The prophet Brigham Young spent two years studying the Book of Mormon before he accepted it as the word of God. He said that he “wished time sufficient to prove all things for myself.” Today, scholars seek historical confirmation of the scripture’s origins to complement their own divine witnesses. In this interview, Stephen D. Ricks discusses evidence that names in the Book of Mormon have ancient origins.
Read the book by Stephen D. Ricks, Paul Y. Hoskisson, Robert F. Smith, and John Gee, Dictionary of Proper Names and Foreign Words in the Book of Mormon.
Table of Contents
- What is the book’s backstory?
- Who is it dedicated to?
- Do Book of Mormon names have ancient origins?
- How many Book of Mormon names have Hebrew origins?
- Do any names begin with the letter f?
- Who were the Jaredites?
- What was the Deseret Alphabet?
- Why do names in the book include a Deseret Alphabet spelling?
- What is the etymology for Jehovah?
- What are some interesting examples?
- How are scholarly arguments and belief connected?
- How do you hope people use the book?
- Where can I learn more?
What is the backstory for this book about names from the Book of Mormon?
In 2009 I invited my friend and colleague, John Gee, who was at that time working as a research professor at the Maxwell Institute and had expertise in Egyptian and the Mesopotamian languages as well as Hebrew, to work with me in preparing a dictionary of proper names and foreign words in the Book of Mormon.
The word got around that I was interested in working on the dictionary and I was contacted by Paul Hoskisson, who was at that time a member of the Religious Education faculty at BYU and had been working on a Book of Mormon names dictionary over the past several years. He suggested to me that he and another associate, Robert Smith, work with us on the project—a proposal to which I agreed quickly since they both were highly qualified in the ancient Semitic languages, as well as Egyptian and the Mesopotamian languages.
Over the following seven or eight years we met together once a week in the conference room at the Maxwell Institute to discuss a Book of Mormon name or two. By 2017, after hundreds of hours of discussions, I decided that it was crucially important to make our work available to a wider public, so I began work on preparing the dictionary for publication. It took several additional years to complete the dictionary, interrupted by the COVID pandemic—it was because the pandemic kept us from traveling anywhere at all that made it possible for me to complete the dictionary—but now it is ready to go to press.
My personal journey to being ready to work on the Book of Mormon names dictionary was somewhat longer, marked along the way by providential interventions. I am reminded of a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet about how I was prepared for completing this dictionary, despite some zigs and zags along the way: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will” (W. Shakespeare, Hamlet, act 5, scene 2 [Horatio is speaking].)
Toward the end of my term of service as a missionary in Switzerland, I conceived a passionate interest in learning Arabic in order to be able to read the 1001 Arabian Nights.
After returning to the United States and resuming my studies at Brigham Young University, I continued my work in Ancient Greek but added Arabic to my course load. My first Arabic teacher at BYU was Merrill van Wagenen, who had studied at BYU many years before under Sidney Sperry. He had continued his doctoral work at Yale University but had lost his faith along the way and spent the balance of his professional life employed by Aramco teaching Gulf and Iraqi Arabic to its employees. Toward the end of his career in teaching and writing about Arabic, he regained his faith and spent his few remaining postretirement years teaching Arabic to beginning Arabic students at BYU.
Also along the way I studied biblical Hebrew with Deloy Pack. I finished my bachelor’s degree in Ancient Greek, completed a master’s degree in Classics, taught Latin and Greek for a year, then continued my PhD work in Near Eastern Religions at the University of California, Berkeley, and Graduate Theological Union. During my first two years I focused on Arabic, studying with Ariel Bloch and William M. (Ze’ev) Brinner.
I expected to continue my work in Arabic at the American University in Cairo until I had a brief conversation with Prof. Brinner, who told me that I should seriously consider studying in Jerusalem. He said that when he directed the program in Cairo, because of the catastrophic public health situation there, one or another of the members of his family—his children, his wife, himself—was sick almost continuously while they were in Cairo. On the other hand, the public health conditions in Jerusalem were very acceptable.
My decision to live and study in Jerusalem was absolutely decisive in shaping my professional life: I studied the ancient Semitic languages under the tutelage of Jonas Greenfield and Haim Rabin and became genuinely adept in Hebrew and Comparative Semitic linguistics through their guidance.
In the spring of 1980, the dean of the College of Humanities, Bruce B. Clark, asked me if I would be interested in teaching Hebrew at BYU. Would I! It was like a dream come true. But I still needed to finish up at Berkeley.
When I spoke with Father William (Bill) Fulco about writing a dissertation on Joseph in Jewish, Christian and Muslim tradition or a lexicon of an epigraphic South Arabian dialect, Father Fulco responded immediately by encouraging me to work on the lexicon. I would have thoroughly enjoyed doing a dissertation on Joseph, whereas work on the lexicon of inscriptional Qatabanian was long and tedious, but by the end of my first year at BYU I had completed the lexicon as a dissertation, completed the requirements for my Ph.D degree and was told by Father Fulco that he would recommend that it be published by the Pontifical Biblical Institute, whose publication director was Pater Werner Mayer.
