Religious Archaeology and Evidence

I don’t ever think I’ve done 2 posts in one day before, but I want to address this other issue that we have been discussing in the Strangite post.  I’d like to discuss both Biblical and Book of Mormon archaeology.  Most people believe the Bible is on solid archaeological footing, but that isn’t actually true.  Many books have questionable authorship, and many places remain unidentified.  In a previous post, I discussed Questions about the Exodus: there isn’t a shred of evidence that it actually happened.  During Passover celebrations in 2001, Rabbi David Wolpe created international headlines in Israel by proclaiming to his Jewish congregation in Los Angeles, “the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all.”

I’ve been listening to a podcast from Yale University discussing the Bible.  There are definite similarities between the Babylonian story of  Gilgamesh and the stories of Adam and Noah.  Some people, such as Bishop Rick, have said

I think it is accurate to state that the flood story in the bible is both myth and a forgery. It is obviously a myth for reasons too numerous to mention here, but it is also copied from other cultures/religions, thus making it a forgery.

It could very well be a myth.  While some scholars believe the story is a myth, National Geographic put together a documentary called “In Search for Noah’s Flood”.  They discuss various flood stories, and make the case that a large, localized flood must have influenced these various cultures to write of this flood.  While there is no proof of a flood, it seems like a plausible explanation.

Recently I discussed a couple of sites in the Dead Sea region that some people believe are the sites of Sodom and Gomorrah.  While some people love to claim the Bible is actually a collection of myths, Dr. Carole Fontaine of the Andover Newton Theological School said, “Archeologists often find themselves hooted and hollered out of town, when they first suggest things like, ‘I’ve found Troy, or look, we’ve found Sodom and Gomorrah.’  But history has shown that in fact, the more you dig, the more you find.  It’s amazing how accurate the Bible sometimes turns out to be.”

Speaking of hooting and hollering, John Hamer recently recorded a famous comment regarding Book of Mormon archaeology.  He said,

The scholarly consensus on the alleged antiquity of the Book of Mormon was expressed way back in 1973 in Dialogue by Michael D. Coe, among the foremost Mayanist scholars, who wrote: “As far as I know there is not one professionally trained archaeologist, who is not a Mormon, who sees any scientific justification for believing the historicity of The Book of Mormon, and I would like to state that there are quite a few Mormon archaeologists who join this group”

The best Book of mormon archaeological site seems to be Nahom.  I’ve previously blogged about Nahom, and Daniel C. Peterson called it a “bulls eye”.  In the video called Journey of Faith (distributed by FAIR), a few BYU scholars state,

Daniel C. Peterson, Professor of Islamic Studies and Arabic, BYU, “The finding of Nahom strikes me as just a tremendously significant discovery.”

Noel B Reynolds, director of FARMS, BYU, “The gazetteers of Joseph Smith’s day listed no such place.”

Peterson, “What it really is, is a kind of prediction by the Book of Mormon, or something that we ought to find.”

William J Hamblin, Professor of Middle Eastern History, BYU, “Now the chances of finding that exact name from the exact time, in that exact place, by random chance, are just astronomical.”

Peterson, “And to find it in the right location, at the right time, is a really striking bulls eye for the book and there are those who say the book has no archeological substantiation. That’s a spectacular substantiation right there, it seems to me.  Something that would have been unexpected. It’s so unlikely that Joseph Smith could have woven into his story on his own.”

Hamblin, “The Book of Mormon has text, has made a complex prediction and modern archeology actually confirms that prediction.”

Peterson, “It’s a direct bulls-eye, as precise as you could wish it to be.”

I don’t think non-Mormon scholars are as impressed with the site as Peterson, but non-Bible believing scholars aren’t impressed with Sodom and Gomorrah either.  So, must we always believe that lack of evidence argues against historicity of the Bible or Book or Mormon, or is there reason to believe that some of these stories that scholars call myths, forgeries, or pious frauds really might have some historical use?  Is it true that “the more you dig, the more you find?”


36 comments on “Religious Archaeology and Evidence

  1. I guess I have to be one of those LDS who reluctantly joins up with Michael Coe. People can make whatever claims they want about Book of Mormon archeology, but I am going to remain skeptical until those claims meet the rigorous standards of peer-review and are published in professional archeology journals. Anything less than that standard is scholarship-by-shortcut.

    Solid evidence is compelling and weak evidence is not. I find the internal evidence of the Book of Mormon to be compelling, but its external evidence is not.

  2. S Faux, welcome back! I always love your opinions. So can you give me your opinion of Biblical archaeology? Specifically, what is “solid evidence” in the Bible?

  3. I’d love to talk more about the flood story here, FireTag left this comment on the Strangite post, but I think it is more appropriately placed here. He said,

    Catastrophic floods in human history are real even in entirely naturalistic views of man’s origins. They are an inevitable consequence of the ends of ice ages, and their locations, extent, and timing are well dated by the professionals in the fields. So the oral tradition comes first, however human religion attaches meaning to it at the time or later.

