The introduction to the Book of Mormon says that it is "a volume of holy scripture comparable to the Bible." Mormonism today generally calls the Book of Mormon "a companion volume" to the Bible. Not long ago, LDS TV ads offered a free Book of Mormon; nowadays, they offer free bibles, and not much is said about the Book of Mormon in the public arena. The LDS Church presents itself as a Bible-believing church.
Most Mormons will say, "of course we believe in the Bible!" Most would even say that the Bible and the Book of Mormon are in agreement, that they support one another. (After all, they both "testify" to Jesus Christ.) But one has to wonder, after a thorough reading of the Bible and the Book of Mormon, how this can be so. While it is true that the Book of Mormon itself is not a huge repository of LDS doctrine, it is connected to the broader "standard works" of Mormon scripture; and when the fundamental biblical teachings are placed against LDS scriptures and other official Church teachings, the contradictions are stark, and in many cases downright blasphemous to a biblical mindset.
So how can Mormonism reconcile these contradictions? Enter the 8th Article of Faith. This faith statement, as found in The Pearl of Great Price, reads as follows:
The Book of Mormon provides an explanation of why the Bible is considered problematic:
These passages suggest that traditional Christianity ("the great and abominable church") was responsible for losing or removing "plain and precious" parts of the Bible, and that anyone who believes that the Bible alone is sufficient is a fool.
These teachings are further developed when we look at statements by LDS authorities throughout Mormon history. In fact, some of these statements about the Bible are so scathing that one wonders why the Mormon Church would claim to uphold the Bible at all, let alone say that the Book of Mormon is comparable to it.
A common response to these quotes is, "well, they are not scripture, therefore they are not authoritative." Keep in mind that these quotes come from men at the highest levels of authority in the church. And they are not off-the-cuff comments made at a dinner party, they are published, in many cases in official Church publications. Unless the church has actively denounced, recanted, or otherwise rejected those statements and the teachings behind them, they must be considered authoritative statements about the LDS Church's position on the Bible. How can they be considered anything else?
In the more common vernacular, the case is frequently made that the Bible as we have it today has been translated and retranslated so many times that there is no way we can be sure that things haven't been distorted or lost, or that interpretive bias hasn't worked its way into the modern version of the scriptures.
So here we have a picture of the Bible that is so full of holes that it can no longer be trusted as an inspired work. What follows, then, is that any church that bases their doctrines and teachings on the Bible alone is heretical and apostate...or "abominable" as the Book of Mormon frequently intones.
All right, well, let's take a look at a couple of the questions that naturally arise in the face of this.
Is the Bible so unreliable as Mormonism declares?
First let's address the common notion that many Mormons hold to--that the Bible has been translated and re-translated so many times, and that somehow the the Bible we have today is a translation of a translation of a translation; like the old game of "telephone" where people sit in a circle, and one person whispers a phrase to someone, and it is passed around the circle in whispers, all the while becoming increasingly distorted until the final message that comes out is nothing like the original.
The problem with this idea is that it presumes that modern translations do not go back to the oldest manuscripts. Sometimes people get the idea that it was translated, say, from Greek to Latin to German to French to English, and then the new English translations are just re-hashes based on the King James version. This is not so; all the standard modern translations rely entirely on the oldest manuscripts in the original languages, so there are no intermediary translations between an English version and the original text in the original language. They are direct translations.
So this begs the question: are those manuscripts themselves reliable? How do we know that they weren't corrupted in the earliest days of the church? Is there any evidence to support or contradict this notion of an unreliable Bible? Fortunately, there is an abundance of evidence. We will take a brief look at two categories of evidence. One is textual criticism, the science of determining the source text based on available manuscripts; the other is corroborative evidence, which encompasses the various disciplines that examine the past--archaeology, anthropology, history, ancient (non-biblical) writings, and whether or not they lend any external support to the biblical account.
Textual criticism is the science of examining ancient manuscripts in order to determine, as accurately as possible, what the original source text was. This is done by a comparing available manuscripts for agreement, identifying anomalies and variations, and using all of this information to synthesize the most likely picture of the original text. Textual criticism is relevant to all the ancient writings...the Greek and Roman plays, poems, and essays, Jewish and Roman historians, etc. The modern renderings of all of these writings are the result of extensive textual criticism and analysis. Generally speaking, the two primary factors in determining the degree of reliability of a textual analysis are 1) the quantity of ancient manuscripts; and 2) the proximity (in terms of years) of the manuscript to the original writing.
For many of the ancient works--the writings of Plato, Homer, etc., there are only a handful of ancient manuscripts available, and the earliest of them are separated from the original writings by many centuries. And yet literary scholars do not doubt the authenticity of, say, Homer's Iliad or Odyssey. Why not? Because these works have been subjected to extensive analysis; textual criticism is a reliable method of determining the original text.
