When the Book of Mormon was first published in English in 1830, it seemed rather an anomaly, despite its biblical tone. No one had ever heard of ancient books being written on metallic plates and hidden in stone boxes. Moreover, it claimed to have been originally written in a “reformed Egyptian” script by ancient Israelites. Critics were quick to ridicule these ideas. But all that changed in the mid-twentieth century.
In 1945, several leather-bound volumes of Christian writings from the fifth century A.D. were found at Chenoboskion, Egypt, also known as Nag Hammadi. Their contents included books purported composed by some of the early apostles. Like the Book of Mormon, these books had been hidden away in the ground, buried in a large pottery jar.
Two years later, in 1947, a similar though larger set of ancient documents was found concealed in caves in the cliffs along the western shore of the Dead Sea. Most were in rather fragmentary condition, but the ones that had been placed inside fired clay pots were relatively well-preserved. In all, fragments of approximately 800 separate scrolls were found. These Dead Sea Scrolls included multiple copies of all of the books of the Old Testament except Esther, along with many other religious texts that were venerated anciently by the Jews but had not been included in the Bible. Most of the scrolls were written in the first century A.D., but some are from the first few centuries before Christ.
One of the largest of the Dead Sea Scrolls is a nearly complete copy of the biblical book of the prophet Isaiah. Another long, though damaged, copy of this book was also found. Both of these scrolls have minor differences from the Hebrew version of Isaiah from which our modern Bibles have been translated. This is significant because the Book of Mormon, which quotes from at least 22 of the 66 chapters in Isaiah, also has some minor differences from the biblical Isaiah. In some cases, one or more of the Dead Sea Scrolls versions of Isaiah agrees with the Book of Mormon version.
Gold Plates and Stone Boxes
One of the most important of the Dead Sea Scrolls is a document inscribed on a copper plate that had been rolled up and hidden away. But this is just one of many examples of ancient texts that, like the Book of Mormon, had been written on sheets of metal.
Since the 1930s, nearly a hundred ancient and medieval documents written on metal plates or leaves have been found in various parts of the world. But the ones that interest us most are the metallic records from the ancient Near East, the original homeland of the Book of Mormon’s peoples.
Three copper tablets containing a temple inscription from ancient Adab and dating 2900-2425 B.C., were found in Iraq. A copper plate with Sumerian writing from the same time period has also been found. A small gold plate with an Akkadian inscription from the twenty-fifth century B.C. was found at Djokha Umma, Iraq, in 1894 and is in the Louvre in Paris, where several other inscribed metal plates are housed. A bronze tablet with a fourteenth-century B.C. Ugaritic inscription was found in Lower Galilee. Silver and lead plates with Hittite inscriptions were found in 1950 in the Beritz valley of Lebanon. Six bronze tablets written in pseudo-hieroglyphic and dating to 2000-1800 B.C. were found by Maurice Dunand in the 1930s at the ancient Phoenician site of Byblos, in Lebanon.
Egyptian examples are also not lacking the treaty between Ramses II, king of Egypt, and the Hittite king Hatusilis, drafted in 1287 B.C., was written on silver plates. A decree of king Ramses III (1198-1167 B.C.) was found written on silver and gold tablets. Thin gold plates that appear to have remnants of hieroglyphic writing were found in Egypt in the tomb of king Menkhure, builder of the third pyramid at Giza (ca. 2800 B.C.). A gold leaf with hieroglyphic writing from 2000-1788 B.C. was found at Lisht. A set of thirteen metal plates from after the fourth century B.C. contain a chronicle written in Egyptian Demotic script, a type of reformed Egyptian.
The ancient Assyrians wrote on metallic plates, often used as dedicatory plaques for temples and palaces. The Assyrian king Sargon II (722-705 B.C.) repeats throughout his annals that he kept records on plates of gold, silver, bronze, and lead. In 1854, during excavations of his palace at Khorsabad, six small inscribed plates (gold, silver, bronze, tin, and lead, with one alabaster) were found in a stone box buried beneath the palace foundation. Two of the plates and the box were lost during the sinking of a ship on the Tigris River in Iraq on May 23, 1855. The four surviving plates, of gold, silver, bronze, and tin, were taken to France and are housed in the Louvre in Paris.
The storing of metallic records in stone boxes, first attested when Joseph Smith uncovered the plates of the Book of Mormon, is also known from ancient Persia, where a number of examples have been found. In 1923 at Hamadan, Persia (now Iran), two small tablets, one silver and the other gold, were discovered. They bore inscriptions from king Darius I (521-485 B.C.) telling about the erection of palaces in the city. In 1938, two pairs of plates (one silver and one gold in each pair) were found in stone boxes placed in the foundation corners of Darius’s palace at Persepolis. The plates are in the National Archaeological Museum, Tehran, Iran.
Some metallic records have also been discovered in Israel. A small silver scroll written in Greek and Coptic and dating to about A.D. 400 was discovered in Bethany in 1968. In 1980, archaeologists opened a seventh-century B.C. tomb adjacent to the Scottish Presbyterian church of St. Andrew in Jerusalem and discovered two small rolled-up strips of silver with a Hebrew inscription from the Bible (Numbers 6:24-26).
