The Book of Mormon, the Maya and Dr. Michael Coe: Blog Post #13 October 17, 2015

I am writing this blog for two primary reasons. The first is to share with my children and grandchildren my testimony of the Gospel.  In doing so, I will also share a few of the many evidences I have received that the Book of Mormon is true and that Joseph Smith was indeed a prophet.

The second purpose of my blog is to provide additional information and perspectives about controversial topics that have troubled the faith of some, so that they can be better prepared to resist assaults on their faith.  I intend to explain and sustain and defend the Gospel as best I can, as I imperfectly understand it.  I have already made in the temple this commitment to sustain and defend God’s Kingdom.  I will try to do so.

One such controversial topic is the relationship between the Book of Mormon and archaeology.  This particular blog deals with the Book of Mormon, the Maya Indians and Dr. Michael D. Coe.

Dr. Coe is probably the greatest living authority on the Maya Indians of southern Mexico and Central America.  I recently read his book “The Maya” (Ninth Edition by Michael D. Coe and Stephen Houston. Published by Thames and Hudson. 2015).   All the quotes I give below are from this specific edition of Coe’s book.

Many years ago (July, 1973 to be exact, the happy month and year Gina and I were married), Dr. Coe wrote an article for the magazine Dialogue entitled “Mormons and Archaeology: An Outside View”.  I have read this article four times in an effort to be both fair to Dr. Coe and thorough.

The bottom line for Dr. Coe and the Book of Mormon seems to be the following statement on page 3 of his article: “The picture of this continent between 2000 B. C. and A. D. 421 presented in the book has little to do with the early Indian cultures as we know them, in spite of much wishful thinking.”

The “wishful thinking” appears to be believing that the Book of Mormon is a real, historical document and actually relates to the American Indians.

Well, I am sure that the Book of Mormon is a real, historical document and that it does relate to the American Indians, although I don’t know for sure exactly which Indians and exactly where and exactly when things happened. Is that “wishful thinking” on my part or do I have some evidence to support my belief?

I have lots and lots of evidence.  I am going to summarize here some of the evidence from Dr. Coe’s own book.

First, a little background.  As I said, 1973 was a long time ago.  Perhaps Dr. Coe changed his mind about the Book of Mormon between then and now.  After all, 1973 was quite early in Dr. Coe’s career so he has had plenty of time to revisit the Book of Mormon and revise his opinions.  Thus I did a Google Scholar search on Dr. Coe to see if he ever published anything else on the Book of Mormon and its relationship, if any, to the Maya (and other Mesoamerican Indians) either before or after his lone 1973 article in Dialogue.

I could not find anything.  In other words, if Dr. Coe ever seriously considered the possibility that the Book of Mormon might be an actual, historical document, he does not seem to have written any scholarly articles about it either before or after this Dialogue article.  So I have only this one article to go on to evaluate his opinions.

After reading it four times, I think his Dialogue article is not a serious, scholarly examination of the Book of Mormon…more about that below.  By “serious” I mean that Dr. Coe actually did his homework, read the Book of Mormon carefully several times and drew his conclusions after putting in some real effort to understand the Book of Mormon according to its own claims.

Mostly Dr. Coe seems to have relied on a few secondary sources (i.e., not the Book of Mormon itself), and then drew his conclusions in that way.   I cannot find any evidence that Dr. Coe carefully read the Book of Mormon for himself.  He does not tell us in the Dialogue article how many times he read the Book of Mormon, if at all.  I think he must have read it superficially, if he did read it. For example, he wrongly identifies the Jaredite migration as coming from Palestine.  We don’t know where the Jaredites started their migration, but Central Asia is the more likely place. The Book of Mormon does not say their migration started in Palestine.

In fact, Dr. Coe’s article mentions only five specific points where he thinks the Book of Mormon differs from scholarly knowledge of the ancient Americas as it existed in 1973. These points are horses, chariots, wheat, barley, and metallurgy—which the Book of Mormon says existed in ancient America, but archaeology in 1973 said did not exist in ancient America.

