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Welcome to the Jungle! Ceibal

Yesterday, we made our way to Rio Pasión, a major tributary of Rio Usumacinta. Although I personally favor Rio Grijalva as the River Sidon, Usumacinta is also a leading candidate. We took a boat along the Pasión for about 2 hours, and the scenery was gorgeous! We were far from civilization, in the midst of the jungle by the time we got off the boat. From there, we hiked into the depths of the jungle until we came to Ceibal.

“When the Land and the Stones, and the Books Tell the Story So Plain”: Quiriguá

Late last night, I finally arrived in Guatemala after being delayed in Dallas for the weekend. This morning, Stephen Smoot and I joined up with our tour group, and from there went to Quiriguá, some Classic Maya ruins dating from approximately the 5th–9th centuries AD. This, of course, means that it is post Book of Mormon. Despite this, however, there is an interesting Latter-day Saint connection to Quiriguá.

Blog Update: December 2015

Note: I haven’t given a “blog update” in a long time. And, in actuality, this is going to be a more personal update than anything else. I don’t normally share a lot of personal details on this blog, but the past 2 years have marked an important turning point in my life, and it is something I need to share. As will be evident, it does have some relevance to this blog.

Book of Mormon Central: A New Online Study Tool

Since August of this year, I have been working on a very exciting research project that will be officially launched on January 1, 2016. It is called Book of Mormon Central. The aims of Book of Mormon Central are simple: create a centralized Book of Mormon research tool. We hope to achieve this in at least four different ways: With the cooperation of other research institutions and publishers (such as Interpreter, the Religious Studies Center, BYU Studies, etc.), we are building what we hope will become a comprehensive online research archive featuring all things published on the Book of Mormon. Close to 1000 items are already in the archive, and more are being added all the time. Everything in the archive will be available for free.Using a Wiki platform, we are planning to put together Study Notes on various Book of Mormon topics. These will be encyclopedia-like entries, and the Study Notes wiki will, essentially be a free online Book of Mormon encyclopedia.An interactive online editi…

Behold, the Love of God! A Christmas Vision

Approximately 600 years before the first Christmas, a young man (probably still a teenager) from Jerusalem stood atop a mountain peak, probably not far from his father’s camp in Wadi Tayyib al-Ism or another nearby wadi. He may have been standing before the entire divine council, though all we know for certain is that he spoke directly with the Spirt of the Lord and one other divine being. He asked about the meaning of a tree. In response to his inquiry, the Spirit of the Lord showed him the following:

“There are Opportunities for Almost Anyone”: Warren Aston on Book of Mormon Research

Last week, I had the privileged of interviewing Warren Aston, who has been actively researching in Yemen and Oman on the Old World setting of 1 Nephi for longer than I have been alive. His work has led to a presentation at Cambridge University, and publications in the Journal of Arabian Studies and Wildlife Middle East News, in addition to all the LDS venues he has published in (such as BYU Studies Quarterly and Journal of Book of Mormon of Studies).

Learning How to Be Latter-day Saints: An Opportunity

By now, you have probably already heard about the new policy from the Church that has been leaked to the press about children of same-sex parents. I have not said much about it, and on topics like this I usually prefer to listen to the perspectives of others who are more directly affected, or who have more relevant experience and expertise.

Some Thoughts on “Bracketing” and the Relationship of Reason and Revelation

When I first started this blog back in 2010, I called it “Reason and Revelation.” I spelled out some thoughts I had on the relationship between the two at the time. Of course, as with all things, when I write, the thinking is not necessarily done, not even by me. Like everyone else, I keep wrestling with the tension that the two often create—a wrestle that, I must admit, I find strengthens faith.

A Great Opportunity Revisited

Back in April, I posted some information about an LDS tour of Mesoamerica, which will have a Book of Mormon theme, of course. As I said then, this is a great opportunity because Dr. Mark Wright, of BYU, is one of the very best scholars of both the Book of Mormon and of Mesoamerica.
Back in April, I lamented that my circumstances would not allow me to go. Alas, circumstances change, and mine have changed in a big way. I may talk more about that at another time. For now, the point is now I can go on this trip, and I could not be more excited! Again, like I said in April, it is nice to read, and to think, and to write about all of this stuff. And pictures really help make it come alive. But there just is nothing like actually being there. So I am excited and grateful to have this opportunity.
But I am not writing this to brag. Rather, registration for the trip is closing soon and I want to encourage anybody who can come to jump in before it too late. In addition to Mark, at least two ot…

A Proposed Anthology/Handbook on Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon

I recently realized that at present, there is no anthology (collection of papers) or “handbook” that focuses completely or even mostly focuses on the Book of Mormon in Mesoamerica. Most anthologies on the Book of Mormon, have largely focused on the Old World connections. Take, for example, Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, which consists of contributions from scholars with training in the ancient Near East largely talking about “hits” from the ancient Near Eastern geography, archaeology, culture, and linguistics. There is one paper by John L. Sorenson who is tackling the ancient American setting all by himself and having to provide a full summary of such hits in one paper.

