The Book of Mormon
Robert M. Bowman, Jr.
Another Testament of Jesus Christ.” Such is the modern subtitle of The Book of Mormon, a book first published in 1830 but purporting to be a translation of an ancient Scripture penned in the Western Hemisphere between 600 B.C. and A.D. 421. The main story line of the Book of Mormon tells of a migration of an Israelite family from Jerusalem shortly before the Babylonian Exile to a land across the ocean (somewhere in the Americas), and of the history of two peoples, the Nephites and the Lamanites, descended from that family. The most famous part of the Book of Mormon story is of the appearance of Jesus Christ after His resurrection to preach to the Nephites.
The Book of Mormon was produced by Joseph Smith, who claimed to have been led by an angel to the spot where the golden plates on which the Book of Mormon had been written were buried. It is considered Scripture and one of the four standard works (along with the Bible, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price) of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon church. It is also accepted as Scripture by the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and dozens of other LDS splinter sects. Some ten million people worldwide accept the Book of Mormon as Scripture — the only modern book to gain such acceptance.
Is the Book of Mormon the word of God, an ancient collection of Scriptures restored to the world through Joseph Smith? Or is it a 19th-century fiction created to lead people away from the God of the Bible? I will try to show that even the most sophisticated and seemingly convincing arguments offered by Mormons today in defense of the Book of Mormon are unsound. Such arguments simply are unable to overcome some very easy-to-understand objections to regarding it as an authentic ancient text or placing one’s faith in it as God’s word.
The critical question to be answered about the Book of Mormon is whether it is true. There are several levels on which this question can be entertained.
I. The Book of Mormon Lacks Inerrancy
First, we can ask whether the Book of Mormon is inerrant. That is, we can ask if it is completely free of historical, scientific, and other factual errors. The answer to this question is simply No. Most Mormons will readily admit that the Book of Mormon is not inerrant. The preface to the Book of Mormon states, “And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men….” This is, of course, a truism — one is tempted to say, “No kidding!” — but its point is that the Book of Mormon should be accepted as divinely inspired despite the presence of human error: “…wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ.” This means for Mormons that the Book of Mormon cannot be rejected wholesale on the basis of minor discrepancies or inaccuracies. From a Mormon perspective, the Book of Mormon can have such mistakes and still be what it claims to be, an ancient collection of scriptural writings translated for the modern world by the prophet Joseph Smith.
II. The Book of Mormon Lacks Inspiration
The second way in which we can put the question of truth is to ask if the Book of Mormon is inspired by God. Now, from an evangelical perspective — and, I would add, from a biblical point of view — the fact that the Book of Mormon is errant is enough to disqualify it immediately as inspired. If “all Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16), then Scripture cannot err, since God cannot breathe or speak error. If, as Jesus Himself taught, not the smallest letter or part of a letter will pass away from the OT until it has all been fulfilled (Matt. 5:18), then the OT at least must be without error. And if the OT is inerrant, any future Scripture will have to meet that standard of truth.
A. The Mormon Test
The very last chapter of the Book of Mormon contains its own suggested test for confirming its inspiration. The reader is encouraged to “ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost” (Moroni 10:4). Mormons routinely cite this passage and urge prospective converts to read the Book of Mormon and ask God if it is true. They “bear their testimony” to having done so themselves and knowing that the Book of Mormon is true.
There are some serious objections to this approach to validating the inspiration of the Book of Mormon. First of all, some people have followed this prescription of Moroni 10:4 and concluded that the Book of Mormon is not true. That is, they have read the Book of Mormon, asking God to show them whether it is true or not, and have not received a testimony of its truth but have instead become convinced that it is false. All a Mormon can really say to such persons is that they must not have prayed “with a sincere heart” or “real intent.” But on what basis can this judgment be made? Only on the assumption that the Book of Mormon is true — that is, only by assuming the very thing in question.
