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Book of Mormon/Anachronisms/Basic principles
What is an "anachronism" and how does it relate to the Book of Mormon?Summary: Translated documents (which the Book of Mormon claims to be) have many potential sources of anachronism. When trying to decide if something is a true anachronism, and when making judgments about the Book of Mormon's truth based on an assessment of anachronisms, we must take all these factors into account. Critics rarely do so.
Jump to Subtopic:
- Elder D. Todd Christofferson: "The absence of evidence is not proof. Here’s one small example"
- Question: What is an anachronism, and what should be borne in mind when assessing the Book of Mormon (or any other text) for supposed "anachronisms"?
Elder D. Todd Christofferson: "The absence of evidence is not proof. Here’s one small example"
Elder D. Todd Christofferson, "The Prophet Joseph Smith", Devotional Address, BYU Idaho, September 24, 2013:
The absence of evidence is not proof. Here’s one small example. Matthew Roper, in a FairMormon Blog on June 17, 2013, writes about a criticism that was repeated many times over the years about the mention of steel in the Book of Mormon. In 1884, one critic wrote, “Laban’s sword was steel, when it is a notorious fact that the Israelites knew nothing of steel for hundreds of years afterwards. Who, but as ignorant a person as Rigdon, would have perpetuated all these blunders.” More recently Thomas O’Dey, in 1957, stated, “Every commentator on the Book of Mormon has pointed out the many cultural and historical anachronisms, such as steel. A steel sword of Laban in 600 B.C.”
We had no answer to these critics at the time, but, as often happens in these matters, new discoveries in later years shed new light. Roper reports, “it is increasingly apparent that the practice of hardening iron through deliberate carburization, quenching and tempering was well known to the ancient world from which Nephi came “It seems evident” notes one recent authority, “that by the beginning of the tenth century B.C. blacksmiths were intentionally steeling iron.” In 1987, the Ensign reported that archaeologists had unearthed a long steel sword near Jericho dating back to the late 7th century B.C., probably to the reign of King Josiah, who died shortly before Lehi began to prophesy. This sword is now on display at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum, and the museum’s explanatory sign reads in part, “the sword is made of iron hardened into steel.” 
Question: What is an anachronism, and what should be borne in mind when assessing the Book of Mormon (or any other text) for supposed "anachronisms"?
An "anachronism" is an element in a text that is "out of time." That is, it does not match the time and place of the text's claimed production.
For example, if Sherman tanks appeared in a supposed account of the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, the tanks would be "anachronistic." They don't belong. Critics of the church point to a variety of items in the Book of Mormon that they claim are anachronistic. 
Three Possibilities for Why Anachronisms Present Themselves
Anachronisms may appear in an authentic text for at least three reasons:
- The objects or facts have not yet been discovered given the current state of historical understanding and/or archaeological sciences;
- The original authors using terms in a novel way that we do not expect;
- If the text is a translated text, anachronisms can appear because of the translator's choices.
All three possibilities must be ruled out before an anachronism can be used to "disprove" the Book of Mormon or any other translated document.
Let's take these possibilities individually and unpack them some more.
Objects or Facts Not Yet Discovered
There are a number of things to keep in mind as one evaluates a claimed anachronism about how to test it archaeologically. These include the limitations of archaeology for a given geography theory for the Book of Mormon but can be applied to other texts as well. These principles are expectations held by other archaeologists and ancient historians when evaluating anachronisms.
How do we know to what extant something was used in a historical society?
One question of concern to scholars is what the known collection of faunal remains reveals in terms of what once existed. This record of past life is of immeasurable value to our knowledge, but it is also incomplete and we often encounter a discrepancy between historical accounts and the archaeological record. William Hamblin and others have observed, for example, that the Huns of central Asia and eastern Europe reportedly had hundreds of thousands of horses, yet remains of these horses are exceptionally rare given what we would expect. “The presence of horses among the Huns is not at issue,” explains Lindner. “The crux of the problem is the presence of large numbers of horses, numbers suitable for sustaining a nomadic life and ensuring the mobility, speed and range of a nomadic horde.”  Obviously, few Hun horse remains that could be identified by archaeologists were preserved. While the Book of Mormon mentions horses, nothing in the text indicates that their importance approached anywhere near that of horses in Hun society. So, given the rarity of Hun horse remains, we should not be disturbed if so far we do not have incontrovertible evidence of Nephite horses.
