Book of Mormon Myths
The word myth has more than one meaning. For example, a myth may be a traditional or legendary story that explains a cultural practice or a natural phenomenon. Or a myth may be simply an invented story that has little or no basis in fact. In this article, we have in mind yet a third definition of the word myth. For our purposes a myth is a false belief or set of beliefs that has evolved in a person's mind.
As we study the Book of Mormon, we read of colorful and memorable characters and of their remarkable experiences. In our mind's eye we don't like to leave those happenings merely suspended in mid air. It is natural for each of us to attempt to put the book's events into a hypothetical setting. We intuitively imagine the topography of the land, the faces and demeanor of the characters, and their social interactions. This is the way we learn. Any fact or concept that we hear, or read about, will not pique our interest or be long remembered unless it relates to something we already know; or to some framework or platform that is already established in our mind. For example, as we read of the family of Lehi traveling from Jerusalem to Bountiful, we intuitively fill in many of the facts that are not stated. We tend to make decisions about the family's experience that are not stated in the book. We have to decide such things as: Did they interact with other people, or did they avoid such contacts? What was the terrain like? Did they travel long distances along the coast of the Red Sea? Did they travel with camels? Were they experienced caravaners, or were they city dwellers who were uncomfortable in the desert? How hospitable or inhospitable was the desert land through which they traveled? We tend to create for ourselves much of the stage setting for the Book of Mormon stories. The setting we create becomes our intuitive bias. It's the way we see the story.
While this is a perfectly natural process, we must recognize that often our intuitive biases are incorrect. We are particularly at risk of forming erroneous biases if we are uninformed about the realities of the ancient setting of the Book of Mormon. For example, if we know nothing about Arabia in 600 BC, this does not prevent us from applying our intuition and deciding what Arabia was like in those days. But our intuitive notions are based on our being poorly informed-what we might call naive intuition. On the other hand, if we have made a study of ancient Arabia, its culture, its lands, its people, then we become better able to form more accurate biases based on the reality of the actual lands through which Lehi and his family traveled.
Members of the Church have been reading the Book of Mormon since its initial publication and have been forming such biases. They are often based on naive or uninformed intuition. These biases form the basis of many false ideas which have been passed down from generation to generation and have become "common knowledge" about the book. These false biases are often the basis of Book of Mormon myths. They are the notions about the book which many people believe, but which are not true.
Much of the material from which this article was taken is contained in the article "Before DNA" by John L. Sorenson and Matthew Roper (Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, vol. 12, number 1, 2003, 6-23).
Myth One-Native American Indians Are the Descendants of Book of Mormon Peoples
Latter-day Saints plausibly suppose that at least a few Nephite/Lamanite (Israelite) genes could have spread out from the Mesoamerican core, but archaeologists cannot presently identify precisely any these people. It is clear that Mesoamerica was a center from which influence spread throughout certain portions of the Western Hemisphere. For example Amerindian groups in the southwestern United States area were heavily influenced by peoples in Mexico. Expert opinions differ on how persuasive the evidence is for the movement of actual gene bearers from the one area to the other.
One scholar wrote, "Mesoamerican symbolism, ceremonialism, and ceremonial art swept through the . . . Anasazi [people of about AD 1300]" (J. Charles Kelley, "Mesoamerica and the Southwestern United States," in Archaeological Frontiers and External Connections, vol. 4 of Handbook of Middle American Indians, ed. G. F. Ekholm and G. R. Willey [Austin: University of Texas Press, 1966], 109). Another archaeologist, Charles Di Peso, described four patterns of religious worship among people during the late pre-Spanish period near the northeast Arizona border. All involved worship of Central Mexican gods. Some archaeologists speak of cultural "influences" spreading by some indirect means, like pollen in the wind. It seems more likely that human agents were most always necessary in order to convey such specific influences between distant points. It seems likely, therefore, that these very specific cultural religious practices arrived with small Mesoamerican immigrant groups. Di Peso concluded that cultural influences were spread through a minor trickle of actual Mexican people who moved northward over several millennia, perhaps from 3,000 BC until AD 1400 (Michael B. Stanislawski, "Mesoamerican Influence in Northeastern Arizona," in International Congress of Americanists, XXXVI Congreso Internacional de Americanistas, Espana, 1964: Actas Y memorias, ed. Alfredo Jimenez Nunez [Seville, Spain: ECESA, 1966], 1:309).
