Was Steel Known in Nephi’s Day?

In John Dehlin’s essay on Archaeology and the Book of Mormon he writes:

Although the Book of Mormon twice mentions that Nephi moltened steel out of a rock, only crude iron technology existed in 600 BC. Steel did not yet exist, as it required charcoal heated to 2,500-3,000 degrees. Charcoal wasn’t discovered until some 1,500 years later and required the laborious felling of acres of trees to create sufficient charcoal.

“Archaeology and the Book of Mormon,” Mormon Stories, accessed March 11, 2019.
Screenshot of “Archaeology and the Book of Mormon” taken on March 11, 2019.

The claim that steel was unknown in Nephi’s day is uninformed and erroneous.

The process of making ancient steel has been described by various authorities of on the subject.

Phillip King and Lawrence Stager explain:

Wrought iron heated in contact with charcoal (carbon) at high temperature produces carbonized iron or steel, which is more malleable than cast iron. Steel can be hardened by quenching (practiced as early as the tenth century BCE), that is, cooling off the red hot steel by sudden immersion into a vat of cold liquid.1

James Muhly, who is a leading authority on the subject of ancient metallurgy has written:

The addition of carbon, absorbed into the surface of the iron by a sort of osmosis while the hot iron was in contact with charcoal for an extended period in a reducing atmosphere, greatly increased the hardness of the metal. Such iron, with up to 0.8 percent carbon, is known as steel. If this red hot steel was quenched, by plunging it into a bath of cold water, the resulting product was harder than any bronze. The quenching produced a layer of very hard martensite on the surface of the iron, the amount of martensite formed dependent upon the thickness of the object in question (and thus the rate of cooling). If too much martensite was produced, the resulting steel would be very hard but also very brittle and liable to shatter. It was then necessary to reheat the object in an oxidizing atmosphere, in order to relieve the strains from the freshly formed martensite, a process known as tempering. Tempering was actually a trade-off, sacrificing hardness for greater durability and toughness . . . In the twelfth century BCE, all the necessary technology for producing effective tools, implements and weapons of quenched and tempered steel was developed in surprisingly short order.2

Archaeologists have recovered steel artifacts from various sites in the ancient Near East dating to before Nephi’s day:

Steel artifacts from the Iron IA (twelfth century) burial cave in the Beqa Valley, Jordan, provide an interesting body of material in that steel was used there to produce bracelets and rings. 3

According to Anthony Snodgrass:

Egyptian axes and other implements dating from about 900 B.C. onward were found to have been carburized, quenched, and probably tempered as well, a finding that is quite incompatible with the picture of backwardness and isolation that is sometimes painted.4

Recently Naama Yahalom-Mack and Adi Eliyahu-Behar reported that over sixty badly corroded iron objects were recovered by archaeologists from sites in Syro-Palestine dating from the late second and early first millennium B.C. These included knives, tools, weapons, and bracelets. Chemical analysis was done on each of these. They report:

The results showed that ‘ghost structures’ of pearlite, clearly indicating the presence of carbon, were present in almost all the objects (excluding three), demonstrating that almost all were made of steel.5

Contrary to John Dehlin’s claims, the process of making iron into steel tools and other useful objects was known in the ancient Near East, including the land of Israel the land from which Nephi came hundreds years before Lehi left Jerusalem. The idea that Nephi could have known or learned how to make steel tools out of iron ore poses no problem for the Book of Mormon, but is consistent with what is now known and what we continue to learn about the ancient world.

Is A Seven-Day Week Anachronistic for the Book of Mormon?

John Dehlin’s essay on Archaeology and the Book of Mormon claims that the mentioning of a seven-day week is anachronistic.

Referenced as the “seventh day” or the Sabbath day in Mosiah, the concept of a 7 day week didn’t originate until well after Lehi left Jerusalem.

“Archaeology and the Book of Mormon”
Screenshot of “Archaeology and the Book of Mormon” taken on February 18, 2019

The essay does not cite where in Mosiah there is reference to the “seventh day” or Sabbath day. In fact, the reference is Mosiah 13:16–19 (with another reference to the “sabbath day” at Mosiah 18:23 at Jarom 1:5). Mosiah 13:16–19, however is a quotation of Exodus 20:8–11.

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: 10 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lordblessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.

Without providing the full citation from Mosiah (which is a biblical quotation), the author of the Mormon Stories essay (as well as Dehlin) is misleading his or her readers.

But what about the claim that “the concept of a 7 day week didn’t originate until well after Lehi left Jerusalem”? The Mormon Stories essay hyperlinks to the Wikipedia article for “Week.” The essay appears to be following the conventional understanding given in the article that “a continuous seven-day cycle that runs throughout history paying no attention whatsoever to the phases of the moon was first practiced in Judaism, dated to the 6th century BC at the latest,” and that “it seems likely that the Hebrew seven-day week is based on the Babylonian tradition, although going through certain adaptations.”

