Learning Nephi’s Language: Creating a Context for 1 Nephi 1:2

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Nephi’s Language Without Context: An Enigma

It was not long after the Book of Mormon was published before Nephi’s statement that he wrote using “the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians” (1 Nephi 1:2) started raising eyebrows.1 It has continued to perplex even the best LDS scholars, who have put forward no fewer than five different interpretations of the passage.2 Some have even pointed out that there seems to be no logical reason for Nephi’s statement, since anyone who could read the text would know what language it was written in.3

[Page 152]I suggest that the reason the phrase has remained hard to interpret is that Nephi’s statement continues to be interpreted without any context. And this is so despite the fact that Egyptian writing by Israelite scribes has been known and attested to in Nephi’s very time period since at least the 1960s. Though Latter-day Saint scholars have known and written about these writings, they have generally used them just as evidence for the Book of Mormon or to bolster support for preexisting theories about Nephi’s language, rather than using those texts to create a context in which Nephi’s statement can be interpreted.4

On “Context” and Its Creation

Sam Wineburg, a cognitive psychologist who studies historical learning, explains, “Contexts are neither ‘found’ nor ‘located,’ and words are not ‘put’ into context. Context, from Latin contexere, means to weave together, to engage in an active process of connecting things in a pattern.” Following Wineburg, I intend to create a context for 1 Nephi 1:2. In such an endeavor, Wineburg explains, “questions … are the tools of creation.”5 There are a number of questions to ask about the Israelites’ use of Egyptian writing. What we need to understand is how, exactly, were Israelite and Judahite scribes using Egyptian writing ca. the seventh century bc? What kind of Egyptian scripts were they using, and when did they adopt them? Also, was there anything different about the way they used Egyptian scripts versus how the Egyptians themselves were writing at the time?[Page 153]

Creating the Context From Hieratic Texts in Seventh Century bc Judah

David Calabro, though not writing about the Book of Mormon, had some of these same questions in view while working on his MA thesis, which was on the use of hieratic during the period of the late monarchy.6 In an article summarizing his findings, he carefully examines Judahite ostraca that include hieratic writing to see what can be determined about the use of hieratic (an Egyptian script) by Israelite, and more specifically Judahite, scribes. He finds that the data “point to the development within Judah of a unified, extensive hieratic tradition. Further, from a paleographic standpoint, this tradition appears to have been independent of those attested in Egypt during that time.”7

On one ostracon, which contains an intermixture of Hebrew and hieratic, Calabro notices that “the use of hieratic signs here extends beyond simply inserting them as symbols to substitute for Hebrew words.”8 In other words, this is not simply Hebrew written with an Egyptian script. Still, Calabro points out something interesting: he detects that in some places, the order of hieratic signs is “contrary to common Egyptian practice … but in accordance with expected Hebrew word order as well the probable word order in spoken Egyptian.”9

On another ostracon from the same collection, which is fully written in hieratic, Calabro observes key differences in the paleography of the hieratic signs and contemporary hieratic from Egypt, noting that the examples from Judah appear more similar to earlier Egyptian writing, “which again points to an independent Judahite development of hieratic script.”10 Calabro finds that the writing is closer to New Kingdom scripts (ca. 1550–1070 bc), and more specifically the eighteenth dynasty (ca. 1543–1292 bc). This may suggest that the use of hieratic in Israel began close to that time, and subsequently developed independently.

A third ostracon containing a mixture of Hebrew and hieratic appears to be a scribal exercise. As Calabro interprets it, it contains [Page 154]specific use of hieratic alphabetic signs, rather than merely numerals and measurements. Hence, this offers “the first example of hieratic uniliteral signs in late monarchic Judah, thus strengthening the assertion that the hieratic signs in use there were part of a basically complete system.”11 Some hieratic signs from this inscription also “match fairly well the examples from the New Kingdom.”12 Calabro concludes that the evidence on this ostracon points to “an extensive hieratic component in the scribal education of Judahites, at least in the place where the ostracon was composed.”13

From all of this, Calabro reaches some important conclusions about the use of hieratic in Judah in the seventh century bc.

