"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
October 23, 2015
Burying Nahom, Part Two: Digging a Premature Grave for Nahom with the "Documentary Hypothesis" Shovel
by Jeff Lindsay

Last week in "Burying Nahom" I addressed a recent effort to dismiss the evidence for the Book of Mormon in the Arabian Peninsula by a writer at Patheos.com, a professor of history, who demonstrated how easy it is for smart people to make very careless mistakes about the Book of Mormon and related issues. Meanwhile, another blog at Patheos has added to the attack against the Arabian Evidence with a much more effective, intelligent, thorough, and even-mannered piece that I feel deserves a response.

But first, a word of apology.

To prepare for this post, I reread an outstanding book on the Documentary Hypothesis, Richard Elliott Friedman's best-seller, Who Wrote the Bible? , second edition (New York: HarperCollins, 1997). I read the first edition (1987) in the early 1990s and was impressed, but wasn't ready to really learn and understand how significant his research was. Upon rereading, I found it remarkably interesting, even brilliant, with a style that reads a little more like a thrilling murder mystery than a scholar's review of esoteric research.

But my second reading requires this apology: My apologies to tennis stars Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and others for not paying full attention during their recent matches at the Shanghai Rolex Masters Tennis semifinals on Oct. 17, 2015, where I spent much of a Saturday trying to serve two masters--or rather, trying to read while two masters served.

Overview and Summary

An anonymous writer, "RT" at Faith Promoting Rumor, challenges Book of Mormon evidence from the Arabian Peninsula in his "Nahom and Lehi's Journey through Arabia: A Historical Perspective, Part 1." Well-written, heavily documented, and written with familiarity of Book of Mormon scholarship to engage key issues intelligently, this essay sets a high standard for Book of Mormon criticism. Nevertheless, I feel there are many errors made along the way.

Here I'll focus on what I feel is the most important aspect of his attack, the one that draws upon extensive biblical scholarship related to what is known as the "Documentary Hypothesis" to suggest that First Nephi is obviously fiction. He reasons that if Nephi is fiction in light of modern scholarship, then the Arabian Peninsula evidence related to Nahom isn't evidence at all because it can't be. The Documentary Hypothesis trumps anything we can dig out of the sands of Arabia that appears relevant to the Book of Mormon.

This line of reasoning draws upon the theory from biblical scholars that multiple sources were used to compose the Pentateuch, and one of them, called "P," the priestly source, was written after the Exile, long after Nephi's day, and thus could not possibly have been known to Nephi. But Nephi in his many allusions to the Exodus draws upon themes or cites information that come from the priestly source, P. Nephi's writings are, therefore, a modern composition, a fraud from Joseph Smith, and we can then view Nahom and related evidences as mere coincidences.

I'll address the major problem with this in a moment (hint: while the early scholars giving us the Documentary Hypothesis argued that the P source was written after the Exile, significant modern scholarship from Richard Elliott Friedman and others places the P source well before Nephi's day, not after the Exile, completely undermining RT's attack).

RT naturally offers other reasons why he doesn't like the evidence. But at least he recognizes that the evidence includes more than just a random group of three letters found anywhere in Arabia. He recognizes that we've got something that might actually sound interesting to some of us. RT admits that the south-southwest direction, the description of fertile regions, turning east, etc., suggest a realistic trip. I just love the way he sums it up--see if you can notice any intellectual blinders in his final sentence.

In my opinion, the most plausible detail provided in the narrative of 1 Nephi 1-18 is the description of the general route followed by Lehi on his way through Arabia to the coastal location of Bountiful. From all the reporting of events that occurs in this part of the BoM (setting aside the reference to Nahom), the few comments that clarify that the party of Lehi traveled to the Red Sea (1 Ne 2:5-6) and then moved along the Red Sea in a south-southeast direction down the western side of the Arabian peninsula (1 Ne 16:13), "keeping in the most fertile parts of the wilderness, which were in the borders near the Red Sea" (1 Ne 16:14), and then turning east before reaching the coast of Irreantum (1 Ne 17:1, 5) seem to represent informational detail most certainly rooted in real world geography. That is to say, the route appears to accurately account for the shape of the Arabian Peninsula in relation to the Red Sea and Arabian Sea and further agrees in a general way with what we know about the topography of the region and where cross-country travel was most practicable therein. Some of the more "fertile" parts of Arabia are indeed in the high western zones and foothills of the Hijaz, where the climate is slightly more temperate and rare rainfall in the mountains has contributed to the creation of oases on the eastern slopes that sustain more diverse flora and fauna. For millennia this strip of land "bordering the Red Sea" has enabled human transit and trade from north to south and facilitated the development of overland roads. So for Lehi to have followed this general track is notable and [here we go!] in theory could lend support to the assumption that the author of the account was trying to depict real history. [emphasis mine]

OK, let's see: plausible directions in a description for how to go from Jerusalem to Bountiful--a previously ridiculed place that now has an excellent and plausible candidate nearly due east of Nahom--all amount to a general track that is "notable." Then comes the fun part where he timidly acknowledges that this so-called evidence might support--at a theoretical level--the notion that someone was trying to depict the appearance of "history."

Anti-Mormon practice tip: RT offers a useful model for dealing with all future "evidence" that may be uncovered by anthropologists, linguists, archaeologists, botanists, biologists, and other experts. No matter how interesting it may seem, how close and relevant it may appear to something in the text, the text itself can always be dismissed in this manner: "the parallels in the text to these external finds are notable and may, theoretically speaking, lend support to the notion that Joseph Smith was sincerely attempting to write something that sounded like it was related to real history." Never admit more than this! Then continue with your attack, for there is always something to criticize. Even the best parallels or bulls-eyes may miss the mark, for things in real life are always more complicated than any brief account and, with a sufficiently critical and inflexible eye, we can always find imperfection and fault.

