Some Problems with Book of Mormon Historicity

Some Problems with Book of Mormon Historicity January 5, 2013

I was recently perusing the latest publications of NAMI and happened on an article in the Journal of Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture that caused me to reflect more deeply on LDS attitudes toward Book of Mormon historicity. The article, “The Historicity of the Book of Mormon,” was originally a paper presented by Elder Dallin H. Oaks at the 1993 FARMS Annual Dinner, but was subsequently published in the volume Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures (2001), edited by Paul Hoskisson. The fact that the editor chose to re-publish the paper suggests that he thought it had something important to say in the climate of current discussions about the origin of the Book of Mormon.

The editorial summary that precedes the article accurately describes its main points:

“The issue of the historicity of the Book of Mormon highlights the difference between those who rely solely on scholarship and those who rely on scholarship as a complement to revelation and faith. Those who rely on that faithful combination can see and understand the complex issues of the Book of Mormon record and answer the question of the historicity of the Book of Mormon. On the other hand, those who rely solely on scholarship and reject revelation can only focus on a limited number of issues, neither proving nor disproving the authenticity of the Book of Mormon with secular evidence and methods.”

Suffice it to say, I was discouraged by the article, not only because of the content itself but because its recycling suggests that the scholarship most closely associated with the institutional culture of the church is still locked into a mindset that precludes it from producing the kind of rigorous, honest, and methodologically sensitive historical analysis found regularly in contemporary academia.

Elder Oaks sets in sharp opposition “the prophets” and “so-called higher criticism” and suggests that those who have serious doubts about the historicity of the Book of Mormon are a type of intellectual that “rejects revelation”, relies exclusively on secular learning, and even lacks faith in Jesus Christ. On the other hand, the ideal Latter-day Saint scholar is said to rely on a combination of scholarship, faith, and revelation, which leads him to be open to all of the relevant evidence and in that sense truly critical. Whereas the anti-historicist critics are said to focus on a relatively narrow range of issues, none of which are decisive in themselves, the spiritually-informed scholar is able to grasp the complex and multifarious forms of evidence in favor of historicity.

I find this portrayal of scholars dealing with the question of Book of Mormon historicity to be divisive and grossly oversimplified. Not all LDS intellectuals who doubt the historicity of the Book of Mormon reject “revelation” in principle and nor do they desire to rely exclusively on secular scholarship as the alpha and omega for understanding the meaning of scripture. I have had some personal experience with these people and in my view they are often deeply spiritual human beings who want to find some way of synthesizing their secular learning with their LDS spiritual understandings and identity. If by rejecting “revelation”, Oaks is referring to statements and teachings by general authorities or prophets of the church about the historical truth of the Book of Mormon, then his representation of these scholars is somewhat more accurate. But even then, use of the word rejection is overly strong and only contributes to a polarization of the debate. I don’t think LDS intellectuals who doubt the historicity of the Book of Mormon would see themselves as necessarily rejecting the previous views of church leaders, but merely viewing them as historically contingent and based on the limited light and knowledge that was available to them at the time.

Furthermore, I am unaware of orthodox LDS, institution-affiliated scholars who fit Oaks’ description of someone who relies on a combination of scholarship, faith, and revelation and is truly open to examining the question of Book of Mormon historicity in its totality, that is, being “willing to look at the entire spectrum of issues—the content as well as the vocabulary, the revelation as well as the excavation.” At least when it comes to scholarship, what I see is generally a superficial treatment or evasion of the evidence arguing against historicity and sometimes a more sophisticated treatment of aspects of the Book of Mormon that simply assumes a position of historicity.

This kind of scholarship of the Book of Mormon may be what some people want, but whatever it is, it is not good scholarship. To count as good scholarship one has to explain the content of the Book of Mormon using all of the available evidence bearing on the question of historicity. In addition to speculation about how the Book of Mormon may possibly fit the historical contexts it purports to derive from, alternative historical scenarios must be fully entertained and explored. Arguments against historicity must be given their due.

Oak’s portrayal of the ideal LDS scholar as one who privileges “faith and revelation” and is willing to “endure ridicule” for assuming the authenticity of the Book of Mormon is clearly intended to signal appropriate LDS scholarly behavior. And from the context in which he argues it is difficult not to agree with him that “we must not be so committed to scholarship that we close our eyes and ears and hearts to what cannot be demonstrated by scholarship or defended according to physical proofs and intellectual reasoning.”

