Where Much Is Promised, Less Is Given

Review of Diane E. Wirth. Decoding
Ancient America: A Guide to the Archaeology of the Book of Mormon.
Springville, UT: Horizon Publishers, 2007. 110 pp. $12.99.

Where Much Is Promised, Less Is Given

Reviewed by Brant A. Gardner

Diane Wirth is quite well-read in Mesoamerican art and art
history. She has attended the Texas Maya workshops and has also taken classes
from some of the stars of Mesoamerican scholarship. That background is apparent
in the breadth of the Mesoamerican information she covers in Decoding
Ancient America
. She addresses topics certain to intrigue a Latter-day
Saint audience hungry for external proof of the Book of Mormon. Some of the
information she presents has appeared before in her works on the Book of Mormon
or those of other Latter-day Saint scholars. However, there are some additional
new ideas in this book, making it more valuable than simply a synopsis of previous work. In virtually all chapters, Wirth also provides
some examples culled from some of the best modern secular works on Mesoamerica.

The first chapter begins by limiting Book of Mormon lands to
the area known as Mesoamerica, or roughly from Mexico City south to a little
farther south of the current border between Guatemala and Honduras and El
Salvador. She does not review the history of this particular geographic
proposition but bolsters it with specific archaeological elements mentioned in
the Book of Mormon that are found in that area. These include cement, roads,
fortified cities, a tropical climate, and writing systems. None of these receive
extensive treatment; they are mentioned more to justify the concentration on
this geographical area that will be the subject of later chapters.

The next chapter gives an overview of the Mulekites and the
Jaredites, two of the three immigrant nations mentioned in the Book of Mormon.
Wirth then discusses what she considers to be unusual archaeological data that
might indicate the arrival of foreigners, such as artistic representation of
bearded figures (her label is “bearded foreigners”) and the
Mesoamerican legend she labels as “seven tribes,” which she compares
to Lehi’s sons. The third chapter concentrates on the Egyptian influence on Old
World Israel, followed by a discussion of parallels between Hebrew and Nephite
festivals, with a focus on comparing a modern Maya harvest festival to the
Feast of the Tabernacles.

Wirth next discusses Mesoamerican knowledge of the creation
and Adam and Eve and then continues her theme of finding remnants of Nephite
teachings in Mesoamerican religion (the latter discussion touching on rebirth
and baptism and concepts of death and resurrection). A chapter on Quetzalcoatl
and Jesus Christ reprises her understanding of the topic as articulated in a Journal of
Book of Mormon Studies
article.[1] Wirth then
takes up the tree of life in Mesoamerica, comparing Old World imagery to that
of the New World and emphasizing Izapa Stela 5, commonly known in Latter-day
Saint literature as the “Lehi Stone.” The final chapter justifies a
Mesoamerican Hill Cumorah in addition to the one in New York.

Decoding Ancient America is short, easy to read,
filled with facts that appear to support a connection between the Book of
Mormon and Mesoamerica, and copiously illustrated with line drawings of art relevant
to her discussion. The typical Latter-day Saint reading audience will enjoy
this book, and the information from its “proofs” may begin to show up
on apologetic defenses of the Book of Mormon in Internet chat rooms and blogs.

More Can Be Less

Wirth’s book, however, presents some problems. Although much
of her information is excellent, aspects of the work decrease the value of the
conclusions drawn. One problem is perhaps an issue only for scholars in the
field. Either Wirth or the editors have chosen to use bibliographic entries as
though they were endnotes. The text has appropriate references where Wirth is
citing other scholars, but the endnotes themselves are to entire works and not
to specific pages. Thus it is difficult to verify her interpretation of the
sources used. Only those who are already very familiar with the sources will be
able to check her work.

More important, however, are two problems with the way Wirth
uses her broad reading of Mesoamerican materials: her uncritical use of some
secondary sources and a flawed methodology that creates false positives rather
than firm connections between the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerica.

Incautious Reading of Secondary Sources

Saints are excited to see the Book of Mormon vindicated by empirical research,
and many enjoy reading and writing about such findings. However, Latter-day
Saint scholarship on the Book of Mormon, particularly when it comes to
comparisons with Mesoamerica, is of uneven quality. Along with the very good
there is the marginally good (and sometimes much worse). The typical Latter-day
Saint reader lacks the necessary training to discern between reliable and
unreliable scholarship. Wirth has not helped her readers to assess the quality
of her secondary sources.

