The purpose of this book1 is to call attention to some points on which the
main hypothesis of the Book of Mormon may be tested. The hypothesis is that
the Book of Mormon contains genuine history, and with it goes the corollary
that the work was divinely inspired. Because of that corollary no serious attempt
has been made to test the main hypothesis; for to test a theory means to take
it seriously only for a little while, to assume for the sake of argument that
it may conceivably, however absurdly, be true after all. That is a concession
no critic of the Book of Mormon has been willing to make.

Instead of the vigorous onslaught that the Book of Mormon hypothesis invites
and deserves, it has elicited only a long, monotonous drizzle of authoritarian
denunciation, the off-hand opinions of impatient scholars whose intelligence
and whose official standing will not allow them to waste a moment more than
is necessary to write off an imposture so obviously deserving of contempt.

But today it is being pointed out in many quarters that authoritarianism
is the very antithesis of true science, and that the best scientific theory
is not the sane, cautious, noncommittal one but the daring and revolutionary
one. “A theory which asserts more,” says Karl Popper, “and
thus takes greater risks, is better testable than a theory which asserts very
little.”2 And he further notes that preference should always be given
to the theory that makes more precise assertions than others, explains more
facts in greater detail, invites more tests, suggests more new experiments,
and unifies more hitherto unrelated problems. On all these points the Book
of Mormon scores high. It is the very extravagance of its claims that makes
it so deserving of the respect which is denied it. The outrageous daring of
its title page is the very thing that should whet the appetite of a real scholar:
here is a book that is asking for a fight, so to speak, and if it is as flimsy
as it looks at first glance any competent schoolman should have little trouble
polishing it off in an hour or so.

But, strangely, through the years the challenge has had no takers. The learned
have been willing enough to wave their credentials and state their opinions,
but they have been adroit and determined in avoiding any serious discussion.
To illustrate, Bernard de Voto once hailed an ambitious critic of Joseph Smith
and the Book of Mormon as “a detached, modern intelligence, grounded
in naturalism, rejecting the supernatural.”3 This is good news indeed
for the Book of Mormon, for a confirmed naturalist who has made a study of
the life of Joseph Smith is the very person best qualified to put Smith’s
supernaturalist claims to a severe test. “Observations or experiments
can be accepted as supporting a theory,” writes Popper, “only if
these observations or experiments may be described as severe tests of the
theory, . . . serious attempts to refute it.”4 Today we read more and
more in the journals about the importance of having a falsifiable rather than
a verifiable theory. Anything can be verified, we are told, but a good scientific
theory is one that can readily be falsified, that is, easily refuted if and
where it is in error. And so it is fortunate that we have critics ready, willing,
and able to attack the historical claims of the Book of Mormon, for that book
is delightfully falsifiable.

But their attack, to be effective, must be met with the strongest possible
resistance: if it meets a half-hearted defense it can never boast a real victory:
“Since the method of science is that of critical discussion [Popper again],
it is of great importance that the theories criticized should be tenaciously
defended.”5 That is, there must be a discussion, with the purpose of
discovering by all possible means every weakness in both positions. But that
is not the way Mr. de Voto and his friends see it at all. For a reliable defense
they trust implicitly in the impartiality and intelligence of the prosecution.
They give the prize to their champion not for bringing new life into the discussion
but for effectively silencing all further discussion. The last thing in the
world they want is for the debate to continue. In the impressive footnotes
and credentials of accepted authorities they see their own release from endless
years of drudgery and research and from the risks and uncertainties of an
indefinitely prolonged debate with its constant danger of new and disturbing
revelations and its frequent and humiliating disclosures of great gaps and
defects in the knowledge even of the foremost investigators. How much better
to put the whole thing to bed with the announcement that sound scholarship
has at last settled the issue once for all.

That this is the position that the experts take is perfectly apparent in
their quick and angry reaction to any word of criticism directed at the established
oracles. Any attempt to continue or renew the discussion by pointing to the
flaws and contradictions that swarm in their pages meets with almost hysterical
protests of prejudice, disrespect, and impertinence. By denying prejudice
in their own ranks, they deprive themselves of the one thing that makes their
work valuable. How could anyone “grounded in naturalism, rejecting the
supernatural” be anything but prejudiced in favor of naturalism and against
the supernatural? And why not? How could anyone put up a halfway decent defense
of the Book of Mormon without being prejudiced in its favor? There is nothing
wrong with having and admitting two sides in a controversy. By definition
every theory is controversial, and the better the theory the more highly controversial.
There can be no more constructive approach to a controversial issue like this
one than to have each side present the evidence which it finds most convincing,
always bearing in mind that authority is not evidence and that name-dropping
is as futile as name-calling. Sweeping statements and general impressions
are sometimes useful in the process of getting one’s bearings and taking up
a position, but they cannot serve as evidence because they are expressions
of personal impressions which are nontransferrable.

