Philip Jenkins

July 15, 2015.

I have been engaged in a debate with Bill Hamblin on the historicity of the Book of Mormon, over at his blog, Enigmatic Mirror. As we are a bit behind in posting my responses at that site, I will upload them here.

In what follows, I will address Dr. Hamblin directly, the “you” of the text.


You have written some comments about the nature of historical methodology at:

Your view as expressed here is unsustainable, contradictory and, I would say, indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of historical and archaeological methodologies.

You are obviously and undeniably correct in saying that the past does not presently exist. You are also right to say that “our only capacity to interact with the past is inherently indirect.  We interact with the Past by studying the evidence left by past people–texts, inscriptions, art, artifacts, monuments, tools, tombs, etc.  We can understand the past only by studying those things, which were made or done in the Past, but which still exist in the present.” No less obviously, “data from the Past needs to be interpreted precisely because the Past no longer exists.” Amen and amen. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

It is flagrantly wrong, though, to say that “Hence, the study of history is not empirical–that is, we cannot directly observe with our senses or experiment on the Past.  History is a non-empirical discipline. “ This is completely false, and I can’t think of a competent historian (other than yourself) who would accept that final statement. Nor would it be accepted by any scientist who understands the meaning of the word “empirical.” From your subsequent remarks in your original post, about “This is not objective,” I understand you to take the same wildly incorrect approach to archaeology.

You are in a minority of one.

Let me define my terms. I am taking these from general dictionaries, and they seem adequate for the purposes of discussion: will you accept these?

Objective evidence is data that shows or proves that something exists or is true.


Objective evidence can be collected by performing observations, measurements, tests, or using other suitable methods.”


Alternatively, objective evidence is “Information based on facts that can be proved through analysis, measurement, observation, and other such means of research.”


“Empirical evidence is information acquired by observation or experimentation. This data is recorded and analyzed by scientists and is a central process as part of the scientific method.”


Empirical means “based on, concerned with, or verifiable by observation or experience rather than theory or pure logic."


Will you accept those? None of these definitions necessarily involves experimentation (although that might feature) and that point is critical. The key is observation. That experimentation requirement is one that you have added, idiosyncratically and unnecessarily. It is a distinction for you and nobody else. 


The past does not currently exist. As you rightly say, though, it has left traces that do – in the form of archaeological remains, documents, inscriptions, whatever – and those traces can be subjected to empirical research. They can be observed, collected and analyzed, commonly through quantitative techniques. Any such research is empirical. 

Of course we can observe and analyze the surviving traces of the past. We can look at documentary records of the battle of Gettysburg, we can collect and examine official documents, we can explore material remains on the battlefield. Just because the observation is not taking place in 1863 does not mean such work is not (or might not be) empirical. 

Any historical study that involves quantification of any kind is of necessity empirical. It means collecting and presenting data in a way that they can be tested and replicated by other scholars. That is empirical study.  Other forms of history might also be empirical, but this assuredly is.

You accuse me of ignoring or understanding your words. What about your lack of response to the pointed reference I gave you of African-American slave owners, which is a perfect reference of an empirical study of the past? Is that not empirical? Answer, please?

Let me give you another example, which (I hasten to say) does not bear directly on the Book of Mormon. It is by Tim Beach, with several co-authors, and it is entitled “Ancient Maya impacts on the Earth's surface: An Early Anthropocene analog?” Quaternary Science Reviews 124 (2015): 1-30. I note that one of the co-authors, Richard Terry, is BYU faculty. If you cannot access the article, I will be happy to send you a copy.

This fine article describes how the Maya transformed the landscapes in which they lived, with a major focus on the Classic Maya. “Highlights” of the findings include the following: “The Ancient Maya left a richly variegated landscape of the Early Anthropocene.  … Ancient erosion truncated soils and buried sinks, leaving golden spikes in strata…. They left positive impacts or landesque capital such in terraces and wetland fields.  …They lived through pluvials and droughts, perhaps exacerbating Late Classic drought. ….They left myriad adaptive features such as reservoirs and useful species still extant.”

