in Religion

CES Reply: Book of Mormon archaeology

This is an excerpt from “A Reply from a Former CES Employee.” The entire document can be downloaded for free.

Download CES Reply

This is a line-by-line response to Jeremy Runnells’ “Letter to a CES Director: Why I Lost My Testimony.” Jeremy’s words are in green, the color of life, while mine are in black, the color of darkness.

6.  Archaeology: There is absolutely no archaeological evidence to directly support the Book of Mormon or the Nephites/Lamanites who numbered in the millions.

Nephites/Lamanites “numbered in the millions?” Not according to the Book of Mormon itself, which only describes the Nephites and Lamanites as numbering in the “thousands” and “tens of thousands.” True, we do get mention of the battle deaths of “two millions of mighty men, and also their wives and their children” among the Jaredites, who preceded the Lamanites and Nephites in the Americas by thousands of years, and while I don’t dismiss the statistic out of hand, I also don’t see any reason to believe that this is anything more than Coriantumr’s supposition or Moroni’s exaggeration as he abridges the Jaredite record. Neither man would have been capable of conducting an accurate body count. I don’t think it makes the slightest bit of doctrinal difference if two million is fact or hyperbole. And, to be beat a dead horse, “if there be faults, they are the mistakes of men.”

As to the idea that there “is absolutely no archaeological evidence,” you call to mind a statement by actor John Malkovich, who said the following:

“I believe in people, I believe in humans, I believe in a car, but I don’t believe something I can’t have [sic] absolutely no evidence of for millennia. And it’s funny — people think analysis or psychiatry is mad, and THEY go to CHURCH…”

I find it very tedious that so many atheists keep claiming there is “absolutely no evidence” of God’s existence, which is false, when what they mean is that there is “absolutely no proof” of God’s existence, which is, in fact, true.

Same with the idea that there is “no evidence” that there were actual people called Nephites and Lamanites who lived and died and did stuff. You may have been watching when, over at a blog called “Enigmatic Mirror,” Mormon scholar William Hamblin was exchanging posts with a non-Mormon academic named Philip Jenkins, who likens belief in the Book of Mormon as a historical, non-fictional document to belief in Bigfoot – who we all know is Cain, punished to wander the earth swathed in matted, unbleached Donald Trump combover strands for thousands of years until he finally guest stars as Andre the Giant on The Six Million Dollar Man.

I digress.

Jenkins refuses to either read the Book of Mormon or even acknowledge that there is any reason to do so, because there is – you guessed it – “no evidence” that it’s historical. When Hamblin cites evidence and suggests that Jenkins has “tacitly” admitted that at least some evidence exists, Jenkins gets quite huffy.

“At no point have I ever suggested that there is any evidence whatever in support for the historicity or historical value of the Book of Mormon,” Jenkins huffs, huffily. “I have never suggested or stated that tacitly, or openly, and it is wrong to suggest that I have.”

But there is a great deal of evidence of the Book of Mormon’s historicity, much of which I’ve talked about on my blog. What Jenkins is complaining about, like Malkovich, and like you, is the lack of proof, not evidence. (Hamblin himself makes the same point in his response to Jenkins.)

Just to cite perhaps the most compelling example, Nahom is archaeological evidence that the Book of Mormon is an ancient record. Is it proof? By no means. But the fact that a verifiable real-world burial site shows up in the precisely the place the B of M said it should be, and that it did so decades after Joseph Smith could have known it was there? That’s not nothing, and it should not be lightly dismissed. Certainly it’s much more than “no evidence.” Critics have explanations for Nahom, of course, just as apologists have explanations for evidence against the Book of Mormon, which also exists. But it’s wrong to say that no proof is the same as no evidence.

After all, if evidence were always proof, then why would we have a criminal justice system? Jury trials involve two opposing advocates using identical evidence to argue for diametrically opposite conclusions. Even the most devoutly religious concede there is no conclusive proof that God exists, but they’ll offer up a great deal of evidence for why they believe he does.  But if the intellectually lazy can equate a lack of proof with a lack of evidence, then they can end all arguments before they begin.

