“Under This Head Ye Are Made Free”

One of many recent discoveries regarding ancient wordplays in the Book of Mormon is presented by Matthew L. Bowen in “The Scalp of Your Head: Polysemy in Alma 44:14–18,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 20 (2016): 39-45. He treats a couple examples where Semitic wordplays involving concepts like “head” and “chief” appear to have been used for additional effect in the Book of Mormon.

According to Bowen:

Alma 44:12–14 recounts a prophetic threat
uttered by “one of Moroni’s soldiers” to the defeated Lamanite leader
Zerahemnah and his soldiers after Moroni’s soldier had taken off a part
of Zerahemnah’s scalp with his sword. His soldier’s prophecy and its
reported fulfilment verses later in Alma 44:18 turn on the words “chief”
and “head.” Both “head” in the anatomical sense and “head”/“chief” in a
sociological leadership [Page 40]sense are represented by a single word in Hebrew (ʾš)1 and Egyptian (tp),2 both languages that the Nephites themselves said they used.3

In this brief note, I propose that the intensity of the fear aroused
in the Lamanite soldiers and the intensity of Zerahemnah’s redoubled
anger are best explained by the polysemy (i.e., the range of meaning) of
a single word translated “chief” in Alma 44:14 and “heads” in Alma
44:18. Mormon’s use of the latter term in Alma 44:18 completes the
fulfilment of the soldier’s prophecy, a polysemic wordplay initiated
with his use of a term translated “chief” in Alma 44:14.

In response, I offered this comment to Matthew:

The “head” under which we are made free
in Mosiah 5:8 always seemed like an odd phrase to me. Understanding its
apparent Semitic roots is now quite helpful.

Mosiah 5:

7 And now, because of the covenant which ye have made ye shall be
called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold,
this day he hath spiritually begotten you; for ye say that your hearts
are changed through faith on his name; therefore, ye are born of him and
have become his sons and his daughters.

8 And under this head ye are made free, and there is no other head
whereby ye can be made free. There is no other name given whereby
salvation cometh; therefore, I would that ye should take upon you the
name of Christ, all you that have entered into the covenant with God
that ye should be obedient unto the end of your lives.

Bowen then responded:

I agree that it is helpful to see Mosiah 5:7-8 in terms of Helaman
13:38, as well as the polysemy of Alma 44:14-18. And I wonder if there
might be even more to this.

 Helaman 13:38, mentioned by Bowen, gives a title of Jesus as “our great and eternal head.”

I thought of Bowen’s closing words, “I wonder if there
might be even more to this,” this morning as I was reading Brant Gardner’s excellent book, Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2015), pp. 270-271, where Gardner discusses the Mesoamerican tradition of kings representing deity in ritual settings that often involve wearing a mask of the head of a god:

The living Mesoamerican king became, in ritual circumstances, the living
and present deity. There were rituals where the king not only put on
the mask of deity but, for ritual time and in ritual space, became that
deity—commonly called god impersonation or “deity concurrence.” In
deity concurrence, a ritual specialist, typically the ruler, puts on an
engraved mask or elaborate headdress and transforms himself into the god
whose mask or headdress is being worn. There is a glyphic formula that
essentially says, “His holy image (u-b’aah-il), [that of] God X, [is upon] Ruler Y.” The Maya used the head metaphorically as a
mark of individuality, and it stood as a representation of the whole
body. In their minds, they were not playacting—they would actually
become that god, acting as he would act and performing the godly duties
pertaining to that particular deity. As Houston, Stuart, and Taube
state, “There is no evident ‘fiction,’ but there is, apparently, a
belief in godly immanence and transubstantiation, of specific people who
become, in special moments, figures from sacred legend and the Maya
pantheon.” There are many situations where deity concurrence takes
place and a wide variety of deities are impersonated, such as wind gods,
gods of incense burning, gods of ball playing, even major gods such as
the sun god or the supreme creator deity, Itzamnaaj.50 This practice
goes back to the Formative period (1500 B.C.–A.D. 200), as cave
paintings in Oxtotitlan dating to the eighth century B.C. attest.51
Against that context, Alma’s question “Have you received his image in
your countenances?” (Alma 5:14)
and its rhetorical companion, “Can you look up, having the image of God
[Jehovah] engraven upon your countenances?” (v. 19), become highly
nuanced. Alma may have been referencing a concept that he expected his listeners to understand and
attempted to shift that understanding into a more appropriate gospel
context. The masks and headdresses that deity impersonators wore were
literally graven; numerous ancient Maya ceramics depict artists in the
act of carving them. [footnotes omitted]

