Abstract: Dr. Michael Coe is a prominent Mesoamerican scholar and author of a synthesis and review of ancient Mesoamerican Indian cultures entitled The Maya.1 Dr. Coe is also a prominent skeptic of the Book of Mormon. However, there is in his book strong evidence that favors the Book of Mormon, which Dr. Coe has not taken into account. This article analyzes that evidence, using Bayesian statistics. We apply a strongly skeptical prior assumption that the Book of Mormon “has little to do with early Indian cultures,” as Dr. Coe claims. We then compare 131 separate positive correspondences or points of evidence between the Book of Mormon and Dr. Coe’s book. We also analyze negative points of evidence between the Book of Mormon and The Maya, between the Book of Mormon and a 1973 Dialogue article written by Dr. Coe, and between the Book of Mormon and a series of Mormon Stories podcast interviews given by Dr. Coe to Dr. John Dehlin. After using the Bayesian methodology to analyze both positive and negative correspondences, we reach an enormously stronger and very positive conclusion. There is overwhelming evidence that the Book of Mormon has physical, political, geographical, religious, military, technological, and cultural roots in ancient Mesoamerica. As a control, we have also analyzed two other books dealing with ancient American Indians: View of the Hebrews and Manuscript Found. We compare both books with The Maya using the same statistical methodology and demonstrate that this methodology [Page 78]leads to rational conclusions about whether or not such books describe peoples and places similar to those described in The Maya.
The ancient American setting of the Book of Mormon is a subject of debate and discussion. Among the prominent skeptics of the Book of Mormon is Dr. Michael D. Coe, the Charles J. McCurdy Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Yale University.2 In an article published in Dialogue in 1973, Dr. Coe summarized his opinion regarding an ancient American setting for the Book of Mormon in these words: “The picture of this hemisphere between 2,000 bc and ad 421 presented in the book has little to do with early Indian cultures as we know them, in spite of much wishful thinking.”3
Beyond this article, Dr. Coe does not seem to have written anything else about the Book of Mormon. An extensive review of his published papers and books using Google Scholar found only this 1973 Dialogue article that deals with the Book of Mormon. However, in a series of three podcast interviews with John Dehlin in 2011, Dr. Coe strongly reinforced his essentially negative view of the historicity of the Book of Mormon.4 Dr. Coe gave three more podcast interviews to Dr. Dehlin in 2018 in which he repeated many of his earlier criticisms of the Book of Mormon and provided some new ones.5 According to Dr. Coe, “99% of everything that the Book of Mormon has as details is false.”6
Dr. Coe is obviously not a partisan advocate for the Book of Mormon. In fact, he cannot be. He doesn’t know enough about the Book of Mormon to offer a valid scholarly opinion one way or the other. He read the Book of Mormon only once, more than 45 years ago.7
Dr. Coe’s synthesis and review of Mesoamerican archaeology thus provides an excellent test of the Book of Mormon. Dr. Coe’s book The Maya makes a number of factual statements about the physical, political, [Page 79]geographical, religious, and cultural aspects of ancient Mesoamerica. Given his very negative view of the Book of Mormon, it is impossible to claim that the facts Dr. Coe selected might intentionally favor the Book of Mormon.
There are strong reasons for suspecting ancient Mesoamerica as the physical location of Book of Mormon events in the New World.8 If so, Dr. Coe’s book should correspond with at least some of the statements asserted as fact in the Book of Mormon, taking into account that the objective of the Book of Mormon is to testify of Jesus Christ. The Book of Mormon is not primarily about the history, wars, geography, culture, etc., of Book of Mormon peoples, although it nonetheless manages to tell us a great deal about these topics. Likewise, we do not expect a book about Italian cuisine to tell us much about Italian architecture or the politics of the Roman Empire, although it may incidentally contain a good bit of such information in context.
If the Book of Mormon is not what it claims to be, then it is a work of fiction. It is simply false, as Dr. Coe obviously believes it to be. There are no other rational options. If the Book of Mormon is a piece of fiction, then some person or persons in the early 1800s made it up. If the Book of Mormon is fiction, then its author was guessing every time he wrote as fact something about the ancient inhabitants of the Americas. This means we can compare reasonably these “guesses” in the Book of Mormon with the facts presented by Dr. Coe in The Maya.
Thus we take the statements of fact in The Maya as essentially true, and we compare the “guesses” in the Book of Mormon with these statements of fact. To repeat, for purposes of our Bayesian statistical analysis, we accept the universe of facts summarized by Dr. Coe in The Maya as essentially true. We then rate the value of each “guess” in the Book of Mormon (or statement of fact) as evidence using three criteria:
- Is it specific? Is it clear that the guess in the Book of Mormon is directly comparable to a statement of fact in The Maya?
- Is it specific and detailed? Are there important details in each guess in the Book of Mormon that correspond to at least some of the details given in The Maya?
- Is it specific, detailed, and unusual? Is the statement of fact in the Book of Mormon (or “guess”) unusual in the sense that someone writing the book in the early 1800s would probably not have the background or knowledge to include [Page 80]this statement of fact in his work of “fiction,” that is, the Book of Mormon?
We assign a number to the quality or strength of the evidence for (or against) the hypothesis as follows: The numbers 2, 10, and 50 are the strength of the evidence for the hypothesis, that is, the hypothesis that the Book of Mormon is a work of fiction. The numbers 0.5, 0.1, and 0.02 are the corresponding strength of the evidence against the hypothesis; that is, these are points of evidence that support the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Illustrative examples are given below following a brief introduction to statistics in general and Bayesian statistics in particular.
Insights from Basic Statistics
Statistics describes the probability (likelihood) of events occurring within a given population. A population is a set of related items or events of interest for some test we wish to perform. In this case, the population we wish to test is the factual statements in the Book of Mormon and corresponding factual statements in the book The Maya. We wish to determine whether or not the Book of Mormon agrees or disagrees in a statistically significant way with what is known about ancient Mesoamerica as summarized in Dr. Coe’s book The Maya.
One of the simplest illustrations of probability is given by rolling dice. The statistical population of interest here is the possible values (1 through 6) on the six sides of the die. Since a die has six possible values, then there is a one in six chance (16.66666% of the time) that the value 1 will turn up when the die is cast, and the same probability exists for each of the other values 2 through 6. If two dice are thrown, then each die is independent of the other, and there is still only a one in six chance that any given value will turn up for that die when it is rolled.
Here is a key point for statistical analysis: probabilities of individual, statistically independent events must be multiplied together to calculate the probability of all the individual events occurring simultaneously.
The probability of each individual die coming up with a 1 is 16.666 … %, but the probability of rolling “snake eyes,” or two dice coming up with a 1 on the same roll (simultaneously), is not 16.6%. It is 16.6% (0.166) times 16.6% (0.166), which is about 0.02756, or approximately 2.76% of the time. So, roughly three times out of a hundred times, snake eyes will result when two dice are rolled simultaneously. Further, if we roll three dice at the same time, what will be the probability of rolling three 1s? By the formula, it is 0.166 x 0.166 x 0.166, which is about 0.00457, or about five times in a thousand rolls of the dice.
[Page 81]How about three different events, each with different individual probabilities, all occurring together? Let’s say the first event has a probability of 1 in a hundred (0.01), the probability of the second event is one in a thousand (0.001), and the third is one in ten (0.1). What is the probability of all three of these events occurring simultaneously if they are part of the same population? It is 0.01 x 0.001 x 0.1 = 0.000001 or 1 in a million. The probability that all these events will not occur together is 1.0 minus the probability that they all will occur together. In this example, it is 1.0 minus 0.000001 or 0.999999, or 99.9999%, or 999,999 to 1.
In the real world, we usually don’t experience the mathematically well-defined probabilities that rolling dice offers. Instead, we usually deal with “odds” or “likelihoods,” many of which are somewhat subjective. By subjective, we mean the person performing the test must decide for him or herself what constitutes strong evidence, what evidence is positive, and what evidence is supportive but not particularly strong. These are the three relative strengths of evidence summarized above: (1) specific (Bayesian “supportive”), (2) specific and detailed, (Bayesian “positive”) and (3) specific, detailed, and unusual (Bayesian “strong”).
Bayesian Statistics: A Rational, Scientific Approach to Weighing Evidence
Bayesian statistics provides one approach to the situation in which mathematically well-defined probabilities do not exist.9 In fact, Dr. Coe’s book refers to the use of Bayesian statistics to weight and thereby includes or excludes specific pieces of archaeological data.10 In the Bayesian approach, the strength of each piece of evidence is the likelihood ratio, which is the probability of the evidence assuming that the hypothesis is true divided by the probability of the evidence assuming that the hypothesis is false.
The Bayesian approach is a powerful and general tool for evaluating hypotheses and then rationally updating one’s prior beliefs in the face of the new evidence. The Bayesian approach has been applied to diverse topics [Page 82]ranging from astronomy11 to zoology.12 Of particular interest here, Bayesian methods have been applied to analyze historical document collections,13 to historical and biblical archaeology,14 and to the detection of fraud and deception.15
We can assign a likelihood ratio or “Bayes factor” to each statement of fact given in the Book of Mormon and compare these statements with corresponding statements of fact in The Maya. This likelihood ratio is the strength of each individual statement of fact as a piece of evidence. It is calculated as the probability that the statement is true if whoever wrote the Book of Mormon was guessing divided by the probability that the statement is true if instead the Book of Mormon is fact-based and essentially historical. The likelihood ratio expressed in this way therefore represents the strength of the evidence in support of the hypothesis, that is, against the factual nature of the Book of Mormon.
