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If the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham are not true, doesn’t this call into question the Bible as well?

If the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham are not true, doesn’t this call into question the Bible as well?

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For those who have devoutly believed in the Book of Mormon and the other LDS scriptures, such as the Book of Abraham, as the word of God, coming to the realization that these books are not what they claim to be can cause ripple effects throughout their belief system. In particular, losing faith in these LDS scriptures can provoke doubts about the Bible. After all, if the Book of Mormon is “another testament of Jesus Christ” and is a fraud, might not the same be true of the Bible? Such doubts are likely to be magnified for those who felt that they had strong testimonies to the truth of the Book of Mormon before they lost faith in its claim to be the word of God.

Before you throw out the Bible with the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham, here are some things to consider.

1. Counterfeits do not invalidate the real thing.

The production of counterfeits is an all too common activity of human beings. Counterfeit currency, cheap knock-offs of designer clothes and accessories, plagiarized school papers, forged driver’s licenses and other IDs, fake pharmaceuticals—the human capacity for substituting imitations for the genuine seems almost limitless. Obviously, the existence of such fraudulent products is no reflection on the items they mimic. If anything, counterfeits are backhanded testimonials to the value of the originals.

If the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham are fraudulent, it is because they are counterfeit scriptures, imitations that reflect the value that so many people rightly put on the Bible. History is replete with examples of such knock-off scriptures, from the Gnostic “gospels” of the second century to the Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ in the twentieth century. The existence of such works attests to the power of the Bible.

2. The antiquity of the Bible, unlike the Book of Mormon or the Book of Abraham, is beyond dispute.

The Book of Mormon makes its appearance in world history in 1829-1830, when Joseph Smith dictated its contents and published it. There are no gold plates to examine, no manuscripts to view, of the supposed ancient text Joseph said he translated. Things are even worse for the Book of Abraham. Joseph Smith claimed that the Book of Abraham was translated from an Egyptian papyrus roll purchased by the LDS Church in 1835 that was later lost. In 1966, fragments from the scroll were recovered and translated by both Mormon and non-Mormon scholars. What they found was that the text on the scroll was that of a pagan Egyptian funeral text called the Book of Breathings, or The Breathing Permit of Hor, not an autobiographical writing of the patriarch Abraham.1 

The situation with the Bible is quite different. There is a continuous stream of documentary evidence for the New Testament writings going back to the second century (within a century or so of their original composition) and even, for some of these books, to the late first century. The documentary evidence from the early centuries is quite varied—papyrus fragments, whole manuscript copies, quotations in the writings of other early Christians, and translations of the New Testament into Latin, Coptic, and Syriac. The language of the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament is clearly determined to be Greek of that time period, in contrast to the earlier classical Greek style or the Greek style of later centuries, and even more specifically is written in a form of Greek characteristic of the Near Eastern region where Jesus and the apostles lived.2 There is also a similarly continuous and rich paper trail of evidence for the books of the Old Testament (especially the Dead Sea Scrolls) going back two centuries earlier than the New Testament—which is about as far back as most literary evidence for any ancient texts goes, no matter how old. Of course, the Jewish and Christian communities that accept the Bible have existed continuously since their origins in biblical times.

3. Modern translations of the Bible, unlike the “translation” of the Book of Mormon, can be checked against the ancient-language texts.

On what basis does anyone believe that the gold plates Joseph claimed he had contained anything even approximating what we can read in the English work known as the Book of Mormon? In reality, one must simply take Joseph Smith’s word for it. Because the gold plates are inaccessible and there are no copies of the supposed “reformed Egyptian” text, there is no way to compare the Book of Mormon with any ancient-language version to see if they match. Again, the situation is even worse for the Book of Abraham, for which at least some of the “translated” papyrus survives—and which contains a completely different text than the one Joseph claimed it did.

Matters are very different with the Bible. Hundreds of scholars have worked on translations of the Bible; their understanding of the original-language text can be checked by other scholars of various religious and non-religious perspectives. Anyone who puts in the effort needed can learn ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek and can study the Bible in those original languages and assess the accuracy of the modern English translations (or those in other languages, such as Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, French, Arabic, or Russian).

