Most Latter-day Saints don't waste much effort seeking intellectual evidences of their religion. Personal evidence--spiritual evidence--is enough. But if intellectual evidence were an important criteria of the Restored Gospel, and skeptics were faced with providing sound, sensible explanations as to how its doctrines and scriptures were conceived, the Book of Ether would be one of the more striking evidences.
Highlighting the Book of Ether, of course, does not undervalue the dynamic character of the entire Book of Mormon. But that 15-chapter segment commonly called, simply, Ether, presents an astonishing demonstration of complexity and depth that, by itself, withstands intense intellectual scrutiny. Had it been created by a fiction author with the intent of duping the human race for the remainder of world history, it might qualify as the most imaginative 15 chapters ever composed. It's only competition may be other segments of the Book of Mormon.
The genius of the Book of Ether is further emphasized when compared to the rest of the Book of Mormon text—not because the Book of Ether is superior in spiritual content, but because its literary style is so unique that an honest-minded investigator—even if they remained a skeptic—must dismiss the possibility that the Book of Mormon had a single author. The Book of Ether forces the proposition that, at the very least, a second author was involved. These 15 chapters are too original, too distinct from the rest of the text.
Many readers also perceive an obvious sylistic diversity from 2 Nephi to Jacob. Tedious wordprint studies conducted by professional statisticians at Berkeley, CA—including non-Latter-day Saints—show the unlikelihood that sections of the Book of Mormon attributed to Nephi are authored by the same individual who wrote sections attributed to Alma as high as 99.997% , i.e., an improbability of 1.3 x 10-14 (Hilton, John L., "On Verifying Wordprint Studies: Book of Mormon Authorship", BYU Studies 30/3 (1990): 89—108).
However, the need for scientists and statisticians is unnecessary when making such comparisons with the Book of Ether. An honest investigator should conclude, from common sense alone, that the Book of Ether was penned by a different author, eliminating any intellectual conclusion that Joseph Smith alone created this volume. In fairness, some Book of Mormon detractors have indeed accepted a multi-author scenario (Tucker, Pomeroy, Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism, 1867, pg. 75; Jockers, Witten, and Criddle, Reassessing Authorship of the Book of Mormon, Literary and Linguistic Computing 23:4, Dec. 2008, 465-491). Even if no compelling evidence has been presented to support such an explanation, the "multiple authors" explanation seems to be a more intelligent and fair-minded theory as to Book of Mormon origins.
Of course, such exercises in logic are meaningless for those of us who have obtained by revelation a confirmation of the volume's veracity. But for those like me who find themselves in a perpetual state of bemusement wondering how it is that most Earthlings fail to see or perceive the Book of Mormon as an indominable testament of God's eternal Voice and immeasurable love, such contemplations remain ongoing.
Even habitual Book of Mormon readers and believers may miss the countless jewels and gems of the Book of Ether. Some may view much of it similarly to the war chapters of Alma—i.e., as a dull chronicling of events with limited spiritual value; merely chapter after chapter of synopsized history, kingly successions, rebellions, and spiritual retrenchments along with an unusual litany of personal and place names. The more impatient reader might find such information irrelevant compared to the rich doctrinal sermons of other sections of the Book of Mormon. Still, I believe the more patient and introspective reader will find Ether's record no less priceless or instructive. Most agree that the Lord, in guiding His prophets, Mormon and Moroni, would not have included irrelevant material in this spiritual volume. However, preceiving the relevance of some parts of the Book of Ether may take a bit more effort than usual. Gratefully, the reward for such efforts is that the entire volume takes on greater depth and meaning—spiritually, anthropologically, sociologically, and in many other categories.
The greater portion of this blog will contemplate the history of the Jaredites from the perspective of the Nephites and their contemporaries. Herein, I believe, lies the foundation of Ether's overwhelming influence and impact on world history. The first mention of the Jaredites--a kingdom more ancient than the Nephites and a nation that met with terrible destruction--is found in the short Book of Omni from the Small Plates of Nephi. As a reminder, the Small Plates are a record kept exclusively by Nephi and his direct lineage descendants. Theoretically, such a record might have continued uninterrupted for a thousand years. But when a certain descendant named Amaleki failed to produce progeny, he wisely turned the record over his current monarch, King Benjamin of Zarahemla. Amaleki believed King Benjamin was a "just man" and trusted him to keep these records safe (Omni 1:25).
