The Scholarly Mantle

I’ve been thinking lately about the ethics and abuses of the scholarly mantle. As someone who aspires to produce scholarship of worth to my own community and the larger world, I highly value being honest and candid about what I claim to know or do not know, and when I endeavor to advance a definite historical claim I try to be as well informed as reasonably possible, always making sure to get a handle on the full gamut of relevant evidence, even if this process may complicate my working hypothesis or require me to dispense with certain preconceived notions, to seek out alternative discussions or perspectives, realizing that for my argument to become what I want it to be it must be sharpened against the best scholarship available. That, to me, is what it means to be a scholar, to pursue truth and fair-mindedness regardless of personal prejudice or presupposition.

So it really irritates me when I see individuals clothe themselves in the mantle of scholarship as though they were reliable sources of information to write or publish on subjects for popular consumption and at the same time strenuously avoid engaging with credible scholarly analyses or readings of the evidence that would significantly complicate or undermine their point of view. The refusal to acknowledge contrary arguments and the lack of interest in trying to fairly evaluate them is really stunning and bespeaks the overriding importance of devotional concerns in determining what propositions may be considered true or worthwhile. But scholarship it is not, rather the pretense to scholarly authority.

Historical events as the basis of religious belief

I thought this was a nice quote relevant to the perils of choosing history as the site for the disclosure of divine purpose and will:

“Von Rad also made the point, perhaps better than Noth, that the method of Albright and his students, which led to what was known as the ‘biblical theology movement’ (articulated especially by G. Ernest Wright, 1960; see von Rad 1961 for a rejoinder) prioritized the historical events as the basis of religious belief, valuing the biblical story as a testimony to the demonstration of the divine purpose in history, was theologically dangerous. It meant that any biblical texts proving to be unhistorical were left without a function and devoid of religious value. But on the contrary, as Christian scripture, it is the biblical tradition, and not the facts behind it, that should possess authority for the believer.”

Philip R. Davies, The History of Ancient Israel: A Guide for the Perplexed

YHWH and his asherah

For those interested, I have posted an updated version of an article on the meaning of asherah in the inscriptions from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom on my personal website.


The meaning of asherah in the inscriptions from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom has been a focus of persistent discussion and debate, and still today the divergence in scholarly views is wide-ranging. The present paper aims to critically assess previous scholarship by examining each of the major proposals that have been made for elucidating the term and in the process advance a new understanding that is not only less problematic than current alternatives but historically more plausible given our present knowledge of the cultural and historical context of ancient Israel-Judah. Because asherah likely refers to a female deity and yet the designation is declined with a pronominal suffix, I propose that the term is a hitherto unattested common noun denoting YHWH’s female partner and that the goddess is to be distinguished from the goddess Asherah.

Review of Brant A. Gardner, Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History


I finally found time over the holidays to read Brant Gardner’s Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History, which he describes as an attempt to read the BoM “in history and as history” (p. 52). Publicized as the state of the art in BoM apologetics, I was curious to see what Gardner had to say about BoM historicity. As a part-time student of the historicity debates myself, I have written a number of articles here at FPR that explore the narrative as a 19th century product of the fecund imagination of Joseph Smith. I wondered if Gardner truly had something innovative or constructive to offer to the Mormon Studies community.


As is well known, the meaning of texts is created primarily in the minds of readers. Meaning is not inherent to text, but lies latent within it and can only be accessed to the degree that we have background knowledge relevant to the communicative context (for Gardner, the “unstated context”). As a consequence, the historical and cultural framework we use to decode texts can have a decisive impact in shaping our acts of reading and interpretation. Much of the discussion and debate in critical study of the Bible in fact revolves around discerning the historical, cultural, and ideological contexts that are most productive for explaining individual traditions and texts, for example, whether to read Deuteronomy, the story of Abraham, or the Deuteronomistic History in light of a late monarchic (Judahite) or Persian colonial (Judean) setting.


This of course applies to the BoM as well. If we start from a premise that the BoM narrative stems from an authentic ancient source, then this will influence how we read and evaluate virtually every word of the text. Whereas the premise of a 19th century origin will lead to an entirely different hermeneutic that correlates ideas, motifs, themes, and figures to the intentions and thought-world of Joseph Smith.


So first to the strengths of Traditions of the Fathers:


1) The discussion as a whole is succinctly synthetic and shows broad knowledge of contemporary BoM apologetic scholarship. ToF could easily be used as a handy introduction and up-to-date guide to key issues in BoM historicity from a perspective broadly consistent with the BYU/FARMS/Interpreter school of thought.


2) Gardner adopts a moderately critical stance in his engagement with previous apologetic work. He devotes significant attention to rebutting some of the old favorite “proofs” of the BoM, such as the famous Tree of Life stone and the association of Quetzalcoatl with Jesus Christ, and selectively incorporates and adapts insights from the work of John Sorenson.


3) The first two chapters are valuable for situating Gardner’s approach to reading the BoM vis-à-vis previous apologetic and critical readings. Especially to be commended is his theoretical discussion identifying the possible analytical layers of the BoM (composition vs. translation) and articulating methodological principles for evaluating comparative parallels.


4) Gardner displays a high degree of familiarity with the field of Mesoamerican studies, which shows he has done his homework at least with respect to this area of scholarship. The description and discussion of Mesoamerican culture and history is stimulating and useful in itself.


5) Although I don’t often agree with Gardner’s approach to resolving discrepancies between the BoM and material history, he often forthrightly acknowledges places where the narrative presents a less than plausible account or contains apparent anachronism.


6) ToF’s stated aim to speak to a broader intellectual audience than convinced believers alone is laudable. Too often BoM scholarship has been confined to an echo chamber, preaching to the choir as it were, unaware of the bodies of knowledge and methodologies that would cause non-believers to read the BoM differently. Gardner’s tone is sober and fair minded, largely eschewing polemic.


So how well does Gardner succeed at situating the BoM in a plausible real world setting? From reading Gardner himself, he seems to think that the network of correspondences he finds between the BoM and Mesoamerican geography, politics, and culture establish a firm foundation for historicity or at least make a case for the respectability of the hypothesis. I however was not convinced and am doubtful others dedicated to critical study of the BoM will find his reconstruction of a Mesoamerican setting convincing either.


As is so often the case with apologetic scholarship, the basic problem with ToF is methodological. Gardner assumes the premise of historicity and then asks whether it is possible to read the BoM in a real world setting, which results in him narrowing the focus of inquiry down to Mesoamerica. Upon finding numerous ways that the events and people of the BoM can be made intelligible in a Mesoamerican context, he then concludes that the pattern of correspondences demonstrate the plausibility of the BoM.


Yet this is a classic case of begging the question. Although Gardner believes he has produced a historically grounded argument lending credibility to the BoM as an ancient artifact (“The hypothesis of historicity stands on firm evidentiary grounds,” p 409), in fact he has not. He has only described a possible world where the BoM could have taken place if we were assured of the premise of historicity. In other words, Gardner’s argument is not actually historical, but a speculative and apologetic one. He has not established the premise, which as we discussed above has far reaching implications for how one reads and evaluates the informational detail provided in the text. The danger in this case is reading detail into the text and extracting far more historical information than is actually there.


In the critical study of ancient texts, there is a well accepted inductive procedure for determining the appropriate context in which a particular (undated/disputed) text should be explicated. First one examines a text for any major details or information that would allow her/him to establish analytical anchors or beachheads that point to the temporal frame in which it originated, including a terminus a quo (earliest possible date) and terminus ad quem (the latest possible date). Then he/she investigates whether the preponderance of detail supports any particular historical setting. Finally, the rest of the text is examined to see whether the remaining material can be fruitfully interpreted in light of that forechosen setting.


In the case of the BoM, this would require a neutral analysis of the content (e.g. ideas, themes, vocabulary, names, historical references, literary forms etc) to see how the stated claims of the book correlate with our current knowledge of extant history and whether the preponderance of evidence favors one particular setting over another. In order to be confident we are not simply reading the BoM into a particular time and place (eisegesis), we would have to first establish some analytical anchors that would justify such a historical reading.


However, from my vantage point we lack any such anchors that could be used to establish the premise of ancient historicity. There is no clustering of diagnostic features such as linguistic, historical, cultural, or geographical details that betray authentic Old or New World backgrounds, e.g. Hebrew proper names, Israelite religious concepts and practices, references to authentic historical places and peoples, etc. In my analysis of Nahom, long considered to be one of the strongest pieces of data supporting the argument for historicity, I found that the place name does not show evidence of ancient authorship but more likely arose through the use of a modern map. Whereas a whole range of theological concepts (Trinitarian theology, infinite atonement, millenarian eschatology etc.), thematic material (priestcraft, secret combinations, interest in Jews and their restoration to Palestine, the Indians as Jews etc.), anachronisms, biblical adaptation and quotation, pseudo-biblical literary form, and historical and political references (Columbus, American revolution, Indian removal, Joseph Smith, and events surrounding the production of the BoM etc) strongly indicate an origin in the early 19th century.


Gardner rightly notes that many traditions in the Bible developed over time, are multilayered, and cannot be dated simply from the latest elements found in them, and so by analogy we cannot assume a priori that 19th century elements in the BoM represent a terminus a quo for the composition of the narrative (p. 30-31). But what he fails to recognize is that the situation with regard to the Bible is vastly different from the BoM. In the case of the Bible, scholars have developed sophisticated methods for reconstructing literary development and often the evidence for distinguishing between early and later elements in a text tradition is clear and demonstrable (literary-critical and sometimes even text-critical). In other words, we don’t postulate distinct compositional layers simply because it’s the way ancient texts work, but because we actually have evidence for this layering. If Gardner or anyone else is capable of showing that at least part of the BoM text necessitates the assumption of an ancient terminus ad quem, then he is welcome to do so. But absent that Gardner’s project of correlating the BoM with Mesoamerica only rises to the level of hypothetically interesting and imaginative, but history it is not and nor should be regarded as such.


In sum, Gardner’s ToF sketches his novel approach to the question of BoM historicity and as such represents a modest contribution to advancing the apologetic discussion in both substance and tone. For many LDS seeking confirmation for their belief in the BoM, reading ToF will be both stimulating and challenging. But unfortunately outside of that rather limited and limiting purview, I don’t see ToF achieving any broader resonance or influence, as the book is plagued by problems arising from Gardner’s lack of expertise in the relevant disciplines and fields of study (e.g. Hebrew Bible, New Testament, Israelite/Jewish religion, literary and historical criticism, 19th century American religion, etc). In some ways, ToF is actually a step backward for the LDS community in failing to help people grapple with the increasingly large body of evidence that the BoM did not have an ancient origin. Gardner tinkers with the translation process as a means of holding on to an interpretive paradigm that is quickly becoming brittle and incapable of accounting for all the data. As a consequence, I can only agree with Gardner himself when he observes, “In many ways, the greatest obstacle to understanding Book of Mormon historicity has been our own amateur theories and theorists” (p. 41).


For the remainder of the review, I will confine my comments to specific points or issues raised as they are encountered in the book:


1) I found Gardner’s decision to render the name of the Nephite God Yahweh rather jarring, as this divine name is never used in the BoM: Lord, Lord God, Eternal Father, Jehovah, but not Yahweh.


2) The emphasis on the binary between taking the BoM as real history vs. historical fraud (p. xvii-xix) seems to prejudice the argument from the get-go and load the discussion with heightened theological significance. If so much is riding on the question, then is it even possible to adopt a critical and open-minded approach to the evidence?


3) The claim that the BoM diverges from the common expectations of Joseph Smith’s religious environment because its peoples do not derive from the ten lost tribes is, in my opinion, a case of missing the forest for the trees (p. 7). According to the BoM, Native American peoples are still Jews or Israelite (e.g., 1 Ne 15). Moreover, while the main families of the BoM come from Jerusalem rather than northern Israel, Lehi is said to descend from Joseph through Manasseh, a northern tribe (Alma 10:3). In any case, the Nephites and Lamanites are “lost” per the BoM’s own definition, i.e. “lost from the knowledge of those who are at Jerusalem” (1 Ne 22:4), and their fate is frequently linked to the lost tribes myth (3 Ne 15:15). The fact that popular “academic” evidences for identifying Native Americans with Hebrews are absent from the BoM is beside the point, since the author of the BoM appears to have been engaged in a very different kind of mythmaking project.


4) Gardner assumes that the BoM was produced through a fairly conventional translational process, ie. a human translator making lexical choices in order to render a source text intelligible in his culture (p. 32-35), albeit through a process of revelation. But this theory is problematic in a number of respects. Given that Joseph Smith had absolutely no knowledge of Nephite Egyptian and Hebrew or the relevant cultural background, there is simply no way that he could have engaged in such a cognitive process. He was not in a position to make choices of interpretation in reproducing a textual source, but would have been utterly reliant on a divine source to render it for him. In view of this, it is not really all that surprising that Smith seems to have claimed he read complete words in the seerstone. In addition, it strains credulity to think that a complex narrative such as the BoM could have been transmitted through something as vague, abstract, and affective as pre-language mentalese. Finally, Gardner himself acknowledges that a theory of functionalist equivalency is inadequate to explain the BoM as a whole, which in my mind effectively undermines its heuristic value. It seems rather dubious and ad hoc to resort to the assumption of translational interpolation primarily when confronted with clear anachronism and modern authorship (p. 34).


5) I agree with Gardner that discussion of parallels without methodological controls is problematic, but his abrupt dismissal of conceptual, generic, and motifal links between the BoM and the Late War seems overly dogmatic. The example of terminological correlations between the BoM and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is hardly compelling, since most of these are very common biblical or Protestant phrases (p. 44-46).


6) As far as I can tell, Gardner never attempts to resolve the tension between a deep predisposed spiritual witness that the BoM is historical and the need to investigate the evidentiary foundations of this claim. At times he says the right things and evinces the attitude of a real historian (“Understanding the Book of Mormon as history will come only examining it as a historical record finds the same kinds of evidence for historicity that might be expected of other historical records”, p 25), but then returns to a posture of religious certitude and faith in the ultimate outcome (p. 53). If the purpose of material investigation is merely to confirm a religious presupposition, then is it possible to adopt a truly critical and open-minded approach?