In 1829, as Joseph Smith was finishing his translation of the Book of Mormon, a French scholar named Jean-François Champollion was busy preparing the first dictionary and grammar of the Egyptian language, which were published after his death in 1832. Until Champollion, no one had been able to translate ancient Egyptian texts since they fell into disuse in the fourth century A.D. But the Book of Mormon, according to one of its writers, Moroni, was written using “reformed Egyptian” characters, though the Nephites also knew Hebrew (Mormon 9:32-34). Another of its writers, Nephi, said he employed the “language of the Egyptians” to write his record (1 Nephi 1:2).
Egyptian hieroglyphs (Greek meaning “sacred symbols”) were designed to be carved into stone–a slow and tedious process that involved the use of more than 700 characters that were very accurate depictions of things found in real life, such as people, animals, geographical features, heavenly bodies, clothing, and everyday utensils. A cursive script called hieratic (Greek for “sacred” or “priestly”) was devised to make it possible to write faster and became extensively used on papyrus. Then, around 900 B.C., the Egyptians developed an even more cursive script we call demotic (Greek for “popular”), which, while based on the hieratic, bore little resemblance to the hieroglyphs. So the Egyptians had already reformed their writing system twice before the earliest parts of the Book of Mormon were written around 600 B.C.
It may seem strange that the ancient Israelites who wrote the Book of Mormon should use an Egyptian writing system. But there are precedents for this practice and we now know that several writing systems of the ancient Near East were borrowed from Egyptian. Perhaps the most notable is the adoption, by the second century B.C., of some Egyptian hieroglyphs to form the alphabetic system used for the Meroitic language spoken anciently in Nubia (now in Sudan). Meroitic also developed a “cursive” writing system that resembles Egyptian demotic. Modified Egyptian hieroglyphic characters comprised the syllabic system used in writings (some of them on bronze plates) found during archaeological excavations of the ancient Phoenician city of Byblos.
Hebrew Texts Written in Egyptian Script
When Moroni wrote that his record was being written in reformed Egyptian, he also noted that they still used the Hebrew language (Mormon 9:32-34). Similarly, his ancestor Nephi had made “a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians” (1 Nephi 1:2). This suggests that the Book of Mormon may have been written in Hebrew but using Egyptian script. Evidence for this kind of writing has been discovered in recent years.
For example, a number of northwest Semitic texts (related to Hebrew) are included in three Egyptian magical papyri from the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries B.C., the London Magical Papyrus, the Harris Magical Papyrus, and Papyrus Anastasi I. Another Egyptian document, Ostracon 25759, from the early eleventh century B.C., also has a Semitic text that reads like Hebrew but is written in Egyptian characters.
Papyrus Amherst 63, a document written in Egyptian demotic and dating to the second century B.C., was found in an earthen jar at Thebes, Egypt, during the second half of the nineteenth century. Though the script is Egyptian, the underlying language is Aramaic, which is closely related to Hebrew. Among the writings included in the religious text is a paganized version of Psalms 20:2-6. Here, then, we have a Bible passage, in its Aramaic translation, written in late Egyptian characters.
In 1967, Israeli archaeologists discovered at the ancient site of Arad an ostracon from shortly before 600 B.C., the time of Lehi. The text on the ostracon is written in a combination of Egyptian hieratic and Hebrew characters, but can be read entirely as Egyptian. Of the seventeen words in the text, ten are written in hieratic and seven in Hebrew. This discovery suggests that when Lehi’s son Nephi spoke of writing in a language consisting of “the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians,” he may have used such a combination script. Two more examples of combination Egyptian-Hebrew scripts from the same time period were discovered in the northern Sinai peninsula during the late 1970s.
Though ridiculed for his claims about the nature of the original record from which he translated the Book of Mormon (that most recognizeable of Mormon books), Joseph Smith’s story has found support during the last half of the twentieth century. Not only did the Israelites and other ancient peoples bury sacred records, they sometimes placed them in protective containers such as clay pots or stone boxes. And those records were sometimes written on metallic plates, and some of the Hebrew and other Semitic texts were written using Egyptian characters, just as the Book of Mormon.
A book-length preliminary report, “Isaiah Variants in the Book of Mormon,” by John A. Tvedtnes, was published in 1983 by the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS). A briefer article by the same author, “Isaiah Variants in the Book of Mormon,” was published in in 1984 in Monte S. Nyman (ed.), Isaiah and the Prophets (Salt Lake City: Brigham Young University and Bookcraft, 1984). The English version of this article is available as a reprint from FARMS. A Spanish translation appeared as “Variantes de Isaias en el Libro de Mormón,” in Josué Sánchez, El Libro de Mormon Ante la Critica (Salt Lake City: Publishers Press, 1992).
Inscribed plates of gold, silver, copper, and lead have been found in such diverse places as Java (an Indonesian island), Thailand, India, Pakistan, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece, Morocco, and Korea. A list of 62 such discoveries was compiled in the 1940s by Franklin S. Harris Jr. and published in several articles and books.