Evidences of the Book of Mormon
Those of us with a spiritual witness of the Book of Mormon know in our hearts that the Book of Mormon was translated from authentic ancient records. And we know the book concerns itself with a specific group of actual characters who lived in a real and limited geographic location in the western hemisphere where they had real experiences. Most of the book's contemporary detractors, on the other hand, maintain it was written in the early nineteenth century by Joseph Smith or one of his contemporaries, and that it consists of a fanciful account of mythical characters, events, and locations. Recently, some of the book's critics have gratuitously allowed that perhaps the book is "inspired fiction."
This article discusses what we call evidences of the Book of Mormon. An evidence of the Book of Mormon may be generally defined as any piece of information that supports our claim of the book's authenticity. On another level, however, we may be a bit more precise in defining such an evidence. It is a feature or concept in the text of the Book of Mormon that is valid and authentic, but its validity and authenticity could not have been appreciated by Joseph Smith in 1829, because, as he translated, confirmation and corroboration of that feature or concept was simply not available to him. In most cases, the confirmatory information was not known by anyone in that day. Often the particular feature of the Book of Mormon even contradicted the common wisdom of his day. Subsequent scholarly research, however, has validated the appropriateness and significance of the concept.
Professor of American literature at the University of California in Los Angeles, Robert A. Rees, wrote:
According to those who knew him best, Joseph Smith, at the time the Book of Mormon was published, had little formal education, was not deeply nor widely read, showed no proclivity for imaginative composition, and lacked the knowledge base, sophistication, and talent to produce a book as large and complex as the Book of Mormon. Further, when one considers the short time in which the book was produced and the difficulties in Joseph's personal life during this period, it is simply incomprehensible to claim that he was the book's author. As the interfaith scholar Marcus Bach observed many years ago, the Book of Mormon is as "solemn and ponderous and heavy as the plates on which it was inscribed. No Vermont schoolboy wrote this, and no Presbyterian preacher [Solomon Spaulding] tinkered with these pages. . . ."
I contend that not only was the composition of the Book of Mormon far beyond Joseph Smith's capabilities, but that he was, in fact, unaware of the subtleties and complexities of the text. There is surely no evidence that he knew anything about writing intricate parallel literary structures or creating a wide range of characters, a complicated fictional plot, or a variety of styles. . . . There are simply too many things in the book that neither Joseph Smith nor any of his contemporaries could possibly have known; too many complexities, subtleties, and intricacies in the text that were beyond his or any of his contemporaries' capabilities; too many examples of spiritual depth and profound expression that were certainly beyond his cognitive or expressive abilities when the Book of Mormon was produced ("Irony in the Book of Mormon" in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 12/2, 2003, 22.)
Prior to the twentieth century, little if any scholarly research had been applied to the book. In the early part of the twentieth century B. H. Roberts, Janne Sjodahl, and Francis Kirkham published studies focusing on the book's theological, historical, geographical, and cultural aspects. These studies were greatly extended in the mid 1940s and 1950s by Sidney B. Sperry, Hugh W. Nibley, and John L. Sorenson.
Hugh Nibley heightened our awareness of the book's revelations which may be regarded as evidences. He likened Joseph Smith's translation of the Book of Mormon to shooting arrows and scoring "hits." At times, Joseph hit not only the broadside of the ancient cultural barn but also he scored a "bull's-eye." For Nibley, a "bull's-eye" was a certain detail in the Book of Mormon that has astonishing parallels to the ancient world-particularly when Joseph could not possibly have known about it at the time of the book's translation. Nibley wrote, "The list of bull's-eyes is a long one," and the "percentage of hits is no less staggering" (Lehi in the Desert; The World of the Jaredites; There Were Jaredites, ed. John W. Welch, Darrell L. Matthews, and Stephen R. Callister [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS], 255). Nibley explained further:
Even if every parallel were the purest coincidence, we would still have to explain how the Prophet contrived to pack such a dense succession of happy accidents into the scriptures he gave us. Where the world has a perfect right to expect a great potpourri of the most outrageous nonsense, and in anticipation has indeed rushed to judgment with all manner of premature accusations, we discover whenever ancient texts turn up to offer the necessary checks and controls that the man was astonishingly on target in his depiction of general situations, in the almost casual mention of peculiar oddities, in the strange proper names, and countless other unaccountable details. . . . As the evidence accumulates, it is not the Prophet but his critics who find themselves with a lot of explaining to do (The Prophetic Book of Mormon, ed. John W. Welch [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1989], 325-26).
In the work of evidence gathering, Nibley is not alone. Dozens of other scholars, trained in biblical studies, archaeology, classics, history, law, linguistics, anthropology, political science, philosophy, Near Eastern studies, literature, and numerous other fields began noticing similar hits arising out of their own fields of study.
