Horses and Chariots in the Book of Mormons: Red Herring?

January 31, 2012

The Book of Mormon mentions chariots and horses, which King Lamoni orders to be prepared for a journey:


6 Now when Lamoni had heard this he caused that his servants should make ready his horses and his chariots.

7 And he said unto Ammon: Come, I will go with thee down to the land of Middoni, and there I will plead with the king that he will cast thy brethren out of prison.

8 And it came to pass that as Ammon and Lamoni were journeying thither, they met the father of Lamoni, who was king over all the land. (Alma 20:6-8)

Apologetic answers have been very interesting regarding this description (Mike Ash provides a good summary of the reponses).

1. Loan-shift words. Some apologists argue that the words “chariots” and “horses” don’t mean what we naïve fundamentalists think they do. Brant Gardner, for example, suggests that chariots are probably the litters that Mayan kings used for conveyance, and the horses are ceremonial “battle beasts” associated with the king. Curiously, such apologists also insist that the Book of Mormon does not associate horse and chariots with transportation, though the above passage clearly associates them with Lamoni’s impending journey. Is this possible? Perhaps, but it’s certainly not plausible and requires doing significant violence to the text.

2. Mesoamerican evidence for horses and chariots. Others believe that there really were chariot-like wheeled conveyances, but they were pulled by animals such as deer or tapir (in another fun loan-shift approach), or possibly now-extinct equine animals. They tell us that American horses may have died out long ago, and it wouldn’t be surprising if we just didn’t find any (as an analogy he repeats the debunked claim by John Tvedtnes that no lion remains have been found in Palestine and the also bogus claim from Bill Hamblin that no horse remains have been found among ancient Hun artifacts).

Some apologists also point out that the wheel was known in Mesoamerica, as it appears on small ceremonial items and toys. Obviously, they tell us, if they had wheels for such small objects, they must have had larger wheeled conveyances, such as chariots. Game, set, and match, right?

Not so fast. There is an important reason that the wheel was not used in conveyances: there were no suitable beasts of burden to pull them. The tapir, often cited by apologists, is a largely nocturnal animal that spends most of the daytime sleeping. At night, they forage in muddy places or graze from river bottoms. Here’s a description from a University of Texas tapir conservation web site:

During the day you will find Sirena tapirs sleeping in mud holes. They have even been seen sleeping with caymans in some of the very wet mud pits! Sleeping in these holes is much cooler and keeps some of the bugs down. Tapirs wake up and start moving around 4 PM. They are most active from 4PM to 5AM. The tapirs will visit the beach at least once a day. A reason for this beach visit may be to obtain salt and minerals from the ocean.

The tapir have four splayed soft toes on their front feet and three on their rear feet, which are suited for the water and mud they live in. However, their feet are not suited at all for travel or transporting materials and people. Andean peoples had llamas, alpacas, and vicuñas, but there is no similar animal among the Mesoamericans. Deer were domesticated for meat, but not as beasts of burden.

Thus, the real reason the wheel was not used except in small items is that there were no draft animals to take advantage of the technology. In societies where the wheel is introduced for conveyance, its use spreads quickly to other uses, such as pulleys, mills, and pottery wheels. In Mesoamerica, none of these were used.

The Maya understood the rotation principle of the wheel–they used it in spinning thread and drilling stone–and they actually made wheeled toys. They rolled quarried stone over logs and used rope and wooden levers to lift heavy objects. But the Maya never built wheeled transport or employed pulleys. (Foster, Lynn V. and Matthews, Peter, Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World, Oxford UP, 2002, p. 314).

In short, there were no beasts of burden in Mesoamerica, nor was the wheel used in transportation. This makes the description of horses and chariots completely anachronistic, unless you accept that Mormon originally wrote, “Now when Lamoni had heard this he caused that his servants should make ready his ceremonial battle beasts and his wheel-less litter.”

Steel and the Book of Mormon

January 31, 2012

The word “steel” appears in the Book of Mormon in several places, mostly in quotations from the King James Version of Isaiah. Apologists sometimes argue that steel doesn’t really mean steel (an iron alloy) but probably means “bronze”; they point out that the translators of the King James Version of the Bible wrongly translated the word, as it really refers to bronze. Given that mistranslation, they suggest that perhaps what Joseph Smith translated as “steel” was some unknown metal, perhaps related to “ziff.”

But the metal is described as being used to make tools and weapons, which requires that the metals be hard metals; gold and copper look nice, but they make poor swords and hammers. You need high temperatures to smelt hard metals (note that ancient Americans did limited smelting with softer metals like copper at lower temperatures), and to do that you need the technology (in this case, a bellows). Conveniently, the Book of Mormon tells us that Nephi knew how to use a bellows to heat ore and extract hard metal:

9 And I said: Lord, whither shall I go that I may find ore to molten, that I may make tools to construct the ship after the manner which thou hast shown unto me?

