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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"?
- Question: How can a Latter-day Saint reconcile claimed theological anachronisms in the scriptures?
- Question: How can one address accusations of plagiarism made about the scriptures?
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 General Categories of Anachronism that Critics Claim Exist in Scripture
There are basically three broad categories of claimed anachronisms in the scriptures: material anachronisms, theological/intellectual anachronisms, and linguistic/textual anachronisms.
- Material anachronisms: refers to plants, animals, weapons, and other materials that are claimed to not fit the desired historical context.
- Theological/intellectual anachronisms: refers to theological or intellectual ideas that supposedly do not fit a desired historical context. In another article, we have laid out principles and procedures for responding to claims of theological anachronisms.
- Linguistic/textual anachronisms: refers to accusations of plagiarism made against Joseph Smith including the idea that he lifted rhetoric from the New Testament to render his translation of the Book of Mormon. In another article, we have laid out principles and procedures for responding to claims of linguistic anachronisms.
This article will focus on material anachronisms; but we encourage readers to familiarize themselves with the principles and procedures for dealing with accusations of other types of anachronisms laid out in the linked articles.
We have also laid out principles and procedures for dealing with accusations of anachronisms in other books of scripture such as the Book of Abraham.
Difference Between Apparent Anachronism and Actual Anachronism
There is a big difference between an apparent or possible anachronism and an actual anachronism. An apparent anachronism is one that, given current data, seems to exist. An apparent anachronism may or may not be recognized as one that might expire given more data. An actual anachronism is one that all agree exists. It will be agreed that it will not expire given more time and study.
Example of an apparent anachronism; the horse in ancient America. We do not know that there weren’t horses in ancient America during Book of Mormon times and in Book of Mormon lands. But, given more time, we may find horse remains.
Example of an actual anachronism: saying that Abraham Lincoln called his wife Mary Todd on his cellphone. We know that cellphones weren’t invented during the life of Abraham Lincoln. This is an actual anachronism.
As apologists, we obviously believe that all anachronisms either don’t exist or are merely apparent/possible anachronisms.
Anachronisms are important for dating a text. If an actual anachronism exists in a text, then the text could not have been authored until after a time in which that particular thing was introduced to the world. In the Abraham Lincoln example, we could conclude that the sentence was not written nor spoken until after the late 1970s and early 1980s when cellphones were first invented. Our contention, as apologists, is that the anachronisms in the Book of Mormon are only apparent or otherwise do not lead one to conclude, by necessity, that the Book of Mormon can't be ancient because of anachronisms.
Four Possibilities for Why Material Anachronisms Might Present Themselves in the Scriptures
Material anachronisms may appear in an authentic text for four reasons:
- Archaeology: The objects or facts have not yet been discovered given the current state of historical understanding and/or archaeological sciences;
- Loan-shifts: The original authors using terms in a novel way that we do not expect.
- Translator's anachronisms (for translated texts only): If the text is a translated text, anachronisms can appear because of the translator's choices to translate something into language that is familiar to him/her and their audience.
- Non-translated terms: At least in the case of the Book of Mormon, we have terms that appear to have not been translated from their original language and thus cannot be identified with certitude at this time.
All four 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.
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. Non Latter-day Saint taphonomy scholars Mark Kibblewhite, Gergely Toth, and Tamas Hermann have observed that basically any material placed under damp, acidic soil would leave no traces of itself after thousands of years of deposition.
For different evidences of different materials during Book of Mormon times, be sure to see our articles at the link below.
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.
The second possibility is that of "loan-shifting" occurring in the text. What is loan-shifting? It is when a group of people apply the name of animal already familiar to them to an animal that they are not familiar with.
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.
The only two non-translated terms we have in the Book of Mormon are cumoms and cureloms. These animals were apparently familiar to the Jaredites and the terms for them are vestiges of Jaredite language. Joseph Smith and God apparently decided to leave the terms unexplained. A variety of animals have been proposed as possibilities for identifying cureloms and cumoms such as llamas, alpacas, mastodons, or other Pleistocene mammals. Without more information, one cannot count this as a strike against the Book of Mormon. Interestingly, were Joseph Smith fabricating the Book of Mormon, this was an opportunity for him to let his imagination run wild, and yet no descriptions of these strange beasts (which he goes to the trouble to name, in the forgery model of Book of Mormon production) are provided.
With Loan-shifts and Translator's Anachronisms, is God lying?
Many have become uncomfortable with allowing the possibility that loan-shifts or translator's anachronisms have made it into the Book of Mormon text since "God doesn't lie."
