long ago ideas

“When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago." - Friedrich Nietzsche. Long ago, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery conquered false claims that the Book of Mormon was fiction or that it came through a stone in a hat. But these old claims have resurfaced in recent years. To conquer them again, we have to return to what Joseph and Oliver taught.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Another note on ancient writing

[Note: while I'm out of the country, we're re-posting the most popular posts from the last few years]

I keep hearing that evidence of ancient writing is critical to any proposed setting for the Book of Mormon. I've written about this before, but because it keeps coming up, I'll discuss it again briefly.

Dead Sea scrolls
A common objective in negotiations, research, and debate is to frame the situation in favorable terms. In the legal profession, trial and appellate lawyers spend a lot of time creating arguments that put their clients' position in a favorable context. Anyone who advocates something--politician, scientist, marketer, author--tries to do the same thing.

It's no different with Book of Mormon geography. That's why we see "requirements" or "conditions" for proposed settings that include requirements designed to frame the discussion in favor of one particular setting--the one being advocated by the proponent. That's what the volcano requirement is. The text says nothing about volcanoes, but some scholars have imposed a requirement that a setting for the Book of Mormon must feature volcanoes. It's a transparent tactic because the setting they favor features volcanoes.

We see this in the requirement for "headwaters" of Sidon (instead of head of Sidon) and "mountainous wilderness" which is never once mentioned in the text. There are many such examples.

The requirement that there must be evidence of writing is similar to the volcano requirement. Those who impose this requirement favor settings where there is already evidence of ancient writing, extending back to 500 BC and beyond.

There are two problems here. First, the ancient writing found is neither Hebrew nor Egyptian, so it doesn't line up to the text.

Second, the Book of Mormon text itself not only doesn't require evidence of ancient writing, but it says any such evidence would be destroyed.

IOW, to match up with the Book of Mormon, we would need to find evidence of an ancient civilization that included advanced features, yet left no evidence of writing behind.

The text notes that Nephi and his successors kept records on metal plates, but several of the record keepers wrote very little (Jarom). Presumably more was recorded on the plates maintained by the kings (Omni 1:11), which would account for all the records that Joseph and Oliver observed in the room in the Hill Cumorah.

The text mentions two other mediums of writing: stone and impermanent material.

The sole instance of writing on stone is in Omni 1:20 "And it came to pass in the days of Mosiah, there was a large stone brought unto him with engravings on it; and he did interpret the engravings by the gift and power of God."

This stone was a significant item for the people of Zarahemla because they were illiterate, but it is also significant because it is unique. We will not find a setting for the Book of Mormon in an area that features engraving on stones as a common practice. Stone engraving must be rare to nonexistent, except for the one stone left by Coriantumr. This is particularly noteworthy because Hebrew people knew about Moses and the 10 Commandments written on stone; presumably they would have done likewise, but the text mentions only this single stone in 1,000 years of history.

[Alma 10:2 refers to "writing which was upon the wall of the temple which was written by the finger of God." The wall of the temple is not otherwise described; it could have been made of stone or wood or cement. But again, this was a highly unusual occurrence, which is why it was memorable enough that Amulek identified himself as a descendant of Aminadi, the man everyone knew because he interpreted the writing on the wall.]

Other than writing on plates, there is an example of a writing medium that is generally presumed to be paper or parchment. Alma 14:8 says "they also brought forth their records which contained the holy scriptures, and cast them into the fire also, that they might be burned and destroyed by fire." This is interesting wording. The next verse says the people thrown into the fire "were consumed by fire," but the scriptures were "burned and destroyed" by fire--not consumed. It's not a major point, but it's entirely possible that these records (nothing says they were possessed by lay worshippers, by the way) were also on metal plates that melted in the flames. Thus, they were burned and destroyed but not consumed. I think this is the most reasonable interpretation, but I recognize it's also possible the records were consumed, despite what the text says.

The text never uses the terms paper, parchment, papyrus, or bark. The only medium mentioned in the text that could be used for transitory writing is skins. Because some of the dead sea scrolls were written on animal skins, it's easy to imagine that the Nephite culture did likewise.

And that explains the problem.

Transitory writing material is difficult to preserve (even absent Fahrenheit 451 events such as in Alma 14). Even if the Nephites did write on paper, papyrus, skins, etc., could we expect the material to survive 1,000 years?

Jacob observed that the only writing that would endure was what he engraved on plates.

Jacob 4:1 "we know that the things which we write upon plates must remain; 2 But whatsoever things we write upon anything save it be upon plates must perish and vanish away; but we can write a few words upon plates, which will give our children, and also our beloved brethren, a small degree of knowledge concerning us, or concerning their fathers."

If Jacob was engraving stones the way the Mayans did, he would not have said the engravings "must parish and vanish away." Instead, he explained that the plates were the only form of writing that would not perish and vanish away. Any culture from which we have ancient writing that has not perished and vanished away (except for writing on metal plates) cannot therefore be the culture in which Jacob lived.

In North America, we find cultures that had sophisticated societies capable of building geometric earthworks with great precision and replication, yet any evidence of writing has perished and vanished away, just as Jacob explained.

In Mesoamerica, the opposite is true.

Storage conditions are not the only problem, of course. As early as around 420 B.C., Enos explained the Nephite records were in jeopardy. "For at the present our strugglings were vain in restoring them to the true faith. And they swore in their wrath that, if it were possible, they would destroy our records and us, and also all the traditions of our fathers." Enos 1:14.

As late as 385 A.D., the prophet Mormon had the same concern: "having been commanded of the Lord that I should not suffer the records which had been handed down by our fathers, which were sacred, to fall into the hands of the Lamanites, (for the Lamanites would destroy them) therefore I made this record out of the plates of Nephi, and hid up in the hill Cumorah all the records which had been entrusted to me by the hand of the Lord, save it were these few plates which I gave unto my son Moroni." Mormon 6:6

Mormon hid up all the records. These are presumably the ones Joseph and Oliver saw in the room in the Hill Cumorah. (The qualifier "entrusted to me" does leave open the possibility that additional records existed, but Mormon says they Lamanites would destroy any records they could get their hands on.)

So if all the permanent records were written on metal and hidden up in Cumorah, and the only record engraven on stone was the one Coriantumr left, and to the extent the Nephites used transitory materials for some writing (as could be implied from Alma 14), that leaves nothing left for posterity to find. (Well, okay, Coriantumr's stone may be out there somewhere, unless it was 1) destroyed, 2) lost, or 3) carted off by the Mayans who invaded around 800 A.D. before returning to Central America centuries later.)

Consequently, according to the text, there should be little if any evidence of writing among the Book of Mormon people in the time period between 600 BC and 400 A.D.

Except for the records Joseph and Oliver saw.

All of this means that the next time someone tells you there has to be evidence of ancient writing in any proposed setting for the Book of Mormon, ask, "Do you mean besides the records in the Hill Cumorah that Joseph and Olvier saw?"

Because those records are the only ones the text says would survive.

After all, that's why we needed the Book of Mormon in the first place. It reveals history that would otherwise remain forever unknown.

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