Daniel Peterson on the Restoration and the Book of Mormon

While reviewing information related to Cornelis Van Dam’s outstanding book on the Urim and Thummin (he’s a non-LDS scholar whose scholarship regarding that ancient tool should be of special interest to LDS people, as I’ve discussed here before and will discuss in my next post for the Nauvoo Times), I ran across a rapid-fire but noteworthy essay from Daniel Peterson on the Restoration, courtesy of the Maxwell Institute. Below is an excerpt dealing with the Book of Mormon that I found helpful. I hope you’ll read and ponder his entire article over at the Maxwell Institute. For the latest from Daniel Peterson and friends, be sure to regularly visit the Mormon Interpreter. (For what follows, please see the original article for all the footnotes.)

Joseph Smith obtained the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated from the angel Moroni on 22 September 1827—which was not only the autumnal equinox but Jewish New Year’s Day, Rosh Hashanah, the so-called “birthday of the world.”20 More and more, the Book of Mormon appears to fit the ancient world from which it claims to have emerged.21 This is a remarkable fact, considering that its translation and dictation appear to have been accomplished in roughly 63 working days—a torrid pace that, with neither rewrites nor significant corrections, produced nearly 8.5 pages (of the current English edition) daily.22 And it was produced in what might justly be termed an “information vacuum” by a semiliterate young farm boy who had essentially no access to data of any kind about antiquity.23 Yet Joseph Smith’s account of the translation process, according to which he made use of a priestly implement that the Hebrew Bible terms the Urim and Thummim, now finds remarkable circumstantial support from contemporary scholarship on that rather mysterious object.24 

And the book that resulted from the process is littered with what can now be recognized as authentically ancient names, many of them unknown in the Bible or in any other source available to Joseph Smith. The name of Lehi’s wife Sariah, for example, previously invisible outside the Book of Mormon, has now been found in ancient Jewish documents from Egypt.25 Likewise, the nonbiblical name Nephi belongs to the very time and place of the first Book of Mormon figure who bears it.26 Other uniquely Book of Mormon names—such as Abish, Aha, Ammonihah, Chemish, Hagoth, Himni, Isabel, Jarom, Josh, Luram, Mathoni, Mathonihah, Muloki, Sam, and Shule—are now attested in ancient materials.27 Two male characters named Alma appear in the Book of Mormon. And, of course, this seems to run counter to what we might have expected: If Joseph Smith knew the name at all from his environment, he would most likely have known it as a Latinate woman’s name. (Many will recognize the phrasealma mater, which means “beneficent mother.”) Recent documentary finds demonstrate, however, that Alma also occurs as a Semitic masculine personal name in the ancient Near East—just as it does in the Book of Mormon.28As a final example, Jershon designates a place that was given to the people of Ammon as a “land . . . for an inheritance” (Alma 27:22). In Hebrew, Jershon means “a place of inheritance.”29 It is simply inconceivable that Joseph Smith could have known this in the late 1820s. 

The presence in the Book of Mormon of the characteristically ancient literary structure or technique known as chiasmus—a complex rhetorical device largely overlooked by biblical scholarship until decades after Joseph Smith’s martyrdom in Illinois—is another powerful indicator of the record’s antiquity and almost certainly did not arise by random chance.30 (The same literary structure has now been identified in pre-Columbian America.)31 In one intriguing example of chiasmus, the crucial wordplay rests on an equivalence between the word Lord and the royal name Zedekiah (see Helaman 6:10). But those words are only equivalent to readers aware that the termLord probably stands (as it does in the King James Bible) for the divine name Jehovah or Yahweh, and that the -iah element in Zedekiah is the first portion of that same divine name. This chiasm thus works better in Hebrew than in English, which seems an important clue to the original language of the Book of Mormon.32 

A number of details from the Book of Mormon text appear to support a view of the book as a rather literal translation from an ancient document.33 In an ancient Hebrew idiom, for example, arrows are “thrown” (see, for example, Alma 49:22). Also, just as in ancient Hebrew and other Semitic languages, in a construction known as a “cognate accusative,”34 the word denoting the object of a verb is sometimes derived from the same root as the verb itself. “Behold,” says the prophet Lehi, “I have dreamed a dream.”35 Similarly, the (to us) redundant that in such expressions as “because that they are redeemed from the fall” and “because that my heart is broken” is a Hebraism (see, respectively, 2 Nephi 2:26 and 4:32). 

