Sunday, January 20, 2008

Change of one word in The Book of Mormon and its impact

Yes, even one word can make quite an impact. In fact, in terms of effectiveness, this may have one of the highest ratios of impact/letters and presents an interesting example of science and religion interaction:
All this over five letters. But those letters, the word "among," could signal a bigger change than it seems.

The change is in the second paragraph of the introduction to the 2006 Book of Mormon, the most recent printing of the book published by Doubleday. The last sentence of that paragraph, which discusses the fate of ancient civilizations, stated in previous editions that the Lamanites, a nation of people that originated in Jerusalem, "are the principal ancestors of the American Indians."

The newest edition states the Lamanites are "are among the ancestors of the American Indians."
The change may be motivated by increasing accuracy of ancestry testings and the tracing of immigration routes. Here is how this impacts the religious narrative:
The Book of Mormon is the reference book for the church, like the Bible. Mormons believe the founder of the church, Joseph Smith, translated the book from a set of engraved golden plates buried on Cumorah Hill in Manchester, N.Y.

The book teaches, in part, that Native Americans were descendents of the Lamanites, who migrated to America from Israel.
And there is no scientific evidence supporting this story. Indeed, Native American origin research is pointing elsewhere (here is a National Geographic story about the first Americans). The controversy over the Kennewick Man also centers around the same issue and pits scientific data against sacred oral traditions.

I think this may be a smart move on the part of the Mormon Church. The challenge to their version of history is only going to grow stronger with time. By keeping it vague ("among" can easily fit to any percentage greater than 0 and less than 100), they can perhaps avert a direct clash with science.

Read the full story here.