Dale Baranowski - An Open Letter to a Mormon Friend
A Critical Inspection of the Book of Mormon
By Dale Baranowski
(Editor's note: This was not a letter to me, but one I found posted online. I have revised the formatting of this piece, including adding parenthesis to quote references, but have not fixed any spelling or grammar.)
(...) Concerning the Book of Mormon, it is clear that its narrative deals with people in historical and physical context and so it must be compatible with the real physical universe in which the characters lived. I have read the Book of Mormon with this constantly in mind. At all times I have read with a critical attitude, lauding that which is praise worthy yet testing aspects of the story with reason, history and physical possibilities. I have found many parts fascinating, yet others lack real character, it seemed as if they could not be objectively possible. Other aspects flatly contradict reality or other parts of the Book of Mormon. I feel that the verses that contradict history and reality are extremely problematic, and I hope that you may be able to provide a satisfactory explanation.
To begin with I found a problem with the second verse in the Book of Mormon:
"Yea, I make a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians." (1 Nephi 1.2, pg 1)
I find a number of difficulties with the aspect that claims that the ancient Israelites continued to speak Egyptian 600 years after the exodus from Egypt. I doubt the record of the Book of Mormon as their experience in Egypt was so bitter they would have avoided even the Egyptian language since it would revive the association of Egypt. This same thing happens today in the case of German Jews who survived the Holocaust. They avoid speaking German as a rule. Also, people who migrate from place to place when a change of language is involved, the language of the 'old country' is hardly spoken at all past the third generation. For the Book of Mormon to claim that there were Jews in Jerusalem who, 15 generations after the Exodus, were still speaking some form of Egyptian is rather much for me to believe. Also consider that no written fragments of any form of Egyptian have ever been found in Israel from the first temple Period.
The second difficulty occurred as the family in the narrative set up camp after a three-day journey into the Sinai wilderness:
"And it came to pass that he built an altar of stones, and made an offering unto the Lord." (1 Nephi 2.7, pg 3)
Here the problem is that individual altars for offerings and sacrifices were forbidden even before the Temple of Solomon was erected, and that centralized worship was the norm, and every Israelite at the time knew it. Yet the narrative passed this incident off without comment as if it was perfectly normal. This would not have happened if the author of the Book of Mormon actually lived in 600 BCE as the LDS Church claims.
The third difficulty occurs immediately afterwards:
"And it came to pass that when he had traveled three days in the wilderness, he pitched his tent in a valley by the side of a river of water. ..and when my father saw that the waters of the river emptied into the fountain in the Red Sea, he spake unto Laman, saying; 'O that thou mightest be like unto this river continually running into the fountain of all righteousness". (1 Nephi 2.6 pg 3)
It seems quite plain to me that the author had never been in the Sinai wilderness near the Red Sea. If he had he would have known that rivers in that area do nothing of the kind! They do everything but 'flow continuously'! They are strictly occasional events occurring when a winter cloudburst breaks forth. The result is that a tidal wave of water washes through the valleys, finishing within hours or a day. This is usually a violent surge of water capable of rolling boulders of several tons in weight. If any man stood in its way he would be swept away and drowned in seconds. No, friend, the pastoral river referred to in the narrative is not to be found in the Sinai, but in more temperate climes.
The narrative continues with Nephi's family in the desert and the patriarch, Lehi, has a dream informing him that the genealogical records that tell of his family's tribal affiliation are locked up in an office within the Temple precincts and under the care of a certain Laban. The dream also commands that a small party of Lehi's sons should return to Jerusalem and wrest them from Laban and then transport the records, inscribed on plates of brass, to Lehi in the wilderness. Throughout this story the author makes it quite plain that Lehi and family are completely in the dark about their tribal affiliation until they obtained those records (1 Nephi 5.14, pg 10). There is a very serious difficulty connected with this passage. The idea that Lehi and clan were unaware of their tribal affiliation is absurd. The fact is that every Israelite family knew of their tribe since that knowledge was the key to their land holdings and inheritance. It was only in the year 70 CE, some 670 years later that the fall of the Jewish State of Judea during the Roman siege and subsequent dispersion caused the social disruption and disconnection from the Land of Israel and resulted in the forgetting of one's tribal connections. This is not a matter of conjecture. This is fact. The author of the Book of Mormon obviously lived long after the dispersion of Israelites of the siege of 70 CE, and was completely ignorant of Jewish history.
