The Book of Mormon

A reader to Andrew Sullivan’s blog writes:

“I’m not trying to be mean or snide in noting this. But these are not doctrinal issues. They are historical claims made in a book that, by the account of those who believe it, should be read literally. For me, whatever I believe about Jesus or Paul or the claims of the New Testament, I know a city called Jerusalem existed. I know that the cities Paul traveled to were real.”

This is to compare apples and oranges. The Book of Mormon is also of the opinion that Jerusalem existed. The historicity of Paul and the authorship of at least some of the epistles is beyond serious question. However, the work of recent archaeologists has cast doubts on the historicity on some of the most central historical claims of the Old Testament. Archaeologists Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman have argued that there is no independent evidence that the Exodus ever occurred, which would have to make Moses essentially a fictional character, and that if there was a historical David, he bears little resemblance to the Biblical portrait. I can imagine a liberalized version of any of the Abrahamic religions without an Adam and Eve. But I don’t know what it would even mean to be an adherent to any of them and think that there was no Moses. Though unsurprisingly, their work does not command universal assent, it is a serious contender for the truth.

Years ago I became interested in the question discussed by some of whether the Book of Enoch, a pseudepigraphical work, should have been included in the Bible. Based on all we know about the construction of the Old Testament, I came to the conclusion that the only real difference between canon and pseudepigrapha is the sheer fact of acceptance itself. The only test of truth for the latter, in the end, is its agreement with the former.

The Book of Mormon therefore ought to rattle adherents of the Abrahamic religions, because it isn’t fundamentally different from much of Biblical text. The difference is that in the former case we can’t help but know that it’s fiction and in the latter case, well, we can help it.


3 comments on “The Book of Mormon

  1. Jacob says:

    Long time no talk, Prof.

    Of course, I appreciated this one.

    Hope you’re doing well,

  2. Richard says:

    John Loftus talks about “the outsider test for faith”: believers ought to (but don’t) examine their own religious traditions with the same degree of skepticism that they bring to the religious traditions of others. Sure Book of Mormon says there was wheat in pre-Columbian America, but the Gospel of Matthew claims that when Jesus was executed there was darkness covering the entire earth and dead saints were walking around Jerusalem. Noah floated over the mountains, Joshua stopped the sun, and Jonah lived inside a fish for three days.

    • poseidonian says:

      Matters may be worse than this, however. The question, rather, is how do Old Testament texts fare once one has eliminated the facially magical, as most liberal adherent interpreters would do? Because there are plenty of people who would say: of course Moses didn’t part turn a staff into a snake, but that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t someone who led the Hebrews out of bondage, etc. The claim the reader is making is that there is a kernel of truth in what one might call the core historical narrative from Abraham to Paul, because it’s possible, and the events described, suitably toned down, are possible, and the world in which they occur is, in broad terms, the real world, but that there is no truth to the historical claims of the Book of Mormon at all. This could be a real contrast. The problem is, there is a serious paucity of evidence for crucial parts of the narrative, and the reader seems to not be aware of this fact. The reason why, I imagine, is that there are Biblical archaeologists who, presupposing the truth of a naturalized version of key Old Testament events, seek and find evidence consistent with them. But this begs important questions (finding the name “David” inscribed is consistent with but does not support the Biblical accounts of King David) and ignores serious gaps (if there was something as big as the Exodus, why is there absolutely no archaeological trace of it at all?) To fasten on mention of the miraculous will make no impression on the liberal adherent interpreter who says “yes, we reject that too, of course, but…” Matters are worse than that, however. The reader assumes that the broad Biblical historical narratives are, secularized, more or less true. Actually, we don’t know that at all.

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