"Another Testament of Jesus Christ." Such is the modern subtitle of The Book of Mormon, a book first published in 1830 but purporting to be a translation of an ancient Scripture penned in the Western Hemisphere between 600 B.C. and A.D. 421. The main story line of the Book of Mormon tells of a migration of an Israelite family from Jerusalem shortly before the Babylonian Exile to a land across the ocean (somewhere in the Americas), and of the history of two peoples, the Nephites and the Lamanites, descended from that family. The most famous part of the Book of Mormon story is of the appearance of Jesus Christ after His resurrection to preach to the Nephites.
The Book of Mormon was produced by Joseph Smith, a young man who claimed to have been led by an angel to the spot where the golden plates on which the Book of Mormon had been written were buried. It is considered Scripture and one of the four standard works (along with the Bible, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price) of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon Church. It is also accepted as Scripture by the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and dozens of other LDS splinter sects. Some ten million people worldwide accept the Book of Mormon as Scripture -- the only modern book to gain such acceptance.
The critical question to be answered about the Book of Mormon is whether it is true. There are several levels on which this question can be entertained.
First, we can ask whether the Book of Mormon is inerrant. That is, we can ask if it is completely free of historical, scientific, and other factual errors. The answer to this question is simply No. Most Mormons will readily admit that the Book of Mormon is not inerrant. The preface to the Book of Mormon states, "And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men " This is, of course, a truism -- one is tempted to say, "No kidding!" -- but its point is that the Book of Mormon should be accepted as divinely inspired despite the presence of human error: " wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ." This means for Mormons that the Book of Mormon cannot be rejected wholesale on the basis of minor discrepancies or inaccuracies. From a Mormon perspective, the Book of Mormon can have such mistakes and still be what it claims to be, an ancient collection of scriptural writings translated for the modern world by the prophet Joseph Smith.
The second way in which we can put the question of truth is to ask if the Book of Mormon is inspired by God. Now, from an evangelical perspective -- and, I would add, from a biblical point of view -- the fact that the Book of Mormon is errant is enough to disqualify it immediately as inspired. If "all Scripture is God-breathed" (2 Tim. 3:16), then Scripture cannot err, since God cannot breathe or speak error.1 If, as Jesus Himself taught, not the smallest letter or part of a letter will pass away from the Old Testament until it has all been fulfilled (Matt. 5:18), then the Old Testament at least must be without error; and if the Old Testament is inerrant, any future Scripture will have to meet that standard of truth.
The Mormon Test
The very last chapter of the Book of Mormon contains its own suggested test for confirming its inspiration. The reader is encouraged to "ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost" (Moroni 10:4). Mormons routinely cite this passage and urge prospective converts to read the Book of Mormon and ask God if it is true. They "bear their testimony" to having done so themselves and knowing that the Book of Mormon is true.
There are some serious objections to this approach to validating the inspiration of the Book of Mormon. First of all, some people have followed this prescription of Moroni 10:4 and concluded that the Book of Mormon is not true. That is, they have read the Book of Mormon, asking God to show them whether it is true or not, and have not received a testimony of its truth but have instead become convinced that it is false. All a Mormon can really say to such persons is that they must not have prayed "with a sincere heart" or "real intent." But on what basis can this judgment be made? Only on the assumption that the Book of Mormon is true -- that is, only by assuming the very thing in question.
Second, the Moroni 10:4 prescription is not supported by the Bible and in fact contradicts the Bible. Sometimes Mormons cite James 1:5 in support. However, James 1:5 is speaking about believers asking God for wisdom to overcome temptation (James 1:2-18), not about unbelievers asking God to reveal to them whether a particular book is Scripture. The Bible tells us to apply objective tests to alleged revelations (Deut. 13:1-5; Matt. 7:15-23; 1 John 4:1-6), not to seek a purely subjective revelation of the truth of a written revelation.2
The Biblical Tests
This leads us to ask what biblical tests can be applied to the question of the inspiration of the Book of Mormon. We must first recognize that one of the most commonly used arguments against the inspiration of the Book of Mormon, while based on a true premise, is probably invalid. It is often urged that the Book of Mormon cannot be Scripture because the canon of Scripture was closed upon the death of the apostles. While I do believe that the canon was closed then and that only the Old and New Testaments can constitute Scripture until Christ returns, this belief is notoriously difficult to prove by simply citing biblical proof texts. But the more telling point here is that about 96 per cent of the Book of Mormon is alleged to have been written prior to the end of the first century A.D. The closed-canon test, then, is probably unhelpful in this case, especially from a Mormon perspective.
