Three Big Historical Challenges to the Book of Mormon

coverAccording to the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon was an ancient native-American record written on golden plates. Smith proposed that he was guided to these tablets buried on a hill and that God assisted him in translating them from Reformed Egyptian into English. However, the historical and textual accuracy of Smith’s work have become increasingly doubtful despite Smith declaring the Book of Mormon “the most correct of any book on earth and the keystone of our religion” (1). Today, historians and scholars largely reject Smith’s account for the three reasons we will briefly observe below (2).

The Problem of Text and Language

Smith claimed that he translated the golden tablets he had found into English from a language known as Reformed Egyptian. To the contrary, historians argue that there is no evidence of a language known as Reformed Egyptian and that literary devices including language, phrases, and names within the Book of Mormon provide powerful evidence that its text is inauthentic (3). Additionally, according to the Mormon LDS church, the Book of Mormon proposes that some ancestors of Native Americans came from the ancient Near East and specifically from the Jerusalem area. However, linguistic scholars have discovered no Native American language, whether spoken by the Maya or Aztecs, to be relatable to languages from the ancient Near East (4).

Scholars and textual critics don’t deem the Book of Mormon to be a particularly impressive or unique work of writing. Professor Grant Hardy, a specialist in history, language, and literature, says that “If the primary purpose of the Book of Mormon were to function as a sign—as tangible evidence that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God—that mission could have been accomplished much more concisely” (5). Additionally, the fact that the book has received significant revisions, especially regarding grammar and spelling corrections, is a challenge to its divine origins and its revered status as being “the most correct of any book on earth” (6).

The Problem of Archaeological Corroboration.

The Book of Mormon proposes that real people existed in specific times and places in history, and thus shows itself to be a historical record of God’s revelation to humankind. The book claims to be an “account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang” (7). By consequence of such an assertion, the Book of Mormon opens itself up to being tested. One of the claims made is that the world the book’s occupants dwelled within was an hourglass-shaped landmass. This land consisted of a ”land southward” surrounded by water except for a “narrow neck” of land connecting it to a “land northward” (Alma 22:32), a necessary detail to know if a researcher intends to engage in archaeological work (8). However, despite some views concerning the location of this area is, much is left uncertain.

The traditional view, as informed by Smith, is that this land included nearly all of North and South America. According to Smith, a party led by the prophet Lehi from Jerusalem arrived in the New World on the coast of Chile. There is also a battle between the Nephites and Lamanites that purportedly took place in Palmyra, New York some 6000 miles away from Lehi’s location of arrival (9). The Nephites and the Lamanites are believed to have descended from a group of Israelites who, under the guide of Lehi, migrated to the Americas around 600 BCE. The Lamanites survived their battle with the Nephites and is believed by Mormons to be the ancestors of the indigenous peoples found in North, South, and Central America (10). The traditional view is thus that this landmass included nearly all of North and South America. These lands were deemed to constitute the two bulges of the hourglass which were connected by the “narrow neck.” The narrow neck being Central America. However, two difficulties confront this traditional view.

One difficulty is that according to the Book of Mormon, the Nephite and Lamanite civilizations were located somewhere in Central America (the ”narrow neck” of land), and they did battle at “Hill Cumorah” (Mormon 6:1-6). However, Hill Cumorah is thought to be in New York state, well over a few thousands miles away from their respective bases. Rather unrealistic it then is to suppose that these armies would travel such an extraordinary distance to engage in battle.

Additionally, the Book of Mormon proposes that native populations within North and South America are the descendants of small immigrant populations including the Jaredites (arriving at some point between 3000-2000 BCE. who later became extinct themselves), and the Nephites and Mulekites (arriving at around 600 BCE, as we noted). The historicity of these people as being the ancestors of native populations is rejected by historians. Archaeological research has yield evidence showing these western lands to have been populated well before the Book of Mormon says these people arrived. For example, archaeological evidence of stone tools shows that natives existed in the Americas some 13500-13000 years ago and that around 10 000 BCE east Asians migrated across the Bering Strait. These migrants are the true ancestors of the American Indians (11). The DNA evidence is strong. Scientists have methods that use genetic markers to indicate the history and ethnic background of individual people. According to this evidence, Native Americans possess DNA markers similar to the DNA of ancient people from the Altar Mountains in central Asia.

Consequently, no evidence, archaeological or genetic, exists in support of these claims made in the Book of Mormon and historians do not regard its contents as a work of ancient American history (12). Scholar Michael Coe says that,

“as far as I know there is not one professionally trained archaeologist, who is not a Mormon, who sees any scientific justification for believing the foregoing to be true, and I would like to state that there are quite a few Mormon archaeologists who join this group” (13)

Thomas Murphy, a Mormon anthropologist himself, states that

So far, DNA research lends no support to traditional Mormon beliefs about the origins of Native Americans… DNA research has substantiated the archaeological, cultural, linguistic, and biological evidence that also points overwhelmingly to an Asian origin for Native Americans” (14)

The Problem of Anachronisms

The Book of Mormon puts a number of historical artifacts and cultures in the wrong historical era. These include portraying a Nephite civilization with a metal industry (metal swords, breastplates, coinage) in Mesoamerica despite the fact that the area is known to not have possessed such industry at the time (15). Further, the Book of Mormon presents the Nephites as a people who produced wheat, barley, flax (linen), grapes, and olives, none of which existed in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica (pre-Columbian referring to the Americas before Christoper Columbus’s 1492 voyages to the area). The Nephites also supposedly possessed Old World domesticated animals (Old World referring to parts of the world including Africa, Asia, and Europe) such as asses, cows, goats, sheep, horses, oxen, swine, and elephants, all of which did not exist in America at the time (16).

References

1. The Church of The Latter-day Saints. The Most Correct Book. Available.

2. Smithsonian Institution statement on the Book of Mormon. Available.

3. Tanner, J. & Tanner, S. 1987. Mormonism – Shadow or Reality? p. 91.

4. Roberts, B. 1992. In Madsen, B. Studies of the Book of Mormon. p. 63-94.

5. Hardy, G. 2010. Understanding the Book of Mormon : a reader’s guide. p. 5.

6. Abanes, R. 2003. One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon Church. p. 73

7. Elder Nelson, R. A Treasured Testament. Available.

8. Sorenson, J. 1985. An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies. p. 1.

9. Richards, F. & Little, J. 1884. A Compendium of the Gospel. p. 289.

10. History of the Church, 1948, II: 79-80.

11. Givens, T. 2002. By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion. p. 132; National Museum of Natural History-Smithsonian Institution. 1985. Origin of the American Indians. p. 1.

12. Abanes, R. 2003. Ibid. p. 74-77; Givens, T. 2002. By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion. p. 132.

13. Coe, M. 1973. Mormons and Archeology: An Outside View. Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. 8(2): 42.

14. Murphy, T. 2002. Lamanite Genesis, Genealogy, and Genetics. American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon.

15. Petersen, L. 1998. The creation of the Book of Mormon: a historical inquiry. p. 198.

16. Dr. Raymond T. Matheny (BYU anthropology professor), August 25, 1984 Sunstone conference in Salt Lake City.

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