Some Notes on Book of Mormon Names

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The Book of Mormon as an Ancient Document:
Proper Names as a Test Case

Abstract: This study considers the Book of Mormon personal names Josh, Nahom, and Alma as test cases for the Book of Mormon as an historically authentic ancient document.

At the beginning of Lehi in the Desert, the late, legendary Hugh Nibley reviews the distinguished American archaeologist William F. Albright’s criteria for determining the historical plausibility of the Middle Egyptian tale of Sinuhe, which Albright considers to be “‘a substantially true account of life in its milieu’ on the grounds (1) that its ‘local color [is] extremely plausible,’ (2) it describes a ‘state of social organization’ which ‘agrees exactly with our present archaeological and documentary evidence,’ (3) ‘the Amorite personal names contained in the story are satisfactory for that period and region,’ and (4) ‘finally, there is nothing unreasonable in the story itself.’”1 Nibley then asks about the story of Lehi: “Does it correctly reflect ‘the cultural horizon and religious and social ideas and practices of the time’? Does it have authentic historical and geographical background? Is the mise-en-scène mythical, highly imaginative, or extravagantly improbable? Is its local color correct, and are its proper names convincing?”2 As regards proper names [Page 156]in the Book of Mormon, they are arguably ancient, deriving either from ancient Hebrew, another ancient Semitic dialect, ancient Egyptian, or some other ancient language. The following three Book of Mormon proper names—Josh, Nahom, and Alma (the first of several that will be presented and discussed in forthcoming issues of this journal)—are illustrations of the ancient setting of this book, as well as being of interest in their own right.

Book of Mormon Proper Names: Josh, Nahom, Alma

JOSH

The Book of Mormon proper name Josh (mentioned as a place name in 3 Nephi 9:10 and as a personal name—the name of a Nephite general—in Mormon 6:14) is not, as English speakers might suppose, an abbreviated form of Joshua (Hebrew Yehōshuaʿ) but of Josiah (Hebrew ʾshiyyā). The unabbreviated name means “the Lord is a support,” from the hypothetical Hebrew root ʾashah “to support” (cf. the noun form ʾoshyāh, “support, buttress”).

Josh, in a slightly different abbreviated form from this root, appears in the Lachish Letters3 as ʾuš4 (an abbreviated form of yāʾushyā, “the Lord will give as a gift”), according to the preexilic pronunciation. In their illuminating study, “Book of Mormon Names in Ancient Hebrew Inscriptions,” John A. Tvedtnes, John Gee, and Matthew Roper note that “four of the bullae found near Tel Beit Mirsim and dating from ca. 600 b.c. bear the name Yʾš. Three of them were made from the same seal.”5 They also point out that the personal name Yʾš appears [Page 157]six times in the fifth-century BC Jewish Aramaic papyri from Elephantine in Upper Egypt.6 The Book of Mormon form, Josh, reflects the loss of the consonantal quality of the “waw” from the Hebrew root ʾwš, meaning “to give, to gift; gift, reward, etc.” Though the root ʾwš does not occur apart from personal names in the Hebrew Bible, it does occur in, for example, Ugaritic usûn, “gift”; Arabic ʾāsa, “to give, reward”; ʾaws, “gift”; Old South Arabian ʾws.7

NAHOM

Surprisingly, evidence for Nahom, the name of the place where Ishmael was buried (1 Nephi 16:34), is based on historical, geographic, and archaeological—and only secondarily on etymological—considerations.

Three altar inscriptions containing NHM as a tribal name and dating from the seventh to sixth centuries BC—roughly the time period when Lehi’s family was traveling though the area—have been discussed by S. Kent Brown.8 Dan Vogel, writing in the misleadingly named Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet and responding to two books by LDS authors about Lehi’s journey in the Arabian desert, has objected to the dating of the Arabian word NHM: “There is no evidence dating the [Page 158]Arabian NHM before A.D. 600, let alone 600 B.C.”9 It should be noted, however, that Burkhard Vogt, perhaps unaware of its implications for the Book of Mormon, dates an altar having the initial letters NHM(yn) to the seventh to sixth centuries BC.10 This is not insignificant since Vogel’s book was published in 2004, while Vogt’s contribution was published in 1997.

