I recently came across an article titled 129 Archaeological Evidences For The Book Of Mormon that intends to put forth the best possible defense of the Book of Mormon in archaeological terms. I normally don’t like to venture into low-hanging fruit like this, but I needed some lighter fare after the exhausting work that was the Three Witnesses series.
That’s enough of an introduction. Let’s dive in.
1. Ancient Americans & Egyptians Used Hieroglyphs
By which, I have to assume they meant that the writing systems in both Ancient Egypt and Ancient America look sort of like a picture. The Maya are likely the only culture in Ancient America to develop a complete written language (ie, a language where I could write something completely original, hand it to you, and you could read it back verbatim), but their “hieroglyphs” are neither related nor similar in any way to Egyptian except that to English speakers they both look like languages built from pictures. Mayan script is actually more similar to Japanese than Egyptian; Mayan and Japanese are both syllable-based, whereas Egyptian hieroglyphs are more consonant based. Other ancient American languages (such as Aztec/Nahuatl) weren’t complete written languages, being mainly pictographic/ideographic, meaning they conveyed more abstract ideas rather than being a medium that you could just sit down and read like Harry Potter.
Mayan writing crops up in the archaeological record around 300 BC, but it didn’t reach maturity until around 250 AD. This does not jive at all with the story in the Book of Mormon, in which a fully literate society capable of writing and speaking in Hebrew and Egyptian arrived in 600 BC. Put another way, you wouldn’t even be able to write the Book of Mormon in Mayan until probably the 2nd century AD. The Book of Mormon is also quite specific that the Nephites wrote in “reformed Egyptian.” As I already mentioned, Mayan is absolutely in no way related to Egyptian – Mayan might as well be reformed Hungarian at that point. Mayan and Egyptian don’t even function the same way. This is an archaeological “miss” for the Book of Mormon that the article tries to spin into a hit.
I bring up Maya since it’s the only complete written language in ancient America, but the article doesn’t actually mention Maya, instead linking to a blog written by a “Biblical Anthropologist” that posits a connection between Egyptian glyphs and Mi’kmaq glyphs (the Mi’kmaq are a First Nations culture, so we’re not even in Mesoamerica anymore, now we’re in Canada). The Mi’kmaq writing system cannot be dated any earlier than the 17th century, and was originally mnemonic (meaning new compositions could not be constructed with it – it could only be used as a way to remember something, like a mnemonic device). It was likely based on earlier pictographs and petroglyphs, but it only became adapted as a writing system under the influence of a Roman Catholic missionary. Trying to use this as evidence that Mi’kmaq and Egyptian are somehow related is beyond ridiculous.
The article then proclaims “Other similarities between Near Eastern and Aztec language are currently being explored” and then links to hope-of-israel.org and mormoninterpreter.com for support. In the interest of time and space, I’ll leave the examination of those unbiased sources as an exercise for the reader.
2. Divine Sacrifice Required
Now the article abruptly moves us from 17th century First Nations culture to Late Preclassic to Early Classic period Mesoamerica to draw a new parallel, quoting a source saying: “They believed the gods were saviors (Christ figures) who died so humanity could live.” Following their link, I find they are quoting a book titled The Cosmic Ocean: New Answers to Big Questions by Paul K. Chappell. Let’s read a summary of that book from Amazon, just to get a feel for it:
The Cosmic Ocean shares the treasures that Paul K. Chappell, a West Point graduate and Iraq War veteran, who grew up in a violent household, has extracted from trauma. To explain how these treasures—which take the form of timeless truths—can help us solve our personal, national, and global problems, this book uses personal stories and extensive research to journey through time, around the world, and into every facet of the human condition.
This is where the authors of this article are drawing their research on Mesoamerican mythology. OK, are you still with me?
Reading the passage they quoted, Chappell is invoking Aztec mythology when he says the Gods are saviors of mankind. He in turn quotes a “Professor Grant Voth, who teaches mythology.”
