The latest FARMS Review from the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies has a wide variety of excellent articles, many of which are available for free online. One that still requires a subscription is interesting enough to easily justify the low price for FARMS membership: Kevin Christensen’s Truth and Method: Reflections on Dan Vogel’s Approach to the Book of Mormon, a review of an anti-Mormon work that provides many insights into the Book of Mormon along the way. Nice job, Kevin!
One interesting portion of Kevin’s lengthy article includes a quotation from the writings of Brant Gardner, who LDS materials on his Website are among the most valuable on the Web (see, for example, Gardner’s essays or his extensive commentary on the chapters of the Book of Mormon (a great resource for teachers and students of this sacred text). Here is the Gardner quotation, which I feel may be valuable for those who are interested in evidence for the Book of Mormon, or for anyone who has been told that “there is not a scrap of archaeological support for anything in the Book of Mormon.” Here is the quotation (I’ve left out the footnotes – please look at the FARMS PDF file for them and the rest of Kevin Christensen’s excellent article):
A discussion of geography is critical because there is so much geographical description in the Book of Mormon that a failure to locate its settings anywhere in the world would be a serious problem. There are two general locations in the Book of Mormon, the Old World and the New.
The Old World description concerns the journey from Jerusalem to Bountiful, and three major geographic markers have been correlated to this part of the narration. The first is the river that continually runs to the sea. A plausible location for the river that fits both the travel distance from Jerusalem and the requirement that it continually flow to the sea has been found.
The second geographic marker, Nahom, also fits into the travel parameters of Lehi’s group. A location called NHM belongs to the correct time period, and all indications point to its being located in the right place.
The third location to be identified is Bountiful. Several characteristics are required of this location, and a plausible site has been identified. In addition, the descriptions of the travel fit. For example, S. Kent Brown sees evidence of night travel in the Book of Mormon text, which is the preferred time to travel in that area.
The Old World geography places these key geographic markers in the correct locations to match the descriptions of travel given in the text. The geographical descriptions form an interrelated set of conditions that must all be met, and they are. Troy was found with such a set.
A discussion of New World geography, however, must begin with less surety because we don’t have the beginning point, such as Jerusalem, to tie the geography to the text. However, the text provides a rather consistent internal map. I defer to John Sorenson here, as his geographic analysis is extensive, and I have never seen it seriously assailed. The typical disagreement is the location of Cumorah, and that is minor in the total assessment of the geographic correlations. The Sorenson summary discusses the following points:
1. Consistent determinable distances
2. Consistent topographical descriptions
3. Correlation to a known geography, including mountains, valleys, and rivers
4. Plausible correlation to known topographical relationships (“up” and “down” are consistent with physical directional movement and fit with the topography of the area)
5. Plausible archaeological remains for many of the named cities that C-14 tests (and sometimes Maya Long Count) date to Book of Mormon times
6. Parallels to the known distribution of cultural groups, particularly linguistic groups (and regions of interaction) Cultural Correlation
Having a plausible location now requires the examination of the text of the Book of Mormon to see whether or not it fits into that cultural area. In this instance a few more operating assumptions need to be specified:
1. Based on known history of the New World and known modes of cultural interaction, it is expected that the Book of Mormon people (who entered with relatively few numbers) would have been absorbed into the material culture that already existed. What is more, they also would have absorbed the local languages as the common spoken language.
2. “Nephite” and “Lamanite” are polity designations, not lineage designations (there is ample textual evidence for this as people move from one group to the other).
3. While the Nephites attempted to preserve a Mosaic religion, that was not the case for the surrounding cultures. It is in the conflicts with those outside cultures that we have the opportunity for the best information about the nature of the majority culture of the New World.
Beginning with that foundation, here is a set of cultural correspondences and explanations that come from the Mesoamerican cultural context in which the Book of Mormon may be plausibly placed:
1. The Lehites entered the area during the middle of the Preclassic period, a time of broad changes in the Maya civilization. City size was increasing and society was growing more complex. The general trend was toward greater social differentiation and the beginnings of kingship in Maya city-states. This trend is mirrored in the conflicts witnessed as early as the book of Jacob. The twin evils against which Jacob preaches–polygamy and acquisition of wealth (when it leads to social differentiation)–have both been identified in this time period in Mesoamerica. (Interestingly, polygamy is directly linked to one of the mechanisms of accumulation of wealth at this time, and the function of wealth is to create social differentiation.)
2. The early description of economic matters is enigmatic in the Book of Mormon unless we have the Mesoamerican background. In particular, Jacob speaks against costly apparel (Jacob 2:13). This is a situation that should not exist in a society where everyone makes their own clothing from local materials and dyes. However, it fits into the trade context of Mesoamerica, where clothing was one of the most obvious modes of displaying wealth and social differentiation. Thus this Book of Mormon emphasis on the evils of costly apparel has a direct explanation in the cultural pressures of Mesoamerica at this time.
3. In multiple instances, a Nephite describes the Lamanites as lazy and uncivilized. These negative portrayals occur along with descriptions of Lamanite cities that appear more powerful than Nephite cities. This pejorative catalog even gets repeated by Mormon in his abridgment, when it is obviously incorrect. However, the presence of the pejorative characterization is anthropologically accurate for time and place. Rather than attributing it to authorial error, it can be viewed as an accurate replication of typical in-group prejudices that occur in most human populations.
