Tree Of Life Stone and the Book of Mormon
Tree Of Life Stone
In 1965 the Mormon-owned Deseret News announced that the El Paso Times had published an article which seemed to show that the Book of Mormon had been proven by archaeologists. We obtained the article from the El Paso Times. It was entitled, “Chiapas Find of Relevance to Document,” and read as follows:
The Book of Mormon, a companion volume of scripture to the Bible in the Latter-Day Saints Church, is purported to be an ecclesiastical and historical record of the American continent translated from gold plates.
Archaeologists have conceded the possible existence of such a record, and a recent archaeological find in Mexico has been interpreted of relevance to its authenticity.
A large carving unearthed in Chiapas, Mexico, has been interpreted and offers the first sound evidence of the near-eastern origin of its carvers–an origin set in the Book of Mormon.
In the evaluation of the carving strict adherence was made to a rule laid down by Dr. Alfred L. Kroeber, a non-Mormon authority on the Anthropological Theory and formerly of the University of California. The procedure requires five to ten complex similarities between questioned archaeological sites to prove a historical connection.
The carving is a portrayal of an ancient event concerning the Tree of Life. Six persons are seated by and discussing the tree. The near-east clothing style is clear, as well as are other evidences of Old World origin.
Three name glyphs on the carving have been translated as ‘Lehi,’ ‘Sariah,’ and ‘Nephi,’ prominent names in the Book of Mormon, and the study shows a detailed symbolization of a crucial scene in the book termed ‘Lehi’s Vision of the Tree of Life.’ It may be one of the most important finds in the history of archeology, some think. (El Paso Times, July 4, 1965)
At first sight this article appears to be very impressive. Careful research, however, shows that this article cannot be used as evidence for the Book of Mormon. To begin with, this seems to be nothing but old Mormon propaganda rewritten. Long before the El Paso Times published this article we were given a sheet, which was printed at the Gila Printing & Publishing Co., Safford Arizona, which told that “Maurice W. Connell, of the University Archaeological Society” was lecturing “to individuals and groups” in the Bisbee area. This sheet contains too many parallels to the article in the El Paso Times to be explained away. For instance, this sheet states: “The three name glyphs on Stela 5 have been translated as ‘Lehi,’ ‘Sariah,’ and ‘Nephi,’ which are three names prominent in the Book of Mormon….study of this carving…shows a very detailed and accurate symbolization of a particularly crucial scene in the Book of Mormon, termed ‘Lehi’s Vision of the Tree of Life.’ This…ranks as one of the most important and astounding finds in the history of archaeology.
The article in the El Paso Times uses almost identical wording: “Three name glyphs on the carving have been translated as ‘Lehi,’ ‘Sariah,’ and ‘Nephi,’ prominent names in the Book of Mormon, and the study shows a detailed symbolization of a crucial scene in the book termed ‘Lehi’s Vision of the Tree of Life.’ It may be one of the most important finds in the history of archeology, some think.” (El Paso Times, July 4, 1965)
From this it is plain to see that the article from the El Paso Times was nothing but a rehash of old Mormon propaganda.
When we wrote to The El Paso Times for information regarding this article, we were informed that it was submitted to the newspaper by missionaries of the Mormon Church and that one of the missionaries said that his sources were articles from the Brigham Young University:
The article ‘Chiapas Find of Relevance To Document’, was published in the July 4, 1965 edition of The El Paso Times.
The material, in somewhat elongated form, was submitted to our religion desk by Robert Elder and Vaughn Byington, missionaries of the Church of Christ of Latter-Day Saints assigned to El Paso wards.
The information was written by Mr. Byington, who said his sources were articles obtained at the Department of Archaeology, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. (Letter from Joseph Rice, Religion Editor, The El Paso Times, dated Nov. 3, 1965)
While some Mormon archaeologists have felt that this stone can be used as evidence to prove the Book of Mormon, non-Mormon archaeologists seem to see no connection. In a letter to Marvin Cowan, George Crossete, of National Geographic Magazine, stated:
The National Geographic Society along with the Smithsonian Institution sponsored archeological work in Mexico where ‘Stela 5, Izapa’ was found. Information on Stela 5 has not appeared in the National Geographic. No one associated with our expedition connected this stela in any way with the Book of Mormon. (Letter from George Crossette, Chief, Geographical Research, National Geographic Magazine, dated April 27, 1965, to Marvin W. Cowan)
M. Wells Jakeman, of the Department of Archaeology at BYU, has been chiefly responsible for the idea that the carving is connected with the Book of Mormon.
