Friday, July 3, 2015

Proving the Book of Mormon by Historical and Archaeological Methods

(I am copying this post from the Aunt Louise blog to keep the continuity of this thread of thoughts on the Book of Mormon and how it can and cannot be proven or disproven.)

This is a follow-up to my two earlier posts about proving the Book of Mormon by scientific methods. By focusing on so-called historical proofs of the Book of Mormon, I'm assuming that history and archaeology use methods like those used by physical scientists: gathering evidence, fitting it in with previously known facts to reconstruct the past, and subjecting our conclusions to peer review and the potential for contradictory interpretations and further findings.

In my first post about science and the Book of Mormon, I wrote that the Book of Mormon cannot be "proven" by scientific methods  "... because that is not how scripture is 'proven' or 'disproven.'" I added a link to a short article by LDS writer and scholar Daniel C. Peterson arguing that in fact so-called scientific methods are not how most ancient documents have been proven. He gives the example of the discovery of the ancient city of Troy by Heinrich Schliemann, who did not in any way use the objective, peer-reviewed, scientific model of scholarship.

Then, responding to a comment from Jeff, who noted, "A scientific 'proof'' over-rates what science can actually do--and totally misses the point," I wrote:

 "What will it take for the world of scientists and historians and linguists to accept the Book of Mormon? Who cares? Who cares if scholars accept the Book of Mormon on their terms? It doesn't ask to be accepted on those terms. It exists for humble seekers of truth to read it, pray about it, and respond to the witness they receive."

Since writing that, I've been following some scholarly arguments about how we can "prove" the existence of ancient cultures and civilizations; these show, again, why it is a waste of time --- and counter-productive in every way --- to attempt to "prove" the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon through ancient texts or archaeological finds.

And I'm very disappointed to have write this, having heard and read many accounts of Mesoamerican archaeological sites where supposed baptismal fonts were found and reading more recently about some LDS travelers who found the three consonants "NHM" written on an altar in Yemen, supposedly corresponding to the place identified by Nephi as Nahom. Because here's the thing, or, I should say, here are several things:

1. Nay-sayers will always, and I mean always, have a response to every one of these finds. For example, an anti-Mormon "outreach" group has come up with a number of objections to the idea that the three consonants on that altar in Yemen mean the same as the word "Nahom." (As a student of Arabic, I must say their arguments are wrong; as a student of the Book of Mormon, I must say their arguments are misguided; and as a student of human nature, I must say their arguments reveal a singular snarkiness that undermines everything else they could possibly write.)

These people say, "Let us not forget that the LDS Church has provided no historical or archaeological evidence that Nephi or any of the unique characters mentioned in the Book of Mormon actually lived."

2. To that point, I say, let us not forget that, indeed. Let us not forget, either, that nobody has every provided any historical or archaeological evidence that the Council of Nicaea actually happened in the time and place we have all accepted for hundreds of years it supposedly happened. As LDS writer John Gee notes:

"From historical sources we know that Nicaea was near Constantine's summer residence. We have no archaeological evidence that he was ever there or ever paid any attention to the place. The lack of archaeological evidence does not prove Constantine was never there. On the other hand archaeological evidence tells us that the theater seated 15,000. I know of no historical evidence that provides us that information. The lack of historical evidence does not mean there was no theater."
John Gee also cites the difficulty of reconciling archaeological with historical evidence about the dynamic succession at Masuwari, concluding, "So we can only work with inadequate evidence." He concludes:
"Sometimes historical and archaeological evidence overlap. Sometimes they conflict. Most of the time they do neither. Each provides its own sort of evidence. One cannot just expect the two types of evidence to corroborate each other. Much of the material in the Bible, for example, is not and cannot be corroborated archaeologically. There are points at which the archaeological record does corroborate the Bible. But archaeology does not necessarily corroborate every point one might like."
3. Other LDS scholars have noted the fact that the Nephite civilizations of the Book of Mormon were so small that they were unlikely to have left behind large mounds or even small artifacts for us to find.

I note that the book itself recounts huge disruptions in the geography (See 3 Nephi 8, for example), so I don't get it when people speculate about where the geographical locations mentioned in the Book of Mormon might be. See for example this Wikipedia article which I have only skimmed through because I don't really care what anyone else thinks about whatever relationships there may be found between, for instance, Lake Ontario and the Waters of Ripliancum.

4. Again, I repeat what I wrote from the beginning: It doesn't matter whether archaeological or historical evidence is found that supports the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. If anything like that ever happens, it will be just another ancient record. People will be able to read it like they do the Dead Sea Scrolls, and marvel at the way the people lived back then, the struggles they had, the rules they made for their cultures, and so on.

The Book of Mormon is a divine record of God's dealings with His people, and it can best be appreciated through praying for a testimony of its truthfulness and its application to our lives now.

Because, as another testimony of Jesus Christ, its purpose is not to provide the world with yet another ancient record; its purpose, as the authors of the various books it contains keep reminding us, is to bring us to Christ.

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