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

Thursday, August 30, 2012

What a Meal in Shanghai Can Teach Us about the Book of Mormon

This post follows up on my previous post about "The Grainsayers."

This week I enjoyed a wonderful conversation and some great food at Shanghai's best and healthiest bakery (IMHO), Nancy's Bakery on Weifang Street in PuDong District. Nancy is a Shanghai woman who has traveled to Europe and Brazil to study the culinary arts and bring back great international cooking. With imported European flours, her breads are the best in Shanghai, and she offers a variety of other dishes with top-notch, healthy ingredients that Westerners and Chinese love. Her amazing bread has attracted one of the great entrepreneurs of China whom I got to meet on this last visit to the bakery. That's another story I hope to share someday (teaser: he's strengthening and transforming China, with the help of Utah, of all places).

While dining at Nancy's, after an exotic main course, a hearty soup, and some other items, she brought my little group (my wife and I plus my Chinese teacher and her boyfriend) a vegetable dish of dark, chopped greens. "Ganlan" she said. "Ganlan?" I asked. "Doesn't that mean 'olive'?" She nodded, though maybe she didn't understand me. I looked at the greens and thought there's no way this came from an olive tree, but I've learned from shopping and eating in China that the names for plants can be confusing and variable, especially for foreign plants but even native Asian species pose plenty of trouble, so no need to make a fuss. Just be grateful and move on. But later I got out my handy Pleco app on my iPad and looked up the word "ganlan." Yes, ganlan means olive, but there's another "ganlan" with different characters and different tones that literally means "sweet blue" or "sweet indigo" but is translated as Chinese broccoli, or cabbage, or "gai larn" according to one dictionary, "wild cabbage" in another, "white cabbage" in another and "cabbage" or "kale" in yet another. I think "kale" is probably the best fit from the dictionary choices, though I thought it was mustard greens.

Such difficulties occur frequently. Some parts of the country or even neighbors on the same street call a given species by two or more names. The tomato, for example, is described as a type of eggplant (fanqie, where qie = eggplant) by some, or as "Western red persimmon" (xihongshi) by others. Grains, herbs, spices, fruits, birds, fish, mammals--there can be multiple names to cope with for a single species that may not reflect sound scientific logic, and this is in a single modern language. Add centuries and the complexity of translating terms to different languages and you can have all sort of confusion.

So when Mormon mentions some plants and animals that were had among the Nephites and the Jaredites, what did he mean? Had the Hebrew word (or its late Nephite derivative) typically translated as "wheat" or "barley" come to refer to grains native to the Americas such as maize or quinoa or simply New World barley? Did those words refer to many different grains depending on which Nephites or Jaredites in which century and which location you talked to? Did Mormon even know what particular species was meant in the records from centuries ago that he was drawing upon? Maybe Mormon did his best to specify a particular grain. But what if he used a term that, in Hebrew, often means wheat or barley? Is it wrong to use those terms in the translation? What if he wrote "quinoa"? How should this be translated when Joseph Smith through his divinely aided translation processes comes across the passage, but has no such word in his vocabulary? Is the "meaning" that needs to be conveyed that the Nephites planted and harvested grains, or is it important for the peer-reviewed Book of Mormon that the correct scientific name be delivered such as Chenopodium berlandieri?

Better yet, why not prophetically give the scientific name and the future bibliographic references for peer-reviewed journals that will announce the discovery of the specific domesticated grains? Wait, my mistake--maybe the Book of Mormon was not intended to impress scientists and critics on its technical merits. Maybe there's some other purpose to the book that leaves plenty of latitude in how peripheral flora and fauna are specified. Maybe the natural complexities that occur in the naming of things across language groups and across miles and centuries need to be considered when we encounter a term like "wheat" in the Book of Mormon or "ganlan" at Nancy's Bakery.

If you're having trouble with the Book of Mormon over allegedly anachronistic plants and animals in the text (such a minor issue, really), then I sincerely would like to suggest that you get out more often and join me in Shanghai at Nancy's Bakery, or even a simple grocery store, and begin exploring first hand what happens to names when cultures and languages collide.

Yes, I want the peer-reviewed version of the Book of Mormon someday with all the technical details filled in, but for now, I have to remember what the book is actually about.

33 comments:

Ray Agostini said...

God knows you've tried to be a peacemaker, Jeff, but the "Great and Spacious" doom and negativity towards your faith goes on unbridled. Isn't that the way it was in Lehi's dream? Jude had something similar to say:

"10 But these speak evil of those things which they know not: but what they know naturally, as brute beasts, in those things they corrupt themselves.
11 Woe unto them! for they have gone in the way of Cain, and ran greedily after the error of Balaam for reward, and perished in the gainsaying of Core. 12 These are spots in your feasts of charity, when they feast with you, feeding themselves without fear: clouds they are without water, carried about of winds; trees whose fruit withereth, without fruit, twice dead, plucked up by the roots....
16 These are murmurers, complainers, walking after their own lusts; and their mouth speaketh great swelling words, having men’s persons in admiration because of advantage." (Jude 1)

The evidence you provide won't make an iota of difference to such. While it should at least give pause for thought, the greater evidence of the truth of the Book of Mormon doesn't lie in archaeology, but how deadly accurate it was in predicting, almost to a word, the reactions of the gainsayers. Constant criticism can become an addiction. Having "recovered" from Mormonism (debatable), they are yet a long way off recovery from faithless negativity and pessimism. Change of attitude must be internal, not external.

Paul said...

Jeff, love this post. Sounds like you're having a blast in China. I'm jealous!

