A couple of recent blog posts from skeptics have once again announced that Nahom in the Arabian Peninsula, the alleged soul shred of evidence for the Book of Mormon, the last hope for die-hard believers and apologists, has been carefully examined and found to be completely unworthy of our attention. It is insignificant, irrelevant, and not we believers have simply been wasting our time and embarrassing ourselves with unjustified excitement. Shame on us.
The blogs I'm primarily considering are both at Patheos.com, home of many excellent religious discussions. The first comes from a professor of history, Philip Jenkins, in a post titled "The Nahom Follies." While his tone may be a little too strident and far too sarcastic, he makes some points that deserve a response, even though I am pained at how much he misses in his critique. But these are the kind of mistakes that many people make who are trying to be reasonable, responding to what they think they know or have heard. His Nahom follies are the follies of many other good people as they briefly look our way, or even as they try to genuinely investigate Mormonism, so I think it is important to consider what he says and understand where the problems are in his approach.
The primary problem, in my view, is that he treats the entire corpus of Book of Mormon evidence as if it were little more than one tiny speck on a map of Arabia, a solitary fruit fly of faith that he handily splatters with with one wave of swift wit. Volumes of scholarship such as the works of John Sorenson, the publications of the Maxwell Institute, the growing work of the Mormon Interpreter, and many others dealing with the intricate details and evidences related to the Book of Mormon, in the end all mean nothing. He's been exposed to some of that, I suspect, through his interactions with other LDS people like William Hamblin at Patheos, but somehow what he's managed to digest from LDS apologists (or perhaps from the non-LDS caricatures of LDS apologists) is that we've got one precious little data point that we cling to with all our might. When it comes to evidence, all Mormons have going for them is the word Nahom, or actually just 3 letters from Nahom, the letters NHM, that were miraculously (please apply an exasperated sarcastic tone to that word) found somewhere in an incredibly large portion of the world with zillions of place names, one of which happens to sort of sound like an actual name (gasp!) in the Book of Mormon, if you pronounce it just so. I cannot do justice with a paraphrase, so I will quote what the good professor writes about the archaeological evidence related to Nahom:
Supposedly, this is a site where Lehi stopped in the general area of Arabia, “the place which was called Nahom,” and in modern times, a related name with a NHM-stem has been found inscribed on some altars discovered in the region, in modern Yemen. The Book therefore (seemingly) reports something that Joseph Smith could not have known in 1830! Meridian Magazine breathlessly reports “Finding the First Verifiable Book of Mormon Site.” This is, literally, the only case where anyone still seriously pretends that they have some kind of archaeological support for the Book of Mormon, though they should be embarrassed to do so....
Apologists argue that it is remarkable that they have found a NHM inscription – in exactly the (inconceivably vast) area suggested by the Book of Mormon. What are the odds!
By the way, the Arabian Peninsular covers well over a million square miles.
Yes indeed, what are the odds? Actually, that last question can and must be answered before any significance can be accorded to this find. When you look at all the possible permutations of NHM – as the name of a person, place, city or tribe – how common was that element in inscriptions and texts in the Middle East in the long span of ancient history? As we have seen, apologists are using rock bottom evidentiary standards to claim significance – hey, it’s the name of a tribe rather than a place, so what?
How unusual or commonplace was NHM as a name element in inscriptions? In modern terms, was it equivalent to “Steve” or to “Benedict Cumberbatch”?
So were there five such NHM inscriptions in the region in this period? A thousand? Ten thousand? And that question is answerable, because we have so many databases of inscriptions and local texts, which are open to scholars. We would need figures that are precise, and not impressionistic. You might conceivably find, in fact, that between 1000 BC and 500 AD, NHM inscriptions occur every five miles in the Arabian peninsular, not to mention being scattered over Iraq and Syria, so that finding one in this particular place is random chance. Or else, the one that has attracted so much attention really is the only one in the whole region. I have no idea. But until someone actually goes out and does some quantitative analysis on this, you can say precisely nothing about how probable or not such a supposed correlation is.
