The Sizzle of Shazer

Our critics tell us that the Arabian Peninsula evidence can readily be accounted for by glancing at a high-end map of Arabia made before 1830, such as the beautiful map of D’Anville that does indeed show the name Nehem. So far, my requests to explain how that could be done, even with the best available map in hand, have resulted in unsatisfying responses. Find Nehem on  the map, go there, turn east, and voila! So easy. All of which doesn’t begin to account for the many specific details that have been of great interest to LDS students. Those details include the finding of plausible candidates for the River of Laman and the Valley of Lemuel, the ability to turn east near Nahom and survive, and the intricate correspondences at the candidates for Bountiful that are, as Nephi described, nearly due east of Nahom. For some of the details related to Bountiful, you can see a list in Warren Aston’s 1998 article at the Maxwell Institute, but please see the PDF version of that article to see some images as well (6.3 Mb). Precious few of the evidences for authenticity related to Bountiful can be extrapolated from any map in Joseph’s day, and even more modern maps won’t help much.

One more detail, the subject of today’s post involves the place Shazer. There’s more to Shazer than just a name. The Book of Mormon tags it with some context and detail that is usually overlooked by critics. Shazer is introduced as Nephi’s group leaves the Valley of Lemuel (1 Nephi 16:11–14):

 11 And it came to pass that we did gather together whatsoever things we should carry into the wilderness, and all the remainder of our provisions which the Lord had given unto us; and we did take seed of every kind that we might carry into the wilderness.

12 And it came to pass that we did take our tents and depart into the wilderness, across the river Laman.

13 And it came to pass that we traveled for the space of four days, nearly a south-southeast direction, and we did pitch our tents again; and we did call the name of the place Shazer.

14 And it came to pass that we did take our bows and our arrows, and go forth into the wilderness to slay food for our families; and after we had slain food for our families we did return again to our families in the wilderness, to the place of Shazer. And we did go forth again in the wilderness, following the same direction, keeping in the most fertile parts of the wilderness, which were in the borders near the Red Sea.

Nephi’s use of borders, as had been pointed out by Kent Brown, appears to refer to mountains in the region. See S. Kent Brown, “New Light from Arabia on Lehi’s Trail,” in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, edited by Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch, (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2002). George Potter and Richard Wellington in Lehi in the Wilderness says that he learned from local Arabs that the name of the mountains in northwest Arabia, the Hejaz, means “borders.” He notes that the Hebrew word for borders, gebul, is cognate with Arabic jabal (jebel, djebel) meaning mountain (p. 3). So references to the borders near the Red Sea could logically refer to mountains. Strong’s Concordance for gebul also notes that one meaning can be a concrete object marking a limit.

Starting with the proposed location of the Valley of Lemuel, the place Shazer needs to be within a four-day journey along a south-southeast direction.

Regarding the place name Shazer, Nigel Groom’s Dictionary of Arabic Topography and Placenames (Beirut: Libraire du Liban; London: Longman, 1983; as cited by Potter and Wellington, p. 73) contains an entry for a similar word, shajir, giving the meaning: “A valley or area abounding with trees and shrubs.”

Regarding the name “Shazer,” Hugh Nibley wrote:

The first important stop after Lehi’s party had left their base camp was at a place they called Shazer. The name is intriguing. The combination shajer is quite common in Palestinian place names; it is a collective meaning “trees,” and many Arabs (especially in Egypt) pronounce it shazher. It appears in Thoghret-as-Sajur (the Pass of Trees), which is the ancient Shaghur, written Segor in the sixth century. It may be confused with Shaghur “seepage,” which is held to be identical with Shihor, the “black water” of Josh. 19:36. This last takes in western Palestine the form Sozura, suggesting the name of a famous water hole in South Arabia, called Shisur by Thomas and Shisar by Philby. . . . So we have Shihor, Shaghur, Sajur, Saghir, Segor (even Zoar), Shajar, Sozura, Shisur, and Shisar, all connected somehow or other and denoting either seepage–a weak but reliable water supply–or a clump of trees. Whichever one prefers, Lehi’s people could hardly have picked a better name for their first suitable stopping place than Shazer. (Lehi in the Desert [Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1952], p. 90.)

In a brief article in the 1992 Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Nibley simply suggested that Shazer is derived from the Arabic shajer, meaning trees or place of trees (“Book of Mormon Near Eastern Background,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), p. 188).

The Book of Mormon description of Shazer as a place where Lehi’s group would stop and go hunting–obviously a place with water and wildlife where one could stay for a while on a long journey–agrees well with the meaning of the word Shazer. Again, the Book of Mormon text provides a highly plausible name that accurately corresponds to the place described. But is there such a place in the area required by the Book of Mormon?

Before going any further, let us note that Shazer is introduced in a classic Hebraism: “we did call the name of the place Shazer” (1 Nephi 16:13). In normal English we would say that we called the place Shazer or named the place Shazer, but in Hebrew one would say that he called the name of the place, for it is the name that is called, not the place itself. This point is made by John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne, eds., Rediscovering the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book Co., Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1991), p. 89.

But what of the place itself?

It turns out that there is a reasonable fit for Shazer, a large, extensive oasis region with what is said to be the best hunting in all of Arabia, and it is in the right location to have been a four-days’ journey south-southeast of the established location for the Valley of Lemuel, near a branch of the ancient frankincense trail and in the region of Arabia near the Red Sea called the Hijaz. This oasis is in the wadi Agharr. It’s in the right place. But my guess is that you aren’t going to come up with this location and its context by glancing at an old map of Arabia.

In Lehi in the Wilderness, Potter and Wellington explain that they initially thought it would be easy to find Shazer, knowing that Nephi’s group traveled 75 miles (almost certainly with camels) from the Gulf of Aqaba to the proposed site of the Valley of Lemuel in three days (p. 73). They concluded that the four-day journey from the Valley of Lemuel to Shazer required simply finding an oasis within 100 miles south-southeast of the Valley of Lemuel. However, many challenges stood in their way, and it would require three more field trips in their spare time over the next two years before they knew for sure that they had found Shazer.
The following excerpt from Potter and Wellington describes the process of locating Shazer (pages 74,76-78):

Our first attempts at finding Shazer took us to the wells of Bani Murr and an-na’mi, to the east of the valley. Our second trip through the Khuraybah pass proved no more successful. These sites did not fit the description of a valley with trees. In fact, they were downright inhospitable. . . .

It wasn’t until the summer of 2000 that the whereabouts of Shazer became apparent. We realized that Lehi’s first camp after the valley had to have been at an authorized halt along the Gaza branch of the Frankincense Trail [the Valley of Lemuel was along this branch]. He would not have been allowed to stop anywhere else, and it had to be at a well site. That spring Richard had been reading the works of Alois Musil, a Bohemian academic and explorer who doubled up as a German spy before World War I. . . . One piece of his record stood out to Richard. Musil recorded, “We . . . crossed the old Pilgrim Road of ar-Rasifijje leading southward to the hills of Kos al-Hnane, where spirits abide. Date palms were still growing in parts of the valley, so that the oasis of Sarma could be extended a full twenty-five kilometers to the east.”

Musil described a fertile valley with an oasis over fifteen miles long which was approximately south-southeast from the Valley of Lemuel and was crossed by the old pilgrim route that followed the Gaza arm of the old Frankincense Trail that was an active trade route in Nephi’s time. We found Musil’s description of Agharr most interesting because on a prior trip to Midian we had been told by the Police General at al-Bada that the best hunting in the entire area was in the mountains of Agharr.

Here at last was the solid clue we had been looking for. . . .

[The authors then discuss evidence from old Arab geographers that the first rest stop after al-Bada’a, also known as Midian, was Al-Aghra’, which appears to be the wadi Agharr.] Nephi recorded that their first halting place after leaving the Valley of Lemuel was a place of trees where they stopped to hunt.

