Can a decapitated body lift itself up and gasp for breath? The Book of Mormon seems to say so. The story is found in the Book of Ether and recounts a sword fight between a Jaredite king named Coriantumr (Ether 12:1) and Shiz, the brother of Lib (Ether 14:17).
As the story goes, Lib was killed in a battle with Coriantumr’s army. As a result, Shiz followed Coriantumr in vengeful pursuit, burning cities and killing women and children along the way. Finally the two armies met near the seashore and gave battle for three days. After the third battle, Shiz wounded Coriantumr with “many deep wounds,” and he had to be “carried away as though he were dead.”
After recovering from his wounds, Coriantumr began to feel bad over the fact that “there had been slain two millions of mighty men, and also their wives and their children.” He attempted to make peace with Shiz, but Shiz agreed only if he would be allowed to kill Coriantumr with his own sword. Well, this only infuriated Coriantumr’s people, and so the fighting started all over again.
Eventually the armies meet. For several days men, women, and children fight relentlessly until only Coriantumr and Shiz remain. Ether 15:29 states that in the course of the battle, “Shiz had fainted with the loss of blood.” Taking advantage of the situation, Coriantumr took his sword and “smote off the head of Shiz.” But that isn’t the end. Verse 31 reports that “after he had smitten off the head of Shiz, that Shiz raised upon his hands and fell; and after that he had struggled for breath, he died.” The question is, how can a man without a head raise himself and also struggle for breath?
Mormon apologists have offered many suggestions. In volume 3, page 556 of his book New Witnesses for God, LDS Seventy B.H. Roberts defended the notion that “a man with his head stricken off rising upon his hands” was not impossible. He then related a story told by a survivor from the charge at Balaclava. This soldier gives two incidences of men who were supposedly decapitated yet their bodies remained in the saddle. If this is possible, Roberts surmised that the story of Shiz must also be plausible.
Roberts isn’t the only one who has concluded that Shiz literally lost his head in this fight. Volume 2 of the Encyclopedia of Mormonism (JAREDITES) states, “An exhausted Coriantumr culminated his victory over Shiz by decapitating him. Near Eastern examples of decapitation of enemies are evident in early art and literature, as on the Narmer palette; and decapitation of captured kings is represented in ancient Mesoamerica.”
The Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (now known as the Neil Maxwell Institute) has taken a different approach, one that is similar to that offered by George Reynolds and Janne M. Sjodahl in their Commentary on the Book of Mormon (6:201). They wrote, “May we not rather suppose that the fatal wound which he inflicted on his enemy was a ghastly gash in the head, or the neck, causing Shiz to struggle for breath, as stated? Moroni could properly say: “He smote his head off,” borrowing that expression from popular, colloquial language and using it in a figurative rather than strictly literal sense.”
In an article titled The ‘Decapitation’ of Shiz (Insights, 11/94, p.2), writers Gary Hadfield and John Welch conclude that Coriantumr failed to cut the head of Shiz completely off. “Coriantumr was obviously too exhausted to do a clean job,” writes Dr. Hadfield. “He must have cut off Shiz’s head through the base of the skull, at the level of the midbrain, instead of through the cervical spine in the curvature of the neck.” Hadfield and Welch conclude that “fifty or sixty percent off would easily have been enough to get the job done, leaving Shiz to reflex and die.”
The writers attempt to explain the Book of Mormon phrase “smote off” by saying it doesn’t really mean to completely sever. In defense of this position, they refer to the biblical account of Jael and Sisera in Judges 5:26-27. In the King James Version this passage reads, “She put her hand to the nail, and her right hand to the workmen’s hammer; and with the hammer she smote Sisera, she smote off his head, when she had pierced and stricken through his temples. At her feet he bowed, he fell, he lay down; at her feet he bowed, there he fell down dead.”
