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Book of Mormon Authenticity and the “Burden of Proof”

From time to time on the Internet, a critic will make the assertion that the Book of Mormon is not ancient in any way, shape, or form, without providing any arguments, evidences, or sources to back-up the claim. When challenged to provide such support, they will at times refuse, insisting that the “burden of proof” is not theirs, but the believer’s. This is because, allegedly, the burden of proof only falls on the one making a positive claim, and their claim is negative. It is the responsibility of the believer, they will say, to prove (or, at least, provide evidence for) the claim that the book is ancient. If they cannot do that, then we should not accept the book as ancient. I would suggest that this reflects a somewhat simplistic notion of the burden of proof.

Burden of Proof in General

The notion of a “burden of proof” (Latin onus probandī) is typically tied to the Latin phrase, semper necessitās probandī incumbit eī quī agit, which is to say, “the necessity of proof always falls upon he who makes (the charge).” If this maxim is to be uncritically applied, then certainly anyone, making any charge (positive or negative) is responsible to back it up with some kind of support. In law, burden of proof always falls upon who ever does not presently hold the “benefit of assumption.” When it comes to the Book of Mormon, this sort of standard might be a bit tricky. While in the minds of any given critic, the benefit of assumption is in favor of not authentic. But, as far as I am concerned, and I imagine this is true of any believer, the benefit of assumption is in the other direction. If they want to convince me (which I doubt that they do; but then again, I’m not really interested in convincing them either, so why should I be held to their standards of proof?), well then the burden of proof is all on them. Might I suggest that this standard vary based on venue? In venues consisting predominantly of LDS participants (or venues, like this blog, controlled by believing Latter-day Saints) who believe in the authenticity of the Book of Mormon come with a benefit of assumption that favors that position, and hence the burden of proof falls of the critic. (And, obviously, vice-versa.) So, approached a certain way at least, when a critic comes on to a Latter-day Saint’s facebook page, and comments on a thread where the participants are generally LDS, they in fact do have the burden of proof.

It should be added that in public discourse, the burden of proof is something that applies to both sides of an issue. Wikipedia (where, I confess, I have derived most of the above information as well) even says that there is, in fact, a burden of proof on negative claims:

When the assertion to prove is a negative claim, the burden takes the form of a negative proof, proof of impossibility [i.e., that the positive claim is impossible], or mere absence of evidence. If this negative assertion is in response to a claim made by another party in a debate, asserting the falsehood of the positive claim shifts the burden of proof from the party making the first claim to the one asserting its falsehood… (accessed 12/13/13, emphasis and brackets added).

In sum, I am not really all that sympathetic to claims that the burden of proof falls exclusively on believers. Critics must also support their assertions with some kind of reasoned argument, some form of evidence, or at least some sort of source that provides such argument and evidence, especially when in a venue where the text is generally assumed (that is, it has the benefit of assumption) to be authentic. To not do so is irresponsible.

Authenticity of Documents and Burden of Proof

I confess that I have not read extensive literature on the matter of authentic documents, and I have read nothing that explicitly discussed the idea of “burden of proof” in relation to determining the authenticity of document. But I have read some, and given plenty of thought to the question. My ruminations may be naïve, so take them for what they are worth.

When it comes to determining the authenticity of a document, we have a certain problem: you cannot prove that a document is authentic. What can be done is a document can be subjected to certain kinds of tests, which, if it fails, serve to prove the document is not authentic. But what if it passes? Well, the problem is that nearly everything about an authentic document can potentially, at least, be faked. So, even a document that passes every test could very well be just a really, really good forgery. But if it has passed every test—and therefore appears to be authentic in every way—what reason do we have to suspect it is a forgery? None, and therefore we are compelled to accept the document as genuine. Not because it has been proven genuine, mind you, but rather because it has not been proven to be false. In short, when it comes to testing documents for authenticity, the burden of proof falls upon the negative.

This is not to say that there is no burden of proof in the positive, or that new purported documents from the past should not be treated with skepticism. But that skepticism ought be to coupled with an optimism that acknowledges that the documents could be genuine, and therefore should be tested. Those who claim the document is genuine have the burden of proving that the document can indeed pass the prescribed tests, but if no one holds that the documents could be (or, they might even hold, prior to testing, that they are) genuine, then who will see that the documents are properly tested? (Something could be said here about biases, since those who seek to have a document tested—and often who do the testing—are generally those who think a document is genuine or is more likely to be so; and yet, despite such biases, scholars have come to accept plenty of documents so presented as legitimate.)

So there is certainly some burden of proof on the positive side, but the final burden falls on the negative—if they can’t show that tests provide ample reason to reject a document as false, then it ought be accepted a authentic.

