asked what the most impressive evidence is for Book of Mormon
authenticity, serious students of the Book of Mormon often point to one
of a small handful of items: the finding of candidates for Bountiful,
Nahom, and the River Laman in the Arabian Peninsula (particularly Warren
Aston’s Lehi and Sariah in Arabia and In the Footsteps of Lehi); the existence of chiasmus and Hebraisms, particularly
Hebraic wordplays; the diverse
and consistent testimony of the witnesses of the gold plates (see Richard
Lloyd Anderson’s works); and the strength of numerous cultural and
geographical correspondences between Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon
(e.g., John Sorenson’s Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon and Mormon’s Codex, Brant Gardner’s Traditions of Our Fathers, etc.). Of these, I think the Arabian evidence has the most
easily appreciated “wow” factor. The evidence related to Nahom, including archaeological confirmation that that tribal name was in the right spot in Lehi’s day, and its precisely plausible location relative to the leading and amazing candidate for Bountiful. It takes serious effort and a great
deal of advanced scholarship to minimize the growing body of evidence
from Arabia — and so far those failed efforts have only helped to
highlight how improbable it was that Joseph could have fabricated the
details of Lehi’s trail. So Nahom and the Arabian evidence are often considered at the top of the list for impressive Book of Mormon evidence.
While the attacks of critics
have failed to diminish the luster of the Arabian evidence, a new work
from an LDS scholar may actually achieve that unintended effect — not by
attacking past scholarship, but by uncovering what may be an even more
exciting line of evidence for the Book of Mormon which one day may displace
Arabia as the “go-to” topic for Book of Mormon defenders. LDS linguist Brian Stubbs, through his decades of exploration of the Uto-Aztecan language family (spanning southwestern Mexico to the Western United States with languages like Nahuatl, Shoshone,
Navajo, and Hopi), has uncovered a very big surprise. It was not something he was expecting to find. He resisted it for years until the data became overwhelming and demanded some kind of treatment. But his research points to strong influence from Semitic languages in Uto-Aztecan that are consistent with two major infusions from the Near East into the ancient New World. In fact, there is evidence for an infusion bringing Egyptian language and one flavor of Hebrew, with another infusion bringing a different flavor of Hebrew (different set of behaviors in how sounds like “b” in Hebrew shifted in UA).
however, is that his evidence is far more technical than, say, showing
photographs of the proposed Bountiful site at Khar Kharfot in Oman and
listing how perfectly the leading candidate accords with Nephi’s text.
The strong and compelling evidence of ancient Semitic elements in
Uto-Aztecan from a skilled linguist, thoroughly aware of what it takes
to establish relationships between languages, demands a good deal from
reader to appreciate the linguistic data that now exists, and may take
decades before it’s explanatory power is widely recognized in the Church
and among other hesitant scholars. But what has been achieved already
is so remarkable and so interesting that it may well deserve to be the next big
thing in LDS apologetics.
Let me jump to the big
picture and put it in context: Stubbs has documented 1500
correspondences between Uto-Aztecan and ancient Semitic languages,
particularly Hebrew, Aramaic, and Egyptian. The Semitic influence
identified shows patterns consistent with two different infusions, an
infusion of one type of Hebrew/Aramaic along with Egyptian, as if from
the entry of Lehi and his group, and another infusion of a different
dialect of Hebrew that evolved in slightly different ways, as if it were
the Hebrew/Phoenician from Mulekites.
The level of Semitic presence in
Uto-Aztecan turns out to be much greater than the level of Hebrew in the
Yiddish language, which is well known to have developed from Hebrew
speakers coming to Europe. Similar changes and adaptation of local
languages may have happened with both the Nephites and Mulekites, but
the result has left us with much more easily identified remnants of
Semitic influence than we find in Yiddish This is a level far beyond
mere chance and highly contrived pattern seeking.
many New World languages, 100 to 200 such cognates are what was required
to show a legitimate connection and establish a language family.
Cognates and parallels in words and grammar happen by chance all the
time in languages. But when they are due to chance, you’ll find a few
handfuls, as we sometimes do between Chinese and English. Some, like
“mama” for mother may point to common ancient roots shared by many
languages, while others are just random and don’t fit any kind of
meaningful pattern. In related languages like German and English,
however, numerous cognates can be found and they often reflect sound
changes that follow some common patterns, like the hard “H” sound of
German’s buch becoming the k in book and in many other cognates (e.g., kuchen and cook, suchen and seek). Offering far more than just 100 or 200 cognrates, Stubbs so far has found and
published over 1500 cognates and identified many intriguing patterns
that point to a strong relationship between these languages. His work,
inherently highly controversial since it clearly supports Book of Mormon
claims, has been sent to his fellow Uto-Aztecan specialists, with no
public but several private comments so far, and eventually will be ready
for a fair peer review process, but this takes time and faces some
practical and political considerations.
Stubbs’ work is
in two volumes, one intended for LDS readers and one intended for
linguists. The lighter work for LDS audiences is Brian D. Stubbs, Changes in Languages from Nephi to Now
(Blanding, UT: Four Corners Digital Design, 2016). This 210-page book
includes useful background material on the evolution of languages and
the relationships that link languages, as well as some background on the
Book of Mormon. The meat of the book are the large sections exploring
patterns of relationships with many specific examples creating
impressive cases for relationships between Uto-Aztecan and Semitic
languages, including Hebrew and Egyptian.
larger, more technical volume is Exploring the Explanatory Power of
Semitic and Egyptian in Uto-Aztecan (Provo, UT: Grover Publications,
2015). This book has 436 large pages and plenty of small print with
extensive technical detail, offering 1500 detailed examples of
In subsequent posts, I’ll discuss some specific examples and the interesting trends he uncovers. To me, there are some really amazing finds that go far beyond what one might expect from chance. Some of these were shared in Brian Stubbs’ 2016 FairMormon Conference presentation, but there is much more to discuss and ponder.