Second, the Moroni 10:4 prescription is not supported by the Bible and in fact contradicts the Bible. Sometimes Mormons cite James 1:5 in support. However, James 1:5 is speaking about believers asking God for wisdom to overcome temptation (James 1:2-18), not about unbelievers asking God to reveal to them whether a particular book is Scripture. The Bible tells us to apply objective tests to alleged revelations (Deut. 13:1-5; Matt. 7:15-23; 1 John 4:1-6), not to seek a purely subjective revelation of the truth of a written revelation.
B. The Biblical Tests
C. The Closed-Canon Test
This leads us to ask what biblical tests can be applied to the question of the inspiration of the Book of Mormon. We must first recognize that one of the most commonly used arguments against the inspiration of the Book of Mormon, while based on a true premise, is probably invalid. It is often urged that the Book of Mormon cannot be Scripture because the canon of Scripture was closed upon the death of the apostles. While I do believe that the canon was closed then and that only the Old and New Testaments can constitute Scripture until Christ returns, this belief is notoriously difficult to prove by simply citing biblical proof texts. But the more telling point here is that about 96 per cent of the Book of Mormon is alleged to have been written prior to the end of the first century A.D. The closed-canon test, then, is probably unhelpful in this case, especially from a Mormon perspective.
I do think, however, that the closed-canon argument can be reconstructed to show a serious problem with the LDS doctrine of continuing revelation. In the LDS view, the lack of continuing revelation after the passing of the first-century apostles is evidence of an apostasy. They claim that the canon should never have been regarded as closed. But this claim ignores a crucial aspect of the LDS doctrine of the apostasy. Mormons believe that God restored the church in the nineteenth century through Joseph Smith. What was to prevent him from restoring the church in the second century, or in the third? Nothing, so far as I can see. If the Mormons are right, God could have restored the church and reopened the canon at any time. Since he did not, it seems reasonable to conclude that for about eighteen centuries the canon of Scripture was de facto closed, and that God approved of that situation.
For all their criticism of the concept of a closed canon, the Mormons actually operate with several closed canons and one or two open canons. Mormons have not added anything to the canons of the Old Testament or the New Testament. Nor have they added anything to the canon of the Book of Mormon since Smith originally published it. These canons appear to be permanently closed, even in LDS thought and practice. Nor have they added anything to Pearl of Great Price since it was first published, although I suppose that in theory they might choose to add new books to it in the future. They have added just a little to Doctrine & Covenants since Smith died, and have added virtually nothing to it for over a century.
The question, then, does not seem to be the closure of the canon, but the unity of the canon. For orthodox Christians, the OT and NT have always functioned as two parts of one complete canon of Scripture, used by one people of God. Never, from our perspective, has a major canon or portion of the canon been created for and used by a people completely cut off from the mainstream of God’s people in the earth. But this is precisely what the Book of Mormon purports to be.
D. The Coherency Tests
Although the close-canon test may be inconclusive when applied to the Book of Mormon, there are a number of other biblical tests that can be applied. These tests may be grouped together in general and labeled the coherency test: does the Book of Mormon agree with the Bible? Clearly, in some very important matters, it does not.
1. The Gospel Test
An obvious and crucial test of coherency that may be applied is to ask whether the Book of Mormon presents the same gospel as the New Testament. We are explicitly told to apply such a test by the apostle Paul (Gal. 1:6-9; 2 Cor. 11:4).
Unfortunately, the Book of Mormon is all too clear on this score. It flatly asserts that the Bible as we have it was corrupted by the Gentiles, who “have taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious… that they might pervert the right ways of the Lord,” so that the gospel had to be restored through the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 13:26-27, cf. 13:20-42). This statement forces the issue. The gospel that we have received, that we find in the New Testament, is supposedly one that has been stripped and perverted. If this is so, then the New Testament is unreliable and we must accept the gospel of the Book of Mormon as expounded by the latter-day restored church. On the other hand, if we assume that the New Testament contains the whole gospel of salvation and that any new or different gospel is to be rejected, then the Book of Mormon cannot be accepted as inspired.
Note that we do not need to argue with a Mormon about what the true gospel is or is not. It is enough that the Book of Mormon itself says that traditional Christianity and Mormonism have two different and incompatible versions of the gospel of Christ. So, whatever the Mormon gospel, it cannot be the same gospel as we find in the Bible. If it were, Mormonism would have no reason to exist.
2. The God Test
Another key test set forth in Scripture is that any revelation from God must reveal the same God as the one already revealed to us. Even anyone performing miracles or making successful predictions must be rejected if he does so in the name of a different god (Deut. 13:1-5).
The Book of Mormon, of course, does not overtly present a different God than that of the Bible. It does not claim to reveal Zeus or Baal or even Allah. However, the conception of God does differ somewhat from that of the Bible. The New Testament reveals the one God (1 Cor. 8:4-6; James 2:19; etc.) to exist eternally in three persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19; John 1:1-18; John 14-16; 2 Peter 1:1; etc.). In the New Testament the Father and the Son are distinct persons (e.g., John 8:16-18; 14:23; Rom. 1:7; 2 John 3). The Book of Mormon, by contrast, presents the Father and the Son as two modes of the one person of God — the Father as God in heaven, and the Son as God manifested on the earth (e.g., Mosiah 15:1-4). In theological language, the Bible view of God is trinitarian, while that of the Book of Mormon is monarchian.
If the Book of Mormon doctrine of God differs somewhat from the biblical doctrine, it is radically different from what since about 1916 has been the standard Mormon doctrine of God. In this standard doctrine the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three Gods; God the Father has not always been God but attained Godhood by a process of exaltation; the Father and Son each have separate bodies of flesh and bones; and human beings can attain Godhood by following the same path to exaltation as that of the Father. The Book of Mormon doctrine of God is so different from current Mormon church doctrine that we may legitimately conclude that at least one of these two sources of doctrine — the Book of Mormon or the Mormon church — misrepresents God and teaches blatant falsehood about God. Either way, the Book of Mormon fails to past the God test.
E. The Authenticity Test
Besides the consistency test, there is another, even more basic test that can be applied. Call it the authenticity test: Is the Book of Mormon authentic? That is, is it essentially what it purports to be, and is it therefore basically reliable? Jesus, speaking in the Bible, indicated that such a test is appropriate when he said, “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” (John 3:12). In other words, a source that cannot be trusted in mundane matters cannot be trusted in spiritual, transcendent matters. This leads us to the final level on which the question of truth can be raised.
III. The Book of Mormon Lacks Integrity
A. The Validity of This Test
The third level on which the question of the truth of the Book of Mormon can be asked has to do with the integrity of the work. The issue on this level is neither its factual inerrancy nor its divine inspiration. Rather, the issue is whether the work is at all what it claims to be.
Let us imagine two scenarios. In the first, the Book of Mormon is in fact a translation from golden plates of an ancient collection of writings penned by Nephite prophets in the Americas between 600 B.C. and A.D. 421. Let us further suppose that they do indeed belong to the genre of historical records, as they generally purport, and that in the main the records are to be treated as serious efforts to record actual events. In this case the Book of Mormon may be pronounced authentic and possessing documentary integrity. It would not follow necessarily that the documents are inspired, but they might be — were it not for its failure to past tests of inspiration as discussed previously.
In the second scenario, the Book of Mormon is in fact a work of fiction originating from Joseph Smith (with or without plagiarizing of other writings). It owes nothing to ancient Nephite prophets (whether or not transatlantic voyages from the Middle East to the Americas ever occurred). Its existence begins in the early nineteenth century. Yet Joseph Smith and his early followers unanimously claimed that the Book of Mormon was an ancient work as imagined in the first scenario. In this case the Book of Mormon must be judged inauthentic and lacking integrity. It would then follow necessarily that the Book of Mormon is not inspired, even if we did not have the other tests for inspiration discussed earlier. Again, this is because a source that lacks integrity in the mundane matter of being what it claims to be certainly cannot be trusted to reveal truth from God.
The evidence for the inauthenticity of the Book of Mormon is actually quite overwhelming, as we shall try to make clear.
