A critic recently asked me a tough question: what’s the single most impressive piece of evidence for the Book of Mormon? Based on prior statements from this critic, he certainly wasn’t looking for evidence that might change his life and open his mind, but was looking for a way to make his life easier by simplifying his job of attacking the Book of Mormon. So he wasn’t looking for evidence to sincerely consider, but for evidence to vigorously dismiss. I can understand the frustration of critics who feel like dismissing the Book of Mormon is frustrating given the increasingly long lists of evidences that defenders of the sacred record can offer these days, complicated by the steady stream of discoveries being published at Interpreter and Book of Mormon Central. So instead of trying to tackle so many issues, there’s a need to just identify the one best target, focus efforts there, and declare ultimate victory, for if the single best evidence for the Book of Mormon can be readily refuted, there’s no need to engage other issues, right?
Focusing on one “single best” piece of evidence is not a valid way to find truth, but can be a great way to attack it. Even if looking at intellectual evidence were all that were required to determine the truthfulness and divinity of the Book of Mormon, exclusively considering just the “single best” leaves out the vast majority of relevant evidence, and one person’s view of what’s “best” may be subjective, transitory, and flawed. That person’s choice on any given day might be something that isn’t all that solid. In science, in court cases, and in all intellectual pursuits, evidence is something that needs to be considered collectively. Imagine the fun a corrupt court could have with the “one best” rule: “The court hereby requires the counsel for the defense to just pick your one best witness, and then only focus on your one best argument — you have up to five minutes — before we reach the decision to execute the defendant.”
Nevertheless, realizing that some people might be willing to consider the evidence and might really want to understand more, what evidence is most important and impressive? I chose to make some comments regarding what may be among the single best evidences for the plausibility of the Book of Mormon as an ancient text, written on gold plates, giving an account that begins in Jerusalem and describes a migration of a small Hebrew group to the New World, and ultimately giving us an ancient record that bears witness of the divinity of Jesus Christ. Here are the slightly-updated thoughts I offered:
- A Solid Understanding of the Text. The most important test is to read and ponder the text itself, to more fully understand what the book is and does, in order to even begin contemplating what is being tested and why it matters. Deep reading, pondering, and even prayer is a key to experiencing the profound power of this controversial text. The “evidence” thus obtained in one’s mind and heart may be the most important, though we cannot stop there. But as one reads, ponders, and prays, one can test the text to obtain increased understanding. One can then test it to see if it is plausibly a crude fabrication from a 19th century farm boy and conman, or an eloquent ancient text showing the influence of multiple distinct authors with their own styles and techniques, with content and structure indicative of ancient origins. Only by first understanding it can one evaluate whether it is more than mere inspiring fiction, but has divine power as an authentic, sacred witness of Christ written by true prophets of God and preserved for our day.
- Witnesses. After understanding and evaluating the text itself, perhaps the clearest single evidentiary issue is the eye-witness accounts of those who saw or felt the plates, and those who also watched the translation process. A great deal of scholarship reveals that their accounts are credible and reliable, and leave no room for thinking that the gold plates never existed or that all who bore testimony of them were deceivers out to make a buck or gain power over others. The film “Witnesses” from Interpreter Foundation is one of the best summaries of the detailed historical work on the Three Witnesses. But there were many more witnesses, including the 8 witnesses and others as well. The witness of multiple people, including non-members, on the translation process also confirms the miraculous nature of the translation process, done without consulting notes, books, etc., dictating large chunks of text at a remarkable pace for any translation or creative writing effort.
- Ancient Paradigms: Covenant Making. The Book of Mormon reveals its ancient origins subtly through the pervasive ancient paradigms found in its pages. The way covenants were made, for example, reflects paradigms from the Ancient Near East that were not yet known to bible scholars in Joseph’s day, such as the six-step “covenant formulary” pattern that can be found not only in the restored temple paradigms of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but also in King Benjamin’s speech. See Stephen D. Ricks, “Kingship, Coronation, and Covenant in Mosiah 1–6,” Stephen D. Ricks, “Kingship, Coronation, and Covenant in Mosiah 1–6” in King Benjamin’s Speech, ed. by John Welch and Stephen Ricks (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1998), 233–275 (also discussed on my post on King Benjamin’s speech at Arise From the Dust).
