Kathryn Jenk­ins Gor­don recent­ly read through the Book of Mor­mon with a dis­tinct pur­pose:

I want­ed to deter­mine how many evi­dences were found in the Book of Mor­mon itself sup­port­ing the fact that it was trans­lat­ed from an ancient doc­u­ment and not writ­ten by Joseph Smith in the ear­ly 19th cen­tu­ry.

She doc­u­ment­ed her find­ings in 3 Exam­ples of Evi­dence That Sup­port the Book of Mor­mon, an arti­cle post­ed recent­ly in LDSLiv­ing.

Gen­er­al­ly, I think she did a great job of sum­ma­riz­ing inter­est­ing evi­dence that is con­sis­tent with the idea that the Book of Mor­mon is an ancient record (Although I think she mis­un­der­stood or sig­nif­i­cant­ly over­stat­ed the evi­dence for hors­es in Book of Mor­mon times—but I’ll address that in turn.)

About a year and a half ago I read through Mormon’s Codex, John Sorenson’s mag­num opus, which metic­u­lous­ly details all the cor­re­spon­dences between mesoamer­i­ca and the Book of Mor­mon. And, like Gor­don, I was impressed by the num­ber of cor­re­spon­dences that exist­ed between the Book of Mor­mon and the ancient world.

How­ev­er, in the inter­est of fair­ness, I also decid­ed to exam­ine all the data which might sup­port a mod­ern ori­gin for the Book of Mor­mon. In doing so, I was stunned by the num­ber of cor­re­spon­dences between the Book of Mor­mon and ideas float­ing around Joseph Smith’s milieu.

I am not the first to notice these cor­re­spon­dences with Joseph’s envi­ron­ment. For instance, Richard Bushman—a devout mem­ber and emer­i­tus Pro­fes­sor of His­to­ry at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty—recent­ly observed:

… there is phras­ing everywhere–long phras­es that if you google them you will find them in 19th cen­tu­ry writ­ings. The the­ol­o­gy of the Book of Mor­mon is very much 19th cen­tu­ry the­ol­o­gy, and it reads like a 19th cen­tu­ry under­stand­ing of the Hebrew Bible as an Old Tes­ta­ment …

I will address each of the evi­dences that Gor­don pre­sent­ed and show how Joseph Smith may have been able to glean such ideas from his envi­ron­ment (most often the Bible, with which Joseph was arguably very famil­iar). Final­ly, I’ll wrap up by point­ing to some of the par­al­lels between the Book of Mor­mon and oth­er ideas com­mon to the ear­ly 1800s.

Olives, Steel, and Horses

Olives

Gor­don writes:

Hon­est­ly, think about it. Could Joseph Smith, who had only three years of for­mal school­ing, have been acquaint­ed enough with ancient hor­ti­cul­tur­al prac­tices to write the alle­go­ry of the olive tree, with all its detailed descrip­tion? Not like­ly.

The para­ble of the Olive Tree may be viewed as an amal­ga­ma­tion and embell­ish­ment of Romans 11 and Isa­iah 5. Paul, in Romans 11, uses an olive tree as a metaphor and Isa­iah uses a vin­yard. They are sim­i­lar, but also some­what dis­tinct, and the slight dif­fer­ence is appar­ent in Jacob 5—in fact the patch­work is still evi­dent.

Halfway through the para­ble, the Jacob 5 author shifts from a focus on the olive tree to a focus on the whole vine­yard (in Jacob 5:41). As Curt van den Heuv­el has point­ed out “the break appears at the same point that the Book of Mor­mon quotes a pas­sage from Isa­iah.” From then on, the the author of Jacob 5 “refers exclu­sive­ly to the ‘fruit of the vine­yard’, appar­ent­ly for­get­ting that vine­yards yield grapes, not olives.” (source: Curt van den Heuv­el, here, and here).

In addi­tion, Joseph grew up in a farm­ing com­mu­ni­ty and was undoubt­ed­ly famil­iar with apple cul­ti­va­tion and graft­ing, which is sim­i­lar to that described for olive trees.

