On Names, Culture, and Religion: Three Tests for Historicity

Mormon and Moroni by Joseph Brickey.

“There is reason to believe that the story of Israel’s ancestors (Gen. 12–50), though understood in the light of later experiences, reflects to some degree the cultural background of the millennium starting with Hammurabi’s reign (second millennium B.C.E.).” So states Bernhard W. Anderson in his volume Understanding the Old Testament. Anderson offers three main categories of evidence to support this claim.

“First, ancient documents recovered at Ebla and other sites suggest that many parents in this period gave children names such as Abram, Benjamin, Michael, and Ishmael.” In other words, the names in the Patriarchal Narratives of the Pentateuch are authentic to the purported time period of the accounts.

“Second, Israel’s ancestral tradition depicts social customs and legal usages that are much more in harmony with Mesopotamian practice during the second millennium than with Israel’s life during the monarchy.” In other words, the culture described in Genesis more closely aligns with the second millennium BC (when the accounts purport to happen) than with the first millennium BC (when these accounts were finally committed to writing).

Third, “The religion of Israel’s ancestors . . . authentically belongs to the period that precedes Moses. . . . Many statements in the book of Genesis, when considered against the backdrop of the culture of the Fertile Crescent, help us understand the probably character of religious beliefs before Moses.” In other words, the form of religion practiced by the figures portrayed in Genesis appears to be authentic for the time.

(Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, abridged fourth ed. [Upper Saddle River, N. J.: Prentice Hall, 1998], 39.)

So, according to Anderson, one way you can count on a text having some measure of historicity is if the (1) names, (2) culture, and (3) religion of the text can be correlated with real world evidence from the period of time being portrayed.

This methodology has been fruitfully employed by such scholars as K. A. Kitchen, J. K. Hoffmeier, W. Dever, and others to illustrate the varying degrees of historicity underlying various accounts in the Hebrew Bible.

What about the Book of Mormon? Using these three categories, do we find evidence for the historicity of the Nephite record in the ancient Near East and ancient Mesoamerica? Doing a non-exhaustive and quick look at the available literature, we encounter the following.

With regard to names:

  • “Were Any Ancient Israelite Women Named Sariah?”
  • “Why Would Nephi Call The Ocean “Irreantum”?”
  • John A. Tvedtnes, John Gee, and Matthew Roper, “Book of Mormon Names Attested in Ancient Hebrew Inscriptions,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9, no. 1 (2000): 40–51.
  • John A. Tvedtnes, “Names of People: Book of Mormon,” in Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics, 4 vols., ed. Geoffrey Khan (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2013), 787–788.
  • Stephen D. Ricks, “Some Notes on Book of Mormon Names,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 4 (2013): 155–160.
  • Stephen D. Ricks, “A Nickname and a Slam Dunk: Notes on the Book of Mormon Names Zeezrom and Jershon,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 8 (2014): 191–194.
  • Matthew L. Bowen “‘And There Wrestled a Man with Him’ (Genesis 32:24): Enos’s Adaptations of the Onomastic Wordplay of Genesis,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 10 (2014): 151–160.
  • Matthew L. Bowen, “‘What Thank They the Jews’? (2 Nephi 29:4): A Note on the Name “Judah” and Antisemitism,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 12 (2014): 111–125.
  • Matthew L. Bowen and Pedro Olavarria, “Place of Crushing: The Literary Function of Heshlon in Ether 13:25-31,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 14 (2015): 227–239.
  • Matthew L. Bowen, “Father Is a Man: The Remarkable Mention of the Name Abish in Alma 19:16 and Its Narrative Context,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 14 (2015): 77–93.

