Posted by: Johan Normark | June 27, 2009

Mormon reasoning and how to create a hen out of a feather

The Swedish idiomatic expression “att göra en höna av en fjäder” translates as “to create/make a hen out of a feather”. It basically means to make up facts about something we know very little of, to blow things out of proportions. This pertains to the multitude of side effects in creationist thinking. One of them is the Book of Mormon. According to Wikipedia this “is a sacred text of the churches of the Latter Day Saint [LDS] movement. It was first published in March 1830 by Joseph Smith, Jr. as The Book of Mormon: An Account Written by the Hand of Mormon upon Plates Taken from the Plates of Nephi. According to Smith, the book was originally written in otherwise unknown characters referred to as “reformed Egyptian” on golden plates that he discovered in 1823 and then translated. The plates, Smith said, had been buried in a hill near his home in Manchester, New York, where he found them by the guidance of an angel, a resurrected ancient American prophet-historian named Moroni. The Book of Mormon is the earliest of the defining publications of the Latter Day Saint movement. The churches of the movement typically regard the Book of Mormon not only as scripture, but as a historical record of God’s dealings with the ancient inhabitants of the Americas, written by American prophets from perhaps as early as 2500 B.C. to about 400 A.D.”

The book states that America was colonized by Middle Eastern people, some known from the Bible. These transatlantic  migrations also occurred on several occasions. But there is no genetic, linguistic or archaeological evidence for this nonsense. You have to be blind if you cannot see the physical similarities between Amerindians and East Asian people. There are few Middle Eastern looking people among the Maya and even DNA studies would not be necessary to detect this difference. There is not much similarity between Semitic languages and Maya languages but the creationists can always come up with counterarguments and say that the lost tribes of Israel was not the only ancestors to the current Amerindians.

The LDS movement has sponsored archaeological investigations in the Maya area (which I must admit have been of importance, but that is because the investigations have been done by non-LDS members). Here again I quote Wikipedia (I am a bit lazy right now): “In 1955 Thomas Ferguson, an LDS member and founder of the New World Archaeological Foundation, with five years of funding from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, began to dig throughout Mesoamerica for evidence of the veracity of the Book of Mormon claims. In a 1961 newsletter Ferguson predicted that although nothing had been found, the Book of Mormon cities would be found within 10 years.” However, 15 years later he stated that we cannot “set the Book-of-Mormon geography down anywhere — because it is fictional and will never meet the requirements of the dirt-archeology. I should say — what is in the ground will never conform to what is in the book.”

This was over 30 years ago but there are still people trying to find archaeological evidence that support this fictional book. I’ll bet we have more archaeological evidence for the Lord of the Rings books than The Book of Mormon. Today I found a website called Lehi’s Library. It is here where the Swedish expression comes in. I quote again: “I recently watched The History Channel’s special “The Maya: Death Empire” in which Dr. Stephen Houston of Brown University was quoted very extensively throughout. One notable quote is found near the very end of the program: “Maya archaeology is just beginning. There are innumerable cities, innumerable temples, innumerable settlements that we have not been able to study and excavate.” INNUMERABLE CITIES, TEMPLES AND SETTLEMENTS!!! How can anti-mormons so confidently claim that the deadline for discovering proof for the Book of Mormon has passed?”

This is indeed a hen made out of a feather. What this blogger tries to say is that just because we have not investigated all archaeological sites this is an indirect proof that The Book of Mormon is true! The blogger has interpreted too much from Houston’s statement, blown it out of proportions. We will never be able to investigate all sites in the Maya area or elsewhere. Even if we could we would not be able to investigate all buildings within the site, etc. There will always be the possibility for a Mormon archaeologist to squeeze in an ancient Middle-Easterner in an unexcavated mound. Despite how much evidence archaeologists or other scientists can show that either these ancient migrations occurred or that no God created the Universe, creationists will always look for gaps in our knowledge. These gaps will always be there and that is what drives research, to gain new knowledge. Creationists try to destroy knowledge by attempting to fill the gaps with nonsense.

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Responses

  1. Hi Johan. I’m sure you won’t be bothered if I correct some of your assumptions.

    LDS do not believe that all or even most Amerindians are descendants of the Middle East. The prevailing idea among LDS scholars is that the tiny colony of Israelites were quickly incorporated into the pre-existing native culture, adopting their language, many elements of their culture, and even taking the natives as husbands and wives.