B. Sources of the Book of Mormon
1. Could Joseph Smith Have Produced the Book Himself?
The standard approach of Mormons in defending the authenticity of the Book of Mormon is to argue that Joseph Smith could not have written it himself. His lack of education, the short amount of time involved in the “translating” of the book, and its sheer length and apparent complexity, are regarded as together indicating the virtual impossibility of his having created the book from his own imagination.
To these stock arguments Christians have made a number of important responses. The Book of Mormon in many ways reflects Joseph Smith’s lack of education. At the same time its stories are consistent with Joseph’s reputation, reported by family and friends, to have been a skilled story-teller even in his youth. At least one-tenth, and possibly one-fifth, of the Book of Mormon is substantially identical to portions of the Bible (including whole chapters from Isaiah). Joseph may have been preparing to produce the Book of Mormon for months before he actually dictated it, and in fact the number of pages dictated per day was not great. He also appears to have utilized sources, notably Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews (on which I shall have more to say shortly), and possibly others as well.
Thus, it is possible that Joseph Smith created the Book of Mormon himself. However, some have argued that he plagiarized most of it from a novel by Solomon Spalding, with passages of the Bible thrown in for good measure. Admittedly, there are serious problems with this theory as a complete explanation of the book’s origin, and valid objections to some of the arguments recently put forth in favor of the theory. Still, it is plausible that Joseph Smith did get ideas or even material directly or indirectly from one or another manuscript by Spalding.
The most likely explanation is that Joseph Smith produced the Book of Mormon by combining ideas from various sources with his own imagination and some plagiarism from the Bible and other sources. This is a more complicated theory, but it is able to account for the totality of the Book of Mormon in a way that simpler theories cannot. What is really beyond serious dispute is the conclusion that the Book of Mormon makes use of various sources that reflect an origin in the nineteenth century.
2. View of the Hebrews
a. B. H. Roberts’s Analysis
The most important source used by Joseph Smith, other than the Bible, appears to have been Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews. Written by a Vermont minister in 1823 (with a second edition in 1825), this book argued that the American Indians were descendants of the “lost tribes of Israel” and urged Christians to evangelize the Indians in fulfillment of biblical prophecies, particularly prophecies found in the book of Isaiah. Numerous parallels between View of the Hebrews and the Book of Mormon have been identified by various writers, most notably the Mormon scholar B. H. Roberts.
Mormon apologists have sought to deny the evidence for Joseph Smith’s dependence on Ethan Smith’s book in various ways. They have argued that B. H. Roberts listed the parallels with the belief that a careful study would prove that the parallels did not indicate literary dependence. Of course, what Roberts thought about the parallels is really irrelevant to whether or not they actually indicate such dependence.
b. The Extent of the Parallels
More to the point, Mormons have frequently argued that there are only a few similarities and many dissimilarities between the two books, disproving literary dependence. But such reasoning is fallacious, since all that is being claimed is that View of the Hebrews is a major source of the Book of Mormon, not that it is the only source. It should also be noted that the number of parallels has generally been underestimated. David Persuitte lists some 61 parallels between the two books, many of which can hardly be explained on any other basis than literary dependence.
c. The Use of Isaiah in the Two Books
In one interesting article, two Mormon scholars argued that Joseph Smith did not plagiarize the Isaiah chapters of the Book of Mormon from View of the Hebrews. They claimed that if the two books were produced independently, one would still expect (on the basis of a complicated statistical analysis that need not be discussed here) that about 8 of the 66 chapters of Isaiah would appear in both books. Since actually 9 of the 66 chapters appear in both books, they conclude that the number of chapters common to both is not statistically significant, and therefore that Joseph Smith did not plagiarize these chapters from View of the Hebrews.
However, this very sophisticated argument assumes that both books will quote extensively from Isaiah. Only on the basis of this assumption can they claim that “the odds are approximately one in a million against there being no common chapters in the Book of Mormon and View of the Hebrews.” There are, of course, millions of books which do not copy from Isaiah at all! This simple point completely invalidates the mathematical argumentation in this article. The more relevant statistic is that of the 20 chapters of Isaiah which Smith copied into the Book of Mormon, nine of them (or 45%) also appeared in View of the Hebrews.