What the Mormon Stories essay leaves out, however, is this sentence in the same article:

Niels-Erik Andreasen, Jeffrey H. Tigay, and others claimed that the Biblical Sabbath is mentioned as a day of rest in some of the earliest layers of the Pentateuch dated to the 9th century BC at the latest, centuries before Judea’s Babylonian exile. They also find the resemblance between the Biblical Sabbath and the Babylonian system to be weak. Therefore, they suggested that the seven-day week may reflect an independent Israelite tradition.

The Wikipedia article cites four sources for this:

  • Andreasen, Niels-Erik A. (1972). The Old Testament Sabbath: A Tradition-historical Investigation. Society of Biblical Literature.
  • Shafer, Byron E. (1974). “Reviewed Work: The Old Testament Sabbath: A Tradition-Historical Investigation by Niels-Erik A. Andreasen”. Journal of Biblical Literature. 93 (2): 300–301.
  • Tigay, Jeffery H. (1998). “Shavua”. Mo’adei Yisra’el: Time and Holy Days in the Biblical and Second Commonwealth Periods (Heb.), ed. Jacob S. Licht: 22–23.
  • Hallo, William W. (1977). “New Moons and Sabbaths: A Case-Study in the Contrastive Approach”. Hebrew Union College Annual. 48: 1–18.

So the fully developed concept of a seven-day week as we know today may have been the product of the Jewish exile in Babylon, but this theory is disputed.1 There are mainstream biblical scholars who recognize the strong likelihood that this concept has historical antecedents which well predate Lehi’s departure from Jerusalem. Shafer, reviewing and encapsulating Andreasen’s work, lays out one plausible historical development for the Sabbath:

(A) The earliest traditions were “the regulations for the six days of work and the seventh day of rest” and “the prohibition against performing any work on the seventh day at the risk of death.” These were perhaps pre-Mosaic, but that is uncertain. The themes are encountered in well-developed form in the earliest period, and we are unable to press behind that time to the origins of the institution or its traditions. (B) in the 9th and 8th centuries, traditions reflect a Sabbath which was a cultic feast day celebrated at the sanctuaries and temple . . . (C) In the later monarchy, the literary traditions re-emphasized the old Sabbath tradition of humanitarian concern and link the Sabbath with the exodus event of Israel’s salvation history. Andreasen argues that the abundant references to Sabbath in the exilic literature of P and Ezekiel cannot be satisfactorily explained by the traditional scholarly arguments from a sudden increased exilic interest in Sabbath . . . Therefore, he hypothesizes that this theological elaboration of the old traditions began during the reform movement of Hezekiah and continued through the reign of Manasseh into the reign of Josiah. . . . (D) In the exilic period, Ezekiel and P elaborate these traditions and, in addition, identify the Sabbath as a sign and covenant between Yahweh and Israel.2

Hallo, who is also cited in the Wikipedia article hyperlinked to in the Mormon Stories essay, likewise says this concerning the development of the Sabbath:

As early as the time of Solomon, we are entitled to detect a seven-day cycle in the festivities marking the dedication of his temple. The double injunction to work for six days and to rest every seventh is the most fundamental piece of social legislation written into the Decalogue. . . . The cultic counterpart of this legislation permeates every one of the many ritual calendars in the Pentateuch. Creation itself is retroactively cast into the mold of the seven-day week, as also of the Exodus typology, and thus secondarily turned into the justification for the earthly ordinance.3

Dating the composition of Exodus 20 is complicated. “The Horeb-Sinai narrative (chaps. 19–24, 32–34) will always frustrate attempts to understanding its composition history.”4 Notwithstanding, the origin of the material in the version of the Decalogue in Exodus 20 is frequently “assign[ed] dates . . . from the twelfth through the ninth centuries B.C,”5 and in any event, “the Sabbath observance does not owe its origins to the Fourth Commandment, since the practice is apparently very ancient, having existed in Mosaic times (cf. Exod 16:22–30). The Fourth Commandment merely recalled and reinforced the traditional observance.”6

The nineteenth and early twentieth consensus that “such features of the Decalogue as the sabbath law . . . could not have arisen until after the eighth century, or even later, in the exilic period . . . no longer exists.”7 Now scholars, such as those cited above, recognize that “the Sabbath was the cornerstone of Israelite religious practice from earliest times,”8 as well as the complicated evolution of ancient Israel’s social and religious institutions, including the Sabbath. “How widely and in what periods [the Sabbath] was observed is unclear,” observes Meyers, but evidence “suggests that at least some part of the population was committed to sabbath observance in the preexilic, exilic, and postexilic periods.”9

