Laban’s Sword of “Most Precious Steel” (Howlers #5)

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In his account of his encounter with Laban, an important official in Jerusalem around 600 B.C. Nephi states, “I beheld his sword, and I drew it forth from the sheath thereof; and the hilt thereof was of pure gold, and the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine, and I saw that the blade thereof was of the most precious steel” (1 Nephi 4:9). Nephi’s description of this weapon was long considered anachronistic:

 “This is the earliest account of steel to be found in history.” E. D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (1834), 25-26.

 “Laban’s sword was steel, when it is a notorious fact that the Israelites knew nothing of steel for hundreds of years afterwards. Who but as ignorant s person as Rigdon would have perpetrated all these blunders?” Clark Braden in Public Discussion, 1884, 109.

 “Laban is represented as killed by one Nephi, some six hundred years before Christ, with a sword `of the most precious steel,’ hundreds of years before steel was known to man!” Daniel Bartlett, The Mormons or, Latter-day Saints(1911), 15.

“[The Book of Mormon] speaks of the most `precious steel,’ before the commonest had been dreamt of.” C. Sheridan Jones, The Truth about the Mormons(1920), 4-5.

 “Nephi . . . wielded a sword `of the most precious steel.’ But steel was not known to man in those days.” Stuart Martin, The Mystery of Mormonism (1920), 44.

 “Laban had a steel sword long before steel came into use.” George Arbaugh, Revelation in Mormonism (1932), 55.

 “Every commentator on the Book of Mormon has pointed out the many cultural and historical anachronisms, such as the steel sword of Laban in 600 B.C.” Thomas O’Dea, The Mormons (1957), 39.

 “No one believes that steel was available to Laban or anyone else in 592 B.C.” William Whalen, The Latter-day Saints in the Modern World (1964), 48.

Today, the cutting remarks of  past critics notwithstanding, it is increasingly apparent that the practice of hardening iron through deliberate carburization, quenching and tempering was well known to the ancient world from which Nephi came “It seems evident” notes one recent authority, “that by the beginning of the tenth century B.C. blacksmiths were intentionally steeling iron.”  (Robert Maddin, James D. Muhly and Tamara S. Wheeler, “How the Iron Age Began,” Scientific American 237/4 [October 1977]:127).

Archaeologists, for example, have discovered evidence of sophisticated iron technology from the island of Cyprus. One interesting example was a curved iron knife found in an eleventh century tomb. Metallurgist Erik Tholander analyzed the weapon and found that it was made of “quench-hardened steel.” Other examples are known from Syro-Palestine. For example, an iron knife was found in an eleventh century Philistine tomb showed evidence of deliberate carburization.  Another is an iron pick found at the ruins of an fortress on Mount Adir in northern Galilee and may date as early as the thirteenth century B.C. “The manufacturer of the pick had knowledge of the full range of iron-working skills associated with the production of quench hardened steel” (James D. Muhly, “How Iron technology changed the ancient world and gave the Philistines a military edge,” Biblical Archaeology Review 8/6 [November-December 1982]: 50).
According to Amihai Mazar this implement was “made of real steel produced by carburizing, quenching and tempering.”  (Amihai Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible 10,000-586 B.C.E. New York: Doubleday, 1990, 361).

More significant, perhaps, in relation to the sword of Laban, archaeologists have discovered a carburized iron sword near Jericho. The sword which had a bronze haft, was one meter long and dates to the time of king Josiah, who would have been a contemporary of Lehi. This find has been described as “spectacular” since it is apparently “the only complete sword of its size and type from this period yet discovered in Israel.”(Hershall Shanks, “Antiquities director confronts problems and controversies,” Biblical Archaeology Review 12/4 [July-August 1986]: 33, 35).

Today the sword is displayed at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum. For a photo of the sword see the pdf version of the article here.

The sign on the display reads:

This rare and exceptionally long sword, which was discovered on the floor of a building next to the skeleton of a man, dates to the end of the First Temple period. The sword is 1.05 m. long (!) and has a double edged blade, with a prominent central ridge running along its entire length.

The hilt was originally inlaid with a material that has not survived, most probably wood. Only the nails that once secured the inlays to the hilt can still be seen. The sword’s sheath was also made of wood, and all that remains of it is its bronze tip. Owing to the length and weight of the sword, it was probably necessary to hold it with two hands. The sword is made of iron hardened into steel, attesting to substantial metallurgical know-how. Over the years, it has become cracked, due to corrosion.

Such discoveries lend a greater sense of historicity to Nephi’s passing comment in the Book of Mormon.

*This article was cross-posted from Ether’s Cave.

4 thoughts on “Laban’s Sword of “Most Precious Steel” (Howlers #5)

  1. Pingback: 17 June 2013 | MormonVoices

  2. TheodoreB

    Good article.

    In support may I add that according to History Professor Richard Hooker of Washington State University, East Africans began producing steel in carbon furnaces around 1400 BC and the technology was in Ethiopia by the 6th Century BC.(1) The fact that Nephi stated it was “the most precious steel” (1 Nephi 4:9) indicates that he recognized in the moonlight something about the steel that was exceptional. It may have been pattern welding or he may have recognized its shininess as being an alloy that contained other metals such as manganese. The hardness of Spartan steel in the 6th century BC was derived from their use of an iron-manganese alloy.(2) In order for Nephi to recognize “the most precious steel,” he must have been trained by his father in the arts of metallurgy. Nephi was probably aware of the manufacturing process of the Spartan sword. Manganese steel may even have been imported from Greece. Nephi also had a “bow made out of fine steel” (1 Nephi 16:18). A bow made of plain iron would not have the resilience to return to its original shape after being bent. Manganese is also a main component of spring steel.

    Nephi’s knowledge of metallurgic technology is confirmed later when the Lord told Nephi to build a ship. The first question Nephi asked was “where do I find some ore (1 Nephi 17:9)?” He obviously knew how to smelt iron and build tools if he just had some ore. When Lehi’s family arrived in the Promised Land, Nephi recognized and discovered copper, gold and silver ores (1 Nephi 18:25). When he led his people away from the Lamanites he taught them to work in all manner “of iron, and of copper, and of brass, and of steel, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious ores, which were in great abundance” (2 Nephi 5:15). Nephi must have been a master metallurgist.

    There is no need to doubt that Joseph Smith’s translation of the English word “steel” meant exactly what it meant in 19th Century English. Nephi made many swords after the pattern of the sword of Laban (2Nephi 5:14) and taught his people to do the same. There is no reason to suppose that the swords used throughout Nephite history were much different than the original. Mormon and Moroni still had the original at the end of the Nephite saga.

    ————————

    1. Prof. Richard Hooker (Washington State University), Civilizations in Africa: The Iron Age South of the Sahara, 1996, http://richard-hooker.com/sites/worldcultures/CIVAFRCA/IRONAGE.HTM , 18 June 2013.

    2. International Manganese Institute: Manganese History, http://www.manganese.org/about_mn/history , 18 June 2013.

  3. nzmagpie

    Reminds me of that other so called anachronism that critics used to ridicule the Book of Mormon, namely, cement. I Would love to see the faces of the critics as these objections tumble, not that it proves anything, either way.

  4. TheodoreB

    Removing anachronisms does not prove the Book of Mormon is true, but it does deflect many of the charges that it could not be true. It also adds credibility by lengthening the list of things in the book that Joseph Smith could not have known at the time he translated it.

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