Of course, even if it could be shown that Joseph Smith did not plagiarize Ethan Smith’s use of Isaiah, that would not change the fact that he plagiarized Isaiah itself! This leads us to consider in more detail the use of the Bible in the Book of Mormon.
3. The Use of the Bible
a. Summary of the Evidence
As is well known, the Book of Mormon contains numerous sentences and paragraphs and in many cases whole chapters repeated from the Bible, usually duplicating the King James Version nearly word-for-word. A whopping 16 out of 55 chapters in the first two books of the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 20-21; 2 Nephi 12-24, 27) are acknowledged duplications of 20 chapters from Isaiah in the Bible (Isaiah 48-52; 2-14, 29, 53). In the remainder of the Book of Mormon a full 7 chapters are repeated from the Bible (Mosiah 14 = Isaiah 53; 3 Nephi 12-14 = Matthew 5-7; 3 Nephi 22 = Isaiah 54; 3 Nephi 24-25 = Malachi 3-4). In all, over one-tenth of the chapters in the Book of Mormon are repetitions of chapters in the Bible. Yet this is just the tip of the iceberg, since biblical statements are found scattered throughout the Book of Mormon. It is probably fair to say that at least one-fifth of the Book of Mormon is taken from the Bible.
b. The LDS Explanation
Mormon apologists generally do not now deny that Joseph Smith copied whole chapters from Isaiah and other books of the Bible in the King James Version into the Book of Mormon. It is simply too obvious. They explain this copying by saying that the work of translating the Book of Mormon from the plates was such spiritually and mentally draining work that when Smith came to passages virtually identical to the Bible he simply used the KJV as “a reasonably good translation already existing.”
c. Smith’s Use of Isaiah
This explanation is difficult to square with the fact that the biblical chapters copied into the Book of Mormon contain numerous minor variations. If Joseph Smith used the King James Version to simplify his translation task, why the minor changes? Some Mormons have claimed that these changes can be shown in the case of the Isaiah chapters to reflect a more accurate original text of Isaiah. This claim depends on selecting just those ancient variations of the biblical Isaiah text that disagree with the Hebrew text and that agree with the Book of Mormon. Since there are many ancient variant readings to choose from, it is rather easy to compile a list of readings favorable to the Book of Mormon; thus, there is some reason to doubt the validity of this claim. But more important, the claim conflicts with the explanation that Joseph Smith simply used the King James Version to make his translation work easier.
d. Smith’s Use of the Sermon on the Mount
Worse still, one Mormon scholar tried to prove that the section of the Book of Mormon which parallels the Sermon on the Mount (3 Nephi 12-14, cf. Matt. 5-7) reflects an accurate text, and ended up proving instead that the Book of Mormon followed the King James Version in various translation errors.
A more fundamental problem is why Jesus would deliver virtually the exact same sermon to the Nephites as he had to the Jews. According to the Book of Mormon, the Jews in Palestine and the Nephites in America were separated by six centuries and by thousands of miles. Yet in this sermon Jesus’ teaching presupposes the context of the Jewish nation in first-century Palestine. Specifically, he was criticizing the Pharisees, a religious group originating in Palestine four centuries after the Nephites supposedly left Palestine! For example, in the statement, “thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thine enemy” (3 Nephi 12:43), “and hate thine enemy” was a Pharisaic interpretive addition to the Old Testament command to love one’s neighbor. The Sermon also refers to synagogues, a Jewish institution that did not originate until after the supposed journey of Lehi and his family from Jerusalem just before the Babylonian captivity. Such examples could be multiplied.
The best explanation of the presence of whole chapters from the King James Version in the Book of Mormon, then, remains that Joseph Smith used these chapters to “pad” the Book of Mormon.
