Book of Mormon/Anachronisms/Basic principles

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What is an "anachronism" and how does it relate to the Book of Mormon?

Summary: Translated documents (which the Book of Mormon claims to be) have many potential sources of anachronism. When trying to decide if something is a true anachronism, and when making judgments about the Book of Mormon's truth based on an assessment of anachronisms, we must take all these factors into account. Critics rarely do so.

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Elder D. Todd Christofferson: "The absence of evidence is not proof. Here’s one small example"

Elder D. Todd Christofferson, "The Prophet Joseph Smith", Devotional Address, BYU Idaho, September 24, 2013:

The absence of evidence is not proof. Here’s one small example. Matthew Roper, in a FairMormon Blog on June 17, 2013, writes about a criticism that was repeated many times over the years about the mention of steel in the Book of Mormon. In 1884, one critic wrote, “Laban’s sword was steel, when it is a notorious fact that the Israelites knew nothing of steel for hundreds of years afterwards. Who, but as ignorant a person as Rigdon, would have perpetuated all these blunders.” More recently Thomas O’Dey, in 1957, stated, “Every commentator on the Book of Mormon has pointed out the many cultural and historical anachronisms, such as steel. A steel sword of Laban in 600 B.C.”
We had no answer to these critics at the time, but, as often happens in these matters, new discoveries in later years shed new light. Roper reports, “it is increasingly apparent that the practice of hardening iron through deliberate carburization, quenching and tempering was well known to the ancient world from which Nephi came “It seems evident” notes one recent authority, “that by the beginning of the tenth century B.C. blacksmiths were intentionally steeling iron.” In 1987, the Ensign reported that archaeologists had unearthed a long steel sword near Jericho dating back to the late 7th century B.C., probably to the reign of King Josiah, who died shortly before Lehi began to prophesy. This sword is now on display at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum, and the museum’s explanatory sign reads in part, “the sword is made of iron hardened into steel.” [1]


Question: What is an anachronism, and what should be borne in mind when assessing the Book of Mormon (or any other text) for supposed "anachronisms"?

An "anachronism" is an element in a text that is "out of time." That is, it does not match the time and place of the text's claimed production.

For example, if Sherman tanks appeared in a supposed account of the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, the tanks would be "anachronistic." They don't belong. Critics of the church point to a variety of items in the Book of Mormon that they claim are anachronistic. [2]

During Joseph Smith's lifetime, most of the "archaeology" of the Book of Mormon did not match what was known about the early Americas. (Click to enlarge)
By 2005, a number of features of the Book of Mormon text were known in the ancient Americas. Yet, in 1842, many of these would have been seen as "errors" or "anachronisms". (Click to enlarge)

It is important to note that as knowledge expands, what was once an anachronism turns out to be a legitimate feature of the ancient world. John Clark[3] prepared the charts displayed to the right which demonstrate the trend, over time, to confirmation of the Book of Mormon account.

When anachronisms appear in a translated text, the translator can introduce anachronisms that are not present in the original text

Anachronisms may be introduced into a genuine text by:

  1. objects or facts not yet discovered;
  2. the original authors using terms in a novel way that we do not expect;
  3. the modern-day translator's choices.

All three must be ruled out before an anachronism can be used to "disprove" the Book of Mormon, or any other translated document.

When anachronisms appear in a translated text (such as the Book of Mormon claims to be), the matter becomes more complicated, because a translator can introduce anachronisms that are not present in the original text.

For example, the King James version of the Bible often speaks about candles. "15 Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel," said Jesus, "but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house" (Matthew 5:15).

The problem is that candles were not used in Palestine in Jesus' day. Light came from oil lamps, not from candles. If we examine the Greek text, we see that this is so--the King James translators chose a term that was appropriate to their time and place. Jesus' meaning remains clear with the King James translation, even though he was speaking of a lamp, not a candle.

It would be a mistake to conclude that the Bible text had been forged because the candles are an anachronism--the text itself did not refer to candles; the translators made that choice, and they introduced the anachronism. We would also be foolish to go looking for candles in the archaeology of Jersualem in the 1st century A.D.. They weren't there. But, whether we can find candle remains in the digs says nothing about whether the Bible is a genuine ancient document, or whether Jesus actually spoke about not hiding a light-giving device.

