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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Joseph Smith's Gold Plates

Many events in the life of Joseph Smith seem bizarre and outrageous. However, the gold plates stand out as one of the most incredible. After all, God appearing to a young boy isn't new, nor is the coming forth of new scripture after a period of apparent divine silence, but a religious text written on gold plates and buried in a stone box in the ground seems so unique and uncharacteristic of anything we find in previous Christian canon that it may appear more like a product of a young man's over-active imagination.

In the words of LDS historian Richard Bushman, "For most modern readers, the [golden] plates are beyond belief, a phantasm, yet the Mormon sources accept them as fact."
The last few decades have seen some interesting discoveries in archaeology, though, which make the story sound more plausible.

Joseph's Account

The appearance of the plates found by Joseph Smith is described by many of the early church leaders. First of all, Joseph never said the plates were made of gold, but he said that they had “the appearance of gold.” It was Joseph's critics that coined the term “Gold Bible,” but it is unlikely that the plates were solid gold because the thin sheets would be too soft to be engraved on both sides and would easily tear from the binding rings. Martin Harris and others described the plates as being about “seven inches wide by eight inches in length.” Martin also said that each plate was “of the thickness of plates of tin.” Orson Pratt said that the plates were, “something near six inches in thickness, a part of which was sealed.” Emma Smith said, “They seemed to be pliable like thick paper, and would rustle with a metallic sound when the edges were moved by the thumb, as one does sometimes thumb the edges of a book.”

Of the stone box in which Joseph found them, he wrote, “Convenient to the village of Manchester, Ontario county, New York, stands a hill of considerable size, and the most elevated of any in the neighborhood. On the west side of this hill, not far from the top, under a stone of considerable size, lay the plates, deposited in a stone box. This stone was thick and rounding in the middle on the upper side, and thinner towards the edges, so that the middle part of it was visible above the ground, but the edge all around was covered with earth.”


Since their discovery the critics have ridiculed this claim. The critics, in fact, were very adamant that the claim of sacred writings on metal plates was proof of fraud. In 1887, for instance, one critic, Rev. M. T. Lamb, who made his conclusions supposedly “after a very careful study of the book [Book of Mormon], [and] a conscientious and painstaking examination of all the evidences he has been able to gather both for and against it” was “forced to reject” the claims made by the Book of Mormon in his book, The Golden Bible, or, The Book of Mormon. Is it from God?. “...no such records,” he concludes, “were ever engraved upon golden plates, or any other plates, in the early ages....”.

Lamb also said, “The... statement is... objectionable-- that there were found in the possession of a man by the name of Laban... certain brass plates upon which were engraven, in the Egyptian language, the five books of Moses, containing the law, the entire history of the Jews from the first down to Laban's time....”
LaRoy Sunderland, in Mormonism Exposed and Refuted, said, “The book of Mormon purports to have been originally engraved on brass plates.... How could brass be written on?... This book speaks... of the Jewish Scriptures, having been kept by Jews on plates of brass, six hundred years before Christ. The Jews never kept any of their records on plates of brass.”

Old World Plates

In recent decades, more than one hundred years after Joseph's account of the Book of Mormon, engraved text on metal plates are found so frequently all over the world that it is considered commonplace. Dr. William Hamblin notes that the “oldest example of Hebrew writing on metal is the engraved gold plate attached to the front of the turban of the high priest” in approximately 1,000 B.C. Hamblin also notes that the “Book of Mormon describes sacred writing on bronze and gold plates in the early sixth century B.C. at precisely the time when we find the earliest evidence of the spread of this practice from Phoenicia to Carthage, Italy, and Greece.”

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls yielded two copper scrolls which had writing engraved on them. Because writing on this metal was a difficult task, non-Mormon scholars have pointed out that writing on copper produced a cramped and abbreviated script which is particularly difficult to read. The twp scrolls were once riveted together but now are separated. The brittle oxidized copper, dating from the second century B.C., was carefully sawed into longitudinal strips in Manchester, England, then reassembled and deciphered. They catalog a still-buried treasure of gold, silver, coins, earthen and metal vessels, and various offerings worth several million dollars at today’s prices. (National Museum, Amman, Jordan.)

