"No obstacles are insurmountable when God commands and we obey"
- - Heber J. Grant
October 10, 2014
No If's, And's, or Or's About It: Alma 13 Has Interesting Ancient Connections
by Jeff Lindsay

In my last post, I discussed the possibility that the word "or" in the Book of Mormon sometimes served as Mormon's equivalent of a delete key, allowing him to correct an engraved mistake with the correction that followed.

I should note that this is still somewhat speculative. Some LDS thinkers such as Val Sederholm are not so sure that the apparent corrections using "or" are due to Moroni's engraving coupled with a highly literal translation. Instead, they might represent Joseph Smith's verbal adjustment of a just-dictated phrase that struck him as odd.

Val's differing perspective is offered in a discussion of an intriguing phrase in his post, "'Weapons of Peace' in Alma 24:19 and in Ancient Egyptian Borrowings from Hebrew." He suggests that while "weapons of peace" sounds crazy in English (as critics have frequently pointed out), it may actually a plausible phrase for a Semitic text written in a form of Egyptian:

New Kingdom Egyptian uses Hebrew sha=ra=ma (*shalama or *shallema) to express a nuanced idea of peace (Hoch, Semitic Words, #407, 285). For Professor Hoch, the word conveys two related actions:

  1. "The word is used of putting away weapons," and

  2. "The word is also used more generally with the sense of 'seeking peace.'"

He accordingly defines the word as follows: "Vb. 'To Lay Down (Arms); Seek Peace.' " It is the first of these definitions that hits the reader of the Book of Mormon with a shock of recognition. ...

Semitic languages modify the verbal root by means of prefixes, doubling of letters, and so on, to express passive, factitive, causative, and reflexive meaning. Grammarians call such modifications of the root morphological verbal stems.

For instance, D-stems are so called because they double (Doppelstamm) the middle consonant of the triliteral root; D-stems sometimes carry causative meaning, sometimes they are factitive, i.e., they make nouns into verbs.

Several Semitic languages show variations on the verbal root sh-l-m in order to express the making of peace or even the laying down of arms. The Biblical Hebrew H-stem of sh-l-m (the causative stem with prefixed -h) signifies "to make peace"; in Talmudic Aramaic the causative A-stem signifies "to make peace; surrender"; the D-stem in Syriac, "to surrender; make peace"; the D-stem in Old South Arabic, "to sue for peace"; in Ethiopic (D-stem?), "to make peace"; and, finally, the D-stem in Arabic, which specifically refers to weapons: "to lay down (arms); surrender" (examples all from Hoch, 285, see also 284.)

Egyptian makes no use of morphological verbal stems (though some traces of old reflexive N-stems persist), nevertheless, as Hoch says, *shalama (peace), when adopted (and adapted) into that language, was used not only as a noun but also as a verb: "to greet, make obeisance, do homage, to lay down (arms), to seek peace." What a word!

And it is only because such a borrowed and subsequently "frozen" nominal form can also find expression as a verb, something peculiar to Egyptian among the Afro-Asiatic languages (though recalling in function the Semitic factitive stem), that we can imagine a noun phrase weapons of peace.

Alma's phrase isperhaps, a literal rendering into English of an appositive genitival construction along the lines of Egyptian x'.w.w shalama. Weapons in Egyptian is x'.w.w/x'y; peace is now shalama, and thus we have: "weapons in respect of peace"; "in a state of peace" (really a verbal expression); or, literally enough, though awkwardly, "weapons of peace" or "peaceful weapons."

"Peace Weapons"? "Peaceful Weapons"? No wonder the Prophet Joseph Smith struggled with the phrase.

Yet because shalama also does the work of a verb, x'w.w shalama can be read "weapons laid down in an act of submission or peace," or "weapons put into a state of peace" — what we would call "deactivated." (Indeed anthropology has much to say about the ceremonial stilling of the arms of war.)

Val feels it is more plausible to see the correction preceded by "or" to represent Joseph's words rather than Moroni's. On the other hand, I would propose that in spite of the Egyptian correctness of "weapons of peace," it might still have struck Moroni as a potential source of confusion for future readers, so he might have added the corrective phrase to be helpful, not because he had just made a typo in need of correction.

The debate between tight translation and loose, functional translation of the Book of Mormon is an interesting one. Brant Gardner, a scholar who has made important contributions to our appreciation of the Book of Mormon text and its Mesoamerican elements, has argued that the translation was largely functional.