    I agree, and that’s why I have a hard time calling the flood complete myth. Now perhaps the story of Noah’s ark has some oral history to it, and perhaps the oral tradition has assigned him a Judeo-Christian prophet, but I think there are enough elements there to say that a large flood probably occurred, and probably a man put a lot of animals on a ship. Did the flood cover the whole earth? I seriously doubt it.

  4. I’m in the same club as S. Faux and Michael Coe. The essence of archaeology and empirical science generally is to determine what is probable based on available evidence. Archaeology can never confirm the historical truth of a miracle since by definition, a miracle is an unlikely event. Surely it’s not controversial even from a traditional LDS point of view to suggest that the Book of Mormon history is improbable given available evidence. Hence the need for revelation and faith. If the Book of Mormon could be confirmed by evidence, what would happen to faith? What need would there be to pray about it?

    In answer to one of your questions, though, lack of evidence does argue against historicity. Contrary to the old chiastic saying, absence of evidence is evidence of absence. It’s not proof of absence, but it is evidence. There’s no point in testing anything if only positive results count as evidence.

  5. Anthony, if you’re the same person I’m thinking of, didn’t you write a book/video about “the Longest Day” describing scientific justification for the Biblical story of Joshua. The sun didn’t set so that Joshua could finish the battle. So, are you saying that lack of evidence of this event argues against the historicity of the biblical account?

  6. Different Anthony. I haven’t written any books. Though I certainly would apply the same standards of evidence to the Bible as the Book of Mormon. Just to further clarify my position, there are some events/claims that are expected to leave a trail of evidence and some that aren’t. It’s lack of evidence in the case of the former that argues against the veracity of the former.

  7. Didn’t mean to be coy there. I do think that lack of evidence argues against the Joshua story. Frankly, I think it’s absurd. It makes more sense to think of it as a myth.

  8. On Nahum, the chances of finding the correspondence are simply not “astronomical.” I think I mentioned on a previous post here about my own experience of finding Nahom/Nihm/”NHM”s in Semitic countries.

    I had written: As we know, the Book of Mormon derives its names from a book that has Semitic sources, i.e., the King James Bible. Many of the names in the Book of Mormon are just plucked directly from the Bible, e.g., “Lehi” (Judges 25:9), Laban (Gen. 24-30), Lemuel (Prov. 31:1-9). Other names, however, use the Bible as their inspiration with alterations, e.g., “Jarom” (“Joram” 2 Sam. 8:10), “Omni” (“Omri” 1 Kings 16:16), “Nehor” (“Nahor” Gen. 11:22). “Nahom” easily fits into the latter category: “Nahum” is actually a book of Old Testament.

    It should come as no shock to us that Nahum, a Hebrew prophet in the Bible, has a Semitic name. It should therefore also come as no shock that there are places in Semitic-speaking countries that share that name, or at least its consonants (NHM). As an experiment, I picked Iraq (at random) as another large, Semitic-speaking country, and I wondered how long it would take for me to find a placed named “NHM” there. It took all of 15 seconds with Google. It turns out there’s a place called Nahum in Maysan province, immediately south of Al Amarah.

    Astronomical!!! What are the odds now of having two astronomical NHM finds?!

    The reality is that this NHM nonsense is not a bulls-eye; it’s not even noteworthy. Given one has the entire volume of a large, Semitic country in which to find a common Semitic root (again, note that the Nihm in Arabia does not precisely match the Book of Mormon’s “Nahom”), we would be surprised not to find a place-name that is somehow similar to NHM.

    In any event, it doesn’t matter. With the Book of Mormon we are not dealing merely with an absence of external evidence. The book itself contains enormous internal literary evidence of its actual origins: early 19th century America.

  9. Biblical archaeology makes for poor comparisons with Book of Mormon archaeology. People like to say things like “there’s no archaeological evidence of Moses and the Exodus” and equate that to lack of evidence for the entire Nephite civilization.

    These aren’t comparable because we do have evidence of the Israelite kingdom and the kingdom of Judah and we do have evidence of the kingdom of Egypt. We don’t have evidence of the Exodus itself, and that may well be because the story of Moses is entirely mythical. Or, as with many myths, there may have been someone named Moses, about whom almost nothing was remembered, but around whom various stories were told and eventually were gathered together in what became the second through fifth books of the Bible. Likewise, there may have been a kernel of memory about one group of Israelites having migrated from Egypt (one theory is that this memory referred to an actual migration of the people who became known as the Levites).

    By contrast, all of the Mayan cities FARMS folks led by John Sorenson insist are “good matches” for this or that Nephite city are not matches at all. None of them have a single glyph of “reformed Egyptian” inscribed on their walls. Instead they make use of the Mayan language, which has been deciphered and which tells us that the cities are specifically not Nephite.

    We do find more the more we dig. We did find Troy when we dug for it. So we found there was a kernel of truth under the mythic accounts in the Iliad. However, the archaeology of the real city doesn’t match the actual text. This is because the Iliad actually gives us a picture about the time of its composition (8th century BCE) much more so than it does about the time it supposedly talks about (12th century BCE).