The Bible, particularly the New Testament, has by far the richest textual history of any ancient work, both in terms of number of manuscripts, and the manuscripts' proximity to the date of original writing. There are more than 5,000 manuscripts or portions of manuscripts for the Greek New Testament alone, some of which date back to only a matter of decades of the original writing. In addition, there are several thousand early manuscripts of translations in other languages (e.g. Coptic, Syriac, Aramaic) that can be used to corroborate the accuracy of the Greek manuscripts.
While these manuscripts do have some variations, these variations can generally be identified with particular groups of people, dates, and even locations; therefore, any attempts--deliberate or not--to alter the text are known by scholars today. In most cases they know who made the changes, when and where they were made, and what the nature of those changes were. That is to say, early attempts to distort the Bible can be identified and weeded out. Given all this information, in addition to the vast quantity of manuscripts that agree, many scholars place the textual accuracy of the New Testament to greater than 99%. In addition, the few areas of uncertainty that still remain today in the New Testament are well-known; that is, there is a record of the verses or passages that contain unresolved variations in the ancient manuscripts, and also what those variations are. (The few unresolved variations are not substantial, and do not have any bearing on doctrines or teachings of Christianity. In fact, they frequently appear in the footnotes of many modern translations, such as the NIV, so the reader can see what the variation in question is.)
For the Old Testament, the particulars of textual history are different, but the result is still the same. The Old Testament was copied by Hebrew scribes, with a meticulous copying strategy and extensive error detection systems involving (even in those ancient times) pretty sophisticated mathematical algorithms. Any manuscript found to contain an error was destroyed. There are far fewer ancient Old Testament manuscripts, because it was a matter of practice to destroy old and worn copies, so for centuries the oldest Old Testament copies available were from about 1,000 after Christ. Therefore, the reliability of the Old Testament rested primarily on a knowledge of the scrupulous method of copying. The evidence for the reliability of this method, however, came to light with the discovery of the the Dead Sea Scrolls in the late 1940s. This discovery essentially doubled the textual history of the Old Testament in one fell swoop, pushing it back another thousand years to at least a century before Christ. The Dead Sea Scrolls illustrated that the meticulous copying methods of the Hebrew scribes could indeed maintain the integrity of the text even over the course of a thousand years, since there was no substantial variation between the text as found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and texts that were written a thousand years later. (The Dead Sea Scrolls discovery also had the added benefit of establishing that the Messianic prophesies were, indeed, written prior to the time of Christ, and not "filled in" after the fact, as some skeptics suggested.)
If we have a good picture of the ancient text, then the next step is to see if what the text says fits the picture of what we know about the ancient world from other sources. The Bible, for instance, describes many people, places, events, empires, etc. It provides insights into cultures and customs, materials and technology. Is there anything outside the Bible that would demonstrate that it contains a valid history?
Yes, and plenty. The Bible was not the only thing to be written in ancient times; when other contemporary texts are examined, many of the people, events, and empires described in the Bible are validated by these extra-biblical writings. The geographical references of the Bible--cities, rivers, seas, hills, and mountains, and valleys--correspond to the physical reality of the biblical lands. Many cities--Jerusalem, Jericho, Bethlehem, Nazareth, to name a few--retain their ancient names and are still inhabited today. Aspects of the material culture mentioned in the Bible--everything from weapons and buildings to coins and other mundane objects--still exist as archaeological artifacts, and can be seen and touched today.
In short, the Bible fits the time period it claims to come from, the culture it claims to come from, the place and the society that it claims to come from. It describes people that are known to have existed from external sources, events that are known to have ocurred from external sources. Secular historians and archaeologists have used many of the Biblical historical texts in their reconstruction of the past.
So this brings us to our next question:
What about the Book of Mormon?
What about it? Let's put the Book of Mormon to the same test we put the Bible.
Well, already we have a problem. The only Book of Mormon manuscript in existence was written in English in the 19th century. There is nothing with which to compare it. In addition, the time between the events that it supposedly refers to and the manuscript itself is about 1,400 years. So applying the principles of textual criticism is not even possible with the Book of Mormon. This sheds an enormous amount of doubt not simply on its textual reliability, which cannot even be tested, but rather its identity as an ancient, historical document.