Finally, there is even non-biblical evidence for a pre-exilic origin of the Sabbath:

It is often argued that the sabbath observance is mainly an exilic or postexilic development. That may be true with reference to how widespread it was. Nevertheless, it seems to have a long history behind it and was thus probably observed in some form or other by some elements of the population long before the end of the monarchy. The texts here confirm its existence and its practice in the [Elepnatine] community; on the other hand, how it was celebrated is not so clear.10

The simplistic claim made in the Mormon Stories essay (“the concept of a 7 day week didn’t originate until well after Lehi left Jerusalem”) reflects a surface-level reading of a single non-academic source (Wikipedia) that does not adequately cover the scope of the issue. What’s more, the very Wikipedia article that the author of the Mormon Stories essay relies on includes information that directly refutes the essay’s simplistic claim!

As in most other matters, all that John Dehlin has done in this instance is mislead his readers.

Those Ottomans Got Around

Alexander Campbell, my dear colleague from the space and time warp, has done a terrific job of answering the claim that scimitars in the Book of Mormon are an anachronism.1 Still, something else caught my eye.


Cimeter: The curved, bladed weapon, mentioned 3 times in the Book of Mormon, originated with the Ottoman empire in the 9th Century. Not only is it an Asian word for blade, it’s also made of anachronistic steel. It remains unknown how Lehi would be aware of it, as the word was unused in any contemporary Hebrew literature.


Screenshot of “Archaeology and the Book of Mormon” as accessed on February 14, 2019.

According to the essay, scimitars were created by the Ottoman Empire in the 9th century.

Traditional Ottoman sources claim that their forebears arrived in the modern-day territory of Turkey sometime during the 13th century after the Mongols chased them out of Central Asia. Several modern scholars believe that they were originally raiders and freebooters in the 11th century.2 Regardless, no one has ever claimed the 9th century! Osman Bey – the dynasty’s founder – does not even make an appearance in the Byzantine sources until 1302.

A tip of the ol’ Fedora for rewriting half of Middle-Eastern history in one fell swoop.

All joking aside, the essay author is desperate to score any point against Book of Mormon historicity that they can. Even if that means creating anachronisms of their own.

Scimitar (Cimeter) and the Book of Mormon

While there certainly are legitimate issues worth discussing about the Book of Mormon and archaeology, Dehlin’s essay on the subject is full of things that simply are not true. Take, for instance, this paragraph about the cimeter (more commonly spelled scimitar today):

Cimeter: The curved, bladed weapon, mentioned 3 times in the Book of Mormon, originated with the Ottoman empire in the 9th Century. Not only is it an Asian word for blade, it’s also made of anachronistic steel. It remains unknown how Lehi would be aware of it, as the word was unused in any contemporary Hebrew literature.

Mormon Stories “Archaeology and the Book of Mormon” Essay
Screenshot of the Mormon Stories Archaeology and the Book of Mormon Essay

My honest reaction to this paragraph is:

Not only that, but it’s been known to be wrong for decades. More than half a century on some details.

Let’s review.

The Origins of Curved, Bladed Weapons

Curved, bladed weapons—which scholars freely call scimitars—have been known since the Bronze Age. Some scholars believe such weapons were known in the ancient Near East as early as the 3rd millennium BC.1 It’s certainly attested by the 2nd millennium BC. Describing weapons from the Later Bronze Age (ca. 1550–1200 BC), archaeologist Amihai Mazar wrote, “Sickle-shaped scimitars are known both from actual finds and from Egyptian artistic depictions.”2 Mazer shows an illustration of the Egyptian weapon, which he captions as “a scimitar.”

In Canaan, “the curved sickle-sword, or scimitar” is known even earlier, in the Middle Bronze Age.3 An Egyptian text written in the early 2nd millennium BC mentions the plundering of weapons, including scimitars, from Canaanite towns: “copper-cum-wood [weapons]: (battle)-axes, 10; scimitars, 33; daggers, 12; knives (?), 11.”4

There’s even evidence that Israelites specifically used curved-bladed swords. Boyd Seevers, an expert in Old Testament warfare, said, “Likely the typical early Israelite sword was a sickle-sword, which had a handle attached to a straight shaft that continued into a curved blade.”5 The only known artistic depiction of Israelite swords, from Assyrian reliefs dated to ca. 700 BC, illustrates them as curved-bladed weapons.6

For what it is worth, curved weapons that leading Maya scholars Mary Miller and Simon Martin have described as “scimitar-like” are also known in Mesoamerican art going back to the early pre-Classic period (ca. 1500–900 BC).7

So the existence of curved-bladed weapons, which scholars have freely referred to as scimitars, is well attested long before the Ottoman empire or the 9th century AD.

