A Mesoamerican Context for the Book of Mormon is a Two-edged Sword

Andrew C. Skinner has recently published a short book entitled Third Nephi: the Fifth Gospel.[1] Two chapters emphasize a temple context for 3 Nephi, chapter 3, entitled “The Temple Context of the Fifth Gospel,” and chapter 4, “The Temple Sermon on Exaltation.” It is a theme first proposed by John W. Welch, whom Skinner cites in his introduction: “An arresting feature of the Fifth Gospel is its connection to the temple. Jesus’s ‘appearance at the temple invites the idea that his words have something important to do with teachings and ordinances found within the temple.’”[2]

While there are many aspects of the 3 Nephi version of the Sermon on the Mount that are worthy of examination, it is the assumption that the temple informs its content that is the theme of the two chapters in Skinner’s book and the entirety of Welch’s book, Illuminating the Sermon at the Temple and Sermon on the Mount. That argument is explicit in Welch and paraphrased in Skinner: “The Sermon at the Temple was given in a temple setting—Jesus spoke at the temple in Bountiful (see 3 Nephi 11:1). Since he could have chosen to appear anywhere he wanted (at the marketplace, at the town gate, or any number of other places where people traditionally congregated), and since we may assume that he chose to appear where he did for some reasons, his appearance at the temple invites the idea that his words have something important to do with teachings and ordinances found within the temple.”[3]

The description of plausible alternate locations for the Savior’s appearance may be correct for the Old World, but if we accept Mesoamerica as the plausible location for the Book of Mormon in the New World, the alternatives diminish. The particular construction of known Mesoamerican cities suggests that there was really no other location available than the courtyard of a temple. The antecedent of the great event is described in 3 Nephi 11:1-2: “And now it came to pass that there were a great multitude gathered together, of the people of Nephi, round about the temple which was in the land Bountiful; and they were marveling and wondering one with another, and were showing one to another the great and marvelous change which had taken place. And they were also conversing about this Jesus Christ, of whom the sign had been given concerning his death.”

This group of people is standing “round about” the temple. They were certainly not in the temple. Even in the Old World, the interior of the temple was a highly restricted location. In Mesoamerica, it was not only restricted, but quite small. The construction of Mesoamerican cities also had many more than one temple, where the Old World had only one per location (and only one in Jerusalem after 600 B.C.). Courtyards were established in the open areas defined by the presence of temple pyramids. In a Mesoamerican city, any major open space was defined by public structures, and those were typically (but not exclusively) pyramids. Thus, if there was a market, it would be “round about” a temple. While some of the Mesoamerican cities had gates, there is no indication that they functioned as gathering locations as did the Old World city gates. In a Mesoamerican city, the appearance of the resurrected Savior to people standing round about a temple is simply descriptive of the only possible location to appear to a number of people simultaneously.

There are a large number of factors that strongly recommend Mesoamerica as the physical and cultural backdrop to the Nephite story. If that correlation is as strong as it appears, it is incumbent upon us to test our hypotheses against that background. In this case, even if there are other reasons for examining a temple-related content of the Sermon at the Temple and the Sermon on the Mount, the foundation of those examinations cannot rest on the fact of Christ’s appearance to people round about a Mesoamerican temple. There would have been no other reasonable location for such an appearance and multiple temples to choose from. Using a Mesoamerican location for the Book of Mormon becomes a two-edged sword. While it allows us to understand more deeply some aspects of the Book of Mormon, it simultaneously restricts some arguments that we might otherwise make for it.

[1] Andrew C. Skinner, Third  Nephi: the Fifth Gospel (Springville, Utah: CFI, imprint of Cedar Fort, Inc., 2012).

[2] Ibid., 37. The quotation is from John W. Welch, Illuminating the Sermon at the Temple and Sermon on the Mount (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1999), 26.

[3] Ibid., 26. In Skinner’s recasting, Skinner, Third Nephi, 38: “What more natural place in the New World could there have been for Jesus to come and teach than the temple—the place where he was accustomed to teach during his mortal life. Thus, his appearance at the temple in the land Bountiful (3 Nephi 11:1) was no random or accidental occurrence. Of all the places Jesus could have chosen to make his New World appearance—palace, market, city gate, or wooded grove—Jesus came to the temple and firmly fixed the importance of the temple setting for what transpired over the next three days.”