Well, here is another problem. The history as described in the Book of Mormon bears little resemblance to the reality of ancient America as suggested by the abundant archaeology, anthropology, and external textual and historical witnesses. Nothing has been found in the archaeology or anthropology of ancient America to substantiate any person, place, or event found in the Book of Mormon. The geography described in the Book of Mormon does not conform to the physical realities of any place in the Americas, although a number of spurious (and conflicting) attempts have been made to suggest correlations. Despite what is hinted at in "Book of Mormon Tours", the cities described in the Book of Mormon do not conform to the descriptions found in the Americas; most damaging is the fact that these cities were built long after the events described in the Book of Mormon. There is pracitcally no trace of the material culture described in the Book of Mormon--no coins, no metal weapons, no metal writing, no extensive road systems, no chariots, no horses. Most of the key agricultural products listed in the Book of Mormon simply did not exist in the Americas prior to the arrival of the Europeans. The scant correlations that do exist are not nearly enough to substantiate the validity of the book, and can reasonably be declared coincidental. In addition, nothing in either the written or oral traditions of the native populations, who are supposedly the descendants of the Book of Mormon peoples, relates to the history described in the Book of Mormon. Certain attempts have been made to establish links between Native lore and Book of Mormon events (e.g., linking the Quetzalcoatl legends to the appearance of Jesus Christ), however a close examination of both the legends and the Book of Mormon do not represent any reasonable or logical correlation.
On practically every front, the data that exists not only fails to corroborate the Book of Mormon, but in fact contradicts it. This is not the case for the information that we find for the Bible. While the archaeological evidence supporting the Bible is not comprehensive, it is significant.
So when we put the Book of Mormon next to the Bible, the comparison is very stark. It is ironic, then, that "the most correct of any book on earth" fails these tests miserably, and yet the book that is "corrupt and mutilated" passes with flying colors.
So how do we determine what is the Word of God?
The notion that the Bible had undergone such a disturbing process of mutilation, corruption, and removal of "plain and precious" things is unfounded. It contradicts not only the evidence at hand, but it also presumes that the Lord is unable to maintain the integrity of His word (and consequently, His church). The Bible itself speaks to this:
For you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and abiding word of God. For, 'All flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls off, but the word of the Lord abides forever.' And this is the word which was preached to you. (1 Peter 1:23-25 )
We can determine that the Bible has a very high degree of textual reliability; we can be confident that the text that we know today is a faithful rendering of the original writings. And the areas of uncertainty that do exist are well-documented and not substantial. In contrast, the Book of Mormon has no textual record, so it cannot even be tested.
When we examine what archaeology, anthropology, history, and external witnesses have to say about the Bible and the Book of Mormon, the Bible comes up with a substantial degree of correlation; people, places, events, cultures, empires, etc., many of these are corroborated by these other fields. In contrast, the Book of Mormon has no meaningful external support, and in fact, is contradicted by the data that does exist.
Even if we establish the textual reliability and the historical authenticity of a book, this doesn't necessarily mean it is scripture--the Word of God. So here, finally, Mormons and Christians are in agreement--this is a matter of faith. However, the agreement stops there.
Often Mormons are taught that it is possible--and even virtuous--to have faith that is blind, that flies in the face of reality. Intellectualism and science are mistrusted. We hold, however, that faith need not--and should not--be blind to reality. Can something be false by all normal reckoning, and yet considered "true" spiritually? This is absurd. If the Book of Mormon has no textual support, no corroborative evidence to speak of (and plenty of contradictory evidence), there really is little doubt that it cannot be what it claims to be--the Word of God. That is, unless you are willing to accept God being a liar.
So here, in a nutshell, are the results:
(requires faith grounded in reality)
The Book of Mormon
Unsubstantiated and contradictory
(requires blind faith in spite of reality)
The faith that it takes to believe in the Bible as the Word of God is not based on subjective feelings or desires; it is based on facts.
Let us presume--hypothetically--that the Bible had the same kinds of problems that the Book of Mormon had. Suppose, for example, that there was no way of identifying any of the places the Bible describes. Suppose no one knew where the Jordan River was, or the Sea of Galilee, or Jerusalem. Suppose we couldn't even agree on the general region where the stories supposedly took place. Suppose that there was no external reference to Jesus Christ, or many of the others mentioned in the Bible. Suppose that there was no evidence that the empires and people groups--the Canaanites, the Babylonians, the Egyptians, or for that matter, even the Jews--ever existed. Suppose that the general cultural picture painted by the Bible was completely contradicted by the overwhelming amount of archaeology that has been done in the Middle East. Would we have reason to question the validity of the Bible? Absolutely. Why? Because if this were the case, there would be no evidence suggesting that it told a true story, and plenty to suggest that it was nothing but a myth.
Why should fact-based faith be somehow "substandard" as Mormons sometimes depict it? But because much of what the Bible says is supported by external evidence, it is much easier to accept, for example, the eyewitness accounts of the apostles. After all, the apostle John says toward the conclusion of his gospel:
Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31)
Check out our "Quick Reference Guide" to key LDS and Christian scriptures and doctrines.
For more information on subjects pertaining to biblical authenticity, we invite you to check out the following external links:
The Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry
Article on Textual criticism & the New Testament
General Bible History
Information & Links to issues of biblical reliability/authenticity: