Anachronisms and Expectations: Assessing the Role of Anachronisms in the Debate over Book of Mormon Authenticity

            One thing I think critics have fundamentally misunderstood is the apologetic response to anachronisms. All throughout the endless online discussions you can read the sarcastic, and often mocking (and even sometimes contemptuous) remarks about how absurd it is that apologists would suggest that a “horse” is really a “tapir.” “Did Joseph Smith not know what a horse is?” they ask. They express the sentiment that this is merely a desperate attempt to keep a sinking ship afloat.

            In order to address this matter and assess where anachronisms fit in the grand scheme of Book of Mormon debates, we must take some time to discuss what our expectations should be.

Expectations for Authenticity

            In order to determine if the Book of Mormon is, in fact, an authentic ancient text, we must first ask ourselves, “What would we expect for an ancient text written by eyewitnesses (even participants) to life in a specific place and time?” To this question, critics would answer, “We should expect that it would not have any anachronisms,” and this really is a fair and reasonable expectation. It would certainly be odd if I wrote about traveling through the Mohave Desert and described seeing polar bears and palm trees. From such details, everyone would know I was not giving an authentic report of conditions and life in the desert.   The problem is that the critics stop there. Is this the only expectation we would have of an authentic ancient text? No. In fact, there are some other expectations we should have that make identifying genuine anachronisms quite difficult. Allow me to elaborate on a few of these expectations:
  1.  As already discussed, our first expectation is that there would be no anachronisms; it just shouldn’t talk about things that were not there. I place this here simply because it will here after be referred to as “expectation 1”.
  2.     We should also expect, however, that eyewitnesses to life in ancient America ca. 600 BC to AD 400 would know more about ancient America than we do. Such persons would indisputably know more than we do about the material cultural, the technology available, the overall way of life, and the plants and animals that were living within their environment. What anthropologist would not kill to have the opportunity to actually live among their subjects and observe them; that is, to be an eyewitness? One anthropologist reported that by living among his subjects he was able to observe over 1400 aspects about their way of life, as opposed the mere 40 he derived from some of their ruins.[1] This is why documents that are known to be authentic are so valuable – they are our chance to hear from an eyewitness. A testimonial from a witness to the crime is always more persuasive than the opinion of the crime scene investigator, who only gathers information after the fact. If we held all ancient documents to the standards of modern day expert opinion, then all ancient texts would be worthless – because they could only tell us what we already know. Clearly, holding eyewitness knowledge up to the standard of the modern, distant observers’ opinion is doing things backwards.  All of this means we should expect an authentic text to go beyond what can currently be verified by archeological means. (Hereafter referred to as “expectation 2”.)
  3.    Another expectation we should have is that if a group of Old World peoples migrated to the new world, which was full of all kinds of plant and animal life they had never seen before, they won’t use the “correct” names for animals. Linguistically, they simply won’t have words in their vocabulary for these new life forms. So, we should expect them to use the words they do have to describe these animals (and plants). This is called loan-shifting, where the name of a familiar animal or plant is used to label a new, unknown plant or animal that seems in some way similar to the plant or animal for which the word originally referred.[2] The practice is ridiculously well attested, it happens even when there are local people that could tell the new comers what the species “really is,” and in fact is responsible for the “correct” names of many animals today. Hence, when the Greeks discovered the large beast wallowing in the Nile River they called it a “river horse” (hippopotamus), a name that has stuck with the animal ever since, despite the fact that it is not a horse at all.[3] Likewise, the red breasted bird that the Europeans discovered in the New World is called a “robin,” even though it is not related to the “true” robin of Europe.  Likewise, “Elk” is the common name for the large North American deer (also present in Eastern Asia), though it was applied to the species by the Europeans and actually means “moose,” which is an entirely different animal. “Buffalo” is considered the “incorrect” term for what is more properly called the American “Bison,” although buffalo is still a popular term for it. This came from the French fur trappers who traveled across the American west (incidentally, no one questions the authenticity of their journals and records even though they speak of “buffaloes” where there are no “true buffaloes”).[4]  Even “bison,” which is considered the scientifically correct name for the animal, is Greek for “ox-like,” thus represents a loan-shift. I could go on and on with these examples. This is essentially a universal phenomenon,[5] and thus we must expect that this would happened among the colonies of Jared, Lehi, and Mulek. (Hereafter referred to as “expectation 3)
  4.     In relation to expectation 3, we also have to remember that the text, as we have it, is a translation. Thus, if the text is authentic, there is the possibility of what are called “translator anachronisms.” For instance, the KJV of Mark 4:21 speaks of “candles” but candles were unknown in biblical times (the more correct term would be “lamps”).  Usually, these are simply the result of incorrect translations, resulting when the translator was not familiar with a word, or the thing being identified, and so they apply an anachronous term to it; thus, these are basically another occurrence or form of “loan-shifting,” the only difference being it is the translator, rather than the original author, who is using a familiar term to describe something not familiar to them. A translator may not have a direct way of translating a term, but might recognize it as describing something similar to a thing they are familiar with, and thus use the name of that thing in the translation (an example from the Book of Mormon will be given later).  Some might debate as to whether this would occur in an “inspired” translation, but given how little we know about how the translation process really worked, it cannot be ruled out.[6] At very least, if this is not considered an expectation, it must be recognized as a possibility.[7] (For convenience this will still be referred to as an “expectation,” and will hereafter be called “expectation 4”.)

