long ago ideas

“When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago." - Friedrich Nietzsche. Long ago, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery conquered false claims that the Book of Mormon was fiction or that it came through a stone in a hat. But these old claims have resurfaced in recent years. To conquer them again, we have to return to what Joseph and Oliver taught.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

No-Wise #435 - Others' influence

BookofMormonCentralAmerica (BOMCA) is on a roll. They've been putting out No-wise articles and videos that are transparently absurd lately. I trust most members of the Church (and all nonmembers) see the logical and factual fallacies in these No-wise, but I'm taking a moment to comment on the latest one because people are asking me about it.

Here is the link:

I expect that long-time readers could point out the errors in this No-wise just as fast as I can, but I'll go through it anyway for new readers.

This beautiful painting by James Fullmer depicts a scene that is anywhere but where the Book of Mormon took place. The Nephites built with earth and timber, not stone (except one time when the built walls of stone).

The land of Desolation was the Jaredite land of Moron (Ether 7:6). The Nephite records don't describe the terrain, but the Jaredite refers to it in the context of a seashore and plains. The Book of Ether never mentions mountains in the New World. Instead, it mentions the "plains of Agosh" (Ether 14:15-16) and the "plains of Heshlon" which were near the "valley of Gilgal." (Ether 13:28-29). This makes sense if we have a river valley, but not a valley surrounded by mountains.

The No-wise starts off with a problematic mismatch between the text and the art.