4. The basic historical and geographical settings of the biblical histories are definitely authentic, unlike those of the Book of Mormon.

Let’s compare Bible and Book of Mormon geographies. The major physical locations of the Bible—rivers, seas, lands, cities—have always been public knowledge. No one disputes, for example, where to find the Jordan River, or the Sea of Galilee, or Macedonia, or Ephesus. In some instances we know the precise spot, within a few feet, of where specific events took place, especially in Jerusalem.3 On the other hand, except for references to Old World locations, the major locations of the Book of Mormon remain unknown and are hotly disputed among Mormons. Proposed locations for the main Book of Mormon lands differ by thousands of miles. No non-Mormon scholar thinks that Zarahemla or Bountiful refer to actual physical locations.

Likewise, even among the most hardened skeptics of the Bible there is grudging admission that much of the Bible is grounded in real historical contexts. Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome were all real, major political and military powers in biblical times and much of their interactions with Israel are corroborated through archaeological discoveries. Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus, Caesar Augustus, Herod the Great, and Pontius Pilate were all the men the Bible reports them to be. No serious historian questions the existence of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezra, or of John the Baptist, Jesus, and Paul. On the other hand, no non-Mormon historian takes seriously the historical existence of Lehi or Alma or the other major Book of Mormon figures. No anthropologist regards the Lamanites as a real people group. None of the New World events narrated in the Book of Mormon is accepted by non-Mormon historians as factual. 

Of course, non-Christian scholars question many aspects of the Bible, but principally what they question are its miraculous and revelatory claims. They dispute the Exodus miracles, the prophetic revelations to Isaiah and Daniel, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Their skepticism about these religiously significant elements of the Bible leads them to adopt revisionist theories about biblical history. Yet even such skeptics cannot deny some historical validity to many aspects of the Bible. That cannot be said about the Book of Mormon.

5. The Bible lacks the characteristic signs of fraud that mark the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham.

Although much could be said on this subject, let us consider just three characteristics of apocryphal literature (books falsely claiming to be scriptural revelations).

First, in biblical narratives the authors generally say little or nothing about themselves, rarely even giving their names. For example, the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles say nothing at all about their authors. The four Gospels and Acts also do not identify their authors by name, although Luke and John do refer to themselves in other ways. Later apocryphal “gospels,” on the other hand, claim to be written by specific named individuals (such as Thomas, Mary, or Judas). Similarly, every book of the Book of Mormon identifies its supposed author by name and emphasizes his credentials as a prophet. The same is true of the Book of Abraham, which actually claims to have been written by Abraham by his own hand on papyrus. There is nothing inherently impossible about a scriptural narrative book bearing its author’s name, but it is uncharacteristic of biblical narrative books while it is characteristic of fraudulent ones.

Second, the Bible is not marked by the kinds of egregious anachronisms that one finds throughout the Book of Mormon. An anachronism is a feature that doesn’t belong in the place and time period in which it is reported, such as a story about Leonardo da Vinci eating a peanut butter sandwich or John F. Kennedy using a laptop computer on Air Force One. Prophecies are not necessarily anachronisms; it depends on how they are formulated. For example, books of the Bible dating before Christ do anticipate his coming, but they express this expectation in typology and veiled prophecy. On the other hand, books in the Book of Mormon supposedly dating before Christ refer to him explicitly by name (even as “the Lord Jesus Christ”), which none of the books in the Old Testament do. The pre-Christian parts of the Book of Mormon also describe Christ’s death and resurrection in anachronistic fashion. For example, they refer without explanation to him being “crucified,” a term referring to a form of execution developed by the Romans that would not have been familiar to the Nephites and Lamanites.

