Thursday, May 26, 2016

Book of Mormon origins and the historical record

(by Daniel Peterson 5-26-16)

Few, if any, of those who deploy academic arguments to support or defend the authenticity of the Book of Mormon imagine that there’s any single such argument, or even any collection of such arguments, that will prove it true beyond reasonable doubt. (Given members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ understanding of the purpose of mortal life, including the veil of forgetfulness that Mormons believe to have been drawn over our perfect premortal knowledge of God and his plan, such proof wouldn’t even seem appropriate.)

Instead, advocates of the Book of Mormon attempt to make a cumulative case, one composed of a multitude of arguments that are each relatively limited in scope. While, as a Kenyan proverb observes, a single stick may be easily broken, “Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable.” A single argument might not be conclusive, but an assembly of such arguments can (potentially, at least) make a conclusion very probable, if not altogether beyond dispute.

In an article recently published in “Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture” under the title “‘Idle and Slothful Strange Stories’: Book of Mormon Origins and the Historical Record,” Neal Rappleye provides a helpful summary of the current state of one strand, or bundle of strands, from the cumulative argument. (I am the chairman for the Interpreter Foundation, which publishes “Interpreter.”)

Rappleye’s article doesn’t deal with Mesoamerican archaeology or ancient Semitic languages. Rather, it concentrates on eyewitness accounts corroborating Joseph Smith’s possession of actual physical plates and other artifacts, eyewitness reports about the process by which the English Book of Mormon was produced, and evidence present in the original dictated manuscript.

Discussing not only the 11 official witnesses but also others, Rappleye cites encounters with the golden plates that, he correctly notes, “are so straightforward they cannot be easily dismissed.” They “bring a certain tangibility and physicality to the plates that makes them hard to remove from physical reality.” Some witnesses even saw the stone box that had once contained the plates on the side of the Hill Cumorah. “All of this,” Rappleye writes, “makes notions of co-conspirators or easily duped followers very difficult to square with the historical record. There are too many people with too many stories about interactions with the plates and other artifacts.”

Moreover, Rappleye notes, both eyewitness evidence and the Book of Mormon manuscript itself strongly suggest that while Joseph Smith was dictating from a pre-existing text that wasn’t his, he had no book or manuscript with him during the dictation process. As Martin Harris, who was one of the scribes and also one of the witnesses, put it, “Joseph knew not the contents of the Book of Mormon until it was translated.” This is a vitally important point that I myself have sought to emphasize — for example, in my 2005 essay “Not So Easily Dismissed: 
Some Facts for Which Counterexplanations of the Book of Mormon Will Need to Account.”

Recognizing their difficulty, some critics have tried to assign the credit for writing the Book of Mormon to somebody else — typically Solomon Spalding or Sidney Rigdon. My favorite such proposal came from an Internet critic several years ago. In repeated emails, he insisted that the Book of Mormon was actually written for unknowable reasons at an unknown date and in an undetermined place by a group of unknown size that had left no traces behind of either its activities or its existence. (I labeled them the “Illuminati.”) But there is no serious evidence for other authors. And there’s strong evidence against Joseph Smith’s authorship, as well — including his documented unfamiliarity with the book’s contents prior to its dictation and his inability to pronounce some of its proper names.

There are good reasons for Richard Bushman’s judgment, with regard to the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, that “believing historians are more inclined to be true to the basic sources than unbelieving ones” (see “The Recovery of the Book of Mormon,” in Noel B. Reynolds, ed., “Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited,” FARMS, 1997).

If they wish to maintain their disbelief in Joseph Smith’s prophetic claims, unbelievers have little choice other than to reject the primary historical sources and the eyewitness accounts. “Overall,” Rappleye concludes, “the external evidence is consistent with Joseph Smith’s own explanation of events … more than any other.”

This brief column cannot adequately represent Rappleye’s article, of course, so I invite any who might be interested to read it for themselves; it’s accessible online at no cost.
Additionally, for a response to claims by some that the Book of Mormon witnesses never actually saw or “hefted” physically real plates, see Richard Lloyd Anderson’s 2005 article “Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses.”


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