Attempting to Sort All of This Out

            When we acknowledge all four of these expectations of an authentic text, our task then becomes a matter of trying to sort out which is which. Expectations 2-4 clearly complicate the simple identification of true violations of expectation 1 – how do know it is not a manifestation of expectations 2-4, rather than a violation of expectation 1? Each anomaly must be examined carefully to try and deduce whether it falls under expectation 1, 2, 3, or 4.  In most cases we simply don’t have enough information to say with certainty as to whether any particular textual anomaly is an actual anachronism (a violation of expectation 1), or if it is simply additional information from an eyewitness source (a manifestation of expectation 2), or a labeling issue (a manifestation of expectation 3 or 4).  In a few instances, the case is fairly clear. For example, I think the use of the word “compass” is pretty obviously a case of expectation 4.[8] The object frequently called a “compass” in the text is a round device that provides direction, but not something that functions like our compasses today, as it has two spindles (rather than one), points the specific direction one is to travel (rather than magnetic north), can display messages, and operates by faith.[9] Such an object would obviously be unfamiliar to Joseph Smith, and so he simply used a term originally meant for a similar object (something round, which pointed direction) in his translation. Most cases, however, are less clear. If critics want to use any particular anachronism as evidence against the Book of Mormon, they must first make the case that it is really a violation of expectation 1 rather than a manifestation of expectations 2-4.  Unless this can be demonstrated, anachronisms are completely useless in trying to assess the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.

Begging the Question

            Most critics, however, simply ignore expectations 2-4 and assume that every textual anomaly is a violation of expectation 1. They thus argue that these anomalies demonstrate the Book of Mormon text is inauthentic. The problem is this is begging the question. If the text is authentic, then every anomaly would be an instance of either expectation 2, 3, or 4 (again, an eyewitness simply would not mention things that are not there). Only if the text is inauthentic can there be any genuine examples of anachronisms. Thus, by assuming that all anomalies are actually anachronisms, they are also assuming that the text is inauthentic, and after so assuming they submit the assumed conclusion as evidence for that conclusion (that is, they submit the assumed anachronisms as evidence for the assumed inauthenticity which produced the assumed anachronisms in the first place). When all four expectations are acknowledged, then determining whether there are anachronisms becomes a matter of determining if the text is or is not authentic, not the other way around.

Placing Things in Context

            On the other hand, rather than making assumptions about what is what, many Latter-day Saint scholars have attempted to sort this out by carefully examining the text. John L. Sorenson pioneered this effort, explaining that “the things said about fauna in the Nephite territory have to be carefully analyzed and compared in full awareness of what is known and not known about nature in Mesoamerica as well as the principles known to govern the labeling of natural categories in various cultures… In the effort to learn the truth, nothing can be assumed obvious.”[10] Possible examples of loan-shifts have been pointed out, and suggestions for which animals and plants were actually intended have been suggested (this is where the horse/tapir connection comes from). In addition to those, some have suggested potential examples of eyewitness information adding to what we already know about ancient America.

