3) Source Criticism: How The Book Utilizes And Relies On Scripture That Wouldn’t Have Existed When The Material Is Supposed To Have Been Authored
4) Motif Criticism: How The Book Is Not Only Filled With Anachronistic Theology, But Also With Distinct Early 19th Century Concerns
#1) At a Foundational Level the Book Follows Distinct Early 19th Century Ideas About The Native Americans that were Ultimately Disproven and Abandoned
Although it was eventually disproven by DNA (and abandoned for a myriad of other reasons long before that), it was very common in Joseph’s day to identify the Native Americans as “lost Israelites” who needed to be “gathered” and Christianized. It made perfect sense to them due to their belief in a literal flood, as well as their biblical interpretations regarding “scattered Israel.” Lots of books were written about this subject in that time period, claiming all sorts of evidences of Hebrew beliefs and customs among the Natives (many quoting James Adair’s “History of the American Indians” for evidences), and trying to awaken people to their duty to “gather” and “Christianize” them. I’m trying to keep this post brief, but you can see my post HERE to begin to get a feel for how commonly held and discussed these ideas were.
In Joseph’s day it was also “common knowledge” that there must have previously been another more civilized (and most also believed more “white”) group of Native Americans who had been exterminated by the supposedly “savage,” “lazy,” and “dumb” natives who remained. For them it was the only way they could explain the impressive “Indian Mounds” and other complex works being discovered in the Americas. Again, I’m trying to keep this post brief, but if you want to truly begin to appreciate this issue I highly recommend seeing my post HERE to get a feel for just how prevalent these ideas were, and how they tie in with the Book of Mormon. As an introduction I’ll provide just two examples here that are representative of the commonly expressed viewpoint:
In the 1816 Philadelphia Port Folio (a magazine) John P. Campbell noted:
“It is a very general opinion, prevailing in the western country, that there is ample proof that the country in general was once inhabited by a civilized and agricultural people… Again, it is the current opinion, that the first inhabitants of the western country were white people, and therefore cannot be denominated Indians…. It is hence not indispensable that the Aborigines should be a white people, strictly speaking, in order to account for their improvements, or their knowledge of the arts. The Indians universally disclaim these ancient works and monuments… and allege that they were erected by white people.”
As John Yates and Joseph Moulton put it in their 1824 book “History of the State of New York”:
“An exterminating war appears to have taken place between the barbarous natives… and their more refined and civilized neighbors, ending in nearly the total destruction of the latter.”
Of course, the “Mound Builder Myth” of a “lost race” was debunked by about 1890 when archeologists found that it was in fact the Indians who had built the Indian Mounds. It was about that time when John Wesley Powell wrote a piece called “The Indians Are The Moundbuilders.” But of course this false “common knowledge” of Joseph’s time fits quite nicely with the concepts of the Nephites and Lamanites—and it is notable that Joseph once recounted in a letter to Emma that he was…
“…wandering over the plains of the Nephites, recounting occasionally the history of the Book of Mormon, roving over the mounds of that once beloved people of the Lord.”
But if the “Mound Builder Myth” didn’t spell out the foundational (but false) concepts of the Book of Mormon clearly enough, a popular book by Oliver Cowdery’s own pastor does it more explicitly. Ethan Hunt’s book “View of the Hebrews” isn’t important because anybody was directly “plagiarizing” its words (though I do suspect that it directly “influenced” the Book of Mormon). Rather, it is important primarily because it so aptly shows that the Book of Mormon was based on the popular (but false) ideas of the time. Some quotes from the book…
“It is highly probable that the more civilized part of the tribes of Israel, after they settled in America, became wholly separated from the hunting and savage tribes of their brethren; that the latter lost the knowledge of their having descended from the same family with themselves; that the more civilized part continued for many centuries; that tremendous wars were frequent between them and their savage brethren, till the former became extinct.”