The Book of Mormon and the Burden of Proof

So, what, then, of the Book of Mormon and the issue of “burden of proof”? Well, the Book of Mormon is a document which claims to be authentically from the ancient past. As such, it ought to be subjected to whatever tests we might be able to apply to it in order to determine its authenticity. Since we do not have the original materials of the alleged document (which typically provides the most definitive evidence of forgery), and since we are only dealing with a purported translation, and not an original text, the types of tests we can apply are limited, and none can be used to make a definitive determination one way or the other.

Scholars who have dealt with such documents (LDS scholars have appealed to such luminaries as Frederich Blass, William Albright, Morton Smith, William Dever, and Kenneth Kitchen) have, generally speaking, tested such documents by comparing their content against the historical setting from which the document allegedly came from. If it fits that context, it is taken as genuine, if it does not, then it is rejected. This is, of course, an oversimplification and no two scholars apply the exact same method, which also, quite naturally means that some use more sophisticated methods than others, some methods are more sophisticated in some ways while not in others, etc., etc. And, of course, somewhat different conclusions are reached by the application of different nuances in approach. But, nonetheless, what the various approaches have in common is that they seek to compare the text to the alleged setting.

What happens if we apply such a test to the Book of Mormon? I do not intend to provide a full-blown testing of the Book of Mormon here (it should go with out saying that a much more serious and rigorous discussion and application of methodoloy would be necessary for such an undertaking). I will merely be providing a summary of my thoughts, based largely on the work of competent scholars. For the sake of brevity, I’ll simply try this with 1 Nephi and merely provide a bullet list of “convergences” (to use Devers term) between text and real world. The supporting evidence for these claims can be found by pursuing the resources listed in this earlier blog post. The reason for using 1 Nephi (as opposed to some other portion of the Book of Mormon) is that it gives us a definite historical setting (Jerusalem and then Arabia, early in the sixth century BC) to compare against, whereas the setting for the rest of the Book of Mormon is subject for debate (though I feel the evidence decidedly favors Mesoamerica, but that is for another time). Anyway, the comparisons:
  • In its opening statement, the text claims to be written by an Israelite, writing in Egyptian. The book has been heavily criticized for such claims, though today Israelites of that time period are known to have employed both Egyptian language and script in a variety of ways, including syncretizing it with their own language. 
  • The opening chapter describes a typical ancient Israelite divine council scene complete with a throne-theophany, and includes typical details not present in the canonical texts.
  • All the primary characters in the text (Laban; Lehi, Ishmael and their descendants) are from northern Israelite tribes and are wealthy, though they live in Jerusalem. In the century prior, refugees from the northern kingdom fled to Jerusalem to get away from the Assyrians. Their descendants remained there, the walls were expanded to accommodate them and by the time the Book of Mormon begins, many of them were wealthy.
  • Of the personal names in the Book of Mormon, 10 out of 11 are attested in relevant languages at or close to that time period. Of the 10, 5 can be found in the Bible, but the other 5 did not appear as ancient Semitic personal names in any sources Joseph Smith could have used. The remaining name has a plausible Hebrew etymology.
  • In fleeing from Jerusalem, Lehi heads toward Arabia instead of Egypt. Jerusalem had commercial ties with Arabia at the time. In particular, the mines Arabia were a major source for copper (at the Gulf of Aqaba); which, since the evidence in the text suggests he was a metalworker, would explain why Lehi would travel in that direction: he likely had business connections to that area.
  • Lehi goes to the Red Sea, and then travels 3-days journey where he stops at a valley with a “continually running” river and is evidently fertile since they gather “seeds of every kind” while there. Just such a valley has been found within a 3-day journey from tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, of the Red Sea.
  • While in said valley, Lehi’s sons are sent back to Jerusalem to obtain an ancient record, and in the process Nephi slays Laban. While this is ethically jarring to many readers, the crafting of the account betrays in its author an intimate familiarity with ancient Israelite law, likely as it was understood and interpreted ca. 600 BC.
  • The record obtained was written on metal plates, kept by the tribe of Joseph, and written in Egyptian, all of which is consistent with what is currently known about pre-exilic scribal practices.
  • The conflicts between Laman and Lemuel on the one hand, and Nephi and Lehi on the other, reflects the same tensions that were then current in the religio-political world of Jerusalem at that time.
  • After the sons return from yet another journey to Jerusalem, Lehi has a dream-vision of a sacred tree, which vision is packed with rich, ancient Near Eastern symbolism.
  • That is then followed up by an interpretive-vision given to Nephi, which is also replete with ancient Near Eastern imagery.
  • The journey through the wilderness is patterned after the Exodus in intricate ways that reflect the way ancient Israelites utilized that narrative motif.
  • Leaving the valley, the party travels in a generally southeast direction, until turning eastward at a specific point. This matches the ancient trade routes, which means necessary resources like food and water would have been available along such a route; commodities that are absolutely essential and not available except along that course.
  • After traveling south-southeast for 4 days (from the valley), they arrive at a place they call Shazer, which appears to be an oasis with good hunting grounds nearby. Just such a place exists approximately 4-days travel in a generally southeast direction from the previously mentioned valley.
  • The text speaks of “more fertile parts” and then just “fertile parts” as the party moves southward (south-southeast), suggesting a decreasing fertility until they finally come to the point where the area is not fertile at all, hence there is a crisis due to a lack of food. This is in fact consistent with the climate along the trail through Arabia, which starts with areas of greater fertility, which decreases the further south one moves along the trail, until one finally arrives in an arid climate without much growing.
  • This transition into an arid climate can explain the breaking of Nephi’s bow and the loss of his brothers’ bows springs. There is also wood suitable for bow making in this part of Arabia (something that cannot just be assumed is available in any given part of the desert).
  • The broken bow story employs narrative motifs common to the ancient Near East generally, and Israelite literature specifically.
  • After traveling further southeast along the trail, Nephi tells us that they came to a “place that was called Nahom,” where they buried his deceased father-in-law. Such a place name as NHM (Semitic languages do not have vowels when written) does exist in this part of Arabia, and is attested on alters that date back to this same time period, along with other inscriptional evidence ranging from ca. 700-300 BC. In the NHM territory is the largest burial grounds in all of Arabia.
  • From Nahom, Lehi’s party turns “nearly eastward.” It is at NHM that roads turn toward the east. Prior to that point, eastward travel is impossible. No available sources showed an awareness of this turn in Joseph Smith’s day.
  • After traveling nearly eastward from Nahom, the party arrives in a place along the coast they call “Bountiful” due to its much fruit and wild honey. The area has available timber for shipbuilding, and several other features are described in the text (12 criteria in all). The only place in all of Arabia that matches the description is the Dhofar region, which is also approximately eastward from NHM. This area, once again, was entirely unknown to Western society in Joseph Smith’s day.

