The purpose of this book1 is to call attention to some points on which the main hypothesis of the Book of Mormon may be tested. The hypothesis is that the Book of Mormon contains genuine history, and with it goes the corollary that the work was divinely inspired. Because of that corollary no serious attempt has been made to test the main hypothesis; for to test a theory means to take it seriously only for a little while, to assume for the sake of argument that it may conceivably, however absurdly, be true after all. That is a concession no critic of the Book of Mormon has been willing to make.
Instead of the vigorous onslaught that the Book of Mormon hypothesis invites and deserves, it has elicited only a long, monotonous drizzle of authoritarian denunciation, the off-hand opinions of impatient scholars whose intelligence and whose official standing will not allow them to waste a moment more than is necessary to write off an imposture so obviously deserving of contempt.
But today it is being pointed out in many quarters that authoritarianism is the very antithesis of true science, and that the best scientific theory is not the sane, cautious, noncommittal one but the daring and revolutionary one. “A theory which asserts more,” says Karl Popper, “and thus takes greater risks, is better testable than a theory which asserts very little.”2 And he further notes that preference should always be given to the theory that makes more precise assertions than others, explains more facts in greater detail, invites more tests, suggests more new experiments, and unifies more hitherto unrelated problems. On all these points the Book of Mormon scores high. It is the very extravagance of its claims that makes it so deserving of the respect which is denied it. The outrageous daring of its title page is the very thing that should whet the appetite of a real scholar: here is a book that is asking for a fight, so to speak, and if it is as flimsy as it looks at first glance any competent schoolman should have little trouble polishing it off in an hour or so.
But, strangely, through the years the challenge has had no takers. The learned have been willing enough to wave their credentials and state their opinions, but they have been adroit and determined in avoiding any serious discussion. To illustrate, Bernard de Voto once hailed an ambitious critic of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon as “a detached, modern intelligence, grounded in naturalism, rejecting the supernatural.”3 This is good news indeed for the Book of Mormon, for a confirmed naturalist who has made a study of the life of Joseph Smith is the very person best qualified to put Smith’s supernaturalist claims to a severe test. “Observations or experiments can be accepted as supporting a theory,” writes Popper, “only if these observations or experiments may be described as severe tests of the theory, . . . serious attempts to refute it.”4 Today we read more and more in the journals about the importance of having a falsifiable rather than a verifiable theory. Anything can be verified, we are told, but a good scientific theory is one that can readily be falsified, that is, easily refuted if and where it is in error. And so it is fortunate that we have critics ready, willing, and able to attack the historical claims of the Book of Mormon, for that book is delightfully falsifiable.
But their attack, to be effective, must be met with the strongest possible resistance: if it meets a half-hearted defense it can never boast a real victory: “Since the method of science is that of critical discussion [Popper again], it is of great importance that the theories criticized should be tenaciously defended.”5 That is, there must be a discussion, with the purpose of discovering by all possible means every weakness in both positions. But that is not the way Mr. de Voto and his friends see it at all. For a reliable defense they trust implicitly in the impartiality and intelligence of the prosecution. They give the prize to their champion not for bringing new life into the discussion but for effectively silencing all further discussion. The last thing in the world they want is for the debate to continue. In the impressive footnotes and credentials of accepted authorities they see their own release from endless years of drudgery and research and from the risks and uncertainties of an indefinitely prolonged debate with its constant danger of new and disturbing revelations and its frequent and humiliating disclosures of great gaps and defects in the knowledge even of the foremost investigators. How much better to put the whole thing to bed with the announcement that sound scholarship has at last settled the issue once for all.
That this is the position that the experts take is perfectly apparent in their quick and angry reaction to any word of criticism directed at the established oracles. Any attempt to continue or renew the discussion by pointing to the flaws and contradictions that swarm in their pages meets with almost hysterical protests of prejudice, disrespect, and impertinence. By denying prejudice in their own ranks, they deprive themselves of the one thing that makes their work valuable. How could anyone “grounded in naturalism, rejecting the supernatural” be anything but prejudiced in favor of naturalism and against the supernatural? And why not? How could anyone put up a halfway decent defense of the Book of Mormon without being prejudiced in its favor? There is nothing wrong with having and admitting two sides in a controversy. By definition every theory is controversial, and the better the theory the more highly controversial. There can be no more constructive approach to a controversial issue like this one than to have each side present the evidence which it finds most convincing, always bearing in mind that authority is not evidence and that name-dropping is as futile as name-calling. Sweeping statements and general impressions are sometimes useful in the process of getting one’s bearings and taking up a position, but they cannot serve as evidence because they are expressions of personal impressions which are nontransferrable.