There are, though, a number of other biblical tests that can be applied. We will briefly discuss two of the most important of these here.
The gospel test. A simple test that may be applied is to ask whether the Book of Mormon presents the same gospel as the New Testament. We are explicitly told to apply such a test by the apostle Paul (Gal. 1:6-9; 2 Cor. 11:4).
Unfortunately, the Book of Mormon is all too clear on this score. It flatly asserts that the Bible as we have it was corrupted by the Gentiles, who "have taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious that they might pervert the right ways of the Lord," so that the gospel had to be restored through the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 13:26-27, cf. 13:20-42). This statement forces the issue. The gospel that we have received, that we find in the New Testament, is supposedly one that has been stripped and perverted. If this is so, then the New Testament is unreliable and we must accept the gospel of the Book of Mormon as expounded by the latter-day restored church. On the other hand, if we assume that the New Testament contains the whole gospel of salvation and that any new or different gospel is to be rejected, then the Book of Mormon cannot be accepted as inspired.
Note that we do not need to argue with a Mormon about what the true gospel is or is not. It is enough that the Book of Mormon itself says that traditional Christianity and Mormonism have two different and incompatible versions of the gospel of Christ. So, whatever the Mormon gospel, it cannot be the same gospel as we find in the Bible. If it were, Mormonism would have no reason to exist.
The God test. Another key test set forth in Scripture is that any revelation from God must reveal the same God as the one already revealed to us. Even anyone performing miracles or making successful predictions must be rejected if he does so in the name of a different god (Deut. 13:1-5).
The Book of Mormon, of course, does not overtly present a different God than that of the Bible. It does not claim to reveal Zeus or Baal or even Allah. However, the conception of God does differ somewhat from that of the Bible. The New Testament reveals the one God (1 Cor. 8:4-6; James 2:19; etc.) to exist eternally in three persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19; John 1:1-18; John 14-16; 2 Peter 1:1; etc.). In the New Testament the Father and the Son are distinct persons (e.g., John 8:16-18; 14:23; Rom. 1:7; 2 John 3).3 The Book of Mormon, by contrast, presents the Father and the Son as two modes of the one person of God -- the Father as God in heaven, and the Son as God manifested on the earth (e.g., Mosiah 15:1-4). In theological language, the Bible view of God is trinitarian, while that of the Book of Mormon is monarchian.4
If the Book of Mormon doctrine of God differs somewhat from the biblical doctrine, it is radically different from what since about 1916 has been the standard Mormon doctrine of God.5 In this standard doctrine the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three Gods; God the Father has not always been God but attained Godhood by a process of exaltation; the Father and Son each have separate bodies of flesh and bones; and human beings can attain Godhood by following the same path to exaltation as that of the Father. The Book of Mormon doctrine of God is so different from current Mormon Church doctrine that we may legitimately conclude that at least one of these two sources of doctrine -- the Book of Mormon or the Mormon Church -- misrepresents God and teaches blatant falsehood about God. Either way, the Book of Mormon fails to past the God test.
These are just two of the most important tests that can be applied to the Book of Mormon to determine if it is inspired by God. In effect they are two examples of a broader test, namely, the coherence test: does the Book of Mormon agree with the Bible? Clearly, in some very important matters, it does not.
Yet there is another, even more basic test that can be applied. Call it the authenticity test: Is the Book of Mormon authentic? That is, is it essentially what it purports to be, and is it therefore basically reliable? Jesus, speaking in the Bible, indicated that such a test is appropriate when he said, "I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?" (John 3:12). In other words, a source that cannot be trusted in mundane matters cannot be trusted in spiritual, transcendent matters. This leads us to the final level on which the question of truth can be raised.
The third level on which the question of the truth of the Book of Mormon can be asked has to do with the integrity of the work. The issue on this level is neither its factual inerrancy nor its divine inspiration. Rather, the issue is whether the work is at all what it claims to be.
