Friday, June 14, 2013

Criteria for the Book of Mormon Lands – Part IV - Understanding the Nephite Monetary System

In the 8th criteria covered briefly earlier, a deeper understanding is presented here since most Theorists claim the Nephite monetary system was nothing more than measures, such as measures of grain:
(8)  Merchant Class Using Weights and Measures tied to gold, silver and grain (Alma 11)
Response: First of all, this information has nothing to do with “merchants” or the “merchant class,” since merchants are those who buy and sell goods. Mormon is writing about Zeezrom a lawyer, and the lawyer-judge group, or Professional Class, who were wicked and interested only in “getting gain.” Secondly, the Nephite monetary system was not tied to grain; Mormon uses grain only as a comparative value. Third, the entire concept stated above is based on a misunderstanding of Mormon’s insertion into Alma’s record. At the time of this information, Mormon is abridging Alma’s report about Zeezrom, the wicked lawyer who tempted Amulek with a bribe, for “the object of these lawyers was to get gain, and they got gain according to their employ” (Alma 10:32, 11:1).
For us to understand the importance or value of this bribe, Mormon then inserts the monetary system of the Nephites so the amount or size of Zeezrom’s later bribe could be better appreciated. Mormon states: “Now these are the names of the different pieces of their gold, and of their silver, according to their value.” Thus it should be understood that Mormon is talking about gold and silver values as they were pieced, or “coined,” or sized, just as the early Spaniards talked about “pieces of eight,” which was a coin, and just as we would talk about silver and gold coins in the early days of this country.
Mormon continues: “And the names are given by the Nephites, for they did not reckon after the manner of the Jews who were at Jerusalem; neither did they measure after the manner of the Jews; but they altered their reckoning and their measure, according to the minds and the circumstances of the people, in every generation, until the reign of the judges, they having been established by king Mosiah” (Alma 11:4). Consequently, while earlier reckoning was done on an individual city or regional basis, according to “the minds and circumstances” of the people at the time, King Mosiah, before he stepped down after creating a government system of judges, established a monetary system, which was then used throughout the Nephite nation.
The point here is that Mormon wrote: “these are the names of the different pieces of their gold, and of their silver, according to their value.” That is no different than any civilization system of money. In the early days of the United States, money was based on gold and silver, and each gold piece had a value—coins were established for ease of use—wherein there were Quarter Eagles ($2.50), Half Eagles ($5.00), Eagles ($10.00) and Double Eagles ($20.00) gold pieces. In 1849-1889, a gold coin (about the size of today’s quarter) was worth $1.00 and equivalent to nearly a day’s wage. In stating the Nephite monetary system, Mormon knew he was doing so for future readers (Mormon 3:17) who would be living in an entirely different economic time and system. Thus he was faced with the problem of equivalency. That is, trying to show an equivalent value between the Nephite coinage and that of some future generation.
As an example, when I was first married, I was making about $600.00 per month, which paid for a new car (Corvette), an apartment, utilities, food, entertainment, etc., etc., etc., and provided us a nice living. Today, fifty years later, $600 won't even pay for an apartment rental. Understanding equivalency over time can be difficult. As an example, $600.00 then is equivalent to $4,224.00 today in buying power (annual inflation has been about 4.33% per year).
So in order to do this, Mormon used an equivalent system that he believed would have meaning centuries later—that of food, or more accurately, of grain. Thus Mormon begins comparing one coin with another (like the quarter, half, eagle and double-eagle above) and their value each coin compared to another, then shows an equivalency with grain (Alma 11:5-19), so the reader can both see the value of one coin to another, and the value of the coin itself—that is, stating its buying power.
If I were to say that I earned $600.00 before taxes when I was married, to most people today that would seem like peanuts. But by comparing its buying power, rent, car, food, entertainment, etc., you get a better understanding of the wage. Mormon is simply telling us the value of different coins by what they could buy, using grain as a standard since grain (food) would always be known.