Which brings up an important point: we are not going to prove anything
in this book. The evidence that will prove or disprove the Book of Mormon does
not exist. When, indeed, is a thing proven? Only when an individual has accumulated
in his own conscience enough observations, impressions, reasonings, and feelings
to satisfy him personally that it is so. The same evidence which convinces one
expert may leave another completely unsatisfied; the impressions that build
up to definite proof are themselves nontransferrable. All we can do is to talk
about the material at hand, hoping that in the course of the discussion every
participant will privately and inwardly form, reform, change, or abandon his
opinions about it and thereby move in the direction of greater light and knowledge.
Some of the things in the pages that follow we think are quite impressive, but
there is no guarantee at all that anybody else will think so. The whole thing
may well impress some as disappointingly inconclusive, for we must insist that
we have reached no final conclusions, even privately, and that all we can see
ahead is more and ever more problems.6
But they are problems with a meaning, and it is our personal conviction that
if the Book of Mormon were not a solid and genuine article we would long since
have run out of such meaningful material, i.e., that there is much more behind
all this than mere literary invention.

Some, impressed by the sheer mass and charge of the Book of Mormon, are now
asking why it can’t be seriously and respectfully treated as a myth. Lots
of myths are today coming in for the most reverential treatment. But the book
disdains such subterfuge, and never tires of reminding us that it is not myth
but history and must stand or fall as such: “I would that ye should remember
that these sayings are true, and also that these records are true” (Mosiah
1:6). “We know our record to be true, for behold, it is a just man who
did keep the record” (3 Nephi 8:1). There may be mistakes in the record
(3 Nephi 8:2), but there is no fraud or fiction: “And whoso receiveth
this record, and shall not condemn it because of the imperfections which are
in it, the same shall know of greater things” (Mormon 8:12). For “if
there be faults they be the faults of man. But behold we know no fault, . . . therefore, he that condemneth, let him be aware” (Mormon 8:17). To
call this record a myth is to condemn it as effectively as by calling it a
fraud. We are going to approach the Book of Mormon as real history, in hopes
that some reader may pick up a useful impression here or there.

Hugh Nibley

1.   Most of the contents of chapters
2–10 and part of chapter 1 of this book appeared in IE in a series
of 27 parts, running each month from October 1964 through December 1966. When
these materials were edited for publication in book form in 1967, many sections
were extensively relocated in the text, much new matter was added, and some
paragraphs were deleted. The significant deletions have been reinserted in the
footnotes below. See appendix for a comaprison of these texts. The 1967 edition
was reviewed by Alexander T. Stecker in BYU Studies 8 (1968): 465–68,
and by Robert Mesle in Courage 2 (1971): 331–33. The series was
published in Portuguese under the title ”A Partir de Cumorah,” beginning in
A Liahona 20 (June, 1966): 16–24, and running serially each month until
21 [sic] (September 1968): 27–29. The first part of the original magazine
series, entitled ”Since Cumorah: New Voices from the Dust,” IE 67
(October, 1964): 816, began with the following introduction:

”Editors of the Era take great pleasure in welcoming Dr. Hugh Nibley
back to these pages. His fertile mind and gifted pen have contributed much of
deep significance and lasting value through Era pages over the past two decades.
Brother Nibley is well qualified to write the current series, Since Cumorah.
Trained primarily in classics, he has, since joining the staff of Brigham Young
University some eighteen years ago, gravitated into the field of religion, which
is at present his principal academic concern. While a visiting professor at
the University of California in Berkeley in 1959–60 he did intensive work
in Egyptian and Coptic and has recently published a study on the newly discovered
Coptic Christian writings in Vigiliae Christianae. He holds bachelor
of arts and doctorate of philosophy degrees from the University of California.
He has also had long articles on Classic and Semitic subjects appear in the
Classical Journal, the Western Political Quarterly, the Jewish
Quarterly Review
, Western Speech, Church History, and
the Revue de Qumran.

”Introduction: A clear and complete survey of newly discovered Jewish and
Christian manuscript treasures would have to run into thousands of pages. To
present the same material in a moderate compass and at the same time do it justice
is as hopeless a task as trying to sketch Bryce Canyon by moonlight. Should
one try for the details? One quickly discovers the folly of that. But on the
other hand, to omit the vast intricacy of the scene is to miss the peculiar
and essential quality of it. Yet we cannot simply walk off without comment,
for what we are beholding is of immense significance.

