Some people might be surprised by this, given Gardner's history of strongly promoting the Mesoamerican setting. But as I've always said, Gardner is an insightful scholar and author, and this book has a lot of important material. I think it's far better than Sorenson's book Mormon's Codex, for example (which I don't recommend).
So I recommend Gardner's book, partly because he has done some excellent scholarly work, but also because, without realizing it, he is making the case for a North American (not Mesoamerican) setting for the Book of Mormon.
[Note: I make that distinction because some people play word games and claim to believe in a "North American" setting for the Book of Mormon when they actually mean a Mesoamerican setting. Don't be fooled by this. Brant Gardner and others have made the distinction clear, as I've mentioned before. The other term used to distinguish the two is "Heartland" and while I like that term, it refers to the main areas of Nephite civilization and doesn't cover all of the Nephite/Lamanite territory. So here I'll use North American as separate from the Mesoamerican setting.]
Gardner's work is far superior to what you will find in FARMS/Maxwell Institute/Interpreter material on the Book of Mormon, which is why I can't recommend a single publication from FARMS/Maxwell Institute/Interpreter on this topic. In my opinion, Gardner makes the best case of anyone for the Mesoamerican setting.
Which is why his book makes such a strong case for the North American setting. IOW, this is the best argument, and if you read it carefully, it points away from Mesoamerica.
Gardner claims that events in the Book of Mormon can be best explained by viewing them through the context of the Mesoamerican society in which he claims the events took place. Fair enough. Let's see how that works.
At his presentation at FAIRMORMON conference last Thursday, Gardner explained he develops historicity of the Book of Mormon by focusing on five convergences:
1. geographical convergences
2. geopolitical convergences
3. chronological convergences
4. cultural convergences
5. production convergences
I will evaluate these in more detail later, but for now, I want to look at one specific example. I can't replicate all my notes on this, so I'll just offer a summary of key points.
In Chapter 7, Gardner quotes Jacob 1:15-16, which explains that the people sought many wives and concubines, they began to search much gold and silver, and became lifted up in pride. Gardner claims this can be explained by the economic and social tensions in Mesoamerica at the time.
On pp. 198-9, he writes, "It is natural for modern readers to see that the Nephites were searching for gold and silver and to assume that their wealth was therefore based on finding the intrinsically valuable metals. That could not have been the case. Assuming, as I have, that those who arrived with Lehi merged with the much larger indigenous population, the values placed on certain materials would shift from the Old World ideas to those present among the larger society. In the case of gold and silver, Mesoamericans did not esteem those metals as highly as did the Old World. For Mesoamericans, the highest value appears to have been placed on jade... Mesoamerican languages often use a single word for both gold and silver. That should warn us that there was no easily discerned differential value for the two metals as there is in modern society." (emphasis mine).
Think about this a moment. According to Gardner, jade was the most valuable substance for Mesoamericans. Mesoamericans did not esteem gold and silver as highly as Old World people did. And yet, the Book of Mormon doesn't mention jade a single time! And the Book of Mormon people put the highest value on gold and silver!
In the verse Gardner quoted (as well as Jacob 2:12 which he also quotes), Jacob criticizes the people for searching for gold and silver and precious ores. He says nothing about precious stones, let alone jade. IOW, Jacob omits what was supposed to be the most valuable substance and focuses on metals that would be valuable to Israelites but not Mesoamericans.
According to Gardner's own analysis, it is entirely non-Mesoamerican for the Nephites to be seeking gold and silver and precious ores because a true Mesoamerican would be seeking jade.
Maybe what Gardner meant to write is that Jacob was chastising the people for not being Mesoamerican...or for not blending in with the larger society they supposedly encountered.
Gardner interprets the problems Jacob identifies as symptomatic of Mesoamerican culture at the time, but his thesis has another problem beyond the jade issue. He claims that the Nephite problems could not have arisen from their Israelite heritage because Nephi "had not taught them many things concerning the manner of the Jews, for their works were works of darkness, and their doings were doings of abominations (2 Ne. 25:2).
Inexplicably, Gardner ignores that Jacob specifically linked the polygamy problem to David and Solomon! He also seems to forget that Nephi and Jacob quoted Isaiah, who specifically mentioned gold and silver, as well as economic inequality. So the very problems Jacob describes here fit perfectly within an Israelite culture, while contradicting a Mesoamerican culture.
How does Gardner explain this? Simply because he assumes Lehi's group merged with a "much larger indigenous population." That theory flatly contradicts the text in 1 Nephi 18: 23-25 (they planted seeds they brought from Jerusalem, not local seeds; they found wild animals and beasts in the forest, and all manner of ore, all of which refutes the notion that they encountered an existing, larger civilization), and 2 Nephi 1: 8-10 ("this land should be kept as yet from the knowledge of other nations; for behold, many nations would overrun the land, that there would be no place for an inheritance.:)
Arguments have been made that Lehi's people did eventually absorb (or become aborbed by) a larger indigenous population. These are all based on speculation. But Gardner has to claim that they merged with a "much larger indigenous population" upon, or shortly after, arrival because the historical record shows this area was well populated in 600 B.C. Unfortunately for Gardner, this assertion defies any plausible construction of the text. Worse, if Gardner's theory was true, the Nephites would have been acting like Mesoamericans. They would have been seeking jade, not gold and silver, and they certainly would not have been invoking David and Solomon and Isaiah to justify their desires for wives, concubines, kings, gold and silver, costly apparel and the rest.
This is just one example of how Gardner's book makes the case against Mesoamerica as a setting. There are many more. And yet, Gardner also offers some great insights into other aspects of the Book of Mormon that apply very well to the North American setting, as I'll show in upcoming posts.