I would like to point out the impossibility of proving a negative.  Just because in July 1973 there was no evidence for horses, chariots, wheat, barley and metallurgy in ancient America does not mean that such evidence will not turn up in 1983 or 1993 or 2033 or later.

Instead, in order to test the Book of Mormon using archaeological information, the most useful thing is to make a very broad comparison of the Book of Mormon with what is known about ancient America and see if any parallels turn up, that is, points of agreement. Accumulation of such parallels cannot “prove” the Book of Mormon, but if few or no parallels show up, then that would be a serious blow to the credibility of the Book of Mormon. The stranger or more unusual or more specific the parallel, the more powerful the evidence.  In a previous blog I shared one particular, highly specific parallel: the building of very deep ditches around cities to protect them, as described by the Spanish Conquistadores and also in the Book of Mormon. That kind of parallel, it seems to me, has a lot of value as evidence since it is so specific, so detailed and unusual.

I have read the Book of Mormon hundreds and hundreds of times, so I have some knowledge about it to compare to the information Dr. Coe has summarized in his book.  I also read Dr. Coe’s book very carefully.  It is unfortunate that Dr. Coe has apparently not studied the Book of Mormon closely and compared it carefully with information in his most recent book.  He might have found some interesting correspondences between his work on the Maya and the Book of Mormon.

Nice guy that I am, I did the necessary work for Dr. Coe.  🙂

So I am going to briefly list and discuss a number of points of agreement between the Book of Mormon and his book that are mentioned in the most recent edition of Dr. Coe’s book.  Again, all page citations are from the 9th edition of his book.  Here are the relevant quotations (all of them in italics):

  1. Page 13 “All the Mesoamerican Indians shared a number of traits which were more or less peculiar to them and absent or rare elsewhere in the New World: hieroglyphic writing, books… a complex calendar,…highly specialized markets, …a highly complex pantheistic religion.” 

Well, the very existence of the Book of Mormon clearly implies that the some ancient American peoples had writing and books. That’s a pretty obvious one and I am surprised Dr. Coe missed it.  🙂  It is one of the points that makes me wonder how much effort Dr. Coe put into the research for his article, that is, if he really took the Book of Mormon seriously, at least as a book of substance to be studied rigorously and thoroughly.

Writing and books are not common cultural traits among the American Indians.  In fact, they are “absent or rare elsewhere in the New World”, as Dr. Coe states.  (As far as we know, the great Inca Empire did not have books or writing.)

The Book of Mormon peoples also had a careful, detailed calendar and markets (see, for example, 3 Nephi 8:5 and Helaman 7:10). Finally, near the close of the Book of Mormon we also learn that the conquering Lamanites were making human sacrifices “to their idol gods” (Mormon 4:14).

There you have it: writing, books, a calendar, markets and pantheistic religion.  On five specific points the Book of Mormon agrees with Dr. Coe’s book.

  1. Pages 17 and 19 and 32. “…in bad years there may be severe droughts”  “early Colonial chronicles speak much of famines in Yucatan before the arrival of the Spaniards” severe drought AD 200-300 in Maya lowlands (Belize and Yucatan) Pg. 19—the Yucatan produced “honey, salt and slaves”.

The Book of Mormon talks clearly about devastating droughts and famines (Helaman 11 and Ether 9: 28-30).  (Not every region of the world experiences droughts—so it is not a “slam dunk” for a book to talk about droughts.)

The Book of Mormon also talks about bee culture being brought to the New World by the Jaredites (Ether 2:3). Bee-keeping is actually quite an unusual and specific cultural trait.  And it is pretty difficult to do.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beekeeping#History_of_beekeeping

So these are two more points of agreement between Dr. Coe’s book and the Book of Mormon.