And to make an obvious point once more: the burden of proof on this – and the chore of crunching the numbers – belongs to the people making the claims. Nobody has an obligation to disprove anything.
Sigh. This is a smart man, a passionate man, who in interested in LDS topics enough to write this post, but I'm afraid that he's missing way too much here. Given the tone, I'm not sure if he will care what I have to say, but maybe people who make similar criticisms might be willing to consider a response, and I think it's important we explain that there is a serious response that merits reconsideration. So here's my attempt.
First, thank you for noticing the Nahom issue. It is important to us, but not nearly as important as you suggest. It is a small but meaningful part of a great deal of evidence related to Book of Mormon plausibility, and a significant part, only part, of the evidence specific to the Arabian Peninsula.
As I see it, the significance of Nahom or NHM is not that someone found those letters somewhere, anywhere, in the vastness of the Middle East, but that it was found at precisely the place the Book of Mormon calls for. Within a few miles, anyway, of the region where one can turn away from the general south-southwest direction of travel coming down from Jerusalem, apparently along the ancient incense trail, and then turn east to reach the eastern coast of Arabia. And then, just as the Book of Mormon says, nearly due east of Nahom is the surprising recent find of an excellent candidate for Bountiful. It's pretty impressive evidence (not proof) that helps support the case for authenticity in at least part of First Nephi, but critics have been rather consistent in reducing it all to a minor blip or two that they can overlook or squash with one deft blow.
I'll further review the significance of the finding of evidence for Nahom in a moment, but I'll first point out that one of the most important contributors to the extensive Book of Mormon evidence from the Arabian Peninsula, Warren Aston, has explained in his important book, In The Footsteps of Lehi, that Arabic names based on NHM appear to be rare. He writes that "the name NHM (in any of its variant spellings, Nehem/Nihm/Nahm, and so on) is not found anywhere else in Arabia as a place name. It is unique." (p. 12) That point has been made several times. You can go search on any of the maps available for Saudi Arabia and try finding other NHM names yourself outside of the region some of us are excited about. NHM names certainly don't occur all over the place, The Nihm tribe appears to have been in much the same area for a very long time, and now we have archaeological evidence that they were around and using that name in Lehi's day. You can wonder if the place name associated with NHM was still a place name in Lehi's day as it has been in recent centuries, but it's plausible that it was, in my opinion.
It's not just Warren Aston that has looked for other examples of NHM names in the Arabian world. I took a look myself, searching over Wikipedia's list of Arabic place names and a few parts of some maps. Nothing else seems to be close, as far as I can tell. Look for yourself. More significantly, Chris Johnson, a former Mormon quite anxious to trash the Book of Mormon with the power of Big Data, made a seemingly powerful case against the significance of NHM as a unique place in a presentation a couple years ago. As I discussed in my initial response at Mormanity, by applying his sophisticated search engine skills to come up with a big list of NHM names from all over the world to argue that there is nothing special about place names with the letters NHM. In fact, he even quipped that it looked like NHM names were some of the most common place names-- just look at the list and you'll see some common names for yourself: Enham, um, and so forth. In response, I pointed out that NHM names from North America, Europe, or southern Africa tell us nothing about the significance of finding Nahom where it is supposed to be in a specific part of the Arabian Peninsula--it's an absurdly irrelevant argument. But even if we accept the argument that NHM place names on maps anywhere are relevant because they could have been inspiration for Joseph's fabrication of Nahom as a place name, there is a problem with the abundant list of names that Johnson found as he scoured the globe for NHM places: many of them, in fact, just about all of them, were not available for Joseph to swipe in 1829, or are so minor, remote, and insignificant that he probably had no chance of encountering them. See the details in one of my favorite posts at Mormanity, "Noham, That's Not History."
