Discussions of Book of Mormon issues and evidences, plus other topics related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Further Thoughts on the Nephite Interpreters and Mesoamerican Culture

An important new study on relationships between the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican culture was just published on Friday by Mark Alan Wright: "Nephite Daykeepers: Ritual Specialists in Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship, 38 (2020): 291-306. Several aspects of ritual specialists in Mayan society are examined, including those who use crystals or clear stones or glass to receive revelation of some kind. That aspect reminds us of the Nephite and Jaredite "interpreters" and their apparent relationship to the Urim and Thummim.

Here is an excerpt from Wright:

Zaztun and the Urim and Thummim

In modern-day Yucatan, the most common title for shaman or ritual specialists is aj-meen, which literally means “practitioner” or “one who knows and does.”3 The aj-meen use crystals, clear rocks, or even fragments of broken glass bottles as a medium through which they receive revelation. They hold them up to a light source and wait for three flashes of light to shine through, which indicates the revelation is about to begin. They interpret these three flashes as representing the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which scholars attribute to the heavy influence of Catholicism among the modern Maya. They call these stones zaztun, which literally means “clear stone” or “stone of light.”4 They are considered extremely sacred objects, and the ritual specialist who owns them does not allow the stones to be casually handled by others. But not all clear stones are necessarily considered zaztuno’ob (plural of zaztun). Anthropologist Bruce Love recounted meeting a shaman who keeps a jar full of glass marbles on his table and says they are mere toys that are used as “practice” zaztuno’ob for his apprentices.5

Maya shamans believe that true zaztuno’ob are gifts from the gods that have been intentionally placed along their paths for them to find. If the stone they are meant to find is not along a well-traveled path but is out in the uncultivated forest, they receive some type of spiritual guidance to lead them to where they will find it, sometimes even given vivid dreams or visions of where it is located. One ritual specialist named Don Cosimo was led out to the forest and found his zaztun embedded in the fork of a tree.6 The finding of these stones is a sign that they have been called and chosen to be a diviner and a healer. Zaztuno’ob are not only gifts from the divine realm, but they provide the means of communicating with the Otherworld and enable the ritual specialist to tap into divine powers.

An aj-meen named Don Jose once held his zaztuno’ob to the sky and when they flashed he said:

“Look! You can see the angels.” Ti’aan te ka’an ‘elo, “They are in the sky. This is how they speak to me. They are near. Their words come down. The spirit makes a blessing, makes salvation. The holy ones make a sign and then READY!”7

There is evidence that such divination stones were used anciently as well. For example, a burial from Copan dating to the Middle Classic period contained “five peculiar quartz stones, with ferromagnesium inclusions, probably used in divination rituals.”8 This burial was likely that of a royal priest or shaman rather than of a ruler, as these stones were found along with other paraphernalia common to ritual specialists.9

Now, what does all this have to do with the Book of Mormon? I suggest there are conceptual and functional similarities between the zaztun, which literally translates as “light stone” or “clear stone” in Mayan, and the Urim and Thummim, which means “Lights and Perfections” in Hebrew. In Ether 3:1 we read that the stones the brother of Jared made upon the mount Shelem were “white and clear, even as transparent glass.” Interestingly, the brother of Jared went up the mount with sixteen stones, but he came down with eighteen; the two extra stones were the interpreters that were given to him by the Lord. Just as Maya ritual specialists believe their clear stones are gifts directly from their gods, the brother of Jared was given his zaztuno’ob by the Lord himself.

We know that Mosiah I interpreted the engravings on a “large stone” that was brought to Zarahemla that told of the demise of the Jaredites, but we are not told exactly how he translated them other than that it was done “by the gift and power of God” (Omni 1:20). It is not until the days of Mosiah II, grandson of Mosiah I, that the Jaredite plates are discovered along with the interpreters that were given to the brother of Jared. We may presume that Mosiah I used an interpreter of some kind to translate the large stone, as that was the modus operandi among the Nephites. If Mosiah I did have an interpreter, it is unclear where he got it; we might speculate that it was a “found object” like unto the zaztuno’ob of Maya shamans (or Joseph Smith’s seer-stone, for a more recent analogy).10


