Right on Target: Boomerang Hits and the Book of Mormon

Matthew Roper
August 2001

Right on Target: Boomerang Hits and the Book of Mormon

One morning, several years ago, I had to acquire some materials for a research project I was working on. In company with two friends, I visited a small Salt Lake City bookstore operated by a well-known anti-Mormon couple. The woman, and co-proprietor of this establishment, was most helpful in assisting me in my aim. While there, I had the opportunity to witness and also engage in a most interesting conversation with this woman. During our conversation the question arose as to what, in her view, would constitute acceptable evidence in support of the Book of Mormon. She struggled with this question for several minutes, so we asked if some kind of inscription would do. This would depend, she said. One of my companions then gave her a hypothetical scenario: Let’s suppose non-Mormon archaeologists found an inscription in highland Guatemala dating to the early sixth century B.C. with the name Nephi written in Reformed Egyptian. If verified, would such a find then constitute evidence for the Book of Mormon? Yet our kind host was unwilling to grant that even this would constitute such evidence, allowing only that, “it might be a topic of discussion.” In leaving her store it was unclear what if anything would constitute such evidence.

In reflecting on this experience I have been reminded of the words of the Lord to a young Joseph Smith. No doubt eager to share the excitement of early sacred experiences with others, the Lord warned, “Behold, if they will not believe my words, they would not believe you, my servant Joseph, if it were possible that you should show them all these things which I have committed unto you” (D&C 5:7).

When dealing with issues of scholarship I believe it is proper and wise for Latter-day Saints to distinguish between “evidence” and “proof.” As I see it “evidence” is something that tends to support a particular proposition, theory, or claim. “Proof” is something that is already accepted as established without question. Frequently in the real world proof only occurs at an individual level and is a personal judgment which one makes when they have become convinced that the sum of the evidence taken together is persuasive enough to accept a proposition as established or true. In discussions of scholarly issues, people with different opinions may agree upon the validity of particular pieces of evidence, while still disagreeing in their final judgment of what the sum of that evidence may mean.

The Book of Mormon claims to be an ancient text compiled by ancient American prophets that was translated by the gift and power of God by Joseph Smith, a nineteenth century prophet. One is not going to be able to establish, simply by scholarly learning, whether or not God lives and really spoke to Joseph Smith, sent angels to him to reveal the Book of Mormon and so forth. Scholarly learning is not a tool equipped to deal with questions of the divine and miracles. For most of us these are questions of faith and they are questions that can only be fully answered by the examination of spiritual evidence. It is written in Hebrews, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Note that faith is not blind trust in a lack of evidence, but the trust in another kind of evidence that can be discerned spiritually, although not seen. Have you ever been truly happy? What was it like? Is that real to you? Does that experience tell you something about what made you feel that way? Was it good? Of course. Things don’t have to be seen with the eye to be real.

[The testimony of the Holy Ghost to the individual] must ever be the chief source of evidence for the truth of the Book of Mormon. All other evidence is secondary to this, the primary and infallible. No arrangement of evidence, however skillfully ordered; no argument, however adroitly made, can ever take its place; for this witness of the Holy Spirit to the soul of man for the truth of the Nephite volume of scripture, is God’s evidence to the truth; and it will ever be the chief reliance of those who accept the Book of Mormon, and expect to see its acceptance throughout the world.1

This does not mean that we should not examine scholarly issues, however. It simply means that there is a form of evidence that is primary because it is more reassuring and ultimately more reliable, enduring and satisfactory. Still, the fruits of careful scholarship have their place.

To be known, the truth must be stated and the clearer and more complete the statement is, the better opportunity will the Holy Spirit have for testifying to the souls of men that the work is true. …Secondary evidences in support of truth, like secondary causes in natural phenomena, may be of first-rate importance, and mighty factors in the achievement of God’s purposes.2

There are many kinds of secondary evidence to consider. I would like to consider one particular kind of secondary evidence, what I would call “boomerang hits” in the Book of Mormon. These are elements found in the Book of Mormon text which have in the past been loudly derided by critics or sent them into paroxysms of laughter, but which when re-examined today can be seen in a whole new light.