My verse commentary, Learning to Love the Book of Mormon, calls the readers' attention to literally hundreds of evidences of the Book of Mormon. Those evidences which do not fit nicely into that verse commentary format will be summarized in the remainder of this article.
Some committed members of the Church have been critical of the idea of evidences of the Book of Mormon. "After all," they maintain, "it is a spiritual witness of the book that is most important." It is clear that the Lord would have us fortify our testimonies with both study and prayer-with both reason and faith. Through the prophet Joseph Smith the Lord counseled us to study: "Seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith" (D&C 88:118). For further discussion of this issue see the commentary on the Testimony of the Eight Witnesses.
We cannot prove that the Book of Mormon or any other tenet of religious faith is true. Hugh Nibley has said, "The evidence that will prove or disprove the Book of Mormon does not exist" (Since Cumorah, 14). Since this is so, why should one bother to gather evidence or to do religious research at all? Again, evidence, reason, and logic are not antithetical to the pursuit of religious truth; rather they complementary to it.
The student of Book of Mormon evidences should remember always the need for caution and care in interpreting evidences; they are not black and white-there are many shades of gray. One must always ask, how strong is this evidence? how conclusive? how definitive? Remember that evidences can almost always be found or generated for and against just about any proposition. Only an impoverished mind cannot find evidence for just about anything he or she wants. There is also much subjectivity involved in interpreting evidences.
A relatively simple example of an evidence for the Book of Mormon arises out of a new technology called wordprinting or stylometry. Using statistical models and new computer technology, scientists are able to scientifically characterize the writing pattern or wordprint of any given author. The words used by this technique to identify an author's characteristic pattern are the noncontextual words, that is those words that do not relate to the particular topic of the author's writing. Rather, the noncontextual words are the other words, the support or filler words, such as the, and, of, out, after, among, etc. It has been found that each individual author unconsciously produces a distinctive writing pattern that is somewhat analogous to his or her fingerprint. Because noncontextual words are used, these writing patterns are not dependent upon the topic or the genre of the writing, and the pattern remains remarkably consistent throughout an individual's adult lifetime. Studies have shown that even the most skillful writers cannot change their pattern at will. The wordprinting pattern of an author is statistically different from those of other authors. Wordprinting was first introduced in the middle of the twentieth century to determine the authorship of the disputed portions of texts such as The Federalist and the Pauline Epistles (Frederick Mosteller and David L. Wallace, Inference and Disputed Authorship: The Federalist [Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1964]; and S. Michaelson and A. Q. Morton, "Last Words," New Testament Studies 8 : 192-208).
The concept of wordprinting in Book of Mormon analysis was first introduced in a 1980 study by Wayne A. Larsen and Alvin C. Rencher ("Who Wrote the Book of Mormon? An Analysis of Wordprints," in Book of Mormon Authorship: New Light on Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds [Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1982], 157-88). In their study Larsen and Rencher first carefully identified sections of the Book of Mormon that the text indicates are the products of different authors. They based their analysis on the twenty-four writers who contributed the most to the text, all with at least one thousand words to their credit. They then utilized three separate statistical models to compare the writings of each author with those of the others and with that of Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Solomon Spaulding, Oliver Cowdery, and other nineteenth-century Mormon authors. They concluded that all three statistical models "strongly support multiple authorship of the Book of Mormon" and that the wordprint patterns in the text significantly differ from the writing patterns of Joseph Smith and the other other nineteenth century authors tested (Larsen and Rencher, "Analysis of Wordprints" 178).
During the 1980s John L. Hilton and several associates, some of whom were not Latter-day Saints, formed a group of scientists in Berkeley, California, to develop a more rigorous wordprinting model with which to test the Book of Mormon ("On Verifying Wordprint Studies: Book of Mormon Authorship," in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited, ed. Reynolds, 225-54). Rather than test the frequency of letters or noncontextual words, Hilton's model measures noncontextual word-pattern ratios using a list of sixty-five ratios first suggested by Scottish forensics specialist A. Q. Morton. Hilton's model has the distinct advantage of having been substantiated using a large body of control author studies, which helped him to establish the significant statistical differences. Also, this more discerning model required the use of authors with at least five thousand words in a text. Hilton's techniques were critically reviewed and accepted by the University of Chicago Press prior to its publication of a recent book that used his model to identify previously unrecognized writings of the seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Hilton Learned that translators who attempt literal renderings of a text usually preserve a distinctive wordprint that maintains the statistical differences between that text and texts by other authors translated by the same or other persons. Looser approaches to translation, however, will stamp the translator's own wordprint on the resulting text. Thus, we should not be too surprised to see the English-language edition of the Book of Mormon preserving differences between different Book of Mormon authors, even when many of the actual terms being counted in the English translation do not have specific parallels in the hypothesized original languages. Hilton compared three independent texts of the didactic writings of Nephi and Alma with one another and with writings of Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and Solomon Spaulding. The results unambiguously showed that the wordprints of Nephi and Alma are distinct and significantly different from one another and from the wordprints of Joseph Smith, Cowdery, and Spaulding. The original findings were therefore confirmed, rendering it, in Hilton's words, "statistically indefensible" to claim that Joseph Smith or one of his contemporaries was the author of the Book of Mormon (Hilton, "Verifying Wordprint Studies," 241).
