Names in the Book of Mormon
Today we have a limited knowledge of the source language of the Book of Mormon. Near the beginning of the book, Nephi explained that his record was in a language that "consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians" (1 Nephi 1:2). About a thousand years later Moroni explained that if the plates had been larger they would have written in Hebrew (a Hebrew which he admitted had undergone change). But instead the plates were written in characters called "reformed Egyptian." We understand this reformed Egyptian to be basically Hebrew, or a time-adapted form of Hebrew, written, for brevity, in a glyphic form. Although many questions remain unanswered, Hebrew and Egyptian serve as a basis for our understanding of the book's source language. We have learned there are some language features, particularly Hebrew forms, that have been preserved even through the translation.
Book of Mormon Names
Hugh Nibley pointed out that names in the Book of Mormon constitute a class of "untranslated words" (The Prophetic Book of Mormon, volume 8 of The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, 97). These names, both personal and geographic, might well provide a window to the language and the people who produced the Book of Mormon. Names have long intrigued LDS scholars.
Of 337 proper names in the Book of Mormon, 188 (about 56 percent) are unique to the Book of Mormon. That is, they occur in the Book of Mormon but not in the Bible. One hundred and forty-nine names (about 44 percent) occur in both the Book of Mormon and the Bible. Of these, ninety-six names (about 28 percent) occur in passages in which the Bible is being quoted or paraphrased. That leaves 53 names (about 16 percent) which occur in both the Book of Mormon and the Bible but in unrelated passages.
Of all the names in the Book of Mormon, most are Lehite-Mulekite (i.e., those people descended from the original Lehi colony and from the people of Zarahemla, who trace themselves back to the colony of Mulek). A sizable number are also Jaredite. Of the 188 names unique to the Book of Mormon, 142 are Lehite-Mulekite, 41 are Jaredite, and 5 are common to both groups. Thus, most of the Book of Mormon names are Hebrew in origin, as one would expect for people who emigrated from ancient Jerusalem.
Some have proposed Hebrew etymologies (origins or meanings) for many of the nonbiblical names used in Nephite and Lamanite society. If this etymology is confirmed, of course, it would provide strong evidence for the authenticity and historicity of the Book of Mormon.
Knowing some peculiarities of the Hebrew language will help the reader appreciate the value of the various names that we will discuss. The ancient Israelites spoke the same language as their neighbors, the Canaanites, though there were likely some dialectal (pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar) variations. Hebrew and the Canaanite languages are part of a larger family know as Semitic languages. The Semitic languages also include Phoenician and its descendants Punic, Moabite, Ammonite, and Edomite. Most of these languages were written with consonants only. The words were read from right to left (each individual word, however, was read from left to right). The reader had to mentally add the vowels according to the context of the words. This is still the case in modern Hebrew. The vowels found in Hebrew Bible scrolls and in modern printed Hebrew Bibles were supplied by later scribes.
Hebrew names tend to have meanings in that language. To many names, etymologies can be assigned. That is, many names have known histories of their origin and development and also known meanings.
In recent years, a large number of ancient writings have been found in and around Israel. While many of these include names found in the Bible and other ancient texts, others are previously unattested in written sources. Some of these are unknown in the Bible but are found in the Book of Mormon. The discovery of these latter Hebrew names in ancient inscriptions provides remarkable evidence for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon and provides clear refutation of those critics who would place its origin in nineteenth-century America.
Rabbanah. For example, when the Lamanite servants of King Lamoni spoke to Ammon, they called him "Rabbanah," which the Book of Mormon interprets to mean "powerful or great king" (Alma 18:13). Rabbanah resembles Hebrew words that derive from a common Semitic root rbb meaning "to be big or many." Even though the Lamanites had strayed culturally from their Nephite cousins, they apparently still preserved their Hebrew/Semitic language.
Alma. Other names in the Book of Mormon have not appeared to come from a Hebrew background at first glance, but they have proven eventually to reflect authentic Israelite origins. Perhaps the best example of this is the prominent Book of Mormon name Alma, which does not appear in any biblical text. For years there was no known Hebrew root for the name. Eventually, the name Alma turned up in an authentic Hebrew document of the Bar Kochba period (ca. AD 130). There the name appears as a masculine name spelled exactly as might be expected, "lm," (Alma) and "lmh," (Almah). This finding unequivocally places the Book of Mormon name Alma within the Israelite tradition of names.
