The subject of Book of Mormon archaeology is fraught with difficulties for the Mormon apologist. The remarks in the last post illustrate very well some of those problems. If I lift out a few key points from the “compelling argument” I reproduced there you will see what I mean. If you haven’t already perhaps you should glance over what I wrote last time then – read on:
for “scholars” read “Mormon” scholars
The second paragraph of the argument reads:
Archaeological data from the ancient Near East and the Americas have been used both to support and to discredit the Book of Mormon. Many scholars see no support for the Book of Mormon in the archaeological records, since no one has found any inscriptional evidence for, or material remains that can be tied directly to, any of the persons, places, or things mentioned in the book (Smithsonian Institution).
It would be closer to the truth to say:
[Non-Mormon] scholars [without exception] see no support for the Book of Mormon in the archaeological records, [this is because] no one has found any inscriptional evidence for, or material remains that can be tied directly to, any of the persons, places, or things mentioned in the book.
You see what they have done of course. Taken the honest distinction between Mormon and non-Mormon scholars and substituted the dishonest distinction of some scholars who see it this way and some that. This plants the idea that the controversy is simply between scholars and not between Mormon scholars and non-Mormon scholars.
It goes on to state:
Several types of indirect archaeological evidence, however, have been used in support of the Book of Mormon. For example, John L. Sorenson and M. Wells Jakeman tentatively identified the Olmec (2000-600 B.C.) and Late Pre-Classic Maya (300 B.C.-A.D. 250) cultures in Central America with the jaredite and nephite cultures, based on correspondences between periods of cultural development in these areas and the pattern of cultural change in the Book of Mormon.
Two points arise from this paragraph. The first follows from my point above, for it would be closer to the truth to state:
Several types of indirect archaeological evidence, however, have been used [although speculatively and only by Mormon scholars] in support of the Book of Mormon. For example, John L. Sorenson and M. Wells Jakeman [both Mormon scholars] tentatively identified the Olmec (2000-600 B.C.) and Late Pre-Classic Maya (300 B.C.-A.D. 250) cultures in Central America with the jaredite and nephite cultures, based on correspondences between periods of cultural development in these areas and the pattern of cultural change in the Book of Mormon.
My second point is obvious when you think about it, which is that correspondences are not evidence of a relationship. A classic example is the once much-vaunted account of pyramids in Central and South America. Many who have spoken to Mormons will have been told of the curious correspondence between pyramids in the Old World and pyramids in the New World.
The implication has always been that it is evidence of culture and technology travelling via means accounted for in the Book of Mormon. The truth is that pyramid structures are found in many parts of the world along a parallel just north and south of the equator. This is accounted for by the fact that people here embraced sun worship (for obvious reasons) and built structures to get closer to the object of their worship.
Without mortar the most efficient structure for reaching the greatest height was the pyramid. Wherever in the world these people were they worked this out for themselves and built accordingly. If they can do it with the pyramid then they can do it with all kinds of inventions, and the following paragraph in the “compelling argument” admits as much, speaking of "independent inventions".
Likewise, parallels between cultural traits of the ancient Near East and Mesoamerica perhaps indicate transoceanic contacts between the two regions. Among these are such minor secondary traits as horned incense burners, models of house types, wheel-made pottery, cement, the true arch, and the use of stone boxes. All of these may, however, represent independent inventions.
Tree of life
The next paragraph answers its own point:
Stronger evidence for contacts may be found in the tree of life motif, a common religious theme, on Stela 5 from Izapa in Chiapas, Mexico. Jakeman, in 1959, studied Stela 5 in detail and concluded that it represented the sons of a legendary ancestral couple absorbing and perhaps recording their knowledge of a munificent Tree of Life. This can be compared favorably to the account of Lehi's vision in the Book of Mormon (1 Ne. 8).
Of course, the Tree of Life is a popular motif in Mormon theology. But note the key phrase in the opening words:
"A common religious theme"
Like the pyramids, the tree of life can be found in many cultures and a significant connection could be seen by those who want to see it with any representation of this motif anywhere in the world. The only thing this discovery proves is that the tree of life is a common motif.
Note the careful wording in the following paragraph:
The presence of a bearded white deity, Quetzalcoatl or Kukulcan, in the pantheon of the Aztec, Toltec, and Maya has also been advanced as indirect evidence of Christ's visit to the New World. The deity is represented as a feathered serpent, and elements of his worship may have similarities to those associated with Christ's Atonement.
Note the tentative "advanced as indirect evidence" and "elements of his worship may have similarities". This is typical of this kind of non-reasoning. Evidence is always “indirect”, “tentative”, “suggested”, maybe, could be, might be, should be, ought to be, etc. but no evidence.
a word of Caution
Finally, I would draw your attention to the attempt to give the impression of scholarly substance and gravitas to this whole subject in the following paragraphs:
“Recent work by LDS professional archaeologists such as Ray Matheny at El Mirador and by the New World Archaeological Foundation in Chiapas has been directed toward an understanding of the factors that led to the development of complex societies in Mesoamerica in general. Under C. Wilfred Griggs, a team of Brigham Young University scholars has sponsored excavations in Egypt, and other LDS archaeologists have been involved in projects in Israel and Jordan.
Another area of archaeological investigation is in LDS history. Dale Berge's excavations at Nauvoo; the Whitmer farm in New York; the early Mormon settlement of Goshen (Utah); the Utah mining town of Mercur; and, most recently, Camp Floyd, the headquarters of Johnston's army in Utah, have provided information about the economic and social interactions between early Mormon and non-Mormon communities.”
the sleight of hand
Two things need highlighting here. The first is to reiterate that all the scholarship alluded to is Mormon. The names named are Mormon, the grand sounding New World Archaeological Foundation is Mormon, the prestigious seat of learning, BYU, is Mormon, the excavations are exclusively Mormon in motivation, in execution, and in the final assessment of whatever is uncovered.
One might be forgiven for suspecting that Mormons are finding what they are looking for, and not simply discovering what is there. Now no one wants to deprive Mormons of their scholars. However, for this type of scholarship to have weight and due influence it must be recognised outside the circle of those with a vested interest in furthering a faith position. This scholarship is not so recognised.
The second point is that the introduction of the subject of more recent Mormon history might be seen as prejudicing the evidence by introducing unrelated but more credible research. The “compelling argument” is originally introduced as a piece on Biblical and Mesoamerican archaeological research, and gives the impression of ancient discovery, but ends with an account of how knowledge of early Mormon pioneer history is being confirmed by archaeology.
Adding an exciting piece of news about early Mormon history has the effect of making people look at what is historically more solid ground, i.e. pioneer archaeology, and draw a direct comparison, concluding that the same degree of reliability can be expected of early Mormon/Mesoamerican archaeological research. This is certainly not the case, and we must be careful how we read these things.
So, now you know how credibility can be conjured from thin air, how reputations can be built on sand, fame fed by no more than people’s trusting faith, and a whole industry grow up around a set of gold plates no one has seen, giving a history no one can establish about a people no one can find in a land even Mormons cannot reliably identify.
Maybe you will still want to book your day at the Book of Mormon Lands Conference but, if you do, maybe you will want to prepare some more probing questions than you at first thought were needed. And if you see a shiny-faced, wide-eyed, True-Believing-Mormon sitting next to you filling in the form and writing out the cheque for the next Book of Mormon Lands Tour, well, perhaps you should do the Christian thing and have a “word to the wise”; if you know what I mean.