 

  1. Pg 22 “lowlands could have been far more densely populated by the Classic Maya (era of time—after 250 AD to 800 AD) 2-3 million to 8-10 million  (Bruce’s note: Maya civilization collapsed in the 9th century AD)

The terrible wars that ended the Jaredite nation and destroyed the Nephite people were said to have involved millions of people (Mormon Chapter 6 and Ether 15:2).  Is that an unrealistic population density for Mesoamerica to support?  No, according to Dr. Coe it is not unrealistic.  Score another one for the Book of Mormon.

 

  1. Pg 41 “”the very first Americans may well have taken a maritime route.”

What Dr. Coe means here is that the Bering Strait is not the only way by which the ancestors of the American Indians might have arrived on this continent.  They might also have come by sea.  When I was a kid, the overwhelming “scientific” opinion was that all the ancestors of the Indians had come by the Bering Strait land bridge.  I got quite a bit of flak back then when I talked about the Lehite and Jaredite migrations by sea.

So this is another point that makes me wonder if Dr. Coe actually studied the Book of Mormon at all. Nephi doesn’t exactly hide the fact that his family came over in ship—and you find that fact in the first few pages of the Book of Mormon.  Another point for the Book of Mormon.

 

  1. Pg 61 “As the Olmec civilization went into a steep decline, c. 400 BC rapid changes took place in the Maya area.” …”Concurrently we see in this epoch the beginnings of Maya hieroglyphic writing and the calendar, perhaps to record the doings of the kings and dynasties.”

If you read the Book of Mormon carefully, you will see that the decline of the Olmecs lines up pretty well time-wise with the decline of the Jaredites in their wars of mutual extermination.  There may be a link there-although I am not saying that the Olmecs were the Jaredites. I just don’t know-but it is an interesting correspondence.

Also, the specific use of writing to record “the doings of the kings” is quite interesting given Nephi’s statement that the one of the two sets of plates he made was specifically to record the “reign of the kings”.  (See 1 Nephi 9:4.)  Two more points in which the Book of Mormon lines up with information from Dr. Coe’s book.

 

  1. Pg 63 defining civilization “Cities are one criterion.” “state institutions, large-scale public works, temple buildings,..” “some form of record keeping” “…more or less accurate means of keeping time.” “These traits are known to have developed (Bruce’s note: developed for the Maya) in the Late Preclassic period.” (300 BC-250 AD).

Many, probably most, Native American peoples did not build cities…thus according to Coe’s criteria they did not have “civilizations”.   But the Book of Mormon clearly states that the Nephites and Lamanites had cities-and so did the Maya-another point for the Book of Mormon.

The Nephites also obviously had state institutions including judges and priest-kings, record keeping (Omni 2, Mosiah 24:6-7) and public works including temples. For example, consider King Noah’s lavish building program including ornamenting their temple, (Mosiah 11: 8-10) as well as the other Nephite temples mentioned in 2 Nephi 5:16 and 3 Nephi 11:1. The Book of Mormon peoples also had means of keeping time as described above under point #1.

All this occurred during the time much of the Book of Mormon history takes place (a few centuries before Christ to a few centuries after Christ).  These are four more points in which the Book of Mormon lines up with information from Dr. Coe’s book.  (I am not double-counting the calendar point of agreement.)

  1. Pages 80-81 Kaminaljuyu was a great Mayan city/area in highland Guatemala near present-day Guatemala City and it was a pre-eminent city for the Maya in their Late Preclassic period. Speaking of Kaminaljuyu, Dr. Coe writes: “its star began to sink by the second and third centuries AD, and most of it was left in ruins at the close of the late Preclassic.” “…indicating that there was a change in popular cults.”

By “popular cults”, Dr. Coe is referring to the dominant religious world-view of the inhabitants of Kaminaljuyu.

Well, the Book of Mormon tells us (in 4 Nephi 1: 20) that by late in the second century AD, a small part of the people had revolted from the church established by the disciples of Christ.  From that time on, the false churches multiplied rapidly until by AD 210 there were many churches “which professed to know the Christ, and yet they did deny the more parts of his Gospel…” (4 Nephi 1: 27).  By AD 244, the false churches had become much more numerous than the Christians (4 Nephi 1: 40).  In other words, “there was a change in popular cults”.