Your post reveals a unique parochialism among some critics of the Book of Mormon. One could almost forgive Joseph's use of terms from his surroundings, but it's surprising that modern readers cannot take a broader reading as you recommend here.

Janice said...

I served a Spanish speaking mission in the United States and met people from every country (Mexico, Central and South America). Something having a name in Chile would have a different name in Mexico. It is true for different regions in the United States, maybe to a lesser degree. I had a companion from Canada and they use different names than what we do in the U.S for certain objects. When me and my family went to south Texas for my mother's family reunion my husband asked me, half jokingly, if I would translate for him. (Of course accent plays a role) :)

Harve said...

Some motivation for thinking that some of the Nephite crops should be Old World in origin: 1 Nephi 18:24 "And it came to pass that we did begin to till the earth, and we began to plant seeds; yea, we did put all our seeds into the earth, which we had brought from the land of Jerusalem. And it came to pass that they did grow exceedingly; wherefore, we were blessed in abundance."

True, it doesn't explicitly list barley among these old world crops, and it's possible that despite "that they did grow exceedingly" the old world versions quickly gave way to new world versions. Ultimately, there's too much wiggle room to test the Book of Mormon scientifically. You're not doing science when only positive hits count and negative hits can be dismissed by appealing to the ambiguity of language.

Anonymous said...

Jeff, most of these linguistic arguments, whichever side they come from, are pretty meaningless. Consider:

1.) The BoM is supposedly a 19th-century translation of an original written in an ancient language, Reformed Egyptian;

2.) No BoM text in Reformed Egyptian is available; and

3.) No other body of texts in Reformed Egyptian is available for us to study.

A lot of LDS apologetics mimics the language and method of legitimate biblical scholarship. But a little reflection on the points above can remind us that the two are radically different activities.

Bible scholars have advantages that are simply unavailable to the BoM apologist. There are lots of ancient sources that allow us to study the crucial nuances of NT Greek and OT Hebrew. When the meaning of a word used in the Bible is unclear, we can go back to these sources to see how it was used in a variety of other contexts. We can see how the word was used elsewhere in the Bible itself, without having to worry about whether we are being misled by the vagaries of translation. We can see (to give just one example) how in Isaiah an OT Hebrew word meaning "young woman" was translated in the Septuagint into a Greek word meaning "young woman or virgin," and from there into the English word "virgin."

I could give many other examples of how crucial it is to study a translated text in its original language, and the need to have an abundant textual corpus in that original language, but I trust you get the point.

This kind of scholarship simply cannot be done with the Book of Mormon, because the resources are not available. Not only do we not have the Golden Plates, we do not even have a copy of the text based on the plates. The result is that much BoM apologetics is pseudo-scholarship. It might superficially resemble real scholarship, but it lacks the necessary textual foundations.

Imagine a Bible scholar trying to engage in source criticism, or to argue some point about meaning, but doing so solely on the basis of an English-language translation and ignoring the relevant Greek or Hebrew sources. Such work would likely be dismissed, and rightly so. Most likely it would not be considered scholarship at all.

Of course, if the point being argued supported the orthodoxy of a particular church, then it might well be accepted by members of that church, but not by anyone else. This is precisely the status of much BoM "scholarship." It's pure apologetics dressed up as scholarship.

Jeff, you might want to think about one of the more interesting aspects of serious biblical scholarship, namely, the fact that there is such widespread agreement on so many once-controversial points. Consider the fact that serious Bible scholars, whether Protestant, Catholic, atheist, or whatever, all agree on the basic outlines of the Documentary Hypothesis. The evidence is that strong, and the logic is that tight. The scholarship could not have reached this point without all the advantages I mentioned above: abundant sources in the original languages on which our often misleading translations are based.

Compare this situation to your own. There is no similar agreement among students of the BoM. The only students of the BoM who believe in its ancient origins and historicity are orthodox Mormons. No one else has been convinced, for the simple reason that the evidence and the logic just ain't there, because the necessary sources are not available for study.

-- Eveningsun

Jeff Lindsay said...

Eveningsun, this post was NOT about scholarly insights into the original Hebraic text of the Book of Mormon, but about understanding the weakness of a popular argument against the authenticity of the text. Yes, my comments were about defending the book--apologetics. I made no claim to anything else.

The vast majority of those who find the Book of Mormon to be an authentic Semitic text are believing Mormons--that should be no surprise, because obtaining a personal witness of its authenticity/truth through various means is a major route to conversion. There are a few people who are impressed with its Semitic authenticity who have even written and spoken out about it without joining the Church, but those are rare exceptions.

But though we don't have the original plates, we do have opportunities for serious scholarship. For example, the detailed analysis of the manuscripts behind the Book of Mormon by Royal Skousen have led to numerous surprises and insights (one of which is that the original words dictated by Joseph to his scribes have more Hebraisms than the manuscript after editing for printing, removing many things that were awkward in English but rich in Hebraisms, including some not found in the Bible).

Further, there are opportunities for scholarly insights into the names of the Book of Mormon and many other issues. But the point of my post was not to introduce scholarship based on an Urtext, but to point out that whining about the mention of "wheat" or "barley" reflects a lack of understanding about what happens in language. Simple.

Jeff Lindsay said...

Harve, settlers to new lands have been known to bring crops and animals with them from their homeland, but over time often adapt and use local products, often because the old stuff doesn't work well in the new environment. So sure, they might have brought Old World barley or other seeds, but we don't have to expect persistence over centuries. For many reasons, it's hard to know which grain will be meant in a record of a foreign people in a new land, especially when it goes through another translation or two.

