Select Page

Estimating the Evidence
Episode Episode 18: On Imperfect Prophets

Intro/FAQEpisode 1Episode 2Episode 3Episode 4Episode 5Episode 6Episode 7Episode 8Episode 9Episode 10Episode 11Episode 12Episode 13Episode 14Episode 15Episode 16Episode 17 ⎜ Episode 18 ⎜ Episode 19Episode 20Episode 21Episode 22Episode 23

 

[Editor’s Note: This is the eighteenth 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.]

 

The TLDR

It seems unlikely that God would allow his prophets and scriptural texts to err as frequently as they do.

Some point to the verifiable mistakes of modern prophets, or apparent mistakes in the Book of Mormon, as evidence that the church or the book are inauthentic and uninspired. I argue that, if the book and the prophets that support it are authentic, they should be just as prone to error as are the prophets and text of the Bible. We note, alongside irreligious commentators, that the biblical text and the prophetic lives it describes are far from perfect themselves. After providing a rough estimate of how biblical prophets might differ from non-prophets in their ability to make mistakes, we conclude that prophetic and scriptural fallibility are poor standards by which to judge inspiration or authenticity.

Evidence Score = -2 (reduces the likelihood of an authentic Book of Mormon by two orders of magnitude)

 

The Narrative

When last we left you, our ardent skeptic, you had been slogging through chapter after chapter of what seemed to be an interminable war between tribes that had been enemies for generations. Though you were a student of history, you always found depictions of battle to be tedious, and these chapters are no exception. Though you’re sure there would be many readers who would be enthralled and inspired by the heroic deeds of this Captain Moroni, you feel tempted to skip a few pages here and there. But, the dutiful reader you are, you force your eyes to cover every word, though in the quiet of the early afternoon you find your eyelids occasionally drooping down and getting in the way.

After a few more chapters you find a passage that starts to look a bit more interesting—the book takes a chapter away from battle to cover an interesting personal exchange between Captain Moroni and his
political counterpart back home by the name of Pahoran. The good Captain is less than pleased with the lack of support that the government has been offering him and his men, and boy does he let Pahoran have it, accusing him of betraying his people. You particularly enjoy one colorful passage:

I would that ye should adhere to the word of God, and send speedily unto me of your provisions and of your men, and also to Helaman. And behold, if ye will not do this I come unto you speedily; for behold, God will not suffer that we should perish with hunger; therefore he will give unto us of your food, even if it must be by the sword. Now see that ye fulfil the word of God. Behold, I am Moroni, your chief captain. I seek not for power, but to pull it down. I seek not for honor of the world, but for the glory of my God, and the freedom and welfare of my country. And thus I close mine epistle.

It’s hard not to be impressed with the Captain’s fervor, and you read on eagerly to see how and if this Pahoran might respond. But as you continue on you encounter a rather interesting twist. Moroni was mistaken! Pahoran’s government had been overthrown by traitors, and he writes back to Captain Moroni begging for his help to defeat those traitors and restore Pahoran to his position. Moroni, of course, does so, just in time to save the day, as all heroes do.

It’s a thrilling little bit of narrative, and a welcome injection of drama, but as your eyes keep moving from line to line, you can’t help but be bothered by something. The book you hold in front of you is one replete with miraculous events and angelic visitations at every turn. If the government was in such distress, why didn’t an angel visit Moroni and tell him exactly what was going on? Why did he let the Captain waste precious time relying on the vagaries of the postal service—if one even existed—to get the job done? Why did he let him be so wrong, even if all was right in the end?

The entire idea of a perfect and a just God made instances of such imperfection in his word, his servants, and his church difficult to tolerate—actually, no, it made them preposterous. What was the point of such a God if that God couldn’t be trusted to root out and prevent error? What was the point of calling and inspiring prophets if they were just as likely to be mistaken as they were inspired? You shake your head and move on, but the thought serves to bolster the lack of faith within you. It seems unlikely, you think, that God would allow his prophets and scriptural texts to err as frequently as they do.

