Lost in the jungle part one – issues with "Journey of Faith: The New World"

As I mentioned in the last post, I had fewer issues with the original “Journey of Faith” than its sequel. The original aimed to cover Lehi’s journey through the wilderness and, while I have issues with a number of assertions, is perhaps narrow enough to prevent wilder flights of fancy. However, the sequel – “Journey of Faith: The New World” – covers both a far greater amount, timewise and textually, but is also necessarily speculative about its geographical locale. The dvd chooses to place this unambiguously in the FARMS (now Maxwell Institute) preferred location of Mesoamerica, with few caveats.

This presents a difficulty. Personally I adopt a very cautious approach to Book of Mormon geography, since while I believe it happened somewhere, there’s issues with nearly all the proposed locations, including Mesoamerica. That’s not to say it isn’t possible, and some of those issues may well be resolved in time, but I am personally reluctant to designate anywhere as the likely place. What I am especially opposed to, however, is the practice of reading some other source, whatever it is, into the Book of Mormon. All we have with the Book of Mormon is the text, and the only extent outside source it acknowledges is the Bible. Anything else is necessarily speculative, and reading that into it risks misreading the text. Unfortunately, this seems to have become the standard practice among a number of scholars. Brant Gardner (whose commentary I’m still trying to get hold of!) has expressed this as attempting “to find Mesoamerica in the Book of Mormon rather than the Book of Mormon in Mesoamerica”, a view endorsed by others as the Maxwell Institute. This to my mind is a very bad hermeneutical practice, because if we look at any text through any particular preconception, we will find evidence of it there. The same approach is pursued by those seeking nineteenth century parallels, with the same seemingly positive results. Worse, if the lens we use happens to untrue, then we will seriously misread the text. I believe this is responsible for a number of the issues I discuss below and in the next post.

Speaking of which, here are the first set of various issues, major and minor, I have with the documentary:

  1. Early on is a discussion of weather. Personally, I doubt there is sufficient mention of weather in the Book of Mormon to make much of this. The claim is there’s no mention of snow or ice – not strictly correct, though Nephi is still in the old world when he uses the word (1 Ne. 11:8), and its metaphorical – but much use of the terms is. The word Hail is used, though, in Mosiah 12:6 & Helaman 5:12. For comparison, the word ice is only used three times in the Old Testament (twice in Job & once in psalms) and once in the Doctrine and Covenants (133:26), and nowhere else in scripture.
  2. Discussion of others. Now a number of people have inferred that there are other people in the Book of Mormon lands who are unmentioned, arguing from things like population growth and inferring (possibly too much) from several incidents. I think, however, it is at best an inference. The DVD goes further, talking about ‘very different religious beliefs’ – of which there is no mention in the Book of Mormon (I’d argue that all the BoM schismatic groups described in detail clearly relate to Nephite religion). The DVD also seems to claim that a big problem was the challenge of keeping covenants in the face of the temptation to assimilate into far vaster populations – yet the the threat of assimilation is not even a minor theme of the Book of Mormon. The comparison the DVD makes to Canaan makes this especially evident – compare Joshua and Judges, with their repeated mention of the Canaanites, to the zero explicit mentions in the Book of Mormon.
  3. Likewise, there is no mention of the integration of such groups into the Book of Mormon peoples – this is largely inferred from population, and comments on ancestry. Nephite & Lamanite are largely ideological designations, true, but that could easily be for the sake of the various tribes that are explicitly discussed in the Book of Mormon.
  4. There’s the assertion that Book of Mormon cultural patterns match those of Mesoamerica, and that ‘all the evidence’ matches it. I’d dispute that, if more evidence was actually discussed in this section.
  5. In terms of discussion of the overall geography, there’s the assertion that the Book of Mormon lands are ‘hour-glass’ shaped. Alma 22:32 would suggest this isn’t strictly true of the south, which is ‘nearly surrounded by water’ (Alma 22:32).
  6. There’s the whole problem of the narrow neck in relation to the rest of the land. Sorenson and others use a fairly conservative estimate for distances, reckoning that an estimated 21 days from Nephi to Zarahemla would mean about 200 miles. However, when it comes to the narrow neck of land, which is given as a day’s (Helaman 4:7) or a day and a half’s (Alma 22:32) journey suddenly use veyr optimistic measures for a military runner, and equate this day/day and a half journey with the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, some 125 miles across! This seems extremely inconsistent, especially as it leaves the narrow neck being over half the distance between Zarahemla and Nephi!
  7. Sorenson makes the claim that the designations of the lands as ‘land northward’ and the ‘land southward’, as opposed to ‘land north’ and ‘land south’, implies a tilt away from a north-south axis. This is possible, but is not a necessary conlusion from the text. Moreover, the lands around Isthmus of Tehuantepec could possibly be better described as near a east-west axis. I’ll also note that Sorenson’s specific claim about designations is wrong – on several occasions the Book of Mormon does refer to these lands as the ‘land north’ and the ‘land south’ (See Hel. 6:9-10 & 3 Nephi 1:17).
  8. Again, there’s the claim that the Book of Mormon has many of the cultural characteristics, and ‘all of the important’ ones, of Mesoamerican civilisation, including belief and religion. Nothing specific is offered at this point though.
  9. There is the claim of chronological correlation – that the various cultures of the mesoamerican region match up with those of the Book of Mormon. In particularl, the claim is that the Jaredites match the pre-Olmecs & Olmecs (dates given of 2200-200 BC) and the Nephites/Lamanites the late preclassic Maya (claimed 500 BC – AD 400). Unfortunately the dates given don’t seem to match the ones I can find – dates for Pre-Olmecs & Olmecs appear as 2500-400 BC, and as for Maya, the first settlements are apparently around 1800BC, and the pre-classic period (with its collapse) at aroun AD 250, with AD 100 – 250 being the period of collapse. One of the two major pre-classic maya city states is dated as collapse in AD 150. Perhaps these dates will be revised, but at present they do not match.
  10. There’s the general claim that there are cities. Well yes, but there’s cities lots of places in the world. A lot of time is spent on cement, but they don’t really seem to deal with the issue that the Nephites generally built out of wood (the land north is noted as an exception to this).
  11. There’s more chronological confusion around Teotihuacan, including an association with its building with the time of the Nephite diaspora in the 1st century BC. Problem – Teotihuacan appears to get going around 200 BC, about 150 years earlier. I can’t say I’m happy with sweeping assertions that the Nephites ‘must have’ known about Teotihuacan either. If they’re there, they never mention it.
  12. There’s discussion of the political structure, particularly of the Mesoamerican system of Kings and various vassal kings in comparison to the Lamanites. The problem is that as Lamoni is the actual son of the overall King of the Lamanites, this suggests a more permanant structure than that of hegemonic city states and impermanant vassals. Subordinate kings in any case are not peculiar to Mesoamerica (it’s in the Bible for starters), and of the course neither the Nephites nor the Jaredites are described as following that system. And of course visits by kings are state visits – this isn’t peculiar to Mesoamerica either!
  13. The claim is given that Nephi is in the mountain regions because one always travels ‘up’ to the city of Nephi. However, up and down may not correspond to altitude (for example, one always travels up to Jerusalem). It should also be noted that Ammon and his compatriots travel ‘down’ to the land of Nephi in Mosiah 7:6, although since they’re described on a hill in v.5, that might be a positive indication.
  14. There’s the claim that considering Nephi’s leadership skills (especially since here it is assumed he not only built a city and led a people, but assimilated a much larger population) that it isn’t surprising that the kings and keepers of the plates would come from Nephi’s line. Unfortunately, neither seems true – the keepers of the plates until King Benjamin came from Jacob’s line, while the language of Jacob 1:9 (that Nephi ‘anointed a man to be a king and a ruler’) suggests the kings, while adopting the name (v.11) weren’t descendents either.
  15. There’s discussion that there would be a variety of languages spoken, but it should be noted that the Book of Mormon gives little indication of this – a linguistic distinction is noted with the people of Zarahemla (Omni 1:17-19) and presumably the Jaredites (1:20-22), but Nephites and Lamanites appear to have few issues communicating (say between Zeniff & the Lamanites, or Limhi & the Lamanite King). While Amulon and his fellows are noted as later teaching the ‘language of Nephi’ to the Lamanites (Mosiah 24:4), that this is further specified as teaching them to make records and write to each other (Mosiah 24:6) suggests they were teaching a written, not a spoken language.
  16. I am by no means certain that the observation that Mormon was ‘quick to observe’ was in any way related to linguistic ability.
  17. The Sherem episode is proffered as evidence for ‘others’, but while it is interesting as the two do not seem to know each other directly, this seems doubtful evidence of an outsider. While language is mentioned, it appears to be a reference to his oratorical skills rather than learning a language: “And he was learned, that he had a perfect knowledge of the language of the people; wherefore, he could use much flattery, and much power of speech, according to the power of the devil.” (Jacob 7:4) Likewise his complaint, centred as it is on the meaning of the Law of Moses (v.7), seems an unlikely religious critique for an outsider.
  18. There’s the assertion that Nephi & Jacob’s use of the Isaiah is centred around the problem of how to include other people in the covenant. The problem is that both Nephi and Jacob appear to be applying this to the future gathering of Israel, rather than any present problem.
  19. I am not certain the Mulekites can be described as ‘losing a sense of who they were’ when it was Zarahemla who told Mosiah, well, who they were (Omni 1:18). Their language had become ‘corrupted’, and they’d lost their religion (v.17), but they knew (or at least claimed) an ancestry.
  20. In discussion of temples, Nephi specifically states he built his temple ‘after the manner of Solomon (2 Ne. 5:16). These do not match Mesoamerican temples.
  21. A big one here, and a real demonstration of the methodological problems I feel bedevil this production. The claim is made that in Mosiah 13:13, when Abinadi states that “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of things which are in heaven above, or which are in the earth beneath, or which are in the water under the earth.” that this is a reflection of Mayan cosmology. This is very wrong, since Abinadi is actually quoting the ten commandments here (Exodus 20:4 in the verse in question), and explicitly so, as his earlier quotation in Mosiah 12:33-36 makes clear. Was Moses a Mayan? Of course not, and considering the explicitness of this quote, I am unsure as to how this mistake was perpetuated, except from what I discussed above – they are looking to the Mesoamerica in the Book of Mormon, and so anything that vaguely looks Mesoamerican, even when the book itself states it is quoting Exodus, is misinterpreted in that light.

The above present some serious problems, due largely I believe to importing this Mesoamerican preconception into their reading of the Book of Mormon. Unfortunately, the above are not the sum total of these problems, which I shall finish in a final list tomorrow.

One thought on “Lost in the jungle part one – issues with "Journey of Faith: The New World"

  1. Pingback: The vexed question of Book of Mormon geography | David's random ramblings

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