On Nephi’s Steel Bow

1 Nephi 16:18 reads as follows:

“And it came to pass that as I, Nephi, went forth to slay food, behold, I did break my bow, which was made of fine steel; and after I did break my bow, my brethren were angry with me because of the loss of my bow, for we did obtain no food.”

Verse 21 reports that the bows of Nephi’s brothers had lost their “springs” (presumably, the tension provided by the flexibility of the wood). In verse 23 Nephi makes a new bow of wood and an arrow from a straight stick, and inquires of his father where he should hunt. Lehi inquires of the Lord, and the liahona directs Nephi to the top of the mountain, where he is able to slay wild beasts to feed the family.

Critics of the Book of Mormon have long pointed to Nephi’s bow of steel from verse 18 as a clear anachronism, as carbonized steel did not yet exist at that time.

William Hamblin’s comments in an article on “Steel in the Book of Mormon,” reprinted in this 2005 Meridian Magazine article:


represent the current apologetic state of the art on this issue.

The key paragraph of Hamblin’s piece on this point is as follows:

“An interesting key to the problem is Nephi’s steel bow (1 Ne 16.18). My assumption here is that this phrase is meant to describe the same weapon that is called a “steel bow” in the KJV Bible. (I think this is obvious whether Joseph Smith invented the text or
it is ancient.) The phrase “bow of steel” occurs three times in the KJV: 2 Sam 22.35, Job 20.24, and Ps 18.34. In all cases it translates the Hebrew phrase qeshet nechushah, which modern translations consistently, and correctly, translate as “bronze.”
There is one other reference to “steel” in the KJV at Jer 15.12, also referring to bronze. The metal is apparently called “steel” in the KJV because bronze is “steeled” (strengthened) copper through alloying it with tin or through some other process.”

This is a useful start on the issue. It successfully rebuts the notion that “steel” is an anachronism in the Book of Mormon. And I think we can certainly agree that Nephi’s steel bow must be understood in the same light as the KJV “bow of steel” that appears in three passages of the Old Testament.

Nevertheless, problems remain. Why would anyone make a bow of copper or bronze? These metals are not practical for bow construction, even if only added as ornamental touches. And why would such a bow break?

Of course, those same problems exist in the OT passages as well. Virtually all modern translations render the Hebrew expression qesheth nechushah as something like “bronze bow,” and simply acknowledge that we do not really know what that means in terms of bow construction.

A recent article seeks to answer these questions, and therefore is significant not only for our
understanding of the Old Testament precedents, but also for our understanding of Nephi’s steel bow from 1 Nephi 16:18.

The article is Aron Pinker, “On the Meaning of [qesheth nechushah],” The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures, Volume 5, Article 12 (2004-2005), available here:


Pinker begins by surveying the difficulty with positing a bow made of bronze, which would not work for bow construction, inasmuch as the body must be light and pliable. Some have thought that the bronze refers only to ornamentation on the bow, but that would still interfere with the proper working of it. Of course, a bow that was entirely ornamental could be made of bronze, but the scriptural passages contemplate a bow that actually works.

Pinker next surveys previous attempts to see the key Hebrew term, nechushah, as something other than bronze:

1. A number of medieval rabbis (Rashi, Kimchi, Ralbag) understood nechushah as a metaphor for strength: i.e., “strong bow, hard to pull bow.”

2. Mitchell Dahood interpreted the qesheth nechushah of Ps. 18:35 as “the miraculous bow,” taking nechushah from *NCHSH in the sense of “practice divination, to charm, enchant,” and translated:

Who trained my hands for battle
Lowered the miraculous bow into my hand.

This is certainly intriguing in light of the fact that there is a divination element to the Nephite story. But this requires a different approach to the “bronze bow” passage of Job 20:24, where a miraculous bow would not work in the context. Since the Psalm passage is virtually identical to the 2 Sam. 22:35 passage, Dahood’s theory requires two entirely different translations for what are essentially the only two biblical occurrences of the expression.

3. Bruno suggested that nechushah does not mean “copper, bronze” in these passages, but that it is the Niphal of the root *CHWSH, “make haste”; the bow is thus a “quick bow.” But such a form is not attested in the Hebrew Bible, and the concept of a “quick bow” does not make any sense in archery.

4. Tournay and Schwab thought the expression referred to a bow that could shoot bronze-tipped arrows, but there is no evidence for such a distinction in bows, and the material of the arrowhead is never specified in the Hebrew Bible.

5. Schmuttermayer simply suggests deleting the word nechushah in the Samuel and Psalm passages, but his reasons for deleting the word are not compelling and do nothing to resolve the Job passage.

Pinker points out that the only possible meaning for nechushah that has not been suggested is “snake-like, serpentine.” The shape made by a moving snake conforms admirably to the shape of the wooden body of a double-convex bow. Thus, he suggests that the word does not refer to the material from which the bow is made, but to the shape of a particular type of bow. Rather than “bronze bow” in these passages, he
suggests that they should be understood as “snake-like bow,” referring to a double-convex form of construction (which is well attested from antiquity).

Pinker suggests that the derivation of nechushah “snake-like” from nachash “snake” finds support in the nechushtan, or bronze serpent-pole of Moses. The derivation of this name is uncertain; some think it derives from the word for “bronze,” and others that it derives from the word for “snake.” (But in either event, the most prominent visual feature of the pole would have been the snake, not its bronze construction.) Pinker identifies several similarly derived forms in the Hebrew Bible.

Pinker’s theory would have the benefit of providing for a consistent approach between the Old Testament passages rather than trying to interpret them in different ways.

