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.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Responsible physical evidence

Critics of the Book of Mormon point to the lack of physical evidence to corroborate the narrative in the text, but the real problem is choosing among the abundant evidences. Almost no matter where you look in the Americas, scientists are uncovering more and more physical evidence of ancient civilizations that expands our understanding and appreciation of these cultures. These civilizations were more extensive and more sophisticated than previous generations realized.

But that's a topic for another day.

Here, I want to address the challenge of zeal. Advocates of most theories of Book of Mormon geography have a certain degree of zeal or they wouldn't be advocates. Nothing wrong with zeal, per se. You need zeal to accomplish anything. But you can also have excessive zeal, and we want to be cognizant of that so we don't make counterproductive mistakes.

Drawing of Stela 5 from http://www.moroni10.com/lehi_stone.html
At the same time, we don't want to dismiss a proposed setting just because some advocates have emphasized artifacts that turn out not to be what they were once thought to be, or are represented to be. That's just as irrational as relying on the artifacts in the first place.


In the area of Book of Mormon archaeology, probably the best-known mistake is Izapa Stela 5, the so-called "Lehi's Tree of Life" stone. For decades, it was promoted as proof that the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica.

The Church even got involved. An article in the 1985 Ensign evaluates Stela 5 and says, "If this is true—and, again, we must remain cautious and tentative until all the evidence is in—Stela 5 may prove to be the first deciphered artifact from the Nephite civilization."

That's some powerful hype.

Image from the Liahona, July 2010
Stela 5 was again on display in the Liahona magazine in 2010.

There's a replica of Stela 5 on display at the Utah Cultural Center. For years, you could buy replicas at Deseret Book and the BYU bookstore. I've seen them in the homes of many Latter-day Saints. I've seen replicas in offices. Stela 5 has become the emblem of the Mesoamerican theory for many people.

Even the wikipedia article on Stela 5 comments on this:

"Based on parallels with traditions originating in the Old World, a few researchers have linked the stone to theories of pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contactMormon theorist M. Wells Jakeman proposed that the image was a representation of a tree of life vision found in the Book of Mormon.[11] Jakeman's theory was popular for a time among Mormons, but found little support from Mormon apologists.[12] Julia Guernsey finds that Jakeman's research "belies an obvious religious agenda that ignored Izapa Stela 5's heritage".[13]"

In fact, I have an article from 2004 titled "Izapa Stela 5: Deception in Stone" by Kathryn Egan that demonstrates the stone has nothing to do with the Book of Mormon, but the myth persisted anyway.

I think it's fair to say now that the link between Stela 5 and the Book of Mormon has been largely abandoned by LDS scholars, including those who otherwise believe the Mesoamerican setting. I attended a seminar last year when this was announced and the audience seemed upset and disappointed. Nevertheless, the connection persists in LDS culture. Just google "Stela 5" and you'll find lots of examples.

Does this example of poor evidence invalidate the Mesoamerican theory? Of course not. We should recognize people make mistakes. Research continues throughout the Americas.

Historical note. The first "proof" artifact from South America was brought to Nauvoo in 1842. These were paper facsimiles taken from a 20-foot long hieroglyphic engraving on a rock in South America. It purported to show Lehi crossing the "large waters" before landing on this continent, as well as their travels and encampments. They were presented to Joseph Smith. If you have never heard about this, it's because Joseph didn't give it any credence. Just like we shouldn't give any credence to physical evidence that doesn't add up.

There is unreliable physical evidence everywhere we look, both because of fakes and because of illusory "correspondences" that we hope will validate our expectations.

I'm hoping we can all work together to support evidence that corroborates the Book of Mormon wherever it is found.

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