Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Book of Mormon Central America... sigh

I hesitated to publish this post because I really like the people at Book of Mormon Central, but I have to clarify the situation for the many people who follow this blog. I suppose it was inevitable, but despite its statement of policy that claims to be neutral, Book of Mormon Central (BOMC) is taking the Mesoamerican perspective after all. This comes less than a week after I encouraged people at the conference at UVU to go to the site because it was neutral and was not Book of Mormon Central America.

What prompted this post is the KnoWhy titled "Why Was Coriantumr's Record Engraved on a "Large Stone"? I'll address that KnoWhy after I revisit the policy.

I still think there is good material at BOMC, and I encourage people to use it for research and study, but you're going to have to realize it is part of the citation cartel after all. It's a prime example of this: “Once you start looking at the Book of Mormon through a Mesoamerican lens, you can’t unsee it.”

The policy:

Book of Mormon Central Policy on Book of Mormon Geography

Book of Mormon Central at this time is officially geography neutral. We seek deep understanding of the Book of Mormon text. We hope diligent students work together to achieve working consensus on the geographic correlation issue. Until that happens, our selection of exegetical material is guided by these principles:
  • In our hierarchy of evidence, the text itself is primary because it is closest to the divine.
  • If profound and compelling location-specific insights shed light on the text, we highlight these regardless of their geographic provenience.
  • We favor authors with credentials in their areas of interest.
  • We favor formally published works from reputable presses.
We welcome good work from any geographic persuasion that is responsive to these principles. In our collective experience, proposed Book of Mormon correspondences from Mesoamerica tend to satisfy our criteria more consistently than those from other areas.

The obvious fallacy here is that "formally published works from reputable presses" includes these, all of which are exclusively Mesoamerican and reject any manuscript that does not support the Mesoamerican theory:

Ancient America Foundation
BYU Studies
Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum
BYU Religious Studies Center
BYU Maxwell Institute

BOMC does not have a single external link to any site or source that does not fully embrace the Mesoamerican perspective.

IOW, Book of Mormon Central is degenerating into more of the same, and its purported policy of neutrality is a sham. I hope that changes ASAP so I can delete this post.

Below is the KnoWhy #77 that I find irrational and dogmatic, with my interlinear notes.

[Despite the problems I identify here, I wouldn't object to it if BOMC had also included an analysis showing an alternative perspective based on the North American setting; i.e., a truly neutral presentation. Instead, BOMC opted for an exclusively Mesoamerican perspective that, in my view, is fatally flawed both on its merits and on its exclusivity. And note that all of the references are to the citation cartel.

BTW, KnoWhy #75 on horses has the same problem. They skip right over the abundant evidence of horses in North America that was published recently in BYU Studies and resort to the old Mesoamerican claim that Joseph didn't translate the plates correctly. The only explanation I can offer for why the Mesoamerican proponents keep making things so difficult and convoluted is that they actually can't unsee Mesoamerica in the text, even if they have to distort the text to make it fit. Again, I wouldn't mind that BOMC offers "a variety of different ways" to interpret the presence of horses if they would only include the most obvious one; i.e., that the Book of Mormon took place in North America, where the indigenous people did have horses.

This refusal to let people even see both perspectives is characteristic of all the external links listed above. I've given up hope for those groups, but I'm still hopeful that BOMC will trust its readers enough to offer them a truly neutral approach to the question of Book of Mormon geography. Until then, all I can do is offer another perspective on this blog.]

The Know

When the people of Zarahemla met the elder Mosiah, they showed him a “large stone … with engravings on it” which Mosiah was able to interpret “by the gift and power of God.” The stone “gave an account of one Coriantumr, and the slain of his people,” and also “spake a few words concerning his fathers” and related the origin of the Jaredites “from the tower” (Omni 1:20–22). This is a misleading paraphrase of the scripture, which actually reads this:
"20 And it came to pass in the days of Mosiah, there was a large stone brought unto him with engravings on it; and he did interpret the engravings by the gift and power of God."
IOW, the people of Zarahemla did not "show" Mosiah a large stone--they brought it to him. The significance of this will become apparent in the next section below. 
There are 14 references in the BoM text to engravings, of which 12 involve metal plates and two involve stone (both in Omni 1:20). The engraved stone in Omni 1:20 is unique in the text. There are no other engraved stones; in fact, the rule of the kings and the history of the people were explicitly engraved on plates, not on stone (See 2 Nephi 5:33, Mormon 1:4, and everything in between). Even the Jaredites engraved their history on metal plates, not stone. Only Coriantumr engraved a stone, and it was "brought" to Mosiah; i.e., it was small enough to be transported, indicating it was "large" only in comparison to other stones with which the people were familiar. By comparison to Mesoamerican stelae, it was small.