Coming back to King Benjamin’s speech, note the double use of head: “And under this head ye are made free, and there is no other head
whereby ye can be made free.” Christ is the head that frees us, and there were apparently competing “heads” that Mosiah warns against, for none of those other heads have power to save.

While the Hebrew and Egyptian use of the word “head” seems similar to the range of meanings we give it in English, in my vernacular at least, “head” feels like it should be followed by “of,” as in “head of the Church,” “head of our faith,” etc. To speak of Christ simply as “our head” or “the head” feels odd to me. I’d rather say “our leader” or use some other noun. But if King Benjamin is speaking from the perspective of a culture in Mesoamerica, familiar with kings who represent and act as gods by placing the mask of a god’s head upon their head, then this phrase seems more meaningful and natural. 

There are numerous examples in Gardner’s work where considering  Mesoamerican culture adds insights and depth to the Book of Mormon text. It seems like there is always more than meets the eye in the Book of Mormon.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

96 thoughts on ““Under This Head Ye Are Made Free”

  1. It seems like there is always more than meets the eye in the Book of Mormon.

    Agreed. And different things every time I read it!

  2. To speak of Christ simply as "our head" or "the head" feels odd to me. I'd rather say "our leader" or use some other noun.

    "We are in Christ Jesus, members of him, our blessed Head…."

    A Spiritual Treasury for the Children of God, by William Mason. New York. 1822

    "Having thus set forth the advantages of which the converts he addresses had become partakers, and the union of Jew and Gentile into one church, under one Head."

    A Sermon Preached at the Visitation of the Lord Bishop of London on Tuesday July 14th, 1818. By J. B. Hollingworth.

    "Is the congregation of all the faithful under Christ Jesus the invisible Head…."

    Summary of the History of the English Church, by Johnson Grant, 1811.

    "under this head" shows up a lot in writings between 1750 and 1820. It was a common expression, not always used in relation to Christ, but as you can see above, sometimes it was.

  3. Kinda new here, but was curious, isn't there a scripture about Christ being the Chief Cornerstone or something like that? Be a cool word play to be Head Cornerstone.

  4. Everything, thanks for the helpful research. There is also Acts 4:11, where the stone (Christ) has "become the head of the corner" (or chief cornerstone, cf. 1 Peter 2:7) and 1 Cor. 11:3: "The head of everyman is Christ … and the head of Christ is God" (which BTW reminds us that Christ and God are two distinct Beings). And there is Ephesians 4:15, "the head, even Christ." Ephesians 5:23 has "Christ is the head of the church" (cf. Col. 1:18). Col. 2:19 refers to Christ as "the Head."

    Even with all that support for Christ as Head in the translation of the Book of Mormon, "under this head" still struck me as a bit odd. But searching through books and documents before 1830 shows that the phrase does occur, including in Early Modern English, just FYI.

    One interesting example is The Whole Duty of Man laid down in a plain way for the use of the meanest reader … With Private Devotions published by T. Garthwait, 1664. The Google Books link to it was found by searching for "under this head," but Google does not offer the full text. Archive.org has an 1821 reprinting, with an preface "To the Bookseller" dated March 7, 1657 (p. iv) from H. Hammond, whom I suppose was the author or compiler.

    In The Whole Duty, the phrase "under this head" occurs in a section talking about theft: "Under this head of Theft may be ranked the receivers of stolen goods…." So here we have "head of", not just "head."

