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AN ANCIENT AMERICAN SETTING FOR JERUSALEM


In the Book of Mormon, we learn that a group of Lamanites and dissident Nephites had built a city which they named Jerusalem, being named “after the land of their fathers’ nativity” (Alma 21:1, also see vs. 2). This city was near the waters of Mormon, where Alma the Elder had preached and baptized earlier (see Alma 21:1-2; cf. Mosiah 18:4-16).

            After the crucifixion of Christ, the Book of Mormon reports that a great deal of destruction took place, during which several cities are said to have been submerged by water (see 3 Nephi 9:7). This “Jerusalem” is one of those cities. 

            Based on that information, John L. Sorenson placed Jerusalem on the southern shores of Lake Atitlán, which he had designated as the waters of Mormon.[1] “The likely spot [for Jerusalem] is near Santiago Atitlan, on the extreme southwestern tip of Lake Atitlan.”[2] Realizing that Jerusalem was quickly submerged by water, Sorenson notes that “the level of Lake Atitlan has shifted dramatically – by as much as 60 feet within historical times, and up to 15 feet in a single year – so a city located on this shore could understandably be submerged quite abruptly.”[3] Sorenson also suggests that this new world “Jerusalem” would have had religious significance to those who built the city.[4]


            The merits of any theory or model are always determined not only by how well it accounts for all available information when it is first formulated, but as time passes on it is judged for how well it accommodates new information. Sorenson’s geographical model was formally published in 1985, and had been in circulation for sometime before that.[5]

            In the year 2000, Henry Benítez and Robert Samayoa, a pair of Guatemalans with expertise in underwater archaeology, reported their findings of a submerged site just off the south shore of Lake Atitlán, near Santiago Atitlán. The same researchers concluded that the city’s submergence had been relatively abrupt based on the condition of the ruins.[6] More recent research indicates this site was “an extremely important place from a spiritual point of view,” and that its submergence was likely the result of “a catastrophic event, like a volcanic eruption or landslide.”[7] Sorenson is among the many LDS researchers who have come to view volcanic activity as essential to the destruction in 3 Nephi.[8]

            While the evidence is tantalizing, caution ought to restrain us from declaring affirmatively and absolutely that this was the Book of Mormon city of Jerusalem.[9] We can say, however, that Sorenson’s original correlation is even more likely today than it was in 1985. No longer must we surmise – as Sorenson did in 1985 – that a city could be abruptly submerged by water in this area, we know that a city was abruptly submerged by water in this area.

            This obviously has implications not only for the accuracy of the Sorenson’s geographic model, but for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon in general. If the Book of Mormon were false, then a correlation like Sorenson’s ought to be completely impossible to begin with – let alone the notion of seeming more likely with time.

            Lastly, I’ve had some critics tell me that there was no evidence for submerged cities, as reported in the Book of Mormon, in Mesoamerica. At the very least, this criticism has been proven false – and has been so for more than a decade now.



Notes:
[1] See John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book; Provo, UT: FARMS, 1985), pg. 175-176; 223-225
[2] Ibid, pg. 223, bracketed portion mine.
[3] Ibid, pg. 224
[4] Ibid, pg. 223; Sorenson writes: “This Jerusalem had been consciously named after the city of the Jews. Symbols associated with the Old World Jerusalem – the ‘deep,’ the peaks, waters to the ‘east,’ and other cosmological features – were used by Old Testament prophets like Isaiah, who so much interested the dissident Nephites among these people (Mosiah 12:20-26). These symbols would have been on the minds of those who chose this site.”
[5] Brant Gardner, “Behind the Mask, Behind the Curtain: Uncovering the Illusion,” FARMS Review 17/2 (2005), pg. 150. Gardner reports personally receiving a copy of the manuscript in 1975, while knowing of others who had received earlier copies (ibid, pg. 150 n. 7).
[9] One good reason for such caution lies in the dating of these ruins. A source already cited indicates that the ruins were occupied until around AD 250 (see Grainger, “Divers probe Mayan ruins”). If that is correct, then the city was submerged about 200 years too late to be the Book of Mormon city.  Meanwhile, Lawrence Poulson informs me that a Spanish source indicates that “the waters of the lake experienced a rapid rise 2000 yrs ago,” (Lawrence Poulson, e-mail correspondence, June 21, 2011), which would place its submergence within the right time frame as the sinking of Jerusalem. Regardless, that such a submerged city exists where Sorenson argued that such a thing could happen – and that it was submerged by means similar to those suggested by Sorenson and others – serves to strengthen Sorenson’s original theory. No longer must it be argued that such an event could possibily happen there, because we now know that it did. Now, if the AD 250 is accurate, the only question left would if it had already happened once before. 

