But as is often the case in the Book of Mormon, there's more coolness than meets the eye of the casual reader. One of the most fascinating things about the purportedly ancient text with Semitic origins is that many elements in it make more sense and gain new layers of meaning when we import information from the ancient world that was not available to Joseph Smith when he whipped out this masterpiece. Regarding the name "Alma," the way that name is introduced and used in the text reflects possible Hebraic wordplays on the name. That's the gist of Matthew Bowen's recent note at the Maxwell Institute, "'And He Was a Young Man': The Literary Preservation of Alma's Autobiographical Wordplay." Here is an excerpt:
(Footnotes are not shown here, but are provided in the original.)
Thanks to the work of Hugh Nibley, Paul Hoskisson, Terrence Szink, and others, the plausibility of Alma as a Semitic name is no longer an issue. Hoskisson has noted that "Alma" derives from the root ʿlm (< *ǵlm) with the meaning "youth" or "lad," corroborating Nibley's earlier suggestion that "Alma" means "young man" (cf. Hebrew ʿelem). Significantly, "Alma" occurs for the first time in the Book of Mormon text as follows: "But there was one among them whose name was Alma, he also being a descendant of Nephi. And he was a young man, and he believed the words which Abinadi had spoken" (Mosiah 17:2; emphasis in all scriptural citations is mine). This first occurrence of "Alma" is juxtaposed with a description matching the etymological meaning of the name, suggesting an underlying wordplay: Alma (ʿlmʾ) was an ʿelem. A play on words sharing a common root is a literary technique known as polyptoton.
If it is assumed that the language underlying the Reformed Egyptian script of Mormon's abridgment was Hebrew, and if it is assumed that the Hebrew text can be reconstructed based on Biblical Hebrew (and these two assumptions must remain highly speculative), then we can detect a different kind of punning on "Alma" in the succeeding verses of this narrative. In addition to the Semitic root ǵlm (> ʿelem, "young man"), Hebrew possesses the homonymous verbal root ʿlm which means "to hide," "to conceal," and reflexively to "hide oneself." Mosiah 17:3—4 informs us that when King Noah "caused that Alma should be cast out . . . he [Alma] fled . . . and hid himself [*hitʿallam]. . . . And he being concealed [cf. neʿlam] for many days did write all the words which Abinadi had spoken." Later, we are told that at the waters of Mormon "[Alma] did hide himself [*hitʿallam] . . . from the searches of the king" (18:5). In these examples, the text plays on the homophony between Alma and ʿlm ("to hide"). Though lacking a true etymological basis, the interplay between "Alma" and ʿlm creates a clever explanation of Alma's providential escape: Alma was not only God's "young man," but also "hidden" so that he could teach and baptize the people and establish a church. This play on Alma and an unrelated ʿlm root is a literary technique known as paronomasia.
The use of polyptoton and paronomasia together involving a single name is also found in Biblical Hebrew narrative.... [read more]
Yeah, I think that's cool. When a knowledge of Hebrew and of ancient Hebraic literary devices enhances our appreciation and understanding of what is happening in this beautiful and complex text, something cool is going on. Something more than a farmboy with a pot of ale and stack of books.
Finally, let me remind you that Alma as an ancient Hebraic name is not as unimpressive as critics are now trying to suggest. For example, I once received e-mail with this question: "Why do pro-LDS apologists cite names such as 'Alma' as evidence? In Hebrew, vowels are omitted so any 'new discovery' is just a coincidence (Alma= LM)."
This implies that all we have for the name Alma is just two consonants that could just as easily be pronounced Lame-o, Elmo, Alum, Oleomo, Oily Moe, and so forth. This is not the case. The name in the ancient Jewish document is actually spelled with four letters, beginning with an aleph. The name appears in two forms that differ in the final letter (א [aleph] or ה [hey]), but "Alma" fits both. Transliterated into English, the first form with the terminal aleph (אלמא) is alma. For scholars of Hebrew, there is good evidence that the name should be "Alma," which is exactly how the non-LDS scholar, Yigael Yadin, transliterated it. For details, see Paul Hoskisson, "What's in a Name?," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 7, No. 1, 1998, pp. 72-73, which shows a color photograph of the document that has the name Alma twice. John Tvedtnes also discussed the name Alma in a well-received presentation to other non-LDS scholars, "Hebrew Names in the Book of Mormon," (PDF) where he noted that in addition being found as a male name in one of the Bar Kochba documents, it is also found as a medieval place name in Eretz Israel and as a personal male name from Ebla.
When it comes to the Book of Mormon, a line from King Fu Panda applies: "There is no charge for awesomeness." Yeah, it's a free book and it's really awesome.