Getting back to the significance of the attack on Nahom, I'll now summarize the story of evidence from the Arabian Peninsula, something I discuss in more detail on my Book of Mormon Evidences page (and elsewhere here and at the Nauvoo Times). The Book of Mormon in First Nephi 16-17 in just a few verses tells us about an 8-year experience from the time that Nephi and his family left Jerusalem to the time they set sail from somewhere on the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, though there is no explicit mention of the name Arabia or virtually any other detail that would be readily recognized by modern readers. But in spite of the sparse description, the fascinating thing is that enough specific details are given that we can actually attempt to recreate the path they took. We learn that about 3 days into their trip, they encountered a dramatic valley with "river of water" flowing continuously into the Red Sea. They named the valley after Lemuel and the river after Laman. Departing from this region near the Red Sea, they then continued south-southwest -- a rather precise direction. Along the way, they would pass through some fertile regions, but also endure hardship and even death. The father of the daughters Lehi's sons had married, Ishmael, passes away, and he is then buried at a place called Nahom. They didn't give it that name, but report that it "was called Nahom." After his burial and some mourning and murmuring, the family changes course, being led by a miraculous compass-like director called the Liahona, and then they begin a journey going nearly due east. This becomes a very difficult part of the journey, but they survey and reach a marvelous destination on the coast that they name Bountiful. Life is much better there at this fertile, pleasant place, but eventually they must leave after Nephi constructs a ship from the wood and ore he finds in the area, and they set sail for the New World.
For those who argue that Joseph Smith just drew from his environment to create the Book of Mormon, the trek across the Arabian Peninsula raises interesting questions. Why attempt writing about something so completely foreign with so many unknowns that later readers might investigate? Where to even begin? If it were me crafting the story, I'd just have them stroll over to the nearest port on the Mediterranean coast and hire some Phoenicians for a three-hour cruise or something. But this is scripture, the kind where the Lord gets involved and uses journeys not to get us somewhere quickly and comfortably but for all sorts of teaching and growing experiences that tend to take a lot of time and patience. Scholars may holler, but those who have experienced journeys of faith might recognize that the long preparatory trial of Nephi's journey is much more consistent with the Lord's strange ways of bringing us home.
What has become greatly interesting to some LDS people in the past few decades is the growing body of evidence, even gritty, tangible evidence dug from the sand, pointing to the plausibility of the account in First Nephi 16-17 as an authentic ancient record, the kind of record describing the kind of sacred, challenging journey that might have been made by an ancient Israelite who actually traveled through the Arabian Peninsula and encountered the kinds of places recorded in First Nephi. Instead of become exponentially more ridiculous as the Western world has learned ever more about Arabia, the account in the Book of Mormon has become increasingly plausible and interesting, to the point of even having genuine archaeological finds like 7th-century BC altars from Marib, Yemen with the tribal name "Nihm" on them, adding to the plausibility of the account, in addition to having "direct hits" come from on-the-ground field work exploring the geography, geology, and other aspects of key site like Wadi Sayq in Oman.
The evidence includes the work of George Potter who provides intricate documentation for excellent candidates for the River Laman and the Valley Lemuel, at a location that suits the text and with features that add new understanding to the comments in the text. His book Lehi in the Wilderness should be required reading for evaluating this remarkable site.
Here is a summary from J. Cooper Johnson, "Arabia and The Book of Mormon" at FAIRMormon.org as he reviews a presentation from Dr. S. Kent Brown:
Potter, along with the other researchers, have successfully identified this valley as the only one in this area of Arabia to have a running stream of water, a prospect which was not likely in such an arid area of the world. However, it was finally found. It did exist, although Joseph Smith, or anyone else in his part of the world, could not have known about it. Traveling To Nahom Nephi records that his family left the first camp and traveled “south-southeast” and continued in that direction until they arrived at “the place which was called Nahom” (1 Nephi 16:13, 34). Brother Brown, referring to Nephi’s choice of words, notes that, “the expression is passive, meaning that someone else had named the place. At all the other stops which are named in Nephi’s narrative, it was family members who named the places. But when they reach Nahom, it was a place that already enjoyed a preexisting name.” So, one should expect, at some point, this place called Nahom to be identified on some ancient document or artifact, if it was indeed a preexisting location and known well enough for Lehi and his family to identify it by it’s name, once they arrived.