Wirth draws on Bruce
Warren to demonstrate an amazing linguistic correlation between a Mesoamerican
king’s name and a Jaredite king named in the Book of Mormon.[2] Wirth cites Warren and is obviously repeating his analysis. Hence the
following: “This points to evidence that not all of the Jaredites were destroyed
in their last battle in Mesoamerica. In fact, many years later in the Maya city
of Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico, an Olmec king named U-K’ix-Chan is mentioned. In
the Mayan language, x is pronounced ‘sh.’ Therefore K’ix would be pronounced ‘Kish,’ and Kish is a Jaredite
name (see Ether 10:17–18)” (p. 13).

Commendably, Wirth does
add a little caution to Warren’s assertion since she understands the long time
difference between the Jaredites and the time of Palenque. Yet despite the key
qualification “many years later,” she offers no analysis that would
allow the connection to be made over the large time gap or that would
satisfactorily address the cultural and geographic differences involved. Most
importantly, she relies on Warren’s understanding and not on the most recent
interpretation of the Mayan glyph that bears the king’s name.

Warren’s use of the translation “K’ix” for the
stingray spine (and the claimed connection to the Jaredite name Kish)
is based on an outdated reading of the glyph. Mark A. Wright, a PhD candidate
in Mesoamerican studies at the University of California, Riverside, pointed out
to me that the “K’ix” reading of the glyph has been shown to be incorrect.
He provided the following from Stanley Guenter’s article that describes the new
reading: “While the ‘thorn’ in this name is normally read as K’IX,
Marc Zender (personal communication 2001) and Albert Davletshin (2003) have
recently suggested KOKAN, a word for ‘fish spine’ in Yukatek, as the
glyph is occasionally complemented by –na (e.g., Palenque Tablet of
the 96 Glyphs).”[3] It is easy to see how Wirth might not have been aware of a new reading of a
single glyph, but the new reading underscores the caution that should be taken
when making leaps of vision over the extensive difference between time, place,
and culture to draw connections that seem parallel.

The next example comes from her reading of Aztec mythic material.
This is a particularly difficult task since the best records we have of Mesoamerican
myths and legends come from a time after the Spanish conquest, which places
nearly a thousand years between the recording of the myth and the end of the
Book of Mormon. In addition, the majority of the recorded Mesoamerican myths
and legends come from peoples and languages that had nothing to do with the
Book of Mormon. Finally, the very process of determining how to reconstruct
those myths from the way the Spanish interpreted and recorded them into their
more native, precontact state is a complex task.[4] Very few
Latter-day Saint writers who attempt to handle Mesoamerican materials have
spent the time necessary to master this complex body of material. Thus it is
not surprising that some writers’ enthusiasm leads them to see connections
where none exist. The problem is compounded when an original
fanciful connection is perpetuated by other writers. Wirth is guilty of
perpetuating such incorrect information that will unfortunately become more
accepted simply by its repetition and the fact that most Latter-day Saint
readers lack the background to know the errors.

Wirth describes the fascinating parallel between a
Mesoamerican origin myth of seven tribes arriving in the New World in seven
ships and the seven sons of Lehi arriving in a ship:

There is a great tradition in Mesoamerica of the people’s ancestors
originally coming from seven tribes. There are several examples of this
tradition in art, but first we need to understand what caves mean to
Mesoamericans, even today. Caves are damp and can give shelter, especially in
the rain forests of Central America. Rain was also believed to come from caves
in the mountains. These legends, as depicted in Mesoamerican art, show that
seven tribes came from seven caves. These caves are considered to be like a
mother’s womb. A mother’s womb is a protective enclosure and is also associated
with water. (p. 17)

She then indicates that “Sahagun, an early Spanish
friar, stated that the Indians believed that these caves referred to a ship or
ships that brought their seven ancestral tribes to this land” (p. 17).
This becomes implicitly parallel to the arrival of the Lehites by ship and the
seven sons who became the heads of seven tribes. Even on the surface, this “parallel”
has problems. It assumes a continuation of the veneration of all of Lehi’s sons
when the Book of Mormon makes it clear that what becomes important is not the
individual tribes but the collective terms Nephite and Lamanite,
into which the tribal identifications are subsumed (see Jacob 1:13–14).
There is no indication why a Lamanite would continue to venerate Nephi’s line
or why a Nephite would venerate Lamanite heritage.