Another observation about the Book of Mormon provides evidence that it was framed in antiquity, and that it was not written by Joseph Smith. Of all the names of persons mentioned in the Old Testament, none are surnames. Biblical characters, whether notable or not, were known by one name only. And those names, as translated into the English language, do not use the letters q, x, or w, nor do they begin with F. These features of names are characteristically Hebrew. The Book of Mormon shares those same peculiarities: not one surname is mentioned among its 337 proper names, which, as transcribed into English, do not use the letters q, x, or w and do not begin with F. Had Joseph smith authored the Book of Mormon in an attempt to pass it off as an ancient record, he might easily have slipped up by giving at least a few of his characters surnames, as was the custom for centuries before the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. And even if he were careful to model his expression after the Bible and thereby avoid obvious pitfalls, chances are slim that he would have noticed that in the Bible the letters q, x, and w are not used in proper names.
Complexity and Consistency of the Book of Mormon
Perhaps the strongest evidence for the antiquity of the Book of Mormon is the amazing depth of complexity addressed in a consistent manner throughout the book. This argument, first developed and perfected by Hugh Nibley, points to Joseph Smith's lack of education and his dictation of the Book of Mormon line by line without notes and without reviewing what was said minutes, hours, days, or even months earlier. Yet despite these circumstances, a large number of complex relationships are developed in the book and consistently maintained from beginning to end. Many of these relationships have taken scholars longer to sort out than it took Joseph to translate the entire book.
For example, the Book of Mormon employs at least three independent dating systems with remarkable accuracy. It contains a complex system of religious teachings that is enriched as new sermons are added but is never confused or contradicted. A large number of ancient literary forms, typical of ancient texts but virtually unknown in English in most cases, are woven into the narrative. The book describes various ebbs and flows of ethnic interactions without once losing track of even the most minor groups. Hundreds of individual characters are successfully introduced and coherently tracked. The geographical data in the text is diverse and complex, yet when carefully analyzed, it is perfectly consistent and matches an identifiable portion of Mesoamerica. Melvin J. Thorne has argued that the improbability of alternative theories of the origin of the Book of Mormon increases rapidly as the number of elements establishing Book of Mormon complexity and parallels with the ancient world increases ("Complexity, Consistency, Ignorance, and Probabilities," in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited, ed. Reynolds, 179-93).
We may conclude by saying that the Book of Mormon text displays a complexity of details and a richness of ancient patterns of life and literature that would have been impossible for anyone to compose on the basis of what was known in 1829. And scholarly discoveries and advances since that time have shown us that the facts and patterns embedded in that 1829 translation fit comfortably with the ancient world it purports to describe.
The Narrative of Zosimus
Would it be interesting to you if you were to learn that there existed a tradition among early Palestinian Christians (in the first few centuries AD), that a righteous man received an angelic visitation in response to prayer? The angel informed him that he would be taken to a land of blessedness. History tells us nothing about this man who is named Zosimus. Zosimus wanders without guidance through a wilderness and, though exhausted, arrives at the land of blessedness through prayer and divine intervention. He then encounters an "unfathomable river of water covered by an impenetrable cloud of darkness," which he crosses by grabbing the branches of a tree. Reminiscent of the tree of life, the beautiful and fruit-laden tree next to a fountain of water gives nourishment to Zosimus, who then converses with an angelic escort who, after inquiring what he wants, allows him to see a vision of the Son of God. After the vision, Zosimus is introduced to a gathering of righteous sons of God, who share with him their history written upon stone plates. According to this history, these righteous sons of God were led from Jerusalem at the time of Jeremiah to this paradise on account of their righteousness. To Zosimus they stress the ideals of prayer and chastity and show him a book through which Zosimus learns that the inhabitants of Jerusalem, though wicked, will be shown mercy by God. Zosimus then returns from the land of blessedness to the world.
The text, the Narrative of Zosimus, which contains this early Christian tradition was widely circulated in the first centuries AD and was listed in the ninth-century canon of Nicephorous with apocryphal works that were to be discarded. John W. Welch has noted what is already evident to the reader: that the Zosimus narrative parallels the story of Lehi and Nephi in 1 Nephi in several key aspects ("Narrative of Zosimus," 323-74). On a general level, the text describes a righteous group that left Jerusalem at the time of Jeremiah, crossed the ocean, and arrived in a promised land. This striking initial connection to the Book of Mormon is further continued in many details of the Zosimus narrative, which suggests that both texts grew out of a common historical and cultural heritage.
