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, . . .
You can see how this name could apply to either the servant or the stone.
“The punctuation seems to indicate that Gazelem is the name of the stone, not the servant.” The LDS Bible Dictionary, however, favors the name of the servant being Gazelem.
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).”
So the “light bright stone” is called a “gazelle stone” because it gleams like the eye of a gazelle. Makes sense, though the thought would never have occurred to me independently.
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?
No. There is only one extant manuscript of The Acts of Peter, and it is part of the Nag Hammadi papyri, which was not discovered until 1945, and not translated into English until the 1970’s.
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?
No. The only other words used as apparent names for such stones is “interpreters,” which we find in the same passage as Gazelem.5
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.
Under the first possibility, and I stress it is only a possibility, could the word “gazelem” be the plural form? Under the second possibility, could the word “gazelem” mean “your gazelle”?
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.
So if “interpreters” and the “Gazelem stone” are both the same thing, how can it be described as both plural (interpreters) and singular (stone)?
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.”
This is amazing. Are the mysteries of God found in language? If so, I would appreciate your thoughts on the interchangeable use of the word disciple and apostle (not to go off the topic), but I have struggled with this concept for quite some time.
As always thanks for the time and effort you put into your posts.
Thanks for your kind words, Maryann.
My first take on the two words you mention is that “disciple” is one who follows the “discipline” of a certain teacher or teaching.
An “apostle” is one who is sent forth by the teacher to teach others.
There is obviously a lot of overlap between the two.
A delightful nugget, Corbin, discovered as it were like the glint of a gold nugget in a stream bed. Close reading opens our eyes to even the possibility that such mysteries exist.
While I don’t see any direct linguistic connection, also take a look at the mystical Jewish tradition of the ‘tzohar’, a glowing stone supposedly given to Adam as he left the Garden of Eden and handed down from father to son until it was given to Noah, who put it to good use in the ark. The recent movie, ‘Noah’ liberally expands that tradition to include there being many such stones and the tzohars having the power to explode.
Thanks for your comment, Kevin.
I love it!
They’re almost as useful as a Swiss army knife.
I think it is all much simpler than that. Gazelem is probably Joe's own coinage based on the English word "gaze." Not so romantic but probably true considering JS's pedestrian mind.
JS’s pedestrian mind
It is obviously impossible to discount your theory, Lee. You may be right.
But one thing seems certain to me.
No “pedestrian mind” produced the Book of Mormon.
I’ve always believed in the Book of Mormon, but in the back of my mind “Gazelem” always felt like a word Joseph might’ve made up. A seer stone, that you gaze into. Always seemed weird.
Thanks for talking me down from the precipice of that cup of coffee I’ve been staring into.
(Now if you could explain shinehah (Abr 3:13))
Thanks for reading the post, Lemuel, and for taking the time to comment.
I think we have to begin by admitting that Joseph Smith could have made up ANY of the words that appear in the Book of Mormon.
Granting that, however, it is still striking to me that the Book of Mormon calls a shining stone “gazelem” while two other ancient documents apparently inaccessible to Joseph Smith call a shining or blazing stone “gazelle.”
The link Corbin references says that Gazelem might come from the semitic g-z-r and that its Egyptian cognate is d-s-r. Tzohar could just as easily be spelled dsohar and be pronounced the same And fulfill the cognate d-s-r And thus match it with g-z-r. Boom!
Thanks for your comment, Wonderboy.
While the link does provide that possible etymology, I find it less persuasive than the “gazelle stone” I discuss.
Here is why.
First, there is no “r” in Gazelem, and it must be accounted for by a speculative linguistic shift from “r” to “l.”
The Egyptian cognate of “d-s-r” you mention came from Nibley, I believe, who wants to connect it to the Egyptian word for “honeybee.”
If this is correct (and I stress the “if” here), then this makes sense in the case of the Book of Mormon giving the name “deseret” for the honeybees the Jaredites carried with them.
A “honeybee,” however, makes little sense in the context of a passage talking about a shining stone.
Although the possible connection between “d-s-r” and “tzohar” (the famous Jewish shining stone) is tempting, it seems a long way around to get there.
But the cross-cultural development and transliteration of language is a complicated thing, so I would not want to discount such a possibility entirely.
Just some thoughts.
Very nice connections. I think there are many evidences like this waiting to be found. Any one of these alone is enough to prove the book of Mormon true, but there is also always a way to explain away these little miracles. It always goes back to desire: If we desire to believe and seek God we will find him. If we desire to disbelieve and deny God we will be given according to those desires too. That is how God’s justice works. (I realize it is also how confirmation bias works, but that only confirms the principle, (or contradicts it) depending on your desires.)
Personally it strengthens my understanding, and my faith. I love “weird Mormonism” I remember looking for seers stones even as a kid, I never understood how people could loose faith when they find out about these types of things, it fires my imagination and makes me hope for greater things. My only sadness is that the correlation department is trying to take the good stuff out of the doctrine! I say lets keep Mormonism Weird, and return to the roots of our faith. That is where I have always found the best reasons to believe.
This is my Weird Mormon testimony:
Thanks for your comments, Benjamin.
I agree with you regarding the deleterious effects of the Correlation Committee on Mormon Doctrine.
