Sacred Writing on Metal Plates in the Ancient Mediterranean
Sacred Writing on Metal Plates in the Ancient Mediterranean
William J. Hamblin
The alleged absurdity of the Book of Mormon having been
written on golden plates and its claim of the existence of an early sixth
century BC version of the Hebrew Bible written on bronze (brass) plates1
has long been a favorite target of critics of the book.2 Today,
however, the critics tend to admit that there are numerous examples of ancient
writing on metal plates. Indeed, they have for the most part dropped the argument
that the idea of ancient writing on metal plates is absurd; some ironically
now claim instead that knowledge of ancient writing on metal plates was readily
available in Joseph Smith’s day. Joseph is now pictured as simply having absorbed
from his environment an idea originally dismissed as absurd.3
In this regard Hugh Nibley’s observation that “it will not be long before
men forget that in Joseph Smith’s day the prophet was mocked and derided for
his description of the plates more than anything else” seems quite prescient.4
What were the “brass plates” of the Book of Mormon? Following standard
early modern English usage,5 the term
brass in the Book of Mormon most likely
has reference to various forms of the copper and tin alloy that we currently
call bronze, rather than the alloy of copper and zinc now known as brass.6 In this usage the Book of Mormon consistently
follows the King James Version of the Bible, which also never uses the word
bronze. The biblical Hebrew word nechushah
was used indiscriminately to describe metals we would now distinguish as native
copper as well as alloys that contain mostly copper, such as bronze or modern
brass. It is usually translated in the KJV as brass but is rendered four times as steel.7 The adoption of the word bronze (from Italian bronzo) for the copper/tin alloy to distinguish it from the
brass copper/zinc alloy only became current in English in the late eighteenth
century.8 Even thereafter, “in reference
to ancient times, and esp[ecially] to the nations of antiquity, ‘brass’ still
meant the older [copper-and-tin] alloy.”9 I will therefore use
the modern terminology bronze plates
in preference to the archaic brass plates, except in direct quotations from the Book of Mormon.
Previous studies have succeeded in demonstrating the widespread practice
of writing on metal plates in antiquity.10 I will
attempt in this paper to provide a fuller historical context by focusing specifically
on the evidence for the use of bronze and other metal plates for the preservation
of sacred writing in four interrelated pre-Christian cultures of the central
and eastern Mediterranean—Hebrew, Phoenician, Greek, and Italic.
1. Hebrew Writing on Metal Plates
In terms of their basic material culture, the Hebrews and their Canaanite,
Phoenician, and Aramaic neighbors are quite often archaeologically indistinguishable.11 Thus, it is probably methodologically
unnecessary to attempt to distinguish Hebrew examples of writing on metal
from those of their close neighbors. However, since the Lehites came from
a specifically Hebrew cultural context, it is useful to treat Hebrew evidence
Specific Hebrew examples of writing on metal plates are relatively limited
in number, but clearly attest to the practice. There are five major examples:
1.1. The oldest example of Hebrew writing on metal is the engraved gold plate
attached to the front of the turban of the high priest (at least 10C).12 According to Exodus 28:36, Moses was
ordered to “make a plate (tzitz)
of pure gold, and engrave upon it as an engraved seal (khotem), ‘Holy to Yahweh.'”13
1.2. Excavations in the late 1970s uncovered First Temple period tombs at
Ketef Hinnom, near Jerusalem. Among the artifacts discovered in this dig were
two small silver plates dating to the seventh century BC, containing the priestly
benedictions found in Numbers 6:24-2614
and representing the “earliest fragments of the biblical text known up
to the present.”15
1.3. In 161 BC, Judas Maccabaeus concluded a treaty with the Romans, which
“the Romans engraved on bronze tablets and sent to Jerusalem for the
Jews to keep there as a record.”16 Josephus’s account states,
however, that the Jews themselves engraved the document in bronze.17
Jonathan Goldstein, in his analysis of this incident, concludes that since
there are no other known instances of Romans sending bronze treaties to their allies (as opposed to keeping
copies of these treaties on bronze plates in Rome), Josephus’s account is
probably more accurate.18 Later, in 140 BC, when Simon was proclaimed
by the Jews as both high priest and prince, “they ordered that this text
[of Simon’s privileges and responsibilities] be drawn up on bronze tablets
and set up in the precinct of the sanctuary [of the temple] in a conspicuous
place and that copies of the tablets be placed in the treasury [of the temple]
so as to be available for Simon and his sons.”19 These
examples indicate that, following the common practice of most other cultures
of the eastern Mediterranean (discussed below), the Jews kept records of important
historical documents on bronze plates in their temple.
