The Book of Mormon as Myth and More on the Name Alma

So to begin with I wanted to clarify my attitude about the BoM and why I write so much on the topic of its historicity. Because I don’t want to be seen simply as a critic or be pigeonholed along with tendentious anti-BoM ideologues. I actually see a great amount of value in the BoM and respect it as a work of early 19th century mythopoesis of unrivaled scope and complexity. The BoM recounts a rich and compelling narrative, articulates many useful moral principles (though these should be examined critically), and perhaps more important than anything else, reflects a kind of creative synthesis and wrestling with the theological and cultural themes that predominated in early American thought even as it reproduced them in various ways, which is an aspect that I can really appreciate and admire.

Yet I don’t believe that the BoM is a real authentic history of people who lived in ancient America and think there is a great need for more members of the church to begin to feel comfortable with that idea. Because of my training in critical study of the Hebrew Bible I have come to see how profoundly implausible and unrealistic the BoM narrative is based on everything that we know about how and when the literature of the Bible was written and the nature of Israelite religion, society, and culture as it existed in the pre-exilic period (Israelite history prior to 586 BCE). From my perspective, it is only a matter of time before careful literary and historical study demonstrates that the BoM presentation of the past is untenable in virtually almost all details.

 

But even more importantly, for too long members of the church have been held captive to a kind of literalism that requires scriptural events to have actually occurred as depicted for them to have any meaning, which has had ill effects on our ability as Mormons to think about our own tradition and to develop it in more spiritually productive and intellectually coherent directions. A reimagination of the BoM as mythological history, i.e. a narrative interested in creating meaning instead of recounting a real past, would do more to help encourage the church to wrestle with its own theological and cultural heritage than almost anything that I can think of.

 

To that end, I thought I would return to the subject of BoM personal names with a fuller consideration of the name Alma, having been inspired to do so by several comments and responses to my previous post.

 

Now, the apologetic argument is that the name Alma is Hebrew/Semitic in origin and is best analyzed as the Hebrew noun ʿelem  “young man, lad” with the addition of a hypocoristic -a vowel. As explained by Paul Hoskisson, “The form of Alma in the Book of Mormon reflects the Hebrew segholate noun form, ʿelem, as in 1 Samuel 20:22, but with the addition of the hypocoristic ending —a. When an ending is added, the accent shifts and the original /a/ vowel of the segholate qatl form returns.” [1] Long attacked by critics of the BoM as obviously anachronistic, the discovery of the name אלמא (aleph-lamed-mem-aleph) in the Bar Kokhba letters has been thought to lend decisive support to the name’s plausibility and authenticity. In addition, some have gone further to suggest that the reference to Alma as a “young man” in Mosiah 17:2 is a Hebrew wordplay, describing him with an instance of the same word that appears in his name. [2]

 

For traditional apologists of the BoM, the case of Alma is a remarkable success story, one of the few BoM names clearly attested in an ancient Jewish/Israelite context. Even I have to admit that taken on its own, the linguistic analysis of the name is sound. If we were to assume that Alma was a reproduction of ancient Hebrew phonology, the combination of the tri-radical ayin-lamed-mem with final hypocoristic aleph would be a viable means of explaining its English orthography. No other Hebrew alternative for interpreting the ALM sound cluster is readily apparent and as Alma is a male name the -a vowel at the end is unlikely to represent the feminine -ah ending.

 

However, as I have already begun to describe in my previous post, there are substantial problems to interpreting Alma as an authentic Hebrew name. Among these the first is that it is not immediately apparent that the unvocalized  ͗lm ͗ (aleph-lamed-mem-aleph) in the Bar Kokhba letters should be connected to BoM Alma. Though the former is clearly a personal name and there can be little doubt that it stems from the ayin-lamed-mem root, its meaning and pronunciation are much more ambiguous. A derivation from Hebrew ʿelem “young man” is possible, but given the very late cultural and linguistic setting, the name is more easily explained in light of Aramaic ʿallim “powerful, strong”, since this adjectival form is attested elsewhere in late Aramaic and works well as the predicative element of a personal name (i.e. the nominal, verbal, or adjectival element connected to a theophoric; for example, the Hebrew name  ͗abiyahu  “my father is Yahu” consists of the predicative element  ͗abi  and the theophoric element yahu), in contrast to ʿelem, which as far as I can tell is not attested in texts from the period and may have gone out of use by this time. [3]