In 1963 Hugh Nibley observed

It is the “howlers” with which the Book of Mormon abounds that furnish the best index to its authenticity. They show, first of all, that the book was definitely not a typical product of its time, and secondly, when they are examined more closely in the light of present-day evidence, they appear very different indeed than they did a hundred years ago.3

The “Land of Jerusalem”

“‘The land of Jerusalem.'” exclaimed Origen Bacheler in 1838, “There is no such land. No part of Palestine bears the name of Jerusalem, except the city itself.”4 While the phrase cannot be found in the Bible, it does appear in the Amarna Tablets, not discovered until 1887, where it appears at least five times. The phrase also appears in another recently published Dead Sea Scroll fragment attributed to Jeremiah, which refers to Jeremiah and others who “were taken captive from the land of Jerusalem.”5 Eisenmann and Wise state that this is a phrase which “greatly enhances the sense of historicity” of the document in question.6 Might we not now say the same about the Book of Mormon?

Old World Steel in the Book of Mormon

Nephi states that Laban, a powerful military official in Jerusalem around 600 B.C., possessed a sword with a blade “of the most precious steel” (1 Nephi 4:9).7 Many critics of the Book of Mormon have cited this passage as evidence against the Book of Mormon’s historicity, “Steel,” it is argued, “was not known to man in those days.”8 Today, however, it is increasingly apparent that the practice of “steeling” iron through deliberate carburization was well known to the Near Eastern world from which the Lehi colony emerged. “It seems evident that by the beginning of the tenth century B.C. blacksmiths were intentionally steeling iron.”9 A carburized iron knife dating to the twelfth century B.C. is known from Cyprus.10 In addition to this, “a site on Mt. Adir in northern Israel has yielded an iron pick in association with twelfth century pottery. One would hesitate to remove a sample from the pick for analysis, but it has been possible to test the tip for hardness. The readings averaged 38 on the Rockwell ‘C’ scale of hardness. This is a reading characteristic of modern hardened steel.”11 Quenching and tempering, methods of steeling iron, were also known to Mediterranean blacksmiths during this period.12 Archaeologists recently discovered a tempered carburized iron sword near Jericho. The sword which had a bronze haft, was one meter long and dates to the time of King Josiah, who would have been a contemporary of Lehi.13 Hershall Shanks recently described the find as “spectacular” since it is “the only complete sword of its size and type from this period yet discovered in Israel.”14 Such discoveries lend a greater sense of historicity to Nephi’s passing comment in the Book of Mormon.


In his abridgement of the Nephite chronicle, Mormon recorded that about 46 B.C. a group of Nephites migrated to the land northward. He stated, “The people who went forth became exceedingly expert in the working of cement; therefore they did build houses of cement in the which they did dwell” (Helaman 3:7). In 1929, President Heber J. Grant recalled,

When I was a young married man another young man who had received a doctor’s degree ridiculed me for believing in the Book of Mormon. He said he could point out two lies in that book. One was that the people had built their homes out of cement and that they were very skillful in the use of cement. He said there had never been found and never would be found, a house built of cement by the ancient inhabitants of this country, because the people of that early age knew nothing about cement. He said that should be enough to make one disbelieve the book. I said: “That does not affect my faith one particle. I read the Book of Mormon prayerfully and supplicated God for a testimony in my heart and soul of the divinity of it, and I have accepted it and believe it with all my heart.” I also said to him, “If my children do not find cement houses, I expect that my grandchildren will.” He said, “Well, what is the good of talking to a fool like that”15

In more recent years other critics have expressed similar sentiments. John L Smith, for example, asserts, “There is zero archaeological evidence that any kind of cement existed in the Americas prior to modern times.”16