With regard to culture, society, and jurisprudence:

  • “Did Ancient Israelites Write In Egyptian?”
  • “Did Lehi Use The Poetry Of The Ancient Bedouin?”
  • “Who Called Ishmael’s Burial Place Nahom?”
  • John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1985).
  • John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013).
  • John L. Sorenson, Images of Ancient America: Visualizing Book of Mormon Life (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1998).
  • Brant A. Gardner, Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2015).
  • Mark Alan Wright and Brant A. Gardner, “The Cultural Context of Nephite Apostasy,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 1 (2012): 25–55.
  • John E. Clark, “Archaeology, Relics, and Book of Mormon Belief,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14, no. 2 (2005): 38–49.
  • John E. Clark, “Archaeological Trends and the Book of Mormon Origins,” in The Worlds of Joseph Smith: A Bicentennial Conference at the Library of Congress, John W. Welch, ed. (Provo, UT: BYU Press, 2006), 83–104.
  • John A. Tvedtnes, “The Hebrew Background of the Book of Mormon,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon: Insights You May Have Missed Before, ed. John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne (Provo, UT: 1991), 77–91.
  • S. Kent Brown and Peter Johnson, ed., Journey of Faith: From Jerusalem to the Promised Land (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2006).
  • Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin, ed., Warfare in the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1990).
  • John W. Welch and Stephen D. Ricks, eds., King Benjamin’s Speech: “That Ye May Learn Wisdom” (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1998).
  • John W. Welch, The Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon (Provo, Utah: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2008).

With regard to religious practices:

Using this methodology accepted by biblical scholars, the Book of Mormon fits all three criteria. (So too does the Book of Abraham, by the way.) We might therefore ask: if scholars are willing to take the historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives in Genesis seriously on these grounds, why shouldn’t we take the historicity of the Book of Mormon seriously as well?

14 thoughts on “On Names, Culture, and Religion: Three Tests for Historicity

  1. The answer is simple. No one outside of Mormonism/BYU sees anyone but Joseph Smith as the author. Perhaps if he hadn't been so shady and the plates were around, it would be a different story. But, seriously? There are so many issues with the history in the BOM itself that no matter how many articles are written by Mormons, there are historical questions that most Biblical scholars can't get around. I mean, it's been nearly 200 years since the publication of the BOM and yet there are no BOM professors at BYU, not to mention outside of it. If the history of the BOM could be verified, perhaps religious scholars could/would take it seriously. But that's more than likely never to happen.

    • "No one outside of Mormonism/BYU sees anyone but Joseph Smith as the author."

      And? What does this have to do with the strength of the evidence presented above?

      Have any of them, for example, critically engaged Mormon arguments for the book's historicity?

      If you mean to say this somehow casts doubt on the book's historicity, or the strength of the arguments made for such, then I'm afraid you're doing little more than appealing to an ad hominem fallacy.

      "I mean, it's been nearly 200 years since the publication of the BOM and yet there are no BOM professors at BYU, not to mention outside of it."

      So all those professors of ancient scripture in the Religious Education department who have taught classes on the Book of Mormon (Mark Wright, Kerry Hull, David Seely, Richard Holzapfel, David Larsen, Jacob Rennaker, Shon Hopkin, etc., etc.) somehow don't count? Why not?

      What is a "BOM Professor" anyway? How do you define it?

      "If the history of the BOM could be verified, perhaps religious scholars could/would take it seriously."

      So none of the publications above in the OP are suggestive of anything to you? Have you read them? And closely, critically?

    • “And? What does this have to do with the strength of the evidence presented above? Have any of them, for example, critically engaged Mormon arguments for the book's historicity?”

      The point I’m trying to make is not so much concerning the strength of the evidences you present as much as the fact that non-Mormons don’t really care because of other issues within the BOM. Professors outside BYU don’t even begin to take historicity of the BOM into account because of the authorial issues.

      “So all those professors of ancient scripture in the Religious Education department who have taught classes on the Book of Mormon (Mark Wright, Kerry Hull, David Seely, Richard Holzapfel, David Larsen, Jacob Rennaker, Shon Hopkin, etc., etc.) somehow don't count? Why not? What is a "BOM Professor" anyway? How do you define it?”

      I don’t question the credentials of said professors. They know their stuff. But there are no graduate courses on the BOM (correct me if I’m wrong). One cannot obtain a Ph.D. in Book of Mormon Studies. Obviously the BOM has been taught, and will continue to be taught, at BYU and nothing will change that. My definition of a BOM professor would be the equivalent of a New or Old Testament professor at another university. Does that make sense? Sure, you can write these articles all the day long about the similarities the BOM may have to other ancient texts, but there are some fundamental issues that I just don’t think you’ll ever be able to get around. If you could, I think scholars outside BYU would be taking the BOM seriously.

