Monday, April 28, 2014

Birds-eye View of Book of Mormon Evidence

I've decided to lay out my evaluation of evidence for and against the Book of Mormon having been written by ancient, real people. Details are a discussion I'm more than willing to enter into individually and in private, but this is a debate I'm reluctant to enter online. There are plenty of other places where details are debated, so I'll just have my irresponsibly non-academic say and keep it to my own blog until I'm willing to do the work to substantiate the claims.

1. Physical evidences against the Book of Mormon being a Mesoamerican record are 100% negative (we haven't found X, so X wasn't there). I couldn't find a single positive contrary evidence on two rather extensive online lists of criticisms of the Book of Mormon. The list of such evidences has also shrunk consistently over the last several decades (although the list writers aren't necessarily aware of it). I'll give only two examples. We're going from 'No Horses' to physical remains of horses reported sporadically in primary academic reports. We've gone from 'No or Insignificant Transoceanic Contact' to an academic journal devoted to pre-Columbian transoceanic influences, and evidences for many transoceanic voyages and possible cultural influences. The trend is more and more that critics of Book of Mormon historicity are the ones claiming that "all the evidence we don't have supports our view" (a quote I really hate that has sometimes been used by people I consider friends). I believe this trend is documentable, and significantly documented in John Sorensen's book, Mormon's Codex.

2. a. Supposed positive physical evidences against the Book of Mormon are all against superficial or sloppy readings of the text, or against modern impositions on the text, and not evidences against the text itself. Very often these are readings believed by many LDSs, and even pronouncements made by latter-day prophets, including Joseph Smith. This may make them rational reasons for doubting the LDS church, but does not make them relevant for judging Book of Mormon historicity. Examples include DNA evidence, unrealistic geographies, apparent absence of surrounding cultures, and others.
    b. Alternatively, the positive contrary evidences are based on unrealistic beliefs about what science can discover. 90% of the ancestors of late 20th century Icelanders--ancestors identified from genealogical records of the late 18th century--can't be seen from mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA sequencing. This was with a thorough sampling of Icelandic DNA. Physical evidences of the Battle of Hastings--which happened in 1066 and at a known location--consists of only a handful of bones and no weapons or armor. Similar questions regarding the Book of Mormon shouldn't even be on the table for a rational seeker of the truth regarding the Book of Mormon. The objective seeker must do the work to examine and understand what hypotheses are rigorously consistent with the Book of Mormon and then evaluate if the hypotheses have been adequately addressed by the scientific community. In most cases, the scientific community has neither presented viable hypotheses from the Book of Mormon, nor sought the data necessary to test the hypotheses. Very few non-LDS scientists have shown the both the interest in and knowledge of the Book of Mormon needed to test historical Book of Mormon assertions. Despite this disconnect between supposed evidence and valid hypotheses, many such items are included in long lists of 'problems' with the Book of Mormon. The rational seeker would remain agnostic on such issues. To reference another analogy I find frequently misapplied, any scientific inquiry is going to put more questions on your shelf than it ever takes down. That's the lived reality of science.
    c. Another common imposition on the Book of Mormon is linguistic. When real cultures collide, including in translation, a certain number of words are always used in new ways. New things are given old names because they are somewhat similar. The Book of Mormon is often required to mean one particular thing despite documented examples of alternative meanings. For example, the Spanish calling wood and obsidian weapons swords, or describing materials from other fibers as silk or linen when they encountered them in Central America.

3. Evidences that supposedly favor 19th century origins for the Book of Mormon are all linguistic, narrative, thematic, or otherwise superficial as regards historicity. Most (and maybe all) 19th century linguistic parallels are exactly what would be expected for a translation of a religious text into 19th century religious/scriptural language (See similarities with the Late War). This is also likely true of biblical influences. Narrative and thematic elements are mostly (perhaps completely) superficial coincidences or parallels that break down upon more careful examination, or they are consistent with ancient origins. One example of this is supposed 19th century republicanism and democracy in the Book of Mormon. As discussed by Richard Bushman, Book of Mormon government and political narrative are much more in keeping with Biblical government and political systems than with 19th century rhetoric. I'm less versed in this type of analysis, but I have seen this pattern on multiple occasions with LDS scripture. Apparent 19th (or 20th) century parallels agree superficially, but examination in detail reveals better agreement with ancient parallels. I trust that a concerted study of such parallels would return a similar result to physical evidences, namely, that evidence for 19th century origins is shrinking, while detailed evidence of ancient convergences is growing.

