Nephrite and Jadeite

August 28, 2007 | 33 comments
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It was one of the last zone conferences I attended. President Gonzales paused in his talk, and then pulled out a small greenish-colored jade bracelet.

He had stopped at a little vendor, he explained, to buy something nice for his wife. He noticed some jade jewelry there. The missionaries nodded. These vendors were a familiar sight, and so was the jade. Many of the small roadside vendors in Guatemala sold them.

Before purchasing it, he asked the vendor, “what is this type of stone called?”

The vendor replied, “Nephrite.”

Interesting, thought President Gonzales. He glanced again at some of the other jewelry. Maybe she would like a different stone better. “And what’s that stone there called?”

“Jadeite.”

President Gonzales stopped, to let it sink in. The room was silent, the missionaries entranced.

(I should note here that “jadeita,” Spanish for jadeite, has the same number of syllables and same rhythm as “jaredita,” or Jaredite. In English, the two don’t sound quite so similar; in Spanish, they are strikingly alike.)

“I asked him where these names came from. He said that that was what the stones had been called, for as long as anyone could remember. I then asked him if I could give him a book explaining the origin of the people on this continent.”

The meeting ended shortly after, and the room was abuzz. Here we sat, in the cradle of the Book of Mormon, and people still used the ancient terms. How close those were to the real thing! A few missionaries talked about how they planned to go buy some Nehprite, next chance they had.

At the same time, something about the story bugged me. This jadeita was, um, jade. Wasn’t jade from China? Wasn’t it a word in English, too? And why would we be using ancient American terms for something like that?

I went home, and tried to tell the story once. It didn’t tell well, in part because of the obvious problems of jade, and in part because jadeite just doesn’t sound so remarkably like Jaredite, in English. I didn’t tell it again in English.

Recently, recalling the story, I looked up the origins of the two words online. It’s clear that they’re not of ancient Mayan origin. The word jade dates to the 1500s, and is based on Latin. Nephrite is a few centuries older, and also Latin-based. Both words are based on Latin terms for kidneys or the kidney area, as these stones were used as a folk cure for kidney disease.

In fact, the only references I could find for Nephrite and Mormon were a few anti-Mormon pages, claiming that they had discovered evidence of how Joseph Smith fabricated the Book of Mormon. (Apparently, he saw the two stones, and thought, “Nephrite and Jadeite, hmm. I’d better create two peoples, who don’t really interact with each other and who do interact with many more -ites, out of these two stone names.” It really manages to be even less convincing as an anti-Mormon narrative.)

It’s a coincidence. It’s not a Mayan word; it’s just a coincidence.

Sometimes, in our effort to see things that bolster our faith (or attacks on faith), the human mind can notice patterns that aren’t really there. It’s a powerful tool, and there are hundreds of potential ways that patterns can appear. Not all of them are meaningful.

I’m not always sure how to tell the difference between the evidence and coincidence. But I do think that this difference — and the reality of coincidence — is something important to keep in mind, as we talk about patterns and similarities, proofs and evidences, and how we incorporate these into our faith.

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33 Responses to Nephrite and Jadeite

  1. Ardis Parshall on August 28, 2007 at 6:27 pm

    Thank you, Kaimi. It’s amazing how often you do hear people finding great meaning in false cognates and coincidences. (Cf. any “September Dawn” discussion referencing September 11.) It’s frustrating when it’s used against us; it’s embarrassig when we do it ourselves.

  2. Ray on August 28, 2007 at 6:43 pm

    Very good point, Kaimi. I honestly can’t remember any off the cuff, but I can’t count how many times I have had the same basic thought about comments from either side of multiple issues – “That’s not profound; it’s merely coincidental.” It’s interesting how much of one’s subconscious biases are illuminated by how one interprets coincidences – or sometimes how one insists on classifying everything as coincidence and misses the profound. Of course, the key is that my interpretation is the correct one, right?

  3. Rusty on August 28, 2007 at 6:46 pm

    I had always heard it called “jade” (ha-de). I never heard “jadeite” nor “el hermano de jade”. That’s hilarious that your MP told that story though.

  4. queuno on August 28, 2007 at 7:10 pm

    My most memorable MP talk came a few months before El Presidente went home. He was to be replaced by his closest friend, who had helped fellowship him into the Church 20 years earlier. He went into a fiery oratory about how we should work until the very, very end and thundered, “Even I am not ‘tronky’ ” and that “Hermana C has not even bought one single linen sheet in preparation for our return home!”, the last line with an index finger extended for emphasis. For some reason, he looked back at his wife, who had a frown on her face and a subtle shake of her head.

