I know, I’ve been trying to scale back on Mormon-related posts, but this week I stumbled across something that I couldn’t pass up. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been fascinated by the ongoing discussion between Baylor History Professor Philip Jenkins and retired BYU History Professor William Hamblin on their respective blogs, Anxious Bench and Enigmatic Mirror.
In May of this year (2015), Dr. Jenkins posted a series of articles about the proper use of evidence in historical research, beginning with “I Want to Believe,” which discussed a book called The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text that Reveals Jesus’s Marriage to Mary the Magdalene. He posted without much notice from Mormons for a few weeks, and then he made a fateful decision.
On May 17, Jenkins chose to provide a sort of object lesson in how pseudoscience is done in “Mormons and New World History.” He wrote:
I have a lot of sympathy for Mormonism and the LDS tradition, for multiple reasons. So many of their ideas and principles appeal to me, and my personal dealings with Mormons have been overwhelmingly positive. The church’s phenomenal social ministries fill me with awe. As to whether the church was founded by an authentic prophet: with all humility, I say, God knows. On the academic side of things, if you don’t know Mormon history, you are missing a huge amount of American religious history. If a member of my family announced an intention to join the LDS church, I would disagree with their decision, but I would wish them all success.
But here’s the problem. If I look at the Book of Mormon as a historical text, as opposed to a spiritual document, it is simply not factually correct in any particular. In some controversial exchanges, I have been surprised to find how many clearly educated and literate Mormons think that the work can be defended as a work of history and archaeology. It can’t. The reason mainstream historians and scholars do not point out that fact more often is either that they are unaware of the book’s claims, or that they simply see no need to waste time on something so blatantly fictitious. This really is not debatable.
This kind of sweeping assertion would not go unanswered by Mormon apologists, even though Jenkins outlined quite clearly why he believes there is no positive evidence for the Book of Mormon as an ancient American document, at least no evidence that meets the requirements of legitimate scholarship (he’s right, I shouldn’t have to add).
Professor Hamblin responded within a day with “Philip Jenkins on Book of Mormon Historicity,” asserting that Jenkins was “seriously mistaken and uninformed on a number of issues. (My suspicion is that his LDS informants were of the liberal persuasion.)” OK, the line about liberals made me laugh.
Since then, the two esteemed professors have been engaged in a debate of sorts about Book of Mormon evidence. Although some Mormons have complained about Jenkins’s lighthearted and sometimes sarcastic tone, he has consistently made the same request of Mormon apologists: Provide some solid, compelling evidence:
I offer a question. Can anyone cite any single credible fact, object, site, or inscription from the New World that supports any one story found in the Book of Mormon? One sherd of pottery? One tool of bronze or iron? One carved stone? One piece of genetic data? And by credible, I mean drawn from a reputable scholarly study, an academic book or refereed journal, not some cranky piece of pseudo-science.
Or, to reframe the question. Does the Book of Mormon contain a statement or idea about the New World that Joseph Smith could not have known at the time, but which has subsequently been validated by archaeological or historical research?
I’ll spare you the play-by-play action. Suffice it to say that no such “credible fact, object, site, or inscription from the New World” has been presented. That said, several respondents brought up the “Nahom” inscription, with Pedro Olivarria especially taking Jenkins to task for ignoring the real evidence and creating a strawman.
For those who aren’t familiar with the Book of Mormon, the first book, 1 Nephi, tells of a man named Lehi and his family, who were commanded by God to leave Jerusalem around 600 BC. Lehi is said to have begun his journey “by the borders near the shore of the Red Sea; and he traveled in the wilderness in the borders which are nearer the Red Sea” (1 Nephi 2:5). They continued, “following the same direction, keeping in the most fertile parts of the wilderness, which were in the borders near the Red Sea” (1 Nephi 16:14) until the death of one of their party, Ishmael: “And it came to pass that Ishmael died, and was buried in the place which was called Nahom (1 Nephi 16:34). Nephi then tells us, “And it came to pass that we did again take our journey in the wilderness; and we did travel nearly eastward from that time forth” (1 Nephi 17:1).
And we did sojourn for the space of many years, yea, even eight years in the wilderness.
And we did come to the land which we called Bountiful, because of its much fruit and also wild honey; and all these things were prepared of the Lord that we might not perish. And we beheld the sea, which we called Irreantum, which, being interpreted, is many waters. (1 Nephi 17:4-5.)
This is important because we have an actual place name. Going by the text of 1 Nephi, we should expect to find a place called Nahom (or some variation of that) near the Red Sea, on the southwest side of the Arabian Peninsula; traveling east, we should then find a spot on the shore of the Arabian Sea where there is “bountiful” fruit and honey.
