The Crux of Historicity

For all their differences, the essential and irreducible historical dilemma of the Old Testament, New Testament, and Book of Mormon is very much the same.

We possess some archeological, epigraphic and documentary evidence for the vainglorious aspirations and dynastic struggles of a minor Semitic vassal state of the first millennium Before the Common Era. We have no historical evidence, however, that God chose Israel as his people at Sinai, or for the divine sanction of Israel’s prophets and their visions.

There is overwhelming evidence that the man Jesus, eponymous founder of the Jesus movement, lived and preached in first-century Palestine. We have no hard evidence, however, that he was the son of God and the resurrected Savior.

It is not particularly difficult to advance a naturalistic explanation for the Book of Mormon as a pre-19th century document. The relationship between any event and its story is always complicated, and various peoples have handed down or adopted all kinds of stories about themselves. Among the world’s national mythologies, the Book of Mormon is hardly the most outlandish or implausible, and if some anthropologist had recorded it as recited by a tribal elder, it would have been worth maybe a handful of journal articles. The real, stubborn, irreducible problem, the part for which there can be no naturalistic explanation, is the angel Moroni and Joseph Smith’s claim to have translated the Golden Plates by the gift and power of God.

And like the Old and New Testaments, the part we cannot demonstrate or adequately address with naturalistic evidence is also precisely the part we care about. The kingdoms of David and Benjamin, or the preaching of Paul and Alma, are not in themselves interesting apart from the contested claim that they somehow relate to the divine will. Without Sinai, Gethsemane, and Cumorah, and without the people who ascribe cosmological significance to them, Biblical Studies and Mormon Studies and related fields would all be the size of Mithraism Studies (like many other things, these academic fields depend for their lives on something they cannot themselves create, and sometimes do their utmost to negate).

Historicity ends up as such a fraught question because virtually no one cares about the actual history for its own sake. For believers, the succession of Benjaminite kings is only background context of minor relevance to King Benjamin’s sermons. For non-believers, it’s all a fairy tale anyway. For the uncertain, there is no historical path to certainty; the church suggests another route. What we get in the historicity debate instead are covert demands for proof that Joseph Smith was a God-sent prophet, but couched as a rational request for historical evidence. You could with equal rigor ask for proof that God spoke to Moses on Sinai, or that Jesus rose again on the third day. Perhaps that is actually the question being asked.

So where does this leave Steve’s friend Ishmael, or people who follow Sam’s counsel? (And does this finally give us a group of “Samites”?) That is, what’s the best course for people who like the church in some ways, but have doubts about the historicity of the Book of Mormon? I think we can welcome interested people to walk and worship with us, or even to browse the refreshments as long as they like. Treating the Book of Mormon as something like the parable of the Good Samaritan, as revealed scripture not necessarily rooted in historical events, isn’t the approach I find most convincing or productive, but I won’t tell anyone they can’t, or say what God can or cannot do. (Although I do wonder: What about the Golden Plates is so implausible, but not the empty Garden Tomb?) At your baptismal interview, no one will ask you to attest that Alma preached at 17° 23? 36.82? north, 89° 38? 4.32? west at 2:32 PM on November 23, 82 B.C.

But someone will ask you if you believe in God and the Restoration of his church through Joseph Smith, and this is where things get tricky because these are the parts that people actually care about. Treating the Book of Mormon as revealed narrative scripture is one thing; treating it not as inspired but as inspiring fiction, like Oliver Twist or The Hobbit, or as fiction plain and simple, is something else entirely. The church is still thinking through and working out all the implications of what Joseph Smith taught, and our prophets see themselves as Joseph Smith’s successors. Baptism represents a commitment to take upon yourself the name of Christ, and baptism into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints entails shouldering the additional burden of attesting that the church is directed today by a living prophet. If you reject the idea that Joseph Smith received revelation, or that he could reliably distinguish between inspiration and his own fantasy, or that any God exists who could send angels to Joseph Smith, you may never be satisfied during the two-hour wait between the prelude music and the potluck.

43 comments for “The Crux of Historicity

  1. I’m not entirely convinced that the historicity dilemmas of Mormonism and that of mainstream Christianity are the same in magnitude. Mormonism’s dilemma is much, much greater. Mormonism has all of mainstream AND fundamentalist Christianity’s extraordinary beliefs PLUS a very large number of Mormon-specific extraordinary truth claims. Jesus Christ didn’t just have disciples who followed him and wrote down words he said and experiences he had and claimed him to be divine, he also appeared to an ancient American civilization whose existence can’t be at all corroborated by modern studies of the ancient Americas, who talked about Jesus Christ by name 500 years before his birth, and who directly spoke additional thousands of words to Joseph Smith which was eventually compiled to create the Doctrine and Covenants.

    The legitimacy of Mormonism seems to rest very largely upon a great number of quite specific historicity claims in ways that just don’t apply to liberal Christianity or even evangelical Christianity. Liberal Protestant Christianity has a lot more flexibility to treat claimed historical events as metaphorical without undermining the message of the authorities and leaders of its respective congregations. With evangelical Christianity, there is a greater demand to accept as historical much more of the Bible, but even then, congregants have more interpretative flexibility with historicity questions than in Mormonism. With Mormonism, believers have to be much more careful about what they say regarding the historicity (or non-historicity) of a good number of truth claims. To be regarded as a Christian believer in many liberal circles, you need to claim the divinity and immortality of Jesus and that’s about it. You don’t have to root your belief in many other historicity truth claims that aren’t outside general acceptance in modern academia, such as Jesus existed, Paul existed, Levantine Israelites created the OT based largely on oral traditions that predated the postexilic period. These are not extraordinary historical claims in the least. If you were raised a Mormon male, you were expected to go on a mission where you tell others on a near daily basis that Jesus appeared to ancient American descendants of Israelites. And to question that, in the minds of many believers, is to question the authority and legitimacy of Joseph Smith and of Mormonism itself. Big difference. Historicity questions with Mormonism are a much higher-stakes game compared to mainstream Christianity.

  2. Jonathan, not everyone requires so much from Mormonism. The empty Garden Tomb *is* implausible (if we’re considering the traditional explanation for its emptiness). But it’s an implausibility that reveals a hope—one element of the Pauline triumvirate. That hope can lead us to just enough belief (i.e., as a mustard seed) to motivate us to action, which is what Lectures on Faith regard as faith—another element of the Pauline triumvirate. I’ll admit that hearing others judge the extent or sincerity of my faith can sometimes put my charity to the test. But I continue to work on that and pray that those who know, where I merely hope, can do the same, make room for me in the pews, and break bread with me at the potluck.

  3. To follow up on Brandon’s point: Try stacking rather than comparing Christianity historicity plausibility with Book of Mormon historicity plausibility and you would be more generous of the skeptical view.

  4. Historicity requires only that Moroni exists. After all, the records were kept for rhetorical rather than historical purposes — if Benjamin was wholly a construct of Mormon or Moroni (or Mosiah to legitimize his reign) it wouldn’t affect our faith at all. And while miracles are all implausible (it is more likely than not that someone won’t successfully walk on water when they hop out of the boat) that simply means that Occam’s Razor is inapplicable to issues alleging Divine or supernatural intercession.

  5. As far as believing in the extra-historical claims regarding, for example, the belief in Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, all such claims are largely matters of faith. I can agree that no historical knowledge can prove any such claims, although they can impact their plausibility. However, I also largely agree with Brandon. What is more, the stories, and beliefs that stem from them, which we find in the Bible make sense within what we know of the context of the cultures and history of the Near East in which they are rooted. The Book of Mormon stories and beliefs don’t appear to fit within what we know of Mesoamerican and Native American cultures and history. They actually make far more sense in the context of 19th century rural American culture and history. That makes the historicity question more critical for the Book of Mormon and its claims of being rooted in an ancient American historical context. Unless, of course, you are really arguing that historicity of a text is completely irrelevant. I’m thinking you don’t want to go that far.

  6. I don’t know which I have a stronger distaste for, ahistorical arguments or the word ‘historicity.’ ;)

  7. “Historicity requires only that Moroni exists.”

    If we accept that Moroni exists, then we have to accept that Jesus Christ visited the Americas, that there was a migration of Israelites to the Americas (who maintained traditional elements of ancient Israelite religion), and that God revealed Christianity to a select group of ancient Americans. How else could have Moroni known about Christianity and Jesus Christ? So just to accept the existence of Moroni is to accept quite a lot of supernatural/miraculous claims.

