Research and Perspectives: Recent Studies on the Book of Mormon

The Church’s increasing focus on the Book of Mormon has resulted in a flood of new information and ideas: articles and notices on research concerning that scripture have increased dramatically. The reviews that follow report on topics currently under study. Of course, the research is not definitive; viewpoints change as new information becomes available. Still, the diversity of topics being studied indicates just how much there is to learn about the Book of Mormon.

Metal Alloys and Metal Workers

The Book of Mormon mentions brass, steel, gold, silver, copper, and other metals. Yet many non-LDS scholars have concluded that metallurgy was unknown before the late classic times (A.D. 700–900) in Mesoamerica. They base their conclusions on the scarcity of metal artifacts in ancient sites. In reviewing this field, though, John Sorenson has identified dozens of early metals known from Mesoamerica. He concludes that enough evidence has turned up that scholars should not prematurely decide against metal-making in ancient America.

Some critics have specifically attacked the Book of Mormon because it mentions a steel bow. They mistakenly believe that steel could not be made anciently or that it was rare. Actually, as Christopher Munson has discovered, a brittle, carbonized iron called Martensite—a primitive steel—was commonly produced in the Near East before the time of Lehi. Nephi’s bow may have been made of this alloy, for although the metal was strong, Nephi still broke it.

Munson also examines what kind of alloy may have been used in the plates of brass. Brass, a compound of copper and zinc, is durable but quite hard. It is thus difficult to inscribe. Although high-quality brass contains a high percentage of zinc, lesser amounts of zinc would produce a brass more like bronze (an alloy of copper and tin). Such a bronze-like alloy would be soft enough to inscribe but more tarnish-resistant than common bronze. It would be well suited for record-keeping and would weather time well. Lehi was inspired to say that the plates of brass would not “be dimmed any more by time.” (1 Ne. 5:19.)

Many have wondered what trade Lehi and Nephi practiced. John Tvedtnes suggests that they may have been craftsmen and artisans—possibly metalworkers. From the Book of Mormon, we know that Nephi appreciated the fine craftsmanship of Laban’s sword (see 1 Ne. 4:9) and noted several details about “a round ball of curious workmanship,” the Liahona (1 Ne. 16:10). He was able to make tools—the Lord instructed Nephi on shipbuilding, but nothing is said about whether Nephi needed instruction in toolmaking. His brothers also ridiculed Nephi for thinking he could build a ship. Again, nothing is said about whether they were surprised at the new tools. (See 1 Ne. 17:9–12, 16–18.) Nephi noted the metals available in the New World and made numerous plates from them for recording history and scripture. (See 1 Ne. 18:25; 1 Ne. 19:1.) He also made many swords patterned on Laban’s sword and taught his people how to work with metals. (See 2 Ne. 5:14–15.)

• John L. Sorenson, “A Reconsideration of Early Metal in Mesoamerica,” Miscellaneous Series, University of Northern Colorado Museum of Anthropology, Greeley, Colorado, No. 45, 1982; Christopher Munson, “Alloy Metallurgy in Antiquity in Relation to the Book of Mormon,” ms., 1983; John A. Tvedtnes, Was Lehi a Caravaneer? (Provo: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1984).

Major Principles in Both the Bible and the Book of Mormon

In a principle-by-principle comparison of teachings in the Bible and the Book of Mormon, Joseph F. McConkie points out that the Book of Mormon is clearer and more informational than the Bible. For instance, though the Bible gives a more detailed description than does the Book of Mormon in telling the story of the Fall, the Book of Mormon tells us the consequences in more detail, even supposing what would have happened if there had been no Fall. On many other topics, such as prophecies of Christ, the Spirit World, and the Resurrection, the Old Testament has ambiguous passages, oblique and indirect references, or nothing, while the Book of Mormon is specific and definitional.

• “A Comparison of Book of Mormon, Bible, and Traditional Teachings on the Doctrines of Salvation,” in The Book of Mormon: The Keystone Scripture (Provo: Religious Studies Center, BYU, 1988).

