We’re continuing our discussion of Matt Harris/Newell Bringhurst’s book on the Gospel Topics Series. This time, we’re going to talk about DNA and the Book of Mormon. I’m excited to introduce Dr. Thomas Murphy. He’s an anthropologist at Edmonds College and works with Native American tribes. Why does an anthropologist have the knowledge to critique this essay?
Thomas: Yeah, excellent question. What lured me to anthropology, as a discipline, was the ability to be a natural scientist, a social scientist, and scholar of the humanities, all in the same discipline. [There are] not too many disciplines offer you that opportunity. In fact, teaching at a community college has really given me the opportunity to do that as a career, to have that breadth that you don’t see that often today among scientists and scholars. Anthropology is the study of humans. We have four major subfields, what we call cultural anthropology, and that’s the study of human culture, linguistic anthropology, the study of human languages, and archeology, the study of past societies through the artifacts and features that they leave behind. Biological anthropology is the study of humans as biological organisms. That’s where the DNA comes in.
I teach biological anthropology courses that DNA work is kind of a central part of those classes. In fact, we get to extract our own DNA and take the students through that process.
Thomas shares several other experiences working with Native American tribes as an anthropologist in Washington and Mexico. To say Dr. Thomas Murphy’s research about DNA and the Book of Mormon raises eyebrows among LDS Church leaders is an understatement. Not only did it cause concern among his LDS friends, but evangelicals came looking for anti-Mormon material as well. Tom shares his dealings with these two different groups.
Thomas: So, my Stake President called me in to talk about that article. He said somebody had given him a copy and he was concerned that a member of the church would make the conclusions that I made. Particularly, I had said that there’s no DNA evidence to support the idea that the ancestors of American Indians came from Israel.
I didn’t think it was that radical of a conclusion. I figured the Church would eventually get there. But I was a little bit ahead of where my Stake President wanted me to be. He asked me if I’d reconsider my conclusion. I said, “Well, only if the evidence changed. If the evidence is different, yeah, I’ll consider that. But, I’ve got to be honest about what the evidence is.” He says, “Well, then I think we need to schedule a disciplinary council.” So I said, “Well, if that’s what you want to do. It’s your decision, but I don’t want that.” I went home that night. That was like the night before Thanksgiving, Wednesday night, right before Thanksgiving back in 2002. I wrote an email to a lot of friends, kind of a group email that I sent out explaining what had happened. I’d included it in that the editors for American Apocrypha, and some of the folks at Signature Books. They asked my permission first and then asked if it would be okay if they shared my email with the Associated Press.
But it just kind of blew up into a media frenzy. I talked to the Associated Press reporter the day after Thanksgiving, in the morning. In the afternoon, Brent sent me an email. He said that the story’s out. “You need to get on the internet and check it out.” So I got on, I think it was ABC News or something, and it was already one of the top forwarded stories of the day. I was like, “Oh, wow.” It kind of went crazy after that. The next couple of weeks I was having television, newspaper reporters follow me to class.
He was also recruited by an evangelical group.
Thomas: They assured me that they were trying to make a balanced perspective and so on. So I said, “Okay, I’ll sign this, then.” They interviewed me and cut out everything I said that might have challenged the historicity of the Bible, especially the dating, the timing. All of that was completely gone. Then what appears in the film are all the things that challenge Mormonism.
GT: Oh, that’s interesting.
Thomas: But anyway, the reason I was telling this story is that my relatives on my father’s side, they were going around Twin Falls and knocking on people’s doors and leaving this video. Then my relatives on my mom’s side, were the ones getting this video, that’s being left on their doorstep. So, I created a little bit of tension at family reunions.
What are your thoughts on DNA & the Book of Mormon? What do you think of the Gospel Topics essay on the Book of Mormon & DNA Studies?
Let’s just start off by giving three cheers for Tom Murphy. First, as an academic who digs into interesting questions, follows the evidence, and will defend his conclusions. As large chunks of public discourse in the US continues to disengage from reality, academic disciplines and professors that continue to support evidence-based reasoning and conclusions deserve our support. The same dynamic holds within the Church, which in the big picture (the last couple of generations) seems to be slowly disengaging from facts and evidence, and retreating into fideism. LDS scientists and scholars deserve our support.
