When absence of evidence is, actually, evidence

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Ever since I first read the Book of Mormon, I’ve asked myself, if we’re going to find evidence of the Book of Mormon, what should we be looking for?

I’ve written about this quite a bit in the past, but thought I should revisit it a little here.

In the field of Book of Mormon geography and historicity, each of us has unique, subjective expectations that may or may not be met by the available evidence. We simply read the text differently in many respects. That leads us to expect different kinds of evidence.

I learned long ago that individual jurors, although united as a group into a jury, still have individual, subjective expectations about what the evidence needs to show to convince them. There are legal standards of proof that judges read to jurors, but those are just words. People have to interpret them, and that introduces subjectivity. What convinces one juror may not convince another.

Our expectations are driven by our interpretation of the text.

One of my favorite examples is writing. I know a lot of people think the Book of Mormon describes a society of literate people who left records of all kinds all over the place. That argument makes sense, and I’m not attacking or even criticizing it.

However, I read the text differently.

Authors typically make note of unusual things, and every mention of writing in the text has an exceptional quality about it. Only Aminadi could interpret the writing on the wall of the temple, for example (Alma 10:2). Mosiah and Benjamin sent writing “among the people” but that is consistent with having community leaders read the writings; it doesn’t mean everyone was literate, and it doesn’t mean anything was engraved on stone. There are epistles exchanged among military and political leaders, but that, too, is consistent with literacy among the elite. The rest of the writing involves the plates, which were kept by the educated, trained record keepers.

Mormon hid up all the records of the Nephites so the Lamanites wouldn’t destroy them. (You can think of your own reasons why the Lamanites sought to destroy records.) To me, this says there were no Nephite records laying around. If there were stone memorials adorning the buildings everywhere, why would the Lamanites be so obsessed with destroying the Nephite records?

Also, as I read the text, the people of Zarahemla did not have a writing system. They were more numerous than the Nephites but they didn’t know how to read; they memorized their genealogy instead of writing it down. They lived in Zarahemla for hundreds of years without a written language.

The text speaks of exactly one “large stone” on which writing was engraved: Coriantumr’s stone. (I’ve long been curious if the stone at the base of Monk’s Mound at Cahokia is Coriantumr’s stone. Maybe someday an excavation to that stone will be possible.)

There are very few references to writing among the Lamanites, and from beginning to end, the Lamanites sought to destroy the Nephite records.

To me, all of this describes a mostly illiterate society, with some few exceptions. We should be looking for a society in which writing was rare. One in which there are no example of Nephite writing because they are all in the record repository Mormon described. One in which oral traditions were passed down from generation to generation.

The last place we should look is in ancient societies that had ubiquitous writing. The more writing an ancient society has, the less likely the Book of Mormon took place there.

At least, that’s how I see it.

The only exception would be if we find quotations from Alma, Benjamin, or even Isaiah in the writings of the other ancient societies, dating to Book of Mormon time frames. Now that would be interesting.

But again, I emphasize that others read the text differently and I support their efforts to corroborate the Book of Mormon text in their way.

No problem at all.

Source: Book of Mormon Wars

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