The words of Amaleki (which only comprise the latter portion of the Book of Omni) are brief, but highly complex. In the course of 18 verses Amaleki introduces us to not just one group or tribe heretofore unmentioned, but two. Before Amaleki mentions the Jaredites (or, in Amaleki's words, the "people of Coriantumr"), he speaks of another clan called the "people of Zarahemla." This group reputedly crossed the Atlantic Ocean at about the same time that Lehi crossed the Pacific. Zarahemla's people proclaimed themselves descendents of King Zedekiah of Old-world Jerusalem by way of a Judean prince named Mulek. (For this reason the people of Zarahemla are sometimes called Mulekites.)
What's immediately curious about the Mulekites is their sudden, voluntary subservience to the Nephites and King Mosiah (who I will refer to as Mosiah I). Apparently King Mosiah I and his Nephite followers—who were themselves refugees and outcasts from a place that had been their home for more than 400 years—found the Mulekites in a state of political and social disarray. Zarahemla himself is never referred to as a king. He appears to be a kind of "community representative" with considerable respect among his kinsmen. The scripture reveals that the Mulekites had not kept records and had suffered numerous wars, upheavals, and corruptions of doctrine (Omni 1:17). Therefore Zarahemla and his people embraced the Nephite arrival with "great rejoicing" (Omni 1:14). They also began offering formal instruction in the Nephite language (Omni 1:18), and supported the idea that Mosiah should become their political and spiritual leader (Omni 1:12).
The question is why? Why would any politically independent people so readily accept a newly-arrived foreign king? The answer seems to be records.Written records. Specifically mentioned are the Plates of Brass (Omni 1:14). Although Zarahemla could only offer a genealogy of his fathers according to tradition and memory (Omni 1:18), Mosiah could offer tangible documents, even records etched on metal plates. Apparently this was the single most influential factor behind the Mulekites embracing Mosiah and the Nephites as their political and cultural superiors.
However, later in the Book of Mormon, it appears that not all of the Mulekites supported Nephite rule. This seems to be demonstrated by their many rebellions, particularly rebellions inspired by those who supported kings over and above the "rule of law" and the system of chief judges and lesser judges established by King Mosiah II (see the index of the Book of Mormon and references to "king-men" and "dissenters" for numerous examples of these internal conflicts).
If nothing else, the example of what happened with Mosiah I and the people of Zarahemla demonstrates the power inherent in possessing permanent, accurate records. However, we may also find within the Book of Omni the first seeds of later conflicts that would inevitably provoke the Mulekites to reassert their political authority.
In the days of King Mosiah I a large engraved stone was brought to him. Amaleki tells us that King Mosiah I translated this stelae by the gift and power of God (Omni 1:20). The source of this stone is not revealed, but we may assume that it was written by Mulekites who lived in the same region as the last surviving Jaredite king, Coriantumr.
Coriantumr, after slaying his chief rival, Shiz, at the Hill Ramah/Cumorah was later discovered by the people of Zarahemla. Coriantumr then dwelt among this people for the space of nine moons (Omni 1:21). At the end of Ether's record, Ether references a command from God that he "go forth" and witness that the "words of the Lord had all been fulfilled (Eth. 15:33)." These words being referred to consititue a warning that Ether had delivered to Coriantumr wherein the king was told that "if he would repent...the Lord would give unto him his kingdom and spare his people--Otherwise they should be destroyed, and all his household save it were himself" and that he would live to see "another people receiving the land for their inheritance (Ether 13:20-21)." Well, Coriantumr did not heed the Lord's warning. He did not repent. So there toward the end, Ether was commanded to follow Coriantumr so that he might witness that all the Lord's words concerning Coriantumr were fulfilled. We are not told if Ether was Coriantumr's traveling companion or whether he followed Coriantumr in secret, but the Lord's assignment to Ether is clear: he was to witness Coriantumr's actions up to and until the day Coriantumr died and affirm in writing that the Lord's words had been fulfilled.