He continues with on this trajectory:

However, when we examine the description of Lehi's route more closely it becomes clear that its links with real world geography do not provide unequivocal support for the historicity of the narrative. First, the geographical information offered in the text is for the most part vague and highly general in nature, limited mainly to general travel directions and large bodies of water associated with macro-scale Arabian geography, whereas more precise detail about the route is almost wholly lacking, consisting of an occasional generic topographic feature such as a nameless river and valley (1 Ne 2:6) or mountain (1 Ne 16:30; 17:7), or the mention of unspecified "fertile" areas near the Red Sea (1 Ne 16:14, 16). Because of this relative dearth of information about the places visited by the Lehi group, the modern reader is presented with the peculiarity that while he/she can easily grasp the general course of their journey and has a rough idea of where it began and ended, almost everything in between is nebulous and blurry. Not surprisingly, researchers of the BoM have been unable to agree on the precise path followed by Lehi in Arabia or even to identify a single site visited by the group apart from Nahom.

I think that's a stretch. George Potter's field work (see his book, Lehi in the Wilderness, which we've discussed here before) leading to the identification of a remarkable and plausible candidate for the Valley Lemuel and the River Laman has many compelling correspondences in its favor. Remember, until he found the river in a plausible location, it was mocked as an impossibility by our critics. Suddenly, the tide turned and the continually flowing waters showed up, and not on any map Joseph could have spotted.

There is a "river"--now a small stream after significant diversion of its waters for other purposes, but for dessert travelers, it's a river--in a majestically walled valley that would provide safety, shade, comfort, and even trees and fruit, with a river flowing year-round (if that is what is meant by "continually," though perhaps Nephi just meant it was more than a dry wadi whose brief periodic water flows depended on rain, unless they stayed there for several months or more). Why does this not count as identifying a site visited by the group apart from Nahom?

After reading Potter and Warren Aston (In the Footsteps of Lehi is essential reading on the Arabian evidence), I would reword RT's claim as follows:

Original from RT: "researchers of the BoM have been unable . . . even to identify a single site visited by the group apart from Nahom."

Revision: "researchers of the BoM have been unable . . . even to identify a single site visited by the group apart from Nahom, the Valley Lemuel and the River Laman, the place Shazer, and, of course, the place Bountiful."

That little tweak would significantly enhance the accuracy of the RT's article. Of course, if that makes him uncomfortable, he can add the caveat that "there is no consensus on these places especially in light of alternate candidates that have been proposed, for example, for the Valley Lemuel and the place Bountiful."

That's what I think evidence needs to do: help us tweak or revise our theories. Don't let old paradigms bury new evidence before it's even been considered.

Too Biblical to Be Real?

RT's post at Faith Promoting Rumor leads up to his use of the Documentary Hypothesis by first pointing out that Nephi's parallels to Exodus are rather suspicious.

The first problem that the apologetic argument faces with regard to Nahom as an authentic ancient reference is that the larger journey narrative recounted in 1 Nephi is for the most part implausible as real history. The account contains many story elements and language that indicate it originated as imaginative mythological literature modeled along biblical patterns, whereas it lacks evidence of certain details that we would expect to find if it were in fact a realistic report of an Israelite family journeying from Jerusalem through the deserts of Arabia.

This is not a problem if one understands that Nephi is writing a sacred text, and that he is likening the scriptures to their situation and creating a moral parable from his journey that he sees, at least eventually, as a divinely crafted parallel to the Exodus. In my opinion this fits what we know of the ancient religious mindset. Types and paradigms of this kind were vital and deliberate, and sometimes richly applied.

Nephi is writing sacred history and emphasizing the ways in which his story follows a divine archetype. In fact, he's reshaping his story (not fabricating it!) to emphasize sacred themes in much the same way that the authors of the Bible may have adapted their writings to achieve specific purposes. This does not make Nephi's work a pious fraud, but a pious retelling or pious redaction of his experience. This should not come as a surprise, for he explains that on the small plates that he is engraving, his purpose is to focus on spiritual things, not mundane details that are more likely to be found on the related but more extensive and more secular large plates.

Recognizing and emphasizing parallels to biblical themes does not render the story fake, no more than if your pioneer grandmother used Exodus themes when she retold her story fleeing enemy mobs by a dry crossing the (frozen) Mississippi River as they fled Nauvoo on the way to the promised land across the plains.

Given the significance of Exodus to the Hebrews, I think a sacred journey to the Promised Land that didn't consider parallels to Exodus would raise even more serious questions than RT raises (unless he's completely right in his most serious argument based on the Documentary Hypothesis, which we'll address below).

As modern scholars have dug into Nephi's writings, they have found that Nephi's interweaving of key Hebraic themes is pervasive, subtle, and skillful, even to the point of making clever Hebraic word plays (Nahom included) and crafting Semitic poetry in ways that make it difficult to imagine young Joseph Smith doing this, whether using loads of available books to guide him in slowly crafting a thoroughly-researched manuscript or just dictating the text on the fly, as multiple witnesses attest. The interwoven biblical themes in his text are crafted so well, that it should, in my view, count as evidence for ancient origins rather than modern.

Consider, for example, the deliberate ways in which his slaying of Laban is patterned after David and Goliath, serving as an important basis for his descendants in recognizing the validity of Nephi's claim to be the rightful ruler of the people. This is explained in detail in Ben McGuire's "Nephi and Goliath: A Reappraisal of the Use of the Old Testament in First Nephi," which also does much to explain why Nephi's focus on preparing a sacred text is not aimed at providing the kind of details RT is asking for. (It also provides some evidence relevant to the Documentary Hypothesis and the relationship between biblical sources and the brass plates that Nephi had.)

Exploring Nephi's use of biblical allusions and themes in his writing, including clever Hebraic word plays, is a fertile field for ongoing scholarship and discovery, not a trivial exposé of poor modern authorship from young Joseph. There is depth and subtlety here. Yes, the story is heavily grounded in biblical themes--not because it never happened, but because it happened to a Hebrew family steeped in the ways of Hebrew writers as they crafted a sacred text that not only would serve to help bring people to the Messiah, but would also serve other purposes such as reinforcing the basis of their political rights.

However, RT has a significant point that may overthrow my reasoning above, for if he is right, there's no way that a real Nephi could have written about the Exodus. Let's explore RT's most potent weapon as he unleashes the Documentary Hypothesis against the Arabian Peninsula evidence.

