Discussions of Book of Mormon issues and evidences, plus other topics related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Alma Son of Judah: The Ancient Bar Kokhba Letters from Israel Refute a Popular Argument Against the Authenticity of the Book of Mormon

One of the more popular "easy" arguments to dismiss the Book of Mormon is that the name Alma is a woman's name. Many critics have pointed out that it's a Latin female name, and some have also argued that while it may be a Hebrew name, it's a woman's name in Hebrew, making the Book of Mormon's male character of that name a dead give-away for Joseph Smith's fraud. Robert Boylan discusses a recent case of this argument being used to summarily dismiss the Book of Mormon.

The exciting news, known to many LDS readers since 1973 when Hugh Nibley reviewed a significant 1971 book by Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin, is that Yadin's discovery of the ancient Bar Kokhba letters revealed that Alma actually is a Jewish male name, for one of the documents mentions "Alma son of Judah." In the Hebrew, it's spelled with 4 letters, alef-lamed-mem-alef, and Yadin transliterates it simply as "Alma." Boylan kindly provides the following image of the document bearing that name (on the right side):

The sad thing is that we could have been celebrating this find over a decade earlier, for Yadin mentioned "Alma son of Judah" from that ancient document much earlier in a 1961 publication. If LDS readers had only noticed, then today we could complain about our critics being nearly 60 years behind on Book of Mormon scholarship rather than nearly 50 years behind. Such a lost opportunity.

The earlier publication is Yigael Yadin, "The Expedition to the Judean Desert," Israel Exploration Journal, vol. 12, no. 3/4, 1961 (1962), pp. 227-257 (37 pages), which Boylan also mentions. The journal is a publication of the Israel Exploration Society. You can access it at Jstor.org. Here are images of portions of pages 252 and 253 (click to enlarge): 

As Boylan explains, Alma is also attested in other documents as a legitimate ancient Near Eastern name, but I especially like the clarity of "Alma son of Judah" from the Bar Kokhba Letters.

Many popular arguments against the Book of Mormon have had similar surprises. Not all, but many.

Alma not only goes from being a disastrously bad choice of a made-up name to a plausible ancient Hebrew man's name (something that ought to raise a few eyebrows), but the apparent meaning of the name is played upon several times in the Book of Mormon text in the manner of Hebrew word plays, something that occurs with a large number of names in the Book of Mormon, as Matthew Bowen has shown (regarding Alma, see this 2016 article and this 2017 paper). There's always more than meets the eye in these Book of Mormon issues. Always worth digging more.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

The Curiously Unique Book of Mormon

Latter-day Saints often say that the Book of Mormon is obviously highly unusual since this complex text was generated in such a short period of time by a relatively uneducated young farm boy. But in making these assertions, we often may be relying on what we've heard from others without considering the details of how it actually compares to other works in literature. Just how unusual is it?

Our critics these days often point to other works to show that others (e.g., Tolkien) have done similar things. So is it really unusual?

Brian C. Hales gets into solid data and considers the multiple dimensions of the Book of Mormon to help all of us better understand what is going on with the Book of Mormon. I strongly encourage you to read "Curiously Unique: Joseph Smith as Author of the Book of Mormon," just published in The Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Souls that Expand and Swell: An Intriguing But Not Unique Book of Mormon Concept

One of the Book of Mormon's many concepts not found in the King James Bible is the notion of a soul that expands. This is found in some sermons of Alma the Younger in passages using the verbs expand, swell, or enlarge:
Alma 5:9
And again I ask, were the bands of death broken, and the chains of hell which encircled them about, were they loosed? I say unto you, Yea, they were loosed, and their souls did expand, and they did sing redeeming love. And I say unto you that they are saved.

Alma 32:28
Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves -- It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.

Alma 32:34
And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your faith is dormant; and this because ye know, for ye know that the word hath swelled your souls, and ye also know that it hath sprouted up, that your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth begin to expand.
Is the swelling soul a well-known term in English that Joseph could have plucked from many of the books in his vast frontier library? Actually, it is possible, but there's more to this issue to consider.

In 1988, Dr. Paul Hoskisson looked at this issue and felt that the specific Book of Mormon usage was rather unusual in English and also is not found in the King James Bible. However, he observed that in the ancient Near East, the concept of the soul expanding was well established, possibly adding credibility to the Book of Mormon's usage. See Paul Y. Hoskisson, “Textual Evidences for the Book of Mormon,” in First Nephi, The Doctrinal Foundation, ed. Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1988), 283-95.

First, while the OED might not have much to say about expanding souls, I'd like to point out that the concept of a soul expanding, swelling, or enlarging actually is found in English prior to 1830, as one can see using the expansive data we now have available at Google Books. A search of "soul swelled" (without the quotes in the search) for the years 1500 to 1830 provides a few relevant passages, all in the sense of a soul swelling with emotion of some kind, as opposed to (figurative) enlargement or swelling per se of the soul.  The relevant examples are:
  • his soul swelled with emotions, which diffused themselves over his countenance (1811)
  • The deep Sorrows of his Soul swelled, and rose, and over-flowed (1702)
  • his soul swelled with the tumultuous transports of coming renown (1806)
A search for "soul expand" over the same time frame provides significantly more examples:
  • My soul expanding gives the torrent way (in a poem by Thomas Blacklock, prior to 1791)
  • as a huge range of mountains, the ocean, the vast expanse of heaven, make the soul expand before she can obtain an adequate idea ... (1820)
  • We saw his youthful soul expand, In blooms of genius nurs'd by taste (Thomas Moore, prior to 1535)
  • While hearing an excellent missionary sermon, how did my soul expand its desires for the conversion of the human race (1817)
  • Here Fancy may her soul expand, While Betty fell and rose (1815)
  • Songs that will grow with growing Time, And with the soul expand (1817)
  • it is no wonder he should feel his soul expand in good will to men (1809)
  • but feeling his soul expand and extend in reach and aspiration beyond his avocation and circumstances (1822)
  • How did my flutt'ring soul expand (1800)
  • Oh, then, let thy soul expand whilst meditating on the grace and excellency of Christ (1671)   
  • And if such scenes the rising soul expand (1784) 
  • He feels the dimensions of his soul expand, and the powers of his intellect strengthened (1811)
  • Where liberal sentiments the soul expand (1794)  
  • his great soul swelled beyond and broke the chains that had encumbered its free action and checked its mighty impulses 
A search for "soul enlarge" (again without the quotes) gives these relevant finds:
  • For to bear this I must my soul enlarge (1692)
  • Do Thou their anxious souls enlarge (1787)
  • doth, as it were, enlarge the soul, extend the faculties (1817)
  • Thine own beneficence impart, Enlarge the soul, expand the heart (1773)
Here is an excerpt from Hoskisson:
Alma 5:9 reads in part, “their souls did expand.” The context would call for a meaning such as “they became happy,” to parallel the phrase in the same verse, “they did sing redeeming love” to celebrate their freedom from the “bands of death” and the “chains of hell.” Nowhere in the King James Bible does soul occur in conjunction with the word expand; neither does it occur with the verbs enlarge and swell, each of which accompany soul once in the Book of Mormon (Alma 32:28 and 34 respectively). This phrase appears to be unusual. Why should a soul expand? If this phrase is unique in English to the Book of Mormon, could the phrase reflect an ancient Near Eastern vorlage rather than have its origin in English?

The Oxford English Dictionary (hereafter OED) under soul gives no evidence of the phrase “their souls did expand” occurring in English; neither are there usages of enlarge and swell with soul. This and other evidence appears to indicate that the phrase “expand the soul” does not have its origin in English. If it could be demonstrated that this phrase has an ancient Near Eastern Semitic analog that was not available to Joseph Smith, it might qualify as sufficient evidence of an ancient Near Eastern vorlage for the Book of Mormon.
However, he recognized in his 1988 article that there may be other English examples with similar usages that were not found in his search, but which we now have before us, thus undermining the "expanding soul" as sufficient evidence for Near Eastern influences in the phraseology of the Book of Mormon. Nevertheless, his discussion of the relationships in Hebrew, Ugaritic and Akkadian are interesting and show some significant relationships worthy of note.

