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Defending the Faith: 2 Book of Mormon 'errors'

Published: Thursday, May 1 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

What initially may appear to be linguistic errors in the Book of Mormon really aren't.

LDS Church

“Peace!” exclaims Brutus to Cassius in Shakespeare’s tragic play “Julius Caesar” (Act II, Scene ii). “Count the clock.” And Cassius, obeying, replies that “The clock hath stricken three.”

Unfortunately, though, there were no clocks in the Rome of 44 B.C. when the real Brutus and his fellow plotters stabbed Caesar to death in the Roman Senate. Either through carelessness or ignorance, Shakespeare has written an anachronism, something that doesn’t fit the claimed historical period of the story, into his play.

Critics of the Book of Mormon have typically sought similar elements in it that would prove the text to be a product of Joseph Smith or some other group of conspirators in 19th-century America. They’ve hoped to find concepts or items mistakenly inserted into its supposedly ancient story by an ignorant or careless modern author.

Some, for example, have settled on the name “Alma,” which the Book of Mormon attaches to an important prophet and his equally important son. “Alma,” they point out, is a woman’s name — for instance, Alma Powell is the wife of the former American four-star general and Secretary of State — and it isn’t Hebrew at all. Instead, it comes from Latin. Many people are familiar with it from the phrase “alma mater,” which means something like “foster mother” or “bounteous mother” and commonly refers to a benevolent or protective institute (most often, nowadays, a college or university).

However, during the archaeological season of 1960-61, while he was excavating in the Judean caves on the western shore of the Dead Sea near En-Gedi, the eminent Israeli scholar Yigael Yadin found an interesting document from the early second century A.D. that not only destroys the critics’ objection but, in a sense, provides support for the Book of Mormon.

During the second Jewish revolt against Rome (A.D. 132-136), the leader of that revolt, Shimeon Bar-Kokhba (or Bar-Kosiba), had nationalized some of the real estate around the northwestern shores of the Dead Sea.

Yadin discovered a land deed bearing the names of four people who had rented nationalized property under Bar-Kokhba and wanted to set down the boundaries of each of their holdings with more precision. One of those four was “Alma, son of Yehudah.” (This is the way Yadin himself rendered the name, which, of course, was originally written in Hebrew letters.)

The name "Alma" was sometimes given to men in early America, but it was mostly given to women, as it is still given today — and that is how Joseph Smith likely would have known it, if he knew it at all. But we know now, from evidence found slightly more than 50 years ago, that “Alma” is an authentically ancient Semitic masculine personal name, just as the Book of Mormon presents it.

Another popular claim among critics is that the word “adieu” at Jacob 7:27 is anachronistic. French, they point out, didn’t even exist in the sixth century B.C., so why does a French word appear in the Book of Mormon?

What they seem to forget, however, is that the Book of Mormon, as we have it today, claims to be a translation. And the language into which a book is translated is, obviously, different from its original language. (It’s most commonly the native language of the translator.)

The presence of “adieu” in the English Book of Mormon no more implies the existence of French on the original Nephite plates than the occurrence of the words “in the beginning” indicates that there was English in the original Hebrew text of Genesis 1:1.

Anyway, it’s doubtful that the very unsophisticated Joseph Smith of 1829-30 was even aware that “adieu” was French. As the refrain of a popular 19th-century cowboy song shows, the word had thoroughly worked its way into the language of quite ordinary speakers of English:

So come sit by my side if you love me.

Do not hasten to bid me adieu.

Just remember the Red River Valley,

And the cowboy that has loved you so true.

In fact, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word had been a common one in English since at least 1374. It’s included in the OED and the Oxford American Dictionary as well as, most importantly, Noah Webster’s 1828 “American Dictionary of the English Language.” It was simply a word that Joseph knew.

Thus, neither “Alma” nor “adieu” represents a valid argument against the authentic antiquity of the Book of Mormon.

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson and speaks only for himself.

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