1.4. The most well-known example of Hebrew writing on metal plates is the
famous Copper Scroll (3Q15) from Qumran (1C AD), containing a list of hidden
temple treasures.20 Although the origin and purpose of
the Copper Scroll is widely debated, it is a clear example of an attempt to
preserve an important sacred record by writing on copper/bronze (Heb. nechushah) plates and then hiding the document.21
1.5. The Hebrew ritual magic and ascension text Sefer ha-Razim
(late 3C AD) contains numerous references to writing on metal plates or amulets
In conclusion, the evidence leaves no doubt that the Hebrews had a long-standing
tradition dating at least to the First Temple period (i.e., well before 587
BC) of writing sacred texts on metal plates for amulets, inscriptions, and
2. Semitic Writing on Metal Plates24
2.1. There are numerous examples of Presargonic Sumerian writing on metal,
including knife blades, lance heads, pegs, vases, bowls, figurines, and plates,
dating from roughly 2700 to 2350 BC.25 Most notable among these
are three foundation plates: the copper plate of E
(late 25C)27 and the gold plate of Gishakidu of
Umma (early 24C).28 This evidence clearly indicates that
writing on metal plates was well known in Mesopotamia in the time of the Jaredites,
who originated there.29
2.2. The earliest known surviving example of writing on “copper plates”
from the Syria/Palestine region are the Byblos syllabic inscriptions (18C),
from the city of Byblos on the Phoenician coast.30
The script is described as a “syllabary [that] is clearly inspired by
the Egyptian hieroglyphic system, and in fact it is the most important link
between the hieroglyphs and the Canaanite alphabet.”31 Thus,
it would not be unreasonable to describe the Byblos syllabic texts as eighteenth-century
BC Semitic bronze plates written in reformed Egyptian characters.32
2.3. A large number of arrowheads bearing Phoenician inscriptions (12C-10C)
have been discovered; they are frequently thought to have been used for divination
rather than strictly military purposes.33
2.4. The Azarbaal plate is a triangular bronze plate from Byblos (mid 11C-10C)
containing a short inscription. The precise interpretation and date of this
plate is controversial, but several scholars see it as having either a magical,
ritual, or divinatory purpose.34
2.5. Shalmaneser III (859-825 BC) inscribed a golden plate (now in
the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago) describing his conquests
2.6. The Kilamuwa gold plates (830-825 BC) contain a short prayer that
was apparently attached to the handle of a staff of a courtier or priest.36 It is, incidentally, interesting to
note that many scholars see this as an Aramaic inscription written in Phoenician
script, and it is thus another example (possibly analogous to the reformed
Egyptian of the Book of Mormon) of the interchange of script and language
in the ancient Near East.
2.7. The Carthage gold pendant (8C) is a votive inscription discovered in
a later Carthaginian tomb.37
2.8. Among the many writings of Sargon II (714-705 BC) are six metal
plates (in bronze, lead, silver, and gold) from Khorsabad, containing a lengthy
inscription on Sargon’s temple-building activities.38
2.9. An important example of early Phoenician writing on gold plates is the
Pyrgi gold plate from Italy (500-475 BC).39
This plate is a dedication by the Etruscan king Thefarie Velianas to the Phoenician
goddess Astarte (syncretized to the Etruscan Uni = Latin Juno). One plate
is in Phoenician; the other two are in Etruscan (see 4.2 below). This plate
is thus a prime example of the spread of the Phoenician practice of writing
sacred texts on golden plates from their original center in Phoenicia, via
Carthage, to Italy, and is roughly contemporary with the Book of Mormon’s
claim that sacred texts were written on metal plates by the Phoenicians’ closer
neighbors, the Jews.
2.10. The Lapethos inscription from Cyprus (c. 275 BC) is not itself
a bronze plate, but contains an important reference to h-dlt h-nchst,
or “the bronze plate,” indicating that writing on bronze plates
was known in Cyprus in the third century BC.40
These examples of early Semitic sacred writing on metal plates are sufficient
to demonstrate that northwest Semitic languages were repeatedly and consistently
written on metal plates from the twenty-fifth century BC until after the Greek
conquests. The major types of metal used were copper/bronze and gold, precisely
as described in the Book of Mormon. Thus, although surviving examples of specifically
Hebrew writing on gold and bronze plates—as opposed to Phoenician or
other Semitic languages—are relatively rare, the abundance of examples
from the general cultural region shows that this type of writing was quite
3. Greek Writing on Metal Plates
According to Walter Burkert, the practice of writing on metal plates was
brought to the Greeks by Phoenicians in the seventh or sixth century BC,41 at which time they also adopted the
northwest Semitic term for “writing tablet,” dlt, as Greek deltos. The social context of writing on metal plates is preserved not only
by the archaeological remains, but also by the classical Greek lexicographer
Pollux (late 2C AD), who defined deltos chalkos (bronze plate) as referring to “ancient sacred
law.”42 In other words, the Greeks adopted
the technology and practice of engraving sacred writings on metal plates from
the Phoenicians at precisely the same time the Book of Mormon attests to the
same practice among the Phoenicians’ closest neighbors, the Jews.
Classical Greek and Latin documents on gold and bronze are well known.43 In this survey, I will provide only
some basic examples that demonstrate the range of Greek sacred and historical
writing on metal.
3.1. The Sybaris treaty from the temple at Olympia (6C BC)44
is one of the oldest examples of Greek writing on bronze plates. This plate
is a treaty between the Etruscan city of Sybaris and the “serdaioi”
(Sardinians?). It indicates that the custom of writing important historical
documents on bronze plates to be preserved in temples as historical records
dates back to at least the sixth century BC—precisely the time of Lehi.45
3.2. The temple of Dodona is noted for its large archaeological collection
of surviving prophetic bronze plates from the early centuries BC.
