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Critics of the Book of Mormon have finally made a serious, detailed response to the large body of evidence for the Book of Mormon from the Arabian Peninsula. A good deal of this evidence has been featured here at Meridian Magazine over the years, including the discovery of a remarkable candidate for the place Bountiful meeting 12 key criteria from the Book of Mormon and recent archaeological confirmation that the rare NHM name existed before (and after) Lehi’s day in the right vicinity for Nahom. The growing body of evidence also includes an excellent candidate for the River Laman and Valley Lemuel and the place Shazer.[i]
Until now, few critics have seriously considered the evidence, instead generally nitpicking at details and insisting that the evidences are insignificant. Recently more meaningful responses have been offered at Patheos.com by two well educated writers showing familiarity with the Arabian evidences and the Book of Mormon. One comes from a history professor, Philip Jenkins, and the other from an anonymous Mormon, “RT,” with a divinity degree from Harvard. [ii] The two make a large number of seemingly damaging criticisms that I felt demanded a detailed response. Their attack goes far beyond what other critics have done, drilling down into the details of the Old World setting of the Book of Mormon often with sophisticated and extensive arguments to allege that it Nephi’s account is implausible, not historical, and easily explained by sources Joseph could have accessed.
Because I feel their work represents some of the best that our critics have been able to launch against the strongest evidence for Book of Mormon plausibility, it demands a detailed and thorough response, which is what I have attempted to provide in a two-part series that will appear in the Mormon Interpreter (mormoninterpreter.com) on April 1 and April 8 with the title, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Map.” In spite of the light-hearted title, the topic is serious and involves over 100 pages and over 350 footnotes, intended to be a useful reference for future readers. In addition, ongoing updates to the information provided and answers to other questions not covered in the two articles will be available at JeffLindsay.com/arabia/ (see also my “Book of Mormon Evidences” pages). Here I will give a brief overview of some highlights.
Overview of the Articles at the Interpreter
The article has four sections split across two parts. Section 1 is an overview of the attacks, exploring over 40 points that are levied against Lehi’s Trail, with brief responses to each. Some of these criticisms are interesting, thoughtful, and occasionally creative. They include arguments against the role of sacrifices in the Book of Mormon, the lack of information about others encountered, the implausibility of using camels (generally required for the distances to line up with the leading candidates for places like the River Laman and Shazer), objections to the apparent word play on Nahom, and many more. For each of these objections, I feel there are reasonable responses and often important information that has been overlooked. In many cases, the answers are already available in the best works on Lehi’s trail, such as Warren P. Aston’s magnificent new book, Lehi and Sariah in Arabia and the related DVD, Lehi in Arabia.
Section 2, also in Part 1, then reviews the state of our knowledge about Lehi’s Trail, including such highlights as the suitability of Wadi Tayyib al-Ism as a candidate for the Valley of Lemuel and the River Laman, the many evidences related to Bountiful, and the ability to reach it by following Nephi’s directions and actually going “nearly eastward” from Nahom.
Through ever better maps, exploration, archaeological work, and other scholarly investigation, our knowledge of the Arabian Peninsula has grown dramatically from Joseph’s day. Through all of this, not one detail in the account of Lehi’s Trail has been invalidated, though questions remain and much further work needs to be done. Importantly, aspects that were long ridiculed have become evidences for the Book of Mormon. There is a trend here that demands respect, and no mere map from Joseph’s day or even ours can account for this.
The Potential Role of Maps
What Joseph theoretically could have achieved with the best maps in his day is the topic of Section 3, published in Part 2. There we review the details available on 11 leading high-end maps that include something related to Nahom (Nehem or Nehhm). We find that these high-end, European, and generally not widely accessible maps would have offered little assistance for a young or even experienced fabricator. While they could provide inspiration for a name mentioned once in the Book of Mormon, and could have informed Joseph of the general location of the Red Sea and Arabia, the theory that Joseph used such a map raises far more questions than it answers. For example, if he had a map, why was almost nothing on it used except an obscure name like Nehem that would mean nothing to his readers? If he used a map, why did he ignore the information they give and put Bountiful on the east coast? What could possibly have told him Bountiful would be nearly due east of Nahom? And how could he have guessed the existence of the River Laman or the hunting area near Shazer?
