I’d like to highlight a significant problem of claiming the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Not many have written on this subject, if at all. I have written about it several times previously, but I want to make a point of it again.
Let’s start with a simple hypothetical. Suppose that archaeologists working at a dig site in Central American were to discover a stela that had several major rulers names carved on it, and which dates to the pre-Columbian Preclassic time period. Now suppose that these archaeologists were able to decipher the names and translate them into their equivalent English phonetic representations. What if one of the names was discovered to be Nee’fy, son of Lee’hy, or similar. From the perspective of a historical Book of Mormon, this seems to be entirely plausible, even for apologists (see Bill Hamblin’s recent musings on U-Kix/Akish).
What would be the result of such a finding?
It seems that there would be an unmistakable correlation to the Book of Mormon’s Nephi, son of Lehi, who figures as a main figure, leader, and founder of a significant group of people named throughout the Book of Mormon, the Nephites. The time period, the location, the names, the familial relationship, the social standing, the political rank, these would all point strongly to the historical truth of the figure Nephi from the Book of Mormon, that this individual actually lived in the time, place, and way that the Book of Mormon and its historical apologists say that he lived, and certainly LDS apologists would quickly attach to such a finding the nearest thing to conclusive evidence for the Book of Mormon as exists, if not the conclusive evidence.
Would the rest of the scholarly and secular world agree with the correlation? I think they would be strongly compelled to agree that there is an incredibly strong correlation between the two, and that the inscription represents perhaps the first significant evidence for the historicity of the Book of Mormon.
But it doesn’t stop there. The ramifications unfold deeply.
How would they reconcile how the Book of Mormon came to be? How did such a historical reality come forth from a religious prophet? How did God figure into its finding and translation? Why don’t the original plates exist to be examined today? Why was the supernatural nature of the translation needed? Is supernaturalism real? Is God real? Was Joseph Smith a true prophet, the first to be scientifically shown to be a true prophet, uncovering a historical reality that he could not have known in any other way than divine revelation? Must the LDS Church be a true church, even the true church of God? Do the Mormons have the truth, even the very truth about a real God, human life, and eternity?
The historical reality of the Book of Mormon, if it can be shown to be true, causes a domino effect of significance. The problem is that this domino effect essentially and fundamentally unravels the cornerstones of the LDS faith itself.
If Nephi, son of Lehi, was a true historical person, and if this can be shown with certainty, then there is no need to have faith in his reality anymore. He actually lived and breathed. If he actually lived and breathed, then the Book of Mormon must be telling the truth about Nephi. The Book of Mormon revealed an actual historical reality about real persons, Nephi, Lehi, and their lives. And it did this by way of divine providence, through a religious prophet, before it was shown to be certain by secular discovery. So the way and the means by which the Book of Mormon came forth must be true and correct, and so it is likely that the other persons, people, and things described by the Book of Mormon are true and correct as well. Suddenly, the truth of the book comes into the domain of secular knowledge and leaves somewhat the domain of religious faith. The truths of Mormonism, that have been expounded for centuries as being built on faith, suddenly are shown to be absolute truths from a secular perspective. There is no need to have faith in the book and its people, if they can be shown to be genuine historical realities. Furthermore, there is no need to have faith in the prophetic abilities of Joseph Smith when it can be shown with certainty that he was able to bring forth true historical knowledge by way of his God. And there is little need to have faith in Joseph’s God when it can be shown with certainty that authentic history was brought to light by means of that God. Faith becomes certainty of knowledge, and as the Brother of Jared noted, when one knows something with certainty, there is no longer need for faith anymore (Ether 3:19).
Is it congruent with the doctrine and theology of Mormonism for the world to come to a knowledge of its truth through secular means, without the need for faith? Can any faith be built upon certainty of knowledge? I don’t think so, because certainty of knowledge is not faith. Faith is belief in something not seen, not belief in something seen and understood to be true and accurate. The world cannot come to a certain knowledge of God, for that is firmly in contradiction of God’s way, as taught by the LDS Church. It is by faith that God works, and has always worked. God has required strong faith, even faith to move mountains, before he is willing to unveil himself. Faith must become so great that one believes entirely by faith alone in the reality of God before God will show himself.
And so we return to the question of historicity of the Book of Mormon. We are left with a paradox where the Book of Mormon and its apologists claim it is historical, but the historicity of the book cannot be shown with any certainty because such a finding would unravel the claims of the book and the faith necessary for belief in the God that revealed it. The historicity of the Book of Mormon is an internally inconsistent and contradictory claim. The truth of its historicity would undermine the whole theological system.
The only way to resolve the paradox, that I can see, is that the book is not historical. Then there is no paradox that would be created by uncovering a certainty of its historicity.
Do I doubt that the Book of Mormon is historical? I do.