The Izapa Stela 5 (hereafter IS5) is regarded by some popular Mormon apologists as a convincing proof of the Book of Mormon's authenticity.
- Leading Mormon scholarly apologist William J. Hamblin has taken a "wait and see" position in Review of Books on the Book of Mormon:
This is perhaps the best known pre-Columbian monument that has been associated with the Book of Mormon by Latter-day Saints. In dealing with this stela it must be emphasized that the interpretation of iconography is extremely difficult and complex. The same symbols or combinations of symbols can have radically different meanings in different times, places, societies, or to different groups within a single society. 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 have misinterpreted it provides no evidence against the Book of Mormon."
Hamblin adds in a footnote:
The original analysis of Izapa Stela 5 is M. Wells Jakeman, "An Unusual Tree of Life Sculpture from Ancient Central America," Bulletin of the University Archaeological Society 4 (1953): 26-49; and M. Wells Jakeman, The Complex "Tree-of-Life" Carving on Izapa Stela 5: A Reanalysis and Partial Interpretation (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University, 1958). Some of the more important recent Latter-day Saint studies of Izapa Stela 5 since the Tanners' publication (which they have never dealt with) include: Michael T. Griffith, "The Lehi Tree-of-Life Story in the Book of Mormon Still Supported by Izapa Stela 5," Newsletter and Proceedings of the Society for Early Historic Archaeology 151 (December 1982); 1-13; Ross T. Christensen, "Stela 5, Izapa: A Review of Its Study as the 'Lehi Tree-of Life Stone,' " Newsletter and Proceedings of the Society for Early Historic Archaeology 156 (March 1984): 1-6; Alan K. Parrish, "Stela 5, Izapa: A Layman's Consideration of the Tree of Life Stone," in Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate, eds., The Book of Mormon: First Nephi, the Doctrinal Foundation (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1988), 125-50; V. Garth Norman, Izapa Stela 5 and the Lehi Tree-of-Life Vision Hypothesis: A Reanalysis (American Fork, UT: Archaeological Research Consultants, 1985), V. Garth Norman, "What Is the Current Status of Research Concerning the "Tree of Life" Carving from Chiapas, Mexico," The Ensign 15 (June 1985): 54-55.
- At this site the object of Hamblin's response, the Tanners, have this to say:
For several years, many LDS have made great claims concerning "Stela 5, Izapa" which was found in Chiapas, Mexico, in 1939. In 1941, the Smithsonian Institution and National Geographic Society sent an expedition to study the stone. In a letter to the author of this book, dated May 1, 1963, George Crossette, Chief of Geographic Research at the National Geographic Society, said, "No one associated with our expedition connected this stela in any way with the Book of Mormon." In spite of this, several LDS publications have pictures and comments made by Smithsonian Institute and National Geographic Society which leave the impression that they support the LDS claims.
Mormons like M. Wells Jakeman have published articles in newspapers and periodicals claiming this stone helps prove that the B. of M. is true. LDS usually refer to the stone as "The Lehi Tree of Life Stone," because it supposedly has many similarities to Lehi's vision of the tree of life in I Nephi 8 in the B. of M. Some newspaper articles even claim that the names Lehi, Sariah, and Nephi are on three name glyths on the stone. But, there are no "name glyths" on the stone at all! George Crossette also said in his letter that the stone is almost a duplicate, in every elaborate detail, of the so called "Chapultapec" stone, of unknown provenience, now in the National Museum of Mexico.
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:
- The first figure, an old, bearded man with a hunched back, sits facing the tree and the other five persons. Jakeman supposes this man to be "a man of special religious learning" who is speaking to the others about the Tree of Life, and also a man of priestly authority, for "he appears to be making while he speaks (or to have made just before speaking) a burnt offering upon an altar (the latter depicted as a small portable altar or incense-burner)..." 
- The second figure, seated on a cushion or cushion-like stool behind the first, appears old but is beardless and has a horned headdress. Jakeman supposes that this may be an old woman. The figure is holding a large sign on a standard which depicts a "grotesque face in profile" which Jakeman interprets as that of a crocodile. Jakeman reads this face as a glyph giving the first figure's name.
In the end Jakeman concludes that the old couple are a stereotyped representation often made of the "ancestral couple" (like Adam and Eve) of Mesoamerica, who represent (as they do in other places) another actual, and famous, elderly couple. Now of course a certain question arises at this point -- we have a Tree of Life; we have the Mesoamerican "Adam and Eve"; we also have two divine figures around the tree who might match with cherubim guarding the Tree (cf. Gen. 3:24) and the scene also features a two-headed serpent. Could IS5 be something with its origins in a memory of the actual Edenic scene? Jakeman admits this possibility, but discounts it. He argues  that there are too many differences from the Genesis account and its Babylonian parallel: the other four human figures; the Tree in Genesis and Babylon being the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, not the Tree of Life; and that the serpent in IS5 represents the earth, not temptation and evil.
Without stepping too far afield, and without committing to any particular view on IS5, I would only note here that if Jakeman were a skeptic I would not regard this evidence as sufficient to negate an identification with a dim memory of the actual Genesis events. Comparison of the Genesis Flood account with its Babylonian parallel shows well enough that, within our paradigm, enough changes were made to suspect that IS5 could be a mixed and dimmed representation of the Genesis scene.
