Serious study of the Book of Mormon by Latter-day Saints is flourishing today as never before.1 And, with more study, the book’s sturdiness and richness and the remarkable accomplishment of its translator, the Prophet Joseph Smith, become more apparent for everyone to see.2
Of course, scholarship does not replace spiritual witness as a source of testimony. As Elder B. H. Roberts (1857–1933) of the Seventy said: “The power of the Holy Ghost … must ever be the chief source of evidence for the Book of Mormon. All other evidence is secondary. … No arrangement of evidence, however skillfully ordered; no argument, however adroitly made, can ever take its place.”
Yet scholarship has a definite place even in spiritual matters. The Lord said in an 1829 revelation through the Prophet Joseph Smith to Oliver Cowdery, “Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost” (D&C 8:2; emphasis added). In 1832 the Lord said to the Prophet Joseph Smith, “Seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118). As one writer observed: “What no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish.”3
For one thing, careful scholarship helps us to understand more fully, deeply, and precisely. “To be known, the truth must be stated,” Elder Roberts said, “and the clearer and more complete the statement is, the better opportunity will the Holy Spirit have for testifying to the souls of men that the work is true.”4
The April 1986 general conference, in which President Ezra Taft Benson was sustained as President of the Church, was a turning point for studying and applying the teachings of the Book of Mormon. Citing Doctrine and Covenants 84:54–57 [D&C 84:54–57], President Benson said that the Church had neglected its charter scripture and that “now, in our day, the Lord has revealed the need to reemphasize the Book of Mormon.” He blessed the Saints with “increased understanding” of the book.5
That blessing has been and clearly continues to be fulfilled. Thankfully, a spirit of attentiveness to the Book of Mormon had already begun working upon the Church. As one indicator only, the publication of serious studies on or about the Book of Mormon rose 50 percent in the late 1970s and exploded another 230 percent in the early 1980s. And the surge continues.6 This article summarizes a few highlights of what research has taught us about the Book of Mormon and its ancient setting.
For a brief period in the late 1820s, the Prophet Joseph Smith did indeed possess the gold plates. That is among the most securely established facts in Latter-day Saint history. In addition to Joseph Smith, 11 official witnesses and several unofficial witnesses testified to the existence of the plates and, in some cases, to dramatic supernatural confirmation of their truth. Meticulous research on these witnesses has confirmed their good character and the veracity of their accounts.7
What is more, although the Prophet’s critics found his claim of angelic visits and gold plates ridiculous, we now know that the writing of religious texts on metal plates (sometimes on gold), was an authentic ancient practice. Indeed, the ancient practice now is known to have occurred at precisely the era and place from which Book of Mormon peoples came.8 In fact, with the Copper Scroll and other materials from the Dead Sea, we have an almost exact parallel: like the ancient Nephite plates, these materials were sealed up in a hillside just prior to military disaster, to preserve them for a future time.
The Book of Mormon claims to have been written in “reformed Egyptian” (Morm. 9:32). Most who have studied the subject conclude that this signifies writing the Hebrew language in modified Egyptian characters. In recent years, we have learned that several ancient documents were written in precisely that fashion.9
The title page of the Book of Mormon declares that it was to come forth “by the gift and power of God.” Recent evidence and scholarship indicates that this is exactly what would have had to happen.10 In addition, the evidence indicates that the translation and dictation of the book were accomplished in roughly 63 working days—a torrid pace that, with neither rewrites nor corrections, produced nearly 8.5 pages (of our current English edition) daily.11
Further, there is no evidence at all that Joseph Smith did any scholarly research, or even that he read very much, before the Book of Mormon appeared.12 In fact, he may not even have owned a Bible at the time of translation.13 Joseph Smith had spent the bulk of his time as a youth cutting trees, burning brush, clearing rocks, and plowing. He had received at most a few months of formal schooling. His mother later recalled that, even into his late teens, “he seemed much less inclined to the perusal of books than any of the rest of our children.”14
His wife Emma reports that, in the late 1820s, Joseph “could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well worded letter, let alone dictate a book like the Book of Mormon. … The larger part of this labor [of translation] was done [in] my presence and where I could see and know what was being done. … During no part of it did Joseph Smith have any [manuscripts] or book of any kind from which to read or dictate except the metalic [sic] plates which I knew he had.”15 “If,” she said, “he had had anything of the kind he could not have concealed it from me.”16
And, she added, writing to her son: “I am satisfied that no man could have dictated the writing of the manuscripts unless he was inspired; for, when acting as his scribe, your father would dictate to me hour after hour; and when returning after meals, or after interruptions, he would at once begin where he had left off, without either seeing the manuscript or having any portion of it read to him. This was a usual thing for him to do. It would have been improbable that a learned man could do this; and, for one so ignorant and unlearned as he was, it was simply impossible.”17
In recent years, rigorous statistical analysis strongly indicates that neither Joseph Smith nor any of his known associates composed the English text of the Book of Mormon. In fact, research suggests that the book was written by numerous distinct authors.18
