Mormon Answers: Questions About Book of Mormon Evidence
Is there evidence for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon? Don't expect "proof" for any religion or matter of faith, but yes, there are many issues that support the concept that the Book of Mormon is of ancient origin and not a silly fraud by Joseph Smith. Here I discuss common questions and objections concerning evidence for the Book of Mormon as an authentic ancient document. It is one of several pages in my collection of "Mormon Answers: Frequently Asked Questions about Latter-day Saint Beliefs." This work is solely the responsibility of Jeff Lindsay and does not necessarily reflect official LDS doctrine - but I think I come pretty close! The answers are mine, based on actual e-mail correspondence with many people, and reflect my personal views, biases and opinions. For more information, see Book of Mormon Evidences.
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"Jeff, You make some astounding claims for the Book of Mormon. You encourage us to test it for historical and anthropological accuracy. Should I assume that you have done that? "
A. I would say yes, but I am not an anthropologist or linguist or Middle East expert. However, I have examined a number of writings by LDS and non-LDS scholars which intellectually strengthen my personal witness of the divinity of the Book. This intellectual testimony is based on many factors. The most obvious point is this: the Book of Mormon was absolutely laughable to the scientific world of the 1800s on many counts which have now become potential evidence for the authenticity or plausibility of the book. For example, the whole story of ancient people writing on metal plates to preserve a document for future generations was ridiculous in 1830. It was unheard of. Anti-Mormon books emphasized the stupidity of such an idea. And now museums around the world offer numerous examples of recently discovered ancient writings on gold, copper, lead, and other metals. The copper scroll from Israel is a remarkably strong parallel - sacred writings on metal to be preserved for the future. But there are many other parallels. See my page, "Hiding Sacred Records like the Golden Plates: A Well Established Ancient Practice."
To me, the most impressive single factor providing evidence for authenticity is the description of Nephi's journey through the Arabian Peninsula. I discuss this on my Book of Mormon Evidences page. Also see a summary at the FARMS site. Nephi gives specific directions, descriptions, a place name for a burial site (Nahom) and a description of a beautiful, green, tree-rich coastal location nearly due east of Nahom which Nephi's group called Bountiful. Today, numerous details of the account have been verified - right down to the location of the ancient burial place called Nahom ("Nehem" on modern maps) and the discovery of a sterling candidate for Bountiful nearly due east of Nahom on the coast of Oman. This place, Wadi Sayq, meets every criteria offered by the Book of Mormon text (abundant fruit, trees, fresh water, cliffs, a mountain, flint, ore, etc.). For more details, see my page on Book of Mormon evidences. Also check out "More Support for the Place Nahom" and my new page, "The Place Shazer: Another Direct Hit from the Arabian Peninsula."
Anti-Mormon books still poke fun at Bountiful, the lush spot on the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula where Nephi and his group stayed before sailing to the New World. After all, "everyone knows" that there can be no such place in the barren, dry Arabian Peninsula. Just watch Lawrence of Arabia and you'll see for yourself. But in this matter, our critics have been proven terribly wrong. Not only is there at least one excellent candidate for Bountiful on the coast of Oman, but there are so many factors supporting the plausibility and accuracy of Nephi's description of their Arabian journeys that the most logical explanation is that Nephi's account was written by someone who actually made the journey described in the Book of Mormon and encountered places such as Bountiful, Nehem, Shazer, the Valley of Lemuel and the River Laman. (See In the Footsteps of Lehi by Warren P. Aston and Michael K. Aston, Deseret Book Comp., Salt Lake City, UT, 1994; also available through FARMS, and see Lehi in the Wilderness by George Potter and Richard Wellington, Cedar Fort, Inc.,Springville, Utah, 2003.)
I read of an educated man who left the Church around the turn of the century because the references to the use of cement for construction in the Book of Mormon was a laughable anachronism. He boldly told a leader of the Church that the book must be a fraud, based on the cement problem. Today the use of cement in ancient Mesoamerica is well known. Tourists to Mesoamerica can find ancient cement work in abundance at Teotihuacan (which is in the right area for cement use according to modern models for Book of Mormon geography). Mesoamerican cement was being used at least by the first century B.C. It was a blunder for anyone writing in 1830 - but now is one more piece of evidence (though a tiny one!) of authenticity. (See the online FARMS article, "Cement in the Book of Mormon.") Yet for a while, it was an issue that could challenge one's faith, or at least was an easy area for critics to attack, as President Heber J. Grant reported in 1929:
When I was a young unmarried man, another young man who had received a doctor's degree ridiculed me for believing in the Book of Mormon. He said that one lie in the Book of Mormon is that the people had built their homes out of cement and that they were very skillful in the use of cement. He said there had never been found, and never would be found, a house built of cement by the ancient inhabitants of this country, because the people in that early age knew nothing about cement. He said that should be enough to make one disbelieve the book. I said: 'That does not affect my faith one particle. I read the Book of Mormon prayerfully and supplicated God for a testimony in my heart and soul of the divinity of it, and I have accepted it and believe it with all my heart.' I also said to him, 'If my children do not find cement houses, I expect that my grandchildren will' (in Conference Report, April 1929, 129).
The faith and patience required to accept the Book of Mormon is increasingly being rewarded with evidences and advances in knowledge, though faith is always going to be essential.
Book of Mormon names have also long been an easy target for attack from critics. Most laughable of all is--or rather, once was--the name Alma, a prominent name in the Book of Mormon. Alma is a woman's name of Latin origin (as in alma mater) and is common in Spanish and occurs in America as well. Yet it is a man's name in the Book of Mormon. Smith really blew it--using a Latin woman's name in a Semitic society! However, the name Alma has now been discovered as an authentic ancient Jewish man's name. In the Judean Cave of Letters, on 15 March 1961, Professor Yadin found a bundle of papyrus rolls wrapped in a cloth. And among them was a deed to some land near En-Gedi owned by four men, one of whom was "Alma the son of Judah." This papyrus was (and may still be) displayed prominently in the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem (the dome-like white building not far from the Jerusalem Hilton). For more information about the authenticity of Book of Mormon names, see the online article "Book of Mormon Names Attested in Ancient Hebrew Inscriptions" by John A. Tvedtnes, John Gee, and Matthew Roper in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 9, No. 1, 2000, pp. 41-51. Google Books lets you see and search for some of the information in the relevant book by Prof. Yigael Yadin at https://books.google.co.il/books?id=BRNDuLmH_k4C&dq=yigael+yadin%2C+bar+kochba&focus=searchwithinvolume&q=alma. Page 176 mentions the name "Alma son of Yehudah [Judah]," which can see by searching for "Alma" in Google Books. But the print copy of the book on page 177 has a reprint of the manuscript which has the name Alma clearly visible. Hugh Nibley recounts the story of this find in "Bar Kochba," BYU Studies (Aug. 1973), which is a review of Yigael Yadin's book ***, The following quote comes from Nibley at p. 121:
But strangely enough, the name in the Book of Mormon that has brought the most derision on that book, and caused the greatest embarrassment to the Latter-day Saints ... is the simple and unpretentious Alma. Roman priests have found in this obviously Latin and obviously feminine name (who does not know that Alma Mater means fostering mother?) gratifying evidence of the ignorance and naivete of the youthful Joseph Smith--how could he have been simple enough to let such a thing get by? At least his more sophisticated followers should have known better! It is therefore gratifying to announce that at the extreme end of the "Cave of Letters" on the north side of the Nahal Hever, between three and four o'clock of the afternoon of 15 March 1961, Professor Yadin put his hand into a crevice in the floor of the cave and lifted out a goatskin bag containing a woman's materials for mending her family's clothes on their sad and enforced vacation; and stuffed away under the stuff, at the very bottom of the bag, was a bundle of papyrus rolls wrapped in cloth. These were the Bar-Kochba Letters, and among them was a deed to some land near En-Gedi (the nearest town to the cave) owned by four men, one of whom signed himself, or rather dictated his name since he was illiterate, as "Alma the son of Judah." The deed is reproduced in color on p. 177 of the book, and there at the end of the fourth line from the top, as large as life is A-1-m-a ben Yehudah, which Prof. Yadin sensibly renders "Alma" with no reservations.”
As another example of an authentic Hebrew name, consider "Irreantum," said to mean many waters (1 Nephi 17:5)--the name the Nephites called the ocean when they arrived at the shores of southeastern Arabia, apparently at Wadi Sayq. Interestingly, the ancient Greeks called this very same ocean Errythraen. That name can be found in the Apocrypha, but if that was the source of the idea, why the great difference in spelling? Based on pre-Islamic South Semitic, a reasonable (though uncertain) hypothesis for its origin is "irre-an" (meaning "watering") plus the root "-tm" or "-tum," adding the sense of "wholeness" or "completeness." The combination "irre-an-tum" can convey the meaning of "watering of abundance" or, as the Book of Mormon puts it, "many waters." Such a South Semitic construction from the region Lehi's group traversed makes sense as an introduced foreign word in the Hebrew text. For detail, see Paul Hoskisson (with Brian Hauglid and John Gee), "Irreantum," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 11, 2002, pp. 90-93 (link is to a PDF; article is also available in HTML).
Some of the most powerful evidence is linguistic. The existence of numerous passages of chiasmus (a poetical form in which ideas are structured like the Greek letter chi or X - a mirror image with a focal point) clearly marks the Book of Mormon as having ancient Semitic origins, and there has been at least one non-LDS scholar who has dared to go on record to that effect. (I've seen the scholar's letter on a video that I'm trying to track down.) Chiasmus could not possibly have been known to Joseph Smith, and it was only in the past few decades that scholars have recognized its prevalence in ancient middle Eastern texts and only in the past few years that it was noticed in the Book of Mormon. Yet it is obviously and clearly there. And be sure to consider another authentic Hebrew poetical form that I think I've uncovered in the Book of Mormon: paired tricola, as I discuss on my page, "2 Nephi 12 and the Septuagint: Evidence for Fraud or Authenticity in the Book of Mormon?"
"...please share with me some non-Mormon sources (to prevent possible bias) that would affirm your confidence [in the Book of Mormon]."
A. Most scholars, even when puzzled by evidence for the Book of Mormon, simply will not go on record supporting it, and with good reason. The Book of Mormon presents itself as a bizarre miracle - delivered to a farm boy by an angel, translated with the power of God. It's risky enough for scholars to go on record as believing in God (Forest Mims, for example, was denied a position at Scientific American that had been offered to him when it was learned that he believed God created the universe.) To go on record as supporting the Book of Mormon is much worse - not only for the peer pressure, for the obviously personal dilemma: if you believe it's true, then why aren't you a Mormon? Non-LDS scholars supporting the Book of Mormon directly are extremely rare (there are some!), but much less rare is non-LDS scholars proving things that strongly confirm the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, such as those who now say that many ancient peoples wrote on metal plates, or that Alma was a Jewish man's name, or that ancient peoples did come by oceanic voyages to the Americas (laughable in the nineteenth century), etc. Many laughable "errors" in the Book of Mormon have become confirmed as valid in the past century.
An excellent source - with many such references to non-LDS findings that were unknown in Joseph Smith's time - is John Sorenson's book, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. This book was the clincher for my emerging intellectual testimony of the Book. He's a Mormon, yes, but a respected anthropologist as well who applies careful - and easily examined - processes to exam the geography of the Book of Mormon. The fact that there is anyplace in the world which can consistently fit the detailed narrative in the Book of Mormon is amazing for a "fraudulent" book written before anything significant was known of Mesoamerican geography. Yet not only is a consistent geography possible, the setting suddenly provides many new insights into the text itself - things that were between the lines suddenly jump out once we know what the climate was like or where the rivers and mountains were. That can't be explained by coincidence.Several non-LDS people with strong knowledge of ancient Semitic practices or language have been impressed with the Semitic nature of the Book of Mormon. For example, the eminent scholar William Foxwell Albright wrote a letter to a critic of the Book of Mormon in 1966 stating that, in spite of his not being a Book of Mormon believer, it was surprising to find two authentic Egyptian names (Paanch [Paanchi] and Pahor [Pahoran]) "in close connection with a reference to the original language being 'Reformed Egyptian,'" and suggested that Joseph Smith might have been some kind of "religious genius" (Albright to Grant S. Heward, Baltimore, Maryland, 1966, as cited by John Tvedtnes, "Hebrew Names in the Book of Mormon," presented at the Thirteenth World Congress of Jewish Studies, Jerusalem, Aug. 12-17, 2001.) Much more impressive scholarly evidence for the authenticity of many Book of Mormon names is presented in the article by John Tvedtnes that I just cited, which he presented to an international body of scholars.
A fascinating insight into the significance of the evidence for the Book of Mormon and LDS scriptures in general is offered by two thoughtful non-LDS writers ("thoughtful" is a sincere compliment), Carl Mosser and Paul Owen, who presented a paper at the 1997 Evangelical Theological Society Far West Annual Meeting, April 25, 1997. They warned the evangelical community about the impressive efforts of LDS scholars. Their article, "Mormon Scholarship, Apologetics, and Evangelical Neglect: Losing the Battle and Not Knowing It?" (later published in Trinity Journal, Fall 1998, pp. 179-205), is one of the most intriguing non-LDS articles I've ever encountered from critics of the Church. (A copy can be found at ComeToZarahemla.org, archived from a site at the University of Chicago, or at Cephas Ministry.) It warns that anti-LDS writers have ignored the significant work of respected LDS scholars who are providing "robust defenses" of the LDS faith.
