Review of Brant A. Gardner, Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History

Review of Brant A. Gardner, Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History January 9, 2016

 

I finally found time over the holidays to read Brant Gardner’s Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History, which he describes as an attempt to read the BoM “in history and as history” (p. 52). Publicized as the state of the art in BoM apologetics, I was curious to see what Gardner had to say about BoM historicity. As a part-time student of the historicity debates myself, I have written a number of articles here at FPR that explore the narrative as a 19th century product of the fecund imagination of Joseph Smith. I wondered if Gardner truly had something innovative or constructive to offer to the Mormon Studies community.

 

As is well known, the meaning of texts is created primarily in the minds of readers. Meaning is not inherent to text, but lies latent within it and can only be accessed to the degree that we have background knowledge relevant to the communicative context (for Gardner, the “unstated context”). As a consequence, the historical and cultural framework we use to decode texts can have a decisive impact in shaping our acts of reading and interpretation. Much of the discussion and debate in critical study of the Bible in fact revolves around discerning the historical, cultural, and ideological contexts that are most productive for explaining individual traditions and texts, for example, whether to read Deuteronomy, the story of Abraham, or the Deuteronomistic History in light of a late monarchic (Judahite) or Persian colonial (Judean) setting.

 

This of course applies to the BoM as well. If we start from a premise that the BoM narrative stems from an authentic ancient source, then this will influence how we read and evaluate virtually every word of the text. Whereas the premise of a 19th century origin will lead to an entirely different hermeneutic that correlates ideas, motifs, themes, and figures to the intentions and thought-world of Joseph Smith.

 

So first to the strengths of Traditions of the Fathers:

 

1) The discussion as a whole is succinctly synthetic and shows broad knowledge of contemporary BoM apologetic scholarship. ToF could easily be used as a handy introduction and up-to-date guide to key issues in BoM historicity from a perspective broadly consistent with the BYU/FARMS/Interpreter school of thought.

 

2) Gardner adopts a moderately critical stance in his engagement with previous apologetic work. He devotes significant attention to rebutting some of the old favorite “proofs” of the BoM, such as the famous Tree of Life stone and the association of Quetzalcoatl with Jesus Christ, and selectively incorporates and adapts insights from the work of John Sorenson.

 

3) The first two chapters are valuable for situating Gardner’s approach to reading the BoM vis-à-vis previous apologetic and critical readings. Especially to be commended is his theoretical discussion identifying the possible analytical layers of the BoM (composition vs. translation) and articulating methodological principles for evaluating comparative parallels.

 

4) Gardner displays a high degree of familiarity with the field of Mesoamerican studies, which shows he has done his homework at least with respect to this area of scholarship. The description and discussion of Mesoamerican culture and history is stimulating and useful in itself.

 

5) Although I don’t often agree with Gardner’s approach to resolving discrepancies between the BoM and material history, he often forthrightly acknowledges places where the narrative presents a less than plausible account or contains apparent anachronism.

 

6) ToF’s stated aim to speak to a broader intellectual audience than convinced believers alone is laudable. Too often BoM scholarship has been confined to an echo chamber, preaching to the choir as it were, unaware of the bodies of knowledge and methodologies that would cause non-believers to read the BoM differently. Gardner’s tone is sober and fair minded, largely eschewing polemic.

 

So how well does Gardner succeed at situating the BoM in a plausible real world setting? From reading Gardner himself, he seems to think that the network of correspondences he finds between the BoM and Mesoamerican geography, politics, and culture establish a firm foundation for historicity or at least make a case for the respectability of the hypothesis. I however was not convinced and am doubtful others dedicated to critical study of the BoM will find his reconstruction of a Mesoamerican setting convincing either.

 

As is so often the case with apologetic scholarship, the basic problem with ToF is methodological. Gardner assumes the premise of historicity and then asks whether it is possible to read the BoM in a real world setting, which results in him narrowing the focus of inquiry down to Mesoamerica. Upon finding numerous ways that the events and people of the BoM can be made intelligible in a Mesoamerican context, he then concludes that the pattern of correspondences demonstrate the plausibility of the BoM.

 

Yet this is a classic case of begging the question. Although Gardner believes he has produced a historically grounded argument lending credibility to the BoM as an ancient artifact (“The hypothesis of historicity stands on firm evidentiary grounds,” p 409), in fact he has not. He has only described a possible world where the BoM could have taken place if we were assured of the premise of historicity. In other words, Gardner’s argument is not actually historical, but a speculative and apologetic one. He has not established the premise, which as we discussed above has far reaching implications for how one reads and evaluates the informational detail provided in the text. The danger in this case is reading detail into the text and extracting far more historical information than is actually there.

 

In the critical study of ancient texts, there is a well accepted inductive procedure for determining the appropriate context in which a particular (undated/disputed) text should be explicated. First one examines a text for any major details or information that would allow her/him to establish analytical anchors or beachheads that point to the temporal frame in which it originated, including a terminus a quo (earliest possible date) and terminus ad quem (the latest possible date). Then he/she investigates whether the preponderance of detail supports any particular historical setting. Finally, the rest of the text is examined to see whether the remaining material can be fruitfully interpreted in light of that forechosen setting.

 

In the case of the BoM, this would require a neutral analysis of the content (e.g. ideas, themes, vocabulary, names, historical references, literary forms etc) to see how the stated claims of the book correlate with our current knowledge of extant history and whether the preponderance of evidence favors one particular setting over another. In order to be confident we are not simply reading the BoM into a particular time and place (eisegesis), we would have to first establish some analytical anchors that would justify such a historical reading.

 

However, from my vantage point we lack any such anchors that could be used to establish the premise of ancient historicity. There is no clustering of diagnostic features such as linguistic, historical, cultural, or geographical details that betray authentic Old or New World backgrounds, e.g. Hebrew proper names, Israelite religious concepts and practices, references to authentic historical places and peoples, etc. In my analysis of Nahom, long considered to be one of the strongest pieces of data supporting the argument for historicity, I found that the place name does not show evidence of ancient authorship but more likely arose through the use of a modern map. Whereas a whole range of theological concepts (Trinitarian theology, infinite atonement, millenarian eschatology etc.), thematic material (priestcraft, secret combinations, interest in Jews and their restoration to Palestine, the Indians as Jews etc.), anachronisms, biblical adaptation and quotation, pseudo-biblical literary form, and historical and political references (Columbus, American revolution, Indian removal, Joseph Smith, and events surrounding the production of the BoM etc) strongly indicate an origin in the early 19th century.

