Book of Mormon Writing Challenge

Hugh Nibley is a famous mormon scholar. He wrote many books on complex mormon doctrine and taught for many years at BYU. In some of his classes and some of his books he famously gave his students a faux writing challenge where they were to write the equivalent of the book of mormon. He was attempting to solidify testimony that the book of mormon could only have come from God. This challenge has been referenced in many talks and firesides.

Extensive collection of works by Hugh Nibley

Here is the challenge:

“Since Joseph Smith was younger than most of you and not nearly so experienced or well-educated as any of you at the time he copyrighted the Book of Mormon, it should not be too much to ask you to hand in by the end of the semester (which will give you more time than he had) a paper of, say, five to six hundred pages in length. Call it a sacred book if you will, and give it the form of a history. Tell of a community of wandering Jews in ancient times; have all sorts of characters in your story, and involve them in all sorts of public and private vicissitudes; give them names–hundreds of them–pretending that they are real Hebrew and Egyptian names of circa 600 b.c.; be lavish with cultural and technical details–manners and customs, arts and industries, political and religious institutions, rites, and traditions, include long and complicated military and economic histories; have your narrative cover a thousand years without any large gaps; keep a number of interrelated local histories going at once; feel free to introduce religious controversy and philosophical discussion, but always in a plausible setting; observe the appropriate literary conventions and explain the derivation and transmission of your varied historical materials.

“Above all, do not ever contradict yourself! For now we come to the really hard part of this little assignment. You and I know that you are making this all up–we have our little joke–but just the same you are going to be required to have your paper published when you finish it, not as fiction or romance, but as a true history! After you have handed it in you may make no changes in it (in this class we always use the first edition of the Book of Mormon); what is more, you are to invite any and all scholars to read and criticize your work freely, explaining to them that it is a sacred book on a par with the Bible. If they seem over-skeptical, you might tell them that you translated the book from original records by the aid of the Urim and Thummim–they will love that! Further to allay their misgivings, you might tell them that the original manuscript was on golden plates, and that you got the plates from an angel. Now go to work and good luck!

“To date no student has carried out this assignment, which, of course, was not meant seriously. But why not? If anybody could write the Book of Mormon, as we have been so often assured, it is high time that somebody, some devoted and learned minister of the gospel, let us say, performed the invaluable public service of showing the world that it can be done.”

Hugh Nibley
Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Vol. 8, Ch. 11, pp. 221-2

Is this really a true representation of what the Book of Mormon is?

Debunking Hugh Nibley's Book of Mormon writing challenge

Is that how the book of Mormon was written? Not quite. First off, it wasn’t an assignment. It was the work of a practiced treasure-digging con artist. He never found any treasure, besides the seer stone of course. Perhaps the greatest con has been the church he founded and the Book of Mormon.

Does the Book of Mormon never contradict itself? Hardly.

Is Joseph dumb? No. He may not be educated by today’s standard, but for his time he was. The church likes to use standards of the day when allowing his marriages to teenage girls since that was apparently a coming age for marriage back then. But when evaluating his education they like to frame him as a simpleton farm boy. They want to make sure to set the stage that he couldn’t have written this, he must have been inspired, and it must be from God.

True history? Even the church seems to be backing off this claim.

Or there is this longer version from another one of Hugh Nibley’s books including 30 points:

If one scoffs at the missionary’s explanation of the Book of Mormon, he is in so many words claiming it to be false: That it is a deceiving fraud formulated through the efforts and talents of a common man. What is produced by one man can always be duplicated by another. The challenge that the Book of Mormon makes to the world is that of duplication. Because the book complies with every one of the following conditions, in order to produce a similar record, one must comply with the same conditions.

Here is the challenge: Can you accept it?

