Someone recently gave me a copy of the DVD Journey of Faith: The New World. I’d forgotten this DVD. This is a production of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, Brigham Young University. It comes with a solicitation for donations featuring the BYU logo.
It’s available on youtube here. It was uploaded in 2012 and has had over 168,000 views. It is still attracting comments. I can’t imagine a worse way to introduce the Book of Mormon to the world than this video.
Here’s the introduction from the video:
“This film represents decades of rigorous scholarly research into the archaeology and culture of the lands where the Book of Mormon story likely unfolded.”
The liner, which is also translated into Spanish and Portuguese, is more explicit: “Drawing upon decades of research from many of our finest scholars, Journey of Faith: The New World explores the lands and culture of ancient Mesoamerica, the most likely location for where the Book of Mormon story played out.”
I know, it’s appalling, but remember, in 2007 when the video was produced, we didn’t know as much about Church history as we do now. Back then, people still believed Joseph Smith claimed Zarahemla was in Quirigua and LDS scholars were trying to vindicate his words.
Now we know better, though.
The DVD can be summed up in the ironic words of one of the narrators: “It is very difficult for the Mesoamerican people to let go of their old habits because they feel that the Gods will no longer be pleased with them.”
I consider the entire production to be a nostalgic exploration of a once-prevalent interpretation of the Book of Mormon, but since it is still on youtube and so far as I know all of the participants continue to promote the Mesoamerican setting, I’ll go ahead and relate my thoughts.
Again, as always, I emphasize that I like and respect the scholars involved. I’m focused solely on the facts and reasoning of the arguments made. I’m not going to explore the entire DVD, but just give you an idea of what it contains. By now, readers of my blog could figure all of this out for yourselves.
The DVD uses video from Mesoamerica to explain that Lehi landed in Mesoamerica, where there was an established population. Lehi’s group found a complex civilization–the Mayans–and “integrated” with these other groups.
According to the scholars, “all the evidence” suggests the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica.
As usual, Letter VII is ignored, presumably because it’s not evidence. Needless to say, no evidence from North America is even mentioned.
For that matter, the text of the Book of Mormon itself is ignored, except for convenient quotations, mostly taken out of context. The video depicts monkeys, jungles, huge stone pyramids–even volcanoes.
The usual suspects appear, telling us that the text describes Mesoamerica, with all kinds of speculation about how far people would travel. The narrow neck of land is 200 miles, for example. A day’s journey, and a day and a half. “We don’t run today like they did anciently.”
I guess not. At least, we don’t run 200 miles through equatorial jungles in a day.
Here’s an example of what the scholars are telling us to believe:
The land southward (mostly Guatemala) is supposedly nearly surrounded by water–except if you look at it, it is not. Notice that the land “southward” is actually “eastward,” extending in Yucatan more northward than the land labeled “northward.” The land “northward” is actually “westward.”
The Nephites migrated northward when Teotihuacan was founded. “It’s a city of cement.” Good luck finding a description of a city of cement in the Book of Mormon.
At one point, the video discusses temples. Scenes of Mayan pyramids are shown while the narrator explains that Nephi built a temple and says “the temple was the center of worship for Mesoamerican people.” Another narrator says “The pyramids in Mesoamerica are not temples; they are in fact symbolic mountains…. The temple structures on top of the pyramids constitute the temple itself.” The Mesoamerican setting would be clearer if only Mormon had not forgotten to mention the pyramids.
When Abinadi talks to the priests of Noah, he is not quoting the Ten Commandments from Exodus 20; instead, he’s relating Mayan concepts about the sky, earth, and water. You can believe that if you want. Or, you read what Abinadi himself said: “And now I read unto you the remainder of the commandments of God.” Then you can compare Mosiah 13:12 with Exodus 20:4 and decide whether Abinadi was citing the Ten Commandments or relating Mayan mythology about the three-tiered Mayan cosmos.
There is some wonderful circular reasoning. The Book of Mormon doesn’t tell us they met big established civilizations, but they must have because there were big established civilizations in Mesoamerica.
