There are 12 thoughts on “Understanding the Lamanite Mark”.

  1. Thank you for a very thoughtful paper, for contributing to the ongoing dialogue, and for a fresh effort to dispel any racial connotation for the Lamanite mark. However, I have several objections to your tattoo thesis.

    First, I note Jerry Grover’s comment above about what he discovered in Bishop de Landa’s journal. Had I been aware of Jerry’s findings, I would have mentioned them in my article. The fact that the Maya used soot to blacken their skins during religious ceremonies and later removed it in a purification ritual illustrates that the Lamanite mark could have been both temporary and yet culturally significant. Jerry identified a relevant process for removing the mark from a repentant Lamanite.

    My primary concern is with your lynchpin, verse 28 of Leviticus 19. Tattoos are only one item on chapter 19’s laundry list of do’s and don’ts. Only two of them prescribe a penalty. Verse 28 does not, and I’ve found no justification for singling out tattoos as curse-worthy. Verse 8 states that a soul who eats 3-day old unrefrigerated sacrificial meat “shall be cut off from among [the] people.” But that penalty cannot reasonably apply to a violation of each of chapter 19’s commands.

    Nor does the ineffable name at the end of verse 28 incorporate verse 8’s penalty (to be cut off). The holy name follows several don’ts, including don’t reap the corners of fields (v.10), gossip (v.16), bear a grudge (v.18), or eat fruit from a tree less than 5 years old (v.23-25). Surely, violators of these commands were not cursed or cut off. Brownlee (cited in your note 58) does not say that repeating the holy name attaches a curse to the preceding words. Rather, it helped Hebrews remember that if and when God promised “divine intervention,” whether a blessing or a curse, he is the one “who brings it to pass” (Brownlee, 45). For tattoos, however, the Torah threatens no divine intervention. Furthermore, none of the rabbis that you have cited says that a tattoo has ever caused anyone to be cursed or cut off.

    If tattoos were not even cursed, they cannot be the “sore cursing” that leads to “eternal destruction” (2 Ne. 1:22). Eternal destruction means to be permanently cut off from the Lord’s presence—a sore curse indeed.

    My other major concern is the claim that “available [archaeological] evidence never depicts societal identification based on temporary body paint or stains.” You demand proof that body paint and stains differentiated “neighbors” and distinguished “armies from their “adversaries.”

    You have misread the artifacts shown in “Demythicizing the Lamanites’ ‘Skin of Blackness.’” Figure 1 shows a Teotihuacan warrior whose skin is au naturel when he encounters his neighbors—a Maya man and two Maya women wearing black body paint. Figures 2, 5, 8, and 9 also show paint or stains distinguishing one culture from another. Chichen Itza’s fresco 27, which I did not include, is compelling proof. It shows armed Toltec warriors in black body paint attacking light-skinned Maya villagers.

    Your article mentions iconographic evidence of tattoos. But is there any proof that they distinguished cultures or armies? If so, I hope you will share it.

    In addition to artifacts that show paint and stains used this way, the Book of Mormon tells of Giddianhi’s army who were “dyed in blood” (3 Nephi 4:7). If it was human or animal blood, it was water soluble—impermanent. If the dye was cochineal insect blood (Mesoamerica’s red dye), it only would have stained the skin for a period of weeks, at most. Body paint, stains, and dyes do in fact explain a mark that differentiated neighbors and distinguished armies.

    You state that your “paper agrees” with “ideas taught by Nibley” (“It is a reversible process. It’s their choice; they control it.”). But you omitted the words that he immediately added, “We can also initiate change in appearance ourselves” (italics added). The ability to change our own personal appearance is incongruent with indelible tattoos that would mark us for life—“lagging indicators” that disappear only in the next generation.

    The Book of Mormon refers to the mark as dark skin, so your theory makes dark skin a synonym for a tattoo. Hebrew scriptures mention black skin occasionally, but they never substitute black or blackened skin for tattoos, and, as you say, the word “marks (qaaqa) is used only once in the Old Testament.” Is there any ancient evidence of this alleged equivalency?

    Finally, on his small plates, Nephi first chose “skin of blackness” to describe what his eldest brothers did to darken their skins (2 Ne. 5:21). Later, for both his children and those same “beloved [blackened] brethren,” he invited all to come unto Christ, both “black and white” (2 Ne. 26:33). His words aptly described both audiences. They also accord with President Nelson who uses the words “black and white” to mean skin color, never inferring that Blacks are, in your words, “afflicted and mournful due to sin.” No…

    • Thanks for continuing the conversation.