Note: only statements of fact which are dealt with by both books can be rationally admitted to the analysis; on statements of fact where one or the other book is silent, we cannot factually assume either agreement or disagreement. There is no rational scientific basis for doing so.
At first glance this method may appear similar to the discredited method of parallels; however, the Bayesian approach overcomes the weaknesses of the method of parallels. First, the Bayes factor specifically accounts for the possibility that the evidence may have occurred under the other hypotheses. This is accomplished in the denominator of the Bayes factor. Second, by using a numerical Bayes factor, the person performing the analysis explicitly estimates the strength of [Page 83]any given piece of evidence. Ultimately, the Bayes method resembles similarity- based techniques for detecting deception in online reviews.16
Once we have chosen the likelihood of guessing correctly about each individual fact, we then multiply the likelihoods of guessing right about each of these specific facts. The number obtained by multiplying all the individual likelihoods together is the strength of the total body of evidence that whoever wrote the Book of Mormon was guessing about these fact claims.
Thus the overall Bayes factor or likelihood ratio is the weighted strength of the evidence, and it tells us how much we should change our prior beliefs based on the new evidence. We start with some prior odds, representing our beliefs about the hypothesis before seeing the evidence. In order to be rational and intellectually honest, once we have seen the new evidence, we must update our beliefs accordingly to obtain our posterior odds, or the odds that the hypothesis is true after accounting for the strength of the new evidence, both pro and con, and our previous beliefs expressed as the prior odds.
The Bayesian approach to data analysis is frequently used in medical tests.17 For example, if a disease is somewhat rare, then a randomly selected individual might have “skeptical prior odds” of 1:1000 against them having the disease. If the test has a likelihood ratio of 100 (a good medical test for screening), then our posterior odds following a positive test for the disease would be 1:1000 x 100 = 1:10 against the person actually having the disease. In other words, the individual piece of evidence given by the test changed our minds substantially (from 1:1000 against to 1:10 against); but because we were initially quite skeptical (1:1000) that the person had that particular rare disease, we still think it is more likely they do not have the disease (1:10). A rational doctor would then call for a more definitive test to give additional information, and we would continue to update our opinion as we received new information.
[Page 84]Bayesian Analysis of the Facts Given in the Book of Mormon and The Maya
For the subject of this article — the factual nature of the Book of Mormon — we choose to start with extremely large “skeptical prior odds” against the book. We allow only a 1:1,000,000,000 (one in a billion) prior odds that the Book of Mormon is a historical document. Thus we start with odds of 1,000,000,000:1 (a billion to one) that the statements of fact in the Book of Mormon are just guesses made by whoever wrote the book.
This means that even before we look at the new evidence, we are very confident that the Book of Mormon is a work of fiction. We would require cumulative supporting evidence with a likelihood of 0.000000001 (one in a billion) in order to change our beliefs to the point where we would consider “even odds” (1:1) that the book is fact-based. We would require evidence even stronger than that to consider it likely or be confident that the Book of Mormon is not a work of fiction, that is, that it is an accurate historical record, based substantially on facts.
It is a common error (deliberate or otherwise) to consider only a few pieces of evidence when examining the truth or falsity of a given hypothesis. In the extreme, this practice is called cherry-picking. In cherry-picking, evidence against one’s existing hypothesis is deliberately excluded from consideration. This practice is, of course, dishonest. It is another common error to consider some pieces of relevant evidence as having infinite weight or having zero weight compared to other pieces of evidence. This practice is irrational and unscientific.
These practices of cherry-picking or overweighting/underweighting evidence cannot be allowed in scientific enquiry. They are neither rational nor honest. We must consider all relevant evidence if we hope to make honest, rational decisions. Also, no piece of evidence has infinite weight. There are always limitations on the strength of any individual piece of evidence. Assuming a piece of evidence has infinite weight is equivalent to saying the question is already decided and is therefore beyond the scope of further rational, honest enquiry.
The value of Bayesian statistics is that it provides a disciplined, formal way of bringing available evidence to bear on a given question. The evidence is weighted according to its probative value and the cumulative strength of the evidence for and against the hypothesis being tested. The hypothesis (the question of interest to us) in this analysis is the factual nature of the Book of Mormon. The question of interest is: “Is the Book of Mormon a work of fiction, or is it a factual, historical document according to the cumulative, relevant evidence summarized in The Maya?”
[Page 85]To perform our analysis, we assign one of three likelihood ratios to testable facts or “correspondences” between the Book of Mormon and Dr. Coe’s book. The facts, taken from Dr. Coe’s book, are compared with statements of fact in the Book of Mormon. Recall that the hypothesis we are testing is that the Book of Mormon is false, and we assume a billion to one prior odds in favor of the hypothesis that the Book of Mormon is indeed false.
Pieces of evidence in favor of the hypothesis, that is, that the Book of Mormon is false, are weighted by their “likelihood ratio,” which is a positive value greater than one (either 50, 10 or 2). This likelihood ratio is multiplied by the skeptical prior of a billion to one to increase the weight of the evidence against the Book of Mormon.
Points of evidence in favor of the essentially factual nature of the Book of Mormon (called the converse hypothesis) are weighted by their likelihood ratio, a positive decimal fraction (0.5, 0.1 or 0.02). These fractions are multiplied by the skeptical prior of a billion to one to decrease the weight of the evidence against the Book of Mormon, in other words, to provide evidence for the factual nature of the Book of Mormon.
To illustrate, here are three examples, one for each likelihood ratio, in favor of the converse hypothesis; that is, in favor of the essentially factual nature of the Book of Mormon.
Specific correspondences: 0.5 (Bayesian supportive evidence for the converse hypothesis). The author of the Book of Mormon might have learned this fact by study or experience, but it is not obvious: for example, the fact that people eat food. We aren’t impressed by the fact that someone ate dinner, but if we know they ate a specific kind of food on a specific day as a religious observance, that has value as evidence. One example is the practice of repopulating old or abandoned cities described in Dr. Coe’s book and also in the Book of Mormon. Such evidence acts against the hypothesis that the Book of Mormon is fiction, but it is not particularly strong evidence. Instead, such evidence is considered to be merely “supportive.”18
Specific and detailed correspondences: 0.10 (Bayesian positive evidence for the converse hypothesis). Facts assigned a likelihood of 0.1 are details in the Book of Mormon that agree with details in The Maya. The author of the Book of Mormon might have been able to reason out such details, given time, study, or expert knowledge, but we think it would have been very difficult for the writer to have guessed correctly. Thus these correspondences are quite specific and also provide some important details.
[Page 86]One example is the existence of highlands and lowlands within the relevant geography. Dr. Coe’s book repeatedly emphasizes the highland and lowland populations of Native American peoples in Mesoamerica. The Book of Mormon also repeatedly uses the words “go up” and “go down” when traveling. From its very beginning, the Book of Mormon likewise employs going “up” and going “down” when traveling to and from Jerusalem. Jerusalem sits at a higher elevation than most of the surrounding geography. Thus we assume that the phrases “go up” or “go down” mean to ascend or descend in elevation while traveling. Such evidence is considered to be Bayesian “positive.”19
Specific, detailed and unusual correspondences: 0.02 (Bayesian strong evidence for the converse hypothesis). We believe that facts with a 2% likelihood (one in 50 chance) are essentially impossible to guess correctly, given any amount of knowledge or study reasonably available to the writer of the Book of Mormon. But in order to rigorously test the Book of Mormon’s claims as a fact-based record, we assume that the writer had a one in 50 chance of guessing these correspondences correctly. A one in 50 or 2% chance (0.02) is the maximum weight we will allow for evidence supporting the Book of Mormon’s claims to being fact-based, even if we think the odds are more like one in a million or less. Such evidence is considered to be Bayesian “strong” evidence.20
One example of Bayesian “strong” evidence is the remarkably detailed description of a volcanic eruption and associated earthquakes given in 3 Nephi 8. Mesoamerica is earthquake and volcano country, but upstate New York, where the Book of Mormon came forth, is not. If the Book of Mormon is fictional, how could the writer of the Book of Mormon correctly describe a volcanic eruption and earthquakes from the viewpoint of the person experiencing the event? We rate the evidentiary value of that correspondence as 0.02. We assume a piece of evidence is “unusual” if it gives facts that very probably were not known to the writer, someone living in upstate New York in the early 19th century, when virtually nothing of ancient Mesoamerica was known.
We can also conceive of correspondences that are specific and unusual but not given in sufficient detail to assign them a weight of 0.02. One such specific and unusual correspondence is the existence of an arcane sacred or prestige language as mentioned in Coe’s book and in the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 3:19 and Mosiah 1:2). However, insufficient details about this language are given to regard the correspondence as [Page 87]specific, detailed, and unusual, for a weight of 0.02. Instead it is assigned a weight of 0.10, for specific and unusual only.
The uncertainty one feels toward any particular correspondence can also be reflected in the assigned likelihood ratio. For example, if a correspondence seems specific and somewhat detailed but is believed to lack enough detail to warrant the higher evidentiary weight, it can be assigned a likelihood ratio of 0.5 rather than 0.1.
We assume the writer’s religious knowledge came from the Bible; his cultural/social knowledge came from his (and his family’s) own cultural/ social experiences as relatively poor, less-educated working farmers typical of their time; his political knowledge from American and British political institutions existing in the early 19th century, and his knowledge of Native Americans from his own knowledge of Native Americans of his time and place (northeastern North America). Facts that could not have been obtained from those sources in the early 19th century could only have been guesses by the writer of the “fictional” Book of Mormon.