Comments

  1. John Sorenson actually made some comments about this in a presentation in 2008. He mentions that not only these ruins, but that there are have also been other ruins found under the water in this lake. So, if this city is not Jerusalem, then perhaps some of the others are. Or, they maybe some of the other cities that are mentioned in 3 Nephi 9:7.

    See the video here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZjTz5RpBkME&NR=1

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  2. The Maya are just simply a poor candidate for the Book of Mormon peoples.

    For one, 3 Nephi details the destruction of over a dozen "great cities"; the Maya didn't reach an advanced level of construction and populous cities until the Classic period (250 AD to 900 AD).

    The very article you quote about the submerged ruins place the ruins within the early Classic period, around 250 AD. Note: the events of 3 Nephi are supposed to have occurred around 34 AD--that's more that 200 years off from the archeologists' dating of the submerged ruins.

    That we discover some ruins, even submerged ones, in Central America shouldn't be too surprising, given the regions volcanic activity and such. But let's be mindful of the scale of destruction laid out in 3 Nephi: we're talking about 16 major cities and ALL of their inhabitants being utterly destroyed. Color me unimpressed if the strongest evidence for just one of these cities is dated to be over 200 years outside the BoM timeframe.

    Interesting post all the same. I'd be interested in the research regarding the other submerged finds to which you alluded.

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  3. I just noticed that you touched on the dating issue in your footnotes. Good on ya. Sorry for the premature criticism.

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  4. I'll let the pre-mature criticisms slide ;).

    As for the Maya being a poor candidate for population issues, this criticism is a bit of a surprise. If anywhere in the America's had the population sizes required by the Book of Mormon during the time frame specified, it was Mesoamerica. Just because that area peaked after the BoM times does not mean that there was simply nothing approaching what the BoM requires before that "peak." Brant Gardner addresses this line of reasoning in his review of "The Bible vs. the Book of Mormon":

    "While the high point of Mesoamerican culture occurs later, nevertheless, there were very impressive predecessors. Archaeology clearly demonstrates that there were impressive cities during Book of Mormon times. The ruins of Nakbé and El Mirador are massive sites with very impressive architecture that flourished during Book of Mormon times. All the aspects of Mesoamerican culture and society that peak during the Late Classic—social, religious, architectural, and artistic—were present in less elaborate forms much earlier, including in Book of Mormon times. In the regions where Sorenson suggests that the Book of Mormon took place, he has identified possible candidate sites that date to the correct period for the Book of Mormon and fit the geographic descriptions in the text. The pinnacle of Mesoamerican culture came later but was built on a foundation that is known to have been in the area Sorenson suggests for Book of Mormon activities and during the correct time. (http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/review/?vol=17&num=2&id=581)

    In addition to that, it seems worth noting that pre-classic era is seriously understudied. Most people are much more interested in Classic times, so confident conclusions about the lack of population and cultural sophistication seem to me unwarranted.

    In Sorenson's book he identify's candidates for several cities dating to the right time, and having the right populations. Sorenson also points out that in the text, "great city" does not necessarily indicate large populations, as in at least on instance it is used to identify a city with less then 500 inhabitants. (As an aside, Sorenson's final book on the subject will be coming out next year, and as I understand it, this work should provide some updates to the 1985 version, so I look forward to learning what is new).

