An excerpt from Greg Prince’s 2018 Sunstone presentation, “Own Your Religion”:
[Excerpt from the Sunstone Transcript]
Let’s examine the most enduring and influential of the symbols he produced: The Book of Mormon. If you allow data, rather than dogma, to speak, you will find many things that make problematic the traditional story of The Book of Mormon being a literal translation of an ancient history and the most perfect book in the world.
- Despite the insistence of apologists for well over a century that archaeological ruins throughout Central and South America bear material witness to the book’s historicity, closer examination has shown just the opposite. Michael Coe, a Yale University professor widely considered one of the world’s experts on Mesoamerica, has gone on the record repeatedly to say that not a single archeological find supports the claim that The Book of Mormon is an ancient history.
- Linguistic studies long ago concluded that the diversity of indigenous New World languages could not have arisen from a single root language within the timeframe of The Book of Mormon, nor could all traces of Hebrew—which, given the book’s assertion that Laban’s “plates of brass” remained comprehensible to the Nephites only 1,400 years before Joseph Smith’s time—have disappeared in the same time period.
- DNA sequencing, which has allowed impressive mapping of the origins and timing of human migration since the first humans ventured out of Africa, provides no support for a Middle Eastern origin of indigenous New World populations—and complete support for an Eastern Asian origin.
- Anachronisms within the book are abundant:
- It contains post-Exilic passages from Isaiah, a book within the Hebrew Bible that was written over several centuries, including centuries anteceding the crucial Book of Mormon date of 600 B.C.E.
- It expounds a conception of the Atonement that was not formulated until many centuries after the purported fall of the Nephite civilization.
- It quotes extensively from the King James Version of the Bible, which was not published until 1611, and carries over translation errors later found in that version.
- It is often preoccupied with religious issues pervasive within Western New York State in the 1820s, including an entire chapter on infant baptism that stands isolated from the rest of the book but is coincident with the death at birth of Joseph’s firstborn child and the proclamation by a local minister that the infant would be damned for not having been baptized. The first published commentary on The Book of Mormon, written in 1831 by Alexander Campbell, notes, “Before Nephi died, which was about fifty-five years from the flight of Lehi from Jerusalem, he had preached to his people everything which is now preached in the state of New York.… [Joseph Smith] is better skilled in the controversies in New York than in the geography or history of Judea.”
I could give other examples, but I think you get the point.
Two questions arise from this overview. Given its numerous difficulties, how can we constructively define The Book of Mormon? And where might its value lay?
The best answer I have heard to the first question was given to me by Denise Hopkins, a professor of Hebrew Bible at Wesley Theological Seminary. In preparing to teach our study group for an entire year, she read The Book of Mormon and said, “It is a book-length midrash on the King James Bible.” Midrash is the longstanding Jewish tradition of scholars reading the Hebrew Bible and, under inspiration, writing commentaries on it, the most famous being the Talmud.
I’ve come up with an answer to the second question by gathering answers to three questions I often ask of Church members—particularly converts. First, “Did you read The Book of Mormon from cover to cover?” Almost invariably, the answer is something like, “No. Parts of it were pretty boring, and I lost interest.” Second, “What do you remember of what you read?” “Not much, except that there were a lot of wars.” And finally, “What did you experience as you read it?” Here, the floodgates open, and stories of personal conversion emerge. And therein lies the timeless value of the book: what it does transcends what it is. No other aspect of Mormonism has brought more people “to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ.” This is an important instance of the message superseding the messenger. The Book of Mormon may not be what it says it is, but it does what it says it does—which is much more important.