While we may never have enough information to determine with certainty what is an example of expectation 2 vs. expectations 3 or 4, certain context gives us good reason to believe that the remaining anomalies are manifestations of expectations 2-4 in the text, rather than violations of expectation 1. First, John E. Clark has made the case that the Book of Mormon looks better with age, noting that about 60 percent out of sixty nineteenth-century criticisms have now been archeologically verified, while an additional ten of those sixty have received tentative, though inconclusive, evidence.[11] Thus, numerous details that once seemed like anachronisms are now known to be authentic details about life in ancient America. Given this trend, it seems more reasonable to interpret remaining anomalies as examples of expectation 2, rather than violations of expectation 1. In addition to that, Brant A. Gardner has discussed how there are numerous points of convergence between the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican ethnohistory.[12] Gardner reasons that various “descriptive problems” are “much easier to explain… as labeling problems than to find an alternate explanation for the type of detailed correlation” that he identifies.[13] In other words, the overall context of evidence suggests that things such as swords, silk, horses, chariots, etc. are manifestations of either expectation 3, or expectation 4, rather than violations of expectation 1.[14]

The Irony of Anachronisms

            Before concluding, one last point ought to be made. Given what we know, it seems unreasonable to expect an ancient text, translated in the early nineteenth century, to conform to the modern, scientifically precise naming conventions for plants, animals, metals, and other materials. The advent of modern, scientifically precise names for animals is a fairly recent arrival.[15] Prior to that, all taxonomic systems were informal and existed independent of each other. Thus, when two cultures collided, as would be the case in the Book of Mormon when the Old World immigrants entered the New World, so would classification systems, as can be seen with the Spanish/European encounters with Native American species, and vice-versa. The result would be a confusing mess; a taxonomic nightmare. Thus, an ancient text could not be fairly scrutinized on the basis of modern taxonomy, nor could the translation of such a text be so judged, as it is likely to suffer from the difficulties of trying to parse through the confusing, primitive system. Such standards were fairly new in 1830 (and one might wonder how rigidly a frontier farm boy would stick to them), and they most certainly were not around in 600 BC or AD 400. As such, in a rather ironic twist, by holding the Book of Mormon up to modern scientific standards of classification, critics are actually applying those standards anachronistically.


            Returning to the question, “What would we expect for an ancient document written by eyewitnesses (even participants) to life in a specific place and time?” Certainly, there are other expectations that could be discussed, but I have chosen to focus on only four interrelated expectations that essentially cancel each other out. Because of this, anachronisms are not very useful in answering the question of Book of Mormon authenticity.

            If critics wish to make a case on the basis of anachronisms, then they must first demonstrate that a given textual anomaly is in fact anachronistic; to simply assume such is begging the question. Alternatively, I have argued that since broader context suggests authenticity, it seems more reasonable to interpret remaining difficulties in light of expectations 2-4 rather than expectation 1.[16] Meanwhile, the Book of Mormon offers its test for authenticity which allows us to transcend these endless squabbles over what is and is not “evidence”:
            And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. (Moroni 10:4)

