Steel in the Book of Mormon

William Hamblin

Steel in the Book of Mormon

Since there has been a lot of criticism by some anti-Mormons about the steel-using Nephites, it might be useful to see what the Book of Mormon actually says about iron and steel.

There are two major fallacies in discussions on this topic. First is the problem of the hermeneutics of hyper-skepticism. Applying the same hermeneutical standard to other ancient texts creates some obvious absurdities I will describe shortly. Second is the semantic fallacy, which consists of arguing about the meaning of words rather than the reality the words are trying to depict. A single ancient reality can be described in a number of different ways. Ancient peoples often described their perceptions of reality differently than we do. These fallacies are omnipresent among many anti-Mormons.

Steel in the Text

Steel is mentioned only five times in the Book of Mormon, once in the Book of Ether (7.9), and four times in the Nephite records (1 Ne 4.9, 1 Ne 16.18, 2 Ne 5.15 and Jar 1.8). Of these, two refer to Near Eastern weapons of the early sixth century B.C. 1 Ne 4.9 states that the blade of Laban’s sword was “of most precious steel.” Nephi’s Near Eastern bow was “made of fine steel” (1 Ne 16.18). The next two references are to steel among generic metal lists. The first is to the time of Nephi, around 580 B.C.:

“work in all manner of wood, and of iron, and of copper, and of brass, and of steel, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious ores” (2 Ne 5.15)

The second is from Jarom 1.8, around 400 B.C.:

“workmanship of wood, in buildings, and in machinery, and also in iron and copper, and brass and steel, making all manner of tools of every kind to till the ground, and weapons of war–yea, the sharp pointed arrow, and the quiver, and the dart, and the javelin, and all preparations for war”

Notice that these two texts are what is called a “literary topos,” meaning a stylized literary description which repeats the same ideas, events, or items in a standardized way in the same order and form.

  • Nephi: “wood, and of iron, and of copper, and of brass, and of steel”
  • Jarom: “wood, …iron and copper, and brass and steel”

The use of literary topoi is a fairly common ancient literary device found extensively in the Book of Mormon (and, incidentally, an evidence for the antiquity of the text). Scholars are often skeptical about the actuality behind a literary topos; it is often unclear if it is merely a literary device or is intended to describe specific unique circumstances.

Note, also, that although Jarom mentions a number of “weapons of war,” this list notably leaves off swords. Rather, it includes “arrow, and the quiver, and the dart, and the javelin.” If iron/steel swords were extensively used by Book of Mormon armies, why are they notably absent from this list of weapons, the only weapon-list that specifically mentions steel?

Significantly, there are no references to Nephite steel after 400 B.C.

Putting all this together, we find the following:

  • The steel sword is a Near Eastern weapon. It is imitated by Nephi in the first generation-although we are not sure if this imitation is of function, form or material-or all three.
  • Steel swords are never again mentioned in the Book of Mormon after this first generation.
  • Steel is mentioned once more, in 400 B.C., in a literary topos list, which is notable also for its failure to mention swords, steel or otherwise.

The minimalist and tightest reading of this evidence is that Nephi had a steel weapon from the Near East. He attempted to imitate this weapon-whether in function, form, or material is unclear. His descendants apparently abandoned this technology by no later than 400 B.C. Based on a careful reading of the text of the Book of Mormon, there are no grounds for claiming-as anti-Mormons repeatedly do-that the Book of Mormon describes a massive steel industry with thousands of soldiers carrying steel swords in the New World.

Linguistics Layers and Steel

An historical Book of Mormon would have at least seven different linguistic layers:

  1. early nineteenth century American English;
  2. Jacobean English of the KJV Bible;
  3. Fourth century A.D. language of Moroni (Morm 9.33-34);
  4. Mesoamerican language(s);
  5. Hebrew of the sixth century B.C.;
  6. Egyptian of the sixth century B.C.;
  7. Jaredite language.

Even a person who rejects the historicity of the Book of Mormon must agree that linguistic levels one and two are found in the Book of Mormon. The one linguistic category we know was not used in the production of the Book of Mormon English text is twenty-first century scientific terminology, since this version of English did not exist in the 1820s.

A fundamental fallacy of critics of the Book of Mormon is that they ignore this linguistic complexity, conflating twenty-first century English categories and concepts with those of these other linguistic layers. If you want to make a serious argument against the Book of Mormon you must argue from pre-twenty-first century linguistic categories, or you are begging the question. It is quite pointless to argue that because the Book of Mormon does not correlate with early twenty-first century linguistic categories, that is somehow evidence that the Book of Mormon is ahistorical.