It is true that there are a number of scriptures that testify to God's veracity. But God is not the one lying by allowing this to happen. He's merely allowing prophets to speak "in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding" as the Doctrine and Covenants informs us about the nature of revelation. He himself has not made any lie.
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 above which demonstrate the trend, over time, to confirmation of the Book of Mormon account.
Matthew Roper presented updated charts at the 2019 FAIR 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 by Roper was summarized in this accessible, entertaining 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, the nature of revelation, and the origins of Joseph Smith's scriptural productions.
Question: How can a Latter-day Saint reconcile claimed theological anachronisms in the scriptures?
Introduction to Question
Critics of Restoration scripture allege that it contains many theological anachronisms. An anachronism is an item that is considered to be out of place for its claimed historical existence. For example, someone say that Abraham Lincoln called his wife Sally on his cellphone would be an anachronistic statement given that cellphones didn’t exist during Abraham Lincoln’s time.
Theological anachronisms are theological ideas that are thought to be out of place given contemporary intellectual trajectories. For example, critics claim that the Book of Mormon’s anti-universalist rhetoric is merely a product of Joseph Smith’s religious environment and not historical prophets responding to historical groups with their own ideas.
This article seeks to outline a few principles for when a person wants to respond to claims of theological anachronisms in Restoration Scripture.
Response to Question
1. Look hard at the historical context
It is important to be certain that the historical context does not offer a plausible enough environment for an idea to emerge. Take, for example, FAIR’s response to the criticism of anti-universalist rhetoric in the Book of Mormon. We found several scriptures that pre-date Lehi’s departure from Jerusalem (and that would have been on the brass plates) that have been interpreted to justify universalism by modern interpreters and its all but plausible that ancient interpreters could have used those scriptures the exact same way given a belief in the afterlife.
Looking at the historical context of scripture might take acquiring good tools. Latter-day Saints have found excellent resources for discovering the historical context of scripture in resources listed in the citation.
2. There’s no new idea under the sun
An old saying tells us that there isn’t really a new idea under the sun. That’s generally true. There’s merely the first person to articulate, record, and/or promulgate an idea.
One should keep this in mind. The writers of scripture could be the one’s to be the actual firsts in articulating a new idea.
3. Revelation is real
An assumption that many Latter-day Saints forget (or otherwise discard) when approaching these types of questions is that revelation is real and it’s a valid source of knowledge. Revelation could have been given spontaneously to the ancient writers of scripture for them to record. This revelation could have taken place outside the recorded text in some instances. We learn that God speaks unto one nation as he does to others. We learn that he’s the same yesterday, today, and forever. Why can’t he reveal important concepts to multiple prophets at any time he wants?
It is the author's hope that this article will serve productively in buoying the faith the Saints in scripture.
Question: How can one address accusations of plagiarism made about the scriptures?
Introduction to Question
One of the primary methods of attack for critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been to accuse Joseph Smith (and other prophets who have revelations canonized) of plagiarizing different parts of his translations/revelations that have become part of the scriptural canon of the Church. There are different kinds of influence that critics allege outside sources had on Joseph Smith’s scriptural productions. Some point out mere conceptual resemblance. Others claim direct borrowing (like copy/pasting from other sources). Some believe that certain characters in the Bible provide a narrative structure for those in the Book of Mormon.
This article seeks to identify principles and procedures that Latter-day Saint defenders can keep in mind in order to address each of these accusations.
Response to Question
We should first lay out some general principles:
- Parallels are easy to create, and the way they are phrased can make them seem more similar than they are--and obscure important differences.
- There are likely to be some parallels because it would have been difficult for Joseph as a translator not to see them, and perhaps translated his scriptural productions in ways that parallel items in his literary culture.
- The question is always whether or not the parallels show dependence. They can show similarity, but don't necessarily show that one literary production has to be connected to another.
Two Ways We Can Address Accusations Like this
There are two very general ways that one can address plagiarism accusations. The first of these is to have a superior option for where something came from and the other is to have an equally plausible option for where something came from. We explain more below.
Have the Superior Option for Where Something Came From
Everyone recognizes that the words and ideas in the scriptures had to come from somewhere. Latter-day Saints believe that they came from revelation given to prophets both ancient and modern. Critics believe they came from the mind of Joseph Smith and/or one or more of his associates. The first way to address accusations from a faithful perspective is to show that the Latter-day Saint perspective is the superior one given the historical data we currently possess. For instance, one can:
- Check the alleged source’s publication date. Latter-day Saint apologist Jeff Lindsay has shown that even if an alleged source of plagiarism and a book of scripture have a lot in common, it doesn’t prove that that work had anything to do with the origins of the book of scripture. He does this by comparing Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass to the Book of Mormon. Leaves of Grass has seven-word phrase commonalities with the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon, however, was published in 1830 and Leaves of Grass was published in 1855. Thus, there’s no way it could have influenced the Book of Mormon’s production.