Second, I admire Murphy as a Mormon who just wants to stick around, despite not believing a lot of the standard Mormon truth claims. There ought to be room in the Church for an honest scientist. If there isn’t, what does that say about the Church? He’s not stirring up trouble for the Church, just doing his scientist thing. The Church creates its own trouble, then looks for others to blame. Don’t shoot the messenger! Honestly, Murphy represents the more admirable aspects of Mormonism, and leaders, whether general or local, who think it’s their job to squelch inconvenient facts and punish those who share them represent the worst parts of Mormonism.
“ Galileo went on to propose a theory of tides in 1616, and of comets in 1619; he argued that the tides were evidence for the motion of the Earth. In 1632 Galileo published his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, which implicitly defended heliocentrism, and was immensely popular. Responding to mounting controversy over theology, astronomy and philosophy, the Roman Inquisition tried Galileo in 1633 and found him “vehemently suspect of heresy”, sentencing him to indefinite imprisonment. Galileo was kept under house arrest until his death in 1642.”
Nothing changes until we change it.
It’s a known fact that DNA of Native Americans can be traced back to Asia, not the Middle East. So the Church and its apologists attempt to muddy the waters on DNA science (see the Gospel Topic Essay about it). I’m not a scientist nor am I a geneticist but this much I know: if the Church had the ability to draw a genetic or scientific link between Native Americans and the Middle East, we’d never hear the end of it. But because they can’t, we are told that our testimonies should not be based on genetic or archeological evidence. Of course.
It’s interesting to me that what was so controversial in Murphy’s original article (that ther is no DNA evidence for Israelite orgigins of native americans) has now become accepted as mainstream, as attested to in the church’s essay.
The current scientific explanation to DNA challenges to BoM historicity seems to be to accept the limited geography model (mostly mesoamerica) and then float concepts like bottlenecking and genetic drift to explain how a small group of Israelites being absorbed into a much larger native population could have their genetic traces disappear. The science for this relies on mitochondrial (maternal) and Y chromosome (paternal) DNA analysis.
But I have yet to see any apologetic response (including from the author of the church’s essay, Ugo Perego) to the even bigger problem that whole genome analysis brings to the table. I am no expert, but my understanding is that using this more comprehensive analytical tool that utilizes the whole genome, the sensitivity is such that it could effectively detect a drop of blood in the ocean.
Ok, that’s probably an exaggeration but the point is that we have much more sensitive tools available, such that even if a small group if Israelites did encounter a much larger native popluation and immediately mix their DNA, and even if theire were large bottlenecking events and genetic drift, we would still be able to detect that DNA today somewhere, if it did in fact ever exist.
The church’s essay is out of date and I have not seen a believing response that addresses how Israelite DNA could disappear given these newer methodologies. Genetic studies have looked at native DNA from north, central, and south america, and thus far, nothing corroborates the BoM narrative.
The lack of any such evidence is glaring in my mind, and I’d love to hear a rational scientific response from the believing perspective that offers some hope for historicity because from where I sit, it looks like a slam dunk.
Meh, Protestants have the same problems.
No Israelite DNA in America? DNA says that there’s no such thing as an Israelite to begin with, it’s all Canaanite. All the DNA they’ve excavated in Israel is the same as their Canaanite neighbors.
There’s no archeological evidence of Nephites? There isn’t any for the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan and very little evidence regarding the Israelite kingdom.
Base your testimony of the Bible and BoM on the doctrine and not archeology and you won’t care either.
A tip of the hat to Thomas Murphy who has followed the science when it has come to DNA and not caved to what I’m sure have been immense pressures to bend science to confirm to preconceived traditional religious truth claims. Meanwhile his peers at FAIR have chosen foul-mouthed right-wing trolls to be their face, a brilliant PR strategy, I’m sure.
Where the DNA question stands today, I simply can’t imagine any scholar of Native American DNA who has had little to no previous exposure to traditional Mormon historical claims to say, “wait a minute, I’m seeing an influx of Middle Eastern DNA around 600-300 BCE.”
