Thursday, November 14, 2013

Before Abraham Was and the Book of Mormon

Heads up: 3000+ words. I plan to post a 1500 word version of this review on sometime next year. Only read if you are really interested.

I believe the Book of Mormon is what it claims to be and that we got it in the way Joseph Smith says we got it. You shouldn't assume too much about the details of my belief from that statement, but in broad strokes I am a literal believer. Here is my current model of how the Book of Mormon came to be:
  • Ancient prophets kept records, and Mormon, with help from Moroni, compiled, edited, and preserved these records as described in the Book of Mormon itself.
  • Joseph Smith received gold plates which contained this record. (See contemporary, first hand witness accounts of the existence of these plates.)
  • Joseph Smith translated this record by inspiration, not by reading the words and using a dictionary. Joseph Smith dictated the entire Book of Mormon without notes or outside reference. (See first hand witness accounts.)
  • The translation was tightly controlled, but not ironclad. God inspired Joseph with the ideas to write, including some specific wordings and spellings of names. Joseph contributed his own language only as any other faithful translator would. (See works of Royal Skousen on how studying the original and printers manuscripts illustrate tight control rather than loose or ironclad control. See the non-contextual word analyses of John Hilton and his collaborators for objective evidence that large portions of the Book of Mormon do not match Joseph Smith's use of language.)
  • The King James Version wording of biblical passages was inspired so that we could make rigorous connections between ancient Hebrew and Greek biblical words and the language of the Book of Mormon. If Joseph had presented a new translation of the same passages, or if he had used 19th century language instead of KJV language in non-biblical Book of Mormon passages, we would not be able to make direct connections between biblical meanings and Book of Mormon passages. The exact quotations tell us that when the Book of Mormon uses KJV words, we can with confidence examine biblical meanings of those words to better understand the Book of Mormon, and we can use Book of Mormon meanings of those words to more fully comprehend the Bible. (See Legrand Baker and Stephen Ricks, Who Shall Ascend unto the Hill of the Lord, for an example of the potential fruits of this approach for a believing reader.) Subpoint: Errors present in the KJV of Joseph's day were only corrected when there was an important difference in meaning. Other anachronistic errors were ignored, or Joseph made mistakes in his translation because of prejudiced knowledge of the passages—the errors of men, which the Book of Mormon itself claims to have.
This view of the Book of Mormon means that I believe the Isaiah passages were copied by Nephi from the Brass Plates. This means that I believe that Jesus actually gave the Sermon on the Mount, and that it wasn't compiled later from collections of wisdom sayings. This means I believe that Mormon compiled the whole thing (almost), and that it wasn't put together through some inspired conglomeration of 1. ancient stories revealed to or invented by Joseph Smith, 2. selections from the King James Version of the Bible, and 3. nineteenth century wisdom and sermons. This view apparently leaves me open to scholarly criticism. It seems that the Bible, as seen through the Book of Mormon, doesn't line up with the Bible as seen through 150+ years of biblical scholarship. I'll be up front about what does and doesn't bother me. Rejecting biblical inerrancy works for me. Recognizing inconsistencies that need explanation works for me. Recognizing editorial changes, especially in the selection of which texts are recognized as canon, works for me. Making educated guesses about how editorial changes might have happened and what was changed works for me. Claiming that because biblical scholarship has 150 years of consensus, so I should accept that and do mental gymnastics to explain how Joseph Smith could have put deutero-Isaiah into the Book of Mormon seems crazy to me. So before I invent new explanations of the Book of Mormon translation process that stretch the historical record, I'm going to need to be really convinced.

I'm not a biblical scholar, but I 'm a trained scientist. I figured I was smart enough to understand the biblical scholarship if I found the right stuff and put in enough time, and I decided it was time to find out for myself. I had two problems with continuing forward on the authority of my favorite Latter-day Saint scholars and friends: 1. I'm a chemist with a healthy respect for the academy. 2. I'm a Mormon who engages with other Mormons who don't accept the positions of the LDS scholars as readily as I do. So I picked up some available biblical scholarship for a general audience. It was depressing. Most of it was too shallow to judge the scholarship on its merits. Of the more serious books, I found one author who explained how different verses in the creation account in Genesis could be assigned to three separate sources. I'd heard of the Documentary Hypothesis, and read that it was the dominant working theory in Old Testament studies (and I think New Testament, too, in a different form), but no one had ever really explained it to me. The summaries and books I somewhat randomly picked up didn't help. I couldn't take them seriously.

