The Nahom Follies

The Nahom Follies June 14, 2015

I wasn’t planning to write this piece, but so many of the comments on my earlier Book of Mormon posts have raised a particular point, and I don’t want it to seem that by ignoring it, I am conceding its value. The story also says much about how an authentic academic find metastasizes into popular religious folklore – a lesson for mainstream Christians, Jews and Muslims no less than Mormons.

I have been focusing entirely on the historicity of the Book of Mormon in its New World context. Despite that explicit goal, I keep getting questions on the lines of “What about Nahom?” which for many apologists seems to be the ultimate validation that yes, indeed, there is something in the Smith mythos. Supposedly, this is a site where Lehi stopped in the general area of Arabia, “the place which was called Nahom,” and in modern times, a related name with a NHM-stem has been found inscribed on some altars discovered in the region, in modern Yemen. The Book therefore (seemingly) reports something that Joseph Smith could not have known in 1830! Meridian Magazine breathlessly reports “Finding the First Verifiable Book of Mormon Site.” This is, literally, the only case where anyone still seriously pretends that they have some kind of archaeological support for the Book of Mormon, though they should be embarrassed to do so. “Book of Mormon Archaeology” is no longer an oxymoron!

Of course there is no such link.

Pure coincidence offers a more than adequate explanation for the supposed parallel – which, as I will show, is not even that close. When you actually look at the vaunted clincher evidence about Nahom, and understand how tenuous the alleged connections are, your response should properly be: when you get there, there’s no “there” there.

Just what exactly was found? Smith refers to a place called Nahom. The altar inscriptions, on the other hand, refer to a people or tribe. As a sober account in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies notes, one text commemorates Bi’athar, son of Sawdum, son of Naw’um, the Nihmite. Based on extensive analogies, that last name should refer to a family title, like Benjaminite, with no necessary suggestion that the ancestral family was linked to the burial site. Usually, such tribes did not construct places bearing their names, but that’s not an absolute.

And that’s it? THAT “is the First Verifiable Book of Mormon Site”?

To give the authors credit, they honestly cite the inscription word as Nihmite, without pretending it was “really” Nahom. Yet despite this precise quotation, the story morphs and expands in popular retelling, until it becomes something like “The Book of Mormon describes a place in Arabia called Nahom. And now scientists have discovered inscriptions using the same name at that very place! Whoa!” For Mormons, as for many other religious denominations, the Internet has vastly accelerated that process of folk-tale evolution, fueled by wishful thinking.

Even assuming that this was a close parallel, which it is not, there is no mystery about its origins. Smith was hugely inventive of names, even if he was pretty transparent about their origins. I have often walked by the Lehigh river, which likely gave its name to Lehi. Meanwhile, the region of Palestine/Israel is awash with inscriptions giving the names of people, tribes and places, into their many thousands. So also were the neighboring trading regions in the general region of Arabia – which were, incidentally, rich and fertile, and quite unlike the grim desert of the Book of Mormon accounts.

By the law of averages, the two lists of names – Smith and historical reality – had to coincide at some point. It would actually be far more astonishing if none of Smith’s invented names had a real life counterpart in the general region of the Middle East.

That correlation is all the more likely when you know how Semitic names work. Very often, peoples of the region used three consonants, without vowels marked, so DWD was the written form of what we call David. A name inscribed as NHM could be Nahom, Nuhem, Nahum, Nihim, Nehem, Nehim, Nihm, Nahm, Nihma, Nahma … I am making up the exact forms, but you get the point. The odds of some accidental correspondence are very high.

To quote John Hamer,

Although some apologists have described the odds of this Nahom/Nihm/”NHM” correlation as “astronomical,” it hardly even rises to the level of notable coincidence. The Book of Mormon derives its names from a book that has Semitic sources, i.e., the King James Bible. Many of the names in the Book of Mormon are just plucked directly from the Bible, e.g., “Lehi” (Judges 25:9), Laban (Gen. 24-30), Lemuel (Prov. 31:1-9). Other names, however, use the Bible as their inspiration with alterations, e.g., “Jarom” (“Joram” 2 Sam. 8:10), “Omni” (“Omri” 1 Kings 16:16), “Nehor” (“Nahor” Gen. 11:22). “Nahom” easily fits into the latter category: “Nahum” is actually a book of [the] Old Testament.

I will argue with him about the origins of “Lehi”!

You should read the funny analysis of the shifting apologist claims in these matters. It concludes, “To make this fit we have to make several assumptions: A linguistic assumption that Joseph’s English Nahom, which he allegedly translated from an unknown Reformed Egyptian language, is connected to the Nihm tribe in Yemen. An assumption that there was a place in 600 B.C. named after the Nihm tribe…. ”

One other critical point seems never to have been addressed, and the omission is amazing, and irresponsible. Apologists argue that it is remarkable that they have found a NHM inscription – in exactly the (inconceivably vast) area suggested by the Book of Mormon. What are the odds!

By the way, the Arabian Peninsular covers well over a million square miles.

