The Book of Mormon as an Ancient Book

C. Wilfred Griggs

C. Wilfred Griggs, “The Book of Mormon as an Ancient Book,” in Book of Mormon Authorship: New Light on Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1982), 75–102.

An associate professor of classics, history, and ancient scripture and director of ancient studies at Brigham Young University, C. Wilfred Griggs has published numerous articles on the New Testament and early Christianity. A frequent contributor to BYU Studies and the Ensign, he has also delivered papers at various colloquia throughout the United States. He earned degrees in history, ancient history, and Greek literature at Brigham Young University, and received his Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley. He has worked at archaeological sites in Egypt, Greece, and Italy, and has taught history, religion, and ancient scriptures at BYU for many years. Griggs advances in this article the thesis that the Book of Mormon is indeed an ancient book. He focuses on one passage—the story of the Tree of Life—to demonstrate its striking similarity to other sixth- or seventh-century B.C. texts. Various plates of precious metal inscribed with religious texts have been found in burial sites around the Mediterranean. Griggs reviews these writings and notes the Near Eastern, or more particularly Egyptian, origin of the texts. He then compares Lehi’s dream with these ancient texts and concludes that the Book of Mormon account is highly similar both to the writings on the metal tablets and to the related Egyptian literature.

Typical of attempts to discredit the authenticity of the Book of Mormon are an as yet unpublished manuscript recently sent to the author by a professional journal for evaluation and an earlier work by Hal Hougey entitled The Truth About the “Lehi Tree-of-Life” Stone. [1] Both authors list parallels between Lucy Mack Smith’s account of a dream which Joseph Smith, Sr., experienced in c. 1811 and the account of the Tree of Life dream in 1 Nephi 8 through 15. [2] Their purpose is to show that Joseph Smith, Jr., got the inspiration from his father (either directly or perhaps indirectly through his mother) for including the dream and most of the symbols in the dream in the Book of Mormon narrative. Hougey avers that “arbitrary or unexpected similarities” exist in the two accounts “which rule out the possibility of independent development,” although he does not give criteria for determining when similarities can be considered “arbitrary or unexpected.” [3] Within the framework of his own skepticism, Hougey is unwilling or unable to see any alternative to his hypothesis that Joseph Smith simply borrowed the dream account from the Smith family traditions. [4]

Determining the Method

The major weakness of works such as those mentioned above is their one-dimensional approach to the problems which the Book of Mormon presents to its critics. The assumption that any parallels from the world of Joseph Smith, real or imagined, are sufficient to discredit the authenticity of the work is naïve. The challenge of the Book of Mormon lies elsewhere. It claims to be an ancient book, and it must be examined and criticized in terms of its claim. [5] Before he can disprove the antiquity of the book, the critic must analyze the historical, cultural, and social elements which are found throughout the narrative of the Book of Mormon and must show that they cannot represent the ancient world origin claimed for them. Since nobody could feasibly invent a work the length of the Book of Mormon which represented ancient Near Eastern society accurately (even a transplanted segment of that society would retain many characteristics which could be checked for accuracy), subjecting the book to the test of historical integrity would be a rather easy task for any specialist to undertake. The number of fraudulent texts which use Christ as the subject (e.g., the Archko Volume or the Infancy Gospels) as well as numerous other non-Christian forgeries attest to the ease with which scholars discredit such attempts.

The Book of Mormon deserves the same kind of test, especially in view of the tremendous amount of material relating to the ancient Near East which was recovered during the last century. Because such materials were unknown in the early nineteenth century, they provide a superb control with which to measure the Book of Mormon, for Joseph Smith obviously could not have had access to them in writing the book. It is precisely this dimension of historical criticism, however, which has been almost totally neglected in attempts to establish the book as a fraud. Professor Hugh Nibley, the leading Mormon scholar in the field of antiquity, is at present the only specialist who has applied the test of historical compatibility to the Book of Mormon, [6] and this paper continues in the methodology, if not the erudition, used by Nibley and accepted generally in disciplines related to ancient studies.

An instructive example of how to treat a text such as the Book of Mormon has recently been provided through the providence of manuscript preservation and recovery. In 1958, Professor Morton Smith of Columbia University was examining manuscripts in a monastery near Jerusalem when he happened upon a two-and-a-half-page text purporting to be a letter of Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–c. 215) to a certain Theodore. [7] The letter does not correspond to any previously known texts of Clement and there is no known Theodore who associated with the Alexandrian theologian. The paper on which the text was found is a heavy white binder’s paper commonly found on books in Venice during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the handwriting on the paper is dated variously from the late seventeenth century to the early nineteenth century. [8] By scholarly consensus, Smith was able to establish 1750, plus or minus fifty years, as the date of the writing of the manuscript. Although the scribe is acknowledged to be experienced, as noted by good spelling and correct use of accents (the language is Greek), the nature of the writing indicates he was in a hurry. It is therefore impossible to tell whether he is responsible for the high quality of the text or is simply copying a work of unusually good literary and grammatical attributes. [9]

The material in the letter was totally unexpected, especially since it speaks favorably of a Secret Gospel of Mark which was essentially sacramental or ordinance-oriented and which depicted Jesus as a mystagogue for Christians who wished to become perfect [10] by being led as “hearers into the innermost sanctuary of the truth hidden by seven veils.” [11] With the modern paper, modern handwriting, and unfamiliar and unexpected contents one would expect to have all the ingredients for a first-class forgery, but Smith moves on to what he considers “the primary test for authenticity,” namely, the examination of the text in terms of its claimed historical and literary context. [12] After nearly 450 pages of comparing the style, language, and contents of the short text with already known ancient sources, Smith concludes that he had found a copy of an authentic letter of Clement, and “the consequences for the history of the early Christian church and for New Testament criticism are revolutionary.” [13]

If a two-and-a-half-page text can elicit 450 pages of analysis and commentary in an attempt to determine its authenticity, one would not expect less from the scholarly world in the case of the Book of Mormon.

