Evidence #37 | September 19, 2020

Calendrical Patterns

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Scripture Central


The Book of Mormon and ancient Mayan texts follow a literary pattern where a calendrical long count date is followed by historical narrative, optional distance markers, and typically a lineage statement about a hero or protagonist.

Calendrical Pattern among the Ancient Maya

Many Mayan inscriptions open with a long count date anchoring the text in time.1 Often, it is the date the object containing the text was ritually dedicated. In the case of historical annals, it is usually the date the event(s) occurred. Following the long count date, historical narrative is given, celebrating the ending of an era, the dedication of a structure or monument, the performance of a ritual, an accession to the throne, warfare with enemy polities, or other notable happenings. Optional distance markers sometimes measure elapsed time between reported events.

The narrative episodes contain names of people and places integral to the important events being described. They also often laud a hero or protagonist for whom a parentage or lineage statement is given, placing the celebrated person in a family or dynastic context. Descent from a noted father and mother added legitimacy to the record, and sometimes the reported genealogy stretches back into mythic time. Parentage statements could also sometimes identify an heir.2

As explained by Muriel Porter Weaver, “A consistent pattern is followed in presenting historical data that is usually found after the calendrical material. This may include (1) a date; (2) an event glyph (for example the date mentioned might mark the end of a katun); (3) name and title of a ruler.”3 In a study of Mayan language patterns by Karen Bassie-Sweet and Nicholas A. Hopkins, they similarly report that “in historical texts, where the date of the event is emphasized, the order becomes ‘temporal – verb – subject’” which is “so common in Classic texts.”4 They also characterize this sequence as a “dates, events, protagonists’ paradigm” and go on to assert that the “scribes are doing much more than listing historical events. They are narrating history with a rhetorical strategy, in a poetic format.”5

Calendrical texts containing this pattern have been found on various types of monuments and artifacts, including monumental stone stelae, wooden lintels, and codex style painted vases. This data has helped establish the dynastic lines for many major Maya sites.6 For instance, the pattern shows up in the notable Komkom Vase, discovered in 2015 in Belize, which is “not only the longest Pre-Columbian text in Belize, but is also one of the longest Classic period texts of the Maya Lowlands as a whole.”7

The Komkom Vase. Photo by David Stuart.

In summary, many Maya calendrical texts include the following:

  • a long count date,
  • details about notable events or special occasions,
  • optional distance markers,
  • and celebratory information about a prominent individual whose parentage is often identified.

Calendrical Pattern in the Book of Mormon

We see a similar calendrical pattern on at least 8 occasions in the Book of Mormon:

1. Omni 1:20–22 describes a large stone (comparable to Mesoamerican Stelae) that was deciphered by King Mosiah.8 We are not given the calendrical base date, but we do have a calendrical distance marker (“nine moons”). The text includes historical narrative (“one Coriantumr, and the slain of his people”) and a parentage statement (“It also spake a few words concerning his fathers”), including an allusion to ancestors far back in mythic time (“And his first parents came out from the tower, at the time the Lord confounded the language of the people”). 

Stela 5 at Takalik Abaj, El Asintal, Retalhuleu, Guatemala, showing an early example of a Long Count date. Altar 8 lies before it. Image via wikimedia Commons.

2. The book of Mosiah ends by noting that it was the first year in a new type of calendar system: “And thus commenced the reign of the judges throughout all the land of Zarahemla” (Mosiah 29:44). It then identifies the hero or protagonist, who now holds the highest office in the Nephite government: “and Alma was the first and chief judge” (v. 44). Following is a statement of lineage and political succession, tying Alma to his father, the previous high priest, and also to King Mosiah, the previous Nephite political leader: “And now it came to pass that [Alma’s] father died, being eighty and two years old, having lived to fulfil the commandments of God. And it came to pass that Mosiah died also, in the thirty and third year of his reign, being sixty and three years old” (vv. 45–46). An additional calendrical marker is given (“making in the whole, five hundred and nine years from the time Lehi left Jerusalem”), and then it is emphasized that this is the conclusion of an era in Nephite history: “thus ended the reign of the kings over the people of Nephi; and thus ended the days of Alma, who was the founder of their church” (v. 47).

3. In Alma chapter 10, Amulek gave a lengthy genealogical statement tracing his lineage all the way back to Joseph who was sold into Egypt (Alma 10:2–3). He then drew attention to the specific day, month, and year of the miraculous experience which initiated his own conversion: “I went on rebelling against God … even until the fourth day of this seventh month, which is in the tenth year of the reign of the judges” (Alma 10:6; emphasis added). This is followed by event details (Amulek was on a journey, was visited by an angel, and fed a prophet who blessed him and his household). The account ends with another kinship statement: “For behold, he hath blessed mine house, he hath blessed me, and my women, and my children, and my father and my kinsfolk” (Alma 10:11).

4. Alma 63:10 begins with a calendrical statement (“in the thirty and ninth year of the reign of the judges”) followed by historical narrative (Shiblon died, Corianton went by ship to the land northward, scribal duties transferred from Shiblon to his nephew, Helaman), and Alma 63:11 ends with a genealogical statement (“it became expedient for Shiblon to confer those sacred things … upon the son of Helaman, who was called Helaman, being called after the name of his father”). Alma 63:13–15 contains more historical events (conferred, gone forth, stirred up, came down, driven back again) demarcated by calendrical distance markers (“this year,” “this same year”). Alma 63:16 closes the calendrical statement with another parentage statement (“And thus ended the account of Alma, and Helaman his son, and also Shiblon, who was his son”).

