Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Another puzzling KnoWhy-Abinadi Scourged with Faggots

I was surprised (although by now I shouldn't have been) to see another Mesoamerican mural as the main illustration for BOMC's KnoWhy #96 is "Why Was Abinadi Scourged with Faggots?"

If BOMC was addressing anyone other than fellow Mesoamerican advocates, the question the KnoWhy really should address is this: How did the Nephite culture come up with the same punishment as the Medieval Europeans? I'll propose an answer for that at the end of this post.

I respectfully submit that it seems BOMC is doing everything possible to avoid the Hebrew culture found in the Book of Mormon. This KnoWhy is another lost opportunity.

(My offer to assist with these KnoWhys remains open. For that matter, I've submitted some KnoWhys that BOMC has ignored.)

Why do the Mesoamerican advocates insist on finding Mesoamerica in the text, when the text clearly and explicitly describes a Hebrew culture? An excellent and detailed analysis of The Trial of Abinadi, online here, explains the Hebrew origins and context of the legal proceedings. Why not look first for Hebrew explanations and interpretations instead of trying to find a Mesoamerican connection?


The KnoWhy question--"Why Was Abinadi Scourged with Faggots?"--relates to the burning of Abinadi. (Ironically, the KnoWhy never answers the question of why Abinadi was burned, which was because of his supposed blasphemy. Instead, we have a discussion of how the passage might be a correspondence to Mesoamerican practices. The real question answered here is, "How can we see Mesoamerica in Abinadi's punishment?)

Here's what the KnoWhy says:

Although for most modern readers this has evoked images of the prophet burning at the stake, the actual description of the process never mentions Abinadi being tied to a stake. Instead, it curiously describes Abinadi as being “scourged … with faggots,” meaning bundles of burning sticks,1 until “the flames began to scorch him” (Mosiah 17:13–14). He not only suffered death by fire, but he suffered “the pains of death by fire” (Mosiah 17:15, 18, emphasis added). 

Readers have good reason to visualize a burning at the stake; the KnoWhy discussion inexplicably omits the following phrase from verse 13: "they took him and bound him." To what would they bind him if not a stake? If they merely tied him up, he'd have to be restrained by men holding him, but then they would be burned along with him. Two of the illustrations in the KnoWhy depict Abinadi bound to a stake because it's difficult to imagine another scenario that fits the text.

Next, the KnoWhy reads:

The mention of being “scourged,” meaning beaten, flogged, or whipped, is curious in this context. In a paper published in 1991, Robert J. Matthews explained, “This passage seems to say that Abinadi’s tormentors took burning torches and poked him with these, burning his skin until he died.”2 The oddity of this practice has led Royal Skousen to suggest that it may be a transcription error, and the text should be amended to read “scorched his skin with faggots” instead.3

I agree the term scourged here is curious, especially when we realize that the term "scourged" was used previously in the text, including twice in Mosiah. One passage is from Abinadi's own speech.

Mosiah 3:9 And lo, he cometh unto his own, that salvation might come unto the children of men even through faith on his name; and even after all this they shall consider him a man, and say that he hath a devil, and shall scourge him, and shall crucify him.

Mosiah 15:5 And thus the flesh becoming subject to the Spirit, or the Son to the Father, being one God, suffereth temptation, and yieldeth not to the temptation, but suffereth himself to be mocked, and scourged, and cast out, and disowned by his people.

These prior uses give credence to Royal Skousen's suggestion; i.e., Oliver heard scourged, a good Biblical term, several times and may have heard it when Joseph actually said scorched here verse 13. The very next verse, 14, says "when the flames began to scorch him."

But let's say Oliver recorded the word correctly. The prior use of scourge also makes it unlikely that a different--and unique--definition of the term would apply to verse 13. Nowhere else does "scourge" mean "poke." One Mesoamerican mural in the KnoWhy shows "men beating a youth with firebrands," although the youth is not bound and does not die. The two other illustrations show Abinadi being struck with burning sticks, but they also show smoke coming up from below him, which is how people are burned at the stake. I suppose it's theoretically possible to burn someone to death by hitting him with burning sticks, but bodies don't combust easily. You're not going to catch on fire if you put your finger over a flame--or if someone hits you with a burning stick. That's why you need to use combustible material, such as gasoline (or a pile of wood underneath) if you want to burn someone to death.

