Daniel Peterson's "Evidences of the Book of Mormon"
If you would like more interactive discussion, then please see our Facebook Discussion page.
The following is a response to LDS apologist and BYU professor Daniel Peterson’s article, "Evidences of the Book of Mormon." I will list his evidences, and then comment on each. Much more may be said here, so I invite further input.
1. The primary evidence is the witness of the Spirit, which anyone may pray and receive.
[See my FAQ on Feelings.]
2. The "speed" of the Book of Mormon (hereafter BM) was compiled in just 2 months with 250,000 words, and dictated without revisions. Therefore Smith couldn't have written all of this, especially since he was "very ill at ease about his writing skills" and “barely educated at all.” There were also no great libraries or sophisticated people in Harmony, Pennsylvania.
“Smith, though almost twenty years old, enrolled in school in the Bainbridge, New York, area while working for Josiah Stowell during the winter of 1825-26. While being examined before Justice Albert Neely on 20 March 1826, Smith testified that he had been ‘going to school’” (Marquardt and Walters, Inventing Mormonism, 44). Marquardt and Walters continue that other accounts from Stowell’s son Josiah, Asa B. Searles, as well as local tradition confirm this. Smith’s dad was a school teacher, so undoubtedly he taught his kids. They also used to get newspapers—the Palmyra Register when they lived in Palmyra and the Wayne Sentinel when in Manchester.
Now just because Smith had not much of a formal education doesn’t entail that Smith was illiterate and not very smart. Wiki says of Abraham Lincoln, whom scholars consistently rank as one of our greatest presidents, "Lincoln's formal education consisted of approximately 18 months of classes from several itinerant teachers; he was mostly self-educated and was an avid reader." Further, Muhammad wasn’t formally educated at all, and was considered illiterate. He dictated the Koran to scribes. Yet no Mormon (despite Peterson’s musing) should consider the Koran to be the Word of God due to its denial of essential Christian doctrines that even Mormons hold (e.g., Jesus being the Son of God and resurrected from the dead). So if it’s not the Word of God, then where did it originate from?
Why did Smith need “great libraries” rather than just libraries, and why would he need “sophisticated people in Harmony, Pennsylvania” rather than just sources that he could have obtained from other places? Further, why would Smith have to write the BM rather than simply dictate the thoughts in his head to scribes? Peterson knows that the primary way Smith “translated” the gold plates into the BM was by sticking a stone in his hat and telling his scribes what he saw (Peterson stated this on the PBS documentary The Mormons). Keep in mind that Smith was giving stories of the Native Americans long before 1830. According to his mom, Lucy, Joseph talked about Indians “as if he had spent his whole life among them” (Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith, 85). Assuming a chronological order to Lucy’s accounts, this would have been in 1823 or 1824. Further, LDS all know the dictation process started when Moroni supposedly finally gave the plates to Smith in 1827, so I have no idea why Peterson is claiming it took Smith 2 months.
As for the length, I fail to see what difference this makes when considering the real time span (supposedly 3 years) and also the probability that Smith utilized various sources.
As for revisions, those certainly came after the original manuscript. See the Tanner’s 3,913 Changes to the Book of Mormon. These were not all spelling and grammatical changes.
Smith was a smart guy who seemed to use various sources for the Book of Mormon: View of the Hebrews, A Manuscript Found, the King James Bible, etc. (cf. #1, 4, 9, and 14 here). On the other hand, Smith was steeped in the occult (cf., D. Michael Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View). As a result, there is no way I would claim that the origination of the Book of Mormon was from God.
3. The BM is also plausible history. The societies and civilizations in the BM behave in the way ancient ones did. Peterson says that "a little tiny town mentioned at one point in the Book of Mormon would show up two hundred pages later in the same place."
