In his first blog post on the Book of Mormon, Philip Jenkins declared without hesitancy, “If I look at the Book of Mormon as a historical text, as opposed to a spiritual document, it is simply not factually correct in any particular.” He goes on:
“In some controversial exchanges, I have been surprised to find how many clearly educated and literate Mormons think that the work can be defended as a work of history and archaeology. It can’t. The reason mainstream historians and scholars do not point out that fact more often is either that they are unaware of the book’s claims, or that they simply see no need to waste time on something so blatantly fictitious. This really is not debatable.”
In contrast, in a recent interview Brant Gardner remarked, “This is a very interesting time for Book of Mormon studies. … We are seeing more and better correlations between the text and the ever-increasing amount of information coming from archaeology and history, both in the Old and New Worlds. The future should see a continued expansion of and refinement of all of these fields.”
What can account for these two radically different opinions? Well, Gardner is a Mormon and Jenkins is not. That certainly has something to do with it. But I think there is more to it than that. Gardner has recently finished a nearly 500 page study on the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Previous to this, Gardner has published an award-winning study on the translation of the Book of Mormon, and a meticulous 6-volume commentary on several aspects of the text. Gardner’s contributions to the study of the Book of Mormon have been monumental, and this latest book is no exception. There is a reason I consider him one of the top 5 Book of Mormon scholars of all time. Jenkins, meanwhile, has contributed nothing meaningful to our understanding of the Book of Mormon. He has not even contributed a meaningful argument against it. I’ll let the reader decide which of our two experts is doing “what scholars do” on the Book of Mormon.
Yet the thrust of many of Jenkins dismissive comments is that the “apologists writing about the Book of Mormon know as little about authentic historical or archaeological methodology as I do about bees, but that does not prevent them from making statements about history and archaeology.” There is certainly truth to this on message boards and comments sections across the Internet, but the Book of Mormon is not its only victim. The Internet is an equal-opportunity stage for crack-pottery of every kind, and on all sorts of otherwise legitimate fields of study. Jenkins surely knows that what scholars do is find the best and strongest argument made for something and engage with that—not what every idiot on the Internet has to say.
And Gardner’s latest book, Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History, represents the latest, strongest, and most comprehensive case yet put forth for reading the Book of Mormon as history. I have personally offered to send Jenkins a free copy of it, as soon as it is available, on the condition that he will read it and review it. Contra Jenkins assertions about “apologists writing about the Book of Mormon,” Gardner is strong on methodological grounds, which is precisely why I think it would be helpful for Jenkins to read it. He has, so far, turned down my offer. Fortunately, however, Greg Kofford Books has made Gardner’s chapter methodology available as a preview of the book, so now Jenkins and anyone else can read and judge for themselves if Gardner (and Mormon “apologists” in general) is clueless “about authentic historical or archaeological methodology” as Jenkins would have us believe.
Given Jenkins point of view, one would think he would be eager to discuss methodology with a Book of Mormon apologist, so he could help set them straight. Yet, in what can only be described as ironic, Jenkins has complained that William Hamblin insists on hashing out methodological issues first in his discussion with him. “We are both grown ups,” he says, “we are both published historians, we know these issues extremely well.” Thus, no need to discuss them—right? One wonders why historians and archaeologists start out almost every major study with some discussion of methodology, since, after all, that are all “grown ups.”
In fact, when Dr. Anthony J. Frendo, a professional archaeologist, sat down to “attempt to draw up a comprehensive study about the thorny problem of the emergence of ancient Israel,” his investigation into the literature lead to the view that “the real crux of the problem … lay not so much in adducing some new datum or in drawing up a solid synthesis of the puzzle, but in the various presuppositions (often diametrically opposed) with which scholars approach the subject.” He continues:
“In other words, it soon became clear that the crux of the whole matter lay in the first principles, assumptions, axioms, and pre-understanding with which scholars approached both the relevant archaeological and biblical data. It was therefore a problem of how to correlate textual and archaeological evidence in a methodical manner.” (Anthony J. Frendo, Pre-Exilic Israel, The Hebrew Bible, and Archaeology: Integrating Text and Artefact, Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 549 [London: Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2011], ix.)
In reaction to this, Frendo didn’t just start his study with a discussion of methodology—he made his study all about methodology. Frendo’s experience alerts us to the fact that even among professionals, there is a need to sort out methodological matters. This couldn’t be more apparent in the Hamblin/Jenkins debate.
For example, Hamblin has laid out what strikes me as the rather non-controversial point that all data involved needs to be interpreted, and interpretation inherently introduces bias—thus doing away with notions of “objectivity” (yes, indeed, there are the scare quotes!). This was a central theme of my historiography class at a state university, with a non-LDS professor, just last year. When dealing with the Book of Mormon, specifically, Hamblin identifies four steps of interpretation that are necessary:
1- We must correctly interpret the Book of Mormon.
2- We must correctly understand and interpret Mesoamerican evidence.
3- We must correctly understand and interpret ancient Near Eastern evidence.
4- We must attempt to understand the possible relationships between scholarly interpretations of the Book of Mormon and the Mesoamerican and ancient Near Eastern data.
As a part of this, Hamblin notes, “None of this is objective.” Jenkins reaction to this? “I can’t believe you wrote that.” He gripes about, “hearing the plaintive post-modern yelps,” and says:
“As you express it here, your approach, your epistemology, is the antithesis of science or scholarship. It is the antithesis of the approaches to learning that the Western world has made central to the world-view since the Enlightenment. Your views really are that radical, or if you prefer, that reactionary.”
Alas, Jenkins would have us believe that to acknowledge the fact that interpretation is a necessary and inherent step to getting to the evidence—and that it is a non-objective process—necessarily means you must go down the post-modern rabbit hole. Yet this is not the case.
In his What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? (Grand Rapids: Wm. B Eerdmans, 2001), William Dever—certainly no lover of post-modernism, as a reading of the first two chapters will quickly reveal—discusses methodology at length. Part of that discussion includes exploring what “facts” and “data” are. Dever notes that while “facts are theoretically provable … In practice … facts are merely inferences that each person draws, based not only on observations, but also on our own social conditioning and the intent of our investigation.” Hence, “Facts do not speak directly. They may in principle have a concrete existence of their own; but they come to life, empowered to speak to me of the past only as I am able to incorporate them into my consciousness.” Of facts in archaeology, Dever says “they are relatively few and generally of minimal significance in themselves. Even these facts, however, must be carefully established as such before becoming admissible evidence” (p. 70, emphasis mine).
Dever goes on to argue, “Ordinarily the terms ‘fact’ and ‘data’ are used interchangeably, but I contend that they represent two successive stages of the interpretive process” (emphasis mine). Thus, “facts become data—that is, useful information—only as interpreted within an intellectual framework that is capable of giving them significance” (p. 72, emphasis in original). Ultimately, Dever argues that “texts and artifacts are both data to be ‘read’ [i.e., interpreted] and both may constitute sources for writing history,” and as such, “they must be interpreted separately and similarly, and then compared” (p. 78–79). Compare this to the four steps of interpretation Hamblin insists on for the present discussion (cited above).
Now, is this done “objectively”? Dever certainly endorses doing so as objectively as possible, but admits that absolute objectivity is impossible (p. 90). Part of being as close to objective as we can be is making biases, or presuppositions, clear, like Hamblin has been trying to do. “What is essential in the necessary process of interpretation,” Dever says, “is not to deny or minimize the difficulties, but rather to make presuppositions absolutely clear and above all not claim more than is actually known” (p. 71). Central to not claiming more than is known is asking “appropriate questions.”
“Thus what is learned depends largely on what is already known, the goals and orientation of the investigation, and the method of inquiry. Simply put, the best answers—true ‘data’—result from framing appropriate questions. The use of the word ‘appropriate’ does not imply any value judgment about what the ‘right’ questions are, but a notion of what may be possible, given the nature of the material at one’s disposal and the intellectual stage of the discipline at the moment.” (p.72)
And this brings us back to the Jenkins/Hamblin exchange. There is that question that Jenkins keeps asking over and over again, as if failure to answer proves devastating for the Book of Mormon: “Can anyone cite any single credible fact, object, site, or inscription from the New World that supports any one story found in the Book of Mormon? One sherd of pottery? One tool of bronze or iron? One carved stone? One piece of genetic data?”