 

The Introduction

One common line of argument from those critical of the church goes beyond the idea that church’s historical truth claims are inaccurate—e.g., that the Book of Mormon isn’t authentically ancient or that Joseph Smith didn’t receive heavenly visions—it suggests that the church’s present sources of truth are, themselves, not worthy of faith. They argue that modern prophets have been demonstrably mistaken on a number of issues, rendering the current doctrines and practices of the church no more divine, and perhaps even less divine, than other human institutions. Such an argument would almost amount to a truism in the absence of valid historical truth claims—if the Book of Mormon isn’t authentic, then it would be very hard for the modern church to be any more authentic. But that logic sometimes appears to work in reverse, with modern mistakes being used as evidence of past falsehood. If modern prophets are unreliable, why would we expect there to have ever been valid prophets in the first place?

We’ll ignore the logical gap inherent in that thinking (i.e., it would in fact have been possible for the church to have fallen away since the time of Joseph Smith) and concentrate on the principle underlying it. If the church is true (and the Book of Mormon, as the church claims, is authentic), should we expect modern prophets to have greater judgment and perception than other humans? To what degree should we tolerate their errors and personal failings? How imperfect does a prophet need to be before we can assume that he’s not actually a prophet?

As we work to answer those questions, we’ll also lump in a related problem. There are times when the events of the Book of Mormon appear to exceed the realm of plausibility—things like implausible population numbers or impossibly large armies engaged in combat. We could assume that because such things seem implausible that the book itself is implausible, but it could be that the prophets and record keepers of the Book of Mormon are themselves imperfect, exaggerating these kinds of details in a way common to other ancient historians.

The weight one places on this sort of evidence depends critically on the assumptions one applies to it. And though there’s admittedly not much for a Bayesian analysis to work with on the numbers side, what it’ll do is force us to make our assumptions as clear as possible.

 

The Analysis

The Evidence

To catalog the evidence here, we’re going to have to catalog some prophetic mistakes. We can consider this a sampling of the most public errors available from modern prophetic figures. I’ll emphasize that these are alleged errors—it’s certainly possible that each of these represent exactly what God would have preferred to happen. Obviously I don’t have the space to go into depth on any of these topics, but I’ve tried to link you to the most detailed scholarly sources available on each.

  • Book of Mormon Copyright Sale. Though there’s a fair argument that the conditions of this prophecy weren’t met, the copyright for the Book of Mormon in Canada was not sold as predicted by Joseph.
  • Temple in Independence, Missouri. The D&C is quite clear that a temple would be built on the temple lot in Independence, with the implication that it would be soon. We can hold out hope for the future, but it does seem to be a bit of an embarrassing delay.
  • Kirtland Safety Society. It would be tough, indeed, to argue that Joseph made perfect and perfectly inspired decisions in his handling of the financial affairs of the church in the Kirtland period.
  • Destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor. Though Joseph’s martyrdom may have ultimately been the will of God, there’s an argument to be made that destroying the Expositor’s press was a tactical error that did little to protect the saints and hastened the prophet’s demise.
  • Joseph’s Polygamy. Though polygamy itself may have been divinely inspired, I think it’s fair to say that Joseph’s handling of polygamy was, at times, less than graceful.
  • Joseph and the Moon. Joseph saw many things in his visions. The surface of the moon was not one of them. Though he probably didn’t say this, both he and Brigham likely believed it, as did a number of prominent scientific minds at the time.
  • Joseph’s Millennial Prophecy. This one isn’t fair, since it’s obvious from the text that Joseph wasn’t at all sure what to make of the Savior’s cryptic communication, but in that case the mistake may have been in publicly sharing something that he wasn’t sure about.
  • Queens of the Earth Paying Homage. Joseph made a rather bold prediction that the queens of the earth would pay homage to the Relief Society within 10 years of its founding. This doesn’t seem to have occurred.
  • Calling Apostles Who Would Later Apostatize. There are a number of apostles who later would leave the church and fall short of their callings. An argument could be made that those issuing these callings could have exercised prophetic foresight and called only those who would remain faithful.
  • Blacks and the Priesthood. Both the Gospel Topics essay and Elder Uctdorf have made clear that the church considers both the priesthood ban itself and the post-hoc justifications for it as grievous errors.
  • Handcart Companies. This one’s definitely debatable, but the tragedy of the Martin and Willie Handcart Companies might not have happened if Brigham hadn’t chosen to institute handcarts in the first place.
  • Mountain Meadows. Brigham’s role in the massacre remains controversial, and though I think the historians behind Saints vol. 2 make a strong argument that he did not approve of or have knowledge of the massacre beforehand, critics could sincerely ask why prophetic insight didn’t allow him to prevent it.
  • Brigham’s Divorces. Brigham can’t take all the blame, since it takes two to tango, but the record would indicate that Brigham was not always the perfect husband (though I’m sure few mortals could ever succeed at spinning that many relational plates).
  • Joseph Fielding Smith and Evolution. I have no doubt that President Smith’s views were sincerely held, and that the evidence for evolution wasn’t nearly as incontrovertible then as it is now. But he was wrong, and his stance continues to be a stumbling block for many.
  • Forgeries of Mark Hoffmann. Though they had plenty of good company, it’s clear that the church was fooled, and fooled hard, by Mark Hoffman.
  • Baptizing Children of Gay Couples. Regardless of the correctness of the doctrine, the relative swiftness with which this policy was revoked suggests that the brethren themselves realized it was a bad idea, both in terms of PR and in terms of unintended consequences.