      You suggest that the absence of a stated curse in Leviticus 19:28 may indicate that no curse applies to violations of the prohibition against profane tattoos. Church leaders have explained that we are blessed and cursed for each commandment we chose to obey or disobey (see my footnotes 70 and 71). Clearly, the Lord can pronounce curses for a commandment even when no specific curse was mentioned in the original statute. He did exactly this with the law of tithing. In Leviticus 27:30-34, he gave this law from Mount Sinai, but mentioned no curse for disobedience. Later, he told Malachi that his people were “cursed with a curse” (3 Nephi 24:8–9; see also 1 Nephi 2:23 and 2 Nephi 5:21) for not paying tithing.

      In addition, Leviticus 26 sets forth both blessings and cursings that apply generally to the law of Moses. These blessings and cursings apply most directly to the part of the Law of Moses that includes Leviticus 19:28 (see my footnote 48).

      None of the artifacts you single out matches the Book of Mormon account of marked Lamanites and unmarked Nephites. None depicts one consistently blackened society and another that is consistently not blackened. For instance, in your Figure 1, the Mayans are blackened, but not the Teotihuacano, but in Chichen Itza’s fresco 27, the Mayans are not blackened, but the Toltec warriors are. In the Bonampak murals, some Mayan warriors are blackened, but others are not. The Lamanite mark, on the other hand, consistently darkens the skins of one group, but not another.

      The archaeological record confirms that profane tattoos existed among ancient Americans during the Nephite-Lamanite period. No more archaeological evidence is needed to sustain my thesis. As a profane tattoo that violated the law of Moses, the Lamanite mark necessarily distinguished rebellious Lamanites from Nephites who kept the law of Moses. Even so, it’s wrong to assume that all Nephites were unmarked. Because tattoos remained for life, marked Lamanites who repented and became Nephites (see Alma 3:11 and 27:27) lived out their lives as marked Nephites.

      Mormon’s descriptions of the Lamanite mark use the words skin (always referring to the native skin), curse or cursing, mark, and black or dark. None of these terms is found in Mormon’s description of Giddianhi’s robbers, who were “dyed in blood” (3 Nephi 4:7). Although these robbers had a uniformly startling appearance, they were not “marked … after the manner of the Lamanites” (Alma 3:4). Since blood doesn’t dye native skin and the description of the robbers never mentions native skin, it’s unclear whether their clothing, their armor, both, or their native skin was dyed in blood. There is little reason to think that the unique appearance of these robbers tells us anything about the Lamanite mark.

      Although Hugh Nibley never considered tattoos as the Lamanite or Amlicite mark, my paper notes four points of agreement with him (see my paper at 202). Each of these points is consistent with Nibley’s subsequent statement that “We [like the Lamanites] can also initiate change in appearance ourselves” (see my footnote 81). In fact, one of Nibley’s examples of such change includes a generational lagging indicator. A move from one country to another can result in children growing taller than their parents. The adult generation initiates the change (the move), but the change in appearance is seen in the children, not the adults. By cutting tattoos into their skin, Lamanites initiated a change in appearance. Repentant parents initiated the change in the next generation by teaching the laws of God to their children (including the prohibition against profane tattoos).

      President Nelson quoted Nephi’s words black and white (2 Nephi 26:33) to teach against racial prejudice, but this doesn’t require Nephi’s words to reflect the modern social construct of race. It’s unlikely that President Nelson had body paint or the ancient meanings of the words black and white in mind as he quoted Nephi. Nevertheless, my thesis suggests a different intended meaning for Nephi’s words that fits with teachings against racial prejudice. I suggest that Nephi, like David and Jeremiah, used the word white to refer, not to a racial group, but to the joyfully repentant and obedient and that he used the word black to refer, not to a racial group, but to the mournfully disobedient. This meaning of these words still strongly supports President Nelson’s assertion. Your odd rephrasing of my words suggests (very incorrectly but perhaps inadvertently) that I wrote them to malign a racial group.

      The Hebrew word qaaqa, rendered as marks in Leviticus 19:28, clearly refers to ancient tattoos. My paper provides a plausible case that the Lamanites and Amlicites chose to adopt such a mark in rebellion against God and his laws. All the words in the Book of Mormon and the correct precepts they teach can be harmonized with this view of the Lamanite mark.