However, if you want scientific tests, you can at least ask this: did any ancient peoples in the Americans plant and harvest grains as part of their diet? Scientific answer: absolutely. Book of Mormon passes. A less fair question is "Did ancient peoples in the America plant and raise barley?" This is less appropriate because what we call barley may not be the grain they used due to their choice of terminology or technical issues in later stages of translation. But still. the scientific answer has to be yes, we now know that the ancients raised domesticated barley. I don't know of any evidence that what we call "wheat" was used in ancient America, but certainly there were other grains in use that could have been referred to with whatever words the Nephites used that later became translated as "wheat."

The presence of "wiggle room" in the text is frustrating to those who want to simply dismiss the book and be done, but is an important factor to recognize in approaching this or any other text or also in a court of law or any other decision-making setting. The goal should be understanding what the text means, not what we want it to mean for the purposes of rejecting it. The fairest take-away is that the Book of Mormon indicates that at least some Nephites harvested grains. Exactly what grains we may not be able to say based on the translation (or even the original gold plates if we had them and could readily read them). That's not backpedaling--that's the nature of dealing with plant and animal names, and those who don't get that need to come to China and enjoy a plate of Chinese broccoli/mustard/cabbage/kale/olives/gai larm with me.

Anonymous said...

The goal should be understanding what the text means, not what we want it to mean for the purposes of rejecting it. The fairest take-away is that the Book of Mormon indicates that at least some Nephites harvested grains.

This is disingenuous, Jeff. Your goal is not merely "understanding what the book means," but also defending the book's ancient origins and historicity. Just as the antis are interested in understanding what they "want it to mean for the purposes of rejecting it," you are interested in understanding what you "want it to mean for the purposes of" defending it, or more precisely, defending a particular understanding of it as ancient, inspired, and historical. (FWIW, I too have an interest in defending the BoM, though as a 19th-century American text worth studying in American literature classes rather than as an ancient text--a different kind of defense.)

Aside from debunking the shallowest of the objections of the antis (shooting fish in a barrel), you can't really learn very much about the BoM by thinking about all the things that happen in the process of translation, for the simple reason that it's not a translated text. It's a 19th-century text composed by Joseph Smith in English.

Issues of translation only arise in the first place if the book's ancientness is assumed from the get-go as a matter of faith. And as I mentioned above, the only people who believe the text to be ancient are the LDS faithful. Secular scholars do not, for without faith there is no reason to do so.

-- Eveningsun

Harve said...

Jeff,

Are you talking to me or to yourself when you say, “The goal should be understanding what the text means, not what we want it to mean for the purposes of rejecting it.” Just substitute “defending” for “rejecting” and redirect this statement to yourself. If we're going to erect a wall of unfalsifiability around the claims of the Book of Mormon by suggesting that anything that science can falsify really should be translated differently, then the Book of Mormon says anything we want it to, like a ventriloquist's dummy. The fact that some Chinese words denote more than one kind of vegetable does not imply that the English word for wheat denotes any ancient New World grain. Why don’t you just rewrite the 8th article of faith to say, “We believe the Book of Mormon as far as it is translated correctly,” and be done with it.

You compare the process of evaluating the claims of the Book of Mormon to a court of law. That’s appropriate because in a court of law, the advocate for the defense does not take a balanced approach to discovering the truth. Instead, he presents the best case he can to support a predetermined conclusion, as you do to defend the historicity of the Book of Mormon. That’s fine, but a court of law is not science. Hopefully you understand the difference.

Stephen said...

Eveningsun -- I started reading consensus Biblical scholarship back when it was well agreed that Jericho never really existed and would never be found ...

I was obviously getting up to speed by reading older literature (I'm old, but not that old), but it was interesting to see how things changed.

Jeff Lindsay said...

Evening Sun and Harve, of course I'm defending the book. If you somehow thought my openly pro-LDS blog and apologetics website was being written by someone undecided on the Book of Mormon, then I'm sorry for the confusion. But for those who are investigating the book, it is hardly disingenuous for me to ask them to seek to understand what the text is about and what may be meant--and that includes considering the claim that it is an authentic ancient text written by Semitic peoples and translated later into English. If so, then what would a band of Hebrews call the new grains they encountered? How might those terms be translated? From that perspective, it's reasonable to expect old terms to be applied to new items. In fact, how could it have been otherwise? That's the point of understanding what happens with plant names when English and Chinese collide. So what would have happened if Hebrews came to the New World? It's worth considering.

Nitpicking over the alleged absence of barley, as critics did for years and still do, in spite of the confirmed finding of domesticated barley in the ancient New World, is a terribly weak reason for rejecting the text or finding it implausible.

In the passing references to grains made a few times in the Book of Mormon, the grain mentioned most commonly and consistently is corn. Yes, that was the staple grain of ancient Mesoamerica, the most likely location for the Book of Mormon New World setting. Corn as in maize. Then barley is mentioned. Check. Though only found recently in part because knowledge of Mesoamerica remains in its infancy, with only about 5% of major sites have been excavated, nevertheless the repeated confirmation in recent years of ancient domesticated barley must count for something in the debate on plants and animals in the Book of Mormon. Yet barley remains on the list. Yawn.

Jeff Lindsay said...

(Continued.)
Finally, there's wheat, mentioned far less often than corn. Wheat is a complex Old World crop with a host of different grasses and seed forms that have been associated with that name, but still as far as we know, wheat as we know it was not present in the ancient Americas. So does that scientifically invalidate the Book of Mormon?

