[Editor’s Note: This is the fourteenth in a series of 23 essays summarizing and evaluating Book of Mormon-related evidence from a Bayesian statistical perspective. See the FAQ at the end of the introductory episode for details on methodology.]
It seems unlikely that an authentic Book of Mormon should have so many anachronisms—or that a fabricated book could correspond so well to Mesoamerican culture.
In this episode we take a bite that’s probably too large to be reasonably chewed, looking at what we might possibly conclude from decades of archaeological research on the Book of Mormon. Building on a previous Bayesian analysis conducted by Bruce and Brian Dale, I form a more conservative estimate of the state of the archaeological literature, particularly in terms of a proposed Mesoamerican setting. After weighing the proposed correspondences against the anachronisms identified by critics, I estimate the probability of a fabricated Book of Mormon at p = 1.25 x 10-28, which would itself represent a critical strike in favor of the Book of Mormon.
However, since we’re being nice, I chose to severely handicap my analysis in favor of the critics. When I give the critics the severe benefit of the doubt, it’s possible to construe the evidence as weighing against Book of Mormon, with odds of around 9,000 to 1. Though this is as strong as any of the negative evidence we’ve considered so far, it’s likely not a strong basis on which to reject the Book of Mormon.
Evidence Score = -4 (decreases the probability of an authentic Book of Mormon by four orders of magnitude)
You, our ardent skeptic, are shaking out the last of the mental cobwebs that had begun to clutter your mind. You’ve been reading for most of the day, its light having long succumbed to the dark of the New England winter. You put down the book almost gratefully. You’d be lying if you said the book wasn’t interesting, but it was most definitely exhausting. You move across the room to your straw mattress and eagerly lay yourself down. Sleep comes quickly, but as it overtakes you, you find a few particular verses, the last you had read that day, echoing through your mind:
And we began to build buildings, and to repair the walls of the city, yea, even the walls of the city of Lehi-Nephi, and the city of Shilom.
And we began to till the ground, yea, even with all manner of seeds, with seeds of corn, and of wheat, and of barley, and with neas, and with sheum, and with seeds of all manner of fruits; and we did begin to multiply and prosper in the land.
This tale had become much more than the minor family drama it had been a few chapters previously. This is an epic of nations, ones that built large public works, that warred with each other, and that left their mark on the land. What’s more, the book makes strong claims about how those people lived: the foods they ate, the crops they planted, how they organized their government, their military technology—surely if these claims were true, such marks would stand through the centuries, their walls and their cities standing as tall as those of the ancient Romans or the pyramids of Egypt.
Yet the civilization the book describes sounds nothing like the savage tribes that you knew still wandered the plains of the Americas. Surely these stories, stirring as they were, were little more than idle fantasy.
You hold on to those fantasies, their threads as thick as ropes, as you sink into the depths of a vivid dream. In that dream you see yourself rising from your bed. You continue to rise—to the ceiling, above your sod roof, and into the air until the whole of your small farm is in view. You rise faster and faster, until you can look up and see the curve of the earth and the glow of the already-set sun. The sight mesmerizes you, to the point that you barely notice your ascent beginning to slow. As you reach your apex your eyes can reach the edges of the continent, and as you fall you notice that your trajectory isn’t taking you where you started. You move far and inexorably to the south and to the west, and as you fall the landscape changes from forests to grassland to dense jungle.
The jungles looked untouched by human hands, but as you continue your fall the layer of jungle seems to melt away, revealing a breathtaking network of cities and roads, a civilization of ages past that, in its way, seems more grand and more lively than the heart of Rome or the bustling streets of London. The vision moves freely through time as well as space, and you watch these nations rise and fall in tides of war and famine and destruction. Soon the smell of sulfur and smoke fills the air as volcanos spew a sea of ash into the sky below you, and panic claws at your mind as it continues to rise, too high, too fast—engulfing you in a sea of inky blackness. That panic shakes you awake, and you feel your lungs hacking on the clean New England air of your own cabin.
As the coughing subsides and you again begin to fall asleep, one question reverberates in your mind. Could peoples like the ones described in this book have actually existed? And if so, how could this Joseph have guessed so much about them?
Here we come to what may be the primary battleground of Book of Mormon apologetics. The Book of Mormon posits the existence of entire civilizations living somewhere on the American continents, and makes dozens upon dozens of claims about how those people lived—their religious practices, their agricultural activities, their material culture, their methods of warfare, their migration patterns—the potential fodder for a deep analysis is endless, and has fueled decades worth of archaeological activity and speculation. For faithful scholars those claims represent opportunities to place Lehi and his descendants into a concrete and authentic place and time in history. For critics, those same claims are a machine gun of potential silver bullets against the truth of the Book of Mormon and the church that proclaims it.
There’s no way that I could hope to analyze—or even adequately summarize—even a fraction of the research that’s been done on this topic, either for or against. That task would be further complicated by the mountain of shoddy scholarship that has accumulated over the years, on all sides. But what I will do is attempt to judge the overall picture from a bird’s eye view. Could the parallels we observe between the Book of Mormon and the ancient inhabitants of America appear by chance? Are the various purported anachronisms in the text proof that the book is a fraud? We turn to Bayes to help give us an answer.
This analysis is going to be a bit unique, as it’s not clear at first glance whether the archaeological evidence represents positive evidence for or negative evidence against the Book of Mormon. Scholars on either side would likely claim the ground for their own side. Thankfully, with Bayesian analysis we don’t really have to pick—we can consult the evidence for both sides and let the chips fall as they may.
Though the Book of Mormon was not meant as an anthropological summary of Jaredite, Nephite, or Lamanite culture, the book is full of specific descriptions and telling details regarding the various peoples accounted for in its pages, as mentioned above. Each of these details, if true, could be expected to leave a mark on history, and to correspond (or not) to the living patterns of real people who lived in the Americas between 3000 BC and 429 AD.