”The purpose of the somewhat labored pages that follow is to lead up to better
things by giving the reader some idea of what we are dealing with, of the scope
and nature of the writings that are now being read with wonder and amazement
by students of religion, and of the strange doctrine and baffling problems they
present. The rather tedious preliminary survey that follows cannot be avoided:
One cannot enjoy the pageant that follows without a program, no matter how dull
the program itself may be. If the reader is somewhat bemused at the outset,
he should bear in mind that all the scholars are more or less floundering around
today in the rising flood of parchments and papyri that has caught everyone
by surprise. If we cannot swim or wade in these waters, we can at least venture
down to the shore line to see what all the excitement is about.

”The time has come for Latter-day Saints to turn their attention to those
ancient Jewish and Christian documents the discovery of which in recent years,
and especially since World War II, has brought about a radical reappraisal of
all established views about the nature of the two religions and their scriptures.
The significance of these findings can best be demonstrated by reference to
a number of propositions set forth in the Book of Mormon, the first of which
we take from the thirteenth chapter of 1 Nephi. Of these, proposition number
one is that the Bible has come down to the world in a mutilated form. . . .
Proposition number two is that the Lord will put an end to this state of things
by the bringing forth of more information. . . . See page 27 below
[in the 1988 edition].

”These two propositions more than anything else set the Christian world in
fierce opposition to the restored gospel from the beginning. Before the Book
of Mormon had even come from the press, the headlines of the Rochester Daily
screamed forth the world’s first recorded reaction to the mission
of the Prophet: ‘Blasphemy—Book of Mormon, Alias the Golden Bible,’ Francis
W. Kirkham, A New Witness for Christ in America, 2 vols. (Independence,
Mo.: Zion’s, 1942), 1:267. No blasphemy could compare with that of declaring
that there could be other scriptures besides the Bible, unless it was the declaration
on the title page of the Book of Mormon that the revealed Word of God might
contain ‘the mistakes of men.’ It is difficult for us today to imagine the shock
and horror with which these two propositions were received by the Christian
world. Hugh W. Nibley, ‘Kangaroo Court,’ IE 62 (1959): 147. Since the
days of Saint Augustine it had been the cornerstone of the Christian faith,
on which the Protestants stood as firmly as the Catholics, that the Bible was
not only the whole revelation of God to man, but that it could not possibly
contain the remotest inkling of an error—the scriptures were inerrant
and all-sufficient for our instruction. And here was a book not only put forth
as holy scripture, but announcing to the world that the Bible contained ‘mistakes
of men!’

”We say it is difficult now to imagine how the Christian world reacted to
these propositions because today there is hardly a Christian scholar in the
world who does not acknowledge that our Bible in its present state leaves much
to be desired and who does not look for improvement from new documentary discoveries.
What had brought about this change? Exactly what the Book of Mormon predicted—the
coming forth of more books and records. To these we now turn our attention.”

2.   Karl R. Popper, “Science: Problems,
Aims, Responsibilities,” Federation of the American Societies for Experimental
, Supplement 13, vol. 22 (1963): 965–66. The quotation is
from 966.

3.   Bernard de Voto often wrote critically
of supernaturalism in Mormonism; see Wallace Stegner, ed., “Bernard de
Voto and the Mormons,” Dialogue 6 (1971): 39–47. The quoted
statement appeared in the New York Herald Tribune and on the dust jacket
of Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History.

4.   Popper, “Science: Problems, Aims, Responsibilities,” 964.

5.   Ibid., 965.

6.   Toward the end of the magazine series,
IE 69 (May, 1966): 419–24, the following assessment of the situation
was offered by Dr. Nibley:

”Problems, Not Solutions. What we have come up with in this long and rambling
presentation is a miscellaneous jumble of problems—all of them unsolved.
There have been hints, suggestions, and conjectures but absolutely nothing solved
and nothing proven unless it is the tentative proposition that the Book of Mormon
is still open to serious discussion. Until we come to realize that the most
we can expect from any investigation is not solutions but only more problems,
the study of Book of Mormon antiquities will remain as barren as it has been
in the past. Let us explain what we mean by ‘problems instead of solutions.’