Mesoamerican peoples and cultures were also generally influential on the Mississippi River valley and the Southeastern United States. Maize spread there from Mesoamerica, and substantial knowledge of various cultural features also slowly spread into the area. Mesoamerican influence is seen especially the Mississippian period, from around AD 900 to perhaps AD 1500. From Georgia to Oklahoma and from Louisiana to Wisconsin, large temple mounds were erected, and ideas about rulership seem also to have been shared. Again, the tendency is for one wing of the archaeological community to consider that the similarities to Mexico do not conclusively demonstrate that any human biological connection was involved. Yet some of the concepts, implied or obvious, that connect the two areas strike others as sufficiently pointed to suggest specific imports, and probably people, going beyond vague "influence." While it cannot be shown for sure that actual persons arrived in the Mississippi area from Mexico, it seems likely they did.
In the early 20th century, the concept developed and was widely accepted among anthropologists that all American Indians formed a monolithic "race" whose ancestors came from northern Asia. This extreme view is no longer held, and it has become clear that substantial variation exists among so-called Native Americans. Among all of the native Indian peoples of North and South America, many ethnic origins are evident, especially in the clay figurines of these people which have been discovered. Some specific ethnicities which are obvious in these carved likenesses include: African blacks, Southeast Asians, Chinese, perhaps Koreans, possibly Japanese, and Mediterranean people. Of special interest is a whole class of "Semitic" or "Jewish" or "Uncle Sam" faces, so called by some archaeologists or art historians because of the large aquiline noses and beards. Beards are generally sparse or absent among most American Indian groups.
There is also evidence for long-lasting relationships between Mesoamerica and South America. Maize moved southward from its origin in western Mexico more than 6,000 years ago. Many cultural characteristics as well as traits of human biology quite certainly accompanied it. Some of the linkage was facilitated by travelers on raft or ship who moved back and forth along the Pacific Coast of the Americas for thousands of years. In a few cases, whole populations and their cultures seem to have made the move. Dr. Marshall Newman has also presented morphological data from physical anthropology to argue that groups of people migrated to South America from Mesoamerica (Migrations in New World Culture History, University of Arizona Social Science Bulletin no. 27 [Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1958). Later indications are that South America was the source of south-to-north influence (a few actual Incan buildings have been found in western Mexico).
Myth Two-The Whole Hemisphere Theory
Though specific data are lacking, it seems likely that members of the Church, both in the days of Joseph Smith and today hold to the idea that the "land northward" is North America, the "land southward" is South America, and the "narrow neck" is the Isthmus of Panama. For a discussion of this concept, see the supplemental article, Book of Mormon Geography.
Myth Three-All Nephites Are Descendants of Nephi; All Lamanites Are Descendants of Laman and Lemuel
At many points in the Book of Mormon, we find the clear implication that the terms Nephite and Lamanite bear multiple meanings throughout the entire Book of Mormon period.
At least six senses of the term Nephite can be identified: The term sometimes referred to (1) those belonging to the relatively small lineage consisting of direct descendants from Lehi's son Nephi (compare Mormon 1:5; 3 Nephi 5:20); (2) a larger "noble" group consisting of the descendants of the kings who succeeded Nephi, each of whom bore Nephi as a royal title (see Jacob 1:11); (3) those descended from, as well as all those who were ruled by, any of the monarchs bearing the title Nephi; (4) believers in a particular set of religious practices and ideas (compare Jacob 4:4-6; 4 Nephi 1:36-38); (5) participants in a particular cultural tradition (see 2 Nephi 5:6; 2 Nephi 5:9-18); and (6) an ethnic or "racial" group (see Jacob 3:5; Jacob 3:8-9).
