Evidence #153 | February 15, 2021

Attestation of Sariah

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Scripture Central

Abstract

Although forms of the name Sariah show up repeatedly as a male’s name in the Bible, it was only attested as an authentic Hebrew feminine name long after the publication of the Book of Mormon.

Sariah in the Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon introduces Sariah, Lehi’s wife and Nephi’s mother, in the header found at the beginning of 1 Nephi 1: “An account of Lehi and his wife Sariah.” Her name is mentioned four more times throughout Nephi’s account (1 Nephi 2:55:1, 68:14). As one of the few named women in the Book of Mormon, Sariah’s character and role in the narrative has garnered considerable attention by readers.1 Her name, perhaps meaning “Yahweh is prince,” would be spelled in Hebrew as śryh and would have been pronounced anciently as either sar-yah or sar-yahu.2

The name Sariah in Paleo-Hebrew (above), today's Hebrew (middle), and English (bottom). Image via Book of Mormon Central. 

Two Attestations of Sariah as a Women’s Name

“Although śyrh is not found as a female name in the Bible,” writes Latter-day Saint archaeologist, Jeffrey R. Chadwick, “it is well documented as a male name in ancient Israel, appearing nineteen times in the Hebrew Old Testament, representing eleven different men.”3 The name is often transliterated as Seraiah, as seen in the King James Bible, but some evidence suggests that Sariah is the more correct rendering of the name.4 Long after the Book of Mormon was published, evidence surfaced for Sariah being an authentic Hebrew feminine name as well.

The island of Elephantine, by Aswan.

In the early 1990s, Chadwick pointed out that Seraiah/Sariah appears “in a reconstructed form as the name of a Jewish woman living at Elephantine in Upper Egypt during the fifth century B.C.”5 The document is written in Aramaic, a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew, but the translators of the papyri “specify that the names are Hebrew.”6 In its reconstructed form, the relevant portion of the document reads “Sariah daughter of Hoshea.” Although the final h in “Sariah” and most of the spelling for “daughter of” is missing in the underlying Hebrew, the leading scholars of the Elephantine documents consider the reconstruction “nearly certain.”7

Depicts the reconstructed phrase "Sariah daughter of Hoshea" (red) while showing which letters and sections of the papyrus fragment are missing (letters which aren't filled in with bladk or red ink). Image via Book of Mormon Central.  

In 2019, Neal Rappleye drew attention to yet another attestation of Seraiah/Sariah from Elephantine, this one from an ostracon reading “Seraiah daughter of […].” In this case, the parentage information is missing, but “Seraiah/Sariah” (śryh) and “daughter of” (brt) are both clearly legible.8 This document provides definitive evidence that Sariah was indeed a Hebrew feminine name close to the time of Lehi.

Attestation of "Sariah daughter of ..." (red), with only parentage information missing. 

A Northern Israelite Connection

The presence of a Hebrew name at this time period (5th century BC) in an Egyptian document should not come as a surprise, as Jews from Israel migrated into Egypt before and after the time of Lehi, bringing their culture (including names and religious traditions) to that part of the world. Biblical scholar Karel van der Toorn has argued that “the entire picture of the religious life at Elephantine … strongly suggest that the historical core” of that community “came from Northern Israel.”9 This point is relevant to the discussion because Lehi and his family were also from northern Israel, specifically from the tribe of Manassah (Alma 10:3). According to Rappleye,

These details add to the significance of these two references to women named ŚRYH (Seraiah/Sariah) at Elephantine. In both the Hebrew Bible and the epigraphic evidence from Judah, ŚRYH(W) is only attested as a male’s name. While this could simply be due to the limitations of our available data set, it is also possible the attestation of ŚRYH as a woman’s name both in the Book of Mormon and at Elephantine and only in these sources, reflects a specifically northern Israelite practice.10

Conclusion

If the Book of Mormon were mere fiction and Joseph Smith had simply borrowed the name Sariah from the Bible, he may have been more inclined to spell it as Seraiah and to give it to a male character in his story. Yet the name is spelled as Sariah in the Book of Mormon and given to a female, both details that subsequent research has validated. 11

According to Chadwick, “The Elephantine Papyri were discovered at the beginning of the twentieth century (prior to 1903), far too late for Joseph Smith to have known of the female name Sariah” in its texts.12 Being unlikely to have been derived from the Bible and virtually impossible to have been known from scholarly sources, the presence of this authentic Hebrew name in the Book of Mormon, given to a female character of northern Israelite heritage living in the early 6th century BC, adds credibility to the text’s claimed ancient origins.  

Neal Rappleye, “Revisiting ‘Sariah’ at Elephantine,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 32 (2019): 1–8.

Book of Mormon Central, “VIDEO: New Archaeological Evidence for Sariah as a Hebrew Woman’s Name,” BMC Blog, April 5, 2019, online at bookofmormoncentral.org.

Book of Mormon Central, “Were Any Ancient Israelite Women Named Sariah? (1 Nephi 5:1),” KnoWhy 8 (January 11, 2016).

Jeffrey R. Chadwick, “The Names of Lehi and Sariah—Language and Meaning,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9, no. 1 (2000): 32–34, 77.

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.

Jeffrey R. Chadwick, “Notes and Communications: Sariah in the Elephantine Papyri,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2, no. 2 (1993): 196–200.

