Evidence #441 | March 27, 2024

Attestation of Alma

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Scripture Central

Abstract

The name Alma is a masculine personal name in the Book of Mormon. Long after the Book of Mormon was published, Alma turned up as a Semitic masculine name in various ancient Near Eastern contexts.

Criticism of the Name Alma

Two male characters—a father and son—have the name Alma in the Book of Mormon (Mosiah 17:2; 27:8). Throughout the years, commentators have criticized this name for not being ancient, not being Hebrew, or not being male. Such critics have also regularly suggested modern sources from which the name could have been derived.

Writing in 1910, Charles Shook argued that instead of being an authentic Jewish name, “Alma, the name of one of the Nephite judges, is the Latin word for ‘benign’.”1 M. A. Sbrensny gave a similar assessment in 1911. Concerning the various names of characters in the Book of Mormon who also have books named after them (including Alma), Sbrensny claimed, “There is not a single discovery or scrap of evidence in support of any of the following names of heads, under which the book has been divided.”2

Image via amazon.com. 

In 1978, Walter Martin—a prominent Evangelical author—wrote that “Alma is supposed to be a prophet of God and of Jewish ancestry in the Book of Mormon. In Hebrew Alma means a betrothed virgin maiden—hardly a fitting name for a man.”3 In 1984, Robert McKay similarly argued in The Utah Evangelical that although Alma shows up as a term in the Hebrew Bible (referring to a young female), “it is not used as a proper name.” This article further implies that the way this name is assigned only to males in the Book of Mormon (and also among Latter-day Saints) is erroneous: “So Mormons who name their sons ‘Alma’ have actually named them ‘lass,’ or ‘virgin’ or a young woman. Interesting!”4 McKay further elaborated on these same points in an article in 1985.5


In 1986, John Smith (also writing in The Utah Evangelical) sarcastically wrote, “We still find it interesting that so many Mormons saddle their sons with a word that means ‘lass or ‘damsel.’ … It reminds us of the ‘Boy Named Sue’.”6 In 2002, Thomas Finley explained in The New Mormon Challenge that “Modern potential sources for the name Alma could be, among others, the phrase alma mater or even the transliterated Hebrew word for ‘virgin’ or ‘young woman’.”7

Image via amazon.com. 

Even within the past decade, such claims have resurfaced. In 2016, another Evangelical author wrote, “Throughout the Book of Mormon, there are multiple ways Smith displayed a lack of understanding regarding languages. For example, Alma, for whom the book of Alma is named, is a Hebrew name which means ‘Betrothed Virgin.’ It would not have been the name of a man.”8 Thus, we can see that the name Alma has been a repeated target of Book of Mormon critics over the years. 

Ancient Semitic Attestations of Alma

It turns out, however, that forms of Alma are repeatedly attested in ancient documents as a Semitic male’s name. As pointed out by Hugh Nibley in 1973, Alma shows up twice, with two slightly different spellings, as a masculine name in the Bar Kochba Letters (Jewish documents written around AD 130 and only discovered by archaeologists in the twentieth century).9 The name is also featured repeatedly in Semitic documents from the ancient city of Ebla (in northwest Syria), which date to the second half of the third millennium BC.10 Recently, it has been discovered that the name Alma is also found as a Semitic male’s name on an ossuary from Jerusalem that dates to the first century AD.11

Bar Kokhba letter twice featuring the name Alma. Image via Paul H. Hoskisson, “What’s in a Name? Alma as a Hebrew Name,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 7, no. 1 (1998): 73. 

As for the possible meaning and origin of this name in the Nephite record, the Book of Mormon Onomasticon explains:

Book of Mormon ALMA could be from the Hebrew common noun עלם ՙlm, meaning “youth” or “lad,” which occurs twice in the Old Testament, 1 Samuel 17:56 and 20:22, plus a hypocoristic ending ā meaning “Lord.” (Its feminine form, עלמה ՙalmâ, appears nine times in the Old Testament, where it means “a young woman,” including the famous passage in Isaiah 7:14.) ALMA would then mean “Young man of God.”12

Wordplay on Alma

Not only is Alma anciently attested as a masculine Semitic name, but various layers of wordplay seem to attend this name in the Book of Mormon. This involves the meaning of Alma as a “young man,” the concept of “hiddenness,” and the idea of Alma being one “to whom” the arm of the Lord was revealed.13 As summarized by Matthew Bowen, “The three-dimensional wordplay on the name Alma in Mosiah 17–18 demonstrates yet again how sophisticated onomastic wordplay in the Book of Mormon can be.”14