I remember the Gospel Topics essay on DNA referencing a new DNA finding published in National Geographic that showed a 24,000-year-old bone in Siberia to have Eurasian and Middle Eastern DNA suggesting that Native Americans had ancestors from the Middle East between 25,000 and 30,000 years ago. It really didn’t make any sense why the essay writers claimed that finding as some sort of victory. For one, the human bone was over 6,000 years old, which of course the still widely-believed yet less explicitly-made notion among Mormons (particularly older generation, I know that my PhD former BYU professor father believes this) that human history does not predate 6,000 years. The other issue is that this doesn’t show that there was any migration remotely close to what traditional Mormon historical claims hold. We’re off by a couple of tens of thousands of years, folks. I gather that the main reason that the nameless apologist authors of the essay included the finding was to be able to claim that the mainstream scientific community (with which many apologists oddly believe they are in line with) was always turning up new stuff on DNA and that you punk scientismists who keep claiming that DNA completely falsifies the Book of Mormon are wrong, so ha! We’ll keep finding new stuff, I’m sure of that. New stuff that will confirm traditional Mormon historical claims? Doubtful.
Andy, “Protestants have the same problems”
No they do not. All believing and non-believing scholars alike can agree that the Bible contains the words of ancient post-exilic Hebrew-speakers who very likely drew from oral traditions and cultural knowledge that predated them to construct and organize the Tanakh, much like Homer drew on oral Greek traditions that predated him. Plus, the Merneptah Stele of 1208 BCE mentions “Israel,” which is evidence that there was a community that both self-identified as was identified as Israel well before the Babylonian Captivity. The Tel Dan Stele, created somewhere between 870 and 750 BCE affirms the likely existence of King David, lending credence to the notion that post-exilic editors and scribes weren’t just making up the historical elements of the Tanakh but that they reflected people and places that actually existed. By contrast, I know of no non-believing scholar that accepts that the Book of Mormon contains the words of ancient Americans or that Joseph Smith drew from cultural knowledge and oral tradition that predated him (other than what he had access to from the KJV and Apocrypha).
You make a false comparison between the historicity problems of the Bible and those of the Book of Mormon in a bad attempt to normalize Mormonism and equate it with mainstream Christianity, as if believing in a historical BOM is just like believing in a historical Bible (complete nonsense). Mormonism’s historicity claims are leaps and bounds more extraordinary than those of mainstream Christianity. For Mormonism makes all of the same historical assumptions about the Bible (leaning even to Young Earth Creationism) PLUS a large number of very extraordinary historical claims about ancient Egypt, ancient Israel, and the ancient Americas.
Let’s just assume, for a moment, the truth of the argument that Israelite DNA was so overwhelmed by that of the natives that no remnant can be identified. If that were true, it would seem to follow that Nephi’s group either died off without intermingling or became part of an existing community fairly rapidly. In either case, the BoM narrative is upended completely. It becomes an elaborate, allegorical fantasy supported by no evidence whatsoever, which feels like the truth of it to me. In that sense, Andy is correct. Either find something in the BoM that supports your beliefs or accept that Joseph Smith could spin a good yarn and had more ability than even the church he founded wants to give him credit for.
However, one question: How much of current church doctrine can actually find support in the BoM? Is it even greater than half?
Agree that protestants don’t have the same problem. Our exclusive authority position is rooted in historical claims of the restoration of priesthood & prophets. If those historical claims are not accurate, all we have to offer in terms of authority is, well, I guess the usefulness of our teachings? The spirit confirming things are true? Us being consistent with what Jesus said (when he, by the way, didn’t actually establish a church like we claim?) FWIW I think that’s perfectly fine and it’s a narrative I wish we would move towards, but “follow the Prophet” + the ways in which we control the conferral and use of priesthood authority doesn’t jive with that narrative so we are in a pickle. So all of Christianity may have some problems depending on how you view the bible & historical Jesus; we share those problems but heap a whole new set on top.
@jaredsbrother that’s a good point and something I thought a lot about during this year’s BoM read-through. In fact, a lot of the Book of Mormon contradicts the way we run our church today. Harping on the authority issue once more, in the BoM you have lots of prophets who just sort of became prophets / priesthood leaders without any kind of ordination like we require now. Really pretty protestant in terms of authority. I think there’s a lot of good stuff in the BoM (whether read as a history or a 19th century work) but there’s very little to do with the way our church runs. And on the minus-side, a very protestant view of the atonement as retributive by some BoM writers (but some good restorative stuff there too, mixed bag).