“These partially civilized people became extinct. What account can be given of this, but that the savages extirpated them after long and dismal wars? …. No other hypothesis occurs to mind, which appears by any means so probable. The degrees of improvement, demonstrated to have existed among the authors of these works, and relics, who have ceased to exist, far exceed all that could have been furnished from the north-east of Asia, in those ancient times. But however vindictive the savages must have been; however cruel and horrid in extirpating their more civilized brethren; yet it is a fact that there are many excellent traits in their original character. There is in the minds of the native Americans a quality far superior to what is found in the minds of most other heathen on earth; and such as might have been expected from the descendants of the ancient Israel of God…”
“…Israel brought into this new continent a considerable degree of civilization; and the better part of them long labored to maintain it. But others fell into the hunting and consequent savage state; whose barbarous hordes invaded their more civilized brethren, and eventually annihilated most of them, and all in these northern regions!” (note: the final battles in the Book of Mormon also took place in “the land Northward”)
“But the savage tribes prevailed; and in time their savage jealousies and rage annihilated their more civilized brethren.”
“Of some of these I shall give a concise view, as additional arguments in favor of my theory, that some of the people of Israel who came into the western continent maintained some degree of civilization for a long time; but that the better part of the outcast tribes of Israel here finally became extinct, at least in North America, under the rage of their more numerous savage brethren.”
“Look at the origin of those degraded natives of your continent, and fly to their relief…Teach them the story of their ancestors; the economy of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob….showing them what has been done for their nation; and what is yet to be done by the God of their fathers, in the line of his promise. Teach them their ancient history; their former blessings; their being cast away… and the promise of their return….”
There are many other significant parallels with Ethan Smith’s book “View of the Hebrews” that can be explored in my document HERE. I’ll list a few examples here: The book suggests that the Indians had a device “in resemblance of the Urim and Thummin,” which included a “breast plate.” It references the legend of Quetzalcoatl—whom the text claims was given control of the government, teaches peace, fasting, no more sacrifices except firstfruits, and promises to come back and rule again. It suggests evidence that the gospel had once been preached in America. It makes multiple references to the “two sticks” in Ezekiel 37:15-17, and suggests that the lost 10 tribes (of whom the Natives were said to be a part) were the “stick of Ephraim.” It reviews the concept of a great “apostasy”—referencing key LDS scriptures like Amos 8:11-12 and 2 Thess 2:3. It references “the Great Spirit” more times than I could count (possibly an inspiration for the same in Alma 18, 19, and 22?). It is extremely heavy on the theme of the prophesied “literal gathering” or “restoration” of the lost tribes in the “last days”—including those on the “isles of the sea” (see 2 Nephi 10:20). Like other sources of the time it describes Native American fortifications very similarly to those in the Book of Mormon. In general, it recounts countless supposed “evidences” of Israelite customs imagined to be among the Native Americans. For example, it suggests that the Natives had anointing ceremonies like that of the High Priests of Israel—where “the holy garments are put upon him, bear’s oil is poured on his head.”
With that background (and it’s truly just a brief introduction), perhaps one is equipped to at least begin to understand why even prominent LDS leader and thinker BH Roberts said all of the following so many years ago:
“Moreover, on subjects widely discussed, and that deal in matters of widespread public interest, there is built up in the course of years, a community of knowledge of such subjects, usually referred to as ‘matters of common knowledge’ … Such ‘common knowledge’ existed throughout New England and New York in relation to American Indian origins and cultures… and a person of vivid and constructive imaginative power in contact with it, there is little room for doubt that it might be possible for Joseph Smith to construct a theory of origin for his Book of Mormon in harmony with these prevailing notions; and more especially since this ‘common knowledge’ is set forth in almost handbook form in the little work of Ethan Smith … It will appear in what is to follow that such ‘common knowledge’ did exist in New England, that Joseph Smith was in contact with it; that one book, at least, with which he was most likely acquainted, could well have furnished structural outlines for the Book of Mormon; and that Joseph Smith was possessed of such creative imaginative powers as would make it quite within the lines of possibility that the Book of Mormon could have been produced in that way.” (Studies of the Book of Mormon, pages 152-54):
“Did Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews furnish structural material for Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon? It has been pointed out in these pages that there are many things in the former book that might well have suggested many major things in the other. Not a few things merely, one or two, or a half dozen, but many; and it is this fact of many things of similarity and the cumulative force of them that makes them so serious a menace to Joseph Smith’s story of the Book of Mormon’s origin.” (Studies of the Book of Mormon, pg. 240)
“The material in Ethan Smith’s book is of a character and quantity to make a ground plan for the Book of Mormon … Can such numerous and startling points of resemblance and suggestive contact be merely coincidence?” (pg 242)
The issue of whether or not Joseph was inspired specifically by View of the Hebrews is very much secondary to the fact that the book serves as a potent representation of how the Book of Mormon happens to have followed the popular ideas of the day. The Book of Mormon happens to be just the sort of thing one would expect to come out of that time period. The fact that these popular ideas all turned out to be false and were ultimately abandoned makes it all the more difficult to claim that these parallels could be “merely coincidence.” And the fact that they are so foundational to the book’s very self-conception make it pretty tough to identify them as products of a “loose translation” or modern “expansion” during translation.
