A post-Columbian setting for the Book of Mormon

July 11, 2010 | 54 comments
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swordThe result of writing Book of Mormon history from back to front, I think, resembles a cross between The Mission and Last of the Mohicans.

Before we set off down the rabbit hole, let me emphasize that this particular exercise is probably only useful in rare cases. I’m about to conjure away some basic elements of the Book of Mormon, which for some people are non-negotiable foundations of the text, and my reasons for doing so may not seem terribly compelling. I’m intentionally taking a reasonable approach and stretching it to an unreasonable length. Others might decide it would be simpler to declare the Book of Mormon to be inspired fiction and be done with it.

But maybe you’ve read the Book of Mormon and your gut tells you that it contains an element not only of truth, but also of historical reality, and “Joseph Smith made it all up” is simply not working as an explanation for its origin. You’ve also read a bit of ancient history, and you’re aware that what your average stele, clay tablet, papyrus scrap, or golden plate claims can be very different from what historians now believe actually happened. The basic idea here is to look at the Book of Mormon as a pre-modern record that shares the same difficulties as other documents, and start building our model of Nephite history on the parts that seem (according to our best gut feeling) to be historical, rather than on the types of writing that in other contexts would be treated as myth or legend. As I mentioned earlier, there are reasons to be wary of 1 Nephi and 3 Nephi 11 as establishing the historical timeline, for example.

So where’s the end point that we can start with? For me, the end point is the plates, the golden plates, the Plates of Joseph. I can’t read the accounts from the 1820s without concluding that Joseph Smith had something heavy and metallic that bore writing of some kind. Where did he get the plates, and how did he know what was on them? The simplest answer seems to be that Joseph Smith, just as he claimed, obtained the plates from Moroni, who told him what they contained. (This brings up another question, but we’ll get to that in a moment.)

So we start reading the Book of Mormon. After we strip out the Nephi novel and the Isaiah chapters and the Golden Age of Fourth Nephi and the legendary world of the Jaredites, the Book of Mormon offers a good 150 years or so of historical chronicle, roughly from the reign of Benjamin up through the last Nephite judges, as well as the military career of Mormon. If you accept the Book of Mormon as a text based on history, this is the part that needs explanation. Irruptions of the sacred into historical records are all but universal and ask only for belief or disbelief, but history demands a context.

The historical kernel of the Book of Mormon that needs a time and place in the Western Hemisphere, it seems to me, is this: Over the course of a little more or less than two centuries, one literate group of New World inhabitants was formed out of diverse elements, adopted a new religion, interacted and struggled with their neighbors, and was finally overwhelmed and obliterated by them, all in such a way that some individuals found a particular resonance in their history with the Christian message.

What other clues do we have about the Nephites, looking at them from the end rather than the beginning? A quick and superficial answer would include that their records were associated with other metal artifacts (a sword, breastplate, and ball of curious workmanship). The text talks about horses and steel and heliocentrism. The text goes into great detail concerning Nephite religion, a form of Christianity. Religious and technological history suggests that the simplest (but certainly not the only) solution to Book of Mormon historicity places the Nephites in the centuries following Columbus.

One way to create something like the Book of Mormon is not to transport a boat full of pre-Exilic Jews to the New World where they turn into Indians, but rather to transport a particular story to the New World, where people adopt it as their own and transform it in a new environment. In this account, Nephi is just an eponymous ancestor, but it’s imperative that the Brass Plates make their way from Jerusalem to the Promised Land, where they are turned from base metal into gold.

So in this analysis, the historical puzzle of the Book of Mormon is not to discover a Semitic people in Ancient America, but rather a group of Colonial-era Native Americans who were Christianized and then destroyed by their rivals, such that their last survivor, or a descendant of their last survivor, was able to convey their records and stories into the hands of Joseph Smith. If we loosen the chronological constraints on Book of Mormon history, the question of historicity reduces to two matters of biography: Who was Mormon, the last general and historian of an eradicated people, and who was his son Moroni, who watched over the transmission of the records to Joseph Smith and the young prophet’s education? Considering what we know of missionary efforts and mortality among Native Americans following Columbus, there should be many places to start looking.

I’m not entirely satisfied with this solution to Book of Mormon history. I don’t like the idea of Moroni being mythologized from a wandering record keeper into an angel. On the other hand, I like how this approach narrows the gap between divergent ways of thinking about the Book of Mormon, between the literal/orthodox “records led to a translation” and the figurative/skeptical “parallels inspired fiction.” I like the idea of expanding the places where we search for spiritual ancestors beyond a few strands of the magisterial Reformation. And I think that questioning assumptions about the historical timeline is important, as textual analysis of the Book of Mormon, for example in distinguishing “Nephite” sections from Joseph Smith’s possible expansions, too readily takes the 600 BC- 421 AD timeline at face value. The real test, of course, is which approach to Book of Mormon history, if any, will ultimately allow the identification of the Nephites with historical or archeological material. It would be a shame to dismiss an inscription that said “This way to Zarahemla” because it came from an inconvenient century.

