Today, we are going to examine the holy books of three of the world's most well known religions: the Bible, the Koran, and the Book of Mormon. They belong to Christianity, Islam, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints respectively. In this article, I am not overly concerned with the moral or theological claims made by each book. Rather, I am concerned mainly with textual criticism, and the archaeological evidence either for or against each of them. After all, faith is not blind; faith is built on a solid foundation of facts and evidence.
Let us, therefore, begin with Christianity.
The main tenets of Christian belief, what C.S. Lewis called "mere Christianity", are expressed in the Apostle's Creed, and in greater detail in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. This is the Christianity that we will be discussing in this article. Our holy book is the Bible.
Unlike other books, such as the Koran, there is no single author. In fact, we aren't even sure who wrote some of the books in the Bible. But, we believe that each author was inspired by the Holy Spirit to transmit God's message using the genre and literary style he was most comfortable with, or that the people would understand best. What exactly is inspiration? Contrary to what some Fundamentalists have expressed, we do not mean that the Bible is "inspirational". (1) Indeed, if that is the criteria for inspiration, we could say that many other books were inspired, because they make us "feel good", or otherwise make us want to be better human beings. On another angle, who would think that the Book of Numbers, or the Song of Songs, was inspirational? So, warm, fuzzy feelings are not enough to establish inspiration.
Another erroneous understanding of inspiration (again found mostly with the Fundamentalists) is that "the Holy Spirit tells me that the Bible is inspired." (2) If that is so, then why, even among members of the same denominations, are there differing interpretations of the same scripture? This fact leads us to think that simply relying on the Holy Spirit to tell us whether a book is inspired or not is not a good policy. If I wanted a certain book to be inspired, then, if I thought long enough and hard enough, and wanted it badly enough, then I would eventually talk myself into believing that the Holy Spirit has revealed said book to be inspired. I do not think relying on such subjective reasoning is very logical.
One final error we will examine is what we might call the "conviction" error. That is, one might say that he feels "convicted" that the Bible is the word of God. "But this reduces…acceptance of the Bible to the influence of their culture, habit, or any number of other emotional or psychological factors." (3) Again, this theory simply does not work. In America, though we are becoming an increasingly secular culture, we still retain some understanding and (reluctant) respect for Christian values. Thus, an American, due to culture and place, is more likely to accept the Bible as inspired. An Arab, on the contrary, would more likely believe the same thing about the Koran than the Bible. Therefore, this theory is built on shaky foundations, and is logically invalid.
What about the transmission of the Bible? Can we verify it against the oldest manuscripts?
The four gospels in the New Testament are the earliest recorded accounts of Jesus' life, with the other apocryphal accounts coming much later. (4) In fact, most objective scholars would agree that there are around 5,840 manuscripts of the New Testament in existence, many of them dating very close to the time it was written. In fact, many of the manuscripts we have today are from the second and third centuries. Given that the Gospel of John was written around 100 A.D., or by other estimations, around 63 years after the Ascension (5), any manuscripts from the second century would be quite close to the original. "[W]e still have two full New Testaments from the early fourth century…[and] modern translations of the Bible are based on those manuscripts." (6)
What is the truth, then about Biblical inspiration? By textual criticism, we can arrive at a number of conclusions. First, the Bible is the best-preserved ancient book, with the most number of manuscripts dating close to the originals. The next competitor is Virgil, with the first verifiable manuscript of his writings coming over 300 years after his death. (7) Again, by using the ancient manuscripts and the pertinent extra-Biblical sources (as I did in my article on the resurrection), we can verify that the Gospel accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are generally true. Christ made the claim that he would found a church (see Matthew 16:18). By both biblical and extra-biblical accounts, his church came into being immediately after his death and began to grow and flourish at a surprising rate.
As I said in my article Did God Raise Jesus From the Dead?, Jesus made quite unprecedented claims to being the Messiah and the Son of God. God's raising of Jesus from the dead proved divine vindication of his claims. Thus, we can also accept that the claims Jesus made about his Church, e.g. that it could/would teach in his name, were true. The Church teaches that the Bible is inspired; therefore, the Bible is inspired.