It is true that there is a legend of descent from seven
caves, but it is an Aztec origin myth.[5] The Aztecs
were relative newcomers to Mesoamerica, not arriving until the Book of Mormon
had been closed for over six hundred years. Even the artistic representation of
the myth that Wirth uses as an illustration (p. 18) confirms that it is a myth
hailing from northern Mexico or southwestern United States. Around the depicted
landscape intended to be above the seven-lobed, womblike cave are saguaro
cacti. These grow only in the region comprising the Sonoran Desert and a little
outside of Arizona. They cannot grow in any area connected to the Book of
Mormon. In both time and location, Wirth’s parallel myth is far from the Book
of Mormon. Wirth does not explain that contradiction between her “parallel”
and the text.

More importantly, however, she has incautiously repeated an
argument from other Latter-day Saint writers that was ill-advised in the original and becomes all the more so when she perpetuates their error.
Tracing the history of this error is made more difficult by the
bibliography-as-endnote system and the general impression that this book was
pulled together quickly rather than carefully re-vetted for its sources. Wirth
cites Bernardino de Sahagún as the source for the seven caves as ships. She
then notes that it is Sahagún as quoted in one of her earlier books. Although I
have not been able to trace her original footnote, I am fairly certain that the
actual origin of her source (based on the very similar story, reference, and
error) is Milton R. Hunter and Thomas Stuart Ferguson’s Ancient
America and the Book of Mormon.
They report: “Concerning the
origin of these peoples, the report the old men . . . give is that they came by
sea from the north . . . , and true it is that they
came in some wooden boats but it is not known how they [the boats] were hewn,
but it is conjectured by a report found among all these natives that they came
from seven caves, and that these seven caves are the seven ships or galleys in
which the first settlers of this land came, as gathered from likely conjectures.”[6] Both Hunter and Ferguson’s footnote and Wirth’s endnote cite Sahagún’s Historia
general de las cosas de Nueva España
and specifically the very same “introduction
to Book 1″ in the very same edition. I have never seen any reference
to the caves as ships in any other work that I recall. I also confess to not
completely doing my homework and finding that particular edition. However, I
have searched through another excellent Spanish edition of that work. There is
no Sahaguntine introduction to Book 1. Sahagún’s Book 1 deals with the Aztec
gods and does not cover this origin myth. There is nothing like this in Book 1.
There is a possible Sahaguntine passage to which it might be related that comes
later in the text: “It is said that the first peoples who came to settle
this land of Mexico, which is now called West India, arrived in that port with
ships in which they passed that sea; and arriving there, and going by that
location they named it Pantlan.”[7] Sahagún does
give an origin myth of arrival by sea, but it is not connected to seven caves.

There was an authentic myth of seven caves, known as Chicomoztoc. They were very clearly considered caves, not ships.[8] Neither Sahagún nor anyone else familiar with either the meaning of the word chicomoztoc or with the legends would have made the error of suggesting that they were
rather ships. That assertion is probably the unnamed editor’s, perpetuated in
Hunter and Ferguson and apparently twice now in Wirth (in her earlier book and
now this one).

Wirth perpetuates an even greater error of fact when she
repeats the marvelous story of a personage who appeared from the sky in a great
light and spoke like thunder (p. 76). She has also referenced this myth in an
article in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies,[9] though
in this book she provides a different source than she did for her article.[10]

I attempted to trace this reference, because it is
unquestionably the best putative New World remembrance of Christ’s appearance
at Bountiful. What I found, however, was that the cited source was a poet (Tony
Shearer) who had read the Book of Mormon and included this passage in a poetic
retelling of the Quetzalcoatl tale. Shearer attributed the quotation to a Juan
de Córdova but didn’t give a specific source, so it is impossible to be certain
that he took it from the real Juan de Córdova or simply exercised his poetic
license in the attribution. Juan de Córdova wrote a grammar of the Zapotec language
(the work Wirth secondarily references in this book). I was able to examine
that grammar. At the end there is some text describing culture, but I was
unable to find this particular quotation. I believe that the story was invented
by Shearer and informed directly from his reading in the Book of Mormon.[11] The marvelous parallel between putative Mesoamerican legend and the Book of
Mormon is really a parallel between the Book of Mormon and itself, hardly an
external “proof.”