Early Latter-day Saints living in Nauvoo were interested to learn that explorers John Lloyd Stephens and Fredrick Catherwood had discovered a large, engraved stone among the ruins of Quiriguá in Guatemala. In October 1842, with Joseph Smith at the helm as editor, [Apart from boilerplate at the end of every issue, there is no evidence that Joseph acted as editor and abundant evidence he did not] the Times and Seasons reported, “that a large stone with engravings upon it” had been found by Stephens, “among the left remembrances of the, (to him), lost and unknown.”1  This was seen as favorable evidence for the Book of Mormon by these first generation Mormons. [There are a handful of "these first generation Mormons" who saw the Central American ruins as favorable evidence, but these T&S articles were published anonymously; no one knows who wrote them, and outside of the T&S itself, few people discussed them. I'm not aware of a single reference to this Zarahemla article outside of the T&S. It was dead on arrival.
Not only that, but the Stelae at Quirigua post-date Book of Mormon times; Stela C is dated 775 AD and Stela D is dated 766 AD, for example. Stephens himself estimated the dates to be more recent than Book of Mormon times. The Mesoamerican ruins were used to combat contemporary anti-Mormon claims that the North American Indians were too primitive to qualify as the people described in the text, and they may retain some tangential relevance in a sort of hinterlands context, but they have nothing to do with the setting for the Book of Mormon itself.] 
Today, the large carved stones, called stelae (singular, stela), of the Maya and other Mesoamerican cultures are well known. [As are carved stones in many--probably most--cultures around the world. This is yet another illusory correspondence that actually disqualifies Mesoamerica. What the text describes is a people who recorded their history on metal plates, not on stones; the one engraved stone mentioned in the text is so unusual, the illiterate people of Zarahemla brought it to Mosiah to translate. What we see in Mesoamerica is a culture that recorded their history on "large stones" that were, as cited in the T&S itself, 20 feet high, 23-feet high, 26-feet high, etc. Which of these could possibly have been "brought" to Mosiah to translate? The Mayans recorded their history in enough detail that scholars today know the names and dates associated with the rulers. All of this directly contradicts the text, in which Nephi wrote, "if my people desire to know the more particular part of the history of my people they must search mine other plates." He didn't say they could consult the stone stelae. King Benjamin told his sons that if not for the plates, they would have dwindled in unbelief. There were no stone monuments from which his people could learn. If we're going to follow the text, we need to find a culture that did not write on stone monuments; a culture that recorded its history on stone monuments is excluded as a candidate for Book of Mormon society.] Brant A. Gardner explained, “Mesoamerica is unique in the Western Hemisphere for its writing systems. … Part of that tradition includes inscriptions on stelae, or large stones.”2 [I agree completely with this, which is why Mesoamerica cannot be the setting for the Book of Mormon, where no one (except a dying Coriantumr who had no access to metal plates) wrote on stelae.] These were called lakam-tuun by the Maya, which literally meant “large stone,” just as it is in Omni 1:20.3 LDS Mesoamericanists Mark Wright and Kerry Hull have both pointed out the potential significance of this connection.4 [Arghh! :) In Omni 1:20, a "large stone" was one the people "brought" to Mosiah. In Mayan culture, a "large stone" was one that rose 20+ feet into the air. The significance here is that the only engraved stone mentioned in the text is not the type of monument the Maya produced. Compared to the Mayan stelae, Coriantumr's stone would be considered small, not large.]
Comparing and contrasting the content on stelae with other writing media in the Mesoamerican area, John L. Sorenson explained:
The other large class of documents of which we know consisted of inscribed stones. Those too typically were written in double columns. Again some human figure or a more complex historical or mythological scene would be presented. Sometimes it was the texts that were primary, and the art secondary, and at other times, the reverse.5
Most stelae were meant to memorialize the king and his accomplishments.6 Mesoamerican art historians Maline D. Werness-Rude and Kaylee R. Spencer said, “Stelae most often depict the visages of a king,” and that “stelae must be seen … as historical records of past activities.” They added, 
Inscriptions carved on the sides and often the backs of the sculptures specifically anchor the ruler’s actions within time and space. They also often name particular gods and ancestors …. Both text and iconography create parallels between the sitter’s actions and those of past kings and queens—ancestors whose activities other stelae … recount.7
The origin of this practice began with the Olmec, a culture in mesoamerica contemporary with the Jaredites.8 By 400 BC stelae typically focused on a king or ruler, depicting him as a warrior, providing a record of his actions, and listing off the ruler’s ancestors.9 These details are broadly consistent with the brief description given in Omni 1:20–22.10 [This is a restatement of the illusory correspondence. Many cultures around the world engraved stones to record names and dates. While I'm fine with the proposition that the Olmecs were part of the much larger Jaredite nation, there is not a single indication anywhere in the text that the Nephites engraved stones. The Times and Seasons article is an anachronistic embarrassment and an example of an understandable missionary effort to defend anti-Mormon arguments, but it is not an indication of Joseph's speculation, scholarship, or inspiration, and it is certainly not reliable or credible evidence of a Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon. Note that years later, Orson Pratt's footnotes placed Zarahemla in South America, albeit recognizing the speculative nature of that identification.] 