Alma and his followers hiding at the Waters of Mormon. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Conclusion

The critics of the Book of Mormon were clearly wrong in some of their claims about the name Alma. Contrary to their assumptions, this is indeed a known Semitic masculine name. While its attestations are not from Lehi’s day, its appearance in ancient Near Eastern documents from Ebla (late third millennium BC) and Judea (first and second centuries AD), suggest that the name had a long history and considerably strengthens the plausibility of Alma being derived from a genuine Semitic source.15

This, of course, doesn’t remove the possibility of Joseph Smith simply borrowing the name from his environment (under the theory that he fabricated the contents of the Book of Mormon). While feasible, it seems doubtful that he was aware of the Hebrew term ՙalmâ (meaning “a young woman”), as proposed by several of the Evangelical authors.16 Even if he knew of this Hebrew term, one would wonder why he would apply it as a male personal name in a fictitious story. Joseph Smith was probably more likely to encounter Alma as a Latin-based female name or term, but the question would still remain as to why he would apply it to males in the Book of Mormon.17

More recently, it has been argued that Alma was a fairly common masculine name in Joseph Smith’s day and that some men likely even went by this name in his immediate environment.18 It is important to recognize, however, that the data upon which these claims are based need further verification, as it is sometimes difficult to tell whether Alma was the name of a male or female in early records.19 If there truly were males named Alma in Joseph Smith’s environment and if he indeed derived this name from his cultural setting, this would seem to be the most reasonable explanation for where he got it.

On the other hand, it is important to remember that Alma never occurs as a personal name in the Bible, and Joseph Smith still couldn’t have known—even if he took this name from his immediate cultural setting—that it was an authentically ancient masculine Semitic name. The likelihood of Joseph randomly selecting non-biblical names from his environment that would one day turn up in ancient Semitic contexts isn’t known, but several commentators have seen evidentiary value in this name. Kevin Barney, who was the first to point out in print that some men in Joseph Smith’s environment were possibly named Alma, still concluded, “I am tremendously impressed by the post-Book of Mormon appearance of Alma as a male Semitic name.”20

It should also be remembered that this isn’t the only non-biblical name in the text that has found support in the ancient world in the years since the Book of Mormon was published. Nor is it the only name that has been prematurely ridiculed by critics of the Book of Mormon. For additional names that fit one or both of these characterizations, the following survey may be of interest: Abish, Aha, Chemish, Comron, Cumorah, Gidgiddoni, Hagoth, Himni, Isabel, Jarom, Laman, Josh, Kish, Lehi, Muloki, Paanchi, Pahoran, Pacumeni, Sam, Sariah, Sebus, Sheum, and Shilum.21 Note that this list doesn’t include names such as Jershon, Mosiah, Omni, Zarahemla, and Zoram that, although not known to be attested in ancient documents, involve plausible Hebrew linguistic elements or constructions.22

Two recent books on wordplay in the Book of Mormon written by Matthew Bowen. Image via ebornbooks.com.

Finally, it must be recognized that Alma is accompanied in the text by multiple layers of proposed Hebrew wordplay. The same is true of many other Book of Mormon names.23 Thus, those who want to confidently argue that this name was derived from Joseph Smith’s 19th century environment, or that such an explanation is just as valid as the case for its ancient origins, still have a lot of explaining to do. The collective case for the authenticity of many Book of Mormon names is remarkably strong. Alma is just a small piece of that much larger puzzle.

John A. Tvedtnes and Matthew Roper, “One Small Step,” FARMS Review 15, no. 1 (2003): 181–183.

Kevin Barney, “A More Responsible Critique,” Review of Books on the book of Mormon 15, no. 1 (2003): 97–146.

Terrence L. Szink, “The Personal Name ‘Alma’ at Ebla,” Religious Educator 1, no. 1 (2000): 53–56.

John A. Tvedtnes, John Gee, and Matthew Roper, “Book of Mormon Names Attested in Ancient Hebrew Inscriptions,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9, no. 1 (2000): 51.

Paul Y. Hoskisson, “What’s in a Name? Alma as a Hebrew Name,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 7, no. 1 (1998): 72–73.

Hugh Nibley, The Prophetic Book of Mormon, in The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Volume 8 (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1989), 281–282.