It can be presumed that the region where Coriantumr died was also the area where Ether deposited his record, that is, 24 gold plates. This record was first translated by Mosiah II, but perhaps not widely distributed until the days of Helaman, son of Alma. Alma commanded Helaman to distribute the contents and lessons of the 24 gold plates to his people, the Nephites--all but those sections outlining the secret oaths and combinations of the wicked (see Alma 37:21-30). We assume Helaman fullfilled this command, but no specific mention of the record of Ether is made again until Moroni is faced with the daunting task of condensing Ether's words by at least 99 percent for inclusion upon the plates created by his father, Mormon (see Ether 15:33).
The 24 gold plates were initially discovered by an expedition of Nephites who hailed from an isolated Nephite community in the land of Nephi. The community was unique in its own right, mostly because it was smack in the middle of territory dominated by Lamanites. A certain king among these Nephites named Limhi sent an expedition of forty-three men to search out the land of Zarahemla. Limhi's intentions were to entreat his kinsmen to come to their aid against their city's oppressive Lamanite taskmasters. But instead of Zarahemla, Limhi's expedition found "a land of many waters" covered in crumbling buildings, human bones, and cankering swords (Mosiah 8:7-11, 21:25-28). In addition, they found Ether's 24 gold plates—the very plates Ether deposited shortly after the death of Coriantumr, or about two-hundred and fifty years prior to the expedition's arrival (Ether 15:33).
Again, we should be reminded, the stone stelae that Mosiah I translated and Ether's 24 gold plates are two separate documents. However, they appear to record many of the same events in Jaredite history. Book of Mormon references appear to support the notion that the stone stelae translated by Mosiah I was initially created and etched by the people of Zarahemla around 300-400 B.C., or several hundred years before Mosiah I's migration to Zarahemla. This would have also been prior to when a precipitous decline in literacy took place among the Mulekite populace. In other words, the stone was etched before the language of the people of Zarahemla became corrupted and unreadable. This presumption is based upon the Book of Omni and the stelae's emphasis upon the story of Coriantumr and his nine-month sojourn among the Mulekite's ancestors. It seems very unlikely that the stone would have been carved by Either. After all, he'd already recorded the Jaredite's history upon plates. Likewise, it seems unlikely that it would have been written by King Coriantumr. Stone engraving is a specialized skill that a warrior-king like Coriantumr probably did not possess. Therefore, it seems unlikley that it would have been composed in any language except the original, uncorrupted language of the people of Zarahemla (though possibly at Coriantumr's dictation).
It also seems unlikely that the stone tablet was created or etched in the environs of Zarahemla where it eventually came into the hands of Mosiah I. More likely, it was etched in the region where Coriantumr had dwelled for nine moon. In all probability this was also the area where Ether deposited the 24 gold plates. So where was this region?
As we recall, the Lord commanded Ether to "Go forth" and witness the fulfillment of the Lord's words to Coriantumr (Eth. 15:32). Therefore, we must presume that Ether gathered up his 24 plates, left the region of Ramah/Cumorah, and followed King Coriantumr, somehow observing first-hand the moment when he was "discovered" by the people of Zarahemla. No doubt Ether remained nearby until Coriantumr's death. At this point the life work of Ether would have been fulfilled. He could now deposit the 24 plates in the place where Limhi's explorers would eventually find them. His mission complete, Ether concludes his record by saying, "Whether the Lord will that I be translated, or that I suffer the will of the Lord in the flesh, it mattereth not, if it so be that I am saved in the kingdom of God. Amen. (Eth. 15:34)."
A popular geographical proposal for the location of the "land of many waters" where Limhi's expedition found the 24 gold plates, and approximately where Coriantumr lived for nine moons, is along the Gulf of Mexico between Campeche and Tabasco in an area of complex lagoons, deltas, and swamps (Allen, Joseph,Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon Vol. 2, pg. 636,667; http://poulsenll.org/bom/tworivers.html).
This raises several interesting questions: If the Mulekite stalae mentioned in Omni was created in the same region where Coriantumr died and where Ether deposited his 24 gold plates, why was the stelae eventually carried into the mountainous region of the city of Zarahemla? Certainly this wasn't the onlyrecord composed by literate Mulekites. Before their language was corrupted, they likely made a concerted effort to keep some kind of history and genealogy, just as other literate peoples in ancient times. So why transport this particular record upriver? Why were the people of Zarahemla so anxious that Mosiah I translate this specific stone tablet?