[Page 155]All three of the ostraca discussed in this paper seem to belong to a single tradition of hieratic writing. …

Paleographically, this tradition appears to have been separate from the script traditions of contemporary Saite Egypt. Some of the signs on the ostraca from Judah … do not resemble any known forms from Egyptian papyri. In the case of the šm‘ sign, the form of the sign more closely resembles the hieroglyphic form. …

The Judahite hieratic tradition, developing independently from the contemporary scribal traditions in Egypt, must have diverged from them at an earlier period. … It is therefore not inconceivable that the tradition of hieratic writing in the southern Levant has its ultimate roots in a period even before the New Kingdom, perhaps being used on documents now lost to us. This does not, however, exclude the possibility of New Kingdom (and later) influence on this tradition.

The extent of the hieratic system used in this tradition, Arad 25, 34, and the ostracon from Tell el-Qudeirat indicate that the hieratic tradition in Judah lasted in a fuller form than only the isolated use of numbers and units of measurement. In particular, it included hieratic alphabetic signs, logographic signs … and Egyptian conventions of sign sequence. …

All three of the ostraca discussed here come from the Negev region in the southern part of Judah. … In view of the unity of script forms mentioned above, the wide distribution of hieratic numerals and other isolated hieratic signs in Judah indicates a widespread presence of scribes educated in this Judahite variety of Egyptian script.14

The same ostraca Calabro examines are among the samples of Hebrew/Egyptian hybrid writing appealed to by Latter-day Saint writers. They also make observations that are useful in our attempt to create context. For example, discussing an ostracon from the same Arad collection that two of Calabro’s three examples come from, Stephen D. Ricks and John A. Tvedtnes reported, “The text on the ostracon is written in a combination of Egyptian hieratic and Hebrew characters, but can be read entirely as Egyptian. Of the seventeen words in the text, ten are written in hieratic and seven in Hebrew.”15 The significance here is that the underlying language was Egyptian, not Hebrew.

At least brief mention should be made of Stefan Wimmer, who has carefully studied the hieratic texts from Israel and Judah.16 Wimmer reasoned, based on some chronological changes in Israelite hieratic texts consistent with changes in Egyptian script, that there was “continued contact of some sort between Egyptian and Hebrew scribes, probably over several centuries.”17 This observation is driven by Wimmer’s view that “the hieratic of these texts does not differ from the cursive script used in contemporary Egypt.”18 Such views differ from that of Calabro, although he does insist that his own analysis “does not exclude the possibility of New Kingdom (and later) influence on this tradition.”19 Calabro found that certain signs appear to be closer to older forms of hieratic, but that [Page 156]does not preclude others (possibly found on other ostraca) from being influenced by latter conventions of writing found in Egypt.

Other scholars, however, have made observations more consistent with Calabro’s finding. For example, biblical scholars Philip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager similarly explain, “Documents from the kingdoms of both Israel and Judah, but not the neighboring kingdoms, of the eighth and seventh centuries [bc] contain Egyptian hieratic signs (cursive hieroglyphics) and numerals that had ceased to be used in Egypt after the tenth century [bc].”20 John S. Thompson said something very similar while discussing 1 Nephi 1:2:

The kind of Egyptian script being employed on those artifacts dating around the time of Lehi is hieratic, but since Demotic was the script of the day in northern Egypt and “abnormal hieratic” was predominant in southern Egypt, the normal hieratic tradition in Canaan must have been adopted from an earlier time — possibly … during the reigns of David and Solomon or even earlier in the tenth century bc — and was in continued use in Israel.21

Like Calabro, these scholars find that the hieratic in Palestine appears to be from an earlier, not contemporary, form of the Egyptian script. Calabro’s work further illuminates the roots of this practice, suggesting it goes back even earlier than the tenth century bc, into the New Kingdom, in Egyptian periodization. This corresponds with the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1550–1200 bc) in Canaan. Concurring with Calabro in this regard is Seth L. Sanders, who writes, “The style of hieratic prominent in Iron Age Israel and Judah shows strongest contact not with contemporary Iron Age Egypt but with archaic Late Bronze Age forms.”22 Sanders connects this persistence of archaic forms with the perpetuation of the tradition [Page 157]“below the radar of state bureaucracy,”23 opening up the possibility that such scribal practices were part of familial traditions passed on by successive generations. Such an absence of a state-sponsored scribal training may also explain why, according to Sanders, “The hieratic evidence shows that Hebrew scribes were taught complex techniques,” yet lacks “any remains of a complex curriculum.”24