Sariah. Another name has been discovered relatively recently. The Hebrew form of the name Sariah (Lehi's spouse) is Sryh. The first element, with a vowel, is the name is sar. This element is generally rendered "prince" in the King James Version of the Bible (KJV). The second element, with a vowel, is Yah or Yahu, an abbreviated form of the name Jehovah. Thus Sariah (saryah) means either "prince of Jehovah" or "Jehovah is Prince." This name-Sariah-was not discovered until the turn of the Twentieth century on several seals and clay bullae (impression of an engraved seal make on clay or wax) found in a Jewish community in Elephantine, Egypt. These date from the time of Lehi (Jeffrey R. Chadwick, "Sariah in the Elephantine Papryi," JBMS 2/2 (1993)" 196-200).
Abish. Abish is the name of a Lamanite woman, a servant to king Lamoni's queen (Alma 19:16). Abish corresponds to the Hebrew name bs, found on a seal from pre-exilic times (prior to 587 BC) in the Hecht Museum in Haifa (Avigad and Sass, West Semitic Stamp Seals, 66-67). No etymology as been proposed. The name is also attested as a Semitic name on a wall relief in the tomb of Khnum-hotep III at Beni Hasan, Egypt, dating to the nineteenth century BC.
Aha. Aha was one of the sons of the Nephite military leader Zoram (Alma 16:5). The name is now attested in several early inscriptions as Hebrew h, thought by scholars to have been vocalized Aha. The longer form, rendered Ahijah in the King James Bible is ahiyah which means "brother of Yah (Jehovah)" or "Yah is my brother." This longer version is also attested in a dozen ancient Hebrew inscriptions.
Ammonihah. He was a Nephite who founded the city of the same name (Alma 8:6-7). The name is attested on two Hebrew seals, one known to date to the seventh century BC.
Hugh Nibley saw the ending -hah found in this and several other Book of Mormon names as a theophoric element. This means that the name signifies deity. It is the same theophoric element rendered -iah in the KJV, also found in many Hebrew names. The use of -ihah in the Book of Mormon suggests that the Nephites may have used this longer form. It is possible, however, that the first h merely reflects Joseph Smith's transliteration.
When a name with a theophoric element (-iah or -ihah) also exists without that throphoric element, the shorter version is called the "hypocoristic" form. Many names exist in both forms. For example Ammon is hypocoristic for Ammonihah.
Chemish. Chemish was a descendant of Jacob and one of the guardians and authors of the small plates of Nephi (see Omni 1:8-10). His name is apparently related to that of the Ammonite god Chemosh, spelled Kms in Hebrew and the Ammonite language. The Ammonites were neighbors of the Israelites and descendants of Abraham's nephew Lot. They wrote and spoke the same language as the Israelites. A number of names containing the element Kms are known, in which it is clear that the divine name was meant. Also known is a seal currently in the Israel Museum that has Kms as the name of a man or woman.
Hagoth. Hagoth was a Nephite shipbuilder who constructed ships that took colonizers into the land northward (see Alma 63:5). Contrary to LDS folklore, there is no indication in the text that Hagoth himself sailed on any of these ships (see Alma 63:6-9).
One Book of Mormon critic argued that Joseph Smith derived the name Hagoth from the name of the biblical prophet Haggai. Indeed, the names may be related, but a closer parallel is the biblical Haggith (see 2 Samuel 3:4; 1 Kings 1:5, etc.), which may have been vocalized Hagoth anciently. All three names derive from a root referring to a pilgrimage to attend religious festivals.
The name Hagoth is attested in the form Hgt on an Ammonites seal inscribed sometime in the eighth through the sixth centuries BC.
