Book of Mormon Central officially launched on January 1, 2016, and with the publication of KnoWhy 22 yesterday, BMC completed its first month’s publication cycle. Each KnoWhy is about some particular detail in the Book of Mormon—all but the first 2 this month, on something in 1 Nephi—and at least one reason why that detail is, or should be, interesting. Hence, it is about knowing why Joseph Smith was martyred, or Nephi wrote in Egyptian, or Lehi compares his sons to a valley and river. So on and so forth. You can read about the reasoning behind this name at Why KnoWhy, if you would like. Here, I simply present all 22 of the KnoWhys published in this last month.
1. What Does It Mean to be a Martyr? Joseph and Hyrum Smith are remembered in Latter-day Saint memory as martyrs for the Gospel. But what does it mean to be a martyr? More than merely suffering for religious convictions, the word literally means “witness” and in a Gospel sense carries with it a special connotation beyond its popular usage. Joseph and Hyrum were truly martyrs for the Book of Mormon in the fullest sense of the word.
2. An Apostle’s Witness: Elder Jeffrey R. Holland bore powerful testimony of the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon during the October 2009 General Conference. His testimony highlights that modern apostolic witnesses have born testimony of the Nephite record.
3. Are There Mistakes in the Book of Mormon? Critics of the Book of Mormon have assailed the book’s authenticity on the grounds that it has undergone many changes since its 1830 publication. Royal Skousen has looked carefully at the transmission history of the Book of Mormon and has highlighted many interesting things about the text that inspire confidence in its reliability and Joseph’s ability as a translator.
4. Did Ancient Israelites Write in Egyptians? Nephi claims to write in Egyptian, an idea that was viewed skeptically in Joseph Smith’s time. Today, however, over 200 examples of Egyptian writing are known from Israel and Judah, often mixed with Hebrew writing as well. Scholarly analysis of these writings suggests that Nephi phrase “learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians” is an apt description of such scripts.
5. Did Lehi Use the Poetry of the Ancient Bedouin? Lehi’s admonition to his sons to be like the river and valley where they camped is poetic, and shares several characteristics with poetry by the Bedouin of the Arabian desert. This suggests that there is a common geographical and literary origin for the poetry of Lehi and the Bedouin.
6. Why Does Nephi Always Go Down to the Wilderness and Up to Jerusalem? Nephi always says he goes “up” to Jerusalem and “down” to the wilderness. This is consistent with Hebrew and Egyptian idiom, and reflects the topography of Jerusalem and the surrounding area. Such a minor detail is easy to miss, which makes it so important. Someone like Joseph Smith probably would not have gotten a detail like this right.
7. Did Jerusalem Have Walls Around It? Emma remembered, from when she acted as his scribe, a time when Joseph was translating the Book of Mormon and was startled to learn that Jerusalem has walls around it. She saw this as an indication that Joseph did not know history or the Bible well enough to write the Book of Mormon. This is also an example of how revelation expands our knowledge.
8. Were Any Ancient Israelite Women Named Sariah? Although unknown in Joseph Smith’s day, the name Sariah appears as a woman's name in an ancient Jewish text from not long after Lehi's departure from Jerusalem. This small detail bolsters the Book of Mormon's claim of being an ancient text from the world of the Near East. It grounds the text in the ancient world and helps readers better appreciate its historical background and provenance.
9. How Could Lehi Offer Sacrifices Outside of Jerusalem? The Book of Mormon indicates that Lehi offered sacrifices outside the vicinity of the Jerusalem temple after a 3-day journey. Some critics of the Book of Mormon have claimed this action by Lehi violated the law of Moses, which some have interpreted instructed ancient Israelites to not offer sacrifice outside of the temple. However, a recent reexamination of this claim in light of more recent evidence (for example, from a passage in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls) indicates that Lehi may actually not have been contravening the law of Moses as some have supposed.
10. What Fruit is White? Lehi’s vision of the tree of life included the detail that the fruit of the tree was exquisitely white. One non-Mormon scholar, Margaret Barker, was surprised by this detail, as she knows of at least one other ancient text discovered after Joseph Smith’s lifetime that includes this detail about the fruit of the tree of life. Thus, in addition to being a powerful symbol for that which is holy and celestial, the white fruit of the tree of life in Lehi's vision also finds parallel in ancient Judeo-Christian belief.
11. Why Did Nephi Write his Small Plates? Nephi made two sets of plates—the “large” plates and the “small” plates. Although the plates plates were made for the more spiritual things, he nonetheless makes a complex political argument on them. Given that Nephi felt he was called to rule the people by revelation, and that the challenge to his rule from his brothers was serious enough for him to lead his people away, it is no surprise that he would feel a need to defend his right to rule through his personal narrative.