7) A definite weakness is Gardner’s lack of familiarity with contemporary scholarship of the Hebrew Bible and Israelite religion. He relies to a great degree on a smattering of conservative and mid-late 20th century authors, takes for granted historical reconstructions by particular writers that have not necessarily found broad acceptance in the field (e.g. Halpern), retells rather uncritically the history of pre-exilic Judah by borrowing and paraphrasing from the Bible, and fails to note obvious areas where the account of the BoM is unrealistic and presents a false and simplistic understanding of the events leading up to the final destruction of Judah, e.g. that Babylon had already taken control of Jerusalem and installed Zedekiah as a vassal puppet, that the reason why Judah experienced imperial degradation was because of the secular policies of its government and leaders and not because of any sins of the people, etc.


8) The claim that Lehi’s ancestors were among refugees who fled south from the Northern Kingdom is problematic (p. 66-67), as a number of clues within the narrative suggest that Lehi’s ancestral land of inheritance is near Jerusalem (e.g. 1 Ne 2:4). The portrayal of Lehi’s tribal origin thus seems to be muddled and ahistorical.


9) Gardner follows Jeffrey Chadwick in suggesting that Lehi was a metalsmith (p. 67). However, it is extremely unlikely that Lehi would have been a metalsmith, prophet, and scribe all rolled into one. In the ancient world metalsmithing was a craft profession largely separate from those involved in the scribal arts, and for Lehi to have written long complex autobiographical narratives he would have necessarily been a professional scribe of the highest level, i.e. in the employ of the state. Further, various evidence suggests that prophets during this period were a form of priest who had access to sacred areas of the temple. As temple (related) functionaries, they would have belonged to a group specializing in certain divinatory practices. That Lehi is portrayed as having gold and silver is better explained by the common belief among Bible readers of Joseph Smith’s time that the Jews of ancient Canaan had been blessed with great wealth in the land (cf. Isaiah 2:7).


10) The hypothesis that the sin of Judah decried by Lehi was a deemphasis on an atoning Messiah lacks evidence (p. 68-74). The BoM narrative itself claims that the reason the Jews would be destroyed was because of “wickedness and abominations” (1 Ne 1:19), language that suggests something other than alterations in cultic worship. Elsewhere in the BoM “wickedness” and “abominations” are associated with murder, robbery, intrigue, adultery, fornication, stiffneckedness, unbelief, and idolatry. There is also no indication in the text that Lehi protested against or was aware of Josiah’s reforms in any way, or conversely that Laman and Lemuel were pro-reform. The Messiah belief among Jews developed over a long period of time in the wake of the obsolescence of the royal Judahite dynasty, and Margaret Barker’s suggestion that the older religion of Israel would have taught about an earthly Messiah is based on problematical retrojections from much later New Testament material.


11) I have discussed the improbable and unrealistic nature of Lehi’s exodus from Jerusalem elsewhere (p. 77-117).


12) Gardner’s suggestion that the brass plates were a volume of scripture comparable to the Old Testament that originated in the Northern Kingdom is unfounded (p. 88-90). There is no evidence that the Northern Kingdom had such a volume and it certainly wouldn’t have been written on metal plates. The BoM portrayal of the brass plates presupposes the existence of a sacred canon of writings (preserved from the time of Moses and Joseph!), which is completely implausible for this period. The combination of the Pentateuch with the Deuteronomistic History and prophetic writings into a single codex occurred only much later in Jewish and Christian tradition.


13) The claim that knowledge of the goddess Asherah informed the transition in Nephi’s vision from the tree of life to the mother of the Messiah is unconvincing (p. 95-98). Asherah was indeed a goddess commonly worshiped in Judah and Israel (were Lehi’s family historical, they would almost certainly have worshipped her as well) and associated with sacred tree iconography, but neither Asherah nor any other goddess appears anywhere in the BoM, which itself is highly significant for situating the theology of the BoM. The tree of life symbol has long been associated with Jesus Christ in Christian thought and worship, so the transition from the tree of life to the birth of Jesus in the BoM is literarily comprehensible.


14) I found the chapter on BoM geography (p. 119-50) among the most unsatisfying in the book, since Gardner simply assumes the validity of the Mesoamerican model proposed by John Sorenson, ignores major problems with the limited geography theory based on an internal reading of the BoM itself, and then spends 21 pages discussing why “north,” “south,” “east,” and “west” in the BoM do not correspond to their Western cardinal counterparts. To a great degree, Sorenson’s model is based on a few reports of travel distances and related inferences about the locations of cities, which taken as realistic and internally harmonious imply that the world inhabited by Nephites, Lamanites, and Jaredites was no more than six hundred kilometers across. However, I have already shown elsewhere that the reports of travel distances for Lehi in the Old World are unrealistic and manufactured, using only a few days to account for what would in reality have been a much longer journey and the descriptor “many days” for exceptionally long distances (c. 800-1000 km). So I don’t think we have good grounds for treating the occasional one-off travel report in the New World as any more reliable. Other major problems with the Sorenson-Gardner model include the identification of “the narrow neck of land” with the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and the skewing of the directional template so that north and south are actually northwest and southeast. The more circumscribed and local BoM geography becomes, the more the Isthmus of Tehuantepec appears nothing like a “narrow neck of land,” regardless of whether it was humanly possible to cross the Isthmus in a day/day and half (Alma 22:32; Hel 4:7). How can this part of Mesoamerica be considered a “narrow neck” in relation to the land northward and southward if the distance across it is essentially equivalent to that separating Zarahemla from the land of Nephi? Does anyone living in this part of Mexico today regularly describe the region as a “narrow neck” linking the surrounding regions? With regard to the discrepancy between the Mesoamerican model of BoM geography and the Western cardinal directions, Gardner proposes that the Mesoamerican quadrant and solar-oriented system of directions explains why north is shifted to the west and south to the east. But this hypothesis faces a number of challenges. First, north, south, east, and west are used in the BoM as though they correspond to our “pure” cardinal directions. There is no particular emphasis on the east-west axis and directional variants of north and south appear just as frequently as east and west. Second, the few instances where an east-west axis is mentioned are oriented to the seas rather than the sun and follow a path from west to east (Hel 3:8; 4:7; 11:20; cf. 3 Ne 1:17), precisely opposite to the rising and setting sun. The language appears to have nothing to do with the sun or any mythological concept, but rather is used by the author to express spatial breadth across the promised land. Third, although Gardner has shown that Mesoamericans often had a more fluid or quadrant oriented directional system, he has not provided any evidence that they would consistently denominate a land lying very much to the west as northward and a land opposite on the east as southward (remember that the narrow neck in the BoM demarcates the boundary between the lands). If the east-west axis was conceptually as important as he claims, then it is far more likely these lands would have been thought of as west and east than north and south. Finally, there is a severe translational issue with the assumption that Joseph Smith used his own vocabulary to express the Mesoamerican directional system. If Smith was using functional equivalents for the directions that were revealed to him, then we would expect the English byproduct to more accurately correspond to the source language than to fundamentally transform its meaning. That is, a particular direction in the Mesoamerican system would find its appropriate equivalent in English, e.g. a direction “to the side of the sun to the west” would be reproduced as northwest, not simple north.

As a consequence, I do not recognize any convergence of evidence supporting the limited geography model of Sorenson-Gardner. Aside from there being well-known ancient civilizations who inhabited the area concurrent to the alleged historical frame of the BoM, the geographical layout does not fit. Incidentally, the identification of the Sidon river based on the story about the people of Limhi getting lost by following the wrong river is speculative in the extreme (p. 125-29). In such a small geographical limit, as defined by Gardner, with people whose lives depended on close attention to the landscape and interaction with others living in the area, I find it simply impossible to believe that the party would have mistaken the Usumacinta for the Grijalva, whose headwaters are only a short distance from one another.


On the other hand, a whole complex range of interrelated evidence supports the traditional hemispheric model as the one presumed by the author of the BoM. This includes the cosmic and universal scale on which much of the BoM narrative occurs (e.g. travel from the tower of Babel to North America, travel from Jerusalem to the southern tip of Arabia and then all the way to South America); the existence of an obvious narrow neck in relation to identifiable lands northward and southward; the presence of seas surrounding the lands on all sides (Hel 3:8), with no differentiation in the labeling of the western and eastern seas whether one is in the northern or southern lands (cf. Alma 22:27, 33; 50:8, 34; Hel 4:7; 11:20; Morm 4:3; Ether 2:13); the all encompassing language used to describe the BoM landscape: “the land of promise” (1 Ne 12:1, 4; 13:14; Ether 2:7; cf. Alma 46:17), as if it were a well-defined contiguous whole and not merely a portion of another land, with Nephites and Lamanites expanding to fill “the face of the whole earth” (Hel 3:8; even assuming a translation, the expression should be interpreted in line with the English usage of Joseph Smith’s day); a large prairie in the land northward that is bereft of timber (Hel 3:5-10); mammoth-sized lakes and much water and rivers in the land northward (Mosiah 8:8; Ether 15:8); the identification of the natives of North America as the descendents of the Nephites and Lamanites (1 Ne 12-13; 3 Ne 21); the identification of the land of the Jaredites as the future home of the New Jerusalem (Ether 13:2-10); the claim that the Jaredite nation represented the greatest nation on earth of its era (Ether 1:43); the description of both BoM lands and North America as “choice above all other lands” (1 Ne 2:20; 13:30; 2 Ne 1:5; 10:19; Jacob 5:43; Ether 1:38, 42), preserved for specific Old World peoples and then later Christian Gentiles of European extraction (1 Ne 13:12-30); the virtual certainty that Joseph Smith taught that the hill Cumorah was in New York and was the location for the destruction of the Nephite civilization, etc.


15) Gardner recognizes that if the account of Old World families landing in the New World were historical, they must have encountered larger indigenous populations already living there, intermixed with them, and experienced significant cultural borrowing and influence, and as a result he offers a number of clever readings of BoM passages to suggest that this was indeed the case (p. 154-58; 168-170). But the fact remains that nowhere in the BoM are these other archaeologically attested peoples ever mentioned by name and their possible existence is explicitly negated by claims that the land was kept in a pristine state reserved for specific peoples chosen by the Lord (2 Ne 1:6-9; Ether 2:7-8; 13:2). The whole reason for God changing the skin color of the Lamanites was to prevent the Nephites from intermixing with them and adopting incorrect traditions (Alma 3:8), implying that it was possible for the Nephites to maintain their basic monocultural integrity. In addition, it can hardly be coincidence that all the groups that play a role in the narrative are portrayed as originating in the biblical Old World. Its main characters and story-world are grafted onto and assume biblical historiography and myth. Finally, none of Gardner’s creative readings are necessitated by the text, but are eisegetical in character. The laconic, ancillary, and vaguely inclusive “all those who would go with me” (2 Ne 5:6) does not provide evidence of local residents allied with Nephi, but clearly performs a literary function of distinguishing those who followed Nephi from those who remained with Laman and Lemuel. The quick growth of the Lehites in the New World and the much larger population size of the Lamanites compared to the Nephites is indeed fanciful and unrealistic, but this only poses a problem under the assumption that the author of the BoM was trying to recount real history. In the world of myth, rapid proliferation and reproduction are easily achieved, especially considering that one of the primary aims of the BoM was to explain the origin of a transcontinental Native American population and narrative conflict often requires bad guys to outnumber the good guys. Lacking civilization, they breed like rodents.


16) The attempt to absolve the BoM of its racialist categorization of Nephites and Lamanites by their skin color reflects a posture of special pleading (p. 159-163). The evidence in my opinion is overwhelming that the author of the BoM understood the skin change of the Lamanites as literal, from fair-skinned to dark, and that this darkness was viewed as a curse (2 Ne 5:21; Jacob 3:5-9; Alma 3:6; 3 Ne 2:15; see also 1 Ne 12:23; Mormon 5:15). Contra Gardner, the distinction between dark and white skins does play a role in the narrative (Alma 3:6). The story about the Amlicites marking themselves with red paint on their foreheads only makes sense on the assumption that the Lamanites were dark-skinned. Through divine providence, the mark enabled the Nephites to distinguish themselves in battle from these rebellious former Nephites (Alma 3). The suggestion by Gardner that the story about a former Lamanite (Laman!) and several Nephites using wine to deceive Lamanite guards indicates that there was no obvious difference in skin color among them is not confirmed by a closer reading of the text. The narrative clearly states that the party went over to the guards at evening (Alma 55:8), and it is not difficult to imagine that the narrative envisioned Laman standing at the forefront, since he is the one whom the guards are said to see and interact with (“they saw him”). So it appears that the story presupposes that the identities of the Nephites behind Laman were more obscured in the dark and that Laman alone passed wine to the guards. In addition, Gardner mistakenly uses Joel 2:6 and Job 30:30 to support his metaphorical reading of black skin in the BoM. Hebrew pa’arur in Joel 2:6 most likely does not mean “blackness,” and the context of Job 30:30 has reference to skin becoming a burnt color (blackish-gray/red) and unhealthy as a result of sickness. Finally, the interpretation of white and dark as literal skin colors is to be preferred on contextual grounds. The author of the BoM wanted to be able to explain how Native Americans became dark-skinned from his white-centric perspective, a mark of divine displeasure comparable to African negroes, and the notion that there had once been a fair-skinned nation along with dark-skinned natives on the American continent was current in the world of Joseph Smith.


17) Gardner asserts that Nephi received scribal training in the Old World, but neglects to provide any real substantiation for this claim (p. 177-79). He quotes Ann Killebrew (following Herwig Wolfram) for a description of an ancient Near Eastern genre of ethnogenesis, a literary form with which Nephi is alleged to have been familiar. But on closer examination Killebrew is not referring to an ancient genre or literary form, but to ideological features common to the origin stories of many different cultures. The typological template (a primordial deed; a religious experience or change; and an ancient enemy that cements group cohesion) is so basic and reminiscent of van Gennep’s threefold structure of the rites of passage that it is virtually certain authors of different backgrounds could produce it spontaneously and unconsciously, including modern fantasy. In addition, because the BoM generally lionizes Nephi and recounts events that show him ascending to rule over his brothers does not constitute evidence that the books of Nephi function as political propaganda, no more than that the Pentateuch was developed to function as propaganda for Moses.


18) The impression from a synchronic reading of the BoM is that the technology for smelting iron was introduced to the New World by Old World groups (or independently discovered by the Jaredites) and that the use of metal or steel for the construction of swords became standard in the promised land (2 Ne 5:14-15; Jacob 1:10; Jarom 1:8; Omni 1:2, 10; Mosiah 8:11; 9:16; 11:3-8; Alma 24:12; Hel 6:9; Ether 7:9; 10:23). In the broader literary context, we have no reason to suppose that in later periods the material from which swords were constructed had changed, or that at some unspecified point a new meaning was imputed to the word “sword.” Yet undeterred by this literary evidence, Gardner argues that “Nephites used known Mesoamerican military weaponry [such as the macuahuitl] for most of their history” and that the use of metal swords would have been discontinued early on (p. 183).