This is another bulls eye for the Book of Mormon in terms of the timing of a major societal change—a change in the dominant religion.

  1. Pg 103 “An elite class consisting of central Mexican foreigners, and the local nobility with whom they had marriage ties, could have ruled over a captive population of largely Maya descent.”

One of the strange cultural features in the Book of Mormon is the way in which a small group often seems to move in and dominate a much larger group without necessarily conquering them in warfare.  One example is the apparent ease by which King Mosiah takes over as the king of the people of Zarahemla (Omni 1:19), even though the people of Zarahemla were much more numerous than the people of King Mosiah.  Why did the people of Zarahemla let a small group of outsiders take over and rule them?  And yet something very like that seems to have been part of the tradition of the Maya, as this quote from Dr. Coe’s book shows.  Another strong point for the Book of Mormon because it seems quite strange.

 

  1. Pages 104 “The lords of highland Guatemala had their tombs accompanied by up to three people sacrificed for the occasion (generally children or adolescents).”

 

Human sacrifice, particularly of women and children, apparently became part of the culture of the Lamanites during their long war to destroy the Nephites (Mormon 4: 14 and 21).  Human sacrifice is never mentioned previous to that time in the Book of Mormon.  Another point for the Book of Mormon.  It is also accurate that the practice of human sacrifice existed in the region that seems to be the best geographical candidate for the Book of Mormon lands, namely Mesoamerica.  The Aztecs also had human sacrifice, but it does not appear to have been widespread in the Americas.

 

  1. Page 107 Ceren, a small village in western El Salvador was buried by the eruption of the Loma Caldera volcano.

It is pretty obvious that the great destruction described in 3 Nephi 8, including the burying of cities, is due to at least one volcanic eruption and the associated earthquakes.  Central America is volcano country and earthquake country.  Upstate New York definitely is not.

So how on earth did Joseph Smith get the information to accurately describe an eruption and earthquakes? What a lucky guess!  This is a major point of correspondence for the Book of Mormon.  The Book of Mormon’s description of the events surrounding a big eruption and accompanying earthquakes is really accurate and detailed, something I will discuss in a later blog.

I wonder how Dr. Coe could have missed this important event in the Book of Mormon.  It seems to me that he should have made the connection between the Book of Mormon events in 3 Nephi 8 and what he knows about Central American volcanoes and earthquakes.

Thus the ten italicized quotes above from Dr. Coe’s book contain a total of twenty points where the record given in the Book of Mormon corresponds to information from his scholarly studies.  And I have only summarized a part of the evidence from the first 100 pages or so of his book—there is a lot more to come.  There are other things I want to write about before I return to other points of agreement between the Book of Mormon and Dr. Coe’s book.

As I close this post, I would like to offer some advice and encouragement to my fellow believers in the Book of Mormon, and also to those who may doubt or are in the process of doubting the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.

Some Advice to My Fellow Believers

Bring your brains to church (and everywhere else).  Opinion is not evidence.

Dr. J. B. S. Haldane, the great British biologist, once said that prejudice is an opinion arrived at without considering the evidence. I think Dr. Coe has given us his opinions about the Book of Mormon without considering much evidence.  If Dr. Coe has carefully read the Book of Mormon, I don’t see the fruits of that study in his article.  Therefore, according to Dr. Haldane, Dr. Coe has given us prejudices without many facts.

It is sad that the faith of some Latter-day Saints has been damaged by this superficial, prejudiced article.  I do not believe the evidence cited by Dr. Coe is at all sufficient to undermine the claims of the Book of Mormon—not even close.

Using our brains, we should be asking: “Dr. Coe, kindly cite a few examples of the picture of this continent presented in the Book of Mormon that have little to do with the early Indian cultures”.  I have cited from Dr. Coe’s own book a number of points where the Book of Mormon has quite a bit in common with the early Indian cultures. How about those points? Don’t they matter?   (There are many more such points of agreement that I will report on eventually).

