Sunday, July 5, 2015

Nephite Coins: Reading our preconceptions into the text

I didn't intend to write this much on this topic but I just keep thinking about it. Previously I wrote about how, taken out of context, a single verse could be used to argue that there should be no trees on temple grounds. That misconception was solved by gaining a little more understanding of the culture and language of the Bible. Then I wrote about the peculiarities of calendar systems and how that relates to understanding the scriptures. The point of these posts is to show how simple misunderstandings, mistranslations and preconceptions create problems that left unaddressed may begin to undermine a believer's faith.

The problem arises when a preconception or a misconception meets an inconsistency. For some this inconsistency precipitates a crisis in faith that leaves the believer wondering, "Is there anything else I was mistaken about? Perhaps everything else I was sure about is also false?" In the most extreme cases a person is left to doubt everything they once knew even if their ponderings can easily be mistaken for mental illness. But fortunately most people never get to that point and stay grounded in the realms of rationality.

At one point or another everyone will encounter something that does not fit with what they thought to be the case. There is not time enough in the world for me to address every single possibility. Ideally I should offer a surefire way of addressing each problem as it come up, but that is best learned by experience. What I can do is point out some common mistakes and how to resolve them.

The problem of Nephite coins is quickly becoming a classic example of how projecting our cultural preconceptions onto a text lead to problems. In Alma 11 Mormon pauses in his narration to explain the Nephite monetary system. It involves different denominations of gold and silver, all related to each other and to measures of grain. For years members of the Church, including Church leaders, have assumed that it referred to series of gold and silver coins. The chapter heading for Alma 11, written in the 1920's, mentioned Nephite coins, but in the latter half of the 20th century several Book of Mormon critics pointed out that coins were not used used in pre-Colombian America.

This prompted a reaction by some Mormon apologists to go looking for any evidence of coins in Mesoamerica. I remember a roommate, as recently as 2001, insisting that archaeologists had found metal disks "that are clearly coins". But despite the discovery of these metal disks no evidence of them being used as money (i.e. as coins) was ever found. Other evidence also indicated that pre-Colombian Americans never used coins, though they did use precious metals as money, just not in coin form. At about this time someone, I don't know who, took a long hard look at the text of the Book of Mormon and realized that Alma 11 never actually mentions coins.

Alma 11 only mentions various weights of gold and silver and never actually says that they were coins. For a bunch of people of European stock it was an easy enough mistake to make. The text talks about gold and silver in different amounts that are used as money and they thought, "gold and silver money == coins". It was a case of casting our modern preconceptions onto the text which resulted in Church member receiving yet another criticism from critics. In recent updates to the Book of Mormon the chapter heading to Alma 11 has been changed to bring it into agreement with the text.

But you can still find anti-Mormon websites who trot out the coin criticism. It is by far one of my favorite criticisms because it is such a beautiful example of a fallacious argument. Usually the argument begins by quoting an LDS scholar (John Welch and Daniel Peterson seem to be their favorites) who unambiguously stated that no pre-Colombian coins have ever been found in the Americas and then they say, "Aha! Even LDS scholars admit that the Book of Mormon is wrong!" But, as noted above, the text never actually mentions coins, so admitting there are no pre-Colombian coins does not mean LDS scholars are admitting the Book of Mormon contains an anachronism. Despite this, anti-Mormon websites try to milk it for all its worth, though some of the more "current" criticism ignore it since they realize it is a non-starter.

We can learn from this little adventure that when we read the scriptures sometimes we insert our modern biases into the text without realizing it. Then when it doesn't match with archaeological or other evidence we run into problems. We can avoid these types of problems by learning to read the text critically and pay attention to not only what it says, but to what it doesn't say. Another brief example, which I won't go into here, is that the Book of Mormon never actually says Ammon was herding king Lamoni's sheep. It just says "flocks" which doesn't necessarily mean sheep. There's something to think about.
A possible update to Arnold Friberg's painting. By the way, Arnold Friberg is a serial offender when it comes to anachronisms. Beware the "gospel art" and don't take it for the "gospel truth".