Book of Mormon Anachronisms
(c) Copyright Michael R. Ash 1998. All rights reserved
Metal Plates & Stone Boxes
Joseph Smith claimed that the Book of Mormon record was inscribed on metal plates and buried in a stone box in a hill now referred to as the Hill Cumorah. Since their discovery the critics have ridiculed this claim. The critics, in fact, were very adamant that the claim of sacred writings on metal plates was proof of fraud. In 1887, for instance, one critic who made his conclusions supposedly after a very careful study of the book [Book of Mormon], [and] a conscientious and painstaking examination of all the evidences he has been able to gather both for and against it was forced to reject the claims made by the Book of Mormon. ...no such records, he concludes, were ever engraved upon golden plates, or any other plates, in the early ages.... (Lamb, 11.) And yet another critic writes: It does not seem to have been pointed out to the youth [Joseph Smith] that gold will corrode if left in the earth for the number of years those plates were supposed to have been buried. (Stuart Martin, 27; for my article on the composition of the Book of Mormon golden plates see my article Weight of Gold Plates.) Other critics have made objections concerning the brass plates which Nephi claimed to have taken from Laban.
This book speaks... of the Jewish Scriptures, having been kept by Jews on plates of brass, six hundred years before Christ. The Jews never kept any of their records on plates of brass. (Sunderland, 46; italics added.)
(For further details on plates of brass see my forthcoming article.) When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947 one of the startling finds was a copper scroll. Because writing on this metal was a difficult task, non-Mormon scholars have pointed out that writing on copper produced a cramped and abbreviated script which is particularly difficult to read. This recalls the Book of Mormons claim that it was written in Reformed Egyptian. But is this copper scroll a unique example of writing on metal? One critic wrote in 1972:
We are to understand, then, that Nephi and his brothers found in Jerusalem in the sixth century B.C. a set of brass plates containing large sections of Hebrew Scriptures translated into some form of Egyptian. (Hoekema, 77-78.)
The... statement is... objectionable-- that there were found in the possession of a man by the name of Laban... certain brass plates upon which were engraven, in the Egyptian language, the five books of Moses, containing the law, the entire history of the Jews from the first down to Laban's time.... (Lamb, 90-91; italics in original.)
The book of Mormon purports to have been originally engraved on brass plates.... How could brass be written on? (Sunderland, 44.)
In the sixth century B.C. the most common forms of writing material in Palestine were papyrus and leather (or animal skin); the Hebrew also wrote on wood and potsherds..... It should of course, be mentioned that writing on metal was not completely unknown, since a copper scroll has been discovered at Qumran. This scroll, however, was not a plate but a roll, and is dated much later than 600 B.C., being generally ascribed to the first century B.C.
In view of the above facts, does it seem likely that brass plates containing a large section of the Old Testament in Egyptian would be found in Palestine in 600 B.C.?
...The only other instance of writing on metal which is commonly known is the copper scroll of Qumran, as noted above; but even this was a roll, not a plate. (Hoekema, 82-83.)
First the critics cry that there never was any writing on metal, when some turn up, they concede that perhaps there was the rare instance of writing on metal but only on metal scrolls not on plates. Once again, however, archaeology has come to the rescue of Joseph Smith. What will the critics say now?
Several ancient sites have recently revealed that bronze (which also has a copper base) was used in the form of writing tablets. One plate in particular has been dated to the sixth century B.C.-- the same period the Book of Mormon states that Lehi took the plates of Laban. This bronze plaque was discovered in 1860 near Styria, Greece, and contains laws for the distribution of land. It is now housed at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. (Wirth, 41-42.) Other metal plates have also been discovered.
A private letter written in Hebrew on a copper plate has turned up and been dated to the 12th century B.C. [Likewise] ...Darius the Median... [a ruler in Lehi's time] had his royal proclamation [of the liberation of the Jews] put on plates of pure gold and silver and buried in a carefully made stone box, which was discovered in 1938. (Nibley [1978a], 18, 19; italics added.)