The Why

The monumental inscriptions of Mesoamerica were not widely known in the United States until after Stephens and Catherwood published their findings in 1841.11 The excitement in and around Nauvoo over their findings in 1842 indicates that Joseph Smith and early Latter-day Saints were most likely unaware of things like stone inscriptions found in the Americas previously. [This is simply not true. Josiah Priest had written about the hieroglyphics found in Central America in his popular 1833 American Antiquities, which Benjamin Winchester had referenced in 1841. Stephens and Catherwood were popular mainly because of Catherwood's drawings, not because they were the first to publish about stone inscriptions. Josiah Priest even published glyphs from Palenque. Even earlier, the well-known Humboldt had also published accounts of hieroglyphics he had discovered in Mexico.]
Even as awareness of Mesoamerican stelae grew, the inscriptions remained undecipherable, and as such the understanding of their contents was limited. Before the 1960s, most scholars believed that Mesoamerican monuments had no historical content whatsoever, but exclusively depicted and described gods and myths.12 Yet the Book of Mormon described a “large stone” engraved with the history of a king, his battles, his ancestors, and the origins of his ruling lineage. [The idea of stone monuments recording history and kings is hardly new; they are ubiquitous around the world. Pericles (495-429 BC) is quoted as having said "What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the hearts of others." The Continental Congress authorized the first national Revolutionary War memorial in 1776. To cite Mesoamerican stelae as "correspondences" to the solitary Jaredite engraved stone in the BoM text ignores the entirety of the rest of the text, which lacks a single reference to Nephites engraving stone.]
Today, it is easy to take for granted the evidence for large stone monuments from Mesoamerica and assume it is of little or no significance for the Book of Mormon. Such an attitude, however, fails to appreciate how unknown the practice was in Joseph Smith’s own time and the fact that it took 130–160 years for linguists and epigraphers to catch up with Amaleki’s description in Omni 1:20–22.13 [This illusory correspondence fails to appreciate how well known the practice of engraving stones was in Joseph Smith's own time. The most surprising thing about the text is that it only mentions one such stone--and it is present in an illiterate society, left by a non-Nephite culture. Had Joseph invented the text, he would more likely have described the Nephites as engraving stones--a common practice in his own society, as well as Mesoamerica. Instead, the text describes a far different culture that engraved on metal plates, not stone. The text describes anything but Mesoamerica.]
The more scholars learn about Mesoamerican stelae, the more comfortably Coriantumr’s stela fits the description. [This is awesome. Now Coriantumr's portable stone is a Mesoamerican stela! I'll add this to my list of Sorenson translations... Getting back to Joseph's translation, It is exactly the opposite of Mesoamerican culture, which features abundant monuments--stelae 20+ feet high. In the BoM, the Jaredites left no engraved stones; instead, they left engraved metal plates. In the entire text, only Coriantumr engraved a single stone, one small enough to be "brought" to Mosiah.] This is one instance where archaeology now strongly supports the Book of Mormon, whereas it did not seem to before. Realizing this underscores the importance of patience when it comes to comparing a text like the Book of Mormon to the archaeological record.14 [It's true that archaeology now strongly supports the Book of Mormon--by excluding Mesoamerica from consideration. The more we learn about Mesoamerica, the more we see that the people recorded their history on these stelae, contrary to the way the Nephites did it. This whole KnoWhy is a perfect example of how, once you look for Mesoamerica in the Book of Mormon, you "can't unsee it," even when the archaeological evidence in Mesoamerica directly contradicts the Book of Mormon text. Hence, my sigh... 
What Coriantumr's record tells us, and what this KnoWhy should present at least as an alternative, is that the engraved stone was an unusual exception to record-keeping in the Book of Mormon. The text tells us to look for an ancient culture that was illiterate until around 200 BC, combined with a culture that was literate but wrote on metal plates, and never on stone. That fits the North American setting and contradicts the Mesoamerican setting.]


