Silk in the Book of Mormon
The Book of Mormon claims the word silk to identify a type of clothing owned by the inhabitants of the pre-Columbian Americas. The following points are addressed in this article:
Silk as defined in modern English in the pre-Columbian Americas
The ingredients are there for a low quality silk from a native type of silkworm but the evidence is lacking.
מֶשִׁי (meshi) in the Pre-Columbian era
מֶשִׁי translates from Hebrew to English as 'silk' twice in the Old Testament. It most accurately means 'a costly garment material.' Its shortened translation is almost always seen as the word silk.
שֵׁשׁ (shesh) in the Pre-Columbian era
שֵׁשׁ translates from Hebrew to English as 'silk' once in the Old Testament. It most accurately means 'fine twined weave' and can represent any textile that is finely woven; but is almost always linen. As a stand alone word it means 'six,' but can also be used for 'blue' or 'marble' depending on its context.
Silk in pre-Columbian America
The Book of Mormon uses the word 'silk' in six different verses. Two of these verses are prophetic in nature, but the other four verses claim that the people of the Americas had it in their possession prior to its introduction from European and Spanish conquistadors.
Silk according to the Book of Mormon
The four non-prophetic verses are found below. Two of the verses are found in the book of Alma within the Book of Mormon, and two of them are found in the book of Ether. The verses in Alma are estimated to have occurred around 100 BC, while the two in Ether are claimed around the time that the people were scattered from the tower of Babel in the Bible.
Alma 1:29 claims that the people begin to have an abundance of goods:
"And now, because of the steadiness of the church they began to be exceedingly rich, having abundance of all things whatsoever they stood in need—an abundance of flocks and herds, and fatlings of every kind, and also abundance of grain, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious things, and abundance of silk and fine-twined linen, and all manner of good homely cloth."
In Alma 4:6 the people begin to become prideful because of the wealth obtained by their industry:
"And it came to pass in the eighth year of the reign of the judges, that the people of the church began to wax proud, because of their exceeding riches, and their fine silks, and their fine-twined linen, and because of their many flocks and herds, and their gold and their silver, and all manner of precious things, which they had obtained by their industry; and in all these things were they lifted up in the pride of their eyes, for they began to wear very costly apparel."
The other group of people claim to have silks in Ether 9:17:
"Having all manner of fruit, and of grain, and of silks, and of fine linen, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious things;"
This same group mentions silks again in Ether 10:24:
"And they did have silks, and fine-twined linen; and they did work all manner of cloth, that they might clothe themselves from their nakedness."
The two verses that are prophetic in nature are back to back in 1 Nephi chapter 13 verses 7 and 8. This prophetic vision is claimed by Nephi while he was still in the Middle East.
An argument can be made that the pre-Columbian natives had the means to create authentic silk, just as we have defined it in modern English. All of the necessary ingredients existed on the continent at the time to produce a low quality silk from a native silkworm such as the antheraea polyphemus. Other silk worm species that are native to the American continent include the anisota senatoria, automeris io, callosamia promethea, and the hyalophora cecropia. However, there is no credible evidence that suggests that these were used as a source of silk in the pre-Columbian era.
Looking at Hebrew translations of the word silk in the Old Testament
Careful review of the Book of Mormon will reveal that the book claims that the people spoke and wrote a form of Hebrew, which was then abridged into the record in a hieroglyphic script that descended from the Egyptians. So the authenticity of this word in the Book of Mormon cannot be definitively dismissed without considering the original Hebrew language that the book itself claims it was abridged from. The original plates that the Book of Mormon claims to have been translated from are no longer available; however the Old Testament shares the same Hebrew language from the same time frame as most of the claimed writing in the book and can be used to examine the Hebrew words that became 'silk' in our English Bible.
When the King James Version (KJV - 1611) of the Bible was completed, the word silk was found in the Old Testament three times: twice in Ezekiel and once in Proverbs. Additional Bibles that have relied on the original Hebrew text to make a literal word-for-word translation have been produced since that time. These were the American Standard Version (ASV - 1901) and the New American Bible (NAS - 1971). Both of these versions also use the word silk in Ezekiel, but not in Proverbs. The ASV also contains the word silken in Amos 3:12, replacing the word Damascus seen in the KJV.
