How Do the Witnesses of the Gold Plates Compare to the Witnesses of the Resurrection? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Mormons believe that their founder Joseph Smith was shown the location of some golden plates by an angel.  These plates, which were allegedly engraved in a language called Reformed Egyptian, were then translated by Smith into the Book of Mormon.

What is interesting about these golden plates is that they are sometimes compared to the resurrection of Jesus.  The idea is that just as the resurrection of Jesus confirmed him as the Son of God, so also the discovery and translation of the golden plates are a confirmation that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God.  But are these two events comparable?  More importantly, are the witnesses of the resurrection and the witnesses of the golden plates comparable?

First, it must be stated that the actual discovery of the golden plates was only witnessed by Smith himself.  Nobody else was there.  But what of the existence of the golden plates?  What about those who claim to have witnessed the plates themselves?

Apologist Rob Bowman, in an on-line response to a Mormon, lays out a detailed comparison of the witnesses of both.  First, Bowman clarifies the make-up of the witnesses:

In the case of Christ’s resurrection, Christ appeared to at least one family member who had rejected him during his mortal ministry and to Saul of Tarsus when he was the archenemy of the Christian movement.  The two disciples on the Emmaus road had heard about Jesus’ resurrection but were so hardened to the possibility that they were walking away from Jerusalem, where he had appeared, so Jesus came after them and surprised them.  Peter had denied Jesus three times.  Thomas missed the first appearance to the apostolic band and expressed skepticism about the Resurrection, insisting he would not believe unless he saw for himself.

These facts negate the argument, which others have made, that the plates were only shown to select individuals because one had to be worthy in order to be allowed to see them.  That criterion obviously did not apply in the case of the Resurrection.  By contrast, no one saw the gold plates except people who had already agreed to support Joseph Smith.  The contrast is dramatic.

What about the number of witnesses?

According to Paul, Christ appeared to hundreds of people (1 Cor. 15:6), whereas only a dozen people or so claimed to have seen the gold plates (and only four claimed to see the angel).  Even if one dismisses Paul’s statement as puffery (though I know of no good reason to do so), the texts inform us that a fairly large number of people saw the risen Jesus.  These included the five or more women at the tomb; the two men on the road to Emmaus; the eleven apostles; James the Lord’s brother; Joseph Barsabas, Matthias, and others among the 120 that gathered after the Ascension; and later Saul (Paul).  So even apart from 1 Cor. 15:6  we can count at least two dozen men and women who saw the risen Jesus.

Bowman then notes the circumstances under which Jesus appeared in contrast to the circumstances under which people witnessed the golden plates:

It isn’t just the larger number of people who saw the risen Christ that is significant but the lack of any mortal human’s involvement in deciding or orchestrating those appearances.  Jesus appeared to various individuals of his choosing when and where and how he wished.  Those appearances were never announced in advance; no one knew ahead of time when they would happen.  No spiritual “preparation” was needed (recall what is said above about Thomas, the two on the Emmaus road, and Saul).

The appearances took place just outside the tomb, in locked rooms, on open roads, by the lake shore, under varying conditions not subject to any mortal’s control.  By contrast, the eleven witnesses [of the gold plates] were evidently shown the plates with advance notice and preparation, under closely controlled circumstances.

In part 2 of this series, we will continue to look at Rob Bowman’s comparison of the witnesses.  There is much more to discuss!