The Documentary Hypothesis vs. Nephi

Here is what I consider to be the most serious attack RT makes in his post:

[P]erhaps most damagingly, the allusions and references to the book of Exodus in the BoM show that the form of the narrative it presumes corresponds to that found in the Bible, combining both non-priestly (non-P) and priestly (P) material. As is well known, one of the more significant conclusions of two centuries of biblical scholarship is that the story of the Exodus is actually a product of multiple literary sources/strands that were developed and combined over time, including a non-P source (sometimes divided into separate Yahwist and Elohist sources or early non-P and late non-P strands) and a P source that covered similar material but had distinctive theological emphases and content as well. Although many scholars believe that some of the non-P material may date to the pre-exilic or monarchic period, the P source is at the earliest exilic and more likely from the post-exilic/Persian period. The P source would also by necessity have been composed before it and non-P were combined together into one continuous Torah narrative, meaning that the project to conflate the sources would have occurred even later during the Persian period. So in direct opposition to what we would expect if the BoM were ancient, the author of 1 Nephi seems to have known and made use of an Exodus that contained both P and Non-P.

  • The knowledge of P is reflected in 1 Ne 3:3 (Gen 46:8-27; Ex 6:14-25); 4:2 (Ex 14:21-22); 16:19-20 (Ex 16:2-3); 17:7-8 (Exodus 25:8-9); 17:14 (Ex 6:7-8); 17:20 (Ex 16:3); 17:26-27, 50 (Ex 14:21-22); 18:1-2 (Ex 35:30-33).

  • The knowledge of non-P in 1 Ne 1:6 (Ex 3:2); 2:6 (Ex 3:18; 8:27; 15:22); 2:7 (Ex 3:12, 18; 8:27; 17:15; 18:12); 2:11-12 (Ex 14:11-12); 2:18-24 (Ex 15:26); 3:13, 24-25 (Ex 4:21-23; 5:1-2, 6; 7:20; 8:1, 8, 25; 9:27); 3:29-30 (Ex 14:19-20); 5:5-8 (Ex. 18:9-11); 6:4 (Ex 3:6, 15; 4:5); 16:10, 26-29 (Num 21:8-9); 16:35-36 (Num 14:1-4); 16:37 (Ex 2:14; Num 16:1-3, 13-14); 17:13 (Ex 13:21); 18:9 (Ex 32:4-6; Ex 32:18-19).

The extensive borrowing and revisioning of the Exodus story in the BoM is thus most easily reconciled with a modern origin for the narrative. Not only would this provide a setting for such an all-inclusive revisioning to have taken place, but it would explain why various aspects of the borrowing do not reflect the social, intellectual, and literary world of ancient Israel.

That certainly sounds devastating. If the cumulative weight of two centuries of scholarship compels us to recognize that the Jews of 600 BC were not familiar with the Exodus story, at least as we know it, then how can we accept the many references to that story in the Book of Mormon? While parts of the book of Exodus from the non-P source may have been available before the Exile, the significant portions attributed to the a priestly source (P) were, according to RT, not around before the Exile. The two were not combined until long after the Exile, so there is no way Nephi could have used both.

Here RT is appealing to what is known as the "Documentary Hypothesis." This is a vital aspect of biblical studies in which scholars have determined with a great deal of plausible arguments that the Bible as we know it has been crafted from at least four original sources written by different people or groups in different places and times, then finally edited together into the complex and sometimes self-contradictory Masoretic text that we now have.

The now classical Documentary Hypothesis owes much to Julius Wellhausen, a scholar who over a century ago pulled together a great deal of previous scholarship and painted a compelling picture that attempted to reverse engineer the making of the Bible, explaining how different styles of language, different names of deity, and different versions of the same story were patched together in the Old Testament. He concluded that there were 4 original documents behind the Pentateuch, each known by a single letter:

  • J, the Yahwist source (J is the first letter of Yahweh when written in German), written around 950 BCE in the southern Kingdom of Judah, so named because it tends to use Yahweh (Jehovah) as the name for God. (Friedman puts J between 848 and 722 B.C.)

  • E, the Elohist source (E) : written c. 850 BCE in the northern Kingdom of Israel, so named because it prefers to use "Elohim" as the name for God. (Friedman puts E somewhere from 922 to 722 B.C.)

  • D, the Deuteronomist source (essentially the book of Deuteronomy) : written c. 600 BCE in Jerusalem during a period of religious reform (Josiah's era). 

  • P, the Priestly source: written c. 500 BCE by Kohanim (Jewish priests) in exile in Babylon. (As we will see, Wellhausen's dating of P is based on several serious errors, according to Friedman.)

Many scholars concluded that J and E were combined prior to the Exile and were available as a redacted document known to scholars today as JE. In theory, JE and D could have been known to Nephi, but RT argues that P was not, and the combination of these documents was not available until even later, after the Exile, by someone such as Ezra.

So if Nephi relies on the Exodus story told in P, and P wasn't written in his day, there may is a problem.

No Exodus story in 600 BC = no real Nephi = who cares about Nahom and Bountiful, right?

Does the Documentary Hypothesis trump Nahom? Does it trump any and all Book of Mormon evidence?

Some fellow Christians and some devout Jews at this point may wish to jump in and help me by pointing out that the Documentary Hypothesis is a theory in flux, filled with weak spots, devoid of extrinsic evidence outside of internal textual analysis (i.e., no manuscript for any of the individual sources has ever been found), and the target of many arguments against it. But I'm not going to focus on the arguments against the basic concept of the Documentary Hypothesis. I think it has significant merit and needs to be considered, tentatively and cautiously. In my view, it cannot be easily dismissed and may have a lot to offer.

For those who value the scholarship behind the Documentary Hypothesis, in spite of many unknowns, here's the most critical factor that RT is missing in his misapplication of the Documentary Hypothesis: There is significant, credible evidence that Wellhausen was seriously wrong in the dating of P. The crafting of the P manuscript, according to one of the world's foremost scholars conducting research in the details related to the Documentary Hypothesis, occurred before the Exile, probably in Hezekiah's era, before Josiah and before Nephi.

