Native Americans in California and Arizona and the aborigines of Australia anciently used a particularly unique weapon in both hunting and warfare known in today’s English as a boomerang. Presumably adapted from the terms “wumerang” or “boomerit”, which were used by New South Wales Australian native inhabitants to describe a particularly useful throwing stick, the boomerang is a unique tool used to wound or kill prey from a distance.
Designed with a slightly imbalanced hydrofoil design unique for the direction in which it will be thrown, the boomerang has the distinct characteristic of producing a modestly curved flight pattern. When thrown by a master skilled in the properties of the flight of the individual weapon, the potentially deadly tool need not be lost in the distance when it fails to hit its prey. Rather, when skilfully thrown with the proper force, the curved flight pattern will cause the boomerang to circle back to the hunter or warrior who threw it, allowing them to then re-use the weapon for future hunts or battles.
In the constant ideological struggles between LDS scholars and critics, specific issues are often raised that are intended to disprove the authenticity claims of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Book of Mormon. These attacks, like those from the sharp edges of a deadly throwing stick intended to weaken or kill a target, are intended to weaken or kill the faith of individuals in the Restoration. These attacks often take the form of technical criticisms backed by scientific or scholarly studies. They are aimed at discrediting both the plausibility and the probability that the Church and Book of Mormon are precisely what they claim to be.
Interestingly, many such criticisms are later proved to be consistent with the authenticity claims of the Church and the Book of Mormon. When this happens, it is often times very much contrary to the prevailing wisdom such that it becomes an evidence of authenticity. Think of it this way. Someone planning to write a forged document would certainly avoid such obvious errors, and if they did include a detail that was highly contrary to the knowledge of the day, they would open themselves to exposure as a fraud – unless, of course, this information is later proved to be accurate. This is something a forger could not afford to risk. As such, including a detail that seems an error on the surface but which later is demonstrated to be accurate becomes an evidence of authenticity precisely because it is included in obvious contradiction to what would be expected by a forger.
In the world of LDS apologetics, a criticism that is later proved to be true contrary to the prevailing wisdom of the day is called a “boomerang hit” in that it often times fails to hit the intended victim but circles back and sometimes strikes the one who threw out the criticisms to begin with.
Errors in Time
Anachronisms (errors in time) make up one such class of criticisms. They are based in the notion that an item misplaced in time can help distinguish a potentially true story from a patently false one by revealing that a later writer inadvertently interjected information, items, or events into a story where it would be impossible to exist. For example, if a wristwatch were mentioned in a story about the conquest by Rome of the Germanic peoples of 5th century AD, it is a safe assumption that the story is likely not true, as there is no evidence that the wristwatch existed before the late 1800’s.
The most often used criticism of the Book of Mormon dealing with anachronisms includes the mentioning of the Nephite value system for trade and compensation for their judges. When writing the headings to the chapters in the 1980 edition of the Book of Mormon, Elder Bruce R. McConkie read Alma Chapter 11 which says:
4 Now these are the names of the different pieces of their gold, and of their silver, according to their value. And the names are given by the Nephites, for they did not reckon after the manner of the Jews who were at Jerusalem; neither did they measure after the manner of the Jews; but they altered their reckoning and their measure, according to the minds and the circumstances of the people, in every generation, until the reign of the judges, they having been established by king Mosiah.
5 Now the reckoning is thus—a senine of gold, a seon of gold, a shum of gold, and a limnah of gold.
6 A senum of silver, an amnor of silver, an ezrom of silver, and an onti of silver.
7 A senum of silver was equal to a senine of gold, and either for a measure of barley, and also for a measure of every kind of grain.
8 Now the amount of a seon of gold was twice the value of a senine.
9 And a shum of gold was twice the value of a seon.
10 And a limnah of gold was the value of them all.
11 And an amnor of silver was as great as two senums.
12 And an ezrom of silver was as great as four senums.
13 And an onti was as great as them all.
14 Now this is the value of the lesser numbers of their reckoning—
15 A shiblon is half of a senum; therefore, a shiblon for half a measure of barley.
16 And a shiblum is a half of a shiblon.
17 And a leah is the half of a shiblum.
18 Now this is their number, according to their reckoning.
19 Now an antion of gold is equal to three shiblons.
Raised in the economic system of the 19th and 20th centuries, editors interpreted the description of these values through the lens of their own experiences. As such, they wrote the following introduction to this chapter which has since been published in modern copies of the Book of Mormon (this particular introduction being written or approved by the late Elder Bruce R. McConkie):
Nephite coinage set forth —Amulek contends with Zeezrom—Christ will not save people in their sins—Only those who inherit the kingdom of heaven are saved—All men will rise in immortality—There is no death after the Resurrection. [bold emphasis added]
Because Elder McConkie and others approached the Book of Mormon from their modern perspectives, they saw in the description of the exchange system “coins” as monetary units used by the Nephites. Therefore they used the term “coinage” to describe what they read in this chapter of the book of Alma. Joseph Smith shared that same monetary world view, where gold and silver coins were the primary instruments of exchange.
Pre-Columbian exchange systems had not, at that time of the translation of the Book of Mormon, been recognized or studied to any substantive degree. Joseph, as an admittedly uneducated farm boy with little to no knowledge of Native American exchange systems, would naturally have been expected to allow his own life experience to interject a description of coins, as is evidenced by subsequent editors who included “coins” as the description in the heading. In other words, if he fabricated the Book of Mormon, one would expect him to mention coins in the actual text.