C. No Physical Evidence for the Book of Mormon
The positive evidence for a nineteenth century origin of the Book of Mormon based on a source analysis is matched by the negative lack of evidence for its originating in the ancient world. One of the most striking problems for the Book of Mormon is the absolute lack of physical evidence that the book ever existed prior to the 1820s. We do not mean evidence that the Book of Mormon is true in all or even most of its details; we mean evidence that the Book of Mormon so much as existed prior to its publication by Joseph Smith. This is an important distinction, because we are not denying a place for “faith” in the sense of believing things that go beyond what we can verify empirically. We are simply saying that faith must be based on something with a decent measure of credibility, something totally lacking in the case of the Book of Mormon.
1. No Bibliographical Evidence
a. Absolute Lack of Pre-19th Century Copies
The most direct sort of proof for the existence of the Book of Mormon before the 1820s would be copies that can be dated as having been produced before that time. Such evidence is absolutely lacking, as all Mormons admit. The golden plates have been conveniently taken into custody by an angel. No ancient document duplicating or quoting from any portion of the Book of Mormon has ever been found anywhere — except, of course, for those portions of the Book of Mormon quoting from the Bible! By contrast, hundreds of manuscript copies of the Bible dating between the first century B.C. and the third century A.D., and thousands more dating from the fourth century on, can be viewed by the public in museums and university libraries all over the world. For this reason no one, Christian or not, can rationally doubt that the books of the Bible were written in the ancient past. By contrast, only Mormons regard the Book of Mormon as an ancient document. As one Mormon scholar put it: “The Book of Mormon exists. It was first published in the state of New York in 1830 by Joseph Smith. On these facts all men seem to agree. What is not generally agreed upon is an explanation for the book’s existence.”
b. The Anthon Transcript
The only physical evidence for the Book of Mormon as an ancient document that is known to exist is the “Anthon transcript,” a piece of paper (rediscovered recently) on which Joseph Smith wrote down some of the characters allegedly found on the gold plates. Even this evidence would have to be regarded as indirect since it was written in the 1820s by Smith. According to Joseph Smith’s account in Pearl of Great Price, he gave Martin Harris (one of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon) this paper with some of the characters translated and some not. Harris took this “transcript” to a Columbia professor named Charles Anthon, who “stated that the translation was correct, more so than any he had before seen translated from the Egyptian. I [Harris] then showed him those which were not yet translated, and he said that they were Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic; and he said they were true characters” (Joseph Smith–History 1:64). When Harris stated that the characters were copied from gold plates revealed by an angel and that he could not bring them to Anthon because they “were sealed,” Anthon replied, “I cannot read a sealed book” (1:65).
Of the many problems associated with this story, two call for special attention. Anthon is said to have praised the translation as the best he had ever seen. Yet no one has been able to translate any of the characters on the Anthon transcript (which still exists ). The second problem is that it is unthinkable that characters from the four languages mentioned would be combined in one running text, especially since some of them use alphabets and some hieroglyphics (pictures standing for words). Such a text would be about as bizarre as one combining English lettering with, say, pictorial representations of sign language, or braille!
Recent scholarly treatments of the Anthon transcript by Mormons have compared its characters to Egyptian and certain American Indian scripts, but such comparisons have not confirmed the genuineness of the Book of Mormon script nor produced any translation of the transcript. Mormon scholars have also argued that Anthon was lying when he later denied authenticating the transcript, while ignoring the problem of how Anthon could have authenticated what Mormon scriptures say was an undecipherable text. The same objection must be raised to efforts by Mormon scholars to explain in great detail how Egyptian might have evolved into “Reformed Egyptian.”
2. No Linguistic Evidence
The problem of Reformed Egyptian leads us to discuss the first of many kinds of indirect physical evidence of which none has yet to be found supporting the historical claims of the Book of Mormon. There is no evidence for such a language as “Reformed Egyptian,” the language in which the Book of Mormon was supposedly written. Nor is there any evidence that languages of the Native American peoples in the Western Hemisphere were influenced by the Egyptian or Hebrew languages. By contrast, of course, we have abundant evidence of the existence of the biblical languages not only from ancient copies of the biblical writings themselves but also from archaeological finds such as scrolls, papyri, and other objects on which writing in those languages appear.