Given that Smith didn’t get the work from God, but at least from other various sources, what’s the problem about Smith taking a known ancient Old World civilization and imposing that on an invented New World situation? Now Peterson mentions Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings as also having a coherent geography even though it’s not plausible. Then Peterson says that Tolkein was a British don, and Smith was a normal Joe. But what exactly is so difficult here, given there really is a coherent geography? Con-men give very coherent stories, but coherency is quite different from plausibility. So what exactly makes the New World BM geography “plausible,” especially when nothing outside the BM has been found in the New World? Recall that mere possibility doesn’t count otherwise The Lord of the Rings would be plausible.
4. Peterson claims that Richard Anderson's work on the 3 witnesses "demonstrates conclusively that these were sincere, competent, honorable people who believed that they had seen what they claimed to see.” More recently, Lyndon Cook published David Whitmer's interview collections, and he never denied his testimony (even had it on his tombstone). B. H. Roberts said that 3 witnesses plus the 8 additional made the testimonies "exceptionally strong.”
Whitmer was also the source by which we find out the primary way Smith translated the Book of Mormon, viz., by sticking a stone in a hat. Others have concluded that the witnesses were not “sincere, competent, honorable people.” See point 22 here. Finally, as LDS Grant Palmer and others have concluded, none of the witnesses claimed to physically see the gold plates. They claimed to spiritually see them, viz., with the eyes of faith.
5. Peterson says, “Joseph Smith had never seen an earthquake or volcano, so far as we know,” and yet Hugh Nibley's Since Cumorah discusses 3 Nephi's volcanic and earthquake activities with such detail and accuracy that the origin must have come from outside of Smith’s mind.
Peterson engages in many of these arguments from silence. In logic, they are known as fallacies, but they become rather convincing to those who already are convinced. Having said that, accuracy presupposes we know where exactly these earthquakes and volcanoes took place. The problem is, again, no New World place outside the pages of the BM has ever been found. Even LDS scholars fight amongst themselves as to the BM New World locations. Finally, does Peterson really expect us to believe that Smith had never heard or read of earthquakes or volcanoes before?
6. Jack Welch's discovery of "chiasmus" in the BM, as referenced in Alma 36 and 41, is used to demonstrate that a simpleton such as Smith could never have come up with such a complicated style of writing.
7. Peterson says that William Hamblin claimed, “[T]he idea of gold plates seems to have been especially prominent in the area of Syria and Palestine at almost exactly the time Lehi and his family left Jerusalem.”
Even if Hamblin is correct, I think the Book of Mormon parallels to 19th century theological and social concepts are more numerous and sensible. For more on this, see LDS Grant Palmer’s An Insider's View of Mormon Origins.
8. Gadianton robbers (in Helaman and 3 Nephi) were a textbook instance of success and failure of the "rules" that Giap, Guevara, and Mao Tse-tung had outlined. Again, how could the simple Smith come up with this idea?
Even if that is the case, where did Smith get it from? Given everything else we know, it’s better to assume he got it somewhere other than from God.
9. John Tvedtnes identified a feast of tabernacles celebration going on as a background to King Benjamin's speech in Mosiah even though the feast wasn’t specifically stated. Again, how could the simple Smith come up with this?
Why couldn’t he get the idea of a feast of tabernacles from the Bible to weave into a story? It was obvious that Smith was quite familiar with the Bible, as well as its writing styles as evident in his use of chiasmus.
10. Peterson tells of Lynn and Hope Hilton, who in 1975 followed the "frankincense trail"/ancient trail Lehi followed. They confirmed details in 1 Nephi following Nibley's Lehi in the Desert trail from Jerusalem to the Arabian Sea. Eugene England said in 1982 that neither Smith nor anyone else knew about Arabia. Warren and Michaela Aston of Australia said that 1 Nephi gives an accurate depiction "right down to the details of where the trail turns and so on, of a trip through ancient Arabia," and have found a place in modern Yemen, called Nahem (relate this to “Nahom” in the BM where Ishmael was buried). “Nahem” and “Nahom” are related because ancient Semitic languages only use consonants. There is an ancient graveyard at that exact location. Excavation isn't permitted, but nonetheless it's in the exact place on the trail where it's said to be in the BM. Again, how could the simple Smith come up with this?