” . . . Or take another example. Late in the eighteenth century
a Scottish farmer walking along a beach noticed some ripple marks on a slab
of rock high above the present level of the water. Here was a problem indeed,
but it did not remain a problem for long. The farmer, so Prof. Hotchkiss tells
us, ‘could look back into the past and imagine a numberless succession of . . .
cycles. . . . There must have come to him at that time the vision
of the vast sweep of the ages which go to make up the story of the billion years
of the earth’s history. His simple but epoch-making discoveries started geological
science on the way.’ In S. Rapport & H. Wright, eds., The Crust of the
(New York: Signet, 1955), 17. Here an important problem was met by
a splendid theory, but to treat the mere recognition of the problem and the
most imaginative and adventurous speculations to explain it as ‘discoveries,’
nay, as a final solution, was premature, to say the least.

” ‘I wonder how many of us realize,’ writes a present-day geologist, ‘that
the [geological] time scale was frozen in essentially its present form by 1840
. . . ? The followers of the founding fathers went forth across the
earth and in Procrustean fashion made it fit the sections they found even in
places where the actual evidence literally proclaimed denial. So flexible and
accommodating are the ”facts” of geology.’ Edmund M. Spieker, ”Mountain-Building
Chronology and Nature of Geologic Time Scale,” Bulletin of the American
Association of Petroleum Geologists
40 (August, 1956): 1803; cf. Norman
D. Newell, ”The Nature of the Fossil Record,” Proceedings of the American
Philosophical Society
103 (1959): 265. The trouble was that the experts
mistook a problem for its solution and thereby failed to recognize the real
difficulties involved. ‘In geology,’ wrote Hotchkiss, ‘most of the important
facts are easily understood. All that needs to be done in order to give a very
satisfactory knowledge of things geological is to call them to our attention.’
Hotchkiss, 11. But how does one call Hutton’s billion years to our attention?
We cannot in any way experience a billion years; the best we can do is to try
and imagine, as Hutton did. But what we imagine is the construction of our own
minds; it is not a fact at all, but an interpretation, pure and simple.

”A third case, the most impressive of all, is Newton’s theory of gravitation.
‘There never was a more successful theory,’ Karl Popper assures us, noting that
even the great Poincaré believed ‘that it would remain the invariable basis
of physics to the end of man’s search for truth.’ But in our own time ‘Einstein’s
theory of gravity . . . reduced Newton’s theory to . . .
a hypothesis competing with others.’ Instead of the absolute truth, it again
became a problem open to discussion. This, according to Popper, ‘destroyed its
authority. And with it, it destroyed something much more important—the
authoritarianism of science.’ Karl R. Popper, ‘Science: Problems, Aims, Responsibilities,’

”All ‘proofs’ and ‘disproofs’ of the Book of Mormon present problems instead
of solutions. Thus when carbonized stumps of trees were found in the Middle
West, some early Latter-day Saints declared that their presence deep in the
earth proved the Book of Mormon. It did nothing of the sort; at most it presented
an interesting problem that might or might not have any bearing on the Book
of Mormon.

”For the past twenty years we have repeated in the pages of The Improvement
and elsewhere that nothing is to be gained by trying to prove or disprove
the Book of Mormon, but that a great deal can be gained by reading it and discussing
its various aspects. This point of view, which has not been a popular one, is
best explained in the writings of the greatest living philosopher of science,
Karl Popper. ‘Bacon’s naive view,’ Popper tells us, ‘concerning the essence
of natural science . . . is a dogma to which scientists as well as
philosophers have tenaciously adhered down to our own day.’ Ibid., 961.

”It is the view, already expressed by Hotchkiss above, that ‘all that was
needed was to approach the goddess Nature with a pure mind, free of prejudice,
and she would readily yield her secrets.’ Today in the scientific journals—the
more popular of which we duly peruse every six months—there is an impressive
outpouring of articles showing that the inductive method of Bacon does not really
apply in science, that Popper is right when he says that ‘the idea that we can
at will . . . purge our mind from prejudices . . . is naive
and mistaken,’ and indeed downright pernicious, since ‘after having made an
attempt or two, you think you are now free from prejudices—which means,
of course, that you will stick only more tenaciously to your unconscious prejudices
and dogmas.’ Ibid., 962. The old authoritarianism of science is now being supplanted
by a new approach, which Popper sums up in three words: ‘Problems—theories—criticism.’
Things start moving with a problem, some difficulty, something that has to be
explained. To account for the thing, a theory is proposed; it does not have
to be a foolproof theory, since it exists only to be attacked, for ‘there is
only one way to learn to understand a serious problem . . . and this
is to try to solve it, and to fail.’ As soon as one comes up with a theory,
then, one must try to devise some test to refute it, ‘for to test a theory,
or a piece of machinery, means to try to fail it,’ ibid., 968, 963. By that
standard, the land-bridge theory and Hutton’s vast sweep of time have never
been in danger of any real testing: they have been accepted from the beginning
as final solutions. The one way to progress in knowledge of things is ‘to use
in science imagination and bold ideas, though always tempered by severe criticism
and severe tests.’ How can we be assured of the necessary controls? By taking
sides: therein resides the objectivity of science, and not in the minds of individual
researchers. ‘It would be a mistake,’ writes Popper, ‘to think that scientists
are more ”objective” than other people'; in fact ‘there is even something
like a methodological justification for individual scientists to be dogmatic
and biased [!], since . . . it is of great importance that the theories
criticized should be tenaciously defended,’ ibid., 970, 965; he quotes Darwin:
‘How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or
against some view,’ ibid., 967.