I do have to take issue with one thing you say, though, and that is that “any one of these (connections) alone is enough to prove the Book of Mormon true.”
I am a bit more cautious than that. I do think that either this particular instance is a remarkable coincidence, or that it strongly suggests a link to an ancient usage.
But equating that with the Book of Mormon being “true” is another thing entirely.
I have posted elsewhere on Rational Faiths regarding the fact that the Book of Mormon shows evidence of being a 19th century American production, which to me is unmistakable.
I have also posted elsewhere on Rational Faiths (and in this blog) regarding the fact that the Book of Mormon shows evidence of being a product of the ancient world, which again to me is unmistakable.
The evidence leads me to conclude that the Book of Mormon is not either ancient or modern; it is both.
Similarly, the evidence leads me to conclude that the Book of Mormon is not either historical or fictional; it is both.
(The issue of either “true” or “false” I don’t even want to get into because so many assumptions are built into the individual usage of those terms.)
Or perhaps put a little more finely, the Book of Mormon appears to be a work of 19th century fiction with links to the ancient world.
It is a strange conclusion, I admit, but it is where the evidence leads me.
Maybe it’s just part of keeping Mormonism “weird.”
“Gazelam” is found 5 times as a code name for Joseph Smith in the Doctrine & Covenants.
Gazelam = Enoch = Joseph Smith
You are absolutely correct!
In earlier editions of the Doctrine and Covenants, Joseph Smith used several code names for himself (and others) in the printed versions.
Joseph seemed to have several such code names, including (as you mention) Enoch and Gazelam. (I think he also used Barak-Ale, but don’t quote me on that.)
Anyway, it seems Joseph saw himself in some way as the servant referenced in the Book of Mormon passage quoted. Although I am not sure why he would change the spelling of the last “e” in Gazelem to an “a” (Gazelam).
Maybe it was a type-o or some other glitch in the writing, copying or publishing process. Or if correct as it stands, perhaps Joseph wanted a similar, though not identical, code name for himself.
Regardless of whether Joseph Smith may have seen himself as the embodiment of Book of Mormon “Gazelem,” the text indicates it was also (or primarily–or singularly) the name of the stone itself, as opposed to being the name of the servant.
I do think, however, that Joseph Smith’s adoption of this code name led to the LDS Bible Dictionary emphatically (though I think incorrectly) designating Book of Mormon “Gazelem” as the name of a servant of God.
One other point of interest in regard to a seer and a stone being named the same thing is the JST translation of John 1:42:
“Thou art Simon the son of Jona: thou shalt be called Cephas, which is, by interpretation, a seer, or a stone.”
This was a very “enlightening” article. Thanks so much for it. Regarding your belief that the Book of Mormon is both ancient and a 19th century production, I was surprised to read that you, too, have reached the second part of that conclusion. For the last two decades, I’ve reviewed all the evidence on this argument that I’m aware of, and haven’t found any of them persuasive, though I’m someone who believes JS fabricated all sorts of experiences and teachings. But the teachings in the BoM weren’t hot topics in the 19th century to any greater extent than they were in the Reformation three centuries earlier, and the English is from non-KJV source as well. What evidence did you find particularly persuasive on its 19th century origins? Maybe I’ve missed some books or articles in all my reading (a distinct possibility, I admit.)
A recent conference sponsored jointly by Interpreter, A Journal of Mormon Scripture and BYU Studies held last month in Provo was entitled “Exploring the Complexities in the English Language of the Book of Mormon”. Stanford Carmack, Jan J. Martin, Nick Frederick and Royal Skousen spoke. Did you attend this conference or have you watched it online? If so, did you find the presentations unpersuasive? I was there and found them excellent. Carmack and Skousen provided what I regard as more irrefutable evidence that linguistically, the English in the BoM is taken from the period of 1470 to 1740, but contains many phrases from that period that aren’t contained in the KJV. Skousen said that what Joseph read in the stone appears was and already-prepared early modern English translation produced over almost three centuries by a committee of scholars. Carmack showed the BoM’s bad grammar, was actually good grammar in the 15th and 16th century. Martin showed the doctrine in the BoM appears to mirror themes debated by William Tyndale and Martin Luther when English biblical interpretation was in its infancy. I hope for your response.
The term “Urim and Thummim” is never used in the Book of Mormon, but it is interesting that “Urim” means “lights.” No coicidence apparently.
The problems with spelling variations mostly disappear when we realize that Joseph’s words were dictated to scribes, who would have had no clue about how to spell something like “Gazelem.” That means the Hebrew “im” plural ending can be seen as a real possibility. Fascinating article!
Jack, not exactly. Royal Skousen’s 30+ year study of the BoM manuscripts have shown some interesting conclusions including thr confirmation that Joseph spelled out difficult (and some not so difficult) words the first time he dictated them. This is in line with what more than one BoM scribe attested. In fact, at one point Oliver Cowdery was so miffed that Joseph could somehow stare into his hat and correct Oliver’s spelling that he wouldn’t be satisfied until he had a chance to translate and see how it was done. There is testimony from Oliver and supporting evidence in the D&C that he did successfully translate for at least a small while, and Oliver said that he did see how it was done.
Well, doggone it, that’s a good point. Shoot.
By the way, what are your sources for your statements about Oliver Cowdery and the translation? I’d *really* like to have those.