Monday, November 2, 2015

Methodology for interpretation

In seeking a widespread consensus about Book of Mormon historicity and geography, one of the challenges is agreeing to a methodology for interpretation of the text. Inevitably, there are multiple ways to interpret the text. Many words are imprecise; they have multiple meanings and nuances.

Ambiguity is not the only problem. Even when words have a precise meaning, they may not give us the information we want. For example, Mosiah 23:3 says "And they fled eight days' journey into the wilderness." Presumably, everyone can agree how long the journey lasted: eight days. The text is not ambiguous, but it doesn't give us the information we really want. We care how far the people traveled, not how long it took them to reach their destination.

This passage illustrates another interpretation problem. What is "the wilderness" they journeyed into? Presumably we can agree the term means an area not inhabited by humans, but beyond that, was it a forest? A desert? A jungle? A mountain?

No two people can independently come up with identical conclusions about how far a person or group can travel during "eight days' journey into the wilderness" without knowing the means of transportation, the average speed, the number of hours traveled in a day, the type of wilderness involved, the terrain, etc. At best, we can estimate ranges, based on various assumptions, that can be incorporated into a highly variable abstract map.

Does this mean interpretation of the text is hopeless? That we can never reach a consensus about geography?

Some have proposed a hierarchy of authority; i.e., that one particular approach should have priority, with other relegated to secondary or lesser importance. For example, Neal Rappleye has proposed there are three basic groups into which the various methods fall: Geographic priority, archaeological priority, and prophetic priority. (He claims--wrongly in my opinion--that all major advocates of geographic priority are unanimous that only Mesoamerica fits the geographic details of the text.) In my view, a priority or hierarchy approach is ineffective, partly because there is no principled way to achieve a consensus about which priority should be dominant, and partly because even among those who share a particular priority, there is no consensus.

But that doesn't mean no consensus is possible.


I propose we can reach a consensus by looking at interpretive rules adopted by the legal profession. In this way, we can reconcile all the available evidence that is relevant, authoritative and credible. An interpretation process that fails to reconcile this evidence, in my view, is unsatisfactory and can never lead to a consensus.

My first job out of law school was as a law clerk to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New Mexico. Many of the cases we worked on involved interpretation of statutes and contracts. In both cases, judges consider the text as the starting point for interpretation.  The objective is to ascertain the objective of the legislature or the intent of the contracting parties. They follow the plain meaning of the text whenever possible. What does the statute say? What does the contract say?

If the text is plain, clear and unambiguous, the court has no need to look outside the document for assistance in interpretation (unless a literal interpretation would lead to absurd consequences).

Of course, most litigation involves texts that are ambiguous in some way. In these cases, the court considers the meanings advocated by the plaintiff and the defendant and decides between them (or announces an alternative to both parties' proposed interpretations). To interpret a litigated term or provision, courts may look beyond the "four corners" of the document and consult dictionaries and other authoritative sources, including prior judicial decisions.

In contract cases, courts may consider prior practices and prior usage of the same terms between the parties. For specialized terms, courts can look at trade usage (common usage by others in the same business).

When interpreting statutes, courts may look at the legislative history, including the purpose for the statute. Courts favor interpretations that fulfill the purposes identified by the legislature and that are consistent with other statutes and precedent.

In all cases, they seek interpretations that make the text internally consistent and that give effect to every provision.

While this is merely a brief overview of principles of judicial interpretation, it includes several elements that apply to interpretation of the Book of Mormon.


If the text of the Book of Mormon was clear and unambiguous, there would not be so many different opinions on the setting for the narrative. As the Mosiah 23:3 example illustrates, though, many passages in the Book of Mormon are susceptible to a wide range of interpretations. These passages cannot be interpreted within the "four corners" of the document.

Like a court, if we are going to resolve the ambiguity, we have to look outside the document for assistance.

In the case of the Book of Mormon, the Bible serves as an equivalent of a legislative history or prior dealings between the parties. It gives context and background for many of the passages, such as the thirty-seven references to the Law of Moses. Whenever a passage in the Book of Mormon is unclear or ambiguous, it makes sense to see if the Bible helps explain and clarify the passage. Biblical usage of terms can help explain usage of those same terms in the Book of Mormon.

However, the relationship between the Bible and the Book of Mormon brings up an important difference between ordinary judicial interpretation and interpretation of scriptural texts. Courts look retrospectively at precedent and prior usage of terms, and in that sense the Bible helps clarify the Book of Mormon. But the Book of Mormon also clarifies the meaning of the Bible.