  1. Regarding KnoWhy 75, Why are horses mentioned in the Book of Mormon?, it seems that it is a setup question asked for the sole purpose of explaining away an actual horse because it didn't fit a Mesoamerican setting.

    1. Some of our scholars, in their apparent efforts to produce work "acceptable" to the broader scientific community (which, frankly guys, will never happen -- if your work affirms the historicity of the Book of Mormon, it will never be acceptable to the wine and cheese crowd. Shrug it off and move on), write things which disappoint me. The ... unique ... take on horses -- make believing that an animal very much unlike a horse, which I doubt would ever pull a chariot, is what the text means by "horse" -- is one such thing. It's like the anti-Heber-J.-Grant-and-concrete.

      Come on guys. There were horses. How do we know? Because the Book of Mormon says there were horses. It's really that easy.

      Answer 1 on that KnowWhy (and gratefully the editor put it first) nails it: Once you get past the politics-masquerading-as-science which has plagued both archaeology and anthropology in the Americas, there's plenty of evidence supporting horses -- like the American Curlys and pintos, the Paiute Indians' horsemanship and arced horse burials, and horse bones dating to the 1300s.

    2. Jonathan,

      Thank you soooo much for posting this as I was getting very worried about Book of Mormon Central and it was very comforting to find someone else who agrees. I just wrote a "Contact Us" to them describing my hopes for their website so that it may eventually stand out among other websites that are out there. I hope they realize that one letter equals many more unwritten letters...

      Just a few days before your blog I had received a post from them in my FB feed advertising their Book of Mormon Conference and was very disappointed to read the lecture topics they were promoting - because I HAD hoped they were going to be neutral. :(

      Below are two examples from their flyer page - and I feel I have been around the block a few times, but regardless of my geographical preference, what do these even mean?! They don't make any sense to me, but I do think they were genuinely trying somehow to be enticing:

      "Uto-Aztecan shows us the language after the Nephit-Mulekite merger, and we can see the Nephite components, Semitic-p and Egyptian, and the Mulekite component, Semitic-kw."


      "Since Nephite culture died out and Lamanite culture continued after the end of the Book of Mormon, it isn't surprising that we see Mesoamerican culture during the time Mormon's history concentrates on Lamanite lands."

      I really don't know what "Mormon's history concentrates on Lamanite lands" means, and I wonder if I am the only one. But if this lecture was pointing out something that continued after the end of the Book of Mormon, I really don't understand how it can testify to the Book of Mormon.

      Inquiring minds want to know! (o;`~

  2. Your own repeated assertions about the size of the Coriantumr stone are equally unsupported. It doesn't say how many people brought the stone, or the method of the "bringing." It could have been any size, shape, or weight. You undermine your own position with this nonsense.

  3. Your own repeated assertions about the size of the Coriantumr stone are equally unsupported. It doesn't say how many people brought the stone, or the method of the "bringing." It could have been any size, shape, or weight. You undermine your own position with this nonsense.