There are additional relationship to consider. In the "rise from the dust" theme that I feel is artfully worked into the Book of Mormon almost as a foundational concept in Nephite religion. Rising from the dust represents not only resurrection, but ascension and empowerment in a covenant relationship, as Walter Brueggeman has argued (Walter Brueggemann, “From Dust to Kingship,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, 84/1 (1972): 1–18; available with first page only visible at http://www.degruyter.com/view/j/zatw.1972.84.issue-1/zatw.1972.84.1.1/zatw.1972.84.1.1.xml). It means breaking off the chains of death and sin that bind us, and ascending through a covenant of grace into the Lord's present to be enthroned and live endlessly in joy (see the 3-part series at The Interpreter: "'Arise from the Dust': Insights from Dust-Related Themes in the Book of Mormon, Part 1: Tracks from the Book of Moses as well as "Part 2: Enthronement, Resurrection, and Other Ancient Motifs from the 'Voice from the Dust'" and "Part 3: Dusting Off a Famous Chiasmus, Alma 36"). The soul that rises from the dust is very much like a tree of life that sprouts forth from the ground and springs up into abundance and life. In Alma 32, as Alma uses the analogy of a seed to describe the growing and expanding effect of the word in our souls, note how he uses the word sprout in association with the expanding and swelling of the soul:
[30] But behold, as the seed swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, then you must needs say that the seed is good; for behold it swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow. And now behold, will not this strengthen your faith? Yea, it will strengthen your faith: for ye will say I know that this is a good seed; for behold it sprouteth and beginneth to grow....
[33] And now, behold, because ye have tried the experiment, and planted the seed, and it swelleth and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, ye must needs know that the seed is good.
[34] And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your faith is dormant; and this because ye know, for ye know that the word hath swelled your souls, and ye also know that it hath sprouted up, that your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth begin to expand. 
A related phrase Alma uses in this context is spring up, a term that specifically describes a tree, not just the initial sprout:

Alma 32:41
But if ye will nourish the word, yea, nourish the tree as it beginneth to grow, by your faith with great diligence, and with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof, it shall take root; and behold it shall be a tree springing up unto everlasting life.  

Alma 33:23
And now, my brethren, I desire that ye shall plant this word in your hearts, and as it beginneth to swell even so nourish it by your faith. And behold, it will become a tree, springing up in you unto everlasting life. And then may God grant unto you that your burdens may be light, through the joy of his Son. And even all this can ye do if ye will. Amen.  
"Spring up" adds a dynamic expression to the tree of life imagery. This is a vigorous, rapidly growing, abundant tree--an active, living tree. This is the beginning of an incredible journey. Again, "springing up" is not just describing the initial sprouting, but the everlasting tree itself. I think that's a beautiful phrase which should be considered when we are discussing the visions of Lehi and Nephi that provide the foundation for expansions upon the tree of life theme later in the Book of Mormon.

The term "spring up" or "spring out" occurs in the KJV. For example, in Job 5:5, a reference to trouble springing out of the ground employs the Hebrew root tsamach (צָמַח, Strong's H6779) which can mean "to grow abundantly or thickly" in addition to sprouting or springing up. That might be a good candidate for the word Alma employed.

By the way, it's interesting how artfully later authors draw upon concepts from Nephi and Lehi, even though the text in Nephi's writings was dictated by Joseph at the end of the translation process. Some critics claims that the whole tree of life sequence was a very late, last-minute addition to Joseph's "plagiarism" inspired by his visit to Rochester at the end of the Book of Mormon project when he was looking for a publisher. That makes no sense for several reasons, in my opinion, as I explain in "The Great and Spacious Book of Mormon Arcade Game: More Curious Works from Book of Mormon Critics," but that's another story. 

One more related tangent: Turning again to Hoskisson's article, an intriguing point he makes is that a word often translated as "soul" can also mean "glory." Here is an excerpt:
In Akkadian, an East Semitic language related to Hebrew and Ugaritic, both libbu and kabattu (the Akkadian cognates for lb and kbd respectively in the Ugaritic passage quoted above) can be “the seat of feelings, emotions, thought.” When libbu and kabattu are used with the verb nap?šu (“to enlarge” or “make wide” in the G-stem and “to let breathe again” in the D-stem) they denote secondarily “mind, soul, heart” (italics added). Thus here in Akkadian “the soul (that is, liver) expands with feeling” would seem to be at home.
Psalm 16:9 reads, “Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth.” The Hebrew text, l?khen ?amah libb? wayy?gel kab?d?, translates more literally, “therefore my heart is happy and my liver rejoices.” Here, just as with their Ugaritic and Akkadian cognates, leb and kab?d are the seats of rejoicing. But the Hebrew text does not require the English rendering “soul expanding” with joy. It is Genesis 49:6 that forms the link with soul, biqeh?l?m’al tehad kevod?, “do not unite, my honor, with their assembly.” The Hebrew word in this latter passage, translated in the King James Bible as “honor,” is none other than k?b?d, the same word behind the King James Bible glory in Psalm 16:9 and the cognate of the Ugaritic and Akkadian words used with the verb “to enlarge” or “to swell.” It usually means “weight,” “honor,” “glory,” etc., but can also mean “soul.” It is not translated as “soul” in Genesis 49:6, even though the context would seem to require it, because the more common word for “soul” in Hebrew, nepheš, is the parallel to k?b?d in this verse, and good English style militates against repetition of the same word (just as does Hebrew).
In other words, one translation of the Semitic word for “liver,” etc., is “soul.” And therefore, even though the Hebrew Old Testament does not reflect it, in Semitic languages related to Hebrew (closely, Ugaritic; and more distantly, Akkadian) “the liver expands (with feeling)” can be translated “the soul expands (with feeling).”
Strong's H3519 (kabowd, כָּבו) most often translated as "glory" or "honor" in the KJV, can also refer to the soul. It raises the possibility of double meanings and perhaps may be worth considering as a candidate for tentative Janus parallelism in the Book of Mormon, though that is a speculative exercise in the absence of the original text. 

Overall, while the expanding soul is not a unique Book of Mormon phrase that necessarily points to ancient origins, it is part of a complex of related covenant themes that are thoroughly rooted  in ancient Near Eastern themes, including tree of life concepts. For those willing to take the Book of Mormon seriously, I believe there is some fruitful ground to here and hope you'll dig in and share your additional thoughts.

Monday, February 04, 2019

Wordplays on the Name Malachi in the Book of Mormon

Matthew Bowen's latest contribution regarding the Book of Mormon's frequent use of wordplays involving personal names is found in a new publication at The Interpreter. See Matthew L. Bowen, “Messengers of the Covenant: Mormon’s Doctrinal Use of Malachi 3:1 in Moroni 7:29–32,”     Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 31 (2019): 111-138. Here is an excerpt from his introduction:
Jesus’s transition to and introduction of Malachi’s prophecies constitute perhaps the clearest juxtaposition of a proper name with its corresponding etymological meaning anywhere in scripture: “Thus said the Father unto Malachi [malʾākî, ‘my messenger,’ or ‘my angel’] — Behold, I will send my messenger [malʾākî; or my angel], and he shall prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom ye seek shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant [malʾak habbĕrît; or angel of the covenant]” (3 Nephi 24:1).

The doctrinal significance of this onomastic juxtaposition was not lost on Mormon. He employs language that recalls Malachi 3:1 (3 Nephi 24:1) when he expounds the doctrine of the ministering of “angels” (Hebrew malʾākîm, see especially Moroni 7:29–32) and their role in the fulfillment of divine covenants. This he does as part of a wider exposition of the necessity of faith, hope, and charity (Moroni 7). In this article, I will examine the meaning of the name Malachi (malʾākî) and its doctrinal importance in the respective contexts of the canonical book of Malachi and in 3 Nephi 24. I will also compare the language of Malachi 3:1 (3 Nephi 24:1) and Moroni 7:29–32 to determine the nature and degree of Mormon’s use of the former. And finally, I will show how Malachi 3:1 (3 Nephi 24:1) and Mormon’s use of this text enhance our understanding of the nature and function of the ministering of angels.
Bowen's analysis of the scriptural use of the term "angel" shows that in some cases, Christ or Jehovah is actually classified as an angel, as appears to be the case in Malachi 3:1, where the messenger of the covenant appears to be the Lord. The language in 3 Nephi 24 where Christ recites Malachi 3, with an aptly worded introduction, along with Moroni's appear reworking of concepts from that section of the text, appear to artfully reflect an awareness of the Hebrew words behind our English translation, giving us some interesting wordplays.

I am especially intrigued by Bowen's discussion of the role of Isaiah 51:9-10 in understanding themes related to the topics of his paper More on that later.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

A Subtle Book of Mormon Tribute to Single Mothers?

In Alma 53, the 2000  young "stripling warriors" from converted Lamanite families heroically assist the Nephites in a difficult time of war and turn the tide. Their great faith and courage causes the Nephites to marvel. The young men credit their mothers for their faith in a frequently quoted passage of the Book of Mormon, where an epistle from Helaman describes these young men and their miraculous preservation in fierce battles:
[46] For as I had ever called them my sons (for they were all of them very young) even so they said unto me: Father, behold our God is with us, and he will not suffer that we should fall; then let us go forth; we would not slay our brethren if they would let us alone; therefore let us go, lest they should overpower the army of Antipus.
[47] Now they never had fought, yet they did not fear death; and they did think more upon the liberty of their fathers than they did upon their lives; yea, they had been taught by their mothers, that if they did not doubt, God would deliver them.
[48] And they rehearsed unto me the words of their mothers, saying: We do not doubt our mothers knew it.
We do not doubt our mothers knew it. It's a great story, but why weren't their faithful fathers also mentioned?