Now ask that question sincerely, as if it really mattered. If this were the one issue that were leading someone to reject the Book of Mormon, would the mention of "wheat" be a solid reason to conclude the book is a modern forgery? Would this be an adequate reason for someone to walk away from the book? I think any reasonable person would have to agree that even if an authentic ancient record mentioned "wheat," there could be a number of plausible reasons as to why we can't confirm wheat in ancient America. These reasons include:
1) It was there, at least for a while as a temporary New World import perhaps, but hasn't been found yet, just like barley wasn't found until recently, just like mantioc wasn't found until recently, and just like domesticated turkeys in Mesoamerica weren't found until recently. If very few major sites have been thoroughly investigated, do we really know enough based on absence of evidence to prove a negative here? There are many things that were there that may never be found.

2) Other domesticated grains may have been given the name "wheat" because they had similar properties, flavor, appearance, whatever, to the Old World wheat that the new settlers new.

3) Or later generations, having several terms for grain and no longer being familiar with Old World wheat, used a common term for domestic grain to describe the domestic grain they were now harvesting.

Chia, amaranth, quinoa (all pseudo-grains) and several other plants were harvested and used in ancient Mesoamerica. The concept of grains being raised and harvested by ancient Mesomaerican peoples, whatever terms they used to describe their plants, is plausible and consistent with the Book of Mormon. We'd have more of a problem if grains were unknown, but that's not the case.

The book mentions "sheum" as a grain, by the way, which matches an ancient Middle Eastern term (Akkadian) for grain that could have been imported with the Jaredites or Mulekites. That's at least a little interesting, no? Oh, of course not! None of it's interesting if you've already decided the book is absurd. But for those interested in understanding it, these little issues and challenges, including the puzzles over terms like barley and wheat, can be worthwhile and valuable.

Anonymous said...

If this were the one issue that were leading someone to reject the Book of Mormon, would the mention of "wheat" be a solid reason to conclude the book is a modern forgery? Would this be an adequate reason for someone to walk away from the book?

Of course not. But we're talking about something that is such an obviously bad "anti" argument that I can only point out again that you're shooting fish in a barrel.

Note that a committed Scientologist could ask "investigators" to provisionally assume the basic truth of the Xenu story, and then, on the basis of that assumption, reject all sorts of shallow objections to that story. For example, someone might object that there's no physical evidence supporting the story, e.g., there's no known radioactive trace of multiple hydrogen bomb explosions in volcanoes 75 million years ago. In response, the Scientology apologist might cite some scientific study about the rate of radioactive decay, and then argue that said study renders the obection groundless.

But that would hardly contitute grounds for actual belief. And the primary objections, namely, the story's inherent implausibility and lack of supporting evidence, would remain as strong as ever. Ditto for the Book of Mormon. There's no more reason to believe in Nephi than in Xenu. This is not to say one can't believe in such things, only that such belief is entirely a matter of faith, not evidence.

Also, I want to note that those of us who reject the ancient origins of the BoM do not necessarily believe it must be a "modern forgery." Personally, I think pseudonymous authorship is closer to what Joseph Smith did.

-- Eveningsun

Harve said...

It seems my previous comment went the way of the 116 pages so I'll try again.

It doesn't matter whether the Nephites used the Hebrew word for wheat to denote some new world crop. The job of the translator is to choose the English word that most nearly conveys the meaning of whaatever the Nephite word refers to. What did Joseph Smith do if there wasn't an English word that could adequately convey the meaning of the Nephite word? Ostensibly he left it untranslated (e.g. neas). If he chose a word that conveys the wrong meaning, that's a mistranslation regardless of the original meaning of the loan word. So this most used of apologetic tools, the claim that Joseph was translating words with their original Hebrew meaning rather than the intended Nephite meaning, implies that Joseph mistranslated.
Looking at the tone of your most recent comments, Jeff, I'm reminded that the amplitude of an apologist's snark and sarcasm is inversely proportional to the strength of his argument.
As for sheum, it's interesting if true, but since I don't know Akkadian (and neither do you), I'll need more than the assurance of Mormon apologists that this is the case. Regardless, I notice that you have to go to Akkadian instead of Hebrew. This may just be an illustration that if you cast a wide enough net, it's easier to find parallels.

Jeff Lindsay said...

Eveningsun, the discussion on wheat is not about reasons to accept the Book of Mormon, but a refutation of a common reason offered to reject it. The issue of grains in the Book of Mormon is not such an easy target, especially with the recent discovery of barley and the discovery of an old world connection to "sheum". The problem of "wheat" may not be a real problem. I'm not asking people to see grains as evidence demanding belief in the Book, but to see the anti-arguments as something to put on hold and move on. In the area of evidences for the Book, there are much cooler areas and discoveries such as the abundant evidence from the Arabian Peninsula for the plausibility of First Nephi 16 and 17. Cool stuff, including recent finds of altars from the right place and time with the NHM name on them. Those are the kind of things to discuss when it comes to positive evidences. Here I'm just talking about the silliness of making grains a major objection to the book.

Jeff Lindsay said...

Harve, sorry I offended you. I guess I'm a bit tone deaf on the tone aspect that bothers you. Clarification would be great. The comment on "of course I'm defending the book" was directed to Eveningsun who said "This is disingenuous, Jeff. Your goal is not merely 'understanding what the book means,' but also defending the book's ancient origins and historicity." The comment had portions answering both of you, but I should have separated out your names at the beginning to reduce confusion. I was feeling a bit exasperated but did not mean to be snarky. Sorry.

You said, "The job of the translator is to choose the English word that most nearly conveys the meaning of whatever the Nephite word refers to."

But if a Nephite author uses "wheat" to describe a grain such as quinoa, unknown to Joseph and Book of Mormon readers, then what is his job and why? What is wrong with keeping "wheat"? I, too, would love to have a more scientific, peer-reviewed Book of Mormon in which Joseph Smith would correct Mormon's "wheat" to something like: "the Mesoamerican pseudo-grain that, beginning in 1856, will be commonly called quinoa and later will be labeled as Chenopodium berlandieri by the eminent botanist Howard Livingston (see footnotes 4,323 through 4,328 for details)"? (Dates and names just made up for illustration.) That would be cool, while also defeating the purpose of the book.