Now we had evidence from independent sources that the first rest stop after Midian on the ancient Gaza branch of the Frankincense Trail was in a fertile valley with trees, wadi Agharr, and the surrounding mountains presented the best hunting opportunities along the trail. The next step was to visit Al-Agharr. . . .

From al Bada’a we headed the sixty miles south southeast to wadi Agharr and our potential location for Shazer. To our right the Red Sea glittered in the bright noon light, to our left the mountains of the Hijaz towered over us, purple in the midday sun. Between al Bada’a and wadi Agharr we found a few small scattered farms and a few old wells. Here, where the water table was higher, there may well have been halts anciently where the families could have rested each evening as they headed southeast. As we reached wadi Agharr . . . [t]here was a gap in the mountains where the trail led. Through the gap we could see some palm trees in the wadi. Entering the wadi we were amazed to find an oasis that ran as far as the eye could see both to our left and to our right.

Wadi Agharr was exactly as Musil had described–fields of vegetables and plantations of palms stretching for miles. It is a narrow valley, perhaps one hundred yards across, bounded on each side by high walls stretching up a few hundred feet. “Shazer” was certainly an apt description for this location–a valley with trees, set amid the barren landscape of Midian. Here, after three years of fruitless searching, systematically visiting all the wells in a seventy-five mile radius of wadi Tayyab al Ism, we had finally found Shazer.

[The authors then discuss the presence of “Midianite” archaeological sites in the region, dating to the late second to mid-first millennium B.C., suggesting that the valley was fertile anciently.]

On a later expedition we returned to Shazer and drove up into the mountains in the area we thought the men of Lehi’s party would have gone to hunt. We spoke with Bedouins who lived in the upper end of wadi Agharr who told us that Ibex lived in the mountains and they still hunted them there. We were reminded of the words of the Greek Agatharkides of Cnidos who called this area anciently the territory of Bythemani. According to Agatharkides, “The country is full of wild camels, as well as of flocks of deer, gazelles, sheep, mules, and oxen … and by it dwell the Batmizomaneis who hunt land animals.” [Alois Musil, Northern Hijaz–A Topographical Itinerary, published under the patronage of the Czech Academy of Arts and Sciences and of Charles R. Crane, 1926, p. 303] It may have been these very animals that Lehi and his sons went out to hunt.

Here at wadi Agharr is a site that perfectly matches Nephi’s Shazer. It probably has the best hunting along the entire Frankincense Trail. It is the first place travelers would have been allowed to stop and pitch tents south of Midian, and as the Book of Mormon states, it is a four days’ journey from the Valley of Lemuel (1 Ne. 16:13).

A few small photos of Shazer are available on the photo page at, but a much more impressive photo of the many palm trees at Shazer is on page 77 of Potter’s and Wellington’s book, which I urge you to read for yourself.

Potter and Wellington offer much more as they retrace Nephi’s journey. For example, after Shazer, Nephi writes that they traveled through the “most fertile parts” (1 Nephi 16:14) and then subsequently through “more fertile parts” that can be understood to be less fertile than the “most fertile” parts. These fertile regions were encountered before they turned due east, which began the most difficult part of their journey. Along the ancient incense trail, continuing just after Shazer until Medina, one encounters a region of the Hijaz called Qura Arabiyyah or “the Arab Villages” which are described by Arabs as the “fertile parts” of the land. It is the part of the trail with the highest concentration of farms and rest stops for caravans, and truly fits the Book of Mormon description. After Medina, there are fewer farms, but still enough fertile places to be called “the more fertile parts.” (See pages 82-92 of Potter and Wellington, including excellent photos and a satellite map.) knowledge of these many fertile regions in the midst of the barren Arabian Peninsula was largely hidden from the west until recently. These are rare and unusual places in the Arabian Peninsula, and Joseph simply could not have known of them.

Consider what we have here, with the finding of a plausible candidate for Shazer, and the many other “direct hits” the Book of Mormon provides regarding the Arabian Peninsula. Now take a look at a map of Arabia and tell me how he would have placed Shazer so plausibly. Is it just luck that the “most fertile parts” come right after Shazer, followed by the “more fertile parts,” after which things become much more difficult and presumably a lot less fertile? “Fertile parts” in Arabia is not part of basic common knowledge. If Joseph understood what “Arabia Foelix” meant on the map and knew of reports of that fertile region, he would have placed the most fertile parts way south on the journey, but those fertile parts were not along the route Nephi took.

Nothing in the information available to him in 1829 could have guided him in providing so many correct details of Nephi’s voyage to the sea through the Arabian Peninsula. Nothing would have enabled him to describe the Valley of Lemuel, the River of Laman, or the place Shazer, a four-day journey (by camel) south-southeast of the Valley of Lemuel, with the best hunting in the entire area and an abundance of trees, corresponding well with the Semitic meaning of the name Shazer. Joseph knew nothing of Hebrew or Arabic at the time, and the western world knew precious little about the Arabian Peninsula. Attempting to describe details of the voyage would have been foolhardy in the extreme.

If Joseph or anyone else had made up the story, it would have been important to be as vague as possible, not giving specific directions, distances, and descriptions. The only way such an account could be done with any hope of being plausible would be if the account were written by someone who actually made the trip. To me, a more reasonable explanation is that whoever wrote First Nephi 16 and 17 had firsthand knowledge of the region, knowledge going far beyond what anyone in the States could glean from a map. So the real mystery here is not whether or not Joseph sneaked off to a remote library to gaze at a map, only to not use any of the detailed “local color” he could pull from it to impress people in his day (only to wait for over a century to be noticed).

The real question we need to be asking, if we are looking for answers, is who knew of these places, apparently from firsthand observation, and how that information was transmitted to Joseph. Better questions lead to better answers. 

Author: Jeff Lindsay

53 thoughts on “The Sizzle of Shazer

  1. Actually, Joseph Smith made a trip to the Arabian continent. He traveled by camel, got ideas and names. Then went home and wrote a fictional book in, what, sixty or seventy days.

    The Mormon church has obliterated all evidence of the trip. You know how much power those Danites have.

    Oh, yeah…..and he dug around and found ancient writings, and found people who had found ancient writings and the people told him stories and gave him ideas, and translated some of what he dug up. But he left the stuff he found behind so as to not to appear as a fraud.

    Yep, that is how it happened.

  2. Jeff, let me respond to just one of the many, many problems with your post: the habit of taking a nothingburger and inflating it into a piece of seemingly profound pseudo-evidence. A particularly good example is the following paragraph:

    Before going any further, let us note that Shazer is introduced in a classic Hebraism: "we did call the name of the place Shazer" (1 Nephi 16:13). In normal English we would say that we called the place Shazer or named the place Shazer, but in Hebrew one would say that he called the name of the place, for it is the name that is called, not the place itself. This point is made by John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne, eds., Rediscovering the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book Co., Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1991), p. 89.

    What you say here is quite true. It is also totally obvious and utterly irrelevant.

    Yes, we did call the name of the place is a classic Hebraism. It is also, of course, compunded of usages found frequently in the King James Bible, e.g.:

    — And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovahjireh (Gen. 2:14)

    Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth (Gen. 11:9)

    Sure, in normal English we would say these things differently. But if we were trying to mimic the language of the KJV, we might well say them as they are said in the Book of Mormon.

    In other words, the passage you cite is perfectly consistent with the theory that the BoM is a 19th-century text written by someone imitating the KJV.

    It's not evidence for your claim — yet here you make a special point of noting it, of inflating it into an entire paragraph, complete with an explanation that sounds authoritative but has absolutely no relevance, followed by an impressive-sounding finale in the form of a lengthy book citation that gives a scholarly veneer to your wholly irrelevant point.

    Boil down all of its pompous verbosity and verbose pomposity (sorry, couldn't resist the chiasm) — strip off its pseudo-scholarly trimmings — and the entire paragraph reads like this:

    1 Nephi 16:13 uses language like that found in the King James Bible.

    Big. Whoop.

