancient writers who saw our day and speak to us now as a voice from the dust.
The Book of Mormon introduces roughly 200 new names not found in the Bible. Many of these have been found to have genuine Semitic parallels in ancient times. Take, for example, the name Alma. Alma was the name of two male prophets in the Book of Mormon (a father and a son). This name has been one of the most commonly attacked features of the Book of Mormon, for Alma is a female Latin name (though some of the handful of people that carried this name in Joseph's day were actually male, as one can find searching genealogical records). Critics have assumed that Joseph simply borrowed Alma from the term "alma mater," ignorant of its gender. The Tanner's suggest that Joseph borrowed it from the name Shalmaneser in the Old Testament. As usual, they overlook an important fact that has been discussed in LDS writings for decades. In 1961, a prominent scholar in Israel, Professor Yigael Yadin, discovered an ancient document that proved to be a land deed from the time of the Bar Kokhba rebellion in Palestine (ca. 131 A.D.). Prof. Yadin translated one of the names as "Alma the son of Judah."(See Bar Kokhba by Yigael Yadin, Random House, New York, 1971, p. 176; and Nibley, The Prophetic Book of Mormon, pp. 281-82.) Alma proves to not only be a genuine Semitic name, but is a name of a Hebraic man. While this is well after Lehi's time, the name Alma has also been found in much more ancient documents from tablets from Ebla in modern Syria in 1975, dating to around 2200 B.C. (see Terrence L.Szink, "New Light: Further Evidence of a Semitic Alma," J. of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1999). Finding the male name Alma in a record about descendants early Hebrews now must be viewed not as a reason for mocking the Book of Mormon, but as a reason to take it seriously.
As is often the case in the Book of Mormon, there's more than meets the eye of the casual reader. One of the most fascinating things about the purportedly ancient text with Semitic origins is that many elements in it make more sense and gain new layers of meaning when we import information from the ancient world that was not available to Joseph Smith when he whipped out this masterpiece. Regarding the name "Alma," the way that name is introduced and used in the text reflects possible Hebraic wordplays on the name. That's the gist of Matthew Bowen's recent note at the Maxwell Institute, "'And He Was a Young Man': The Literary Preservation of Alma's Autobiographical Wordplay." See also my related post on Mormanity, as well as "Nephites with Jaredite Names" in Hugh Nibley's classic book, The World of the Jaredites and also Michael Ash's "Nephite names find a 'home' in Middle East." 2013 update: Now BYU has released a tremendous new resource for better understanding the possible ancient roots of Book of Mormon names: the the Book of Mormon Onomasticon. This provides information and analysis for each of the names in the Book of Mormon, often indicating potential Hebraic roots or ties to other ancient languages.
Mulek is an important name in the Book of Mormon, said to be a son of King Zedekiah who survived and escaped with some others into the New World. While it's easy to see that Mulek could be a Hebraic name, there is possible evidence that there was such a person. An early treatment of this is in Chapter 40 of Reexploring the Book of Mormon presents the evidence. The survival of a son at first glance seems to contradict the Biblical account. But a careful reading does not eliminate the possibility of a surviving child, and now new evidence suggests that there was a survivor with a name similar to Mulek (MalkiYahu, which could be shortened to a form such as Mulek.) See my "Book of Mormon Nugget," Mulek, Son of Zedekiah. More recently, an ancient seal was discovered in Jerusalem bearing the title, "Malkiyahu the son of the king." Could this be a seal from Mulek, the son of King Zedekiah? This may be plausible. See Jeffrey R. Chadwick, "Has the Seal of Mulek Been Found?," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 12, No. 2, 2003, pp. 72-83 (PDF).
Another novel Book of Mormon name is Sariah, the wife of Lehi who lived in Jerusalem in 600 B.C. Scholars did not know that Sariah was an authentic ancient Hebrew name for a woman until long after the time of Joseph Smith. Jeffrey R. Chadwick explains in "Sariah in the Elephantine Papyri," J. of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 2., No. 2, 1993, pp. 197-201 (the citation is from p. 196):
The conjectural Hebrew spelling of Sariah would be s'ryh and would be pronounced something like Sar-yah. The skeptic might suggest that this name was an invention of Joseph Smith, since Sariah does not appear in the Bible as a female personal name. However, in a significant historical parallel to the Book of Mormon, the Hebrew name Sariah, spelled sryh, has been identified in a reconstructed form as the name of a Jewish woman living at Elephantine in Upper Egypt during the fifth century B.C.
The reference to Sariah of Elephantine is found in Aramaic Papyrus #22 (also called Cowley #22 or C-22) and appears in Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C. [Arthur E. Cowley, ed. and trans. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1923), p. 67]. Although the language of the documents is Aramaic, A. E. Cowley specifies that the names are in fact Hebrew [ibid., xv]. Line 4 of C-22 lists the personal name sry[h br]t hws 'br hrmn [ibid., 67]. The probable vocalization is Sariah barat Hoshea' bar Harman, and the text means "Sariah daughter of Hoshea son of Harman." Cowley had to reconstruct part of the text, supplying the final h of Sariah and the initial b-r of barat, but the spacing is adequate, and the comparative context of the papyrus leaves little doubt that the reconstruction is accurate. The extant final t of barat assures us that the person was a daughter, not a son, and, after the letters b-r are supplied, there is only room for one additional letter--the final h of Sariah.