Recall the dramatic events back in Alma 24 when the newly converted Lamanites made an oath to not take up weapons again. When their fellow Lamanites viewed them as traitors for taking up the Nephite religion and threatened them, the converted "Anti-Nephi-Lamanites" chose not to surrender their religion and not to resist when an army approached. Rather, they prostrated themselves on the ground, and allowed themselves to be slain. The casualties totaled 1,005, but some of the attackers, stricken with guilt as they slayed passive, innocent people, stopped the slaughter and even more of the attackers prostrated themselves upon the ground and joined the converts.

When I shared this story with some young single adults in an Institute class recently, one of them felt it was a horrible story. "How could decent men have their wives and children join them on the ground and watch them be slaughtered?" But the text doesn't suggest that any women or children were among the victims. The oath to not take up weapons and be ready to die if the Lamanites attack appears to have been made among men in Alma 24:16:

[16] And now, my brethren, if our brethren seek to destroy us, behold, we will hide away our swords, yea, even we will bury them deep in the earth, that they may be kept bright, as a testimony that we have never used them, at the last day; and if our brethren destroy us, behold, we shall go to our God and shall be saved.

When the Lamanites attack in Alma 24, they are stricken with guilt because of having killed their "brethren":
[21] Now when the people saw that they were coming against them they went out to meet them, and prostrated themselves before them to the earth, and began to call on the name of the Lord; and thus they were in this attitude when the Lamanites began to fall upon them, and began to slay them with the sword.
[22] And thus without meeting any resistance, they did slay a thousand and five of them; and we know that they are blessed, for they have gone to dwell with their God.
[23] Now when the Lamanites saw that their brethren would not flee from the sword, neither would they turn aside to the right hand or to the left, but that they would lie down and perish, and praised God even in the very act of perishing under the sword --
[24] Now when the Lamanites saw this they did forbear from slaying them; and there were many whose hearts had swollen in them for those of their brethren who had fallen under the sword, for they repented of the things which they had done.
[25] And it came to pass that they threw down their weapons of war, and they would not take them again, for they were stung for the murders which they had committed; and they came down even as their brethren, relying upon the mercies of those whose arms were lifted to slay them.
[26] And it came to pass that the people of God were joined that day by more than the number who had been slain; and those who had been slain were righteous people, therefore we have no reason to doubt but what they were saved.
Naturally, it would be the men who bore the burden of having been bloodthirsty warriors in the past who would be the ones to put their own lives at the greatest risk. Good men under these circumstances would most likely take measures to protect their wives and children, either having them be at the very back of their group or else hiding them somewhere, but it doesn't seem likely that they would be up at the front of the group to be slaughtered with the men. Further, the killers might have had no desire to hurt the women or children. In any case, what happened on that day likely turned hundreds of women into single mothers. Perhaps around 1000 women.

It's an example of the numerous little subtleties in the Book of Mormon where there is often more than meets the eye to a story, especially when we considered the context and relationships to other events in the scriptures. 

About 15 or so years later, when the 2,000 stripling warriors come onto the scene and praise their marvelous mothers for the faith they have imbued in their sons, it seems likely that many of these valiant young men had been raised and taught by single mothers, making the Book of Mormon's frequently cited tribute to the power of mothers to possibly be a tribute to the power and potential of single mothers who are strong in the faith of Christ.

But at least some fathers of these young men were still living, as Anita Wells kindly reminded me in her comment on this post. In Alma 56:27, an unknown number of fathers arrive on the scene bearing supplies for the young men. They weren't there to take up weapons, but to do what they could to support their sons in the battlefield. Further, as another commenter, Gary, points out, further evidence that the fathers of at least some of the 2000 young men were still alive is found in Alma 53:10-16, where some of them considered breaking their oath to help the Nephites fight against the Lamanite invaders. 

Update, Feb. 1, 2019: Another reader kindly pointed out that according to the Royal Skousen's invaluable work in recreating as much as possible the original Book of Mormon according to what was dictated, giving us The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Test, Alma 56:48 probably should read "We do not doubt; our mothers knew." The 1830 Book of Mormon and our current edition have "We do not doubt our mothers knew it." We don't know what punctuation was intended if any, but there is clearly a difference in wording due to the added "it."

As we see on page 776 of The Earliest Text, both the Original Manuscript and the Printer's Manuscript lacked the "it," which might suggest that addition was done by the printer.

There are a couple of possible readings of the words "we do not doubt our mothers knew." Without the semicolon, it seems to say, "We do not doubt that our mother's knew." Adding the semicolon per The Earliest Text to me has this implication: "We do not doubt, for our mothers knew." What meaning is likely meant? Looking at other uses of the word "doubt" in the text does not clarify the issue for me.

Update, Feb. 3, 2019:  Alma 56:48 is discussed in detail in Royal Skousen's Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon: Part 4 - Alma 21-55, pp. 2857-2858, including the issue of how to read the phrase about what the mothers knew and what punctuation if any should be applied. Skousen finds that "there is reason to believe that the finite clause 'our mothers knew' is not the direct
object for the verb doubt but an independent clause." He also accepts a proposal from Grant Hardy that a semicolon would be the appropriate way to punctuate the sentence in question, and accepted that proposal in punctuating that passage in The Earliest Text.

Here are the conclusions from Skousen on this issue:
The language at the end of the previous verse is supportive of this reanalysis of the punctuation: "yea they had been taught by their mothers that if they did not doubt that God would deliver them" (Alma 56:47). It is also supported by language in the next chapter:

Alma 57:26
and we do justly ascribe it to the miraculous power of God
because of their exceeding faith in that which they had been taught to believe
that there was a just God
and whosoever did not doubt
that they should be preserved by his marvelous power.
Hardy’s suggested emendation in punctuation allows one to interpret Alma 56:48, even without the intrusive it, as explaining that these young Ammonites said that they did not doubt and that their mothers knew, namely, that God would deliver them if they did not doubt. In other words, the issue here is not one of doubting whether their mothers knew. The critical text will accept Hardy's suggested emendation by placing a semicolon between what appears to be two independent clauses, especially in light of the two references elsewhere in Alma 56–57 to these young men's lack of doubt that God would preserve them.

Summary: In accord with the reading of the manuscripts, [our recommendation is to] remove in Alma 56:48 the pronoun it after "our mothers knew"; there is no evidence for inserting a that after doubt in "we do not doubt our mothers knew"; in fact, references elsewhere in this part of the text argue that the original text here in Alma 56:48 has two independent clauses, "we do not doubt" and "our mothers knew", which means there is a need for some kind of punctuation break (such as a semicolon) between these two clauses.
That seems quite reasonable to me. It's an interesting case illustrating some of the subtleties that need to be considered in looking at the Book of Mormon.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

If It Sounds Like a Duck: Eve Koller on a Possible Egyptian Linguistic Component in Book of Mormon Names

Dr. Eve Koller's new article, "An Egyptian Linguistic Component in Book of Mormon Names," BYU Studies 57/4 (2018):134-148, represents another significant contribution regarding the apparent influence of the Egyptian language on Book of Mormon names. Here we have a plausible case that four names may each employ an Egyptian system for indicating descent, which may derive from the pin-tailed duck hieroglyph. Its usage and pronunciation could help explain the influences behind these names.
Abstract: There are several names in the Book of Mormon—such as Zenephi, Zenos, and Zenock—that look as though they are composed of scriptural names (Nephi, Enos, Enoch, and so forth) with different forms of a z-prefix that might mean “son of ” or “descendant of.” This article proposes that the names Zenephi, Zenos, Zenock, and Cezoram incorporate the names of other Book of Mormon or biblical individuals and the Egyptian pin-tail duck hieroglyph, represented by the morpheme se-/ze-, which denotes filiation with these ancestors. If this hypothesis is accurate, it could provide insight into some aspects of the structure of the language of the Book of Mormon and could also reveal information about Book of Mormon naming practices and genealogical lineages of the people who received these names.
There's quite a lot of analysis and some interesting surprises in this work. Kudos to Koller!