The story in the Book of Mormon progresses to the point where the sons of Lehi go to Laban in his Temple office and ask for the plates of brass that contained their genealogy. Laban ejected them from the office and the sons of Lehi left Jerusalem bemoaning their fate. After nightfall they scaled the walls of Jerusalem and returned toward Laban's office. The act of climbing the walls and entering the city is an incredible feat in itself, considering that those walls were over eight meters high with manned parapets, watchtowers and guards stationed at intervals to prevent such an event. It is even more incredible when you consider that an area was cleared a healthy distance away from the walls so that an approaching man could be seen as a shadow at night. But ignoring that, Nephi wandered around Jerusalem until he discovered Laban, intoxicated and lying in the street. Nephi noticed that Laban's sword had a hilt of gold and a blade of "most precious steel" (1 Nephi 4.9, pg 7)
I must point out that steel was not invented until about 200 years ago. There have never been any archeological artifacts discovered in Israel from ancient days that were made of steel. I can only conclude that the author of the Book of Mormon lived after the modern invention of steel and was completely ignorant of the fact of its late invention.
Continuing to verse 18 on the same page, the text states:
"Therefore I... took Laban by the hair of the head, and I smote off his head with his own sword."
I find this to be a physically impossible act as Laban had to be lying not more than an arm's length away from the torso of Nephi. One simply cannot operate a sword with sufficient power to decapitate another human being. Standing so closely, as the text relates, would mean that Nephi would have been required to pull the sword closer to his own body during his heaving of the sword and that action would have drained all leverage and momentum from impact -just at the time he needed all the power.. Try it yourself! Imagine that you hold a broad sword of medium length - approximately 60 cm, if you are 180 cm tall and kneel down demonstrate the act yourself! You will discover that the sword's hilt must be practically at your torso at the moment of impact. Tell me, should we assume that one of his arms was significantly longer in order to accomplish this feat?
"And after I had smitten off his head with his own sword I took the garments and put them on mine own body; yea, even every whit, and I did gird on his armour about my loins". (Verse 19, pg 8)
Nephi had accomplished something quite noteworthy in these last two verses. He had decapitated a man under the most impossible of circumstances, removed the dead man's clothes and armour and put those items on his own body - all without getting any blood on himself or on the clothing of the dead man! I think that this is a noteworthy accomplishment! Friend, I served as a volunteer fireman when I lived in the US and had the misfortune to attend a car accident that involved a decapitation. I'll spare you the gory details but it is sufficient to note that the volume of blood that is ejected is awesome and the pressure sprays that blood in all directions with force. Such a decapitation would have soaked both Nephi and the dead man. and this would have been inevitable considering the circumstances.
"And after I had done this, I went forth unto the treasury of Laban. And..I saw the servant of Laban who had the keys of the treasury. And I commanded him in the voice of Laban that he should go with me to the treasury. And he supposed me to be his master, Laban, for he beheld my garments and also the sword about my loins." (1 Nephi 4.20-21, pg 8)
These two verses beg many questions. How was Laban's servant able to discern the fine points of Laban's armor and special sword yet he could not see Nephi's different facial features? Or did the servant choose to ignore Nephi's face, and if so, why? No explanation is given in the text. How was Nephi able to imitate Laban's voice so perfectly that even Laban's servant was fooled - especially considering they only-had one meeting several hours before and it was probably not a lengthy one considering the end result. Finally, would Laban have put such a stupid servant in charge of the keys of the treasury? All this seems absurd! The farce that was employed by Nephi worked too well and all too easily and there were too many reasons why it should have failed. It is for this reason that these verses have a clear ring of fantasy.
"And he, supposing that I spake of the brethren of the Church, and that I was truly Laban, whom I had slain, wherefore he did follow me." (1 Nephi 4. 26)
The word Church here is odd considering that a religious body resembling a Church was not in existence in 600 BCE and there never was. nor has there developed any similar term in Hebrew except when it concerns Christianity! If Joseph Smith was really referring to Temple Authorities in this case, why did he use the inappropriate term?
"...while we journeyed in the wilderness up to the Land of Jerusalem, to obtain the record of the Jews". (1 Nephi 5.6, pg 9)
Again, an interesting choice of words. The phrase 'Land of Jerusalem' is inaccurate to the point of absurdity. No such wording exists in any document, ancient or modern, except for Mormon writers. Obviously Joseph Smith didn't know that Jerusalem was a city and not a territorial entity. Please don't try to tell me that it was 'Jerusalem County' that is being referred to here! If anything Jerusalem was in 'Judea County'! Also, the reference to 'the Jews' is absurd on two counts.
- 'Jews' as a group did not exist until much later when the other tribes were dispersed and lost and only the Judeans remained. This was when the term 'Jew' arose among non-Israelites.
