Monday, December 14, 2015

Astronomy and the Book of Mormon

The constellation Orion under very long exposure

Examining the use of astronomy in the Book of Mormon is very different from my previous post in that there is little depth that can be explored from a linguistic perspective nor is there much that can be said from a cultural perspective with any certainty. The native peoples of the Americas had a love of the night sky and they used astronomy in construction of sacred buildings, calendar systems, and as a didactic teaching device telling the various sacred stories of their people. In these things they were similar to the old world. However, it is not possible to identify which of these cultural ideas have a direct tie to Nephite and Lamanite society.

Instead we must look at the textual clues available to us from the English text. These are not as plentiful as we might like but they are significant. Our first celestial reference comes in the first chapter of the Book of Mormon. In the opening vision of Lehi we see him describing the following in 1 Nephi 1:9-10:

9 And it came to pass that he saw One descending out of the midst of heaven, and he beheld that his luster was above that of the sun at noon-day.

10 And he also saw twelve others following him, and their brightness did exceed that of the stars in the firmament.

This simple reference seems to be a standard metaphor to describe brightness. The sun being a source of almost limitless brightness and the stars being an example of a much dimmer brightness yet remaining beautiful. Of itself it isn't enough to say with any certainty that it reflects a thoughtful study of the skies, but choice of the metaphor does indicate at least a notable interest in the objects and a willingness to use them as teaching symbols for the most sacred contexts.

A bit later after the Nephite culture has become more established in the new continent we get the following very abbreviated story:

Omni 1:21

21 And they gave an account of one Coriantumr, and the slain of his people. And Coriantumr was discovered by the people of Zarahemla; and he dwelt with them for the space of nine moons.

This is the only time the Book of Mormon uses the term “moon” as a unit of time. Much more commonly we find the term “month” in the Book of Mormon. It may be of significance that the term is used by the people of Zarahemla before Nephite cultural contact. Perhaps this represents an older custom that was discontinued after the Nephites came to dominate Zarahemla culture. The English terms month and moon are closely related and most ancient calendars were lunar. At a minimum we can state that the Zarahemla culture had a method of marking time based on astronomical observations.

We would learn later that there was a good deal of caution among Nephite culture concerning calendar calculations.

3 Nephi 8:2

And now it came to pass, if there was no mistake made by this man in the reckoning of our time, the thirty and third year had passed away;

The use of the word “reckoning” along with the concern for error seems to imply calculations that are more complex than simply marking time passage. I would suggest it implies mathematics of some kind. The term “reckon” occurs only three times in the Book of Mormon. Twice involving measurement of time and once concerning the system of measurement for grain, gold and silver described in Alma 11. The other reference of reckoning in relation to time measurement we find:

3 Nephi 2:8

Now the Nephites began to reckon their time from this period when the sign was given, or from the coming of Christ; therefore, nine years had passed away.

Here we have the beginning of their calendar system tied to a celestial event. The event of course was the miraculous appearance of a celestial wonder of some sort that prevented darkness for an entire night. This event was predicted by prophecy five years earlier by the mysterious figure of Samuel the Lamanite. Here is a profound bit of astronomy that reveals much about Book of Mormon people's understanding of the science. More than any other people the Book of Mormon focuses on prophecies that are tied closely to the passage of time. This originates from the time of Lehi when in 1 Nephi 10:4 Lehi prophecies a fairly exact date for the arrival of Christ. This must have encouraged the Nephites to develop an accurate calendar system. Samuel follows in this tradition by prophesying specific dates for the downfall of the Nephite nation (Helaman 13:9) as well as specific astronomical events and a specific time that would signify the birth of Christ.

Helaman 14:2-7

2 And behold, he said unto them: Behold, I give unto you a sign; for five years more cometh, and behold, then cometh the Son of God to redeem all those who shall believe on his name.

3 And behold, this will I give unto you for a sign at the time of his coming; for behold, there shall be great lights in heaven, insomuch that in the night before he cometh there shall be no darkness, insomuch that it shall appear unto man as if it was day.