    Momentarily staggered at his wife’s not playing along, El Presidente recovered: “OK, so so she’s been buying sheets! But we’re working until the end!”

    Classic.

  5. Andrew Ainsworth on August 28, 2007 at 8:02 pm

    I recently noticed this phenomenon in the journals of Mormon pioneers who travelled in the same wagon trains as some of my ancestors. I was struck by how differently people interpreted the same experiences; some seeing God’s intervening hand in saving them, and others not. A good example:

    One pioneer’s journal recounted how he and his wife had become separated from their handcart company and were desperately worried about how they would cross a river that was rumored to be swift and deep without the aid of their fellow travellers. When they arrived at the river, they said a prayer and decided to cross alone. As they stepped into the water, they miraculously felt the bottom of the river about three feet below the water’s surface. With each step, the water ahead looked dangerously swift and deep. But miraculously, the river bottom remained high enough for them to walk on until they were safely across. The writer remarked that this “miracle” was a source of faith for the remainder of their lives.

    At first I too credited this story as being a miracle. But then I read the account of another person in the same wagon train, whose journal entry that same day simply noted: “Crossed the Green River today. It’s a pretty shallow river about three feet deep.”

    After reading this, I thought: “Might the first pioneer have simply been mistaken about whether God intervened to make the river more shallow than it already was? Maybe it was just a shallow river all along, and the rumor about it being a deep river was simply wrong.”

    But I then asked myself: what does it matter? If this mistaken belief caused him to trust God the remainder of his life, isn’t this mistaken source of faith harmless, or better yet, even beneficial? If my children are more well behaved because they believe in Santa Claus, isn’t that a beneficial fiction? If God sometimes chooses to teach us divine truths through fictional, symbolic stories or parables, does it really matter if we believe the right things for fictional reasons?

  6. David Grua on August 28, 2007 at 8:55 pm

    For a second I thought this thread was about Kevin Phillips’ _American Theocracy_, 111. “Revelations to Smith by the angel Moroni told how the future United States had been occupied many years before Christ by several Hebraic peoples: the Lamanites (ancestors of the American Indians) and the Nephrites. Mormon himself, the father of Moroni, was a Nephrite who recorded the story of his tribe on gold plates.” No joke, that’s how he spelled it, and apparently his editor was too lazy to check the spelling.

  7. Tatiana on August 28, 2007 at 9:06 pm

    The truth matters, though. It just does. Polite fiction is okay for social niceties, where the truth doesn’t matter. But in religion, faith, questions of good and evil, in questions about why there’s so much suffering in the world, and what is life for, in these things the real truth absolutely does matter!

  8. queuno on August 28, 2007 at 10:28 pm

    See “Dunn, Paul H.”

  9. Andrew A on August 29, 2007 at 2:18 am

    Tatiana, does that mean you give a literal interpretation to the story of Job, which plainly deals with “questions of why there’s so much suffering in the world, and what life is for,” etc. I fail to see why it matters whether stories like Job are literal or fictional if, either way, they convey to me the true principles it seems they are intended to convey.

  10. Kyle R on August 29, 2007 at 3:27 am

    #5, #7, #9 Andrew. On the one hand I see and accept your point that the individual mind processing reality here and there in order to reach for – or hold on to – faith, is perhaps unobjectionable. For the couple crossing the river, seeing a miracle that wasn’t there might have been – apart from a prop for general religious faith – simply a means of bucking themselves up during what must have been an arduous and often dispiriting pioneer trek.

    But otherwise I’m with Tatiana on this. Especially when ‘truth’ is such a touchstone word for the LDS gospel. If we “believe the right things for fictional reasons” then the fictional reasons will soon produce fictional belief. If skewing things for the sake of belief becomes a habit, especially a collective habit, then this self-deception cannot be a good thing. It’s an unhealthy road to start down.

    Toby Green’s new book “Inquisition: The Reign of Fear” relates a story about a ‘miraculous’ glow that appeared on a crucifix in a Dominican monastery in Portugal in 1506. Crowds thronged to witness and marvel at it, taking it as a sign. One man had the temerity to observe that, actually, it appeared as though there had been a candle placed behind the the image of Christ. The enraged mob – still in thrall of the ‘miracle’ – dragged him by his hair into the street, beat the living snot out of him and burnt him to death.

  11. Floyd the Wonderdog on August 29, 2007 at 6:59 am

    Job was a real person. He is referred to in the Doctrine and Covenants. I don’t think that the Lord feels a need to draw comparisons to fictional characters. I gained some comfort from his story while passing through some of my own problems.