Copper Plate from Dead Sea Scrolls

With this discovery, critics admitted that engraving texts onto metal did exist, but it was not known how common it was, nor did the copper scroll exactly match the description of the Book of Mormon, which were bound plates, not a scroll. Anthony A. Hoekema, in The Four Major Cults, wrote,
In the sixth century B.C. the most common forms of writing material in Palestine were papyrus and leather (or animal skin); the Hebrew also wrote on wood and potsherds..... It should of course, be mentioned that writing on metal was not completely unknown, since a copper scroll has been discovered at Qumran. This scroll, however, was not a plate but a roll, and is dated much later than 600 B.C., being generally ascribed to the first century B.C. In view of the above facts, does it seem likely that brass plates containing a large section of the Old Testament in Egyptian would be found in Palestine in 600 B.C.? ...The only other instance of writing on metal which is commonly known is the copper scroll of Qumran, as noted above; but even this was a roll, not a plate.”
However, metal plates have been discovered. In 1933, a scholar discovered “‘two shallow, neatly made stone boxes with [sealed] lids, each containing two square plates of gold and silver...’” (H. Curtis Wright, “Ancient Burials Of Metal Documents In Stone Boxes”, Journal of Library History, v16:1, Winter 1981)

Five years later, in 1938, a proclamation by Darius I was engraved on plates of gold and silver. The Plates of Darius I, ruler of Persia from 518–515 B.C., are one of the closest parallels to the Book of Mormon yet discovered. Two tablets, one of gold and one of silver, were placed in each stone box to be buried at the four corners of his palace. They describe the boundaries of his kingdom, praise Ahuramazda, “the greatest of all the gods,” and pray protection upon Darius “and my royal house.” They were discovered by an archaeological team in 1938. (National Archaeological Museum, Tehran, Iran.)

Plates of Darius I

This small manuscript, which is more than two and a half millennia old, was discovered sixty years ago in a tomb uncovered during a digging for a canal along the Strouma river in western Bulgaria. The book has been authenticated by experts in Sofia and London and is now on display in Bulgaria's National History Museum. The six sheets, bound together by metal rings, has been dated to 600 BC, around the time the Book of Mormon begins. This is believed to be the oldest comprehensive work composed of multiple pages.

As noted by Hamblin, as well as others above, these metal records were often discovered in stone boxes not unlike the one described by Joseph Smith. Dr. Paul Cheesman comments in The World of the Book of Mormon:
Prior to 1823 when Joseph Smith first saw the stone box containing the plates, no record had been found describing any type of stone box from any ancient period. Only in recent years have archaeologists confirmed that this method for storing valuable articles was commonly used in ancient cultures.... Joseph Smith's... description of the stone box [which] contained the golden plates stood alone for nearly a century as the only account involving ancient stone boxes.”

An especially interesting example of ancient writing on metal plates is the Korean Sungeumgeumganggyeongpan, nineteen golden plates containing the Diamond Sutra from Buddhist scriptures engraved in Chinese calligraphy. Measuring 14.8 by 13.7 inches, they were hinged and could be folded on top of each other, then secured by two golden bands wrapped around the plates. During the eighth century, they were placed in a bronze box and buried under a five-story pagoda at Wanggungni, Chollabuk province, South Korea, where they were discovered in December 1965. This book almost exactly matches the description of the Book of Mormon. (National Museum, Seoul)

New World Plates

Not only have stone boxes, used for storage of valuable items, been found in the Old World, but there are also examples of writing engraved on metal plates and stone boxes in the Americas, too.

As early as 1851, Mariano Eduardo de Rivero, director of Lima’s National Museum, and his associate, Juan Diego de Tschudi, asserted that there were two kinds of ancient Peruvian writing: “The one and surely the most ancient consisted of certain hieroglyphic characters; the other of knots made with strings of various colors. The hieroglyphs, very different from the Mexican ones, were sculpted in stone or engraved in metal.” (Antiquidades Peruanas, Vienna: Imprenta Imperial de la Corte y del Estado, 1851, vol. 5, p. 101.)