“Facts are Stubborn Things”: The Mesoamerican Reawakening

Jonathan Neville has a tendency to write very poor intellectual history that tends to be more speculative than anything else. His post yesterday (September 14, 2015) about the “death spiral” that the Mesoamerican theory is currently going down is a classic case in point. “Every week now,” Neville declares, “we have more evidence that the Mesoamerican theory of Book of Mormon geography is in a death spiral.” While much could be said about this post, I am going to just focus on one point in his trajectory that literally made me laugh out loud. Eighth, the Mesoamerican theory has been gradually eased out of FARMS, the Maxwell Institute, and even BYU. Church curriculum has gradually de-emphasized the Mesoamerican setting. The timing for such a statement could not have been worse. Just today, the Neal A. Maxwell Institute officially released the latest issue of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. All one needs to do is to look at the Table of Contents (which has been publicly available…

Book of Mormon Geography in Neville-Nevilleland

Jonathan Neville is an advocate of the Book of Mormon Heartland model who has been generating an endless array of polemical posts against Mesoamericanists, including me, on 2 different blogs. Like other Heartlanders, he has adopted an unfortunate mode of discourse which blames Mesomaricanists for damaging faith and even misleading the Church. Also like most Heartlanders, he has never produced a detailed study of Book of Mormon geography. Despite that, he has confidently asserted, It turns out that if you put Cumorah in New York and Zarahemla in Iowa, the geographical references in the text fit nicely. The archaeology, anthropology, and geology also match up with the seas, the narrow strip of wilderness, going up and down, the narrow neck, etc..

What the Seer Stone!?! Or, Revelation and Culture

For most Mormons, unless you have been living under a rock, you’ve been seeing a lot of one on your Facebook and Twitter feeds. Maybe you shrugged your shoulders and scrolled down. Or maybe you totally freaked out. Most, I suspect, are mildly surprised, somewhat curious, and perhaps a little unsettled, but nothing you can’t get over. While not really “hidden” (as some would have it), it is true that we have not really talked much about it as Latter-day Saints. It has not played any real role in our social memory—that is, in the stories about who we are as a community, which we share and perpetuate as a community—so it is understandably unfamiliar to us. Those who dig a little deeper might find that there was a lot of this kind of thing in the early years of the Church. From not simply a historical, but an anthropological perspective, there is really nothing surprising about that the fact that as a community, we have only remembered the things we deemed important and forgot the rest. …

“The Fall Thereof was Exceedingly Great”: A Note on the Symbolism of the Great and Spacious Building

A number of scholars have proposed that the “great and spacious building” seen in Lehi’s dream was the corrupted Jerusalem temple of late pre-exilic Israel. Theologian Joseph M. Spencer, for instance, saw the great and spacious building as “a reflection of the corrupt temple of Lehi’s day, from which the wealthy Jerusalem elite would have mocked the wild-eyed prophets who dared to retreat into the wilderness to eat of the fruit of the tree of life.” Thus, Spencer concludes, “Lehi’s dream of the tree of life was at least in part meant to be understood as a critique of the self-satisfied Jerusalem establishment.”[1] Writer D. John Butler expands on this argument by suggesting a number of wordplays. First, Lehi’s comparison to the field as a “world,” possibly ʿolam (עלם; ʿlm), he suggests is a world play on ʾulam (אלם;ʾlm), the term used for the temple porch or courtyard. Second, he notes that the term hekal (היכל; hykl), is often used to refer to the temple, in its most basic meaning is…

Dueling Perspectives on the Book of Mormon, History, Method, and Interpretation

In his first blog post on the Book of Mormon, Philip Jenkins declared without hesitancy, “If I look at the Book of Mormon as a historical text, as opposed to a spiritual document, it is simply not factually correct in any particular.” He goes on: “In some controversial exchanges, I have been surprised to find how many clearly educated and literate Mormons think that the work can be defended as a work of history and archaeology. It can’t. The reason mainstream historians and scholars do not point out that fact more often is either that they are unaware of the book’s claims, or that they simply see no need to waste time on something so blatantly fictitious. This really is not debatable.” In contrast, in a recent interview Brant Gardner remarked, “This is a very interesting time for Book of Mormon studies. … We are seeing more and better correlations between the text and the ever-increasing amount of information coming from archaeology and history, both in the Old and New Worlds. The fu…