The Elephantine papyri were discovered about 70 years after the Book of Mormon was published. (Incidentally, the Elephantine papyri reveal that Jews living at Elephantine in Egypt built themselves a temple similar to but smaller than the temple of Solomon, just as Nephi's people did after reaching the New World. Many Book of Mormon critics say that real Israelites would never have thought of building another temple elsewhere, but that's simply not the case. For details, see my Book of Mormon Nugget page, "Lessons from the Elephantine Papyri Regarding the Book of Mormon and LDS Temples.")
The name of Sariah's husband, Lehi, has been criticized as a clumsy abuse of a biblical place name that was not an authentic Hebrew name for men. However, recent discoveries have created a strong case for Lehi as an authentic ancient Hebrew name after all. See my post at Mormanity, "New Evidence for the Authenticity of Lehi as an Ancient Semitic Male Name" and Jeffrey R. Chadwick's article, "Lehi in the Samaria Papyri and on an Ostracon from the Shore of the Red Sea."
Nephi's name itself is an interesting case of a name with Egyptian roots with possible examples of wordplay in the Book of Mormon text. See the overview at the Blade of Averroes blog.
Consider also the prominent name Mosiah, which is the name of a book within the Book of Mormon and the name of two great kings, a father and his grandson. This name does not occur in English translations of the Bible. The Tanners suggest that Joseph Smith made it up by combining Moses + Isaiah. A much better explanation exists! And this explanation gives profound insights into the Book of Mormon. John Sawyer, a non-LDS biblical scholar, published an article in 1965 called "What Was a Mosi'a?"(Vetus Testamentum, 15: 475-86, 1965). A summary of his article and a discussion of its important implications for the Book of Mormon are provided by Matthew Roper in his review of Mormonism: Shadow or Reality? (Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 4, 1992, pp. 169-215). "Mosi'a" does occur in the Hebrew scriptures, but is never transliterated as such in modern English translations of the Bible. Sawyer found that the word is used in a characteristic manner to describe a "victor" or "savior" or "deliverer" appointed by God, to deliver oppressed people from injustice. The term designated a unique class or office in ancient Israel and could even be applied to God himself (the ultimate Deliverer). Sawyer noted that the deliverance of a Mosi'a is often achieved by nonviolent means. The Mosi'a is an "advocate" who strives for justice. As Sawyer explains, "The main idea is intervening and contending on behalf of the right." (Ibid., 482)
Significantly, Sawyer noted that, "Final victory means the coming of mosi'im to rule like judges over Israel. The people will once again possess their own property and justice will be the foundation of the Kingdom of the Lord."
The Book of Mormon name or title "Mosiah" is quite similar to "mosi'a". John Welch has noted that mosi'a, when coupled with the theophoric element "iah," would mean "the Lord is a mosi'a." (See John W. Welch, "What Was a 'Mosiah'?" in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, 105-7.)
Those familiar with the accounts in the Book of Mosiah and the works of both of the men called King Mosiah will note the fascinating parallels between Sawyer's description and the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mosiah is about deliverance of oppressed people by mighty rulers appointed by God, often achieving deliverance with nonviolent means. These heroes in the Book of Mormon include Benjamin, Zeniff, Alma, Gideon, Ammon, Mosiah II, and the sons of Mosiah. Nowhere else are there so many accounts of deliverance in the classical manner of the ancient "mosi'a". Many of the deliverers are kings or chief priests. The sons of Mosiah would later go on to help save (deliver) many thousands of Lamanites. The Book of Mosiah also describes how King Mosiah did away with kings and instituted a system of elected judges over the people. The basic message of the book is not that humans can deliver oppressed and afflicted peoples, but that the Lord God is the true deliverer (Mosiah 11:23; 24:21; 25:16). One may well wonder if the name Mosiah is really a title that was given to two great kings who delivered their people. In any case, it is hard to believe that such an appropriate ancient name/title could have been guessed by chance.
Those interested in Book of Mormon names should consider the impressive discovery of the Lachish Letters from roughly Judea at roughly the time of Lehi and Jeremiah. These vitally important documents score many points for Book of Mormon authenticity, including strong support for some Book of Mormon names. For details, see my "Book of Mormon Nugget," Book of Mormon Names and the Lachish Letters.
More information on names is found in a paper accepted for presentation to an international body of scholars at the Thirteenth World Congress of Jewish Studies, held in Jerusalem, August 2001. The paper by John A. Tvedtnes is entitled "Hebrew Names in the Book of Mormon," which I recommend. A related article by John A. Tvedtnes, John Gee, and Matthew Roper, "Book of Mormon Names Attested in Ancient Hebrew Inscriptions," (available online in PDF (best) or HTML formats) was published in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 9, No. 1, 2000, pp. 41-51. Extensive evidence is offered from ancient Hebraic sources to support Book of Mormon names that critics have long criticized. In addition to Alma and Sariah, already discussed above, Tvedtnes shows that ancient Hebrew inscriptions provide support for the authenticity and Hebraic origin of the following Book of Mormon names: Aha, Ammonihah, Chemish, Hagoth, Himni, Isabel, Jarom, Josh, Luram, Mathoni, Mathonihah, Muloki, and Sam, none of which are found in English Bibles. Support is also provided for the name Gilgal, which does occur as a place name in the Bible and Book of Mormon, but is also a man's name in the latter. That name has also been verified as a man's name from an ostracon (pottery fragment) dating to the eight century B.C. (Y. Aharoni, Arad Inscriptions, Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1981, p. 10, as cited by Tvedtnes et al.).