In preparing their paper, Mosser and Owen did something that few other critics of the Church have done: they have actually read a variety of LDS scholarly writings. Their article notes the many apparent evidences that LDS scholars have uncovered which, from the LDS perspective (not that of Mosser and Owen), give plausibility to the Book of Mormon as an ancient Semitic text. Chiasmus is just one of many evidences mentioned. They also discuss the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient Jewish writings unlikely to have been available to Joseph Smith, and state the following:
LDS writers are not alone in noting various parallels between these ancient texts and Mormon literature. James H. Charlesworth, in a lecture delivered at Brigham Young University entitled, "Messianism in the Pseudepigrapha and the Book of Mormon," points to what he describes as "important parallels . . . that deserve careful examination." He cites examples from 2 Baruch, 4 Ezra, Psalms of Solomon and the Testament of Adam.(1) If the world's leading authority on ancient pseudepigraphal writings thinks such examples deserve "careful examination," it might be wise for evangelicals to do some examining. [italics in the original] ... Yale's Harold Bloom is perplexed as how to explain the many parallels between Joseph Smith's writings and ancient apocalyptic, pseudepigraphal, and kabbalistic literature. He writes, "Smith's religious genius always manifested itself though what might be termed his charismatic accuracy, his sure sense of relevance that governed biblical and Mormon parallels. I can only attribute his genius or daemon his uncanny recovery of elements in ancient Jewish theurgy that had ceased to be available either to normative Judaism or to Christianity, and that had survived only in esoteric traditions unlikely to have touched Smith directly."(2)Further analysis based on the paper of Mosser and Owen has been provided by Justin Hart in "Winning the Battle and Not Knowing It" in Meridian Magazine (ldsmag.com), an article with several follow-on parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5. For an interesting example of the issues that Owen and Mosser have raised, see Paul Owen's rebuttal of anti-Mormon John Weldon's response to the original article of Mosser and Owen. Owen appears to be appalled at the "head-in-the-sand" approach of John Weldon, who has demonstrated the very problems that Mosser and Owen speak against in their paper and says that Weldon's anti-Mormon "intellectual narrow-mindedness" is "astounding."
Footnotes cited above:
1. James H. Charlesworth, "Messianism in the Pseudepigrapha and the Book of Mormon," in Reflections on Mormonism: Judeo-Christian Parallels, ed. Truman G. Madsen (Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1978), 99-137. Non-LDS biblical scholars Jacob Milgrom, David Noel Freedman, W.D. Davies and Krister Stendahl also contributed to this volume.
I'm glad to see that the case for the Book of Mormon as an authentic ancient text is becoming strong enough to gain the attention of those who disagree with us. I'm also glad that some serious scholars are at least willing to take the Book of Mormon seriously in their own scholarship. A good example is Krister Stendahl, who, while Dean of the Harvard Divinity School, said:
I have applied standard methods of historical criticism, redaction criticism, and genre criticism [to the Book of Mormon]. From such perspectives it seems very clear that the Book of Mormon belongs to and shows many of the typical signs of the Targums and the pseudepigraphic recasting of biblical material. . . . It is obvious to me that the book of Mormon stands within both of these traditions if considered as a phenomenon of religious texts.
[Kister Stendahl, "The Sermon on the Mount and Third Nephi," in Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels, ed. Truman G. Madsen, Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1978, p. 129, as cited by John L. Sorenson, "The Book of Mormon as a Mesoamerican Record," in John M. Lundquist and Stephen R. Ricks, eds., By Study and Also by Faith, Vol. 1. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1990, pp. 483-484.]
As I examine it intellectually, the Book of Mormon has "AUTHENTIC" stamped all over it (and it's not just because my 5-year-old got his hands on my "AUTHENTIC" stamp again!). But take this journey for yourself. Read it, think about it, take notes, and ask yourself: could any man have written this book? That was the test I originally applied. And then I prayed, as well, and received a personal conviction. Long story, but please realize that this book really deserves a serious investigation. It's wild - but it's true.
"Can you point me to an unbiased, authoritative source that demonstrates the same sort of "mundane" evidence for the Book of Mormon as we have for the Bible?" (This person noted that his belief in the Bible was largely rooted in the mass of historical and scholarly evidences for the reality of the history therein, and expected that the same should apply to the Book of Mormon if it were true.)A. For the moment, let me express a slight concern about the yardstick you wish to employ to measure purported scripture. I am pleased that your examination of evidence led you to faith in the Bible - may it be so with all! But very few people are led to Christ by knowing that the Bible has strong historical roots. There is no doubt that there was an ancient land of Israel and that many of the people and places in the Bible existed. But I marvel at how few Biblical scholars actually believe the Bible as the Word of God. So many of them can write great commentaries and discuss the Hebrew and Aramaic in depth or make archaeological discoveries of relevance to the Bible, but there is a great tendency to see the Old Testament as a human work and to see Christ as a well-meaning mortal who was misunderstood by those who sought someone to worship. Many of these scholars doubt that much of what Christ says in the New Testament was ever spoken by him at all. The miracles are discounted. Christianity and Judaism are seen as historical religions, certainly, but with no more eternal validity than Islam or Daoism. The "mundane" aspects of the text are exactly what they expect from a work that is purely mundane - of the world, not truly of God.
Likewise the mundane evidences for the Book of Mormon - which I find overwhelming - do not save souls, although they are perhaps more interesting because if the Book of Mormon is a fraud, it should have no clear ties to anything ancient (except by rare accident). I will be working on a response or document to help show you (from my perspective) some of the "unbiased" mundane confirmations of Book of Mormon authenticity. (It is now at my page on Book of Mormon evidences.)
But here's the point - and I hope I can make it without offending you: is your yardstick (confirmation of authenticity by non-LDS sources) a valid one in God's eyes? When Christ came and brought his message, what external unbiased sources could people turn to in order to confirm his authenticity? The experts - the scribes and Pharisees - offered all sorts of scriptural and logical reasons why He was a fake. When Noah preached repentance, what external unbiased sources could others turn to verify his message? When the Word of God is delivered - whether from the mouth of a prophet, the words of Christ and his disciples, or a translation from ancient plates, what yardstick is fair and proper? I honestly worry that you might be putting up unnecessary barriers and requiring the Word to break through them for you. (See Jacob 4:10 in the Book of Mormon. - again, I know you're seeking to be fair, but I'm not sure your approach is the "right" one.)
"I can believe the Bible is true because there are many historical confirmations of the text. Why isn't the same level of confirmation available for the incidents and cities of the Book of Mormon?"
A. You have mentioned the many historical confirmations of the Bible. I'd like to remind you that many, many people reject it because of the apparent lack of historicity in Genesis and elsewhere. Many sincere people ask the following questions and conclude that the Bible is not the Word of God:
"If the Bible is the Word of God - should it not be free from obvious absurdities and gross blunders? Should not scientific respect for the Book increase with time, as truth after truth is confirmed? Why then is the historicity of the creation account and many other stories almost universally rejected by the scientific and academic communities? "
I believe Genesis to be true, but there are puzzling questions: How does the story of Adam and Eve agree with the extensive evidence of fossil man existing long before? How can the creation story fit with what is "known" about the evolution of life over millions of years? Can you show me one objective scientist (not one who is already a believer, "to ensure objectivity") who can confirm the Genesis account of the Creation? Where was the Garden of Eden? Can you show me any cherubim or a tree of life? Can you show me any historical or anthropological evidence that people used to live hundreds of years? Is there any geological evidence for a global flood? (Can you even show me a single reputable Ph.D. geologist - Christian or otherwise - who can provide evidence for Noah's flood as described in Genesis?) How could all the millions of animal species possible fit in the ark? Is there any evidence that diverse languages began suddenly at the tower of Babel? (Can you show me any credible linguist who says the tower of Babel account is even close to reasonable?) Is there any evidence that a Hebrew named Joseph ascended to such a high rank in Pharaoh's court? Has anybody found the place called Goshen where the Hebrews settled in Egypt?
And the questions continue past Genesis as well. Is there any historical evidence - outside the Bible - of the ten plagues or the miraculous defeat of Pharaoh's armies by Moses? How could the earth stop rotating to provide extra daylight for a battle, as described in Joshua? If such a thing happened, shouldn't there be records of the miracle among other ancient astronomy-conscious peoples?
Most of the Ph.D.-level scholars of the Bible - and many ordinary people - see it as a pretty story, written with a backdrop of real places and even some real events, but largely fiction or myth as far as the miracles and spiritual things are concerned. Sure, there was such and such a battle and many of the places and kings names are real, but they see the Old Testament as an after-the-fact rewriting of events to give spiritual meaning to the political struggles of the Jews. Likewise, many of theses types see the Gospels as rewritings of history to beef up a new religion, a religion that put many words into the mouth of a purely mortal teacher (so runs their argument) who never claimed to be a Messiah. You may be able to prove that someone named Jesus existed, but it is very hard to prove (to Ph.D. scholars) that he said what is written in the Bible or that he did any of the miracles described there. Yet I believe the New Testament account - not because of physical or tangible evidences, but because the power of the Holy Ghost has witnessed to me of the divinity of Christ and the truthfulness of that sacred record.
With the Biblical text, we EXPECT most of the mundane content to be verifiable because no one doubts that it was written by ancient people in the middle east. How could the mundane things not be on target? Ditto for the Koran, the Dao De Jing, I Ching, Bhagavad Gita, the Tibetan scriptures, and Popuhl Voh (my spelling may be off on these). Knowing that the Bible evolved from writings of people in the Mid East does precious little to confirm the far-from-mundane "myths" that are doubted. On the other hand, the Book of Mormon origin poses a different set of rules. The world EXPECTS it to be pure fable, written by an uneducated farm boy in the 1820s. The "mundane" things ought to be wildly wrong - except for perhaps one or two lucky guesses against a steady losing streak of blunders. When we find verifiable mundane items such as numerous Semitic language structures, poetical patterns, "new" Semitic names, geographical and climate information for Mesoamerica, details of the Arabian peninsula, "odd" practices such as the use of metal plates, properly described volcanic activity, properly described ancient battle scenes, etc., these ought to give us thought because they are entirely unexpected and entirely unexplainable if the book is fraudulent.
[There followed some comments on Book of Mormon evidences, such as the geographical information about Nahom and the place called Bountiful on the Arabian peninsula.]
Well, these are some very important pieces of evidence that many will still dismiss. If I asked you to write about a journey across Tasmania or through Bhutan or some other place about which you knew little, could you possibly describe a journey and its course in a way that would gain credibility with time? Is there any chance that you could even describe the general direction in a logical way? Could you pick a route that would later comply with routes used by others in the area? Could you name a site and over a century later have others find a map with a similar name at that place? Could you describe an unusual place that seems entirely out of line with what little you know about the area, only to have others later discover an excellent candidate for that location in a place entirely consistent with the course you describe? To me, this is one of literally hundreds of "mundane" confirmations of the Book of Mormon as an authentic ancient document. The only logical explanation for the account of Lehi's journey is that it was written by people who traveled through the Arabian peninsula, and that means Joseph Smith did not write it. We are talking about a real ancient document that speaks to us from the dust (Isaiah 29) and confirms that Jesus is the Christ.
"If Lehi existed in Jerusalem, shouldn't there be some kind of record confirming his existence? If not him, surely Laban, the rich man who held the bronze genealogy plates would have had some mention. What do you know and think?"
A. I just ran into the below text a few minutes ago. Thought you might find it interesting. I saw a BYU video a while back about some of the evidence mentioned below, the author of the video had uncovered additional information - specifically, a site of one of the first Christian churches linked with a Lehi tradition and some writings in a cave that were relevant to the story of Lehi's family. I'll see if I can track down more information on this later.
From the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Vol.5, Part.1, Ch.2:
There is a remarkable association between the names of Lehi and Ishmael which ties them both to the southern desert, where the legendary birthplace and central shrine of Ishmael was at a place called Be'er Lehai-ro'i. Wellhausen rendered the name "spring of the wild-ox jaw-bone," but Paul Haupt showed that Lehi (for so he reads the name) does not mean "jaw" but "cheek," which leaves the meaning of the strange compound still unclear. One thing is certain, however: that Lehi is a personal name. Until recently this name was entirely unknown save as a place name, but now it has turned up at Elath and elsewhere in the south in a form that has been identified by Nelson Glueck with the name Lahai, which "occurs quite frequently either as a part of a compound, or as a separate name of a deity or a person, particularly in Minaean, Thamudic, and Arabic texts." There is a Beit Lahi, "House of Lahi," among the ancient place names of the Arab country around Gaza, but the meaning of the name has here been lost. If the least be said of it, the name Lehi is thoroughly at home among the people of the desert and, so far as we know, nowhere else.
(The inquirer said that if the Book of Mormon were true, there should be detailed confirmation of numerous place names and historical events, just as there is for the Bible.)
In general, I feel that the yardstick you use to compare the Bible with the Book of Mormon is unfair. The Middle East (including the Mediterranean area + Fertile Crescent) has an extensive tradition of written documents and preserved history for thousands of years, and has been the site of intense scholarly work for many, many years. Ancient places and their names and histories are known better in that area than anywhere else in the world (even ancient China, with a strong written tradition, is only poorly known in comparison). In spite of that, it is premature to say that the Bible has been proven by archaeological findings. For example, there is not a trace of evidence for the story of the Exodus. Hundreds of thousands of Hebrews wandering through the Sinai peninsula should have left plenty of traces, but to date, there is no clear evidence (apart from the Bible) that they were ever there. There is no non-Biblical evidence for the existence of Moses or for Joseph, who was one of the great rulers in Egypt. There is no solid evidence for the existence of any of the great Patriarchs of the Bible, apart from sacred records. Critics can "safely" claim that these Biblical stories were created long after the alleged events they record. Likewise, most scientists will say that there is no credible evidence for the story of Noah's flood, for the Garden of Eden, or for the six-day creation. If Genesis and Exodus are fabrications, then it really doesn't matter if we know that Jerusalem existed or that such-and-such a war took place. If the foundational doctrines of the Bible are based on fabricated legends (Eden and the fall of man, the Sinai covenant, the role of the House of Israel, the Messiah who would redeem man from the fall, etc.), then we have a serious problem. But we don't - for these accounts are true, and the Book of Mormon provides an independent witness of those truths. But ancient events are often very hard to prove with hard evidence, even in a part of the world where extensive research has been done.