54 Responses to A post-Columbian setting for the Book of Mormon

  1. Aaron on July 11, 2010 at 2:25 am

    “The simplest answer seems to be that Joseph Smith, just as he claimed, obtained the plates from Moroni, who told him what they contained”

    Not so simple, in my opinion, when one has to account for the “second sight” / visionary nature of the experience of the early witnesses. It doesn’t look like they handled the plates at the same time as they saw the plates. Rather, it seems as though they saw the plates in prayer-induced visions, and felt the plates when they were covered.

  2. Dave on July 11, 2010 at 8:08 am

    Fascinating exercise, Jonathan. You said, “The basic idea here is to look at the Book of Mormon as a pre-modern record that shares the same difficulties as other documents …” I’m not sure a Mormon audience can get to this point. LDS commentary on the Old Testament is largely unable to view it as a “pre-modern record that shares the same difficulties as other documents,” so it is simply unimaginable to see that approach being applied to the Book of Mormon. The best first step is to upgrade LDS biblical scholarship. Only then will Book of Mormon scholarship be ready to move forward.

  3. Non-Arab Arab on July 11, 2010 at 8:22 am

    ” I’m intentionally taking a reasonable approach and stretching it to an unreasonable length.”

    Touché :) I’ll just say that as with your prior post, yes I think that’s an apt description.

    “It would be a shame to dismiss an inscription that said “This way to Zarahemla” because it came from an inconvenient century.”

    And here is again where I think your ‘reasonable approach’ really is reasonable. Now, I think the problems with trying to place the historical events you reference into say the 1500s and 1600s are massive and obvious, so that’s where you stretch too far, however whose to say that the 600-421 timeline might not be off by a few hundred years. The Book of Mormon itself states right there on the intro page that while they don’t as authors know of any errors, they admit that the errors of men could be in there (their point being, don’t let stuff like that get in the way of the key spiritual messages). So I think it is useful to ask these questions, even if the answers probably aren’t as radical as the ones you explore. I would not be the least bit surprised though if the answers in the end wind up being quite radical in ways neither you or I can currently postulate. One of my favorite books of the past few years was “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus” by Charles C. Mann. A journalist surveying the theories of what the Americas looked like before Columbus showed up. His conclusions are basically (1) that the Americas were far more heavily populated than most have imagined, and (2) that we know a nearly infinitesimally small amount about what those societies were like and in many many cases we don’t even know of the existence of many of the societies even though we can see the hand of human beings written all over the physical landscape of the Americas in ways we can’t explain. I have a feeling when the day comes that we finally figure out who all these Nephites and Lamanites really were, that there’s going to be a lot of “huh, wow, I never would have guessed that” among Mormons and non-Mormons.

  4. Dan on July 11, 2010 at 8:25 am

    so are you suggesting that we look at the events of the book of mormon as taking place in a post-Columbian Mesoamerican setting? Like sometime in the 1500s? I’m a little confused at what you are asking here.

  5. Steve Fleming on July 11, 2010 at 9:40 am

    Interesting Jonathan. Let just sketch out the basic contours of post-Columbian history. It’s not until the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 that horses spread over North America. So if horses are needed for your model, that’s a little too late to cram in 150 years of history. Plus there weren’t any cities in North America among post Columbian Natives like the BoM describes. All the major cites (in Meso and South America) were quickly conquered.

    Again, interesting ideas to play with. Also, weren’t the lost 116 pages supposed to be an abridgment of the larger pre-Benjamin history. That would be detailed history like the Benjamin-to-Nephi part that you see as particularly legitimate.

  6. MarkP on July 11, 2010 at 9:57 am

    “I’m not entirely satisfied with this solution to Book of Mormon history. I don’t like the idea of Moroni being mythologized from a wandering record keeper into an angel.”

    1) What problem are you attempting to address with this “solution”?

    2) Can you clarify what you mean in the second sentence I quoted?

    indent test

  7. Julie M. Smith on July 11, 2010 at 10:16 am

    “I don’t like the idea of Moroni being mythologized from a wandering record keeper into an angel.”

    Why? Wouldn’t that be exactly what we would expect to happen in a pre-modern text?