Nhm appears as a place name and as a tribal name in southwestern Arabia in the pre-Islamic and early Islamic period in the Arab antiquarian al-Hamdani’s al-Iklīl11 and in his ifat Jazīrat al-’Arab.12 If, as Robert Wilson observes, there is minimal movement among the tribes over time,13 the region known in early modern maps of the Arabian Peninsula as “Nehem” and “Nehhm” as well as “Nahom” may well have had that, or a similar, name in antiquity.14

The Hebrew root nhm, meaning “to groan” (of persons),15 mentioned in Ezekiel 24:23 and Proverbs 5:11, may reflect the actions of the daughters of Ishmael in 1 Nephi 16:35 in “mourn[ing] [Page 159]exceedingly, because of the loss of their father, and because of their afflictions in the wilderness.” Were the name originally “Neem,” the Semitic roots suggested in 1950 by Hugh Nibley (the Arabic naama, “to sigh or moan;” and the Hebrew root nm, “comfort”)16 would also fit the context of 1 Nephi 16.

ALMA

Although the female personal name Alma (from the Latin adjective almus, alma, almum, “nurturing, fostering,”) is popular in the Western tradition of naming, the male personal name Alma is of incontestable antiquity. The name appears at least eight times in documents dating from the late third millennium BC from the archives at Ebla (located in modern-day Syria).17 It also occurs in the Bar Kokhba letters, dating from the period of the Second Jewish Revolt in AD 132–35.18 It appears as Alma ben Yehudah (“Alma son of Judah”) in a business document and is written both ʾlmʾ and ʾlmh.

The initial consonant of the name Alma in the Bar Kokhba documents is aleph (transliterated as ʾ). However, the name ultimately derives from the consonant ghayin (hence the pronunciation ghlmʾ in the period before the third century BC). However, over the centuries the sound ghayin came to be pronounced as ʿayin and, finally, as ʾaleph.19

The Hebrew word ʿelem occurs twice in the Old Testament—once at 1 Samuel 17:56 and again at 1 Samuel 20:22 with the [Page 160]meaning “youth, lad.” The personal name Almalmʾ) may well be a hypocoristic form (a word or name with the name of deity—El—suppressed), thus “God’s lad, youth.” Strikingly, in Mosiah 17:2 when Alma is first introduced, he is described as a “young man,” a subtle play on words that would likely have escaped Joseph Smith, whose education in ancient Hebrew did not begin until after his arrival in Kirtland, Ohio in the early 1830s.

The demonstrable antiquity of these names is significant for understanding the Book of Mormon as an ancient document. The names themselves are arguably Semitic: two (Josh and Alma) are Hebrew but are not found in the Bible, while the third (Nahom) is ancient Arabian and attested archaeologically from the period dating from the seventh to sixth centuries BC. The name Alma contains a subtle play on words that Joseph Smith would most likely not have understood given the state of his understanding of ancient Hebrew at that time. All of this, in turn, obliges the reader to decide whether Joseph Smith was an unsophisticated hayseed who just happened to get these names right, or a divinely inspired translator.