    I must admit that my patience is wearing thin with respect to those who feel a need to liberally season the teachings of the church with folk religion. Faith promoting rumors work only as long as the person doesn’t see though the thin tissue that they are composed of. Then they my feel that they have been lied to or that the rest of what they have been taught is made of the same fabric. Perhaps this is why Joseph Smith taught in the Lectures on Faith that faith must be based on true principles.

  12. Mike on August 29, 2007 at 10:30 am

    When I was a missionary in Japan a long time ago my Zone Leaders had a list of about 20 or 30 parallels between ancient Japanese culture and the Lost 10 Tribes of Israel. One example I still remember was the covenant of salt that appears in the Old Testament associated with some of the offerings. Today in Japan salt is tossed ritually at the beginning of a sumo match. This kind of inspirational folk story was often trotted out at the end of conferences. I think they were much more common many years ago, contemporary missionary lore appears relatively sterile and correlated in comparison.

    The most out rageous example of this kind of folk story I remember was from an article that circulated our mission published in, I believe BYU Studies. Supposedly this Mormon missionary found a village of Ainu people who believed they were genetic descendants of Christ. According to their traditions, after Jesus was cut down from the cross (before he actually died if you are not a Christian believer) he was nursed back to health/resurrected and quietly appeared to a few of his friends as documented in the Bible. But he had to get the heck out of there or the Romans would crucify him once more and who would want to go through that again, eh?

    So he set sail on a boat and followed a course similar to that of Nephi (and managed to get through the strait of Malacca) and ended up in northern Japan. There he found a place so remote that he would be safe. He married 3 Ainu wives and produced a large posterity and lived a long and productive life. He taught the gospel which was transmitted down and changed from generation to generation to become the ancient religion of the Ainu. I recall the article had a picture of one of these supposed Ainu descendents of Christ with long hair and a thick beard who looked very Asian and at the same time he very much resembled a classic painting of Christ by Da Vinci which was posted right next to the picture for easy comparison. Hey, it impressed me as a 19 year old missionary!

    The Ainu are the aboriginal natives of Japan, a fascinating group of people who lived there before people form Korea and/or other parts of Asia invaded about 600 B.C. and became what we think of as typical Japanese. The Ainu surface often in DNA discussions and might be related to the Kennewick man. The Ainu are tall with light skin, long thick black hair and large hooked noses and some of them have red hair. Only a few pure Ainu remain in the most remote northern parts of Japan, the rest have intermarried with the more typical Japanese. Sometimes when the sunlight shines on a Japanese girl’s long jet-black hair you will catch a hint of red in it and that is probably from the Ainu in her family history. Many Japanese girls also artificaly put subtle red streaks in their hair.

    I taught one Ainu person a few of the missionary lessons but he didn’t get baptized. He did give me a beautiful hand-carved wooden bear. But he didn’t come from the village that supposedly was descended from Christ. In fact I don’t think he had ever even heard of this tale. I really wished he had. Wouldn’t it be way cool to show a missionary artifact at firesides, a wooden bear carved by a living descendent of Christ with whom you had shared the restored gospel? Wouldn’t that send chills up and down your spine as you handled the wooden bear? Wouldn’t that invite the Spirit in after the manner of Elder Dunn? What this church needs are some genuine folk relics to back up some of these stories.

  13. Mike on August 29, 2007 at 11:23 am

    Here is a website that sells hand carved bears that look remarkably similar to the one I have except my bear’s mouth is closed.

    http://www.fareastasianart.com/stores/orientaltreasurebox/items/426829/item426829fareastasianart.html

  14. Kyle R on August 29, 2007 at 11:34 am

    #13 Mike, about 20 years ago I used to teach English in Kitami, in eastern Hokkaido. (Incidentally, there was a very bizarre and elaborate Christ shrine on a hill outside of town – on the road to Bihoro I think – shrouded by trees. Ever see it?)

    There were several LDS missionaries in Kitami who also taught English classes and I chatted to them occasionally. I don’t recall the Ainu coming up in conversation, but I definitely remember them telling me with a great deal of assurance that the Okinawans were a special lost tribe of Israel, apparently because their patriarchal blessings said so.

  15. Mike on August 29, 2007 at 3:29 pm

    Kyle #14

    Amazing. How many Ainu with any Christian connection could there be? It must be related.

    I took a few P-day trips out of the mission but never that far north. I was in Okinawa, I think, or maybe Kumamoto when I taught the guy who was Ainu. This was over 30 years ago, I can’t believe it has been that long.

    So the missionaries in the far north think the Japanese Okinawans in the far south are one of the lost tribes and the missionaries in the far south think the Japanese Ainu in the far north are one of the lost tribes.