    That said, I don’t think your theory requires this mythologizing. It is possible that Moroni would have been an angel, just of a more recent vintage, right?

  8. Bored in Vernal on July 11, 2010 at 1:44 pm

    I find this an extremely interesting direction to investigate, and I would like to see what would come out of pursuing it. You’ve solved several problems with the BoM in this short post. Very creative.

  9. Andrew S. on July 11, 2010 at 2:17 pm

    This is definitely a lot different than what I had even dreamed from the last post…

    That being said, I can’t help but think of this as “interesting direction” or “novel idea.” It NEVER pops into my mind, “this is a plausible way to look at the BoM.” Maybe that’s just because I’m burdened by my own implausible assumptions?

  10. Bored in Vernal on July 11, 2010 at 2:49 pm

    I don’t know, I find it interesting because of its very plausibility. It’s just that this is a first attempt at introducing a theory, and I wouldn’t want to commit myself to more until I read through the BoM with this in mind, and poked around in Native American history, and looked at a lot of discussions of people who were willing to take it seriously and flesh it out. I certainly hope to see more discussion on this thread. What are the major difficulties people see with this idea? Is this original to you, Jonathan, or has it been introduced elsewhere?

  11. Bill of Wasilla on July 11, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    What I find interesting is that you, apparently a Mormon in good standing, can advance such a treatise without finding yourself damned and condemned as a heretic.

    Back when I was still active, more than a quarter century ago, this little piece would have brought some harsh judgments down upon you.

    It’s kind of funny, but during that quarter century plus, I have pretty much stayed away from all things church related but I have always known that someday, before I grow too old to do it, I would have to come back to take another look at this society that created and formed me. I have been creeping back into it slowly and cautiously, Times and Seasons being my primary venue so far.

    I am often surprised by what I find here. The intenet has changed Mormondom, just as it has changed everything else.

  12. Jonathan Green on July 11, 2010 at 3:14 pm

    Dave, I’m not as pessimistic about LDS audiences. A couple weeks ago in Gospel Doctrine, a member of the bishopric offered a thumbnail sketch of the documentary hypothesis in response to one of the questions, and no one raised an eyebrow. I don’t think this class is by any means typical, but I don’t think it’s all that hard to get Mormons to think about “ways the Bible is in error,” or whatever you decide to call critical scholarship. I could see how the next step, applying similar ideas to the Book of Mormon, might face more resistance, however.

    Dan, yes, I’m trying to squeeze a 1550-1750 AD timeline into the realm of the possible and believable (not out of conviction that that’s the one true answer, but by way of seeking to expand the sphere of imaginable answers to the greatest possible extent). I’m agnostic about the Mesoamerican setting.

  13. Jonathan Green on July 11, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    MarkP, the basic problem works something like this: The Book of Mormon claims to be a historical record. If one develops faith in the Book of Mormon as scripture, one also wants to treat it seriously as a historical document. The way that we treat historical documents seriously is by subjecting them to scholarly scrutiny, rather than by taking them at face value. And so we end up in the weird space between literalist interpretation and skeptical rejection, where we start wondering about Nephite ethnogenesis. Fortunately the problem I’m addressing seems to be fairly uncommon.

    MarkP and Julie, here’s why Moroni is the problem for trying to make a maximally naturalistic but still scriptural text from the Book of Mormon. Let’s pretend that General Mormon dies somewhere in the Western Hemisphere in, say, 1780. His son Moroni takes the plates and wanders for the next 45 years, giving him time to reach Palmyra from anywhere in the Americas. He’s led to Joseph Smith, shows him the Nephite records, and tells him all the stories of the Nephite people. Eventually Joseph is allowed to take possession of the plates long enough to translate them (although ‘translate’ has always been a problematic word). But even keeping in mind the porous border between revelation and literary creation, I don’t see how Joseph Smith (in the imaginary scenario I’ve outlined) can write his description of Moroni as an angel (in JS-H) in good faith. It may be that accepting Joseph Smith as a prophet requires some irreducible supernatural element in the person of Moroni, or is incompatible with treating the Book of Mormon as a naturalistic text. (And a thousand voices cry out, “Duh!”)

  14. Jonathan Green on July 11, 2010 at 4:07 pm

    Andrew, “interesting” is about the highest I can aspire for. Novel and surprising are rare achievements for me. Fortunately, I gave up on plausibility back at square 1.

    BiV, I’m glad you found this thought-provoking. It’s purely a product of my own imagination, as anyone else would have been able to talk some sense into me. It’s an idea I’ve been tossing around for a while, but the recent JI posts on early LDS Lamanism and Handsome Lake are pretty interesting stuff, don’t you think? I’d like to see more research done on those and similar topics, but I’ve pretty much reached the limit of my competence in a couple blog posts.

