The Elephantine Papyri
From the Book: 80 Evidences Supporting the Prophet Joseph Smith
by Michael R. Ash
Critics typically contend that Joseph Smith either invented the names in the Book of Mormon or borrowed them from his surroundings. The first name mentioned in the Nephite record is Nephi. We find this name in the Apocrypha. The Apocrypha are part of the Catholic collection of scriptures, but are not included in the Protestant scriptures such as the King James Version Bible. Whether Joseph has access to the Apocrypha in 1829 is unknown.
Sariah was Lehi’s faithful wife who endured so much tribulation during their journey through the Arabian Peninsula. Dr. Jeffrey Chadwick, who holds a PhD in Archaeology and Semitic Languages, believes that a likely Hebrew spelling of Sariah would be s’ryh and would be pronounced something like Sar-yah. The name s’ryh has been found on ancient Aramaic papyri in Egypt, dating to the time of Lehi, which was not discovered until the twentieth century. Although the language of the document is Aramaic, the name, it has been shown, is Hebrew. Non-Mormon scholars have translated this part of the papyri as “Sariah daughter of Hoshea son of Harman”.
Many critics have laughed at the Book of Mormon for using “Alma” as a masculine personal name. In the United States, Alma is typically a female name of Latin origin. Alma-mater, for example, means “nourishing mother” and was used during medieval times to refer to the Virgin Mary. In the late twentieth century, however, it was found that some ancient Near Eastern documents –such as letters from Bar Kokhba and clay tablets from Ebla –contained the male name “Alma”.
With the exception of Alma, the few times that the critics have mentioned Book of Mormon names has been to ridicule them as strange and obviously created by Joseph Smith. One critic wrote: “It required something of a genius, it must be confessed, to manufacture some of the names of the Book of Mormon… names that at least have a certain syllabic jingle, if they have no meaning”. As light is shed on all areas of Book of Mormon studies, however, we gain new support for the names found in the Nephite scripture.
Many Book of Mormon names, we find, have Near Eastern parallels, several of which are Egyptian. Dr. Hugh Nibley wrote: “It should be noted that archaeology has fully demonstrated that the Israelites, then as now, had not the slightest aversion to giving their children non-Jewish names, even when those names smacked of a pagan background. Recently discovered ancient manuscripts who that many Jews in the days of Lehi names their children after Egyptian hero kings of the past.
For a time, Mormon scholars were confused as to why the Book of Mormon does not include a single name containing the element of Baal, which is so common in the Old Testament. The recent discovery of the Elephantine papyrus from Egypt shows that Israelites eliminated all names with Baal elements during Lehi’s day. Of the over four hundred names among the Elephantine manuscripts, not one is compounded of Baal.
“It is no small feat,” writes Nibley, “simply to have picked a lot of strange and original names out of the air. But what shall we say of the man who was able to pick the right ones?”.
Michael R. Ash is the author of: Of Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting The Prophet Joseph Smith. He is the owner and operator of MormonFortress.com and is on the management team for FairMormon. He has been published in Sunstone, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, the Maxwell Institute’s FARMS Review, and is the author of Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One’s Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt. He and his wife live in Ogden, Utah, and have three daughters.
Julianne Dehlin Hatton is a broadcast journalist living in Louisville, Kentucky. She has worked as a News Director at an NPR affiliate, Radio and Television Host, and Airborne Traffic Reporter. She graduated with an MSSc from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University in 2008. Julianne and her husband Thomas are the parents of four children.
Music for Faith and Reason is provided by Arthur Hatton.