      “So none of the publications above in the OP are suggestive of anything to you? Have you read them? And closely, critically?”

      I’ve read some of them. I’ve taken a class from Ricks and covered much of, if not all, the material in the articles you reference there. Certainly I could read more. It’s not that the arguments are poor. It’s that as a non-believer, I feel like you have to be able to accept that Joseph actually translated, rather than wrote, the book before you can really take these arguments seriously. I certainly could more of those articles. But, I’m skeptical that they would be sufficient to convince me that the BOM was not written by JS. As much as I’d like to rely on Martin Harris’ account of what went down between him and Prof. Anthon, it is rather insufficient in convincing me that the plates actually existed. Perhaps it wouldn’t be for other non-Mormons, but I think authorship is just something you can’t get around, or at very least cannot answer easily.

      Again, these articles may demonstrate good arguments for the historicity of the BOM, but without being able to get around other historical, geographical, and authorial issues (to name a few), I think the BOM will never be taken seriously outside of BYU.

      And honestly, it feels like BYU doesn’t really want its students to take it TOO seriously either based upon the recent restructuring of the core classes. They are set up such that they are meant to reinforce “testimonies” of what they already know rather than challenge them. And I can’t say I blame BYU for doing that because certainly these issues often trigger faith-crises that may eventually lead to people leaving it. But do you see what I mean?

      Heck, BYU doesn’t even want to have a lot of people going into ANES for similar reasons, I would argue. Just look at the history of the major over the last decade or so. BYU is not properly prepping its current ANES students for the rigor of Ph.D. programs. At least, that’s what I observed based upon my wife’s experience. I wouldn’t be surprised if the major eventually just disappeared over time because it is such a minefield for LDS people.

    • "The point I’m trying to make is not so much concerning the strength of the evidences you present as much as the fact that non-Mormons don’t really care because of other issues within the BOM."

      Why should I care about that? If, as you just said, the issue isn't about the strength of the evidence itself but whether non-Mormons care or not to look at it, what's the problem? Shouldn't we be following the evidence, not whether something is trendy or not in scholarly circles? Isn't that how scholarship and science, ideally, is supposed to be done?

      "Professors outside BYU don’t even begin to take historicity of the BOM into account because of the authorial issues."

      But that's exactly my point in this blog post. Using the same methodology biblical scholars use to determine historicity in Genesis, you can see evidence for historicity in the Book of Mormon. So my concluding question was, largely, rhetorical. The fact that they don't indicates, I believe, something of a double standard.

      "If you could, I think scholars outside BYU would be taking the BOM seriously."

      Do you mean scholars like Paul Gutjahr and Stephen Webb and Terryl Givens and Grant Hardy and Margaret Barker and others?

      "But, I’m skeptical that they would be sufficient to convince me that the BOM was not written by JS."

      Well I thank you for at least being upfront enough to admit this is in large part an issue of world views and personal biases as much as it is an issue of scholarship. I wish more non-believers would be so candid.

      "Again, these articles may demonstrate good arguments for the historicity of the BOM, but without being able to get around other historical, geographical, and authorial issues (to name a few), I think the BOM will never be taken seriously outside of BYU."

      What "historical, geographical, and authorial issues" has this body of scholarship not adequately addressed?

      "it feels like BYU"

      Correction, it feels like some BYU administrators. I have it on very, very good authority that the overwhelming majority of the Religious Ed department is not happy with these developments.

      "BYU is not properly prepping its current ANES students for the rigor of Ph.D. programs."

      Highly debatable. Take a look at where BYU ANES grads are being placed. Now take a look at how many remain faithful versus how many go the David Wright track. Speaking from firsthand, personal experience, I think the trend would surprise you.