The Job 20:24 passage reads as follows in the KJV:

He shall flee from the iron weapon, and the bow of steel shall strike him through.

Pinker notes that interpretation of this passage has suffered from a misunderstanding of the parallelism, thinking that nechushah must be a metal in synonymous parallelism with the iron of the first line. Based on an analysis of the verbs of the passage, Pinker determines that the parallelism of the passage was not meant to be synonymous, but rather antithetic. The intended contrast is between the close range of the iron weapons (sword, ax, mace, etc.) and the long-range weapons (not containing metals). The verse is saying that anyone who will escape the metal weapons of close quarters combat would be pierced by the long-range weapons, such as the snake-like bow. According to Pinker’s reading of the passage, Zophar the Naamathite describes the effectiveness of God’s anger in standard military terms: “fleeing from metal (close quarters) weapons he is pierced by (an arrow of) a snake-like bow (long-range weapons),” taking “an arrow of” as an ellipsis (cf. Isa. 41:2).

If Pinker is correct in his understanding of qesheth nechushah as a “snake-like [double-convex] bow,” and if Hamblin is correct that we must understand Nephi’s steel bow in light of the Old Testament precedents (and I think he clearly is), then we can posit that the Hebrew underlying 1 Ne. 16:18 was something like “I did break my qesheth nechushah.” Joseph rendered nechushah, under the influence of the KJV precedents, with the clause “which was made of fine steel.” But when we strip away the Jacobean level influence of the KJV, what Nephi really wrote was “I did break my snake-like [double convex] bow.”

If this reading is correct, all of the problems simply melt away. There is no metallic anachronism or puzzle as to construction; i.e., how would such a bow work and how would it break? It was simply a wooden double-convex bow, not a metal bow, and it broke, as bows sometimes do. Nephi was constrained to make another bow, also out of wood, but this one a simple bow rather than one of double-convex construction.

So what do you think? Is this too radical a reading?


  1. I like this reading. I also like the methodology of “piggy-backing” on Pinker’s analysis to gain insight into possible usages in the BoM. This is why I think it is particularly useful that LDS academics interested in biblical studies and ancient near eastern studies and archaeology are getting their PhD’s by engaging with such material. It helps us gain a better understanding of the BoM context, and enlarges the soul as we read the BoM.

  2. Fascinating post, Kevin. Excuse my ignorance, but what do you mean by “Jacobean level influence of the KJV” in your 3rd-to-last paragraph?

    On a related noe, in 1 Ne 1:2 Nephi says “I make a record in the langage of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians.” It seems you need to assume that Nephi used some Hebrew words or that some Egyptian words are the same as Hebrew words, or (and perhaps this is what “Jacobean influence” refers to) that Joseph Smith was influenced by the KJV bible in his reading of Nephi’s reformed Egyptian.

  3. a random John says:

    I did break my bow, which was made of fine steel

    This strikes me as a little more problematic than “steel bow”, “bronze bow”, or “bow of steel”. The emphasis seems to be more on how nice the steel was than on how nice the bow was. Nephi implies that it is different from the bows of his brothers, and also contrasts it with the wooden bow that he makes.

    Saying that Joseph was so influenced by the KJV that he rendered the phrase in a misleading way seems to indicate that we should reword a certain article of faith to include the BOM under the “translated correctly” disclaimer.

    It also implies a method of translation that relies on a curious combination of the text on the plates, Joseph’s inspired understanding of that text, and Joseph’s understanding of the Hebrew that underlies the KJV of the OT.

    I don’t claim to understand how the BOM was translated, but I really don’t understand the mechanism by which Joseph would elect to use a less accurate KJV rendering.

  4. ARJ- By one theory, a “less accurate KJV rendering” was used because that’s the language Joseph was familiar with. You find it all the time with inexperienced translators who are familiar with biblical-style (ie. KJV) language and how it “should” read, regardless of the degree of accuracy.

  5. a random John says:

    Ben S.,

    I can see that happening for common phrases, but I don’t see how Joseph would have read something that indicated a snake-shaped bow and then translated it to “bow which was made of fine-steel” in contrast to the later wooden bow simply because the KJV mentions steel bows. I think that the cart has been placed before the horse here in saying that because the KJV mentions steel bows that Joseph would have naturally used that phrase.

  6. My response to that would be that a translator doesn’t always know what something refers to, what it indicates. He simply knows what the text *says,* and it doesn’t say “snake-shaped bow.”

    But since we don’t know (though we have several competing theories) as to the nature of the translation process, this may be irrelevant.

  7. Kevin,

    How much do you know about metallurgy?

    I admit that my own knowledge here is very limited. But I do know enough to know that metal does break. It was a very constant problem with medeival weaponry. Even the finest steel swords from Toledo, Damascus, or Japan had a risk of fracturing and breaking. You had to take really good care of these weapons. There was also a constant problem of stress cracks developing throughout the crystalline structure of the metal that could cause a weapon to shatter under stress.

    Steel was pretty durable stuff, but you could definitely break it. I imagine that bronze was no different.

    But addressing the main point. Wouldn’t the anti’s simply say that the use of the word “steel” in the BoM and the KJV is simply evidence that Joseph derived the BoM almost entirely from the KJV and not directly from God? Why did the translators of the KJV use the word steel? Were they simply making a mistake?

    This isn’t the only problematic verse either. Scholars point out that there are at least a couple instances where the KJV translation has been proven innacurate by translation of the original Greek and Hebrew, and yet the BoM still favors the innacurate KJV reading in its quotations.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks all for the comments.