Using the original KJV as the source, the word silk is found twice in chapter 16 of Ezekiel; once in verse 10 and again in verse 13. In both cases, the original Hebrew word is מֶשִׁי (meshi - pronounced meh'-shee). Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible identifies the translated word as silk, however both the NAS Concordance of the Bible and the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew Lexicon point out that this word is not used for just silk alone. Both of these concordanances expand on Strong's Concordance and clearly indicate that the Hebrew word meshi more accurately means "costly material for garments." Silk is the most common material, and the word meshi is almost always translated to silk because its root word is mashah, meaning "to draw out," however it can include any expensive textile including lace. The equivalent word in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (τριχαπτω) comes from a word that indicates hair as its material.
The word silk is also found in Proverbs 31:22 in the KJV. The original Hebrew word for this occurrence is שֵׁשׁ (shesh - pronounced shaysh). According to both Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible and the NAS Concordance of the Bible this word means "fine twined linen." Linen is commonly defined as a plant material. This Hebrew word, however, does not identify linens alone, but also other materials including silk. It's more accurate that this word identifies the detail of the weaving rather than the material itself. For example, this word appears in Hebrew numerous times in the Old Testament, but it is usually translated to "fine linen," "fine twined," or sometimes simply to "fine" in most versions of the Bible that are based on the original Hebrew text.
According to Dr. William Smith's Dictionary of the Bible the only time that the word silk in the Bible definitively means silk fabric drawn from the cocoon is the one time it is found in the New Testament, where it was originally written in Greek. Dr. Smith also notes the following about the Hebrew words that are translated to silk:
The Hebrew terms which have been supposed to refer to silk are meshi and demeshek. The former occurs only in Ezekiel 16:10,13 and is probably connected with the root mashah, 'to draw out,' as though it were made of the finest drawn silk in the manner described by Pliny (vi. 20, xi. 26): the equivalent term in the LXX [LXX is the Greek translation of the Old Testament] though connected in point of etymology with hair as its material, is nevertheless explained by Heaychius and Suidas as referring to silk, which may have been described as resembling hair.
The second term that he is talking about, demeshek, appears as the word Damascus in Amos 3:12 in the KJV Bible. Dr. Smith is referencing the American Standard Version, so silk does not appear in Proverbs, but it does in Amos where it replaces the word Damascus with silken.
Silk-like textiles in the pre-Columbian era
So what are the chances that there could be a highly prized, finely woven, silk-like textile in the pre-Columbian era? It turns out chances are pretty good, even verified in peer-reviewed journals. For example, the Inca's produced a textile "which looked like silk" as it was described by the Conquistadors.
It is called vicuña wool or sometimes even vicuña silk. While it is technically wool, it was looked on by the Spaniards "more as silk than wool." Both production silk and vicuña threads share similar physical characteristics. Both threads average between about 10-20 microns in diameter, both have a natural luster, and both are naturally smooth and soft in texture. Vicuña wool is different from silk in that it is much more difficult to obtain and more delicate than silk is. It is currently one of the most expensive textiles in the world, even more luxurious and expensive than cashmere.
Vicuña wool originates from the vicuña, which is an alpaca found in the Andes on the western edge of South America. Indications of alpaca domestication is strongly evident in the area beginning about 6000 years ago (about 4000 BC), but indicators also show that the importance of the alpaca in the region is older. The vicuña population was once much greater than it is today. Once the conquistador appeared the vicuña population was decimated and destroyed for their wool and meat. Today the vicuña's are protected by law and while they do not do well in domestication, they are still temporarily gathered and shorn on a regular basis.
In the time of the Incas, they were able to weave this wool so finely that they could produce fabric that had a thread count of over 500 wefts per inch. Similarly produced thread counts would not be matched until the industrial revolution. It was of such a high quality fabric that only the nobles were allowed to wear it. The crime for breaking this law was punishable by death. It was certainly a symbol of pride at the time that the conquistadors showed up.
This fabric meets both the needs for a fine weave and an expensive garment as found in the meaning of the original Hebrew words that were translated into silk in our Old Testament.
|6 -||Francisco de Xerez, Miguel de Estete, Hernando Pizarro, Pedro Sancho - (Translated by B. Franklin), Reports on the discovery of Peru, page 48, Soto's Interview with Atahuallpa, 1872, accessed 03/26/2013|
|7 -||Francisco de Xerez, Miguel de Estete, Hernando Pizarro, Pedro Sancho - (Translated by B. Franklin), Reports on the discovery of Peru, page 31, Crossing the Desert of Sechura, 1872, accessed 03/26/2013|
|References according to the 1st edition Book of Mormon||Show|