The term scourge does have a more general connotation, however--the very connotation used elsewhere in the text. Scourge can mean "cause great suffering to," a synonym for afflict, torment, torture, etc. Nephi was told the Lamanites would "be a scourge unto thy seed." (1 Ne. 2:24, 2 Ne. 5:25) This didn't mean they would whip or beat (or poke) his people, but that they would be a cause of great suffering, torture, or torment.

If King Noah's men bound Abinadi to a stake, surrounded him (or covered him) with kindling (faggots), and lit them on fire, they would have scourged, or tortured, his skin this way. There is no need to invent a new definition--poke--or pose an impractical method--hitting with burning sticks--to understand the text.

Verse 14 specifies it was the flames that began to scorch him, not burning sticks hitting his body. "And now when the flames began to scorch him, he cried unto them..." This is a good description of how a burning at the stake occurs. First, the wood is lit. Smoke rises, then flames grow and eventually begin to scorch the victim. The text is more troublesome if the men were beating him with burning faggots, because the very first strike would scorch him. It wouldn't make sense to say the flames began to scorch him if Abinadi cried out as soon as the first man hit him with burning sticks.

Consequently, there is no need (or justification) for adjusting the text to fit a Mesoamerican practice. Instead, the text supports the idea that Abindai faced a standard heresy trial, followed by the standard punishment for unrepentant heretics.


Although scholars have long looked at the 1828 Webster's Dictionary to understand Book of Mormon terms, more recently we have looked at the Oxford English Dictionary. There, the definition of faggot includes this:

2.a. With special reference to the practice of burning heretics alive, esp. in phrase fire and faggot; to fry a faggot, to be burnt alive; also, to bear, carry a faggot, as those did who renounced heresy.  Hence fig. the punishment itself.

The practice of burning heretics has a long history. In fact, this month (May) is the 602nd anniversary of the "Fire and Faggot Parliament" in England that enacted the "Suppression of Heresy Act." This was aimed directly at followers of John Wycliffe, who had produced a Bible in English. [In 1428, Wycliffe's remains were exhumed and burned.] There are many historical references, but for simplicity, I'll quote Wikipedia:

It is named for passing the Suppression of Heresy Act, which called for burning the Lollards with bundles of sticks ("faggots").
that whoever should read the Scriptures in English (which was then called Wicliffe's Learning) should forfeit land, cattle, goods, and life, and be condemned as heretics to God, enemies to the crown, and traitors to the kingdom; that they should not have the benefit of any sanctuary, though this was a privilege then granted to the most notorious malefactors; and that, if they continued obstinate, or relapsed after pardon, they should first be hanged for treason against the king, and then burned for heresy against God.
Under this Act, the body was burned after it was hung, but in other cases, people were burned alive. Mary 1 had hundreds of Protestants burned at the stake, for example. Sometimes the faggots were placed below the victim; other times the victim was covered up with them before they were ignited.

One rationale for burning heretics was to model the flames of hell--a motif also found in the Book of Mormon (Mosiah 2:38; 3:27). Another rationale was to purify the soul of the offender.

[For a list of people burned as heretics, see here. For more background on the English practice, see here. For a discussion of the "benefits" of burning heretics, see here.]

King Noah accused Abinadi of heresy. Following the standard procedure for heresy charges, the King gave him a last chance.

and now, for this cause thou shalt be put to death unless thou wilt recall all the words which thou hast spoken evil concerning me and my people. (Mosiah 17:8).

Abindai refused to "recall the words" he had spoken, knowing he would "suffer even until death." The text doesn't get into detail about the manner of death at this point, but I infer this is because everyone knows how heretics are killed: i.e., burned at the stake. There's no reason to stumble over the term scourge in verse 13; as shown above, it's a good synonym for torture, and the passage is easily understood with this background.

Now, back to the real question: How did the Nephite culture come up with the same punishment as the Medieval Europeans?