4. Positive physical and linguistic/thematic/narrative evidences for Book of Mormon historicity are growing. These are typically dismissed (when not dismissed ignorantly) by claiming that the evidences are no stronger than the similar parallels drawn for 19th century origins. Alternatively, they are dismissed by imposing particular readings on the Book of Mormon text that are not justified. I've referred to a couple of examples, above. Rebuttals by literary and historical analysts also frequently show a lack of understanding of statistics and probability (responses to chiasmus and stylometric conclusions come specifically to mind), finding more significance in superficial patterns and less confidence in subtle but objective statistics than are rationally merited. It is also common to treat all parallels as equally valid or invalid despite substantive differences in usage. A 19th century parallel used to claim that Joseph Smith derived the Book of Mormon from a particular text is given the same weight as an ancient convergence used simply to demonstrate that the Book of Mormon is true to ancient cultures.

5. Stylometry strongly and objectively favors multiple authors. It also identifies the styles in the Book of Mormon as significantly different from other writings of proposed 19th century authors. These observations, together with a broader understanding of the effectiveness of stylometric methods, favor conclusions of multiple authorship translated into 19th century pseudo-biblical english, or intentional fraudulent multiple authorship signatures generated by Joseph Smith. I think the latter is very difficult to maintain, since there are no other similar examples in the world.
So to summarize my conclusions? There is no evidence against Book of Mormon historicity--only against certain understandings of the Book of Mormon which I believe are wrong. There is significant, positive evidence that the Book of Mormon emerged from an ancient, Mesoamerican context. I would place the (minimally) dozens of positive convergences against hundreds of negative evidences any day.

I will add that I believe there are good reasons to reject the religious authority of the Book of Mormon while still admitting that it appears to be ancient. The strongest of these, to my mind, is doubting the existence of God. That greatly increases the likelihood of atheistic explanations of its origins. I will admit that much value can be had from the Book of Mormon without believing its historicity. I know people who are examples of this. I also believe there are good reasons for not putting in the time or effort to come to my same conclusions. The main one of these is that it doesn't necessarily increase one's love for his neighbors, although I hope the Book of Mormon has contributed to increasing mine. I believe there are good reasons to not belong to the LDS church even if you do believe the Book of Mormon is ancient and inspired. The one I respect most here is when the institution hurts you or someone you need to support. I hope further historical study can reveal some interesting things about Zion that might improve the world, and I hope it can improve how believing Latter-day Saints understand our own religion. I think it can, but that's for some future posts.


  1. Good thoughts. I overall agree with your train of thought and that absence of evidence does not necessarily mean evidence against. Mesoamerican metallurgy during Book of Mormon times is probably the biggest "absence of evidence" we have so far, since there is currently no evidence of such before 600 or 900 AD. I'd have to add, though, that while it may be true that some scholars at the margins are considering transoceanic voyages, such approaches (especially when combined with an overall diffusionist stance) have been largely eschewed by mainstream scholarship. Not to say that there's nothing of substance here - leading Mesoamerican scholar Michael Coe privately responsed to Sorenson's work showing New World-Old World contact that the evidence was "irrefutable" (see The kind of evidence Sorenson talks about just doesn't seem to have entered mainstream scholarly discussions - perhaps not enough data to really draw firm conclusions about who, when, etc. yet.

    I would also add that the evidence for the linguistic/narrative elements of the Book of Mormon being ancient vs. modern depends largely on an interpretation of facts, i.e., are 19th century elements and the pervasive influence of the KJV part of the translation or so extensive that they must be considered actual sources for the creation of the Book of Mormon? The answer depends at least in part on one's understanding of its mode of translation. I personally vacillate between Brant Gardner's loose conceptual translation model and Brant Ostler's modern expansion of an ancient text model. But I can see how one can easily interpret the extensive use of the KJV, revival language, etc. to conclude a 19th century origin. The 19th century origin theory has its strength in the fact that one can more easily draw parallels between the Book of Mormon and 19th century texts simply because we have next to nothing in terms of Mesoamerican texts during the Book of Mormon period - so I think that Old World textual parallels are more helpful here.

    I would also add two additional potential challenges to the Book of Mormon: historical-critical studies of the Bible and theological anachronisms. The Documentary Hypothesis and the division and dating of the Pentateuchal sources are certainly relevant here and David Bokovoy's and Colby Townsend's respective work on this will need consideration. The problem of Deutero-Isaiah in the Book of Mormon should also be addressed as, at worst evidence that the Book of Mormon is not of ancient origin or, at best, as evidence that the Book of Mormon is a modern expansion of an ancient source a la Ostler (or that Jesus gave Deutero Isaiah to the Nephites and Mormon put it in after the fact into Nephi and Abinidi). I have not yet read enough to determine if there is any wiggle room on Isaiah though. Theological anachronisms would include the concept of a devil, the high christology and developed Messianism of the Book of Mormon, the developed Christianity, etc. Revelation may account for such apparent anachronism however - Lehi does say that he "must needs suppose" that a devil fell from heaven, which confirms that this was not a developed Jewish concept of the time, and the prophecies about the Messiah seem to be as much Lehi and Nephi's reading into the prophets their own revelation about Christ as it is use the use of older/other sources of scripture we do not currently have. Though concepts of types and shadows seem so similar to Pauline and Post-Pauline interpretations that one wonders how to take this too - is it because Joseph Smith relied on prior Christian history in writing the Book of Mormon, in expanding it through revelation, or that the Nephites just had interpretations similar to what would come later in the post-New Testament church?

