There is a mystery in the middle of the Book of Mormon. It involves a stone. But not just any stone. A very unusual stone. A stone that shines. A stone that recalls the words of Galadriel, “May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.”
This is the story of how I stumbled across this mystery.
And this strange mystery surfaced, as such mysteries often do, in the seemingly most innocent and unlikely of places.
AN APOCRYPHAL EPIPHANY
A funny thing happened the other day while I was perusing the New Testament Apocrypha. No, seriously. I do that kind of thing. Okay, I’m a geek. I know. I’m seeking treatment.
Anyway, the morning of Sunday, February 23, 2015 finds me in a comfortable chair with Schneemelcher’s New Testament Apocrypha open in my lap.
Over the last several months, I have worked my way through the first volume and now find myself deep into the second volume. I commence reading an unfamiliar text titled The Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles.1
It is a charming story about how Peter and the apostles sail to a mysterious island and encounter a handsome man, strangely dressed, who goes about crying, “Pearls! Pearls!” and trying as best he can to give pearls away for free.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Peter asks the gentleman for his name.
He answered and said: “If you ask my name, Lithargoel is my name, the interpretation of which is ‘the light bright stone.”
That’s interesting, I think. Here we have a guy giving away pearls, which are “light bright stones,” and his name is “light bright stone.”
This reminds me of a passage from the Book of Mormon. Alma 37:23 references either a stone or a person named Gazelem. (I say either a stone or a person because the passage itself is somewhat ambiguous on this point.)
Here is the passage from the Book of Mormon:
And the Lord said: I will prepare unto my servant Gazelem, a stone, which shall shine forth in darkness unto light, . . .
But I do find it mildly interesting that the name Lithargoel in The Acts of Peter applies both to the person himself and also to the pearls he is passing out. Sort of like the name Gazelem could apply either to the person in the passage, or the stone.
THE OTHER SHOE DROPS
Although this arouses my interest, it is nothing to write home about. And nothing to write a blog about, either. But I am sufficiently intrigued to turn a few pages and read the relevant endnote in The Acts of Peter.
That’s when my jaw drops.
Here is the first sentence of the endnote to the name Lithargoel.
Lit. ‘the light gazelle stone’.
Are you kidding me? The name that The Acts of Peter itself interprets as “the light bright stone” literally means “the light gazelle stone”?
I sit up in my chair. I rub my eyes. I look again at the endnote. Yep. That’s what it says all right. And the word “gazelle” is even italicized for emphasis in the endnote.
So, in other words, a “light bright stone” in The Acts of Peter is called gazelle, and a stone in the Book of Mormon that shines forth from darkness unto light is called Gazelem?
I am shocked by the similarity.
WHAT IN HELL’S A GAZELLE STONE?
But what does a gazelle have to do with a stone anyway? I have never heard of a “gazelle stone.” I read further in the same endnote:
“What is meant is a light stone which gleams like the eye of a gazelle. . . . Here ‘gazelle stone’ or ‘bright stone’ is the proper interpretation of the name Lithargoel (leaving out the element –el), . . .. The element ‘light’ is added only by virtue of the context, to establish the link with the pearl, of which Lithargoel is here taken to be in charge (and which is indeed lighter than a real precious stone).”
I think this is a remarkable coincidence. I start asking myself questions. I want to see if I can solve this mystery. And the most likely way to solve the mystery, it seems to me, is to come up with a naturalistic explanation for why it is the Book of Mormon should choose to call a shining stone Gazelem.
I want to see if I can find a rational explanation for the coincidence. Is this something I could reasonably expect Joseph Smith to have come up with on his own?
Question No. 1—Where does our word “gazelle” come from?
It looks like a French spelling. I ask my wife to look it up on her I-Pad. It is French. But the French word is based on the Arabic word, “ghazal.”
Arabic is a Semitic language–the same language family group as Hebrew.2
Question No. 2—Does the phrase “gazelle stone” appear in the Bible?
No. Not only does the phrase “gazelle stone” not appear in the KJV Bible, the word “gazelle” itself (like the word “apology”) is not mentioned in the KJV Bible.3
Question No. 3—Does Joseph Smith ever use the term “gazelle stone” to refer to a shining stone?
