Jenkins 20: Does the Past Exist?

Jenkins 20: Does the Past Exist? July 13, 2015

Here are some recent comments from Philip Jenkins.  My responses are interspersed in blue.


So Bill, do I take it that you have now handed this debate over entirely to Neal Rappleye?


So you have given up? This is important. I agreed to debate you. I am not starting a multiple sided war against every apologist who comes out of the woodwork. As I mentioned in my last post to you, Rappleye is a very weak debater, but I don’t have time for constant trench warfare.

Philip, I don’t expect you necessarily to read or respond to anything.  You’re welcome to if you’d like, but my experience with you is that you steadfastly refuse to read anything.  I posted Neal’s comments because I agree with them, and was planning on saying similar things.

Your statement in this particular post is just wrong. You say, “Neal Rappleye has posted a bibliography of non-LDS academic publications dealing favorably with ancient Book of Mormon studies.” Nope, not true. That list includes mainly publications by such “non-LDS scholars” as Givens, Nibley, Sorenson, Tvedtnes and Bushman. The others who “engage” the book are interested in its impact and history, as I am. Most of them (not all) say nothing about accepting its historicity.

I assume that you have made a simple error, but please get your facts right.

Actually, the error is yours.  None of these “publications” (i.e. journals or publishers) are LDS.  Some of the authors are LDS.  One of your original claims was that there were no publications affirming historicity of the BOM that had been peer-reviewed by non-LDS peer reviewers.  Well here they are.  Now, moving the goal post, you want non-LDS authors who affirm the historicity of the BOM?  Really?  

I also note that I very much doubt you have read anything on Neal’s bibliography, and it is a notable waste of time for me to respond to your uninformed assertions about what an article or book does or does not say. The fundamental rule of scholarship is: Read first; opine after.

This is extremely serious, and unacceptable.

Rappleye is not accurately reflecting the nature or content of our debate, and omitting critical parts of the argument. Without reading an accurate description of the conversation, Rappleye is making nonsense of my comments. Although he is not actually inventing words, his editing is extremely selective and partisan, and the overall effect is wildly misleading. He is omitting the passages to which I was responding, and taking my remarks wholly out of context. He is, for instance, omitting Hamblin’s remark that “History is a non-empirical discipline,” which was one I targeted particularly.

Actually, that is precisely my response to your absurd claim that I am a Post-Modernist.  We are clearly talking past each other.    


Rappeleye writes as follows:

“For example, Hamblin has laid out what strikes me as the rather non-controversial point that all data involved needs to be interpreted, and interpretation inherently introduces bias—thus doing away with notions of “objectivity” (yes, indeed, there are the scare quotes!). This was a central theme of my historiography class at a state university, with a non-LDS professor, just last year. When dealing with the Book of Mormon, specifically, Hamblin identifies four steps of interpretation that are necessary:

 1-      We must correctly interpret the Book of Mormon.

2-      We must correctly understand and interpret Mesoamerican evidence. 

3-      We must correctly understand and interpret ancient Near Eastern evidence.

4-      We must attempt to understand the possible relationships between scholarly interpretations of the Book of Mormon and the Mesoamerican and ancient Near Eastern data. 

As a part of this, Hamblin notes, “None of this is objective.” Jenkins reaction to this? “I can’t believe you wrote that.” He gripes about, “hearing the plaintive post-modern yelps,” and says:

“As you express it here, your approach, your epistemology, is the antithesis of science or scholarship. It is the antithesis of the approaches to learning that the Western world has made central to the world-view since the Enlightenment. Your views really are that radical, or if you prefer, that reactionary.”

 Readers should please not just take my word for this. You can check that simply by going to

For example, Hamblin’s point was NOT that all data involved needs to be interpreted” but rather that “History–in the sense of the actual human past–does not exist. “

Actually, that was exactly my point–data from the Past needs to be interpreted precisely because the Past no longer exists.   You’ve misunderstood me again.  I would greatly appreciate it if in the future you would ask me for clarification rather than launch a completely irrelevant lengthy argument based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what I really intended to say.  Maybe I was unclear, but Neal and most other people I know seem to have understood me clearly enough.