Himni. Himni was one of the four sons of Mosiah who went on the mission to the Lamanites (see Mosiah 27:34; Alma 22:35; Alma 23:1; Alma 25:17; Alma 27:19; Alma 31:6). Of this name, an early critic wrote that he felt the name was derived by Joseph Smith from the word "Harmony," "that of the town where Joseph Smith spent so many happy, loving hours courting Emma" (Walter Franklin Prince, "Psychological Tests for the Authorship of the Book of Mormon," American Journal of Psychology 30 : 382).
Contrary to this speculation, the name Himni is clearly Hebrew and is represented by the word Hmn on two Israelite seals. The first, from the eighth century BC, was found at Megiddo in the Jezreel Valley. The other is from the first half of the seventh century BC.
Isabel. Isabel was a harlot in the land of Siron, on the border between the Lamanites and the Zoramites (see Alma 39:3). LDS scholars have generally assumed that the name is identical to that of the Old Testament Jezebel, the Hebrew form of which is Izebel, and this is probably correct. But the spelling Yzbl is now attested on a seal in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem that is thought to be Phoenician in origin.
Jarom. Jarom was the son of Enos and grandson of Nephi's brother Jacob (see Jarom 1:1; Jarom 1:14). The fifth book in the Book of Mormon bears his name. One might wish to compare Jarom with the biblical name Jehoram, which is found twenty-one times in the Bible. Another form, Joram, occurs twenty-four times. But several Hebrew inscriptions bear the name Yrm, which scholars consider to be a form of Yrmyh, or Jeremiah, whose name means "Yah (Jehovah) exalts." Yrm is found in four Hebrew inscriptions, including a seal of the seventh century BC, found in Egypt, and three items from the time of Lehi: a jug inscription from Tel esh-Shariah, and an ostracon and bulla in the Moussaieff collection. An ostracon is a shard of fragment of pottery on which writing has been affixed, either by engraving or by ink and pen.
Josh. Josh was the name of a city destroyed at the time of Christ's crucifixion (see 3 Nephi 9:10) and of a Nephite military leader who died in the great battle at Cumorah (see Mormon 6:14). Critics have suggested that this is merely the American diminutive for the name Joshua.
But a number of Hebrew inscriptions bear the name Ys, which Israeli scholars have acknowledged to be a form of the biblical name Ysyhw, Josiah, in whose reign Jeremiah began his prophetic mission (see Jeremiah 1:2; Jeremiah 27:1). The name appears in three of the Lachish letters (2, 3, and 6) from the time of Lehi. It is also the name of four persons named in the fifth-century BC Jewish Aramaic papyri from Elephantine, Egypt. Four of the bullae found near Tel Beit Mirsim and dating from ca. 600 BC bear the name Ys. Three of them were made from the same seal.
Luram. Luram is the name of a Nephite military leader who sered with Mormon (see Moroni 9:2). The name has been found on a seal of ca. 720 BC as dn-Lrm, which means Lord of LRM or Lord of Luram. This seal was found during excavations at Hama (Hamath) in Syria. The name is also known from graffiti on thre bricks from the same level at Hama (Avagard and Sass, West Semitic Stamp Seals, 760.
Mathoni and Mathonihah. These were names of two of the twelve disciples chosen by Christ during his visit to the Nephites (see 3 Nephi 19:4). Some of the Book of Mormon critics suggestions are out right comical. Anti-Mormon critic Walter Prince suggested a surprising origin for these names. He wrote, "Just lisp the sibilant and you have the entire word 'Mason' and almost the entire word 'Masonic' in both of these appellations" (Psychological Tests for the Authorship of the Book of Mormon," 380).
Mathoni is the hypocoristic form of Mathonihah. That is, Mathoni is the form of Mathonihah without the theophoric element (see above). Mathonihah is the Nephite form of the divine name. Mathonihah correstponds to the KJV Mattaniah (Hebrew Mtnyhw). This is the birth-name of Zedehiah (see 2 Kings 24:17) who was king of Judah when Lehi left Jerusalem (see 1 Nephi 1:4). We can then compare Mathoni to the biblical name Mattan, the name of two different men, one of whom was a contemporary of Lehi and Jeremiah (see Jeremiah 38:1).
Hugh Nibley noted that both of these biblical names (Mattaniah and Mattan) are found in the Elephantine Papyri and that the longer form occurs in the Lachish letters, written just a few years after Lehi left Jerusalem (The Prophetic Book of Mormon, 388).
