“The place of martyrdom”

There’s a rather intriguing piece of wordplay in Alma 14. After being arrested by the authorities in Ammonihah, Alma and Amulek are taken to somewhere the text calls “the place of martyrdom” to witness the burning both of the scriptures but especially the wives and children of those who had believed their words, an understandably horrific scene. Where the wordplay comes in is that the word martyr is derived from the Greek word μάρτυρ (martur), meaning witness. Its later meaning of dying for the faith derived from the fact that many of those who bore witness to the faith in the early Christian period paid the price with their own life:

And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held:

And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?

(Revelation 6:9-10; the Greek word translated as testimony in verse 9 is μαρτυριαν – that is in transliterated form: marturian)

Which leads us on to Alma and Amulek:

And it came to pass that they took Alma and Amulek, and carried them forth to the place of martyrdom, that they might witness the destruction of those who were consumed by fire.
10 And when Amulek saw the pains of the women and children who were consuming in the fire, he also was pained; and he said unto Alma: How can we witness this awful scene? Therefore let us stretch forth our hands, and exercise the power of God which is in us, and save them from the flames.
11 But Alma said unto him: The Spirit constraineth me that I must not stretch forth mine hand; for behold the Lord receiveth them up unto himself, in glory; and he doth suffer that they may do this thing, or that the people may do this thing unto them, according to the hardness of their hearts, that the judgments which he shall exercise upon them in his wrath may be just; and the blood of the innocent shall stand as a witness against them, yea, and cry mightily against them at the last day.

(Alma 14:9–11, my emphasis)

Alma and Amulek are lead to this “place of martyrdom” precisely so they can “witness” those being burned by fire. As if to emphasise that this choice of word is not a coincidence, we then have Amulek lamenting that they must “witness” this atrocity, and Alma assuring him that the  blood of those so murdered will “witness” against their murderers when God judges them at the last day (that it is also said to cry also appears to echo Revelation 6:9-10 quoted above).

The immediate and then persistent use of the leitwort “witness” argues against this being a mere accidental choice of words: it is indeed a place of martyrdom, in the original greek sense, for Alma and Amulek both witness the price their converts are paying for their witness, and the crime committed at that place will be a witness against those who persecuted them.

How this piece of wordplay ends up here, of course, is another question. Critics are likely just to ascribe it to Joseph Smith, but I’m confident that he both lacked the knowledge and the sheer time for this sort of thing (in the same way that its taken me far longer to write a chapter examining Jacob 5’s use of the Bible than it took to dictate the entirety of the Book of Mormon). Furthermore, were any human author of the time responsible for this sort of cleverness (and many other such examples), you’d think they’d point it out. They didn’t and haven’t: in fact I can’t find any record of anyone else spotting this.

On the other hand, this wordplay rests on the history of the word μάρτυρ in Greek and its subsequent course in European languages including English. So what precisely is going on here? On one hand, I have been inclined at various points on the basis of this and a few other details to indulge in wild speculations on Greek influence in the book of Alma. But that’s necessarily extremely speculative, and in any case the description here (including whatever meant “place of martyrdom” on the plates) was written by Mormon, hundreds of years later. It should also not be forgotten that the Book of Mormon is doubly inspired (i.e both in composition and in translation), and in the Book of Mormon’s case that inspiration can and does extend to quoting people hundreds of years in the future (see 1 Nephi 10:7-8).

For a more emotive take on this passage, and an understanding as to why Amulek in particular was so pained, it might also be worth considering that there is every possibility that his own wife and children (Alma 10:11) are amongst the martyrs.

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