The mystery of how Mosiah1 obtained the interpreters may have been resolved by a book whose late 2019 publication may have been after the time this paper was being written. Don Bradley's outstanding new book, The Lost 116 Pages: Reconstructing the Book of Mormon's Missing Stories (Draper, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2019), explains that the Book of Mormon in the original text not only implies that Mosiah1, had the interpreters, but twice indicates that his son, King Benjamin, had them (Bradley, pp. 195-198), making it clear that the Nephites had them before King Limhi's people found the 24 plates from Ether that were brought back to be translated by Mosiah2. This seems problematic, for the interpreters were "sealed up" with the sealed Jaredite record from the Brother of Jared (Ether 3:23-24, 27-28) which readers might assume was part of the 24 Jaredite plates from Ether. Not so, Bradley explains. The text does not say that the sealed Jaredite record nor the interpreters were left by Ether for the future Nephites from King Limhi's group to find, nor does it say they also found the interpreters. They were already in the hands of Mosiah2 and had been in the hands of his father and grandfather. The Book of Mormon explicitly states that the 24 plates contained the record written by Ether, not by Jared (Ether 1:1-2, 6 and 15:33). There's no need to figure out how 24 plates could contain the voluminous account of Jared and the record of Ether as well, and no need to assume that interpreters were not around for the translation episodes that occurred prior to bringing the 24 plates to Zarahemla. But how, then, did the Nephites obtain the interpreters?

Bradley finds evidence that the answer was part of the lost "116 pages" (actually much longer than that) of the Book of Mormon manuscript. An account from Fayette Lapham describing an interview with Joseph Smith, Sr., may reveal some relevant content from the lost manuscript:

In his report on the interview he had with Joseph Smith Sr. prior to the publication of the Book of Mormon, Fayette Lapham recounts a narrative of the Nephites that occurred after they had settled the promised land:

They . . . found something of which they did not know the use, but when they went into the tabernacle, a voice said, “What have you got in your hand, there?” They replied that they did not know, but had come to inquire; when the voice said, “Put it on your face, and put your face in a skin, and you will see what it is.” They did so, and could see everything of the past, present, and future; and it was the same spectacles that Joseph found with the gold plates. The gold ball stopped here and ceased to direct them any further.

Lapham describes the interpreters’ finder using a tabernacle, the temple’s portable counterpart, indicating a period between stationary temples. This narrows the incident Lapham describes to one of two periods, because there are only two gaps between temples in the Book of Mormon—after Lehi leaves Jerusalem but before Nephi builds his temple, and during Mosiah1’s exodus.

The account also narrows to these two possible contexts by giving three indications that the interpreters were found on an exodus. First, the finder of the interpreters echoes Moses in that he has a Sinai-like encounter with God, who asks him, “What have you got in your hand there?” This evokes God, from out of the burning bush, asking Moses about his rod: “What is that in thine hand?” (Ex. 4:2). Second, the seer’s covering of his face after an encounter with God is also part of the Exodus. When Moses comes down from Sinai after communing with God, he has to cover his face with a cloth because it is still shining from God’s glory (34:29–35). (In assessing the validity of Lapham’s account, it is also useful to note its parallel here with Joseph Smith’s own practice as a seer or scyer of covering his face with an animal skin, his beaver-skin top hat, while using his seer stone.) Third, the seer has these experiences in a tabernacle his people have erected in imitation of the biblical Tabernacle that was first erected at Mount Sinai (33:7). Again, only the early narrative of Lehi and Nephi and the later narrative of Mosiah1 fit the context described by Lapham.

The small plates accounts of Lehi’s and Mosiah1’s distinct exoduses, however, do not describe the finding of the interpreters. The narrative of Lehi and Nephi prior to Nephi’s building of a temple is allotted some twenty-four chapters (1 Ne. 1–19; 2 Ne. 1–5), while the narrative of Mosiah1 is allotted only eleven verses (Omni 1:12–22), with Mosiah1’s actual exodus given only two verses (vv. 12–13). Had the interpreters been found during Lehi and Nephi’s exodus, we would expect it to be narrated there with the accounts of their acquisition of the other relics. Given that Mosiah1 is also the first person implied to have possessed and used the interpreters (Chapter 11), all available evidence points to Mosiah1 finding this relic during his exodus. (Bradley, pp. 251-253)
There's much more to Bradley's work that enhances our approach to the nature of interpreters and their role as a sacred relic in Nephite religion. But turning again to Mark Alan Wright's discussion of sacred revelatory stones used in Mesoamerica and the related concept found among the Jaredites and Nephites, let me also raise the question if Mesoamerican culture might provide further insight into issues related to the Nephite interpreters.