Most of the same principles of naming applied to the Lamanites. One could be called by that term on several bases, such as direct descent (e.g., Alma 55:4; Alma 55:8), political choice (e.g., Alma 54:24; Moroni 9:24), or a combination of political, religious, and other factors (e.g. 3 Nephi 2:12; 3 Nephi 2:14-16; D&C 10:48). Note that people could choose to change their affiliation by adoption or formal transfer of allegiance (see e.g., Mosiah 25:13; Alma 43:4; Alma 45:13-14).
The broadest societal category in the Book of Mormon is the prophetic title Lamanite. This category is the "remnant" seed of Laman, Lemuel, and Ishmael, to whom particular promises had been made. Those same promises were extended also to others besides direct descendants. The words of Lehi's promise in 2 Nephi 1:5 refer not only to his elder sons' literal biological descendants but also to "all those who should be led out of other countries by the hand of the Lord." No one, Lehi added in pronouncing his blessings, would come into his promised land unless they were "brought by the hand of the Lord" (verse 6), so "this land [will be] consecrated unto him [everybody] whom he shall bring" (verse 7). This last expression refers not only to the eventual Gentile (European) settlers of the 16th through 21st centuries but also to those ancient peoples whom the Lord brought as well (see verses 10-11). This prophetic title of Lamanite also included many of the survivors of the "people of Zarahemla" or Zoramites as well as any Jaredite survivors who must also have been around.
According to the title page of the Book of Mormon, the generic term Lamanite was applied by Moroni to all the amalgamated groups whose descendants would survive right down to restoration times as "the [American] remnant of the house of Israel." There is no indication anywhere in the Book of Mormon that "the Lamanites" were to be a genetically exclusive line descending only from the two oldest sons of Lehi's family.
Myth Four-All Inhabitants of North and South America Prior to the Sixteenth Century Descended from Book of Mormon Peoples
Have church leaders ever made clear whether or not people other than those directly noticed in the Book of Mormon were included among the "native" population of the Americas? The introduction to the 1981 edition of the Book of Mormon, in referring to the three immigrant parties mentioned in the Book of Mormon (Jaredites, Lehites, and Mulekites), called them "the principle ancestors of the American Indians." John L. Sorenson and Matthew Roper, in their article "Before DNA" (Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, volume 12, number 1, 2003, 12) pointed out that this phrasing (1) is not found in scripture, (2) was never used by Joseph Smith, and (3) did not appear in any previous edition of the Book of Mormon.
Joseph Smith himself laid the foundation for variances in interpretation of this question while serving as responsible editor of the Times and Seasons in Nauvoo. On one occasion he mentioned that descendants of the former Toltec rulers of Guatemala claimed that they had "descended from the house of Israel," their line having split off from Moses's party of Israelites some time after the escape from Egypt. Legend had it that those Israelite Toltec ancestors made their way to Mexico, and on arrival there they "found it already inhabited by people of different nations" (Times and Seasons, 15 September 1842, 921). Hugh Nibley observed, "Whether such a migration ever took place or not, it is significant that the Prophet was not reluctant to recognize the possibility of other migrations than those mentioned in the Book of Mormon." He continued, "There is not a word in the Book of Mormon to prevent the coming to this hemisphere of any number of people from any part of the world at any time, provided only that they come with the direction of the Lord; and even this requirement must not be too strictly interpreted" (Lehi in the Desert; The World of the Jaredites; There were Jaredites, 250-51).
Other church leaders have acknowledged the possibility that other peoples have come to the Americas before Columbus. Orson Pratt wrote that since Book of Mormon times "there [have been] many nations who have come here [before Columbus]. And lastly Europeans have come from what is termed the old world across the Atlantic" (JD, 12:343). In 1909 Elder B. H. Roberts observed, "It is possible that Phoenician vessels might have visited some parts of" America, as well as, perhaps, other settlers "by way of the Pacific Islands" or via the "Behring straits" (New Witnesses for God, [Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1909], 2:356). In the 5 April 1929 general conference of the church, Anthony W. Ivins, first counselor in the First Presidency, urged: "We must be careful in the conclusions that we reach. The Book of Mormon teaches the history of three distinct peoples . . . who came from the old world to this continent. It does not tell us that people did not come after. . . . We do believe that other people came to this continent" (CR, April 1929, 15). Elder Widtsoe added in 1937, "There may also have been others [in ancient America] not recorded in the Book or not known to the ancient authors" (Seven Claims of the Book of Mormon: A Collection of Evidences [Independence, Mo.: Zion's Printing and Publishing, 1937], 87).