But some Hebrew constructions that appeared in the first (1830) edition of the Book of Mormon have been erased from later printings, in a bid to make the book read more smoothly as English. One striking example of this involves a series of conditional sentences in Helaman 12:13—21. Such sentences, in English, typically feature anif-clause (either using the word if itself, or something equivalent), which expresses a hypothetical condition, and a result clause that describes what will occur if the hypothetical condition comes about. For example, “If you don’t study, you will fail.” The result clause may contain a word such as then, but commonly does not. By contrast, the result clause of a conditional sentence in ancient Hebrew can be introduced by the word wa (and), so that the sentence takes what might be termed an ifand form.36 The occurrence of ifand conditionals in the 1830 Book of Mormon seems to indicate that it did not originate in the mind of a native English-speaker, but is a quite literal translation from a Hebrew original:

13. yea and if he saith unto the earth move and it is moved

14. yea if he say unto the earth thou shalt go back that it lengthen out the day for many hours and it is done.

16. and behold also if he saith unto the waters of the great deep be thou dried up and it is done.

17. behold if he saith unto this mountain be thou raised up and come over and fall upon that city that it be buried up and behold it is done.

19. and if the Lord shall say be thou accursed that no man shall find thee from this time henceforth and forever and behold no man getteth it henceforth and forever.

20. and behold if the Lord shall say unto a man because of thine iniquities thou shalt be accursed forever and it shall be done.

21. and if the Lord shall say because of thine iniquities thou shalt be cut off from my presence and he will cause that it shall be so. (Helaman 12:13—14, 16—17, 19—21, 1830 edition)

4. and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart with real intent having faith in Christ and he will manifest the truth of it unto you by the power of the Holy Ghost. (Moroni 10:4, 1830 edition)37

It is difficult to imagine a native speaker of English (such as Joseph Smith, though poorly educated at the time, indisputably was) producing such sentences. Yet they represent perfectly acceptable Hebrew. 

Lehi’s vision of God and his accompanying prophetic call, we now know, could serve as a textbook illustration of such visions and calls as they are recounted in ancient literature, complete with motifs of the heavenly book and the divine council that have only garnered scholarly attention in recent decades.38 The imagery of Nephi’s subsequent vision, too, is deeply rooted in ancient Near Eastern symbolism with which Joseph Smith could not conceivably have been familiar but that seems to point directly to an origin in preexilic Israel (see 1 Nephi 11).39Not surprisingly, in that light, the account of Jerusalem just prior to the Babylonian captivity that is given early in the Book of Mormon narrative gains in plausibility as research accumulates.40 Although it is generally supposed, for instance, that the captured Judahite king Zedekiah was forced to watch the execution of all his sons before his eyes were put out and he was taken off to Babylon, the Book of Mormon says that one of them, named Mulek, survived. A careful reading of the Bible, particularly in the original Hebrew, suggests that the claim is plausible, to the point, even, of including the detail of the prince’s name.41 Even Nephi’s slaying of Laban, and the justification given to him for doing so, can now be seen to fit very specifically into that period.42 The book claims, moreover, to have been written in “reformed Egyptian” (Mormon 9:32). Most who have studied the subject conclude that this signifies writing the Hebrew language in modified Egyptian characters. In recent years, we have learned that several indisputably ancient documents were written in precisely that fashion.43 

The account of Lehi’s Arabian sojourn after his hasty departure from Palestine is remarkably accurate—in fact, likely Book of Mormon locations have been identified along the coasts of Arabia—but no scholar in the nineteenth century, let alone Joseph Smith, could have known any of this.44 And Lehi’s epic journey from Jerusalem to the New World endured for a millennium in the memory of his descendants, who saw it as a signal instance of God’s miraculous power much like the Israelites’ earlier deliverance from Egyptian bondage.45 Indeed, careful modern readings show that the very terms in which it was described and remembered derive from the biblical account of the exodus. The literary crafting of the story is both sophisticated and authentically Near Eastern.46

These are just some of the many things that can strengthen our appreciation of the Book of Mormon as an authentic ancient text.  It truly is an impressive book worthy of deep study and reflection. 