  1. Write a history of ancient Tibet covering a period from 600 B.C. to 450 A.D. Why ancient Tibet? Because you know no more about Tibet than Joseph Smith (or anyone else) knew about ancient America.
  2. You are 23 years of age.
  3. You have had no more than three years of formal school education, and have spent your life in backwoods farming communities.
  4. Your history must be written on the basis of what you now know. There was no library that held information for Joseph Smith. You must use none. There is to be no research of any kind.
  5. Your history must be 531 pages and over 300,000 words in length.
  6. Other than a few grammatical corrections, you must have no changes in the text. The first edition as you dictate it to your secretary must stand forever.
  7. This record is to contain the history of two distinct and separate nations, along with histories of different contemporary nations or groups of people.
  8. You must describe their religious, economic, political, and social cultures and institutions. Cover every phase of their society, including the names of their coins.
  9. Change your style of writing many times. Many ancient authors contributed to the Book of Mormon, each with his own style.
  10. Weave into your history the religion of Jesus Christ and the pattern of Christian living.
  11. You must claim that your smooth narrative is not fiction with moral value, but true and sacred history.
  12. You must include in you book fifty-four chapters dealing with wars, twenty-one historical chapters, fifty-five chapters on visions and prophecies. Remember, when you begin to write visions and prophecies, you must have your record agree meticulously with the Bible. You must write seventy-one chapters on doctrine and exhortation, and you must check every statement with the scriptures or you will be proven a fraud. You must write twenty-one chapters on the ministry of Christ, and every thing you claim he said and every testimony you write in your book about Him must agree absolutely with the New Testament.
  13. Many of the facts, claims, ideas, and statements given as absolute truth in your writing must be entirely inconsistent with the prevailing beliefs of the world. Some of these worldly beliefs must be the direct opposite of your claims.
  14. Included in your narrations will be authentic modes of travel; whether or not those ancient people used fire; description of their clothing, crops, mourning customs, and types of government. You must invent about 280 new names that will stand up under scrutiny through the years as to their proper application and derivation.
  15. You will have to properly use figures of speech, similes, metaphors, narrations, exposition, descriptions, oratory, epic lyric, and parables.
  16. You must invite the ablest scholars and experts to examine the text with care, and you must strive diligently to see that your book gets into the hands of those eager to prove it a forgery, and who are most competent to expose every flaw in it.
  17. Thorough investigation, scientific and historical evidence, and archaeological discovery for the next 125 years must verify its claims and prove detail after detail to be true, for many of the details you put in your history are still buried beneath the soil of Tibet.
  18. You must publish it to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people declaring it to be the word of God and another witness for the Lord Jesus Christ.
  19. The book must not contain any absurd, impossible, or contradictory statements. Your history must not contain any statement that will contradict any other statement elsewhere in the volume.
  20. Many theories and ideas as to its origin must arise, and after discovering and examining the facts, they must fail. You have claimed that your knowledge had come from divine origin, and this claim continues to stand as the only possible explanation. The strength of this explanation must not decrease as time passes, but actually increases to the point where it becomes the only logical explanation.
  21. Your record is to fulfill many Bible prophecies, even in the exact manner in which it shall come forth, to whom delivered, its purposes, and its accomplishments.
  22. Call down an angel from heaven in the middle of the day and have him bear testimony to four honest, dignified citizens of your community that the record is the word of God. These witnesses must bear the angel’s testimony to the world, not for profit or gain, but under great sacrifice and severe persecution, even to their death beds. You must put that testimony to the test by becoming an enemy to these men.
  23. Thousands of great men, intellectual giants, national and international personalities, and scholars for 165 years must accept your history and its teachings even to the point of laying down their life rather than deny their testimony of it.
  24. You must include with within the record this promise: “And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, He will manifest the truth of it unto you by the power of the Holy Ghost.”
  25. Missionaries must bear record to the world for the next 165 years that they know the record to be true because they put the promise to the test and found it to be true. The truth of it was manifested to them by the power of the Holy Ghost.
  26. Over 52,900 plus competent salesman must be so sold on your book that they gladly give up two or more years of their lives to take it to all parts of the world for distribution. They not only pay their own way during these years, but return bearing testimony that the time spent will remain as one of the highlights of their lives. They receive nothing in return for their efforts but the joy of having shared your book with others.
  27. Your book must not only raise the standards of millions of people but do it in such a way that they become one of the great moral, ethical, and dynamic marvels of the day. They must become world renowned for this.
  28. For the next 20 years you must watch those that follow and you, your family, and the dearest of your loved ones persecuted, driven time after time from their homes, beaten, tortured, starved, frozen and killed. Tens of thousands must undergo the most extreme hardships in your presence just because they believe your claims concerning the origin and content of what you have written on ancient Tibet.
  29. You must gain no wealth from your work, but many times lose all that you have. Like those that believe you, you must submit yourself to the most vile persecution. And finally after 20 years of this, give your own life in a very savage and brutal manner, for your testimony concerning your history book. This must be done willingly on your part.
  30. Start right now and produce this record which covers 1,000 years of history, doing it, not in the peaceful atmosphere of your community, but under the most trying of circumstances which include being driven from your home several times, and receiving constant threats upon your life. Please have your book completed, talk a friend into mortgaging his farm to raise money to have it printed – all in 60 days.

