CES Reply: Book of Mormon Archaeology

This is a serialization of “A Faithful Reply to the CES Letter from a Former CES Employee.”  You can download the whole PDF here, and you can also participate in the Latter-day Saint Survey Project by joining or creating one of the Canonizer camps in the links at the bottom of this post.

This is a line-by-line response to Jeremy Runnells’s October 2017 iteration of the CES Letter. Jeremy’s original text appears in green, the color of life. My response text appears in black, the color of darkness.

By way of odd coincidences: yesterday, the day I posted the story of Melvin Dummar’s forged Howard Hughes will, is the same day that Mr. Dummar passed away at the age of 74.

An interesting factoid from Mr. Dummar’ s life, as recounted by the Washington Post:

In the 1980s, Mr. Dummar attempted a singing career, a venture that was roughly as successful as his legal claims to the Hughes estate. He had a doo-wop number, according to the Salt Lake City Weekly, that went in part: “Thank you, Howard / For leaving me something / All you left me was frustration / And I’ll never live it down / How I wish you were around. . . . Only you know what went down.”

Would have liked to have seen a performance of that. Rest in peace, Melvin Dummar.

On with the reply!

6. Archaeology: There is absolutely no archaeological evidence to directly support the Book of Mormon or the Nephites and Lamanites, who were supposed to have numbered in the millions.


Nonsense. There is a great deal of direct Old World archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon, as well as a growing body of archaeological evidence in the New World, too. 


My short answer covers all of your question, but I’m going to need to break the the full text of Question #6 into bite-sized chunks, as your lengthy question raises a host of issues that need to be comprehensively addressed in turn.

One of the biggest canards of critics of the Book of Mormon is that there is “no archaeological evidence” to support it. But the fact of the matter is that’s simply not true.

The bulk of the events chronicled in the Book of Mormon take place in the New World, and the debate still rages as to where, specifically, readers ought to place the geographical setting for the Nephite narrative. But there is no debate as to where the book of 1 Nephi takes place. Lehi’s family left Jerusalem, traveled on foot across Arabia, stopped at the water, and built a ship to sail across the ocean. These events took place in verifiable locations, and modern discoveries have archaeologically verified the trajectory of Lehi’s journey in every respect.

My father wrote about this extensively, and since his passing, I’ve gotten digital copies of Leap of Faith. The following is a lengthy excerpt from the fourth digital draft of his book, so it may vary slightly from the printed edition:

A great deal of new information is now available. The bulk of Nephi’s story takes place in the wilderness between Jerusalem and the Red Sea, lands that have not changed appreciably from that time to this, and this area is now more open to Westerners than it has ever been before. That means we can check on the details Nephi mentions, something that [B.H.] Roberts could not do. A few examples: 

The presence of water: 

Nephi says the family camped in a valley, three days journey from Jerusalem, in which there was a river, flowing continually to the Red Sea. It is from this site that he and his brothers went back to Jerusalem to fetch the Brass Plates from Laban. This statement has raised considerable skepticism because Saudi Arabia, which is presumably where such a camp site would have been, is known as one of the few countries on Earth that has no rivers. For many years, the book’s supporters had no answer for this discrepancy. Now, some of them think they have.

Some Western scholars were in Arabia in 1996 on a search for the Biblical Mount Ararat. As they talked with local Arabs about ancient geography, they were referred to an area known as the ‘Waters of Moses,” a site where water comes out of the ground, reputed to have been the spot where Moses struck a rock with his staff to provide water for the thirsty Israelites in the wilderness. The Americans went there more for curiosity than anything else.

When they arrived in the area, they found, not far from the “Waters of Moses,” a stream running through a valley all the way to the Red Sea. There was every indication that it ran year round, and, like most of the topography of the region, had been there for centuries if not millennia. Those familiar with The Book of Mormon began to wonder if they had, in fact, found the river of which Nephi spoke, even though one would be hard pressed to call this stream a river in terms of the mighty rivers of the world.

The valley through which this river runs is seventy five miles south of Jerusalem, which puts it within the three days journey time that Nephi mentions. It is unknown and unmarked on any Western maps. Whether it is or isn’t the place spoken of by Nephi is open to debate, but its discovery demonstrates that Nephi’s story is entirely plausible on this point. 

And it is in a place that no Westerner knew about before 1996.