Once thought to be anachronistic, references to “cement” in the Book of Mormon (Helaman 3:7,9,11) can be seen today as further evidence of the authenticity of the text. This is because today the presence of expert cement technology in pre-Hispanic America is a well-established archaeological fact. “American technology in the manufacture of cement, its mixing and placement two thousand years ago, paralleled that of the Greeks and the Romans during the same period” notes structural engineer, David Hyman, in a recent study devoted to the use of cement in Pre-Columbian Mexico. The earliest known sample of such cement dates to the first century A.D. and is a “fully developed product.”17 Known samples of Mesoamerican cement work show signs of remarkable skill and sophistication. “Technology in the manufacturing of calcareous cements in Middle America [were] equal to any in the world at the advent of the Christian Era.”18 For example, concrete floor slabs at Teotihuacan that date to about this time exceed many present-day building requirements.19 While the earliest known samples are from the first century A.D., scholars believe that “their degree of perfection could not have been instantaneously created, but rather would have required a considerable period of development” before then.20 Hyman asks, “Were these materials invented by indigenous unnamed people far preceding the occupation of Teotihuacan, or were they introduced by an exotic culture.”21 In its references to “cement,” the Book of Mormon anticipates what has now been well established.


Critics of the Book of Mormon have been reluctant to grant the historical complexity of Book of Mormon names, even when faced with scholarly evidence supporting their authenticity. One man after writing a series of inflammatory letters designed to elicit negative comments about Latter-day Saint scriptures from prominent Near Eastern scholars, received a response from William F. Albright of John’s Hopkins University. Contrary to this individual’s expectations, Albright expressed doubts that Joseph Smith could have learned Egyptian from any nineteenth century sources. Explaining that he was a Protestant and hence not a believer in the Book of Mormon, he observed, “It is all the more surprising that there are two Egyptian names, Paanch[i] and Pahor[an] which appear in the Book of Mormon in close connection with a reference to the original language being ‘Reformed Egyptian.'” Puzzled at the existence of such names in an obscure book published by Joseph Smith in 1830, Albright vaguely suggested that the young Mormon leader was some kind of “religious genius.”22 Incensed by this response, this same critic wrote to another scholar in England. Without mentioning Albright by name, he complained of “another scholar who is renowned in ancient Semitic studies” who “though a Protestant, he writes of the Book of Mormon like it had authentic Egyptian-Hebrew support. He even offered me what he said were two good Egyptian names in the Book of Mormon-Paanchi and Pahoran. …Certainly he would know Joseph Smith didn’t understand Egyptian, but why would he leave an impression that Joseph Smith was on the right track?”23


Critics have occasionally had fun at Latter-day Saint expense since the Book of Mormon has several prophets known as Alma. Here are a few comments that are typical:

Alma is supposed to be a prophet of God and of Jewish ancestry in the Book of Mormon. In Hebrew Alma means a betrothed virgin maiden-hardly a fitting name for a man.24

In most of the United States Alma is a woman’s name. However, in Utah, only the men are named Alma… Thus we see that even in peoples names, Mormonism redefines Christian words to suit its meanings.25

So Mormons who name their sons Alma have actually named them ‘lass’ or ‘virgin’ or a young woman. Interesting!26

We still find it interesting that so many Mormons saddle their sons with a word that means ‘lass’ or ‘damsel.’ It reminds us of the ‘boy named Sue.’ Again, Mormonism has redefined a word. …Typical of the strange definitions that Mormonism gives familiar terms, perhaps we should not think it strange that Mormonism gives boys a girl’s name.27

As can be seen, critics have had a lot of fun with the name Alma, however, in the 1960s Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin discovered a land deed near the Dead Sea dating to the early second century A.D. and rendered the name of a Jew mentioned therein as “Alma ben Yehuda” showing for the first time in modern history that the name Alma was an authentic Hebrew male name.28 Additional research in Ebla, in what is modern Syria, has also turned up this name showing that it goes back to nearly 2200 B.C.29


The Book of Mormon name Jershon can be traced to a Hebrew root meaning “to inherit.” In the Book of Mormon we read “Behold, we will give up the land of Jershon, which is on the east by the sea…and this land of Jershon is the land which we will give unto our brethren for an inheritance” (Alma 27:22).


Alma 11:5-15 describes various monetary units which the Nephites used at one point in their history. Alma 11:16 in our current edition of the Book of Mormon states that one of these units was a “shiblum.” However, both the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon and the Printer’s manuscript indicate that this originally read “shilum.” Significantly, Shilum is a perfectly good Hebrew word. It literally means “retribution…a fee: recompense, reward.” That makes sense in a monetary context doesn’t it?