The author’s general knowledge of the ancient Mayan Indians and their area was exactly zero — which was the case for everyone in the world in 1830. As Dr. Coe says in one of his podcast interviews, “until [Stephens and Catherwood] went to the Maya area no one knew anything about it.”21 Stephens and Catherwood visited the Mayan area twice between 1839 and 1842. Their book “Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan” was published in 1841, eleven years after the Book of Mormon was published.22
Therefore, it was impossible for the work of Stephens and Catherwood to have directly influenced the Book of Mormon. In contrast, Reverend Ethan Smith’s book, View of the Hebrews, has some very limited information on Indians in Mexico, primarily the Aztecs and Toltecs, and might have influenced the writer of the Book of Mormon. We account for this fact in our analysis as described in Appendix A.
If the Book of Mormon is of early 19th century origin, then, according to Dr. Coe, the author of that “fictional” work could not have known anything about the Mayan area. Thus, if we are rational and honest, we will not attribute to any hypothetical 19th century author of the Book of Mormon the same degree of knowledge and sophistication [Page 88]about cultural, social, physical, geographical, and other characteristics of the ancient Maya that only a few comparatively well-educated people have now in the early 21st century.
The purpose of this article is to rigorously test facts given in the Book of Mormon versus facts given by Dr. Coe in The Maya and in other venues. It is fortunate that our analysis will be naturally conservative, underweighting the evidence in favor of the Book of Mormon. Even if we are trying hard to be rational and honest, we have a natural tendency to overestimate Joseph Smith’s likely knowledge of ancient Mesoamerica (or that possessed by anyone else of his time). Present-day educated individuals are likely to know much more about ancient Mesoamerica than did the (supposed) 19th century author(s) of the Book of Mormon.
To illustrate, we examine the three separate statements of fact in the Book of Mormon given above. The Book of Mormon claims to be a real historical record. Either these statements are just guesses, or indeed the Book of Mormon is an accurate historical book. There are no other choices open to us. Each of these statements supports the Book of Mormon’s claim to be a fact-based record. What is the overall likelihood of getting all three of these guesses right: (1) the practice of repopulating old or abandoned cities (0.5), (2) an accurate description of Mesoamerican geography as composed primarily of highlands and lowlands (0.1), and (3) an accurate, quite detailed description of a simultaneous volcano/earthquake (0.02)? The product of these three likelihoods is 0.5 x 0.1 x 0.02 = 0.001 or likelihood of one in a thousand.
But that is not nearly enough. Our “skeptical prior” is a billion to one that the Book of Mormon is a work of fiction. And a billion to one (1,000,000,000) times one in a thousand (0.001) is still a million to one. So even after considering this evidence we are still quite confident that the Book of Mormon is a work of fiction, but we are less confident than we were prior to examining the evidence, due to our rational, intellectually honest assessment of these new pieces of evidence.
However, many more facts are mentioned in Dr. Coe’s book The Maya that we can test against corresponding statements of fact in the Book of Mormon. Specifically, we have found 131 such correspondences. We divide these correspondences into six separate categories:
- Political (33 correspondences)
- Cultural/social (31 correspondences)
- Religion (19 correspondences)
- Military/warfare (12 correspondences)
- Physical/geographical (13 correspondences)
- [Page 89]Technological/miscellaneous (23 correspondences)
We have assigned one of three different likelihood ratios to each correspondence. The specific Bayes factor or likelihood assigned to each correspondence is based on our assessment as to whether the correspondence is (1) specific or “supportive” according to Bayesian nomenclature (0.5); (2) specific and detailed, or Bayesian “positive” (0.10); or (3) specific, detailed, and unusual, or Bayesian “strong” (0.02), as described above and given in the literature.23
Appendix A summarizes the reasons why we have assigned a specific likelihood ratio (0.5, 0.1 and 0.02) to each of the 131 supportive correspondences between the Book of Mormon and The Maya. For each correspondence, we first state Dr. Coe’s standard of fact as given in The Maya. Since the Book of Mormon is available to everyone to study and evaluate without cost,24 but Dr. Coe’s book is not, we provide direct quotations or summaries for each of the correspondences from Dr. Coe’s book. Following the quotations from Dr. Coe’s book, the specific book(s), chapter(s) and verse(s) from the Book of Mormon where the correspondence appears are cited. Finally, we provide a few sentences up to a few paragraphs that justify our choice of the assigned likelihood ratio.
Since the truth (or falsity) of the Book of Mormon is a supremely important question, we trust readers will exert themselves and make their own comparisons between Coe’s book and the Book of Mormon. We hope they will honestly weigh each piece of evidence for themselves and decide what likelihood ratio, if any, to assign to that piece of evidence.
This is essentially what is demanded of jurors in trial situations. Jurors are to weigh honestly and carefully all the evidence, without prejudging the outcome, and then render a true verdict according to the evidence. But jurors (and honest readers of the Book of Mormon) must not prejudge the case before hearing all the evidence, must not take their duties lightly, and must not arbitrarily reject evidence for or against either side.
Results of the Analysis
We have compiled six different categories of evidence in Appendix A, as noted above. For example, the sixth category includes technological and miscellaneous correspondences. We found 23 specific technological and miscellaneous correspondences between the Book of Mormon and The Maya. Of these, three have a likelihood of 0.5, eight have a likelihood [Page 90]of 0.1, and twelve have a likelihood of 0.02 (3 + 8 + 12 = 23). Thus the overall likelihood of these 23 positive correspondences, taken as a whole for statistical analysis, is (0.5)3 x (0.1)8 x (0.02)12 = 5.12 x 10–30.
The overall likelihood of the positive correspondences in each of the six categories has been computed in this way. They are, respectively: 4.99 x 10–33, 3.21 x 10–35, 1.28 x 10–24, 2.0 x 10–13, 1.28 x 10–18 and 5.12 x 10–30. We then compute the overall likelihood of all six categories taken together by multiplying these six numerical values together. The result is 2.69 x 10–151.
We can confirm this calculation by noting that of these 131 correspondences, 23 have a likelihood of 0.5; 57 have a likelihood of 0.1; and 51 have a likelihood of 0.02. Thus the overall likelihood can also be computed and confirmed as 0.523 x 0.157 x 0.0251 = 2.69 x 10–151 This product represents the likelihood (probability) that the positive correspondences between the Book of Mormon and The Maya under the six categories of comparison are the result of a very, very long series of consistent lucky guesses by the author of the Book of Mormon.
Recall that according to Bayesian methods, our skeptical prior odds were a billion to one against the Book of Mormon being a historical document. Thus we started our analysis by assuming that the statements of fact in the Book of Mormon were just guesses. We must multiply one billion times 2.69 x 10–151 to determine the degree to which the evidence provided by the 131 positive correspondences changes our opinion. The result of this calculation is 2.69 x 10–142.
We have not yet considered the negative correspondences and their impact on our opinions, but will weigh these negative correspondences after briefly discussing sensitivity analysis.
In statistics it is good scientific practice to do a “sensitivity analysis” by which the effects of changed assumptions or changed data on the results are determined. For example, if we assign the weakest likelihood ratio (Bayesian “supportive” or 0.5) to each of the 131 correspondences, the overall strength of the evidence is then 0.5131 equals 3.7 x 10–40. We then multiply this number by one billion (109) and find that the likelihood that the Book of Mormon is a work of fiction is less than one in a thousand billion, billion, billion, billion.
As another example of sensitivity analysis, we can choose to admit only half the 131 correspondences to evidence at the same evidentiary weights as given in Appendix A. If we do so, the cumulative likelihood [Page 91]of these correspondences is still about 1.0 x 10–65. When multiplied by the skeptical prior of one billion, we find the likelihood that the Book of Mormon is the result of guesswork is still less than about one in a hundred billion, billion, billion, billion, billion, billion.
A third sensitivity analysis is as follows. Of the 131 total correspondences, 23 have a likelihood of 0.5; 57 have a likelihood of 0.1; and 51 have a likelihood of 0.02. Thus the ratio of the correspondences with respect to their relative strengths is roughly 1:2:2 (specific: specific and detailed: specific and detailed and unusual).
Thus the question is: “At this ratio of 1:2:2, how many total correspondences are required to shift our skeptical prior of a billion to one against the Book of Mormon to a billion to one in favor of the Book of Mormon?” The answer is about 17 total correspondences — only 17 out of 131 correspondences (13% or about one out of every eight) must be accepted at their assigned evidentiary strengths to shift the strong skeptical prior to a strong positive posterior.
Under all three sensitivity analyses, our strong skeptical prior hypothesis of a billion to one against the fact-based nature of the Book of Mormon still gives way to a much, much stronger posterior hypothesis in favor of the Book of Mormon. We conclude that the Book of Mormon is historical, and is based in fact, with odds of many, many billions to one that this statement is true.
Data in Support of the Hypothesis that the Book of Mormon is a Work of Fiction
We started with a very strong skeptical prior hypothesis of a billion to one against the historicity of the Book of Mormon. However, to this point, we have considered only data in support of the historicity of the Book of Mormon, that is, in support of the converse hypothesis. What about data in support of the opposite hypothesis, that is, that the Book of Mormon is fictional? As before, the evidence considered here will be statements in The Maya which disagree with corresponding statements in The Book of Mormon.