    Other examples of the use of "head" include "Christ our Head" (p. 77) and a reference to Christ as Mary's "blessed Lord and Head" (p. 446). "Thou art the Head" (p. 452). There are also many examples in which "head" is used to describe the topic of discussion, followed by "of." Thus we have "the head of duty" (p. 125 and again on p. 192), "the head of humility" (p. 139), "the head of concealment" (p. 228), "the head of prayer" (p. 308), "the head of justice" (p. 351). The author speaks of "the head of a whole troop of sins" (p. 358), where "head" has the role of "chief."

    So yes, the Book of Mormon usage of the word is consistent with the translation of the Book of Mormon into modern English drawing upon KJV English / Early Modern English, as it should be in most cases. But the context of those words still resonate with Mesoamerican issues (e.g., the image of God engraved upon one's countenance as discussed in Bowen's article, and the relationship to being "under" a head that makes you free).

  5. I think trying to make a link to a pagan Mayan ritual is a bit of a stretch. More likely and consistent is its comparable use in Genesis:

    Genesis 4:5
    5 But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.

    6 And the Lord said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen?

    Genesis 31:2
    2 And Jacob beheld the countenance of Laban, and, behold, it was not toward him as before.

    Genesis 31:5
    5 And said unto them, I see your father’s countenance, that it is not toward me as before; but the God of my father hath been with me.

  6. "Really grasping" for what, do you suppose?

    All Jeff is doing here is trying to "add insights and depth" to our understanding, or at least appreciation, of the scriptures. He is not trying to "prove" anything. Use of the word "grasping" would connote some kind of desperation to accomplish something. I do not see any evidence of that at all.

  7. 1626, Nicholas Byfield
    And so we are brethren with the Angels, as they also are joined under this head Christ Jesus.

  8. Jeff;

    I think you did an excellent job connecting Bowen's wordplay of "head" and "chief" with Gardner's Mesoamerican setting from his Book of Mormon as History book.

  9. The relationship between Cain and countenance does not account for the highly interested use of "engraven" to describe one's countenance in the Book of Mormon. That was a key point in Bowen's article.

  10. Given the traditional Israelite reaction to those who worship using graven images, "building on common beliefs" in this situation seems like it would be atypical:

    Exodus 20:4
    4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth:

    Deuteronomy 7:25
    25 The graven images of their gods shall ye burn with fire: thou shalt not desire the silver or gold that is on them, nor take it unto thee, lest thou be snared therein: for it is an abomination to the Lord thy God.

    Deuteronomy 12:3
    3 And ye shall overthrow their altars, and break their pillars, and burn their groves with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods, and destroy the names of them out of that place.

    Deuteronomy 27:15
    15 Cursed be the man that maketh any graven or molten image, an abomination unto the Lord, the work of the hands of the craftsman, and putteth it in a secret place. And all the people shall answer and say, Amen.

    More likely is its biblical usage:

    Exodus 32:16
    16 And the tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables.

    Exodus 28:9
    9 And thou shalt take two onyx stones, and grave on them the names of the children of Israel:

    Exodus 28:36
    36 ¶And thou shalt make a plate of pure gold, and grave upon it, like the engravings of a signet, Holiness to the Lord.

    Isaiah 49:16
    16 Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me.

    Jeremiah 17:1
    1 The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron, and with the point of a diamond: it is graven upon the table of their heart, and upon the horns of your altars;

  11. Is the wordplay in question here just the fact that "head" can mean both bodily head and chief or leader? If so, I can see the wordplay; but I don't see how it's specifically Semitic. The same double meaning exists in English, both now and in Joseph Smith's time.

    I'm not even clear how it makes one appreciate the text more to learn that a familiar English pun also existed in Hebrew and Egyptian. We already got all the wordplay, as English wordplay. What does it add, to add Hebrew?

  12. If I understand the gist of Jeff's post correctly, it is not only the wordplay that is significant, but the surrounding cultural influences of the time that may have imbued the words with more meaning than we might currently appreciate in our day and time.

  13. There is no clear evidence that the Mayan people were ever performing Law of Moses rituals. They were building pyramidal structures for worshipping false gods, like the sun or the moon.

    I laugh when I see Arnold Friberg's representation of Christ descending upon the temple in Bountiful. He shows Jesus showing up at, and therefore putting his seal of approval upon, a Sumerian-style temple high upon a ziggurat. The temple of a group of Jews would not have been constructed in this fashion.