Returning to Calabro’s work, his careful scrutiny also discovers that though the signs read as Egyptian, they sometimes came in word orders more akin to Hebrew writing. This verifies Matt Bowen’s assertion that “Hebraisms can exist in an Egyptian text.”25 According to Ricks and Tvedtnes, the hieratic is sometimes intermixed with Hebrew signs, though the whole text may still be read as Egyptian; other times, it appears from Calabro’s analysis, both Hebrew and Egyptian script and language are intermixed.

Nephi’s Language With Context: A Sensible Interpretation

Having woven together a context, primarily using Calabro, but also drawing on Thompson, King and Stager, Ricks and Tvedtnes, Wimmer, and Sanders, how should we interpret Nephi’s language, “consist[ing] of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians”? It is reasonable to suggest that Nephi’s language is part of a centuries-old and widespread scribal tradition in Judah of writing in hieratic Egyptian. Nephi calls it “the language of my father” (1 Nephi 1:2), and evidence suggests that rather than being perpetuated by the state for bureaucratic interests, this tradition was passed on within the family. By Nephi’s day, the hieratic script was often intermixed with Hebrew script, incorporating Hebrew word orders and scribal habits, thus differing from Egyptian as it was written in Egypt. Calabro calls it a “Judahite variety of Egyptian script”; Wimmer calls it “Palästiniches Hieratisch” (“Palestinian Hieratic”). Both of these seem functionally equivalent to Nephi’s “learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians.” It is, as Sydney B. Sperry hypothesized 80 years ago, “a Hebraized Egyptian.”26

[Page 158]Within this context, it is not likely that Nephi’s writing was Hebrew language in an Egyptian script. The awkwardness of such an arrangement was long ago pointed out by Hugh Nibley.27 Now, we know this is not how hieratic was being used in Nephi’s day. Since Calabro specifically notices what could be called Hebraisms (Hebrew word orders) in the hieratic writing, the presence of Hebraisms not typically found in Egyptian28 — as the Egyptians write — is insufficient evidence to assert that the underlying language is Hebrew as opposed to Nephi’s statement that it is Egyptian. Indeed, the most natural interpretation of Nephi’s statement is that he was writing Egyptian the way the Jews had learned to write it; that is, according their own, independent scribal tradition, which had some natural syncretism with Hebrew, but was nonetheless Egyptian.

It is impressive how well these findings accord with views expressed by Nibley several decades ago. Nibley staunchly insisted that “Egyptian could be written in less space than Hebrew because in Lehi’s day demotic was actually a shorthand, extremely cramped and abbreviated. … It could be used very economically for writing Egyptian, but not for any other language.”29 Lehi and his sons, Nibley argued, “had no other reason for learning Egyptian characters than to read and write Egyptian.”30 Nibley also reasoned that Lehi would have learned Egyptian not in Egypt, but “in Palestine, of course, before he ever thought of himself as a record-keeper,”31 thus hinting at the idea that Lehi (and subsequently, Nephi) would have learned Egyptian from an Israelite scribal tradition, something Nibley says “had been in progress long before Lehi’s day.”32 Nibley even suspected some syncretism with Hebrew, pointing to an inscribed dagger “which neatly combines Egyptian and Hebrew in a process of fusion for which a great deal of evidence now exists.”33 The only substantive difference is that Nephi’s most immediate context supports the use of hieratic, rather than demotic. While many of Nibley’s [Page 159]old hypotheses have fallen to further findings of scholarship, this one has largely been strengthened by new findings.