However, I think there is also great danger in according methodological primacy to “faith and revelation” in LDS scholarly inquiry into the historicity of the Book of Mormon, since this has the potential of encouraging the exact reverse of what Oaks fears with regard to the anti-historicist critics, that is, subordinating open-minded rigorous study on a question that is fundamentally historical in nature to religious assumptions that have not been unambiguously confirmed by revelation.

At times Elder Oaks’ language seems to imply that we as a church have received revelation on the question of the historicity of the Book of Mormon, as his major point is that LDS scholars should rely on faith and personal revelation in their investigations of the subject. Yet is a spiritual witness of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon the same thing as knowledge of its historicity?

For myself, I have genuine concerns about the appropriateness of making spiritual forms of knowledge determinative for how one comes down on the question of Book of Mormon historicity. I can remember a time when I would have had no problem with using a witness of the Spirit as the principle epistemological basis for giving credence to the Book of Mormon’s historical claims, but as I have grown older I have become increasingly skeptical of the ability of these subjective and socially-dependent experiences to resolve questions that are better seen as empirical in nature. This is not to say that spiritual experiences are not relevant at all, just that they are so easily misinterpreted. When I examine and meditate on the spiritual experiences that I have had while engaging the Book of Mormon and am completely honest with myself, I personally do not feel that God has communicated to me that the events and people described in it must have been objectively real. The inspiration that I have felt was generally of a different order and had to do with my personal connection to deity and the goodness and truth found in Book of Mormon teachings.

To be clear, I am not saying that people have not had profound and real spiritual experiences as a result of heartfelt engagement with the Book of Mormon. I’m just wondering how the spiritual knowledge derived from these experiences should be understood and whether they necessarily entail that the Book of Mormon must be historical.

In addition to Oaks’ argument that “faith and revelation” should remain prominent in LDS scholarly inquiry of the Book of Mormon, he also makes a number of other factual and methodological claims whose intent is to undercut the anti-historicist position.

First, he claims that “practitioners of the anti-historicist approach typically focus on a limited number of issues, like geography, horses, angelic delivery, or nineteenth-century language patterns.” In my view, this characterization of anti-historicist critics is not only inaccurate but unfair. The argument against Book of Mormon historicity is actually based on a whole constellation of historical, cultural, linguistic, ideational, and textual issues. Although the tendency to myopically focus on a few obvious anachronisms and historical inconcinnities may well apply to some disaffected LDS and anti-Mormon treatments of the subject, recent critical discussion has become highly sophisticated and methodologically rigorous. Moreover, it hardly seems fair to accuse anti-historicist scholars of being limited in methodological scope, since proponents of Book of Mormon historicity have often tended to concentrate on a relatively narrow range of issues in their analysis of the text (e.g. chiasmus).

Second, he asserts that “secular evidence can neither prove nor disprove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.” If Oaks is referring to the spiritual authenticity of the Book of Mormon here, then I would completely agree. However, if he is referring to its historical referentiality then I find it more difficult to concur. While it is true that barring discovery of ancient or modern autographs historical analysis will never allow us to definitively “prove” or “disprove” that the Book of Mormon is a translation of an ancient text stemming from a quasi-Judaic culture that lived somewhere in the American continents two millennia ago, it is nevertheless possible that historical criteria could make the argument for historicity very difficult to maintain. Because the nature of the historical method is to evaluate the plausibility of certain historical claims based on probabilistic interpretations of the available evidence, the more that evidence accumulates to the effect that the Book of Mormon has an ideological and literary profile that fits poorly into the ancient Israelite/biblical world that it purports to derive from and in fact aligns much better with the early nineteenth century the more confident we can be that the Book of Mormon is something other than a factually based historical narrative.

