In the movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Nazi’s are looking for the Lost Ark of the Covenant. They have an image of a map burned into the hand of a Nazi scientist, so they think they know where the Ark is. However, there is a critical piece of information missing which is found on the other side of the medallion, which only Indiana Jones has. Indiana exclaims, “They’re digging in the wrong place!”
Book of Mormon geography is one of my favorite topics, and it’s been a while since I talked about it. Wouldn’t it be cool to find some archaeological evidence? There are over 100 theories concerning Book of Mormon geography. Since they can’t all be correct, obviously, some scientists are digging in the wrong place. Let’s review some of the theories again.
In 1991, John Sorensen of BYU, the “dean” of Book of Mormon geography, created a book called “The Geography of Book of Mormon Events: A Source Book“. (It is hard to find because it has no ISBN #, but can be purchased at the BYU Bookstore as well as some bookstores specializing on obscure Mormon books.) I reviewed the theories. I grouped them into basic categories, and discovered a 7th category when Last Lemming posted a comment at my blog about an African theory. Here they are:
(1) Internal Theories. These are maps which just read the BOM and ignore where they might have occurred, but try to figure out rough distances, and major landmarks that the true map must exhibit. This is a good starting point for “real-world” maps to compare themselves to. Any scholar should probably start here first.
(2) Hemispheric Models. Mormons originally thought that the Book of Mormon peoples covered the entire North and South America. Most serious scholars now doubt this, but many church members probably still believe this today.
(3) Central America Models. The bulk of “mormon approved” scholars support this general theory. While there are disagreements about where the “narrow neck of land” exists, such as Panama, Mexico, Guatemala, etc, these theories can be lumped into this category. This is the theory that is most accepted by Mormon Scholars.
(4) South America Models. Joseph Smith is reported to have said that Lehi landed 30 degrees South of the equator, in what would be modern day Chile. There are several theories that try to confirm this, and most people who support this group of theories believe that most of South America was under water, and that the continent rose up during the major earthquakes mentioned in the BOM during Christ’s crucifixion in the Old World.
(5) The Great Lakes Theories. This proposes that since the golden plates were found in NY, the BOM lands must be nearby, and proposes that the Great Lakes were the Sea East, West, etc. This theory has recently received a boost from people like Rodney Meldrum, and is making some inroads into Mormon thought.
The book is now close to 20 years old. Since it was published, a flood of new theories have been created. The following 2 theories are some of the most radical.
(6) The African Theory by Embaye Melekin. The link to this theory on my blog no longer works, but Michael Ash wrote a review of this theory in 2001. Melekin claims that his book titled, “Manifestations mysteries revealed,” has proven “beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Book of Mormon is an African book and about Africans. . . . My book will change the church and the belief of the Mormons drastically.” Well Melekin didn’t change Ash’s opinion, and I don’t give this theory much credence.
(7) The Malay Theory. This theory says it would have been much easier for Nephi to travel a 4000 mile journey to the Malay Peninsula than a 16000 mile journey in open seas to the Americas. The author notes better language similarities, better DNA evidence, and other evidences to support his ideas, while clearly noting that he is not sure how the plates got to NY.
One need only look Wikipedia to see the common problems with all the American theories. (Important note-look at the top of the article-there are many messages at the top of the article stating that the findings in the entry are highly disputed, so use that information as you will.) Here’s a brief listing of problems with theories 2-5. Archaeological evidence has failed to produce many of the following animals and plants existed during the Book of Mormon period:
- Cattle and cows
- Barley and wheat
Additionally, Native Americans were much more primitive than is mentioned in the Book of Mormon-there were no chariots, or even wheeled vehicles in the Americas, and iron was not used for weapons. Iron ore has been discovered in Peru, but its purpose was primarily for body paint. Here are some other problems:
- Chariots or wheeled vehicles
- Steel and iron
- Metal swords, which had “rusted”
- System of exchange based on measures of precious metals
- Knowledge of Hebrew and Egyptian languages
DNA seems to be another problem. I did a post last July on a book I read called “DNA and Tradition: The Genetic Link to the Ancient Hebrews“, by Rabbi Yaakov Kleiman. Jewish DNA has been a relatively important topic in the scientific community, and a gene has been discovered, called the Cohen gene which seems to date back to the time of Aaron and Moses. This Cohen gene theoretically represents the Levite tribe, of which Moses and Aaron were a part of. Medically, the Cohen gene has been linked to neurological problems. In my talk with Ann (What’s the difference between Arabs and Persians?), she acknowledged that Jews do carry some unique genetic traits.
So, lest anyone think I’m advocating the position that the Book of Mormon is archaeologically unsound, let’s look at the Bible for a minute. I did a post which tries to show the good and bad news of Biblical Archaeology. There is no evidence that Jews existed prior to about 700 BC. That means that there is no archaeological evidence of Moses, Saul, Joseph, Adam, Eve, Job, Abraham, Noah, and everyone who pre-dates 700 BC. Some scholars go so far as to claim that the Exodus never happened. There is an inscription about David in the Tel Dan stele, which seems to indicate that a King David may have existed, but scholars are split as to the veracity of this claim. There is even a lack of contemporary evidence that Christ existed, though the writings after his crucifixion certainly add a significant amount of credible evidence that Christ probably existed. Either way, science will never be able to prove he was resurrected, which is a fundamental tenet of all Christianity.
So my point is that the Bible and the Book of Mormon’s primary value are in their religious and spiritual validity, not necessarily scientific validity. Certainly the Bible has more archaeological evidence than the Book of Mormon, but there are many archaeological questions for both books.