In sharp contrast, others have argued the presence of numerous Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon text, many of which sound awkward in English and sometimes required correction to more standard English, point to a translation process that often may have been fairly direct, enough so that evidences of its Semitic origins were preserved in the choices of specific words and phrases.

The argument for tight controlled was extended by Royal Skousen, whose extensive study of the Book of Mormon text in the original manuscript dictated by Joseph and the printer's manuscript led him to conclude that the many examples of non-standard English dictated to give the original manuscript were not merely non-standard English characteristic of less educated people in Joseph Smith's day, but actually represented standard Early Modern English from the early 1500s, slightly preceding the English of the King James Bible.

Why that would be is still unclear, but it's interesting.

Loose or tight control? There are arguments for both, and I think advocates of both theories recognize there were times when both systems were used. At times the translation process was clearly, even down to giving the spelling of some Book of Mormon names letter-by-letter.

Gardner feels the tight translation used in the transmission of names are the unusual exceptions, whereas Skousen's analysis of the data suggests to him that the words and phrases dictated frequently had tight control.

Perhaps Joseph generally had inspired access to a tight rendition of the text, which could then be rephrased when he desired or felt a need, or could at other times be rendered to preserve a tight translation.

The Hebraisms, the examples of chiasmus, some of the grammar that seems awkward today, and other details, including some of the uses of "or," may point to access to a tight translation that could preserve such touches from the original.

Back to the issue of "or" as an apparent correction tool, I ran into one of these examples in Alma 13 during recent scripture study with my wife. Alma 13:16 is the passage that has the corrective "or."

It is not listed as one of the examples cited by Mary Lee Treat in discussing the possibility of "or" as evidence of someone writing a text without erasers, but she does list Alma 13:24 which may be a typo for verse 16. Here is the passage I'd like to discuss, with the corrective "or" phrase in bold:

14 Yea, humble yourselves even as the people in the days of Melchizedek, who was also a high priest after this same order which I have spoken, who also took upon him the high priesthood forever.

 15 And it was this same Melchizedek to whom Abraham paid tithes; yea, even our father Abraham paid tithes of one-tenth part of all he possessed.

 16 Now these ordinances were given after this manner, that thereby the people might look forward on the Son of God, it being a type of his order, or it being his order, and this that they might look forward to him for a remission of their sins, that they might enter into the rest of the Lord.

 17 Now this Melchizedek was a king over the land of Salem; and his people had waxed strong in iniquity and abomination; yea, they had all gone astray; they were full of all manner of wickedness;

 18 But Melchizedek having exercised mighty faith, and received the office of the high priesthood according to the holy order of God, did preach repentance unto his people. And behold, they did repent; and Melchizedek did establish peace in the land in his days; therefore he was called the prince of peace, for he was the king of Salem; and he did reign under his father.

 19 Now, there were many before him, and also there were many afterwards, but none were greater; therefore, of him they have more particularly made mention.

Did Moroni engrave "type of his order" and then realized he didn't mean to include "type"?

Perhaps. As with the Alma 24 example previously discussed, one can also argue that this once again is not necessarily an error in need of correction, but a case where an added clarification would be helpful.

The priesthood organization is based on God's order, but, come to think of it, it actually is His order. I can see the original editor, Mormon, making this clarifying or corrective comment, and could accept it as Joseph's clarifying addition in his occasional role as an active translator.

Whether it is evidence for the Book of Mormon as an authentic ancient text originally engraved on gold plates is unclear.

However, the rest of the quoted passage does offer more meaningful and interesting evidence of plausibility.

First, the emphasis on Melchizedek as a highly significant ancient character in the Jewish religion is consistent with very recent discoveries, including the Dead Sea Scrolls where Melchizedek plays a prominent role, and recent research by non-LDS scholar Margaret Baker pointing to Melchizedek as a central figure of the earliest forms of Judaism that were being stamped out in Lehi's day and thereafter.

For a quick overview of what she has said on this topic, see Tim Barker's post on the LDS Studies blog, "Margaret Barker on Melchizedek."

The passage in Alma 13 has been criticized for stating that Melchizedek was a high priest, but there are quite a few ancient documents which show that this concept is not necessarily Joseph's innovation. See the discussion on my LDSFAQ page on alleged problems in the Book of Mormon.

