The following article was written as a companion piece to A Mormon President? What Do Mormons Believe?, an article written by the well-known, and sometimes controversial, Newsvine columnist Yar. I was moved to write it in response to posters who expressed extreme doubt at the claims by the Mormon faith to have been founded by Jews who sailed to the New World in 600 BC. While not pretending to suggest any such thing actually happened, this article asks the question, "is there any basis for believing such a feat is even possible?"
To many exposed to the Mormon belief system for the first time, the thought of Jews from 600 BC traveling to North America, where they subsequently become the source of at least a portion of the North American Indian population is patently absurd.
And so it may be.
Or, perhaps not. This article takes no position one way or another on these claims, but rather aims to review the political and cultural influences at play in Israel and Judaea during the time in which the Mormon hegira is suggested to have taken place. This will enable us to gain a broader appreciation of the context in which these claims take place and – while not necessarily allowing us to determine the ultimate truth – perhaps allow us to understand whether such an event is even possible or not.
The story of Mormonism begins in approximately 598 BC, during the reign of the rule of King Zedekiah, a direct descendant of the house of David. The book of Mormon teaches that Nephi and his brothers Laman, Lemuel and Sam were commanded by their father to go into the city of Jerusalem to obtain the brass plates with the "records of the Jews and the geneology of their forefathers." After a set-to with the owner of the plates (one Laban), Nephi and his brothers secure the plates.
Then, Nephi is commanded by the Lord to build a ship, which he and his brothers do, and which they then sail to North America, where his brother Laman's descendants eventually form at least a part of the inhabitants of North America that Europeans would eventually learn to call Indians.
Leaving skepticism aside for a moment, it might be worthwhile to consider, with an open mind, the events that transpired on either chronological side of this milestone, to see if these stories have even a logical place in an overall context.
To start with, we will take a step back in time to a period 200 years before Nephi, or around 800 BC to understand what is happening in the neighbourhood occupies by Nephi's forebears. The Greek Dark Ages are in full swing, the death throes of Mycenean civilization coming so quickly on the heels of the fall of its arch-rival Troy, already a distant memory. Tentative and rude, thatched-roof copies of the glorious temples of Agamemnon and Achilles -- Homer's fair-haired Achaeans – are only now being built, as the early Hellenes struggle to approximate even a facsimile of their former greatness.
In Europe, the Battle Ax/Tumulus peoples have for six generations been intermingling with the proto-Scythian and Kurgan horse-cultures, adopting many of their folkways, including liming their moustaches, the use of chariots and wagons and the taking of enemies' heads in combat, becoming known to historians as the Urnfield Culture. They are well on their way to becoming the Keltoi, or Celts; a people that will transform Europe, only to fall beneath the swords of the Roman machine.
On the Philistine coast, the Phoenicians are masters of the sea, and have been solidifying their hold on the farthest reaches of the Mediterranean for a generation with their ever-expanding 'New City' at Qart-Hadasht (or Carthage) among dozens of smaller trading colonies in Greece, Italy, Sardinia, Corsica, and what will one day become France.
In Italy, the first Latins and Sabines (perhaps abetted by Aeneas and the refugees of the fall of Troy) are beginning to settle on a ford of the Tiber river near seven hills, planting the seeds from which the eventual Republic of Rome will emerge.
In Israel, 200 years have passed since David captured Jerusalem from the Jebusites, instituting a Davidic monarchy ruling over a united Judaea and Israel; since then, the Israelites – both blessed and cursed by their location at the crossroads of empires -- have been subject to invasion, sacking and depredations from tyrant kings and ruthless aspirants to local hegemony: In 925, the Egyptian Pharoah Shishak invaded Judah and looted the Temple. In 900 it was the Assyrians who raided right through Canaan to reach the shores of the Mediterranean.
And the neighbourhood doesn't get anymore peaceful from here on in, either. In 722, an Assyrian general siezes the crown in a coup, takes the name (Sargon) of an illustrious predecessor from 2000 years earlier, and begins yet another period of Assyrian conquest which culminates in the conquest of the northern Hebrew kingdom, Israel and the destruction of its capital, Samaria. Many of the Israelites are forced into exile and captivity, particularly those of the ruling class, and a new nobility is imported by the Assyrians.