In short, some of the leading brethren have long believed that peoples not mentioned in the Book of Mormon lived or might have lived in ancient America, and they have assumed that the idea need not trouble believers in the Book of Mormon. Obviously there is no accepted or orthodox church position that only Book of Mormon peoples were present in the land.
Further, archaeologists several years ago were inclined to think that it is unreasonable to think that ancient people could have sailed across the ocean to or from America. Many such voyages have now been documented, and it is entirely feasible that other parties-other than Jaredites, Lehites, and Mulekites-could have made these journeys.
In the past most researchers in the life sciences, like their colleagues in archaeology and geography, typically claim that the two hemispheres, commonly called the Old World and the New World, effectively had distinct histories. In recent years this conservative view has been progressively weakening. There is now strong evidence to suggest that extensive cross-ocean voyaging has been taking place for at least the last 8,000 years. There is compelling evidence suggesting that humans from numerous Old World areas reached the New World during this period.
The Book of Mormon student should also be made aware of another possibility-that remnants of Book of Mormon peoples have not survived to the present. James Dixon has described the case of Norse settlers in Northamerica (in the Canadian arctic) as "a clearly documented case of a major and long-lived transoceanic colonization of the Americas that ultimately failed." According to Dixon, events since the Norse went extinct have obscured the scientific record so that not only is the archaeological evidence for their presence very limited but there are no recognized survivors in North America. He concludes that "the original Norse colonization [there] cannot be demonstrated ever to have happened (Quest for the Origins of the First Americans, 130-31; see also "Hints of Frequent Pre-Columbian Contacts," Science 288/5467 , 783).
In recent years there has been increasing interest in the use of DNA studies to evaluate ancestry. Some have made the claim that there is no evidence of any link between American Indians and Israelites (Book of Mormon people). Because of the complexity of the origins of Native Americans, at least a small part of which has been elucidated above, DNA scientists cannot not, and perhaps never will be able to tell reliably whether Native Americans have links to Israelites.
A pertinent observation about DNA research has recently been made by BYU professor Daniel C. Peterson. Dr. Peterson wrote, "Evangelical critics cannot fairly use DNA evidence to discount the Book of Mormon when the same DNA evidence shows that migrations to America took place more than 10,000 years ago, long before many evangelicals believe the earth was created" (FARMS Update no. 167, volume 23, 2003, 6).
Myth Five-When Lehi and his Family Arrived in the New World, it was a Pristine Land Without Other Inhabitants
Several lines of evidence in the Book of Mormon point directly to the presence of other peoples in the land from the very beginning of Nephite colonization. One of the most telling passages in the record of Nephi relates the confrontation of Sherem and Jacob. By the time Sherem showed up in the first Nephite settlement, the maximum population that could have resulted from the most rapid conceivable natural descent from Nephi and his fellow settlers would not have exceeded a few dozen adults. Yet Sherem had never met Jacob, the chief Nephite priest (see Jacob 7:1-26), and he had come from some other settlement.
Questions about population actually arise still earlier in the story. We find Nephi setting out to build a temple when his adult male relatives in the little colony in the land of Nephi apparently would have numbered only three: Nephi, Sam, and Zoram (plus Jacob and Joseph if they were old enough). So few men could not have put up much of a temple. Furthermore, what kind of wars could the group have fought against the Lamanites with the miniscule "army" that the handful of immigrants could have mustered at the end of 25 years in the land? (see 2 Nephi 5:34). Without increases in the early population of the two factions that can only be explained by the accretion of people from a resident population, reference to "wars" could not be a significant reality. We who are confident of the historicity of the Book of Mormon are assured from these incidents and other textual references that substantial numbers of local "native" residents had joined the immigrant parties. If we had the plates of Nephi that reported the more historical part of their story (the 116 pages of lost manuscript), perhaps we would find on them explicit information about such contacts with resident populations.