In one version [the gods Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl] create the universe out of the dismembered body of the great earth mother… They tear her apart [and] everything that humans need comes from her body. Her hair becomes trees, flowers, and herbs. Her skin makes grasses and smaller flowers. Her eyes produce wells and springs and small caves. From her mouth come the great rivers and canyons. From her nose mountain ridges and valleys. She is still thus in the earth. She is the earth. And ancient Aztecs said you could hear her screaming at night, screaming for sacrificial flesh and blood that can soothe her, so that she can keep producing what humans need to survive…
The creation of the sun involves more sacrifice. Two gods have to leap onto a flaming pyre to make the sun and the moon, and then a group of gods have to have their own hearts cut out to make the sun and the moon move… A steady diet of blood and human hearts is required to keep this delicate cosmos alive, and hence the horror stories we have about the capture and sacrifice of thousands of human beings, their beating hearts cut out on the great temple steps to keep this creation alive.
In case you’ve forgotten where we started, this is the part of Aztec mythology that the authors of the original article claim is a close parallel to the atonement, as a means of providing “archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon.” I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide if this is a compelling argument.
They don’t have much to say here except that Mesoamericans believed in a resurrection of the dead. Of course, Joseph Smith was projecting Christianity onto Native American culture, so we should hardly be surprised or impressed that resurrection comes up in the Book of Mormon. That, by itself, is a pretty big stretch to describe as “archaeological proof of the Book of Mormon,” even if the match is sound. Obviously, resurrection is an idea that is shared broadly across many distinct cultures and religions, so even if true, the connection is not novel, unless the references to resurrection are distinctly Christian. But is it even an important motif in Mesoamerican religion?
The article cites a book titled Decoding Ancient America: A Guide to the Archaeology of the Book of Mormon by Diane E. Wirth. The book assures me that resurrection was important to both “Mesoamerica and Egpyt,” but declines to specify a particular culture or time period in Mesoamerica to study, at least in the pages available via the google books link provided. Judging by the inserted graphic of a Mexican “u-shaped stone” that was buried with the deceased to assist them in their “journey into the afterlife,” I take it the author is referring to Aztec culture.
With the caveat that I’m not an expert in Aztec culture, I can find nothing to support the notion that the Aztecs hoped for a resurrection of the dead. Rather, their afterlife consisted of three possible destinations: the sun, Mictlan, or Tlalocan. According to Wikipedia, “souls of fallen warriors and women that died in childbirth would transform into hummingbirds that followed the sun on its journey through the sky. Souls of people who died from less glorious causes would go to Mictlan. Those who drowned would go to Tlalocan.”
In fact, the only reference I can find to resurrection in Aztec mythology is that Quetzalcoatl is “sometimes” a symbol of death and resurrection by virtue of his being associated with the morning star (Venus). Resurrection in Mayan mythology is likewise of a divine nature: the chief corn-God is resurrected “from the carapace of a turtle that is floating on the waters.” The concept of resurrection seems to exist mostly as a divine transformation in the references I can find on Mesoamerican cultures.
4. Pre-Earth Life
The article points out that ancient Americans “believed gods existed before the world was created.” This, of course, is completely useless as “evidence” considering gods existed before the creation of the earth in nearly every religion. There’s probably some earth creation myth out there somewhere that doesn’t involve Gods in the creation, but the exclusion of Gods in a creation story would be more of a novelty than their inclusion. It’s also a weird point to discuss in favor of the Book of Mormon’s authenticity, since the Book of Mormon doesn’t actually teach anything about pre-earth life. That’s a doctrine that you have to go to the D&C or the Book of Abraham to find. The index to the triple combo lists only one Book of Mormon reference to pre-earth life, and the interpretation of that reference is pretty debatable (it doesn’t actually imply a pre-existence). The article itself ignores this reference anyway and sticks instead to a vaguely defined belief in gods that existed before the creation of the world in ancient American religions. Again, I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide if that’s a compelling piece of evidence.
5. God As A Serpent
I’m actually surprised it took this long to get to the Quetzalcoatl comparisons, but here we are. The topic of Quetzalcoatl being Jesus has been discussed to death (at least among Mormons), and fully addressing it would probably require a separate article. I do think anyone that sits down and reads the actual Quetzalcoatl myth (rather than the cherry-picked and highly distorted summary usually presented in Book of Mormon apologia) will have a hard time reading Christ into it. This article (by an LDS archaeologist and frequent FARMS contributor and apologist) refutes that idea.