Unfortunately, this incautious approach to reading secondary
sources is not limited to repeating mistakes from Latter-day Saint authors.
Wirth “decodes” information very differently from her source. When
discussing the mythology of Tezcatlipoca (whom she paints as a decoded Lucifer),
she notes:

In Mesoamerica, legends say that Quetzalcoatl hit Tezcatlipoca
with a club, knocking Tezcatlipoca from the heavens and down into the waters of
the earth. When Tezcatlipoca was cast out, his foot was ripped off as he was
being thrown out of heaven (see Fig. 20). This story may be compared to
Revelation 12:7–9. Tezcatlipoca’s foot was replaced by a smoking mirror,
through which he saw a dark future for mankind (see Fig. 21). (pp. 43–44)

In the above excerpt, I have kept
the references to the figures even though I am not reproducing them here.
Tracing this statement tells us much about the way Wirth is decoding
Mesoamerican material because those references are given as support for her
position. Her reading of the myth is at odds with the way I remembered it, so I
checked her source (Brundage’s The Phoenix of the Western World).[12] I was looking for confirmation that the severing of the foot took place as
Tezcatlipoca was knocked from the sky and that the smoking mirror was used to
see “a dark future for mankind.”

Without a specific page
reference, I searched all references to Tezcatlipoca in Brundage. I found the
most likely location of her source both because it discussed the myth of the
severed foot and because it had the same line drawing illustration she included
in her work (which she does footnote to Brundage rather than to the original).[13] Neither of the two questionable readings in Wirth are found in Brundage. In the first, Brundage clearly notes that the foot is severed
after his presence on earth, a fact corroborated by the illustration that
clearly shows a battle with an earth monster (the very illustration that Wirth
used in support of her retelling). The story of the loss of the foot is, as
Brundage indicates, a lost myth. We have the story in pictures but no text of
the myth.[14] The myth of the celestial battle between Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca does not
lead to the story of Tezcatlipoca’s lost foot. The final reference to a figure
shows Tezcatlipoca painted with a smoking mirror in place of a foot, but that
cannot be support for the idea that he saw “a dark future for mankind.”
As with other Mesoamerican deities, Tezcatlipoca is ambiguously good and bad.
Polished obsidian mirrors were used for divination among many Mesoamerican
tribes, and the idea that Tezcatlipoca foresaw a “dark future” must
be another “decoding” because it does not faithfully represent the
Mesoamerican ideology.

In both cases, Wirth’s decoding adds information that makes
the text appear much more parallel to her thesis that Tezcatlipoca was a
parallel to Satan. Without a background in Mesoamerican mythology, a reader
will be amazed at the similarities—even though in reality the
similarities are part of the decoding and are not found in the original

Parallelism as a Methodology

Over thirty years ago, eminent Mayanist Michael Coe bemoaned
the state of what has been called “Book of Mormon archaeology.” There
is no reason to doubt that his opinion continues to be shared by
non–Latter-day Saint Mesoamericanists:

In hundreds of motels scattered across the western United
States the Gentile archaeologist can find a paperback Book of Mormon lavishly
illustrated with the paintings of Arnold Friberg depicting such scenes as
Samuel the Lamanite prophesying on top of what looks like the Temple of the
Tigers in Chichen Itza, Yucatan.

Any curious archaeologist can hear guides in L.D.S. visitor
centers from Sharon, Vermont, to Los Angeles confidently lecturing that the
Nephites built the Maya “cities” and expounding on other subjects
that are usually the preserve of experts in these matters. Small wonder that
the outside archaeologist often feels bewilderment if not downright hostility
when confronted with things he is sure cannot be true.[15]

Coe had been reading Latter-day Saint literature on the Book
of Mormon that relied heavily on the methodology of parallelism to draw
connections between Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon.[16] In that
methodology, two things that appear similar in disparate cultures are assumed to be connected because of the similarity. The
passage of time and criticism of the methodology[17] has not
diminished its use in Latter-day Saint literature.[18] As with the
example I noted above concerning the myth of Tezcatlipoca’s severed foot, the
methodology too easily creates superficial parallels that, in Coe’s words, the
expert “is sure cannot be true.”

Wirth compares two elements and, when there is a similarity,
presumes that the similarity is an indication of a historical connection
between the two. For example, she notes that “in
order to understand how the Mesoamerican culture was influenced by the
Jaredites, Lehites, and Mulekites, we need to understand the cultures of the
Middle East where these three groups came from” (p. 21). In spite of her assertion,
Mesoamericanists have developed a fairly detailed picture of Mesoamerica
without relying upon a Near Eastern interpretation. Wirth’s is therefore hardly
an accepted interpretive basis. Both the idea that we must understand the
ancient Near East to understand Mesoamerica and the idea that the Nephites and
Lamanites had significant cultural impact on Mesoamerica are controversial
assumptions. They require argumentation, but Wirth never indicates that there
is any controversy at all. She accepts the propositions, and they form the
foundation of her arguments.