    #2 Robert C., #3 arj, and #7 Seth R., I agree that the BoM passage is more problematic in that it uses an entire clause rather than a simple one-word adjective. That is why this suggestion is perhaps a little bit radical and beyond what many LDS scholars would be comfortable with. Because I believe that there is an awful lot of Joseph Smith in the BoM, and therefore the language reflects his language and culture and environment. And one of the biggest such influences was indeed the King James Bible, not only in the form of quoted passages but in the form of general language.

    We don’t know for sure what the translation process entailed, but I suspect there is more “looseness” there than many are comfortable acknowledging.

    And I agree that there are KJV translation errors preserved in the BoM text. (And personally, I think the BoM is just as subject to the “translated correctly” qualifier as the Bible in our AoF.)

    For more on my views regarding BoM translation theory, see my article “A More Responsible Critique,” FARMS Review 15/1 (2003), here:


    Go a little over halfway down the link to the section that begins “Shepherd on Pseudotranslation.”

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    On Jacobean level influence of the KJV, I was thinking of what Hamblin wrote in the link I gave to his article. I will quote some of the relevant material below:

    An historical Book of Mormon would have at least seven different linguistic layers:

    1. early nineteenth century American English;

    2. Jacobean English of the KJV Bible;

    3. Fourth century A.D. language of Moroni (Morm 9.33-34);

    4. Mesoamerican language(s);

    5. Hebrew of the sixth century B.C.;

    6. Egyptian of the sixth century B.C.;

    7. Jaredite language.

    Even a person who rejects the historicity of the Book of Mormon must agree that linguistic levels one and two are found in the Book of Mormon. The one linguistic category we know was not used in the production of the Book of Mormon English text is twenty-first century scientific terminology, since this version of English did not exist in the 1820s.

    A fundamental fallacy of critics of the Book of Mormon is that they ignore this linguistic complexity, conflating twenty-first century English categories and concepts with those of these other linguistic layers. If you want to make a serious argument against the Book of Mormon you must argue from pre-twenty-first century linguistic categories, or you are begging the question. It is quite pointless to argue that because the Book of Mormon does not correlate with early twenty-first century linguistic categories, that is somehow evidence that the Book of Mormon is ahistorical.

  10. Kevin, thanks for explaining (I totally misread ‘Jacobean’ thinking it referred to some scholar as opposed to the post-Elizabethan, early Renaissance period!). Reading through your FARMS review on Shepherd makes your argument here stronger in my mind. We know so little about the translation process that I think it’s pretty tough to make persuasive arguments either way on issues like this–and so I think it will be tough to make a strong case against your steel = serpentine theory.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    Yeah, “Jacobian” is another, less awkward way of saying “Jamesian,” because “James” is the English form of the Hebrew name “Jacob” through a tortuous linguistic process.

  12. If this reading is correct, all of the problems simply melt away.

    I think Pinker’s analysis is persuasive. Its connection to the 1 Nephi passage, however, can also be viewed as damning evidence by those who hold that Joseph Smith made everything up and imitated KJV English to make the story sound like scripture. In this case, Smith noted the existence of a bow of steel mentioned in the Bible, and threw it in to the mix, and assumed such things really existed.

  13. Ghost of John Lennon says:

    One thing that I have grown a bit weary of is the tendency to have to defend the Book of Mormon by arguing that it rarely means what it actually says. Horses are really deer, swords are actually macuahuitl, gold plates are actually tumbaga, and Nephi’s “fine steel bow” is actually a “snake-like [double convex] bow.” If the translation process was actually that occluding of actual meanings, how do we know that any of it is what it says it is?

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    Steven B. #12, I agree that those who do not accept BoM historicity can simply see this as a direct 19th century borrowing from the KJV. I put this theory forward as explanatory for those who already accept BoM historicity, not as some sort of a proof for those who do not.

    GoJL #13, I can understand your weariness, but in this case at least almost the same occlusion occurs in muliple passages of the Authorized Version of the Bible.

  15. Ghost of John Lennon says:

    Kevin, I have to say that your argument is much more persuasive and well argued that the others I mentioned. I guess my objection is that decent arguments like yours are diluted by less rigorous attempts to defuse apparently problematic passages.

  16. I put this theory forward as explanatory for those who already accept BoM historicity

    Noted. Thank you for this excellent post.

  17. I have never had a problem with the steel bow of Nephi. Everything he says about it seems highly plausable. But I guess that is because I am a metalurgial engineer hehe. The steel of those days would most likely have been from metorites, and very rare. There is also the possibility of it being carbidic steel such as the damascus blades, but that would require a different design.
    First some basic metallurgy. We call Iron containing less than 0.1% carbon – Iron. We call iron containing 0.1 to about 1.5 to 1.8 Steel. Above that we call it iron again. The early iron age did not start at 500 BC but possibly as early as 1000 BC and was though the working of Hemitite a very high grade iron ore though the bloom process. This produced high carbon iron which was like present day cast iron – britle and hard, but much better than any bronze weapon.
    Damascus Steel were low carbon irons containing considerable amounts of vanadium which formed local areas of iron carbide leaving most of the matrix with carbon low enough to be considered a steel. So you had a matrix of steel with lots of hard bits of carbides which were great for sharpening.
    But I digress. If you had a piece of metoric iron, (less than 0.1% carbon), you would have to work it by softening the iron in a hot fire. Material of choice would be charcol as it produes the hotest flame and can be made by incomplete buring of wood under a dirt blanket. As the metal is heated, and beaten, and reheated, it will adsorb carbon from the charcoal. We do this today and call it case hardening. The bow itself would probabily not be a single piece but consist of two “springs” of steel connected together by the hand grip. That would be a lot easier to make than one long spring.
    Finally, this bow would be a princely item – found only amoung the rich, and would take a beast of a man to pull it. I find the references to Lehi’s wealth sufficent to own such a prize, and it appears that Nephi may have had the powerful build necessary to pull it. Common bows had a pull of 20 to 30 pounds, but this bow could have had an 80 to 100 pound pull. Breaking it would have been a very sore loss.
    I pass on the translation of Hebrew. It could have been a recurved bow. My first bow was a 40 pound recurve. Or it could have been a steel bow. But don’t tell me that you couldn’t have a steel bow in 500 BC.