Eve Koller, by the way, has a PhD in linguistics from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She has a BA in anthropology with an emphasis in archaeology, an MA in linguistics, and a graduate certificate in museum practices from Brigham Young University.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Big News in Newly Published Details About Elijah Able

Over at Ardis Parshall's valuable blog, Keepapitchinin, there is an important new guest post by W. Paul Reeve: "Newly Discovered Document Provides Dramatic Details about Elijah Able and the Priesthood," January 18, 2019. Reeve is the author of the highly acclaimed book, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). In his post, we learn that the diligent folks at the Joseph Smith Papers project have recently uploaded a document that finally shows who ordained Elijah Able to the Priesthood. Able, of course, was a black man in the early Latter-day Saint community. Details of his ordination have long been murky, but now we know much more about who performed the ordination:
It was a man by the name of Ambrose Palmer, on 25 January 1836, an earlier date than previously surmised. Palmer is described in the Joseph Smith papers biographies as a “farmer, tavern keeper, surveyor, glass worker, manufacturer, [and] justice of the peace.” He was born in Winchester Connecticut, 15 September 1784, but had moved to Trumbull County, Ohio by 1807. He was a veteran of the War of 1812 and a Mason. In 1818 voters in Norton, Medina County, Ohio elected him Justice of the Peace. He converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in April 1833 in New Portage, Ohio, where he became presiding Elder by 1834. It was likely in that capacity that he ordained Able an Elder in January 1836. Palmer moved to Missouri by September of that year and died at Far West, likely in 1838....

But why is it important? Does the fact that we now know who ordained Elijah Able to the priesthood, and that it was not Joseph Smith, in any way diminish the fact that Able WAS ordained to the priesthood? Not in the least. It strengthens it in my estimation. It offers additional evidence of the universal nature of the early gospel message, so much so that presiding Elders such as Ambrose Palmer, fifty-five miles away from the central hierarchy at Kirtland, did not discriminate in distributing priesthood power. Moreover, Joseph Smith, Jr., and Joseph Smith, Sr., did not discriminate either in certifying and licensing, and officially sanctioning that priesthood power through their signatures and blessings and personal communications. People at the center and on the periphery of the Latter-day Saint movement did not erect racial barriers to membership, priesthood ordination, or temple rituals, a fact captured in this new document in the hand writing of Joseph F. Smith.
Sadly, Joseph F. Smith seemed to forget what he once affirmed about Brother Able. In one of the clearest examples of the fallibility of modern leaders, over a couple of decades he would go from affirming that Joseph Smith had approved of the ordination to saying it was a mistake and that Joseph had declared it null and void. Painful.

In the midst of much praise for this find, W. Paul Reeve made a gracious comment on this discovery:
I need to make a point of clarification. I did not personally find this new document. The Joseph Smith Papers team recently—and with no fanfare—updated the bio of Elijah Able at the Joseph Smith papers site. The update included these new words: “Ordained an elder by Ambrose Palmer, 25 Jan. 1836.” Intrigued, I looked at the footnote which contained a link to a digital scan of the new document. There it was, publicly available for the world to see. The JSP team sometimes does this from what I can gather—make electronic updates to their sources and say nothing about them, even when they are a big deal, like this new source seems to be. The footnote that the JSP team created reads “Joseph F. Smith, Notes on Elijah Able, undated [likely ca. 1879], CHL.” I learned that the Joseph Smith Papers team verified it was Joseph F. Smith’s handwriting and had concluded that it likely originated in 1879, as seems obvious when one is aware of the records of the Taylor investigation that year into Able’s priesthood. I also noticed that the LDS Church History Department had updated its bio of Able on its Saints history topics site. I followed their lead and updated the bio of Able at Century of Black Mormons. Ardis then agreed to host a blog post about the new document here at Keepapitchinin. I do not deserve credit for finding it. The Joseph Smith Papers and Church History Department really are doing what they can to make sources available, sometimes surprisingly so, such as when something like this shows up unannounced.
While there are still many questions about the former restrictions on the Priesthood, a few more questions can now be answered about an important early member, Elijah Able. We can all be grateful that we have a little more information to work with. Thank you, Paul, Ardis, and the group of dedicated people at the Joseph Smith Papers.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Pro-Choice for Education

I am dismayed that some people who pride themselves on being pro-choice stand for choice when it comes to the decision of a parent to terminate a young human's life, but would deny choice to the parents who wish to choose how their living child is educated.

"Keep the government out of my womb! Keep the government out of the bedroom!" But when their home-schooling neighbor says, "Keep the government out of my child's classroom and out of our home," some pro-choice advocates would deny that choice and call for the police to invade, an act that may traumatize a family for years.

See the newly published story from Germany, "Police Seized My Clients' Children Because They Homeschooled. Last Week a Court Ruled It Was OK." Thirty-three police officers and seven social workers showed up one morning at the Wunderlich home and threatened to bash in the door with a battering ram if they weren't allowed in. They then came in and carried away the children as they screamed for help. The ruthless iron fist of big government compassion had struck another blow for progress. But it was a case that never should have been pursued.
Prior to the children’s removal, the Wunderlichs met with an official from the Youth Welfare Office who reported positively about their homeschooling situation: “We had the impression that all children were developing according to their age. On the part of the Youth Welfare Office there is currently no need for action.”

But the schooling authority disagreed. In a response we have now obtained, this official—who had not visited the home and had not met with the children—wrote, “I am certainly of the opinion that there is a danger to the children, because they are systematically withdrawn from all social aspects of society and live in a so-called parallel society.”

That is raw ideology, not concern for the children. And that’s what is really at issue in this case.

The people who have consistently shown the most concern for these children through proceedings are the parents, who have fought for justice ever since their children were seized. From the beginning, they chose to live a more frugal life so they could be at home with their children as they grew up.

In its decision last week, the European Court of Human Rights has undermined its claim to being the “conscience of Europe” and pitted parents against children. The court was set up to adjudicate disputes between individuals and the state, and yet it misframes this case as one in which the courts must mediate between parent and child: “[International law] requires that a fair balance must be struck between the interests of the child and those of the parent.”

The overt assumptions here—that parents do not have their children’s best interests at heart and that the state knows better—should trouble any parent, whether your children are educated at home or at school.
Parallel societies and unlimited choices are applauded when it comes to various lifestyles and cultures, but when a religious Christian family wants to decide how to educate their children, heaven Big Brother help us!

The Wunderlich story resonates with painful experiences in many regions, including some in the U.S., where local and state governments have occasionally trampled upon parental rights, denying them of choice when it comes to education for their kids. Fortunately, organized efforts from many parents have increased awareness of the legitimacy of home schooling and school choice in many communities, but many threats remain.

Some of the smartest young people I know are home schooled, honestly, and I applaud parents who make the huge sacrifice to personally work to give their kids the best they can provide. We didn't home school, but instead my wife chose to launch a highly successful charter school that has opened wonderful opportunities and choice for hundreds of students and families in the Fox Valley of Wisconsin, including some of our own children.

But whether a home school effort or charter school in the end is successful or not does not justify the right of parents to decide how their children are educated. Those rights are part of being parents and need to be respected, not mocked or undermined by the many tactics used by those who insist that every child must be kept under the control of a teacher's union or bureaucrats. These tactics include, for example, current attempts at legislation to impose stricter standards on home schools than public schools face, or accusing children of truancy who have met all legal requirements in their state for suitable education, and turning paperwork disputes into unwarranted charges of "neglect" that escalate to police charging into a home. Harassment from various officials around the US and around the world has been a long-standing challenge in home schooling. Europe's dramatic rejection of parental rights makes this worse for millions.

The freedom to worship is ultimately the freedom to choose what to believe, which includes the freedom to teach our children what we believe. If religious parents cannot choose to teach their own children or to choose who teaches them, personal liberty including religious liberty is infringed.

This is anathema to the populists in nominally democratic nations who want ever more power to control our lives and compel us to see the world their way in the name of "compelling" interests. Real freedom must be grounded in the respect of individuals, and individual families unfettered by the will of bureaucrats who always think they know what's better for all of us. They not only always think they know better than we do how our money should be spent, but also how our children should be raised. Even if they were geniuses that really know better, as long as the US Constitution has any meaning, they still do not and should not have any right to impose their will on us. As an American citizen who loves the liberties protected in the Constitution, I must stand for limited government and expanded individual liberty for my nation, and hope that our efforts toward that end will help protect religious liberty for all of us.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Further Notes on One of the Earliest Hebrew Texts, the Silver Amulets of Ketef Hinnom

Last year I discussed an intriguing archaeological find near Jerusalem: two inscriptions on silver amulets which appear to be the oldest Hebrew inscriptions found so far. See "The Oldest Hebrew Inscription and the Psalms in the Book of Mormon," Mormanity, June 3, 2018. This discovery impacts several arguments that have been levied to argue against the ancient origins of the Book of Mormon. Now I have an update from some recent publications.

