Did the Book of Mormon Prophets Use the Mayan Calendar?

One of the ways in which Latter-day Saint apologists seek to defend the antiquity of the Book of Mormon is to argue that the Book of Mormon exemplifies elements of ancient Mesoamerican culture. An example of this strategy is the claim that the Book of Mormon’s references to periods of “four hundred years” and “five years” by a first-century BC prophet called Samuel the Lamanite (Helaman 13:5; 14:2) correlate with specific calendrical periods of importance in the ancient Mayan calendar. The longest period of time named in the calendar was called a baktun, corresponding to about four hundred years, and one of its subdivisions was a roughly five-year period called a hotun. The Book of Mormon Central (BMC) website argues that these periods mentioned in the Book of Mormon would have been profoundly significant in the ancient Mayan cultural context, implying that these references constitute evidence for the ancient Mesoamerican setting of the Book of Mormon. As stated in the article’s title, BMC understands Samuel’s references to 400 years and five years as “chronologically precise prophecies.” Furthermore, BMC contrasts these specific chronological indications with Samuel’s lack of any “exact timing” in his prophecy about the impending death of Christ (Helaman 14:14, 20-27). They even suggest that Samuel’s lack of such exact chronological information may be explained by the fact that it was not going to occur “at the completion of an important unit of time, as did the birth of Christ (a hotun) and the ultimate fall of the Nephites (a baktun).”1

A Closer Look at Book of Mormon Chronology

Before we examine the Book of Mormon’s references to the four hundred years or the one reference to the five years before Christ’s coming, we should have a clear understanding of the overall chronological system presented in the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon marks the passage of years in three different ways for three main periods of the history of the Nephites and Lamanites.2

Period One: The Book of Mormon dates events from 2 Nephi through the very end of Mosiah based on the number of years that had passed since Lehi and his family left Jerusalem, giving eleven such chronological markers from thirty years to 509 years (2 Ne. 5:28, 34; Jacob 1:1; Enos 1:25; Jarom 1:5, 13; Omni 1:3 [two], 5; Mosiah 6:4; 29:46).

Period Two: Beginning with the first verse of the Book of Alma, the Book of Mormon dates events based on how many years the judges had been ruling, a period that began when the last king died at the very end of Mosiah (29:46-47). These chronological markers generally take the form “in the first (fifth, sixth, etc.) year of the reign of” followed by the name of the judge. There are about 250 of these references covering a period of one hundred years exactly, running from Alma 1:1 through 3 Nephi 2:5. Of the first 69 years of the judges, 59 of those years are specifically marked in this way (Alma 1:1–Helaman 7:1), and then every year from the 72nd through the 100th year is marked (Helaman 11:1–3 Ne. 2:5). At that point, the narrative states that it had been 609 years since Lehi had left Jerusalem (i.e., the 509 years from Lehi’s departure to the end of the Nephite kings, plus one hundred years of the judges) and nine years since Christ had come into the world (3 Nephi 2:6-7).

Period Three: As just explained, 3 Nephi 2:6-7 indicates that it had been nine years since Christ had come into the world. The next verse states, “Now the Nephites began to reckon their time from this period which the sign was given, or from the coming of Christ; therefore, nine years had passed away” (3 Ne. 2:8). This statement signals that a new calendrical convention was started at this point in time, and we see this throughout the remainder of the Book of Mormon. The rest of 3 Nephi mentions the passing of almost every individual year from that ninth year through the thirty-four year, in which Jesus is said to have made visitations to the Nephites (3 Ne. 8:5). The book of 4 Nephi picks up from that date (4 Ne. 1:1) and gives 26 “dates” from 34 years through 320 years after Christ’s coming (4 Ne. 1:48). This same method continues through all of the next book, called the Book of Mormon, from the 327 years through 400 years after Christ’s coming (Mormon 2:3; 8:6). In the last of these chronological notes, Mormon’s son Moroni states that the Nephites “are no more,” that they have fallen and suffered destruction (3 Ne. 8:6-7).

The main narrative of the (whole) Book of Mormon, then, is structured in a chronological frame of exactly one thousand years, as follows:

Year 0: Lehi and his party leave Jerusalem (cf. 2 Ne. 5:28)
Year 509: The line of Nephite kings ends; the period of the judges begins (Mosiah 29:46-47)
Year 600 (judges, year 91): Christ comes into the world (3 Nephi 1:1)
Year 609 (judges, year 100; Christ’s coming, year 9): Nephites begin marking time from when Christ had come (3 Ne. 2:6-8)
Year 634 (Christ’s coming, year 34): Christ appears to the Nephites (3 Ne. 8:5; 4 Ne. 1:1)
Year 1,000 (Christ’s coming, year 400): The fall of the Nephites is complete (Mormon 8:6-7)

The pivotal date in this narrative, of course, is the year of Christ’s coming into the world. In the first book of the Book of Mormon, Lehi’s son Nephi says that Lehi had told them that God would raise up a Prophet, Messiah, or Savior “six hundred years from the time that my father left Jerusalem” (1 Ne. 10:4).3 Nephi repeats this prophecy two times later in the Book of Mormon (1 Ne. 19:8; 2 Ne. 25:19), and 3 Nephi opens with the statement that “it was six hundred years from the time that Lehi left Jerusalem” (3 Ne. 1:1). This chronological marker comes immediately after statements at the end of the preceding book that in the ninetieth year of the judges “the words of the prophets began to be fulfilled; and angels did appear unto men, wise men, and did declare unto them glad tidings of great joy; and thus in this year the Scriptures began to be fulfilled” (Hel. 16:13-14). This passage, we might note, is an obvious allusion to texts from the infancy narratives in the Gospels about the coming of Christ (Matt. 2:1-12; Luke 2:10). In this context, then, the reference to the six hundred years in 3 Nephi 1:1 clearly indicates that Lehi’s prophecy about the coming of the Messiah six hundred years after Lehi’s departure from Jerusalem had now been fulfilled.

The Book of Mormon, then, purports to give an exact chronological account of the history of the Nephites that lasted precisely one thousand years, from the departure of Nephi’s father Lehi from Jerusalem exactly six hundred years before the coming of Christ until the fall and destruction of the Nephites exactly four hundred years after the coming of Christ. It narrates much of this history in an annalistic (year by year) fashion, especially from the beginning of Alma through the end of 3 Nephi, and uses three “calendrical” systems representing the three main periods of Nephite history (the periods of the Nephite kings, the Nephite judges, and the Nephites after Christ’s coming).

We should note two key points arising from this information.

First, any interpretation of the Book of Mormon’s chronological statements must be consistent with its overall narrative structure of an exact chronological record based on the passing of specific numbers of years.

Second, if the Nephite prophets (i.e., the Book of Mormon’s supposed authors) were aware of the Mayan calendar or of some other calendrical system indigenous to cultures we know about in the ancient Americas, they do not appear to have integrated any such calendar into their narrative. Instead, all of the chronological information provided in the narrative of the Nephites is directly and explicitly integrated into a thousand-year history measured chronologically in relation to events of concern specifically to the Nephites, beginning with an event outside of the Americas (Lehi’s departure) and hinged on the coming of Christ.

A Closer Look at the Book of Mormon’s “Four Hundred Years” Prophecies

The first reference to the 400-year period in the Book of Mormon comes in Alma 45. In this passage, the Nephite prophet Alma speaks to his son in the 19th year of the judges (Alma 45:1), which would be 528 years after Lehi’s departure from Jerusalem:

Behold, I perceive that this very people, the Nephites, according to the spirit of revelation which is in me, in four hundred years from the time that Jesus Christ shall manifest himself unto them, shall dwindle in unbelief; yea, and then shall they see wars and pestilences, yea, famine and bloodshed, even until the people of Nephi shall become extinct (Alma 45:10-11).

Here the “four hundred years” date from the time that Christ was going to “manifest himself” to the Nephites. If we take this statement to refer to the time when Christ was to make a personal, bodily appearance to the Nephites, there would be a chronological problem, since the Book of Mormon says that happened 34 years after Christ’s coming into the world (3 Ne. 8:5; 4 Ne. 1:1). Since we must take the four hundred years to be a precise figure, more likely this statement predicts the extinction of the Nephites would occur four hundred years after Christ’s coming was “manifested” to the Nephites through miracles and angelic appearances (as narrated in Helaman 16:13-14, quoted earlier).

The second occurrence, which is the focus of the BMC article, comes in Helaman 13, dated to the 86th year of the judges (Hel. 13:1; 16:9):

Behold, I, Samuel, a Lamanite, do speak the words of the Lord, which he doth put into my heart; and behold he hath put it into my heart to say unto this people, that the sword of justice hangeth over this people; and four hundred years passeth not away save the sword of justice falleth upon this people; yea, heavy destruction awaiteth this people, and it surely cometh unto this people, and nothing can save this people, save it be repentance and faith on the Lord Jesus Christ, which surely shall come into the world, and shall suffer many things, and shall be slain for his people…. Because of the hardness of the hearts of the people of the Nephites, except they repent I will take away my word from them, and I will withdraw my spirit from them, and I will suffer them no longer, and I will turn the hearts of their brethren against them; and four hundred years shall not pass away, before I will cause that they shall be smitten; yea, I will visit them with the sword, and with famine, and with pestilence… (Helaman 13:5-6, 8-9).

In this passage, a Lamanite prophet named Samuel predicts that destruction will come on the Nephites before four hundred years have passed. As worded, it seems that this statement only places an upper limit on the time the Nephites have left; it might not be specifying that the destruction of the Nephite people will occur on a specific date. Samuel predicts that before those four hundred years have passed, the Nephites will be struck with sword, famine, and pestilence, corresponding to Alma’s prediction of war, pestilence, and famine. Samuel is said to have issued this warning in the 86th year of the judges, which would be five years before the coming of Christ. Thus, four hundred years from the time that Samuel is said to have issued this prophecy would be 395 years after the coming of Christ, which is five years earlier than the parallel prediction in Alma 45:10-11.

Does the Book of Mormon give any indication as to when these prophecies were fulfilled? In Mormon 8, the Nephite prophet Moroni takes over writing on the plates after the death of his father:

Behold, four hundred years have passed away since the coming of our Lord and Saviour. And behold, the Lamanites have hunted my people, the Nephites, down from city to city, and from place to place, even until they are no more; and great has been their fall; yea, great and marvellous is the destruction of my people, the Nephites (Mormon 8:6-7).

Here the “four hundred years” explicitly date from the coming of Christ. Moroni states that the Nephites have been hunted to extinction (“until they are no more”). Moroni’s statement in the context of the Book of Mormon narrative hearkens back to both Alma 45 and Helaman 13. However, as it stands, Helaman 13:5-9 is difficult to harmonize with Alma 45:10-11 and Mormon 8:6-7. One possible harmonization is that Helaman 13 refers to the time when the Nephites’ destruction would begin, not when it would end. If we accept some such harmonization, then the 400-year period in Helaman 13 does not end at the same time as the 400-year period in Alma 45 or Mormon 8. This discrepancy or difference constitutes a difficulty for the claim that the four hundred years in Helaman 13 refers to a precise date or endpoint of a major era on an existing calendar, as the BMC article claims. Hence, the BMC article suggests that Samuel gave his prophecy about the 400 years but “apparently did so five years in advance” of when the 400 years would begin. The author comments in a footnote, “The 400-year prophecy appears to have been understood and interpreted as 400 years from the birth of Christ,”4 simply assuming that Helaman 13:5-9 should be harmonized with Alma 45:10-11 in this way. Frankly, the idea that when Samuel said that 400 years would not pass away he meant 400 years starting five years hence (without his having said so) is an ad hoc harmonization of desperation.