The answer is, death by burning has a long history in antiquity. Hammurabi's code in ancient Babylon provided for death by burning for certain crimes. The ancient Egyptians and Assyrians used the punishment well before Lehi left Jerusalem.

Even the Old Testament refers to the punishment. In Genesis 38, Judah ordered Tamar to be burned for becoming pregnant while a widow. He released her when she proved he was the father. In the Book of Jubilees, Chapter 20, Abraham instructs that "if any woman or maid commits fornication amongst you, burn her with fire."

Blasphemy and apostasy have long been analogized to infidelity, so it should not be surprising that a variation of Hebrew culture would punish both the same way.

Biblical scholars could examine this issue in more detail, but at least we can see a plausible Hebrew-based explanation for the heresy trial and sentence in Abinadi's case.

While it's interesting that Mayan, Aztec, and North American tribes apparently executed people by burning, that doesn't answer the real questions raised by the text; i.e., why would Nephites burn people for heresy? Is there a Hebrew origin for this Nephite mode of execution?

In fact, it may turn out that the practices in the Americas originated with the Nephites--or at least, the King Noah version of the Nephites.

Brother Welch's article on The Trial of Abinadi, which I mentioned at the outset, includes an important discussion of the execution. Go to this link and search for "Execution." He writes, "Although a few recorded cases of actual burnings at the stake exist in late antiquity,168 nothing in the Book of Mormon record indicates that Abinadi was burned while tied to a stake. Instead, it appears that Noah’s priests tailored an unprecedented mode of execution for Abinadi alone that mirrored the evil that Abinadi had said would befall, and did indeed befall, King Noah. This unique and extraordinary punishment conformed with the talionic concepts of justice in ancient Israel and in the ancient Near East, where the punishments were individually designed in unusual cases to suit the crime."

I agree that we have but few ancient accounts of burning at the stake, but of course that doesn't necessarily mean this form of execution was rare. Certainly it was known anciently, and therefore could have been part of the cultural knowledge brought to the New World by Lehi's people.

I don't think the text requires that Abinadi's mode of execution was unprecedented, either. Instead, it was the pretext for the execution that was unprecedented. Alma 25:11 observes that "Abinadi was the first that suffered death by fire because of his belief in God," a qualifier that suggests others suffered death by fire for other reasons. Abinadi seemed to know what his fate would be when he refused to recall his words. He knew he would "suffer even unto death." Nothing in the text states or implies that the priests deliberated about the mode of execution, or that this fate was unexpected, surprising, or unprecedented. They simply executed the sentence in the normal way; i.e., blasphemers were burned. The brevity of the description in verse 13 corroborates this interpretation; i.e., readers are assumed to know what happens to blasphemers. Had this been an unprecedented mode of execution, especially one customized for Abinadi, we would expect a more detailed description of what happened.

All in all, the text provides a definite Hebrew context for the trial and execution of Abinadi. Rather than acknowledge and expand on this, the KnoWhy contorts the text to match Mesoamerican murals. While that might be comforting to believers in the Mesoamerican theory, I don't think it's helpful or persuasive to those who don't already accept the Mesoamerican theory--or for those coming to the text for the first time without a background of indoctrination into Mesoamerican ideology.

In the future, can we have KnoWhys that are not intended primarily to confirm the Mesoamerican theory?


[Note: The burning of women, children, and scriptures in Alma 14 also has parallels to British law, which once required that women be burned for treason, while men were hanged, drawn and quartered. Blackstone explained the rationale: "For as the decency due to sex forbids the exposing and public mangling of their bodies, their sentence (which is to the full as terrible to sensation as the other) is to be drawn to the gallows and there be burned alive."]

1 comment:

  1. I had wondered why the "knowhy" on King Benjamin's emphasis on the blood of Christ focused on Mesoamerican blood-letting rituals, or for that matter why the question was about King Benjamin when Jesus ("this cup is the new testament in my blood") and we moderns seem to have a similar emphasis without said rituals. I guess at least it helps emphasise that asking the right question is important to getting a satisfactory answer.