Not Merely an Ancient Book
Professor of Ancient Studies, Brigham
Acceptance of the Book of Mormon is a spiritual, not an academic, matter. It is, of course, interesting to look into whatever materials are available from the past, such as documents and archaeological artifacts, to enhance one's understanding of the Book of Mormon, but such things cannot be an adequate substitute for a spiritual witness from God concerning the divine origin and message of the book. This observation is elementary to anyone who compares the limited and changing nature of scholarly activity with the infinite and eternal perspective of God that is transmitted when one is taught by the Holy Ghost.
Many years ago, when I was serving as a young missionary and had just been assigned to a particular city in Alberta, Canada, my companion took me to the home of an elderly member who was a constant source of referrals for future missionary visits. As I became acquainted with that plainspoken and strong-willed sister, I learned that she was a convert to the Church of some twenty years. In response to my request to learn some details of her conversion experience, she related her first encounter with two young missionaries from a church with which she was totally unacquainted. She accepted a book from them, even though she knew nothing of its contents. Not long afterward, driven by curiosity to know more of the young men and the book they had given her, she opened the book to the first page of the text, which all readers of the Book of Mormon know contains a title, an italicized paragraph of summary material relating to 1 Nephi, and only four and a half verses of the text. It was an unforgettable experience for me to hear her declare that before she had turned that page with its limited amount of textual material, she had received a witness from God that the book was true and that it came from him.
From that time her reading was for a new purpose. She no longer wanted or needed to know if the book was true, but she desired and felt it necessary to learn all she could about the book that she then knew to be heavenly in origin and content. Her testimony had nothing to do with a knowledge of ancient history, languages, or literature, nor was it founded upon an analysis of the internal consistency or doctrinal orthodoxy of the text. She had not read enough of the work to know the characters, the plot, or the style of writing. Whatever she subsequently learned of such matters would have been worthwhile and interesting, no doubt, but she would have considered all else incidental and perhaps even superfluous when compared with the spiritual witness she had received from heaven. That witness set the course for her life, and no amount of discussion or dispute over the book would have dissuaded her from remaining faithful to God and his book.
A study of ancient cultures is both rewarding and instructive, not only because one gains increased understanding about human history and experience, but also because one can better appreciate the contexts in which prophets received and recorded revelations. One should not overestimate the value or accuracy of our knowledge of antiquity, however, for sources of information relating to the past were imperfectly recorded, have been very unevenly preserved and rediscovered, and are rarely interpreted with unity and certainty by modern scholars. Evidence that is persuasive to some scholars as establishing a point of view is often seen by others as leading to quite a different conclusion. Every student of the past encounters ongoing disputes over such fundamental questions as the relationship of the Iliad and the Odyssey to historical and archaeological sources, the connection (if any) between Socrates and the material written about him by Plato, Aristophanes, and Xenophon, and the difficulty in determining how and when Christianity was taken into countries and regions not discussed in the book of Acts. Where there is evidence relating to such questions, it is not seen or accepted by all scholars in the same way, and the lack of evidence does not invalidate the question or keep one from guessing at or searching for answers.
When Joseph Smith translated and published the Book of Mormon, most available scholarship relating to the ancient world focused on the Classical civilizations of the Greeks and the Romans. Much of the ancient Near East, including Egypt, the Mesopotamian cultures, the Hittites, and even the Minoans and Mycenaeans, was either virtually unknown or just barely coming to light by the middle of the nineteenth century. Courses on those subjects could not have been taught then, whereas entire departments devoted to them exist in universities at the end of the twentieth century. Even so, contemporary scholars do not teach courses with precisely the same contents or interpretations as those taught a half century earlier, so rapidly do things change. Even in such a hackneyed subject as the Athenian Empire of the fifth century B.C., Russell Meiggs, an acknowledged authority on the subject, could say in 1972: "When I studied Greek history as an undergraduate at Oxford nearly fifty years ago it was reasonable to think that nothing significantly new could be written about the Athenian Empire."1 After chronicling some of the discoveries and advances in the scholarship during the twentieth century relating to that subject, Meiggs presented a magisterial work of more than six hundred pages. In the quarter of a century that has followed, further advances make his work incomplete or obsolete in a number of instances, and it is doubtful that any current Greek historian believes that we have final answers for many questions concerning fifth-century Athenian history.
