The Truth About Mormonism (Part 2): The External Test

An Essay By Benjamin // 10/28/2012

A couple of months ago, I was at a national debate tournament, watching a semi-final round. As the debate progressed, one of the debaters attempted to make the claim that the U.S. had limited itself to bombing only munitions dumps in a certain conflict and that no civilian life had been taken. However, the other debater, in his next speech pointed out several flaws in the claim. First, he noted that these munitions dumps were located in the middle of cities and therefore it was simply implausible to believe that, in the process of shelling and bombing these dumps, we had not killed a single civilian. Secondly, he read the accounts of those who had been there, claiming that civilians had indeed been killed in the bombings.

In approaching the faulty claim, this debater had asked himself two fundamental questions that every good debater asks when addressing any claim. First, does the claim match up with what I already know to be true? And second, does the claim agree with the accounts of those who know best (in this case, the witnesses)?

As we continue to examine the Mormon scriptures, we will approach them with these same questions to determine whether these books are accurate in their historical content by testing them to outside sources. However, since there are no eyewitness accounts of the events described in the Mormon scriptures, our focus as we utilize the external test will be on whether archaeology and its findings correspond with what the claims of The Book of Mormon. Let’s look at the words of some of these archaeologists. Michael Coe, one of the best-known authorities on New World archaeology writes,

“Let me now state uncategorically that as far as I know there is not one professionally trained archaeologist, who is not a Mormon, who sees any scientific justification for believing the foregoing to be true. . . . Nothing, absolutely nothing, has ever shown up in any New World excavation which would suggest to a dispassionate observer that the Book of Mormon … is a historical document relating to the history of early migrants to our hemisphere.”

Even Mormon archaeologists are beginning to see this. Dr. Ray T. Matheny, Professor of Anthropology at Church of Latter-day Saints’ Brigham Young University says,

“I really have difficulty in finding issue or quarrel with those opening chapters of the Book of Mormon [i.e., the first seven chapters which only relate to Lehi and his family around the area of Jerusalem]. But thereafter it doesn't seem like a translation to me. … The terminologies and the language used and the methods of explaining and putting things down are 19th century literary concepts and cultural experiences one would expect Joseph Smith and his colleagues would experience. And for that reason I call it transliteration, and I'd rather not call it a translation after the 7th chapter. And I have real difficulty in trying to relate these cultural concepts…with archeological findings that I'm aware of. . . .” (emphasis added).

It is becoming more and more obvious that there is little (if any) archaeological backing for LDS scriptures. Dee F. Green, an LDS scholar and former editor of the University Archaeological Society Newsletter, published at Brigham Young University, wrote,

“The first myth we need to eliminate is that Book of Mormon archaeology exists. Titles on books full of archaeological half-truths, dilettante on the peripheries of American archaeology calling themselves Book of Mormon archaeologists regardless of their education, and a Department of Archaeology at BYU devoted to the production of Book of Mormon archaeologists do not insure that Book of Mormon archaeology really exists. If one is to study Book of Mormon archaeology, then one must have a corpus of data with which to deal. We do not. The Book of Mormon is really there so one can have Book of Mormon studies, and archaeology is really there so one can study archaeology, but the two are not wed. At least they are not wed in reality since no Book of Mormon location is known with reference to modern topography. Biblical archaeology can be studied because we do know where Jerusalem and Jericho were and are, but we do not know where Zarahemla and Bountiful (nor any other location for that matter) were or are. It would seem then that a concentration on geography should be the first order of business, but we have already seen that twenty years of such an approach has left us empty-handed.”

The problem of this lack of archaeological evidence in support of the Book of Mormon can be summed up in the words of Frank H. H. Roberts Jr. of the Smithsonian Institute, who says,

“It can be stated definitely that there is no connection between the archeology of the New World and the subject matter of the Book of Mormon. There is no correspondence whatever between archeological sites and cultures as revealed by scientific investigations and as recorded in the Book of Mormon, hence the book cannot be regarded as having any historical value from the standpoint of the aboriginal peoples of the New World.”