An important question is what, precisely, is meant by “steel” in the Book of Mormon. Based on linguistic layer two (Jacobean English of the KJV Bible), “steel” translates “nechushah/nechosheth” which is copper or bronze (often “brass” in KJV). Certainly the Book of Mormon does not refer to twenty-first century “steel,” since the Bessemer steel process upon which modern steel-making is based was not invented until 1846.

By the time of Joseph Smith there was already serious linguistic disjunction between Hebrew, Jacobean English, and early nineteenth-century American English. In the KJV, the Hebrew nechosheth (and various cognates) translates into brass (or cognates) 144 times, fetters or chains 8 times (i.e to be “placed in copper” is a Hebrew idiom to be placed in fetters of nechosheth), steel 4 times, and copper once. The Hebrew term nechushah/nechosheth can describe copper or any largely copper-based alloy (Baumgartner, Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament [Brill, 2001] 1:691). Note-and this is important-there is no single English term that can accurately translate Hebrew nechushah/nechosheth; furthermore, the Hebrew term covers at least three distinct categories in modern English: copper, bronze (copper and tin alloy) and brass (copper and zinc alloy). Note, finally, that in Joseph Smith’s day there is a conflation between brass and bronze.

An interesting key to the problem is Nephi’s steel bow (1 Ne 16.18). My assumption here is that this phrase is meant to describe the same weapon that is called a “steel bow” in the KJV Bible. (I think this is obvious whether Joseph Smith invented the text or it is ancient.) The phrase “bow of steel” occurs three times in the KJV: 2 Sam 22.35, Job 20.24, and Ps 18.34. In all cases it translates the Hebrew phrase qeshet nechushah, which modern translations consistently, and correctly, translate as “bronze.” There is one other reference to “steel” in the KJV at Jer 15.12, also referring to bronze. The metal is apparently called “steel” in the KJV because bronze is “steeled” (strengthened) copper through alloying it with tin or through some other process. Likewise steel did not necessarily mean an iron-making process in Joseph Smith’s day; its base meaning is hard or strong. Among the meanings of “steel” in Webster’s 1828 dictionary is “extreme hardness.” For the verbal form, one of the meanings is “to make hard or extremely hard,” while one of the meanings of “steeled” is “hardened,” “steeliness” means “great hardness,” one of the meanings of “steeling” is “hardening,” and one of the meanings of “steely” is “hard, firm.” The term steel is still used this way in modern English, such as saying someone has “steely eyes” or a “will of steel.” The concept of “steel” (the metal) seems to derive from “steel” meaning hard or strong, not the other way around.

At any rate, it is clear we should not necessarily presume that Book of Mormon steel is related to modern steel. Once again, it is necessary to examine these issues in their original linguistic, textual and cultural context to understand what the text is saying.

Steel in the Near East

According to R. Maddin1 there were two forms of ancient “steeling” iron:

  • quenching
  • carburizing through taking heated iron and hammering it and folding it so carbon molecules from the charcoals were beaten into the iron.

“By quenching, a process in which hot [note: not melted] iron is plunged into cold water, the iron could be made hard.”2

Anciently, iron was never melted or cast in the Near East. The earliest known examples of casting liquefied iron are from China in the fourth century B.C. “Due to its high melting point (1540 degrees C), iron was never worked as a molten metal during the [Near Eastern] Iron Age… Iron had to be hammered, the blacksmith first having to consolidate a hot, spongy bloom of iron mixed with slag. By hammering out the slag he was able to produce a usable lump of iron. In order to use that iron, however, it was necessary to reheat the lump of iron and forge the hot metal to the desired shape.”3

Note that the term “smelt” is never used in the Book of Mormon. This, again, is a modern conflation of ancient and modern concepts and practices.

Steel Among the Jaredites

Ether mentions making “steel” only once (Ether 7.9), only a few generations after Jared. It does not say how many swords were made. Anti-Mormons often assert that this necessitates a large-scale iron and steel industry. This interpretation is not required by the text. Ether does not make this claim in any explicit form. This is a classic example of the fallacy of hyper-skepticism. Considering a counter-example will help to illustrate the absurdity of this fallacy.

In the royal shaft graves at Alaca Hoyuk (Turkey) {circa 2500-2200 B.C.), a roughly nine-inch iron dagger with a gold handle was discovered.4 Tutankhamun (fourteenth century B.C.) had an iron dagger in his tomb. Applying the anti-Mormon fallacy (that insists a single example necessitates universal use) we would be required to insist that all Near Eastern soldiers from 2300 B.C. to 1300 B.C. had iron daggers.