Back in the 1970s, Ross Christensen and Warren and Michaela Aston estimated the location of Nephi’s Nahom to be in modern-day Yemen and started doing their research, which eventually yielded some fruit. The Astons “found that this name, or its equivalent which is spelled Nihm, also appeared in Arabic sources which go back to the early Islamic period, the ninth century A.D.” and “is known as both a place name and as a tribal name,” according to Brother Brown.
This was a substantial step in identifying the location of Nahom. For, as Brother Brown notes, “this area lies almost due west of the place where Bountiful must have lain in Oman.” This is important, because Nephi recorded turning “eastward” out of Nahom and eventually ending up in the place they called Bountiful, which we will discuss in greater detail shortly. However, as Brother Brown points out, “There was a problem.” While the Astons found a location with the same name, it could only be confirmed back to the Ninth century A.D., and Nephi’s reference occurs roughly 1500 years earlier.
As Brother Brown mentioned, “we needed a written source that would establish this name closer to the time of Lehi and Sariah,” which didn’t exist at the time. However, “now we have the evidence.” Brother Brown describes his discovery as follows:
I became interested in an exhibit of ancient Yemen artifacts that was in Paris about four years ago. I saw a notice of it in a magazine. The exhibit is still showing in Europe under the title of the Queen of Sheba. I bought the catalogue. I was interested in some incense altars that were donated to a temple in south Arabia. These altars are inscribed with the name of the donor, the father’s name, and the grandfather’s name, as well as the tribal name. At first, I was less interested in the names than in the shapes of the altars because these altars seem to preserve distinctive architectural forms that distinguish early Arabian sacred buildings… While I was examining the inscription of one of the altars that is pictured in the catalogue of this exhibit, I read the name of the donor: ‘Bicathar, son of Saw_d, son of Nawc_n, tribe of Nihm.’ Moreover, the excavator who translated the inscription dates this altar to the seventh-sixth centuries B.C. I thought, Bingo!
So, Brother Brown had now found an ancient Arabian artifact with the name Nihm, or Nahom that could be dated back to the time of Lehi.
Some may wonder why the name Nihm is being likened unto Nahom. Of course, they are different. However, Brother Brown makes an important point when he informed us, “in Semitic languages one writes with consonants rather than vowels. Hence, the name is NHM. These letters make up the name on the altars and also the name Nahom.” One difference is worthy of note, when considering how NHM would have been pronounced, which determines how we add vowels to the word in English. The south Arabian NHM would have been said with a soft “H” sound, thus rendering it “Nihm.” However, the “H” in Hebrew, would likely have been a strong “H” sound, the Hebrew letter, “het,” resulting in “Nahom.” Additionally, Lehi and his family would have associated NHM with “a Hebrew term which was familiar to them, that is, Nahom.”
One last note on the subject of Nahom. As mentioned earlier, Nephi recorded that after traveling south-southeast and arriving at Nahom, “from that time we did travel nearly eastward” (1 Nephi 17:1). This is significant because, according to Brother Brown, “in the region of Nahom in South Arabia, all roads turn east,” toward the incense capital of Southern Arabia, Shabwah. And once again, this information was not available to Joseph Smith.
Every bit as significant a find as Nahom, while not addressed at length in Brother Brown’s presentation, is the discovery of a place on it’s south-eastern corner that matches, in every aspect, the place Nephi called “Bountiful.” In the country of Oman one finds a stretch of beautiful land with all manner of vegetation, in contrast to the rest of Arabia, which is dry desert land. This area becomes “a Garden of Eden” during the “summer monsoon months” and “even in the dry season…plants are still blooming and fruit is ripening,” according to Brother Brown.
And, of course, you might have guessed, since it matches Nephi’s description of Bountiful (see 1 Nephi 17:5: 18:1), it is also found right where Nephi describes it, eastward from Nahom.
Regarding the significance of Nahom, also see Neal Rappleye and Stephen O. Smoot, "Book of Mormon Minimalists and the NHM Inscriptions: A Response to Dan Vogel," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, 8 (2014): 157-185. After responding to a series of objections about Nahom, including an excellent discussion of the differences in the Hebrew NHM and the South Arabian NHM and the plausibility of the Book of Mormon's word play on Nahom, the authors then give this summary of correspondences between the Arabian Peninsual NHM and the Nahom of the Book of Mormon, and why it's not enough to just say Joseph got that word from the Bible:
Both Nahom in the Book of Mormon and Nihm in Southern Arabia match in the following interlocking details:
Both are places with a Semitic name based on the tri-consonantal root nhm.
Both pre-date 600 bce (implied in 1 Nephi 16:34).
Both are places for the burial of the dead (1 Nephi 16:34).
Both are at the southern end of a travel route moving south-southeast (1 Nephi 16:13–14, 33), which subsequently turns toward the east from that point (1 Nephi 17:1).
Both have “bountiful” lands, consistent in 12 particular details, approximately east of its location (1 Nephi 17:4).
While the presence of similar names in the Bible might be able to explain the first of these correlations, it simply cannot account for the all the ways the two places correspond. As Daniel C. Peterson once commented, “nhm isn’t just a name. It is a name and a date and a place and a turn in the ancient frankincense trail and a specific relationship to another location.” Suggesting that Joseph Smith simply got the name Nahom from the Bible is an insufficient explanation of the correlation. [emphasis mine]
There is much more to be said, especially of Bountiful, where Warren Aston has shown with extensive detail and beautiful photographs how the candidate Wadi Sayq, nearly due east from Nahom, meets over a dozen criteria that one can extract from the text. To that list can now be added the rare presence of iron ore that could have been used by Nephi to make tools, now that geologists have found a significant and very unusual (for Arabia) outcropping or iron ore at the site proposed as Bountiful. Collectively, this body of evidence demands to be taken seriously. And it's far more than just three random letters that someone found anywhere in the world or in any random place and time in Arabia.
Critics, however, have tended to treat the evidence as if it were little more than claiming to have found a place name Nahom in Arabia, a claim that they can attack on several grounds. The easiest ground, of course, is that the name of the tribe is Nihm, not Nahom, and is a tribal name, not a place name, among other complaints. They can also say that Nihm or Nehem or Nehhm is not the same as Nahom. And they can say that the huge concentration of graves marked as an ancient burial place called Nehhem on a map from the University of Sana'a is actually 25 miles north of Wadi Nahm/Nahom, which is also a few dozen miles away from Marib where the ancient altars from Lehi's day with the Nihm names on them where found, so all of those interesting correspondences to the Book of Mormon text aren't precisely in the same location, but more like associated in a general area that may not all have been called "Nahom" at that time. Yes, life is complicated, but those complexities are things that we can deal with. They hardly invalidate the premise that we have found remarkable evidence for the plausibility of the Book of Mormon, a broad body of evidence that involves Nahom/Nihm/Nehem, but also much more such as what lies to its east.
Nevertheless, Jenkins instructively shows how simple it can be to lose site of Nahom and the entire corpus of Arabian-related evidence. It is simple as showing that hey, Niebuhr published a 1796 map showing Nehhm on it (this is presented as an important discovery that threatens the Mormon position, when it has been a vital part of what Mormons like Warren Aston have presented from the beginning). And sure enough, Niebuhr's work is listed right in Joseph's vicinity, over at Alleghany College, PA or in the Medical Library at Philadelphia. Alleghany College is just 220 miles away from Palmyra, where the Book of Mormon project started, or just 50 miles from Harmony, PA, where Joseph went to escape persecution and do the actual translation before returning to Palmyra to publish it. Fifty miles would have been an much easier trip for Joseph Smith, who, as Jenkins seems to imagine, was an insatiable bookworm who naturally would have sought out every opportunity to do research to come up with a way to add a little "local color" to, um, one verse of the Book of Mormon.
After showing that Nehhm or related variants did make it on some early maps printed in Europe, Jenkins says this is "damning" evidence and forces us to the conclusion that Joseph got Nahom from a map:
The map evidence makes it virtually certain that Smith encountered and appropriated such a reference, and added the name as local color in the Book of Mormon.