5. Helaman 16:13, near the end of the book of Helaman, begins with a calendrical anchor (“it came to pass in the ninetieth year of the reign of the judges”) followed in verses 13–23 with historical narrative about a very important calendar-related prophecy in Nephite history (signs given, words fulfilled, hearts hardened, contention, miracles wrought) in a geographical setting (“upon all the face of the land”). The narrative ends in verse 24 with a calendrical closure (“thus ended the ninetieth year of the reign of the judges over the people of Nephi. And thus ended the book of Helaman”) followed by a parentage statement in verse 25 (“according to the record of Helaman and his sons”).

6. 3 Nephi 5:7 introduces a set of dates which emphatically begins the calendrical pattern: “And thus had the twenty and second year passed away, and the twenty and third year also, and the twenty and fourth, and the twenty and fifth; and thus had twenty and five years passed away.” Mormon follows with historical and scribal commentary (“many things transpired,” “made my record,” “engraven on the plates,” etc.), followed by establishing his credentials (“I am called Mormon, being called after the land of Mormon,” “I am a disciple of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”) (vv. 12–13). A chronological distance marker is given in verse 15 (“a small record of that which hath taken place from the time that Lehi left Jerusalem”), and is followed by a typical parentage statement in verse 20 (“I am Mormon, and a pure descendant of Lehi”).

7. At the beginning of his own book (Mormon 1:2), Mormon describes the timing of  Ammaron’s instructions to him as being “about the time that Ammaron hid up the records unto the Lord” which only two verses earlier (4 Nephi 1:48) was identified as being after “three hundred and twenty years had passed away.” After this anchor date, a distance marker is given (“when ye are about twenty and four years old”) followed by Ammaron’s instructions: “go … unto a hill which shall be called Shim; and … ye shall take the plates of Nephi unto yourself, and … engrave on the plates of Nephi all the things that ye have observed concerning this people” (vv. 3–4). These calendrical statements and pending events are followed by a clear protagonist/parentage statement in verse 5: “And I, Mormon, being a descendant of Nephi, (and my father’s name was Mormon) I remembered the things which Ammaron commanded me.”

8. We see a similar pattern when Moroni takes over scribal duties from his father in Mormon chapter 8. Verse 6 contains a calendrical statement (“Behold, four hundred years have passed away since the coming of our Lord and Savior”) followed by historical details discussing the utter destruction of the Nephites (v. 7), the Lord’s role in their demise (v. 8), enduring warfare in the land (vv. 8–9), the disciples of Christ (vv. 10–11), and instruction to those who receive the record (v. 12). After this, Moroni states his identity (“Behold, I am Moroni”), followed by a declaration of lineage: “I am the son of Mormon, and my father was a descendant of Nephi” (v. 13).

Moroni greets a dying Mormon after the final Nephite battles. Artwork by Katie Payne.


Although the above examples don’t follow a perfectly rigid pattern, they contain the basic calendrical details and sequencing that are also present in Mayan texts. Nephite calendrical data thus fit well in an ancient Mesoamerican setting.

Christophe Helmke, Julie A. Hoggarth, and Jaime J. Awe, A Reading of the Komkom Vase Discovered at Baking Pot, Belize (San Francisco, CA: Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, 2018).

Omni 1:20–22 Mosiah 29:44–47Alma 10:2–11Alma 63:10–17 Helaman 16:13–25 3 Nephi 5:7–20Mormon 1:2–11Mormon 8:6–13

Omni 1:20–22

Mosiah 29:44–47

Alma 10:2–11

Alma 63:10–17

Helaman 16:13–25

3 Nephi 5:7–20

Mormon 1:2–11

Mormon 8:6–13

  • 1 The Maya continue to use a linear day count from a fixed base date of August 11, 3114 BC in the GMT (584,283) correlation. Other correlations between the Maya and Christian calendars have been proposed. The Goodman Martinez Thompson (GMT) correlation is the most widely cited. The number 584,283 is the day count from Julian day 0 to the ancient Mayan base date. Some prefer a 584,285 constant. Simon Martin and Joel Skidmore in 2012 proposed a 584,286 constant. See “Exploring the 584286 Correlation between the Maya and European Calendars” The PARI Journal 13, no. 2 (2012): 3–16. Contemporary Maya day keepers in highland Guatemala follow the GMT correlation.
  • 2 Daniel Moroni Stewart, “Parentage Statements and Paired Stelae: Signs of Dynastic Succession for the Classic Maya,” MA Thesis (Provo, UT: BYU Department of Anthropology, 2008), 84. Stewart analyzed hundreds of parentage statements, concluding that they helped venerate ancestors, establish political legitimacy, and designate heirs.
  • 3 Muriel Porter Weaver, The Aztecs, Maya, and Their Predecessors: Archaeology of Mesoamerica, 3rd ed. (San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 1993), chapter 5 (“Códices, Calendrics, and Maya Writing”).
  • 4 Karen Bassie-Sweet and Nicholas A. Hopkins, Maya Narrative Arts (Louisville, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2018), 124.
  • 5 Bassie-Sweet and Hopkins, Maya Narrative Arts, 124.
  • 6 See calendrical data scattered throughout Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube, Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya (New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2000).
  • 7 Christophe Helmke, Julie A. Hoggarth, and Jaime J. Awe, A Reading of the Komkom Vase Discovered at Baking Pot, Belize (San Francisco, CA: Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, 2018), 21. See also the large jadeite plaque from Tomb B-4/6, Altun Ha.
  • 8 See Book of Mormon Central, “Why was Coriantumr’s Record Engraved on a ‘Large Stone’? (Omni 1:20),” KnoWhy 77 (April 13, 2016).
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