This is a friendly discussion among brothers and sisters who all love the Book of Mormon and believe it is actual history. We seek unity on how to interpret the text and Church history. This blog focuses on the North American setting as the simplest and best explanation of Book of Mormon geography, with Cumorah in New York, but we recognize other settings are meaningful for other people.
Sunday, August 2, 2015
We are far beyond worrying about little things like how many miles.
Brant Gardner makes an important point in this blog entry, in response to a comment that the text states distances only in terms of time. I agree with what Gardner writes, but I'm not sure he does. This is what I find frustrating in Gardner's approach. He uses solid research and analysis, but he trips over his own faulty premise and doesn't seem to realize it. Hopefully he will apply his talents to North America with equal vigor someday. (In Sunday School today we discussed the conversion of Saul, an apt model for what I hope happens when the Mesoamericanists change their positions.)
Here are Gardner's comments, with my comments in red:
"The problem of course, is how we are traveling. If I am in my car, 20 minutes gets me a lot farther than if I am walking. So when we attempt to get general ideas of the dimensions from the Book of Mormon, we have to translate time into distance by attempting to find out what might reasonably correlate. (Excellent point--good, solid analysis.) First on the list of important things is to determine the mode of travel. Cars are out. In the New World, there is no known travel on (or being pulled by) any animal (nor is there any indication of that in the text). (One might wonder what the text is indicating when it mentions horses and chariots. Alma 18:9, 20:6, 3 Nephi 3:22. Gardner has addressed this elsewhere, with his unique circular reasoning; i.e., because all we have is Joseph's translation into English, "we must still deal with the question of what the original text might have meant," because in Mesoamerica, no one was conveyed by animals. Well, okay, Alma 18:9 says the king's servants were supposed to "prepare his horses and chariots, and conduct him forth to the land of Nephi," but in Mesoamerica, kings were carried in litters, and "litters were carried by men, not pulled by animals." Instead, Gardner notes, animals accompanied the litters. Here's how Gardner explains this: "If Joseph Smith, while translating, came upon an unfamiliar idea but which seemed to describe a kingly conveyance associated with an animal, would it not have seemed logical to him to describe it as a horses and chariot for the king? I see the plausible underlying conveyance as an elaborate royal litter, accompanied in peacetime by the spiritual animal associated with the king." IOW, Joseph mistranslated because his translation doesn't match Mesoamerican culture; therefore we have to assume the original text on the plates accurately described Mesoamerican practices, and Joseph just didn't know how to describe it in English. Now that scholars have learned so much about Mesoamerica, we can fix the translation.) So we are down to river travel, which is possible, and foot travel. While it is possible that we might have river travel distances, it seems like a stretch to assume that for all distances, so the safest is foot travel. (This is an amazing leap. River travel is more than possible; it was a common conveyance in many parts of the ancient world (and in North America, but maybe not in Mesoamerica, which would account for Gardner's rejection of river travel). An unimpeded walking speed of 3 mph is around average; through a Mesoamerican jungle or mountain it would be much less. Sorenson assumes 11 miles/day, or even less because of the mountains. By contrast, a small rowboat can go 3-4 mph, plus or minus the river speed (downstream or upstream). Boats with multiple rowers can go much faster, of course. It is especially strange that Gardner would reject river travel when the text specifies accounts of "their shipping and their building of ships" "cannot be contained in this work," presumably because of space (Helaman 3:14). IOW, they did so much shipping and building of ships that Mormon couldn't describe it all. IOW, the text says the the opposite of Gardner's claim that the Nephites did not use river travel. While an assumption of foot travel may be "safest," what is it "safe" for other than to establish a limited geography set in Mesoamerica?) That is where the question of how far can one travel comes into play. While the distances may vary widely, using any kind of reasonable constant gives you a limited geography for the known action in the Book of Mormon. (Is it a reasonable constant to reject river travel in favor of slow foot movement over mountains and through jungle, none of which is described in the text? Notice that Mormon doesn't say he didn't have room to discuss jungles (or volcanoes); he says he didn't have room to discuss their shipping and building of ships.)
Why limit that statement to the known action? We have people who leave and go "a great distance" north. There is no way to know what that was (though basic human population movement on foot makes some of the long distances speculated in some geographies highly unlikely). (But why limit movement to "on foot" when the text specifically mentions shipping and building of ships?) So we have to take what the text deals with (by excluding the shipping that the text specifically mentions?) and construct a reasonable set of interrelated distances. They will never be precise, because the text doesn't give us distance, only time. Terrain can change the linear distance. Nevertheless, you set a constant and see if the proposed geography fits. (In reality, the Mesoamericanists have done the exact opposite. They take the geography from the 1842 Times and Seasons articles, then set a constant (foot travel in jungles and over mountains) to make the geography fit. The simple alternatives of foot vs. river travel require context; if the proposed geography was in a desert, then river travel would be excluded; it it was in a heavily vegetated area with abundant rivers and streams, then river travel would be far more likely, particularly for long-distance travel or repeated journeys.)