  1. Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert; The World of the Jaredites; There Were Jaredites (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988), 3. []
  2. Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, 4. []
  3. Hugh Nibley was the first person to call attention to the ʾuš in the Lachish letters. See “The Lachish Letters: Documents from Lehi’s Day,” Ensign, 11:12 (December 1981): 51. []
  4. For the most recent treatment of this name in the Lachish letters see Shmuel Ahituv, Echoes from the Past: Hebrew and Cognate Inscriptions from the Biblical Period (Jerusalem: Carta, 2008), 481–82. []
  5. John A. Tvedtnes, John Gee, and Matthew Roper, “Book of Mormon Names Attested in Ancient Hebrew Inscriptions,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9/1 (2000): 49, 78, citing Nahman Avigad, Hebrew Bullae from the Time of Jeremiah: Remnants of a Burnt Archive (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1986), 42–43, 59; Robert Deutsch and Michael Heltzer, New Epigraphic Evidence from the Biblical Period (Tel Aviv: Archaeological Center Publication, 1995), 56–57; Nahman Avigad and Benjamin Sass, Corpus of West Semitic Stamp Seals (Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1997), 184, 202–3. []
  6. Tvedtnes, Gee, and Roper, “Book of Mormon Names,” 48, 78, citing Elephantine Documents 12:8; 13:13; 18:5; 22:89; 39:4; 40:5, in Arthur Cowley, Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century BC (Oxford: Clarendon, 1923). []
  7. See further Ludwig Köhler and Walter Baumgartner, Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: Brill, 1994), 1:26. []
  8. Brown, “New Light from Arabia on Lehi’s Trail,” in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, ed. Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2002), 55–125, esp. 81–82. []
  9. Dan Vogel, Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2004), 609. []
  10. Burkhard Vogt, “Les temples de Maʾrib,” in Yémen: au pays de la reine de Saba (Paris: Flammarion, 1997), 144. []
  11. Al-Hasan ibn Ahmad al-Hamdani, al-Iklil, ed. Nabih Faris (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1940), 35, 94. []
  12. al-Hamdani, Sifat Jazirat al-’Arab, ed. David H. Müller (Leiden: Brill, repr. 1968), 49, l. 9; 81, l. 4, 8, 11; 83, l. 8, 9; 109, l. 26; 110, l12. 2, 4 126, l. 10; 135, l. 19, 22; 167, l. 15–20; 168, l. 10, 11, where nhm is listed as either the name of a “region, territory” (Ar. balad) or a “tribe” (Ar. qabila); Jawad ‘Ali, Al-Mufassal fi Ta’rikh al-’Arab qabla al-Islam (Beirut: Dar al-’Ilm lil-Malayin, 1969–73), 2:414, gives “Nhm” as the name of a “region” (Ar. ard) during the period of the “mukarribs and the [ancient] kings of Saba” (Ar. fi ayyam al-mukarribina wa-fi ayyam muluk Saba’); he also gives “Nhm” as a place name, Al-Mufassal, 4:187 and 7:462. []
  13. Robert Wilson, “al-Hamdani’s Description of Hashid and Bakil,” Proceedings of the Seminar on Arabian Studies 11 (1981): 95, 99–100. []
  14. On the names of this location in maps of the early modern era (1751-1814), see James Gee, “The Nahom Maps,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Restoration Scripture 17/1 (2008): 40–57. []
  15. D. J. A. Clines, ed, The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), 5:631. []
  16. Hugh W. Nibley, “Lehi in the Desert,” Improvement Era 53 (June 1950): 517; Nibley, Lehi in the Desert and the World of the Jaredites (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1952), 79, 90–91. []
  17. Terrence L. Szink, “The Personal Name ‘Alma’ at Ebla,” Religious Educator 1/1 (2000): 53–56; see also Szink, “New Light: Further Evidence of a Semitic Alma,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/1 (1999): 70. []
  18. Yigael Yadin, Bar Kokhba: The Rediscovery of the Legendary Hero of the Last Jewish Revolt against Imperial Rome (Jerusalem: Steimatzky, 1971), 121. []
  19. On aleph and ʿayin in the spelling of the name “Alma,” see John A. Tvedtnes, “More on the Name Alma” Book of Mormon Research (September 2008), which may be accessed online at http://bookofmormonresearch.org/more-on-the-name-alma. []
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About Stephen D. Ricks

Stephen D. Ricks completed his BA in Ancient Greek and MA in the Classics at Brigham Young University, and then received his PhD in ancient Near Eastern religions from the University of California, Berkeley and the Graduate Theological Union. While completing his doctoral work he spent two years studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He is now professor of Hebrew and Cognate Learning at Brigham Young University where he has been a member of the faculty for nearly thirty years.

14 thoughts on “Some Notes on Book of Mormon Names

  1. A friend told me that when he viewed an exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls in California (I think that’s where it was), there was a mention of the name “Alma” in the scrolls, saying it was the earliest noting of the name outside of the Book of Mormon. I thought that was interesting.

