New Developments in Book of Mormon Research
February 1988

“New Developments in Book of Mormon Research,” Ensign, Feb. 1988, 12

Book of Mormon

New Developments in Book of Mormon Research

The following research reports on the Book of Mormon are from an ever-widening circle of researchers who are probing in new and interesting ways the riches of the Book of Mormon. Their research has convinced them that there is much yet for us all to discover in the book; but they are also convinced that the real strength of the book is spiritual—that as we approach it in the spirit of prayer and try to live the principles the Book of Mormon teaches, we will be touched by its divine power to convert, to testify of Jesus Christ and the Restoration, and to bring us closer to God.

Jesus Christ

Susan Easton Black: Jesus Christ is so central to the Book of Mormon that, as the prophets wrote their testimonies of him, they mentioned some form of his name an average of every 1.7 verses. They referred to Jesus Christ by 101 names—from the first reference to him as Lord (1 Ne. 1:1) to the final name of Eternal Judge (Moro. 10:34).

Richard Lloyd Anderson: The personality of Christ and his impressive teachings in 3 Nephi remain a powerful force in my convictions of the truth of the Book of Mormon. I examined how the pseudo-Gospels, ancient and modern, have shown themselves to be shallow and mistaken, whereas the four Gospels of the New Testament and 3 Nephi ring with correlations on the person and program of Jesus Christ.

Robert L. Millet: I have been fascinated with President Ezra Taft Benson’s statement that the Book of Mormon leads men to Christ through two means: (1) by revealing Christ himself and (2) by exposing the enemies of Christ. In fact, the prophets’ messages on the plates of brass—a record that Nephi learned is more complete and extensive than our present Old Testament (see 1 Ne. 13:20–24)—are Christ-centered. Prophets like Zenos, Zenock, Neum, and Ezias understood the nature of the Godhead, and their writings concerning the life of Jesus Christ are specific and direct.


John W. Welch: For the last seven years I have worked to understand the technical legal aspects of ancient Near Eastern laws and the administration of justice in ancient Israel. The Book of Mormon compares favorably with discoveries regarding the law codes and judicial systems of the ancient Near East. We find detailed reports of the trials of Abinadi, Korihor, Nehor, and others. The book gives a technically accurate account, according to Near Eastern law, of the execution of Zemnarihah in 3 Nephi 4. [3 Ne. 4]

In the ancient world, there was a significant distinction between a thief, who stole property from one of his neighbors, and a robber, who was a highwayman living in bands outside of settled communities. The Book of Mormon is consistent in its use of the terms thieves and robbers. Thus, the Gadianton robbers are never called thieves, always robbers. The King James translators, however, rendered the Greek and Hebrew words for thief and robber indiscriminately since in English Common Law the same distinction did not exist.

Paul Y. Hoskisson: In the trial of Abinadi Mosiah 17), why does King Noah become afraid “that the judgments of God would come upon him” (Mosiah 17:11) when Abinadi had already been convicted of a capital crime by Noah’s court? One reason may be that Noah’s court, corrupt as it was, still operated under the guise of ancient Near Eastern law. One aspect of this legal system, trial by ordeal, may explain Noah’s behavior. If a case came down to one person’s word against another’s, the case could not be dismissed but had to be resolved through trial by ordeal.

The accused person, by winning the ordeal, was proven innocent, and the accuser would become guilty of bearing false witness and would suffer the punishment for the crime he falsely charged. (See Deut. 19:16–19.) Abinadi had been accused of a capital crime, so he proposed such a trial: They could put him to death, but he would not take back his words. (See Mosiah 17:10.) By dying without recanting, Abinadi would win the trial by ordeal and thus prove that he was telling the truth.

At this point, Noah refused the trial by ordeal and would have released Abinadi had it not been for the priests’ words, “He has reviled the king” (Mosiah 17:12)—a treasonable offense—which stirred the king’s anger. Instead, the king delivered him up to be slain, and Abinadi was tortured with scourging and was killed by fire, without taking back his words. In the process of winning the trial by ordeal, Abinadi could prophesy that Noah and the other accusers would therefore suffer, as he did, death by fire.

Biblical and Near Eastern Studies

Stephen E. Robinson: In an age when most non-LDS scholars deny the historical truth of the Bible, the Book of Mormon proves that the Bible is correct, sometimes in intricate detail; that the picture of Jesus, the divine Son of God, presented in the New Testament is historically accurate; and that the testimony of Jesus borne by the early church is true. For example, most scholars attribute the majority of the Sermon on the Mount to the early church and deny that the historical Jesus ever spoke these words as recorded in Matthew. However, the Book of Mormon clearly supports Matthew’s claim that the Savior gave the sermon.