Sariah” in Book of Mormon Onomasticon, online at onoma.lib.byu.edu.

1 Nephi 11 Nephi 2:51 Nephi 5:1, 61 Nephi 8:14​​​​​​​

1 Nephi 1

1 Nephi 2:5

1 Nephi 5:1, 6

1 Nephi 8:14

  • 1 See for example Camille Fronk. “Desert Epiphany: Sariah and the Women in 1 Nephi,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9, no. 2 (2000): 4–15, 80; Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010), 21–23.
  • 2 Jeffrey R. Chadwick, “Notes and Communications: Sariah in the Elephantine Papyri,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2, no. 2 (1993): 196, 189.
  • 3 Chadwick, “Sariah in the Elephantine Papyri,” 197. See 2 Samuel 8:17; 2 Kings 25:18, 23; 1 Chronicles 4:13–14; 4:35; 6:14; Ezra 2:2; 7:1; Nehemiah 10:2; 11:11; 12:1, 12; Jeremiah 36:26; 40:8; 51:59, 61; 52:24.
  • 4 See Nahman Avigad, Hebrew Bullae From the Time of Jeremiah: Remnants of a Burnt Archive (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1986), 46–47. Chadwick, “Sariah in the Elephantine Papyri,” 197–198 explains: “The English Seraiah spelling is an effort to represent a Hebrew pronunciation of Sera-yah or Sra-yah, which would essentially mean ‘Yah has struggled’ (the first element of śryh and śryhw is usually interpreted as deriving from the śrh root, meaning to ‘struggle’ or ‘strive’). But in light of evidence from Iron Age seals and clay bullae, Nahman Avigad suggests that śryhw may be read Saryahu, meaning ‘Yahuweh is prince (śr).’ By extension, the shorter name śyrh would be read Sar-yah, both in the case of the eleven biblically noted men and in the case of the female from Elephantine. And by the same extension, rather than [the Seraiah spelling used in the Bible and by other scholars], the Book of Mormon Sariah spelling would more correctly represent the name of our lady of Elephantine.”Avigad continues to follow the standard transliteration of the name as Serayah, but he indexes the name under the root śr(r), meaning “ruler” or “prince.” See Nahman Avigad, rev. by Benjamin Sass, Corpus of West Semitic Stamp Seals (Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, The Israel Exploration Society and the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1997), 538.
  • 5 Chadwick, “Sariah in the Elephantine Papyri,” 196. For further treatments of this discovery and its importance to Book of Mormon studies, see Jeffrey R. Chadwick, “The Names Lehi and Sariah—Language and Meaning,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9, no. 1 (2000): 32–34, 77; 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, esp. 43. See also Jeffrey R. Chadwick, “Lehi in the Samaria Papyri and on an Ostracon from the Shore of the Red Sea,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 19, no. 1 (2010): 14–21.
  • 6 Chadwick, “The Names Lehi and Sariah—Language and Meaning,” 34.
  • 7 See Bezalel Porten and Ada Yardeni, Textbook of Aramaic Documents from Ancient Egypt, 4 vols. (Jerusalem: Hebrew University, 1986–1999), 3:vi, 226–28, foldout 32. The Hebrew reads śry[h br]t hwś. The letters in the backets are missing in the original text, but shown with “hollow strokes” by Porten and Yardeni, which means that the restoration is “nearly certain.” As Chadwick, “Sariah in the Elephantine Papyri,” 196 points out, “the comparative context of the papyrus leaves little doubt that the reconstruction is accurate.”
  • 8 See Neal Rappleye, “Revisiting ‘Sariah’ at Elephantine,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 32 (2019): 1–8. By way of acknowledgement, Rappleye mentions that “Both of these attestations are mentioned briefly in the Book of Mormon Onomasticon entry for ‘Sariah,’ but the significance of this second, certain attestation in answering Hoskisson’s previous criticism is not mentioned” (p. 4 n. 10). While he may not have technically been the first to discover this second attestation of Sariah, Rappleye nevertheless was the first to draw attention to its significance. Moreover, he tracked down the full translations of these texts in the critical editions of the Elephantine documents (rather than merely relying on the concordance cited in the Book of Mormon Onomasticon). He was thus able to verify with certainty that śryh is an attested feminine Hebrew name.
  • 9 Karel van der Toorn, “Anat-Yahu, Some Other Deities, and the Jews of Elephantine,” Numen 39, no. 1 (1992): 96.
  • 10 Rappleye, “Revisiting ‘Sariah’ at Elephantine,” 5–6.
  • 11 Several historical accounts indicate that Joseph Smith struggled to pronounce the name Sariah, which necessitated his reading it letter by letter to his scribe. This indicates that the spelling of this name was given by revelation and was not a scribal error. See Edmund C. Briggs, “A Visit to Nauvoo in 1856,” Journal of History 9 (October 1916): 454; as cited in John W. Welch, “The Miraculous Timing of the Translation of the Book of Mormon,” in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820–1844, 2nd edition, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and BYU Press, 2017), 141–142, doc. 38; Reuben P. Harmon, Statement, in Naked Truths about Mormonism 1 (April 1888): 1; as cited in Welch, “The Miraculous Timing,” 150, doc. 54.
  • 12 Chadwick, “Sariah in the Elephantine Papyri,” 199.
Linguistics
Attested Names
Sariah
Book of Mormon

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