#2) DNA Issues, and Major Problems Facing The Apologetics
A massive shift has taken place in the interpretation of the Book of Mormon. Until 2006 it was stated in the book’s introduction (and was the norm in LDS teaching) that the Lehites were the “principal ancestors” of the Native Americans. At this point the defense of the book’s historicity depends on arguing essentially the exact opposite. It is now argued that the Lehites were such a tiny group entering into such a massive existing population of Natives that we really shouldn’t expect to find any DNA evidence of their existence. The book’s introduction now says that the Lamanites were simply “among” the ancestors of the Native Americans. But to state it more plainly, the book’s historicity is now defended by saying that any Lamanite ancestry that Native Americans have is admittedly so minuscule that we can’t even expect to trace it.
Now, the claim that we wouldn’t be able to trace that DNA is controversial to say the least. But I don’t suspect that arguing that point will change any minds anyway because most of us aren’t geneticists. So let me come at it another way. Let me propose to you that these newly required and drastically different interpretations of the Book of Mormon are dead on arrival anyway because they contradict not only some explicit revelatory claims of Joseph Smith, but also the text of the book itself—both of which indicate that the Lehites were in fact supposed to be the “principal ancestors” of the Native Americans. In summary:
The Book of Mormon and the D&C both repeatedly claim that the Book of Mormon is supposed to come forth to the “remnant of our seed” so they’ll “be restored unto the knowledge of their forefathers,” and “know that they are of the house of Israel,” and know that they are “descendants of the Jews.” It says they are a “remnant of the house of Joseph.” It says “so that the Lamanites might come to the knowledge of their fathers.” (2 Ne 30:3-6; 1 Ne 15:14; D&C 3:16-20)
I think it’s a tough case to make that these verses can reasonably refer to people whose Lehite ancestry is admittedly so minuscule as to be untraceable. For me the implication that they are supposed to be the “principal ancestors” is clear. And even if there was a time in the Book of Mormon when “Lamanite” could refer to anyone who wasn’t politically a Nephite, it doesn’t change the fact that these verses have very clear genetic or ancestral implications.
Another issue is that Joseph’s revelatory claims (not just opinions) seem to indicate “principal ancestry.” He says Moroni told him directly that the “indians were the literal descendants of Abraham.” He said Moroni “informed him of the aboriginal inhabitants of this country…and from whence they came.” He said Moroni told him directly that the Book of Mormon gave an account of “the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from which they sprang.” (see Joseph’s Diary / Wentworth Letter / JS History)
I suppose one can propose that he was putting words in Moroni’s mouth, but I think those claims clearly indicate “principal ancestry.”
The book suggests that the flood wiped everyone out just 4,000 years ago, and that the land was then preserved only for those who would serve God (Ether 13:2). Given that Native American origins trace back about 15,000 years, it’s a problem if they’re wiped out 4000 years ago. One could argue an ancient writer just incorrectly bought into the myth as being literal—but it is worth noting that the writer seems to have thought there was nobody else here when the Jaredites arrived.
The book tells us that this land was preserved and consecrated as a sort of private resort only for Lehi’s family, and others who were “led out of other countries by the hand of the Lord.” It clearly states that “there shall none come into this land save they be brought by the hand of the Lord.” It states that “this land should be kept as yet from the knowledge of other nations; for behold, many nations would overrun the land, that there would be no place for an inheritance.” It states that “they shall be kept from all other nations, that they may possess this land unto themselves. And if it so be that they keep his commandments… there shall be none to molest them, nor to take away the land of their inheritance, and they shall dwell safely forever.” See 2 Nephi 1:5-9. I suggest that it simply doesn’t make sense to say all these things if this land is already covered from North to South by numerous existing nations who’d begun settling the land 15,000 years ago.