The answer to these questions come with many suppositions, but the picture drawn by such suppositions may help us understand the essential Mesoamerican traditions of kingship rights based upon a solid genealogical pedigree. This tradition--that future kings must have genealogical ties to former kings--is rooted in many ancient cultures, but particularly in Mesoamerica. And proving one's royal pedigree is always best accomplished by tangible written records. This, I believe, is why Mosiah I was so readily accepted as Zarahemla's king. The Brass Plates, as well as the records and geneologies of Nephi that traced back Mosiah I's lineage (possibly all the way to Joseph of Egypt (1 Ne. 19:2)), put the stamp of approval upon Mosiah I's acceptance of becoming their spiritual and political leader. Because the Mulekites had experienced several generations of war and upheaval and could only cite their lineage by oral tradition, they could not offer a competing pedigree. Now, this should not imply that Zarahemla himself was not a noble and humble man who naturally vacillated toward Mosiah I's exemplary character and spirituality. But because pedigree was so important among the ancients, it cannot be denied that the Nephites' written records went a long way toward convincing the general Mulekite populace to acquiesce to Mosiah I's leadership.
However, not every Mulekite may have been hunky-dory about the concept of Nephite domination. It's also possible that some Nephites flaunted their supposed "cultural superiority" and caused serious offense. Whatever the case, some Mulekites may not have appreciated their new class status. This same resentment, percolating for several generations, may have eventually inspired the Kingmen rebellions in the days of Amalickiah, Captain Moroni, and beyond.
Interestingly, the first hint we receive that the people of Zarahemla may have attempted to reassert their pedigree rights traces to when Mosiah I was asked to translate the stone tablet that told about King Coriantumr and the Jaredites. Again, why was Mosiah I asked to translate this particular stelae? Was it merely overwhelming curiousity about the downfall of the Jaredites, or something more? Again, why did the Mulekites transport this possibly heavy, potentially fragile stone from the region of "many waters" where Coriantumr died all the way to the city of Zarahemla? By reading "between the lines" of the scriptural text, a story emerges that may explain much of the bitterness and prejudice that inspired tragic events in the future history of the region.
First, let's return to King Coriantumr. We are not told what Coriantumr did during those nine singular months among the people of Zarahemla. Most readers have presumed that he was an elderly, weakened, and heartbroken figure who fell ill and soon expired. The Book of Mormon confirms none of these presumptions. The Prophet Ether records that on several occasions during the Jaredite civil war Coriantumr offered to surrender to his adversaries in an effort to spare the lives of his people. However, his efforts always fell apart, presumably because the hatred and bloodlust of Coriantumr's troops was uncontainable. There is no evidence that Coriantumr ever pushed his attempts to surrender to any extreme. He never personally laid down his arms. Instead, he fought to the bitter end, inevitably beheading his last opponent. Was he really all that sincere or determined to surrender? His failure to take difinitive action brings his sincerity into serious doubt.
Upon being discovered by the people of Zarahemla, what might we expect from a king who was currently without a kingdom? If the people he encountered were a mixture of races, including Jaredites, Mulekites, and possibly others, it seems reasonable to assume that Coriantumr would have tried to rally supporters in favor of his ruling pedigree. Among the people of Zarahemla there appears to have been a powerful Jaredite contingent. This is evidences in many of the names we find among the Nephites after their arrival in Zarahemla. Names like Teancum, Korihor, Morianton, Nehor, and even Moroni (probably a derivation of the Jaredite name Moron) reveal that Jaredite roots survived within Nephite culture. Therefore, Coriantumr's claim that he belonged to a line of kings tracing back to Jared who crossed the ocean at the time of the Great Tower would have been powerful stuff, especially anyone with Jaredite heritage. If Coriantumr asserted such claims, it may have ignited civil conflicts before and/or after Coriantumr's demise. We are never told the cause of Coriantumrs' death. Could it have been the result of violence?
