It’s time to get back to Terryl Givens book, By the Hand of Mormon. While acknowledging archaeological data isn’t as strong as other aspects of the Book of Mormon, Givens seems to feel Mormon academics have made some impressive contributions. Givens starts with Hugh Nibley on page 118:
No one in the history of Mormon scholarship has done more to establish rational grounds for belief in the Book of Mormon than Hugh Nibley. Acquiring impressive scholarly credentials (summa cum laude from UCLA and a Berkeley Ph.D. dissertation written in three weeks in 1938) before heading off to war….
[page 119] the first forty pages of the Book of Mormon engender under Nibley’s analysis a rich tapestry of linguistic, political, geographic, religious, and historical threads that are convincingly sixth century B.C. Middle Eastern. Palestine’s cultural and economic ties to Egypt at this time are reflected in Nephi’s instruction in “the language of the Egyptians” (1 Nephi 1:2). The “reformed Egyptian and Hebrew in a process of fusion for which a great deal of evidence now exists7. Nibley compares the Book of Mormon “Hermounts” (the wild country of the borderlands) with Egyptian “Hermonthis” (a land of Month, god of wild places and things), and points out the “bulls-eyes” of the Book of Mormon characters Paanchi, Korihor, and Pahoran. Paankhi turns out to be an Egyptian name in the seventh century B.C., and Korihor turns up in both Egyptian and Asiastic derivatives.8 In this regard, it is well worth nothing that William Foxwell Albright, doyen of American ancient Near East studies, wrote to a critic seeking to debunk Smith’s writings that “when the Book of Mormon was written, Egyptian had just begun to be deciphered and it is all the more surprising that there are two Egyptian names, Paanchi[i] and Pahor[an] which appear together in the Book of Mormon in close connection with a reference to the original language being ‘Reformed Egyptian.'”9
Many critics of the Book of Mormon take issue with this idea of “Reformed Egyptian.” Givens quotes Moroni on page 132,
“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” (Morm. 9:32)
Mormon scholars take this to suggest the possibility that the writers used modified Egyptian symbols to represent Hebrew words (“Hebrew words, idioms, and syntax written in Egyptian cursive script”53), certainly a bizarre idea for a nineteenth-century audience. Now as John Tvedtnes points out, “the use of Egyptian symbols to transliterate Hebrew words and vice versa, is known from the sixth century B.C. text discovered at Arad and Kadesh-Barnea,”54 Papyrus Amherst 63, for example, “contains a scriptural text in Northwest Semitic tongue written in an Egyptian script.”55
Physical evidence for the unique script is limited to the purported transcription of characters taken from the plates and shown by Martin Harris in 1828 to Professor Charles Anthon.56 They consist of seven horizontal rows of unusual markings, that have been variously described as everything from Phoenician writing to Mayan script to occult symbols, from “a Nubian corruption of Egyptian” to secret Masonic code.
Though the expression “reformed Egyptian” garnered no small amount of ridicule at the time and since (“deformed English” rather than “reformed Egyptian,” sniffed Charles Shook in 1910, after looking at the Anthon transcript57), scholars now generally recognize that “Demotic Egyptian, of origin not long before Lehi’s Exodus, is certainly a ‘reformed Egyptian’ as are other well-known and less-known variations.”58 Nibley points out that Meroitic, “a baffling and still largely undeciphered Egyptian script which developed out of Demotic under circumstances remarkably paralleling the purported development of the Nephite writing, has the most striking affinities to the characters on the so-called Anthon Transcript.”59
Givens shows other parallels in the chapter, including:
- Lehi’s travel through the desert,
- his poetic structure,
- the golden plates parallel with the Copper Scroll found with the Dead Sea Scrolls (and other writings on ancient metal plates),
- similarities between Moroni’s Title of Liberty and the Quran,
- King Benjamin’s coronation was similar to Bablyonian rituals, and
- important plates buried in stone boxes by Darius, king of Persia.