And, lo and behold, there is such a place. I’ll let the folks at FAIRMormon explain the find:
In one instance, however, Nephi does preserve a local name, that of Nahom, the burial place of Ishmael, his father-in-law. Nephi writes in the passive, “the place which was called Nahom,” clearly indicating that local people had already named the place. That this area lay in southern Arabia has been certified by recent Journal publications that have featured three inscribed limestone altars discovered by a German archaeological team in the ruined temple of Bar’an in Marib, Yemen. Here a person finds the tribal name NHM noted on all three altars, which were donated by a certain “Bicathar, son of Sawâd, son of Nawcân, the Nihmite.” (In Semitic languages, one deals with consonants rather than vowels, in this case NHM.)
Such discoveries demonstrate as firmly as possible by archaeological means the existence of the tribal name NHM in that part of Arabia in the seventh and sixth centuries BC, the general dates assigned to the carving of the altars by the excavators. In the view of one recent commentator, the discovery of the altars amounts to “the first actual archaeological evidence for the historicity of the Book of Mormon.”
Turning east from Marib, Yemen, one eventually ends up at the fertile seashore of Oman and Yemen, close matches, we are told, for “Bountiful.”
How could Joseph Smith have known all this information? Only through revelation from God. It’s not as if a name approximating Nahom was on any maps of the Arabian Peninsula that were used in Joseph Smith’s day.
Oh, right, it was. This is from an 1811 map made by one John Cary, published in London.
I had read about this in the past, with apologists talking mostly about French and German maps, but somehow I’d missed James Gee’s 2008 article, “The Nahom Maps.” Gee tells us that the place name “Nehem” appears on 10 different maps published in the years leading up to the publication of the Book of Mormon; 6 of these maps were published in English. Oddly enough, Nehem first appears in a French map in 1751 and then no longer appears after 1814. To most people, the appearance of the name suggests an obvious reliance on contemporary maps. But not to Mormon apologists. Gee concludes:
Of course, not all maps of Arabia between the years 1751 and 1814 recorded the location of Nahom. In fact, it is generally found only on the finest and most expensive maps created by the best cartographers and published by the finest printers. In my searches I found countless maps of Arabia with no reference to Nahom or anything like it. Thus, it is somewhat amazing that the first modern map of the Arabian Peninsula, created by D’Anville in 1751, did record the location of this often ignored or unrecognized district. Furthermore, that same map inspired the Danes to send an expedition to the region to fill in the missing information, and the only survivor was the cartographer, Carsten Niebuhr. Not only did he engrave a place called Nahom on his map but he also gave us more details of the area in his journal. These two maps and the ones that followed all give testimony to Lehi’s epic journey almost two thousand years earlier.
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry here.
The FAIRMormon response isn’t much better. Acknowledging that the library at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, had copies of two of these maps in 1830, FAIR tells us nevertheless that the maps were too far away (320 miles) from Joseph Smith’s location to have been the source. Of course, they assume that the place name was inserted while Joseph was at work “translating” in 1829-30. I’m not sure that’s warranted. It’s well-known that Hyrum Smith attended Moor’s Charity School at Dartmouth college between the ages of 12 and 13, so one possibility is that Hyrum had seen the maps. A more intriguing possibility arises when you realize that Meadville, Pennsylvania, is only 75 miles from Mentor, Ohio, where Sidney Rigdon was leading his Campbellite congregation. I’m just throwing those out there, not making a case.
Suffice it to say that the appearance of a place name in the right place on a single contemporary map, let alone 10 maps, is enough to reach pretty solid conclusions.
The apologetic response is predictable but stunningly silly. I’ll explain with an analogy.
Imagine that I discovered a novel written in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1977, which mentions a place south of San Francisco called “Siliconville,” a growing center of technology development. I could easily (and probably correctly) assume this is a reference to “Silicon Valley,” a phrase coined in 1971 but not widely used until the early 1980s. I could show where Silicon Valley is on the map and why it was called that. There are multiple points of convergence, as it were, between the two similarly named places. The conclusion ought to be pretty straightforward. But then I learn that the author of the novel claims it is a true story that was dictated to her by a time-traveling alien. She tells me that Silicon Valley was not a widely known term in 1977, and she had no access to maps, technology magazines, or any other sources where the term might have been used. That it was used elsewhere starting in 1971 doesn’t suggest she got it from a contemporary source but “gives testimony” that she was right about the existence of Silicon Valley in 1977. No one would accept such ridiculous logic.
Apparently, some people would.