That Nephi specifies his writing is according to “the learning of the Jews” indicates that he has some awareness that there are differences in how the Egyptians themselves write and use their language. He may be referring to the differences in script, in word order, in the incorporation of some Hebrew linguistic elements, or most likely all of the above. The awareness of these differences could come only from having some contact with “pure” Egyptian scribal practices, as Wimmer’s findings suggest. This awareness of Egyptian according to the “learning of the Egyptians,” to adapt Nephi’s phrase, could explain why Nephi makes a statement about his language at all: familiar with both traditions of Egyptian writing, Nephi may have felt a need to specify that his was the Judahite variety. Readers of the Egyptian variety would probably still be able to read the Palestinian hieratic but may have struggled. Perhaps Nephi was hoping to help such potential readers avoid confusion from the Hebraized elements of his Egyptian writing by telling them up front that this was the Judahite variety of hieratic.

The context created from late preexilic scribal practice in Judah allows for a sensible interpretation of 1 Nephi 1:2 that resolves its ambiguity. The data allow us to see just what the “language of the Egyptians,” according to “the learning of the Jews,” actually consisted of and interpret Nephi’s statement accordingly. No such explanatory context can reasonably be fashioned out of Joseph Smith’s world, where the reaction of contemporaries indicates that the phrase was as perplexing to readers then as it is now.

1. For just one example, which is relatively tame, see Gimel, “Book of Mormon,” The Christian Watchman (Boston) 12/40 (October 7, 1831): “The plates were inscribed in the language of the Egyptians, see page 5. As Nephi was a descendant from Joseph, probably Smith would have us understand, that the Egyptian language was retained in the family of Joseph; of this, however, we have no evidence.” Some more inflammatory examples could be cited.

2. These include: (1) Nephi was writing in Hebrew with an Egyptian script (Stephen D. Ricks, John A. Tvedtnes, among others); (2) Nephi’s writings were not just in Hebrew, but reflected Jewish culture while using an Egyptian script (John L. Sorenson); (3) Nephi wrote in both Egyptian language and script, but after a manner of learning taught in Israelite scribal schools (Hugh Nibley); (4) Nephi was using a writing system unique to his father Lehi, which somehow combined Jewish learning with Egyptian language (John S. Thompson); (5) Nephi was conveying the sacred concepts of the Jewish sacral language in Egyptian (presumably both script and language) (LeGrand Baker). I lay these out in detail in Neal Rappleye, “Nephi the Good: A Commentary on 1 Nephi 1:1–3,” Interpreter Blog, January 3, 2014, online at https://journal.interpreterfoundation.org/nephi-the-good-a-commentary-on-1-nephi-11-3/ (accessed March 6, 2015). My own views, argued in the blog post and in this article are essentially aligned with (3).

3. An example is Brant A. Gardner, “Another Suggestion for Reading 1 Nephi 1:1–3,” Interpreter Blog, January 18, 2014, online at https://journal.interpreterfoundation.org/another-suggestion-for-reading-1-nephi-1-1-3/ (accessed March 6, 2015).

4. See, for example, Stephen D. Ricks and John A. Tvedtnes, “Notes and Communications — Jewish and Other Semitic Texts Written in Egyptian Characters,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 5/2 (1996): 156–163. This is not to say that the materials they use cannot be employed in the creation of context. Some of the texts they mention are ostraca from the same collection as those discussed in this paper, and in fact they will be cited later for a specific detail they provide. They also cite other ancient texts which could be used to create a context more consonant with option 1 (see n. 2, above); however these come from a different time period, and are generally from Egypt, not Israel. In creating a context for 1 Nephi 1:2, I have chosen to focus on materials from Judah in the late seventh century bc—very close to Nephi’s own time, and certainly within Lehi’s.

5. Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2001), 21.

6. See David Calabro, “The Hieratic Scribal Tradition in Late Monarchic Judah,” (University of Chicago, MA thesis, 2005).

7. David Calabro, “The Hieratic Scribal Tradition in Preexilic Judah,” in Evolving Egypt: Innovation, Appropriation, and Reinterpretation in Ancient Egypt, ed. Kerry Muhlestein and John Gee, BAR International Series 2397 (Oxford, Eng.: Archaeopress, 2012), 77.