Professional archeologists and scientists often note that they do not use the Bible as a scientific guide and that, from their perspective, it cannot be relied on for their secular work. In fact, many scholars berate the Bible for what they see as gross inaccuracies in its history. A 2000 article in the New York Times, "The Bible, as History, Flunks New Archaeological Tests," states a few of the problems from the mainline scholarly perspective.
As another example of a scholarly perspective on archaeological evidence for the Bible, a short but interesting article on the current controversy about the Bible as a potential tool for archaeologists is Michael Balter's "Baedeker's Guide, or Just Plain 'Trouble'?" in Science, vol. 287, Jan. 7, 2000, pp. 29-30. Here is an excerpt, referring to the extensive biblical descriptions of Solomon and his great, internationally recognized kingdom ("All the kings of the earth sought the presence of Solomon" - 2 Chron. 9:23):
Unfortunately, there is no other direct evidence [besides the Bible itself] that this great king ever lived. Biblical scholars have dated Solomon's reign to the 10th century B.C. But if the Egyptians were aware of this mighty ruler on their eastern flank, they did not mention him in any of their numerous surviving 10th century inscriptions. Despite more than 150 years of archaeological excavations in the Holy Land, no trace of Solomon has ever been unearthed....
"Israeli archeology has moved considerably beyond the Bible and the spade," comments Steven Rossen, an archaeologist at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheva. "It would be a rare Israeli excavation today that would include the Bible as a reference book in the dig house."
The article does note that evidence for the existence of King David was found in 1993, when an inscription was unearthed in northern Israel mentioning the "House of David." It is amazing that the very existence of the Bible's most famous and influential king would have been a matter of debate until 1993. Now keep in mind the difference between the Old World, where intense research has been going on for many decades, and the New World, where archaeology is in its infancy and where there is not a tradition of extensive written texts and where ancient place names have not been preserved. There have been many peoples and civilizations in the New World that are complete mysteries. Of all the thousands of language and ethnic groups in the Western Hemisphere, only one small area has a long written tradition (the Mayan area in Mesoamerica - which also happens to correspond in part with the only plausible setting for the Book of Mormon). Of the written documents in that area, many were destroyed by the Spaniards (partly because they felt Satanic influences were to account for the 'pagan' legends and stories that seemed to parallel Bible teachings - stories for which the Book of Mormon provides an obvious explanation). Only a tiny fraction of Mayan writings survived. Thus Michael D. Coe laments that "our knowledge of ancient Maya thought must represent only a tiny fraction of the whole picture, for of the thousands of books in which the full extent of their learning and ritual was recorded, only four have survived to modern times (as though all that posterity knew of ourselves were to be based upon three prayer books and Pilgrim's Progress)." (Michael D. Coe, The Maya, London: Thames and Hudson, 4th ed., 1987, p. 161.)
Further insight into the tragic loss of ancient records from the Americas is given by Michael D. Coe and Justin Kerr, The Art of the Maya Scribe (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998, p. 169):
At one time, most Maya calligraphy must have been contained in books. But out of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of manuscripts once extant during the Classic Maya apogee, none remain. For the post-Classic period, we can again only guess at the total number produced, but it was doubtless greatly diminished from what it had once been before the Classic downfall. There is no way of knowing how many were burned by Franciscan missionaries like Diego de Landa, but the act of destruction was remarkably complete: we have only four surviving pre-Conquest native Maya books. . . . For only one other calligraphic tradition - that of ancient Greece and Rome - has the loss of contemporary manuscripts been as severe.Of the surviving Maya area writings, six distinct scripts have been identified, and scholars are only in the early stages of deciphering two or three of them. We may know what some ancient cities were called by their inhabitants at the time of Cortes, but do we know anything concrete about the era 600 B.C. to 400 A.D.? Do we know the place names that the ancients used? Do we know any of the names of those people - as they called themselves, not as the later Aztecs or Mayans called them? The Book of Mormon is from the ancient New World. The problem is not that nothing correlates with the Book of Mormon, the problem is that we still know almost nothing about the time period covered by the Book of Mormon.
Part of the Book of Mormon does occur in the Old World, and there we find references to real places like Jerusalem; to caves outside the city wall (Joseph Smith did not even know there were walls around Jerusalem when he translated that portion, as his wife testified) - and such caves have been discovered in abundance, but were not known to him; to a place of mourning and burial called Nahom, described as being far to the "south-southeast" of Jerusalem which corresponds with an ancient place of a similar name (Nehem) right where the Book of Mormon says it should be; there is a newly discovered place directly east of Nahom on the coast of present-day Oman (a place called Wadi Sayq) that fits the Book of Mormon description of "Bountiful" perfectly - and this was unknown and even ludicrous until recent years. Bingo, bingo, bingo - for the travel through the Old World. (For details, see my page on Book of Mormon evidences.)
When we get to the New World, things are more difficult. Until a couple decades ago, we didn't even have good maps of the area. Hundreds of new and often mysterious cities have been discovered, with names that are typically assigned by the discoverer. We are in a state of infancy, and that infancy will last long because most of the peoples and cultures on the American continents did not leave written records. The only place they did is the area where the Book of Mormon says there were ancient record-keeping people who prized literacy - near the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. My advice: wait several hundred years until we know a lot more about the area, and then request the piles of evidence that you want. But given our lack of knowledge today, I am not sympathetic with your expectation.
As a reminder of how little we know about the ancient world of Mesoamerica, note the surprise of scientists who have discovered another ancient civilization in Nicaragua, as reported in the articles, "Ancient Civilisation Discovered in the Nicaraguan Jungle" from May 16, 2003 or the May 19, 2003 BBC News article from by Richard Black, "Ancient Nicaraguan Society Found," which reports that "Archaeologists have discovered what they describe as a previously unknown ancient civilisation in Central America." If unknown civilizations are still being uncovered, we have a long ways to go to get caught up with the level of knowledge we have about the Middle East.
The discovery of the unknown civilization in Nicaragua was followed shortly by reports that a pre-Colombian people in the Amazon basis had a much more complex society that had been previously recognized, even including many wide roads that joined ancient towns together. "This really blew us away," said Michael Heckenberger of the University of Florida, since it implied that the society there anciently was much larger and more complex that any other native society in the Amazon today (see Erik Stokstad, "'Pristine' Forest Teemed with People," Science, Vol. 301, Sept. 19, 2003, pp. 1645-1646; and M.J. Heckenberger et al., "Amazonia 1492: Pristine Forest or Cultural Parkland?", Science, Vol. 301, Sept. 19, 2003, pp. 1710-1714). If basic information about ancient communities "blows away" modern experts, we can be sure that our knowledge of the ancient Americas is still in its infancy.
As a more recent example, see "The Dawn of Maya Gods and Kings" by William Saturno, National Geographic, Vol. 209, No. 1, Jan. 2006, pp. 68-77. This describes new discoveries at a Guatemalan site, San Bartolo, where an ancient mural inside royal tomb dated to about 150 B.C. yielded surprising information:
Clearly Maya painting had achieved glory centuries before the great works of the Classic Maya, in the 7th century. In Western terms, it was like knowing only modern art and then stumbling on a Michelangelo or a Leonardo.Interestingly, the Book of Mormon teaches that full-blown monarchies were in place among Nephites and Lamanites over 2000 years ago in Mesoamerica, consistent with the surprise finding at San Bartolo that has "upended much of what we thought we knew about the early Maya." Stay tuned for more paradigm shifts, for there are still many large voids in knowledge about ancient Americans during Book of Mormon times.
The far end of the mural held another surprise. Some scholars thought that at this early stage in Maya history, the Preclassic, city-states had not yet evolved into full-fledged monarchies, with all the trappings seen later. But here was a king, named and titled, receiving his crown. In short, this one chamber upended much of what we thought we knew about the early Maya.
Whether we're talking about Mesoamerica or the Middle East, the message of God to New World prophets was the same as His message to those in the Old World. There are many evidences for the Book of Mormon, though they are meaningless without some faith, for faith must come before the miracle. Signs did not convert people, and Christ condemned those who asked for miracles and signs in order to believe. He required faith first, and then he would confirm their faith. Again, we walk by faith, not by sight. My suggestion: examine the text itself to ascertain its authenticity.
You may also wish to read William Hamblin's review of Archaeology and the Book of Mormon by Jerald and Sandra Tanner.
By the way, modern insights into ancient Mesoamerican royal courts may be interesting in light of the Book of Mormon's brief information about kings and royal households among the Lamanites in the story of Ammon, King Lamoni, and others in the Book of Alma. In that section, we learn of a hierarchical system of kings under a top king, and learn of royal household and courts that appear to have broad public access. Compare that to the following information from Wikipedia's entry, Maya Civilization (as accessed Nov. 27, 2012) under the section on "King and Court":
A typical Classic Maya polity was a small hierarchical state (ajawil, ajawlel, or ajawlil) headed by a hereditary ruler.... Such kingdoms were usually no more than a capital city with its neighborhood and several lesser towns, although there were greater kingdoms, which controlled larger territories and extended patronage over smaller polities. Each kingdom had a name that did not necessarily correspond to any locality within its territory. Its identity was that of a political unit associated with a particular ruling dynasty....
Mayanists have been increasingly accepting a "court paradigm" of Classic Maya societies which puts the emphasis on the centrality of the royal household and especially the person of the king. This approach focuses on Maya monumental spaces as the embodiment of the diverse activities of the royal household. It considers the role of places and spaces (including dwellings of royalty and nobles, throne rooms, temples, halls and plazas for public ceremonies) in establishing power and social hierarchy, and also in projecting aesthetic and moral values to define the wider social realm.
Spanish sources invariably describe even the largest Maya settlements as dispersed collections of dwellings grouped around the temples and palaces of the ruling dynasty and lesser nobles. None of the Classic Maya cities shows evidence of economic specialization and commerce of the scale of Mexican Tenochtitlan. Instead, Maya cities could be seen as enormous royal households, the locales of the administrative and ritual activities of the royal court. They were the places where privileged nobles could approach the holy ruler, where aesthetic values of the high culture were formulated and disseminated and where aesthetic items were consumed. They were the self-proclaimed centers and the sources of social, moral, and cosmic order. The fall of a royal court as in the well-documented cases of Piedras Negras or Copan would cause the inevitable "death" of the associated settlement.
To me, the passage of time since Joseph Smith's day has made the Book of Mormon far more plausible, when placed in a Mesoamerican setting, than it was in light of common knowledge about Native Americans in Joseph's day.
A. This claim is incorrect. I must emphasize the significance of the apparent discovery and confirmation of two significant, previously unknown (even ridiculed) places mentioned in the Book of Mormon: Nahom and Bountiful. They match in terms of function, physical description, geographical location, and even a persisting place name in the case of Nahom. Both sites are in the Arabian Peninsula, as described on my Book of Mormon Evidences page. Both provide powerful evidence pointing to authenticity, at least for the book of First Nephi. It also appears that we have confirmation of the existence of the Valley of Lemuel and the River of Laman in locations consistent with Nephi's description. The River of Laman, said by Nephi to be "continuously flowing" into the Red Sea, was long said to be ridiculous by anti-Mormon critics, who alleged that there were no continuously flowing rivers feeding the Red Sea. But it's there. It's not huge like the Mississippi River, but there is definitely a substantial and continuously flowing stream in an impressive valley by the Red Sea in the place required by the Book of Mormon text. So how do the critics explain that?
In addition, a number of Central American sites have been tentatively identified. A number of serious LDS researchers think that the Book of Mormon city of Nephi may have been the large ancient city of Kaminaljuyu, now comprising part of modern Guatemala City (partly covered by modern civilization, unfortunately). Many factors are consistent with the Book of Mormon, allowing for plausibility - but not a positive identification. Sorenson's An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon discusses many of the geographical, textual, cultural, and historical factors that provide plausibility for Kaminaljuyu as the city of Nephi. Likewise, an excellent and plausible case has been made for a hill in southern Mexico, el Cerro Vigia, as the ancient place called the Hill Cumorah, where the final battle scene in the book occurred. (The "Hill Cumorah" in New York State is where the gold plates were eventually buried by Moroni and clearly was not the Book of Mormon location of the final battle.) An excellent account of the many factors pointing to el Cerro Vigia is given by David A. Palmer in In Search of Cumorah, Horizon Publishers, Bountiful, Utah, 1987. This 3,000 foot high hill appears to meet the requirements that can be extracted from the Book of Mormon account of the two large battles that occurred there (size, terrain, location, presence of "many waters," etc.). Sorenson's analysis from a different perspective is consistent with much of Palmer's analysis.
Another article of interest, offering specific candidates for a Book of Mormon river and associated lands, is "A Correlation of the Sidon River and the Lands of Manti and Zarahemla with the Southern End of the Rio Grijalva (San Miguel)" by John L. Hilton and Janet F. Hilton, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1., Spring 1992.
A. We can have faith that conflicting data will be resolved because it has been resolved in numerous ways already. Consider the issues of cement, of horses, of barley, of transoceanic voyages, of tents in Mesoamerica, of the ancient use of metal plates, of the existence of Bountiful - all of these were ridiculous errors in the past, which now have serious evidence behind them to lend plausibility to the Book of Mormon. If the text were a fraud, we would expect the flow of evidence to go the other way: as we learn more about the ancient world, the foolishness of the fraud should become more apparent. It's just the opposite. Humility is needed to accept that not all answers will be given on demand.