Further support for the name "Aha" comes from a recent discovery reported in a news item, "Bronze Arrowheads and the Name Aha" in J. of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 8, No. 2, 1999, p. 83. There we learn that the May/June 1999 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review (pp. 42-43) has an article by P. Kyle McCarter, Jr. of Johns Hopkins University that reports the discovery of three bronze arrowheads from the eleventh century B.C. bearing Hebrew inscriptions, one of which was inscribed with a steel instrument (yes, critics, steel was in use there long before Laban got his steel sword!), according to Dr. R. Thomas Chase of the Freer Gallery of Art, a division of the Smithsonian Institution and an authority on ancient bronze artifacts. He discovered that "the inscription had been incised with a steel [emphasized in the original] engraving tool." The name "Aha" that occurs in one of the inscriptions, which McCarter translates as "The arrowhead of 'Aha' son of 'Ashtart.'" This appears to be the same as the name mentioned in the Book of Mormon in Alma 16:5, where we read of two sons of Zoram, chief captain of the Nephite army, whose names were Lehi and Aha. Thus we have evidence authenticating another ancient Hebrew name found in the Book of Mormon but not the Bible. (2005 Update: there was also an early Egyptian king named Aha. See the April 2005 issue of National Geographic, as I discuss in a post about Aha on my blog, Mormanity. But there are other possibilities for Aha discussed in the new Book of Mormon Onomasticon.)
The name "sheum" appears in Mosiah 9:9 as a foodstuff in a list of grains. Matthew Roper explains that sheum "is a perfectly good Akkadian cereal name . . . dating to the third millennium B.C., which in ancient Assyria referred to wheat, but in other regions of the Near East could be applied to other grains" ("Unanswered Mormon Scholars," FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1997, p. 120). Roper notes that this word was not known to scholars until at least 1857, long after the book of Mormon had been published. How did Joseph Smith make up this ancient word from the Near East and properly treat it as a grain?
Roper also notes that the Book of Mormon name "Jershon" is linked to a Hebrew root meaning "to inherit." In Alma 27:22, the land of Jershon is given to converted Lamanites "for an inheritance." At the time the Book of Mormon was translated, Joseph would not have known that Jershon is associated with "inheritance" in Hebrew. Just another amazingly lucky guess? (For Jershon, Cumorah, and Zarahemla, see "The Hebrew Origin of Some Book of Mormon Place Names" by Stephen D. Ricks, and John A. Tvedtnes in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 6, No. 2, 1997, pp. 255-59. See also a discussion of Book of Mormon names by Russell Anderson. Also see "A Nickname and a Slam Dunk: Notes on the Book of Mormon Names Zeezrom and Jershon" by Stephen D. Ricks in Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, vol. 8 (2014): 191-194. Dozens of other Book of Mormon names have been treated by Nibley (see his book Since Cumorah, for example) and other authors.
The name "Irreantum," said to mean many waters (1 Nephi 17:5), was the name the Nephites called the ocean when they arrived at the shores of southeastern Arabia, apparently at Wadi Sayq. Interestingly, the ancient Greeks called this very same ocean Errythraen. That name can be found in the Apocrypha, but if that was the source of the idea, why the great difference in spelling? Based on pre-Islamic South Semitic, a reasonable (though uncertain) hypothesis for its origin is "irre-an" (meaning "watering") plus the root "-tm" or "-tum," adding the sense of "wholeness" or "completeness." The combination "irre-an-tum" can convey the meaning of "watering of abundance" or, as the Book of Mormon puts it, "many waters." Such a South Semitic construction from the region Lehi's group traversed makes sense as an introduced foreign word in the Hebrew text. For detail, see Paul Hoskisson (with Brian Hauglid and John Gee), "Irreantum," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 11, 2002, pp. 90-93.
Let's also consider the word "Liahona," used to describe the unusual spherical compass or director that was miraculously given to Lehi to guide him through the Arabian peninsula, apparently telling them not only which way to travel but when to travel or stop as well. The non-LDS Rabbi Yosef ben Yehuda opined that Liahona was probably coined by the Nephites but represents good Hebrew (e-mail from Dec. 1997). Liohona (lamed-yud-hey-vav-nun-alef in Hebrew), is related to known Hebrew words, as Rabbi Yosef explained:
These related roots may fit the meaning of Liahona well. But a much more detailed analysis may provide a translation for the entire word which perfectly fits the usage in the Book of Mormon. See James Curci, "Liahona, 'The Direction of the Lord,' An Etymological Explanation," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, vol. 16, no. 2 (2007): pp. 60-67, 97-98. Curci concludes that Liahona is a word coined by Nephi and/or Lehi using Hebrew elements conveying the meaning "The Direction (Director) of YHWH" or literally "To the Lord Is the Whither." As is so often the case in the Book of Mormon, there are interesting Hebrew word plays in the text that only recently are coming to light. In this case, the use of the word "whither" in relationship to Liahona-related passages in First Nephi link to the "whither" (hona) element of the name. (For more on the Liahona, see my Mormanity post, "The Increasingly Interesting Liahona.")
Another interesting Book of Mormon name is Lamoni, a Lamanite king. That name is very close to one of the very few ancient Mesoamerican city names that have been preserved: Lamanai. You can learn more about the ancient Mayan city of Lamanai in a Youtube video. You might also enjoy the video that refers to the ancient Mayan city Pan cha'lib', which literally means "Bountiful." This may be a coincidence, but it's possible that the city was named after the ancient New World place called Bountiful in the Book of Mormon (which may have been named after the Old World Bountiful discussed above). Watch the text call-outs on the video in the first couple of minutes. The video is a re-enactment of an ancient ritual related to one that told of a warrior who visited Bountiful (Pan cha'lib').