- Jews don't refer to themselves in the third person when writing or speaking about themselves. Consider people native to Pennsylvania writing in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia newspapers referring to themselves as 'the Pennsylvanians'. Absurd! Now those of New York or Ohio may certainly do so but not Pennsylvanians themselves! The usage of these terms strongly suggests a writer who was not an Israelite and was ignorant of the basic territorial designations within the Land of Israel.
The narrative continues claiming that Nephi and brothers returned to their family in the wilderness and took with them the plates of brass wherein was written the genealogical records that supplied their family with the previously unknown information that they were descendants of the tribe of Joseph. It is very interesting that this family should be unaware of their tribal lineage in a time when their land holdings and land inheritance would depend on this information. Also consider that the Babylonian captivity was yet to come. Israelites had lived continuously on the Land since the time of Joshua. There was simply no reason for any Israelites to be in the dark about this matter -and even less for temple clerks to keep such information from those who seek it. Even Paul of Tarsus of the New Testament knew that he was of the tribe of Benjamin, yet he lived 600 plus years later. The confusion about which 'Jew' belongs to which tribe today is a result of the Roman conquest 2000 years ago whose result was great social upheaval and dispersion- and the forgetting of tribal connections.
After reading the genealogical records contained in the plates of brass Lehi...
"was filled with the spirit and began to prophesy concerning his seed - That these plates of brass should go forth unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people who were of his seed. Wherefore, he said that these plates of brass should never perish; neither should they be dimmed any more by time." (1 Nephi 5.17-19, pg. 10)
Unfortunately, the LDS Church does not have the genealogical records mentioned in this passage. The records have perished, they have definitely not gone out to all nations, tongues and peoples. This is clearly a false prophesy and can be objectively demonstrated.
In Nephi 7. 14, page 12, Nephi himself claims that the reason that his family left Jerusalem was because...
"They (Presumably 'the Jews') had sought to take away the life of my father insomuch as they had driven him out of the land."
Yet it was formerly stated quite clearly that no one had driven Lehi out of the land but in a dream God told Lehi to leave Jerusalem. Apparently the writer of the Book of Mormon had forgotten what he had written five chapters before in 1 Nephi 2.2-3, page 3.
In 1 Nephi 10.11, page 16, a prophecy of Jesus as the coming messiah is recorded. The first problem is that the Book of Mormon claims that "the Jews" were responsible for the slaying of Jesus. On an objective level, it can be demonstrated that the Romans slew Jesus, since crucifixion was a Roman method of execution. It took place with the approval of the Roman governor Pilate while Roman soldiers supervised the procedure. Moreover I believe that the most interesting aspect of the 'prophecy' is the use of confused tenses. Note:
"And after they ("The Jews") had slain the Messiah, who should come, and after he had been slain he should rise from the dead, and should make himself manifest..." (1 Nephi 10.11, pg 16.)
If this is a prophecy of a future event, as the Book of Mormon insists, it is indeed strange for the author to write as if it had already happened. I suggest that the author of the Book of Mormon was so used to the idea that Jesus was prior to his time that he erred without realizing it.
I also find it interesting that an 'apostle' (Greek word) of the messiah is to be named 'John' (Greek name) in 1 Nephi 14.27, page 27. A good many scholars of today presume that the events in the gospels occurred in Israel among Jews with Aramaic names, and that the Greek flavor of today's versions is because we have only the Greek texts of the New Testament. If that is so, why should the angel know the name of the 'apostle' to be 'John'? Shouldn't the angel have known his real name in Hebrew : Yochanan? And shouldn't he have been called a 'follower' instead of 'apostle'? It definitely seems odd that an angel should be using Greek terms and names that would have no relevance to one living in 600 BCE.
The narrative continues with the clan of Lehi wandering in the desert procuring meat by means of hunting with bows and arrows, sling shots and rocks. See 1 Nephi 16.15, pg 31. Yet three verses later. Nephi breaks his bow of precious steel (sic) and the family goes hungry with a great deal of anger, murmuring, complaining, and general indignation taking up verses 18 through 22 on page 32. I don't understand. Why didn't they use the other bows and arrows and slings that proved so successful in the past? Verse 15 also notes that there were several bows in use to procure food. Why did the loss of one bow prove so disastrous? There is no explanation given in the text.
