Critics of the Book of Mormon often demand its advocates provide the strongest single piece of archaeological evidence — or that they name, say, the top three pieces of such evidence. That, in the judgment of those critics, should prove its historical authenticity to an unbiased observer.
Even though the notion of an “unbiased observer” is problematic by itself, such demands seem to me to fundamentally misconceive the issue. They misunderstand what advocates of the Book of Mormon as history believe themselves to be doing.
Having argued for the antiquity of the Book of Mormon for decades and knowing many, if not most, of those who’ve been engaged in the same project over that period, I can say that I know of no serious writers on the subject who believe themselves able to “prove” it, let alone capable of proving it beyond a reasonable doubt, to the satisfaction of everyone.
Rather, we understand ourselves to be patiently engaged in amassing a cumulative case that will show the Book of Mormon is congruent with what mainstream scholarship is disclosing about the ancient Near Eastern environment from which the Jaredites, Lehites and Mulekites are said to have emerged and about the pre-Columbian American environment in which they lived out their histories.
Sometimes, such a “fit” or consistency is so striking to us that we think it ought to provoke reflection among outsiders, if they’re paying attention. It should cause them some doubts about their doubts. But no single piece of evidence is, or is likely to be, decisive by itself. Nor will three or five or 10 such pieces likely “prove” the Book of Mormon true, overcoming all resistance.
Do we believe there is enough evidence, taking it altogether, to force the conclusion that the Book of Mormon is genuinely ancient? No. We don’t. Do we imagine that the evidence is such that, without the Book of Mormon, scholarship on ancient America and the ancient Near East is left with a gaping and obvious Nephite-shaped hole? No, we don’t.
There was no Olmec-shaped hole in Mesoamerican studies before their distinct historical presence was recognized. And then they were mistakenly thought to be a Late Classic culture rather than an early formative one. Nobody expected the Dead Sea Scrolls, let alone sought them, before a Bedouin boy found them.
The heliocentric model created by Copernicus was built on the same evidence that seemed to support the ancient, geocentric model created by Ptolemy; they were simply different ways of viewing the same data. And, in fact, Tycho Brahe, the greatest observational astronomer of the age, remained largely unpersuaded.
So, do believers see ancient evidence for the Book of Mormon only because they’re already committed to its antiquity on other grounds? In a sense, yes. Does that prove them guilty of pseudo-scholarship motivated solely by irrational (or, at least, nonrational) faith? No, it doesn’t.
It’s true that advocates of the Book of Mormon typically have spiritual convictions regarding it. I know none who don’t. But they also have nonarchaeological evidence for taking seriously its claim to antiquity.
For example, Joseph Smith and the book itself declare that it was written by ancient American prophets. That, in itself, doesn’t prove that it actually was, but it certainly provides a reason to consider the idea. Moreover, independent accounts from seemingly sane, honest, reliable witnesses attest to the existence of purportedly ancient golden plates and other artifacts connected with the record. They were produced by somebody. And they testify to the perceptible involvement of divine beings with the book, which plainly removes it from the realm of simple, ordinary historical fiction.
Furthermore, various characteristics of the book — not limited to its language, the speed of its dictation, the apparent multiplicity of its writers, and its sheer complexity — seem to place its creation beyond the capacity of any 19th century person who’s been plausibly suggested as its author.
These and other such considerations make it entirely justifiable to take the claimed antiquity of the Book of Mormon as a serious possibility. And, so long as that claim to an ancient origin remains unrefuted, believing it to be genuinely ancient is scarcely irrational.
Moreover, this is especially so if, as many competent scholars have argued in hundreds of articles and books over many decades, there are aspects of it that cannot easily be explained except as the result of real antiquity.
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.