Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Mormonism and the historical case for Christianity

I should make some clarifications about what I mean when I say that the New Testament has a substantial amount of historical verification that the Book of Mormon lacks. I do not mean to say that it isn’t logically possible that there should have been all those things happening in the Americas for which all of the circumstantial evidence is somehow lost. (Though the DNA disconnect between Jews and Native Americans is a problem I haven’t even discussed). It is also perfectly possible that in spite of the evidence that the authors of the NT were familiar with the details of governments in certain cities and had detailed knowledge of first-century sailing ships from that area, nevertheless the miracles they reported did not take place and that Christianity is false.

It isn’t just that the NT mentions places like Corinth and Malta. It’s the fact that archaeological evidence shows that Luke had detailed knowledge of exactly what kind of governmental systems each of these places had. And these places changed their governmental systems as time went on. This is pretty strong evidence to me that Luke was in pretty close contact with the major parties involved in the missionary journeys. Who would know, for example, the Maltese were headed up by a “First Man.” That is the point of the F. F. Bruce quotation quoted by Riss:

One of the most remarkable tokens of his accuracy is his sure familiarity with the proper titles of all the notable persons who are mentioned in his pages. This was by no means such an easy feat in his days as it is in ours, when it is so simple to consult convenient books of reference. The accuracy of Luke's use of the various titles in the Roman Empire has been compared to the easy and confident way in which an Oxford man in ordinary conversation will refer to the Heads of Oxford colleges by their proper titles--the Provost of Oriel, the Master of Balliol, the Rector of Exeter, the President of Magdalen, and so on. A non-Oxonian like the present writer never feels quite at home with the multiplicity of these Oxford titles. But Luke had a further difficulty in that the titles sometimes did not remain the same for any great length of time; a province might pass from senatorial government to administration by a direct representative of the emperor, and would then be governed no longer by a proconsul but by an imperial legate (legatus pro proetore).

Now, this kind of correct detail is of course compatible with nothing out of the ordinary happening, but it does undermine the idea that the Book of Acts is the product of extensive legendary development, which is what you would expect if the whole thing were made up. For this reason a late date for Acts seems out of the question. We are left wondering, if Christianity is not true and none of these things really happened, then what did? And none of the extant theories (theft theory, hallucination theory, wrong tomb theory, evil twin theory, etc.) is satisfactory enough even for all the skeptics to agree on what might have happened, much less to persuade believers. Now it may be rational for some persons to maintain their skepticism about these accounts based on some version of the Humean principle (something like "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence).

With the Book of Mormon, I seem to come pretty easily to the conclusion that the whold darn thing was made up, not even that it was something built on a factual foundation but embellished. There is a positive historical case to me made here, even if that case is overcome, in some minds, by a stronger reason to reject it.


jeff g said...

If historical evidence is going to mean anything at all in favor or against the truth of a religious tradition in general we have to draw a distinction between natural and supernatural claims. While the historical claims contained in the BoM are certainly supernatural in nature, their other book of scripture, Doctrine and Covenants, makes are good number of historical claims which are natural in nature, just like the NT and the OT do.

The point of this distinction is that the supernatural claims are really all that matter to establishing the "truthfulness" of a religious tradition. If Luke got a couple of things wrong about the city of Corinth, you cares, right? Similarly, if he gets all those detail right, who cares? Being mostly right, but occasionally wrong on those points is to be expected. The same can also be said for the natural history found in Mormonism's Doctrine and Covenants.

It's the supernatural claims to history which really count as evidence for or against a religious tradition. Mormonism has A LOT of supernatural historical claims, which I agree do not appear well substantiated or even consistent with the world as we know it naturally. But the supernatural claims of the Bible do not appear to me to be any better substantiated than those of the BoM, aside from the fact that they are fewer in quantity. Any time some part of history in the Bible is known, or implied to be known by way of revelation (Genesis, the Tomb, Book of Revelation, etc.) such claims appear equally preposterous as do those of the BoM. It's just that the BoM claims are really, REALLY bold in scope, whereas those of the Bible are relatively limited in scope, making them less verifiable in nature.

In summary:

1) Supernatural history is what really matters to a religion.
2) In terms of supernatural history, Christianity is not supported at all.
3) The only significant difference between the supernatural history of the BoM and that of the Bible is in terms of scope and verifiability.

Clark Goble said...

It seems a false dichotomy you set up. Either it's built up from legends (and thus disconnected from direct knowledge of the regions) or it's accurate and therefore not built up from legends. i.e. history. Even contemporary accounts of many events include false reports.

Consider the Mormon history you attack. The early Mormon histories get the events and geography of the eastern United States during the 1820's - 1840's right. Does that offer any reason for you to believe these same writers claims for spiritual phenomena in the early 19th century?

I suspect you would say no. But why then apply a different standard to the the three gospels and Acts?