 

Gardner rightly notes that many traditions in the Bible developed over time, are multilayered, and cannot be dated simply from the latest elements found in them, and so by analogy we cannot assume a priori that 19th century elements in the BoM represent a terminus a quo for the composition of the narrative (p. 30-31). But what he fails to recognize is that the situation with regard to the Bible is vastly different from the BoM. In the case of the Bible, scholars have developed sophisticated methods for reconstructing literary development and often the evidence for distinguishing between early and later elements in a text tradition is clear and demonstrable (literary-critical and sometimes even text-critical). In other words, we don’t postulate distinct compositional layers simply because it’s the way ancient texts work, but because we actually have evidence for this layering. If Gardner or anyone else is capable of showing that at least part of the BoM text necessitates the assumption of an ancient terminus ad quem, then he is welcome to do so. But absent that Gardner’s project of correlating the BoM with Mesoamerica only rises to the level of hypothetically interesting and imaginative, but history it is not and nor should be regarded as such.

 

In sum, Gardner’s ToF sketches his novel approach to the question of BoM historicity and as such represents a modest contribution to advancing the apologetic discussion in both substance and tone. For many LDS seeking confirmation for their belief in the BoM, reading ToF will be both stimulating and challenging. But unfortunately outside of that rather limited and limiting purview, I don’t see ToF achieving any broader resonance or influence, as the book is plagued by problems arising from Gardner’s lack of expertise in the relevant disciplines and fields of study (e.g. Hebrew Bible, New Testament, Israelite/Jewish religion, literary and historical criticism, 19th century American religion, etc). In some ways, ToF is actually a step backward for the LDS community in failing to help people grapple with the increasingly large body of evidence that the BoM did not have an ancient origin. Gardner tinkers with the translation process as a means of holding on to an interpretive paradigm that is quickly becoming brittle and incapable of accounting for all the data. As a consequence, I can only agree with Gardner himself when he observes, “In many ways, the greatest obstacle to understanding Book of Mormon historicity has been our own amateur theories and theorists” (p. 41).

 

For the remainder of the review, I will confine my comments to specific points or issues raised as they are encountered in the book:

 

1) I found Gardner’s decision to render the name of the Nephite God Yahweh rather jarring, as this divine name is never used in the BoM: Lord, Lord God, Eternal Father, Jehovah, but not Yahweh.

 

2) The emphasis on the binary between taking the BoM as real history vs. historical fraud (p. xvii-xix) seems to prejudice the argument from the get-go and load the discussion with heightened theological significance. If so much is riding on the question, then is it even possible to adopt a critical and open-minded approach to the evidence?

 

3) The claim that the BoM diverges from the common expectations of Joseph Smith’s religious environment because its peoples do not derive from the ten lost tribes is, in my opinion, a case of missing the forest for the trees (p. 7). According to the BoM, Native American peoples are still Jews or Israelite (e.g., 1 Ne 15). Moreover, while the main families of the BoM come from Jerusalem rather than northern Israel, Lehi is said to descend from Joseph through Manasseh, a northern tribe (Alma 10:3). In any case, the Nephites and Lamanites are “lost” per the BoM’s own definition, i.e. “lost from the knowledge of those who are at Jerusalem” (1 Ne 22:4), and their fate is frequently linked to the lost tribes myth (3 Ne 15:15). The fact that popular “academic” evidences for identifying Native Americans with Hebrews are absent from the BoM is beside the point, since the author of the BoM appears to have been engaged in a very different kind of mythmaking project.

 

4) Gardner assumes that the BoM was produced through a fairly conventional translational process, ie. a human translator making lexical choices in order to render a source text intelligible in his culture (p. 32-35), albeit through a process of revelation. But this theory is problematic in a number of respects. Given that Joseph Smith had absolutely no knowledge of Nephite Egyptian and Hebrew or the relevant cultural background, there is simply no way that he could have engaged in such a cognitive process. He was not in a position to make choices of interpretation in reproducing a textual source, but would have been utterly reliant on a divine source to render it for him. In view of this, it is not really all that surprising that Smith seems to have claimed he read complete words in the seerstone. In addition, it strains credulity to think that a complex narrative such as the BoM could have been transmitted through something as vague, abstract, and affective as pre-language mentalese. Finally, Gardner himself acknowledges that a theory of functionalist equivalency is inadequate to explain the BoM as a whole, which in my mind effectively undermines its heuristic value. It seems rather dubious and ad hoc to resort to the assumption of translational interpolation primarily when confronted with clear anachronism and modern authorship (p. 34).

 

5) I agree with Gardner that discussion of parallels without methodological controls is problematic, but his abrupt dismissal of conceptual, generic, and motifal links between the BoM and the Late War seems overly dogmatic. The example of terminological correlations between the BoM and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is hardly compelling, since most of these are very common biblical or Protestant phrases (p. 44-46).

 

6) As far as I can tell, Gardner never attempts to resolve the tension between a deep predisposed spiritual witness that the BoM is historical and the need to investigate the evidentiary foundations of this claim. At times he says the right things and evinces the attitude of a real historian (“Understanding the Book of Mormon as history will come only examining it as a historical record finds the same kinds of evidence for historicity that might be expected of other historical records”, p 25), but then returns to a posture of religious certitude and faith in the ultimate outcome (p. 53). If the purpose of material investigation is merely to confirm a religious presupposition, then is it possible to adopt a truly critical and open-minded approach?

 

7) A definite weakness is Gardner’s lack of familiarity with contemporary scholarship of the Hebrew Bible and Israelite religion. He relies to a great degree on a smattering of conservative and mid-late 20th century authors, takes for granted historical reconstructions by particular writers that have not necessarily found broad acceptance in the field (e.g. Halpern), retells rather uncritically the history of pre-exilic Judah by borrowing and paraphrasing from the Bible, and fails to note obvious areas where the account of the BoM is unrealistic and presents a false and simplistic understanding of the events leading up to the final destruction of Judah, e.g. that Babylon had already taken control of Jerusalem and installed Zedekiah as a vassal puppet, that the reason why Judah experienced imperial degradation was because of the secular policies of its government and leaders and not because of any sins of the people, etc.

 

8) The claim that Lehi’s ancestors were among refugees who fled south from the Northern Kingdom is problematic (p. 66-67), as a number of clues within the narrative suggest that Lehi’s ancestral land of inheritance is near Jerusalem (e.g. 1 Ne 2:4). The portrayal of Lehi’s tribal origin thus seems to be muddled and ahistorical.

 

9) Gardner follows Jeffrey Chadwick in suggesting that Lehi was a metalsmith (p. 67). However, it is extremely unlikely that Lehi would have been a metalsmith, prophet, and scribe all rolled into one. In the ancient world metalsmithing was a craft profession largely separate from those involved in the scribal arts, and for Lehi to have written long complex autobiographical narratives he would have necessarily been a professional scribe of the highest level, i.e. in the employ of the state. Further, various evidence suggests that prophets during this period were a form of priest who had access to sacred areas of the temple. As temple (related) functionaries, they would have belonged to a group specializing in certain divinatory practices. That Lehi is portrayed as having gold and silver is better explained by the common belief among Bible readers of Joseph Smith’s time that the Jews of ancient Canaan had been blessed with great wealth in the land (cf. Isaiah 2:7).