I think Dr. Coe started with his theory, namely that the Book of Mormon is not a true account, and considered only a very small fraction of evidence before giving us his opinions.  So we are completely free to consider contrary evidence instead of simply accepting his opinions. That is what I have tried to do above.

Likewise I have heard Mormons claim that all the ancestors of the American Indians were descendants of Lehi.  The Book of Mormon makes no such claim.  I have heard some Mormons claim that the Rocky Mountains were formed by the destructions reported in 3 Nephi. The Book of Mormon makes no such claim.   I have heard some Mormons identify the “great and abominable church” described in 1 Nephi 13:26  with the Roman Catholic church while just a few verses later (3 Nephi 14:10) we are told that there are but two churches only.  Thus the Roman Catholic church cannot be that “great and abominable church”.  And on and on.

So Mormons need to be more critical of opinions offered without evidence, both inside and outside the church–no matter the “credentials” of the person offering the opinions.  We need to bring our brains to church…and to everything else we do.

Second, stop claiming, thinking or blindly assuming that everything Joseph Smith or other prophets said is automatically the word of God.  It isn’t. So stop it!  Stop claiming for Joseph and other modern prophets what they never, ever have claimed for themselves- infallibility.

Ironically, Dr. Coe makes this same mistake. Like far too many Mormons, he thinks Joseph was always speaking as a prophet (although he obviously doesn’t believe Joseph Smith was a true prophet).  Dr. Coe then faults Joseph for apparently believing that Palenque (in Chiapas, Mexico) was a Nephite city, for a second hand statement attributed to Joseph that there was a “white Lamanite” named Zelph and for Joseph’s involvement, which is not clear at all, with the phony Kinderhook plates.

There is no need for Latter-day Saints to be concerned about any of those things.  Joseph may have been wrong about Palenque.  What Joseph said about Zelph may have been wrongly recorded (it is second hand).  Or Joseph may have just been wrong.  The actual circumstances surrounding the Kinderhook plates are so muddled that I don’t think any good conclusions can be drawn, but once again, Joseph may just have been wrong.  So what?

Joseph Smith once complained that he did not have the same freedom as other Americans.  He was not free to speak his thoughts and opinions without having others think that every word he uttered was the word of God.   He said repeatedly that a prophet was only a prophet when he was acting as a prophet.

Mormons must allow our leaders, including the prophet, to be human, to make mistakes, without having it overthrow our faith. Since the Church is composed of fallible human beings, we must also allow the Church as a whole to make mistakes without having it overthrow our faith.  I believe those mistakes will eventually be corrected.

Third, we are entitled to ask the so-called “experts” some questions in turn.

I have written before about “cherry-picking”; that is, the practice of considering only a very limited range of evidence in formulating opinions.  That practice is completely unscientific and obviously unfair. And yet those who write and speak against the Book of Mormon almost always engage in cherry-picking.  In fact, I have yet to find a real scholarly treatment of the Book of Mormon by an opponent of the Book of Mormon which seriously considers and weighs a broad spectrum of facts, not just a selected few.   Dr. Coe is just the latest such superficial “expert” I have encountered.

I have quoted the great scientist Sherlock Holmes before in this blog, and I will probably do so again.  Here is what Holmes has to say about making up your mind before you have the facts.

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.  Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” Sherlock Holmes -A Scandal in Bohemia  

Cherry-picking is theorizing without considering all the data, all the information available.  I think important facts about the Book of Mormon have not just been twisted, instead they have been completely ignored by Dr. Coe and many, many others.

Fourth, the Latter-day Saints are obligated to seek further light and knowledge…and that implies we will keep learning new things that may make us revise or abandon previous ideas. This will be a painful process—it is supposed to be.

Ultimately, Latter-day Saints are only required to believe what is true. But we are also expected to grow in the truth—not to remain as children in our understanding.