We will add to that a few other purported errors to be found in the Book of Mormon, such as:

  • Scale of Book of Mormon Battles. The scale of the battles that take place in the Book of Mormon tends to stretch credibility, particularly for the ones in Ether that involve millions of combatants.
  • Population Problems. Though much of critics’ beefs with population numbers in the Book of Mormon is due to faulty assumptions about the peoples described in the book, at least one partial explanation is that the book’s ancient authors weren’t the most scrupulous of demographers.

    We’ll take a moment here to call attention to the treatment of James Smith, a Latter-Day Saint expert in ancient demography, who shows that it’s possible to take a reasoned and reasonable accounting of Book of Mormon population numbers, suggesting that the values reported may not be as unrealistic as the critics claim.

    It’s very important to avoid the pitfall of equating average historical growth rates (which are very low) with ones attached to a specific place and time, which is what the critics do when they discuss problems with Book of Mormon demography. As Smith notes, “to interpret simple textbook diagrams of world population growth in this way is wrong. Such diagrams obscure actual population dynamics in the past where fluctuation and change were the rule rather than the exception. In reality, populations in the past sometimes grew rapidly, sometimes remained fairly stationary, and sometimes declined precipitously, and the pattern of population change was far from smooth or sluggish.” Historical population growth generally follows a jagged pattern marked by periods of dramatic growth and dramatic collapse, which we can see quite clearly in the Book of Mormon narrative.

  • Jaredite Ship Issues. Whatever one can say about the Jaredite crossing, it would not have been a good time. While we’ve already argued that a transoceanic voyage would be quite possible with ancient technology, the description provided in Ether does not present the most plausible image of a successful year at sea.

These latter three are generally used by critics as evidence that the Book of Mormon isn’t authentic, but that doesn’t have to be the case. We’re not trying to figure out if the Book of Mormon represents perfectly accurate history; we’re trying to figure out if it’s ancient. As we’ll see, ancient writing can be considered ancient in part because of, rather than in spite of, its imperfect recounting of history.

The Hypotheses

We’ll be considering two different hypotheses here:

Modern and Book of Mormon prophets make mistakes because they’re human—According to this hypothesis, though prophets occasionally receive divine inspiration, they do not possess the divine attributes of omnipotence or omniscience. As human beings who receive inspiration, we should expect them to make the same types of mistakes as other human beings who have received inspiration, most notably the prophetic and apostolic figures of the Old and New Testament.

This is in contrast to the following highly distinctive critical hypothesis:

Modern and Book of Mormon prophets make mistakes because they’re human—Though critics aren’t really on the exact same page as the faithful on this issue, they do posit the same source for prophetic mistakes. Critics see the prophets as people who are just as prone to error as any other non-inspired person. And there-in lies the critical difference—rather than placing prophets in the same category as other prophets, critics would place them in the same category as the non-inspired masses, or perhaps with other well-meaning but ultimately uninspired religious and community leaders.

By making that key distinction, we can establish an upper-bound on the evidentiary value of these sort of mistakes. I don’t really need to know how modern or Book of Mormon prophets stack up against those comparison groups (though hopefully we’ll get a sense of that as we go along). What really matters is the difference between biblical prophets and other humans. If that difference is broad, then it would be helpful to know which of those comparison groups Book of Mormon and modern prophets are most similar to. If the difference is relatively small, then knowing that wouldn’t be particularly helpful, since those prophets would make about the same amount of mistakes either way.

Discussing that difference will be the main focus of the rest of our analysis. But first, let’s review our priors.