8. Ibid., 79.

9. Ibid., 78.

10. Ibid., 80.

11. Ibid., 82.

12. Ibid., 82.

13. Ibid., 82. Calabro explains that the place of composition “may have been at Tell el-Qudeirat [where it was found], although this is not certain.” (p. 82, brackets mine).

14. Ibid., 82–83.

15. Ricks and Tvedtnes, “Jewish and Other Semitic Texts,” 161.

16. See Stefan Wimmer, Palästiniches Hieratisch: Die Zahl- und Sonderzeichen in der althebräishen Schrift (Wiesbaden: Harraossowitz, 2008).

17. William J. Hamblin, “Palestinian Hieratic,” at Interpreter Blog, September 1, 2012, online at https://journal.interpreterfoundation.org/palestinian-hieratic/ (accessed March 6, 2015). Hamblin is summarizing Wimmer’s views, which are published in German. I don’t read German, so I am dependent on Hamblin’s English summary.

18. Wimmer, Palästiniches Hieratisch, 11; translation by Stephen O. Smoot. My appreciation goes to Smoot for translating relevant excerpts from Wimmer for my benefit.

19. Calabro, “The Hieratic Scribal Tradition,” 83.

20. Philip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager, Life in Biblical Israel (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 311, brackets mine.

21. John S. Thompson, “Lehi and Egypt,” in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, ed. John W. Welch, David Rolph Seely, and Jo Ann H. Seely (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2004), 266. On abnormal hieratic, John Gee, “Notes and Communications—Two Notes on Egyptian Script,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 5/1 (1996): 163, explains, “An adaptation of hieratic characterized by ‘wild orthography,’ abnormal hieratic in its second phase was used in Egypt mainly for legal and administrative purposes during the Twenty-fifth and Twenty-sixth Dynasties (727–548 bc).”

22. Seth L. Sanders, The Invention of Hebrew (Urbana/Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009), 90.

23. Ibid., 90.

24. Ibid., 129.

25. Matthew L. Bowen, “‘Most Desirable About All Things’: Onomastic Play on Mary and Mormon in the Book of Mormon,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 13 (2015): 33.

26. Sidney B. Sperry, “The Book of Mormon as Translation English,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 4/1 (1995): 209; originally published in The Improvement Era 38/3 (March 1935): 140.

27. See Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert/The World of the Jaredites/There Were Jaredites (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988), 14–17­­.

28. See, for example, John Gee, “La Trahison des Clercs: On the Language and Translation of the Book of Mormon,” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 6/1 (1994): 95; Kerry Muhlestein, “Insights Available as We Approach the Original Text,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 15/1 (2006): 63.

29. Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, 15.

30. Ibid., 16.

31. Ibid., 15–16.

32. Ibid., 14.

33. Ibid., 14.

16 thoughts on “Learning Nephi’s Language: Creating a Context for 1 Nephi 1:2

  1. Neal, thank you for your research!
    I wonder if Nephi’s training in Egyptian also had a temporal purpose. We know that Lehi was wealthy, probably from successful business ventures, and Nephi states he was “taught somewhat in all the learning of [his] father.” I imagine Lehi taught his sons how to be successful business men, which may include teaching them Egyptian if it was important for local commerce. My understanding is that in some locations Demotic was a popular shorthand Egyptian for trade during Lehi’s time.
    Are you aware of any evidence that suggests Demotic (or some other form of “trade” Egyptian) played an important commercial role in Jerusalem?

  2. Really enjoyed this, makes perfect sense to this non-scholar! I’d previously read Jerry Grover’s paper on translating the Caractors document, which I also enjoyed favorably, and think y’all are moving in the right direction. Keep going!

  3. One topic that I am not aware of being addressed in relation to the written language of the Book of Mormon is that the small plates of Nephi were written about 1000 years before Mormon started making his compilation and that Mormon just appended the small plates to his much later abridgement without modification. My understanding is that language changes over time, so it seems reasonable to me that the characters and language usage on the small plates would have been different from those used by Mormon in the rest of Mormon’s abridged record. Has anyone done research to understand what implications that may have on our understanding of the Book of Mormon?

