Book of Mormon Nuggets

Supplementing Jeff Lindsay's Book of Mormon Evidences page.

Nugget #10:
Hiding Sacred Records like the Golden Plates:
A Well Established Ancient Practice

The "ridiculous" things that critics of the Book of Mormon mock today were even more ridiculous in Joseph Smith's day. After all, when that young, unschooled farmboy on the American frontier announced to the world in the late 1820s that an angel had directed him to ancient golden plates, hidden in a stone box buried in a hill, and that he had translated the sacred record with the power of God, well, what could be more bizarre? Who had ever heard of such a thing - ancient records on metal plates, buried for centuries in stone box? While there were some pre-1830 publications, the Bible included, that mentioned ancient writing on metal (see my 2009 post on Mormanity, "Those Implausible Plates" and, for some additional information, see Book of Mormon Nugget #25), for the typical person of that day, the story of a sacred book written on gold plates was outrageous. Consider the learned response of a prominent anti-Mormon critic, Reverend Martin Thomas Lamb, in the late nineteenth century: "No such records were ever engraved upon golden plates, or any other plates, in the early ages" [M.T. Lamb, The Golden Bible, or, the Book of Mormon: Is It from God? (New York: Ward & Drummond, 1887), p. 11]. But as the nineteenth century void in knowledge of the ancient world has begun to be filled by modern discoveries, M.T. Lamb's attack has become completely "M.T." itself.

What was "too funny for words" in 1830, as Hugh Nibley has put it, has become much more plausible today, now that we know of numerous examples of ancient sacred records having been buried and preserved for future times, including records written on metal and records buried in stone boxes and numerous examples of records that were "sealed," much like the gold plates were a sealed record. None of this proves that Joseph really did translate the gold plates by the power of God, but it certainly puts his account of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon on a solid foundation with other ancient practices. Almost everything about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon is utterly anomalous and ridiculous in the context of Joseph Smith's time (at least for the typical American, and not even the highly erudite admitted to any plausibility regarding the elements of the story such as ancient writing on metal plates), but is remarkably consistent with writings and practices from the ancient world that Joseph Smith generally could not have known, and which have become much better known in our day. So if he were a fraud, just how did he manage to give us a story that would become increasingly plausible as we learn more about the ancient world?

The whole idea of ancient religious communities preserving and hiding sacred records for future times seemed a lot less ridiculous after the find of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The community at Qumran took careful steps to "embalm" their records before they were buried, seeking to preserve hidden sacred records for future generations. Details on ancient practices to hide and preserve documents, including whole libraries of buried documents, and in particular the use of metal documents in stone boxes, are given by H. Curtis Wright in "Metal Documents in Stone Boxes," in John M. Lundquist and Stephen R. Ricks, eds., By Study and Also by Faith, Vol. 1 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1990), pp. 273-334. One noteworthy example from Qumran is the Copper Scroll (3Q15), which provides a list of temple treasures. As William Hamblin points out, "it is a clear example of an attempt to preserve an important sacred record by writing on copper/bronze (Heb. nechushah) plates and then hiding the document" ("Sacred Writing on Bronze Plates in the Ancient Mediterranean," FARMS Paper HAM-94, FARMS, Provo, Utah, 1994).

Wright documents the use of metals for writing in the ancient near East and among the Greeks. The Romans also had examples of writings preserved on metal tablets, such as the metal tablets found in Pyrgi, north of Rome, where metal leaves of gold and a sheet of bronze with inscriptions were found in a rectangular niche between two temples, where the engravings had been carefully placed to preserve them. Dr. Cyrus Gordon notes that these inscriptions were in both Phoenician and Etruscan, and were a valuable tool in deciphering Etruscan (Cyrus H. Gordon, Forgotten Scripts, New York: Basic Books, 1968, p. 102). Further, Wright documents the repeated discoveries of ancient metal documents buried or sealed in stone boxes, such as the 1926 discovery of an inscription of Darius on gold and silver plates in a foundation between square hewn stones, or the 1933 discovery at Persepolis of stone boxes with square inscribed plates of gold and silver sunk into the bedrock beneath the corners of a building. The plates were probably deposited in 516-515 B.C., and were in perfect condition when discovered 2,500 years later.