It’s worth noting that the Book of Mormon doesn’t mention any encounters with these huge populations of existing natives that would have to have been here. In fact, oddly enough, both times they DO encounter outside groups they actually turn out to be other Christians/Israelites (Jaredites/Mulekites)!!! Honestly, what are the odds? When both groups encountered happen to share their faith, it certainly seems to suggest that the America’s were supposed to be inhabited “principally” by these groups whom God brought here, and not by people whose genome is essentially all traced back to Asians who came 15,000 years ago–and who certainly were not Christians/Israelites.
Finally, there is the issue of the prophecies of the Book of Mormon not being fulfilled. Who are the “Lamanites” the book is going to? Who are coming to the knowledge of their forefathers, and realizing they are Israelites? Blossoming as a rose? Are we proposing it’s okay to call all Native Americans Israelites/Lamanites on the imagined premise that they have some tiny bit of Lamanite ancestry that is admittedly so minuscule that it can’t be traced? Can we reasonably say that anyone is coming to the “knowledge of their forefathers” if we now say that any Lehite ancestry they have is so tiny as to be untraceable?
#3) Source Criticism: How The Book Utilizes and Relies On Scripture That Wouldn’t Have Existed At The Time The Material Is Supposed To Have Been Authored
The field of “source criticism” deals with looking at the evidence that an author was utilizing or in some way depending on another text during creation of their own text. For example, there are many clear indicators that the authors of Matthew and Luke utilized the earlier gospel of Mark while creating their own gospels, and thus were later creations. If powerful evidence exists that the creator of the Book of Mormon (or Book of Abraham) was utilizing texts that didn’t exist when the Book of Mormon is supposed to have been written, this could be problematic and could indicate a 19th century creation. Obviously the strength of each particular example will vary. Although we have accounts that Joseph simply read word for word what was shown him on a stone in a hat, some apologists suggest that at least some of these challenges can be accounted for by suggesting a “loose translation” or “expansion” process of translation (for example, saying that exact New Testament phrasing was borrowed if a reasonably similar message was expressed on the plate text). But even if this view is taken, it cannot account for all problems—some of which run much deeper. We’ll note just a few significant examples here:
The Book of Mormon includes much of the book of Isaiah with the claim that it was on the “brass plates” that were in the possession of the Lehites. It extensively quotes chapters from Isaiah 1-14, and Isaiah 48-53. The trouble is that chapters 48-53 would not have existed yet at the time the Lehites left Jerusalem. LDS scholar David Bokovoy—apparently frustrated by LDS apologists whom he felt were drastically misrepresenting and understating the power of the evidence on the issue—said the following: “Since the 20th century, all mainstream scholars have held the position that chapters 40-66 were written after the Jewish exile into Babylon (c.a. 586 BCE).” He added that he finds “the evidence that Isaiah 40-55 is exilic material written by later authors rather than the historical Isaiah irrefutable” (see HERE). Of course, the creator of the Book of Mormon could not have known this at the time, but the use of Deutero-Isaiah serves as a strong data point suggesting modern creation.
A related issue is that many Isaiah chapters in the Book of Mormon contain the same translation errors that were in the 1769 KJV Bible—indicating that even though many have assumed or claimed that these Isaiah chapters reflect a more ancient and more accurate version of Isaiah, they were actually just a modern reworking of the 1769 KJV chapters. In fact, given that it has been demonstrated that Joseph used Adam Clarke’s biblical commentary while doing his Bible translation (study at BYU and more discussion HERE), it is very possible that some of the interesting differences between Book of Mormon chapters and KJV chapters came about through consultation of biblical commentaries or family bible footnotes. I hope more exploration will be done on this issue but in my document HERE I’ve noted some strong possibilities in this regard.
The Book of Mormon gives a detailed narrative where Nephi describes a vision he is given of John the Apostle writing the book of Revelation (1 Ne 14:20-27). Of course, in Joseph’s day it it would have been assumed that it was John the apostle who wrote Revelation, but this is now thoroughly rejected by biblical scholars. This suggests that this narrative of this vision was a fabrication by the creator of the Book of Mormon. And if a narrative like this was invented, it is fair to ask what else was invented, and to take note of the creativity that is at play.
