John Dehlin’s Mormon Stories essay on DNA and the Book of Mormon makes the following claim:
The Lenba [sic] are a group of 80,000 South Africans who claim Jewish heritage, practice many Jewish rituals, and claimed to be descended from small group of Middle Eastern men (perhaps as small as seven) who migrated to South East Africa 2,500 years ago and intermarried with the local women. Modern science backs their claim.
More than 50% of the Lemba Y-chromosomes are West Asian in origin. The DNA evidence suggests a migration date between 2,670 and 3,200 years ago, not far from their claim of 2,500. A study in 2000 found that a substantial number of Lemba men carry a particular haplotype of the Y-chromosome known as the Cohen modal haplotype (CMH), as well as a haplogroup of Y-DNA Haplogroup J found among some Jews, but also in other populations across the Middle East and Arabia. The genetic studies have found no Semitic female contribution to the Lemba gene pool. This indicates that Israelite men migrated to Africa in ancient times and took wives from among the local people while settling in new communities, just as their origin story suggests.
The similarities to the Book of Mormon premise are striking. Taking for granted that the Book of Mormon people existed in history, the migrations took place at the same time, the groups were of similar size, both had Israelite DNA, and likely intermarried with the locals. The big difference – abundant DNA evidence vs. no DNA evidence, and preserved Jewish culture and ritual vs. no preservation of Jewish culture or ritual.
First of all, the name of the tribe in question is Lemba, not “Lenba” [sic].
More important is whether the essay’s central claim is correct: there is “abundant DNA evidence” that the Lemba are descendants of ancient Israelites.
Using the primary research method of John Dehlin and his anonymous collaborator(s), when we consult Wikipedia we discover that the most recent scientific study does not support claims of Lemba descent from ancient Israelites on genetic grounds.
The Wikipedia article cites three studies published in 2013, 2014, and 2016 which conclude:
While it was not possible to trace unequivocally the origins of the non-African Y chromosomes in the Lemba and Remba, this study does not support the earlier claims of their Jewish genetic heritage. . . . It seems more likely that Arab traders, who are known to have established long-distance trade networks involving some thousands of kilometres along the western rim of the Indian Ocean, from Sofala in the south to the Red Sea in the north and beyond to the Hadramut, India and even China from about 900 AD, are more likely linked with the ancestry of the nonAfrican founding males of the Lemba/Remba.
[O]ur results stress the limitations of using the above haplotype motifs as reliable Jewish ancestry predictors and show its inadequacy for forensic or genealogical purposes. . . . [W]hile the observed distribution of sub-clades of haplotypes at mitochondrial and Y chromosome non-recombinant genomes might be compatible with founder events in recent times at the origin of Jewish groups as Cohenite, Levite, Ashkenazite, the overall substantial polyphyletism as well as their systematic occurrence in non-Jewish groups highlights the lack of support for using them either as markers of Jewish ancestry or Biblical tales.
Tofanelli et al (2014)
When blood groups and serum protein markers were used, the Lemba were indistinguishable from the neighbors among whom they lived; the same was true for mitochondrial DNA which represented the input of females in their gene pool. However, the Y chromosomes, which represented their history through male contributions, showed the link to non-African ancestors. When trying to elucidate the most likely geographic region of origin of the non-African Y chromosomes in the Lemba, the best that could be done was to narrow it to the Middle Eastern region. While no evidence of the CMH was found in the higher resolution study, no inferences can be made about their claims about being Jewish—all that can be said is the lineage commonly associated with the Cohanim is not found in the Lemba.
Soodyall and Kromberg (2016)
So much for “abundant DNA evidence.”
Of course, had the author of the Mormon Stories essay merely consulted an actual scientist like Ugo Perego, they could have avoided this embarrassment.
Or they could have even read this short column by Michael Ash.
In fact, “modern science” does not back Lemba claims to Jewish heritage as purported in the Mormon Stories essay. What it has done is show that the picture is much more complicated than Dehlin’s simplistic and misinformed claims lead on.
