(by Daniel Peterson deseretnews.com 5-17-15)
Some critics dismiss the Book of Mormon because, they say, no archaeological evidence directly supports it. Archaeological evidence, though, is spotty, and it seldom shows up on cue.
Until Conrad Schick found the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem’s Muslim quarter in the 19th century, for example, only the Gospel of John suggested the pool ever even existed. Some scholars used that fact to argue that John was late and at least partially fictional, written by an author unacquainted with the city.
Yet Palestine is far more intensively studied and easier to work in than Mesoamerica, with much better textual resources and a continuous tradition of geographical names.
Moreover, that word “directly” is problematic. Archaeology seldom “directly” settles controversial issues. Rocks don’t speak for themselves; decisive, unambiguous inscriptions are rare.
The first nonbiblical allusion to Pontius Pilate was found by Italian archaeologists at Caesarea Maritima, on the Mediterranean coast, in 1981.
The first nonbiblical reference to David and the House of David — and just the fourth ancient inscription mentioning “Israel” at all — was found only during the 1993-1994 archaeological season at northern Israel’s Tel Dan. In some circles, it remains controversial.
A bulla or clay seal, the first tangible ancient artifact demonstrating the existence of biblical Bethlehem, was discovered just three years ago.
As William Hamblin explained in his still-important 1993 article on “Basic Methodological Problems with the Anti-Mormon Approach to the Geography and Archaeology of the Book of Mormon,” the location of Jerusalem would have been difficult, if not impossible, to find were it not for a continuous geographical tradition that doesn’t exist in the Americas:
Canaanites knew the city as “u-ru-sa-lim,” which gave us Hebrew “Yerushalem” or “Yerushalayim.” But the settlement was also often called “the City of David” and “Zion,” which thus yields four distinct names for it in the Old Testament alone. The Greeks called it both “Ierousalem” and “Hierosolyma,” and later Latin speakers preserved that second name. However, following the Second Jewish Revolt in the early second century, the Emperor Hadrian renamed the city “Aelia Capitolina.” It regained its identity as “Jerusalem” only because when "Christians eventually came to dominate the Roman Empire, (they) changed the name back."
But then, following the Muslim conquests, the city was called “Aliya” (from the Roman “Aelia”), “Bayt al-Maqdis” and “al-Quds,” as it continues to be by Palestinians and other Arabic-speakers today. Had Christianity been exterminated, as the Nephites were, "rather than becoming the dominant religion of the Roman empire, what linguistic evidence would we have that al-Quds of today was ancient Jerusalem?"
Real archaeology bears little resemblance to an Indiana Jones movie; overwhelmingly, it’s a matter of painstakingly drawing inferences from such things as pottery fragments and partial building
foundations. And authors who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, such as John Clark, Brant Gardner, John Sorenson and Mark Wright, who very much believe the Book of Mormon to have solid footing within Mesoamerican archaeology, have long been engaged in such efforts. I commend their work to anybody who’s interested.
In order to make meaningful statements about the relationship between archaeology and the Book of Mormon, authors need to know both subjects well. It’s plainly insufficient to know just one of them. And among the very first questions that need to be answered are where the events of the Book of Mormon occurred, if they occurred at all, and what the overall dimensions of Book of Mormon territory might be.
Some critics declare that limited geographical models of the Book of Mormon — which include both the Mesoamerican geographies that I favor and the “Heartland” model that others advocate — have arisen in response to mounting threats from archaeological and genetic data and represent a retreat from a “shrinking” Book of Mormon with fictional peoples who will soon “vanish” altogether.
But limited geographical models were created because the Book of Mormon demands them. As Sorenson demonstrated in his seminal 1985 “Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon,” when all the travel distances and travel times given in the book are analyzed, it’s obvious beyond reasonable dispute that the Nephite/Lamanite/Jaredite lands were relatively small; they plainly didn’t extend from Patagonia on the southern end of South America to the Aleutian Islands between Alaska and Russia. And such models were on demonstrably public offer long before James Watson and Francis Crick discovered DNA’s double-helix structure in 1953, and decades before anybody was researching Amerindian DNA.
Many interesting questions remain; archaeology and the Book of Mormon still have much to say to each other.