    Lastly, you mentioned the fact that the Book of Mormon mentions 16 destroyed cities, so finding one that might correlate is not all that impressive. I think you have blurred a lot of facts here, so here are a few important points to consider:

    1. First, most of the cities mentioned as destroyed in the BoM are only mentioned that one time, with no details given about their whereabouts. So we could never possibly locate them, short of finding a city with the said name found on an inscription (an unlikely scenario for any Mesoamerican pre-classic site at this point). Any random city found that is shown to have been destroyed around the time of Christ (by the means described in the text) could very well be one of them.

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  5. (Continued)


    2. Second, finding "destroyed" sites isn't exactly easy. Heck, finding ANY site isn't exactly easy, especially when we don't know where to look. The site mentioned in this post was found by complete accident, and that is the story on numerous archaeological finds. If someone hadn't ever stumbled into them, we may have never known they existed. Given that finding archaeological sites is generally a pure chance happening - especially when dealing with sites buried underground or submerged by water or otherwise "destroyed" - I don't think it is fair that we expect confident location and identification of all 16 cities (especially when we add that the text gives us no clues on where to look for most of them).

    3. Lastly, just because I only talk about one in particular here does not mean there are not other interesting correlations. Zarahemla is said to have burned in 3 Nephi 9, and Soreonson points out the sites in the area of his "Zarahemla" are known to have been damaged by fire and then re-built around the time of Christ. I choose this particular example simply because I found it interesting that supporting evidence emerged (pun fully intended) AFTER Sorenson made the correlation.

    One final thought, while it is not necessarily compelling, it seems to me worth thinking about the fact the Joseph Smith produced this book in 1830, before much of anything was known in Mesoamerica, in which he describes what seems like a fantastic tale of destruction of cities in numerous ways only to have subsequent research discover that all the ways cities are destroyed in the text are known phenomena to have occurred in Mesoamerica. Again, it seems worth at least pondering on. A less cynical, more thoughtful approach seems merited here before any conclusions are drawn.

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  6. Thanks for the response.

    I'll stay silent where it concerns Mesoamerican studies. I'm no expert on those matters, and I have no interest in being one. The problem I run into is that I do not trust Mormon scholars where it concerns Mesoamerican research, but that research often goes unaddressed by other Mesoamerican scholars because Mormonism isn't on their radar. So consequently, the only rebuttals the likes of FARMS sees is from Christian ministries or bloggers like myself ha ha.

    That said, even a lot of apologists don't find the Maya-BOM connection very strong. FAIRLDS writes:

    "The assumption by critics that LDS associate the Nephites and the Lamanites with "the Maya" is an oversimplification of the facts. Most Church members view "the Maya" as a single, homogeneous group of people whom they associate with the magnificent ruins of the Classic Mayan civilization found in Mesoamerica."

    So if it's recognized that the BoM peoples were merely coexistent with the Maya people, then insofar as these ruins are identified as Mayan, do they really constitute evidence for the BoM?

    You're right that it'll be nearly impossible to locate and identify all or any of the lost BoM cities. That these aspects of BoM geography aren't falsifiable, though, is hardly a strength. Because the BoM isn't specific, it allows LDS scholars to claim many Mesoamerican discoveries as a validation of the BoM. That doesn't mean that they cannot be evidences for the BoM. Rather, I'm just frustrated by the convenience of it all.

    Last point: I don't think it's interesting that Smith in 1830 would imagine the destruction detailed in Third Nephi. It just seems like your standard fare apocalyptica, especially for an inventive mind like Smith's in the Second Great Awakening.

    I'd like to invite you to write a post about the most compelling BoM evidences for the SHAFT blog, Neal. Would you be interested?

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  7. While it's not a matter of distrusting Mormon scholars on Mesoamerican matters, I too lament that we don't get to here much of an alternative point-of-view from anyone qualified in the matter. I will also say I find your automatic distrust of Mormons on the matter more then a little strange. I don't automatically distrust a source because they are atheists, or even because they are ex- or anti-Mormon, though I of course keep in mind that is the perspective they are coming from. I simply don't know how anyone can feel they have made a fair minded judgement when they distrust those with an opposing point-of-view a priori.