The web article doesn’t go into too many details on the Aztec God, instead offering meaningless comparisons, such as: “Quetzalcoatl’s mother is named Suchiquetzl, which means ‘lifting up Roses,’ similar to the ‘lifting up’ of the brazen serpent described in the Book of Mormon.”
They also claim that Quetzalcoatl’s mother was a virgin, like Mary. Quetzalcoatl’s mother, whom they reference with an alternate spelling, was named Xochiquetzal, and in contrast to the claim of virginity, was a symbol of “sexual fecundity.” We also learn she was a “goddess who seduced a priest and then turned him into a scorpion” and a “patroness of lovers and prostitutes.” We also learn that “unlike other fertility goddesses, she encouraged love-making as a means of pleasure, not reproduction.” So I wouldn’t exactly describe her as a symbol of sexual purity in the style of Mary. In order to support the claim that Quetzalcoatl was the product of a virgin birth, they dig all the way back to a source titled (and I am not making this up) The Myths Of The New World: A Treatise Of The Symbolism And Mythology Of The Red Race Or America by Daniel G. Brinton, published in 1876.
They would have been better off referencing a completely different myth in which Quetzalcoatl was the son of a Goddess named Chimalma. There are at least four distinct myths I can find on Quetzalcoatl’s birth through Chimalma, and in one of them she conceives by swallowing an emerald, and in another she is visited by a God “Onteol” in a dream, and in both she is presumably a virgin, so we’re at least getting warmer there. However, every reference to this myth I can find on the internet seems to repeat the Wikipedia description nearly word-for-word, and I can’t find a single mention of the God Onteol outside of it. Looking at the Wikipedia link for this particular myth, it directs me to this source, which describes the provenance of this virgin birth myth as coming from two post-Columbian storybooks with “heavy Christian additions.”
The article ends this bullet point with the old canard that Quetzalcoatl was a “fair-skinned, bearded God” which has been debunked a million times already.
Here the article claims that the Mayans (we’ve moved from Aztecs back to Mayans, apparently) practiced baptism. In order to arrive at this conclusion, they lean on the interpretation of a cleansing ritual as provided by Friar Diego de Landa in 1566, a Spanish bishop who would go on to burn as many Mayan writings as he could find because, in his own words, “they contained nothing but superstitions and falsehoods of the devil we burned them all, which they took most grievously, and which gave them great pain.” They then link to Jeff Lindsay’s blog, where he also leans on de Landa’s description, under the assumption that we couldn’t possibly suspect de Landa of projecting Christianity onto the culture he was observing. Let’s read excerpts from de Landa’s description of this ordinance, which I’ve abbreviated a bit since it’s quite lengthy:
Their custom of preparing for baptism was as follows: the Indian women raised the children to the age of three, placing for the boys a small white plaquet, fastened to the head in the hair of the tonsure; the girls wore a thin cord tied very low about the waist, to which was attached a small shell over the private parts; to remove these two things was regarded among them as a sin and disgraceful, until the time of the baptism, which was given between the ages of three and twelve; until this ceremony was received they did not marry….On the day, all assembled at the house of the one giving the fiesta, and brought all the children who were to be baptized, and placed them in the patio or court of the house, all clean and scattered with fresh leaves; the boys together in a line, and the girls the same, with an aged woman as matron for the girls, and a man in charge of the boys…
When this was done the priest proceeded to the purification of the house, expelling the demon. To do this they placed four benches in the four corners of the patio, on which the four chacs seated themselves, with a long cord tied from one to the other, in such fashion as that the children were corralled in the middle, after which those parents who had fasted stepped over the cord, into the circuit. Afterwards, or previously, they placed in the middle another bench on which the priest seated himself, with a brazier and a little ground maize and incense. Then the boys and girls came to him in order, and he put a little of the ground maize and incense into the hand of each, and they threw it into the brazier….
