I just finished John L. Sorenson’s monumental work, Mormon’s Codex (Provo: Neal A. Maxwell Institute, 2013). The reading took longer than I expected, but it was worth it. I will have more to say about it in the near future, but here’s an initial review.
Sorenson’s work will be viewed by many as an attempt to prove and defend the Book of Mormon using numerous random parallels and weak threads. This view both fails to grasp the value of exploring many dimensions of a physical and cultural setting when trying to evaluate a fragmentary record from an allegedly ancient source. Sorenson’s work does directly support Book of Mormon plausibility, but it also helps us to better understand the Book of Mormon and its peoples. It helps us understand the region they lived in and the many dramatic as well as subtle influences on their lives from the climate, the landscape, the surrounding peoples, the cultural setting, the plants and animals, the horticulture, the religions and languages, the patterns of war, infrastructure and social economy, political practices, and so on. Sorenson explores these in terms of what we scholars have learned about Mesoamerica and what we can draw from the Book of Mormon text, and then examines the correspondences and implications. The result is increased granularity and plausibility for the Book of Mormon record, and more informed questions for the future and new hypotheses to test. Along the way, some former objections to the Book of Mormon are soundly shelved.
Those wanting a quick and easy tool to defend the Book of Mormon will be disappointed, at least initially, for Sorenson takes over a hundred pages just laying some foundation regarding ancient Mesoamerica as well as the Book of Mormon, without providing any jaw-dropping arguments to win over converts. What he does, though, is provide new ways of looking at the text, informed by the skills of a professional anthropologist. Over the 800 pages of the text, he provides extensive evidence that the Book of Mormon fits numerous aspects of ancient Mesoamerica, ranging from issues of language, political society, practices of trade and war, the impact of natural disasters, and so forth. Some of the most interesting New World evidences known to date for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon can be found in this tome (see also my Book of Mormon Evidences pages for further information).
Why the Setting Matters
One quickly learns from Sorenson how much physical geography affects a society. The physical location of a place determines climate, available raw materials, opportunities for agriculture and other economic activities, and practical modes of transportation. It shapes political boundaries and influences strategies and tactics for warfare. Geographical barriers and isolating features like the terrain of the central depression of Chiapas can allow a region to experience reduced influence from other cultures in the area and develop its own ways more easily. These factors play major roles in the story of a people, even if those details are briefly mentioned or merely implied.
Mormons limit their ability to fully grasp the Book of Mormon when they dismiss its geographical setting as something unimportant. True, the Church has no official position on geography, and it is certainly secondary to the teachings about Christ, but its authors felt physical details were important enough to riddle their text with references to them. It’s a gritty text, linked to physical details, not just theoretical platitudes and lofty doctrine. Book of Mormon authors bothered to cite specific hills, valleys, rivers, cities, and lands with names and real physical locations carefully and accurately woven into the story. There are temples, thrones, prisons, fortifications, markets, and social structures to match: priests, kings, lawyers and judges, soldiers, and merchants. In some cases, these details matter a great deal and are part of the message for our day. Such things are not the trappings of Native American life Joseph Smith could have gleaned from his upstate New York environment, but they are elements of authentic Mesoamerican culture in the only place that offers hope of plausibly locating the places built into the text of the Book of Mormon. They matter not just for validating or defending the text, but for better understanding what happened, to whom, and why, sometimes with added understanding in drawing lessons for our day and our lives.
The reasons why Mesoamerica is clearly the most reasonable setting have been discussed elsewhere and are again touched upon in Mormon’s Codex: the requirement for an ancient tradition of written language, the existence of many elements of civilization found in the Book of Mormon (armies, kings, temples, taxation, and complex social structures), the narrow neck of land, and many other details with major implications such as the apparent volcanism and seismic activity described in the text. These broad issues force us to consider Mesoamerica as the most reasonable candidate for the setting of the Book of Mormon, but if so, can the details of the text correspond in any degree with the details of Mesoamerica? This is the issue tackled by Mormon’s Codex. Literally hundreds of “correspondences” between Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon are identified that create a powerful case that the Book of Mormon really does have its origins in Mesoamerica, so much so that scholars would be wise to reconsider the Book of Mormon as the most extensive surviving document from the ancient New World, a precious ancient codex that can teach us much outside of its spiritual message.