[1] The anthropologist is the eminent Julian Steward in his observations among the Piute Indians, cited in John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1985), 62. That ratio breaks down to 35:1. Another way of putting it in perspective is this: Steward was able to only learn from an archeological dig 2.857 percent of what he learned living among the people.
[2] See Matthew Roper, “Unanswered Mormon Scholars,” FARMS Review of Books 9/1 (1997): 131-133.
[3] The Greek hippos means “horse,” thus ironically when folks call the hippopotamus by its short name, “hippo,” they are actually calling it a “horse.” Also, the reader should be reminded of the “sea horse,” which also has no relation to the actual horse.
[4] Actually, even the “true buffalo” isn’t really a “buffalo.” As mentioned, buffalo is a French word, but “buffaloes” are from Africa and Asia, so this is probably not the native, “original” name for these animals. The French word actually means “ox” or “bullock,” which is not what the “buffalo” is.
[5] For discussion and numerous examples of the practice, see Sorenson, Ancient American Setting, 289-294; also see Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake: Greg Kofford Books, 2007-2008), 1:324-326.
[6] For a good discussion of the nature of the translation, see Brant A. Gardner, The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake: Greg Kofford Books, 2011). While I have some differences with Gardner on this topic, his treatment is more than sufficient to illustrate the problem of assuming that a “divine” translation resolves any and all issues.
[7] From time to time, I will refer to both “loan-shifting” and “translator anachronisms” as “labeling issues,” “labeling difficulties,” etc. While John Sorenson prefers to view the Book of Mormon terms as loan-shifts, Brant Gardner favors translator anachronisms. (See Sorenson, Ancient American Setting, 289-291; Gardner, Second Witness, 1:325.) Both phenomena are probably responsible for some of the present anomalies.
[8] See 1 Nephi 18:21; 2 Nephi 5:12; 2 Nephi 7:11; Alma 37:38, 43-44 
[9] See 1 Nephi 16:10, 16, 27-28, 30
[10] Sorenson, Ancient American Setting, 288, 294.
[11] John E. Clark, “Archaeological Trends and the Book of Mormon Origins,” in The Worlds of Joseph Smith: A Bicentennial Conference at the Library of Congress, ed. John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: BYU Press, 2006), 83-104; also see the charts at These charts accompanied the presentation by John E. Clark, Wade Ardern, and Matthew Roper, “Debating the Foundations of Mormonism: The Book of Mormon and Archaeology,” 2005 FAIR Conference Presentation, available online at Mormonism.html
[12] See Gardner’s views in Kevin Christensen, “Truth and Method: Reflections on Dan Vogel’s Approach to the Book of Mormon,” FARMS Review 16/1 (2004), 346-353. The evidence is provided in detail scattered throughout the 6 volumes of Second Witness. A volume that consolidates this research is currently in preparation by Gardner, to be published by Greg Kofford Books.
[13] Christensen, “Truth and Method,” 353.
[14] Elsewhere I have commented on Kevin Christiansen’s “Hindsight on a Book of Mormon Historicity Critique,” FARMS Review 22/2 (2010), 155-194, noting that Christiansen helps illustrate that these contextual evidences that Gardner, Clark, and Sorenson have pointed to constitute the more important, and even better evidence for the Book of Mormon. See my “What Evidence is Better?” Studio et Quoque Fide: A Blog on Latter-day Saint Apologetics, Scholarship, and Commentary, September 28, 2011; at
[15] The modern era of taxonomy started in the 1750s, not even a hundred years before Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon. See
[16] For an example of how some of these expectations have played out in real scholarly debates over a purported ancient inscription, in a situation analogous to the Book of Mormon, see Ben Spackman, “The Book of Mormon and the Jehoash Inscription: Parallels, Anomalies, and Methodology,” Millennial Star, August 25, 2005, at http://www.


  1. Well written, but The Book of Mormon is said to be "the most correct book" ever. When translating, should it be acceptable to claim that metallurgy, exotic animals like horses and elephants, and agricultural anachronisms like wheat are claimed in fairly plain English when something else entirely is intended? I think not but such is the way of religious apologetics these days.


  2. Thanks for the expounding the expansion of thought on anachronisms as they pertain to the Book of Mormon. However, I must admit, if I was LDS, I probably would begin to formulate in my mind the following - "We believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God as far as it is inspired and translated correctly."

  3. Fightfan:

    Thanks for commenting. I think you are reading things into the "most correct book" designation that are clearly unintended, however. The context makes it obvious, in my opinion, that Joseph Smith was talking about correctness of the religious precepts. To extend that designation to every aspect of the book (such as its history) is to go beyond what even the authors themselves were willing to say about it. (They repeatedly warn that there are the "mistakes of men" in the book.)

    Your question then reflects the very simplistic assumptions that I am attempting to address in the blog post. The bottom line is that there is not always a "fairly plain" and simple way of understanding its relationship to the original text. What about, for example, the unicorns and dragons that the KJV Bible talks about? Is that "acceptable" in a "fairly plain English" translation, "when something else entirely is intended"? Marco Polo's travels also talk about "unicorns," and that label is often retained in translations, even though we know he meant rhinos. Is it appropriate that translations retain his loan-shift? This is just what we get with translations, and I am of the opinion that we cannot take seriously the claim that the Book of Mormon is a translation without taking seriously the ways that complicates our ability to relate to history.

    You are welcome to "think not", if you wish, and to think that "such is the way of religious apologetics" but all you are really doing is choosing to avoid grappling with the other expectations that complicate our sorting this picture out.

    Orin: Yes, I have no problem appending the "as far as it is translated correctly" clause to the Book of Mormon.


Post a Comment