- Ancient Paradigms: The Religious Landscape in Jerusalem, 600 B.C. For those who appreciate the work of the Protestant Bible scholar Margaret Barker, a highly impressive complex of evidence involves the way First Nephi corroborates her work. She was amazed and delighted to learn of the details provided by the Book of Mormon about the religious strife in Jerusalem in 600 B.C. and the persecution of prophetic figures clinging to what she sees as the original, old Jewish ways including belief in a council of heaven, prophetic visions, belief in a Messiah as the son of God, etc. She has become an ardent fan of the Book of Mormon based on her scholarship and how the Book of Mormon resonates so clearly with what she has uncovered. For starters, see “Paradigms Regained: A Survey of Margaret Barker’s Scholarship and Its Significance for Mormon Studies” by Kevin Christensen, FARMS Occasional Papers, 2001. Also see Margaret Barker, “What Did Josiah Reform?“
- Ancient Paradigms: Hebrew Literary Tools and Scribal Practices. For those who appreciate the significance of ancient rhetoric, poetry, and scribal traditions, the abundant scholarship based on textual analysis of the Book of Mormon may provide the most fascinating complex of evidences, and has become a “go to” topic for many more educated Latter-day Saints. The best known issue in this complex might the abundant and eloquent use of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon (see also the collection of articles on chiasmus at Book of Mormon Central and the impressive 2020 supplemental volume of BYU Studies focused on chiasmus), a topic that has gained respect and interest among some secular scholars. But this complex also includes much more, including a host of rhetorical and poetical techniques, abundant apparent Hebrew wordplays, particularly on names, as evidenced in the extensive works of Matthew Bower and others (search for Bowen at https://journal.interpreterfoundation.org/journal/), and the analysis from Noel Reynolds and others on ancient scribal techniques evident in the Book of Mormon. For the latter, I suggest starting with the first three or four most recent articles of Dr. Reynolds listed at Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship.
- The Arabian Peninsula Evidence: Lehi’s Trail. For those wanting hard, tangible evidence that doesn’t require on sifting through historical accounts from witnesses or complex scholarship on ancient paradigms, perhaps the clearest issue to understand and verify is the plausibility of Lehi’s Trail. The story seemed ridiculous right up until recently, with critics mocking the idea of a River Laman or that such a place as Bountiful could even exist. Now there is a flood of evidence supporting the plausibility of the details we find in 1 Nephi 16 and 17, with remarkable candidates for the River Laman in the Valley Lemuel, the hunting place called Shazer, the place of burial for Ishmael called (by others) with the name transliterated as Nahom, and the place Bountiful. Even some very minor details have corroboration such as how travel to and from Jerusalem is described (i.e., going “up” or “down” to places accurately matching the real geography), or the strange fact that when Lehi’s group left the camp in the Valley of Lemuel, they packed up, walked across the river, and then immediately began going south-southeast to Shazer. Even after the candidate for the Valley of Lemuel and River Laman was found at Wadi Tayib al-Ism, 3 days south of the beginning of the Red Sea as Nephi indicates (it’s 75 miles south, so this would be 3 days of travel by camels, of course, which is surely how they traveled and carried their tents and supplies), that detail of crossing the river and then going south-southeast seemed to be leaving out the necessary step of exiting the great granite rift/valley that the River Laman is in before a south-southeast journey could begin, but it was only last year that we learned that the most logical encampment site in the valley is on the north side of the stream and that immediately across from the camp site is an opening in the wall, leading to another wadi that indeed would allow them to travel south-southeast for four days, as the text indicates, and arrive at a superb candidate for Shazer, with no backtracking required. See “Nephi’s ‘Shazer’: The Fourth Arabian Pillar of the Book of Mormon.” The River Laman, Shazer, and Bountiful are hard geographical details that one can view on Google Earth and for which detailed information and photos are available.
