The non-existent scraps of evidence are forming a hefty pile that demands a little attention. No, we are not able to prove that angels exist and Jesus visited the Americas based on undeniable evidence. We don't even have the original gold plates for scientific analysis. Faith is still an essential and merciful ingredient, as intended by the Lord, for accepting the Book of Mormon as the word of God and as a testament of Jesus Christ. For those not interested in faith, there are plenty of reasons one can pick for ignoring Christ, the scriptures, and especially Mormonism. But for those with a particle of faith, there are also many notable particles of intellectually satisfying evidences that can strengthen faith or help overcome challenges to faith. So let's look at the big picture of where we are in terms of Book of Mormon evidence.
The testable claims from the Book of Mormon began with the declaration that a sacred record had been preserved on metal plates and buried in a stone box by people from an ancient literate civilization with Old World roots. That story featured numerous hilarious concepts when it was presented. Today, we know that stone boxes were used by ancient Native Americans to preserve sacred objects, especially in Mesoamerica, where most LDS scholars believe is the only plausible location for the New World Book of Mormon events. You can see multiple examples of sacred stone boxes in the National Archaeological Museum in Mexico City, as I have reported here earlier. We know that writing sacred record on metal plates was a known practice in the ancient Middle East, making the existence of the brass and gold plates less hilarious today than it was in 1830. We know that there were advanced writing systems in ancient Mesoamerica. Things that were laughable among the general public and unknown or not well known in 1830 have become more established today.
That's just a beginning of numerous issues where once ridiculous Book of Mormon claims now have at least some evidence in their support. And as for the possibility of Joseph's gold plates actually existing, we now have detailed scholarship on the statements and activities of numerous witnesses providing a compelling case that the gold plates were real. Laughable details such as the impossibility of Joseph carrying a 200-pound block of gold have become more plausible in light of analysis regarding what real hand-made metal plates would actually weigh, especially if made from the Mesoamerican gold-copper alloy known as tumbaga. A figure of 60 pounds, consistent with estimates from witnesses, is entirely reasonable. The whole idea of metal plates is less laughable than it was initially, and not only because examples of writing on metal plates in the Old World have been found.
Many other issues of this kind could be mentioned, such as Book of Mormon claims of ancient temples, ancient highways, practices of warfare, and, say, the idea of an older civilization that gave way to a newer civilization with dates that could correspond with the Olmecs and the later groups in Mesoamerica such as the Mayans. The correspondences are not just the big picture stuff, but get down into many interesting details such as the hundreds of correspondences from many disciplines examines by John Sorenson in Mormon's Codex and the linkages to Mesoamerica examined by Brant Gardner in Traditions of the Fathers.
While there have been many exciting finds and remarkable publications in the past decade, including the two books I just mentioned, there is still a great deal of value in a 2005 presentation given by Mesoamerican archaeologist John Clark about the state of evidence relating to the Book of Mormon. If that presentation were redone today, one might wish to add many details regarding the Arabian Peninsula evidence, new linguistic evidence both relating to the miraculous translation of the Book of Mormon and the presence of significant Old World influence in Uto-Aztercan languages, and abundant evidence of Semitic word plays in the Book of Mormon that point to ancient origins, but the 2005 summary of John Clark is still highly informative.
The presentation, "Debating the Foundations of Mormonism: The Book of Mormon and Archaeology" by John E. Clark, Wade Ardern, and Matthew Roper, was made at the August 2005 FAIRMormon Conference. The transcript is available at FAIRMormon.org. The video is jsut a 7-minute segment that begins a couple minutes into John's presentation (skipping his hat tip to the Tanners for their helpful anti-Mormon work, which John feels has actually helped strengthen the case for the Book of Mormon). You can also see the full nearly-hour-long video on Youtube.
Update: In a related presentation, Dr. John E. Clark as Professor of Anthropology at BYU gave a speech entitled "Archaeology, Relics, and Book of Mormon Belief" on May 25, 2004 in the de Jong Concert Hall at BYU. His comments on guessing unguessable things should be applied, in my opinion, to the burgeoning evidence we have from the Arabian Peninsula, which has not been the focus of his research but is where we have perhaps the most easily identifiable and verifiable evidences. Here is an excerpt from his speech (an unofficial transcript is available online), which I have previously shared but find still relevant today:
In the past fifty years, friends and foes have adopted Joseph's plan of comparing ruined cities with those in the Book of Mormon. Both sides believe archaeology is on their side. Consider the argument against the Book of Mormon circulated recently by an evangelical group. "The Bible is supported in its truth claims by the corroborating evidence of geography and archaeology. That assertion cannot be said for the Book of Mormon. Several decades of archaeological research funded by LDS institutions concentrating in Central America and Mexico have yielded nothing that corroborates the historical events described in the Book of Mormon." The only things wrong with this clever argument are that its claims are false and its logic faulty.