And research shows that the book does not seem to fit the culture of early 19th-century America. There is little of the military romanticism of Joseph Smith’s America. Instead, we see grimly realistic portrayals of war’s devastation and suffering. And in the story of the Gadianton robbers we have a detailed, realistic portrayal of a prolonged guerrilla struggle—lacking any trace of fife and drum, uniforms, or parades—published well over a century before the guerrilla theorists of the 20th century put pens to paper.19
The Book of Mormon does fit what we know of the ancient world. Its early account of Jerusalem just before the Babylonian captivity gains in plausibility as research continues to accumulate.20 For example, the name of Lehi’s wife, Sariah, previously unknown outside the Book of Mormon, has been found in ancient Jewish documents from Egypt.21 Likewise, the nonbiblical name Nephi belongs to the very time and place of the first Book of Mormon figure who bears it.22 Nephi’s slaying of Laban and the justification given to him by the Lord for doing so can now be seen as instruction that focused on the culture of Nephi’s era.23
The imagery in Nephi’s vision is deeply rooted in ancient Near Eastern symbolism with which Joseph Smith could not have been familiar.24 Moreover, its predictions are strikingly accurate. Consider 1 Nephi 13:12 [1 Ne. 13:12], a passage generally applied to Christopher Columbus: “And I looked and beheld a man among the Gentiles, who was separated from the seed of my brethren by the many waters; and I beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and wrought upon the man; and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land.”
Many have been accustomed to see in Columbus merely an adventurer seeking to open trade routes to the East Indies. But with the recent publication of Columbus’s private Book of Prophecies, we see how accurate the Book of Mormon’s description of him is. He said he was guided by the Holy Spirit, and he was eager not only to spread Christianity but to fulfill biblical prophecies. Among his favorite passages were John 10:16, with its reference to “other sheep,” and the passages of Isaiah concerning the people on the “isles of the sea.”25 These are the very passages that the Book of Mormon applies to itself.26
In his 1952 essay “Lehi in the Desert,” Hugh Nibley illuminated Lehi’s land journey from Jerusalem by placing it along the coast of the Arabian peninsula.27 Since that time, Latter-day Saint scholars and explorers have refined our understanding of that route through actual visits and systematic surveys of the area, enabling us to identify likely Book of Mormon locations in Arabia.28 The Book of Mormon account of Lehi’s Arabian sojourn is remarkably accurate to numerous specific geographic conditions, but no scholar in the 19th century, let alone Joseph Smith, could have known of it.29
Lehi’s epic journey from Jerusalem to the New World endured in the memory of his descendants, who saw it as a signal instance of God’s miraculous power much like the Israelites’ earlier deliverance from Egyptian bondage.30 In fact, careful modern readings show that the very terms in which Lehi’s journey was described and remembered derive from the biblical account of the Exodus. The literary crafting of the story is both very sophisticated and authentically Near Eastern.31
In its smallest details, the Book of Mormon reveals its roots in the ancient Near East. For example, the system of exchange set out in Alma 11:3–19 recalls ancient Babylonian economic legislation.32 And, after Zemnarihah’s execution (3 Ne. 4:28), the tree upon which he had been hanged was ritually chopped down, just as ancient Jewish law required.33 The oath of allegiance taken by Nephite soldiers in Alma 46:21–22 is almost identical in form to military oaths among ancient Israelite and Hittite warriors.34 And the curse of speechlessness placed upon Korihor in Alma 30:49 finds striking ancient parallels.35
King Benjamin’s classic address in Mosiah 2–5 occupies roughly 11 pages in the current English edition, which means that Joseph Smith may have dictated this doctrinally rich text of nearly 5,000 words in a little more than one day. Recent research shows that the sermon is intimately linked with the ancient Israelite Feast of Tabernacles and the Day of Atonement, as well as with archaic treaty and covenant formulas and early Near Eastern coronation festivals.36 Even the physical setting of the speech—delivered while the king stood upon a tower (see Mosiah 2:7)—is ritually appropriate to the occasion. But the Prophet Joseph Smith could not have learned this from the English Bibles or any other books available to him.37
Likewise, he could not have known that the ancient Hebrew term moshia’ signifies a champion of justice against oppression, appointed by God, whose mission it is to liberate a chosen people from oppression, especially by nonviolent means. The term does not occur in the English of the King James Bible. But such nonviolent deliverance is a major theme of the book of Mosiah.38
The appearance of the two men named Alma in the Book of Mormon has occasioned much comment from critics. They observe that Alma is a woman’s name and Latin rather than Hebrew. (Many recognize the phrase alma mater, which means “beneficent mother” and refers to the school from which someone has graduated.) They are correct, of course. If Joseph Smith knew the name Alma at all in the early 19th century, he would have known it as a woman’s name in Latin. Recent documentary finds demonstrate, however, that Alma also occurs as a Semitic masculine personal name in the ancient Near East—just as it does in the Book of Mormon.39
Alma 7:10 predicts that Jesus “shall be born of Mary, at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers.” Is this a mistake? Everyone knows that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, not in Jerusalem. But it is now plain from modern evidence that Bethlehem could be, and indeed was, regarded anciently as a town in the “land of Jerusalem.”