    Alma, if he even did exist, would not have been referencing pagan rituals in order to prove his point. It would be like a Mormon priesthood leader referencing Satanic rituals to prove his point.


  14. So, then, EBU, you must agree that the biblical reference to baptisms for the dead referenced by Paul must have had some merit, simply because he referenced them, right?

  15. Only if you'll agree that Mayan rituals had some merit because Alma referenced them.

    It is a very human thing to make weak arguments from time to time. Paul has his moments.

  16. How convenient of you to say so.

    What I get from you is that as long as you agree with a particular statement by whoever, they must be right. But if you don't agree, then at best they were just having a "humanly weak" moment. Unless you really don't like them, then they were being downright evil and deceitful.

    I don't suppose Jesus ever used mundane, earthly things to teach eternal truths, did He?

  17. I don't think you understand my meaning. If when Paul mentions baptisms for the dead, and actually removes himself from the practice and those who practice it by using the pronoun "they" rather than "we," then this verse can be used by you to show that Paul supports baptisms for the dead, then I suppose it is safe to assume that since Alma may be referencing pagan, non-Jewish rituals to make his own point, then Alma was in support of these pagan, non-Jewish rituals, and practiced them himself.

  18. Bearyb,

    As long as I feel I am right, then those who agree with me will be perceived by me to be right. I accept the fact that we may both be wrong together. If I don't agree with someone, than either I or that person is having a humanly weak moment. Or one of us in error. If I really don't like someone, then yes…it may be because I perceive that person to be downright evil and deceitful.

    Jesus did use mundane earthy things to teach eternal truths. That is different from misleading others to believe you endorse a ritual that you do not, or a doctrine that you do not. Pretending to be God, like the Mayans did, is quite different from talking about agricultural practices. I'm sure you realize this.

  19. Jeff says in his post that he thinks the Hebrew wordplay works better than the English because in English he expects "head" to mean "leader" only in "head of" constructions, like "head of department", "head of sales". But I think I've heard "department head", and even "our head" (meaning our boss). Those might be more British uses; but they might well have been current in 1830s New England. I think the value added by the Hebrew connection seems slight at best, here.

    Apart from "heads" referring to both leaders and body parts, the other idea is about the image of God being in people's countenances, or even engraved on people's countenances. Was this somehow a reference to Mayan religious masks? I rather agree with the suggestion from EBU, that it seems out of character for a Judaeo-Christian prophet to use pagan practices even as a metaphor.

    What I could perhaps instead imagine, though, is that the reference to Mayan masks was not a similarity but a contrast. The pagans engraved divine images on masks which they wore over their real faces, but the real God's image is to be expressed (somehow) in the faces themselves. This might in principle be a significant point, which would be in line with Jesus's own frequent contrasting between outward appearance and inward reality.

    On the other hand, if Alma were really trying to draw such a contrast, it really seems to me that he could have done it much better by making it explicitly, and saying something like, "have you received his image, not in an outward mask which ye put on and take off as the Gentiles do with their idols, but in the very flesh of your own countenances?" If that was what he meant to imply, then I can't see any reason not to hammer the point explicitly like that. It would be a good point vividly made. So why leave it as an implicit contrast which has to be read into the text from outside it?

    Convinced Mormons may well feel compelled by archaeological evidence to assume a larger pagan culture which surrounded the Book of Mormon people. These Mormon folks may well then be edified by considering Alma's words to have included an implicit contrast with Mayan masks. For non-Mormons, however, the allusion seems far-fetched, because the Book of Mormon just doesn't mention all these surrounding Mayan pagans. And that's pretty weird.

    If the Mayans were there, swinging their obsidian-studded club-swords and using tapirs and deer to pull chariots, why doesn't the Book of Mormon ever mention them directly? If Mayan culture was so familiar to Alma's audience that he didn't even have to mention pagan masks explicitly for people to get the contrast, why don't any Book of Mormon people travel between Mayan cities and Zarahemla? If the Mayan cities were inaccessible because of jungle and mountains, then none of their cultural memes could have been familiar to Nephites and Lamanites. There was no Netflix back then.