19) The argument that the “absence of Old World Christian iconography is not evidence of the absence of Book of Mormon Christianity” (p. 195) is neither here nor there. The question is whether BoM Christianity is plausible as a historical phenomenon.


20) Gardner interprets Jacob’s condemnation of social stratification and polygamy with a backdrop of developing trade and local “aggrandizers” in early Mesoamerica (p. 202). But he fails to note that in Jacob’s explanation for his jeremiad nothing about trade is mentioned, nor does he explain how seeking for social advancement or wealth can be viewed as distinctly Mesoamerican. The sins of social stratification and polygamy are rather decoupled in the narrative and attributed to new and explicitly internal developments in Nephite society, namely the accumulation of silver and gold through mining efforts and desiring more wives on the basis of biblical precedent (Jacob 2:12-13; 23-24). The impetus to marry multiple wives is nowhere related to economic concerns, only sexual lust (Jacob 2:28; 3:12). In addition, the Lamanites are said to have maintained monogamous devotion to their wives in contrast to the Nephites (Jacob 2:35; 3:5). So if “Lamanite” is really an exonym for diverse Mesoamerican peoples per Gardner, then this would seem to suggest that the “aggrandizing” was confined only to the Nephites!


21) I see no reason to think that Jacob was removed from office as chief priest/teacher by Nephite rulers (p. 204). Rulers aren’t mentioned in the text, and while the “I bid you farewell” in Jacob 6:13 is a little unexpected, as the recording of a major valedictory address it seems passable, followed by other miscellaneous concluding material.


22) Gardner posits several narrative clues that Sherem was an outsider to the Nephites (p. 205-07), including the introduction, “there came a man among the people of Nephi” (Jacob 7:1), the detail that Sherem had to ask where to find Jacob, and Jacob’s comment that Sherem had “a perfect knowledge of the language” (Jacob 7:4). However, it seems more reasonable to assume that Sherem was a Nephite who lived in the immediate hinterland of the city, since the narrative fails to specify him as non-Nephite or Lamanite, though this kind of information would have crucially changed the dynamic of the narrative–a foreigner seeking to overthrow the Nephite religion. The phrase “there came a man among the people of Nephi” could easily be understood as a generic introduction to a story about a Nephite circulating a new religious ideology among the people. That he had a “perfect knowledge of the language” only tells us that he was very learned and articulate. Finally, he is portrayed as living among the people, repeatedly preaching to them and seeking an audience with Jacob (Jacob 7:2-3). He refers to Jacob as his “brother” (Jacob 7:6), accepts Nephite scripture and the law of Moses (Jacob 7:7), and is ultimately shown to be a true believer in Christ (Jacob 7:17).


23) Because Late PreClassic Maya had warfare (p. 209-11) or experienced population movements (p. 215) is hardly justification for correlating a particular historical period in the BoM with Mesoamerican archaeology.


24) Gardner explores the possibility that Mulek in the BoM may be either a biological son of Zedekiah or a royal official, whose identity is attested as “Malkiyahu son of the king” in Jer 38:6 and on a stamp seal (p. 217-20). However, this thesis faces several problems. First, I am aware of no evidence that MLK can function as a shortened form of Malkiyahu. This shortened form is not attested in the Bible or extant inscriptions, only the hypocoristic MLKY (malki), which is unrelated to mulk. The analogy with Baruch-Berekyahu does not hold, since Baruch and Berek reflect entirely different verbal elements and the two bullae that contain “Belonging to Berekyahu, son of Neriyahu, the scribe” (=Baruch) have been determined to be forgeries. Second, I see no compelling reason to doubt the biblical claim that all Zedekiah’s sons were killed by Nebuchadnezzar after the fall of Jerusalem. This momentous event is reported several times in the Bible and plays a significant role in Jeremiah’s prophecy to Zedekiah in Jer 38:17-23. After the slaughtering of Zedekiah’s sons and his exile to Babylon, Judean historical literature takes no more interest in him or his family, only the line of Jehoiachin (e.g. 2 Kgs 25:27-30). If a son of Zedekiah, and particularly an elder son, had survived Nebuchadnezzar’s extirpation of the royal house, then we can be certain that the biblical authors would have reported it, since the survival of an heir would have had rather dramatic implications for the future of the Davidic dynasty. Third, it is highly doubtful that a son of Zedekiah would have been able to escape the hands of Babylon after the fall of Jerusalem and even more dubious to suppose that he would have fled so far away to a place across the ocean. As a royal son, it would have made far more sense to go into hiding and remain relatively near his homeland so when the time was right and the fortunes of Babylon had changed he could advance his claim to the throne. On the other hand, Gardner’s suggestion that Mulek was a “son” in the sense of a royal official, which would explain why he survived the slaughter of Zedekiah’s children, seems out of the question. The BoM explicitly defines Mulek as a son of king Zedekiah (Hel 6:10) and associates him with the sons that were slain by Nebuchadnezzar (Hel 8:21). There is no literary basis for assuming that the BoM author understood him as anything less than a biological son. Jeffrey Chadwick, whom Gardner strangely quotes approvingly, has argued strongly against a metaphorical understanding of “son” in the title “son of the king” in the Hebrew Bible.


The most interesting thing about Mulek is that the name seems to be related to the Hebrew word for “king” (MLK), though the vowel pattern is not very intelligible as Hebrew (mulk?). That is to say, Mulek’s name suspiciously conforms to the royal background of the character: the son of a king is named “king.” Because Mulek in the BoM does not appear to be a historical individual, the use of the root MLK suggests that the author of the BoM may have heard someone pronounce the Hebrew word for “king” somewhere (sermon, debate club, etc) and incorporated it into his text.


25) As recognized by Gardner, the claims that the people of Zarahemla’s language had become corrupted in a mere few hundred years so that it was unintelligible to the people of Nephi and the lack of written records had led them to reject the existence of God are difficult to take as historically credible. So he assumes that the people of Zarahemla must have adopted a new language and religion shortly after arriving in the New World (p. 222-23). Yet importantly the people of Zarahemla are portrayed in the BoM as a solitary and independent tribal group who together “came out from Jerusalem” (Omni 1:15), and the only other person they encounter before the Nephites is the last survivor of the Jaredite nation (Omni 1:21). Never is it suggested that they had become assimilated to another indigenous group.


26) I can see no relationship between Mosiah’s seerstone and Mesoamerican zaztuns based on the information provided (p. 225). One is used for the miraculous translation of lengthy texts and the other for simple subjective divination (healing, dream interpretation, simple questions, etc).


27) The meaning of “false Christ” is explicable within the cultural world of Joseph Smith as a near synonym to “false prophet.” The suggestion that the term denotes a Mesoamerican practice of impersonating deities is highly speculative (p. 230).


28) I cannot see any material relation between the Mesoamerican New Year/New Century and the gathering to hear king Benjamin’s valedictory speech from the information Gardner provides (building new structures?).


29) Murder and plunder in the BoM most certainly mean murder and plunder, not human sacrifice (p. 237)


30) Gardner claims that Mosiah’s abolishment of the monarchy and move to a system of judges “should be seen as response to the succession crisis, not to an ideological denouncing of the principle” (p. 243). And yet rejection of kingship on ideological principles seems to be exactly what Mosiah is doing (Mosiah 23:7-9; 29:12-13).


31) Gardner asserts that the Nephite legal system reflects ancient Israelite practice, but provides no firm details (p. 244-245).


32) He argues that Zarahemla could not have been the capital of a unified nation; that there was no clear unity of religion/politics in the region; that religious apostasy was a form of political apostasy; and that the political system was a loose confederacy (p. 253-256). But reading the BoM itself shows that Zarahemla was the capital of a central government and location of the chief judgment seat (Alma 4:20; 5:1-2); although there were many churches, “they were all one church, even the church of God” (Mosiah 25:22); there was a quasi-separation of church and state practiced among the Nephites (Mosiah 26:4; Alma 1:17; 30:7); and although the people of Zarahemla were initially distinguished from the people of Nephi, later “the people of Zarahemla were numbered with the Nephites” into a single nation (Mosiah 25:13). Gardner’s aim seems to be to force the text to fit current ethno-archaeological reconstructions of Mesoamerica.


33) Gardner is correct in his assessment that in antiquity the political and religious was thoroughly intertwined at a cultural level (p. 258). So it is strange why he doesn’t recognize the tendency to separate church and state after the time of Mosiah as a mark of inauthenticity.


34) The description of the order of the Nehors is one of the more clear examples where Joseph Smith used religious phenomena he was familiar with to construct the narrative of the BoM. As crypto-Universalists, the Nehors preach what they term to be the word of God, seek money through popular support, declare universal salvation, etc. For the author of the BoM, history was a recurring cycle and endzeit (early 19th century) was related to urzeit (ancient America). The fact that the description of Nephite apostasy remains consistent throughout the BoM does not point to some omnipresent (but unspecified) real world religious and cultural model that everywhere threatened Nephite orthodoxy, but only to unity of BoM authorship.


35) Gardner awkwardly operates with two very different concepts of syncretism, one a nonjudgmental history of religions-like category for describing the melding of different conceptual configurations into a new whole and the other a normative evaluation about mixing with inferior non-indigenous traditions (p. 261-262). The usefulness of syncretism as an analytical category in Biblical Studies has recently come under strong criticism, because it tends to assume the existence of a more pure and authentic version of a religion with which the interpreter identifies. In other words, the concept of syncretism is deployed to perform cultural work rather than elucidating real world phenomena. For example, biblical scholars once commonly identified the worship of Baal and Asherah as a product of syncretism with Canaanite religion, but now most agree that this biblical picture is manufactured and inaccurate. Most of what the Deuteronomistic authors condemn as alien and unacceptable belongs squarely within the traditional ancestral religion of Israel.


36) In the section on syncretism (p. 263-71), Gardner’s hypothetical speculating as a substitute for critical analysis is in full swing: “Once a Nephite apostate accommodated the idea of a deity complex, that concept could easily be read into the scriptural tradition, and the Nephite God of many names could be reinterpreted in much more fluid Mesoamerican terms” (p. 265); “All these data points of perceptual parallelism in Nephite and Mesoamerican theology could have provided an adequate basis for the emergence of a syncretic religion” (p. 267); “The Nephite genealogical principle could easily have acquired the more mythological Mesoamerican overtones” (p. 268). However, never does Gardner provide specific evidence within the BoM that any such syncretisms ever occurred.


37) I agree with Gardner that were the BoM peoples historical, they would have been organized as a tribe and clan based society (p. 275-277). So it is interesting that indications of such traditional social organization are so minimal in the BoM (Jacob 1:13; Alma 47:35; 3 Ne 7:1-4; 4 Ne 1:36-38; Mormon 1:8-9). No mention of the Israelite bet ab “house of the father” or interactions between specific tribes. Nephite society seems to be organized at a higher socio-political level, with national officers. 3 Ne 7:1-4 even describes the reversion to tribal organization after the murder of the chief judge as though it were an unprecedented development, such that tribes had to choose new leaders. Some descriptions of tribal organization seem patently dubious, e.g. the tribal names used throughout BoM history are taken from the original sons of Lehi (Jacob 1:13; Mormon 1:8-9); a group called Zoramites is led by a man named Zoram (Alma 30:59; 31:1).


38) Gardner’s attempt to provide context to the story of Ammon and Lamoni is among his most ingenious, suggesting that Ammon was an unknowing pawn in a subtle political contest between the king and upstart nobles. However, the problems with this reading are: 1) The Lamanites who scatter the flocks are not nobles, but merely “wicked” Lamanite subjects who were siphoning off flocks from the king. Because these men are found among the “multitude” who come to see the king, queen, and servants prostrate on the ground does not constitute evidence they lived in the royal compound or were near kin. 2) I see no basis for the claim that the intent of the Lamanites was to embarrass the king or weaken his authority. While it is true they do not immediately gather up the scattered flocks, which would have been a direct effrontery to the king, Mormon explains that their purpose was more indirect, scattering the flocks away to lands where they would be free for the taking (Alma 18:7). 3) It hardly makes sense that Lamoni would have repeatedly executed his own servants to save face. The broader didactic context of the story indicates clearly that the reason Lamoni was executing his servants was because he was uncivilized and barbarous, when he hears of Ammon’s exploits he feels deep regret for his actions (Alma 18:5). 4) In the context of the story, Lamoni doesn’t know that Ammon is a prince, and the offering of his daughter is merely a token of the king’s pleasure that Ammon expressed a desire to join with the Lamanites (Alma 17:24). Recall that in the BoM the line between Nephites and Lamanites was permeable and Nephites often experienced defection (WoM 1:16). Lamoni also doesn’t seem to be directly orchestrating the affair at the waters of Sebus. Rather, Ammon requests to be the king’s servant, and this results in him tending flocks, “according to the custom of the Lamanites” (Alma 17:25). At this point Lamoni is fairly unaware and uncaring as a ruler, simply deploying Ammon where he was needed. 5) A significant problem for this story is that Mesoamerica lacked domesticated animals such as sheep and goats. Deer were only partly domesticated and in any case were not kept in large flocks. Sheep and goats are referenced frequently in the BoM, so it is likely that the animal of the “flocks” is imagined to be one of these (deer are not referenced in the BoM).


39) Lamoni describes Ammon as “more than a man” and associates him with “the Great Spirit” (Alma 18:2). Is it more plausible to think these statements reflect the concept of demi-gods in Mesoamerica (p. 287-288) or vague stereotypes of Native American spirituality? In addition, it is not clear Lamoni identifies Ammon per se as the “Great Spirit.” The pronoun “this” could refer not to Ammon, but to the miraculous event at the waters of Sebus.