    • Cameron:
      That seems like an impossible question to ask since it is based on too many unknowns, namely: no one knows what the “reformed egyptian” even looked like; you have to assume it changed; and then how drastic were the changes, if any? So, how would one even begin research on this question when the plates were taken up by the angel? You would have to ask Nephi/Moroni in order to find out.

      • Obviously there are many unknowns related to the reformed Egyptian and it would be difficult if not impossible to learn any detailed information. My question was really trying to ask if anyone has looked for clues in the historical record indicating that a portion of the plates might have looked different from other portions, either in shape, color, or characters used.
        It would appear to be a strange coincidence if the metal used by Nephi was identical in color and shape to the metal used by Mormon and Moroni. Unless Mormon had made a conscious attempt to make his plates identical in size and color to those of Nephi, the small plate portion might have stuck out, or have been indented from the other plates. My reading of his statement leads me to believe that he had already engraved the first part of the record before he decided to include the small plates, so it seems to me that the two sets of plates being the exact same size and color would have been pure luck. Plus, I have read in other places(I think in Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling) that there is evidence that the small plates may have been after the book of Moroni in the plate stack (kind of like an appendix) based on the fact that some of the handwriting in the original Book of Mormon translation manuscript for portions of 1 & 2 Nephi was that of someone in the Wittmer family(I can’t remember who), which would have been near the end of the translation process. That would mean that Joseph consciously put the writings of the small plates at the beginning of the printed version of the Book of Mormon even though it was the last thing translated.
        If the 3 & 8 witnesses handled all of the leaves that had been translated they may have mentioned that a part looked different in shape, thickness, color, or style of characters. Such type of info might be another evidence beyond the scribal handwriting as to where they were really located in the plate stack.
        Also, other interesting items might come to light based on using that paradigm(that the language was probably somewhat different) . Have statements made by Mormon/Moroni about the language used, and modifications made to that language, been thought about in light of the fact that Nephi’s language would have been more pure and less modified? Are there more evidence of Hebraisms in the small plate section than in the Mormon abridged section? These are the kinds of questions I was trying to get at by asking if any research has been done on this topic.

        • I’m not a Book of Mormon scholar by any means. But I’ll like to add a few thoughts:
          1. There is nothing to prohibit Mormon from copying the small plates into his script. This would allow Mormon to keep consistent plate sizes and script characters. This is why there is no evidence for misshaped plates.
          2. Evidence suggests that the Book of Mormon was translated in order of Book of Lehi, Mosiah – Moroni, 1 Nephi – Omni. But this doesn’t have to be the order it’s written in. My impression is that it’s possible that after Mormon was done abridging Lehi (through the now missing original Mosiah chapter 1), he added the Small Plates, then Words of Mormon and then finished Mosiah through Mormon 7.
          I guess there is no easy way to see how exactly the message of Mormon and Moroni became English. There is a whole lot of speculative reasoning simply because we don’t really have a huge amount of evidence of how things were done – just a lot of guesses.

  4. Very much enjoyed the read. Thank you.
    Some folks demand proof but I doubt that even if an archaeologist uncovered a stone in Meso-America inscribed with “Lehi slept here” would convince them. In 1830, ancient Jews writing on metal was ridiculous. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and specifically the Copper Scroll, that issue is resolved. I recently read that the Cave of Letters is described on the Copper Scroll and indicates the place where Yadin found “Alma ben Yahoud”. Some folks just can’t be convinced. They won’t believe even if an Angel appeared to them and handed them the gold plates.

  5. Neal:
    Was Joseph Fielding Smith wrong then when he compiled the teachings of the prophet joseph smith? Is it always going to change or is there anything that can relied upon? I got to tell you, Neal, assuming authority is giving me a headache. Good luck against Mr. Jenkins when you and your friend get around to answering his request for proof.

