The Jenkins Follies: Nahom and the Strawman Fallacy

Philip Jenkins is the Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University, a Baptist university in Waco, Texas. Jenkins and Bill Hamblin have been having a war of words on Patheos, which can be found here. In a recent post by Jenkins, The Nahom Follies, he attempts to diminish the significance of the Book of Mormon's description of Lehi's exodus, and it's convergence with the ancient Arabia, by ignoring multiple convergences between the two and focusing on the perceived inevitability of finding a three letter root, NHM, anywhere and everywhere in the Arabian peninsula. 

Jenkins reveals his ignorance of Book of Mormon studies, and attempts to correlate Lehi's exodus, as recorded in First Nephi, with the real world places it claims to describe, by claiming that such a correlation "is, literally, the only case where anyone still seriously pretends that they have some kind of archaeological support for the Book of Mormon."

This is a big tell for if Jenkins had read anything by Mark Wright, Brant Gardner or John L. Sorenson, he would know that there are many more places Mormon scholars look to, particularly in Mesoamerica, for archaeological evidence of the Book of Mormon, even if such evidence is not the kind Jenkins thinks we should expect to see. 
Jenkins seeks to minimize the convergence of Lehi's exodus with ancient Arabia by minimizing the discussion to solely the three letter root NHM and it's equivalence with the toponym, Nahom. According to Jenkins, "Pure coincidence offers a more than adequate explanation". In order to make this appeal to coincidence work, Jenkins becomes guilty of the strawman fallacy, by ignoring what Mormon scholars actually say about Nahom and arguing against extremely tenuous claims that they never actually make. It's a clever slight of hand trick that would be convincing to someone who hasn't actually read the research Jenkins claims to engage. 
For those unfamiliar with the votive altars at Marib, Yemen, which bare the name NHM, a short summary is in order. Lehi lived in Jerusalem, 600 B.C.E. His son Nephi recounts the entire journey of how he was commanded of the Lord to flee with his family, out of Jerusalem. 

After fleeing Jerusalem and then leaving their initial base camp, Lehi's family travels in a south-southeast direction, following the coast of the Red Sea. One of the elders of the group dies and is buried in "the place which was called Nahom". Up until this point, the group had named their various stopping points, but the record uses the passive tense here to show that it already had a name.

Since the 1970's, Mormon scholars surmised that the name Nahom(video) might correspond to nehem, which in the ancient South Arabian language comes from nahama, to cut stone. Nehem is the name of a tribe which inhabits the region and has lent this name to this place. However, they hesitated in making an absolute correlation because no one knew for certain whether the tribe, and by extension the toponymn, would have been in the same general area in 600 BC. 

It wasn't until votive altars at the ancient city of Marib, mentioning the tribe NHM and dating to 600 BC, were discovered that the correlation was strongly asserted. These archaeological findings show that the tribe inhabited the same general area that it inhabits today. Found in the same area, and from the same time period, as  Nephi's time and location for Nahom, these altars can thus be said to be "the first actual archaeological evidence for the historicity of the Book of Mormon."

What Jenkins fails to argue against, or even engage, is that the significance of Nahom/NHM isn't just a matter of finding a three letter root in the middle of nowhere but of finding it at the same place and at the same time as where Nephi says we'd find it. For Jenkins, the only alternative would be to believe Joseph found it on a map of Arabia and  picked that one name, while ignoring others, and then intentionally switching the vowels, so as to account for a sound shift between South Arabian and Hebrew, only never to mention Arabia in any of his writings, which we will return to later. After their stay in Nahom, Lehi's group then travels "nearly eastward", paralleling the frankincense trail, traveling "through affilction", until the reach a lush and verdant coast they name Bountiful. Much has been written and documented(video) about Wadi Sayq, a prime candidate for Bountiful, in the Dhofar region of Oman. Regardless of what one believes about the Book of Mormon, what we have with the Marib altars is one piece in a larger body of data, which as a whole converges with Nephi's description in the Book of Mormon. 
Jenkins ignores the true  relevance of the Marib altars as one of chronology, the altars show that the Nehem tribe lived in the same general area in 600 BC, as they do today, which in turns is evidence, not proof, for Nephi's description of the toponym. Jenkins does this by criticizing the phonological NHM/Nahom correspondence, in a vacuum, without reference to the larger geographical context that Mormon scholars argue from. That is why Jenkins is guilty of the straw man fallacy. The attestation of this tribal name, NHM, in 600 BC, southeast of Jerusalem and west of Wadi Sayq converges with Nephi's mention of Nahom, also south east of Jerusalem and west of Bountiful; that is the issue and argument in question, which Jenkins entirely ignores.