One can accuse Sorenson of “parallelomania,” straining to find parallels that really aren’t significant. Parallelomania is often seen in attempts to find plagiarism in the Book of Mormon. Sometimes seemingly impressive parallels can be piled up that, upon closer inspection, are contrived and can be simply due to chance or situations that naturally involve common phenomena. For example, in a written description of war in texts from Joseph Smith’s day, one should not be surprised to find descriptions of battles, prisoners taken, casualties suffered, defenses built, weapons stored, and so forth. These are common to war. It is in the uncommon details where we can see elements that may be meaningful parallels. Chance can always account for some intriguing finds, so we must be careful not to make too much of any one factor. What makes Sorenson’s work so interesting is the abundance of intricate correspondences coupled with insights from the proposed physical setting that repeatedly enhance our understanding of the text.
I was continually intrigued with the way Sorensen extracts and examines numerous social and physical details from the text of the Book of Mormon and from modern knowledge regarding Mesoamerica. His analysis based on his proposed setting helps to fill in missing details in the Book of Mormon, adding to our understanding of Book of Mormon peoples while also challenging lazy assumptions and stereotypes we sometimes import into the text.
A Mix of Broad and Narrow Details
The relationship between the Olmecs and later Mesoamerican peoples is one of the broad issues that fits the Book of Mormon remarkably well, with the rise and fall of the Jaredites and the subsequent remnants of Jaredite culture found in the Book of Mormon corresponding well in numerous ways with Mesoamerica. It’s an area that challenges unwarranted assumptions we have long made about the destruction of the Jaredites. A more informed approach must recognize, however, that in the midst of the civil war and chaos the ended the Jaredites in the Book of Mormon, that many people would have fled and survived. Since the Book of Mormon itself provides abundant internal evidences of an ongoing Jaredite tradition, with Jaredite names like Corihor/Korihor (Ether 7, 13, & 14 and Alma 30) and Nehor (Ether 7:9 and Alma 1) cropping up among the Nephites, generally associated with dissenters who had not fully bought into Nephite traditions. The remnants of Jaredite society among Nephites and Lamanites fit in well with the ways Olmec culture continued to influence Mesoamerica after their fall.
The rise and fall of the Olmecs has many parallels that can relate to the record we have of the Jaredites, and the rise of Mesoamerican cultures after the Jaredites can also accommodate the information we have regarding the Nephites and Lamanites, with numerous parallels that we can extract from the limited information we have today. Even the final destruction of the Nephites in the widespread warfare (ca. AD 350) toward the end of the Nephite record coincides remarkably well with the Early Classic depopulation in the Central Depression of Chiapas that Sorensen documents in Chapter 25.
What I found especially in Mormon’s Codex were the specific details of individual sites fit with the Book of Mormon. For example, Sorenson proposes a Mesoamerican archaeological site known as Santa Rosa as the city of Zarahemla. The archaeology of that region can accommodate the text effectively. Santa Rosa was a small chiefdom in the 3rd century BC with evidence of Olmec influence in its past, similar to what we might expect if it had been occupied by the Mulekites that had taken on the Olmec influence of their region when they arrived. From 75 BC to 50 AD, Santa Rosa saw a huge burst of activity, reaching its peak of socioeconomic activity at the time Zarahemla was experiencing its peak under the reign of judges. “Like the Central Depression [of Chiapas] as a whole, Santa Rosa was abandoned from about ad 350, very near to when the Nephites at last fled from the land of Zarahemla” (p. 586).
Analysis of the terrain around Santa Rosa helps shed light on troop movements and crop destruction from battles near Zarahemla, and helps to readily explain how travelers sent from the City of Nephi seeking for Zarahemla could have missed it and wandered into the land northward instead (see pp. 581-594).