You also said, "What did Joseph Smith do if there wasn't an English word that could adequately convey the meaning of the Nephite word? Ostensibly he left it untranslated (e.g. neas)."

My guess is that neas and sheum were ancient words Mormon encountered and passed on in the text, perhaps without knowing what they meant. There are other cases where he appears to use words that in his language need translation (e.g. curelom and cumom, Irreantum and Rabbanah). In such a case, I think passing on those words, as Mormon may have done, is OK for Joseph's job. Obviously, it would be cooler if he had inserted a technical description of the actual species or metal or animal referred to. I think that edition comes out in the Millennium, so stay tuned.

So we have the Book of Mormon mentioning corn (could be maize) as the dominant grain (makes sense), barley (now possibly confirmed), and much less frequently wheat (not known, but could be the word used to refer to other grains known to be used in Mesoamerica, or might yet be discovered because we're still in an infancy stage in exploring ancient Mesoamerica). This is not a horrifically implausible scenario requiring great mental gymnastics to prevent the Book of Mormon from collapsing in the face of science. If they used real wheat and we haven't found it yet, that's understandable. If they called something else wheat and Joseph translated it as wheat. that's also understandable.

I have not said that nothing in the Book of Mormon can be tested. The tests need to consider, though, what the text actually requires and what may actually be meant. The test for grains is "Was there an ancient culture in plausible Book of Mormon lands that harvested multiple grains?" The answer is yes. Understanding how plant and animal names work when new groups move into an area must be part of the scientific background in approaching that problem. That's the point.

Anonymous said...

Jeff, Harve is right that "if you cast a wide enough net, it's easier to find parallels." After decades of feverish searching, the apologists can give us a very few coincidences, or more accurately, near-coincidences, to which they cling tightly but which mean little more than that a stopped clock is right twice a day.

In the meantime the arguments against the Book of Mormon's ancient origins remain overwhelming. There's the suspicious circumstances of the book's provenance (the seer stone in the hat, the missing 116 pages, the angel conveniently absconding with the plates); and the extraordinary thinness of the text (which unlike the Bible has virtually no significant women characters, and which never gives one the feeling that one is glimpsing a genuinely different culture); and the extraordinary rapidity with which a bunch of expatriate ancient Hebrews supposedly abandoned their religious practices and morphed into prophesying Protestant Christians; and the prevalence of the book's major themes in 19th-century America (the 1820s being awash with speculations about Indian origins and the very theological disputes dramatized in the BoM); and the DNA evidence, which the Church can only explain by backing away from its original reading of its own texts; and the way the Book of Abraham calls into question Joseph Smith's claims as a translator; and on and on.

The cumulative force of all these evidences of the BoM's 19th-century origins is such that it seems silly of the antis to focus on matters as trivial as wheat and barley. But it makes perfect sense for the LDS apologist to grind away at them (forgive me my puns, as I forgive yours), if only to keep the spotlight off the herd of elephants in the room.

Jeff, you're fond of asking questions like "what if he used a term that, in Hebrew, often means wheat or barley? ... What if he wrote 'quinoa'?"

Well, I too can ask questions. What if Joseph Smith himself wrote the BoM? If he did, well, given his well-attested abilities as a raconteur, his religious preoccupations, his limited formal education, and his Indian-obsessed cultural milieu, we would expect a rambling, inelegantly written story heavy on Christian theology and Indian origins but very light on any details of ancient Hebrew culture. And what if he wanted to pass his work off as a translation of gold plates that he didn't actually possess? Then we would expect some rather implausible dodges, such as allowing people to heft the hidden plates but not actually see them, and later claiming the plates had been taken away by an angel, and so on.

In other words, we would expect something very much like what we actually get.

If the book were truly an ancient work by ancient expatriate Hebrews, we might also expect it to be of considerable use to Bible scholars of different faiths (or of no faith at all). Think of how much such an ancient Hebrew record dating to preexilic times might add to our still decidedly incomplete knowledge of the Bible! Yet non-LDS scholars look at the BoM and find in it no help at all. Come to think of it, the same is true of LDS scholars! The study of the BoM has added precisely zilch to mainstream biblical studies. Nada. The most brilliant of LDS scholars cannot seem to convince the rest of the scholarly community that the BoM can shine any light at all on the Bible. How can that be, if the BoM is truly an ancient text?

If the BoM were truly an ancient text, would it not by now have evinced, somewhere in its 500+ pages, at least one piece of incontrovertible evidence of the fact? One single piece of evidence visible even to the gentile eye?

-- Eveningsun

Harve said...

Jeff,
No worries. Tone and other social cues are lost in internet communication, giving us all a bit of autism.

I find the idea that Joseph Smith's translation abilities would be limited to things that Mormon understands a little hard to believe. In other words, I think it unlikely that the urim and thumim only furnish English words if Mormon states them in his own language but fail to provide English words if Mormon uses words from another language. It sounds too much like a just-so story. It also contradicts the idea that Joseph would be able to provide the old world translation for certain words; Mormon would only be familiar with the new world meaning of loan words, so Joseph, being limited by Mormon's understanding, shouldn't be able to provide the old world interpretation, given the premise of your theory. That's why the appearance of seemingly untranslated words in the Book of Mormon is more consistent with the idea that Joseph didn't substitute knowns for unknowns. This is why I don't think it plausible that Joseph would substitute "wheat" for "quinoa," whatever that is.

