Testing a Methodology: A Malaysian Setting for the Book of Mormon

William G. Dever correctly posits that “in history-writing of any kind, the choice of method is fundamental, because to a large degree it determines the outcome of the inquiry. Where you arrive depends not only upon where you think you are going, but also upon how you decide to get there.”1 In his own work, he has suggested a methodology that he has termed “convergence.” That is, “it is possible to learn about the past, not simply by amassing more bits and pieces of disjointed ‘evidence,’ but rather by coordinating the pieces of evidence and situating them within a context relating knowledge to a deliberate quest.”2 It is a process where multiple data converge into a cohesive understanding relating to a particular time and place.

I have attempted to apply those concepts to my own investigation of the Book of Mormon in history.3 While I find that it provides an important methodological grounding to that task, it is always possible that the application of a methodology might provide false positives, or be so generic as to allow for the support of any hypothesis.

Partially as a test of the methodology of convergences, I applied it to an alternate proposal for Book of Mormon geography. I suggest that there are different types of convergences:

1) Geospatial Convergences: The text and a physical geography must line up

2) Chronological Convergences: Textual events and history should correlate to the same time. For example, a people posited to have been Lamanites should have been in the right geography at the correct time.

3) Cultural Convergences: The culture indicated in the Book of Mormon should match with that found in the geography at the appropriate time.

4) Productive Convergences: When we have a location and time that works for the Book of Mormon, that data from that time and place should provide additional explanatory aspects to the Book of Mormon text.

5) Finally, though it isn’t a convergence, it is important. We must always consider any contrary data to our hypothesis.

I apply those categories to what has become known as the Malaysian Hypothesis. In 2004, Ralph A. Olsen, retired chemistry professor at Montana State University, suggested that the Malaysian peninsula might be at least as good a fit for the Book of Mormon than any location in the New World.4 As he began his analysis he noted: “In presenting what I label the ‘Malay Hypothesis,’ I realize I am suggesting that studies aimed at locating Book of Mormon lands and accurately identifying the descendants of Book of Mormon peoples would need to undergo a radical paradigm shift—one that many would consider quite farfetched. I am fully aware that no Church leader, Joseph Smith included, has pointed toward a Southeast Asian setting, but neither have they made statements which rule it out.”

It provides an interesting test case for using the methodology of convergences because Olsen suggests that the model has advantages over the Mesoamerican location I have followed in other writings. The first important foundation for the methodology is to accept that the model might be correct and then text it against the data to see if we find the kind of convergences of time, space, and culture that I am suggesting are required to establish a location for the Book of Mormon.

Because Olsen’s hypothesis was presented fairly concisely, it provides the opportunity to also provide a concise analysis. In this case, I intent to approach Olsen’s geography assuming that it could be valid, and using various types of convergences to test its strength as a possible location for the Book of Mormon.

In each of the following sections I will begin by quoting Olsen’s specific support for the hypotheses, followed by an analysis of  his data.

Geospatial Convergences

Peninsula and Orientation. “As a peninsula, Mala is ‘nearly surrounded by water’ (Alma 22:32). The leading proposed Mesoamerican site, on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, is nearly surrounded by land and has no terminus at all. Mala is also oriented northward-southward, as Book of Mormon descriptions state, whereas the Isthmus of Tehuantepec extends east-west. I see no reason to believe that Book of Mormon directions are not the same as ours.”5

Olsen presents the basic case in both positive and negative terms. It is positive in the way he sees the Malay Peninsula fitting two particular textual requirements and negative in that he compares his Malay proposal to another proposal. While a comparison of proposed geographies for the Book of Mormon can be useful, it is really useful only after it is determined that there is a viable proposal to use as comparison. At this point, we are too early in our examination of the Malay hypothesis to make comparisons to anything other than the text itself.

Two geographic features are proposed in this paragraph: that the text requires that the land be “nearly surrounded by water” and that it uses terms such as north and west. The Malay Peninsula passes both of those tests.

When more precise geographic data are considered, the model fails. The most important consideration in pinning the text to a map is to establish some measure of distance. Without such a control, any Peninsula, any island, and even the South American continent would fit with the two requirements Olsen presents for this part of his geography.