Given that archaeological investigation in the Middle East is done at a pace over 10 times more intensely than in Mesoamerica and has been done for about 10 times as long, we should not be surprised that much more has been found relevant to the Bible than to the Book of Mormon, which is largely the history of a particular family line in what may have been a sea of other lines and even other peoples. We talk about the Aztecs, for example, as one people - overlooking the mind-boggling complexity of the fact that there were over 20 different cultural groups living in the Aztec capital (now Mexico city) when the Spaniards came, with multiple languages, customs, etc. Yet the dominant culture, the Aztecs, is about all we hear of. The details of the many peoples of Mesoamerica are a long way from being understood, and basic assumptions about the most dominant, and well documented groups are in a state of turmoil. It honestly is too early to expect mountains of specific confirming data, but the general picture looks promising (have you read An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon?). There is much which points to the PLAUSIBILITY of the Book of Mormon in Mesoamerica.
As for the Bible, there is actually painfully scant evidence for the foundational stories of Genesis and Exodus. There is not a trace of Eden, of Noah, of Joseph in Egypt, of the patriarchs, nor of the liberation of Hebrew slaves. Though the record tells of many thousands of people wandering in the Sinai desert for decades, there is not a single clear trace of their presence there, which is truly surprising, so say the scholars, if the story really happened. For example, according to Harvey Arden, "In Search of Moses," National Geographic, Jan. 1976, p. 3 (as cited by Michael R. Ash, FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 13, No. 2, 2001, p. 5):
The Bible's account of Moses is, alas, as geographically perplexing as it is spiritually enlightening. Scores of geographic placenames in the Books of Exodus through Deuteronomy - wherein Moses' story is told - simply cannot be pinpointed on a modern map with any certainty.
And there is no hard evidence that Moses really existed either. We know he did from the sacred records we have, but those who insist on "evidence" can dismiss those as being made after the fact to explain the man-made religion that evolved among the Hebrews. If the fall, the Sinai covenant, the Exodus, etc., are all fiction, then the message of the New Testament is jeopardized, no matter how certain we are that people named Jesus, Peter, and Paul actually existed. With maybe 100 times more research data available for the Bible - and many confirmations of later parts of the text - it is still improper to say that the Bible has been proven to be true. Scholars can still freely dismiss it as a work of man, not of God, based on the lack of evidence that they see (or are willing to see).
But again, the Arabian Peninsula confirmations of numerous points in the Book of Mormon is extremely powerful evidence that 1st Nephi could only have been written by someone who made the very journey described by Nephi. No one could have fabricated that text in 1830 or even in 1950. I am still waiting for the critics to offer any kind of an alternate theory. If one requires intellectual evidence, that alone is enough to demand respect for the book. The issue of chiasmus in the text - some of the best examples found anywhere in ancient Semitic literature - is another one that the critics cannot explain, and one that has convinced some non-LDS scholars that the Book of Mormon is an authentic ancient document (though they have not joined the Church - yet - as a result, to my knowledge). The chiasmus issue is pretty heavy evidence. It's woven through the Book of Mormon in ways that would be impossible to fabricate in 1830 and would be extremely difficult to achieve even today by a richly skilled writer aware of the technique. Alma 36 is simply overpowering, IMHO.
A related attack claims that no Book of Mormon sites in the New World have ever been found. This is simply untrue. Numerous Mesoamerican sites have been found with possible relevance to the Book of Mormon, including cities, buildings, and fortifications that match many aspects of the descriptions in the Book of Mormon. The challenge is determining which Book of Mormon locations correspond to the ancient sites. For further details, listen to the speech given by Professor John E. Clark, "Archaeology, Relics, and Book of Mormon Belief," delivered May 25, 2004 in the de Jong Concert Hall at BYU, Provo, Utah. (Prof. Clark is a Professor of Anthropology and Director of the New World Archaeological Foundation, BYU.)
"Just one question, Jeff, where are the golden plates now? Are there any photographs proving their existence? Have any scholars ever seen them and translated them?
A. The plates are not presently in a museum, as you know. Photography was not an option in 1830. As to the reality of their existence, we have several important pieces of evidence:
(The inquirer also asked if Joseph might have been working on a fraudulent Book of Mormon in secret for many years, rather than just doing the translation over a period of roughly 65 days, as history records.)
A. I'm not sure I can see the plates issue from your perspective. For example, what happens if you apply the same reasoning to the Bible? We have no remnant of the original manuscripts that Moses, Isaiah, Paul, and Luke wrote. Nothing of the original Bible remains except copies of copies of copies. And for the New Testament, all we have of the teachings of Christ are copies of copies of a Greek translation of the Aramaic language that he spoke. But we have the text - and many external evidences to add authenticity to the text. Same for the Book of Mormon (though others will disagree), which is a direct translation of the original. It's there for all to see - and it's not a copy of a copy of a copy....
I don't know where the plates are. The angel that commissioned Joseph with the job of translating them made it clear from the beginning that Joseph would only have them for a brief time and that he would only be allowed to translate the part that was not sealed (locked somehow). The sealed portion remains to be translated at a future time according to God's schedule. The entire sacred book was returned back to Moroni, the angel who brought Joseph Smith to it, when the translation was complete.
As to the chronology, Joseph's life is pretty well known. I see no way to fit a long-term secret project - especially with silent secret assistants - into his early life without anybody knowing it. The details and the witnesses of the translation process are far too detailed and consistent, whether or not you believe he really had plates he was translating. We have detailed journals and testimonies of scribes and others, with complex details such as the loss of the original 116 pages and the providential solution (small plates of Nephi) that God had prepared according to his foreknowledge (a fascinating story if you don't know it) all very consistent with the "official" story and totally inconsistent with the secret long-term authorship story. Remember, he was only 24 years old, so there wasn't much time in his life as it was for a long secret book writing project.
It's all crazy if it's not true - and most people vote for crazy. But I recommend actually digging into the text and asking yourself if there is any way that anybody - regardless of education or time allocated to write - could have written that book as a fraud? It simply could not be done in the nineteenth century and still become more credible in the 20th. If it could be done as a fraud, I wish someone would step forth and do a similar job to demonstrate that a man can write such a work without inconsistency and anachronisms and horrendous blunders. Please try it! Try an ancient history of Tasmanian peoples, for example, and let me know how you do. (And be sure to claim you got the book from an angel, just to allay people's suspicions!) Crazy if not true - but true - based on my personal quest for truth. Anyway, thanks for asking!
A. Where are the plates? I'm not sure - they were taken from Joseph by the same angelic being that showed him their original location. We await their return for the translation of the remaining 2/3 of the Book when the time is right.
But if I had to guess, I would say that the plates just might be in the same place where the original manuscripts of the Old and New Testament are located - none of which are available for us to see, either. But the Book of Mormon has a great advantage over the Bible in the sense that we have the original manuscripts from the first translation (a divinely inspired translation), and we have multiple witnesses from recent times (around 150 years ago) who saw the plates and gave testimony to the end of their lives of their reality.
If you need to see the plates to believe the Book of Mormon, do you need to see the ark to believe the Old Testament or the missing documents of Paul and Luke to believe the New Testament? I hope your faith is not that week. But even those of weak faith can take strength from the witnesses who and testified of the gold plates, or from the many evidences now available for the Book of Mormon. See https://www.jefflindsay.com/BMEvidences.shtml.
Update from Aug. 2001: The statements below require some revision due to the recent finding of the X haplotype in one small group in Asia. For the latest information that I have, please see my new page on the Book of Mormon and DNA at https://www.jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/DNA.shtml.
A. In dealing with archaeological and other evidences for the Book of Mormon, we must first realize that nearly all critical comments of scholars have been based on a common Mormon misconception: that the Book of Mormon gives the history of the ancient inhabitants of North and South America, offering a history of the American Indians in general. The critics have attacked this misconception, easily showing it to be inconsistent with modern learning, rather than dealing with what the text itself says.
The Book of Mormon in no way gives the entire history of the many diverse peoples who have inhabited the Americas and who had diverse origins. It does not deal with an entire hemisphere. In no way does it imply that all of the 1500 New World languages (ca. time of Columbus) are derived from a common Hebraic source! In no way does it imply that all or even most Native Americans are primarily derived from Hebrew ancestors. It gives no grounds for assuming that DNA studies should show close ties between Native Americans and modern Jews or that Native American genes should show a common source from Book of Mormon peoples. In fact, from the text we may infer that any surviving descendants ought to show a mix of genetic origins, since three migrations to the New World from at least two different parts of the Old World are described, and evidence exists that other peoples were present in Mesoamerica besides the immigrants.
How did many Latter-day Saints come to the erroneous belief the Book of Mormon provides broad information about North and South America? The Book of Mormon does talk about two main groups of people during Nephite times (after ca. 500 B.C.), one near to and later north of a "narrow neck of land" and one group to the south. Many have assumed that the narrow neck of land was the isthmus of Panama and that the peoples to the north were spread from Panama to Canada, and the southern region was South America, thus making the scope of the book to be continental. This misconception was partially due to the incorrect assumption that the hill in the state of New York where Joseph Smith retrieved the plates was the same as the Hill Cumorah, the location of the tragic ending of the Book of Mormon. Joseph never said that to be the case, and a thorough consideration of the text readily rules out that possibility. Many LDS still assume that the Hill Cumorah of the Book of Mormon was in New York, but it just can't be. Many Native Americans in the Americas may have some Lamanite and Nephite blood in them (there were migrations from Book of Mormon lands to the north, for example, mentioned briefly in the Book of Mormon), but it is not clear what genetic traits ought to show up.
A careful reading shows that most of the events of the Book of Mormon are restricted to a small geographical area in the New World on the order of 200 or so miles in length (not thousands of miles), centered around a "narrow neck of land." For a clear and detailed discussion of Book of Mormon geography, please see John Sorenson's excellent work, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. He shows that there is an entirely plausible setting for the Book of Mormon which meets every criteria - geographical, cultural, climatic, agricultural, the existence of writing, etc. This setting requires that the narrow neck of land be the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico (near Guatemala). Given that setting, every major issue can be resolved and fit into that area - a small and focused area, with the Hill Cumorah still clearly in Mesoamerica, not New York. (Mesoamerica is the name scholars use for the region of central and southern Mexico and northern Central America where the highest level of cultural development of this hemisphere occurred.)
This is not just the conclusion of John Sorenson, as some charge. In the past 50 years, many others who have studied Book of Mormon geography in depth have reached two similar conclusions: (1) that the Book of Mormon reports events covering only a limited part of this hemisphere, and (2) that there is only one location known that can qualify: Mesoamerica. Sorenson list of those reaching such conclusions is offered in a footnote to his article, "Digging into the Book of Mormon," Ensign, Sept. 1984, pp. 26-37, where 10 other works are listed, beginning with Washburn's An Approach to the Study of Book of Mormon Geography (1939) to David Palmer's In Search of Cumorah (1981). Based on my limited readings, my sense is that LDS scholars dealing with the geography issue not only have long converged on a limited scope for the Book of Mormon in Mesoamerica, but are converging as well toward some specific details such as those presented by Sorenson in An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon.
Once we see that the Book of Mormon is restricted to a small geographical region, we see that most of the problems raised by critics concerning language, culture, and other issues, have been directed at a target that wasn't there. For example, Michael Coe, a well-known expert on the ancient Americas, has published critical statements about the Book of Mormon (Dialogue, 8:40-48, 1973). Robert Wauchope has done the same. As Sorenson notes, "Both of these eminent scholars based their reactions to the Book of Mormon on the same unfortunate assumption that the Book of Mormon account is about events involving American Indians throughout the entire New World. Their conclusions were ... flawed." ("Digging into the Book of Mormon," Ensign, Sept. 1984, pp. 26-37.)
For the Book of Mormon to be accurately evaluated in light of modern scholarship, it is essential that we use the proper places and times in our analysis. A study of culture in seventh century Arizona, for example, is unlikely to shed any light on Book of Mormon peoples (though there may be some scattered peoples in various parts of the hemisphere who once were influenced by or even descended in part from ancient Mesoamericans. Some have speculated that such may be these case for the Hopis.)
Alas, few non-LDS scholars of ancient America have been able to or willing to examine the Book of Mormon based on a true consideration of the text rather than a simple dismissing of a popular misconception. For many, I fear that it might be "professional suicide" to seriously consider a book that was "delivered by an angel" in a day when the miraculous is dismissed out of hand.
However, we can learn much from these scholars that indirectly assist us in the quest to better understand the Book of Mormon and its relationship to modern findings. See, for example, my Book of Mormon Evidences page.
Update from Aug. 2001: The answer below deals with a specific charge based on a 1987 publication and is useful primarily to illustrate the way anti-Mormon attacks are construed. Of course, Cann's 1987 paper is old work and much more data now exists on DNA and Native Americans. For the latest information I have on that topic and its relevance to the Book of Mormon, please see my work in progress at https://www.jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/DNA.shtml.
A. A number of critics have alleged that genetic evidence refutes the Book of Mormon. One example that many people have read and mentioned to me is a popular but very sarcastic anti-LDS article by Frank Zindler, a man claiming to be a reputable scientist. His article, "How to Lose a Steel Mill," begins by mocking LDS temple garments in the standard anti-LDS way (see my LDSFAQ page of facetious questions for my response to such queries). Then he makes an attack which seems to have some substance:
The missionaries will probably be a bit surprised to hear that they need protection against logic and science, so you will have to show them some of the ways in which Mormonism is falsified by science. For example, the Book of Mormon implies that Jews fleeing from Jerusalem shortly before and after 600 B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) made their way to South or Central America and turned into Indians. Of course, the magical aspects of this story lie outside the scope of science. Nevertheless, if Jews were transformed into Amerindians just a few millennia ago, there are ways in which scientific methods could be used to falsify or verify the fact.