 

Second, we have no other evidence that Hebrew ʿelem “lad, youth” ever functioned as a regular predicative element in pre-exilic Israelite personal names, despite the large corpus of names gathered from inscriptions and the Bible. We have neither a shortened hypocoristic nor a full form attested, which is highly strange considering the popularity of the putative hypocoristic form Alma in the BoM.

 

Third, there is good reason to think that the noun ʿelem may not even have been suitable to use as the predicative element of a personal name, since its primary connotation in Hebrew and early Canaanite has to do with a sexually mature youth. Which is to say, the term is not simply an equivalent of English “youth” or “lad”, but is a statement about a person’s sexual potential and place in the broader social system. This connotation can be seen in many uses of the term in the Hebrew Bible (1 Sam 17:56; Isaiah 7:14; 54:4; Prov 30:19; Song of Songs 1:3; 6:8) and is also reflected in the famous description of Kirta as a ǵlm il in the Ugaritic Kirta Epic, since the point of the story is to emphasize the king’s desire for children. In view of the word’s meaning, I can’t imagine a situation where a parent would give their child such a name.

 

Finally, the most problematic aspect of the apologetic analysis of Alma is that it presupposes the existence of a Hebrew cultural substructure among the Nephites that gave rise to the bestowal and use of this name, with its peculiar phonology and use of hypocoristic endings. And not only the existence of this Hebrew cultural substructure, but that it had been maintained from the time of Nephi down to the first individual named Alma in the last half of the second century BCE. Both of these assumptions are very difficult for me to accept.

 

At first glance, the idea that Nephites spoke Hebrew throughout their history would seem to be consistent with the literary presentation of the BoM, since all the original members of the Nephite colony were from Jerusalem and the founding texts that they brought with them and produced for the use of their posterity would have been in Hebrew (even if written in Egyptian characters). The Brass Plates were obtained specifically in order to “preserve unto our children the language of our fathers” (1 Nephi 3:19-20) and Nephi states that he wrote his prophecies and sacred teachings “for the learning and profit of his children” (2 Nephi 4:15). At many points in the BoM narrative it is implied that these texts continued to be used and that the identity and religious culture of the Nephite people were closely tied to their inherited scripture (Mosiah 1:4-5; Alma 37:3; Helaman 3:15-16; 3 Nephi 1:2). The Nephites are portrayed as a highly literate people (Helaman 3:13); individuals of varied social backgrounds are expected to know and be able to read the scriptures (Jacob 5:1; 7:10, 23; Mosiah 1:7; 2:8, 34; 12:20; Alma 12:20-21; 13:20; 14:1, 8; 17:2; 18:36; 22:12; 30:44, 51; 33:2-3, 13-14; 41:1; 63:12; 3 Nephi 20:11; 23:1; 27:5; Mormon 9:8). [4]

 

Furthermore, Mormon acknowledges at the very end of Nephite history that the basic scribal practice established from the time of Nephi of writing their spoken language (i.e. Hebrew) in Egyptian characters was still in place, though the latter is alleged to have been adapted to the extent that no one else on earth was capable of reading it. He says that he could have written the plates in Hebrew characters, also altered, but that this would have taken too much space (Mormon 9:33).