Most difficult for his proposal is the textual evidence of the proximity of Bountiful to the narrow neck of land. The Book of Mormon indicates that Bountiful controls a logical pass into the land northward (Alma 51:28–30; 52:9, 27; 53:3–4). Olsen’s suggestion for Bountiful places it about 140 miles from the beginning of his first plausible “narrow neck.” His narrow neck, being a day and a half’s journey across according to the text (Alma 22:32), is under 60 miles across, not an unreasonable distance.6 However, that makes the distance from Bountiful to the narrow neck over two day’s journey south. That is too long a distance to guard an entrance to the land northward. Along with the distance, two other aspects of the geography make this correlation highly implausible. Olsen’s Bountiful is placed on the east of his candidate for the River Sidon. This means that any army in Bountiful must ford a major river to begin their over-two-day’s journey to the narrow neck. In the proposed geography, enemies have two approaches to the narrow neck that do not require approaching Bountiful. On the west of the river are two mountain ranges with valleys running directly to the land northward. That places significant land barriers between Bountiful and any army attempting an approach to the land northward from either valley or even along the west coast. Olsen’s geography fails on the specifics of the relationship of his Bountiful to the narrow neck.

Seas. “Seas to the east and west predominate in Mala but not in many of the favored Mesoamerican proposals.”7

The presence of east and west seas matches descriptions in the Book of Mormon. However, as with the general orientation and being nearly surrounded, this requirement is too general. It cannot be used to separate the validity of this model against any other Peninsula or island. The South American continent also fits this description. As with the previous geographic correlation, the preference over the Isthmus of Tehuantepec provides the wrong type of correlation. We need textual arguments that the location is plausible, not comparisons to another location that must similarly justify itself.

Boundaries. “In Mala, the land southward would be present-day Malaysia, the land of Bountiful would be Thailand, and much of the land northward would be Myanmar (Burma). Could it be that ancient boundaries have been retained?”8

This argument describes Olsen’s perception of how the Malay peninsula fits major divisions in the Book of Mormon. The description is to larger area only, and that is so generic as to be of no use in determining whether or not he has found a match. Both Thailand and Burma are farther north than his Hill Ramah, which was the Jaredite name for the Hill Cumorah. That places both Thailand and Burma way too far north to participate in the geography as described in the Book of Mormon.

Land of Bountiful. “In the Mala setting, the land of Bountiful can correctly occupy the entire narrow neck of land and extend from sea to sea (Alma 22:29–33; 50:8–11, 32–34).”9

In the Book of Mormon, Bountiful occupies an important pass controlling access to lands above the narrow neck of land. It is described in ways that make it appear that it is very close to the narrow neck of land. Nevertheless, Olsen places it about 140 miles south of the narrow neck. While he indicates that Bountiful can occupy the entire narrow neck of land, his placement of Bountiful on his map requires a city covering about 150 linear miles. Even if he changes his Bountiful to move into his narrow neck, it is still 60 linear miles. His description of Bountiful in this text does not match with his map or the Book of Mormon text.

Width and length. “A Nephite could cross the northern end of the narrow neck in 1.5 days (Alma 22:32). In going from Zarahemla on the land northward (through the narrow neck of land), Nephites traveled “an exceedingly great distance” (Helaman 3:3–4). As seen on the map, Mala provides the requisite geography.”10

Olsen’s use of “an exceedingly great distance” is too generic to be useful. There is no way to know how to approach that requirement. It just as easily refers to traveling from South America to North America (an even greater “exceedingly great distance”). His distance from Zarahemla to his Hill Ramah/Cumorah is about 533 miles along assumed straight land paths. That makes it about 13 days journey (using 60 miles as his “1.5 day’s journey”). There is no way to know if that was considered “an exceedingly great distance.”

Inlet. “Mala has an inlet of the west sea by the narrow neck of land, which would account nicely for a reference to a place near the narrow neck ‘where the sea divides the land’ (Ether 10:20).”11

This is a plausible convergence between map and text.

The land southward. “The land southward was nearly surrounded by water with a small neck of land extending northward (Alma 22:32). This matches a Mala setting.”12

Olsen’s generality for dimensions has no corrective here. This general description still fits South America equally well as his Mala setting, indicating that he hasn’t moved beyond terms sufficiently general as to fit too many locations.

However, his map provides a significant divergence from the textual evidence for the land southward. The Book of Mormon consistently notes that the Lamanites are more numerous than the Nephites (Jarom 1:6; Mosiah 25:3; Alma 2:27, 43:51). Olsen’s map provides that more numerous population about one fifth of the land mass he suggests for the whole Book of Mormon text. Because land directly relates to the ability to feed a population, this cannot be correct.

Sidon River. “A major river, Sidon, runs north to the sea past Zarahemla to the west. The Kelantan River matches the accounts (Alma 2:15; 2:34; 16:6,7; 43:22).”13

The Sidon is clearly an important determination for a plausible location for the Book of Mormon. The absence of a river would disqualify the model. A river running south would disqualify the model. However, the presence of a river running north cannot nail the model. The Amazon might be seen as the Sidon if South America were seen as a plausible location. This correlation is important and fits the textual description, but a north-flowing river only serves to exclude candidates, not to qualify them.