40) Because king Lamoni has flocks of sheep/goats, it really is no surprise that he has horses and chariots as well. Gardner suspects that the anachronistic “horse” and “chariot” resulted from mistranslation/misinterpretation on the part of Joseph Smith and that the words on the plates originally dealt with a Mesoamerican royal litter and associated symbolic animal (p. 289-297). But again this argument is vitiated by Gardner’s deeply problematic theory that Joseph Smith engaged in a fairly conventional notional translation. The examples of semantic shift or mistranslation he cites are related to real world linguistic and cognitive processes, not a miraculous translation. Furthermore, meanings in the BoM should be ascertained primarily from their literary context, and in this case we have multiple clues that horse and chariot carry their standard English meanings: the conceptual association of horse and chariot as a word combination; their use as a means of conveyance (Alma 18:9; 20:6); the appearance of horses and chariots in the context of battle (3 Ne 3:22); and the common association of chariots with kings in the Bible (e.g. 2 Kgs 9:16, 21). His claim that because horses and chariots are listed with other items gathered to Zarahemla their meaning is not necessarily military-related is strained. The broader context of the verse is most certainly military and horses and chariots are listed together in sequence. Because horses and chariots appear infrequently in the BoM and are never explicitly described being used is not a compelling reason for assuming the words have a more complex underlying meaning. “Horse” is paired with other lexical items that suggest a straightforward understanding of the word, e.g. “cow and the ox, and the ass and the horse” (1 Ne 18:25); “horses and cattle, and flocks of every kind” (3 Ne 4:4); “they also had horses, and asses” (Ether 9:19). The BoM author was simply not consistent in bringing the motif of horses and chariots to bear.


41) The reason why the father of Lamoni is angry with Lamoni is not because of a serious breach of court etiquette (p. 300-302), but because he is a fierce and uncivilized Lamanite who hates the Nephites. Note that Lamoni is astonished at his father’s furious and unreasonable response (Alma 20:13).


42) Mistreatment of captives as a correlation with Mesoamerica?


43) That Lamanites are portrayed as warlike is not sufficient cause to associate them with the Maya cult of war (p. 306).


44) Gardner rejects any causal link between the Anti-Nephi-Lehies’ burying their weapons and the Native American practice of “burying the hatchet” on the grounds that in “both time and space, the bury-the-hatchet symbol is a long way from the Anti-Nephi-Lehies.” (p. 307). But a possibility that he does not consider is that the direction of influence was the reverse, the bury the hatchet tradition influenced the story about the Anti-Nephi-Lehies. The similarities are rather obvious and accounts of Native Americans burying the hatchet as a sign of peace were well known in the time of Joseph Smith. The act of laying down weapons and entering a covenant of peace is also a motif found in the Late War (p. 129, 35:33-43). Gardner’s proposal to relate the Anti-Nephi-Lehies’ burying weapons to the Mesoamerican practice of burying ritual objects is unconvincing. In the latter case, the ritual objects do not appear to have been swords/weapons.


45) The reason the Lamanites suddenly attacked Ammonihah was to obtain sacrificial victims (p. 309-10)? And yet the BoM claims that “every living soul of the Ammonihahites was destroyed” (Alma 16:9).


46) Gardner hypothesizes that the continual warfare between the Nephites and Lamanites was driven by the need to control trade (p. 312-16). And yet warfare in the BoM is never explicitly associated with trade, only the desire of the Lamanites to kill, plunder, and assert authority over Nephites ( 2 Ne 5:14; Jacob 1:13-14; 7:24; Enos 1:20; Jarom 1:6; Mos 9:12, 14; 10:1-2, 12; 19:7, 15, 29; Alma 24:1-2; 25:1; 35:10; 48:1-2; 54:16-20; Hel 1:17; 4:4).


47) The numbers reported for people who died in battle may be generic round numbers, but that does not justify concluding they are exaggerations equivalent to the colloquial expression, “I have seen a movie a thousand times” (p. 323).


48) Gardner misunderstands the nature of “type-scenes” when he suggests that the depiction of secret combinations in the BoM is a product of type-scene patterning. A type-scene as used in Biblical Studies is a narrative convention that repeats certain stock elements and interactions, such that although names of characters can be exchanged the basic configuration of the scene remains recognizably similar. By contrast, the historical and political contexts in which secret combinations appear in the BoM are significantly different from one another, ranging from military (Ether 14), to political intrigue (Hel 2), to insurrection (3 Ne 2-3), to infestation (Morm 1:18). For most of BoM history, the name of this secret society is the same, the Gadiantons.


49) Gardner contradictorily argues that Mormon used “Gadianton” as a generic label for forces that disrupt the legitimate political structure, the basic lineaments of which were modeled on the secret combinations of the Jaredites, and at the same time that Mormon identified the Gadiantons of his day with Teotihuacan (p. 337). Somehow he is able to discern that the name is both generic/literary and specific/historical! I agree that the secret combinations of the BoM share common features and so evince a certain compositional patterning. Further, Gardner is surely correct that the claim the groups are all somehow organically linked to one another is historically implausible (p. 327-41). But unfortunately for Gardner, that is exactly what the BoM indicates, that the devil revealed certain oaths and secret alliances to the Jaredites and did so again to the Nephites (Hel 6). The secret society is portrayed as a kind of trans-historical New World/Old World phenomenon that is virtually impossible to stamp out (“the work of darkness and secret murder”). Even if its members all die and knowledge of its secret practices is kept hidden, it will inevitably rise again. Gadianton is not a generic label, but a specific label for an organization with a coherent identity and agenda that operated for most of Nephite history, called Gadianton because Gadianton was the person who reintroduced the organization after the Jaredites. Starting small, it grew and grew until it led to the overthrow of the Nephite nation. Finally, the Gadiantons are emphatically not a foreign entity, but rather an organization that grew up within Jaredite, Nephite, and Lamanite societies. They are portrayed as separate from them because they follow their own rules and government, establish themselves in secure holdouts, and work to the destruction of other governments. The only evidence that Gardner cites for his assumption they are foreign is the statement that they “were among the Lamanites” (Morm 1:18). It is fascinating how Gardner is willing to read so much into the word “among” and yet disputes a straightforward understanding of “horses and chariots.”


50) Gardner explains the destruction of the Nephite-Lamanite lands recorded in 3 Nephi 8-9 as reflecting a local volcanic and seismic event, which he believes can be correlated with a particular zone of volcanic activity in Mesoamerica (p. 343-351). However, the problems with this thesis are, first, the destruction described in 3 Nephi does not seem to be primarily volcanic in nature. Initially the narrative reports only that there is a great storm with tempests, thunder, and lightning (3 Ne 8:5-7). The storm seems to be primarily a meteorological event, with no mention of a volcano or hint that it should be considered a “dirty thunderstorm.” Second, it is notable that even the details that could be explicated in terms of volcanic activity are never associated with a volcano or volcanic eruption. Although several cities are burned with fire (3 Ne 8:8; 9:9) and after the storm a vapor of darkness covers the land (3 Ne 8:19-23), no link is drawn between this fire and darkness and a localized volcano or volcanic plume and no description is given of burning lava or choking ash, only a darkness that is semi-tangible (3 Ne 8:20; later in 3 Ne 10:13-14 we have mention of “smoke”), makes fire unfeasible (3 Ne 8:21), and prevents sight (3 Ne 8:22-23). This is all the more surprising since according to Gardner’s reconstruction the destructive event recorded in 3 Nephi would have occurred in a fairly limited geographical area, where the volcano that was the source of fire and ash would have been easily discerned. Third, the destruction event depicted in the BoM is not a local or centralized occurrence, but is portrayed as embracing the totality of the promised land and annihilating cities at both its northern and southern extremities. 3 Ne 8:14 reports, “And many great and notable cities were sunk, and many were burned, and many were shaken…,” which seems to envision a host of cities that were destroyed, many of which were very large. To destroy so many cities would require a volcanic and seismic event with a force and radius unprecedented in human history. Not only is Zarahemla at the center of the Nephite lands destroyed by fire, but Moroni on the eastern coast and Onihah, Mocum, and Jerusalem on the southeastern perimeter of Lamanite territory are sunk into the sea. Jacobugath, which is said to have been a “great city” in the “northernmost part” of the land northward and “out of the reach of the people” (3 Ne 7:13), is also destroyed by fire like Zarahemla (3 Ne 9:9). Fourth, the account of the destruction is highly fantastical and extravagantly cataclysmic. The whole event is said to have lasted only three hours (3 Ne 8:19), which is certainly fictive. Entire populations of cities are drowned or slain (3 Ne 8:9, 14; 9:7); earth is carried up somehow so a city becomes a mountain (3 Ne 8:10); “the whole face of the land [is] changed” (3 Ne 8:12) and “the face of the whole earth [is] deformed” (3 Ne 8:17); people are carried away and lost in whirlwinds (3 Ne 8:16); rocks are broken up in small pieces (3 Ne 8:18); no light of any kind can be seen for three days by anyone (3 Ne 8:21-23); in the place of cities hills and valleys are made (3 Ne 9:8); only the righteous are spared (3 Ne 10:12-13).


As a result, I do not think it advisable to try to correlate the geological and meteorological phenomena described in the BoM with a particular geography. The whole episode is imaginative and literary, borrowing motifs from the account of Jesus’s death in Matthew (3 Ne 8:17, 18, 20; cf. Matt 27:45, 51) and language connotative of the apocalypse in order to emphasize the biblical proportions of the devastation (e.g. 3 Ne 8:13, 24; 9:8). The account does not demonstrate firsthand knowledge of volcanic eruptions or earthquakes, but only that the author had heard secondhand about the stupendous darkening effects of volcanic smoke (note that Morm 8:29 reports that the BoM will be brought forth in a day when “vapors of smoke in foreign lands” are in the news).


51) In relation to the previous, a significant problem with Gardner’s approach to the BoM as history is that he never really puts much effort into advancing a genre identification that would explain the BoM narrative as a whole and its relationship to history. Overall, he tends to demythologize the narrative and focus on elements that can be explicated in secular historical terms with Mesoamerica as the backdrop. However, he also conveniently bypasses or avoids discussing elements in the same narratives that are highly mythological or folkloric, e.g. a three-hour cosmic cataclysm, a voice speaking out of heaven to all the inhabitants of the land, the devil and his angels laughing, the visitation of Jesus and angels in glory, Nephite disciples being granted immortality, etc.


52) Gardner reasonably rejects the notion that the myths of Mexican Quetzalcoatl reflect a historical memory of Jesus’s visitation to the New World (p. 353-65). However, he fails to consider the possibility that knowledge of Quetzalcoatl in early 19th century America may have been the seed or inspiration behind the audacious and unexpected claim that Jesus visited the Americas. A variety of theories that attempted to Christianize or biblicize Quetzalcoatl had long been in circulation in the West and Ethan Smith’s description of Quetzalcoatl in View of the Hebrews could have easily evoked an identification with Jesus. Lord Kingsborough was another prominent figure of the period who supported the Jesus identification. We can only assume that people were talking about this mysterious white bearded lawgiver, so a theory of direct dependence on Ethan Smith is unnecessary.


53) The description of the history and interactions between Teotihuacan and Maya lands to the south is highly informative, but weak in providing any connections to the BoM (369-373).


54) I find Gardner’s suggestion that Joseph Smith came to call Mormon Hill in New York the Hill Cumorah only late in his life and based on an interpretation borrowed from other early saints strained and implausible (p. 375-79). We have relatively early and detailed statements from Oliver Cowdery and William W. Phelps identifying the hill that can only have stemmed from personal knowledge of the teachings of Smith. The name they give to the hill is not merely a secondary component to accounts of the origin of the BoM, but is integral to them, elaborating upon the hill’s historical-mythological significance as the place where BoM peoples were destroyed and the gospel eventually restored. In other words, the identification is part of a coherent and internally consistent story. The reason we don’t have any early account of Joseph Smith identifying the hill as Cumorah is simply an accident of history. In addition, because Mormon 6:6 reports that the plates of the BoM were retained by Moroni it does not follow that they were eventually buried somewhere else. The plates were retained only to add more material, not to find a new burial place (Moroni 1:1-4).


55) Gardner speculates that the Tower of Babel story was read into the story about the Jaredites at an early point in the development of the tradition by Mosiah2 (p. 382-87). But this reconstruction is problematic at multiple levels. First, why should we even assume that this is the case? As far as I can tell, the only reason to doubt the accuracy of the text at this point is the presumption of historicity and the problems raised by a reference to a mythical Tower of Babel. Second, there are multiple clues in the narrative that the “tower” intended is the biblical Tower of Babel. The context relates to the confounding of languages and scattering of post-diluvian peoples “upon all the face of the earth” (Ether 1:33), and references to the early Genesis stories are interwoven into the narrative: creation, Adam (Ether 1:3), tower, valley of Nimrod (Ether 2:1), flood (Ether 13:2), ark of Noah (Ether 6:7). To remove or revalorize the reference to the Tower of Babel would do violence to the text. Third, Gardner relies upon his problematic and unsubstantiated theory of seerstone translation to explain how a new interpretive layer was added to the Jaredite record.


56) The proposed connections between the BoM Jaredites and the Olmec civilization are exceedingly vague (writing, organized military, north of the Maya, linguistic and cultural influence?). In any case, in the BoM the Jaredite nation is not a subset of a larger culture, but a single civilization stemming from the Old World.
















Nahom and Lehi’s Journey through Arabia: A Historical Perspective, Part 3


Our investigations so far in Part  1 and Part 2 have concluded that the reference to Nahom in 1 Nephi 16:34 does not provide compelling evidence for the antiquity of the BoM and a number of aspects relating to the presentation of the name point to its inauthentic and artificial character. So how do we explain the accuracy with which the BoM places Nahom near the tribal area of Nihm in Yemen, showing knowledge of its general location in southwest Arabia and that it was a pre-existing name?


Among critical historians who accept that the BoM arose as a modern production of Joseph Smith, two main theories have been offered to explain the presence of Nahom in the narrative. The first is that the correspondence of Nahom with Nihm is accidental, having resulted from Smith borrowing/inventing a name whose consonantal stem just happened to overlap with NHM when translated into English. According to Dan Vogel, one of the most vocal proponents for accidental correspondence, the tri-consonantal stem NHM in South Arabian is an inadequate basis upon which to identify it with BoM Nahom, since it is unclear whether the two words are in fact related. We have already mentioned that Nahom looks distinctly similar to Hebrew naḥum, and so Vogel suggests that because many BoM names were apparently adapted by Smith from the KJV Bible, a simpler explanation of the word is that it is “a variant of Naham (1 Chron. 4:19), Nehum (Ne. 7:7), or Nahum (Na. 1:1).”[1]


However, we have already seen above that the case for linking Nahom with South Arabian Nihm is reasonably strong. Even if Nahom reflects an incorrect voweling of Nihm, a number of interlocking details suggest that the appearance of Nahom in the BoM rises to a level beyond what could be explained as mere coincidence, including 1) the fact that there appears to be only one major tribe in this part of South Arabia attested from ancient to modern times with a name built from the consonants NHM; 2) the BoM places Nahom in the general vicinity of central Yemen where Nihm is located, at a point where a route following southeast from northern Arabia could at least theoretically turn eastward and reach the coast of southern Oman; and 3) Nahom is portrayed as a pre-existing name, which is unique in the context of the journey of Lehi’s party from Jerusalem to Bountiful.