UPDATE: The Origins of Ottoman Empire

My fellow time traveler Ann Eliza Young has pointed out another inaccuracy in this section, which I failed note originally, as it is somewhat tangential to my post. But as she noted, the Ottoman Empire was founded in the 13th century–some 400 years later than that claimed in Dehlin’s essay. Given that this is in a section on anachronisms in the Book of Mormon, the anachronistic reference to the Ottoman Empire is comical, to say the least.

Asian Word for Blade

First, what’s an “Asian” word? This generalization is unhelpful, and also pretty racist. Asia is a huge continent, with literally hundreds of different languages and cultures—which includes the Middle-East, where Israel is. So technically a “Hebrew” word is an “Asian” word.

I assume that what they mean is it’s a Persian word, but even that is not really accurate. Scimitar is an English word—and there’s no problem with it showing up in an English translation. As quoted above, Egyptologist Donald Redford used “scimitar” in his English translation of an Egyptian word referring to curved-bladed weapons from around 2000 BC.8 So again, not clear what the problem is.

As for the origins of the word, its etymology goes back to 15th century French (cimeterre) and Italian (scimitarra). It’s origins beyond that are uncertain. Some think it comes from the Persian shimshir, but others think that connection is unsatisfactory.9

Anachronistic Steel

There’s a whole section on steel elsewhere in the essay, which I or one of my compatriots might decide to deal with in detail later. For now, I’ll just say three things:

1. Steel is definitely not anachronistic for Lehi’s time. Tests performed on iron objects from the early Iron Age proved that nearly all of them were technically made of steel.10 What’s more, a steel Israelite sword has specifically been found dated to the 7th century BC.11

2. The Book of Mormon never says what their “cimeters” are made out of (Enos 1:20; Alma 27:29; Alma 44:8).

3. Scimitars needn’t necessarily be made out of steel. As noted, sickle-shaped swords referred to as scimitars by scholars are known from the Bronze Age, and were made out of bronze, and sometimes even wood. In Mesoamerica, scimitar-like blades were made out of flint.12

The Word Unused in Contemporary Hebrew Literature

Obviously, the Englishword scimitar is not used in any Hebrew literature from Lehi’s day. But as noted, words translated as “scimitar” by scholars are known in the ancient Near East, going back to well before Lehi’s day. Obviously, since Israelites had curved swords (as noted above), they probably had a word for such swords as well. And indeed, there is just such a Hebrew word: kidon (כידון), defined as “javelin or short curved sword.”13 Roland De Vaux explains:

[Kîdôn] is usually translated ‘javelin’, … [m]ore probably, however, the kîdôn was a scimitar … like those shown on monuments discovered in excavations.14

In 1 Samuel 17:6 and 45, P. Kyle McCarter translates kidon as “scimitar,” and defines it as “a heavy, curved, flate-bladed, Oriental sword with a cutting edge on the outer (convex) side of the blade.”15

Significantly, the term kidon shows up twice in Jeremiah (6:23; 50:42), a contemporary prophet with Lehi—so it is used in “contemporary Hebrew literature.”

Conclusion

I honestly can’t imagine someone writing a single paragraph with more factual errors than this one. And while I’ve made it a point to cite mainstream academic sources here, it’s not like Mormon scholars have not pointed this out—in response to this very criticism—before.16 So why does critical literature, including here Dehlin’s essays, keep repeating this nonsensical claim over and over and over?

Perhaps it’s because they did nothing more than read the Wikipedia article on “scimitar”—a shallow and superficial research method if ever there was one. Or perhaps it’s because they know for many who lose faith over articles like this, it’s the cumulative effect of the arguments. Piling on one claim after another—no matter how tenuous—can overwhelm the unsuspecting reader who does not know any better, and doesn’t have the means to factcheck the information presented.

If this is the case, it’s easy to see why critics might continue to repeat old claims long since debunked, since reducing the number of arguments does not ultimately serve the cumulative effect very well. But it’s also extremely unethical. So let’s give Dehlin the benefit of the doubt and just assume that he really just didn’t know any better—his understanding of the topic too superficial. This still seriously undermines the credibility of the essays.

“The Principal Ancestors” vs. “Among the Ancestors”

The Mormon Stories essay “Archaeology and the Book of Mormon” makes the following claim:

The 1842 Wentworth Letter was the first record of the Church officially stating that Native Americans are the primary descendants of the Lamanites. In 1981, facing increased scrutiny, the Church changed the preface from “they are the PRINCIPAL ancestors of the American Indians” to “AMONG the ancestors.” It left the word Principal in the Spanish versions and encouraged its missionaries to continue telling the darker skinned crowd that they’re all Lamanites.