The Know

Modern anthropological research tells us that the New World was already extensively populated when the Jaredites, Lehites, and Mulekites arrived. 
"Extensively populated" is a relative term. While Central America had fairly intensive populations with organized nations (kingdoms), the southeastern U.S. around 600 BC was populated by small groups of hunter-gatherers.  
This may lead readers to wonder why other societies are never mentioned in the Book of Mormon? The first thing to consider is that there are actually quite a few clues in the text which suggest that “others” were living in the regions where these colonies settled. The following list summarizes some of these clues:1 ["Some" implies there are lots more, but if there are additional clues, we'd like to know about them. This is a comprehensive list.]
  1. The reported size of early Nephite populations, the accounts of their warfare, and their unsanctioned polygamous marriages all indicate that they had an unbelievably high population growth rate.2 This suggests that outsiders mixed with and added to their population from the beginning. [There is no reported size of early Nephite populations. We make inferences from the text. One fallacy in this No-wise is the unstated assumption that Lehi's original party was small. Nephi tells us only about his own family, but Lehi could have brought servants and other families with him the way the Jaredites did. That said, I do agree that outsiders joined Lehi's group because Nephi says when he left, he took his family and "all those who would go with him." But this indicates Nephi was the leader, not a newcomer into a well-established culture and nation, as he would have been in Mesoamerica. The text supports an encounter with unorganized groups of hunter-gatherers, not an encounter with the Mayan empire.] 
  2. In the book of Jarom, readers learn that the hunter-gatherer Lamanites had become “exceedingly more numerous” than the Nephites who cultivated the land (Jarom 1:6). This situation goes against the historical trend of higher population growth among agricultural societies. It seems that outsiders would have been necessary to swell the Lamanite population so disproportionately.3 [Here the No-wise describes the 600 BC era inhabitants of the southeastern U.S., not the Mayans of Mesoamerica. The No-wise is oblivious to the problem because of BOMCA's confirmation bias, but readers who are not seeking to confirm M2C easily see how the description fits North America and not Mesoamerica.]
  3. Some researchers have felt that Jacob’s statements about Sherem, who “sought much opportunity” to speak with Jacob and who “had a perfect knowledge of the language of the people,” suggest that Sherem was an outsider to Nephite society (Jacob 7:3–4).4 This is because it makes little sense to emphasize that a community insider had a good grasp of their language or that he would have to seek out an encounter with Jacob. [Jacob 7:1 explains, "there came a man among the people of Nephi whose name was Sherem." You can search the phrase "came a man" and see that it is used in the Old and New Testaments and the Book of Moses not to signify an outsider but to signify a person who came forth; i.e., Luke 8:41 "And, behold, there came a man named Jairus, and he was a rule of the synagogue." Having a "perfect knowledge of the language" does not state or imply that he was an outsider; the text specifically says he used this skill for "flattery, and much power of speech," much like Alma the son of Alma (Mosiah 27:8) and those who sought the judgment seat in Alma 61:4. Sherem is a typical antiChrist, not an outsider from another culture.] 
  4. For several reasons, the Nephites’ quick ability to grow corn (maize) and raise flocks and herds seems unlikely unless they had obtained this knowledge from local natives.5 [There is never a suggestion in the text that the Nephites learned agriculture from locals; in fact, when Lehi landed, his people planted their own crops they had brought with them. They faced no interference from a nation-state or even competing people. We can't say "corn" in the Book of Mormon can only mean maize. The Book of Mormon uses Biblical language; "corn" in the Bible is a translation of seven different Hebrew words and three different Greek words, all of which mean a type of food crop. But even if the Nephites grew corn, it isn't mentioned until Mosiah, hundreds of years after Lehi landed, giving them plenty of time to learn about it.]
  5. The Mulekites’ language seems to have been “corrupted” too quickly for natural language evolution. This indicates that their language was being mixed with another language or languages from outside groups (Omni 1:17).6 [This claim misrepresents what Brother Sorenson actually wrote in the cited reference by implying the "outside groups" were indigenous Mayans. Instead, Sorenson noted the Mulekites could have either (i) adopted the language of the sailors who brought young Mulek to the promised land or (ii) "adopted a different, non-Hebrew language learned from some “other” people after arrival." Either way, the people of Zarahemla did not adopt a Mayan language because they had no writing.] 
  6. The terms “Nephite” and “Lamanite” were broad enough to include a variety of ethnic and cultural sub-groups.7 Moreover, there are examples of Book of Mormon societies adopting the name of a host group upon joining them.7  [This practice is common to all human societies (even modern immigrants become "Americans"), but the practice contradicts M2C because the Nephites did not adopt the name of their purported host culture of Mayans.]
  7. The way that Jaredite culture and names were preserved among the Nephites shows how cultural influence from one group upon another goes unmentioned and unexplained in the text.9 [This is an important point for several reasons, one of which is the likelihood that the Nephites encountered other remnants of Jaredites besides Coriantumr. Moroni says he wrote about the people "in this north country" and Ether was writing about his own family line, which leaves open the possibility (I think likelihood) that the Jaredites spread throughout the continent.]
  8. The use of some terms or group designations, such as “Lamanitish servants” (Alma 17:26) or “Ishmaelitish women” (Alma 3:7), hints at affiliated groups of outsiders.10 If the social identity of the servants or women was one of the named groups in the Book of Mormon, then we would expect a straightforward label. Instead, the “ish” indicates that they may have been outsiders who were adopted into the Lamanite and Ishmaelite tribal groups. [This explanation is a possibility, but the suffix 'ish in English means not only "like" or "similar" but also "belonging to" as in English, Danish, Spanish, etc. It's certainly not evidence of the Nephites being absorbed by a larger Mayan culture.] 
  9. Several prophetic interpretations of Isaiah hint that the Nephites were concerned with the spiritual welfare of “others” in the land.11 [This is a possible interpretation that applies to indigenous people whether Lehi landed in the Southeastern U.S. or in Central America, but it could also simply refer to those who had not accepted the gospel or to the Gentiles in the future.]
These textual clues suggest that the Book of Mormon and the secular history of the Americas are actually in agreement about the presence of other peoples in the land. However, these clues still don’t explain why outsiders were never mentioned directly in the text. One likely answer can be found by comparing the Book of Mormon with other ancient American historical documents.
Anthropologist John L. Sorenson has noted that ancient Mesoamerican histories are similarly ethnocentric—meaning that, like the Book of Mormon, they focus almost solely on a particular society or lineage and that they exclude political, cultural, or religious information that isn’t directly relevant.12 With this ancient American context in place, the Book of Mormon’s lack of information about outside societies is perfectly understandable and even expected.
[Ethnocentric histories are hardly unique to Mesoamerican literature, but beyond that, another explanation is that the indigenous people Lehi's group encountered were unsophisticated and unorganized. It seems far less plausible that the Nephites would avoid mentioning a vast, substantial and well-organized Mayan society than that they would avoid mentioning a few groups of hunter-gatherers in the southeastern U.S.]