    The Book of Mormon (BoM) only claims the characters used to write the book were “called” reformed Egyptian. This doesn’t suggest that the language spoken by the masses was Semitic in nature. In fact, the BoM indicates that only a special class of priest/kings were able to learn the sacred writing system used in the production of the BoM.

    With this in mind, there is little reason to suppose that we should find much linguistic, genetic or archaeological evidence for the BoM peoples. The question we ought to be asking is, “How do we distinguish between a Nephite pot and a Mayan pot?” We really can’t.

    In regard to Thoman Ferguson, LDS Mesoamericanist Brant Gardner said the following:

    “Ferguson was a lawyer, not an archaeologist. His contributions should not be minimized, but they were significantly related to the beginning push to create the New World Archaeological Foundation and are not related to any archaeological expertise.[52] As with the biblical archaeology movement Dever describes, Ferguson appears to have been looking for the wrong things with the wrong models. His case is very comparable to that of certain biblical archaeologists. His experience no more proclaims the Book of Mormon ahistorical than do the parallel experiences of the practitioners of early biblical archaeology.”

    As for my blog, you blatantly misrepresent my point. You claim:

    “What this blogger tries to say is that just because we have not investigated all archaeological sites this is an indirect proof that The Book of Mormon is true!”

    This, of course, is utter nonsense. I “tried to say” no such thing. My intent was to only point out that Maya archaeology is only beginning, and that the deadline has not passed for testing the BoM. Strangely, you quoted me as saying such and then promptly forgot my point and made up your own interpretation of my words.

    On my blog I also quote Michael Coe, who you diligently avoided citing here:

    ““[O]ur knowledge of ancient Maya thought must represent only a tiny fraction of the whole picture, for of the thousands of books in which the full extent of their learning and ritual was recorded, only four have survived to modern times (as though all that posterity knew of ourselves were to be based upon three prayer books and ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’).”

    For more info regarding LDS approaches to Mesoamerican archaeology, I recommend this review by Brant Gardner:
    http://mi.byu.edu/publications/review/?vol=17&num=2&id=581

    On a lighter note, I’m glad you bumped into my blog. It was nice visiting yours. I am not an archaeologist, but just an armchair enthusiast trying to stay sharp!

  2. You would definitely be able to see the difference between a pot made by people originating in the Levant and Maya pots. Ceramics are used by archaeologists to detect differences between ancient people.

    Of course you did not say in exact words that Houston’s statement is an indirect proof but my interpretation is that this is what your whole point is, that we cannot refute the book before everthing has been investigated (I read in between the lines of your words). The idea is that there is still a hope that the book is correct. Right or wrong?

    We have a pretty good coverage of the whole area now and if there were any people from Israel present in the centuries BC we should have seen them by now. And I fail to what the quote from Coe contributes with. Yes, we do only have four codices, but we have thousands of inscriptions, ceramic decorations, iconography, figurines, ethnohistoric data, and strangely enough none of them can be associated with Nephites. I myself prefer hard core archaeological material data, writings and pictures only confuse and distort our thinking about the past and make them the target for creationist and/or New Age interpretations.

  3. James writes:

    “LDS do not believe that all or even most Amerindians are descendants of the Middle East. The prevailing idea among LDS scholars is that the tiny colony of Israelites were quickly incorporated into the pre-existing native culture, adopting their language, many elements of their culture, and even taking the natives as husbands and wives.”

    First of all I am interested to hear more about how this prevailing idea came about. Do LDS researchers have any evidence to back this claim? Or is this conjecture that attempts to sidestep the lack of empirical data in the archaeological record?

    Second, if this supposed colony was absorbed into Mesoamerican culture, then what are LDS people looking for? I really don’t understand how this claim or “idea” makes any sense, especially since it’s completely unprovable.

    It seems pretty clear to me that the LDS theology owes a great deal to the time period in which it was written, when few people understood that the mounds in N. America had been built by the descendants of Native American people. In the 1830s there were many theories about who had built those structures, and many of them included versions of the “Lost Tribes of Israel” theme. This was in part because few people were willing to accept that the ancestors of the then decimated 19th century Native Americans could have achieved what they did. Later methodical studies and excavations proved the link between the contemporary Native Americans and the mound sites, however.

    Similarly, the LDS fascination with the ancient Maya sites, and the work of folks like Stephenson, belie a similar leap in logic. There was a huge assumption made that Maya and other Mesoamerican ruins MUST have come from Europe or the Middle East. There is, however, no evidence that supports such a claim.