In Section 3 we also consider the availability of such maps, including the creative theory that the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 could have created an information-rich environment for Joseph that would have made it easy to access abundant data for his Book of Mormon project. Could Joseph have obtained detailed information to support his drafting of 1 Nephi by surfing the “Erie Information Supercanal”? That romantic notion doesn’t withstand analysis.
Further, if Joseph was relying on the information that he might find in libraries, bookstores, and cargo loads of information floating down the Supercanal, why did he leave his Bountiful-like oasis of information in 1827 and go into exile to a data desert, the virtual Empty Quarter of information in Harmony Township, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania (not the current Harmony near Pittsburgh), which didn’t even have a library and was far from the “Supercanal” and Joseph’s potential information networks? Joseph’s behavior shows that he apparently did not feel a need to be near bookstores, libraries, and his fellow farmer literati to search through documents every verse or so to come up with tidbits like the name Nahom for the purpose of adding evidence that would never be exploited and local color that no one else in his century would ever notice.
The “Exodus Never Happened” Theory
Section 4 in Part 2 considers an important argument that may catch some readers by surprise. RT argues that it is “well known” and the result of broad consensus that the Exodus account, which Nephi is obviously familiar with and incorporates in his own description of their exodus, is mere fiction, a tale that wasn’t broadly known among the Jews until after the Exile. This claim derives from modern bible scholars who have dissected the text in efforts to explain its diverse origins. The “Documentary Hypothesis,” one of the leading theories used to explain origins of the Bible based on several hypothetical source documents, is a problem for Lehi’s Trail only if we accept a late post-exilic date for the Exodus-related sources. However, significant scholars such as Richard Elliot Friedman, find strong reasons for assigning earlier dates to the priestly material said to be a source for much of Exodus, and finds reasons to accept that some kind of historical Exodus from Egypt occurred.
Indeed, there are significant reasons to question the claimed but illusory consensus about the non-historical nature of the Exodus, and to recognize that it is plausible for that record to have been on sacred written records in Nephi’s day. We will explore some of these reasons and find that rejecting the evidence in Arabia for Lehi’s Trail on the basis of the alleged lack of evidence from Egypt for the Exodus is an ironic and unfortunate application of biblical scholarship. If anything, what we learn from Arabia and the Book of Mormon may now be able to help us temper some of the claims being made by radical revisionists in biblical studies, the “minimalists,” who seek to discard much of the Bible as non-historical pious fiction. Nephi’s record, buttressed with hard evidence from Arabia, may be just the thing the scholarly world needs right now.
From the absence of evidence for any map he could access to the details of the scribal process and its setting during the translation to the behavior of Joseph and his peers after the Book was published, everything about Lehi’s Trail in the Book of Mormon contradicts theories of fabrication by Joseph using maps and books of his day. The theories of fabrication fail to account for the text of the Book of Mormon. They fail to account for the evidences from the Arabian Peninsula. They fail to account for Joseph’s behavior during and after translation, such as moving far away from the Erie Canal to carry out the work of translation, and the lack of any effort to exploit the built-in evidence. Fabrication using a map simply makes no sense. How? With what? And especially, for what purpose? Jenkins’ “local color” theory makes no sense.
The inability of even a modern Dream Map to explain the crown jewels of the Arabian evidence for Book of Mormon plausibility is well illustrated by one of the most interesting and counterintuitive aspects of Bountiful: its apparently pristine, uninhabited state when Nephi arrived. Remarkably, after having studied the best maps of Arabia and reviewed extensive information about Arabia, with the world’s treasures of knowledge at his fingertips as he prepared his heavily footnoted critique of Lehi’s Trail, our very educated and very modern RT concludes that it would “simply be impossible” for a place like Bountiful to be uninhabited.[iii] That argument was fairly reasonable once, until the day a weary Warren Aston and his 14-year-old daughter stepped off a boat to explore a secluded area that didn’t look at all promising from the sea, only to discover what careful work would confirm is a remarkable and still uninhabited candidate for Bountiful.[iv] That’s one of many important details in our crown jewels from Arabia that even well trained modern scholars with a world of maps can’t quite figure out. If understanding Bountiful is beyond their abilities, it certainly wasn’t possible for Joseph to come up with that, no matter how many books and maps he downloaded from the Erie Information Supercanal.