Jeff Lindsay said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeff Lindsay said...

Evening Sun, not a shred of evidence for the plausibility of the Book of Mormon?? Are you sure about that? Oh, wait, I see, it's only incontrovertible evidence you demand, which is a rather high bar when certain critics who dislike the Church for various reasons stand ready to controvert everything that might stand in our favor.

While you repeat the decades-old claim that there is not a shred of evidence to support the laughable Book of Mormon, it has become much less laughable and more interesting year after year, with abundant evidences pointing to origins beyond the ken of Joseph Smith and his peers, with roots more ancient than can be explained by chance and luck. This is not to prove the book, but to provide grounds for moving forward with study and faith.

The evidences include such things as detailed data from the Arabian Peninsula confirming numerous details of First Nephi 16 and 17, including the directions given, candidates for the place Shazer, the Valley of Lemuel, the River Laman, the burial place Nahom, the eastern site Bountiful, even down to the details of rare iron ore, abundant trees, a large water supply, flint, cliffs overlooking the ocean, fruit, etc., consistent with the details related to Bountiful in the text. Oh, and the recent discovery of 7th century BC altars with the tribal name NIHM on them showing that the name NHM/Nahom in the Book of Mormon in that area (pretty much the only place where one can turn off the south-southeast incense trails and head nearly due east to reach the ocean as Nephi says without walking into a death trap of pure sand and desert). It's cool stuff, faith promoting stuff for those willing to exercise faith, and something that just can't plausibly be explained by Joseph making things up from his perch on the frontier. The most reasonable explanation for First Nephi 16 and 17's wealth of confirmatory evidence is that someone wrote those chapters who actually made that journey. That should at least be a starting place for an interesting conversation, not a regurgitation of the "ain't no evidence and ain't never gonna be none" chorus.

We've discussed a number of interesting things in this blog and on my Book of Mormon Evidences page, from volcanism to olive tree culture and Jacob 5 (where the evidence of authenticity for that chapter alone led to the conversion of at least one professor I know of) to Hebraisms. word print studies, recently confirmed ancient Semitic names like Alma, the ancient covenant formulary discovered less than a century ago firmly in King Benjamin's covenant making ceremony, and the broad connections between Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon cultures. None of those count for anything? Not interesting in the least?

So what possible "incontrovertible" evidence could you expect to find, short of God and a legion of angels yelling in your face? Wait, even that could be controverted, I'm afraid. If nothing we've talked about and discussed counts in your world view, what could possibly count? What could possibly escape the controverting gaze of an angry critic?

Jeff Lindsay said...

Since I mentioned Shazer, here's a link to some brief info on that issue: http://www.jefflindsay.com/bme17.shtml.

Some interesting hints at the Mesoamerican-Book of Mormon linkage, again far beyond the ability of Joseph to fabricate in his day, are listed by John Sorenson at http://www.fairlds.org/fair-conferences/2012-fair-conference/2012-reading-mormons-codex and will be discussed at length in his forthcoming book.

Jeff Lindsay said...

Just probing again: If there were reasonable evidence for any of these following, would it help? And why not?

--a stone found at an ancient coastal site in Mesoamerica carved with paleo-Hebrew that can be translated as "Nephi was a loser. Laman rocks."

--evidence that there was an ancient city that, in at least one Mesoamerican language, was known as something very close to "Zarahemla"?

--evidence that Book of Mormon names like Lamoni and Shule were used in ancient Mesoamerica?

--proof that ancient Mesoamericans built defenses like those made by Moroni, with timber barriers on top of earthen walls?

--proof that cities were built with cement in a land with relatively fewer trees?

--proof that sacred artifacts were preserved in stone boxes and buried as Mormon did?

--proof for the existence of horses among some of the Mayans, based on precolumbian bones less than 3000 years old?

A couple of those things might be real examples, but not all. But would any of them "count"? Am interested in which ones would help and why.

KhyEllie said...

Thanks for the post, Jeff. I'm seriously blown away by how anyone can say that there isn't a shred of real evidence for the BoM when almost every day I'm learning about some new historical or scientific insight that gives the BoM plausibility--and 90% of the time, those insights were not found with any connection to the BoM, but still back it! Anyone who says that there isn't a single solid fact in favor of the BoM is being absurdly ignorant of the less-than-coincidental parallels between the BoM and modern emerging anthropology.

Anonymous said...

Jeff, KhyEllie, I guess the evidence just looks different when you're coming at it from a non-LDS point of view. The difference becomes clear when one reads a book of modern Bible scholarship. Here's "Shiloh" in the Bible; there are the ruins on the ground. Here's the Bible's account of rebuilding the Temple; there's the Western Wall. Ditto for Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the Jordan River, the Nile River, Egypt, the cedars of Lebanon, the rivers of Babylon, the Sea of Galilee... It's all there! We have ample extra-biblical evidence not only of places, but of people: Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus, Herod, Pilate... There's also the linguistic record: texts reaching back to the time of the Dead Sea scrolls, plus the Rosetta Stone, etc. There's enough evidence that there's no question of the Bible's origins in that ancient world.

By contrast, where are the ruins of Zarahemla? Did the BoM events take place in Mesoamerica? Across both hemispheres? In upstate New York? Even Mormons admit they don't know. It's as if the Bible scholar could say only, "The 'Land of Egypt' might have been in Northern Africa, or then again near present-day Morocco, or maybe in Somalia."

Where is there an ancient fragment of Reformed Egyptian? Where is there any incontrovertibly ancient evidence that such a form of writing actually existed? Nowhere.