    BoW, I think you’re setting the bar too low for heresy. If I remember correctly, the 80s were pretty permissive when it came to ancient astronauts.

  15. Bob on July 11, 2010 at 4:32 pm

    Jonathan Green:
    We have Cortez meeting the Aztec in 1521
    We have Pizarro meeting the Inca in 1526
    By 1600, we know much about the Mayan.
    Are you saying this are real time BoM peoples?

  16. Dan on July 11, 2010 at 4:51 pm

    Jonathan,

    While I applaud thinking outside the box (that’s how we expand the box, right?) attempting to place the events of the Book of Mormon within the 16th century runs into a pretty big problem: The Europeans kept mighty good records. I believe that they essentially left few stones uncovered in their exploration of the Americas, and the only thing they did not discover were dead civilizations in that initial exploration. I can understand saying that the events took place, say, a few hundred years after we assume they took place, but of course, the main problem is that the Book of Mormon’s record ties itself to an event we already have strong evidence took place at a certain time, and that is the death of Christ. The period of the Book of Mormon you are referring to, those 200 or so years, also include the birth and death of Jesus Christ. It’s kind of hard to conceive that Mormon, or even Joseph Smith, got it that wrong when writing the timeline.

    You write:

    So in this analysis, the historical puzzle of the Book of Mormon is not to discover a Semitic people in Ancient America, but rather a group of Colonial-era Native Americans who were Christianized and then destroyed by their rivals, such that their last survivor, or a descendant of their last survivor, was able to convey their records and stories into the hands of Joseph Smith

    Where is the evidence of this?

  17. Julie M. Smith on July 11, 2010 at 4:52 pm

    “I don’t see how Joseph Smith (in the imaginary scenario I’ve outlined) can write his description of Moroni as an angel (in JS-H) in good faith.”

    What if Moroni *is* an angel, but has only been one for ten years?

  18. Bill of Wasilla on July 11, 2010 at 5:36 pm

    “BoW, I think you’re setting the bar too low for heresy. If I remember correctly, the 80s were pretty permissive when it came to ancient astronauts.”

    Yes – in the larger society, but not in Mormon society as I knew it.

  19. Steve Fleming on July 11, 2010 at 5:54 pm

    Horses didn’t get to the Natives until the Pueblo revolt of 1680. That makes of a very narrow time line. Also, all the major cities of the Americas were quickly conquered. Where would a post-Columbian Zarahemla be?

  20. Jonathan Green on July 11, 2010 at 6:07 pm

    Dan, you’re probably right. But…

    Dropping European technology and religion into the middle of Central American in the early 1500s is going to cause some serious ripples up and down the Americas, I think, and some regions remained largely unexplored for centuries. If Nephites were in a geographically limited, somewhat obscure corner of the continent, it seems possible that they and their neighbors could be destroyed by a combination of warfare and smallpox before European settlement becomes aware of them. It’s a tricky proposition, but my impression is that there are enough blank spaces on the map of the colonial-era Americas where you might be able to make it work. Non-AA’s reference to Mann’s 1491 might come in handy.

    Julie, OK, I see what you’re getting at. It won’t yield a purely naturalistic text, but it does let us keep playing with the chronology.

  21. MarkP on July 11, 2010 at 6:29 pm

    The way that we treat historical documents seriously is by subjecting them to scholarly scrutiny, rather than by taking them at face value. And so we end up in the weird space between literalist interpretation and skeptical rejection, where we start wondering about Nephite ethnogenesis.

    This is nonsense to me. How do we “end up in the weird space”? Are you trying to eliminate the supernatural from the narrative in some way?

  22. Dan on July 11, 2010 at 6:31 pm

    Given that the story of that 200 year period relates to growth, development and war, there ought to be some evidence of this if it took place so relatively recently. Given also that we’ve learned that the Americas were more populated than previously believed, I make an assumption here (because we’re making all sorts of assumptions in this post), that more people means that different groups had better chances to make contact with each other, thus frustrating the notion that the Nephites and Lamanites were not known.

    Then again, the Iroquois that know of the Book of Mormon believe very strongly that it speaks to their heritage.

  23. Ellis on July 11, 2010 at 8:16 pm

    “I’m not as pessimistic about LDS audiences. A couple weeks ago in Gospel Doctrine, a member of the bishopric offered a thumbnail sketch of the documentary hypothesis in response to one of the questions, and no one raised an eyebrow. I don’t think this class is by any means typical, but I don’t think it’s all that hard to get Mormons to think about “ways the Bible is in error,” or whatever you decide to call critical scholarship.”