Steel

Gor­don writes that ear­ly crit­ics scoffed at the idea that steel would have exist­ed when Nephi men­tions break­ing his bow of “fine steel”. Lat­er, Gor­don reports, archae­ol­o­gists found “that var­i­ous com­bi­na­tions of iron and steel exist­ed near Jerusalem as ear­ly as 600 B.C.” This is clear­ly a win for view­ing the Book of Mor­mon as an ancient record. [edit: It’s pos­si­ble that these were not actu­al­ly steel swords, as orig­i­nal­ly pre­sumed by some apol­o­gists. See this analy­sis which sug­gests that the orig­i­nal claim may have been base­less]. How­ev­er, oth­er men­tions of steel in the Book of Mor­mon run counter to avail­able archae­o­log­i­cal evi­dence.

Steel is men­tioned five times in the Book of Mor­mon (Ether 7:9, 1 Nephi 4:9, 1 Nephi 16:18, 2 Nephi 5:15 and Jar 1:8). The dis­cov­ery of steel being used in the ancient Mid­dle East makes 1 Nephi 4:9 and 1 Nephi 16:18 his­tor­i­cal­ly plau­si­ble in that regard. How­ev­er, we have two ref­er­ences to the Nephites in the new world work­ing in steel—and they exist 180 years apart:

2 Nephi 5:15 — “work in all man­ner of wood, and of iron, and of cop­per, and of brass, and of steel, and of gold, and of sil­ver, and of pre­cious ores” (~580 BC)

And again:

Jarom 1:8 — “work­man­ship of wood, in build­ings, and in machin­ery, and also in iron and cop­per, and brass and steel, mak­ing all man­ner of tools of every kind to till the ground, and weapons of war—yea, the sharp point­ed arrow, and the quiver, and the dart, and the javelin, and all prepa­ra­tions for war” (~400 BC)

Final­ly, we have ref­er­ence to the Jared­ites mak­ing many “swords out of steel” on the ancient Amer­i­can con­ti­nent well before 600 BC:

Ether 7:9 — “Where­fore, he came to the hill Ephraim, and he did molten out of the hill, and made swords out of steel for those whom he had drawn away with him”

The big prob­lem is that there is no record of steel being made in pre-columbian Amer­i­ca (source).

But if we look to Joseph Smith’s milieu, we find the idea that the ancient Amer­i­cans were skilled in met­al work com­mon­place in the ear­ly 1800s. For instance, The View of the Hebrews talks about the ancient inhab­i­tants work­ing met­als in sev­er­al places (here are two exam­ples):

The Taultees intro­duced the cul­ti­va­tion of maize and cot­ton; they built cities, made roads, and con­struct­ed those great pyra­mids, which are yet admired, and of which the faces are very accu­rate­ly laid out. They knew the use of hiero­glyph­i­cal paint­ings; they could found met­als, and cut the hard­est stones.

we now see that they pos­sessed the art of work­ing met­als

And “The Nat­ur­al and Abo­rig­i­nal His­to­ry of Ten­nessee,” pub­lished in Ten­nessee in 1823, describes the native Amer­i­cans work­ing in steel:

They had swords of iron and steel, and steel bows, and mir­rors with iron backs, knives of iron, with fer­ules of sil­ver: tools also of iron and steel… (empha­sis added; source)

Hence the pres­ence of steel (and a steel bow in par­tic­u­lar) in the Book of Mor­mon may mere­ly reflect the think­ing of Joseph Smith’s time (there was steel in pre-Columbian Amer­i­ca), rather than what is under­stood today (there was no steel in pre-Columbian Amer­i­ca).

Horses

Gor­don says:

But once more, archae­o­log­i­cal evi­dence dis­cov­ered in the past few decades proves that hors­es exist­ed on the Amer­i­can con­ti­nent as ear­ly as 2600 B.C. There is no way Joseph Smith could have known such evi­dence exist­ed as he was trans­lat­ing the ancient records.