As for Smith’s account of Arabia, why think no one else would know? If Smith knew about the Comoros Islands with Moroni as its capital, then he probably knew some other Old World geography. To claim Comoros/Moroni is just a coincidence rather than a rip-off from some geography text is beyond me.
Further, Brian Birch in Joseph Smith, Jr. Mormon Prophet or Loss argues that Smith messed the Old World geography up. Birch follows the text of 1 Nephi and shows how there is no way it would take the travelers 3 days to get to the mouth of the Red Sea from Jerusalem (1 Ne. 2:5-9). That is about 1,500 miles. But even if that was somehow the case, Birch then claims that by continuing “south-southeast” from there for 4 days to Shazar (1 Ne. 16:12-3), it would dump the travelers into the Indian Ocean, especially after traveling more south-southeast to Nahom for many days (1 Ne. 16:14-34). One other thing here, there is no continuous running river that dumps into the Red Sea near its mouth.
As for NHM, see here.
11. The geography of "Bountiful" has been verified. Lehi and his party traveled "due east" to a place with timber and greenery, which exists on the coast of Arabia. This has been recently discovered. This place is "due east" of Nahem/Nahom at Wadi Sayq, which has all that's described in the BM. Again, how would Smith have known this?
Following the trek the Book of Mormon lays out, we would expect the travelers to be swimming or sailing toward India if they were to really have gone “due east” from the mouth of the Red Sea. In order to get to where LDS think Bountiful was, the travelers would have to go northeast.
12. The word "Alma" was recently discovered to be both a woman and a man's name (not just a woman's) as discovered by Yigael Yadin—a prominent Israeli archeologist who went on to become a deputy prime minister of Israel. It was discovered in a cave by the Dead Sea saying, "Alma, son of Judah."
Well if that is true, then I guess we can’t use that as an argument against Mormonism. I never have anyway. Nonetheless, how is this evidence for the BM? I assume it’s, again, how would Smith know this? I have no idea, but one thing I know… he didn’t get it from God.
13. Alma 7:10 says that Jesus was to be born in the land of Jerusalem. W. F. Albright discovered in the "Amarna" letters that Bethlehem is in “the land of Jerusalem” (emphasis added). Further, the Dead Sea Scrolls (hereafter DSS) also reveal “the land of Jerusalem.”
I’ve always had a problem using this as an argument against the Book of Mormon. But as you can imagine, this doesn’t prove to me that Smith got it from God.
14. DSS going into hiding and then later being discovered relates to the golden plates' hiding and discovery with Smith, particularly when one of the DSS was the Copper Scroll—a scroll written on metal.
This is simply an historical example of the Book of Mormon story. Examples don’t prove; they just illustrate.
15. Lehi's vision of the "Council in Heaven" in 1 Nephi, specifically 1:8, is plausible since instances are found in Isaiah 6, Jeremiah, Zechariah, and Job. Again, “I doubt very much that Joseph Smith could have done [this] from his own fairly limited reading in the Bible.”
1 Ne. 1:8 doesn’t use the terms “Council in Heaven.” God doesn’t have a council in order to obtain information (Isa. 40:13-4). Of course He has angels that continue to worship and serve Him. That is what the Bible teaches, so I don’t see what the problem is with Smith incorporating this into the BM even if it is true he had only a fairly limited reading of the Bible. Furthermore, the “us” language, at least used in Isa. 6, is often interpreted as a plurality of majesty that a king would use in reference to Himself. There is no reason to suppose that this passage refers to a council in terms of other Gods, particularly when God is clear that He doesn’t know of any others (Isa. 43:10 and 44:6-8, 24). “[A]ll the gods of the people are idols, but the Lord made the heavens” (Ps. 96:5). Finally, the Book of Mormon knows of no other gods of God’s sort as well (Alma 11:24-29). He is the only true and living God.