    It is most likely nobody raised an eyebrow because many of them weren’t listening. Others just didn’t want to cause a fuss and the rest of them thought he was talking about something in the lesson manual. Most members are not well versed enough in actual bible reading to think anything else. A teacher could stand in front of a Gospel Doctrine class and say the Egyptians didn’t have boils they died of anthrax and it wouldn’t raise an eyebrow because the class won’t know enough to be aware how unlikely that might be. It would take a miracle.

    After reading the Last of the Mohicans, a smattering of history by Native American scholars; and other books, on the surface it looks to me that your hypothesis is not any more believable than the Joseph Smith account.

  24. Jonathan Green on July 11, 2010 at 11:47 pm

    Actually, Ellis, I’m not all that invested in the ideas I’m tossing out here, so if you want to dismiss it after reading a smattering of history, go right ahead. It’s an idea easily dismissed.

    On the other hand, it irritates me a great deal that you feel like you can dump on a well-prepared Sunday School teacher and her highly educated and engaged students, whom you’ve never met, based on some stale cliches. Please bow out of this thread.

  25. James Olsen on July 12, 2010 at 12:07 am

    On the other hand, I like how this approach narrows the gap between divergent ways of thinking about the Book of Mormon, between the literal/orthodox “records led to a translation” and the figurative/skeptical “parallels inspired fiction.”

    This is an odd way of putting it – your gap remains an infinite gap if it admits anything of our supernatural narrative into the account. In comment 12 you stretch your account even further, putting Moroni at the end of the 18th century, such that he could meet up with JS in the early 19th. But this takes an interesting, perhaps even plausible speculation on the limits of a faithful BofM account and naturalizes it (making it amenable to the “figurative/skeptical” crowd) by really stretching the historical plausibility. There’s simply no historical hint, much less clue big enough to hang a naturalistic hat on, for a wandering Native American Christian meeting up with Joseph. Barring this – import, say, Julie’s 10 year old angel – we’ve now inserted back into the account a fundamentally supernatural narrative, which remains chronologically closer to your figurativist/skeptic, but qualitatively just as distant.

    Nonetheless, you’ve certainly gained kudos for originality and box-expanding possibility. I still think your greatest contribution here is to demand we take seriously any claim to historicity by subjecting the text to the same scrutiny we subject other historical texts. No one bothers with anything that approaches higher criticism on accepted fictions. If we want to grant the BofM historical status we ought to be willing to look at it in the most critically robust ways we can. In my experience (obviously quite unlike Dave and Bill’s), the general Mormon community is quite willing to do so. I can see my mom (my personal yardstick for strict Mormon orthodoxy) furrowing her brow, somewhat puzzled, and saying, “Sure, I guess that’s possible.” I can’t see her condemning or finding anything heretical in these ideas.

    And for what it’s worth, I still find the documentary hypothesis theory the most laughable straw man of a threat to orthodox Mormons. I’ve yet to find a Mormon who even flinches when presented with a decent explanation of the the theory.

  26. g.wesley on July 12, 2010 at 12:48 pm

    absolutely showstopping, jg.

  27. Adam Greenwood on July 12, 2010 at 3:14 pm

    I wouldn’t want to bet my life or my soul or even $50 on this theory, and if I get you, JG, you wouldn’t either, but its intriguing and worth kicking around. Good work.

    There are some interesting parallels to the Taiping, but they are parallels that may present a difficulty for the theory. The Taiping were more interlaced with the (Western) world than the Nephites are in this theory (or else the Nephites would have left some evidence behind them in Western records, just as the Taiping did), but the Taiping version of Christianity was less conventional than that in the Book of Mormon. But if the Nephites were even more isolated from the Western world, you’d expect there version of Christianity to be more heterodox, not less. So you’d have to argue either that God had his thumb on the scales via vision and revelation to keep Nephite Christianity relatively unalloyed with preexisting native traditions, or else you’d have to argue that Joseph Smith did some really heavy editing, or both, at which point Ockham is pointing out that you are in need of a shave.

    Or else you could argue that Mormon/Moroni had greater contact with Western civilization *after* their culture disappeared, and in edition to massaging the ethnogenesis parts they also heavily massaged the spiritual parts. But at this point, you’ve almost reinvented the inspired fiction hypothesis except you’ve made Mormon or Moroni the fictioneer, which seems like a lot of mental contortions for not a lot of result.