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About Brant A. Gardner

Brant A. Gardner (M.A. State University of New York Albany) is the author of Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon and The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon, both published through Greg Kofford Books. He has contributed articles to Estudios de Cultura Nahuatl and Symbol and Meaning Beyond the Closed Community. He has presented papers at the FairMormon conference as well as at Sunstone.

12 thoughts on “A Mesoamerican Context for the Book of Mormon is a Two-edged Sword

  1. “While it allows us to understand more deeply some aspects of the Book of Mormon, it simultaneously restricts some arguments that we might otherwise make for it.”

    What are some examples of a Mesoamerican setting restricting some arguements? I can’t think of any off of the top of my head.

    • Jody: Of course I am offering my opinions, not to be confused with what other people might believe. In addition to the subject of the post, I could add the argument that a possible connection between Uto-Aztecan and Hebrew becomes untenable. This has been proposed with the tools of historical linguistics. Regardless of the strength of the argument, the language family doesn’t arrive in Mesoamerica until after the close of the Book of Mormon. So, while it might be considered a good argument for Hebrew in the New World, it won’t be an argument for the Book of Mormon’s Hebrew.

      There are some arguments for the literalness of the translation of the Book of Mormon that work pretty well, unless we set the text against Mesoamerica. Now, in case you might not know, I am a strong advocate of the Mesoamerican background of the text. I believe it explains the Book of Mormon in ways no other geography has. The two-edged sword is that along with some increase in explanatory power, it also requires a different type of perspective and caution in the cultural connections we might posit for the Book of Mormon.

      • Brant: your overall point of the Mesoamerican geography thesis being a two-edged sword is a good one. I’m sure many examples of this can be found. However, your objection to a Uto-Aztecan/Hebrew connection on the basis of the late arrival of Uto-Aztecan seems to assume that a language is static, and once it has “arrived” it cannot be altered by interactions with its greater linguistic context. Clearly there is still room for _indirect_ influence of Lehite Hebrew on later Uto-Aztecan. I’m not saying that happened—just that it’s plausible.

        Regarding the temple context question generally: though Mesoamerican cities seem to have been replete with temples, we can also safely assume that most were not dominated by Israelite immigrants. Could the influence of Israelite-turned-Nephite theology have led to construction of cities with only a single temple (as at Jerusalem), thus rendering the mention of Christ’s appearance at the temple significant?

        • Josh:

          You are correct that it is always possible for one language to influence the other later in its history. The connection between Hebrew and Uto-Aztecan is the best that I have seen, but it also suggests a very early connection rather than one late enough to be applicable to a Mesoamerican setting. Unfortunately, I was referencing data that I wasn’t quoting so you would not have known the nature of the original argument for the Hebrew connection.

          It is also possible that in Nephite cities there was only a single temple. Because we cannot firmly identify any location as a Book of Mormon city, we cannot say with certainty that a city like Bountiful did not vary from the Mesoamerican norm. What we do know, however, is that virtually all discovered cities of any size have multiple temples. That makes the likelihood of a unique Nephite location much smaller and rather suggests that we understand their culture in that context rather than the one that we might assume for them.

  2. Brant,

    So, to make sure I am understanding correctly, you are not saying that the Sermon is not temple related, only that the setting (i.e., outside the temple) is not evidence for that?

    Do you think the Sermon is temple related?

    Could it alternatively be argued that Mormon’s choice to include mention of that detail is evidence that the Sermon is temple related? After all, if the temple was the only place it could happen, someone living in Mesoamerica might have thought explicitly mentioning that detail was unnecessary, even a wast of space, right? So arguably, he wouldn’t have included it without reason?

    Last question: could it be argued, then, that the Book of Mormon text fits the Mesoamerican setting? (E.g., in Mesoamerica outside the temple is the gather place, in 3 Nephi the people gather around the temple, also in Mosiah 2-5, etc., therefore, the BoM fits the Mesoamerican context.) Maybe not an especially strong argument, but it could be something, maybe?