Ancient Book of Mormon Studies: A Selected Bibliography

In his back and forth with William J. Hamblin, Phillip Jenkins has flat out denied that there is any legitimate study of the Book of Mormon as an ancient text. Why? Because, he says, such work is never published in mainstream journals, academic (non-Mormon) presses, or presented at professional (non-Mormon) conferences. And, to boot, non-LDS scholars largely ignore it.
It is therefore for his benefit that I provide the following bibliography. It includes:
(1) works by LDS authors on the Book of Mormon published or presented in non-LDS venues; (2) works by non-LDS authors on the Book of Mormon published or presented in non-LDS venues; and (3) works by non-LDS authors on the Book of Mormon published or presented in LDS venues. Note that the only material included here published by an LDS press or journal will be material from non-LDS scholars.
I stress that the criteria is not agreement with the LDS position on the Book of Mormon, but engagement with it. The non-Mormon scholars may…

The Goose and the Gander

Scripture and “Western Liberal Orthodoxies”
James K. Hoffmeier is the leading advocate for a historical Exodus and the general reliability of the biblical text in reporting that event. His books on the subject were published by Oxford University Press, and he is a well-respected Egyptologist. In a paper published in 2012, Hoffmeier advanced the view “that the exodus and wilderness narratives are central to O[ld ]T[estament ]T[heology], and that without them, the tapestry of Israel’s faith and the foundational fabric of Christianity unravels.” (“‘These Things Happened’: Why a Historical Exodus is Essential for Theology,” in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?, ed. James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary [Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2012], 106.) Hoffmeier marshals a number of passages throughout the Old Testament he feels illustrate the centrality of the Exodus to the faith of ancient Israel. Again and again, Hoffmeier notes, Israel was called to trust in the Lord because he lead them o…

Tzimins are not Really Tzimins (They’re Horses)

In his Letter to a CES Director, Jeremy Runnells marvels that, according to “unofficial apologists” (what is with the need to implicitly discredit anything not “official” anyway?), “horses aren’t really horses (they’re tapirs)” in the Book of Mormon. Kevin Christensen has already pointed out that this assertion actually flattens the nuance found in the essay Runnells uses to make this claim, including the tentative evidence for horses in America. In the past, I have reviewed the work of Dr. Wade Miller, a geologist and paleontologist who has tested several pre-Columbian horse specimens which appear place horses in the New World around Book of Mormon times. This evidence is inconclusive, but demonstrates the kind of openness that remains part of the horses/Book of Mormon discussion which gets glossed over by Runnells and many others. No apologist is half as rigid as any ex-Mormon about horses being tapirs. The ex-Mormons talk about it incessantly. It is all just a big joke to them.

Nahom/Nihm: What are the Chances?

Most involved in online debates about the historicity of the Book of Mormon are familiar with Nahom, mentioned in 1 Nephi 16:34, though the average Mormon probably couldn’t even tell you that Nahom is in the Book of Mormon. It becomes important in online debates because scholars believe they have found the name and place attested to in archaeology. Reactions from skeptics have ranged from denying there is any plausible connection to brushing it off as a coincidence.  Both sides talk in terms of probabilities that have never been demonstrated. “The odds that a place by that name would be exactly where the Book of Mormon says it is are astronomical!” says the believer. “There are so many names in the Book of Mormon and so many names in the ancient Near East, Joseph Smith was bound to get one lucky guess!” declares the critic. Both of these statements need to be tethered in by the data, of course.

The Easier Shall be Made Harder and the Harder Shall be Made Easier

Review of James E. Faulconer, The New Testament Made Harder: Scripture Study Questions. Provo, Utah: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2015.