It is important to keep preservative conditions in mind when evaluating supposed anachronisms in the Book of Mormon. Depending on where sets the Book of Mormon, preservative conditions change. For example, many scholars believe that the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica. If we are to assess an anachronism within its confines, then it should be kept in mind that Mesoamerica has very damp and acidic soil and many areas have a hot and humid climate. If we are looking for, say, silk as archaeologists, it will be incredibly difficult to find and document since silk is such a delicate textile that would not survive after 1000+ years. If we are to find any remains of any supposed anachronism within the cultural region, we would seriously consider that this existed more ubiquitously. Any remains of anything would have to be found in areas where preservation could be easier for the remains, such as caves where the soil is better preserved from the harsh soil, the heat and humidity, rain, and excessive human contact. This is true even with items such as iron or steel in the Book of Mormon.
As Dr. Wade E. Miller writes:
"Then, as now, the vast majority of bones left after death would disintegrate upon exposure to the elements, turning to dust, Additionally, there were times when extensive famine-causing droughts came upon both the Jaredites and Nephites. Great numbers of animals would have died along with the people (Ether 9:30-34; 11:7). Although famines also took place among the Nephites and Lamanites, the effects on the animals is not noted (Alma 62:35; Helaman 11:4). Even so, these famines must have seriously reduced animal populations. Could these famines have caused any extinctions, at least locally? Possibly they might have done this. It should be indicated here that droughts do occur in semi-tropical regions, such as those postulated for at least some of the lands in which the Jaredites and Nephites lived. It has been state that, . . . "Classical Maya civilization collapsed as a result of a drought in Mesoamerica extending throughout the 9th Century A.D." (Gill, 2000, p.4).
When organisms die in this type of environment, they quickly decompose and disintegrate. The many mountainous areas of Mesoamerica are also not conducive to preservation. Here, shortly after death skeletons of organisms are washed away, being broken up in the process, until no recognizable parts remain. There are some exceptions to having conditions so unfavorable for the preservation of past life in this region, one is the presence of a number of caves. As indicated below, caves have provides some interesting finds. Another situation where past life can escape complete destruction, is when the hard parts of an animal are quickly buried, such as in the sediments of an ocean, a lake or flood plain."
Another circumstance that would have led to a paucity of animal evidence being available to us now, relates to the climatic conditions under which they probably lived. This is a critical factor. Assuming that both Jaredites and Nephites lived in what now constitutes part of Mesoamerica, climatic conditions would have been unfavorable for preserving evidences of life. Most of this region during the time they lived there, like now, was in a tropical to subtropical belt.
In a similar vein non-LDS scholars Elizabeth J. Reitz and Elizabeth S. Wing observed:
The remains of all animals used by people living at the site will not be recovered from the site, because either their remains were discarded beyond the excavated portion of the site or their remains did not survive deposition
Jacques Soustelle, an authority on the Olmec of southern Mexico, whose culture once thrived more than three thousand years ago, thinks it probable that the Olmec domesticated dogs, turkeys, and other animals, “but the destruction of any sort of bone remains, both human and animal, by the dampness and the acidity of the soil keeps us from being certain of this.”
Archaeologist Michael Coe lamented, “We never did find an Olmec burial at San Lorenzo. Given the terrible conditions of bone preservation in the acid soils of the Olmec heartland, it is likely that surviving skeletons would have been few and far between,” though he was unsure if this was due to the destruction of human remains at the site or their deposition elsewhere
Simon Davis writes:
A long chain of events occurs between the original collection and slaughter of animals in antiquity, their incorporation within an archaeological site, their ending up on the faunal analyst’s workbench, and their final publication. One sometimes wonders whether there is any similarity between a published bone report and the animals exploited by ancient humans. In an ideal situation the data and conclusions contained in the final faunal report would reveal something about the original population of animals exploited by man. Sadly, this is rare.
As Matthew Roper and Wade Miller wrote:
As discussed above, species on their way to extinction continue to live on, but in greatly reduced numbers, beyond their last recorded date of existence. The problem is finding specimens from immediately prior to their extinction. This is a serious problem because at times when fewer and fewer animals of a given species were alive, their remains become ever more difficult to find. At the same time, the area(s) where they still survived would almost always become more restricted. And if these areas were in highlands, the problem is exacerbated. Highland (mountainous) areas undergo erosion, decreasing the chance of remains being preserved in them. Mesoamerica consists of many highland areas. Additionally, this area is mostly humid, especially in its southern extent, with subtropical to tropical conditions. In areas such as this, animal and plant remains quickly decompose and are destroyed without leaving a trace. Even if an organism is buried before it decomposes, the commonly acidic soils continue the rapid process of decomposition. Also, with the generally abundant vegetation in such a region, very limited areas of exposed ground exist where bones or teeth might be observed. Because of this combination of factors, a significant record of past life in Mesoamerica would be very difficult to uncover. As archaeologists as well as paleontologists have discovered, most animal remains are not preserved and are lost for all time 
If anyone is to find anything in an environment that isn't suitable for preservation, scientific consensus would dramatically change. For example, twenty-five years ago, archaeologists announced the discovery of woolly mammoth remains on Wrangle Island in the Siberian arctic dated as late as 2000 BC. “Hardly anyone has doubted that mammoths had become extinct everywhere by around 9,500 years before present,” noted these archaeologists in one report. These new discoveries “force this view to be revised"
The situation changes depending on the material/animal being searched for. Certain materials are more susceptible to rapid decomposition than others.
