Book Club – Nibley’s an Approach to the BoM, chapter 2

Here are my thoughts and notes on chapter 2, “A Time for Reexamination.”


“The Book of Mormon can and should be tested. It invites criticism, and the best possible test for its authenticity is provided by its own oft-proclaimed provenance in the Old World. “

Is this still the “best possible test”?  For Nibley, the Old World was everything, because that is what he had studied.  Today, we have scholars in Mesoamerican studies, theology, etc., who know their areas of expertise as well as Nibley knew his several areas.

“all ancient records are being read anew in the light of new discoveries.”

Often true, but depends on the group.  Many Christian scholars/students do not study in light of new discoveries, but maintain their age old practices and beliefs (evolution vs 6000 year old earth, for example)

“all ancient records can best be understood if they are read as a single book.”

Disagree.  Ancient records were written by different peoples in different cultures with varying beliefs.  Reading a Gnostic book is very different than reading the proto-orthodox Jew or Christian’s writings.  Yes, there are often similarities, but not always.  To read it as one book means seeing only one interpretation, rather than the possibility of various interpretations.  Nephi interpreting Isaiah is different from Abinadi interpreting Isaiah.

“the book was given out as genuine history”

I agree the BoM is historical.  But then we need to determine “how” historical it is. I believe there was a prophet Lehi that took his family across the sea and settled in the Americas.  But when Jacob and Enos describe the Lamanites as savages dwelling in tents, I see how that conflicts with Ammon’s experience of a highly civilized Lamanite society – their views of some things may not be as historical or correct as they thought or wrote.  When they speak of Adam or Moses, are they saying that everything we have about the patriarchs are historical?  Or can the birthing of Eve from Adam’s rib be a symbolic myth and the Great Flood can actually be a limited flood rather than global?

“For the righteous, Moroni 10:4 offers adequate conviction; for the others, who must either convict the Book of Mormon of fraud or be convicted by it”

This point is a good one.  I’ve met many good people who have read the Book of Mormon but not gained a spiritual witness of it.  Yet.   For many, they must first make the determination of convicting the book or being convicted.  This often comes with study, pondering, and weighing the evidence. For me, this is one reason apologetics are an important thing to continually do.  We may not find the definitive proof that convinces/convicts everyone, but we may at least keep the discussion open.  I do agree with Joseph Spencer and Adam Miller that there is more than one effective way to do apologetics, and think his work in theology is equally as good as anything that Nibley or Sorenson produced in regards to physical historicity of the BoM.

“our Book of Mormon people never think of themselves as an indigenous or autochthonous culture in the New World, but always and only as the heirs of Old World civilization.”

I think this may partially apply to the Nephite hierarchy, but not to most of those named Nephites. Mulekites did not think of themselves as Jews so much as their behavior showed them to be more like Jaredites.  Having a history and pride of where one’s ancestors came from does not mean the person does not also take pride in his new home.  Zeniff seemed to feel that the land of Nephi was the land of inheritance, and therefore saw it as the homeland – not Jerusalem.

“We are living in a time of the reexamination and reevaluation of all ancient records. It is not only in the field of religion but in all ancient studies that preconceived ideas are being uprooted on all sides. New discoveries should be received with joy, for though they bring into question the forms in which the labors of scholarship have molded the past, they bring a new substance and reality to things which the learned of another age had never thought possible. The same discoveries which, it appears, may alter the theories of the doctors, are at the same time vindicating that Bible world which they had consigned to the realm of myth.”

Bible studies and archaeology have changed since Nibley wrote this book.  Back then, scholars sought to vindicate the Bible.  Since then, different schools of thought have appeared. Some remain faithful to vindicating the Bible, which is where we get the silly statement from some that the Bible is entirely true, because we can archaeologically find Jerusalem right where the Bible says it would be.  That the city of Jerusalem never ceased to exist throughout the years does not enter into their shallow minds.  Meanwhile, the minimalist or mythicist schools would have us believe that King David and Jesus are not historical beings.  Even among those who believe Jesus actually existed, there are many who are not convinced he was anything more than a Zealot preacher attacking the status quo and seeking to lead his people into a new spirituality.
Regardless of the evidence, there will always be some who are not convinced.  As Mormons, we should embrace all new information as instructive for us.  Brigham Young taught that we embrace all truth, no matter where it is found.  Such a healthy view allows us to find truth with an open mind and not reject things that are unfamiliar to that which we are familiar with.  It is good to question what we already know. If we do it honestly, and with the Holy Spirit as our guide, we will find ourselves stronger in our testimonies and with a better understanding of God’s works and mysteries.