As President Benson stated, "The Book of Mormon, the record of Joseph, verifies and clarifies the Bible. It removes stumbling blocks, it restores many plain and precious things. We testify that when used together, the Bible and the Book of Mormon confound false doctrines, lay down contentions, and establish peace."

In other words, the newer scripture clarifies the old. The two books, together, help clarify one another. The two books of scripture are part of one whole.

In like manner, I propose that modern scriptures and teachings of Joseph Smith and his close associates help clarify the Book of Mormon. As an ancient record, the Book of Mormon text does not include any modern names or sites that can help us identify where events took place. But outside the text itself, the Lord has given us the location of at least two specific Book of Mormon sites that put pins in the map.

I propose that all the standard works, along with the teachings and history of Joseph Smith and the Three Witnesses, are part of a whole and should be considered in the interpretation of the text.


As I mentioned, courts seek interpretations of statutes and contracts that make the texts internally consistent and that give effect to every provision. Consequently, our interpretation of the Book of Mormon should be internally consistent and give effect to every provision of the text.

Because some of the geography and cultural passages of the text are ambiguous and/or lack critical details, a judicial approach to interpretation would extend beyond the text itself. The question is what "outside" sources are legitimate for aiding in interpretation.

One approach often used in interpreting the Book of Mormon simply adopts a particular real-world geography or culture as an aid to interpretation. If one consults Mayan culture to interpret a passage, one will get a Mayan interpretation that "corroborates" a Mayan setting, but that is a product of circular reasoning. A similar outcome would result regardless of what culture one assumes. It is the equivalent of a court starting its analysis by assuming one party--say the plaintiff--has a correct interpretation, then applying that interpretation to find that the plaintiff was correct after all. Such an approach mocks the interpretive process and cannot produce a reliable outcome.

Rather than adopting a conclusion first and then using that conclusion to conduct an illusory interpretive analysis, when examination of a text proves inconclusive, courts look at how a particular statute fits within an overall statutory structure. In a contract case, the courts consider how a provision fits within the contract and the overall relationship between the parties.

In the case of the Book of Mormon, interpretation of terms and passages that are ambiguous or lack critical details should extend beyond the text itself to all the standard works, as well as the others who relate experiences relevant to the question.

For example, the Book of Mormon describes final battles of the Jaredites and Nephites near a hill called Cumorah. In our day, the hill where Moroni gave the plates to Joseph has been named Cumorah. There is a significant difference of opinion about the origin of the modern name, and the question is critical to resolution of the geography issue.

The Book of Mormon text cannot answer the question because the text mentions Cumorah but not New York.

One approach would be to confine the analysis to the text; i.e., extrinsic evidence is rejected and the location of the scriptural events remain ambiguous

Another approach would be to extend the analysis beyond the text to other standard works and the teachings of Joseph Smith and two of the Three Witnesses, thereby reconciling all the credible evidence.

Proponents of a Mesoamerican setting claim the modern name is merely a product of tradition established by unknown persons and later accepted or embraced by Joseph Smith. They claim the "real" Cumorah, the scene of the final battles, was somewhere in Central America.

Proponents of a North America (labeled Heartland for ease of reference) setting claim the modern name was given by divine messengers and/or revelation, based on 1) an experience related by David Whitmer, 2) Oliver Cowdery's Letter VII that describes in detail the last battles and declares the setting in New York is a fact, and 3) Joseph Smith's endorsement of Cowdery's letter and his mention of Cumorah in D&C 127. [On this point, we should ask what the Three Witnesses were witnesses of. They say they were commanded to "bear record of it," meaning "the work." Oliver's letters to W.W. Phelps, including Letter VII, were part of his testimony about the early events in Church history, including the coming forth and the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. Rejecting his letters, in my view, is rejecting his testimony.)

Given these two approaches, interpreting the text in a manner that reconciles all the available, credible evidence is preferable.

Here are examples of how this judicial interpretation approach functions in terms of the two major proposed settings for the Book of Mormon--North America (Heartland) and Central America (Mesoamerica). Faced with ambiguity in the text, we look outside "the four corners" of the text to see how a particular interpretation fits within the framework of the whole of the standard works and other authoritative statements.