The alternative theory has been to suppose that Smith had access at some point to a map of Arabia containing a reference to Nihm that he used to construct his narrative about the origin of Native Americans. The possibility that Nahom originated from a map has increasingly been acknowledged by both apologists and critics of the BoM and recently Philip Jenkins in his blog post “Nahom Follies” has sketched a brief outline of the argument:


“Evidence for an actual place called something like Nahom in Yemen/Southern Arabia appears in European maps from the mid-eighteenth century onwards, so that, unlike the altar inscriptions, these were clearly known in Smith’s lifetime. A form of NHM (Nehhm) shows up for instance in the travel narrative and maps of Carsten Niebuhr, of the 1761 Danish Arabia Expedition, marking a location in Yemen. An English translation of his writings appeared in 1792, and copies were available in US libraries in the early nineteenth century…. Other European maps also show a related place-name in the area…. The map evidence makes it virtually certain that Smith encountered and appropriated such a reference, and added the name as local color in the Book of Mormon.”[2]


Jenkins later goes on to clarify that Smith may have been exposed to a map of Arabia through any number of means, whether from bookstore, traveling salesman, or neighbor, and that there were probably far more maps or map copies of the Middle East/biblical lands circulating in the US during this time period than we have record.[3]


Of course, believers in the historicity of the BoM have balked at this proposed explanation for Nahom, asserting that there is no evidence that Smith ever had access to these European maps or more importantly that he used them.[4] S. Kent Brown has examined the collections held at the Manchester lending library and Dartmouth College before 1830 and found that key works relating to the history and geography of Arabia, such as the English translation of Carsten Niebuhr’s account of his expedition to Arabia from 1761 to 1767 and d’Anville’s 1751 map of Arabia, were not available to Smith “in either of the libraries that lay near his home at one point or another in his youth.”[5]


However, the absence of these works from two particular libraries is not in itself a decisive argument against the idea that maps of Arabia were available to Smith near the time he dictated the BoM. Rick Grunder has emphasized the “widespread, informal sharing of both broad and particular knowledge” that occurred at every level of Smith’s local environment, so that there were numerous possible means of discovering knowledge about the geography of South Arabia.[6] After examining the print resources available at Palmyra, Robert Paul concluded, “Clearly Joseph Smith had access to a wide range of books in that he lived in proximity to libraries and bookstores,” so there was no need to travel the greater distance to the Manchester area.[7] More recently, Noel Carmack has described how living near the Erie Canal put the Smith family in reach of a wide variety of books, maps, and pamphlets, thanks to traveling bookstores and museums and the connection to larger urban centers to the east.[8]


It is therefore not unreasonable to think that Smith could easily have encountered a map of Arabia/Middle East in the area of Palmyra. Geographies, maps, and travel narratives of European derivation were available from multiple sources, and Carmack has called attention to the proliferation of atlases and geographical texts in the post-revolutionary period: “A sudden, steady increase in the production and sale of new geographical texts not only resulted in a feeling of nationalism but also a growing preoccupation with owning and studying geographies, maps, and atlases.”[9]


So if the possibility that Smith had seen and studied a map of Arabia cannot be excluded a priori, is there evidence to support the theory? In the following I will present an argument that Smith had indeed used a map to compose his story about Lehi’s exodus from Jerusalem and will rely primarily on evidence from the BoM itself.


First, we have already seen in Part 1 and 2 of this series that the larger narrative context in which Nahom appears is unrealistic as an account composed by an ancient author, and yet the placement of Nahom in southwest Arabia near the tribal district of Nihm seems to reflect real world geography. So to me this would seem to necessitate the theory that Smith had access to a reliable source of information about the social/political landscape of Arabia and specifically a map, since the BoM betrays knowledge only of Nihm’s location and no further details or information of a descriptive nature that an encounter with a book would have inevitably entailed. The dictum of Sherlock Holmes comes to mind, that “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,” no matter how much the conclusion may run against your preconception.


Second, Nahom is not the only name present in the BoM narrative that coheres with the theory that Smith used some limited modern geographical sources to artificially construct his narrative. We have already noted that the BoM name Irreantum is unmistakably similar to the ancient Latin name for the Arabian Sea, Erythraeum, featuring a closely comparable sequence of consonants and vowels. It is simply inconceivable to me that Smith could have invented a name for the sea south of Arabia that tallies so closely to the Latin form of the name, and obviously neither is it possible for Nephi to have spoke Latin! However, knowledge of the Erythrean Sea was available in the world of Joseph Smith. For example, Josiah Conder’s popular travel book on Arabia, The Modern Traveler, speaks of the Erythrean Sea as “the name applied by the Greeks to all the seas round the Arabian peninsula” and other more strictly geographical works designate this part of the Indian Ocean simply the Erythrean Sea.[10] The Latin name appears on various maps, including d’Anville’s 1763 map of the ancient world Orbis Veteribus Notus, James Rennell’s 1799 map of the circumnavigation of Arabia, Robert Mayo’s 1813 reproduction of d’Anville’s map, and Aaron Arrowsmith’s 1828 Eton school atlas. The conclusion therefore seems inescapable that either Smith had seen the name Erythraeum/Erythrean on a map and recalled it to the best of his ability (or modified it slightly to escape obvious notice) or he had heard it secondhand as the proper name of the Arabian Sea/Indian Ocean in antiquity. Either way, the name demonstrates an interest on the part of Smith in adapting real world place names for the purpose of adding ancient color to the narrative of the BoM.


Third, the use of a map would explain why the narrative of the BoM presumes a rather accurate understanding of the overall shape of the Arabian Peninsula and yet is completely vague about its internal geography. We discussed this aspect of the narrative in part 1 and how the simple unilinear trajectories of travel southeast and then eastward are best accounted for on the assumption that the author was marking out an artificial course of travel indiscriminate of real world topography. The large-scale and two-dimensional nature of a map and Smith’s ignorance about the geography of Arabia simply did not allow for more detailed description of the route taken by Lehi.


Fourth, the spelling of Nahom itself points to the likelihood it was borrowed from a 19th century map. The spelling of the tribal name Nihm with a vowel between the last two consonants was fairly standard in Western maps of Arabia available during this period. In his 1751 map d’Anville spelled Nihm as Nehem and this spelling was then continued in a series of maps made in the late 18th and early 19th century, whereas Niebuhr in his writings spelled the place Nehhm with no vowel.[11] So the unnecessary vowel in Nahom seems to reflect the fact that Smith encountered a form of the name with a similar vowel, namely the map tradition of Nehem. Except in the process of reproducing the name he appears to have given it an ao vowel combination instead of an ee combination. Why Smith changed the pronunciation from Nehem to Nahom is unclear and will be explored further later, but for now it is worth noting that the final -om fits with Smith’s creative philological tendencies. As David Wright once observed, the BoM contains a large number of names with the suffixed element –om: Abinadom, Antiomno, Corom, Cumom, Curelom, Ezrom, Jacom, Jarom, Shiblom, Shilom, Sidom, Zeezrom; and others ending in –um: Antionum, Jeneum, Helorum, Mocum, Antum, Coriantum, Irreantum, Moriancum, Moriantum, Ripliancum, Seantum, Teancum.[12]


Fifth, the use of a map would also explain why Nahom is portrayed in the BoM as though it were a particular place or district. Because Smith would have encountered Nehem only as a place name on a map, he would have been ignorant of the tribal origin of the name or its cultural-historical significance. From his perspective, it would have been perfectly reasonable to speak of Nahom as a “place.”


Sixth, the name Nehem tends to be printed on maps from the late 18th and early 19th centuries in a font slightly larger or bolder than the immediately surrounding titles or place names, which would explain why Smith’s eye landed on this name rather than others. This includes the 1794 map of Robert Laurie and James Whittle; the 1804 map of John Cary; the 1811 map of William Darton; the 1814 map of John Thomson; and the 1817 map of Robert Kirkwood. Presumably, the emphasis on Nehem in these maps is related to the importance that Niehbur attached to the area and his discovery it was a large semi-independent district in Yemen, whereas Nihm/Nehem largely disappears from later 19th century maps.[13]


Seventh, it is possible to limit the number of maps down that Smith could have used based on the particular geographical features that are mentioned in the account of Lehi’s journey. I have examined a large quantity of maps of Arabia that were circulating in the English world during the late 18th and early 19th centuries[14] and have found only two that would account for multiple features in the BoM: the 1794 “A New Map of Arabia” by Robert Laurie and James Whittle, which was an English translation of d’Anville’s map with improvements based on the research of Niebuhr, and the 1817 atlas map by Robert Kirkwood, which for the most part seems to follow Laurie and Whittle.


1) The BoM states that Lehi and his family camped in a valley by the shore of the Red Sea near a river. Among maps that mention Nehem, the Laurie and Whittle and Kirkwood maps are distinctive in that they feature some mountains at the north end of the Gulf of Aqaba, which could have allowed for interpreting the intervening area as a valley, whereas similar mountains are not present in the maps of Cary, Darton, or Thompson. The Gulf of Aqaba is also represented with two narrow tongues branching north in between the mountainous areas, which Smith could have mistakenly identified as the mouths of rivers. Such a mistake may have been encouraged by the appearance of rivers entering the Red Sea on the west side of the Sinai peninsula, a topographical feature which is also distinctive to the Laurie and Whittle and Kirkwood maps.


2) As we saw earlier, the BoM implies that the party of Lehi kept to a route along the shoreline of the Red Sea. At the time of Lehi this would have been virtually impossible, but during the Ottoman Empire a route from Cairo to Mecca had developed along the shore of the Red Sea and the Laurie and Whittle and Kirkwood maps explicitly delineate it, labeling the feature “Route of the Turkish and African Caravans.” The presence of this caravan highway could therefore have influenced Smith’s decision to portray Lehi traveling close to the shoreline, which he seems to have associated with the “more fertile parts” of Arabia (1 Ne 16:16). It goes without saying that the representation of the interior of Arabia as barren deserts on the maps would have precluded leading the party of Lehi directly across the peninsula to the coast of Southern Arabia.


3) After departing from the valley of Lemuel, the group travels for four days and then camps again at a place they call Shazer. We saw earlier that the place name Shazer is certainly not Hebrew, which raises the question of how Smith invented the name. While it is possible that Smith developed Shazer on analogy from the Bible, if we follow the caravan route depicted on the Laurie and Whittle and Kirkwood maps down the Red Sea we eventually come to a place that sounds somewhat similar to Shazer, namely “Hazire,” apparently a stopping place on the way to Mecca. As we have seen, the pronunciation of several real world place names taken up by Smith seem to have been adapted/modified to a significant degree, so the same may be the case here. Then again, perhaps Shazer was inspired by some of the other strange names on the map or was a pure invention of Smith.


4) After breaking his bow and returning to camp, Nephi builds a new one and goes up to the top of a certain mountain to hunt. This detail about a mountain near the camp is a little odd, because it is the first time a mountain is mentioned in the narrative since the implied existence of mountains by the valley of Lemuel and further the mountain is referred to as if it were a specific mountain known to the author, “the mountain” (1 Ne 16:30). However, if we look at the Laurie and Whittle and Kirkwood maps we see that there are only two places on the eastern shore of the Red Sea where the caravan road passes immediately near mountains, one near Hazire and another at Mecca. Because the BoM reports that the party had traveled “many days” past Shazer to reach the camp of the broken bow, a location at Mecca near the middle of the length of the peninsula makes sense. The next report of a journey of “many days” brings them all the way to Nehem in the south (1 Ne 16:33), implying that the temporal formula represents a substantial distance. In addition, it is probably not coincidence that the caravan road ends at Mecca and after the camp of the broken bow the party of Lehi no longer travels in the “fertile parts” near the Red Sea but moves somewhat further inland. It is as if a change in the topographical features shown on the map stimulated a change in the direction of travel. Thus on this reconstruction the mention of a specific mountain near the camp of the broken bow may have been inspired by a depiction of an actual mountain near Mecca on the map.


5) The party buries Ishmael at the “place which was called Nahom.” As was mentioned above, the name Nehem is printed in a larger font in the case of Laurie and Whittle and a slightly bolder font in the case of Kirkwood, which would have facilitated Smith latching onto this name over others. The Nehem title is particularly conspicuous in the case of Laurie and Whittle because of the mountains to which it is associated, which are shaped in a distinctive figure of a large cross. Although it is pure speculation, it is even possible that the cross shape of the mountains may have contributed to the development of the idea that this would be the place where Ishmael was buried.


6) The party travels eastward from Nahom until they arrive at a fertile spot on the coast of Southern Arabia, which is also situated near a mountain. The claim that the party traveled eastward from Nahom to arrive at Bountiful on the coast has often been taken as a decisive clue pointing to the historicity of the BoM account, because of the existence of exceptionally fertile areas in the Dhofar region of Southern Oman. However, several topographical features contained in the Laurie and Whittle and Kirkwood maps would have been sufficient in themselves to lead Smith to bring the party of Lehi to this part of the Arabian coast, without having any firsthand knowledge of the geography of Arabia. Directly east of Nehem on the maps are two large mountain ranges lying near the coastline with associated titles and descriptions that could have easily led Smith to conclude the area was fertile. One range is called the “Mountains producing frankincense” and the other “mountain of the moon”, the latter juxtaposed with and almost overlapping the large-scale title “Arabia Felix.” Accordingly, if Smith had a rather vague idea that Arabia Felix was a place of abundant fertility, as argued in part 1, and he wanted to lead Lehi to a place on the Arabian coast that would open up a clear path of sailing to the New World, then it would have been rather natural to bring the party to this area. We have already seen that Smith had a tendency to assume that the coastal borders of Arabia were more fertile than the interior.


