Question: Is flax anachronistic to the time of the Book of Mormon?

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Question: Is flax anachronistic to the time of the Book of Mormon?

Figure 1. The flax plant. Critics of the Book of Mormon claim that the book's mentions of flax and linen (a product of flax) are anachronistic.

Introduction to Criticism

The Book of Mormon contains a mention of the flax plant. The prophet Nephi, speaking about the Devil, wrote that "there are also secret combinations, even as in times of old, according to the combinations of the devil, for he is the founder of all these things; yea, the founder of murder, and works of darkness; yea, and he leadeth them by the neck with a flaxen cord, until he bindeth them with his strong cords forever."[1]

The Book of Mormon also contains several mentions of linen—a known product of flax.[2]

Critics of the Book of Mormon have criticized it for it's mention of flax and linen— claiming that both are anachronistic to its claimed historical time frame.

Response to Criticism

Book of Mormon Central, KnoWhy #551: Why Did Nephi Say the Devil Leads Sinners by a “Flaxen Cord”? (Video)

There are a couple of ways in which one could approach this criticism. This article will outline both.

The Potential for an Actual Presence of Flax and/or Linen in the New World

The Hebrew Bible contains several mentions of flax and linen.[3] We know that "[f]lax was grown in the ancient Near East from very early times. Flax was most extensively grown in Egypt, but it was also cultivated in ancient Israel. The Gezer Calendar (ca. 900 BC), one of the earliest known Hebrew inscriptions, documents a month for 'cutting flax' in the ancient Hebrew agricultural year. Flax was primarily used for making linen, which was then used to make sails, clothing, curtains, wicks for lamps, as well as priestly robes and mummy wrappings. Flax could also be used in making strong ropes or cords[.]"[4]

That is for the Old World. However, for the New World, it is true that we don't have evidence of flax, for instance, in ancient Mesoamerica. The fact that we do not have evidence for flax right now should not be concerning, however. The evidence's absence may mean that we may find it in the future. It is also possible that it did exist and that we won't find evidence for it ever. There is great potential for the acidic soils of Mesoamerica, for instance, to have eliminated (whether in part or in full) all evidence of flax—disintegrating the plant over a long amount of time through normal taphonomic processes.[5]

It should also be noted that we haven't even scratched the surface as far as our archaeological understanding of Mesoamerican ethnohistory is concerned. Mesoamerican linguist and anthropologist Kerry Hull has written:

When my colleague Mark Wright here at BYU talked to [non-Latter-day Saint scholar] George Stuart about this [the number of Mesoamerican archaeological sites excavated], he told Mark it was about 1%. So, a safe estimate would be around 1–2% of Maya sites have been partially excavated, and none has been fully excavated, or even anything close to that. When you figure all the other ancient Mesoamerican cultures into this equation (OImec, Zapotec, etc.) from Book of Mormon time periods, the number goes down to a fraction of one percent.[6]

Potential Loan-Shift Terms for Flax

Another potential position presents itself for Latter-day Saints. Latter-day Saint scholars have proposed a few substances that may be loan-shifts for flax. Those who take this position might emphasize the fact that flax is only mentioned once explicitly in the Book of Mormon and find other substances that may have been substitutes for flax. For instance, scholar John Sorenson has written that "[The Spaniards, upon their arrival in the New World,] encountered and referred to what they considered 'linen' or linen-like cloth made from plants other than flax."[7]

John Sorenson has written the following elsewhere:

Some people have wondered why the Book of Mormon mentions silk and linen (see Alma 1:29), since silkworms and linen as we know them were apparently not known in ancient America. The answer may be that even though the worm that eats mulberry leaves and produces silk in its cocoon seems to have been restricted to the Far East, several ancient American peoples had cloth as fine as and similar to silk.

At the time of the Spanish conquest, natives in Mexico would gather cocoons from a type of wild silkworm and spin the thread into expensive cloth. People in the Yucatan would also spin the silky floss from the pod of the ceiba tree (or silk-cotton tree) into a soft, delicate cloth called kapok. The silky fiber of the wild pineapple plant was also prized in tropical America, yielding a fine, durable cloth. The Aztecs made a silklike fabric using hair from the bellies of rabbits. Some cotton specimens excavated at Teotihuacan, dating to A.D. 400, have been described as even, very fine, and gossamer-thin.

As for linen, the flax plant from which the cloth is made was apparently not known in ancient America. However, several fabrics that look and feel like European linen were woven from native plants. The yucca plant and the leaves of the ixtle (agave plant) both yield fibers that make fine, linen-like cloth. A cloth made by stripping bark from the fig tree, soaking it, and pounding it also has some of the characteristics of linen.[8]

RLDS scholar Neil Simmons has proposed that cannabis sativa may resemble flax enough to be a potential loan-shift for the Book of Mormon.[9]

Theological Concerns

It may be hard for some Latter-day Saints and other critics to accept the potential for loan-shifting in the Book of Mormon. Doesn't God never lie?[10] One should review how Joseph Smith saw the nature of revelation. In Doctrine and Covenants 1:24, the Lord states:

24 Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.

