Leap of Faith

I just finished reading an advance copy of Leap of Faith: Confronting the Origins of the Book of Mormon. It’s a new book that takes a fresh approach to Book of Mormon apologetics, written by a former executive in the Howard Hughes organization. That’s significant, because he compares the claims that The Book of Mormon is a clumsy forgery with the actual, real-life forgeries that plagued Howard Hughes’ world – the Clifford Irving’s “autobiography” of Hughes featured in the recent Richard Gere movie Hoax, and the Howard Hughes will reportedly “found” by service station attendant Melvin Dummar, which inspired its own movie, Melvin and Howard.

This is an interesting angle to take, because nobody who approaches The Book of Mormon does so from neutral ground. To even consider that it could possibly be an ancient record of people living in the Americas requires the reader to accept Joseph Smith’s supernatural claims with regard to the book’s origins. So believers embrace and defend it, overlooking any evidence that it might be a fraud, while skeptics dismiss it out of hand, highlighting the portions they believe expose the book as a product of the nineteenth century and ignoring everything that is not easily explained away.

This is the first book I’ve read that tries to confront the issue objectively, although the author concedes that he himself is a believer and not altogether free from bias. He does so by applying tests for forgery to The Book of Mormon that eventually exposed the Hughes hoaxes. He divides the tests into four categories:

First: Internal issues – is the work consistent with itself?

Second: External issues – is there any evidence in the real world that supports or contradicts the book’s claims?

Third: Motive – What would a forger have to gain?

And finally: Relevance: Does the Book of Mormon represent something God would find necessary to reveal to the world? The final test doesn’t apply to the Hughes stuff, but it’s critical in a consideration of the Book of Mormon, especially since the Christian world believes its message proclaiming Jesus as the Christ has been sufficiently delivered by the Bible.

Internal issues are what eventually discredited Dummar’s clumsily forged Howard Hughes will. There are misspellings throughout, including the name of one of Hughes’ cousins. The will makes former Hughes exec Noah Dietrich the executor of the will, yet Dietrich and Hughes had had a massive falling out years before, and it would be unthinkable that he would be the one the billionaire would have named to oversee his estate. Finally, the forger’s Hughes refers in the will to the “spruce goose,” the name for Hughes’ massive World War II project, the HK-1 or Flying Boat. Hughes despised that name and refused to allow anyone in his employ to use it in his presence. He would never have used it himself in his own will.

Clifford Irving’s fraudulent biography doesn’t have as many of these problems, because much of it was poached from an authentic, unpublished memoir about Hughes from someone who actually knew him. Indeed, it was the internal issues that initially gave Irving credibility, because those who reviewed the manuscript found details that only a Hughes insider could have known. Leap of Faith’s author points out that this is consistent with the work of the best forgers, who include details that the critics would expect to find there. He points out that this was the M.O. of Mark Hoffman, the famed forger of early Mormon documents, who was able to hoodwink the world by producing documents that fit their expectations perfectly.

So with regard to internal issues, how does the Book of Mormon fare?

Remarkably well. If this is a forgery, it’s a good one. The work is consistent with itself, with several remarkably complex stories intertwined throughout without any logical blunders or loose ends. It employs literary devices like chiasmus, an ancient Middle Eastern form of poetry that was essentially unknown to Joseph Smith or his contemporaries. It uses authentic Hebrew and Egyptian names that are consistent with its purported origins and time frame, and it reflects authentic ancient cultural practices that no one in the nineteenth century would have been able to fabricate.

But it does not fare perfectly. For instance, how could the book include an almost verbatim quotation from First Corinthians that is purportedly written by someone on the American continent in the 4th century with no access to Paul’s writings? Believers have explanations – perhaps both writers were quoting from a common source now lost, for instance – but they stretch credulity.

Still, the bulk of the text itself is difficult to explain away, which is why most criticism of the Book of Mormon focuses on external issues. It was external evidences that eventually destroyed Irving’s claims of having met with Howard Hughes clandestinely, which was impossible, given that Hughes had a team of executives, doctors, and hangers-on who were with him twenty-four seven. It all collapsed when Hughes himself resurfaced via telephone to denounce Irving in a bizarre press conference, forcing the forger to concede that the jig was up.