The two key centers of cultural development in southern Mesoameria in the Central Depression of Chiapas and in the Valley of Guatemala in the first century B.C. correspond well with the land of Zarahemla (Nephites) and the land of Nephi (Lamanites) in the Book of Mormon (see p. 602-604), with detailed correspondences on many fronts. In the field of warfare, for example, the correspondences are especially interesting since just a few decades ago, there was a huge gap between expert opinion about Mesoamerica and the record of warfare in the Book of Mormon. The Mayans were viewed as having been peaceful for many centuries, quite unlike the constant warfare in the Book of Mormon text. But recent scholarship has completely reversed that view, showing that Mesoamerica was a scene of armed conflict from Olmec times and beyond, consistent with the Book of Mormon record (p. 606-7).
Understanding Mesoamerican warfare helps us recognize, for example, that Onitah, the “place of arms” mentioned in Alma 47:5 where rebellious Lamanite soldiers fled, was likely an obsidian outcropping used to produce the dominant weapons in the area, near the Lamanite heartland in the land of Nephi. Remarkably, we now know that for the people of Chiapas, the vital mineral obsidian mostly came from El Chayal, a big volcanic outcrop near Guatemala City, the prime candidate for the city of Lehi-Nephi (which became a Lamanite capital after it was abandoned by the Zeniffites; see Alma 22:1), where the archaeological site known as Kaminaljuyu is largely covered by the modern city. El Chayal qualifies well as Onitah in the Book of Mormon (p. 608). Further, lines of confrontation between Mayan groups and Mixe-Zoqueans in the region, as identified by modern scholars, also may correspond with Nephite and Lamanite boundaries in the Book of Mormon (p. 609).
Many other specific locations are discussed in depth. The results to me were somewhat overwhelming, usually interesting, and occasionally quite surprising. Dr. Sorenson has put a great deal of thought into his proposals, and while some sections are speculative and one of several possibilities, some of his proposals are difficult to dismiss.
Sorenson explores numerous social issues, including the role of secret societies in Mesoamerica. He finds parallels with merchant guilds among the Aztecs and others in Mesoamerica. There were also predatory secrecy-based groups in other forms (e.g., the nahualistas) that could correspond with Book of Mormon descriptions. (See pp. 274-277.)
One of the most impressive series of correspondences is the large number of natural disasters that struck parts of Mesoamerica around 50 A.D., including volcanic activity and associated fires that can be see in geological and archaeological records. These disasters may account for some of the dramatic changes in Mesoamerica at that time, including large shifts in population and also major shifts in economics and religion. The changes included an abandonment of many long-standing cultic practices, offering an abundance of correspondences with the record at the climax of the Book of Mormon beginning around 3 Nephi 8 and beyond, when there was great destruction followed by the visit of the Resurrected Messiah, ushering in widespread changes that persisted for many decades before the region fell into widespread apostasy and warfare again, culminating in the destruction of Nephite society.
Arch Support for the Book of Mormon
As an example of the many fields of knowledge touched upon in Mormon’s Codex, Sorenson also considers evidence related to architecture. In Chapter 16, he states:
Friar Torquemada observed, “It is also worth noting the division of this [Aztec] temple; because we find that it has an interior room, like that of Solomon, in Jerusalem, in which the room was not entered by anyone but the priests.” Moreover, the floor plans of various Mexican temples are shown with “two [nonstructural] pillars at the entrance, at Tenayuca, Malinalco, Tepoztlan, Tetitla, Palenque, Yaxchilan, [and] Piedras Negras,” and in Late Pre-Classic Oaxaca. Since the temple in the city of Nephi was specifically patterned after the first Israelite temple (2 Nephi 5:16), it would have incorporated the two-pillar feature discussed by, for example, Meyers. It could have in turn modeled the feature for subsequent Mesoamerican temples.