 

10) The hypothesis that the sin of Judah decried by Lehi was a deemphasis on an atoning Messiah lacks evidence (p. 68-74). The BoM narrative itself claims that the reason the Jews would be destroyed was because of “wickedness and abominations” (1 Ne 1:19), language that suggests something other than alterations in cultic worship. Elsewhere in the BoM “wickedness” and “abominations” are associated with murder, robbery, intrigue, adultery, fornication, stiffneckedness, unbelief, and idolatry. There is also no indication in the text that Lehi protested against or was aware of Josiah’s reforms in any way, or conversely that Laman and Lemuel were pro-reform. The Messiah belief among Jews developed over a long period of time in the wake of the obsolescence of the royal Judahite dynasty, and Margaret Barker’s suggestion that the older religion of Israel would have taught about an earthly Messiah is based on problematical retrojections from much later New Testament material.

 

11) I have discussed the improbable and unrealistic nature of Lehi’s exodus from Jerusalem elsewhere (p. 77-117).

 

12) Gardner’s suggestion that the brass plates were a volume of scripture comparable to the Old Testament that originated in the Northern Kingdom is unfounded (p. 88-90). There is no evidence that the Northern Kingdom had such a volume and it certainly wouldn’t have been written on metal plates. The BoM portrayal of the brass plates presupposes the existence of a sacred canon of writings (preserved from the time of Moses and Joseph!), which is completely implausible for this period. The combination of the Pentateuch with the Deuteronomistic History and prophetic writings into a single codex occurred only much later in Jewish and Christian tradition.

 

13) The claim that knowledge of the goddess Asherah informed the transition in Nephi’s vision from the tree of life to the mother of the Messiah is unconvincing (p. 95-98). Asherah was indeed a goddess commonly worshiped in Judah and Israel (were Lehi’s family historical, they would almost certainly have worshipped her as well) and associated with sacred tree iconography, but neither Asherah nor any other goddess appears anywhere in the BoM, which itself is highly significant for situating the theology of the BoM. The tree of life symbol has long been associated with Jesus Christ in Christian thought and worship, so the transition from the tree of life to the birth of Jesus in the BoM is literarily comprehensible.

 

14) I found the chapter on BoM geography (p. 119-50) among the most unsatisfying in the book, since Gardner simply assumes the validity of the Mesoamerican model proposed by John Sorenson, ignores major problems with the limited geography theory based on an internal reading of the BoM itself, and then spends 21 pages discussing why “north,” “south,” “east,” and “west” in the BoM do not correspond to their Western cardinal counterparts. To a great degree, Sorenson’s model is based on a few reports of travel distances and related inferences about the locations of cities, which taken as realistic and internally harmonious imply that the world inhabited by Nephites, Lamanites, and Jaredites was no more than six hundred kilometers across. However, I have already shown elsewhere that the reports of travel distances for Lehi in the Old World are unrealistic and manufactured, using only a few days to account for what would in reality have been a much longer journey and the descriptor “many days” for exceptionally long distances (c. 800-1000 km). So I don’t think we have good grounds for treating the occasional one-off travel report in the New World as any more reliable. Other major problems with the Sorenson-Gardner model include the identification of “the narrow neck of land” with the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and the skewing of the directional template so that north and south are actually northwest and southeast. The more circumscribed and local BoM geography becomes, the more the Isthmus of Tehuantepec appears nothing like a “narrow neck of land,” regardless of whether it was humanly possible to cross the Isthmus in a day/day and half (Alma 22:32; Hel 4:7). How can this part of Mesoamerica be considered a “narrow neck” in relation to the land northward and southward if the distance across it is essentially equivalent to that separating Zarahemla from the land of Nephi? Does anyone living in this part of Mexico today regularly describe the region as a “narrow neck” linking the surrounding regions? With regard to the discrepancy between the Mesoamerican model of BoM geography and the Western cardinal directions, Gardner proposes that the Mesoamerican quadrant and solar-oriented system of directions explains why north is shifted to the west and south to the east. But this hypothesis faces a number of challenges. First, north, south, east, and west are used in the BoM as though they correspond to our “pure” cardinal directions. There is no particular emphasis on the east-west axis and directional variants of north and south appear just as frequently as east and west. Second, the few instances where an east-west axis is mentioned are oriented to the seas rather than the sun and follow a path from west to east (Hel 3:8; 4:7; 11:20; cf. 3 Ne 1:17), precisely opposite to the rising and setting sun. The language appears to have nothing to do with the sun or any mythological concept, but rather is used by the author to express spatial breadth across the promised land. Third, although Gardner has shown that Mesoamericans often had a more fluid or quadrant oriented directional system, he has not provided any evidence that they would consistently denominate a land lying very much to the west as northward and a land opposite on the east as southward (remember that the narrow neck in the BoM demarcates the boundary between the lands). If the east-west axis was conceptually as important as he claims, then it is far more likely these lands would have been thought of as west and east than north and south. Finally, there is a severe translational issue with the assumption that Joseph Smith used his own vocabulary to express the Mesoamerican directional system. If Smith was using functional equivalents for the directions that were revealed to him, then we would expect the English byproduct to more accurately correspond to the source language than to fundamentally transform its meaning. That is, a particular direction in the Mesoamerican system would find its appropriate equivalent in English, e.g. a direction “to the side of the sun to the west” would be reproduced as northwest, not simple north.

As a consequence, I do not recognize any convergence of evidence supporting the limited geography model of Sorenson-Gardner. Aside from there being well-known ancient civilizations who inhabited the area concurrent to the alleged historical frame of the BoM, the geographical layout does not fit. Incidentally, the identification of the Sidon river based on the story about the people of Limhi getting lost by following the wrong river is speculative in the extreme (p. 125-29). In such a small geographical limit, as defined by Gardner, with people whose lives depended on close attention to the landscape and interaction with others living in the area, I find it simply impossible to believe that the party would have mistaken the Usumacinta for the Grijalva, whose headwaters are only a short distance from one another.

