You will recall that in July Atlantic bloggers Matt Yglesias and Ross Douthat agreed that the Book of Mormon was “a remarkably crude and obvious forgery.” To his credit, Ross Douthat later retracted the claim and promised, in effect, that he’d wade into the weeds of history, archaeology and comparative theology before he made judgments like it again.
He’s not waded in very far, because he has recently made a claim about the Book of Mormon and Mormonism that doesn’t hold up once you unpack it.
Noah Feldman recently wrote that the Mormonism’s “implausibility” is mostly superficial. As quoted by Douthat,
Even though “there is nothing inherently less plausible about Godâ€™s revealing himself to an upstate New York farmer in the early years of the Republic than to the pharaohâ€™s changeling grandson in ancient Egypt,” Feldman writes, for most people “antiquity breeds authenticity,” because “events in the distant past, we tend to think, occurred in sacred, mythic time.”
That sounds right to me. But Douthat disagrees. He argues that
Mormonism’s problem – and a major reason why its tenets are often “dismissed as ridiculous” (as Feldman puts it) by mainstream Christians – is that the Book of Mormon doesn’t seem to stack up nearly as well in this regard as, say, the Gospel According to Saint Matthew.
I heard this same type of argument a lot on my mission, mostly from Jehovah’s Witnesses. Even as a mind-numbed Mormon cultist for Jesus I could see that the argument was applesauce.
It turns out that there is indisputable secular evidence that Rome existed and Jerusalem existed. There is even decent evidence as these things go that a man called Jesus and man called Peter existed. But there is also indisputable secular evidence that upstate New York existed and that Nauvoo existed. Joseph Smith also existed, it turns out. In fact, the scientific evidence for Joseph Smith and the early places and people of Mormonism is much, much better attested than for the New Testament. But no one cares. The existence of Jerusalem doesn’t prove that Christ was resurrected. The existence of Palmyra doesn’t prove that Joseph Smith saw God.
In contrast, proving the Resurrection would prove Christianity. Similarly, because of the Book of Mormon’s miraculous provenance, proving the Nephites would prove Mormonism. But though I’ve seen suggestive arguments for both, they have not been proved.
So Feldman’s comparison looks pretty good. The non-miraculous historical claims specific to Mormonism are better attested than the non-miraculous claims of early Christianity. And the miraculous claims of both remain unproven, Mormonism’s specific claims attracting more ridicule because there are fewer of us making our claims and fewer years in which we’ve made them. Fools mock.