Let us imagine two scenarios. In the first, the Book of Mormon is in fact a translation from golden plates of an ancient collection of writings penned by Nephite prophets in the Americas between 600 B.C. and A.D. 421. Let us further suppose that they do indeed belong to the genre of historical records, as they generally purport, and that in the main the records are to be treated as serious efforts to record actual events. In this case the Book of Mormon may be pronounced authentic and possessing documentary integrity. It would not follow necessarily that the documents are inspired, but they might be -- were it not for its failure to past tests of inspiration as discussed previously.
In the second scenario, the Book of Mormon is in fact a work of fiction originating from Joseph Smith (with or without plagiarizing of other writings). It owes nothing to ancient Nephite prophets (whether or not transatlantic voyages from the Middle East to the Americas ever occurred). Its existence begins in the early nineteenth century. Yet Joseph Smith and his early followers unanimously claimed that the Book of Mormon was an ancient work as imagined in the first scenario. In this case the Book of Mormon must be judged inauthentic and lacking integrity. It would then follow necessarily that the Book of Mormon is not inspired, even if we did not have the other tests for inspiration discussed earlier. Again, this is because a source that lacks integrity in the mundane matter of being what it claims to be certainly cannot be trusted to reveal truth from God.
The evidence for the inauthenticity of the Book of Mormon is actually quite overwhelming. In the space remaining I will touch on just some of the evidence.
Sources of the Book of Mormon
As is well known, the Book of Mormon contains numerous sentences and paragraphs and in many cases whole chapters repeated from the Bible, usually duplicating the King James Version nearly word-for-word. A whopping 18 out of 55 chapters in the first two books of the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 20-21; 2 Nephi 12-24, 27) are acknowledged duplications of chapters from Isaiah in the Bible (Isaiah 48-52; 2-14, 29, 53). In the remainder of the Book of Mormon a full 7 chapters are repeated from the Bible (Mosiah 14 = Isaiah 53; 3 Nephi 12-14 = Matthew 5-7; 3 Nephi 22 = Isaiah 54; 3 Nephi 24-25 = Malachi 3-4). In all, over one-tenth of the chapters in the Book of Mormon are repetitions of chapters in the Bible. Yet this is just the tip of the iceberg, since biblical statements are found scattered throughout the Book of Mormon. It is probably fair to say that at least one-fifth of the Book of Mormon is taken from the Bible.
Recently a Mormon scholar, John Welch, attempted to show that the near duplication of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) in the Book of Mormon (3 Nephi 12-14) actually contains evidence supporting the view that the Book of Mormon version is a record of an actual reuse of the Sermon by Jesus in an ancient Central American setting. Upon closer examination, however, the opposite turns out to be the case: abundant evidence exists beyond the mere repetition of the words of the Sermon proving that it was plagiarized in the nineteenth century, not repeated by Jesus in the first century. For instance, the Sermon in the Book of Mormon refers to synagogues, a Jewish institution that did not originate until after the supposed journey of Lehi and his family from Jerusalem just before the Babylonian captivity.6 This kind of problem crops up in the Book of Mormon with astonishing regularity.
The Book of Mormon plagiarizes much more than the Bible. Among the several sources that have been identified as plagiarized in the Book of Mormon, one of the most striking is Ethan Smith's View of the Hebrews (1823), in which one researcher found over sixty significant parallels to the Book of Mormon.7 There is even significant evidence for the belief that the basic work itself was plagiarized from a novel by Solomon Spalding.8 What is really beyond serious dispute is the conclusion that the Book of Mormon makes use of various sources that reflect an origin in the nineteenth, not the fifth, century.
No Physical Evidence
The positive evidence for a nineteenth century origin of the Book of Mormon based on a source analysis is matched by the negative lack of evidence for its originating in the ancient world. One of the most striking problems for the Book of Mormon is the absolute lack of physical evidence that the book ever existed prior to the 1820s. We do not mean evidence that the Book of Mormon is true in all or even most of its details; we mean evidence that the Book of Mormon so much as existed prior to its publication by Joseph Smith. This is an important distinction, because we are not denying a place for "faith" in the sense of believing things that go beyond what we can verify empirically. We are simply saying that faith must be based on something with a decent measure of credibility, something totally lacking in the case of the Book of Mormon.