Since the beginning of the Book of Mormon’s modern history, it’s claims regarding native peoples of the Americas have been roundly criticized. The criticisms of yesteryear look very different than the criticisms being made today, but the critics’ point has taken the same general form in every era—that there is no evidence that a particular native group in the Americas had all of the characteristics ascribed to them in the Book of Mormon. Back when the major comparator was the First Nation groups of the central United States, that lack of evidence concerned claims about writing and large-scale populations. Now that the most serious contenders are certain factions of Olmec and Maya in southern Mexico and Guatemala, those claims have focused on the lack of metallurgy and to the absence of domesticated animals, such as sheep and goats. We also can’t forget that perennial favorite, the current (and surprisingly complicated) scientific consensus that modern horses did not exist in the Western hemisphere prior to Columbus. If the Nephites existed as described in the Book of Mormon, archaeologists should have uncovered convincing evidence of all these things, or so the argument goes.
This evidence is countered by the work of a number of faithful scholars who, over time, have uncovered a number of interesting correspondences between the Book of Mormon and the native societies of the Americas—in particular, the peoples who inhabited a limited portion of Mesoamerica. Though others have tried to place the Book of Mormon in places as varied as the Great Lakes area, the Baja peninsula, or Malaysia, there is, at the moment, a clear frontrunner among the church’s credentialed scholars (and that frontrunner is not the Heartland of the United States—see here and here and here for detailed explanations as to why). John Sorenson, a well-respected archaeologist who founded the BYU anthropology department, spent the majority of his life formulating and researching his model of Book of Mormon lands. This model been supplemented by the research of other noted, respected, and well-credential archaeologists such as Brant Gardner, Richard Hauck, and Mark Wright, among various others. In his magnum opus, Mormon’s Codex, Sorenson outlines 420 different correspondences between the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican culture, demography, and archaeology. Though not all of those correspondences enjoy wide consensus among even faithful scholars, one gets the general sense that there are more correspondences than there should be for a book written by Joseph Smith in the early nineteenth century.
There are two hypotheses that we’ll be taking a look at in this episode:
Book of Mormon peoples resided in Mesoamerica during the times suggested in the book and participated in the culture of the Olmec and Maya—The archaeological evidence requires that we get a bit more specific than “Book of Mormon peoples existed.” It’s not possible to know if the information in the book is accurate unless we pick something to compare it to, and the best model we have to work with is that put forward by Sorenson. In that case, the parallels we see between the Book of Mormon and Olmec or Mayan cultures would be there because the Nephites, Lamanites, and Jaredites helped put them there. Anachronisms, on the other hand, would occur because we’ve either failed to understand or failed to find evidence for those particular claims within the book.
Book of Mormon peoples were fabricated by Joseph Smith—According to this hypothesis, any potential correspondence between the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican cultures are there due to chance, either because those features exist in a number of different cultures worldwide, or because Mesoamerican culture happens to share a number of features with the cultures available to Joseph as he was writing the book, namely biblical culture, American culture, or common assumptions about America’s Indigenous peoples more generally. Anachronisms would be there because Joseph Smith and his ideas are a poor fit for ancient Mesoamerica.
PH—Prior Probability of a Mesoamerican Setting—Our prior probability for this hypothesis, as always, is based on the evidence we’ve considered in previous episodes. Here’s a summary of those analyses so far:
As you can see, the tables have now turned, with the probability now favoring authenticity at p = 1—2.3 x 10-10.
PA—Prior Probability of a Fabricated Setting—That leaves the remainder for the prior probability of a fabricated Book of Mormon, namely p = 2.3 x 10-10.
To calculate our consequent probabilities, or the probabilities of observing the archaeological evidence we do under each hypothesis, we’re going to be piggybacking on the shoulders of the work done by Bruce and Brian Dale. Bruce Dale is an amateur researcher holding a PhD in chemical engineering, and Brian Dale is biomedical engineer who, in the course of his work, has made extensive use of Bayesian statistics. Together, they use a form of Bayesian analysis to look at many of the correspondences between the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican culture, as well as the proposed anachronisms, and estimate the likelihood of seeing each.
Their entire article is worth a read, as lengthy as it is, and there’s much that’s commendable about what they did. First off, rather than work off of Sorenson’s expansive list of correspondences, they limited the analysis only to those correspondences and anachronisms that could be found in The Maya, an academic textbook in its ninth edition written by Michael Coe, an acclaimed archaeologist openly hostile to the claims of the Book of Mormon. They also included additional anachronisms from interviews with Coe and other sources. In doing so, they weren’t specifically trying to situate the Book of Mormon in a Mesoamerican or any other geographical context, but instead attempted to refute Coe’s claims that “99% of the details in the Book of Mormon are false,” using the details from his own scholarship.
Their methodology is relatively straightforward, following the process used by secular statisticians when attempting to quantify evidence for scientific theories more generally. The Dales made judgments about whether a correspondence can be specified between the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican culture (i.e., the correspondence is specific), whether those specifics include notable details beyond a vague description (I.e., the correspondence is detailed), and whether those details would or would not be common to many ancient societies or to Joseph’s own preconceptions (I.e., the correspondence is unusual). They then assigned rough probabilities for observing that correspondence in each case—p = .5 for ones where a correspondence can be specified, p = .1 for correspondences that included notable details, and p = .02, or 1 in 50, for ones that were specific, detailed, and unusual. These probabilities were offset with inverse values for any identified anachronisms, multiplying the overall probability by 2, 10, and 50 for anachronisms where the discrepancies between the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican society were specific, detailed, and unusual. Multiplying all of these together results in an overarching estimate of the probability of the Book of Mormon being a nineteenth-century fabrication. All told, they identify a total of 131 correspondences and 18 anachronisms, resulting in an overall probability of 1.03 x 10-111, and that’s starting with the prior probability weighted heavily against the Book of Mormon. (They’ve since identified 25 additional correspondences based on material from others of Coe’s works, which they plan to put forward in a future paper.)
Interestingly, they also did the same analysis for two other nineteenth-century works purportedly discussing the populations of ancient America: Solomon Spaulding’s Manuscript Found and Ethan Smith’s A View of the Hebrews, which, as we’ve seen, are among the sources that Joseph was purportedly plagiarizing from when writing the Book of Mormon. If it was so easy for Joseph to have hit on so many correspondences, one might expect similar correspondences from these other attempts. But that’s not what we see—in both books we see as many or more anachronisms as we do hits, with Manuscript Found failing the test dramatically (favoring fabrication at 7.47 x 1029 to 1), and the probability being about even for A View of the Hebrews (p = .0156). The Book of Mormon performs much, much better than we’d expect from something produced by a non-expert (or even an expert!) in the early nineteenth century.
