Challenging Issues, Keeping the Faith: Challenging Issues, Keeping the Faith: Naive assumptions about New World Christians

Published: Monday, May 9 2011 3:00 a.m. MDT

 In last week’s issue I explained that even if evidence for an early Christian community in Mesoamerica could be found, that still wouldn’t satisfy most critics or prove that the Book of Mormon is true. The task of finding the evidence of a real ancient community of New World Christians becomes difficult once we understand the complexity and nature of what might be found.

First, it’s important to remember that the Nephites were “Christian” for, at the most, 400 years. Second, the Nephite-Christians were a small group of persecuted believers among a sea of non-Christian believers in the ancient Americas. Some critics have suggested that because the Book of Mormon claims that Christ visited the Americas, there should be an abundance of evidence for this miraculous event.

Such a suggestion, however, is not realistic. Jesus lived his mortal ministry for more than 30 years in the Old World, yet there is not an abundance of evidence outside of the Christian literature. There is some evidence that he lived, and most scholars (even non-Christian scholars) agree that Jesus was a real person. But the non-Christian evidence is not massive.

By the fourth century A.D. in the Americas, most of the Book of Mormon people had already rejected the accounts of their ancestors who claimed that Christ visited the Americas. Within just a handful of generations there seemed to be little non-Christian evidence that Christ had come to the Nephites; why would we think that any evidence would have survived for another millennium and a half?

But, some will argue, in the Old World we have evidence of Christ from Christian relic, writings, artwork and icons. This is very true. Why isn’t this the case for New World archaeology?

As noted over the past few weeks, when examining ancient evidence, archaeologists are working with a very fragmentary record. In general, they find physical evidence, but such evidence in and of itself doesn’t provide much information unless it's placed within a context — a framework by which it can be understood. For instance, if an archaeologist finds a pot (or, more likely, a fragment of a pot), that piece of history provides little evidence concerning the civilization that created or used the pot. Contextual clues — such as other artifacts uncovered near the pot — may provide some help determining the time frame in which the pot was last used, but it certainly doesn’t provide conclusive evidence as to what the civilization, or the individuals in that civilization, were like.

How, exactly, would an archaeologist distinguish a Christian-owned pot from that of a non-Christian? What would a Christian pot look like? What would a Nephite pot look like? If 1,500 years from now archaeologists dug up dishes, tools, appliances and cars (generally the types of things that would survive) from a house in Salt Lake City, how would they know if the owner was LDS?

A few weeks ago I quoted non-LDS post-doctoral fellow Ben Jeffares who explained:

“It is one thing to infer that an animal has been butchered by humans and not dogs, it is quite another to infer an artefact’s religious significance … as archaeologists try to infer facts about past political institutions, and then on to ideologies and religious beliefs, inferences become increasingly difficult and open to question.”

But wouldn’t Nephite-Christians have crosses, pictures of Jesus, or artwork depicting other uniquely Christian teachings? Mesoamerican ethnohistory specialist Brant Gardner answers that question:

“Archaeologists can only reconstruct religion from artifacts and preserved art. Iconography is the study of religious art and symbols of a people. Is there an exclusive Christian iconography? Would Christian iconography in the New World resemble that found in the Old World? The best way to understand the answer to this question is to examine the iconographic history of Israel and early Christianity. Both Israel and early Christianity were very comfortable borrowing and incorporating iconography from their neighbors, even when that iconography was part of their neighbor’s religion ...

"Both early Christians and at least the Hellenistic Jews accepted iconographic elements from surrounding cultures and incorporated them into their own art. Their iconography was not particularly unique; rather, it reflected the area and the time. … Saying that archaeologists cannot find evidence of Christianity in the New World simply demonstrates a simplistic assumption about what ought to be found.”

There are actually some very interesting correlations with some early American iconography and what we find in the Book of Mormon (to be discussed later), but if we approach the problem with preconceived expectations based on naive assumptions, it shouldn’t be any wonder if we don’t find what we are looking for.

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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