For critics, the Book of Mormon is ridiculously easy to explain, as I’ve learned from my years of interaction with them. Many seem to gravitate toward theories of Joseph as a lazy plagiarist. Too lazy to come up with his own words, he just found scattered phrases in the Bible and some other sources and used them over and over in a clumsy imitation of Biblical language to deal with some popular issues of the day like the origins of the American Indians and the intrigues of Masonry. Then grab a few friends and cajole them into thinking they had magically imagined seeing some gold plates, and bingo, the Book of Mormon and the Church was born.
For those who are willing to recognize the complexity and sophistication of the Book of Mormon text, it can be useful to add a shadowy figure or two to Joseph’s frontier conspiracy, maybe Solomon Spaulding or Sidney Rigdon and associates, someone who may have had the scholarship to imitate Hebraisms and chiasmus, while developing an intricate story line and imaginary geography with the internal consistency needed for a good work of fiction.
The theories of plagiarism immediately satisfy their proponents, but leave a wealth of details quite unaccounted for. As in science, a good theory may begin with some gaps and puzzles, but over time, these should steadily be resolved and the theory, if sound, should increasingly explain the data and be able to account for future discoveries. The ability to explain and resolve should grow with time. When theories are inadequate, the gaps increase with time.
The trend with Book of Mormon data over time is one that I’d like to call attention to. For those of any faith interested in the details and especially the origins of the Book of Mormon, let me point to recent areas of investigation that have yielded many surprises that need to be explained, somehow, if we are to account for what the Book of Mormon actually is, not just what we imagine and hope that it is.
Some of the most important data related to the Book of Mormon is the external tangible data and evidence related to the first book, First Nephi, where we have a clear and specific description of a journey with a known starting point and specific directions and geographical features. Until about 20 or 30 years ago, it was all rather laughable to our scholarly critics who knew that places like Bountiful in the Arabian Peninsula or the River Laman simply did not exist. Now we have a wealth of data confirming the plausibility of the voyage and the places visited. There are plausible candidates for the River Laman, the Valley Lemuel, the south-southwest path, the place Shazer, the ancient burial place Nahom (including an ancient burial place of a similar name in the precise area that fits the text, and 7th-century B.C. archaeological finds confirming a tribe of a similar name inhabited that area–bingo, bingo, bingo), a plausible eastward path from Nahom to the sea, and two nearby competing candidates for the actual place Bountiful itself, with the primary candidate (in my opinion) being Khor Kharfot. It’s not just a surprisingly green spot on the coast of Oman, but one that appears to fit numerous details in the text, even down to the level of being a rare source of iron ore near the surface that plausibly could have been used by Nephi to make tools for the ship he built.
The Arabian Peninsula, including Khor Kharfot, is a physical starting place for better understanding the Book of Mormon. Research at Khor Kharfot in particular is desperately needed to better understand this rare gem that is facing environmental degradation and loss in several ways. Before it is too late, its unique ecosystem and its ancient treasures need to be studied, documented, and preserved. This is a prime starting point for gaining more understanding related to the Book of Mormon. Fortunately, there is an international team of mostly non-LDS scholars and lovers of knowledge and the environment who are joining forces to explore and preserve. I salute the newly formed Khor Kharfot Foundation and encourage all of us to consider making a donation to support their work.
Here is a photo of the Khor Kharfot Foundation team. What a great looking group!
There is another starting place I’d like to suggest. Some of the most interesting and puzzling data related to Book of Mormon origins is coming from extensive scholarly investigation into the dictated text itself, the original Book of Mormon manuscript. This has culminated in the Yale Edition of the Book of Mormon, which now serves as the best we have for a critical text for the original Book of Mormon. It’s what we need to be using for scholarly analysis of the text if we are interested in exploring its origins and the translation process.
The details uncovered by Royal Skousen provide strong confirmation that the text was dictated and written line by line by a scribe based on what he heard dictated, often showing the kind of mistakes and corrections consistent with a dictation process. But there is far more interesting evidence coming from the language itself as dictated. What once was thought to be a lot of hick grammar actually is good grammar, but from several decades before the rise of the King James Bible. The work of Royal Skousen and Stanford Carmack provide a rich body of new data that we need to understand and account for, somehow, wherever that leads. This is one of the new frontiers for Book of Mormon research. I’ll discuss why I think it is especially important in a future post.