    Now contrast this with belief in the existence of a group of postexilic Israelite editors who compiled and constructed the Tanakh in the sixth century BCE. The existence of these editors in the Levant is not in question. It is universally accepted. Furthermore, the existence of multiple preexilic authors of the Tanakh, who passed down different oral and written traditions over years and years through exile and tribulation, is well established and well evidenced to the point of being universally accepted. The construction of the Tanakh fits a pattern that we see in the constructions of other religious texts in India, Greece, and China. Stories of deities and heroes based on ancient traditions eventually find their way to written form that gets preserved and copied and forms the basis of a religion cum history of a group of people in a particular geographical location. I can accept the historicity of these ancient editors of the Tanakh and other religious texts such as the Vedas from a secular standpoint, without having to invoke the supernatural. I can also even argue the plausibility of the existence of many of the leading characters of these traditions, such as Moses, Indra, and Hercules, without compromising a secular worldview. With the Book of Mormon, to concede the mere historical existence of just one of its characters, including a Jesus Christ who appears to ancient Americans, is to concede a whole host of supernatural phenomena and miracles.

  8. I admit I’m a bit perplexed by part of Brandon’s comments. Isn’t a Jesus who can rise from the dead but can’t/doesn’t appear to someone somewhere other than Palestine kind of a sucky Jesus? What would be the point of him, seriously? All these people in the world, and he just shows up in one place? For my money, the story of the NT is kind of crap without the sequel of the BOM. I get just rejecting all of it. You haven’t experienced the supernatural, so why believe it exists? What I don’t get is accepting *some* supernatural things and then declaring that nothing else extraordinary can have happened unless someone happens to dig up a Hebrew inscription somewhere in the jungles of Central America that proves it happened exactly as recorded. The world is a big place, and time destroys or distorts the vast majority of evidence of everything. I can’t even give an accurate account of major life events that only happened twenty years ago and were extensively documented in photographs. Just ask my wife!

  9. A Dad, I’m not arguing against the existence of the supernatural, which is beyond the scope of what the OP and I are saying. Let me reiterate in a way that might be a bit more understandable. Imagine you’re an atheist who rejects the idea that the supernatural exists. You can concede a lot more about elements of the historicity of the Bible while maintaining logical consistency with the idea of the supernatural not existing than you can with the Book of Mormon. For instance, I can arrive at the idea that Abraham plausibly existed without having to invoke the supernatural (the idea that an oral tradition of ancient Levantines that eventually takes a concrete written form by postexilic Israelite scribes requires no appeal to the supernatural). By contrast, I cannot arrive at the idea of the plausibility of the existence of Nephi without implicitly conceding that Joseph Smith translated an ancient text through divine powers.

    “What I don’t get is accepting *some* supernatural things and then declaring that nothing else extraordinary can have happened”

    Do you believe in reincarnation? What about apparitions of the virgin Mary? Are you willing to accept that Sri Satthya Sai Baba was a god living among humans in India? Almost every religion (I can’t really think of any exceptions, although there may be) subscribes to its own supernatural traditions while rejecting others both implicitly and explicitly. I know of no religion tradition or philosophy that accommodates the plausibility of all claims to the supernatural.

    “The world is a big place, and time destroys or distorts the vast majority of evidence of everything.”

    I often hear this argument in favor of a specific set of religious truth claims, and it doesn’t make any sense. In fact, this line of reasoning seems to go strongly against all claims to the supernatural. If historical reality is so hard to understand and so uncertain (and I’m not saying that it isn’t), then wouldn’t it follow that we should be very uncertain about the truthfulness of a specific set of extraordinary truth claims about history? How do you arrive at your level of confidence that a Christian civilization existed in the Americas 600 BCE-400 CE that actually interacted with Jesus Christ if you believe that evidence is greatly lacking to be able to construct objective undistorted narratives about even the near past? Appeals to uncertainty and relativism don’t help the case for the truthfulness of Mormonism at all. In fact, they go strongly against it. To quote Gordon B. Hinckley’s October 1995 Conference talk: “Certitude, which I define as complete and total assurance, is not the enemy of religion. It is of its very essence.”

  10. “Historicity requires only that Moroni exists.”

    Absolutely. Now, if we can just get him to visit the special upcoming April Conference we can put away all this “the Church isn’t true” nonsense. No, I mean it, I want him to come.

  11. Brandon wrote “The legitimacy of Mormonism seems to rest very largely upon a great number of quite specific historicity claims in ways that just don’t apply to liberal Christianity or even evangelical Christianity.” Said another way, after centuries of reading scripture and wrestling with Catholic (i.e. the only Christianity for a thousand years, and one of two Christianities for the next 500) doctrines, new branches of Christianity found that historical claims were not as important as other Christians made them out to be. If Mormonism survives another 1300 years, we may just see similar developments here as well.

    RLinder wrote “The Book of Mormon stories and beliefs don’t appear to fit within what we know of Mesoamerican and Native American cultures and history. They actually make far more sense in the context of 19th century rural American culture and history.” This is the first attempt I’ve ever seen to admit the BoM has 19th century content and also argue that the 19th century content enhances the BoMs claim to be authentically ancient. I can’t say I find it convincing, but I applaud the boldness inherent in such an effort!

  12. Brandon, I’m not quite sure where you’re arguing from, or what you’re arguing for. You seem to be saying that the Bible can be read with historical nuance, while we have to take the Book of Mormon literally. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that I disagree. I don’t see that Moroni’s appearance as an angelic being to Joseph Smith requires Mormon to have been a perfect editor, or Nephi to have been an omniscient narrator, or even Joseph Smith to have been a flawless translator. Interaction online has made me suspicious of people telling me that I must read the Book of Mormon as literally accurate in every respect or else the edifice of Mormonism will collapse.

    I should probably reiterate that the point of my post is that the Biblical history everyone agrees about are the uninteresting parts. You can say many uncontroversial things about Biblical history – but if God did not appear to Moses or inspire Isaiah, or if Jesus didn’t redeem us from death and sin, who cares? Everyone needs a hobby, but raising orchids would be just as useful as studying the Bible in that case. There’s less uncontroversial stuff we can say about the story in the Book of Mormon, but the same dilemma: we can’t prove through historical study the one thing we really want to know – did God work through a modern prophet?

    I don’t think you’re reading A Dad fairly, and I’m fairly confident that Gordon B. Hinckley was not trying to say that historical research was the path to religious certainty. See the links in my post for his preferred alternatives.

    Ryan, I’m pretty sure you and RLinder agree in your skepticism, and you’ve just failed to notice.

  13. The only thing I am skeptical about is the claim that BOM historicity (I apologize profusely to any who find the use of this word dismaying) is not particularly important, or no more important than for the Bible. The fact that Biblical claims align with what we know of the culture and history of the world from which it emerged is, I think, a plus for the Bible. With the BOM we appear to have a misalignment between its content and the cultural and historical context of ancient Mesoamerica as currently understood. That creates a particular challenge for the BOM that is different from that of the Bible (which, of course, has challenges of its own). I was responding to the main post on the Crux of Historicity. Reading any more into my comments than that (and, of course, misreading them as with Ryan Mullen) is just speculation that misses the point.

  14. Jonathan, you said in the OP that the historicity dilemmas for the OT, NT, and the Book of Mormon are the same. My point is that while some dilemmas are the same (yes, they both have claims to miraculous occurrences that can’t be explained with modern science), there are big differences in magnitude. Adam’s point about stacking is very relevant and supports what I’m saying.

    I commonly hear many in Mormon apologist circles appeal to the idea that the historical problems of the Bible are similar to those in the Book of Mormon in an attempt to normalize belief in the Book of Mormon as if it the same leap of faith as believing in much of the Bible. I strongly disagree on grounds that from a secular standpoint, Book of Mormon historicity questions are much further to the edge of the implausibility scale than Bible historicity questions. To put it another way, from a secular standpoint, what historical aspects of the Bible and Book of Mormon can one accept without being forced to accept supernatural explanations?


    The existence of Jesus and a group of disciples
    6th century BCE postexilic editors of Tanakh in the Levant
    Multiple authorship of preexilic literature
    Historical basis of some events and characters in preexilic literature
    Stories are rooted in ancient Israelite culture

    All these can be maintained without appealing to the supernatural. You could publish widely about these ideas in larger academic circles and have your ideas gain traction among people of many different backgrounds and beliefs.

    Book of Mormon:

    The appearance of Jesus to the Nephites and Lamanites
    The existence of an ancient American editor by the name of Moroni
    Multiple pre-19th century authors of BOM
    Historical ancient American basis
    Stories rooted in ancient American traditions

    None of these ideas can be maintained without appealing to the supernatural. You could most likely not publish about these ideas in academic circles outside Mormonism.

