A Case for Historicity:
the Book of Mormon's
Production Culture

by Brant A. Gardner

Most Latter-day Saints understand that it is not possible for the Book of Mormon to be the word of God if it is not the authentic history it claims to be. Lou Midgley described the basic lines of the historical debate:
"Critics of the Book of Mormon have always insisted that it is only a product of the nineteenth century - that it reflects the thinking and the world of Joseph Smith . . . ."
Nevertheless, for the believer, the declaration of antiquity has led to such focus on the ancient world that the rather obvious aspects of modern production receive little attention. Believers seldom recognize the unavoidable fact that conditions of Joseph Smith's early-1800's American Northeast have indeed left their imprint on the text.

The Book of Mormon does declare a dual creation. The text on the plates was put there by ancient prophets. But the translation is inextricably associated with Joseph Smith. It could not be otherwise.

It is virtually impossible for a text to be without some trace of its production culture [e.g. point of origin]. Orson Scott Card described the problem this way:
"[Joseph Smith's] work should proclaim itself to be phony on every page today. This is because every storyteller, no matter how careful he is, will inadvertently confess his own character and the society he lives in. He can make every conscious effort, he can be the best educated scholar you could possibly find, but if he tries to write something that is not from his own culture he will give himself away with every unconscious choice he makes. Yet he'll never know he's doing that because it won't occur to him that it could be any other way."
When both the reader and the writer share the same social system, meaning may be communicated with reasonable clarity because their shared social system provides common ground for understanding. When the writer naturally leaves "spaces between the lines", the shared social system fills them in. The problem with historical texts is that they are written anciently, not only in a different time, but for a different time. Their production culture is different from their readers' culture.

Malina and Rohrbaugh explain the resulting problem:
"Although meanings not rooted in a shared social system can sometimes be communicated, such communication inevitably requires extended explanation because a writer cannot depend on the reader to conjure up the proper sets of related images or concepts needed to complete the text."
In Orson Scott Card's world [the writing of science-fiction] there is a great deal of extended explanation. This is an attempt to explain the unusual - that which is not shared with the contemporary reader. Science fiction as a genre frequently demands both the creation of the unusual and of extended descriptions that make the unusual understandable. One of the differences between the Book of Mormon and imaginative literature is this missing level of explanatory detail.

A definitive consideration of the Book of Mormon's historicity is whether its pervasive lack of explanation is because the text was written in a time and place when the features were not unusual and therefore did not need explanation.

The Reader vs. The Writer

As we begin to dig into the Book of Mormon's historical layers there is an important distinction that should be made. There are two participants in the text; the writer and the reader. There is a natural danger that the reader's culture will influence his perception of the writer's culture.

The Inn at Bethlehem

Consider the story, in Luke, of the inn at Bethlehem:
Consciously or unconsciously we have often used mental images drawn from our modern world to fill in the unwritten pictures that complete the text. Thus, when Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph could find no room in the inn at Bethlehem, it is not difficult for us to construct the scene. We do it from our modern experience of overbooked hotels in crowded locations. It never dawns on many of us that such a "scenario" is completely inappropriate. We simply don't know that ancient Bethlehem had no hotels, that advance reservations were unheard of and, more important, that getting rooms was based on kinship or social ranking rather than on a first-come-first-served basis.
The result is that:
"Meanings taken from texts are inevitably rooted in a reader's own social system. If both reader and writer share the same system of experience, then adequate communication is highly probable. But if reader and writer come from different social systems, then, as a rule, misunderstanding will be the result."
This problem of misunderstanding based on the reader's culture is immediately applicable to understanding the Book of Mormon.

We must be careful to examine the writer's production culture, not the reader's. For us now, scholarship both in and out of the Church suggests that Book of Mormon events took place in a limited area of Mesoamerica. This is based on clues in the actual text.

The explosion of secular scholarship on Mesoamerica has created for us a new historical picture. The Book of Mormon may now be compared to two different production cultures: the 1800's American Northeast of Joseph Smith, and Mesoamerica from the times claimed by the Book of Mormon.

