“They Had Become Exceedingly Numerous”

Brant Gardner

Sociological: We find immediately that the people of Zarahemla are considered to be "exceedingly numerous." We don't know quite how to interpret this, as they are still relegated to a single land surrounding a single main city. Their influence is therefore not all that great. What was certainly significant for Amaleki, however, was that there were many more Zarahemlaites that there were Nephites (Mosiah 25:2).

We next find that the Zarahemlaites have been engaged in wars and contentions, just as the Nephites have. Of course the Zarahemlaites would not have typified their opponents as "Lamanites" because they would not have know of that designation until after the time of contact with Mosiah. It is also important to underline the necessity of other peoples in the land, presuming that if the Nephites did not find the Zarahemlaites (after their move much closer to the Nephite homeland) until 200 years later, then it is logical that the "true" Lamanites would not have found them either. Nevertheless, the Zarahemlaites have been engaged in wars and contentions for 200 years far north of where the lineal Lamanites would have been.

These wars and contentions virtually guarantee us that the Book of Mormon is speaking of other peoples in the land, and simply not naming them. In the context of Mesoamerican archaeology, this picture of war and political unrest it thoroughly believable as the remnants of the Olmec polities are readjusting - and the Zarahemlaites would be a group moving out of the homeland to a safer area.

Our next information about the Zarahemlaites is particularly important. We are given three important facts: their language is corrupted, they brought no records, they deny the creator. What may we understand of these three pieces of information?

First, let's consider their "corrupted" language. Later in the Book of Mormon, Mormon indicates that their language has changed from the Hebrew of the first fathers: "Mormon 9:33 …but the Hebrew hath been altered by us also…" It is subtle but significant that Mormon suggests that the Hebrew had been "altered" but that Mosiah found the Zarahemlaites' language to be "corrupt." The connotations are very different, and suggest the differing perspective of the insider and the outsider. For the insider, changes are simply alterations. For the outsider who must confront "alterations," and particularly alterations of such magnitude that the other group cannot be understood, it is a case of "corruption."

We must remember that we are dealing with 200 years. While there are certainly linguistic changes over that period of time, British English and American English and Australian English are not mutually unintelligible - even though specifics of some vocabulary are quite different in each flavor of the language. Thus when Mosiah and Zarahemla cannot understand one another's speech, something probably more drastic is going on that simply linguistic shift. Since these two groups which began in Jerusalem are now unable to easily communicate, at least one of the two is no longer speaking Hebrew, and possibly neither is.

The lack of records pertaining to Jerusalem (and therefore scripture) with the Mulekites is significant.. Whiting suggests that "the lack of records had been a stumbling block for the Mulekites, in that without them to stabilize their language it had become corrupt…" (Whiting, Gary R. " The Testimony of Amaleki." In" The Book of Mormon: Jacob Through Words of Mormon, To Learn with Joy. Religious Studies Center, BYU. 1990, p. 300). While the lack of records was surely a stumbling block, linguistic trends suggest that it is not because the text slowed down the pace of change of the language. Indeed, even without records, the three hundred years of separation between the Nephites and Zarahemlaites is not likely to be sufficient for mutual unintelligibility. What is more probable is that without records there was no reason to hold to a language that was not of benefit to communicate with any but their own people, and therefore created an even greater reason for the adoption of the language of the people among whom they found themselves upon arrival.

This suggests that they would have learned common Zoquean or common Mixean (Campbell, Lyle "Mesoamerican Linguistics" mimeographed notes, n.d. section giving language groupings from 600 BCE to 1 CE). Given the probable location of Zarahemla in the Grijalva river basin, this places them in the territory historically associated with Zoque speakers (Campbell, Lyle. "Mesoamerican Linguistics" mimeograph, April 1976, p. 7).

We may therefore suppose that the Mulekites entered into the area speaking common Zoquean, and ended up at Zarahemla because it was an area to which those speakers gravitated. It is perhaps this linguistic affinity with others in the area that creates Amaleki's description as "exceedingly numerous" in reference to the numbers of people speaking that language rather than specifically to those in residence in Zarahemla.

The lack of records would have had two effects. The first has been described, in that the absence of need allowed the more rapid disintegration of linguistic ties to the Old World - a language for which they would have had no real use in the New World, particularly without records requiring that the language be retained to read (much as Latin continues in the modern world, but is retained principally as a means of reading texts written in Latin). The second effect of the lack of records probably led directly to the third facet noted, the loss of their religion.

Without the tie of the scriptures, they were less tied to the conceptions of the Old World, and more susceptible to changes relating to the deities of the New World. Because we know that the Nephites not only retained the brass plates, but attempted to maintain their form of the Mosaic Law, the fact that the Nephites record that the Zarahemlaites have lost their knowledge of the create indicates that the Zarahemlaites have been acculturated to more than physical culture and language. It is most likely that they have also adopted the deities of the people among whom they have lived. Once again this is important to understand the development of the Nephite religion from this point on. We have a smaller group of religious people merging into a larger body of people having a differing language, physical culture, and religion. These tensions will help elucidate future changes in the way religion works among the Nephites, and in particular, the rise of churches during the time of Alma the Elder.

Multidimensional Commentary on the Book of Mormon