Jenkins ignores the argument of convergence by combating more claims that the scripture and Mormons don't make. For example, he mentions that there were "neighboring trading regions in the general region of Arabia – which were, incidentally, rich and fertile, and quite unlike the grim desert of the Book of Mormon accounts."  Has Jenkins even read Nephi(1 Nephi 16:16; 1 Nephi 16:14)? Has he not read that the problems Lehi's family had obtaining food had nothing to do with lack of fertile pockets of land but because of broken hunting weapons(1 Nephi 16:18,21)? What about Bountiful(1 Nephi 17)? This is a common tactic by critics of the Book of Mormon, attack claims the book does not make and then grin victoriously as Mormons don't defend things they haven't claimed.  
Jenkins continues his straw man attack: "One other critical point seems never to have been addressed, and the omission is amazing, and irresponsible. Apologists argue that it is remarkable that they have found a NHM inscription – in exactly the (inconceivably vast) area suggested by the Book of Mormon. What are the odds! By the way, the Arabian Peninsular covers well over a million square miles. Yes indeed, what are the odds? " Again, notice the complete ignorance of what his opponents are actually claiming. No one is claiming that the discovery of a NHM inscription, somewhere, anywhere, in Arabia, is miraculous.  
As I alluded to before, the existence of maps mentioning nehem, during the time of Joseph Smith, for Jenkins, makes it "virtually certain that Smith encountered and appropriated such a reference, and added the name as local color in the Book of Mormon." On what grounds? For Jenkins, the Book of Mormon cannot and must not be historical therefore Joseph must have done his research on Arabia and used these maps in placing Nahom where he did. What is the other option, acknowledge that the Book of Mormon is an ancient record?

Joseph seems to have been ignorant of First Nephi's setting in Arabia; his writings don't even mention Arabia. On what grounds does Jenkins claim that Joseph believed in an Arabian setting for Lehi's exodus? Orson Pratt, a close associate of Joseph Smith, speaking in 1874, seems to claim that Lehi's family bypassed the Arabian peninsula via ship, "in a vessel, which they built by the command of God, they came round by the Gulf of Arabia, crossed the Great Pacific Ocean, and landed on the western coast of South America", the Gulf of Arabia being none other than the Red Sea. 

Where did Pratt get this idea? I don't know but what it shows is that one of Mormonism's early leading intellectuals, a close associate of Joseph Smith and student of the Book of Mormon, didn't see Lehi traveling through Arabia, likely because it isn't obvious that Lehi did, unless one has the benefit of knowing Arabian geography, in detail, as we moderns do. 
Jenkins closes his piece with probably his most egregious straw man, again, by attacking a claim that the Book of Mormon does not make, nor has ever been put forth by any Mormon scholar regarding the Marib votive altars:

I could ask a follow up question. If the Lehi folks were still erecting inscribed monuments while they were crossing Arabia, why did they give up the practice (together with all traces of their writing, technology, pottery-making, metallurgy, architecture etc) the moment they hit the New World? 
Is he serious? No where, in any of the literature, will you find any Mormon, much less the Book of Mormon, claim that Lehi and his family were "erecting inscribed monuments while they were crossing Arabia" much less the votive altars found in Marib. Luckily for Jenkins, his audience, who I assume are mostly Evangelicals, probably won't notice. Jenkins' failure to directly confront the research regarding Lehi's exodus and it's convergence with ancient Arabian geography is stunning, making him, ironically, an unintentional witness for the Book of Mormon.  


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