A gold-leaf book [Hmawza Book (Burma)] of twenty numbered pages found at Hmawza (Old Prome) in 1926... dates from the fifth century A.D. It was patterned after the palm leaf manuscripts common in India at the time. Each leaf has two perforations through which they are connected by heavy gold wire [the Book of Mormon was also held together with rings]. The book contains assorted Buddhist writings, kind of an anthology. (Cheesman (1985), 86.)
When the golden plates of Darius were first discovered, the scholars believed that these plates were unique. It was not long, however, before they learned otherwise. In 1933 a scholar discovered two shallow, neatly made stone boxes with [sealed] lids, each containing two square plates of gold and silver... (Wright, 48-49.)
Dr. William Hamblin notes that the oldest example of Hebrew writing on metal is the engraved gold plate attached to the front of the turban of the high priest in approximately 1,000 B.C. (Hamblin , 4.) Hamblin also notes that the Book of Mormon describes sacred writing on bronze and gold plates in the early sixth century B.C. at precisely the time when we find the earliest evidence of the spread of this practice from Phoenicia to Carthage, Italy, and Greece. (Ibid., 15-16.)
As noted in this reference as well as others above, these metal records were often discovered in stone boxes not unlike the one described by Joseph Smith. Dr. Paul Cheesman comments:
Prior to 1823 when Joseph Smith first saw the stone box containing the plates, no record had been found describing any type of stone box from any ancient period. Only in recent years have archaeologists confirmed that this method for storing valuable articles was commonly used in ancient cultures.... Joseph Smith's... description of the stone box [which] contained the golden plates stood alone for nearly a century as the only account involving ancient stone boxes. (Cheesman (1984), 162.)
Not only have several of the ancient Old World metal plates been discovered in stone boxes, but it is apparent that in the New World stone boxes were also used to store valuables. In fact nearly fifty stone boxes have now been found in various locations throughout the world, including the New World. These New World stone boxes were used to preserve valuables such as jewelry, tapestries, tools, or clothing. (Ibid., 161.) Some of these stone boxes match Joseph Smith's description of the Book of Mormon box to surprising degrees.
New World examples of metal plates are infrequent, but not absent. Dr. Cheesman, for instance, photographed seven inscribed metal plates, made of copper, gold and zinc or tin which belonged to a Catholic priest in Ecuador. (Cheesman , 147.)
Early American traditions include tales of records that had been kept on metal plates. According to one nineteenth-century Mesoamerican historian the ancestors of the Mixtecs kept hieroglyphic records on thin gold plates. (Sorenson , 283.) A non-Mormon scholar who dealt with the Indians in Alabama wrote that the priests of certain tribes had brass and copper plates that contained the writings of their forefathers as given to them by their God. (Wirth, 43.) In an investigation of Mesoamerican history, two non-Mormon scholars learned of a tradition that the ancestors of the Maya had kept a complete history of their people on golden plates which they carefully hid to prevent from falling into the hands of the Spaniards. This book has never been found. Likewise, another scholar relates the story of a group of Indians in Mexico who claim that their ancestors engraved their history on gold leaves which were concealed in the vaults of an ancient city upon the arrival of the Spanish. (Ibid.) How strikingly similar this all sounds to the Book of Mormon.
As the critics have already demonstrated, the world of Joseph Smith did not believe that ancient records had ever been inscribed on metal plates or kept in stone boxes. Today, however, we have hundreds of examples of ancient writings on metal plates (and many stored in stone boxes), some of which date back as early as 2450 B.C. (Cheesman , 69, 82.) ...the discovery of writings on plates of precious metal, notes Nibley, once the hardest thing to swallow in Joseph Smith's story, has become almost a commonplace in the Near East. (Nibley , 76.)
Michael R. Ash
Return to Mormon Fortress