How might this tradition be connected to the Book of Mormon story? The Zosimus narrative was not available in English until decades after the publication of the Book of Mormon, therefore the connection must be an ancient one. We can only speculate. Might it have had its beginnings in the contact which Lehi's family had with people on the incense trail between Jerusalem and Bountiful? Might Lehi's family have shared their experience with someone who then passed it on? Might the story of the Book of Mormon people have found its way back to the Middle East via a transoceanic route sometime following Lehi's family's arrival in the New World? The exact connection between the Narrative of Zosimus and the Book of Mormon will remain likely obscured by the passage of time, but the similarities appear too extensive to explain by an appeal to mere coincidence.
Images of the Tree of Life in Orphic Gold Plates and in Egyptian Funerary Texts
When an author writes an account of his own era, his own civilization, his own culture, he will invariably use words, images, expressions, metaphors current in that era. He has no choice, really; his mechanism of expression is formed by those words, images, expressions, and metaphors which he learned in his formative years. This is the reason it is difficult for any individual to write a convincing account of another era, another culture, as if it were his own. It is generally accepted that no forger of a text claiming to describe an area or time period with which he is not personally acquainted can possibly create a text that accurately describes another society in any detail. Indeed, historians usually have little trouble identifying forgeries of ancient documents, especially when those texts present a large amount of historical information, as does the Book of Mormon. If the Book of Mormon were a nineteenth-century concoction, this would have been easily and convincingly demonstrated a thousand times over. But this has not happened, and the attempts to pin such characterizations on the book have been largely refuted and replaced with a growing realization that the more carefully one examines the text, the more plausible its claimed ancient origins become.
Inspired literature is no exception. When the Lord inspires a prophet and shares with him revealed knowledge, the prophet will always receive that revelation in images and phrases that are familiar to him. The Lord speaks to his prophets "in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding" (D&C 1:24). When the Lord spoke to Father Lehi or to Nephi, he did not use images and expressions which belonged to another era.
Wilfred Griggs, a professor of classics, history, and ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, has compared Book of Mormon imagery with known Greek and Egyptian texts from around the time of Lehi. In particular he has found powerful evidence that visions of the tree of life experienced by Lehi and Nephi share certain symbols and motifs with recently excavated Greek and Egyptian religious texts contemporary with Lehi's lifetime. Symbols reminiscent of the tree of life visions described in the Book of Mormon are found in the ritual writings (recorded on gold plates) of the Orphic religious movement of Greek society, which became prominent throughout the eastern Mediterranean as early as the seventh century BC. The Orphic plates, buried with the dead, were intended to guide the deceased in the afterworld, where he would encounter, among other items, two paths, one of which led to "a spring, near which is standing a white cypress." Griggs explains that scholars have consistently associated the white cypress with the tree of life, and the plates themselves identify the spring as the "Lake of Memory," also symbolic of life. While scholars dispute the exact nature of the plates and the interpretation of the symbolism, there is broad, consensus that they were the products of, or heavily influenced by, the ancient Near East.
Egyptian ritualistic funerary texts also contain similar references to a "tree growing by the fountain or spring of living water." Given the ties between Greece and Egypt in this epoch, many scholars assert that the motifs on the Orphic plates have in reality an Egyptian origin. Griggs likewise suggests that the symbols used in the Book of Mormon were also influenced by the Egyptian ties, probably commercial ties, of Lehi and his family. Thus he suggests that the "most feasible and plausible explanation" for the similarities between the Orphic gold plates and the visions of the tree of life in the Book of Mormon is that "Egypt is the common meeting ground for the two traditions." Growing evidence that symbols used in the Book of Mormon were part of the cultural milieu of Lehi's world-and not Joseph Smith's New York-strongly supports the divine and ancient origin of the Book of Mormon (Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, ed. Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch, 138-40).
Hugh Nibley has suggested that the texts of the so-called "forty-day" literature, which are among the oldest Christian documents and purport to contain the post-resurrectional teachings of Christ to his Old World apostles, have intriguing parallels in content to 3 Nephi, which records the visit and instruction of the resurrected Lord to his New World disciples ("Two Shots in the Dark: Christ among the Ruins," in Book of Mormon Authorship, ed. Reynolds, 121-41). These ancient manuscripts were unknown in 1829. Elements in common include Christ's prophecy about the eventual apostasy of the church, after two generations in the Old World and four among the Nephites; references to the secrecy of certain teachings; statements about the visits of Christ to other peoples; a discussion of the history of the world in terms of dispensations; and the fact that Jesus physically ate food to show his status as a resurrected being. Additionally, Nibley notes that both accounts emphasize that the purpose of Christ's visit was to prepare his disciples for their missions to establish the church and that both stress the splendor and the intimacy of Christ's visits.