Numerous other examples could be cited of metallic foundation inscriptions and documents in boxes. Though Wright briefly cites several examples, he focuses on documenting those pertaining to three Neo-Sumerian kings and nine subsequent rulers from the nineteenth through the seventh centuries B.C.

One of the first examples of the ancient writing system of the Hittites was found in inscriptions on lead scrolls found at Assur (Cyrus H. Gordon, Forgotten Scripts, New York: Basic Books, 1968, p. 88). Interestingly, versions of Hittite were written both in cuneiform and hieroglyphs (Gordon, p. 95). Royal seals (ca. 1400-1200 B.C.) were "written in hieroglyphs, sometimes accompanied by a cuneiform version" (Gordon, p. 95). An ancient language appearing in two different written forms, including one using hieroglyphs, is analogous to the later practice of writing Hebrew not only in its original alphabetic form, but also the "reformed Egyptian" version mentioned as a second system in the Book of Mormon.

There is one source that I feel must be considered by anyone seeking to understand the relationship between the Book of Mormon and ancient practices regarding writing on metal, preserving sacred records, and other practices regarding treasured documents. I refer to John A. Tvedtnes, The Book of Mormon and Other Hidden Books (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2000). This 266-page book explores and documents numerous ancient practices that show Joseph Smith's account of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon to be on remarkably solid - if not sacred - ground. Tvedtnes demonstrates thorough scholarship as he explores numerous ancient practices consistent with the Book of Mormon, such as the concept of hidden records, sealed books, storing records in boxes, mountain repositories, and so forth.

In his chapter, "Hiding Records in Stone Boxes," Tvedtnes discusses many examples of interest to students of the Book of Mormon. Examples include a granite box in Alexandria, Egypt, which held writings of a Greek author, a scroll found in a stone box in western Peloponnesus of Greece, a marble chest that in Mesenia in Greece that an archeologist suggested could have been "a library box," and documents in an unknown script from an ancient stone chest inside a tomb (the documents were acquired by the Jordanian government in 1970) (see Tvedtnes, pp. 38-39). Tvedtnes also explores the many relationships between the Apocalypse of Paul, whose preface claims that it was discovered in the fourth century in a stone box buried beneath a house in Tarsus, found when a young man followed the instructions he received from an angel (see the discussion of the Syriac version, pp. 99-100 and the appendix, "The Book of Mormon and the Apocalypse of Paul," by Steven W. Booras, pp. 183-194, who observes that the document was "inscribed" according to one source, possibly referring to being written on metal plates).

Ancient writing on metal is also mentioned in Arab lore. According to Tvedtnes (p. 150):

Arab traditions also speak of documents written on metallic plates. The eleventh-century historian al-Tha'labi wrote of a book sent to David from heaven. The book was sealed with gold and contained thirteen questions to be asked Solomon.19 Al-Tha'labi also mentioned gold tablets containing the history of a vanished empire. These tablets were found in a cave in the Hadramaut region of southern Arabia.20 Writing about A.D. 1226, the Arab writer Idrisi noted a treasure-hunting expedition of a few years before in which a group of Arabs dug into the pyramid of Mycerinus at Giza, Egypt. After six months of hard labor, they found the decayed remains of a man with some golden tablets inscribed in a language none of them understood. The tablets were taken for their gold content, suggesting that they were probably melted down.21

Ancient inscribed plates of gold, silver, copper, and lead have been found in such diverse places as China, Java (an Indonesian island), Thailand, India, Pakistan, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece, Morocco, Turkey, Iran, Lebanon, Crete, and Korea. A list of sixty-two such discoveries was compiled by Franklin S. Harris Jr. and published in 1957.22

Footnotes for the above section:

19. See al-Tha'labi, Qisas 'al-'Anbiya'> (Cairo: Mustafa al-Babi al-Halabi wa-Awladuhu, A. H., 1340), 202.

20. See ibid., 102. Hugh Nibley was the first to bring this information to the attention of Latter-day Saints. I am grateful to Brian Hauglid for confirming details of the story from the Arabic text.

21. The story is reported in Ernest A. Wallis Budge, The Book of the Dead (New Hyde Park, N.Y: University Books, 1960), 15 n. 5. [In my 1967 Dover Books edition of Budge, the story is found on p. xix, n. 3 - J.L.]