Mosiah 17:2Mosiah 27:8

Mosiah 17:2

Mosiah 27:8

Footnotes
  • 1 Charles August Shook, Cumorah Revisited (Cincinnati, OH: The Standard Publishing Company, 1910), 500. It is likely that Shook is referring to the Latin term almus which can mean “kind” (a synonym for “benign” as understood in Webster’s 1828 dictionary).   
  • 2 M. A. Sbresny, Mormonism: As It Is To-Day. Some Striking Revelations (London, Arthur H. Stockwell, 1911), 24–25.
  • 3 Walter R. Martin, The Maze of Mormonism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978), 327. This claim appears to have been repackaged by Marian Bodine, in “Book of Mormon vs. The Bible (or common sense),” online at https://web.archive.org/web/20030814224216/http://www.equip.org/free/DM192.htm.
  • 4 Robert McKay, “A Mormon Name,” The Utah Evangel 31, no. 8 (August 1984): 4.
  • 5 Robert McKay, “What about Alma?” The Inner Circle 2, no. 9 (September 1985): 6.
  • 6 John L. Smith, “That Man Alma,” The Utah Evangel 33, no. 3 (April 1986): 2.
  • 7 Thomas J. Finley, “Does the Book of Mormon Reflect an Ancient Near Eastern Background,” in The New Mormon Challenge, ed. Frances J. Beckwith, Carl Mosser, Paul Owen (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 355. Note that alma mater, is a Latin phrase that means “nourishing mother.”
  • 8 Gabriel Hughes, 40 Mormon Beliefs and What the Bible Says: Comparing the Word of Joseph Smith to the Word of God (Independently published, 2016; 2019); as cited in Robert Boylan, “Refuting Gabriel Hughes’ Misinformed Arguments against the Book of Mormon,” Scriptural Mormonism, February 10, 2019, online at scripturalmormonism.blogspot.com; spelling silently corrected. 
  • 9 See Hugh W. Nibley, “Review of Bar-Kochba,” BYU Studies 14, no. 1 (1973): 121. See also, Hugh Nibley, The Prophetic Book of Mormon, in The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Volume 8 (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1989), 274–288; Paul Y. Hoskisson, “What’s in a Name? Alma as a Hebrew Name,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 7, no. 1 (1998): 72–73; Y. Yadin, “Expedition D—The Cave of the Letters,” Israel Exploration Journal 12, no. 3–4 (1962): 227–257, esp. 253; Yigael Yadin, Bar-Kokhba: The Rediscovery of the Legendary Hero of the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome (New York, NY: Random House, 1971), 176.
  • 10 See Terrence L. Szink, “The Personal Name ‘Alma’ at Ebla,” Religious Educator 1, no. 1 (2000): 53: “Additionally, in the archive of Ebla, the personal name ‘Alma’ is found at least eight times in six separate documents dated to the end of the third millennium B.C. (On two of the tablets the name occurs twice.) In cuneiform the name is written al6-ma. Initially there was uncertainty on the part of some scholars about the reading of the first sign al6 …. However, the reading al6 has now been established at Ebla. Furthermore, scholars have understood and transliterated this name as Semitic (indicated by the name being written in italics in the transliteration), meaning that it is in the same basic language family as Hebrew.” See also, Terrence L. Szink, “New Light: Further Evidence of a Semitic Alma,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8, no. 1 (1999): 70, 79.
  • 11 See L. Y. Rahmani, A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries in the Collections of the State of Israel (Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority and Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1994), 107; Tal Ilan, Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity, Part I: Palestine, 330 BCE–200 CE (Tubingen: Mohr Seibeck, 2002), 361. Rahmani renders the name Illma, but it is identical, in Hebrew, to the one rendered Alma by Yadin (see n.9). See also Neal Rappleye and Allen Hansen, “More Evidence for Alma as a Semitic Name” (forthcoming).
  • 12 See Book of Mormon Onomasticon, “ALMA,” accessed March 15, 2024, online at onoma.lib.byu.edu.
  • 13 See Matthew L. Bowen, Name As Key Word: Collected Essays on Onomastic Wordplay and the Temple in Mormon Scripture (Orem, UT: Interpreter Foundation, 2018), 91–100; Matthew L. Bowen, “Alma: Young Man, Hidden Prophet,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 19 (2016): 343–353; Matthew L. Bowen, “‘He Did Go About Secretly’: Additional Thoughts on the Literary Use of Alma’s Name,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 27 (2017): 197–212; Aaron P. Schade and Matthew L. Bowen, “‘To Whom is the Arm of the Lord Revealed?’” Religious Educator 16, no. 2 (2015): 91–111. For a summary of this research, see Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Wordplay on Alma,” ID# 0161, March 8, 2021, online at evidencecentral.org.
  • 14 Bowen, “Alma: Young Man, Hidden Prophet,” 352.