From what I've seen, the various Mesoamerican models do not and cannot lead to a consensus because they fail to reconcile so much extrinsic yet relevant, authoritative and credible evidence. The Heartland model does reconcile all this evidence (and even does a better job with the text itself, as well as with the relevant geology, geography, archaeology, and anthropology).

Relies on BoM text for abstract map of geography
Fits BoM text to real-world geography
Accepts entire text literally
 - Cardinal directions (N,S,E,W)
 - Animals and plants
 - Surrounded by water
 - Four seas
 - 3 Nephi change face of land
 - Law of Moses


Relies on Times and Seasons articles about Stephens
Accepts D&C on Lamanites
Accepts D&C on Cumorah
Accepts D&C on Zarahemla
Accepts Oliver Cowdery on Cumorah in New York
Accepts David Whitmer on Cumorah in New York
Accepts Joseph Smith on Cumorah in New York
Accepts Joseph Smith on mounds in Midwest as evidence of BoM people
Accepts Joseph Smith in Wentworth letter that Lamanites are Indians living in “this country”
Accepts archaeology
Accepts DNA evidence
Promised land is Mexico/Guatemala
Promised land is US/Canada

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Narrow places

A good place to begin discussing Book of Mormon geography is the "narrow neck of land."

John Sorenson considered the "narrow neck" as a defining feature. In Mormon's Codex, he writes, "A key feature of any geographical correlation must include a narrow neck of land connecting two sizable land masses... Only one geographical correlation avoids fatal flaws: The narrow neck of land was the Isthmus of Tehuantepec."

Consequently, Brother Sorenson proposes this geography, based on an "hourglass" assumption:

Notice that the "narrow neck" separates the two larger land masses. The basic hourglass shape is then placed into the real world by rotating it and dropping it onto Mesoamerica (southern Mexico and Guatemala), like this:

Here's a close-up.

For now, disregard the problem that the "East Sea" is north, the "West Sea" is south, that there are no north or south seas, that the land "northward" is west and the land "southward" is east. Just look at the shape and scale of miles.

The red line is what you're supposed to believe is the "narrow neck." It is around 140 miles wide. (Many people have observed the incongruity of describing a 140-mile wide stretch of difficult terrain as "narrow." In my view, the incongruity speaks for itself; i.e., the Mesoamerican interpretation just doesn't fit the text. For now, though, I'm sticking with the Mesoamerican interpretation for sake of discussion and analysis.)

Now, what does the Book of Mormon say about the narrow neck?

Many people are surprised to learn that the term "narrow neck of land" is used only once in the entire Book of Mormon. Ether 10:20 says, "And they built a great city by the narrow neck of land, by the place where the sea divides the land."

That's it.

Not a word about "connecting two sizable land masses" as Brother Sorenson insists.

Now, Mesoamerican proponents will cite Alma 63:5, which explains that Hagoth launched a large ship "into the west sea by the narrow neck which led into the land northward." But the text doesn't say this is a narrow neck of land. A water feature can also be a narrow neck.

Other verses refer to a small neck, a narrow pass, a narrow passage, and a narrow strip of wilderness, but only the two verses quoted above refer to a narrow neck. There is no reason to assume these different terms refer to the same thing. The terms are different because they refer to different features.

I realize that should be obvious, but everything you read about the Mesoamerican setting conflates these terms.

Now, compare the two verses that refer to the "narrow neck" with Brother Sorenson's map. In Alma 63:5, the narrow neck led into the land northward. The Isthmus of Tehuantepec hardly leads anywhere. It is a slight narrowing that is imperceptible from the ground. You can't even see both oceans from any point along the Isthmus. Without a GPS or a very detailed map, you would cross the Isthmus without realizing you were going from one defined land into another. Nor does the sea divide the land in this area.

But there is a more fundamental problem. The Book of Mormon does define the border between the Lamanite lands southward and the Nephite lands northward. This is in Alma 22:27. The border is a "narrow strip of wilderness."

If, as Brother Sorenson and other Mesoamerican advocates claim, the term "narrow" means 140 miles or so, here is how wide the "narrow strip of wilderness" would be:

The yellow line is the exact same length as the red line. The text says this narrow strip of wilderness divided the land of Zarahemla from the land of the Lamanites. Here's how that would look.

This "narrow strip of wilderness" would encompass all of Bountiful, Desolation, and even Cumorah. That can hardly qualify as a border.

