Sunday, June 28, 2015

Scriptures and History

I recently had lunch with a few friends and I seem to have upset one of them when I suggested the story of Sampson was more legend than history. The thought was that I was "doubting scripture". I found this interesting as over the last few months I have witnessed and participated in several online debates about the historicity of scripture. In these debates I was generally on the conservative side arguing that scripture did describe historical events with relative accuracy. Here I found myself at a table of people I respected and was now being challenged for doubting historical accounts. I have been pondering this and trying to decide where I fit on the spectrum of scriptural interpretation.

One voice within the Church, seeming to find anachronisms and fabulous aspects of the Book of Mormon more than their faith can bear, have advanced the idea that that volume of scripture would best be understood as allegory. Essentially the work is reduced to a nineteenth century pseudepigrapha. In their minds this salvages the work to be interpreted for its moral teachings while eliminating the need to defend the text, search for archeological connections, ancient textual structures, etc. In my mind this approach mostly acts as a salve for the stinging scorn of those in the great and spacious building of the learned. Choosing to adhere to a literal interpretation is certainly a more difficult prospect as the believer is faced with a multitude of problems from metallurgy, to DNA, to animal husbandry. Quite a wide field to contend with and the task can seem overwhelming. It may be easiest to agree with the naysayers rather than appear foolish by clinging to a belief in spite of so much evidence. However for those that stay the course there are a host of rewards to be gained. Believers have uncovered marvelous things that broaden our understanding of ancient poetry and literature styles. We have learned much about the honor codes of the ancient world, their view of cosmology, thier understanding of covenants, their technological innovations, their patterns of migration and warfare, thier festivals and their mourning patterns. All this knowledge has come to light and is entering the understanding of countless believers because they did follow the harder course and accept the historicity of the Book of Mormon and attempted to find evidence to support thier position. Along the way there have certainly been many wrong turns. Theories have been advanced that had to be abandoned, wise men have occasionally been duped by conterfit evidence, and over zealous believers have succumbed to the temptation to manufacture evidence. However taken as a whole, the trend has been upward as outdated scholarship is replaced with even more well thought out theories and more carefully tested evidence. To be sure there still remains a variety of competing theories that cannot all be true. But the overwhelming tone of scholarship is serious and one demanding respect.

To remove any doubt, let me say that I do accept the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Part of the reason for this is the impressive chain of transmission of a text that was written by prophets, safe guarded by prophets and other righteous men, edited and compiled by prophets, and finally translated and published by prophets. Like others I feel the text itself demands such a belief (see This does not mean I am unfamiliar with the problem areas of the text nor that I have adequate explanations for every issue. To those that doubt the historicity I extend a sympathetic hand of fellowship and would rather have you with us honoring the moral aspects of the text than to lose you from the faith.

So establishing a firm belief in the Book of Mormon, what then is to be said of the Hebrew Bible and Christian New Testament? To me these texts present a more difficult question as the chain of transmission is simply not there. The New Testiment scriptures have hundreds of years gaping between their composition and our earliest copies. Early copies seem to suggest in some cases that the texts received additional editing by later unknown authors, raising doubts on a book by book basis. Yet still the New Testament remains on more solid footing than the Hebrew Bible. Second Temple Period history is well known and most important aspects of the historical claims can be put into a convincing context showing an overall confidence in the historical narrative. The Hebrew Bible on the other hand is a far different matter. The book spans thousands of years of history and even with the Dead Sea Scrolls our earliest copies post date the lives of the authors by many centuries or even millennia. Moses, the earliest traditionally attributed author, is himself recounting stories that predate him by thousands of years. To what degree are these stories an accurate portrayal of history? Did Moses have access to documents that informed him of the stories in Genesis and what was their chain of transmission? Was Moses even the author of the books attributed to him? Was Moses even a real person? These questions dog Old Testiment scholarship and there are a cacophony of voices across a spectrum of views.

Beyond questions of textual transmission, the Hebrew Bible runs into other problems as well from the realms of science and archeology. How does organic evolution square with the narrative? What are we to make of human civilization remains and even texts that predate the apparent time frames recorded for creation? Then even beyond these difficulties there arises another round of problems as the reader finds descriptions of events that are outside of human experience in his modern world, textual issues such as giants, sea monsters, incredible life spans, overly simplistic genealogies and national origin stories, unreasonable numbers for battles, and the list goes on. Add to this the important question of how much the original authors believed these stories to be literal or perhaps in some books like Job or Jonah are they symbolic teaching or dramatic device.