Once there is a proposed geography, other factors come into play. It cannot be only a geographical discussion. (This is an important point, but when one proposes a geography based on a "problematic" and anonymous statement in the Times and Seasons, and then solidifies that proposed geography by imposing travel distances determined by constants derived from the conditions of the proposed geography itself, one has a self-proving--but far from exclusively plausible--geography. At any rate, I agree with Gardner that it cannot be only a geographical discussion. Let's see how he fulfills this promising approach.) An important one is the destructive events in 3 Nephi. If you haven't seen it yet, read Jerry D. Grover's new Geology of the Book of Mormon. He looks at the descriptions and discusses what might have caused them. He concludes (as other geologists have) that the best cause is a volcano--with accompanying conditions. (Well, I'm disappointed. I've previously commented on Grover's book. There are problems with his assumptions about what the text means (similar to Gardner's argument that the text isn't translated correctly) but another little problem is the text never once mentions volcanoes--or even describes one. Are we to assume Joseph Smith didn't know what a volcano was, so he couldn't translated the "original text" correctly? Or that Mormon didn't have room to include the small detail about the very cause of the destruction? Or that Mormon didn't know about volcanoes? The volcano line of reasoning remains one of the more perplexing aspects of the Mesoamerican setting.) He checks the geology of the Mesoamerican region to find locals where the events might possibly occur. Then he checks with eruption dates (which cannot be given with precision, but certainly within a reasonable time range). He is able to identify the plausible volcano and discusses why the particular geography of that region allows for the descriptions in the text. (If you still think there is any basis for the Mesoamerican theory and you haven't read Grover's book, you should. I think he did as good a job as possible trying to explain 3 Nephi in Mesoamerica, but I'd like to see him take a crack at North America. The evidence is so much stronger in North America that I suspect an open-minded Grover would change his mind like so many other people who have compared the volcano argument to the North American setting, where everything described in 3 Nephi has actually happened.)
Another important approach is to look at anthropology and ethnohistory. Bob Crockett suggested that we are only looking at similarities. We are far beyond that, although you will still see that a lot. We are looking at specific correlations between the action in the text and the known events of a time and place. (Except, remember, Gardner decided on the place before he looked at the "specific correlations." I'm curious if there is any human society that has not had constant wars. Remember, another thing Mormon said he couldn't put in the book was an account of "their wars, and contentions, and dissensions." So even if Gardner can specifically tie the named battles and conflicts to those contained in the text--which he can do, at best, by "correlation" since there is zero connection between the extensive Mesoamerican glyphs and the Book of Mormon--he would have to also show that these were only a hundreth part of the history of the people. IOW, according to the text, there were many wars and contentions not even mentioned, so Gardner has to cherry pick his correlations from a huge universe to match them up with the text. But that leads back to the point that any human civilization has wars and contentions that could be correlated.) By placing the events of the text against that background, we can see how well the text follows the known cultural and social developments in that region at the appropriate time periods. We can explain who the likely Lamanites were that finally caused Mosiah's people to flee to Zarahemla, because we know who invaded that area (he assumes he knows where Zarahemla was, presumably because of the Times and Seasons articles, although those were problematic because they were demonstrably wrong, but they were close enough so that, combined with the self-serving distance "constants," he knows where Zarahemla was; and then he looks for historical events to match up to his location) and caused migrations during that time period. We know why the people of Nephi and people of Zarahemla spoke such different languages (uh, the text tells us) and why the subsequent Book of Mormon history developed precisely as it did. We can explain why the Nephites followed a particular form of apostasy when a fiction writer could have made up any number of different reasons. We can explain why the end of the Nephites finally came when it did--and not earlier.
We are far beyond worrying about little things like how many miles. (We must be, because such "little things" refute the Mesoamerican setting. This sounds like what I'm hearing now from Mesoamericanists, that we are "beyond worrying" about the Times and Seasons articles that are the foundation for the Mesoamerican theory.) With a reasonable (i.e., self-confirming) geography to test, we are now testing and finding that the Book of Mormon fits comfortably into the greater background of the events happening all around them. We learn more about the Bible when we see it against the historical background of the Middle East and later Roman domination of Judah. Events in the text sometimes aren't explicit, but we can enrich them by knowing that background, and those correlations wouldn't happen anywhere else because the historical conditions were different. (I fully agree with these sentences, which are good examples of how Gardner can use solid facts and analysis.) That is what we are finding in Mesoamerica. (I fully disagree with this sentence, but as I've said recently, I haven't had a chance to read his entire book, so we'll see how he does with that.) Geography is only a beginning point to allow more rigorous testing. (Agreed--except when one chooses the geography based on a false premise and then substantiates the choice with self-confirming constants.)