Another manuscript which shares similar parallels is the Coptic manuscript of the Gospel of the Twelve Apostles, discovered in 1904. Brother Nibley engages in an extended comparison of 3 Nephi and this manuscript (Ibid., 136).
The Politics of Joseph Smith's Day and the Book of Mormon
Some critics of the Book of Mormon have asserted that the book contains political ideas that are a simple reflection of American thought in Joseph Smith's time. For example, Thomas O'Dea wrote, "In it are found the democratic, the republican, the antimonarchical, and the egalitarian doctrines that pervaded the climate of opinion in which it was conceived" (The Mormons [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957] 32). However, in a careful study of the political philosophy and context of the Book of Mormon, Richard Bushman, a noted American historian, has demonstrated that it is "an anomaly on the political scene of 1830" and is much closer in government structure and philosophy to ancient Israelite monarchy than American republicanism. Bushman cites the following points to support his conclusion:
1. During his youth, Joseph Smith was undoubtedly imbued with the prevailing notion of the preeminent place of the American Revolution in world history. The victory of the American colonists was predominantly portrayed as a case of "heroic resistance" in which the colonists threw off the shackles of tyranny. However, the Book of Mormon account of the American Revolution emphasizes not courageous defiance but divine deliverance, a major theme and pattern in the entire book. Likewise, Bushman examined three separate cases in the Book of Mormon when the people of God faced situations similar to that of the American colonists; in each case, the people were delivered by fleeing, not by fighting. In fact, Book of Mormon peoples never overthrew an established government, not matter how tyrannical.
2. Joseph Smith was also exposed to a political context that celebrated the "true principles of government," meaning republicanism (democracy-government by the people) as opposed in principle to monarchy. However, Bushman notes that "principled opposition to monarchy is scarcely in evidence" in the Book of Mormon. In sharp contrast to this paradigm of early-nineteenth-century America-popular opposition to monarchy-the Nephite people often desired a king, while their leaders, the actual monarchs themselves, warned of the dangers of an evil king. In a reversal of roles from American images of enlightened patriots and despotic monarchs, "the people delighted in their subjection to the king, and the rulers were enlightened." Also, as Bushman argues, the Book of Mormon does not present monarchy as fundamentally evil; rather, "it was simply inexpedient because it was subject to abuse."
3. Critics often cite the Nephite judges as an example of a democratic institution in the Book of Mormon. However, even though the judges were approved by the voice of the people, little else about them reflects American thought. The judges served for life, often inherited their positions, and wielded a concentration of powers without any functional checks and balances reminiscent of the American system. Nor is it obvious that they functioned like the biblical judges ("The Book of Mormon and the American Revolution," in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited, ed. Reynolds, 189-211)
The Book of Mormon is "strangely distant from the time and place of its publication." On several key issues it stands in fundamental opposition to nineteenth-century-American political thought, not as a simple reflection of it as the book's critics have claimed. Parallels in ancient Israel more accurately stand as precedents to the political institutions and culture in the Book of Mormon narrative, though in subtle ways that Joseph Smith himself was not likely to have noticed, the motif of divine deliverance in Israelite history, popular desire for monarchy, and an emphasis on traditional law as opposed to constitutional rule of law with separation of powers and checks and balances. In terms of its political philosophy, the Book of Mormon fits much more comfortably into the tradition of Israelite thought than it does into the American context of Joseph Smith (Ibid., 211).
When Joseph Smith said he found the plates from which he translated the Book of Mormon hidden in a stone box buried in the ground and covered by another large stone (see JS-H 1:51-52), his claim seemed incredible to critics of his day. Now, such discoveries of ancient records, long hidden in the ground, are considered commonplace. A few examples follow.
In 1945 several leather-bound volumes of gnostic Christian writings from the fifth century AD were found at Chenoboskion, Egypt, also known as Nag Hammadi. Their contents included books purportedly composed by some of the early apostles. These were buried in a large pottery jar.
Two years later a larger set of documents was found concealed in caves near the Dead Sea. Some of them had been placed inside fired clay pots. In all, fragments of approximately eight hundred separate scrolls were found. These Dead Sea Scrolls included multiple copies of all of the books of the Old Testament except Esther, along with many other ancient religious texts. The scrolls had been written two thousand years ago.
More recently many other texts have been discovered (see John A. Tvedtnes, The Book of Mormon and Other Hidden Books: "Out of the Darkness unto Light" [Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000]). Some of these have been written on metallic records buried in stone boxes (see H. Curis Wright, "Ancient Burials of Metal Documents in Stone Boxes," in By Study and By Faith, ed. John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), 273-334).
