Out of Mesoamerica: The Archaeological Context of the Book of Mormon

Yours truly with Professor Neal Rappleye, deciphering a Maya stele that reads, “I, Nephi, made this stele.”

Speaking of the lack of direct archaeological verification for an Israelite exodus from Egypt, James K. Hoffmeier, an American Egyptologist who has written extensively on the historicity of the Exodus, remarked,

There are several possible reasons for this absence of evidence. The first possibility is, as the Biblical minimalists suppose, that the Hebrews were never there. 

A second, more likely explanation is that we have had unrealistic expectations as to what archaeology can deliver. After all, what evidence, short of an inscription in a Proto-Canaanite script stating “bricks made by Hebrew slaves” would be considered proof that the Israelites were in Egypt? Archaeology’s ability to determine the ethnicity of a people in the archaeological record, especially of the Israelites at such an early period, is quite limited. Assuming the Israelites were in Egypt during Egypt’s New Kingdom (c. 1540– 1200 B.C.), what kind of pottery would they have used? What house plans would they have lived in? What sort of burial traditions did they practice? And would archaeologists be able to identify the burial of these early Israelites who ended up as slaves anyway? And how are all these things different from those of Canaanites or other Semitic-speaking peoples in Egypt at this time?

Hoffmeier reminds us that inscriptional evidence in the form of papyri is rare from the Nile delta region, and that royal propaganda does not report anything negative about Pharaoh (such as him being bested by a ragtag group of former slaves). As such,

Because we cannot expect to find textual proof of the Israelites in Egypt, we must ask whether the Bible’s report is plausible in light of secondary evidence provided by archaeology. Do elements of the story have the ring of authenticity or are they fanciful? Did pastoralists from the Levant migrate to Egypt during times of famine? Is there evidence from Egypt of foreigners being pressed into hard labor for Pharaoh? Do the geographical places named in the Exodus story square with realities on the ground?

(James K. Hoffmeier, “Out of Egypt: The Archaeological Context of the Exodus,” in Ancient Israel in Egypt and Exodus, ed. Margaret Warker [Washington, D. C.: Biblical Archaeology Society, 2012], 3, 5.)

As a fun exercise, let’s paraphrase Hoffmeier’s comments here and apply them to the Book of Mormon. Keeping in mind that, like the papyri of the Nile delta, pre-Classic Maya codices have all but perished in the wet, humid climate of Mesoamerica or to looters, and keeping in mind that “there’s about 6,000 known Maya sites and we’ve only researched about 5 percent of them,” and keeping in mind that of those “6,000 or so known Maya sites, we only know the ancient names of about a dozen of them,” let us proceed.

There are several possible reasons for this absence of evidence. The first possibility is, as Book of Mormon minimalists suppose, that the Nephites were never there. 

A second, more likely explanation is that we have had unrealistic expectations as to what archaeology can deliver. After all, what evidence, short of an inscription in a Proto-Mayan script stating “gold plates made by Nephites” would be considered proof that the Nephites were in Mesoamerica? Archaeology’s ability to determine the ethnicity of a people in the archaeological record, especially of the Nephites at such an early period, is quite limited. Assuming the Nephites were in Mesoamerica during the preclassic Maya period (c. 1000 BC–AD 250), what kind of pottery would they have used? What house plans would they have lived in? What sort of burial traditions did they practice? And would archaeologists be able to identify the burial of these early Nephites who ended up in Mesoamerica anyway? And how are all these things different from those of Maya or other Maya-speaking peoples in Mesoamerica at this time?

Because we cannot expect to find textual proof of the Nephites in Mesoamerica, we must ask whether the Book of Mormon’s report is plausible in light of secondary evidence provided by archaeology. Do elements of the story have the ring of authenticity or are they fanciful? Is there evidence for migration and population patterns that are consistent with the Book of Mormon? Is there evidence from Mesoamerica of social stratification, high literacy, seasonal warfare, intricate calendrical systems, and inter-ethnic socio-religious competition? Does the geographical outline in the Book of Mormon square with realities on the ground?

Anyone remotely familiar with the work of Mesoamericanists such as Mark Wright, Brant Gardner, John Sorenson, or John Clark will know the answers to these questions, and can therefore perhaps appreciate: (1) that the issue is much more complicated than some people on the Internet would have us believe, and (2) that there is indeed much to say about the Book of Mormon in ancient Mesoamerica.