Eugene England: Northrop Frye, the foremost theorist of literary archetypes, has identified the patterning that unites the Old and New Testaments as a Christ-centered structure of salvation, carried out in types: powerful images, events, and narratives that are connected over centuries, such as Adam and Isaac both as types of Christ, or Eden’s tree of life completed in the tree of the cross. My analysis confirms that the qualities Frye finds in the Bible are also found (more clearly developed) in the Book of Mormon. Frye’s perspective helps us not only to see why the Book of Mormon is true scripture, but also to understand and appreciate even more the extensive typological patterns based on Christ in the Book of Mormon.

Gordon C. Thomasson: There are more than thirty occasions when the Book of Mormon makes it clear (to those who know something about Israelite religion) that its peoples, excluding the Jaredites who came earlier, knew and practiced the religion of the Mosaic Law, including all the festivals, feasts, and holy days based upon the Exodus. Passage after passage has a wealth of meaning when we see the people in their own terms—a people who were attempting to “observe to keep the commandments of the Lord” and be “strict in observing the ordinances of God, according to the law of Moses.” (Alma 30:3—this appears, incidentally, to be a Rosh Hashanah–Yom Kippur and Jubilee Year text.)

Stephen D. Ricks: Since the 1950s, scholars have seen a relationship between certain Near Eastern treaties of the late second to early first millennium B.C. and several covenant-making passages in the Old Testament. (See Ex. 20–24; Josh. 24.) The common elements of this treaty and covenant pattern include preamble/titular descriptions, antecedent history, individual stipulations, witness formulas/oaths of acceptance, recital of the covenant/deposit of the text. All of these elements are found in the covenant renewal ceremony in Mosiah 1–6.

I have also compared the types of and motivations for fasting in the Bible and the Book of Mormon. Most interesting is the clear shift in motivation for fasting, identical in both books. In the Old Testament and pre-crucifixion passages in the Book of Mormon, the primary types include fasting as a sign of mourning (Alma 30:2), fasting following a death (Hel. 9:10), and petitionary fasting (Mosiah 27:22). The first two of these are not mentioned as types of fasting following the appearance of the resurrected Christ to the Nephites. The main type of fasting mentioned in the New Testament and in the Book of Mormon after the visit of Christ is devotional fasting practiced by the whole church.

Archaeology and Anthropology

John Sorensen: One primary need is to establish the Book of Mormon as a record of real people addressing real situations that apply to people today. The scripture is too commonly treated as taking place in a vacuum or a never-never land, with characters whose circumstances we neither really grasp nor relate to. To the degree that we see the Book of Mormon as a genuine record of a flesh-and-blood people, we will be more likely to learn the saving lessons they have to teach us.

V. Garth Norman: The Prophet Joseph Smith viewed antiquities with keen interest for their possible relationship to the Book of Mormon. In 1842 in the Times and Seasons, he published commentaries of ancient Maya ruins and speculated on their connection to the book, with the view that such studies would “assist the Saints in establishing the Book of Mormon as a revelation from God.”

In the temple center ruins of Izapa (part of a pre-Mayan civilization dating from about 500 B.C. to A.D. 100), many cultural and geometric features are amazingly consistent with a Nephite/Near Eastern culture. On over thirty monuments placed for ritual commemoration and instruction throughout the temple center, we also find a rich narrative language, comparable to ancient Near Eastern low-relief pictographic art.

Paul R. Cheesman: Joseph Smith declared that the Book of Mormon record was engraved on metal plates. Research has revealed that the ancient world recorded significant events upon plates of gold, silver, bronze, and lead. The Book of Mormon also suggests the use of the wheel. To date, over one hundred ancient wheeled artifacts have been found in the Americas. The Prophet described the Book of Mormon as being buried in a stone box. Since the book was published, over fifty stone boxes have been found containing many varieties of ancient treasures. Studies such as these can stimulate skeptics and scholars to the point where they might actually pick up the book, read it, and gain a testimony of its truth.

William Hamblin: The Book of Mormon mentions fortifications and warfare as integral to Nephite society. Until recently, archaeologists had insisted that they were rare in Central America during Book of Mormon times. However, new research has shown that this early view was incorrect. It has likewise been claimed that the bow and arrow were unknown in early Mesoamerica. Once again, archaeologists have discovered arrow heads, arrow shafts, and pictorial representations of the bow.