These include both votive inscriptions and prophetic materials from
the oracle. They thus represent an example of the preservation of prophetic
records on bronze plates.46
3.3. According to a legend recorded by Pausanius, around the year 370 BC
Epiteles the son of Aeschines had a dream in which he was told where to dig
to rescue the Great Goddess, who was “shut in her brazen chamber.”
Epiteles dug at the designated spot, discovering a bronze vessel in which
was “some tin foil, very thin, rolled like a book. On it were inscribed
the mysteries of the Great Goddesses.”47
3.4. Plutarch describes a protoarchaeological expedition that excavated in
what they called the “tomb of Alcmene.” But whatever tomb was actually
excavated, they discovered “a bronze tablet with a long inscription;
. . . the characters had a peculiar and foreign conformation, greatly resembling
that of Egyptian writing.”48
3.5. The well-known Orphic gold plates (6C-5C BC) contain a collection
of sacred texts related to the afterlife. Some interesting parallels to the
Book of Mormon have been discussed by Wilfred Griggs.49
3.6. Pausanius claims to have seen a copy of Hesiod’s Works and Days
written on lead plates and preserved at Helicon.50
3.7. A “golden book” (chrusoun biblion) containing the poetry of Aristomache of Erythrae was
deposited in the Treasury of the Sicyonians at Delphi.51
This Aristomache is not easily identifiable but is often thought to be a prophetic
Sibyl.52 If so, this is an example of keeping
a book of prophetic oracles on golden plates in a temple.
4. Italic Writing on Metal Plates
Nearly all surviving documents from Italy before the third century BC, when
Rome began its conquest of the peninsula, are in Etruscan. The vast majority
of these inscriptions are simply names on tombstones.53
The Bonfantes list only eight Etruscan documents of any length, half of which
are written on metal.54 These four metal plates are also the
oldest of the eight major surviving Etruscan documents; all of them are sacred
4.1. The lead plate of Santa Marinella (500 BC), written on both sides, was
a religious text.55
4.2. The Pyrgi plates (early 5C BC) have been discussed above (2.9). They
represent not only one of the earliest lengthy Etruscan documents, but also
sacred writing on gold plates in both Phoenician and Etruscan. Although not
quite a “Rosetta Stone,” these plates were important in the deciphering
4.3. The lead tablet of Magliano (475-450 BC) (inscribed on both sides)
is a religious text discussing rituals and sacrifices.56 Since both the Santa Marinella (4.1)
and the Magliano lead plates were inscribed on both sides, it clearly indicates
that they were not intended as dedicatory inscriptions to be mounted on walls
but were to be handled while read.
4.4. The famous bronze haruspicina (liver divination) model Settima (3C-1C BC) is
not precisely a metal plate but is nonetheless an example of sacred prophetic
writing on bronze.
That the three oldest Etruscan texts of any length (4.1, 4.2, 4.3) are all
sacred writing on metal is certainly indicative that the practice was widespread
in pre-Roman Italy. The dual Phoenician/Etruscan inscription from Pyrgi (4.2,
2.9) indicates that the practice was most likely adopted from Phoenicia, where
examples of writing sacred texts on metal plates date much earlier.
The fact that gold, bronze, and lead metal plates are durable explains in
part for the unique survival of these documents, but metal plates, being quite
valuable, would have been collected by scavengers and melted for reuse, whereas
stone inscriptions would generally be ignored. Thus, it is quite significant
that the three oldest Etruscan documents of any length are all sacred writings
on metal plates, showing a close connection with an antecedent Phoenician
practice.57 The Book of Mormon describes sacred
writing on bronze and gold plates in the early sixth century BC at precisely the time when we find the
earliest evidence of the spread of this practice from Phoenicia to Carthage,
Italy, and Greece.
Although Etruscan inscriptions predominate in pre-third-century Italy,
there are also non-Etruscan examples of sacred writings on metal plates.
4.5. The Twelve Tablets of the Law (lex duodicim tabularum)
were a set of twelve bronze plates set up in the forum of Rome as early as
449 BC.58 Some of the legal ideas, and presumably
the custom of engraving the text of the laws on bronze plates,59
were said to have been adopted from the Greeks.60 The
sacred law (sacrata lex)61
inscribed on these bronze plates could not be changed; writing them on metal
was thus a means of preserving a pristine copy.62 The
law code was originally engraved on ten tablets or plates (decem tabularum
leges), to which two additional tablets
were later added.63 The original tablets were destroyed
in the sack of Rome by the Gauls in 391 BC,
but they were apparently reinscribed shortly thereafter.64
4.6. Bronze inscriptions of laws were fundamental in early Italy. Indeed,
“any knowledge of the municipal system evolved in Italy after the Social
War must turn . . . upon the four [Latin] bronze inscriptions [of
laws].”65 Frederiksen adds that “from earliest
times until the age of Augustus bronze was the usual form of publication in
Italy. Unlike Greece, Italy had few kinds of stone suited to the inscription
of long texts until the heavy Augustan exploitation of the Luna quarries;
she had, however, again unlike Greece, good supplies of bronze—a fact
which more than any other explains the relative epigraphic paucity of Greek
and Republican Italy.”66 This is because, unlike
stone inscriptions, bronze inscriptions tended to be collected, melted, and
reused. “Important inscriptions were probably inscribed on bronze tablets,
and were destroyed in antiquity. Bronze was a useful metal so the tablets
were melted down and re-used.”67
4.7. One of the most interesting Italic examples of sacred writing on metal
plates is the Iguvium plates (3C BC), written in the Umbrian dialect of the
Italic language family.68 Of the seven plates,
five have writing on both sides, containing a total of around 4,000 words.