When this was done the priest called on all to be silent and seated, and began to bless the children, with tong prayers, and to sanctify them with the hyssop, all with great serenity. After this benediction he seated himself, and the one elected by the parents as director of the fiesta took a bone given him by the priest, went to the children and menaced each one with the bone on the forehead, nine times. After this he wet the bone in a jar of water he carried, and with it anointed them on the forehead, the face, and between the fingers of their hands and the bones of their feet, without saying a word. This liquor was confected out of certain flowers and ground cacao, dissolved in virgin water, as they call it, taken from the hollows of trees or of rocks in the forest.
I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide if de Landa just finished describing what you’d term a “baptism.”
7. Origins Across East Ocean
The article leans again on de Landa, who quotes some local hearsay:
Some old men of Yucatan say that they have heard from their ancestors that this country was peopled by a certain race who came from the East, whom God delivered by opening for them twelve roads through the sea. If this is true, all the inhabitants of the Indies must be of Jewish descent.
It’s an interesting piece of evidence considering the most common and obvious interpretation of the Book of Mormon posits that Lehi came from the West.
The article quotes two other sources, both seemingly depending on Spanish texts, to support a generic origin from “remote parts” and “across the sea,” which aren’t particularly specific or meaningful. None of the classic accounts of Aztec and Mayan mythology that I can find mention any kind of seagoing migration in their origin story.
8. Metal Plate Records
The article repeats a common myth, that Joseph was prescient in describing metal plates, and that his description has been validated by posthumous discoveries:
Nobody knew about metal records in Joseph Smith’s time. Everybody thought the idea of ancient records on metal pages was crazy, but now it turns out metal plates were a common method for keeping records in Lehi’s time, and many gold plate books have since been uncovered, as well as stone boxes to preserve them.
Let’s take the two claims one by one. I think this is important because I hear this claim or variations of it a lot. First, has archaeology established the existence of metal plates like the Gold and Brass plates? Despite the impressive list provided by the article, the answer is actually: “No.”
That’s not to say that nobody ever wrote on metal. But Joseph Smith described the plates as being bound in a codex form. Two problems: first, I don’t know of any writings recorded on metal plates anywhere in the Americas, at all. This is admitted by Deseret News. The Mesoamericans used either stone or perishable materials like paper as a writing medium. At best, you have a few drawings on metal with the very occasional glyph to identify it. Second, I don’t know of any ancient metal plates bound into a codex form anywhere in the world. The codex style is wildly anachronistic as well. In the Old World, codices don’t start appearing until the first century AD. In pre-Columbian America, the closest thing they have to “codices” are large pieces of bark or paper folded accordion style, and even they don’t show up until several hundred years after Nephi’s described arrival. This is a massive “miss” that the article tries to portray as a “hit.” In support of this narrative, they provide links to various metal artifacts that don’t remotely fit the description of the Gold Plates and that are all from the Middle-East, including a couple copper scrolls discovered among the dead sea scrolls.
So the only way that Joseph was “right” here is that at some point in the ancient world, far away from the events of the Book of Mormon, some people wrote stuff down on metal, but not in a book form. Was the idea of writing on metal mocked in Joseph’s day, only to be rediscovered later? Hardly. Let’s look at a few passages from the King James Bible:
“And every base had four brasen wheels, and plates of brass.” -1 Kings 7:30
“And they did beat the gold into thin plates…” -Exodus 39:3
“And thou shalt make a plate of pure gold, and grave upon it, like the engravings of a signet, HOLINESS TO THE LORD.” -Exodus 28:36
“And he put the mitre upon his head; also upon the mitre, even upon his forefront, did he put the golden plate, the holy crown; as the Lord commanded Moses.” -Leviticus 8:9
Sure, only the third references writing on the plates, but notice any themes in these Old Testament mentions of plates?
9. Natural Catastrophes At Christ’s Coming
Natural disasters are a favorite for doomsday prophesiers, since they happen quite reliably and very often throughout the world. In this case, the article first appeals to a text titled “The Book of Rolls” without giving it any kind of introduction so that we’d know what we’re looking at. A google search reveals it’s an obscure piece of apocrypha written in Egypt by Arabic Christians in 800 AD. The passage they quote is addressing Adam, and its relevance seems limited to the fact that it mentions thunder, a darkened sun and cloven rocks. Why on earth they thought this passage supported their argument in any way at all is a complete mystery to me.