Another alleged innovation of Joseph Smith is the statement that Melchizedek reigned under his father — contrary to the apparent implication of Hebrews 7:3 about Melchizedek having no father or mother. If Melchizedek's father was also a king, as the Book of Mormon implies, then Melchizedek was both a prince and a king. Thus, he could be called a prince of peace, as the Book of Mormon states.

Were these Joseph's innovations, or is there evidence that Melchizedek's father actually was a king? Georgius Cedrenus, a twelfth-century Byzantine historian, wrote Historiarum Compendium which summarized a variety of earlier sources. In section 27D of the Greek text, available as a translation by John Gee in Traditions about the Early Life of Abraham, pp. 269-271, we read:

At this time Melchizedek, a virgin priest without genealogy, flourished, foreshadowing by bread and wine the bloodless sacrifice of Christ, our God. Melchizedek was the son of the king of Sidon, the son of Egypt, who also built the city of Sidon. Fatherless and motherless and without genealogy means that he does not descend from the Jewish genealogy, and because his parents, being wicked, are not counted among the pious. (p. 270)

If Georgius Cedrenus is correct, then the statement about Melchizedek reigning under his father in Alma is entirely plausible, for his father was a king (and the passage again confirms the fact the Melchizedek had parents, consistent with Alma 13).

Further, the above passage suggests that Melchizedek lived among wicked people, as Alma 13 teaches, for his own parents were counted as wicked.

Alma also implies that Melchizedek had been given special emphasis in ancient sources available to him: "of whom they more particularly made mention." What is the source for this, given that Melchizedek's name only occurs twice in the Old Testament? He is given very little emphasis in the modern Bible.

There are some hints that ancient Jewish documents and traditions put additional emphasis on Melchizedek as a priest or heavenly figure. I have already mentioned the document 11QMelch, the Hebrew Melchizedek scroll from cave 11 at Qumran, which sees Melchizedek as an immortal figure of great importance.

Wright himself briefly refers to the significance of Melchizedek in ancient traditions, referring readers to 10 sources for more information on "traditions about Melchizedek in Early Jewish, Qumran, Rabbinic, Christian, and Gnostic literatures" (footnote, p. 167).

Further, in a footnote on page 170, he writes that "Horton notes that a factor for this description of Melchizedek to be considered along with the silence of Genesis 14 is that this is the first place in the Pentateuch where a priest appears. This has special significance and receives special attention."

In another footnote also on page 170, he cites several other works which discuss a possible "hymnic" source for Hebrews 7:3, suggesting that early Jewish poetry dealt with Melchizedek.

The enigmatic early Jewish text, Secrets of Enoch, puts special emphasis on Melchizedek. In a passage dealing with Nir, a brother of Noah, we read that Nir's deceased wife miraculously gave birth to the amazing child Melchizedek:

Noah and Nir feared greatly, for the child was completely grown and spoke with his mouth and blessed the Lord. And Noah and Nir examined the child and declared: This is from the Lord, my brother! Behold the seal of the priesthood on his breast!

Noah said to Nir: Brother, behold the Lord has restored the dwelling of his sanctification among us. And they washed the child and clothed him in the robes of the high Priest and he ate the bread of benediction, and they called him Melchizedek.

And Noah said to Nir: Guard the child, for the people have become wicked on all the earth and will try to kill him. Nir, praying to God, was told in a vision of the night: "A great destruction is coming.... As to the child [Melchizedek], I will send my archangel Michael and he will take the child and place him in the Paradise of Eden ... and he will be my priest of Priests forever, Melchizedek.

And Nir ... said I know that this race will be destroyed entirely, and Noah my brother will be saved for the procreations, and that a numerous race will arise from his seed and Melchizedek will become the head of Priests."

Secrets of Enoch 23, in Vaillant, Le Livre des Secrets, pp. 80, 82, as cited by Hugh Nibley, Enoch the Prophet, vol. 2 of The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1986, p. 29.

James Davila of St. Mary's College at the University of St. Andrew in Scotland has discussed ancient traditions about Melchizedek. One example is his lecture, "Melchizedek as a Divine Mediator," given February 10, 1998 and summarized at http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/divinity/rt/otp/dmf/melchizedek/ (also here), where he states, "My own reading of the texts is that Genesis is drawing on traditional material from the Judean royal cult (or perhaps even from pre-Israelite traditions) to tie the more recently introduced figure Abram to Jerusalem (Salem) and its temple cult.