12. Did Pre-Christian Prophets Know About Christ? How could an ancient Israelite prophet know so much about Jesus Christ? Some have argued that the Book of Mormon's heavy focus on Christ is anachronistic, as the Old Testament seems to lack any detailed knowledge about the coming of Jesus Christ on the level of the Book of Mormon’s knowledge. However, scholars have now begun to see the roots of early Christian teachings about Jesus as rooted in ancient Israelite beliefs that extend many centuries before the coming of Christ. Pre-Christian knowledge of Christ may therefore not be as out of place for an ancient Israelite prophet as some have supposed.
13. What Does the Virgin Mary have to do with the Tree of Life? When Nephi asks about the meaning of the tree of life, he is shown the virgin Mary and her divine child, and similar adjectives are used to describe the mother and the tree. While this is often confusing to us today, in both ancient Israel and Egypt mother-goddesses were linked to sacred trees. This background helps us make sense of the imagery in Nephi’s vision and enriches the beauty of the text.
14. What was the Great and Terrible Gulf in Lehi’s Dream? Lehi’s dream is filled with highly symbolic images. One of these is the river of filthy water, which formed a terrible gulf dividing the wicked from the righteous. In Arabia, wadis (valleys or canyons) create gulfs through which muddy torrents of water flow after the rainy season. This provides a background through which we can better understand the powerful imagery of Lehi’s dream and the impression it would have made on Lehi and his family.
15. Were Plain and Precious Doctrines Lost? Nephi’s vision in 1 Nephi 11–14 included details about the apostasy of the early Christian church. Part of this apostasy included the loss of many covenants as well as many “plain and precious” parts of scripture. Recent scholarship confirms that the Bible indeed suffered scribal manipulation that led to the eventual confusion and sectarianism that is seen throughout much of Christianity today, as Nephi prophesied.
16. Are There Really Only Two Churches? Today there are many different churches, but Nephi says there are only two—one of God and the other of the devil. This is consistent with the teachings of ancient Judeo-Christian sources, like Lehi’s contemporary Jeremiah and the Savior himself. These and many other sources taught that, ultimately, there really is only two ways—one that leads to life, and another that leads to death. This teaching permeates the Book of Mormon, and indicates that ultimately, all choices lead us down one of these two paths.
17. How Did God Call His Prophets in Ancient Times? Ancient Israelite prophets were commonly called and commissioned following a biblical pattern that brought the prophet into God’s presence, made him a member of God’s divine council, and imparted with him heavenly secrets. Both Lehi and Nephi followed this biblical pattern in their respective prophetic commissions, which grounds the Book of Mormon in the world of ancient Israel.
18. What are the “Fiery Darts of the Adversary” Spoken of by Nephi? 1 Nephi 15:24 speaks of "the fiery darts of the adversary." This imagery appears to mirror Paul's description given in Ephesians 6:16, which speaks of "the fiery darts of the wicked" (KJV). While it might be tempting to see 1 Nephi 15:24 as a reflection of this New Testament language, the phrase "fiery arrows" is attested in biblical Hebrew and the use of fiery incendiaries is attested in ancient Near Eastern warfare both before and after the time of Nephi.
19. Who Called Ishmael’s Burial Place Nahom? While Lehi names all his other stopping places himself, Nahom appears to be a pre-existing place name, which could potentially be located archaeologically. In fact, there is a place in modern day Yemen called Nehem, which is in the right place for Nahom. The name is inscribed on altars from this region which date back to before Lehi’s time, demonstrating that the name was there when Lehi would have passed through. This constitutes strong archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon.
20. Why Would Nephi Call the Ocean “Irreantum”? When Nephi and his family arrived at the end of their Arabian trail, they named the body of water they encountered “Irreantum,” which is interpreted by Nephi as meaning “many waters.” Some have wondered whether this peculiar-sounding name has any plausible ancient etymology. In fact, the work done by scholars associated with the Book of Mormon Onomasticon project have suggested possible ancient elements in the name, thus lending support to the Book of Mormon’s historicity.
21. Did Ancient People Sail the Seas? The Book of Mormon presents the migration of three separate groups from the Old World to the Americas via respective maritime routes. This has led many to wonder whether there is any evidence for pre-Columbian contact between the Old and New Worlds. Although many see the Book of Mormon’s depiction as implausible, recent scholarship has shown strong evidence for pre-Columbian contact with the Americas. While this may not prove the Book of Mormon is true, it at least lends further plausibility to its depiction of ancient maritime migration.
22. What Kind of Ore Did Nephi Use? Nephi says he made his “plates of ore” after finding gold, silver, and copper ore deposits. In pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, an alloy called tumbaga was popular. This alloy consisted primarily of gold and copper, and sometimes included silver. Plates of tumbaga would fit witness descriptions of the weight and appearance of the plates. Tumbaga also had a number of practical advantages over plates of pure gold, while maintaining the “golden” look appropriate for a sacred object.
Monday, February 1, another month begins, and we have several excellent KnoWhys in the works. We start to get into Isaiah and 2 Nephi, and there is some very exciting stuffing coming down the pipeline. (Seriously, if you have ever struggled with Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, you’ll want to paying attention throughout February and into March.)