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Jesus and Paul on the Limited Geography Model

November 5, 2009

Because archaeology and other disciplines have failed to uncover clear evidence for a single event, person, or place in the Book of Mormon, the “limited geography model” has become popular among Mormons.  The theory explains that there is no extant evidence for the BoM because the events happened on such a small scale as to be hidden from verification.

What would the apostle Paul think of God working on such a limited scale?  When Paul presented his gospel before Herod Agrippa II and Porcius Festus (both well-attested historical figures), he said this of his message:

“…the king [Agrippa] knows of these things, before whom also I speak freely: for I am persuaded that none of these things are hidden from him; for this thing was not done in a corner” (Acts 26:26).

In other words, the life, death, and resurrection of Christ (see v. 23) were not on a “limited geography” scale, so to speak, but were verifiable facts open to public examination.  Many of those public facts were discussed in the last post.

But what of the notion that God did something on a limited, undetectable scale in the New World?  Can’t God do things differently at different times and places?

First, one must look at whether a “limited model” is plausible according to the Book of Mormon — or whether it reconciles itself with the facts any better than a “hemispheric” model.  Consider the circumstances surrounding the appearance of Jesus in the Americas, as reported by the Book of Mormon.  The phenomena at the time of Jesus’ death are described as widespread.  Readers are told of not only natural events but mass destruction of cities:

…the city of Zarahemla did take fire…

…the city of Moroni did sink into the depths of the sea…

…the earth was carried up upon the city of Moronihah, that in the place of the city there became a great mountain…

many great and notable cities were sunk, and many were burned, and many were shaken…

…there were some cities which remained; but the damage thereof was exceedingly great…

…thus the face of the whole earth became deformed…

…the city of Gilgal have I caused to be sunk…

…the city of Onihah…the city of Mocum…the city of Jerusalem…the city of Gadiandi, and the city of Gadiomnah, and the city of Jacob, and the city of Gimgimno, all these have I caused to be sunk, and made hills and valleys in the places thereof…

…that great city Jacobugath…the city of Laman, and the city of Josh, and the city of Gad, and the city of Kishkumen, have I caused to be burned with fire… (from 3 Nephi 8-9, emphasis added)

Are these limited, undetectable events?  These “many” and “great” cities destroyed – at least 16 explicitly named?  These great movements of the earth that plumped a “great mountain” down where a city had been?  That plunged a city into the sea?  Archaeologists mine ancient treasures from sea-covered Alexandria, Egypt.  Where is the sunken city of Moroni?  And where are the ruins of these “many” desolated cities — whether in a concentrated area or spread abroad?

In addition to the limited geography model not matching either Book of Mormon descriptions or any detectable archaeology, the idea also seems to miss the point of the appearance of Christ in the New World, at least as conveyed by some LDS.  I remember reading an LDS commenter who asserted the superiority of LDS teachings thusly:  The Mormon Jesus was preached on a broad scale (i.e., across the world) very early in history.  This gave opportunity for New World inhabitants to hear the Mormon gospel — people that did not appear to hear the original apostles’ gospel in the first century AD.  And yet how effective was this declaration, if it was on such a limited scale that it appeared to have no effect on later descendants?  And how purposeful was it, if the people group to whom Christ appeared was so small and non-influential as to leave no trace in the DNA, historical, or linguistic records?  If Jesus appeared to such a very small group in such an isolated place, then why is this viewed as a mark of the broad proclamation of the LDS gospel?

In contrast, the historic apostles left documented and corroborated evidence of having touched and handled Jesus both before and after His death and resurrection.  Those events were “not done in a corner.”

And that brings us to Jesus’ view of the “limited geography model” – or more precisely, of the idea that He brought about conversions to faith in Himself through a bodily appearance in the New World.  Jesus did indeed prophesy that He would bring “other sheep” into His fold (John 10:16).  The “sheep” are Gentiles, according to Isaiah 56:7-8, to which Jesus seemed to be referring.   And He was specific as to how others would be brought to faith in Him:

Neither pray I for these [the original disciples] alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word… (John 17:20).

Jesus said that people would believe on Him through the word of the original disciples.  In fact, He prayed for only two categories of people:  the original disciples, and those who would believe on Him through their word.  That’s why Paul said, “Whether it were I or they [the other apostles], so we preach [Jesus’ death and resurrection], and so ye believed” (I Cor. 15:11).