In John Dehlin’s essay on Archaeology and the Book of Mormon he writes:
Although the Book of Mormon twice mentions that Nephi moltened steel out of a rock, only crude iron technology existed in 600 BC. Steel did not yet exist, as it required charcoal heated to 2,500-3,000 degrees. Charcoal wasn’t discovered until some 1,500 years later and required the laborious felling of acres of trees to create sufficient charcoal.
“Archaeology and the Book of Mormon,” Mormon Stories, accessed March 11, 2019.
The claim that steel was unknown in Nephi’s day is uninformed and erroneous.
The process of making ancient steel has been described by
various authorities of on the subject.
Phillip King and Lawrence Stager explain:
Wrought iron heated in contact with charcoal (carbon) at high temperature produces carbonized iron or steel, which is more malleable than cast iron. Steel can be hardened by quenching (practiced as early as the tenth century BCE), that is, cooling off the red hot steel by sudden immersion into a vat of cold liquid.1
James Muhly, who is a leading authority on the subject of
ancient metallurgy has written:
The addition of carbon, absorbed into the surface of the iron by a sort of osmosis while the hot iron was in contact with charcoal for an extended period in a reducing atmosphere, greatly increased the hardness of the metal. Such iron, with up to 0.8 percent carbon, is known as steel. If this red hot steel was quenched, by plunging it into a bath of cold water, the resulting product was harder than any bronze. The quenching produced a layer of very hard martensite on the surface of the iron, the amount of martensite formed dependent upon the thickness of the object in question (and thus the rate of cooling). If too much martensite was produced, the resulting steel would be very hard but also very brittle and liable to shatter. It was then necessary to reheat the object in an oxidizing atmosphere, in order to relieve the strains from the freshly formed martensite, a process known as tempering. Tempering was actually a trade-off, sacrificing hardness for greater durability and toughness . . . In the twelfth century BCE, all the necessary technology for producing effective tools, implements and weapons of quenched and tempered steel was developed in surprisingly short order.2
Archaeologists have recovered steel artifacts from various sites in the ancient Near East dating to before Nephi’s day:
Steel artifacts from the Iron IA (twelfth century) burial cave in the Beqa Valley, Jordan, provide an interesting body of material in that steel was used there to produce bracelets and rings. 3
According to Anthony Snodgrass:
Egyptian axes and other implements dating from about 900 B.C. onward were found to have been carburized, quenched, and probably tempered as well, a finding that is quite incompatible with the picture of backwardness and isolation that is sometimes painted.4
Recently Naama Yahalom-Mack and Adi Eliyahu-Behar reported
that over sixty badly corroded iron objects were recovered by archaeologists
from sites in Syro-Palestine dating from the late second and early first
millennium B.C. These included knives, tools, weapons, and bracelets. Chemical
analysis was done on each of these. They report:
The results showed that ‘ghost structures’ of pearlite, clearly indicating the presence of carbon, were present in almost all the objects (excluding three), demonstrating that almost all were made of steel.5
Contrary to John Dehlin’s claims, the process of making iron
into steel tools and other useful objects was known in the ancient Near East,
including the land of Israel the land from which Nephi came hundreds years
before Lehi left Jerusalem. The idea that Nephi could have known or learned how
to make steel tools out of iron ore poses no problem for the Book of Mormon,
but is consistent with what is now known and what we continue to learn about
the ancient world.
The Mormon Stories essay on Joseph Smith’s First Vision is riddled with errors. Here are just four readily obvious examples pertaining to the essay’s handling of Joseph Smith’s 1832 account of the First Vision.
I. The essay claims: “The journal makes no mention of God or battling Satan.”
It is not exactly clear what the author of the essay means by this. The 1832 account emphatically does mention God. Perhaps what the author meant was that the account does not explicitly mention two personages appearing to Joseph in the vision.