30 thoughts on “Out of Mesoamerica: The Archaeological Context of the Book of Mormon

  1. So, if I'm understanding you correctly, you are dismissive of Vogel's work/claims on the subject because so much remains undiscovered?

    "Because we cannot expect to find textual proof of the Nephites in Mesoamerica, we must ask whether the Book of Mormon's report is plausible in light of secondary evidence provided by archaeology. Do elements of the story have the ring of authenticity or are they fanciful?"

    Are you positing then that archaeology be the main criteria by which to judge the BOM's authenticity? I would argue that elements of the BOM have both fanciful and authentic elements to them.

    • "So, if I'm understanding you correctly, you are dismissive of Vogel's work/claims on the subject because so much remains undiscovered?"

      Partly, yes. It is wholly premature to declare the Book of Mormon ahistorical because of lack of direct archaeological or topographic evidence in the New World.

      "Are you positing then that archaeology be the main criteria by which to judge the BOM's authenticity?"

      Not necessarily. It is one criteria, but not the only one.

    • "Not necessarily. It is one criteria, but not the only one," writes Stephen Smoot.

      "Criteria" is the plural of "criterion," but I assume University of Toronto made allowance for his being an American.

      -dlj.

      But you knew that, didn't you? You don't have to speak English to be an Egyptologist.

      -dlj.

  2. Nice article. Loved you on Conan.

    Of course the growing consensus is that the Israelites were never there and this is starting to be accepted by the religious thinkers as well. We cannot be surprised when trendy Mormons look for the same kind of middle ground in the philosophies of men like Vogel. Taking such positions is safer and avoids all that uncomfortable finger pointing and laughing coming from that large building opposite us.

    I think we need more examination of why the book _must_ be understood as historical. Bill Hamblin has made some good arguments here as well as exploring the problems with evidence you pose here. For me, one of the strongest arguments I can make for the Exodus' historicity is its prominent place and role in the Book of Mormon. If it was a fable then suddenly Nephi telling his brethren to be strong like unto Moses is much less inspiring. Thus the Book of Mormon becomes as it was prophesied, a witness to the truthfulness of the record of the Jews. It cannot fulfill this role if it is itself an ahistorical fable.

    So I don't think Mormons get an easy way out. We are stuck with accepting the book in a very literal sense or abandoning all that makes our religion unique. I think this was a very wise part of the Divine plan. We are left with little evidence, certainly none that would convince a skeptic, and a audacious claim fueled by faith and asked to stand against a world that is continually less believing of such things. For many that challenge is more than they can bear. I take heart in seeing our next generation shouldering the responsibility of just that. Best of luck in your studies.

  3. For me, the most initially convincing aspect of the Book of Mormon is that the people who knew the truth of its origins personally, including Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum, and the other 10 witnesses, lived out their lives affirming their testimonies of what they experienced, even though it brought them no material advantage. Putting all the effort into composing and publishing a 500 page book makes no sense at all if your purpose was to make money. If Joseph was a charlatan, why expend all that effort into producing a book that would make it harder for most people to accept and support you. Plenty of his contemporaries became rich and famous religious leaders, who were not constantly living under threat of prosecution and jail and execution. The Book of Mormon, and his claims to have received prophetic authority from God and angels, were barriers to accepting him for most of his contemporaries. Mormonism was never a highly popular movement in any given community, until the Latter-day Saints could gather and form their own communities. Becoming a Mormon, especially the need to emigrate and gather to a new home, and resist persecution, has always been difficult, as if it were designed to discourage most people from joining. If you were intending to become popular and influential through a religious movement, you would never do it the way Joseph did. There are numerous examples of people who did it the standard way, both in the modern era and two centuries ago.

    • "If you were intending to become popular and influential through a religious movement, you would never do it the way Joseph did."

      I would disagree with that statement. I don't think JS had any intention of making a lot of money doing what he did. However, the people claiming to have heavenly visions were quite common in his day. It would totally make sense that he would invent a book that closely resembled the Bible in order to establish a following. Otherwise, what would make you different than anyone else? True, Mormononism has never been "popular," but JS certainly gathered no small amount of converts. Not saying that what he did was easy, but I also wouldn't say that it wasn't calculated.

    • "It would totally make sense that he would invent a book that closely resembled the Bible in order to establish a following."

      Why? Nobody else did. And if the earliest sectarian reactions are indicative of anything, "inventing" a book of scripture to go alongside the Bible was the last thing he should've done if he was trying to become popular or influential.