Other statements in the Book of Mormon also indicate that the writers were familiar with, rather than surprised by, the idea of non-Israelites living among the Nephites. The only example we will cite is when Alma visited the city of Ammonihah and Amulek introduced himself with the words, "I am a Nephite" (Alma 8:20). Since the city was nominally under Nephite rule (see Alma 8:11-12; Alma 8:24) and was a part of the land of Zarahemla at the time, Amulek's statement seems nonsensical, unless many, perhaps most, of the people in the land of Ammonihah did not consider themselves to be Nephites, by whatever criteria.
The familiarity of Lehi's people with the words of Old Testament prophets should have led them to expect to be placed in their new land in the midst of other people. The prophets in old Israel had often announced that the tribes of Israel would be "scattered among all people" (Deuteronomy 28:64), would be "removed into all the kingdoms of the earth" (Jeremiah 29:18), and would become "wanderers among the nations" (Hosea 9:17). Further, "the Lord shall scatter you among the nations, and ye shall be left few in number among the heathen, whither the Lord shall lead you" (Deuteronomy 4:27). These prophecies made plain that the whole house of Israel was subject to being scattered among non-Israelite peoples who would be more numerous than they. The people of Lehi were explicitly told that they would suffer this scattering (see 1 Nephi 10:11-12). The allegory of the olive tree spelled their fate out even more plainly. Branches broken off the tame tree, which represented historical Israel (see Jacob 5:3), were to be grafted onto the roots of "wild" olive trees, meaning non-Israelite groups. That is, there was to be a demographic union between two groups, "young and tender branches" from the original tree (Israel) represented as being grafted onto wild root-stock in various parts of the vineyard or earth (see Jacob 5:8-9). Jacob 5:25 and 43 clearly speak of Lehi's people being represented by such a broken-off branch. That branch was to be planted in "the choicest spot" of the vineyard. In that prime location, the Lord had already cut down "that which cumbered this spot of ground," clearly a reference to the elimination of the Jaredites. In addition, the statement that one part of the new hybrid tree brought forth good fruit while the other portion "brought forth wild fruit" is an obvious reference to the Nephites and the Lamanites respectively (verse 45).
So the Lehite "tree" of the allegory was constituted of a geographically transplanted population from the original Israelite promised land "grafted" onto a wild root-joined with a non-Israelite people. (Note that the Lord considered the new root to be "good" despite its being "wild,"-verse 48). This allegorical description requires that a non-Israelite "root"-"other peoples" in terms of this present discussion-already be present on the scene where the "young and tender branch," Lehi's group, would be amalgamated with them.
Even without postulating the admixture of the original Book of Mormon immigrants with native indigenous populations, the plausibility of Book of Mormon population numbers have found scientific support. It has now been shown that the size and fluctuations in Nephite numbers resemble the patterns of known historical populations. James E. Smith, one of the chief architects of the widely used Cambridge model for estimating historical populations, has compared the Book of Mormon account with other ancient civilizations by utilizing the Cambridge demographic model to demonstrate possible numbers of Nephites. He notes, "if there is any hallmark of ancient historical records, it is their strong tendency to present [what might intuitively seem to be] puzzling, unrealistic, and inconsistent population figures" ("How Many Nephites? The Book of Mormon at the Bar of Demography," in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited, ed. Reynolds, 255-93). Applying the Cambridge model with conservative assumptions about the growth of the Nephite population, Smith calculated that the numbers in the text are on the high end of what would be predicted scientifically, but they remain plausible. For example, we know that "most of today's six million French Canadians descend from about five thousand immigrant pioneers of the seventeenth century," reflecting a much higher actual fertility rate than Smith assumes for his reconstruction of Nephite demographics.
Myth Six-The Hebrew Tongue Used by Lehi's and Mulek's Immigrant Parties Became Foundational for All Ancient American languages
The number of Native American languages spoken at the time European conquerors or settlers arrived is not known for sure, but a current best estimate is around 1,000 from Alaska to Argentina. Methods of classifying those into larger groupings are varied and inconsistent, but hemisphere-wide the number of major groupings is on the order of 80. In addition, there were about 80 "isolates," that is, single tongues that have not been convincingly connected to any other language or grouping. Mesoamerican languages fit into perhaps 14 families, with upwards of 200 separate tongues having once existed in the area. A family is a group of tongues believed to have descended from a common ancestral language.
