Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Evidence for the Mundane Versus the Evidence for the Divine: Archaeology and the Scriptures

I believe in the Bible, in spite of some obvious, irrefutable textual problems and human errors -- i.e., "as far as it has been translated [or preserved] correctly." It is a precious, divine text, though it is not without problems, like any text that has passed though human hands. While I believe in it and fully accept its testimony of the role of Jesus Christ as our Savior, I would hesitate to say that there is archaeological and scientific "proof" for its divinity.

I think some people make far too much of the evidence pertaining to the historical reality of some parts of that text and fail to appreciate that faith is just as essential for accepting the Bible as it is for accepting the Book of Mormon. Those who endlessly insist that there are mounds of evidence supporting their faith in the Bible, in contrast to an alleged lack of evidence for the Book of Mormon, often fail to understand the differences between the two texts and why the mounds they speak of are not nearly as significant as they might think.

Of course the Bible is an ancient text from an easy-to-locate part of the world. It comes from the Jews [Hebrews] in ancient Israel. There has never been any question where that is. Their chief city of Jerusalem is still there and, unlike many ancient cities, bears its ancient name even today and has pretty much been continuously occupied for thousands of years and has long been well known to the rest of the world. So when the ancient text of the Jews speaks of Jerusalem, and we can see it is still on the map, yes, we have evidence of something, but not evidence of the divine nature of the Bible. Try using that to convert someone. It's entirely mundane and does nothing to support the miraculous claims of the Bible.

When we find references to other cities in Israel and surrounding regions and we either find those cities on maps today or uncover ancient writings that give the names of those cities (in the Ebla tablets, for example), we have evidence of something - but is it evidence that God is real, that Jesus rose from the dead, that Elijah rode a chariot of fire into the sky, or that Moses parted the Red Sea? No, it's primarily evidence that some of the cities mentioned in the ancient traditions of real Israelites in ancient Israel were actually there. Either the names persisted in tradition or were recorded in writings from ancient times, which is certainly nice to know, but is it truly surprising or inspiring? That evidence is helpful in refuting some critics of the Bible who said that some particular stories were entirely made up, for now we know that some of the place names at least were real. It's kind of like future archaeologists finding that some of the buildings in the movie Dark Knight actually existed in contemporary Chicago. Some parts of the backdrop may have been real, but does that prove the main plot is true or that any of the special effects are plausible?

It's the "special effects" of the Bible that really matter. Though often in dispute by some critics, the reality of the backdrop - ancient cities, tribes, wars, geographical features, and lifestyles - when confirmed by archaeological digs or other ancients texts may help increase our understanding and appreciation of the text, but may not be relevant in ascertaining the divinity of the text. We know it came from real people who may have lived in real cities and had genuine ancient Semitic names, but did one of them named Moses use miracles to induce Pharaoh to free his Hebrew slaves? Did some of them foretell the future? Did some of them see the Resurrected Messiah and touch and feel his real, tangible, glorious body of flesh and bone and know that God's Son was now immortal and alive?

To "believe in the Bible" is not just to acknowledge that Jerusalem is on the map and its ancient inhabitants wrote a text that mentioned some other real places. It is to accept the message of God's dealings and revelations. That's the real plot. The backdrop is of very little significance. But the "overwhelming evidence" we often hear about is directed to the backdrop, not the plot and its all-important special effects that testify of the reality of God and of His Son, Jesus Christ.

If there were scientific evidence proving or strongly confirming the reality of the Resurrection, for example, what need would there be for faith? I think such evidence will be withheld from us to try us and to give us a chance to grow by acting in faith before we see the miracles that truly are there for us in our journeys toward God. I think that evidence for the other miracles of the Bible are also going to be hard to find, by design, always leaving us room and freedom to close our eyes to God and not believe.

The Book of Mormon is a different matter. It was provided miraculously with the help of God's power and the ministry of a real angel who showed Joseph where the ancient text on metal plates had been stored. It was divinely translated through Joseph Smith. The gold plates, of course (add smirk here, if you wish) are not available in any museum to offer undeniable confirmation of its reality. There were witnesses of the plates, yes, and there are many interesting evidences for plausibility - perhaps just enough for those willing to exercise faith, and nowhere near enough for those lacking it - maintaining the proper balance of things, with God stacking the deck in favor of our free agency and our need to grow in faith before the miracles are seen with our eyes and felt with our hands. This balance requires quite a different approach with the Book of Mormon. Since the whole text came through a purported prophet of God, writing about peoples, places, and civilizations unknown to his time, with no clear direction about just where these Nephites and Lamanite civilizations were, very little in the text is of a mundane nature. By that I mean that confirming details of the backdrop is not irrelevant to the divinity of the text. For much of the text, direct hits pointing to plausibility in the backdrop help can be helpful in helping us to appreciate the potential reality of the main plot, for even the backdrop becomes part of the "special effects" associated with the miraculous origins of the Book of Mormon.

