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.

Monday, December 17, 2018

No-wise #493 - artifacts

BOMCC at work
Book of Mormon Central Censor published No-wise #493, a delightful example of censorship and misdirection designed to accomplish these two objectives:

1. Fulfill the corporate mission of Book of Mormon Central Censor to "increase understanding of the Book of Mormon as an ancient Mesoamerican codex;" and

2. Frame Joseph Smith as an ignorant speculator who misled the Church, thereby keeping readers of BOMCC ignorant and confused so they cannot make informed decisions about choosing between the prophets and the scholars.

First, some context.

The existence of ancient Hebrews in North America is not an LDS/non-LDS issue. There are plenty of people, both LDS and non-LDS, who believe, based on the evidence, that ancient Hebrews lived in North America. There are plenty of people, LDS and non-LDS, who believe an ancient civilization migrated from Ohio to western New York and vanished around 400 A.D. The evidence they rely on happens to also corroborate the teachings of LDS prophets.

Of course, there are also people, both LDS and non-LDS, who reject the evidence. Evidence is not the same as proof. Proof is whatever convinces someone, and everyone has different biases they seek to confirm, which affects the threshold of evidence they require to "prove" or "disprove" a proposition.

That said, there's a big difference when it comes to M2C.

M2C is purely an LDS (and Community of Christ) concept, developed and promoted by a handful of intellectuals over the objection of LDS prophets. There are no non-LDS who believe there were ancient Hebrews in Mesoamerica. Plus, M2C repudiates the teachings of the LDS prophets.

Book of Mormon Central Censor pretends to rely on science and evidence, but their arguments are completely unpersuasive to their academic peers, and they never tell their followers how isolated their beliefs are; i.e., they don't tell their followers that no non-LDS people believe there were ancient Hebrews in Mesoamerica. 

IOW, the evidence for Hebrews in North American is accepted by both LDS and non-LDS people, but the evidence for Hebrews in Mesoamerica is accepted only by a few LDS M2C advocates and their followers.

No-wise #493 addresses several specific artifacts. These are not the evidences to which I referred in the previous paragraphs. In my view, these artifacts are irrelevant to the discussion, except as a distraction. I don't think they prove or disprove anything about the Book of Mormon, and the controversy over them is a gift to detractors who dispute the historicity of the Book of Mormon narrative.

I think it's a mistake for anyone, pro or con, to use these artifacts to promote an agenda.

That said, the approach taken by Book of Mormon Central Censor is fascinating. The case against these artifacts is not as iron-clad as they want readers to believe; they simply censor counter-arguments. Furthermore, the sources they cite, such as the Smithsonian, also refute the claims of M2C.

But they don't tell their readers that, either.

Not only does BOMCC censor the teachings of the prophets and the evidence that supports the prophets, but BOMCC censors the conclusions of the very sources they otherwise rely upon when those conclusions contradict M2C. The approach taken by BOMCC is the opposite of objective, scientific analysis and presentation.

Naturally, we wonder, why does BOMCC continue to seek to undermine evidence from North America that supports the Book of Mormon?

The answer: 

The fundamental premise of M2C is that the prophets are wrong about the New York Cumorah. Everyone associated with BOMCC, including their donors, necessarily agrees with this premise.

I've pointed out many times that the New York Cumorah does not preclude any other geography for the rest of the events in the Book of Mormon. However, the M2C intellectuals have decided that the New York Cumorah is incompatible with their Mesoamerican setting, so they necessarily must persuade people that the prophets are wrong about the New York Cumorah. To accomplish this, they must persuade people that the Book of Mormon narrative could not have taken place in North America.*

In this no-wise, for example, they start by undermining Joseph Smith:

Joseph Smith, on a few occasions, offered speculative arguments for the book’s authenticity by drawing from what was known in his day about ancient American antiquities.1

Let's consider what this means. Speculative is defined as engaged in, expressing, or based on conjecture rather than knowledge and based on a guess and not on information.

Another definition:

conjectural consideration of a matter; conjecture or surmise: a report based on speculation rather than facts. engagement in business transactions involving considerable risk but offering the chance of large gains, especially trading in commodities, stocks, etc., in the hope of profit from changes in the market price.

Book of Mormon Central Censor insists that people believe Joseph was an ignorant speculator who misled the Church. The choice of the term "speculative" also imputes an element of high-risk, high-reward motivation on Joseph's part.