No. Although Joseph Smith had a lot of experience with shining stones, he nowhere refers to a stone as a “gazelle stone.” In fact, a search at the Joseph Smith Papers Project for the word “gazelle” yields zero hits. So it looks like he didn’t talk about gazelles a lot, either.
Question No. 4—How common is the term “gazelle stone”?
I have never heard of it, but maybe other people use it. I do a google search. I find no reference to a “gazelle stone” except for its usage in The Acts of Peter.
A friend of mine, however, who is an able scholar and better researcher, does find one other attestation of the term “gazelle stone.” It is used in an ancient Sumerian mythic poem dated to around 2,000 BCE. The “gazelle stone” appears in the myth as one of a number of stones flung against the protagonist, Ninurta, the Sumerian god of war.
Question No. 5–But does the Sumerian “gazelle stone” shine like the “gazelle stone” in The Acts of Peter or the Book of Mormon Gazelem?
Yes. Not only does it shine, it blazes. The myth describes the “gazelle stone” (together with the Dubban stone and the Urutum stone) as “blazing holocausts” that “flared up against me in the rebel regions like a conflagration.”
Question No. 6—Did Joseph Smith have access to a copy of The Acts of Peter?
It was therefore unavailable to Joseph Smith when producing the book of Mormon almost 150-years earlier in 1829.
Question No. 7—What is the breakdown of the name “Lith-argo-el”?
It is composed of three parts; the first two being Greek and the third apparently being Hebrew.
“Lith” is Greek for rock or stone, as in “mono-lith,” or “paleo-lith-ic.”
“Argo” is Greek for gazelle, coming from the word for “swift,” as in the name of the ship sailed by Jason and the Argo-nauts.
“El” is a suffix which in Semitic languages, including Arabic, means “god” or “deity.”4
Question No. 8—Does the word Gazelem occur anywhere else in the scriptures?
No. In fact, it doesn’t look like it appears anywhere at all in any context that is not derivative from the Book of Mormon.
Question No. 9—Does the Book of Mormon refer to seer stones or shining stones by any other unusual name?
Although seer stones or shining stones are referred to several times in Mosiah and Ether, it is only in Alma 37:23 where a name is apparently given to the stone—and that name is Gazelem.
This is similar to Alma 37:39, where in the same chapter that the name of the stone is given as Gazelem, the Book of Mormon also gives the name of the compass found by Lehi in 1 Nephi 16:10 to be Liahona. (I think this fact weighs in favor of understanding Gazelem to be the name of the stone rather than the servant, just as Liahona is the name of the compass rather then the person who found it.)6
Liahona, like Gazelem, appears only once in the Book of Mormon, and is given as the name of an article that is described elsewhere only in general terms.
Question No. 10—Granted that the Book of Mormon application of Gazelem to a shining stone is surprising enough on its own, what are we to make of the final “-m” or “-em” suffix? In other words, the name is not “Gazel” or “Gazele,” but “Gazelem.”
Why is there an “-em” at the end? Here we get into speculation. As I mentioned before, I am no linguist. But I have to confess I did ask myself whether the suffix of “-em” is similar enough to the Hebrew suffix “-im” to be a consideration.
The suffix “-im” is the masculine plural in Hebrew, as in Elohim, or “Gods.” But the suffix “-em” is the second person, plural, masculine possessive in Hebrew. In other words, it means “your” if you are referring to more than one person.
Question No. 11—But isn’t trying to tack on a Hebrew suffix (-im; -em) to an Arabic word (gazal) playing fast and loose?
Quite possibly. Have I mentioned yet I am no linguist?
Though I can’t help but notice that the name Lithargoel does a similar thing. In other words, it tacks on a Hebrew suffix (-el) to the Greek words Lith and argo in order to create one name.
So maybe the possibility of a Hebrew suffix on the end of Arabic gazal isn’t so fast and loose after all.
Question No. 12—If we take the last letter(s) on Gazelem to be the Hebrew suffix meaning plural, how does that make sense when the reference in the Book of Mormon is to only one stone? In other words, why would a plural name be given to a singular object?
Although this doesn’t seem to make sense on its face, it nevertheless falls into the same pattern already present in the Book of Mormon passage where a singular object is described with a plural name. Let me explain.
The passage in question (Alma 37:21-25) speaks of “interpreters” two times, once before the usage of the name Gazelem and once after. But the term Gazelem references a singular stone—not plural stones.