Given the limitations of time and space, this paper can discuss only two specific instances of recently recovered materials which relate to the original world of the Book of Mormon: the Orphic gold plates, and Egyptian funerary texts. They are worth considering here as a minuscule and partial approach to the larger and complete question of historical compatibility.

The Gold Plates, Rivers, and the Tree of Life

A major religious movement which swept through the Greek world in the sixth century B.C. later became known as Orphism. [14] Due to the paucity of extant sources, [15] little is known concerning early Orphism, although there is consensus that after originating perhaps in Thrace, the religious beliefs spread rapidly via the Greeks throughout the Mediterranean world. [16] The popularity of the movement can be inferred from a fragment of the sixth-century poet Ibykos, which speaks of “well-known” or “famous Orpheus.” [17] That Greeks were familiar with and probably were bearing this religious philosophy throughout the eastern Mediterranean, including Egypt, from the seventh century B.C. can be assumed, for it is well known that the Greeks had good trade relations with non-Greek countries of the Near East throughout that century. [18]

W. K. C. Guthrie implies that one may have come into contact with Orphica through writings rather than through people, because “Orphism always was a literature, first and foremost.” [19] Rather than being a collection of dogmata within a narrow tradition, Orphism has been described as a way of life which may not require worship of a new god or a change in established worship patterns, [20] and the movement was influenced by other religions, both Greek and non-Greek. [21] Indeed, the later collection of Orphic literature has been characterized as “a collection of writing of different periods and varying outlook, something like that of the Bible.” [22]

Besides the many divergent texts and ideas which became part of the Orphica, there appears to have been a special body of material collected into hexametric poems which were considered authoritative in Orphic circles. [23] The earliest preserved tradition concerns this Orphic poetry and states that it was engraved on tablets which were to be found in Thrace. [24] These tablets were made of bronze, according to the pseudo-Platonic dialogue Axiochos, and the message engraved upon them concerned the fate of the soul in the spirit world (Hades). The plates were said to have been brought to Delos by two seers from the land of the Hyperboreans (Far North), indicating that it was the religious significance and divine source of the material which justified engraving it upon metal plates. [25]

Gunther Zuntz observes that although metals were not used as writing materials as often as papyrus, animal skins, wood, or stone, “they were so used, and that by no means rarely.” [26] Among the many examples which could be cited, one notes an inscribed fifth-century bronze disc from Lusoi in Arkadia, [27] and a number of bronze plaques inscribed with legal texts or dedications [28] (need one remind the reader of the contents of the brass plates of Laban at this point for comparison?). Of quite a different nature are the Defixionum Tabellae (tablets of enchantments or curses), written on tablets of lead and buried in graves and chthonic sanctuaries. The purpose of burying such texts was to bring to the attention of the deities of the next life the curses invoked by the writers on their enemies. These lead plates date from the fifth century B.C. onward and are found throughout the Greek world, from Sicily to Syria. Zuntz suggests that lead was used because it changes from a shiny silver color when fresh to a “dark color and dead heaviness” in time, an appropriate combination for the pernicious purposes of the texts. [29]

One should also make mention of a small gold plate (less than one inch in height) found at Amphipolis which contains an inscription of ten lines of magical names and formulae, e.g. “Baruch, Adonai, Uriel, Gabriel, Michael,” etc. [30] Another gold plate, unearthed in Gallep on the Lower Rhine, the site of a Roman camp, contains an inscription of magical names and incantations which Sieburg identified as Egyptian, Jewish, Phoenician, and Babylonian. [31] Similar texts have been found inscribed on silver and bronze, [32] as have prescriptions for writing protective and religious spells on tablets of gold, silver, bronze, and tin. [33] The gold plates with the magical spells date from the Roman period, however, while the lead plates with the curses date from the classical age of Greece. In seeking to establish historical compatibility for the Book of Mormon, one might look for gold plates from the earlier period with religious texts inscribed upon them.

The Orphic gold plates provide perhaps the best examples of such early religious texts inscribed on tablets of gold and buried in the ground. There are at least seventeen such plates known at present, found in ancient burial sites in such widely scattered areas as Italy, Greece, and Crete. [34] The plate known longest was probably discovered in the eighteenth century, although it was not published until 1836, [35] and the most recently discovered plate came to light in 1972 and was published in 1976. [36] Dating the plates is difficult, due to lack of similar texts with which they may be compared, but Zuntz and Burkert date them from as early as the fifth century B.C. in one instance to as late as the third century A.D. in another (most are dated to the fourth century B.C. or earlier). [37] Zuntz hypothesizes the existence of a larger text which was the ancestor of the gold plate texts and which, when read to an audience of initiates, was accompanied by ritual acts, although he does not accept the earlier opinions of Wieten and Harrison that they were celebrations of mystery acts relating to a mystic death and resurrection for the living. [38] Despite Zuntz’s reluctance to acknowledge the hypothetical earlier text to be a “didactic poem,” a recently found Orphic papyrus, dated to the fourth century B.C. and discovered in a tomb near Thessaloniki, contains a commentary on an authoritative Orphic poem, perhaps a form of the one which preceded the fragments on the gold tablets. [39] Because of this ancient commentary, Burkert assumes a date for the original poem to be at least the fifth or sixth century B.C.

Commentators agree that the material on the gold plates was not indigenous to Greece but represents foreign influences from the sixth century or earlier. Zuntz suggests that the apparent cultic influence on the earlier version of the ritual formulary could well have come from Egypt, [40] an hypothesis also proposed by others before him. [41] Harrison, however, attributes the enrichment of the poem with ritual elements to Iranian influence. [42] The influence was certainly from the ancient Near East, even if there is no agreement on where the ideas were originally found. This necessarily brief and incomplete background material must suffice as an introduction to a consideration of the text itself.

