Why are there anachronisms in the Book of Mormon?
Continue your search below with this informative exerpt from Michael R. Ash, Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One’s Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt
An anachronism is something that does not fit the time frame for which it is claimed. For example, a tale of King Henry VIII watching television would be anachronistic. The Book of Mormon has frequently been charged with containing numerous anachronistic items including certain animals, plants, metals, textiles, and weapons. In all instances, however, there is the possibility that (a) such things were once in the Americas but the evidence has either disappeared or has not yet been found, or (b) Book of Mormon labels are based on the re-labeling of New World items with familiar Old World labels. To claim that things did not exist because they have not been found is to commit the logical fallacy of arguing from ignorance or silence. According to a famous and generally accepted archaeological dictum, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence (see, for example, the discussion on the limits of archaeology in Chapter 6).
Until the middle of the twentieth century, for example, the best archaeologists were convinced that the camel was unknown in Egypt until Greek and Roman times despite the mention of camels in the biblical account of Abraham (Genesis 12:16). Today, however, scholars realize that the camel continued to be used in Egypt from prehistoric to present times.i Similarly, despite several biblical and sixteenth-century references to lions in Israel (some of these references mentioned lions over a thousand years after the Book of Mormon mentions horses) scholars had been perplexed by the absence of lion bones. As late as 1981, Dr. Joseph Heller, chairman of the Department of Zoology, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, told one researcher that there were no archaeological remains of lions in Israel.ii Despite the fact that archaeologists have been digging in Israel since 1864, it was not until 1983 that the remains of two lions were discovered in Israel. As far as I am aware, no other remains have been discovered since. As LDS scholar John Tvedtnes also notes, Similarly lions were frequently depicted in ancient Egyptian wall reliefs and papyri and were hunted and even raised as pets by the royal family, but no lion remains were found until 2001, when …a mummified lion from the first century B.C. [was discovered] in an Egyptian tomb. This was more than a century and a half after archaeological work began in Egypt.iii
As pointed out in Chapter 5, words do not have “plain” meanings; they only have meaning in context of a language, culture, timeframe, and in relation to other words. When the Miami Indians, for example (who were familiar with cows) first encountered the unfamiliar buffalo they simply called them “wild cows.” Likewise the explorer DeSoto called the buffalo vaca which is Spanish for “cow.” The Delaware Indians named the cow “deer,” and a group of Miami Indians labeled the unfamiliar sheep “looks-like-a-cow.”iv Also, as noted in Chapter 5, the Hebrew word parash can mean horse as well as a human horseman, depending on context.v In the Bible, the Hebrew word for horse is sus and means leaping, but it can also refer to the rapid flight of swallows and cranes. Typically our English-language Bibles translate the word sus as horse, but twice it is translated as crane, and twice as horseback—referring to a rider.vi
The Book of Mormon authors tell us that reformed Egyptian (their written language) was different than their spoken language. The Nephites would have liked to write in Hebrew but they used reformed Egyptian instead because it took up less space on the plates (Mormon 9:32–33). Reformed Egyptian was probably a more compact script than Hebrew and possibly consisted of a more limited vocabulary. Moroni tells us that if they could have written in Hebrew instead of reformed Egyptian there would have been fewer mistakes. Maybe he understood that at least some reformed Egyptian characters only approximated a concept or that some words had expanded meanings. As we examine the Book of Mormon text we discover that, indeed, reformed Egyptian appears to have had a very limited vocabulary. LDS researcher Benjamin McGuire notes that while the Book of Mormon is roughly 270,000 words long, it has a vocabulary of only about 5,500 words. If we compare this to contemporary books of Joseph Smith’s day we find that Warren Ramsey’s The Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution had roughly as many words as the Book of Mormon but had a vocabulary 2.5 times greater than the Book of Mormon. Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days has only one third as many words as the Book of Mormon, but has a vocabulary nearly 25% larger. Solomon Spalding wrote a novel that some critics claim was the original source for the Book of Mormon. That claim has been soundly refuted (see Chapter 12), but it is interesting that Spalding’s manuscript, which is just under 15% the length of the Book of Mormon, has about the same size vocabulary. The limited Book of Mormon vocabulary becomes even smaller when we remove the unique Book of Mormon names.vii
Some might suggest that the Book of Mormon’s vocabulary was limited because Joseph Smith’s vocabulary was limited. The evidence, however, contradicts such a theory. In the Book of Mormon, for example, we find a single word for a moving body of water—a “river.” In the Doctrine and Covenants, however, Joseph Smith uses “river,” “stream,” “rill,” and “brook.” Critics frequently claim that Joseph copied the language of the Bible when translating the Book of Mormon. The Bible, however, contains not only “river,” but descriptors such as “stream,”“creek,” and “brook”—none of which are in the Book of Mormon. Likewise, the Book of Mormon uses only one word for large bodies of water—”sea.” Other than the figurative lakes of fire and brimstone, we do not read of “lakes,” “ponds,” “oceans,” “pools,” etc.