Does lack of evidence prove these people did not exist? No, we are only a discovery away from proving the skeptics wrong. Can a spiritual person still be a scientist? Yes, according to Maimonides, a rabbi who wrote 700 years ago. A quote from DNA and Tradition: The Genetic Link to the Ancient Hebrews says,
“His writings directed the person of faith to realize that there is much more hidden than revealed, both in the traditional Biblical writings and also in the natural world. Our challenge is to continually study and investigate both realms, with the realization that apparent conflicts are merely artifacts of temporary incomplete understanding in one or both realms. This avoidance of intellectual pride, allows the person of traditional religious faith to work comfortably within the framework of rigorous scientific hypothesis and empiricism. This is also in keeping with the rationalist approach in Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed.”
So, what if the Book of Mormon is true, but like the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark, we’re “digging in the wrong place?” I decided to look at one of the radically different geography theories-the Malay theory by Ralph Olsen. I discovered it in the footnotes of the Wikipedia article on Archaeology and the Book of Mormon. He even has his own section here. The footnotes list a link to a Sunstone article he did. (You must open the attachment with the free Adobe Reader.)
In the Sunstone article, he lists his mailing address, so I wrote him a letter. Ralph Olsen is a retired chemistry professor at Montana State University, with research interests in plants, soils, and microbes. I asked him why he picked Malay as a possible Book of Mormon location, and he cited several reasons:
(1) The peninsula is North-south, unlike Sorenson’s east-west orientation
(2) The problems with animals go away. Elephants, sheep, horses, etc. all date to the proper time period
(3) The civilization dates to the proper time period, and has had chariots, iron, silk, etc
(4) There was a dark-skinned people pre-existing on the peninsula. If they intermarried with the Lamanites, (while the Nephites did not intermarry) that would explain the “dark and loathsome” comment in the Book of Mormon
(5) The oceanic travel makes more sense
(6) Alma 63: 5 And it came to pass that Hagoth, he being an aexceedingly curious man, therefore he went forth and built him an exceedingly large ship, on the borders of the land bBountiful, by the land Desolation, and launched it forth into the west sea, by the cnarrow neck which led into the land northward.
a. Traditional Mormon scholars seem to support the idea that Hagoth travelled eastward and populated the Pacific Islands (such as Hawaii, Tonga, etc),
b. Scholarly consensus indicates that Native Americans came from Asia, hopped across the Pacific Islands (such as Hawaii, Tonga, etc), before arriving in the Americas. Olsen’s theory seems to be backed up by more scientists
(7) DNA evidence seems to be better. I blogged previously about the 12 Tribes of Israel. As we know from the Book of Mormon, Nephi and Lehi were from the tribe of Manasseh. Unrelated to this theory, a Jewish documentary filmmaker named Simcha Jacobovici has made the claim that the tribe of Manasseh may be located in the Malay Peninsula in his film “Quest for the Lost Tribes”, which I blogged about previously.
a. While not endorsing the Malay Theory, Simon Southerton commented on my blog that “I’m not aware of any DNA evidence from South East Asia linking populations there with the Middle East. South East Asia has been heavily populated for tens of thousands of years, with large civilizations. It is possible that Jewish sailors colonized parts of Asia though.”
I know Southerton gets a lot of flak from FARMS and FAIR for his DNA studies. I know Rodney Meldrum is making some claims that Cohen DNA has been found in the Americas. However, Southerton says that Meldrum’s work is based on old genetic tests, and is no longer valid. Southerton’s rebuttal is found here.
Unrelated to this theory, a Jewish documentary filmmaker named Simcha Jacobovici has made the claim that the tribe of Manasseh may be located in the Malay Peninsula in his film “Quest for the Lost Tribes”, which I blogged about previously. Jacobovici mentions that when Babylon invaded Israel and scattered them in 600 BC, that some of the tribes were taken across land to Malay. This could seemingly explain how the Mulekites got there, and why the Nephites (who travelled by boat) couldn’t understand them.
There is also a legend in Malay stating that some shipwrecked Jewish people landed there, possibly indicating the Nephites landing there. As we know from the Book of Mormon, Nephi and Lehi were from the tribe of Manasseh. Jacobovici states in his film that some of the local citizens in Malay claim to be from the Tribe of Manasseh.
Olsen has written a short book called “A More Promising Land of Promise”, which is available for purchase on his own website. He also sent me a much longer, unpublished manuscript, which goes into further detail, than his published book. He encourages people to critique his work, so if you have problems with his theories, be kind, but please express them. My biggest problems with the theory are:
(1) How did the plates get to New York? Olsen admits that he doesn’t know-possibly a miracle? But he also points out that Sorensen doesn’t adequately explain how the 200 lb plates moved from Guatemala 3000 miles north to NY without a wheeled vehicle.
(2) If the Book of Mormon lands are in Asia, then Joseph’s account that the Book of Mormon contains a record of the inhabitants of the American continent, then Malay is clearly not. Joseph Smith History 1:34 “[Moroni] said there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang.”
a. Olsen’s argument emphasizes it differently, instead emphasizing “and the source from whence they sprang.” He says the Source is the Malay Peninsula, and that is how to overcome this apparent discrepancy. I can see his point, but I know that is not a traditional understanding of that scripture, and I’m not sure I buy it.
So, what do you think? Do you have any other major problems with the theory? Is there anything you like about the theory?