22. See Franklin S. Harris Jr., "Others Kept Records on Metal Plates, Too," Instructor, October 1957, 318-21. The list was later reprinted in a pamphlet entitled "Gold Plates Used Anciently" (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1963); and in Mark E. Petersen, Those Gold Plates! (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1979), 4-5. See also Paul R. Cheesman, Ancient Writing on Metal Plates (Bountiful, Utah: Horizon, 1985); and his "Ancient Writing on Metal Plates," Ensign, October 1979, 42-47.

For a photo of ancient writing on gold plates from Korea's Goryeo era (918-1392), see http://www.kcaf.or.kr/ehome3/english/misul/k6.htm. (Thanks to a posting on a FAIRLDS.org message board for this link.)

There are also hints in legends from Mesoamerican Indians regarding hidden sacred writings. In one case, an early Spanish friar learned from an Otami Indian about a sacred book that had been buried, which allegedly spoke of God and Christ (see Peter De Roo, America Before Columbus (New York: Lippincott, 1900, pp. 224-225, as cited by Paul R. Cheesman, Ancient Writing on Metal Plates: Archaeological Findings Support Mormon Claims (Bountiful, Utah: Horizon, 1985), p. 52, as cited by Tvedtnes. p. 22). The Mayan Indians also may have had a tradition about a "Golden Book" that has been hidden away, said to have been written on fifty-two gold plates (see Hyatt Verril, America's Ancient Civilizations (New York: B.P. Putnam's Sons, 1953), pp. 23,42, as cited by Cheesman, p. 53, in Tvedtnes, p. 22).

For an example of a stone box from ancient Mesoamerica, see my blog entry on stone boxes at Mormanity, where I show I photo of a stone box I took in a museum in Oaxaca, Mexico. (That's a 2005 update.)

Finally, here is one of many interesting excerpts from Tvedtnes (pp. 23-24), providing a few of many examples:

Examples of metal records buried in tombs is well attested. The early Greek writer Plutarch said that when the tomb of Alcmene, mother of Hercules, was excavated, a bronze tablet with a long inscription resembling Egyptian writing was found (see Moralia, "De Genio Socratis," 577E-F).54 Similarly, Agesilaos of Sparta, opening a tomb at Haliartos, found an inscribed bronze tablet.55 The nine gold plates of Orphism were interred in coffins as guidebooks for the dead,56 and the Phoenicians, following an Egyptian practice, wrote letters to the dead on small rolls of thin sheets of lead. These rolls were then dropped into the tomb through openings designed for that purpose.57

In 1980 archaeologists opened an ancient tomb adjacent to the Scottish Presbyterian church of St. Andrew in Jerusalem. There they discovered two small rolled-up strips of silver with a Hebrew inscription. Using paleographic evidence, they dated the rolls to the end of the seventh century B.C. or the beginning of the sixth century B.C., the time of Lehi. Both plates include quotations of the priestly blessing from Numbers 6:24-26.58 [See the related online article, "Oldest Scrolls Ever Found" from ChristianNewsToday.com.]

Footnotes for the above section:
54. My thanks to William J. Hamblin for this information. See his "Sacred Writings on Bronze Plates in the Ancient Mediterranean" (FARMS, 1994), 13.

55. See Lillian H. Jeffery, The Local Scripts of Archaic Greece (Oxford: Clarendon, 1963), 55-56, cited by Wright, "Ancient Burials of Metal Documents," 278.

56. See William K. C. Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion: A Study of the Orphic Movement (New York: Norton, 1966), 176, pl. 8-10, cited by Wright, "Ancient Burials of Metal Documents," 279. See also the discussion in C. Wilfred Griggs, "The Book of Mormon as an Ancient Book," BYU Studies 22/3 (1982), 259.

57. See Ernest A. Wallis Budge, Amulets and Superstitions (London: Oxford University Press, 1930), 253.

58. The finds were reported by Gabriel Barkay, "The Divine Name Found in Jerusalem," Biblical Archaeology Review 9/2 (1983): 14-19, and "Priestly Blessings on Silver Plates" (in Hebrew), Cathedra 52 (1989): 46-59. The discoveries are discussed by William J. Adams Jr., "Lehi's Jerusalem and Writing on Metal Plates," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 3/1 (1994): 204-6; "More on the Silver Plates from Lehi's Jerusalem," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 4/2 (1995): 136-37. See the discussion in John Gee and John A. Tvedtnes, "Ancient Manuscripts Fit Book of Mormon Pattern," Insights, February 1999.