    • Perplexed, I can see why you might be perplexed. You appear to have adopted a an inerrantist view of history. That is a difficult position to take even on scripture, but for history it is really quite impossible. Your question about Joseph Fielding Smith as Church Historian appears to conflate that with his position as Prophet. They are different time periods, and his later position couldn’t inform his earlier one. As for relying on things, I would suggest you rely on scripture and prophets. Of course, I also suggest that you are more critical about how you understand either of those.
      As for Mr. Jenkins, I don’t know if you are aware of the rather drawn out discussion William Hamblin had/tried to have with him. As a simple reply, the request for proof is a rather silly thing for a historian to require. What proof do we have of the cause of the civil war? What proof do we have of the cause of World War I? We know that there were certain events, but historians construct explanations of history that provide evidence for their conclusions, not proof. The question of Book of Mormon historicity is similarly a question of evidence. The only known proof is spiritual and clearly not what he was looking for.
      All of that having been said, do you have anything substantive to say about Neal’s article?

      • Brant:
        I guess Mr. Rappleye’s proposal is possible for the old world given the proximity of the two peoples, but it still doesn’t put the egyptian/hebrew language in the new world. If you could do that, then that would obviously be news to all including Mr. Jenkins.

        • Perplexed-well, at least we have some agreement at the beginning. Since Neil’s article discussed the reason that the text would have been written in something that said it was the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians, then he met his goal.
          The question about finding such a language in the New World is a very different one. Perhaps you might provide a list of the texts available in the Americas that predate, say, AD 400? I’ll give you a hint that there is information that writing was known, but there are very few examples and not all of those from the same peoples and languages. Why is that important? It makes it easier to talk about why a given script doesn’t have much or any attestation when we understand that very few scripts have very much or any attestation. That doesn’t mean they weren’t there. It means they didn’t survive.
          One of the very real problems with Mr. Jenkin’s suggestions is that the very nature of evidence in the New World (quite apart from anything to do with the Book of Mormon) is dramatically different from the Old World. Using Old World expectations of what should be possible and imputing those ideas onto the New World simply demonstrates a lack of understanding of the problems of history we have for the New World.
          I’m guessing, however, that you really aren’t interested in Neil’s thesis, but rather Book of Mormon polemics. There must be a better place. His article is interesting, let’s discuss that, shall we?

          • Brant:
            When does your latest book come out? I’m interested in what you have to say because I find you very engaging and intelligent. Nevertheless, I am interested in BofM polemics because that is where the game seems to be played right now with the recent disclosures of the peep stone and the recent essays. How do we deal with the loose v. tight translation polemic? I want to see how those on this site respond to the hard questions because I view those here as the cream of the crop.
            How do you reconcile what Dr. Bushman said regarding finding 19th century religious preacher texts in the BofM with the tight translation? Was it as Ostler said? Then what of the stories of seeing words on the stone?
            With respect to Neal and his work, he seems to be as Dr. Hamblin claims, an up and coming scholar. I just get frustrated with the assumption of truth that seems to pervade here. We should question everything regardless of whether certain people agree or not. I think only that way can we come to an answer to the tough questions.

            • Perplexed:
              The book is now available, thank you for asking.
              I’ll give you my answers to your questions, of course others will have different opinions. If you have read Interpreter you will have seen that it has published some articles I have written and specifically articles on translation by Stanford Carmack and Royal Skousen. I mention them specifically because we differ in our interpretation of the data for translation. I found that the loose vs. tight translation paradigm Skousen suggests wasn’t useful because our ideas of what Joseph was doing were so different. Skousen and Carmack have Joseph as a reader, not a translator. The tight vs. loose paradigm appears to apply only to the transmission from Joseph to Oliver. Since they remove the translation process to some other agent a step away from Joseph, we still wouldn’t know much about how that translator worked.
              You might have seen that I published a book on that topic, The Gift and Power. Translating the Book of Mormon. My suggestion, based on the way I see the data, is that there are three types of translation process that can be seen in the text, and they appear in some rather specific circumstances. The translation of names appears to have been literalist (tight), but the majority of the text functionalist (loose, but still adhering to meaning and representing structural patterns. Finally, there are a couple of places which appear to be conceptual, places where there is a prophetic addition (similar to the revelatory expansion of Moses). In other words, I see Joseph as a translator, and the vocabulary and phrasing representing his available understanding as a translator. Interestingly, I agree with Skousen that Joseph saw words. Saying that he saw words on the stone is an interpretation that I believe to be incorrect. As for how that happened, I suggest the book.
              While you are correct that Interpreter intentionally has an assumption of the truthfulness of the LDS gospel message and scriptures, that doesn’t mean that serious discussion is not allowed or discouraged. If you follow the comments on various papers, you will see that respectful and substantive disagreement is allowed. What I hope happens through Interpreter (and I am not to be seen as speaking on Interpreter’sbehalf) is that good scholarship is encouraged, and questioned, so that quality scholarship can be polished through questions. To have that happen requires specific interactions with the papers, so that is encouraged.