Because Wirth understands
there are issues with the kinds of parallels one finds in Mesoamerican material
when placed against the Middle Eastern background of the Book of Mormon, her
method requires another conceptual reading (perhaps the definition of her “decoding”)
of the material. It must be posited that what we see is a distorted remembrance
of Book of Mormon practices, and therefore dissimilarities are due to apostasy
and similarities are due to remembrances. She notes: “Some gospel stories
managed to seep through to the existing Mesoamerican population as the truth
became quickly distorted by apostasy” (p. 35). This same interpretive
scheme is repeated frequently: “many ceremonies became distorted over time”
(p. 27); “most of these stories are weak imitations of what their
ancestors possessed” (p. 35); “thus the Aztecs thought the precious
and sacred beliefs they once possessed were gone” (p. 36); and “the
apostasy, around AD 150–200, was a time of forgetting true gospel principles. By AD 231, the apostasy was in full swing
. . . , but still a small glimmer of truth remained
from what the Nephites once knew” (p. 36).

Wirth’s methodology (and perhaps understanding of her task
of decoding) is that one finds the similarity to something that the Latter-day
Saint people believe and then suggest that it appears because of a continuation
of that belief from Nephite times. All differences that might make it “unparallel”
are assumed to be part of the process of apostasy. Wirth explains her
understanding of how Nephite ideas traveled through time:

The Maya nobles made grand monuments and painted pottery
with detailed scenes that told stories. But the commoners in ancient times
spread ideas by word of mouth and through their household art. This was the
method by which most traditions passed from one generation to the next. Can you
guess what happened?

What happened was similar to the “telephone game”
children play in which one person whispers
something into the ear of the person next to him, and that person passes
on the message to the next to him, and that person passes on the message to the
next person, until the message has gone all the way around a circle of
children. The original message always becomes distorted because it is
transferred to more and more people. (p. 36)

What Wirth misses is that the
telephone game is a very different process from oral transmission (the process
by which most information was transmitted in Mesoamerica). The telephone game
relies on three elements: the possibility of mishearing a whisper rather than
regular speech, an emphasis on very short-term memory, and no corrective
mechanism for the message. None of these elements describe the transmission of
oral traditions.

In particular, oral tradition’s corrective mechanisms are
very strong. Oral traditions are told out loud to a number of people, including
many (and typically most) who have heard it before. Any
significant errors are immediately corrected by the community. Oral traditions
do change, and they may also have remarkable longevity.[19] In some oral
traditions, there is extremely high accuracy in the passing of the most
important stories precisely because they are practiced to become virtually
verbatim to the version from the teacher. Wirth’s assumption of how one decodes
the material is based on a flawed understanding of the process of oral
transmission. As a result, although Wirth has read well and widely, her decoding
of ancient Mesoamerica with respect to the Book of Mormon is more an exercise
in creative parallelism rather than convincing argumentation.

An example of the problem of parallels and interpretations
comes from her chapter that presents a new insight on the connection between a
Maya ceremony and the Hebrew Feast of Tabernacles. After a section describing
the Hebrew ceremony and then the Maya Cha Cha’ac ceremony, “which is still
practiced today in Yucatan, Mexico,” she presents the two parallels more

Rain was a very
important objective for both the Feast of Tabernacles and the Cha-Cha’ac
ceremonies. In both ceremonies, liquid was poured on the altar while the king
(Israel) or the shaman (Mesoamerica) prayed for rain. It was at the Feast of
Tabernacles in Jerusalem that Christ spoke of the “living water” (see
John 7:36–38). The Lord was saying, in so many words, that he was the
living water from which all should drink.

We do not know if the Maya ever knew the significance of
water in this sense, but the Nephites did. It was Jehovah (Christ) who spoke
through the prophet Jeremiah when he said, “They have forsaken me the
fountain of living waters” (Jeremiah 2:13). Jeremiah lived in Lehi’s time.