4 Therefore, there shall be one day and a night and a day, as if it were one day and there were no night; and this shall be unto you for a sign; for ye shall know of the rising of the sun and also of its setting; therefore they shall know of a surety that there shall be two days and a night; nevertheless the night shall not be darkened; and it shall be the night before he is born.

5 And behold, there shall a new star arise, such an one as ye never have beheld; and this also shall be a sign unto you.

6 And behold this is not all, there shall be many signs and wonders in heaven.

7 And it shall come to pass that ye shall all be amazed, and wonder, insomuch that ye shall fall to the earth

We find in the text references to “great lights” that will light the sky. The people will track the course of the sun and observe that a day has passed but no night shall fall. This appears to be a separate phenomenon from the “new star” that would appear. This new star would be observably different from other stars but we are not told how. Samuel is not finished with the great lights and new star but adds that there will be additional “signs and wonders” that will astonish the people. It is not entirely clear over how much time these signs would occur. It seems likely the new star would not appear in the undarkened sky. Likewise for the other wonders that would follow. It seems then that this would be an extended season of astronomical signs. This must have encouraged a certain amount of close scrutiny of the skies. It also established the role of the religious leader providing astronomical predictions under divine inspiration, both predicting their occurrence and declaring their meaning.

The fulfillment of this prophecy reveals a contention among the Nephites in their reckoning of time.

3 Nephi 1:5

But there were some who began to say that the time was past for the words to be fulfilled, which were spoken by Samuel, the Lamanite.

The unbelieving Nephites set an ultimatum for a final day for the prophecy to be fulfilled:

3 Nephi 1:9

Now it came to pass that there was a day set apart by the unbelievers, that all those who believed in those traditions should be put to death except the sign should come to pass, which had been given by Samuel the prophet.

This seems to imply that there were multiple time reckoning systems that were very specific. This later day was perhaps a less popular year reckoning but remained the accurate one for the prediction. For the unbelievers to delay their murderous action until a specific day, that would eventually turn out to be the correct day, it seems likely that the believers must have defended their beliefs with specific astronomical calculations that justified the later time. It also seems for the unbelievers to form such a strong opinion on the time limit for the prophecy they must have also been using specific observational data to justify their position and gain the popular support of the people for what must have seemed an extreme reaction.

A final astronomical prediction from Samuel had no specific time attached to it:

Helaman 14:20

But behold, as I said unto you concerning another sign, a sign of his death, behold, in that day that he shall suffer death the sun shall be darkened and refuse to give his light unto you; and also the moon and the stars; and there shall be no light upon the face of this land, even from the time that he shall suffer death, for the space of three days, to the time that he shall rise again from the dead.

It seems the actual phenomenon described is earthly. Some have suggested it is volcanic activity that is described. The Nephites may not have fully made this distinction as no ancient peoples had an accurate understanding of the size and scope of our universe. The idea of a complete loss of light from both daytime and nighttime luminaries was a powerful symbol of the natural order of the universe being broken. Without a time prediction of this sign it must have remained an uneasy anticipation in the years following the birth signs.

From the events described so far we can form a picture of peoples who were at least interested in astronomical observations and were intently concerned with time keeping systems, which are naturally tied to astronomy. But the final two passages I will examine will demonstrate the true depth of Nephite astronomy

Alma 30:44

But Alma said unto him: Thou hast had signs enough; will ye tempt your God? Will ye say, Show unto me a sign, when ye have the testimony of all these thy brethren, and also all the holy prophets? The scriptures are laid before thee, yea, and all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.

Here is the most explicit reference to an ancient society following the movement of the heavenly bodies in all of scripture. Alma not only notes that the planets move in a predictable way but cites this predictable following of laws as evidence for the existence of God. For Alma the discovery of an ordered universe following natural laws was more inspiring than a capricious world of magic and chaos. Laws and order imply governance and eventual justice and balance to an unbalanced and unjust world. Korihor's assertion that the evil men do will never catch up with them and the idea of need for an atonement being foolish is countered with the natural occurrences of observable laws.