I am not qualified to assess the detailed methodologies used here, but the article seems to me thoroughly convincing, indeed revelatory, and it is a highly significant contribution to the archaeological literature. It also has enormous implications for future historians studying the ancient Maya. The scholars observe the surviving traces of the past in order to reconstruct that past, and they do so richly. They are telling us about how people lived and worked, how they organized themselves,  and how they reshaped their world. What could be more fundamental historical questions?

This study is one of a couple of thousand I could offer you to show modern scholars using objective evidence, and clearly empirical evidence, to be assessed through empirical techniques in order to form a picture of the past – in this case, the past of more than a millennium ago.

With that in mind, let us return to your statement:

“Hence, the study of history is not empirical–that is, we cannot directly observe with our senses or experiment on the Past.  History is a non-empirical discipline.”

So is the “Ancient Maya impacts on the Earth's surface” article empirical or not? If not why not? Do you believe the authors constructed a time machine to go and observe the ancient Maya directly, in 1000AD?

Your statement about “non-empirical” is inaccurate, and indeed absurd.

Or am I misunderstanding you again? I have only your plain words to go on. If I am misquoting you, please clarify.


Oh, and on one other point. I complained about your statement that, “Neal Rappleye has posted a bibliography of non-LDS academic publications dealing favorably with ancient Book of Mormon studies.”  You reply: “None of these “publications” (i.e. journals or publishers) are LDS.  Some of the authors are LDS.” Oh my, what a total night and day difference! These items are correctly identified as such on Rappeleye’s site, but your reference to “non-LDS academic publications” is simply weird.

So in other words, we have a list of 24 publications, of which twelve are by Givens, Sorenson, Hardy, Tvedtnes, Bushman and Nibley, and you think it is legitimate to describe that as a list of “non-LDS academic publications” (Probably half a dozen or so of the other writers also LDS). And you think any reader is going to pick up that piece of casuistry?

Are you kidding?



Meanwhile, here are my responses to two other recent Hamblin contributions:




So there’s lots of wars described in the Book of Mormon in the 360s/370s, and lots in real world Maya history around the same time. This would be an impressive match or correlation if the Maya were a peaceful bunch whose lives were seldom rocked by wars and invasions, which would not be the case. They had war after war, invasion after invasion, and dynasties changed and fell frequently. It would be hard to point to a twenty or thirty year period without being able to select some tumult or dramatic violence somewhere.


I am on less secure ground when talking about the Book of Mormon, but my impression is that we have plenty of wars and struggles recorded there, over the centuries. So there’d be plenty of opportunities to chose from there as well.


It would be truly odd if the two sets of records did not enjoy a vague correspondence or correlation somewhere along the way.


I am struck by the way that you not only accept the Book of Mormon’s record, but even the dates that are given. Boy, such precision is going to make any case you may present massively harder to prove, and raises the bar of proof enormously, especially given the accuracy of most Maya datings. Rather you than me!




I see nothing here that demands or merits a response.


What you are basically saying is that some Mayan names could, conceivably, recall versions of Book of Mormon names, and/or vice versa. There are a huge number of ifs and buts, as you correctly and modestly recognize. As you say,


“Nonetheless, some interesting results occur–more than I think we should expect from random chance homophony.   … Admittedly many of these suggestions are speculative.  But the fact that BOM names contain plausible Maya components–some of which actually make sense out of otherwise apparently random sounds–means the BOM broadly fits the very limited and ambiguous Maya name data we have for the early Classic period.”


I see nothing that goes beyond random choice homophony.


Actually, I think that what you have here fits exactly what Neal Rappleye was writing about in his sage remarks about Sorenson’s book Mormon’s Codex:


“I will say that some of the "correspondences" here are fairly weak, some being more just comparisons than anything else (any two things can be compared, whether they are related or not).”




So you no longer attempting even to offer credible objective evidence to prove any aspect of the Book of Mormon?