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Sorenson, "Mormon's Codex: An Ancient American Book" (reviewed by Roy Schmidt) Options · View
Posted: Saturday, November 09, 2013 2:59:34 PM

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Title: Mormon's Codex: An Ancient American Book
Author: John L. Sorenson
Publisher: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, Deseret Book Company
Genre: Book of Mormon – Evidences, Geography, etc.; Indians of Central America
Year Published: 2013
Number of pages: 826
Binding: hardback
ISBN-10: n/a
ISBN-13: 978-1-60907-399-2
Price: $59.99

Reviewed by Roy Schmidt for the Association for Mormon Letters

I first became aware of John L. Sorenson in 1985. I was living in California at the time, and he had recently published his “An Ancient American Setting For The Book Of Mormon.” I purchased a copy, read it, enjoyed it, and ultimately rejected it because I could not reconcile his conclusions with statements of Joseph Smith as I understood them. Since that time, my understanding of The Book of Mormon (BofM) has evolved, and my need for physical evidence of that book has greatly diminished. That said, I believe “Mormon's Codex: An Ancient American Book” is a valuable addition to my library.

I would first like to comment on the book itself. As might be expected of a work of 826 pages, “Mormon's Codex” is heavy, and I needed to rest it on a table as I read. The publishers have done a nice job with the binding, and I feel it will hold up well. A good quality paper, an easily read typeface, and good margins make for a pleasing appearance. The illustrations and color plates are clear, bright, and add to the overall pleasure of reading the book. I congratulate the Maxwell Institute and Deseret Book on a fine job.

People have speculated as to where events described in The Book of Mormon took place. I first came in contact with the Book of Mormon in 1964 when I was given a copy by my mother who attended the World's Fair in New York City, and visited the Mormon Pavilion while there. Four years later, I took the book down from my shelf, and began reading it. I have read from it nearly every day since. At that time, Milton R. Hunter, of the First Council of Seventy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was publishing books arguing Central America as the setting for much of the Book of Mormon. I bought them all, and was fascinated by the photographs and the textual arguments. Since that time Hunter's work has fallen on hard times, and the current work does not even mention his name in its index (however, mention of one of his books is cited in the bibliography). I do not think John Sorenson's research and findings will have the same fate any time soon.

I will now turn my attention to the book's content. Some readers may not be familiar with the term “codex.” A simple definition of the word is “an ancient book.” The introduction begins by asking a seemingly simple question, “Who wrote the Book of Mormon?” Sorenson continues, “. . . This study demonstrates that the immediate source for the Book of Mormon was a Mesoamerican native book, or codex, produced by authors who lived in southern Mexico more than 1,500 years ago. Hundreds of statements in the Book of Mormon constitute 'Mesoamericanisms' – facts and phrasings that are fully understandable only in terms of the civilization that prevailed in that part of the ancient world before AD 1500. . . . The primary method employed in this study will be to compare statements in the text of the Book of Mormon with scholarly reports of archaeological investigations and related scholarly research (3).”

“The Nature of History in the Book of Mormon” is a very short but important chapter in the “Orientation” section of the current work. “The Nephite record was made by scribes from the upper strata of society. That means that they reflected upon the upper class, not commoners', interests in what they chose to include or omit. No doubt the historians' sources for factual information ultimately follow fellow elites. So we find ethnic and class bias mirrored in what was written down” (107). I think this is an important concept when reading history in general, and not just in the Book of Mormon. Reading this chapter helped me keep more of an open mind regarding not only the Book of Mormon, but in evaluating Sorenson's ideas.