How did you come to faith in Christ?  Was it through the way Jesus said it would be?  Was it through “their word” (i.e., the word of the apostles, which is recorded in the New Testament)?  Or are you using your own method of finding truth?

18 Comments leave one →
  1. November 10, 2009 4:18 pm


    The limited geography theory has been around for almost 100 years now. It first came out in response to detailed modeling based on the TEXT of the Book of Mormon (all those military march times between cities) and has grown in following ever since.

    I even learned about it as a kid in the 1980s in a southern Utah farming town.

    This is not something we cooked up to answer silly DNA arguments, or lack of archeological evidence. It was purely a matter of internal analysis of our sacred texts.

    Finally, I would remind Evangelicals that they too subscribe to a “limited” geography theory.

    Do you believe in the Old Testament?

    Then you believe in limited geography theory.

    Case closed.

  2. November 10, 2009 4:19 pm

    And Jessica, is there a particular reason that you are requiring people to have a WordPress account before they can subscribe to comments?

  3. November 10, 2009 6:35 pm

    Are you not seeing a “Notify me of follow-up comments via email” box on individual posts, Seth?

    Or are you trying to subscribe to the comments feed?

    I’m seeing them both whether I’m logged into my WordPress account or not.

  4. November 10, 2009 6:38 pm

    I click the box and hit submit.

    Then I get an email message in my inbox asking for confirmation. I click on the link and am directed to a WordPress login page.

    Which kinda pisses me off, because I have like three different WordPress accounts to-date and each blog seems to require a new account (at least, it doesn’t accept any of my accounts).

  5. November 10, 2009 6:50 pm

    Oh, I see what you mean. That is bizarre. I don’t even see any options in the control panel for requiring a log-in to subscribe to comments, so I don’t even know if it’s something Jessica has done v. a general flaw with that’s cropped up recently. I’ll try to find out.

  6. November 10, 2009 6:57 pm

    Bad news, Seth. Looks like it was a recent change and they’re trying to make you manage all subscriptions through a account. It’s not just Jessica.

  7. November 10, 2009 7:09 pm

    I suspected as much. That’s rather Bill Gates of them.

    Now if I could just get a WordPress profile that works…

  8. November 10, 2009 7:57 pm

    I blame Obama.

    I have no idea what’s going on with your jumble of profiles. I imagine it wants whatever profile is associated with your main e-mail account (the one I e-mail you at), but if that’s not working, it’s beyond me.

  9. November 11, 2009 3:36 am

    Hey Seth, I didn’t change anything on the blog so if something is different with the comments it is probably, like Jack said, because of Obama. NChristine is the one that wrote this post so it is also possible there is something different with her settings, I’m not sure. I think I’ll just go with blaming Obama. That sounds like a good idea. 🙂

  10. psychochemiker permalink
    November 11, 2009 4:32 am

    All this anti-Obama propaganda. I don’t know if I like having that much in common with you all. ;P

  11. NChristine permalink
    November 11, 2009 5:57 am

    Hi Seth,

    Before all of this fascinating Obama/Gates conversation, 🙂 you said,

    The limited geography theory has been around for almost 100 years now. It first came out in response to detailed modeling based on the TEXT of the Book of Mormon (all those military march times between cities) and has grown in following ever since.

    Thanks for your perspective. While I certainly don’t know how the theory arose in the first place, it seems clear that a good share of it’s popularity today is owed to a complete lack of evidence for the so-called “hemispheric model,” which historically was the LDS viewpoint.

    However, the point of the post was not to explain why the Limited Geography Model arose, but rather to bring up some very serious problems with it and the BoM in general. While the lack of external evidence is a serious problem, more serious are the philosophical and scriptural concerns:

    1. If Jesus appeared to such a localized, small-scale people group — such that they do not even evidence their existence anywhere other than the BoM — then what was the point of His alleged appearance in the New World?

    2. Why would Jesus say that non-apostolic believers would come to faith in Him through the word of the disciples (John 17:20, see also Acts 1:8) if He was going to turn around and contradict Himself by bringing people to faith without the apostles’ word?

  12. November 11, 2009 6:31 am

    NChristine, coming from a believer in the Bible, I am completely baffled why you object to God appearing to a limited group of people.

    I mean, you have read the Bible haven’t you? If I’ve got limited geography problems, they are nothing compared to people who accept only the Bible as scripture.