This plate was exhumed by a 1950s expedition at Chichen Itza on the Yucatan peninsula. Found in the sacred well at the site, it has a Mayan inscription around the edges. (Peabody Museum—Harvard University. Photograph by Hillel Burger)

Cheesman later writes that not only have several of the ancient Old World metal plates been discovered in stone boxes, but it is apparent that in the New World stone boxes were also used to store valuables. In fact nearly fifty stone boxes have now been found in various locations throughout the world, including the New World. These New World stone boxes were used to preserve valuables such as jewelry, tapestries, tools, or clothing.

Here is one example of an American stone box dating to A.D. 650-900. Discovered at the base of the temple of Kulkulcan at Chichen Itza in Yucatan, Mexico, in the late 1800s, where it is exhibited, it measures approximately 2 1/2 by 2 by 2 feet, exterior. The box is carved out of one piece of stone, the rounded lid out of another. In this box were found masonry tools; other stone boxes containing jewelry and precious textiles have been found throughout Mexico and Central America. Many of them are on exhibit in the Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City. (Cheesman, “The Stone Box,” Improvement Era, Oct. 1966, p 876-78, 900)


Today, finding text, even complete books, engraved onto metal plates, bound or unbound, is so common that it is hardly worth noticing, yet a century ago, critics fiercely opposed the notion. There are many more examples than the few shown here, but since all of these plates and books were discovered after the death of Joseph Smith, what are we to make of his claims? Given the fact that these plates now seem very common all over the world, and that the description he gave of the book and the buried box it was stored in almost exactly matches those now being discovered in America and elsewhere, is it more reasonable to think that he did actually stumble upon one of these books, or did he simply imagine something, completely unheard of at the time, with no evidence or support, which later turned out to be true? In other words, did he really find the gold plates, or is he a prophet?

Monday, June 6, 2011

Argument from Locality

The Argument from Locality is an argument against theism in general, stating that every religion that has ever existed has had a definite starting point in time and space. However, if there was a God, He would want everyone to be aware of Him and to have, at least, equal opportunity to believe in Him. To this end, He would reveal Himself not only to one culture in one era, but to every culture all throughout history. The fact that no religion's god follows the more rational method shows that either He does not exist, or that He is not rational. Both of those options are extremely problematic for most, if not all, major religions today. The argument also calls into question the alleged justice of God because of His apparent excluding of all but one “chosen people” and the condemning of all others.

The Argument from Locality typically runs as follows:
  • Any god who wanted all humans to follow him/her would have revealed themselves to all humans at once, not just one culture or race at a time.
  • If rewards and punishment are given for belief and non-belief respectively, then any god who waits hundreds or thousands of years before revealing itself to humans is unfair, since the people who lived and died before this revelation didn't have a chance to believe.
  • If believers are rewarded for their belief then it is unfair for only a specific group of people to receive more evidence than others.
  • If non-belief is punished then it is also unfair for some people to receive less evidence than others (or no evidence at all).
  • Any religion that strongly reflects the beliefs and thoughts of the time in which it was created is not the "true" one.

Universal Revelation

The first premise of this argument is basically an argument in itself. It is the Argument from Non-Belief. There are many refutations to this idea, but I think the most appropriate for this context is that not all who become aware of the existence of a God, even by personal revelation, succeed in following through on that knowledge. This is evidenced by "non-practicing" members of every denomination. The Bible does address this issue and predicts that this would be the case. For example, in Matthew 13: 3-8, the Lord teaches,

“3 And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold, a sower went forth to sow;
4 And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up:
5 Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth:
6 And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away.
7 And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them:
8 But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold.”

The scriptures admit that not everyone who hears the word will accept it (wayside), but then goes on to point out that even among those who do accept it sufficiently to develop faith, there are those who, for whatever reason, let that faith wither and fade away (stony places, thorns).

So if the Lord were to give a personal witness to every man, woman, and child on Earth, it would actually end in condemnation for many people anyways. The Lord needs a method whereby He can give insight to those sufficiently prepared for a personal witness of spiritual truths, while not yet exposing it to those who may not yet be prepared.