Our modern critics also miss the significance of the eastward turn that so beautifully and plausibly links Nahom and Bountiful. And there are many more details from the evidence that simply cannot be explained from maps in Joseph’s day. Plucking Nehem off a map doesn’t explain the mystery of Nahom in the “right place” — meaning a Nahom where you can physically turn east and survive, a Nahom where you can find a verdant Bountiful nearly due east on the coast, a Nahom that is associated with ancient burial places, and a Nahom with a name linked to an ancient tribe that was obviously present in Lehi’s day, courtesy of archaeological evidence. Those details aren’t on any map that Joseph could have seen, unless it’s in somebody’s dreams.
I must emphasize that the Arabian evidence, useful as it is, must not be understood as “proving” the Book of Mormon to be true. In the Gospel plan, faith is essential, so we understand that evidence should generally play a secondary role such helping individuals facing intellectual obstacles to have the courage and hope needed to move forward in faith. Sometimes, however, the evidence, mercifully, can do more than just help a traveler step over a nasty new barrier on the path. Sometimes the evidence is a gift box laden with nutrition and sweet delights for those willing to open it and taste. The evidence from Arabia is such a gift, in my opinion, and must not be minimalized, in spite of secular imperatives to do so at all costs. It is a case where there are mighty strengths in the Book of Mormon that demand to be considered and applied. So far, detailed, lengthy, and creative efforts to turn those strengths back into weakness have failed.
[i] Exemplary sources include the following books: Warren P. Aston and Michaela K. Aston, In the Footsteps of Lehi (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Comp., 1994); Warren P. Aston, Lehi and Sariah in Arabia: The Old World Setting of the Book of Mormon (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris Publishing, 2015); and George Potter and Richard Wellington, Lehi in the Wilderness: 81 New, Documented Evidences that the Book of Mormon is a True History (Springville, UT: Cedar Fort, Inc., 2003). For videos, see Lehi in Arabia, DVD, directed by Chad Aston (Brisbane, Australia: Aston Productions, 2015) and Journey of Faith, DVD, directed by Peter Johnson (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute of Religious Scholarship, 2006), https://journeyoffaithfilms.com/. Many other relevant publications will be cited hereafter.
[ii] The three-part series for Faith Promoting Rumor was authored by the anonymous writer “RT”: RT, “Nahom and Lehi’s Journey through Arabia: A Historical Perspective, Part 1” (hereafter Part 1), Faith Promoting Rumor, Patheos.com, Sept. 14, 2015, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithpromotingrumor/2015/09/nahom-and-lehis-journey-through-arabia-a-historical-perspective/; also RT, “Nahom and Lehi’s Journey through Arabia: A Historical Perspective, Part 2” (hereafter Part 2), Faith Promoting Rumor, Patheos.com, Oct. 6, 2015, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithpromotingrumor/2015/10/nahom-and-lehis-journey-through-arabia-a-historical-perspective-part-2/; and also RT, “Nahom and Lehi’s Journey through Arabia: A Historical Perspective, Part 3” (hereafter Part 3), Faith Promoting Rumor, Patheos.com, Oct. 24, 2015; https://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithpromotingrumor/2015/10/nahom-and-lehis-journey-through-arabia-a-historical-perspective-part-3/. As for RT’s identity, the author information at Faith Promoting Rumor states that he is a lifelong member of the Church and a graduate of Harvard Divinity School. See “Guest Blogger: RT” at Patheos.com, Sept. 26, 2011; https://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithpromotingrumor/2011/09/guest-blogger-rt/.
[iii] RT, “Part 1.”
[iv] Lehi in Arabia, DVD, at 31:00 to 33:45.