Sure, if you take the many place names in the BoM and collate them against the vast reaches of Arabia, you can come up with a very few words and artifacts that kinda sorta match, if you squint hard enough. But compared to the vast archaeological, historical, and linguistic evidences of the Bible's ancientness, the evidence for the BoM seems very, very thin. And the most obvious explanation for that paucity of evidence is that the text did not originate in an ancient civilization at all. Especially when one compares it to the evidence of its 19th-century origins.

If you try hard enough, you can come up with other explanations for the vaporousness of the BoM's archaeological, linguistic, and historical record, but those of us not already committed to the faith have to go with what is, after all, the more likely explanation.

Again, where are the ruins? You don't have a single one! Where are the ancient fragments of the language? Again, you don't have a single one. There is no Book of Mormon archaeology, and there is no scholarly study of the Book of Mormon's original text and language. In both cases, there's nothing there to study. Nada. All you have is a long list of claims that can all be prefaced with "might be..." or "could have been..." But, as you admit, not a single incontrovertible piece of evidence. Not a single one. And yes, I am perfectly right to demand one. You would demand no less before you'd believe in the inherently implausible claims of Scientology, no?

-- Eveningsun

Anonymous said...

Also, please remember that I'm an atheist, yet have no trouble at all admitting that the Bible is ancient. (I obviously don't believe it's the word of God, but that's a different matter.) I and every other educated nonbeliever will readily say, "The Bible is a collection of folklore, myth, laws, etc., and not the word of God, but the evidence is overwhelming that it is an ancient text." To say differently would be idiotic; the evidence is just that strong.

Yet where is the gentile who can say the same of the Book of Mormon? I have yet to hear anyone say, "As a non-Mormon, I do not believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God; I see it rather as a collection of folk stories and myths on par with those in the Bible. But the evidence has convinced me that the Book of Mormon is indeed an ancient text."

As an atheist, I'm not predisposed to "believe in" either the Bible or the BoM. I approach both with equal skepticism. Like the Bible, the BoM could be ancient without being true. But if we limit the question to whether the texts are ancient or modern, well, the evidence is overwhelmingly on one side and awfully sparse on the other.

-- Eveningsun

Ray said...

I enjoyed this post and the prequel to it. Rock on, Jeff.

Jeff Lindsay said...

Evening Sun said: Also, please remember that I'm an atheist, yet have no trouble at all admitting that the Bible is ancient.

Well, at least we are getting somewhere. Thank you for this generous concession. To reciprocate, I'll admit that humans have DNA. As a bonus, I'll admit that Darwin existed. That's all the concessions for today, though. :)

But Evening Sun, surely you've been around this blog and other Mormons long enough to know the basic story of the Book of Mormon and why it's so massively different from the Bible, based on what it purports to be. But let me clarify.

EVERY aspect of the book--the golden plates, their discovery, their translation--is MIRACULOUS. It's about a people and events that were completely unknown before publication of the record. The plates were delivered by an ANGEL of GOD to an uneducated PROPHET who used the POWER of GOD to translate the sacred and miraculously delivered text about a lost ancient civilization that seemed ridiculous to those who only knew the Indians as savagaes.

If the plates were "conveniently" left for scholars to examine and could be confirmed as ancient engravings of a Semitic language in modified Egyptian script, and could eventually be translated and gave a similar story to the published text, there would be precious little room for faith. But even with the plates more conveniently gone (for the sake of faith, I'd say), incontrovertible proof of the existence of Nephites and the specific cities, people, events, etc., described in the text could do equal damage. If we now dig up a city in Mesoamerica with an easily translatable monument saying, "Welcome to Zarahemla, Capital of the Nephites," and scholarly literature concedes that ancient Semites did found a group called the Nephites as the Book of Mormon describes, then the blow to faith would again be pretty serious. Any of the "incontrovertible" evidence that you you consider as essential would make the game of faith pretty much over.

Jeff Lindsay said...

The fact that Jerusalem is on the map and that people have lived there for millennia and have recorded traditions is great, but does not provide any evidence about the miraculous aspects of the Bible. Finding more Jewish pottery shards in Jerusalem or Shiloh says nothing about the divinity of Jesus Christ or the power of God in leading the Israelites through the Red Sea. The Bible is a collection of texts from places we know, peoples we know, filled with mundane details and then occasional claims of the miraculous that cannot be proven (and miraculous or not, even the basic journey of the Exodus has essentially zero evidence from the 40 years of that numerous colony wandering in the dessert). God has generously left absolute proof of Him and His power and His Son out of the scientific record, at least for now, so that you can have the liberty of choosing or rejecting Him on your own. (Not too late to reconsider.) He's given us time and freedom, precious and terrible gifts.

The evidences for the plausibility of the Book of Mormon, as I've tried to explain many times, must not be perceived as proof and would be harmful to be taken as "proof" because faith is always needed. If we prove Zarahemla and the Nephites existed as described, that's coming pretty close to proving that the angel Moroni is real and the Joseph was a prophet.

But God has generously allowed enough to slip out to be impressive, in my opinion, to those with open minds, impressive enough to help overcome common and poorly considered objections and enough to strengthen the faith that begins to grow through spiritual means. The heart and the mind are to be employed in the conversion process, and the tidbits of evidence for the plausibility of the Book of Mormon can play a supporting role in that process. Shouldn't be the central or primary factor, though, and if it is for any of my readers, think again, read again, and pray again.