  6. “No such explanatory context can reasonably be fashioned out of Joseph Smith’s world … ”
    Can’t the word “mormon” be explained as coming from Joseph Smith’s world? He says the “mor” part of “mormon” comes from english, which did not exist in the “nephite world.”
    This is from the teachings of the prophet joseph smith, pp 299-300:
    Sir:–Through the medium of your paper, I wish to correct an error among men that profess to be learned, liberal and wise; and I do it the more cheerfully, because I hope sober-thinking and sound-reasoning people will sooner listen to the voice of truth, than be led astray by the vain pretensions of the self-wise. the error I speak of, is the definition of the word “Mormon.” I has been stated that this word was derived from the Greek word “mormo.” This is not the case. There was no Greek or Latin upon the plates from which I, through the grace of God, translated the Book of Mormon. Let the language of that book speak for itself. On the 523rd page, of the fourth edition, it reads: “And now behold we have written this record according to our knowledge in the characters, which are called among us the “Reformed Egyptian,” being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech; and if our plates had been sufficiently large, we should have written in Hebrew: but the Hebrew hath been altered by us, also; and if we could have written in Hebrew, behold ye would have had no imperfection in our record, but the Lord knoweth the things which we have written, and also, that none other people knoweth our language; therefore he hath prepared means for the interpretation thereof.”
    Here then the subject is put to silence, for “none other people knoweth our language,” therefore the Lord, and not man, had to interpret, after the people were all dead. And as Paul said, “the world by wisdom know not God,” so the world by speculation are destitute of revelation; and as God in his superior wisdom, has always given his Saints, wherever he had any on the earth, the same spirit, and that spirit, as John says, is the true spirit of prophecy, which is the testimony of Jesus. I may safely say that the word Mormon stands independent of the learning and wisdom of this generation.–Before I give a definition, however, to the word, let me say that the Bible in its widest sense, means good; for the Savior says according to the gospel of John, “I am the good shepherd;” and it will not be beyond the common use of terms, to say that good is among the most important in use, and though known by various names in different languages, still its meaning is the same, and is ever in opposition to “bad.” We say from the Saxon, “good”; the Dane, “god”; the Goth, “goda”; the German, “gut”; the Dutch, “goed”; the Latin, “bonus”; the Greek, “kalos”; the Hebrew, “tob”; and the “Egyptian, “mon.” Hence, with the addition of “more,” or the contraction, “mor,” we have the word “mormon”; which means, literally, “more good.”
    So, it looks like J.S. is saying the ancient nephite name “mormon” is derived in part from english? Looks like it comes from his world, or was J.S. mistaken like he obviously was with “Zelph” and the hemispheric geography model?
    Also, when will there be an actual response to Professor Jenkins? Is this considered a response?

    • Perplexed,
      I should hope that it is obvious that my comment about there being no explanatory context from Joseph’s world is in regards to the phrase “the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians,” since that is the subject of the paper.
      The etymology of the name Mormon is off-topic, but you can pursue the Book of Mormon Onomasticon (Google search it to find it) for proposals on its meaning. For what it is worth, though, the article you refer to is generally believed to be ghost written by W.W. Phelps, and the meaning of Mormon given in the article is considered to be tongue-in-cheek.

  7. I highly enjoyed your article Neal. It reminds me of an discussion I had on my mission back in 2005 with a Baptist minister who confidently asserted that scholars have proven there is no such thing as Reformed Egyptian. If only I had this article handy then!

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