As a parenthetical note, the Hebrew letter t (tav) is sometimes transliterated t in the Bible, as in these names, and sometimes th, as in Methuselah.
The Hebrew name Mtnyhw appears on a seventh-century BC wine decanter, on six seals, and on seven bullae, most of them from the time of Lehi (Avigard, Hebrew Bullae from the time of Jeremiah, 53, 62, 79, 81, 90; Deutsch, Hebrew Bullae from the time of Isaiah, 66). The hypocoristic Mtn, which could be vocalized either Mattan (as in the Bible) or Mathoni (as in the Book of Mormon), is found on Ostracon 1682/2 from Khirbet el-Meshash (second half of the seventh century BC), seven seals (most from the seventh century BC, and eleven bullae (most from the time of Lehi).
Muloki. He was one of the men who accompanied the sons of Mosiah on their mission to the Lamanites (see Alma 20:2; Alma 21:11). His name suggests that he may have been a Mulekite. Also from the same root are names such as Mulek and Melek which is the Hebrew word meaning "king." Mulek is hypocoristic for the Hebrew Mlkyh (KJV Melchiah and Malchiah), which is attested both in the Bible (see 1 Chronicles 6:40); Ezra 10:25; Nehemiah 3:14; Nehemiah 3:31; Nehemiah 8:4; Nehemiah 11:12; Jeremiah 21:1; Jeremiah 38:1; Jeremiah 38:6) and in numerous ancient inscriptions, most of them from the time of Lehi. Indeed, it has been suggested that one of the men bearing this name is the Mulek of the Book of Mormon. He is called Malchiah the son of Hammelech," which means "Malchiah, son of the king" (see Jeremiah 38:6).
Muloki corresponds to the name Mlky on a bulla found in the City of David (Jerusalem) dating from the time of Lehi (Shiloh, Bullae from the City of David, 28f).
Sam. Sam, the brother of Nephi, came to the New World with his father Lehi and family (see 1 Nephi 2:5; 2 Nephi 5:6; Alma 3:6). Critics have suggested that Joseph Smith simply used the common English diminutive of Samuel. What these critics failed to realize is that the name Samuel, which appears in the English Bible, is from the Hebrew name spelled the same-Samuel. This name is comprised of two elements, Shem ("name") plus El ("God").
The name Sam is attested on a bronze ring-mounted seal dated to the seventh century BC (Israel Museum, 68.35.199). S in Hebrew can be pronounced either s or sh.
Other names. The name Gilgal is known from the Bible only as a place name and refers to something that rolls, such as a wheel. In addition to the Nephite city Gilgal (3 Nephi 9:6), one of the Nephite military leaders who perished in the great battle at Cumorah also bore this name (Mormon 6:14). In the Old World, it also appears as the name of a man (Glgl) on Arad Ostracon 49, from the second half of the eighth century BC (Yohanan Abaroni, Arad Inscriptions [Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1981], 80).
Patristic names. A feature of the Book of Mormon that is unknown from the Old Testament is the naming of a son after his father. In the Book of Mormon, we have Alma son of Alma, Helaman son of Helaman, Nephi son of Nephi, and Pahoran son of Pahoran. Until recently, patristic names of this sort were unknown from epigraphic (inscriptions on buildings or statues) sources. But an ostracon from the late seventh or early sixth century BC in the Moussaeiff collection lists one "Elikon [or Elkanah] son of Elikon" (see Robert Deutsch and Michael Heltzer, New Epigraphic Evidence from the Biblical Period [Tel Aviv: Archaeological Center Publication, 1995], 89-90).
Egyptian names. John Gee noted the likely Egyptian origins to the name Nephi ("A Note on the Name Nephi," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 1:1, 189-91). Hugh Nibley commented on the Egyptian parallels of such Book of Mormon names as Paankhi (Paanchi) and Hermounts (Since Cumorah, 168-71).
Greek names. Of the 53 names that the Bible and the Book of Mormon share in unrelated passages (16 percent of the total), two names appear to be Greek: the personal name Timothy and the geographic name Antipas. We are well aware of a Greek presence in the Palestine area since at least the fourth century BC. However, these two names in the Book of Mormon suggest that there was some Greek influence in Palestine even before Lehi and his family left Jerusalem in the beginning of the sixth century BC.