    Just trying to pick your brain a little bit.

    • You are correct that the only thing I am saying is that the fact that it was in the vicinity of the temple cannot be evidence of temple content/intent. As for the language used to describe it, we don’t know enough of how people referred to the space near a temple to know. We know that in the New Testament the apostles would preach “in the temple,” but that meant a courtyard, not the temple proper. Teaching in a courtyard also doesn’t necessarily imply inside-the-temple content any more than cleansing the moneychangers from the temple had temple content. That was the location, but not determinative of the kind of information that was shared.

      My personal opinion of Benjamin’s speech in Mosiah is that it was at the location where a temple was going to be built. That is why the tower was built. Normally, he would have simply walked up the temple stairs. Later, Mosiah speaks to more people, but no tower is mentioned. The temple was there by then. It was the tower that was unusual and therefore worthy of note. However, all of this is circumstantial and valid if Mesoamerica is the setting, not demonstrative of it.

      Again, my personal opinion is that there is no intent to have temple content in either the sermon at the temple or the sermon on the mount. Others clearly have a different opinion.

  3. E sCations The people who were gathered at the temple in Bountiful were not there for market day or a ball game. They were discussing the message of Jesus Christ that had come during the three days of darkness, the period when Christ was in the Spirit World before the resurrection. All twelve of the men who would be chosen to hold apostolic authority were present. Since the destruction began at the start of the year, and Christ’s visit was in the end of the same year, months had passed and the survivors had organized themselves. It seems most likely that the day and place for the gathering had been announced by the prophet Nephi and consisted of people who listened to a prophet’s voice. Since it was planned ahead of time, it could have been held at any sufficiently large open space with water where baptisms could be performed. The temple setting was clearly chosen, but what is not stated is why it was chosen. As you have noted, there were practical reasons for holding any large gathering there. Whether there were specifically religious reasons is open to conjecture. What Jack Welch offers is an interpretation that suggests that, if the temple association was intentional, it would “illuminate” and make more understandable the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount, whose theological significance has been debated. I agree that Skinner’s argument does not have much force because there were no other locations in a Meso-American city where Christ could.find a large group. But I think his statement also seems to assume that Christ sort of snuck up on a gathering of random Nephites, like a flash mob performance of the Hallelujah Chorus. To the contrary, I think the more likely context was Nephi as a prophet calling faithful families together at the temple in a surviving city, and getting a special visiting “General Authority” they had not expected. Skinner’s argument does not hold up, but that does not eliminate the possibility the association of the sermon with the temple and temple ordinances was in fact a deliberate choice made by Christ to give context to his words and actions. Surely we would expect that, since there is evidence of the Endowment in the New Testament and in various apocryphal writings, that the same ordinances would be introduced to the Nephites, who after the destruction were a more righteous community for two centuries than was ever possible in the Old World. It is justifiable to look for evidence that could verify that expectation.

    • I agree that there was a religious context. I think that is very clear. However, I don’t think we are justified in creating a privileged interpretation of the record of those events simply on the basis of having a temple in proximity. There were only rare spaces that were not in proximity to a temple. The presence of a temple could just as easily be convenience as symbolic.

  4. Brandt, thank you for bringing my attention to this blog.

    In ancient Israel there were three pilgrim festivals during the year where all the faithful journeyed to, and gathered around the temple. These were Passover, Shavuot (Pentecost) and Sukkot (Booths). It is probable that it was on one of those days when “a great multitude gathered together, of the people of Nephi, round about the temple which was in the land of Bountiful” (3 Nephi 11:1). Passover is in the early Spring, Shavuot is 50 days later, and Sukkot is in the fall. It was “Soon after the ascension of Christ into heaven He did truly manifest himself unto them” (3 Nephi 10:18). After His resurrection Jesus spent 40 days with his disciples in the land of Israel prior to His ascension from the Mount of Olives. Then, on the day of Pentecost (Sukkot), the Holy Ghost fell upon them (Acts 2:1-4). This is very interesting because the Talmud connects Sukkot with the day that Moses was given the Torah and the Law of Moses on Mount Sinai. In D&C 84 we learn that because of Israel’s disobedience at Mount Sinai the Lord took away the Melchizedek Priesthood and gave them the Aaronic Priesthood and the Law of Moses. Taking away the Melchizedek Priesthood also took away the ordinances thereof, including the Gift of the Holy Ghost. The Law of Moses was the substitute for the Gift of the Holy Ghost. It consisted of regular rituals to remind Israel of God and to look forward to the Messiah, the Savior. Other than a righteous few, Israel was without the Gift of the Holy Ghost until after the resurrection of Jesus (John 20:22), and it was made manifest to them on the day of Pentecost.