Recently it has been possible to work out the genetic relations of all the major human populations in the world by comparing the DNA molecules carried in the mitochondria of human cells. Mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cell, and they are inherited only along the maternal line. In a seminal paper published in the British journal Nature Rebecca Cann and her coworkers analyzed the mitochondrial DNA from all major groups of humans on the planet and found that all human mitochondrial DNAs could be derived from just a single woman living in Africa approximately 200,000 years ago. (Of course, this does not mean that all humans living today had only one ancestor alive at that time; it simply means that all mitochondria, as a result of hazards of transmission, are derived from just one female of that prehistoric generation.) Although it is difficult to identify all the twigs on the genealogical tree in the article cited, it is clear that the authors did not find any surprising link between American Indians and Jews. They refer to "Asians or American Indians," and Jews aren't even mentioned - presumably because they do not differ significantly from other Caucasians. Mormon apologists are invited to do their own DNA comparisons. Until they do, we may consider the transmogrification of Jews into Amerindians mere phantasy.
Now it might be enough to note that the Book of Mormon text (contrary to the personal opinions of many LDS people) makes no sweeping claims about the genetic origins of the American Indians or their genetic relationship to modern Jews. It claims that there were two migrations of small groups of people from ancient Palestine into one small part of the Americas. How much of that Semitic gene pool survived after intermixing with other population groups and after destructive wars? The answer cannot be estimated from the text. There is no apparent reason to expect a "surprising" link between modern Jews and Native Americans to be found in DNA studies.
However, it is important to note that Zindler's argument is more than just weak. It is irresponsible and dishonest. As I write, I have before me a copy of the article Zindler refers to. It is "Mitochondrial DNA and Human Evolution" by Rebecca L. Cann, Mark Stoneking, and Allan C. Wilson, Nature, Vol. 325 (January 1, 1987), pp. 31-36. This study is significant and, though still controversial, represented a major development in modern science by providing evidence that widespread groups of humans all may be descended from one common source, a woman (often named "Eve") who lived 200,000 years ago, perhaps in Africa. This study was based on examination of mitochondrial DNA taken from 147 people representing five geographic groups around the world (hardly "all major groups of humans on the planet"). Of these 147 people, NOT A SINGLE NATIVE AMERICAN WAS INVOLVED. The groups, listed in Cann's Table 1 on page 32, include Africans, Asians, Australians, Caucasians, and New Guineans. The 46 Caucasians used came from Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. It is unclear whether any Jews where involved, but there were certainly no Native Americans and definitely no representation from the numerous indigenous groups of Central America.
One wonders if Zindler even read the article, but he does quote part of it verbatim, saying that the authors "refer to 'Asians or American Indians'" (from page 32, right-hand column). He is correct, but he has changed the meaning completely by stripping those words out of context. What the authors say is actually this:
Consistent with our view that most of these 18 people [Black Americans] are a reliable source of African mtDNA [mitochondrial DNA], we found that 12 of them bear restriction site markers known to occur exclusively or predominantly in native sub-Saharan Africans (but not in Europeans, Asians, or American Indians, nor, indeed, in all such Africans).
The authors simply refer to American Indians as a group known, from prior studies, to not share certain mtDNA restriction site markers with some Africans. Zindler would have us believe that the work of Cann et al. proves that American Indians aren't related to Jews, but American Indians were not included in the study, and Jews may not have been as well. Cann found no surprising relationship between the two not because the Book of Mormon is false, but because relationships between Jews and American Indians were not examined and could not have been examined based on the available data set.
The reliability and accuracy of Zindler's "refutation" of the Book of Mormon should remind us to be cautious about what we read - whether it's from me, Frank Zindler, or others. Sadly, the dubious tactics used by Zindler are familiar to many LDS people who have examined anti-LDS literature. Don't get me wrong - there are plenty of tough, unresolved questions to be asked, but those who seek to destroy the Church with their writings often go far beyond the limits of logical inquiry.
I must note that some recent DNA studies have examined Native Americans, especially those of North America, in order to gain information about possible migrations from Asia. There is still much controversy and nothing is settled, but some have found evidence based on variation in mitochondrial DNA that the Americas were settled in perhaps three waves of migration from Asia over the past 30,000 years or so. I don't have a problem with that and am curious to better understand what can be deduced from such studies. From a Book of Mormon perspective, it is hard to predict what impact a boat load of Semitic people landing in Central America would ultimately have on the genetics of the Americas, especially if there was significant intermixing over the centuries. It's also fair to ask how the scattering of the tribes of Israel thousands of years ago might affect modern Asiatic genes. From my perspective, reported DNA studies have been valuable as a tool for understanding the big picture, not the fine brush strokes reported in the Book of Mormon. But I would like to see detailed genetic analysis of the numerous cultural groups in Central America and Mexico. (Again, for my latest analysis on this complex issue, see my page on DNA and the Book of Mormon. For information on DNA analysis of human ancestry, see "The Great DNA Hunt" - one of many interesting articles at https://www.archaeology.org. Also see "Mitochondrial DNA and the Peopling of the New World" from the May/June 2000 issue of the American Scientist.)
A. There is serious evidence of non-Mongoloid origins for some population groups in the Americas, which I will present below. First let me point out that the Book of Mormon does NOT say that Native Americans are descended from Jews. The original handful of Nephite people were not of the tribe of Judah, but were Israelites at least partly from the tribe of Joseph. (The Mulekite group probably was Jewish, though.) It seems that Nephites and their relatives, the Lamanites, quickly incorporated other peoples into their societies, and it is likely that relatively little pure Israelite blood remained after 400 A.D.
As to your question, it is widely accepted that migrations of Asian or Mongoloid peoples across the Bering Strait can explain much of the racial characteristics of Native American groups. This is not a direct refutation of any Book of Mormon claims. If science could prove that every Native American population group had nothing but Asiatic origins, then one might wonder why so little of the original genetic material of the Lamanites and Nephites survived, but simple intermixing and an initial minority status of both groups could account for an extreme dilution of Nephi's and Laman's genes. Note that the terms Nephite and Lamanite eventually were also used as political terms rather than as absolute descriptions of family origins. As far as the Nephites were concerned, anyone not on their side was called a Lamanite, even former Nephites who joined the enemy. (For examples of non-racial use of the terms Lamanite and Nephite, see Mormon 1:9; Alma 43:4; 4 Nephi 1:38; Mosiah 25:13; Alma 53:10, 15; Alma 3:10-11.)
Does the Bering Strait hypothesis completely account for the origins of Native Americans? No. Consider this excerpt from Matthew Roper, Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 4, 1992, p. 210, who responds to an old statement from the Smithsonian Institution which challenges the Book of Mormon on the basis of the Mongoloid origins of Native Americans:
The Book of Mormon does not claim that its peoples were the only groups present in the Americas. There are, in fact, indications in the Book of Mormon itself to the contrary, leaving room for great diversity in the racial characteristics of Native Americans. The Smithsonian Statement asserts that American Indians are "basically Mongoloid" in origin. However, as John Sorenson has shown, there are factors for which the strictly Mongoloid hypothesis cannot account [Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, 87-91]. Juan Comas emphatically asserts that Amerindians are not a biologically homogeneous group [Juan Comas, "Son los Amerindios un grupo biologicamente homogeneo?" Cuadernos Americanos, 152 (May-June 1967): 117-25]. Other experts such as G. Albin Matson have agreed that "the American Indians are not completely Mongoloid" [G. Albin Matson et al., "Distribution of Hereditary Blood Groups among Indians in South America," American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 27 (1967): 188]. Ernest Hooten of Harvard University believed that Near Easterners may have been a factor in Amerindian racial diversity [Harold Gladwin, Men Out of Asia (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1947), 63-65]. Kirk Magelby has drawn attention to numerous Mesoamerican bearded figures that look more Near Eastern than Mongoloid [Kirk Magelby, "A Survey of Mesoamerican Bearded Figures," F.A.R.M.S. preliminary report, 1979]. Polish anthropologist Andrzej Wiercinski has analyzed numerous skulls from major Mesoamerican sites and suggested that the diversity in such specimens can be partially explained by the influence of "migrants from the Western Mediterranean area." He surmises that "ancient Mexico was inhabited by a chain of interrelated populations which cannot be regarded as typical Mongoloids" [Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, 88-89]. Contrary to what the Smithsonian Statement implies, the Book of Mormon allows room for such diversity.
A better reference for Andrzej Wiercinski's work is Actas, Documentos y Memorias, 36a Congreso Internacional de Americanistas, Lima, 1970, Vol. 1 (Lima: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 1972), pp. 231-248, as cited by Sorenson. Dr. Robert Chadwick agrees with Wiercinski's findings in "The Archaeology of a New World Merchant Culture," Ph.D. Dissertation, Tulane University, 1974, as cited by Sorenson, p. 365.
Blood types also raise questions about pure Mongoloid origins. According to Hugh Nibley in Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Vol.7, Ch.8, p.215, "it is fairly well known by now that the predominant blood-type among the Mongols is B, a type which is extremely rare among the Indians, whose dominant blood-type is O, that being found among 91.3 percent of the pure-blooded North American Indians. 'Here is a mystery,' writes Beals commenting on the disturbing phenomenon, 'that requires much pondering and investigation.'"
More recently, startling discoveries in Chile at the Monte Verde site suggest that some ancient humans got here much earlier than the "Clovis" culture that long was held to represent the first humans into the Americas coming via the Bering Straight. The data from Monet Verde pushes back the entry of humans into the Western Hemisphere by roughly 1,300 years. As Wikipedia explains in the article "Monte Verde" (accessed Dec. 31, 2017):
Monte Verde is an archaeological site in southern Chile, located near Puerto Montt, Southern Chile, which has been dated to as early as 18,500 BP (16,500 B.C.). Until recently, the widely published date has been 14,800 years BP. This [revised] dating added to the evidence showing that the human settlement of the Americas pre-dates the Clovis culture by roughly 1000 years. This contradicts the previously accepted "Clovis first" model which holds that settlement of the Americas began after 13,500 BP. The Monte Verde findings were initially dismissed by most of the scientific community, but in recent years the evidence has become more accepted in some archaeological circles. There is as yet no consensus, and vocal "Clovis First" advocates remain.
My page on the Smithsonian Statement Regarding the Book of Mormon offers a related discussion, including a quotation from a review of Dr. Tom Dillehay's book, Monte Verde: A Late Pleistocene Settlement In Chile, Volume 2: The Archaeological Context and its Interpretation (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997), which puts a definite end to the "Clovis First" view of human migration to the Americas.
If people were already in the southern part of the New World slightly before the time when the land bridge connected the New and Old Worlds, one must accept the possibility that they got here some other way. The Bering Strait theory just can't explain everybody. (When this story was reported in my local paper, there were additional questions about how the people might have come to the New World if not by the Bering Strait. The possibility of a boat voyage was raised but not discussed.)
While Mongoloid migrations across the Bering Strait may account for much of native populations in the New World, there is plenty of room for other origins - including transoceanic voyages - to have played a role for some of the many peoples of Central America. Research is still in its infancy in this area. One interesting, recent example with mitochondrial DNA is the work by Douglas C. Wallace at Emory University, which lead him to conclude that "prehistoric, intrepid mariners" came "out of Southeast Asia across the Pacific into the Americas 6,000 to 12,000 years ago." Direct voyaging seems likely because "native Siberians lack one peculiar mutation that appeared in the Amerinds 6,000 to 10,000 years ago.," and the DNA signature of natives in the Amazon Basin is surprisingly related to that of early dwellers in the Pacific islands. (See Jerry E. Bishop, "Strands of Time: A Geneticist's Work on DNA Bears Fruit for Anthropologists," Wall Street Journal, Nov. 10, 1993, pp. A1 and A6, as cited in FARMS Update, No. 110, Feb. 1997. See also my answer to the next question below, where I discuss Dr. E. James Dixon's 1993 book, Quest for the Origins of the First Americans.)
And while we sort through DNA evidence, we must not overlook other genetic evidence that may relate to Book of Mormon migrations. Some ancient Mesoamerican drawings show people with Caucasian features, including people with beards - a trait foreign to typical Native Americans. Many legends exist about fair-skinned peoples. Much of the evidence for lost civilizations of fair-skinned, blue-eyed people is questionable (e.g., the popular view on the Peruvian Chachapoya people, which was described by early Spaniards as "white" but may have only been relatively whiter than other natives), but this is certainly an area for further study.
