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Losing a Lost Tribe

The 2nd post ever on this blog was Why are the 12 Tribes of Israel important?  I’ve seen some interesting documentaries, one from a Jewish-atheist journalist, Simcha Jacobovich asking Have the Lost 10 Tribes been found?  (He thinks the answer is yes.)

On the other hand, I just finished Simon Southerton’s book, Losing a Lost Tribe, and he thinks the Book of Mormon is pure fiction.  Simon documents that Native Americans are not descended from Lamanites as the Book of Mormon claims, and believes that Lamanites never existed.  Science seems to confirm Southerton’s conclusions.  Simon is a former LDS bishop (now excommunicated.)  On the other hand, Dr. Ugo Perego seems to have advocated that DNA will never prove nor disprove the Book of Mormon.

I wanted to list a few notes from my reading of Southerton’s book.  Despite the science, it was not too technical or out of reach to understand.  I do think that Simon creates a bit of a strawman argument, arguing that Mormons believe in biblical literalism and against evolution.  Certainly there are many members that fit this role, but I would argue that many LDS members don’t support this.  The Church is officially neutral on these issues, so theoretically you can believe what you want.  Church members aren’t as monolithic as Southerton claims, but he might be right that a majority of church members are anti-evolution and pro-biblical literalism.

Southerton made the claim that Lehi’s ship skirted Australia.  I hadn’t heard that before, and I’ve heard other theories that they took a northern route.  One researcher believes they followed the northern Pacific Ocean like many of the objects after the Japan earthquake and Tsunami.  Concerning the truths of religion and science, Simon paraphrases Stephen Gould of Harvard University saying

Gould proposed a respectful noninterference, accompanied by intense dialogue, recognizing that the two magisteria cover two very different and critical facts of human existence.  The enemy is not science or religion “but the dogmatism and intolerance” by scientists or the religious.

I couldn’t agree more.  Simon notes (page 144)

Henry Eyring, who is the father of current apostle Henry B. Eyring, voice his contentment with a common ancestry with apes as long as he knew that God had been at the controls.

Simon thinks that such statements are rare and not believed by most church-going LDS.  He might be right, but I tend to agree with Eyring.  Simon goes on to a say members have a literalistic interpretation of the Flood story.  In a recent Wheat & Tares poll, (certainly not representative of all Mormons), 73% believed “The flood was a large, catastrophic flood of limited geography.”  Just 6% said “The flood covered the entire earth, period.”  (The rest thought the flood story was a complete myth.)  So despite not having a nice randomized poll, I still say that it is questionable as to whether the rank and file agree that the flood was a worldwide event.

I was a bit surprised to hear that B.H. Roberts, an early 20th century Mormon Seventy and intellectual, thought there were remarkable similarities to Ethan Smith’s (no relation to Joseph) View of the Hebrews.  I started reading that book but it was so dreadfully boring I didn’t get very far.  Simon writes (page 153)

The latter manuscript contained a grave assessment of the Book of Mormon, in which Roberts concluded that a nineteenth-century origin was entirely possible.

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 imaginative powers as would make it quite within the lines of possibility that the Book of Mormon could have been produced in that way.  (Roberts 1992)

Simon notes the anachronisms of the Book of Mormon:  gold, silver, wheels, barley, wheat, animals (horses, elephants).  He then talks about the DNA of Native Americans, who come from Asia 15,000 years ago which pre-dates Noah’s flood.  No DNA evidence has been found to support Lamanites coming 2600 years ago.  He spends some time talking about the X lineage, which Rodney Meldrum seems to tout as having Middle Eastern ancestry, but that lineage comes from Europe 22,000 years ago, so out of the time frame.  Most of these peoples inhabited Canada, Alaska, and Northeastern America, which doesn’t seem like anywhere Book of Mormon geography theorists have proposed as likely places for Lehi’s descendants.  He also quotes Brent Metcalf (page 198)

Apologetic scholars…have yet to explain cogently why all Book of Mormon characters–God included–seemingly know nothing about hordes of indigenous peoples that revisionist theories require.

From page 203

Anyone reading the responses coming from LDS biologists will discover that they have not quibbled with the evidence for colonization of America over 13,000 years ago, for occupation of Asia and Australia 60,000 years ago, and for the emergence of humans in Africa over 100,000 years ago.  Church members who were initially only curious about Israelite DNA issue are confronted by challenges to other closely held beliefs such as the placement of Adam and Eve on the earth and a post-Flood colonization, events that most Mormons believe occurred within the last six thousand years.  LDS doctrine clearly states that Adam and Eve lived in the vicinity of Independence, missouri, despite abundant evidence that all of the earliest members of the human family dwelt in sub-Saharan Africa.

