Science in Christian Perspective
Letter to the Editor
Reply to "A Biologist Examines the Book of Mormon"
Ellis D. Davis, D.C.
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
From: JASA (December 1985): 254-256.
May I call the attention of your readers to certain corrections which need to be noted in Dr. Key's presentation. Dr. Key is an esteemed friend and my former professor while in chiropractic school.
There was a reason for the choice of Egyptian as the vehicle for recording the Book of Mormon, as the Egyptian language expressed extensive concepts with fewer characters than the Hebrew. Moroni in Mormon 9:33 says, "If our plates had been sufficiently large we should have written in Hebrew." The prophets who kept the record which became the Book of Mormon knew it was intended to last for centuries and was to come to the attention of their descendants. The scriptures that they took with them from Jerusalem were engraved on metal plates. They continued this practice in recording their own current history. Because of the difficulty in melting ore, preparing thin plates, and thereafter engraving on them, the more concise Egyptian was chosen for these particular records. That is not to say that Egyptian was the spoken language. Dealings with Egypt, cultural, political, and commercial, were important before the Babylonian captivity, as later with Greece and Rome, when Greek and Latin became the dominant languages. As you know, language does change over time, Italian differing from Latin and our English from Chaucer's English. Moroni called the later form "Reformed Egyptian."
Nephi says that the group gave proper names to geographic entities, such as Shazer, Irreantum, the river Laman, etc. These were for their own temporary convenience and found their way into no geographies. In view of the infinite variety of proper names, would all of them have come down in history?-especially in the form of a dictionary of Semitic or Egyptian! And would an isolated body of people be limited therafter just to names familiar to them?
"Deseret" is mentioned by a Jaredite prophet, dating from the period of about 2000 B.C. to 600 B.C., antedating the people of Lehi. Their language, not having been confounded at the Tower of Babel, would have been neither Egyptian nor Semitic. Again, these people were isolated from the Eastern Hemisphere.
The Liahona was a unique instrument bestowed by God. It served as a compass but worked only when used with faith in God. As far as we know, it was the only one of its kind and so would have been unknown to any other people. A term had to be coined for it.
Articles have been written in our Latter Day Saints' Ensign magazine by those who have followed the approximate route taken by Lehi and his party. As I recall, there was from early times and there still is today a spot on the coast of southeast Arabia that is fertile and wooded. Spices and timber were brought from there over the ancient Spice Route. The articles, I believe, made mention of a small river flowing into the Red Sea about three days' journey by camel from Jerusalem. Whether that is in present-day Arabia, I do not know.
Some scholars have postulated that it may not have been the Red Sea that the Israelites crossed. The King James has 'Red Sea.' My French bible prefers la mer des Joncs. I doubt whether the exact site of the crossing has been definitely established to the satisfaction of scholars. Apparently, the plates that Joseph Smith translated gave it as the Red Sea. One seems to have a choice between plates dating back at least to 600 B.C. or the Bible dictionary which you consulted.
The people of Lehi, to judge by the frequent reference to the "narrow neck of land," settled chiefly in Central America and northern South America. It is thought that the Lehites correspond to the people known today as the Mayans, who appeared in history about 600 B.C. and flourished for about a thousand years. The Jaredites correspond probably to the Olmec: civilization. They appeared to have crossed the Atlantic and been confined to North America. Some non-Mormon archeologists use the Book of Mormon as a guide in locating ruins.
Given that the Lehites came via the Pacific and settled in tropical regions where there were also highlands, we can see how the crops of the Near East could be grown there. Right here in Oakland and farther south in California all of those crops are growing in abundance. While it gets very cold here, it does not freeze, as it does in Florida and Georgia. I have seen oranges and lemons on the trees from October, when I arrived, to now, in June. Olive trees grow on the Mormon Temple grounds and 30 miles inland.
Archeological finds, which were just beginning when the young Joseph Smith was trying to elude persecutors long enough to do the work of translation, have tended to confirm the Book of Mormon as to the existence of articles, crops, animals, and so on, formerly thought not to have existed in the early Americas. Archeologists, both Mormon and non-Mormon, have a hard time convincing some of their colleagues of new evidences that come to light. In view of previous upsets, would it be well to use caution in stating flatly that something did not exist at some dim period of history? Much more is coming to light about our own western civilization, for example, than that being taught when I first studied it.
Can one really object to the expression that a seed "swells?" Soak some beans overnight and see what they do. Better still, you who delight in experiments (I especially prize the one about feeding the cereal carton to the white rats!)-sprout some mung beans, lentils, or alfalfa seeds. The mung beans in particular swell and split their outer coating.
Once more, remember that the Lehites inhabited primarily the regions just south and north of the narrow neck of land. And we do need to be careful about stating positively that certain animals, etc., did not exist at a particular early period shrouded in distant time. Animals, fish, and plants are subject to mutation and/or extinction. Consider the La Brea tar pits. And at one time Bible critics would have thrown out most of the Bible on the scanty archeological evidence they had at the time.