Which brings up an important point: we are not going to prove anything in this book. The evidence that will prove or disprove the Book of Mormon does not exist. When, indeed, is a thing proven? Only when an individual has accumulated in his own conscience enough observations, impressions, reasonings, and feelings to satisfy him personally that it is so. The same evidence which convinces one expert may leave another completely unsatisfied; the impressions that build up to definite proof are themselves nontransferrable. All we can do is to talk about the material at hand, hoping that in the course of the discussion every participant will privately and inwardly form, reform, change, or abandon his opinions about it and thereby move in the direction of greater light and knowledge. Some of the things in the pages that follow we think are quite impressive, but there is no guarantee at all that anybody else will think so. The whole thing may well impress some as disappointingly inconclusive, for we must insist that we have reached no final conclusions, even privately, and that all we can see ahead is more and ever more problems.6 But they are problems with a meaning, and it is our personal conviction that if the Book of Mormon were not a solid and genuine article we would long since have run out of such meaningful material, i.e., that there is much more behind all this than mere literary invention.
Some, impressed by the sheer mass and charge of the Book of Mormon, are now asking why it can’t be seriously and respectfully treated as a myth. Lots of myths are today coming in for the most reverential treatment. But the book disdains such subterfuge, and never tires of reminding us that it is not myth but history and must stand or fall as such: “I would that ye should remember that these sayings are true, and also that these records are true” (Mosiah 1:6). “We know our record to be true, for behold, it is a just man who did keep the record” (3 Nephi 8:1). There may be mistakes in the record (3 Nephi 8:2), but there is no fraud or fiction: “And whoso receiveth this record, and shall not condemn it because of the imperfections which are in it, the same shall know of greater things” (Mormon 8:12). For “if there be faults they be the faults of man. But behold we know no fault, . . . therefore, he that condemneth, let him be aware” (Mormon 8:17). To call this record a myth is to condemn it as effectively as by calling it a fraud. We are going to approach the Book of Mormon as real history, in hopes that some reader may pick up a useful impression here or there.
1. Most of the contents of chapters 2–10 and part of chapter 1 of this book appeared in IE in a series of 27 parts, running each month from October 1964 through December 1966. When these materials were edited for publication in book form in 1967, many sections were extensively relocated in the text, much new matter was added, and some paragraphs were deleted. The significant deletions have been reinserted in the footnotes below. See appendix for a comaprison of these texts. The 1967 edition was reviewed by Alexander T. Stecker in BYU Studies 8 (1968): 465–68, and by Robert Mesle in Courage 2 (1971): 331–33. The series was published in Portuguese under the title ”A Partir de Cumorah,” beginning in A Liahona 20 (June, 1966): 16–24, and running serially each month until 21 [sic] (September 1968): 27–29. The first part of the original magazine series, entitled ”Since Cumorah: New Voices from the Dust,” IE 67 (October, 1964): 816, began with the following introduction:
”Editors of the Era take great pleasure in welcoming Dr. Hugh Nibley back to these pages. His fertile mind and gifted pen have contributed much of deep significance and lasting value through Era pages over the past two decades. Brother Nibley is well qualified to write the current series, Since Cumorah. Trained primarily in classics, he has, since joining the staff of Brigham Young University some eighteen years ago, gravitated into the field of religion, which is at present his principal academic concern. While a visiting professor at the University of California in Berkeley in 1959–60 he did intensive work in Egyptian and Coptic and has recently published a study on the newly discovered Coptic Christian writings in Vigiliae Christianae. He holds bachelor of arts and doctorate of philosophy degrees from the University of California. He has also had long articles on Classic and Semitic subjects appear in the Classical Journal, the Western Political Quarterly, the Jewish Quarterly Review, Western Speech, Church History, and the Revue de Qumran.
”Introduction: A clear and complete survey of newly discovered Jewish and Christian manuscript treasures would have to run into thousands of pages. To present the same material in a moderate compass and at the same time do it justice is as hopeless a task as trying to sketch Bryce Canyon by moonlight. Should one try for the details? One quickly discovers the folly of that. But on the other hand, to omit the vast intricacy of the scene is to miss the peculiar and essential quality of it. Yet we cannot simply walk off without comment, for what we are beholding is of immense significance.