 

On top of all this, we can mention the fact that no other languages or peoples in the new world are ever alluded to aside from the Jaredites, meaning that Nephite language was apparently insulated from other non-Nephite language systems (which strikingly contrasts from the presentation of language and cultural outsiders in the Hebrew Bible, Gen 31:47; Judges 12:1-6; 2 Kgs 18:26; Isaiah 19:18; Nehemiah 13:24). In interactions between Nephites and Lamanites there is never any mention of difficulty in oral communication. After having been separated from the Lamanites for several hundred years, Zeniff’s party returns to the land of Lehi-Nephi and is able to converse on the spot with the Lamanite king (Mosiah 9:5-7), while the sons of Mosiah preach to the Lamanites in their own tongue and even read the Nephite scriptures to them (Alma 22:12)! [5]

 

But if we disregard this literary presentation and analyze the text for explicit confirmation of the nature of the language system presupposed by the BoM, we see that the case for a Hebrew cultural substructure among the Nephites becomes increasingly doubtful.

 

First, the BoM authors never refer to their spoken language by name, such as Hebrew or Judahite, or show much consciousness of its ethnic or geographical origins. At most Nephi speaks of the “learning of the Jews” (1 Nephi 1:1). Elsewhere Nephi speaks of the “language of our fathers” (1 Nephi 3:1); Sherem is said to have a “perfect knowledge of the language of the people” (Jacob 7:4); Enos was taught in his father’s language (Enos 1:1); there is reference to the people of Zarahemla’s language and the “language of Mosiah” (Omni 1:2); Mormon speaks of “our language” (3 Nephi 5:18). However, in a considerable number of instances the term “language” strangely seems to have reference to written language in particular (1 Nephi 1:2; Mosiah 1:2, 4; 8:6, 11-12; 9:1?; 24:4-6; 28:14; Mormon 9:34; Ether 3:22; Moroni 10:16). Hebrew is mentioned only at the end of the BoM, and there it refers to written characters (Mormon 9:33).

 

Second, not many Nephite names can be successfully analyzed as Hebrew, and those that can generally show dependence on the KJV Bible. For example, among the founding group of Lehi’s colony we find several personal names, including Lehi, Sariah, Laman, Lemuel, Nephi, Sam, Zoram, and Ishmael. Because these individuals are fresh out of Jerusalem and because their names were preserved on Nephi’s Small Plates, which were not abridged by Mormon, they represent one of our best chances for identifying Hebrew linguistic elements in the context of the BoM. However, closer examination shows that they are problematic as actual Hebrew constructs that originated from the naming culture of ancient Israel:

 

  1. Lehi is unlikely to be a Hebrew personal name since the closest possible Hebrew derivation is ly, which means “jawbone.” Though ly is used in the Bible as a place name (Judges 15:9, 14, 19), it is difficult to imagine it as either a secular personal name or as the predicative element of a theophoric sentence. The element ly is not attested in any pre-exilic Israelite personal name.
  2. Laman is probably not a Hebrew name. There exists no tri-radical root with these consonants. The combination of the preposition lamed + interrogative man or preposition min can also be excluded as a possibility.
  3. Lemuel derives from the Bible but is actually a false or artificial name. Found in the ironic teachings of Lemuel’s mother (Prov 31:1), the name means “belonging to El” and was artificially constructed by the author of Proverbs using the poetic form of the preposition lamed or lemô. Understood thus, the name is symbolic and was never actually used in real life. Its formal analog Laʾel “belonging to El,” however, was a genuine personal name.
  4. Nephi is not a Hebrew personal name. There is no Hebrew term from which it can be derived etymologically that is even close. Furthermore, an Egyptian derivation is extremely problematic, as Egyptian predicative elements within the Israelite onomasticon were limited to a few well known elements, such as Horus in pšḥwr “son of Horus” and ḥrnpr “Horus is beautiful” and Bes in bsy “one belonging to Bes” and qdbs “Bes created.”
  5. Sam could be a Hebrew name, possibly a hypocoristic of šemuʾel or less likely the singular šem “descendent.” But in the case of the former it is extremely odd that Nephi never records the full form of the name. Furthermore, it is difficult to explain why the sibilant /š/ was not retained in either case, because it appears to be present in other Nephite names.
  6. Zoram is unlikely to be a Hebrew name. No derivation from Hebrew is plausible.
  7. Sariah fits well into a Hebrew derivation, composed of both predicative element and theophoric, “my prince is Yah.” But it closely resembles other biblical names, including the biblical matriarch Sarah and a number of figures named Seraiah (e.g., 2 Kings 25:18). Furthermore, her name stands out from the rest because it is the only example with a Yahweh theophoric element, which runs completely counter to the tendency of forms of the name Yahweh to dominate in Israelite names.
  8. Ishmael is a venerable Israelite name, meaning “El hears.” But it is one of the few names in the whole BoM to have an El theophoric, which makes it suspect. El names were a much more fundamental and consistent part of the Israelite onomasticon. [6]