The Scholarship of Hugh Nibley and John Sorenson: The Myth of Non-Respectability

It is not uncommon to hear people say that Hugh Nibley and John Sorenson were not real, respectable scholars. That, supposedly, no one outside of Mormons have even heard of them or read their scholarship. It is certainly true neither one looms as largely in broader academia as they do in Mormon intellectual circles. Neither of them is like a Richard Bushman in their respective fields. But it is an exaggeration to say that they were irrelevant and unrespectable in their disciplines. A brief gander at the non-Mormon who’s who of contributors to the 2-volume festschrift for Hugh Nibley, and magnanimous praise they heap upon him, ought to be more than enough to dispel such myths. Sorenson’s festschrift also has non-LDS contributors, and the leading Mayanist of his generation—Michael Coe—refused to engage him at conferences because he was “too formidable.” Coe has also heaped praise on Sorenson in—of all places—a Mormon Stories interview, where he says that Sorenson is a friend, and decla…

“The Things Which my Father Saw”: The Chiastic Inclusio of 1 Nephi 11–14

When recording his sweeping vision found in 1 Nephi 11–14, Nephi appears to have framed it with an inclusio. According to Wikipidia, “In biblical studies, inclusio is a literary device based on a concentric principle, also known as bracketing or an envelope structure, which consists of creating a frame by placing similar material at the beginning and end of a section.” Wikipidia goes on to explain:

Does the Historicity of the Book of Mormon Matter?

The “historicity wars” of the bloggernacle have died down, and I am reticent to start them back up again. Since I am generally ignored by the bloggernacle, however, that is unlikely to happen. I have long pondered over the relevance of historicity for the Book of Mormon—if it matters, and if so, why it matters. As I have been reading about the experiences of Joseph Smith and others with the plates and other artifacts in the newly released From Darkness unto Light: The Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon, by Michael Hubbard MacKay and Gerrit Dirkmaat, I have once again begun to ponder the question of historicity.

The Best Information on Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: A Review Round-up

Today, Interpreter published three reviews of the soon-to-be released book on Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding.  The first review, written by Gregory L. Smith, the author or co-author of a smattering of articles on Joseph Smith’s polygamy, concludes, “[Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding] is warmly recommended for anyone who wants to learn more about Joseph’s plural marriages but particularly to those just venturing into its sometimes choppy waters. Were I not vulnerable to the sin of envy, I’d wish I had written it.”

A Great Opportunity

I have frequently commented on Book of Mormon geography, archaeology, etc. here on this blog. While reading and thinking and writing on these things is nice, and maps and photographs can do a lot to help a person visualize something, nothing is even half as good and going there yourself. I hope to have the opportunity to go too many places relevant to the Book of Mormon someday—Israel, maybe some places on the Arabian Peninsula, Guatemala, and central Mexico. At present, I need to save up for school and whatever else life has in-store for me in the near future. But I really, really, REALLY wish I could go to Mesoamerica this winter.
Why? Because Mark Wright, one of the best and brightest LDS Mesoamericanists, is leading a tour this winter, from December 26–January 4. I don’t have the words to express how incredible this opportunity is. While I mean no disrespect to others who lead such tours, I can promise you that no other tour guide else will be able to deliver the same level of e…

Patient Faith and Expanding Knowledge: Some Reflections on My Journey with the Book of Mormon (and an Invitation)

As I was working on a review of Geology of the Book of Mormon, by Jerry Grover (a book I highly recommend for reasons that will be clear when the review is released), I took a moment to reflect how much my views on the Book of Mormon have changed over the last 6 or 7 years. In certain ways, my views are no different than they were before. I still believe that the Book of Mormon is true, in the traditional Mormon sense of the word—it is the word of God, it is real history, and it is an important source for inspiration. But I very often read it differently than how I used to. When I read it now, I can’t help but be struck by how real, how authentic it seems on every page. Even when I am reading it with my family, I very often can’t help but pause to say, “this sounds a lot like a Mesoamerican…” or, “this makes a lot sense in light of how in the ancient Near East…” fill-in-the blank with whatever I observed at that moment. I find myself able to visualize the events of the book in ways I…

1 and 2 Nephi as a Temple Text

A common criticism I used to hear on my mission was that, as one counter-cult ministry put it in 2009, “there is NO evidence to suggest that the peoples in the Book of Mormon practiced ANY of the temple ceremonies that modern day Mormons practice.”[1] Personally, I always thought this criticism was pretty silly. The Book of Mormon mentions the presence of temples in virtually every major city, and of course they don’t describe the ceremonies—like us, they would have held them too scared to share in a text they knew would be public!