    As to the question of who cares, Mormonism has long set itself apart from the rest of Christianity as the only true and valid religion. It doesn’t accept the doctrinal claims of other Christian organizations. It doesn’t accept their claims to authority or their baptisms. Historicity of the BOM is a vital question in making Mormonism stand out from among the rest.

  15. Ryan Mullen, so you’re saying that Mormonism historicity claims are like those of earlier Christianity. No. From a secular standpoint, the Book of Mormon has zero historical basis beyond the early 19th century. It is a creation of Joseph Smith’s mind, perhaps with some borrowings of ideas from other 19th-century coreligionists. The Bible is clearly rooted in preexilic Israelite culture. If Mormonism survives another 1300 years, I’m quite confident that it will not convince secular scholars of there being any historical aspects before the 19th century worthy of consideration.

  16. Brandon, I think we are likely to talk past each other, so I will make an effort to be particularly direct and delineate where our thinking diverges. Yes, I think the parallels between Mormonism historicity and Christian historicity are instructive. Some parallels:

    (1) The Old Testament / Hebrew Bible (HB) in it’s present form is firmly rooted in 5th century BCE diaspora Jewish culture, but claims revealed knowledge of events in the near east stretching back 500-1500+ years.
    (2) The New Testament (NT) is rooted in late first-, early second-century Mediterranean Christian communities, but claims revealed knowledge stretching back 50-100 years.
    (3) The Book of Mormon (BoM) is written for a 19th century American rural religious audience (this should be uncontroversial for both believers and non-believers), but claims revealed knowledge of events in the Americas stretching back 1400-2400 years.

    You’ll notice that in constructing this parallel, I situate each text in the context of its original readership, rather than the time period(s) in which the narrative(s) contained in the texts are set. This is a basis on which both believing and non-believing scholars *might* agree. An alternative construction would be to situate each text in the time and culture of the traditional authors:

    (a) In the HB, the Pentateuch, for example, is predominantly embedded in the nomadic journeys, battle scenes, and legal codes of Moses, with smaller sections embedded in the pastoral episodes of Abraham and Jacob or the Egyptian novella of Joseph.
    (b) In the NT, the gospels are anonymous but traditionally assigned to Jesus’ disciples, Matthew and John, or to
    companions of prominent missionaries, Mark companion to Peter and Luke companion to Paul.
    (c) In the BoM, the authors are internally identified with four main narrators shaping the text: Nephi, Jacob, Mormon, and Moroni.

    In each of these cases, believing scholars may attribute the text to the authors listed, but secular scholars, by and large, do not. If you situate the Biblical texts within the first framework (1 and 2) but the BoM within the second (c), then yes, then the parallels I’ve laid out are obscured and Mormonism appears unique among the Christian sects.

  17. Brandon, a lot of what you say is, well, really obvious. I’m not sure why you keep repeating it. Yes, there’s a good amount of Biblical stuff that doesn’t require an appeal to the supernatural, but it’s largely background context for the parts I actually care about. No, there’s no easy way to explain the Book of Mormon as an ancient text without an appeal to the supernatural. But then the supernatural is precisely the point.

    Thank you for explaining that your perspective is secular. You’re completely within your rights to dismiss God and Jesus and Moroni as fairy stories. As for the Book of Mormon presenting complications that other Christians don’t face, though, you might be surprised. That seems to be true for some people, but for many it requires no extra mental exertion. Once you accept that God interacts with the world, the logical barriers to accepting that God sent his son to redeem his fallen creatures, or that he sends visions to prophets from time to time, are hardly insurmountable. Whether he did or didn’t ends up having much more to do with theology than history.

    I’m still not quite sure what your stake is in this discussion. You don’t have any particular belief in God or Jesus or the teachings of Joseph Smith, and you don’t seem to be one of those people who likes the church, but has historical concerns; if anything, you seem upset that the church continues to exist. But do feel free to enjoy the refreshments and/or prelude music if you’d like.

    RLindner, sorry for misreading you. I still may not entirely understand what you’re proposing. I understand your point about the Book of Mormon diverging from Mesoamerican history, but I can think of a half-dozen different directions to go in response. Off the top of my head, we could
    1. Push on the role of Joseph Smith as translator and as an interpreter through a particular cultural lens
    2. Look for a better cultural fit than ancient Mesoamerica
    3. Loosen some of the geographic or chronological or narrative constraints on how we situate the text in history
    4. Appeal to the vast unknowableness of history
    5. Treat the Book of Mormon as inspired narrative scripture without requiring a historical basis
    6. Dismiss the Book of Mormon as fraudulent

    So I’m not quite sure which best fits your own point of view.

  18. RLindner, my apologies for mis-interpreting your comment and reading more into it than you intended. Though, I still am not convinced that we agree with each other. In particular, “That creates a particular challenge for the BOM that is different from that of the Bible.” I think the truth claims of the BoM face the same challenges as the truth claims of the Bible, which I think is the (or a) point of the OP.

  19. Having a C Nielsen and a Chad Nielsen in the same comment thread might be confusing, but to be clear, we are separate people. I don’t mind the word ‘historicity’ for one thing. ;)

    It is good to bring up this side to the discussions we’ve been having, so thank you for this thought provoking post, Jonathan.

    One question that this post brings up for me that may be worth examining more is what does it really mean to have a testimony that God’s Church was restored through Joseph Smith? Does it mean that we must accept the official story in every detail or can it be more along the lines of Ishmael, accepting that God worked through Joseph Smith to do his work but not necessarily in the way Joseph said? I suspect that there is some room for argument in either direction (with quite a few points in between) on that question and that is why we can, as MoPo said, make room for each other in the pews and break bread together even when there are disagreements.

  20. Ryan, I can arrive at the idea that cultures that predate that of the final editors of the NT and OT (hundreds of years in the case of the latter) informed the text without invoking the supernatural. I cannot arrive at the idea that a culture that predated Joseph Smith (one that was hundreds of years earlier) informed the BOM without invoking the supernatural. That is a pretty big difference between the Bible and BOM that we need to acknowledge.

    Jonathan, if what I say is obvious then does that mean you concede my point? I never said I was secular or not believing in the supernatural, I merely invoked the idea of a secular standpoint for the sake of argument to more clearly draw out an important difference between BOM and Bible historical questions. Concepts of plausibility and naturalistic explanations are after all secular concepts, are they not? The BOM is simply more implausible and extraordinary than the Bible. And I think that is a big reason why BOM historicity questions aren’t garnering much attention among non-Mormon academics. The modern secular academe uses the Bible to inform its historical narratives of the ancient Near East on a regular basis. No one aside from Mormon academics uses the BOM to inform themselves narratives about ancient American culture. That’s gotta say something about the difference in plausibility right there.

  21. If I were going to analyze a portion of the HB or NT on its own terms, I would follow the same procedure I outlined above. Either situate it amongst its original audience (to the degree that we know it) OR situate it amongst its internal setting and characters, and be careful not to conflate the two methods. In that sense again, I see healthy parallels to the BoM. Portions of the Pentateuch clearly predate the final editing stages, but still postdate Moses by centuries (since they are written in Hebrew developed ca 1000 BCE while Moses is set in 1250-1500 BCE) or Abraham by a millenia. That framework tells me that if the Bible has any reliable details about Moses or Abraham, it has to come via revelation (I have zero expectation that oral cultures pass along reliable, historical detail beyond the 3rd generation), which is also true of Nephi and Mormon. There are only a minority of Biblical passages in which the original audience and internal setting are contemporaneous (eg primo-Isaiah, Ezekiel) and IME those tend to be the passages that speak most clearly to ancient concerns and are difficult to “liken” to life in the modern world.

  22. Jonathan – are historical questions at all relevant to determining belief in the supernatural claims?

    I get that you think the opposite is true (if you accept the supernatural claims then getting tied in knots over historicity doesn’t make a lot of sense). But if you are an investigator or believer reevaluating do you think it’s relevant?

    Until I hear from a leader at general conference that the BOM is just inspired fiction or apocrypha i don’t think it’s right to entirely dismiss historical questions as irrelevant.