The Nineteenth Century Production Culture
and the Translation Layer

Some obvious elements of language in the book strongly suggest that the nineteenth-century Northeast U.S.A. was their production culture. Mark Thomas discusses the similarity of certain phrases in the Book of Mormon to the evangelical vocabulary in documents contemporary to Joseph Smith:
"If our English text of the Book of Mormon were claimed to be an original ancient document, the presence of those phrases which may be localized to Joseph Smith's era would be strong evidence that the production culture of the entire work was modern, not ancient. Similarly, phrases that obviously echo the King James New Testament would be strong indications of anachronism - that is, if the English text were considered to be the exact original text."
One example of word anachronisms which reflect the translation as opposed to the underlying original text is where the King James Bible speaks of candles. In the ancient Mediterranean, candles would be an anachronism because oil lamps provided most of the light. Although technically incorrect, the anachronistic term "candle" may be confidently ascribed to the translators, not the original text.

Assessing the Production Culture of Structural Elements

To better assess the production culture of the Book of Mormon, we need to move beyond vocabulary.

One feature that is often claimed to support a modern production culture for the Book of Mormon is its description of political ideas. Richard L. Bushman describes one such claim:
The late scholar and Bishop of Galway, Thomas O'Dea, thought that "American sentiments permeate the work. In it are found the various democratic, republican, anti-monarchial, and egalitarian doctrines that pervaded the climate in which it was conceived and that enter into the expressions and concerns of its Nephite kings, prophets, and priests just as naturally as they later come from the mouths of Mormon leaders preaching to the people in Utah."
Those features certainly reflect a modern vocabulary. But the question is whether they behave in modern ways when we see those principles operating in the text.

For example, Bushman elsewhere described his attempt to discover the democratic and republican features of the Book of Mormon:
When I was asked to give some talks in Utah during the bicentennial of the American Revolution, I decided to examine the political principles embodied in the Book of Mormon and make some application to our Revolution and Constitution. I thought this would be simple enough because of the switch from monarchy to a republic during the reign of Mosiah. I was sure that somewhere in Mosiah's statements I would find ideas relevant to the modern world. With that in mind, I accepted the invitation to talk, but not until a few months before I was to appear did I get down to work. To my dismay I could not find what I was looking for. Everything seemed just off the point, confused and baffling. I could not find the directions for a sound republic that I had expected.
Along with O'Dea, Bushman had apparently expected that the democratic vocabulary of Joseph Smith's translation would be harmonious with the actual events described in the Book of Mormon text. He continues:
I long ago learned that it is better to flow with the evidence than to force compliance with one's preformed ideas. So I asked, instead, what does the Book of Mormon say about politics? To my surprise, I discovered it was quite an unrepublican book. Not only was Nephi a king, with monarchy presented as the ideal government in an ideal world, but the supposedly republican government under Mosiah did not function that way at all. There was no elected legislature, and the chief judges usually inherited their office rather than being chosen for it.
At this point in our analysis we see a connection between the vocabulary of nineteenth-century American politics and the Book of Mormon translation, but which cannot be confirmed in the actual events of the text. And until recently, this was the end of the question.

However, with the recognition of Mesoamerica as a plausible location for the Book of Mormon, our ability to read Maya texts yields a reasonable picture of Maya politics highly pertinent to the Book of Mormon. While we have long understood that kings reigned over the Maya cities, it is now apparent that those kings did not rule autocratically. They ruled with the help of a council formed from leaders of important lineages. Political power was held by balancing the tensions among these lineages.

In the course of history, some Mesoamerican communities followed the same political path as did the Nephites. They disposed of the kingship, and those previous supporting councils remained to perform the centralized ruling function.

Similarly, the Book of Mormon describes the "voice of the people" as a function of the monarchy as well as of the reign of the judges, which came after it. Mosiah seeks the voice of the people concerning which of his eligible sons should become king. (Mosiah 29:1-2) When Limhi becomes king, he does so according to the voice of the people. (Mosiah 7:9) The Book of Mormon represents this political feature as a continuation from their earlier days of monarchy, but applied to the new conditions. This same political feature is seen in the Mesoamerican examples where the monarch was eliminated, as it was among the Nephites.

That is why when the Book of Mormon describes a reign of judges that retains features of the monarchy, it is completely at home in a Mesoamerican setting. Mesoamerican political structures show us how the Nephite system plausibly moved from monarchy to judgeship. It was not a wholesale alteration of political systems, but rather a modification of a system that elevated existing structures to new functions.

