The Messianic Event: Cyclical History and Nephite Calendar Prophecies

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 45:10Helaman 13:5,9Mormon 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:

Omni 1:4-5
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.

4 Nephi 1:48
 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.

The Nephites had three different calendars. The first calendar marked time from the year Lehi left Jerusalem. The second calendar marked time from the first year of the judges. The third calendar marked time from the day the sign was given of Christ's birth, making His birth the beginning of year one. Long before the Nephites were wiped out, their fall had been prophesied as happening 400 years after the birth of Christ(Alma 45:10Helaman 13:5,9Mormon 8:6).

Between 327-421 AD,the Nephites engaged in protracted warfare with the Lamanites, abandoning their cities and fleeing northward, only to meet their demise in 400 AD(Mormon 8). A similiar thing happened in the Zoquean sites of the central depression in Chiapas. By 400 AD, Chiapa de Corzo's principal buildings ceased to be maintained. The final "occupational" phases witnessed the occasional burial of important personages in deserted pyramidal mounds. By this time, the ruins had become a place of pilgrimage, perhaps for displaced Zoque peoples now ruled by Chiapanec invaders. The Chiapanec chose to occupy the adjacent floodplain of the Grijalva River where the modern town was constructed and to leave the Zoque ruin on the nearby plateau untouched.

What happened four hundred years before the coming of Christ? 400 BC marks both the abandonment of the Olmec site of La Venta and, as I have argued before, the end of the Jaredites. So four hundred years from the time the sign of Christ's birth, the Nephites were destroyed. Four hundred years before Christ's birth, the Jaredites were destroyed. 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 prior, with the Jaredites(3 Nephi 1:9).

But the 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).

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.


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