According to its critics, The Book of Mormon has similar problems, as no objectively verifiable evidences of a Christian civilization in the New World have appeared in any archeological digs. And recent DNA evidence suggests that the Native Americans are Asiatic, not Semitic, which they believe destroys the story that the Indians are part of the House of Israel. I believe critics sustain these accusations by ascribing claims to The Book of Mormon that it does not make for itself, but that’s somewhat beside the point. The fact is that with regard to American archeology and DNA, current discoveries lean against the book’s authenticity, not toward it. (Although the DNA premise is flawed for a number of reasons. Sorry. I know I’m biased. But I’m still right.)

So external evidence proves the Book of Mormon is a hoax, too, right?

Not so fast.

The Book of Mormon begins with the story of Lehi, a prosperous man in Jerusalem who also taught his children “in the language of the Egyptians” before taking them on a journey to the sea just prior to the city’s destruction circa 600 BC. Along the way, they come across a large tree-filled valley and a river, and later to a place called Nahom, where one of their company dies and is buried. They eventually reach a land on the shores of the ocean they call Bountiful, because it’s lush with trees and vegetation in the shadow of a large mountain. Here they build a boat and sail to the Americas.

For years, every piece of this story was considered ludicrous. Arabia, where Lehi’s family would have traveled, purportedly had no rivers or green valleys. Nahom didn’t exist. And lush oceanfront property in the Middle East? How stupid could this forger be?

It turns out that the story is verifiable almost down to the slightest detail. Along a newly discovered ancient trade route known as the “Incense Trail,” there is such a river and a valley, both of which were entirely unknown in Joseph Smith’s time. There’s even a place called NHM, a word written without its vowels, as was customary at the time. NHM is a burial ground. If a forger came up with this, he was one lucky forger.

Lehi’s son, Nephi, describes the direction of their travels as southeast, and then they turn eastward after several years. In his lifetime, Joseph Smith reportedly claimed that the eastward turn took place at the nineteenth parallel. That would have led them directly to the Qara mountains in Oman, which were first seen by Westerners in 1928, a century after the book was published. If Qara isn’t Bountiful, then the two places are exactly alike. It’s even home to one of the Middle East’s only supplies of iron ore, which is what Nephi claimed to have used to build the ship that carried his family to the Americas.

The idea of using iron anciently was once considered silly and a strike against the book’s authenticity. So was the idea of anyone writing hidden records on golden plates. Since the discovery of the Darius Plates in Iran, hidden up in a stone box identical to the one Joseph Smith describes as the holding place for The Book of Mormon, the concept of hidden records on plates has to be moved from the “evidence against” to the “evidence for” column. That seems to be happening a lot as the years go by, which is perhaps one reason why believers don’t fall out of bed when critics come up with new ways to scoff. Time always works against a forger, as the details of their hoax become more ludicrous when new information comes to light. Exactly the opposite is true of The Book of Mormon, which is more plausibly authentic today than it was the day it was published.

As for motive, it was clearly money for Irving and Dummar, but it’s somewhat murkier for Joseph Smith. He made no money off The Book of Mormon, and he was imprisoned, tarred and feathered, and eventually murdered for defending it. What motive could David Whitmer have had, for instance, to reaffirm his testimony that he had seen the angel who delivered the plates to Smith, along with the plates themselves? He issued this statement near the time after his death, long after he’d left Smith’s church and had had a falling out with Smith personally. None of the witnesses of the plates every denied their testimony.

I’ve rambled on long enough, and I’m being more didactic than Leap of Faith is. It’s written clearly and persuasively, but it makes no attempt to hide the legitimate questions that still exist with regard to The Book of Mormon. For me, the book comes with its own spiritual witness of its authenticity, which is the primary reason I’m still a member of the LDS church. If you haven’t had a similar witness and would like one, I suggest getting your own copy of The Book of Mormon. I know two young men on bicycles who’d be happy to give you one, free of charge.

In the meantime, pick up a copy of Leap of Faith. I’ll let you know when it comes out.

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