The Malaysian Model

April 30, 2004 | 11 comments
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So now it’s not just the limited geography and the hemispheric models anymore, now there is the Malaysian model. (Link via Dave).

The Malaysia idea is certainly novel, and presented as well as I think it possibly could be. The author, Ralph A. Olsen, notes that it avoids a large number of standard Book-of-Mormon location problems, like use of Egyptian, and presence of animals and crops. (For example, he writes that “Wheat, barley, and other cereal grains have long been cultivated in Southeast Asia. There is no evidence of their cultivation in Mesoamerica.”)

I’m not convinced.

I haven’t given this idea serious thought, but it seems to me, on quick reflection, that a major piece of evidence against this theory is First Nephi 12 and 13, which strongly suggest that the Lehites lived somewhere in the Americas. (It is certainly possible to argue that a long trans-Pacific voyage was just not mentioned in Nephi’s vision, but that seems like a strained reading).

I should note that, whatever its merit as a thesis, this article gave Dave a launching-off point for a very thoughtful insight. He writes:

To say that Malaysia is as good a candidate as the “limited geography” Mesoamerican model or the “hemispheric” North American model is to admit that all hypotheses are equally unsupported. In other words, it highlights the disconnect between real-world facts and the Book of Mormon text.

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11 Responses to The Malaysian Model

  1. Gary Cooper on April 30, 2004 at 3:54 pm

    Kaimi,

    Last year I found a site on the Internet, quite by accident, where a guy in Africa claims the BoM events took place in the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia)! He had a full website with lots of articles on how Jaredite names matched Ethiopian, etc.

    I sometimes have to wonder: just what purpose does all the money, ink, paper, and effort spent on “BoM” research at BYU and other LDS auspices serve? It doesn’t seem to be missionary work; just what do we do with this stuff? It’s all very interesting about a mesoamerican setting for the BoM, and I lean to the idea being right, but, so what? Malaysia? The Horn of Africa? MesoAmerica? Who knows….Does it matter? Hmmmm….

  2. Kevin on April 30, 2004 at 4:00 pm

    Similarly, there’s another church out there that believes the BoM events happened in Japan. (founded by a Japanese ex-Mormon, of course…)

    Has anyone tried to explain how Joseph Smith (in America) wound up with the plates if the events on them happened on another continent?

  3. Gary Cooper on April 30, 2004 at 4:09 pm

    Kevin,

    I think there’s an easy solution to how the plates got here, while the events happened somewhere else, and this idea will please all the “free-traders” here at T&S: revelatory outsourcing! We see outsourcing in so many industries today, why not revelation? The production costs of revelation would be so much cheaper in Malaysia, for example, where it could then be shipped to America and distributed! I’m surprised no one’s thought about this…(Ha, ha!)

  4. clark on April 30, 2004 at 5:04 pm

    I have to admit that when I first read it, I thought it was an excellent parody of some of the old FARMS stuff on geography. I honestly didn’t nkow the guy was serious.

  5. Aaron Brown on April 30, 2004 at 6:00 pm

    As I’ve said elsewhere, there are few activities in Mormon studies more BORING (to me) than reading academic articles (FARMS or otherwise) on Book of Mormon geography. Thus, I’m not real up to speed on this subject.

    That said, I wonder if the “problem” of how the plates ended up at Hill Cumorah from Malaysia (or Japan) is any more insurmountable than figuring out how they traveled from MesoAmerica to the Hill Cumorah. Any thoughts?

    Gary — The African hypothesis reminds me of another piece of trivia regarding Mormon origins and that part of the world. Head south on the map to the “Comoros Islands.” As any good anti-Mormon will tell you, the capital of the Comoros is “Moroni.” It was also “Moroni” in Joseph Smith’s day. But guess what the “Comoros” were called in Joseph Smith’s day?…. “Camora.” And guess how the Hill “Cumorah” was originally spelled?… “Camorah!” (play scary music here…)

    Aaron B

  6. Gary Cooper on April 30, 2004 at 6:05 pm

    Aaron,

    I served my mission in Italy, and a common last name there is “Moroni”. Yes, this caused some humorous situations whenever we taught anyone with that last name.

  7. clark on April 30, 2004 at 7:12 pm

    “That said, I wonder if the “problem” of how the plates ended up at Hill Cumorah from Malaysia (or Japan) is any more insurmountable than figuring out how they traveled from MesoAmerica to the Hill Cumorah. Any thoughts?”

    Well, there is the issue of walking… There is also the issue of Joseph’s statements about where the Nephites lived. I can see him missing the fact of non-Lehites. I have a harder time confusing “somewhere in the Americas” with “somewhere in east Asia.”

    I think Brent, in the same issue, raises some other issues. I think most of Brent’s complaints can be addressed (and many depend upon a de fact textual infallibility) but they are something to keep in mind.

  8. John H on May 1, 2004 at 1:51 pm

    “That said, I wonder if the “problem” of how the plates ended up at Hill Cumorah from Malaysia (or Japan) is any more insurmountable than figuring out how they traveled from MesoAmerica to the Hill Cumorah. Any thoughts?”