Author: Jeff Lindsay

16 thoughts on “Daniel Peterson on the Restoration and the Book of Mormon

  1. Wow, as a current agnostic Mormon, this is an awesome summary of what the BoM has going for it. This post got me to dig out all the old criticisms again and compare them to the evidences. I have to say, a handful of good arguments for the BoM mean more to me than a handful of problems. If it was all a scam, you really have to give MAJOR props to Joseph Smith for his coincidental guesses.

    It's more believable to me that Joseph Smith must've been much more obsessively passionate in his quest to pull off the ultimate ruse, or had more savant-like characteristics than we have previously imagined. Or he was telling the truth, right?

    Eveningsun, what is the appropriate skeptic's response to these bullseye's for Joseph. In light of the above statements, do your students have more reason to be taught that Joseph was more than just the ordinary religious swindler that society would have us believe?

  2. Jeff is engaging in some of the usual logical fallacies here, including the barn door fallacy (that bit about Smith getting his revelation on Rosh Hashana) and false dichotomy (e.g., Smith must have been either a swindler or a prophet, chiasmus must occur either by chance or be a sign of ancient origins).

    No serious thinker is convinced by this kind of apologetics. And if Jeff is pressed hard enough on the quality of the logic and evidence, he will retreat and make the usual claims about how ultimately it's a matter for the Holy Spirit anyway.

    — Eveningsun

  3. As a lay person, I'm not capable of evaluating many of Peterson's apologetic arguments, so should I be impressed with them? Once in awhile, I trace an argument to its source, and I'm very unimpressed.

    For example, Peterson says, "Recent documentary finds demonstrate…that Alma also occurs as a Semitic masculine personal name in the ancient Near East—just as it does in the Book of Mormon." Just as it does in the Book of Mormon? I followed the link to reference 28 and googled the title to find an article from Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. According to it, the name 'lm' or maybe 'Alm' occurs in a letter from the time of Bar Kokhba. Additionally, the Semitic word 'lm means "youth" or "lad." How impressive is it to match 2 or 3 letters from the name Alma to any name or word from any ancient Semitic source? It doesn't seem very difficult to me.

    Should 'Alm' and 'Alma' be regarded as the same name? Suppose we set the bar a little bit higher and ask whether the name 'Alma' in its entirety matches any Hebrew word. Turns out it does. The word 'alma' means a damsel or maiden and occurs in several instances in the Old Testament, such as Isaiah 7:14. So which is a better match for the name 'Alma'? Alm or alma? This leaves me thinking that the name 'Alma' with all four of its letters is rather unlikely to be a masculine Hebrew name. It also leaves me thinking that Peterson and some other folks from the Maxwell Institute are engaging in some legerdemain.

  4. Martin and Eveningsun, I'll admit that every argument can be whittled at indefinitely when one is committed to wielding the critic's knife. But that sense of success in dismissing "interesting" evidence sometimes is an illusion.

    So let's step past the usual sweeping assertions and go with Martin in examining the issue of Alma in detail. Are we really just getting two letters "lm" to give an unimpressive random connection to a Book of Mormon name?

    Let's begin by realizing that Alma has been objected to by critics for decades as just another idiotic blunder of Joseph Smith's. Duh, everyone knows it's a female name, as in alma mater. How silly to plagiarize it and tell us that it's an ancient Semitic name. For tracing things to their source, that is pretty much where we would have to stop on this issue–until 1961, when a prominent scholar in Israel, Professor Yigael Yadin, discovered an ancient document that proved to be a land deed from the time of the Bar Kokhba rebellion in Palestine (ca. 131 A.D.). Prof. Yadin translated one of the names as "Alma the son of Judah."(See Bar Kokhba by Yigael Yadin, Random House, New York, 1971, p. 176). The document has been and may still be on display in a major Jerusalem's museum.

