Attribution: The following post is heavily dependant on the words of Dr. Mark Alan Wright, who is quoted/paraphrased liberally in the second and third paragraphs.
One of the intriguing features of the Book of Mormon is the use of the baktun, or 400 year cycle, is it is attested several times in the text (Alma 45:10; Helaman 13:5,9; Mormon 8:6). It also appears that the baktun and the katun are both attested in Moroni 10:1, when Moroni states that "more than four hundred and twenty years have passed away since the sign was given of the coming of Christ".
To paraphrase Mark Alan Wright, what's most interesting in this verse is that Moroni specifically says he wants his brethren the Lamanites to know that it had been four hundred and twenty years, because that number would carry much more meaning to the Lamanites than it would to the Gentiles.
The Maya "Long Count" records the elapsed number of periods of 400 years + periods of 20 years + years + periods of 20 days + days since the "creation" day of 13 August 3114 BC (although it's unclear exactly what happened on that day; the accounts differ from site to site). Moroni is basically giving an abbreviated Long Count date of 1.1 (1 period of 400 years + 1 period of 20 years). In her book, The Indian Christ, the Indian King: The Historical Substrate of Mayan Myth and Ritual, Victoria R. Bricker has noted the following:
The Maya believed that history was repetitive, that the events in one cycle would be repeated in all successive cycles as they had been repeating since time immemorial. Therefore, the calendar could be used to predict events in the future (i.e.. in succeeding cycles), and the people had no control over their fate.
This cyclical repetition of history is illustrated in the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel(Roys 1933), which records the count of the katuns since the first settlement was established at Chichen Itza. Below is the historical account for each Katun 8 Ahau in one chronicle.
The First Katun 8 Ahau
It was in 8 Ahau
That Chitchen Itza was destroyed.
Thirteen fold of the katun[256 years] had passed
When Chakanputun began;
They were in their homes
For that katun period
The Second Katun 8 Ahau
It was in 8 Ahau
That the people of Chakanputun were destroyed
By the Itza people.
The Third Katun 8 Ahau
It was in 8 Ahau
That the Itza people were destroyed
In their homes again
Because of the treachery of the Hunac Ceel
I have called these katun chronicles “history” but Coe(1966: 117) calls them “prophecies” pointing out that “prophecy and history are almost inextricably entwined in these documents that sometimes read like revelation”(1966: 117-118). Archaeologists have been unable to correlate the Katun 8 Ahau events with the archaeology of Chichen Itza(Tozzer 1957). It may well be that whether or not an event predicted for a future Katun 8 Ahau occurred then, the Maya recorded it as having taken place during that katun in order to fulfill the requirements of their cyclical view of history. This would make the katun chronicles of the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel myth rather than history.
On the other hand, there is some evidence that the Maya intervened in history and made events conform to their prophecies. The conquest of the last Itza capital at Tayasal reffered to in the quote from Roys(1933:136113) above is a case in point. The Itza had resited several attempts to convert them to Christianity on the grounds that the time prophesied for this to take place had not yet arrived. At the end of 1695, the Itza sent word of their willingness to be converted. A new Katun 8 Ahau began in 1697, the year that the Itza were finally conquered by the Spaniards(see chapter 2). This suggests that the Katun 8 Ahau “prophecies” may well be historically accurate and that the Itza actually did abandon their capital every 256 years.
As ancient Mesoamericans, the Nephites and Lamanites appear to have the same basic cyclical view of history, where the events of one year are expected to be repeated when the date of that year is repeated. Mark Alan Wright, in private conversation, once pointed out the following:
And now I, Amaron, write the things whatsoever I write, which are few, in the book of my father.
Behold, it came to pass that *three hundred and twenty years had passed away, and the more wicked part of the Nephites were destroyed.
And it came to pass that when *three hundred and twenty years had passed away, Ammaron, being constrained by the Holy Ghost, did hide up the records which were sacred—yea, even all the sacred records which had been handed down from generation to generation, which were sacred—even until the three hundred and twentieth year from the coming of Christ.
Notes on Jesus, Nephites & Time
The material in the following paragraphs was first demonstrated by John L. Sorenson. The Gospel of Matthew says Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod. King Herod died in 4 BCE; which means Jesus, assuming Matthew is right, was born sometime before 4 BCE. The Book of Mormon says that Jesus was born 600 years after Lehi left Jerusalem, "at the commencement of the" first year of Zedekiah's reign. The first year of Zedekiah's reign was in 597 BC.