    I humbly submit that this sort of rhetorical inflation helps explain why so many believers think the Book of Mormon to be so much more complex and profound than in truth it is.

  3. Yes, I agree that my peripheral point is not very interesting and can be readily explained. Thank you for pointing out the weak spot above. As with all discussions of Book of Mormon evidence, I hope people will notice the things that actually are highly interesting and noteworthy rather than focusing on the gaps and weaknesses without addressing the strengths. There is some sizzle to Shazer, regardless of meaningful that lone Hebraism is.

  4. Imagine that, Mormanity’s “requests” to strawmen critics “have resulted in unsatisfying responses.” Given the reality of Mormanity’s arrogance, his inability to respond to actual questions regarding the subject is very satisfying.

  5. Kudos to Orbiting Kolob for pointing out what is not just a weakness in the blog post, but a deliberate rhetorical style used by Jeff and a lot of other apologists. They pepper their arguments with numerous peripheral points that they portray as supporting evidence, a "big list" if you will. It's an old high school debating tactic where you simply raise too many points for your opponent to respond in a limited amount of time. That's why so many apologetic articles are several times longer than they need to be. I suspect they're not intended to be read in their entirety. The faithful can rest assured that somebody dealt with the issue; the critics will never get through it all.

  6. Jerome,

    This is a blog. You have all the time in the world.


    And what are the many other weaknesses in Jeff's article?

    et al,

    You want evidence (not the same as proof, mind you) we give it to you and you scoff — posh — you don't merely scoff you attack.


  7. Rhetorical pomposity aside, (after all, it is a blog by a hobbyist apologist), the Shazer place name is pretty cool.


  8. Hebraisms that are prevalent in the King James Bible may not be good evidence for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon as an ancient Hebrew scripture, but they can still be interesting for Mormons who wonder why the Book of Mormon uses some funny turns of phrase. Directly or indirectly, the reason is Hebraism. I see nothing wrong with pointing this out — Jeff's blog is not just for non-Mormons.

    I do think that some Mormon apologists sometimes present overblown evidence that doesn't actually tell against the opposite viewpoint; but for that matter I think I've seen some Mormon critics do the same. Indeed anybody with a strong opinion is likely to do this. When we notice something happening, that would be expected to happen if the things we believe were true, we feel that this observation supports our belief. And to some degree it does — as any Bayesian will tell you. The problem is that if the same observation would be just as likely, given other assumptions than our own beliefs, then this observation does nothing at all to prefer our belief over the other assumptions. In fact it might even support those other assumptions more strongly, if according to them the thing observed would be even more likely.

    That's the sometimes painful logic of Bayesian inference. For most people, though, it's hard to take an opposing perspective seriously enough to recognize that the same resonance between observation and belief, which struck us so keenly when our own beliefs were being supported, occurs in the opposite perspective as well. We feel the concurrence between fact and theory, and it feels like supporting evidence. It can be hard to notice that the sword cuts both ways.

  9. Yes, "the sword devoureth one as well as another" (to use the words of that murderous conniving adulterer, in one of the ancient world's most brilliant stories).

  10. I note that Orbiting Kolob has shown that he has no answer for Jeff's post, instead choosing to focus on a one paragraph aside as if that's all that is needed to rebut.

    He has no answer for the details of Shazer–none at all. What map did Joseph look at, Orbiting? How did he get it right? When was his journey through Arabia? From the River of Laman to Shazer to Nehem to the turn East to Bountiful–you've come up with "Well, in a map almost 400 miles away there was the name Nehem–that proves it all wrong!" Yet you have nothing else. Where's the "Fraud" explanation, Orbiting? Don't try to duck out by kvetching over the hebraism of the name–that's just a side note, a curiosity that you are desperately trying to focus on so you can ignore the main point.

    Right now, the only thing you have is faith that Joseph Smith was a fraud; you certainly have no evidence. In fact, it is faith despite the evidence.

  11. Nobody is saying that a map 400 miles away proves anything. Nobody is claiming any proof for the angel's golden plates, either. It's a matter of assessing how likely the alternative scenarios are.

    If we know there was a map 320 miles away, then how likely is it that there was also another map somewhere closer to Smith — or that Smith or some collaborator made the 320-mile journey at some point and took a few notes? Is it more likely than an angel with golden plates?

    I'd say Yes, it was a lot more likely. Is that faith? Perhaps it is. As faiths go, though, it doesn't seem to me to be all that credulous. It's more like the kind of hard-nosed common sense that most people use when they're buying a car.

  12. I note that Orbiting Kolob has shown that he has no answer for Jeff's post, instead choosing to focus on a one paragraph aside as if that's all that is needed to rebut.

    Not so, Anon 11:57. The fact that I haven't yet given an answer to (the rest of) Jeff's post does not demonstrate that I don't have one.

    Logic can be your friend, if you let it. Ditto for patience.

  13. Okay, there seem to be two separate but related arguments here, one linguistic and the other geographic. Here I will discuss only the geography, but without the geography the linguistics don't really matter.

    I really don't see the textual basis for thinking the Book of Mormon provides us with "details" that are "exact" and "precise" (terms which keep coming up in the relevant apologetics but strike me as extremely inflated). To me the text itself seems extremely vague, starting with the ambiguity of 1 Nephi 4-6:

    And it came to pass that he departed into the wilderness. And he left his house, and the land of his inheritance, and his gold, and his silver, and his precious things, and took nothing with him, save it were his family, and provisions, and tents, and departed into the wilderness. And he came down by the borders near the shore of the Red Sea; and he traveled in the wilderness in the borders which are nearer the Red Sea; and he did travel in the wilderness with his family, which consisted of my mother, Sariah, and my elder brothers, who were Laman, Lemuel, and Sam. And it came to pass that when he had traveled three days in the wilderness, he pitched his tent in a valley by the side of a river of water.

    This is the first supposedly "precise" detail, when we're told that the Lehites had traveled three days in the wilderness. I can buy the idea that three days' travel might be about 75 miles (though really, depending on the landscape, it might be anywhere between maybe 40 and 90 miles–not very precise at all).

    But how should we interpret the rather ambiguous wording of the text? Were these three days concurrent or sequential? It seems to me the text can support either one.* Which of these is meant? —

    (1) Sequential: The Lehites traveled an unspecified number of days to reach a certain point ("the borders near the shore of the Red Sea"?) and then they traveled an additional three days to reach the Valley of Lemuel (the "valley by the side of a river of water").

    (2) Concurrent: It took the Lehites three days to reach the Valley of Lemuel.

    As I said, it seems to me that the text can support either reading.

    If we go with (1), then we really have no idea where the Valley of Lemuel is. If we don't know how long it took the Lehites to get there, then the "borders near the shore of the Red Sea" could be anywhere along hundreds of miles of the region on or "near" the Arabian coastline. This effectively means we cannot use ony of the BoM's subsequent distances to map out the Lehites' travels, which in turn means we have no basis for matching up BoM landscape descriptions to real features.

    So our interpretation had better be (2).

    But I don't see how (2) can reliably provide a basis for a precise BoM Arabian geography. The distance from Jerusalem to Eilat, the nearest point on the Red Sea, is about 154 miles. That's as the crow flies; today's driving distance is about 193 miles. Certainly the Lehites could not have reached the actual shore of the Red Sea, or anywhere close to it, in three days. The family would have to travel at least 51 miles per day. At a fairly brisk pace of 3 mph, that's 17 hours of walking per day, without rests, for three days straight. So that's out.

    To be continued.

  14. So, to continue from above, it seems to me that our best-case scenario is that (2) might give us a starting point for a BoM Arabian geography by locating the Valley of Lemuel roughly 75 miles south of Jerusalem. But this depends on a number of "ifs":

    — If the text means (2) and not (1) above. This strikes me as a tossup. Could go either way.