It begins in Jerusalem, which is mundane and not terribly exciting in terms of evidence, but soon we have Nephi and his family wandering through the Arabian Peninsula. They encounter a valley with continually flowing water that flows into the Red Sea. If such a valley can be plausibly identified - and an excellent candidate has - it is interesting. They move south-southeast until they came to an ancient burial place called Nahom. If such a place with such a name existed in Lehi's day, and there is compelling evidence in favor of this possibility, it is interesting. And then they turn due east and eventually arrive in place they called Bountiful, with trees, water, honey, fruit, flint, ore, etc. If such a place existed, and there are at least two reasonable candidates in Oman for this place, then it is interesting. All these "interesting" factors together help suggest that the backdrop of First Nephi may have been rooted in reality. Not proof, but evidence for plausibility. Now if First Nephi is rooted in reality, and if that hint of reality cannot readily be explained by plagiarism or other human means - those who read the text and study these matters with a little faith may see it that way - that may very well say something interesting about the entire text and the role of Joseph Smith as a prophet.

Please, I'm not saying that the fascinating evidence from the Arabian Peninsula "proves" anything, and it certainly doesn't prove that Jesus is the Christ. But it does open the door for further inquiry, and may open the minds of those who have heard that they can reject the Book of Mormon because there is not a shred of evidence for it. There are some rather palpable shreds, and while many pertain to the backdrop, in our case, such evidence has more significance than, say, finding evidence that there was an ancient city named Gomorrah in the Near East.

Of course, I would much prefer that someday, when the infant state of archaeology in the New World begins to catch up with the Old, scholars dig up ancient Semitic writings from the early days of Nephite culture, with many details that clearly fit the Book of Mormon. That's my will, for the record, but I'm afraid mine is not the will that matters - and most of you can be grateful for that.

27 comments:

Nate said...

Thanks, I just finished 1 Nephi for the first time, and I never knew that there was actual evidence behind the geography.

Anonymous said...

Listen, when your standing at the counter at McDonalds and ordering ice cream, they don't pour it out into your hand. The same can be said for the historical evidence with the Bible. Maybe the physical evidence doesn't serve alone as the back drop. The physical evidence is the cone for the ice cream; the container, the shell, the protector, of His Word. If your ice cream is dripping all over your hands and clothes, no wonder your complaining and want a cone. Throw your melting ice cream out of your hand, wash up with water, and go up to the counter and get a new one with a cone.

gb said...

Jeff,

This is slightly off topic. But with our recent encounter with another Anti, I thought you would be interested. I posted it on the appropriate blog entry, but I want to make sure you see it.

I came across this news article and realized it had important content regarding the Book of Mormon statement that Jesus would be born "at Jerusalem"

From the article; "A seal impression belonging to a minister of the Biblical King Zedekiah which dates back 2,600 years has been uncovered completely intact during an archeological dig in Jerusalem's ancient City of David, a prominent Israeli archeologist said on Thursday.

. . . .

"The excavation at the history-rich City of David, which is located just outside the walls of the Old City near Dung Gate, has proven, in recent years, to be a treasure trove for archeologists."

http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1215331162371&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull

Apparently, modern day Jews recognize the "ancient City of David" as a suburb of Jerusalem.

gb said...

Sorry,

Apparently the link name is to long. Here it is again.

http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1215331162371&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull

gb said...

One more time.

http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid
=1215331162371&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle
%2FShowFull

Anonymous said...

Anon 6:27,

I think that your analogy is a bit backwards. You are saying that you cannot handle the faith (ice cream in your hands) without the archaeology (the ice cream cone) to support the faith and you then wish us to apply this analogy to the Book of Mormon. So when the burial box of James, the brother of Jesus turned out to be a hoax, what happened to your cone? Did it get a hole and your faith started leaking through that hole? Did you go back to the counter and order a different cone altogether? Was your new cone some of the more popular new age books that you find in your local book store?

Anonymous said...

Anon 8:19

No - The ice cream is His Word. The historical evidence is the cone. He chose the Jewish people as His cone to pour the ice cream. Now that the cone is filled, everyone gets to eat!

Jason said...

I'm sorry, he chose the Israelites to carry his word, not just the Jewish people. Think about it, Moses was not Jewish, he was from the tribe of Levi.

Anonymous said...

Worst. Analogy. Ever.

Anyway, it misses the points. Point 1, archeology cannot prove the Bible to be true. Period. Al it can do is strengthen the argument for plausibility. I wish some people could just admit that.

