Thursday, April 14, 2016

Fun with Mesoamerican archaeology

The topic of Cumorah archaeology is one of the most fascinating aspects of the Book of Mormon wars. What I thought would be a chapter in the upcoming Moroni's History has become a separate manuscript to be published later this year.

This post introduces the topic by addressing some of the principal arguments made by the Mesoamerican seers regarding the connection between the text and archaeology.

In Mormon's Codex, p. 706, John Sorenson notes how modern Biblical archaeology is producing convergences and correspondences with the text of the Bible. Based on this, William Dever insists that Israel "must not be written out of history." Then Sorenson compares Biblical archaeology to the Book of Mormon:

"Archaeologist John Clark has pointed out a similar trend in the relationship between Mesoamerican archaeology and scholarship on the Book of Mormon: 'The trend over the last 50 years is one of convergence between the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican archaeology. Book of Mormon claims [have] remain[ed] unaltered since 1830, so all the accommodation has been on the archaeology side.'30 This book carries that trend much further. Consequently, in the spirit of Dever, I maintain that 'the Nephites must not be written out of Mesoamerican history.'"

[Note 30 is John E. Clark, "Archaeology, Relics, and Book of Mormon Belief," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14/2 (2005): 49; and Clark, "Archaeological Trends and Book of Mormon Origin," BYU Studies 44/4 (2005): 83-104.]

Brother Clark is often quoted by the citation cartel. You'll find quotations from him on FAIRMORMON. Brant Gardner includes 10 of his papers in his Bibliography in Traditions of the Fathers. I'll address Clark's work on Cumorah later, but for now I want to look at the claim Sorenson made in Mormon's Codex.

First he quotes Clark as saying that "The trend over the last 50 years is one of convergence between the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican archaeology. Book of Mormon claims remain unaltered since 1830, so all the accommodation has been on the archaeology side."

Brother Clark seems to mean that the text has not changed since 1830 (presumably setting aside changes in punctuation, grammar, and terminology, as well as formatting*). If that's what he means, then I agree.

But when you read Clark's work (as well as the work of the Mesoamerican seers), you see that is not what he means at all, in two ways.

Text-based claims. "Book of Mormon claims" can refer to the text itself, but such claims are not self-executing. They are necessarily interpreted to one degree or another, particularly where they are vague (such as what the text means by "northward" or "narrow neck of land").

Context-based claims. "Book of Mormon claims" can also refer to claims made about the text. This includes the description of the plates, where Joseph found them, the box they were in, what the angel told Joseph, what he told others, etc.

In both senses, Book of Mormon claims, as viewed through the Mesoamerican lenses, have changed substantially since 1830.

In fact, to the extent there is "accommodation" between the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican archaeology, it has all come from the expansion of the Mesoamerican theory.

Here's an example of a changed text-based claim. Nowhere does the text use the term "headwaters," but every Mesoamerican seer reads that term into the text. Why? Because the principal rivers in Mesoamerica flow northward, so the theory requires a river flowing north past Zarahemla. Of course, the text says no such thing. This is a new text-based claim that accommodates a particular geography. To say, as Clark and Sorenson do, that Mesoamerican archaeology is accommodating the text is exactly backward.

Other text-based claims, such as finding mountains throughout the text where they don't appear, assuming Joseph mistranslated animals and plants, imposing Mayan concepts of directions, etc., are all nothing but efforts by Mesoamerican seers to accommodate the archaeology. This flexible methodology would make it possible to fit the Book of Mormon just about anywhere in the world, into just about any culture.

Here's an example of a changed contextual claim. In 1830 (through at least 1842), it was universally understood that the Book of Mormon Hill Cumorah was in New York. This was published explicitly as a fact at least 3 times in Church newspapers and embraced by Joseph Smith, who had it copied directly into his personal journal. Now, Brothers Clark and Sorenson, as well as the rest of the citation cartel, insist the Hill Cumorah is not in New York. Clark writes, in direct opposition to Oliver Cowdery, that "the Cumorah of the golden plates is not the Cumorah of the final battles."

The reason given? Because of archaeology.

IOW, the findings of archaeology have led Mesoamerican seers to change course regarding this basic, previously unambiguous and universally accepted Book of Mormon claim.

To compound the problem, the Mesoamerican seers attack those who seek to retain--unaltered--the Book of Mormon claims that prevailed when it was first published.

All that said, it turns out there is an increasing accommodation, convergence, correspondence, etc., between archaeology and the Book of Mormon, but it's in North America, not Mesoamerica. If you're a Mesoamerican seer, or even a passive follower of the Mesoamerican theory, you're undoubtedly unaware of this archaeology. That's a topic for another day's post.

Back to Brother Sorenson's claim. After quoting Clark, he writes, "This book carries that trend much further."

If you read Mormon's Codex, you see that Brother Sorenson accurately describes his book. He definitely carries the trend of accommodation forward. For example, he famously writes, “There remain Latter-day Saints who insist that the final destruction of the Nephites took place in New York, but any such idea is manifestly absurd.”

So if you believe Oliver Cowdery, you're crazy.

Even more fun is his next sentence: “Hundreds of thousands of Nephites traipsing across the Mississippi Valley to New York, pursued (why?) by hundreds of thousands of Lamanites, is a scenario worthy only of a witless sci-fi movie, not of history.”

This is a classic straw man fallacy. First, he insists the Nephites lived in Mesoamerica. Then he points out it is foolish to believe they "traipsed" from Mesoamerica to New York. But no one (apart from Goble and maybe some other individuals) seriously advocates such a scenario.

Setting aside Brother Sorenson's phony straw man argument, we have an either/or question. Either you accept the New York Cumorah, or you accept a Mesoamerican Cumorah. If you accept a Mesoamerican Cumorah, then you have to adjust Book of Mormon claims, both text-based and context-based, to accommodate your theory. However, if you accept the New York Cumorah, you don't have to adjust either the text or the context.

Pretty simple, really.

Now, finally, Brother Sorenson writes, "Consequently, in the spirit of Dever, I maintain that 'the Nephites must not be written out of Mesoamerican history."

I suspect he smiled when he wrote that, because surely he knows he's writing the Nephites into Mesoamerican history. That history, as the Mesoamerican seers frequently remind us, is well documented in the monuments and paintings. Experts can read the language. They know the names and dates of the kings, the extent of the kingdoms, the kinds of trading they engaged in, etc. And yet, they have never found the Nephites there. You can't write something out if it's not there to begin with.

*As an aside, the recent publication of the Printer's Manuscript pretty well disposes of the anti-Mormon complaints about changes in the text. We're fine with the earliest manuscript--in fact, many of us prefer it to the one currently being published.

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