These texts contain the rituals and sacrifices to be performed by a clan of
Umbrian priests and, thus, are sociologically the equivalent of parts of Leviticus
and Deuteronomy, which the Book of Mormon claims were on the Hebrew bronze
The Iguvium plates are substantially larger than the golden plates of the
Book of Mormon. They range from 33×22 to 16×12 inches, while the golden plates
seem to have been about 8×6 inches, thus about a fourth of the size of the
smaller Iguvium plates. Although the Iguvium collection as a whole contains
4,000 words in Umbrian, the English translation tends to include about twice
as many words, or an approximately 8,000-word English equivalent. However,
the large Iguvium plates have large letters (54 lines in 33 inches, or over
half an inch high characters) and include characters for vowels, which were
undoubtedly absent from the Book of Mormon text. Furthermore, the Book of
Mormon was written in reformed Egyptian, which seems to have been a special
script designed to reduce the space for characters.
Using the Iguvium plates as a test case, it is possible to make a broad comparison
between them and the number of words said to have been found on the twenty-four
plates of Ether. The plates of Ether contained the equivalent of about 17,000
English words. This includes several hundred words of commentary by Mormon,
but excludes an early version of the primeval history (Genesis 1-10,
which amounts to about an additional 6,500 words in English.) Thus, the total
English word equivalent on the twenty-four plates is roughly 24,000 English
words (17,000 in Ether plus 6,500 from Genesis 1-10), which equates
to about 1,000 English words per plate (500 words per side). This compares
favorably with the equivalent of 8,000 English words on six Iguvium plates
(five double-sided and two single-sided), or 1,350 English words per plate
(675 per side). Allowing for a slightly smaller character size in the Book
of Mormon text and a writing system without vowels to offset the larger side
of the Iguvium plates, this anthology with the Iguvium plates demonstrates
that it is quite reasonable for the twenty-four plates of Ether to have contained
both the book of Ether and Genesis 1-10.
4.8. Although these archaeologically surviving examples are few in number,
there is literary evidence confirming that a vast number of bronze plates
were produced in antiquity. For example, in the great fire in Rome in AD 80,
3,000 bronze tablets are said to have been destroyed.69
Based on these examples of Hebrew, Phoenician, Greek, and Italic practices,
we can conclude that writing and preserving sacred bronze and gold plates was
a widespread phenomenon in the eastern Mediterranean world at the time of Lehi.
These bronze plates were frequently associated with four genres:
1. Ritual: recording and performing the sacred rites of priestly clans (1.1,
1.2, 1.4, 2.1, 2.6, 2.7, 2.9, 3.3, 3.5, 4.1, 4.2, 4.3, 4.7).
2. Laws: preserving a permanent record of the community’s laws (1.3, 4.5,
3. Prophecies and divination: performing divination or preserving important
prophecies or oracles (1.5, 2.3, 2.4, 3.2, 3.7, 4.4).
4. History: preserving inscriptions of important treaties and other historical
developments (1.3, 2.5, 2.8, 3.1, 3.6).
These genres broadly match the described contents of the bronze plates in
the Book of Mormon. “And he [Lehi] beheld that they [the bronze plates]
did contain  the five books of Moses . . .  a record of the Jews from
the beginning . . .  and also the prophecies of the holy prophets”
(1 Nephi 5:11-13). In other words, in traditional Jewish designation,
the bronze plates contained the Law (torah), the Prophets (nevi’im), and the Writings (ketuvim), all of which genres are found recorded on sacred
metal plates in the pre-Christian Mediterranean.
The examples provided in this essay demonstrate that sacred writing on metal
plates was a widespread phenomenon in the Semitic Near East and the eastern
Mediterranean world in the centuries just before and after Lehi. This conclusion
has also been drawn by Walter Burkert. In his 1992 study of the cultural dependency
of Greek civilization on the Near East, Burkert presented a short analysis
of the spread of the alphabet and writing styles and materials from the Near
East to Greece. In his discussion he states that “the reference to ‘bronze
deltoi [plates or tablets]’ as a term
[among the Greeks] for ancient sacral laws should point back to seventh or
sixth century [BC]” as the period in which the term deltos and the practice of writing on bronze plates was transmitted
from the Near East to Greece.70 For
students of the Book of Mormon, it is not at all surprising that in the seventh
or sixth century BC, the practice of writing on bronze plates was adopted
by the Greeks from the Phoenicians, along with the term bronze plates (deltos, from Phoenician/Hebrew dlt) to describe “ancient sacred laws.”71
This is, of course, precisely the time and place in which the Book of Mormon
claims that a set of bronze plates containing the “ancient sacred laws”
of the Hebrews existed.