    Likewise, the myth of Sodom and Gomorrah that you mention above tells us much more about the habits and values of people in that part of the Middle East when that component of Genesis was written (possibly as early as the 10th century BCE) than it tells us about the time in which it was supposedly set (traditionally around the 19th century BCE). Because of this, at the end of the day, if we found a city with inscriptions that said “Gomorrah” on it, this would not prove the mythical account true. It would only tell us that the writer of the Gomorrah myth had the memory of the name of city that had existed. If there was a Gomorrah, in fact, the city itself almost surely would have nothing to do with the story for which it is famous, since the story itself has a doublet in the Bible. I.e., in Judges 19:22 the same story is repeated, except that this time it is about the Benjamite city of Gibeah — pretty much confirming that this is just a common myth and not an actual story about any actual city.

    The Book of Mormon, while telling us nothing about the Olmecs and the Mayans, tells us a great deal about upstate New York during the Second Great Awakening. For example, King Benjamin’s sermon is great example of the kind of camp revival that Joseph Smith cited in a later version of the First Vision account, as the impetus for going to pray. As Alexander Campbell astutely observed in 1830, the Book of Mormon discusses “every error and almost every truth discussed in N[ew] York for the last ten years,” including: “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, republican government, and the rights of man.”

    Like the Iliad, which can best be understood not by thinking about Mycenaean Era, but by considering its actual context (Homer’s era), and like Genesis, which is best understood by looking at the context in which its source texts were composed and redacted, so too the Book of Mormon is best understood by considering the era of its origin: America in the 1820s. Imposing Mayan or Olmec history on the text only serves to distort it — even more completely than reading the Iliad as though it were actual Mycenaean history would grossly distort the Iliad’s meaning.

  10. John, you definitely present some compelling arguments. I do believe there are some serious questions regarding Book of Mormon historicity. At this point, it seems pretty cynical to throw out the Bible or Book of Mormon as completely non-historical.

    The founder of Numiera (one of the candidates for Sodom and Gomorrah), Dr Walter Rast of Valparaiso University said, “But beyond circumstantial evidence, we don’t have much more to go on than the circumstantial evidence. It cannot really stand by itself as really final proof. You can set it forth as theory, and I wouldn’t mind setting it forth as theory.”

    I like this idea. There are some people, such as yourself, that are perfectly happy looking at some of these religious stories as myth. Perhaps they are. However, there are some, like me, that like to look at these stories as concrete–the characters real–flawed, but real. We will never know in my lifetime if these characters were real or not. The purpose of the story is to teach moral lesson, and I get that. But it is nice to set forth corroboration of the stories. To some, it strengthens faith.

    I’ve mentioned the Malay Theory before–perhaps the Olmecs had nothing to do with the Book of Mormon–it’s the Malaysians! Sorenson is digging in the wrong place (just like the real Mt Sinai is in Saudi Arabia!) 🙂

  11. MH — I reject the charge of cynicism. Also, I think the claim that “we will never know…” relies on a misunderstanding of the disciplines of history and literary criticism. We do know — inasmuch as we know anything — and we do know something.

    You might as well say that we’ll never know if Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is historically accurate in Act II Scene I when Brutus hears the clock chime. Did the historical Brutus actually hear a clock chime? Although it might make us happy to imagine “we’ll never know,” in fact, we do know that there were no mechanical clocks in ancient Rome. You’re confusing cynicism with rationalism.

  12. Even though I classify the global flood as both myth and forgery, I also believe that the original myth started out of an actual event. Most myths are based on actual events, real or interpreted. There is geological evidence of a localized flood that took place in a place and at a time that could have precipitated the myth. We’ve all played the game where you whisper something into the person next to you’s ear, and they do the same, and after several people, the resulting message barely (if at all) resembles the original message. Imagine what 1000 years of oral history can do to a story. Local floods turn into global floods, Levites leaving Egypt turn into the Exodus, and so on.

  13. I also think Hamer 14:31 is spot on. FWIW.

  14. Mormon Heretic,

    I’ve mentioned the Malay Theory before–perhaps the Olmecs had nothing to do with the Book of Mormon–it’s the Malaysians! Sorenson is digging in the wrong place (just like the real Mt Sinai is in Saudi Arabia!)

    I agree with John Hamer, but let’s stipulate for the sake of argument that the discovery of NHM on the Arabian peninsula really is a “bull’s eye” as Peterson says. The archaeological footprint of a few dozen members of Lehi’s party sojourning for only a decade in the old world should be miniscule in comparison to the footprint of hundreds of thousands of his descendants over a thousand year period in the new world. If NHM is the best evidence so far for historicity (as Jeff Lindsay once called it), then it would appear that the trail grows colder as we proceed from Arabian peninsula to mesoamerica. I would have to conclude that Sorenson is indeed digging in the wrong place if he’s digging at all.

    If Sorenson and others like him were less facile at reinterpreting the text to fit whatever evidence is available, they might have moved on from Isthmus of Tehuantepec already, but there’s little hope of that ever happening.

  15. I find “historical” arguments about the Book of Mormon rather off the mark — the book itself makes no claim to being an accurate history of anything other than the religious teachings of the people who wrote it. In the same manner people try to pry a political point of view from the Book of Mormon; again, that’s not its purpose or why it was written and there isn’t enough information in it to draw any conclusions. While I think the bits of “history” (i.e., who was king, who fought against who and so forth) in the Book of Mormon are probably accurate enough (this is a faith-based statement I’m making), I don’t think they’re the primary purpose of the book and as such are subject to more error than the rest of it. In fact, I wonder how much verification is even possible if you take into account a God who can perform major miracles.

