Thursday, August 20, 2009

It's All Greek To Me! On Greek Words and Names in the Book of Mormon

A standard criticism by anti-Mormons against the Book of Mormon is in regards to the presence of Greek names and words in the Book of Mormon. From Jerald and Sandra Tanner of Utah Lighthouse Ministry to Richard Packham of the Ex-Mormon Foundation, the critics make merry over the fact that there are Greek names such as Timothy and Lanchoneus in the Book of Mormon as well as Greek words like "Church", "Baptism", "Christ" and "Bible". Obviously these are blunders for the ignorant knave Joseph Smith, they inform us, and clear evidence against the Book of Mormon's authenticity.

But are Greek names and words in the Book of Mormon really hazardous to the claims of the Book of Mormon? Let us explore this criticism a little further. As shall be clear by the end of this post, there is no problem with the presence of Greek names and words in the Book of Mormon.

Timothy & Lanchoneus

Hugh Nibley put this silly accusation to bed ages ago.

The occurrence of the names Timothy and Lachoneus in the Book of Mormon is strictly in order, however odd it may seem at first glance. Since the fourteenth century B.C. at latest, Syria and Palestine had been in constant contact with the Aegean world, and since the middle of the seventh century Greek mercenaries and merchants, closely bound to Egyptian interests (the best Egyptian mercenaries were Greeks), swarmed throughout the Near East. Lehi's people...could not have avoided considerable contact with these people in Egypt and especially in Sidon, which Greek poets even in that day were celebrating as the great world center of trade. It is interesting to note in passing that Timothy is an Ionian name, since the Greeks in Palestine were Ionians (hence the Hebrew name for Greeks: "Sons of Javanim"), and—since "Lachoneus" means "a Laconian"—that the oldest Greek traders were Laconians, who had colonies in Cyprus (BM Akish) and of course traded with Palestine.[1]

[R]emember...that in Lehi's day Palestine was swarming with Greeks, important Greeks. Remember, it was Egyptian territory [prior to being seized by Babylon] at that time and Egyptian culture. The Egyptian army, Necho's army, was almost entirely Greek mercenaries. We have inscriptions from that very time up the Nile at Aswan-inscriptions from the mercenaries of the Egyptian army, and they're all in Greek. So Greek was very common, and especially the name Timotheus.[2]

Thus, as explained by Nibley, there was a known Greek influence and presence in the Levant by the time of Lehi. Thus, there is nothing out of order with the presence of Greek names in the Book of Mormon.

Greek Words

But what of the presence of Greek words in the Book of Mormon? Richard Packham quotes Joseph Smith in the Time and Seasons to demonstrate that the presence of Greek words in the Book of Mormon are a problem for the book's claimed historicity:

There was no Greek or Latin upon the plates from which I, through the grace of God, translated the Book of Mormon. Let the language of that book speak for itself.[3]

However, this is fallacious reasoning for several reasons. The first and most important thing we must remember is that the Book of Mormon is a translation. Thus, as such, it would be foolish to think that the Greco-English words that appear in the text such as "Christ", "Church", "Bible", etc. were on the original plates. As the Prophet continues to note, the underlying script of the Book of Mormon was "reformed Egyptian" (Mormon 9:32). Accordingly, the script of the Book of Mormon seems to be the usage of Egyptian characters to express and write Hebrew words. Thus, there wasn't any Greek words on the plates but in the translation of the plates. This is an important difference. As Irish biblical scholar Robert Boylan explains,

The Book of Mormon purports to be a translation. Therefore, it stands to reason that the language into which it was translated is not the language from which, according to its very own claims, it was translated. The fact that Joseph Smith used words with a Greek etymology (e.g., “Christ”) does not mean that the word “Christ” was on the very plates of the Book of Mormon. For someone with a long career in languages, Packham really should know better.[4]

This applies as well for the other words in Greek that the critics point to as "problems" for the Book of Mormon. Take the popular target "Christ". The Greek Christos is nothing more or less than the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Mashiach. Both are nouns meaning "anointed one" and both carry the connotation of the two English synonyms Christ and Messiah.[5]

"Bible" is from the Greek Biblios, or books, is equivalent to the Hebrew Cepher.

"Church", from the Greek Ekklesia, is comparable to the Hebrew Qahal. Alfred Edersheim explaines:

Nor would the term 'Church' sound strange in Jewish ears. The same Greek word [ecclesia], as the equivalent of the Hebrew Qahal, 'convocation,' 'the called,' occurs in the Septuagint rendering of the Old Testament, and in 'the Wisdom of the Son of Sirach' (Ecclus, 24.2) and was apparently in familiar use at the time.[6]

"Alpha and Omega" is another Greek phrase used in the Book of Mormon that the critics criticize. However, the ever erudite Robert Boylan has once again offered a succinct rebuttal to this accusation:

“Alpha and Omega” in the Book of Mormon is an accepted English expression and we may view it as the best way of conveying the meaning of a certain Nephite expression to English readers. The purpose of a translation is to transmit meanings, not words. “Alpha and Omega” makes more sense and is more recognizable to English readers than the Hebraic equilivant “Alepha and Taw.”[7]

By now it should be obvious the point I am trying to make. The presence of Greek names and words in the Book of Mormon are not harmful to its claims of authenticity. The attestation of Greek influence in Lehi's day has been documented. Further, because the Book of Mormon is a translation, the presence of these Greco-English words can be attributed to Joseph Smith best approximating the words in reformed Egyptian to words that he understood and was familiar with. Those who insist otherwise are either ignorant of how translations work, desperate anti-Mormons, or both.


[1]: Hugh Nibley, Collected Works of Hugh Nible volume 5, Lehi in the Deseret/The World of the Jaredites/There Were Jaredites, eds. John W. Welch, Darrell L. Matthew, Stephen R. Callister (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1988), 31.

[2]: Hugh Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1993), 1:431. Both of these citations can also be found on the FAIR wiki. Link here. LDS Irish biblical scholar Robert Boylan reminds us that the name "Timothy’s Hebrew equilivant is Heqar’el, meaning God-fearer. However, for transaltion purposes and style, the Prophet used “Timothy” because of the familiarity of the name in our culture." See Robert Boylan, "Linguistics and Mormonism", found online here.

[3]: "Correspondence", Times and Seasons, May 15, 1943, vol. 4, no, 13, 194.

[4]: Boylan, "Linguistics and Mormonism".

[5]: For a general discussion, see the entry under "Messiah" in Dennis L. Largey, ed., The Book of Mormon Reference Companion (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2003), 536

[6]: Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Hendrickson Publ., Peabody, Mass., 1993, pp. 531-532. Found online here.

[7]: Boylan, "Linguistics and Mormonism".

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