Book of Mormon political events tell us that the strongest evidence for a nineteenth-century production environment is limited to the vocabulary. When we see that vocabulary enacted in the text, it behaves differently from modern expectations, but in ways consonant with the plausible historical production culture of Mesoamerica. Remember, it is in the unconscious and non-obvious things that a text shows its true production culture. And that is precisely the level at which the antiquity of the text's political descriptions are most strongly attested.

Of course an examination of political structures is only one element. The ultimate case for the historicity of the Book of Mormon will depend upon numbers of similar examples. However, we have not yet finished with the political data.

Ehud the Lefty

It has been pointed out that modern readers tend to apply their own social context to an ancient document. But when the correct context is restored, the text takes on new vistas of meaning. For example, the book of Judges, in the Bible, contains the story of the murder of the Moabite king Eglon, by Ehud. The story begins:
"But when the children of Israel cried unto the Lord, the Lord raised them up a deliverer, Ehud the son of Gera, a Benjamite, a man lefthanded." (Judges 3:15)
The text tosses in a description of Ehud as "a man lefthanded" without any explanation or reason for telling us why this might have been important to the story.

As Baruch Halpern explains:
Ehud is not "lefthanded." Rather, his right hand was described by the word, 'itter, which comes from a root meaning "to bind," and suggests that the use of the hand was somehow impeded (v. 15; cf. Ps. 69:16) . . . In all three texts that say, "his right hand was 'itter," the lefthanders are Benjamites. No other texts mention handedness. The logical inference is that Benjamin was known for producing southpaws. That could have been the case just as the Maoris did, until recently, by binding the right arms of young children - hence 'bound as to his right hand" - and producing dexterity with the left. On this supposition Ehud was not, as the translations have it, "a man lefthanded." He was one of a breed of men schooled in the use of the left hand for war.
In this example, cultural data is packed into a term that was unexplained. From a modern perspective, being lefthanded is non-essential data. In the cultural context that produced the description, however, it was a very important clue to Ehud's deadly nature.

To the extent that they have no cultural context, Book of Mormon events might seem to float unrelated and unexplained on an unknown ocean. If, however, we find the correct production culture, we should be able to supply the missing context and retrieve sense from near nonsense.

Ammon at the Waters of Sebus

The account of Ammon at the waters of Sebus is both well-known and entirely misunderstood. If we strip the story of its faith-inspiring aspects it becomes nearly nonsensical. Allow me to retell the story in a way that highlights its anomalous aspects.
  • Ammon, a traditional enemy, volunteers to be a servant for a Lamanite king. Instead of killing or jailing this enemy, the king immediately offers one of his daughters in marriage.

  • The Lamanite king has an ongoing problem with his flocks at the waters of Sebus. Several times a band of men has scattered the flocks. (See Alma 17:28.) In spite of the repeated scatterings, it never occurs to the king to send armed guards to protect them. He could have done so, because in the aftermath of these events, he suggests that his armies could protect Ammon (Alma 18:21). But strangely enough, they couldn't protect the flocks.

  • Mormon indicates that it is thieves who are after the flocks, but they pick a particularly difficult target. The text specifically mentions that the flocks "scattered...insomuch that they fled many ways" (Alma 17:27).

  • Ammon suggests that the he and servants round up the flocks. It does not appear that this has ever occurred to anyone before. That they were successful (Alma 17:32) confirms that the so-called thieves did not get anything for their efforts. We must assume that other servants could have gathered the flocks. However, they preferred to lose their lives rather than track down the errant animals.

  • Apparently it's only after the flocks are scattered that the servants give Ammon the bad news: "Now the king will slay us, as he has our brethren because their flocks were scattered by the wickedness of these men." (Alma 17:28). First the king has offered him a daughter, and now he has sent Ammon into a situation where it is virtually certain he will be executed.

  • Ammon seems to be the only one to whom it occurred to fight back. Just as the king never supplied armed guards, there is no record of any other servant resisting, and none of Ammmon's companion servants joined in the fight.

  • In the spiritual aftermath, the king and queen are lying as though dead. When the servant Abish gathers people to see the miracle, several of those who come are relatives of those who scattered the flocks, including the brother of a man who was slain. (Alma 19:21-22) The text doesn't tell us why the king lives among thieves.
  • In a historical document we expect that the actions in events would make some kind of sense. This is where the lack of cultural context becomes dramatically obvious. Everything we ought to know to fill in these blanks of apparent nonsense is missing. The motivations and reasons are not clearly explained as they would be in a science fiction story that attempted to depict an unusual situation. This story is either the result of a very poor writer, or of unexplained cultural context.

