Evidence #222 | March 17, 2023

Complex Monetary System

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Scripture Central

Abstract

Mosiah’s monetary system features a variety of unfamiliar gold and silver units that are consistent in their sequencing, conversion ratios, phrasing, and other particular details.

Mosiah’s Monetary System

In the opening verses of Alma 11, Mormon interrupts his account of Alma and Amulek’s confrontation with the lawyers and judges at Ammonihah in order to explain how Nephite judges were compensated for their time. Mormon noted that a “judge received for his wages according to his time—a senine of gold for a day, or a senum of silver, which is equal to a senine of gold” (v. 3). Apparently recognizing that the significance of these wages would likely be lost on his readers, Mormon further digresses in order to summarize the Nephite monetary system. 

First, the Nephite units of gold and silver are given respectively: “Now the reckoning is thus—a senine of gold, a seon of gold, a shum of gold, and a limnah of gold. A senum of silver, an amnor of silver, an ezrom of silver, and an onti of silver” (Alma 11:5–6). Mormon then explains that the first units he listed for each metal (a senum of silver and a senine of gold) are equal in value, and that either of these was exchangeable for a measure of grain (v. 7). With these starting equivalencies in place, the conversion ratios of the units are then delineated, first for gold and then for silver (vv. 8–13):

Now the amount of a seon of gold was twice the value of a senine. And a shum of gold was twice the value of a seon. And a limnah of gold was the value of them all. And an amnor of silver was as great as two senums. And an ezrom of silver was as great as four senums. And an onti was as great as them all.

In addition, the Nephites utilized a set of fractional silver units, introduced as “the value of the lesser numbers of their reckoning” (vv. 14–19):

A shiblon is half of a senum; therefore, a shiblon for half a measure of barley. And a shiblum is a half of a shiblon. And a leah is the half of a shiblum.

To conclude his explanation, Mormon mentions a special unit unlike any other: “Now an antion of gold is equal to three shiblons” (Alma 11:19).1

Coherent Sequencing

One consistency in the explanation of this system involves the way that the 8 units (4 of gold and 4 of silver) which were first listed by Mormon are later repeated in a coherent and meaningful order. The following chart helps readers keep track of this sequential consistency by identifying the gold units as G1–G4 and the silver units that follow as S1–S4, in the order that they are respectively given in the text. The sequencing of these units is then tracked through the subsequent conversion ratios. All sequencing information is presented in the right column, while the text and versification are given in the left two columns:

The right column of the chart demonstrates that the initial sequence in Alma 11:5 of gold units (G1–G4) followed in v. 6 by silver units (S1–S4) is essentially repeated in the conversion ratios in vv. 8–13. For instance, the comparative values of G1 and G2 are given in v. 8, followed by values for G2 and G3 in v. 9, followed by the value of G4 in v. 10. Then the values of S1 and S2 are given in v. 11, followed by the value of S3 in v. 12, concluding with the value of S4 in v. 13.

The way that some of the ratios are phrased—with the greater unit given first and the lesser unit given second (see Alma 11:8–9, 11–12)—may initially obscure the sequential relationship with the earlier listing of units (vv. 5–6), but a coherent pattern clearly emerges once the verses are collectively analyzed. Once a reader gets through v. 13, it becomes apparent that the sequencing of the initial list of gold and silver units (vv. 5–6) was not given randomly. Instead, the list of gold units was given from least to greatest, followed by the list of silver units from least to greatest.

Zeezrom tempting Amulek with six onties of silver. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Consistent Ratio Progressions

Recognizing this relationship between the gold and silver units helps explain why Mormon begins to describe the conversion ratios by first noting that a “senum of silver was equal to a senine of gold, and either for a measure of barley, and also for a measure of every kind of grain” (v. 7). Establishing that the base units of gold and silver are of the same value makes sense because the equivalencies end up progressing at the same ratio for each of the greater metal units. For both gold and silver, each successive unit is twice the value of the previous one, until reaching the fourth and final unit, which is the value of them all. This means that the respective units in each list of metals can be directly converted into one another:

Consistent Unit Values and Descriptions

On two occasions, the values or descriptions of units are accurately restated. In Alma 11:3, it is noted that judges received “a senine of gold for a day, or a senum of silver, which is equal to a senine of gold.” This same equivalency is restated in v. 7: “A senum of silver was equal to a senine of gold, and either for a measure of barley.”

