Jenkins rejoinder 3: Evidence

Jenkins rejoinder 3: Evidence June 22, 2015


I am puzzled by the directions that Dr. Hamblin’s columns are taking – or rather, not taking.

 Basically, why has he not yet addressed the critical issue of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon? Why has he not begun to address my “Rule of One” question, namely to produce from the New World one single object or site, one piece of genetic or linguistic evidence, that begins to support the historicity of that source. He is as well acquainted with these debates and issues as well as anyone around. So why is he not (yet) socking me daily with convincing examples from Oaxaca or Ohio, Michoacán or Michigan? Stop me before I alliterate more.

 By my reading, everything he has said in his several columns to date assumes the Book’s authenticity as an ancient text, and on that basis he suggests (for instance) how sad and inappropriate it is that non-Mormon scholars neither know nor consult the Book. ALL his arguments depend on that assumption about historicity – and so far, it is an assumption. To the contrary, I have suggested that the Book is of inestimable value for anyone interested in American religious history in the nineteenth century, but otherwise it is of no relevance for any non-Mormon. He thinks it is an ancient text; I think it was written anew by an American around 1830. That is a clear enough distinction, and one of us is wrong.

 My own view, in scientific terms, is easily falsifiable, as my hypothesis can be tested and verified. It could in theory be proven wrong with just a few convincing, credible, and well documented New World examples, according to the reasonable standards for credibility that I have offered. So where are these examples? At present, with all due modesty and restraint, I am asking for just one.

 When I have asked this question at my own blog, the legion of commenters has ignored it, although plenty of writers have offered hopelessly vague generalities. Time and again, I have been offered lengthy catalogs of lame excuses why no such archaeological, genetic or linguistic evidence exists, could exist, and why it is horrible even to seek it out.

 I return to the issue of methodology, and how apologists try to have things both ways. If Mormons believe that the whole Book of Mormon scenario is a matter of inner faith, that is a perfectly fine and defensible stance, and there is nothing that any outsider can really say about it. In that view, the Book of Mormon tells a symbolic and metaphorical story that can be immensely significant to believers. Apologists keep trying, though, to establish that the Book is authentic real-world history, in the sense that it genuinely occurred in the objective historical world, and in identifiable locations. (Witness any number of books, pamphlets and materials put out by FARMS over the years). That claim lasts until the apologists are challenged, when they revert to position #1, namely that it is a matter of faith, so that no non-believer can critique it.

 Of itself, that tactic immediately removes apologist claims altogether from the realm of authentic science, or authentic history.

 As to the falsifiability issue, apologists seem to have a thousand reasons at their disposal to challenge each and every critique made of the Book of Mormon. At no point, though, is their overall claim falsifiable, in that it can be subject to testing and verification. Apologists can tell you why criticisms are not accurate. They cannot begin to tell you, though, why anyone should take their own claims seriously. If it is not verifiable, it is not science. Nor should any non-believer begin to take it seriously.

 If a view is in any sense scholarly or scientific, then it must be open to verification and falsifiability. There has to be some fact or insight, however hypothetical, that would make an apologist lose confidence in the Book of Mormon. I have already said where my own view might be falsified. So I would ask Dr. Hamblin, or any apologist: what is that potential deal-breaker for you? If you reply that no piece of external evidence could shake your belief, however overwhelming it might seem, then you are stating explicitly that your view is a matter of faith, and not of science, scholarship or history. If that is so, then there is no point in trying to argue the issue in such terms. It is purely internal to you. Just don’t pretend that you have any claim in the realm of science, scholarship or history.

 I have not gone into this topic in these recent debates, but central to these arguments is the idea of non-overlapping magisteria, and I am astonished that no commenter has raised it as yet. Dr. Hamblin will certainly know this approach, but anyone wishing to explore it might start here:

 What is doubly ironic about all this is that Dr. Hamblin himself is a distinguished historian, who works on difficult and abstruse topics that demand a sophisticated and critical approach to evidence. I have not yet read his book WARFARE IN THE ANCIENT NEAR EAST TO 1600 BC, but it received consistently excellent reviews, and I do not doubt its value. (It also appeared from a first class scholarly press). But anyone working on that ancient era must above all be concerned with the validity and authenticity of sources, in a world where interpretation depends on the most delicate nuance of reading a word or document.

 Sources are all, and the fact that Dr. Hamblin moves so successfully in this scholarly environment shows that he understands that point very well indeed. If one of his graduate students walked in and said that he had written a paper on early Sumerian warfare, based entirely on messages and recollections ostensibly channeled by a Los Angeles spiritual medium in 1920, Dr. Hamblin would, so to speak, whup him upside the head before throwing him out of the department, and he would be exactly right to do so. He is a responsible scholar.

 And the difference between that example and the Book of Mormon is … what exactly?

 Or to take another example from Dr. Hamblin’s own area of proven expertise. Imagine that I said to him, “You claim to work on all these peoples from the distant past, all these Hittites and Sumerians and Assyrians and Minoans. Because it’s so long ago, we can’t know anything about them, or even that they were really there! Huh, I don’t even believe that Egypt had all those Pharaohs and dynasties.” He would, very patiently, explain to me why I was talking arrant nonsense. He would do so on the basis of common archaeological patterns, of sequences in architecture and pottery and metalwork, of linguistic evidence, of inscriptions, visual records, and of course, of texts of all different kinds – historical, legal, religious, medical and all the rest. He would in particular note how authenticated ancient texts from one culture illuminated and confirmed the existence of another. He would also make the point about cumulative evidence, in that these findings do not stand in isolation, but rather each one supports and reinforces what we know from others. He would also point out that the knowledge he was referring to had been developed, tested and perfected over almost two centuries. His only problem would be that he had so much material on which to draw that his remedial lesson in historical methodology might take days rather than hours.

 In particular, he would be strictly fastidious in drawing entirely on verified contemporary texts from the period in question. He would also be cautious about drawing on any text or object about which there was any controversy, or any suggestion that it was a later forgery. Let there be no doubt here! Contemporary is king.

 His argument would be quite conclusive and utterly convincing. It would also be founded on a panoply of resources utterly unavailable to anyone attempting to prove the existence of the Nephites, Lamanites, and other characters in the Book of Mormon’s mythological structure. Precisely none of the resources I have mentioned for the Ancient Near East are in any sense available for the Book of Mormon’s alleged world. That is not a matter of opinion: it is plain fact.

 To me, that is a night and day distinction. If you can’t prove that the peoples were actually there, you can say precisely nothing about any stories relating to them, whether dealing with wars, kings, migrations, city names, or basically anything. It is almost as if the whole thing was made up out of whole cloth.

 It is Dr. Hamblin’s blog, and he will write it as he chooses. But I am wondering. Where are the concrete, specific and credible examples supporting the historicity of the Book of Mormon? Without them, what is the point of conducting a discussion?

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