In my view, this claim by M2C proponents is not even suggested by the historical facts, let alone demonstrated by them. The claim is outrageous, actually, but the M2C intellectuals have to persuade people to accept it or the entire M2C edifice will collapse.

Look at footnote 1:

See Mark Alan Wright, Joseph Smith and Native American Artifacts,” in Approaching Antiquity: Joseph and the Ancient World, edited by Lincoln H. Blumell, Matthew J. Grey, and Andrew H. Hedges (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2015), 119–140.

I think the no-wise citation here is wishful thinking more than an accurate summary of Brother Wright's article. Brother Wright is a great guy and a careful scholar, but he has also said he "can't unsee" Mesoamerica when he reads the Book of Mormon. He's "all-in" when it comes to M2C. Yet I don't think he makes the claim that Joseph made speculative claims.

You can click on the link to read his article. He cites the Zelph incident, which those present specifically described as a revelation, not as speculation. He discusses the "ruins at Adam-Ondi-Ahman" and claims a statement not clearly attributable to Joseph was speculative. Next he discusses the anonymous articles in the 1842 Times and Seasons, which M2C advocates attribute to Joseph (an obvious misreading of history, not supported by any historical facts). Finally, he discusses the Kinderhook plates.

But notice, at no point does Brother Wright discuss the Hill Cumorah in New York, either Letter VII and its multiple reproductions, nor the statements of Joseph's contemporaries on that subject.

Nevertheless, no-wise #493 wants you to believe Joseph and Oliver were merely speculating about the New York Cumorah, and thereby misled their contemporaries and successors as leaders of the Church. 

That's what happens when intellectuals think they know more than the prophets.

If you read or listen to No-wise #493, you quickly realize the No-wise is only telling one side of the story. It's true that each of these artifacts has critics who claim the artifacts are fake. But there are also others, LDS and non-LDS, who accept some of these artifacts as authentic, also based on evidence.

I'm not going to revisit the debates over these artifacts because, as I said, I think the artifacts are irrelevant distractions. You can find all the arguments on the Internet if you want. But I'll relate an experience I had that influences my approach.

Years ago, I spent a couple of weeks in Lebanon with an archaeologist, visiting sites throughout the country for a documentary I was filming. At one site, we purchased some "ancient" Roman coins. The archaeologist told me that usually these are fakes, but the vendors can't tell the difference so sometimes they sell authentic coins as well, because people dig them up all over the place. She examined the coins and picked out some likely candidates. I bought a handful that she recommended. I tested one of them and found it was fake. Maybe they're all fakes (I should get them all tested some day), but according to sources I've consulted, some appear to be authentic.

The point is, the fakes appear real because they are copied from real artifacts. They match photos of real coins. They're well worn. It's the material composition that distinguishes between fake and real coins.

A guy making fake coins who used an image of the Queen of England instead of Caesar wouldn't be able to sell his fakes. There is no incentive to create such an obvious fake.

Consequently, I'm skeptical when people claim someone created an obvious fake that is not copied from a real artifact.

When you read the analysis of the experts on both sides, the arguments boil down to what "should" or "should not" be present, such as an error in the Hebrew characters. Those arguments are unpersuasive to me because they are conjectural.

As to specifics, there is good evidence that the Michigan tablets, at least most of them, are fakes. I accept that evidence, but I also realize not all the artifacts have been tested, and many have been destroyed. But it does not seem impossible to me that there were authentic tablets that Soper and Savage copied.

The evidence regarding the Newark Holy Stones is equivocal enough to justify confirmation bias on all sides. Same with the Bat Creek Stone. I suspect the same is true of the other artifacts, but I don't care about them enough to investigate further. As I said, it doesn't matter to me whether they are authentic or fake because they are irrelevant.

No-wise #493 follows the typical pattern we see in most of what Book of Mormon Central Censor publishes. In their effort so persuade people that the Book of Mormon is a Mesoamerican codex, they censor information that contradicts M2C, they repudiate the teachings of the prophets, and they apply inconsistent standards as they apply science, all while applying sophistry to confuse readers.

These tactics, in my opinion, reveal the paucity of actual evidence to support M2C.

When I unseal the indictment of M2C in January, this will all become much clearer.
*Yes, I know Mesoamerica is technically part of North America, but M2C means a limited geography in Mesoamerica that excludes anything north of Mexico, especially the new York Cumorah. For purposes of this discussion, North America means the current U.S. and Canada, while Mesoamerica means southern Mexico and parts of Central America.

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