Prior Probabilities

PH—Prior Probability of Inspired Prophets and Scripture—Based on the evidence we’ve considered in previous posts up to this point, our estimated probability of an authentic Book of Mormon (and, by extension, an authentic restoration) is a quite healthy p = 1—1.08 x 10-21. Here’s a summary of where I peg the strength of that evidence.

PA—Prior Probability of Uninspired Prophets and Scripture—If the probability of an authentic Book of Mormon is very high, that would of course mean that the probability of a fraudulent Book of Mormon is currently very low, in this case at p = 1.08 x 10-21.

Consequent Probabilities

CH—Consequent Probability of Ancient Authorship—I’ll be frank here, this is not a problem that’s amenable to precise statistical analyses. We’re going to have to make some tenuous statistical and inferential leaps along the way, but hopefully you can follow along for the sake of the thought experiment.

We’ll discuss both aspects of the issue in turn—the fallibility of prophetic figures, and the fallibility of scripture itself.

Prophetic errors. Our first job is to try to figure out how the mistakes of prophetic figures compare to the average person, and to do that we’ll need to examine the lives of some prophetic figures as they’re presented in the Old and New Testaments. As much as die-hard evangelicals maintain that the Bible itself is perfect, they do not hold the biblical prophets themselves to that same standard, and neither, for that case, does the D&C:

Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding. And inasmuch as they erred it might be made known; And inasmuch as they sought wisdom they might be instructed; And inasmuch as they sinned they might be chastened, that they might repent; And inasmuch as they were humble they might be made strong, and blessed from on high, and receive knowledge from time to time. (D&C 1:24-28)

So, in short, we can expect to find accounts of prophetic figures making mistakes. I’ve assembled a general list below of a few select prophets, based on everyone’s favorite prophet-related Primary song, plus a few apostolic figures on the New Testament side (Peter, Paul, and John), minus Daniel (given the positive evidence suggesting that he wasn’t an actual historical figure), and a few less-notable additions (Nathan, Balaam, and David) to include some of the lesser-well-known prophetic figures. There’s likely a more methodical and complete way of selecting this kind of prophetic sample, but it will do for now.

It’s worth noting that basing our sample on biblical accounts is already biasing the analysis in favor of the critics, as these accounts should be much more inclined to favorably present the lives of these prophetic figures, particularly compared to the well-documented and exceptionally critical treatments modern prophets receive today. And the better these biblical prophets look, the higher a bar we’ll be asking our modern prophets to clear. On to the mistakes.

Prophet Purported Mistakes
Adam We don’t hear much from Adam following the Garden of Eden, but one can imagine a critic asking why Adam’s prophetic status didn’t allow him to foresee and prevent the murder of Abel.
Noah Noah is on record in the Bible as a pass-out drunk, which was a source of ridicule for (one of) his children.
Enoch We don’t hear of any errors from Enoch in the biblical record.
Abraham Many biblical commentators like to treat Abraham’s polygamy and his deception of Pharoah regarding Sarah as indications of error (though they don’t tend to point out the attempted murder of his own child), but neither of those would be considered errors in the context of LDS thought. We’ll actually be doing the critics a favor by adopting that perspective and overlooking Abraham’s more obvious faults. We’ll instead limit his mistakes to being prejudiced against Canaanites in advising his son on his choice of bride.
Moses Moses made the rather grave error of disobeying God’s instructions when extracting water from the rock, as he then took credit for that miracle after the fact.
Balaam Balaam is treated as a legitimate prophet early in the Old Testament, but is also treated later on as an example of unrighteous behavior. He is also portrayed as engaging in idolatry and teaching others to commit fornication (as well as a conspicuous case of animal cruelty).
Samuel Samuel initially believed that Eliab would be the new king instead of David. He also set up his own sons as judges, who would later become corrupt.
Nathan Nathan told David that the Lord approved of David’s plans to build the temple, advice that was later corrected by God.
David It could be argued that David wasn’t considered a prophetic figure, but there is a variety of inspired material attributed to him (e.g., many of the Psalms). He was also, of course, an adulterer and a murderer, alongside his conducting an unauthorized census (horror of horrors).
Jonah Jonah’s mistakes are a pretty salient part of his narrative. He ran away from his calling. He felt rather severe prejudice against the Assyrians, and he was angry when God didn’t destroy them. He could also be accused of giving a false prophecy, even though God clarified that the conditions of the prophecy were no longer valid.
Peter Peter’s most obvious mistake was his denial of Christ (though some would argue that he did this at Christ’s instruction). In the early days of the church he believed that only Jews could be saved, though he would be instrumental in correcting this error. Even after this, though, he avoided new gentile Christians when important Jews came to town. He also rebuked Jesus openly when Jesus began to talk about his death and resurrection.
John John was convinced that he was living in the “last hour” (or “last time” in the KJV rendering), despite the fact that a few million hours have passed since he said those words.
Paul Paul was pretty open about his own weaknesses. Even besides that, he famously forbade women from speaking in meetings, demonstrating a rather severe sexism. Paul also ignores the warnings of the other disciples (which they gave “through the spirit”) that he shouldn’t go to Jerusalem.