    — If we forget about the BoM's use of the word "near" and focus only on the word "nearer." If the Lehites are 80+ miles from the Red Sea, the text's use of the word "nearer" can make sense. But it's hard to see how the same can be said of the word "near." We'd have to understand "near" to mean "80+ miles away," which seems dubious.

    — If "borders" does not mean borders, but means something different, like "mountains." Here, as Jeff has shown, a case can be made, but it still seems unlikely, since the whole point of translation is to use words that the intended audience can understand, not to use them as they were used by another culture in the distant past.

    So it strikes me as pretty unlikely that all these conditions could apply.

    Again, maybe I'm missing something — feel free to help me out — but it seems to me that (1) and (2) are the only alternatives, that (1) fails outright, and that (2) is very unlikely, which is to say I don't find Jeff's argument very persuasive. I can't buy into all the "ifs" needed to make it work. But again, this just speaks to the difference between LDS apologetics and secular scholarship. Jeff is really looking for a way to make his belief possible in the face of the evidence. He's not looking for the most likely explanation of that evidence.

  15. Good questions, Orbiting. A careful look at 1 Nephi 2 should make it clear that they are near the Gulf of Aqaba, not anywhere along the Red Sea. I think Nephi's meaning in 1 Nephi 2:5 is that they traveled until they came near the Red Sea. First they approach the "borders" near the Red Sea, and then the they travel in the wilderness in the borders "nearer" the Red Sea (1 Nephi 2:5), possibly a second set of borders. If "borders" refers to mountains, this makes sense, as there are two spaced apart mountain ranges in the region as one nears the Red Sea. Mountain are physical barriers, markers for borders. But even if the area were flat, the idea that the general boundaries around the region could have regions near and regions nearer still is understandable.

    In 1 Nephi 2:6, it is after passing beyond the borders near the Red Sea and traveling in the wilderness in the borders that are "nearer" the Red Sea that Nephi then says "And it came to pass that when he had traveled three days in the wilderness, he pitched his tent in a valley by the side of a river of water." The travel in the wilderness he refers to must be the travel in the wilderness that he just mentioned in the previous verse, which is travel that began in the wilderness "nearer" the Red Sea. So that would seem to mean that once they had passed the first range of mountains and now where traveling near a second mountain range even closer to the Red Sea, that's when the clock began for timing of his three days of travel. This may have been tweaked (after all, he could have started the clock with the day they left Jerusalem) to match the significant three days of travel in the wilderness that is featured in Exodus. (Exodus 5:3 says, "let us go, we pray thee, three days' journey into the desert, and sacrifice unto the LORD our God" – see also Exodus 8:27 and 3:18).

    After those three days of travel, they build an altar and offer sacrifice, following the Exodus pattern. Then in 1 Nephi 2:9, Lehi observes that the river "emptied into the fountain of the Red Sea." Fountain or fount in this context naturally seems to refer to the source. The LDS printing of the Book of Mormon even adds a footnote making this point: "IE fount, or source, like the Gulf of Aqaba, which empties into the Red Sea." So they are at a location possibly three day's south of the beginning of the Gulf of Aqaba, still in a region near the Gulf of Aqaba that appears to be a source of the Red Sea.

    The leading candidate for the Valley Lemuel, complete with a shocking–no exaggeration!–discovery of a long proclaimed impossible river of water that flows perennially into the Red Sea, was found by going to the area and seeing where 75-80 mile journey from the region at the tip of Aqaba could bring you. It's there, a plausible distance from the tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, complete with an impossible river. I find it amazing. And that means that Shazer can't be just anywhere along the Red Sea, but a four days journey south-southeast of the Valley of Lemuel. I don't think that comes close to being vague.

  16. But actually, it is vague by modern standards when we'd like GPS coordinates, a map, and exact mileage, not just "days" of distance.

  17. The thing that bothers me is that there seem to be a few judgement calls in that interpretation. The counting of days is unclear. Are borders mountains? It's not implausible, but it's not a slam dunk. And I'm willing to accept that, even without a vast frontier library, Joseph Smith probably knew that the Red Sea was not fed by ornamental waterworks, so I'll buy that 'fountain' really does mean 'source'. But is the Gulf of Aqaba the source of the Red Sea? The Red Sea is open to the ocean.

    Maybe Nephi wasn't really thinking about the other end of the Red Sea from where he stood. And if you look at the map, maybe you could call the Gulf a source. But whatever else he had, Nephi probably wasn't looking at a map. If you're standing on the shore looking at water, the Gulf of Aqaba is too wide to see across (15 miles, according to Wikipedia). Wouldn't you just think of the Gulf of Aqaba as part of the Red Sea, rather than its source?

    (Thinking about Nephi standing on the ground looking around, instead of looking down at a map as we do, does make me more inclined to accept borders as mountains. If you're on the ground, mountains or hills define the edge of the world, because they make the horizon, and this apparent edge doesn't really move until you cross it yourself, by cresting the hill.)

    I'm not saying that Jeff's reading of Nephi is super far-fetched; just that it seems to be fetched from at least some distance. You have to squint a bit to see it, and make a few judgement calls the right way. How many other interpretations will the text bear? How much squinting do they need? If there really are no other comparably viable readings, and this one matches up more precisely with real Arabian geography than Joseph Smith could plausibly have arranged, then this will indeed count for something. If equally viable readings could place Nephi anywhere in Arabia, however, then the evidence essentially vanishes — it's the Texas sharpshooter. So where along this spectrum do we actually stand?

    The fraud theory is itself an interpretation, too, of course, at least in a sense; and it may need some squinting as well. The whole concept of the Red Sea having a source seems problematic enough, to me, that I wonder why Smith would have chosen to make up a weird detail like that. I can imagine explanations; maybe he was looking at a map, or cribbing from a traveler's account that he misinterpreted, or unconsciously thinking of the Red Sea as too much like Lake Michigan. Of course, allowing speculations like this is even more wiggle room than text interpretation.

    But that's the situation as I see it, being a skeptic. Con artists are much more common than prophets, so it takes dramatic evidence to make the prophet theory more plausible than the alternative. Even if Nephi's Arabian journey turned into an absolute humdinger of a piece of evidence, with unambiguous predictions being decisively confirmed, this would still only be one step on a long journey to making the Book of Mormon convincing to a skeptic. But it would indeed be a real step. If on the other hand Nephi's journey remains a matter of squinting, to prefer the one interpretation out of several that happens to fit the now-known facts, then this may be faith-affirming to Mormons, but it really won't do much at all to tip a skeptic's scales from con man to prophet.

  18. Jeff, a "careful" reading of 1 Nephi 2 does not at all "make it clear that they are near the Gulf of Aqaba, not anywhere along the Red Sea."

    Your interpretation above seems basically to be what I called (1) in my earlier comment:

    — The Lehites traveled an unspecified number of days to reach a certain point, let's call it Point A, which the text says they reached after they "came down by the borders near the shore of the Red Sea." Note that the text is not necessarily using the term "borders" to describe Point A itself, but rather the route they used to get there: they didn't come down to, they came down by.

    — Then the Lehites traveled an unspecified number of days to reach a further point, let's call it Point B, which the text describes as "the borders which are nearer the Red Sea." Again, the text does not seem to be using the term "borders" to describe Point B itself. In this case it is even more clear than it was above that "borders" refers not to Point B but to the terrain the Lehites traversed to get there. And if Nephi used the term in this way here, it's likely he was using it in the same way in reference to Point A.

    So, the Lehites travel an unspecified number of days to Point A. How many days? Two days? A week? A month?

    Who can say? The text certainly doesn't say. If the Lehites travel in the direction of Eilat, they might have wound up near the Gulf of Aqaba in a week or so, perhaps passing some borders/mountains along the way. But for all we know from the text, they might just as easily have taken a route further inland/east. They still would have passed borders/mountains near the Red Sea, but further down the coast. How much further down the coast? The text gives us no clue. The whole coastal region is borderous/mountainous.