The prob­lem is that there is no indis­putable evi­dence that hors­es exist­ed by the time that Nephi arrived (~600 BC) as described in 1 Nephi:

1 Nephi 18:25 — “And it came to pass that we did find upon the land of promise, as we jour­neyed in the wilder­ness, that there were beasts in the forests of every kind, both the cow and the ox, and the ass and the horse…”

Nor do we find any evi­dence for hors­es being used in the man­ner described in the Book of Mor­mon (i.e., to escort peo­ple and char­i­ots around):

Alma 20:6 — Now when Lam­oni had heard this he caused that his ser­vants should make ready his hors­es and his char­i­ots.

For a “best case” com­pre­hen­sive treat­ment of the top­ic, see Daniel Johnson’s BYU Stud­ies arti­cle “‘Hard’ Evi­dence of Ancient Amer­i­can Hors­es”. John­son admits:

so far no incon­tro­vert­ible proof of Book of Mor­mon hors­es exists—that is to say, phys­i­cal remains con­clu­sive­ly dat­ed to around 500 BC (and ear­li­er) from sup­posed Book of Mor­mon lands in Mesoamer­i­ca are yet to be found.

So, even though LDS apol­o­gists have some evi­dence that they think is worth con­sid­er­ing, to date there is not enough evi­dence to con­vince a sin­gle non-LDS schol­ar of its legit­i­ma­cy.

Final­ly, the ani­mals asso­ci­at­ed with ancient mesoamer­i­can sites have now been cat­a­logued fair­ly exten­sive­ly. Archae­ol­o­gists have found the bones of all kinds of oth­ers ani­mals inte­grat­ed into meso-amer­i­can civ­i­liza­tion—but they have not found evi­dence of hors­es. This lack of evi­dence for hors­es in the face of much evi­dence for many oth­er kinds of ani­mals in mesoamer­i­ca have forced apol­o­gists to con­sid­er the alter­na­tive idea that Book of Mor­mon ref­er­ences to “hors­es” were in fact ref­er­ences to “tapirs”.

What about Joseph Smith’s milieu in the ear­ly 1800s? A fron­tiers­man in the ear­ly 1830’s would have no rea­son to sus­pect that hors­es were not present in the ancient Amer­i­c­as. For instance, ancient horse arti­facts are men­tioned in “The Nat­ur­al and Abo­rig­i­nal His­to­ry of Ten­nessee”, pub­lished in Ten­nessee in 1823. But dat­ing tech­niques such as car­bon-14 dat­ing were still more than 100 years from being invent­ed, so Joseph Smith would not have known that hors­es were not present in the Amer­i­c­as dur­ing Book of Mor­mon times.

Fortifications and the Land of Bountiful

Fortifications

Gor­don quotes Soren­son to describe the dis­cov­ery of for­ti­fi­ca­tions sim­i­lar to those described in the Book of Mor­mon:

No doubt, this is a great cor­re­spon­dence between meso-Amer­i­can for­ti­fi­ca­tions and the for­ti­fi­ca­tions described in the Book of Mor­mon.

How­ev­er, did descrip­tions of these kinds of for­ti­fi­ca­tions exist in Joseph Smith’s time?

James Adair’s “A His­to­ry of the Amer­i­can Indi­ans” con­tains this account:

Through the whole con­ti­nent, and in the remotest woods, are traces of their ancient war­like dis­po­si­tion. We fre­quent­ly met with great mounds of earth, either of a cir­cu­lar, or oblong form, hav­ing a strong breast-work at a dis­tance around them, made of the clay which had been dug up in form­ing the ditch on the inner side of the inclosed ground, and these were their forts of secu­ri­ty against an ene­my… About 12 miles from the upper north­ern parts of the Chok­tah coun­try, there stand…two oblong mounds of earth…in an equal direc­tion with each oth­er… A broad deep ditch inclosed those two fortress, and there they raised an high breast-work, to secure their hous­es from the invad­ing ene­my. (pgs 377–378)

And this account was pub­lished in 1826:

In the most pleas­ing posi­tions of these prairies we have our Indi­an mounds, which proud­ly rise above the plain. At first the eye mis­takes them for hiss; but when it catch­es the reg­u­lar­i­ty of their breast­works and ditch­es, it dis­cov­ers at once that they are the labours of art and of men. (source)

And many oth­er books of the time describe the impres­sive for­ti­fi­ca­tions built in North Amer­i­ca and Mex­i­co (see com­pi­la­tion by San­dra Tan­ner).

