We're nearly done; this is the next-to-last entry in this series. Next time I make it a little clearer what was the point of this exercise.
If we were to look at the Bible and try to settle a question about their money at various points in the narrative – whether it was coins or weighted metal or anything else – we would still not have exhausted our options. If you look at the money discussed in the Bible, a drachma or a denarius and so forth – sure, we actually have samples that archaeologists have found. We know exactly what they look like. Dealers in ancient coins even have them for sale. For those whose pockets aren't so deep, the pictures can still be found on the internet. But consider this: the Bible actually has little direct information on the coins. The most detailed passage is probably when Jesus calls attention to the image and inscription of Caesar on some coins used in his day. But he does this to make a point about the coin's relationship to Caesar. For the most part, the coins aren't described; they are simply background to the financial transactions taking place.
Why are the coins in the Bible not described? The Biblical texts do not describe the coins because everybody knew what they were. I wouldn't describe a penny or a quarter to you; you already know what they are. I wouldn't tell you how many pennies in a quarter, or how many quarters to a dollar, because everyone in this culture already knows how many pennies to a quarter and how many quarters to a dollar.
Odd, odd, odd, that the Book of Mormon stops and explains their money system, how many of this goes into one of the next size up, and so forth.
5 Now the reckoning is thus -- a senine of gold, a seon of gold, a shum of gold, and a limnah of gold.
6 A senum of silver, an amnor of silver, an ezrom of silver, and an onti of silver.
7 A senum of silver was equal to a senine of gold, and either for a measure of barley, and also for a measure of every kind of grain.
8 Now the amount of a seon of gold was twice the value of a senine.
9 And a shum of gold was twice the value of a seon.
10 And a limnah of gold was the value of them all.
11 And an amnor of silver was as great as two senums.
12 And an ezrom of silver was as great as four senums.
13 And an onti was as great as them all.
14 Now this is the value of the lesser numbers of their reckoning --
15 A shiblon is half of a senum; therefore, a shiblon for half a measure of barley.
16 And a shiblum is a half of a shiblon.
17 And a leah is the half of a shiblum.
18 Now this is their number, according to their reckoning.
19 Now an antion of gold is equal to three shiblons.
(Book of Mormon, Alma 11:9-19)
It's tempting to get drawn into the details, but it's difficult to know where to start.
- The money-unit suffixes contain a bizarre mix of endings. Some are Latin-looking suffixes (-um) and Greek-looking suffixes (-on) that, theoretically, shouldn't even be there in a book of supposedly Hebrew-ish origins. The few plurals are formed English-style on top of the Greek-looking or Latin-looking roots (-ons, -ums). There is no sign of any Hebrew-looking plurals (-ot, -im). It makes the observer wish even more keenly for a look at the supposed original language; it would be fascinating. The skeptic could easily imagine Joseph Smith's amateurish hand at work.
- If it was just by weight, would there be a point to the table of how many silver this amounted to how many silver of the next unit, or how many gold of one unit equaled how many gold of the next unit? If it's twice as heavy it's worth twice as much, right? So the fact that there is an explanation suggests actual coins rather than weights.
- Speaking of weights -- if it were by actual weights, you'd expect to see the measures re-used somewhere. We use ounces to weigh both gold and silver. If some of the units were weights, why would they have different units for gold and silver? Different values for gold and silver, sure. Different basic units of weight for gold and silver -- why in the world?
If our focus were coins or money, this would be a problem for the Book of Mormon's credibility, since several different lines of argument from the text converge on the units being actual coins rather than weights, and the ancient New World had no coins as best we can tell. (That's without the linguistic points of interest in the coin names, which pose an entirely different problem for the Book of Mormon's credibility.)
But our focus is on the bigger picture than the question of the money used. So let's step back a little and look at the context.
Some Bibles have little tables explaining ancient coin systems – but they are not part of the text; they do not have a chapter and verse. Those tables of the coin systems have been added as study aids because modern readers of our time and culture do not know the ancient coin systems. The original texts don't contain an explanation because everyone who shared that culture already knew their own coin system.
Why did the Book of Mormon stop and explain the money system in the middle of its narrative? What was its audience? The only book I can recall – aside from the Book of Mormon – that stops to explain the coin system in the middle of the narrative is the Harry Potter books explaining the knuts and sickles and galleons.
"The gold ones are Galleons," he [Hagrid] explained. "Seventeen silver Sickles to a Galleon and twenty-nine Knuts to a Sickle, it's easy enough." (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, from their visit to Diagon Alley.)The book stopped to explain the coin system precisely because the readers would not know what they were; in other words, precisely because they were made-up and imaginary coins that nobody in the real world had ever used. So why did the original authors of the Book of Mormon, a supposedly ancient text about a supposedly real culture, stop to describe the monetary system in the middle of the narrative?
I suppose someone could say the original Book of Mormon in the original language didn't contain that – that Joseph Smith added it to be helpful to modern readers. There would be no way anyone could prove that claim wrong, given that there are no manuscripts in the original languages. Then again, there would be no way the claimant could prove himself right, either.
Next time: the conclusion and the point of this exercise.