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A Review of the Annotated Edition of the Book of Mormon
(Part 5)

Part 1 ⎜ Part 2 ⎜ Part 3A ⎜ Part 3B ⎜ Part 3C ⎜ Part 3D ⎜ Part 3E ⎜ Part 4 ⎜ Part 5 ⎜ Part 6 ⎜ Part 7 ⎜ Part 8 ⎜ Postscript

Unsubstantiated Claims and Arguments

The Annotated Edition of the Book of Mormon (AEBOM) makes a number of unsubstantiated claims and arguments that are meant to either preclude a Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon or reinforce a North American setting for the same. The following are just a few:

  • On p. 16 of the AEBOM the claim is made that reference to “driven snow” in 1 Nephi 11:8 must be describing “something similar to a blizzard–snow driven by strong winds.” It is further claimed that “the Nephites were living in the land choice above all others where ‘driven’ snow must have been common in order for them to understand the analogy” in 1 Nephi 11:8. This, the AEBOM reasons, must mean the Nephites were living in North America “where blizzards ‘drive’ the snow, providing an analogy that had special and understandable meaning for those who witnesses snow driven by strong winds.” There are several things about these claims that are dubious. First, while it is true that there is no unique biblical Hebrew word for specifically “blizzard,” this does not mean the the phenomenon was unknown in ancient Israel. Biblical allusions to what we might today call a blizzard can be detected at Psalm 148:8 (“snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command”; שׁלג וקיטור רוח סערה עשׂה דברו) and Sirach 43:13 (“By his command he sends the driving snow”; Προστάγματι αὐτοῦ κατέσπευσεν χιόνα). An additional allusion to blizzard-like weather is also possibly identifiable at Job 37:9–10 (“From its chamber comes the whirlwind [סופה; “gale,” “storm”], and cold from the scattering winds. By the breath of God ice is given, and the broad waters are frozen fast”). In any case, blizzards (heavy snowfall mixed with high winds) do occur in Israel, although they are relatively rare.[1] The Talmud even preserves at least one mention of an ancient blizzard (Yoma 35b).[2] Nephi’s imagery of the “driven snow” therefore has a biblical underpinning and is something he and his family could have been familiar with in an Old World setting.[3] What’s more, the fact that the Book of Mormon makes no mention of blizzards or snow after 1 Nephi 11:8 could be (and has been) used against claims of a North American setting for the Book of Mormon.[4]
  • The AEBOM claims on p. 34 that “writings and artifacts have been found from North and South America that bear signs of the Phoenician traders.” No artifacts are provided as examples for this claim, and no sources are cited.
  • On p. 75 the AEBOM makes the claim that 2 Nephi 12:16 (=Isaiah 2:16) demonstrates Joseph Smith was translating an ancient record, not simply copying the KJV Bible. While this argument has been raised multiple times by Latter-day Saint authors, it is problematic.[5] The AEBOM does not adequately nuance the underlying textual issue at 2 Nephi 12:16.
  • The AEBOM claims on p. 177 that there are no “migratory land animals” in Mesoamerica, which appears to contradict Mosiah 18:4. First, the text in question says nothing about specific animal “migrations,” but merely that the waters of Mormon were “infested, by times or at seasons, by wild beasts.” Even the editors of the AEBOM caution that this text “could indicate migratory patterns” (emphasis added). Even if we accept this reading, in Mesoamerica “large carnivores . . . show seasonal variation in their ranging patterns. . . . Pumas (Puma concolora; Felidae) and jaguars (Panthera onca: Felidae) have significantly larger home ranges during the rainy season. . . . Presumably this occurs because prey is concentrated in higher densities around water sources during the dry season, whereas prey is more dispersed and found in lower densities during the rainy season.”[6] Mosiah 18:4, which describes an important water source being “infested, by times or at seasons, by wild beasts,” could easily be read in this Mesoamerican context.
  • The AEBOM claims at p. 300 that there are four distinct seasons in the “promised land” and in the Book of Mormon. But the citation given (Alma 46:40) says nothing about four distinct seasons in the way implied by the AEBOM (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, with their distinctive climates and weather phenomena). In fact, the seasonality of warfare patterns in the Book of Mormon fits nicely in a Mesoamerican context, demonstrating that this is a clumsy attempted by the AEBOM to force the Book of Mormon into a specific North American context that isn’t demanded by the text.[7]
  • At p. 320 the AEBOM implies that the “plains” spoken of in Alma 52:20 (and other places, such as Alma 62:18; Ether 13:28; 14:15) are the “plains of the Nephites” spoken of by Joseph Smith in an 1834 letter to his wife Emma.[8] Besides the fact that “plains of the Nephites” never occurs as a Book of Mormon toponym, the citations to Ether have little relevance since those would have been Jaredite plains, not Nephite. Additionally, the AEBOM provides no actual evidence that Joseph Smith had specifically the plains of Nephihah (Alma 62:18) or the plains near the city of Mulek (Alma 62:18) in mind with his comment about the “plains of the Nephites.” It merely attempts to create that impression in the minds of readers by an artificial juxtaposition. 
  • It is claimed at p. 393 that the “whirlwinds” in 3 Nephi 8:16 are tornadoes unique to North America and not found in Mesoamerica. Even if we grant the interpretation of 3 Nephi 8:16 as speaking about tornados,[9] this poses no problem for a Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon. Powerful, destructive tornados do occur in Central America.[10]
  • The AEBOM claims on p. 532 that each of the animals and items needed to keep the Law of Moses have been discovered in North America. Here the AEBOM appears to be drawing on the work of Amberli Nelson, although it does not cite her.[11] The claims in the AEBOM, however, are problematic. For instance, the AEBOM claims goats, a required animal for sacrifices under the Law of Moses, have been found in North America. But the mountain goats (Oreamnos americanus) the AEBOM has in mind, presumably, aren’t actual goats (Capra aegagrus hircus).[12] In terms of taxonomy, they are actually closer to antelope and musk-oxen.[13] They might be called “goats” by a process of loan-shifting, but that’s not the same as the claim made in the AEBOM and by Nelson that they are precisely the kind of goat that satisfies the requirements of the Law of Moses.