Commentators also agree that the texts on the plates are related to one another, even though various plates contain different parts or aspects of the original work. This presentation is not concerned with reconstructing the parts into the original order of the whole or determining how each aspect of the original has been altered or preserved on the different plates. For our purposes, the various elements of the poem are as important as the place they occupied in the original work. Following Guthrie, Zuntz, Burkert, and others, the text is here translated and presented as concisely as possible in order to place the general story before the reader. [43]

“This is the tomb (rule) or remembrance if someone is about to die. [44] You go to the well-fashioned houses of Hades (realm of departed spirits).”

“You shall find to the left of the House of Hades a spring . . . to this spring you must not come near.” [45]

“Go to the right as far as one should go, being right wary in all things.” [46]

“There is to the right a spring, near which is standing a white cypress. There the souls of the dead who descend refresh themselves.” [47]

“Further on, you shall find another, the Lake of Remembrance, and cold water flowing forth, and there are guardians above it. [48] They will ask you in their astute minds, ‘For what purpose are you searching (wandering) about the dark regions of the destructive netherworld?’” [49]

“Who are you? Whence are you?” [50]

(The answer follows)

“Here I stand before you, pure from impurity, Queen of those below, [51] and Eukles and Eubouleus, and the other immortal gods and daemons, [52] for I also profess that I am one of your blessed race, and I have paid the penalty for unrighteous deeds.” “Say, ‘I am a son of earth and of starry heaven, but my race is of heaven alone. This you yourselves know.’” [53]

“‘But I am parched with thirst and I am about to perish. Give to me quickly the cold water which flows forth from the Lake of Memory.’” [54]

“And they will have pity under the king of the underworld, (or perhaps, “And they will initiate you to the king of the underworld”) and they themselves will give you to drink from the holy spring, and thenceforth among the other heroes you shall have lordship.” [55]

(The gods speak:)

“Hail, you who have suffered the suffering. This you have never suffered before.

You are become god from man.

A kid you are fallen into milk.

Hail, hail to you journeying the right hand road by the holy meadows and groves of Persephone.” [56]

“You are going a long way, which others also (go), initiates and Bacchoi, heirs of the holy way . . . [57]

One should not understand the preceding text to be a conjectured reconstruction of the textual archetype of the plates. It is rather a composite of the various texts which are acknowledged as being associated in origin and thought. [58] The following commentary on the text, necessarily as brief and incomplete as was the introduction, represents a sampling of the scholarly opinions presently held concerning the material.

The major difficulty for many has been to specify the religious movement with which the plates are to be identified. They have long been known as the “Orphic gold plates,” but Zuntz observes that on no plate is there a clear hint pointing to Orpheus or Dionysius, and “no reason remains for describing the religion to which they witness as ‘orphic.’” [59] Still, these texts correspond to the claim in Pseudo-Plato Axiochos that the subject of the ancient bronze plates was the fate of the soul in the spirit world. [60] It is further assumed that the bronze plates of Pseudo-Plato are the same as the “Thracian tablets which tuneful Orpheus carved out,” mentioned by Euripides in the Alcestis. [61] There is considerable harmony in subject matter between the no longer extant bronze plates of Thrace as reported in ancient sources and the gold plates which have been recovered in modern times. Guthrie summarizes the message of the gold plates as follows:

The purpose of the plates is clear from their contents. The dead man is given those portions of his sacred literature which will instruct him how to behave when he finds himself on the road to the lower world. They tell him the way he is to go and the words he is to say. They also quote the favourable answer which he may expect from the powers of that world when he has duly reminded them of his claims on their benevolence. [62]

Zuntz suggests that the text and some unspecified accompanying rites, “in which the journey of the deceased to Persephone was symbolically enacted,” were celebrated by the living at the burial of the dead. These rites “were considered indispensable if a soul was to attain to its ‘proper and blissful consummation.’” He attempts to identify the ritual drama with Pythagorean rites and argues that “the preservation, through the centuries, of these texts, and the custom of inscribing them on gold leaves to accompany the dead, became understandable . . . as elements, and evidence, of these Pythagorean rites. . . ,” [63] The ritual nature of the text is further suggested by observing that although the engraved Hipponios tablet was found in the grave of a female, line ten says, “I am a son of earth and of starry heaven” (unless the engraver simply did not wish to be very accommodating to his subject). [64] A separate study of related sources would reveal the necessity of performing such ritual acts during mortality, as well as some specific references to performing them on behalf of the deceased.

As the spirit of the deceased enters Hades, or the realm of departed spirits, it is counseled to avoid the path of the left and to keep to the one on the right. Plato may be drawing upon the same tradition when he has Socrates say of the path to Hades:

To be sure, the journey is not as Aeschylus has Telephos speak of it. For he states that the path leads straight to Hades, but it seems to me to be neither straight nor single. Otherwise there would not be any need of guides, for surely one would not go astray if there were only one path. [65]

Plato is more explicit in the Gorgias, where in the final pages Socrates gives a mythical account of the judgment which takes place in Hades, suggesting that after death men go to a great meadow where there is a crossroads. Those who are deemed just in the judgment may take the path which leads to the Isles of the Blest, while the unjust must take the path which leads to Tartaros. [66] Finally, in the Republic, Plato appears to allude to the same source as that which is behind the gold plates. Socrates tells Glaucon of a story in which, after the judgment of souls, the unjust had to take the path which led to the left and downward, while the just could take the path which led to the right and upward. [67] In the gold plates, then, the avoidance of the spring on the left must be equivalent to the avoidance of a place of suffering, or hell.

