Gregory: “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”
— “Silver Blaze“, Arthur Conan Doyle (1892)
One of the standard secular explanations for Joseph Smith’s production of the Book of Mormon is that he cribbed from the Bible, in particular from the Old Testament — not just in taking direct quotes from Isaiah and Malachi, but in themes, events, situations, and the like. In my opinion, there are profound flaws with such an explanation, which could (and do) fill several books, but there you go.
Along those lines, there are two themes commonly found through the historical sections of the Old Testament that are curious by their absence (or near-absence) in the Book of Mormon — at least, curious if you consider the Book of Mormon to have been “inspired by” the Old Testament. Those themes are burial locations and romance/marriage.
The Old Testament history is full of details about the burial of various major and minor characters, including the names of the places of where they were buried (check out these references). Yet the Book of Mormon is quite silent on that matter, with only one real exception: Ishmael being buried at Nahom. Make no mistake — the Book of Mormon talks a lot about burial per se, usually mass burials of soldiers or victims of wars and other disasters; it also talks about the deaths of key individuals quite frequently. What it rarely does, unlike the Old Testament, is talk about the burial of a given dead individual. Lehi is the only other person whose burial is explicitly mentioned, though no location is named; on the other hand, the disappearance of Alma2 leads to speculation that he was either “taken up by the Spirit, or buried by the hand of the Lord.” (Alma 45:19).
The second curious absence involves marriage and romance. The Old Testament history is full of marriages and not a little romance as well (notwithstanding the meme that “romance” is a relatively modern invention). Time and again, the Old Testament record names wives and in some cases records details about how the marriage came to be and about the marriage itself. Indeed, these are some of the best known stories out of the Old Testament: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, and so on.
The Book of Mormon, by contrast, is profoundly silent on wives, marriage, and romance. Of Lehi’s initial party, we know Sariah’s name, but not that of any of the other women, includng Ishamel’s and Nephi’s own wives. And after Sariah, not another wife is named in the Book of Mormon. There are references to marriage (usually as groups, much as with burials) and to wives (ditto), but there are only a few references to one individual marrying another — and the wife is never named.
Having just written the above, and while doing a bit of online searching, I ran across this essay by Orson Scott Card, which I’m sure I have read at one time or another. In the section titled “American Culture and the Book of Mormon” and in the subsection titled “Women”, he makes the same point, but more broadly, more eloquently and in more detail. He even points out that there are only three named women in the entire Book of Mormon [i.e., within its historical record, as compared to mentions of Eve, Sarah, and Mary]: Sariah, the harlot Isabel, and the servant woman Abish. Again, this stands in stark contrast to the many women named — and often playing an important role — in the Old Testament.
Along those lines, here are a few more links:
- “Ten Women in the Book of Mormon“, a blog post calling out ten key women in the Book of Mormon
- “Women in the Book of Mormon” by Camille Williams (JMBS 11:1), a scholarly paper discussing the relative lack of women discussed and named in the Book of Mormon
Just my thought for the day. ..bruce..
6 thoughts on “A few curious absences in the Book of Mormon”
I hadn’t ever noticed that. You’d think that naming the burial locations in the New World would be very natural for their scribes, because the Book of Mormon peoples are very conscious of significant places in their cultural past: the fact that they came out of Jerusalem, the importance of the land of their first inheritance, and the desire to go back to places where major events happened. So seemingly it would be natural for them to record and revere and make pilgrimage to the burial places of revered ancestors. At least you’d think if he were taking his cue from the Bible that Joseph might have invented such a cultural practice.
Ditto for the presence of women. In the Old Testament, those courtships and marriages often mark the formation of dynasties or the development of a chosen lineage. With Joseph so interested later in life in creating dynastic connections, you’d think there would be some hint of that in his early life that would have made cribbing that trait from the Old Testament a natural thing for him to do.
But since I accept Joseph’s account of the plates’ origin, the more interesting thing for me, now that you have pointed out these two absences, is to consider what they suggest about the differences in Old and New World culture.
Thought provoking post. Thanks!
Not to strain too hard at that gnat, but Mary is also mentioned twice (and both times prophetically as it was well before her birth):
“and his mother shall be called Mary.”
(Book of Mormon | Mosiah 3:8)
“And behold, he shall be born of Mary”
(Book of Mormon | Alma 7:10)
Well, so are Eve and Sarah (the wife of Abraham), but I didn’t count them, either. However, I have added a note in the posting to clarify that I’m talking about women within the Book of Mormon historical record. ..bruce..
I figured that was your intent, I should have been more clear. The interesting question to me is this: does the Book of Mormon have specific names because that’s the way the original text was, or because of Joseph Smith’s knowledge of what had already transpired? (thus naming Jesus Christ and Mary by their Western names).
[Note: made a few edits to correct awkward or ambiguous wording]
That, of course, is an interesting question, though not as hard as you might think. The name in the Greek New Testament that is translated into English as “Mary” is actually the Greek transliteration (“Marias”) of the pre-Lehi Hebrew name “Miriam”; likewise the English name “Jesus” comes from the Greek name “Iesous”, which is the Greek transliteration of the pre-Lehi Hebrew name “Yeshua” (translated in the Old Testament as “Joshua”). And, of course, the Greek title “Christos” has the same meaning as the Hebrew term “Messiah” (and, in fact, the NRSV Bible translates most instances of “Christos” as “the Messiah”).
So, Joseph Smith may well have (for cultural reasons, not necessarily for late knowledge) translated whatever the Nephite equivalents for “Miriam” and “Yeshua” were, names that would be perfectly at home in a 6th Century BC Hebrew manuscript, as “Mary” and “Jesus”.
Now, as for “Christ”: the English Book of Mormon uses “Messiah” 32 times and the word “Christ” (including “christs” and “Christ’s”) 387 times (here’s a word count list). Furthermore, you can find separate instances of “Jesus” used alone, “Jesus Christ” used as a phrase, and “Christ” used alone.
The question: is the same Nephite word translated as both “Messiah” and “Christ”, or was a separate and new word introduced for “Christ”? The Book of Mormon text itself argues for the latter; the first use of the word “Christ” in the Book of Mormon is 2 Nephi 10:3, which explicitly says:
In other words, the first time that ‘Christ’ is used in the Book of Mormon, it is a name (title, actually) given by an angel. This appears to be distinct from “Messiah”, which has been used exclusively to refer to Jesus up until this point. In fact, the name “Jesus” itself (probably “Yeshua”) doesn’t appear in the Book of Mormon until 2 Nephi 25:19 — and once again, it is introduced by an angel:
So the Book of Mormon text itself is consistent that the title “Christ” (“Christos” or a Hebrew transliteration) and the name “Jesus” (likely “Jeshua”) were given by an angel (i.e., by revelation) to Jacob and Nephi. However the title “Christ” was given, it was probably treated as an untranslated name (pretty much what we do in English; we don’t go around saying “Jesus the Annointed One”), and possibly transliterated into the Nephite language (again, as we do in English; we don’t go around saying “Iesous Christos” or “Yeshua Messiah”).
Does that answer your question? ..bruce..