Stela 5 and Lehi’s Vision of the Tree of Life

By Lane Thuet

The Book of Mormon claims to be a record of a group of Israelites that traveled to the American continent around 600 BC, as well as the record of another group that settled there at the time of the Tower of Babel. The book speaks of their populating and settling vast areas of the land in great numbers. It tells of their cities, kings, monetary system, bandits, farming habits, worship practices, and wars.

If the Book of Mormon is true, then we can reasonably expect that there would be many artifacts uncovered that match the story told within the pages of the book. Yet this is not the case. After scores of years of archaeology in the New World, no artifacts have ever been found that clearly link the Book of Mormon to the Mesoamerican people. We can’t help but wonder why this is the case. While it has often been claimed by zealous Mormon members that there is an overwhelming amount of archaeological evidence proving the Book of Mormon to be true, there has never been an artifact found that shows a clear and undeniable link to the book. By contrast, evidence for the truthfulness of the Bible is more than abundant. In many cases, even minute details recorded in the Bible are proven correct by the artifacts discovered. There have even been times when these finds have shown the biblical account to be correct where some history books had claimed it was wrong.

There was one item unearthed in Izapa, Mexico, though, which has been a topic of discussion since its discovery in 1941. It is a large stone monument (stela) covered with intricate carvings, dominated by the figure of a fruit-bearing tree. Matthew W. Stirling, the archaeologist who found it, labeled the stone “Stela 5.” It was photographed and published in 1943.

Ten years later, the real discussion over this monument began when a Mormon professor, M. Wells Jakeman – chairman of the Department of Archaeology at Brigham Young University – concluded that the scene carved on “Stela 5 was a depiction of Lehi’s vision of the Tree of Life described in 1 Nephi 8:10-15” from the Book of Mormon. If this were shown to be correct, then it would go a long way in proving the Book of Mormon to be a true record. Stories about the stone spread like wildfire through the Mormon Church, and Prof. Jakeman was immediately in demand to speak on his interpretation of Stela 5. Jakeman even published a small drawing of the stone with various items on it labeled and referenced to the Book of Mormon text. Among the identified features, Jakeman named several figures on the carving Lehi, Sariah, Laman, Lemuel, Sam, Nephi and a figure in a white robe – claiming that these names were easily identified by items on the carving itself. All of these people he mentioned (assuming the figure in the white robe refers to Christ) are significant characters in the Book of Mormon account, primarily in the opening chapters.

In a conference message given in October of 1954, LDS Seventy Milton R. Hunter used Jakeman’s conclusions in a faith-promoting sermon regarding the Book of Mormon‘s authenticity (Conference Report, October 1954, p. 108). On occasion, we still come across Latter-day Saints who use this discovery as “proof” for the historicity of the Book of Mormon. But is Dr. Jakeman’s interpretation correct?

Many scholars with the requisite technical training, knowledge, and experience in this area have examined the stone and Dr. Jakeman’s interpretation of it. Some of these scholars are LDS and some are not. But their conclusions are all the same: Professor Jakeman’s interpretation is not correct.

Stela 5 and the story behind it was recently featured in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies (v. 8, n. 1, 1999). The cover story article by Stewart w. Brewer, titled The History of an Idea – The Scene on Stela 5 from Izapa Mexico, as a Representation of Lehi’s Vision of the Tree of Life, noted that epigraphy expert V. Garth Norman (who investigated Izapa monuments with BYU’s New World Archaeological Foundation) pointed out that Jakeman had made numerous errors in his drawings of the stela, stating that “… much of his (Jakeman’s) work must be rendered invalid because of the inaccuracies in (his) reproduction of Stela 5” (p. 16). The article pointed out that Norman’s interpretation of the stone “differed significantly from Jakeman’s” and that, in his view focused on a ‘road of life’ theme (p. 17).

Most of the other interpretations give claim that the scene depicts pagan worship, including self-mutilation and blood letting, which is known to have been common among the early inhabitants of that region.

The article noted the opinions of several experts in the field, including that of Dr. Suzanne Miles, who holds a Ph.D. in research on Mesoamerican art. “Her interpretation of the art at Izapa did not support [Jakeman’s] proposed interpretation of Stela 5 nor the accuracy of his drawing,” the article said. Also in disagreement was Gareth W. Lowe, a BYU graduate who was also a field director for the New World Archaeological Foundation (NWAF). Lowe said the stone depicts a “creation myth” (p. 17) and that “nothing he wrote” acknowledged a connection with the Book of Mormon.

Perhaps the most curious criticism of Jakeman’s interpretation came from Hugh Nibley, then a professor of Ancient Scripture at BYU. He demonstrated this extensively when the Book of Abraham (part of the LDS scripture known as the Pearl of Great Price) was shown to be a fraud. If even Hugh Nibley could not be convinced of Jakeman’s claims, then we know there must be some serious flaws with it.

Nibley said of Jakeman’s work on Stela 5: “…the author’s loving hand, guided by a wishful eye has actually created the only evidence available to the reader for testing the author’s theories” (p. 17). He refused to accept Jakeman’s interpretation for a number of reasons. The article listed six: 1) Jakeman never compared the carvings on Stela 5 with other Mesoamerican art, which is standard practice for this kind of interpreting; 2) Jakeman had also visualized evidence on the stone that no one else can see. He ignored those items that contradicted his theory, rather than explain the reason for them; 3) His linguistic and iconographic analysis was seriously in error; 4) He did not submit his conclusions to peer review. Instead, Nibley said he “published it himself with unjustified and ungraceful fanfare;” 5) His argument was full of words such as “evidently”, “probably” and “apparently” – words that assert details as facts without solid evidence. 6) He also did not subject his work to review by his peers – which is standard practice, instead opting to publish it himself.

One of the most serious charges against Jakeman’s work came from Dee Green, a professional archaeologist who had even assisted Professor Jakeman in making a latex mold of Stela 5. Green said that Jakeman had “altered the plaster cast of Stela 5 made from their mold ‘after his interpretation'” (p. 18).

Clearly, interpretation of such archaeological finds should be made by those with the proper training and expertise in the affected field of study – in this case, Mesoamerican artifacts and history. But as we can see, even LDS professionals in this archaeological area do not accept Professor Jakeman’s interpretation of Stela 5.

See also: Izapa Stela 5 and Mormon Apologetics by J.P. Holding (off site)

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