Not long ago I posted a few thoughts on the improbable battle numbers reported in the Book of Mormon.
In response to my post, some offered very interesting thoughts on the interplay between archaeology, history, and the critical reading of ancient sources.
Others, however, were not so nuanced.
Over at the ex-Mormon Subreddit, for instance, the diligent savants of that prestigious salon were less than impressed with my arguments. The main complaint, as far as I could tell, was that my post was just another sad example of an apologist making up stuff on the fly to save his desperate faith in the Book of Mormon.
Because . . . something, something . . . confirmation bias!
This morning I encountered a rather interesting passage in a book on ancient Egyptian history.
One of the hardest tasks for the scholar of ancient Egypt is to subject the textual record to historical criticism. Often a single source, or a set that presents the same point of view, provides the only information on an event or a practice. It is thus difficult to ascertain whether the outcome of a military campaign was as glorious as the author proclaims or even whether the campaign took place. In other fields of historical research the rule that a single testimony is no testimony is often invoked, but this attitude would leave ancient Egyptian history in tatters, as often we have to rely on one source only. Historians need to use great caution.
(Marc Van De Mieroop, A History of Ancient Egypt [Oxford: Wiley–Blackwell, 2011], 13.)
Van De Mieroop reminds us, “The modern concept of history is very different from the ancient Egyptians” (19). The ancient Egyptians, after all, “did not produce accounts that professed to be accurate historical investigations of the past.” Rather, they wrote accounts and stories “of historical figures” that functioned to “inspire royal and elite conduct that could deal with adversity” (13–14).
The point here, of course, is that mainstream scholars (historians and archaeologists and the like) frequently urge us all the time to be very cautious in accepting the historical claims of ancient texts on face value. We must read these texts critically, and in addition to the non-textual data take into consideration such factors as authorship, bias, sources, literary, narrative, or compositional technique, etc., when we evaluate the text’s historicity. This is especially true when we have only one surviving source on a given topic.
(Notice that Van De Mieroop specifically mentioned the claimed outcome of military campaigns as a prominent example of when we need to be cautious in evaluating ancient historical sources.)
We must ask questions such as: what religious, political, or social agenda does this text attempt to promote? Why did the author of this text present the history of such-and-such in this manner? What liberties might the author have taken in his presentation of this history? Why did he do such? What was his purpose? What was he attempting to communicate to his readers? How might these liberties have affected the text’s historicity? How does this technique compare to the literary culture of neighboring societies?
If this is the standard procedure for evaluating ancient Egyptian sources (and it is the same procedure, by the way, used by biblical scholars grappling with the historical claims of the Hebrew Bible), then what exactly is the problem with me wanting to do the same for the Book of Mormon?
–––Addendum (July 7, 2016)–––
I encountered the following a day after posting this, and thought it’d be appropriate to just stick it here:
In contrast to the texts of other ancient Near Eastern cultures which typically provide relatively little information about the size of their armies, the Bible includes a great deal of information about the number of Israelite troops. Unfortunately, much of this information is problematic. . . . The numbers appear quite high, especially considering the apparent size of the armies of other, better established contemporary nations. . . . This difficulty has led many to discount the biblical numbers altogether, or consider them to be intentional exaggerations. Clearly, the Bible does include exaggerations. . . . Thus, some argue that the biblical numbers often also exaggerate to make certain points, such as glorifying the God of Israel.
(Boyd Seevers, Warfare in the Old Testament: The Organization, Weapons, and Tactics of Ancient Near Eastern Armies [Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2013], 53.)
If the Bible can get away with doing this, why can’t the Book of Mormon?