See below for my rationale for equating the Book of Mormon term brass with the current usage of the term bronze. I would like to thank Matthew Roper for helpful suggestions.
Some chronologically ordered examples include John Hyde Jr., Mormonism:
Its Leaders and Designs (New York: Fetridge,
1857), 217-20; M. T. Lamb, The Golden Bible (New York: Ward and Drummond, 1887), 11; Stuart Martin,
The Mystery of Mormonism (London:
Odhams, 1920), 27; and Anthony A. Hoekema, Mormonism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1963), 89-90. Examples
could be further multiplied. I would like to thank Matthew Roper for these
For an example, see Brent Lee Metcalfe, “Apologetic and Critical Assumptions
about Book of Mormon Historicity,” Dialogue 26/3 (1993): 156-57. As I have noted elsewhere, Metcalfe distorts
his sources in his attempts to find a nineteenth-century reference to ancient
writing on gold plates. See William J. Hamblin, “An Apologist for the
Critics: Brent Lee Metcalfe’s Assumptions and Methodologies,” Review
of Books on the Book of Mormon 6/1 (1994):
462-70. Metcalfe ignores the most obvious nineteenth-century source
for the idea of writing on golden plates, the KJV translation of Exodus 28:36
(discussed below), which states that “thou shalt make a plate of pure
gold, and grave upon it . . . Holiness to the Lord.”
Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert; The World of the Jaredites; There Were
Jaredites, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret
Book and FARMS, 1988), 107.
The Oxford English Dictionary, s.v.
The word bronze never appears in the
Book of Mormon; the word brazen
(from “brazen serpent” of Helaman 8:14) is the adjectival form of
brass; Oxford English Dictionary,
s.v. “brazen.” Cf. Numbers 21:6-9 KJV, where the antecedent
serpent mentioned in Helaman 8:14 is clearly said to be of “brass.”
See George A. Buttrick, ed., The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (New York: Abingdon, 1962), s.v. “bronze.”
Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “bronze,”
where Johnson’s 1755 dictionary is cited as defining bronze as brass.
Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “brass.”
Note, however, that Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the
English Language (New York: Converse,
1828), distinguishes brass as “an alloy of copper and zinc” from
bronze, “a compound of copper and tin.”
For collections of examples by LDS authors, see C. Wilfred Griggs, “The
Book of Mormon as an Ancient Book,” in Book of Mormon Authorship:
New Light on Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B.
Reynolds (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1982), 75-101; H. Curtis
Wright, “Ancient Burials of Metal Documents in Stone Boxes,” in
By Study and Also By Faith: Essays in Honor of Hugh W. Nibley,
ed. John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and
FARMS, 1990), 273-334; H. Curtis Wright, “Metallic Documents
of Antiquity,” BYU Studies
10/4 (1970): 457-77. See also Paul R. Cheesman, Ancient
Writing on Metal Plates: Archaeological Findings Support Mormon Claims
(Bountiful, UT: Horizon, 1985), which should be used with caution; see note
25 below. See also John Tvedtnes, “Etruscan Gold Book from 600 b.c. Discovered,” Insights
23/5 (2003): 1, 6. For recent studies
on metal plates, see H. Curtis Wright, Modern Presentism in
Ancient Metal Epigraphy (Salt Lake City:
Wings of Fire Press, 2006); John W. Welch and Kelsey D. Lambert, “Two
Ancient Roman Plates,” BYU Studies 45/2
(2006): 54-76; and John A. Tvedtnes
and Matthew Roper, “One Small Step,” FARMS Review 15/1 (2003): 160-69.
For an account of why this is so, see William G. Dever, “How to Tell
a Canaanite from an Israelite,” in The Rise of Ancient Israel, ed. Hershel Shanks (Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology
Society, 1992), 27-60.
Throughout this paper I will use parentheses to indicate the date of a document
under discussion. Most of these dates are archaeological approximations. All
dates are BC unless otherwise indicated. C
indicates “century”: thus (10C) means tenth century BC, (6C) means
sixth century BC, etc.
The engraved stone Tablets of the Law (luchot ha-eben wa-ha-torah, Exodus 24:12) that were kept in the ark of the covenant
are an example of formal legal codes engraved on stone, paralleling the archaic
example of Hammurabi’s law code; see David Noel Freedman, ed., The
Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday,
1992), 6:304, for a list of biblical passages referring to the Tablets. Hammurabi’s
law code was also inscribed on a stone stele or tablet; see James B. Pritchard,
The Ancient Near East: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958), 1:138-67, fig. 59. As
will be described below, from the sixth and fifth centuries on, “modern”
versions of such engraved law codes increasingly came to be written on bronze
plates instead of on stone tablets.
Gabriel Barkay, Ketef Hinnom: A Treasure Facing Jerusalem’s Walls (Jerusalem: The Israel Museum, 1986), 29-30.