A narrow strip of mountain wilderness. “A narrow strip of wilderness extends east-west across the midsection of the land southward (Alma 22:27). The Cameron Highlands of Mala match the account.”14

This is a possible convergence. The Cameron Highlands are cool and inviting, but there is a rugged interior section. Perhaps this fits.

Inhabitable terrain. “Well-inhabited hilly terrain was located along two hundred miles or more of the northeastern seashore in the land southward (Alma 50–62). Mala matches very well, whereas some proposed sites in America have no lands along a northeastern seashore portion of the land southward at all.”15

As with previous references to different models, comparison to another model is premature. Olsen must establish his model first. It is hard to find a more generic requirement than “habitable terrain.” That requires that people live there. Humans are remarkably adaptable. This requirement is so broad that it is useless.

Chronological Convergences

Olsen does not directly address chronological concerns. This is a serious drawback, because the presence of any feature at the wrong time is not a convergence, but a counter-indication. The one place where a significant chronological check may be made is in his discussion of the Karen tribe. Olsen borrows a pseudo-correlation from Nibley: “Hugh Nibley has noted that the Karens of Burma ‘have displayed such astonishing cultural affinities with the Jews that some observers have even claimed them to be of Jewish origin.’ There are also striking resemblances between Karen beliefs and those in the Book of Mormon.”16 Only in his endnotes do we see Olsen suggesting that the Karen might be Lamanites.”17

Chronology won’t allow the correlation, regardless of what might be seen as similarities to the Book of Mormon. Edith T. Miranda (qualifications not reported) gives background to an article on current military situations in the Malaysian peninsula. The dates are important for Olsen’s hypothesis: “The Karen tribe migrated to Burma from Yunnan during the sixth to seventh centuries A.D. and the Burmese entered Burma from the north during the eighth to ninth centuries A.D. The Tai (also known as Shan) invaded from Yunnan also during the eighth to ninth centuries A.D.”18

In the very important task of finding the right people at the right time, Olsen’s model has his “Lamanite” candidates arriving over 1200 years too late. Without a correlation to a specific people who lived at the appropriate time, this is a significant disqualification.

Cultural Convergences

Jewish affinities. “Hugh Nibley has noted that the Karens of Burma ‘have displayed such astonishing cultural affinities with the Jews that some observers have even claimed them to be of Jewish origin.’ There are also striking resemblances between Karen beliefs and those in the Book of Mormon.”19

This convergence fails for two reasons. The first, and most important, is that the Karens are way too late in history to be a Book of Mormon people (as noted above). The second is that the description of “Jewish affinities” is asserted but not demonstrated. Even had they been at the correct time, the correlation to Jewish practices requires detailed analysis, not simply assertion. The misleading descriptions of Spanish fathers of Christian and Jewish practices among the Native Mesoamericans gives caution to the simple assertion of similarities.20

Script and languages. “Nibley also reports that writing in the India-Burma region (directly north of the Malay Peninsula) ‘was actually derived from Aramaic and Phoenician forms ultimately taken from the Egyptian.’”21

As with the Karen, Olsen relies on Nibley. For all of Nibley’s talent, he was a man of his times and many of the things he wrote early in his career were based on now-outdated scholarship. This is one of them. The writing system is categorized separately from Egyptian,22 inheriting instead the Indo-Aryan script.23

Mining, metallurgy, tools, and weapons. “In a 1979 study of Thai metallurgy, D. T. Bayard reports that bronze may have been in use as early as 3,000 B.C. The introduction of iron tools has been dated at about 1340 B.C. These dates match the chronology and activities of the Jaredites (Ether 10:23–27) and Nephites (Jarom 1:8).”24

This convergence works. Metallurgy at the appropriate time is a convergence that is non-random.

Inscribed metal plates. “The Karen tribe. . . made metal plates not only of copper but of gold. In nearby India, copper plates, inscribed, perforated, and linked together by metal rings have been found.”25

As another reference to the Karens this convergence occurs at the wrong time period with the wrong people. It does places the idea of writing on plates in the region. That might make for a convergence by ethnographic analogy.

Animals for food. “Book of Mormon peoples are described as having domesticated cattle, oxen, cows, sheep, goats, swine and other animals (Ether 9:18). All of these animals are indigenous to the Old World (none in America). Evidence for pigs, dogs, fowl, goats, and cattle during Book of Mormon times has been found in Southeast Asia.”26

These animals were present at the appropriate times. This is an acceptable convergence. As with the generic geographic convergences, this would be closer to a disqualification than a positive connection, as these animals exist in many locations in the Old World.

