Izapa Stela 5 and Mormon Apologetics

The Izapa Stela 5 (hereafter IS5) is regarded by some popular Mormon apologists as a convincing proof of the Book of Mormon's authenticity.

Such are the basics. Now let's have a look at some more details. For this report we managed to get a copy of the 1958 monograph by Jakeman offering his view of the IS5.

The central depiction of IS5 is that of what Jakeman called the "Tree of Life" of the Maya and Aztec religion [Jakeman, 1-10]. Around the Tree of Life are a number of figures. Some of these are personifications of Mesoamerican deities. However, six of the figures are clearly human. Jakeman offered these points about the six figures:

Thus the human figures; Jakeman then outlines some other points of interest [24ff]:

By now the reader may be asking, "So when does he get to saying this proves the Book of Mormon?" The answer is, in this book at least, Jakeman never does get around to this at all. His own conclusion is simply stated: The carving is a "portrayal of some ancient event (actual or mythological) concerning....[the] Tree of Life symbol of ancient Mesoamerican religion" in which the older folks were explaining some things to the younger. Then Jakeman goes on to list a number of elements in the IS5 carving that he argues match "Old World" features (i.e., in spite of what he says previously, similarities to the Genesis and Babylon stories, all of which are also, as noted, interpretable within a paradigm of reminisces of the original account; Old World-like clothing and headdresses; the use of the umbrella over a ruler; the use of a small altar -- he goes on to admit, though, that most of the elements he cites [but not all] are simple enough to be explained as being hit upon independently [46]).

The only hint we get that Jakeman is even making a BoM connection is a claim that the name of the Egyptian Grain God was "Nepi" noted in a footnote to be a match for Nephi. Were it not for this and the Provo imprint you might not even know that this book had any relevance to Mormonism. (But according to Brewer, in the article noted below, Jakeman held this view five years before the publishing date of the monograph, and did not make a treatment of the topic -- presumably meaning, a connection to the BoM -- until seven years after the monograph. A later scholar, V. Garth Norman, did further work on IS5 in the 1970s; more on that soon.)

Subsequent work on IS5 has made a more definitive connection. Popular Mormon apologetic works of late now connect the IS5 depiction with an account in the BoM in 1 Nephi 8, 11 and 12, in which the character Lehi had a vision of the Tree of Life. Here are the relevant portions of those chapters:

And it came to pass after I had prayed unto the Lord I beheld a large and spacious field. And it came to pass that I beheld a tree, whose fruit was desirable to make one happy. And it came to pass that I did go forth and partake of the fruit thereof; and I beheld that it was most sweet, above all that I ever before tasted. Yea, and I beheld that the fruit thereof was white, to exceed all the whiteness that I had ever seen. And as I partook of the fruit thereof it filled my soul with exceedingly great joy; wherefore, I began to be desirous that my family should partake of it also; for I knew that it was desirable above all other fruit. And as I cast my eyes round about, that perhaps I might discover my family also, I beheld a river of water; and it ran along, and it was near the tree of which I was partaking the fruit. And I looked to behold from whence it came; and I saw the head thereof a little way off; and at the head thereof I beheld your mother Sariah, and Sam, and Nephi; and they stood as if they knew not whither they should go. And it came to pass that I beckoned unto them; and I also did say unto them with a loud voice that they should come unto me, and partake of the fruit, which was desirable above all other fruit. And it came to pass that they did come unto me and partake of the fruit also. And it came to pass that I was desirous that Laman and Lemuel should come and partake of the fruit also; wherefore, I cast mine eyes towards the head of the river, that perhaps I might see them. And it came to pass that I saw them, but they would not come unto me and partake of the fruit. And I beheld a rod of iron, and it extended along the bank of the river, and led to the tree by which I stood. And I also beheld a strait and narrow path, which came along by the rod of iron, even to the tree by which I stood; and it also led by the head of the fountain, unto a large and spacious field, as if it had been a world. And I saw numberless concourses of people, many of whom were pressing forward, that they might obtain the path which led unto the tree by which I stood. And it came to pass that they did come forth, and commence in the path which led to the tree.
And it came to pass that there arose a mist of darkness; yea, even an exceedingly great mist of darkness, insomuch that they who had commenced in the path did lose their way, that they wandered off and were lost. And it came to pass that I beheld others pressing forward, and they came forth and caught hold of the end of the rod of iron; and they did press forward through the mist of darkness, clinging to the rod of iron, even until they did come forth and partake of the fruit of the tree. And after they had partaken of the fruit of the tree they did cast their eyes about as if they were ashamed. And I also cast my eyes round about, and beheld, on the other side of the river of water, a great and spacious building; and it stood as it were in the air, high above the earth. And it was filled with people, both old and young, both male and female; and their manner of dress was exceedingly fine; and they were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers towards those who had come at and were partaking of the fruit. And after they had tasted of the fruit they were ashamed, because of those that were scoffing at them; and they fell away into forbidden paths and were lost. And now I, Nephi, do not speak all the words of my father. But, to be short in writing, behold, he saw other multitudes pressing forward; and they came and caught hold of the end of the rod of iron; and they did press their way forward, continually holding fast to the rod of iron, until they came forth and fell down and partook of the fruit of the tree. And he also saw other multitudes feeling their way towards that great and spacious building. And it came to pass that many were drowned in the depths of the fountain; and many were lost from his view, wandering in strange roads. And great was the multitude that did enter into that strange building. And after they did enter into that building they did point the finger of scorn at me and those that were partaking of the fruit also; but we heeded them not.
These are the words of my father: For as many as heeded them, had fallen away. And Laman and Lemuel partook not of the fruit, said my father. And it came to pass after my father had spoken all the words of his dream or vision, which were many, he said unto us, because of these things which he saw in a vision, he exceedingly feared for Laman and Lemuel; yea, he feared lest they should be cast off from the presence of the Lord. And he did exhort them then with all the feeling of a tender parent, that they would hearken to his words, that perhaps the Lord would be merciful to them, and not cast them off; yea, my father did preach unto them. And after he had preached unto them, and also prophesied unto them of many things, he bade them to keep the commandments of the Lord; and he did cease speaking unto them.
...And it came to pass that I beheld that the rod of iron, which my father had seen, was the word of God, which led to the fountain of living waters, or to the tree of life; which waters are a representation of the love of God; and I also beheld that the tree of life was a representation of the love of God. And the angel said unto me again: Look and behold the condescension of God! And I looked and beheld the Redeemer of the world, of whom my father had spoken; and I also beheld the prophet who should prepare the way before him. And the Lamb of God went forth and was baptized of him; and after he was baptized, I beheld the heavens open, and the Holy Ghost come down out of heaven and abide upon him in the form of a dove. And I beheld that he went forth ministering unto the people, in power and great glory; and the multitudes were gathered together to hear him; and I beheld that they cast him out from among them.

The elements highlighted above should be kept in mind. It is these points which popular apologists compare to IS5: the Tree of Life is identified with Lehi's tree, the figures in the IS5 with Lehi and his family; the writing figure with Nephi recording the vision; the river with the river; the hooded figure with a blind person who has lost his way (contrary to Jakeman!), and the rod of iron with a heavy line along the bottom of IS5.

So is there any substance to this analysis, or is it, after the manner of The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, merely a stretch of imagination? On this account, the leading Mormon apologists are not agreeing with Jakeman. Two items in the first 1999 edition of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies ("The History of an Idea" by Stewart Brewer; "A New Artistic Rendering of Izapa Stela 5" by John Clark) make these points, first from Brewer:

None of the problems are perhaps surprising, since Jakeman, Brewer notes, had only limited experience in excavation and analysis of materials. This is ironic, for Jakeman responded to Nibley (and to another Mormon critic of his work, John Sorenson) by stating that neither of them were qualified to make such assessments.

Now the highlights of Clark's item, which notes the advances of interpretation of Mesoamerican monuments since Jakeman and Norman:

Clark ultimately concludes that the Jakeman's work is "too speculative and is based on too many weak points of logic to be accepted" and that the IS5 scene probably has something to do with the king as intercessor for his people, offering no specific BoM connection, though he suggests IS5's art may have a link to the Jaredite peoples of the BoM.

In conclusion: Popular Mormon apologists who use IS5 are at best putting the cart before the horse, and at worst contradicting their best scholarship. Not that this is a uniquely Mormon trait: Skeptics have Nebraska Man, for example, and evangelicals had their share of things like Whisenant's 88 Reasons book.

But it is clear that IS5 is not an effective weapon in the Mormon apologetic arsenal and needs to be shelved, at least for the time being.