  18. Weston G says:

    In your comment on February 20, 2006 you said that a lot of the language from the KJV of the Bible is found in the BoM, indicating Joseph Smith using the Bible to write the BoM. I disagree strongly. Of course the BoM has phrases from the Bible. What do you think the brass plates were that Nephi and his brothers retrieved? It was a genealogy and record of the words of the prophets! AKA: THE BIBLE! However not the whole bible of course, as the entire bible was not written at that time. But Nephi quotes Isaiah on multiple occasions. As for the steel bow, I don’t know enough about metals to know wether or not a bow could work if it had been made of steel, however Nephi specifically says, “I did break my bow, which was MADE OF fine steel.” He didn’t say it was a steel bow, (Snake-like) but that it was a bow made of steel. In addition, how do bows lose their spring? Does the cord eventually stretch? Or, does the wood just get too flimsy? One more thing, in 1 Nephi 16:16 it says that they slew their food with bows and slings. Once their bows broke, why couldn’t they just use slings? I pondered this for a while and came to this possible conclusion; perhaps the arrows were used to wound an animal, but the sling was used to execute it once the animal had lost enough blood that the hunter could catch up. However this is just my pondering and theory, and I have not done any research on the topic.

  19. Weston G says:

    Hey Kevin, its me, Weston G, again. I did some reasearch on the slings mentioned in 1 Nephi 16:16 and found that according to Thomas J. Elpel’s review of Cliff Savage’s book, “The Sling,” I quote, “You can sling a fair sized rock farther than you can shoot a bow and arrow, and it packs enough of a wallop to potentially kill a horse.” It does not mention in the BoM that there was anything wrong with the slings. I don’t belive this to regard the BoM or Joseph Smith as a fake, but I’m a little confused. Please advise.

  20. Hi, Weston. I occasionally use each of a sling, atlatl, and bow to shoot at targets. Based on my experience and readings, the sling would be the least useful technology for hunting animals. And, though a sling does have a longer range than some types of unsophisticated bows, it’s practical target range (the distance at which one could accurately deliver a lethal blow) is shorter than most types of bows. Finally, in many situations, a sling is pretty much useless to hunt animals (same can be true of an atlatl). It takes time, movement, and noise to launch the object. Each of those elements can alert the animal. A deer, for example, would be off and running before the stone left the sling.

  21. Weston G says:

    I see what you mean, Stirling, but in ancient times men were more skilled with the sling and could hurl a rock after only one quick swing. You may recall when Alma the younger is preaching in the land of the Lamanites he is attacked by a group of thieves. In defense, Alma kills six of the charging Lamanites with his sling before he is forced to use his sword in closer combat. In bow hunting, or at least modern day bow hunting, you wait for the animal to wander close to you. At which point you draw slowly, when the animal isn’t looking, and then shoot it. A quick flip of the wrist with a sling might hurl a rock with only a split second of warning to the animal. Hardly enough time for an animal to react.

  22. I suspect there are not many people today who throw as well as ancient inhabitants of the Balearic Islands (supposedly taught to sling from childhood, with children not allowed to have their food by their mothers till they had first struck it with their sling.”
    But, the throwing method is the same today, as you say, just one swing. My point on the animal hunting, is that just that one swing is enough motion/noise/time for many animals to escape, hence the superiority of the bow (where the release action is much less noticiable).
    However, I’m inexperienced enough in hurling objects with these three methods that I certainly may be wrong.

  23. Weston G says:

    Well you’ve certainly expressed a very good point. I agree completely that a bow would be far superior for hunting than a sling. Perhaps the reason Alma used a sling to fight off Lamanites is because a bow would be too clumsy to pack around. Especially if you were just herding sheep. Perhaps since Nephi and the others planned to hunt with bows, they weren’t as skilled as Alma, and thus couldn’t hunt very efficiently with a sling.
    I definitely see where you’re coming from on how the whirring sound that a sling makes before you release the stone would give an animal enough warning, but in the past when I’ve startled deer they always run in a fairly strait and predictable line, and so, a person skilled enough could probably get one. Of course, the wildlife in the Arabic deserts my have different stiles of escape, such as zigzagging. I guess I’ll go in the hills this weekend and start swinging a rope to test the deers’ reaction time. It may be that they hear the whirring only as the wind. However, the motion would definitely send them running. I guess I’ll find out.

  24. Jared E. says:

    I have a general comment to make about this post, maybe someone else can enlighten me. It’s said in response 6 that:

    ‘since we don’t know (though we have several competing theories) as to the nature of the translation process, this may be irrelevant’.