What's more, Alma references motion of the earth. This is a major break with common ancient cosmology. From this verse it remains unclear what type of “motion” Alma is referencing. It is possible he might be referencing an earthquake, but the context with the planets implies a greater understanding of actual motion. Still it is possible he is referencing simple rotation, although this also would be well ahead of his contemporaries. But later in the text we have another remarkable reference to the earth's movement:

Helaman 12:15

And thus, according to his word the earth goeth back, and it appeareth unto man that the sun standeth still; yea, and behold, this is so; for surely it is the earth that moveth and not the sun.

In a lengthy discourse of what appears to be an editorial comment from Mormon, we get the profound statement that Nephites had a heliocentric cosmological model. This is profound since no culture was known to have had such a model at the time Lehi left Jerusalem. While today this is common knowledge for every school child it is far from being an intuitively obvious truth.

Ptolemy's model of the universe

The only visual indication that the earth is traveling around the sun is to be found in studying the movement of the planets. In the ancient world there were seven planets. This number possibly influenced the designation of seven as a sacred number. In many languages, including English, the days of the week are each related to one of the seven planets. These planets include the sun, moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. The earth was not a planet and Uranus, Neptune and one-time planet Pluto were only discovered after telescopes were available for closer study of the sky. The ancients in many cultures would track the motion of these planets through the sky. In order to do this with any accuracy it was necessary to form a charting of background stars usually in the form of constellations. Movement was then measured against these background stars. If the societies were careful and kept good records they would eventually note that the planets moved at an uneven pace through the background stars. At times they would speed up and other times they would slow down and even appear to go backward for a time, only to then move forward again. To explain this very advanced cultures would propose many complicated models of their motion. As far as history records Aristarchus of Samos was the first person to put the theory forward that it was in fact the earth and other planets (except the moon) that were moving around the sun in the 3rd century BC. He would use their recorded positions to calculate accurately their order in distance from the sun. This using simple geometry would for the first time approximate an explanation for the varying speeds and regressions. His work would be lost and a mathematical model would not be put forward until Copernicus in the 16th Century AD.

Here in the Book of Mormon we have the important witness from Alma that he was aware of the planets moving in a regular form. It seems clear that the Nephite people had studied and tracked the movements of the planets. For this to be possible they must have had a system for mapping the stars as well. Alma hints at knowledge of the earth's movement and certainly by the time Mormon is writing Nephites had clearly developed a heliocentric model.

Mormon then was faced with a problem that seems entirely modern. He wished to use a scripture to illustrate a spiritual truth but his modern science seemed to contradict what the text of the scripture indicated. Joshua is recorded as having the sun stand still. Certainly this is what Joshua presumed happened. To Mormon who had learned that the sun does not actually move, this meant that the scriptures were wrong in what they described and Joshua was mistaken in what he thought he had accomplished.

Mormon does not miss a beat. He does not loose faith in the scientifically simple explanation of scripture, nor does he abandon using the story to illustrate his point. He simply adds a statement indicating what actually occurred must have been more complicated than the original author could have known. Now from a modern perspective as we understand much more about the earth and its motion, we know that Mormon's explanation is also unsatisfactory as stopping the rotation of the earth would have incredible consequences and lead to terrible destruction. As a modern we might revise the story further and suggest it was really a localized time dilation and likely invoke and explanation that is half Einstein and half Star Trek.

The point of this is that scriptures sometimes must be understood in light of further information that God has revealed. This occasionally means we must revise what was clearly understood at the time they were written to match our greater knowledge. I think this important truth can have application in our modern world as we grapple with science, history and other knowledge that was unavailable previously. Some of this needed revision will be uncomfortable and will require us to rethink what we previously thought we knew. We may find ourselves embarrassed occasionally by our previous ignorance. We must remember that even as ignorant as Joshua may have been concerning planetary movements, he still performed the miracle. For our more enlightened vantage point we may not scoff at the faith of those who came before and believed simpler truths. If we do we would quickly find ourselves sacrificing our own faith in favor of worshiping our own reason, only to find later how inadequate it was.


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