Bountiful

I agree with Gor­don that it is a great find for Book of Mor­mon apol­o­gists that such a place as Boun­ti­ful, in the approx­i­mate loca­tion it need­ed to be, was dis­cov­ered. How­ev­er, the idea of an oasis in the desert may also be derived from a promi­nent descrip­tion in the Bible (Exo­dus 15):

22 So Moses brought Israel from the Red sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness, and found no water.
23 And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter: therefore the name of it was called Marah.
24 And the people murmured against Moses, saying, What shall we drink?
25 And he cried unto the Lord; and the Lord shewed him a tree, which when he had cast into the waters, the waters were made sweet: there he made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there he proved them,
26 And said, If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the Lord thy God, and wilt do that which is right in his sight, and wilt give ear to his commandments, and keep all his statutes, I will put none of these diseases upon thee, which I have brought upon the Egyptians: for I am the Lord that healeth thee.
27 And they came to Elim, where were twelve wells of water, and threescore and ten palm trees: and they encamped there by the waters.

The Language

River of water

Gor­don sug­gests that a ref­er­ence to a “riv­er of water” is evi­dence of ancient ori­gin since only a desert dweller would know to dis­tin­guish between dry rivers and year-round “rivers of water”.

But the phrase “riv­er of water” is found in Rev­e­la­tion 22:1:

And he shewed me a pure riv­er of water of life, clear as crys­tal, pro­ceed­ing out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. (empha­sis added)

Also, because it was found in the Bible, the phrase also turns up in much of the devo­tion­al lit­er­a­ture of Joseph Smith’s day.

In addi­tion, the Late War, which was like­ly avail­able to Joseph Smith and is very sim­i­lar to the Book of Mor­mon styl­is­ti­cal­ly, fre­quent­ly uses the “con­struct state” (e.g., “balls of lead”).

Giv­en the influ­ence of the Bible and the poten­tial influ­ence of The Late War on Joseph, use of the phrase “riv­er of water” seems less remark­able.

Altar of stones

Gor­don sug­gests that the author of the Book of Mor­mon under­stood the dif­fer­ence between an “altar of stones” and a “stone altar” and chose the appro­pri­ate descrip­tion. How­ev­er, “altar of stone” is used twice in the KJV Bible while “stone altar” is nev­er used:

Deuteron­o­my 27:5 — And there shalt thou build an altar unto the LORD thy God, an altar of stones: thou shalt not lift up any iron tool upon them.

Exo­dus 20:25 — And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast pol­lut­ed it.

And, as men­tioned above, The Late War fre­quent­ly uses the “con­struct state” (e.g., “balls of lead”).

Here again, use of the con­struct “altar of stones” is rather unre­mark­able if the book is of mod­ern ori­gin.

Only women allowed to officially mourn

Gor­don writes:

Anoth­er tid­bit Joseph Smith almost cer­tain­ly wouldn’t have known: in the desert Arab cul­ture, only the women were allowed to offi­cial­ly mourn.

The idea of women being the pri­ma­ry mourn­ers in that cul­ture seems deriv­able from the Bible (Jere­mi­ah 9):

17 Thus saith the LORD of hosts, Consider ye, and call for the mourning women, that they may come; and send for cunning women, that they may come:
18 And let them make haste, and take up a wailing for us, that our eyes may run down with tears, and our eyelids gush out with waters.
20 Yet hear the word of the LORD, O ye women, and let your ear receive the word of his mouth, and teach your daughters wailing, and every one her neighbour lamentation.