    I’m personally not convinced that the BOM concept of “year” is the same as ours, or that it didn’t change from time to time throughout the record (they changed calendars with the birth of Christ, so there’s at least one shift). I wonder if Lehi and his family even departed from the shores of Arabia for the Promised Land — they wandered “nearly East” (another assumption — East to them was exactly the same thing as East to us) for eight “years”. Even assuming a nomadic pace and settlement stops and a “year” similar to our own, they could have traveled far beyond the region before Nephi built his ship.

    Third Nephi talks about huge changes that were made to the “face of the land” where they were living — cities being sunk, mountains rising where there were valleys, mountains falling on and covering entire cities… That’s the type of change that would severely shuffle the geography of whatever place they inhabited, possibly similar in scope to the changes at the time of the division of Pangea. We don’t know the size, scale, or location of any of this and the book doesn’t offer enough evidence (IMO) to make even an educated guess. If we believe (and I do) that the Lord could take the plates that constitute the Book of Mormon back into his possession, and move mountains, how are we then to even be sure that they even remained where Moroni buried them for 1500-odd years (our years, not theirs) until Joseph Smith was shown where to find them?

    I think that our current archeological methods are correct and we can find much truth that way, but I don’t think that religious books like the Book of Mormon or the Bible contain enough information to make them useful in that regard. They weren’t written for that purpose, and are therefore unreliable w.r.t. history and archeology.

  16. John, you’re certainly free to reject the charge of cynicism: I’m sure you have been called cynical before, and I’m sure you will be called cynical again. (Believe it or not, I’ve been called bordering anti-mormon, though I’m pretty sure you’d call me faithful believer.) Some of these labels are based on where we are in relation to others on the belief scale. Let me say I am greatly impressed with your spiritual insights. Perhaps I will become as “cynical” as you some day, and reject the charge as well! 🙂 At this point, I don’t feel called to follow your interpretation of the evidence, but you’ve definitely given me a lot to think about.

    I like Bishop Rick’s analogy to the game where you whisper something in some else’s ear and the story gets changed by the end. I think it’s certainly a great possibility that such things happened in scripture. I listened to your interview with John Dehlin where you described the LDS story of Brigham taking on the appearance of Joseph, but no contemporaries recorded the event. I think such liberties happened in scripture as well.

    But I do like to point to places where scholars have declared something complete myth and it has turned out wrong. I’m really not that familiar with the discovery of Troy, but I think it’s a good example. King David is another mythical person, but the Tel Dan Stele references “the House of David”. Yes, these are not smoking guns, but I think it should give some scholars a bit of pause. Yes, you have explained Troy as dating to the wrong time period, but I think it is still pretty amazing that the mythical city was discovered in the first place.

    Anthony, I’ve devoted a few posts to the Malay Theory. Click here for 3 links. The top link has a map, while the 2nd link discusses the theory in more depth. I must say that it explains the Book of Mormon anachronisms better than any North, Central, or South American theory (silk, cattle, horses, chariots, wheat, elephants, etc). However it flies in the face of “conventional wisdom” about what Joseph Smith thought of the Lamanites. Here are two other things going for it: (1) Simcha Jacobovici did a documentary called “Quest for the Lost Tribes.” He locates the Tribe of Joseph on the Malay Peninsula. I understand the Genome Project will try to determine if these people really do have semitic origins. (2) Pretty much every Meso scholar believes that Nephi hugged the coast and traveled right by the Malay Peninsula on the way to Meso. The route seems pretty well accepted (though admittedly, not many people give the Malay Theory very much weight.)

  17. Andrew, I do agree that historical arguments about the BoM are often off the mark, but I do dispute a few things you said. We don’t know much about how time was measured in the scriptures. It is a pretty well-known fact that Jews based their calendar on a Lunar Year, rather than a Solar year. RP Ben Dedek has proposed a calendar for the books of Kings and Chronicles that uses a 339 day Lunar Year, as opposed to a 365.25 day Solar Year. I’m curious if anyone has studied this idea. I think it is interesting. The Lunar year explains why the Jewish holidays fluctuate so wildly. (For example, Hunnakkuh can be anywhere from late November to early January.) The link to his website is http://www.kingscalendar.com/cgi-bin/index.cgi

    So, if Nephi followed a Lunar Year as opposed to a Solar Year, then there could be some problems with dates, but I don’t think they’re off that much. I don’t think there’s any evidence to conclude one way or the other.

    Christ’s appearance to the Nephites was definitely 2000 years ago–using the Gregorian calendar. Perhaps Lehi is off a century or 2 from 600 BC, but not much more than that.

