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

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.

DNA and the Book of Mormon: A Note on Sources

The new “Truth Claims” essays on John Dehlin’s Mormon Stories website purport to be “accurate and robust.” One way to test this claim is by checking what sources are cited in each essay. After all, citations of peer reviewed scholarship are what make a piece of writing “accurate and robust,” no?

Screenshot from the Mormon Stories “Truth Claims” webpage.

To see just how “accurate and robust” the Mormon Stories essay on DNA and the Book of Mormon is, let’s do a tally of what sources are cited or otherwise linked to in the essay:

The first source cited in the essay is “Dr. David Glenn Smith/U.C.-Davis molecular anthropologist, Sunstone Symposium, 2002.”

Screenshot from “DNA and the Book of Mormon”.

Dr. Smith is a qualified scientist, but the source cited is not a scientific paper. It is, instead, a non-academic symposium presentation.

The next two sources cited are a piece from Scientific American, a reputable science magazine, and a non-peer reviewed Internet article by Joel Groat, who has no training in molecular science or population genetics.

Screenshot from “DNA and the Book of Mormon”.

The next source is a hyperlink to Wikipedia (hyperlinked to the word “Lenba”.)

Screenshot from “DNA and the Book of Mormon”.

The next source comes from Nature, another reputable science journal.

Screenshot from “DNA and the Book of Mormon”.

Finally, the last two sources are the Gospel Topics essay “Book of Mormon and DNA Studies” and a blog post by Simon Southerton, an excommunicated former Latter-day Saint with training in molecular science.

Screenshot from “DNA and the Book of Mormon”.

Dehlin’s essay cites a total of seven sources. Of these seven sources, only the citations to Scientific American and Nature qualify as peer-reviewed scholarship. The rest are from Internet sites and a non-academic symposium.

Now let’s take a look at the sources cited in the Church’s Gospel Topics essay on DNA and the Book of Mormon. Unlike Dehlin’s article, we actually know who the primary author of the Church’s Gospel Topics essay is: a population geneticist and molecular scientist named Ugo Perego. (Perego has gone on the public record as being the principle author of the Gospel Topics essay.)

A list of Ugo’s scientific publications relating to population genetics can be seen here. A list of his peer-reviewed publications related to the Book of Mormon can be seen here. So until the author of the Mormon Stories article comes forth and proves he or she is more qualified than Perego to reliably guide readers through this issue, Perego has the anonymous author beat in terms of scientific expertise and academic publications relevant to this subject.

Looking at the footnotes of the Gospel Topics essay, one sees the following citations:

  • Antonio Torroni and others, “Asian Affinities and Continental Radiation of the Four Founding Native American mtDNAs,” American Journal of Human Genetics 53 (1993): 563–90.
  • Alessandro Achilli and others, “The Phylogeny of the Four Pan-American MtDNA Haplogroups: Implications for Evolutionary and Disease Studies,” PloS ONE 3, no. 3 (Mar. 2008): e1764.
  • Ugo A. Perego and others, “Distinctive Paleo-Indian Migration Routes from Beringia Marked by Two Rare mtDNA Haplogroups,” Current Biology 19 (2009): 1–8.
  • Martin Bodner and others, “Rapid Coastal Spread of First Americans: Novel Insights from South America’s Southern Cone Mitochondrial Genomes,” Genome Research 22 (2012): 811–20.
  • Peter A. Underhill and Toomas Kivisild, “Use of Y Chromosome and Mitochondrial DNA Population Structure in Tracing Human Migrations,” Annual Review of Genetics 41 (2007): 539–64.
  • International Society of Genetic Genealogy, “Y-DNA Haplogroup Tree 2014”.
  • Mannis van Oven and Manfred Kayser M., “Updated Comprehensive Phylogenetic Tree of Global Human Mitochondrial DNA Variation,” Human Mutation 30 (2009): E386–E394.
  • Vincenza Battaglia and others, “The First Peopling of South America: New Evidence from Y-Chromosome Haplogroup Q,” PLoS ONE 8, no. 8 (Aug. 2013): e71390.
  • Ugo A. Perego and others, “The Initial Peopling of the Americas: A Growing Number of Founding Mitochondrial Genomes from Beringia,” Genome Research 20 (2010): 1174–79.
  • Jennifer Anne Raff and Deborah A. Bolnick, “Does Mitochondrial Haplogroup X Indicate Ancient Trans-Atlantic Migration to the Americas? A Critical Re-Evaluation,” PaleoAmerica 4, no. 1 (2015): 297–303.
  • Rasmus Nielsen and others, “Tracing the People of the World through Genomics,” Nature 541 (2017): 302–10.
  • Maanasa Raghavan and others, “Upper Palaeolithic Siberian Genome Reveals Dual Ancestry of Native Americans,” Nature 505 (2014): 87–91.
  • Stephen L. Zegura and others, “High-Resolution SNPs and Microsatellite Haplotypes Point to a Single, Recent Entry of Native American Y Chromosomes into the Americas,” Molecular Biology and Evolution 21, no. 1 (2004): 164–75.
  • Pedro Soares and others, “Correcting for Purifying Selection: An Improved Human Mitochondrial Molecular Clock,” American Journal of Human Genetics 84, no. 6 (2009): 740–59.
  • Alessandro Achilli and others, “Reconciling Migration Models to the Americas with the Variation of North American Native Mitogenomes,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110, no. 35 (2013): 14308–13.
  • Morten Rasmussen and others, “Ancient Human Genome Sequence of an Extinct Palaeo-Eskimo,” Nature, Feb. 11, 2010, 757–62.
  • Quoted in Cassandra Brooks, “First Ancient Human Sequenced,” Scientist,Feb. 10, 2010, www.thescientist.com/blog/display/57140.
  • Michael H. Crawford, The Origins of Native Americans: Evidence from Anthropological Genetics [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998], 4.
  • David S. Jones, “Virgin Soils Revisited,” William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, vol. 60, no. 4 (Oct. 2003): 703–42.
  • Michael H. Crawford, Origins of Native Americans, 49–51, 239–41, 260–61.
  • Agnar Helgason and others, “A Populationwide Coalescent Analysis of Icelandic Matrilineal and Patrilineal Genealogies: Evidence for a Faster Evolutionary Rate of mtDNA Lineages than Y Chromosomes,” American Journal of Human Genetics 72 (2003): 1370–88.
  • Beth Alison Schultz Shook and David Glenn Smith, “Using Ancient MtDNA to Reconstruct the Population History of Northeastern North America,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 137 (2008): 14.
  • How Many Genetic Ancestors Do I Have?” Co-op Lab, Population and Evolutionary Genetics, UC Davis.

The number of scientific publications on the matter of DNA and population genetics cited in the Gospel Topics essay is 23. (I have omitted citations of pieces appearing in Latter-day Saint journals pertaining to the history and interpretation of the Book of Mormon, although those are relevant as well.)

So on the one hand, the Gospel Topics essay was written by a trained and qualified population geneticist and is replete with citations of scientific scholarship. On the other hand, Dehlin’s essay cites only two pieces of scientific scholarship and opts to cite non-peer reviewed Internet websites for the rest of its citations.

Even without necessarily getting into the matter of who is correctly interpreting and synthesizing the relevant scientific evidence, it is very clear that at first glance the Gospel Topics essay is much more “accurate and robust” compared to Dehlin’s essay.

The truth is that genetics is a complex and nuanced field of study. Laypersons can only go so far before they are obliged to rely on the testimony of scientific authorities. If you have to put your trust in just one of these two essays to give you an “accurate and robust” picture of what’s going on with DNA and the Book of Mormon, the safe bet is to go with the Church’s Gospel Topics essay, not Dehlin’s essay.

(Said another way, the Gospel Topics essay would be more likely to get a passing grade in a freshman biology class, whereas Dehlin’s essay most likely wouldn’t.)

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.