- Check historical sources and see how close an alleged source of influence was to Joseph Smith. There should be some source that puts Joseph Smith in contact with the alleged source of influence sometime before the production of the passage of scripture in question (yes, the passage of scripture in question. One will thus need to be familiar for the translation/production timelines for each book of scripture. This has been thoroughly documented by BYU professors and other scholars over the years). In the case of the Book of Mormon specifically, the difficulty is that we don’t have a lot of data on the early life of Joseph. The earliest document we have of Joseph Smith’s is dated to 1828. Accounts of Joseph Smith's life before this time are all reminiscent except for a few contemporary government records. Libraries local to Joseph Smith don't seem to have much material to plagiarize from. Those closest to Joseph Smith all affirmed that he did not have manuscript notes or other materials from which to read for his production of the Book of Mormon. Be sure to review what historical sources exist around the production of the passages in question and see how close the alleged source of plagiarism is. Many of those historical sources can be found on the Joseph Smith Papers website.
- Check to see what actual parallels exist between the two works. When comparing the parallels directly and seeing what the two sources actually say, many dissimilarities might become readily apparent. Place the claimed parallels into a table on a word document and point out dissimilarities in language and concepts. Also, it is often the case that a critic has misinterpreted his/her sources and made one source say something that it isn't actually saying in order to construct a parallel. It will be important to point this out if this is the case.
Have An Equally Plausible Manner in Which Something Can Emerge
The other way to address a criticism is to have an equally plausible way for something to emerge. There can be claims of plagiarism that we neutralize rather than refute. Neutralization is an acceptable result of apologetic investigation. There are a couple of ways that we can accomplish neutralization.
- Have the alleged influence make sense within the historical setting in which the passages of scripture emerged: For instance, take FAIR's rebuttal to the claim that the Book of Mormon's anti-universalism comes merely from Joseph Smith's religious environment. A big part of FAIR's rebuttal was to show that there are many scriptures that would have been on the brass plates that Lehi and co brought from Jerusalem to the New World. Therefore, the surge of universalism in the Book of Mormon and Alma's rebuttals to that universalism make sense within the Book of Mormon's claimed historical narrative. This is especially relevant to ancient scripture and addressing claims of mere conceptual resemblance. Readers will want to familiarize themselves with the ancient context of the various volumes of Restoration scripture in order to address these types of claims.
- Consider the possibility that scriptural authors used the type-scene as a rhetorical device: As explained by Book of Mormon Central in another article on the FAIR website, "[a] type-scene is an ancient storytelling technique where certain kinds of stories are told in certain ways. The ancient audience expected that when a main character got engaged, for example, he would journey to a foreign land, encounter a woman at a well, and draw water from the well. Then the woman would rush home to tell the family, and the man and the woman would be betrothed. However, each time the storyteller applied this type-scene to a new character, they would change the story slightly. This allowed the type-scene to fit each character’s historical circumstances, but also gave insights into the personalities of each character in the story." Rather than seeing parallels between the stories of the Bible and other books of scripture as evidence of plagiarism on the part of Joseph Smith, readers of the Book of Mormon can see this as the ancient authors of scripture using the type-scene as a rhetorical device for telling a story. This is especially relevant to ancient scripture.
- Remember that Joseph Smith's model of revelation is one in which god speaks "in [the prophet's and humanity's] weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding" (Doctrine and Covenants 1:24): We know that Joseph Smith's cultural environment was steeped in biblical language. In the early 19th century, it was used in all kinds of literature and even in common parlance among citizens of English-speaking countries. Critics have pointed to the existence of Old Testament and New Testament language in the Book of Mormon, Book of Moses, and Book of Abraham as evidence of Joseph Smith copying this language from the Bible. Rather than seeing it as evidence of plagiarism, believers can point to this scripture in the Doctrine and Covenants as evidence that Joseph Smith had a model of revelation that would accommodate this language so that the readers of scripture could come to understanding of God's will and nature. They can use this as evidence that God is the "same yesterday, today, and forever[.]" They can use it as evidence that God exalts our fallen humanity and uses it to help us become like him: our ultimate destiny.