Hi John, My quote was: “very little evidence regarding the Israelite kingdom.” I didn’t say there “no evidence”. And you proved my point when the evidence you provided were inferences about Israel made by other nations. Now compare that to empires like Egypt, or and Babylon where there’s much more solid evidence of their civilizations.
For the Exodus, again, no ARCHEOLOGICAL evidence of Exodus. Watch Shaye Cohen Harvard online class where he brought in an Egyptologist who point blank says this.
Dr. Richard Freidman had to write a whole book trying to show how the Exodus “could” have happened in light of the lack of the archeological evidence.
Yes, Protestants have the same problems because in the end we’re all using pseudepigrapha.
Half the Pauline epistles are considered fake. None of the Gospels are eye witnesses. In John, Jesus uses Greek wordplay with other Jews. Later he has a huge conversation with Pilot that would never have been recorded. Peter’s epistles are way too educated for a country fisherman and I can keep going.
So back to my point, base your testimony on the doctrine and teachings of the book.
Andy, a few points.
1) The Merneptah Stele is 600 years before the first post-exilic Israelites emerge. Imagine if there were a stele found somewhere in the Americas 600 years before Joseph Smith, so the year 1230, upon which was an inscription to the effect of house of Mormon, Moroni, Laman, or some other unmistakable Book of Mormon name. That piece of evidence would be huge. There no doubt the church would seize on that and promote it as vindicating their historical claims.
2) Without the Tanakh and NT, there is all kinds of evidence of Jewish and Israelite culture existing throughout the Mediterranean post-exile, and we get more and more evidence of this 300 BCE onward. That there is scant evidence of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah doesn’t matter too much. We know for a fact post-exilic Israelites had a cultural memory of this ancient kingdom that they preserved in writings passed down from generation to generation. Your comparison would be more apt if we found a group or groups of Native Americans, and historical evidence of them centuries before Joseph Smith, who called themselves something close to Lamanites, had religious traditions close to Judaism or Christianity and had an oral tradition that was reminiscent of stories we read in the BOM. As an enthusiast of ancient Native American cultures, I can tell you that there is nothing of the sort. Ancient Native American religions are about as different from Judaism and Christianity as Daoism is different from Islam. Ancient Native American customs and writings bear no resemblance to anything we read in the Book of Mormon.
3) The Exodus has no evidence that would have widespread acceptance outside already-believing circles, you are correct. But the Exodus is ancient Israelite cultural memory. No one questions that. By contrast, no one believes that the Book of Mormon reflects the collective cultural memory of any Native American groups aside from already believing Mormons.
4) On the NT, we have a more established timeframe for when the text emerged, which is within 100 years after the death of Jesus, probably 2 or 3 generations after his death. It really doesn’t matter who the authors of the New Testament actually are. We know for a fact that these are the writings of the earliest Christian communities. Outside already believing Mormons, no one accepts that the Book of Mormon contains the words of pre-Columbian American Christians.
5) The truthfulness of doctrinal claims is contingent in some part to the truthfulness of central historical claims. They aren’t entirely separate. If you remove Jesus as an actual historical and existing being, and reduce him to a work of fiction, Christian doctrines in any manifestation that they’ve ever had carry no weight and make no sense. Not everything has to be treated as historical, obviously; however, there are central elements that have to be treated as historical and as actually having happened. Mainstream Christianity is not nearly as burdened by historicity issues as Mormonism is. Mainstream Christianity has the flexibility to interpret about everything as metaphorical/fictional/didactic in the Bible, except Jesus and his divine saving power, and still maintain some semblance of integrity. Lots more claims have to be treated as historically true for Mormon doctrines to make sense and have relevance.
Maintain your boundaries but let me drink beer !!
Hebrews 11 calls faith the “evidence of things not seen.” I can get behind that. But what happens when your religion requires you to deny things you *can* see? Is that still faith or something more like denial?
Joseph Smith compared blasphemy against the Holy Ghost to pointing at the sun and saying it doesn’t shine. If you look at the mountain of evidence for the BoM as a 19th C work of pseudepigrapha and then try to explain it all away, to me that’s a very similar thing.
Does this mean that I don’t have “within my veins the blood of Israel flowing through the loins of Ephraim”, either?