I have no doubt that Nibley is mostly thinking about the Dead Sea Scrolls and Nag Hammadi library when discussing these new discoveries.  In the 1950s, little of the scrolls were translated or accessible, even to other scholars outside the DSS team.  Today, the average member can easily obtain a decent translation and read the things Nibley was yet to get his hands on. We can find things that both agree and disagree with the BoM.  We see where an honest evangelical or Catholic would have to rethink some of his/her beliefs in light of the DSS.  At the same time, we can see where an honest LDS would have to do the same thing!

Under the heading “Significant Changes” Nibley notes the big changes that occurred in archaeology and history in the first half of the 19th century.  New information required rewriting of books that had just recently been published.  New languages were being interpreted.  Since Nibley wrote this, many more languages, documents and information have come to light. We now can translate Maya and many other ancient languages previously unknown.  The DSS are now completely translated to English.  New techniques used in archaeology brings out details from documents and discoveries as never before.  Archaeological sites are now often chosen from spotting them from the air, or from space via satellite technology.  Ground radar helps us pinpoint places to dig. MRI technology can reveal hidden letters and words in documents, as well as look inside a wrapping at a millennias-old mummy.

“the Old Testament was not only history but very good history—by far the most accurate, reliable, and complete history ever produced by an ancient people”

Of this, I’m not convinced.  The Egyptians and Mayans kept very good records of historical events on their temples, stela, etc. As for the Old Testament, I would agree that its history is very accurate since the time of Jeremiah at least.  But as one goes further back into time, the stories’ historical basis can become more and more questionable.  Outside the Bible, there is no evidence of Moses destroying the Egyptian army in the Red Sea. Archaeology suggests the Israelites peacefully settled among the other peoples in the promised land, and did not have a giant conquest as Joshua teaches.  Joshua did not cause the walls of Jericho to fall down, as that happened centuries earlier.  How does one prove that Abraham or Melchizedek existed?  Science shows we did not have a global flood in the last 10,000 years, and so Noah’s flood must have been a localized flood at best.  Again, according to science, Adam and Eve could not have been the only people alive in their day, and the world is 14 billions years old, not 6000 years.  This is not to say Adam and Noah did not exist (I believe they did), but that the early stories are the legendary teachings of men, mingled with history.  Even the Documentary Hypothesis (which I write about here) places questions the historicity of events regarding how the Bible was written!
Remember, as old as the Dead Sea Scrolls are (200 BC), they still do not date back to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, or even the last prophet of the Old Testament, Malachi (400 BC).

“Critics of the Book of Mormon often remark sarcastically that it is a great pity that the golden plates have disappeared, since they would very conveniently prove Joseph Smith’s story. They would do nothing of the sort. The presence of the plates would only prove that there were plates, no more: it would not prove that Nephites wrote them, or that an angel brought them, or that they had been translated by the gift and power of God…”

Exactly right.  Years ago, a friend of mine stepped into Sandra Tanner’s anti-Mormon bookstore to talk with her. He asked her, “if archaeologists in Mesoamerica were to find a 2000 year old sign saying ‘Ten miles to Zarahemla’, would that be sufficient evidence for you?”  Sandra pondered for a moment, then answered, “it would be a point of discussion.”

“On the other hand, a far more impressive claim is put forth when the whole work is given to the world in what is claimed to be a divinely inspired translation”

And here we do agree.  Most of the evidences for the Book of Mormon come from hints in the text itself.  We found Nahom AND 40 authentic Middle Eastern names AND dozens more evidences, suddenly shows a strength in the text itself.  The complexity of the text, as shown by modern LDS scholars is hard to explain away, whether we speak of chiasmus or the threading of the temple endowment throughout the entire BoM.