In line with this interpretation, the mention of a specific mountain that Nephi went up to receive instructions about how to build a ship would have been based on an actual mountain range shown on the map. Smith awkwardly called it “the mountain” (1 Ne 17:7), because it was a mountain he had in fact seen and identified, the same as “the mountain” near Mecca. Incidentally, if the mountain range Smith had in mind were the “mountain of the moon,” then this would place Bountiful a substantial distance away from the Dhofar region where BoM researchers have tended to identify candidates of the site.


Taken all together, I believe that these correspondences between certain topographical features on the Laurie and Whittle and Kirkwood maps and geographical details in the BoM text lend support to the theory that Smith used a map and possibly one of these maps in particular (in my view, the Laurie and Whittle map seems somewhat more attractive as a candidate, because of its prominent representation of Nehem). According to my reconstruction, a number of features displayed on the map may have had a critical role in Smith’s development of the narrative of Lehi’s journey described in the BoM.


Skeptics to this theory may respond, so why did Smith include only a reference to Nehem out of all the place names found on the map if his goal was to add verisimilitude to his narrative? Why do the place names mentioned generally not line up with original names or name spellings on the map or in other historical sources (e.g. Valley of Lemuel, Shazer, Nahom, Irreantum)? Of course, we can only speculate about possible answers. Admittedly, the lack of more specific detail from a map source is somewhat unexpected, given the correspondences I have argued for above. But it is important to note that positive evidence for dependence on a map should be weighed differently than negative evidence, which tells us more about our assumptions and expectations than necessarily anything about what Smith was trying to do. Furthermore, one viable explanation is that Smith only had limited access to a map owned by someone else or in a store and as a consequence had time only to identify and mark out a basic path for the journey through Arabia, noting some basic topographical features along the way but essentially ignoring most of the titles of cities, towns, and districts. This could perhaps explain why Smith garbled Nehem and Erythraeum but then invented names of other localities, such as the Valley of Lemuel and Shazer. On the other hand, it is possible that Smith did not want his dependence on a map to be immediately recognizable and so slightly altered the spelling of some names. Perhaps he assumed it was in the nature of names to change over time and so slightly modified Nehem and Erythraeum to give credence to the claim of their antique origin.


Finally, one last piece of evidence that Smith used a map is suggested by the single statement that we have from him outside of the BoM describing the route taken by Lehi. As editor of the Times and Seasons, Smith commented on the discovery of archaeological remains in central America that support the existence of BoM peoples and in passing summarized the account of their origin: “Lehi went down by the Red Sea to the great Southern Ocean, and crossed over to this land, and landed a little south of the Isthmus of Darien.”[15] Although to some this laconic statement has been taken as proof that Smith could not have composed the complex narrative of the BoM,[16] to me it suggests that he had a fairly clear mental image of the route through Arabia taken by the group. He speaks of Lehi coming “down by the Red Sea” and then all the way to the “great Southern Ocean,” which can only refer to the Indian Ocean. Launching into the Indian Ocean implies the group had taken a route through Arabia, even though the BoM narrative is not explicit on this point. In addition, the emphasis on the “great Southern Ocean” matches the accent put on “Irreantum” or “many waters” in the BoM. Overall, Smith seems to betray a remarkably accurate knowledge of the route taken by Lehi, which he is likely to have gathered in the process of engaging firsthand with a map of Arabia in the construction of the BoM narrative years before.







[1] Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet, 609, n. 17.

[2] “Nahom Follies” [accessed October 22, 2015]. Online:

[3] Ibid. See also Jenkins’ comments in “Jenkins 24: Nahom Part Deux” [accessed October 22, 2015]. Online:

[4] William Hamblin, “Hamblin 35: Time for Clear Thinking on Nahom” [accessed October 22, 2015]. Online:; Rappleye and Smoot, “Book of Mormon Minimalists and the NHM Inscriptions: A Response to Dan Vogel,” 180-181.

[5] “New Light from Arabia on Lehi’s Trail,” 72-75.

[6] Rick Grunder, Mormon Parallels: A Bibliographic Source (2nd ed.; Lafayette, New York: Rick Grunder Books, 2014), 1053-54.

[7] Robert Paul, “Joseph Smith and the Manchester (New York) Library,” BYU Studies 22 (1982), 341.

[8] “Joseph Smith, Captain Kidd Lore, and Treasure-Seeking in New York and New England during the Early Republic,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 46 (2013): 106-108.

[9] Idem., 112.

[10] Josiah Conder, The Modern Traveler: A Popular Description, Geographical, Historical, and Topographical of the Various Countries of the Globe, Arabia (London: James Duncan, 1825), 120; John Horsley, Compendium of Ancient Geography by Monsieur d’Anville, Vol. II (New York: R. M’Dermut and D.D. Arden, 1814), 3.

[11] James Gee, “The Nahom Maps,” JBMS 17 (2008): 40-57.

[12] “A Bit More on Nahom,” ZLMB [accessed October 23, 2015]. Online:

[13] Description of Arabia, Made from Personal Observations and Information Collected on the Spot by Carsten Niebuhr (trans. Major C. W. H. Sealy; Bombay: Government Central Press, 1889), 93. See Gee, “Nahom Maps,” 57.

[14] See the David Rumsey collection of antique maps of Arabia online at and the survey by Gee, “Nahom Maps.” It seems Gee missed the 1817 Kirkwood map.

[15] “Facts are Stubborn Things,” Times and Seasons 3/22 (September 15, 1842): 922.

[16] S. Kent Brown, “New Light from Arabia on Lehi’s Trail,” 79.

Nahom and Lehi’s Journey through Arabia: A Historical Perspective, Part 2


In part 1 we discussed how the journey of Lehi through Arabia described in 1 Nephi 1-18 is highly implausible as a depiction of historical events, because of the unrealistic nature of various details and the narrative’s modeling after the biblical Exodus. Which raises the question of the significance of the reference to Nahom in 1 Nephi 16:34. As we saw earlier, the mention of Nahom is widely regarded as the clearest instance where the BoM preserves a real world place name in the correct geographical location that would have been unknown to Joseph Smith. The major considerations that have led to this conclusion include: 1) The fact that the BoM presents Nahom as a pre-existing name, and we know from various sources that Nihm was a tribal name from before the time of Lehi. 2) The tribal area of Nihm lies near the incense highway where the party of Lehi would have been traveling. 3) Because the caravan trails tend to turn eastward in the area of Nihm, the location also fits the narrative report that the party turned eastward after Nahom. 4) The reference to Nahom in the context of the burial of Ishmael and the mourning of his daughters is claimed to accurately reflect the historical and cultural setting.


A close inspection of these lines of argument, however, shows that they are considerably more problematic than BoM researchers have recognized, and we have strong reason to doubt that the reference to Nahom was based on any accurate or firsthand knowledge of Arabia. I will treat each of the above claims, beginning in reverse order.



1. The reference to Nahom in the context of the burial of Ishmael and the mourning of his daughters is claimed to accurately reflect the historical and cultural setting.


Although not directly bearing on the authenticity of BoM Nahom, several factors relating to the burial context in which the name appears have been thought to provide circumstantial support for this view. For example, a long line of commentators have been inclined to interpret the name Nahom symbolically rather than literally, because of the alluring semantic potential of the root NHM upon which the word is apparently based. Hugh Nibley was the first to note that Nahom is presented as if it were a preexisting name and so ingeniously proposed it referred to a local burial ground from the Arabic root NHM, “to sigh or moan,” also related to Hebrew naḥum, “comfort,” an interpretation that was adopted by others.[1] Then, as BoM researchers became aware that in South Arabian the root NHM had a lexical association different from NHM or NḤM in Arabic and Hebrew, they began to argue that the reference to Nahom was a kind of play on words, or that the tribal name was understood in light of Hebrew.[2] S. Kent Brown explains, “As a term, Nahom betrays an interesting set of possible meanings in Hebrew. In one of its forms, the root n-h-m in Hebrew—vowels do not appear in writing—has the basic verbal sense to growl or to groan, as in mourning. The other possible form of the verb, n-ḥ-m, with a rasped h sound in the middle, means to comfort or regret. Each of these meanings, of course, generally matches the events that overtook the family at ‘the place . . . called Nahom,’ what with the need to comfort those who were groaning or mourning because of the loss of Ishmael and because of unrelenting hardships.”[3] Following these lexical associations, it was reasoned, “when the party of Lehi heard the Arabian name Nihm (however it was then pronounced), the term Nahom came to their minds, a term that is familiar from the Old Testament,”[4] or again, “when Lehi’s group heard the name Nahom vocalized, it recalled to them the mourning and complaining, despite it having a different original meaning.”[5]


However, this understanding of Nahom as a Hebrew interpretation of a South Arabian place name is doubtful for several reasons. First, as several of the above-mentioned scholars acknowledge, the tribal name Nihm is spelled with a voiceless laryngeal middle H rather than a pharyngeal Ḥ and stems from the root NHM, which in ancient South Arabian refers to “pecked masonry” or “stone dressing.”[6] This spelling means that Nihm would have sounded utterly different to a native Hebrew speaker from Hebrew NḤM and it is unlikely that the first would have evoked the other. The weakening and coalescence of the gutturals did not occur in Hebrew until much later.[7]


Second, it is difficult to understand why the Lehi party would think to apply the concept of naḥûm to the place of Ishmael’s burial. In Hebrew the nominal form of NḤM is attested solely in the sense of “comfort” or “encouragement,” i.e. a positive change in the affective state (Isa 57:18; Zech 1:13; Hos 11:8).[8] David Damrosch has observed that the root NḤM is frequently associated with death in the Bible and “at heart… means ‘to mourn,’ to come to terms with a death.”[9] However, while this aspect of the word may appear superficially relevant to the context of Ishmael’s burial, the notion of NḤM as “comfort” is in fact incongruous at this stage of the narrative. When the name Nahom is introduced, Ishmael has just died and been interred in the ground and in the immediately following verse his daughters are depicted immersed in deep and raw mourning (1 Ne 16:35). In the remainder of the account the party as a whole seems to have taken this turn of events as something of the last straw (cf. 1 Ne 16:35-39). In other words, at this point there is no evidence that anyone in the party has come to terms with Ishmael’s death and a reference to “comfort” is out of place.


The other Hebrew root NHM mentioned by Brown is perhaps a better fit to the narrative, since it can refer to the loud groaning of a human sufferer (Prov 5:11; Ezek 24:23).[10] But this derivation faces challenges as well: 1) The nominal masculine form of NHM is attested in Hebrew only in the sense of the growling of a lion (Prov 19:12; 20:2). 2) Because Nahom could only be interpreted as a singular noun from this root, the name would mean something like “groan” or “growl”, which is hardly intelligible as a stand-alone name (cf. Jdgs 2:1, 5).


Third, from a translational perspective, the fact that Nahom is transliterated rather than translated weakens the case for assuming it bears a linguistic relation to Hebrew. If the name as it appears in the BoM was understood by Nephi as Hebrew, whether from NḤM or NHM, and was an aspect of the story he wanted to convey to his readers, we would expect the name to have been translated along with the surrounding narrative content, as in the name Bountiful.


Fourth, the context of the reference to Nahom gives us no reason to suspect that any subtle wordplay is going on. The narrative reports simply and matter-of-factly that Ishmael was “buried in the place which was called Nahom.” In other words, Nahom is presented as the regular name given to the place by others, not a new name attached to the place by Lehi’s party.


The apparent similarity between BoM Nahom and Hebrew NḤM or NHM is thus likely coincidental and not based on any ancient philological interpretation of the name. The recurrence of this notion in recent apologetic writing reflects the tendency of this mode of study to attract claims favoring the premise of antiquity and historicity, without fully considering whether the various components of a reconstruction fundamentally cohere with one another.


Another consideration sometimes raised in discussion of Nahom is that archaeological research shows that there were large burial grounds near or within the tribal area of Nihm, which potentially could explain why Ishmael was buried there.[11] Warren Aston has argued, “Given that Nahom was a place of burial, the 1936 discovery of the largest ancient burial site in all of Arabia close to the boundary of the modern Nihm tribe is obviously significant. This necropolis consists of thousands of circular aboveground tombs built of roughly hewn limestone slabs spread over several ridges, dating as far back as 2900 BC.”[12] However, Aston embellishes the facts when he intimates that the burial complex was anywhere near the tribal area Nihm. This large necropolis is actually on the rocky escarpment of ʿAlam and Ruwayk far northeast of Maʾrib in the Ramlat As-Sabʿatayn desert, whereas in the time of Lehi the territory of Nihm was likely located in the highlands south of the Jawf valley, its boundaries constrained by the larger and more powerful tribes to the north, east, and west (see below). The burial site has no demonstrable relation to the Nihm tribe and in fact recent archaeological investigation has established that the tombs belong to a much earlier period and culture, with radiocarbon evidence fixing “most of [the] burials at 2900-2700 BC, with others around 1700-1500 BC.”[13]


The reality is that the tribal area of Nihm was not distinctively a place of burial and no special significance should be attached to Ishmael’s burial there. As one would expect for the large numbers of peoples who have historically inhabited the interior highlands and valleys of Yemen, graves and cemeteries dot the landscape, generally located immediately outside town walls.[14]


Finally, Hugh Nibley has suggested that the description of the daughters of Ishmael mourning for their father reflects authentic Hebrew and desert Bedouin mourning customs, because it was common in these cultures for women to be especially involved in the mourning process: “It was the daughters of Ishmael who mourned for him and chided Lehi for his death (1 Nephi 16:34—35). Budde has shown that the Old Hebrew mourning customs were those of the desert, in which ‘the young women of the nomad tribes mourn at the grave, around which they dance singing lightly.’”[15] Yet the brief statement that the “daughters of Ishmael did mourn exceedingly, because of the loss of their father, and because of their afflictions in the wilderness” hardly seems an adequate basis upon which to find traces of ancient Near Eastern funerary custom. No specific mortuary practices are mentioned in the narrative, and while it is true that women in ancient Israel and many cultures throughout the eastern Mediterranean had a prominent role in funerary wailing and lamenting,[16] the description of only women mourning in v. 35 seems to stem from the more simple narrative intention to portray females as emotional in nature and especially sensitive to the physical challenges of wilderness travel (cf. 1 Ne 17:1-2). The gender stereotype of women as tender and weak appears fairly frequently in the BoM (1 Ne 5:1; Jacob 2:7, 28-35; Mosiah 19:13-14; 21:9; Alma 18:43; 3 Ne 8:25; Ether 8:9) and is also found in the contemporary pseudo-biblical prose work The Late War, by Gilbert Hunt.[17]


In addition to the stereotyped representation of women, the report about Ishmael’s death reflects ignorance about ancient Israelite attitudes toward death and burial. In Israelite thought the gravesite was a socially structured space that carried significant meaning for communities and families, including providing a means of maintaining ties between the living and the dead. To be buried apart from one’s family, outside of the ancestral land, and where the proper mortuary rituals could not be performed, was a misfortune and calamity of the highest order.[18] For example, by examining biblical texts concerned with entombment Saul Olyan has reconstructed a hierarchy of burial types, ranging from honorable burial in the family tomb, honorable burial in an adequate substitute for the family tomb, burial in someone else’s family tomb, dishonorable internment in the ground, to dishonorable nonburial.[19] However, within the account of Ishmael’s death and burial there is no indication that the BoM author or members of Lehi’s party had any knowledge of such cultural norms. We hear of no issues surrounding the entombment of Ishmael in a foreign funerary setting, or how native members of the Nihm tribe responded to foreigners seeking a burial place on their land. Although v. 35 describes how after Ishmael’s death his daughters “mourned exceedingly,” the remainder of the verse explains that this was specifically because of the “loss of their father” and afflictions of “hunger, thirst, and fatigue.” In other words, the problem of a foreign burial context does not even come into view.