See also Gabriel Barkay, “The Divine Name Found in Jerusalem,” News
from the Field, Biblical Archaeology Review 9/2 (March/April 1983): 14-19; William J. Adams
Jr., “Lehi’s Jerusalem and Writing on Metal Plates,” Journal
of Book of Mormon Studies 3/1 (1994):
204-6; Adams, “More on Silver Plates from Lehi’s Jerusalem,”
in Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon, ed. John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999), 27-28; and Aaron P.
Schade, “The Kingdom of Judah: Politics, Prophets, and Scribes in the
Late Preexilic Period,” in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, ed. John W. Welch, David Rolph Seely, and Jo Ann H.
Seely (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2004), 319-23.
Barkay, Ketef Hinnom, 30. The silver
plates were rolled into small scrolls designed to be worn around the neck
as amulets (p. 29).
1 Maccabees 8:22, in Jonathan A. Goldstein, 1 Maccabees: A New Translation
with Introduction and Commentary (Garden
City, NY: Doubleday, 1964), 345. The Greek phrase for bronze plates in 1 Maccabees,
deltoi chalkoi, will be discussed
Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 12.10.6
Goldstein, 1 Maccabees, 366. The practice
of exchanging treaties written on metal plates in the Near East dates at least
to the thirteenth century BC, when the Hittite-Egyptian treaty was engraved
on silver plates; see James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern
Texts, 3rd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1969), 199-203. For general discussion and bibliography on this
incident, see Donald B. Redford, Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient
Times (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1992), 190.
1 Maccabees 14:48-49, in Goldstein, 1 Maccabees, 488; cf. 1 Maccabees 14:18, in Goldstein, 1 Maccabees,
For a summary and references to the most important bibliography, see Anchor
Bible Dictionary, 1:1133-34.
Hugh Nibley noted this fact years ago in Since Cumorah, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988),
55-57, 221, 245-46.
22. Text: Mordecai Margalioth, Sepher
Ha-Razim (Jerusalem: Yediot Achronot, 1966); translation: Michael A. Morgan,
Sepher ha-Razim: The Book of the Mysteries (Chico, CA: Scholars Press,
1983). The following are the major references:
gold (1.136 = trans. 34; 2.125 = trans. 54; 5.20 = trans. 74; 6.30 = trans.
silver (2.56 = trans. 48; 2.100 = trans. 52; 2.127 = trans. 54; 2.126 =
trans. 54; 2.139 = trans. 55; 3.38 = trans. 64)
copper/bronze (1.203, 207 = trans. 40; 2.32 = trans. 45; 2.117 = trans.
53; 2.139 = trans. 55; 2.153 = trans. 56)
iron (2.114 = trans. 53)
lead (2.63 = trans. 49)
tin (1.145 = trans. 35)
For some additional references to writing on metal in Rabbinic literature,
see Marcus Jastrow, A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and
Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature (New York: Judaica Press, 1982),
The mention of an “iron pen” in Jeremiah 17:1 may have reference
to a tool for engraving metal or stone.
I have not included examples of writing on metal bowls or statue inscriptions,
which would more than double the known examples of northwest Semitic writing
on metal. For examples, see John C. L. Gibson, Textbook of Syrian
Semitic Inscriptions, vol. 2, Aramaic
Inscriptions (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975),
57-59, 122-23; vol. 3, Phoenician Inscriptions (Oxford: Clarendon, 1982), 141-42. One interesting
example is the Bernardini bowl (7C) which was apparently made by Phoenicians.
Made in an Egyptianized style, it includes a lengthy pseudo-Egyptian inscription
and a short Phoenician inscription. It was found in a tomb in Italy, demonstrating
the remarkable mix of cultures, writing on metal, and script found in the
eastern Mediterranean during Lehi’s lifetime. See also Sabatino Moscati, ed.,
The Phoenicians (New York: Abbeville, 1988), 446 (plate); Gibson, Textbook
of Syrian Semitic Inscriptions, 3:71.
Ten of the Phoenician metal bowls cataloged by Glenn Markoe have inscriptions;
see Phoenician Bronze and Silver Bowls from Cyprus and the Mediterranean (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 72.
He briefly mentions ten other metal bowls with inscriptions in Phoenician,
Aramaic, or Hebrew (p. 74). Markoe also discusses the Bernardini bowl
(his E1) on pages 188-91, 274-77 (fig. E1).
Jerrold S. Cooper, Sumerian and Akkadian Royal Inscriptions, vol. 1, Presargonic Inscriptions (New Haven: American Oriental Society, 1986), gives
a complete list of all known inscriptions from Presargonic times. Inscriptions
on various forms of metal are found on pages 16, 20, 25, 47, 49, 58, 60, 62,
93, 97, and 99. Cheesman notes that there is a foundation plate in the temple
of Dagan dating to 3000 BC, which is now in the Louvre. See Wright, “Ancient
Burials of Metal Documents,” 285. Cheesman’s unsubstantiated claim of
the existence of a copper plate from the Indus Valley civilization dating
to 2800 BC cannot be confirmed (Cheesman, Ancient Writing, 48), and the plate is not included in standard works
on the Indus Valley script.
Cooper, Presargonic Inscriptions, Ad
3.2 = p. 16, date unknown, from the twenty-fifth century or earlier.