  2. I share Narrator’s sincere expression of excitement and interest in ongoing research on Book of Mormon names by semiticists such as Stephen Ricks, Paul Hosskisson, Robert F. Smith, John Tvedtnes, John Gee and others whose Book of Mormon Onomasticon Project, sponsored by through the Willis Center at the Maxwell Institute is bearing fruit. I look forward to additional insights and contributions on Book of Mormon names through the excellent venues of both the Willis Center and Interpreter in the future. Thank you for this excellent piece.

    • I can give some speculation on the name Abinadi. It appears to be a composite name made up of abi and nadi. Abi appears to be Hebrew from the root ˀbh originally *ˀaby in its early form. The /y/ is part of the root and is retained when a suffix is added but in the short form the /y/ is elided, e.g. compare ˀāḇî́ḵā “thy father” to ˀāḇ “father.” When *ˀaby is combined with another word or a stressed suffix the first vowel is shortened, e.g. ˀăḇîḵem “your father” and ˀăbî-nāḏāḇ (1 Sam. 7:1) “father of generosity“ (Strong # 41). Abinadab is similar to Abinadi but the second part of the name is from a different root probably *ndy, which in later Hebrew would be ndh. The word ndy shows up in Ugarit as well as its cognates in other Semitic languages and has these associated meanings: “to dissociate from, keep away from, to drive away, to separate oneself, to be banned” (K&B (2001) p.672-3). Sometimes the names that are given to individuals match their circumstance or their character, e.g. Nabal “foolish” (1 Sam. 25:25). What about the circumstances surrounding Abinadi? After he called the people to repentance and warned them of impending bondage if they didn’t repent they “sought to take away his life; but the Lord delivered him out of their hands” (Mosiah 11:26). Abinadi was essentially driven away and banned from their society; this is the essential meaning of ndy (nady). We don’t know where Abinadi came from or who his parents were. He was apparently schooled in the scriptures for he knew them better than the new priests that King Noah had appointed (Mosiah 11:5). He may have even been one of the priests of Zeniff who was “put down” or expelled by Noah; or he may have been a son of one of the expelled priests. The name Abinadi may signify “my father is banished” or “father of banishment.” If this is the intended meaning of the name then it fits very well with the circumstance that Abinadi found himself in.

      • We can guess he was the unnamed brother of Amaleki (Omni 1:30) who went with Zeniff. I had wondered if there was reason to maybe see something like “the memory [in remembrance] of the father” in his name. Thanks for the analysis.

  3. I’m happy to see that the narrator is pleased with this article. That’s encouraging. There will, I hope, be others like it, as the results of the long-standing Book of Mormon onomasticon project that Paul Hoskisson and others have been pursuing begin to be published. The narrator has been a vocal critic of mine, and of most things connected with me, for quite a while now, so it’s really refreshing to see him put that aside in this case and give credit where credit is due.

  4. It is surprising to me that this is at all a relevant issue. I suspect that articles such as these are written (at least partly) in response to criticisms over certain names like Alma being feminine, not masculine in antiquity. But why should this be an issue at all? The response (in my mind) should be simple: the name Alma isn’t mentioned until centuries after the Lehites make their landing, and therefore doesn’t have to have roots from the old world. It is therefore interesting that the Lehites would retain such strong Hebrew roots over the course of so much time as they assimilate with the broader Meso-american culture.

    In the end, this issue isn’t dying because of the critics, but because of the apologist who finds such interesting correlations.

    This crazy book of ours is true after all.

    • “It is surprising to me that this is at all a relevant issue… In the end, this issue isn’t dying because of the critics, but because of the apologist who finds such interesting correlations.”

      So let’s ignore ‘interesting correlations’ to avoid controversy with critics? Hope they’ll move on to something else? They’ll always find something else anyway, so let’s not worry about that and focus on what the material has to offer us.

      The information above is interesting and informative in its own right (to borrow a phrase). If it bolsters the claim that the Book of Mormon is what it purports to be in the process, that’s great too–unless we also fear that it might offend the sensibilities of the secular academy (in which case it must be avoided at all costs).

