Challenging Issues, Keeping the Faith: Challenging Issues & Keeping the Faith: What archaeology can and can't teach

Published: Monday, May 2 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Occasionally, I read some critic who claims that archaeological evidence contradicts the Book of Mormon or has proven it to be fiction. This is both silly and a classic example of the logical fallacy known as “denying the antecedent.” The problem, of course, is that archaeologists haven’t found everything there is to find from ancient America.

It should be noted that a logical fallacy doesn’t mean that a conclusion is false. Archaeologists haven’t found evidence of ancient New World Alien Wombats, either, but most people wouldn’t argue that they exist despite the lack of archaeological evidence. As noted last week, the strength of the Book of Mormon is in an accumulation of many evidences from various disciplines (just as we find in most areas of science and scholarship).

In some of the previous articles I demonstrated that the tale of the Lehite journey through Arabia fits neatly into what scholarship currently knows about that region of the Old World and how it might have been traversed by a small group who fled Jerusalem in about 600 B.C. In the coming weeks I’ll demonstrate how New World data — from the right time period and general localized areas — support what we read in the Book of Mormon for the New World home of the Nephites.

More frequently critics of the church claim that the Book of Mormon is unsupported by archaeological evidence. This argument potentially has more bite. Based on last week’s discussion, however, the rebuttal to this claim would be: “This isn’t true when you ask the right questions.” The first two questions we should ask are: "What should we expect to find?” and “What archaeological evidence might be considered the minimal irrefutable proof needed to convince a non-believing world?”

Some people have suggested that finding the existence of horses, chariots or steel swords would constitute proof for the Book of Mormon. This is doubtful. Finding such items would merely demonstrate that such things existed in the ancient New World, and while such discoveries would be consistent with the Book of Mormon, they hardly amount to “proof.”

As an example, the Book of Mormon mentions barley which, until recently, was thought not to exist in the ancient Americas. Critics considered barley to be one of the things that “Joseph Smith got wrong.” However, pre-Columbian New World barley has now been verified without people flocking to join the church because of this discovery.A few years ago Dr. John Clark, former director of the New World Archaeological Foundation, compiled a list of 60 items mentioned in the Book of Mormon. The list includes swords, barley, cement, thrones, literacy and more. A dozen years after the Book of Mormon was printed, only eight (or 13.3 percent) of those 60 items had been confirmed by archaeological evidence.

By the turn of the 21st century, however, 45 of those 60 items (or 75 percent) have been confirmed by archaeological evidence. Thirty-five of the list’s items (58 percent) have seen definite confirmation, while 10 items (17 percent) have received tentative confirmation (quoted in "Of Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting the Prophet Joseph Smith," 123). In contrast to what was known about the ancient New World in Joseph Smith’s day, modern archaeology supports the items listed in the Book of Mormon.

It’s possible that nearly all of the items on the list may someday be confirmed by archaeological evidence. It’s also possible, however, that the remaining items may have disappeared forever. Finding those items listed in the Book of Mormon would do nothing to persuade an unbeliever.

For critics, finding such items is too often seen as a “lucky guess” on the part of Joseph Smith. As noted in a previous installment, some critics have even claimed that the discovery of Israelite DNA from the ancient Americas would still not prove the Book of Mormon, and it would simply verify the traditions of some early pilgrims who suspected that Native Americans were descendants of the lost tribes.

Others claim that the discovery of an early New World Christian community would prove the Book of Mormon true. While such evidence would support the Book of Mormon it wouldn’t “prove” it true. It could always be argued that a group of Christian settlers sailed from the New World and brought their Christian paradigm with them.

Some of the early Spaniards, for example, saw what they believed were elements of Christianity in some of the native religions. They theorized that St. Thomas has visited the early Americans and had taught them Christianity.

The biggest problem with both claims (above) is that they demonstrate (as I will continue to show) naïve assumptions about what archaeology can and can’t tell us about the early inhabitants of ancient America.

Michael R. Ash is on the management team for FAIR (the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research FAIRLDS.org) and is the author of "Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One's Testimony In the Face of Criticism and Doubt" (ShakenFaithSyndrome.com) and "Of Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting the Prophet Joseph Smith" (OfFaithandReason.com). Michael's column, "Challenging Issues, Keeping the Faith," appears Mondays on MormonTimes.com.

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