The silver amulets from Ketef Hinnom by Jerusalem are mentioned in an important work of scholarship, a book review by Kevin Christensen, "Light and Perspective: Essays from the Mormon Theology Seminar on 1 Nephi 1 and Jacob 7," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 31 (2019): 25-70. I recommend reading this essay for much that it reveals about thoughtful LDS scholarship regarding the Book of Mormon. In one section, while discussing the work of Margaret Barker and her quest to understand the nature of Jewish religion in the First Temple period, especially before Josiah's violent reforms that may have opposed some of the more visionary ways pursued by "old fashioned" prophets like Lehi, Christensen makes a noteworthy point regarding the silver amulets and their relationship to the Book of Mormon:
Barker explores tensions within the Bible on basic questions such as whether it was possible to see God. [Margaret Barker, The Great Angel: A Study of Israel's Second God (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992), 30, and Margaret Barker, Temple Mysticism: An Introduction (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2011), 54-55]

Deuteronomy denies emphatically that the Lord was seen by Moses at Sinai: "You heard the sound of words but you saw no form" (Deut.4:12). The earlier account in Exodus 24 says that Moses and the elders did see the God of Israel. We assume that the Deuteronomists would also have denied Isaiah's claim that he had seen the Lord in the temple, and disagreed with Jesus when he said that the pure in heart would see God. [Margaret Barker, "The Temple Hidden in 1 Kings" (paper, Temple Studies Group, July 2, 2011), 2]

One of the secrets of the priesthood must have been experiencing theophany, something described in the ancient priestly blessing: "May the LORD make his face/presence shine on you" (Numbers 6:25-26). At the end of the second temple period, this was one of the forbidden texts, which could be read in public, but not explained. (m. Megillah 4:10) [Barker, "The Secret Tradition" in The Great High Priest: Temple Roots of Christian Liturgy (London: T&T Clark, 2003), 16]

It should be of interest that this priestly blessing in Numbers turns up in "Excavations in the late 1970s" of "First Temple period tombs at Ketef Hinnom, near Jerusalem. Among the artifacts discovered in this dig were two small silver plates dating to the seventh century BC, containing the priestly benedictions found in Numbers 6:24-26 and representing the 'earliest fragments of the biblical text known up to the present.'" [See William Hamblin, "Sacred Writing on Metal Plates in the Ancient Mediterranean," FARMS Review 19, no. 1 (2007).] That is, the oldest Biblical text known not only turns out to be writing on metal dating to Lehi's day and quoting from a Book of Moses (making it relevant to the story of the Brass Plates), but it also contains a passage central to a key controversy from that time, faithfully reflected in 1 Nephi 1:8, and relevant to a climactic moment of the Book of Mormon as a whole in 3 Nephi 19:25, 30 when Jesus as Lord is present and shining at the temple.
I find that fascinating news for students of the Book of Mormon.

At nearly the same time as Christensen's article, Robert Boylan in his Jan. 18, 2019 post at Scriptural Mormonism noted the significance of these amulets in light of the commentary from two other scholars published by Yale University Press in 2018:
Commenting on the silver amulets discovered at Ketef Hinnom, Ronald Hendel and Jan Joosten wrote:
The archaeological and paleographical evidence agree in dating these inscriptions to the late seventh or early sixth century BCE. These tiny amulets contain prayers that are closely related to the Priestly and Deueronomic texts.

The first amulet begins:
יהו [. . . ] גד [. . . ] הברית ו[. . . ] חסד לאהב [. . .] ושמרי [. . .]ד העלמ
Yahwe[h . . .] grea[t . . . ] the covenant and [. . . ] steadfast love for those who love [. . . ] and keep [ . . .f]orever
This sequence is close to the language of Deut 7:9:
יְהוָה . . . שֹׁמֵר הַבְּרִית וְהַחֶסֶד לְאֹהֲבָיו וּלְשֹׁמְרֵי מִצְוֹתָיו לְאֶלֶף דּוֹר
Yahweh . . . who keeps the covenant, and steadfast love for those who love him and who keep his commandments, to the thousandth generation.
The Deuteronomy passage is, in turn, related to--and perhaps an allusion to--the Deuteronomic language in the First Commandment (Exod 20:6 = Deut 5:10). Close echoes of the language of Deuteronomy and the Decalogue are here found in a preexilic inscription. This does not mean that the amulet itself is necessarily quoting or alluding to the book of Deuteronomy, but it does show that Deuteronomic formulations were current in the late preexilic period. This amulet echoes the C[lassical]B[iblical]H[ebrew] language of Deuteronomy and is consilient with the preexilic context of the core of Deuteronomy. If one holds that Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic movement were products of the Persian period or later, then this parallel language is a problem.

This condition also holds for the near-verbatim quotation of the Priestly Benediction in both amulets. We infer that this prayer, found in Num 6:24-26, must have been current in late seventh-century or early sixth-century Jerusalem. An historical model that places the composition of D and P in the Persian or Hellenistic period lacks consilience with these data and inferences. For this reason, some scholars who date the composition of the Hebrew Bible to these later periods also hold that the Ketef Hinnom inscriptions date to the Hellenistic period. But the late dating of these inscriptions does not withstand scrutiny. By extension the same criticism holds for the late-dating model as a whole. (Ronald Hendel and Jan Joosten, How Old is the Hebrew Bible? A Linguistic, Textual, and Historical Study [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018], 123-24)
In other words, these amulets are indeed pre-exilic in origin, and, among many other things, a witness that at least some portions of the P source pre-dates the exile, something consistent with the Book of Mormon.
As I noted previously, Israeli archaeologist Gabriel Barkay in "The Riches of Ketef Hinnom," Biblical Archaeology Review, 35:4 (July/August September/October 2009) observed:

[Each of the] texts of the two inscriptions ... contains slight variations of parts of the three blessings that appear in the famous priestly blessing from Numbers 6:24–26:
The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you.
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
These are the words with which observant Jews still bless their children before the Sabbath meal on Friday night and that are also used in prayers in synagogues....

The amulets can be securely dated on a combination of three grounds. Paleographically they can be dated by the shape and form of the letters to the late seventh century B.C.E., before the Babylonian conquest. Stratigraphically the first amulet was found only about 7 centimeters (less than 3 in.) above the repository floor, which testifies to its relative antiquity within the repository assemblages, which rose to about 2 feet total. The second plaque was found in the innermost part of the repository, far from the entrance, among the earliest deposits. Finally, the date suggested paleographically corresponds to the chronological horizon of the late Iron Age pottery found in the repository. The silver plaques thus come from the late seventh century B.C.E., or the time of the prophet Jeremiah and King Josiah.

The implications of this dating are startling. First of all, it means that these texts on our silver plaques are the oldest composition of words similar to Biblical verses in existence. The earliest Biblical texts among the Dead Sea Scrolls date to about 250 B.C.E. at the earliest. That means that our texts are older than the next oldest Biblical texts by nearly 400 years.

Moreover, these inscriptions are the only texts of the First Temple period with clear similarities to Biblical verses.

This has important implications for the Biblical text. The Pentateuch, or Five Books of Moses, is usually divided by text-critical scholars into four source strands, labeled J (for Yahwist, or Jahwist in German), E (for Elohist), D (for Deuteronomist) and P (for the Priestly Code). The priestly blessing from Numbers, which is quoted in our silver plaques, is generally considered part of P, the Priestly Code. (So, too, the passage from Deuteronomy 7:9, which has echoes in the larger silver amulet.)

There is a major scholarly disagreement as to the date of the Priestly Code. Some scholars contend it predates the Babylonian conquest. Others say it is later. Our two texts seem to support those who contend that the Priestly Code was already in existence, at least in rudimentary form, in the First Temple period.

The priestly blessing seems to have been widely used during the First Temple period. Its influence can be traced both in the Bible itself (see Psalm 67:1, for example) and in early Hebrew epigraphy. In addition to our references, an inscription painted on a large pithos at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud in the Sinai Peninsula contains the Hebrew words YBRK wYŠ MRK wYHY ‘M ’DNY, which can be translated as “[may God] bless you and keep you and be with my Lord.” This, too, dates to the First Temple period.

The Ketef Hinnom excavations have made an enormous contribution, not only to our understanding of life in Jerusalem more than 2,500 years ago, but also to our understanding of the development of the text of the Hebrew Bible.
Psalm 67:1, as noted above, is strongly related to the inscriptions. The KJV is: "God be merciful unto us, and bless us; and cause his face to shine upon us; Selah." Allusions to this Psalm, and perhaps to the concepts on those silver amulets, are built into the Book of Mormon scene where Christ visits the Nephits are literally shines upon them in 3 Nephi 19:25, after Jesus had prayed with his chosen disciples:
And it came to pass that Jesus blessed them as they did pray unto him; and his countenance did smile upon them, and the light of his countenance did shine upon them, and behold they were as white as the countenance and also the garments of Jesus...