And yet it is clear from the context that the “interpreters” (plural) have the same function as the Gazelem “stone” (singular). The function for both is to bring to light the secret works and abominations of the Jaredites.
I don’t have the answer for that, though a similar confusion arises in LDS Church history between the Urim and Thummim (plural) and Joseph Smith’s seer stone (singular), which are sometimes used interchangeably.
All I can say is that if we understand Gazelem to be a plural form, it fits right in with the confusion of plural and singular usages already manifest in the passage in its current English translation. If this is the case, and Gazelem is a plural name for a singular stone, it is mirrored by the usage of the plural “interpreters” for the same singular stone.
Question No. 13–How early can we date the usage of “gazelle stone” in The Acts of Peter?
The Nag Hammadi codex materials have been dated to the first half of the fourth century CE. Though impossible to ascertain how much earlier than that it may have been written, some speculate it may have come into existence as early as the second century, noting little obvious reliance of its themes and phrases on those of the New Testament. The Sumerian usage of “gazelle stone” in the Ninurta Myth Lugal-E referenced above is dated to around 2,000 BCE.
Question No. 14—Has this possible connection between Book of Mormon Gazelem and Lithargoel in The Acts of Peter ever been noticed before?
Yes. While there have been several attempts to come up with an Old World interpretation of Book of Mormon Gazelem, none are as contextually significant as understanding it to be a shining stone. The only place I can find where a possible link is suggested between Lithargoel in The Acts of Peter and Gazelem in the Book of Mormon, however, is by John A. Tvedtness in a short blog article written in 2005 which though initially approved as a FARMS Update was never published.
The Tvedtness article briefly describes the possible connection and concludes with a call for further research. So credit goes to John A. Tvedtness who saw the connection a full decade before I stumbled upon it independently in the comfort of my chair on a sunny Sunday morning. I hope this blog post at least partially satisfies his call for further research on the subject.
We have something unusual here in the Book of Mormon; a mystery of sorts. We have a name apparently given to a shining stone, and that name is Gazelem. From another text, The Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles, we find the name “gazelle-stone” given to shining stones (pearls), because the stones are lustrous and bright like the eyes of a gazelle. From an ancient Sumerian myth of Ninurta, we find a “gazelle stone” described as a “blazing holocaust” that “flared up . . . like a conflagration.”
This is a strange coincidence.
Making it stranger still are the facts that: (1) The English word gazelle derives from the Arabic word ghazal; (2) The Acts of Peter was unavailable for use by Joseph Smith in producing the Book of Mormon; (3) Gazelem is the only proper name unique to Joseph Smith for a shining stone or seer stone; (4) Gazelem appears only once in all the standard works (or pretty much anywhere else for that matter), and it is used this one time in direct connection with a stone that shines in darkness; and (5) Using the word gazelle to describe a stone as bright or shining is rare and seems to be unattested in any sources other than The Acts of Peter and the ancient Sumerian Ninurta Myth Lugal-E. . . and possibly the Book of Mormon.
I don’t know what to make of the fact that the Book of Mormon appears to name a shining stone Gazelem.
But it does strike me it must be one of two things. It is either a remarkable coincidence or it means something.
Either way, it is a mystery to me.
1 Wilhelm Schneemelcher, ed., New Testament Apocrypha (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003 ), 2:412-25.
2 Arabia is just south of Israel, and languages have a tendency to bleed from one culture to another. (Look at how “gazelle” bled from Arabic to French to English.) And the Book of Mormon describes Lehi and Company as spending eight years traveling through Arabia to Bountiful, which is itself on the east coast of the Arabian Peninsula.
3 The only place “gazelle” appears in the LDS version is in the Bible Dictionary where the English interpretation of the New Testament Greek female name Dorcas is listed as “gazelle.”
4 This Semitic suffix is considered in the last line of the same endnote in New Testament Apocrypha on the name Lithargoel, which states, “Perhaps the text really meant: ‘the <(angel) of the> light bright stone(s)”, i.e., the angel of the pearl(s).”
5 Note that in the original 1830 Book of Mormon, the word used was “directors,” not “interpreters.”
6 Though I can’t help noticing that “Liah” is similar to “Lehi” and ‘ona is a Hebrew suffix meaning “direction or motion to a certain place.”