But by no means does this lead to the necessity of a positive identification; it only means that Jakeman's reasoning is fallacious.
Thus Jakeman opts for an alternative: the couple are the ancient ancestors of people after the Flood -- roughly equal to Noah and his wife -- in Mesoamerica.
- In light of this identification, Jakeman identifies the next four figures, seated on the ground with their backs to the tree. Two he identifies as the two warriors sons of the ancestral couple. A third, who has a "small scraggly beard" and is larger than the others, holds "a long pointed object" and a rectangular object which Jakeman identifies as a stylus (writing implement) and a tablet. The identification of this person Jakeman says is "difficult" but he supposes it may have been a third son. A final figure, whose face has been obliterated, holds "an umbrella or parasol" over the previous figure, and Jakeman supposes it may be a fourth son. Jakeman further notes that the umbrella was a Mesoamerican symbol of rulership, and thus figure #5 is indicated to be a ruler. Other symbols attached to this figure, Jakeman goes on, identify him as a priest or representative of the Mesoamerican Grain God .
Thus the human figures; Jakeman then outlines some other points of interest [24ff]:
- A small, humanlike figure between the first two which is "possibly an idol."
- A humanlike figure standing in the air, facing the tree with arms outstretched and wearing a hooded robe, identified as "an anonymous supernatural being."
- A wavy double line between figure #6 above and the edge of the stela, which runs down the right edge of the stela and then turns left at the bottom, passing "close by the roots of the tree." This is taken to be a river of water, watering the tree -- or perhaps something more symbolic.
- A broad line in the right-hand part of the ground panel of the stela.
- A complex of narrow lines, some of which Jakeman identifies as a path.
- A final figure, standing above the hooded one, with a full beard and holding a "small roundish object" interpreted as fruit from the tree.
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 ).
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:
- Even at the earliest, Jakeman relied on a little creativity to fit IS5 with the vision. "For example, the large field he believed was represented by a small uncarned segment of the background. He argued that it stood conceptually for a large field but could not be shown larger because the scene was so crowded."
- Norman's later work, which involved extensive photography and examination of IS5, referred to "errors in detecting details" which "plagued" Jakeman's interpretation, and decided that much of his work was thereby "rendered invalid." However, he went on to suggest a "road of life" theme for the IS5 that he felt did not invalidate Jakeman's hypothesis, but rather "deepened its meaning."
- A non-Mormon researcher, Suzanne Miles, provided the first significant non-Mormon look at IS5 and described it as a "fantastic visual myth." Her interpretation did not in any way lend support to Jakeman's. Somewhat before Miles another researcher, Clyde Keeler, offered an interpretation which also disagreed wirth Jakeman's. In 1982, a BYU graduate, Gareth Lowe, interpreted IS5 as a creation myth.
- Hugh Nibley, the premier LDS apologist, dismissed Jakeman's interpretation as wishful thinking, offering criticism for his failure to check for parallels in Far Eastern art and in other Mesoamerican art; ignoring or explaining away contrary evidence; "gross errors in elementary matters of linguistic and iconographic evidence", and offering unlikely interpretations over simple ones.
- More recently, however, popular Mormon apologist Michael Griffith and BYU professor of ancient scripture Alan Parrish have come out in support of Jakeman's interpretation.
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:
- IS5, among the stela at Izapa, is "the most complex scene" in the collection, and perhaps in all of North America from before Christ. Clark notes Norman's report that the scene contains "at least 12 human figures, a dozen animals, over 25 botanical and inanimate objects, and 9 stylized deity masks."
- The 12 "roots" of the tree, which one popular Mormon apologist identifies as perhaps representing the 12 tribes of Israel, is actually "the elongated teeth of a crocodile or earth monster," and the tree trunk "doubles as the crocodile's body..." This is the crocodile upon whose back the earth rested, and who in turn floated on the primordial sea.
- Two of the six human figures, including the woman, hold pointed objects. The woman is using her object to "jab a hole in her tongue to extract blood for an offering to the gods..."
- The study of Irene Briggs in the 1950s is cited, in which comparisons were made for thematic and other parallels to Near Eastern themes and art. She found only five general thematic parallels and showed no connection in terms of artistic style.
- For what it is worth, Clark notes that a connection of IS5 does not correlate with BoM history and geography as it is presently understood, and adds that there is no indication in 1 Nephi that Lehi or the others shared the dream of Lehi with anyone else. He adds that the scene in Nephi tells nothing of who was present and whether incense was burned. "...only two elements mentioned in the text, a fruit tree and water, can be recognized on the stone without resorting to guesswork."
- Jakeman and later writers identified the old man character as Lehi based on a glyph next to the character supposed to be a jawbone (matching with the jawbone hefted by Samson when he called his place "Lehi"). However, what is next to the old man is a skull, and it is "noticeably jawless."
- Fish and hummingbirds in the scene, which one popular apologist states are symbols of resurrection and eternal life, are not: the fish at least Clark says "do not make sense" and we need to check other monuments to clarify their meaning.
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.