I've recently shared a rather speculative suggestion that perhaps the spectacle-like "interpreters" from the ancient Nephites might have a connection of some kind with the mystical "goggles" that were widespread across ancient Mesoamerica. Whether they are related or not, their existence and role in ancient Mesoamerica can at least overcome the objection that mystical oracular "spectacles" are a Book of Mormon anachronism since conventional spectacles or eyeglasses are a modern European invention. As for the possible relationship,  my suggestion was that Nephite "interpreters" might be related to Mesoamerican goggles via either of two distinct routes: 1) the widespread cultural use of goggles as an oracular, mystical tool associated with divine vision may have provided inspiration for how Nephite or Jaredite prophets chose to physically frame or depict the two oracular stones received by the Brother of Jared and used by seers in Book of Mormon lands, or 2) knowledge of the use of the "interpreters" among the Jaredites and Nephites may have inspired some aspects of the complex of ideas associated with goggles in Mesoamerican culture. The related posts are  "Don't Google 'Spectacles,' Google 'Goggles': The Nephite 'Interpreters' as a Book of Mormon Anachronism" (June 25, 2020) and "Ancient American Goggles and the Nephite/Jaredite 'Interpreters,' Part 2" (June 26, 2020).

Goggles are often associated with Tlaloc, the Aztec Storm God, with control over rain, a god related to the Mayan god Chaac (but a goggle-free deity, as far as I know). Wright's article also discusses the important role of Mayan shamans in seeking divine aid in bringing rain. Shamans used stones to receive divine messages and also sought divine help when it came to rain. Could these two roles, control over rain and revelation via clear stones or glass, point to association with Mesoamerican goggles as well as accounts of Nephite seers who also implored the Lord's help in ending famine and bringing rain again? Again, this is mere speculation, and further input from those more familiar with Mesoamerican lore is welcome. But Wright's article raises some potential links that may add further background for consideration of possibilities related to Mesoamerican goggles.

Update, Aug. 5, 2020: In the comments to Mark Wright's article, where I asked Mark about the possibility of a connection with Mesoamerican goggles, Brant Gardner, an expert in Mesoamerican culture, kindly pointed out some problems with my speculative inquiry. He observes that goggles as represented in Mesoamerican artifacts do not appear to contain anything inside the circles or tubes over the eyes. Further, when Mayan shamans use crystals or glass for revelatory purposes, they seem to just use a single object, not a pair of them. With that in mind, it may be that any resemblance in form or use of mystic goggles and Nephite interpreters is due to chance.

The possibility of a relationship could remain, however. For example, modern statues of people wearing glasses are often carved or cast without showing the transparent lenses, and in many old European statues, the transparent cornea of the human eye is often simply absent, leaving a concave region.  Perhaps a transparent object over the eyes in Mesoamerican goggles would be depicted with the same convention. As for one versus two, recall that Joseph began with a pair of interpreters but eventually just used a single seerstone for his interpreting work. One seems to be enough and is certainly more convenient, so it's possible that pagan divination in Mesoamerica inspired by the ancient use of interpreters may have quickly evolved to the use of single crystals, while the mythical representation for gods and warriors kept the goggles concept. All still very speculative, and, frankly, likely to just be wrong. But perhaps something to keep an eye on as we learn more about Mesoamerica.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hasn’t scrying long been common among cultures worldwide?

If so, isn’t this post a bit like saying the following? —

“The Book of Mormon mentions warfare, and an important new article describes evidence of warfare among ancient Native Americans....”

Also, given that scrying appears to have been the beginning of Joseph Smith’s career as a criminal, I’m not sure the Church would be wholly comfortable with apologetics that call attention to it.

— OK

Anonymous said...

OK,

The devil's in the details. Applying the general category of "scrying" doesn't get at the specifics--which is where the interest lies.

Jack

Jeff Lindsay said...

In the comments to Mark Wright's article, where I asked Mark about the possibility of a connection with Mesoamerican goggles, Brant Gardner, an expert in Mesoamerican culture, kindly pointed out some problems with my speculative inquiry. He observes that goggles as represented in Mesoamerican artifacts do not appear to contain anything inside the circles or tubes over the eyes. Further, when Mayan shamans use crystals or glass for revelatory purposes, they seem to just use a single object, not a pair of them. With that in mind, it may be that any resemblance in form or use of mystic goggles and Nephite interpreters is due to chance.

The possibility of a relationship could remain, however. For example, modern statues of people wearing glasses are often carved or cast without showing the transparent lenses, and in many old European statues, the transparent cornea of the human eye is often simply absent, leaving a concave region. Perhaps a transparent object over the eyes in Mesoamerican goggles would be depicted with the same convention. As for one versus two, recall that Joseph began with a pair of interpreters but eventually just used a single seerstone for his interpreting work. One seems to be enough and is certainly more convenient, so it's possible that pagan divination in Mesoamerica inspired by the ancient use of interpreters may have quickly evolved to the use of single crystals, while the mythical representation for gods and warriors kept the goggles concept. All still very speculative, and, frankly, likely to just be wrong. But perhaps something to keep an eye on as we learn more about Mesoamerica.

OK, there is more to this than just scrying per se. There are some significant parallels between the Book of Mormon's description of the role of the interpreters and the mythical function of goggles in Mesoamerican lore. There is also a parallel in that the use of interpreters began with the very ancient Jaredite culture, and was transmitted to the Nephites (who also shared a similar tradition regarding the Urim and Thummim). Likewise, Mesoamerican goggles began in the Olmec culture, whose rise and fall can be associated with the chronology of the Jaredites, and then it spread among other later cultures in Mesoamerica whose chronology overlaps that of the Nephites. Other parallels include the function of bringing to light what was dark, the ability to receive revelation, the role of light coming from the stones or crystals, the roles of seers, etc.

Anonymous said...

Jeff, the point is not that no parallels with Mesoamerican cultures exist, but that any parallel with this or that Mesoamerican culture is pretty meaningless if similar parallels can be found with many other cultures everywhere. And as soon as we step back and, instead of looking for examples of ancient American spectacles specifically we start pointing out examples of scrying with crystals, there are indeed many parallels to be found worldwide.

— OK

Anonymous said...

Jeff Lindsay doesn’t need to rely on Scholars in Utah to promote the RLDS Two Cumorah Book of Mormon geography theory.
Isn’t Independence, Missouri closer to Appleton, WI?

Why is Jeff Lindsay waisting his time with Utah?

BOMF:
https://www.bomf.org/quetzal-codex.html
BMAF:
http://www.bmaf.org/bio/shirley_heater

Seatimer said...

Isn't it interesting that when NO parallels seemed to be discovered or indicated in the past, then the whole "spectacle/goggle" thing was a HUGE anachronism from which the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith just couldn't escape. BUT, once goggles were readily recognized as being a rather common fixture found in numerous contexts surrounding the ancient Maya and Olmec that all of a sudden, the coincidence doesn't mean a thing relative to the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith. WOW, they get to have it both ways: an anachronism when the proof wasn't there and now "meaningless" when it's occurrence is found to be numerous and common.

The joke, apparently, seems to be on us, for our belief in the Book of Mormon can never be buttressed by actual evidence because they are allowed to just dismiss it out-of-hand whenever they want, for whatever reason they want. Both amazing and audacious, I wish I had their sophistry for every argument in my life, regardless of the existence of any proof or evidence to the contrary.

Anonymous said...

Jeff Lindsay must be a member of the RLDS Church, now called Community of Christ and Restoration Branch, which broke off from the former when it gave priesthood to women.
He enjoys promoting the RLDS Two-Cumorah Mesoamerica Geography Theory for The Book of Mormon.

Did I say RLDS Church came up with the fictitious Two-Cumorah Geography theory?
Yes, the false RLDS Two-Cumorah Mesoamerica Geography Theory was created by the RLDS Church.

Anonymous said...

How is it that Jeff Lindsay can spend some umpteen years acquiring a PhD in Chemical Engineering and yet spend such little time in discovering the origin of the Two-Cumorah Mesoamerica geography theory for The Book of Mormon?

Does Jeff Lindsay need a bunch of Utah scholars to think for him? Does Bro. Lindsay need their snake-oil to fill the lamp of his testimony of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ? Does Jeff Lindsay enjoy ignoring the simple and clear statements made by the Prophet Joseph Smith and President Oliver Cowdery in 1834 in their response to the anti book “Mormonism Unvailed” [sic] wherein the Prophet was accused of plagiarizing the keystone of our religion from the unpublished Solomon Manuscript?

Why would a simple statement by President Oliver Cowdery be ignored by Jeff Lindsay, PhD.? Is it because it’s not sophisticated or complex enough? Why would Bro. Lindsay waste his time promoting the RLDS Two-Cumorah geography theory when Oliver Cowdery simply stated:

“At about one mile west rises another ridge of less height, running parallel with the former, leaving a beautiful vale between. The soil is of the first quality for the country, and under a state of cultivation, which gives a prospect at once imposing, when one reflects on the fact, that here, between these hills, the entire power and national strength of both the Jaredites and Nephites were destroyed.“

https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1834-1836/90

Are Oliver Cowdery’s words so cheap and useless that Jeff Lindsay, PhD. has to ignore them?

Anonymous said...