10 And it came to pass that the Lord told me whither I should go to find ore, that I might make tools.

11 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, did make a bellows wherewith to blow the fire, of the skins of beasts; and after I had made a bellows, that I might have wherewith to blow the fire, I did smite two stones together that I might make fire. …

16 And it came to pass that I did make tools of the ore which I did molten out of the rock. (1 Nephi 17:9-11, 16)

Nephi also makes swords out of smelted hard metals:

14 And I, Nephi, did take the sword of Laban, and after the manner of it did make many swords, lest by any means the people who were now called Lamanites should come upon us and destroy us; for I knew their hatred towards me and my children and those who were called my people.

15 And I did teach my people to build buildings, and to work in all manner of wood, and of iron, and of copper, and of brass, and of steel, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious ores, which were in great abundance. (2 Nephi 5:14)

The Jaredites had similar technology, according to the Book of Mormon:

9 Wherefore, he came to the hill Ephraim, and he did molten out of the hill, and made swords out of steel for those whom he had drawn away with him; and after he had armed them with swords he returned to the city Nehor, and gave battle unto his brother Corihor, by which means he obtained the kingdom and restored it unto his father Kib. (Ether 7:9

23 And they did work in all manner of ore, and they did make gold, and silver, and iron, and brass, and all manner of metals; and they did dig it out of the earth; wherefore, they did cast up mighty heaps of earth to get ore, of gold, and of silver, and of iron, and of copper. And they did work all manner of fine work. (Ether 10:23)

There is no archaeological evidence of Mesoamericans using smelted hard metals either for tools or for weapons in the time period of the Book of Mormon (~2400 BC to 421 AD). It’s important to note that metallurgy in Western Mexico seems to have developed after 600 AD and that was mostly copper, with some gold and silver (these are all require low heat levels to smelt). Low-heat smelting begins in Mesoamerica around 800 AD. Around 1200-1300 AD bronze (copper and tin alloy, specifically) emerges. Here’s a nice little summary from archaeologist Scott Simmons of the University of North Carolina Wilmington:

The Maya Archaeometallurgy Project

So, there is no evidence for smelting technology in that era. The timelines are way off for Nephites and Jaredites.

But this is just the “absence of evidence.” The other half of the equation is that everywhere that high-temperature technology has been introduced, it has a ripple effect on other industries. For example, pottery that is fired at high heats is of much better quality and very different characteristics than is low-temperature pottery.

So, even if every steel sword and tool had rusted away, we would find pottery characteristic of high heat. What we find in Mesoamerica is pottery created rather crudely by putting the wet pots in an open fire pit, covering them with brush, and setting the brush on fire. Brush is added to the fire until the pottery has hardened. Michael Deal of Memorial University (St. Johns, Newfoundland) explains:

[quote]The most striking difference between Maya and Cypriot pottery-making is their choice of firing methods. The Maya prefer open bonfires that vary in size according to the amount of vessels being fired at one time. For example, the nine Chanal households, in which potters fired only on their kitchen hearths had an average annual production of less than 21 vessels, while potters who fired outside in larger hearths averaged 83 vessels per year. The effects of wind are often cited as a major factor in the selection of outside, open firing locations (Arnold 1991; Rice 1987:156; Shepard 1976:176). (ETHNOARCHAEOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES ON CERAMIC PRODUCTION) [/quote]

The production process of Mesoamerican pottery is well-known, an it is positive evidence that high-heat technology was not known in Mesoamerica. The archaeological evidence of low-heat metal work confirms that the technology was unknown.

Simon and the Scary DNA

January 28, 2012

Fascinating blog post from molecular biologist and former Mormon bishop Simon Southerton about the initial response of the LDS church to his expressing his unbelief. He had discovered that the church’s claim that Lamanites (ancient Hebrews) were the “principal ancestors” of Native Americans could not be defended.

First Encounters with Institutional Mormonism

Lots of interesting stuff in Simon’s post, including the strange letter from John Tvedtnes (who put Scott Woodward’s name on the paper without Woodward’s knowledge) and the dire warnings of church leader Vaughn J. Featherstone of how Simon’s life would become a “hollow shell” if he left the church.

And if you’re keeping score, it was the church that had to change its position, not Simon. The introduction to the Book of Mormon now states that the Lamanites “are among the ancestors of the American Indians.”

Brodie Nominations

January 26, 2012

In case you have missed it, the call for Brodie award nominations is open over at Latter-day Main Street:

Last Call for Brodie Nominations

I’m honored to have been nominated for two awards, one for my post about a slightly deceptive Deseret News article and one for my book.

Status of Book of Mormon Claims

January 26, 2012

A friend alerted me to the following graphics from the FAIR (Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research):

Status of Book of Mormon Claims in 1842

Status of Book of Mormon Claims in 2005

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry (OK, I admit it. I laughed). As long as I can remember, Mormon apologists have been making rather ridiculous claims about how much support, if any, there is for the Book of Mormon as an ancient document. Years ago, Mormon archaeologists were sure they would find Nephite cities and artifacts among the ruins of ancient Mayan and Aztec civilizations. After decades of fruitless searching and dubious claims, Mormon apologists decided to try “to find Mesoamerica in the Book of Mormon rather than the Book of Mormon in Mesoamerica” (Brant Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 1:4, 2007). Generally, this means drawing parallels and declaring “points of convergence.” Probably the best example of such a convergence-oriented apologetic is John Clark’s “Archaeology, Relics, and Book of Mormon Belief.