That scholar is Richard Elliott Friedman, who was a student of Frank Moore Cross at Harvard, where he obtained his ThD. He is now the Ann and Jay Davis Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Georgia and the Katzin Professor of Jewish Civilization Emeritus of the University of California, San Diego, and was a visiting fellow at Cambridge and Oxford and a Senior Fellow of the American Schools of Oriental Research in Jerusalem. He is the author of seven books, including the bestselling Who Wrote the Bible (I'm using the second edition, New York: HarperCollins, 1997) and Commentary on the Torah. He participated in the City of David Project archaeological excavations of biblical Jerusalem and served as a consultant for PBS's Nova: "The People of the Covenant: The Origins of Ancient Israel and the Emergence of Judaism" and A&E's "Who Wrote the Bible?" and "Mysteries of the Bible."

Let's consider the credible case made by Richard Elliott Friedman in his award-winning book, Who Wrote the Bible?

He identifies three serious mistakes that led Wellhausen and others to place P after the Exile. These were:

  1. The idea that the prophets (e.g., Jeremiah and Ezekiel) do not ever cite material from P.

  2. The notion that the Tabernacle was not historical but a fiction created after the Exile and inserted into P to provide a rational in the words of Moses for the centrality of the Temple, which is never mentioned in the Pentateuch. The fabricated tabernacle, according to Wellhausen, was created in P to provide an ancient rationale for the Temple.

  3. The idea that P takes the centralization of worship for granted, as if it were written in a time when there was no doubt that centralization was the norm (i.e., after the Exile).

Friedman shows how each of these were serious mistakes. Jeremiah and Ezekiel actually do cite P material several times, showing that P existed before the Exile. For example, Ezekiel 5 and 6 provide a lawsuit of sorts against Israel for not keeping their covenant with God, and the covenant referred to is detailed in Leviticus 26, a P source which Ezekiel relies on with many nearly verbatim passages. Ezekiel and Jeremiah use other portions of P as well (e.g., Ezekiel draws upon P elements of the Exodus narrative).

The evidence that made the Tabernacle, in Wellhausen's view, seem like a conveniently crafted half-scale model of the Second Temple was based on considering the dimensions of the First Temple, not the second, and Wellhausen got other things wrong in his analysis. Friedman points to a strong strand of textual evidence showing that the Tabernacle was historical and, in fact, was stored in the First Temple. Finally, Friedman points out that P sources repeatedly teach centralization of worship at the tabernacle, something Wellhausen missed.

Further evidence for Friedman's early dating of P include analysis from Professor Avi Hurvitz of Hebrew University in Jerusalem showing that the language of P is an earlier stage of biblical Hebrew than Ezekiel. Since that 1982 publication, at least five other scholar have published linguistic evidence that P's version of Hebrew comes from before the Exile to Babylon.

Finally, Friedman points out that Wellhausen's theory of P being a post-exilic document and a pious fraud to justify the second Temple does not fit the content of P. P emphasizes the ark, the tablets, cherubs, and the Urim and Thummim--relics that were completely absent from the second Temple. "Why would a second Temple priest, composing a pious-fraud document, emphasize the very elements of the Tabernacles that the second Temple did not have?"

Friedman notes that the person who wrote P "placed the Tabernacle at the center of Israel's religious life, back as far as Moses, and forever into the future." This person had to be living before "They cast your Temple into the fire; They profaned your name's Tabernacle to the ground" (Psalm 74:7, one of several passages alluding to the Tabernacle having been kept in the first Temple).

The data related to the content and the purposes behind the priestly source led Friedman to not only conclude that P was pre-exilic, but that it could be dated specifically to the time of King Hezekiah. That leaves plenty of time for P material to become available to Nephi, or even be recorded on the brass plates (though Sorenson notes that the Book of Mormon seems much more closely aligned with the Elohist document).

For further reference, a detailed, scholarly book on the Documentary Hypothesis written for an LDS audience is David E. Bokovoy's Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis-Deuteronomy (Part One) along with Part Two (the paperback is just one volume; it's split in two for Kindle readers).

Bokovoy generally accepts the dating of Friedman, and adds many insights about the Mesopotamian sources that appear to have been used by those crafting the various sources. He also explores implications of the Documentary Hypothesis for Latter-day Saints, observing the Book of Mormon account shows a process very similar to the Documentary Hypothesis in play, and also noting that Joseph Smith's concerns about the corruption of ancient scripture and the missing or altered elements in the Bible is consistent with what we can observe happening in the Bible text through the tools of Higher Criticism.

Some of Bokovoy's views may be troubling to some LDS readers, such as his view that the Book of Moses given by Joseph Smith could not possibly have come from Moses. Regarding the Book of Mormon, while he sees some merit in John Sorenson's hypothesis about the dominance of E in the brass plates and the Book of Mormon, he points out a number of places where P and D are relied on, such as references to the Creation story and the Flood.

He leans toward Blake Ostler's "expansion theory" for the Book of Mormon, arguing that Joseph may have taken a simpler ancient text and expanded it, enriching it with detailed prophecies about Christ that the Nephites might not have actually had. I struggle with that notion, but admire his thorough scholarship and clear writing, and feel this work is a valuable one for serious students of the Bible to consider. 

Another thoughtful article for LDS readers on the Documentary Hypothesis is Kevin L. Barney, "Reflections on the Documentary Hypothesis," Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 33 No. 1, Spring 2000: 57-99. 

Must Bible Believers Fear the Documentary Hypothesis? Insights from the Book of Mormon

The Documentary Hypothesis, while it has weaknesses and many detractors, must be recognized as having a great deal of serious scholarship behind it. But many people who believe in the Bible as the word of God may feel threatened when they encounter this. After all, it can be quite disturbing to suddenly learn that Moses apparently didn't write the Books of Moses (that is, the Books of Moses as we now have them--the Hypothesis does not prevent him from having written or having passed sacred history on through oral traditions). To be told that the great stories that are the foundation of the Bible might have been cobbled together from multiple conflicting sources can turn the miraculous word of God into a much-more imperfect, man-made work. Can that even be trusted as scripture anymore?

The editorial processes that are being uncovered in the Bible actually reflect some of the Book of Mormon's warning that the record of the Jews in our day, the Bible, would be heavily edited and have significant losses. That complex editorial process is also what Book of Mormon readers see happening right before their eyes as they observed the many records that Mormon has cobbled together from records in Hebrew, reformed Hebrew, and at least one Jaredite language, records which he tweaked, redacted, and commented upon to give us the "crazy patchwork" record of the Book of Mormon, which then went through further changes as it was translated into English (or rather, a puzzling mix of pre-KJV Early Modern English influences coupled with KJV English and some modern English--what these various influences are and how and why they are there remains a hot topic for research and speculation).