Yes indeed, what are the odds? Actually, that last question can and must be answered before any significance can be accorded to this find. When you look at all the possible permutations of NHM – as the name of a person, place, city or tribe – how common was that element in inscriptions and texts in the Middle East in the long span of ancient history? As we have seen, apologists are using rock bottom evidentiary standards to claim significance – hey, it’s the name of a tribe rather than a place, so what?

How unusual or commonplace was NHM as a name element in inscriptions? In modern terms, was it equivalent to “Steve” or to “Benedict Cumberbatch”?

So were there five such NHM inscriptions in the region in this period? A thousand? Ten thousand? And that question is answerable, because we have so many databases of inscriptions and local texts, which are open to scholars. We would need figures that are precise, and not impressionistic. You might conceivably find, in fact, that between 1000 BC and 500 AD, NHM inscriptions occur every five miles in the Arabian peninsular, not to mention being scattered over Iraq and Syria, so that finding one in this particular place is random chance. Or else, the one that has attracted so much attention really is the only one in the whole region. I have no idea. But until someone actually goes out and does some quantitative analysis on this, you can say precisely nothing about how probable or not such a supposed correlation is.

And to make an obvious point once more: the burden of proof on this – and the chore of crunching the numbers – belongs to the people making the claims. Nobody has an obligation to disprove anything.

But the Nahom argument also has a second and separate component, which must be treated independently. Here, we go beyond mere coincidence to propose a more concrete argument for a direct Smith borrowing.

Evidence for an actual place called something like Nahom in Yemen/Southern Arabia appears in European maps from the mid-eighteenth century onwards, so that, unlike the altar inscriptions, these were clearly known in Smith’s lifetime. A form of NHM (Nehhm) shows up for instance in the travel narrative and maps of Carsten Niebuhr, of the 1761 Danish Arabia Expedition, marking a location in Yemen. An English translation of his writings appeared in 1792, and copies were available in US libraries in the early nineteenth century.  This Niebuhr parallel is noted by an impeccably Mormon source. Critics, meanwhile, point to the work’s presence in US libraries at the relevant time. Other European maps also show a related place-name in the area.

On the one hand, this fact confirms the existence of Nahom as a place, although only in modern times, not ancient. (There is that irritating little matter of the two thousand-plus year gap between the “Nihmites,” wherever they lived, and the Ottoman-era settlement of Nahom). For the apologist cause, though, this is also utterly damning. The map evidence makes it virtually certain that Smith encountered and appropriated such a reference, and added the name as local color in the Book of Mormon.

Some European maps certainly circulated in the US, and the ones we know about are presumably the tip of a substantial iceberg. I have not tried to survey of all the derivative British, French and US maps of Arabia and the Middle East that would have been available in the north-eastern US at this time, to check whether they included a NHM name in these parts of Arabia. Following the US involvement against North African states in the early nineteenth century, together with Napoleon’s wars in the Middle East, I would assume that publishers and mapmakers would produce works to respond to public demand and curiosity.

So might Joseph Smith have looked at a map in a bookstore, been given one by a friend, seen one in a neighbor’s house, discussed one with a traveler, or even bought one? After all, there is one thing we know for certain about the man, which is that he had a lifelong fascination with the “Oriental,” with Hebrew, with Egypt, with hieroglyphics, with his “Reformed Egyptian.” He would have sought out books and maps by any means possible …. No, no, I’m sorry to suggest anything so far-fetched. It’s far more likely, is it not, that he was visited by an angel, and discovered gold plates filled with total bogus misinformation in everything they say about the Americas, but with one vaguely plausible site in Arabia. Ockham’s Razor would demand that.

And yes, I’m joking.

The apologists’ stance on these matters involves some deep ironies. They go to inordinate lengths to stress the improbability or (allegedly) the impossibility of Smith having access to any such maps or other materials. Just to make this clear, then. Issues of plausibility, probability, evidence, good sense and conformity to logic and science are vitally important in analyzing any matters potentially harmful to the Book of Mormon: we need to be hyper-cautious, hyper-critical, and eschew any speculation not grounded in precise documentation. If applied by scholars attacking that book, though, then such criteria are unacceptable, because they ignore the faith on which it is based, and which is higher than mere reason. In fact, such critical methods are probably a clear symptom of anti-Mormon bigotry. Got that?

Wisely, the LDS church makes no statements either supporting or doubting the alleged Nahom connection.

Is there even the ghost of a case here that needs debating or answering? Obviously not. And this is the best the apologists can do?

I could ask a follow up question. If the Lehi folks were still erecting inscribed monuments while they were crossing Arabia, why did they give up the practice (together with all traces of their writing, technology, pottery-making, metallurgy, architecture etc) the moment they hit the New World? Making a fresh start? And if they did keep up those skills and customs, where are the archaeological remains?

I have now formulated the Nahom Rule. Whenever desperate Book of Mormon apologists realize that their New World claims have failed totally, they will cite Nahom. Sadly, this too is built on shifting desert sands.



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