In September 1933, the German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld discovered in Persepolis (the ancient capital of Persia in southwest Iran) that "two shallow, neatly made stone boxes with [sealed] lids, each containing two square plates of gold and silver, had been sunk into the bedrock beneath the walls at the corners of . . . the apadana," the multicolumned audience hall of the palace at Persepolis (Richard S. Ellis, Foundation Deposits in Ancient Mesopotamia [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968], 104). These plates "were laid down, probably in the presence of Darius, in 516-515 BC" and were recovered in perfect condition, "the metal shining as the day it was incised" (J. P. Barden, "Xerxes a Doughty Warrior Until He Met the Greeks," University of Chicago Magazine, February 1936, 25). This is only one example, among many that could be cited, of the burial of metal documents in stone boxes (Wright, "Metal Documents in Stone Boxes," 273-334).
The Book of Mormon's Depiction of Ancient American Civilization
This body of evidence will be taken from John L. Sorenson's article, "How Could Joseph Smith Write So Accurately About Ancient American Civilization?" in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, ed. Parry, Peterson, and Welch, 261-306.
Some statements in the Book of Mormon about ancient Near Eastern lands, concepts, and activities might have been incorporated into the Nephite text because a nineteenth-century writer, such as Joseph Smith, Jr., or Sidney Rigdon knew about ancient life-ways through reading the Bible or secular sources accessible before 1830. But once the Book of Mormon story claims to be taking place in an American setting, such an argument makes no sense, for nobody knew enough in 1830 to get so many facts right. At point after point the Book of Mormon scriptures accurately reflect the culture and history of ancient Mesoamerica. Where did such information come from if not through Joseph in the manner he claimed? Literally no person in Joseph Smith's day knew or could have known enough facts about Central America to depict the subtle and accurate picture of ancient life that we find in the Book of Mormon. We will now look at a few characteristics of Mesoamerican civilization that are mirrored in the Book of Mormon.
Level of civilization. Joseph Smith could not have known in 1830, from published books or his contemporaries, that an ancient civilization had existed anywhere in the Americas. To all settlers of the western New York frontier, "Indians" were just a savages and their culture could hardly be called civilized. If young Joseph had taken his ideas for the Book of Mormon from his cultural milieu, as many critics maintain, we would expect him to have similar notions of America's indigenous peoples. Joseph Smith was surprised to learn in 1842 from reading the sensational book by John Lloyd Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan (published in 1839), that there had once been a spectacular ancient civilization in Central America. Yet the Book of Mormon, written down in 1829, describes a real civilization.
The following features of any society of people are thought to be indicative of "civilization" within that society (Matthew Melko, The Nature of Civilization [Boston: Porter Sargent, 1969]; Stephen K. Sanderson, ed., Civilizations and World Systems: Studying World-Historical Change [Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press, 1995]; and David Wilkinson, "Cities, Civilizations, and Oikumenes," parts 1 and 2, Comparative Civilizations Review 27 : 51-87 and 28 : 41-72):
1. multiple cities (implying well-developed agriculture) with a population of corresponding scale;
2. complex social structure (numerous specialists and at least three levels of social rank);
3. major public structures of high symbolic significance to those who use them;
4. state-level government (that is, a ruling apparatus in which coercive power is centralized);
5. mass warfare; and
The Book of Mormon reports all of these key features for the peoples who kept that record.
A few characteristics of the Book of Mormon civilized society include: a population that reached at least into the hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions; a society spread over an area of something like 100,000 square miles, about the same order of size as Mesopotamia and larger than the territory encompassed by the Greeks; "thousands" or even "tens of thousands" of people in or near the capital city of Zarahemla; by AD 300 Mormon reported that "the whole land" was "covered with buildings" (Mormon 1:7); "great and notable cities" (3 Nephi 8:14); a system of active trade-"they did have free intercourse one with another, to buy and to sell" (Helaman 6:8); crafts people who "did make all manner of cloth"; and many books and records of all kinds (see Helaman 3:15). Thus, the marks of civilization were there, although none were evident among the traditions or the material remains left by the Indians of the northeastern United States, where Joseph Smith dwelled in his formative years.
Not only was the level of civilization depicted in the Book of Mormon impressively like that which archaeologists have since found in Central America, but the chronology also agrees generally. The heyday of the Nephites and civilized Lamanites was from the first century BC to the fourth century AD. Archaeological and other historical research carried out over the past half century has demonstrated a striking external correspondence to this picture in southern Mexico and northern Central America. Ruins of even the Classic period of Mesoamerican civilization, from AD 300 to 900, were still unknown when Joseph Smith published the Book of Mormon. Only within recent decades have archaeologists determined that even during the centuries before Cumorah-before the Classic period-civilized people had built and left ruins as impressive as anything ever constructed in the area where the Book of Mormon story likely occurred.