Another architectural feature of note might or might not have been incorporated in temples: the true arch. For years it was assumed that Mesoamericans lacked knowledge of the true (keystone) arch. Over the years, reported finds have demonstrated the contrary, but only very recently has a comprehensive survey of those cases definitely shown that the principle was widely known, though little used. Hohmann now states unequivocally that “the principle of the true arch was already known amongst the Maya in the preclassic period.” He adds that the principle was also used at Monte Albán by around ad 600 and still later at Chichen Itza. The arch was, of course, widely known in some Old World centers much earlier. If the concept was not imported by transoceanic migrants, we would have to accept the somewhat questionable idea that it was invented independently on opposite sides of the earth. In light of the extensive evidence of cross-oceanic voyaging presented in chapter 9, it is more plausible that knowledge of this architectural feature was imported to Mesoamerica, whether by a group reported in the Book of Mormon or by others. The arch principle may or may not have been used in Nephite sacred buildings in this hemisphere (it was not used in Solomon’s temple), but the probability that the keystone arch came to Mesoamerica from the Old World supports the Nephite record’s historical assertion about the Near Eastern origin of the founders of its tradition. (p. 327)
These architectural details are issues I had not previously considered.
Transoceanic Diffusion: Plants, Animals, Disease, Cultural Practices, Architecture, and More
One of Sorenson’s strengths is his vast body of knowledge regarding evidences for ancient contact between the New and Old Words. Primarily in Chapter 9, “Transoceanic Voyages,” and also in Chapter 12, “Human Biology,” he provides conclusive evidence that there were episodes of transoceanic contact between the Old and New World before Columbus, consistent with general Book of Mormon claims. He delves into several topics with rich examples and references, especially for plants and diseases. One of the most interesting discussions, in my opinion, involves the hookworm (pp. 159-160). The hookworm points to ancient human contact via oceanic crossing, not wandering along the Bering Strait, because the life cycle of the parasite requires warm soil. A people moving through the Bering Straight would become hookworm free by the time they reached the Americas. The pre-Columbian presence of this southeast Asian parasite in a Peruvian mummy dating to AD 900 and in much older Brazilian remains (ca. 5000 BC) seems to require one or more ancient transoceanic voyages by human hosts from the Old World to the Americas. This is one of an abundance of evidences Sorenson provides for ancient transoceanic contact between the Old and New Worlds. It is not central to his thesis relating to the Book of Mormon, but is supporting evidence for the plausibility of the kind of migrations described by the Book of Mormon.
Sorenson repeatedly explains how little is known about many key regions and specific sites, many of which have not had extensive digs. Some, of course, cannot be explored adequately because they may be covered by modern cities or, in some cases, by lava flows. Others are in difficult terrain, often coupled with political and security risks, making exploration difficult and dangerous. But we hope much further exploration will take place. Sorenson offers many hints about regions in need of more research, and even offers what may be taken as tentative predictions of some things to look for. For example, Laguna Mecoacan is identified as a good candidate for the City of Moroni (Alma 50:13) which would sink into “the depths of sea” (3 Nephi 9:4), possibly into the lagoon. This would be an intriguing find, though the city was probably small, having been built primarily for defensive purposes in a war. But finding a sunken city there dating to around 50 A.D. would be interesting.
A more important place to investigate might be the candidate Sorenson offers for the Nephite city of Bountiful. He feels it should be at the mouth of the Tonala River, about 6 miles downstream from La Venta. The modern community of Tonala is built over a large archaeological site overlooking the mouth of the river. There is a large pyramid there, and it is in its debris where the town’s cemetery is located. Sorenson states that as far as he known no trained archaeologist has even visited the region, much less conducted detailed investigation. If future work there shows that it was inhabited during the Late Pre-Classic era, corresponding with the Book of Mormon description, this could be another interesting correspondence.
Much remains to be understood and future exploration and research is sorely needed. But what we do know does provide an abundance of evidences and insights that can be of great value to students of the Book of Mormon. I highly recommend this complex and, yes, heavy volume.