    As for the "Maya = Nephite" forumla, the FAIRLDS quote you offer seems to me is saying NOT the Nephites do not equal Maya, but rather that this is an "oversimplification." The sentance right after the end of your quote says: "LDS research has focused on identifying the characteristics of the Preclassic Mayan culture, which does indeed cover the time period addressed by the Book of Mormon."

    The point is, the Nephites were a sub-culture of "the Maya," which is a broad label associated with several cultures. I wrote a paper on the functions of ancestor worship among the Maya for my anthropology class this last semester. The paper was, to be honest with you, terrible (thankfully my teacher did not look very closely at it), but one thing i noticed as I did research for it is when scholars talk about "Maya" they are talking about all sorts of groups. Another point to be made is that they are labeled mostly by modern labels. They didn't call themselves "Maya" or any of the other names now given them (just like "Egyptians" didn't call themselves "Egyptians" either). Could on of the sub-groups have called themselves Nephites? Who knows. The point is, the Nephites would have blended in the the surrounding culture (just and Christians and Jews blended in with their "pagan" neighbors).

    The frustration on the non-falsifiable point is understandable. The BoM requires faith, I think that as it is supposed to be. Mesoamerican parallels do not serve as "vailidation" so much as they do simply evidence for what some would call "rational belief." They show that it is not irrational to believe that people, places, and events described in the BoM actually happened. This sometimes helps provide room to allow faith a chance to grow. Frankly, I see apologetic success in this matter as crucial to the BoM getting the kind of attention from the broader academic community that we both seem to want. No one takes seriously a view which they see as irrational, so until that a-priori-barrier can be taken down, the BoM will never be carefully examined by non-Momron scholars.

    As for your final inquiry, I would be highly interested in writing a post for USU-SHAFT blog on BoM evidence. Naturally, I would like some time to prepare and write it, but I would be willing. We can discuss further details.

    Also, we still need to do lunch :)

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  8. When I say I distrust LDS scholars where BoM/Mesoamerican studies are concerned, that is not to say that I think they are dishonest. Moreover, by distrust I do NOT mean disregard. When an LDS scholar makes a good point, I consider it. All I meant to say is that I'm always very aware of the perspective they're coming from, just as I'd expect you to be aware of my perspective.

    That said, I do have an additional concern with LDS scholarship that goes beyond simply being aware of its perspective. While I'm an atheist and inadvertently filter information through that lens, I am not on the payroll of some atheist organization. When LDS scholars have to worry about staying in their employers good graces, it can discourage credible (that is to say balanced) research.

    About the post: You have plenty of time. I really hope you do consider writing something though. Just keep me posted.

    And yes, let's do lunch soon.

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  9. Thanks for the clarification on the distrust issue. I think I see where you are coming from now. the "employer" concern is reasonable enough, as well, but I make that consession with a few caveats:

    1. Very few "apologists," including those who have published with the Maxwell Institute (MI), are actually employed at MI, and many aren't even working at BYU.

    2. Of those who do work there, I don't think any of them feel like it has impaired their freedom to study and publish on the matter openly and honestly. If they do feel that way, they are always free to seek other employment. I think I have already mentioned once to you about how Bill Hamblin sought out employment at BYU precisely because it afforded him the freedom to consider Mormon topics more openly (as he had been restricted from publishing on them by other employers).

    Anyway, I've already got some idea's for a blog post with USU SHAFT, but it will likely be a month or two before I can have one ready. I've a got a family reunion, and then we are moving and I'll be starting a new job, so it'll be sometime. I'll contact you via facebook or email to further discuss it.

    Obviously some of the things mentioned in the above paragraph also make pinning down a time for lunch difficult, but as things settle I'm sure we can find a time before I start school back up in the fall. I'll also contact you about it when I know more.

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