Now, their analysis has faced a fair bit of criticism (some of it by me; you can take a look at the comments section of their article for some of the thoughts I had at the time), and despite their best efforts, I don’t think the Dales’ analysis is nearly as conservative as it needs to be. Of all the criticisms that have been made, the three that I think stick are:
1) Many of their correspondences are not statistically independent. By multiplying the probabilities of each correspondence together, they’re assuming that the probability of one correspondence appearing is independent of each of the others. But some of the correspondences are clearly related to each other such as the appearance of big cities and the appearance of city walls—a big city would be much more likely to have a wall than a small city, making the correspondences interdependent.
2) They count a number of parallels that the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerica share with the peoples described in the Bible. The Dales assume that Joseph would have modeled the Nephites and Lamanites on the Indigenous peoples of the Northeastern U.S., rather than on the bronze-age Israelite society that appears in the Bible. As such, they count many correspondences that would be unusual among the Indigenous peoples of Joseph’s day, when they wouldn’t have been at all unusual in a biblical setting. If he was an author writing about how Indigenous peoples are descended from a migration of Israelites, he could easily have based them on Israelites than on those Indigenous peoples.
3) They include several correspondences available within A View of the Hebrews. A conservative analysis would exclude any of these correspondences, since they could be explained (however poorly) by contact with that book.
Thankfully, now that they’ve done all the heavily lifting, it would easy enough to go back through the Dales’ analysis and see what happens when some of these issues are corrected, which is exactly what I needed to do before providing my estimates of consequent probability.
A Bayesian Reanalysis
What I did was go through each of the 131 correspondences proposed by the Dales, doing my best to account for each of the three shortcomings I note above. I combined several sets of correspondences that seemed related enough to be interdependent, and I removed correspondences that aligned with what could be found in either the King James Bible or in A View of the Hebrews. I also took another look at their judgments of whether a correspondence was specific, detailed, and unusual, adjusting them as I felt necessary. Note that I brought over the anachronisms they identified, giving them the same weight as in the Dale’s analysis. (I didn’t take into account potential interdependence between those anachronisms, though I could’ve—the presence of iron, steel, copper, brass, silver, and gold would all likely be inter-related, for example.) You can find my point-by-point analysis in an appendix at the end of this episode.
The result was a much more conservative number of correspondences, ones that I feel are much more supportable and independent from each other, and that can’t be explained through biblical or other forms of plagiarism. I note a total of 48 correspondences, organized according to the same general categories as in the Dales’ analysis: Political, Social, Religious, Military, Geographic, and Miscellaneous. You can see each of them in the table below, along with the reference number from the Appendix of the Dales’ analysis, where you can read about the original correspondence in more detail.
|Dale Reference #||Type||Correspondence||Weight|
|1.01||Political||City States with Suzerain||0.02|
|1.06||Political||City of Lamanai||0.02|
|1.16||Political||Foreigners Take Over||0.1|
|1.17||Political||City Administrative Zone||0.5|
|1.18||Political||Separate Records for Reigns of Kings||0.1|
|1.19||Political||Native Leaders Incorporated||0.5|
|1.22||Political||King, King-Elect, Captain Structure||0.5|
|1.26||Political||“Seating” With Political Power||0.1|
|1.31||Political||Hidden Knowledge for Rulers||0.5|
|2.01||Social||Ancient Cultural Origin||0.5|
|2.02||Social||Interchange of Elite Ideas||0.5|
|2.05||Social||Pockets of Language Areas||0.1|
|2.07||Social||Settlement by Seafarers||0.1|
|2.08||Social||Olmec and Mayan Decline||0.02|
|2.11||Social||Egyptian Cultural Correspondence||0.5|
|2.25||Social||Lineage Histories Kept by Priests||0.1|
|2.27||Social||Sacred or Prestige Language||0.5|
|2.28||Social||Repopulating Abandoned Cities||0.5|
|2.30||Social||Fascination with Ancient Culture||0.5|
|3.02||Religious||Strong Christian Elements||0.1|
|3.03||Religious||Change in Cultic Traditions||0.1|
|3.12||Religious||Opposition in All Things||0.02|
|3.16||Religious||Combining Priestly and Political Roles||0.5|
|3.18||Religious||Calendars Kept by Priests||0.5|
|4.01||Military||Extreme Cruelty and Cannibalism||0.1|
|4.04||Military||Thick Clothing as Armor||0.02|
|4.06||Military||Societies Destroyed by Warfare||0.02|
|5.01||Geographic||Highlands and Lowlands||0.1|
|5.02||Geographic||Volcanic Activity and Earthquakes||0.02|
|5.03||Geographic||Periods of Drought||0.02|
|5.06||Geographic||Powerful Highland Culture||0.02|
|5.08||Geographic||Deforestation and Regrowth||0.1|
|6.01||Miscellaneous||Millions of Inhabitants||0.02|
|6.13||Miscellaneous||Houses with Gardens||0.5|
|6.16||Miscellaneous||Buildings of Cement||0.02|
|6.19||Miscellaneous||Goods Shipped by Sea||0.1|
|6.20||Miscellaneous||Books in Stone Boxes||0.02|
|N1.06||Neg-Maya||Refined Gold and Silver||10|
Though the number of correspondences was trimmed dramatically from what the Dales proposed, the overall conclusion isn’t all that different. Multiplying all the values together for the positive correspondences gives us an estimated probability of observing them at 2.5 x 10-47. When combined with the 18 anachronisms from the original analysis (which, when multiplied, give us an offsetting value of 5.0 x 1018), the total probability of a fabricated Book of Mormon stands at p = 1.25 x 10-28—a far cry from the Dales’ estimate, but still exceptionally unlikely (strong enough, in fact, for the archaeological evidence to represent a critical strike in the Book of Mormon’s favor).
But the Dales didn’t stop at producing that estimate. They also, in responsible fashion, conducted a number of sensitivity analyses to make sure that their conclusion would hold, even if they were horribly, horribly wrong about the number or strength of their identified correspondences and anachronisms. I applied those same sensitivity analyses to the results of my reanalyzed correspondences.