Bones including teeth and shells
Mark Kibblewhite, Gergely Toth, and Tamas Hermann observed:
Human and animal bones and teeth are made of hydroxyapatite (CaCO3) and smaller amounts of protein (collagen) fibres. Bones that still retain collagen have some elasticity but become more brittle with age as collagen degrades. The circumstances of burial and the immediate post-burial environment influence the longer-term fate of buried bones (Baxter, 2004, Jans et al., 2004). Relevant factors are the burial location, depth and any containment. In the early phases of bone burial, biological action affects the ageing process which may continue for decades. Colonisation is initially dominated by bacteria followed by fungi (Child, 1995, Jans, 2008). Biological degradation continues until nitrogen (N) derived from collagen is exhausted; in parallel and subsequently, physical degradation and chemical alteration and degradation occur. The solubility of hydroxyapatite rises with increasing acidity and the survival of bone and teeth correlates with the pH of soil and groundwater. Dissolution of bone results in a lower density material with more and larger pores and this progressively increases the bone area being actively dissolved and the rate of degradation. Alongside dissolution, ions in the soil solution can be incorporated into new minerals. Avian and mollusc shells are formed from calcite (CaCO3) which dissolves more readily in moist acid conditions than hydroxyapatite in bones and their fate is similar but accelerated compared to bone and teeth.The dry conditions present in soils in arid and semi-arid regions preserve bones and teeth and shells. Bones and teeth and shells are preserved better in alkaline soil, while their degradation and eventual destruction are quite rapid where the soil water is acidic and unsaturated, as in acid soils that are wet and free draining and formed on sands and acidic parent material in higher precipitation zones. Bones, teeth and shells are preserved better in soils that are permanently waterlogged by stagnant alkaline groundwater, as occurs in some lowland peat soils. Static pressures and surface loading to the soil e.g., during cultivation and by vehicles (Dain-Owens et al., 2013) may cause physical damage to buried bone material as may soil movement resulting from wetting and drying cycles in soils that contain expansive clay minerals.
Even with unfavorable preservative conditions, we still have evidences for such species in the Americas.
Organic materials including Plant Material
The same authors observe about plant material:
Organic materials buried in soil include plant material (e.g., wood, fibres, fruits, seeds, and pollen), fungal spores, insects and their larvae, parasite eggs and the remains of animals and humans (e.g., skin, soft tissues). Immediately following their burial, organic materials may be recovered or at least disturbed by soil fauna, ranging from macrofauna including burrowing rodents to arthropods and their larvae. Subsequently, the main degradation process for organic material is biological oxidation by the soil ecosystem and this usually leads to its complete destruction where aerobic and moist soil conditions prevail, whereas soil conditions that are anaerobic are preserving, although not completely (Bjordal et al., 1999, Douterelo et al., 2010). In very dry soils microbial activity is restricted and this preserves organic materials. The least preserving hydrological conditions are expected to be those where soil is seasonally wet but dries in summer as this cycling of soil moisture levels encourages ‘flushes’ of more intense microbial activity as the soil wets up. Any activity that disturbs the soil and re-distributes and releases soil organic matter, including tillage, is also likely to accelerate aerobic degradation. The rate of biological degradation of organic materials in soil is affected by their molecular structure because this determines the net energetic gain to the soil ecosystem of using one organic material as an energy substrate compared to another. Starch and other polysaccharides yield a higher net energy than more intractable components; for example, cellulose is utilised preferentially over lignin and other poly-phenols present in wood. Acidity influences the soil ecology and the ratio of fungal to bacterial population sizes increases as pH decreases while rates of organic matter degradation are generally reduced by increasing soil acidity. Where the soil solution is high in dissolved organic matter this can react with buried organic material and this process may confer resistance to biological degradation, as in the natural ‘tanning’ process that occurs when skin and soft tissues are deposited in waterlogged peat. Organic material may also be protected by absorption and occlusion in the soil matrix and this is more likely in fine textured clay soils than coarse sandy ones. Nutrient levels may affect the survival of organic materials; for example where intensive agriculture introduces higher levels of nutrients releasing microbial activity that has been limited by nutrient availability.
Even with unfavorable preservative conditions in Mesoamerica, we still have remarkable evidence for the presence of such fibers.