I will briefly summarize a number of chapters: the family of Lehi continues eastward to what is believed to be China by Mormon scholars. En route they meet up with a family of 'Ishmaelites' and join forces. Their children intermarry and produce many grandchildren in their eight years of wandering in China. Once at the Pacific Ocean they build a huge boat and set sail eastward until they arrive, as Mormon scholars believe, in Central America. Note:
"And it came to pass that we did begin to till the earth and we began to plant seeds, yea, we did put all our seeds into the earth, which we had brought from the land of Jerusalem and... they did grow exceedingly; wherefore, we were blessed with abundance". (1 Nephi 18.24, pg 40.)
Being a farmer by profession and making my living in Judea, I can say with certainty that this verse is pure fiction. Firstly, the seed would not have been viable after eight years - especially after having endured the salt air of a long sea voyage. Secondly, consider the problems of climatic suitability. Seed that is suited to the wet, cold winters and hot dry summers of mountainous Judea would be unsuitable in the steaming tropical rain forests of Central America. Take barley for example. Barley was the staple grain of the common Judean. It requires a cool wet season for germination tapering off to a hot dry season before harvest. Any rain before harvest would destroy the crop. Should we assume that a miracle occurred so that the weather dried out for a month before harvest insuring abundant yields? Should we assume that an ecological disaster did not occur to the surrounding rain forests? Thirdly, the soils in both places are extremely different. Here in Judea, there is almost no organic matter, yet in Central America the soil is all organic matter. Here in Judea, soils range from neutral to alkaline while in Central America the soils are extremely acid. I am skeptical that such native Judean seed would have even grown. Fourthly, Lehi and clan would have expelled so much energy felling the tense tropical rain forest that they would have no energy to plant sufficient crops. Again, miracles are being passed off as fairly normal occurrences by an author who seems to lack sufficient understanding of how the physical world works.
Continuing in this vein, the Book of Mormon relates that there were:
"beasts in the forests of every kind both the cow and the ox, and the ass and the horse, the goat and the wild goat and all manner of wild animals for the use of men." (1 Nephi 18.25, pg 40)
None of these animals existed in the tropical rain forests of Central America. When the conquistadors arrived in that area in the 16th century, the native peoples were terrified at the sight of a horse since they had no conception of an animal so large. Cows don't survive in jungles as they require pasture for grazing. Anthropologist Martin Harris attempted to discern practical reasons for certain culture's food taboos in his book 'Good to eat', Harris' theory has it that the reason for such extensive cannibalism in South America among the Aztecs and Mayans was due to the fact that their sources of animal protein were very restricted because jungles do not allow for the growth and maintenance of large animals.
The Aztecs had never succeeded in domesticating a single large herbivore or omnivore. They possessed neither ruminants nor swine. Their principal domestic animals were the dog and turkey. (Harris, 1985,pg 228)
Similar conditions existed in Central America and there is every reason to believe that no such large domesticatable animals existed there either. I find it most curious that the Mormon church considers the Book of Mormon to be an infallible guide to all people yet the following disclaimer can be found in 1 Nephi 19.6, pg 41:
"Nevertheless, I do not write anything upon plates save it be sacred. And now, if I do err, even did they err of old, not that I would excuse myself because of other men, but because of the weakness which is in me, according to the flesh, I would excuse myself."
The most interesting portion of the Book of Mormon is in 2 Nephi 5.15, page 61, Nephi writes that...
"I did teach my people to build buildings, and to work in all manner of wood, and of brass, and of steel, (sic), of gold, and of silver, and of precious ores, which were in great abundance."
Nephi must have been a man of truly exceptional capabilities to have even learned how to work as a craftsman in all these metals - any of which required a lifetime of learning and experience to be a craftsman of value. I take pains to point out these precious materials were not in great abundance.
"And I, Nephi, did build a temple; and I did construct it after the manner of the temple of Solomonsave it were not built of so many precious things; for they were not to be found upon the land...." (2 Nephi 5.16)
It is striking that the company of two families, numbering no more than 30 individuals, infants and aged included, were capable of building an exact replica of the Temple of Solomon that, in Solomon's time required 180,330 individuals a total of 7 years to construct! How marvelous! But please explain to me how it was that in verse 15 many precious metals and ores were abundant upon the land yet in verse 16 the company was suddenly unable to find any of these items. Why? Was the entire company taken with a fit of amnesia? An amnesia that concerned itself with only the location of these precious materials? The text gives no explanation or reconciliation of this blatant contradiction. The author of the Book of Mormon was quite ignorant of one important detail of Christianity. This detail is illustrated by the following verse;
"Wherefore, as I said unto you, it must needs be expedient that Christ - for in the last night the angel spake unto me that this should be his name..." (2 Nephi 10.3, pg 71.)