    “With this in mind, there is little reason to suppose that we should find much linguistic, genetic or archaeological evidence for the BoM peoples.”

    Again, if there is little hope in finding ANY genetic, linguistic, or archaeological evidence of the BoM people, then what exactly are LDS scholars looking for? It seems to me that this particular belief cannot be anything but a matter of faith. And there is nothing wrong with faith–it just happens to exist in a completely different category since it does not require any material evidence. Matters of faith really can’t be tested, as this example seems to illustrate.

    “The question we ought to be asking is, “How do we distinguish between a Nephite pot and a Mayan pot?” We really can’t.”

    That’s not true, as Johan pointed out above. Plenty of archaeologists make ceramic analysis their stock and trade, and spend a great deal of time using ceramic ware to differentiate cultural groups. While there are problems with assuming direct ethnicity from material culture, it is certainly possible to use ceramic ware as one means of differentiating groups of people, chronologies, and methods of construction. Of course, a great deal more analysis and context is required, but that’s what archaeology is all about.

    This sounds like another case of you explaining away the lack of data to support your beliefs. If there was a significant colony that came into contact with Mesoamerican people, it seems like there would be SOME evidence.

    Basically, Johan’s point is that all of the available evidence does not support LDS claims about archaeology in the Americas. And even though there is a great deal of work to be done archaeologically, the idea that the (some) Maya people are somehow descendants of Middle Eastern people seems pretty remote. There is always the possibility, but I would argue that it’s pretty doubtful, especially considering all of the genetic, archaeological, historic, and ethnographic information that points to the contrary.

  4. Ryan is absolutely right that this is an idea that reflects the state knowledge of the early 19th century rather than the early 21st century. These ideas are not only made up, they are also ethnocentric. It is one thing if someone had these ideas 200 years ago, but today?

    Since Ryan brought up the ceramics again I can just add that ceramics are portable objects and they scatter all over the place at an archaeological site, they end up in middens, in floors, in-between houses, etc. The likelyhood that a sherd of Nephite ceramics has not been found yet is slim indeed. However, the strongest ceramic evidence that there has not been Nephites in the Americas is that in the Levant they used potter wheels to manufacture their pots. These gives a very distinct character to the pots and such pots have just not been found in the Maya area. I do not believe that Nephites dropped that technology and also quickly dropped their own styles for that matter.

  5. >> What this blogger tries to say is that just
    >> because we have not investigated all
    >> archaeological sites this is an indirect proof
    >> that The Book of Mormon is true!

    This is typical Creationist reasoning, as devoid of logic as the Sahara is devoid of snow.

    They do it with evolution, too. They state that, because we don’t know how life originated (abiogenesis) that proves life must have been created by God.

    That’s just as logical as people, 500 years ago, saying “Because we don’t know how we could stay on a spherical earth, that proves it must be flat.”

  6. This is indeed how they argue and it is impossible to argue with someone who has all the facts he/she needs. If the Bible gives the answer you search for (and it is not difficult to interpret the way you want), then there is no need to look for more reasonable (mundane) answers.

  7. Hello gang.

    Johan, I may have not been as clear as I should have. LDS scholars don’t expect to be able to distinguish between a Nephite pot and a Mayan pot because they are essentially the same pot. While it might not be accurate to say that the Nephites were the Maya, it is accurate to say that the Nephites participated in the Maya culture. The original clan of Israelites in America was quite small, and it is thought that they quickly were immersed into the culture they encountered. They would have quickly become Mesoamericans.

    As far as the quotes from my blog are concerned, I only considered them important for the frequent situation in which critics claim that “by now we should have found something.” The answer to that is two-fold. 1) We should not expect the Lehite (Nephite/Lamanite) culture to be noticeably different from their neighbors in any way that allow us to identify them and 2) in any case, we aren’t done looking. There is so much left to study. Do you disagree with the second?

    I suggest that this discussion really can’t be productive unless we are both conversant in BoM scholarship and in the field of archaeology. I suggest that I am sufficiently conversant in LDS scholarship, and that you are not conversant in it at all. I suggest that you are conversant in the field of archaeology, and that I am only a little conversant. Therefore, I don’t see this particular discussion as being particularly productive. It requires that both parties be conversant in both BoM scholarship and in the field of archaeology. Unfortunately, that group of individuals is not very big.