2. Because the caravan trails tend to turn eastward in the area of Nihm, the location also fits with the narrative report that the party turned eastward after Nahom.


A prominent element in the apologetic evaluation of Nahom is the correlation of the eastward turn of the Lehi party after Nahom with the general tendency for caravan trails to turn eastward near Nihm in South Arabia.[20] According to S. Kent Brown, “Nephi writes that from ‘the place which was called Nahom… we did travel nearly eastward’ (1 Ne. 16:34; 17:1). In fact, from the region of Nahom-Nihm, all roads turned east. Even the shortcuts across the Ramlat al-Sabaʿtayn desert, which connected to the incense trail north of Nahom-Nihm, ran east-west, connecting to Shabwah, which lay more than 200 miles east of Nahom and was the main center for gathering incense harvested in South Arabia. The caravan traffic out of Shabwah traveled westward to the general area of Nahom and then turned north to Najran.”[21] Similarly, Richard Wellington and George Potter state, “Nephi relates that after Nahom the family traveled ‘nearly eastward from that time forth’ (1 Nephi 17:1). Here again the Book of Mormon narrative is in total harmony with the route of the Frankincense Trail in 600 BC . . . . very close to an area still known by the name Naham, the trail that ran the entire length of Arabia in a general south-southeast direction changed bearing and turned to the east, exactly as Nephi described.”[22]


However, here again as elsewhere a desire to map the BoM onto real world phenomena has led to a kind of myopic appraisal of the evidence, so that only aspects that lend plausibility to the BoM account happen to be noticed or given salience, whereas other aspects that pose significant or even insurmountable challenges to a historical interpretation of the narrative are ignored or brushed over. While it is true in a very broad sense that the caravan road of the incense highway changes its south-southeast trajectory to the east in the general region of central Yemen where Nihm is located, a closer examination of available routes shows that the claim that they turned specifically at this tribal area is inaccurate and misleading. As is well known, from the highlands of Yemen there were actually two major routes leading to the Hadramawt plateau in the east. The first was the main caravan route that skirted around the Ramlat al-Sabaʿtayn desert in a large arc, moving southeast from Maʿin to Maʾrib and then Tamnaʿ before turning east to Shabwa, a distance of about 350 kilometers. The second was an alternate shortcut route from Maʿin to Shabwa through the desert, a distance of about 250 kilometers.[23] When we consider that the tribal area of Nihm was located in the highlands south of the Jawf valley and west of Maʾrib,[24] it is clear that it was not in a position to function as a turning point for the party. Directly east of Nihm was the forbidding Ramlat al-Sabaʿtayn desert and to get around it one had to travel either to the north or south.


Perhaps the route that corresponds most nearly to the BoM claim to have gone eastward from Nahom is the northern shortcut, since it is more direct than the southern route and lines up more or less with the east-west passage of the Wadi Hadramawt. But this then raises the question of why the party came as far as the Nihm tribal area in the first place. If the party had traveled southeast from northern Arabia and entered Yemen via the incense highway, they would have first arrived at Maʿin as the northernmost stopping point on the central plateau. As the access point to all roads leading east to Shabwa, this is the place where potentially they could have opted for the northern route if they had so desired, whereas the tribal area Nihm was located further south and west away from this juncture in inland travel. So a journey to Nihm would have resulted in an overshot of the eastward turn by a substantial amount, requiring them to backtrack to Maʿin before heading across the desert.[25] Furthermore, a northern route through the desert is improbable on other grounds. As we have already discussed, crossing the Ramlat al-Sabaʿtayn desert directly with such a large and mixed group, carrying significant baggage and tents, and with no prior experience or knowledge of the area would have been imprudent and perilous in the extreme.


On the other hand, while the southern route would possibly have been accessible from Nihm without any backtracking and had the superior advantage of following a recognized trail with water resources and settled populations from which they could have purchased food and supplies, this would have meant continuing after departing from Nahom in the same southeast direction they had followed from the beginning of their trek through Arabia all the way to Tamnaʿ. In other words, they would have not changed their trajectory to the east per the BoM account.


In sum, the eastward turn of the Lehi party described in the BoM has no clear connection to the caravan routes winding through and around the desert to the Frankincense regions of eastern Yemen and cannot be used to confirm the authenticity of the Nahom reference.



3. The tribal area of NHM lies near to the incense highway where the party of Lehi would have been traveling.


Another consideration related to the previous is that the tribal area of Nihm lies close to the caravan routes of the incense highway that passed through central Yemen. Most BoM commentators agree that if Lehi’s party were moving through this part of Southern Arabia they would likely have kept to known caravan trails, following the availability of water resources and where the physical geography was most accommodating to overland travel,[26] and so the note that Ishmael was buried in the area of Nahom-Nihm, situated near the Jawf valley, is believed to confirm that this was indeed the case. For example, S. Kent Brown claims that “it is Nephi’s note about the tribal area of Nahom and its connection to the eastward turn that signals to readers that his party was traveling along the incense route.”[27]


Yet this understanding of Nahom-Nihm as lying along the caravan highway is not without its problems. First, although the precise location and boundaries of the Nihm tribe in the time of Lehi are unknown, the available evidence from other periods consistently associates it with the highlands south of the Jawf valley and west of Maʾrib, which means that the tribe occupied a territory fundamentally distinct from the lowland communities that controlled the caravan traffic between Maʿin and Maʾrib. As is well known, the tribes of South Arabia have been territorially defined from prehistoric times, guarding access to land, natural resources, and trade routes, and so because the Jawf during this period was already dominated by the Haram and Maʿin tribes and the Wadi Dhana by Saba, this would have severely restricted the ability of the Nihm tribe to expand from its highland zone.[28]


Warren Aston has presented the novel and speculative argument that the tribal name Nihm may have originated in the eastern Jawf in connection with the construction of burial areas and that the several altars discovered in the Barʾan temple near Maʾrib dedicated by a one Biʿathtar of the Nihm tribe provide evidence that “the tribe’s influence [may have] once extended as far as Maʾrib.”[29] But this theory is built on a chain of questionable philological and historical assumptions. As we have already seen, the NHM root reflected in the tribal name had nothing to do with “mourning” but was lexically associated with “pecked masonry” or “stone dressing.”[30] This cultural reconstruction also commits the etymological fallacy of assuming that a word’s meaning is closely associated with its historic etymology. In addition, the Nihm tribe had no known relation to the dressing of stones for tombs and the burial complex found on the ʿAlam, Ruwayk and Jidran ridges on the edge of the Ramlat As-Sabʿatayn desert was constructed by another culture more than a millennium distant from the South Arabian tribes of the first millennium BCE. Finally, Aston misunderstands the nature of the Barʾan altar dedications when he supposes that they reflect the Nihm tribe’s sphere of influence in the region of Maʾrib. During the period of Saba’s hegemony over the broader region, Maʾrib became a focus of pilgrimage for tribes in the hinterland, where the dedication of commemorative stelae and the offering of tithes and sacrifices functioned to cement their relationship to the Sabaean religio-political area. As McCorriston has suggested, “Pilgrimage served to confederate these tribes and to implement truces and periods of safe conduct for the safe passage of incense and caravans.”[31] The Barʾan altars are most easily interpreted in this setting, which means that the sphere of influence was moving in the opposite direction from Saba to Nihm.[32]


Second, even if we assumed that the Nihm tribal area was fairly close to Maʾrib in the western highlands, the Lehi party would have had to completely leave the caravan trail in order to enter it. The BoM claims that Ishmael was buried in “the place which was called Nahom,” which seems to imply that they had come to a place lying unmistakably within its borders and not merely somewhere nearby. But why would they have left the well-worn trail to go up into the highlands into an area that has virtually always been thinly populated? Someone who died on the trail could have been buried just as well next to it as somewhere a tribal territory away. Furthermore, on the caravan trail they would have only recently passed through the fertile valley of the Jawf, so it seems inexplicable why the group would have been suffering for lack of food and water.[33]


Third, it is possible that the tribal area of Nihm in the time of Lehi was not anywhere near Maʾrib but was located further to the west approximately where it currently resides northeast of Sanʿaʾ. As we saw earlier, there is some uncertainty about where the Nihm tribe was located during the period of ancient South Arabian civilization and some scholars have associated it with the highlands immediately west of Maʾrib based on the discovery of a large mine at al-Jabali corresponding to the famous silver mine al-Radrad described by al-Hamdani (10th century CE). Al-Hamdani said that al-Radrad lay “on the boundary of Nihm and the district of Yam in the country of Hamdan” and indeed the mine at al-Jabali is associated with Wadi Harib/Nihm running east from Jebel Nihm.[34] But the antiquity of the association of the name Nihm to Wadi Harib and other features in the area is unclear, and Timothy Power has recently discussed a number of details provided by al-Hamdani that suggest al-Radrad was situated northeast of Sanʿaʾ closer to the central territory of Nihm.[35] For example, the tribal areas of al-Yam and Hamdan were associated with the territory between Saʿda and Sanʿaʾ at the time al-Hamdani was writing and al-Hamdani reports that the mine also lay along “the road of al-ʿAtiq and al-Falaj and al-Yamama and Bayran to Basra,” which moved north-south through the same area. According to Power, this description would place the mine in “the south central ʿAsir, somewhere in the mountains in the hinterland of Saʿda.”[36]


If this understanding of Al-Hamdani is accepted, then it would mean that for nearly a thousand years the tribal area of Nihm had not moved very far from its position northeast of Sanʿaʾ where European explorers found it when they first began investigating the area. Carsten Niebuhr in the 1760s reported that Nihm was “situated between al-Jawf and the States of Hashid-wa-Bekil. It has its independent Shaikh, very warlike it is said, and who neglects no opportunity of compelling the Imam to a peaceable attitude. He possesses Tasiba, a large mountain where it is supposed that silver has been found.”[37] A century later Joseph Halevy is similarly said to have encountered the “independent hill-canton of Nehm on the arid eastern downs, which divide the Sana plateau from the hollow of Jauf…”[38]


Whether Nihm inhabited this same area more than 1500 years before al-Hamdani is uncertain, but the tribal territories of Yemen are well known to have been remarkably stable over their millennia long attested history. Further, this positioning of Nihm would fit with a highland tribe making pilgrimage to Maʾrib at the other end of the Wadi Jawf during the first millennium BCE.


In sum, it is clear that the tribal area of Nihm did not lie directly along the caravan route from Maʿin to Maʾrib, and it may have actually been more than a hundred kilometers to the west. Additionally, the BoM fails to explain why the party of Lehi left the trail to bury Ishmael in the territory of a highland tribe.



4. The fact that the BoM presents Nahom as a pre-existing name, and we know from various sources that NHM was a tribal name from before the time of Lehi.


The last component to the apologetic argument about Nahom is the name itself, which clearly seems to be related somehow to the tribal name Nihm from the highlands of Yemen. To return to S. Kent Brown, “From Nephi’s language, it seems clear that ‘the place’ already carried a local name. Its general locale is now known. It lies south of the Wadi Jawf, a place known variously as Nihm or Nehem. Three votive altars, dated to the seventh or sixth centuries B.C., all attest to the antiquity of this tribal and regional name. In effect, these altars offer the first archaeological correlation to specific events noted in the Book of Mormon.” [39]


Although Brown speaks here far more definitively in his assessment of the Barʾan altars than I think the evidence warrants, I agree with him that the case for identifying BoM Nahom as a reflection of the tribal name Nihm is reasonably strong. Not only does Nahom correspond exactly to the tri-consonantal stem NHM in Nihm, but as far as we know there has only been one major tribe in this part of South Arabia attested from ancient to modern times with a name built from these consonants.[40] Consistent with historical reality, the BoM places Nahom in the general vicinity of central Yemen where Nihm is located, at a point where a route following southeast from northern Arabia could at least theoretically turn eastward and reach the coast of southern Oman, and portrays it as a pre-existing name, which is unique in the context of the journey of Lehi’s party from Jerusalem to Bountiful. All of this interlocking detail is surely significant and suggests that the author of the BoM must have had access to some kind of accurate knowledge about the social/political landscape of South Arabia, which would have allowed him to place the tribal territory of Nahom-Nihm in the correct geographical spot.


But does the reference to a single tribal name in the appropriate region of southwest Arabia necessarily entail that the story was a product of an ancient author, or represent the kind of information that could have been obtained only through personally visiting the area and speaking with locals? We have already had occasion to note various features in the account about Nahom that appear to be highly unrealistic, including the decision to leave the trail and bury Ishmael in the territory of a highland tribe, the absence of mention of settlements and tribes more prominent than Nahom-Nihm along the caravan trail, the portrayal of the group suffering from extreme hunger in one of the more cultivated areas of South Arabia, and the lack of any direct and viable route eastward from the area of Nihm. However, beyond these considerations, the presentation of the name Nahom itself shows signs that the historic tribal name Nihm was adopted artificially by the author of the BoM.


