Sunday, April 2, 2017

Approaching Higher Criticism from a Faithful Perspective, Part 3

So far I have written posts addressing the Documentary Hypothesis (DH), and a series of posts (Part I, Part II) discussing how to approach biblical criticism from a faithful perspective. In this final part of the series I will discuss how ideas such as the DH and biblical criticism can give us insight into LDS scriptures.

In the DH there are four primary sources, and at least one major editor known as the redactor, for the text of the first five books of the Bible. The idea is that the four sources were written in different geographical, social and political contexts, and thus tended to approach stories such as the flood, or creation, or Moses and Aaron in different ways. At some later date all four sources were edited and compiled into a single work to create a single coherent document that is now included in the Bible.

These editorial changes were completed sometime before the 2nd century BC because we know from the Dead Sea scrolls that the text of the first five books of the Bible have not changed significantly since then. There are minor variations, but nothing on the scale implied by the DH. This gives a hard final date of about 150 BC for the compiling of the Torah. Discussions about when the four sources were written and when the redactor did his work refer to dates as being either early or late. Generally a late date for a source is some time after the end of the Babylonian exile in about 500 BC up until the earliest date of the Dead Sea scrolls in 150 BC. If a Biblical scholar says that a source has a late date they are generally saying that it was written sometime between 500 and 150 BC*. An early date for a source generally refers to it being written sometime between 900-600 BC*.

[*This is the only asterisk I will put in. I have read a few scholars who are willing to argue about what it means to have an early or late date for a source. Some will say an early date is 600-500 BC and a late date is 200-100 BC. Some also break it down into early middle and late. For the most part I will avoid all those discussions and stick with 900-600 BC as early dates and 500-150 BC with late dates.]

There are a few major possible timelines for the timing of when the four sources (J, E, P, and D) were written and when the redactor (R) did his work. Some of these timelines require more than one redactor since some sources (J and E) were combined before all four were combined by the final redactor. Here are a few possible timelines (TL) for when the sources were written and redacted.

Moses Early Late

There are obviously a range of possibilities and what I have included in the table does not even begin to encompass them (for example, my own preferred timeline is not on the table). Generally Biblical scholarship centers on timelines 4-6, which assumes that none of what we now call the five books of Moses were actually written by Moses. Traditionalists, most believers, and biblical literalists insist on timelines 1 and 2 (or some slight variation of those timelines), which assumes that most of the first five books were written by Moses at a very early date. There are of course other possibilities, for example, P and portions of J and E written by Moses, and then redacted at an early date, with D written some time before 600 BC with the final redactor doing his work after 500 BC. I should also point out that even with timelines 3 and 4 that means even though J, E and P were written at an early date, the could have been based on on even earlier unknown sources.

So how is this related to an LDS understanding of scripture? As I mentioned in Part II, some of these possible timelines, namely the ones preferred by many Biblical scholars, present problems for a historical Book of Mormon, because if the first five books of Moses had not been written by 600 BC then Lehi and his family could not possibly have carried those books with them when they left Jerusalem. That would mean all references to the brass plates would be an anachronism. This has lead some members to view the Book of Mormon as not literally historical in order to reconcile their faith with the consensus of modern Biblical scholarship. But there are assumptions with a late date for all sources that I do not think matches with what we know from archaeology. I think the weight of evidence points towards an early date (at least!) for all four sources and a late, post-exile date for the redactor.

If the harmonization happened after the exile and the redactor was Ezra as proposed by Richard Elliott Friedman, then the obvious question is, "What was on the brass plates?" We know there were writings of prophets not even mentioned in the Bible, but it would also mean that what we now know as the five books of Moses was radically different than what Lehi and his family read on the brass plates. There may be important differences, and there may be major stories or prophecies left out.

For example, in Nephi 1 and 2 Lehi mentions and quotes from some of the writing of Joseph of Egypt that do not appear in the Bible. Also we know that both Lehi was descended from Manasseh, and Laban who was keeping the brass plates was related to Lehi, which means the brass plates most likely contained the version of the writings of Moses and the story of creation, the patriarchs and the history of Israel that was preserved by the Northern Kingdom. This may explain why the redactor, who was from the tribe of Judah, did not include the writings of prophets found on the brass plates mentioned in the Book of Mormon. Either the redactor, who did his work after the exile, did not have those writings because they were working from sources primarily from the Kingdom of Judah, or they chose not to include those writings due to political, theological or historical bias.