It is the author's hope that this article will help all who are interested in providing a reason for the hope that is within every Latter-day Saint's heart of the truthfulness of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ and the integrity of its founding prophet, Joseph Smith.
FAIR has collected responses to various claims of plagiarism over the years that readers can find by following the links below.
- 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
- 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.
- Mark Kibblewhite, Gergely Tóth, and Tamás Hermann, "Predicting the preservation of cultural artefacts and buried materials in soil," Science of the Total Environment 529 (October 2015): 249–63.
- 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.
- For a discussion, see 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 ), 298.
- Numbers 23:19; Titus 1:2.
- Doctrine and Covenants 1:24
- 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.
- Matt Roper and Kirk Magleby, "Time Vindicates the Prophet," (presentation, FairMormon Conference 2019, Provo, Utah).
- See Brant A. Gardner, Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015); Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007); John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2013); John Welch, ed., Knowing Why: 137 Evidences that the Book of Mormon is True (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2017); Noel B. Reynolds, ed., Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1997). For the Book of Abraham, see John Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2018). For evidence for the Book of Moses see Jeffrey M. Bradshaw, In God's Image and Likeness (Salt Lake City, UT: Eborn Books, 2009); Jeffrey M. Bradshaw and David Larson, In God's Image and Likeness 2: Enoch, Noah, and the Tower of Babel (Provo, UT: Interpreter Foundation, 2014). For the Doctrine and Covenants, see Steven C. Harper, Making Sense of the Doctrine & Covenants: A Guided Tour Through Modern Revelations (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2008); Stephen E. Robinson and H. Dean Garrett, A Commentary on the Doctrine and Covenants, 4 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2000). For the Joseph Smith Translation, see Robert J. Matthews, "A Plainer Translation" - Joseph Smith's Translation of the Bible: A History and Commentary (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1985).
- Jeff Lindsay, "Was the Book of Mormon Plagiarized from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass?," JeffLindsay.com, May 20, 2002, https://www.jefflindsay.com/bomsource.shtml.
- For translation timeline of the Book of Mormon, see John W. Welch, "Timing the Translation of the Book of Mormon 'Days (and Hours) Never to Be Forgotten," BYU Studies Quarterly 57, no. 4 (2018): 10–50. For the Book of Moses, see Kent P. Jackson, "Book of Moses, manuscripts of," in Pearl of Great Price Reference Companion, ed. Dennis L. Largey (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2017), 78. For the Book of Abraham, see the differing views of translation chronology in Kerry Muhelstein and Megan Hansen “The Work of Translating: The Book of Abraham’s Translation Chronology," in Let Us Reason Together: Essays in Honor of the Life’s Work of Robert L. Millet, eds. J. Spencer Fluhman and Brent L. Top (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2016), 139–62; John Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Deseret Book: Salt Lake City, UT, 2018), 15–16; Robin Scott Jensen and Brian M. Hauglid, The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations Volume 4: Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts (Salt Lake City: Church Historian's Press, 2018), xiii–xxix. For the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, see Scott H. Faulring, Kent P. Jackson and Robert J. Matthews, eds., Joseph Smith's New Translation of the Bible: Original Manuscripts (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2004), 49–73. For the Doctrine and Covenants, one can merely see the section headings of the 2013 Edition that give all known dates of production for the revelations.
- Michael Hubbard MacKay, Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, Grant Underwood, Robert J. Woodford, and William G. Hartley, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents Volume 1: July 1828 – June 1831 (Salt Lake City: The Church Historian's Press, 2013), xxv.
- See Kenneth W. Godfrey, "A Note on the Nauvoo Library and Literary Institute," BYU Studies 14, no. 3 (Spring 1974): 386–89 for a list of books actually possessed by Joseph Smith. See also Robert Paul, "Joseph Smith and the Manchester (New York) Library," BYU Studies 22, no. 3 (1982): 333.
- For just a few resources on the ancient context of scripture, visit these sources. For the Book of Mormon, see Brant A. Gardner, Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015); Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007); John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2013). For the Book of Abraham, see John Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2018). For the Book of Moses see Jeffrey M. Bradshaw, In God's Image and Likeness (Salt Lake City: Eborn Books, 2009); Jeffrey M. Bradshaw and David Larson, In God's Image and Likeness 2: Enoch, Noah, and the Tower of Babel (Provo, UT: Interpreter Foundation, 2014). For the Joseph Smith Translation, see Robert J. Matthews, "A Plainer Translation": Joseph Smith's Translation of the Bible (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1985).
- 1 Nephi 10:18
- Doctrine and Covenants 132:19-20