After completing his “Orientation” section, the author looks at “Correspondences by Topics,” and covers quite a few areas including geography, transoceanic voyages, language, population, warfare, religion, and others. All topics are covered in detail, and I enjoyed reading them. The idea of Book of Mormon geography has received much attention over the years. This can be difficult for us to understand, because we have certain ideas that are very ingrained within us. We learn quite early that the top of a map indicates north, unless a directional arrow reorients us. But how did ancient people understand directions? Sorenson points out, “Various peoples have labeled in very different ways the points on the horizon where the sun rises or sets at marker days such as the solstices. To the Aztecs of central Mexico, 'directions south, east, north, and west were viewed not as distinct points, but as quadrants. . . . The entire realm of horizontal space was therefore divided into quarters rather than being defined in terms of four cardinal points. The Maya had the same notion. Hanks says, 'It is clear that the cardinal points are defined as regions.' Tedlock agrees for the Quich'e of highland Guatemala, and Vogt emphatically states that none of the contemporary Maya directions are precisely equivalent to our Western notion of horizontally fixed cardinal points. Watanabe argued that Mayan languages lack terms for the cardinal directions, while Brotherson said that 'except for those in Yucatec [Mayan] . . . Indian words do not even suggest a system of our cardinal points. . . .Talking of the four cardinal points of the Mesoamerican world as if they were [the same as] ours actively hinders appreciation of its science and its art.'

“The concept of 'quarters of the land' is found in the Book of Mormon, as it was in the Ancient Near East. . . .The Book of Mormon refers to 'four quarters' six times” (124-125). So, just as I learned years ago that I needed to learn to think like a Hebrew in order to understand the Bible, I also need to think like a Mesoamerican if I want to understand the Book of Mormon. The concept makes sense to me.

Sorenson sees correspondences between the Mesoamerican idea of Quetzalcoatl (or the Feathered Serpent) and the visit of Jesus Christ to the Nephites of the Book of Mormon. He cites five parallels in his chapter on Ideology and Religion (pages 474-476):

First: Jesus Christ appeared as “a god of salvation from death and sin. . . . Mexican thought represented Quetzalcoatl as a god of salvation.”

Second: The “symbolism of a savior emblemized by a serpent elevated on a pole (representing flying?) was a part of Israelite iconography from the time of Moses . . . at least down to King Hezekiah.” the parallel to Quetzalcoatl is very obvious.

Third: Quetzalcoatl appeared as a man but was in some sense considered a god associated with creation.

Fourth: Quetzalcoatl was seen as a beneficent deity associated with natural forces (rain and fertility).

Fifth: Quetzalcoatl taught a set of moral ideals towards which his followers were expected to strive.

While I do not see the parallels as irrefutable, I do find them worth serious consideration.

The final section of Mormon's Codex centers on “Correspondences from Archeology and History,” and takes nearly three hundred pages. Many readers will find this part the most compelling. I certainly found much to learn and consider. Here is one example, “At Kaminaljuyu, the political center in the Valley of Guatemala, figurines characteristic of Las Charcas and the succeeding Providencia period are quite naturalistic, showing some men but mostly seated women, often pregnant or holding an infant. It is interesting that the representation of skin color falls into two categories. One skin color was a reddish brown, and the second color was created from a white clay. . . . The Las Charcas figurines seem to suggest that two distinct ethnic groups coexisted in the sixth-century-BC Valley of Guatemala.

“Equally striking is a 'big break' in the figurine sequence that distinguishes the Las Charcas-Providencia (before 200 BC) types from those that follow in the Verbena-Arenal periods. Figurines from the latter periods are uniformly reddish brown. In other words, *no* post-Providencia (200 BC) figurines are represented with whitish skin. The complete absence of light-hued figures of this time period suggests that the presence of two shades in the earlier centuries was not a matter of technological happenstance but rather that the two skin tones were actually mirrors of the population being represented. We can conjecture plausibly that the light-skinned persons disappeared from the population in the Valley of Guatemala at the end of the Providencia period, around 200 BC” (549-550).

"Mormon's Codex" is a very complex book. After reading it, I have much to think about. If I am honest with myself, I am not totally convinced, but convinced enough not to reject Sorenson's arguments out of hand. Perhaps, this is because I have reached the stage where the teachings of the Book of Mormon matter much more to me than its historicity. Again, if I am being honest, I have a hard time recommending this work to the general reader. It is my opinion that most will be overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of its content. However, for those who love this area of Mormon studies, the book is a treasure trove of important information. It is not an easy read, but those willing to pay the price will find their experience quite rewarding.
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