A Brief History Lesson

I recently stumbled onto a new website called Millennial Ex-Mormon, which at present contains nothing more than a single post explaining “Who we Are & Why we Left…” (dated to March 15, 2015, so this thing appears to be brand spanking new). As a history major, I found this particular paragraph interesting: Can you imagine if the Holocaust, the slave trade, or the attacks on 9/11 were sugar-coated or weren’t taught in schools because they give us bad feelings? Just because those events in history make us uncomfortable doesn’t mean they are any less true. Do you think that, if given the opportunity, the LDS church would hide the truth or unsavory facts of its history or organization? The implication, of course, is that the Church has not been up front about things that “make us uncomfortable” in the Mormon past. While I am sure that whoever wrote this was sincere, that does not preclude them from being mistaken or shield them from scrutiny or criticism. And I, for one, find the impl…

Kadesh, the Exodus, and the Drowning Enemy

Joshua Barman, a biblical professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, has a very lengthy article on the historicity of the Exodus. It is an interesting read. The bulk of it summarizes arguments that are well known. For what it is worth, though I am not the most widely read person on this topic, most of the well respected archaeologists I've read (W.G. Dever, B. Halpern, J.K. Hoffmeier, A.J. Frendo, C.A. Redmount, A. Mazar, etc.)  accept that there is a real historical event that lies behind the Exodus accounts, although there is some varying opinions on just how historically accurate the details of the account are. I therefore find it amusing that so many confidently assert that there is no archaeological evidence for the Exodus as if that made it case closed. Clearly, these archaeologists (who cannot all be written off as religious apologists) clearly know or understand something that those making such arguments do not. I'm getting somewhat off topic, though.

On Unrighteous Dominion, or the Unethical Wielding of Personal Power

As of yesterday, John Dehlin has officially been excommunicated. While I had intended to just let this fiasco pass with no further comment from me, something has come to my attention which I feel compelled to comment on, namely because I just don’t think a person should get away with such sheer abuse of power without at least undergoing some kind of public scrutiny.

On the Weaponization of Suicide and Moral Culpability

Let’s start with a confession: I’m really reluctant to write this blog post. This is an extremely serious subject, and one that should always, always, ALWAYS be treated with the utmost caution. And, I am utterly unqualified to comment on it. I am not a mental health expert. I am not a health professional of any kind. But there are some conversations going around about this topic, with some things being said that I think are unfair, and even dangerous. I feel like some things need to be said, and so I am going to say them.

Satan and Satire: On the Narratives of Excommunication and “Persecution”

It is my experience that when satire makes your blood boil, it is because it tells a truth that is really uncomfortable for you. As I anticipated, my recent satire has generated a lot of controversy and the people I expected to be upset are, well, upset.  One commenter in particular has zealously defended John Dehlin, and as I was beginning to respond to some of her comments, I decided that it would be better to just to write another blog post rather than let this get buried in the comments section.

BREAKING NEWS: Lucifer Cast Out of Heaven for Simply “Asking Questions”

Seraphim News DATE: In the beginning…
In a Press Release today, Lucifer announced that he has been cast out of heaven for simply asking questions and expressing doubts about the Divine Council’s so-called plan of salvation. “I am just asking questions,” Lucifer said.  “I would like everyone to be saved and happy. I have some concerns about this plan's capacity to achieve that goal.”
Lucifer says that leaders of the Divine Council used to hear him out, and even let him express these concerns to the council in the past. He said he is disheartened by the dramatic shift in approach. “I’ve been exonerated in the past. I just wish they would leave me alone. I feel a moral imperative to warn others of the risks following this plan entails. I will not simply be silent because I am threatened to be cast out.”
According to Lucifer, the plan endorsed by the Divine Council puts all our souls at serious risk of damnation. “I would just like to make sure everybody is saved and has a place her…

John Dehlin: The Naked Wolf

John Dehlin is becoming increasingly transparent in terms of his allegiances, and much of what others (including myself) have long suspected being confirmed. In short, the sheep’s skin is coming off. He seems to be freely removing it himself. Nonetheless, I’ve been meaning for some time now to call attention to an anonymous blog, titled “Dear John Dehlin,” which is making some interesting observations about his behavior and the process. If you, like me, are concerned about Dehlin’s influence on unsuspecting innocents, then I suggest you check it out.

“Quell the Raging Ocean’s Wave”: Thomas L. Kane and the Utah War

In the Spring 2014 semester, one of my classes was a Utah history course. As with essentially any upper-division history course, I had to write a term paper. I chose to write mine on Thomas L. Kane’s involvement in preventing the Utah War. Kane is arguably the most important and influential non-Mormon in Mormon history. As such, I figured it might be worth re-posting the paper here for public consumption (I have reformatted it so it looks fairly professional).