As with many of the problems associated with the Book of Mormon, this problem goes deeper than a mere lack of evidence. It is, to put it mildly, odd to learn that the descendants of Lehi wrote all of their sacred writings in a language of Egypt. Lehi would have lived nearly a millennium after the Israelites left Egypt. All of the Jewish Scriptures were written in Hebrew or in Aramaic, a closely related language using the same basic alphabet.
3. No Anthropological Evidence
There is no evidence for the introduction of a Semitic ethnic people into the Western Hemisphere at any time prior to the second millennium A.D. By contrast, of course, the basic history of the Semitic peoples in the Middle East, including that of the Israelites in Old Testament times and the Jews in New Testament times, is beyond dispute.
On the other hand, there is abundant evidence to show that the idea that the American Indians were Israelites was a popular conception in Joseph Smith’s area and time. This was, in fact, the basic premise of View of the Hebrews, the book discussed earlier as a likely source of much of the Book of Mormon. Hence, we have a perfectly natural explanation for how such an idea found its way into the Book of Mormon.
4. No Geographical Evidence
a. Not Even Mormons Are Sure
One of the most interesting ways in which Mormons are trying to defend the Book of Mormon is by claiming that the geography of the Book of Mormon fits with great precision the geography of some portion of Central America. Unfortunately, Mormon scholars are currently debating which part of Central America it fits! In fact, the situation is even more complicated. The Book of Mormon lands have also been said to encompass either the entire Western Hemisphere (the traditional view) or the western regions of South America. Actually, the traditional view would seem to be the best interpretation of the Book of Mormon, since it was “discovered” buried in a hill in upstate New York! Still, most Mormons have abandoned this theory in favor of a Central American theory. In Central America there are at least three or four different areas claimed to be the Book of Mormon lands — the Costa Rica area, the Yucatan peninsula, and the Tehuantepec area including Guatemala and southern Mexico.
b. The Two Lands and the “Narrow Neck of Land”
Still, in recent years something approaching a consensus has developed among Mormon scholars that the Tehuantepec theory is correct. John L. Sorenson’s An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon is the standard reference here. But even here serious problems remain. The Book of Mormon references to a “narrow neck of land” between the “land northward” and “land southward” have until recently always been interpreted to refer to an isthmus, and on the Sorenson theory this is the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. One difficulty with this view (there are several) is that the isthmus is not particularly narrow in comparison with the lands on either side of it. But a recent book by Richard Hauck argues that the “narrow neck” is a coastal strip along the Pacific connecting Mexico and Guatemala. This view conflicts with the Book of Mormon itself: It states that “the land of Nephi and the land of Zarahemla were nearly surrounded by water, there being a small neck of land between the land northward and the land southward” (Alma 22:32). Here the statement that the lands of Nephi and Zarahemla were “nearly surrounded by water” is explained by the statement that a “small neck of land” connected them to the lands northward (note Hauck’s artificial separation of these two statements ). What both views have difficulty explaining is that on this view the land “northward” is actually northwest of the land “southward.”
c. The Four Seas
An even more troublesome feature of Book of Mormon “geography” is its clear reference to four seas — north, south, east, and west (Helaman 3:8). On Sorenson’s view the east sea is the Gulf of Mexico and the west sea is the Gulf of Tehuantepec on the Pacific side. But this view places the east and west seas due north and south of each other! Hauck therefore makes these two gulfs the north and south seas. But both views must strain to come up with four seas. Hauck argues that the east sea is the Caribbean, which is not impossible, but then must identify the west sea as a part of the Gulf of Tehuantepec, that is, as part of the south sea. Thus in effect Hauck can only come up with three seas, not four. This is one of the most glaring difficulties for any Central American theory of the Book of Mormon.
d. Assumptions of Mormon Archaeologists
In evaluating these attempts to correlate the Book of Mormon with the geography of Central America, it is important to note the assumptions made by the authors. Both Sorenson and Hauck, for example, make it clear that they are assuming that the Book of Mormon is both internally consistent and historically authentic. Both writers also try to argue that Book of Mormon archaeology is basically at the same stage as was biblical archaeology in its infancy, and Hauck makes much of the fact that biblical scholars do not regard archaeology as “proving” the Bible but only confirming its historicity.