Again, it is only rational and honest to compare statements of fact which are dealt with by both books. On statements of fact where one or the other books is silent, we cannot assume either agreement or disagreement. There is no rational scientific basis for doing so because there is no evidence to support our choices.
Surprisingly few pieces of evidence cited in The Maya support the hypothesis that the Book of Mormon is a work of fiction. We were able [Page 92]to find six such points of disagreement between The Maya and the Book of Mormon, namely the existence of (1) horses, (2) elephants, (3) iron, (4) steel, (5) copper and (6) refined gold and silver. (We combine refined gold and refined silver instead of considering them individually because gold and silver are usually found together, and thus to refine gold is also to refine silver.)
These points of disagreement are summarized in Appendix B. As with Appendix A, we give citations and page numbers from The Maya to support these negative correspondences and citations from the Book of Mormon where the points of disagreement are found. Finally, we provide a brief analysis of each correspondence. We evaluate these six points as having a cumulative strength as evidence of 1.25 x 108.
However, given our own inherent bias on the topic, we choose to overcompensate and deliberately err on the side of skepticism by weighting all six points as strong evidence, with a Bayes factor of 50 for each point of disagreement. We do not think each of these points is actually Bayesian “strong” evidence, but we allow this sensitivity test to severely examine the Book of Mormon’s claims.
Weighting each piece as strong evidence, the strength of the total body of evidence from The Maya supporting the skeptical hypothesis is thus 506 = 1.56 x 1010. Therefore, the total body of evidence taken from The Maya, including the skeptical prior of a billion to one, is 2.69 x 10–142 x 1.56 x 1010 = 4.2 x 10–132.
If one is rational and carefully weighs the evidence, the authors believe that the initial strongly skeptical prior hypothesis of a billion to one that the Book of Mormon is a work of fiction must change. It must give way to an enormously stronger posterior hypothesis, namely that the Book of Mormon is indeed fact-based: it has very strong political, cultural, social, military, physical, geographical, technological, and religious roots in ancient Mesoamerica as that world of ancient Mesoamerica is described by Dr. Coe in The Maya.
The Anti-Book of Mormon Hat Trick: Expanding the Body of Evidence
Now, suppose we are not content with this reversal of our skeptical prior and wish to try to maintain it unfairly while still appearing to be rational. One way to do so is to expand our body of evidence unfairly by including not only scholarly works like The Maya but also including purely skeptical, “cherry-picked” evidence gathered from nonscholarly sources.
[Page 93]For example, in his 1973 Dialogue article and in the 2011 and 2018 podcast interviews, Dr. Coe mentions twelve more specific facts to support the hypothesis that the Book of Mormon is false. These include brass, chariots, sheep, goats, swine, wheat, barley, cattle, silk, asses, a hybrid Egyptian/Hebrew writing system, and the lack of Semitic DNA in the New World. Analyzing these twelve additional correspondences taken from the podcasts and from Dialogue, we estimate their cumulative weight as 3.13 x 1015 (see Appendix B, last part).
We do not accept Dr. Coe’s (or more accurately, John Dehlin’s) objection to “coins” or “week,” which were also raised as possible negative points of evidence in the podcasts. The revealed text of the Book of Mormon does not include the word coins in the Nephite monetary system described in Alma 11. While the word week does occur in the Book of Mormon, the book does not say that a Nephite week consisted of seven days. Thus these two data points are not admitted to evidence; they are not facts actually asserted by the Book of Mormon.
To enable a very severe but nonetheless fact-based test of the historicity of the Book of Mormon, we grant to all 18 pieces of evidence cited by Dr. Coe a weight of 50 (“strong” evidence) against the historicity of the Book of Mormon. To be clear, we do not think these 18 pieces of evidence actually merit this weight nor that such biased and nonscholarly sources should be admitted to scholarly analysis. According to our evidence- weighting scheme, at most these 18 facts qualify as specific and detailed, for a weight of 10 each. But they are not particularly unusual. Evidence for their existence might not as yet have been found by archaeology, or evidence might be available but still scarce.
Nonetheless, for the sake of the most rigorous possible fact-based test of the Book of Mormon, we admit all 18 of them at the maximum evidentiary strength considered in this article. Thus we multiply 2.69 x 10–142 times 5018 to recalculate the odds of the hypothesis by accounting for the 18 data points provided by Dr. Coe and others. We find that the likelihood that the Book of Mormon is fictional is about 1.03 x 10–111, less than one in a thousand, billion, billion, billion, billion, billion, billion, billion, billion, billion, billion, billion, billion.
Just how small a number is this? No easily grasped comparisons are possible. The mass of the smallest known particle, the neutrino, is about 10–36 kg, while the mass of the observable universe is about 1052 kg. Thus the ratio of the mass of the neutrino to the mass of the entire universe is approximately 10–88. This ratio, the mass of the neutrino to the mass of the [Page 94]universe, is still one hundred thousand, billion, billion times greater than the odds that the Book of Mormon is a work of fiction.
Two Control Studies
As controls, we also analyzed two other books concerned with ancient American Indians written about the same time as the Book of Mormon. One book is View of the Hebrews by Reverend Ethan Smith, published in 1823.25 The other book is Reverend Solomon Spalding’s unpublished work titled Manuscript Found.26 We compared both books with The Maya using Bayesian statistics, again with a strongly skeptical prior assumption of a billion to one that these books have little to do with ancient Indian cultures. These comparisons are summarized in Appendix C for Manuscript Found and Appendix D for View of the Hebrews.
In the case of Manuscript Found, our posterior conclusion is much stronger than our prior assumption that this book has little to do with ancient Indian cultures. In other words, weighing the additional evidence, we are even more convinced than we were before the analysis that this book has very little in common with the ancient Indian cultures as described in Dr. Coe’s book. Since Manuscript Found is written as if it were a true account, we conclude that it is not true; it is fiction. (In fact, Manuscript Found is excruciatingly bad fiction.)
In the case of View of the Hebrews, weighing both the positive and negative points of evidence (correspondences) between this book and Coe’s book The Maya, we find that the positive evidences are essentially counterbalanced by the negative evidences. Thus the posterior conclusion is the same as skeptical prior assumption. View of the Hebrews has little in common with the ancient Mesoamerican Indian cultures described in The Maya. This book is not written as fiction, but the universe of facts it cites do not agree well with the universe of facts cited in The Maya. This level of factual agreement could likely have been obtained by “guessing.”
View of the Hebrews was published in 1823, well before the Book of Mormon. Thus an important outcome of analyzing View of the Hebrews was to document what Joseph Smith might have known about [Page 95]the ancient Mesoamerican Indians. To make our analysis as rigorous as possible, we did not allow any fact claim in View of the Hebrews that corresponds to a specific fact stated in both The Maya and the Book of Mormon to be classified as “unusual” in our comparison of The Maya and the Book of Mormon (see Appendix D). We did this because Joseph Smith might have known about that fact from reading View of the Hebrews. Therefore, that particular fact could at most be specific and detailed (Bayesian positive) but not “unusual” (Bayesian strong).
Since View of the Hebrews also contains many fact claims that run contrary to facts in The Maya, this begs a question: “Why did Joseph Smith not include those erroneous fact claims from View of the Hebrews in his ‘guesses’ that supposedly form the basis for the Book of Mormon?”
Therefore, those individuals who believe Joseph Smith was strongly influenced by either View of the Hebrews or, more improbably yet, by Manuscript Found, have some serious explaining to do. They must explain why Joseph Smith took only the correct fact claims from View of the Hebrews and why he avoided including incorrect fact claims from Manuscript Found (see, for example, negative correspondences 4, 6, and 9 in Appendix C) or also incorrect fact claims from View of the Hebrews (see, for example, negative correspondences 1, 2, and 4 in Appendix D).
Dr. Coe seems to share the opinion that Joseph Smith was influenced by then-popular ideas such as those found in View of the Hebrews and Manuscript Found. He views the Book of Mormon as “an amalgamation of the rumors and myths, and understandings about Native Americans” existing at the time.27 Dr. Coe states that the Book of Mormon was “in the air” when it was published.
Well, if so, how did Joseph Smith avoid breathing in so much bad air? Wrong guesses about ancient Indian cultures abound in Manuscript Found and View of the Hebrews. How did Joseph Smith manage to avoid making those wrong guesses? And how did Joseph Smith manage to “guess” so much that was overwhelmingly correct?
To name just a few of his correct “guesses,” how did Joseph Smith guess correctly that separate historical records were kept of the reigns of the kings, that large-scale public works were built, that the fundamental unit of political organization was the independent city-state, that the word “seating” meant accession to political power, that an ancient Mesoamerican culture declined steeply and then disappeared a few [Page 96]hundred years bc, that settled marketplaces existed, that large migrations took place toward the north, and so on for 124 more such examples?
Surely, Joseph Smith must be the greatest guesser of all time, succeeding with odds of many billions of billons of billions to one against him.
We prefer a more rational, more intellectually honest conclusion: The Book of Mormon is a real historical record. It is authentic.
Dr. J. B. S. Haldane, the great British biologist, once said that prejudice is an opinion arrived at without considering the evidence. Book of Mormon scholarly critics ignore a very large body of evidence. They fail to read the Book of Mormon carefully and objectively. In other words, they approach the Book of Mormon with deep preexisting prejudices.
Unfortunately, we know of no exceptions to this rule, including Dr. Coe, who read the Book of Mormon just once, about 45 years ago.28 He missed a few things during that one and only reading.