 

On the other hand, a whole complex range of interrelated evidence supports the traditional hemispheric model as the one presumed by the author of the BoM. This includes the cosmic and universal scale on which much of the BoM narrative occurs (e.g. travel from the tower of Babel to North America, travel from Jerusalem to the southern tip of Arabia and then all the way to South America); the existence of an obvious narrow neck in relation to identifiable lands northward and southward; the presence of seas surrounding the lands on all sides (Hel 3:8), with no differentiation in the labeling of the western and eastern seas whether one is in the northern or southern lands (cf. Alma 22:27, 33; 50:8, 34; Hel 4:7; 11:20; Morm 4:3; Ether 2:13); the all encompassing language used to describe the BoM landscape: “the land of promise” (1 Ne 12:1, 4; 13:14; Ether 2:7; cf. Alma 46:17), as if it were a well-defined contiguous whole and not merely a portion of another land, with Nephites and Lamanites expanding to fill “the face of the whole earth” (Hel 3:8; even assuming a translation, the expression should be interpreted in line with the English usage of Joseph Smith’s day); a large prairie in the land northward that is bereft of timber (Hel 3:5-10); mammoth-sized lakes and much water and rivers in the land northward (Mosiah 8:8; Ether 15:8); the identification of the natives of North America as the descendents of the Nephites and Lamanites (1 Ne 12-13; 3 Ne 21); the identification of the land of the Jaredites as the future home of the New Jerusalem (Ether 13:2-10); the claim that the Jaredite nation represented the greatest nation on earth of its era (Ether 1:43); the description of both BoM lands and North America as “choice above all other lands” (1 Ne 2:20; 13:30; 2 Ne 1:5; 10:19; Jacob 5:43; Ether 1:38, 42), preserved for specific Old World peoples and then later Christian Gentiles of European extraction (1 Ne 13:12-30); the virtual certainty that Joseph Smith taught that the hill Cumorah was in New York and was the location for the destruction of the Nephite civilization, etc.

 

15) Gardner recognizes that if the account of Old World families landing in the New World were historical, they must have encountered larger indigenous populations already living there, intermixed with them, and experienced significant cultural borrowing and influence, and as a result he offers a number of clever readings of BoM passages to suggest that this was indeed the case (p. 154-58; 168-170). But the fact remains that nowhere in the BoM are these other archaeologically attested peoples ever mentioned by name and their possible existence is explicitly negated by claims that the land was kept in a pristine state reserved for specific peoples chosen by the Lord (2 Ne 1:6-9; Ether 2:7-8; 13:2). The whole reason for God changing the skin color of the Lamanites was to prevent the Nephites from intermixing with them and adopting incorrect traditions (Alma 3:8), implying that it was possible for the Nephites to maintain their basic monocultural integrity. In addition, it can hardly be coincidence that all the groups that play a role in the narrative are portrayed as originating in the biblical Old World. Its main characters and story-world are grafted onto and assume biblical historiography and myth. Finally, none of Gardner’s creative readings are necessitated by the text, but are eisegetical in character. The laconic, ancillary, and vaguely inclusive “all those who would go with me” (2 Ne 5:6) does not provide evidence of local residents allied with Nephi, but clearly performs a literary function of distinguishing those who followed Nephi from those who remained with Laman and Lemuel. The quick growth of the Lehites in the New World and the much larger population size of the Lamanites compared to the Nephites is indeed fanciful and unrealistic, but this only poses a problem under the assumption that the author of the BoM was trying to recount real history. In the world of myth, rapid proliferation and reproduction are easily achieved, especially considering that one of the primary aims of the BoM was to explain the origin of a transcontinental Native American population and narrative conflict often requires bad guys to outnumber the good guys. Lacking civilization, they breed like rodents.

 

16) The attempt to absolve the BoM of its racialist categorization of Nephites and Lamanites by their skin color reflects a posture of special pleading (p. 159-163). The evidence in my opinion is overwhelming that the author of the BoM understood the skin change of the Lamanites as literal, from fair-skinned to dark, and that this darkness was viewed as a curse (2 Ne 5:21; Jacob 3:5-9; Alma 3:6; 3 Ne 2:15; see also 1 Ne 12:23; Mormon 5:15). Contra Gardner, the distinction between dark and white skins does play a role in the narrative (Alma 3:6). The story about the Amlicites marking themselves with red paint on their foreheads only makes sense on the assumption that the Lamanites were dark-skinned. Through divine providence, the mark enabled the Nephites to distinguish themselves in battle from these rebellious former Nephites (Alma 3). The suggestion by Gardner that the story about a former Lamanite (Laman!) and several Nephites using wine to deceive Lamanite guards indicates that there was no obvious difference in skin color among them is not confirmed by a closer reading of the text. The narrative clearly states that the party went over to the guards at evening (Alma 55:8), and it is not difficult to imagine that the narrative envisioned Laman standing at the forefront, since he is the one whom the guards are said to see and interact with (“they saw him”). So it appears that the story presupposes that the identities of the Nephites behind Laman were more obscured in the dark and that Laman alone passed wine to the guards. In addition, Gardner mistakenly uses Joel 2:6 and Job 30:30 to support his metaphorical reading of black skin in the BoM. Hebrew pa’arur in Joel 2:6 most likely does not mean “blackness,” and the context of Job 30:30 has reference to skin becoming a burnt color (blackish-gray/red) and unhealthy as a result of sickness. Finally, the interpretation of white and dark as literal skin colors is to be preferred on contextual grounds. The author of the BoM wanted to be able to explain how Native Americans became dark-skinned from his white-centric perspective, a mark of divine displeasure comparable to African negroes, and the notion that there had once been a fair-skinned nation along with dark-skinned natives on the American continent was current in the world of Joseph Smith.

 

17) Gardner asserts that Nephi received scribal training in the Old World, but neglects to provide any real substantiation for this claim (p. 177-79). He quotes Ann Killebrew (following Herwig Wolfram) for a description of an ancient Near Eastern genre of ethnogenesis, a literary form with which Nephi is alleged to have been familiar. But on closer examination Killebrew is not referring to an ancient genre or literary form, but to ideological features common to the origin stories of many different cultures. The typological template (a primordial deed; a religious experience or change; and an ancient enemy that cements group cohesion) is so basic and reminiscent of van Gennep’s threefold structure of the rites of passage that it is virtually certain authors of different backgrounds could produce it spontaneously and unconsciously, including modern fantasy. In addition, because the BoM generally lionizes Nephi and recounts events that show him ascending to rule over his brothers does not constitute evidence that the books of Nephi function as political propaganda, no more than that the Pentateuch was developed to function as propaganda for Moses.

 

18) The impression from a synchronic reading of the BoM is that the technology for smelting iron was introduced to the New World by Old World groups (or independently discovered by the Jaredites) and that the use of metal or steel for the construction of swords became standard in the promised land (2 Ne 5:14-15; Jacob 1:10; Jarom 1:8; Omni 1:2, 10; Mosiah 8:11; 9:16; 11:3-8; Alma 24:12; Hel 6:9; Ether 7:9; 10:23). In the broader literary context, we have no reason to suppose that in later periods the material from which swords were constructed had changed, or that at some unspecified point a new meaning was imputed to the word “sword.” Yet undeterred by this literary evidence, Gardner argues that “Nephites used known Mesoamerican military weaponry [such as the macuahuitl] for most of their history” and that the use of metal swords would have been discontinued early on (p. 183).

 

19) The argument that the “absence of Old World Christian iconography is not evidence of the absence of Book of Mormon Christianity” (p. 195) is neither here nor there. The question is whether BoM Christianity is plausible as a historical phenomenon.

 

20) Gardner interprets Jacob’s condemnation of social stratification and polygamy with a backdrop of developing trade and local “aggrandizers” in early Mesoamerica (p. 202). But he fails to note that in Jacob’s explanation for his jeremiad nothing about trade is mentioned, nor does he explain how seeking for social advancement or wealth can be viewed as distinctly Mesoamerican. The sins of social stratification and polygamy are rather decoupled in the narrative and attributed to new and explicitly internal developments in Nephite society, namely the accumulation of silver and gold through mining efforts and desiring more wives on the basis of biblical precedent (Jacob 2:12-13; 23-24). The impetus to marry multiple wives is nowhere related to economic concerns, only sexual lust (Jacob 2:28; 3:12). In addition, the Lamanites are said to have maintained monogamous devotion to their wives in contrast to the Nephites (Jacob 2:35; 3:5). So if “Lamanite” is really an exonym for diverse Mesoamerican peoples per Gardner, then this would seem to suggest that the “aggrandizing” was confined only to the Nephites!

 

21) I see no reason to think that Jacob was removed from office as chief priest/teacher by Nephite rulers (p. 204). Rulers aren’t mentioned in the text, and while the “I bid you farewell” in Jacob 6:13 is a little unexpected, as the recording of a major valedictory address it seems passable, followed by other miscellaneous concluding material.

 

22) Gardner posits several narrative clues that Sherem was an outsider to the Nephites (p. 205-07), including the introduction, “there came a man among the people of Nephi” (Jacob 7:1), the detail that Sherem had to ask where to find Jacob, and Jacob’s comment that Sherem had “a perfect knowledge of the language” (Jacob 7:4). However, it seems more reasonable to assume that Sherem was a Nephite who lived in the immediate hinterland of the city, since the narrative fails to specify him as non-Nephite or Lamanite, though this kind of information would have crucially changed the dynamic of the narrative–a foreigner seeking to overthrow the Nephite religion. The phrase “there came a man among the people of Nephi” could easily be understood as a generic introduction to a story about a Nephite circulating a new religious ideology among the people. That he had a “perfect knowledge of the language” only tells us that he was very learned and articulate. Finally, he is portrayed as living among the people, repeatedly preaching to them and seeking an audience with Jacob (Jacob 7:2-3). He refers to Jacob as his “brother” (Jacob 7:6), accepts Nephite scripture and the law of Moses (Jacob 7:7), and is ultimately shown to be a true believer in Christ (Jacob 7:17).

 

23) Because Late PreClassic Maya had warfare (p. 209-11) or experienced population movements (p. 215) is hardly justification for correlating a particular historical period in the BoM with Mesoamerican archaeology.

 

24) Gardner explores the possibility that Mulek in the BoM may be either a biological son of Zedekiah or a royal official, whose identity is attested as “Malkiyahu son of the king” in Jer 38:6 and on a stamp seal (p. 217-20). However, this thesis faces several problems. First, I am aware of no evidence that MLK can function as a shortened form of Malkiyahu. This shortened form is not attested in the Bible or extant inscriptions, only the hypocoristic MLKY (malki), which is unrelated to mulk. The analogy with Baruch-Berekyahu does not hold, since Baruch and Berek reflect entirely different verbal elements and the two bullae that contain “Belonging to Berekyahu, son of Neriyahu, the scribe” (=Baruch) have been determined to be forgeries. Second, I see no compelling reason to doubt the biblical claim that all Zedekiah’s sons were killed by Nebuchadnezzar after the fall of Jerusalem. This momentous event is reported several times in the Bible and plays a significant role in Jeremiah’s prophecy to Zedekiah in Jer 38:17-23. After the slaughtering of Zedekiah’s sons and his exile to Babylon, Judean historical literature takes no more interest in him or his family, only the line of Jehoiachin (e.g. 2 Kgs 25:27-30). If a son of Zedekiah, and particularly an elder son, had survived Nebuchadnezzar’s extirpation of the royal house, then we can be certain that the biblical authors would have reported it, since the survival of an heir would have had rather dramatic implications for the future of the Davidic dynasty. Third, it is highly doubtful that a son of Zedekiah would have been able to escape the hands of Babylon after the fall of Jerusalem and even more dubious to suppose that he would have fled so far away to a place across the ocean. As a royal son, it would have made far more sense to go into hiding and remain relatively near his homeland so when the time was right and the fortunes of Babylon had changed he could advance his claim to the throne. On the other hand, Gardner’s suggestion that Mulek was a “son” in the sense of a royal official, which would explain why he survived the slaughter of Zedekiah’s children, seems out of the question. The BoM explicitly defines Mulek as a son of king Zedekiah (Hel 6:10) and associates him with the sons that were slain by Nebuchadnezzar (Hel 8:21). There is no literary basis for assuming that the BoM author understood him as anything less than a biological son. Jeffrey Chadwick, whom Gardner strangely quotes approvingly, has argued strongly against a metaphorical understanding of “son” in the title “son of the king” in the Hebrew Bible.

 

The most interesting thing about Mulek is that the name seems to be related to the Hebrew word for “king” (MLK), though the vowel pattern is not very intelligible as Hebrew (mulk?). That is to say, Mulek’s name suspiciously conforms to the royal background of the character: the son of a king is named “king.” Because Mulek in the BoM does not appear to be a historical individual, the use of the root MLK suggests that the author of the BoM may have heard someone pronounce the Hebrew word for “king” somewhere (sermon, debate club, etc) and incorporated it into his text.

 

25) As recognized by Gardner, the claims that the people of Zarahemla’s language had become corrupted in a mere few hundred years so that it was unintelligible to the people of Nephi and the lack of written records had led them to reject the existence of God are difficult to take as historically credible. So he assumes that the people of Zarahemla must have adopted a new language and religion shortly after arriving in the New World (p. 222-23). Yet importantly the people of Zarahemla are portrayed in the BoM as a solitary and independent tribal group who together “came out from Jerusalem” (Omni 1:15), and the only other person they encounter before the Nephites is the last survivor of the Jaredite nation (Omni 1:21). Never is it suggested that they had become assimilated to another indigenous group.

 

26) I can see no relationship between Mosiah’s seerstone and Mesoamerican zaztuns based on the information provided (p. 225). One is used for the miraculous translation of lengthy texts and the other for simple subjective divination (healing, dream interpretation, simple questions, etc).

 

27) The meaning of “false Christ” is explicable within the cultural world of Joseph Smith as a near synonym to “false prophet.” The suggestion that the term denotes a Mesoamerican practice of impersonating deities is highly speculative (p. 230).

 

28) I cannot see any material relation between the Mesoamerican New Year/New Century and the gathering to hear king Benjamin’s valedictory speech from the information Gardner provides (building new structures?).

 

29) Murder and plunder in the BoM most certainly mean murder and plunder, not human sacrifice (p. 237)

 

30) Gardner claims that Mosiah’s abolishment of the monarchy and move to a system of judges “should be seen as response to the succession crisis, not to an ideological denouncing of the principle” (p. 243). And yet rejection of kingship on ideological principles seems to be exactly what Mosiah is doing (Mosiah 23:7-9; 29:12-13).

 

31) Gardner asserts that the Nephite legal system reflects ancient Israelite practice, but provides no firm details (p. 244-245).

 

32) He argues that Zarahemla could not have been the capital of a unified nation; that there was no clear unity of religion/politics in the region; that religious apostasy was a form of political apostasy; and that the political system was a loose confederacy (p. 253-256). But reading the BoM itself shows that Zarahemla was the capital of a central government and location of the chief judgment seat (Alma 4:20; 5:1-2); although there were many churches, “they were all one church, even the church of God” (Mosiah 25:22); there was a quasi-separation of church and state practiced among the Nephites (Mosiah 26:4; Alma 1:17; 30:7); and although the people of Zarahemla were initially distinguished from the people of Nephi, later “the people of Zarahemla were numbered with the Nephites” into a single nation (Mosiah 25:13). Gardner’s aim seems to be to force the text to fit current ethno-archaeological reconstructions of Mesoamerica.

 

33) Gardner is correct in his assessment that in antiquity the political and religious was thoroughly intertwined at a cultural level (p. 258). So it is strange why he doesn’t recognize the tendency to separate church and state after the time of Mosiah as a mark of inauthenticity.

 

34) The description of the order of the Nehors is one of the more clear examples where Joseph Smith used religious phenomena he was familiar with to construct the narrative of the BoM. As crypto-Universalists, the Nehors preach what they term to be the word of God, seek money through popular support, declare universal salvation, etc. For the author of the BoM, history was a recurring cycle and endzeit (early 19th century) was related to urzeit (ancient America). The fact that the description of Nephite apostasy remains consistent throughout the BoM does not point to some omnipresent (but unspecified) real world religious and cultural model that everywhere threatened Nephite orthodoxy, but only to unity of BoM authorship.

 

35) Gardner awkwardly operates with two very different concepts of syncretism, one a nonjudgmental history of religions-like category for describing the melding of different conceptual configurations into a new whole and the other a normative evaluation about mixing with inferior non-indigenous traditions (p. 261-262). The usefulness of syncretism as an analytical category in Biblical Studies has recently come under strong criticism, because it tends to assume the existence of a more pure and authentic version of a religion with which the interpreter identifies. In other words, the concept of syncretism is deployed to perform cultural work rather than elucidating real world phenomena. For example, biblical scholars once commonly identified the worship of Baal and Asherah as a product of syncretism with Canaanite religion, but now most agree that this biblical picture is manufactured and inaccurate. Most of what the Deuteronomistic authors condemn as alien and unacceptable belongs squarely within the traditional ancestral religion of Israel.

 

36) In the section on syncretism (p. 263-71), Gardner’s hypothetical speculating as a substitute for critical analysis is in full swing: “Once a Nephite apostate accommodated the idea of a deity complex, that concept could easily be read into the scriptural tradition, and the Nephite God of many names could be reinterpreted in much more fluid Mesoamerican terms” (p. 265); “All these data points of perceptual parallelism in Nephite and Mesoamerican theology could have provided an adequate basis for the emergence of a syncretic religion” (p. 267); “The Nephite genealogical principle could easily have acquired the more mythological Mesoamerican overtones” (p. 268). However, never does Gardner provide specific evidence within the BoM that any such syncretisms ever occurred.

 

37) I agree with Gardner that were the BoM peoples historical, they would have been organized as a tribe and clan based society (p. 275-277). So it is interesting that indications of such traditional social organization are so minimal in the BoM (Jacob 1:13; Alma 47:35; 3 Ne 7:1-4; 4 Ne 1:36-38; Mormon 1:8-9). No mention of the Israelite bet ab “house of the father” or interactions between specific tribes. Nephite society seems to be organized at a higher socio-political level, with national officers. 3 Ne 7:1-4 even describes the reversion to tribal organization after the murder of the chief judge as though it were an unprecedented development, such that tribes had to choose new leaders. Some descriptions of tribal organization seem patently dubious, e.g. the tribal names used throughout BoM history are taken from the original sons of Lehi (Jacob 1:13; Mormon 1:8-9); a group called Zoramites is led by a man named Zoram (Alma 30:59; 31:1).

 

38) Gardner’s attempt to provide context to the story of Ammon and Lamoni is among his most ingenious, suggesting that Ammon was an unknowing pawn in a subtle political contest between the king and upstart nobles. However, the problems with this reading are: 1) The Lamanites who scatter the flocks are not nobles, but merely “wicked” Lamanite subjects who were siphoning off flocks from the king. Because these men are found among the “multitude” who come to see the king, queen, and servants prostrate on the ground does not constitute evidence they lived in the royal compound or were near kin. 2) I see no basis for the claim that the intent of the Lamanites was to embarrass the king or weaken his authority. While it is true they do not immediately gather up the scattered flocks, which would have been a direct effrontery to the king, Mormon explains that their purpose was more indirect, scattering the flocks away to lands where they would be free for the taking (Alma 18:7). 3) It hardly makes sense that Lamoni would have repeatedly executed his own servants to save face. The broader didactic context of the story indicates clearly that the reason Lamoni was executing his servants was because he was uncivilized and barbarous, when he hears of Ammon’s exploits he feels deep regret for his actions (Alma 18:5). 4) In the context of the story, Lamoni doesn’t know that Ammon is a prince, and the offering of his daughter is merely a token of the king’s pleasure that Ammon expressed a desire to join with the Lamanites (Alma 17:24). Recall that in the BoM the line between Nephites and Lamanites was permeable and Nephites often experienced defection (WoM 1:16). Lamoni also doesn’t seem to be directly orchestrating the affair at the waters of Sebus. Rather, Ammon requests to be the king’s servant, and this results in him tending flocks, “according to the custom of the Lamanites” (Alma 17:25). At this point Lamoni is fairly unaware and uncaring as a ruler, simply deploying Ammon where he was needed. 5) A significant problem for this story is that Mesoamerica lacked domesticated animals such as sheep and goats. Deer were only partly domesticated and in any case were not kept in large flocks. Sheep and goats are referenced frequently in the BoM, so it is likely that the animal of the “flocks” is imagined to be one of these (deer are not referenced in the BoM).

 

39) Lamoni describes Ammon as “more than a man” and associates him with “the Great Spirit” (Alma 18:2). Is it more plausible to think these statements reflect the concept of demi-gods in Mesoamerica (p. 287-288) or vague stereotypes of Native American spirituality? In addition, it is not clear Lamoni identifies Ammon per se as the “Great Spirit.” The pronoun “this” could refer not to Ammon, but to the miraculous event at the waters of Sebus.

 

40) Because king Lamoni has flocks of sheep/goats, it really is no surprise that he has horses and chariots as well. Gardner suspects that the anachronistic “horse” and “chariot” resulted from mistranslation/misinterpretation on the part of Joseph Smith and that the words on the plates originally dealt with a Mesoamerican royal litter and associated symbolic animal (p. 289-297). But again this argument is vitiated by Gardner’s deeply problematic theory that Joseph Smith engaged in a fairly conventional notional translation. The examples of semantic shift or mistranslation he cites are related to real world linguistic and cognitive processes, not a miraculous translation. Furthermore, meanings in the BoM should be ascertained primarily from their literary context, and in this case we have multiple clues that horse and chariot carry their standard English meanings: the conceptual association of horse and chariot as a word combination; their use as a means of conveyance (Alma 18:9; 20:6); the appearance of horses and chariots in the context of battle (3 Ne 3:22); and the common association of chariots with kings in the Bible (e.g. 2 Kgs 9:16, 21). His claim that because horses and chariots are listed with other items gathered to Zarahemla their meaning is not necessarily military-related is strained. The broader context of the verse is most certainly military and horses and chariots are listed together in sequence. Because horses and chariots appear infrequently in the BoM and are never explicitly described being used is not a compelling reason for assuming the words have a more complex underlying meaning. “Horse” is paired with other lexical items that suggest a straightforward understanding of the word, e.g. “cow and the ox, and the ass and the horse” (1 Ne 18:25); “horses and cattle, and flocks of every kind” (3 Ne 4:4); “they also had horses, and asses” (Ether 9:19). The BoM author was simply not consistent in bringing the motif of horses and chariots to bear.

 

41) The reason why the father of Lamoni is angry with Lamoni is not because of a serious breach of court etiquette (p. 300-302), but because he is a fierce and uncivilized Lamanite who hates the Nephites. Note that Lamoni is astonished at his father’s furious and unreasonable response (Alma 20:13).

 

42) Mistreatment of captives as a correlation with Mesoamerica?

 

43) That Lamanites are portrayed as warlike is not sufficient cause to associate them with the Maya cult of war (p. 306).

 

44) Gardner rejects any causal link between the Anti-Nephi-Lehies’ burying their weapons and the Native American practice of “burying the hatchet” on the grounds that in “both time and space, the bury-the-hatchet symbol is a long way from the Anti-Nephi-Lehies.” (p. 307). But a possibility that he does not consider is that the direction of influence was the reverse, the bury the hatchet tradition influenced the story about the Anti-Nephi-Lehies. The similarities are rather obvious and accounts of Native Americans burying the hatchet as a sign of peace were well known in the time of Joseph Smith. The act of laying down weapons and entering a covenant of peace is also a motif found in the Late War (p. 129, 35:33-43). Gardner’s proposal to relate the Anti-Nephi-Lehies’ burying weapons to the Mesoamerican practice of burying ritual objects is unconvincing. In the latter case, the ritual objects do not appear to have been swords/weapons.

 

45) The reason the Lamanites suddenly attacked Ammonihah was to obtain sacrificial victims (p. 309-10)? And yet the BoM claims that “every living soul of the Ammonihahites was destroyed” (Alma 16:9).

 

46) Gardner hypothesizes that the continual warfare between the Nephites and Lamanites was driven by the need to control trade (p. 312-16). And yet warfare in the BoM is never explicitly associated with trade, only the desire of the Lamanites to kill, plunder, and assert authority over Nephites ( 2 Ne 5:14; Jacob 1:13-14; 7:24; Enos 1:20; Jarom 1:6; Mos 9:12, 14; 10:1-2, 12; 19:7, 15, 29; Alma 24:1-2; 25:1; 35:10; 48:1-2; 54:16-20; Hel 1:17; 4:4).

 

47) The numbers reported for people who died in battle may be generic round numbers, but that does not justify concluding they are exaggerations equivalent to the colloquial expression, “I have seen a movie a thousand times” (p. 323).

 

48) Gardner misunderstands the nature of “type-scenes” when he suggests that the depiction of secret combinations in the BoM is a product of type-scene patterning. A type-scene as used in Biblical Studies is a narrative convention that repeats certain stock elements and interactions, such that although names of characters can be exchanged the basic configuration of the scene remains recognizably similar. By contrast, the historical and political contexts in which secret combinations appear in the BoM are significantly different from one another, ranging from military (Ether 14), to political intrigue (Hel 2), to insurrection (3 Ne 2-3), to infestation (Morm 1:18). For most of BoM history, the name of this secret society is the same, the Gadiantons.

 

49) Gardner contradictorily argues that Mormon used “Gadianton” as a generic label for forces that disrupt the legitimate political structure, the basic lineaments of which were modeled on the secret combinations of the Jaredites, and at the same time that Mormon identified the Gadiantons of his day with Teotihuacan (p. 337). Somehow he is able to discern that the name is both generic/literary and specific/historical! I agree that the secret combinations of the BoM share common features and so evince a certain compositional patterning. Further, Gardner is surely correct that the claim the groups are all somehow organically linked to one another is historically implausible (p. 327-41). But unfortunately for Gardner, that is exactly what the BoM indicates, that the devil revealed certain oaths and secret alliances to the Jaredites and did so again to the Nephites (Hel 6). The secret society is portrayed as a kind of trans-historical New World/Old World phenomenon that is virtually impossible to stamp out (“the work of darkness and secret murder”). Even if its members all die and knowledge of its secret practices is kept hidden, it will inevitably rise again. Gadianton is not a generic label, but a specific label for an organization with a coherent identity and agenda that operated for most of Nephite history, called Gadianton because Gadianton was the person who reintroduced the organization after the Jaredites. Starting small, it grew and grew until it led to the overthrow of the Nephite nation. Finally, the Gadiantons are emphatically not a foreign entity, but rather an organization that grew up within Jaredite, Nephite, and Lamanite societies. They are portrayed as separate from them because they follow their own rules and government, establish themselves in secure holdouts, and work to the destruction of other governments. The only evidence that Gardner cites for his assumption they are foreign is the statement that they “were among the Lamanites” (Morm 1:18). It is fascinating how Gardner is willing to read so much into the word “among” and yet disputes a straightforward understanding of “horses and chariots.”