    But again, maybe I'm missing something. Feel free to show me just where the text makes it clear that Point A is somewhere near the Gulf of Aqaba and not further down the coast. Again, I'm not asking you to show me that your reading is not consistent with the text. Lots of readings would be consistent with the text. Consistency is a pretty low bar. I'm asking you to show me how your reading is clear from the text.

    Anyway, after reaching Point A, wherever that is, the Lehites travel a once-again unspecified number of days to Point B. In your reading, this is the jumping-off point for the three-days travel to the Valley of Lemuel. For your reading to be justified, we need a firm location for Point B.

    How many days? Enough days to reach your preferred jumping-off point at the southern end of the Gulf of Aqaba? Maybe. But again, since we don't even know the least bit clearly where Point A is, and we don't know how many days the Lehites traveled from A to B, this is just guesswork.

    Jeff, all I'm asking for here is for you to acknowledge what you're really doing. Out of all the possible ways to extract an actual itinerary and destination out of 1 Nephi 2, you are choosing the one that brings the Lehites to a plausible site, identified after the fact, for the Valley of Lemuel. And while that choice is consistent with the text, it is in no way demanded or even clearly suggested by the text.

    The text is consistent with a large number of itineraries and destinations, including the one you prefer but also including many others. But instead of saying "Here's a location for the Valley of Lemuel that is consistent with the text" — which would be justifiable — you're saying something that is not at all justified: that your preferred destination is specified or favored by the text itself. This just ain't true.

  19. P.S. Jeff, I want to add that, not only is it strange to use terms like "clear" and "detailed" to describe Nephi's description of the Lehite itinerary, you should actually be thankful for the text's fuzziness. It's the text's lack of clarity that makes your apologetic procedures possible in the first place. After all, the fuzzier the text, the more readings become possible, and thus the easier it becomes to retrofit a specific location and describe it as consistent with that text.

  20. I agree that it's best to say that Potter & Wellington found a candidate for the Valley of Lemuel & River of Laman that is consistent with the text. I did not mean to say that the precise location is required by the text–there is certainly a range of locations that could one could reach based on different assumptions and interpretations. But I still think the text provides detailed enough guidance to make it clear that the valley & river must be near the southern part of the Gulf of Aqaba. Regardless of exactly where Nephi begins counting his three days of travel, once they reach the River Laman, he observes that it is flowing into the source (fountain) of the Red Sea, which fits the Gulf of Aqaba.

    As Nephi heads south and encounters borders or mountains or whatever "near" and then "nearer" the Red Sea, the first part of the Red Sea that he would come near to from Jerusalem is the Gulf of Aqaba. If he then travels for 3 days, the peak distance with camels would be around 75 or 80 miles. The Gulf of Aqaba is only about 90 miles long. Being somewhere along the Gulf of Aqaba is not just one of innumerable possibilities, but is a very natural reading of that can be obtained from two independent details: 1) traveling for three days from the first portions of the Red Sea neared by travelers heading south from Jerusalem, and 2) being near a river that flows into the "fountain of the Red Sea." Those two pieces of information reinforce the Gulf of Aqaba as the most likely location. The river and valley found by Potter and Wellington is about 50 miles south from the northern end of the Gulf of Aqaba, roughly in the middle. A similar speed of travel for four days then puts them in the region of a plausible candidate for Shazer.

    It's cool, but of course, not proof, and yes, one can propose alternate readings or make other assumptions about travel speed, etc.

    I think a location along the Gulf of Aqaba clearly is favored by the text. But I'm happy to accept your acknowledgement: "Here's a location for the Valley of Lemuel that is consistent with the text." Thank you!

    I'll also add that we have locations for Shazer, Nahom, the eastern turn, and Bountiful that are consistent with the text. All of which means, I suppose, that Joseph had one awesome map to crib from!

  21. In my previous note about two independent pieces of information pointing to proximity to the Gulf of Aqaba, I failed to note yet another clue: 1 Nephi 2:8 identifies the valley being "in the borders near the mouth thereof." So the part of the Red Sea they are at was 1) 3 days south of some place corresponding with their initial approach to the Red Sea, 2) the valley was near the "fountain"/source of the Red Sea, and 3) it was near the "mouth" of the Red Sea. This is further buttressed by the fact that a four-day journey, using the same pace of travel that brings us from the Aqaba area to the candidate for the Valley of Lemuel, then brings us to an excellent candidate for Shazer, which is then followed by the "most fertile parts" and somewhat less impressive "more fertile parts." For more precise details and photos, also see Book of Mormon Geography: The river of Laman and valley of Lemuel at

    While what exactly is meant by borders near and then nearer the Red Sea, it's hard to see why it could mean anything wildly different than their initial approach to the Red Sea, and coming from Jerusalem along established trails, that should be near Aqaba. That is then confirmed by the Valley of Lemuel being near the "fountain" and "mouth" of the Red Sea. Then how interesting it is that applying the same rate of travel for the four-day journey to Shazer leads us to a plausible spot.

    What I'd like to know, please, is which map Joseph could have used, even if he had unlimited access to the best maps of his day, to give those details? And they are details, not just vague generalities that could fit any old random river that someone might find anywhere Arabia after all these years of denying that a river like the River Laman could exist. This unique place is in a plausible location, and was found by taking the text seriously and doing field work. Ditto for Bountiful. Ditto for Shazer. These are incredible finds.

    I hope folks will at least acknowledge that there are some lucky hits here–not powerful enough to prove much, but interesting enough to motivate open-minded people to look more carefully at the Book of Mormon, or at least First Nephi. A reasonable hypothesis, IMHO, is that someone who knew of some unusual places in the Arabian Peninsula had to have a hand in writing that book. The question, though, is whether they were ancient or contemporary to Joseph. Modern explorers, perhaps, fresh back from Arabia and secretly hired by Joseph as part of his international technical advisory team? Or a troop of Arabian sheikhs that visited Palmyra in disguise? I welcome other hypotheses. But I don't think there was any map available anywhere in Joseph's day that could have guided him on the River Laman, the place Shazer, and the existence and location of Bountiful. Luck can always be argued here, of course, in the absence of evidence to explain how Joseph could have fabricated those interesting details. I don't find that satisfying, but that's for each individual to ponder.

  22. Well, Jeff, maybe we're moving toward a little clarity on where we disagree. I still don't think you've quite acknowledged the immensity of the gulf between your own apologetic interpretive methods and those of real scholarship, but maybe with time….

    Here's one of the differences that still divides us. I would still say that the "range of locations that one could reach based on different assumptions and interpretations" takes in hundreds of miles of the Arabian Red Sea coast.

    Let me add also that so far this whole discussion has ignored another quite obvious interpretation of the "fountains of the Red Sea."

    Remember that in the biblical cosmos, our world is created like this: The god Yahweh defeats the great sea monster, Leviathan — taming the waters of chaos, creating the dry land by locking the waters out beyond the firmament above and the solid ground below, where those waters remain, occasionally falling down as rain or bubbling up in what today we call springs or "fountains."*

    This is why, in the Flood story, the flood is created not just by forty days and nights of rain, but by the breaking up of the "fountains of the deep." As it is explained in an old book of myths:

    … all the fountains of the great deep were broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened.

    This idea is reflected in the etymology of fountain, which makes clear the sense of water springing up from the ground.

    Since I have no prior commitment to the historicity of the Book of Mormon, it's easy for me to see Joseph Smith using the word "fountains" as part of his general effort to lend a biblical tone to his book, not with any clear understanding of its biblical sense, but merely because he'd encountered it in the Bible — in fact, in one of the most famous and memorable parts of the Bible — and liked its biblical sound. It's a short step from "fountains of the deep" to "fountains of the Red Sea."