I am equally impressed by the things concerning military affairs that the Book of Mormon does not mention. If Joseph Smith were simply plagiarizing the Bible, one would expect war chariots, cavalry, siege engines, and “coats of mail” in the Book of Mormon. Though the Book of Mormon contains numerous descriptions of warfare, weapons, and tactics, none of these biblical military items are mentioned (though chariots for transportation are). The Book of Mormon includes only those items that have counterparts in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican military systems.

Bruce W. Warren: I have lately been researching the ethnohistory of the Jaredites, Mulekites, and secret combinations. Ethnohistory combines the fields of written documents, painted codices, hieroglyphic scripts, iconography (the meaning of art symbols), linguistics, archaeology, and ethnography. The recent discovery of the starting date for Mixtec and neighboring codices and maps at 3114 B.C. has opened up exciting new horizons for research because they date to the Jaredite time period. Just two Mixtec codices picture over 354 place names, along with historical dates and individual names. All this bears on the “land northward,” the Jaredites, and the Mulekites.

Language and Literature

Paul Y. Hoskisson: While studying Near Eastern languages, I discerned a Semitic flavor in the Book of Mormon that was foreign to English. For instance, it is not common in English to use cognate accusatives; that is, using objects of the verb that are derived from the same root, such as “sing a song” or “live a good life.” English contains a few cognate accusatives because no acceptable synonyms are available, but on the whole, English usually avoids them. The Book of Mormon uses them quite often—for example, “I have dreamed a dream” (1 Ne. 3:2) and “I did teach my people to build buildings” (2 Ne. 5:15). This frequent usage is indicative of the book’s Near Eastern heritage.

John L. Hilton: For the last six years several other computer-knowledgeable scholars—including non-Mormons—and I have furthered studies of wordprints (stylometry) of the original Book of Mormon manuscript. As the science of examining word patterns has developed, we have shown that, when properly done, wordprinting is an accurate, objective tool for measuring which authors did not write large documents.

We also extensively measured the accuracy of the printing in our present editions of the Book of Mormon, the degree to which Joseph Smith used the language of the King James Version to express Book of Mormon ideas, and the consistency of the English vocabulary in the book. All of the measurements verity long-known facts as published through Church circles. Thus, precise measurements now exist to correct faulty accusations and misestimations of the work.

For example, to examine the appropriateness of the wordprint measurements from translated works, we have extensively measured the wordprints of various foreign authors’ writings that have been translated into English by the same translator. We have compared these translations to the personal English writings of the translator. These tests disprove the speculation that a translator’s own wordprint would necessarily obscure the uniqueness of the original author’s own word patterns. The wordprints we measured in the writings of different German authors, all translated by the same German-to-English translator, differ from each other and from the original English writings of the translator himself as much as do any control writings of completely different authors.

We show a nonambiguous difference between the distinct word patterns of the Book of Mormon authors and word patterns in the noncontroversial personal writings of Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon, and Solomon Spaulding. For the two Book of Mormon authors, Nephi and Alma, who have written enough for unambiguous statistical evaluation, we have found internal consistency when each author is compared against himself, but when Nephi is compared to Alma, we measure the different patterns typical of indepent authors. In other words, comparable writings of Nephi and Alma, while consistent within themselves, differ from each other as much as control authors’ writings differ from one another.


Robert J. Matthews: For me, one vital aspect of the Book of Mormon is that the book is not a reasoned, logical argument for Jesus Christ, but rather is a report by prophets who knew him through firsthand experience. Another is the strong and repeated emphasis that the words of the prophets are true and shall be literally fulfilled. These items are important because they place the Book of Mormon in the category of divine testimony and not in the category of mental exercise by an intellectual elite.

Monte S. Nyman: I have analyzed the text of the Book of Mormon in light of Nephi’s instructions to Jacob to include in the small plates only “preaching which was sacred, or revelation which was great, or prophesying.” (Jacob 1:4.) The large majority of the text qualifies under one of those three headings. The balance in the book between secular history and a spiritual nature is overwhelmingly on the spiritual side.

The book is the primary source of Church doctrine. This was foretold by Isaiah (Isa. 29:24) and is a major purpose of the book (D&C 20:17–36). When the Lord revealed that the Church was under condemnation for treating the Book of Mormon lightly, he said that the Church must not only say but do what was written. (D&C 84:54–57.)

Robert L. Millet: Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni knew of our day and organized their record in such a way as to help us meet the challenges of modern times. A careful study of the arguments of such anti-Christs as Sherem, Nehor, and Korihor as well as those who confronted them is remarkably enlightening in terms of the twentieth-century world. Philosophical positions like rationalism, humanism, ethical relativism, and materialism are identified and exposed in the Book of Mormon.