    Anyways, this comment is long enough. Just wanted to add a few more things I see as important considerations.

  2. I agree these things are relevant. I'm not sure we'll ever be able to prove one of the translation models over another, but that is a secondary debate. Having established that many parts of the text are demonstrably consistent with the ancient world (and only tenuously consistent with the 19th century world), we can then ask questions with some hope of progress.

    As to metallurgy, words for metal have been dated back to 1-2000 BC (Sorenson. pp. 331-2), metal is believed to be depicted in ancient art (p. 333), metalwork was established in Peru by 1700 BC (calibrated date, p. 333) and travel and commerce occurred between Mesoamerica and Peru dating back to at least 1500 BC. As of 1992 more than 153 metal artifacts had been dated to between 400BC-900AD but labeled "too early to be genuine" or "intrusive from modern times" (p. 334). Sorenson goes on citing primary, non-LDS literature with other evidences. Metallurgy isn't a problem.

    I agree completely on the linguistic/narrative elements. To me it looks like a game of "consider part of the evidence, and if we can draw enough comparisons it must be true"--that is when the conclusions aren't predetermined by disbelief in Joseph Smith's stories, disbelief in God, or some other predetermined philosophical position. It may be rational to start from atheism (I think there are atheists who are as rational as anyone) and then conclude that Joseph Smith wasn't a prophet or translator, but it is tautological. Similar approaches are typical of supposedly rational criticisms of the Book of Mormon, even among those who don't think it is what they are doing. Hopefully anyone offended by this judgment will be willing to spend an hour with me in video chat to figure out that it doesn't apply to them, and I think that they have good reasons for disbelieving Mormonism (even if they aren't the reasons initially articulated).

    As to the Documentary Hypothesis, I think we can't keep talking about it that way and draw any useful conclusions regarding the Book of Mormon. It is a whole collection of hypotheses with a few similar features. While they are interdependent, they are not unified. I can believe some version of the DH for the beginning of Genesis, another for the rest of Genesis and maybe the rest of the Pentateuch, and none of that compels me to believe the 'canonical' DH for Isaiah. Plus, I think the jury is still out on this stuff. Assumptions are made for many OT books dating back to well before any of the extant texts. I imagine ever clearer pictures will emerge, and they won't be what I expect. However, possible conclusions are often limited by methodology and philosophy, and not simply by the available evidence. I have no problem with biblical scholars thinking I hold unenlightened, ignorant views on some of their scholarship--I feel the same about them. (Reality is, I agree with the majority of what they write, but I think certain conclusions are leaps of logic while they view them as small, inductive steps.) Deutero-Isaiah is an example of this. The Book of Mormon avoids including the strongest reasons given for identifying Deutero-Isaiah. Stylometric studies of Isaiah either identify no division, or place the division earlier (~ch 33) than literary/linguistic analyses, and some serious-minded scholars don't accept the mainstream division. I can wait for stronger evidence. In the meantime, post-exilic editing of a unified text explains the Deutero-Isaiah evidence sufficiently, to my mind.

  3. Continuing:

    If Colby's work on the Book of Moses is indicative of what we will find on the Book of Mormon, then I think we will have to wait some time for a solid interpretation. I think Colby is too invested in his project to evaluate what is important and what isn't. He finds Matthew 4 in the Book of Moses where Moses encounters Satan. What he has found is 3-5 word phrases from 3 verses of Matthew spread over several verses of Moses 1. This is not an example of Joseph Smith using the story of Jesus and Satan to tell the story of Moses and Satan. It is an example of Joseph Smith using the language of Matthew to tell a story with a few similarities to the story of Jesus and Satan. I think Colby's work will be valuable, but it's my opinion that he needs some distance from it before he can draw the best conclusions from it. Unless there are anachronistic formal quotes from the late OT or from the NT that can't be explained as linguistic echoes from Joseph Smith using pseudo-biblical language, I don't think it means much more than we already know. Again, I'm judging his analysis bluntly, based on limited exposure, without filtering it as much as I should. Hopefully he will ignore me. He is much more the expert than I.

    Theological anachronisms are again secondary issues. If the Book of Mormon is ancient based on physical and cultural evidences, then we might make progress understanding if the ideas are 19th century expansions or ancient. We know technologies have appeared and disappeared anciently. Why should we assume ideas haven't done the same--especially when there is evidence of systematic destruction of ideologies at multiple times and locations throughout Mesoamerica. Is there something really troubling about thinking the Nephites had Pauline and Post-Pauline beliefs? We now know that ancient Jews had temple beliefs in many ways more similar to modern Mormons than to any groups between the exile and Joseph Smith (except perhaps early Christians). This isn't to say they were identical. Also, from Words of Mormon through Moroni there is potential for selection bias from Mormon's abridgement. I just can't see how these philosophical and narrative debates can trump physical evidences. When you have the physical evidences, those need to shape the literary debates, not the other way round. That's likely the chemist in me speaking as much as anything.

    Thanks for commenting and discussing, Eric.

  4. Thanks for the response Jonathan. I agree with you that the Book of Moses' use of the language of Matthew is to tell a story rather than to copy the actual narrative of Matthew, I generally see such textual dependencies as one of language and translation rather than proving narrative dependence. I therefore don't view the Book of Mormon's textual dependence on the KJV as evidence that the Book of Mormon is not an ancient text - I merely meant to point out that such an interpretation is not irrational if one is looking for evidence of 19th century origins. I think Colby's work will be extremely valuable, both to (a) critics who see Joseph Smith and/or Sidney Rigdon (or whoever) drawing on the KJV in writing the Book of Mormon (a position I do not hold), (b) believers who seek to understand the nature of the Book of Mormon as a translation and its various interrelationships with the Bible, and (c) as a source to compare with our understanding from textual historical studies of the Bible.

    With regards to the latter, if for example the Book of Mormon's Pentateuchal references were to cohere well with a version of the Documentary Hypothesis then that may well constitute additional "proof" for its ancient authenticity. (I've heard someone has written on the idea that the Book of Mormon draws on proto-Deuteronomy rather than the final version of Deuteronomy for example). It's especially with this last point in mind that I look forward to reading Colby's thesis. Though I realize that the nature of the translation itself may or may not make such comparisons effective—that probably depends on whether particular phrases and paraphrases were loosely or tightly translated from the plate text which, since we don’t have the plates, we cannot know.

    I do accept the overall conclusions of the Documentary Hypothesis – which I should point out is a separate model than the multiple authorship of Isaiah. As for Isaiah, I *hope* a case can be made for a unified text or a pre-exilic proto-Deutero Isaiah being edited after the Exile. But as far as I know such a case, which also takes into account the evidence that led scholars to view multiple authorship, hasn’t been made yet. Colby doesn’t seem to think that the case can be made… if it cannot then Blake Ostler’s expansion theory probably works best as a model for the Book of Mormon. I’m waiting on Colby to write on this, and on Bokovoy’s second book including coverage of Isaiah, before pursuing my own study of the subject.

    On metallurgy, I have read Mormon's Codex and was aware of the linguistic evidence and interactions with Peru, but honestly forgot about the 153 metal artifacts mentioned. Perhaps I should modify my statement to say that, such artifacts being disputed based on dating and the limited evidence, it just hasn't been commonly accepted yet that Mesoamerican metallurgy lasted that far back. Maybe at some point there'll be enough evidence and agreement on the evidence to make it into the textbooks… and into Wikipedia. Anyways, I agree with you that this isn't a strong point as evidence against the Book of Mormon.

  5. Overall, I agree with you that the evidence is good for the plausible antiquity of the Book of Mormon. I don’t think the evidence is so strong though that it would be easily accepted by the scholarly community or by well-meaning skeptics. I think that’s because it is hard to not let faith or skepticism get in the way of a predetermined conclusion when it comes to a book that was handed over by an angel and translated through a seer stone in a hat. That’s why, when presenting the evidence for the Book of Mormon to a more general audience than your regular church member, I would rather start off by acknowledging that there is “evidence” on both sides, but that such evidence depends in part on one’s interpretation of the facts. As someone who has a spiritual witness of the Book of Mormon, I am vulnerable to the criticism that I'm just reaching a predetermined conclusion or ignoring the other side. But maybe I'm just being too modest in my approach seeing there is good evidence for the Book of Mormon?

    Thanks for the discussion.

  6. Your replies are well worded and do a better job of striking a balance than my OP or my replies. I don't have anything to add or contradict. Your suggestions about how to present the material to a broader audience are also on target, which is why I have no intention of reworking this post for RationalFaiths. I'll keep it on my turf where I can feel more justified in ranting a bit. I know it's still public, but only I have to be responsible for it here.