    Perhaps we don’t know many of the specifics of how the Book of Mormon was translated, but overwhelmingly it appears that Joseph Smith did not ‘translate’ it, God did via the Urim and Thummim or a seer stone (seer stone in the hat seems most likely to me). I think the general consensus is that through the implement of translation, the correct meaning of the scripture would appear, i.e. this translation is not from Joseph Smith. Can someone please respond explaining how this doesn’t invalidate the general thrust of the original argument this post makes?

  25. Kevin Barney says:

    Jared, there are different theories regarding the translation of the BoM. Some take the position that Joseph’s role was very limited, that he acted mainly as a reader, and that the text derives rather directly from God. I call this the “teleprompter” theory, and this appears to be your point of view.

    Others take the view that Joseph was deeply involved in the process, and that the book reflects Joseph’s own, very imperfect language. This is my point of view.

    You are right, if the teleprompter theory is correct, then the suggestion I make in this post cannot be correct. But I reject the teleprompter theory. I think Joseph’s handprints are to be found on every page of the BoM.

  26. Jared E. says:

    Upon what do you base your conclusion upon this point? I’ve read the article you site in response #8, but all the reasons you give for the ‘loose’ translation approach are circumstantial whereas the ‘tight’ translation theory is based completely upon first hand accounts.

    Of the evidences you give for a ‘loose’ translation, only two strike me as being somewhat grounded:

    1) Josephs later editing: I see this argument largely discounted by the fact that Joseph actively did this with many of things the Lord had revealed to him, as can be seen by contrasting the original ‘Book of Commandment’ with our modern D&C.

    2) D&C 9:8 : You state that “Joseph was to “study it out in his mind” and then ask the Lord if it were right”, but fail to note that this revelation was actually directed toward Oliver Cowdery, not Joseph; you are simply inferring that Joseph also followed this procedure.

    So in my opinion even these two are very much circumstantial.
    When the above is contrasted with the evidence for a ‘tight’ translation, I see very little reason to accept the ‘loose’ translation theory, except that it allows the explaining away of various Book of Mormon problems. I am sure that if the ‘tight’ translation theory explained away these problems, it would be the theory apologists would be clinging to. But if these two theories are taken upon their own merits, the contest is won by the ‘tight’ theory, hands down.

  27. Kevin Barney says:

    For my thoughts on BoM translation theory, go to this article


    and scroll a little over halfway down to the caption “Shepherd on Pseudotranslation,” and then read from there to the end.

  28. Jared E. says:

    As I stated in my previous response, I have read your article. In it I find very little in the way of justification for your belief in the ‘loose’ translation theory. The only two justifications I find reasonable, I respond to in my previous response. I was hoping for a response to the two points in made. Are there other justifications for you position which you did not articulate in your article?

    I am not trying to be confrontational, but in order to take arguments like the one you propose seriously, the underlying justifications for such arguments must be made.

  29. Kevin Barney says:

    Sorry, I wasn’t sure what article you were referring to.

    There is a whole literature on the topic. I tend to the BH Roberts/Stephen Ricks point of view, and I disagree with the Skousen tight translation point of view.

  30. Jared E. says:

    If I may ask one more question…
    What is it about that point of view which attracts you, is it the resolution to Book of Mormon difficulties, or is it something intrinsically found in the ‘loose’ translation theory?
    If it is the latter, what have you found (of a quantitative nature) in the theory to persuade you?

  31. Kevin Barney says:

    This is a big subject. But I think the BoM is very difficult to defend as authentically ancient if we have to say that it is a very tight, verbum pro verbo translation. If that were the only option on the table, I would say it is then a 19th century production. I think the only shot for it being authentically ancient is for the translation to be loose with lots of Joseph’s influence on the language.

    The reasons for this are legion. Consider, for example, Mosiah 12:5, “they shall be driven before like a dumb ass.” That is a simile that works well in Joseph’s time and place and culture; it is completely anachronistic to an ancient mesoamerican setting.

    Or another example of an anachronistic metaphor, from Alma 29:4: “I ought not to harrow up in my desires….” A harrow is an agricultural implement used to turn the soil, that would have been known in Joseph’s setting but not in the BoM setting.

    Now, can these things be translations? Of course, but of the loose, sensus de sensu variety, not the tight verbum pro verbo variety.

    The heavy reliance on the KJV and the reworking of KJV italicized text also points to loose translation. Joseph was thinking about and reacting to the text, not just reading it.

    Ed Ashment had an article on the BoM as a literal translation in Sunstone that you might find useful in exploring this subject further.

  32. Jared E. says:

    I agree with much of what you have written above, but in my historical studies I have found it extremely difficult to justify a conclusion which generally contradicts what almost every account states, i.e. that it was a literal translation. David Whitmer, Martin Harris and Emma Smith all describe the translation process as being the seer stone in the hat, with Martin Harris and David Whitmer both emphatically stating that the translation did not emanate from Joseph (with Martin Harris going so far as to say that if it had not been written correctly, they would be unable to move on with translation). If it was a ‘loose’ translation, then what is to be made of all the firsthand accounts ascribing it to be a ‘tight’ translation? Are we to believe that they ‘just got it wrong’ and that our reconstructions are correct simply because they are apologetically convenient?

  33. Kevin Barney says:

    Brant Gardner has written a long essay, which I have read but am not at liberty to share, in which he makes what I think is a convincing case that the witness accounts can be accounted for using principles of folklore studies.

    Of course, the witness accounts only relate to the externals of their perceptions of the translation, and not to the internal processes in Joseph’s mind. Joseph himself of course declined to give his own account of the process.