 

Thus the only names in the group that seem to be clearly derivative of Hebrew are dependent on the Bible (Ishmael, Sariah, and Lemuel), and even these pose substantial challenges. Taken as a whole, the evidence of Lehi’s Jerusalemite colony does not favor understanding BoM personal names as realistic according to the historical context in which they are situated. We now have a very good idea of the types of names that were commonly used in ancient Israel, because of the exceptionally large corpus of names recovered from Israelite inscriptions and preserved in the biblical text (more than 3000 names). [7] By comparing the names of the early part of the BoM with this data, we can see that the former fit poorly into their alleged historical context. Six out of the eight names are not attested anywhere as regular names and the curious mixing of hypocoristic vs. full and biblical vs. non-Hebrew forms among the group points to their artificiality and inauthenticity.

 

On the other hand, it is worth noting that virtually all of the above names or ones closely comparable, even with their peculiar BoM-like pronunciations, are found in John Walker’s Key to the Classical Pronunciation of Greek, Latin, and Scriptural Proper Names, published and sold in the Northeast throughout the early 19th century. Rick Grunder notes that Lehi, Lemuel, and Lah’man are found on the same page, while Nephi, Ishmael, Zeorim, Saraiah, and Sami are close nearby, as well as Laban and Na’ham/Na’hum. [8]

 

Third, the few transliterated terms found in the text that purport to be reproductions of a Hebrew/Semitic or Nephite original are also generally problematic:

 

  1. Shazer (1 Nephi 16:13) could possibly derive from a Hebrew root, namely šzr “to twist,” but because this root was primarily linked to the construction of textiles it would seem to be patently inappropriate for the context.
  2. Nahom (1 Nephi 16:34) is clearly derivative of Semitic (and indeed its authenticity has often thought to have been demonstrated by the discovery of the South Arabian tribal name nhmy in the region of Marib; the root nhm in Sabaic seems to have something to do with stone-cutting [9]). But the problem is that Nephi doesn’t clarify whether the name was indigenous to the area or whether they gave the name themselves. Almost all other place names mentioned in the BoM are established by Lehi, his family, or other Nephites. If the name was indigenous, then it begs the question of why Nephi fails to mention that they learned the name from locals or why he doesn’t even mention their existence. At the time the region of Marib was one of the most developed and densely populated areas of South Arabia (which was generally more fertile than it is today). The idea that Lehi’s group would take the time to mention the burial of Ishmael in a place belonging to some minor tribal grouping and at the same time fail to notice the far more prominent urban centers and building structures of the region and the people who would have been working and living all around them is highly doubtful.
  3. Irreantum (1 Nephi 17:5) is clearly not Hebrew or even Semitic.
  4. Rabbanah (Alma 18:13) sounds more plausible, as it is obviously derived from the common Semitic root rbb and rab can mean “chief” in classical Hebrew. But against this view is the fact that the use of rab as a hierarchical title by Jews seems to result from Assyro-Babylonian influence and is found mostly in late biblical texts. Furthermore, the anah ending is difficult to explain on the basis of Hebrew linguistic principles. However, the comparable Aramaic rabboni is found in the KJV (John 20:16), where it is similarly interpreted for an English speaking audience.
  5. Rameumptom (Alma 31:21) is unlikely to be Hebrew or Semitic, even if the first part of the word sounds like it is related to Hebrew ram “to be high, exalted.” The semantic nuance associated with ram in Hebrew was not simply parallel to English “high” or “tall”, but was related to dramatic movement in an upward direction and was conventionally used to denote large-scale elevation changes (large hills or mountains), military triumph, or physical security. Referring to a simple stand or pedestal as ram feels out of place. In addition, the basic Hebrew root qdš “holy” is missing from the word, which contradicts its stated interpretation.
  6. Liahona (Alma 37:38) is not Hebrew and no etymology proposed to date has been even remotely satisfying.