These tiny silver documents show that in Lehi's day, writing on metal was known, and specifically the writing of a religious text on metal.  It shows that some passages of the Bible said to have origins long after the Exile may have had roots before the Exile, consistent with the Book of Mormon. They also help us shows that the very early, First Temple period view that one could see God and have His face shine upon the faithful was literally and appropriately realized in the Book of Mormon, a book that not only helped restore the Gospel of Jesus Christ but continues in some ways to help restore our knowledge of the much more ancient religion among some faithful Jews, contributing significantly to the field that Margaret Barker has been so thoroughly exploring.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Bounty Hunters, Jealous Boyfriends, Stalkers, and Lazy Hit Men: How Much Should Your Phone Company Charge to Tell Them Where You Are Right Now?

Here's a question to ponder: To be fair and responsible, just how much should your phone company charge for your jealous boyfriend or angry ex-spouse to know where you are at the moment? How much should a stalker have to pay to track your location? Should the rates be higher for bounty hunters, lazy hit men, or anybody who wants to rough you up or even an old score? How about an employer or prospective employer who wants to see where you worship, or if you visit casinos, or attend political gatherings he or she doesn't like?

For a fair general price to give away your current location to anybody who wants to find you for any reason, would you pick: A) $300, B) $50, C) $12.95 or D) $4.95?

Good news! Whatever you picked, you're right! Those are all possible prices. So relax. But first, read this story from Motherboard by Joseph Cox: "I Gave a Bounty Hunter $300. Then He Located Our Phone," Motherboard, Jan 9, 2019. He notes that "T-Mobile, Sprint, and AT&T are selling access to their customers’ location data, and that data is ending up in the hands of bounty hunters and others not authorized to possess it, letting them track most phones in the country."

Again, please stay calm. Relax. Really, you can, because now that the big telecom companies have been called out on this corrupt and dangerous practice, several of them have assured us that they oppose this practice and aren't going to do it again. It's awesome to hear this assurance from them. Doubly awesome, in fact, because as Senator Ron Wyden told Motherboard, “For the second time in six months, carriers are pledging to stop sharing American’s location with middlemen without their knowledge. I’ll believe it when I see it.” Yep, they promised to stop six months ago, and now with this new promise, you can have faith (blind faith, in fact) that they are really going to stop this time.

Privacy issues continue to pose a threat to all of us, whether it's from the domestic spying one's own nation does on its citizens (thinking mostly of America's own NSA and the havoc they have brought with their advanced hacker tools that are being shared and used all over the world) or from others. It's an issue I care about greatly. But it's not just governments and hackers that pose threats to us. In far too many cases, it's reckless and greedy corporations who acquire and sell our data without our permission or carelessly let it slip into the hands of others.

Maintaining the right to privacy also ultimately relates to the issue of religious liberty. I personally feel that one can't have sound and lasting religious liberty while surrendering other liberty after liberty in the name of letting big government or big industry take care of us (the two are increasingly partners in the work on monitoring, tracking, and influencing citizens, it seems). I know, lunatic fringe, right? If you think I'm unhinged and dangerous for having such views, please let me know -- and also please leave your cell phone number. Why? So I can better understand where you're coming from, of course. :)

Thursday, January 10, 2019

If Utah Were an Island

What if Utah were an island? OK, I know what you're thinking, but I mean the kind of island that is near sea level, surrounding by lovely beaches and not towering mountains. Given the growing evidence that altitude is one of the strongest factors related to suicide rates, not just in the US but around the world, what would Utah's statistics look like? Right now they are pretty bad. Utah is #5 in the nation with a rate of 21.8 per 100,000. Ouch, that's terrible, much like the terrible rates in other high altitude states. Here's the top ten and their rates per 100,000:

1. Montana — 26
2. Alaska — 25.4
3. Wyoming — 25.2
4. New Mexico — 22.5
5. Utah — 21.8
6. Nevada — 21.4
7. Idaho — 21.3
8. Oklahoma — 20.9
9 (tie). Colorado — 20.5
9 (tie). South Dakota — 20.5

You can see the LDS population of these states in Wikipedia's page on LDS population in the U.S., and then on their page for LDS population in various countries, you can see national statistics for much of the world, and these can be compared to suicide statistics for various countries for an interesting exercise in looking at the complexity of suicide.

As I thought about island states or countries, I considered Hawaii, with a rate of 12, giving it a rank of 41 in the U.S. Not bad. Hawaii's 5.2% LDS population does not seem to be domoralizing the population all that much. But then I remembered Samoa. American Samoa has a sizable LDS population. I was almost afraid to look at the suicide statistics because I had the image of a country with a poor economy and big, aggressive men under a lot of pressure. Surely the news wouldn't be good. To my surprise, American Samoa, with 40% Latter-day Saints, has a suicide rate of 5.4, less than half that of Hawaii. A fluke? Then comes Tonga, with 60% LDS population -- more LDS than Utah! -- and yet its suicide rate is even lower than American Samoa: 4.0, ranked #156 in the world.

Yes, I know, the culture is much different and guns are not abundant, but it shows that a high LDS population is not necessarily driving people to suicide. Maybe a change in altitude could be a good thing for those struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts. Maybe Tonga or Samoa is the place for you?

Yet both island nations face increasing trouble with suicides and they, like all nations, have more work to do to reduce the tragedy of suicide. 

Related stories:

Saturday, January 05, 2019

The Height of Absurdity? Revisiting the Impact of Altitude, Oxygen, and Serotonin on Suicide Rates

Though I disagreed with some of the arguments made in the film Believeras discussed in my previous post, it did help me to better appreciate how serious our problem with suicide is within the Utah, as well as all over the world, including right here in China where suicide remains a serious but often under-reported problem.

Speaking of suicides in China, I was just a few yards away from a tragic suicide, and would have been killed myself if I had stepped over into the path of a man who threw himself from the tall building where I work. It happened a few months ago where I work while I was casually reading a book one morning before work. He was only about 30, I think. It was a disturbing scene that strongly affected me for some time, and that was for a total stranger. On the same day, I received an even more disturbing image on my phone from some dear farmer friends in Jiangxi Province whose handicapped son had given up and thrown himself into a river. Two rather gruesome suicides impacting my life on the same day. How tragic it can be for families and friends of those who take their own lives.

Our love and kindness is needed for those around us in order to help prevent suicide, no matter how much we may disagree with their religious views, their politics, or their lifestyles. Those who are feeling alone, depressed, or rejected may be vulnerable to suicide. Kindness and love can save lives. Kindness and love is also desperately needed for the families and friends of those who commit suicide, for their trauma and anguish can be devastating.

In reading some of the studies related to suicide and some of the reports and arguments dealing with the role of religion and the Church, it has been interesting to see how complex the issues are and how easy it is for serious mistakes to be made when one just relies on gut feel, emotion, and simple assumptions in assigning blame. Too many critics go no deeper than just noting that Utah has a high suicide rate and concluding it must be because Utah has lots of "Mormons" (51%)--or rather, the people often nicknamed Mormons, but properly called members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Our critics often think they are making the world better by leading people away from or out of the Church, but in terms of suicide prevention, they may be making things much worse.

For faithful Latter-day Saints seeking to understand the issue of suicide and wishing to push back on unfair criticism, it is not enough to merely point out the fallacy when critics assume that Utah's suicide problem is due to the teachings and policies of the Church.  There are more intelligent arguments and evidence suggesting that LDS religious influence can contribute to a sense of shame or rejection among LGB youth that can plausibly increase their suicide risk. This is a danger we need to be aware of and work to mitigate with love and kindness. While religious involvement and especially attendance in religious services appears to be a strong positive factor in reducing suicide risk, there are offsetting factors that also need to be considered. It's a complicated issue. More work is needed to understand causes and effects.

Reports pointing to possibly negative impacts from the Church can be found in the following:
I wish to agree with these authors that the obvious problem in our midst demands action now to help reduce the problem. But some will assume that the action needed is not just our personal efforts to be kind, but systematic efforts to get people out of the Church or to reduce its influence or to dramatically change its policies and teachings. In light of the strong empirical data on the benefits of religious faith and religious activity in reducing suicide, such actions would seem to be misguided. A wise response requires understanding the many factors that can contribute to suicide before pointing fingers and prescribing unhealthy cures.

Not to be a pill, but it seems to me that none of these reports cited above, nor any of the various criticisms I've seen that seek to blame the Church for Utah's high suicide rate, has given any serious attention (usually not even a footnote or mention of any kind) to one of the most important factors associated with high suicide rates in the United States and around the world. Have you heard about this? It's altitude. That's right, distance above sea level. Huh? How can that affect suicide?

The Lowdown on High Altitudes and Suicide

A wide variety of recent studies show that one of the most persistent and significant factors associated with high suicide is altitude. The mechanism is still a subject of research, but the lower oxygen levels at high altitudes can have an effect on serotonin and while that can be positive for many people, it can exacerbate or contribute to depression for others. Multiple studies now point to altitude as having a significant effect on suicide. There is still more to understand and debate, but this is a noteworthy development.