The writers contend that the words smote off “need not refer to a total decapitation, for surely Jael did not cleanly chop off Sisera’s head using a hammer. Instead, the English words smote off here simply mean that Jael struck Sisera extremely hard…both Hebrew and Greek words translated as smote off mean ‘to hammer’ or ‘to strike down with a hammer or stamp,’ but not generally to smite off.” This explanation is odd since most Mormons pride themselves in believing the Bible “as far as it is translated correctly” (Article Eight, Articles of Faith). It is curious that the writers insist on defending the Ether passage by referring to the biblical book of Judges since they seem to already acknowledge that the passage in Judges could have been better translated. By doing so, they really haven’t vindicated Joseph Smith’s use of the phrase “smote off” at all. Instead they compel us to ask why they would use what they admit is an inferior translation to bolster their position. It is interesting that while other translations use the more common crushed, pierced, split, struck, or smashed, Joseph Smith copied the King James usage of “smote off” in his so-called Inspired Version.
Dr. Daniel C. Peterson, a colleague of Welch, offered what would seem to be a plausible suggestion. He wrote, “The most reliable way to determine what a given phrase means in the Book of Mormon, therefore, is to look at the Book of Mormon” (Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 5:73). The problem is, when we follow this guideline, we don’t see justification for the Hadfield/Welch explanation.
For instance, 1 Nephi 4:18 the Book of Mormon records how Nephi smote off the head of Laban. Dr. Hugh Nibley explained Laban’s demise by writing, “Laban was wearing armor, so the only chance of dispatching him quickly, painlessly, and safely was to cut off his head–the conventional treatment of criminals in the East, where beheading has always been by the sword, and where an executioner would be fined for failing to decapitate his victim at one clean stroke” (Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Vol.5, Part.1, Ch.5, p.101 – p.102, emphasis mine).
In Alma 17:37-38, Ammon was being attacked by men armed with clubs, and he “smote off their arms with his sword…he smote off as many of their arms as were lifted against him, and they were not a few.” FARMS’ researcher John Tvedtnes doesn’t deny that this also refers to a complete severing when he wrote, “There are other similarities as well. For example, just as King Mosiah’s son Ammon smote off the arms of a number of men who attacked him with clubs (Alma 17:27-39; 18:16), during the Trojan War King Menelaus cut off the arm of Hippolochus at the shoulder with a single sword-stroke” (Iliad 11.145-47). (FARMS, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol.4, Number 2, p.149.)
It could be that Mr. Tvedtnes is confusing Menelaus with King Agamemnon. Book 11 of Samuel Butler’s translation of the Iliad states that it was Agamemnon, not Menelaus, who “felled Pisander from his chariot to the earth, smiting him on the chest with his spear, so that he lay face uppermost upon the ground. Hippolochus fled, but him too did Agamemnon smite; he cut off his hands and his head-which he sent rolling in among the crowd as though it were a ball.” If this is the story to which Tvedtnes refers, it is a reference to a clean severing.
There is still one more Book of Mormon passage where the phrase smote off is used that leaves no doubt to a complete severing. Alma 44:13 reports the scalping of a Lamanite general named Zerahemnah. It reads, “And it came to pass that the soldier who stood by, who smote off the scalp of Zerahemnah, took up the scalp from off the ground by the hair, and laid it upon the point of his sword.” We know in this case it must mean a complete severing since the soldier had to pick the scalp up from off the ground.
In order to embrace this theory offered by Hadfield and Welch, are we to now assume that perhaps Nephi didn’t really cut off Laban’s head or that Ammon didn’t really cut off the arms of his attackers? Are we to also assume that perhaps Zerahemnah’s scalp was not cut completely off? To draw such a conclusion is to introduce an interpretation that ignores an accepted pattern for similar phrases in other portions of the Book of Mormon. In order to save Joseph Smith’s credibility, both Hadfield and Welch must inject a different interpretation for this one single verse. It is apparent that both Hadfield and Welch seem to be fully aware that a decapitated human has no ability to raise up nor gasp for breath. It is for this reason that they must offer what is certainly a strained excuse.