After this seemingly pointless quotation, they return to one of their favorite sources: hearsay repeated by the Spanish. In the quotation, the Spanish writer remarks on a local story of an eclipse followed by an earthquake, and then he opines that it probably happened the day that Jesus died. That the article would use this quotation is especially confusing since they begin this section with an appeal to “catastrophes that the Bible makes no mention of but the Book of Mormon does.” And then they go on and quote a guy saying that these catastrophes were those described in the Bible…
I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide if a Spanish writer interpreting a native legend about an eclipse and an earthquake is good evidence in favor of the Book of Mormon.
10. Catastrophes in the 1st Century AD
Natural disasters are so effective in the prophecy space that the editors of this article have elected to use it twice in a row! Now, instead of earthquakes and eclipses, they’re focused on volcanic eruptions. First, they inform us that “Mesoamerica experienced a devastating volcanic eruption and other natural disasters in the 1st century CE, which was followed by a period of great peace and economic prosperity.”
This, of course, lines up perfectly with the description of natural disasters in 3 Nephi, right? They support this claim first with a source so legit looking it seems out of place in this article: a book published by Harvard University Press on Mesoamerican kingdoms! The quote they pull posits that a volcanic eruption led to subsequent pyramid building among the people in the area of Puebla.
When it comes to prophecy and proof-texting, volcanoes are what we refer to as a “high-probability hit.” Mesoamerica is directly in the “ring of fire,” a zone that contains 75% of the world’s volcanoes. Volcanic activity is not just frequent, it’s ubiquitous. On average, 50-60 volcanoes erupt every year; a single volcano in Guatemala has erupted 79 times since 1580. Granted, not every eruption is devastating, but the apologists here have given the Book of Mormon an enormous window: basically anywhere in America in a 100 year span. You are practically guaranteed to be able to find something given those parameters. Interestingly, the Book of Mormon is careful enough with its chronology that it can pinpoint Christ’s death to 33 CE, so the window of time they’re considering really ought not be that large. Combine that with the biblical account of Jesus’s death occurring on the Friday of Passover, they actually should be able to narrow it down to the exact day. Despite the apparent precision the Book of Mormon offers, they instead appeal to an entire century. The volcano they refer to is Popocatépetl in central Mexico, and the eruption in question is dated to “mid to late first century CE” which doesn’t line up super well with 33 CE. In fact, one might ask why these natural disasters are happening at all during the Utopian era of Christianity described by the Book of Mormon.
All this belies the fact that the Book of Mormon doesn’t actually say a volcano erupted anyway.
Putting aside the extremely high probability that a volcano erupted somewhere in America in the first century CE, this kind of quote mining of scholarly sources is actually more disruptive to the Book of Mormon than it is supportive. The specific eruption and ensuing “economic prosperity” cited narrows the ordinarily impossible search for the Nephites down to a specific known culture: the people of Teotihuacan in the first and second century CE. I have noticed that this is a reoccurring problem in apologia: they cherry pick a random archaeological detail, while ignoring the fact that it only works if the archaeological site in question is literally Nephite in origin. Apologists otherwise tend to avoid nailing the Nephites down to any culture, site or geographic region since that level of specificity makes it too easy to debunk a Book of Mormon interpretation of that culture, site or region.
In this case, as in all such cases, the people of Teotihuacan in the first and second century are demonstrably not Nephites: their polytheistic religion and ritual human sacrifice are obviously not compatible with the centuries of Christian peace described in the Book of Mormon chapters. As you can imagine, you can follow that rabbit hole further and reject the Book of Mormon as an accurate description of this culture in about a million more ways.
Who the hell put this list together?
You didn’t really think I was going to make it through 129 items, did you? Maybe I’ll continue this later if there’s interest, but for now you’ll have to be content with the first ten.
At any rate, I think an examination of the first ten items is sufficient to demonstrate that the editors of this article understand the term “archaeological evidence” very liberally.