See Rebekah S Huber et al. (including Perry Renshaw, mentioned below), "Altitude is a Risk Factor for Completed Suicide in Bipolar Disorder," Medical Hypotheses, 82/3 (March 2014): 377–381. Huber et al. examined data from 16 states for the years 2005–2008, representing a total of 35,725 completed suicides in 922 U.S. counties. They found that those with bipolar disorder (BD) who committed suicide preferentially did so at high altitudes, and that altitude had a stronger effect on sufferers of BD than it did on other mental illnesses.

The first such study I am aware of is C.A. Haws et al. (including Perry Renshaw), "The possible effect of altitude on regional variation in suicide rates," Medical Hypotheses, 73/4 (Oct. 2009): 587-90, with this abstract:
In the United States, suicide rates consistently vary among geographic regions; the western states have significantly higher suicide rates than the eastern states. The reason for this variation is unknown but may be due to regional elevation differences. States' suicide rates (1990-1994), when adjusted for potentially confounding demographic variables, are positively correlated with their peak and capital elevations. These findings indicate that decreased oxygen saturation at high altitude may exacerbate the bioenergetic dysfunction associated with affective illnesses. Should such a link exist, therapies traditionally used to treat the metabolic disturbances associated with altitude sickness may have a role in treating those at risk for suicide. 
So Haws et al., like other authors, note that high altitude doesn't make everyone more likely to commit suicide, but seems to be a strong factor for those already suffering from serious mental health issues.

Now a variety of additional studies have been published, with several cited in the Huber et al. article above.

One study of particular interest is that of Barry Brenner, David Cheng, Sunday Clark, and Carlos A. Camargo, Jr., "Positive Association between Altitude and Suicide in 2584 U.S. Counties," High Altitude Medicine & Biology, 12/1 (April 2011): 31–35; doi: 10.1089/ham.2010.1058. While earlier studies looked at mean elevation of various states, Brenner et al. recognized that altitude within a state can vary widely, so they looked at mean elevation for individual counties. They analyzed the data from over 2500 counties in the continental United States, giving much higher granularity than was possible in earlier work. "The higher-altitude counties had significantly higher suicide rates than the lower-altitude counties. Similar findings were observed for both firearm-related suicides (59% of suicides) and nonfirearm-related suicides. We conclude that altitude may be a novel risk factor for suicide in the contiguous United States." Below is an excerpt and a chart:
Despite a negative correlation (r = −0.31, p < 0.001) between county altitude and the all-cause mortality rate, there was a strong positive correlation (r = 0.50, p < 0.001) between altitude and suicide rate at the county level (Fig. 1). Positive correlations were also observed for both firearm-related suicides (r = 0.40, p < 0.001) and nonfirearm-related suicides (r = 0.31, p < 0.001). Controlling for five potential confounders (percent of age >50 yr, percent male, percent white, median household income, median family income, and population density of each county), increasing altitude deciles were associated with significantly higher suicide rates.... The threshold value for increased suicide rates occurred in the range of 2000–2999 ft.... Similar findings were observed for firearm-related suicides, which comprise 59% (352,052 firearm suicides per 596,704 total suicides) of all suicides.
Such findings are gradually making it into popular media, though I suspect that many of us haven't heard much about this yet. One very readable and interesting report is Theresa Fisher, "There's a Suicide Epidemic in Utah — And One Neuroscientist Thinks He Knows Why," Mic.com, Nov. 18, 2014 (a hat tip to Russell Osmond for this article). For a Wyoming perspective, see Joe O'Sullivan, "Altitude may be major factor in suicide," Casper Star-Tribune, Sept. 18, 2011. An excerpt follows:
When it comes to suicide in Wyoming, guns often take the blame as a contributing factor. So does the isolation and flinty independence of rural culture. But a possible cause now being looked at appears to be a more important contributor to self-inflicted deaths: altitude.

Researchers at the University of Utah have found a correlation between how high above sea level people live and per capita suicide rates. Between 1999 and 2007, Wyoming had the fourth-highest rate of suicides per capita in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; states in the Mountain West hold nine of the top 10 spots.

The researchers looked at 35 separate factors that could cause suicide. Using suicide data from the CDC and mapping data by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, they found a distinct correlation between elevation and suicide.

“The Rocky Mountain states just jumped out at you,” said Dr. Perry Renshaw, a professor at the university who took part in the research. “No matter what we did, the altitude kept coming up with a significant factor.”

The study shows that suicides occur between 60 and 70 percent more frequently at high elevations compared to sea level, according to Renshaw.

In fact, altitude surpassed both the isolation of rural culture and the prevalence of gun ownership, both of which come up as assumed causes for the high suicide rate, according to Renshaw. Altitude was the second-highest ranking of 35 variables. The only suicide indicator that ranked higher was being a single mother, he said.

Renshaw, who has spent 15 years studying brain chemistry, said lower oxygen levels in the brain affect people with depression and bipolar disorder.
Both of those disorders involve problems with how the brain uses energy, according to Renshaw. Recent research suggests that the amount of oxygen a person receives affects their mental faculties and performance.

“In depression, what we find is that there are changes in these high-energy compounds in the brain,” Renshaw said.

While oxygen makes up the same percentage of air at sea level as it does at high altitudes, atmospheric pressure — the amount of molecules compressed into one space — decreases with height.

That means people take in fewer oxygen molecules with each breath in a city like Casper, which is a mile above sea level, compared to someone living at sea level.
Comparisons outside the U.S.

To prove the data wasn’t just a fluke, Renshaw and the researchers looked overseas to prove their hypothesis. They did this by analyzing suicide rates in a mountainous country with an elevation that at its highest reaches 6,398 feet: South Korea.

“It was exactly the same result,” Renshaw said, referring to a comparison of suicides in South Korea with the Mountain West. “The higher you went, the higher the result.”
More recently, the Salt Lake Tribune has reported on the significance of altitude. See Luke Ramseth, "University of Utah research shows high altitude linked to depression and suicidal thoughts," Salt Lake Tribune, July 18, 2018.

Understanding the impact of altitude for those facing depression or other mental health challenges may now help guide medical professionals in better assisting patients, including single mothers (being a single mother turned up in one study as just about the only risk factor more significant than altitude). If nothing else, getting away to a lower altitude area for a while might be a big help.

A recent publication involving the Andes, not done by Renshaw, also points to a possible altitude effect, though the authors don't seem familiar enough with Renshaw's work to explain why an altitude effect might exist. See Esteban Ortiz-Prado, "The disease burden of suicide in Ecuador, a 15 years’ geodemographic cross-sectional study (2001–2015)," BMC Psychiatry, 17
(2017): 342; doi: 10.1186/s12888-017-1502-0. They found that "Provinces located at higher altitude reported higher rates than those located at sea level (9 per 100,000 vs 4.5 per 100.000)." A much higher suicide rate for the high-altitude provinces.

These studies are significant enough that they really must be considered by anyone seeking to understand the issue of high suicide rates in the Mountain West or elsewhere, IMHO.

Parkinson's Swift Dismissal of Altitude: A Reminder on Interactions

Altitude actually was mentioned in one of the articles cited above pointing to the Church as a possible factor in suicides. Daniel Parkinson in the first and most recent article listed above mocked the idea that altitude could be an important factor in the statistics pertaining to suicide rates in Utah (see "Utah’s Escalating Suicide Crisis and LDS LGBTQ Despair," Rational Faiths, March 14, 2017). Parkinson is rightfully alarmed at the increase in suicide rates among young people in Utah. But while he and his collaborators have considered many factors in their previously published analysis, they appear to have neglected what may be one of the most important factors, altitude. Altitude as a factor in suicide is a trend that shows up not just across the US but across the world. That doesn't mean that a high population will always have more suicide than a low population, for there are many factors playing a role and human behavior is complicated. But it shows up as a major predictive factor for suicide and should not be overlooked, in my opinion.

Parkinson's swift dismissal of this factor is motivated by the fact that suicide rates in Utah have recently shown an alarming increase, while the altitude obviously isn't changing:
Utah’s rank in overall suicide rate went up from #11 in 2014 to #6 in 2015. This is one area where we don’t want to be #1 but we are heading that way. Sorry folks, it’s not the altitude. As far as I can tell the altitude hasn’t changed lately. Altitude might explain our elevated baseline prior to these increases but it in no way explains a tripling of youth suicides nor these alarming trends among other age groups.
That may sound plausible at first blush, but I was frankly surprised and disappointed by the reasoning here, especially since I expected that Dr. Parkinson should be used to dealing with multivariate analysis and the very common possibility of interactions between the factors considered. Instead, he assumes that any effect of altitude will be a constant part of the baseline and cannot play a role in explaining a change over time.