We can determine that this is so because we have the original Greek texts of the Bible. But, what are we to do when we have a translation, but no original? How can we be certain when an anachronism comes from the translator, and when it comes from the original? We cannot--or at least, not without a great deal of difficulty.

An example: Book of Mormon "barley"

This may be more clear if we consider a specific example. The Book of Mormon reports that the Nephites grew "barley" (e.g., Mosiah 7:22). Critics have, on occasion, claimed that barley is an anachronism, because it was not known in the New World prior to Columbus.

When confronted with barley in the Book of Mormon text, there are several possible explanations:

  1. True barley was known to the Nephites. Archaeological study has simply not (yet) found evidence of barley in the New World. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as the saying goes.
  2. The Nephites gave an Old World name to a different New World crop. Thus, while the Nephite plate text did read "barley," the item to which the term barley referred is not the same as Old World barley. The Nephites would be, in a sense, "translating" their new cultural surroundings into their Old World language. (This could have been important religiously for items which were impacted by the law of Moses. Animals must be declared either "clean" or "unclean" for use as food--thus, if the Nephites discovered a New World animal, how they decided to label it would have implications for how they saw and used the animal.)
  3. Joseph Smith translated into terms with which his own culture and time would be familiar. Thus, while the Nephite text named a different grain, Joseph translated the term as "barley." There is, in fact, a true anachronism--but that anachronism was introduced by Joseph Smith, and not the Nephite original. Thus, it is foolish to look for "true barley" in the New World, because the Nephites never claimed that barley was found there--that is an artifact of Joseph's translation.
  4. Occasionally, some Jaredite terms are translated by Nephite authors. This adds yet another layer of transmission and translation--the Nephites have to translate a Jaredite term into a Nephite term, which Joseph Smith must then render into English. An anachronism can be added at any step.

In the case of barley, any of the these options could be true. Contrary to the critics' claims, domesticated barley has been found in the New World (it was discovered in the 1980s), so #1 is a distinct possibility.

But, options #2 and #3 could also be true (Jaredites do not mention barley, so #4 does not apply). We simply cannot tell which scenario is the correct one when all we have is the translation, and no original text.

We are often accustomed to thinking of #1 as the only option—and this is why critics crow when horses, for example, are not found in the Americas before Columbus. But, this criticism only has weight if #1 is the only viable option--but, that simply isn't true for a translated document.

Not every supposed anachronism need have the same explanation

Furthermore, not every supposed anachronism need have the same explanation. "Barley" could be a proper referent to New World barley, while "wheat" might be an approximation chosen from Joseph's environment. After all, the spiritual message or historical account of the Book of Mormon does not alter whether "wheat" is Old World wheat or another New World food crop. (In the same way, Jesus' message of the Sermon on the Mount doesn't really change much whether he's talking about oil lamps or candles.) The issue of anachronisms is only important because critics want to use anachronisms to "prove" that Joseph Smith fabricated the Book of Mormon. But, that's a very tall order with a translated document--so they hope that we don't realize this.

Much of the debate, then, hinges on how we see the process of Book of Mormon translation—and we know very little about it. Critics have insisted that God would not make an "erroneous" translation—but, that assumes that translation and prophets are inerrant, which the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith both denied. In any case, a perfect translation is an impossibility, even between closely-related languages.

Joseph Smith was also willing to revise the translation somewhat, which suggests that he did not see it as an iron-clad, fixed text that he had no role in creating.

Furthermore, #2 could still happen even if the translation was erroneous--the word is barley, but simply doesn't refer to Old World barley. Joseph could create an anachronism in case #2 by giving us a more literal translation of the text; he could create an anachronism in sense #3 by giving a more accessible translation of the text in cultural terms familiar to his audience. There is no perfect solution--either choice could lead to confusion and could lead to charges by critics that there is an anachronism. But, if any of these options could be true, then it should be obvious that we simply don't have enough evidence to make a determination.


Notes

  1. Elder D. Todd Christofferson, "The Prophet Joseph Smith", Devotional Address, BYU Idaho, September 24, 2013.
  2. Such criticisms are put forth by the following critical works or sites: John Dehlin, "Why People Leave the LDS Church," (2008).;MormonThink.com website (as of 4 May 2012). Page: http://mormonthink.com/book-of-mormon-problems.htm
  3. John Clark, Wade Ardern, Matthew Roper, "Debating the Foundations of Mormonism: The Book of Mormon and Archaeology," FAIR Conference, Sandy, Utah, 2005.