The weakness in my argument, as I hope you'll point out (one day), is that the evidences from the Arabian Peninsula seem (at least in the hands of novices) to come dangerously close to the point of limiting faith. After all, the remarkable confirmations of places like Nahom and the candidates for Bountiful, Shazer, etc., make it hard to offer any other plausible hypothesis for First Nephi 16 and 17 apart from an ancient voyager writing the text. But fortunately, there are grounds for seasoned, professional controverters to do their thing (e.g., "The ancient altars just say NIHM, not NAHOM! And there are TWO candidates for Bountiful, so Mormons can't even agree among themselves. Hah!"), keeping the flames of faith alive for the rest of us, though it was a close call.

Well, there are other weaknesses in my argument from the many other increasingly cool things we are learning about the Book of Mormon, but as your critique ably demonstrates, there's no reason for panic: faith is still absolutely essential to accept the sacred text of the Book of Mormon.

Anonymous said...

As I understand this "game of faith," God wants to provide us enough evidence of the antiquity of the Book of Mormon to consider the possibility, but not enough evidence to make faith unnecessary.

This would seem to mean that (in this dispensation at least) we'll NEVER find incontrovertible archaeological, linguistic, or historical evidence of the book's antiquity, because such a discovery would controvene God's will. But if this is the case, why are so many Mormons still seeking such evidence?

It seems to me you're trying to have it both ways: "Look at this marvelous new evidence! Isn't it powerful? What's that you say? The evidence isn't powerful at all? Well, that's because evidence doesn't really matter; faith matters, and evidence undercuts faith."

When it favors my position, evidence is good. When it undercuts my position, evidence is bad.

Another problem with your argument is that it works equally well for Islam, Scientology, whatever. Suppose you were to raise principled, rational, evidence-based objections to Scientologist apologetics, of the sort I have raised against your own. Suppose further that the Scientologist countered your objections as you have done mine: "What you have to understand, Jeff, is that Xenu is deliberately manipulating the evidence in order to force us to exercise our agency," etc.

My guess is you would find that vexing. At best you would walk away from the encounter thinking something like this:

1. The Scientologist can offer a coherent (but completely unfalsifiable) rationale for continuing to believe wildly implausible claims despite the absence of evidence for them; but

2. The Scientologist can offer no positive evidence for his claims, no more than the Muslim or the Hindu (or for that matter James Strang or Jim Jones or David Koresh).

So why then do you accept the LDS claims rather than the claims of Islam or L. Ron Hubbard or Sun Myung Moon? I can only conclude that it's because of accidental circumstances.

You are simply wrong to think you're a Mormon because you made a free choice to believe. No doubt at some point you did indeed make such a choice, but you did not choose the choice that you were confronted with making. I'm not familiar with your biography, so forgive me if I make some incorrect assumptions, but at the same time, try to see past them to my main point, which is this: at some point in your life you had to choose between accepting the values of your family and community or rejecting them; had you been born in different circumstances, you might have had to exercise your agency quite differently, under a quite different structure of incentives. You might have found yourself having to choose between, say, the values of your Hindu parents and community and the values of a newly arrived band of Muslim conquerors.

We all make choices, but we don't choose the choices that confront us. At this point, of course, the LDS faithful are likely to say, "Ah, but we do. We determine the circumstances we face in this life by the choices we make in our premortal existence! And if in this life we never have the opportunity to choose the Gospel, vicarious baptism ensures that we have a chance to make that choice in the next life!"

Thus does Mormonism handle pretty much every instance of its irrationality: by displacing the problem into a realm that is beyond evidence, and thus beyond refutation by anyone who does not already believe. Such a circular and hermetically sealed belief system!

-- Eveningsun

Bookslinger said...

Eve Sun:

Your continued mischaracterization of every one of Jeff's blog posts (that you comment on) makes your agenda quite plain to anyone who has followed your comments.

Anyone with at least a high-school level of reading comprehension can see what you're doing, even if your rage and hatred against Mormonism blinds you to it.

As to _why_ you're doing it, one can only guess. But your pattern of how you lie about what Jeff writes matches pretty close to other examples of those who have a personal ill will to the church and its teachings.

Anonymous said...

Jeff: I've been following your blog for a short time, and I have learned much from the discussion between you and Eveningsun, so I appreciate your letting Eveningsun continue discussing. I am teaching the lesson on faith this Sunday in my high priest's group from the George Albert Smith manual, and so your thoughts on the why of faith have intrigued me. It is a curious proposition you set forth about the BofM evidences being purposely hidden from us by God in order to strengthen our faith. Yet, we are taught and continue to teach that the strength of our religion is in Joseph Smith actually seeing, physically seeing, God and Jesus. I used to rely heavily on that idea to bolster my faith. Yet, I've realized through study, that it is likely Joseph Smith did not physically see, that it was truly a vision, more commonly called a daydream, as was the vision in the kirtland temple, the "last of all" testimony that we give of Him, for we saw him. What are your thoughts on faith and these miraculous visions (or what is the right translation)? I've wondered about how the word "vision" is translated into other languages. Someone who returned from a Japanese speaking mission told me that the translation of the Mormon "first vision" story uses Japanese words that mean actually saw with physical eyes and physical senses. The English word "vision" leaves more interpretation, in my opinion. Faith is such a curious thing and why God commands us to have it is interesting to think about. Joseph McKnight

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

"This would seem to mean that (in this dispensation at least) we'll NEVER find incontrovertible archaeological, linguistic, or historical evidence of the book's antiquity, because such a discovery would controvene God's will. But if this is the case, why are so many Mormons still seeking such evidence?

It seems to me you're trying to have it both ways: "Look at this marvelous new evidence! Isn't it powerful? What's that you say? The evidence isn't powerful at all? Well, that's because evidence doesn't really matter; faith matters, and evidence undercuts faith."

When it favors my position, evidence is good. When it undercuts my position, evidence is bad."


Can you please respond to this point