Mormon Stories, “Archaeology and the Book of Mormon”
Screenshot of “Archaeology and the Book of Mormon” taken Feb. 13, 2019.

Every single sentence in this paragraph is erroneous.

First, the 1842 Wentworth Letter was not “the first record of the Church officially stating that Native Americans are the primary descendants of the Lamanites.” In fact, Mormon leaders W. W. Phelps, Oliver Cowdery, and Parley P. Pratt were teaching this in the 1830s in Church newspapers and missionary pamphlets.1

Second, the 1981 edition of the Book of Mormon did not read the Lamanites were “among the ancestors” of the Native Americans. The introduction to this edition read that the Lamanites “are the principal ancestors of the American Indians.”

The introduction to the 1981 LDS edition of the Book of Mormon.

The change from “principal ancestors” to “among the ancestors” was first introduced in the 2006 Doubleday edition of the Book of Mormon, as reported by the Deseret News.

At that time it was reported that “The change [from “principal” to “among”] will be included in the next edition of the Book of Mormon printed by the church.” And sure enough, in 2013 the change was made to the LDS Church’s official edition of the Book of Mormon.

“Summary of Approved Adjustments for the 2013 Edition of the Scriptures” pp. 1, 10. (Link)

Third, it is not true that “[the Church] left the word Principal in the Spanish versions” of the Book of Mormon. The 2015 Spanish edition of the Book of Mormon, approved just two years after the 2013 English edition, also changed the wording of the introduction to match the new English version:

Después de miles de años, todos fueron destruidos con
excepción de los lamanitas, los cuales se hallan entre los antecesores de los indios de las Américas.

Introduction to the 2015 Spanish edition of the Book of Mormon.
Introduction to the 2015 Spanish edition of the Book of Mormon. (Link)

Fourth, and finally, the Mormon Stories essay tacitly accuses the LDS Church of some kind of racist conspiracy with the comment that it “encouraged its missionaries to continue telling the darker skinned crowd that they’re all Lamanites.” In fact, the Church has always taught and continues to affirm that descendants of Lehi are to be found among the native peoples of North and South America. (See for example here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

Significantly, the wording of the 2006/2013 introduction to the Book of Mormon has historical precedent (something not mentioned in the Mormon Stories essay). Furthermore, the change from “principal” to “among” may help clarify what the Book of Mormon itself teaches, but doesn’t compromise the integrity of the book itself.2 Even the Church’s own Gospel Topics essay on DNA and the Book of Mormon addressed the significance of the change to the introduction:

The introduction, which is not part of the text of the Book of Mormon, previously stated that the Lamanites were the “principal ancestors of the American Indians.” Even this statement, first published in 1981, implies the presence of others. (Introduction to the Book of Mormon, 1981 ed.) Early in the Book of Mormon, the name Lamanite refers to the descendants of Laman and Lemuel (see 2 Nephi 5:14 and Jacob 1:13). Hundreds of years later, it came to identify all those with a different political or religious affiliation than the keepers of the Book of Mormon plates (see Helaman 11:24 and 4 Nephi 1:20).

“Book of Mormon and DNA Studies.” (link)

The Mormon Stories essay is wrong in literally every sentence of this single paragraph. It is wrong that “the first record of the Church officially stating that Native Americans are the primary descendants of the Lamanites” was Joseph Smith’s 1842 Wentworth Letter. It is wrong about the date of the change of “principal” to “among.” It is wrong about there being no change to the Spanish edition of the Book of Mormon. And it is wrong to insinuate that the Church was attempting to perpetuate some kind of racist conspiracy.3

Is Beekeeping an Anachronism in the Book of Mormon?

The Mormon Stories essay on “Archaeology and the Book of Mormon” argues that the mentioning of Jaredite beekeeping is anachronistic:

“The Jaradites are described in Ether as having carried honey bees to the New World, while ignoring the improbability of transporting bees in a totally enclosed submarine for a year. The honey bee is not native to North America.”

Screenshot of “Archaeology and the Book of Mormon” accessed February 12, 2019.

To support this claim, the article hyperlinks to a 2006 article from ScienceDaily.

The only reference to honeybees in the Book of Mormon is in the book of Ether:

“And they did also carry with them deseret, which, by interpretation, is a honey bee; and thus they did carry with them swarms of bees, and all manner of that which was upon the face of the land, seeds of every kind.”

Ether 2:3

Ignoring for now the arguably ancient etymology of deseret, it must be pointed out that the text actually does not describe the Jaredites taking honeybees with them across the ocean. It rather describes them carrying honeybees before they cross the ocean in the “valley of Nimrod” as they went “forth into the wilderness” (Ether 2:4–5). It might be assumed that the Jaredites took honeybees with them to the New World, but when the text catalogues New World Jaredite fauna (Ether 9:18–19), honeybees are absent.