Nibley then spends several paragraphs describing discoveries of ancient metal records throughout Asia and the Middle East, evidence that the Brass Plates of Laban and the Gold Plates of Mormon were not an anomaly, but something not uncommon in the ancient world.  I’ve actually seen a set of finely-carved ancient gold plates in the Royal Museum in Seoul, South Korea.  Yes, it comes with its own stone box.

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About rameumptom

Gerald (Rameumptom) Smith is a student of the gospel. Joining the Church of Jesus Christ when he was 16, he served a mission in Santa Cruz Bolivia (1978=1980). He is married to Ramona, has 3 stepchildren and 7 grandchildren. Retired Air Force (Aim High!). He has been on the Internet since 1986 when only colleges and military were online. Gerald has defended the gospel since the 1980s, and was on the first Latter-Day Saint email lists, including the late Bill Hamblin's Morm-Ant. Gerald has worked with FairMormon, More Good Foundation, LDS.Net and other pro-LDS online groups. He has blogged on the scriptures for over a decade at his site: Joel's Monastery ( He has the following degrees: AAS Computer Management, BS Resource Mgmt, MA Teaching/History. Gerald was the leader for the Tuskegee Alabama group, prior to it becoming a branch. He opened the door for missionary work to African Americans in Montgomery Alabama in the 1980s. He's served in two bishoprics, stake clerk, high council, HP group leader and several other callings over the years. While on his mission, he served as a counselor in a branch Relief Society presidency.

11 thoughts on “Book Club – Nibley’s an Approach to the BoM, chapter 2

  1. I disagree with the idea that Mesoamerican scholarship has somehow come of age and will do anything to lend evidence towards the Book of Mormon’s authenticity.

    Just because there are chairs in Mesoamerican studies and/or mature scholars in the field doesn’t mean that they can provide a “test” for the Book of Mormon.

    If you read through the Small Plates of Nephi, for example, (1 Nephi through Omni), it is steeped in Old World motifs, specifically Judean and Near Eastern. That is really the whole point of Nibley’s book, to show that the Old World provides us a way to gauge the book’s authenticity.

    Even moving through Mosiah and Alma, you see various points of detail and motifs that bring to mind various Middle Eastern concepts. Entire books have been written and a plethora of papers have been submitted detailing this stuff.

    Meanwhile, what has Mesoamerican studies done to give us anything to sink our teeth into? If there is anything, please share, because I’m genuinely curious!

  2. mormonchess,

    You obviously have not read anything by Brnat Gardner, John Sorenson, or Diane Wirth! I do think that it is easier to find corollary info in the Middle Esst, but is for several reasons: 1. it is a smaller geographical area, and 2. There are more digs being done in Israel than in all of the Americas, much less in Mesomerica, and 3. Archaeology in the Middle East has been around longer and more robust than in the Americas, 4. items are preserved better in the desert than in the jungle, 5. we can pinpoint the Nephites in the Levant, while we are still dealing with theories in Mesoamerica.

    I agree with Brant Gardner’s approach. We can explain many things in the Book of Mormon from what we learn about the Maya and other Mesoamerican peoples. He’s given some great examples, including the story of Ammon the missionary, which does not easily make sense, except in a Mayan context.

    While there are still challenges, we are finding exciting finds from Mesoamerica that support the story of the Book of Mormon. Today’s scholars that study that area are bringing us more and more into that world, and it is an exciting time for such studies.

  3. If there is recently discovered evidence, then great. And you are correct, I haven’t read Gardner or the others, primarily because I have been far more interested in Near Eastern studies than anything involving Mesoamerica.

  4. Ram,

    I think you’re correct in saying that there will always be some who will need more evidence. On the other hand we’re living at a time when all things will be revealed — when truth will be shouted from the rooftops. I don’t think anything can stop more truth from coming out of the earth — and the day must come when the world will be caught with guile. We’ll not have the comforted of retreating into ignorance.

    PS. I think you meant to say that the earth is 4 billion years old, not 14 billion.

  5. Earth 4.5 billion, universe 14 billion. Like the economy, once you get past a few billion, it really is so much that one really cannot keep track anymore…. 😉

    Yes, truth is flooding the earth. But that truth cannot reveal whether Jesus resurrected, the Red Sea parted, or Enoch’s city was carried into space/heaven. Only that kind of truth would possibly be convincing enough for atheists and other non-believers.

