Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Book of Mormon and the Bible: Series Conclusion

I appreciate everyone's patience during the time that I had put this series on hold. I wanted to give the earnest Mormon in the comment thread a fair chance. He seems to be exactly the kind of very good Mormon that I mentioned at the outset of the series. I was not going to continue until he'd had a chance to say anything I might not have considered before. I was entirely prepared to rewrite the conclusion here if he should have surprised me; that's why I held it back rather than posting it right away.

To sum up where the series has been up til now, we looked at one of the questions that skeptics raise about the Book of Mormon: Does it mention coins in the ancient New World, when (as best as we can determine) there was no such thing before the Europeans arrived? It appears to be a historical problem. We looked at the claim and the counter-claim from the Mormons, and then the real question came up: What about all the avenues of further research that could have been pursued if this question had been raised about the Bible?
  • We considered the ancient manuscripts of the Bible, and the absolute lack of known ancient manuscripts for the Book of Mormon.
  • We looked at the resources for studying the ancient languages of the Bible, and the fact that we do not know what the original language of the Book of Mormon is supposed to have been.
  • We looked at how the general historical background can help answer questions on the Bible because we can place many Biblical cities and events on a map and timeline in world history. We looked at how little certainty -- or even plausibility -- there has been matching the places and events in the Book of Mormon to known places or events in the ancient New World.
  • We looked at the supplemental literature produced by the same cultures that produced the Bible, and the lack of supplemental literature in the New World about the Book of Mormon or the events it describes.
  • We looked at the intended audience -- how the Bible assumes the reader has knowledge of money system in the time period being described, and how the Book of Mormon assumes the reader does not have knowledge of the money system in the time period being described. That is, the Book of Mormon may not have been written for the use of the culture described in it.

As I mentioned from the beginning, the question "Was it a coin?" was only a case study in how to research and find the answer to questions. The original claim that the “pieces” of precious metal didn't mean “coins” cannot be proved wrong -- but it cannot be proved right either. There is no appeal to ancient manuscripts showing that it really meant pieces of metal. There is no appeal made to the original word in the original language; they are both unknown. There is no appeal to the supplemental literature of the cultures involved, or to the approximate time and place of the events and how it was known they used weighted metal of the types described. The entire counter-claim -- that it didn't mean "coins" -- is made without any appeal to facts of the type that might settle the question for us.

So the time has come to ask a different question: not why this one particular thing cannot be proved about the Book of Mormon's relation to history, but whether anything at all can be proved about the Book of Mormon's relation to history. Whether or not someone believes the Bible, it is clearly a product of ancient cultures with a background in real cities, real civilizations, real languages, real cultures with real living histories. On the other hand, someone might easily believe the Book of Mormon had been invented out of whole cloth, and there would be no solid fact or piece of evidence to contradict that – anywhere, of any kind, to the best of my knowledge.

The depth of the problem is serious. Imagine how skeptics of the Bible would behave if there were no known place called "Jerusalem" or "Galilee" or "Egypt", no known ruler named "Herod" or "Pilate" or "Caesar". Imagine that this was a problem not just for the few places or people I have named here, but for every last name or place mentioned in the Bible. Then you begin to appreciate the level of problem faced by the Book of Mormon. And I think no one could blame them, if a person with a grain of skepticism said: The simplest explanation is that the whole thing was made up.

It may be that tomorrow's archaeological find makes it necessary to re-think this. But unless it does, I cannot imagine believing the Book of Mormon's core claim that it is comparable to the Bible in laying out a history of God's people. When it comes to having roots in the world we know and recognize, it's not even close.


Howard said...

A nice series of pieces, which makes a crucial point regarding accuracy and authority. I'm currently reading 'Fabricating Jesus' and it's pretty astonishing, even at an academic level, just how many errors and myths are popularized concerning the truths of Christianity simply because the source material isn't given the opportunity to be heard as it should be, especially in relation to the times it was written.

Weekend Fisher said...

A lot of the pop scholarship out there is really poor quality. In my line of work (programming), being 99% right probably isn't good enough. I can't quite figure out how some of these people have reputations as great scholars when I doubt their accuracy rating is 70%. Shouldn't that be a "fail"?

It's a mystery.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF