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A Mesoamerican Context for the Book of Mormon is a Two-edged Sword

Andrew C. Skinner has recently published a short book entitled Third Nephi: the Fifth Gospel.[1] Two chapters emphasize a temple context for 3 Nephi, chapter 3, entitled “The Temple Context of the Fifth Gospel,” and chapter 4, “The Temple Sermon on Exaltation.” It is a theme first proposed by John W. Welch, whom Skinner cites in his introduction: “An arresting feature of the Fifth Gospel is its connection to the temple. Jesus’s ‘appearance at the temple invites the idea that his words have something important to do with teachings and ordinances found within the temple.’”[2]

While there are many aspects of the 3 Nephi version of the Sermon on the Mount that are worthy of examination, it is the assumption that the temple informs its content that is the theme of the two chapters in Skinner’s book and the entirety of Welch’s book, Illuminating the Sermon at the Temple and Sermon on the Mount. That argument is explicit in Welch and paraphrased in Skinner: “The Sermon at the Temple was given in a temple setting—Jesus spoke at the temple in Bountiful (see 3 Nephi 11:1). Since he could have chosen to appear anywhere he wanted (at the marketplace, at the town gate, or any number of other places where people traditionally congregated), and since we may assume that he chose to appear where he did for some reasons, his appearance at the temple invites the idea that his words have something important to do with teachings and ordinances found within the temple.”[3]

The description of plausible alternate locations for the Savior’s appearance may be correct for the Old World, but if we accept Mesoamerica as the plausible location for the Book of Mormon in the New World, the alternatives diminish. The particular construction of known Mesoamerican cities suggests that there was really no other location available than the courtyard of a temple. The antecedent of the great event is described in 3 Nephi 11:1-2: “And now it came to pass that there were a great multitude gathered together, of the people of Nephi, round about the temple which was in the land Bountiful; and they were marveling and wondering one with another, and were showing one to another the great and marvelous change which had taken place. And they were also conversing about this Jesus Christ, of whom the sign had been given concerning his death.”

This group of people is standing “round about” the temple. They were certainly not in the temple. Even in the Old World, the interior of the temple was a highly restricted location. In Mesoamerica, it was not only restricted, but quite small. The construction of Mesoamerican cities also had many more than one temple, where the Old World had only one per location (and only one in Jerusalem after 600 B.C.). Courtyards were established in the open areas defined by the presence of temple pyramids. In a Mesoamerican city, any major open space was defined by public structures, and those were typically (but not exclusively) pyramids. Thus, if there was a market, it would be “round about” a temple. While some of the Mesoamerican cities had gates, there is no indication that they functioned as gathering locations as did the Old World city gates. In a Mesoamerican city, the appearance of the resurrected Savior to people standing round about a temple is simply descriptive of the only possible location to appear to a number of people simultaneously.

There are a large number of factors that strongly recommend Mesoamerica as the physical and cultural backdrop to the Nephite story. If that correlation is as strong as it appears, it is incumbent upon us to test our hypotheses against that background. In this case, even if there are other reasons for examining a temple-related content of the Sermon at the Temple and the Sermon on the Mount, the foundation of those examinations cannot rest on the fact of Christ’s appearance to people round about a Mesoamerican temple. There would have been no other reasonable location for such an appearance and multiple temples to choose from. Using a Mesoamerican location for the Book of Mormon becomes a two-edged sword. While it allows us to understand more deeply some aspects of the Book of Mormon, it simultaneously restricts some arguments that we might otherwise make for it.

[1] Andrew C. Skinner, Third  Nephi: the Fifth Gospel (Springville, Utah: CFI, imprint of Cedar Fort, Inc., 2012).

[2] Ibid., 37. The quotation is from John W. Welch, Illuminating the Sermon at the Temple and Sermon on the Mount (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1999), 26.

[3] Ibid., 26. In Skinner’s recasting, Skinner, Third Nephi, 38: “What more natural place in the New World could there have been for Jesus to come and teach than the temple—the place where he was accustomed to teach during his mortal life. Thus, his appearance at the temple in the land Bountiful (3 Nephi 11:1) was no random or accidental occurrence. Of all the places Jesus could have chosen to make his New World appearance—palace, market, city gate, or wooded grove—Jesus came to the temple and firmly fixed the importance of the temple setting for what transpired over the next three days.”

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