  • 15 It should be noted that this name does not technically have to be derived from a Semitic source in order for the Book of Mormon to be authentic. Alma could plausibly be of New World origin or from a non-Semitic ancient Near Eastern origin. It is even possible that the Alma could have been a novel creation among Book of Mormon peoples. Thus, while a Semitic derivation for this name seems most likely, it can’t be proven and isn’t strictly necessary. 
  • 16 Joseph Smith didn’t formally study Hebrew until years after he published the Book of Mormon. See Matthew J. Grey, “‘The Word of the Lord in the Original’: Joseph Smith’s Study of Hebrew in Kirtland,” in Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World, ed. Lincoln H. Blumell, Matthew J. Grey, and Andrew H. Hedges (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2015), 250.
  • 17 See Kevin Barney, “A More Responsible Critique,” Review of Books on the book of Mormon 15, no. 1 (2003): 126: “Either that argument or the notion that Joseph picked up Hebrew ՙalma from a preacher’s sermon will work only if we can posit that he was ignorant of the feminine form of the name. It seems to me that such ignorance is a difficult position to maintain in the case of alma mater because the Latin had entered English as a common enough woman’s given name, Alma, and because in the case of Hebrew ՙalma any preacher who mentioned that Hebrew word surely would have done so in the midst of commenting on the virginity of the young woman of Isaiah 7:14. Indeed, a critic must exercise some caution in pressing such arguments, for if Joseph begins to look too ignorant, that begins to interfere with the picture demanded by the environmental theory of Book of Mormon origins, which requires a young man of some intelligence and talent to be able to author the book in the first place.” See also, John A. Tvedtnes and Matthew Roper, “One Small Step,” FARMS Review 15, no. 1 (2003): 181–183.
  • 18 For instance, see Daniel C. Peterson, “Does the Name ‘Alma’ Challenge the Historicity of the Book of Mormon,” Meridian Magazine, August 1, 2019, online at latterdaysaintmag.com.
  • 19 Note that Kevin Barney brought up this issue back in 2003, based on data (from familysearch.org) brought to his attention by Alma Allred. Barney cautioned that “more research needs to be undertaken to verify that the database correctly reflects the gender of these individuals.” Barney, “A More Responsible Critique,” 128.
  • 20 See Barney, “A More Responsible Critique,” 128. See also, Daniel C. Peterson, “Mormonism as a Restoration,” FARMS Review 18, no. 1 (2006): 396–397; Robert Boylan, “On the Names ‘Sam’ and ‘Alma’,” Scriptural Mormonism, January 1, 2021, online at scripturalmormonism.blogspot.com.
  • 21 See Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Attested Names (Sub-Category),” online at evidencecentral.org. See also, Stephen D. Ricks, “Some Notes on Book of Mormon Names,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 4 (2013): 155–160; John A. Tvedtnes and Matthew Roper, “One Small Step,” FARMS Review 15, no. 1 (2003): 176–187; John A. Tvedtnes, John Gee, and Matthew Roper, “Book of Mormon Names Attested in Ancient Hebrew Inscriptions,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9, no. 1 (2000): 40–51, 78–79. See also, Book of Mormon Onomasticon, online at onoma.lib.byu.edu.
  • 22 See Stephen D. Ricks, “Proper Names from the Small Plates: Some Notes on the Personal Names Zoram, Jarom, Omni, and Mosiah,” in “To Seek the Law of the Lord”: Essays in Honor of John W. Welch, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson and Daniel C. Peterson (Orem, UT: The Interpreter Foundation, 2017), 351–358; Stephen D. Ricks, “A Nickname and a Slam Dunk: Notes on the Book of Mormon Names Zeezrom and Jershon,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 8 (2014): 191–194; John A. Tvedtnes, “Hebrew Names in the Book of Mormon,” presentation given at the Thirteenth World Congress of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, August 2001, online at fairlatterdaysaints.org; Stephen D. Ricks and John A. Tvedtnes, “Notes and Communications: The Hebrew Origin of Some Book of Mormon Place Names,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 6, no. 2 (1997): 255–259.
  • 23 See Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Wordplays (Sub-Category),” online at evidencecentral.org. See also, Matthew L. Bowen, Ancient Names in the Book of Mormon: Toward a Deeper Understanding of a Witness of Christ (Salt Lake City, UT: Eborn Books, 2023); Matthew L. Bowen, Name as Key-Word: Collected Essays on Onomastic Wordplay and the Temple in Mormon Scripture (Orem and Salt Lake City, UT: The Interpreter Foundation and Eborn Books, 2018). One can also search for “Matthew Bowen” in the Scripture Central Archive, since the bulk of his research has been on this topic.
Linguistics
Wordplays
Attestation of Alma

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