Cooper, Presargonic Inscriptions, Um
4.2 = p. 93.
Cooper, Presargonic Inscriptions, Um
6 = p. 93.
Although Ether wrote his record on golden plates at the end of Jaredite history
(Mosiah 8:9), it is not at all clear that this was a standard Jaredite cultural
practice deriving from the Old World. There are no other references to Jaredite
metal plates other than the book of Ether.
For basic summary, see Anchor Bible Dictionary,
4:178-80; the quotation is from 4:178a. For a detailed linguistic study
and translation, see George E. Mendenhall, The Syllabic Inscriptions
from Byblos (Beirut: American University
of Beirut, 1985). The original publication is Maurice Dunand, Byblia
Grammata: Documents et recherches sur le développement de l’écriture en Phénicie
(Beirut: Direction des Antiquités, 1945); photographs and transcriptions of
all the documents can be found on pages 71-88. It is worth noting that
Byblos is only about 170 miles north of Jerusalem and that Lehi’s ancestors
were from the northern tribe of Manasseh (1 Nephi 5:14; Alma 10:3).
Anchor Bible Dictionary, 4:178b.
There are faint traces of Byblos syllabic writing on the Azarbaal plate (2.4
below). The original inscription is too faint to read properly. Gibson, Textbook
of Syrian Semitic Inscriptions, 3:9-12,
with additional bibliography. Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, 105, noted the existence of these plates.
For general background, bibliography, and examples, see Gibson, Textbook
of Syrian Semitic Inscriptions, 3:1-8.
The arrowheads are also discussed by Benjamin Sass, The Genesis
of the Alphabet and Its Development in the Second Millennium BC (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1988), 72-85. If they
were not used for divination they do not represent sacred writing on metal
plates. However, if these arrowheads were indeed used for belomancy (arrow
divination), they provide some of the earliest evidence of this practice.
Note Nibley’s speculation on the relationship between belomancy and the pointers
of the Liahona in Since Cumorah, 255-59.
Julian Obermann, “An Early Phoenician Political Document: With a Parallel
to Judges 11:24,” Journal of Biblical Literature 58/3 (1939): 229-42; Gibson, Textbook
of Syrian Semitic Inscriptions, 3:9-12.
Because of its triangular shape, this document is often prosaically called
For a translation, see Daniel D. Luckenbill, Ancient Records of Assyria
and Babylonia (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1926), 1:251 (#706-7). Shalmaneser also ordered the construction
of the bronze gate of Balawat, which is inscribed with both illustrations
and lengthy texts, but which is technically historical rather than religious.
See L. W. King, Bronze Reliefs from the Gates of Shalmaneser (London: British Museum, 1915). Luckenbill, Ancient
Records of Assyria and Babylonia, provides
a translation in 1:224-32 (#612-25).
Gibson, Textbook of Syrian Semitic Inscriptions,
3:39-41; the approximate date is provided on p. 31.
Gibson, Textbook of Syrian Semitic Inscriptions,
For translation, see Luckenbill, Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia, 2:56-59 (#106-15). See Wright, “Ancient
Burials of Metal Documents,” 293-94, for further sources. Wright’s
article also contains extensive bibliography on the famous silver and gold
Persepolis plates of Darius.
Gibson, Textbook of Syrian Semitic Inscriptions,
3:151-59; Massimo Pallottino, A History of Earliest Italy,
trans. Martin Ryle and Kate Soper (Ann Arbor, MI: University
of Michigan Press, 1991), plate 15; for illustrations, see Moscati, Phoenicians, 56.
Herbert Donner and Wolfgang Röllig, Kanaanäische und aramäische Inschriften (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1966-69), 1:10 #43.12,
commentary in 2:60. The word dalet for “writing tablet” is also used in the Lachish letter 4,
line 3. Donner and Röllig, Kanaanäische und aramäische Inschriften, 1:35, #194.3; cf. Graham I. Davies, Ancient
Hebrew Inscriptions: Corpus and Concordance
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 1:2, #1.004.3; Harry Torczyner,
Lachish I: The Lachish Letters
(London: Oxford University Press, 1938), 79-81.
Walter Burkert, The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on
Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 30.
Julius Pollux, Onomasticon 8.128, in
Pollucis Onomasticon, ed. Eric
Bethe (Stuttgart: Teubner, 1967), 2:141.
43. Wright, “Metallic
Documents in Antiquity,” surveys much of the evidence. See also the Apocalypse
of Enoch in the Cologne Mani
Codex (fifth century AD), in Ron Cameron
and Arthur Dewey, The Colon Mani Codes (Missoula, MT: Scholars, 1979), 40-43.
44. Pallottino, History
of Earliest Italy, plate 14.
45. The Sybaris plate is thus
an earlier example of a bronze treaty plate like that found among the Jews
in the second century BC (see 1.3 above).
46. For the publication of
the major inscriptions see Constantin Carapanos, Dodone et ses ruines (Paris: Hachette, 1878). See also the bibliography
cited in N. G. L. Hammond and H. H. Scullard, The Oxford Classical
Dictionary, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon,
1970), s.v. “Dodona.”
47. Pausanius, Description
of Greece 4.26.6-8, in Pausanius,
trans. W. H. S. Jones and H. A.