Synagogues in the Book of Mormon

Most modern historians surmise that synagogues developed after the Jews were taken captive into Babylon (587 B.C.). The Book of Mormon, however, challenges this view. Alma and Amulek preached in Nephite “synagogues, which were built after the manner of the Jews.” (Alma 16:13.) Robert Cloward points out that the modern theory of synagogue development cannot be conclusive because it is based on lack of evidence from earlier periods.

The Book of Mormon thus supplements what little is known about private or congregational worship among the early Jews. “Holy convocations” are mentioned before the time of Jeremiah and Lehi. (See Ex. 12:16; Lev. 23:4; Num. 28:26.) And there seemed to have been local congregations for worship, prayer, and instruction. The Book of Mormon also clarifies that the term synagogue referred to a place of worship. (See 2 Ne. 26:26; Moro. 7:1.) This is one area in which the study of places of worship on one continent can enhance the study of places of worship on another.

• Robert A. Cloward, “Patterns of Worship in the Book of Mormon,” M. A. research project, BYU, 1989.

Mulek, Son of Zedekiah

The Book of Mormon mentions that Mulek was the son of Zedekiah, king of Judah in Lehi’s day. It records that Mulek and some followers escaped the destruction of Jerusalem (see Omni 1:14–16; Hel. 6:10; Hel. 8:21), despite the claim in 2 Kings 25:4–7 that Zedekiah’s sons were slain. [2 Kgs. 25:4–7] The Bible does not mention the name Mulek directly, but some Bible scholars have made some interesting observations about “Malchiah the son of Hammelech.” (Jer. 38:6.) Malchiah, more literally transliterated as MalkiYahu, was the son of the king, for melech means king. Details mentioned in the verse in Jeremiah suggest that the king was Zedekiah. Many Old Testament scholars today accept MalkiYahu as a son of Zedekiah. Interestingly, names like MalkiYahu were shortened in the sixth century B.C. For instance, Baruch, Jeremiah’s scribe, was an abbreviation for BerekYahu. MalkiYah would reduce to Mulek (Phoenician pronunciation) or a similar-sounding name.

• “F.A.R.M. S. Update,” February 1984; Insights: An Ancient Window (Provo: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, June 1984).

American Indian Origins

The idea that all American Indians trace their origin to northeast Asia via the Bering Strait is slowly being abandoned. Numerous studies have examined intercultural contact between peoples in the Americas and many different parts of the world (such as that described in the Book of Mormon). One evidence of cultural contact, for instance, is the existence of a specific plant species in different parts of the world. George F. Carter has noted that wild and domesticated plant species, like cottons, sweet potatoes, peanuts, and maizes, indicate that there were ancient American contacts with Africa, Asia, and Polynesia.

Norman Totten has pointed out similarities in pre-Columbian American and Old World languages, scripts, place names, visual symbols, artistic styles, technologies, rituals, belief systems, traditions, histories, anatomy, animal and plant dispersions, diseases and immunology, artifacts, and cartography. Paul R. Cheesman has compiled a list of more than two hundred cultural similarities between the Old and the New World. James R. Christianson has reviewed past and current migrational theories of the American Indian, pointing out that many scholars disagree that all American Indians are of Mongoloid stock via the Bering Strait. All four researchers conclude that ancient contacts with different parts of the world, while perhaps not frequent, had significant impact on the development of American Indian groups.

• Newsletter, Religious Studies Center, BYU, January 1987; George F. Carter, “Before Columbus”; Norman Totten, “Categories of Evidence for Old World Contacts with Ancient America”; Paul R. Cheesman, “Cultural Parallels between the Old World and the New World”; James R. Christianson, “The Bering Strait and American Indian Origins,” in The Book of Mormon: The Keystone Scripture (Provo: Religious Studies Center, BYU, 1988).

Uto-Aztecan and Semitic Languages

In a comparison of several Near Eastern Semitic languages (including Hebrew) and Uto-Aztecan dialects, Brian Stubbs found 203 similarities. He is still analyzing an additional 200 Hebrew roots with apparent reflexes (word derivations) in the Uto-Aztecan family. The study concentrates on vocabulary and definitions, sound correspondences, roots, and morphology (word formation). It especially catalogues systematic, consistent shifts in sound. Stubbs concludes that there are more similarities than chance would normally account for, indicating that some substantial Semitic elements exist in this New World family of languages.

