While serving as a guest on an LDS radio show on Utah’s K-TALK radio station on Sunday, I had a minister call in [update: he does seminars on the Mormons, but isn’t a regular minister] to ask a question, after a tangential cheap shot in which he claimed that what we say we believe in public and what we actually teach are different. When he got to his question, he asked, “Can you name a non-LDS archaeologist who has publicly verified that the Book of Mormon is real history?” Suspecting that the question wasn’t quite sincere, my initial response was, “I’ll answer that if the question cuts both ways and can be applied to the Bible as well. So may I ask you if there are non-Christian archaeologists who can confirm that Jesus was actually resurrected, or that–” He interrupted me at this point (if memory serves me correctly) and complained that this is how other Mormons have engaged in “game playing” and refusing to answer his questions.
At this point I should have stuck to my guns and insisted on putting forth my counter-question, and perhaps pointed out what his agenda was (not to mention the hostile behavior in demanding that his loaded question be answered as is – please note Christ’s example shows it is entirely appropriate to handle hostile questions with counter-questions). I should have said something like this:
Excuse me, but when you preach to your congregation about the Bible, do you ask them to only accept it if they can find non-believing scholars who, on the basis of archaeological evidence alone, feel compelled to publicly admit that the stories of Jesus Christ are real history? That the Resurrection occurred, for example? Or for the Old Testament, must they find atheistic scientists who will publicly admit that the Creation story in Genesis must be true? Or non-believing archaeologists who can verify that Moses defeated Pharaoh with miracles and that the Exodus really occurred?
If anyone did tell your congregation that they needed this kind of witness from non-believers before they should believe, wouldn’t you find that ridiculous? First, why would any non-believer jeopardize his or her career by publicly affirming the truth of a religious record they and their peers reject? Second, do you recognize what a limited instrument archeology is when it comes to assessing detailed historical events and especially sacred writings? How could it possibly prove the reality of the Resurrection, for example, or Nephi’s crossing to the New World, or the visit of Christ to the Nephites? Isn’t evidence for plausibility, not proof that specific events occurred, often the best you can hope for?
But trying to go along and keep our caller happy, I tried to answer what I thought his question was after and began discussing examples of evidence from archeology and related fields that provide plausibility for the Book of Mormon. But after mere seconds I was interrupted again with a second wave of protests about “not answering the question.”
You see, it wasn’t a real question at all, otherwise he would have been interested in understanding what evidences might be worth considering. He wasn’t looking for evidence, but wanted to attack by calling attention to a straw man based on his demand for non-believing authorities. He demanded the authority of a non-LDS scholar in one particular field, archeology, to publicly state that the evidence “proved” that the Book of Mormon was real history. Even “true-blue Mormon” LDS scholars would hesitate to say that – about either the Book of Mormon or the Bible. They might speak of evidence for plausibility and authenticity, of valuable insights into the text gained from academic fields, and of the difficulty of anyone in Joseph Smith’s day fabricating certain aspects of the text based on what was known then. But this is not to prove, but to refute attacks and provide a basis for plausibility to help people keep their minds open so they can read the text and experience the divine, life-changing power of the Spirit that be found in studying, applying, pondering and praying about the Word of God.
No offense to you non-believing archaeologists out there, but I’m not going to sit around and wait for you to make dramatic discoveries and career-destroying moves in which you, as a non-believer, publicly declare that based on archaeological evidence alone, you have proof that we believers in the Book of Mormon or Bible have been right all along. But if that day comes, be sure to post it here at Mormanity first.
I should also point out that since the Bible was written by people in Israel, a nation that is still there and where many place names have been around since the time the text was written, it is no surprise to find that it mentions places like Jerusalem that we still know of today. The fact that Jerusalem once existed provides no basis for accepting the Christian message or any of the religious beliefs of the Bible. It is only the divine and miraculous aspects where evidence becomes significant. Do we have evidence for the Exodus? For the miracles of Jesus? The Resurrection? The life of Abraham or the Patriarchs? Anybody dug up the Garden of Eden with a petrified tree of life and once-flaming sword? In these matters, archeology offers little reason to believe – of course, there is no reason why it should. Faith is still needed – and that’s by design.
For the Book of Mormon, the origins of the text are entirely connected to the miraculous. An angel brought Joseph to the book. It was written by a people who were destroyed. Their language is lost. Many other peoples have swept over their lands. We think it took place in Mesoamerica, where almost no ancient place names from Book of Mormon times remain in use today (a rare exception being Lamanai, Belize, but as close as that is to the Book of Mormon name Lamoni, it may simply be coincidence). This is a part of the world where archeology is in its infancy compared to Biblical archeology in the Old World. So we’re just beginning to identify possible locations, etc. In the Book of Mormon case, finding direct matches for ancient place names unknown to Joseph Smith out to be a big deal. Some of the most exciting material comes from the Old World where much more is known, especially the Arabian Peninsula. For example, finding an ancient burial site named Nahom in the Arabian Peninsula in the right location ought to be very exciting. Our critic couldn’t care less, though – he wasn’t interested in that. It didn’t “answer” his question. Finding evidence of plausibility for many aspects of the text ought to be exciting and something that sincere followers of Christ might wish to consider. Or not. It’s up to you.
In my view, sometimes a consideration of evidence for plausibility is helpful. Not because God is going to eliminate the need for faith thanks to all the proof that non-believers are going to sheepishly point to. Not because God has decided to start giving signs when demanded by skeptics. But sometimes a little intellectual stimulus can help people overcome the attacks of the Adversary long enough for faith to sprout. There are some evidences in favor of Book of Mormon plausibility that demand attention. I hope you’ll consider them, for what they are worth. I list a few on my Book of Mormon Evidences page, but it’s just a small scattering of what could be discussed. But it’s a place to start, I suppose. Also read a few issues of the publications at the Maxwell Institute. But most importantly, read the Book of Mormon and give it a chance.