I agree with Simon that the idea that Adam-ondi-ahman is scientifically unsupported.  It seems more likely to me that the Garden of Eden is buried under the Persian Gulf (which would also explain the Flood story.)  The poll referenced earlier shows that at least readers at Wheat and Tares are a bit more progressive on these thoughts: 50.35% believed “It is possible that Adam and Eve were the first prophets that spoke to God, and that other neanderthals or homo sapiens pre-date Adam and Eve”, 40.26% “think the entire story is a complete myth”, while just 5.59% think “Adam and Eve were the first humans, period.”

Simon also notes that (page 204)

Already in 1938 apostle and future church president Joseph Fielding Smith spoke out against advocates of a limited geography.  Scholars who have argued for a Mesoamerican Cumorah have been greeted with suspicion and hostility (Reynolds 1999.)

I think Simon does a good job of laying out his case, but I do think he over-emphasizes, in almost a strawman kind of way, what LDS people believe, although certainly some members are just as dogmatic (and vocal) as Simon claims.  What do you think regarding historicity of the Book of Mormon?

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2 comments on “Losing a Lost Tribe

  1. This was a well-reasoned and thoughtful blog post. Thank you.

    I agree with your primary assertion that Southerton strawman’s the LDS position a bit (based on everything I’ve read of his). At the very least, he fails to appreciate the diversity of thought on various issues that exists at all levels.

    As for BoM historicity, I spent a long time studying BoM apologetics (e.g., all of Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, all the FARMS books on the topic, parallelism formatting, Mormon’s Codex, data on the Hopewells). There are some interesting correspondences with the archaeological record and with antiquity, for sure. Still, there are major gaps / problems with every geographical context that’s been advanced thus far.

    I changed my position on the BoM historicity once I began studying the theological literature of the early 1800s. It became clear to me that the vast majority of theological positions taken in the BoM make the most sense to an early 1800s mind (opposition in all things, anti-Pelagian description of the Fall, infinite atonement [and the whole mercy/justice and sacrifice descriptions], bleeding at every pore, discussion on the state of the soul after death). My compilation of these parallels is here. That is not to say there aren’t apologetic defenses for this stuff being in there (Sam Brown, for instance, says we expect to see anachronimsms because scripture == living prophet + ancient text). But when nearly all of the BoM may be placed theologically in the early 1800s, it is highly problematic. Did Lehi really talk to his son Jacob about opposition in all things and the Fall the way ministers were talking about it in the early 1800s? Did Alma really write about the state of the soul between death and the resurrection to his son Corianton almost exactly like Matthias Earberry did? So many echoes.

  2. Having read the Roberts Study and View of the Hebrews back in the 80s, and lots of commentary on the topic, I find that it is crucially different and not at all adequate to account for the Book of Mormon. Roberts did not anticipate things like Welch’s Legal Cases of the Book of Mormon and his other close studies of Views compared and contrasted to the Book of Mormon.

    Southerton’s book shows a great deal of evidence that he was not in touch with the state of the art in LDS scholarship when he wrote it. Hence, the strawmen that he lines up to knock down.. And there is the stark contrast between the 17th-19th century pop culture suppositions about the Lost 10 Tribes versus the Book of Mormon notion of the lost tribes being expressly lost, and the Book of Mormon people being from different tribes and three migrations. And there is also Matt Roper’s detailed essay on “Nephi’s Neighbors”, wherein he points out a great many places where the Book of Mormon readers overlooked indications of those neighbors because of an untested assumption that no one else was around.

    And regarding Alma’s conversion, in the JBMS 2/1, I noted all sorts of correspondences with Near Death Experience research, which accounts not only for what Alma said to Corianton, but does so in terms of a common human experience. (It happens that one of the key Universalist teachers based his teachings on what we would call a near death vision.) And Alma not only shows the details of the experience, but also manifests characteristic aftereffects. Subsequent to writing my essay, I saw modern NDE experiencer Howard Storm describe his experience using remarkably similar language. No one would accuse Storm of ripping off Alma. And then Mark Wright did an essay for JBMS showing how Alma’s experience fits with Mesamerican accounts. None of that shows up in trying to account for Alma versus Mattias Earberry.

    Back in 1951 Nibley noted that the best way to test documents is to place them in the context that they claim for themselves. That turns out to be the most rigorous test. And it also turns out that the way we contextualize documents (including the Book of Mormon) affects how we read them. The same words can mean very different things depending on soil and nurture. Jesus even says that if we don’t understand the parable of the sower, “How then can ye know all parables?” For instance, it makes a difference in reading Jacob 4 on “the mark” if we understand the “mark” based on the Websters 1828 dictionary reference to a “target” or Ezekiel’s reference to the mark of anointing for a high priest. It happens that Ezekiel is, like Jacob, a priest in exile. Both readings cannot be right. So it also makes a huge difference in how we decide which context is better.

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