    Anyway, understood in this biblical way, the "fountains of the Red Sea" obviously doesn't refer to the Gulf of Aqaba. Understood in this biblical way, the passage doesn't even make sense at all. In the biblical sense, it makes no sense to speak of water flowing into a fountain; a fountain is something water flows out of.

    And how could one reach the fountains of a sea on camelback? Might as well try to reach the Marianas Trench in a Chevy truck.

    So to someone like me, who always reads the BoM with the Bible in mind, 1 Nephi 2:9 seems likely to be a "total miss" than a "bull's-eye."

    *The modern idea of the cosmos, which understands our world as a planet with a molten core, solid crust, and thin layer of atmosphere, surrounded by empty space and orbiting an unremarkable star in an unremarkable galaxy in a universe with billions of other galaxies, is of course wholly at odds with the biblical depiction of the cosmos and its creation.

    Embedded as it is in the biblical cosmos, the Book of Mormon is simply not "true" in the historical or scientific sense, but at best only in a mythic sense.

  23. P.S. Jeff, for an example of a genuinely ancient travel account that really includes "many specific details," forget 1 Nephi. Look instead at the biblical itinerary of the Exodus found in Numbers 33.

    This account includes more than fifty named places and includes descriptions of individual locales that are far more detailed and less ambiguous than any in the Book of Mormon's Arabian itinerary (e.g., in Elim were twelve fountains of water, and threescore and ten palm trees*).

    To get a full sense of the differences here, remember that the Israelite Exodus was roughly 1/8 as long as the Lehites' Arabian journey. Yet for a journey that's only an eighth as long, the Bible gives us 15 times as many place names. (See here for the whole list.) One might say that, per mile, Exodus 33 is about 120 times as detailed as 1 Nephi. And yet, even with this level of detail, archaeologists and Bible scholars have only identified a very few of these locations.

    Anyway, there is nothing even remotely comparable to this level of detail in the Book of Mormon. Perhaps this comparison will prompt you to change your thinking about what constitutes a "detailed" description.

    I can't resist adding that one of the Numbers 33 place names is Shapher, which differs from Shazer by just a single phoneme. Not only are Shazer and Shapher phonetically similar, they both appear in a suspiciously parallel narrative situation: a group of God's elect wandering through the wilderness on their way to a Promised Land.


    * Of course, no Bible scholar worth her pillar of salt would consider these to be actual landscape descriptions. They are almost certainly symbolic and allusive (12 tribes, "the days of our years are threescore years and ten"). The interests of the ancient writers were much more theological than geographical or historical. Why wouldn't the same thing be true of an ancient author of 1 Nephi? If such an author were to write that the Lehites traveled for three days, the reason would likely be not so much to describe some physical geography as to recall the Bible's three days' journey in the wilderness of Etham, or the three days' journey set by Laban between himself and Jacob, or the three days' journey into the wilderness of Exodus 3:18, etc., etc., etc.

    What I'm suggesting here is that you're reading 1 Nephi in a crude, anachronistic way that no real scholar would even think of applying to the Bible. This is true even from your own perspective as a believer in an ancient BoM. You might want to refine your methods.

  24. Orbiting Kolob raises an interesting general point about how the Book of Mormon differs from the Old Testament. Few scholars today accept that the Pentateuch simply preserves the original words of Moses. Rather, most OT books are highly edited compilations that were composed into their current form long after any historical events on which the texts may have been based. It's worth emphasizing that this conclusion is based, not on general lack of faith, but on detailed study of the texts.

    The Book of Mormon, in contrast, has a lot of first-person accounts, like the OT prophetic books; and they are apparently supposed to have been preserved pretty faithfully. The books of Nephi are supposed to preserve the actual words of Nephi. Are they not?

    Nobody seems to consider that the books of Nephi might have been composed as symbolically codified legend by later scribes, and merely put into the mouth of the legendary patriarch Nephi. In this sense the Book of Mormon is much like what people in Joseph Smith's day thought the Bible was, but very different from what the Bible actually is.

    Has anyone in fact tried to apply source criticism to the Book of Mormon? Is the text just much less rickety in detail than the Bible? Or is there somehow no point in thinking about how some ancient scribe might have made up Nephi, when there's a chance that Joseph Smith did that anyway?

  25. Nobody seems to consider that the books of Nephi might have been composed as symbolically codified legend by later scribes, and merely put into the mouth of the legendary patriarch Nephi.

    I know what you mean, James, but the "later scribes" are Joseph Smith. Source criticism leads directly to him as author. Just look at 2 Nephi 3:15. Biblical critics would have an easy time if the Bible contained anything so obviously self referential.

  26. Jerome, James, and everyone: Yes, look at 2 Nephi 3:15, and then ponder these definitions:

    Fan fiction is "fiction about characters or settings from an original work of fiction, created by fans of that work."

    The type of fan fiction called the Mary Sue, "or, in case of a male character, Gary Stu or Marty Stu, is an idealized character, a young or low-rank person who saves the day through extraordinary abilities. Often but not necessarily this character is recognized as an author insert and/or wish-fulfillment."

    The Book of Mormon is Bible fan fiction, more specifically, a Gary Sue, with Nephi as the author insert — the "young or low-rank person" who repeatedly "saves the day through extraordinary abilities" — created by Joseph Smith.

    In a broader sense, I think that the United States is also a kind of "insert": a young and low-ranked nation (in the 1820s, of course) that "saves the day" by enabling the restoration of a gospel that had been perverted and co-opted by the evil Church of the Devil. It's pretty ingenious, actually, and extremely well-calculated to appeal to a patriotic and intensely Protestant-revivalist American audience. There's no question about Smith's peculiar genius.

    This is where the non-LDS scholarship relentlessly points. When Book of Mormon studies eventually develops into a legitimate academic field, this will be the consensus, though the scholars will presumably use stuffier terminology.

  27. As re-issued today elsewhere:

    "I think this constantly reiterated unfailing charge that Joseph Smith was a raggle-taggle, down-at-the-heels, sloppy, lazy, good-for-nothing supplies the best possible test for the honesty and reliability of his critics. Some of them reach almost awesome heights of mendacity and effrontery when, like Mrs. Brodie, they solemnly inform us that Joseph Smith, the laziest man on earth, produced in a short time, by his own efforts, the colossally complex and difficult Book of Mormon."
    “The Myth Makers,” Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, 11:144-45.

    In the case of OK, he doesn't focus on or even advocate laziness, but instead disregards or dismisses immense textual complexity. His musings are thus also off-track and misleading. He conveniently ignores complexity when confronted with it, and with hardly laudable prolixity attempts to unravel the Book of Mormon as possible for Smith, when the reasonable must reject that view in the face of all the evidence (including the heavily witnessed short production period).

  28. Yes, Anon 1134, OK should gather and package his body of work and submit to Dialogue. They'd probably be interested in his work.

  29. Complexity isn't hard to achieve, though. That's one thing I've learned from trying to write a novel. The hard trick is to be simple but interesting. Letting the complexity sprawl is only too easy. And it would appear that Orbiting Kolob teaches literature. I doubt he's completely naive about complexity in art.

    Frankly, I think Hugh Nibley was kicking a ridiculous straw man. The skeptical theory usually denies that Smith was a genius, but there's a long gap between genius and stupidity, and the skeptic puts Smith in the upper part of that range. He was smart, and like a lot of smart people he may have been lazy when he could get away with it, but no doubt he could work extremely hard when his heart was in it. And he didn't really have a vast frontier library, but skeptics do tend to assume that he had a lot more knowledge than he let on.

    Many skeptics are pretty down on Smith for his morals. I have to admit, for my part, that there's probably no conceivable revelation about Nephi that can make up, in my book, for the revelation about the fiery sword. I'm afraid that with me he's just never going to live that one down.