I have some professional biases regarding evidence. I'm a biophysical chemist which, in my case, means I do research relying heavily on numerical data and the laws of thermodynamics—a bit like we imagine physicists do. I also deal with approximations and qualitative data—a lot like many biologists. So I view myself as having a pretty good grasp of the problems involved in trying to relate exact data to approximate conclusions. When biophysicists make assumptions and approximations, I expect them to state the assumptions clearly, discuss potential sources of error, and evaluate how big those errors are likely to be. I wanted to hold biblical scholars to these standards and see how their conclusions measured up. I'm still working on the New Testament, thanks to some great recommendations from a friend. As for the Old Testament I might have gotten lucky with one book I found.
Before Abraham Was: The Unity of Genesis 1-11, by Isaac M. Kikawada and Arthur Quinn, sells itself as “A provocative challenge to the documentary hypothesis.” At the time it was written (1985), both authors were professors and the University of California at Berkeley, so I suspected they didn't fit into the camp of conservative Christians who oppose the documentary hypothesis, or Mormon scholars who dismiss it on various grounds. I was not disappointed with the book. In fact, it was a wonderful read.

The first thing Kikawada and Quinn did was convince me that the scholars who argue for and elaborate on the documentary hypothesis aren't universally idiots or ideologues (something I suspected, but my unsystematic initial approach had not confirmed). They did it by separating out the entire flood account into two stories. I'll give you a piece. Notice how you can read one and then read the other and it really sounds like two complete, and different, tellings of the same story:

The waters prevailed and increased greatly upon the earth; and the ark floated on the face of the waters. And the waters prevailed so mightily upon the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered; the waters prevailed above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep. And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, birds, cattle, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm upon the earth, and every man. And the waters prevailed upon the earth a hundred and fifty days.

But god remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided; the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed. At the end of a hundred and fifty days the waters had abated; and in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest upon the mountains of Ararat. And the waters continued to abate until the tenth month; in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, the tops of the mountains were seen.

In the six hundred and first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried from off the earth. In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dry. Then God said to Noah, “Go forth from the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons' wives with you. Bring forth with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh—birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth—that they may breed abundantly on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply upon the earth.” So Noah went forth, and his sons and his wife and his sons' wives with him. And every beast, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves upon the earth, went forth by families out of the ark.
The flood continued forty days upon the earth; and the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. Everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was upon the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark.

The rain from the heavens was restrained, and the waters receded from the earth continually. At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made, and sent forth a raven; and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. Then he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground; but the dove found no place to set her foot, and she returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put forth his hand and took her and brought her into the ark with him. He waited another seven days, and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark; and the dove came back to him in the evening, and lo, in her mouth a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. Then he waited another seven days, and sent forth the dove; and she did not return to him anymore.

And Noah removed the covering of the ark, and looked, and behold the face of the ground was dry.

If you leave out the chapter and verse numbers, you could read the first account and think, “Yep, that's the incredibly boring Old Testament that I made myself slog through so I could say I read the entire Old Testament in Seminary.” If you read the second account, you'd think, “Yep, these are the Bible stories I heard in Sunday School when I was a kid.” That's an oversimplification, but it's how I now understand the motivation behind making the documentary hypothesis. It turns out you can split up nearly all of Genesis 1-11 in this way, and you can use fairly consistent clues in the text itself to tell you how to divide it. Of course it doesn't work perfectly, but it works so well that biblical scholars have been able to argue for it, and about it, for 150 years or more. I was actually relieved that it finally made sense to me. My emotions would now let me start taking mainstream biblical scholars more seriously. But Kikawada and Quinn were just doing this to set up their main argument.

The central premise of Kikawada and Quinn's arguments is that the presumed sole author of Genesis 1-11 is at least as clever and conscious of form and content as other great authors throughout history. This contrasts greatly with assumptions implicit (and at times explicit) in the documentary hypothesis. You see, the Old Testament is littered with seemingly nonsensical contradictions and questionably moral stories. In elaborating the documentary hypothesis, scholars have carefully picked apart these inconsistencies and suggested that an (apparently sloppy or careless) editor or editors put the Pentateuch (and other books) together from at least three different sources. Only by splitting it up in this way can you explain all the textual difficulties. This approach has also fostered the view (popular with a number of my Transhumanist friends) that the Old Testament is morally backward and that modern morality is much more evolved. Kikawada and Quinn have taken what seems to me a humbler approach (although they've taken it with great pride in how they have seen more than 150 years of previous biblical scholars). Instead of assuming carelessness and moral smallness, they assume intelligence, rhetorical skill, and great feeling for humanity. It appears you can use this perspective to reinterpret many of the same passages that were evidence of the documentary hypothesis. Overlooked evidence of careful craftsmanship starts turning up everywhere you look, with hints that further study will reveal even more.
The primary example of conscious craftsmanship is found in a pattern belonging to another pre-biblical work, the Akkadian Atrahasis Epic. The pattern is:
  1. Creation
  2. First Threat
  3. Second Threat
  4. Final Threat
  5. Resolution
This pattern is found in the story of Adam and Eve, the story of Noah, and the story of the tower of Babel. It appears again with Moses, and arguably with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and with David and Solomon. It's almost fractal like, or nested in its appearances, with the pattern being recognizable on the level of individual stories, and also at the level of the entire Pentateuch. Kikawada and Quinn demonstrate how the several stories that the documentary hypothesis splits apart actually contribute to faithfully reproducing the pattern. It is very possible Kikawada and Quinn are reading too much into the text, but I find the fruits of Kikawada and Quinn's approach more rewarding than those of the documentary hypothesis, so for now I'll work from there.