”No matter how severe and unsparing the criticism, no bones are broken, since
one’s object in proposing a theory is not to settle the issue once and for all
but only to lead to more knowledge. ‘Observation and experiment cannot establish
anything finally. . . . Essentially, they help us to eliminate the
weaker theories,’ and thus ‘lend support, though only for the time being, to
the surviving theory.’ Hence, ‘the method of critical discussion does not establish
anything. Its verdict is always and invariably ”not proven,” ‘ ibid., 964,

The next installment then concluded, IE (June, 1966): 582–83:
”In the last issue we discussed the Alaskan land bridge theory, geological
time tables, and K. R. Popper’s challenge of the authoritarianism of science
in which he noted that ‘observation and experiment cannot establish anything
finally,’ but only ‘help us eliminate the weaker theories.’ Ibid., 964.

”Popper’s final word is a warning against taking refuge in status and prestige;
we must, says he, ‘avoid like the plague the appearance of possessing knowledge
which is too deep to be clearly and simply expressed.’ Ibid., 972. Or, in the
words of David Starr Jordan, ‘Authority? There is no authority!’

”Such an approach would alleviate a good deal of the tensions, rivalry, and
misunderstanding that have always accompanied research into the scriptures.
Since there are no true authorities, there are no false ones; there are no ignoramuses,
charlatans, or pseudo scholars, but only theories which may be more or less
easily refuted. One does not have to be an expert to enter into the discussion,
but the discussion itself will readily enough make clear who is equipped and
how well and in what fields—degrees, honors, titles, credentials, and
emoluments have nothing to do with the case; they are but the forlorn trappings
of an authoritarianism that we have often been told has no place in true research.
The only pseudo scholarship is that which claims authority and finality and
so refuses to enter into the discussion. The new approach does away with such
exquisite snobbery as the classic phrase, ‘the right to an opinion.’ Anybody
has a right to an opinion, with the understanding, of course, that his opinion
will be subjected to unsparing criticism.

”We can illustrate how the method of ‘problems—theories—criticism’
works by taking the case of Hermounts in the Book of Mormon. It is admittedly
remarkably close in form and meaning to the Egyptian Hermonthis. But therewith
the problem is not solved but only introduced. The resemblance between the two
words has to be explained, and so we invent a theory, namely, that Joseph Smith
must have had access to authentic ancient sources. That settles nothing, however,
since (to quote Popper again) ‘the number of competing theories is always infinite,’
and we can think offhand of a dozen different theories to explain the Hermounts
phenomenon. And so we come to the discussion, which will never settle the question
but which may lead to the discovery of much new and relevant information.

”Where, then, does certitude lie? That is another issue that has come in for
a good deal of discussion recently, and the growing consensus is a surprising
one: Certitude lies only in inspiration, in that insight which in the last analysis
defies analysis. For an interesting discussion of this, P. B. Medawar, ‘Is the
Scientific Paper Fraudulent?’ Journal of Human Relations 13 (1965):
1–6; reprinted from Saturday Review (August 1, 1964). Even so,
routine investigation is not a waste of time, for in the process of dealing
with materials, certain convictions build up in the individual that, like a
testimony of the gospel, are nontransferable but that comprise the most tangible
and gratifying fruits of study.

”The Book of Mormon has always been a puzzle to the world. It is a problem
and a challenge, but instead of being treated as such, it has always been taken
as a final proof on the one hand that Joseph Smith was an imposter and on the
other that he was an inspired prophet. With that deadlock we would leave it
were it not that the book itself irresistibly invites testing. ‘Testability
has degrees,’ according to Popper, and ‘a theory which asserts more, and thus
takes greater risks, is better testable than a theory which asserts very little.’
Popper, ‘Science: Problems, Aims, Responsibilities,’ 966. Where can one find
a bolder assertion than Joseph Smith’s claims for the Book of Mormon, or a greater
willingness than he displayed to be tested by all the tests the ingenuity of
man can devise?”