    I do believe that Morgan Deane has discussed the fact that the Nephites always seemed to fight in relation to the growing season. Morgan holds a Masters Degree in Military History and is presenting some papers at both Military and Mormon History Conferences about warfare and the Book of Mormon. His website is http://mormonwar.blogspot.com/

    John Sorenson has made a big issue about directions: if East really means East. He does this to make his geography fit better. Perhaps the sun is lower in the Sky in Meso than Israel, so perhaps there is something to this, but I think East means East. FireTag has written in support of Sorenson’s directions, but I do not find Sorenson’s arguments about directions compelling at all.

    Regarding your comment about ‘huge changes that were made to the “face of the land”‘, this is a bit of a 2-edged sword. I posted on a South American setting for the Book of Mormon. (If you can’t tell, BoM geography is a favorite topic of mine.) There’s 2 theories listed under the link I gave you: Peru and Chile. The Chilean theory posits that most of South America was underwater–essentially the Amazon River was hundreds of miles wide. Much of the area today is under sea level and is a rain forest. If you see the map, it makes for an interesting “narrow neck of land”. However if such a theory were true, there should be evidence that South America rose up 2000 years ago (using our modern calendar) at the time of Christ. There is no such evidence. Sorenson has taken on this phrase and said that it is unlikely that the land changed significantly enough that a continent essentially rose up. Pangaea is about 20 million years old, not 2000, so I find such explanations highly unlikely. I know some have tried to make the case that Pangaea separated at the time of Noah, but now we’re placing Noah a few million years earlier than the Bible says. If that’s the case, then the Lunar calendar isn’t going to explain those kinds of discrepancies in Biblical chronology.

  18. MH — I respect you and your work, so I don’t want to get into a situation where we keep talking past each other.

    However, I do want to point out that I’ve already explained my understanding of the difference between a “complete myth” like Adam and Eve, for which there is no historical kernel, and a “partial myth,” like King David (that you mention) or Troy, for which there is a memory of a name (perhaps with a nugget of remembered detail), around which oral tradition stories agglutinate.

    Have we found evidence of a person named David? Yes. Does that mean the stories that became associated with David and were eventually written down and became part of the Bible record his literal historical activities. Absolutely not. In fact, it’s clear from archaeology that Jerusalem at the time of David was relatively insubstantial; certainly not the capital of the vast kingdom the Bible describes. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t a David. There was a David. It’s just that the stories of the Bible do not accurately describe that David. I said this exact thing about Gomorrah. If we actually did find a Gomorrah — and the scholar you cite won’t actually put his name behind a thesis that we have — that doesn’t give credence to the Bible story as history, since literary evidence (the Gibeah doublet) already argues strongly against the story as history. It just means that the writer of the myth included the name of a real city.

    I’m not saying I don’t believe in the power and importance of myth and I’m not saying that I don’t believe scripture. Rather, I am, like you, a member of a faith community. I just don’t allow a preference for certain texts which regard as scripture to cloud my judgment of actual history. Scripture is not history and history is not scripture.

  19. I’ve heard of the Malay hypothesis before. It needs reconciliation with Moroni telling Joseph Smith that the Book of Mormon is an account of the former inhabitants of “this continent.” It also needs to be reconciled against Lehi saying that the promised land needs to be kept from the knowledge of other nations. The Malay peninsula has been known to other nations since antiquity. Ptolemy showed it on one of his maps. Chinese and Indians interacted with it long before Ptolemy. I also don’t see how to reconcile the theory with 1Ne 13 where Nephi sees gentiles on the promised land fighting against their “mother gentiles,” an apparent reference to the Revolutionary War. BTW, Nephi’s vision is one of the reasons I doubt Book of Mormon historicity; it provides detailed predictions up to about the time of Joseph Smith and then gets hazy after that. It also appears to identify John of Patmos with John the apostle, and makes several other historical mistakes that depend on the conventional wisdom of Joseph Smith’s time.

  20. John, I guess I didn’t understand the nuance of complete myth vs partial myth before. Thanks for the clarification. That feels a bit more palatable to me. In our discussing myths to this point, I didn’t understand that distinction in your argument. One of these days, we’ll have to discuss how someone can look at scriptures as myth, yet find great spiritual power in them. I think that would be a fascinating topic.

    Rast and Shaub have a website with Notre Dame discussing their expeditions at the Dead Sea, and he does reference the Bible with these cities. “In these settlements, called Bab edh-Dhra’ (pronounced “bob-ed-draw”) and Numeira (pronounced “new-mere-a”), people established the way of life that we read about in the Bible. In fact, for the writers of the Bible, the desolate nature of this stretch of shore along the Dead Sea and the visible ruins of Bab edh-Dhra’ and Numeira may have helped them to identify this area with the stories of the ill-fated sites of Sodom and Gomorrah.” See http://www.nd.edu/~edsp/

    Anthony, I urge you to review the Malay links I posted above. The author, Ralph Olsen has addressed every issue you bring up. The issues you raise are my biggest problems with the theory too. I think you might enjoy hearing how he defends these issues. Let me give you a few quick tidbits. Thailand means “land of the free.” It has never been occupied by a foreign European power, so your apparent reference to the Revolutionary War could have other interpretations. Mother gentiles could refer to Chinese, Korean, or other oriental “mother” gentiles–it doesn’t necessarily have to refer to America/Britain, despite what so many people have interpreted it to mean.