Plays on words. Plays on words, especially with names, are very common in the Hebrew Bible. That such plays on words found their way into the Book of Mormon seems evident from the name "Jershon" in Alma 27:22. Jershon appears to be derived from the Hebrew root meaning to "inherit," the root being yro. Thus, Jershon could mean "inheritance." If this line of reasoning is correct, then a wonderful play on words in that verse is developed: "This land Jershon [namely, inheritance] is the land which we will give unto our brethren for an inheritance."
Jaredite names. Jaredite names cannot at the present be linked to any known language. A few Jaredite names might be related to Semitic roots, such as the name Jared. But most Jaredite names, such as Coriantumr, are most likely not related to Israelite origins. Interesting, though, are the Jaredite names that reappear in the Nephite record, as if there were some conscious continuity between the two cultures. For example, after the union of the people of Zarahemla and the fleeing Nephite remnant under king Mosiah, the two most infamous apostates both bear names with clear resemblances to Jaredite names, Corihor/Korihor and Nehor/Nehor, seemingly as though these apostate movements were inspired by Jaredite precedents.
We must be careful about assuming that a name must be appropriate to the character. In some cases this might be appropriate, but only when the individual was given a name or nickname after his adult characteristics had become evident. Some names, of course, might have been given to the individual in his infancy by parents who knew nothing about his future adult identity or destiny.
Implications for the Book of Mormon
Critics of the Book of Mormon have long suggested that Joseph Smith (or sometimes another nineteenth-century personality, such as Solomon Spalding or Sidney Rigdon) wrote the Book of Mormon and invented all of the nonbiblical names found therein. On critic claimed that Book o Mormon names "were the product of a schizophrenic mind that was excessively religious. They are in no sense divinely inspired" (Dwight C. Ritchie, The Mind of Joseph Smith: A Study of the Words of the Founder of Mormonism Revealing 24 Symptoms [sic] of Mental Derangement, [n.p.: Dwight C. Ritchie, 1954], 41).
Another critic wrote that "There is not a single discovery or scrap of evidence in support of any of the following names of heads, under which the book has been divided. . . . This altogether remarkable production of an over-imaginative mind bears evidences of the eagerness with which the would-be prophet sought to study his profit, and how he mistook his calling in life, rather than anything in the way of support towards its claims" (M.A. Shresny, Mormonism: As It Is Today. Some Striking Revelations [London: Stockwell, 1911], 24-25).
A pair of critics wrote, "It would be easy to make up hundreds of 'new names' by simply changing a few letters on names that are already known or by making different combinations with parts of names. . . . If he used a list of Bible names and a little imagination, it would have been very easy to have produced the 'new names' found in the Book of Mormon" (Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Mormonism: Shadow or Reality, 5th ed. [Salt Lake City: Utah Lighthouse Ministry, 1987], 95).
One critic, after writing a series of inflammatory letters designed to elicit negative comments about LDS scriptures from prominent Near Eastern scholars, received a response from William F. Albright of Johns Hopkins University, who expressed doubts that Joseph Smith could have learned Egyptian from any early 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" (William F. Albright to Grant S. Heward, Baltimore, Maryland, July 25, 1966). Incensed by this response, the 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?" (Grant S. Heward to I.E.S. Edwards, Midvale, Utah, March 14, 1967).
The names described in this article deal a serious blow to critics of the Book of Mormon. Many of them are Hebrew in origin, as one would expect for people who emigrated from ancient Jerusalem. As noted, several of these names are not found in the Bible. Of particular interest is the fact that most of these names are attested in inscriptions dating to the time of Lehi. Indeed, some are relatively common for that time period. We can only speculate about how they made their way to the New World-whether on the brass plates of Laban or on the large plates of Nephi (which we no longer have) or in the names of the sons of Ishmael or their children or Lehi's grandchildren.
With ongoing excavation in Israel and elsewhere in the Near East, it is likely that more Book of Mormon names will show up in ancient Hebrew inscriptions.