. . . When the Cha-Cha’ac ritual
was completed, as is similar to the Sukkot, the Maya sat around the table/altar
and feasted on the food that was prepared for this occasion. This was a time of
joy, whether performed by the Hebrews or the Maya. (p. 30)

This is a fascinating parallel. We
have a Hebrew festival that appears to be very similar to a Maya festival. How
could the Maya have received such knowledge without the Nephite influence?
Wirth uses that question as its own answer, with no attempt to find out whether
or not there really is another explanation for the parallels she draws.

At issue is the nature of the parallels themselves. She
acknowledges that the modern Maya perform this ceremony. She assumes, without
any evidence, that it was performed anciently. While that is certainly
possible, some argument to that fact is required in order to bridge the gap of
nearly sixteen hundred years between the close of the Book of Mormon and this
modern practice.

Even if we could accept
the great difference in time, we have a Maya ceremony compared to a Hebrew
ceremony. The unstated assertion is that it is a remembrance of faithful
Nephite practice. The problem with that assertion is that the Nephites were probably
in Zoque territory from about 200 BC to the end of their days. The Maya would have fallen under the label of “Lamanite.”
Wirth never tells us how a faithful Nephite ceremony would cross
linguistic, cultural, and (most importantly) hate-laden boundaries to be
adopted (faithfully) by apostate Lamanites.

A final problem here is the very assumption of causality in
the parallels. For her case to be effective, Wirth would need to demonstrate
that the two ceremonies exhibit unique features that would be difficult to
replicate by independent invention. Unfortunately, these parallels between the
two ceremonies are quite easily explained by independent invention based on a
similar goal and a similar approach to manipulating the spiritual world. For
example, Wirth notes that both ceremonies include a prayer for rain (pp. 27,
29). The parallel of the pouring of water is just as likely to be an
independent realization that poured water is a form of invoking the falling
water of rain.

One of the failings of the methodology of parallels is that
much of what is “parallel” comes in the art of the telling.
Similarities are heightened and differences typically ignored. In this case,
Wirth overstates the parallels. She says of the Hebrew ceremony: “Tvedtnes
also says that Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles) was ‘the reenactment of Yahweh’s
[Jehovah’s/Christ’s] enthronement as king of the universe and controller of the
elements’ ” (p. 28). For the Maya, she notes that “when a Maya shaman was in charge of the
Cha-Cha’ac, he was considered their supreme god, just as the Hebrew king represented
God” (p. 29). While both statements are true, Wirth sees them as directly
parallel. Their important differences are left unexamined.

In most ceremonies, the practitioners enter a state where
they represent deities (or representatives of a different realm), so that in
and of itself is not a compelling connection between the two ceremonies. We
must assume that Wirth did not notice the significant conceptual difference
between acting as a god and being seated as a king. In particular, the Maya
idea of deity is sufficiently different from the Hebrew conception as to make
precise comparisons more difficult.[20]

Wirth’s chapter on Quetzalcoatl and Jesus Christ will
certainly be popular because it presents some new perspectives while retaining
the old connection between the two. Her analysis is very heavily based on both
the perception of parallels and the dismissal of differences as apostasy from
the true remembrance. I am particularly familiar with the sources and issues of
this historical and methodological problem and have written extensively on the
issue.[21] In a word, I find no evidence that supports the conclusions Wirth draws. She
does not engage my research.

Similarly, although she at least acknowledges a contrary
position concerning Izapa Stela 5, she does not engage that argument but
glosses over it: “Latter-day Saint archaeologists do not completely agree
with the interpretation of this stela, but even so, there appear to be strong
parallels between the design of Stela 5 and similar themes found in the Near
East” (p. 85).[22] When parallels are proposed as evidence in the face of contrary data, more is
required than the simple assertion that the parallel is “strong.”

Although impressing
non–Latter-day Saint archaeologists like Michael Coe is never the
ultimate goal of Latter-day Saint scholarship on the Book of Mormon, many of
the reasons why Coe found such efforts unconvincing should be warning signals
that some of the arguments set forth by Latter-day Saints really are
unacceptable. This is not to say that stronger connections between Mesoamerica
and the Book of Mormon are not to be expected. In fact, John E. Clark, a
prominent Latter-day Saint archaeologist who specializes in Mesoamerica, has
noted: “As seen by science, the Book of Mormon is stronger today than it
was in 1830, 1844, 1950, or even 2000, so I expect it will continue to become
stronger in the future. . . . The absolute percentages
of confirmed items will change, of course, but not likely the pattern. If the
book were a hoax, we would not expect any more than about 1 percent of the
items to be confirmed beyond random chance, but several hundred items
supporting the book’s historical validity have already been verified.”[23]

As I noted at the
beginning, Wirth’s mentors are excellent and her familiarity with Mesoamerican
materials is impressive and encouraging. Her knowledge of the field is an
obvious improvement over what many other Latter-day Saint authors bring to the
discussion. Along with her accomplishments, I would like to see a similar
upgrade in her caution with secondary sources and particularly in the methodology
she uses when comparing cultural aspects seen in the Book of Mormon with what
is known about Mesoamerica. When she applies her talents to those improvements,
I will be first in line for the next book.


