Book of Mormon/Anachronisms/Biblical/Documentary Hypothesis

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The Book of Mormon and the Documentary Hypothesis

Summary: The "Documentary Hypothesis" is the theory that the Pentateuch (The first five books of the Bible consisting of Genesis-Deuteronomy) are the composition of four separate authors/editors. The sources are J, E, D, and P (Yahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, Priestly). The Book of Mormon contains all four sources. It is claimed that the "P" source is a post-exilic (that is, occuring after the Babylonian exile of the early 5 century BCE) addition to the Pentateuch and thus presents an anachronism for the Book of Mormon. The article here explains the Documentary Hypothesis and its relation to restoration scripture.

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Question: What is the Documentary Hypothesis and what do critics of Mormonism claim about it as it regards restoration scripture?

The Documentary Hypothesis is the claim that the Books of Moses—consisting of Genesis to Deuteronomy—are the product of four authors and four different perspectives on the founding myths of the nation of Israel.

As explained by scholars Richard N. Soulen and R. Kendall Soulen, the Documentary Hypothesis (commonly referred to as the "DH") is “a theory concerning the origins of the Pentateuch (the first five books of Moses) that [argues that the Pentateuch is composed of various sources that were] combined and revised over several centuries from varying historical and theological points of view.” These sources, according to source critics (scholars who study authorship of scriptures) who argue for the DH, “could be (fairly) precisely dated and placed in an evolutionary sequence…A J (Yahwist) document (ca. 850 B.C.E.) and an E (Elohist) document (ca. 750 B.C.E.) were, according to this hypothesis, combined by a redactor (RJE) around 650 B.C.E.; the Deuteronomic Code (621 B.C.E., called D) was added by a redactor (RD) around 550 B.C.E.; the Priestly Code (ca. 450 B.C.E.) constituted the final document added by a redactor (RP) around 400 B.C.E." [1]

Below is a chart outlining the characteristics scholars see in the different sources of the Documentary Hypothesis.

Screenshot 3.png

The Book of Mormon contains all five of the Books of Moses (Genesis-Deuteronomy) and thus all four sources of it (J,E,D, and P) are included

Nephi tells us that the brass plates contained the “five books of Moses” (1 Nephi 5:11). Thus, this criticism is founded on the premise that the five books of Moses not be present (in some form) on the brass plates before he and his family left Jersualem--before the Babylonian Exile around the beginning of the 5th century BCE. We are not required to believe that they existed in the form that they exist today back then, but that the parts that do make it into Nephi’s record be there in a time before the exile. As shown from the chart above, the P source is frequently dated post-exile. Thus this is claimed to present an anachronism (something that is out of place for the time period it is claimed to exist in) for the Book of Mormon.

Source critics have a myriad of theories to identify the sources of the Pentateuch and approximately date their composition and there is no established consensus. Many critics ignore this and translation theory for the Book of Mormon in making their claim.

There are a few problems with this claim that relate to the dating of the sources, the identification of the sources, and the assumptions about the translation of the Book of Mormon.

1) One is the idea that J,E,D, and P are static sources (meaning that they are four discrete units of text put together like cars on a train. In this case it would be like cutting up four box cars into many pieces and then rearranging them to fit together) , or that they are even sources at all.

Most European scholars reject J and E altogether as sources, and opt to name their sources D, P, non-D, and non-P (Deuteronomist, Priestly, non-Deuteronomist, non-Priestly). These same scholars, however, tend to lean towards a late dating for most of this-- D being the earliest source (during King Josiah's reform), but P, non-D, and non-P date from the beginning of the exile onward. Whether these scholars are correct about the sources themselves is a separate matter from whether they are correct about the dating of these sources.

Many European scholars (such as Erhard Blum and previously Rolf Rendtorf) tend to favor a Fragmentary Hypothesis--the belief that the Pentateuch (the first five books of Moses) are the compilation of many, many fragments (like a puzzle)-- instead of the Documentary Hypothesis. Thus, dating of the fragments creates a separate issue. If J was dated to the Israelite monarchy, or to pre-exile/exile/post-exile, generally the argument goes that the entire source dates to that period. If fragments are not part of J then they'd be dated differently.

Some scholars, like Mark A. O'Brien and Antony Campbell (the authors/compilers of “Sources of the Pentateuch”) reject the Documentary Hypothesis altogether. They accept the Supplementary Hypothesis which argues that there was a base upon which fragments were added (Like sprinkles on an ice cream cone). Dating could be across the board here since there would be a core text that continually evolved over an 800 year period.

2) Some scholars, like John Van Seters, date the sources very differently-- putting J as being composed during the exile, but put D and P as pre-exilic (with some P redaction post-exilic). Thus, the presence of themes relating to the Garden of Eden in the Book of Mormon would be anachronistic under Van Seters’ perspective.

Simply put, there is generally no consensus regarding the dating of the Documentary Hypothesis nor the identification of its sources.