  23. Ryan, the editors who wrote down the Pentateuch over time are clearly drawing on an oral tradition that predates them. How far back, we don’t know, but it is not implausible to claim that this oral tradition extended back centuries if not millenia. That the oral tradition reflects actual names, places, events, etc. doesn’t matter. All that matters is that the oral tradition was clearly there and that ancient Israelite editors were attempting to draw from it, even if they did add their own embellishments over time. The Pentateuch furthermore fits a pattern across human cultures of telling and passing down stories of interactions with nature, gods, miracles, catastrophes, heroes, and moral codes, that come be written down and to inform the spiritual beliefs of a particular group of people. Rock art in caves from France to Borneo as early as 30,000 years shows this pattern of writing down spiritual experiences with nature and the Pentateuch fits neatly into this pattern. If we found incontrovertible evidence of the existence of Moses, say on an ancient inscription from Egypt, it would be an amazing find, no doubt. But it wouldn’t cause secularists around the world to accept that ancient editors were actually receiving divine revelation. All it would show is that more of the oral traditions of ancient Israelites remained intact more than previously thought.

    Now with the Book of Mormon, there is no evidence of any oral tradition predating Joseph Smith that he drew from to bring about the Book of Mormon. If incontrovertible evidence were found of the existence of Moroni from a pre-Columbian inscription, that would be much more remarkable than evidence of the existence of Moses, we would be forced to concede that Joseph Smith had divine revelation that informed him about a past that he couldn’t have possibly known about from reason alone.

  24. Brandon,

    “the editors who wrote down the Pentateuch over time are clearly drawing on an oral tradition that predates them” No, they are presumed to have drawn on oral tradition, but which, if any, aspects of the Pentateuch draw on oral tradition and which are novel contributions by the scribal schools is never certain. In this regard, there are again parallels with Joseph Smith’s dictation of the BoM. The idea that Native Americans were Israelite descendants was in the air, so to speak. No doubt the particulars of BoM are unique, but we can only sort out the similarities and differences the BoM has with these other texts because those texts have survived.

    re Moses vs Moroni. Archaeological evidence of Moses’ existence would be huge! Billions of Christians, a billion Muslims, and millions of Jews would celebrate! Moreover, this seems to be the crux of our disagreement. I think that reliable, historical detail regarding Moses (incl. his very existence) can only be known via revelation. That puts the various scribal schools in the same role regarding Moses as Joseph Smith is in regarding Moroni. It’s easy to disregard those editors, being anonymous and not the founder of any specific religious movements, but that doesn’t make their contributions to scripture any less real. And while it’s understandable to want *my* religion to occupy a fundamentally unique logical foundation as compared to other Christian sects, in this instance I think the difference is simply one of degree and not of kind.

    tl;dr: The Book of Mormon is unique in its specific truth claims, but occupies a similar foundation upon revelation as does the Bible, if either is to be a reliable account of history or present an accurate worldview regarding God’s interactions with humanity.

  25. Ryan, you seem to be saying that to believe in the Book of Mormon as describing ancient characters is very similar to believing in the Pentateuch describing ancient characters (more ancient than 500 BCE that is) in that the editors couldn’t have known about the characters and stories except through revelation. You’re trying to mainstream belief in the Book of Mormon and make it seem less extraordinary that it is often understood to be.

    There are some more key differences/issues you’re not taking into consideration.

    1) The traditional belief is that a single author, Moses, wrote the Pentateuch and the secular view is that it had multiple authors over time. By contrast, the traditional belief is that the Book of Mormon had multiple authors and that its final editors, Mormon and Moroni, kept what was written on the plates of Nephi intact without editing. The secular view is that Joseph Smith was the BOM’s main author, although some believe that JS plagiarized from other 19th-century sources (and not just the KJV, which is heavily plagiarized from). This is significant because if we accept that the Pentateuch had multiple authors, then that suggests that its editors over time were indeed drawing from earlier oral traditions and a deeper cultural knowledge that preexisted the scribes and editors. Why are there two creation stories in Genesis? A plausible explanation is that later editors were attempting to accommodate earlier traditions. They weren’t just completely making up the traditions, but taking old traditions and refitting it to their present circumstances, or perhaps leaving it intact in order to claim authority (“we have the pristine tradition and we can prove it”). There are contradictions throughout the Torah as well, suggesting that its editors had competing views about different bits of information. For instance, in most stories, Moses’ father-in-law is named Jethro, but in some he is named Reuel.

    2) There is strong evidence that the Pentateuch was edited and rewritten over centuries and its construction reflects a deep cultural knowledge that predates even early scribes. It fits a pattern of different human cultures telling creation stories and ethnic origin storeis that get passed down from story-teller to story-teller early on and eventually to a series of scribes. The Pentateuch follows that pattern.
    It is nothing out of the ordinary when we consider it against other creation myths. Nothing of the sort exists for the BOM. Maybe you could say that Joseph Smith was influenced a deeper tradition that predated JS by a few decades of belief among white American settlers that Indians were the descendants of Israelites. But there is no evidence of a deep Native American oral tradition influencing JS. Bottom line is that from a secular view, the OT editors over time weren’t completely making things up, but Joseph Smith was.

    3) Plausibly events in the Pentateuch are not bound to a particular time frame. Moses could have existed much later than editors said he did. Lehi and Nephi pretty much have to have existed in 600 BCE. So while anachronisms exist in the Pentateuch (domesticated camels for instance), the anachronisms are much more damning for the BOM than the Pentateuch.

    4) You’re overstating the incredibility of oral tradition. Ancients relied deeply on oral tradition to transmit cultural knowledge and were much more dedicated to memorizing and story-telling than we are today in the digital age. The first written accounts of Muhammad came about in 800 CE, almost 200 years after his death. These written accounts had chains of attribution attached to them, showing that early Muslims had a sophisticated system of oral tradition that was more likely to preserve history than our memories in the digital age. I don’t think it is a stretch to say that early Israelites were much more dedicated to oral preservation than we are today.

    5) You’re overstating the significance of finding evidence for a historical Moses when compared with evidence for a historical Moroni. Finding a historical Moses wouldn’t undermine prevailing secular beliefs about the Pentateuch. Finding a historical Moroni would completely undermine prevailing secular beliefs about the BOM.

    Bottom line: historicity plausibility issues when they pertain to the existence of the characters (not the events and miracles described such as a global flood or Ammon chopping off a bunch of arms) are much, much larger in magnitude in the BOM than they are for Bible, even the Pentateuch, whose characters’ existence is the least plausible of all. The Pentateuch can be appreciated among seculars as a written body of deep Israelite cultural knowledge. I highly doubt that the Book of Mormon would ever be appreciated as a body of deep Native American cultural knowledge by seculars, even 1300 years from now.

  26. Brandon, on your points:

    1) If there are contradictions in the Bible, they are signs of its antiquity; but if there are contradictions in the Book of Mormon, are they also signs of a long chronological tradition? Or are they signs that Joseph Smith couldn’t keep the story straight? Whichever you choose, you should choose consistently.

    2) No, the evidence for Biblical textual history is really hard to discern and has to be painstakingly extracted from the text and is always controversial. There’s not universal agreement about any of it. All of our manuscripts are centuries later than thepresumed time of editing. Have you ever tried figuring out the history of a text based only on internal evidence? And in an incompletely preserved language? It’s incredibly difficult and prone to error. Where we’ve gotten over the last several centuries is amazing, but the case isn’t at all obvious.

    Why do you think that the Book of Mormon has no similar internal evidence of a long tradition? Have you looked? I have, and I think that’s what I see. What exactly that evidence might show is up for debate, as it is with the Bible, but you have to look for something before you can say it isn’t there.

    3) This is an example of how you are insisting on a more literal reading of the Book of Mormon than you do of the Bible. Alma and Helaman are historical books, while 1 Nephi is somewhat different. If we can be flexible about Moses, we can do the same with Nephi, I think.

    4) Your regard for oral tradition is touching. But people have observed oral tradition shifting over the space of decades to reflect contemporary conditions. Your example about the life of Mohammed is not really useful since he was living in a literate society. If I accept Genesis as scripture, it’s not because I have great faith in the ability of oral societies to transmit texts over long stretches of time.

    5) I think you’re understating the scientific worldview’s ability to incorporate new information. If someone dug up the grave of King Benjamin tomorrow, complete with Hebrew-inscribed artifacts, the correct scholarly response – after a freak-out lasting at least a few minutes, I’d hope – would be to begin investigating who was Joseph Smith’s informant concerning that episode in Mesoamerican history. It would still not be proof that angels had appeared or Jesus had visited the Nephites.

  27. 1) In the particular instance I mentioned, (the name of Moses’ father-in-law being different) it suggests that there were competing explanations among scribes and story-tellers about the past. Contradictions in and of themselves don’t prove antiquity, but in this instance it shows that the editors were probably reflecting on an earlier oral tradition and had competing versions of the tradition. I don’t know of any contradictions in the Book of Mormon of this sort.