Point 2, the Book of Mormon has similar evidences that strengthen its case for plausibility. Sure, the collection of evidence is more limited, but that's to be expected when it deals with a part of the world less studied and a society that collapsed.

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:19,

Okay, but my question still stands. Now that the "historical burial box" of James, the brother of Jesus was proven to be a hoax, what happens to your cone?

Anonymous said...
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Seth R. said...

Even if you can prove that every last event in the Bible happened, it does not prove that the spiritual claims of the book are true. Neither does it prove that the God of the Bible is to be worshiped.

Maybe Jesus was just an emissary of a bunch of Stargate-style space aliens. All his "miracles" were just the result of their advanced technology, but not miraculous, and not proof of Godhood.

The historical arguments about the Bible are ultimately irrelevant.

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erelis said...

@Buckna, 4:53:

I don't find Mano's "irrefutable evidence" for the miracle at Bethsaida compelling in the least. As evidence, its value is at the very best second-hand hearsay, recorded a generation after it presumably happened. Nor is there enough detail in the record to make a physiological judgment about the man's vision after the miracle occurred. Can this sort of diagnosis be faith-enhancing? Certainly, but it is also not "irrefutable". A skeptic would require evidence that the man even existed outside of the mind of the story's author.

"Irrefutable" means that you produce the man, produce medical evidence of his condition before he encountered Christ, and medical evidence of his condition afterward. Otherwise, we're dealing with a very loose standard of "irrefutable", a standard not granted to Mormons producing supporting evidence for the Book of Mormon.

Does this mean that I don't believe that this miracle happened? No, not at all. But I find the demand that we prove the stories of the New Testament true to be very strange, and to result in a great deal of unconvincing "evidence" such as the one offered. I also find it contradictory to the essence of faith provided in Hebrews 11:1.

As to the remainder of your post, I find it irrelevant to subject at hand, yet typical of the shotgun approach of cutting and pasting well-worn anti-Mormon arguments.

Seeing the same material over and over and over again, I become increasingly convinced that the overwhelming majority of anti-Mormon "scholarship" is nothing more than blatant plagiarism within an echo chamber.

Mormanity said...

I'm weary of the off-topic, repetitive, lengthy, and critical posts of a certain critic who thinks that my liberal encouragement of discussion here is a wall that he owns for his own graffiti. It's surprisingly fishy behavior for one claiming to do the Lord's work. So long, and thanks for all the fish.

Mormanity said...

That means I've set my delete key to "repetitive stun" and just used it four times here.

ama said...

I whole heartedly agree with your comments overall. In fact, I recently wrote a post on this exact issue. I came across an Evangelical group whose sole purpose is to "expose" the falsehood of the Book of Mormon due to lack of historical evidence.

FAIR wrote a counter-attack and I added my own thoughts to the historicity issues in the Bible and Book of Mormon.

Feel free to check it out and add any thoughts you'd like:
http://graceforgrace.com/2008/07/21/faith-and-historicity-of-the-bible-and-book-of-mormon/

Anonymous said...

Jeff,

Sorry, did not mean to up set you or mess up your blog I was just trying to point out the Nag Hammadi Library and the Dead Sea Scrolls are some of the best supporting evidence that proves the LDS doctrines in the early church.

Patrick said...

I've concluded that if the verification of religious belief was a purely intellectual endeavor than the only logical jutifiable conclusion would be the position of an agnostic. Supporting evidence is inconclusive.

Will Dunn said...

Jeff,
I will agree with the last part of what you wrote. If there were sematic writings discovered in South America that talked of Nephite, Lamanite or any Book of Mormon people...it would be a bombshell!

I'll go as far as to say that it would turn the world upside down!

MG said...

I would like to step back and approach the issue from a scriptural principle point of view. As we debate what constitutes "evidence" of the Bible or any scriptural record, we might be compared to two fish in a fish bowl debating on how to determine whether the food shows up daily by random chance or by intervention of a higher power. Neither fish asks the question whether they actually have the tools they need to answer such a question using the crude implements found in the fish bowl.

Note carefully the following verses:

"If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread." (Matt 4:3)

Here Satan tempts Christ to show abuse His power and use it in an inappropriate way.

"If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross." (Matt 27:40)

Note that Christ confronts essentially the same temptation and challenge at the end of his ministry at the hand of His accusers that He faced from Satan.

What principle is at work here, whether it be through Satan directly or through the critics? In both of these scenarios, the critics are demanding that their definition of valid "evidence" be the standard of truth. They both require physical evidence produced on demand. It is the proverbial tail the wagging the dog. They put forth their criteria as _the_ criteria to be satisfied when the question must be asked, "What does God consider valid criteria for establishing His truths?"