”The purpose of the somewhat labored pages that follow is to lead up to better things by giving the reader some idea of what we are dealing with, of the scope and nature of the writings that are now being read with wonder and amazement by students of religion, and of the strange doctrine and baffling problems they present. The rather tedious preliminary survey that follows cannot be avoided: One cannot enjoy the pageant that follows without a program, no matter how dull the program itself may be. If the reader is somewhat bemused at the outset, he should bear in mind that all the scholars are more or less floundering around today in the rising flood of parchments and papyri that has caught everyone by surprise. If we cannot swim or wade in these waters, we can at least venture down to the shore line to see what all the excitement is about.
”The time has come for Latter-day Saints to turn their attention to those ancient Jewish and Christian documents the discovery of which in recent years, and especially since World War II, has brought about a radical reappraisal of all established views about the nature of the two religions and their scriptures. The significance of these findings can best be demonstrated by reference to a number of propositions set forth in the Book of Mormon, the first of which we take from the thirteenth chapter of 1 Nephi. Of these, proposition number one is that the Bible has come down to the world in a mutilated form. . . . Proposition number two is that the Lord will put an end to this state of things by the bringing forth of more information. . . . See page 27 below [in the 1988 edition].
”These two propositions more than anything else set the Christian world in fierce opposition to the restored gospel from the beginning. Before the Book of Mormon had even come from the press, the headlines of the Rochester Daily Advertiser screamed forth the world’s first recorded reaction to the mission of the Prophet: ‘Blasphemy—Book of Mormon, Alias the Golden Bible,’ Francis W. Kirkham, A New Witness for Christ in America, 2 vols. (Independence, Mo.: Zion’s, 1942), 1:267. No blasphemy could compare with that of declaring that there could be other scriptures besides the Bible, unless it was the declaration on the title page of the Book of Mormon that the revealed Word of God might contain ‘the mistakes of men.’ It is difficult for us today to imagine the shock and horror with which these two propositions were received by the Christian world. Hugh W. Nibley, ‘Kangaroo Court,’ IE 62 (1959): 147. Since the days of Saint Augustine it had been the cornerstone of the Christian faith, on which the Protestants stood as firmly as the Catholics, that the Bible was not only the whole revelation of God to man, but that it could not possibly contain the remotest inkling of an error—the scriptures were inerrant and all-sufficient for our instruction. And here was a book not only put forth as holy scripture, but announcing to the world that the Bible contained ‘mistakes of men!’
”We say it is difficult now to imagine how the Christian world reacted to these propositions because today there is hardly a Christian scholar in the world who does not acknowledge that our Bible in its present state leaves much to be desired and who does not look for improvement from new documentary discoveries. What had brought about this change? Exactly what the Book of Mormon predicted—the coming forth of more books and records. To these we now turn our attention.”
2. Karl R. Popper, “Science: Problems, Aims, Responsibilities,” Federation of the American Societies for Experimental Biology, Supplement 13, vol. 22 (1963): 965–66. The quotation is from 966.
3. Bernard de Voto often wrote critically of supernaturalism in Mormonism; see Wallace Stegner, ed., “Bernard de Voto and the Mormons,” Dialogue 6 (1971): 39–47. The quoted statement appeared in the New York Herald Tribune and on the dust jacket of Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History.
4. Popper, “Science: Problems, Aims, Responsibilities,” 964.
5. Ibid., 965.
6. Toward the end of the magazine series, IE 69 (May, 1966): 419–24, the following assessment of the situation was offered by Dr. Nibley:
”Problems, Not Solutions. What we have come up with in this long and rambling presentation is a miscellaneous jumble of problems—all of them unsolved. There have been hints, suggestions, and conjectures but absolutely nothing solved and nothing proven unless it is the tentative proposition that the Book of Mormon is still open to serious discussion. Until we come to realize that the most we can expect from any investigation is not solutions but only more problems, the study of Book of Mormon antiquities will remain as barren as it has been in the past. Let us explain what we mean by ‘problems instead of solutions.’