    Tell me, if God was only going to appear to Abraham and a single isolated ethnic group in Palestine, then what was the point of him even bothering to appear in the Old World?

    I already know your answer. You are going to claim that Jesus’ commission to his apostles somehow insulates you from this charge – but you would be quite mistaken.

    Jesus’ divine commission doesn’t answer why God left the vast majority of the earth’s population to rot while he played favorites with Israel for THOUSANDS of years. Do you have any idea what percentage of the earth’s population have lived and died without ever hearing anything about the God of Israel and Jesus? Compared to that, the Christian population is positively dwarfed.

    And you lecture me on a God that didn’t do world tours?

  13. November 11, 2009 6:39 am

    And again you are being unfair and allowing what you would LIKE the truth to be to cloud your judgment. You would LIKE the LDS Church to have “changed stance” because we are wilting in the face of the relentless march of “truth.”

    A very smug and self-serving assessment.

    We didn’t buckle in the face of the opposition. We embraced this view because it fits the scriptural record better. Believe it or not, most of the Mormon world doesn’t even know that critiques like those forwarded on this blog exist. They don’t know or care about them. But they do care about what the Book of Mormon says.

    The Book of Mormon SAYS it was a small area. So small area it is. It has absolutely nothing to do with self-destructive arguments from Evangelicals who have been so foolhardy as to apply an archeology litmus test to faith.

    Live by your archeology and die by it if you will. I plan to ground myself on something more reliable than a field founded on studying the 1% of humanity’s remains that are left to us today.

  14. NChristine permalink
    November 11, 2009 3:43 pm

    Hi Seth,

    Tell me, if God was only going to appear to Abraham and a single isolated ethnic group in Palestine, then what was the point of him even bothering to appear in the Old World?

    I think you are misunderstanding my point. 🙂 I am not complaining that the LDS teaching of Jesus’ New World appearance makes God unfair by limiting it to such a small group of people. That is a separate issue. Rather, I am saying there is a contradiction between (on the one hand) the claim that Jesus came in order to preach the gospel to other people and (on the other hand) the fact that this event was so ineffective as to leave no trace of its occurrence (external to the BoM, which utterly wants substantiation). My point is not the theological advantage of one view over another, but the inconsistency between (1) the alleged benefits of the LDS teaching in propagating the Mormon gospel worldwide and (2) the idea that it was such a “limited” event.

    But the most most important item germane to this topic is the words of Jesus Himself. He clearly identified only two types of believers in John 17:20: the original disciples, and those who would believe on Him through their word. Jesus only prayed for those two types of people. He apparently didn’t know about anyone in the New World who would believe on Him through a direct appearance and without the original disciples. And since by Jesus all things consist (Colossians 1:17), then if Jesus doesn’t know about people, they don’t exist. 🙂

  15. November 11, 2009 3:53 pm


    You are aware that LDS doctrine posits that Jesus visited multiple OTHER people in other parts of the globe after his resurrection, right? We believe he visited other branches of the Lost Tribes at that time.

    We believe that the Book of Mormon is merely the first of many different books of scripture that have yet to be revealed.

  16. NChristine permalink
    November 11, 2009 4:06 pm

    Thanks, Seth. But why were these multiple appearances so inconspicuous as to leave no impression anywhere on earth other than the BoM — so unlike the events of the OT and especially of the NT? There is a real contradiction here between this supposed widespread proclamation and the fact that it clearly was not so widespread after all.

    And Jesus said it wouldn’t happen that way.

  17. November 11, 2009 5:31 pm

    I’m not convinced that Jesus ruled this method out.

    The use of Israel as a chosen people is to spread the influence of the Gospel into the entire world. It’s about planting seeds and readying the world for a great and final work.

    I would highly suggest an honest, unbiased, and in-depth reading of Jacob chapter 5 in the Book of Mormon.

    In my view that single chapter explains the entire point of the Book of Mormon and how it fits into the larger picture of God’s involvement in human history.

  18. November 11, 2009 5:34 pm

    Also keep in mind, there is no reason to believe that Nephite theology didn’t actually spread to other pre-Columbian civilizations – much like how Greece traded ideas with Egypt and vis versa. The echos are there in all those civilizations.

    Failure of human record-keeping does not equate with a failure of the spread of the Gospel.

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