There is only one answer: the Book of Mormon is a divine record. If not, its origin must be stated and its claims must be explained by the critic. It isn’t enough to merely discard it as false and forget about it!

The first thing to do in examining any ancient text is to consider it in the light of the origin and background; there is no need to look farther, since historical forgery is virtually impossible.

Hugh Nibley
The Prophetic Book of Mormon pp. 220-21

Must be written in 60 days? Was it really written with that speed? 60 consecutive days? Not really, they call it about 60 collective days. They only count the specific “working” days when it was worked on with a scribe. What about the days between? Do they not count? The whole process took over 2 years. It could also be argued that he spent his whole life developing these stories and the concept. He was known to tell detailed and realistic stories about the natives to entertain his family, his own father shared a dream with the family that is surprisingly similar to Lehi’s dream, many of the passages are copied from the exact version of the Bible he had. What about the time it took to write the lost 116 pages? Does that count? He spun tales about receiving visits from angelic messengers. It’s a well-known story that he waited 4 years to receive the gold plates, so would none of this time count as writing? Calling it 60 days is very disingenuous.

Did Joseph really give his life for his testimony? I don’t think the mob gave him that ultimatum. They were after him because he 1) was marrying teenage girls, 2) he destroyed a printing press when it said he was practicing polygamy and polyandry, 3) he was attempting to start a theocratic state 4) he was charged with treason and conspiracy. It wasn’t because he was standing by his testimony of the scripture. Oh, and the revolver he used in self-defense also debunks the claim that he did this willingly.

There are so many issues with each of these claims in this Book of Mormon challenge. John Larsen on the Mormon Expression podcast did a great episode discussing and debunking many more of these points than we have here:

A more accurate challenge would be something along the lines that Bill Reel shared:

The Apologists say when trying to convey how difficult it was to write a book comparable to the Book of Mormon that “it must be done in 60 days” or something similar. That feels impossible doesn’t it. Can you sense your gut and mind feeling overwhelmed by that. But this isn’t the best way to word it. instead consider the followingYou must dictate the book in 60 days though you will have years to contemplate the premise, collect stories from your community and even your family. You are free to have anachronisms and contradictions. You are free to plagiarize from any source you like and can even write out your story and use that for the dictation so long as no one sees you do so perhaps consider props. You are free to practice manipulating people from an early age of around 13 to develop your craft of what works and what doesn’t. Everytime you approach the date to start if you don’t feel ready, you can push the project back a year. In the end though your story must be slightly different than all the sources you plagarize so that people can’t exactly come close to proving you are a fraud though it may come within a razor’s edge. That almost feels doable doesn’t it?

Bill Reel

This feels much closer to reality and as he said, it also feels fairly doable.

What we do know is that Joseph was very good at storytelling and was telling native American stories to entertain his family and friends from a young age. We know that Lehi’s dream is mainly the same as Joseph Sr’s own recorded dream. We know Joseph essentially wrote a 116-page, rough draft and then lost it. He took many breaks (some for months at a time) when he didn’t have a scribe or when he was in jail. Even if there were relatively few days spent dictation, there were many many days available for planning and honing the stories and the craft of storytelling along with years and years of preparations.

Also, to point out another difference, the whole challenge is built around writing the book, but the church’s claim is that Joseph Smith didn’t write the Book of Mormon, he translated it. So what’s his education level have to do with it? or all the things he somehow knew about? If you accept that he merely translated the book, the whole challenge is a moot point. How many days would it take to translate a 500-page book into old scriptural English? How long would it take if you had God’s translation equipment? I’d say 60 days of work over 2-3 years is a long time for it to have taken with God’s own tools, and when you’re only translating the words.

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  1. So take the challenge and reproduce another comparable book of scripture. Take all the time you like. You can’t do it.

    1. Thanks for chiming in Chris, the point you miss in this post is that the challenge itself makes claims that are not remotely true.

      The Book of Mormon being scripture is an opinion, and the text is full of contradictions and errors. There are multiple records that claim to be scripture, so the text itself cannot be used to prove it’s own veracity, this does not follow any sound logical thinking. The proof is on the believer to show the veracity and historicity of the record, not on the doubter. If you think otherwise, it’s up to you to prove that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is not real and true. Or prove that I myself am not a God, take all the time you like. You can’t do it.

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