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

02.21.2014 | The Maxwell Institute

John L. Sorenson’s new book, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book, is available now at Deseret Book or as an ebook from Amazon and other providers. This is the third of three “Ask the Scholar” posts; see also parts 1 and 2. —BHodges

What would be your advice to someone troubled by references in the Book of Mormon to things that seem anachronistic (for example Jaredite and Nephite metallurgy, pre-Columbian horses, etc.)?

I would say be humble and tentative about the claimed “facts” that we “know” about the ancient world. A good deal of the information that was “surely known” twenty, or forty, or sixty years ago is today passé and outdated. Wait awhile. We are lucky if we “know” 10 percent of what there is to know about ancient life. (Archaeologists, after all, are simply rummaging through the garbage of ancient folks and trying to make sense of it. With time, more garbage, more sense, paradoxically!) At the same time our (believers’) assumptions that we are “reading” the text clearly deserves to be thought through and re-thought through. We do well not to suppose that we are reading any ancient document fully and correctly.

How do you explain the “synagogues built after the manner of the Jews,” when synagogues didn’t exist in the Old World before 300 BC?

The argument about our incomplete knowledge of ancient life made in the previous answer applies here too. How do we know that synagogues didn’t exist in the Old World before 300 BC? That claim is based entirely on negative evidence (or the absence of evidence, so far, that they did exist. William Adams’s article “Synagogues in the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies  9/1 (2000): 4-13 raises questions about this issue. There may have been functional equivalents of “synagogues” among the Jews by Lehi’s day. Consider the following caution by H. Shanks about the over-archaeologicalization of biblical studies: Dever’s exclusive dependence on archaeology instead of text, “reflects [his] gross failure to appreciate how little archaeological findings have been able to contribute to solving the major problems in Biblical history, such as the emergence of Israel [or the presence or absence of synagogues]. There is simply so much we don’t know.”   “… But the archaeological evidence is far from overwhelming. …” “… [Dever’s argumentation] vastly overrates the explanatory power of the archaeological evidence without any real appreciation for its limitations.” See Dever’s “Sermon on the Mound,” Biblical Archaeology Review 13 (March/April 1987): 54-57.

How do you account for early statements by Joseph Smith that seem to place Book of Mormon peoples and events in North America, such as Zelph’s burial ground, the hill Cumorah battleground in New York, etc.?

It is obvious that he had a lot to learn about  every subject as his life professed (cf. D&C 121:39, “We have learned by sad experience”). About Book of Mormon geography, he or a close associate wrote in the Times and Seasons in 1841, “We have [just] found another important fact about . . . the Book of Mormon. . . . The city of  Zarahemla stood upon this land [Central America],” as a result of their reading the 1841 book by John Lloyd Stephens. Moreover, as Ken Godfrey pointed out, statements by Joseph about “Zelph” are far from clear and may have had little concrete meaning about Book of Mormon geography. (“What is the Significance of Zelph in the Study of Book of Mormon Geography?” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/2 [1999]: 70-79). Moroni did not “hide up” the plates his father gave him in “the hill Cumorah,” but for many years (Moroni 10:1) “wander[ed]” from that vicinity “for the safety of [his] own life” (Moroni 1:3) before he interred them. So the place where he ultimately buried them (in New York) was not where the final Nephite battle took place. These and other statements about geography attributed to Joseph Smith are best treated as preliminary hunches that he held subject to later correction after further thought and study (as of Stephens’s book).

Many Latter-day Saints have drawn parallels between Mesoamerican lore concerning the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl and Jesus who appeared to the Nephites in 3 Nephi. Are these comparisons valid? How do your views differ from those of other Latter-day Saints?

The topic is complex, not least because there have been two or more “Quetzalcoatls” in “history.” Actually the Amerindians of south-central Mexico, from which most of the traditions have reached us, do not have a reality-based, consistent history. What we have instead is fragments of traditions (reported by Ixtlilxochitl, Sahagún, Veytia and others) that have some historical content, but there is not any discernible master narrative among them.