4. The Book of Mormon describes a political situation that fits Mesoamerica but is not universal to other areas of the world (though it is not completely unknown). Mesoamerican cities had their own governments, but they were typically grouped into spheres of influence. In particular, we have descriptions of kings ruling over kings among the Lamanites. This is precisely the relationship of Mesoamerican cities as the king-forms were developing. The various fissions and fusions of the Book of Mormon hegemonies accurately reflect the nature of Mesoamerican politics.
5. The shift from king to judges in Zarahemla reflects an institutional implementation of a political structure that already existed in those kingships that did continue. Even in the king-led polities, there were kin-group leaders who served as the judges and intermediate rulers. These appear to function as do the judges in Zarahemla and in some later cultures did replace the kings. Thus the process and presence of judges in Zarahemla is a parallel of known culture. To this it should be added that the mechanism described in the Book of Mormon reflects the more Mesoamerican mode of “judges” in that the position was hereditary. In spite of the critics’ occasional assertions of a voting democracy in the Book of Mormon, it did not exist.
6. The nature of economics in the Book of Mormon fits the Mesoamerican cultural setting. The lack of a monetary system shifted the nature of wealth accumulation. This is apparent in the constant problem in the Book of Mormon of wealth directly leading to social hierarchies–this is because wealth was defined in terms of displayable goods, not monetary accumulation. In addition, the relationships between conquered cities fit the Mesoamerican model of the establishment of tribute payment rather than political domination. When a city is conquered, there is no real effort to acquire territory, but rather to secure the tribute. Thus the Book of Mormon emphasizes the nature of the taxation–which again is the relinquishing of material, not money.
7. Descriptions of warfare in the Book of Mormon fit the Mesoamerican model. This includes seasonality of fighting, weaponry, tactics, defensive structures, body armament, and the nature of the conclusion of the warfare.
8. The descriptions of daily life fit a Mesoamerican context. Amulek’s description of his household (Alma 10:11) corresponds nicely with a Mesoamerican home compound. And when Nephi’s compound is described (Helaman 7:11), it fits the description of the home of a powerful person living in the city center–including a personal pyramid (“tower”), a walled court, and a location near the highway leading to a main market (multiple markets were known to exist in single cities).
9. The description of the events of Benjamin’s speech fits not only the cultural climate but explains the anomalous base of a temple built in the plausible city of Zarahemla at the time of the speech.
10. Mormon’s description of a land north of Nephite lands that is devoid of trees, has buildings of cement, and is in a land of large lakes and many rivers points directly to Teotihuacán, which fits all of those qualifications during the required time period.
11. The particular destructions described at the time of Jesus’s death fit the description of a highly explosive volcano (and no other phenomenon). Correlations include the length of time of the tremors and the thickness and duration of the darkness. Mesoamerica is along the ring of fire, one of the most volatile volcanic areas in the world, and we know of at least two major volcanic explosions at the time of Christ. Dating volcanic explosions that far back can be difficult, so there might have been more. The fact does exist, however, that the descriptions in the Book of Mormon fit volcanic activity, and volcanic activity is known for that area of the world and for that time.
12. The incident of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies has a direct and complete explanation in a Mesoamerican context, a cultural explanation that even explains the lightning raid that destroyed Ammonihah (Alma 16:1-3)–otherwise an anomalous event in the Book of Mormon.
13. The location of Zarahemla in the Grijalva River valley not only fits the geography and topography, but it links the major linguistic groups. The Nephites entered a Mayan-speaking area. The Mulekites entered a Mixe-Zoque speaking area. The movement of the Mulekites/Zarahemlaites up the Grijalva valley parallels the known movement of Zoque (a daughter language of Mixe-Zoque) up that valley. This explains why the Nephites and the Zarahemlaites spoke different languages when there was insufficient time for an unintelligible divergence from Hebrew to have occurred. (In only four hundred years some vocabulary would change, but the languages would still have been mutually intelligible.)
14. The Book of Mormon places the Jaredite civilization north of Nephite territories and earlier in time. The geography and time-depth match the geographic and time distribution of the Olmec. The Jaredites would have participated in Olmec culture just as the Nephites participated in later culture.
15. The rapid increase in militarism noted at the end of the Book of Mormon parallels the known historical rise in militarism in all of Mesoamerica at the same time period. As I have noted before, the important facet of all of these key points is that they all stem from a single explanatory model. Each of them is dependent on a single geographic area and a particular time period.
Against these correspondences, what do we have that might be counterindications? We have the specific descriptive problems of swords, silk, horses, chariots, etc. I find it much easier to explain these as labeling problems than to find an alternate explanation for the type of detailed correlation listed above.
Some critics contend that the Book of Mormon was Joseph’s attempt to describe the Mound Builders or other Native Americans in North America. Others try to fit the Book of Mormon in the Great Lakes area known to Joseph Smith. Such models fail miserably and cannot account for any of the above parallels. Christensen raises these questions: “Given that knowledge of Central America and the Ancient Near East was meager in Joseph Smith’s day [see “What Could Joseph Smith Have Known about Mesoamerica?“], why does present-day understanding offer so much? Why do aspects of the Book of Mormon that especially outraged Joseph’s educated contemporaries like Alexander Campbell turn out in light of recent research and discoveries to fit so well into the ancient world?” They are questions worth pondering.