On this last point it is necessary to point out that the basic historicity of the Bible as an ancient document referring to real places never needed proving by archaeology because it was never in doubt. We have always known where Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the Dead Sea, the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River, Egypt, Syria, Babylon, Rome, Athens, Corinth, Crete, and many other such biblical places are located. Biblical archaeology has not “proved” the Bible in this sense because the facts were undeniable even to unbelievers. The usefulness of archaeology has been in filling in some of the details, not in authenticating the Bible as an ancient collection of basically historical books. The situation is much different with the Book of Mormon. No one had ever heard of Zarahemla, Nephi, Manti, Cumorah, or Mormon until 1830, and still none of the Book of Mormon place names can be positively identified.
5. No Biographical Evidence
There is no evidence for the existence of any of the Book of Mormon characters other than those who appear in the Bible (Isaiah, Malachi, Christ). Lehi, Nephi, Omni, Mosiah, Alma, Mormon, and all of the other distinctive Book of Mormon characters are completely unattested figures. By contrast, many of the figures of the Bible, from the Pharoahs to Nebuchadnezzar to Herod and Pontius Pilate, are known from extrabiblical sources. Even John the Baptist and Jesus are mentioned in extrabiblical, non-Christian sources (both Jewish and Roman) from the first century. Most of these figures have been known to us all along — we did not need modern archaeology to verify their existence.
6. No Historical Evidence
There is no evidence for the many specific events described in the Book of Mormon. In particular, there is no evidence for a transatlantic voyage of Israelites in the sixth century B.C., and no evidence for the occurrence of the massive wars said to have been fought by Lehi’s descendants in the New World. By contrast, many of the biblical events are directly corroborated by external records or archaeological evidence (e.g., the expansion of Israelite military power in the reigns of David and Solomon; the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests of Israel and Judah; and the ministries and deaths of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ).
7. Conclusion: No Evidence, Many Problems
Thus in every respect the evidence — bibliographical, linguistical, anthropological, geographical, biographical, and historical — is sorely lacking for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. In every way the evidence for the basic authenticity of the Bible is direct, tangible, and undisputed even by unbelievers. By contrast, the alleged “evidence” for the Book of Mormon is all indirect, abstract, and convincing only to Mormons. In this light, honest persons have no choice but to conclude that the Book of Mormon is not authentic ancient literature. It is therefore lacking in that basic documentary integrity required of any book that would be taken seriously at all, let alone accepted as revelation from God.
IV. Faith or Credulity and the Book of Mormon
If the Book of Mormon were the word of God, then of course faith would be needed for a person to acknowledge it as such. But faith is not the same thing as credulity. Faith is believing in God and His word on the basis of His clear revelation in history. Credulity is believing something merely on the basis of its claiming to be true.
In one sense the Mormon believer surpasses credulity to the point of believing the Book of Mormon because he or she wants it to be true. Thus it is quite common for Mormons to encourage prospective converts, as one Mormon writer put it, to “desire to know that the Book of Mormon is true” and “hope the Book of Mormon is true.” Clearly, seeking a “testimony” of the truth of the Book of Mormon by first ardently desiring and hoping that it is true, and then reading it and asking God if it is true, is bound to result often in persons gaining a strong subjective impression that the book is true.
The definitive test of the Book of Mormon and of Mormonism as a whole must in the end be its faithfulness to the teachings of the Bible. Mormons cannot consistently call the Book of Mormon “Another Testament of Jesus Christ” alongside the Bible and then denigrate the Bible’s “testimony” to Jesus Christ. But criticize the Bible they must, because it contradicts the doctrines of Mormonism.