All things considered, I can imagine Joseph Smith or Brigham Young fitting in very comfortably in this group when it comes to their fallibility. Now, I’ve given these in rough chronological order, but we could order them somewhat differently. Here’s my personal ranking (note the dreaded red text) of these prophetic figures in terms of the severity of these mistakes (from least severe to most severe), along with a brief summary of those errors:

Prophet Purported Mistakes
Enoch No recorded errors.
Adam Failing to prevent tragedy.
John Misjudging the timing of the second coming.
Nathan Incorrectly speaking in the name of the Lord.
Samuel Misjudging character. Nepotism.
Abraham Prejudice against Canaanites.
Noah Drunkenness. <--- AVERAGE PROPHETIC IMPERFECTION
Moses Disobedience. Taking credit for others’ accomplishments.
Paul Sexism. Ignoring divine guidance.
<--- MISTAKES MADE BY AN AVERAGE PERSON
Peter Denying Christ. Racism. Overzealousness.
Jonah Running away from a divine calling. Racism. Failed prophecy.
Balaam Idolatry. Encouraging fornication. Animal cruelty.
David Adultery. Murder. Unauthorized census taking.

Notice a couple of things that I’ve done here. First, I’ve marked Noah as the median within our set of prophetic figures, with six others above (topped by Enoch’s Zion-studded piety) and six others below (with David’s shameful legacy sitting on the very bottom). For the sake of our analysis, we’ll assume that Noah represents the midpoint of the prophetic mistake-making scale, with our population of prophets normally distributed around it. Some few are near perfect. Some few are very, very bad. Most everyone has a few notable but minor flaws.

Importantly, I’ve also marked the spot where our non-prophetic “average person” would be in terms of mistake-making (particularly, where they would have been in the ancient period). Stuff like sexism, disobedience, and drunkenness would have been par for the course. Adultery, murder, and denying one’s affiliation with someone you believed to be a living God, probably less so. (Though not unheard of, obviously. Fun fact: 21% of men and 13% of women will cheat on their romantic partner over the course of their lifetime.) Most of our prophets would be above that average, but some would be below it.

Marking those two spots allows us to make a guess as to how different those two distributions are in statistical terms. We can take the proportion of prophets that fall below the “average person” standard and turn that into a Z-score separating those two distributions:

p = 4/13 = .30769

That probability corresponds with a Z-score of almost exactly = -.5, meaning that the average person would be half a standard deviation below the average prophetic figure. That’s actually a respectable effect size when it comes to measuring differences between groups—not overridingly large, but nothing to sneeze at either. You can see what that looks like in the figure below.

Once we have that value, we can bring our modern prophets into the mix. Again, we’re accepting the critics’ argument that modern prophets are no less imperfect (and no more imperfect), on average, than other people. Based on that assumption, we can take our stable of 17 modern prophets and assume that they make as many mistakes, on average, as the average person. From there, we can ask how likely we’d be to see that result if they, in actuality, belonged to the same distribution as authentic biblical prophets. And, conveniently, we can use a one-sample t-test to give us a workable answer.

t(df) = X — μ
s / √n

X sample mean) = —.5 (modern prophets assumed to be half a standard deviation less fallible than ancient prophets)

μ (known population parameter) = 0 (placing the mean of ancient prophets at 0)

s (standard deviation) = 1 (setting the standard deviation for ancient prophets to 1)

n (sample size) = 17 (the number of prophets in the modern dispensation)

df (degrees of freedom) = n — 1 = 16

t(16) = —.5 — 0
1 / √17

t(16) = —.5 / .242

t(16) = —2.06

One-tailed p = 0.028025

That leaves us with the odds of seeing a set of 17 modern prophets that are just as imperfect as everyone else as just over 1 in 50. Not high, but a long way from impossible. We’ll keep that p value in our back pocket for now and turn to the problem of imperfection in scripture.