Despite the apparent confusion in the various plates about the number of springs of water (the spring near the cypress is not always identified with the lake of Memory, nor is the distinction always clear between the spring on the left and the one on the right), scholars generally assume that there are only two springs. [68] Zuntz suggests that the spring near the tree may actually be flowing from the Lake of Memory, [69] but the essential unity of the two springs on the path to the right is still maintained. The spring of Lethe, or forgetfulness, is likely because the spring and lake on the right are associated with Mnemosyne, or remembrance. [70]

Lethe appears as a personified goddess first in Hesiod’s Theogony, but she is found in rather bad company:

But abhorred Strife bare painful Toil and Forgetful-ness and Famine and tearful Sorrows, Fightings also, Battles, Murders, Manslaughters, Quarrels, Lying Words, Disputes, Lawlessness and Ruin, all of one nature, and Oath who most troubles men upon earth when anyone wilfully swears a false oath. [71]

This description occurs in the context of the goddesses who, as the offspring of Night, have the task of punishing sinners with appropriate penalties. [72] By the time of Plato, Lethe had become a river which was destructive to the unjust and which was to be avoided by the just. Plato tells the myth of Er, the Pamphylian, who had died in war and had miraculously been restored to life. In this tale, obviously well known to the point of being proverbial in the fifth century, Er describes the nature of the world of departed spirits, and Socrates concludes from the myth that only the souls of the just can escape the punishment of drinking from the river of Lethe and forgetting everything. [73] Elsewhere Plato speaks of the soul which has not followed in the path of the gods as one which falls to the earth burdened with a load of forgetfulness and wrongdoing. [74] Zuntz states that “death is forgetting,” whereas to seek the drink from the spring or lake of memory is to seek life, and “they who retain memory are those who are ripe for a higher form of life.” [75]

The tree beside the spring has been consistently identified as a “Tree of Life,” although the Greek phrase, “white cypress,” is troublesome for many, including Zuntz:

This white cypress indeed has never ceased puzzling students; for the cypress is not white, (and) even if the Greek adjective is taken in its wider and basic (shining), its application to this dark tree remains unexplained. [76]

Guthrie also admits his uncertainty concerning the description of the cypress tree:

Concerning the white cypress I do not see that it helps towards an explanation to say that by white cypress the writer meant a white poplar (as Comparette in Laminetti Orfiche, Florence, 1910), an admittedly common, as well as extremely beautiful tree, and one, moreover, which had associations with the dead. It is a striking feature of the poem, and I hope that some day our knowledge of infernal history may be widened sufficiently to include it. [77]

A. B. Cook proffers the suggestion that “on the whole it seems most likely that the tree of the tablets was a miraculous cypress. . . .”As such, he continues, the white cypress is in line with such marvelous trees as the silver apple tree of the Celts or the twelve-fruited tree of the Revelation. [78] One should also note that, according to Pseudo-Kallisthenes, when Alexander the Great consults the two oracular trees of the Sun and the Moon in Prasiake, the trees are described as being similar to cypresses, although nothing is said concerning their color. [79]

The ritual nature of the plates has been noted above, but just what comprised the ritual actions or how they accompanied the text has not been agreed. Zuntz argues for Pythagorean mysteries, Guthrie for Orphic rites, and Harrison for Cretan adaptations (in an Orphic manner) of Egyptian funerary ceremonies. Guthrie notes that it is impossible even to tell whether the dialogue occurs between the initiate and the gods of Hades or the initiate and his guide. [80] All do agree on one matter concerning the plates: they originated in or were influenced by Near Eastern culture and religion.

The Near Eastern Connection

One of the earliest commentators to make the connection between Orphic beliefs and Egypt was Herodotus. In his book on Egypt, the historian states that Egyptians did not permit woolen articles in their temples, nor would they be buried in woolen garments. “In this,” he continues, “they agree with the so-called Orphika or Bacchika, which are really Egyptian and Pythagorean. For in these rites also, if a man share in them it is not lawful for him to be buried in woolen garments.” [81]

In the present instance of the so-called Orphic texts, virtually all modern scholars have suggested an Egyptian origin for them, because of the reference in some of the gold tablets to cold water. This connection is usually based on some funeral monuments bearing the following inscription: May Osiris give cold water [to you]. [82] These monuments date no earlier than the Roman Empire, however, and their relevance to the gold plates has been disputed. [83] Language similar to the plates has also been found on a magical papyrus from Egypt: “Hail to the water white and the tree with the leaves high hanging.” [84] Similarity of both the gold plates and the Egyptian sources just quoted to the early Christian term refrigerium denoting the “refreshment” of the dead in Paradise has also been of great interest to students of early Christian doctrines. [85]

The Greek word psuchron not only means “cold” but also suggests “refreshing,” and it is also related to the term psuch? or soul. Jane Harrison made the following observation regarding the psuchron hud?r of the well of Osiris and the water and the tree in the magical papyrus: “The well would be both cool and fresh and life-giving; by it the soul would revive (anapsuchein) it would become ‘a living water, springing up into everlasting life.’” [86] The tree growing by the fountain or spring of living water is thus a Tree of Life, and “it is only the soul whose purity is vouched for which is to be allowed to drink from it.” [87]

Much earlier than the funeral monuments and the magical papyrus, and therefore much more significant for similarities to the gold plates, are the Egyptian funerary texts frequently placed in graves from the Old Kingdom through the Roman period. Zuntz summarizes the relevance of the Book of the Dead literature for the tablets:

Concerned lest their dead, at their resting-places on the edge of the desert, should lack the vital moisture, the Egyptians sought to provide it for them by including suitable spells and pictures in the Book of the Dead. Hence we find in it representations of the dead, on their way through the Netherworld, scooping water from a basin between trees, or catching in a bowl water poured out either by an arm which grows from a tree beside a large basin, or by a goddess inside that tree. [88]

Chapter 58 of the Book of the Dead is entitled “Spell for Breathing the Air and of Having Power over the Water in the Underworld.” The accompanying illustration on the Ani Papyrus shows Ani and his wife, Thuthu, scooping water with their right hands from the pool which is bordered by palm trees loaded with dates. [89] The text presents the spell to be spoken by the god Osiris: “Open to me! Who are you, and where were you born? I am one of you. . . .” The next chapter has a similar heading, and the accompanying illustration shows Ani kneeling beside a pool of water next to which is growing a sycamore tree. The goddess Nut is in the tree offering food and pouring water into Ani’s hands from a pitcher. [90] The text with the illustration begins: “Hail, thou sycamore tree of the goddess Nut. Grant that I may drink the water and breathe the air which are in you.” In chapters 107 and 109 a spell is given to enable the initiate to enter the regions of heaven. Two sycamore trees are described as being at the door of the Lord of the East, and one approaches the trees and the door by being guided in a boat, the barge of the god. South of the trees and the door are the lakes of a thousand geese and the fields of the god, which Piankoff associates with a type of paradise composed of green pastures and hunting grounds. [91] Also in the Book of the Dead are spells in which the initiate is required to give specific secret or ritual names and responses to questions of identity and purpose before he is allowed to enter the realm of the god. [92]