Your use of the word “directly” is also a qualifier that ought to be called into question. By stating that there is no archaeological evidence to “directly support” the Book of Mormon, you tacitly admit that there is evidence that could “indirectly support” the Book of Mormon. And what would “direct evidence” looks like? A sign saying “Welcome to Zarahemla?” What makes you think that the name “Zarahemla” would be written or pronounced in characters that any modern archaeologist would be able to recognize? Would you prefer graffiti on an ancient American bathroom that says “For a good time, call Zoram, servant of Laban, now traveling with the family of Nephi?” Well over 99% of the names of people and places of ancient Americans are completely lost to us. The fact that there is even any indirect evidence that could be applied to the Book of Mormon is remarkable in and of itself.

If you only accept events that have “direct” archaeological evidence to back them up, you not only have to write off almost all of the Bible, but just about all of the ancient world, most of which left little or no archaeological footprint.

This is one of the reasons why unofficial apologists are coming up with the Limited Geography Model (it happened in Central or South America) and that the real Hill Cumorah is not in Palmyra, New York but is elsewhere and possibly somewhere down there instead. This is in direct contradiction to what Joseph Smith and other prophets have taught.

Even a cursory reading of the Book of Mormon makes it clear that the Hill Cumorah isn’t the hill in upstate New York where Joseph got the plates. In Mormon 6:6, Mormon states that he “hid up in the hill Cumorah all the records which had been entrusted to me by the hand of the Lord, save it were these few plates which I gave unto my son Moroni.” [Emphasis added.] So the plates Moroni had after the massive bloody battle at Cumorah were specifically not plates that had been buried there. Moroni then spends decades wandering with these plates, presumably getting as far away from Cumorah as possible, and then buries them up for Joseph to find in an area far removed the Cumoran carnage.

You need more than a cursory reading of the Book of Mormon to realize that the hemispheric model for the Book of Mormon, in which most of the prophets, apostles, and members of the church widely believed and many still believe, can’t be sustained by the text. But a close reading reveals a consistent geography that could only have taken place over a relatively limited geographical area. The research on this subject is really quite compelling – John Sorenson’s “Mormon’s Codex” is an astonishing work of impeccable scholarship that reviews a massive amount of internal and external evidence for the Book of Mormon’s authenticity– and it would be quite ignorant to dismiss it out of hand.

Now is it true that most – but not all – prophets, apostles, and members long believed, and many still believe, both in the New York Cumorah and the hemispheric geographic model? Yes. Absolutely. And is it true that in many cases, the new consensus on these issues is “in direct contradiction to what Joseph Smith and other prophets have taught?” It is.

So what?

We keep coming back to infallibility and the lack thereof, and so many of your objections are rooted in the idea that if even apostles make mistakes like this, the Church can’t be true. That’s not just wrong; it’s bad doctrine. Mormons ought to realize that agency trumps infallibility every single time. In the absence of direct revelation, speculation fills the gaps. There is no direct revelation about the specific whereabouts of any Book of Mormon location, so Joseph Smith and others were and are perfectly capable of acting in good faith and still reaching incorrect conclusions, which seems to be precisely what they did. Like it or not, that’s how agency works. That’s mortality. That’s life, in and out of the Church.

Never mind that the Church has a visitor’s center there in New York and holds annual Hill Cumorah pageants.

And why shouldn’t they? Even if it’s not the hill where the final Nephite battle took place, it’s still the hill where Joseph got the plates, so it’s quite significant to Book of Mormon history. The fact that they still call it “Cumorah” is, in my mind, unfortunate as it perpetuates a cultural mistake, but I don’t see how it has even the slightest impact on the Book of Mormon’s authenticity.

We read about two major war battles that took place at the Hill Cumorah (Ramah to the Jaredites) that numbered in the deaths of at least 2,000,000 people. No bones, hair, chariots, swords, armor, or any other evidence found whatsoever.

None in upstate New York, no, which is not at all surprising, as the Book of Mormon itself makes it crystal clear that that’s not where either Cumorah or Ramah actually was.

Compare this to the Roman occupation of Britain and other countries. There are abundant evidences of their presence during the first 400 years AD such as villas, mosaic floors, public baths, armor, weapons, writings, art, pottery and so on. Even the major road systems used today in some of these occupied countries were built by the Romans. Additionally, there is ample evidence of the Mayan and Aztec civilizations as well as a civilization in current day Texas that dates back 15,000 years. Where are the Nephite or Lamanite buildings, roads, armors, swords, pottery, art, etc.?

Where indeed? What would Nephite buildings, roads, armors, swords, pottery, art, etc. look like?

