Christmas 1981 found me in the state of New York, quietly celebrating the holiday with friends. I began reminiscing about the Church in my homeland. “The Church has been in Ecuador for only 17 years,” I said. “But already there are second-generation Latter-day Saints, some with names like Moroni Valdivieso or Nefi (Nephi) Hernandez.”
“Down there,” one of my young friends commented, “those must seem almost like ordinary, everyday names.”
“Don’t you believe it!” I replied. “In Spanish those names sound just as exotic and unusual as they do in English.”
A discussion followed, during which I assured him that there is only one country in the world where at least some Book of Mormon names might seem like everyday names. That country would be Israel, where Hebrew is still spoken much as it was at the time Lehi left Jerusalem. Egyptian names from the Book of Mormon would seem unusual to living Egyptians because they speak Arabic, not Egyptian.
As I have studied Eastern languages, the names in the Book of Mormon have held a fascination for me. If the book was written in reformed Egyptian, as Joseph Smith says it was, then the names would probably have both Hebrew and Egyptian origins. While I don’t claim to offer conclusive proof, there appear to be evidences that this is indeed true.
While most of us think of our name simply as what other people call us, most names have a meaning as well. Richard, for example, means “powerful ruler.” Rex means “king.” In Japanese, the family name Matsushita means “under the pine tree.” And of course different spellings and roots help us determine that a name originated in a specific area or region, as well as showing what language it comes from. Larsen, for instance, is a family name that came from Scandinavia.
The same is true with Book of Mormon names. Some Nephite names offer striking similarity to Hebrew words. Professor Johnathan Shunary (who has translated selections from the Book of Mormon into Hebrew) points out that Zarahemla probably means “seed of mercy.”1 John Welch and Joann Carlton translate Abinadom’s name as “my father is a wanderer” (see Omni 1:10–12, Jacob 7:26).2 Sariah is a name which could mean “princess.”3 And there are other examples as well.4
As I mentioned earlier, many Book of Mormon names also appear to be Egyptian. But because the ancient Egyptian language has not been in use for hundreds and hundreds of years, the people of Egypt have been speaking and writing Arabic for some 13 centuries. Book of Mormon names, even though Egyptian in origin, would be unusual in that country today. Nevertheless, since the 1820s scholars have been able to decipher some of that extinct language.5
Dr. Hugh Nibley, professor emeritus of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University, has identified many Hebrew and Egyptian names in the Book of Mormon. As a student in his classes and through my own research and thought, I have reached the following ideas about some names I consider to have ancient origins:
MORMON—This word could easily have been formed by combining two ancient Egyptian words, mor (“love”) and mon (“established forever”). This would render a meaning of “love established forever.” Further evidence that Mormon is an Egyptian word is offered by a character copied by Frederick G. Williams, second counselor to the Prophet, from what Joseph told him was the symbol for Mormon’s name as written on the gold plates.6 The figure looks like this:
It is easy to see how this symbol could be derived from the Egyptian hieroglyphics for mor and mon, which look like this:
It is also interesting to note that the idea expressed by the name, “love established forever,” is a concept shared by Paul the Apostle in the New Testament when he says, “charity never faileth” (1 Cor. 13:8). The word charity originally meant divine love, so the passage in the Bible could easily have read “charity lasts forever” or “love established forever.”
CUMORAH—This is another name which can be associated with a Biblical passage, although the connection is not a direct one. Isaiah 60:1 [Isa. 60:1] begins with a forceful command to Zion: “Arise, shine.” In Hebrew that translates as kumy, ury. These commands were addressed to a female listener, in this case Zion. If the same words had been addressed to a male, I believe they would be kum, orah. If my understanding is correct, this must be the meaning of Cumorah: “Arise, shine.” What an appropriate name for a hill where sacred records were to lie buried for centuries, later to rise from the dust and give their light to those who would receive it!
In ancient Hebrew letters, the name Cumorah would be written more or less like this:
MOSIAH—This name seems to me to be composed of the Hebrew name for divinity, Yah (Yahweh, the LORD, Jehovah) and the Egyptian mos, “is born.” The name, if it indeed has this meaning, would seem to be a prediction of the birth of Christ: “the Lord is born.”
I have taken the liberty of imagining what the name might look like if represented by a mixture of Egyptian and Hebrew symbols. This is, perhaps, what Mosiah might look like written in reformed Egyptian:
SHIBLON and CORIANTUMR—These names, of Jaredite origin, are neither Hebrew nor Egyptian. They do, however, seem to me to have their origin in some Semitic language related to Hebrew. At the Symposium on Archaeology of the Scriptures held at BYU in 1977, I reported on my investigation of these names given to the sons of Alma the Younger (see Ensign, Mar. 1978, p. 76). Both names seem to be related to Semitic words meaning lion cub or jaguar cub, shibl- being an Arabic root with that meaning and corian- perhaps being related to the Hebrew gurrion, which means the same thing. Shibl- may also be the root of the monetary unit, shiblon, mentioned in Alma 11:15–16, 19.7
The Ensign report on the symposium also made a statement about names which bears repeating:
“Book of Mormon names are virtually the only samples we have of the language the Nephites were using—and as Hugh Nibley has long since pointed out, names tend to be the most archaic, out-of-date words in any language. For instance, how many people remember the meanings of such common English names as William, Steven, Sandra, or Anne? Yet investigation can show English cultural links with diverse cultures through those names—and many scholars have tried to link Book of Mormon names with Old World cultures, to show the relationship” (Ensign, Mar. 1978, p. 76).
From what I’ve been able to observe during my studies of both the Book of Mormon and ancient languages, it appears to me that the authors were obviously well acquainted with Egyptian, Hebrew, and other ancient languages. Yet Joseph Smith never had any formal instruction in Egyptian. In fact, at the time he translated the Book of Mormon, virtually no one in America knew any Egyptian. In Europe Thomas Young and Jean Francóis Champollion had just completed studies based on the Rosetta Stone, but it is highly improbable that their work, or even a report on it, was available to Joseph Smith. Even if it had been, their studies had only managed “to make out the general drift of most historical inscriptions.”8 It wasn’t until the turn of the century that Egyptian began to be widely studied in the United States.
In 1830, when the Book of Mormon was published, Joseph Smith knew no Hebrew. Even though he would later receive some instruction (at Kirtland, Ohio, from 1835–36 a professor was hired to acquaint Church members with the fundamentals of Hebrew), he received his first formal introduction to Hebrew five years after the Book of Mormon was published.9
Critics of the Book of Mormon and of Joseph Smith have often charged two things. First, that he was an ignorant farm boy who invented the whole story. Second, that he was so clever a writer that he could fool the unwary by spinning yarns about ancient civilizations. In time, critics said, science would show the folly of his teachings.
Much to the contrary, time continues to add evidence that Joseph Smith was indeed a prophet and that the Book of Mormon is true. My studies lead me to believe that the only way the Book of Mormon could have been produced was by divine intervention. Joseph Smith could have translated the book, but not by any of the methods normally available for translation. He could not have known of the connection Book of Mormon names would have with ancient languages, except that an angel told him where the records originated.
My meager efforts to understand the names in the Nephite record don’t prove that the Book of Mormon is true. The method for proving its truth is explained in Moroni 10:4–5 [Moro. 10:4–5]. But for me, at least, the names in the book offer one more evidence that God lives and that he has restored his Church to the earth.