    I heard that both the Ainu and the Ryuku islanders were related before the main body of Japanese came. Both are sort of like ethnic minorities in a country that takes pride in their ethnic purity.

  16. box on August 29, 2007 at 4:52 pm

    While we’re at it, here’s a link to parallels between Japanese and Jewish customs. I’m skeptical of anything I find on the internet, but takes it for what it’s worth.

  17. John Cline on August 29, 2007 at 9:18 pm

    Kyle R,

    I served my mission in the Japan Okinawa Mission during its last and brief days as an independent mission. There was a small branch in Kadena which had a Presidency consisting of one over-worked Branch President who was partially deaf and dumb and his two inactive counselors. One of his counselors wrote and published books about this stuff. I never read them, considering they were in Japanese. And I didn’t know any other member who took his “stuff” seriously.

    I miss that small island fiercely. It is a BIZARRE place! Are they descendants of the lost tribes? Who can say. I can\’t.

  18. Aaron E on August 29, 2007 at 10:12 pm

    Elder Cline. Was that your first post in the bloggernacle? That’s worthy of stepping out of my lurkdom just say hello.

    The story I used to hear in Japan when a missionary (but haven’t heard in recent years though I live in Tokyo) is that worlds like sacrifice (gisei) have a cow in the character which is odd given that that would imply some connection to animal sacrifice, or that to show (shimesu, also used in words like disclosure, reveal etc.) has two angels standing above an alter. There were more but I don’t remember them. Is there someone on this site with an advanced degree in Chinese characters that can step forward with a long scholary post on the origins of these characters?

    So, how about seeing ghosts? Many people in Okinawa (and the missionaries from Hawaii) were always seeing ghosts. I came to the conclusion that either everyone who lives on a small island is partially insane or else seeing spritis is in their blood. I guess there are other explanations. Maybe the spirit world is in the ocean and the spirits can’t get too far from water or else they lose their powers. Maybe that’s why JS & co. had that incident on the river–rouge spirit prison escapees traveled from the gulf up the Missippee and to whatever river they were on to cause trouble.

  19. Aaron E on August 29, 2007 at 10:24 pm

    Just a few typos in that one. Upon closer inspection, however, I’ve discovered that these typos all actually have a secret, foreordained (but not predestined) and faith-promoting meaning.

  20. Ray on August 29, 2007 at 10:46 pm

    The two I heard in Japan on my mission were: 1) That the oldest Shinto shrine in the country has a Star of David; and 2) That there is an old oral tradition asserting that it was Jesus’ brother who died on the cross – because Jesus traveled to Japan and taught the people there. I have no idea about the first claim (and have not been interested enough to try to check it); I know there is a sect (Mahikari) that teaches that Jesus married, had children, died and was buried in Japan, but I have no idea if that is derivative of an ancient oral tradition.

    For a more compelling discussion of possible Japanese ties to Israel, the way that the modern Japanese written language developed is strikingly similar to the development of Reformed Egyptian as described in the Book of Mormon. The Japanese took a spoken language, superimposed a character-based written language (Chinese) onto that spoken language, kept the meaning of the characters but changed their pronunciation to match their spoken language, created their own alphabetic systems in both an alternate and integrated way, then altered over the years many of the written Chinese characters to such a degree that some of them bear little resemblance to the originals – while others remain exactly as the originals. The spoken languages are as different from each other as they are from English, but written Japanese legitimately could be called Reformed Chinese. We don’t have a good description of Reformed Egyptian, but I easily can see the same thing happening in the Book of Mormon that happened in Japan.

  21. Bradley Ross on August 29, 2007 at 10:48 pm

    In the recent FAIR Conference, David R. Seely was talking about the new book he authored with William Hamblin. He included a funny anecdote that goes along with Kaimi’s post. When Seely was studying at BYU with Hugh Nibley, they learned the 21 points of correspondence between a Mormon temple and a Babylonian temple. And they knew the church was true.

    Then Seely headed off to Michigan for graduate school and studied with Professor Mendenhall (I’m guessing at the spelling) who taught them to recognize that parallels to Babylon are a sign of corrupt religion :-)

    That got a good chuckle from the crowd who is used to dealing with such spiritual proof texts that sometimes turn out to be misguided. I’ve heard it said that Nibley’s genius was in the breadth of his knowledge and the way he freely drew connections. Being willing to state those connections and lay them on the table for examination is a necessary and brave first step, since there’s always the risk you’ll be proved wrong. So in that sense, your mission president is commendable.

