Lack of Mesoamerican Iconography in the Book of Mormon

LDS scholars claim that the setting for the Book of Mormon is in Mesoamerica. There have been inumerable articles and many books dedicated to this subject. FARMS even released a DVD which explores the issue called “Journey of Faith: The New World”.

Sometimes critics and believing LDS (myself included) have asked why the text in the Book of Mormon doesn’t seem to reflect Mesoamerican culture in a more obvious way. As one critic said,

If Lehi & Co., were indeed just a small group that intermingled into the known society then in a period of a thousand years it seems reasonable that the records would reflect at least something of the culture.
To me the fact that the BoM doesn’t seem to reflect the culture and society in Mesoamerica is a difficulty one.
Where are the jaguars? The corn God? The armadillo? The monkeys? The thatched roof homes? The Calendars? The cocoa beans? The ball games? The jade? The Obsidian? The feathers? The squash? The chile peppers? The breadnut? The limestone? The salt trade? The pottery? The animal masks? The avocado? Basket making? Temple pyramids? Wall paintings? Plazas? The fishing trade? The bark paper? etc. etc. etc. etc. etc…..
It just seems TO ME, there would be something to reflect the culture of the Maya.

This complication does not exist solely for Book of Mormon studies. It is also, appropriately, an issue in Jewish archaeology.

In their synagogues Jews of the first centuries in the Christian era were quite willing to use a large number of Greco-Roman decorations and symbols. Some scholars, like Goodenough, see in such symbols signals of a more mystical Judaism. Others assume that that Jewish leaders had no choice but to use ateliers who offered, as a matter of course, pagan decorations and symbols. Or, in terms of interaction, Jews were willing to utlize the decorations and symbols of their non-Jewish neighbors. By so doing they indicated their active participation in the Greco-Roman culture. But none of these symbols became a part of the Jewish iconic conversation. In that sense, by the first two centuries of the Christin era Juduaism had developed a firm symbolic identity. It could accept and utilize pagan symbolic material, but did not incoproarte it.

Graydon F. Snyder Inculturation of the Jesus Tradition, 1999, 92

There is also this quote from the same book:

A nearly complete list of symbols used by Jews through the sixth century shows ninety-seven decorations and symbols of which only the etrog lulab, menorah, and shofar became consistent signs of Jewish identity. For the most part the remaining ninety-three symbols come from either the general Hellenistic culture (zodiac signs, garlands) or, occasionally, come from Jewish life (the Torah shrine).

Snyder, Inculturation of the Jesus Tradition, 13.

We can feel comfortable knowing that there is Jewish precedent for our conclusions that despite the fact that the Lehites immersed themselves in Mesoamerican culture (rendering archaeological identification a near impossibility) we still find relatively few Mesoamerican iconographic references in the text of the Book of Mormon.

There certainly are some however, and those are significant. See the Mesoamerican section of my “Book of Mormon Evidences” page. Also, check out this video from FAIR which describes Divine Kingship in Mesoamerica in the Book of Mormon.

A nod to Brant Gardner for presenting this information on MADB.


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7 comments on “Lack of Mesoamerican Iconography in the Book of Mormon

  1. Jack says:

    I suspect that there are more references than we think–if we’ll just look for them. Here’s something I found recently (in Alma 34:11):

    “Now there is not any man that can sacrifice his own blood which will atone for the sins of another.”

    How many times have I just passed right over that? But this time it jumped out at me. Here’s the connection with Mayan civilization:

    And, of course, there’s verse 10:

    “For it is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice; yea, not a sacrifice of man, neither of beast, neither of any manner of fowl; for it shall not be a human sacrifice; but it must be an infinite and eternal sacrifice.”

    Yup, human sacrifice–right there in the Book of Mormon.

    What else have we been missing? There’s probably a lot more–if we’ll just *pay attention* and read the Book of Mormon on its own terms.

  2. James says:

    Thanks Jack. Brant Gardner discusses this passage in his “Second Witness” commentary. You can read the preliminary manuscript here.

    I have also wondered if this particular passage has any sort of anti-Deuteronomistic roots as well. The Deuteronomists preached against the possibility of human sacrifice for the redemption of others. I think the Mesoamerican context is probably more accurate though.

    Indeed, as you have pointed out, the Book of Mormon contains LOTS of Mesoamerican parallels. We are just beginning to understand them.

  3. Ray says:

    I just found this site. You have some great stuff here. I hope it is OK to add you to my blogroll – although that won’t drive traffic your way.

  4. James says:

    No problem Ray! Thanks for the compliment.

  5. pedro says:

    I see it as a function of translation. “Sea horses aren’t horses, prarie dogs aren’t dogs and ground hogs aren’t hogs(DCP)”. Instead of jaguars we get lions, instead of gators we get dragons etc.
    Also, Mormon made it a point to not fill the plates with what he considered useless info:
    “But behold, a hundredth part of the proceedings of this people, yea, the account of the Lamanites and of the Nephites, and their wars, and contentions, and dissensions, and their preaching, and their prophecies, and their shipping and their building of ships, and their building of temples, and of synagogues and their sanctuaries, and their righteousness, and their wickedness, and their murders, and their robbings, and their plundering, and all manner of abominations and whoredoms, cannot be contained in this work”(Helaman 3:14).

    Also, for those who view the BoM as a modern 19th century product, the BoM lacks references to “indian stuff” readily available in Joseph’s culture: squash, wampum, tepee, squaw, peace pipes, macassins, redskin etc.

    The BoM isnt an anthropology text book; it’s a second witness of Christ.

  6. pedro says:

    You know, the same could be said for the KJV Bible. Everyone knows that ancient Jews didn’t use candles, ride unicorns or eat Maize. But if I were an ignorant American reader of the Bible I might come to think so after a very superficial reading. The “candles” are really lamps, unicorns are almost certainly rhinos and the “corn” some kind of grain because everyone knows that american maize was called corn by the English because “corn” is a word that was used to describe other crops in the old world.

    The mesoamericanness of the BoM can be found by going beyond that superficial translation layer. Joseph’s 19 century mind was very much a limiting factor, D&C 9:8.
    We have to go into how these people behaved, what they built and when they built it etc.

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