So, once again, we do not nec­es­sar­i­ly need to look any fur­ther than the Bible as an influ­ence for the idea of women as the pri­ma­ry mourn­ers.

The Ultimate Test

Gor­don con­cludes by sug­gest­ing that all the evi­dences will not cre­ate a tes­ti­mo­ny. She says:

Tes­ti­mo­ny comes only from read­ing with real intent, pon­der­ing, and pray­ing. If you haven’t yet done so, apply the for­mu­la found in Moroni 10:3–5. Rely on the Holy Ghost to teach and tes­ti­fy to you. It works every time.

Even though Moroni’s promise is viewed by mem­bers as a sil­ver bul­let, there are legit­i­mate prob­lems with this approach, as detailed in Tes­ti­mo­ny, Spir­i­tu­al Expe­ri­ences, and Truth: A Care­ful Exam­i­na­tion. The pri­ma­ry issues with using Moroni’s promise to deter­mine the Book of Mormon’s truth­ful­ness are:

  1. There are many oth­er reli­gious and qua­si-reli­gious groups—each with many mutu­al­ly exclu­sive truth claims—who rely on this method for con­vinc­ing oth­ers of their truth-claims.
  2. This method is typ­i­cal­ly applied in a high­ly biased man­ner. For instance, inves­ti­ga­tors or youth are told to keep try­ing this method ad infini­tum until they get the “right” answer (see dia­gram). Such a process seems like­ly to result in a “con­fir­ma­tion” of any suf­fi­cient­ly inspir­ing book.
  3. Using an unsub­stan­ti­at­ed promise derived from the Book of Mor­mon (i.e., Moroni 10:3–5) to deter­mine if the Book of Mor­mon itself is true is cir­cu­lar rea­son­ing: “A is true because B is true; B is true because A is true.”

Correspondences with early 1800s Protestant America

The Book of Mor­mon con­tains an immense num­ber of ideas and phras­es com­mon to the ear­ly nine­teenth cen­tu­ry (see Book of Mor­mon par­al­lels to 1800s thought for a com­pre­hen­sive list). For instance there are many sim­i­lar­i­ties with the ser­mons of Jonathon Edwards Jr. and Sr. (the father/son duo were well-known preach­ers dur­ing and direct­ly pre­ced­ing Joseph Smith’s day). Also, “The Late War”, by Gilbert Hunt, con­tains many sim­i­lar ideas (and phrase­ol­o­gy). Like the Book of Mor­mon, it also con­tains exten­sive chi­as­tic struc­tures, and many sim­i­lar “Hebraisms”.

The Mor­mon Chal­lenge presents many addi­tion­al reli­gious influ­ences, and Thomas Donofrio has writ­ten exten­sive­ly on mod­ern his­tor­i­cal and reli­gious influ­ences on the Book of Mor­mon.

Conclusion

The Book of Mor­mon is gen­er­al­ly viewed as a his­tor­i­cal record of ancient peo­ples by believ­ing mem­bers of the Church. While there are cer­tain­ly some cor­re­spon­dences between the book and recent dis­cov­er­ies from the ancient world, much of what we know about the ancient world does not match up well with the Book of Mor­mon text. How­ev­er, if a read­er is will­ing to look to the ear­ly 1800s as a source or influ­ence on the text, then an answer to these dis­crep­an­cies appears—the con­tent of the Book of Mor­mon fits com­fort­ably with­in the mix of ideas present in Protes­tant Amer­i­ca in the ear­ly 1800s.

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Dave Mack

Israeli dna does exist among North Amer­i­can Indi­ans. But the tim­ing is prob­lem­at­ic. Luck­i­ly there are incon­sis­ten­cies with sci­en­tist and researcher’s the­o­ries dat­ing with arche­o­log­i­cal cul­tur­al and lan­guage stud­ies. For exam­ple, when dat­ing hap­lo group x they used Ken­newick man. Ken­newick man with Hap­logroup x dna dat­ed to 9000 BP (7000BC) after sev­er­al attempts. Ken­nwick man has been dat­ed to 3750BC, 6410BC, 4130BC, and 6130BC. Those are some wide ranges. In my unpro­fes­sion­al and biased opin­ion, the sci­en­tist based on their own bias­es kept dat­ing Ken­newick man until they got the date they want­ed. Radio car­bon dat­ing is based on know­ing how much car­bon diox­ide is in the atmos­phere at the time there dat­ing the spec­i­men to and oth­er vari­ables. I frankly do not trust their vari­ables. I believe the old world (Hebrew) lan­guage and cul­ture and tech­nol­o­gy found among the Hopewell Ade­na and Native Amer­i­cans is a bet­ter indi­ca­tion… Read more »