      The insights into the name Josh, and the word play regarding Alma were new and fascinating to me. So now I will go back to the Book of Mormon and look at these (and other) names from a new perspective. (For example: Alma as “God’s lad, youth”, and Josh as “gift” & “support”. A city and a general. Josh as a place or person of refuge? Somewhere or someone you could turn to for safety? I don’t know, I’m just throwing it out there. I do know I’m going to pay closer attention to the text in this regard in the future.)

      Whether or not a work was written by an “apologist”, or is deemed to be “apologetic” (and therefore unworthy of attention) is the irrelevant issue in my opinion. The relevancy is in the work itself and what is has to offer us.

      • “So let’s ignore ‘interesting correlations’ to avoid controversy with critics? ”

        In short, NO! This stuff is very cool, to which you make the case well enough on your own right. The pile of evidence authenticating the Book of Mormon as an actual record of antiquity is certainly high enough, but surely that’s no excuse to stop. We need to keep going!

  5. Keep up the good work. Everything will be shouted from the rooftops at one point or an other, leaving everyone without excuse. LDS Apologetics must play a part in this. In fact, one could almost view apologia as the last bit of grace before the testimony of thunders and earthquakes put the final seal on the truth.

  6. I would like to make a few comments on the name Josh and some other names. The name Josh is most likely the short form of Josiah “Yah will support” rather than being derived from √ˀwš. Josiah is derived from the 3ms imperfect form of √ˀšh that earlier was √ˀšy. The 3ms imperfect form would be *yōˀšéh that derives from an earlier form *yaˀšíy. When the theophoric suffix is attached it becomes *yaˀšiy-yahw. The third radical /y/ is preserved when a suffix is attached. Thus Josiah is spelled with two /y’s/, one from the root and the other from Yah yˀšyyhw. The early form of the 3ms imperfect prefix is *ya-. When it attaches to the root that begins with /ˀ/, the vowel /a/ and the /ˀ/ combine contracting to /ō/ as the /ˀ/ becomes quiescent. This sound change is similar to the /aw/ > /ō/ contraction. This same sound change occurs on some other 3ms imperfect verbs with first radical /ˀ/, e.g. yōˀmar “(if) he shall say” (Gen 31:8), yōˀḵal “he shall devour” (Gen. 49:27) having derived from *yaˀmar and *yaˀkal.

    There are other theophoric names that derive from 3ms imperfect verbs, e.g. Israel and Jeremiah. Israel is spelled yiśrā-ˀēl “God will contend, persist” (BDB p.975); the prefix yi- derives from *ya-, the /a/ attenuates raising to /i/ before a consonant cluster when unstressed. The early form would be *yaśray-ˀil. Jeremiah is spelled yirmǝyāhw “Yah will appoint” (Davidson p.684) from the root √rmh. (English /j/ compares to Hebrew /y/.) This spelling also shows the attenuation of the prefix vowel /a/ to /i/ before a consonant cluster. A similar name from the Book of Mormon is Jarom, but this is derived from a different root √rwm “be high, exalted” (BDB p.926). The medial consonant /w/ is lost and the vowel becomes long to compensate. The 3ms imperfect form is yārûm (derived from *yarwum) and its short form is yārōm (from *yarum with a short vowel /u/) (See Num. 24:7; Hos. 13:6); the name would take the short vowel /u/ that later changed to /ō/. The vowel of the early form of the prefix *ya- lengthens to /ā/ since the syllable is open and pretonic. There is no consonant cluster following the prefix as in Israel and Jeremiah so the vowel /a/ is not raised but remains and is only lengthened.

  7. As an amateur who has been studying the Mayan language for the last 5 years I feel that we don’t need to be looking for Semitic roots for the names in the Book of Mormon but Mesoamerican ones.

    Take the name Alma discussed above. in Mayan this is Al Ma. Al- To say/ speak Ma -Not/ zero/ Nothing.
    Describes adequately to me what happened to both Alma’s as outlined in the book of Mormon. Alma 1 stayed silent while Abinadi was questioned and put to death. Alma 2 was struck down and didn’t speak after he saw the angel.

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