This is actually a logically valid argument. We do not say, for example, that "the inspiration of the Bible [is based on] the infallibility of the Church, and that the infallibility of the Church [is based on] the inspiration of the Bible." (8) That would be a logically invalid argument, as it is circular reasoning. Rather our argument could look something like this:
A) If the claims of the Bible are true and reliable, then Jesus founded a Church that could teach in his name.
B) The claims of the Bible are true and reliable.
C) Therefore, Jesus founded a Church that could teach in his name.
D) The Church teaches that Bible is inspired.
E) Therefore, the Bible is inspired. (9)
Based on history, we can prove the validity of the Bible, which proves the infallibility of the Church, which teaches the inspiration of the Bible.
The Bible accounts are also attested by archaeology. As regards the Acts of the Apostles, "The many archaeological discoveries relating to people, places, or titles mentioned in Acts do lend credence to its historicity at one level; many of the specific details in Acts are factual." (10) The following are some archaeological discoveries that either reflect Biblical events directly, or provide indirect evidence.
Some critics of the gospel resurrection narratives say that Jesus' body must have been thrown to the dogs, as no crucifixion victim was buried in a tomb. However, in 1968, archaeologists discovered a tomb, one of whose occupants was Yohanan Ben Ha'galgol, who "had a 7 inch nail driven through both feet. Yohanan's legs were crushed by a blow consistent with the common use of Roman 'crucifragium'." (11) So, we see here that Romans did allow for the burial of some crucifixion victims.
Probably one of the most exciting finds was that of a first-century fishing boat deep in the mud of the Sea of Galilee. (12) Also found are the sites of Biblical cities such as Bethlehem, Nazareth, Capernaum, and Bethany. (13) The existence of Biblical people has also been verified, such as Herod, Gallio (see Acts 18:12-17), Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Lysanias, Caiaphas, John the Baptist, and many, many others. (14)
While there are some differences between various versions of the Bible extant today, the core of the story is the same, making these objections worthless. In fact, the Koran and the Book of Mormon have changed substantially from their first versions, making this a very weak argument. So far, textual criticism and archaeology proves the Biblical accounts. What about the Koran?
The Koran "consists of about 2600 verses in 114 Surahs. Muslims believe it was revealed from heaven via angels to Muhammad." (15) When challenged, Muhammad would immediately declare his opponents wrong, claiming that his revelations were "from Allah". (16) However, we cannot accept another man's claim to truth without some objective facts and evidence. Does Islam have facts and evidence to support its claims?
Let us begin with one of Islam's most controversial claims: Jesus did not die on the cross. All of the historical evidence points to Jesus' death and resurrection. If you read my article on the resurrection here, you will learn four major facts about the resurrection that are hardly contested, even among atheist scholars. If the resurrection can be proved, that is, if Jesus' rising from the dead can be proved beyond reasonable doubt, then it is reasonable to assume (deductively) that Jesus died.
Some Muslims believe Jesus was not crucified at all, and some believe that Jesus was crucified, but did not die. Let us proceed with the latter theory, as the former has no basis except in dreaming.
Outside of the Bible, how can we prove that Jesus died on the cross? One way is through the Shroud of Turin, and this requires a quick dive into medical science. "The imams in our jamaat [sect] proclaimed the authenticity of the shroud, but they argued that Jesus was alive when the shroud was placed on him." (17) Assuming that the shroud is actually the burial cloth of Jesus, what does it have to say for itself regarding whether Jesus was alive or not?
The Shroud, whether or not it is Jesus', has some amazing properties. When it was first photographed in 1898, "the image on the photographic negative plate was not the negative image [the photographer] expected. Rather, it was the positive image of a man." (18) To put it more simply, the shroud, as it is in the cathedral, is a negative image, while the negative of any photograph taken of it is a positive image. Regarding the blood marks on the shroud, however, on the shroud itself, they are positive (while the outline of the body is negative), and on the negative plates, they are negative (while the body is positive). That is to say, "[T]he blood marks were photographically opposite to the image that they accompanied." (19) This is the only artifact with this property, according to Dr. Lavoie.
Nabeel Qureshi records the following words of his father, defending the Muslim beliefs about the shroud: "But blood coagulates when a man dies, and the man in the shroud has blood flow." (20) Building on the amazing research of a mid twentieth century French physician, Dr. Barbet, Lavoie says: "Barbet recognized that the bloodstains on the shroud were the results of cloth coming into contact with clotted blood." (21) Blood clots after death. However, Mr. Qureshi was correct in that there is something special about the blood marks on the shroud.
What exactly can we learn from just the blood marks? Based on the blood off the left elbow (you could look at an image of the shroud, and it is very clear), we know that a human body was indeed wrapped in the shroud. When the body is wrapped in cloth, and there is blood, it leaves marks that would appear "off-image" when the cloth is spread out. After all, the shroud image "is…similar to a direct frontal photograph of a man". (22) With the blood marks that are on the image of the body, and the off-image marks, we have a picture that incorporates height, width, and depth; that is, we have a three-dimensional image. (23)
What Mr. Qureshi was referring to, though he did not realize it at the time, was what is now know as "clot retraction". When Vern Miller studied the blood marks in 1978, using ultraviolet fluorescence photography, he saw "clear fluorescing borders around the hand wound blood stains". (24) Nabeel Qureshi wrote, recounting a conversation he had with Gary Habermas and Mike Licona prior to his conversion: "…the blood flow on the demonstrates a separation of serum and clotted blood, which only happens after death." (25) This is observable and empirical scientific data. Muslims cannot hold to the authenticity of the Shroud, and simultaneously to their belief that Jesus did not die on the cross, for these two beliefs are mutually exclusive.
One other piece of evidence against this Muslim belief is what happened when Jesus' side was pierced: blood and water came out (John 19:34). This is an example of pericardial effusion, which can happen only after death. This medical fact is corroborated by the preceding verse, which says: "But after they were come to Jesus, when they saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs." (John 19:33, emphasis added)
Subscribers to this Muslim theory, known as the swoon theory, forget one thing: Jesus was flogged. It was common enough for a man to die from the flogging, carried out with a whip ("flagrum" in Latin) braided with metal bits and sharp bone fragments. The flagrum "was designed to rip skin off the body and cause excessive bleeding. After just a few lashes, the victim's skin began to come off in ribbons and their muscles tore. After a few more lashes, the muscles became like pulp. Arteries and veins were laid bare. Sometimes the flagrum would reach around the abdomen and the abdominal wall would give way, causing the victim's insides to spill out. Obviously, many people died during the flogging alone." (26) After suffering this flogging, the marks of which are clearly visible on the shroud, Jesus was nailed through his wrists (contrary to popular depictions, which show him nailed through his palms) and feet. These nail wounds are easily visible in the shroud. In order to breath, Jesus would have had to push against his nailed feet, a process which, due to sheer pain and utter exhaustion, he would have had to stop, leading to death by asphyxiation. (27) This is why the soldiers could see that Jesus was already dead. He had stopped pushing up to breathe, contrary to the two thieves. Hence, the soldiers broke their legs, so they could no longer push up to breathe, and they subsequently died.
All of the medical and scientific data weighs in favor of Jesus' death on the cross. In order to continue in his beliefs to the contrary, a Muslim must ignore the overwhelming evidence and believe in a book dictated by an illiterate man six centuries after the crucifixion.
What about archaeology and the other historical records? What do they show either for or against the Koran? In Surah 2:144, 149-150, we read that the Qibla (direction of prayer) "was canonized towards Mecca for all Muslims circa 624 A. D., two years after the Hijira (Muhammad's flight)." (28) However, archaeological excavations of 8th century mosques show that they did not pray facing Mecca (contrary to what the Quran says). We have eyewitness reports corroborating this information: "James of Odessa was…writing in Egypt around 705 AD. His letter maintains that the [Arabs] in Egypt prayed facing east, towards their Ka'ba…towards Palestine, not Mecca." (29) Why is this?