You do realize that the Mayan and Aztec civilizations didn’t label themselves as such, right? Those titles represent transliterations of ancient pronunciation and symbols that, back when these civilizations were flourishing, probably bore no resemblance to how we reference them in modern English.

Archaeology is a process of piecing together the history of civilizations from a relative handful of table scraps. What would be the difference, for instance, between a Mayan bowl or a Nephite bowl? What would distinguish a Lamanite brick from an Aztec brick? How many Mayan roads, armors, or swords say “Property of the Mayan” on them? Odds are overwhelming that any cultural impact of a Nephite, Lamanite, or Jaredite civilization would be impossible to verify based on examining ancient artifacts, regardless of how many may have survived.

Latter-day Saint Thomas Stuart Ferguson was BYU’s archaeology division (New World Archaeological Funding) founder. NWAF was financed by the Church. NWAF and Ferguson were tasked by BYU and the Church in the 1950s and 1960s to find archaeological evidence to support the Book of Mormon. This is what Ferguson wrote after 17 years of trying to dig up evidence for the Book of Mormon:

“…you can’t set Book of Mormon geography down anywhere – because it is fictional and will never meet the requirements of the dirt-archaeology. I should say – what is in the ground will never conform to what is in the book.”

– Letter dated February 2, 1976

Never heard of Thomas Stuart Ferguson before reading your letter, although I’m sorry he lost his faith. From what I can gather online, he founded a private organization that BYU later decided to fund, and Ferguson’s primary role with the NWAF at that point was fundraising, not analysis or field work. He was a lawyer by trade, not a trained archaeologist, anthropologist, or geologist – an amateur, not an academic – and he’s at least as “unofficial” in his criticism as the apologists you so readily deride.

Your argument is pretty weak if he’s the best witness you’ve got.

Tomorrow: Book of Mormon geography 

CES Reply: DNA and Book of Mormon anachronisms
CES Reply: Book of Mormon geography

Leave a Reply to Marc Norton Cancel reply

  1. > Runnells:
    >
    > There is absolutely no archaeological evidence to directly support the Book of Mormon … one of the reasons why unofficial apologists are coming up with the Limited Geography Model … that the real Hill Cumorah is not in Palmyra, New York … in direct contradiction to what Joseph Smith and other prophets have taught.

    *

    > Bennett:
    >
    > Even a cursory reading of the Book of Mormon makes it clear that the Hill Cumorah isn’t the hill in upstate New York where Joseph got the plates.
    >
    > … the hemispheric model for the Book of Mormon, in which most of the prophets, apostles, and members of the church widely believed and many still believe, can’t be sustained by the text.
    >
    > We keep coming back to infallibility … the idea that … even apostles make mistakes like this.

    *

    > Runnells:
    >
    > … two major war battles … took place at the Hill Cumorah (Ramah to the Jaredites) that numbered in the deaths of at least 2,000,000 people. No bones, hair, chariots, swords, armor, or any other evidence [have been] found …

    *

    > Bennett:
    >
    > None in upstate New York, no, which is not at all surprising, as the Book of Mormon itself makes it crystal clear that that’s not where either Cumorah or Ramah actually was.

    Jim, I appreciate your discussions on the fallibility of prophets and apostles.

    Now, regarding the Cumorah question, prophet fallibility may not be the strongest approach. Supporting arguments for the hemispheric model can be just as compelling as supporting arguments for the limited geography model. And the hemispheric model can be sustained by the text.

    If you were to attempt to start another discussion thread on Cumorah alone you could conceivably keep it going for months.

    More relevantly to Runnells’ question, you stated, “Archaeology is a process of piecing together the history of civilizations from a relative handful of table scraps.” Instead of eliciting possible human fallibility, I could rest easy upon this simple principle about archeology. Volumes can be written on what lies buried in the ground that “we” have not yet uncovered — however advanced “we” might be feeling about “ourselves” in the moment.

  2. I really liked this post. I think a great question to ask critics / people who’ve become anti or however that hammers on the whole archeology thing is “What would Nephite / Lamanite stuff look like?”

    If they are such experts on all things Book of Mormon and are so certain that they didn’t exist then please explain to me what their civilization looked like and how they couldn’t have been part of x, y, or z civilizations that we know existed.

    I am curious how big the Nephites / Lamanites really got. We know that there weren’t many of them when they arrived here in the new world but I suppose you could get to a decent size over 1000 years.