    • “Do you mean scholars like Paul Gutjahr and Stephen Webb and Terryl Givens and Grant Hardy and Margaret Barker and others?”
      Any of these non-Mormon by chance? If so, color me impressed.
      “What "historical, geographical, and authorial issues" has this body of scholarship not adequately addressed?”
      You mean to tell me there is definitive evidence to come to certain conclusions on all of the above? If that’s the case, then more scholars really do need to take the BOM seriously.
      “Correction, it feels like some BYU administrators. I have it on very, very good authority that the overwhelming majority of the Religious Ed department is not happy with these developments. “
      And that’s supposed to be comforting? That’s even more disconcerting if this is just coming from the top. But, regardless, I don’t see it going away anytime soon. Even in their form when I was attending, I never attended a class in which I really had to challenge my assumptions about church history or the BOM. My point is that BYU will never create courses in the religion department that are very challenging intellectually. At least none that are required.
      At the end of the day, until the JS golden plates are given back to the earth and can come under serious scrutiny, it will never be taken seriously by non-Mormon scholars. Call it stupid. Call it unfair. That’s just how it goes. I’m unaware of any religious text, whose original text is unfound, that is taken seriously by scholars. Perhaps one could make an argument for the Q source, but that’s a different story.

    • "Any of these non-Mormon by chance? If so, color me impressed. "

      Gutjahr, Webb, and Barker are non-Mormons and have academic training in Bible/religion. I threw Givens and Hardy in the lot because even though they're Mormons, they don't teach at BYU, and you specifically asked for non-BYU people, not non-Mormons. 😉

    • As a PhD candidate in biological and chemical sciences, I feel compelled to also express that certain claims in the Book of Mormon that can seem incongruent with modern science. However, along my journey through life I have learned some VERY important truth. These truths are: 1)There is a God. 2) He loves his children. ALL of them. 3) We are not wired to see nor understand things the way God sees and understands them. 4) We walk by faith and not by sight, but that does not mean that our eyes should be closed. Rather, it means that when it's dark, we must rely on His wisdom, His understanding, and His vision to guide us.

      With Josh, I voice my concern that too many members of the church disregard evidences that should raise questions. It's like as soon as a question comes up, it is deemed heresy and left unanswered. Fortunately, the church is doing a much better job of being transparent on these issues than it has in the past. I believe that questions should always be addressed. I absolutely love it when someone brings up evolution regardless of whether it is a member of the church who refutes it or an atheist who refutes the idea of creation.

      Questions are vital to our progression. One of the most underscored principles in all of scripture is "Ask, and ye shall receive. Knock, and it shall be opened unto you." But an unanswered question does not mean that there is not an answer. There is undoubtedly an answer to every question, but we are to learn "line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little." "And he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day."

      The Book of Mormon is not without its imperfections, but to quote the Prophet Joseph, "a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book." The precepts, principles, and propositions that are contained in the Book of Mormon are true. It's historicity, scientific, and literary issues take a back seat to the divine purpose of the Book which is to bring men to Christ.

      I am not saying to disregard any of these things. Let's keep asking questions. Let's keep seeking truth. But most importantly, let's keep our faith in God, in His son Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.

    • Jared,

      If you don't mind me asking, what are your thoughts on evolution in the context of LDS theology? I know some LDS people believe in evolution on a biological level (plants, animals, and the like), but refute evolution as it relates to humans. Just curious. The LDS church now maintains a neutral stance of some sort, but that was definitely not always the case. And to a certain degree, I would say that continues to play out in the science department at BYU.

  2. Impressed I am then. Interesting you should mention Givens. I'm not sure what his stance is on validity of the BOM as an ancient text, but he certainly acknowledges its pitfalls and unanswered questions and has tried to make space for those in the church who would look at the BOM in different ways than the mainstream church. While I don't agree with his all his conclusions, I have a lot of respect for him.

    • "I'm not sure what his stance is on validity of the BOM as an ancient text"

      He believes it is ancient. His published work has been criticized, in fact, for being too soft on the arguments for historicity or other "apologist" arguments. (That was one of the main criticisms leveled at By the Hand of Mormon, for example, by non-believers.)

      He acknowledges unanswered questions and the like because that's the intellectually honest thing to do, just as is it intellectually honest to acknowledge the evidence for historicity.

    • "He acknowledges unanswered questions and the like because that's the intellectually honest thing to do, just as is it intellectually honest to acknowledge the evidence for historicity."

      Precisely, which is why I respect him.

  3. It appears that the majority of the articles you have cited are not what one would call a reputable scholarly peer reviewed sources. Any scholar from outside of the LDS culture would seriously question your sources and then conclude that the information would be less reliable than you claim. I am sure the authors of the papers do have papers in more scholarly journals but not on the subject of the historicity of the book of mormon.

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