What are some of those fruits? First they give me increased respect for Book of Mormon scholarship. I see critical scholars (and simply critics) pooh-poohing the work of Jack Welch on chiasmus in the Book of Mormon. Kikawada and Quinn rely heavily on evidence and interpretation of chiasm in Genesis and elsewhere in the Bible, quoting and citing biblical scholars who use chiasm as evidence. It appears that to ignore Welch's work would require rejection of a common element in mainstream biblical scholarship, and the scholarship of ancient literature more generally. I see Book of Mormon scholars making great efforts to pay close attention to the Book of Mormon text and to incorporate evidence from outside—looking at biblical scholarship, 19th century scholarship, mesoamerican and near eastern studies, and language and rhetorical analysis. Kikawada and Quinn criticize proponents of the documentary hypothesis for Genesis of remaining too closely in their narrow, reductionist textual analysis and thus arriving at unsubstantiated conclusions—conclusions that have been discarded elsewhere in classical studies because of a greater availability of external data for comparison.

The second fruit is a continued respect for the moral authority of the Bible. I don't find the Old Testament backwards. I don't find modern humanity so incredibly superior. Many Old Testament stories are violent, nationalistic, racist, sexist, etc., but the moral messages found in these stories most often seem complex, human, and humane, to me. Maybe I'm just seeing what I want to see, but when Kikawada and Quinn assume intelligence and humanity in the authors, they are able to find what seems to me substantial and coherent evidence supporting that hypothesis.
The last fruit is my own synthesis of an explicit theme running throughout the book. Kikawada and Quinn see in Genesis, and much of the Old Testament, a rejection of cities and civilization and a glorification of the nomadic lifestyle. With cities and civilization come problems of overcrowding, overpopulation, overutilization of resources, and a resulting devaluing of new births. The Bible, on the other hand, praises and commands the spreading of children over the whole earth, praises the nomadic lifestyle not controlled by kings or by the trappings of civilization, and emphasizes the movement and action of God himself. By the end, they managed to convince me that this theme might really be there. And I like it. As you read on, you find that it isn't simply a “nomads are more righteous than city folk” morality, but it does highlight two virtues that really attract me. First, God and all of his chosen people are expected to keep moving. I see in this shades of eternal progression. Second, having lots of children is a good thing. I see in this a morality that fits with an evolutionarily successful God.

Where does this leave me? I'll give a comparison a biblical scholar friend of mine used when describing Book of Mormon apologetics. He called it, “All the evidence we don't have agrees with us.” I admit a little delight in turning it back on biblical scholars. Where are the separate documents? There are, according to the documentary hypothesis, at least four, and some argue more, separate sources necessary to maintain the documentary hypothesis for the Pentateuch. My understanding is that none of them have been found. The only documents we have already have all of the sources mixed together. No one has found the stories split apart, or combined in ways that only use two of the sources but not the third or fourth. In this regard, Kikawada and Quinn's hypothesis is much simpler. They don't have to postulate unidentifiable sources, but instead provide an extant ancient source as a text which the author of Genesis may have used as a model and may have been responding to. They postulate a single, skilled author, which seems to me more typical of literature that has lasted to our day than does composite editing. So what do I say to critics who would have me defend the Bible quotes found in the Book of Mormon? I'll read your arguments and try to understand them, if you've made them accessible to me. But you need to show me first and second Isaiah. Show me the wisdom literature that was pieced together into the Sermon on the Mount. Then I will feel a need to defend and explain the Book of Mormon. Until then, I'm not the one claiming that all the evidence we don't have agrees with me. I'm the one providing the hard evidence. The Book of Mormon is right in front of you. The history is there to show that it was dictated entirely by Joseph Smith. The objective statistics are there to show that large parts of it were written by authors other than Joseph Smith. Address some of these data in a respectful, scholarly, and compelling way and then I will feel compelled to respond. Until then, I hope you're having fun. I'll do my best to be respectful of those who blindly trust your authority, but don't be surprised if I roll my eyes when I hear you rehash the same old material.

No comments:

Post a Comment