  28. Raymond Takashi Swenson on July 12, 2010 at 5:11 pm

    It seems to me that the point of the Book of Mormon is to challenge people to reconsider their world views and accept one that specifically affirms the reality of angels, divine intervention in historical events, including fabricating compasses and directing novel ways of shipbuilding, and divine narrative outside the Bible. The Book of Mormon narrative is replete with people who militantly refuse to believe anything they can’t see, even to the point of executing those who have a spiritual imagination, who are set out in contrast to the people who are willing to believe in prophets and prophecy, and who are vindicated time and again.

    Even if you could offer a plausible historical context for the Book of Mormon as a record, that is outside the miraculous account that includes 1 Nephi and 3 Nephi, what would be the point of such a book? Rather than having significance as a touchstone for communication with the divine, it would merely be another “holy book” like the ones that are used by Hindus and Buddhists.

    It seems to me that the genius of the Book of Mormon is to separate out people who are able to believe in the actuality of spiritual beings and actions affecting physical reality, and invite them into the Church. People who lack that capacity are unlikely to make the sacrifices necessary to build the Kingdom of God. How many people can give up a year or two of their lives, and much of their income, based on a hypothetical historical narrative that has three or four points of congruence with the actual Book of Mormon narrative.

  29. Crick on July 12, 2010 at 5:58 pm

    Can someone please in a couple of sentences explain to this uneducated feller what the Documentary Hypothesis is? Nevermind that you’ll have to simplify or that there might be various branches of the same. Just give me the gist of it.

    Thanks.

  30. Dane Laverty on July 12, 2010 at 6:11 pm

    The documentary hypothesis (as I understand it) is the idea that the first five books of the Old Testament were not written by Moses (or any single author), but rather stitched together from four different accounts, generally called P, J, D, and E (for “priestly”, “jehovist”, “deuteronomist”, and “elohist”, IIRC).

  31. Jonathan Green on July 13, 2010 at 12:50 am

    James, yes, as much as we stretch what we admit as naturalistically plausible and religiously acceptable, it looks like we can’t quite make them meet in the middle. Moroni with freshly-mounted wings is still an angel, after all. Back to the drawing board…

    Adam, you identify another real issue that I didn’t discuss at all. Suppose we imagine a Christianized Nephite population, converted by Padre Alma, or Deacon Coriantumr, or or someone else who wanders out of the forest, you’d expect the result to be a highly idiosyncratic or even syncretic Christianity. But the Book of Mormon has rather a lot to say Christian religion, and that’s not the impression it gives, leaving one kind of expansion or another to dodge most of the obstacles for us. Highly unsatisfying.

  32. Jonathan Green on July 13, 2010 at 1:10 am

    So, thanks to everyone for your comments and questions. Let’s see where we ended up.

    We can cut Nephite history loose from its chronology by dispensing with the historical claims of 1 Nephi or 3 Nephi 11. I think this might be defensible from the historian’s standpoint, but there is substantial resistance on religious grounds for even this first step.

    Docking Nephite history to the recent past is difficult. There’s the whole absence of evidence, for one thing. I think it would be an interesting exercise to re-read the Book of Mormon, and cherry-pick Native American history, to see what kinds of possibilities emerge. At the moment, all we can do is look for a large enough geographic and historical blank space in the western hemisphere for the story to play out without being seen, and rely on imagined editorial interventions to smooth out the problems.

    Even if we can manage #1 and #2, there are still serious hurdles to coming up with a naturalistic textual origin for the Book of Mormon that doesn’t require Joseph Smith to be a genial fabricator, due to the account of Moroni’s visitation in JS-H. Otherwise we might say that Joseph Smith was a religious visionary who experienced moments of personal rapture, and who also came into possession of Native American histories. But JS-H makes visionary experience an integral part of the Book of Mormon’s textual origin.

  33. Adam Greenwood on July 13, 2010 at 10:55 am

    JG,

    as your recap shows, your idea doesn’t do much for letting us get around the supernatural (and as RTS points out, Providence probably doesn’t want you to, anyway). So as an olive branch or a formula to elide disagreement, its a bust.

    But lets not get too pragmatic. Your idea could be worthwhile simply because its true (I don’t believe it is, but its worth kicking around). Or, as you hinted above, it could have apologetic implications.

  34. Bob on July 13, 2010 at 12:44 pm

    Jonathan Green:
    A Culture that can mine and work with gold, and also have a writing system for a 1000 years, would leave a very big footprint in time and space. IMO, as big as the Aztec or the Inca Cultures.
    I see in the BoM, a supernatural Culture, however you wish to define that.