Calendar prophecies about the Nephite destruction were based on a 400 year cycle, the baktun. Alma and Samuel the Lamanite made these prophecies and Moroni records their fullfillment. If we count 600 years as being 600 tuns then the Book of Mormon puts Jesus's birth at around 5 BCE. This would also put the Jaredite collapse at 399 BCE, the Nephite collapse at 389 CE and the writing of Moroni 10:1 at 409 CE.
The Three Genocidal Events
Between 317 - 389 AD, the Nephites engaged in protracted cycle of warfare with the Lamanites, abandoning their cities and fleeing northward, only to meet their demise in 389 AD(Mormon 8), four hundred tuns after Christ's birth.
This would explain why the day before the first day of the next baktun cycle was the "day set apart by the unbelievers" to kill, all the believers in Christ, effectively wiping out a people, as had happened four hundred years later, with the Nephites(3 Nephi 1:9).
But the planned destruction doesn't happen, instead we get a day and a night and a day with continual daylight, as had been prophesied by Samuel the Lamanite. This miracle left the would be genocidal mob in shock and unable to carry out their murderous plans.
And there were many, who had not believed the words of the prophets, who fell to the earth and became as if they were dead, for they knew that the great plan of destruction which they had laid for those who believed in the words of the prophets had been frustrated; ... (3 Nephi 1:16).
From the view of the Long Count, that particular day, for the killing of an entire subculture, coupled with prophecy of Nephite collapse, would make the most sense if a similiar genocidal event had happened 400 years/tuns prior, in or around 399 BCE. The only other account of a genocidal event recorded in the Book of Mormon is that of the Jaredites, in the concluding chapters of Ether; thus the best candidate we have for an end date for the Jaredite history is 399 BCE. A basic cycle of history in the Book of Mormon thus looks like this:
The Nephite calendar round revolved around cycles of genocide and destruction. One 400 year cycle, or baktun, started following the Jaredite collapse. This baktun ended with the attempted genocide of "the Christians", which was averted by a divine intervention. The second Nephite baktun began after this attempted genocide and ended with the destruction of the Nephites.
Why Is This Important?
Because from Mormon's perspective, the birth of Christ is a Messianic Event. What is a messianic event? To know that, we need to define two things, the event and the messianic. In his book, Event: A Philosophical Journey Through a Concept, Slavoj Zizek defines the word event as it is used in this post:
This is an event at its purest and most minimal: something shocking, out of joint that appears to happen all of a sudden and interrupts the usual flow of things; something that emerges seemingly out of nowhere, without discernible causes, an appearance without solid being as its foundation. There is by definition, something ‘miraculous’ in an event, from the miracles of our daily lives to those of the most sublime spheres, including that of the divine. The evental nature of Christianity arises from the fact that to be a Christian requires a belief in a singular event –the death and resurrection of Christ.
In Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology, Adam S. Miller reminds us that "In light of the Book of Mormon, all of history is reconfigured as explicitly and undeniably Christ centered." He also gives us the following definitions of the messianic:
3. The messianic occurs within history without belonging to history.
4. The messianic interrupts the tyranny of homogenous time.
12. The messianic is anachronistic.
The messianic, as messianic, is what, with the smallest synchronic displacement, anachronistically and retroactively reconfigures history itself.
From this we can see that a messianic event is that which, without discernible causes, shockingly rearranges the natural sequence of time, such that history is anachronistically and retroactively reconfigured. The evental nature of Nephite prophetic religion arises from the fact that to be a Nephite, in the religious sense, required a belief in two singular events, the Incarnation and Atonement(death and resurrection) of the Nephite God, Jehovah/Jesus Christ.
The Incarnation of Jehovah, in the person of Jesus Christ, as a Messianic event for Mormon, who was writing in the late 300's, occurred in history but paradoxically did not belong to history, being something that circumvented the expectations of the long count calendar system and it's fatalistically circular view of history.
Whereas, from a Mesoamerican perspective, the past and future are cyclical and already written in stone; the Christians were going to be killed off when they were supposed to, the Incarnation interrupted the tyranny of homogeneous time by abrogating that preordained destruction. The predestined pattern of destruction, every 400 years, is circumvented, making Jehovah their Savior in this life and the next. From where Mormon was standing in time, coupled with the cyclical fatalism of his culture, the Incarnation, as a messianic event, reconfigured history itself.