    Furthermore, we have to understand that Joseph believed in a hemispheric model, not a limited geography theory. Those who want to limit the geography to Meso, or Great Lakes, or Chile, or Peru, or anywhere have to deal with statements that Joseph Smith made about Lehi landing 30 degrees south of the Equator, Panama being the narrow neck of land, Zarahemla in Mexico, Zelph in the Midwest, and Cumorah in NY. Most, such as Sorenson, have argued that Joseph knew the scriptures, but he didn’t completely understand the geography. Olsen says that Moroni said the BoM is a record of the inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang. He says this source could be Malaysia. He documents migrations that show the American Indians migrated from Asia. Malaysia is in Asia, so his theory seems to follow the science to some extent. If the tribe of Joseph can be definitively linked to the Malay Peninsula, it could pave the way for some radical reinterpretations of the Book of Mormon, or people can continue to ignore the issue.

    Look, I’m not saying I endorse the theory, but it certainly seems to fit the science better than some of the other theories out there. The problem we have is Moroni’s statements to Joseph. That’s really a tough one to reconcile. The other tough one to reconcile is “how did the plates get to NY?” Olsen hasn’t given a satisfactory answer to that question either, but notes that Sorenson claims a 2 Cumorah Theory–a Meso Cumorah, and a NY Cumorah. Sorenson also notes that Joseph never called the hill in NY “Cumorah”. Others have done that. Moroni traveled for 30 years after the last battles. In 30 years, he could have wandered or sailed to a lot of places.

  21. Thanks for the links, MH. I’ve read your summaries, but it will be awhile before I read all of Olsen’s manuscript. Probably no need to say this to you, but to suggest that Native Americans came from Malaysia doesn’t really agree with the science. Asians crossed the Bering Strait to settle the western hemisphere long before Lehi (or the Jaredites) would have landed in Malaysia, so Olsen’s attempted reconciliation of “source from whence they sprang” just doesn’t compute. BTW, Malaysia has been occupied by the Portuguese, Dutch, and British.

  22. Anthony,

    MH stated Thailand, not Malaysia. He is is correct in stating that Thailand has never been under colonial rule.

  23. Anthony, there are 3 countries currently occupying the Malay Peninsula: Thailand, Burma, and Malaysia.

  24. MH, Bishop Rick,

    Yes, I noticed that he said Thailand. However, the Book of Mormon lands represented on Olsen’s map are mostly in Malaysia. Given that the Nephites lived in the “Promised Land,” Malaysia seems more relevant.

  25. Sorry if I come across as flippant or dismissive. Olsen obviously put a lot of work into building this theory, and you obviously put a lot of effort into giving him a fair hearing. Unfortunately, it’s not going to make it past the elevator pitch stage with most people. The objections are much more concise than the rebuttals (which in and of itself is not an argument, just reality). Even you aren’t convinced after spending so much time understanding it.

  26. @Andrew

    Personally, most Holy Land research (not Utah, I mean Israel) suggests that all the numbers recorded in the “history” of Moses liberating the Israelites from Egypt were wildy inflated. Likewise, the notion of one small boat full of refugees building huge cities and Solomon-like temples could as easily have been hyperbole, even unconscious hyperbole, since by the time someone was boasting of a Solomon-like temple in the New World, well, they had no idea how big Solomon’s temple really was anyway.


  27. Well, sorry to stick with the absolutely certain and undisputably known, but the original point made about no authentication being available for the “Bible” is probably a “first cause” study, rather than something to rush past and state quibbling about which odd, human-high geographical formation is the pillar of salt Lot’s wife got turned into.

    The fact remains that none of the New Testament books exist in original form. The “Original Autographs” are only theoretical. None, and I repeat, none of the New Testament authors are actually known and certainly all unproveable. The main books of these disagree upon where Jesus was born and what His last words were, just for beginners, but you’d think they could alt least get that much right. That’s pretty unreliable stuff there. This is before the Apocrypha is even suggested for study. Or why the Apocrypha got called the “Apocrypha,” instead of “The New Testament,” when as late as Martin Luther, some fourteen and some hundred years later, the inventor of the Reformation and Protestant Movements, our modern, Western, American Mormon Father-Movements, thought the Book of Hebrews was a fake, Revelations was the ravings of a lunatic, and when he published his own Bible stuck them in a back annex with the Apocrypha. And for that matter, the “Apocrypha” was entirely re-written by the first and second century Apologists who attempted to “correct” them to “universal” standards before publishing them and including them in the Canon.

    As for Martin Luther’s assessment of the Bible, of the Book of Hebrews he said:

    It need not surprise one to find here bits of wood, hay, and straw (O’HarePF. The Facts About Luther, 1916–1987 reprint ed., p. 203).

    He also wrote that:

    St. James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw–for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it” (Luther, M. Preface to the New Testament, 1546).