So, my fellow believers, hang on to what you know to be true and keep seeking knowledge by study and by faith. Stick to the Lord, remember your covenants with Him, and to the truth as you understand it. And accept the fact that you will sometimes be uncomfortable as you fit more and more truth into your understanding of the world and of its God.

This is advice I try to follow for myself. I am always more or less uncomfortable or unsettled with some specific aspect of the Gospel as I strive to learn and experience more truth.  My mind is always struggling with something I don’t understand.  But I do not let what I don’t know over rule or overwhelm what I do know and have already experienced.

So in the meantime, I know that there is a God.   I know that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God.  Joseph was a great and good man, and a fallible human being also. And I know that the Book of Mormon has been given to us as powerful evidence for the truth of God’s existence and Joseph Smith’s mission of restoration.

 

Postscript:

A week or so after I posted the material above, I read the following article addressed to Dr. Coe by Dr. John Sorenson.   The article is in response to an interview that Dr. Coe gave to John Dehlin in August 2011. So Dr. Coe did say more about the Book of Mormon after his 1973 Dialogue article.  Unfortunately, he hasn’t learned any more about the Book of Mormon in almost 40 years.  What a shame.  What an abdication of Dr. Coe’s responsibility as a scholar.

Here is the link to the article by Dr. Sorenson.

http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/an-open-letter-to-dr-michael-coe/

By the way, Dr. Sorenson’s article also deals with horses, metallurgy, chariots, wheat, and barley.  He reports that there is now considerable or at least some evidence for horses, barley, metallurgy and wheeled toys in ancient America. So in the intervening years between Dr. Coe’s 1973 article in Dialogue at least three of the objections in Dr. Coe’s original article have been answered.

Let me quote myself from earlier in this post: “Just because in July 1973 there was no evidence for horses, chariots, wheat, barley and metallurgy in ancient America does not mean that such evidence will not turn up in 1983 or 1993 or 2033 or later.”

See what I mean?  Such evidence did turn up.  It is simply unscientific to argue as Dr. Coe did in the Dialogue article.  Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

After I had finished reading this article, I felt even more strongly that Dr. Coe failed in his responsibility as a scholar to deal fairly with the Book of Mormon.  His comments are those of a prejudiced person and not an honest, well-informed individual.

Here are a few of the errors that Dr. Coe makes with regard to the Book of Mormon (Dr. Sorenson summarizes other errors):

  • “The Jaredites didn’t survive terribly long. They go back to four or five hundred BC”. Actually they left Mesopotamia (the area of the great tower) probably around 2500 BC and ceased to function as a society after 600 BC. So their society functioned for about 2000 years, about 10 times as long at the United States has existed.
  • “They had a compass to navigate by”. The Liahona was not a mechanical “compass”.  It was a means of receiving revelation from God to guide Lehi’s party and it worked by faith.
  • ”Maize, by the way, really isn’t mentioned in the Book of Mormon.”   Wrong, Dr. Coe.  Really wrong.  Maize is corn. Dr. Coe knows this very well.  Corn is mentioned in Mosiah 7:22 and in Mosiah 9:9 and 9:14.  It took me three minutes (I timed it) to search the on line scriptures at the Church’s website to find this out. If Dr. Coe had done his homework, he would not have made this obvious blunder.

By the way, in both cases, corn is mentioned first among other grains in Mosiah 7:22 and 9:9, just as corn was indeed first among all the grains in ancient Mexico and Central America…not wheat or barley, as Joseph Smith might have assumed if he were faking the Book of Mormon.  Another subtle but important point for the Book of Mormon.

I repeat: Dr. Coe’s opinions regarding the Book of Mormon need not be taken seriously. Those opinions are based on prejudice, not evidence.  He simply has not studied the Book of Mormon carefully.  He does not deserve any attention from Mormons (or anyone else) on this subject until he does his homework.

It is really, really sad that the faith of some Latter-day Saints has been damaged by Dr. Coe’s prejudices.   It makes me weep that such shoddy, prejudiced “scholarship” should be given any attention whatsoever.