Chronology: It would appear that both Mosiah and Alma the Elder die in the same year. Mosiah dies at the age of 63 (he begins his reign at age 30, see Mosiah 6:4) and Alma at the age of 82. The Nephite years are 509 from the departure from Jerusalem, which would translate to 92 BC in the correlation used in this commentary.
Historical: Judges in Mesoamerica: By renouncing a king and turning to judges, Mosiah both went against the current trend in the development of complex societies, but also presaged some governmental forms that would not be clearly apparent for many years after the close of the Book of Mormon.
Robert J. Sharer has examined much of the evidence for the development of the concept of the king among the Classic Maya (post Book of Mormon). He notes that while the full development of the Classic Maya concept of the god-king was not developed until later, most of the elements were in place by the end of the late Pre-Classic (Book of Mormon times which would include Mosiah’s time) in places such as El Mirador (Sharer, Robert J. “Diversity and Continuity in Maya Civilization.” In: Classic Maya Political History. Cambridge University Press, 1991 p.184). The Book of Mormon clearly supports the idea that kings were becoming important in this area long before the Classic, even if their full cult does not develop until later.
Assuming, as this commentary does, that Zarahemla was located in the region that was undergoing this shift to a very specific type of king, Mosiah’s actions were directly counter to the general flow of cultural development. Nevertheless, there were later examples of judges and rule by special groups that are worth our attention.
John L. Sorenson notes:
“One of the primary duties of a ruler was to settle disputes among his people, Sometimes that could be done by him personally, but in a population of much size, he would not have time to deal with every conflict. Judges were delegated to carry out that duty.
Cortez, for example, described the situation at the great market in the Aztec capital: “There is in this square a very large building, like a Court of Justice, where there are always ten or twelve persons, sitting as judges, and delivering their decisions upon all cases which arise in the markets.” (Sorenson, John. L. Images of Ancient America. Visualizing the Book of Mormon. FARMS 1998, p. 116).
These judges were appointed, and attempted to judge fairly among the people:
“…the judges, were nominated by the sovereign either from the experienced and elderly dignitaries or from among the common people. At Texcoco half the higher judges were of noble family and the other half of plebeian origin. All the chroniclers agree in praising the care with which the emperor and his fellow-kings chose the judges, “taking particular care that they were not drunkards, nor apt to be bribed, nor influenced by personal considerations, or impassioned in their judgments.” (Soustelle, Jacques. The Daily Life of the Aztecs. Standford University Press, 1970, p. 50).
The position of judge was one that clearly resurfaced among the Aztecs, if indeed it had ever been long gone. The judges however, are here arbiters of law and disputes, not leaders of the community. To see a similar situation to judges leading their people we need to turn to the case of Chichen Itza (also post Book of Mormon) which “witnessed the birth of a social and political order based upon a new principle of governance, mul tepal ‘joint rule.” (Schele, Linda and Davied Freidel. A Forest of Kings. William Morrow and Company, In.c 1990, p. 348).
As with much of the information on Mesoamerica, our best information is post-Book of Mormon times. However, studies have shown that Mesoamerica has had a relatively stable cultural base over time, with much of their culture remaining today, even though it has naturally adapted to the exigencies of the post-Conquest world. While not contemporaneous with Mosiah, these examples nevertheless indicate that Mosiah was not out of place in a Mesoamerican context.