    2) Right, there is no universal agreement about many aspects of it. But the idea that the Pentateuch is reflective of a deeper Hebrew cultural knowledge predating even the earliest scribes, can pass muster among even secular Bible scholars (even if they don’t agree with the idea). There is no way that the idea that the Book of Mormon reflects a Native American cultural knowledge predating Joseph Smith would gain any consideration or even respect outside Mormon scholarly circles.

    “Why do you think that the Book of Mormon has no similar internal evidence of a long tradition?” It is very plausible that the earliest scribes of the Pentateuch informed themselves of the text with a generations-old oral tradition that they learned from their community elders who learned it from their community elders and so and so forth. Even if the early scribes’ texts didn’t actually reflect much of the earlier oral tradition, it is highly likely that there was an oral tradition there that influenced the scribe. And to be clear we are comparing early Pentateuch scribes with Joseph Smith, not Moroni (as all can agree that the early Pentateuch scribes and Joseph Smith existed, but not Moroni). By contrast, is there any evidence of an oral tradition that informed Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon? No. Believer and skeptic alike agree that no oral tradition informed JS. It was revelation, imagination, or some other 19th-century texts written not too long before JS (i.e., Spalding manuscript).

    3) Let’s assume Moroni existed and was the final editor of the BOM. How could he have known about all of the stuff that he wrote down? King Zedekiah? Jerusalem’s destruction in the 5th century BCE? If we accept that Moroni existed, we also have to accept that a migration from Jerusalem to the Americas happened. We also have to accept a more literal BOM. With the Pentateuch, not so. I can very coherently and cogently accept the existence of Moses and believe all the Genesis stuff to be complete mythology, or that some characters existed (i.e., Abraham) but much later than what Moses was claiming. I can accept the existence of preexilic scribes and that some of the main characters that they described actually existed as composite figures without having to accept that their dates were correct or that they went back as far as they were saying. It just seems incoherent to claim that Moroni existed and then also claim that Nephi was a plausible composite figure whose name we don’t know for sure who existed but much later than 600 BCE.

    4) Yes, oral tradition is not extremely reliable. Yes, society in the Arabian peninsula circa 600 CE was somewhat more literate than Hebrew culture 1000 BCE (so probably not a great comparison, but it was the best I could think of, and I still think that ancients were more rigorous in oral tradition simply because that was all they had). Still, arguing from secular standpoint, I can’t imagine that a single postexilic scribe would have imagined the entire Pentateuch, and a good portion of the Tanakh, and then have written it down and passed it off as a the work of distant ancients when in fact he was the one who imagined it (nor would such an idea pass muster among secular Bible scholars). The construction of the Pentateuch clearly involved multiple people over centuries. But the predominant secular argument about the Book of Mormon is that Joseph Smith just imagined it, with of course copious plagiarism from the KJV.

    5) You’re probably right. Secular scholars would be very loath to accept the idea of prophecy and would look first for an informant to JS before accepting that he received revelation. But I don’t think that that undermines my main point which is that finding corroborating outside evidence for the existence of Moses (as significant as that would be) would be less amazing than finding evidence of the existence of any BOM character.

    So to reiterate, while from a secular standpoint, the existence of Pentateuch characters is plenty implausible and highly likely mythical. But the existence of BOM characters is simply more implausible. And that has been my point all along. There is some valid comparison between the Bible and the BOM historicity debates, but ultimately the BOM is more implausible. Trying to mainstream belief in a historical Book of Mormon as if it is the same as believing in a historical Pentateuch is a stretch. With the Bible you can be much more coherently selective in what you think is historical. With the BOM it is more of a package deal. If you so much as believe in Moroni as historical, then you have to accept a good portion of the Book of Mormon as historical as well.

  28. Brandon wrote “The Pentateuch can be appreciated among seculars as a written body of deep Israelite cultural knowledge. I highly doubt that the Book of Mormon would ever be appreciated as a body of deep Native American cultural knowledge by seculars, even 1300 years from now.”

    Referencing my earlier parallel constructions, the quoted statement pulls from option (1) for the HB, but option (c) for the BoM. The Pentateuch is appreciated by secular scholars for what it teaches us about the culture of its original audience(s), 10th century Israelites (J/E sources) to 5th century Jews (P/D sources). Similarly the BoM is appreciated by secular scholars for what it teaches us about its original audience, 19th century rural Americans. It just so happens that there is lots of other documentary evidence beyond the BoM to give insight into 19th century Americans, but not much besides the HB to give us insight into 5th century BCE Jews. Neither text is appreciated by secular scholars for accurately communicating the history of its internal setting, a 15th century Jewish exodus from Egypt or a 6th century Jewish colonization of the Americas, respectively

  29. Ryan, you started your comparison with the entire Bible. Now this has been whittled down to the Pentateuch. A pretty big compromise. Yet comparing the Pentateuch with the Book of Mormon is still specious. The Pentateuch editors were telling tales about their own ancestors. Joseph Smith was telling tales about a completely different culture that spoke a different language. The early editors of the Pentateuch weren’t claiming to unearth a much older text in a different language that they translated with a seer stone. The Pentateuch contains stories and literature that are unique to ancient Hebrew culture. While there is evidence of a little bit of plagiarism from other texts (i.e., a couple of passages from Proverbs are taken from Amenemope), most of it appears unique and distinct. By contrast the Book of Mormon, in spite of Joseph Smith claiming it to have originated from a completely different culture, contains hundreds of verbatim passages from the KJV OT, NT, and Apocrypha, and myriad stories that appear oddly familiar to stories in the KJV and Apocrypha as well (i.e., Lazarus and Lamoni, Holofernes and Laban, Nephi and Lehi and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego). From a secular perspective, we could possibly compare the Pentateuch editorship and BOM editorship (in relation to existence of characters, not the content of the stories) to conspiracy theories, with the former akin to the more tame Rand Paul conspiracy theories such as the North American Union and the Federal Reserve not being audited and the latter being akin to the Alex Jones conspiracy theories such as chemtrails and Bilderberg plotting a Thanos-like strategy of eliminating half of the world’s population. Both implausible and unevidenced, but with the latter being just more far out there.

  30. “you started your comparison with the entire Bible. Now this has been whittled down to the Pentateuch. A pretty big compromise.” Not unless you can demonstrate how that weakens my argument. (It doesn’t). I’m not arguing that the BoM was compiled in the same way as the HB (it wasn’t) or that the process by which each text came to be published in English was the same (they weren’t). I’m just using the Pentateuch as a microcosm of the HB texts generally. We could have used Daniel, or Joshua, or Judges, or Kings, or 2nd Isaiah. Pretty much any text except those few for which the internal setting and original audience are contemporaneous. Your point that preliterate oral transmission pushes the original audience of, eg the Pentateuch, back in time is well made (within a limit of O(3) generations, I’d say), but unless you’re attempting to argue that each chain of oral transmission originated with the Pentateuchal characters themselves, the discrepancy between presumed original audience and internal setting remains. And it’s in that gap that I see parallels between the BoM text and that of the HB or NT.

    “The Pentateuch editors were telling tales about their own ancestors. Joseph Smith was telling tales about a completely different culture that spoke a different language.” Yes. And? Does the claim of descent and shared language somehow legitimize a text? Are the truth claims of the Quran more plausible than those in the BoM since Muhammed claimed descent from Abraham through Ishmael?

    “we could possibly compare … to conspiracy theories” not a cultural touchstone that I’m familiar with, sorry.

  31. Ryan, you’re trying to mainstream belief in BOM historicity by pushing a comparison that doesn’t work for many reasons that I’ve pointed out, much of which you have yet to acknowledge and address. Belief in the historicity of the characters of the BOM is not the same as belief in the historicity of the characters of the Pentateuch. I have all sorts of more flexibility with the Pentateuch than the BOM. To say Moses existed isn’t that extraordinary. I can coherently maintain that idea while believing the rest of the Pentateuch to be a myth. I’m not forced to believe in the historicity of Noah, or a flood, or the Exodus from Egypt, or Adam and Eve. It doesn’t work to say that Moroni existed but the rest of the Book of Mormon is myth. That is extremely incoherent. By saying Moroni existed, you’re forced to believe the historicity of many other elements of the Book of Mormon including a migration in 600 BCE from Jerusalem to the Americas.

