Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Hits, Misses, Sales, Archeology and Mormons

Thaddeus requested I address his evidences for the historicity of the Book of Mormon. At the moment, I haven’t studied enough to adequately reply to these points. ‘Course, in the blogging world—who does that stop? *grin*

I am familiar, however, with argument techniques, and apologetic salesmanship and this smells much the same. First we have to understand what argument methods and peddling mechanisms are so commonly used to see the similarity.

Hits and Misses

(I am indebted to Why People Believe Weird Things for this point.)

Why are psychics so successful? How do they uncannily discover truths about people they don’t know? Much of this has to do with understanding demographics (if speaking to an audience of 200, “Someone here has had a heart attack” has a huge possibility of obtaining a “hit” due to the common occurrence) and the fact people remember the “hits” and forget the “misses.” The conversation of cold-reading (as it is called) looks like this:

“You have a friend…or a relative…who recently died?”
“Or perhaps was involved in an incident where they could have died?”
“My brother was in a car accident!”
“And I see that you are close to him…”
“Not really—he lives in Arizona.”
“…or close to him in your relationship…”
“No…we don’t talk much…”
“…I see closeness. In age?”
“We are only a year apart!”

“And he is getting better?”
“And he is wishing you two could talk more….”
“He did mention that!”

The person walks away telling their friends, “The psychic knew I had a brother, close in age, who had just recently been in an automobile accident and wants to get together more! A-MAZing!” Yet when we review the conversation we see the person has conveniently forgotten all the “misses”—the psychic started off with death, and closeness, and the general terms were so non-specific, a “hit” was almost a certainty.

Dr. Shermer made another point, that sometimes even the “hits” are not necessarily “hits.” He referenced one psychic who, upon learning a young woman was a widow, stated, “Your husband wants you to know that you will re-marry.” She blurted out, “I recently became engaged!” and considered this a “hit.” But consider three things:

1) Psychics tend to give good news. They are not likely to say, “Your will be doomed to a life of grieving widow, misery and loneliness.”

2) She was a young woman—there is a great likelihood due to her age that she would re-marry.

3) The psychic DIDN’T say, “You are engaged”—rather they said she would someday re-marry. The woman took it as more specific than stated.

This will come up in a bit, but for now remember we tend to recall the “hits” and forget the “misses.”


20 years ago I attended a car show with my father. As one does, I sat in the driver’s seat, felt the steering wheel, switches and knobs. Dad asked, “How does it feel?” Looking for an appropriate word, I settled on, “It feels safe.” A nearby salesperson happened to overhear my comment and rushed over to inform us of all the safety imbued within this particular automobile.

“Do you know the hood has a double-catch safety feature, preventing it from coming loose in an accident and decapitating the driver? The engine is designed to drop, in case of a head-on collision, rather than shove straight back into the front seat. The steering wheel...” And he launched into 5 or 6 different ways in which one would only be horribly mangled rather than killed in case this car was struck by a Mack Truck.

My father and I got the giggles as to how matter-of-factly this person described these horrible events, and how this car would prevent you from being killed out-right, but your feet would be crushed, your pelvis shattered, your neck twisted 180 degrees (but still attached) and so on.

Now why did the Salesperson talk about safety? Why didn’t he tell us about the fuel efficiency, cost of ownership, or choice of colors and fabrics? Because he heard “safe” and (incorrectly) assumed this was the “selling point” we were looking for.

Apologetics sells what it thinks its audience wants to hear. It is designed, NOT to win over the non-believer, but to reinforce what the believer already believes. It tells the person who thinks the automobile is “safe” why the automobile is “safe.”


The confirming archeological evidence Thaddeus refers to is the city of Nahom.

The First Book of Mormon—1 Nephi—discusses the journey of Lehi and his sons (including Nephi, the author of the book) from Jerusalem, through the Arabian Peninsula Wilderness. The area comprised primarily of Saudi Arabia today.

1 Nephi 16:34 records Lehi (and clan) stopping at a place “which was called ‘Nahom.’” (There is some issue as to whether Lehi called the place “Nahom” (having named other areas previously) or whether it had previously been called “Nahom” before their arrival. See The place that was called “Nahom.”)

The problem is—there is no place called “Nahom.” Certainly not on any map in 1830! A few decades ago, a German archeological team discovered a temple in Yemen with an altar donated by “Bi’athar, son of Sawdum, son of Naw’um, the Nihmite.”

Because Semitic languages do not use vowels in writing, “Nahom” would be written. “Nhm.” In the same way “Nihm” would be written “Nhm.” Ah—do you see the connection? Further, because people generally were named after regions (“Israelite” came from “Israel;” “Canaanite” came from “Canaan”) Therefore a “Nihmite” would arguably come from “Nihm.”