If continuing discovery and change regularly require new and revised thinking about Classical and ancient Near Eastern cultures, where the history of scholarship is relatively long and where excellent conditions exist for continuing archaeological discovery, one ought not to be hasty in passing final judgment on the place of the Book of Mormon in ancient New World cultures, where the history of scholarship is still in its early and progressing stages, and where conditions for archaeological work (in Central America, at least) are much more difficult than in the Mediterranean basin. That is not to say that connections should not be sought or cannot possibly be made; but one should not be unduly concerned if the book's proper placement in both culture and geography remains the work of some future time. People read the Iliad for centuries before even an insecure relationship to the Mycenaean World, discovered toward the close of the nineteenth century, was proposed in modern times. It is worth repeating that acceptance of the Book of Mormon is a spiritual, not an academic, matter.
Because of my study of ancient history in the Mediterranean world, I have given some consideration to the Book of Mormon's origins in the early sixth century B.C. in the ancient Near East. Despite the changing landscape of scholarship about that region and time period, I am satisfied that the early part of the Book of Mormon is very much at home in that cultural milieu. Others, such as Professor Hugh Nibley and numerous researchers affiliated with the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, have been doing similar (and even more concentrated and detailed) work during recent decades, and they have come to similar conclusions. If there remain areas in which knowledge is lacking or disagreements continue, one needs only to be reminded that information is increasing and consensus does not exist for much pertaining to the ancient Near East at that time. The pervasiveness of Egyptian culture in the Levant and the advent of Greeks into Egypt (by way of both land and sea, most likely) during the seventh century B.C., to give two examples, are both widely acknowledged but imperfectly understood. The first would explain much that is Egyptian in the Book of Mormon (as Nibley and others have observed), and the second would account for Greek names and fundamental issues of so-called Greek pre-Socratic philosophy in the Book of Mormon (which has not yet received any attention). I find such studies interesting and worthwhile within the context of a spiritual testimony that the book is true, but I would not expect that one would base acceptance of the book on such studies.
In a similar context but for a different subject, discoveries of manuscripts and artifacts relating to the ancient church have been very interesting and useful to me in studying the New Testament and the growth of Christianity during the succeeding centuries. It is fascinating to observe the trends of scholarship in the last one hundred years, a time in which a veritable flood of such materials has been recovered. Hundreds of New Testament manuscripts have been found in the last century, bringing the total number to more than five thousand,2 but such discoveries do not appear to have increased faith in the message of the writings. Those who believe in the inspired messages of the Bible, however, find satisfaction in studying the newly recovered writings to enhance their
Likewise, those who have faith in the historical accuracy of the New Testament writings see their faith enhanced by the careful and thorough excavations of many sites in Israel, such as Sepphoris, Caesarea Philippi, and Caesarea (on the coast). There is no indication, however, that the excavation projects have brought skeptics to believe in Jesus or the historical accuracy of the New Testament events relating to those sites. At the same time, non-New Testament texts that suggest a more widespread missionary effort and a less-stringently defined doctrine in the Church than was found later by church fathers have nearly all been rejected from canonical consideration. The reasons presented for calling them apocryphal and pseudepigraphical have more to do with the opinions and definitions of the later church fathers than with historical and archaeological considerations.