Biblical errors. When it comes to errors in biblical scripture, I’m happy to report that atheist writers of various stripes have already done the heavy lifting. You don’t have to look very hard to get very thorough (as well as thoroughly obtuse) lists of contradictions and errors in the Bible. For instance:

  • In the Gospel of Matthew at one point the author says he’s quoting Jeremiah, but he’s really quoting Zechariah (though of course it’s possible that Zechariah is ultimately quoting an unknown work of Jeremiah).
  • Disagreement about who was high priest when David entered the temple unlawfully.
  • Disagreement over the number of fighting men in Israel. (Note also that the number of fighting men reported are far higher than reported at the final battle at Cumorah in the Book of Mormon.
  • Problematic population counts for the nation of Israel during the Exodus.
  • At least 97 other notable errors.

Overall, it’s fair to say that the Bible is not a perfect document, and though this is a considerable issue for the doctrinal position of evangelicals, it’s not the least bit worrisome to Latter-Day Saints. In fact, one could predict in advance that those types of imperfections could be there. As James Smith writes:

Ironically, this issue concerning population counts in Numbers does not challenge the ancient origin of the biblical text as much as it supports it. If there is any hallmark of ancient historical records, it is their strong tendency to present puzzling, unrealistic, and inconsistent population figures.

In fact, if we take a look at other authentic ancient documents, there are plenty of concrete examples of error, such as:

  • Disagreements over the population of Roman Egypt (3 million vs. 7.5 million).
  • Josephus showing a dramatic pro-Jewish bias in his writing.
  • Historical accounts reporting a thoroughly incredible value of 4.2 million men in the Persian army of Xerxes, alongside numerous examples of false strengths of Greek and Roman armies presented in ancient records.
  • Herodotus dramatically exaggerating the magnificence of Babylon, among a variety of other impressive errors.

It’s worth noting that much of Herodotus’ errors can be attributed to the fact that he wasn’t a first-hand source for the stories he told. Much of his work was compiling information from a variety of other ancient (often mythical) sources, who were probably the ones doing most of the exaggerating. It was, admittedly, very hard to conduct rigorous fact checking in the ancient world. But if that sort of thing could apply to Herodotus, it’s certainly possible that it could apply to Ether as he recounts 30 generations worth of founding narrative for the Jaredites, or to Moroni himself as he abridges the Book of Ether, or even the Book of Mormon more generally.

So, both biblical and non-biblical ancient sources have a variety of errors and exaggerations in them. So what? How can we incorporate this into our estimate? Well, it’s possible to treat this problem as an extension of the first. Scriptural imperfections could be considered to just be another form of prophetic imperfections, especially as prophets are often the ones writing them (or approving of treating them as inspired and canonical). Because of this, we can just add these prophetic figures to our sample size. If we go through this list and pick out the major prophetic contributors to the Book of Mormon text, we can add Lehi, Nephi, Jacob, Enos, Benjamin, Alma, Alma the Younger, Amulek, Helaman, Nephi, Mormon, Moroni, and Ether, for a total of 30 prophetic figures in our sample. We can go ahead and recalculate that now:

t(29) = 2.74

One-tailed p = 0.00522

So that changes things a bit, but not dramatically so. Based on our rough estimate of the difference between prophetic and non-prophetic fallibility, it would absolutely be possible to see authentic prophets and scripture that look in many ways like their non-inspired counterparts.

CA—Consequent Probability of Modern Authorship—For the purposes of this analysis, we’ll make the assumption that the mistakes made by modern prophets and by the Book of Mormon perfectly align with the mistakes made by non-inspired persons (though a strong argument could be made that their personal habits are substantially more circumspect than average), meaning our estimate for the consequent probability for the alternate hypothesis would be p = 1.

And with that, we can complete our analysis.