All these details converge in an interesting way at Nahom, where Ishmael was buried. Search for Nahom or Arabia at InterpreterFoundation.org and Book of Mormon Central or read Warren Aston’s book, Lehi and Sariah in Arabia. Here we have a place accessible from the River Laman and Shazer by traveling a general south-southeastern route, and remarkably, one can then turn due east from Nahom (as Lehi’s group does, heading “nearly east” after the burial) and wander into a wadi with no impassable barriers that would bring the group to a rare fertile spot offering a miraculously appropriate candidate for Bountiful. The place where Nahom needs to be, given the locations of Bountiful and the the River Laman + Shazer, just happens to be in or near the tribal lands of the ancient Nihm tribe, whose name in ancient Southeast Arabic is NHM and has been transliterated in several modern maps as Nehem. One recent modern map, for example, lists NEHEM as an “ancient burial site” (but of course, there are burial sites all over populated regions — but much of Yemen and Arabia is unpopulated, so having an ancient burial site in the Nehem region is not completely trivial evidence).For those who wonder if the NHM tribe even existed in Lehi’s day and need something more than geographical evidence, we have the icing on the cake of hard archaeological evidence dating to the 7th or 8th century BC in the form of votive altars donated to the nearby temple at Marib (about 70 miles away from modern Nihm tribal lands) by a prominent member of the NHM tribe, and other inscriptions thereafter showing continuity of the NHM tribe in that general region. There was a NHM tribe in the area in Lehi’s day. (As another minor aside, we also have hard archaeological evidence showing that there was at least one man named Ishmael, apparently a foreigner and possibly a Hebrew, who was buried in the Nihm region around the 6th century BC: see “An Ishmael Buried Near Nahom“. That doesn’t mean it was our Ishmael in the Book of Mormon, but it certainly contributes to the plausibility of the account.)So contrary to what is commonly said, the Arabian Peninsula evidence is far more than just a random NHM name that we found and tried contrive a story to make it count as evidence. If the River Laman and the place Bountiful are considered and the directions of travel given in the text are considered, then the Book of Mormon would seem to require that the ancient place Nahom be near northern Yemen, not just anywhere in the Arabian Peninsula. That there was an ancient Nehem/Nihm tribe in that region, backed with archaeological evidence showing their existence there in Lehi’s day, in just the right place where one can turn east after long southern travel and then avoid the Great Empty Quarter and another impassable dessert to the south, but travel nearly due east unimpeded (though water would be more scarce, but not impossibly so — indeed, the text indicates that this was an especially difficult part of the journey) and then reach the miraculous place Bountiful, exactly as the text describes, must be understood as more than a trivial factoid, more than creative adjusting of the narrative to make random trivia seem impressive.So for me, if someone says what’s the most interesting hard, tangible evidence for the Book of Mormon, I would say it is the complex of evidences from the Arabian Peninsula with four pillars, each worthy of much study: the River Laman in the Valley of Lemuel, the place Shazer, the place that was called Nahom where Ishmael was buried, and the place nearly due east of Nahom, Bountiful. Efforts to deny its significance fail, IMO. See “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Map: Part 1 of 2″ and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Map: Part 2 of 2.”
- The Voice from the Dust. However, the “one best” evidence that I think means the most to me, at least right now (“one best” is a variable target!) involves the way the Book of Mormon serves as a “voice from the dust” to testify of Christ, and in so doing, artfully and properly employs ancient motifs related to rising from the dust, as explained just a few decades ago by biblical scholar Walter Brueggeman. This evidence naturally leads to the related evidence for the apparent existence of something closely related to our modern Book of Moses on the Nephite’s plates of brass that strongly influenced the Book of Mormon. This is a heavy topic but one that has had a profound impact on my testimony of the reality and antiquity of the Book of Mormon. It brings together issues such as Hebrew poetry and rhetoric (chiasmus, inclusio, etc.), textual analysis, and other lines of evidences, and serves as an explanation for a number of puzzles in the text, adding depth and meaning, and steadily testifying of Christ and His Gospel. See, for example, “Strong Like unto Moses”: The Case for Ancient Roots in the Book of Moses Based on Book of Mormon Usage of Related Content Apparently from the Brass Plates, as well as “Arise from the Dust”: Insights from Dust-Related Themes in the Book of Mormon (Part 1: Tracks from the Book of Moses) and “Arise from the Dust”: Insights from Dust-Related Themes in the Book of Mormon (Part 2: Enthronement, Resurrection, and Other Ancient Motifs from the “Voice from the Dust”).You may also with to view my presentation on this topic given in 2018 at the FAIR Conference in Provo, Utah. I may be speaking a bit fast as I tried to cram a lot of material into one talk, but I feel it reasonably expresses what this topic has meant to me personally as one of my favorite issues on the power, beauty, and authenticity of the Book of Mormon:
- Much more! Others might point to many other factors, such as the volcanic ash evidence related to the volcanic activity apparently described in the Book of Mormon, or the evidence that the language of the dictated text, based on the scholarship of Royal Skousen and Stanford Carmack, clearly shows that Joseph was dictating language that is not simply a mashup of KJV language or his own dialect, but language with a strong Early Modern English flavor that is distinct and often slight earlier than the English of the KJV Bible. This is a complex and controversial issue, but one based on hard data with strong implications that Joseph Smith is not the author. Which of the many issues offered as evidence for the origins of the Book of Mormon are “the one best” issue to focus will depend on the student and what assumptions he or she bring to the table about what is most relevant. I’d suggest that those interested look at Item #1 above and after gaining an overview of the text, then explore some of the many issues raised at Book of Mormon Central, Interpreter, FAIR, and other websites.