    To quickly address a wonderful question raised by R.A. What are LDS scholars looking for? To my knowledge, there aren’t any LDS scholars probing Mesoamerica for evidence of the BoM. Instead, LDS scholars probe the BoM for evidence of Mesoamerica. They also probe the BoM for evidence of Semitic peculiarities. In short, they look for indications that the text is probably not something produced in 1830, given the limited information that scholarship had about the two cultures that the BoM narrative claims to participate in.

    Anyway, I doubt I am able to plunge much more deeply into this discussion. I don’t feel confident enough in my grasp of archaeology. I also am quite sure you all are not up to date on LDS scholarship. Therefore, I regretfully will not be participating in any further discussion on the matter here. I just don’t see it as being productive. I invite you all to read up on LDS scholarship by visiting the FARMS website of BYU.

    By the way, modern LDS thinkers by and large are not Creationists in the sense you are all referring to. By and large, we welcome evolution. We also happen to believe in God.

    Thanks Guys!

  8. I know that some Christians believe in parts of evolution but the ultimate source for the beginning of life would still be the one and only almighty.

    You are absolutely right that I am not an expert on LDS scholarship, and that you have poor knowledge of basic archaeological methodology. I am only looking at the archaeological evidence and after 150 years of archaeological research we can safely say that nothing found thus far support the BoM regarding transatlantic migrations. To me, LDS research is as wrong as Biblical archaeology or any other archaeology that attempts to use religion (and not critical science) as the basis for their research. There are several examples of this throughout the world and it is in this greater context of pseudoscience where I find LDS research located.

    Anyway, thanks for stopping by. I will most likely not post anything more on LDS research since there is not much more to say. I will, however, continue with the creationist research. Ihave found a site that claims that Sweden’s own Saint Bridget (Birgitta) knew what will happen at the end of the Maya Long Count (she had revelations from the guy above). I must post something on that.

  9. James,

    “The original clan of Israelites in America was quite small, and it is thought that they quickly were immersed into the culture they encountered. They would have quickly become Mesoamericans.”

    This is conjecture as far as I can tell, which is fine and all, but it’s not based on ANY material evidence. That’s the main problem. It is based upon textual interpretation though. Do you know who the main proponents of this claim are, and how they came to these conclusions???

    “1) We should not expect the Lehite (Nephite/Lamanite) culture to be noticeably different from their neighbors in any way that allow us to identify them”

    Again, this is based upon LDS scholars’ suppositions and assumptions–and also a lack of material evidence. This conclusion seems to have only been reached at a last resort, since nothing has been found “in the dirt” so to speak.

    There is no reason to assume that an incoming colonial group would vanish as you suggest. Different cultural groups can often be distinguished by certain material remains, from ceramic production to the tools they carried with them to how they made new tools. Cultural differences can also be seen in burials, or how structures are laid out. The suggestion that no LDS people could be found because they just “turned into” Maya doesn’t hold much logical water.

    “I suggest that this discussion really can’t be productive unless we are both conversant in BoM scholarship and in the field of archaeology.”

    I completely disagree. There is no reason why each side cannot explain and argue their case. Even though you are not familiar with archaeological methods, histories, and theories, I would argue that the archaeological evidence can be presented quite clearly. I would guess that the same argument can be made for LDS research. There is no reason to assume that the two sides simply cannot understand the arguments at hand.

    “To quickly address a wonderful question raised by R.A. What are LDS scholars looking for? To my knowledge, there aren’t any LDS scholars probing Mesoamerica for evidence of the BoM. Instead, LDS scholars probe the BoM for evidence of Mesoamerica.”

    Then what they are doing has nothing to do with archaeology. They are using loose geographic references to try to find something, and have no way to cross check what they are doing. In my opinion, it’s a wild goose chase, so to speak.

    “They also probe the BoM for evidence of Semitic peculiarities.”

    The problem there is that similarity does not necessarily mean that there is a cultural or historical relationship. There are many cultural and artistic forms that LOOK similar but actually have little to no actual cultural connection.

    2) in any case, we aren’t done looking. There is so much left to study. Do you disagree with the second?

  10. To me it is impossible to be both “conversant in BoM scholarship and in the field of archaeology” at the same time. If you follow archaeological methods and theories you cannot use BoM as a source (unless in some hyperrelativistic versions). Therefore it is no point to become acquinted with possible “deeper or hidden” meanings/facts in the text. It is a religious book and that’s it. I am not an expert on the Bible but I have no problems refuting Biblical archaeology’s search for places and persons mentioned in it.


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