Nephi recorded, “And it came to pass that Ishmael died, and was buried in the place which was called Nahom. And it came to pass that the daughters of Ishmael did mourn exceedingly, because of the loss of their father” (1 Nephi 16:34-35). Biblical scholars point to the root NHM meaning to “comfort” or “console.” In some forms the word “comes simply to mean ‘suffer emotional pain’. The sense ‘be comforted’ is retained in context of mourning for the dead.”30 Damrosch notes that all references to NHM in the Hebrew Bible are associated with death. “In family settings, it is applied in instances involving death of an immediate family member (parent, sibling, or child); in national settings, it has to do with the survival or impending extermination of an entire people. At heart, naham means ‘to mourn,’ to come to terms with a death; these usages are usually translated…by the verb ‘to comfort,’ as when Jacob’s children try to comfort their father after the reported death of Joseph.”31 The events in 1 Nephi 16:34-35 fit this context quite well since we are told that Ishmael, a close family member, died and his daughters mourn and murmur.

Alan Goff was written a important article on the meaning of NHM as it relates to 1 Nephi 16:34-39).32 Goff was apparently the first to note that the significance of this term may go beyond the obvious context of mourning for the dead. Nephi related, “And Laman said unto Lemuel and also unto the sons of Ishmael: Behold let us slay our father, and also our brother Nephi….And it came to pass that the Lord was with us, yea even the voice of the Lord came and did speak many words unto them, and did chasten them exceedingly; and after they were chastened by the voice of the Lord they did turn away their anger, and did repent of their sins, insomuch that the Lord did bless us again with food, that we did not perish” (1 Nephi 16:37, 39). According to one scholar, the term NHM can also be “extended to describe the release of emotional tension involved in performing a declared action (executing wrath), or retracting a declared action (such as sin, punishment or blessing).”33 Damarosch notes that the Hebrew term naham is sometimes applied to contexts involving “cases of regret or change of heart” frequently “when the repenter is meditating murder. ‘Repentance’ [or change of heart] then involves either the decision to kill, or conversely, the decision to stop killing. The term can then be used in quite ignoble circumstances, as when Esau comforts himself for the loss of his birthright by deciding to kill Jacob (Gen. 27:42), but usually it is God who repents, either negatively or positively; negatively, by deciding to destroy his people; positively, by commuting a sentence of destruction.”34 Again, this explanation clearly fits the context of 1 Nephi 16:34-39 where Laman and Lemuel and the sons of Ishmael contemplate the murder of their father Lehi and their brother Nephi and where the Lord is angry with them and where after being chastened by the Lord they turn away their anger and repent of their sins and the Lord also apparently turns away his wrath and does not destroy them with hunger. It is also interesting that while they had up until this time been traveling southward (1 Nephi 16:13) they now turn and travel eastward (1 Nephi 17:1).


According to Zeniff’s record in the Book of Mormon account, “And we began to till the ground, yea, even with all manner of seeds of corn, and of wheat, and of barley, and with neas, and with sheum” (Mosiah 9:9). “Pray tell me what kinds of grain neas and sheum are? Joseph Smith’s translation needs another translation, to render it intelligible.”35 “We must reluctantly pass on denying the existence of neas and sheum, and put them into the same category as the unidentifiable cureloms and cumoms.”36 As it turns out sheum is a perfectly good Akkadian (ancient northern Mesopotamian) name for a grain dating to the third millennium B.C.37 This term, se um, (the s is pronounced sh in semitic languages) was a term by which these ancient Near Eastern peoples referred to barley, although it could also be applied to other kinds of grains. Book of Mormon peoples seem to have applied this Old World name to some New World crop. Could Joseph Smith have derived this name from some nineteenth century book? Impossible. Akkadian could not be read until 1857, twenty-seven years after the Book of Mormon was published and thirteen years after the Prophet was dead. This raises an interesting question. If Joseph Smith was really the author of the Book of Mormon, how did he come up with the word sheum? How did he just happen to choose this particular name and just happen to use it in an agricultural context?