The reality, however, is that these two daggers are unique before the eighth century B.C.5 Furthermore, “iron does not appear to have been produced in Egypt on a large scale until the end of the Third Intermediate Period.”6

Thus, the assumption that a single reference to “steel swords” in Ether necessitates that all Jaredite soldiers in all ages had “steel swords” would, if consistently applied to the Near East, likewise require that these two examples of iron daggers mean that all soldiers in the Near East in all ages would have to also have iron daggers. But this was not the case. Critics employing the hyper-skepticism fallacy ignore the concept of elite weapons vs. common weapons and the issue of transformation of weapon types through time.

Imagine if we had not discovered the tomb of Alaca Hoyuk in Turkey, where an iron dagger from the twenty-third century B.C. was found. Imagine, further, that Tut’s tomb had been plundered in antiquity, as had nearly all other pharaonic tombs. The result would be that there would be no archaeological evidence for iron/steel weapons before the eighth century B.C. Yet this would clearly be wrong. There is a single known Bronze Age royal iron dagger in Egypt when all other soldiers had weapons of bronze or flint, and that was discovered by sheer luck. Why should we reject the possibility of the existence of similarly unique or very rare royal metal weapons in Book of Mormon times when most of the commoners used stone weapons? To reject this possibility is blatant anti-Mormon special pleading.

Furthermore, Near Eastern peoples used hematite, magnetite and meteoritic iron, along with other types of iron ore. Did they have different words for what we in modern scientific English would consider different types of iron? As far as I am aware, they did not. Indeed, the earliest Egyptian word for iron was: “bi3 m pet” or “copper from heaven.” That is to say, in archaic times they didn’t even distinguish between copper and iron. For the early Egyptians, iron was a type of copper! Later they used the word “banpi” or “benpi” (which are probably contractions of “bi3 m pet”), and this term lasts until Coptic times in the word “benipe.” Hebrew and other Near Eastern languages are precisely the same. There is only one term for all types of iron in the entire Bible, “barzal,” which is cognate with Aramaic “parzal.” Both of these are derived from the Akkadian “parzillu.”

Thus, anti-Mormons insist that the Book of Mormon must be evaluated on the basis of modern metallurgical terminology and science, which has categories and distinctions completely foreign to ancient peoples such as the ancient Egyptians and Hebrews, who had a single term covering what now is divided into many different categories. If the failure of the Book of Mormon to match modern semantic categories on types of iron proves there were no Nephites, shouldn’t the failure of the Hebrews and Egyptians to match modern semantic categories likewise demonstrate there were not Hebrews or Egyptians? Or is there a better alternative?

Another possibility is that Ether 7.9 is a “mythical” text, a recollection of an ancient heroic “golden age” when men had weapons of steel or iron. An example of this type of phenomenon is found in the Pyramid Texts (PT) of Egypt (circa 2400 B.C.) that describe thrones and implements of iron, which no pharaoh ever actually had. According to these texts, gods in heaven sit upon an “iron throne” which the king shares in the afterlife,7 the king receives an “iron scepter,”8 and the god Horus wears “iron bands on [his] arms.”9 In the resurrection the king’s bones will be made of iron,10 strong and everlasting, and the gates to the gods’ celestial castle are protected by “doors of iron.”11 Since we know the Egyptians in 2400 B.C. lived over a thousand years before the Iron Age, what are we to make of this? Should we insist, following anti-Mormon hyper-skeptical methodology, that the Egyptians didn’t exist because they describe the widespread use of iron which archaeologically we know they did not possess? Or is this a tale of a great cultural hero miraculously making a unique weapon out of celestial materials-the “metal from heaven” (meteoric iron)?

Note, finally, that the Olmecs did, indeed, work iron. Several tons of worked iron have been discovered.12

Notes

1 R. Madden, “How the Iron Age Began,” Scientific American 237 (October 1977): 131.

2 Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, Vol. 2 (Oxford University Press, 2000): 182.

3 Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, 3:1514-1515.

4 Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, 83 #111.

5 There may be an iron dagger from Tell Asmar (Eshnunna) in central Iraq that may be from this period, but I haven’t been able to track down the precise data yet.

6 Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, Vol. 2 (Oxford University Press, 2000): 183.

7 PT 21, 424, 461, 483, 509, 536, 610, 667, 667A, 669, 689.

8 PT 665C.

9 PT 214.

10 PT 570, 684, 724.

11 PT 469.

12 See Richard A. Diehl, The Olmecs: America’s First Civilization (Thames & Hudson, 2004), 93-94.

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