The argument is conveniently drawn to conclusion by saying “Nhm” (“Nahom”) is similar to “Nhm” (“Nihm”) and since this is “close” to the area where Lehi and clan were—voila! We have demonstrated Nahom exists!

But let’s look at the “hits” and “misses”…

The Book of Mormon also discusses smelting iron and steel. Coins. Domesticated oxen, sheep, goats and pigs. Fighting with bow and arrows. Fighting with metal shields. Temples. Linen. Silk. Plants such as wheat, barley, oats, rice. The Book refers to horses. See here.

What we find are miss after miss after miss, with one possible hit—“Nahom.” Like our psychic, we would be more inclined to believe it mere coincidence they happened across a hit—especially after so many misses!

Look, imagine I gave you 100 items for discussion. And you find me wrong on 75 of them, 24 of them you can find no information and one you find me correct. Are you inclined to believe (based upon my percentage) that I must be correct on the 24 unknowns? Or, would you say since I was overwhelmingly wrong on the 75, it is pure happenstance I was correct on the one, and I should not be considered reliable on the 24 unknowns.

But is “Nahom” a hit?

There are many problems with the claim the altar demonstrates a place called “Nahom.”

First, it should be noted that even the LDS article indicates the “Nhm” of the Book of Mormon and the “Nhm” of the temple may not be the same letters! The “h” in the Book of Mormon would be the “rasped” Hebrew “h” whereas the “h” on the altar would be the softer “h” of the Arabian dialect.

Second, “Nhm” in Hebrew can mean comfort or compassion. As this was the place Nephi’s Father-in-Law was buried, it could be called “Nhm” by Lehi and the clan.

Third, Joseph Smith wasn’t translating from Hebrew! The exact method of this translation is unclear, but the claim (as near as I can tell) was that the plates were in “Reformed Egyptian” and translated into English (either from the plates, or from letters in the air). The fact Hebrew “Nhm” is similar (albeit not exact) to Arabian “Nhm” may be interesting, but is of no import when the language being translated is Egyptian!

Fourthly, we add vowels as a matter of convenience. How we go from “YHWH” to “Yahweh.” As we do not have the “original” plates Joseph Smith had, we do not even know what letters were in place. Or whether there were vowel markers. Was it “Nhm”? And how did Joseph Smith happen to pick “a” and “o” to come up to “Nahom”? It should be noted in modern Arabic (as I understand it) the verb form dictates the vowels being added. For example, “ksr” could be “kasar” or “kassar” or “inkasar” depending on the verb form. See here. Was there a verb form or indication of what letters should fit?

Fifth, it should be noted the Book of Mormon uses similar names to the Bible. “Nahom” is extremely similar (and would appear the same in written Hebrew) as “Nahum”—a minor prophet.

Sixth, while generally true, it is not always true “-ite” would refer to a place. One need only look at the Nephites in the Book of Mormon (Named after “Nephi”). So a “Nihmite” may not be a locale, but refer to a person—“Nihm.”

Seventh, we don’t know where the Moabites lived. Nor the Hittites. We hadn’t even heard of the “Nihmites” until the 20th century. To claim they lived at our about the place most convenient to the needs of Mormon Apologetics is pure speculation. Yes, the altar was on the Arabian Peninsula. But it was (apparently) given by a person from a different area. Was that by means of money, or the altar, or gift? We don’t know.

Let’s see if we have this straight. Joseph Smith translates from plates written in “Reformed Egypt.” We don’t know what the plates said, because we don’t have them any more. He translates a certain word to English—“Nahom”—a word remarkably similar to a previously known word in the Tanakh—“Nahum.” We see other occurrences of formal nouns being only one letter off from formal nouns in the Bible.

The Book of Mormon makes numerous other claims that are flat-out unsupported by archeology, and if this was not theological—would be laughed out of any respectable university. Simply put—it is wrong time and time again.

No placed called “Nahom” has been discovered. However, we have discovered a writing about a fellow who was “Nihmite”—and while the letters may not be exact, are very similar to what “Nahom” would be if translated from English back to Hebrew. So “Nihmite” might be from “Nihm”—which in Arabic would be “Nhm”—which is similar (but not necessarily exact) to “Nhm”—which is what “Nahom” is when translated from Reformed Egyptian to English and then translated again to Hebrew.

Do I have that straight? Is THAT what is supposed to be convincing archeological proof? Similar letters?

This is where salesmanship comes in. See, a Mormon is looking for confirmation. (The reason we use the term “confirmation bias.”) As thin as this may be—it is sufficient for a person who is predisposed to believing it anyway. Hey—they believed it BEFORE they found Naw’um the Nihmite—this is icing on the cake.