    Alma proves to not only be a genuine Semitic name, but is a name of a Hebraic man. Not a woman. While this document was well after Lehi's time, the name Alma has also been found in much more ancient documents from tablets from Ebla in modern Syria in 1975, dating to around 2200 B.C. (see Terrence L.Szink, "New Light: Further Evidence of a Semitic Alma," J. of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1999). Finding the male name Alma in a record about descendants early Hebrews now must be viewed not as a reason for mocking the Book of Mormon, but as a reason to take it seriously.

  5. It's easy to argue that all we have for the name Alma is just two consonants that could just as easily be pronounced Lame-o, Elmo, Alum, Oleomo, Oily Moe, and so forth. This is not the case. The name in the ancient Jewish document is actually spelled with four letters, beginning with an aleph. The name appears in two forms that differ in the final letter (א [aleph] or ה [hey]), but "Alma" fits both. Transliterated into English, the first form with the terminal aleph (אלמא) is " 'lm' ". For scholars of Hebrew, there is good evidence that the name should be "Alma," which is exactly how the non-LDS scholar, Yigael Yadin, transliterated it. For details, see Paul Hoskisson, "What's in a Name?," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 7, No. 1, 1998, pp. 72-73 (link is to a PDF file; an HTML file is also available with just the text). That article shows a color photograph of the document that has the name Alma in it twice. John Tvedtnes also discussed the name Alma in a well-received presentation to other non-LDS scholars, "Hebrew Names in the Book of Mormon," where he noted that in addition being found as a male name in one of the Bar Kochba documents, it is also found as a medieval place name in Eretz Israel and as a personal male name from Ebla.

    To me, this counts for something. Not much, not enough to change one's mind, for it is a small detail, but one that, even when pressed to the source, ought to raise an eyebrow and help a sincere investigator to say, maybe I should press forward with this book and keep exploring. But to one who, like Eveningsun, is openly and explicitly committed to attacking the Church because of it's stance on marriage, this little bit of supporting evidence will count for precisely nothing and can easily be whittled down to just another logical fallacy, barn door or otherwise, tainted with false dichotomy, that no serious thinker could possibly fall for, which ultimately is nothing more than an assertion of spiritual knowledge which arose from a subjective emotional experience, possibly just indigestion. I disagree.

  6. According to Terrence Szinck in the link that you provided, the name on the Bar Kokhba document is spelled 'lm' or 'lmh'. That's only a two-letter match by my count. I looked at the PDF also. I can see an aleph at the beginning of the first highlighted word but not at the end of it (actually I can't tell where the end is, looks like one long word to me), and not at all in the second highlighted word (which looks like part of an even longer word). Of course, I can't read ancient Hebrew, so I can only go by what Terrence Szinck said, which isn't what you said about there being four letters.

    The name 'al6-ma' (?) from the cuneiform tablets from Ebla aren't even Hebrew. In Hebrew, alma means maiden. That fact is well-attested, shows a match to all four letters, and comes from the time of the Book of Mormon, not 2200 BC (which would be prior to the time that the Lord confounded people's languages for building the Tower of Babel, BTW).

  7. Hi Martin,

    The single quotation marks are often used to represent the letter "ayin" – ע – as there is no equivalent in English. The letter ayin sound comes from the back of the throat and if you were to transliterate it, an 'A' is a suitable equivalent. Modern Standard Arabic pronounces this letter more so than modern Hebrew. So, in your post, when you write 'lm' or 'lmh'
    you are actually writing 4 or 5 letters, not 2 or 3.


  8. Steve,

    Thanks for your informative comment. You taught me something. However, even though 'lm' represents four letters, I still have to call it a two-letter match to the word Alma, because, as you say, ayin has no English equivalent. You prompted me to look up how ayin is pronounced, and it is technically a guttural consonant, sometimes represented by a letter g or the letters ng in English. I don't doubt you when you say that letter A is a suitable equivalent, but so are other letters apparently.

