A well-known LDS apologist, Dr. William Hamblin, is engaged in debate with Dr. Philip Jenkins over the historicity of the Book of Mormon. After twenty-four posts of establishing “methodological issues,” and the paucity of inscriptions, Hamblin finally decided to put some evidence on the table. This, he thought, would be the closest thing to “objective evidence” he could offer Jenkins:
So, my question for professor Jenkins is: If we had a Mesoamerican inscription which mentioned a Book of Mormon king, with a date and historical context that matched the date and context for the Book of Mormon, would that be “objective evidence” in favor of the historicity of the Book of Mormon?
Briefly, yes of course.
Provided of course that the date and authenticity of that inscription was confirmed.
Now that Hamblin had prepared Jenkins for the evidence, he could present it to him. In the next post Hamblin outlined an inscription called the Temple of the Cross at Palenque, which would do the very thing Hamblin had set up – show a Mesoamerican inscription which mentioned a Book of Mormon king, with a date and historical context that matched the date and context for the Book of Mormon.
After laying out the evidence that a Mayan king named U K’ix Kan may be the same as Akish from the Book of Mormon (Ether 8-9), Hamblin concluded:
It would seem, then, that the Maya kings of Palenque had a vague recollection of their legendary ancestor from Olmec times, whose name and function broadly parallels the story of Akish in the Book of Mormon. Given the sparse nature of the Mesoamerican data, and the uncertainties of the pronunciation of Maya glyphs 1500 years ago, the Akish/U-Kix connection is as good as we can expect to find. It represents the existence in a Mesoamerican inscription of a Book of Mormon king with broad parallels in name, date, title and function.
Unfortunately, Hamblin was a little premature in his find. Shortly after posting his blog, Hamblin added this note to the blog:
NOTE: My friend Mark Wright, a professional Maya scholar and linguist, just informed me that recent phonetic interpretations of the glyph traditionally rendered as “kix/kish” below are now thought to read “kokan.” If the new interpretation is correct, then this argument is rendered moot.
Not so objective evidence after all. (Not to mention that even if the homophone was as Hamblin originally proposed, this “evidence” still doesn’t amount to anything.)
Unfortunately, this seems to be the approach that most LDS apologists take with Book of Mormon historicity. If they find something that even remotely could be connected to the Book of Mormon, they display it proudly as if it were great evidence. The Temple of the Cross inscription, according to Hamblin, “represents the existence in a Mesoamerican inscription of a Book of Mormon king.” Until, that is, it is shown to be something else entirely.
Remember Izapa Stela 5, also known as “The Lehi Stone” or “Tree of Life Stone.” The inscription on this stone, as described by M. Wells Jakeman in 1953, founder and chairman of the Department of Archaeology at BYU, represented Lehi’s tree of life vision in exquisite detail, with 27 points of connection, including “fixed elements,” “characters,” and “dynamic features,” including seven personages identified as none other than “Lehi, Sariah, Laman, Lemuel, Sam, Nephi, and a man in a white robe.” Mormons flocked around this find, and it brought a lot of business to the LDS tourism industry, which continues today. One of the glaring problems, among others, that Hugh Nibley noted in 1958 regarding the popular initial Mormon interpretation of this stone was this: Jakeman “did not subject his work to any peer review by fellow scholars but published it himself with unjustified and ungraceful fanfare.” Yet Mormons still flocked to this discovery, which showed nearly conclusively that the Book of Mormon existed in historical reality. But criticism grew as scholarship progressed, and enthusiasm waned. By 1993 some Mormons thought there might still be a connection, including William Hamblin: “We will never know for certain what Izapa Stela 5 meant to its creators. To me the connection with the Book of Mormon is possible, but tenuous. But even if Izapa Stela 5 has absolutely nothing to do with the Book of Mormon, the fact that some Latter-day Saint [sic] have misinterpreted it provides no evidence against the Book of Mormon.”
It seems that there are no scholars today, even most LDS apologists, that pretend that there is any connection between Izapa Stela 5 and Lehi’s vision of the tree of life. In one of the most recent studies of the stone in 2006, Dr. Julia Guernsey, an expert in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican Art with a focus on the Middle and Late Preclassic periods in ancient Mesoamerica, has noted that the Mormon interpretation of this stone “belies an obvious religious agenda that ignored Izapa Stela 5’s heritage.” Guernsey and other researchers have identified “the central image as a Mesoamerican world tree, connecting the sky above and the water or underworld below.” Furthermore, “the seated figures are Izapa elites conducting ritual activities in a ‘quasi-historical scene’, which is framed by, and placed in the context of, the ‘symbolic landscape of creation’.” Other scholars “propose that the stela records a creation myth, with barely formed humans emerging from a hole drilled into the tree’s left side. The associated seated figures are completing these humans in various ways.” In other words, the stela has nothing remotely to do with the Book of Mormon and Lehi’s tree of life vision.
I suppose if U-Kix has absolutely nothing to do with Akish in the Book of Mormon, the fact that Hamblin has misinterpreted it provides no evidence against the Book of Mormon. Well, yes, but it gets us nowhere, and may mislead many in the meantime. Other than the incredible embarrassment that the “Tree of Life Stone” was and is, think of the damage that a negative interpretation like this can do. Thousands upon thousands of Mormons, if not millions, have been misled over the last half century to believe that Izapa Stela 5 had something to do with Lehi and his dream. “Incredible!,” they marveled. Mormons spent untold amounts of money to venture down on safari to see the stela in person. Tourism to the site increased “by several hundred percent.” They bought souvenirs of miniature plaster replicas to display proudly on their homes’ mantelpieces, they attended firesides, and read books on the subject. Some may have based their testimony, or even converted to Mormonism, because of this unsubstantiated “evidence” of the Book of Mormon.
Even as recent as 2011, this stone is still believed to have a Book of Mormon connection, as a replica made in Chiapas Mexico was brought to the Utah Cultural Celebration Center in West Valley City, Utah, for display with other replicas.
Why and how did this all happen? Because it did not pass the empirical tests required of true scholarship, as noted by Jenkins: falsifiable, refutable, testable, peer review, publication.
If the U-Kix/Akish misconnection “is as good as we can expect to find,” I don’t hold out much hope for apologists showing good evidence for the historicity of the Book of Mormon.
Do I doubt that LDS apologists have any good evidence for the historicity of the Book of Mormon? Do I think they might severely mislead us? I do.