This Sunday my church (the Mormon Church) studied the history of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. The lesson material covered Joseph Smith’s own words describing the events with the angel, the gold plates, and, most importantly, the content of the book.
As I read the material, I was impressed with Joseph Smith’s meticulous details.
Here are his words:
“I was [told by the Angel Moroni] where were deposited some plates on which were engraven an abridgment of the records of the ancient Prophets that had existed on this continent. … These records were engraven on plates which had the appearance of gold; each plate was six inches wide and eight inches long, and not quite so thick as common tin. They were filled with engravings, in Egyptian characters, and bound together in a volume as the leaves of a book, with three rings running through the whole. The volume was something near six inches in thickness, a part of which was sealed. The characters on the unsealed part were small, and beautifully engraved. The whole book exhibited many marks of antiquity in its construction, and much skill in the art of engraving. …”
“I wish to mention here that the title-page of the Book of Mormon is a literal translation, taken from the very last leaf, on the left hand side of the collection or book of plates, which contained the record which has been translated, the language of the whole running the same as all Hebrew writing in general [that is, from right to left]; and that said title page is not by any means a modern composition, either of mine or of any other man who has lived or does live in this generation.” (“Chapter 4: The Book of Mormon: Keystone of Our Religion,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, , 57–68.)
Note the specifics:
• These records were engraven on plates which had the appearance of gold.
• Each plate was six inches wide and eight inches long, and not quite so thick as common tin.
• They were filled with engravings, in Egyptian characters, and bound together in a volume as the leaves of a book, with three rings running through the whole.
• The volume was something near six inches in thickness.
• The characters on the unsealed part were small, and beautifully engraved.
• The language of the whole running the same as all Hebrew writing in general.
• It was not written by any man in this generation.
These details grabbed my attention. They are specific. They are meticulous. And they are exact. He gave us objective and measurable data about the plates. His specifics are a clue to his credibility.
By way of comparison, we can all describe in great detail things we are familiar with. For example, think of a favorite movie, your first car, or your wedding.
The first computer I ever wrote on was an Atari 800. It was a bland office beige, had four joystick ports on the front, two cartridge slots—you used the left-had one, and 48K of memory cards that overheated a lot. And one of the oddest details I can provide is that when I rubbed my hand over the ribbed covering for the memory bank, I could make a squeaky noise. I learned this one day when a program took a long time to boot up and I got bored.
Joseph Smith’s details are as specific as the details I provided for that antique computer. For me, he was clearly describing something that he had handled and seen because he could describe it with minute precision.
Since he gives us specific details, we can compare his gold plates to other plates. One of the most obvious artifacts we can compare it to is the Dead Sea Copper Scroll.
A paper from the Maxwell Institute explains:
“The Copper Scroll apparently was formed from a single plaque of copper-based metal. Inscribed thereon is a list of sixty-four deposits of gold, silver, aromatic spices, and manuscripts. Because of the enormous amount of treasure involved—perhaps as much as several dozen tons buried in locations in and around Jerusalem—many people are convinced that the treasures described in the document are fictional. Others, however, have argued that the list records the deposit of the treasures of the Jerusalem temple, per haps tithes collected during the First Jewish Revolt (AD 66–74) that could not be taken to Jerusalem during the siege.”
Another find is the Roman bronze plates that have been on display at the BYU Harold B. Lee Library for several months now.
The webpage says:
“Written documentation was just as important in ancient civilizations as written contracts and deeds are today.”
“The Romans, Greeks, Israelites, Egyptians, and other peoples took great care to document legal or civic events and to preserve important records.”
“This exhibition features an extraordinary set of Roman military plates from AD 109. Bronze plates such as these, known as military diplomas, were used for granting Roman citizenship and military honors to soldiers retiring after twenty-five years of service.”
Of course writing on metal is an obvious way of preserving something important. The ancient Romans had the Law of the Twelve Tables, which, according to Livy, were written on bronze. The Pyrgi Tablets from Italy had Phoenician and Etruscan texts written on gold plates. And in our day, military dog tags are stamped on metal. But they all fill the same purpose: if you want something to last, write it on metal.