First, we could assume that the Dales were wrong about the strength of the identified anachronisms. Perhaps the identification of things like sheep, swine, and wheat really do each represent specific, detailed, and unusual evidence against authenticity, and we just can’t see why that would be. If so, we could alter the analysis such that each of the 18 anachronisms receive a maximum strength of 50 against the Book of Mormon (which would change the offsetting value to 3.8 x 1030). Doing so would alter things somewhat, but wouldn’t be enough to overturn our overall conclusion. Under those conditions, the probability of a fabricated Book of Mormon is still a prohibitive p = 9.54 x 10-17.
Second, we could assume that we’ve accumulated too many positive correspondences, and that a significant number (say, half) are completely invalid. If we do that, and assume that there are half as many positive correspondences as what I was able to identify, each with the same relative probabilities (i.e., 8 at a strength of .02 instead of 16, 7 at a strength of .1 instead of 14, and 9 at .5 instead of 18), the value for the positive evidence is reduced by quite a bit to 5.0 x 10-24, though still not by enough to alter our conclusion. Since in this scenario the values for the negative evidence remain the same (5.0 x 1018), that would leave the overall probability at a still-troublesome p = .000025.
Third, and lastly, we could assume that we’re wrong about the strength of our evidence, and that none of them represent detailed or unusual correspondences in the way that we believe them to be. If so, we could assign all of our correspondences the weakest weight possible, changing the probability of each to .5. If we do that, it turns out that our conclusions do change. The overall value for the positive evidence gets pushed down all the way to 3.55 x 10-15. When offset by the value for the negative evidence (5.0 x 1018), this means that the evidence would instead favor fabrication, at 17,764 to 1 (or 8,882 to 1 if you don’t count the DNA evidence, which we’ve already examined in a previous episode).
So that leaves us with a bit of a pickle. Depending on how one interprets the evidence and how badly one wants to handicap the Book of Mormon, we get a broad set of estimates encompassing more than 30 orders magnitude. To me, this situation captures pretty well the state of Book of Mormon archaeology—each side brings interesting and valid arguments to the table, and though the faithful position is surprisingly strong, there are enough points of contention that precision is essentially impossible. In that context, it seems reasonable to allow the critics the full benefit of the doubt, particularly since we’re committed to taking an a fortiori approach. We’re going to be using the third and most stringent sensitivity analysis as the basis for our estimates, which will mean using the final value for our positive evidence as our consequent probability estimate, at p = 3.55 x 10-15, as we indicate below.
CH—Consequent Probability of a Mesoamerican Setting—If we assume that the Book of Mormon took place somewhere in Mesoamerica, then anachronisms are something that need to be dealt with, and the Dales’ analysis provides us with a useful summary of those anachronisms. Using their (quite generous) estimates for the strength of those anachronisms, the overall probability of observing them, without taking the various correspondences into accounts, is the inverse of the product of the weights the Dales assigned to them. After making the minor change of removing the reference to missing DNA, that leaves us with p = 4.0 x 10-19.
Though that’s the value we’re going to be working with for our overall Bayesian calculations, it’s worth taking a bit to discuss an important question: if the Book of Mormon is authentic, why are there any anachronisms at all? Shouldn’t decades of archaeological effort have been able to accurately uncover everything important about Mesoamerican society and, if so, shouldn’t we be able to draw bright and complete lines from the Book of Mormon’s claims to those various peoples?
The short answer to those questions is no. Archaeology is far from an exact science—new discoveries happen all the time that can nullify previous anachronisms, with recent use of LiDAR in Mesoamerica being an excellent example. The picture of Mesoamerican life was very different even five years ago, and it so happened that those new discoveries aligned exceptionally well with the Book of Mormon. Even if the archaeology is accurate, there are other potential sources of error, particularly when it comes to our understanding of the Book of Mormon.
I think it’s instructive to consider what it would take for a piece of archaeological evidence to be confidently connected with the Book of Mormon. From what I can see, that process would have to include at least the following (error-prone) steps:
Knowing what you’re looking for. Modern assumptions about what the Book of Mormon means when it references iron or swine or horses or chariots can be exceptionally faulty, a fact proven time and again in trying to tie biblical scripture to history in the same way. Does a reference to iron require widespread metallurgy and smelting technology, or could iron refer instead to the manipulation of iron ore, including more small-scale mining activities? Does cattle refer to literal cows, or could it be a broader reference to domesticated livestock or other forms of movable property?
We can get a different example of this phenomenon in the Iliad, where many English translations have Greek horses eating "corn" many centuries before the Greeks could have ever imported corn into the Mediterranean. This isn’t a problem for Homer, since the original Greek word isn’t actually “corn,” and the English word can refer to many different varieties of grain. But since we can’t access the original Reformed Egyptian on the plates, and it’s hard to know the intent of its English translator(s), we shouldn’t expect easy resolutions to these kinds of anachronisms. If we don’t know what we’re looking for, we can’t know if we’ve successfully found it.
Surviving natural decay. Metal corrodes; wood decays; stone wears away. Though there are some contexts where this sort of decay is less applicable (e.g., in well-preserved tombs), there are all sorts of natural forces that can quickly destroy any evidence you might be looking for. This is a particular problem in the moisture-rich jungles of Mesoamerica, where metal tools exposed to the open air can be almost entirely corroded in a short period of time.
Surviving man-made destruction or alteration. Gold and silver are valuable commodities—even whole ontis of the stuff are going to be difficult to find if people have despoiled and repurposed it over the course of centuries. Even entire stone walls can be deconstructed and moved to new locations if need be. Place names can change, sometimes en masse, if new people move in or languages shift (which happens to be the case for the most of Mesoamerica). This sort of destruction isn’t always applicable (see the aforementioned well-preserved tombs), but it’s going to be hard to accurately document every aspect of a given culture if subsequent ones keep making off with the evidence or stomping it into the ground.
Digging in the right spot. Even if evidence survives those decay-related processes, it has to be found, and the finding doesn’t happen easily. Only a small fraction (on the order of 1%) of Mesoamerican sites have been excavated and, within those, only a portion of each site has received specific archaeological attention. It can be surprising what one can do with a limited sample size, but it wouldn’t be surprising for some (or perhaps many) aspects of Mesoamerican culture to escape that particular net.
Dating the find correctly. As much as radiocarbon dating and other forms of archaeological dating practices can feel like a precise, foolproof scientific process, that’s not always the case (and you could say that for just about any other precise, foolproof scientific process you could name). The error bars associated with these sorts of dating can be quite large and, on occasion, entirely incorrect. Since some of the Book of Mormon’s anachronisms have been found, just not at the proper time period, it’s conceivable that these are essentially anachronisms ‘in date only,’ and that the reason the evidence is missing is because it’s been improperly dated.