Latter-day Saint writers have sometimes tried to force a narrative sequence on them, but the results remain unconvincing in detail. One of the earliest attempts was by Hunter and Ferguson in their Ancient America and the Book of Mormon (1950), who equated the figure Hueman of Ixtlilxochitl’s writings with Mormon of the Book of Mormon, but in order to do so they arbitrarily dated Hueman to the fourth century, on no objective basis whatever.

Most professional Mesoamericanist scholars take the traditions as merely such, without supposing that an integrated history can be constructed from them. Thus they do not treat them as historically (that is, chronologically) significant in the way that archaeological findings potentially are. Nevertheless some of the traditions, in conjunction with Mesoamerican art history, do seem to cluster near the time of Christ. These I rely on in Mormon’s Codex as likely related to the Book of Mormon’s report of the appearance of Jesus Christ. Other details in the traditions may be associated only (or largely) with some of the later figures who were also called “Quetzalcoatl.” The uncertainties of historical timing of the statements about  these figures means, to me, that there will always be uncertainties in relation to the Book of Mormon account.

How have non-LDS scholars reacted to your work? How do you feel about it?

I wouldn’t know. I suspect all but a few ignore what I write.  If they are steadfastly professional in their reading, it would be easy to be completely unaware of my work. A few may read a bit of it, but do not care enough to communicate what they think to me, after all. I suspect I would be classed by most such scholars with that fairly large class of marginal writers who can safely be allotted no attention. There may, however, be a few people “in the closet” who have paid some attention to my and other scholarly Mormon work, but they may feel that to draw attention to it by commenting on it, even negatively, would serve no useful purpose, in their calculus.

A case in point might be Dr. Michael Coe, the widely published Mesoamerican archaeologist at Yale. We have known each other for years. A few years ago after he had lectured at BYU, I approached him to exchange greetings, whereupon he said to me, with a smile, “Hello, John. I don’t want to talk to you. You’re too formidable.”  More recently I sent him a copy of my book with Carl L. Johannessen, World Trade and Biological Exchange before 1492, which documents at vast length that very many plant and animal species and diseases were exchanged by boat between the Old and New Worlds before Columbus.  He responded in a personal letter, “It’s an enormously impressive piece of scholarship. … So much of this evidence, I think, is irrefutable. … If I had another life, I’d devote much of it to proving the interlace between the religions and cosmologies of Southeast and South Asia, and that of Mesoamerica.” More recently I sent him a copy of Mormon’s Codex (which cites 21 works by him in its bibliography). His pleasant letter of thanks revealed that he had not read significantly in it. It is not surprising that he (or other non-LDS archaeologists) would be unlikely to find time to examine an 800-page volume of doubtful professional value to them.

The scholarly work I have reported in Mormon’s Codex is the best effort I am capable of. I consider it as sound, both in general and in detail. It fulfills my responsibility to the scholarly community as far as I am able. At the same time it displays my understanding of the Book of Mormon. I recommend that truth-lovers consider it carefully and advance beyond it. 

What relevance do you think the Book of Mormon has to the world today in general? What lessons does it teach and has it taught you in regards to academia and scholarship?

The book remains key to understanding God’s relationship to humanity in this age; it deserves our best efforts to grasp that relationship. It also teaches us that judgments of the accuracy and worth of Mormon’s account that have commonly been made, by both common readers and scholars, have been premature, partial, and unreliable in the light of the “continuing revelations” of science and scholarship. We all have good reason to be humble about our competence to turn Mormon aside.

Given your years of experience and significant contributions to the field, what would be your advice to a young student of Book of Mormon studies today?

Stay thoroughly familiar with the book in principle and action as the book itself teaches you. Prepare yourself deeply in some relevant  academic discipline; there is no such thing as a “field” of “Book of Mormon studies.” Continue to question your academic assumptions over the long haul. Trust that the Lord will provide you with necessary assistance (promptings and opportunities) when you are selflessly engaged in his work. Don’t set out to “prove” some point about the book that you have already concluded “must” be “right.” Let truth (or even Truth) be your aim, but do not expect to find TRUTH. Don’t be concerned with convincing any particular audience that someone else is “wrong” and you are “right.”