[1]Diane E. Wirth, “Quetzalcoatl, the Maya Maize God, and Jesus
Christ,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 11 (2002):

[2]Blaine M.
Yorgason, Bruce W. Warren, and Harold Brown, New Evidences of Christ in Ancient America (Provo, UT: Book of Mormon Research Foundation, Stratford Books, 1999),
17–18. Although three authors are listed, this particular information is
clearly from Warren.

Guenter, “The Tomb of K’inich Janaab Pakal: The Temple of the Inscriptions
at Palenque,” 9 n. 14, http://www.mesoweb.com/articles/guenter/TI.pdf
(accessed 23 September 2008), emphasis in original.

[4]See my
paper “The Impact of the Spanish upon the Record of Native Oral Tradition
among the Nahua,”
http://frontpage2k.nmia.com/~nahualli/Quetzalcoatl/crucible.htm (accessed March
2008), for an analysis of issues involved in reconstructing the precontact
Quetzalcoatl mythology.

[5]Some part
of this tale may have been integrated after the Aztec’s arrival in Mesoamerica.
Mary Ellen Miller, in The Art of Mesoamerica from Olmec to Aztec (London:
Thames and Hudson, 1986), 68–69, makes this observation: “During
excavations to install Sound and Light at Teotihuacan in 1971, a cave was found
under the pyramid. Ancient rituals there may have hallowed the site. The cave
itself features several small chambers, almost in a clover-leaf configuration. Ceramics recovered indicate the cave’s use from Late Formative through
Classic times, and it could well be an extremely ancient focus of worship. The
later Aztecs claimed to have come to Tenochtitlan from a mythic place called ‘Chicomoztoc,’
or Seven Caves; might not the underground chambers of the Pyramid of the Sun have
been an ancient sacred place to them as well as to the Teotihuacanos?”

[6]Milton R.
Hunter and Thomas Stuart Ferguson, Ancient America and the Book of Mormon (Oakland, CA: Kolob Book, 1950), 30, emphasis in original.

de Sahagún, Historia
general de las cosas de Nueva España
,ed. Angel Mar’a
Garibay Kintana (Mexico City: Editorial Porrœa, 1969), 3:203 (my translation).

[8]Mary Miller and Karl Taube, An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and
Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya
(London: Thames and Hudson,
1993), 60.

[9]Wirth, “Quetzalcoatl, the Maya Maize God, and Jesus Christ,”

[10]In this
book she references Juan de Córdova, Arte en Lengua Zapoteca (Mexico
City, 1578), and Tony Shearer, Beneath the Moon and Under the Sun (Albuquerque: Sun Publishing, 1975). In the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies article
she gives what I believe to be the original source, Bruce W. Warren and Thomas
Stuart Ferguson, The Messiah in Ancient America (Provo, UT: Book of
Mormon Research Foundation, 1987). Warren cites Shearer, who attributes the
statement, without a specific reference, to a Juan de Córdova. Wirth may have
examined Shearer since finding the quotation in Warren and Ferguson, but I
strongly doubt she examined Juan de Córdova’s Arte, since I did examine that
text and did not find the quotation. Had he provided a page number, I would
gladly admit my error. Without it, I believe that it is not in Córdova’s

[11]See also
Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book
of Mormon, Volume 6, Fourth Nephi–Moroni
(Salt Lake City: Greg
Kofford Books, 2007), 392–94, where I provide more information on
this passage.

Cartwright Brundage, The Phoenix of the Western World: Quetzalcoatl and the Sky
(Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982).

[13]Brundage, Phoenix of
the Western World
, drawing on p. 239. Compare
http://www.famsi.org/research/loubat/Vaticanus%203773/page_26.jpg (accessed 23
September 2008), where the differences are slight and relegated to detail
rather than to important interpretive content.

[14]Brundage, Phoenix of
the Western World
, 238.