First, Nahom is inaccurately portrayed as a place rather than a tribal people. We mentioned at the beginning of this study that a critical assumption made by BoM researchers about Nahom is that it represents a designation for the territory possessed by the tribe Nihm, which is why the narrative speaks of Nahom as a place rather than a people. As explained by Brown, “Naturally, a person reasonably assumes that, if the majority of the NHM tribe dwelt in a certain area, they would have had a ‘place’ for themselves that bore their tribal name. And outsiders would have known it.”[41] So on this understanding, there were actually two closely interrelated usages of the root NHM as an appellative in ancient south Arabian culture, one used to denominate the tribal group itself (the people Nihm) and another to refer to its territory (the Nihm region), a conclusion that finds support in the modern use of the term Nihm to designate a tribe as well as a geographical district in present day Yemen. However, it is doubtful that this later use of tribal names to refer to geographical entities can be retrojected onto much earlier periods and careful examination of South Arabian inscriptions indicates that the names of tribes were essentially social-political in orientation. Christian Robin, one of the world’s foremost experts on the tribal history of ancient South Arabia, explains that the tribal names “are not toponyms nor ancestor names. But they were used as eponyms when the genealogies were elaborated in late Antiquity and early Islam… The tribes in the south are strictly connected with a territory. But, in general, there is no confusion. The inscriptions distinguish always between Ḥimyar [a south Arabian tribe] and ‘the Land of Ḥimyar’.”[42] Accordingly, within an ancient south Arabian context, it does not make sense to speak of Nihm as though it were a regular place name.


Furthermore, even if we were to assume that this reference to the tribal group Nihm as a place name (“the place which was called Nahom”) stemmed from misunderstanding on the part of an ancient BoM author, neither is the description of Nahom as a “place” intelligible in terms of Hebrew usage, since the Hebrew common noun mqwm “place” is always used to refer to a particular or closely defined locale, such as a house, town, or sanctuary, never a tribal region (Gen 13:14; Jdgs 7:7; Deut 21:19; 1 Kgs 10:19).


Second, the designation of Ishmael’s burial place as a tribal region sounds conceptually non-Israelite. If apologists are correct in their assumption that Nahom in the BoM represents a tribal place name, then this means that the sentence should be understood to say that Ishmael was buried in the tribal district of Nihm. That is, the narrative does not report he was buried at a particular place but rather at an indeterminate spot within the borders of a fairly sizable region. However, this kind of vague and general specification of Ishmael’s burial place seems conceptually far removed from Israelite convention for naming burial places. As we discussed above, the location of burial in Israelite culture functioned as a site of significant social and cultural meaning, consistent with the belief that the dead continued to exist at some level in relation to their place of entombment and could be interacted with there. In line with this cultural and social understanding, when speaking about the burial of individuals the biblical authors almost always refer to the specific location where they were buried rather than a general location or area (Gen 23:19; 25:10; 35:8, 19; 50:13; Num 11:34; Deut 10:6; Josh 24:30; Jdgs 8:32; 10:2, 5; 12:7, 10, 12, 15; 16:31; 1 Sam 25:1; 31:13; 2 Sam 2:32; 3:32; 21:14; 1 Kgs 2:10, 34; 13:31; 16:6, 28; 21:26; cf. 2 Kgs 13:20). When a tribal area is specified, this is consistently followed by further geographical qualification or delimitation (e.g. 2 Sam 21:14; Deut 34:6). In light of this cultural perspective, the idea that an Israelite speaker would refer to a family member’s burial place by a general tribal region seems anomalous and almost incoherent, appearing to give information about where Ishmael was buried but only falsely so.


Third, the pronunciation of Nahom in the BoM diverges significantly from the pronunciation of the real world South Arabian tribal name. The name Nahom has what is clearly a long o vowel in the final syllable of a two-syllable word, whereas Nihm in Arabic is monosyllabic with only a short vowel between the first two consonants. While the difference between the spellings may appear fairly minor to an English speaker, they actually imply entirely different vocalic structures. I asked Peter Stein, professor of Semitic philology at Friedrich-Schiller-Universität, about the spelling of Nihm in the early Sabaic period and if it were possible for a long vowel to have ever been present between the last two consonants, to which he responded, “There is no obstacle against a mono-syllabic spelling /nihm/ of the name in Sabaic. Since there is a fairly strong continuity in the South Arabian tribal system from pre-Islamic to the Islamic period, one should proceed from a similar spelling of identical names. I would not suggest that a (long) vowel could be placed between the last two consonants.”[43]


The apologetic response to the problem of the spelling of Nahom in the BoM has been to emphasize the history of variability in the pronunciation of the tribal name Nihm and the negligible importance of vowels in Hebrew writing.[44] For example, Rappleye and Smoot argue, “The tribe and territory of NHM still exist in the area today, and local pronunciations range from ‘Neh-hem’ to ‘Nä-hum,’ and the name has been translated in a variety of ways, including Naham and Nahm. There is no reason ‘Nahom’ should be considered beyond the pale. When written, Semitic languages do not need to include vowels, so the altars simply have NHM (in South Arabian), and Nephi’s record would have been no different.”[45] However, the so-called local pronunciations and translations of Nihm mentioned above often reflect Western misprisions of the historical pronunciation, interpreting the rapid glide between the last two consonants as though it were a vowel. It is misleading therefore to suggest that “Nä-hum” is in any way a satisfactory representation of the phonological structure of the tribal name. Furthermore, if the inaccurate vocalization of Nahom in the BoM were attributed to the lack of vowels in the record, then how does one explain the role of deity in the translation process? Was God able to reveal correct consonants in proper names, but not vowels?


Based on the above historical, cultural, and linguistic factors, it appears that the author of 1 Nephi who constructed the note about Nahom was only minimally acquainted with the existence and historical reality of the tribal group Nihm in the highlands of Yemen. While he had a vague idea of how to spell the name and could locate it in the general vicinity of Southwest Arabia, he did not have the kind of knowledge that would be consistent with the assumption he had personally visited the area in the time of Lehi, for example, a correct understanding of Nihm’s social and territorial significance or how the tribe related to the caravan trails and other tribal communities in the general region.





We have seen that none of the reasons that have been cited for treating the Nahom reference in the BoM as evidence of the narrative’s antiquity hold up well under close scrutiny. The tribal territory of Nihm is not a place of burial and the caravan trails do not in fact turn eastward near or run alongside it. While the name of the Nihm tribe is undoubtedly ancient and existed at the time of Lehi, because of its attestation at Maʾrib on the Barʾan altars, we have no evidence that would justify connecting Nahom directly to this archaeological evidence or the assumption that the use of the name in the BoM arose in remote antiquity. In fact, I have presented a number of considerations that indicate Nahom was adapted by someone who was ignorant of the Nihm tribe’s precise name, history, and geographical location. In the following post, I will present a new reconstruction for how Joseph Smith as the modern author of the BoM came to include the name of this obscure Yemenite tribe in his imaginative narrative about the origin of the Native Americans.



[1] Lehi in the Desert, 79; Warren P. and Michaela J. Aston, “The Place which was called Nahom: The Validation of an Ancient Reference to Southern Arabia,” FARM Preliminary Reports (1991), 8-10.

[2] S. Kent Brown, “’The Place that was Called Nahom’: New Light from Ancient Yemen,” JBMS 8 (1999): 67; idem, “New Light from Arabia on Lehi’s Trail,” 82-83; Stephen Ricks, “On Lehi’s Trail: Nahom, Ishmael’s Burial Place,” JBMS 20 (2011): 67.

[3] Voices from the Dust: Book of Mormon Insights (American Fork: Covenant Communications, 2004), 38.

[4] Brown, “New Light from Arabia on Lehi’s Trail,” 82.

[5] Warren P. Aston, “A History of NaHoM,” BYU Studies 51 (2012): 81.

[6] Biella, Dictionary of Old South Arabic Sabaean Dialect, 296; A. F. L. Beeston, M. A. Ghul, W. W. Müller, J. Ryckmans, Sabaic Dictionary (Louvain-la-Neuve: Editions Peeters; 1982), 94; Stephen D. Ricks, “On Lehi’s Trail: Nahom, Ishmael’s Burial Place,” 67-68, n. 14.

[7] P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., “Hebrew,” The Ancient Languages of Syria-Palestine and Arabia, 47-48.

[8] See Koehler and Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (electronic version under נחום); Brown, Driver, and Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon (under נחום). Cf. Simian-Yofre, “נחם,” TDOT, 9:340-355.

[9] David Damrosch, The Narrative Covenant: Transformations of Genre in the Growth of Biblical Literature (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987), 12829, as quoted in Aston, “A History of NaHoM,” 6 and Alan Goff, “Mourning, Consolation, and Repentance at Nahom,” Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, 92-99.

[10] See also Ricks, “On Lehi’s Trail: Nahom, Ishmael’s Burial Place,” 67.

[11] Warren P. and Michaela J. Aston, “The Place which was called Nahom: The Validation of an Ancient Reference to Southern Arabia,” 10-11; Warren P. Aston, “Across Arabia with Lehi and Sariah,” 15; idem, “A History of NaHoM,” 83-84; idem, “The Origins of the Nihm Tribe of Yemen: A Window into Arabia’s Past,” “The Origins of the Nihm Tribe of Yemen: A Window into Arabia’s Past,” Journal of Arabian Studies: Arabia, the Gulf, and the Red Sea 4 (2014): 145. See also Journey of Faith: From Jerusalem to the Promised Land (Maxwell Institute, 2006).

[12] “Across Arabia with Lehi and Sariah,” 15.

[13] Christopher Edens, “Before Sheba,” Queen of Sheba: Treasures from Ancient Yemen, 84.

[14] Burkhard Vogt, “Death and Funerary Practices,” Queen of Sheba: Treasures from Ancient Yemen, 180-185; Breton, Arabia Felix from the time of the Queen of Sheba, 143-57.

[15] An Approach to the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1988), 215.

[16] Carol Meyers, Rediscovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 160.

[17] E.g. The Late War Between the United States and Great Britain, from June, 1812, to February, 1815 (New York: Daniel D. Smith, 1819), 72.

[18] See Elizabeth Bloch-Smith, Judahite Burial Practices and Beliefs about the Dead (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992), 109-132.

[19] Olyan, “Some Neglected Aspects of Israelite Internment Ideology,” JBL 124 (2005): 601-616.

[20] Gardner, Book of Mormon as History, 107-108; Rappleye and Smoot, “Book of Mormon Minimalists and the NHM Inscriptions,” 161-166, 179; Brown, “New Light from Arabia on Lehi’s Trail,” 88-89; Hilton and Hilton, Discovering Lehi, 137-138.

[21] Voices from the Dust, 39.

[22] “Lehi’s Trail: From the Valley of Lemuel to Nephi’s Harbor,” 34-35

[23] Breton, Arabia Felix from the time of the Queen of Sheba, 66-67; Nigel Groom, “Trade, Incense, and Perfume,” Queen of Sheba, 90-91.

[24] See e.g., Breton, Arabia Felix from the time of the Queen of Sheba, map for “The Jawf”; Christian Robin, Les Hautes-Terres du Nord-Yemen avant l’Islam I: Recherches sur la géographie tribale et religieuse de Ḥawlān Quḍāʻa et du pays de Hamdān (Istanbul: Nederlands historisch-archaeologisch Instituut, 1982), 13, 72–74; Alexander Sima, “Religion,” Queen of Sheba, 166; Brown, “New Light from Arabia on Lehi’s Trail,” 81-82.

[25] In order to explain how the party avoided Maʿin and the large valley of the Wadi Jawf, which stretched more than a hundred kilometers east-west and would have been irrigated and cultivated at the time, Wellington and Potter dubiously speculate that Lehi’s party became lost in the western fringes of the Rubʿ al-Khali and came south through the desert, “Lehi’s Trail: From the Valley of Lemuel to Nephi’s Harbor,” 33-34.

[26] Brown, “New Light from Arabia on Lehi’s Trail,” 83-85; Hilton and Hilton, Discovering Lehi, 123-139; Aston, “Across Arabia with Lehi and Sariah,” 12; Wellington and Potter, “Lehi’s Trail: From the Valley of Lemuel to Nephi’s Harbor,” 27-33.

[27] Voices from the Dust, 39.

[28] Breton, Arabia Felix from the time of Queen of Sheba, 94-95.

[29] “The Origins of the Nihm Tribe of Yemen: A Window into Arabia’s Past,” Journal of Arabian Studies: Arabia, the Gulf, and the Red Sea 4 (2014): 134-148.

[30] Biella, Dictionary of Old South Arabic Sabaean Dialect, 296; Beeston et al, Sabaic Dictionary, 94; Ricks, “On Lehi’s Trail: Nahom, Ishmael’s Burial Place,” 67-68, n. 14.

[31] Pilgrimage and Household in the Ancient Near East (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 78.

[32] As recognized by S. Kent Brown, “NAHOM/NIHM/NHM TODAY” [accessed Aug 22, 2015]. Online:

[33] As recognized by Wellington and Potter, “Lehi’s Trail: From the Valley of Lemuel to Nephi’s Harbor,” 32-33.

[34] Cf. Breton, Arabia Felix from the time of the Queen of Sheba, map for “The Jawf”; Christian Robin, “The Mine of ar-Radrad: Al-Hamdani and the Silver of the Yemen,” Yemen: 3000 Years of Art and Civilization in Arabia Felix, 123-124.

[35] Timothy Power, “The Red Sea Region during the ‘Long’ Late Antiquity (AD 500-1000)” (Ph.D. diss., University of Oxford, 2010), 206-207, published as The Red Sea from Byzantium to the Caliphate: AD 500-1000 (New York: American University in Cairo Press, 2012).

[36] “The Red Sea Region during the ‘Long’ Late Antiquity (AD 500-1000),” 206.

[37] Description of Arabia, Made from Personal Observations and Information Collected on the Spot by Carsten Niebuhr (trans. Major C. W. H. Sealy; Bombay: Government Central Press, 1889), 93.

[38] David George Hogarth, The Penetration of Arabia (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1904), 201, quoted in Aston, “The Origins of the Nihm Tribe of Yemen,” 141.

[39] Voices from the Dust, 37.

[40] Cf. Retsö, The Arabs in Antiquity, who states that Nihm was the name of “two distinct groups, one northeast of Ṣanʿaʾ and another one on the northern slopes of the land of ʾAmir,” 564. I have not found any other attestation for the latter group from another period.

[41] S. Kent Brown, “On Nahom/NHM” [accessed Aug 22, 2015]. Online:

[42] Personal communication to author, July 27, 2015.

[43] Personal communication to author, August 4, 2015.

[44] Aston, “A History of NaHoM,” 80; idem, “The Origins of the Nihm Tribe of Yemen,” 141.

[45] “Book of Mormon Minimalists and the NHM Inscriptions,” 173.