But before answering the question, Hamblin wants to evaluate methodology. Why? The answer is simple. To paraphrase Dever for a moment, given what is already known, what may be possible to know based on the nature of the material at one’s disposal both in the text and in Mesoamerica, and the intellectual stage of the discipline of ancient Book of Mormon studies (a discipline that Jenkins refuses to even grant exists), this just isn’t an appropriate question. (For an idea of what are appropriate questions, I again recommend Brant Gardner’s book.) Though he may want to deny it, Jenkins’s expectation that it is an appropriate question, and should be easily answerable, is based on an interpretation of both the text and archaeology. This interpretation is made a little more clearly when he puts it this way:
“We have a really excellent idea of what the material culture of the Middle East looked like around, say, 1500BC or 500BC, or 200BC, whichever point you like around that era. If there had been a population movement of any sort to the Americas, that assemblage would be reproduced in whole or in part, and there would be inscriptions. Where are they in the New World? Where is one single example?”
So he expects Middle-Eastern looking material culture in the New World. But why? This kind of expectation can only be based on how Jenkins reads the text—and it is a rather weak reading. Jenkins is not offering any interpretation based on a close encounter with the text (or with New World archaeology, for that matter), but rather is interpreting from a distance. From impressions based on the general storyline of the text. But close reading suggest that the small number of migrants in 1 Nephi would be unlikely to leave a clear trace, and that by the time populations have expanded in the Book of Mormon, their material culture was probably closer to their Mesoamerican neighbors than their Middle Eastern ancestors.
The role interpretation plays in all of this is readily apparent when one looks at what happens when someone tries to offer a piece of evidence that might satisfy Jenkins’s “rule of one.” First, with Nahom/NHM from commenters, and then when Hamblin put forward Akish/Ukix. Jenkins dismisses both, of course, and thus ends right where he started: there is no evidence whatsoever. But what makes it evidence or not evidence is the interpretation. How one interprets the text, how one interprets the data on Nihm, and how one interprets and contextualizes the altars with the inscription are all part of the process. Unfortunately, Jenkins makes numerous interpretive (and even factual) errors of both text and artifact when dealing with Nahom/NHM, but in any case the process allows him to conclude “not evidence.” I think Latter-day Saint literature discussing this is on much stronger interpretive and methodological ground, but I’ll let readers pursue it and decide for themselves.
Likewise, how Hamblin interprets the Book of Mormon text related to Akish (ah-kish), and how he interprets the inscription traditionally read as Ukix (oo-kish) is part of why he sees evidence for the Book of Mormon here. Jenkins predictably responds that this is “not evidence,” and it is again by process of interpretation that he gets there. I personally think Jenkins does a better job this time than he does with Nahom, but won’t go into that here. The point is interpretation is happening here, and pretending that it is not, but that you are simply discussing “objective evidence” (or the lack thereof) is not helpful to the discussion.
None of this should be taken to suggest that we cannot know things about the past—as I said, we do not have to go down the po-mo rabbit hole here. Rather, it is to recognize what is being debated here; which is more interpretation of evidence rather than evidence itself. When we recognize the role that interpretation plays in the process, and are clear about the interpretations we are making, how we are making them, why, etc., then we can have a productive discussion. We may still fail to reach agreement (as happens sometimes between scholars), but the engagement can begin to shed more light and less heat.
Of course, none of this is meant to avoid providing evidence from both archaeology and anthropology. The point is, as I argued already in an earlier post, that the kind of evidence we expect needs to be based on a solid understanding (which requires interpretation!) of the text and the relevant archaeological data—and on close reading (i.e., interpreting) of both. If you want to see what that looks like with the Book of Mormon, you’ll have more luck reading Brant Gardner than Philip Jenkins. The reason is, (and what this discussion should make clear by now) is that single pieces of evidence—like those called for by Jenkins’s “rule of one”—will always fail to be persuasive, regardless of whether we are dealing with the Book of Mormon, the Bible, or whatever. This is so precisely because interpretation will always allow for individual facts to rendered “not evidence.” As Gardner puts in his forthcoming book, “The Book of Mormon will require sterner stuff” (p. 50). He goes on, “We will require a large number of convergences, and even then, we will require more than simple convergences. What the Book of Mormon will require is a number of complex correspondences that are interrelated between text, time, and place” (p. 50). Gardner has upped the ante. He is promising something much more significant than “any single credible fact.” I suggest readers get his book and decide from themselves if he delivers.