The Book of Mormon contains hundreds of statements related to the geography of land of the Book of Mormon peoples. When all of them are collated, a picture of the physical setting emerges that is highly consistent. Inconsistencies that might be expected of the author of a fraudulent work (such as locating a particular named city in different spots at different points in the story) are notably absent in the Book of Mormon. Yet, it is interesting to note that Joseph Smith himself later made statements by way of commentary that contradict what the text says of its geography. That is, when Joseph freshly dictated the text of the scripture, the geography came out fine; but his later private interpretations of the geography, which depended on his memory of the Book of Mormon story, could err.
A prime example occurs in a statement recorded in a journal dated 1838. A group of travelers passing through Randolph County, Indiana, was given to understand by local members of the Church that "the ancient site of the [Nephite] city of Manti" was thereabouts (Samuel D. Tyler Diary, 25 September 1838, Family and Church History Department Archives). No direct attribution to Joseph Smith is made, but it is doubtful that anyone would have drawn this conclusion unless the Prophet had made the suggestion. Actually, when all the statements about Manti that appear in the Book of Mormon record are examined together, they can only be interpreted to show that the city of Manti lay south of the "narrow neck of land" and south of the city of Zarahemla. It was near the headwaters of the northward-flowing River Sidon. A neat fit for the relationships of the land and city of Manti is found in southernmost Mexico, and city ruins in the vicinity date to Book of Mormon times (see John L. Sorenson, Mormon's Map, 35, 57). But the suggested correlation in Indiana completely fails to fit the statements in the Nephite account. It would appear that Joseph Smith and his close associates had not personally grasped the geographical scheme that the book itself consistently reveals.
To recapitulate, when Joseph Smith-as-translator dictated the text of the Book of Mormon to his scribes, he produced a seamless, plausible geography of limited scale, but when Smith-as-mere-Joseph later commented on geography, the picture he communicated is that all South and North America were involved. This inconsistency is not what the author of a work of fiction-as naysayers often suppose Joseph to have been-would show. Were Joseph the sly schemer he is accused of being, he surely would have done two things differently in this regard: (1) inevitably he would have let geographical inconsistencies slip in during his hasty dictation of the text, and (2) thereafter he would have kept his mouth shut about matters of location lest the problems he knew could be present in the book he had created should be exposed by his offhand comments. He did neither.
There is a corollary to this point. The statements in the Book of Mormon describe a land of limited extent (a few hundred miles long) that had certain specific physical features (in configuration, topography, bodies of water, climate, and geology). Analyses of the text of the scripture in the last six decades have made this clear. Those characteristics fit remarkably well the geography of Mesoamerica. Yet later statements by Joseph and his early associates reveal that he supposed that the entire Western Hemisphere had been occupied by Nephites and Lamanites. In other words, his personal interpretation of the book's geography differed in some respects from what the record itself stipulates. If we were to suppose, with many of Joseph Smith's critics, that he somehow wrote the book out of his own mind and knowledge, it is difficult to see how he would have interpreted this aspect of his "own literary work" inconsistently.
The Pattern of Cultural History
We have discussed elsewhere in this volume that fact that the Book of Mormon is not a comprehensive history of a people; rather it is a so-called lineage history which largely ignores all but the ruling lines of the Jaredite, Nephite, and Lamanite peoples (see discussions of this concept in the supplemental articles, Book of Mormon Geography and Book of Mormon Myths. The last half century of concentrated historical and archaeological research on ancient Mesoamerican societies has produced a picture that, while far more complex than the abbreviated lineage histories that constitute the Book of Mormon, plausibly accommodates the histories of the Nephite and Lamanite ruling lines. The culture sequence reconstructed by scholars can be summarized as follows:
1. There was an early cultural tradition that is increasingly recognized as deserving to be called a civilization. Its best-known component is sometimes called the Olmec culture. This, however, was only the best-known manifestation of a wider tradition dating from perhaps 1400 BC to about 500 BC, when it quite abruptly lost its identity. Its climax was located in Mexico in the vicinity of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.
2. Some elements of the tradition that followed derived from the Olmec and related predecessor cultures but had a different ethos and emphasis. It featured elaborate religious monuments, ceremonies, and myths. While this second tradition grew from roots in several regions, a core of its concepts originated in southern Mesoamerica, that is, Guatemala and southernmost Mexico, during the period from about 500 BC to near AD 300. This tradition spread quite widely throughout Mesoamerica in that period and provided primary ideas and energy behind the spectacular cultures of the Classic period (after AD 200), such as the Maya, Zapotec, and Teotihuacan manifestations.
If we identify Book of Mormon lands as described in the supplemental article, Book of Mormon Geography, then substantial agreement between the scriptural and scholarly pictures of culture history is evident. Moreover, evidence has been brought forward that certain key beliefs, symbols, and other cultural elements that appear in this second Mesoamerican tradition (and are referred to in the Book of Mormon text) relate closely to the ancient Near East (see John L. Sorenson, "The Significance of an Apparent Relationship between the Ancient Near East and Mesoamerica," in Man across the Sea: Problems of Pre-Columbian Contacts, ed. C. L. Riley et al. [Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971], 210-41). A book-length discussion would be required to document the literally hundreds of points upon which the historical dimension in the Book of Mormon agrees with the known culture history of Mesoamerica.
