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.

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.