While Dr. Coe is undoubtedly a great Mayanist, his knowledge of the Book of Mormon is appallingly deficient. He has not paid the price that any scholar must pay in order to offer a credible opinion on a given topic. He doesn’t know his material. He doesn’t know the Book of Mormon more than superficially.
There are at least 131 correspondences between Dr. Coe’s book and the Book of Mormon. In this article, we have cited 151 separate pages of The Maya. Thus, well over half of the pages of Coe’s book contain facts that correspond to facts referred to in the Book of Mormon. Those who carefully read both Dr. Coe’s book and the Book of Mormon can scarcely avoid noticing the many correspondences between the two books.
Thus Dr. Coe’s opinion “The picture of this hemisphere between 2,000 bc and ad 421 presented in the [B]ook [of Mormon] has little to do with early Indian cultures” is simply not supported by the evidence provided in his own book. Using Dr. Coe’s own book, we find that early Mesoamerica has a very great deal indeed to do with the Book of Mormon. The cumulative weight of these correspondences, analyzed using Bayesian statistics, provides overwhelming support for the historicity of the Book of Mormon as an authentic, factual record set in ancient Mesoamerica.
[Page 97]Appendix A
Positive Correspondences between the
Book of Mormon and The Maya
A few comments must be made on the timing of events with regard to the evidence summarized below. Most of the events in the Book of Mormon took place from roughly 600 BC through AD 400, that is, mostly the Late Preclassic period through the first century or two of the Early Classic. The Book of Ether takes place very much earlier.
Dr. Coe’s book strongly focuses on the Classic (Early, Late and Terminal Classic), so it is fair to ask if the cultural, social, political, etc., information summarized in The Maya is relevant to the Book of Mormon. In other words, is it even valid, because of the differing time periods, to make many of the comparisons we have made?
[Page 98]We believe the answer is yes, for three important reasons:
- This extended quote from p. 61 of The Maya is critically important here: “The more we know about that period [the Late Preclassic], which lasted from about 400 or 300 BC to AD 250, the more complex and developed it seems. From the point of view of social and cultural evolution, the Late Preclassic really is a kind of ‘proto-Classic’ in which all of the traits usually ascribed to the Classic Maya are present, with the exception of vaulted stone architecture and a high elaboration of calendar and script on stone monuments.” Thus the Late Preclassic period, which corresponds to most of the Book of Mormon events, is certainly relevant to the Classic in terms of “social and cultural” features.
- Dr. Coe, in his Dialogue article and later in the podcast interviews, claims that based on his knowledge, the Book of Mormon is false. If Dr. Coe can make such an assertion based on his knowledge, then it is certainly reasonable and intellectually rigorous to use the knowledge summarized in Dr. Coe’s book to examine the opposing hypothesis, namely that the Book of Mormon is true.
- Correlations/congruencies/similarities that occur after the Book of Mormon period are certainly not invalid for that reason alone — far from it. We use an alphabet developed by the Phoenicians about 3,000 years ago. The major world religions that influence our culture so much today were founded millennia ago. Our code of laws comes from English common law, about a thousand years old, which was in turn based on still earlier Roman civil law and Roman Catholic canon law. Our numbering system, including the all-important zero, uses Arabic numerals, which were actually derived from Hindu mathematicians working about 1,500 years ago. Our division of the day into hours and minutes comes to us from ancient Babylon and Egypt. The foundations of the modern scientific method go back to the work of the Greek scientist Thales of Miletus, who was active about 2,500 years ago. Even our modern three- course meal structure goes back to the Muqaddimah of Ibn Khaldun, written 600 years ago.
Thus, older cultures and societies definitely leave important marks on subsequent societies. It is perfectly consistent with history that the [Page 99]Book of Mormon peoples in Preclassic times might have left significant marks on the Maya Classic period, which is the primary focus of Dr. Coe’s book.
- Political Correspondences
- Fundamental level of political organization is the independent city-state
Coe’s standard: “Sylvanus Morley had thought that there was once a single great political entity, which he called the ‘Old Empire,’ but once the full significance of Emblem Glyphs had been recognized, it was clear that there had never been any such thing. In its stead, Mayanists proposed a more Balkanized model, in which each ‘city state’ was essentially independent of all the others; the political power of even large entities like Tikal would have been confined to a relatively small area, the distance from the capital to the polity’s borders seldom exceeding a day’s march” (p. 274).
Book of Mormon correspondence: Throughout the Book of Mormon itself there is never a reference to “Nephite nation” or to a “Lamanite nation.” Interestingly, the word nation is used in reference to the Jaredites (Ether 1:43), a very different people culturally than the Lehites. The Book of Mormon uses this phrase: “nations, kindreds, tongues and people.” The Nephites and Lamanites were clearly kindreds. In contrast, the word nation is used frequently in terms of the “nations of the Gentiles.” The noncanonical Guide to the Scriptures has eight references to “Nephite nation,” showing how deeply engrained this idea of nationhood is in modern readers. But the Book of Mormon never puts those two words together for Nephite/Lamanite societies. The nation-state is not a political structure found anywhere in the Book of Mormon. Instead, the Book of Mormon peoples were organized politically in city-states. Often one city-state would dominate a group of other city-states. This dominance is the subject of the next correspondence
Analysis of correspondence: The correspondence is specific and detailed. There is not a single reference in the text of the Book of Mormon to “Nephite nation” or “Lamanite nation.” It is also unusual. Joseph Smith was growing up in the new nation of America, with a great deal of pride and self-identity as an independent nation. How did he avoid identifying the Lamanite or Nephite peoples as “nations”? But he did avoid it. What a lucky “guess” — over and over again during the course of the Book of Mormon history.
Likelihood = 0.02
- “Capital” or leading city-state dominates a cluster of other communities
Coe’s standard: “Clusters of villages and communities were organized under a single polity, dominated by a large ‘capital’ village, which could have contained more than 1,000 people. (p. 51).” “Quirigua lies only 30 miles [Page 100](48 km) north of Copan; … that seems, on the basis of its inscriptions, to have periodically been one of the latter’s suzerainties” (p. 137). “Bonampak, politically important during the Early Classic, but by the Late Classic an otherwise insignificant center clearly under the cultural and political thumb of Yaxchilan” (p. 149). “These are Tamarindito, Arroyo de Piedras, Punta de Chimino, Aguateca, and Dos Pilas; the latter city seems to have dominated the rest” (p. 150). “We now know that not all Maya polities were equal: the kings of some lesser states were said to be ‘possessed’ by the rulers of more powerful ones (the phrase y-ajaw, ‘his king,’ specifies this relationship” (p. 275).
Book of Mormon correspondence: See Omni 1:12; Alma 61:8; Helaman 1:27. Zarahemla is clearly the Nephite capital city in the Book of Mormon, with 140 mentions in the book. It is to Zarahemla that the other cities of the Nephites look to for leadership and supplies in their wars against the Lamanites. When the Lamanite chieftain Coriantumr invades the Nephite confederation, he makes straight for Zarahemla, “the capital city,” in the heart of the Nephite lands, and bypasses all the lesser cities. Later the city/land of Bountiful seems to become the Nephite capital city-state.
Analysis of correspondence: This political model was clearly part of Book of Mormon political arrangements, so it is specific and detailed in both books. It is also unusual. There is no corresponding political arrangement in Joseph Smith’s time which he might have used as a model.
Likelihood = 0.02
- Some subordinate city-states shift their allegiance to a different “capital” city
Coe’s standard: “Dos Pilas; the latter city … [began] putting together a large-scale state as early as the seventh century AD, when a noble lineage arrived from Tikal and established a royal dynasty. The family was clearly adroit in its political maneuvers, switching from an allegiance to their cousins at Tikal to one with Calakmul, its arch-enemy” (p. 150).
Book of Mormon correspondence: See Mosiah 23:31 and Alma 43:4‒5. The Amalekites and later the Zoramites, both of whom are Nephites by birth but have dissented from the Nephites and built their own cities, go over to the Lamanites as a body.
Analysis of correspondence: The analysis is specific and detailed. In both cases, whole city-states changed their political allegiance to that of a former enemy. This does not seem unusual to a modern reader and probably would not have seemed unusual even to a country boy in the relatively innocent early 19th century.
Likelihood = 0.1
- Complex state institutions
Coe’s standard: “In art, in religion, in state complexity, and perhaps even in the calendar and astronomy, Olmec models were transferred to the Maya” [Page 101](p. 61). “Civilization … has certainly been achieved by the time that state institutions … have appeared” (p. 63). “By Classic times, full royal courts came into view” (p. 93). “closer to the heart of the city itself, where the dwellings of aristocrats and bureaucrats” (p. 126).
Book of Mormon correspondence: See Mosiah 24:1‒2; Alma 2:6‒7, 14‒16; Alma 27:21‒22; Alma 30:9; Alma 51:2‒7; Alma 60:7, 11, 21, 24. Both the Book of Mormon and The Maya clearly show societies that have large, complex state institutions. For example, the Nephites had (1) some form of elections, (2) armies supported by the state, (3) chief judges and lower judges, and (4) kings (at least part of the time). The Lamanites appear to have had kings at all times. Dr. Coe (p. 63) notes that state institutions were developed among the Maya by the Late Preclassic, consistent with Book of Mormon timing for the references provided.
Analysis of correspondence: Both the British and American civil governments had large, complex state institutions, but the Native American societies certainly did not. This comparison is specific, has quite a bit of detail, and probably would have been unusual to Joseph Smith.