    But no concern about Smith's morals implies any doubt about his ability to compose a complex book.

  30. Gee, thanks, Anons. But really, there's nothing very remarkable about my work. It has very little to offer the world. I'm saying that Joseph Smith was just another of the many church-founders of his era, which is already the scholarly consensus. It's nothing new.

    Hugh Nibley, on the other hand, and his successor apologists, are quite a different story. What they have to offer the world is nothing less than an intellectual revolution! If they're right, it would radically reshape the fields of ancient middle eastern history and archaeology, Biblical studies, American ethnohistory, Native American studies — not to mention astronomy and cosmology.

    It's stunning to think of the academic implications of the authenticity of the LDS scriptures. If only non-Mormon academics could be persuaded…. If a scholar using accepted methodology could convincingly demonstrate the historicity of, say, the Jaredite migration and their uncorrupted language and their massive wars, think of the fame that would come his way! He would be a regular Champollion.

    The incentive is there.

    Yet oddly enough, after all these generations, non-Mormon academia still finds itself unable to digest this big burrito of knowledge. Which of these seems the more likely reason? Is it that non-LDS scholars — every single one of them! — are:

    (1) filled with anti-Mormon prejudice;

    (2) too incompetent to understand the brilliant arguments of Nibley, Peterson, etc.;

    (3) too pig-headed to acknowledge the evidence;

    (4) blinded by Satan to the truth.

    Or is it possible that the evidence just ain't there?

    Is it possible that the evidence we do have points overwhelmingy to 19th-century composition?

    Why is it that the only people impressed by these putatively objective apologetic arguments happen to be people who already have a highly subjective, purely emotional "testimony" to the texts' authenticity?

    Why is it that, while every other academic question must be settled on the basis of evidence and rational argument alone, the Book of Mormon is an exception?

    I'm sure there are a fair number of Mormon Shakespeare scholars out there. If they make claims about the origins of the First Folio, they have to demonstrate the truth of those claims using evidence and logic alone.

    They wouldn't even think of saying, "Well, okay, yeah, in order to be persuaded by my argument, you need to supplement the evidence with a testimony. You need to get down on your knees and pray sincerely about the origins of the First Folio, and if you do that sincerely and with an open heart, you will see that I am right. And if you pray about it and don't come to see that I am right, you must not have prayed about it sincerely."

    Do you have any idea how ludicrous this sort of thing seems to the rest of the world?

    The Mormon Shakespeare scholar would never even think of saying, "Well, I realize there are still some big holes in my argument, but you have to understand that God doesn't want us to understand the First Folio by way of evidence and logic alone. What God wants is for us to make the final leap to understanding it on the basis of faith."

    No Mormon scholar would say these kinds of things about any other academic question. In every other arena, every Mormon scholar applies purely secular standards of evidence and argumentation. Secular scholars like me simply apply those same standards to the Mormon scriptures as well.

  31. Anglin: "And he didn't really have a vast frontier library," Well, I would say those, like you, who want to say hediddit, would have to admit that he did have such a library in order to be reasonable. If you're ok with being unreasonable then you can say that he had a storehouse of knowledge that no one else demonstrated at that time.

  32. Let me chime in here on this tangent. It reminds me of some bad scholarship I read once in Dialogue:

    Christopher C. Smith, “Joseph Smith in Hermeneutical Crisis”, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 43.2 (Summer 2010): 106n60.

    "Joseph’s imitation of King James idiom is imperfect; he occasionally
    misuses personal pronouns and sometimes even lapses back into
    regular nineteenth-century speech patterns. Wesley P. Walters, “The Use
    of the Old Testament in the Book of Mormon” (M.A. thesis, Covenant
    Theological Seminary, 1981), 163; Barlow, Mormons and the Bible, 27. He
    also tends to exaggerate the use of certain forms—for example, the emphatic
    construction “I did go up unto,” as opposed to “I went up unto.”
    My own computer study reveals that most biblical books use the word
    “did” very infrequently—only Habakkuk uses it more than three times
    per thousand words. The Book of Mormon, by contrast, exhibits extraordinarily
    high rates of occurrence per thousand words in four books:
    4 Nephi (23.64), Ether (12.26), Mormon (11.87), and Helaman (11.86).
    Only 2 Nephi (1.29), Jacob (2.08), and Moroni (2.61) use “did” fewer
    than five times per thousand words."

    The author, C. Smith, agrees that the BofM misuses personal pronouns without thoroughly studying King James English and the writings of Marlowe, Shakespeare, and other figures of the past. The scholars cited were equally sloppy. C. Smith is no linguist yet he holds himself out as sufficiently knowledgeable to reiterate inaccurate work. GIGO. Once again it's okay to have an adverse opinion of the book without knowing much about what you're talking about. He also naively states that "did" usage in the BofM is an emphatic construction when there are at least half a dozen reasons why it isn't. A pretty lame effort that is completely misleading. Here he holds himself out as a linguistic expert. Heaven help us. And notice how stupid those rates of occurrence figures are. Meaningless as stated. It's the rate per past tense that might be important, and 2 Nephi is heavily biblical anyway, which has low rates. Heaven save us from a constant barrage of misleading and inconsequential information. And that is what we get all too often from some of our interlocutors here.

    Dialogue is apparently happy to accept and publish shoddy scholarship (which in the case cited is objectively so, since it has to do with a non-fuzzy topic) that points to the BofM being a 19c product.

  33. James is right about the whole "complexity" argument. Complexity can be found in just about any text. In fact, it's very easy for the readers to create complexity in the very act of interpretation. Sort of — bear with me.

    The famous literary critic Stanley Fish, who first made a name for himself with a brilliant interpretation of the great Protestant epic (John Milton's Paradise Lost), has a wonderful essay ("How to Recognize a Poem When You See One") about the time he was teaching a linguistics class at 9:30 followed by a poetry class in the same room at 11:00.

    In the course of teaching the first class, he listed some names of linguists on the board: Jacobs, Rosenbaum, Levin, Thorne, etc. At the end of the class he walked out for a break, without erasing the list. When the poetry students arrived they assumed the list to be some kind of modern poem, and by the time Fish returned to the room the students were already hard at work trying to interpret this "poem."

    Sly devil that he is, Fish let his students proceed without telling them of their mistaken assumption. Pretty soon a consensus developed among the students that they were discussing a religious poem, since it was packed with biblical allusions. Jacobs of course alluded to the Jews, the House of Jacob; Rosenbaum is German for "rose wood," no doubt alluding to the Rose of Sharon (Jesus) crucified on a wooden cross; Levin not only recalls the Tribe of Levi, whose priestly functions were superseded by the sacrifice of Jesus, it also sounds exactly like "leaven" and thus recalls Jesus's warning in Matthew to "beware the leaven of the Pharisees," not to mention the Jew's preparation of unleavened bread for the Exodus. Thorne, of course, refers to the Crowne of Thorns.

    Pretty soon Fish's students had worked out an impressive interpretation that was so plausible he hated to inform them that the semantically rich and thematically complex "poem" was in fact just a list of names he'd left on the board.

    Or was it both a list and a poem?

    Building on this anecdote, Fish argues for the crucial importance of the assumptions we bring to bear on our interpretations, starting with our very basic assumptions about what kind of thing we're reading in the first place. If you assume from the get-go that you're reading a poem, and you know that poems do things like use richly allusive language to convey complex meanings, then you'll start looking for allusive language and complex meanings — and most likely you'll find them!

    Things get a little weird when you start thinking about whether the complexities and meanings are actually in the text or simply readerly constructs somehow snuck into the text by the reader. Fish notes that everything his students claimed in their interpretation was quite plausible and grounded in the actual words in the text; so how was the interpretation not in the text? Were the meanings in the assumptions? Not exactly, since the assumption that the list was a poem depended a lot on the names and the way they were arranged — that is, the assumptions were not wholly brought to the text but were partly in the text. It gets complicated. Language itself is incredibly complicated.