When I say that the human past does not actually exist, I mean it is gone.  It is past.  We can’t–despite what Terminator movies claim–go back to the past, interact with the past, change the past, directly observe the past, or experiment on the past.  That does not mean that the past never existed.  It clearly did.  Thus there either were Nephites or there were not.  On an ontological level, that is a simple straightforward question.  The epistemological level is where the difficulty lies.  How can we, who are stuck in the present, understand the past, which no longer exists in our “time-space continuum” (to use the Star Trek phrase)?  

The answer is that our only capacity to interact with the past is inherently indirect.  We interact with the Past by studying the evidence left by past people–texts, inscriptions, art, artifacts, monuments, tools, tombs, etc.  We can understand the past only by studying those things, which were made or done in the Past, but which still exist in the present.  But the Past itself no longer exists; it is gone.  Hence, the study of history is not empirical–that is, we cannot directly observe with our senses or experiment on the Past.  History is a non-empirical discipline.  This seems to me to be a patently obvious observation, and I suspect that you will actually agree with what I really said.

Thus, Neal has correctly understood what I said, while you have misunderstood.  He correctly responds to your misunderstanding by pointing out your errors, which clearly are misrepresentations of what I actually believe and said.  Thus, both Neal and I understand the real argument I’ve made.  You don’t.  And your accusations that Neal is misrepresenting the argument just demonstrates how much you don’t get it.  Next time, if you think I’ve said something absurd, why don’t you ask for clarification?  It’s easy, and I’m happy to clarify things if there are ambiguities.  

I invite you to read Hamblin’s actual words, and compare them with how they appear in Rappeleye’s version.

Here is what Hamblin actually wrote: The following is a lengthy quotation from Hamblin, which Jenkins cites:

Whenever anyone demands “objective evidence” for historical questions you know your dealing with a hermeneutical and epistemological misunderstanding or naiveté.  History–in the sense of the actual human past–does not exist.  It cannot be directly observed.  You cannot experiment upon it by giving Napoleon an extra division of infantry to see if he could win the battle of Waterloo.  History is a non-empirical discipline.  And anything that is non-empirical cannot be objective.  There is, of course, in the study of the philosophy of science, a significant debate as to the degree to which even empirical and experimental disciplines can be “objective” but that is a different question.  Be that as it may, history, clearly, is not empirical.  Thus, the demand for “objective evidence” represents a fundamental misunderstanding of both the nature of the human past, and our ability today to understand it.

When turning to the Book of Mormon, there are at least four layers of interpretation that one must undertake in trying to understand the questions of the historicity of the Book of Mormon.

1- We must correctly interpret the Book of Mormon.  This is, of course, the fundamental problem, since many of those critiquing the BOM have either not read the book, or have read the book in a completely superficial manner, and furthermore, are not familiar with how modern LDS scholars of ABMS understand the text.  It is pointless to argue against an interpretation of the BOM which no LDS scholar believes.  (Note, there are also many non-professional LDS interpretations of the BOM–the Heartland Theory for example–which must not be conflated with scholarly LDS studies.)

2- We must correctly understand and interpret Mesoamerican evidence.  None of this is objective.  Since I am not an expert on Mesoamerican studies, for this I rely entirely on Mesoamerican experts.  Note that it is perfectly legitimate to use their interpretations of Mesoamerica for part two of this process without accepting their (generally completely uninformed) interpretations of the Book of Mormon.  Nothing in my interpretation of the BOM requires me to reject any affirmative claims of Mesoamericanists.  For example, I don’t debate their dating of archaeological sites, their interpretations of inscriptions, or their understanding of the Mesoamerican calendar.  (Note, on the other hand, there are many issues in dispute among Mesoamericanists, just as there are in any discipline.)

3-  We must correctly understand and interpret ancient Near Eastern evidence.  Essentially the same issue as #2 above, but with a different data set.   This has been a more fruitful path for BOM scholars, since there is far more evidence from the ancient Near East than from Preclassic Mesoamerica.

4- We must attempt to understand the possible relationships between scholarly interpretations of the Book of Mormon and the Mesoamerican and ancient Near Eastern data.   This final phase–the most important and difficult one–can only begin once phases 1-3 have been conducted.  And note: only LDS scholars have engaged in all four phases of interpretation.  The methodological and hermeneutic imperative is that we engage in all four phases if we wish to discuss the question of the historicity of the Book of Mormon.”


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