    The evidence Nibley and others uncover is mostly to strengthen members’ testimonies and show that we have a dog in the fight. But we still cannot prove anything absolutely.

  6. Yes, at this point in the game most of what LDS scholars dig up will, by and large, serve to strengthen believers. On the other hand, the day will come when every tongue will confess the truth. But I suppose that day is a ways off — and so the fun of it all will be witnessing the unfolding of evidence in the mean time.

  7. As before, responses first, then comments directly on the chapter in a separate comment….

    In response to Nibley’s “the best possible test for its authenticity is provided by its own oft-proclaimed provenance in the Old World,” Rameumptom asks: “Is this still the ‘best possible test’?”

    I guess it depends on what we mean by “authenticity,” no? Nibley’s answer had to be what it was because he assumed we were after historical authenticity….

    Rameumptom again: “We may not find the definitive proof that convinces/convicts everyone, but we may at least keep the discussion open.”

    Which discussion do you mean, I wonder? I’m not sure there is much of a discussion. But perhaps you just mean “possibilities”? That, I think, may be right.

    In response to Nibley’s claim that “our Book of Mormon people never think of themselves as an indigenous or autochthonous culture in the New World, but always and only as the heirs of Old World civilization,” Rameumptom says: “I think this may partially apply to the Nephite hierarchy, but not to most of those named Nephites. Mulekites did not think of themselves as Jews so much as their behavior showed them to be more like Jaredites.”

    I think you’re absolutely and vitally right about this.

  8. Now my own response directly to Nibley….

    I found the following two sentences a bit curious: “In the Primitive Church it was taught that no one had a right to question a prophet on ‘intellectual’ grounds. History, however, is another thing.” What does Nibley mean by this? What, I suppose especially, does he mean by “intellectual” here? Is the idea merely that a prophet changes the game substantially by making claims about historicity?

    Nibley sums up his introductory discussion in the chapter by saying that the Book of Mormon’s many details about its provenance place it “well within the range of modern comparative study.” That’s an important qualification, I should think. Comparative study presupposes the historicity of its object, but employs its methods in an attempt to elucidate what it analyzes. How does it help us to read Nibley that way?

    Several things have already been said about Nibley’s claim that everything was up in the air in his day. I’ll select this summary statement regarding that: “Up until the present scholars have thought they had a pretty good idea of what the historical, literary, philosophical or religious writings of the past were all about. Not so today!” I think there’s much to think about here. Might we say that Nibley’s work was less a novelty of his own than a necessary product of certain novelties that characterized his era? Nibley’s genius wasn’t to recognize the book’s claims to historicity and then to get seriously to work on them; his genius was to recognize that the historical had been so completely unsettled in his epoch that the possibility of the Book of Mormon historicity had emerged in the course of a more general unsettling. If that’s right, then are we in an unsettled or a settled era? If the latter, are we better off leaving behind debates about historicity to address the content of the Book of Mormon in other ways?

    Nibley’s comments regarding what would happen were we to have been left with the gold plates are quite astute. I find it fascinating that the Book of Mormon itself (in 2 Nephi 27) provides a theological explanation of why we can’t have the gold plates available to us. This is something that deserves much more attention.

    I’m not enough of an ancient studies person to know whether Nibley’s idea that the brass plates served Lehi as a kind of protective talisman would be viable today (or in Nibley’s day, for that matter), but it’s a fascinating suggestion….

  9. “Given out as” doesn’t mean “is genuine history”. Moroni 10:4 doesn’t require us to to accept a package deal true or false it can be applied to individual parts or questions. The BoM true of fake, black or white? It is a childish way for a believer to look at the question, there is so much nuance in between allowing for a broad range of belief from literal to non-literal. All should be accepted and embraced by the faithful and by the church for isn’t the least of this belief exercising a particle of faith in a good seed?

  10. Yes, there have been a lot of new world discoveries too that are important too. I believe Joseph Smith said there would be such important discoveries regarding the New World. It is rather interesting to read all of the views of history and developments in the chapter. I appreciate the analysis in this post!

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