Even so, this does not prove that Joseph Smith actually had plates, or that Mormonism is true. But it does lend credibility to Joseph Smith’s story. We can use these specific details to verify and substantiate what he said.
Mormon Scholar William J. Hamblin did a survey of ancient writings on metal plates. He concluded his paper this way:
“Based on these examples of Hebrew, Phoenician, Greek, and Italic practices, we can conclude that writing and preserving sacred bronze and gold plates was a widespread phenomenon in the eastern Mediterranean world at the time of Lehi [an ancient Book of Mormon prophet] … ”
“The examples provided in this essay demonstrate that sacred writing on metal plates was a widespread phenomenon in the Semitic Near East and the eastern Mediterranean world in the centuries just before and after Lehi. This conclusion has also been drawn by Walter Burkert. In his 1992 study of the cultural dependency of Greek civilization on the Near East, Burkert presented a short analysis of the spread of the alphabet and writing styles and materials from the Near East to Greece. In his discussion he states that “the reference to ‘bronze deltoi [plates or tablets]’ as a term [among the Greeks] for ancient sacral laws should point back to seventh or sixth century [BC]” as the period in which the term deltos and the practice of writing on bronze plates was transmitted from the Near East to Greece.”
“For students of the Book of Mormon, it is not at all surprising that in the seventh or sixth century BC, the practice of writing on bronze plates was adopted by the Greeks from the Phoenicians, along with the term bronze plates (deltos, from Phoenician/Hebrew dlt) to describe ‘ancient sacred laws.’ This is, of course, precisely the time and place in which the Book of Mormon claims that a set of bronze plates containing the “ancient sacred laws” of the Hebrews existed.” (William J. Hamblin, “Sacred Writing on Metal Plates in the Ancient Mediterranean.” Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 2007. P. 37–54)
And this data would be enough to keep Indiana Jones satisfied. But the Book of Mormon is something more than a startling archaeological find. It is a witness of Jesus Christ.
“The Book of Mormon is a new witness of Jesus Christ. Its message spans the entire earth and brings its readers to a knowledge of truth. It answers that piercing and universal question best phrased by Job of old: ‘If a man die, shall he live again?’ (Job 14:14).”
“Many years ago I was called to the bedside of Robert Williams, a young man who lay dying. His wife and their two children stood nearby. We were all trying to be brave, but tears were in our eyes. Robert asked me, ‘Where does my spirit go when I die?’ I offered a silent prayer. I noticed on his bedside table a copy of the triple combination. I reached for the book and fanned the pages.”
“Suddenly I discovered that I had, with no effort on my part, stopped at the 40th chapter of Alma in the Book of Mormon. I read these words to Robert: “Behold, it has been made known unto me by an angel, that the spirits of all men, as soon as they are departed from this mortal body, yea, the spirits of all men, whether they be good or evil, are taken home to that God who gave them life.”
“’And … the spirits of those who are righteous are received into a state of happiness, which is called paradise, a state of rest, a state of peace, where they shall rest from all their troubles and from all care, and sorrow’ (Alma 40:11–12).”
“As I continued to read about the Resurrection, a glow came to Robert’s face, a smile graced his lips, and his tired and ill body slept. I said good-bye to his wife and children. I next saw them at Robert Williams’s funeral. In those precious corridors of memory, I think back to that night when a young man pleaded for truth and, from the Book of Mormon, heard the answer to his question.”
“I read the words, but God turned the pages. Yes, our Heavenly Father does answer prayers, in His own time and in His own way. I bear an apostolic witness that Jesus is the Savior of the world and that He and His Father appeared to the Prophet Joseph Smith to usher in this dispensation of the fulness of times, and so declare in His holy name, the name of Jesus Christ, amen.” (“Special Witnesses of Christ,” Ensign, Apr 2001, 4)
Joseph Smith once told David Osborn “The Book of Mormon is true, just what it purports to be.” From what Joseph Smith said, and from my own study and prayer, I believe him.