Some European maps certainly circulated in the US, and the ones we know about are presumably the tip of a substantial iceberg. I have not tried to survey of all the derivative British, French and US maps of Arabia and the Middle East that would have been available in the north-eastern US at this time, to check whether they included a NHM name in these parts of Arabia. Following the US involvement against North African states in the early nineteenth century, together with Napoleon’s wars in the Middle East, I would assume that publishers and mapmakers would produce works to respond to public demand and curiosity.
So might Joseph Smith have looked at a map in a bookstore, been given one by a friend, seen one in a neighbor’s house, discussed one with a traveler, or even bought one? After all, there is one thing we know for certain about the man, which is that he had a lifelong fascination with the “Oriental,” with Hebrew, with Egypt, with hieroglyphics, with his “Reformed Egyptian.” He would have sought out books and maps by any means possible …. No, no, I’m sorry to suggest anything so far-fetched. It’s far more likely, is it not, that he was visited by an angel, and discovered gold plates filled with total bogus misinformation in everything they say about the Americas, but with one vaguely plausible site in Arabia. Ockham’s Razor would demand that.
And yes, I’m joking.
The mature Joseph, after translating the Book of Mormon and having numerous revelations and other experiences, does show a fascination with the antiquities, as we also should, IMO. But that's not the young boy his mother knew, the unschooled farmboy whom she described as not being one who was bookish. He was not a bookworm and did not have some vast collection of books he consulted in preparing the Book of Mormon. He didn't even have a manuscript with him as he verbally dictated the text to his scribes. If he sought out books and maps, where were they? How did he use them? There's not a shred of evidence apart from wishful thinking that he went through any such process.
There's no evidence that Joseph had access to any information that could have helped him craft First Nephi 16-17, and if you look at the maps of the day, you'll struggle to see how any of it could have helped. Give it a try and explain to me, seriously, how those complex maps give one any guidance about where to turn and how to end up at the then-unknown outstanding candidate for Bountiful in modern Oman. And try finding NHM names every 5 kilometers or so! Or explain to me, if Joseph, in an effort to add a little local color or enhanced plausibility to his account, tracked down a detailed map and used it, perhaps after a lengthy and rather uncharacteristic journey to a large library, why would he fail to use more than just one word plucked seemingly from random off the map? Why would he use a name that none of his readers would have ever heard? Why not mention Mecca, Sana'a, Marib, or Aden? Why not actually use the map to make some major contributions to his work and reduce the risk of massive blunders? If he had all the maps of Arabia in his day before him, there's no evidence that they helped a whit. Talk about lack of significance!
Perhaps the real question, Dr. Jenkins, might be this, if you're interested in the issue of significance: What is the significance of the evidence that Joseph did research in remote libraries, or studied and used maps of Arabia from any source, all in the name of, apparently, selecting one word (or perhaps one word and if he were really clever, the south-southwest direction) that ends up not being a recognizable and widely known name right off the map that serves some "local color" function but is a name in the Bible that is spelled much differently than the obscure, unknown, apparently randomly selected place name he supposedly plagiarized from Niebuhr's map? That's a lot of work for apparently no gain. And if he did hope to capitalize on all that work by pointing to evidence from the Arabian Peninsula, why did neither he nor any of his co-conspirators (for the sake or argument) ever say a word about Nahom as some kind of evidence from Arabia? Why did no one ever even notice this until over a century later, when some Mormons began to take the Book of Mormon seriously and found, to their surprise, that there is evidence in Arabia for plausibility?
By the way, how long do you think it would have taken to "translate" a fraudulent Book of Mormon if Joseph had to track pore over books and maps to come up with a made-up concept every verse or two? In any case, I hope you'll reconsider that argument.
There's more to discuss in my next post on this topic, for a much more serious and carefully written critique of the Arabian Peninsula evidence has been offered elsewhere that may catch many Mormons off guard, for it is based on more careful arguments and draws upon some important modern scholarship on the Documentary Hypothesis. The answers aren't so easy this time, not for me, anyway, but it's definitely worth discussing and thinking about. And I'll need your help in exploring the issues. Until next time.