    My point, of course, is that something very similar presumably happens in LDS apologetics. The assumption that the Book of Mormon is an ancient text enables the discovery of the evidence that "demonstrates" it to be an ancient text.

    In any event, feel free to read Fish's essay and see what you think.

    P.S. My apologies to the Anons for my "hardly laudable prolixity." I can't seem to help myself.

  34. It ain't just complexity. That's only one ingredient. Immense knowledge was required, and Nibley probably was thinking of both when he wrote of complexity. Genius cannot produce thousands of bits that require prerequisite knowledge that just wasn't possibly there in Smith's case.

  35. Um, what "prerequisite knowledge that just wasn't possibly there in Smith's case"?

    Chiasmus was there for Smith. "Did" syntax was there for Smith. (Both of these are in the KJV.) Nehem/Nahom and the general direction of Lehite travel is there on old maps of Arabia. None of these are impossible for Joseph to have known. And he wouldn't need a vast frontier library, either — just a KJV, a brief perusal of a map (or even a conversation with someone else who'd perused a map), an immersion in the theological and anthropological controversies raging in his day, an ordinary human facility with language, and a good imagination.

    (EModE might or might not have been there for Smith — hard to say — but it's not really in the Book of Mormon at all; it's an artifact of Carmack's lousy "Texas Sharpshooter" methodology.)

    The things people keep finding in the BoM that make it look to them like an ancient text are analogous to the things Stanley Fish's students found in his list that made it look to them like a complex religious poem.

  36. I for one would be much more impressed with arguments about the complexity and erudition of the Book of Mormon if they were more specific. Exactly what is it that would be hard for Joseph Smith to have faked? Why would it have been hard to fake it?

    Jeff's stuff in this and recent posts, for example, is specific enough for me. He lays out his case concretely, explains how he reads the Book of Mormon, and how he thinks it lines up with actual Arabian geography better than could be expected from the best map that Joseph Smith might plausibly have seen. I'm not actually convinced by the argument — I think the interpretation of Nephi is arguable and other sources are plausible — but I acknowledge that it is an actual argument, not just bluster.

    Every time I see a vague, blanket appeal to complexity, however, it makes me think of the trial lawyer's aphorism: "If the law is on your side, pound on the law. If the facts are on your side, pound on the facts. If neither is on your side, pound on the table."

  37. Hey, just in googling to remind myself which chapter of Alma had the big chiasm, I found an article from the recently mentioned Dialog journal, by a guy named Earl Wunderli. He argues that the great chiasm isn't really so great. His main point is that the words and phrases which define the chiastically corresponding elements are selected out of quite large blocks of text. In some cases the same words are repeated elsewhere in the text, in places that don't fit the chiastic pattern, and to see the chiasmus, you have to just ignore those other repetitions, and pick on the ones that fit the structure. He argues that when you take a long and highly repetitive text, and give yourself the freedom to choose which words to highlight (and when to highlight them), your chances of being able to extract a chiasmus are good.

    That seems to me like a pretty significant point. I had been kind of under the impression that the great Alma 36 chiasmus was a pretty tight verse-by-verse structure, like a psalm. Apparently instead it's more a pattern of section headings, that you can arrange if you choose the right section headings. Maybe there's still something to it, but I have to say that it sounds a lot less impressive to me now that it did before.

    Having said that, I also have to say that I'm not sure why it's so important. I was willing to buy that Joseph Smith could have sat down and made up a tightly chiastic psalm. If Alma could do it, why not Smith? It's not as though chiasmus is so inherently tricky to execute that you can only pull it off if you come from a long line of chiasmists. So I never did really get the argument from chiasmus, anyway. Now I'm maybe more interested in whether the chiasmus is really there, or not, than I ever was in what it might imply about the Book of Mormon if it was there.

  38. On chiasmus. Jeff has a lot of older entries in this blog that deal with this topic. There are many publications that address this. Here is what Jeff knows, and what Orbiting Kolob may know or should know, and what Anglin can easily know (in fact, there is an important paper by two brothers who are physicists on chiasmus in the BofM that Jeff has referenced, probably more than once).

    1. There are at least four compact chiastic passages in the BofM that are not simple (with more than three levels, and some with added complexity/intricacy).
    2. There is a multi-level blasphemer chiasm in Leviticus.
    3. There were a couple of scholarly English books (one multi-volume) in the 1820s that had some poor to good examples of short biblical chiasmus buried in their pages (Jebb and Boys).
    4. It was unlikely that Smith was consciously aware of complex chiasmus from reading the KJV, just as the typical reader is unaware of it today.
    5. It was highly unlikely that Smith read about chiasmus in Jebb and Boys.
    6. It is highly likely that 4 or more chiastic passages in the BofM were intentionally, consciously produced (see physicists' paper).
    7. Hence it is highly unlikely to extremely unlikely that Smith was capable of producing, out of his own mind (as author), the four or more complex chiastic passages in the BofM in a steady dictation.

    Therefore, what OK wrote immediately above about chiasmus is misleading.

    Number one in the above list disregards Alma 36. The other passages are such that it is disingenuous to off-handedly ascribe them to the authorship of Joseph Smith. They then support the view that Alma 36 may indeed be a legitimate, if sometimes diffuse, chiastic passage.

  39. On a brief perusal of a map. OK knows the difference between recognition and recall. He ascribes recall powers and even more to Smith when all we have to do today is recognize correspondence, with the world at our fingertips. Smith would have had to do recall matching of geographical fine points presumably gleaned from a map in order to make the interlocking details of 1 Nephi work as they do. Plus, the map does not have many of the details that were needed to make the narrative match the Arabian peninsula to the level that it does — the map was not the territory, and could not have been the territory. Hence, a brief perusal of a map would not have been sufficient. Naturalistically speaking, study of a map would have been needed, and more information beyond a map would have been needed as well. All of that was inaccessible to Smith and his scribes.

  40. On Orbiting Kolob's misrepresentation of "did" syntax in the Book of Mormon and in the King James Bible. The KJB itself, because the usage was so low in the 1611 text, sped the demise of 16c non-emphatic past-tense did syntax in English. Ellegard in 1953 estimated the usage in the KJB to be 1.3%. The usage in nonbiblical parts of the BofM is about 30%. Thousands of cases. A massively significant difference. Interestingly, some books of the period have 50% usage so the BofM rate cannot be viewed as extreme or impossible. That is hardly all. Ellegard also noted the syntactic breakdown of the use and charted it in his ground-breaking thesis/book. Rates and breakdown are simple to calculate, if tedious. The BofM matches 16c averages in this regard exclusively, and is markedly different from the KJB. Moreover, individual verb rates correlate well with the period. A three-level match, at a minimum — there are other features that line up. This points to authorship that involved implicit knowledge, whose fine points even a philologist might not have known.

    OK references a sharpshooter fallacy. It is a weak point because there are hundreds of items found in the BofM, in diverse domains, that match the earlier period well, and do not match the modern period well. Statistically speaking, the hundreds of matches create a vanishingly low p-value that can easily overcome any reasonable number one wants to claim as an offsetting factor for the fallacy. Orbitational, just as many others before him, deems himself to be qualified, without special study, to make definitive pronouncements on matters he knows very little about. All the points he makes immediately above must be rejected by the reasonable.

  41. Wunderli mentions this analysis by the two physics guys, at least for Alma 36. He points out that their theory involves a sort of textual gerrymandering. They pick and choose where to draw boundaries between sections. This has a huge effect on their results, supposedly, but is not taken into account in their analysis. I'd have to look at it more carefully to be sure, but the suggestion is definitely worrisome. This kind of error can easily turn an impressive 98% chance of intentionality into no evidence at all. Really — that high chance comes from compounding over many data points, and so if all the individual chances have to be revised, the total effect can be huge.