Notice that the article in The El Paso Times stated that “Three name glyphs on the carving have been translated as ‘Lehi,’ ‘Sariah,’ and ‘Nephi,’ prominent names in the Book of Mormon,…” We feel that this claim is not based on facts. The idea that Book of Mormon names have been translated from the carving probably stems from some of M. Wells Jakeman’s statements concerning this carving. On Dec. 5, 1959, Dr. Jakeman said: “Incidentally we have here in the Izapa carving, in view of this conclusion, the first actual portrayal of a Book of Mormon event, and the first actual recording of Book of Mormon names, yet discovered on an ancient monument of the New World.” (Book of Mormon Institute, Dec. 5, 1959, p. 53) As we examine Dr. Jakeman’s work, we find that he has not actually translated any Book of Mormon name from “Stela 5,” but has only symbolically interpreted some elements on the stone.
Some prominent Mormon scholars do not accept Jakeman’s work. Dr. John L. Sorenson, for instance, does not agree with Dr. Jakeman. Dr. Sorenson has served as Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Brigham Young University and was Editor of the University Archaeological Society Newsletter from August 15, 1951 to July 1, 1952. Writing in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Dr. Sorenson stated:
Jakeman’s paper carries trait-list comparison to its logical conclusion… Obviously comparison remains a key methodological device in the conduct of research in history and the sciences, but the uncontrolled use of trait comparison leads to absurd conclusions. Particularly, it leads to overambitious interpretations of shared meaning and historical relationship, as in Jakeman’s previous pseudo-identifications of ‘Lehi’ (and other characters from the Book of Mormon) on an Izapan monument.” (Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Spring 1966, p. 148)
From a statement made on December 5, 1959, it was plain that Dr. Sorenson rejected Jakeman’s work on the “Lehi Tree-of-Life Stone”: “We have wanted to find Nephi’s name or some Egyptian writer or something of this very specific kind. We have wanted to find when Zarahemla burned; we have wanted to find the ashes; we have wanted to find the very roads that Nephi walked over. The point that I would like to make is that it is extremely unlikely that we will find ANY of this so that we can convincingly lead others to believe that it is what we think it is.” (Book of Mormon Institute, Dec. 5, 1959, p. 25)
Dr. Jakeman once stated that a “prominent member of the faculty of Brigham Young University” had privately distributed a leaflet in which “he ridicules my interpretation” of “Stela 5.” A recent issue of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought makes it clear that Dr. Hugh Nibley was the one who attacked Jakeman’s work. Dee F. Green quotes Dr. Nibley as saying:
Science does not arrive at its conclusions by syllogisms, and no people on earth deplore proof demonstration by syllogism more loudly than real archaeologists do. Yet Mr. Jakeman’s study is nothing but an elaborate syllogistic stew. The only clear and positive thing about the whole study is the objective the author is determined to reach. With naive exuberance, he repeatedly announces that he has found ‘exactly what we would expect to find.’ Inevitably there emerges from this dim and jumbled relief exactly what Mr. Jakeman is looking for.” (Dr. Nibley’s review of Jakeman’s publication on Stela 5, as quoted in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Summer 1969, p. 75)
These statements by Mr. Nibley are very significant, since most Mormons regard him as the greatest scholar in the Mormon Church.
Dee F. Green, who was deeply involved with the BYU Archaeological Society, has also come out against Dr. Jakeman’s work:
A final warning should be issued against Jakeman’s Lehi Tree of Life Stone, which has received wide publicity in the Church and an over-enthusiastic response from the layman due to the publication’s pseudo-scholarship. The question which should really be asked about Izapa Stela 5 is ‘Did the artist or artists have Lehi’s vision in their minds when the stone was sculptured?’, a question which, I submit, cannot be answered short of talking with the artist. The next question, then, is what are the probabilities that the artist had Lehi’s vision in mind when he carved the stone. I don’t know the answer to that one either, but then, neither does Jakeman, and his publication is more of a testimony as to what is not known that [than?] to what is known about Stela 5. As Nibley pointed out in his own inimitable style, Jakeman errs at every turn in the publication. The basis of Jakeman’s evidence is his own hand-drawn version from a photograph of the stone. He makes unsupported assumptions about the canons of ancient art; he fumbles over elements of the dream which are not included and items on the stone which have no place in the dream; he displays ignorance of his linguistic data and most unfortunately reverses the scholarly method by presenting his data with a rash of ‘evidentlys,’ ‘probablys,’ ‘appears,’ and ‘apparentlys’–but offers his conclusions as unarguable facts.” (Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Summer 1969, pp. 74-75)
from Chapter 6 of Mormonism: Shadow or Reality