    “Not unless you can demonstrate how that weakens my argument.” You’ve repeatedly tried to argue against my argument about the difference in plausibility of the existence of historical characters of the text by claiming that oral tradition is unreliable (past three generations). This doesn’t apply with the NT. Any secular scholar should be able to argue that Jesus existed in spite of the fact that the final editions of the NT came 70 years after Jesus’s death without having their credentials and bona fides called into serious question.

    “I’m just using the Pentateuch as a microcosm of the HB texts generally.” This does vast injustice to the Ketuvim and Nevi’im parts of the Tanakh, which are completely different.

    “Does the claim of descent and shared language somehow legitimize a text?” It increases the plausibility that a deeper oral tradition informed scribes and editors over time. There is nothing of the sort for the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith was not informed by earlier oral traditions of Native Americans. Early Pentateuch editors clearly were. Joseph Smith was just making stuff up (from a secular view). The Pentateuch editors were embellishing a preexisting tradition. Pentateuch has deep roots of a cultural tradition of oral history. It can command respect in its literary value, much like the Vedas, Enuma Elish, and other creation myths from secular scholars of many different disciplines. The Book of Mormon never will. It is clearly largely plagiarized from the KJV and that is a major disqualifying factor (and this is a point which you haven’t yet addressed).

    “Are the truth claims of the Quran more plausible than those in the BoM since Muhammed claimed descent from Abraham through Ishmael?” The Qur’an clearly borrows stories from Jewish tradition. It doesn’t count. Not a fair or relevant comparison.

    “not a cultural touchstone that I’m familiar with, sorry.” Here you’re almost drifting into denial. Not a good sign for the health of your argument. It is moribund. You need to recognize extent. Difference in extent has always been the crux of my argument.

  32. “you’re trying to mainstream belief in BOM historicity” No, I’m not. I’m fine leaving BoM historicity to the realm of archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists, and textual critics. I’m simply saying that if you want to claim the HB or NT testament have some inherent value for what they teach us about the texts’ original audiences, then we have to recognize that the BoM has similar value—and I’ve repeatedly pointed out that both believing and secular scholars can agree that the BoM’s original audience is 19th century rural Americans. If your religious beliefs are not connected to antebellum Mormon communities, then you personally may not find that very interesting and prefer to spend your time studying about communities that you do trace your beliefs to, say 5th century Jewish diaspora or 1st century Christian communities. If however, you want to point out that there is a lack of independent evidence corroborating what the BoM says about ancient American communities and traditions, I similarly point out that there is a lack of evidence corroborating many of the most important narratives of the HB. But to say that the BoM has no value because it doesn’t reliably teach us about ancient America (its internal setting) whereas the Bible has value for what it says about ancient Israel (its original audience) is an unequal comparison.

    “To say Moses existed isn’t that extraordinary.” What do you mean by “isn’t that extraordinary”? Simply that people you associate with won’t bat an eye if you say “Moses existed”? That says more about how widespread are beliefs in Moses’ historicity within your social circles than whether Moses was actually a historical person.

    “70 years after Jesus’s death” How many generations is that? Oh, three?!? Thanks for using an example that reinforces my point.

    “The Qur’an clearly borrows stories from Jewish tradition. It doesn’t count.” I’m sure the billion Muslims in the world will be happy to hear this.

    “Here you’re almost drifting into denial.” Because I don’t follow conspiracy theories, Rand Paul, or Alex Jones? hahahahahahaha. Sorry, I have just never read or listened to anything put out by either of them.

  33. “No, I’m not. I’m fine leaving BoM historicity to the realm of archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists, and textual critics” That wasn’t my point. My point is that you’re trying to claim that believing in elements of BOM historicity is like believing in elements of Bible historicity. As in, “oh you know how some people believe that Moses actually existed, well we believe that Moroni actually existed and it is sort of like believing that Moses existed.” This is not a fair comparison. Believing in the historicity of a pre-Columbian ancient American Christian is far more extraordinary than believing in the existence of a heroic leader of ancient Israelites/Hebrews who may have migrated from Egypt to the Levant whom later generations of Hebrews came to remember by the name of Moses.

    “I similarly point out that there is a lack of evidence corroborating many of the most important narratives of the HB.” Not true. Perhaps one of the more untenable elements of your argument. The Merneptah Stele corroborates the existence of Israelites as early as 1200 BCE. We have evidence that King David existed as well. No we don’t have evidence that the stories actually happened or that many of the characters actually existed. But the stories of the Pentateuch clearly come from preexisting oral traditions of people telling stories of their forebears (which makes it very different from the BOM, and is a point which you have not addressed). There is ample literary evidence for this (no secular Bible scholar doubts that the Pentateuch was written by multiple authors). There is all sorts of evidence that points to a deep historicity of narrative formulation in the Pentateuch even if the exact elements of the narrative are not preserved. This is not the case with the BOM.

    “But to say that the BoM has no value because it doesn’t reliably teach us about ancient America (its internal setting) whereas the Bible has value for what it says about ancient Israel (its original audience) is an unequal comparison.” The value of the BOM, or Bible, was never in question. Red herring. Of course you can find value in all sorts of literature without historicity mattering. The question has always been can we equate historicity issues with the Bible to those with the BOM. Only very superficially, scrutiny will unravel seemingly similar elements. The problem has always been with your argument that it infers depth from superficial comparison, which is why I call the comparison specious.

    “That says more about how widespread are beliefs in Moses’ historicity.” Yes, belief in the historicity of Moses is more widespread. However, skepticism about the historicity of Moses is also widespread even more so than skepticism of Moroni, if only because more people know about Moses than Moroni. I am quite confident that if we polled skeptics of the historicity of Moses that they would overwhelmingly support the idea of a historical Moroni is more implausible than a historical Moses. Famous atheist and writer about religion Sam Harris has made such a point, arguing that Mormonism is more extraordinary than Christianity and Judaism.

    ““70 years after Jesus’s death” How many generations is that? Oh, three?!?” 70 years could be two or even one generation as well. The concept of generation is not connected with a specific period of time. Do you really want to equate the implausibility of the historicity of Jesus with that of Moses, or Abraham, or others? Jesus’s historicity is widely accepted by secular scholars. You compromised your stance on historicity long ago. Now you just don’t want to admit it, so now you resurrect the Jesus argument (pun intended)? A sign of desperation.

    “Sorry, I have just never read or listened to anything put out by either of them.” Now you’re just making bad excuses not to concede ground on my argument. You don’t have to be acquainted with the conspiracy theories for you to understand my point (a few google searches taking no more than 10 minutes would acquaint you enough with conspiracy theories anyway). My point with the conspiracy theories is very clear. Your appeal to lack of knowledge in order to dismiss my point here is disingenuous and shows yet more signs of desperation. You just don’t want to recognize extent because your superficial argument relies on there being no differences in extent or extent not mattering. The historicity of BOM characters is simply MORE implausible than the historicity of Bible characters.

  34. So, “Brandon” – wouldn’t it be easier if you just used the same name each time we have this conversation? – you say Ryan ignores your arguments, but you do much the same by merely repeating that the Book of Mormon has no complex textual history or signs of oral transmission. I disagree, as I outlined in a few posts from a while back:

    There’s no need to re-litigate the whole issue here. My point is rather that you are merely repeating something for which you have no evidence, or any basis to evaluate the evidence, when you say that the Book of Mormon shows no signs of textual transmission.

    I have no expectation that either one of us will convince the other, because that isn’t how things work online, but there’s some hope of understanding why people hold their diverging views. It would be courteous if you’d make the effort to understand my point or Ryan’s point instead of endlessly repeating your disagreement, and it would be helpful if you would simply admit what you think instead of hiding behind personas and rhetorical stances. Given your strong commitment to a secular position and irritation that people continue to believe in the Book of Mormon, I’m fairly certain you’re a lapsed Mormon atheist. Standing up for what you personally believe would be much more productive for everyone, and might lessen your compulsion to tear down what other people believe.

    And do please stop telling people that they are desperately shifting their positions or evading your arguments; that’s 2014 Reddit-level stuff.

    You are of course completely correct that I’m trying to normalize and mainstream belief in the Book of Mormon. I hope this did not come as a surprise. If you read my other posts, you may also discover evidence of my fiendish plot to promote prayer, Sabbath observance, and avoidance of tobacco products.

  35. Jonathan,

    There is evidence of a complex textual history of the Book of Mormon and signs of oral transmission??? OK. Have these arguments gained any traction among non-Mormon experts? No. I’m not arguing against historicity points about the BOM, which is beyond the point. I’m arguing that these points cannot and will not gain acceptance among a non-Mormon secular audience (unless, of course, we find more outside corroborating evidence), hence BOM historicity arguments are asking us to believe much more extraordinary claims than many Bible historicity arguments.

