Critiques of Nahom and Lehi’s journey

 

Recently the Interpreter blog has published a few responses to my articles exploring the significance of the mention of Nahom in the BoM, first a brief comment by S. Kent Brown and then a much longer two-part article by Jeff Lindsay. Not surprisingly, both found my thesis that the story of Lehi’s journey originated as imaginative mythological literature and that the reference to Nahom reflects dependence on a map to be unpersuasive. Still, I appreciate that they were generous enough to acknowledge that my discussion was well researched and did not dismiss me out of hand.

 

So I thought it would be appropriate to briefly respond to both statements.

 

First, as I read Brown I can’t see that he engages substantively with any of my specific arguments, but merely repeats the same kinds of things he has been saying for almost two decades now, e.g. JS could not have known X, could not possibly have had access to a map, etc. As a result, I don’t feel a need to address these points again. If someone writes argument X, Y, Z in disagreement with argument A, B, C, then it does not do to respond to X, Y, Z, by repeating A, B, C.

 

More interesting is Lindsay’s brave attempt to systematically examine and refute all the major points I bring up in the course of my discussion of Nahom and the BoM. From what I can tell, he seems to have put quite a bit of effort into summarizing and analyzing my arguments (from what he perceives to be a faithful perspective, of course). In striking contrast to Brown, Lindsay has tried to address everything.

 

Unfortunately, Lindsay is not a historian or biblical scholar, and as a consequence his analysis is shot through with methodological problems and fallacious reasoning. In his zeal to defend the BoM, he has adopted a shotgun approach, thinking any response is better than no response. In general Lindsay relies on his own common sense knowledge and limited personal study to affirm the validity of contemporary apologetic interpretations. His counter responses range from “this issue has been adequately dealt with in a recent publication” or an imagined hypothetical where college students are asked to draw a route from Jerusalem to the ocean to the reader should exercise more faith or biblical scholarship is biased and cannot be trusted.

 

More than anything, Lindsay is long on assertion and short on critical analysis. Because his interest is in providing an answer rather than seeking out understanding, he repeatedly underestimates the complexity of the historical, literary, and philological issues involved, selectively cites non-LDS biblical scholarship when it serves a particular apologetic end, engages in constant rhetorical posturing, and tends to respond to the argument he hears rather than the one I’m actually saying. The BoM is afforded a strong presumption of historicity, such that if any alternative explanation for apparent fictionality or anachronism can be imagined, then that explanation is to be preferred.

 

On the subject of maps, I agree with Lindsay about their rarity. In a strictly historical sense, the likelihood of JS encountering one in rural Western New York wasn’t very high. But my argument for dependence on a map doesn’t actually rise or fall on the question of accessibility, but on a combination of other factors, e.g. the BoM’s fictional character, the vague geography of the journey through Arabia vs. the precision of the location Nahom, the similarity between Ireantum and Erythraeum, other map features, etc. I assume that there were more maps available to JS in his world than we have record. Also, Rick Grunder has informed me that near to the time JS was dictating 1 Nephi he may have visited the Reynolds Arcade in Rochester, New York, which seems to form the material background for parts of the story of Lehi’s dream. At the time the Arcade was an exceptionally large and lavish building that featured a library, rare maps, and periodicals.

 

Ultimately, I don’t think what Lindsay offers does anything to seriously undermine the general or specifics of my argument regarding Nahom, so for now I will leave my presentation of the evidence to stand as is.

 

One final comment about biblical minimalism. Lindsay begins his critique by suggesting that the reason I have adopted an unnecessarily critical attitude toward the BoM is because I am a secular biblical minimalist, and similar-like accusations are made throughout. For example:


“This reveals one of the great problems in the branches of modern biblical criticism that seek to minimize the historical value of scriptural records. When a tale has strong literary functions (such as parallels to the Exodus) and high theological or symbolic meaning, it is immediately assumed to be fiction.”

“An evaluation of an ancient text needs to begin with understanding what the text claims to be, not what modern scholars demand of it, especially when the demands are motivated by a desire to minimalize and undermine its historicity.”

“This inflexibility in interpretation of a text, insisting on meanings that render it unlikely or impossible instead of providing practical solutions for unclear or missing elements, is frequently encountered in the methodology of “higher criticism” of the Bible.”

“RT’s approach nicely illustrates some of the flawed methodology of minimalists in the field of “Higher Criticism” who prefer to look for parallels in late sources to establish late dates for scriptural texts rather than give the ancient texts a fair treatment, while also zealously minimalizing evidences for plausibility.”

“Some are frustrated with how they are minimized with hairsplitting, reading flaws and fiction into a text that is rooted in real terrain.”

“There is a pervasive bias against the Bible.”

“In my opinion, RT’s treatment here displays the mindset and training of “biblical minimalists,” who use what they feel are advanced tools of biblical scholarship to whittle away evidence and eviscerate unwelcome documents.”

“The evidence from Arabia is such a gift, in my opinion, and must not be minimalized, in spite of secular imperatives to do so at all costs.”

 

It is difficult to overemphasize how preposterous and uninformed these statements are. There is no widespread or deep seated bias against the claims of the Bible in academic biblical scholarship, nor a desire to minimize its historicity. Rather, in developing hypotheses about the origin of the biblical literature, scholars seek to understand and explain. They advance evidence-based arguments. To suggest that scholars have some secular need to prove the Bible incorrect only shows how unfamiliar Lindsay is with the disciplines and methodologies of contemporary biblical studies.

 

His repeated references to biblical minimalists is a case in point. The moniker of “biblical minimalism” arose in the 90s to describe a trend in biblical studies to see the Bible as having been composed at a later period than had previously been thought. The scholars who advanced these claims were derogatorily called “minimalists” by more conservative scholars, the label minimalism referring to their views about the value of the Bible as a historical source. However, in fact modern study of the Bible has always been rather minimalist in seeking to explain the Bible as a human artifact, and the claim that there ever was a distinct and ideologically coherent group of minimalist scholars has now turned into something of a chimera (Davies 2015). Further, many of the interpretive priorities of this so-called minimalism (e.g. late-dating, Bible as secondary historical source, etc.) have in recent years become broadly accepted in the field and supported by detailed historical, comparative, and archaeological analysis (e.g. Kratz 2015).

 

For myself, I have no commitment to any secular imperative to minimalize biblical history. It seems that Lindsay misread one of my comments to suggest I didn’t believe Jeremiah or Ezekiel were historical persons. I actually meant that the “books” of Jeremiah and Ezekiel didn’t exist or weren’t written before the exile. In any case, I think the Bible is endlessly fascinating as literature and as a scholar my only commitment is to discerning the proper historical and cultural contexts in which it can be most fruitfully interpreted and explained.

——————-

 

Davies, P. R. 2015. The History of Ancient Israel: A Guide for the Perplexed (Bloomsbury).

Kratz, R. 2015. Historical and Biblical Israel: The History, Tradition, and Archives of Israel and Judah (Oxford University).

 

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