Archeology and the route of the march:

Nephi says that the party proceeded in a Southeastern direction. The narrative is specific – very specific – about where they went, in a desert where conditions have not changed over the millennia. Nephi’s description is so precise that it is possible to reconstruct a map of the possible wanderings of the family, as follows:

From Lehi in the Desert by Hugh Nibley, page 112

That means that Nephi’s description of the journey can now be tested against current conditions and locations in the area, and it must meet a very rigorous standard with respect to its archeology.

It does. 

In just the past few years, believing scholars have traveled along the route suggested by the map and discovered some very interesting things:

The route closely approximates what is known as the “Incense Trail,” a route followed in the ancient world by those trading in incense and other goods. One location on that trail was a mining site, from which a great deal of precious metal – primarily gold – was taken. Many archeologists believe that this site was the one known as “King Solomon’s Mines.”

Nephi said that he made the plates on which his narrative was engraved himself. This stop along the route supposedly followed by Lehi’s party is a very logical source from which the gold he used could have come.

After the mines, the route goes by what was once an important city, one whose ruins have only recently been discovered. Modern archeologists have found that the name of the city, engraved in stone, was NHM, a word written without vowels, as was the Hebrew tradition in the centuries before Christ. 

Nephi’s narrative records the death of Ishmael and identifies the place where he was buried as “Nahom.” Archeologists working in NHM have found a significant burial ground that contained both Egyptian and non-Egyptian graves. Putting name and function together, a believing scholar calls the discovery of NHM/Nahom “an archeological bulls-eye” in support of Nephi’s story. 

Toward the end of their eight year period in the desert wilderness, the record says that they came to a land so rich with vegetation that they named it “Bountiful.” Nephi says that they did this after turning eastward; previously they had been traveling in southeast direction. One Church leader, John A. Widstoe, in a book titled, Is Book of Mormon Geography Known? says that the turn eastward occurred at the nineteenth parallel. He quotes Joseph Smith himself as the source of this information.

Turning directly east on the nineteenth parallel would have taken Lehi’s family to a geographical location on the Arabian Peninsula that fits Nephi’s description of “Bountiful” perfectly, the Qara mountains.

In his book, Arabia Felix, Bertram Thomas describes them:

What a glorious place! Mountains three thousand feet high basking above a tropical ocean, their seaward slopes velvety with waving jungle, their roofs fragrant with rolling yellow meadows, beyond which the mountains slope northwards to a red sandstone steppe. . . Great was my delight when in 1928 I suddenly came upon it from out of the arid wastes of the southern borderlands. 

Thomas is reported to be one of the first Europeans to see this location, a century after Joseph Smith. I have searched through books on Palestine that were current in the 1820s, to see if Joseph Smith could have had a contemporary source for this knowledge, and I have not been able to find a similar description. The first recorded Western discovery of similar mountains in what is now Oman, on the twenty-fifth parallel, came in 1838, too late to have been available to a forger in 1829.

All of this is important because one of the most persistent criticisms of The Book of Mormon is that it fails the test of archeology; it does not give any recognizable descriptions of landmarks that have been uncovered in pre-Colombian America… A careful reading of it makes it clear that it is never specific enough in its description of places in the Western Hemisphere to justify anyone saying, for certain, “This is a Book of Mormon site.” … In the Middle East, however, as we have seen, the situation is very different. Whoever wrote the portion of the “book within a book” attributed to Nephi knew the geography of the Arabian Peninsula very well – better than anyone in America in Joseph Smith’s time (or B. H. Roberts’ time, a century later, for that matter.) I have not been able to find any published challenges to believers’ claims regarding the specificity of these locations.

The Old World parallels in 1 Nephi are overwhelming, but in terms of geography, archaeology, and literary references that would have been unavailable in 1829. As Hugh Nibley stated in Lehi in the Desert:

 “It would have been quite as impossible for the most learned man alive in 1830 to have written the book as it was for Joseph Smith. And whoever would account for the Book of Mormon by any theory suggested so far—save one—must completely rule out the first forty pages.”

It simply will not do to say that there is “absolutely no archaeological evidence” in support of the Book of Mormon. As demonstrated above, in the Old World, there is a great deal of evidence that you never address or even acknowledge in your letter. Why do you ignore it? Don’t the people who donate to your foundation deserve to know all the facts?

I’ll get to the New World evidence as I address the rest of your question in later posts. 

Tomorrow, we discuss the Book of Mormon “Limited Geography” theory. In the meantime, take a look at the Canonizer camps below – I’ve created a  new sub camp about archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon. If you think I’m completely wrong, you can join a camp that says so – or create one of your own!