Coe, “Mormons and Archaeology: An Outside View,” Dialogue: A
Journal of Mormon Thought
8/2 (1973): 42.

studies of Book of Mormon geography, Latter-day Saint authors produced little
based on any different methodology until the publication, twelve years later,
of John L. Sorenson’s An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1985). Even Sorenson frequently
follows the parallelist methodology.

Saint historian William Hamblin has pointed out problems with the methodology
of parallels that Hugh Nibley used: “Nibley’s method does contain some
weaknesses. The first, and perhaps most important, is Nibley’s view that the ‘East’
is somehow unchanging. In reality the Near East has witnessed some of the most
tremendous periods of social, economic, technological, political, and cultural
transformations in world history. . . . To me his case is weakened by including these other marginal parallels.

“A second
methodological problem is that in attempting to draw parallels between ancient
Near Eastern cultures and the Book of Mormon, Nibley often ignores equally
significant differences. What is important here is not that the differences
between the Book of Mormon and ancient Near Eastern cultures somehow threaten
to undermine the historicity of the Book of Mormon, but rather that the
differences are often just as important evidence as parallels in obtaining a
more complete understanding of the ancient historical setting.” William J.
Hamblin, “Time Vindicates Hugh Nibley,” review of An Approach
to the Book of Mormon
, by Hugh Nibley, Review of Books on the Book of
2/1 (1990): 123–24.

Martin Raish expressed a
similar view: “Many LDS writers provide what I call shopping lists to
prove their points. They assemble rather impressive-looking lists of words,
customs, and architectural features which are found both in the Old World and
the New. The longer the list, of course, the greater the ‘proof.’ Unfortunately
such an approach is rarely of any real value. . . . To
be meaningful, such a list must cite a complex system . . . or a unique manner . . . which is found only in the two
cultures in question.” “All That Glitters: Uncovering Fool’s Gold in
Book of Mormon Archaeology,” Sunstone 6/1 (1981): 13.

[18]In addition
to Wirth, the methodology underlies the arguments in David G. Calderwood, Voices from
the Dust: New Insights into Ancient America
(Austin, TX: Historical
Publications, 2005); John L. Lund, Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon: Is This
the Place?
(np: The Communication Company,
2007); Bruce W. Warren and Thomas Stuart Ferguson, The Messiah in Ancient America (Provo, UT: Book of Mormon Research Foundation, 1987); and Yorgason, Warren,
and Brown, New
Evidences of Christ in Ancient America

[19]Albert B.
Lord, “Yugoslav Epic Fold Poetry,” in The Study of Folklore,
ed. Alan Dundes (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1965), 267–68. Lord
recorded two instances of the same performance around twenty years apart. There
were certainly differences, but he notes: “This single example indicates
very well the essentially conservative character of the tradition in so far as
the major thematic material is concerned.”

[20]Karl Taube, The
Major Gods of Ancient Yucatan
(Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks
Research Library and Collection, 1992), 8; and Stephen D. Houston and David
Stuart, “Of Gods, Glyphs, and Kings: Divinity and Rulership among the
Classic Maya,” Antiquity 70 (1996): 290.

[21]See my
studies “The Christianization of Quetzalcoatl,” Sunstone 10/11 (1986):
6–10; “Digging for Quetzalcoatl’s Christian Roots,”
~nahualli/LDStopics/DigQ/DigQ%20TOC.htm (accessed 23 September 2008); and most
recently an expanded discussion in Second Witness, 5:353–95.

[22]Wirth cites
John E. Clark as one archaeologist who holds a contrary opinion. See Clark’s
study “A New Artistic Rendering of Izapa Stela 5: A Step Toward Improved
Interpretation,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/1 (1999):
22–33. I strongly suggest that when a believing Latter-day Saint
archaeologist of high professional standing, such as John Clark, disagrees with
an interpretation, he or she deserves a fair hearing rather than a summary
dismissal. For the record, I agree with Clark. Regarding the Near Eastern
parallels that Wirth sees in the Book of Mormon, the same could also be said
for Scandinavia and the Far East. Tree of life symbolism is widespread, and
Wirth does not examine the imagery outside the Near East. See Gardner, Second
, 1:154–56.

[23]John E.
Clark, “Archaeological Trends and Book of Mormon Origins,” in The Worlds
of Joseph Smith: A Bicentennial Conference at the Library of Congress
ed. John W. Welch (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2006), 95.