Interpreting the evidence. Once a piece of evidence has been found, we still require a flesh-and-blood human being to draw the connection between that evidence and the Book of Mormon. As formidable as archaeologists and other scholars can be, this is a subjective and interpretive effort that can be marred in any number of ways. Horses may just be a good example of this. There are examples of horse bones discovered in Mesoamerica, dated to the correct layers, but that have generally been interpreted by scholars as some form of post-Columbian contamination. Even the right evidence in the right place and the right time can still fail to make a dent in the archaeological record.
So, should we expect some anachronisms to be present in an authentic Book of Mormon? Out of the hundreds of claims that the Book of Mormon makes about its peoples, yes, we should expect some of them to fail to make it through that process. Each of the anachronisms included in our analysis could be plausibly explained through one (or more) of the factors listed above.
CA—Consequent Probability of a Fabricated Setting—How about if the Book of Mormon and its peoples were fabricated works of fiction? Should we expect there to be the parallels that we see? As we’ve already discussed in another episode, yes, we should expect some correspondences to exist, either on the basis of chance or based on the commonalities shared among many or most ancient societies. But there comes a point where correspondences become difficult to ignore, and the table above shows a goodly number where chance or shared characteristics seem inadequate explanations. How likely would it be for Joseph to just happen to pick a city-state/Suzerain political orientation for his description of Indigenous peoples, a form of politic far removed from his personal experience or of any handy historical model? Or for the rise and decline of his civilizations to almost perfectly align with the rise and decline of Olmec and Mayan civilization? Or for Joseph to be able to accurately describe intense volcanic activity of the type common to Mesoamerica? Or for Joseph to time a major drought in the exact period one likely occurred? These specific, detailed, and unusual correspondences could be multiplied several times over. None are necessarily impossible on their own, but together they quickly diminish the plausibility of a fabricated Book of Mormon.
And, yes, we should beware the possibility of parallelomania, where parallels can be multiplied to the point of near meaninglessness. But keep in mind that I’m being exceptionally conservative with the correspondences presented here. Sorenson’s list of over 400 correspondences has here become just shy of 50, with care being taken to choose correspondences that can be corroborated within the Maya, that are likely to be statistically independent, and that don’t match the sources Joseph would’ve had on hand. Even then, you could cut the number of correspondences in half and the evidence would still favor authenticity. The only way we can reasonably advantage the critical hypothesis is to do what we’ve done here, which is to make all of those correspondences as weak as possible.
Of course, when you do so, the likelihood of observing that many correspondences is still small—just not as small as that of our non-handicapped anachronisms, with p = 3.55 x 10-15, which is the value we’ll be using for our final Bayesian estimate.
PH = Prior Probability of the Hypothesis (our initial estimate of the probability of an authentic Book of Mormon, based on the evidence considered thus far, or p = 1—2.3 x 10-10)
CH = Consequent Probability of the Hypothesis (our estimate of the likelihood of seeing the anachronisms we do if the Book of Mormon took place in a Mesoamerican setting, or p = 4.0 x 10-19)
PA = Prior Probability of the Alternate Hypothesis (our initial estimate of the probability of a fabricated Book of Mormon including the observed correspondence, or 2.3 x 10-10)
CA = Consequent Probability of the Alternate Hypothesis (our estimate for the likelihood of seeing the correspondences we do if the Book of Mormon was fabricated, or p = 3.55 x 10-15)
PostProb = Posterior Probability (our new estimate of the probability of an authentic Book of Mormon)
|PH = 1—2.3 x 10-10|
|PostProb =||PH * CH|
|(PH * CH) + (PA * CA)|
|PostProb =||(1—2.3 x 10-10) * 4.0 x 10-19)|
|((1—2.3 x 10-10) * 4.0 x 10-19) + (2.3 x 10-10 * 3.55 x 10-15)|
|PostProb =||1—2.04 x 10-6|
Lmag = Likelihood Magnitude (an estimate of the number of orders of magnitude that the probability will shift, due to the evidence)
Lmag = log10(CH/CA)
Lmag = log10(4.0 x 10-19/3.55 x 10-15)
Lmag = log10(.0000113)
Lmag = -4
This result is a notable one, in that it’s the strongest evidence available to the critics out of everything we’ve considered so far. It’s important to emphasize, though, that what we’ve done here is in no way fair to the faithful position. Not only are we acting as if all of the positive evidence is as weak as possible, we’re failing to account for the interdependence of potential anachronisms and we’re leaving out a number of additional correspondences that’ve since been identified by the Dales. Anyone who would like to argue for a stronger evidence score here will have some serious explaining ahead of them.
But we’ll ignore, for the moment, all that statistical gerrymandering. Based on this analysis, those critical of the Book of Mormon could have reason for seeing these archaeological issues as a legitimate challenge to its authenticity. And though the faithful have their own reasons to be confident, they should acknowledge that the archaeological picture is not yet overwhelmingly on the Book of Mormon’s side. What that picture probably shouldn’t do, however, is form the sole basis for a rejection or acceptance of the Book of Mormon’s claims. These archaeological and historical battles have been fought for decades without a clear victor, and they’ll continue to be fought for decades to come—which just happens to be the subject of the next episode.
I have to be honest here: the sort of Bayesian analysis offered by the Dales, where rough weights are subjectively assigned to categories of evidence, is definitely not the ideal way to suss out the state of the archaeological evidence. I’ll maintain, however, that it remains the "best bad method" available to us given mortal restraints on time and/or omniscience. One could easily spend years conducting individual Bayesian-style analyses for each piece of archaeological evidence, as I’ve attempted to do with many other arguments regarding the Book of Mormon. And I would absolutely be open to a reasoned take on this sort of analysis from the critical side of things. If a critic decided to do so, however, they should be careful to apply a fortiori reasoning in favor of Book of Mormon authenticity, in which case I don’t see a way of making this a critical strike against the Restoration.
Next Time, in Episode 15:
In the next episode, we’ll continue on the theme of archaeological evidence for and against the Book of Mormon. Only instead of taking a look at how things stand at the moment, we’ll be analyzing the trajectory of that evidence over time—and where they’re likely to stand in the future.
