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Accusatory Questions

Don't Mormon apologists rely on such big "loopholes" for the Book of Mormon that no evidence could possibly invalidate it, even if it were a fraudulent book?

by Jeff Lindsay

Here is the actual question I received recently from an intelligent and tactful correspondent:

I've noticed ...that LDS defend the Book of Mormon in such a way that it's apparently logically impossible for it to fall. More explicitly, there are two big loopholes that are big enough to (literally) drive horses through (viz, Sorenson, "An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon"):
1. "It's a translation problem."
2. "Nephites and Lamanites weren't the only people there."

... [T]he more I think about it the more I'm convinced that it would be hard to invalidate any story using the "quest for ancient parallels" that is currently used among pro-LDS apologists. Do you disagree? What would a "disproof" of an alleged ancient work look like?

This is an insightful question, but the "loopholes' aren't as big as you think. With the Book of Mormon, the proper intellectual (not spiritual) issue is plausibility. There are abundant details of ancient customs, journeys, battles, and terrain which we can compare to modern knowledge of Book of Mormon times and places to determine if there is any evidence of plausibility. Can the hills, rivers, plains, mountains, etc., be plausibly linked to any real place on the globe? The answer is yes, as John Sorenson shows with great thoroughness - and that is genuinely remarkable on its own. (Try writing an ancient history of Tasmania, for example, without the aid of a map - while providing numerous small details that could be even remotely plausible to later readers armed with Tasmanian maps.) Further, that place - Mesoamerica - offers the only setting in the hemisphere where cultural details in the Book also find plausibility in the ancient world (the existence of a tradition of written language in the area, for example). Over and over we find the situations described to be entirely plausible: ancient coronation ceremonies, patterns of covenants and treaties, language structures, transoceanic voyages, seasonal patterns in warfare, etc. Do we find elements that are indisputably anachronistic? Many have been alleged, but in virtually every case, good grounds for plausibility can be established. Problems of ignorance and inadequate evidence are real, but are not evidence per se against the text.

But that is not to say that anything can be justified or that there are no grounds possible to reject the Book. Take Nephi's journey through the Arabian peninsula. If his description of the journey could not be plausibly accounted for in terms of Arabian geography with any reasonable interpretation of the text, then we could question the authenticity of the account. In fact, many have done so, for Nephi describes a journey through what all the world knows is just barren dessert - surely no one could survive - with the crowning blunder of arriving at the coastal place called Bountiful, a lush, green place complete with trees, fruit, water, a mountain, ore, flint, etc. All that in the Arabian peninsula? Surely no such place could possibly exist, the critics charge, and thus the Book is false. This is a clearcut issue. We can't escape by arguing about other peoples or translation problems or gross uncertainty of location, for Nephi gives some very precise directions. (He said he went south-southeast from Jerusalem, along the coasts of the Red Sea, came to a burial place called Nahom, then went nearly due east until he arrived at Bountiful on the coast.) The question becomes critical: is Nephi's account plausible? Is there any place in the Arabian peninsula that fits the description of Bountiful? Is it possible to follow Nephi's directions and establish a route that corresponds with the details he gives? If there is absolutely no such place, then the Book of Mormon is a fraud. To establish that there is no such place, it is not enough to rely on general knowledge. We would need to look at topographical maps or satellite maps or actually fly over the eastern coast or Arabia to ensure that there were no lush, green places that came anywhere close to Nephi's description. If none were found, we should also examine evidence of climatic change to rule out the unlikely possibility that the coast may have had lush green spots in the past. We should also see if a south-southeast journey followed by a due east turn would only result in suicidal wanderings through the Empty Quarter in all possible scenarios. If careful examination of the text and the geography and climate of the Arabian Peninsula left absolutely no room for plausibility, then the case could well be closed. Intellectual testimonies of the Book of Mormon would be on a sandy foundation (though we could argue that human knowledge is always limited, tentative, etc. - as some find themselves doing in defending the Genesis account of Creation in the face of opposing mainstream scientific opinion).

On the other hand, if everything about Nephi's journey could be shown to be plausible, based on new information that was completely unavailable to Joseph Smith, then the Book would not necessarily be true - but at least part of it could be plausible. For example, what if modern research had shown that there really was a place on the coast that met every detail of Nephi's description of Bountiful? What if that place were almost exactly due east of an ancient burial place called Nahom, with Nahom being south-south east of Jerusalem, as described, and what if the pathways between those places were established or plausible routes for travel that bypassed the Empty Quarter and had adequate water and game to support a journey? And what if all of these details of the Arabian Peninsula were completely unknown to the Western World in Joseph Smith's day? Then we'd have something interesting, something that ought to give pause to those who immediately dismiss the book as a fraud, although we still could not say that we had proven the Book was true. Maybe it was all just a wildly lucky guess. Maybe aliens in time machines provided Joseph with that information. But we could honestly state that there were grounds for plausibility - the best we can hope for in dealing with the Book in purely intellectual terms.

Do entirely plausible candidates for Bountiful and Nahom exist? They sure do. It's quite exciting, really. Every detail is plausible. In fact, an ancient burial site in the proper, plausible location even carries essentially the same name - Nehem. Wadi Sayq on the eastern coast, due east of Nahom/Nehem, looks like an overwhelmingly plausible candidate for Bountiful. I discuss a few of these details - not all - on my Book of Mormon Evidences page. (I've pointed out the Bountiful/Nahom issue to critics many times - and have yet to receive even an attempt at a plausible explanation for how the details in the Arabian Peninsula could be so accurate if the Book of Mormon were all a fraud. So far, they always change the topic. But I can't blame them. And I suppose until they travel to Yemen and Oman themselves, the photos and geographical details just won't sink in when they are committed to the notion that the Book of Mormon must be false.)

This exercise can be carried out for other places and events, though the supporting evidence is often less dramatic than in the case of Bountiful and Nahom. For example, does a plausible candidate for the Hill Cumorah or the River Sidon exist. Again, the answer is yes. Is the description of ancient cities with cement plausible? Yes. And what about horses? Is that clearly implausible? No - definitely no. Non-European horse remains have been found in Mayan areas, but there is also a multiply plausible possibility of non-equus animals being given the name "horse" when translated from a Semitic text. It's not just handwaving. Part of the whole exercise is to appreciate what is involved in evaluating an ancient text and its translation.

In case after case, elements in the Book of Mormon that were laughable in Joseph Smith's day are becoming quite plausible as we learn more about geography, language, anthropology, etc. That's just the opposite of what we'd expect if it were a fabrication. Could you fabricate a description of an ancient journey from Bali to Sri Lanka and give cultural, climatic, and geographical that would seem silly to scholars today but would gain increasing plausibility as they learned more about those places in the future? I feel there is a serious responsibility for the learned and the wise people of the world to start asking some hard questions about their refusal to give the Book of Mormon a chance. I extend that challenge to all in the hope that they might read it, think about it, and pray.

(See The Book of Mormon home page; Response to Criticism home page; Accusatory Questions home page)

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