Now I realize Brother Sorenson places Zarahemla in the land Southward. He also claims the term "narrow strip of wilderness" means a "narrow strip of rugged mountains." But applying the definition of "narrow" that he uses for the "narrow neck" would leave his "narrow strip of wilderness" consuming most of the land of Zarahemla.


What I'm demonstrating here is one of the most fundamental misunderstandings of Book of Mormon geography. The text does not describe an hourglass shape.

The border between the Nephites and the Lamanites was a "narrow strip of wilderness." Not a narrow strip of mountainous wilderness. Not a narrow strip of rugged mountains. Not a 140-mile wide "strip" of anything.

To get an idea of what the term "narrow" means in the Book of Mormon, look at how it is used in other verses:

1 Nephi 8:20
20 And I also beheld a strait and narrow path, which came along by the rod of iron, even to the tree by which I stood

2 Nephi 9:41
41 O then, my beloved brethren, come unto the Lord, the Holy One. Remember that his paths are righteous. Behold, the way for man is narrow, but it lieth in a straight course before him,

2 Nephi 31:18-19
18 And then are ye in this strait and narrow path which leads to eternal life; yea, ye have entered in by the gate; ... 19 And now, my beloved brethren, after ye have gotten into this strait and narrow path, I would ask if all is done?

2 Nephi 33:9
9 I also have charity for the Gentiles. But behold, for none of these can I hope except they shall be reconciled unto Christ, and enter into the narrow gate, and walk in the strait path which leads to life, and continue in the path until the end of the day of probation.

Jacob 6:11
11 O then, my beloved brethren, repent ye, and enter in at the strait gate, and continue in the way which is narrow, until ye shall obtain eternal life.

Helaman 3:29
29 Yea, we see that whosoever will may lay hold upon the word of God, which is quick and powerful, which shall divide asunder all the cunning and the snares and the wiles of the devil, and lead the man of Christ in a strait and narrow course across that everlasting gulf of misery which is prepared to engulf the wicked—

3 Nephi 14:14
14 Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

3 Nephi 27:33
33 And it came to pass that when Jesus had ended these sayings he said unto his disciples: Enter ye in at the strait gate; for strait is the gate, and narrow is the way that leads to life, and few there be that find it; but wide is the gate, and broad the way which leads to death, and many there be that travel therein, until the night cometh, wherein no man can work.

All of these examples have a connotation of a clearly defined path or way that one can easily follow, if one chooses. The last example contrasts the narrow way with a "wide gate" and a "broad way."

Some will say the language in these spiritual metaphors doesn't apply to the geography, but Alma specifically uses the same terminology--a narrow feature that leads somewhere--to apply to geography: "the narrow neck which led into the land northward."

Now, look again at the Mesoamerican map. Does the Isthmus of Tehuantepec make you think of a "narrow way" that few can find, or a "broad way" that many can travel in?

I already mentioned that other verses refer to a small neck, a narrow pass, and a narrow passage. The context of each of these fits perfectly with the concept of a narrow way and narrow gate as the term narrow is used throughout the Book of Mormon.

The entire text of the Book of Mormon is consistent when it uses the term "narrow."

It's the Mesoamerican interpretation that is inconsistent.

This is only one of many examples of how the Mesoamerican advocates twist the text to fit their preferred geography.

For those who have thought of the Book of Mormon geography in terms of an hourglass shape, here is the paradigm shift.

The border between the Nephites and Lamanites is a narrow strip of wilderness. As a metaphor, think of it as a fence.

Now, most fences have entry and exit points. You can picture the narrow neck, the small neck, the narrow pass, and the narrow passage as gates in the fence.

In upcoming posts I'll show how this fits the real world geography, but for now, I just want readers to re-evaluate the text and understand that the hourglass metaphor for Book of Mormon geography is based on erroneous assumptions, not on the text itself.

In fact, the hourglass metaphor contradicts the text.

Instead, the text (Alma 22:27) describes a long border, running east to west, with a few entry and exit points.

I repeat: the metaphor to think of is a long fence with gates.

(In the real world, it's not a fence the way we build them, but it is a definite, well-defined border. It is a narrow strip of wilderness, as I'll explain. Mormon picked the perfect phrase to describe this feature.)

Reaching consensus

This blog covers the multi-faceted process of reaching consensus about the historicity and setting of the Book of Mormon through education. For many people it involves changing long-held beliefs. It may mean adopting different paradigms and seeing things through new lenses.

For other people, the issues discussed here may be the first time they've thought about these things. The North American setting may seem obvious.

As it should.