Questions, ideas, and vows of revenge can be served cold on the plate of BayesianBoM@gmail.com or submitted as comments below.
Appendix—Full Analysis of the Dale Correspondences
|1.01||Political||Independent City States||0.02||Combine 1.01, 1.02, 1.03, 1.25
set at .02
|In any city state setup, it’s probable that one city would come to dominate the others, that they could, at times form competing factions, and that city states would switch sides. I think it’s better to make this a single, much stronger correspondence.|
|1.02||Political||Capital Dominates Other City States||0.02||Combine 1.01, 1.02, 1.03, 1.25
set at .02
|1.03||Political||City States Switching Allegiances||0.1||Combine 1.01, 1.02, 1.03, 1.25
set at .02
|1.04||Political||Complex State Institutions||0.02||Remove||Conforms to biblical expectations.|
|1.05||Political||Many Cities Exist||0.1||Remove||Conforms to biblical expectations.|
|1.06||Political||City of Lamanai||0.02||Keep||See the episode on Nahom for the likelihood of guessing a three-syllable city. 1 in 50 is a quite conservative estimate here.|
|1.07||Political||Densely Settled Areas||0.1||Remove||Could have obtained from View of the Hebrews.|
|1.08||Political||Large-Scale Public Works||0.1||Remove||Could have obtained from View of the Hebrews.|
|1.09||Political||Rulers Live in Luxury||0.5||Combine 1.09, 1.10, 1.11, 1.12, 1.13, 1.14, 1.15, 1.28, 1.29, 1.30
set at .1
|All the aspects connected to the idea of a royal court would be interdependent. The idea of a luxurious royal court would conform to biblical expectations. Not all biblical kings would have elaborate thrones, or have competing political factions, political marriages, political feasts, and political gifts. Courts imitating each other wouldn’t necessarily have been described biblically, but that’s how most similar social organizations operate. Most of the fantasy novels that exist follow these tropes. Recommend combining and setting at .1.|
|1.1||Political||Elaborate Thrones||0.1||Combine 1.09, 1.10, 1.11, 1.12, 1.13, 1.14, 1.15, 1.28, 1.29, 1.30
set at .1
|1.11||Political||Royal Courts||0.1||Combine 1.09, 1.10, 1.11, 1.12, 1.13, 1.14, 1.15, 1.28, 1.29, 1.30
set at .1
|1.12||Political||Political Marriages||0.5||Combine 1.09, 1.10, 1.11, 1.12, 1.13, 1.14, 1.15, 1.28, 1.29, 1.30
set at .1
|1.13||Political||Political Feasting||0.1||Combine 1.09, 1.10, 1.11, 1.12, 1.13, 1.14, 1.15, 1.28, 1.29, 1.30
set at .1
|1.14||Political||Gifts to the King||0.5||Combine 1.09, 1.10, 1.11, 1.12, 1.13, 1.14, 1.15, 1.28, 1.29, 1.30
set at .1
|1.15||Political||Organized Political Factions||0.1||Combine 1.09, 1.10, 1.11, 1.12, 1.13, 1.14, 1.15, 1.28, 1.29, 1.30
set at .1
|1.16||Political||Foreigners Take Over||0.1||Combine 1.16 and 6.14
set to .1
|Agree that foreign takeovers are specific and detailed, though they would not be an unusual occurrence in ancient cultures. Would be interdependent with foreigners imposing a language and writing system.|
|1.17||Political||City Administrative Area||0.1||Change to .5||Most large centers in ancient times would have had administrative centres like this, so it wouldn’t be unusual. Recommend changing to .5.|
|1.18||Political||Separate Records for Reigns of Kings||0.02||Change to .1||Though this would have been unusual to a Joseph operating on a biblical model, these sorts of separate records wouldn’t have been unusual in ancient cultures. Recommend changing to .1.|
|1.19||Political||Native Leaders Incorporated||0.02||Change to .5||In describing conquering foreign lands, there are only two choices–install your own rulers or extract tribute from the current ones. Recommend changing to .5.|
|1.2||Political||Tribute Required||0.1||Remove||Conforms to biblical expectations.|
|1.21||Political||Limited Number of Important Patrilineages||0.02||Remove||Conforms to biblical expectations. Strong arguments that Lehi’s tribes follow the same pattern and structure as the tribes of Israel.|
|1.22||Political||King and King-Elect||0.5||Combine 1.22, 1.23,
set at .5
|To be more conservative, the correspondence could be to the overall structure of king, king-elect, and captains.|
|1.23||Political||Captains Serving Kings||0.5||Combine 1.22, 1.23,
set at .5
|1.24||Political||Family Dynasties||0.1||Remove||Conforms to biblical expectations.|
|1.25||Political||Kings Rule Over Subkings||0.5||Combine 1.01, 1.02, 1.03, 1.25
set at .02
|1.26||Political||“Seating” With Political Power||0.02||Change to .1||The concept of being “seated” is commonly applied to royalty.|
|1.27||Political||Separation of Civil and Religious Authority||0.5||Remove||Conforms to American sensibilities.|
|1.28||Political||Aspiring to Power||0.5||Combine 1.09, 1.10, 1.11, 1.12, 1.13, 1.14, 1.15, 1.28, 1.29, 1.30
set at .1
|1.29||Political||Courts Imitating Enemies||0.1||Combine 1.09, 1.10, 1.11, 1.12, 1.13, 1.14, 1.15, 1.28, 1.29, 1.30
set at .1
|1.3||Political||Courts Function as Great Households||0.5||Combine 1.09, 1.10, 1.11, 1.12, 1.13, 1.14, 1.15, 1.28, 1.29, 1.30
set at .1
|“Great households” wouldn’t necessarily imply the lack of a “palace”.|
|1.31||Political||Hidden Knowledge for Rulers||0.1||Change to .5||It’s unusual, but the specifics don’t necessarily match, and doesn’t apply to all candidates for high office in the Book of Mormon case.|
|1.32||Political||Abrupt Breaks in Dynasties||0.1||Remove||Changes in the ruling class are definitely not unusual, and the specifics don’t match (war in the case of the Maya, peaceful transition in the Book of Mormon).|
|1.33||Political||“Possession” of the Land||0.1||Remove||The word “possess” has different meanings in the two contexts.|
|2.01||Social||Ancient Cultural Origin||0.1||Change to .5||Coe doesn’t specify “when”, thus it’s neither specific or detailed. Only two real options here: ancient vs. recent origin.|
