Thursday, March 26, 2015

Evaluating the Book of Mormon: The Power of 1 Nephi and Ether

I believe that the best evaluation of the Book of Mormon has to include a careful analysis of 1 Nephi and Ether - that those two books are the only parts that can be evaluated objectively to any degree.  I say that for the following reasons:

I think 1 Nephi shouldn't be dismissed reflexively, given how well it fits what it is supposed to be in lots of instances. It's also the only part of the book where there is a clear, unambiguous location associated with the account itself - and the descriptions of that location and the flight from it to the sea is more than merely plausible. The cultural references also are striking and remarkably accurate, if the account is viewed as nothing more than fiction. 

As for Ether, it is a radical departure from the rest of the record, in multiple ways - and it also fits well what I believe it purports to be. I might be wrong about the original location (the Northern Asia steppes), but it fits extremely well the general culture of where I think it occurred. Without preconceptions based on what others have said about it, it really is a remarkable part of the Book of Mormon.

To illustrate this further, one of the most common reasons people have dismissed the Book of Mormon as being completely the creation of Joseph Smith is the mention of elephants in Ether.  For a long time, the assumption was that horses and elephants (and other animals) became extinct in the American continents sometime around 12,000-8,000 BC.

Two things:

1) The assumed chronology of Ether is based on the assumed chronology of the Old Testament, putting the time of the Jaredite migration around 2,500 BC or so. That chronology, however, assumes a literal acceptance of the ages and experiences described in the Old Testament, which I personally don't accept. Without that foundation, there is absolutely no way to say when the Jaredite migration is supposed to have happened - especially given the fact that the word "descendant" (not "son") is used multiple times in the genealogical chronology in Ether. That listing literally skips any number of generations, so there is no way to determine, with any authority, when the record would have started and how many years it covers.

2) There is lots of evidence now that elephants and similar animals existed on the continents well after oral traditions started that were active into the 1900's. There also is at least one archaeological discovery that shows an animal that would fit the "horse" classification around 100 BC - and that designation wasn't given by a Mormon. Coupled with the Native American Indian practice of calling the horses the Spaniards brought with them "deer", "elk" or even "dogs" and ""elk-dogs" (meaning that any of those terms could have been translated adequately as "horse" later, especially if brevity was paramount), a whole level of translation possibilities gets opened. 

I'm not saying those verses don't constitute possible anachronisms or that the most recent information proves the Book of Mormon to be historically accurate, but they certainly aren't the smoking gun that critics have claimed they are ever since the book was published.

It's hard enough to pull off a record of one ancient culture, but to embed another record of a radically different culture is even harder. That is what happens with 1 Nephi and Ether.  As a history teacher by inclination and original training, those two books are really hard to dismiss out-of-hand - and the more closely I studied the actual narratives in them, the more I became convinced that the Book of Mormon was recorded by the gift and power of God - however that phrase is interpreted.