Third, the books of the Bible address issues of pertinence to their own day, not issues that would make sense only to people living millennia later. The books of the Bible were written directly for God’s people living at the time of writing. The only parts of the Bible not intended to be understood at the time were prophecies about the coming of Christ (1 Peter 1:10-12) and apocalyptic visions about the end (Dan. 8:26; 12:4, 9). By contrast, the entire Book of Mormon, despite the fact that it is largely a historical narrative with extended quotations from Isaiah, presents itself as having been written wholly for modern times, and addresses modern theological and practical questions. So, for example, the Book of Mormon talks about material becoming lost or removed from the Bible (1 Ne. 13-14), argues that the age of miracles and revelations is not past (Mormon 9), and settles the issue of infant baptism by condemning the practice (Moroni 8:4-26).4

6. Whether or not the Mormon scriptures are true, the central events of the Bible—the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ—remain true.

The core, essential historical claim of the Bible is that Jesus of Nazareth, a first-century Galilean, was crucified by order of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, died on the cross, was buried, and rose from the grave with immortal life. If this claim is historically true, then Christianity, in some form, is true. One may have all sorts of unanswered questions about other issues, but if Jesus died and rose again then he is the promised Messiah, the one who came to save his people from their sins.

On this point, believers in Jesus Christ have the evidence firmly on their side. The historical evidence convinces all but a tiny number of fringe scholars that Jesus was a real person, that he was a Galilean teacher in the first century, and that he was put to death on a cross by order of Pilate.5 Historical analysis also convinces most historians, even non-Christians, that Jesus’ disciples at the very least had experiences that sincerely convinced them that Jesus had risen from the grave and vindicated himself as the Messiah. When all of the alternative (and highly speculative) explanations for the evidence are considered, it turns out that the resurrection of Jesus is by far the most cogent explanation for the historical facts.6 

It is crucial to understand that Mormonism is dependent on Christianity, not the other way around. If Christianity is false—if Jesus Christ did not die on the cross and rise from the grave to free us from our sins—then Mormonism must also be false, because Mormonism assumes that this basic, core claim of Christianity is true. On the other hand, if Christianity in that sense is true, Mormonism might be true—or it might be false. This means that if Mormonism turns out to be false, that conclusion in no way reflects badly on Christianity. If the Book of Mormon is fraudulent, this does not in any way imply that Jesus’ resurrection is a myth or deception.

If Joseph Smith was a false prophet, then he was simply one of many false teachers and false prophets to come along in the history of Christianity. In short, if the basic message of the Bible were false, Mormonism could not possibly be true; but if Mormonism is false, that in no way undermines the truth of the Bible. The Bible stands without the Book of Mormon or the Book of Abraham. The realization that those LDS scriptures are not what they claim to be should not lead to skepticism about the Bible. It should, rather, lead to a greater appreciation for the truth of the Bible and of its central message of the crucified and risen Son of God, Jesus Christ.

 

NOTES

1. See IRR’s documentary film The Lost Book of Abraham: Investigating a Remarkable Mormon Claim (Grand Rapids: Institute for Religious Research, 2002), as well as Charles Larson, By His Own Hand upon Papyrus: A New Look at the Joseph Smith Papyri, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Institute for Religious Research, 1992). These and other resources on the subject can be found on IRR’s Book of Abraham Page.

2. Christophe Rico, "New Testament Greek," in The Blackwell Companion to the New Testament, ed. David E. Garland, Blackwell Companions to Religion (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2010), 61-62.

3. Any decent Bible atlas will illustrate the point here hundreds of times over. See, for example, John D. Currid and David P. Barrett, Crossway ESV Bible Atlas (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010); Adrian Curtis, Oxford Bible Atlas, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); Carl G. Rasmussen, Zondervan Atlas of the Bible, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010).

4. See further Robert M. Bowman Jr., “The Book of Mormon and the Bible” (Grand Rapids: Institute for Religious Research, 2012).

5. For a recent informative example from a notoriously agnostic biblical scholar, see Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York: HarperOne, 2012).

6. For an introductory overview of the historical evidence for the resurrection, see Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Knowing the Truth about the Resurrection” (YouTube, 2012). A recent academic treatise on this subject is Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011).