Monday, July 22, 2013

Sheum (Howlers # 16)

"Neas" and "sheum." Pray tell me what kinds of grain neas and sheum are. Joseph Smith's translation needs another translation, to render it intelligible.

Origen Bacheler, Mormonism Exposed (1838), 14.

The Book of Mormon mentions sheum as one of several crops cultivated by the people of Zeniff during the second century B.C. (Mosiah 9:9). While this term is not found in the Bible, it is an attested Akkadian cereal name dating to the third millennium B.C. (Jean Bottero, Elena Cassin and Jean Vercoutter, eds., The Near East: The Early Civilizations. New York: Delacorte Press, 1967, 63; Robert F. Smith, "Some `Neologisms' from the Mormon Canon." In Conference on the Language of the Mormons. Provo: Brigham Young University Lanaguage Research Center, 1973, 66).

Use of this ancient Akkadian term in the Book of Mormon is significant, since the Jaredite colony may have come from Mesopotamia at approximately the same time (Ether 1:33). The term would have been unknown to the translator of the Book of Mormon, however, since Akkadian could not be read until decades after the Book of Mormon was published (Ernst Doblhofer, Voices in Stone: The Decipherment of Ancient Scripts and Writings. New York: Collier Books, 1971, 121-148; Cyrus H. Gordon, Forgotten Scripts: Their Ongoing Discovery and Decipherment. New York: Dorset Press, 1987, 55-85).

The reference to sheum in an agricultural context in the Book of Mormon constitutes a significant piece of evidence supporting the antiquity of the Book of Mormon. "It is a well known fact," writes Professor Hildegard Lewy, a specialist in ancient Assyrian and Babylonian [Akkadian] languages, "that the name of plants and particularly of [grains] are applied in various languages and dialects to different species." Lewy notes that this often poses a challenge in interpreting references to Assyrian cereals in ancient near Eastern documents.  When doing so, "the meaning of these Old Assyrian terms must be inferred from the Old Assyrian texts alone without regard to their signification in sources from Babylonia and other regions adjacent to Assyria" (Hildegard Lewy, "Some old Assyrian cereal names," Journal of the American Oriental Society 76/4 October--December 1956: 201).

Other Assyriologists have observed that the ancient Assyrian term sheum was used at various times to refer to barley, grains generally, and even pine nuts (The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Edited by John A. Brinkman, et. al. Chicago: Oriental Institute, 1992, 17, part 2: 345-55). Since sheum in the Book of Mormon account is mentioned in addition to barley and wheat, the term was likely used by Book of Mormon peoples to refer to some other new world crop of which there are a variety of possible candidates.

For more information on sheum and neas see the Willes Center's Book of Mormon Onomasticon Project.

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