There is little doubt that Joseph incorporated terms of his environment to describe or convey some translations of Book of Mormon text (see Chapter 5), but it seems that at least in some instances such borrowed terminology was used in metaphorical ways rather than in describing physical specimens. Some LDS scholars have suggested that, in at least some instances, the “seas” of the Book of Mormon may have been large lakes or other bodies of water (like the Dead Sea). The Bible uses not only “sea” but unlike the Book of Mormon it also uses “pond,” “pool,” and “lake.” In the Doctrine and Covenants we find “sea,” “ocean,” and “pool.” Other than wheat, barley, corn, and the generic term “tree,” we find few terms for flora in the Book of Mormon text. In contrast, the Bible mentions the poplar, pine, pomegranate, palm, almond, fig, gopher, chestnut, and olive.viii
Of the animals listed in the New World portions of the Book of Mormon, thirteen are physical creatures, whereas the remaining animals are figurative and may have been borrowed from Joseph’s language to express common ideas. Two of the thirteen physical creatures are cumoms and cureloms from Jaredite times (for which we have no Nephite or modern translation). Of the eleven remaining physical creatures we find cow, ox, ass, horse, goat, wild goat, dog, sheep, swine, serpents, and elephant. In the Bible we find the same animals as listed in the Book of Mormon (with the exception of the “elephant”) along with the lion, bear, ape, ostrich, hare, bat, badger, greyhound, ram, ferret, lizard, chameleon, snail, mole, spider, stork, mouse, weasel, tortoise, vulture, frog, crow, camel, and many more. While “fowl” are said to exist in Book of Mormon lands, no specific bird (nor even the word “bird”) is ever mentioned other than figuratively. In the Bible, however, we read not only of birds and fowls but we find the hawk, dove, quail, owl, pigeon, partridge, swan, swallow, and crane.
It quickly becomes apparent that reformed Egyptian had a small vocabulary. What does one do with a small vocabulary when there is a need to include a variety of new and unfamiliar items? The solution is to intuitively expand the definition of existing words. When translators run into the problem of untranslatable words, they resolve the issue by way of several options—such as adaptation, paraphrasing, borrowing, and other options.ix The same thing happens when people find it necessary to label new and unfamiliar items, they often instinctively “loanshift” words or expand familiar terms to include unfamiliar items.x Cross-cultural onomasticaxi (onomastica refers to the names we use for people, animals, or things) occurs throughout the world.
Anthropologists and historians who have studied cross-cultural contact, for instance, refer to this well-known practice as loanshift or loan-extension. When the Greeks first encountered a large unfamiliar animal in the Nile River, for example, they named it hippopotamus or “river horse.”xii Umberto Eco, a world-renowned (non-LDS) linguist (semiotics), explains: Often, when faced with an unknown phenomenon, we react by approximation: we seek that scrap of content, already present in our encyclopedia, which for better or worse seems to account for the new fact. A classic example of this process is to be found in Marco Polo, who saw what we now realize were rhinoceroses on Java. Although he had never seen such animals before, by analogy with other known animals he was able to distinguish the body, the four feet, and the horn. Since his culture provided him with the notion of a unicorn—a quadruped with a horn on its forehead, to be precise—he designated those animals as unicorns.xiii Marco Polo recorded that the rhinoceros did not precisely match descriptions he had previously heard about unicorns but he nevertheless simply expanded his understanding of what a unicorn might be to include the rhinoceros.