Likelihood = 0.02
- Many cities exist
Coe’s standard: To name just a few of the cities mentioned in The Maya we have Uxmal, Chichen Itza, Coba, Tulum, Acanceh, Ek’ Balam, Mayapan, Piedras Negras, Ceibal, Palenque, Naranjo, El Mirador, Bonampak, Uaxactun, Kaminaljuyu, Takalik Abaj, Tikal (p. 9). “the great Usumacinta … draining the northern highlands, … twisting to the northwest past many a ruined Maya city” (p. 16‒17). “More advanced cultural traits, … the construction of cities” (p. 26).
Book of Mormon correspondence: See Alma 51:20; Alma 59:5; 3 Nephi 9:3‒10. Many named cities are mentioned in the Book of Mormon.
Analysis of correspondence: By 1830 America had many cities, but there were no cities on the frontier where Joseph Smith translated and published the Book of Mormon. The Native Americans with whom Joseph was familiar did not build cities, although he might possibly have learned about some Native American cities by reading View of the Hebrews, so we do not count it as unusual. Nonetheless, the correspondence is specific and quite detailed.
Likelihood = 0.1
- City of Laman (Lamanai) “occcupied from earliest times”
Coe’s standard: “Far up the New River … is the important site of Lamanai, … occupied from earliest times right into the post-Conquest period” (p. 85).
Book of Mormon correspondence: See 3 Nephi 9:10. The strong tendency is for consonants to be preserved in pronouncing words and names. For example, Beirut (Lebanon) is one of the oldest cities in the world, settled 5,000 years ago. The name derives from Canaanite-Phoenician be’erot and [Page 102]has been known as “Biruta,” “Berytus” and now “Beirut,” while always retaining those three consonants “BRT” in the correct order, and with no intervening consonants.29
In the case of the city Lamanai (Laman), all three consonants, and only these three consonants, namely LMN, are found in the correct order and are the same consonants as given for the city of Laman mentioned in the Book of Mormon. This seems to be a “bullseye” for the Book of Mormon. How did Joseph Smith correctly “guess” the correct consonants, and only the correct consonants in the correct order for the name of an important city “occupied from earliest times?”
Analysis of correspondence: The correspondence is specific, detailed and statistically unusual.
Likelihood = 0.02
- Parts of the land were very densely settled
Coe’s standard: “A few cities, such as Chunchucmil in Yucatan, are amazingly dense” (p. 124). “At Tikal, within a little over 6 sq. miles … there are c. 3,000 structures” (p. 126). Recent work not reported in The Maya confirms that some Mayan cities were very densely populated.30
Book of Mormon correspondence: See Mormon 1:7.
Analysis of correspondence: The Native Americans with whom Joseph Smith had direct contact did not have cities, let alone cities so densely settled. He may have learned about Native American cities from View of the Hebrews, but that book gives no information about how densely settled those cities were. So this correspondence is specific and detailed, but we do not count it as unusual, since Joseph Smith might have gotten the idea from View of the Hebrews.
Likelihood = 0.1
- Large-scale public works
Coe’s standard: “Civilization … has certainly been achieved by the time that state institutions, large-scale public works … have appeared” (p. 63). Dr. Coe notes that city walls (certainly a public work) were built “when, in places, local conditions became hostile” (pp. 126, 194, 216).
Book of Mormon correspondence: See Mosiah 7:10; Mosiah 11:8‒13; Alma 14:27‒28; Alma 48:8; Helaman 1:22; 3 Nephi 6:7‒8; Ether 10:5‒6. The Book of Mormon speaks in some detail about the large-scale public works that its societies, particularly its more decadent societies, achieved.
[Page 103]Analysis of correspondence: This correspondence is both specific and detailed. It would also seem unusual. The Native Americans of Joseph Smith’s time and place did not build public works or temples. Why would Joseph Smith have written a book that clearly claimed that “the Indians” did so? However, since View of the Hebrews references temples and walled towns (not in any detail), and Joseph Smith might have gotten the idea from that book, we will only count this correspondence as specific and detailed.
Likelihood = 0.1
- Some rulers live in luxury
Coe’s standard: “The excavation of two tombs from this period has thrown much light on the luxury to which these rulers were accustomed” (p. 74).
Book of Mormon correspondence: Mosiah 11:3‒15.
Analysis of correspondence: Joseph probably knew that the British royal court lived in luxury, but the chiefs of the Indian tribes did not. Why would Joseph have assumed that the ancestors of the Indians had kings who lived in luxury? The Book of Mormon contrasts the reign of King Benjamin, who deliberately did not live in luxury, with decadent rulers who did. So Joseph was correct that some decadent rulers did live in luxury, but there are few details, and this is not particularly unusual.
Likelihood = 0.5
- Elaborate thrones
Coe’s standard: “Its superstructure’s chambers contain a stone throne in the form of a snarling jaguar, painted red, with eyes and spots of jade and fangs of shell; atop the throne rested a Toltec circular back-shield in turquoise mosaic” (p. 206).
Book of Mormon correspondence: Mosiah 11:9; Ether 10:6.
Analysis of correspondence: Again, Joseph might have known about the elaborate throne of the British royal family, so it was perhaps not unusual, but what Native Americans was Joseph familiar with that had thrones, let alone elaborate thrones? How did he “guess” this one correctly? To be conservative, however, we will classify this as a specific and detailed correspondence, but perhaps not an unusual one.
Likelihood = 0.1
- Royalty exists, with attendant palaces, courts and nobles
Coe’s standard: “We now know a great deal about … Maya societies as the seats of royal courts” (p. 7). “By Classic times, full royal courts came into view” (p. 93). See also pp. 7, 93, 95, 126, and 209.
Book of Mormon correspondence: See Mosiah 24:1‒2; Alma 22:2; Alma 51:7‒8, 21.
Analysis of correspondence: Both the Book of Mormon and The Maya refer repeatedly to these institutions of royalty. So the correspondence is both specific and detailed. However, it may be a stretch to call it unusual. While there were no Indian kings, Joseph certainly knew about British royalty, and [Page 104]might have been influenced thereby to put it into the Book of Mormon. So to be conservative, we will not classify this one as unusual, although it is specific and detailed.
Likelihood = 0.1
- Royal or elite marriages for political purposes
Coe’s standard: “Where such stratagems typically played out was in royal or noble marriages” (p. 97). “An elite class consisting of central Mexican foreigners, and the local nobility with whom they had marriage ties” (p. 103).
Book of Mormon correspondence: See Alma 17:24; Alma 47:35.
Analysis of correspondence: The correspondence is specific but not particularly detailed in the case of the Book of Mormon. Joseph might also have been aware of the political marriages in the royal houses of England and Europe. So we rate this one as specific but not detailed or unusual.
Likelihood = 0.5
- Feasting for political purposes
Coe’s standard: “In courts, feasts and gifts helped to bind alliances and keep underlings happy, with effects across the kingdom” (p. 97).
Book of Mormon correspondence: See Alma 18:9; Alma 20:9.
Analysis of correspondence: Neither book offers a lot of distinguishing detail, although the references are specific. The practice seems unusual in Joseph’s frontier setting in democratic America. Why would Joseph Smith attribute this practice (unusual for him) to the ancestors of the Indians? This correspondence is therefore ranked as specific and unusual but not detailed.
Likelihood = 0.1.
- Gifts to the king for political advantage
Coe’s standard: The Maya refers clearly to this practice: “In courts, feasts and gifts helped to bind alliances and keep underlings happy, with effects across the kingdom” (p. 97).
Book of Mormon correspondence: See Mosiah 2:12.
Analysis of correspondence: The Book of Mormon reference to political gifts is less specific but strongly suggestive. Again, the practice seems unusual in Joseph’s frontier setting in democratic America. Why would Joseph Smith attribute this practice (unusual for him) to the ancestors of the Indians? This correspondence is therefore ranked as only somewhat specific and unusual. The overall likelihood is downgraded from specific and unusual to only specific.
Likelihood = 0.5
- Political factions organize around a member of the elite
Coe’s standard: “courts did not operate by individual actions alone. They worked instead through factions pivoting around a high ranking courtier or member of the royal family” (p. 97).
[Page 105]Book of Mormon correspondence: See Helaman 1:2‒9.
Analysis of correspondence: In America in the early 19th century, the party system had already been born, and the party often pivoted around a key political figure like Thomas Jefferson or John Adams, so this idea was not unusual to Joseph. However, it is both specific and quite detailed.
Likelihood = 0.1
- Foreigners move in and take over government, often as family dynasties
Coe’s standard: “[The Founder of Copan] was another stranger coming in from the west, perhaps from Teotihuacan” (p. 118). “[At Dos Pilas] … a noble lineage arrived from Tikal and established a royal dynasty” (p. 150). “Uxmal … was the seat of the Xiu family, but this was a late lineage of Mexican origin that could not possibly have built the site” (p. 180).
Book of Mormon correspondence: See Omni 1:19; Alma 47:35; Helaman 1:16.
Analysis of correspondence: Again, both the Book of Mormon and The Maya specifically refer to this practice and in considerable detail. However, Joseph Smith might have been aware of the change in family dynasties in England about a century earlier when the House of Hanover succeeded the House of Stuart as kings of Great Britain, and used this as his model (however unlikely). So the correspondence is specific and detailed, but perhaps not unusual. To be conservative, we assign this a likelihood of 0.1.
Likelihood = 0.1
- City administrative area with bureaucrats and aristocrats
Coe’s standard: At Tikal “closer to the heart of the city itself, [were] the dwellings of aristocrats and bureaucrats” (p. 126), “the palaces were the administrative centers of the city” (p. 128). At Aguateca the archaeologist was able “to identify specialized areas, such as a house which was probably that of the chief scribe of the city” (p. 151). “The House of the Governor was built, probably to serve as his administrative headquarters” (p. 182).
Book of Mormon correspondence: See Alma 60:19, 22; Helaman 9:1‒7.
Analysis of correspondence: Both books are quite specific on this point, but the Book of Mormon does not provide a lot of detail. However, Joseph Smith never saw a state or national capital city with its administrative center and nearby houses for officials until well after the the Book of Mormon was published. So this is unusual and specific.
Likelihood = 0.1
- Records kept specifically of the reigns of the kings
Coe’s standard: “the ‘stela cult’ — the inscribed glorification of royal lineages and their achievements” (p. 177). “The text is completely historical, recounting the king’s descent from Pakal the Great” (p. 264n169). “The figures that appear in Classic reliefs are not gods and priests, but dynastic autocrats and their spouses, children, and subordinates” (p. 273).
[Page 106]Book of Mormon correspondence: See 1 Nephi 9:4; Jacob 3:13; Jarom 1:14.
Analysis of correspondence: Like The Maya, the Book of Mormon is very specific and detailed about separate records being kept of the reigns of the kings. We know of no reason or existing historical model that would have led Joseph Smith to have correctly “guessed” that the doings of the kings were kept separately from the rest of the history of a people. This is a specific, detailed and unusual correspondence.
Likelihood = 0.02
- Native leaders incorporated in power structure after subjugation
Coe’s standard: “Mesoamerican ’empires’ such as Teotihuacan’s were probably not organized along Roman lines; … rather, they were ‘hegemonic,’ in the sense that conquered bureaucracies were largely in place” (p. 100). “it seems obvious that many of the native princes were incorporated into the new power structure” (p. 206). “Or perhaps Calakmul found it easier … to rule through local authorities” (p. 276).
Book of Mormon correspondence: See Mosiah 19:26‒27; Mosiah 24:1‒2.
Analysis of correspondence: The Book of Mormon and The Maya are both specific and detailed about this practice. As Dr. Coe suggests, the only model Joseph Smith might conceivably have heard about for control of subjugated peoples was the Roman one, which was the opposite of the system used among the Maya, and also the opposite of the system used in the Book of Mormon. How did Joseph Smith “guess” that one correctly? Specific, detailed and unusual.
Likelihood = 0.02
- Tribute required of subjects
Coe’s standard: “the ruler took in tax or tribute” (p. 93). “Scenes with food, drink, and tribute” (p. 97). “displays of captives or tribute” (p. 124). “On what did the population live? One answer is tribute” (p. 216).
Book of Mormon correspondence: See Mosiah 7:15, 22; Mosiah 19:15, 22, 26, 28; Mosiah 22:7, 10. Also Alma 23:38‒39; Alma 7:22; Alma 24:9.
Analysis of correspondence: Once again, the Book of Mormon and The Maya are both specific and detailed about the practice of tribute. However, it is possible that Joseph had heard about this practice either through the Bible or other sources. So we will classify this correspondence as specific and detailed, but not unusual.
Likelihood = 0.1
- Limited number of important patrilineages
Coe’s standard: “There were 24 ‘principal’ lineages in Utatlan” (p. 225). “There were approximately 250 patrilineages in Yucatan at the time of the Conquest, and we know from Landa how important they were” (p. 234).
Book of Mormon correspondence: See Jacob: 1:13; Alma 47:35; 4 Nephi 1:36‒38; Mormon 1:8‒9.
Analysis of correspondence: Both the Book of Mormon and The Maya are very specific and detailed about how important it was to belong to a leading patrilineage. While Joseph Smith might have picked up this idea from reading the Bible (that is, the tribes of Israel) we think this is very unlikely. So we regard this correspondence as specific, detailed and unusual.
Likelihood = 0.02
- King and “king elect”
Coe’s standard: “The K’iche’ state was headed by a king, a king-elect, and two ‘captains'” (p. 226). “royal youths … or the ‘great youth,’ … perhaps the heir-designate” (p. 278).
Book of Mormon correspondence: See Mosiah 1:10; Mosiah 6:3.
[Page 107]Analysis of correspondence: The Book of Mormon also refers to the practice of an heir-designate, so this is a specific correspondence, but it is not particularly detailed. Also, Joseph may have been aware of the practice of having heirs to the throne of Great Britain. To be conservative, we will assign this correspondence a likelihood of 0.5, although it may perhaps merit a greater evidentiary strength.
Likelihood = 0.5
- There are captains serving kings
Coe’s standard: “The K’ iche’ state was headed by a king, a king-elect and two ‘captains'” (p. 226).
Book of Mormon correspondence: See Mosiah 22:3.
Analysis of correspondence: Gideon clearly serves in the capacity of a captain to King Limhi, so the idea is specific or highly suggestive. It also seems unusual. Where would Joseph Smith have come up with this idea? Because of lack of detail, we will assign this correspondence a likelihood of 0.5, although it probably merits a greater strength.
Likelihood = 0.5
- Political power is exercised by family dynasties
Coe’s standard: “[Spearthrower Owl installed his own son] … as the tenth ruler of Tikal” (p. 109). “King of the great city of Palenque [was] the second son of the renowned Palenque [ruler Pakal the Great]” (p. 161). “There were 24 ‘principal’ lineages in Utatlan, closely identified with the buildings … in which the lords carried out their affairs” (p. 225). “The ancient Maya realm was … a class society with political power … in the hands of an hereditary elite” (p. 234). “the names of the cities themselves or of the dynasties that ruled over them” (p. 271). “dynastic record of all Palenque rulers” (p. 274).
Book of Mormon correspondence: From the beginning of the Book of Mormon, the key political question was which of sons of Lehi had the right to exercise political power over the rest of Lehi’s descendants; in other words, who would be the leader of an hereditary elite? See Mosiah 1:9; Mosiah 11:1; [Page 108]Mosiah 19:16, 26; Mosiah 28:10; Alma 17:6; Alma 20:8; Alma 24:3‒4; Alma 50:40; Helaman 1:4‒5; Helaman 2:2; Ether 6:24.
Analysis of correspondence: Both books very clearly attest to the central importance of family dynasties. The Lamanite political model was clearly that of hereditary kings. Even among the supposedly more democratic Nephites, following the political reforms of King Mosiah, the office of chief judge (an elected position) often descended from father to son, for example, Alma to his son Alma, Pahoran to his son Pahoran, etc. Obviously, there was a de facto hereditary elite even during a time of popular elections.
Likewise, The Maya provides many examples of continuing conflict over the question of which lineage would exercise political leadership. So this correspondence is specific and quite detailed. However, it is not unusual. Joseph might have been aware of the various family dynasties in Europe and Great Britain, and their unending conflicts. This correspondence is thus assigned a likelihood of 0.1.
Likelihood = 0.1
- Kings rule over subordinate provincial or territorial rulers, some of noble blood (subkings)
Coe’s standard: “The wily K’uk’ulkan II populated his city with provincial rulers and their families” (p. 216). “At the head of each statelet in Yucatan was the … the territorial ruler who had inherited his post in the male line” (p. 236). “The kings of some lesser states were said to be ‘possessed’ by the rulers of more powerful ones” (p. 275).
Book of Mormon correspondence: See Mosiah 24:2‒3; Alma 17:21; Alma 20:4, 8.
Analysis of correspondence: This pattern is clearly evident among the Lamanite kings in the Book of Mormon and also as detailed by Dr. Coe in The Maya. So the correspondence is specific and quite detailed in both books. We know of no political model in his time on which Joseph Smith might have relied to correctly “guess” this correspondence. The kings of Great Britain did not have provincial rulers of royal blood. Thus this correspondence is specific, detailed and unusual. However, because of its overlap with correspondence 1.2, we assign only a likelihood of 0.5 to this correspondence. This choice is due to the specific additional information that sometimes these provincial rulers were of royal blood.
Likelihood = 0.5
- “Seating” means accession to political power
Coe’s standard: “Epigraphers conclude that pectoral reverse records the ‘seating’ or accession to power, of the ruler in question” (p. 91). “Important glyphs now known to relate to dynastic affairs include … inauguration or ‘seating’ in office” (p. 274).
Book of Mormon correspondence: See Alma 8:12; Helaman 7:4; 3 Nephi 6:19.
[Page 109]Analysis of correspondence: On three separate occasions, the Book of Mormon uses exactly this word seating or seat to describe the holding of or accession to political power. So the correspondence is specific, detailed and unusual. It seems very unlikely that Joseph Smith would have correctly “guessed” this particular word.
Likelihood = 0.02
- Separation of civil and religious authority
Coe’s standard: “a hereditary Chief Priest resided in that city, … but in no source do we find his authority or that of the priests superseding civil power” (p. 243).
Book of Mormon correspondence: See Alma 4:16‒18.
Analysis of correspondence: Under the leadership of Alma the Younger, the role of the head of state and the head of the church were separated, while they had previously been combined. It appears that this was the pattern afterwards among the Nephites, but we do not know what the pattern was among the Lamanites. So this correspondence is specific, but not detailed. Also, this pattern of “separation of church and state” as practiced in America would not have been unusual to Joseph Smith.
Likelihood = 0.5
- Those of noble birth aspire to power
Coe’s standard: “Several courtiers were so mighty as to be magnates, perhaps descended from collateral royal lines. They needed to be co-opted and watched, lest their pretensions got out of hand” (p. 93).