    Mesoamerican political tensions supply the missing content. Maya kings balanced their own power base against competing lineages.

    All aspects of the story of Ammon at the waters of Sebus make perfect sense against the backdrop of a Mesoamerican king struggling with competition from a powerful rival lineage. Now let me retell the story against the backdrop of political tensions with Lamoni's "brethren."

    Ammon at the Waters of Sebus
    told with cultural context

    Ammon comes before the king and asks to be a servant. Ammon is a Nephite and therefore not only an outsider but an enemy. The king offers to make him family by marrying one of his daughters. If Ammon had accepted, he would also have accepted rule by the new family and therefore be under the king's control. By refusing, Ammon continues to be an outsider and therefore potentially uncontrollable. The king decides to place Ammon in a position where this condition of being outside the city's political intrigues might be advantageous: He sends him to water the flocks at Sebus.

    The dumb thieves who don't seem to get much from their raids are actually getting everything they want. Key to understanding the story is that whatever ruse was employed to allow the fiction that they were robbers, the reality was that they were well-known to the servants and to the king. They were members of the rival lineage who were attempting to alter the balance of power. By scattering the king's flocks they were embarrassing the king and therefore diminishing his appearance of total control. Because the rival lineage was sufficiently powerful, the king could not move against them directly without creating civil war. Therefore, the king could not send armed guards. If he killed the members of the competing lineage it would break whatever illusion of cooperation there was and instigate civil disorder. The guards cannot defend themselves for the same reason that the king could not send troops.

    The king could not, however, allow the situation to completely embarrass him. Therefore the fiction of thievery is either created or allowed to remain. Because something had to be done to restore the king's honor in the situation, the guards are punished for their "failure." The king places the failure on the guards and executes them to demonstrate that he is still controlling the situation.

    Along comes Ammon, who is an outsider to the political intrigue. Ammon is not a member of either lineage and as an outsider would be unaware of the identities of these "brethren" thieves or the delicate political situation; he is a wildcard in a high-stakes game. The king deliberately puts him into a situation where it is possible - even probable - that he will use his sword, where all other servants have held theirs. It is quite possible that the king expected Ammon to do some damage, but ultimately fail to protect the flocks. From the king's perspective, any damage that Ammon did would improve the king's standing in the political impasse by gaining more revenge without the political cost - because it was done by an outsider.

    When Abish finds many relatives of the robbers as well as the brother of the slain "thief" close by, we have our confirmation that this is a delicate political dance. Only if the family is part of the royal court would so many relatives of outlaws be that close to the home compound of a king. That a family of a thief is that close to the king tells us that the thieves were also that close. The thieves at the waters of Sebus were not from another city. They were not miscreants ostracized from this city. They were of a family that was sufficiently prestigious that it spent time in close proximity to the king. It had to be a competing royal lineage.

    This reinterpretation of the events against a Mesoamerican cultural background creates sense from the near nonsense of the contextless account. Our analysis of Book of Mormon politics tells us that not only do the structural elements trace more firmly to a Mesoamerican context, but that the Mesoamerican context provides needed information that fills in the gaps between the assumed understanding of the writer and the reader.


    We are obliged to examine the Book of Mormon as a translated text.

    It does contain political terms that have an obvious similarity to the nineteenth-century production culture. However, those similarities only exist on the level of vocabulary and cannot be seen in the way political concepts are worked out in the text. It is really very easy to demonstrate that the translation layer was the result of a nineteenth-century production culture. But of course, that has never really been in question at all.

    When we dive below the surface of the translation's vocabulary and deal with the event structures of the text, the situation is dramatically different. Where the translation layer fits comfortably into the nineteenth century, the event structures are discordant with it. They do, however, fit into the context of time and place that best fits the geographic features described in the text. This last type of evidence is particularly important because it comes directly from the unconscious and unwritten portions of the text.

    The Book of Mormon makes complete sense as a historical document, but only when we place it in the correct historical context. Without the correct production culture, the text is anomalous and sometimes foreign to human experience - as in the contextless reading of Ammon at the waters of Sebus. Placed in the correct production culture where the unstated assumptions become explicit for the reader, the text authentically describes human motivations appropriate to that historical time and place.


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    [source unknown]
    (edited by David Van Alstyne)

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