Animals for work. “Book of Mormon peoples are described as having horses and asses, and the more useful elephants and cureloms and cumoms (Ether 9:18). Horses and asses and elephants are indigenous to the Orient. Mala also has water buffalo and other bovines (could these be cureloms and cumoms?) which are more useful than horses and asses in the Southeast Asian climate and for indigenous forms of agriculture.”27

Olsen provides an expanded reading for the Book of Mormon text. It reads: “And they also had horses, and asses, and there were elephants and cureloms and cumoms; all of which were useful unto man, and more especially the elephants and cureloms and cumoms.” (Ether 9:19.) Olsen assumes that “useful” must mean that they do work. The text does not say that and none of these animals is ever described as working (there are references to being driven like an ass, which is a problematic idiom, but no descriptions of actions). The most “work” we see is that they move. Ether 9:19 follows immediately after a discussion of food animals. Our perceptions suppose that there is a different reason for the horses and asses, but that is not specifically noted by the text.

In spite of that, however, the presence of the animals is a convergence in time and space that fits his model. His explanation of water buffalo and other bovines as possible cureloms and cumoms cannot be used as a convergence.

Grains. “Middle Eastern grains included wheat, oats, barley, rye, millet and possibly rice. Successful production requires tillage operations using farm implements and work animals. Wheat, barley, and other cereal grains have long been cultivated in Southeast Asia. There is no evidence of their cultivation in Mesoamerica.”28

The presence of the specific grains mentioned in the Book of Mormon is a convergence for this model. The addition of “possibly rice” extends beyond the text. While there might be a reason to see it as part of the text, without additional reasoning it does not fit with the type of convergence this model has for the other grains.

Fruits. “Valued Middle Eastern fruits included apple, pear, plum, cherry, apricot, peach, fig, persimmon, melon, quince, pomegranate, banana, orange, lemon, lime and date. An early naturalist in the southern Burma area found pineapple, grape, banana, coconut, breadfruit, plum, apple, orange, lime, citron and many other fruits under cultivation.”29

Few of these fruits have any value as a convergence as few of them are mentioned in the text of the Book of Mormon. The two exceptions are figs and grapes, which appear in the Book of Mormon in quotations from the Old Testament or of the Sermon on the Mount. However, as they are quotations, they are still disqualified as convergences.

Silk. “The Book of Mormon describes an abundance of silk (Alma 1:29; Ether 10:24). The silk arts were developed in neighboring China about 2,600 B.C.”30

The idea that silk is present in the general area is perhaps suggestive, but the actual history is less persuasive. The history of silk in the Malay Peninsula begins with trade and only much later was produced in the area. Production dates to around the 15th Century A.D.31 There are indications of trade around the first century B.C.32 The reason for the late adoption of the industry is directly related to the controls placed on the silk industry by China itself. A website offering the history of silk notes: “Legend has it that the culturing of the silkworm and the weaving of silk date back more than 4,000 years to 2640 B.C., when Chinese Empress Si Ling-Chi developed the process of “reeling” silk from the cocoon. For the next 3,000 years, Chinese emperors kept the cultivation of silk as a highly guarded secret, threatening anyone who exported silk worms with the death penalty.33

This would have been a convergence with the text if the dating were better. Olsen uses Ether 10:24 as one of his references. My dating of that time period places it prior to 560 B.C.34 That would require silk trade in the Book of Mormon 400 years earlier than its known presence in the Malay Peninsula. Olsen’s reference to Alma is a much better fit for time. However, even that verse requires an “abundance of silk” which does not seem to fit the controlled trade that was the only way that silk arrived in the Malay Peninsula at that time. This point is a weak convergence for Alma’s time period, and no convergence at all for the Jaredite reference.

Volcanic Explosions: “The Book of Mormon reports that at the time of Christ’s crucifixion, devastating events took place in the land of promise (3 Nephi 8). The effects are so catastrophic, I believe they can best be explained by an explosive volcanic event (not simply an extrusion of lava). The Malay Peninsula provides a good setting. For example, the Krakatoa (1883) and Tambora (1815) explosions both in Indonesia, just south of the proposed Mala site, caused huge quantities of material to be blown into the atmosphere, leaving calderas. There were tempests and thunderous noise and frightful earthquakes and lightning, and fires and tsunamis, all of which killed tens of thousands of people. . . . With many isles nearby, the Malay Peninsula provides a good setting for the events.”35

Olsen’s description is generally accurate to the Book of Mormon text, save where he suggests that there were tsunamis. That is a reading of the text for a particular cause of cities buried under water. The problem with this point isn’t the extended meaning, however, it is the extended distance. The volcanoes referenced are, as noted, in Indonesia, islands south of the Malay Peninsula. That presents a strong counter-indication for the convergence of at least those two volcanoes and the Malay Hypothesis. There is only one volcano in Malaysia, which last erupted in the Holocene!36 Krakatau is about 870 miles on a direct line from Olsen’s Bountiful location and Tambora is 920 miles. In between both of them and the Malay Peninsula lies the large island of Sumatra. That land mass would certainly significantly dampen if not eliminate the threat of a tsunami from the eruption of those southern volcanoes.

