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The Book of Mormon and Ancient Semetic Languages: The Untranslated Nouns


Olavarria

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One of the interesting aspects of the Book of Mormon are the untranslated nouns that occasionally litter the text. These untranslated nouns reflect the language of the plates and can be seen as artifacts of the language used by Nephite historians in the composition of the record. These record keepers traced their literary tradition, languages and religion to the ancient Near East.

It should be noted that the meaning of words change over time; they can expand or lose some of their range of meaning. For example, the word "corn" once only reffered to wheat or barley. In the US and Canada, it most commonly refers to maize. As the Nephites were seperated from the ancient Near East in both space and time, we should expect such broadening and narrowing to occur in their languages as well. For this note, I will focus on four untranslated nouns: jershon, sheum, ziff and shilum.

In the Book of Mormon, the Nephites gave up a part of their territory to the people of Ammon and called the land "Jershon". The Hebrew root yrsh(??????) means, among other things, inherit, inheritance and take possession of. This is very interesting given the Book of Mormon's specific designation of Jershon(????????) as an inheritance for the people of Ammon.

Alma 35:14

And Alma, and Ammon, and their brethren, and also the two sons of Alma returned to the land of Zarahemla, after having been instruments in the hands of God of bringing many of the Zoramites to repentance; and as many as were brought to repentance were driven out of their land; but they have lands for their inheritance in the land of Jershon, and they have taken up arms to defend themselves, and their wives, and children, and their lands.

Alma 27:24

24)And now behold, this will we do unto our brethren, that they may inherit the land Jershon; and we will guard them from their enemies with our armies, on condition that they will give us a aportion of their substance to assist us that we may maintain our armies.

For the Nephites, ziff was a metal. It wasn't gold, silver, iron, brass or copper; it was probably an alloy such as electrum. In Hebrew,Ziv(???) means "brightness". it is the second month in the calender. Naming a metal "brightness" or splendor makes perfect sense.

Mosiah 11:8.

8)And it came to pass that king Noah built many elegant and spacious buildings; and he ornamented them with fine work of wood, and of all manner of precious things, of gold, and of silver, and of iron, and of brass, and of ziff, and of copper;

1Kings 6:1

And it came to pass in the four hundred and eightieth year after the children of Israel were come out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon

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For the Nephites, ziff was a metal. It wasn't gold, silver, iron, brass or copper; it was probably an alloy such as electrum. In Hebrew,Ziv(???) means "brightness". it is the second month in the calender. Naming a metal "brightness" or splendor makes perfect sense.

That's well and good. Zeniff nicked a fifth of their ziff. But the plates weren't written in Hebrew, we are told.

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That's well and good. Zeniff nicked a fifth of their ziff. But the plates weren't written in Hebrew, we are told.

We're not told that. You assume it to be so.

The language of the plates is not specified, it's its characters Moroni referred to as "reformed Egyptian". It is more than possible that the language was Hebrew (also altered according to the prophet), but that, to make it easier to inscribe, they used the modified Egyptian lettering system, just as we can use Latin letters to write Russian words, albeit for different reasons.

Lehi

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The language of the plates is not specified, it's its characters Moroni referred to as "reformed Egyptian". It is more than possible that the language was Hebrew (also altered according to the prophet), but that, to make it easier to inscribe, they used the modified Egyptian lettering system, just as we can use Latin letters to write Russian words, albeit for different reasons.

The Book of Mormon says the record is written in the language of Egypt, not in Hebrew rendered with Egyptian orthography. But the content is Jewish.

1 Nephi 1:2 Yea, I make a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians.

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The Book of Mormon says the record is written in the language of Egypt, not in Hebrew rendered with Egyptian orthography. But the content is Jewish.

1 Nephi 1:2 Yea, I make a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians.

It does not say it was in the language of the Egyptians, it says he wrote "in the language of [his] father", which was not Egyptian. Lehi was a Jew, and he spoke Hebrew. We cannot seriously believe that Lehi's language consisted of "... the language", that is simply untenable. languages consist of many things, one of which might be the learning of a people, but they do not consist of a superset of another language.

Please recall that Olive Cowdery and Joseph Smith did not supply the punctuation found in the Book of Mormon, so what is there, the product of a semi-hostile printer/typesetter, is not prophetic input. This case is one where changing the punctuation would dramatically change the text. (This lack of the modern concept of punctuation is further evidence of the ancient origins of the book of Mormon, btw.)

Time constrains or I would go into more detail.

Lehi

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For the sake of fairness, the printer and typesetter aren't at fault for this. One can't really change the punctuation in that sentence, the meaning won't change in this instance. Not only that, but the very next verse is a separate thought, as seen by the use of 'and'.

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Please recall that Olive Cowdery and Joseph Smith did not supply the punctuation found in the Book of Mormon, so what is there, the product of a semi-hostile printer/typesetter, is not prophetic input.

When the Tanners wrote 3,193 Changes in the Book of Mormon it's amazing that the semi-hostile third-party punctuation was never corrected between 1830 and 1964, which would have made the most correct book on earth even more correct.

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That's well and good. Zeniff nicked a fifth of their ziff. But the plates weren't written in Hebrew, we are told.

Morm. 9:32

32)And now, behold, we have written this record according to our knowledge, in the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech.

What was "the reformed Egyptian"? Apart from what the Book of Mormon tells us, I don't know.

We do know that there is a difference between Egyptian language and Egyptian characters. Egyptian characters could be used to write other languages. Papyrus Amherst 62 uses Demotic Egyptian script to write an Aramaic version of Psalm 20. Aramaic is a sister language to Hebrew, just as Spanish is to Italian. Given the abundance of hebraisms in the the text, I suspect something similiar happened with the Book of Mormon.

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One can't really change the punctuation in that sentence, the meaning won't change in this instance. Not only that, but the very next verse is a separate thought, as seen by the use of 'and'.

What if it's not a single sentence?

Here's what the typesetter saw in 1829:

An account of Lehi and his wife Sariah and his four sons, being called beginning at the eldest Laman Lemuel Sam and Nephi the Lord warns Lehi to depart out of the land of Jerusalem because he prophesieth unto the people concerning their iniquity and they seek to destroy his life he taketh three days
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Even if the BoMormon were not written primarily in Hebrew (I think it was), the fact that Nephi and his family were from Jerusalem should be a good indicator that we're justified in checking the untranslated words in the BoMormon against Hebrew. This is especially true, when we find repeated matches in grammar, style and vocabulary that support the hypothesis. Duh. Of course.

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When John H. Gilbert, Grandin's typesetter, got the text, he added whatever punctuation he felt need to make the manuscript "read as I supposed the Author intended"

Early editions of the King James Bible translation of Luke 23:32 (the passage that describes the other men crucified with Christ) read: "And there were also two other malefactors." Instead of counting Christ as one of the malefactors, the passage now reads: "And there were also two other, malefactors."

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