Ormerod, Loeb Classical Library ( Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,
1926), 2:317. This story of a divine vision revealing the location of a buried
ancient sacred text on metal plates may sound familiar to many Latter-day
48. Plutarch, Moralia, “De Genio Socratis,” 577E-F, in Plutarch,
trans. Phillip H. De Lacy and
Benedict Einarson, Loeb Classical Library ( Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, 1959), 7:389, 391.
49. See Griggs, “Book
of Mormon as an Ancient Book,” 96-101, for the major bibliography.
For text and translation of the Orphic plates, see Jane Ellen Harrison, Prolegomena
to the Study of Greek Religion (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1991), 659-73. The date given is for the
origin of the texts; some of the actual plates themselves were produced much
later. There are thus two separate questions: what is the date of the ideas
and texts, and what is the date of the practice of writing on gold plates?
50. Pausanius, Description
of Greece 9.31.4, in Pausanius,
trans. W. H. S. Jones, Loeb Classical Library
( Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1935), 4:309.
51. Plutarch, Moralia, “Quaestiones Convivales,” 5.2, 675B, in Plutarch,
trans. Paul A. Clement and Herbert B.
Hoffleit, Loeb Classical Library ( Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,
1969), 8:387, 389. The term biblion is also translated as “tablet,” but its more
general meaning is a written document; it is the most common term in Greek
for “book.” If “tablet” is intended, it is usually rendered
biblion deltos. See Henry G.
Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, 9th ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1968), s.v. “βιβλίον.”
Plutarch (c. AD 50-120) is citing a lost geographical work of Polemon
of Illium (fl. 190 BC); see Oxford Classical Dictionary, s.v. “Polemon (3).” Thus, the golden biblion (book, or “bible,” which derives from biblion) of Delphi dates to at least the third century BC and probably much earlier.
52. See Plutarch, Moralia,
“Quaestiones Convivales,” Loeb
Classical Library, 8:389 note a. On the Sibyls as prophetesses throughout
the ancient world, see H. W. Parke, Sibyls and Sibylline Prophecy
in Classical Antiquity (New York: Routledge,
53. Giuliano Bonfante and Larissa
Bonfante, The Etruscan Language: An Introduction (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1983), 48,
mention 13,000 inscriptions in Etruscan, with only a few hundred in all other
Italic languages including Latin.
54. Bonfante and Bonfante,
Etruscan Language, 49-50.
55. Bonfante and Bonfante,
Etruscan Language, 49.
56. Fred Woudhuizen, The
Language of the Sea Peoples (Amsterdam:
Najade, 1992), 195-228, provides references to earlier bibliography.
See Luisa Banti, Etruscan Cities and Their Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), 196.
An Etruscan lead tablet of Minerva (from Punta della Vipera in Santa Marinella)
is also inscribed on both sides (Banti, Etruscan Cities, 196).
57. Examples of sacred writing
on metal plates tend to be in lead, bronze, and gold. The widespread use of
lead was due to the fact that is was easier to work with than bronze but was
far less valuable than gold and therefore would more likely survive plundering.
58. The basic narrative sources
for the Twelve Tablets of the Law are Livy 3.31-37, 57; Dionysius of
Halicarnassus 10.55-60, and Diodorus Siculus 12.26.
59. Livy 3.57.10; Diodorus
Siculus 12.26; Dionysius of Halicarnassus 10.57.7.
60. Livy 3.31.8; 3.33.5.
61. Livy 3.32.7.
62. The Twelve Tablets contained
both sacred and secular laws; the latter could be changed by the will of the
63. Livy 3.34.6-7.
64. Livy 5.40; based on the
standard interpretation of Livy 6.1.10.
65. M. W. Frederiksen, “The
Republican Municipal Laws: Errors and Drafts,” Journal of Roman Studies 55/1-2 (1965): 183, with full bibliographic data.
For additional examples of Roman bronze plates, see Gregroy Bucher, “The
Annales Maximi in the Light
of the Roman Methods of Keeping Records,” American Journal
of Ancient History 12/1 (1987): 3-4,
66. Frederiksen, “Republican
Municipal Laws,” 186.
67. Banti, Etruscan Cities
and Their Culture, 197. The extraordinary
paucity of Hebrew royal or religious inscriptions from the First Temple period
could be explained if we were to assume that the Hebrews, like the Romans,
wrote their royal inscriptions in bronze, which were later plundered and destroyed,
precisely as happened to most early Roman examples. For a brief discussion,
see William J. Hamblin, review of Archaeology and the Book of Mormon,
by Jerald Tanner and Sandra Tanner, in
Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 5 (1993): 261-63. For all Hebrew inscriptions,
see Graham I. Davies, Ancient Hebrew Inscriptions: Corpus and Concordance,
2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University
68. James W. Poultney, The
Bronze Tables of Iguvium (Oxford: Blackwell,
69. Wright, “Metallic
Documents in Antiquity,” 460-61.
70. Burkert, Orientalizing Revolution,
71. Burkert, Orientalizing
Revolution, 30; cf. Pollox, Onamasticon
8.128, in Pollucis Onomasticon, 2:141.