Olsen’s idea that the 3 Nephi events are volcanic is supported by other researchers,37 but he has the volcanoes too far away and without known eruptions during the appropriate time period. While the general correspondence appears valid, the specifics are weak. This cannot count as a convergence due to distance and time from appropriate volcanic activity.

Place Names. “Palestine still has many place names which existed in Biblical times. One might reasonably expect a comparable array of place names in the Book of Mormon to exist in the land of promise. The proposed Mala setting is intriguing for this reason. Owing to dissension and incessant warfare, groups of people from the peninsula are thought to have “hived off,” and it is natural that they would not travel farther than necessary.

On or within reasonable distances from the peninsula, the twenty-two place names listed on the map (page 32) can be found on modern-day maps. Not only are the names comparable to Book of Mormon names but the locations match Book of Mormon accounts.”38

Olsen’s first sentence is a statement of fact. However, that statement of fact does not lead to any of the conclusions he wants to support by that fact. There are large numbers of locations where the original place names have not survived, Mesoamerica being only one of them (local names were replaced with Aztec designations that the Spanish adopted and modified or replaced). Olsen does not trace any of the names to the appropriate time period, which is required to even begin to make the analysis.

The similarity of place names is based upon the presumption that visual similarity must mean actual connections. That is a linguistic fallacy that has been overused in any number of situations.39 The most obviously egregious is his correlation between a Malaysian site Baharu and the city Bountiful. Quite apart from the linguistic of sound correspondence over time, the correlation depends upon the apparent similarity to the word “bountiful” in English, not whatever was used on the plates. English certainly wasn’t the original language and therefore the similarity of the place name is quite arbitrary.

Polynesian origins. “‘A basic view held in the Church is that Polynesians have ancestral connections with the Book of Mormon people. . . .’ Church leaders have indicated that among Polynesian ancestors were the people of Hagoth who set sail from Nephite lands about 54 B.C. (Alma 63:5–8).

Migrations westward into islands of the Pacific are obviously proposed in the various American-setting hypotheses.”40

While Olsen is correct that this has been a long held speculation, there is nothing in the text that claims a connection between the Book of Mormon and Polynesia. Because the text does not make the claim, providing a way to make the claim easy does not constitute a correspondence to the text.

Conclusion

With the categories I use as the framework for the methodology of convergences, I now turn to evaluating Olsen’s Malay Hypothesis against that methodology.

Geospatial Convergences: Olsen’s model matches the text with geography in gross features. It is oriented according to western conventions of north, south, east and west. It is nearly surrounded by water. It has seas on the west and east. These are the only times the model converges with the text. The convergences are so general that they cannot make a distinction between the Malay Peninsula and the South American continent.

When the model must deal with specifics of distance, it fails. In particular, the Bountiful location is improperly placed to meet the textual requirements as a guardian of the narrow neck into the land northward. Olsen’s model has the land northward occupying an enormous amount of land (since he implies that Burma and Thailand are also part of the land northward). This leaves only a very small geography into which all of the more numerous Lamanites must fit.

Olsen’s suggestion that volcanism lies behind the 3 Nephi descriptions is accepted by knowledgeable scholars.41 However, he cannot locate active volcanoes in sufficient proximity in time or space to fit with the texts descriptions. The Malay Hypothesis fails the geospatial convergence tests.

Chronological Convergences: Olsen does not explicitly deal with chronology, which disguises one of the most important conflicts with historical data. The Karen people that Olsen suggests as support for his model come too late to have been part of the Book of Mormon. Olsen’s model fails the chronological convergence tests.

Cultural Convergences: Olsen provides much more information in the category of cultural convergences. His model provides a convergence with cultural data with metallurgy, specific animals and specific grains.

Other attempts at cultural convergence are not solid enough to provide any confirmation of the hypothesis: Jewish affinities, metal plates, Fruits, silk, place names and Polynesian origins.

The only possible convergences, those dealing with metals and flora and fauna, do not pinpoint any particular civilization or time. While the few cultural convergences that are presented work they are not strong enough to overcome the failure of the model on other tests.