Richard Lloyd Anderson: As a historian, I am most interested in the corroborating testimony of the Book of Mormon witnesses. I feel that they are the strongest evidence of that scripture’s divinity outside of reading the book itself. Here are modern men who can be examined closely on their astounding claim—of being commissioned by an angel’s appearance and by God’s voice to testify of ancient scripture. The eleven witnesses were interviewed by both the careful and the careless, leaving scores of accounts. After years of working with their lives and their words, I am convinced that the Book of Mormon witnesses’ printed testimonies must be taken at face value.

Bruce A. Van Orden: I have sought to identify principles of religious education in the Book of Mormon; the character, development, and personalities of prophet-teachers in the book; and their strategies of instruction. In the process I have identified over one hundred useful principles and analyzed the characteristics of numerous teachers and teaching situations. For example, successful teachers are desirous for the welfare of their students’ souls (2 Ne. 6:3; Alma 13:27–30); teachers should use scriptures abundantly to teach from and explain points of doctrine (2 Ne. 6:3–4; Alma 12:1; 3 Ne. 20:11–12); and teachers should pour out their souls in prayer and thanksgiving (Alma 19:14). The way great teachers approached specific challenges—such as Jacob vs. Sherem, King Benjamin to his people, Alma to his sons, and Jesus with the multitudes and his disciples—can provide wonderful models for our own teaching situations.

Susan Easton Black: The Book of Mormon not only clearly defines a path for spiritual and material ruin, it also presents the path that leads to spiritual well-being. Much of the Nephite record is dominated by war, famine, and destruction, but faithful followers found the narrow path, and their actions emulated the life of Christ. Research in this area shows us our choices for joy or sorrow and demonstrates that the Lord will not leave his devoted followers comfortless.

C. Wilfred Griggs: Everybody recognizes that destructive forces exist beyond most people’s ability to understand or combat. The Book of Mormon bears witness of a heavenly power greater than all others to preserve, save, and exalt. A continual study of the Book of Mormon is vital to learn how to partake of God’s eternal power.

V. Garth Norman: A rewarding study in the Book of Mormon is the doctrine of the tree of life and its references to historical antiquity. This symbol is found in the religious art of Mesoamerica in the Izapan period, the time of early emergence of Nephite civilization, and remains important thereafter. Symbols are powerful instructors and motivators, and the tree of life vision is vital in demonstrating what is necessary to do to partake of that tree’s fruit.

  • Susan Easton Black is an associate professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University.

  • Richard Lloyd Anderson is a professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University.

  • Robert L. Millet is an associate professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University.

  • John W. Welch, president of FARMS, is a professor of law and a director of the special projects area for the Religious Studies Center at Brigham Young University.

  • Paul Y. Hoskisson is an assistant professor of ancient scriptures at Brigham Young University.

  • Stephen E. Robinson is a professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University.

  • Eugene England is a professor of English at Brigham Young University.

  • Gordon C. Thomasson is an applied anthropologist concerned with the development of poor nations. He resides in Provo.

  • Stephen D. Ricks is associate professor of Hebrew and Semitic languages at Brigham Young University and is currently accompanying faculty in the BYU Center for Near Eastern Studies in Jerusalem.

  • John Sorenson, formerly chairman of the Department of Anthropology, is professor emeritus of anthropology at Brigham Young University and a director of FARMS.

  • V. Garth Norman is director of the Center for Izapan Research and lives in American Fork, Utah.

  • Paul R. Cheesman is professor emeritus of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University and lives in St. George, Utah.

  • William Hamblin is an assistant professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi. He resides in Hattiesburg.

  • Bruce W. Warren teaches anthropology and archaeology at Brigham Young University and is affiliated with that university’s Museum of Peoples and Cultures.

  • Paul Y. Hoskisson is an assistant professor of ancient scriptures at Brigham Young University.

  • John L. Hilton works as a project physicist for Physics International and lives in Walnut Creek, California.

  • Robert J. Matthews is dean of religious education at Brigham Young University.

  • Monte S. Nyman is associate dean of religious education at Brigham Young University and director of the Book of Mormon area, Religious Studies Center.

  • Robert L. Millet is an associate professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University.

  • Richard Lloyd Anderson is a professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University.

  • Bruce A. Van Orden is an assistant professor of Church history at Brigham Young University.

  • Susan Easton Black is an associate professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University.

  • C. Wilfred Griggs is director of ancient studies, Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University.

  • V. Garth Norman is director of the Center for Izapan Research and lives in American Fork, Utah.

“Behold Your Little Ones,” by David Lindsley

Painting by Robert Barrett

“Gadianton’s Band,” by Minerva Teichert. Original in the Brigham Young University art collection. Used by permission.

Illustrated by Robert Barrett