  9. Hi Martin,

    While ayin is a guttural (of the throat) consonant, I have never seen ayin represented by the letter G. Other guttural consonants would be like 'ch' in German or Scottish and I have seen the letter G to represent such guttural consonants but the letter ayin does not sound like this. A better match for the letter ayin is the letter A if you are not using any sort of phonetic alphabet and if you want to try to distinguish ayin from aleph but do not want to use a phonetic alphabet, I have seen ' being used but never G. There is a letter in Arabic called ghain which has a similar sound to ayin. In fact, the name of the letters in English give hints as to how to pronounce it. No letter G in ayin and there is a 'gh' (poor representation) for the Arabic letter ghain.


  10. The Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon are by far the greatest supporting pieces of evidence I've seen to validate Joseph Smith's story. I mean take this into consideration: when the church goes out of their way to naively remove some of the Hebraisms in the early text, it goes a long way to show either how brilliant Joseph was, or that his story is just as he described. Did Joseph either A) normally communicate with ifs & ands in his daily speech when nobody else did, B) was so brilliant that he knew this was proper Hebrew, AND was able to hide that brilliance while working on a farm and wasting his time on treasure hunting, C) one of Joseph's friends, (Cowdery, Harris or Rigdon) knew this stuff, but yet never once came out with the truth EVEN after all three apostatized from the church, or D) the Book of Mormon is what Joseph Smith claimed it was?

    Which one of the above seems the most plausible? Pretty tough choice.

    In light of some of this research today, I wonder if the Church would have removed and/or changed such Hebraisms in the book had they known what we know now?

    "No serious thinker is convinced by this kind of apologetics. And if Jeff is pressed hard enough on the quality of the logic and evidence, he will retreat and make the usual claims about how ultimately it's a matter for the Holy Spirit anyway."

    We'll be waiting for that "pressing" Eveningsun. In the meantime your, "I'm too good for this kind of apologetics", just doesn't cut it. Put up, or shut up.

  11. Steve, thanks for the guidance. Appreciate it!

    That's why Professor Yadin chose to transliterate the name as Alma, not as Gelmo or Zolma, etc. The issue of Alma as a Book of Mormon name really is both plausible and significant. For the critics, it has quickly gone from a silly blunder to something that now requires some genuine mental effort to ignore.

    The issue of Semitic names and other Semitic influences in the Book of Mormon is one that can raise eyebrows in many instances. See the article John Tvedtnes presented in Jerusalem.

  12. CF, I think that's a valid viewpoint. One can argue that other areas of evidence are more compelling, but the Hebraisms in general make quite a remarkable case–especially in light of Joseph's further editing that removed some, and the fact that neither Joseph nor any other potentially involved "conspirator" ever used Hebraisms as evidence for the authenticity of the text. Why go to all that trouble to add internal evidence of ancient Semitic origins when no one would even recognize it was there for decades after your death? If it was deliberately added in a forged book, then surely they would have sought to milk its value later on. Hire a Hebrew scholar to comment and then drum up the evidence. Or more specifically, wait decades until Bible scholarship catches up with the level of sophistication in the text forged by young Joseph, and then proclaim the finds. Waiting until the 1970s, 80s, and 90s for random scholars to start discovering Hebraisms seems like a missed opportunity for the long-dead forgers, eh?

  13. Jeff, I would assume both you and Peterson have read the King James Bible (though I wouldn't expect you to be as familiar with it as I am). If you have, you should recall that dreamed a dream and because that are right there in the KJV, where Joseph Smith certainly would have read them in the 19th century (e.g., Gen. 37:5, 1 Kings 11:33).

    That being the case, do you still see them as evidence for the ancientness of the BOM? And do you still have so much confidence in Peterson's pronouncements?

    — Eveningsun

  14. Eveningsun, Daniel Peterson has long pointed out those examples from the KJV. Yes, dreamed a dream is found in the Bible, as are some other Hebraisms also found in the Book of Mormon. While there are some Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon not found in the KJV, Peterson's case does not rest upon Semitic structures of the BOM being outside the KJV.

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