Productive Convergences: Olsen lists none, and the model doesn’t supply enough information to judge if there would be any.

Contrary Data Must be Accounted For: Olsen makes no attempt to account for contrary data. Unfortunately, some of the data he presents to support the model are actually counter-indications.

The result of a careful analysis of the Malay Hypothesis finds nothing more than general connections to the Book of Mormon texts, with significant counter-indications. The application of the methodology of convergences demonstrates its ability to falsify a hypothesis. This suggests that when we use the same methodology with the same rigor and find acceptable convergences that they arise from the data and not solely for a preconceived desire to find them.

 


  1. William G. Dever, Did God Have a Wife? Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005),  8. 

  2. William G. Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It: What Archaeology Can Tell Us about the Reality of Ancient Israel, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001) 70. 

  3. Brant A. Gardner, “Defenders of the Book: Surveying the New World Evidence for Book of Mormon Historicity,” paper presented at the 2006 FAIR Conference, August 2006, accessed December 2013 from http://www.fairmormon.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/2006-Brant-Gardner.pdf. I am expanding on this research in a forthcoming book for Greg Kofford Books, expected in 2015. 

  4. Ralph A. Olsen, “A Malay Site For Book Of Mormon Events,” Sunstone (March 2004): 30. Olsen has since self-published book elaborating his ideas. Ralph A. Olsen, The Malay Peninsula as the Setting for the Book of Mormon, (no place, no publisher, 1997). The purpose of this exercise is to examine the basic model rather than is greatest elaboration. The examination did not find reason to deal with the greater detail in the book. Some of the additional detail comes from comparing his model to Mesoamerica, showing Mesoamerica to be deficient in the comparison. 

  5. Ibid., 31. 

  6. Distances are calculated using Google Map. They are crow-flight distances, not allowing for terrain. This means that actual distances would be longer in nearly all cases. 

  7. Olsen, “A Malay Site For Book Of Mormon Events,” 31. 

  8. Ibid. 

  9. Ibid. 

  10. Ibid. 

  11. Ibid. 

  12. Ibid. 

  13. Ibid., 32 

  14. Ibid. 

  15. Ibid. 

  16. Ibid., 32 

  17. Ibid., 34, note 18. 

  18. Edith T. Mirante, “Burma—Frontier Minorities in Arms,” Cultural Survival Quarterly 11/4 (December 31, 1987) http://www.culturalsurvival.org/ourpublications/csq/article/burma-frontier-minorities-arms (accessed December 2012). 

  19. Olsen, “A Malay Site for Book of Mormon Events,” 32. 

  20. Brant A. Gardner, “Crucible of Distortion: The Impact of the Spanish on Native American Oral Tradition,” http://independent.academia.edu/BrantGardner/Papers/962968/Crucible_of_Distortion_The_Impact_of_the_Spanish_on_Native_American_Oral_Tradition, accessed September 2011. 

  21. Olsen, “A Malay Site for Book of Mormon Events,” 32. 

  22. “List of Writing Systems,” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_writing_systems (accessed Dec. 2012). 

  23. “People of Southeast Asia,” http://berclo.net/page00/00en-sea-people.html#Tibeto-Burman (accessed Nov. 2007, no longer online, December 2012). 

  24. Olsen, “A Malay Site For Book Of Mormon Events,” 32. 

  25. Ibid. 

  26. Ibid. 

  27. Ibid. 

  28. Ibid. 

  29. Ibid., 33. 

  30. Ibid. 

  31. “The Famous Woven Silk Fabrics of Pahang,” http://www.pahang-delights.com/famous-woven-silk.html (accessed December 2012). 

  32. Heidi Roupp, ed., Teaching World History: A Resource Book (Armonk, NY and London, England: M.E. Sharpe, 1997), 164. 

  33. “History of Silk,” http://www.asiannouveau.com/arts_crafts_details.php?arts_id=61. (accessed Nov. 2007). 

  34. Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Kofford Books, 2007), 6: 281. 

  35. Olsen, “A Malay Site For Book Of Mormon Events,” 33. 

  36. “List of Volcanoes in Malaysia,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_volcanoes_in_Malaysia (accessed Dec. 2012). 

  37. See Russell H. Ball, “An Hypothesis concerning the Three Days of Darkness among the Nephites,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2/1 (Spring 1993): 107–23; and Bart J. Kowallis, “In the Thirty and Fourth Year: A Geologist’s View of the Great Destruction in 3 Nephi,” BYU Studies 37/3 (1997–98): 137–90. 