 

Each of these words are explicitly identified in the narrative as conscious reproductions of an underlying original ancient language, to which the author has provided interpretations in the pattern of the New Testament Gospels. This set of words is another instance where we would reasonably expect to find evidence of distinct Hebrew influence preserved in the text. Yet in most cases any indication of Hebrew/Semitic derivation is better explained as having originated through the use of secondary non-native sources, i.e. the Bible or something like Walker’s Key mentioned above. The terminology has been artificially constructed to sound biblical and ancient, presumably in order to enrich the narrative and enhance its credibility as a scriptural-like presentation of the sacred past.

 

From this analysis it seems clear that there is inadequate evidence to suggest that the BoM reflects a real living Hebrew-speaking culture, which presupposes for the Nephites a discrete ethnic and geographical origin in pre-exilic Israel-Judah and use of language in historically contingent and philologically predictable ways. On the contrary, based on the non-Hebraic character of early Nephite personal names and the BoM’s reproduction and transliteration of Hebrew/Nephite language, there are abundant indications that the original author of the BoM had no first-hand knowledge of Hebrew, but was dependent on the biblical text and other sources for his literary and philological creativity. The BoM’s representation of Nephite language is not realistic and I believe that this conclusion would be measurably strengthened if we expanded our investigation into the remaining personal and place names and other aspects of the narrative.

 

All of which is to say, we have little reason to suspect that Alma is an ancient Hebrew/Semitic personal name that had been passed down since the time of Nephi. Not only is the name itself inherently problematic as an authentic Hebrew name because of its semantic connotation of a sexually mature youth, but the very idea that there was a living Hebrew cultural system by which it could have survived is controverted by the evidence of the BoM.

 

 

 

[1] Paul Hoskisson, “Alma” in The Book of Mormon Onomasticon: https://onoma.lib.byu.edu/onoma/index.php/ALMA

[2] Matthew Bowen, “’And He Was a Young Man’: The Literary Preservation of Alma’s Autobiographical Wordplay,” Insights 30 (2010): 2-3.

[3] Cf. J. Hoftijzer and K. Jongeling, Dictionary of Northwest Semitic Inscriptions (New York: E. J. Brill, 1995), 2:858-862.

[4] For more discussion, see Deanna Draper Buck, “Internal Evidence for Widespread Literacy in the Book of Mormon,” The Religious Educator 10 (2009): 59-74.

[5] Mosiah 24:4 reports that Amulon and his priests taught the “language of Nephi” to the Lamanites, but here “language” seems to refer to writing, as suggested by v. 6.

[6] Even towards the end of the monarchy, El names remained about 15% of the total theophoric names.

[7] For the most recent comprehensive study of Israelite personal names, see Rainer Albertz, Family and Household Religion in Ancient Israel and the Levant (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2012), chap 5.

[8] Rick Grunder, Mormon Parallels: A Bibliographic Source (2008), 1817-1824: http://www.rickgrunder.com/parallels/mp453.pdf.

[9] A. F. L. Beeston et al, Sabaic Dictionary (1982), 94; Joan Biella, Dictionary of Old South Arabic (Chico, California: Scholars Press, 1982), 296. It is important to emphasize that the tribal name nhmy is only a deceptively close match to BoM Nahom, since behind the letter h in English Nahom could possibly lie two Hebrew consonants, both he and ḥet. Because h in nhmy is cognate only with Hebrew he, the linguistic overlap between the two words is significantly less than it would first appear to an English speaker.


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