Non-LDS linguist Dr. Joel Hoffman likewise explains, “Words can mean more than one thing, …the meaning of a word can be extended…. [and]…words change meaning when they travel (“get borrowed”) from one language to another.”xiv While the Nephites may have used familiar names for unfamiliar flora, fauna, or weapons, Joseph Smith may have struggled to translate foreign items by using words from his vocabulary that approximated concepts or ideas. It is an indisputable fact that loan-shifting can happen during the translation of one language to anotherxv and two languages need not resemble each other phonetically in order for loan-shifting to occur.xvi Instead of creating entirely new words for unfamiliar things, sometimes people tend to “translate” new things into their own language by expanding their current words to include the new item.
For another insightful article on anachronisms in the Book of Mormon check out this link: http://www.studioetquoquefide.com/2013/08/anachronisms-and-expectations-assessing.html
i Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, 216–217.
ii Newsletter #150 for the Society of Early Historic Archaeology, ed. Ross T. Christiansen (August 1982); available online at http://www.ancientamerica.org/library/media/HTML/ww19imgk/Aaf49.htm?n=0 (accessed 24 September 2012).
iii John A. Tvedtnes, “Horses in the Book of Mormon,” at http://bookofmormonresearch.org/book-of-mormon-criticisms/generic-criticisms-of-the-book-of-mormon/animals/1-nephi-1825-etc-horses-in-the-new-world (accessed 24 September 2012).
iv John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1984), 293–295.
v David Bokovoy, posted 19 May 2006 at http://mormonapologetics.org/index.php?showtopic=15403&view=findpost&p=435101 (accessed19 May 2006).
vi http://lexiconcordance.com/hebrew/5483.html (accessed 13 September 2012).
vii Benjamin McGuire, posted 3 April 2006 at http://www.mormonapologetics.org/index.php?s=&showtopic=14406&view=findpost&p=404018 (accessed 27 January 2008).
viii While “olive” is mentioned in the Book of Mormon figuratively (see Jacob 5), there is strong evidence that the author of Jacob 5 actually understood sophisticated olive horticulture—something not likely to have been familiar to Joseph Smith.
ix “Untranslatability,” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Untranslatability (accessed 17 December 2012).
x Matthew Roper, “Unanswered Mormon Scholars,” FARMS Review (1997) 9:1, 132–133; see also Hans Henrich Hock and Brian D. Joseph, Trends in Linguistics: Studies and Monographs 93: Language History, Language Change, and Language Relationships: An Introduction to Historical and Comparative Linguistics (New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1996), 289; parts available online at http://books.google.com/books?id=OHjPwU1Flo4C&printsec=frontcover (accessed 17 December 2012).
xi Gardner, “Behind the Mask,” 189.
xii John A. Tvedtnes “A Review of New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology,” in FARMS Review 6:1, 10.
xiii Umberto Eco, Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition (San Diego: A Harvest Book, 1997), 57.
xiv Hoffman, And God Said, 42, 35.
xv Effects of the Second Language on the First, ed. Vivian Cook (Dublin, Ireland: Trinity College, 2003) 40–41; parts available online at http://books.google.com/books?id=TZMEemWIlyEC&printsec=frontcover (accessed 17 December 2012).
xvi Ulrich Ammon, Sociolinguistics: An International Handbook of the Science of Language, (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2005), 50–51; parts available online at http://books.google.com/books?id=_zp4x3m0u3YC&printsec=frontcover (accessed 18 January 2008).