After the murder of Sargon II in 705, Assyrians again invade, this time under the leadership of Sennacherib, in 701. This time, their target is the southern kingdom of Judah. They surround and besiege Jerusalem, and are only put to flight by the defending forces of King Hezekiah after being "smote by the angel of the lord". Perhaps in thanksgiving for this deliverance, King Hezekiah carries out a series of temple reforms, most notably the destruction of the brazen serpent, whose ancient cult venerated wisdom and dated back to Mosaic times.
It is during this time that the Phoenicians, the Israelites' neighbours to the north, exceed their own mastery of the ocean by carrying out incredible maritime explorations, such as the three-year circumnavigation of africachartered by the Pharoah Necho of Egypt and captained by the Carthaginian admiral Hanno. And, while there are no records to support such speculation, it would not be out of the question for master mariners coasting the western shore of Africa to encounter the North Equatorial Current, which – similar to the Gulf Stream -- flows like a powerful river in the midst of the ocean.
Like a marine conveyer belt, the North Equatorial Current flows from Africa straight across the Atlantic and into the midst of the West Indies. Worth noting here also is a later tradition, reported by Aristotle in 'On Marvellous Things Heard', that alleges that the Carthaginians had explored and settled a wooded, river-watered island (land?) far outside the Pillars of Hercules (Straits of Gibraltar). The new world? Perhaps .
Following the death of Hezekiah, King Manasseh comes to power (697 BC), in a reign marked by conflict and disharmony. During his tenure, Manasseh introduces an idol into the Holy of Holies in the temple, causing the Levite priests charged with the protection of the Ark of the Covenant to abandon his regime (and, according to some legends, to take the Ark with them). The heretical state of affairs represented by Manasseh's realm would remain until the time of King Josiah and the prophet Jeremiah (628 BC), when the sanctity of the Temple would again be restored.
This, at last, takes us back to the time of Nephi, where once again fear of the Assyrian is building, and which is at least part of the reason for the exodus of Nephi and his brothers. This fear is well founded, as it turns out, because in 587, Nebuchednezzar ceases harassing raids in favour of full-blown invasion, which culminates in his destruction of the Temple, the blinding of King Zedekiah and the murder of his sons, and the carrying into captivity in Babylon of the entire Judaean elite.
So, what we've established here is a pattern of over 300 years of continual unrest. When the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were not being invaded and overthrown by Egyptians, Assyrians or Babylonians, they were being torn by sectarian violence which included the outright suppression of at least one sect which worshipped an ancient snake-god of wisdom. These are conditions trying enough to make even the most devout consider fleeing to found their own state.
The technology required for extended ocean voyaging, including navigation and highly seaworthy vessels were certainly within reach, with the greatest mariners of the day being within a few days' march, and with whom ties of trading at the least, and even possibly kinship, would have already been established. Even more priceless, these shipwrights, sailors and explorers would seem to have possessed knowledge of a resource-rich sanctuary remote enough to be out of the grasp of both foreign invasion and religious suppression.
So, much like the Puritans of hundreds of years later, it's at least theoretically possible that Nephi, his brothers and others of their tribe could have made an extended voyage out through the Pillars of Hercules, south along the coast of Africa following routes established by Hanno the Carthaginian, and into the swift, west-flowing North Equatorial Current. From there, few barriers exist to reaching the New World.
So, what was happening in the New World at around this time? Are there any signs of anomalous visitors from a more advanced culture or indications of strange-looking settlers?
It is at almost exactly this point in time at which the Andenan Indians begin building mounds in what would become the United States. Their structures are large earthen mounds in the shapes of birds and serpents, which they continue to build until their gradual displacement by the Hopewellian culture.
According to some, in approximately 552 BC, the white-skinned feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl departs Mesoamerica after some time living among his people there. Like the brazen serpent worshipped by the sect suppressed by Hezekiah, Quetzalcoatl is a god of knowledge and wisdom. Not long after the departure of the civilization-bringing god, by around 500 BC, the Mayan civilization in Central America begins to flourish.
Do we see in any of the above conditions at least the theoretical framework for even the possibility of suspension of disbelief long enough to consider the core tenets of Mormonism objectively? Or is this rather a collection of coincidences and tenous speculation that fail by a long shot to meet the burden of proof for such an outlandish claim. Only you can be the judge, but if the only thing this article achieves is to provoke a new way of thinking about the origins of Mormonism, the addition of even one more informed voice to the debate, it will have exceeded its expectations.
Please note: this article underwent minor editorial revisions on May 12, 2007, along with the introduction of a number of links to external sources. Beyond these cosmetic changes, no substantive changes were introduced to the article's central thesis.