Elsewhere in Egyptian funerary literature, the water of the god Osiris is spoken of as cold water, just as in the examples from the Roman period cited above. “This cold water of yours, O Osiris, this cold water of yours, O King, has gone forth to your son, has gone forth to Horus.” [93] One can also find warnings in which the soul of the deceased is told to avoid the lake of the evil-doer. [94] The purpose of the warnings, instructions, and dialogues is implied in one of the Pyramid Texts: “Thou art departed that thou mayest become a spirit, that thou mayest become mighty as a god, an enthroned one like Osiris.” [95]

Despite the obvious similarities shared by the gold plates and the Egyptian literature, in addition to the proven contacts between the Greek and Egyptian civilizations from the critical seventh century B.C. and later, sufficient differences have been noted to show that some modification accompanied the borrowing of motifs. The only refreshment mentioned in the gold tablets is a drink of water, but the soul in Egyptian texts is refreshed “not only with water but also with fruit and frankincense.” The plates always refer to a cypress tree, while the Egyptian literature consistently mentions a sycamore, and Zuntz states “there could not easily be trees more different than these two.” [96] The drinking of a “living water” by the soul parched with thirst is common to both sources, but, so far as is known, Egyptian literature did not have springs of Lethe or Mnemosyne. While chapter 25 of the Book of the Dead gives a formula to make a man possess memory in the Netherworld, [97] no mention is made of a well or drinking of water in that context. Jane Harrison considers the designation of the two springs as Lethe and Mnemosyne to be a Greek development from the neutral fountains mentioned in the Egyptian literature. [98] Because the Egyptians are not commonly known to have used inscribed gold plates before the Roman period, either for the living or the dead, Zuntz suggests that this practice was also a Greek innovation upon the Egyptian tradition. [99] Nevertheless, F. S. Harris collected ample evidence to show that Egyptians did use metal plates (including gold ones) for inscribing treaties and religious texts in the pre-Hellenistic era. [100]

The differences in the two civilizations allow for independent development within a common tradition, or better, development in one tradition which borrows from another. Zuntz summarizes his views on the relationship between the gold plates and the Egyptian sources:

In both countries these texts are equally designed to accompany the dead into their graves in order to tell them what awaits them in the other world and how they are to meet it. In Egypt this had been the custom for hundreds and even thousands of years, while in Greece there is no trace of it, apart from the few Gold Leaves, whose texts witness to a set of very specific persuasions. Hence it can reasonably be argued that the narrowly confined and recent Greek usage derives from that older civilization to which Greeks owed so much and which they often proclaimed as their teacher of “wisdom.” [101]

The burial of the texts with the dead does not preclude the sacred significance of the materials to the living, especially when one considers the ritual purposes commentators attach to them. The recitation of the text, or at least part of it, on special ritual occasions, would be necessary to prepare the living initiate for his journey into the world of departed spirits. The burial of the text with the deceased insures that he will have a familiar and faithful guide for his journey, one whose warnings and reminders will protect him and assist him in achieving his divine potential.

The Book of Mormon and the Dream of Lehi

By now it is obvious that the accounts of Lehi’s dream in the Book of Mormon have much in common with the gold tablets and the related Egyptian literature. The Book of Mormon narrative claims Egyptian ties, [102] probably quite similar to the mer-cantilistic connections of the Greeks in Egypt. [103] The Book of Mormon begins at the close of the seventh century B.C., [104] coinciding with the seventh/sixth-century origins of the religious materials on the Greek gold plates. The use, or borrowing, of typically Egyptian motifs and the inscription of religious writings upon gold plates are of considerable significance for the student of the Book of Mormon, and the striking resemblances in all the materials under discussion would be remarkably coincidental if they were not connected to a common source or origin. Since the Greek gold tablets appear to have an Egyptian origin which agrees in time and content with the Egyptian associations of the Book of Mormon, the most feasible and plausible explanation for the internal characteristics shared by both is that seventh/sixth-century B.C. Egypt is the common meetingground for the two traditions.

In the first narration of the dream in 1 Nephi, the one given by Lehi, the following descriptive elements are noteworthy. Lehi’s dream begins in a dark and dreary wilderness, through which he can advance safely only with the assistance of a guide. [105] Following his guide through the “dark and dreary waste” for a long time, Lehi reaches a large field, or meadow,

through which flows a river. [106] Near the river stands a tree, laden with a sweet white fruit which refreshes the wanderer. At this point Lehi himself becomes a guide to some of his own family, who are apparently lost in the dark wilderness and have nobody else to guide them. [107] As details of the dream come into focus, Lehi further describes a path leading to the tree [108] and many other paths which lead to doom and destruction. [109] Some of the multitude of souls wandering in the dark world are assisted in their journey by a “rod of iron,” [110] but many are drowned in the hitherto unidentified fountain, or river. [111] In addition to those drowned in the river, many enter into a “great and spacious building,” described as being on the opposite side of the river from the tree. [112] The building is superterrestrial and is filled with people of wealth who scorn those eating from the fruit of the tree. [113] Not all who come to the tree for refreshment enjoy the experience, suggesting they are not properly prepared to receive the fruit, and others wander off and are lost in a great mist of darkness, indicating they have not secured an adequate guide to help them achieve the goal of the tree. [114]

In this brief account, narrated from the perspective of Lehi, the only two elements not accounted for in the gold plates or the Egyptian literature are the “rod of iron” and the “great and spacious building.” [115] It was noted above that despite differences between the gold plates and Egyptian texts (Lethe and Mnemosyne, the writing upon gold plates, and the white cypress tree all differ from their counterparts in Egyptian sources), scholars note that the paths, tree, springs, and dialogue with divine beings argue for an original relationship with independent development in the Greek texts. The differences in the Book of Mormon are likewise not sufficient to disprove the Egyptian connection and are in no way incompatible with the ancient world origin claimed by the Book of Mormon.