This is just a sampling of the kinds of unsubstantiated arguments and claims that are made in the AEBOM. Proponents of a North American “heartland” setting for the Book of Mormon will have to make much better arguments than these if they wish to make a convincing case for their theory. Making broad, sweeping, and often ignorant claims that declare victory against a Mesoamerican setting after imposing highly debatable readings of the Book of Mormon onto the text will not suffice.

Endnotes

[2] A letter in the Cairo Geniza describes how the merchant Solomon b. Moses made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem from Egypt in the early 1060s. Solomon travelled from Egypt through the Sinai with a caravan along the coastal plain, then dropped into Jerusalem from Ramlah. According to the letter, a severe snow storm occurred in the month of Tevet, that is, December-January. He attributed his survival to the mercies of God. S. D. Goitein, ed. and trans., Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973), 159-60. Goitein interprets the letter as indicating that Solomon’s friends attempted to dissuade him from winter travel because the weather was bad, but that God blessed him and helped him complete his promised pilgrimage to Jerusalem. If so, this stands as additional, albeit indirect, evidence that things like snowstorms were not isolated occurrences. It is hard to see why snowfall heavy enough to impede travel could not be considered “driven snow.” My thanks to Allen Hansen for alerting me to this source.

[3] Even in the New World, although it is very rare, snowfall does occasionally occur in the highlands of Guatemala and central Mexico. See David Stuart and Stephen Houston, “Cotton, Snow, and Distant Wonders,” Maya Decipherment.

[5] Dana M. Pike and David Rolph Seely, “‘Upon all the Ships of the Sea, and Upon All the Ships of Tarshish’: Revisiting 2 Nephi 12:16 and Isaiah 2:16,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14, no. 2 (2005): 12–25, 67–71.

[6] Kathryn E. Stoner et al., “Seasonally Dry Tropical Forest Mammals: Adaptations and Seasonal Patterns,” in Seasonally Dry Tropical Forests: Ecology and Conservation, ed. Rodolfo Dirzo et al. (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2011), 96, internal citations removed.

[7] John L. Sorenson, “Seasonality of Warfare in the Book of Mormon and in Mesoamerica,” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1990), 445–477.

[9] Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary defines “whirlwind” as “a violent wind moving in a circle, or rather in a spiral form, as if moving round an axis; this axis or the perpendicular column moving horizontally, raising and whirling dust, leaves and the like.” This could describe a tornado, or it could describe a tropical cyclone. The AEBOM‘s reading of this verse is begging the question.

[10] See for instance Oscar Velasco Fuentes, “The Earliest Documented Tornado in the Americas,” American Meteorological Society, November 2010, 1515–1522; Jesús Manuel Macías Medrano, Descubriendo tornados en México: el caso del tornado de Tzintzuntzan (Mexico: Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios, 2001); “Mexican Tornado (San Cristóbal De Las Casas, Chiapas, México) – 06-08-2014“.

[11] Amberli Nelson, Jehovah’s Holy Days in the Heartland of North America, available at www.bookofmormonevidence.org.

[12] Marco Festa-Bianchet and Steve D. Côté, Mountain Goats: Ecology, Behavior, and Conservation of an Alpine Ungulate (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2007), 7.

[13] Marc Montgomery, “Tracing the evolution of North American mountain goats,” Radio Canada International.

This article is cross-posted with the permission of the author, Stephen O. Smoot, from his blog at https://www.plonialmonimormon.com.

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