Barley in the Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon states that the people of Zeniff cultivated barley in the promised land (Mosiah 9:9). In 1887 M.T. Lamb wrote, “It is a somewhat stubborn fact that barley was never found upon either of these western continents until imported by Europeans in modern times!”38 In 1910 Charles Shook asked, “But where is the proof of this extraordinary assertion? It seems very probable that, if Americans had once had … barley, they would not have given up [its] cultivation and use, and yet [it was] not to be found in America when the Europeans came.” Shook then noted that while ancient Pre-Columbian sites were known in Peru, Arizona and Ohio for example, “not a vestige” of barley has ever been found” at any of these sites.39

“In this book, we are told,” stated William Biederwolf in a widely circulated anti-Mormon pamphlet, “that barley was among the produce of the earth, whereas all respected scholarship is absolutely positive in its authority” that barley is only a modern New World crop.40 In 1964 Gordon Fraser asserted, “The only grain known in America was maize.”41 Elsewhere the same author described the Book of Mormon references to barley as one of numerous “verifiable blunders” found in the Book of Mormon.42 In a popular anti-Mormon work published in 1979, former Mormon Latayne Colvett Scott could safely affirm what previous critics already knew that, “barley never grew in the New World before the white man brought it here!”43 Other Evangelical critics were even more smug, “If there was no barley in America until the white man came, then [the Book of Mormon] must be false. If God were the one that wrote the Book of Mormon, is it not a reasonable assumption that he would have known there was no barley in the New World? The Book of Mormon…falls short of authenticatable [sic] truth.”44

As this last statement was being written, archaeologists discovered several specimens of pre-Columbian domesticated barley while excavating a Hohokam Indian site near Phoenix, Arizona. “Perhaps the most startling evidence of Hohokam agricultural sophistication came last year when salvage archaeologists found preserved grains of what looks like domesticated barley, the first ever found in the New World.”45 This startling discovery was later confirmed by additional discoveries in both Oklahoma and Illinois. “It is reasonable to conclude that we are looking at a North American domesticated grain crop whose existence has not been suspected.”46 Or as another set of botanists states, “[Our] project reveal[s] a previously unidentified seed type now identified as little barley (Hordeum pusillum), and there are strong indications that this grain must be added to the list of starchy-seeded plants that were cultivated in the region by 2000 years ago.”47 Of course it was the Book of Mormon that first pointed this out.


Let’s imagine a scenario. Suppose I read the Book of Mormon some time ago, say, in the 1970s. I read about the Nephites having barley. I reject the Book of Mormon because there is no evidence for pre-Columbian barley. This was, after all, the scholarly consensus-there was no pre-Columbian domesticated barley in the New World period! But now it turns out that this view was wrong. There was in fact archaeological evidence for barley in pre-Columbian America. It just hadn’t been discovered yet. Let’s suppose I had even staked my life on the belief in opinion of scholars that there was no such grain before Columbus. Wouldn’t I have made a terrible mistake? The example of pre-Columbian barley should be a warning to us that similar evidences for the Book of Mormon, which at present seem to be anachronisms, may yet be forthcoming as well



1 B.H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1909), 2:vi-vii.

2 Ibid., vii-viii.

3 Hugh Nibley, “Howlers in the Book of Mormon” Millennial Star 125 (February 1963): 28.

4 Origen Bachelor, Mormonism Exposed Internally and Externally. (New York: Privately Published, 1838), 14.

5 Eisenmann and Wise, 57-58.

6 Ibid.

7 Noah Webster’s 1828 English dictionary defines “steel” as “iron combined with a small portion of carbon; iron refined and hardened…particularly useful as the material of edged tools.” Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language. 2 vols. (New York: S. Converse, 1828), 2:80.

8 Stuart Martin, The Mystery of Mormonism. (London: Odhams Press, 1920), 44.

9 Robert Maddin, James D. Muhly and Tamara S. Wheeler, “How the Iron Age Began,” Scientific American 237/4 (October 1977): 127.

10 Ibid. The knife shows evidence of quenching. See Tamara S. Wheeler and Robert Maddin, “Metallurgy and Ancient Man,” in The Coming Age of Iron. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1980), 121.