    Ultimately, I think the characteristics of the text trump the witness statements. We can study the received English text, and it is clear to me that that text is not solely a tight translation from an ancient Mesoamerican source.

  34. Jared E. says:

    Is Brant Gardner going to publish this essay? I would like to read it. I would very much like to find a convincing case for your point of view, it would clear up a lot of questions.

  35. There is no doubt that the Book of Mormon (whether fictional or not) is a very remarkable and complex book, unlikely to be the product of a relatively un-educated farmer like Joseph Smith alone. However, most of the arguments I have seen on this and other sites defending its authenticity seem to me like prime examples of the metaphor of a drowning man grasping at straws. It is painfully obvious to me that those defending it start out from the presumption that the book must be true and consciously or unconsciously seek out and emphasize evidence evidence, however flimsy, that seems to support it or can be made to seem to support it while giving short thrift to even the strongest evidence against it. This approach can be used to cleverly fabricate what (at first glance, at least) appears to be a strong case for almost any kind of nonsense imaginable. It reminds somewhat of the dishonest attempts by diehard creationists to discredit to discredit Darwin’s Theory of Evolution (though not nearly as pefidious or egregious as the latter, I hasten to add). By far the most important, though not the only reason I find it impossible to take The Book of Mormon seriously is the simple fact that it treats both the Noah’s Flood and Tower of Babel myths as if they were literal, historical fact. The geophysical, biological, mathematical, historical and archaeological evidence against both of these myths being literally true is absolutely watertight (pun intended). Given that the enormous, incontrovertible body of evidence against it, You could no sooner convince me that “every living substance was destroyed on the face of the earth” by a world-wide flood occurring in 2400 BCE that covered even the tops of the highest mountains than you could persuade me to believe that I have 6 fingers on each hand instead of just 5.

  36. Mark Butler says:

    The fact that some Book of Mormon authors believed that what Genesis taught about the flood, according to the tradition passed down from their fathers, was true in every implicit detail has no more bearing on the historicity of the Book of Mormon than it does on the historicity of the Bible authors who exaggerated the event in the first place.

    As far as believing the veracity of the Book of Mormon, most of the Latter-day Saints do not approach the issue in terms of a contest of secularly available evidence at all. The best of them rather have had a witness, or indeed a revelation, from God through the agency of the Holy Ghost that testifies to their soul that the Book of Mormon is not only historical but an inspired testament of the gospel of Jesus Christ as well.

    It is pretty tricky to be a Latter-day Saint in my opinion if one does not have a witness of something that logically entails that the angel Moroni was not a figment of Joseph Smith’s imagination. Better a non-literal Mormon (recognizing that literalism comes in degress) than no Mormon at all, but I don’t know how they do it.

  37. Thanks for your comments, Mark. When we consider the possibility that the Nephites merely brought with them an already existing flood myth that they mistakenly took to be literally true, I concede that the fact that they believed it doesn’t necessarily impact the historicity of the Book of Mormon. The Tower of Babel Myth is more problematic, however. According to the Book of Jared, there really was a Tower of Babel and a confusion of tongues around 2200 BCE, as claimed in the Bible, prior to which there was only one existing language spoken by all mankind. God spared the Jaredites from this confusion of tongues and directed them to the Americas where they could preserve their original lanquage and culture. This is as historically impossible as Noah’s Flood, because we have written records in at least 3 ancient languages (Sumerian, Elamite and Egyption) that began at least as early as 3000 BCE and continue without a break until well after the supposed time of the Tower of Babel. These were only the languages of the few civilizations that had developed a system of writing by that time. It would be irrational to deny that there must already have been numerous other languages as well. The whole premise of the Tower of Babel is silly to begin with. God could surely not have feared that anyone could have literally built a tower to his abode in Heaven! The inevitable and ignominious failure of that project would have done more to discredit and humiliate its promoters than any action by God to stop the project and punish its perpetrators. In fact, by taking overt action to stop the project, God would have inadvertently caused some to think it must have been possible after all, else why take any action to stop it? I can’t believe God would be that stupid! Besides that, it is highly unlikely that the builders of that time could actually have thought it was possible. There were mountains known to them that they must have realized were already far taller than anything they could possibly have built out of bricks and bitumen on the plains of Babylon, yet obviously did not come close to touching even primitive concepts of Heaven. If one were to undertake such a project at all, it would have made far more sense start it on top of mountain, or at least a high hill!

  38. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 35

    “It reminds somewhat of the dishonest attempts by diehard creationists…”

    Great point. I’ve always been struck by the similarities between Creationism and BoM Literalism (or whatever you want to call that). Similar starting point (entire faith in God hinges on it so the position can NEVER be abandoned, period), similar level of conflict with obvious reality/history/science, and similar frantic methods used to shore up their position using any means necessary. I would add that the FAIR people are considerably more saavy, though, and ultimately realize that their positions cannot be peer reviewed, etc.

    The bulk of Creationists gave up and quietly converted to Intelligent Design (ID), which does not require a young earth. This is similar to the shift among BoM apologists. BoM views which a generation ago were standard among LDS apologists are being quietly jettisoned one by one. (Limited geography theory and non-literal translation = Mormon ID ?) Certainly those two changes put off the day of reckoning, but it really doesn’t get you home intellectually any more than ID ultimately overturns Darwin.

  39. re: 38


    I was impressed by your comment:

    “The bulk of Creationists gave up and quietly converted to Intelligent Design (ID), which does not require a young earth. This is similar to the shift among BoM apologists. BoM views which a generation ago were standard among LDS apologists are being quietly jettisoned one by one. (Limited geography theory and non-literal translation = Mormon ID ?) Certainly those two changes put off the day of reckoning, but it really doesn’t get you home intellectually any more than ID ultimately overturns Darwin.”