A. I'll admit that many professors and writers subscribe to the view that there was no contact between the ancient Old World and the Americas prior to Columbus. Unfortunately, this paradigm is so entrenched that significant evidence of ancient transoceanic contact in the ancient world is ignored because "everyone knows" that such contact did not occur. For example, the Discovery Channel recently broadcast a fascinating documentary called " Curse of the Cocaine Mummies" on Jan. 13, 1997 (9 p.m. Eastern time). Several years ago, Dr. Svetla Balabanova discovered cocaine and nicotine in ancient Egyptian mummies (a published source is S. Balabanova, F. Parsche, and W. Pirsig, "First Identification of Drugs in Egyptian Mummies," Natur Wissenschaften, Vol. 79, No. 8, 1992, p. 358 ff.). The scholarly community was disturbed with her findings, for it would suggest that the Egyptians had imported coca and tobacco from the New World. Since they "knew" that there was no ancient contact between the two continents, the chemical analysis of the mummies must be faulty or the samples must have been contaminated by substances from modern people. Additional controlled tests established rather clearly that the mummies really did have cocaine and tobacco in them that could not be explained by contamination (present inside hair shafts, present deep in the intestines, etc.). Much of the program featured various experts speculating on possible trade between Egypt and the Americas, with several stuffy experts denying the possibility of such contact since it contradicted what they were so sure they "knew." (So much for the scientific method!) In spite of clear evidence that the ancient Egyptians were using a product that comes only from the New World, several experts chose to laugh off the evidence on the basis of their paradigm of no ancient contact between the two continents. One expert said that the findings had to be discounted because we all know there is no evidence of ancient contact. In other words, evidence that does not fit the paradigm cannot be considered as evidence, ensuring that the dogmatic paradigm stays in place. (Kuhn's Science and Revolution is worth reading on this phenomenon, which I have witnessed many times in science.)
A huge reference work documenting hundreds of proposed or possible transoceanic connections between the Old and the New Worlds is the work by John L. Sorenson and Martin H. Raish, Pre-Columbian Contact with the Americas across the Oceans (Provo: Research Press, 1990). There is much more credible evidence than you have supposed.
One significant non-LDS archaeologist, Dr. E. James Dixon, has recently published a book demonstrating that the Bering Strait could not have been the sole means by which people came to the Americas. His book is Quest for the Origins of the First Americans (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993). He shows that the geology and paleoecology of the region called Beringia shows that human travel over the Bering Strait probably wasn't possible until about 9,500 B.C., and there is no evidence of human occupation of the Bering corridor until about 9,000 B.C. However, Dr. Dixon presents evidence of human occupation along the west coasts of both North and South America long before 9,500 B.C. Early coastal settlements suggest transoceanic travel, and Dixon supports that possibility. If ancient Asians could cross the Pacific ocean, then I feel it is not unreasonable to suggest that other Old World groups could have done the same (Lehi's group, the Jaredites, and the Mulekites, as described in the Book of Mormon). (Dixon's work is reviewed in BYU Studies, Vol. 36, No. 2, 1995-96.)
Several interesting and potentially relevant oddities of archaeology, including pre-Columbian maize in India, can be seen at the Archaeological Outliers site. While the Bat Creek inscription is now believed to be a fraud, David H. Kelly sees several possible examples of evidence of several pre-Columbian inscriptions of European origin, and writes, "We need to ask . . . where we have gone wrong as archaeologists in not recognizing such an extensive European presence in the New World" (David H. Kelly, "Proto-Tifnagh and Proto-Ogham in the Americas," Review of Archaeology, Vol. 2, Spring 1990, p. 10, as cited by Roper, op. cit.).
Non-LDS scholar Cyrus Gordon also gives the following example pointing to Jewish influence in Mesoamerica ("A Hebrew Inscription Authenticated," in Lundquist and Ricks, eds., By Study and Also by Faith, Vol. 1, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1990, p. 71):
There are traces of Jewish influence in pre-Columbian America. We may single out the Tepatlaxco (Veracruz) Stele (ca. A.D. 100-300) showing a Mayan wearing phylacteries; the arm windings are seven in number and are followed by finger windings. This monument is noteworthy because no scholar, in any field, has ever questioned its authenticity or pre-Columbian date. To be sure, the Amerindian experts did not detect the Old World origin if the ritual depicted and very few are even now aware of it. . . .
A photographic close-up of "The Phylactery Stele" is reproduced (with an explanation) in my Riddles in History (New York: Crown, 1974), 151.
More relevant research has tentatively identified hundreds of possible links between Uto-Aztecan languages (in Book of Mormon territory) with the ancient Hebrew language (Brian Stubbs, "Elements of Hebrew in Uto-Aztecan: A Summary of the Data," F.A.R.M.S. paper, 1988; and Brian Stubbs, "Looking Over vs. Overlooking Native American Languages: Let's Void the Void,"" target="_blank">Looking Over vs. Overlooking Native American Languages: Let's Void the Void," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring 1996, pp. 1-49).
Stubbs' work has received the attention of other non-LDS scholars. For example, Roger Williams Westcott, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Linguistics at Drew University, New Jersey (Ph.D. in linguistics from Princeton, a Rhodes scholar, founder of Drew's anthropology program and author of 500 publications, including 40 books, and past president of the Linguistic Association of Canada and the United States) speaks positively of Stubbs' work in his article, "Early Eurasian Linguistic Links with North America" in Across Before Columbus?, ed. by Donald Y. Gilmore and Linda S. McElroy, Laconia, New Hampshire: New England Antiquities Research Association (NEARA), 1998, pp. 193-197. Dr. Westcott writes:
Perhaps the most surprising of all Eurasian-American linguistic connections, at least in geographic terms, is that proposed by Brian Stubbs: a strong link between the Uto-Aztecan and Afro-Asiatic (or Hamito-Semitic) languages. The Uto-Aztecan languages are, or have been, spoken in western North America from Idaho to El Salvador. One would expect that, if Semites or their linguistic kinsmen from northern Africa were to reach the New World by water, their route would be trans-Altantic. Indeed, what graphonomic evidence there is indicates exactly that: Canaanite inscriptions are found in Georgia and Tennessee as well as in Brazil; and Mediterranean coins, some Hebrew and Moroccan Arabic, are found in Kentucky as well as Venezuela [citing Cyrus Gordon].
But we must follow the evidence wherever it leads. And lexically, at least, it points to the Pacific rather than the Atlantic coast. Stubbs finds Semitic and (more rarely) Egyptian vocabulary in about 20 of 25 extant Uto-Aztecan languages. Of the word-bases in these vernaculars, he finds about 40 percent to be derivable from nearly 500 triliteral Semitic stems. Despite this striking proportion, however, he does not regard Uto-Aztecan as a branch of Semitic or Afro-Asiatic. Indeed, he treats Uto-Aztecan Semitisms as borrowings. But, because these borrowings are at once so numerous and so well "nativized," he prefers to regard them as an example of linguistic creolization - that is, of massive lexical adaptation of one language group to another. (By way of analogy, . . . historical linguists regard the heavy importation of French vocabulary into Middle English as a process of creolization.)
Of the various Afro-Asiatic languages represented in Uto-Aztecan vocabulary, the following occur in descending order of frequency:
- Canaanite (cited in its Hebrew form)
- Akkadian (usually in its Assyrian form)
- Ancient Egyptian
Among the many Semitic loan-words in Uto-Aztecan, the following, listed by Stubbs, seems unexceptionable as regards both form and meaning:
Hebrew baraq lightning > Papago berok lightning Aramaic katpa shoulder > Papago kotva shoulder Hebrew hiskal be prudent > Nahua iskal be prudent Hebrew yesïväh sitting > Hopi yesiva camp
Lest sceptics should attribute these correspondences to coincidence, however, Stubbs takes care to note that there are systematic sound-shifts, analogous to those covered in Indo-European by Grimm's Law, which recur consistently in loans from Afro-Asiatic to Uto-Aztecan. One of these is the unvoicing of voiced stops in the more southerly receiving languages. Another is the velarization of voiced labial stops and glides in the same languages.
These are just some samplings of evidence for contact between the Old and New Worlds long before Columbus. A dominant paradigm hinders consideration of such evidence, but the evidence is there. It will be some time before the necessary paradigm shift occurs among most scholars, but I suspect that the time will come shortly. In fact, the concept of "diffusion" from the Old World to the New is gaining an increasing foothold among scholars already, as evidenced by the cover story from the January 2000 issue of the popular Atlantic Monthly magazine. That article, "The Diffusionist Have Landed" by Marc K. Stengel (Vol. 285, No. 1, pp. 35-48), even-handedly discusses the controversy. One of the possible reasons for resistance to diffusionist theories, as Marc Stengel notes, is that some scholars worry about the pro-Book of Mormon implications of such theories.
(By the way, you may also be interested in the clear description and analysis of J. Huston McCulloch concerning the the Newark, Ohio Decalogue Stone and Keystone . Are these stones with ancient Hebrew writing frauds or further evidence of ancient Jewish contact with the New World? The author provides helpful analysis of the issues.)
A. William J. Hamblin answers this and related questions well in "Archaeology and the Book of Mormon" in Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 5, 1993, pp. 260-263:
2. Should we expect Nephite or Lamanite inscriptions to be in recognizable Hebrew or Egyptian scripts? The answer is not necessarily. The Book of Mormon clearly states that "the reformed Egyptian [was] handed down and altered by us . . . the Hebrew hath been altered by us also; . . . [so that] none other people knoweth our language . . . therefore he [the Lord] hath prepared means for the interpretation thereof." (Mormon 9:32-34) If a Nephite inscription were to be found we should not necessarily expect it to be in recognizable Hebrew or Egyptian scripts....
3. What is the relationship, if any, between Mesoamerican and Egyptian hieroglyphic writing systems? The distinction needs to be drawn between a conceptual and a direct causal relationship. There appears to be no direct causal relationship between Mesoamerican writing systems and Egyptian hieroglyphics - the language, grammar, and characters are all different. Nonetheless, there are some very remarkable conceptual similarities between the two writing systems. Joyce Marcus, one of the leading specialists in this field, believes that "Meso-american writing is better compared with Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, both in its format and in its function," and "that Egyptian hieroglyphic writing thus constitutes a much more appropriate analogy to Mesoamerican texts than does Sumerian" (Joyce Marcus, Mesoamerican Writing Systems: Propaganda, Myth, and History in Four Ancient Civilizations, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992, pp. 19,26). Indeed, Marcus "find[s] it more productive to mention a number of similarities shared by Egyptian and Mesoamerican writing, with Maya writing being particularly similar to Egyptian in several respects" (Ibid., p.21). Thus, in their social function, format, and basic logic, there are significant parallels between Egyptian hieroglyphics and Mesoamerican writing systems.
4. Does lack of recognizably Nephite inscriptional evidence constitute proof of the absence of Nephite colonists in the New World? Throughout the world, early monumental inscriptions were essentially used as propaganda devices to demonstrate the authority and prestige of a monarchy or priesthood. Many societies were literate, but for various social, political, or religious reasons never or seldom wrote inscriptions. Obvious examples of this are the Israelite kingdoms. "The empire of David and Solomon, the powerful northern kingdom, the long-lived southern kingdom with its Davidic dynasty have left not even a single document relating to their existence; not one of the forty kings, from Saul to Zedekiah, has left a direct trace of his name; we do not have any votive inscription from the famous temple of Solomon, as we do for many other temples of antiquity. The virtually complete silence of epigraphy on Hebrew history seems all the more disconcerting when we compare it with the epigraphic evidence from neighboring peoples: Phoenicians, Aramaeans, Moabites, Philistines and now even Ammonites have left more or less numerous inscriptions" (Giovanni Garbini, History and Ideology in Ancient Israel, New York: Crossroad, 1988, p.17).
Other examples of literate societies which left few or no monumental inscriptional remains include the Harappan civilization, the Minoans and Mycenaeans, and the Shang and Chou (Zhou) Chinese. Literate Hindu explorers began colonizing Southeast Asia by at least the first century A.D., but the earliest surviving inscriptions in the region date from nearly four centuries later. Furthermore, in Mesoamerica the post-Classic Mixtec and Aztec likewise left few monumental inscriptions. The systematic destruction of the historical and epigraphic monuments of fallen enemy dynasties is a characteristic of Mesoamerican societies. "Mesoamerican peoples buried, sawed, moved, defaced, or covered up monuments whose messages were no longer deemed appropriate. . . . Some of the monumental destruction must be viewed within the context of the entire polity or region" (Marcus, Mesoamerican Writing Systems, 143-52 [see also pp. 31-32]). When all of these factors are considered, and when we remember that there are only a few dozen short Pre-Classic Mesoamerican inscriptions (i.e., from Book of Mormon times), many of which are difficult to interpret (John S. Justeson, "The Origin of Writing Systems: Preclassic Mesoamerica," World Archaeology Vol. 17, No. 3, 1986, pp. 446-447), the absence of Nephite monumental inscriptions is not remarkable.
A. This is a popular but rather misleading claim of anti-Mormons. Here is an example from Kurt Van Gorden, Mormonism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995, p. 9, note 9):
"Recent attempts to authenticate the Book of Mormon through archaeology have failed miserably. Most notable is the work of Thomas Steward Ferguson, founder of the Archaeology Department at Brigham Young University. His revealing manuscript at the close of his career shows that no coins, cities, people, plants, animals, or languages of the Book of Mormon have ever been discovered."
Daniel C. Peterson has responded to this charge in his essay, "Mormonism" in FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1996, pp. 96-97:
It is revealing that Mr. Van Gorden chooses the late Thomas Stewart Ferguson as his star archaeological witness against the Book of Mormon. And, furthermore, that he inflates Mr. Ferguson's credentials in the process. (Mr. Ferguson was a lawyer, not an archaeologist. He never taught at Brigham Young University, let alone founded the University's department of archaeology.) [See Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, 4 (1992): 117-119.] Why does Mr. Van Gorden [like many other anti-Mormons] focus on him? Why does he avert his gaze from, say, Professor John L. Sorenson's work on the geography and archaeology of the Book of Mormon? Isn't his behavior a bit reminiscent of the wolf, seizing the stragglers of the flock, taking on the weakest Latter-day Saint arguments while avoiding the strongest ones?
And, by the way, for the umpteenth time, the Book of Mormon never claims that there were "coins" in the ancient New World.... The reference to "Nephite coinage" in the chapter heading to Alma 11 is not part of the original text and is mistaken. Alma 11 is almost certainly talking about standardized weights of metal....
