Book of Mormon Nuggets

While attending the 2018 FairMormon Conference in Provo this summer, I was fortunate to be able to get a copy of a popular new book that sold out on its first day there: Matthew L. Bowen, Name as Key-Word: Collected Essay on Onomastic Wordplay and the Temple in Mormon Scripture (Orem, Utah: Interpreter Foundation and Salt Lake City: Ehorn Books, 2018) [i]. It's a book rich in hidden gems from the Book of Mormon (primarily) and other parts of the LDS scriptures that can help us better understand the meaning of our scriptures and also better appreciate the skill and craftsmanship of its ancient authors.

In our modern English-speaking culture (and Joseph Smith's culture), many of us give names to our children and mention the names of others in our speech and writing often without knowing or reflecting upon what those names originally meant. For ancient Hebrew writers, however, names were highly significant and their meanings, based on various roots the words might derive from, were frequently the subject of puns or other literary tools that pointed to the meaning of the name or to related words.

The extensive literary devices tied to names in the Old Testament are much easier for Chinese people to grasp because Chinese culture is much closer to ancient Hebrew culture in its treatment of the meaning in names. In Chinese, almost everyone's name has significance that may reflect upon a parent's wishes for the child or convey some ancient tradition in the family line. One of my first friends from China that I met just days after my mission in Switzerland had a given name that can be literally translated as Book Diligent. He became a famous professor through his diligent study and was one of the very first Chinese citizens sent to America after the cultural revolution ended to pursue advanced studies there. He helped fuel my interest in China and blessed my life in many ways over the years until his recent death. He was a credit to his country, to his family, and to his Maker, in my opinion. Such a good and diligent man.

If the Book of Mormon has ancient Hebrew roots, it would make sense that names would be significant to its writers and that word plays might be attempted in some cases. The challenge, of course, is that we don't have the ancient text to see which words were used. In fact, there is some uncertainty as to which language was used as Nephi and others wrote on metal plates. Were they writing Hebrew using some form of an Egyptian script, or writing Egyptian in an Egyptian script with Hebrew influence?

While the debate continues on the nature of the underlying language(s) and script(s) that were on the gold plates, Bowen's investigation suggests that the Book of Mormon authors were aware of the Hebrew and sometimes Egyptian meanings behind many Book of Mormon names, and built word plays into the treatment of those names to give emphasis or added meaning. Bowen's detailed work shows that when a variety of Book of Mormon names are considered in light of their plausible ancient meaning, clever and pervasive word plays appear in the way these names are used.

The name Alma, for example, now known to be an authentic ancient Jewish man's name (after so many decades of mockery from critics for Joseph's "blunder" of not recognizing Alma as a common Latin female name) [ii], is introduced in Mosiah 17:2 with an apparent word play on the Hebrew name: given that Alma name can mean "young man" in Hebrew, the statement that Alma "was a young man" suggests a knowing word play in Mosiah 17:2. A word play with the Hebrew root *'lm, "to hide," to be "hidden" or "concealed," may also occur in the story of Alma being "hidden" and "concealed" while writing the words of Abinadi and "privately" teaching those who would listen. The abundance of word plays involving his name in Mosiah 17–18 "accentuates his importance as a prophetic figure and founder of the later Nephite church."[iii]

Finding word plays, like other Hebraic elements including Hebrew poetical elements, in an English translation faces the obvious problem of lacking the text in the original language from which one might more fully evaluate the nature of the literary device. However, with names in particular, there is a reasonable chance that evidence of a word play can survive translation if the name is transliterated well and if the associated text has been translated well. An example is the name Jesus in Matthew 1:21: "thou shalt call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins." In spite of the Hebrew having been written in Greek and then translated in English, and in spite of not having the original Aramaic or Hebrew words that were actually spoken in Matthew 1, we can still see a connection between the name of Jesus and the Hebrew word yosia meaning "to save."

Still, even when working with the original language, an apparent word play may be unintended and arise from chance. However, when the word play relates well to the text or has explanatory power, and when the word play is applied more than once or in creative, artful ways, the probability of intent is higher. Bowen makes the case for most of his finds that multiple factors point to intentional and clever word plays rather than mere chance. Word plays involving Book of Mormon names in Bowen's book (which also considers some newly proposed Biblical word plays) include the following:

There are many more word plays that have been proposed for various passages in the Book of Mormon, but Bowen's focus on the significance of names appears to be especially fruitful and generally plausible, and frequently brings out added meaning or answers meaningful questions about the text. In most of these cases, it would be difficult to ascribe the word plays identified to just chance and clever argumentation, though false positives in general cannot be completely ruled out. As Bowen observes, whether the text was written in Hebrew or Egyptian, the underlying meanings of names and relevant wordplays drawing upon Hebrew roots could have been recognized by readers familiar with the brass plates and the Nephites' (evolving) spoken language with its Hebrew origins, reducing the impact of uncertainty on the written language on the relevance of word plays based on names with recognized meaning in Hebrew or Egyptian. In spite of such uncertainties, Bowen's work leaves us with a much richer appreciation of the genuinely ancient literary nature of the Book of Mormon, filled with gems that are only being noticed now nearly two centuries after the Book of Mormon was dictated by a young man who had not yet studied Hebrew and could not have studied Egyptian. The literary strength of the Book of Mormon as an ancient text has became even more impressive since Orson Scott card discussed its strengths.