3 Nephi contains a rather obvious and intentional reworking of Matthew 5. Most of it is taken word for word from the KJV. So from the start this text asks us to believe that the Sermon on the Mount was a cohesive sermon recorded accurately almost word for word by an early follower of Jesus even though scholars suggest Matt 5 likely began as a collection of remembered “sayings” of Jesus, which were only later arranged into a cohesive sermon. But setting all that aside, it’s interesting to observe how 3 Nephi makes the rather obvious needed edits to Matthew 5 (e.g. changing “farthing” to “senine,” and removing references to Scribes, Pharisees, Publicans, and to “swearing by Jerusalem”). But the Book of Mormon author failed to edit out some other less obvious references that were specific to the “Old World,” and wouldn’t have made sense to a Nephite. For example, Jesus’ reference to “go with him twain” was specifically referencing an issue faced by Jews wherein a Roman soldier could force them to carry their things for one mile. Or in 3 Nephi 12:22 the term “raca” is used even though it is an Aramaic term (not Hebrew or Egyptian), and even though it was a term that only had meaning in first century Jerusalem (being used to refer to someone “being in danger of the council”—or the judgement of the Sanhedrin. It is hard to believe Jesus’ message wasn’t more personalized, and when all evidence is considered, I don’t think it can be denied that the 3 Nephi shows direct literary dependance on Matthew 5, which was intentionally reworked during the creation of the Book of Mormon. Further exploration of the issue HERE. Side by side comparison of the texts HERE.
Mormon 9:22-24 quotes Mark 16:15-18 almost word for word even though scholars broadly agree that it wasn’t even originally in Mark. Loads of other NT verses are quoted word for word (in perfect KJV form) despite not existing yet. (Examples: Matthew 3:10 and Alma 5:52; Corinthians 15:53 and Mosiah 16:10; Romans 8:6 and 2 Nephi 9:39; Corinthians 15:58 and Mosiah 15:15; Corinthians 11:29 and 3 Nephi 18:29).
There are many other examples where the text is not quoting whole verses as we see in the examples above, but where the Book of Mormon narrative is clearly coming about as a result of “expounding” on or borrowing from New Testament verses and concepts that didn’t exist yet. Sometimes it is just a borrowed phrase peppered into the narrative here or there, but in other cases it is more involved and extensive. Consider as an example my document HERE that shows side by side comparisons of some parts of Hebrews 3 and Alma 12, and Hebrews 7 and Alma 13. Did an ancient American prophet truly share essentially the same message with so much of the same wording as the writer of Hebrews? At a minimum this suggests that the translation was a very “loose” process, and not something that closely reflected the actual words of these ancient American prophets. But even if we take a “loose translation” approach, one can’t help wondering how much the original message given by these ancient people could have truly resembled that which we now have in the Book of Mormon. In my view this suggests the translation was a creative process often drawing on biblical passages for inspiration and content. Further analysis of this particular example can be found HERE and HERE.
#4) Motif Criticism: How the Book Is Not Only Filled With Anachronistic Theology, But Also With Distinct Early 19th Century Concerns
In religious studies the scholarly field of “Motif Criticism” can give us clues about the authorship and the date of creation of a particular text by looking at the themes or theological ideas within the text, and comparing with what we know about the historical development of these ideas. If a text contains specific practices, concepts, or motifs that we know developed for particular reasons at a particular time in history, then it can suggest to us that the text was created after that date.
Like those in other popular “Restoration Movements” of the day, Joseph Smith hoped to restore the early Christian church. However—no doubt influenced by Sidney Rigdon—he clearly felt that as he attempted to restore Christ’s church he would also be restoring the true teachings and practices of the more ancient prophets. For example, his Book of Moses asks us to believe that Adam, Enoch, Noah, and Moses were basically all ancient Christians who knew of all three members of the “Godhead,” and preached and baptized in Jesus’ name for the remission of sins. They had the whole plan of salvation—including divine judgement, resurrection, etc. And of course, Book of Mormon prophets have all the same knowledge.