Two Jaredite names are mentioned in a post at Mormanity. The Jaredite name Kish is discussed by Bruce Warren in an article at LDSMag.com suggesting that there is evidence of this name being used in Mesoamerica. Warren interprets some carved glyphs as "King Kish_U-Kish Kan," an ancient king of the Olmec culture, that can be translated as "he of the feathered serpent." While looking up some information on the well established Mesoamerican name Xul, known both among the Olmecs and the Mayans (a relatively common name, still in use, as I understand - it was also the name of a Mayan month), I found it is also preceded by the term "Kan" meaning "serpent" in another person's name from Palenque, as shown on the page http://www.jaguar-sun.com/glossary.html or at a page from the Colorado School of Mines. Xul is pronounced as "Shule" and may correspond with the Jaredite name Shule in the Book of Mormon. For more on Jaredite names in Mesoamerica, see "Surviving Jaredite Names in Mesoamerica" by Bruce Warren. (2012 update: As Daniel Johnson points out in "Names and Mayan Glyphs," the case for Warren's find of the Book of Mormon name Kish is not so straightforward. Warren may be right, but there's another way to read the glyph.)
The authenticity of Book of Mormon names has begun to make a serious impression on non-LDS scholars. As far back as 1966, before many of the most exciting discoveries about Book of Mormon names were made, Near Eastern scholar William F. Albright, though not a believer in the Book of Mormon, wrote a letter in response to an anti-Mormon critic, noting that Joseph Smith probably could not have learned Egyptian from scholars of his day, yet included some authentic Egyptian names in the Book of Mormon. "It is all the more surprising that there are two Egyptian names, Paanch[i] and Pahor[an] which appear in the Book of Mormon in close connection with a reference to the original language being 'Reformed Egyptian.'" (William F. Albright to Grant S. Heward, Baltimore, Maryland, July 25, 1966, as cited by Tvedtnes, 2001.) He then implied that Joseph Smith might have been some kind of "religious genius." Given today's impressive and growing list of authentic Semitic names in the Book of Mormon, it's doubtful that the "religious genius" theory can survive. Joseph Smith was not a religious Einstein--he was a largely unschooled Prophet of God.
There are many other Book of Mormon names that appear to be authentic ancient Semitic names. It's interesting that tentative links to Mesoamerican names are also beginning to appear. An understanding of ancient Mesoamerica is many years behind our knowledge of the ancient Hebrews, of course - stay patient and stay tuned.
2014 Update on Hebraic Wordplays: As mentioned above, the Book of Mormon may have wordplays on the names Alma, Nephi, Mosiah, and the place name Jershon. Further, in Part 1 of Book of Mormon Evidences, I mention the apparent wordplay on the name Nahom, which can fit the mourning and murmuring described at the place. One of the more intriguing recently discovered cases of wordplay--multiple instances packed closely together with clever and sophisticated meaning--is found in the one-chapter-long Book of Enos, as noted by Matthew Bowen in "'And There Wrestled a Man with Him' (Genesis 32:24): Enos's Adaptations of the Onomastic Wordplay of Genesis" in MormonInterpreter (2014). I find this one particularly impressive, with the kind of skill that I feel would be challenging for a non-native Hebrew speaker.
There is also a possible Hebraic wordplay involving the place name Sebus in Alma. Further, there may be a very sophisticated Hebrew wordplay in Lehi's vision. See "A Temple Gone Dark: An Important New Slant on the Themes of Nephi's Vision and Lehi's Dream" at Mormanity and also at the Nauvoo Times. Further recent developments include discovery of a very interesting wordplay on the name Joseph in 2 Nephi 3 identified by Matthew L. Bowen, "He Shall Add": Wordplay on the Name Joseph and an Early Instance of Gezera Shawa in the Book of Mormon," Insights, Vol. 30, Issue 2 (2010). That wordplay also involves another intriguing Hebraic literary tool. A potential wordplay involving the name Zarahemla has also been identified. Another possible wordplay is at the center of a chiasmus discussed on my page on chiasmus in the Book of Mormon. Joseph had not studied Hebrew before the Book of Mormon was published, so the presence of apparent Hebraic wordplays in the text adds an interesting element to consider.
With 500 pages of detailed text to work with, it is surprising to see that critics of the Book of Mormon tend to focus their attacks on only a few tiny spots of the text. I think no spot has received more vigorous attacks than Alma 7:10, which contains a prophecy of Alma about the birth of Christ. This passage makes the enormous "blunder" of placing Christ's birth in the land of Jerusalem, rather than in Bethlehem. Not only does everybody know that Christ was born in Bethlehem, but everybody knows that Jerusalem is a city, not a land. In fact, the phrase "land of Jerusalem," which is used dozens of times in the Book of Mormon, is never used in the Bible. Critics have long concluded that this odd usage is proof that Joseph Smith was making things up. They further conclude that the blunder about Jerusalem instead of Bethlehem as the birth place of Christ is further evidence for fraud.
