Interpreter Peer Reviewed

Interpreter Peer Reviewed

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Illusory correspondences

In my last post, I included this:

"Third, for years the Mesoamericanists have propped up their theory with the hope that someday, somewhere, archaeologists would uncover something related to the Book of Mormon. That has never happened. Now they resort to finding generic and illusory "correspondences" and they adjust the text itself to find hidden Mayan symbolism and meaning."

Someone pointed out to me that the latest publication out of the Maxwell Institute includes yet another fine example. I don't want to start peer reviews of that publication; anyone can read these things and see the problems. But since some claim that this publication repudiates my point about the Meosamerican death spiral, I figured I probably should address it just this once.

First, let me explain what I mean. An illusory correspondence is a similarity between cultures that might appear to be a specific link that has evidentiary value, but in fact it is merely a feature common to most human cultures.

Here's how it works.

1. The Nephites did thing A.
2. The Mayans also did thing A.
3. Therefore, the Nephites were Mayans.

Here's an example.

1. The Nephites planted seeds and they grew.

[In 1 Nephi 18:24, Nephi says "And it came to pass that we did begin to till the earth, and we began to plant seeds; yea, we did put all our seeds into the earth... And it came to pass that they did grow exceedingly; wherefore, we were blessed in abundance."]

2. The Mayans planted seeds and they grew.

[For support, cite any number of observations by Spanish priests, depictions on murals and stellae, and the latest findings of archaeologists.]

3. Therefore, the Nephites were Mayans.

(Note: this one may have been used by Mesoamericanists before, but if so, I haven't seen it.)

In case the fallacy isn't obvious, I'll just point out that most human cultures (with some exceptions such as hunter/gatherer societies) also feature forms of agriculture. Claiming the Nephites were Mayans because both cultures planted seeds is a claim based on what I call an illusory correspondence.

I put the ellipses in the scripture for a reason. The omitted words are "which we had brought from the land of Jerusalem." This tends to contradict the Mesoamerican link because there are not a lot of crops that grow in both Mesoamerica and Jerusalem. (One I've seen mentioned is almonds; there are probably more that I'm not taking the time to recheck, but I'm sure someone will find them to claim I'm wrong about this.) The point here is that these illusory correspondences usually skip right over the point that the text contradicts a Mesoamerican setting.


Now, back to the Maxwell Institute. The paper is in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 24 (2015) and is titled "War Banners: A Mesoamerican Context for the Title of Liberty," by Kerry Hull. It is available at this link.

[To be clear, I'm not being critical of Hull. I wish the article was as anonymous as the ones in the Times and Seasons so I could assess it without people thinking I was being critical of the author. I find this article enjoyable and informative; I just think it's assertion of a correspondence to the Nephites isn't supported by the evidence, as I'll show.]

Hull introduces his article with this: "In this study I place the title of liberty within a Mesoamerican context to show numerous correspondences to what we know of battle standards in Mesoamerica. Through an analysis of battle standards in the iconography and epigraphy of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations, I argue that the title of liberty fits comfortably in both form and function in this well-established warfare tradition. Moreover, I present specific linguistic, literary, and cultural correlations between ancient and colonial Maya texts to the language and style of Alma 46 in describing the title of liberty, strongly suggestive of a common cultural origin."

This is what the Mesoamerican theory has become; placing the text into a Mesoamerican culture to find "correspondences." One could drop the text into just about any culture and make it fit. I'm wondering what ancient culture never thought of a flag or banner. Apparently there is a photo of a metal flag from Iran dating to around 3,000 B.C., for example.

As Hull acknowledges, "Old World patterns in the title of liberty ritual certainly are present." Here, he refers to Moroni's allusion to the Biblical Jacob and Joseph. "Moroni explicitly links the rending of the coat of Joseph who was sold into Egypt to Moroni’s rending of his garment." This, as Hull notes, is definitely an Old World pattern.

Instead of accepting the text on its face--i.e., Moroni appealing to Hebrew people familiar with the Biblical stories--Hull infers a Mesoamerican text.

These are two successive sentences: "Connecting his experience to that of Jacob’s likely legitimized the act in the eyes of the people—precisely what Moroni needed to help convince many who were not at all eager to enter into a covenant to fight and defend. Linking the Jacob narrative to their current situation by means of a banner was an especially erudite choice by Moroni, for banners in ancient Mesoamerica were “highly charged objects that were seen as emblematic of the polity or political division of the group”3 and were therefore ideal for marshaling support."

Think about this. Hull claims Moroni was acting in a Mayan context using Mayan customs, motivating Mayan people by appealing to their affinity to Jacob and Joseph. Moroni is telling a Mayan army that they "are a remnant of the seed of Jacob; yea, we are a remnant of the seed of Joseph, whose coat was rent by his brethren into many pieces."