I do realize that for folks who believe strongly in concepts of “dispensations,” “apostasy,” “restoration,” and “revelation,” this can all seem completely plausible. But I would suggest that when significant time is taken to explore the development of Israelite and Christian theology throughout history it becomes harder and harder to try to retroject all of these things back onto ancient Israelites—even if we do play the “revelation” trump card. Perhaps if you explore some of the examples given at the end of this section you’ll begin to understand what I mean.
As with the last section, the strength of each example of these issues will vary. It is difficult enough to try to retroject numerous Christian concepts back onto ancient Israelites when they are completely absent from all Israelite records. It is even more difficult when these concepts weren’t even fully developed among the early Christians. And even more difficult to explain why the Book of Mormon contains so many concepts and controversies that are so specific to the early 19th century—asking us to believe that ancient Americans happen to have had so many of the same theological concerns and debates as 19th century Christians. More importantly, we’re asked to believe that ancient Americans happen to have used and expounded upon very specific theological framings that had required the previous hundreds of years prior to Joseph’s time to develop and have meaning. As Randall Bowen put it in a post that I’ll link to below: “it’s very difficult to assert that these Book of Mormon phrases and ideas could have come anciently and independently, without the body of work of centuries of Christian theologians to build upon.”
This is a massively broad topic. Impossible to do it justice here. However, my hope is that by exploring the few sources I’ll provide below you will at least begin to understand how much in the book is of an early 19th century nature. Perhaps you’ll begin to understand why Alexander Campbell—who actually helped spark the “Restoration Movement” during Joseph Smith’s childhood—had the following reaction after reading the Book of Mormon:
“Joseph Smith, through his stone spectacles, wrote on the plates of Nephi, in his Book of Mormon, every error and almost every truth discovered in N. York for the last ten years. He decides all the great controversies—infant baptism, ordination, the trinity, regeneration, repentance, justification, the fall of man, the atonement, transubstantiation, fasting, penance, church government, religious experience, the call to the ministry, the general resurrection, eternal punishment, who may baptize, and even the question of freemasonry, the republican government, and the rights of man. All these topics are repeatedly alluded to.” (Delusions. An Analysis of the Book of Mormon. pg. 13)
Perhaps you’ll also understand why prominent LDS historian Richard Bushman said in an interview:
“…there is phrasing everywhere—long phrases that if you google them you will find them in 19th century writings. The theology of the Book of Mormon is very much 19th century theology, and it reads like a 19th century understanding of the Hebrew Bible as an Old Testament.”
EXAMPLES FOR CONSIDERATION (links with additional info in green):
Consider first the example we gave at the start of this document. Although I felt it was worthy of its own section, we’ve already engaged in “Motif Criticism” as we explored how the Book of Mormon’s foundational narrative happens to align quite a bit too well with popular (and false) early 19th century ideas about the Native Americans.
For a fairly broad and sweeping look at these issues consider a collection of quotes I’ve compiled from Blake Ostler’s well known 1987 article about an “expansion theory” of Book of Mormon translation. See that collection to understand why this believing member states that “Many Book of Mormon doctrines are best explained by the nineteenth-century theological milieu. . . . Some doctrines in the book’s pre-Christian sections are simply too developed and too characteristic of the nineteenth century to explain as pre-exilic ideas.”
Jonathan Edwards, Jr (1745-1801) was a very well known theologian of the time period. The theological framings in his writings are strikingly similar to those in Alma 42.
Consider 2 Nephi 9, and how its teachings about the need for an “infinite atonement” are based on a very specific theological debate that just happens to have been occurring in Joseph’s day, and how it uses essentially the same “voice” as theologians of the period. In the link above, active member Randall Bowen provides a great series of quotes from sources in Joseph’s day that demonstrate this in his post about “Anachronistic Doctrine in the Book of Mormon.” He also shows how the Book of Mormon author is stringing together New Testament passages.
Consider Gilbert Hunt’s very popular 1816 book “The Late War” as an example of early 19th century war rhetoric in the Book of Mormon. Also, as a possible source of “inspiration” (not plagiarization) for the writing style and some specific themes and stories in the Book of Mormon.
Consider Dan Vogel’s great work demonstrating how Book of Mormon prophets happen to have had the same concerns about Universal Salvation or Universalism that happen to have been very specific controversies and subjects of debate in Joseph Smith’s time period.