The Book of Mormon text has plenty of numbers, as anyone who has ever read through the chapters of the reigns of judges or the wars can attest to. But are there any clues to how the book was composed based on their frequency and how these number words are chosen?
Using the frequency of themes and terms is a method employed by Gordon Shepherd and Gary Shepherd in their seminal work A Kingdom Transformed. Mormon apologists have suggested that usage of the number seven in the book of Mormon is significant and that it should be considered a powerful evidence of the authentic of the apologetic narrative surrounding the Book of Mormon.
An attempt to recreate this previous work was done by focusing on the actual words rather than hidden themes which occurred with a frequency of seven, as the latter method may involve some level of ambiguity or bias.
Only the numbers between 1 and 50 were considered in this analysis. Larger numbers were considered only on an anecdotal level.
The mean salience was calculated by dividing the number of occurrences of the word by the total words in the said volume of scripture. While all scriptures in the Mormon cannon were considered, we will play special attention to the Book of Mormon and the Old and New Testaments as these are all considered to be ancient scripture and all are written in the same style of King James Old English.
The Book of Mormon claims to be a book of scripture about Jews who came to America around 592 BC and who lived there until about 421 AD after which the record ends. While more than 90% of the record was purportedly written prior to the coming of Christ, the book itself is very much a Christian text, employing Christian themes very early on and even using various forms of the word “Jesus Christ” about 30 times prior to the birth of Jesus.
The numbers three, seven, ten, and twelve were considered as numbers which may have significance within Judiasm and Christianity and where we might consider them to be more likely to occur than other numbers within the text. The mean salience of the terms was graphed, but as the total frequency of numbers used in various scriptural texts varies slightly, it was found useful to compare the frequency of these numbers with their adjacent numbers. Thus, the number 3 in a text was compared with the average occurrence of the numbers two and four. In general, lower numbers occur more frequently and they decrease with roughly a log decay.
Frequency relative to the adjacent figures (i.e. the frequency of “three” vs the average of “two” and “four” for a given scriptural text)
In the table above, any number above one indicates that there is a higher rate of occurrence than one would expect based on the adjacent numbers. Figures below 1 show that the figure is used less often than the surrounding numbers and as such may not show special significance to the authors.
Based on the data collected we note:
- The figure seven is important to both the New and Old Testament authors, but is not significant to the author of the Book of Mormon.
- The figure ten is significant is all works, but most significant by far in the case of the Old Testament.
- The figure twelve is most significant in the New Testament, but is also very significant in the Book of Mormon and the Old Testament.
First, Second, Third
Of course, rather than looking at both the number “one” and “first” together, we can also consider them separately. When we do, we get the following relative usage patterns:
In the above chart, “third” appears to be significant in the NT whereas both “seventh” and “tenth” appear to be significant to the Old Testament authors.
When the numbers alone are considered, “seven” appears significant in both parts of the bible, whereas “ten” has special significance in the Old Testament and “twelve” in the NT.
Various words of the same number were considered. Consider the number 33, which could be stated in any of the following forms:
- Thirty three
- Three and thirty
- Thirty and three
- Thirty and third
Numbers over 20 – “Twenty and first”
When numbers greater than 20 appear, they tend to take certain forms. The Book or Mormon tends to use the form “Twenty and first” whereas this form is rare in the bible. The relative frequency (occurance per 10K words) of this form is more than 10x that found in the Old Testament. This form is not used in the New Testament.
|twenty and first – twenty and ninth
|thirty and first – thirty and ninth
|forty and first – forty and ninth
This most common form from the Book of Mormon (twenth and first) is also used in The Late War.
Numbers over 20 – “Twenty and one”
This form is used in the Old and New Testaments as well as the Book of Mormon. The relative frequency is shown in the chart below:
|twenty and one – twenty and nine
|thirty and one – thirty and nine
|forty and one – forty and nine
In general, higher numbers appear less than lower numbers in the texts, so the increased appearance of the 40s relative to the 30s in both the New Testament and the Book of Mormon may require additional investigation or explanation.
Numbers over 20 – “One and Twenty”
This form, relatively common in the Old Testament is entirely lacking from the Book or Mormon and is rare in the New Testament.
|one and twenty – nine and twenty
|one and thirty – nine and thirty
|one and forty – nine and forty
This form is also entirely lacking from the novel published around 1819 titled The Late War. According to its introduction, The Late War “…seems to be one of the best attempts to imitate the biblical style.” This form was also entirely lacking from the D&C and Pearl of Great Price with one exception in the D&C which as specifically quoting a passage from the New Testament.
Large numbers occur in all of these scriptural texts, though the frequency varies significantly. Below is a chart of some of the more common terms and their relative frequency in the various texts.
The usage of numbers in the Book of Mormon shows some correlation to the New Testament, but very little correlation to the Old Testament. The complete lack of certain types of number forms (such as “one and twenty” suggests that the author was not writing in King James style English, but rather a 19th century interpretation of King James style English. Indeed, it appears that the usage of numbers appears to follow usage patterns in “The Late War” more closely than usage patterns established in the King James version of the Bible. Certain links to Jewish holy numbers (such as the number seven) are missing from the text. This study is by no means conclusive, and additional analysis and research in this area is welcomed.