The point is, though, that universal revelation does not equal universal conversion, and would end in condemnation for those who would be held accountable for knowledge they are not prepared to live in accordance with.

Belief is Rewarded

The first part of the second premise states that if believers are rewarded for their belief then it is unfair for only a specific group of people to receive more evidence than others. For example, the Jews who lived in Jesus' time were able to witness miracles and stand in Jesus' presence. It would be easy for them to believe. By contrast, people today are given no more evidence than an internally inconsistent book of questionable origin and authorship. It is argued that it is harder for people to believe today, given less evidence, than it was for people thousands of years ago. While people currently living must muddle through this tortuous mess if they are to arrive at the correct conclusion for salvation, that same conclusion was effortless for Jesus' contemporaries, those who were witnesses to his life and his ministry.

Historicity of the Bible aside, this portion of the argument makes several assumptions which are entirely inaccurate. First, the claim is that those living in the time of Christ found it easy to believe. This is simply false.

For example, the Pharisees stood in Christ's presence, heard His teachings first-hand, witnessed almost all of His miracles, and still they did not believe. Even many of the believers fell away when He refused to do more miracles or because the doctrine became too difficult to understand or follow (John 6:26,36,66). Even Judas, one of the Apostles, was not able to follow the witness he received. It is more than clear from even a perfunctory reading of scripture that witnessing miracles, walking with Christ, or hearing his teachings first-hand is absolutely no guarantee that the witness will develop faith as a result of that which is witnessed.

This leads to the second point, that we have less evidence today. Regarding the true source of faith, Christ teaches in Matthew 16:15-17,
“15He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am?
16And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.
17And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.”

By this He means that Simon did not arrive at this conclusion because of things that he had seen with his eyes, or heard with his ears, but that faith comes through the witness of the Holy Ghost, often referred to as Religious Experience. Paul also teaches this, in 1 Cor 12:3, when he taught that knowledge that Jesus is the Christ comes through the Holy Ghost.

If faith is developed not through witnessing miracles or seeing Christ first-hand, but through the individual testimony of the Holy Ghost, then we have no less evidence today than was available in the time of Christ. It may be true that there are less miracles, or at least less ostentatious miracles, but if one's apparent ability to break the laws of physics at will did lead to faith, then I suspect David Blaine and Chris Angel would have founded their own churches long ago. In fact, in today's environment of science and technology, I suspect most legitimate miracles would be quickly dismissed as some kind of illusion or otherwise explained away. Miracles do not produce faith, but they would be less effective today than ever.

Non-belief is Punished

Not only would it be unfair of God to give one nation more evidence than any other, the argument also states that it would be unfair to punish other nations when they were set at a disadvantage by having less revelation. For example, if Christianity is the correct religion, then generation after generation - dozens of indigenous cultures, thousands of tribes, millions and millions of people - in North, Central and South America, in Europe, in Africa, in Asia, in Australia and Indonesia - all lived and died in total, tragic ignorance of the one true god, without ever being given a chance to know the love of Jesus or hear about the sacrifice he made. This holds true both for those people who lived before Jesus as well as those who lived during or after his time but before missionaries arrived there. They were never told about the Bible, never got to witness or benefit from any miracles, and never even had one single prophet raised up from among their number. Why did God neglect these people?

The answer is that He didn't. The Lord has been sending missionaries to non-believing nations ever since the Old Testament. An example of this is the story of Jonah. The Lord instructed Jonah to go to the people of Nineveh and cry repentance to them because they were wicked. Even by today's liberal standards, the people of Nineveh were a savage and brutal people, but the Lord cared enough to send Jonah to teach them.

We have no reason to think that this is a unique case. In fact, given what we know of the Lord's character (Mal. 3:6), it would be entirely consistent to believe that all of His prophets were sent to preach, presumably to people who didn't already know. In fact, many Old Testament verses indicate that the Lord was concerned with the spiritual condition of the Gentiles ( Deut. 4:6-8, Joshua 4:24, Isa. 2:3, Isa. 49:6, Isa. 61:1, Ezek. 34:11, and many others).