Dave Mack

Israeli dna does exist among North Amer­i­can Indi­ans. But the tim­ing is prob­lem­at­ic. Luck­i­ly there are incon­sis­ten­cies with sci­en­tist and researcher’s the­o­ries dat­ing with arche­o­log­i­cal cul­tur­al and lan­guage stud­ies. For exam­ple, when dat­ing hap­lo group x they used Ken­newick man. Ken­newick man with Hap­logroup x dna dat­ed to 9000 BP (7000BC) after sev­er­al attempts. Ken­nwick man has been dat­ed to 3750BC, 6410BC, 4130BC, and 6130BC. Those are some wide ranges. In my unpro­fes­sion­al and biased opin­ion, the sci­en­tist based on their own bias­es kept dat­ing Ken­newick man until they got the date they want­ed. Radio car­bon dat­ing is based on know­ing how much car­bon diox­ide is in the atmos­phere at the time there dat­ing the spec­i­men to and oth­er vari­ables. I frankly do not trust their vari­ables. I believe the old world (Hebrew) lan­guage and cul­ture and tech­nol­o­gy found among the Hopewell Ade­na and Native Amer­i­cans is a bet­ter indi­ca­tion… Read more »

Dave Mack

As to how Joseph trans­lat­ed the gold­en plates I don’t care what mat­ters is the end prod­uct the Book of Mor­mon. The Book of Mor­mon states that they did have sea­sons. There are descrip­tions of migrat­ing land beast (prob­a­bly buf­fa­lo) that migrat­ed based on the sea­son (Mosi­ah 18:4). Mesoamer­i­ca does not have migrat­ing land mam­mals. In Alma 46:40 it describes what sound like North America’s flu sea­son fevers being com­mon dur­ing the win­ter months of North Amer­i­ca “there were some who died with fevers, which at some sea­sons of the year were very fre­quent in the land.” Sorensen states that the Book of Mor­mon does not men­tion cold or snow. I don’t see this as an issue since it does men­tion sea­sons. Meso Amer­i­ca does not have sea­sons nei­ther are jun­gles men­tioned in the Book of Mor­mon. Hopewell Indi­ans were agri­cul­tur­al­ist and grew lit­tle bar­ley and may grass in my… Read more »

Dave Mack

bwv549 I think you are fail­ing to look at the large amount arti­facts, cul­tur­al, lin­guis­tic, and dna evi­dence that sup­ports the Book of Mor­mon in North Amer­i­ca. For exam­ple the largest con­cen­tra­tions of Hap­lo Group x dna genet­ic mark­er is found in the Galile Druze locat­ed in Israel and the sec­ond high­est con­cen­tra­tion is the Great Lake Indi­ans of North Amer­i­ca. The Hopewell Indi­ans began and dis­ap­peared around the same time the Nephites began and were exter­mi­nat­ed. The Hopewell made their own clothe, wore cloth­ing and breast plates and head plates as did the Nephites. The Hopewell made excel­lent met­al tools weapons and jew­ellery. Native Amer­i­can tra­di­tions and beliefs sup­port Book of Mor­mon his­tor­i­cal accounts and Hebrew beliefs and lan­guage to include tem­ple rit­u­als. Noth­ing from Josephs edu­ca­tion gives the impres­sion that he was capa­ble of writ­ing a book that match­es his­tor­i­cal, dna evi­dence, arti­fact and cul­tur­al prac­tices of the… Read more »