    Aaron’s hit the nail on the head, IMO. Sunstone published this article, certainly not to advocate Olsen’s Malay hypothesis, but to show that there are people out there who have different theories while still holding on to the literal history of the Book of Mormon. They’re aware of just how problematic the Mesoamerican theories remain, and so they are looking for solutions elsewhere. Another person has advocated that the Book of Mormon took place in Africa. My personal opinion is, the fact that the Book of Mormon can be made to fit in many geographical locations doesn’t exactly bode well for historicity claims.

    At first glance, it seems like getting the plates from Malaysia to New York is a much, much bigger task than getting them from, say, Honduras to New York. However, if you’ve ever been inside Sandra and Jerald Tanner’s bookstore, they have a replica of the gold plates that they claim would actually be lighter than the plates because they aren’t made out of real gold. They weigh about 130 pounds or so. Obviously, if their replica is faithful (which I believe it is, even though I don’t exactly trust the Tanners), it wouldn’t be an easy job hefting them from Mesoamerica to the Hill Cumorah outside Palmyra.

    Of course, there are many, many possible explanations for this dilemma. We know so little about the actual plates, who knows what they might have really weighed. And when God is involved in a process (if you believe God is involved, as I do) then an explanation could include any number of miracles or even literally a “lightened burden”. But I’ll confess, it was pretty disconcerting to lift those replicas and practically throw my back out in the process. They aren’t light.

  9. Rob on May 1, 2004 at 5:12 pm

    I may be going out on a limb here, but I’ve always loved BoM Geography. I’ve often fantasized about figuring it all out. Beyond that, I majored in Anthropology and worked for three years as a research assistant for John Clark at the New World Archaeological Foundation at BYU. I read everything I could on Mesoamerica as an undergrad, have taken a Maya hieroglyphics course at the University of Texas at Austin (a significant center for Maya studies). So while I’ve moved on to other questions (will there be birds in Zion?), I’ve spent enough time with these questions to remain intrigued, and to know where a few of the bodies are buried.

    I think it does matter where the BoM took place. Though I have much sympathy for the claim that the most important aspect of the BoM is its value as a sign and symbol of restoration–that sign is diminished for many if the story is seen as un- or a- historical. The story of Moroni may be many things, but if it isn’t about a real person who lived somewhere, then most members wouldn’t really be attracted to it.

    I’ll have to give this Malaysia thing another look. On the face of it, it resolves more traditional “problems” with the BoM than Mesoamerican models do–which should be a bit troubling. What it really reveals is that we don’t know diddly yet about the BoM.

    It is a serious problem that we have no accepted way to address BoM geography. How do you evaluate the Hemispheric, several Mesoamerican, Mala, Great Lakes, African, Japanese models of BoM geography?

    I don’t think we’ve read the BoM closely enough yet. I don’t think we have enough info from the Archeaological record yet. I don’t think we have enough info from the ethnographic record yet. I don’t think we’ve done all we can in searching the BoM to figure out what it really is. I’m glad we have FARMS and others working on this–though if you are trained in archaeology, you are almost barred from the discussion because it is not a kosher topic. There is no *real* BoM Archaeology–mostly just speculations by people trained in other fields. Most trained archaeologists/anthropologists/ethnographers wouldn’t touch this with a ten foot pole.

    Of course, this is a serious problem if we ever want to really address the BoM Geography issue. Those best qualified to address the issue choose not to because it would be academic suicide.

    If the BoM is an actual ancient historical account of real people (somewhere), it is extremely important. How many written records are there dating back to ca. 2500 BC? 600 BC? Even 400 AD? If Mormons are to make the claim that this is an actual historic record, we surely haven’t treated it as such a valuable treasure. We liken the teachings to ourselves…without appreciating the miracle of its preservation.

    We’re using a 2500 year old goblet to sip Kool-Aid.

  10. John H on May 2, 2004 at 3:35 am

    Rob, do you think the historicity of the Bible is as important as the Book of Mormon? In other words, since you say most members wouldn’t find the BoM stories as appealing if it isn’t about real people (and I tend to agree with you there), do you think most members would find the Bible as appealing if it wasn’t about real people?

    I ask because I have to confess I’m somewhat puzzled by the remarkably stiff resistance to considering the Book of Mormon as a metaphor or spiritual book but not a historical record. I’ve spoken to plenty of Church members who are more than willing to accept the Adam and Eve story as a metaphor. I recently spoke to a friend who is a bishop who told me he loved Abraham, even though he may not have existed, and if he did exist, the stories the Bible attributes to him most likely didn’t happen. Yet I suspect my friend would be most uncomfortable saying the same thing about Nephi, or Alma, for example. Why do you think this is? Is it because the Book of Mormon is uniquely Mormon – we don’t really share it with the rest of the world, the way the Bible is shared?

  11. Kaimi on May 2, 2004 at 7:12 pm

    John,

    That’s an interesting enough question that I’ve posted a new thread on it. See http://www.timesandseasons.org/archives/000751.html