Ferguson engaged in some expeditions with unrealistic and simplistic expectations (see John Gee, "The Hagiography of Doubting Thomas," FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 10, No. 2, 1998, pp. 158-183). He thought he should find Book of Mormon artifacts just by picking a "reasonable" place and digging. But even when trained archaeologists manage to pick the right place, they often fail to find what they expect, if they find anything at all. (Ferguson's approach was naive, but not as bad, certainly, as those who say we should readily find massive ancient steel mills were the few Book of Mormon references to metal working to be taken seriously.) He was disappointed - as most researchers and explorers - especially amateurs - will be in the early, ignorance-rich stages of their work. His frustrations as an amateur and apparent loss of his testimony have little bearing on the authenticity of the Book of Mormon and merit little attention. His impact on LDS scholarship was negligible and he remains largely unknown among Latter-day Saints. Those wishing to understand the state of scholarship in the Book of Mormon should look at actual scholarship, not Mr. Ferguson's misinformed complaints. There is abundant evidence supporting the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.
A related but even more misleading claim is that B.H. Roberts, an LDS General Authority and prolific writer, lost his testimony of the Book of Mormon for similar reasons. B.H. Roberts never lost his testimony of the Book of Mormon and remained strong in his faith. For details, see the B.H. Roberts question on my page, Questions about Apparent Book of Mormon Problems.
2018 Update: The illustrious journal, Science, has just published an article digging up the Thomas Ferguson story again. It's an interesting and even thoughtful article, but is missing some key information. The reference is Lizzie Wade, "How a Mormon Lawyer Transformed Mesoamerican Archaeology--and Ended Up Losing His Faith," Science, vol. 359, issue 6373 (19 Jan 2018): 264-268 (DOI: 10.1126/science.359.6373.264). My response at Mormanity is, "Science: 'How a Mormon Lawyer Transformed Mesoamerican Archaeology--and Ended Up Losing His Faith,'" Jan. 19, 2018. The Science publication appears to rely at least in part on Stan Larson's agenda-driven biography of Ferguson, which, unfortunately, has some serious errors.
A. Who says it was unknown?
First let me say that you are right in noting that the Book of Mormon indicates baptism was known in the Americas. Baptism by immersion was known among believing Nephites and Lamanites, though by 400 A.D. the practice of baptizing infants had crept in among the remnants of believers, whose location appears to have been in Mesoamerica (the region of southern Mexico and Guatemala), based on a modern understanding of the Book of Mormon text and the associated geography. Since baptism was known in that part of the world, one might wonder whether any traces of it can be found among Native American rituals in that region. And in fact, there were some very distinct traces of that practice that survived long enough to be observed by the Spaniards. For example, look at An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya by Dr. Mary Miller and Dr. Karl Taube (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1993). Dr. Taube is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Riverside, and a leading scholar of Mesoamerican writing and iconography. Dr. Miller is a professor of the History of Art at Yale, and has published a book on Mesoamerican art. Here is an excerpt from their entry entitled "Baptism" (p. 44):
When the first Spanish priests arrived in New Spain, they were surprised to find native forms of baptism, in this case the ritual bathing of infants and children. In Yucatan, according to Diego de Landa, a native priest sprinkled male and female children of approximately three years of age with water from a serpent-tailed aspergillium. In addition, one of the principal citizens of the community anointed the children with water from a moistened bone. Landa notes that this rite cleansed and purified the children, an important function of baptism.
Book 6 of the Florentine Codex provides detailed descriptions of the ritual speech and rites associated with Aztec baptism. In contrast to the Yucatec ceremony, baptism took place soon after birth. However, the Aztec rite was also associated with purification, to remove any pollution acquired from the parents. During the ritual bathing, the infant was named and presented with the tools necessary for adult life.
These practices are consistent with Book of Mormon teachings. These Mesoamerican practices could have been rooted anciently in true baptism by immersion for cleansing and purification, later corrupted by man-made doctrines that evolved toward baptism of infants to wash away the sins of parents. The Priesthood ceremony of blessing and naming infants could have been combined with corrupted infant baptism to yield the practice of the Aztecs. Or these practices could have developed independently of what the Nephites and Lamanites did. But it's absolutely incorrect to assert that baptism was unknown to Native Americans. Forms of it were known that are at least consistent with the Book of Mormon.
A careful reading of the Book of Mormon text shows that it took place over a limited geographic scale of a few hundred miles in extent, not spanning North and South America as some have assumed. The journey of Alma and his group from the city of Nephi in the heart of Lamanite territory to Zarahemla in the heart of Nephite territory occurred over a total of 21 days, with women, children, and flocks. This surely means a range of a few hundred, not thousand, miles were involve. Other observations are consistent with this. I can't get into the intricate details here, but there is a growing consensus among serious scholars of the Book of Mormon that it's scope is limited and that the best fit of the text with physical reality (geography, climate, culture, the presence of ancient written language, the existence of ancient civilization, etc.) is in Mesoamerica, the region from southern Mexico and south into Guatemala. This puts the narrow neck of land somewhere in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec instead of Panama. Some resources to better understand the issues and the fascinating evidence in favor of Mesoamerica include:
As for the Zelph incident, this is an interesting episode when Joseph Smith and some other Mormons traveling in Illinois encountered ancient remains of Native Americans. Joseph was said to have identified a skeleton there as belonging to a righteous Lamanite man who had been involved in a great battle. There has been some confusion over what he said, and a recent printing of the story appears to have added words linking Zelph to the great last battle of the Lamanites and the Nephites at Hill Cumorah. This, however, appears to be in error. For details, see "What is the Significance of Zelph in the Study of Book of Mormon Geography?" by Ken Godfrey. Also see the later commentary by Matthew Roper cited above. When we understand what we actually know and what we don't know from this unusual incident, there is no reason to reject the Mesoamerican model for the Book of Mormon based on the Zelph story.
What Joseph said about "Zelph" offers nothing directly linking him or the location to the events of the Book of Mormon. Wilford Woodruff said that the mounds were "probably by the Nephites & Lamanites" suggesting that this was not a definitive statement from revelation but a guess. Others present wrote that Joseph mentioned the East Sea or Atlantic ocean, with Woodruff's journal being the only one of seven that mentions the Hill Cumorah (see Michael Ash, "Zelph, the White Lamanite"). So the story is interesting, but not one that specifies the location of any Book of Mormon events.
As for the common claim that the Book of Mormon took place largely in New York, it's hopelessly unjustified and depends more on quoting personal opinions from General Authorities rather than logic and science. Among the previous sources cited, here's useful excerpt to remind us of some of the issues in the debate. It's from the John E. Clark article:
The Book of Mormon makes hundreds of clear cultural and chronological claims. Here it will suffice to touch on just a few principal ones. The dates inserted at the bottom of each page of the modern publication of the Book of Mormon provide the needed chronological frame. As to cultural practices, the Book of Mormon describes for all its peoples, even the Lamanites, a sedentary lifestyle based on cereal agriculture, with cities and substantial buildings. Thus, we should be looking for evidence of city dwellers, permanent populations, kings, farmers, and grains, among other things. These should start in the third millennium before Christ and persist at least until the fourth century after his death. There should be some climax and nadir moments in developments and demography, and these should occur in specific places on the landscape. New York lacked cities and cereal agriculture until after AD 1000 and is thus not the place where the events described in the Book of Mormon took place. We are not missing archaeological evidence of indigenous peoples, their settlement patterns, or subsistence practices for the time periods under consideration. These are reasonably well known for each period from a variety of evidence, and they simply do not fit the requirements specified in the Book of Mormon.
The largest Nephite cities and towns of the Book of Mormon narrative were located in valley settings, necessarily in areas with good agricultural land. Some areas were occupied for centuries and experienced periodic building and rebuilding. Some had temples and other religious structures, walls, gates, and dwellings. In archaeological terms, these sites should be spatially extensive and thick, with significant stratigraphy. These are the types of archaeological sites with the highest potential for visibility and the greatest probability of being located and consistently reported. We would not expect evidence of their size or date to be annihilated, even with several centuries of plowing. Rather, such activity would make them easier to find--more visible. They should have been part of the early settlers' descriptions. New York and Pennsylvania lack sites that fit this description. Finding a 2,000- to 4,000-year-old city in New York State would be so novel that it would be reported quickly in all scientific outlets. It has never happened, and it will not happen. The most likely locations for such cities are already archaeologically well known because they are also the prime locations for modern occupation.
Clark then reminds us of the need not just to find ancient people in Book of Mormon lands, but ancient civilization with its particular trappings, something that did not exist in New York during Book of Mormon times, nor in surrounding regions. But developed civilization abounds in Mesoamerica during Book of Mormon times, including written language, complex political systems, dense population, markets and commerce, fortifications, and many other elements.
Clark concludes as follows:
In summary, the archaeology of New York is persuasive evidence that Book of Mormon peoples did not live in that region. By implication, the Cumorah of the golden plates is not the Cumorah of the final battles. These conclusions follow from a few basic points and assumptions. First, I presume that the archaeology of New York State, as currently published (2004), is a fair representation and adequate sample of what is there, and particularly that the evidence for some periods has not been systematically destroyed. Second, I presume that the evidence published for the various regions and time periods is accurate--that is, that the majority of archaeologists working in this region are competent and academically honest in terms of their archaeology. Third, I assume that additional research and discoveries will not significantly alter current understandings of the times or places of prehistoric occupation nor of the cultural practices involved; rather, such data will lead to minor adjustments to some of the details of prehistory. Fourth, the archaeological record lacks evidence for cities, sedentism, corn agriculture, fortifications, and dense populations during Archaic, Early Woodland, and Middle Woodland times. In accord with these general observations about New York and Pennsylvania, we come to our principal object--the Hill Cumorah. Archaeologically speaking, it is a clean hill. No artifacts, no walls, no trenches, no arrowheads. The area immediately surrounding the hill is similarly clean. Pre-Columbian people did not settle or build here. This is not the place of Mormon's last stand. We must look elsewhere for that hill.11 The Palmyra hill is still a sacred place and was the repository of the golden plates and other relics placed there by Moroni. How Moroni made his way to this place and constructed his time capsule of artifacts is a historic adventure for another time.
Further resources dealing with questionable claims of a Great Lakes placement for Book of Mormon geography include the following:
Some say that the emphasis on Mesoamerica by modern LDS scholars is a dramatic shift in thinking, even desperate back pedaling, a departure from the teachings of the prophets made as a necessary retreat from an avalanche of recent scientific evidence exposing the silliness of the original Book of Mormon saga. Please read that last article cited above by John Tvedtnes, which helps us realize just how many LDS voices over the decades have been pointing to Mesoamerica. But even more useful might be Ted Dee Stoddard's "Joseph Smith and John Lloyd Stephens." Stoddard reminds us of the profound effect that the widely publicized writings of Stephens had on Joseph Smith, offering what appeared to be strong vindication of the Book of Mormon in showing that there were great cities and civilizations in the ancient Americas like those described in the Book of Mormon. Importantly, he also argues that this information from Stephens influenced Joseph away from a hemispheric view of Book of Mormon geography to one focused in Mesoamerica, and indeed, to one that excludes Panama as the narrow neck of land to one where the narrow neck must be to the north, in Mesoamerica, as is accepted today by many LDS scholars.
Stoddard's analysis of Joseph Smith and Stephens also reminds us that a Mesoamerican-centric view of Book of Mormon geography is NOT a modern invention to dodge recently fired bullets from modern science and DNA studies.
Here is an excerpt from his thorough article, which I encourage you to read and ponder it is entirety.
Not long after John Lloyd Stephens's 1841 Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan was available for sale to the public, Joseph was given a copy of the two-volume set as a gift. We have no reliable information about the extent to which Joseph read Stephens's volumes or discussed them with Church-member colleagues. On June 25, 1842, he noted the following: "Messrs. Stephens and Catherwood have succeeded in collecting in the interior of America a large amount of relics of the Nephites, or the ancient inhabitants of America treated of in the Book of Mormon, which relics have recently been landed in New York."
At this point, Joseph clearly and unequivocally shows his support for the thinking that the Nephites lived in Mesoamerica. The date of June 25, 1842, is a year later than the first mention of Stephens's Mesoamerican explorations in the Times and Seasons under the title of "American Antiquities--More Proofs of the Book of Mormon":We feel great pleasure in laying before our readers the following interesting account of the Antiquities of Central America, which have been discovered by two eminent travellers who have spent considerable labor, to bring to light the remains of ancient buildings, architecture &c., which prove beyond controversy that, on this vast continent, once flourished a mighty people, skilled in the arts and sciences, and whose splendor would not be eclipsed by any of the nations of Antiquity--a people once high and exalted in the scale of intelligence, but now like their ancient buildings, fallen into ruins.
Following this June 15, 1841 introduction, this issue of the Times and Seasons contains a lengthy article about lectures given by Stephens and Catherwood. The article was originally published in New York City in the Weekly Herald. Though Joseph Smith was not the editor of this issue of the Times and Seasons, we can assume that he approved of its content. . . .