Is it correct to say that an author "plagiarizes" when he frankly states that he is quoting word for word? Nephi says that he delights in the words of Isaiah, and he makes them known to his people, as he is the only one who has access to the brass plates which were brought from Jerusalem. He quotes from them because many of Isaiah's prophecies pertain to his people and to the "Gentiles," whom he knew would one day read the book. It is clear that Isaiah in speaking of an asp and a cockatrice was referring to the Millennium, expressing himself in his own idiom of the 7th century B.C.
Ether 9:18-19 lists cattle, oxen, and cows but not as separate species. Ancient writings often seem quite redundant to us. The Bible is replete with repetitious expressions. It was Joseph Smith's commission simply to translate what the ancient authors had written, and translate he did. How much, after all, is known about what existed in North America from 2000 B.C. to 600 B.C.? American settlers have been too busy with workaday affairs and covering the landscape with concrete dwellings and high-rises to dig down that deep-at least until recent years. A comprehensive profile of what ties under present-day United States has yet to be projected, as far as I know-a spotty profile, perhaps, yes.
The Jaredites were not Jews and were not forbidden to eat pork. Jews began to be distinguished by that designation when the Israelitish kingdom was divided after the death of Solomon about 900-800 B.C. The Jaredites dated from about 2000 B.C. and were unknown to the rest of the world. The Israelites were given their dietary restrictions by Moses about 1300 B.C. in the wilderness of Sinai.
If neas, sheum, cureloms, and cumoms are not further identified, it is that there are no known equivalents today. Joseph Smith was simply translating.
Concerning poisonous snakes, this seems to have been one of the ways that the Lord punished those who had made a covenant with Him to keep His commandments and then proceeded to break the covenant. You are familiar, I am sure, with the fiery serpents sent as punishment to complaining Israelites (Numbers 21:5ff). The remedy against the snakebite was scarcely in accordance with natural law.
Concerning books among pre-Columbian Indians-when I took my degree in library science at Columbia University we learned that the Spanish priests, considering them heretical, endeavored to destroy all of the books and records that they found among the natives. However, a few have survived and are on exhibit in various libraries over the world. Pictures of them have appeared in journals, etc. The pages are arranged in accordion style. Stone pillars with inscriptions abound, but, the last I knew, few had been deciphered. There are many indications of a high degree of civilization-brain surgery, calendars, cement, and metal plates with engravings-as well as the legends of the visit of a white God.
Ether 2:2 says only that the Jaredites carried with them the fish which they found in those particular waters in the valley where they were.
I agree about that second hole in the "bottom" of the Jaredite barges. We are not enlightened as to how it was to aid in ventilation or otherwise. Also that the beheaded Shiz raised up and struggled for breath! Ca fait un drble d'un effet, quand meme!, as the French would say. If Joseph Smith had been composing rather than translating, do you think he would have written those statements thus?
The environs of Jerusalem could well have been referred to by the people of Lehi's time as the "land of Jerusalem," just as New York may be either a city or a state. When Joseph reached the point in translation which referred to a wall around Jerusalem, he said to his scribe, "I did not know there was a wall around Jerusalem."
It is true that other racial strains entered into the Indian race as it existed at the time of Columbus. I attended an unusually rich exhibition of pre-Columbian archeological findings from Mexico at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The facade of a temple there bore female statues that looked distinctly Chinese. Also, newspaper articles over the years have mentioned the finding of Phoenician and Scandinavian artifacts. Then of course there was Thor Heyerdahl's feat of crossing the Atlantic in a reed boat from Egypt. Yes, the Book of Mormon does not pretend to be a comprehensive history. It concentrates on two migrations only, just as the Old Testament concentrates largely on the history of the Israelites. I believe blood type studies have been made which would not discredit Hebrew extraction for at least some Indian strains.
Some grammatical errors still persist in the Book of Mormon. The first draft was the subject of much scorn on the part of the printer. The prophet's wife, Emma, who had been a school teacher, stated that Joseph was incapable of writing a correct sentence at that time. Nor did he succeed later in improving his personal writings very much. He had learned the rudiments of reading, writing, and arithmetic from an itinerant tutor who, after the custom of the day in rural pioneer America, boarded with the family for awhile to teach the children. My own grandfather, born in 1845 on a Florida orange grove, received his schooling in that way. As one compares the personal letters and diaries of Joseph Smith with the exalted truths and noble language of the revelations as they came from the Lord to this humble man whom He called from his farm duties to be the first prophet of the latter days, one is struck anew by the divinity of the work.
I know of no contradictions between the Book of Mormon and other official Mormon writings nor between the Book of Mormon and the Bible. The Lord brought forth the Book of Mormon in direct fulfillment of certain prophecies in the Bible that fit the Book of Mormon with peculiar exactness.
As Moroni counseled, "And now, if there are faults, they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment seat of Christ."