As with most attacks on the Book of Mormon, an apparent weakness has become tremendous evidence for authenticity with advances in scholarship about the ancient world. The Dead Sea Scrolls and other recently discovered ancient documents from Israel confirm that the phrase "land of Jerusalem" was an authentic term used to describe the area around Jerusalem--an area that includes nearby Bethlehem. The documentation for this fascinating finding is provided in a 1994 FARMS update, "Revisiting the Land of Jerusalem via the Dead Sea Scrolls." Two non-LDS scholars, Robert Eisenman and Michael Wise, discuss the phrase "land of Jerusalem" in the Dead Sea Scrolls in a passage discussing the time of the prophet Jeremiah. They write that the use of this term "greatly enhances the sense of historicity of the whole, since Judah or 'Yehud' (the name of the area on coins from the Persian period) by this time consisted of little more than Jerusalem and its immediate environs" (The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered, New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1992, p. 57, referring to a passage translated on p. 58). Jeremiah's time overlapped with Lehi's time, and in that time, what was latter called Judah or the land of Judah could be called "the land of Jerusalem," a term that "greatly enhances the sense of historicity of the whole" when used in a document linked to Jeremiah's time. Should not the same be said of the Book of Mormon? Lehi and his people left "the land of Jerusalem" in Jeremiah's day. With the Dead Sea Scrolls before us, we now know it would be perfectly logical for them to refer to the place where Christ would be born as "the land of Jerusalem." That term was illogical for Joseph Smith, who published the Book of Mormon over a century before the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.
Certainly Joseph Smith knew that Christ was born in Bethlehem--he was familiar with much of the Bible and had heard the story of Christ's birth numerous times. If he were making the Book of Mormon up, why on earth would he make such a terrible blunder, placing Christ's birth in Jerusalem? Far from a blunder, the use of the term "land of Jerusalem" in the Book of Mormon is consistent with usage in the Dead Sea Scrolls and can now be viewed as powerful evidence for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. Indeed, it adds greatly to "the sense of historicity" of the book.
By the way, critics need to know that their arguments used against Alma 7:10 would equally well condemn the Bible, for 2 Kings 14:20 also speaks of the City of David (Bethlehem) as being "at Jerusalem." But in spite of this and in spite of the heavy evidence for authenticity provided by the phrase "land of Jerusalem," the absurd attack on Alma 7:10 remains as one of the most used weapons in the anti-Mormon arsenal against the Book of Mormon, right up there with the equally silly attack on the word "adieu" (reviewed, with other popular arguments, on my LDSFAQ page of Alleged Problems in the Book of Mormon. After nearly 170 years of attacking, one would think that the critics could muster much better arguments by now.
The Book of Mormon in 3 Nephi describes a great disaster that swept over Book of Mormon lands at the time that Christ was crucified in the Old World. This destruction overthrew evil rulers and rocked a society that had become wicked, yet had some righteous people in its midst. The description of the destruction is detailed, mentioning great storms, earthquakes, and risings and sinkings of the land. A terrible storm brought violent wind and whirlwinds, accompanied by unprecedented lightning and thunder. The face of the land was changed and what was once solid rock now was cracked in some places. The violent activity lasted about three hours. Afterwards, a "thick darkness" was present which could be "felt." "Vapor of smoke and darkness" choked or suffocated some, and thick "mists of darkness" prevented fires being lit for three days. Many cities had been destroyed by burning (six burned cities are named), by sinking into the ocean (the city of Moroni, near the coast), by being covered with earth, or, in the case of Jerusalem, by being covered with rising "waters". (Some cities remained, and basic geographical reference points were unchanged, so the great deformation of the land was largely superficial.)
The details about the destruction make excellent sense if volcanic activity was involved. Volcanic ash and fumes can result in thick, tangible, moist mists which can kill people, shut out light for days, and prevent the lighting of fires. (Those who experienced the Mount St. Helens eruption in the United States know about some of this.) Volcanic ash interacting with air can lead to huge electric charge build-ups and dramatic lightning discharges. Strong volcanic activity can also be accompanied by seismic activity and shifting of earth by either lava flows, ash deposits, mudslides or landslides, and the raising and lowering of portions of the land and by changes in the water levels of nearby lakes. Joseph Smith never experienced a volcano, but the Book of Mormon description is remarkably consistent with modern knowledge of volcanic activity.
Given that the Book of Mormon appears to be describing volcanic activity around 33 A.D. or so, we have an important and readily verified physical detail of great value in assessing the merits of any proposed geography for the Book of Mormon: the Book of Mormon--if it is true history--took place in a region where major volcanic activity occurred around 33 A.D. Is there any place on this continent where something like the destruction mentioned in the Book of Mormon could have occurred? The answer is YES.
Not only is there a location in the Americas where significant volcanic and probably seismic activity occurred near the time specific in the Book of Mormon, but it occurred in the only plausible location for the Book of Mormon based on many other considerations--Mesoamerica. Major lava flows in that area have been dated to about 75 A.D. plus or minus 50 years (one non-LDS scholar, Payson Sheets, said it was at "about the time of Christ"), making the Book of Mormon account entirely plausible. Some of the lava flows from this time buried Mesoamerican cities, such as the city at Cuicuilco in the Valley of Mexico (see Sorenson, p. 320, for a photo). In the area of Chiapas, which may be the land of Zarahemla, according to John Sorenson (An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon), important buildings in the major centers there, Santa Rosa and Chiapa de Corzo, were burned around 50 A.D. plus or minus a few decades (Sorenson, p. 128).
Sorenson writes about the plausibility of the great catastrophe in terms of a proposed Mesoamerican setting (Sorenson, pp. 320-322):
These facts in the Book of Mormon should fit the Mesoamerican scene. The same types of natural destructive forces at work in the 3 Nephi account should be familiar in southern Mexico and thereabouts. After all, it was the intensity of nature's rampage that impressed the Nephite recorder, not the novelty of the phenomena (3 Nephi 8:5, 7). All these kinds of destruction evidently had happened before in the land, but never with such terrifying effect. Not surprisingly, the sorts of natural forces unleashed in that fateful three hours are familiar on the Mesoamerican scene.