BTW - the scholarly LDS view of genes and the Nephites is that the Nephites were a small group encountering a large group possibly numbering in the millions. One should in such a circumstance expect genetic markers to be detectable - especially when we have no idea where the Nephites existed.

One can disbelief the Book of Mormon. And, given there is no positive new world evidence for it this is understandable. But this isn't the same as falsifying anything.

For both texts (the Bible and the Book of Mormon) what would count as falsifying or testing them would be something not really expected to be possible by a fiction writer living at the times the purported authors lived. (i.e. 1st century Palestine for much of the NT and 1820's New York for the Book of Mormon) The problem is that the evidence you appeal to for the NT is evidence any fictional author would be expected to know.

So I don't see any real reason to distinguish our treatment of the texts. At best one can point to horse and swords as problematic in the BoM although there are reasonable, if not really that persuasive to non-believers, responses by LDS apologists. But then skeptics of the Bible point to historical problems in it.

JD Walters said...

It's true that fiction writers can and often do include juicy little historical details. The point here, however, is that they need to be details from a particular historical context. Even if the Gospels were fiction, they are certainly 1st century fiction. Mormons can't even demonstrate that that BoM is 6th century B.C.E. fiction, much less history!

Clark Goble said...

But that's not the issue at hand J.D. For two reasons. For one Mormons don't claim to be able to demonstrate the Book of Mormon's historicity scientifically. Indeed that would go against one of its main uses which is to get people to turn to God and have religious experiences. If you could simply know it was historical independent of any personal revelation then what Mormons see as a key facet of our relationship with God wouldn't develop as easily.

Secondly it really isn't at issue at hand. Neither the NT or the BoM can establish the historicity of the relevant religious truth claims in an objective fashion.

So you raise a point that while true is largely beside the point. One could by the same measure point to elements of the OT that can't be established historically and that many scholars feel is fiction. Does this mean that Evangelicals who accept the general historicity of the OT, especially Genesis, are in a position akin to Mormons and the Book of Mormon?

Don't answer, I have a suspicion a double standard is coming up...

Steven Carr said...

There are lots of supernatural elements in Josephus, Suetonius and Tacitus. Should we accept them?

Historians evaluate other historians by seeing how they use sources. For example, a lot of the David Irving libel trial was about how Irving used sources.

Who were the sources of Luke? Did they include Josephus? Or Paul's letters?

And did Luke get anything wrong? The date of the census, for example? Did any other ancient historian get everything right?

jeff g said...

I should also mention that many faithful Mormons hold that the BoM is actually an ancient record which is radically filtered through 19th century lenses. While one can simply call this an attempt to weasel out of the factual commitment, the position is far more nuanced than that.

Such people see themselves as taking the most responsible reading of the 19th century documents and revelations, a reading which leads them to interpret the BoM the way they do. This is in contrast to the ad hoc flight from factual verifiability which most would accuse them of.

Anonymous said...

jeff g

By what criteria could something supernatural be supported in history?

jeff g said...

First of all I should point out that I'm not the one who believes that any supernatural claim are supported by history. Nevertheless, here are a couple of standard criteria:

1) Multiple and independent attestation.
2) Reported by unbiased witnesses

The two criteria of
3) Internally consistency
4) External consistency

are what Vic is focusing on. But my point is that these last two are not criteria for supporting supernatural claims at all, but are instead criteria for disconfirming supernatural claims only. While this may sound a little Popperian, I find it appropriate when we are dealing with historical claims which we expect to be mostly consistent whether they are true or not.

Anonymous said...

So are there any supernatural claims in history that fit your above criteria. As in, do you believe that there have been some supernatural claims that are real?

Clark Goble said...

I suspect Jeff ought add a class knowledge to the list. That is even witness testimony for an event might be untrustworthy if there is no contemporary evidence for the class of events.

That is one can only interpret history in light of what one already believes. Thus the scientific critique of historic claims for the supernatural.

Steven Carr said...

If anybody wants direct,eyewitness testimony to the supernatural, there is Muhammad's claim to have seen the Angel Gabriel, and Paul's claim to have gone to the 3rd Heaven.

Should we believe Paul went to Heaven, just because he says so, and that is eye-witness testimony?

Steven Carr said...

'And none of the extant theories (theft theory, hallucination theory, wrong tomb theory, evil twin theory, etc.) is satisfactory enough even for all the skeptics to agree on what might have happened, much less to persuade believers.'

Now there's a glorious switching of the burden of proof.

jeff g said...


I am a strong believer that the more incredible the claim is, the stronger the evidence needs to be in order for it to be rationally believed. This is even more so when believing the incredible claim also entails a commitment to life-long sacrifice.

I don't think that the evidence for the incredible claims of the NT, or any other religious tradition for that matter, is anywhere near strong enough to convince me.

Steven Carr said...

'One of the most remarkable tokens of his accuracy is his sure familiarity with the proper titles of all the notable persons who are mentioned in his pages. '

What should we make of Biblical authors who repeatedly call Herod a 'king'?