    When the resurrected Christ appeared to the Nephites around the temple He gave them the “Sermon on the Mount” and stressed that old things were done away with and all things had become new. Then He said, “Behold, I say unto you that the law is fulfilled that was given unto Moses. Behold, I am he that gave the law, and I am he who covenanted with my people Israel; therefore, the law in me is fulfilled, for I have come to fulfil the law; therefore it hath an end” (3 Nephi 15:4). It is probable that the Nephites had gathered around the temple to commemorate the day that Israel had received the Law of Moses, and on that day Jesus appeared and explained that He had fulfilled the Law of Moses, and the Gift of the Holy Ghost was restored.

  5. Typo alert:
    I used Sukkot twice when I meant Shavuot in the following sentences. They should read:

    “Then, on the day of Pentecost (Shavuot), the Holy Ghost fell upon them (Acts 2:1–4). This is very interesting because the Talmud connects Shavuot with the day that Moses was given the Torah and the Law of Moses on Mount Sinai.”

  6. Brant wrote:

    “The construction of Mesoamerican cities also had many more than one temple, where the Old World had only one per location.”

    Speaking of a two-edged sword, This would be an argument against Mesoamerica as the backdrop to the Nephite saga, as it is clear that there was only one temple in each of the two major Nephite cities of Zarahemla and Bountiful. The text always refers to “the” temple of a particular city rather than “a” temple. (see Mosiah 2:6-7; 3 Nephi 11:1) The major ancient North American cities had pyramids made of earth, rather than of stone, and had only one temple on top of these pyramids per city. In native North American languages these pyramids are referred to as “towers.” A large ancient city, in what is now the state of Georgia, carries the native name of “Etowah,” which means “high tower,” referring to the dominate structure of the city. The Book of Mormon uses the term “tower” or “high tower” over 20 times to describe such structures.

    At the World Heritage archaeological site of Poverty Point, in the state of Louisiana, lies a huge earthen tower constructed in the shape of a bird (the sacred bird motif throughout North America is another interesting subject). The wingspan of the bird is about two football fields long and the length of the bird is somewhat longer. The flat tail of the bird is about as wide as a football field and would have stood two stories above the city around it. The tail of the bird faces east, the direction that the door of the temple would have faced. The temple would have been constructed of wood and so is no longer there. On the west half of this temple mound rises an earthen tower another four stories above the flat tail. Archaeologists have determined that this tower was added at a later time to what was originally a flat topped mound. From the small area at the top of this tower one could have looked over the top of the Temple. A person standing there would also have been visible to anyone surrounding the temple mound. It is an interesting experience to sit on top of this tower and read King Benjamin’s address. I would recommend it to all. It may change ones perspective on Mesoamerica being the exclusive physical and cultural backdrop to the Nephite story.

    • Theodore:

      Supposing that the English article “the” necessarily meant “exclusive” in the plate text places a very heavy burden on the English text. It does not necessarily have that meaning in English. There was a time when Albuquerque residents weren’t blessed with a temple, and went to Mesa (as assigned) or sometimes to the Denver temple. In either case, they might simply say that they went to “the temple.” You wouldn’t know from “the temple” which one was meant.

      As for “high tower,” again you are dealing with the way a translation of the language describes a term. The Spanish similarly assumed that a Nahuatl word meant a “tower,” when it is better translated as “deity house/house of god.” There are a lot of things we might discuss about the Book of Mormon’s correlation to the real world, but basing too many conclusions on English grammar is inherently perilous.

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