I find many Christians that purport that their belief rests on archaeological or other supposedly scientific "evidence" are unwittingly allowing the detractors to define what constitutes "evidence" of spiritual matters. We often scramble to answer the call for secular evidence of the unbelievers without even questioning whether such a demand is even valid in God's eyes.

What was Christ's answer to these requests? "Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God." (Matt. 4:7). It is not God on trial down here, it is us. We are the fish. All of us. The refusal of a particular school of fish to consider that someone actually provides the food has no bearing whatsoever on whether it is provided by a person or not. Any artificial standards of truth that they put forth within the confines of the fish bowl are lacking at best.

I feel we are too quick to try to argue about evidence and too quickly concede the very definition of valid evidence in spiritual matters. Christ never satisfied such queries from critics, whether they be the Pharisees, those at the crucifixion, Herod, or Satan Himself. They would only see "the sign of Jonah." They were in no position to demand or define evidence.

I believe both the Bible and Book of Mormon. I found arguments for plausibility for both records. The nature of the Book of Mormon makes it so that circumstantial accuracies of time and location are all the more fascinating than those found in the Bible. Weaving ancient customs, writing style, etc., into a document revealed in the 19th century is no small feat.

However, such a foundation is a sandy one. We are then always at the mercy of the best apologist in the room. We are trusting "in the arm of the flesh." Christ told Matthew "follow me" and he did. Just like that. No artifacts produced. No archeology required. He just followed. Today someone that did this would be called a "dupe."

How did Peter know? He chose to ignore the opinions of the "experts" and simply said, "Thou are the Christ, the Son of the Living God." What was Christ's response? "Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona." Why was he blessed? Because he was convinced by a string of ancient artifacts or by the debates of apologists? No. "for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven." (Matt 16:17). This will simply always be the answer. It is the only valid one as far as The Father is concerned. Personal revelation is the criteria. It is God's criteria. It takes the power out of the hands of the "experts" and puts the responsibility squarely on the individual. It has always been so and always will be.

MG said...

Let me add an addendum. Lest anyone think I am against "evidence," this is not the case. I enjoy studying "evidences," apologetics, and finding verification of authenticity for the Book of Mormon and the Bible. I believe that the Lord does provide evidence of plausibility for the honest seeker who might be confused by detractors. It can serve the purpose of strengthening faith built on the foundation of a spiritual witness. It can provide enough argument for plausibility so that the sincere seeker actually takes the book seriously and moves to the next step to _really_ find out if the book is true. That step is asking God and receiving spiritual confirmation.

There are a myriad of evidences that contribute to the plausibility of the Book of Mormon. However, that is the best that will ever be done for any scriptural record. In the end, we have to put it to the test. We have to believe the opinions and point of view of the writers of the scripture. We have to evaluate the truth of the principles taught. Only a spiritual witness be "conclusive evidence" to the seeker. It is an individual matter. The Lord's plan is to provide enough plausibility for us to open our hearts and search deeper.

Granny said...

Thanks, MG, for your very thoughtful and profound observations. I'm always gratified to find such posts; I've been learning a lot, even at my old Granny age.

Mormanity said...

Will Dunn said: "Jeff,
I will agree with the last part of what you wrote. If there were sematic writings discovered in South America that talked of Nephite, Lamanite or any Book of Mormon people...it would be a bombshell!

I'll go as far as to say that it would turn the world upside down!"


Just like the fascinating evidence from the Arabian Peninsula relevant to First Nephi has caused a dramatic change in the stance of Book of Mormon critics? The tentative confirmations of numerous aspects of Nephi's journey - Valley of Lemuel, River Laman, Shazer, the south-southeast route, Nahom/NHM (with archaeological finds confirming it as an ancient burial place and as a name in the correct region and time), the "nearly due east" route, and plausible candidates for Bountiful, cumulatively should be viewed as astonishing finds worthy of serious consideration, but they are largely ignored. So how would any other bombshell in favor of the Book of Mormon be treated? I'm guessing it would be treated like Ron Paul: just ignored by those who want it to go away.

Lars said...

I've always thought the "find Zarahemla on a map" argument was awfully weak. If the church were to release an edition of the Book of Mormon that contained, for instance, the name Teotihuacan instead, would they then be obligated to admit the presence of archaeological evidence? (That's a rhetorical question-- I fully realize the timelines are completely off for the comparison.)

Or better yet, could I make up a story as Seth R. suggested that Jesus was a space alien that simultaneously appeared in Jerusalem, Rome, Alexandria, Athens, Edo, Qufu, and Mathura, and point out that the existence of all these places constitutes evidence that I didn't just fabricate the story?