Thursday, March 17, 2022

Cumorah: people and languages

Some say the 2 main reasons why so many LDS scholars have settled on the Mesoamerican/Two-Cumorahs (M2C) setting for the Book of Mormon are:

1. No evidence of massive warfare in western New York.

2. No ancient written languages in western New York.

I've addressed these points before but I'll review the first one here and the second one in a subsequent post.

The historical explanation for M2C, of course, is the work of RLDS scholar L.E. Hills, who published the first M2C map in 1917. [Note how the simulation gave us the name of Hills for the man who developed the theory of "two hills Cumorah."] 

Over the objection of LDS Church leaders such as Joseph Fielding Smith, LDS scholars adopted the Hills' map, which is the intellectual ancestor to the maps still featured on the website of BYU Studies and the maps that Book of Mormon Central spends millions of dollars to promote.

M2C proponents today like to think they are original thinkers, with peer-reviewed articles and other patina of scholarly embellishment, but M2C is derivative of an ill-conceived map based on misperceptions..

Let's look at the two purported reasons for M2C.


1. No evidence of massive warfare in western New York.

LDS apologists and unbelievers alike continue to claim that the Book of Mormon describes populations in the millions with final battles involving hundreds of thousands of combatants. While it's not surprising that LDS apologists and unbelievers agree on this (as they do on so many other points), neither the text nor the teachings of early prophets require this claim.

First, we have Ether 15.

Chapter 15

Millions of the Jaredites are slain in battle—Shiz and Coriantumr assemble all the people to mortal combat—The Spirit of the Lord ceases to strive with them—The Jaredite nation is utterly destroyed—Only Coriantumr remains.

1 And it came to pass when Coriantumr had recovered of his wounds, he began to remember the words which Ether had spoken unto him.

2 He saw that there had been slain by the sword already nearly two millions of his people, and he began to sorrow in his heart; yea, there had been slain two millions of mighty men, and also their wives and their children.

(Ether 15–15:2)

The heading here is not scriptural, of course; it's an interpretation of the text. But we can see that depite the implications of the heading, these verses do not refer to Cumorah.

First, we see that Coriantumr was reflecting on Ether's prophecies and warnings. We go back to chapter 13 to see what Ether had said.

2 For behold, they rejected all the words of Ether; for he truly told them of all things, from the beginning of man; and that after the waters had receded from off the face of this land it became a choice land above all other lands, a chosen land of the Lord; wherefore the Lord would have that all men should serve him who dwell upon the face thereof;

3 And that it was the place of the New Jerusalem, which should come down out of heaven, and the holy sanctuary of the Lord.

13 And I was about to write more, but I am forbidden; but great and marvelous were the prophecies of Ether; but they esteemed him as naught, and cast him out; and he hid himself in the cavity of a rock by day, and by night he went forth viewing the things which should come upon the people. 

 14 And as he dwelt in the cavity of a rock he made the remainder of this record, viewing the destructions which came upon the people, by night.

(Ether 13:2-3, 13–14)

The history of the Jaredites that Ether recorded in his book summarizes the 33+ generations of his ancestry and includes continuous warfare. 

Second, we don't know much about Coriantumr, but we do know this:

16 And now Coriantumr, having studied, himself, in all the arts of war and all the cunning of the world, wherefore he gave battle unto them who sought to destroy him.
(Ether 13:16)

As a student of war, particularly reflecting on what Ether had taught, Coriantumr would know the history of the Jaredites and their warfare. Over 33+ generations, presumably over 2,000 years, "two millions" of deaths does not reflect a huge population. Evenly distributed, that's only 1,000 people/year. Naturally, there would be years of no war and other years with major wars, but in any case, annual deaths in the thousands over many centuries would accumulate over the history into the millions. That doesn't mean the population at any given time included millions of people.

The third point is that Coriantumr's reflection on two million deaths preceded the battle at Cumorah by over four years. Coriantumr's pondering let him to suggest a truce or settlement with Shiz, but that didn't work out and a series of battles and retreats ensued. Then, as explained in verse 11, they spent four years gathering the people to Ramah, or Cumorah. We don't know the number of people who assembled, but they spent a week in battle. 

If we extrapolate backward from the numbers we are given, we can see that, assuming half the people died each day, there were fewer than 10,000 involved.

Which is how Oliver Cowdery explained it in Letter VII.

Thus, the misleading heading to chapter 15 has led to a widespread false assumption that millions of people died at the hill Cumorah.

As we've discussed before, a battle of 10,000 people does not necessarily leave much evidence. We don't even know for sure where the Battle of Hastings took place, even though it was well documented and occurred in 1066, because evidence is ephemeral and ambiguous.

E.g., "We knew from previous experience that searching for relics of Medieval battles is a notoriously difficult task. Looting and stripping of the dead in the aftermath of fighting was a common occurrence. Unsurprisingly, not a single artefact certainly linked to the 1066 battle has ever been found. To make matters worse the village of Battle that subsequently grew up around the abbey would have obliterated any traces of the fighting, which limited surveying opportunities to the remaining, undeveloped, open areas."

Regarding the Nephites, nothing in the text says or implies that millions of people were involved. Some people read Mormon 6 as involving 230,000 Nephites, but that, again, is a misunderstanding of the text in which Mormon states as clear as words can be that he and Moroni could see only their respective 10,000 (a military unit, not a specific number) from the top of Cumorah.

Which, again, Letter VII explained long ago.

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