The Teabo Manuscript

Maya Christian Copybooks, Chilam Balams, and Native Text Production in Yucatán

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Mark Z. Christensen
The Linda Schele Series in Maya and Pre-Columbian Studies
  • Austin, TX: 
    University of Texas Press
    , December
     339 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Teabo Manuscript is a colonial period manuscript that was written during the 19th and 20th centuries in the Yucatan town of Teabo. Its translation was hindered by both its seemingly forgotten location in the Special Collections archive at Brigham Young University and its incorrect documentation as “Christian doctrine”. In this book, Mark Z. Christensen provides both a translation and an analysis of the work as he found it.  

At the onset of The Teabo Manuscript, Christensen outlines the aim of this work: to analyze the contents of the Teabo Manuscript as a revelation of what the Maya of the colonial period “deemed important enough to write about and preserve” (3). He presents the Teabo Manuscript as a testament to those Maya maestros and escribanos who sought a compromise between the world—and worldview—of just a generation before and the world in which they lived at the time the manuscript was written. 

The text is divided into five chapters, following the structure of the manuscript itself. Each of the chapters contains an analysis of the text from the manuscript and is followed by a transcription of the original text with its translation. In separating the text this way, Christensen achieves his first outlined purpose: he allows himself (and the reader) the time necessary to study each “category” of colonial Maya thought and see it through the eyes of the writer. 

In the first chapter of the book, Christensen covers the creation—an important starting point for any Maya Christian copybook. As the author states, creation myths “explain and justify a culture’s belief system and worldview” (26). In a colonial world, the first step to conversion is to create a firm belief in the colonial creation myth. In the case of the Maya of New Spain, this did not just mean learning the Genesis creation myth, but rather negotiating between the traditional Maya view and the new creation myth being taught to them. The result is what we see in the Teabo Manuscript. As Christensen says, the escribanos and maestros were able to reach a compromise “between biblical and culturally contemporary understandings … to create a Creation that best suited local needs” (30). In many cases, this did not mean producing a doctrinally-faithful text, but rather one that would resonate with Maya listeners and create a lasting connection. This clear distinction highlights that what the colonial Maya chose to preserve was that which resonated with them most clearly. 

An important key to Christensen’s success with this work is the crucial comparison of New World religious text to its Old World counterpart. An all-too-common temptation is to view the New World religious text as a stand-alone piece. However, it gains depth and value when analyzed alongside the inspiration for it. For instance, in chapter 3, “Doomsday and the Maya,” Christensen compares the renditions of The Fifteen Signs found in the Teabo Manuscript and other Maya colonial copybooks with the equivalent signs found in European manuscripts. In the New World versions, the phrase mactzil, or “through or because of a miracle” is used—a phrase that is not used in any of the European sources (152). Thus Christensen concludes that this is a colonial invention describing a miraculous restoration. Without the comparison to Old World texts, such a key difference would not have been clear to the reader. 

As a whole, Christensen’s analysis has accomplished its purpose. Throughout the work, there are many instances of Maya theology diverging from what a traditional European copybook would contain. This is more than a mere discrepancy; it is an intentional reflection of intent by the colonial authors. Here they were very skillfully navigating a changing religious landscape in a world that was quickly changing into something much different from what it had been. They were attempting to negotiate between the beliefs being imposed upon them and the traditions they had held to for generations. From the structure of the book to the analytical execution, Christensen has done an excellent job of allowing the Teabo Manuscript to speak for itself and tell the story recorded within it.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Catherine Nuckols-Wilde is a Graduate Student in Religious Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Date of Review: 
August 7, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark Z. Christensen is Associate Professor of History at Assumption College. He is the author of Nahua and Maya Catholicisms: Texts and Religion in Colonial Central Mexico and Yucatanand Translated Christianities: Nahuatl and Maya Religious Texts.



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