However, there are some nations which were impossible to reach for centuries. In fact, even today, there are many people in remote locations who live and die without hearing even the name of Christ. What happens to those who die without this knowledge? The Bible does address this. It makes it clear that preaching and conversion is possible even after death. In 1 Peter 3: 18-20, Peter says,

“18 For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:
19 By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;
20 Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.”

After the crucifixion, Christ preached to the spirits of the wicked who had died, and to what end would he bother preaching to them if conversion were not possible? He cannot condemn them for their ignorance if it is due to factors beyond their control, yet one cannot be saved by ignorance either, because salvation requires action on our part. So everyone must have a chance to hear the gospel if judgment is to be just. In John 9:41, Christ said,
“Jesus said unto them, If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth.”

God will judge all people justly. That means that we will not be held accountable for knowledge we do not have, but eventually, everyone will have the opportunity to accept or deny it.

Ever since the Old Testament, the Lord has been reaching out to other nations to spread the gospel, but even individuals who were not reached in life may possibly find conversion afterward.

Beliefs and Thoughts of the Times

The third premise states that a religion cannot be true if it strongly reflects beliefs and thoughts of the times, such as the shape of the Earth, societal role of women, etc, because it is more likely that it is a human invention, not divine. The reasoning behind this is that if a given religion was purely the invention of human beings, we would expect that that religion would bear similarities to its culture of origin. On the other hand, a transcendent or all-knowing deity, or even one that was merely far wiser than human beings, would not be limited by what was known or believed at the time he dispensed a revelation, but could provide new information of which people were not previously aware and which did not correspond to any concepts in their experience.

Many of the issues this points to, such as cosmological issues, are purely matters of interpretation and even many Christians do not agree on them. However, it is known that eastern writings, such as the Bible, use significantly more symbolism than many western readers are used to. But even if the ancient Israelites honestly thought the Earth was flat, it does not mean that God got it wrong. It just means that it wasn't a big enough issue that the Lord felt he needed to correct it. After all, an individual who believes that the Earth is round will get into Heaven, but a person who thinks the Earth is flat will also get into Heaven. It's simply not one of those issues our salvation depends on.

When teaching in any setting, it is a good practice to teach according to the understanding of those being taught. Using images and analogies (such as a flat Earth) with which a person is already familiar makes it much easier for them to understand concepts which they would otherwise find difficult to grasp.

I do not believe that the Prophets truly thought that the Earth was flat. I think that's a misinterpretation of scripture, but even if I am wrong and they did hold that belief, it still doesn't mean the God was wrong. It just means it's not that important.

There are many instances, however, such as the social status of women and slavery, which are clearly wrong. But the Lord never claimed He'd given us a perfect law. He only gave us the law we were ready for. In a few thousand years He would come back and give them a higher law which formed much of the New Testament. Precept upon precept, line upon line. Here a little and there a little (Isa. 28:10). The Lord reveals the gospel one piece at a time as we prepare ourselves to receive it.

Support for this idea is in Matthew 19:7-8, when Jesus speaks to the Pharisees,

“7 They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away?
8 He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.”

It was not part of God's plan that men should put away their wives, but Moses allowed them to do it because they were not ready to live a higher law.


Every line of this argument is based on assumption. It assumes that all who receive revelation are successfully converted. The Bible admits this is not so and even provides examples, such as Cain and Judas. It assumes that we lack evidence to believe today that non-believers had in the time of Christ. The Bible is clear that the only source of conversion is the Holy Ghost, which is just as strong today as it was then. It assumes that the Lord has forgotten about those who die without knowledge of God. The Bible teaches that not only is it possible for them to convert after death, but they must have that opportunity if God's judgment is just. The argument says that a work reflecting its own cultural knowledge is most likely a human invention. Not only does the Bible contain knowledge not widely held at the time (The Earth is not flat. Isa. 40:22), but it addresses this issue by showing the step-by-step pattern the Lord uses in teaching. I can't speak for other religions, but this argument completely fails against Christianity.
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