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Book of Mormon Language: Hebrew-Egyptian

TitleBook of Mormon Language: Hebrew-Egyptian
Publication TypeMagazine Article
Year of Publication1905
AuthorsClift, Frederic
MagazineImprovement Era
Issue Number3
Date PublishedJanuary 1905
KeywordsAnthon, Charles; Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar; Language - Hebrew; Language - Reformed Egyptian; Language - Semitic; Language – Arabic; Language – Aramaic; Linguistic Analysis

This article takes a stance defending the proposition that the Book of Mormon was written in Egyptian. Hints that neighboring alphabets, such as Hebrew, Arabic, Chaldean, and Assyriac are also found in the Book of Mormon. Charles Anthon’s comments to Martin Harris regarding the Book of Mormon characters are also mentioned.

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Book of Mormon Language - Hebrew-Egyptian.

By Dr. Frederic Clift, of the Brigham Young University.

The missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announce to the world that the plates of the Book of Mormon, as received and translated by the Prophet Joseph Smith, were engraved in Hebrew-Egyptian characters. The statement often calls forth a smile of incredulity, and frequently a query as to how Lehi and his companions, residents of Jerusalem, came to write their history in a language which was not that of the Hebrews. Enquirers, of course, do not accept Nephi's statement: "I make a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews, and the language of the Egyptians" (I Nephi, 1:2), and call for proof from the Bible, the Stick of Judah.

At this time, when so many are studying New Witnesses for God, it is perhaps appropriate to consider the evidence confirmatory of Nephi's statement. In the interview between Martin Harris and Professor Anthon, a celebrated linguist, the latter stated that the characters presented to him by Martin Harris, being portions of a transcript taken from the plates of the Book of Mormon, were Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac and Arabic, and that they were true characters (see Manual, 1903-4, pages 45-51.) Professor Anthon thus unwittingly associates the transcript with the four languages in use amongst the Hebrews, at the time when Lehi left Jerusalem. At the moment when Professor Anthon made this statement to Martin Harris, and admitted by his own letters to have been so made, he was wholly ignorant as to where the transcripts came from, or their history. As soon as the professor was told that the plates had been given by an angel of God to a man, then living, he, like the majority of the men of the world at that time, repudiated the idea of new revelation, and withdrew the certificate he had given; but he could not withdraw the fact that he had expressed his opinion as to their being genuine, and that they were in the character and language common to the Hebrew people at the time named-700 to 600, B. C.

This should be sufficient confirmation of Nephi's statement, but inquiry into the conditions surrounding the Hebrew people must satisfy an honest investigator that it was perfectly natural that Lehi should use, and that the Book of Mormon should be the first to give, and in fact today gives, the only rational explanation or reason for the American Indian being in possession of Egyptian and Semitic words, symbols and written characters.

It is said, "Conquering kings their titles give;" it might be said, "Conquering kings their language give." The accompanying diagram shows that the Hebrews invariably absorbed the language of their conquerors. In the providence of God, the scriptures were thus translated into the controlling language of the day; and as a result, a true knowledge of Jehovah was thus communicated to Assyrians, Chaldeans, Egyptians, Greeks, and later to the Latin, Anglo-Saxon and heathen, races. When the Assyrians overran that portion of Palestine belonging to the ten tribes of Israel, we find that the five books of Moses were translated into the Assyrian dialect, and they form what is known today as the Samaritan Pentateuch. So, too, Judea, having been overrun by the Assyrians, Babylonians Egyptians, Arabians and neighboring nations, we find the Jewish people adopting their language, and that about 500, B. C., Ezra compiled the Jewish sacred writings in Chaldaic, whilst even today the Synagogue services of the Jews, in the city of Frankfort-on-the-Main, are held in that language.

Again, there was constant intercommunication between Jerusalem and the country lying southwest of that city and Egypt, but in addition to this, the kings of Egypt, at different periods, not only obtained supremacy over the kings of Judah, but made Palestine the battle ground, in their conflicts with the kings of the further East. Thus the Hebrews, being between the hammer and the anvil, applied first to one and then to another of their rival neighbors for aid. In 970, B. C., Shishak, king of Egypt, captured Jerusalem, and reduced Judah to tribute, and omitting the various struggles during the intervening years, we find that in 608, B. C., only a few years before Lehi left Jerusalem, Necho, king of Egypt, having slain the "good Josiah," king of Judah, and deposed his son and successor, placed Jehoiakim on the throne. Four years later, the Babylonian prince, Nebuchadnezzar, defeated the Egyptians at Carmenish, and brought the Jews under Chaldean authority. Men, as a rule, gravitate to the country whose language they speak; and, as a result, after the death of Gedaliah, the Jews sought refuge in Egypt. Digressing for a moment, we find from II Maccabees 2, that Jeremiah was one of these refugees, and that when he "came thither he found a hollow cave wherein he laid the tabernacle and the ark and the altar of incense, * * * saying, as for that place it shall be unknown until the time that God gathers his people again together, and receives them unto mercy. Then shall the Lord show them these things, and the glory of the Lord shall appear." Objection is taken to the Book of Mormon that it is unreasonable to suppose that the Lord would cause the history of his people on this continent to be buried in the earth and brought forth in these latter-days. Is it more inconsistent than that the Lord will in due time bring forth the Ark of the Covenant from its hiding place in a cave, preserved from rust and decay, as the plates were?