It seems that (again, contrary to what the Koran says) early Muslims faced the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem at least until the reign of Walid I (705-715). There are other archaeological indications that dispute the Koranic accounts, such as the sparing of Pharaoh at the Red Sea (contra the Biblical narrative). Also, there are certainly gaps in the standard Muslim narrative that the Koran has been perfectly transmitted from the time of Muhammad, but I will return to that in another article later.
So far, we have found that Muslim beliefs do not stand up to modern medical and archaeological evidence. What about the Book of Mormon? Can it stand up the same type of criticism that the Bible can?
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
Many people are familiar with the two young, well-dressed missionaries at their door, offering a copy of the Book of Mormon and asking them to pray about it. However, not many people know much about the Mormons, as they are colloquially called, nor do they know about the LDS (Latter-Day Saints) Church. Let's take a quick look at the history of the LDS Church, and of its prophet and founder, Joseph Smith.
Born December 23, 1805, Joseph Smith, Jr., was the son of some interesting parents. His father believed that all men would eventually be saved, while his mother was not satisfied with any of the current religions, believing in her own interpretation of the Bible. (30) It is no surprise, then, that young Smith would have prayed about which church is the right church. According to the current LDS version of Smith's first vision (based on his 1842 recounting), around 1819, at the age of 14, he saw God the Father and Jesus, who told him that none of the religions were right. It seems odd, then that Smith tried to join the Methodist church in 1828, after this vision, and in the middle of his translation of the Book of Mormon! (31) Regardless, Smith did have a wonderful tale to tell.
He saw an angel (sometimes he called him Nephi, and sometimes he called him Moroni), who told him, four times in the same day, that all men would eventually know of him, and call him either good or evil. "The Lord had a work for him to do: find and translate a book written on gold plates that gave the account of America's former inhabitants." (32) These would also contain the "fullness of the everlasting Gospel". (33)
I will try, as much as possible, to focus on the history of the Book of Mormon, so I will here skip the years between the First Vision and 1827, the year Smith actually began the actual translation of the plates. Smith used his "peep stone" (the use of which had led him into earlier trouble with the law) to find the plates, according to early Mormons, and then used the same stone for translation. He claimed that the plates were written in "Reformed Egyptian", and it is with this statement that the story begins to lose plausibility.
First of all, scholars are still trying to find examples of the "Reformed Egyptian" Smith is referring to. According to Bennett and other disinterested professionals, they are coming up quite dry. Secondly, the revised accounts mention nothing of Smith's embarrassing use of a seer stone to find and translate the plates. Technically, this was illegal, hence his arrest in 1826 for "glass looking". (34) Third, where are the golden plates? It does seem a little suspect that they were conveniently taken up into heaven, reburied, or otherwise made to disappear. (35) After all, if you have a story that is sensational enough to explain their disappearance, nobody will look for them. The Three Witnesses and the Eight Witnesses, whose testimony can be found at the front of the Book of Mormon, have stories which completely lack any semblance of credibility. After all, seeing something with the "eyes of faith", or purportedly hefting the plates, is not conclusive proof. Smith could have convinced them of the plates' existence so well, that they constructed pretty good mental images. It need not be said that Smith could have wrapped anything heavy in cloth, to be handled by the witnesse
I suppose that we could pin the start of the Mormon church to April 6, 1830, the day "Smith and five other men gathered at a house in Fayette, New York, and officially organized the 'Church of Christ', which would evolve into the current Mormon Church." (36) Just like the changeable Mormon concept of God (and many other doctrines), the name of the church has also undergone change, beginning as the Church of Christ, and ending with what we have now (set in 1838). It may change again; we just need to wait for another "revelation".
