For all their differences, the essential and irreducible historical dilemma of the Old Testament, New Testament, and Book of Mormon is very much the same.
We possess some archeological, epigraphic and documentary evidence for the vainglorious aspirations and dynastic struggles of a minor Semitic vassal state of the first millennium Before the Common Era. We have no historical evidence, however, that God chose Israel as his people at Sinai, or for the divine sanction of Israel’s prophets and their visions.
There is overwhelming evidence that the man Jesus, eponymous founder of the Jesus movement, lived and preached in first-century Palestine. We have no hard evidence, however, that he was the son of God and the resurrected Savior.
It is not particularly difficult to advance a naturalistic explanation for the Book of Mormon as a pre-19th century document. The relationship between any event and its story is always complicated, and various peoples have handed down or adopted all kinds of stories about themselves. Among the world’s national mythologies, the Book of Mormon is hardly the most outlandish or implausible, and if some anthropologist had recorded it as recited by a tribal elder, it would have been worth maybe a handful of journal articles. The real, stubborn, irreducible problem, the part for which there can be no naturalistic explanation, is the angel Moroni and Joseph Smith’s claim to have translated the Golden Plates by the gift and power of God.
And like the Old and New Testaments, the part we cannot demonstrate or adequately address with naturalistic evidence is also precisely the part we care about. The kingdoms of David and Benjamin, or the preaching of Paul and Alma, are not in themselves interesting apart from the contested claim that they somehow relate to the divine will. Without Sinai, Gethsemane, and Cumorah, and without the people who ascribe cosmological significance to them, Biblical Studies and Mormon Studies and related fields would all be the size of Mithraism Studies (like many other things, these academic fields depend for their lives on something they cannot themselves create, and sometimes do their utmost to negate).
Historicity ends up as such a fraught question because virtually no one cares about the actual history for its own sake. For believers, the succession of Benjaminite kings is only background context of minor relevance to King Benjamin’s sermons. For non-believers, it’s all a fairy tale anyway. For the uncertain, there is no historical path to certainty; the church suggests another route. What we get in the historicity debate instead are covert demands for proof that Joseph Smith was a God-sent prophet, but couched as a rational request for historical evidence. You could with equal rigor ask for proof that God spoke to Moses on Sinai, or that Jesus rose again on the third day. Perhaps that is actually the question being asked.
So where does this leave Steve’s friend Ishmael, or people who follow Sam’s counsel? (And does this finally give us a group of “Samites”?) That is, what’s the best course for people who like the church in some ways, but have doubts about the historicity of the Book of Mormon? I think we can welcome interested people to walk and worship with us, or even to browse the refreshments as long as they like. Treating the Book of Mormon as something like the parable of the Good Samaritan, as revealed scripture not necessarily rooted in historical events, isn’t the approach I find most convincing or productive, but I won’t tell anyone they can’t, or say what God can or cannot do. (Although I do wonder: What about the Golden Plates is so implausible, but not the empty Garden Tomb?) At your baptismal interview, no one will ask you to attest that Alma preached at 17° 23? 36.82? north, 89° 38? 4.32? west at 2:32 PM on November 23, 82 B.C.
But someone will ask you if you believe in God and the Restoration of his church through Joseph Smith, and this is where things get tricky because these are the parts that people actually care about. Treating the Book of Mormon as revealed narrative scripture is one thing; treating it not as inspired but as inspiring fiction, like Oliver Twist or The Hobbit, or as fiction plain and simple, is something else entirely. The church is still thinking through and working out all the implications of what Joseph Smith taught, and our prophets see themselves as Joseph Smith’s successors. Baptism represents a commitment to take upon yourself the name of Christ, and baptism into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints entails shouldering the additional burden of attesting that the church is directed today by a living prophet. If you reject the idea that Joseph Smith received revelation, or that he could reliably distinguish between inspiration and his own fantasy, or that any God exists who could send angels to Joseph Smith, you may never be satisfied during the two-hour wait between the prelude music and the potluck.