Apiculture in ancient Egypt is documented as early as the third millennium BC.1 It is striking that the Jaredite word for honeybee, deseret, has a plausible Egyptian etymology (dšrt).2 It seems probable that Jaredite apiculture was imported from ancient Egypt, since evidence for beekeeping in Mesopotamia (the supposed homeland of the Jaredites) is scant, with the clearest data for Mesopotamian apiculture coming long after Jaredite times.3 A plausible reading of the Book of Mormon text could argue that the Jaredite honeybees did not survive the group’s pan-Mesopotamian (and pan-Eurasian?) migration.4

The claim made by Dehlin that there is no native pre-Columbian apiculture is demonstrably wrong. “Yucatan was a thriving center of apiculture from pre-Columbian times, persisting, little changed, to the present,” and there are several known native North American honeybee species.5 The Spanish described native honey-producing beekeeping upon their arrival in the Yucatan,6 and Michael D. Coe, whom Dehlin has interviewed and often cites as an authority on Book of Mormon archaeology, has discussed native Mesoamerican apiculture and specifically speaks of the “stingless honeybee” as a domesticated New World animal.7 Other scholars have also discussed the significance of apiculture in ancient Mesoamerican history and culture.8

Most recently, an article published in the journal Latin American Antiquity in June 2018 documents the existence of pre-Columbian beekeeping among the pre-Classic Maya.

While the Jaredites are usually associated by Book of Mormon scholars with Olmec culture,9 which is older than Maya culture, the attestation of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican apiculture refutes Dehlin’s sweeping claim that “the honey bee is not native to North America.”10 In fact, the species Melipona beecheii is native to Mesoamerica, and was used for collecting honey. As were the species Partamona bilineata and Tetragonisca angustula, to name just two others. The “honey bee . . . not native to North America” spoken of in the ScienceDaily article cited by Dehlin is referring to is a different, more common species (the European honeybee or Apis mellifera).

So even if the Jaredites did manage to bring honeybees to the New World (which the Book of Mormon never actually explicitly claims happened), there is abundant archaeological and zoological evidence for their domestication and use in pre-Columbian North America.

As in most matters related to archaeology and the Book of Mormon, Dehlin is out of date, uninformed, and demonstrably wrong.

Egyptian Influence in Israel?

John Dehlin’s “truth claims” essay “Archaeology and the Book of Mormon” on the Mormon Stories website makes the following claim:

“The known hostility of Egyptians toward every other nation, particularly the Hebrews, renders it improbable that the Egyptians had sufficient interaction with the Jews so as to have them adopt their language and literature in 600 BC.”

This criticism has been repeated before by predominantly sectarian critics of Mormonism.1 It is, however, demonstrably false.

Egyptologists and biblical scholars have for nearly a century recognized that the close geographical proximity of Egypt and Israel/Canaan facilitated abundant cross-cultural exchange (including language and literature). In the words of one scholar, there was “close and intense relations between Egypt and Palestine through the millennia.”2 While the exact nature and extent of the Egypto-Levantine exchange remains debated, no serious scholar denies that such exchange did in fact occur:

  • Kenneth A. Kitchen, “Some Egyptian Background to the Old Testament,” Tyndale Bulletin 5-6 (April, 1960) 4-18.
  • Ronald J. Williams, “Some Egyptianisms in the Old Testament,” in Studies in Honor of John A. Wilson, ed. E. B. Hauser, Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization 35 (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1969), 93–98.
  • Ronald J. Williams, “‘A People Come Out of Egypt’: An Egyptologist looks at the Old Testament,” in Congress Volume Edinburgh 1974 (Leiden: Brill, 1975), 231–252.
  • Boyo Ockinga, Die Gottebenbildlichkeit im alten Ägypten und im Alten Testament, Ägypten und Altes Testament 7 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1984).
  • Donald B. Redford, Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times (Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press, 1992).
  • James E. Hoch, Semitic Words in Egyptian Texts of the New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period (Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press, 1994).
  • John D. Currid, Ancient Egypt and the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1997).
  • Bernd Ulrich Schipper, Israel und Ägypten in der Königszeit: Die kulturellen Kontakte von Salomo bis zum Fall Jerusalems (Freiburg: Universitätsverlag Freiburg, 1999).
  • Gary N. Knoppers and Antoine Hirsch, eds., Egypt, Israel, and the Ancient Mediterranean World: Studies in Honor of Donald B. Redford (Leiden: Brill, 2004).
  • S. Bar, D. Kahn, and JJ Shirley, eds., Egypt, Canaan and Israel: History, Imperialism, Ideology and Literature (Leiden: Brill, 2011).
  • James K. Hoffmeier, “Egyptian Religious Influences on the Early Hebrews,” in “Did I Not Bring Israel Out of Egypt?” Biblical, Archaeological, and Egyptological Perspectives on the Exodus Narratives, ed. James K. Hoffmeier, Alan R. Millard, and Gary A. Rendsburg (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2016), 3–35.
  • Izak Cornelius, “From Bes to Baal”: Religious Interconnections Between Egypt and the East, in Pharaoh’s Land and Beyond: Ancient Egypt and Its Neighbors, ed. Pearce Paul Creasman and Richard H. Wilkinson (New York, NY.: Oxford University Press, 2017), 209–217.