    I hadn’t really thought of that parallel before, but I think it has considerable validity.

    One thing that is dismaying to me, though, is the utter disdain that many church leaders and apologists seem to have for reliance on evidence and intellectual inquiry, however honest and sincere. I heard a high priest group leader say one time that no amount of objective evidence, whether pro or con, however incontrovertible, has any bearing whatsoever on the truth or falsity of the BoM. Until I heard him say that, I had greatly admired this man (a retired, university biochemistry professor, would you believe!) for his intelligence and rationality. This statement was equivalent in my mind to an inadvertent admission that he was bound and determined to believe the BoM whether it was true or not! Such statements coming from the Church’s foremost leaders and advocates do more damage (in my mind, at least) to the credibility its doctrines than anything its most outspoken critics could possibly have to say!

  40. Mark Butler says:

    That is a ridiculous statement. Sounds like pure hyperbole to me, though.

    Technically speaking, I do not believe that the past exists any more. So the only knowledge we have of the past is in the evidence we have somewhere today, whether that be the testimony of witnesses, our own memories, journals, records, etc., whether here or in heaven. Ultimately the historicity of the Book of Mormon will be established by the personal testimony of the people that lived it.

  41. Mark,
    When you said, “That is a ridiculous statement. . .,” were you refering to what my biochemist friend’s statement or to my comments on it? If the former, I heartily concur!

  42. Gunnar and Mike: It seems to me that both of your criticisms of work on the Book of Mormon are mere guilt by association. First, the Tower of Babel and Flood were just as much a part of the mythos of the Jaredites as of the proto-Hebraic and other ancient peoples. Indeed, if they didn’t believe it then that would be sure evidence that it was written by someone with a modern mindset. When we find very ancient documents, in Ugarit, Egypt and so forth, we find a mytholopoeic viewpoint. I take your naivte regarding the world-view of ancient people to arise from the fact that you are unfamiliar with ancient documents and way the world was viewed. Tell me just what ancient documents you are familiar with outside the OT. I’ll bet it’s a vey short list.

    Let me be clear: “FAIR people are just like young earth creationist” is merely a judgment without evidence. As for limited geography, I submit that a fair reading of the text leads one to conclude that everything reported in the BofM took place in a very small area about the size of Palestine. That is why that view arose before the turn of the century and was popular among those who take the text seriously long before DNA evidence. Your argument is a simpple argument: post hoc ergo propter hoc, except in your case you got even the timing of the events wrong for a double fallacy.

  43. By the way, Mark, in #36 you said, “most of the Latter-day Saints do not approach the issue in terms of a contest between secularly available evidence at all.” It is this apparent disdain for “secularly available evidence,” especially when it does not support what their religious authorities would rather have them believe that I find so damaging to the credibility of their deepest convictions. Believe it or not, it is not only those who share Mormon beliefs who sincerely claim to have arrived at their religious convictions via divine inspiration or revelation in answer to prayer. That there are so many mutually contradictory religious belief systems whose strongest adherents all claim to have arrived at their deepest spiritual convictions via that means is the strongest evidence I can possibly imagine of the inherent unreliability of that approach to discerning truth.

  44. Blake, I certainly agree with you that the stories of Noah’s Flood and and the Tower of Babel as told in Genesis are merely Hebrew adaptations of already existing pagan myths (such as the epic of Gilgamesh, for example), but I doubt that Mormon theologions and General Authorities would have much sympathy for that view, nor does that view, even if correct, in any way help the veracity of the BoM. Nor do I think that Church authorities would have much sympathy for the view that the Book of Jared’s explanation for the origin of the Jaredites and their reason for departing for the Americas is at least partially mythological.

  45. By the way, certainly the ancient documents of Ugarit, Egypt and so forth had a mythopoeic viewpoint! What did I say that would lead you to think I was unaware of or in any way disagreed with that? How does the fact that proto-Hebraic peoples and the writers of any scriptures, ancient or modern, shared in or were influenced by that type of viewpoint in any way strengthen the case for the BoM or any presently accepted religious doctrines?

  46. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 42 I didn’t say that. My comparison was between the FAIR apologists and the Intelligent Design people, who are much more sophisticated than the young-earth creationists. My assertion was that the folks at FAIR are much saavier than those who preceded them.

    Both ID and BoM historical literalism start at the same place: namely the fact that nobody in science or the secular academy (outside of fellow-believers) accepts their primary assertion. This places both groups in a purely defensive posture. They exist as a fire-wall of sorts, to prevent defections. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

  47. Gunnar: If I have understood what you were saying, you asserted that you just couldn’t take the BofM seriously as an ancient historical work because it took the Flood and Tower of Bable and other myths seriously. So I pointed out that your reason for not taking the BofM seriously could not be taken seriously by anyone familiar with actual ancient documents. I didn’t claim it proved anything about the BofM except that your reasons for rejecting its historicity were not good reasons.

    Thanks for the clarification Mike. BTW I agree that there may be GAs who wouldn’t like my views about mythos and scripture — but I know a few who accept such a view. You are quite correct that there is a general assumptions from which others outside the faith start that precludes them from taking it seriously. I suggest that their assumptions need to be re-examined.