Besides the Book of Mormon, Smith wrote/translated some other purportedly ancient books, known as the Book of Moses and the Book of Abraham (among others). Upon further study, however, the Egyptian papyri from which Smith "translated" the Book of Abraham turned out to be fragments from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, not at all what Smith said it was. (37) That embarrassing discovery aside, we have the words of LDS lawyer and explorer and amateur archaeologist (the last two titles are what I gleaned from reading about him) Thomas Stuart Ferguson: "The Book or Mormon is either fake or fact. If fake, the [ancient] cities described in it are non-existent. If fact—as we know it to be—the cities will be there." (38) However, can we say that the Book of Mormon is fact? Let's look at the evidence.
The Book of Mormon "tells of the transoceanic migrations of two ancient Near Eastern peoples to the Americas. The first of these people, called 'Jaredites' are supposed to have come to the hitherto unpopulated New World at the time of the confusing of tongues at the Tower of Babel, which the Mormon Church dates at approximately 2000 B.C." (39) Around the sixth century B.C., more Hebrews were purported to have arrived (Nephites and Lamanites). Not content with this large stretch, the LDS church says, in the Introduction to the Book or Mormon, that the Lamanites are "the principal ancestors of the American Indians". This claim, if true, should be easy enough to prove…with DNA testing. That is, the American Indians should have some Hebrew/Israelite DNA. Unfortunately, DNA tests work to prove the case against the LDS church. How so?
"The American Indians are physically Mongoloids and thus must have originated in eastern Asia. The differences in appearance of the various New World tribes in recent times are due to (1) the initial variability of their Asian ancestors; (2) adaptations over several millennia varied New World environments; and (3) different degrees of interbreeding in post-Columbian times with people of European and African origins." (41) I'm sure that not too many archaeologists and anthropologists do their work with the specific goal of debunking the Book of Mormon, but, time and time again the Book of Mormon becomes collateral damage.
Another interesting "revelation" is that permitting polygamy. This came in 1834, some time after Smith began collecting extra wives. One must wonder…is this supposed "revelation" merely a convenient explanation? After all, on "February 17, 1833, Smith reported a revelation known as the Word of Wisdom. He had asked the Lord for advice after [his wife] complained about cleaning up the male members' spittoons after their meetings. Smith was given the revelation 'not by commandment or constraint', but as advice or counsel, that henceforth, members should not use tobacco, alcohol, or 'hot drinks'." (42) It is interesting to note that Smith received this revelation almost immediately after his wife's complaint. That certainly seems a little suspect. Admirable as the sentiments may be, however, it faced the same danger anything else associated with the LDS church faces: change. As of 1930, this particular revelation is now a commandment and constraint, contrary to what Smith originally said. (43)
While not exhaustive, this short summary should help show that the Book of Mormon is more sensational fiction then it is fact. Also, the dubious nature of Smith's revelations cannot help but make one wonder about his credibility. We did not even begin to examine the Mormon archaeological digs in Mexico and Central America, which set out to prove the Book of Mormon, but have done exactly the opposite. Soon, we will return to look at the Mormon temple rites, and their connection to Masonry. We will also examine the LDS church's other esoteric teachings.
Here, we examined three religions: Christianity, Islam, and the LDS church. The archaeological and scientific evidence weighs more heavily in the favor of Christianity than either of the other two holy books surveyed. Of course, truth can certainly be found in the teachings of Islam and the LDS church, but such truth is only that which has already been taught by Christianity, for all truth finds its basis in the triune God. My intention here is not to belittle or otherwise demean non-Christian religions. I used to debate a Muslim in Catholic Answers forums, and he was very courteous, and abhorred the violence propagated in the Sunni/Shiite sects (He was Ahmadi.). The encounters I've had with LDS missionaries were also very good.
While archaeology and science are not conclusive for the veracity of a religion, it is a good starting point. If the religion makes historical or anthropological claims that cannot be verified by independent researchers, it calls into question the other moral and theological claims. We will return to these religions later, investigating just that.
God love you!