The parallels between the Book of Mormon and the ancient world in this area have not escaped at least a raised eyebrow or two from non-LDS scholars. The eminent Jewish scholar, Raphael Patai, in discussing a reference to the Book of Abraham being "of thin barks" with a cover of thin copper, observes:
The idea that sacred texts were originally inscribed in metal tablets recurs in the Mormon belief that the Book of Mormon came down inscribed on gold plates. Important documents were in fact preserved on metal tablets and preserved in stone or marble boxes in Mesopotamia, Egypt, etc.

Raphael Patai, The Jewish Alchemists (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 573 n. 19, as cited by Tvedtnes, op. cit., p. 19.)

Could Joseph Smith have known in 1830 that his account of sealed sacred records on thin metal plates, stored in a stone box and buried, would one day be validated by many significant finds from the ancient world? Since he was a prophet, I suppose it's possible. But if he were a fraud, it's puzzling that the case for authenticity of the Book of Mormon would continue to get stronger over time.

2004 Update:
In reading a book that I bought at a local library book sale, I found another account of ancient writing on metal plates that I don't recall being discussed in other LDS works. The information comes from an account of the amazing life of the seventh-century A.D. Buddhist pilgrim, Xuanzang, in Sally Hovey Wriggins, Xuanzang (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1996). This devout Buddhist monk from China went on a 16-year journey to India seeking access to Buddhist documents in order to bring better understanding (and better translations) to China. In the account, Sally Wriggins refers to an Asian king whose concern with Buddhist texts led him to have religious records written on metal plates and stored in a "strongbox" that has not yet been found. The following text comes from pages 70-71:

Not far from the Kashmir district of Jalandar, King Kanishka, with a collaboration of two celebrated patriarchs, is said to have summoned a council of 500 Buddhist scholars. Xuanzang filled us in on how this might have come about.
In his leisure hours he [Kanishka] studied the Buddhist scriptures, having a monk every day in the palace to give him instruction. But as the Brethren taught him different and contradictory interpretations, owing to conflicting tenets of sectarians, the king fell into a state of hopeless un- certainty. Then the Venerable Parsva explained to His Majesty that in the long lapse of time since Buddha left the world disciples of schools and masters with various theories had arisen, all holding personal views and all in conflict. On hearing this the king was greatly moved, and expressed to Parsva his desire to restore Buddhism to eminence, and to have the Tripitaka explained according to the tenets of the various schools. [Thomas Watters, transl., On Yuan Chwang's Travels in India, London, 1904, rpt. Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1961, vol. 1, p. 270.]
Xuanzang could appreciate the nature of Kanishka's desires from his own anguish in trying to sort out conflicting interpretations of Buddhist texts in China.

He reported the story that King Kanishka had the finished treatises written out on copper plates and enclosed in a strongbox, which he deposited in a stupa [a religious monument, often containing relics] made for that purpose. They have not been found, and almost all information on this Fourth Buddhist Council comes from Xuanzang.

Tradition has it that the Buddhist canon, the equivalent of Scriptures for Christians, was written down in Sanskrit under Kanishka's auspices. Buddhists call this the Three Baskets, or Tripitaka--the Sayings of the Buddha, or Sutras; the Rules of Discipline, or Vinaya; and the Systematic Philosophy, or Abhidharma. [Boldface emphasis mine]

Valuable records of a religious council were written on metal plates under the direction of a king who, according to tradition, also played a role in the preservation of the existing canon of Buddhist scripture. In addition to the mention of writings on metal plates hidden in a box, similar to Book of Mormon concepts, the story also resonates with the general LDS themes of preserving scripture, and concern over conflicting sects and interpretations introduced by men long after the original doctrines were provided. The Fourth Council of Buddhism also has parallels to the councils of post-Biblical Christianity in which philosophers and politicians vainly sought to resolve the growing confusion that had entered into the Church and the understanding of the scriptures. Thank goodness that the Restoration of Christianity could be done under divine guidance through a prophet, rather than relying on councils of arguing scholars to set things straight.

Other articles of interest:


[Book of Mormon Evidences] [previous nugget] [next nugget]
[nuggets index] [close window]

Created: Sept. 15, 2002. Updated: Aug. 11, 2009.
URL: "http://www.jefflindsay.com/bme10.shtml"
One of many pages at JeffLindsay.com.