The problem, of course, is that even the strained parallels they find don’t work (see my response to Clark here), and people like Brant Gardner are left insisting that the technologies, weapons, foods, and animals described in the Book of Mormon don’t mean what we think they mean. Despite all their best efforts, the Book of Mormon just does not work in an ancient American setting.

Facebook Group

January 25, 2012

I created a Facebook group for anyone who’s interested:

Runtu’s Rincon Closed Group

Like my blog, it will probably touch on Mormonism fairly regularly, but it’s just a private place to talk about whatever you would like to talk about. You’ll have to ask to be added, and no one who isn’t in the group can see any of the posts, so it will be a good place to talk or vent or whatever.

If It’s “Behind Us,” Stop Justifying It

January 23, 2012

I was thirteen years old, a Boy Scout on the way home from a 50-mile backpacking trip in the Sierras, when news came over the radio that Spencer W. Kimball, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had received a “revelation … extending priesthood and temple blessings to all worthy male members of the Church.” Previously, anyone who was a descendant of a black African could not receive the LDS priesthood if they were male and could not enter the temple and receive the “saving ordinances.”

Before that time, our family had a few tense conversations about the ban. Once, around the dinner table, my older sister, who has never been shy about expressing her opinion, demanded an explanation for the ban but got none from my parents. Over the years, church leaders had given various reasons for the ban. By cobbling together some scriptures from the Books of Moses and Abraham (which were said to have been revealed to church founder Joseph Smith, the story was that the Canaanites were cursed with a black skin and denied the priesthood at some point before the Flood (and this was vaguely tied to the seed of Cain). The cursed race was preserved from the Flood because Ham, one of Noah’s sons married a Canaanite named Egyptus; one of Ham’s daughters would then “discovered” Egypt and settle its lands. Here are the relevant verses of the Book of Abraham:

21 Now this king of Egypt was a descendant from the loins of Ham, and was a partaker of the blood of the Canaanites by birth.

22 From this descent sprang all the Egyptians, and thus the blood of the Canaanites was preserved in the land.

23 The land of Egypt being first discovered by a woman, who was the daughter of Ham, and the daughter of Egyptus, which in the Chaldean signifies Egypt, which signifies that which is forbidden;

24 When this woman discovered the land it was under water, who afterward settled her sons in it; and thus, from Ham, sprang that race which preserved the curse in the land.

(Just an aside, but one thing you’ll notice in LDS scriptures is that there are almost never any footnotes attached to controversial verses, or at least not to the parts of them that are controversial.) So, there you have it: black Africans are supposed to have come from a single ancestor some 4,000 years ago who was a Canaanite, who of course lived in what would become Palestine, Lebanon, and Israel. I’m quite sure most history texts do not mention that these Semitic people were actually black. But I digress.

Over many years, church leaders struggled to come up with a clear doctrine and rationale for the ban, speculating that, perhaps, black people had done something in the premortal life to merit the handicap of their bodies and their denial of priesthood. The 1949 First Presidency clarified this speculation as the official church position:

The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the Church is kept in mind, namely, that the conduct of spirits in the premortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality and that while the details of this principle have not been made known, the mortality is a privilege that is given to those who maintain their first estate; and that the worth of the privilege is so great that spirits are willing to come to earth and take on bodies no matter what the handicap may be as to the kind of bodies they are to secure; and that among the handicaps, failure of the right to enjoy in mortality the blessings of the priesthood is a handicap which spirits are willing to assume in order that they might come to earth. Under this principle there is no injustice whatsoever involved in this deprivation as to the holding of the priesthood by the Negroes.

The 1978 revelation changed the policy, explaining that “all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color.” If nothing else, this statement makes it clear that the ban was about race and color, not lineage, despite what some people insist. But the important thing is that the ban is in the past.

Unfortunately, it keeps coming up as an issue for one simple reason: a lot of Mormon apologists cannot entertain the possibility that the ban was wrong or even that it may have been a human mistake based on limited understanding. No, these folks continue to defend the ban as doctrine, arguing that it was God’s doing, and it had nothing to do with race.

I could spend a lot of time arguing about this, but there’s no point. Those who are convinced that God restricted his priesthood to those of non-African descent are not going to change their minds. But these folks need to know that they are not helping the church’s cause by defending something that, by rights, should have been put to rest some 34 years ago. President Hinckley, when asked, said simply, “I don’t know what the reason was.” In another interview, he said stated that “the leaders of the church at that time interpreted that doctrine that way,” and insisted, “It’s behind us.”

So, my advice to Mormon apologists is to say the obvious: You don’t know why the ban was instituted, and therefore, there is no reason to justify it. By continuing to attempt a doctrinal justification for the ban, apologists are just keeping the issue alive.