  35. Non-Arab Arab on July 13, 2010 at 12:57 pm

    Bob: I’d again turn you to Charles Mann’s “1491″. There’s a whole lot of very big ancient footprints across the Americas that no one can identify, and even more clues that there’s a lot of giant footprints that washed away before anyone could examine them. That may not be proof of anything in the Book of Mormon, but the potential spaces where the events could have occurred look more numerous than I can count.

  36. Crick on July 13, 2010 at 2:23 pm

    Thanks Dane. Is there some sort of application of the Documentary Hypothesis that applies it (or a similar hypothesis) to the BOM?

    That seems to be implied in this discussion.

  37. Bob on July 13, 2010 at 3:12 pm

    #35 N-AA,
    I reviewed what I could find on Mann. Sorry, I don’t accept his findings. He is not a scientist, only a writer.
    Me? I studied under a man who works 35 years for Smithsonian on mappings American Indians.

  38. Adam Greenwood on July 13, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    Bob,
    JG’s working hypothesis is that the actual historical events of the Book of Mormon all occur in about a 150-year period. (He’s somewhat arbitrarily treating everything before pre-Benjamin as legendary/mythic, as well as the events from 3 Nephi 9 on through the 4th Nephi utopia).

  39. Non-Arab Arab on July 13, 2010 at 5:57 pm

    Bob: Mann doesn’t claim to be a scientist. What his book is, is an excellent survey of lots of people like the man you studied under. Dozens of people who’ve studied these topics for decades should give a broader view than one who has done so, no? Not that anyone has to agree with any one in particular, but this is such a vast field of research, it’s frankly impossible for anyone even studying it their whole life through to get it all (like so many other fields). I’d give it a read, he’s an open and honest writer who tries to show all sides of the arguments out there, even the sides he doesn’t agree with. The book is worthwhile for showing the wide variety of theories and research that are out there.

  40. Bob on July 13, 2010 at 10:40 pm

    #39: Charles Mann is as fun read, as is Dan Brown. I only advise not using him for help in understaning the BoM. He is wrong in his speculations. My understanding is based years of study under some fine, seasoned, field working anthropologist of early American Indians.

  41. Bob on July 13, 2010 at 10:42 pm

    Find and add a “d” and “s” to #40

  42. Adam Greenwood on July 14, 2010 at 10:42 am

    Bob,
    I know an anthropologist/archaelogist specializing in pre-Columbian stuff, and she has her problems with Mann but she is nowhere as dismissive as you are.

  43. Bob on July 14, 2010 at 2:36 pm

    #42: Adam, I am dimissive of Mann as I fear he could become too popular with Mormons. His 1491 book puts the Mound Builders on a level with the Inca and Aztec. Anthropologists/Archaelogists know what is needed to create advanced societies and maintain large populations. Mann is just wrong in how many of these groups were in America before Columbus.

  44. Non-Arab Arab on July 14, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    Bob: I didn’t walk away from reading Mann thinking the mound builders were anywhere near as advanced as the Inca or Aztec. I’m not sure where that comes from. What I came away with was in broad terms simply that the Americas were likely far more densely populated than we’ve imagined and that the odds are high that there were far more societies that we remain unaware of to this day than we realize. Indeed, given the artifacts left behind by sophisticated groups like Incas, Aztecs, Maya, etc., my presumption from the theories he presents are that most of these unknown ancient and medieval peoples likely had relatively modest technological sophistication.

  45. Bob on July 14, 2010 at 4:55 pm

    #44: “(The) abrupt rise of Cahokia, near modern St. Louis, the largest city north of the Rio Grande. Population estimates vary from at least 15,000 to 100,000″.
    The above is from Mann’s timeline in his book. IMO__this never happened. The mound people would be part of this culture.
    Wikipedia has a nice write up on Cahokia.

  46. Jonathan Green on July 14, 2010 at 6:36 pm

    So at the moment we have pop science dueling with Wikipedia for credibility. This is stupid.

    There is a well-known solution to this conundrum. Someone with access to academic databases–I’m away from my office at the moment, unfortunately–should look up reviews of Mann’s book by competent scholars that were published in respectable journals. What do people who know what they’re talking about say about Mann in print?

  47. Bob on July 14, 2010 at 7:18 pm

    #46: Amazon.com has 250 reviews.

  48. Jonathan Green on July 14, 2010 at 11:59 pm

    Reviews in academic journals are not at all similar to Amazon customer reviews. Academic reviews often entail one of the journal editors, a highly experienced scholar, commissioning another scholar experienced in the book’s subfield to write a review based on extensive research in the same field. If the editor has found the right reviewer, one academic book review will tell you much more than 250 customer reviews possibly could.