The additional detail given in v. 7 (that a senum and senine are equal to a “measure of barley”) is then further corroborated in v. 15: “A shiblon is half of a senum; therefore, a shiblon for half a measure of barley.” The description in v. 15 is consistent with v. 7 in two ways: (1) it explicitly connects senum with barley, and (2) without explicitly stating it, the listed values logically result in 1 senum equaling 1 measure of barley, just as mentioned in v. 7.  

Consistent Phrasing

Mormon described the gold ratios using the phrase “twice the value” (Alma 11:8–9) and “the value of them all” (v. 10). In contrast, the silver ratios are described using the following phrases: “as great as two,” (v. 11) “as great as four” (v. 12), and “as great as them all” (v. 13). These variations in phrasing are essentially equivalent. For example, saying that one unit is “twice the value” as another is the same as saying that it is “as great as two” of another.2 Whatever the purpose for these variant phrases,3 they are consistent with respect to each list: each gold unit is expressed as a multiple or sum “value” of other gold units and each silver unit is “as great as” a certain number of other silver units.

Named Units

Collectively, the text introduces 12 units of measurement—5 of gold and 7 of silver—which in total are mentioned 29 times between Alma 11:5–19. Not only are the names of all these units foreign to English speakers, but some of them sound quite similar to one another. For instance, readers might easily confuse names like senine, senum, and seon—all starting with se and ending with an n or m.4 And yet, despite the potential for inadvertently swapping one name for another, the units never appear to be confused or given out of order in the earliest manuscripts of Alma 11.

Conclusion

Mosiah’s units of exchange manifest the consistency of an authentic monetary system. Such a system would likely have been difficult to fabricate under normal circumstances, but especially so under the conditions reportedly involved in the translation of the Book of Mormon.

According to several witnesses, Joseph Smith didn’t utilize any outlines, working notes, or reference materials when translating. Nor does the text show signs of any substantial revisions.5 Emma Smith once reported, “When he stopped for any purpose at any time he would, when he commenced again, begin where he left off without any hesitation.”6

Emma as Scribe, by Robert T. Pack.

If Joseph Smith didn’t have the aid of divine revelation, he would have been completely dependent upon his own memory to keep track of these unfamiliar units, their sequencing, their conversion ratios, and their phrasing. The necessity of such a feat burdens the theory that Joseph dictated Alma 11 from memory and strongly argues against the notion that he made it up as he went along. These factors lend credibility to the Prophet’s claim that he dictated the text by the gift and power of God.

John W. Welch, “Weighing and Measuring in the Worlds of the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8, no. 2 (1999): 36–45, 86.

John W. Welch, “The Laws of Eshnunna and Nephite Economics,” in Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon: The FARMS Updates of the 1990s, ed. John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999), 147–149.

John W. Welch, “The Law of Mosiah,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon: A Decade of New Research, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992), 158–161.

Alma 11:1–20

Alma 11:1–20

  • 1 For the utility of this unit, see John W. Welch and J. Gregory Welch, “The Utility of the Gold Antion,” in Charting the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999), chart 111.
  • 2 The only oddity comes when comparing vv. 9 and 12. Whereas a shum (G3) is twice the value of a seon (G2), the ezrom (S3) is described as being great as four senums (S1). Instead, one might have expected Mormon to describe the ezrom (S3) as being as great as two amnors (S2), so that S3 would be compared to S2 just as G3 was compared to G2. This, however, shouldn’t be seen as an error or a discrepancy in the system, seeing that the value of 4 senums (S1) and 2 amnors (S2) are equivalent. It seems, rather, that Mormon’s description simply opted for a valid variation at this point.
  • 3 It is possible that Mormon switched up the phrasing simply to help demarcate gold vs. silver ratios. The variation may also be an artifact of the underlying language or culture. A final possibility is that the shift in phrasing could have arisen when the text was translated into English.
  • 4 In fact, it is likely due to this type of visual/phonetic similarity that a mistake was made when the Book of Mormon was being typeset. The fractional units in the current text of the Book of Mormon are listed as shiblum, shiblon, and leah (Alma 11:15–17). However, in both the Original and Printer’s manuscript, the word shiblum was originally written as shilum. It is likely that the typesetter twice inserted an erroneous “b” into shilum because of this word’s visual similarity with shiblon, which in each case is mentioned right before the error is made. See Royal Skousen, Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon, Part Three: Mosiah 17 – Alma 20 (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2006), 1810. See also, Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Shilum,” January 25, 2021, online at evidencecentral.org.  
  • 5 See Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: No Notes or Reference Materials,” November 2, 2020, online at evidencecentral.org; Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Analysis of the Earliest Manuscripts,” September 19, 2020, online at evidencecentral.org.
  • 6 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), 142, doc. 38.
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