There are some fun straw man arguments, too. For example, Teancum kills the king on New Year’s day. One of the scholars instructs us that “If the ‘heat of the day’ did them in at New Year’s time, we’re not talking about upstate New York, and/or we’re not talking about our normal calendar. Probably both. We’re probably talking about a place very different from what Joseph Smith knew and a calendar that’s very different from our calendar because New Year’s day is hot. It’s so hot that it leaves people just drained of energy and exhausted in their camp.”
Compare that to what the scripture actually says. Alma 51:33: “sleep had overpowered them because of their much fatigue, which was caused by the labors and heat of the day.” These men were fighting a war. They fought all day long. Of course they would be exhausted. The “heat of the day” could mean two things. It could mean the heat of the battle they had fought all day long. Or it could mean the temperature of the weather.
Let’s think about that. I know a few people think the entire Book of Mormon took place in western New York, but that makes no sense to me and it conflicts with what Joseph Smith said anyway. In the very next chapter, Alma 52, Teancum and Moroni hold a council of war to figure out how to lure the Lamanites out of their strongholds. They send a proposal to the Lamanites to “come out with his armies to meet them upon the plains between the two cities.” (Alma 52:20). Where are the plains of the Nephites? Joseph Smith specifically identified them as the land we now call Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.
What about the new year? The Nephites were keeping the law of Moses. The Jewish New Year is Rosh Hashanah, the first two days of the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar. This is usually sometime in September on our calendar. The temperature in that area today is in the 80s; last year, on Sept. 7th, it was 90 degrees in Columbus, Ohio, and 92 degrees in Indianapolis. Try fighting a war in that temperature, with high humidity, and you’d be overcome by the heat of the day, for sure.
The Jewish New Year element of Rosh Hashanah is a post-Babylonian exile development that Lehi may or may not have followed. (Scholars generally assume Lehi and his descendants knew nothing about post-Babylonian exile practices, but of course they could have made their own modifications to the traditions, they could have learned of post-exile practices by revelation, and other groups of Jews could have migrated to America besides Lehi and Mulek.)
Another possibility for the New Year would be the first new moon after the Vernal Equinox, which is sometime in March or April. In the last 100 years or so, the temperature in Columbus Ohio has reached 85 in early April. The Hebrew month of Nisan was used to calculate the number of years the king had reigned, so this makes sense.
There’s no reason to think the Lamanite New Year started on January 1 according to our calendar.
Once again, the scholars look through Mesoamerican lenses to see what they want to see. In this case, they use a straw man–upstate New York as the scene of the battle in Alma 51-52–to ridicule the idea that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery knew what they were talking about. Then they completely ignore what Joseph said about the plains of the Nephites. They pile a framework of meaning onto an ambiguous phrase (“heat of the day”) and propose the Nephites were using a calendar that began January 1.
This happens every time I look into what these scholars are saying. The evidence they cite for Mesoamerica actually demonstrates that North America is the actual setting, and that Joseph and Oliver were not making things up or speculating.
There plenty of “correspondences.” For example, there are “state visits” in the Book of Mormon, and “state visits” among the Mayan, therefore the Nephites were Mayans. (I’d like to know what human cultures did not have state visits between neighboring kingdoms.)
The Mayans had masks, so the Nephites were Mayans because Alma spoke about the image of Christ in your countenances. What human society does not have masks?
Mayan kings were considered to be divine, so King Benjamin emphasizes he is not divine; i.e., he was addressing Mayan culture. Or, you could remember that the Nephites often reminded the people of Egypt, where divine kingship was one of the fundamental tenets of ancient Egyptian religion. For that matter, I’m curious what culture does not consider their kings to be divine, or at least to have divine authority?
There would be many more correspondences, except Mormon forgot to include them (or Joseph translated the text incorrectly).
The more you look at this kind of explanation, the more you have to admire the capacity of human imagination.
The scholars explain how widespread ancient writing is throughout Mesoamerica. Again, Mormon forgot to discuss that in the text. Instead, he wrote about the people of Zarahemla, who had no writing for hundreds of years, and the Lamanites, who not only did not keep records but sought to destroy the records kept by the Nephites.
The best cure for those who still believe in the Mesoamerican setting is watching this DVD.