A recently released text from the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example—a text claiming origin in Jeremiah’s days (and therefore in Lehi’s)—says that the Jews of that period were “taken captive from the land of Jerusalem.”40 Joseph Smith could not have learned this from the Bible, though, for no such language appears in it.
The recent discovery in the Book of Mormon of its characteristically ancient literary structure or technique known as chiasmus—a rhetorical device overlooked by biblical scholarship until decades after Joseph Smith’s death—is another powerful indicator of the record’s antiquity.41 The same literary structure has now been identified in pre-Columbian America.42 An understanding of the chiastic construction of Alma 36 also impressively deepens our understanding of the Christ-centered character of that entire chapter and of the Book of Mormon’s witness as a whole.
Another intriguing example of chiasmus occurs in Helaman 6:10 [Hel. 6:10]. Here, the chiastic turning point rests on an equivalence between the word Lord and the royal name Zedekiah. But those words are only equivalent for readers who are aware that the term Lord probably stands (as it does in the King James Bible) for the divine name Jehovah or Yahweh, and that the -iah element in Zedekiah is the first portion of that same divine name. Also this chiasm works better in Hebrew than in English, which is an important and remarkable clue to the original language of the Book of Mormon.43
Many such clues appear among the book’s place names. Jershon, for instance, designates a place that was given to the people of Anti-Nephi-Lehi as a “land … for an inheritance” (Alma 27:22). In Hebrew, Jershon means “a place of inheritance.”44 Joseph Smith simply would not have known this in the late 1820s.
The allegory of the olive tree in Jacob 5 shows a clear knowledge of olive cultivation far beyond what Joseph Smith, growing up in the American Northeast, could have possessed. But it is entirely consistent, in impressive detail, with what we learn from ancient manuals on olive cultivation.45 Likewise, the account of the great destruction given in 3 Nephi 8 [3 Ne. 8] finds remarkable parallels with what modern seismology and vulcanology show about cataclysmic geological events and with historical reports of such catastrophes. Yet Joseph Smith never saw a volcano and never experienced a significant earthquake, nor is it likely he had read any substantial literature on the subject.46
But the region of Mesoamerica—particularly southern Mexico and Guatemala, where many suggest that much of the Book of Mormon story may have happened—is a place of continuing volcanic and seismic activity. Painstaking research of John L. Sorenson and others has demonstrated the plausibility of the complex geographical data contained in the Book of Mormon. It suggests many fascinating correlations with what we continue to learn about life in ancient Mesoamerica.47
As Latter-day Saints, we must never take the Book of Mormon for granted. Its sheer existence is astonishing. That it was produced by an almost completely uneducated young man constitutes a challenge to the entire world. Yet its historical narrative is sober and realistic. Its content is rich, profound, and subtly complex.48 And though dictated at a rapid pace, it tells a highly consistent and very complex story involving scores of place and personal names and internal quotations.49
Persons who choose to dismiss the Book of Mormon must find their own ideas for explaining it and the mounting evidence for its authenticity. And while we will never “prove” the Book of Mormon true, the trajectory of the evidence strongly suggests that it is exactly what it claims to be, a book worthy of our deep study, reflection, and serious personal prayer. Thousands of hours of research have produced the current blossoming of Book of Mormon studies that bless the lives of Latter-day Saints. They cannot be lightly brushed aside.
The conclusion of the matter is that much modern evidence supports the more powerful witness of the Holy Ghost that the Book of Mormon is true. Joseph Smith, who translated it, had to be what he said he was, a prophet of God. The Church of Jesus Christ has been restored. Most important, the Book of Mormon and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints affirm that Jesus is the Christ, the divine Savior of the world, and that He will come someday in the future in the manner that the scriptures herald.