To study the Book of Mormon carefully is to unveil a complex combination of sources used by Mormon in his work of redaction. Still today, the more we learn about the Book of Mormon and its translation, the more complex and varied it becomes. Surely we should be able to be comfortable with a complex and heavily edited Bible, especially when LDS scripture teaches us to expect heavy human editing over the centuries of its transmission.

We can see and recognize the hand of humans in each stage of the Book of Mormon's creation: first from the hand of Mormon, including Mormon's editing, his concern about errors that he may be making unintentionally and because of the difficulty of working with the written language (not to mention the challenge of writing on metal plates, devoid of a backspace key--it looks like he may have used "or" instead), his recognition that his limited writing abilities would lead to mocking by future readers, etc.

Then we have the hand or tongue of Joseph translating it in a process of steady oral dictation without reference to other documents, giving us text with clear signatures from Early Modern English that really should not be there. In this process, we also see the human touch of Oliver's hand and the hand of other scribes who wrote down what they heard but sometime made obvious errors, many of which they caught and corrected. We can see and retrace the oral process of hearing and writing as we examine the Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon, a divine fruit with clear human influence.

Then we have the human influence of preparing a printer's manuscript, and the influence of the printer's hand in adding punctuation and making other changes and sometimes some clear mistakes in printing the manuscript.

Then there are other editorial changes, some from Joseph, some from Parley P. Pratt and others, bringing us to modern editions such as the 1981 Book of Mormon in which many attempts were made to correct some of the usually minor mistakes that had crept into the text. And naturally, when this text is translated into German, Chinese, or Navajo, numerous new human influences enter into the sacred text. A divine text becomes "divine plus," or maybe "divine minus." We cannot separate human influences from sacred records, and the sacred text of the Book of Mormon makes that remarkably clear, while also serving as a divine record that, in spite of errors, can be called the "most correct book." It is a remarkable witness of Jesus Christ and of the reality of the Restoration.

If we can accept the Book of Mormon in spite of its human influences, we should be able to benefit from the divine richness of the Bible that remains in spite of questions, problems, and abundant human influences. We must temper our expectations and remain flexible, recognizing that some things we thought we understood may not necessarily be that way. But that same recognition needs to be applied to the decrees of scholars: what is declared as fact today may not be so tomorrow, and in my view, it would be a shame to abandon God in the process because of what may one day become an abandoned theory of humans.

In an age when the Documentary Hypothesis is shattering the faith of some Jews and Christians, the true but patchwork and human-smudged Book of Mormon may be just the thing to bear witness of the core truths of the Bible. The Book of Mormon may help remind us that the fingerprints of Deity are still in those ancient records in spite of many human smudges. The Book of Mormon may be just the thing, that is, if it in turn can withstand the fierce assault of the Documentary Hypothesis on its own integrity, for the Book of Mormon relies heavily on the Bible in ways that allow Documentary Hypothesis advocates to also challenge the historicity of the Book of Mormon.

The apparent consensus among the majority on the classical Documentary Hypothesis may not be as firm as RT implies. While I think many aspects of it may be valid, there is tremendous diversity among believers of the Documentary Hypothesis, and a significant body of serious scholars and students of the Bible who find it inadequate. It must be treated with both respect and a dose of caution.

On the other hand, Latter-day Saints are in a surprisingly good position with respect to some of the findings behind the Documentary Hypothesis. We can readily recognize that the creation of scripture can involve multiple documents from many time periods and sources that are combined into a patchwork of sorts as they are redacted by one or more editors, for that is the very process taking place before our eyes in the Book of Mormon, with the important and fascinating distinction that Mormon often allows us to see or infer what source material he is drawing upon. In the Book of Mormon, we can see a scriptural text being redacted before our very eyes, even to the point of having its own version of doublets, of stories told twice or more, especially with the inspired inclusion of the small plates that apparently puzzled Mormon because he recognized he was providing a large amount of duplicated information.

The complexity and textual sophistication of the Book of Mormon record is one that can help us better appreciate the origins of the Bible. This is especially so when we try to infer what was on the brass plates and how their content might differ from today's Masoretic text. John Sorenson, for example, wrote favorably of the Documentary Hypothesis ("The 'Brass Plates' and Biblical Scholarship," Dialog, vol. 10, no. 4, pp. 31-39). He proposed that the brass plates may have largely been related to E, the Elohist document. Evidence for that proposal includes the heavy use of "Lord" instead of "Jehovah" among the names for deity in the Book of Mormon: apart from a quotation from Isaiah, "Jehovah" only occurs once, in the last verse of the book. Further evidence includes the many prophets from the Northern Kingdom that are quoted.

Sorenson's hypothesis seems to fit in light of the broad characteristics of the 4 sources. According to Friedman in Who Wrote the Bible?,  E challenges the religious establishment in Judah with its priests from the family of Aaron, favors Moses over Aaron, favors prophets such as Samuel over priests (the word "prophet" never occurs in J and occurs only once in P!), and favors Ephraim, and was probably written by a Levite priest from Shiloh which is in Ephraim, from whence Samuel came. The author may have considered himself to be a descendent of Moses. On the other hand, J favors the religious establishment in Jerusalem, favors Aaron over Moses, and never mentions the Tabernacle, which was originally associated with the city of Shiloh, source of the branch of Levite priests that were considered a threat to the priests descended from Aaron in control in Judah.

Other characteristics of note:

  • E contains three chapters of law, which is what we expect in a document written by a priest or priests, while J does not. 1 Nephi 1:15-16 states that the law of Moses was recorded on the brass plates. 

  • The bronze serpent is an important symbol in E and is associated with a great miracle performed by Moses. E is the only source for that story, which also plays an important role in the Book of Mormon. The P document, on the other hand, praises Hezekiah for destroying the bronze serpent, viewed as a tool of idolatry.  