This scripture teaches us that God, through accommodation, adapts his message to the language and understanding of the agent receiving revelation from him. This means that things like loan-shifts might be possible since God's ultimate purpose in giving us revelation is to make us holy just as he is holy. One of the beautiful messages of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ is that God wants us to become like him someday and receive all that he has.[11] Things like loan-shifts might be testament to the fact that God can deify humans in that he exalts their language and understanding by using it as a tool to bless all of the human family. He doesn't have to be limited by fallen mortals. He can work through them in order to bring about greater outcomes such as the salvation of the human family. This is a message that the Book of Mormon itself teaches.[12] Thus God is not lying, he's just using the sincere but mistaken understanding of mortals for greater ends. It testifies to the fact that God is always looking forward to the future salvation of his children and that his love for us is greater than pedantically correcting all of our little mistakes.[13]

Conclusion

There are several interpretive options for these verses. The current state of scholarship on this issue invites careful exploration and inspires confidence that this will not remain a significant problem for the Book of Mormon. Currently, we know so little archaeologically speaking and have poor enough preservative conditions within the relevant geography that we will not (at the very least for now) be able to assess how problematic these anachronisms actually are. Thus, we shouldn’t pass judgement too quickly on the historicity of the Book of Mormon because of these or other supposed anachronisms.


Notes

  1. 2 Nephi 26:22.
  2. For examples, see 1 Nephi 13:7–8 and Helaman 6:13.
  3. For examples of mentions of flax, see Exodus 9:31 and Judges 15:14. For examples of mentions of linen, see 1 Kings 10:28 and 2 Chronicles 1:16.
  4. BMC Team, "Why Did Nephi Say the Devil Leads Sinners by a “Flaxen Cord”?" <https://knowhy.bookofmormoncentral.org/knowhy/why-did-nephi-say-the-devil-leads-sinners-by-a-flaxen-cord?fbclid=IwAR2HHLDySMYE0qa3bWidPvx6lGmJde1GksF3uTOrT2ok-YAzu5UMl0-Ps6E> (31 May 2020).
  5. See under "1.4. Organic materials" in Kibblewhite et al., "Predicting the preservation of cultural artefacts and buried materials in soil," Science of the Total Environment 529 (October 2015): 250–51.
  6. Kerry Hull, personal email to author, 30 March 2017. Cited in Tad R. Callister, A Case for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2019), 56. Hull's claims are confirmed in Victor Hernandez-Jayme, “2013 Maya Meetings Held at UT: New Temples, Fire Glyphs and Legends,” <http://www.dailytexanonline.com/news/2013/01/22/2013-maya-meetings-held-at-ut-new-temples-fire-glyphs-and-legends> (12 October 2018): “‘Truth is, we don’t know squat,’ said George Stuart, director for the Center for Maya Research and keynote speaker for the 2013 Maya Meetings. ‘There’s about 6,000 known Maya sites and we’ve only researched about 5 percent of them.’” Stuart was one of the leading authorities on the archaeology of the Maya before he passed away June 11, 2014. See also Mark Alan Wright, “The Cultural Tapestry of Mesoamerica,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22, no. 2 (2013): 6. LiDar technology has proven the vast amount that we don't know about the Maya civilization. See BMC Team, "4 Ways the New Maya Discoveries May Relate to the Book of Mormon," <https://bookofmormoncentral.org/blog/4-ways-the-new-maya-discoveries-may-relate-to-the-book-of-mormon> (31 May 2020).
  7. John L. Sorenson, "Viva Zapato! Hurray for the Shoe! (Review of 'Does the Shoe Fit? A Critique of the Limited Tehuantepec Geography' by Deanne G. Matheny)," FARMS Review of Books 6, no. 1 (1994): 336.
  8. John L. Sorenson, "Silk and Linen in the Book of Mormon - Book of Mormon Update," Ensign 22 (April 1992): 62.
  9. Neil Simmons, “Marijuana and the Book of Mormon,” Recent Book of Mormon Developments (Independence, MO: Zarahemla Research Foundation, 1984),1:127.
  10. Wikipedia, "Attributes of God in Christianity - Veracity," <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attributes_of_God_in_Christianity#Veracity> (1 July 2020).
  11. Anonymous, "Becoming Like God," <https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/becoming-like-god?lang=eng> (1 July 2020).
  12. Alma 37:6.
  13. 1 John 4:8.