Book of Mormon correspondence: See Alma: 51:5, 8.
Analysis of correspondence: The Book of Alma describes a continuing conflict in the Nephite confederation between those who desired a freely chosen government and those who were of “high birth” and sought to be kings. So the correspondence is specific, but not very detailed in either book and probably not unusual to Joseph, since seeking after power seems to be part of human nature.
Likelihood = 0.5
- Royal courts imitate their enemies
Coe’s standard: “Courts were often imitative. Through a curious form of standardization, they emulated each other, even those of enemies” (p. 95).
Book of Mormon correspondence: See Alma 47:23.
Analysis of correspondence: The Book of Mormon likewise refers to a specific custom of Lamanite royalty which had been taken from their Nephite enemies. Dr. Coe himself regards this imitative feature as “curious”; so we will agree to that point. It is indeed unusual. However, there is not a lot of detail in either The Maya or the Book of Mormon about these imitative practices, so we will classify this correspondence as specific and unusual, but not detailed.
Likelihood = 0.1
- [Page 110]Royal courts function as “great households”
Coe’s standard: “A final observation is that courts functioned as ‘great households'” (p. 97).
Book of Mormon correspondence: See Alma Chap. 19 (the whole chapter)
Analysis of correspondence: Alma Chapter 19 describes a somewhat unusual scene in which many of King Lamoni’s subjects gather to Lamoni’s “house” (not his palace) in quite a familiar, quasi-democratic way and are apparently able to bring their swords along with them. This would certainly not be the case in the court of Great Britain. So the practice is definitely unusual, but there is not a lot of detail, and Dr. Coe is not very specific about what he means by “great households.”
However, there is enough specificity in the concept of royal courts as households and the idea that King Lamoni had a house, rather than a palace, to warrant identifying this as a correspondence. While this may not be a detailed correspondence or a particularly specific one, it is very unusual. Therefore, we assign this correspondence a likelihood of 0.5.
Likelihood = 0.5
- Candidates for high office had to possess hidden knowledge
Coe’s standard: “Any candidate for high office had to pass an occult catechism known as the ‘Language of Zuywa.'” (p. 236).
Book of Mormon correspondence: See Enos 1:1; Mosiah 1:2.
Analysis of correspondence: King Benjamin “caused that [his sons] should be taught in the language of his fathers, that thereby they might become men of understanding.” Later, his son Mosiah became the ruler of the people. Likewise, Enos (a prince of sorts) was also taught in the “language” of his father. One is led to ask: “Was the regular course of education not sufficient for these young men; was their common language not enough to qualify them to lead?” Apparently not. This correspondence has some detail, and while it is specific enough to get our attention, and is definitely unusual, we do not think it merits a likelihood of 0.02; instead it is assigned a likelihood of 0.1.
Likelihood = 0.1
- Abrupt breaks in dynasties
Coe’s standard: “Thus, we can expect a good deal of local cultural continuity even in those regions taken over by the great city; but in the case of the lowland Maya, we shall also see outright interference in dynastic matters, with profound implications for the course of Maya history. (p. 100). “there are signs of … profound breaks in the dynasty” (p. 116).
Book of Mormon correspondence: See Omni 1:1‒19; Alma 24:1‒2.
Analysis of correspondence: The Maya also describes numerous other instances in which one Maya kingdom invaded another and abruptly changed the ruling dynasty. The same thing also occurs in the Book of Mormon, [Page 111]when King Mosiah replaces (peacefully) the ruler(s) of Zarahemla; and later in Alma 24 when the rebellious Lamanites depose their hereditary king. So this correspondence is specific and detailed in both books, but it probably does not qualify as unusual. Joseph might well have known about the many European wars, with multiple rulers bent on deposing each other.
Likelihood = 0.1
- Subservient peoples are said to “possess” the land while ruled by a dominant power
Coe’s standard: “The kings of some lesser states were said to be ‘possessed’ by the rulers of more powerful ones” (p. 275).
Book of Mormon correspondence: See Mosiah 19:15.
Analysis of correspondence: It is interesting that this specific word possess is the one used by the Maya to describe subservient rulership. Likewise the Lehites (for example, 2 Nephi 1:9) and the Jaredites (for example, Ether 2:8) were instructed that theirs was a “promised land” and that they would “possess” it as long as they kept their covenants with their heavenly king. That same word possess was the relationship the Israelites were to have with their lands of promise, under God’s rule (for example, Deuteronomy 11:8, 2 Nephi 24:2). The wording here is highly specific, and unusual, but may not be detailed enough in the case of the Maya to warrant a likelihood of 0.02, but it does warrant a likelihood of 0.1. How would Joseph Smith have guessed how appropriate that particular word was to describe this relationship between a more powerful king and his subservient kings among the Maya?
Likelihood = 0.1
Calculation of overall likelihood for political correspondences
There are 33 separate political correspondences between the Book of Mormon and The Maya. Of these, nine have a likelihood of 0.5, 16 have a likelihood of 0.1 and eight have a likelihood of 0.02. Thus the overall likelihood of these 33 positive correspondences is 0.59 x 0.116 x 0.028 =
4.99 x 10–33.
- Fundamental level of political organization is the independent city-state
- Cultural and Social Correspondences
- Possible ancient origin of Mesoamerican cultures
Coe’s standard: “Given the similarities among the diverse cultures of Mesoamerica, … its peoples must share a common origin, so far back in time that it may never be brought to light by archaeology” (p. 14).
Book of Mormon correspondence: See the Book of Ether.
Analysis of correspondence: The Book of Mormon specifically refers to a much earlier migration, the “Jaredites,” from the Old World to the New World thousands of years before the Lehite migration. However, the Book of Mormon does not say, as Coe strongly implies above, that the earlier [Page 112]culture was the common origin of subsequent cultures. Those details are lacking in the Book of Mormon. The pattern is, however, unusual. It is one thing for Joseph Smith to have “guessed” the existence of the Lehite colony, but to correctly guess another much, much earlier culture/migration is quite unusual. We rate this specific and unusual for a likelihood of 0.1.
Likelihood = 0.1
- Active interchange of ideas and things among the elite
Coe’s standard: “there must have been an active interchange of ideas and things among the Mesoamerican elite over many centuries” (p. 14).
Book of Mormon correspondence: See Omni 1:12‒15; Mosiah 7:9,13; Alma 47:23, 35‒36; Helaman 4:3‒4, 8; Helaman 11: 24‒25; Alma 63:14; 3 Nephi 1:28.
Analysis of correspondence: Coe is very specific and detailed in his statement. The Book of Mormon is likewise detailed and specific about the many exchanges of people (especially elite peoples) and ideas over centuries among the Book of Mormon peoples. Even a well-educated person, which Joseph Smith was certainly not, would have a hard time thinking of a historical model for this behavior, let alone blending it so seamlessly and unobtrusively into the larger Book of Mormon history. Therefore it is specific, detailed and unusual.
Likelihood = 0.02.
- Foreign brides for elites
Coe’s standard: “More than a negligible percentage of Tikal’s population came from elsewhere, including the introduction of foreign brides for elites” (p. 109).
Book of Mormon correspondence: See Alma 17:24 and Alma 47:35.
Analysis of correspondence: Ammon was a Nephite prince whom the king of the Lamanites sought as a husband for one of his daughters; and Ammonihah was a Nephite by birth who became king of the Lamanites after marrying the queen, so the correspondence is specific and detailed. There were indeed foreign brides for elites. However, Joseph might have been aware of the intermarriages among the royal houses of Europe, where elites also had foreign brides, so it is not unusual.
Likelihood = 0.1
- Slavery practiced
Coe’s standard: “[Yucatan was famed for] production of honey, salt and slaves” (p. 19). “Slaves comprised both sentenced criminals and vassal war captives” (p. 225). “Human sacrifice was perpetrated on prisoners, slaves, and children” (pp. 243‒44).
Book of Mormon correspondence: See Mosiah 7:15; Alma 27:8; 3 Nephi 3:7.
Analysis of correspondence: King Benjamin specifically states that he had not allowed his people to make slaves of one another, strongly implying that slavery was the usual practice. (Mosiah 2:13). The Lamanites offered to become slaves until they had recompensed the wrongs they had done to [Page 113]the Nephites. The Gadiantons offered a partnership with the Nephites as an alternative to slavery. So the practice of slavery is specific and detailed in both books. Alas, slavery has never been unusual, and it was certainly known to Joseph Smith.
Likelihood = 0.1
- Different languages found in pockets
Coe’s standard: “Languages other than Mayan were found in isolated pockets, indicating either intrusions of peoples from foreign lands or remnant populations engulfed by the expansion of the Mayan tongues” (p. 31).
Book of Mormon correspondence: See Omni 1:19; Mosiah 9:6‒7; Mosiah 23:30‒35; Alma 27:22.
Analysis of correspondence: The Book of Mormon contains examples of both kinds of linguistic “pockets,” both by intrusion and engulfment. So the correspondence is specific and detailed. It perhaps is not unusual, however. Joseph Smith might have reflected on the intrusion of English into the French peoples of Canada, or on the immigration of so many Germans during the Revolutionary War … and then woven this idea seamlessly into the Book of Mormon. Unlikely in the extreme, but possible. To be (probably overly) conservative we rate this one as specific and detailed, but not unusual.
Likelihood = 0.1
- Possible ancient origin of Mesoamerican cultures