It took me another couple of years of focused work to finish it and have it camera-ready for publication, but it came out in the Pohl Series and received favorable reviews. I had worked enough on it, and was sufficiently weary of it that I promised myself that I would not teach it as a class or publish further on it, a promise that I have been able to keep (I could say with some accuracy that if an international conference on South Arabian Studies were to be held, it could quite comfortably be accommodated in a telephone booth—and with room to spare!)
However, the work on a Qatabanian lexicon, and my continued work in biblical Hebrew as well as other ancient Semitic languages has provided me the necessary academic background to allow me to complete a Dictionary of Proper and Foreign Words in the Book of Mormon (in cooperation with several colleagues with expertise in Assyriology, Egyptology and Comparative Semitics).
Now that my work on the Book of Mormon names dictionary is done, my interest in Arabic and other Semitic languages has returned—in addition to preparing a commentary on 1 Nephi (to which I have given the subtitle An Ancient Near Eastern Setting to the Book of Mormon), I am also planning on an etymological dictionary of the Aramaic of the Egyptian Elephantine documents, and translations of Ibn al-Kalbi’s Kitab al-Asnam, of ath-Tha’labi’s and al-Kisai’s Qisas al-Anbiya’, and of the Arabic Book of Adam and Eve.
Who is this book dedicated to and why is the dedication in Latin?
The Dictionary of Proper Names and Foreign Words in the Book of Mormon is dedicated to memory of the late Hugh W. Nibley and John A. Tvedtnes, both of whom did seminal, groundbreaking work in the study of names and foreign words in the Book of Mormon.
Latin was used in the dedication because it is a quintessentially Western classical language, suggestive of the many other ancient languages that were used in studying, and writing about, the names and foreign words in the Book of Mormon. And, also, because Hugh Nibley and John Tvedtnes could read Latin.
The translation of the dedication is “Dedicated to the Memory of Hugh Winder Nibley and John Alexander Tvedtnes, learned scholars and devoted Latter-day Saints.”
Do names in the Book of Mormon have either an ancient or ancient Near Eastern origin? Why is that important?
It is necessary that the Book of Mormon have ancient names, whether from the ancient Near East or from ancient Mesoamerica, if the claim that the book is of ancient origin is to ring true.
Our work has shown that the names and the foreign words in the Book of Mormon are ancient in origin, whether from ancient Hebrew or some other Semitic language, ancient Egyptian, ancient Mesopotamian (Akkadian or Sumerian), or ancient Greek.
I believe we have done our homework showing that the names are ancient in origin. The burden is now upon those who deny the ancient origins of the Book of Mormon to show that its names are not of ancient origin.
What percentage of names in the Book of Mormon have Hebrew origins?
About 75-80% of the names and foreign words in the Book of Mormon are Hebrew in origin. This suggests the deep influence of Hebrew on naming patterns in the Book of Mormon.
Are there any Book of Mormon names that begin with the letter f?
There are no names in the Book of Mormon that begin with the letter f. Again, the absence of names that begin with the letter f at the beginning of Hebrew names suggests the deep influence of Hebrew on naming patterns in the Book of Mormon.
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Even though Egyptian and other Semitic languages (e.g., Arabic and other South Semitic Languages) and even Ancient Greek, have names beginning with the f sound (although the Ancient Greek “f” sound of the letter “phi” is more properly an aspirated “p-h” sound also found in Sanskrit and other Indic languages and dialects), no Book of Mormon names begin with that letter.
A story is related of Hugh Nibley that a brother who had been intently studying Book of Mormon names contacted Brother Nibley and told him that the Book of Mormon contained no proper names beginning with the letter f. “You have been inspired!” Brother Nibley is reported to have replied.
It is suggestive of the powerful Hebrew-language bias in naming in the Book of Mormon that proper names beginning with an f are lacking.
In a humorous vein, the lack of the f sound at the beginning of personal names in Hebrew and its attendant consequences can be seen in the perennially charming musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which was later made into a successful film. In it each of the five oldest Pontipee brothers are given Hebrew-Israelite names in the order of the alphabet: Adam, Benjamin, Caleb, Daniel, Ephraim.
Since a Hebrew name beginning with the letter f is lacking, the sixth son calls himself “Frank”—short for the full name “Frankincense.” Fistfights are a regular occurrence when “Frank” is reminded—as he frequently is—of his full name.
Who were the Jaredites?
According to the book of Ether, the Jaredites began their journey toward the New World about the time that the languages of the people were confounded following the construction of the Tower of Babel.
The language that the Jaredites spoke and the names that they gave are from an unknown source language, whether from the Mesopotamian languages (whether Sumerian, Hurrian or Akkadian, an ancient Semitic language of Mesopotamia), Caucasian dialects (possibly related to Georgian and Chechen) or some other ancient language or dialect. Further, some Jaredite names, such as Levi, may be from the period of the Patriarchs, while others, such as Ramah and Cumorah, may have been translated into Hebrew.