Geo Wildengren, Swedish historian on Iran and Middle East, said that "few religions have played a more important role than the notion of the heavenly tablets or heavenly books, which are handed over to a mortal in an interview with a heavenly being" as seen in Exodus, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Revelation of John, 1 Enoch, as well as in the Koran. There are 4 features of this: 1) divine being gives book to mortal, 2) who is commanded to read it, 3) copy it, and 4) preach the message. This is exactly what Lehi did.
If Smith was a false prophet, it wouldn’t surprise us that he incorporated biblical themes into the creation of his BM. This is just what Muhammad did with the Koran.
16. The figure of Moshiah (not Messiah, as it's a different root) in the Hebrew Old Testament means a "champion of justice in a situation of controversy, battle, or oppression," but it is not in King James Version. Smith, as a result, couldn't have received this information from the KJV. Now Mosiah in the BM is very much like Moshiah in Hebrew, and both have the same meaning. Mosiah in the BM is a striking instance of a deliverer.
I would have thought that Jesus in the BM was the most striking instance of a deliverer. Nonetheless, similarity doesn’t prove identity. “Moron” is a really stupid person. Of course that doesn’t prove Mormons are all idiots, but neither does the term Mosiah being similar to the term Moshiah prove Mormonism is true. This is really stretching for some basis to believe.
17. In Jacob 5 there is a description that "matches what we actually know about how olive trees are treated, how they are grown, cultivated, and cared for." Smith couldn't have known this being from the state of NY.
What exactly about the care of olive trees is so detailed that Smith or some other source in his time could never have known this? Grafting? Pruning? Jacob 5 is simply an allegory of Israel and the Gentiles being grafted in, but this is straight from the Bible in Rom. 11:17-25. Was that so difficult for Smith to get?
18. There is a consistent distinction between thieves and robbers in the BM. Thieves were always locals that were dealt with judicially and civilly by their neighbors. Robbers, on the other hand, were outsiders or highwaymen, and they were caught and prosecuted by the military. Gadianton robbers in the BM were dealt with as military problem "just as they would have been under ancient Israelite law, but [this is] not necessarily the way we think of them today because we don't make the distinction.” Again, how would Smith know?
Even if that is the case, where did Smith get it from? Given everything else we know, it’s better to assume he got it somewhere other than from God.
19. In Alma 46:21-22 captain Moroni performs a “simile oath" or "covenant," and this was very common among the ancient Hebrews and Hittites. These were symbolic actions. The rending of their clothing, for example, demonstrates "what should happen to you if you violate your oath." Again, how would Smith know?
We find examples of this all over the Bible (e.g., Gen. 31:44-55, and 37:29-35). As such, it shouldn’t stretch credulity for Smith to incorporate this into the BM.
20. The cognate accusative “I have dreamed a dream,” as in 1 Nephi 8:2, is an "authentic example of the Arabic or Semitic construction." Again, how would Smith know?
Please! Smith couldn’t have read Daniel 2:3 in the KJV, for example?
21. The BM notion as written in some sort of reformed Egyptian characters is not far fetched. Maimonides used Hebrew letters in writing an Arabic text. This is an example of “reformed Arabic.” Or one is using something like "reformed Chinese" when he or she begins learning Chinese with roman letters. Again, how would Smith know?
This, as well as all these points combined, really don’t strike me as good reasons to believe the BM is true, let alone from God. Finally, and perhaps this doesn’t answer everything, but perhaps Smith wasn’t as simple as Peterson assumes.
R. M. Sivulka
There is much assertion that Smith couldn't have come up w/ all of it on his own. I'm inclined to agree - but this help did not come from the Lord. God CAN NOT contradict himself - and the BM clearly does contradict the Word. The devil is crafty & comes disguised as an angel of light. (Or perhaps the angel Moroni?)
There is so much information that proves the BOM is false, and you only need a calculator to prove it! How so? It's easy, as it's not possible to create the large enough population from so few people that arrived here, unless every woman was having multiple births starting at 13, and having more kids every year 1/2 to 2 years. And those kids were also doing the same thing too.