Skip to main content

Mark Wright vs. Earl Wunderli: How Perspective Changes Everything

A Depiction of Mesoamerican human sacrifice, from Mark Wright's Article.
Notice the jaguar and macaw, on each side waiting to be sacrificed next. Cf. Alma 34:10
Last year, Earl Wunderli published study claiming to show that the Book of Mormon was written by Joseph Smith strictly by internal evidence. It has been critically reviewed by Brant Gardner, Robert Rees, and Matt Roper with Paul Fields and Larry Bassist (forthcoming from BYU Studies Quarterly). For Wunderli, one of the curiosities that seems to indicate a 19th century authorship for the Book of Mormon is that, “when Jesus appears, he invites the multitude to thrust their hands into the sword wound in his side and feel the nail holes in his hands and feet. How Nephites would know the significance of the wounds is a question.” (Earl M. Wunderli, An Imperfect Book: What the Book of Mormon Tells Us about Itself [Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2013], 217.)

When I first read Wunderli’s comments, I must admit I was a little amused. Why? Today’s paper from Interpreter is Mark Wright’s presentation “Axes  Mundi: Ritual Complexes in Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon,” from the Temple on Mount Zion Conference in September of 2012. I love Wright’s work because he finds such subtle ways in which the Mesoamerican setting changes the way we understand the Book of Mormon and sheds light on perplexing issues. I remember being at the conference and listening to Wright. In it, he talks about Christ’s visit to the Nephites and Mesoamerican sacrifice.  Wright explains:
The typical method of human sacrifice was to stretch the victim across a stone altar and have his hands and feet held down by four men. A priest would then make a large incision directly below the ribcage using a knife made out of razor-sharp flint or obsidian, and while the victim was yet alive the priest would thrust his hand into the cut and reach up under the ribcage and into the chest and rip out the victim’s still-beating heart. (emphasis mine)
Indeed, this is a very different method of sacrifice than crucifixion, and many among the Nephites likely would not have understood the method by which Christ was killed. But, Wright notices something interesting about how Christ invites them to see his wounds.
when Christ appeared to the Nephites, he may have been communicating with them according to their cultural language when he invited them to come and feel for themselves the wounds in his flesh. He bade them first to thrust their hands into his side, and secondarily to feel the prints in his hands and feet (3 Nephi 11:14). This contrasts with his appearance to his apostles in Jerusalem after his resurrection. Among them, he invited them to touch solely his hands and feet (Luke 24:39–40). Why the difference? To a people steeped in Mesoamerican culture, the sign that a person had been ritually sacrificed would have been an incision on their side — suggesting they had had their hearts removed — whereas for the people of Jerusalem in the first century, the wounds that would indicate someone had been sacrificed would have been in the hands and the feet — the marks of crucifixion. (emphasis mine)
Obviously, Christ was not sacrificed in a Mesoamerican way, with his heart ripped-out. But the crucial point for all to understand is not how he was sacrificed, merely that he actually was sacrificed. A mark on the side, below the ribcage, would have communicated that message to Nephites in Mesoamerica quite effectively.

In contrasting Wright’s insightful approach with that of Wunderli’s, there is an important lesson to be learned: perspective and context can change everything. There really is no such thing as a wholly “internal” reading of the text. We all bring perspectives, assumptions, and understandings to the text that are external to it, and drive our interpretations of it. Wunderli does not read the text through a Mesoamerican lens (and would not be capable of so doing, in any case), and so he finds Christ’s showing of his wounds to be a curious feature, bringing in the assumption that the wounds would make no sense to anyone outside of the Roman empire. Meanwhile, Wright shows a careful reading comparing Christ’s showing of wounds in both the Old World and the New, notices the subtle differences, and seeks to understand how a setting within the New World serves to explain those differences. I’ll leave it to readers to decide for themselves which reading is more productive. 


Popular posts from this blog

Nephite History in Context 4: The Iron Dagger of King Tutankhamun

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth contribution to my new series Nephite History in Context: Artifacts, Inscriptions, and Texts Relevant to the Book of Mormon. Check out the really cool (and official, citable) PDF version here. To learn more about this series, read the introduction here. To find other posts in the series, see here.
The Iron Dagger of King Tutankhamun
The discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 was a worldwide sensation, and to this day is widely regarded as one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all-time due to the veritable treasure trove of artifacts found inside. The treasure was so great that to this day many of the items have yet to be studied. Likewise, Tutankhamun (ca. 1336–1327 bc) remains the best-known Pharaoh of Egypt in popular culture today, but details about his actual reign and accomplishments are still generally unknown among the public. Some are aware that he ascended to the throne as a mere child, about 8 years old, but few r…

Nephite History in Context 3: Vered Jericho Sword

Editor’s Note: This is the third contribution to my new series Nephite History in Context: Artifacts, Inscriptions, and Texts Relevant to the Book of Mormon. Check out the really cool (and official, citable) PDF version here. To learn more about this series, read the introduction here. To find other posts in the series, see here.
Vered Jericho Sword
Vered Jericho was a small ancient Israelite fortress first excavated in the winter of 1982 by archaeologist Avraham Eitan. It’s located roughly 3.7 miles (6 km) south of Jericho proper, on the northern side of Wadi es-Suweid. The walls still stand over 6 and half feet tall (2 m) and nearly 3 feet (0.9 m) wide, with two towers on each corner flanking the gate. Inside the fort is a courtyard and two dwelling structures. The fort may have also had cultic or ritual functions as a “high place” (beit bamah). It dates to the late seventh to early sixth century BC, and was destroyed by fire, quite likely in either the Babylonian siege of …

Responding to the New Video on Nahom as Archaeological Evidence for the Book of Mormon

Many of my (few) readers have probably already seen the new video by Book of Mormon Central on Nahom as archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon, starring my good friend (and co-author on a related paper) Stephen Smoot. If you haven’t, check it out:

As usual, comments sections wherever this video is shared have been flooded by Internet ex-Mormons insisting this not evidence for the Book of Mormon. I’ve actually had a few productive conversations with some reasonable people who don’t think Nahom is, by itself, compelling evidence—and I can understand that. But the insistence that Nahom is not evidence at all is just, frankly, absurd. So I’ll just go ahead and preempt about 90% of future responses to this post by responding to the most common arguments against Nahom/NHM now:
1. The Book of Mormon is false, therefore there can be no evidence, therefore this is not evidence. First, this is circular reasoning. It assumes the conclusion (Book of Mormon is false) which the evidence pre…