    Now compare this with the Bible. Is there evidence of a complex textual history? Overwhelmingly. It seems all secular scholars of the Bible accept that the Pentateuch had multiple authors. Is there evidence of oral transmission? Again, overwhelmingly. No one claims that a single person in the 500s BCE just came up with the OT out of his imagination. By contrast, it is the commonplace secular argument that the BOM sprang from Joseph Smith’s imagination.

    “It would be courteous if you’d make the effort to understand my point or Ryan’s point”

    I’ve carried on my interaction with you two with courtesy repeatedly trying to understand your points and make sense of them. Your sarcastic remarks about your “fiendish plot to promote prayer, etc.” (where have I taken issue with promoting the BOM historicity as a faith-based claim?) suggest that you’re not willing to afford me same courtesy that you’re asking that I show you.

  36. Brandon, your point seems to be that people who don’t believe in the Book of Mormon…don’t believe in the Book of Mormon, which, as I’ve mentioned, is obvious. It’s not that anyone is ignoring your argument, it’s that you’re really just stating the obvious, and you really only needed to say it once, if at all. Instead you keep repeating it, over and over. Secular scholars will not accept the Book of Mormon as history. Check.

    Your repeated appeals to what non-Mormon experts think is not really doing much for me. Casually dismissing Mormon experts is pernicious, for one thing. I spelled out why I think what I do, and yet the best response you can come up with is to note the lack of an authority you can appeal to. You keep appealing to what secular experts would say, or how a secular argument would go. It’s like trying to hold a conversation with an undergraduate research paper. Even at this point, you refuse to say what you believe in, or what you think of the Book of Mormon. Get back to us when you’re ready to stand up for what you believe, whatever it is.

  37. Jonathan, you’re dismissing my point by misrepresenting it. My point has always been simple. The comparison between Bible and BOM historicity issues is superficial and comes apart under scrutiny. That is a point that you have yet to acknowledge and you need to. Ryan Mullen has tried hard to make the case, but his arguments have no depth (sorry, Ryan, but saying that the BOM is like the Bible because of internal settings is a superficial comparison especially when much of the BOM is lifted verbatim from the KJV OT).

    You question my motivations. Simply put, after years of introspection on the topic, I have come to the belief that faith and reason in the Mormon context cannot and will not blend. This means that I simply cannot see how BOM historicity can be argued on its merits (unless of course we find some undiscovered extraordinary evidence). This puts me in agreement with ex-Mormons (I’m still active in the church, BTW), many orthodox believers, and a select few intellectual believers. I can’t see how you see me as not standing up for what I believe, especially when I’ve been repeatedly disagreeing with a particular point (isn’t that standing up for what I believe?). I’m simply acknowledging a barrier that many believing scholars refuse to acknowledge and in some cases seem to be in denial about, which is that arguments for BOM historicity cannot be argued on grounds of common reason. And by arguing that the BOM’s historicity issues are akin to those of the Bible, you, Ryan, and other apologists I have heard make a similar argument, are trying to find a sort of shortcut to making the case for BOM historicity to a non-Mormon audience (a case which has dogged apologists for decades). You’re trying to suggest that belief in the historicity of Moses is like belief in the historicity of Moroni. Not proven yet, but not too far outside the realm the plausibility. In my experience on talking about the issue, I just don’t think that such a comparison flies, and I could see in many circles how it could be labeled as intellectually dishonest (but I believe that you and Ryan are sincere). It is a huge stretch that doesn’t properly appreciate just how extraordinary the claim is of a pre-Columbian American Christian existing. The idea of the existence of a pre-Kingdom of Israel Yahweh-believer coming from Egypt is just not that extraordinary by comparison.

    As for casually dismissing Mormon experts, no. I acknowledge them as experts and heed their knowledge in their fields of expertise as one should. With one caveat. When it comes to topics on Mormonism, I see them as more prone to bias and to publish their ideas having in mind the dynamics of Mormon social pressure, which we all know is there and can be quite strong. For BOM historicity to have any merit outside Mormonism, we have to have scholars outside Mormonism giving them serious consideration. And I really don’t think comparing Bible historicity issues to BOM historicity issues is a gateway to such consideration for reasons I have repeated above.

    “It’s like trying to hold a conversation with an undergraduate research paper”

    Come on, man. Like you, I have a PhD. I’m trying to be respectful, but your tendency to low blows and sarcasm over disagreements get a bit much.

  38. “Book of Mormon has no…signs of oral transmission”

    We were comparing Joseph Smith with the ancient editors of the Pentateuch. You tell me. Did oral transmission from earlier Israelite generations inform the Pentateuch’s scribes? The late Robert D. Miller, a secular Franciscan, wrote a whole book on that titled Oral Tradition in Ancient Israel. There are many other articles and books on the topic from Bible scholars of repute. So much so, that that appears to be a commonly accepted explanation for the emergence and construction of the Pentateuch. Now did Native American tradition over generations inform Joseph Smith’s construction of the Book of Mormon? No. No one claims that. The traditional explanation is that he unearthed golden plates and translated them from an ancient language that he never learned through divine revelation. The secular explanation is that JS made it up from his imagination or plagiarized from other 19th-century sources such as Spalding. I know of no one who claims that Joseph Smith was remembering and recording things from oral traditions of Native Americans in his immediate environment that he heard over time.

    “I have no expectation that either one of us will convince the other, because that isn’t how things work online”

    You’ve maintained the same exact opinions over time? Discussions haven’t influenced how you believe or influenced you to change your beliefs? Online discussions have completely changed the nature of discourse in Mormonism. I’m not going to immediately change your mind. But I’ve probably made you reconsider how to frame any future arguments about the differences and similarities between Bible and BOM historicity issues. Looking over your posts, historicity has long been of great interest to you. I would expect that you would revisit the topic in the future in light of the many discussions you’ve had.

  39. Brandon, okay, now we’re getting somewhere.

    A comparison is not a claim of identity. If we’re comparing two things – in this case, the Bible and Book of Mormon as historical documents – then of course there are going to be ways they’re substantially or entirely different. But once you note the differences, you can also observe some similarities. My point, for example, was that both describe supernatural events taking place in history, but beyond the reach of historical verification. Or Ryan’s point, about the similarly lengthy delay in time between some elements of the internal story and the text’s external history. That’s interesting. The comparison doesn’t make the historical issues identical, but it gives us something to think about. You can decide that the differences are much more significant than the similarities, but that shouldn’t prevent you from appreciating a few points of similarity.

    I’m still trying to figure out where we disagree. It isn’t in as many places as you may think, although there are certainly some. I tend to see faith and reason as complementary, though, so you may not be satisfied with where this goes.

    Here, in this discussion, generally here on this blog, I’m usually entirely unconcerned with what non-believers think, and I see no prospect of convincing a non-believer that the Book of Mormon is history by rational argument. My concern here is very much about what a believer does with historical questions, which the Book of Mormon certainly raises. Let’s say we’re convinced (by spiritual, non-naturalistic experience) that the Book of Mormon is God-inspired scripture; how do we integrate that with the rest of our knowledge of the world? We can treat the text as a source of inspiration while banishing the narrative to a mythical nowhere, but that seems to me to miss some important points. For one thing, the text seems to be saying: the Holy Land is (also) right here, under your feet. For another, much of the text doesn’t feel mythical to me; a lot of it feels historical. If the text had some form of existence prior to Joseph Smith, what kind of evidence would we look for? If we look for it , do we find anything? (That’s what those prior posts were about.) Can we situate the internal story in external history somehow? Under what constraints? (I’m not absolutely tied to a pre-Columbian setting; see here, for example:

    I wouldn’t say that Moroni and Moses are historical in similar ways. I would say, though, that God’s meeting with Moses on Sinai and Joseph Smith’s meeting with Moroni are quite similar events in that respect. They’re both what animates interest in the text, and they’re both beyond the grasp of historical inquiry. There’s a bubble surrounding the peak of Sinai that the discipline of history can’t enter. You can fit a few pieces of historical context around the far edges, but that’s about it.

    I’ll have to disagree about distrusting Mormon scholars on Mormon topics. It’s not the case that Mormons are biased while everyone else sees matters objectively, not by any means. We don’t ignore French scholars writing about French history, or Marxist scholars writing about socialism. We all face social pressures, and we all try to be as aware and honest about our biases as possible, not always successfully. Mormon scholars are within their rights to have their work judged on its merits.