11 Maddin, Muhly, and Wheeler, “How the Iron Age Began,” 127.

12 Ibid., 131. James D, Muhly, “How iron technology changed the ancient world” Biblical Archaeology Review (November-December 1982): In Hershall Shanks, Archaeology and the Bible: The Best of BAR (1990) 1:234.

13 Hershall Shanks, “Antiquities Director Confronts Problems and Controversies,” Biblical Archaeology Review 12/4 (July-August 1986): 33, 35.

14 Ibid.

15 Heber J. Grant, Conference Report, April 1929, 129.

16 John L. Smith, “What about those Gold Plates?” The Utah Evangel 33/6 (September 1986): 8.

17 David S. Hyman, Pre-Columbian Cements: A Study of the Calcareous Cements in Pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican Building Construction (Baltimore: John’s Hopkins University, 1970), ii.

18 Ibid., 6-15.

19 Ibid., 6-7.

20 Ibid., 6-15.

21 Ibid., 6-16.

22 William F. Albright to Grant S. Heward, Baltimore, Maryland, 25 July 1966.

23 Grant S. Heward to I.E.S. Edwards, Midvale, Utah, 14 March 1967. I would like to thank Boyd Peterson for providing this reference.

24 Walter Martin, The Maze of Mormonism (Santa Ana, California: Vision House, 1978), 327.

25 Robert McKay, “A Mormon Name” Utah Evangel 31/8 (August 1984): 4.

26 John L. Smith, editorial comment on Robert McKay, “A Mormon Name” Utah Evangel 31/8 (August 1984): 4.

27 “That Man Alma” Utah Evangel 33/3 (April 1986): 2.

28 Yigael Yadin, Bar-Kokhba (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1965), 176.

29 Terrence L. Szink, “Further evidence of a semitic Alma” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/1 (1999): 70.

30 H. Van Dyke Parunak, “A Semantic Survey of NHM,” Biblica 56 (1975): 532.

31 David Damrosch, The Narrative Covenant. (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987), 128-129.

32 Alan Goff, “Mourning , Consolation, and Repentance at Nahom,” in John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne, eds., Rediscovering the Book of Mormon: Insights You May Have Missed Before. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1991), 92-99.

33 Parunak, “A Semantic Survey of NHM,” 532.

34 Damrosch, Narrative Covenant, 129.

35 Origen Bacheler, Mormonism Exposed, 14.

36 Latayne Colvett Scott, The Mormon Mirage: A former Mormon tells why she left the Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1979), 84.

37 Hildegard Lewy, “On Some Old Assyrian Cereal Names,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 76/4 (October-December 1956): 201-204.

38 M.T. Lamb, The Golden Bible, or, The Book of Mormon: Is It From God? (New York: Ward & Drummond, 1887), 304.

39 Charles A. Shook, Cumorah Revisited… (Cincinnati: The Standard Publishing Company, 1910), 382-383.

40 William Edward Biederwolf, Mormonism Under the Searchlight (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1947).

41 Gordon Fraser, What Does the Book of Mormon Teach? An Examination of the Historical and Scientific Statements of the Book of Mormon (Chicago: Moody Press, 1964), 90.

42 Gordon Fraser, Is Mormonism Christian? (Chicago: Moody Press, 1977), 141.

43 Latayne Colvett Scott, The Mormon Mirage: A Former Mormon Tells Why She Left the Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1979), 82.

44 Rick Branch, “Nephite Nickels.” The Utah Evangel 29/10 (October 1982): 1.

45 Daniel B. Adams, “Last Ditch Archaeology,” Science 83 (December 1983): 32.

46 V.L. Bohrer, “Domesticated and Wild Crops in the CAEP Study Area,” in P.M. Spoerl and G.J. Gumerman, eds., Prehistoric Cultural Development in Central Arizona: Archaeology of the Upper New River Region (Southern Illinois University at Carbondale Center for Archaeological Investigations, Occasional paper 5, 1984): 252.

47 Nancy and David Asch, “Archaeobotany,” Deer Track: A Late Woodland Village in the Mississippi Valley, edited by Charles R. McGimsey and Michael D. Conner (Kampsville, Illinois: Center for American Archaeology, 1985), 44.

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