Apparently the angel erred in speaking and prophesying to Nephi that the name of the Redeemer should be 'Christ'. As nearly every Christian knows, 'Christ' is supposed to mean 'messiah' and not Jesus' family name! Did the angel think that Jesus' parents were named Joseph Christ and Mary Christ? This verse suggests that either the angel or the author of the Book of Mormon did!
Considering contradictions, I point out another and prefer to refrain from any further comment on this point. Please note:
"And this land shall be a land of liberty unto the gentiles, and there shall be no kings upon the land, who shall raise up unto the Gentiles." (2 Nephi 10.11, pg 72)
It was Jacob who spoke these words, the brother of Nephi. Please note that the same Jacob spoke the following words...
"Now Nephi began to be old and he saw that he must soon die; wherefore, he anointed a man to be a king and a ruler over his people now, according to the reign of the kings". (Jacob 1.9, pg 108.)
There is one final matter to expound upon and that concerns the predicted time of the arrival of Jesus as messiah. The Book of Mormon makes the following claim:
"... the messiah cometh in six hundred years from the time that my father left Jerusalem; and according to the words of the prophets, and also the word of the angel of God, his name shall be Jesus Christ, the Son of God." (2 Nephi 25.19, pg 91)
On the surface this seems pretty straight forward, Nephi's father, Lehi left Jerusalem in the first year of the reign of King Zedekiah which, according to the book of Mormon, was in 600 BCE. Is there a problem? Unfortunately, there is. The author of the Book of Mormon was not aware of a number of facts that would make his prediction totally laughable. First, King Zedekiah's first reigning year was not in 600 BCE but in 587 BCE. We know this from Jewish and Babylonian records. There is no dispute about this by historians; this date is accepted as fact by everyone today. Second, Jesus was not born in the year 1 of the Christian era. Due to a miscalculation by a monk, the date of Jesus' birth, is not at all accurate. Although we do not know the exact year of Jesus' birth (speculation abounds in this matter) we do know the year of Herod's death and since Herod was alive after the birth of Jesus, we can approximate the year of Jesus' birth. Herod died in 4 BCE. We know this from Jewish, Roman and Babylonian records. This is fact. Considering this we can ascertain that Jesus was born on or before 4 BCE. When we consider the story of the 'slaughter of the Innocents' in the New Testament (see Matt 2.13-17), Herod attempted to kill Jesus by killing all children under two years of age since Herod suspected that Jesus could be two years old...
"...and in Bethlehem and its surrounding district he had all the male children killed who were two years old or under, reckoning by the date he had been careful to ask the wise men." (Matt 2.16)
With this information we can reliably state that Jesus could have been born in but not after 6 BCE. If we then add 600 years to 597 BCE we arrive at the year 4 CE - keep in mind that the Christian system of reckoning the years does not include a year 'zero'. In the end this provides us with a discrepancy of a minimum of 10 years from the time the Book of Mormon predicted Jesus would come to his actual arrival according to the New Testament.
Through all of this one could argue that a discrepancy of ten years is not so bad considering a span of 600 years that the prophecy was in force. Perhaps one might claim, the number of 600 was only approximate and so we could admit a ten year difference. This argument might have value if it were not for two passages in the Book of Mormon...
"Now it came to pass that the ninety and first year had passed away and it was six hundred years from the time that Lehi left Jerusalem." (3 Nephi 1.1, pg 399.)
From this it is clear that an exact year was specified by the prophecy: the context of this passage would not admit to having a precise figure of ninety-one in the same verse as a general figure of six-hundred plus-or-minus. If there is any doubt as to whether six-hundred is general or exact, one would decide on it being quite specific. From another verse, we can draw the same conclusion, please note the following...
"And behold, he said unto them: Behold, I give unto you a sign, for five years more cometh, and behold, then cometh the Son of God to redeem all those who shall believe on his name." (Helaman 14.2, pg 393)
No, my friend, I can not be made to believe that the prophetic intent here was for an approximate span of 600 years. Considering the specific intent of the above passages, I can only believe that the author erred in his prediction.
In conclusion, it seems that the Book of Mormon was written by one with a background of later-day Christianity, one who was generally uneducated, with no background of Jewish history apart from what can be gleaned from the King James Bible. His understanding of archeological data concerning South and Central American cultures was well known in the United States 200 years ago. His understanding of the physical universe was faulty and his narrative seems to be the product of a very fertile imagination. I dislike being so critical of another's faith but I must remind you that it was you who sent me the copy of the Book of Mormon and asked for my critical appraisal. Thank you for the opportunity to read it and I look forward to hearing from you soon.