1. Essential Catholic Survival Guide, (San Diego: Catholic Answers Press, 2005), 64.
2. Essential Catholic Survival Guide, 65.
3. Essential Catholic Survival Guide, 65.
4. Nabeel Qureshi, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Reflective, 2018), 135.
5. See the Introduction to the Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ According to St. John, in The Holy Bible: Douay-Rheims Version, (Charlotte, NC: St. Benedict Press, 2009).
6. Qureshi, Seeking Allah, 131.
7. Essential Catholic Survival Guide, 66.
8. Essential Catholic Survival Guide, 68.
9. The premises and construction of this argument are original, so any logical errors are entirely mine.
10. Jonathan L. Reed, The Harper Collins Visual Guide to the New Testament: What Archaeology Reveals about the First Christians, (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 100.
11. Peter S. Williams, "Archaeology and the Historical Reliability of the New Testament", at Bethinking (2010), at bethinking.org.
12. Williams, "Historical Reliability", at bethinking.org.
13. Williams, "Historical Reliability", at bethinking.org.
14. Williams, "Historical Reliability", at bethinking.org.
15. "Transmission of Scripture: The Bible, The Koran, The Book of Mormon", Investigator 107 (March 2006), at ed5015.tripod.com.
16. See "Transmission of Scripture", at ed5015.tripod.com, and Surah 2:109-121.
17. Qureshi, Seeking Allah, 149.
18. Gilbert R. Lavoie, MD, Unlocking the Secrets of the Shroud, (Indianapolis: Dog Ear Publishing, 2015), 14.
19. Lavoie, Unlocking the Secrets of the Shroud, 16.
20. Qureshi, Seeking Allah, 149.
21. Lavoie, Unlocking the Secrets of the Shroud, 16-17.
22. Lavoie, Unlocking the Secrets of the Shroud, 82.
23. See Lavoie, Unlocking the Secrets of the Shroud, 83, including the image.
24. Vern Miller, quoted in Lavoie, Unlocking the Secrets of the Shroud, 99.
25. Qureshi, Seeking Allah, 150.
26. Qureshi, Seeking Allah, 151, emphasis added.
27. See Qureshi, Seeking Allah, 151-152.
28. Peter Saunders, "Does Archaeology Support the Qur'an?", at Isa Masih (1999), at isaalmasih.net.
29. Saunders, "Does Archaeology Support the Qur'an?", at isaalmasih.net.
30. Isaiah Bennett, Inside Mormonism: What Mormons Really Believe, (San Diego, Catholic Answers, 1999), 21.
31. H. Michael Marquardt and Wesley P. Walters, Inventing Mormonism: Tradition and the Historical Record, (Salt Lake City: Smith Research Associates, 1994), 54-55, 61.
32. Bennett, Inside Mormonism, 24.
33. Joseph Smith—History 1:3-34.
34. Jerald and Sandra Turner, Mormonism—Shadow or Reality? 5th ed., (Salt Lake City: Utah Lighthouse Ministry, 1987), 32-39.
35. Bennett, Inside Mormonism, 25.
36. Bennett, Inside Mormonism, 26.
37. Lizzie Wade, "How a Mormon Lawyer Transformed Archaeology in Mexico—and Ended up Losing his Faith", in Science Magazine (18 January 2018), at sciencemag.org.
38. Ferguson, quoted in Wade, "How a Mormon Lawyer Transformed Archaeology in Mexico", at sciencemag.org.
39. Luke P. Wilson, "Does Archaeology Support the Book of Mormon? A Survey of the Evidence", at Institute for Religious Research (22 December 2011), at irr.org.
40. You can find the Introduction in any copy of the Book of Mormon, from 1981-present.
41. Origin of the American Indians, (Washington, DC: National Museum of Natural History—Smithsonian Institution, 1985), 1.
42. Bennett, Inside Mormonism, 26-27.
43. See Leonard J. Arrington, "An Economic Interpretation of the 'Word of Wisdom'," BYU Studies, 1, no. 1, 40.