A Closer Look at Samuel’s “Five Years”

Now we should look at the reference to Samuel the Lamanite prophesying that Christ would come in five years:

“And behold, he saith 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” (Helaman 14:2).

The BMC argument is that this reference to “five years” reflects the Mayan hotun, one of the smallest subdivisions in years of a baktun. Given how many five-year periods that would have taken place in the Nephite history, one might suppose that there would be several references to such periods in the Book of Mormon. However, such is not the case. In fact, Helaman 14:2 is the only reference to a period of five years anywhere in the Book of Mormon. There are references to “the fifth year” of the reign of the judges (Alma 1:32, 33; 3:25, 27), followed in quick succession by references to the sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth years (Alma 4:1-11), but that is the closest similar reference.

We need to take into account the larger chronological context of the reference to five years in Helaman 14:2. Throughout Helaman 11–16, as already explained, an annual countdown is given based on the year of the judges to indicate how close in time Christ’s coming was to take place. Every year from the 72nd year of the judges to the 90th year of the judges is explicitly enumerated (Hel. 11:1-6, 17, 21-23, 29-38; 13:1; 16:9-14). The attentive reader already knows that in Helaman 13, in the 86th year, it is five years before the coming of Christ is to occur. Thus, in the context of the larger Book of Mormon narrative, the number “five” has no other significance than that it happens to be the number of years left in the countdown to the coming of Christ. Nothing in the text implies that Samuel was referring to the end of a specific five-year period in an existing calendrical system in use in his culture (such as the Mayan culture, according to the BMC argument).

Looking for Mayan Calendrical Periods in the Book of Mormon

If the Nephite prophets (and the Lamanite prophet Samuel) used Mayan calendars or a similar ancient Mesoamerican calendrical system, one would expect to see frequent references to the main periods of time marked in those systems. However, this is not what we find in the Book of Mormon. We have already pointed out that Helaman 14:2 contains the only reference to a period of five years in the Book of Mormon (while “the fifth year” in Alma 1-3 is just one of a series of years noted in the narrative throughout Alma).

The ancient Mesoamerican calendar had a base of 20 (called a vigesimal system), and yet periods of twenty years play no noticeable role in the Book of Mormon. There are references to the 20th year of the judges (Alma 50:1, 15-16), but these occur in a series of references to every year from the 14th through the 31st years (Alma 16–62). The most attention is given, not to the 20th year, but to the 19th (see Alma 45:2, 20; 46:37; 48:2; 49:1, 29). Some attention is given to the 40th and 80th years of the judges (Hel. 1:1-13; 11:24-29), but the 60th is barely mentioned (Hel. 4:9). A similar pattern is evident in the passing reference to “the twentieth year” following the coming of Christ (see 3 Ne. 4:15-16).

There is a reference to “forty years” after Lehi’s departure (2 Nephi 5:34), but this is one of the few references to a period that is a multiple of twenty years in the chronological notes given in relation to Lehi’s departure (the others are in Jarom 1:5; Omni 1:5; and 3 Ne. 1:1). There is also a reference to King Mosiah’s people stating that they “wandered…in the wilderness” for “forty days” (Mosiah 7:4-5), a description that would seem to owe more to the Exodus narrative in the Old Testament than to ancient Mayan calendar conventions!

Given the numerous chronological notes found throughout the Book of Mormon, of course one will find some multiples of twenty years or twenty days. We find so few, however, that these occurrences are better explained as numerical happenstance than a reflection of a vigesimal system of reckoning time.