The explorers of King Limhi, while searching for Zarahemla, discovered a land among "many waters" whose populace was once as "numerous as the hosts of Israel (Mosiah 8:8)." Now those "hosts" were gone. Their civilization was in ruins. Many Latter-day Saints conclude that the conflict referred to by Limhi's explorers was the battle at Ramah/Cumorah. This seems unlikely. Such a battle would have taken place more than two centuries before Limhi's explorers arrived. In Mesoamerica's climate physical remains--bodies and bones--don't last more than a decade or two. Within thirty or forty years such remains would decay and return to the earth, especially if left out in the open, as the bodies encountered apparently were. It's also unlikely that such destruction was the result of a civil conflict inspired by Coriantumr during his nine-month sojourn. The same factors of earthly decay would apply. The conflict discovered by Limhi's men cannot presently be identified. Could this conflict have had its roots in political rancor inspired by King Coriantumr? Again, it's impossible to say, but certainly plausible.
Coriantumr was discovered by a people who were not his direct subjects and therefore had not participated in the wider Jaredite conflict. However, if Coriantumr remained true to character, it's certainly possible that he would continue to seek power. His very presence might have provoked political division. Whether Coriantumr died by violence or natural causes is not stated in the Book of Mormon—only that his days among the Mulekites were "nine moons." However, those nine months had a significant and lasting impact upon the people of Zarahemla as is evidenced by the stone stelae that told his story and was eventually transported to Zarahemla.
The question is sometimes asked: Why did Limhi's explorers fail to find Zarahemla? But such a mistake becomes easy to comprehend when one understands the terrain in question. The answer is that Limhi's explorers, in their efforts to find Zarahemla, simply followed the wrong river system. How did the Nephitesforget the location of Zarahemla in the first place? Obviously this branch of Nephites had been isolated in the land of Nephi for several generations. Therefore, the only suriving information to guide them apparently came from oral traditions and rumors. Such traditions might have claimed that Zarahemla was located on the eastern banks of a prominent river whose headwaters began in the mountains northeast of the land of Nephi. This area is sometimes identified in the Book of Mormon as the "narrow strip of wilderness" which separates the land of Nephi from the land of Zarahemla (Alma 22:27). A majority of LDS researchers identify this "narrow strip of wilderness" as the highlands of Guatemala, or more specifically, the Cuchumatanes Mountain range.
There are two major rivers that begin in these highlands flow northward to the Gulf of Mexico. Both rivers—the Grijalva and the Usumacinta—spring out of the earth a short distance apart (only 20 or 30 miles), yet they follow a very different course across Guatemala and southern Mexico. According to some LDS researchers, if the expedition of Limhi did something as mundane as follow the Usumacinta instead of the Grijalva, not only would they fail to find Zarahemla, but the river would take them to the very region that some LDS researchers have long proposed as the "land of many waters" spoken of in Mosiah. If this is true, such "waters" comprise much of the delta of both of these river systems, arriving at the Gulf of Mexico in the vicinity of Villahermosa, Mexico (Allen, Joseph, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon, Vol. 2, pg. 574).
If Limhi's explorers continued along the coast they would have eventually reached sites like La Venta and other Olmec ruins that non-LDS archeologists such as Matthew Sterling and Michael Coe describe as being abandoned between 400 and 300 B.C., a time synonomous with the Jaredite destruction. (http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/vent/hd_vent.htm). However, other ruins in this area may stand a greater likelihood of being encountered by Limhi's expedition. Such sites also date to the time period of Limhi, but much of the research is incomplete and ongoing. The most intriguing of these ruins may be Comalcalco, a ancient seaport located where the Grihalva and Usumacinta Rivers empty into the sea.
Comalcalco is an archeological ruin unfamiliar to most Latter-day Saints, despite current debates raging among present-day Mesoamericanists. Most mainstream researchers classify it as "Mayan" despite many anomolies which place these ruins in a different category altogether. Comalcalco is the only location in Mesoamerica where buildings were constructed of fired-clay bricks. Such bricks were held together by an ingenious technique of using mortar made from oyster shells. Many of these bricks have symbols inscribed on the back. The practice of inscribe symbol on the back of a brick is known as a "mason's fingerprint." Such a custom was formerly known only among ancient Romans and their trade allies, particularly in India. Yet this is only the beginning of the Comalcalco's mysteries. Many of the complex inscriptions on these bricks are identical (note that I said identical, notsimilar) to symbols found at Roman, Minoan, and ancient Greek sites.
