Many years ago, Hugh Nibley quoted the esteemed German non-LDS scholar Friedrich Blass, who wrote a book about testing documents to determine if they were genuine or forgeries: “You must begin … by assuming that the author indicated really wrote it.”
In other words, when examining the Book of Mormon, we must begin by assuming that it was really written by ancient authors.
While the critics will immediately cry that such an examination is “bias,” it is equal bias to reject the document from the start. Nibley explains Blass’ reasoning:
“Once you assume that a document is a fake, no arguments and no evidence to the end of time can ever vindicate it, even if it is absolutely genuine (which was pointed out in my earlier installments). Why is that? Because ‘there can be no such thing as an absolutely positive proof.’ The only possible certainty lies in the negative; for example, if we know for sure that a crime has been committed by a woman, the negative fact that a suspect is not a woman completely exonerates him; but on the other hand the fact that one is a woman proves neither guilt nor innocence. Thus, while we can never prove absolutely that the Book of Mormon is what it claims to be, we are justified at the outset in assuming that it is what it claims to be. If one assumes that it is true, its features at least become testable.”
In the earlier days of Book of Mormon studies, most believers made the same mistake that non-believers and critics currently make when examining the Book of Mormon text. They attempted to find the Book of Mormon in the ancient New World. In other words, they looked for clues of an Israelite presence in the artifacts of ancient America, typically assuming that the Nephites would have made a significant impact. The problems with such an approach are:1. History tells us that a small incursion population into a larger population will typically acquire the traits of the host population. In other words, the Nephites and Lamanites would have taken on the characteristics of the surrounding populations. Therefore a search for an Israelite presence could be futile, naive or misdirected.
2. Given the likely assimilation of the Nephites into New World cultures, we could never really be sure what to look for. As readers, we might misinterpret Nephite texts as describing Old World cultural habits, practices or artifacts, when in reality — given the New World context — such descriptions would more likely refer to ancient New World habits, practices or artifacts.
This is not to say that the Nephites didn’t retain any of their Old World cultural heritage and customs, but rather that through the centuries, it is more likely (based on what we know from other societies) that many Nephite customs, practices and even words would have been adapted to assimilate with their cultural surroundings.
The Nephite “reformed Egyptian,” for example, was handed down and “altered” by the Nephites according to the manner of their speech (Mormon 9:32). Even their Hebrew had been altered over time (Mormon 9:33). This is what we generally find when one language is modified or absorbed into another more dominant language. Instead of looking for ancient Hebrew or Egyptian symbols and words, it seems more likely that “reformed Egyptian” would have taken on the characteristics of New World symbols and words.
Some early LDS writers made the mistake of thinking that a 19th or 20th century view of how Book of Mormon people might have lived and behaved should be obvious in the archaeological record of ancient New World cultures. This led to all kinds of claims.
This doesn’t mean we have to rule out the possibility that the Book of Mormon can be found in ancient America, but the methodology is weaker than that employed by a new generation of LDS scholars. As Brant Gardner has often explained, a superior methodology is to look for “Mesoamerica in the Book of Mormon.” Gardner’s six-volume set, "Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon," is currently the best published material that encapsulates this more rigorous approach.
As Gardner explains, the second approach is superior because it examines the “text for evidence that the Mesoamerican cultures, concerns and developmental trends are reflected in the Book of Mormon text” (1:4).
This approach not only affords some interesting evidences that the Book of Mormon is an ancient New World text, but helps illuminate several Book of Mormon passages in fascinating and exciting ways.
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.