      If you're going to just be another visionary, or a calculating fraud, stick with the visions. Nobody can prove or disprove their reality. You're much safer that way. The last thing you'd want to do is fabricate something like the Book of Mormon.

    • Exactly right. Joseph Smith didn't produce a book of his "prophetic insights" or anything like that when the Book of Mormon came forth. He produced an extensive and complex book that he claimed was a translation of ancient records. He also went through a time where day after day he was witnessed dictating the text of the book without consulting a source other than seer stones of one sort or other. Others affixed their testimonies to the book claiming either to have seen, hefted, and turned the leaves of the metal plates which were the original record, or that an angel showed them the record, testifying as to its veracity as an ancient record. This is not the way a fraudster would "invent a book" just for the purpose of standing out from a crowd of other Protestant denominations.

    • I subscribe to Dan Vogel's theory that JS was a pious fraud or a "sincere fraud" — a person who deceives for holy or religious purposes and may believe that it is according to God's will. Joseph was an intensively private man. While he spoke great religious sermons at length, he didn't necessarily give a lot of personal insights into the man he was. He is known to have said, "I can keep a secret until doomsday," and I think he felt completely justified in being a kind of fraud in order to bring people to God. The ends always justified the means for him, and he preached a God that did likewise.

      "Others affixed their testimonies to the book…"

      True, but those testimonies are problematic at best and flat out false at worst.

      "This is not the way a fraudster would 'invent a book.'"

      I agree. I think JS was very unconventional kind of fraud, hence my belief he was a pious one.

    • "True, but those testimonies are problematic at best and flat out false at worst."

      The best historical scholarship available (the work of MacKay, Dirkmaat, Harper, Anderson, et al) says otherwise, and shows that Vogel's ad hoc naturalistic rationalizations for the witnesses are highly debatable.

    • To be fair, I agree that Vogel's conclusions are problematic/debatable as well regarding the witnesses. The sources he cites, however, cause me to seriously question the statements provided by the witnesses. I'd be intrigued to see the works of the aforementioned scholars.

    • "Putting all the effort into composing and publishing a 500 page book makes no sense at all if your purpose was to make money." Or even if your purpose was to create a movement. Shoot, a pamphlet would have done the job. Aside from the work of translation, consider how much work it would have been just to inscribe the lines to write on (which is what Oliver did) on hundreds of pages of paper, let alone sit for "day after day" as Joseph and Oliver did, translating and writing the record. We who are used to working with word processors and keyboards really can't understand the labor required to undertake such a work using ink and quill pen.

    • Pamphlets were commonplace. Not saying the BOM wasn't a huge undertaking. Obviously it was painstaking. To be able to claim that you had translated a new book of scripture, now that's unique.

    • Professor Bolnick's article concerning Trans-Atlantic migration assumes a knowledge of the papers that preceded her paper. Current peer reviewed scholarship is more problematic if you subscribe to the Meso-american BOM theories, or any any other theory that regards the BOM as non-fiction, as against the heartland theory. DNA evidence refutes any notions of BOM authenticity. If you want references I'll be happy to gather and post these. I assume Mr. Smoot is familiar with the litany of DNA-BOM problems. Evidence concerning Haplogroup X is merely the final nail in the BOM coffin while other findings represent the coffin.

    • "DNA evidence refutes any notions of BOM authenticity. If you want references I'll be happy to gather and post these."

      By all means. Give it your best shot.

      I'm confident Ugo Perego, John Butler, Michael Whiting, and others have already (A) refuted or (B) anticipated your objections, but maybe you'll have something new.

    • Perego, Butler, and Whiting, though their approaches may vary, all seem to make the same case which is, "We don't have sufficient information to definitively conclude where the people in BOM descend from." Sounds like attempts at trying to find BOM archaeological evidence are an exercise in futility to me.

    • Not precisely. That's part of it, but more specifically the issue is that the Book of Mormon does not really present a scenario in which DNA ancestry testing can resolve the question of Lamanite identity. If you read the Book of Mormon as presenting an empty continent when Lehi arrives, then you're screwed. If, however, you go with the (in my opinion vastly superior) reading that the Book of Mormon presents Lehi's descendants intermingling with already present native populations, among other things, then DNA can't really help you in demonstrating either historicity or ahistoricity.