These 20 summarized-bullet points only hit on some of the main areas of convergence. Several other smaller parallels could also be added, to say nothing of a more in-depth analysis that would reveal the detailed relationships that exist on the items listed above. William Dever says that “the historian must work often with ‘the balance of probability’.” And that “to overturn that would require a more likely scenario, replete with new and superior independent witnesses.”

In the absence of that, skepticism is not warranted, and indeed is suspect. The skeptic may remain a “hostile witness,” but such a witness is overruled, and the case may be considered sufficiently established by all reasonable historical requirements. (William G. Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did they Know It? What Archaeology Can Tell Us about the Reality of Ancient Israel [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001], 108, emphasis in original.)

I am quite satisfied that this has been accomplished for 1 Nephi, and by extension, the Book of Mormon. Others may not be. So far as I am concerned, however, this sufficiently satisfies the burden of proof and shifts the “benefit of assumption” in favor of the Book of Mormon’s authenticity. The onus probandī is on the critics to demonstrate otherwise, to provide “a more likely scenario,” and to do so by showing how the Book of Mormon fails to pass a test, like the one applied above, “with new and superior independent witnesses.”

Comments

  1. I hate to be *that* guy, but could you provide a few sources for your twenty points? I've heard most of them before, I just would like to know where.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Ammon,

      Are there any you would specifically like sources on? In general, most of them can be found in the following sources:

      Warren P. Aston and Michaela J. Aston, In the Footsteps of Lehi: New Evidence of Lehi’s Journey across Arabia to Bountiful (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1994).

      Warren P. Aston, “Newly Found Alters From Nahom,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 10/2 (2001): 57-61

      George Potter and Richard Wellington, Lehi in the Wilderness: 81 New, Documented Evidences That the Book of Mormon is a True History (Springville, UT: Cedar Fort, 2003)

      John W. Welch, David Rolph Seely, and Jo Ann H. Seely, eds., Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2004)

      S. Kent Brown and Peter Johnson, ed., Journey of Faith: From Jerusalem to the Promised Land (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2006)

      Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 15/2 (2006) (the whole issue)

      S. Kent Brown, “The Hunt for the Valley of Lemuel,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 16/1 (2007): 64-73

      Warren P. Aston, “Identifying Our Best Candidate for Nephi’s Bountiful,” Journal of Book of Mormon and Restoration Scripture 17/1-2 (2008): 58-64

      Stephen D. Ricks, “Lehi and Local Color,” FARMS Review 21/2 (2009): 169-177

      Warren P. Aston, “A History of NaHoM,” BYU Studies Quarterly 51/2 (2012): 78-98

      Delete

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