In particular, it is clear that Egyptian wisdom literature influenced Israelite compositions:

  • Adolf Erman, “Eine ägyptische Quelle der »Sprüche Salomos«,” Sitzungsberichte der preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften 15 (1924): 86–93.
  • D. C. Simpson, “The Hebrew Book of Proverbs and the Teachings of Amenophis,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 12, no. 3/4 (Oct. 1926): 232–239.
  • Glendon E. Bryce, A Legacy of Wisdom: The Egyptian Contribution to the Wisdom of Israel (Lewisburg: Bucknell University, 1979).
  • James K. Hoffmeier, “Some Thoughts on Genesis 1 & 2 and Egyptian Cosmology,” Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society 15 (1983): 39–49.
  • James E. Atwell, “An Egyptian Source for Genesis 1,” The Journal of Theological Studies 51, no. 2 (2000): 441–477.
  • Bernd U. Schipper, “Egyptian Background to the Psalms,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Psalms, ed. William P. Brown (New York, NY.: Oxford University Press, 2014), 57–75.
  • Nili Shupak, “The Contribution of Egyptian Wisdom Literature,” in Was There a Wisdom Tradition? New Prospects in Israelite Wisdom Studies, ed. Mark R. Sneed (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2015), 265–304.
  • Nili Shupak, “No Man Is Born Wise”: Ancient Egyptian Wisdom Literature and its Contact with Biblical Literature (Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 2016). [Hebrew]
  • Noga Ayali-Darshan, “Egyptian and Levantine Belles-Lettres–––Links and Influences during the Bronze Age,” in Pharaoh’s Land and Beyond: Ancient Egypt and Its Neighbors, ed. Pearce Paul Creasman and Richard H. Wilkinson (New York, NY.: Oxford University Press, 2017), 195–205.

As one scholar concluded, “There is no reason to doubt that there could have been [Egyptian] literary influence on Hebrew cosmology as there was in other areas of Hebrew literature.”3

What’s more, it has been recognized for some time that a scribal tradition of using the Egyptian script known as hieratic developed in ancient Israel before and during the time of Lehi and Nephi:

  • Orly Goldwasser, “An Egyptian Scribe from Lachish and the Hieratic Tradition of the Hebrew Kingdoms,” Tel Aviv 18 (1991): 248–253.
  • Stefan Wimmer, Palästiniches Hieratisch: Die Zahl- und Sonderzeichen in der althebräishen Schrift (Wiesbaden: Harraossowitz, 2008).
  • David Calabro, “The Hieratic Scribal Tradition in Preexilic Judah,” in Evolving Egypt: Innovation, Appropriation, and Reinterpretation in Ancient Egypt, BAR International Series 2397, ed. Kerry Muhlestein and John Gee (Oxford, Eng.: Archaeopress, 2012), 77–85.

Of course, Latter-day Saint authors have drawn attention to this data and have discussed its relevance for the Book of Mormon:

But one need to not turn to academic esoterica to see Dehlin’s claim is on its face absurd. One need only read the Bible to discover that Judah and Egypt were diplomatic allies during Lehi’s lifetime.

The only feasible conclusion is that John Dehlin (or the anonymous author of this essay) is either ignorant of this evidence or is deliberately deceiving his readers.

John Dehlin is ALREADY Backing Down from Some Claims in his Essays

Well, it didn’t take long before Dehlin had to start taking blatantly false claims out of at least one of his “truth claims” essays. Compare this screenshot taken when the “Archaeology and the Book of Mormon” essay first went up:

To this one, taken at the time of my writing this post:

Notice that the section on “fiery flying serpents,” which originally appeared before “dogs,” has been removed. I don’t know exactly why or when this happened, but this was smart decision on the part of someone over at Mormon Stories, since Nephi’s mention of fiery flying serpents is demonstrably not a problem for the Book of Mormon, and least of all an archaeological problem. In fact, it’s supported by archaeological evidence.

For starters, look at the scripture references there—one is to the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 17:41), but the other two are from Isaiah, and they read (in the KJV):

Rejoice not thou, whole Palestina, because the rod of him that smote thee is broken: for out of the serpent’s root shall come forth a cockatrice, and his fruit shall be a fiery flying serpent.

