The Mexican Christ
The following is based on a small part, of a larger argument, made by Mark Alan Wright. You can read the full presentation at: Axes Mundi: Ritual Complexes in Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon.
The visitation of Jesus Christ to ancient America is a great example of God condenseding to his children and speaking to them in the weakness of their own language and understanding(D&C 1:24).
Reading this account through a mesoamerican lens, we can also appreciate the nature of Christ's atonement for our sins, from a different angle. The Gospel of Luke and 3 Nephi both give converging witness of the physical resurrection but with some small variation. When appearing to his disciples, the Savior says:
Arise and come forth unto me, that ye may thrust your hands into my side, and also that ye may feel the prints of the nails in my hands and in my feet, that ye may know that I am the God of Israel, and the God of the whole earth, and have been slain for the sins of the world. -3 Nephi 11:14
Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have. And when he had thus spoken, he shewed them his hands and his feet. -Luke 24:39-40
In the Book of Mormon, Christ invites the Nephites to not merely touch the wound on his side but to "thrust" their hands "into" his side, "and also" the marks on his hands and feet. For the Nephites, the wound on the side was the focus of attention, followed by the appendage wounds.
However, in Luke, the wound on the side isn't even mentioned but rather the focus is on the wounds on the hands and feet. To understand the differences between the Lord's presentations to the Nephites and the Jews, we have to understand the nature of Nephite folk religion, which was not Jewish.
The Nephite Religion(s)
In his book, Did God Have a Wife, William Dever reminds us that there has always been a difference between "book religion" and "folk religion". The Bible is essentially a "revisionist history", with Deuteronomist historians projecting their own religious sensibilities unto the history of their forefathers. The Bible doesn't describe religion as it was but rather as how they thought it should have been. Real Israelite religion consisted of the things the Deuteronomist historians condemned.
The Book of Mormon is an ancient book, written by the Prophet Mormon in the early 400's AD. However, Mormon was mostley writing about a culture and religion that existed hundreds of years in his past. As a human being, Mormon must have shared similar limitations and weaknesses with the writers of the Bible.
Like the Deuteronomists, Mormon described the history and religion of his forefathers in very idealistic ways. What the Book of Mormon teaches is the Nephite "book religion". What it condemns is the Nephite "folk religion". By seeing what Nephite prophets condemned, or did which was non-biblical, we can see what Nephite folk religion actually looked like.
Nephite Folk Religion
Nephite folk religion featured the following:
- divine kingship(Mosiah 2:10)
- polytheism(Alma 11:26-29,35)
- magic(Mormon 2:10, Mormon 1:19)
- human sacrifice(Mormon 4:21, Alma 34:10)
- blood letting(Alma 34:11)
- idols(Helaman 6:31, Alma 7:6) 2:10)
- priestly caste(Mosiah 11:14, Alma 30:27)
- burying treasure unto God(Alma 24:19, Helaman 13:19)
- calendar prophesy(Alma 45:10; Helaman 13:5,9; Mormon 8:6).
The above characteristics of Nephite folk religion are all found in ancient mesoamerica. However, what mesoamerican religion and Nephite folk religion lacked were the two most important aspects of Nephite book religion:
- the Law of Moses(Mosiah 12:37)
- belief in the atoning messiah (4 Nephi 1:29, Jacob 7:9, Alma 30:12, Alma31:21).
These believers in Christ were also a people who lived within a region were human sacrifice was prevalent. This also influenced how they saw the messiah and his atoning sacrifice. Decades earlier, the prophet Alma described the atonement of Jesus Christ, in light of both human and animal sacrifice:
For it is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice; yea, not a sacrifice of man, neither of beast, neither of any manner of fowl; for it shall not be a human sacrifice; but it must be an infinite and eternal sacrifice.
And behold, this is the whole meaning of the law, every whit pointing to that great and last sacrifice; and that great and last sacrifice will be the Son of God, yea, infinite and eternal. -Alma 34:10, 14
Mark Alan Wright describes the mesoamerican method of human sacrifice:
The typical method of human sacrifice was to stretch the victim across a stone altar and have his hands and feet held down by four men. A priest would then make a large incision directly below the ribcage using a knife made out of razor-sharp flint or obsidian, and while the victim was yet alive the priest would thrust his hand into the cut and reach up under the ribcage and into the chest and rip out the victim’s still-beating heart.
From this, we can see the reasoning behind the Savior's two different presentations of his body. Among the Nephites, he wanted to show that he was a sacrificial victim. Among the Jews, he wanted to reinforce the fact that he had been crucified and had thus conquered death. The message was the same but conveyed in two slightly different ways. The location of these two appearances is also very poignant. In mesoamerica, Jesus Christ, the divine sacrificial victim, appears at the temple, which is were sacrifices took place.