Where then does this leave our beloved Bible scriptures?

There is no question that the early members of the church accepted biblical narratives at face value and as literally true. This was the common view of most religious people contemporary with them and so such views went without serious question. However even from the beginning it was obvious to members of the church that substantial problems existed as reflected in Joseph Smith's qualifier regarding belief in Bible "as far as it is translated correctly" (Articles of Faith 8). From Joseph's other statements it is clear he understood "translated" in a much broader sense of "transmitted". He described three major sources for textual inaccuracies:

  1. Ignorant translators
  2. Careless transcribers
  3. Designing and corrupt Priests

(Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 9-10)

In the Book of Mormon we have hints at a fourth issue in the loss of important texts entirely as it quotes from prophets and documents unknown to us.

The Book of Mormon had a primary purpose to supplement deficiencies in the Biblical texts and to act as a supporting witness of those texts (see 1 Nephi 13:35). It fulfills this mission by attesting:

  • The creation story and Adam and Eve
  • Noah, the ark, and a destructive flood
  • Covenantal relationship between God and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob
  • Moses and the basic features of the Exodus story
  • Some basic details of the Joshua military campaign
  • The Davidic dynasty
  • The Solomonic Temple
  • Isaiah's prophetic writings

The above list is not comprehensive but highlights the many supporting statements available from the Book of Mormon. It should be understood that the writers of the Book of Mormon were not first hand witnesses to much of the above but relied on written records much as we do today. Still their records push the source material back 700 years earlier than our Dead Sea scrolls. That is not to say that there records agree in all respects with the text we have received. They have stories of the Exodus that are substantially different than ours (1 Nephi 17:26-43), they give an account of the ark submerging that is absent from our story (Ether 6:7), and even on occasion they appear to revise scriptural stories to harmonize them with more modern scientific theories (Helaman 12:15). Also the Book of Mormon quotes at length from prophets that are absent from biblical records (Jacob 5 is one example).

These differences are very instructive to our own approach to the Hebrew Bible. There are also many stories such as Job, Esther, most of the antediluvian patriarchs, and of course Samson, that are not attested in the Book of Mormon. Of the texts we have received in the Hebrew Bible, the authorship of most is completely unknown. Sometimes the texts themselves attest that they were edited and produced by political committees rather than religious ones, further raising doubts about how the text may have been colored by agendas.

With all of these issues one may understandably ask if the Biblical text are of any value at all. There are certainly modern voices, even a few within the church, that would answer "no." They assert the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, should be jettisoned as outdated baggage weighing down more enlightened theological approaches. If this is established as one end of the spectrum, the other can be equally extreme. All aspects of the Bible must be taken as unquestioned truth. There were giants. The earth was created in six days. Men lived for close to a thousand years. National genealogies trace back to single founding ancestors. Those who would advance scientific theories, unearth archeological findings, or point out textual errors not only have their findings rejected but also their motives questioned.

I have observed these different approaches having differing effects. One the one hand rejection of historicity frees the reader to take a cafeteria approach to religion. They may choose doctrines and stories that suit them while rejecting anything that may seem uncomfortable. Such an approach allows for an easy assimilation into the modern world, which an Old Testiment God insisted we remain separated from. It tends to provide comfort and reinforce currently held ideas rather than compel change. On the other hand the elevation of scriptures to a dogmatic level presents a necessary rejection of the modern world and the further light and knowledge available to us through scientific methods. We can quickly become guarded about what subjects should be taught to our children and shield them and ourselves from the mounting evidence of a world much more complex and ancient than that described in their grandparent's Sunday School lessons. It tends to provide comfort and reinforce currently held ideas rather than compel change.

So in this war of words and tumult of opinions, where do I find myself? As Joseph declared we cannot turn to the Bible for answers due to the varying interpretations of its meaning. As Joseph discovered, an earnest seeker of truth may turn directly to God for answers. While it has not been my experience that God is willing to answer questions of scholarship on a regular basis, I have found that he is very free in imparting wisdom.

Additionally, we have yet one more tool at our disposal than Joseph had in 1820, a living prophet. In important matters of doctrine and certainly in matters defining behavior we are privileged to hear regularly from living prophets, seers, and revelators. Following their lead provides safety and council in interpreting scripture correctly. We find an approach that while varied among our leaders, is neither reclusive and dogmatic, nor freely dismissive of the ancient text. Instead their words invite us to hard changes and frequently call us to repent. They do not bend on historical interpretations of scriptures because the world no longer approves nor do they insist on rigid interpretations of scriptures that are at odds with current Church policy.