  2. I only read the abstract and quickly skimmed the rest, but thought to note this quotation because of the subject. Elder Quentin L. Cook shared the following experience with BYU faculty:

    As I served in the British Mission, in 1962, our mission president, Marion D. Hanks, had us read and study the Book of Mormon. . . . President Hanks had been a General Authority for nine years before serving as our mission president. He would teach us the doctrine after we had marked the Book of Mormon. In reading 2 Nephi 5:21, describing a skin of blackness associated with being cut off from the Lord’s presence approximately 600 years before Christ’s birth, President Hanks was adamant that this phrase related solely to that people and during that period of time. Those people who were Lamanites were literal blood brothers and sisters to Nephi and his siblings. President Hanks had us immediately turn to 2 Nephi 26:33, which reads, in part: And he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.
    That was our doctrine then and that is our doctrine now. President Hanks made it clear that if anyone had feelings of racial superiority, they needed to repent.
    (“Be Not Weary in Well-Doing,” University Conference, BYU Speeches, August 24, 2020.)

    • Thanks for quickly skimming my paper and for sharing Elder Cook’s words. Although Elder Cook wasn’t aware of my views when he spoke almost three years before my paper was published (and he may not share all of my views today), his general assertions work well with my more detailed analysis.

      In the first place, he and I strongly agree that favor with God is based on faithfulness and obedience and has nothing to do with the natural color of one’s skin. To God, all natural skin colors are equally blessed. God “is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (2 Nephi 27:33), so his views on natural skin color don’t change. My paper explains in detail how the intended meanings of the words in the Book of Mormon always honor this truth, consistently teaching that “all are alike unto God” (2 Nephi 26:33). They reflect Peter’s assertion that “God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him” (Acts 10:34–35).

      My paper explains that the Book of Mormon describes a dark “mark” on the skin that distinguished people who rebelled against God and his laws from those who obeyed God (see Alma 3:4-19). The Old Testament refers to a mark that fits this description and has nothing to do with natural skin color. The law of Moses prohibited the Lord’s covenant people from cutting sacrilegious marks (ancient tattoos) into their skin. The Bible simply calls these prohibited tattoos “marks” (Leviticus 19:28). This ancient law doesn’t mean that all tattoos reflect rebellion against God. Tattoos are adopted today for many reasons. However, this biblical meaning of the word mark and biblical meanings of other related words suggest that Lamanites chose to show their rebellion against God by cutting a profane, permanent black mark (tattoo) into their skin. This dark mark (see Alma 3:6-8) or “skin of blackness” (2 Nephi 5:20-24), made in rebellion against God, is called a “sore curse” (1 Nephi 2:23), “sore cursing” (2 Nephi 1:22 and 5:21), or “the cursing which hath come upon their skins” (Jacob 3:5). Because it was adopted in opposition to God’s law, it distinguished those who rebelled against him from those who obeyed him.

      Curses from God are often the natural consequences of bad choices. For instance, the Lord told Abinadi, “I will cause that [the disobedient people of King Noah] shall have burdens lashed upon their backs” (Mosiah 12:5). The Lord didn’t, however, miraculously place these burdens on their backs himself. He knew that other wicked people would mistreat them (see, Mosiah 21:3). The Lord also said, “If [the Nephites] will not repent and observe to do my will, I will utterly destroy them” (Helaman 15:17). Again, the Lord didn’t do this directly. He knew other wicked people would destroy them after they lost his protecting power (see Mormon 6). Similarly, the Lord’s words “I will set a mark upon [Lamanites and others]” (Alma 3:14-16) were fulfilled as rebellious people established a long-term tradition of marking themselves contrary to the law of Moses. For centuries, rebellious Lamanites were distinguished from righteous Nephites by this self-imposed “skin of blackness” (2 Nephi 5: 20-24). Rebellious Amlicites also “set the mark upon themselves” (Alma 3:13), marking “themselves with red in their foreheads after the manner of the Lamanites” (Alma 3:4; see generally Alma 3:4-19).

      The indelible, profane mark stayed on the skin for life, so repentant Lamanites were still marked when they were called Nephites and welcomed into the church (see Alma 3:11 and 27:27). Their obedient children, however, were not marked, so most, if not all, of the stripling warriors were mark-free. Similarly, when the remnant of the repentant “more part of the Lamanites” (see Helaman 5:50-51) joined with the Nephites after obeying the law of Moses for 42 years, their younger generations bore no mark (see 3 Nephi 2:14-16).