That area lies in a zone of intense earthquake activity-the edge of the Pacific basin, along which periodic violent quakes are a fact of life [Manuel Maldonado-Koerdell, "Geohistory and Paleogeography of Middle America," Handbook of Middle American Indians, ed. Robert Wauchope, Austin: University of Texas Press, Vol. 1, 1964, pp. 22-26; Robert C. West, "Surface Configuration and Associated Geology of Middle America," ibid., pp. 42-58, 75-78]. Scores of volcanoes are scattered along this particular zone of instability from north-central Mexico to Nicaragua. Many of them have been active within historical times [Felix W. McBryde, Cultural and Historical Geography of Southwest Guatemala, Smithsonian Institution, Institute of Social Anthropology, Publications, Vol. 4, 1947, p. 6]. Antigua, the former capital city of Guatemala, was utterly destroyed by an earthquake in 1773 and hit heavily again in 1917. The great damage done in Guatemala in 1976 by another series of earthquakes is typical of many previous experiences. Traditions and the presence of hieroglyphic signs signifying earthquakes demonstrate the profound effect they had on the pre-Columbian peoples [Maldonado-Koerdell, Geohistory, p. 26].
A description of the eruption of Conseguina volcano in Nicaragua in 1835 hints at the terror and destruction that resulted from the powerful disaster at the time of Christ. A dense cloud first rose above the cone, and within a couple of hours it "enveloped everything in the greatest darkness, so that the nearest objects were imperceptible." Fear-struck wild animals blundered into settlements, adding to the terror. Then came quakes, "a perpetual undulation." Volcanic ash began to fall, like "fine powder-like flour." The thunder and lightning "continued the whole night and the following day." Dust thrown up into the atmosphere combined with heat from the volcano to trigger the storms. Still later the worst tremor of all hit, strong enough to throw people to the ground. Darkness again came on and this time lasted forty-three hours [Payson D. Sheets, "An Ancient Natural Disaster," Expedition, 13 (Fall 1971): 27]. These conditions, multiplied in both intensity and territory covered, sound much like 3 Nephi.
In chapter 3, citations were made to scientific literature reporting evidence of volcanism right around the time of Christ. Probably the most spectacular was in El Salvador. Archaeologist and geologist Payson Sheets has worked to clarify the date and extent of the eruption there at "about the time of Christ." One volcano apparently devastated a 3,000-square mile area; ash falls up to 40 feet deep buried settlement after settlement.
Sorenson goes on to explain, with ample documentation, how more recent historical accounts of volcanic activity in Central America and southern Mexico are also consistent with Book of Mormon descriptions of great thunderings, storms that are triggered by or accompany volcanism, associated mudflows or ash deposits, etc. Of special interest is the reported fate of the city of Jerusalem (the New World Nephite city), which Sorenson's analysis of Book of Mormon geography places in Guatemala on the shore of Lake Atitlan. Sorensen writes:
The level of this lake has fluctuated as much as 40 feet due to subterranean shifts in the volcanic material that plugs its exit, according to geologists [McBryde, Cultural and Historical Geography, pp. 132, 168, 179-80; Samuel K. Lothrop, in Atitlan, Carnegie Institution of Washington, Papers, 444 (1933), p. 83, reported waterworn potsherds from the site of Chuitinamit well above the water level of that time; these can only be explained by extensive fluctuations]. Earthquakes and eruptions could have stirred the base of the lake to make water "come up in the stead" of Jerusalem (3 Nephi 9:7). The nearby land or valley of Middoni, today probably the location of Antigua, former capital of Guatemala, has been fiercely shaken many times [Maldonado-Koerdell, Geohistory, pp. 25-26]. The entire fault system and volcanic chain extending through highland El Salvador, Guatemala, and Chiapas [Robert C. West and John P. Augelli, Middle America: Its Lands and Peoples, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1976), p. 35] must have been involved simultaneously to create the vast havoc described in the scripture. Other volcanic- and earthquake-prone areas lie in a northern system in the Mexican states of Veracruz, Oaxaca, Puebla, and Mexico. (Sorenson, pp. 322-323)
Sorenson concludes (p. 323):
Unquestionably the kinds of natural forces that produced the devastation reported in 3 Nephi are thoroughly characteristic of Mesoamerica. Nothing is surprising about the story except the scale. That was unprecedented. Our archaeological sources, meanwhile, provide us with some hints that a landmark disaster did in fact occur around the time of Christ. As years go on, we may learn more about it.
Mesoamerica is the second most volcanically active place on earth, second to Indonesia. Mesoamerica was a scene of volcanic activity in a time frame consistent with the Book of Mormon. There was also volcanic activity in Idaho around 2000 years ago, but the dating does not appear to fit the Book of Mormon (just in case some creative person tries to fit Idaho into a Book of Mormon model). See Oregon State University's "Craters of the Moon" page, where we read of radiocarbon dates "in the Kings Bowl (2,222 ± 100 14C yrs.) lava field and the Wapi lava field (2,270 ± 50 14C yrs)." The given dates don't overlap with the time period required for the Book of Mormon.