” . . . Or take another example. Late in the eighteenth century a Scottish farmer walking along a beach noticed some ripple marks on a slab of rock high above the present level of the water. Here was a problem indeed, but it did not remain a problem for long. The farmer, so Prof. Hotchkiss tells us, ‘could look back into the past and imagine a numberless succession of . . . cycles. . . . There must have come to him at that time the vision of the vast sweep of the ages which go to make up the story of the billion years of the earth’s history. His simple but epoch-making discoveries started geological science on the way.’ In S. Rapport & H. Wright, eds., The Crust of the Earth (New York: Signet, 1955), 17. Here an important problem was met by a splendid theory, but to treat the mere recognition of the problem and the most imaginative and adventurous speculations to explain it as ‘discoveries,’ nay, as a final solution, was premature, to say the least.
” ‘I wonder how many of us realize,’ writes a present-day geologist, ‘that the [geological] time scale was frozen in essentially its present form by 1840 . . . ? The followers of the founding fathers went forth across the earth and in Procrustean fashion made it fit the sections they found even in places where the actual evidence literally proclaimed denial. So flexible and accommodating are the ”facts” of geology.’ Edmund M. Spieker, ”Mountain-Building Chronology and Nature of Geologic Time Scale,” Bulletin of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists 40 (August, 1956): 1803; cf. Norman D. Newell, ”The Nature of the Fossil Record,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 103 (1959): 265. The trouble was that the experts mistook a problem for its solution and thereby failed to recognize the real difficulties involved. ‘In geology,’ wrote Hotchkiss, ‘most of the important facts are easily understood. All that needs to be done in order to give a very satisfactory knowledge of things geological is to call them to our attention.’ Hotchkiss, 11. But how does one call Hutton’s billion years to our attention? We cannot in any way experience a billion years; the best we can do is to try and imagine, as Hutton did. But what we imagine is the construction of our own minds; it is not a fact at all, but an interpretation, pure and simple.
”A third case, the most impressive of all, is Newton’s theory of gravitation. ‘There never was a more successful theory,’ Karl Popper assures us, noting that even the great Poincaré believed ‘that it would remain the invariable basis of physics to the end of man’s search for truth.’ But in our own time ‘Einstein’s theory of gravity . . . reduced Newton’s theory to . . . a hypothesis competing with others.’ Instead of the absolute truth, it again became a problem open to discussion. This, according to Popper, ‘destroyed its authority. And with it, it destroyed something much more important—the authoritarianism of science.’ Karl R. Popper, ‘Science: Problems, Aims, Responsibilities,’ 964.
”All ‘proofs’ and ‘disproofs’ of the Book of Mormon present problems instead of solutions. Thus when carbonized stumps of trees were found in the Middle West, some early Latter-day Saints declared that their presence deep in the earth proved the Book of Mormon. It did nothing of the sort; at most it presented an interesting problem that might or might not have any bearing on the Book of Mormon.
”For the past twenty years we have repeated in the pages of The Improvement Era and elsewhere that nothing is to be gained by trying to prove or disprove the Book of Mormon, but that a great deal can be gained by reading it and discussing its various aspects. This point of view, which has not been a popular one, is best explained in the writings of the greatest living philosopher of science, Karl Popper. ‘Bacon’s naive view,’ Popper tells us, ‘concerning the essence of natural science . . . is a dogma to which scientists as well as philosophers have tenaciously adhered down to our own day.’ Ibid., 961.
”It is the view, already expressed by Hotchkiss above, that ‘all that was needed was to approach the goddess Nature with a pure mind, free of prejudice, and she would readily yield her secrets.’ Today in the scientific journals—the more popular of which we duly peruse every six months—there is an impressive outpouring of articles showing that the inductive method of Bacon does not really apply in science, that Popper is right when he says that ‘the idea that we can at will . . . purge our mind from prejudices . . . is naive and mistaken,’ and indeed downright pernicious, since ‘after having made an attempt or two, you think you are now free from prejudices—which means, of course, that you will stick only more tenaciously to your unconscious prejudices and dogmas.’ Ibid., 962. The old authoritarianism of science is now being supplanted by a new approach, which Popper sums up in three words: ‘Problems—theories—criticism.’ Things start moving with a problem, some difficulty, something that has to be explained. To account for the thing, a theory is proposed; it does not have to be a foolproof theory, since it exists only to be attacked, for ‘there is only one way to learn to understand a serious problem . . . and this is to try to solve it, and to fail.’ As soon as one comes up with a theory, then, one must try to devise some test to refute it, ‘for to test a theory, or a piece of machinery, means to try to fail it,’ ibid., 968, 963. By that standard, the land-bridge theory and Hutton’s vast sweep of time have never been in danger of any real testing: they have been accepted from the beginning as final solutions. The one way to progress in knowledge of things is ‘to use in science imagination and bold ideas, though always tempered by severe criticism and severe tests.’ How can we be assured of the necessary controls? By taking sides: therein resides the objectivity of science, and not in the minds of individual researchers. ‘It would be a mistake,’ writes Popper, ‘to think that scientists are more ”objective” than other people’; in fact ‘there is even something like a methodological justification for individual scientists to be dogmatic and biased [!], since . . . it is of great importance that the theories criticized should be tenaciously defended,’ ibid., 970, 965; he quotes Darwin: ‘How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view,’ ibid., 967.