Isaiah 14:29

The burden of the beasts of the south: into the land of trouble and anguish, from whence come the young and old lion, the viper and fiery flying serpent, they will carry their riches upon the shoulders of young asses, and their treasures upon the bunches of camels, to a people that shall not profit them.

Isaiah 30:6

Don’t you think that, right there, should have tipped off Dehlin or the author of the essays that this really isn’t a problem for the Book of Mormon? That it’s perfectly normal for an ancient Israelite to believe in fiery flying serpents?

If the author were familiar with the archaeology of Israel, they might have known that winged/flying snakes, like the one on this seal from the 7th century BC (i.e., around Nephi’s time), are well known in ancient Israel’s iconography:

Image from Benjamin Sass, in Biblical Archaeology Review 38, no. 1. The seal was found in an archaeological dig at Jerusalem and dated to the 7th century BC.

This image was originally published in the Biblical Archaeology Review, with the caption:

The pink limestone seal or amulet with a winged snake recalls the saraf, or fiery serpent, of Isaiah 30:6.1

Saraf (sometimes spelled saraph) is also the same Hebrew word which appears in Numbers 21:6, 8, in the same story Nephi is talking about in 1 Nephi 17:41. It also shows up, untranslated, in Isaiah 6 as the plural seraphim, where they are portrayed as fiery, flying creatures with six-wings. Biblical scholar Marvin A. Sweeny defines seraphim as “fiery ones” and explains:

[Seraphim are] fiery beings of supernatural origin. … Seraphim have six wings. … A flying seraph (Heb. saraph; NRSV: “serpent”) appears in Isaiah 14:29 and 30:6 together with “adders” and “vipers.” The same Hebrew word (saraph) is used to describe the “fiery serpents” (NRSV: “poisonous serpents”) that afflicted Israel in the wilderness (Num. 21:6–9; Deut. 8:15). Thus, seraphim may have had a serpentine form and served, not only as guardians of the divine throne, but also as emissaries of divine judgement.2

And this isn’t just an Israelite thing. Egyptians also had winged snake iconography, and flying serpents are mentioned in diverse historical sources, such as Esarhaddon’s annals and Herodotus’s Histories.

In contrast to the rather flippant response to these as the subject of mere “fairy tale” in Dehlin’s essay (as it originally appeared), these references to flying serpents are taken quite seriously by scholars of the ancient Near East. To the point that they’ve tried to identify which species of snake is likely being referred to by these ancient authors.3

Even if merely “fairy tale,” however, the biblical and archaeological evidence certainly demonstrates that it’s the kind of thing an ancient Israelite would believe in. And it’s certainly interesting that although the KJV only has “fiery serpents” in Numbers 21, the iconography clearly shows that saraphs were depicted with wings, and so Nephi’s “fiery flying serpents” is very likely how an ancient Israelite would have understood the reference to saraphs in Numbers 21.

Now, as I already mentioned, Mormon Stories has already removed the section on “Fiery Flying Serpents,” for reasons I am not really aware of. But the very fact that the author thought this was a problem for the Book of Mormon in the first place tells us they don’t know much about ancient Israel and its material culture (as documented through archaeology).

But shouldn’t that kind of be a prerequisite to writing about archaeology and the Book of Mormon?

There’s much more that Dehlin should consider having removed from this essay. Take, for example, the claim that “there is absolutely no mention of dogs” in the Book of Mormon, which can be seen in both screenshots above and thus is still in the essay (as of this writing).

This is demonstrably false:

Yea, wo be unto this generation! And the Lord said unto me: Stretch forth thy hand and prophesy, saying: Thus saith the Lord, it shall come to pass that this generation, because of their iniquities, shall be brought into bondage, and shall be smitten on the cheek; yea, and shall be driven by men, and shall be slain; and the vultures of the air, and the dogs, yea, and the wild beasts, shall devour their flesh.

Mosiah 12:2

But behold, in one day it was left desolate; and the carcasses were mangled by dogs and wild beasts of the wilderness.

Alma 16:10

And behold, instead of gathering you, except ye will repent, behold, he shall scatter you forth that ye shall become meat for dogs and wild beasts.

Helaman 7:19

And thus six years had not passed away since the more part of the people had turned from their righteousness, like the dog to his vomit, or like the sow to her wallowing in the mire.

3 Nephi 7:8

Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.

3 Nephi 14:6

I’d recommend that Dehlin have the section on dogs deleted as well. In fact, if Dehlin really wishes for these essays to be “accurate and robust,” as he claims, I would recommend he take the whole thing down and have it more carefully vetted, because it’s abundantly clear that the author’s understanding of both the relevant archaeology and the Book of Mormon text itself is deficient.