The second narration of the dream, given by Lehi’s son Nephi, displays an even greater affinity with the Greek and Egyptian materials considered above than does the earlier abbreviated account. In the expanded version, there is much that at first appears extraneous to the symbols of the dream, particularly the prophetic history of Jesus, the Christian tradition, and some aspects of world history as they relate to the family of Lehi. One observes that the dream symbols are very much like the elements of a ritual drama which function as vehicles for transmitting the history of man and for conveying redemptive knowledge to the participant. The common Near Eastern elements of the Tree of Life, springs or rivers of water, etc., which are part of the Egyptian redemption ritual for the dead, and which are adopted and adapted on the gold plates for an Orphic or Pythagorean mystery drama, are also found in the Book of Mormon Tree of Life dream. These elements of the vision or dream assist in Nephi’s prophetic and visionary portrayal of the Christian message of redemption for mankind. [116]

In a manner which has been recognized only recently as typically apocalyptic, Nephi was transported to a high mountain where the vision given earlier to his father was opened to his view and understanding. [117] Before he was permitted to see the vision of the tree, however, Nephi was asked two questions by his angelic guide, and only satisfactory answers to these questions allowed him to proceed. [118] The dialogue pattern of preparing Nephi for further visionary insights continues throughout the account, including such questions from his angelic guide as, “What desirest thou?” [119] “What beholdest thou?” [120] “Knowest thou . . . ?” [121] and “Rememberest thou?” [122]

As the vision opened, Nephi first saw the tree, which he described as being white. [123] As it continued, he saw all that his father had seen, but in many instances he recounted new details which were not included in the earlier narrative. The unidentified river of water in the first version of the dream is a “fountain of filthy water” in the second account, and is further identified as “the depths of hell.” [124] Especially noteworthy in the expanded account is the mention of a second spring called “the fountain of living waters,” which flows beside the Tree of Life. [125] The other symbols in Lehi’s vision, such as the rod of iron, the great building, and the dark mists, are repeated and explained in Nephi’s account of his own vision.

The symbols discussed in the present essay are reminiscent of the symbols studied by Goodenough in his extensive work, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period. Goodenough

argues that symbols in the ancient world could be transferred from one religion or culture to another and not lose their usefulness in a new setting. [126] He refers specifically to the Tree and Water of Life when stating that such symbols had a constant religious value, although they “could be used with gods whose mythologies were utterly dissimilar.” [127] It is the constant religious value behind the symbols which permits their use in divergent traditions. The Tree and Water of Life may signify refreshment and life-giving power in one instance and the bestowal of memory (the essence of life) in another; the river of filthy water can be hell, forgetfulness, or the water of the evildoer in different mythologies; but the value of the symbols remains constant.

Through all this type of literature is the need for a personal or textual guide to aid the traveler and initiate along the divine path. The mists of darkness in the dream of the Tree of Life prevent many from seeing their way or from finding such a guide and thus prevent them from traveling the one path which will lead to the Tree. Just as the Egyptian and Greek sources used above to test the historical compatibility of the Book of Mormon were written as guides for adherents of their respective traditions, so also the Book of Mormon states that it is a guide for those who wish to be redeemed by Christ and find the path to the Tree of Life. [128] It is this challenge of the book, more than its demonstrable compatibility with the ancient Near Eastern origin which it claims, that gives it significance in modern setting, and it is not a challenge which can be ignored or taken lightly.


[1] Hal Hougey, The Truth About the “Lehi Tree-of-Life” Stone (Concord: Pacific Publishing, 1963).

[2] Both authors refer to the first edition of Lucy Smith’s biography, 58–59, although the account of the dream has not been changed in the revised edition (the one used by the present author was published by Deseret Book in 1953), 48–50.

[3] Hougey, 24.

[4] There is no evidence that Lucy Mack Smith committed her material to writing before 1845, and because the Book of Mormon was written in 1829, some question exists regarding the influence of the Book of Mormon phrasing on her work. According to Lucy’s chronology, the particular dream of her husband which is used by the above critics in their comparison occurred in 1811, some eighteen years before the Book of Mormon was written in English and thirty-four years before Lucy’s work was written. The complex nature of possible influences in narrating a dream experience over so lengthy a period of time is beyond any certain reconstruction. Hougey argues polemically and tendentiously that if one suggested that the Book of Mormon account influenced Lucy Smith in her phrasing or working in recounting the dream of Joseph Smith, Sr., he must then admit “that Joseph Smith’s mother was dishonest, and that she willingly and purposely jeopardized the reputation of her son” (p. 25). He then states that such could not have been the case “in view of all the things she says about him,” returning to his simplistic theory that the only direction of influence was from Lucy Smith to her son.

[5] Because it also claims to be a translation, any modern language source material which the translator found useful or helpful in his translating efforts cannot be used ipso facto as evidence against the authenticity of his work.

[6] Nibley’s three major works in this area are: Lehi in the Desert and The World of the Jaredites (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1952); An Approach to the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1964); Since Cumorah (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1967). The debt of any writer in this field, including that of the author, will be obvious to anybody familiar with Nibley’s treatment of the subject, even when, as in the present instance, materials relating to Book of Mormon origins are being considered for the first time in that context.

[7] Morton Smith, Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973), ix.

[8] Ibid., 1. Smith submitted photographs of the manuscript to a number of specialists who generously supplied opinions on the date of the hand. Although different dates were favored by the scholars, Smith states that all agreed on the possibility of an eighteenth-century date.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Clement to Theodore, Folio 1, recto 11. 22–23.

[11] Ibid., 1.17.

[12] M. Smith, op cit., 4.

[13] Ibid., ix.