      The Book of Mormon account is consistent with a self-imposed profane mark that remained for life, but didn’t follow repentant people to the next generation. To learn more, please read all of my paper. Elder Cook’s words can be read to be in harmony with mine. As noted by Elder Cook, Laman and Nephi were “blood brothers.” They always shared the same natural skin color. I hold that Lamanites intentionally distinguished themselves from their brethren by adopting a sacrilegious mark that righteous Nephites would never adopt. My thesis can even be reconciled with President Hanks’s statement that the Lamanite/Nephite distinction was unique to them in their time. The distinction reflected rebellion against the law of Moses. That law was fulfilled by Jesus Christ, so its unique statutes don’t directly apply to us in our day.

  3. Nice article. On the mark (red in this case) and blackness, there is one Maya practice consistent with the BOM that you may find of interest which I described in a section of a book I published a few years back on the Order of Nehor in Mesoamerica (I will not include a link as I don’t want to offend the Interpreter comment gatekeepers):
    Sabacil Than was celebrated within towns and families as a diversion before the unlucky five day Wayeb’ period in each of the last three veintenas of the calendar year. The wealthy arranged feasts with dancing and “excessive drinking” (Pharo 2014, 179). Landa reports that these ceremonies lasted until Pohp, the first veintena of the New Year.
    The etymological meaning of “Sabacil Than” is a dye or ink from the burned soot of the sabac-che tree (Sp. Exostema), ‘than’ is a word for “speech,” “word,” or “language,” but also “ordenanzas” or “law.” Tozzer proposed that this expression alludes to a rule or law to paint oneself black during the rituals of the last three veintenas of the year. Tozzer quotes Roman and Zamora indicating that the Indigenous people of Guatemala “each time they (the priests) sacrifice they blacken themselves. The men commonly do not bathe but blacken themselves and this is a kind of silicon and ornament of penance.” During the later Pohp rituals certain fasting persons are described as removing their black “tizne negra” with the arrival of the New Year. Landa indicates that this black soot was cleansed in a purification ceremony (Pharo 2014, 179–80). They were at this stage of the rite of passage ornamented with red ointment (Tozzer 1941, 152).

    • Thanks for your input. The temporary marking practice you describe has much in common with those described by Steenblik and discussed in my paper. Each is inconsistent with the Book of Mormon account in ways that are resolved when sacrilegious, permanent marks (tattoos) that violate the law of Moses are considered.

      • I don’t disagree with your mark analysis. I do think the temporary blackening provides the best explanation where an indication of going from dark to white skin is indicated. The practice observed by Landa may also be different in a period more ancient to that time in that they may have remained blackened more permanently.

        • Thanks again. Students of the Book of Mormon should assess for themselves whether and how repentance caused the mark to slowly cease to exist among a converted people.

  4. Thank you for your scholarship. It is thoughtful and comprehensive. As I read this article and have pondered these verses, I realized how dangerous it is for us to analyze verses or teachings with a presentist approach. It was that doing so that, it seems to me, led some church members to teach racist doctrines based on the Book of Mormon and biblical verses you discuss in your article. It took a Revelation from God to correct the results that followed from these teachings. Even if done with the best of intents, analyzing with presentism can lead us down very harmful paths. Again, thank you for this article and to the Interpreter Foundation for publishing it.

  5. Though I reach a different conclusion about the nature of the mark placed on the Lamanites, there is much in this paper that I agree with. I applaud your efforts; you were especially careful in your analysis of previous theories by other scholars as to how the scriptures about the mark should be interpreted, and I agree with your reasoning as to why they reached the wrong conclusions. You were courageous but also polite and gracious in your treatment of those other articles. Your deep dive into this subject was exemplary scholarship.

    I’m also particularly grateful for another thing you did here. You began by adopting the findings of Skousen and Carmack regarding not only the presence of Early Modern English in the Book of Mormon’s original version, but also, the inferences we should draw therefrom pointing to Joseph Smith’s lack of authorial or editorial input into the text (as opposed to his simply reading what had been already translated into Early Modern English by someone else before him). I hope other Book of Mormon commentators will likewise fully realize the ramifications of Skousen’s and Carmack’s research and incorporate it into their analyses.

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