It is in the spirit of these two principles of personal revelation and prophetic guidance that I have tried to find my own balance in scholarship. As I already stated I accept the Book of Mormon as a reasonably accurate historical accounting, noting that even its own authors frequently worried about errors that may gave crept into their record. As such I have a very firm belief in those parts of the Bible that are attested in its pages. To those items that are not attested I look to see how well they harmonize with what we know of the ancient world, what we have learned from revelations, and how they fall within human experience.

If we take the story of Samson as an example and apply the framework outlined above we find: Authorship of the story is unknown. Dating of the composition is disputed. It is clear from the internal grammatical issues in Judges that it contains material composed at a variety of time periods from one of our oldest examples of Hebrew text in the Song of Devorah and Baraq (Judges 5) to other passages that clearly show they were written in the age of the monarchy, perhaps as late as Josiah's reign. The text itself has clearly stated agendas in both telling hero stories and justifying the need for a strong monarchy. Samson himself has many fabulous elements in his story that are outside of common experiance. His story seems to be a cautionary tale as he seems to systematically break every commandment he was charged with. His stormy love relationships play a prominent part of his life. Of course in LDS experiance there is an obvious and illustrative correlation to our long haired hero of our early pioneer days, Orrin Porter Rockwell. Like his ancient counterpart Brother Porter did not always keep all the commandments his peers and leaders would have liked. Like Samson he had a series of difficult love relations. And like Samson he was involved in amazing incidents that provided protection and justice for his people. Also like Samson his stories got better with each retelling. Even at this close date it is impossible to separate the man from the myth and many of his actions remain impossible to decipher what real role he actually played, if any, in many of the events of his legend.

I think if I had to judge the historicity of Samson given what we know described above, I would say my best guess (and it is merely a guess) is that there was a great hero-warrior named Samson. I think he did remarkable things and probably had a promise from God similar to Brother Porter, which if he did not violate, he would have specific blessings. I think like Porter he probably disappointed many around him by not observing the commandments as faithfully as he should. I do not think he killed a thousand people with the jawbone of an ass. That story is both absurd to ponder how such would even be possible logistically and cruel to consider that anyone would purposely kill so many even at war. But perhaps he did at one point use such an improvised weapon to defend himself and the story took a life of its own after that point. I do not know if he pushed down a temple of Dagon with his bare hands but I do not think there was any temple there that would have likely housed 3000 people. These amazing numbers must have seemed to the original audience to be equally absurd and leads me to believe these elements of the story were understood as exaggeration. If it were not exaggeration, it would seem to parallel too closely the fall of the twin towers in New York, which was an undeniably cruel act.

So where then does this leave Samson? From a doctrinal impact, his historicity does not seem to have major consequence. When I think of life choices of my own that have been influenced by him the most I can come up with is having used him a few times as justification to avoid haircuts as a teenager. I do not think any serious harm is done to the core principles of the gospel if we remain dubious concerning Samson. I also do not believe the Lord is likely to issue a revelation either personally or to the Church to settle the matter. I am not sure how a reader at Lehi's time viewed his story, but I think it is reasonable to say they at least probably viewed it as an embellished warrior tale. There are probably good life lessons to be drawn about the troubles that can come when associating with immoral women and how even great strength will eventually fail us through disobedience. There are even lessons about how the Lord often works through very imperfect people to save his people. None of these lessons are reduced by supposing the history is inaccurate or even a parable.

So to summarize all this I would say I have a deep faith in the historical reality of the Book of Mormon. I think 2 Nephi 33:11 is a stern warning against any rationalization that we might be dealing with fiction or allegory. I have a deep love and belief in both the Old and New Testaments. I accept as historically true those portions that are supported by statements in the Book of Mormon or modern revelation. Those portions that are not witnessed in other volumes of scripture I judge the historicity based on a number of factors always allowing that all history is complex and multifaceted. My default position is to accept the Biblical record unless there are compelling reasons not to. I also believe that allegory and parable are powerful ways to impart truth and some passages of scripture were never intended to be other than just that. Ultimately however I believe in following the living prophet and turning to prayer and inspiration whenever there is uncertainty.



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