[14] Kirk and Raven, The Pre-Socratic Philosophers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971), 37ff.; Jane Harrison, Themis (New York: Meridian Books, 1962 [reprint of 1927 ed.] 462; W. K. C. Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1966), 11; Kathleen Freeman, Companion to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966), 1.

[15] E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), 147: “But I must confess that I know very little about early Orphism, and the more I read about it the more my knowledge diminishes. Twenty years ago, I could have said quite a lot about it (we all could at that time). Since then, I have lost a great deal of knowledge. . . .” New discoveries tend to upset old theories.

[16] The Thracian origin is argued in Dodds, 147; Freeman, 1–2; on the story relating to Orpheus and Orphic rituals, see Guthrie, 25ff. Corn-ford, From Religion to Philosophy (New York: Harper and Row, 1957), 99; 178n., mentions possible connections with Iranian or Persian influences on Orphism, suggesting a more eastward origin for the theology of the movement.

[17] Diels-Kranz, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (Berlin: 1960, reprint), 3, citing Ibykos, fr. 17.

[18] R. Sealey, A History of the Greek City States, 700–338 B.C. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 52. Bury and Meiggs, A History of Greek, 4th ed. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1975), 84–85. Chester G. Starr, The Economic and Social Growth of Early Greece, 800–500 B.C. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 49–51. That religion spread with trade during this period is suggested by Guthrie, 11: “It is generally agreed that there was considerable activity, whether nascent or renascent, in the sphere of Orphic and kindred religion, in the sixth century B.C.”

[19] Guthrie, 10.

[20] Ibid., 9. I. M. Linforth, The Arts of Orpheus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1941), stated that before 300 B.C. the description of “Orphic” was applied to all sorts of ideas associated with every manner of ritual.

[21] See note 15 and Harrison, 462ff.

[22] Freeman, 5.

[23] Freeman, 4. In Plato, see examples of the hexameters attributed to Orpheus in Cratylus 402b, Philebus 66c; and a reference to Orphic hexameters in Ion 536b.

[24] Euripides, Alcestis 965ff. The scholiast on the passage, a contemporary of Plato, states that the tablets actually existed at that time on Mt. Haimos.

[25] Pseudo-Plato, Axiochos, 371a.

[26] Gunther Zuntz, Persephone (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), 278.

[27] Inscript. Graec. V.2, 387. Cf. I.G.V.2, 390 and 566.

[28] Zuntz, Persephone, 278 n. 7, referring to Kern, J. G. 1.1., Pis. 8,10 and 21. PI. 8 is a bronze plaque from Mycenae and pi. 10 one from Thetonium in Thessaly; cf. Arangio-Ruiz and Olivieri, Inscriptiones Sicilae et M. Graeciae (1925) for numerous examples, e.g. an archaic bronze plaque from Policastro (p. 47). These date from the sixth and fifth centuries B.C., and numerous examples from later periods could also be cited.

[29] Zuntz, Persephone, 279.

[30] British Museum Catalogue, 378, no. 3153, cited in Zuntz, 29ff. No. 3150 in the British Museum is a similar gold plate, and others have been found.

[31] F. Sieburg, Bonner Jahrbucher 103 (1898), 123ff.

[32] A. Wiedemann, Bonner Jahrbucher 97 (1895), 215ff., and Sieburg, 123ff.

[33] Sieburg, 136ff.

[34] In addition to the list of plates and their origins listed in Zuntz, Persephone, 286, two others are known to the author. One is in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the other was discovered in southern Italy (Hipponios) in 1972, and published by Zuntz in Wiener Studien 89 (1976). The last-mentioned plate will be discussed in some detail.

[35] Ibid., 355.

[36] Zuntz, Wiener Studien 89 (1976), esp. 132 for text.

[37] Zuntz, Persephone, 294ff., and 355ff. Walter Burkert, while visiting U. C. Berkeley as the Sather Classical Lecturer in 1977, gave some information and opinions concerning the plates which will be used in this paper.

[38] Zuntz, Persephone, 343.

[39] This papyrus was discussed in some detail by Prof. Burkert, who stated that it clearly predates the tomb in which it was found. Pre-Socratic concepts from Anaxagoras and Democritus are found in the text, but nothing later than the fifth century can be seen.

[40] Zuntz, Persephone, 342ff., and 370ff.

[41] Guthrie, 177, 198, 208; Freeman, 7, 14, etc.

[42] Harrison, 462ff.

[43] The author’s translation is given where another translator is not named.

[44] The first part of the text is taken from the Hipponios tablet found in 1972. It is one of the earliest of the plates, dating perhaps to the fifth century. There is some question whether “tomb” or “rule” should be read, but the author follows the editors of the text.

[45] Petelia Plate (Bl), (lines) 1–3. In this plate alone, the tree mentioned below is found by the forbidden spring on the left. Elsewhere the tree is beside the spring on the right, where commentators agree it belongs.

[46] Plate from Thurii (A4), 2, trans. Guthrie, 173.

[47] Hipponios plate, 2–4.

[48] Combined from Bl, 4–5, and Hipponios, 6–7.

[49] Hipponios plate, 8–9.

[50] Plates from Crete B3–B8, 3.

[51] This text comes from the plates from Thurii, designated A1–A3, and from Bl. A composite rendering of the four is given below. The more common rendering, “I am come from the pure, pure Queen of those below,” is rejected by Zuntz (Persephone, 306), following Rohde, Psyche II, 218, et al. The adjective is unsuitable for the goddess, and ritually speaking, it is the soul which has become KaOaga ix xaOagwv. No agreement exists on the identification of the goddess.

[52] Zuntz notes that the words “suggest an assembly of gods which it is hard, even so, to visualize” (Persephone, 311–12).

[53] Hipponios plate, 10, and Bl, 6–7.

[54] Ibid., 11–12, and Bl, 11. 8–9.

[55] Ibid., 13–14, and Bl, 10–12. The alternative translation was suggested by an emended spelling proposed by M. West. It is left in parentheses in favor of the reading on the plate, although spelling difficulties exist in line 13 as it stands.