Another good review of the volcanic evidence related to the Book of Mormon is available online at the FARMS Website in an article by Matthew Roper, "Unanswered Mormon Scholars," FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1997, pp. 87-145. The section of this lengthy article relating to volcanoes is found on pages 112-114, from which the following excerpt is taken:
M. T. Lamb [a prominent anti-Mormon who mentored the Tanners] called the disaster described in 3 Nephi 8-9 one of the most "foolish and physically impossible" stories ever described.57 Recent Book of Mormon scholarship, however, suggests that all the elements of this event can be reasonably explained and best understood in the context of an ancient Mesoamerican volcanic disaster.58
Bruce Warren has discussed evidence for volcanic activity in Mesoamerica around the time of Christ.59 Archaeology provides evidence for such volcanic activity in the Valley of Mexico, where the volcano Xitle is believed to have erupted anciently, covering much of the southern portion of the valley.60 Cummings, the archaeologist who originally excavated at Cuicuilco, believed that Xitle erupted around 2860 B.C.61 Based on more recent evidence, scholars now know that this disaster occurred nearly 2,000 years ago.62 At that time the site of Copilco was buried under more than thirty feet of lava, as was much of the nearby site of Cuicuilco. Archaeological evidence from the sites indicates that the lava flow was preceded by a heavy rainfall of ash.63 Both of these sites are located on the southwestern end of the Valley of Mexico. About thirty miles northeast is the massive site of Teotihuacan. There a layer of volcanic ash, apparently blown from that eruption, covers structures from the Tzacualli phase (A.D. 1-150). Carbon-14 tests of material directly below the ash layer yielded a date of A.D. 30 ± 80.64
Additional evidence for volcanic activity in Mesoamerica near the time of Christ can be found further south in the Tuxtlas region of southern Veracruz, a region many Latter-day Saint scholars associate with the Book of Mormon "land northward." In the 1940s archaeologists Matthew Stirling and Phillip Drucker found that a heavy layer of ash covered what appeared to be Late Preclassic pottery and other material at the site of Tres Zapotes. Michael Coe notes that while this pottery has "strong continuities with the Middle Preclassic, . . . in general most resemblances lie with other Late Preclassic phases of Mesoamerica, such as Chicanel of the lowland Maya area, Chiapa IV and V at Chiapa de Corzo, and terminal Preclassic manifestations in the Valley of Mexico. Olmec and other Middle Preclassic phenomena are either absent or very weak."65 Coe then notes that "the famous Stela C," found directly below the ash layer in question, "if read in the Goodman-Martinez-Thompson correlation, would read 31 B.C., exactly within the period with which we are concerned."66 If Coe's argument holds, then this would place the San Martin eruption some time after 31 B.C.
Archaeologist Payson Sheets has published evidence for several major volcanic eruptions further south in El Salvador over several millennia. One of these probably occurred during the late second century A.D. While this is much later than the event described in 3 Nephi, other evidence of earlier volcanic activity in this region has been found. In 1955 Muriel Porter described several sites in El Salvador that were covered by thirty to sixty-five feet of volcanic ash around the time of Christ.67 In a more recent work Sheets has published additional evidence for a lesser volcanic eruption in the region of Costa Rica "about the time of Christ."68 While such evidence is very tentative and preliminary in nature, it does lend plausibility to the account of the destruction in 3 Nephi.
References Cited by Roper:
57 M. T. Lamb, The Golden Bible, or, the Book of Mormon: Is It from God? (New York: Ward & Drummond, 1887), 83.
58 John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, op. cit., 318-23; Russell H. Ball, "An Hypothesis Concerning the Three Days of Darkness among the Nephites," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2/1 (1993): 107-23; John A. Tvedtnes, "Historical Parallels to the Destruction at the Time of the Crucifixion," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 3/1 (1994): 170-86; James L. Baer, "The Third Nephi Disaster: A Geological View," Dialogue 19/1 (1986): 129-32; Bart J. Kowallis, "In the Thirty and Fourth Year: A Geologist's View of the Great Destruction in Third Nephi," forthcoming in BYU Studies.
59 Bruce Warren and Thomas S. Ferguson, The Messiah in Ancient America (Provo, Utah: Book of Mormon Research Foundation, 1987), 40-4. [Roper thanks Bruce Warren for providing him with several key sources on this issue.]
60 Byron Cummings, "Cuicuilco and the Archaic Culture of Mexico," University of Arizona Bulletin (Social Science) 4/8 (15 November 1933): 8-12.
61 Ibid., 14.
62 Copilco-Cuicuilco: Official Guide del Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia (Mexico: Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, 1959), 8, 11-2.
63 Ibid., 12, 18. See also Paul B. Sears, "Pollen Profiles and Culture Horizons in the Basin of Mexico," in The Civilizations of Ancient America: Selected Papers of the XXIXth International Congress of Americanists, ed. Sol Tax (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949), 57.
64 René Millon and James Bennyhoff, "A Long Architectural Sequence at Teotihuacan," American Antiquity 26/4 (April 1961): 519.
65 Michael D. Coe, "Archaeological Synthesis of Southern Veracruz and Tabasco," in Archaeology of Southern Mesoamerica, part 2, ed. Gordon R. Willey, Handbook of Middle American Indians, vol. 3 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1965), 694.
66 Ibid., 696.
67 Muriel N. Porter, "Material Preclasico de San Salvador," Sobretiro de "Communicaciones" del Instituto Tropical de Investigaciones Científicas de la Universidad de El Salvador 4/3-4 (July-December 1955): 105-14.
68 Payson D. Sheets and Brian R. McKee, eds., Archaeology, Volcanism, and Remote Sensing in the Arenal Region, Costa Rica (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994), 318.