Mercifully, Bowen does not require readers to be familiar with Hebrew or Egyptian, but it is still a book that might be challenging for some readers because of its rich detail and technical content. It's not for everybody, but I think it is somewhat more accessible that some of the original papers upon which it is based (e.g., some highly technical terms have been replaced with more generally understandable terminology). For those interested in digging into the Book of Mormon and exploring the miracle that this rich and ancient text represents, Bowen's work should definitely be on your shopping list and your reading list. Strongly recommended.


[i] Matthew Bowen's Name as Key-Word contains 16 essays treating names in the Book of Mormon as well as some from the Bible. Readers of Bowen's many publications at Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship will recognize that much of the content in these essays is drawn from his peer-reviewed publications there, but with some differences, including added insights, strengthening of arguments, a great bibliography, a helpful index, and good introductory material, including an excellent and detailed foreword from Jeffrey Bradshaw.

[ii] Paul Hoskisson, "What's in a Name? Alma as a Hebrew Name," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 7/1 (1998): 72–73. See also John Tvedtnes, "Hebrew Names in the Book of Mormon," presented at the Thirteenth World Congress of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, August 2001; and Terrence L. Szink, "The Personal Name 'Alma' at Ebla," Religious Educator, 1/1 (2000): 53–56;

[iii] Bowen, Name as Key-Word, lii–liii and 91–100. See also Matthew L. Bowen, "Alma -- Young Man, Hidden Prophet," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 19 (2016): 343–353; and Matthew L. Bowen, "'He Did Go About Secretly': Additional Thoughts on the Literary Use of Alma's Name," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 27 (2017): 197–212.

[iv] Bowen, Name as Key-Word, 1–15.

[v] Ibid., 17–47.

[vi] Ibid., 24–47.

[vii] Matthew L. Bowen, "'And the Meek Also Shall Increase': The Verb YĀSAP in Isaiah 29 and Nephi's Prophetic Allusions to the Name Joseph in 2 Nephi 25–30," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 30 (2018): 5–42.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Bowen, Name as Key-Word, 49–68.

[x] Ibid., 69–81.

[xi] Ibid. liii.

[xii] Ibid., 83–90.

[xiii] Ibid., 101–118.

[xiv] Ibid., 119–140.

[xv] Ibid., 141–175. See also Matthew L. Bowen, "'See That Ye Are Not Lifted Up': The Name Zoram and Its Paronomastic Pejoration," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 19 (2016): 109-143.

Supplementing Jeff Lindsay's Book of Mormon Evidences page.

Nugget #26:
Book of Mormon Evidences: Insights from the Lachish Letters

Note: On a page of my LDSFAQ section of this website, I provide evidence that the concept of ancient people writing sacred scripture on metal plates has found increasing support siince the days of Joseph Smith. My statements have drawn the wrath of a critic of the Church, who has told many others that we LDS apologists are deliberately deceptive when we state that there was opposition to the very idea of ancient writing on metal plates in Joseph's day--though now, of course, there is a growing body of evidence for the plausibility of that practice. What follows is an essay I wrote in response to the demands of the critic. Yes, with apologies, I responded to someone who I think really didn't want an answer. Communication with him may be futile, but perhaps what follows might be of help to others. This is largely taken from my original post of August. 11, 2009 on Mormanity, my LDS blog.

The Narrow Strip of Wilderness

One of the important geographical clues about the New World setting for the Book of Mormon are the statements about the "narrow strip of wilderness." This can best be understood as a narrow mountain range that ran from the sea east to the sea west and which divided the land of Nephi from the land of Zarahemla. In the second edition of Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon, Blake and James Allen write:

They are especially disgruntled at having to defer to a quality in their father for which the Lachish Letters have a particular expression characterizing the man of prophetic calling as ha-piqqeah, which Torczyner finds to mean "the open-eyed" or visionary man, (T. 53) "the seer," "the man whose eyes God had opened to see," (T. 65) i.e., to see things that other people do not see. So in the Book of Mormon the brothers use it in a critical sense against their father, arguing that he is being unrealistic and impractical:
. . . they did murmur in many things against their father, because he was a visionary man, and had led them out of the land of Jerusalem, to leave the land of their inheritance, and their gold, and their silver, and their precious things, to perish in the wilderness. And this they said he had done because of the foolish imaginations of his heart. (2:11, italics added)
They make fun of their father for being piqqeah, a "visionary man." Torczyner explains the word by referring to the instance in 2 Kings 6:17, where Elisha asks the Lord to open the eyes of his servant so he could see realities, horses and chariots, which otherwise only Elisha could see. In the same way the uncooperative brothers of Nephi hiding out with him in a cave in the Judean wilderness had their eyes opened so they could see "an angel of the Lord" while he was reprimanding them (3:29; 7:10).

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Created: Aug. 15, 2009
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