Confronted with the mass of both New Testament manuscripts and the growing collection of noncanonical writings, a group of scholars calling themselves the Jesus Seminar, for example, determined to identify the authentic sayings of Jesus in all these sources.3 After years of meetings and deliberations, these critical scholars, basing their decisions on the process of making "empirical, factual evidence—evidence open to confirmation by independent, neutral observers—the controlling factor in historical judgments,"4 concluded that "eighty-two percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels were not actually spoken by him."5 Three sayings of Jesus found in the Gospel of Thomas, a postresurrection text found in Egypt in 1947, were considered authentic by the Jesus Seminar.6
From this example, provided by the more than two hundred voting fellows of the seminar, it is obvious that the evidences of newly discovered manuscripts and archaeological information do not result in increased faith or confidence in the scriptures. For those who have faith and confidence, scholarship can enhance and enlighten, but it can never be an adequate substitute for a spiritual witness from God concerning the truths found among the prophets and their writings. Those truths touch the hearts and minds of people of every age and culture, and they appear to be contemporary to readers of every period.
Most of the ancient writings known as classics that have been preserved and passed on through the centuries are not read as quaint but irrelevant relics from the past. True classics speak to people of every age, regardless of differences in culture or geography. Even though classics are always contemporary in their relevance to human hopes and concerns, some people may wonder how works that reflect concerns and issues of their time could have been written so long ago. Such attitudes reflect a cultural arrogance, based on the mistaken notion that the fundamental needs, interests, beliefs, hopes, and even problems of the people of today are different from those in the great civilizations of the past. The subjects that fill the front pages of daily newspapers or occupy much of the time on news programs—such as wars and threats of wars, religious freedom and persecution, family relations, questions and proposed solutions relating to the size and location of populations, corruption in government, education concerns, limitations on government control in society and private interests, problems in both public and private morality, and numerous others—are all found as the primary focus of one or more ancient writings. Although the works from the past that have survived represent a relatively small percentage of what once existed, they illustrate that we have much more in common with ancient people than is often realized or acknowledged. That is why works that address universal issues, even in different historical
It is not the antiquity of the Book of Mormon but its timelessness that makes it attractive to its readers all over the world today. The age of a work does not alone guarantee its value, for there are some old writings that have survived despite their having little to recommend them. If the Book of Mormon were merely an ancient work, it would command attention only as a relic, an object worthy of respect for its age and venerability. Some critics have pointed to the Book of Mormon's contemporaneity with the nineteenth century as disproving its antiquity, yet it is that very quality of contemporaneity—a quality that could be attributed to many ancient writings—that makes the book not merely a curiosity from the past, but a relevant and compelling work for the present.
Prophets, inspired by the Lord in his eternal perspective, are able to address matters that are of concern to all of God's children. Without that perspective, whether obtained directly through revelation or from keen observation or experience, authors may produce manuscripts that enjoy temporary popularity, but that are read thereafter only by historians and literary critics. That is not the situation with the Book of Mormon. No other major literary work published in the nineteenth century has had such a continuing, and even expanding, influence through the twentieth century. The influence is not only to be measured temporally, but geographically and culturally as well, spreading to peoples of virtually every cultural background and tradition on the earth. Even if one did not accept the divine origin and inspired message of the Book of Mormon, the impact the book has had and continues to have in the world justify giving it a place among the literary classics of human history.
Millions of readers would not be content with simply calling the Book of Mormon a classic, however, any more than they would be with thinking of the Bible as a great literary treasure. Among those who believe that the Bible's greatest worth derives from messages it contains, more than from its literary qualities, there are many who make the same claim on behalf of the Book of Mormon. People who accept these works as scripture given through prophets by inspiration may also study them for their literary qualities and in their ancient settings for historical insights, but they see them as keys to a better understanding of God and his ways, as well as guides for all who wish to return to God's presence. Believers aver that acceptance of the scriptures, including the Book of Mormon, is a spiritual, not an academic, matter.
1. Russell Meiggs, The Athenian Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), vii.
2. Jack Finegan, Encountering New Testament Manuscripts (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), 52.
3. Robert W. Funk, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (New York: Macmillan, 1993), 16–34.
4. Ibid., 34.
5. Ibid., 5.
6. Ibid., 474ff.