Archaeology and geography support the Book of Mormon to the same degree and for the same reasons that they support the Bible. Both books present the same challenges for empirical confirmation and both are in good shape. Many things have been verified for each but many have not. Anti-Mormon arguments specialize in listing things mentioned in the Book of Mormon that archaeology has not found. Rather than cry over missing evidence, I will tell you about evidence that has been found.
The pamphlet lists eight deficiencies. First, that no Book of Mormon cities have been located, and last, that no artifact of any kind that demonstrates the Book of Mormon is true has been found. This last assertion is overly optimistic in suggesting that such material proof is even possible. No artifact imaginable, or even a roomful, could ever convince critics that the Book of Mormon is true. The implied claim that the right relic could prove the book's truth beyond all doubt is too strong and underestimates human cussedness. Moroni could appear before Congress tomorrow with the golden plates, the Sword of Laban, and the Liahona in hand, and this would not satisfy public demands for more proofs.
The logical challenges with the first assertion, that no cities have been located, are more subtle. Book of Mormon cities have been found, they are well known, and their artifacts grace the finest museums. They are merely masked by archaeological labels such as "Maya," "Olmec," and so on. The problem, then, is not that Book of Mormon artifacts have not been found, only that they have not been recognized for what they are. Again, if you stumbled onto Zarahemla, how would you know?
One last point about significant evidence. The hypothesis of human authorship demands that truth claims in the Book of Mormon be judged by what was believed, known, or knowable in Joseph's backyard in the 1820s. The book's description of ancient peoples differs greatly from the notions of rude savages held by nineteenth-century Americans. The book's claim of city-societies was laughable at the time, but no one is laughing now. As the city example shows, the lower the probability that Joseph Smith could have guessed a future fact, the stronger the likelihood that he received the information from a divine source. Consequently, the most compelling evidence of authenticity is that which verifies unguessable things recorded in the Book of Mormon, the more outlandish, the better. Confirmation of such things would eliminate any residual probability of human authorship and go a long way in demonstrating that Joseph Smith could not have written the book. This is precisely what a century of archaeology has done.
I will consider a few items in the time remaining. The one requirement for making comparisons between archaeology and the Book of Mormon is to be in the right place. For reasons I will explore in a few minutes, Mesoamerica is the right place. The first archaeological claims related to the Book of Mormon concern the facts of September 22, 1827, the actuality of metal plates preserved in a stone box. This used to be considered a monstrous tale, but concealing metal records in stone boxes is now a documented Old World practice. Stone offering boxes have also been discovered in Mesoamerica, but so far the golden plates are still at large, as we would expect them to be. Another fact obvious that September morning was that ancient peoples of the Americas knew how to write, a ludicrous claim for anyone to make in 1827. We now know of at least six Mesoamerican writing systems that predate the Christian era. This should count for something, but it is not enough for dedicated skeptics. They demand to see reformed Egyptian, preferably on gold pages, and to find traces of the Hebrew language. There are promising leads on both, but nothing conclusive yet. New scripts are still being discovered, and many texts remain undeciphered. The example shown here was recovered 56 years ago and qualifies as America's earliest writing sample, but so far nothing much has been made of it and most scholars have forgotten that it exists.
The golden plates and other relics ended up in New York in the final instance because the Nephites were exterminated in a cataclysmic battle. The Book of Mormon brims with warfare and nasty people. Until twenty years ago, the book's claims on this matter were pooh-poohed by the famous scholars. Now that Maya writing is being read, warfare appears to have been a Mesoamerican pastime. The information on warfare in the Book of Mormon is particularly rich and provides ample opportunity to check Joseph Smith's luck in getting the details right. The warfare described in the book differs from what Joseph could have known or imagined. In the book, one reads of fortified cities with ditches, walls, and palisades. Mesoamerican cities dated to Nephite times have been found with all these features. The Book of Mormon mentions bows and arrows, swords, slings, scimitars, clubs, spears, shields, breastplates, helmets, and cotton armor--all items documented from Mesoamerica. Aztec swords were of wood, sometimes edged with stone knives. There are indications of wooden swords in the Book of Mormon. How else could swords become stained with blood? Wooden swords could sever heads and limbs and were lethal. The practice of taking detached arms as battle trophies, as in the story of Ammon, is also documented from Mesoamerica.