On Dr. Paul Wallace's page of publications at the University of Oregon's site, please note that the titles of two of the papers indicate that Xitle erupted 2000 years B.P. (before the present):
However, the date of 2000 years B.P. for the Xitle volcano is challenged by a couple of recent publications discussed at the end of the page http://www.intersurf.com/~chalcedony/FOG11.html, one of which says that radiocarbon dating suggests that Xitle erupted "1670 years BP, some 300 years later than previously thought." I have not yet seen the studies and don't know how they affect the above statements on volcanism and the Book of Mormon, but please recall that Xitle is not the only volcanic eruption that LDS writers have tentatively linked to the description in Third Nephi.
For further information about ancient volcanic activity in the Tuxtla Mountains of southern Mexico, see the article, "When Day Turned into Night" from the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, vol. 10, no. 2 (2001), pp. 66–67.
Also of interest, a page on Teotihuacan suggests that some of its early inhabitants may have com from further south in Mexico as a result of the Xitle volcano, "which caused major devastation and forced the survivors in the region to seek a new place to settle." Teotihuacan is believed to be in the land north of Zarahemla and the narrow neck of land, a place where cement construction became popular, according to Helaman 3.
The dramatic catastrophes in the New World that attended the crucifixion of Christ were prophesied 600 years before by Nephi in 1 Nephi 12: 2-6:
4 And it came to pass that I saw a mist of darkness on the face of the land of promise; and I saw lightnings, and I heard thunderings, and earthquakes, and all manner of tumultuous noises; and I saw the earth and the rocks, that they rent; and I saw mountains tumbling into pieces; and I saw the plains of the earth, that they were broken up; and I saw many cities that they were sunk; and I saw many that they were burned with fire; and I saw many that did tumble to the earth, because of the quaking thereof.
5 And it came to pass after I saw these things, I saw the vapor of darkness, that it passed from off the face of the earth; and behold, I saw multitudes who had not fallen because of the great and terrible judgments of the Lord.
6 And I saw the heavens open, and the Lamb of God descending out of heaven; and he came down and showed himself unto them.
Unknown to Joseph Smith and still unknown to most LDS people, it appears that Nephi was not the only ancient prophet who knew of the dramatic upheavals in nature that would accompany the crucifixion of Christ. And Nephi was not the only prophet who gave detailed prophecies about the mission and life of Christ. An ancient document, the Book of the Rolls (available in Margaret D. Gibson, Apocrypha Arabica, London: Clay and Sons, 1901), contains a remarkable prophecy said to be from Adam that correlates well with the Book of Mormon. The Book of the Rolls is a pseudepigraphic work known only from an Arabic version, attributed to Clement, a disciple of the apostle Peter. According to John A. Tvedtnes in his research note, "Knowledge of Christ to Come," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring 1996, pp. 159-161, the Book of the Rolls "reflects the same tradition found in other ancient Christian works about the earliest generations of mankind. . . ." In this document, Adam is told that Christ would come to earth and be born of a virgin named Mary. Christ, long before his mortal birth, tells Adam,
"I will come down to thee, and in thy house will I dwell and with thy body will I be clothed. . . . i will fast forty days; . . . I will receive baptism; . . . I will be lifted up on the cross; . . . I will endure lies; . . . I will be beaten with the whip; . . . I will taste vinegar; . . . my hands will be nailed; . . . I will be pierced with a spear; . . . I will thunder in the height; . . . I will darken the sun; . . . I will cleave the rocks; . . . after three days, which I have spent in the grave, I will raise up the body which I took from thee."
(Book of the Rolls in Gibson, f.100b-101a, p. 16)
The details about thundering, darkening the sun, and cleaving the rocks are reported prominently in the Book of Mormon (Helaman 14:20-22; 3 Nephi 8:17-20; and 1 Nephi 12:4). The Bible briefly mentions three hours of darkness and says that the earth quaked and the rocks rent (Matt. 27), but makes no mention of thundering. The ancient Book of the Rolls lends plausibility to detailed prophecies of Christ in the Book of Mormon and is consistent with the prophecy of Nephi about violent manifestations in nature at the time Christ was crucified. It doesn't prove anything about the Book of Mormon, but is fascinating nonetheless.
According to Mariano Veytia (1720-1778), a Spaniard who was born in Mexico and became familiar with Mexican legends and calendars, Mexican legends also told of darkness and intense earthquakes at a time that corresponded with the Christ's death. I quote from Veytia on my "Book of Mormon Nugget" page, "Mesoamerican Traditions of Darkness and Seismic Events when Christ Died."
For an interesting comparison between the apparently volcanic destruction described in the Book of Mormon and an ancient Egyptian text describing the results of a volcano (including the inability to light a torch), see John Gee's article, "Another Note on the Three Days of Darkness" in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 6, No. 2 (1997), pp. 235-244.
Update: Ice Core Data Support Volcanic Activity Near 33 A.D.
Benjamin R. Jordan, who is completing a Ph.D. at the University of Rhode Island involving research on volcanic ash layers in Central America, has published an article examining evidence for ancient volcanic activity around the time of the death of Christ. The article, "Volcanic Destruction in the Book of Mormon: Possible Evidence from Ice Cores," was published in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 12, No. 1, 2003, pp. 78-87 (see the PDF version for best results. Examining reputable, peer-reviewed publications of ice core data from Greenland and Antarctica, Jordan shows that there are spikes in sulfate content that are consistent with significant volcanic activity around the time of the death of Christ. "There is evidence for large eruptions, within the margin of error, for the period of A.D. 30 to 40." Ice cores and the Book of Mormon: cool evidence, eh? And deep.
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Last Updated: May 18, 2014