  22. Keryn on August 29, 2007 at 11:08 pm

    Speaking mineralogically, nephrite always amused me. (I don’t speak Spanish so jadeite never meant anything exciting.) And then there’s malachite, a gorgeous green banded mineral, that always starts me singing “Malachi prophesied the hearts will turn…” from the Primary songbook. And don’t forget joesmithite, a rare brown-black mineral that nobody’s ever heard of. (It’s not named after our Joesph Smith, alas, but my BYU mineralogy teacher enjoyed using it on tests.)

    Sorry. I just got so excited about a geologically-related (however tangentially) post on the bloggernacle…back to your regularly scheduled gospel truth discussion.

  23. Aaron Brown on August 29, 2007 at 11:21 pm

    Aaron Eddington, is that you? What’s up?

    Aaron B

  24. Aaron Brown on August 29, 2007 at 11:21 pm

    Aaron Eddington, is that you? What’s up?

    Aaron B

  25. Julie M. Smith on August 30, 2007 at 12:35 am

    I find irony in comparing the first and second paragraphs in #11.

  26. Aaron E on August 30, 2007 at 12:44 am

    —-unrelated to thread——

    Hi Aaron B.

    - still married, living in Japan, have kids
    - still employed
    - still going to church
    - still a lawyer

    There’s some additional color for each answer above but that’s the short answer. Come visit us in Japan. Or, if you are now independently wealthy, invite me to your mansion as a part of your entourage.

  27. box on August 30, 2007 at 12:56 am

    I served my mission in Tokyo. One of the most interesting kanji characters there that you see everywhere there’s a ‘no smoking’ sign is the kanji for ‘forbidden’. It’s represented by two trees and an altar. Hmmmm… when thinking in the gospel context, what two trees could be forbidden? There are more kanji characters like that that have more than just a passing resemblance/relation to gospel related symbols.

    Just my opinion though.

  28. Aaron E on August 30, 2007 at 3:30 am

    Oh yeah–forbidden is two angels and an altar and “to show” is just an altar.

    失礼致しました。

  29. Kyle R on August 30, 2007 at 4:16 am

    (Kaimi, apologies for this group ‘Turning Japanese’ thread jack…)

    #15 Mike, the ethnic purity thing in Japan definitely had puzzling sides to it. For instance the loathing of Koreans when, as I understood it, the Japanese and Koreans were of very similar genetic stock.

    #17 If I remember correctly – and again this was 20 years ago – one of the local mormons in Kitami was also a counselor or church leader of some kind. He apparently sat hawk-eyed over the congregation to make sure nobody disobeyed his dictum that communion bread was to be broken into EXACTLY 8 pieces and was ONLY to be taken with the right hand. (which isn’t the case in actual LDS practice is it?)

    #18 The Japanese were hugely superstitious.

    A few of us English teachers used to have great fun teasing the kids in the class by insisting we were Japanese, Nihonjin. They’d protest that no, no, no we had white faces and were foreignors, Gaijin.

    Then you’d say, “But look at my legs! How many legs have I got?”

    “Ni-hon,” they’d say. Or “Ni-pon”. (Japanese has counter tags for different shapes, ni=2 and pon/hon = cylindrical or tube shaped).

    “Well there you see,” I’d say, “I’m a Nihonjin then aren’t I?”

    They’d just look flabbergasted at this but then laugh their heads off at the absurd pun.

  30. Mike on August 30, 2007 at 8:30 am

    One of my companions told a similar joke to kids on the street in Japan that involved three round things and male genitalia.

  31. Seth R. on August 30, 2007 at 1:12 pm

    Yeah, the Japanese never did seem to get tired of lame jokes told by an enthusiastic gaijin…

    And yes, the Japanese did seem to be an awfully superstitious lot. Even fairly mainstream businessmen would solemnly speak of ghost sightings and such.

    As for the Japanese-Hebrew cultural comparisons, yeah those circulated in my mission too back in the early 90s. They were even included in the official mission handbook all missionaries used.

  32. Matt Thurston on August 31, 2007 at 11:08 am

    My brother-in-law went to Samoa on his mission. HIs mission president taught that the Samoan/Polynesian peoples were descendents of Hagoth, the Nephite ship builder who Mormon tells us was an “exceedingly curious man,” who took men, women, children, and provisions and set forth on a ship from the narrow neck of land, never to be seen again. Many missionaries supposedly used this anecdote during discussions.

  33. Rufus Cornpone on August 31, 2007 at 12:15 pm

    “Hagoth, the Nephite ship builder who Mormon tells us was an “exceedingly curious man,” who took men, women, children, and provisions and set forth on a ship from the narrow neck of land, never to be seen again.”

    Actually Hagoth was a cousin of Hagar the Horrible. They sailed north and settled in Norway. Many Norwegian missionaries supposedly used this anecdote during discussions.