Again, Jerusalem was only some two hundred miles from the Nile, the center of Egyptian power. It is a fact that a border language is always a mixed one-thus Alsace and Lorraine formed German territory, then became French, and are now again German. Each nation impressed their language upon the inhabitants, and as a result, the language of these provinces is a mixed one, the more highly educated speaking both. And so we may believe it was in the borderland of Judah and Egypt. The language was to some extent affected, just as our Anglo-Saxon was affected by the Norman French; and it must be admitted that after the captivity, it was considerably affected by the intercourse of the Jews with foreign nations. Even our Savior's Galilean dialect was a provincial form of Hebrew. When Lehi, therefore, who was one of the more highly educated, (I Nephi 1. 1.) and contemporary with Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Daniel and other prophets of the Lord, received warning of the impending destruction of Jerusalem, and instructions from God to set forth on his journey to this continent of America, he, led by divine power (I Nephi, 2:4, 5) "departed into the wilderness * * * * and he came down by the borders near the shore of the Red sea;" viz, the borders of Egypt. The actions of Lehi and his sons show their acquaintance with the wilderness, or country which lay between Jerusalem and Egypt, and their knowledge of the language cannot but be presumed. In this same chapter of Nephi, we find that the records which they took with them "did contain the five books of Moses, and also a record of the Jews from the beginning, even down to the commencement of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah, and also many prophecies which have been spoken by the mouth of Jeremiah." These records, written in Hebrew, with admixture of the four dialects mentioned by Professor Anthon, comprise our Bible, the Stick of Judah, practically the Old Testament history down to 600, B. C., as now accepted by Jew and Christian alike.

A few years later, Ezra began his compilation of the Stick of Judah, whilst Nephi began the history of his people-the Stick of Joseph-each being added to until, in 1830, the two sticks became one in the hands of Joseph the Ephraimite, in accordance with the prophecy of Ezekiel.

Professor Anthon's statement that the Book of Mormon transcripts showed characteristics of four ancient languages: Chaldaic, Assyriac, Egyptian and Arabic, is shown to be both reasonable and correct, from the following:

1. The Hebrew language was Semitic in origin, and was brought from Ur of the Chaldees. The seventy years captivity of the Jews in Babylon or Chaldea made the Chaldean language a prevailing one, as shown by Ezra's compilation of the Stick of Judah in that dialect, and the use of it in some of their synagogues.

2. Joseph, the son of Patriarch Jacob, became governor of Egypt and having married a daughter of an Egyptian priest, he and his descendants necessarily spoke and used the Egyptian language. So, too, when Moses brought the Hebrews out of Egypt, they had adopted many of the characteristics of that country, and their subsequent intercourse and the authority exercised over them by Egyptian kings, made the knowledge and use of the Egyptian language a necessity.

3. The Samaritan Pentateuch shows conclusively that Assyrian characteristics have been absorbed into the Hebrew language.

4. Although not so self-evident, the fact that the Arabs were near neighbors of the Jews on the east and south is sufficient to justify us in accepting Professor Anthon's statement that the transcripts contained Arabic characters.

The conditions existing prior to Lehi's departure from Jerusalem continued until Ptolemy Soter, king of Egypt, took possession of Syria, captured Jerusalem, and transported ten thousand Jews to Egypt, who, with others, are described in John 8:35, as "the dispersed among the Gentiles." They adopted the Greek language, and this led to a Greek version of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint. The Jews of this period, like the Christians of later date, split up into sects, the most prominent being the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes. The Pharisees were of the poorer class, and, like the Catholics of today in the Christian world, were strict observers of the law and the manners, customs and language of their fathers. Whilst the Sadducees were of the wealthier and more highly educated class, they patronized Greek manners, and introduced a rationalized paganism into the Jewish worship. This introduction of Greek paganism conduced to the apostasy which so blinded the eyes of the Jews that they did not recognize "the Christ" as their Messiah, and is analogous to the introduction of Latin paganism into the Christian church, which brought about the general apostasy from the Gospel of Christ, and the necessity for a new revelation by an angel to the Prophet Joseph Smith, through whom the Sticks of Judah and Joseph have become one.