The Why

These findings suggest that the Book of Mormon’s lack of detail about surrounding peoples and cultures is a subtle evidence of its historical authenticity. [Seriously? This is not an unreasonable argument if the Nephites encountered unsophisticated groups of hunter-gatherers such as those that lived in the Southeastern North America round 600 B.C., because such groups would have had little influence on the Nephite Hebrew culture. But this argument is a stretch even for confirmation bias when the claim is that the Nephites encountered Mayan culture in Mesoamerca without ever once mentioning stone temples, volcanoes, or the 3 Js; jade, jungles and jaguars. The absence of any indicia of Mayan culture beyond illusory "correspondences" is one of the strongest arguments against M2C.] 
It is also consistent with claims made by several Book of Mormon authors that they couldn’t record even a “hundredth part” of their peoples’ history.13 [Fair enough, but that 1% does describe features of North American culture dating to Book of Mormon time frames, including construction using earth and timber, not stone; Mosiah encountering large populations of illiterate people; living among plains instead of mountains; experiencing earthquakes and floods but not volcanoes; and building ships and shipping things. All of this with no mention of basic elements of Mesoamerican culture.]
They directly tell us that much more is going on in the background. Therefore we shouldn’t be surprised to discover that large amounts of historical or cultural information, such as descriptions of other societies, is missing from the text. As President Anthony W. Ivins of the First Presidency stated in 1929, “We must be careful in the conclusions that we reach. The Book of Mormon … does not tell us that there was no one here before them. It does not tell us that people did not come after.”14
President Ivins is exactly correct here, just as he was the year before when he spoke about the Hill Cumorah in New York: Maybe someday we'll have an actual Kno-Why on Cumorah that tells readers what President Ivins said about Cumorah. In the meantime, readers can look here: http://bookofmormonwars.blogspot.com/2017/03/conference-classics-president-anthony-w.html
The strong likelihood that others were in the land also has implications for DNA studies. The Church essay on this topic has explained,
When a small population mixes with a large one, combinations of autosomal markers typical of the smaller group become rapidly overwhelmed or swamped by those of the larger. The smaller group’s markers soon become rare in the combined population and may go extinct due to the effects of genetic drift.15
In other words, when a small colony like the Jaredites, Lehites, or Mulekites mixes with a larger population, as we would expect them to have found in ancient America, then the DNA of the immigrant colonies would likely be lost to us within only a few generations. For this and other reasons, “DNA studies cannot be used decisively to either affirm or reject the historical authenticity of the Book of Mormon.”16 [This deserves more commentary than I have time to do here.]
Finally, the unmentioned presence of other peoples should help us remember why the Book of Mormon was written in the first place. Nephi explained, “I do not write anything upon plates save it be that I think it be sacred” (1 Nephi 19:6).17 Mormon similarly stated that his record was written so that a remnant of his people would “know concerning your fathers, and also the marvelous works which were wrought by the power of God among them” (Mormon 7:9).18 [This is important because who has the Lord designated as Lamanites? See D&C 28, 30, and 32 for the answer. Hint: he referred to the Indians living in New York and Ohio. Second hint: Joseph Smith replaced Orson Pratt's long explanation of Central and South America with the direct, specific statement that "The remnant are the Indians that now inhabit this country." See https://mormonmesomania.blogspot.com/2018/05/joseph-smith-edits-orson-pratt.html]
In essence, the Book of Mormon is a spiritual and religious history. Its focus is on particular groups of people, their sacred revelations, and their miraculous experiences. It was never meant to be a cultural survey of the Nephites and Jaredites, or any of the others who interacted with them. Its narrow spiritual focus can help us remember to similarly prioritize spiritual things—especially the realty and teachings of Jesus Christ—in our own lives.
[This is axiomatic, but ignores the importance of the physical evidence that led President Cowdery to write Letter VII in the first place, and led Joseph Smith to make sure it was republished throughout the Church multiple times during his lifetime.]
As Elder Russell M. Nelson explained,
Some authors have focused upon [the Book of Mormon’s] stories, its people, or its vignettes of history. Others have been intrigued by its language structure or its records of weapons, geography, animal life, techniques of building, or systems of weights and measures.
Interesting as these matters may be, study of the Book of Mormon is most rewarding when one focuses on its primary purpose—to testify of Jesus Christ. By comparison, all other issues are incidental.19

Further Reading

Matthew Roper, “Nephi’s Neighbors: Book of Mormon Peoples and Pre-Columbian Populations,” FARMS Review 15, no. 2 (2003): 91–128.
Brant A. Gardner, “The Other Stuff: Reading the Book of Mormon for Cultural Information,” FARMS Review 13, no. 2 (2001): 29–37.
John L. Sorenson, “When Lehi’s Party Arrived in the Land, Did They Find Others There? Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 1, no. 1 (1992): 1–34.

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