John Dehlin Cites Forgery as if Authentic

On his Mormon Stories website, John Dehlin has recently begun releasing essays on the “truth claims” of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, claiming that they “explore Mormon truth claims as accurately, succinctly, and objectively as possible.” The motive for them is because Dehlin and his acolytes think that the Church’s Gospel Topics essays are “excessively apologetic” and so the Mormon Stories essays are meant to represent “the essays that should have been released by the LDS Church.”

The truth is that accurate, succinct, and objective are not the adjectives I would use to describe any of these essays. Whatever one may say about the objectivity and historical rigor of the Church’s essays, there is little question that the essays Dehlin is publishing are hopelessly and demonstrably worse.1

While there is a lot that could be done to demonstrate this, for now let’s just stick with something that I hope we can all agree is egregiously irresponsible: one of the essays cites a known forgery as if it were an authentic historical source.

Here’s a screenshot from the “Printing the Book of Mormon” essay:

The source cited as Defense, Oliver Cowdery p. 229 is more properly known as Defence in a Rehearsal of My Grounds for Separing Myself from the Latter Day Saints, supposedly published in Ohio in 1839. Now here’s the rub—there isn’t a shred of evidence that this pamphlet ever existed before 1906, when it was first published by R. B. Neal, the leader of the American Anti-Mormon Association at the time. Investigators have searched in vain for an original 1839 tract, or any kind of reference to it—none can be found. Nor can the press it was supposedly printed on (Pressley Job Office) be located.

As if all that were not suspicious enough, in comparing the writing against other things written by Oliver Cowdery, researchers discovered that it draws phrases from Oliver’s eight letters in the Messenger and Advocate from 1834–1835, and none of his other writings, but then reworks and re-contextualizes them. The pamphlet also betrays influences from David Whitmer’s 1887 An Address to All Believers—which is obviously impossible for something truly written in 1839.

And lest you think that it’s just “Mopologists” who dismiss this, everything said above is based on the research of the Jerald and Sandra Tanner —notorious anti-Mormons of the late-20th century. Sandra’s even been on Dehlin’s podcast. In 1967, the Tanners published a study of the document, concluding: “The whole thing, we think, looks like the work of an impostor.”2 They go on to say:

After carefully examining the evidence, we have come to the conclusion that the “Defence” is probably a spurious work, written sometime after 1887—i.e., after David Whitmer’s pamphlet appeared.3

More recently, Ronald V. Huggins, another well-known anti-Mormon, concluded in 2008:

This makes it all but certain that the Defence was plagiarized from the Messenger and Advocate. The only way someone could make a case for its authenticity at this stage would be to prove that Cowdery was in the regular habit of plundering phrases and paragraphs from his earlier writings and dropping them without rhyme or reason into his later ones.4

He goes on to state that while there were some hold outs in the 1960s, such as Junita Brooks and Fawn Brodie, “With time, however, Jerald’s position has won out, leaving Brodie to be one of the very few historians to hold out for the authenticity of the Defence.” 5

And these are not the only sources that mention that this document is a forgery. Latter-day Saint historian Richard Lloyd Anderson was investigating this issue around the same time as the Tanners, and published similar conclusions in 1968.6 He addressed the topic again in the April 1987 Ensign, refering to it as a “historical forgery.”7 More recently, Roger Nicholson drew attention to this forgery in 2013.8 FairMormon also has a page on it.

To my knowledge, there is no recent analysis favoring the documents authenticity or rebutting the work of the Tanners, Huggins, or Anderson.9

Adding to the irony of all of this is that the Mormon Stories essays are said to “honor, stand beside, and build upon the incredible resources already created” by the likes of UT Lighthouse Ministry—the anti-Mormon organization founded by the Tanners, which published both the Tanners’ original 1967 assessment and Huggins’ 2008 piece. In Huggins’ view, exposing this forgery is one of Jerald Tanners’ lasting contributions to the study of Mormon history. As such, I think it’s safe to that by quoting from this forgery, Dehlin is actually dishonoring the Tanners’ legacy.

Furthermore, although this forgery may only be used to support a minor point, the bottom line is this gives us very little reason to have confidence in the integrity of the essays and their level of historical rigor.