As two examples, the Hebrew word hamar means “to cover” or “smear,” while the Cahuillan word humay means “to smear” or “paint.” The Hebrew yasav means “sat” or “dwelt,” while the Hopi yesiva means “to sit.” Because non-Semitic morphology and vocabulary exist side-by-side with Semitic equivalents, Stubbs suggests that creolization—the mixing of two active languages into a new one—has occurred in the New World languages.

Elements of Hebrew in Uto-Aztecan: A Summary of the Data (Provo: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1988).

Nephi’s Arrows

Though 1 Nephi 16 tells us that Nephi broke his steel bow, nowhere does the Book of Mormon say that he broke any arrows. [1 Ne. 16] When Nephi makes a new wooden bow, why, then, did he also make “out of a straight stick, an arrow”? (1 Ne. 16:23.) Surely he already had arrows that he had used with the old bow. The answer may be, as David S. Fox suggests, that new arrows were necessary. In order to work well, a bow must be matched in weight and stiffness with its arrows. Arrows for a steel bow would have been too heavy and stiff for a much weaker wooden bow.

Insights: An Ancient Window (Provo: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, October 1984).

Early Jewish Festivals and King Benjamin’s Speech

Twelve researchers have collaborated in a detailed comparison of King Benjamin’s speech (Mosiah 1:9–6:3) with ancient Jewish festivals. The similarities are astonishing—hundreds of phrases and incidents recorded in the speech echo those in three Jewish festivals. Jewish festivals, for instance, began with a traditional prayer called the Shecheheyanu. It opened, “Lord God, king of the universe, who has kept us and preserved us to reach this season. … “King Benjamin echoed those words, “to that God who has … kept and preserved you … that ye may live,” pointing out how no one could really be a profitable servant of God. (See Mosiah 2:20–21; italics added.)

The Nephites lived the law of Moses, and observance of certain festivals was part of that law. Though scholars are not sure what Jewish festivals were like before the Exile (which began shortly after Lehi’s departure), many believe that the Jews celebrated a single New Year festival around September. From these, they believe that the fall festivals Rosh Hashana (New Year), Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), and Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles) developed. It is fascinating to note that the Book of Mormon festival seems to be, as would be expected, one festival instead of three.

The Jewish New Year was a day of judgment, of falling down before God, and of remembering and celebrating the kingship of God. The Day of Atonement concerned itself with confession and atonement, especially for inadvertent sins and rebelliousness. It also stressed giving to the poor. At the Feast of Tabernacles, the people gathered to celebrate the law given by God and to renew their covenants. They dwelt in tents, and the king gave an accounting of his kingship and honored God as the heavenly king. All of these points are prominent features in King Benjamin’s speech and his people’s actions.

William S. Kurz has identified twenty elements common in Israelite and other ancient farewell speeches. King Benjamin’s address contains all twenty—more than the sixteen elements in Moses’ farewell speech (see Deut. 31–34) and the fourteen in Paul’s farewell sermon (see Acts 20).

• John A. Tvedtnes, “A Nephite Feast of Tabernacles,” in Tinkling Cymbals (Provo: n.p., 1978); Stephen Ricks, “The Treaty/Covenant Pattern in King Benjamin’s Address,” Brigham Young University Studies 24, no. 2 (Spring 1984): 151–62; William S. Kurz, “Luke 22:14–38 and Greco-Roman and Biblical Farewell Addresses,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 104 (1985): 251–68; John W. Welch, comp., King Benjamin’s Speech in the Context of Ancient Israelite Festivals (Provo: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1985); “F.A.R.M. S. Update,” June 1987 and August 1987.

[illustration] Nephi Fashioning the Plates, by Bill L. Hill

[illustration] Reconstruction of the Synagogue at Capernaum, as shown in The Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land.

[illustration] Illustrated by Paul Mann