Another precise correspondence is the practice of fleeing to the summits of pyramids as places of last defense and consequently, of eventual surrender. Conquered cities were depicted in Mesoamerica by symbols for broken towers or burning pyramids. Mormon records this practice. Other practices of his day were human sacrifice and cannibalism, vile behaviors well-attested for Mesoamerica. The final battle at Cumorah involved staggering numbers of troops and of Nephite battle units of 10,000. Aztec documents described armies of over 200,000 warriors, also divided into command units of 10,000. The Aztec ciphers appear to be propagandistic exaggeration. I do not know whether this applies to Book of Mormon numbers or not.
In summary, the practices and instruments of war described in the Book of Mormon display multiple and precise correspondences with Mesoamerican practices and in ways unimaginable to nineteenth-century Americans.
Mesoamerica is a land of decomposing cities with their pyramids or towers, temples, and palaces--all items mentioned in the Book of Mormon but foreign to the gossip along the Erie Canal in Joseph Smith's day. Cities show up in all the right places and for the predicted times. One of the more unusual and specific claims in the Book of Mormon is that houses and cities of cement were built by 49 B.C. in the land northward, a claim considered ridiculous in 1830. As it turns out, it receives remarkable confirmation at Teotihuacan, the largest pre-Columbian city ever built in the Americas. Teotihuacan is still covered with ancient cement that has lasted over 1500 years.
All Book of Mormon peoples had kings who ruled cities and territories. American prejudices of native tribes in Joseph's day had no room for kings or their tyrannies. These were crazy claims. The last Jaredite king, Coriantumr, carved his history on a stone about 300 B.C., an event in line with Mesoamerican practices at that time. A particular gem in the book is that King Benjamin labored with his own hands, an outrageous thing for Joseph Smith to claim for a king. It was not until the 1960s that anthropology caught up to the idea of working kings and validated it among world cultures. Even more specific, consider Riplakish, the tenth Jaredite king, an oppressive tyrant who forced slaves to construct buildings and produce fancy goods. Among the items he commissioned about 1200 B.C. was an exceedingly beautiful throne. The earliest civilization in Mesoamerica is known for its elaborate stone thrones. How did Joseph Smith get this detail right?
Not all evidence concerns material goods. A striking correspondence is this drawing from the Dresden Codex, one of four surviving pre-Columbian Maya books. It shows a sacrificial victim with a tree growing from his heart, a literal portrayal of the metaphor preached in Alma chapter 32. Other images depict the Tree of Life. The book's metaphors make sense in the Mesoamerican world. We are just beginning to study these metaphors, so check in with the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies for future developments.
A correspondence that has always impressed me involves prophecies in 400-year blocks.
The Maya were obsessed with time, and they carved precise dates on their stone monuments that began with a count of 400 years, an interval called a bactun. Each bactun was made up of twenty katuns, an extremely important twenty-year interval. If you will permit me some liberties with the text, Samuel the Lamanite warned the Nephites that one bactun shall not pass away before they would be smitten. Nephi and Alma uttered the same bactun prophecy, and Moroni recorded its fulfillment. Moroni bids us farewell just after the first katun of this final bactun, or 420 years since the sign was given of the coming of Christ. What are the chances of Joseph Smith guessing correctly the vigesimal system of timekeeping and prophesying among the Maya. The list of unusual items corresponding to Book of Mormon claims could be extended.
The LDS tendency to get absorbed in specifics has been characterized as a method for distracting attention from large problems by engaging critics with endless irrelevant details, much as a mosquito swarm distracts from the rhinoceros in the kitchen. Let's take up the dare to consider big issues, namely geography and cycles of civilization and population. As is clear from the Cluff expedition, if the geography is not right, one can waste years searching for Zarahemla and never get there. Book of Mormon geography presents a serious challenge because the only city location known with certitude is Old World Jerusalem, and this does not help us with locations in the promised land.
However, it is marvelous for the Old World portion of the narrative. As Kent Brown and others have shown, the geography of the Arabian peninsula described in First Nephi is precise down to its place names. The remarkable geographic fit includes numerous details unknown in Joseph Smith's day. For the New World, dealing with geography is a two-step exercise. An internal geography must first be deduced from clues in the book, and this deduction must then become the standard for identifying a real world setting. John Sorenson has done the best work on this matter, and this is his internal map of physical features and cities. The Book of Mormon account is remarkably consistent throughout. Nephite lands included a narrow neck between two seas and lands northward and southward of this neck. The land southward could be traversed on foot with children and animals in tow in about thirty days, so it could not have been much longer than 300 miles. The 3000 miles required for the traditional geography is off by one order of magnitude. Nephite lands were small and did not include all of the Americas or their peoples.
The principal corollary of a limited geography is that Book of Mormon peoples were not alone on the continent. Therefore, to check for correspondences we must find the right place and peoples. It is worth noticing that anti-Mormons lament the demise of traditional, continental geography because it was so easy to ridicule. The limited geography is giving them fits. . . .