From page 124,
Nibley’s legendary erudition, fluency across a spectrum of languages, and prodigious output (appearing in a wide range of scholarly publications from the Classical Journal and Encyclopedia Judaica to Church History and Revue de Qumran) have lent his work a weight that is unprecedented in Mormon studies.
Praised by the likes of non-LDS scholars Raphael Patai, Jacob Neusner, James Charlesworth, Cyrus Gordon, Jacob Milgrom, and former Harvard Divinity School dean George McRae (“it is obscene for a man to know that much,” he grumbled, hearing him lecture), Nibley has done more than any Mormon of his era to further the intellectual credibility of the Book of Mormon.23 Inspired by his work, a more recent generation of LDS researchers brings a range of impressive scholarly credentials to serious Book of Mormon scholarship.24
Givens goes on to talk about John Welch. As a missionary in Germany in 1967, Welch attended a lecture on chiasmus, a Hebrew literary device. Welch soon discovered chiasmus in Mosiah 5:10-12, a form of inverted parallel poetry. Welch went on to work with FARMS, the Foundation of Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (formed in 1979.) The group looks at Old World parallels in the Book of Mormon. Givens addresses John Sorenson, the most recognized archaeologist advocating a Central American setting for the Book of Mormon. (I plan a future post exclusively to Sorenson and his theory.)
Givens says that Mormon Scholarship is causing alarm among Evangelical critics. From page 143,
Under the burden of Mormon scholarship that is increasingly well credentialed, and in the face of Mormon growth that is alarming to evangelicals,110 the polemics of nineteenth-century preachers are no longer an adequate response. Until recently, for example, criticisms of barley or pre-Columbian horses in the Book of Mormon would come from writers of anti-Mormon books–not from botanists or archaeologists. The latter have not, for the most part, taken the Book of Mormon seriously enough as a text to analyze its historical credibility. A recent paper by two evangelical scholars suggests that a realignment of the Book of Mormon wars may be coming.
The 1997 address of Carl Mosser and Paul Owen at a regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society was remarkable for a number of reasons. First, it accorded high praise to the state of Mormon scholarship. They summarized a number of recent publications to illustrate their assertion that “in recent years the sophistication and erudition of LDS apologetics has risen considerably…[and] is clearly seen in their approach to the Book of Mormon.” As difficult as it may be to accept the fact, “LDS academicians are producing serious research which desperately needs to be critically examined,” they insisted.111
In addition, Mosser and Owen are adamant that evangelical resposes to Mormon scholarship have been, almost universally, “uninformed, misleading, or otherwise inadequate….At the academic level evangelicals are losing the debate.”112 Actually, it hardly resembles a debate, because Mormon scholars, they acknowledge, “have…answered most of the usual evangelical criticisms.” And, as of 1997, there were “no books from an evangelical perspective that responsibly interact with contemporary LDS scholarly and apologetic writings.”113
As a consequence, anti-Mormons continue to invoke long-discredited banalities, many of which actually turn to Mormon advantage upon inspection. For example, literature found in any cult section of Christian bookstores still criticizes Alma for writing that Jesus will be “born at Jerusalem, which is the land of our forefathers” (Alma 7:10) a seeming blooper. Actually, of course, such usage is consistent with Middle Eastern practice of naming areas for their principal cities.114 Or they mock Alma’s name itself, an apparent Latin feminine. But in 1960-61, the Israeli scholar Yigael Yadin found a land deed near the western shore of the Dead Sea dating from the early second century. One of the names on the deed was “Alma, son of Yehudah,” demonstrating Alma was to be “an authentically ancient Semitic masculine personal name.”115
…[page 144] The major force in anti-Mormon polemics has long been Jerald and Sandra Tanner…It is no wonder that non-Mormon historian Lawrence Foster has faulted these critics, the most prolific of all anti-Mormon writers, for “twisting” scholarship, resorting to “debaters’ ploys,” and, in general, demonstrating “lack of balance and perspective.”117
So, what do you think of the state of Mormon Scholarship?