|2.02||Social||Interchange of Elite Ideas||0.02||Change to .5||Ideas and material goods would have been naturally interchanged among peoples in close contact, particularly among elites. Not unusual, not detailed, but the timeline of hundreds of years of exchange would be somewhat specific.|
|2.03||Social||Foreign Brides for Elites||0.1||Remove||Specifics don’t match, since it’s foreign husbands rather than foreign brides.|
|2.04||Social||Slavery Practiced||0.1||Remove||As stated, not unusual, nor actually detailed. Conforms to biblical expectations.|
|2.05||Social||Languages in Pockets||0.1||Keep|
|2.06||Social||Great Flood Narrative||0.1||Remove||Can be found in View of the Hebrews.|
|2.07||Social||Settlement by Seafarers||0.1||Combine 2.07 and 2.20,
set at .1
|Settlement by seafarers is interdependent with having ancestors from beyond the sea.|
|2.09||Social||Strong Class Distinctions||0.1||Remove||Conforms to biblical expectations.|
|2.1||Social||Human Sacrifice||0.1||Remove||Conforms to biblical expectations.|
|2.11||Social||Egyptian Cultural Correspondence||0.5||Keep|
|2.12||Social||Mobile Populations||0.1||Remove||Only two options for population movement: mobile and immobile, and mobile may have been more common.|
|2.13||Social||Extreme Inequality||0.5||Remove||Interdependent with class distinctions, conforms to biblical expectations.|
|2.14||Social||Marketplaces||0.1||Remove||Conforms to biblical expectations.|
|2.15||Social||People Driven from Homes||0.02||Remove||Conforms to biblical expectations (e.g., Babylonian conquest).|
|2.16||Social||Architectural Extravagance||0.02||Remove||Most of these details are interdependent with some of the political correspondences, and would conform to biblical expectations (e.g., Solomon’s temple)|
|2.17||Social||Large Northward Migrations||0.02||Remove||Two different cases of “land Northward” (central Mexico vs. Yucatan). Timing of the movement of refugees could still be specific and detailed if it corresponded with late Nephite warfare in Mormon/Moroni, but since there were multiple waves over a long stretch, it’s not specific or detailed.|
|2.18||Social||Constant Migrations||0.5||Remove||Conforms to biblical expectations.|
|2.19||Social||Cities Named After Founder||0.5||Remove||Conforms to biblical expectations.|
|2.2||Social||Ancestors From Beyond the Sea||0.1||Combine 2.07 and 2.20,
set at .1
|Settlement by seafarers is interdependent with having ancestors from beyond the sea.|
|2.21||Social||Poetic Repetition||0.02||Change to .5||As unusual as the Book of Mormon’s chiasmus is (as covered in a previous episode), we don’t have as much evidence of complex chiasms in the Popul Vuh, meaning the details don’t match, and we could find those examples in most literature.|
|2.22||Social||Corn Among Grains||0.1||Remove||Mentioned in View of the Hebrews.|
|2.23||Social||Multiple Wives/Concubines||0.1||Remove||Conforms to biblical expectations.|
|2.24||Social||Importance of Geneological Connection||0.02||Remove||Conforms to biblical expectations.|
|2.25||Social||Geneology Kept by Priests||0.02||Combine 2.25 and 2.31
Change to .1
|Genealogical records and lineage histories conform to biblical expectations, but having them kept by religious leaders is specific and unusual, though the details don’t match exactly.|
|2.26||Social||Homosexuality Practiced||0.5||Remove||Reference in the Book of Mormon too unclear to count as a specific parallel.|
|2.27||Social||Sacred or Prestige Language||0.02||Change to .5||The details don’t necessarily match, since it’s obviously not the same prestige language in both cases, and Coe makes it clear that it’s not necessarily an unusual practice (e.g., Latin, Coptic).|
|2.28||Social||Repopulating Abandoned Cities||0.1||Change to .5||Repopulating old or abandoned cities would have been a common practice in most ancient societies.|
|2.29||Social||World in Four Quarters||0.1||Remove||Conforms to biblical (and modern) expectations (e.g., Jeremiah 49:36).|
|2.3||Social||Facination with Ancient Culture||0.1||Change to .5||It’s specific, but not unusual (e.g., see the renaissance fascination with Greek and Roman thought).|
|2.31||Social||Lineage Histories||0.02||Combine 2.25 and 2.31
Change to .1
|Genealogical records conform to biblical expectations, but having them kept by religious leaders is specific and unusual, though the details don’t match exactly.|
|3.01||Religious||Central Role of Temples||0.1||Remove||Conforms to biblical expectations and is found in View of the Hebrews.|
|3.02||Religious||Strong Christian Elements||0.02||Change to .1||There would be some parallels that would fit with any religious tradition, so it may be specific and detailed, but not necessarily unusual.|
|3.03||Religious||Change in Cultic Traditions||0.1||Keep|
|3.04||Religious||Associating Temples with Hills||0.02||Remove||Considering the reference is to an Isaiah quote, it doesn’t count as a Book of Mormon parallel, and it conforms to biblical expectations.|
|3.05||Religious||Seers and Seer Stones||0.1||Remove||Conforms to Joseph’s own seership practices.|
|3.07||Religious||Belief in Resurrection||0.02||Remove||Conforms to Christian biblical expectations (Methodists, for instance, believe in a literal resurrection of Christ).|
|3.08||Religious||Belief in Baptism||0.02||Remove||Conforms to biblical expectations.|
|3.09||Religious||Walking in Straight Roads||0.1||Remove||Conforms to biblical language of a straight and narrow path.|
|3.1||Religious||Abiding by Covenants||0.02||Remove||Conforms to biblical expectations (it may have been ignored in modern Christianity, but it’s hard to escape anyone familiar with the bible).|
|3.12||Religious||Opposition in All Things||0.02||Keep|
|3.13||Religious||Pantheistic Religion||0.1||Remove||Conforms to biblical expectations for pagan religions.|
|3.14||Religious||Sorcery and Magic Practiced||0.1||Remove||Sorcery and magic are near universals throughout all ancient cultures.|