Understanding the basics of the Documentary Hypothesis can help us the rich historical context that saw the beginning of the Book of Mormon.

Another interesting point is that many of the ideas that we now associate with Judaism, such as an extreme adherence to monotheism, a firm belief that the temple can only be in Jerusalem and that it is heretical to build one outside of Jerusalem, along with many traditions surrounding Sukkot, Passover, Yom Kippur, and Rosh Hashanah, were not cemented into Jewish tradition until after the exile. This means that many of the things that we might associate with being Jewish or following the Law of Moses may not have been particularly important, influential or even in existence when Lehi and his family were living in Jerusalem. Thus many of the customs that we associate with the Law of Moses may not have been taken with Lehi and his family to the New World.

For those who have studied the Old Testament we know that the covenant that God made with King David was important and prominent in the history of the Kingdom of Judah. But the Davidic covenant would not have been something written or talked about in the Kingdom of Israel, because the descendants of King David only ruled in the Southern Kingdom. Thus Lehi whose family came from the Northern Kingdom, and who took with him the brass plates, which were most likely contained mainly records from the Northern Kingdom (with a few exceptions), would not have preserved the idea of the Davidic covenant. Because of this we find no mention of the Davidic covenant in the Book of Mormon (except for a passing reference in a Isaiah chapter quoted in its entirety), while we do find plenty of mentions of the Abrahamic covenant, and the covenant that God made with Moses. The only time King David is mentioned, is by Jacob to point out that both David and Solomon committed wickedness, abominations, and whoredoms. Not really the high praise for David normally found in the Old Testament.

By knowing that Lehi and his family may have been pulling from a different set of scriptures from the ones we have now goes a long way in explaining some of the differences.

Also many critics of the Book of Mormon are quick to point out that no self respecting Jew would think of building a temple outside of Jerusalem. But Nephi, who built a temple in the New World, never called himself a Jew, and may not have been Jewish. Also the idea that only Jerusalem could have a temple (and only one Temple) was an idea still very much in debate at the time Lehi left Jerusalem. It was King Josiah that had instituted many of the "one temple" reforms that we now associate with being part of Judaism, but that idea may not have been cemented until the work of the redactor after the exile.

Before the exile there were many different understandings about what was allowed under the Law of Moses. There may have been a few different traditions and sets of scriptures with the writings of various prophets either included or not depending on who was keeping them. What survived and ultimately became the basis for the Old Testament represents only one of those sets, which was further harmonized by someone (Ezra) who was not known for being particularly willing to have opposing views (imagine if there was some great catastrophe and Bruce R. McConkie was in charge of putting together the standard works, and a history of the church, with commentary).

By realizing that there was a complex social, political, and religious milieu surrounding the formation of the Bible can help us appreciate the complex social, political, and religious milieu surrounding the formation of the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon may appear very internally consistent, but that is due to the fact that the Book of Mormon only had one redactor. We know that Mormon drew from many different records because he mentions them, but he makes the book into one complete narration with very few loose ends. It is very well constructed. But given what we know about the formation of the Bible, we can surmise that if someone else acted as the redactor to the Book of Mormon then it may be a very different book. Even Nephi 1 and 2, Jacob, Enos, Jarom and Omni are all very different stylistically from the rest of the book, and that is because those are the only parts that Mormon did not edit.

There is a much richer history just beneath the edited surface of the Book of Mormon. By applying the principles of higher criticism we can begin to unpack the rich history of the Nephites and Lamanites. But as we do this we must proceed with caution because we should learn from the mistakes of modern Biblical scholarship. While the consensus of scholars who engage in textual criticism is converging on a late date for the writing of the Bible, actual archaeological evidence is pointing ever more towards an earlier date, and the disparity is only growing.

As long as we stay away from the extremes we should be OK.

As we learn about the origin of the Bible through higher criticism we can apply the same principles to understand the context from which the Book of Mormon emerged. We can even apply the same concepts to the Doctrine and Covenants and understand the revelations in context.

We must remember that the scriptures were written at a certain time and place, in a certain context with the understanding of the authors. If we are willing to have charity and humility then we can have the depths of those complex environments exposed to our understandings so that we may more fully appreciate the work of God and His prophets.