Modern Western Reckoning in the Book of Mormon

There is actually far more evidence of a modern, Western (European/American) mathematical system and method of reckoning in the Book of Mormon than anything LDS apologists have even claimed to find connecting it to ancient Mesoamerica. The evidence shows that the author of the Book of Mormon assumed our familiar base ten system of mathematics, rather than the vigesimal, base twenty system of the Mayans.

Consider, for example, the frequent use of the number “hundred” in the Book of Mormon. Jacob makes the comment that “a hundredth part of the proceedings of this people, which now began to be numerous, cannot be written upon these plates” (Jacob 3:13). Similarly, Mormon says, “I cannot write a hundredth part of the things of my people” (Words of Mormon 1:5). Such statements about not being able to write a hundredth of what happened appear repeatedly (Hel. 3:14; 3 Ne. 5:8; 26:6; Ether 15:33).

All of the numbers above 99 must be written in English using the word “hundred,” so the occurrence of this word in such expressions may be set aside. What is significant is that the round number “hundred” and multiples of a hundred appear quite frequently in chronological references:

  • “many hundred years,” Jacob 4:4; 7:7; Words of Mormon 1:2
  • “an hundred years,” 3 Ne. 2:5; 4 Ne. 1:14
  • “two hundred years,” Jarom 1:5; 4 Ne. 1:22
  • “three hundred years,” 4 Ne. 1:45
  • “four hundred years,” Alma 45:10; Hel. 13:5, 9; Mormon 8:6
  • “six hundred years,” 1 Ne. 10:4; 19:8; 2 Ne. 25:19; 3 Ne. 1:1

Of these references, two expressions are especially interesting. The first is the expression “many hundred years,” found three times in the Book of Mormon (and attributed to two authors, Jacob in the sixth century BC and Mormon in the fourth century AD). Only people who think of large periods of time in terms of centuries would use such an expression. Another text reflects the same cultural way of thought:

And it came to pass that the seventy and first year passed away, and also the seventy and second year; yea, and in fine until the seventy and ninth year had passed away; yea, even an hundred years had passed away (4 Ne. 1:14).

The author has been ticking off the years in quick succession, noting all but one of the years from 34 to 42 (4 Ne. 1:1-6), then starting to jump small intervals of years (49, 51, 52, 59; see 4 Ne. 1:6), then makes a bigger jump to the numbers 71 and 72, jumps again to 79, and then finishes at 100 (“yea, even an hundred years”). Here again, this pattern reflects the prominence that the number 100 has in our modern, decimal-based culture, where the large segments of time for us are centuries and millennia. This is not how someone living in an ancient Mesoamerican culture would have thought. Yet the whole Book of Mormon is really structured in this way. Its main narrative is a history of the Nephites lasting exactly one thousand years, divided into two periods of six centuries and four centuries.

Consistent with this pattern, in one place the Book of Mormon states that the coming of Christ was prophesied “a great many thousand years before his coming” (Hel. 8:18). This is not an ancient Mesoamerican way of speaking.

Another indication of the mathematical system implicit in the Book of Mormon is its frequent use of expressions using “thousand” as a round number in reference to large groups of men:

  • “a thousand” (Alma 57:26), “more than a thousand” (Alma 24:27; 49:23), “many thousand” (Alma 28:10; 3 Ne. 3:24), “thousands” (Alma 3:26; 60:22; 3 Ne. 4:21)
  • “two thousand” (Alma 53:18, 22; 56:3, 9-10, 27-28, 49-50, 52, 54; 57:6; 58:8), “upwards of two thousand” (Alma 57:14)
  • “four thousand” (Alma 51:19; 62:17)
  • “six thousand” (Alma 57:6; 62:12-13)
  • “eight thousand” (Hel. 5:19)
  • “ten thousand” (Alma 56:28; Mormon 6:10-15)
  • “tens of thousands” (1 Ne. 4:1; Alma 3:26; 28:2; 60:22; Hel. 3:26; 3 Ne. 3:22; 4:21)
  • “to exceed the number of thirty thousand” (Mormon 1:11; see similar numbers, Mormon 2:9, 25)

The cumulative evidence for the base ten system of mathematics implicit in the Book of Mormon, both in its chronological statements and in other contexts, poses a serious objection to the claim that the Book of Mormon authors lived in a culture in which time was kept using a base twenty system.