|3.15||Religious||Ritual of Renewal||0.02||Remove||Details don’t match entirely, with universe-wide renewal rather than being limited to the community.|
|3.16||Religious||Combining Priestly and Political Roles||0.5||Keep|
|3.17||Religious||Consulting Oracles||0.1||Remove||Conforms to biblical expectations.|
|3.18||Religious||Calendars Kept by Priests||0.1||Change to .5||Keeping of a calendar may be different from keeping a record.|
|3.19||Religious||Virtuous Persons “Confess”||0.02||Remove||Conforms to (New Testament) biblical practice, particularly James.|
|4.01||Military||Extreme Cruelty to Captives||0.1||Combine 4.01 and 4.11
set to .1
|Cannibalism would qualify as a form of extreme cruelty, and would be interdependent with those other forms.|
|4.03||Military||Walled Cities||0.5||Remove||Conforms to biblical expectations and is found in View of the Hebrews.|
|4.04||Military||Thick Clothing as Army||0.02||Keep|
|4.05||Military||Fighting with “Darts”||0.02||Remove||Darts were included among descriptions of biblical weapons in the old testament.|
|4.06||Military||Societies Destroyed by Warfare||0.02||Keep|
|4.08||Military||Raids to Take Captives||0.1||Remove||Conforms to early American expectations.|
|4.09||Military||Dressing to Inspire Fear||0.5||Remove||Details are given and don’t match, removing the correspondence.|
|4.1||Military||Stones and Slings||0.02||Remove||Conforms to biblical expectations.|
|4.11||Military||Cannibalism Practices||0.1||Combine 4.01 and 4.11
set to .1
|Cannibalism would qualify as a form of extreme cruelty, and would be interdependent with those other forms..|
|4.12||Military||Deliberate Destruction of Records||0.1||Remove||Timeframe of the destruction doesn’t match.|
|5.01||Geographic||Highlands and Lowlands||0.1||Keep|
|5.02||Geographic||Volcanic Activity||0.02||Combine 5.02 and 5.07,
set at .02
|Both volcanic activity and earthquakes would be correlated due to being on a faultline.|
|5.03||Geographic||Periods of Drought||0.02||Keep||Notable that this correspondence has been supported by drought data (https://journal.interpreterfoundation.org/let-there-be-a-famine-in-the-land/)|
|5.06||Geographic||Powerful Highland Culture||0.02||Keep|
|5.07||Geographic||Earthquakes Present||0.02||Combine 5.02 and 5.07,
set at .02
|Both volcanic activity and earthquakes would be correlated due to being on a faultline.|
|5.08||Geographic||Deforestation||0.1||Combine 5.08 5.09,
Set to .1
|Details don’t quite match up (though they don’t necessarily conflict), and deforestation and shipping of lumber would be interdependent to a degree.|
|5.09||Geographic||Forest Regrowth||0.02||Combine 5.08 5.09,
Set to .1
|Details don’t quite match up (though they don’t conflict necessarily), and deforestation and shipping of lumber would be interdependent to a degree.|
|5.1||Geographic||Precious Stones||0.02||Change to .5||Since we don’t have any details about the precious stones, and precious stones themselves would not be unusual, a conservative view would place this as merely specific, though the argument about the lack of diamonds/rubies/pearls is compelling.|
|5.12||Geographic||Perishable Writing Materials||0.1||Remove||Conforms to expectations of Joseph’s time period.|
|5.13||Geographic||Refined Gold||0.5||Remove||Strange to count this both as a positive and negative parallel.|
|6.01||Miscellaneous||Millions of Inhabitants||0.02||Keep|
|6.02||Miscellaneous||Calendars Kept||0.02||Remove||Conforms to biblical expectations.|
|6.03||Miscellaneous||Multiple Calendars||0.02||Remove||The Mayan calendars don’t conform to either 600BC or to the instituting of judges, so the details don’t match.|
|6.04||Miscellaneous||Beekeeping||0.1||Change to .5||The single mention at a very early timeframe makes it difficult to establish this as detailed.|
|6.05||Miscellaneous||Art Details||0.1||Remove||Conforms to biblical expectations.|
|6.06||Miscellaneous||Knowledge of Astronomy||0.02||Remove||Conforms to biblical expectations.|
|6.07||Miscellaneous||Presence of Writing||0.02||Remove||Conforms to biblical expectations.|
|6.08||Miscellaneous||Engraved Writing on Stone||0.1||Remove||Conforms to biblical expectations.|
|6.09||Miscellaneous||Many Books Present||0.02||Remove||Records kept in repositories would conform to biblical expectations, and the stone box point is covered later on.|
|6.1||Miscellaneous||Large-Scale Trade||0.1||Remove||Conforms to biblical expectations.|
|6.11||Miscellaneous||Many Merchants||0.5||Remove||Conforms to biblical expectations.|
|6.12||Miscellaneous||Roads and Causeways||0.1||Remove||Mentioned in View of the Hebrews.|
|6.13||Miscellaneous||Houses with Gardens||0.5||Keep|
|6.14||Miscellaneous||Foreigners Imposing Culture||0.02||Combine 1.16 and 6.14,
set to .1
|Settlers in Joseph’s day did try to teach new writing systems and cultures to Indigenous peoples. Would be interdependent with foreign incursions generally.|
|6.15||Miscellaneous||Writing Systems Change Over Time||0.1||Remove||It’s not clear that they’re talking about the same languages.|
|6.16||Miscellaneous||Buildings of Cement||0.02||Combine 6.16 and 6.17,
set at .02
|Agree that cement is an unusual and specific detail, but these two would definitely be interdependent.|
|6.17||Miscellaneous||Great Skill With Cement||0.02||Combine 6.16 and 6.17,
set at .02
|Agree that cement is an unusual and specific detail, but these two would definitely be interdependent.|
|6.18||Miscellaneous||Excellent Workmanship||0.02||Remove||Conforms to biblical expectations.|
|6.19||Miscellaneous||Goods Shipped by Sea||0.1||Keep|
|6.2||Miscellaneous||Books in Stone Boxes||0.02||Keep|
|6.21||Miscellaneous||Watchtowers||0.1||Remove||Conforms to biblical expectations.|
|6.22||Miscellaneous||Multiple Formal Entrances||0.5||Remove||Conforms to biblical expectations (e.g., Jerusalem)|
|6.23||Miscellaneous||Fine Fabrics||0.02||Remove||Conforms to biblical expectations.|