A good equivalent measurement is to show how much money it took to purchase something all ages and periods of time would understand—the purchasing power of money to buy food
Thus, he tells us that 1 senum of silver was equivalent of a measure of any grain (Alma 11:7), 1 amnor of silver was worlth two senums (Alma 11:11); 1 ezrom of silver was worth four sunums (Alma 11:12); 1 onti was as great as them all (Alma 11:13), or stated differently 1 onti was worth 1 senum 1 amnor, and 1 ezrom, or 9 senums of silver, or 9 measures of grain. So when Zeezrom bribed Amulek with six ontis of silver to deny God (Alma 11:22), he was actually offering the combined total of 6 senums, 6 amnors, and 6 ezroms, or 54 senums of silver, which was equivalent of 54 measures of grain. Put differently, if we were to say that 1 senum was the same as (a bushel of barley today) it would be $4.40, then Zeezrom’s bribe was worth $237.60. If one senum was worth today’s value of a bushel of wheat ($14.93 May price for Chicago soft red winter wheat), then the bribe would have been $806.00.
Stated another way, a senum of silver (or a senine of gold) was the pay of a judge for a day’s work (Alma 11:3). Figuring an average of 22 days work in a month (5 days a week), a judge would earn 22 senum a month. Six senum would be about one week’s work. By today’s standards, if a lawyer earning $100,000 a year, that would work out to about $2,000.00 bribe.
Of course, we don’t know what a “measure” meant. It could have merely been a scoop or ladle of grain, or a quartern, sack, quarter, or a bushel. Biblical Ruth was given six measures of barley for her mother-in-law Naomi which Boaz placed in her veil (Ruth 3:15), and she evidently carried it into the city. On the other hand, in Cheshire, England, a bushel is called a measure, and grain is sold by weight or by measure (so many pounds per bushel).
Today, we measure grain by bushels and a bushel of oats is 32 pounds; barley is 48 pounds; rye 56 pounds; corn 56 pounds; soybeans 60 pounds; and wheat, 60 pounds. Since the Nephite system considered all grain the same value (Alma 11:7), we could arrive for equivalency sake at 50 pounds of grain to a measure, or a senum was worth 50 pounds of grain. Thus, 6 ontis was worth 2700 pounds of grain, or approximately $250.00. This is not to say how much it actually was, but merely to show how the use of Alma 11 is and why Mormon stated the Nephite monetary system in that manner.
An additional thought to keep in mind is that Zeezrom’s bribe must have been quite large for the period since it was meant to impress his audience, and also large enough to be thought an enticement for a man to deny his beliefs Whatever the value of six days labor, it was probably a sizeable amount. This is all speculation, of course, but it should be understood that almost all cultures of antiquity had some type of monetary system. Nor can anyone claim that a certain monetary system existed in a certain regional local from 600 B.C. to 421 A.D. That information is simply not available and is not a good criteria for finding the location of the Land of Promise. As for Mesoamerica, it is claimed the cacao bean was considered the Mayan monetary system as late as 900 A.D., and was also the Aztec monetary system as well. However, Mesoamerican money was not based upon gold or silver as was the Nephites.
Thus, it should be understood that the Nephite monetary system was not tied to grain, but that it had a purchasing power to buy so much grain, or so much of whatever the Nephite markets were selling. Since no coinage of any type have ever been found in Mesoamerica, it is only natural for Mesoamerican Theorists to claim the Nephites did not use coins, or money of that nature, but used measures of grain for their value system; however, Mormon makes it clear that the Nephite monetary system was tied to gold and silver—“pieces” of gold and silver. A coin is a piece of metal (gold, silver, nickel, etc.)

Also, it should be kept in mind that when Zeezrom said, "Behold these six onties, which are of great worth, I will give unto thee" (Alma 11:25-emphasis mine), he had them on his person and physically offered them to Amulek for the crowd to see. Other than coins, which have value beyond their size, Zeezrom would not have been carrying gold weight, grain, etc. Only coins would have been sufficient to fit this description.

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