Is there an explanation for the appearance of a Greek name in the Book of Mormon?
October 1992

“Is there an explanation for the appearance of a Greek name in the Book of Mormon?” Ensign, Oct. 1992, 53–54

The name of one of the Lord’s disciples listed in 3 Nephi 19:4—Timothy—seems to be Greek in origin. Is there an explanation for the appearance of a Greek name in the Book of Mormon?

Stephen D. Ricks, associate professor of Hebrew and Semitic languages, Brigham Young University, and elders quorum instructor, Edgemont Fifth Ward, Provo Utah Edgemont South Stake. One of the disciples chosen by the Lord following his appearance among the Nephites was the brother of Nephi. His name was Timothy, a name used by the Greeks and a name found in the New Testament. Although we do not know for certain, there are several plausible explanations for the appearance of this name in the Book of Mormon.

It may be that the name Timothy, as well as other manifestations of Greek influence, was brought to the New World by the Mulekites. The people of Mulek may have made their escape to the New World on a Phoenician ship. (See Ross T. Christensen, ed., Transoceanic Crossings to Ancient America, Provo: The Society for Early Historic Archaeology, n.d., pp. 19–20.) The Phoenicians, whose port cities included Sidon, Acco, and Tyre, were the greatest seamen of the region. They had regular contacts both with Greek-speaking merchants and traders and with the Israelites. (See, for example, Judg. 1:31; 2 Sam. 5:11; 1 Kgs. 5:1–12; Matt. 11:21–22; Mark 3:8.)

One possibility, then, is that on that long voyage, the lore of the Greeks—including Greek names—could have been learned and passed on to the Mulekite colony. It may be significant that the names Lachoneus and Timothy, the only two names in the Book of Mormon that seem to be of Greek origin, appear in the Book of Mormon only after the Mulekite contact with the Nephites.

Another possibility, in the case of the name Timothy at least, is that we have a Greek doublet—a name in one language that has the same or nearly the same meaning as a name in another language. For example, in the New Testament, the Greek name Petros (Peter) is a doublet of the Aramaic Cephas, both of which mean a “rock.” Likewise, the Greek Didymus is a doublet of the Aramaic Thomas, meaning “twin.” The name Timothy means “God-fearer” and might be a doublet for a similar-meaning Nephite name. Alternatively, Timothy may simply be a rendering of a like-sounding Nephite name that is otherwise completely unrelated to the Greek.

Perhaps the strongest possibility for the appearance of Timothy in the Book of Mormon is that Greek names were not unknown among the Israelites even before Lehi left Jerusalem. Contacts between the Greeks and the peoples of the eastern Mediterranean—including the Israelites—had already begun centuries before Lehi was born. Professor Cyrus H. Gordon, who has studied early evidence of Greek contacts in the ancient Near East, writes in his book The Common Background of Greek and Hebrew Civilization that trade and other cultural contacts existed between the Greeks and the ancient Near East from the middle of the second millennium B.C. (New York: Norton, 1965, pp. 22–46; see also Michael Astour, Hellenosemitica, Leiden: Brill, 1967.)

Thus, it should not be surprising that names of Greek origin might be found among the peoples of the ancient Near East, including the Hebrews, since names are easily and widely borrowed among peoples of various cultures. Lehi’s tribe, Manasseh, was quite cosmopolitan, so foreign names could well have been in Lehi’s genealogy found on the plates of brass. (See 1 Ne. 5:14; Alma 10:3; cf. Hugh Nibley, The Prophetic Book of Mormon, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co. and Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1989, pp. 544–45.)

The name Timothy, in fact, appears among the desert peoples of the eastern Mediterranean. A Timothy is mentioned as a leader of the Ammonites (a Semitic people who lived immediately to the east of Judea) who opposed Judas Maccabeus, and was on several occasions defeated by him in battles that took place about 165–163 B.C. (See the Apocryphal books 1 Maccabees 5:6–11, 34, 37–44; and 2 Maccabees 8:30, 32; 10:24–37.)

The name Timothy appears to be Ionian in origin. Ionia is a region of Greek-speaking people with whom the peoples of the ancient Near East—including the Hebrews—had close contact. (See Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, The World of the Jaredites, There Were Jaredites, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co. and Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1988, p. 33.) Such contact is reflected in the “Table of Nations” in Genesis 10, where the name Javan—a name related to the Greek “Ionia”—is mentioned as the son of Japheth, the son of Noah (Gen. 10:2), whose descendants were the Greek-speaking peoples of the Ionian coast. Other cultural contacts between the Javanites (“Grecians” in the King James Version) are reflected in Joel 3:6, Ezek. 27:13, and Zech. 9:12–13.

In addition to Timothy, the name Lachoneus (see 3 Ne. 1:1; 3 Ne. 6:19) may also be a name of Greek origin, deriving from the Greek Lakonios, meaning “Laconian,” referring to a people who lived in the southern part of the Greek mainland and who were among the most experienced merchants in Greece, maintaining colonies throughout the ancient Near East. (See Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, p. 33.) The “ch” in the name Lachoneus is significant, accurately reflecting the tendency in Hebrew to change a “c” or “k” immediately after a vowel into a “ch” (pronounced as in the name Bach or in the Scottish word loch).

Thus, there are a number of possible reasons for the names Timothy and Lachoneus being in the Book of Mormon. Certainly, they are not there by accident, and their possible Greek connections remind us again of the ethnic and cultural richness of the people brought by the Lord to their land of promise.