Indications are strong that there was considerable linguistic differentiation in Mesoamerica as early as 1500 BC. Long prior to Lehi's day, Mesoamerica was already linguistically complex. Moreover, many archaeological sites were occupied continuously, or so it appears, for thousands of years without clear evidence in the material remains of any replacement of the culture of the inhabitants. That continuity suggests, although it does not prove, that many of those people probably did not change their tongues. All of this means that is impossible that the Hebrew tongue used by Lehi's and Mulek's parties became foundational for all ancient American languages.
When we examine the social and cultural implications of what the Book of Mormon record tells us, we discover that it cannot possibly be a "history of the American Indians." The Book of Mormon was never meant to serve as a history of an entire territory but is what has been termed a "lineage history." It relates certain events and interpretations of those events that relate to a fairly small number of people, chiefly the descendants of Nephi. These serve the same purpose as most of the historical books of the Bible, like Genesis and Exodus. Those records focus on stories about Abraham and those of his descendants who became the founders of the house of Israel. For example, the Old Testament source only briefly mentions Ishmael and his clan, let alone more distant ethnic entities like the Canaanites, and then only as far as the events involving those outsiders impinged on the key descent line. In short, a lineage history is a partial record of historical events, emphasizing what happened to one group of people, phrased in the recorders' ethnocentric terms. The lineage histories of other groups on the scene, if they were kept, would report different versions of what was going on. Knowing that the Nephite record is of this limited sort, we can appreciate why, for example, their story gives a total of only 100 words or so to the "people of Zarahemla," although that group was much more numerous than ethnic Nephites (see Mosiah 25:1). Such narrowly told accounts were a very common form of "history" in many parts of the ancient world, including, as we could expect, among native peoples of Mesoamerica.
The upshot is that we need to think of the Nephite record keepers as a minority-an elite minority at that-who, like most ruling minorities, tended to have their speech and customs eventually smothered by the speech and life ways of the majority population (think of the Norman conquerors of England, whose French language did not last long on the island). So it makes sense when Moroni reports, after nearly 1,000 years of his people's history, that by then "no other people knoweth our language" (Mormon 9:34).
Still, we may find remnants of Hebrew in Mesoamerican languages when we look carefully, just as English vocabulary reveals traces of Norman French. Little looking has as yet been done by qualified scholars, yet the slim efforts have turned up interesting results. The prominent Mexican linguist Maurice Swadesh had student P. Agrinier search Zapotec and related languages in south-central Mexico for Hebrew words. They identified a significant number of Hebrew parallels, which Robert F. Smith later more than doubled. Swadesh said of that project, "I was surprised at the number and closeness of the parallels" between the languages compared. More pointedly, linguist Brian Stubbs has identified more than one thousand Hebrew and/or Arabic forms in tongues of the Uto-Aztecan family, which stretches from Central Mexico to Utah. Much more work must be done to convince the majority of linguists of the reality of Semitic language remnants appearing in Mesoamerican (and perhaps other native American) languages, but the evidence so far is promising and new studies are under way.
Now, if Semitic languages penetrated Mesoamerican societies, might we not we expect evidence that so did Hebrew or Arab genes? After more than a cursory effort is devoted to studying the question, we may see more concrete confirmation. We note, as a methodological parallel, that the implications of another example of an Asian language intrusion into America has been equally ignored by most linguistic professionals, not to mention geneticists. Otto J. Von Sadovszky has demonstrated from remarkably extensive evidence that a series of Amerindian languages in north-central California are directly related to the Ugrian family of tongues of western Siberia (of which Finnish is a relative). He has compiled more than 10,000 word relationships between the two areas (probably as of around 500 BC) as well as a large number of parallel customs and beliefs. It is obvious that DNA testing of the tribes concerned ought to demonstrate genetic links, but nobody as yet bothered to carry out the study. Soon the Mesoamerican linguistic links may be compelling enough to demand DNA testing of the implied relationship.