 

50) Gardner explains the destruction of the Nephite-Lamanite lands recorded in 3 Nephi 8-9 as reflecting a local volcanic and seismic event, which he believes can be correlated with a particular zone of volcanic activity in Mesoamerica (p. 343-351). However, the problems with this thesis are, first, the destruction described in 3 Nephi does not seem to be primarily volcanic in nature. Initially the narrative reports only that there is a great storm with tempests, thunder, and lightning (3 Ne 8:5-7). The storm seems to be primarily a meteorological event, with no mention of a volcano or hint that it should be considered a “dirty thunderstorm.” Second, it is notable that even the details that could be explicated in terms of volcanic activity are never associated with a volcano or volcanic eruption. Although several cities are burned with fire (3 Ne 8:8; 9:9) and after the storm a vapor of darkness covers the land (3 Ne 8:19-23), no link is drawn between this fire and darkness and a localized volcano or volcanic plume and no description is given of burning lava or choking ash, only a darkness that is semi-tangible (3 Ne 8:20; later in 3 Ne 10:13-14 we have mention of “smoke”), makes fire unfeasible (3 Ne 8:21), and prevents sight (3 Ne 8:22-23). This is all the more surprising since according to Gardner’s reconstruction the destructive event recorded in 3 Nephi would have occurred in a fairly limited geographical area, where the volcano that was the source of fire and ash would have been easily discerned. Third, the destruction event depicted in the BoM is not a local or centralized occurrence, but is portrayed as embracing the totality of the promised land and annihilating cities at both its northern and southern extremities. 3 Ne 8:14 reports, “And many great and notable cities were sunk, and many were burned, and many were shaken…,” which seems to envision a host of cities that were destroyed, many of which were very large. To destroy so many cities would require a volcanic and seismic event with a force and radius unprecedented in human history. Not only is Zarahemla at the center of the Nephite lands destroyed by fire, but Moroni on the eastern coast and Onihah, Mocum, and Jerusalem on the southeastern perimeter of Lamanite territory are sunk into the sea. Jacobugath, which is said to have been a “great city” in the “northernmost part” of the land northward and “out of the reach of the people” (3 Ne 7:13), is also destroyed by fire like Zarahemla (3 Ne 9:9). Fourth, the account of the destruction is highly fantastical and extravagantly cataclysmic. The whole event is said to have lasted only three hours (3 Ne 8:19), which is certainly fictive. Entire populations of cities are drowned or slain (3 Ne 8:9, 14; 9:7); earth is carried up somehow so a city becomes a mountain (3 Ne 8:10); “the whole face of the land [is] changed” (3 Ne 8:12) and “the face of the whole earth [is] deformed” (3 Ne 8:17); people are carried away and lost in whirlwinds (3 Ne 8:16); rocks are broken up in small pieces (3 Ne 8:18); no light of any kind can be seen for three days by anyone (3 Ne 8:21-23); in the place of cities hills and valleys are made (3 Ne 9:8); only the righteous are spared (3 Ne 10:12-13).

 

As a result, I do not think it advisable to try to correlate the geological and meteorological phenomena described in the BoM with a particular geography. The whole episode is imaginative and literary, borrowing motifs from the account of Jesus’s death in Matthew (3 Ne 8:17, 18, 20; cf. Matt 27:45, 51) and language connotative of the apocalypse in order to emphasize the biblical proportions of the devastation (e.g. 3 Ne 8:13, 24; 9:8). The account does not demonstrate firsthand knowledge of volcanic eruptions or earthquakes, but only that the author had heard secondhand about the stupendous darkening effects of volcanic smoke (note that Morm 8:29 reports that the BoM will be brought forth in a day when “vapors of smoke in foreign lands” are in the news).

 

51) In relation to the previous, a significant problem with Gardner’s approach to the BoM as history is that he never really puts much effort into advancing a genre identification that would explain the BoM narrative as a whole and its relationship to history. Overall, he tends to demythologize the narrative and focus on elements that can be explicated in secular historical terms with Mesoamerica as the backdrop. However, he also conveniently bypasses or avoids discussing elements in the same narratives that are highly mythological or folkloric, e.g. a three-hour cosmic cataclysm, a voice speaking out of heaven to all the inhabitants of the land, the devil and his angels laughing, the visitation of Jesus and angels in glory, Nephite disciples being granted immortality, etc.

 

52) Gardner reasonably rejects the notion that the myths of Mexican Quetzalcoatl reflect a historical memory of Jesus’s visitation to the New World (p. 353-65). However, he fails to consider the possibility that knowledge of Quetzalcoatl in early 19th century America may have been the seed or inspiration behind the audacious and unexpected claim that Jesus visited the Americas. A variety of theories that attempted to Christianize or biblicize Quetzalcoatl had long been in circulation in the West and Ethan Smith’s description of Quetzalcoatl in View of the Hebrews could have easily evoked an identification with Jesus. Lord Kingsborough was another prominent figure of the period who supported the Jesus identification. We can only assume that people were talking about this mysterious white bearded lawgiver, so a theory of direct dependence on Ethan Smith is unnecessary.

 

53) The description of the history and interactions between Teotihuacan and Maya lands to the south is highly informative, but weak in providing any connections to the BoM (369-373).

 

54) I find Gardner’s suggestion that Joseph Smith came to call Mormon Hill in New York the Hill Cumorah only late in his life and based on an interpretation borrowed from other early saints strained and implausible (p. 375-79). We have relatively early and detailed statements from Oliver Cowdery and William W. Phelps identifying the hill that can only have stemmed from personal knowledge of the teachings of Smith. The name they give to the hill is not merely a secondary component to accounts of the origin of the BoM, but is integral to them, elaborating upon the hill’s historical-mythological significance as the place where BoM peoples were destroyed and the gospel eventually restored. In other words, the identification is part of a coherent and internally consistent story. The reason we don’t have any early account of Joseph Smith identifying the hill as Cumorah is simply an accident of history. In addition, because Mormon 6:6 reports that the plates of the BoM were retained by Moroni it does not follow that they were eventually buried somewhere else. The plates were retained only to add more material, not to find a new burial place (Moroni 1:1-4).

 

55) Gardner speculates that the Tower of Babel story was read into the story about the Jaredites at an early point in the development of the tradition by Mosiah2 (p. 382-87). But this reconstruction is problematic at multiple levels. First, why should we even assume that this is the case? As far as I can tell, the only reason to doubt the accuracy of the text at this point is the presumption of historicity and the problems raised by a reference to a mythical Tower of Babel. Second, there are multiple clues in the narrative that the “tower” intended is the biblical Tower of Babel. The context relates to the confounding of languages and scattering of post-diluvian peoples “upon all the face of the earth” (Ether 1:33), and references to the early Genesis stories are interwoven into the narrative: creation, Adam (Ether 1:3), tower, valley of Nimrod (Ether 2:1), flood (Ether 13:2), ark of Noah (Ether 6:7). To remove or revalorize the reference to the Tower of Babel would do violence to the text. Third, Gardner relies upon his problematic and unsubstantiated theory of seerstone translation to explain how a new interpretive layer was added to the Jaredite record.

 

56) The proposed connections between the BoM Jaredites and the Olmec civilization are exceedingly vague (writing, organized military, north of the Maya, linguistic and cultural influence?). In any case, in the BoM the Jaredite nation is not a subset of a larger culture, but a single civilization stemming from the Old World.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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