As scholar Richard Friedman has written:

The best known, most compelling explanation of all our textual evidence is called the documentary hypothesis. A lot of people will tell you that this hypothesis about who wrote the Bible has a smaller consensus than it used to. That is true. Others will tell you that it has been disproved. That is false. The part about consensus, I must admit, reflects a rather strange breeze blowing through the field of Bible scholarship in recent years. The situation is not that the documentary hypothesis does not have a clear consensus of Bible scholars. It is that no hypothesis has a clear consensus of Bible scholars. The documentary hypothesis is just what it says: the Hebrew Bible is made up of documents, of source texts that editors (redactors) put together in several stages. That is the central idea, and nearly all scholars known to me outside of orthodox or fundamentalist communities are persuaded by that idea. (And even the orthodox and fundamentalist communities are beginning to come to terms with it in the last few years.) The point about consensus is that we are now getting a profusion of variations of this central idea. There are supplementary hypotheses, meaning that authors wrote some of the documents and then other authors wrote more pieces around those documents as supplements. There are hypotheses of many very small documents that were expanded and connected to each other. There are hypotheses that date the documents later and later in Israel’s history. Some hypotheses propose a different order in which the source documents were written. There are hypotheses that deny that one or another of the documents ever existed. In all of these variations, the scholar remains critical: not automatically accepting or rejecting the Bible’s reports, but rather identifying the Bible’s sources and their history to see what trustworthy information they can yield.[2]

This is significant coming from a well-recognized scholar working on the Documentary Hypothesis. What we can establish from this is the general non-consensus among biblical scholars working in Pentateuchal criticism. Anyone who claims to know such a “consensus” misunderstands the field as it currently[3] stands.

3) Most critics ignore translation issues. Meaning, even if the Book of Mormon included text that would be considered anachronistic because the source dating was reliable, that doesn't preclude Joseph Smith / the Lord from providing that text couched in KJV verbiage. This would be an example of dynamic equivalent translation, rather than formal equivalent.

But what about the P source?

The P source is the one that usually comes up for Latter-day Saints in discussion of the DH in relation to the Book of Mormon since it is frequently dated to a post-exilic period. If it dates past the baylonian exile, then how would the Lehites be able to have them on the brass plates? P has been dated as pre-exilic by many scholars. For example, the most recent[4] issue of the Journal of Biblical Literature contains an article by Joshua Berman, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Hebrew Bible at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and esteemed source critic, arguing for a pre-exilic P[5]. Latter-day Saint scholar David Bokovoy has argued that the E source came before J and that the P source came before D[6]. Scholar Thomas K. King has argued for an early P in his book[7]. Scholars in Pentateuchal criticism will continue to flesh this out and Latter-day Saints should simply seek to study the work of scholars who argue for pre-exilic source documents for the creation of the Pentateuch.

Thus, the Documentary Hypothesis should not be any large problem for Latter-day Saints as it pertains to the Book of Mormon.

The Book of Moses

The Book of Moses was produced as part of Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible beginning in 1830. Critics claim that the Book of Moses asserts Moses’ authorship of the Pentateuch. However, this is not so. We only get references to a “book” that Moses writes (Moses 1:41), not specifically the Pentateuch. It should be noted for honesty that Joseph did assume that Moses authored the Pentateuch. Though it does not seem that he would have been opposed to studying the Book of Moses this way and examining our assumptions about it (D&C 88:77-79).

One additional issue though is that the Book of Moses and the accounts of creation in Genesis still hold many similarities. Why they hold such similarities may be something we should deal with. This most relates to the dating of the source(s) that make up the Book of Moses.

Dating the authorship of the Book of Moses

Traditionally, it has been assumed by most members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that the Book of Moses represents the literal historical words of the prophet Moses. Though there are actually a couple of plausible decisions one could take (in light of evidence from the book itself and from history) of when the Book of Moses may have actually been written.

High Chronology (more ancient)

The first is the high chronology or the traditional dating assumed by most members of the Church. If we assume the high chronology, then reconciling the Documentary Hypothesis becomes possible but just slightly more complicated. It is traditionally claimed that Moses was born around 1600 B.C. The Book of Moses under this dating would be claiming to be written after Moses spoke with God in the burning Bush (Exodus 3; Moses 1:17) and either before or slightly after receiving the command to lead the Children of Israel out of Egypt (Exodus 14; Moses 1:26). The Exodus is traditionally claimed to have taken place around 1400 B.C. Below is a chronology of the events of the Exodus as taken from the bible[8] :

Screenshot 1.png

A couple of issues arise that need to be dealt with if we accept this. The first is the Book of Moses’s relation to the translation of the Pentateuch that Joseph had access to. The earliest source of the Documentary Hypothesis is the J source (Yahwist) which dates to 1000 - 920 BCE. If Moses did indeed write/speak words found within the Book of Moses, then he had to have written his book much, much longer before the documents contained in the Pentateuch. If that is true, he would have had to have written in something besides Hebrew since Hebrew as a writing system did not develop until roughly 8 centuries after Moses is traditionally claimed to have lived[9]. The most likely candidate would be Demotic. Thus the similarities among creation myths of the Pentateuch and the Book of Moses would be explained by the writers/editors that lived after Moses using his book (or another authority that followed it closely) as a reference for their own compositions of the creation myths. Thus we get our “restoration” of the Book of Genesis.

