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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?


jenheadjen said...

I vote prophet.

Anonymous said...

If Joseph Smith's plates are real, where are they and why all the secrecy surrounding them? We can handle the Dead Sea Scrolls, why not these plates? Sounds bogus to me.

Cristofer Urlaub said...

Since you weren't brave enough to include your name or anything about you, I'm not sure how to answer your question in a way that best demonstrates how silly your reasoning is.

First of all, you clearly haven't done your homework. Five seconds on Google will tell you what happened to the Gold Plates, and there is obviously no secrecy about it. Seek, and ye shall find.

If you're a theist, let me ask you where are the stone tablets which Moses brought down from Sinai? Where is the staff of Aaron? Where is the golden jar of Manna? Where is the Ark of the Covenant? Are Moses and Aarom frauds because we cannot handle these artifacts as we would the Dead Sea Scrolls? Wouldn't that make both Judaism and Christianity false?

For that matter, where are any of the original Biblical manuscripts? If I'm not mistaken, the oldest Hebrew Old Testament manuscript is only from about 150 BCE. The oldest New Testament manuscript is from about 125 CE.

We can handle the Dead Sea Scrolls, why not these manuscripts? Does that sound bogus to you? It's basically an identical situation.

If you're more the secular type, then let me ask the same question, but in a different way.

Where is On Sphere-Making, by Archimedes?

Where is the rest of the Epic Cycle? The Illiad and The Oddysey were only two of an eight volume set.

Where is Hermocrates, by Plato?

Where are the missing 107 volumes of Ab urbe condita libri, by Livy?

Where is half of Nikola Tesla's life's work? (Answer: Burned in a New York fire.)

Where are Ernest Hemingway's early works?

Where is pretty much all music written during the first few thousand years of man's history?

Were all of these people frauds and con artists because their works disappeared? We can handle the Dead Sea Scrolls, why not these works? Do they sound bogus to you?

Here's something else. The Library of Alexandria contained about 650K to one million scrolls. That's pretty much everything ever written before then. It was burned by Muslim invaders in 642 CE.

When those scrolls burned, did their authors all retroactively become frauds and con artists?

The truth is that it doesn't matter what happened to the Gold Plates. For all it matters, Joseph Smith could have gone fishing one day and accidentally dropped them into the Atlantic Ocean. Whether or not we have the original copy now has absolutely no bearing on whether it not it existed then.

If you believe in the Bible, or if you believe that the Library of Alexandria was not full of lies, then you must agree.

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