Third, Oaks argues that it is impractical and even somewhat dishonest to accept the moral and religious content of a book “while rejecting the truthfulness of an author’s declarations, predictions, and statements.” I personally don’t find this claim convincing at all. I know of many ancient religious texts whose interaction with religious ideas and existential themes is deeply moving and inspiring and yet I do not feel a need to take that extra step of accepting the specific historical claims made to explain their origins (e.g. the angel Gabriel with regard to the Qur’an). The main problem with this conventional argument against more historically-informed appropriations of traditional religious texts is that we as readers separated from the original ideological and cultural contexts that gave birth to them (whether by centuries or millennia), often take their declarations, predictions, and statements in ways quite different from what their authors originally intended. For example, in Second Isaiah there is an unusual amount of rhetoric about there being no other gods beside the Israelite deity (43:10-11; 44:6, 8; 45:5-7, 14, 18; 21; 46:9), which could easily lead a modern reader to assume that the author is making categorical monotheistic statements about the non-existence of all other deities. Yet close examination of the text and its rhetorical subtleties suggests that this assumption is incorrect and that the author was portraying the Israelite deity as incomparable for ideological reasons particular to his historical context.

Finally, Elder Oaks gives the impression that there is so much evidence in support of the theory that the Book of Mormon is an ancient text that it would be impossible for an honest investigator “to resolve the question against its authenticity.” However, I don’t think the case for Book of Mormon historicity is as nearly as strong as he suggests. He mentions the incredible complexity and detail of the Book of Mormon narrative, which previous critics have tended to ignore and gloss over. Yet in my mind high literary skill and narrative complexity do not in themselves necessitate that we take the Book of Mormon’s historical claims at face value. I can acknowledge that the Book of Mormon has a degree of verisimilitude, intricacy, and detail that is truly remarkable, such as its consistent use of ancient narrators to organize and move the larger narrative forward, its incorporation of multiple literary genres into a relatively seamless whole, and the many intratextual allusions and thematic and rhetorical motifs that bind the text together. However, it is important to remember that these elements in themselves do not tell us when the Book of Mormon was written. They may be inexplicable in our minds and may even suggest that Joseph Smith was not capable of writing the Book of Mormon himself, but historical claims need to be evaluated by historical criteria. Theoretically, these aspects of the text could have arisen in a historical and cultural setting of more recent date that is presently unknown to us (or known).

If we concentrate solely on historical criteria, then the Book of Mormon’s claim to be a translation of an ancient text deriving from the intellectual and cultural matrix of the Israelite/biblical world looks increasingly untenable. So much of what we could call the ideological core of the Book of Mormon, such as its theology, eschatology, and interpretation of biblical narrative, seems to me to be out of place and anachronistic.

I do not have the space or time to substantiate this claim here, but I thought I may briefly provide an example of a more critical approach to Book of Mormon historicity with reference to one particular chapter: the first chapter of the first book of Nephi.

I have read this chapter so many times (as I’m sure others have) that it has come to be a personal favorite. Its words have gradually become so assimilated to my religious consciousness that it is quite easy for me to recall many of its verses and to imagine myself in the position of Nephi or Lehi, as the fortunate and chosen receptacle of God’s secret knowledge.

Yet when I approach the text as a student of the Hebrew Bible and ancient Israelite history and culture, I see various elements that fall on a spectrum from “could reflect the historical reality of ancient Israel-Judah, but need not necessarily support the assumption of historicity” to “historically suspicious” and finally to “historically unlikely.” Most of the elements fall into the “historically suspicious” and “historically unlikely” categories.

“therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days” (“historically unlikely”)
The problem with this statement is that Nephi’s composition of a personal narrative history is without comparison in the biblical world of this period. Literacy was highly restricted in the cultures of the ancient Near East and the kind of literacy necessary to compose extended narratives even more rare (see e.g. Rollston, 2010). Furthermore, Nephi does not seem to be self-conscious of his unique scribal abilities in the way that we would expect him to be.

“which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians” (“historically unlikely”)
As the FARMS crowd have been wont to emphasize, the idea that Egyptian characters could have been used to write Hebrew is not in itself implausible. We have a few examples of this kind of linguistic and cultural bricolage from close to the time period that Nephi was allegedly writing and much comparative material from other times and places. Yet we should also note that the available examples of the phenomenon occur in places where intercultural exchange and influence makes the use of a new/foreign script understandable in context. It is difficult if not impossible to see how the cultural context of late monarchic Judah would have necessitated the writing of extended narrative documents in any form of Egyptian.