The authors observe the following about metals:
The degree of preservation of metals in soil is specific to the type of metal. Au objects are resistant to corrosion and indefinitely preserved in the buried environment, although more fragile ones may be damaged by static and dynamic pressures. Ag [silver] is less resistant to corrosion than Au [gold] but more so than Cu [copper] while Zn [zinc] corrodes still faster. Cu artefacts may contain As [arsenic] and this element is also commonly a minor constituent of bronze (an alloy of Cu and Sn [tin] which is more resistant to corrosion than pure Cu). Fe [iron] is much more easily corroded than Cu, while Pb [lead] is resistant to corrosion in most ambient aqueous environments. Al [aluminum] forms a protective surface oxide coating that gives it some resistance to oxidative corrosion.
The soil factors that affect the survival of buried metal objects have been studied (Tylecote, 1979, Johnson and Francis, 1980, Gerwin and Baumhauer, 2000, Nord et al., 2005, Neff et al., 2006, Réguer et al., 2007). In an aerobic [an environment with lots of bacteria], oxygenated, aqueous environment, oxidation of metal and resulting corrosion is favoured thermodynamically and becomes more so with increasing acidity. The presence of chloride increases the rate of oxidation and resulting corrosion, especially of Fe. Depending on the metal type and the solutes present, initial corrosion processes may create a protective layer that slows corrosion further: these layers may include oxides (e.g., Al2O3), phosphates (e.g., FePO4) and carbonates (e.g., CuCO3). Under reducing conditions, biological activity may encourage the formation of sulphides that slow corrosion that is already being inhibited by a lack of free oxygen.Metals are preserved in the dry conditions present in arid climates. In moist climates preservation is worst in free-draining soils that have oxygenated water flowing through the soil profile. In these climates, fine-textured clay soils with permanent or seasonal waterlogging are more preserving than those with coarse sandy textures. Corrosion is slowed in peats and other waterlogged soils that are permanently anaerobic, especially of the groundwater is alkaline. Preservation in alkaline soils formed from calcareous parent materials may be augmented by protective carbonate coatings. The presence of chloride (e.g., in naturally saline soils or from tidal flooding, marine-affected atmospheric deposition, irrigation with saline water or spreading of salt) increases the corrosion rate of Fe. Soil formed mainly by human action can be a strongly corrosive environment where derived from wastes that contain chloride and sulphur. Strongly acidic soils in which corrosion of metals is rapid result when sulphide is oxidised, such when marine sediments are drained.
Of note is the lowest ranking given to Fe (Iron, which can be hardened into steel) for preservation--being among the worst to preserve in these types of climates. It is amazing that we have what we have given these types of conditions.
Dates for extinction aren't hard lines
Though figures vary among researchers, the total number of plant and animal species living today is probably no more than 1 percent of all that ever lived on earth.
As Matthew Roper and Wade Miller have observed about extinction:
What causes organisms (plant and animal) to become extinct? Basically, it is a change in the environment, usually sudden in the geologic sense, to which organisms cannot adjust. These events might be climatic changes, changes in worldwide sea level, volcanic activity, atmospheric changes, bolide impacts, new and more competitive species arriving in the area, or a disease for which the organism has no defense. In recent times, humanity has caused the extinction of many organisms. Such animals include the passenger pigeon, the dodo (a bird), the quagga (a type of zebra), and the Tasmanian “tiger” (or Tasmanian “wolf”). While some Pleistocene extinctions were possibly (or even probably) caused by humans (this is still a hotly debated topic), most extinctions apparently were the result of environmental factors such as those named above. The fact that the mammoth (elephant), horse, and ass were supposed to have been extinct in North America before Book of Mormon time has caused many to doubt, if not disbelieve, the book’s authenticity and divine origin. It is therefore vital to have a clear understanding of when these animals actually became extinct. Obtaining an exact date for the last surviving member of any extinct species would be next to impossible—winning the lottery would be thousands of times more likely. As one team of scientists has recently observed, “The youngest reliably dated macrofossil (usually a bone or tooth) of an extinct species is commonly taken to represent the approximate time of its disappearance. In practice, however, there is a very low probability of discovering fossil remains of the last members of any species, so ages for extinction based on dated macrofossil finds will likely be older than the true ages.” Only a minuscule number of animals that have lived on earth have become fossilized or preserved. And even though an animal might have been abundant in an area in the past, its remains (including fossils) could well go undetected or no longer exist. The fossil record clearly shows that extinction is fact; but extinctions are not limited to the distant past. Numerous extinctions have occurred in modern times as well and are continuing.
Populations of animals (or plants) could have lived for prolonged periods and yet provide little or no evidence of their existence. A classic example of this is the coelacanth. This rare fish can reach lengths over six feet and weigh nearly two hundred pounds. It was once considered to have become extinct over sixty-five million years ago. Then, in 1938, it was found living in the ocean off the coast of eastern Africa. Recently, this fish has also been found in the seas of Indonesia.
[. . .]
Twenty-five years ago, archaeologists announced the discovery of woolly mammoth remains on Wrangle Island in the Siberian arctic dated as late as 2000 BC. “Hardly anyone has doubted that mammoths had become extinct everywhere by around 9,500 years before present,” noted these archaeologists in one report. These new discoveries “force this view to be revised.” On St. Paul’s Island in Alaska, additional remains of the same species have subsequently been found that have been dated to 5,700 years before present, and on the Alaskan mainland, remains were found that date to 7,600 years before present
Given these fairly recent discoveries, it is certainly possible, as one researcher insists, that many important species could well have been allowed (albeit unknowingly) to slip into extinction without ever becoming known to science. And certain “officially” extinct species that may have persisted in small numbers within remote, rarely visited localities could have died out by now Therefore, it is certainly possible for a species to live on a few thousands of years after its last recorded appearance. This undoubtedly has happened in the case of Pleistocene vertebrates, whose last occurrence dates have become more recent in the scientific literature The extinctions of these vertebrates likely took thousands of years and were the result of unfavorable environmental conditions that had developed for certain species. This extinction undoubtedly occurred at the close of the Pleistocene epoch (Ice Age), when much of the world’s climate changed in a relatively short period of time. Climate and environment changes would have caused Pleistocene mammals to move into more restricted areas where they could still survive. As favorable areas continued to shrink and food supplies lessened, the populations of a given species would have also decreased. Finally, a point would be reached where the breeding population would become too small to sustain itself for long. The species would then become extinct. As numbers within a species dwindled over a prolonged period, the number of potential fossils would also diminish, making them increasingly difficult to find and identify. One reason why scientists are discovering extinct animals from more recent dates is that more and more are searching for them. Mammals other than the mammoth and horse in North America now have more recent last-occurrence dates. For example, the mastodon was considered to be extinct at the end of the Pleistocene, about ten thousand years ago. But this presumed last occurrence date had to be revised with more recent finds. The remains of a mastodon, for instance, were discovered in Utah and dated at 7,090 years before the present
State of archaeology
To date, only about 1% of Mesoamerican archaeology has been performed for understanding the Early Pre-Classic through Early Classic Periods (Book of Mormon times). If these items are to be substantially documented, then they will be in areas with good preservative conditions and with a lot more work being done on those lands. Currently, we know so little about this portion of Mesoamerican ethnohistory and have poor enough preservative conditions to not be able to assess these anachronsisms adequately. Thus, we shouldn’t pass judgement too quickly on the historicity of the Book of Mormon.
Original Authors Using Terms in a Way that We Don't Expect
The second possibility is that of "loan-shifting" occuring in the text. What is loan-shifting?
The term "loan-shifting" or "semantic extension" refers to a change in the meaning of an established native word in order to extend the number of things to which it applies
Loan-shifting has occurred throughout history. For example, when the Greeks first encountered a large unfamiliar animal in the Nile, they named it hippopotamus, which in ancient Greek means "river horse.":10 Anyone would agree that a hippo bears little resemblance to a horse, yet the Greeks chose to extend the use of the word "horse" to describe this new creature.
Likewise, when the conquistadors arrived in the New World, reintroducing the horse to the Americas, the natives had problems classifying these new animals. The reintroduced Spanish horse was unfamiliar to the Native Americans and so it became associated with either the deer or the tapir. When Cortes and his horses arrived,, the Aztecs simply called the unfamiliar horses "deer.":10 One Aztec messenger reported to Montezuma:
"Their deer carry them on their backs wherever they wish to go. These deer, our lord, are as tall as the roof of a house."
Some of the Maya called the European horses and donkeys "tapirs" because they looked so similar
Some of the Maya called the European horses and donkeys "tapirs" because, at least according to one observer, they looked so similar.:134
The Spaniards likewise expanded the definition of some of their animal categories. They called the native tapir an "ass."
If we find such loan-shifting in verifiable New World sources when the Native Americans and the Spaniards encountered unfamiliar animals, why do some critics think it is impossible that the Nephites would have acted any differently when they encountered unfamiliar items or had to identify different items with a limited written vocabulary? Perhaps the reformed Egyptian word for "horse" was expanded to include other animals that were in some way horse-like. The most likely animals to have been included in the expanded definition of the Book of Mormon "horse" are the deer and the tapir.
"Loan-shifting" simply means that the idea is plausible
This does not mean that loan-shifting must be the answer in this case. What it does mean, however, is that the idea is plausible, and most who mock it show little evidence that they have understood the argument, or can represent it fairly. They resort, instead, to the logical fallacy of appeal to ridicule.
One of the items which some love to mock is the idea that the "horse" referred to in the Book of Mormon might have actually been another animal, such as a deer or tapir. It is important to remember that the Book of Mormon is not an ancient text--it's a nineteenth-century translation of an ancient text. When we, as modern readers, read texts from ancient or foreign cultures, we need to have an understanding of what the ancient or foreign author was attempting to convey. Some of the things that seem "plain" to us are not so "plain" upon further investigation or once we understand the culture that produced the text.
When dealing with a translated text (such as the Book of Mormon claims to be), evaluating anachronisms can become more complicated since a translator can introduce anachronisms that are not present in the original text.
For example, the King James version of the Bible often speaks about candles. "15 Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel," said Jesus, "but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house" (Matthew 5:15).
The problem is that candles were not used in Palestine in Jesus' day. Light came from oil lamps, not from candles. If we examine the Greek text, we see that this is so--the King James translators chose a term that was appropriate to their time and place. Jesus' meaning remains clear with the King James translation, even though he was speaking of a lamp, not a candle.
It would be a mistake to conclude that the Bible text had been forged because the candles are an anachronism--the text itself did not refer to candles; the translators made that choice, and they introduced the anachronism. We would also be foolish to go looking for candles in the archaeology of Jersualem in the 1st century A.D.. They weren't there. But, whether we can find candle remains in the digs says nothing about whether the Bible is a genuine ancient document, or whether Jesus actually spoke about not hiding a light-giving device.
We can determine that this is so because we have the original Greek texts of the Bible. But, what are we to do when we have a translation, but no original? How can we be certain when an anachronism comes from the translator, and when it comes from the original? We cannot--or at least, not without a great deal of difficulty.
In the case of the Book of Mormon, it becomes especially difficult since we obviously don’t have the plates from which Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon from. In its case, we are required to guess as to what might be behind the translation. Both a loan-shift and translator’s anachronisms may exist in the Book of Mormon. Some may object to this argument by saying that “since every word was provided by God, anachronisms shouldn’t exist”. Yet Joseph’s model of revelation clearly allows such things to exist.
Principles in Practice: Book of Mormon "barley"
This may be more clear if we consider a specific example. The Book of Mormon reports that the Nephites grew "barley" (e.g., Mosiah 7:22). Critics have, on occasion, claimed that barley is an anachronism, because it was not known in the New World prior to Columbus.
When confronted with barley in the Book of Mormon text, there are several possible explanations:
- True barley was known to the Nephites. Archaeological study has simply not (yet) found evidence of barley in the New World. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as the saying goes.
- The Nephites gave an Old World name to a different New World crop. Thus, while the Nephite plate text did read "barley," the item to which the term barley referred is not the same as Old World barley. The Nephites would be, in a sense, "translating" their new cultural surroundings into their Old World language. (This could have been important religiously for items which were impacted by the law of Moses. Animals must be declared either "clean" or "unclean" for use as food--thus, if the Nephites discovered a New World animal, how they decided to label it would have implications for how they saw and used the animal.)
- Joseph Smith translated into terms with which his own culture and time would be familiar. Thus, while the Nephite text named a different grain, Joseph translated the term as "barley." There is, in fact, a true anachronism--but that anachronism was introduced by Joseph Smith, and not the Nephite original. Thus, it is foolish to look for "true barley" in the New World, because the Nephites never claimed that barley was found there--that is an artifact of Joseph's translation.
- Occasionally, some Jaredite terms are translated by Nephite authors. This adds yet another layer of transmission and translation--the Nephites have to translate a Jaredite term into a Nephite term, which Joseph Smith must then render into English. An anachronism can be added at any step.
In the case of barley, any of the these options could be true. Contrary to the critics' claims, domesticated barley has been found in the New World (it was discovered in the 1980s), so #1 is a distinct possibility.
But, options #2 and #3 could also be true (Jaredites do not mention barley, so #4 does not apply). We simply cannot tell which scenario is the correct one when all we have is the translation, and no original text.
We are often accustomed to thinking of #1 as the only option—and this is why critics crow when horses, for example, are not found in the Americas before Columbus. But, this criticism only has weight if #1 is the only viable option--but, that simply isn't true for a translated document.
Furthermore, not every supposed anachronism need have the same explanation. "Barley" could be a proper referent to New World barley, while "wheat" might be an approximation chosen from Joseph's environment. After all, the spiritual message or historical account of the Book of Mormon does not alter whether "wheat" is Old World wheat or another New World food crop. (In the same way, Jesus' message of the Sermon on the Mount doesn't really change much whether he's talking about oil lamps or candles.) The issue of anachronisms is only important because critics want to use anachronisms to "prove" that Joseph Smith fabricated the Book of Mormon. But, that's a very tall order with a translated document--so they hope that we don't realize this.
Much of the debate, then, hinges on how we see the process of Book of Mormon translation—and we know very little about it. Critics have insisted that God would not make an "erroneous" translation—but, that assumes that translation and prophets are inerrant, which the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith both denied. In any case, a perfect translation is an impossibility, even between closely-related languages.
Joseph Smith was also willing to revise the translation somewhat, which suggests that he did not see it as an iron-clad, fixed text that he had no role in creating.
Furthermore, #2 could still happen even if the translation was erroneous--the word is barley, but simply doesn't refer to Old World barley. Joseph could create an anachronism in case #2 by giving us a more literal translation of the text; he could create an anachronism in sense #3 by giving a more accessible translation of the text in cultural terms familiar to his audience. There is no perfect solution--either choice could lead to confusion and could lead to charges by critics that there is an anachronism. But, if any of these options could be true, then it should be obvious that we simply don't have enough evidence to make a determination.
How Specifically Book of Mormon Anachronisms Have Trended Over Time
It is important to note that as knowledge expands, what was once an anachronism turns out to be a legitimate feature of the ancient world. John Clark prepared the charts displayed to the right which demonstrate the trend, over time, to confirmation of the Book of Mormon account.
Matthew Roper presented updated charts at the 2019 FairMormon Conference. He updated the list that Clark first made to include 205 publicly available claims of anachronisms in the Book of Mormon. His research concludes that 141 items have been confirmed, 26 items are trending, and 38 remain yet unconfirmed.
That research was summarized in this video from Saints Unscripted:
While the initial recognition of anachronisms in a text can appear overwhelming at first, they do not have to remain that way if one is willing to adjust their expectations appropriately given what we know about archaeology today as well as the origins of Joseph Smith's scriptural productions.
- Elder D. Todd Christofferson, "The Prophet Joseph Smith", Devotional Address, BYU Idaho, September 24, 2013.
- Such criticisms are put forth by the following critical works or sites: John Dehlin, "Why People Leave the LDS Church," (2008).; MormonThink.com website (as of 4 May 2012). Page: http://mormonthink.com/book-of-mormon-problems.htm
- 37. Sándor Bökönyi, History of Domestic Mammals in Central and Eastern Europe, trans. Lili Halápy (Budapest: Akadémiai Hiadó, 1974), 267; William J. Hamblin, “Basic Methodological Problems with the Anti-Mormon Approach to the Geography and Archaeology of the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2, no. 1 (1993): 194.
- Rudi Paul Lindner, “Nomadism, Horses, and Huns,” Past and Present 92 (August 1981): 13, emphasis added.
- Wade Miller, Science and the Book of Mormon (Laguna Niguel, CA: KCT & Associates, 2010) 11-2; 28-9. As Miller writes: “It should be realized if the Book of Mormon lands were actually in Mesoamerica, that the heat and humidity there would soon have destroyed items of iron and steel.”
- Elizabeth J. Reitz and Elizabeth S. Wing, Zooarchaeology, (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 117-151; Terry O’Conner, The Archaeology of Animal Bones, (Sutton Publ., 2008), 19-28; E. Chaplin, The Study of Animal Bones from Archaeology Sites, (London and New York: Seminal Press, 1971), 14-19.
- Ibid, 28-29.
- Elizabeth J. Reitz and Elizabeth S. Wing, Zooarchaeology, 2d ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 118.
- Jacques Soustelle, The Olmecs: The Oldest Civilization in Mexico, trans. Helen R. Lane (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985).
- Michael D. Coe and Richard A. Diehl, In the Land of the Olmec: Volume 1, The Archaeology of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980), 392.
- Simon J. M. Davis, The Archaeology of Animals (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 23.
- Elizabeth J. Reitz and Elizabeth S. Wing, Zooarchaeology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 117–52; O’Connor, Archaeology of Animal Bones, 19–28; Chaplin Study of Animal Bones, 14–19
- Wade Miller and Matthew Roper "Animals in the Book of Mormon: Challenges and Perspectives" BYU Studies 56:4 (December 2017)
- S. L. Vartanyan, V. E. Garutt, and A. V. Sher, "Holocene Dwarf Mammoths from Wrangle Island in the Siberian Arctic,” Nature 362 (March 25, 1993): 337; Veronica Nystrom and others, “Temporal Genetic Change in the Last Remaining Population of Woolly Mammoth,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (March 31, 2010): 2331–37.
- Kibblewhite et al., "Predicting the preservation of cultural artefacts and buried materials in soil" Science of the Total Environment - 529 249-263 Emphasis added. off-site
- Noted here is the rainy season and dry season of Guatemala. As noted by Dr. John E. Staller: "Highest precipitation occurs along on both coasts flanking either end of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, particularly the Gulf Coast, Veracruz and Tabasco, the Peten region of Guatemala, and Belize. The rainy season occurs from May to October while the dry season is between November and April." off-site
- Mesoamerica has been heavily populated since the earliest of times. See the attached for examples off-site
- Ibid. Emphasis added.
- Robert M. May, John H. Lawton, and Nigel E. Stork, “Assessing Extinction Rates,” in Extinction Rates, ed. John H. Lawton and Robert M. May (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 2.
- James Haile and others, “Ancient DNA Reveals Late Survival of Mammoth and Horse in Interior Alaska,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106 (December 29, 2009): 22352.
- Edwin H. Colbert and Michael Morales, Colbert’s Evolution of the Vertebrates (New York: Wiley-Liss Publishers, 1991), 67.
- S. L. Vartanyan, V. E. Garutt, and A. V. Sher, “Holocene Dwarf Mammoths from Wrangle Island in the Siberian Arctic,” Nature 362 (March 25, 1993): 337; Veronica Nystrom and others, “Temporal Genetic Change in the Last Remaining Population of Woolly Mammoth,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (March 31, 2010): 2331–37.
- Douglas W. Veltre and others, “Patterns of Faunal Extinction and Paleoclimatic Chanage from Mid-Holocene Mammoth and Polar Bear Remains, Pribilof Islands, Alaska,” Quarternary Research 70 (July 2008): 40–50.
- Haile and others, “Ancient DNA Reveals Late Survival,” 22352–57.
- See Karl P. N. Shuker, The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (London: Blandford Publishing, 1993), 11.
- For example, see Jonathan Adams, Species Richness: Patterns in the Diversity of Life (New York: Springer Publications, 2009), 14–15; R. D. E. MacPhee, “Insulae infortunatae: Establishing a Chronolgoy for Late Quaternary Mammal Extinctions in the West Indies,” in American Megafaunal Extinctions at the End of the Pleistocene, ed. Gary Haynes (New York: Springer Publications, 2009), 186; and Samuel T. Turvey, “In the Shadow of the Megafauna: Prehistoric Mammal and Bird Extinctions across the Holocene,” in Holocene Extinctions, ed. Samuel T. Turvey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 19–20.
- Wade E. Miller, “Mammut Americanum, Utah’s First Record of the American Mastodon,” Journal of Paleontology 61 (January 1987): 168–83.
- Written 2018
- Victor Hernandez-Jayme, “2013 Maya Meetings Held at UT: New Temples, Fire Glyphs and Legends,” The Daily Texan, January 22, 2013, online at http://www.dailytexanonline.com/news/2013/01/22/2013-maya-meetings-held-at-ut-new-temples-fire-glyphs-and-legends (accessed October 12, 2018): “‘Truth is, we don’t know squat,’ said George Stuart, director for the Center for Maya Research and keynote speaker for the 2013 Maya Meetings. ‘There’s about 6,000 known Maya sites and we’ve only researched about 5 percent of them.’” Stuart was one of the leading authorities on the archaeology of the Maya before he passed away June 11, 2014. See also Mark Alan Wright, “The Cultural Tapestry of Mesoamerica,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22, no. 2 (2013): 6.
- LiDAR technology has proven the vast amount that we don’t know about the Maya civilization (https://bookofmormoncentral.org/blog/4-ways-the-new-maya-discoveries-may-relate-to-the-book-of-mormon)
- The following text was copied from this article on the FAIR Wiki.
- John A. Tvedtnes, "Review of New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology by Brent Lee Metcalfe," FARMS Review of Books 6/1 (1994): 8–50.
- John A. Tvedtnes, "Review of New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology by Brent Lee Metcalfe," FARMS Review of Books 6/1 (1994): 8–50. off-site
- See http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/amerbegin/contact/text6/mexica_tlaxcala.pdf
- Matthew Roper, "Unanswered Mormon Scholars (Review of Answering Mormon Scholars: A Response to Criticism Raised by Mormon Defenders)," FARMS Review of Books 9/1 (1997): 87–145. [ off-site]
- John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Co. ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1996 ), 293-294.
- John Clark, Wade Ardern, Matthew Roper, "Debating the Foundations of Mormonism: The Book of Mormon and Archaeology," FAIR Conference, 2005.
- This chart has been criticized by some. Important to remember is that this chart was a random sampling taken by John Clark who compiled the list based on things that critics suggested did not exist during Joseph Smith's day. Clark used a careful methodology to determine how confirmed something was. He is one of the top Mesoamericanists working today. He will eventually update the chart when work allows him the time to focus more on the Book of Mormon.
- Matt Roper and Kirk Magleby, "Time Vindicates the Prophet," (presentation, FairMormon Conference 2019, Provo, Utah).