Even the general sequence, which shows an early and precocious Mexican civilization, epitomized as Olmec (although that label is oversimplified), followed by a religiously oriented second tradition that culminated in the great Classic era cultures and sites so well known to tourists, was not recognized by most scholars until forty or fifty years ago. That Joseph Smith's translation already contained parallel historical facts in 1830 is remarkable.
The Book of Mormon as a Mesoamerican Codex
A codex is an ancient record, historical and often religious, that classically was written on tree bark, though it may be written on animal skins or plates made of metal or stone. Mesoamerica has been a rich source of codices, contrary to the notion universally held by literate and rustic citizens of the United States at the time of the translation of the Book of Mormon in 1829. This commonly held opinion was that "Indians" were only "savages." The writer in Helaman 3:15 tells of "many books and many records of every kind" among his people in the first century BC, some kept by Lamanites but a majority by Nephites. They had been "handed down from one generation to another" (Helaman 3:16). Spaniards noted (but only in documents that Joseph Smith could not have known about) that numerous native books-many held in great reverence as sacred records-were in use when they arrived in Mexico in the early sixteenth century. Archaeologist Michael Coe believes "there must have been thousands of such books in Classic times" (generally AD).
Typically, the type of information included in Mesoamerican Codices included: key events affecting the fate of ruling lineages, diplomatic communications, annals of events recorded at the end of each year, letters from correspondents, political history, detailed accounts of battles and wars, descriptions and histories of sacred practices, calendar data, prophecies, the adventures of heroes, genealogies, and tribute lists, among others. The Book of Mormon text contains all of these information types. The Book of Mormon turns out to be a type of book that no New York farm boy in the nineteenth century (or today) could have ever produced. The information that would be required for even the most sophisticated scholar or writer anywhere to come close to the book we have in our hands was just not available to anybody in the 1820s. The elements typical of Mesoamerican codices would not come to light until the middle of the twentieth century or later.
Warfare in the Book of Mormon
The long descriptions of warfare in the Book of Mormon have led critics in earlier days to claim that Joseph Smith had made repeated errors. They said that the archaeological and historical record about war as it was fought in ancient Mesoamerica failed to match statements in the Nephite record. For many years experts claimed that wars played no major role in Mesoamerican history (see David L. Webster, Defensive Earthworks at Becan, Campeche, Mexico: Implications for Maya Warfare, Middle American Research Institute, no. 41 [New Orleans: Tulane University, 1976], 1, 3). They supposed that warfare did not arise there until around AD 1000. Before that, it was said, only docile peasants and peaceful chiefs and priests inhabited Mexico and Central America. If that had been so, this would have been the only civilized area in the world without a long military history, and the Nephite record would have indeed been contrary to what archaeologists "knew." But in the last quarter century a wave of new studies has completely reversed the old image of social tranquility. It is now clear that armed conflict was as enduring and damaging in Mesoamerica as in any other part of the ancient world. The Book of Mormon record of frequent wars fits the new scholarly consensus (John L. Sorenson, "Fortifications in the Book of Mormon Account Compared with Mesoamerican Fortifications," in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. Ricks and Hamblin, 445-77).
At several points in the Book of Mormon text, statements are made about the aims, paraphernalia, and tactics of battle among the Nephites and Lamanites. These have proved to be strikingly compatible with what is now known about warfare in Mesoamerica. The specific points will be discussed in the verse commentary in Learning to Love the Book of Mormon. To locate some of these specific discussions, search for such words or expressions as walls, ditch, timbers, trench, palisade, "cast their arrows," and "place of entrance"
It seems clear that the Lord does not intend for the Book of Mormon to be an intellectually open-and-shut case. If God had intended that, he could have left more concrete evidences as to its authenticity. Instead, it seems that the Lord has maintained a careful balance between requiring us to exercise faith and allowing us to find reasons that affirm the stated origins of this record. The choice is then entirely ours.
In the course of studying the Book of Mormon and the commentary, Learning to Love the Book of Mormon, the readers' attention will be called to literally hundreds of evidences of the Book of Mormon. A thoughtful, prayerful approach in evaluating these evidences is always best. We are left to marvel at how Joseph Smith managed to dictate-in a few months and without significant editing-such a book that time and again matches up with life and events in ancient Mesoamerica. Not a single scholar alive in young Joseph's day knew enough to get any, let alone all, of these things right. One must then ask, how did he do it? Your author knows just how. He had access to an actual ancient Mesoamerican book!