This has ignited a firestorm of controvery that mainstream researchers are far been unwilling to address. The whole site just doesn't fit into current archeological paradigms. A growing number of archeologists now propose that ancient Comalcalco somehow had contact with Roman traders. Among the carvings and hieroglyphs at Comalcalco we find elephants and other animals formerly believed "non-indigenous" to the region. Roman measuring systems and architectual styles appear to have been utilized in numerous structures. Roman figurines have been discovered, as well as carvings and masks of people sporting beards or hats--images highly rare in the New World. Pre-columbian horse bones have also been reported as well as the DNA of Old World parasites.
Most archeologists place the height of this community from 500 to 900 A.D. However, the work of dating and analyzing this site is very much a work in progress. Some artifacts of Comalcalco date back as early as 600 B.C. Among these may be those inscribed bricks, which appear to have been taken from an older structure and re-used in pyramids built at a later date. (Steede. Neil; "The Bricks of Comalcalco," Ancient American, 1:8, September/October 1994; Fell, Barry; "The Comalcalco Bricks: Part 1, the Roman Phase," Occasional Papers, Epigraphic Society, 19:299, 1990; http://www.delange.org/Comalcalco/Comalcalco.htm; http://mexicolesstraveled.com/comalcalco.htm.)
It's too early to draw any from conclusion about Comalcalco and its relationship to the Book of Mormon. Discoveries made at Comalcalco seems to reveal one shining example where LDS researchers have maintained a disciplined silence, allowing non-LDS researchers to continue their work unimpeded by LDS bias. No LDS researcher, as far as I am aware, has publicized the obvious, almost mouth-watering, correlations with the Book of Mormon. The site could easily be a subject of lengthy analysis for any LDS researcher. Hopefully someone will take up such a task soon enough. For now, let's maintain our focus upon Ether.
By asking Mosiah I to translate the stone tablet now unreadable to the people of Zarahemla, a few Mulekite observers may have hoped that Mosiah I's translation would restore their rights of leadership and lineage authority? Maybe they hoped that a written record could finally be presented to compete with the written records of the Nephites? After all, if they could prove that Zarahemla, or some other member of their community had descended from Jared or Coriantumr, would Mosiah I have been forced to abdicate his throne and restore authority to the region's original inhabitants?
If true, similar political elements among the people of Zarahemla might have harbored the same hopes regarding the 24 gold plates of Ether eventually translated in Zarahemla by Mosiah II. In order to justify any political movement, such as the one inspired by the Kingmen, proponents need convincing arguments to muster support and gain followers. As always, the best way to establish such arguments is with records and documents. Even better if the majority of the movement's supporters are illiterate and if the "interpreters" of such documents are those who actually seek power. So did the Kingmen find what they were looking for in Ether's plates? They appear to have found their justification somewhere. In any case, the Kingmen eventually sought to throw out the system of Judges established by Mosiah II and restore a monarchy to Zarahemla--a monarchy probably headed up by a king with Mulekite or Jaredite blood in their veins.
Even if this scenario answers questions and offers some explanations behind political dynamics among the Nephites prior to the Savior's arrival, much work is still to be done connecting the dots. This blog is meant to raise questions, present ideas, and provide a foundation for future researchers to build upon.
All these ideas continue to reveal that the Ether's writings and the Jaredite culture had farreaching social and political ramifications among the Nephites and other inhabitants of Mesoamerica long after their destruction and demise. As someone who often mourns such things as the missing 116 manuscript pages lost by Martin Harris, and yearns for the restoration of other documents and records cited in the Book of Mormon and elsewhere, it should come as no surprise that I also mourn that circumstances forced Moroni to abridge Ether's writings down to 100th part of what was contained on the 24-gold plates. Will we receive such missing information in the future? I think we will. In fact, the Lord has promised that more records are forthcoming. When that day arrives, it will be a day of much rejoicing among faithful Latter-day Saints. In the meantime, those 15 miraculous chapters of Ether, as abridged by Moroni, must suffice.
May we perpetually study such scriptures with renewed faith and re-opened eyes, making our hearts and minds open to the Spirit's seemingly endless insights. For it is only after we learn to appreciate and understand the inspired words that God has already given us that we will finally be found worthy to receive more.
I, for one, look forward to such days with great anticipation.
(c) Copyright 2010, Chris Heimerdinger