In the July 15, 1842, issue, which was "edited, printed and published" by Joseph Smith, an article entitled "American Antiquities" was printed. We can assume that its author is Joseph Smith for two reasons: (1) the article ends with the notation "-ED" (editor) to signify that Joseph Smith possibly wrote or dictated the article, definitely approved it, and clearly approved the concluding statement that precedes the notation of "-ED" and (2) in the March 1, 1842, issue, Joseph had forthrightly told the readers that he alone would be responsible for all forthcoming articles attributed to his role as editor. The concluding paragraph of the "American Antiquities" article refers to Stephens and Catherwood:If men, in their researches into the history of this country, in noticing the mounds, fortifications, statues, architecture, implements of war, of husbandry, and ornaments of silver, brass, &c.--were to examine the Book of Mormon, their conjectures would be removed, and their opinions altered; uncertainty and doubt would be changed into certainty and facts; and they would find that those things that they are anxiously prying into were matters of history, unfolded in that book. They would find their conjectures were more than realized--that a great and a mighty people had inhabited this continent--that the arts sciences and religion, had prevailed to a very great extent, and that there was as great and mighty cities on this continent as on the continent of Asia. Babylon, Ninevah, nor any of the ruins of the Levant could boast of more perfect sculpture, better architectural designs, and more imperishable ruins, than what are found on this continent. Stephens and Catherwood's researches in Central America abundantly testify of this thing. The stupendous ruins, the elegant sculpture, and the magnificence of the ruins of Guatamala, and other cities, corroborate this statement, and show that a great and mighty people--men of great minds, clear intellect, bright genius, and comprehensive designs inhabited this continent. Their ruins speak of their greatness; the Book of Mormen unfolds their history. -ED.
Though difficult to determine because of inadequate documentation techniques, the major part of the article should probably be attributed to the Antiquarian Society, which disputes the claim that existing native Amerindians of the United States could be responsible for archaeological findings that were taking place at the time: "To this we respond, they never have: no, not even their traditions afford a glimpse of the existence of such things, as forts, tumuli, roads, wells, mounds, walls enclosing between one and two hundred, and even five hundred acres of land; some of them of stone, and others of earth, twenty feet in thickness, and exceeding high, are works requiring too much labor for Indians ever to have performed." That is, to the typical United States resident at the time, Amerindian natives of the United States were savages who were incapable of constructing the artifacts that archaeological endeavors were beginning to uncover or discover in the Mesoamerican territory of "this continent."
The point to note here--in 1842 based on the content of articles in the Times and Seasons--is that Joseph Smith was conceivably shifting his focus from the United States to Mesoamerica in pinpointing the peoples of the Book of Mormon and the area where the events of the Book of Mormon occurred. His thinking was clearly influenced by the writing and thinking of John Lloyd Stephens. . . .
The September 15, 1842, issue of the Times and Seasons, which again was "edited, printed and published" by Joseph Smith, begins with a lengthy quotation from Stephens's Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan. The content deals with Palenque. Following almost four pages of direct quotation from Stephens, Joseph Smith (at least "Joseph Smith" by virtue of his approval as editor) states the following: "The foregoing extract has been made to assist the Latter-Day Saints, in establishing the Book of Mormon as a revelation from God. It affords great joy to have the world assist us to so much proof, that even the most credulous cannot doubt."
The Times and Seasons article then reads as follows:Let us turn our subject, however, to the Book of Mormon, where these wonderful ruins of Palenque are among the mighty works of the Nephites. . . . Mr. Stephens' great developments of antiquities are made bare to the eyes of all the people by reading the history of the Nephites in the Book of Mormon. They lived about the narrow neck of land, which now embraces Central America, with all the cities that can be found. Read the destruction of cities at the crucifixion of Christ, pages 459-60 [of the first-edition Book of Mormon]. Who could have dreamed that twelve years would have developed such incontrovertible testimony to the Book of Mormon? surely the Lord worketh and none can hinder....
The October 1, 1842, issue of the Times and Seasons continued to reflect the influence that Stephens had on the Prophet's thinking about the lands and peoples of the Book of Mormon. The issue begins with the following paragraphs that deal with Stephens's findings about Quirigua, Guatemala:Since our "Extract" was published from Mr. Stephens' "Incidents of Travel," &c., we have found another important fact relating to the truth of the Book of Mormon. Central America, or Guatimala, is situated north of the Isthmus of Darien and once embraced several hundred miles of territory from north to south.--The city of Zarahemla, burnt at the crucifixion of the Savior, and rebuilt afterwards, stood upon this land. . . .
It is certainly a good thing for the excellency and veracity, of the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon, that the ruins of Zarahemla have been found where the Nephites left them: and that a large stone with engravings upon it as Mosiah said; and a "large round stone, with the sides sculptured in hieroglyphics," as Mr. Stephens has published, is also among the left remembrances of the, (to him,) lost and unknown. We are not going to declare positively that the ruins of Quirigua are those of Zarahemla, but when the land and the stones, and the books tell the story so plain, we are of opinion, that it would require more proof than the Jews could bring to prove the disciples stole the body of Jesus from the tomb, to prove that the ruins of the city in question, are not one of those referred to in the Book of Mormon.
It may seem hard for unbelievers in the mighty works of God, to give credit to such a miraculous preservation of the remains, ruins, records and reminiscences of a branch of the house of Israel: but the elements are eternal, and intelligence is eternal, and God is eternal, so that the very hairs of our heads are all numbered. It may be said of man he was and is, and is not; and of his works the same, but the Lord was and is, and is to come and his works never end; and he will bring every thing into judgment whether it be good, or whether it be evil; yea, every secret thing, and they shall be revealed upon the house tops.
Almost hidden among the words of this quotation is some quasi-revelatory information either stated by or approved by Joseph Smith as editor. Based on the content of the above quotation, if the Isthmus of Darien (Panama) were the narrow neck of land, then Guatemala would have to be in the land northward. However, the quotation clearly suggests that Zarahemla was located in what today is known as part of Mesoamerica (Guatemala). In the Book of Mormon, Zarahemla is unequivocally located in the land southward, which means that (1) Guatemala is in the land southward, (2) the Isthmus of Panama cannot be the narrow neck of land, and (3) South America cannot be the land southward. Those facts lend quasi-revelatory support for Mesoamerica being the location of the New World events of the Book of Mormon.
Interesting issues. I'm not sure I prefer the term "quasi-revelatory," but I do think there is a strong case for seeing that Joseph Smith was learning about the marvelous book he had translated, gaining new insights from the findings of scholars that helped him update his own understanding of the text. It's one of several fascinating issues where we can see that the text of the Book of Mormon is "smarter" than Joseph Smith and not merely his fabrication.
Joseph's new awareness of the potential of Mesoamerica as the setting for the Book of Mormon, if Stoddard's treatment is correct, was soon snuffed out by his martyrdom. As the Saints fled from the mobs and began the challenge of an exodus and eking out a living in the Rockies, those insights appear to have slipped away in the popular understanding of the Book of Mormon. The details of geography probably didn't matter for many decades, but today I would say that those details matter more and for some, may be a valuable topic of study and reflection.
More recommended reading: "Archaeology, Relics, and Book of Mormon Belief" by John E. Clark, discussing some of the New World evidence for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. Also consider "Mormon's Map Puzzle Solved?" by John P. Pratt. Might mention both of these on my Book of Mormon Evidences page.
Bottom line: The internal evidence of the Book of Mormon combined with external evidence about geography, culture, ancient civilization, and even factors such as volcanism and metals point to Mesoamerica as the most reasonable setting for the limited geography of the Book of Mormon. The simple assumptions behind hemisphetic models or US-based models, though often repeated, do not hold up and do not merit respect as lofty revelation but inherited opinions that need updating. There is remarkable evidence from Mesoamerica that is part of the case for the plausibility of the Book of Mormon, though we are not yet at the level of having cities unearthed with engraved placards easily translatable as "Zarahemla, Land of the Nephites." We actually don't expect the need for faith to be decimated so easily, but for those willing to maintain an open mind, there are intellectually enriching information to be gained as we combine evidence and faith, and no need to jettison the Book of Mormon, though some old assumptions and views about it may need to be jettisoned.
A. Yes. Naturally, many of the prophecies are ones that were fulfilled in Book of Mormon times, just like the fulfillment of many Biblical prophecies occurred in Biblical times and is reported in the Bible. However, there are other prophecies which can be used to check the inspiration behind the Book of Mormon. For example, Nephi in 2 Nephi 10 expands upon Isaiah in saying that Gentile kings and queens would assist the Jews in returning to Israel, and that Jews from all over the globe would return to that land. The nations of the Gentiles (e.g., Great Britain, the United States, and others) truly were "great in the eyes of [God] in carrying them [the Jews] forth to the lands of their inheritance" (2 Nephi 10:8).
Nephi then goes on to speak of the Gentiles that would be upon this land (apparently continent) and writes that it would be a land of liberty to them, with no kings to the Gentiles upon the land (2 Nephi 10:11). he also said that whoever raises a king against Him on this land would perish. This has proven to be true. The Gentile nations (Canada and the United States) have been free of kings in their lands and have enjoyed liberty and democracy. In fact, all of the Americas have been free of kings upon the land, in spite of brief and abortive attempt to establish a king in Mexico ("Emperor" Maximilian from Austria came to rule Mexico in 1864 and was removed from his office and shot in 1867.)
Nephi also wrote that the this land would be fortified against other nations (2 Nephi 10:12). This has proven true.
Nephi also predicts that the Gentiles would afflict the descendants of the Lamanites and Nephites upon the land. We can assume that some Book of Mormon peoples have migrated and spread into North America (the Oneidas, Cherokees, Hopis, and others have legends of having come from the south, and there is evidence of ancient connections between several North American groups with Central American and southern Mexican peoples), and that the persecution of Native Americans by the United States and other Gentiles was prophesied by Nephi. But Nephi also prophesied that the Lord would soften the hearts of the Gentiles who would then seek to help the native peoples here and be like a father to them. While there have been many efforts in this century by the U.S. Government to help Native Americans, the sincerity and value of those efforts are questionable. Many good people, though, have been concerned about the plight of Native Americans and have worked to help strengthen them. Certainly the tide has turned from efforts to eradicate to spirit of wanting to help.
One remarkable prophecy of Nephi hundreds of years before Christ has evidence of fulfillment both in the Book of Mormon and from modern evidence that Joseph Smith could not have known about. Here is the prophecy in 1 Nephi 12: 2-6:
1 And it came to pass that the angel said unto me: Look, and behold thy seed, and also the seed of thy brethren. And I looked and beheld the land of promise; and I beheld multitudes of people, yea, even as it were in number as many as the sand of the sea.
2 And it came to pass that I beheld multitudes gathered together to battle, one against the other; and I beheld wars, and rumors of wars, and great slaughters with the sword among my people.
3 And it came to pass that I beheld many generations pass away, after the manner of wars and contentions in the land; and I beheld many cities, yea, even that I did not number them.
4 And it came to pass that I saw a mist of darkness on the face of the land of promise; and I saw lightnings, and I heard thunderings, and earthquakes, and all manner of tumultuous noises; and I saw the earth and the rocks, that they rent; and I saw mountains tumbling into pieces; and I saw the plains of the earth, that they were broken up; and I saw many cities that they were sunk; and I saw many that they were burned with fire; and I saw many that did tumble to the earth, because of the quaking thereof.
5 And it came to pass after I saw these things, I saw the vapor of darkness, that it passed from off the face of the earth; and behold, I saw multitudes who had not fallen because of the great and terrible judgments of the Lord.
6 And I saw the heavens open, and the Lamb of God descending out of heaven; and he came down and showed himself unto them.
Nephi prophesies of the great destruction that occurred in Book of Mormon lands at the time Christ was crucified. His description of seismic activity, great storms, noises, and a vapor of darkness was fulfilled in 3 Nephi 8 and 9, where it appears that significant volcanic activity occurred. Such activity has often been associated with storms, seismic motions, and thick clouds of ash (vapors or mists of darkness) that cover the land. Amazingly, there was significant volcanic activity near the time of Christ in ancient Mesoamerica. Joseph Smith undoubtedly had no knowledge of this, as the dating of the volcanism is recent, but there is external evidence for the fulfillment of Nephi's prophecy. For details, see my Book of Mormon Evidences Page.
Book of Mormon Response Page - responding to common criticisms. Collection of articles that includes discussion of a variety of evidences.
The Maxwell Institute (formerly FARMS) - a great source of information about LDS issues.
Reformed Egyptian by Dr. William J. Hamblin - another FARMS page.
Curse of the Cocaine Mummies - transcript of the 1997 Discovery Channel documentary showing strong evidence of ancient transoceanic trade between the Old and New Worlds.
Ancient Scripts - a marvelous collection of information on scripts of the ancient world. The recently discovered Mesoamerican Epi Olmec Script (a.k.a. La Mojarra Script is a reminder of how little we know about Mesoamerica and how fast things are changing!
"Europeans Colonised America in 28,000 BC" by Roger Highfield, Science Editor for Britain's Electronic Telegraph news service.
Where Did Nephi Build His Ship? - by Rex Jensen, an article at Latter-day.com, illustrating additional evidence supporting Wadi Sayq as a candidate for the Bountiful site from which Nephi sailed.
Mormon Scholarship, Apologetics, and Evangelical Neglect: Losing the Battle and Not Knowing It? - the famous 1997 presentation by two evangelicals, Carl Mosser and Paul Owen, warning about the strong intellectual position being developed by Mormon apologists. Also see Justin Hart's "Winning the Battle and Not Knowing It."
Kerry A. Shirts' "Mormonism Researched" - back at last! One of my favorite LDS writers is back online, featuring loads of great research on the LDS scriptures and related topics. See, for example, his keystone page on Book of Mormon evidence. Way to go, Kerry!
Hebrew Names in the Book of Mormon - a scholarly paper by John Tvedtnes.
"Poor English, but good Hebrew--a divine hint of Book of Mormon truth?" by Daniel Peterson, a 2010 column on Hebraic elements in the Book of Mormon.
New York Times Report: The Bible, as History, Flunks New Archaeological Tests - Take this with a grain of salt, but those who claim that archaeology proves the Bible to be true are falling through very thin ice. Finding evidence for scriptural history can be difficult or downright exasperating.