    Luther really had a problem with the Book of the Revelation of Saint John:

    About this book of the Revelation of John–I miss more than one thing in this book, and it makes me consider it to be neither apostolic nor prophetic–I can in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it. Moreover he seems to me to be going much too far when he commends his own book so highly-indeed, more than any of the other sacred books do, though they are much more important-and threatens that if anyone takes away anything from it, God will take away from him, etc. Again, they are supposed to be blessed who keep what is written in this book; and yet no one knows what that is, to say nothing of keeping it. This is just the same as if we did not have the book at all. And there are many far better books available for us to keep–My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book. For me this is reason enough not to think highly of it: Christ is neither taught nor known in it” (Luther, M. Preface to the Revelation of St. John, 1522).

    Martin Luther did not care for several books in the Old Testament either:

    “Job spoke not as it stands written in his book, but only had such thoughts. It is merely the argument of a fable. It is probable that Solomon wrote and made this book.”–

    “Ecclesiastes ought to have been more complete. There is too much incoherent matter in it–Solomon did not, therefore, write this book.”–

    “The book of Esther I toss into the Elbe. I am such an enemy to the book of Esther that I wish it did not exist, for it Judaizes too much”

    “The history of Jonah is so monstrous that it is absolutely incredible.” (as quoted in O’Hare, p. 202).

    Furthermore, Martin Luther had little use for the first five books of the Old Testament (sometimes referred to as the Pentateuch):

    Of the Pentateuch he says: “We have no wish either to see or hear Moses” (Ibid, p. 202).


    In any case, my point remains that both the Christian and Jewish Canon have been held under severe criticism and great doubt has been cast upon the reliability of many of its books.

  28. @MH

    I suppose my current posture relating to Book of Mormon “history” (not it’s religious teachings) is agnostic; I accept the text, but I wonder about what it’s supposed to mean (if anything).

    There are several instances where the same event (for instance, the Creation) is presented in different orders or otherwise “changed” in the scriptures and elsewhere that Mormons would accept as canonical sources. I know a bit about anthropology and history, at least enough to get into trouble, and the overwhelming feeling I get from the Book of Mormon is that it just wasn’t meant to be a “historical” account. There are bits of history that pass muster internally, but there are many recorded events that simply require the acceptance of miraculous circumstances.

    Going back to 3rd Nephi, I suppose I accept that the great changes happened and that the chronology following the death of Christ is more likely to be correct. How is that possible? I don’t know, necessarily, other than to say that I accept carbon dating but I also accept that God could do things that might obscure how recently those changes happened. At the same time, I personally don’t believe in the literal timeframe of the Creation as presented in Genesis, and I have to wonder if perhaps the “clock” of the world gradually sped up from the time of Adam forwards, so that a “year” to them was very, very much longer than a year is to us. This is assuming, of course that Adam’s long life (and the increasingly shorter lives of his progeny) squares with any method of keeping time, or are just allegorical in the sense that the “days” of creation may be allegorical.

    A silly parlor game can be made, for instance, of taking one of Adam’s “days” as equal to one of God’s days (1000 years, apparently) and then figuring out how long Adam might have lived if the Earth gradually “settled” from God’s time to ours. I say “silly” because science currently doesn’t accept the possibility that a solar “year” has changed all that much, especially since the dawn of recorded history. I also say that because it’s one way to explain some of the time weirdness in the scriptures, but it’s rather unprovable…

    Anyways, inasmuch as that those things cannot be resolved to any degree of satisfaction, I am agnostic about what they really mean.

    One more thing to clarify — w.r.t. Pangea, I want to be clear that I don’t think Pangea separated at the time of Christ’s death. The Bible places it far earlier, which is something I accept as being true (when, precisely, I don’t know, but far earlier than Christ’s death). Rather, the scale of change recorded in 3rd Nephi reminds me of that sort of drastic change.

  29. Andrew:

    Pangea brings us back to those oral traditions and the megafloods again. If you want a physical explanation for the references to lands being divided and joined as one, look at http://thefirestillburning.wordpress.com/2010/01/11/the-ice-shall-flow-down/ .


    Wow. You know a lot about Judeo-Christian theology and Mormon theology as well. It really took a long time to read all the posts on your blog, but it was well worth the read. You make a very good point for how far our “scriptures” and the theology that has been built up around them actually are from the experiences (revealed, discovered, or imagined) that motivated them. I’d love to see what you would do with a topic like “priestcraft”.

    You make a very good case for why, if I ever decided my testimonies were solely an emotional reaction, I’d look to the hard, mathematical sciences to discover more about the nature of reality than look to philosophy, theology, or history. The study of human activities in the soft sciences are about US, and the study of US is IMPORTANT TO US. But we are too, well, local. You learn no more about the nature of reality from studying humans than you learn about the contents of a picture from studying one or a few pixels.

    I look forward to seeing where your blog will go from here. I see many of the same problems you describe in my own Community of Christ, and we never went to Utah.

  30. Andrew,

    In order for the “time weirdness” to make sense, wouldn’t the days of Adam have be a lot shorter rather than longer?

  31. I hope you all had a great July 4th holiday. I’ve been busy celebrating!

    Anthony, the map Olsen uses shows possible locations in all 3 countries. The land Southward is part of Malaysia. In Book of Mormon terms, this would represent the Lamanites. I think that’s interesting. If Thailand is the land of the free, or liberty, that’s an interesting interpretation. I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss. There are some interesting things to this theory, if you get past the initial shock reflex.