    As for oral suff in the Book of Mormon: It does require not taking the text’s own story about itself at face value, but that shouldn’t be a problem, since we don’t insist on taking the Bible’s story about itself at face value, either. Just because Mormon thought he was reading plates written personally by Nephi doesn’t make it so, just as sticking 66 chapters of Isaiah together in one book doesn’t mean they must have all had the same author. And oral stuff doesn’t necessary mean oral composition or transmission, as we see from all the traces of orality uncovered in written texts. Authors can record stuff that was composed or transmitted orally and preserve traces of orality, or a literary tradition might preserve oral modes of expression in literate form. So if we think we see oral stuff in the Book of Mormon, we don’t have to appeal to oral transmission or Native American informants to do so – although it might be interesting to think through those options at some point.

    But you say you’ve given this question long thought, and presumably you accept the Book of Mormon as scripture, so what do you do with it? Treat it as inspired but non-historical narrative, or something else?

  40. Jonathan, a few remarks (this is a bit long and I’ll probably make this last comment, unless your response is something that strikes my fancy as warranting a reply)

    “My point…on supernatural…without historical verification. Ryan’s point, about the similarly lengthy delay in time between some elements of the internal story and the text’s external history”

    Yes these are interesting points. Yes, both have many claims to the supernatural. The gap between Moroni and JS is not filled in by people maintaining any sort of oral or written tradition, which is clearly the case with the Bible.

    “I tend to see faith and reason as complementary”

    Wouldn’t so doing suggest that to some extent your thoughts and reactions are gauged by what non-believers think? For how do we arrive at reason without taking into consideration what thinkers across the board think and say, and not just thinkers from our own cultural environments?

    “no prospect of convincing a non-believer that the Book of Mormon is history by rational argument”

    I can’t speak for you, but it would seem that the thrust of many apologists and defenders of Mormonism is to convince believers, particularly questioning/doubting believers, that there is a rational case for many Mormon truth claims. What I’m saying is if that is the case, then we should expect these arguments to have some merit among non-Mormons as well. There are biases in the secular world of experts, but this world is also very diverse and not under social/cultural constraints of a large organized institution.

    “that God’s meeting with Moses on Sinai and Joseph Smith’s meeting with Moroni are quite similar events in that respect”

    Right. There is a comparison there. But I was comparing Moroni to editor of BOM and Moses to editor(s) of Pentateuch.

    “I’ll have to disagree about distrusting Mormon scholars on Mormon topics….”

    I should qualify this more. Believing Mormon scholars have no doubt written impressive works on Mormon history, belief, culture, etc. But there is an area that scholars can’t touch with regard to Mormonism’s truth claims (i.e., BOM historicity), or they can only say certain things about these claims. The social dynamics of Mormon culture are such that scholars face great social constraints (much more than your average secular experts on the topic) to publish anything that could be construed as challenging the official narrative or the authority of the leaders. Many scholars work at BYU. They could face job loss. The September Six incident in the 1990s is proof that the LDS leaders do indeed go after scholars (if they command some level of prominence and attention) if they say something they don’t like.


    Internal evidence in BOM? Yes, of course. If we accept that Mormon/Moroni existed, the plates of Nephi didn’t have to exist, but a migration from Jerusalem had to have occurred. But as I mentioned above, there is no oral tradition connecting the last claimed and recorded events in the BOM and Joseph Smith, but there was between the last claimed and recorded events of various areas of the Bible and their editors.

    “so what do you do with it?”

    I see that as a question for the LDS leaders to answer. I am a cultural Mormon and participate in and celebrate many aspects of its past, its people, and its culture. But I don’t see myself as beholden to any explanation of the doctrinal and historical predicaments that the church finds itself in. Where we can appeal to reason, I say let’s appeal to reason, but that means producing a narrative that can compete for merit on a larger scale among experts across the board (and I don’t see common apologist explanations as doing that, they’re mainly designed to make people think twice about leaving the church rather than convince non-Mormons of rational merit). And then there are areas of faith (belief in oneself, community, raising kids, being a team player, gathering, etc.) where the ballgame is really different. In my experience, most Mormons in the pews don’t actually care about reason that much. They care about how they feel and how the church and its teachings and people help them confront challenges in their day-to-day lives. And that’s where the church excels and has meaning to me. Members mostly use the scriptures as a source of aphorisms and inspirational snippets. We can just use the BOM as that, I guess. Members mostly seem to do that already, blissfully unaware of the storm-like debates that go on about its historicity and so forth.

  41. Yes, let’s wrap this up for now. As you mention, historicity and related topics will come up again.

    Based on what I see BYU professors who blog elsewhere write, I think you’re overestimating the limits on their expression. If the thesis of my post is correct, I’m guessing that a BYU professor could get away with publicly calling the Book of Mormon inspired scripture but a non-historical narrative; where I think they would encounter trouble would be if they poked too hard on the crux of historicity and questioned the reality of Moroni and Joseph Smith’s inspiration as a translator. While figuring out where the boundary runs would be interesting, someone else will have to conduct that experiment with their career.

    When I was teaching at BYU-I, I felt some of the pressures that you bring up. Most of it is in our own heads, I think, especially the social pressure. Some of the concern is quite real, but in my experience it’s not substantially different than what I faced elsewhere, although arising from very different issues. You avoid writing about your current employer, and you try to silence the imaginary search committee in your head.

    I think we may differ on what it means to appeal to reason. I think it’s reasonable to examine my experience and conclude that the best explanation of the world I experience is not purely naturalistic, and then continue reasoning based on a foundation that includes the supernatural. A strict secularist might say: No, it’s all just coincidence and confirmation bias, and if you accept any form of the supernatural, you are no longer speaking rationally. I can’t postpone a decision indefinitely, however, since I only have so many years of life to gather evidence, form an analysis, and act on it. I think proceeding in this way based on incomplete evidence is rational, but others will disagree.

  42. “I’m guessing that a BYU professor could get away with publicly calling the Book of Mormon inspired scripture but a non-historical narrative”

    Do you know any BYU professors or anyone employed by a church-owned organization who has said this? I can only imagine that taking such a position would cause a massive uproar. About two months ago, I emailed FAIRMormon about what they thought about churchistrue, a blogger on Wheat and Tares who claims that the BOM is inspired but not historical and also claims that he is a Mormon apologist. I received email responses from three different volunteers. One said that he considered him a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The others said that his position is untenable and not in line with what the leaders teach.

    “I think we may differ on what it means to appeal to reason.”

    A reasoned idea should gain traction across cultures should it not? That is what makes it reasonable. The ability of others to arrive at the idea without first having to accept a number of culture-specific assumptions. Maintaining that the BOM is historical can’t be argued on reason since it is based on the culture-specific assumption that Joseph Smith could somehow translate from a language he never learned using a seer stone and other culture-specific assumptions such as the idea that you can pray to know things. It is also an idea that has no acceptance outside Mormonism. If we regard culture-specific claims to different supernatural phenomena to be reasonable then that opens up the flood gates for all claims to miracles and the supernatural to be reasonable thus undermining the purpose and structure of reason itself. I’m fine with people saying, “I can’t make the case on reason, but I believe x.” But for Mormon truth claims to be called reasonable, it seems reasonable to expect them to gain acceptance on their merits outside Mormonism among experts in different fields in order to be able to say that.

  43. Brandon, sorry for the late reply. It’s been a busy week.

    My theory of what a BYU professor could say awaits experimental proof, unfortunately. There may be some overlap between “works at BYU” and “regarded as a wolf in sheep’s clothing by FAIRMormon,” so the case of churchistrue may not tell us everything we want to know.

    I think we do in fact differ on how we view reason. The domains where another person can be convinced through nothing but logic seem limited to certain physical or mathematical phenomena. I don’t think we can neatly separate reason from culturally-specific assumptions in many cases. And ideas can find wide acceptance across cultures and among experts and still be very bad ideas. I would say – and I think you might not agree – that we can apply reason to experience, including what we understand to be supernatural experience, without applying a purely secular framework. I think much of our religious life involves trying to figure out through reason how best to act following an experience that is not in itself amenable to reason. We feel like the Book of Mormon is true, for example; now what? It’s the “now what” where we usually have to apply reason in some form.

    So I wouldn’t make the outside expert the judge of what is or isn’t reasonable, since the categories an outside expert provides to explain my religious experiences (delusion, confirmation bias, false consciousness, etc.) are not things from which a religious life can be made.

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