The very mention of coins is precisely what critics of the Church recognized, and they jumped on the criticism as an anachronistic error by Joseph that put coins in the Americas 1.4 millennium before they actually arrived. No less than seven critical authors have raised this issue, pointing to it as evidence that the Book of Mormon was a modern fabrication by Joseph Smith.
Worth Its Weight in Gold
This is not, however, what the text of the Book of Mormon describes. Rather, it describes a complex and intricate system of weights and measures, where specific weights of gold and silver were valued based on their worth in a measured exchange of grain. Verse 7 specifically states “A senum of silver was equal to a senine of gold, and either for a measure of barley, and also for a measure of every kind of grain”. The reality is that while there were terms for a senum of silver or a senine of gold, the physical characteristics of these weights of precious ore were never described in a way that indicates they were prefabricated coins.
Dr. John Sorenson pointed out in 1985 that 12,000 pieces of presumed monetary gold had been found in Ecuador, all from ancient date (see note 1). While these were not “coins” in a modern sense, the discovery did, in fact, demonstrate that there was a standardized weight of precious metal used in monetary exchanges. For an example of how various pre-Colombian precious metal artifacts that were used for exchange looked.
Dr. Daniel Peterson, Jack Welch, and Kerry Shirts have all expounded on this topic, deftly explaining that coins are actually nowhere mentioned in the translation of the Book of Mormon, but that the term “coins” or “coinage” was a late edition by subsequent editors preparing the Book of Mormon for publication in chapter and verse format.
So, what have we discovered? We have discovered that the natural inclination of modern readers, and by extension authors, expect coins to be described in monetary exchanges from the ancient Americas. Joseph, an uneducated farm boy would therefore be expected to make the same mistake. What is astounding is not that Elder McConkie interpreted the Nephite monetary exchange as coins, but that Joseph Smith did not, in fact, include coins in the Book of Mormon! What compounds the unlikeliness of an accidental “hit” by Joseph was the fact that he was unfamiliar with ancient American systems of exchange, as there had been virtually no substantive study of the subject with which he could become familiar during his life.
This astounding absence of error on this particular detail when an error is precisely what should be expected speaks loudly to the Book of Mormon being a translation of an ancient work originally written by a people that lived 1,400 years before the birth of Joseph Smith. While modern editors fell into the trap of inserting their own expectations into the Book of Mormon, Joseph very surprisingly did not. He accurately described a system of exchanges based on weights and measures, precisely the exchange system used by pre-Colombian natives in the Americas. The Mayans, to be specific, had a rich and prosperous market exchange system for tradable goods.
The heading to Chapter 11 of the Book of Mormon has since been changed to remove the error introduced by later editors, but which does not appear in the text itself. The introduction now reads:
The Nephite monetary system is set forth—Amulek contends with Zeezrom—Christ will not save people in their sins—Only those who inherit the kingdom of heaven are saved—All men will rise in immortality—There is no death after the Resurrection. About 82 B.C.
This is considered a “boomerang hit” by many. One should expect a fabricated story by Joseph to include a detail of coins in the ancient Americas, and yet he does not include such an erroneous detail. This indicates that Joseph was not, in fact, creating a story from his own life experience, but that he was working form a different paradigm. Given that he would almost certainly be expected to include such an error, but instead accurately described a system of exchange based on weights and measures, you end up with a criticism intended to kill the faith of some becoming an evidence of authenticity to the faithful.
There are other such “evidences”. As I mentioned last week, I will explore more of these seemingly damning criticisms that, upon closer examination, turn around and strike at those hurling their critical claims by becoming evidences of authenticity.
As enticing as such evidences are, however, they are but poor substitutes for the real evidence of the Book of Mormon. The greatest “proofs” of the Book of Mormon as an authentic, inspired work that is approved of God are found in the teachings contained in its pages.
When I have read that the purpose for my having weaknesses is to help me be humble, and that the Lord will then help me make those weaknesses become strengths if I meekly exercise faith (see Ether 12:27), I have find strength to persist in improving myself.
I learn the value of willingly submitting my will to God’s will in order to overcome my natural tendencies (see Mosiah 3:19).
I learn about my responsibility to serve my fellow man from righteous King Benjamin, who taught me that even those who have brought misery upon themselves are deserving of my efforts and sacrifice to serve them (See Mosiah chapters 2-5).
I learn about faith from Moroni – son of Mormon, about the value of determined defence of freedom from Captain Moroni, and I especially learn about the value of the sacrifice of Christ from Nephi, Alma, Amulek, Ammon, the Sons of Mosiah, King Benjamin, Lehi, Helaman and others.
The Book of Mormon is replete with teachings about Christ, the mercy of God, and the responsibility of man in his covenant relationship with Him. In its pages I find inspiration to be more like Christ, I find understanding of how God deals with me and how I can deal with Him, and I find expositions of key doctrines that make me a better person.
While I have ample evidences that are encouraging to me in that they sustain the authenticity claims of the Book of Mormon as an ancient record, the real evidence that it is “true” is not in some external study, some archaeological find, or some anthropological discovery. The real evidence that it is a work of God is demonstrated in the changes I experience within me as I read, ponder, and apply its teachings to my life, and that is the greatest evidence of divine involvement I could hope to find!
Note 1.John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Co. ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1996 ), 232–233.
This article also appeared in Meridian Magazine.