Monday, June 17, 2013

Laban’s Sword of “Most Precious Steel” (Howlers #5)

In his account of his encounter with Laban, an important official in Jerusalem around 600 B.C. Nephi states, “I beheld his sword, and I drew it forth from the sheath thereof; and the hilt thereof was of pure gold, and the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine, and I saw that the blade thereof was of the most precious steel” (1 Nephi 4:9). Nephi’s description of this weapon was long considered anachronistic:

“This is the earliest account of steel to be found in history.”
E. D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (1834), 25-26.   

“Laban’s sword was steel, when it is a notorious fact that the Israelites knew nothing of steel for hundreds of years afterwards. Who but as ignorant s person as Rigdon would have perpetrated all these blunders?” 
Clark Braden in Public Discussion, 1884, 109.

“Laban is represented as killed by one Nephi, some six hundred years before Christ, with a sword `of the most precious steel,’ hundreds of years before steel was known to man!”
Daniel Bartlett, The Mormons or, Latter-day Saints (1911), 15.         
“[The Book of Mormon] speaks of the most `precious steel,’ before the commonest had been dreamt of.”
C. Sheridan Jones, The Truth about the Mormons (1920), 4-5.   

“Nephi . . . wielded a sword `of the most precious steel.’ But steel was not known to man in those days.”
Stuart Martin, The Mystery of Mormonism (1920), 44.  

“Laban had a steel sword long before steel came into use.”
George Arbaugh, Revelation in Mormonism (1932), 55.  

“Every commentator on the Book of Mormon has pointed out the many cultural and historical anachronisms, such as the steel sword of Laban in 600 B.C.”
Thomas O’Dea, The Mormons (1957), 39.   

“No one believes that steel was available to Laban or anyone else in 592 B.C.”
William Whalen, The Latter-day Saints in the Modern World (1964), 48.

Today, the cutting remarks of  past critics notwithstanding, it is increasingly apparent that the practice of hardening iron through deliberate carburization, quenching and tempering was well known to the ancient world from which Nephi came "It seems evident” notes one recent authority, “that by the beginning of the tenth century B.C. blacksmiths were intentionally steeling iron."  (Robert Maddin, James D. Muhly and Tamara S. Wheeler, “How the Iron Age Began,” Scientific American 237/4 [October 1977]:127).

Archaeologists, for example, have discovered evidence of sophisticated iron technology from the island of Cyprus. One interesting example was a curved iron knife found in an eleventh century tomb. Metallurgist Erik Tholander analyzed the weapon and found that it was made of “quench-hardened steel.” Other examples are known from Syro-Palestine. For example, an iron knife was found in an eleventh century Philistine tomb showed evidence of deliberate carburization.  Another is an iron pick found at the ruins of an fortress on Mount Adir in northern Galilee and may date as early as the thirteenth century B.C. “The manufacturer of the pick had knowledge of the full range of iron-working skills associated with the production of quench hardened steel” (James D. Muhly, “How Iron technology changed the ancient world and gave the Philistines a military edge,” Biblical Archaeology Review 8/6 [November-December 1982]: 50).

According to Amihai Mazar this implement was “made of real steel produced by carburizing, quenching and tempering.”  (Amihai Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible 10,000-586 B.C.E. New York: Doubleday, 1990, 361).

More significant, perhaps, in relation to the sword of Laban, archaeologists have discovered a carburized iron sword near Jericho. The sword which had a bronze haft, was one meter long and dates to the time of king Josiah, who would have been a contemporary of Lehi. This find has been described as "spectacular" since it is apparently "the only complete sword of its size and type from this period yet discovered in Israel."(Hershall Shanks, “Antiquities director confronts problems and controversies,” Biblical Archaeology Review 12/4 [July-August 1986]: 33, 35).

Today the sword is displayed at Jerusalem's Israel Museum. For a photo of the sword see here.

The sign on the display reads:

This rare and exceptionally long sword, which was discovered on the floor of a building next to the skeleton of a man, dates to the end of the First Temple period. The sword is 1.05 m. long (!) and has a double edged blade, with a prominent central ridge running along its entire length.

The hilt was originally inlaid with a material that has not survived, most probably wood. Only the nails that once secured the inlays to the hilt can still be seen. The sword's sheath was also made of wood, and all that remains of it is its bronze tip. Owing to the length and weight of the sword, it was probably necessary to hold it with two hands. The sword is made of iron hardened into steel, attesting to substantial metallurgical know-how. Over the years, it has become cracked, due to corrosion.

Such discoveries lend a greater sense of historicity to Nephi's passing comment in the Book of Mormon.

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