In my view, the text says Moroni was invoking Hebrew precedent, not Mayan precedent. To fit the text, the Mayans to whom Moroni was appealing would have had to be fully conversant with the coat of Joseph and associated Hebrew stories; otherwise Moroni's recitation would be perplexing at best.

I read the article but I didn't see any evidence of Mayan iconography that describes Joseph's coat.

Bottom line: If Moroni was operating in a Mayan culture, he would have invoked a Mayan precedent instead of the Hebrew one. Instead of Joseph's coat, the text would have Moroni invoking a Mayan legend.

This illusory correspondence is typical of what the Mesoamericanists have been producing lately. Like John Sorenson's book Mormon's Codex, these arguments demonstrate not only that the Book of Mormon doesn't fit Mesoamerica, but that it can't fit. What Mayans would be motivated by--let alone understand--Moroni's invocation of Jacob and Joseph? And why would he be telling these Mayans they were descended from Jacob and Joseph?

This leads to another line of argument I won't discuss beyond mentioning it. There is irony in a Mesoamericanist citing Alma 46:24-26, when Mesoamericanists usually insist that the "remnant of the seed of Jacob" were fully absorbed into Mayan culture and DNA.

But maybe it's not irony. Based on this article, maybe the Mesoamericanists have gone from claiming that Lehi's tiny group disappeared, to now claiming that the Mayans to whom Moroni was speaking were Hebrew descendants of Jacob and Joseph. IOW, Lehi's descendants dominated the Mayan culture and DNA instead of the other way around, at least when Moroni was running things. That's an interesting new twist.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, come now Jon, let’s be clear about what this repudiates. I was very clear about the specific assertion you made that I was responding to, and the very publication of this paper, regardless of its merits, disproves that point absolutely. You know it, so why don’t you just fess up to it? You were dead wrong about the direction BYU and the Maxwell Institute were headed in regard to the Mesoamerican setting.

    As for your overall death spiral argument, I pointed to several things besides this single article to indicate that, in fact, things are really looking up for the Book of Mormon in Mesoamerica.

    The assertion you keep making that Moroni is invoking "Hebrew precedent, not Mayan precedent" utterly misses the point. The story Moroni relates is about the preservation of a garment. It does not involve the writing of a creed on the garment, the creation of a battle standard, and so on. As such, appeal to that tradition simply does not account for those elements in the text. Let me see if I can help illustrate the point by sharing an actual story about my family.

    Some years ago, when I was in middle school, for a family home evening, my sister gave a lesson on the title of liberty. After going over the relevant passages in the Book of Mormon, as part of the lesson, we drafted our own "Rappleye Family Title of Liberty" that would serve as a reminder of the things most important to our family. Although the Book of Mormon was our precedent, we didn't write this statement on a torn garment, and we didn't hang it as a flag or standard in our yard. Instead, we typed it up on a computer, my mom got a picture frame and some of that fancy backing paper that leaves open multiple "windows" and she framed our title of liberty with a family photo and hung it on our wall. She also had it printed on small cards that she laminated, and we made it a point as a family of memorizing it. None of that is in the Book of Mormon. If an archaeologist were to find an old journal entry from me or one of my siblings or parents describing it some thousands of years from now, they would likely find us talking about the Book of Mormon precedent for it. But they would look in vain in the Book of Mormon for computer typing and picture frames. Instead, they would find that all of those behaviors are best explained by the early 21st century American culture in which we lived.

    Yes, Moroni tears his garment (a very Hebrew thing to do), and yes he uses a tradition from the brass plates, and yes this tells us that Moroni's immediate audience were not only members of the church, but descendants of the original Lehite colony. It is what Moroni does next that Hull proposes can best be explained by their New World context. Peoples and cultures are not static, wherever they were in the world (whether Mesoamerican, the eastern US) they would have encounter other peoples and become enmeshed within their cultural systems.

    You have said before that various things written by Mesoamericanists (including the Church's own essay on DNA and the Book of Mormon) could have been written by anti-Mormons. Well, this blog post of yours could have been written by anti-Mormons. The way it reduces Hull's argument to the lowest common denominator and then attacks that straw man (all societies have banners, duh!) is reminiscent of many an online comment from ex-Mormons and anti-Mormons over the years. It does not deal with the complex of factors Dr. Hull brings together about Mesoamerican War Banners and the way details in the text fit into those specific practices, nor does it deal with linguistic arguments tied to the narrative. Hull’s expertise is in Mayan linguistics, so his arguments on this front in particular should not be ignored.

    There are serious arguments in Hull’s paper, as there are in several other writings that you summarily dismiss in a similar manner. They must be dealt with in a serious manner if you want to really start getting serious consideration from these same scholars for your alternative proposals.