Consider an analogy to skin cancer. It's an easier issue to consider, I feel, because it's less emotional than suicide and religion, and many people already know that higher altitudes have stronger UV light because the light passes through a shorter distance in the atmosphere resulting in less filtering by ozone. "UV intensity increases with altitude because there is less atmosphere to absorb the damaging rays," as the EPA puts it. "Colorado, for instance, has one of the highest melanoma rates in the country, likely due to its elevation," according to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Now let's consider two hypothetical regions with 100,000 people each, one region at sea level and one in the Rockies. Let's assume both places have similar populations each with two groups, a "safer" group of 90,000 people who prefer to stays indoors and wear sunblock and protective clothing when outdoors, and an "at risk" group of 10,000 people, initially, who love to engage in unprotected sports and sunbathing. The safer groups in both regions may have a low level of skin cancer (let's say 50 new cases per 100,000 people per year), while the at risk groups will have higher rates, with the at risk group in the high region having a significantly greater rate of cancer (let's say 300 new cases per year per 100,000 people at high altitude and 100 new cases per year per 100,000 people at low altitude). With these assumptions, the new cases of skin cancer per year for the whole population of 100,000 people will be 55 at low altitude (50*90,000/100,000 + 100*10,000/100,000) and 75 at high altitude (50*90,000/100,000 + 300*10,000/100,000). So there's the baseline difference of 20 cases per year.

Now assume that after 5 years at a steady rate, something happens that begins increasing the cancer rate in both locations. One scenario is that the number of people at risk increases. For skin cancer, this could mean more people abandon their indoors lifestyle and take up dangerous activities like golf and jogging. I'll neglect many details such as the years of delay that can occur between sun exposure and skin cancer and assume that the skin cancer increase shows up relatively quickly as sun exposure increases. 

Both locations will now have curves with an upward trend. Will the curves look the same, with the same rate of increase, differing only by a constant baseline? No. See the numbers shown in Table 1 and the curves displayed in Chart 1. As the at risk groups increase, the added numbers in the group at high altitude will experience a greater increase in skin cancer because they are being exposed to stronger UV. With the same population and behavioral dynamics going on, the high region will show a greater rate of increase in the skin cancer rate. It's not because of some pernicious unhealthy impact of Rocky Mountain Mormons, but because the altitude effect magnifies the rate of increase even when all else is the same. It's due to just about the simplest interaction imaginable, one of the many interactions between factors that are part and parcel in the social sciences, in health care, and in just about any other field where multiple factors may influence outcomes.

Table 1 New Skin Cancers
Year Safer Pop.  At RIsk Pop. Low Alt.  High Alt. 
1 90,000 10,000 55 75
2 90,000 10,000 55 75
3 90,000 10,000 55 75
4 90,000 10,000 55 75
5 90,000 10,000 55 75
6 82,000 18,000 59 95
7 74,000 26,000 63 115
8 66,000 34,000 67 135
9 58,000 42,000 71 155
10 50,000 50,000 75 175

In the period with increasing skin cancer, the slope (increase in cases per year) is 20 at high altitude, but only 4 at low altitude. One could lament that skin cancer has more than doubled in 5 years in the high altitude location, while showing a much lower increase elsewhere. What exactly are those lofty high-altitude Mormons doing to spread disaster in their communities? (Hint: it may not be the Church's fault!)

Here we have just about the simplest interaction possible in the data: a simple relationship between the cancer rate in one group and altitude. Interactions can be much more complicated and nonlinear, but even a simple and plausible one results in the kind of differences in rate between two regions that have caused such alarm and finger-pointing in suicide statistics. Altitude cannot be neglected, now that multiple studies have shown it is one of the most important factors in suicide. When other factors are increasing the overall suicide rate, altitude can exacerbate the problem, just as it exacerbates the skin cancer rate in the hypothetical scenario explored above.

But what if the size of the at risk population group does not increase in our analysis above, and instead the rate of skin cancer increases overall because the at risk group experiences a steady increase in cancer rate (say, 20% per year) due to environmental factors or some other reason? Perhaps an interaction with alcohol and drugs, decreasing antioxidants in diet or legislation that bans the most effective ingredients in sun block? We can still see similar results.

Here we keep the two population groups constant (90,000 in the safer group and 10,000 at risk), but in year 5 we begin increasing the skin cancer rate by 20% a year for both the low and high altitude at risk populations. The numbers are shown in Table 2 and the curves are in Chart 2. Here the average slope over the last 5 years ((rate at year 10 - rate at year 5)/5 years) is 8.93 for the high-altitude location and 2.98 at low altitude, or about 9 and 3, for a 300% difference in the rate of increase. It's those Mormons again, no doubt!


Table 2

Cancer Rates:

Year New Skin Cancers Safer Group At Risk, Low Alt. At Risk, High Alt.
1 55 75 50 100 300
2 55 75 50 100 300
3 55 75 50 100 300
4 55 75 50 100 300
5 55 75 50 100 300
6 57 81 50 120 360
7 59.4 88.2 50 144 432
8 62.3 96.8 50 172.8 518.4
9 65.7 107.2 50 207.4 622.1
10 69.9 119.6 50 248.8 746.5

My point here is not just to belabor the obvious error that Parkinson made in his hasty assumption that any impact of altitude on suicide statistics could only show up as a simple shift in baseline values and could not result in a difference in slopes. Rather, I'm calling into question multiple reports and accusations attempting to paint the Church as the key cause of high suicide rates or increasing suicide rates in Utah or in the Mountain West, without having controlled for or thoughtfully considered the possible impact of altitude.

If you look at the distribution of LDS members based on percentage of the population in each state, you see a high concentration in the most mountainous states, as shown in the chart below from Wikipedia's article, "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints membership statistics (United States)." So any analysis of suicide and the relative proportion of Latter-day Saints in a region could be confounded with the impact of altitude. Unless altitude is considered in the analysis, the results may be meaningless and misleading.

Unfortunately, Benjamin Knoll's work may be particularly jeopardized by this potential problem. In his report, "Youth Suicide Rates and Mormon Religious Context: An Additional Empirical Analysis," Rational Faiths, March 9, 2016, he lists states in order of their LDS percentage, shows bars for changes in youth suicide rate, and sees an "obvious" relationship suggesting that the presence of LDS people in a state is associated with suicide (click the chart below to enlarge).  But the high bars on the leftmost high-LDS end of the graph that support the curve Knoll has drawn are largely from high-altitude states, or, in the case of Alaska, have a complex factor of many Native American males with extremely high suicide rates that may require special consideration in the analysis.

I'm also puzzled as to how California ends up near the middle with an LDS influence somewhat less than Alabama or Arkansas, and just greater than Connecticut. The statistics shown by Wikipedia put California with a much higher relative LDS population. Something may be amiss. Further, the apparent 0 bar size for Wyoming is a surprise since Wyoming has seen suicide increase at a rate greater than the US national average. Is it apparently zero because the 2009 data wasn't found? Maine and several other states seem to be in the wrong place.

I need to go over Knoll's data and rerun his analysis, or maybe one of you would like to in your abundant spare time, because I am quite surprised by his claim to have adjusted R2 values of  0.65 and 0.69, respectively, for the relationship between % LDS population in states and the state youth suicide rate for 2009 and 2014, respectively. The data seem scattered all over the place and I just can't imagine such a high correlation is present. Here is Knoll's chart (click to enlarge) for these suicide rates (the above chart, recall, is for the rate of change in suicide rates, taking the difference between 2014 and 2009 data). High on both ends with scatter all over. This really gives a strong correlation in both years? But perhaps once controlled for other factors, it pops out. What happens when altitude is added? More work is needed, as always.

Regardless of the problems with specific states or other details in this analysis, the failure to consider altitude creates the risk of confusing the known effects of altitude for the more speculative effects of LDS religion in seeking to assess potential causes of the suicide problem in the US. Whether one looks at current suicide rates or rates of increase in suicide, altitude can play a role. It really needs to be considered and not dismissed with with a flippant quip.

When the analysis is done more carefully, there may still be good reasons to worry about LDS influence. Will those reasons outweigh the known strong positive effects of being active in religion and in the LDS Church in particular when it comes to promoting mental health and reducing the risk of suicide? In other words, will we be helping those at risk for suicide by leading them out of the Church and keeping them away from LDS neighbors? In the absence of meaningful data and valid analysis for such a conclusion, I think we need to be careful about pointing fingers and focus our energy on encouraging healthy and positive steps by all of us to better support and love those around us, recognizing that many may be in need of more support to overcome the pains and burdens they face. On that point, I heartily agree with Daniel Parkinson, Michael Barker, Benjamin Knoll, Dan Reynolds, John Dehlin, and, of course, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.