  49. Bob on July 15, 2010 at 12:27 am

    #48: Charles Mann is not an academic, he is a journalist with an agenda. What he wrote was based on his working with two college professors. He has a web site avaliable outlining his writing of the book.

  50. thomas mcfall on July 15, 2010 at 11:46 am

    if i was going to try to literally support the bom and also it’s religious value in the absence of any grounded foundation in history i would postulate that the events took place in another dimension ( one might think of the upper astral world beyond the “white light” at death and that all events actually took place in this world and not on earth. is there any evidence for this ? of course not. if one believes in the christ then one must believe in miracles. if one believes in miracles then there is nothing in the bom that is not acceptable. it could be an astral world experience or one on this earth. the whole basis of the christian worldview is based on miracles so why worry if zarahemla is in the state of tabasco, mexico or beyond the “white light” after death or in western new york ? the point of the lds church is the improvement of the soul and not a search for horse bones in kansas.

  51. smb on July 17, 2010 at 10:43 pm

    Is this Mann guy the creative genius that brought us 2012? Because, wow. (JG, scholarly journals don’t usually review pop-science journalistic treatments–I’ll be curious and impressed if there are actually reviews.)

  52. Jonathan Green on July 18, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    Smb, why would you think that Mann had any connection to 2012? He’s a science journalist who’s won a bunch of awards for his work. Seriously, where are you getting that idea from?

    Popular works that receive major media attention do get noticed in associated academic fields. All I have access to at the moment is Google Scholar, but a quick search finds at least two relevant academic reviews:

    Calloway, C. G. “Julian Granberry: The Americas That Might Have Been: Native American Social Systems through Time; Charles C. Mann: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus.” Ethnohistory 54 (2007): 195-196.

    Johansen, B. E. “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. By Charles C. Mann.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 29 (2005): 121-123.

    I’m sure there are others. My point is that if you want to evaluate claims like Mann’s, published academic commentary of one form or another is going to be far more useful than Wikipedia or Amazon reviews.

  53. Rameumptom on July 20, 2010 at 11:28 am

    There are huge problems with your theory of a post-Columbian history for the book of Mormon. Brant Gardner has given many examples of how Nephite events fit in perfectly with Mayan lifestyles, politics, etc. Joseph Smith couldn’t have guessed huge cities made with cement, or even a people with a written language, given the conditions of the Natives he would have known about circa 1829.

    If we are going to doubt the historicity of Nephi, et al, due to issues such as horses, then why should we believe Joseph Smith at all? Why do you believe that an angel Moroni appeared to him, yet that same being could not have lived 1600 years before? This seems to be a non sequitur. Either Moroni really visited Joseph and was a mortal back when he said he was, or he didn’t do any of this.

    Even those of us who believe in the Documentary Hypothesis of the Bible believe in some historicity. Biblical minimalists have discounted King David for decades, even though the Merneptah Stele and other evidence is available (including current claims that his palace in Jerusalem has been located). The minimalists have a case because of little evidence for David’s existence, and some evidence that contradicts the Bible’s story. The Bible basically shows two ways in which Saul met David: 1) to be his musician, and 2) when he slew Goliath. Both stories cannot easily coincide and be true, at least not how the Bible places them. But that does not mean nothing happened, or that there is no historical person named David.

    The Book of Mormon is not a history, but there are historical aspects in it. The evidences of ancient things inside it are impressive, and many were not known in Joseph Smith’s day or in the Post-Columbian era.

    As for the Documentary Hypothesis, it does not necessarily state that Moses never wrote anything, but that the 5 books of Moses as we now have them were written and edited later by J, E, P, D, and R. John Sorensen suggested that the Plates of Laban may have been the source for E, and the original manuscript of the BoM only mentions the “book of Moses” not the “five books of Moses” as it was changed to later.

    Unlike Adam, I do not think there’s much to talk about concerning this Post-Columbian concept, as there really isn’t any real evidence for a theory to emerge, just a hypothesis remains. We may as well adopt the inspired fiction hypothesis, as it is easier to swallow than this concept (IMO).

  54. Adam Greenwood on July 20, 2010 at 2:22 pm

    The Book of Mormon has lots to say about working gold but I couldn’t recall any references to mining. Turns out there is one.

    Mosiah 11:23 And they did awork in all manner of bore, and they did make gold, and silver, and ciron, and dbrass, and all manner of metals; and they did dig it out of the earth; wherefore, they did cast up mighty heaps of earth to get ore, of gold, and of silver, and of iron, and of copper. And they did ework all manner of fine work.

    Per hypothesis, this is in the ‘historical’ section of the book.

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