“Ask the Scholar,” John L. Sorenson edition (part 2 of 3)

02.18.2014 | Matthew Roper

Part 1 of John L. Sorenson’s “Ask the Scholar” feature is available hereHis new book, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book is available now at Deseret Book, or as an ebook from Amazon and other providers. —BHodges

In Mormon’s Codex you discuss the idea of “correspondences” between what the Book of Mormon says and what we are learning about ancient Mesoamerican archaeology and history. Could you explain what you mean by this and what makes a “correspondence” significant? 

A correspondence in my usage is a statement, allusion, or historical or cultural fact shared in two sources. When the Book of Mormon shares information about Nephite life with the picture of ancient civilization in Mesoamerica (southern Mexico and northern Central America) developed by  scholars and scientists from their (“objective”) investigations, such “correspondences” or parallels demand logical explanation: either some version of “coincidence” must be called upon, or else one must suppose that both the textual and the scholarly/scientific sources must be describing the same cultural patterns or historical situations from different perspectives as dictated by their respective sources and perspectives. If “coincidence” does not provide a satisfactory explanation, the text must be seen as a valid descriptive and inferential source. For example, the Maya Indians typically carried on wars “until blood [of a defeated leader] is drunk [by the victor].” According to Alma 51:9, Amalickiah, the Nephite dissenter who had become king over the Lamanites, had “sworn to drink the blood” of his enemy, Moroni.

“Coincidence” might be resorted to explain this parallel if it were in isolation. However, when literally hundreds of correspondences are discovered between the Book of Mormon text and the scholars’ reconstruction of ancient Mesoamerican lifeways, most human minds will be forced to accept the second explanation, a real historical connection. That being so, both scholars and lay readers must agree that Joseph Smith had in his possession a book or codex written by a person or persons who lived in southern Mexico, probably in about the fourth century AD. This is so regardless of the question of the means by which Smith managed to translate that record.

No one in the world alive in the 1820s could have controlled facts about Mesoamerican civilization sufficient to come up with anything like the text of the Book of Mormon. So “Mormon’s codex” must be seen as the oldest extant document from Mesoamerica and, perforce, should become a major source for study by Mesoamericanist scholars.

Nearly a third of Mormon’s Codex addresses correspondences. Which of these do you find most significant and why?

First, the overall fact that there existed a civilization (actually two in sequence) that lasted over the same time period as Book of Mormon history and that it was set in a landscape fully coordinate with that described in the the  Book of Mormon and was characterized by cultures (cities, large-scale warfare, abundant books, etc.) in agreement with what is described in the textual record.

Second is the fact that many break points in the book’s history are paralleled in the archaeological sequence that has become apparent in the last century. Notable among such are the  expulsion/destruction of most of the population from the area most plausibly identified as the land of Zarahemla at the time specified in the book, and the sequence of cultural changes manifested in the area most plausibly identified as the  land of Nephi. In addition, scores of correspondences visible in the archaeology of a more specific nature I consider impressive.

As you have pursued your research on the Book of Mormon, have you encountered anything that has surprised you?

Of course. There have been surprises at every turn. First has been surprises at how many details the Nephite text contains about the lifeways of the people, often by inference rather than direct reference. For example, the consistent references, sometimes oblique, about their “political economy,” that is, how the payment of tribute or taxes articulated with the power structure in society.

At least as impressive has been my realizing how closely linked the scripture’s macro-history is to the archaeological record when examined closely, while in my early days I supposed, with everyone else, that such linkages were likely absent.

What lines of research in Book of Mormon studies would you like to see others pursue and develop in the future?

Hundreds of topics deserving further research are pointed out at least indirectly in Mormon’s Codex. All of them may be inviting to some person or other, yet none of them is crucial to what it is or may become. Mormon’s Codex can be further clarified by deeper research on any of them, but it does not need any of them. It stands on its own, as its title page says or implies.