  48. Blake,
    Honestly, can you not see that your comments seem to strongly confirm my allegation of “grasping at straws” that I made in my initial post (#35 above)? To argue that the supposedly divinely inspired authors of the BoM (or any other scripture, ancient or modern) could be as wrong as you seem to have acknowledged about the historicity of Noah’s Flood and The Tower of Babel without raising strong, legitimate doubts about the veracity of the very claim that they were truly divinely inspired at all seems rather weak to me. Why would God not make any attempt to correct this mistaken understanding in those He called to be prophets? Is He not a God of truth as the prophets maintain? Particularly in the case of the Book of Jared, if the Tower of Babel and the Jaredites divinely granted wish to avoid the divinely imposed confusion of tongues associated with that event was not the proximate cause of their leaving Babylon for the Americas under divine guidance to begin with, as claimed by the Book of Jared, how can that possibly not render at least that portion of the BoM ahistorical?

    Besides, I said initially that the fact that the BoM accepts the literal historicity of Noah’s Flood and The Tower of Babel was not the only reason I find it impossible to take the BoM seriously, though it remains a major one.

    You agreed that there may be GAs that wouldn’t like your views about mythos and scripture but that you know a few who would accept such a view. If so, doesn’t this lack of unanimity among GAs concerning doctrinal matters itself call into question the reliability of claims of divine inspiration? Or do you deny that these are truly doctrinal matters? Do you think that a Sunday School Gospel Doctrine teacher who expressed such views in class or who acknowledged that the story of Noah’s Flood should not be taken literally would not be dismissed and called before a Church court and tried and excommunicated for preaching false doctrine?

  49. “Why would God not make any attempt to correct this mistaken understanding in those He called to be prophets? Is He not a God of truth as the prophets maintain?”
    Gunnar, it appears one of your assumptions about the relationship between God and a “prophet” is that God must communicate with the prophet in a way that assures the prophet is historically accurate in all of his/her understandings about the tribe’s religious stories.
    Do I misunderstand you?
    Many Mormons don’t share that assumption (I doubt President Hinckley does, and I think the biographies of some of the prophets involved in modifications and then reversal of the ethnicity-based priesthood/temple ban show that Mckay, JRClark, Kimball, HBBrown and some of the other involved leaders didn’t share the assumption.

    I can understand your wondering how a non-literal approach to the Noah’s flood would be received in a current Gospel Doctrine class. While each ward is different, let me add to your database on that issue that I have been in many classes (in several different wards) where either the teacher or a class member raised the possibility of the Flood as myth or expressly taught it that way. In a couple of occasions (not all) some class members expressed discomfort with that interpretation and encouraged a more literal approach. But, there was never any hint that anyone might have felt this was an issue for which a “court” was remotely relevant. See BYU professor Duane Jefferies article, “Noah’s Flood: Modern Scholarship And Mormon Traditions” for further data points. The article in pdf format is at http://www.sunstoneonline.com/magazine/issues/134/134-27-45.pdf.

  50. Stirling,
    Can I correctly infer, then, that you agree that the Book of Jared, at least, in the BoM is fictional–or at least the part of it that explains the reason for their location to the Americas?

    I had alread read the Sunstone magazine to which you referred before I found this website and found it very enlightening and interesting. I would have been more impressed and encouraged by it, though, if it had appeared in the Church’s Official magazine, The Ensign, or at least acknowledged and endorsed by it.

  51. Gunnar,

    I have also seen the flood story taught and discussed both ways. In fact I myself as a TBM am agnostic about the flood story. Church courts are not going to be called cause Sister Smith thinks the Noah story is a myth and openly says so. Come on now lets be more charitable.

  52. Quick aside: let’s drop the use of TBM. We’re not antimormons here. And Gunnar, this is not a forum that caters to message-board style exchange.

  53. Steve Evans says:

    J.’s right on. This is not the Foyer, nor is there a view from here into it. Discussions of whether the BoM is a fictional text are simply out-of-place here and need to stop.

  54. Gunnar (#50), Ether 1:33 reads:

    Which Jared came forth with his brother and their families, with some others and their families, from the great tower, at the time the Lord confounded the language of the people, and swore in his wrath that they should be scattered upon all the face of the earth; and according to the word of the Lord the people were scattered.

    Though I wouldn’t typically read this sentence with my “does-this-verse-accurately-depict-a-historical-event” detector on, having turned that detector on, I would say that I wouldn’t expect that the verse is historically accurate (given my view on the nature of God and my assumptions about the derivations of different human languages).
    However, note that this sentence may be historically accurate from the perspective of someone who views reality and the way events have occurred as being caused by God. For that reader, verse 33 could be another way of restating this assertion:

    Jared and his family migrated here after humans dispersed into multiple geographic locations and developed different languages.

  55. MikeInWeHo says:

    I really like that, Stirling. Clearly much of scripture has to be viewed that way for it to make any sense at all. Mormonism has never required literalism; on the contrary. But it does become a lot messier when BoM questions are involved. One can get away with saying Noah was a metaphor a lot easier than you can do the same with Nephi.

  56. I’m no linguist–thank goodness for folks like Blake and others who are able to recognize that which is authentically ancient about the BoM and share it with the rest of us–but I’ve read enough Shakespeare and Ibsen to know that the BoM (fiction or not–and isn’t) is absolultely miraculous especially if it’s primal author were a dirty-faced uneducated twenty-one year old farm boy.

  57. better late than never, I guess. Around 600 BC there were “steel bows” the Indo-Persian Bow, the Scythian Bow, both of which were precursors to the Parthian small steel recurve bow made famous by the parthians and there “parthian shot” around ~250 BC.

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