In June 1978, the Church announced to the media, the Revelation on the Priesthood.
It was formally accepted by The Church in the October 1978 Saturday Afternoon General Conference Session:

https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1978/10?lang=eng

In the Sunday Morning Session, Elder Mark E Peterson stated in his talk entitled “The Last Words of Moroni,” that the Hill Cumorah with its final battles is in New York:

https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1978/10/the-last-words-of-moroni?lang=eng

And yet, some BYU Professors shortly after created F.A.R.M.S. to promote the RLDS Two-Cumorah Mesoamerica Geography theory, which claims the Hill Cumorah with its final battles was in Mexico, with a secondary hill in New York.

What does Jeff Lindsay, PhD. believe?

Shall we believe in the Revelation on the Priesthood given to President Spencer W. Kimball, which has affected every aspect of the Church?
Yet not believe a member of the Quorum of The Twelve on the true location of the Hill Cumorah and instead embrace the false RLDS Two-Cumorah Mesoamerica geography for The Book of Mormon?

Are scholars more important than the Prophets, Seers and Revelators?

Anonymous said...

Does Jeff Lindsay know of the 1990 book, by Dr. John L. Sorenson?

"The Geography of Book of Mormon Events: A Source Book."

On page 31, Sorenson wrote:

"Hills, an RLDS student of the Book of Mormon, seems to deserve credit for many innovations: (1) the first regionally limited model, (2) that the lands where Book of Mormon events took place comprised exclusively Mesoamerica, (3) that the Isthmus of Tehuantepec was the narrow neck, (4) that the Usumacinta was the Sidon, and (5) the first comprehensive attempt to utilize secular scholarly literature (on the native chronicles or traditions) to settle Book of Mormon questions. The first point involves both the landing of Lehi's party in Central America and the presence of the hill Cumorah of the final Nephite battles in Mexico; actually, then, the concept of "two Cumorahs" goes back at least 75 years." (emphasis in bold)

Author(s): John L. Sorenson
Published by: Provo, UT; FARMS, 1990
https://archive.bookofmormoncentral.org/content/geography-book-mormon-events-source-book

Download the PDF here:
https://archive.bookofmormoncentral.org/sites/default/files/archive-files/pdf/sorenson/2020-01-24/john_l._sorenson_the_geography_of_book_of_mormon_events_a_source_book_1990.pdf


LE Hills or Louis Edward Hills, was a RLDS member, thus the Two Cumorah Geography Theory for The Book of Mormon originated with the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This Two Cumorah Fraud, has no basis in fact and is mere speculation on the part of a RLDS Author who died in 1926.

This theory, as noted, has been used by F.A.R.M.S., now BookofMormonCentral, the Interpreter Foundation, the Book of Mormon Archaeological Foundation or BMAF which is now the legal entity for Book of Mormon Central, FairMormon and those affiliated with these 501(c)(3) Corporations.

Anonymous said...

Is Jeff Lindsay similar to Nicodemus to whom the Lord said:

If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?
John 3:12

Jeff Lindsay said...

Before I start deleting all the repetitious posts, please note that the Church has no official policy on where the Book of Mormon took place. No official doctrine of the Church will be overthrown if the location of Cumorah is in Mesoamerica or New York State. Whether the first person who proposed a Mesoameican location for Cumorah was RLDS, LDS, Buddhis, or Wiccan has nothing to do with the plausibility of the theory. It's irrelevant.

The fact that early Latter-day Saints had no other concept to work with than the natural assumption that the hill with the gold plates was the Hill Cumorah does not establish its location. What else could they assume? It took a while for careful readers to note that the real Hill Cumorah had all the Nephite record EXCEPT the gold plates. It took time to realize that the puny 75-foot high hill where the plates were found lacked a significant source of water, was indistinguishable from all the other little hills in the area, could barely hold the cast of a play let alone a massive army, offered no significant defensive advantage, and in many ways did not fit the description of the hill in the text. It took years before Book of Mormon students became aware of the significant evidence that Joseph Smith spoke of favorable about Mesoamerican civilizations. It has taken a long time to realize that the Book of Mormon requires a place where ancient writing was common, where temples and roads and significant buildings existed, where volcanic activity was a reality, where battles in the first month took place accompanied with "the heat of the day" -- vastly unlike New York, etc., and many such evidences have gradually pointed us away from the tiny bump in New York to a more plausible hill Mesoamerica. It took many decades before detailed enough maps and surveys were available to understand how Mesoamerica could work as a Book of Mormon location. There are still puzzles and debates, and nothing settled as official Church doctrine, but for me the evidence points strongly to Mesoamerica. Sorry that is so upsetting to you!

You are free to think otherwise, but stop complaining about "how can a Ph.D. possibly not see things my way?" I find the evidence compelling, but you can believe as you wish.