Thus under the assumption of high chronology:

  1. The sources used to compose the Book of Moses would have been (an) entirely separate document(s) from the sources used in the Documentary Hypothesis.
  2. It would likely have been written in Demotic
  3. Either Joseph or a contemporary of Moses would be attributing the words to Moses as they compiled the sources from Moses/narrated the story.

Low Chronology (more recent)

We have another option to accept. The low chronology for the Book of Moses would accept that the Book of Moses represents a pseudipigraphical text. Moses 1:1, under this assumption, is treated as a simple attribution of words to Moses and not using a source with Moses’ actual words.

If we accept the Low Chronology, then the questions to answer become almost none. The author could have used existing sources from the JEDP to compose the text. This would explain similarities to them in the Book of Moses easily.

Matthew Roper has found many ancient sources that seem to support this notion.

A Resolution of the Chronologies

One resolution that may be able to bridge the two positions would be that the some sources used in the Book of Moses in reality represent the words of Moses and that some (like the creation themes) represent later sources that a mid to late 1st millenium BCE editor brought together. Another would be that the Book of Moses represents the actual composition of Moses that may have been passed down the generations and edited/reinterpreted as writers felt inspired.

Further research will be needed to establish either of the chronologies or the resolutions.

The Book of Abraham

Some have applied this same type of criticism to the Book of Abraham. Similar chronologies and solutions have been proposed.

The only major difference between this issue and the Book of Moses is that the Book of Abraham has a physical papyri that Joseph translated from that dates "to between the third century B.C.E. and the first century C.E.,"[10]. Thus, any translation theory has to begin with someone living during this time and then using ancient and/or more contemporary sources to speak about Abraham or have a text that was passed down in a line of Abraham's descendants to that time with them adding their emendations/interpolations to the text as they felt inspired. The issue with accepting any one of the theories is that there are many ancient sources — both more contemporary to Abraham (according to the traditional dating of his life) and more contemporary to an later yet still ancient copyist/redactor/editor in the Book of Abraham that prove dating the narrative of the Book of Abraham difficult.

Further research will be needed to establish where the Book of Abraham fits.

Conclusion

After careful analysis, it doesn’t seem that the Documentary Hypothesis presents any real challenges to Restoration scripture at this time.

Further Reading

  • Jeffrey Bradshaw, "Did Moses Write the Book of Genesis? (Old Testament Gospel Doctrine 3B)". This article examines the Book of Moses in relation to the Documentary Hypothesis
  • John Sorenson, "The 'Brass Plates' and Biblical Scholarship". This article argues that the Book of Mormon reflects what we expect from source criticism to be on the brass plates during Nephi's day--especially the E source.
  • Kevin L. Barney, "Reflections on the Documentary Hypothesis," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 33 no. 1 (Spring 2000), 57–99. off-site. This article offers reflections of the Documentary Hypothesis in relation to restoration scripture and provides a historical survey of reactions among Latter-day Saint leaders and scholars as they have approached it.

Notes

  1. Richard N. Soulen and R. Kendall Soulen, Handbook of Biblical Criticism, fourth ed. (Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Westminster Press, 2011), 79.
  2. Richard Elliot Friedman, The Exodus (New York: HarperCollins, 2017) 43-44
  3. written 19 June 2019
  4. as of 19 June 2019
  5. Joshua Berman, “The Biblical Criticism of Ibn Hasm the Andalusian: A Medieval Control for Diachronic Method” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol 138, No. 2 (2019). pp 377-390
  6. David Bokovoy, Authoring the Old Testament (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2014) 84-5. As Bokovoy wrote: "E actually came before J (exactly when we cannot say) and that P was written as a priestly reaction to these sources some time later toward the beginning of the Judean exile (remember P is earlier than D, and D for the most part is clearly pre-exilic)."
  7. Thomas J. King, The Realignment of the Priestly Literature: The Priestly Narrative in Genesis and Its Relation to Priestly Legislation and the Holiness School. Princeton Theological Monograph (Eugene,OR: Pickwick Publications, 2008)
  8. Chronology taken from Rick Aschmann, Chronology of the Exodus <https://aschmann.net/BibleChronology/The_Exodus.html> (accessed 23 July 2019)
  9. Angel Saénz-Badillos, A History of the Hebrew Language (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993) 16.
  10. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham" <https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/translation-and-historicity-of-the-book-of-abraham?lang=eng&_r=1> (accessed 23 July 2019)