Bibliographical evidence. The most direct sort of proof for the existence of the Book of Mormon before the 1820s would be copies that can be dated as having been produced before that time. Such evidence is absolutely lacking, as all Mormons admit. The golden plates have been conveniently taken into custody by an angel. The only copy of alleged Book of Mormon characters, the so-called Anthon transcript, was written by Joseph Smith himself, is untranslatable, and poses severe problems for anyone wanting to defend the Book of Mormon.9 No ancient document duplicating or quoting from any portion of the Book of Mormon has ever been found anywhere -- except, of course, for those portions of the Book of Mormon quoting from the Bible! By contrast, hundreds of manuscript copies of the Bible dating between the first century B.C. and the third century A.D., and thousands more dating from the fourth century on, can be viewed by the public in museums and university libraries all over the world.
Nor is there any indirect physical evidence supporting the historical claims of the Book of Mormon. We may classify such missing evidence into several categories.
Linguistical evidence. There is no evidence for such a language as "Reformed Egyptian," the language in which the Book of Mormon was supposedly written. Nor is there any evidence that languages of the Native American peoples in the Western Hemisphere were influenced by the Egyptian or Hebrew languages. By contrast, of course, we have abundant evidence of the existence of the biblical languages not only from ancient copies of the biblical writings themselves but also from archaeological finds such as scrolls, papyri, and other objects on which writing in those languages appear.
Anthropological evidence. There is no evidence for the introduction of a Semitic ethnic people into the Western Hemisphere at any time prior to the second millennium A.D. By contrast, of course, the basic history of the Semitic peoples in the Middle East, including that of the Israelites in Old Testament times and the Jews in New Testament times, is beyond dispute.
Geographical evidence. There is no evidence for the existence of the many places named in the Book of Mormon as existing in the Western Hemisphere. Zarahemla, Nephi, Manti, Cumorah, and Mormon have yet to be found. The lands of Nephi and Zarahemla cannot be identified with any lands in the Americas. Despite the specific references in the Book of Mormon to the lands northward and southward, a narrow neck of land connecting them, and the four seas (Alma 22:32; Helaman 3:8), Mormon scholars cannot reach a consensus on how these lands and seas are to be correlated with the geography of the Americas. Indeed, their best guesses place the Book of Mormon lands entirely in Central America, despite the fact that the Book of Mormon was supposedly discovered buried in a hill in upstate New York! By contrast, we know exactly where the Dead Sea, the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River, Egypt, Syria, Babylon, Jerusalem, Rome, Athens, Corinth, and a host of other biblical place names were located.10
Biographical evidence. There is no evidence for the existence of any of the Book of Mormon characters other than those who appear in the Bible. Lehi, Nephi, Omni, Mosiah, Alma, Mormon, and all of the other distinctive Book of Mormon characters are completely unattested figures. By contrast, many of the figures of the Bible, from Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus to Herod, Tiberius, and Pontius Pilate, are known from extrabiblical sources.
Historical evidence. There is no evidence for the many specific events described in the Book of Mormon. In particular, there is no evidence for a transatlantic voyage of Israelites in the sixth century B.C., and no evidence for the occurrence of the massive wars said to have been fought by Lehi's descendants in the New World. By contrast, many of the biblical events are directly corroborated by external records or archaeological evidence (e.g., the expansion of Israelite military power in the reigns of David and Solomon; the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests of Israel and Judah; and the ministries and deaths of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ).
Thus in every respect the evidence -- bibliographical, linguistical, anthropological, geographical, biographical, and historical -- is sorely lacking for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. In this light, honest persons have no choice but to conclude that the Book of Mormon is not authentic ancient literature. It is therefore lacking in that basic documentary integrity required of any book that would be taken seriously at all, let alone accepted as revelation from God.
The Book of Mormon is not inerrant; even most Mormons would admit that much. But we have seen good reasons to conclude that it is not inspired, either. In fact, the Book of Mormon cannot even stand a test of its basic integrity as an alleged ancient work. Thus, whether we are focusing on the matter of inerrancy, inspiration, or integrity, we must conclude that the Book of Mormon is not true.
Reprinted with permission from The Association for Theological Studies Newsletter, volume 4, issue 1, March-May 1993