“in the commencement of the first year of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah” (“historically suspicious”)
This concise and irenic reference to the political state of affairs seems to be unaware that Judah had already been under Babylonian vassalage for several years. Jehoiachin had been taken into exile and Zedekiah had been appointed by the Babylonians as governor. The latter was not a king in the traditional sense (see e.g. Römer, 2007).

“and in that year came many prophets, prophesying unto the people that they must repent”  (“historically suspicious”)
This portrayal of Judahite prophets descending on Jerusalem seems to reflect much later post-biblical ideas about the nature of the prophetic institution. In monarchic era Judah-Israel prophets were likely a form of priest connected in some way to temple and other cultic complexes (see e.g. Edelman, 2009). They were not a homogeneous group, they worked in different social contexts as a mode of employment, and responded to specific inquiries about particular problems.

“he thought he saw God … surrounded with numberless concourses of angels …singing and praising their God” (“historically suspicious”)
This picture of the heavenly choirs has much in common with late Jewish and Christian understandings of the heavenly host. Although it is not impossible that earlier Judahites may have believed something similar, the fact remains that we have no clear attestations of this concept in pre-exilic texts. The available evidence would suggest that it is a late development.

“One descending out of the midst of heaven… hist luster was above that of the sun at noon-day”
(“could reflect the historical reality of ancient Israel-Judah, but need not necessarily support the assumption of historicity”)
The astral character of pre-exilic Israelite religion has recently come into focus (see e.g. Smith, 2003), so the presentation of astral figures descending from heaven seems to fit the historical and cultural context well in that respect. Nevertheless, astral symbolism is also prominent in some canonical biblical texts and it is possible that they were the source of inspiration for this narrative depiction.

“Wo, wo, unto Jerusalem, for I have seen thine abominations… many should be carried away captive into Babylon” (“historically unlikely”)
This prophecy presumes the biblical narrative of exile and return, which was constructed in a post-monarchic context, probably the Persian period. According to the biblical authors, pre-exilic Judah and Israel were unrelentingly evil and devoted to false cult, which led to their eventual subjugation and destruction at the hands of Assyria and Babylon. But scholars are in agreement that this is a later ideological construction invented to explain why these events had occurred in the first place. Furthermore, the fact that the specific sins of the Jews are never specified or detailed is highly suggestive.

“thy power, and goodness, and mercy are over all the inhabitants of the earth” (“historically suspicious”)
Lehi seems to be referring to a geographically expansive and cosmic concept of the earth here. But this kind of universalism is not attested in Iron Age Syro-Palestinian texts. Deities were typically circumscribed in their authority and bound to local territory.

“manifested plainly of the coming of a Messiah” (“historically unlikely”)
There is no evidence that any part of the people of ancient Judah believed in a coming divine Messiah or Savior. The evidence actually strongly suggests that the concept of a future Messiah arose in the post-exilic period as a result of the demise of the monarchy and its lingering effects on those attempting to re-establish and consolidate a Jewish polity in Persian-controlled Yehud (see e.g. Collins, 2008).

“even as with the prophets of old, whom they had cast out” (“historically unlikely”)
This presentation of the Jews again reflects traditional notions dependent on the canonical biblical text and a long process of religious development. It is highly unlikely that in monarchic Israel-Judah that prophets had been a focus of popular resentment.


John Collins and Adela Yarbro Collins, King and Messiah as Son of God: Divine, Human, and Angelic Messianic Figures in Biblical and Related Literature (Eerdmans, 2008)

Diana Edelman, “From Prophets to Prophetic Books: The Fixing of the Divine Word” in Diana Edelman and Ehud Ben Zvi (eds), The Production of Prophecy (Equinox Publishing, 2009)

Christopher Rollston, Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel (SBL, 2010)

Thomas Römer, The So-Called Deuteronomistic History: A Sociological, Historical, and Literary Introduction (T&T Clark, 2007)

Mark Smith, “Astral Religion and the Representation of Divinity: The Cases of Ugarit and Judah” in Scott Noegel et al, Prayer, Magic, and the Stars in the Ancient and Late Antique World (Pennsylvania State Press, 2003)

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!