It is true that there is no explicit mention of two personages. The 1832 account reads:
“I was filled with the spirit of god and the <Lord> opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me.”
However, historian Matthew Brown has convincingly argued that the presence of the Father and the Son can be inferred in the 1832 account by reading it closely. For example, the opening lines of this account written by Frederick G. Williams report that “<firstly> he [Joseph Smith] receiv[ed] the test[i]mony from on high.” This phrase, “testimony from on high,” is likely a reference to “the words spoken by the Father in the 1838 account: ‘This is my beloved Son, hear Him.'” Other evidence bolsters this claim.1
Another point mentioned by the Gospel Topics essay on the First Vision accounts is worth noting:
Another way of reading the 1832 account is that Joseph Smith referred to two beings, both of whom he called “Lord.” The embellishment argument hinges on the assumption that the 1832 account describes the appearance of only one divine being. But the 1832 account does not say that only one being appeared. Note that the two references to “Lord” are separated in time: first “the Lord” opens the heavens; then Joseph Smith sees “the Lord.” This reading of the account is consistent with Joseph’s 1835 account, which has one personage appearing first, followed by another soon afterwards. The 1832 account, then, can reasonably be read to mean that Joseph Smith saw one being who then revealed another and that he referred to both of them as “the Lord”: “the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord.”
Other Latter-day Saint apologists have explored this very plausible reading of the 1832 account.
II. The essay mentions that in the 1832 account “Smith stated in the ’16th year of my age,’ which would have made him fifteen or sixteen at the time.”
Actually, this specific text comes not from Joseph Smith, but Frederick G. Williams, who created an interlinear insertion:
As can clearly be seen, the text “in the 16th year of my age” has been inserted with a caret after “the Lord,” so that the running text reads:
“to obtain mercy and the Lord heard my cry in the wildernesswhile in <the> attitude of calling upon the Lord <in the 16th year of my age> a piller of fire light above the brightness of the sun at noon day”
The non-bolded portion in chevrons is Williams’ insertion. It did not originate with Joseph Smith. In fact, as noted by the editors of the Joseph Smith Papers, this afterthought by Williams is contradicted by Joseph Smith himself, who left various accounts placing his First Vision in “early spring 1820, when he was fourteen years old. (JS History, vol. A-1, 3; compare JS, Journal, 9–11 Nov. 1835; JS, ‘Church History,’ Times and Seasons, 1 Mar. 1842, 3:706; and JS, ‘Latter Day Saints,’ in Rupp, He Pasa Ekklesia, 404–405.)”
III. The Mormon Stories essay claims that “there is no mention of other churches being corrupt” in the 1832 account.
This is simply false. Joseph may not have used the word “churches” specifically, but he did speak of what he perceived was the general corruption of Christianity in his day:
“At about the age of twelve years my mind become seriously imprest with regard to the all importent concerns of for the wellfare of my immortal Soul which led me to searching the scriptures believeing as I was taught, that they contained the word of God thus applying myself to them and my intimate acquaintance with those of differant denominations led me to marvel excedingly for I discovered that <they did not adorn> instead of adorning their profession by a holy walk and Godly conversation agreeable to what I found contained in that sacred depository this was a grief to my Soul thus from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart concerning the sittuation of the world of mankind the contentions and divi[si]ons the wicke[d]ness and abominations and the darkness which pervaded the of the minds of mankind.”
Here Joseph specifically mentions that the “differant denominations” of his day “did not adorn . . . their profession by a holy walk and Godly conversation agreeable to what [he] found contained in that sacred depository,” that is, the Bible. This aligns nicely with Joseph’s 1835, 1838, and 1842 histories, which all mention his distress over not feeling willing to align with any major Christian denomination of his day.
1835: “Being wrought up in my mind, respecting the subject of religion and looking upon <at> the different systems taught the children of men, I knew not who was right or who was wrong and concidering it of the first importance that I should be right, in matters that involved eternal consequences; being thus perplexed in mind I retired to the silent grove and bowd down before the Lord.”