It would be quite a coup if the source language of the Jaredites were discovered.
What was the Deseret Alphabet?
The Deseret Alphabet was a genuinely phonetic alphabet that enabled the individual Book of Mormon reader to read scriptures according to the proper pronunciation of words in General American accent.
Latter-day Saints who left their homes in continental Europe and crossed the plains to Utah represented a veritable melting pot of languages: German, French, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish as well as Italian and Welsh.
Why do names in the Book of Mormon onomasticon include a Deseret Alphabet spelling?
The Deseret Alphabet pronunciation of Book of Mormon proper names provides us a mirror of the later nineteenth-century pronunciation of Book of Mormon names. For example, the Deseret Alphabet pronunciation of the names “Nephi” and “Nephites” reflect the same pronunciation in later nineteenth-century General American English as in the early twenty-first century.
What is the etymology for Jehovah?
Ancient Hebrew, in general, is based on roots of three consonants. The verb “to be,” in ancient Hebrew, is hayah, from the Hebrew consonants “he” (pronounced like “hay”), “yod” (pronounced as a consonantal “y” sound) and “w” (which produces the “-ah” sound).
The name “Jehovah” may originally have been pronounced “Yahweh,” which has the meaning “he brings into existence, creates,’ suggesting Jehovah’s function as a creator.
Share a few examples from the onomasticon that you find especially interesting.
The name “Mosiah” may be based on the Biblical Hebrew word moshia‘, which means “deliverer, savior,” and may have the meaning “the Lord is a deliverer, savior,” or (“‘He,’ i.e., the Lord) is a deliverer, savior.”
The place-name “Jershon” (in Hebrew Yarshon) is from the Hebrew root yarash, which means “to inherit,” with the place-name suffix “-on” producing the overall meaning “place of inheritance.” In Alma 27, verses 22, 24 and 26, there is a play on words with “Jershon” and “to inherit,” a literary conceit on two words from the same verbal root known as “paronomasia.”
“I have dreamed a dream”
In 1 Nephi 8:2, “I have dreamed a dream” is an example of paronomasia, very popular in the Semitic, but avoided in English and other European languages (hence 1 Nephi 8:2 continues with “or, in other words, I have seen a vision.”)
What did Austin Farrer say about the relationship between scholarly arguments and belief?
In speaking about C. S. Lewis as a Christian apologist, the theologian Austin Farrer observed:
“Though argument does not create conviction, lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish.”Austin Farrer, “The Christian Apologist,” in Light on C. S. Lewis, ed. Jocelyn Gibb [New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1965], 26.
With regard to the Book of Mormon the same principle holds: this dictionary provides evidence for names in the Book of Mormon as being ancient in origin. Those who believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God will see this dictionary as a confirmation that the book is ancient and true.
This dictionary provides an environment in which belief may flourish. For those who have not previously dealt seriously with the Book of Mormon, it is an invitation to consider its claims. To those who deny and oppose the Book of Mormon as an historically authentic ancient document, it is a challenge to show that it is not ancient—a task these deniers may find truly daunting, since many of them have little or no language experience outside of English.
How does Stephen Ricks hope people will use the Dictionary of Proper Names and Foreign Words in the Book of Mormon?
On the most practical level, my Dictionary of Proper Names and Foreign Words in the Book of Mormon will be a helpful resource in providing information regarding the origin and meaning of names in the Book of Mormon for those teaching the Book of Mormon in Gospel Doctrine class in Sunday School or in some other setting.
For many, however, this book will stand on their bookshelves as a witness that names in the Book of Mormon—and, by extension, the Book itself—is ancient and, consequently, true.
About the author
Stephen D. Ricks is a professor of Hebrew and Cognate Learning at Brigham Young University. He holds multiple degrees, including a PhD in ancient near Eastern religions from the University of California, Berkeley and the Graduate Theological Union. He is the author of several articles about Book of Mormon names, culminating in the publication of his book, Dictionary of Proper Names and Foreign Words in the Book of Mormon.
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- Has a Joseph Smith Photograph Finally Been Found?
- Did Joseph Smith Use Hebrew in the Book of Abraham?
- Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?
- Who is Enoch Seminar Director Gabriele Boccaccini?
Book of Mormon names resources
- Dictionary of Proper Names and Foreign Words in the Book of Mormon (Interpreter Foundation)
- Proper Names from the Small Plates: Some Notes on the Personal Names Zoram, Jarom, Omni, and Mosiah (Interpreter Foundation)
- Book of Mormon Names Attested in Ancient Hebrew Inscriptions (Journal of Book of Mormon Studies)
- Book of Mormon Names No Fiction Writer Would Choose (BYU Religious Studies Center)
- Names Used for Christ by Major Book of Mormon Authors (BYU Studies)