  38. Olsen, “A Malay Site for Book Of Mormon Events,” 33. 

  39. Another author has attempted to use such sight-correspondence in place names to create a Book of Mormon geography. See Robert A. Pate, Mapping the Book of Mormon: A Comprehensive Geography of Nephite America (Salt Lake City: Cornerstone, 2002). Reviews are: Allen J. Christenson, “Linguistic Puzzles Still Unresolved.” FARMS Review, 16, no. 2. (2004): 107–12 and Brant A. Gardner, “Confusion of Tongues and a Map.” Review of Robert A. Pate, Mapping the Book of Mormon: A Comprehensive Geography of Nephite America FARMS Review 15, no. 2 (2003): 15–24. 

  40. Olsen, “A Malay Site for Book Of Mormon Events,” 33. 

  41. Bart J. Kowallis, “In the Thirty and Fourth Year: A Geologist’s View of the Great Destruction in 3 Nephi,” BYU Studies 37, no. 3 (1997–98): 145, and Isaac B. Ball, “Additional Internal Evidence for the Authenticity of the Book of Mormon,” Improvement Era, May 1931, on GospeLink 2001, CD-ROM (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2000). 

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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 “Testing a Methodology: A Malaysian Setting for the Book of Mormon

  1. Garth Norman
    Congratulations to Brant Gardner for having the patience to take on this completely untenable Malay hypothesis evaluation in such a scholarly manner.

    Ralph A. Olsen is way off the mark in trying to justify his study on the presumption that Church leaders, including Joseph Smith, have never “made statements which rule it out.” My–why would there ever be a need for any such statement? The American setting of the Book of Mormon history has been a “fact” from the start. Olsen’s Malay study cannot be taken seriously, and probably does not deserve much attention. The exercise does, however, provide some evaluation models that can be applied to some serious Mesoamerican map models. As Brant points out, the Bountiful fortification location distance from the narrow neck of land for instance is 400 miles from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec to the northern coast of Belize in at least four of the more serious Mesoamerican map studies (Hauck 1988, Allen 1989, Lund 2012, Magelby 2013). [Brant might want to address that issue sometime.]

    Many proposed geography maps have demonstrated that selective data can argue a Book of Mormon setting just about anywhere. Many have been a reaction to inconsistencies in John Sorenson’s limited geography map model (An Ancient America Setting, 1985) that was unable to reconcile the historic text as he read it with requirements of Mormon’s map in Alma 22. When north became east, and the land southward was not surrounded by water, and the detailed description of the narrow strip of wilderness border between Nephi and Zarahemla as described in Alma 22:27 could not be found, the search for a better fit scattered to the four winds. Olsen could have pulled the Malay peninsula out of a hat to demonstrate a better fit than Sorenson’s model. For kicks, I took an hour and found an even better fit in Japan. (Don’t waste time on it.)
    Paul Hedengren (The Land of Lehi, 1995) examined a possible Book of Mormon setting in New York, then confessed he didn’t necessarily believe it, but was motivated to demonstrate irregularities that needed to be resolved in Sorenson’s map. Many other map makers abandoned Mesoamerica to search elsewhere for the same reason. Ralph Olsen was on the same track and did a fair job. Heaven forbid that Saints in Malasia might take it seriously. But then it couldn’t be any more damaging than the many Book of Mormon maps scattered across North and South America. Perhaps “the more the merrier” to maintain confusion until Mormon’s real map in Alma 22 can get established in Mesoamerica–the only place in the world where it can really fit with archaeological backing.

  2. The reasoning for a Malay setting for the Book of Mormon seems to be an utter waste of intellectual reasoning. Even a rebuttal seems to be wasted time and effort alone- why even spend time “testing” the methodology on a location that doesn’t even meet basic LDS doctrine.

    The basic criteria beyond physical and scientific hypothesis would need to meet the criteria of the prophecies that Book of Mormon prophets revealed in a few verses such as I Nephi 13, 3 Nephi 20:22, and Ether 13:4. 1 Nephi 13 describes the future inhabitants of the promised land and the future discovery by gentile explorers. 3 Nephi 20:22 and Ether 13:4 describes the land in which they inhabited being the land in which the New Jerusalem would be established. Joseph Smith, by revelation, was told that the New Jerusalem would be in Jackson County, Missouri (D&C 84:1-4, Articles of Faith 10). Let alone try to describe how Moroni transported the records from the Malaysian peninsula to upper New York State.

    Countless geographical models have centered on various locations in South, Central and North America. An model outside of this continent would not support the basic scriptural context in the few references quoted above and does not agree theologically with basic LDS doctrine.

    • Steven:

      There are three reasons for using it as a test case. The first is that there is always a possibility that a methodology would be too lenient and verify anything. Were that the case, then it wouldn’t be useful in any application. The second is that a methodology should be applied without preconception. If the method invalidated an option only because I didn’t believe it was a valid option, then I am not testing the methodology, I am validating my prejudices.