  • E and D refer to the mountain where Moses received his revelation as Horeb, while J and P call it Sinai. While Nephi may make allusions to Moses' experience on the mount as he also obtains revelation on mountains, Sinai is mentioned by name once by Abinadi in Mosiah 12:33, which does not strengthen Sorenson's hypothesis. (Of course, one could argue that whatever it was called in the original Book of Mormon text, Sinai would be a plausible "translation" to make the reference clear with how modern readers know the name of that mountain.) Consistent with Sorenson, the revelation at Horeb/Sinai was important in E but less so in J, which emphasized the covenant to the patriarchs and the House of David over the covenant at Sinai. 

  • The ark of the covenant does not appear in E (nor in the Book of Mormon) and the Tabernacle does not appear in J (in the Book of Mormon, the word tabernacle, possibly alluding to the Tabernacle of the Pentateuch, occurs in a quotation in of Isaiah 4:6 in 2 Nephi 14). 

  • E has no Creation story and no Flood story, at least not that was compiled into the Masoretic text. The brass plates discuss the Creation and the Flood. 

  • When Moses strikes a stone at Meribah and brings forth water from the rock for thirsty Israel, this is a positive miracle in E, but the story is repeated in the Bible from P and there becomes negative, somehow an act of disobedience that dooms Moses to die before entering the promised land. The Book of Mormon mentions that miracle in a positive light (1 Nephi 17:24). Further, the Book of Mormon is so positive about Moses that even his apparent death may have actually have been the miracle of being translated by the Lord (Alma 45:19), in apparent disagreement with the OT but also alluded to by Josephus

The sharp differences between J and E and between all four sources, for that matter, have led some to reject the Bible and their faith entirely. Friedman explains repeatedly that differences in texts that may reflect different interests and perspectives of those shaping the records do not imply that the basic events being treated are all fiction. It is important to also recognize what is shared between these sources. Of J and E, he writes:

The two versions, nonetheless, would be just that: versions, not completely unrelated works. They would still be drawing upon a common treasury of history and tradition because Israel and Judah had once been one united people, and in many ways they still were. They shared traditions of a divine promise to their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They shared traditions of having been slaves in Egypt, of an exodus from Egypt led by a man named Moses, of an extraordinary revelation at a mountain in the wilderness, and of years of wandering before settling in the promised land. Neither author was free to make up--or interested in making up--a completely new, fictional portrayal of history.

In style as well, once one version was established as a document bearing sacred national traditions, the author of the second, alternate version might well have consciously (or perhaps even unconsciously) decided to imitate its style. If the style of the first had come to be accepted in people's minds as the proper, formal, familiar language of recounting sacred tradition in that period, it would be in the second version's interest to preserve that manner of expression....

Another possible explanation for the stylistic similarity of J and E is that, rather than J's being based on E or E's being based on J, both may have been based on a common source that was prior to them. That is, there may have been an old, traditional cycle of stories about the patriarchs, exodus, etc. which both the authors of J and E used as a basis for their works. Such an original cycle would have been either written or an orally passed-down collection. In either case, once the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were established, the authors of E and J each adapted the collection to their respective concerns and purposes. [emphasis mine]

There may be corrupted, altered, or fabricated details between the versions, but there is a core of ancient experience behind these accounts, or even other ancient records, a possibility Friedman also acknowledges.

Yes, the final redaction to combine the distinct older documents into the Torah as we know it apparently came after the Exile and was probably done by Ezra, but the Exodus story is an ancient one that was widely known among the Jews of Nephi's day. Details of how it happened vary among the hypothesized documents and within the OT of our day.

Recently Friedman has further explained why it's a serious mistake to use the Documentary Hypothesis and the alleged lack of archaeological evidence for the Exodus to argue that the Exodus was fiction. See "The Exodus Is Not Fiction: An Interview With Richard Elliott Friedman," Reform Judaism, Spring 2014,  http://www.reformjudaism.org/exodus-not-fiction.

He sees evidence that the Exodus in some way was a historical event and points to evidence in support of some aspects of the concept, though he argues it probably happened to a much smaller group of Hebrews (perhaps the Levites only). Also see "Was There an Exodus?" by Joshua Berman, Mosaic Magazine, March 2, 2015.

As an aside, an interesting aspect of the brass plates is that they contained many prophecies of Jeremiah (1 Nephi 5:13) and other prophets. Jeremiah or his scribe is identified by Friedman as the author of Deuteronomy (D), both Dtr1 (the first version of D, before the Exile) and a much smaller body of adjustments made after the Exile, known as Dtr2. If Jeremiah's writings were on the brass plates, Dtr1 could easily have been there, too.

Thus, information from all five of the "Books of Moses" may have been present on the brass plates, either from a version of E plus D (Dtr1) and prophetic writings, or an older, more complete document related to E plus D and prophetic writings. If so, Nephi's reference to the "five books of Moses" (1 Nephi 5:11) found in the brass plates could be reasonable. The information may not have been neatly organized in five books, and instead he may have called it the Torah of Moses, with "five books of Moses" being a reasonable translation for modern readers. Or perhaps there were five distinct groupings.  Bible scholarship here may cause us to question whether this phrase was Nephi's or a translator, but questions raised by the Book of Mormon can also help us modify our understanding of Bible origins.

Ultimately, the Book of Mormon may be exactly what the world of Bible scholars and students need to re-evaluate, revise, and perhaps even validate theories on the origin of scripture. If Nephi uses something from P, for example, and we have evidence for the authenticity of Nephi's record, that's the kind of evidence that ought to help us push back on any theories that require P to be post-exilic. When RT applies a popular theory to exclude Book of Mormon evidence, he may actually have things quite backwards. The evidence, if it holds, may be a useful tool in the end for revising weak spots in the theory.

Of course, the translated text of the Book of Mormon may not always accurately reflect what was on the gold plates and/or brass plates due to artifacts of translation and even "expansion" by Joseph Smith, as Blake Ostler has proposed. This is where work pointing to frequent evidence of at least some tight control in the translation of the text may be especially helpful and relevant (e.g., Hebraisms and Hebraic poetry, names, and even the puzzling and controversial issue of Early Modern English influences in the text that are independent of or distinct from the patterns of KJV language).

There is much more research to be done and much more to understand. I suspect that as we seek to better extract what was on the brass plates and to relate that material to Bible scholarship, we may learn more about both the Book of Mormon and the Bible.

Are You Saying that an Alleged Sacred Text Engraved on Precious Metal around 600 BC Challenges Some Aspects of the Documentary Hypothesis?