Posterior Probability

PH = Prior Probability of the Hypothesis (our prior guess as to the likelihood of an authentic Book of Mormon, based on the evidence we’ve already considered, or p = 1 — 1.08 x 10-21)

CH = Consequent Probability of the Hypothesis (the estimated probability of observing a set of authentic prophets, prophets who are as fallible as non-prophets, or p = .00522)

PA = Prior Probability of the Alternate Hypothesis (our prior guess about the likelihood of a fraudulent Book of Mormon, based on earlier evidence, or p = 1.08 x 10-21)

CA = Consequent Probability of the Alternate Hypothesis (the estimated probability of observing a set of non-prophets who are as fallible as other non-prophets, or p = 1)

PostProb = Posterior Probability (our new estimate of the probability of an authentic Book of Mormon)

PH = 1 — 1.08 x 10-21
PostProb = PH * CH
(PH * CH) + (PA * CA)
PostProb = (1 — 1.08 x 10-21 * .00522)
((1 — 1.08 x 10-21) * .00522) + ((1.08 x 10-21) * 1)
PostProb = 1 — 2.07 x 10-19

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(0.00522 / 1)

Lmag = log10(0.00522)

Lmag = -2

 

Conclusion

The above analysis suggests that the presence of prophetic errors is a relatively poor bar with which to judge the Book of Mormon. And remember that this represents what I’d consider to be an upper bound on the potential strength of this evidence. It would be perfectly valid to make a somewhat different argument, attempting to show that modern prophets are actually much closer to the biblical prophetic standard than to the “average person” standard, if not even higher. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if such evidence ended up working in the Book of Mormon’s favor.

Note that I’m not saying that imperfections in the Book of Mormon would themselves be considered evidence that it’s authentically ancient. But neither are those imperfections evidence that the Book of Mormon is ahistoric. If the book is ancient, the Bible, along with other ancient documents, represents the proper point of comparison. Given how riddled those ancient and (occasionally) inspired documents are with human error, it’s not unfair to expect the same of an authentic Book of Mormon.

But then why, you may ask, would the Book of Mormon ever be considered the most correct of any book on earth? And why would anyone ever follow a religion governed by demonstrably imperfect people? The answer, I think, hinges on Joseph’s clarification to that infamous statement, that those who abide by its precepts would get nearer to God than by any other book, and, by extension, any other church. The Book of Mormon’s, and the church’s, claim to correctness is found not in the perfection of its history or its demography or its policies, but in terms of whether it actually gets people closer to God, in spite of its imperfections. That question is a separate one from the questions of authenticity and historicity, and likely one that Bayes can’t answer for you.

 

Skeptic’s Corner

With all that said, are there ways that this analysis could’ve been done better? I’m sure there are ways it could be done differently, but I don’t see much benefit to trying to make a more rigorous version of what I’ve done here. You could get a more complete inventory of prophets and their mistakes (or you could toss out stories like Jonah’s, which has about the same chance as Daniel’s of being historical), but since we only ever get a small slice of the lives of biblical prophets, that more complete inventory wouldn’t necessarily be a more accurate view of how those prophets lived.

An alternative would be to argue that some mistakes, like, say, Joseph’s polygamy, are so egregious as to be immediately disqualifying. But I don’t see how that would be any more amenable to analysis. Everyone’s obviously free to form their own views on what is and isn’t disqualifying, but what are the odds that those views are wrong? Are they similar odds to someone having incorrect political stances? If so, then this evidence could just as easily be assigned a 0 instead of a -2.

If I readily admit that this type of evidence isn’t amenable to a Bayesian analysis, what’s it even doing here? Well, it’s here because it’s negative evidence, and, strong or no, it needs to be given its due. It would’ve been easy enough to just say throw a single sentence at the top saying “prophets are allowed to make mistakes, lolz” and call it a day. But as much as I might disagree, there are quite a few people who feel legitimate concern when learning about these mistakes, and it’s important to acknowledge that. I thus did my best to find the most meaningful way to assign a weight for this evidence.

More important than that, though, is the story that this analysis helps to tell. The primary narrative in the critical literature hinges on a generally unspoken assumption: that only perfectly inspired prophets—the prophets that we might have grown up with in Primary and Seminary—are worth following. But there’s an alternative narrative, and one which this analysis helps to make concrete: that imperfect prophets are the only ones that’ve ever been followed, from Adam on down. Even if every modern and Book of Mormon prophet is no different than the rest of us, it’s no reason to reject them or the revelations that came through them. That, I think, is a story worth telling, even if the analysis itself may not be.

 

Next Time, in Episode 19:

When next we meet, we’ll take an initial stab at analyzing the linguistic evidence connecting the Uto-Aztecan language family to languages of the Old World.

Questions, ideas, and lists of my personal imperfections can be sent to BayesianBoM@gmail.com or submitted as comments below.

Top of Page

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This