When one sees that archaeologists almost unanimously reject the historicity of The Book of Mormon, one may well wonder if there has ever been any evidence whatsoever in support of the book. After all, it is not likely that people would believe in a book that had absolutely no evidential backing. There are in fact several evidences which Latter-day Saints like to pull out, “proving” the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. However, they are not so convincing when subjected to thorough investigation. James Talmage writes the most popular "proof" in his book A Study of the Articles of Faith:

“Joseph began his work with the plates by patiently copying a number of characters, adding his translation to some of the pages thus prepared. The prophet’s first assistant in the labor, Martin Harris, obtained permission to take away some of these transcripts, with the purpose of submitting them to the examination of men learned in ancient languages. He placed some of the sheets before Professor Charles Anthon, of Columbia College, who, after examination, certified that the characters were in general of the ancient Egyptian order, and that the accompanying translations appeared to be correct.”

According to this account, as The Book of Mormon was in the process of being translated from what was supposedly ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, a copy of the original manuscript was brought to a linguist of the name of Professor Anthon. Anthon is said to have affirmed the authenticity of these characters as being of “the ancient Egyptian order.”

This, of course, seems like good evidence -- that is, until subjected to further examination. The first problem with this evidence arises when we realize that Professor Anthon was not a specialist in Egyptology. As Jerald and Sandra Tanner write, “Since Professor Anthon was not an Egyptologist, and since the science of Egyptology was just in its infancy at the time, even Mormon scholars have questioned this statement about Anthon's endorsement of the translation of the Book of Mormon.” This, alone, presents a serious setback to the significance of the story.

But further setbacks arise. The fundamental problem with this story is just that: it is simply a story. Professor Anthon never made any such statement about those sheets. Charles Anthon once wrote in a letter, “The whole story about my pronouncing the Mormon inscription to be reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics is perfectly false ... the paper contained anything else but Egyptian hieroglyphics” A total falsehood, and yet this “evidence” is possibly the most used and most significant argument for the accuracy of the Book of Mormon.

Indeed, the argument is not only easily refutable, it in fact offers evidence against the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, for those very papers that were submitted to Professor Anthon are currently still in existence and available to us. This allows us to examine the characters from the original document. Since, according to The Book of Mormon, these characters were used throughout the Americas, we ought to find similar characters to those found in the Anthon manuscript in innumerable archaeological findings. But is this the case? Far from it.

M. T. Lamb describes this dilemma that is faced by the LDS church, saying,

“Now fortunately or unfortunately Joseph Smith has preserved for us and for the inspection of the world, a specimen of the characters found upon the plates from which he claims to have translated the Book of Mormon. He transcribed a few of the characters from the plates as specimens. …Well, now, unfortunately for the claims of the Book of Mormon, we are able to learn precisely what kind of characters were used in Central America by its ancient inhabitants. They have been preserved in imperishable marble. Engraven upon stone in such a way as to retain to the end of time a silent though solemn rebuke to the false and foolish pretensions of the author of this book. …These same hieroglyphics [used by the ancient Mayans] have been preserved in other form—for the ancient Mayas had books. … An examination of the three [Mayan books] that are now known to be preserved, shows the same characters that are found upon the stone tablets, idols, etc.,...and represent the actual written language of the ancient Mayas—a people who are known to have occupied Central America, and been the sole occupants of a portion of that country at the very time, and covering the whole period, when, according to the Book of Mormon, the Nephites lived and flourished there. …A woeful fatality, is it not? That there should not be even one of Mr. Smith's characters that bears a family likeness, or the least particle of resemblance to the characters actually used by the ancient inhabitants of Central America! ... We should find, in thousands of places, these reformed Egyptian characters engraved upon marble blocks and granite pillars. …But need we say that just the contrary of all this is found to be true.... It would therefore be sheer nonsense to imagine that the assertions of the Book of Mormon may after all have been true, but that through the lapse of time all traces of such a written language may have disappeared. Stone and marble, and gold and silver, and copper and brass are not liable to disappear in the brief period of 1500 years”

Indeed, according to Klaus Baer of the University of Chicago the writing found in the Anthon manuscript, far from being ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, appeared to be “doodlings.” We can see that this evidence, so often used by Mormon apologists falls apart when put under further examination. The very argument Mormons use most to defend the accuracy of the Book of Mormon turns out to do quite the opposite. The Book of Mormon simply cannot pass the external test.

When we apply those two key debating questions to the Book of Mormon, we find that its "historicity" rests on some very shaky ground. We have no eyewitness accounts describing the events in the Book of Mormon, and furthermore, archaeology and its findings deny that these events ever occurred.

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