    LR Whitney, welcome! I am impressed with your scholarship. I skimmed your blog, but I need much more time to digest. I liked your point that “Christian and Jewish Canon have been held under severe criticism and great doubt has been cast upon the reliability of many of its books.” That’s something I’ve been trying to point out here.

    Andrew, “science currently doesn’t accept the possibility that a solar “year” has changed all that much, especially since the dawn of recorded history.”

    Unless you want to start talking about relativity, I think it’s a steep cliff to climb to suggest that a solar year has changed in the past 10000 years. As for changes on the face of Book of Mormon lands, we have geological records that should be able to show such significant changes. As I mentioned in my Sodom and Gomorrah post, the Dead Sea region was once a fertile area. Following the destruction of Numeira and Bab-edrah (the 2 proposed sites of Sodom and Gomorrah), the land/weather changed pretty significantly. Yet there is still evidence of these 2 cities (even if they are not the biblical cities.)

    Sorenseon has already argued against large changes, such as continents rising significantly. If someone wants to talk about earth changes on the magnitude of Pangaea, then they’re going to have to show evidence of such large changes in the earth. Such evidence in the past 2000 years simply does not exist.

    I previously analyzed a Great Lakes Theory. The author of that theory claims that the extinct Lake Tonawanda is the “Sea South”. There’s one big problem. The lake went extinct 10000 years ago, not 2000 years ago. His explanation simply doesn’t match the Book of Mormon. Sure the Great Lakes make for an interesting interpretation for “Sea North” and “Sea West”, and his Lake Tonawanda would make a great “Sea South” and would create a narrow neck of land, but frankly adding Lake Tonawanda is laughable because it simply dates from the wrong time period. (The author has other major problems with his theory as well, including a pre-historic Mammoth as evidence for his Jaredite elephant.)

    So, if you want to claim catastrophic land changes, these changes have to have occurred 2000 years ago. I’d be shocked if you found such evidence. The Amazon River didn’t recede 2000 years ago as South America rose up either (if you like the Peruvian theory.)

    Making claims about changing solar years, or large land upheavals just aren’t supported by any science that I am aware of. Olsen’s theory that the Americas were populated by Asians is much closer to the theory of the Bering Strait land bridge than any other Book of Mormon theory too. Perhaps it is a stretch to say the American Indians came from Southeast Asia, but Southeast Asia holds more credibility than the idea that Native Americans came from Israel. I am waiting to see if Simcha Jacobovici’s claim that the Tribe of Manasseh comes from Burma. (See this post.) If this turns out to be true, I think it would be an interesting thing for Olsen’s theory.

  32. As for DNA testing for ancestors, you might also want to see my post on Lehi and the Lemba. The Lemba Tribe in Africa has been positively linked with Jewish DNA.

  33. On Nahom, the whole hubbub isn’t about finding some tri-constinantal root, somewhere in the real world. Rather, what fascinates some folks, is that the name was found WHEN and WHERE the Book of Mormon said it would be found, 600BC, south of Jerusalem, west of an area that matches Bountiful. Now, can someone ascribe that to chance without being stupid? Yes, any kind of substantiation to religious claims can(Helaman 16:16).

    As for the Book of Mormon telling us “nothing about the Olmec and Maya”. We would do well to remember that:
    “[O]ur knowledge of ancient Maya thought must represent only a tiny fraction of the whole picture, for of the thousands of books in which the full extent of their learning and ritual was recorded, only four have survived to modern times (as though all that posterity knew of ourselves were to be based upon three prayer books and ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’)”(Michael D. Coe, The Maya, London: Thames and Hudson, 4th ed., 1987, p. 161).

    Based on what we do know, the Book of Mormon does pretty well with mesoamerica, namely the patterns of settelemnt and civilization of the Jaredites and Lehites, when compared to that of the Olmec and pre-classic Maya. Again, some might attribute that o dumb luck(Helaman 16:16), but I don’t.

  34. Thanks Pedro, I agree with you on Nahom. The place in Iraq, “Nahum in Maysan province, immediately south of Al Amarah”, isn’t helpful unless Lehi might have wandered there. Perhaps we can start looking in Iraq and see if there is a headstone that says “Ishmael, the guy with a bunch of daughters that married the sons of Lehi died here while trying to get to the Promised Land”. Then that place will be a better bulls-eye, so long as it is south-southwest of Jerusalem. 🙂

  35. Astronomical!!! What are the odds now of having two astronomical NHM finds?! — ok, play fair. It isn’t the odds of finding NHM, but finding it at the right location he is talking about. I’m sure if I use google I can find an LNK somewhere (maybe not, but just about everything is somewhere). And, any google search is going to take just a few seconds.

    So, say I have five hits (I’m forever involved in searches with very few hits — almost as bad as searches with too many hits). Sure enough, I found something, so one is not saying you can’t find it, merely that if you have fifty thousand possible names for a location, the odds of their both being a location of they type you are looking for at the place suggested and that it have that name out of the alternatives are not very high.

    Pedro A. Olavarria has it right.

    Though I’m surprised no one has discussed the flood that created the Black Sea and booted the speakers of the Indo-European root tongue from there into the world.

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