The 600 and 400 Years and the Mayan Baktuns

The Mayan calendrical system divided history into large periods of time, each of which was known as a baktun. The BMC article states that a baktun was 400 years long. The accuracy of that statement depends on what one means by a “year.”

A baktun was actually 144,000 days (400 periods of 360 days), which in our modern Western calendar would equal about 394 years and three months. In the Mayan Long Count system, the beginning date for the “Great Cycle” of 13 baktuns was 3114 BC on our calendar.5 Eight baktuns from 3114 BC would end in about AD 41, while nine baktuns would end in about AD 435.6 These dates do not correspond to the dates of Christ’s coming (ca. 5 BC) or the extinction of the Nephite people according to the Book of Mormon (no later than AD 400, the traditional LDS date, and closer to AD 391 if one assumes 360-day years7).

If we assume solar years of 365.24 days and rounded periods of 400 years for each baktun instead, the results are even worse. On this assumption, the eighth baktun would have ended about AD 87 and the ninth baktun would have ended about AD 487.

Assuming Mesoamerican scholarship has correctly identified the beginning date of the ancient Great Cycle, then, the Book of Mormon prophecies about the destruction of Nephite civilization in 400 years do not refer to the end of a Mayan baktun. Nor would the prophecy about Christ coming in 600 years be a reference to one and a half baktuns.

The evidence surveyed here shows that the figures of 600 and 400 years are derived from the modern calendar. These two figures add up to an even thousand years. They assume, as would most Christians in Joseph Smith’s day, that Jesus Christ came into the world in 1 BC, at the exact turn of the era. The underlying, implicit calendrical system of the Book of Mormon is based on centuries, periods of one hundred years each, not based on baktuns or other periods using the vigesimal, base 20, mathematical system of ancient Mesoamerican culture. This means in turn that the traditional LDS dates for the beginning and end of the Nephite era faithfully correspond to the Book of Mormon narrative, according to which Lehi left Jerusalem in 600 BC, Christ came in 1 BC, and the Nephites were wiped out in AD 400. The attempt to use the Book of Mormon’s chronological information to situate it in an ancient Mesoamerican cultural context must be deemed a failure.

 

Notes


1 BMC Team, “Why Did Samuel Make Such Chronologically Precise Prophecies?” KnoWhy #184, Book of Mormon Central, Sept. 9, 2016.

2 The three systems are summarized in David Rolph Seely, “Book of Mormon Chronology,” in Book of Mormon Reference Companion, ed. Dennis L. Largey (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 2003), 197.

3 All Book of Mormon quotations are taken from the Book of Mormon Study Text, ed. Robert M. Bowman Jr. (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2018). I do not think any of the points made in this article is affected by which edition of the Book of Mormon one uses.

4 BMC Team, “Why Did Samuel.”

5 Michael P. Closs, “Numerical Notation,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures: The Civilizations of Mexico and Central America, Davíd Carrasco, editor-in-chief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 2:139; Harvey M. Bricker and Victoria R. Bricker, “Calendars and Calendrical Systems: Correlation of Calendars,” in Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures, 1:126–28; Martha J. Macri, “Late Preclassic Texts from Mexico and Guatemala with Reference to Southern Guatemala,” in The Southern Maya in the Late Preclassic: The Rise and Fall of an Early Mesoamerican Civilization, ed. Michael Love and Jonathan Kaplan (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2011), 199; Michael D. Coe, The Maya, Ancient People and Places, 8th ed. (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2011), 65.

6 To follow these calculations, bear in mind that there is no zero year between 1 BC and AD 1.

7 As is assumed, for example, in Brant Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 6:111.

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