The Book of Mormon contains a myriad of evidences that the text is intended to be considered a historical record. While many passages are focused on Christian doctrine, the underlying narrative of a literal civilization is evident. In the Book of Alma we see these two narratives very clearly.
Having personal experience with the management of corporate finances and money as a study, one passage has always interested me in the Book of Mormon. It is found in Alma chapter 11, which explains the monetary system of the Nephites. What is impressive about this monetary system is its apparent efficiency at creating any number between 1 and 11 with never more than 3 coins. First let’s lay out what the coins are as described in Alma 11:5-19.
The numerical base provided above is a simplified way to look at the system described. For example in verse 8 it says “Now the amount of a seon of gold was twice the value of a senine.” Since a Senine/Senum seem to be the primary measure as compared to barley, I’ve designated these as one, and then calculated from there. A seon becomes two because it is twice that of a Senine. A limnah is described as “the value of them all.” which would be interpreted as 1 + 2 + 4 = 7 or it may mean .125 + .25 + .5 + 1 + 1.5 + 2 + 4 which would be 9.375. Since the 7 seems to be more logical for multiple reasons, I’ll assume that the first measure was intended.
So as impressive as this monetary system is, I begin to wonder if there is ancient historical evidence of this system in the present day Americas. If there isn’t evidence of this type of system, is there any similar system that would have been available to someone in the early 19th century which could potentially explain this monetary system?
First FAIR Mormon explains fairly clearly that coinage did not exist in the ancient Americas.
Interestingly enough, they even cite the use of weights and measures by the Israelites as evidence that the Book of Mormon is actually referring to weights and measures. This despite the fact that the text clearly states in verse 4 that the system is not after manner of the Jews (emphasis mine):
4 Now these are the names of the different pieces of their gold, and of their silver, according to their value. 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…
The measure above is explained later in verse 7 where it states “A senum of silver was equal to a senine of gold, and either for a measure of barley, and also for a measure of every kind of grain.”
Since it is unlikely that a small piece of gold/silver would be equal in weight to a full measure of barley (likely a volume concept), I do not accept the idea that the Book of Mormon is suggesting that the pieces of Gold and Silver are merely the other half a weight scale. Occam’s Razor suggests that Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.
So if coins didn’t exist in the Americas, and the text seems to leave plenty of doubt that the pieces are not coins, from where did the ideas presented come?
I believe the answer is really simple, and comes from a book that would have been available just before the publishing of the Book of Mormon which was called:
Classical Dictionary A Copius Account of All the proper names mentioned in ancient authors with the value of coins, weights, and measures, used among the Greeks and Romans and A Chronological Table (Charles Anthon, 1827)
At the very end of the Book, it describes the monetary systems of the Greeks and Romans. The coinage is described on pages 901 through 903. Additionally, it’s interesting to note that the United States actually follows similar logic once you adjust the scale a little bit. Below is a visualization of the various systems.
To begin I adjusted the base number of the Senine/Senum to be a 2 instead of 1. This helped keep the numbers above 1 whole, while preserving mathematical integrity. Once I did this I compared to the Greek and Roman systems and found a match for every coin except for the Limnah/Onti piece, which is a bit ambiguously described as “the value of them all.”
What is especially interesting is that in 19th century America there was a half quarter called a “bit”, and from there we see the process of doubling from a bit to a quarter, to a half dollar, and then ultimately to a dollar. Therefore, the process of doubling the value of the currency would have been very familiar to anyone in the early 19th century. Perhaps the author of the Book of Mormon was simply using a extended version of the current American system.