      And for what it's worth, people like Simon Southerton have publicly conceded that the issue isn't really DNA, since Mormon geneticists agree with non-Mormon geneticists on the makeup of the Native American genome, but how you read the Book of Mormon. That's the million dollar question: when Lehi and Co. arrived to the promised land, did they find "others" already there. The question of this or that haplogroup being found in the Native American genome is thus a red herring.

    • I find it difficult to take the intermingling approach if only because no such theory was ever purported by Joseph Smith (at least that I'm aware of).

      Also, it's odd to me, and perhaps you can explain, that God promised this land to both the Jaredites and the Nephites. Why did he not bother to mention them to each other? The only intermingling mentioned in the BOM is with Coriantumr and the Mulekites, and he disappears about as quickly as he appears and not for any particular reason. The Book of Ether feels more like an afterthought than having a major purpose in the rest of the book.

    • "I find it difficult to take the intermingling approach if only because no such theory was ever purported by Joseph Smith"

      Why is Joseph the final arbiter for how we read the Book of Mormon?

      "Also, it's odd to me, and perhaps you can explain, that God promised this land to both the Jaredites and the Nephites. Why did he not bother to mention them to each other?"

      So the presence of "others" in the Book of Mormon can be inferred from a number of passages. See for example here:

      http://www.knowhy.org/content/did-interactions-with-others-influence-nephis-selection-of-isaiah

      Be sure to follow the "further readings" as well.

      The short answer is the Book of Mormon is a tribal history, so it doesn't concern itself with "others." This has been argued by Quinn, Sorenson, etc.

      This may also be of interest:

      http://publications.mi.byu.edu/fullscreen/?pub=1459&index=12

      The so-called Limited Geography Theory, in various forms, has been around for a while.

    • "Why is Joseph the final arbiter for how we read the Book of Mormon?" Not what I was implying. But I do think the fact that the introduction of the BOM and JS himself made such bold claims about Native Americans being the primary descendants of BOM people shouldn't be dismissed.

      I guess this is one of my main problems with the BOM people because there isn't just a single million dollar question. There are A LOT. At least, I have a lot. I applaud the efforts of Quinn, Sorenson, Gee, Roper, etc. They have done more than their fair share of research. But, you still have to make your fair share of assumptions, which I suppose is all you can really do here.

  4. Why are you worried about Mesoamerica? Multiple Latter Day Prophets have said the events took place where Joseph Smith said they did? Isn't that what we need to base our knowledge? Unless we don't accept what they said?

    I watched your fifteen-minutes of fame on Conan. Made my day. Actually Conan shows a great example of what some poor apologists do. It's called "Gas-Lighting."

    You also need to get on amazon to find a mount so you can mount your camera in a different place.

    • "Why are you worried about Mesoamerica?"

      Because that's where the events of the Book of Mormon most likely too place.

      "Multiple Latter Day Prophets have said the events took place where Joseph Smith said they did? Isn't that what we need to base our knowledge? Unless we don't accept what they said?"

      It's a little more complicated than that.

      "Actually Conan shows a great example of what some poor apologists do. It's called "Gas-Lighting.""

      I don't think you know what that term means, since neither Conan nor "apologists" really do that.

      "You also need to get on amazon to find a mount so you can mount your camera in a different place."

      Thanks for the (unsolicited) advice. When I take up a career in filmmaking I'll be sure to keep it in mind.

    • So which 100 level undergraduate class did you learn so much about gas-lighting?

      Conan is using it as part of amusement and an act. As and analogy it is a great example. And very easy for the lay person to see. Many Apologists also use this technique to make their point.

      Since you are having some difficulty seeing the forest for the trees I'll save you the multiple apologist examples.

  5. "Why? Nobody else did."

    Precisely! Nobody else did!! Undoubtedly JS knew not everyone would believe him. It was an occupational hazard.

    If you're going to be just another visionary, or s calculating fraud, stick with he visions. Nobody can prove or disprove their reality."

    True that no one can prove or disprove them. Again, however, that wouldn't make you stand out from the pack. JS didn't just want another congregation. He wanted a movement.

  6. Excellent post. While there may not be an abundance of external archaeological evidence in support of the Book of Mormon, there is an abundance of internal (text) archaeological evidence. To me, the book truly speaks as if from the dust. That is my witness. And, I say this as one who lends far less credence to the the arm of flesh of archaeology than I do to the arm of God manifest in the application of Moroni 10 and Alma 32. 🙂

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