1838: “During this time of great excitement my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness, but though my feelings were deep and often pungent, still I kept myself aloof from all these parties though I attended their several meetings as occasion would permit. . . . My mind at different times was greatly excited for the cry and tumult were so great and incessant.”
1842: “When about fourteen years of age I began to reflect upon the importance of being prepared for a future state, and upon enquiring the plan of salvation I found that there was a great clash in religious sentiment; if I went to one society they referred me to one plan, and another to another; each one pointing to his own particular creed as the summum bonum of perfection: considering that all could not be right, and that God could not be the author of so much confusion I determined to investigate the subject more fully, believing that if God had a church it would not be split up into factions, and that if he taught one society to worship one way, and administer in one set of ordinances, he would not teach another principles which were diametrically opposed.”
IV. The Mormon Stories essay claims that the 1832 account contradicts the 1838 account in the following manner:
This first and only version in Smith’s own hand contradicts the 1838 version regarding what he knew and when – “my mind became exceedingly distressed…and by searching the scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the lord, that man had apostatized from true and living faith and that there was no society or denomination that was built upon gospel of Christ as recorded in new testament.”
“First Vision,” Mormon Stories, accessed March 7, 2019.
Commenting on this, scholar J. B. Haws wrote:
New attention to the determiners and pronouns might be in order. Which of all of these parties—that is, the Presbyterians, Baptists, or Methodists—is right? Or are they—Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists—all wrong together? If any of them—Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists—be right, which is it? It seems reasonable to conclude that Joseph wondered not about the possibility that there was no true religion on the earth, but only that the principal religions represented in his area might all be wrong. Hence, his crucial question—his “object in going to enquire of the Lord”— was “to know which of all the sects was right,” and perhaps it was the subsequent instruction to join no sect anywhere (“for they were all wrong”) that would have been surprising; in that case, this latter possibility was the one that had never entered into his heart.
Again, this is only suggested as one way to read the text—but it is one that also seems to fit with a telling line in the earliest known written account of the First Vision, one from 1832 that Joseph Smith partly dictated and partly wrote. The key is something he stated about personal familiarity:
In that 1832 history, Joseph wrote in his own hand:
“At about the age of twelve years my mind become seriously [ impressed]with regard to the all importent concerns of for the wellfare of my immortal Soul which led me to searching the scriptures believeing as I was taught, that they contained the word of God thus applying myself to them and my intimate acquaintance with those of differant denominations led me to marvel exceedingly for I discovered that instead of adorning their profession by a holy walk and Godly conversation agreeable to what I found contained in that sacred depository this was a grief to my Soul . . .”
The fact that his conclusions were based on an “intimate acquaintance with those of differant denominations” should not be overlooked. His subsequent recollections do seem to reflect an expanded understanding of a broader apostasy: “by searching the scriptures I found that mand did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatised from the true and liveing faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament.” Yet his choice of words (“no society or denomination”) and his declaration that “I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and to obtain mercy” seem to reflect his discouragement with his local options and his growing assurance that only divine intervention could help him transcend that confusion.
Haws then cites Steven C. Harper, who makes this salient point:
Joseph Smith’s accounts of his first vision are remarkably consistent. His descriptions are, in fact, portraits of the time and place in which he lived. Indeed, if Joseph had repeated well-rehearsed statements verbatim from year to year rather than the thoughtful accounts he gave in specific contexts, historians would rightly find him more calculating and less credible.
Indeed, contrary to what the author of the Mormon Stories essay argues, these slight variations between Joseph’s 1832 and 1838 accounts actually heighten the overall believability of the Prophet’s claims rather than diminish such.
While the author of the Mormon Stories essays opts for a hyper-skeptical interpretation of the historical accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, the way the author (mis-)handles just the 1832 account is on its own compelling reason to in turn be skeptical of their ability to properly interpret the evidence.