Psalm 110 seems to indicate that there was a priesthood of Melchizedek tied to the Davidic king in the temple cult." Many other scholars agree that there were movements or traditions linked to Melchizedek which are just touched upon in the existing Biblical references to this important figure.

Dr. George Bebawi writes of the priesthood of Melchizedek in an abstract for a conference on "Concepts of the Priesthood in Early Jewish and Christian Sources" held 24 September, 2001 by the Centre for Advanced Religious and Theological Studies.

According to Bebawi,

Although Melchizedek appears in only three places in the Bible (Gen.14.18-20; Ps.110; Hebrews 7 [add to this brief mentions in Heb. 5:6,10; and Heb. 6:20]), there are many more traditions about him in the Qumran texts, in the Targums, in Rabbinic tradition, in the Nag Hamadi Gnostic texts, in the Greek, Latin and Syriac Fathers and in Coptic Liturgy.

He is cited in support of several different arguments, but he must have been a controversial figure as he is not mentioned in the Targum of Psalm 110, and his name is very obviously missing from Jubilees 13.25-26. [note from J.L.: James Davila argues that Jubilees originally contained material on Melchizedek that was later suppressed.]

In recent years he has become the object of much interest as it is now quite clear that there was a large body of pre-Christian tradition about Melchizedek that is later attested in both Jewish and Christian materials.

Modern books dealing with the history of doctrine do not notice that the oldest form of teaching about the universal priesthood has its roots in traditions which were also known to the Rabbis.

The polemics and the narrower views were a later development. In the light of this study of Melchizedek, it is also clear that the character of the sacrificial meal, the Eucharist, must take account of the priesthood of Christ as Melchizedek, who offered bread and wine to Abraham.

Perhaps due to the rarity of very early documents, it is difficult to know what additional writings concerning Melchizedek, if any, might have been available on the brass plates that Alma had.

But given the growing evidence of Melchizedek's importance in traditions of the ancient world, it is not unreasonable for the Book of Mormon to contain a reference to others who gave emphasis to the role and greatness of Melchizedek.

Those who think that Joseph Smith simply made up this information about Abraham and Melchizedek should explain why there are both ancient Jewish and Christian sources providing support for these supposed innovations.

Whether "or" comes from Mormon or Joseph Smith, other fine details in this passage point to ancient origins based on knowledge not accessible to Joseph Smith. It is a passage that some have pointed to in arguing that Joseph imply borrowed from the New Testament, exposing his work as a modern innovation based on plagiarism since Paul has some similar language in Hebrews 7 (see my discussion of these claims of plagiarism based on Paul).

However, those claims fall in light of common ancient sources that can be the basis of the shared concepts, and interesting ancient sources for the seemingly unique information in the Book of Mormon that cannot be explained by copying from the Bible.

These fine details such as Abraham reigning under his father and being a high priest require some degree of "tightness" in the translation, though not necessarily at the level that would preserve Hebraisms and awkward grammar.

Tight or functional, the details of the Book of Mormon in Alma 13 and in many other sections point to something much more intriguing that crude plagiarism by an uneducated Joseph or even Joseph aided by a secret dream team of leading scholars from his day. No if's, and's, or or's about it.

For more from Jeff Lindsay, see Mormanity at http://mormanity.blogspot.com and his Mormon Answers section at http://jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/.


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About Jeff Lindsay

Jeff Lindsay has been defending the Church on the Internet since 1994, when he launched his LDSFAQ website under JeffLindsay.com. He has also long been blogging about LDS matters on the blog Mormanity (mormanity.blogspot.com). Jeff is a longtime resident of Appleton, Wisconsin, who recently moved to Shanghai, China, with his wife, Kendra. He works for an Asian corporation as head of intellectual property. Jeff and Kendra are the parents of 4 boys, 3 married and the the youngest on a mission.

He is a former innovation and IP consultant, a former professor, and former Corporate Patent Strategist and Senior Research Fellow for a multinational corporation.

Jeff Lindsay, Cheryl Perkins and Mukund Karanjikar are authors of the book Conquering Innovation Fatigue (John Wiley & Sons, 2009).

Jeff has a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from Brigham Young University and is a registered US patent agent. He has more than 100 granted US patents and is author of numerous publications. Jeff's hobbies include photography, amateur magic, writing, and Mandarin Chinese.

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