      All geographies presented for the Book of Mormon must ultimately stand on evidence. All do present something that appears to be evidence in their favor. With so many possibilities, how might one choose? I suggest that having a methodology that provides (within the limits of reasonable objectivity) a way to measure them gives us the best chance to not only select a preferred geography, but to examine it in detail.

      Finally, one of the criticisms of the Book of Mormon is that its geography is so vague that it could be made to occur almost anywhere in the world. This examination also tests that hypothesis.

      • I would applaud your patience and effort in making the case. I can value the reasoning behind testing the model even if the test subject conclusions are implausible.

        This isn’t the first time I’ve come across a scholar making the case for a Book of Mormon setting outside the Americas. Years ago I met a anthropologist who taught at BYU who proposed an asian setting for the Book of Mormon (it might be this same person). He seemed more interested in finding a reason for the existence of cureloms and cumons and assumed that these creatures were tigers, elephants or some sort of exotic animal and thereby suggested we were looking in the wrong part of the world. I didn’t even know how to respond.

        If you divorce yourself from the spiritual message of the Book of Mormon and solely concentrate on geographical details and physical descriptions in minutiae then gaping holes in whatever theory you a espouse becomes grossly apparent. I think that is what struck me most here. Why would the author of this “Malaysian model” could spend so much time and effort trying to prove a theory that misses the most basic LDS doctrines: the tenth article of faith and its connection to the Book of Mormon?

        SaG

  3. An excellent demonstration of scholarly methodology in action, Brant, and without goring too many oxymorons in the process. Too bad that not everyone understands the value of such an exercise, i.e., applied systematically to many a divergent point of view, it could amicably resolve some of the more rancorous disputes.

    One could very well create an even better candidate for testing your methodology through focus on ancient Greece, with the Peloponnesus as the Land Southward, Boeotia as the Land Northward, and the Isthmus of Corinth as the Narrow Neck of Land. I can think of several other such proposals worldwide, none of them to be taken any more seriously than Ralph Olsen probably intended his Malaysian correlation to be taken.

    K. C. Kern (currently at MIT) has a nice representation of most of the well-known Book of Mormon geography correlations (with maps) on his very useful website, bookofmormononline.net, though it appears to be down for technical repair today.

  4. I heard Olsens theory years ago at BYU and laughed it off, sounded silly to me. But now I’m in Thailand on holiday and had an interesting experience. I was on a bus and was talking to a local in the seat next to me. He was telling me about his tribe in Burma, a large tribe of well over 1 million people living in southern Burma for at least 2000 years. I couldn’t understand his pronunciation of the tribe’s name so I had him type it on my phone: RAMAN, but he was pronouncing it with an ‘L’, so it was more like LAMAN. I was surprised and for some reason remembered Olsen’s theory and realized I was driving through the very area he described.

    I got online and Googled ‘Raman Tribe Burma’ found this article that was published just this month mentioning the Raman as a Burmese-Thai people.

    http://www.tatnews.org/the-magic-and-traditions-of-thai-new-year-songkran/

    Curious as to what you think about these ‘Ramanites’. If the Karen don’t fit chronologically, could the Raman?

    • Lee, the best way to know if it is even a possibility is the same way that I looked at the Karen. We would need to know when they arrived. Given my immediate resources, the Internet had to serve and for once, it doesn’t seem to know (or it does and I haven’t asked properly). In spite of that, I would still be very hesitant because the only current correlation is in the name. While names can certainly be preserved, similarities of sound can mean that two different names and have very different original sources. One indication I did see was a claim that Raman has Spanish origins. I suspect that it was for a very different Raman. Which further makes the point that sound similarities alone are unreliable correlations without a lot of other corroborating connections. Since there is really little that seriously recommends that geography, I doubt it.

      I do envy your trip, though. I haven’t been to that part of the world and would love to go.

  5. We realized at the time, Orissa for this hides a treasure of priceless history. Old Kedah which already existed since the fifth century BC, only now dismantled. Malay World is a nation that once had a great civilization that was level with the other civilized nations of comparable Mohenjodaro civilization, the Aztecs, Mayans and Babylonians.

  6. Ralph thought the Karens were part of the people that moved away (hived off) –they were the DESCENDANTS of the Nephites and proved that there were a “white” group of people in that area that believed the same as the Jews that left (as the Nephites & Lamanites, etc) the middle east. They were mentioned because they had beliefs and writings and customs (that matched the Nephites) and were not of oriental descent…. but were living in the area. He absolutely did NOT say that they were living at the time of Book of Mormon events.

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