[56] A4, 3–7, transl. Guthrie.

[57] Hipponios plate, 15–16.

[58] Analysis of the metrical difficulties in the poetic lines, and also of the presence of some prosaic elements in certain of the plates, has led to attempts to determine which portions of the texts were original and which were added later. There is no real agreement at present on solutions to such problems, and even suspected additions must be earlier than the basic composition given above, i.e., prior to the fourth century.

[59] Zuntz, Persephone, 326. The single exception is the term Bacchoi in line 16 of the Hipponios plate, not known to Zuntz when he wrote Persephone. Burkert considers this at best a slender thread to connect with “Orphism.”

[60] Pseudo-Plato, Axiochos 371a.

[61] Euripides, Alcestis 967–70.

[62] Guthrie, 172.

[63] Zuntz, Persephone, 343.

[64] This example argues that the same text is necessary for all participants, and it is thus unnecessary to make a distinction between male and female in the basic formulary.

[65] Plato, Phaedo 108a.

[66] Plato, Gorgias 523ff., esp. 524a.

[67] Plato, Republic 614ff.

[68] Jane Harrison, Prolegonema to the Study of Greek Religion (Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1959, reprint), 574; cf. note 63.

[69] Zuntz, Persephone, 378.

[70] Guthrie, 177ff.; Zuntz, Persephone, 378ff.; Harrison, Prol., 574ff.

[71] Hesiod, Theogony 226–30.

[72] Ibid. 211–25.

[73] Plato, Republic 621. Lethe is forgetting, and the Greek word for truth, alethelia, has been seen as “non-forgetting.” The reward for the just is to have knowledge preserved or restored, just as the punishment for the unjust is to forget what they know.

[74] Plato, Phaedrus 248c.

[75] Zuntz, Persephone, 380, 381.

[76] Ibid., 373.

[77] Guthrie, 182.

[78] A. B. Cook, Zeus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1940), 111:420–21.

[79] Pseudo-Kallisthenes, Hist. Ales. Magn. 17.27ff.

[80] Guthrie, 176ff.

[81] Herodotus, Hist. 2.81.

[82] Inscript., Graec. (It. et Sic.) XIV., 1488, 1705, 1782.

[83] Zuntz, Persephone, 370.

[84] Dietrich, Abraxos, 97, cited in Harrison, Prol., 576.

[85] Zuntz, Persephone 370; cf. Harrison, Prol. 575 n.2; Guthrie, 192 n.14; etc.

[86] Harrison, Prol., 576.

[87] Guthrie, 177.

[88] Zuntz, Persephone, 177.

[89] T. G. Allen, The Book of the Dead, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974. See also Wallis Budge, The Egyptian Book of the Dead (New York: Dover Publishing Inc., 1967, reprint), 314.

[90] Ibid.

[91] A. Piankoff, The Wandering of the Soul (Princeton: Princeton University Press, Bollingen Series XL. 6, 1974), 4–8.

[92] Book of the Dead, chapter 125, cited in Piankoff, 8–10.

[93] R. O. Faulkner, The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), Utterances 32, 33, 423, etc.

[94] Ibid., Utterances 214 and 500. Zuntz appears to have missed such sources, for he states that the Egyptians have nothing corresponding to the two springs of some of the plates.

[95] Spell 752b, cited in Piankoff, 3.

[96] Zuntz, Persephone, 372.

[97] Budge, 87ff.

[98] Harrison, Prol, 576.

[99] Zuntz, Persephone, 376.

[100] F. S. Harris, The Book of Mormon, Message and Evidences (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1953), 96–99.

[101] Zuntz, Persephone, 376.

[102] 1 Ne. 1:2; Mosiah 1:4; Morm. 9:32.

[103] Nibley, Lehi. 36ff.

[104] l Ne. 1:4; 5:13; 10:4; etc.

[105] l Ne. 8:4–7.

[106] 1 Ne. 8:9–13.

[107] 1 Ne. 8:14–16.

[108] 1 Ne. 8:20–22.

[109] 1 Ne. 8:23, 28, 32.

[110] 1 Ne. 8:19, 24, 30.

[111] 1 Ne. 8:32.

[112] 1 Ne. 8:26.

[113] 1 Ne. 8:27ff., 33.

[114] 1 Ne. 8:24ff., 28, and 8:23, 32.

[115] Nibley, Approach, 211ff., gives evidence which would suggest that the great building may have come from the Arab world, which in turn was imitating earlier Babylonian architecture. The height, sometimes ten or twelve stories, is even described as making the building appear to stand in the air, high above the earth. He further notes that in Arab tradition, spaciousness is the index of elegance and comfort. There is some possibility that the rod of iron came from the Jewish world of Lehi, especially in relation to the temple, but that must be dealt with properly within its own cultural context.

[116] This often-repeated aspect of the redemption drama in the Book of Mormon must be reserved for another study, since the dream symbols as they related to the ancient Near East are the focus of the present paper.

[117] 1 Ne. 11:1; the author has given a brief treatment of this theme in “Manichaeism, Mormonism, and Apocalypticism,” Sperry Lecture Series, Provo: BYU Press, 1973, 18–25, and the volume of recent literature on the subject attests to its new-found importance in the study of ancient religious history and literature.

[118] 1 Ne. 11:2–6. The two questions were: “What desirest thou?” and “Believest thou that thy father saw the tree of which he hath spoken?”

[119] 1 Ne. 11:10.

[120] 1 Ne. 13:2.

[121] 1 Ne. 11:16, 21.

[122] 1 Ne. 14:8.

[123] 1 Ne. 11:8. In the earlier account only the fruit was mentioned as white (8:11), perhaps because of the emphasis on partaking of the fruit. The tree receives greater emphasis in Nephi’s experience.

[124] 1 Ne. 12:16.

[125] 1 Ne. 11:25.

[126] E. R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, 13 vols. (New York: Bollingen Foundation, 1954), esp. vol. 4.

[127] Ibid., 7:116.

[128] 1 Ne. 13:33–37; 14:18–30.