That's exactly what I'm saying. Well, almost exactly, if you'll kindly change one word in that question: delete alleged, because the engraves sacred text is NOT alleged, but real, tangible, and has now been scientifically studied by scholars who have confirmed its date, its reality, and its relevance.

Oh, I'm not talking about those engravings, not the gold plates of Nephi nor the brass plates he brought to the New World. I'm talking about the much smaller silver plates, or rather, two small silver scrolls that were found near Jerusalem that have been carefully examined and dated to pre-exilic times around 600 BC, which quote from a passage in Numbers that is part of the P document. This archaeological find further destroys the argument that P was a late creation after or during the Exile. See:

If finding P material on tiny silver plates from Nephi's day helps to overturn some aspects of the "two centuries of scholarship" behind previous theories about the Pentateuch, we might do well to also consider the possibility that Nephi's writings and allusions to Exodus themes, including allusions to possible P material, may be useful in helping us recalibrate the tools used in establishing various versions of the Documentary Hypothesis or competing theories of Bible origins.

As mentioned above, John Sorenson has laid a foundation in evaluating the Book of Mormon in light of the Documentary Hypothesis by pointing out the strong Elohist (E) elements of the Book of Mormon text. I suggest that there are many more veins to explore, using some of the techniques applied by Bible scholars in exploring the OT test.

The Book of Mormon is complicated by the lack of the original gold plates to explore, but we do have the translated text, including the richness of Royal Skousen's Earliest Text of the Book of Mormon. There are complex issues to explore, such as the complexities of the dictated language with its strange reliance on a form of English, long thought to just be Joseph's bad grammar, now being shown to contain a strong vein of Early Modern English predating the KJV. Yet there are also apparent Hebraisms that have survived translation, many Hebraic word plays that can be reconstructed.

There is also the translation factor of a strong preference for KJV phrases to be used, apparently when appropriate, even when those phrases come from the New Testament. The Book of Mormon is cast into the familiar language of scripture in a complex, subtle, and pervasive way, yet loaded with grammatical structures that predate the KJV. In addition, there are the complexities of numerous documents and authors contributing to the Book of Mormon, whose individual styles also seem to survive translation. Pulling out the various signals that give us the Book of Mormon and extracting more detailed information about what may have been on the brass plates and what Nephi and others knew and said in 600 BC and later, is an opportunity for further scholarship that I trust will be fruitful.

A Lack of P Influence in the Book of Mormon, and Is That a Problem or Strength?

Sorenson's hypothesis that the brass plates were influenced by E seems reasonable given that the plates were from the tribe of Joseph and would be expected to have some of the same influences that the northern E appears to have. Likewise, even though P dominates the Torah, providing over 50% of it and a larger portion of Exodus, the Book of Mormon in my tentative view appears to lack the major characteristics that have helped scholars identify P. These P elements include an emphasis on the need for priests descended from Aaron and a favoring of Aaron over Moses, extensive details on the construction of the tabernacle, the concept of central sacrifices and worship, the idea that no sacrifice was practiced before the revelation at Sinai, the exalted status of Aaron and the priesthood, and the use of the divine title El Shaddai prior to Sinai.

In P, God is also less anthropomorphic and more ethereal or cosmic. There are no angels. The emphasis is on the law and the role of the official Aaronid priests, who are essential for the purity and worship of the people. P also serves to establish the income of priests, ensuring that sacrifices are made under their control which gives them food, and that tithing is paid through them. In describing some of the characteristics of the priestly source, Friedman in Who Wrote the Bible? says this:

The issue is not just sacrifice. For the author of P, it is the larger principle that the consecrated priests are the only intermediaries between humans and God. In the P versions of the stories, there are no angels. There are no talking animals. There are no dreams. Even the word "prophet" does not occur in P except once, and there it refers to Aaron. In P there are no blatant anthropomorphisms. In JE, God walks in the garden of Eden, God personally makes Adam's and Eve's clothes, personally closes Noah's ark, smells Noah's sacrifice, wrestles with Jacob, and speaks to Moses out of the burning bush. None of these things are in P. In JE, God personally speaks the Ten Commandments out loud from the heavens over Sinai. In P he does not. P depicts Yahweh as more cosmic, less personal, than in JE. 

This all seems to contrast with the Book of Mormon, where God is anthropomorphic and is seen and heard by men, where angels play a vital role throughout the text, where religion is not centralized and even a temple (more than one, in fact) can be built without scandal in a new land (as the Jews at Elephantine, Egypt did).

While the Book of Mormon mentions Moses over 30 times, always in a positive light (unlike P), the treatment of his brother Aaron is quite unlike P. While the Book of Mormon features the name of Aaron as a name, including the name of a small city, the Aaron of the Old Testament is never mentioned, nor is the Aaronic Priesthood, which seems like a puzzling omission if Joseph Smith was fabricating the Book of Mormon to pave the way for a Church that has both the Melchizedek and Aaronic priesthoods. Priests are ordained, but there is no requirement that they be descended from Aaron or anyone else, it seems; even Lamanites can become priests (Alma 23:4) and prophets.  

The priests of the Book of Mormon are expressly unpaid (Alma 1:26), having to labor with their own hands, in strong contrast to P. They are ordained to teach and serve, not to live off the labors of the people--with the notable exception of the wicked priests of King Noah, who show some of the same blindness and corruption that the priests of Jerusalem did in Lehi's day.

Critics have complained that the Book of Mormon is far too unlike the Bible (or rather, unlike P) by failing to emphasize sacrificial rituals (though sacrifice certainly was part of their worship, as we learn in a mere two or three verses, not expanses of P-like text as some critics require). In fact, a number of common complaints about the Book of Mormon's contradicting the Bible or being too unbiblical really are complaints that the Book of Mormon is not following P. The Documentary Hypothesis may helps us better appreciate why that weakness may be a strength of the Book of Mormon, or at least an intriguing, plausible feature worthy of further study.