Does a single non-LDS archeologist claim Naw’um must have come from a place called “Nahom”? Now—I have seen cries of “Are you saying all Mormons liars?” when such questions are generally asked. No—I am saying this is confirmation bias. They are looking for substantiation, and this is sufficient. This would have far greater effect if non-LDS scholars agreed “Nhmy” came from what the Book of Mormon calls “Nahom.”

In the end—when it comes to archeology I see far, FAR too many misses. And this one “hit” looks like, at best, a coincidence, but more likely a sales pitch to confirm what the Mormons already believe.

I do not believe it would convince a neutral jury.


  1. This is what Feynman was talking about when he wrote Cargo Cult Science.

    It's very clear that religious people use the word "evidence" to refer to a process very different than the process skeptics and scientist use to know about the world. Furthermore, religious people use and redefine the specific word because of the success and plausibility the skeptical, scientific process has justly earned.

    They dishonestly want the status, but cannot fulfill the underlying requirements.

    The only defense is that most religious people really are sincerely deluded, and do not realize they are promulgating an egregious falsehood. However, at a certain point, negligence earns as much contempt as malice.

  2. Eric,

    Thanks for the links. Got a chance to listen to the videos on the way to work. I was pretty familiar with archeological problems regarding the Tanakh—specifically Exodus, Joshua’s Genocide, and a united kingdom.

    I haven’t studied much on archeology and the Book of Mormon. If one wants to study it, it appears the most useful tool is the Mormon apologetics themselves! I don’t have to look for claims against Mormons, when I can read their defenses of Mormonism!

    I think Avalos over-states the case of Manuscript evidence by claiming p52 is the ONLY second century scrap we have. Other manuscripts have been dated within the Second Century. True, as with all antiquity, there are disagreements regarding the dating—some putting the manuscripts within the Second Century, others putting them in the Third Century, and many of us “punting” to say just “around 200 CE.”

    The Barefoot Bum

    Thanks for the link. While I am not quite there, I am almost to the point of thinking the only thing left is ridicule. Argument, reasonableness, methodology and common sense having not worked thus far….

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  4. 1)Nehem is a toponym as well as a tribal name. The Nehem tribe lives in the land of Nehem and it does appear in a handful of maps as early as the 1770's.
    2)1 Nephi makes it clear that they named certain places along the route. Nehem is not one of them.
    3)The reformed egyptian was probably Hebrew written using Egyptian characters as is Papyrus Amherst 83(an Aramaic text written in Egyptian characters).
    4)With regards to vowels... Hebrew Moshe is Arabic Musa. Hebrew Abraham is Arabic Ibrahim, Hebrew Yosef is Arabic Yusuf. I would expect some vowel change as the word is transferred from South Arabic speakers to Hebrew speakers.
    5)The fact that Nahom sounds like the name of Prophet Nahum doesn't explain why the toponym is located where the BoM says it is.
    6)It is a location. As for the tribe, Nehem derives from the South Arabian word nahama, which means "to cut stone".
    7) The fact is, NHM is a toponym and the altars donated by Bi'athar son of Sawdum, son of Naw'um, the Nihmite, at around 600BC are evidence that the name was used back in Lehi's day.
    8)If you do your research you'll see that the altars were found in Marib which isn't far from the current Nehem tribal region. The fact that it was found there shows that the tribe hasn't been doing much moving in the last 2,400 years.

  5. Pedro,

    I notice with apologetical arguments, it tends to go back and forth, with the apologist defending by using the “It is possible…” method As in your comment, “The reformed Egyptian was probably Hebrew written in Egyptian characters…” or “I would expect some vowel changes…”

    No argument, just “it may be” and “it could be” and “it is possible that.” I did find it interesting you introduced a third (3rd) possible vowel arrangement, being “Nehem” instead of “Nihm” or “Nahom.” (Not to mention “Nahum” of the Tanakh.”)

    And, for anyone interested, it was Paprus Amherst 63 (not 83) written in the Second Century B.C.

    But rather than trade possibilities with Mormon apologists, I was digging a bit deeper with this post. What I see is picking certain pieces of information that might support the Mormon cause, while disregarding the vast evidences against it. Emphasizing the “hits” rather than the plethora of “misses.” Trying sales tactics by highlighting possibilities, rather than acknowledging the full scope.

    Cut to the quick—is there a single non-Mormon archeologist who claims the Nihmite came from the Nahom listed in the Book of Mormon? One?

    See, the ONLY people being convinced are those already convinced by this…sketchy…evidence. Apologists don’t convince skeptics; they look for possible thin evidences to sustain those who already want to believe.

  6. You are assuming that the drawing came from a modern photo of Stela B at Copan. Have you looked at the 1889 photo of the Stela by A.P. Maudslay
    Copán, Stela B
    book plate, ca. 1889, from him and his wife's book on Guatemalan statuary? It is the Stela before it was broken.