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?”
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.