RT complains that the Book of Mormon is too biblical (my wording, not his) in drawing upon the Exodus so thoroughly. Meanwhile, other critics deride the Book of Mormon for being not biblical enough. They criticize it for failing to show the importance of centralized worship, for thinking that a temple could be built outside of Jerusalem, for not having complex sacrificial rituals established under the order of an elite group of Levites only, etc. But many of these are complaints about the relative unimportance of P in the Book of Mormon, which actually makes sense if the Nephites have been heavily influenced by a northern kingdom E-like text and their forefathers were at odds with the established priests in Jerusalem in Lehi's day.

A Reminder

As a reminder, the Nahom evidence is more than just a name on a map. Nahom is near the only place where an eastward turn is possible away from the incense trails. Taking that turn and going east brings you to an excellent candidate for a place long thought to not exist, Bountiful. This is more than just a "notable" attempt to sound like a real journey. Given the implausibility of using anything short of modern tools such as satellite maps to identify a Bountiful-like place on the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula and to describe its location ("nearly due east") relative to an actual, accessible place with a rare place name (Nahom/NHM), is it more likely that the details of the First Nephi journey are best explained as a description from someone who actually made the journey or had first-hand knowledge of Arabia, as opposed to a farmer whose R&D team managed to find a map of Arabia?

Kent Brown offers this view in his chapter, "New Light from Arabia on Lehi's Trail" in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, one of many online books available at the Maxwell Institute. Here is one except regarding the significance of the eastward turn in Lehi's journey, right after the group has buried Ishmael at the ancient burial place of Nahom/Nehhem:

The most important piece in this section concerns Nephi's note that "we did travel nearly eastward from that time forth," after events at Nahom (1 Nephi 17:1). This geographical notice is one of the few in Nephi's narrative, and it begs us to examine it. We first observe that, northwest of Marib, the ancient capital of the Sabean kingdom of south Arabia, almost all roads turn east, veering from the general north-south direction of the incense trail. Moreover--and we emphasize this point--the eastward bend occurs in the general area inhabited by the Nihm tribe. Joseph Smith could not have known about this eastward turn in the main incense trail. No source, ancient or contemporary, mentions it. Only a person who had traveled either near or along the trail would know that it turned eastward in this area. To be sure, the longest leg of the incense trail ran basically north-south along the upland side of the mountains of western Arabia (actually, from the north the trail held in a south-southeast direction, as Nephi said). But after passing south of Najran (modern Ukhdd, Saudi Arabia), both the main trail and several shortcuts turned eastward, all leading to Shabwah, the chief staging center for caravans in south Arabia. One spur of the trail continued farther southward to Aden. But the traffic along this section was very much less than that which went to and from Shabwah. The main trail and its spurs ran eastward, matching Nephi's description. Wells were there, and authorities at Shabwah controlled the finest incense of the region that was coming westward from Oman, both overland and by sea. It is the only place along the incense trail where traffic ran east-west. Further, ancient laws mandated where caravans were to carry incense and other goods, keeping traffic to this east-west corridor. Neither Joseph Smith nor anyone else in his society knew these facts. But Nephi did.

That's a remarkable feat, like so much about the miraculous and divine Book of Mormon that is, like the Bible, still covered with human fingerprints. In the many steps of engraving, editing, translating, and printing, human hands have played a role. Understanding that process, imperfections and all, can and should help us better understand the Bible and its origins. And understanding the best scholarship on the origins of the Bible may ultimately help us better understand the Book of Mormon, but it's a two-way street. Evidence needs to be considered both ways, not prematurely buried in spite of showing vigorous signs of life when it doesn't fit the reigning paradigm.

Related resources:

Joshua Berman, "Was There an Exodus?" by Mosaic Magazine, March 2, 2015.

Richard Elliott Friedman, "The Exodus Is Not Fiction: An Interview With Richard Elliott Friedman," Reform Judaism, Spring 2014, http://www.reformjudaism.org/exodus-not-fiction

Richard Elliot Friedman, "Current Thought About the Documentary Hypothesis," Introduction to Empirical Models for Biblical Criticism, Jeffrey Tigay, Editor.

Kevin L. Barney, "Reflections on the Documentary Hypothesis," Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 33 No. 1, Spring 2000: 57-99.

"Bible Texts on Silver Amulets Dated to First Temple Period," Haaretz.com, Sept. 19, 2004.

"Ketef Hinnom," Wikipedia.org, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ketef_Hinnom.

Stephen Caesar, "The Blessing of the Silver Scrolls, " BibleArchaeology.org, 2010.

John Van Seters, " Some remarks of the paper by Rolf Rendtorff, "What happened to the 'Yahwist'?", SBL Forum , n.p. [cited June 2006]. Online: http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=561.

Amazon description of John Van Seters, The Edited Bible: The Curious History of the "Editor" in Biblical Critism.

Konrad Schmid, "Genesis and the Moses Story," BibleInterp.com, Oct. 2010, http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/3gen357926.shtml.

Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg, "The Exodus: Does archaeology have a say?," Jerusalem Post, April 4, 2014.

Kevin Christensen, comment on the Documentary Hypothesis, http://lds.net/forums/topic/8162-documentary-hypothesis-and-the-lds-position/page-2. 

For more from Jeff Lindsay, see Mormanity at http://mormanity.blogspot.com and his Mormon Answers section at http://jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/.


Bookmark and Share    
About Jeff Lindsay

Jeff Lindsay has been defending the Church on the Internet since 1994, when he launched his LDSFAQ website under JeffLindsay.com. He has also long been blogging about LDS matters on the blog Mormanity (mormanity.blogspot.com). Jeff is a longtime resident of Appleton, Wisconsin, who recently moved to Shanghai, China, with his wife, Kendra. He works for an Asian corporation as head of intellectual property. Jeff and Kendra are the parents of 4 boys, 3 married and the the youngest on a mission.

He is a former innovation and IP consultant, a former professor, and former Corporate Patent Strategist and Senior Research Fellow for a multinational corporation.

Jeff Lindsay, Cheryl Perkins and Mukund Karanjikar are authors of the book Conquering Innovation Fatigue (John Wiley & Sons, 2009).

Jeff has a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from Brigham Young University and is a registered US patent agent. He has more than 100 granted US patents and is author of numerous publications. Jeff's hobbies include photography, amateur magic, writing, and Mandarin Chinese.

Copyright © Hatrack River Enterprise Inc. All Rights Reserved. Web Site Hosted and Designed by WebBoulevard.com