”No matter how severe and unsparing the criticism, no bones are broken, since one’s object in proposing a theory is not to settle the issue once and for all but only to lead to more knowledge. ‘Observation and experiment cannot establish anything finally. . . . Essentially, they help us to eliminate the weaker theories,’ and thus ‘lend support, though only for the time being, to the surviving theory.’ Hence, ‘the method of critical discussion does not establish anything. Its verdict is always and invariably ”not proven,” ‘ ibid., 964, 970.”
The next installment then concluded, IE (June, 1966): 582–83: ”In the last issue we discussed the Alaskan land bridge theory, geological time tables, and K. R. Popper’s challenge of the authoritarianism of science in which he noted that ‘observation and experiment cannot establish anything finally,’ but only ‘help us eliminate the weaker theories.’ Ibid., 964.
”Popper’s final word is a warning against taking refuge in status and prestige; we must, says he, ‘avoid like the plague the appearance of possessing knowledge which is too deep to be clearly and simply expressed.’ Ibid., 972. Or, in the words of David Starr Jordan, ‘Authority? There is no authority!’
”Such an approach would alleviate a good deal of the tensions, rivalry, and misunderstanding that have always accompanied research into the scriptures. Since there are no true authorities, there are no false ones; there are no ignoramuses, charlatans, or pseudo scholars, but only theories which may be more or less easily refuted. One does not have to be an expert to enter into the discussion, but the discussion itself will readily enough make clear who is equipped and how well and in what fields—degrees, honors, titles, credentials, and emoluments have nothing to do with the case; they are but the forlorn trappings of an authoritarianism that we have often been told has no place in true research. The only pseudo scholarship is that which claims authority and finality and so refuses to enter into the discussion. The new approach does away with such exquisite snobbery as the classic phrase, ‘the right to an opinion.’ Anybody has a right to an opinion, with the understanding, of course, that his opinion will be subjected to unsparing criticism.
”We can illustrate how the method of ‘problems—theories—criticism’ works by taking the case of Hermounts in the Book of Mormon. It is admittedly remarkably close in form and meaning to the Egyptian Hermonthis. But therewith the problem is not solved but only introduced. The resemblance between the two words has to be explained, and so we invent a theory, namely, that Joseph Smith must have had access to authentic ancient sources. That settles nothing, however, since (to quote Popper again) ‘the number of competing theories is always infinite,’ and we can think offhand of a dozen different theories to explain the Hermounts phenomenon. And so we come to the discussion, which will never settle the question but which may lead to the discovery of much new and relevant information.
”Where, then, does certitude lie? That is another issue that has come in for a good deal of discussion recently, and the growing consensus is a surprising one: Certitude lies only in inspiration, in that insight which in the last analysis defies analysis. For an interesting discussion of this, P. B. Medawar, ‘Is the Scientific Paper Fraudulent?’ Journal of Human Relations 13 (1965): 1–6; reprinted from Saturday Review (August 1, 1964). Even so, routine investigation is not a waste of time, for in the process of dealing with materials, certain convictions build up in the individual that, like a testimony of the gospel, are nontransferable but that comprise the most tangible and gratifying fruits of study.
”The Book of Mormon has always been a puzzle to the world. It is a problem and a challenge, but instead of being treated as such, it has always been taken as a final proof on the one hand that Joseph Smith was an imposter and on the other that he was an inspired prophet. With that deadlock we would leave it were it not that the book itself irresistibly invites testing. ‘Testability has degrees,’ according to Popper, and ‘a theory which asserts more, and thus takes greater risks, is better testable than a theory which asserts very little.’ Popper, ‘Science: Problems, Aims, Responsibilities,’ 966. Where can one find a bolder assertion than Joseph Smith’s claims for the Book of Mormon, or a greater willingness than he displayed to be tested by all the tests the ingenuity of man can devise?”