Some Notes on Using Personal Names to Test a Text

Last spring, Interpreter published a short paper by Dr. Stephen D. Ricks on a few names found in the Book of Mormon.[1] A second such paper by Dr. Ricks was also published just last month.[2] In the first paper, Ricks quotes Nibley, who quotes William F. Albright, about how the story of Sinuhe seems historically plausible on the grounds that, among other things, “the Amorite personal names contained in the story are satisfactory for that period and region.”[3] Certain Internet denizens were quick to fault Ricks for drawing on Albright methodologically. They used a Google search to find a few quotes from William G. Dever criticizing Albright’s methods. Hence they made the hasty generalization that Mormon scholars are “always” drawing on out-dated methods (evidently not aware that some Mormon scholars have actually drawn on Dever himself for methodology).

While it is certainly true that Albright’s work, generally speaking, is out of date today, and his methods of doing Biblical archaeology have come under fire from Dever (and others, I am sure), not a single quote they produced from Dever chided Albright for using personal names as a means of evaluating the authenticity of a text. And the story of Sinuhe—which Albright concluded was “a substantially true account of life in its milieu[4]—is still largely considered a genuine Middle Egyptian text which dates to the time period it is set in, even if it is not regarded as historical.[5] That is, it certainly has verisimilitude, if not historicity, which seems consistent with Albright as quoted, and having the right kind of personal names, along with the other criteria Albright outlined, would seem to be part any assessment of verisimilitude. Hence, Albright does not seem to be off in his assessment or methods here.
This begs the question, what does Dever think of using personal names in testing the legitimacy of a document? In his own assessment of the historicity of the biblical documents, Dever notes, “If space permitted, I could cite hundreds of 9th–6th-century [BCE] seals inscribed with Hebrew personal names, the vast majority of which occur also in the Hebrew Bible, including the supposedly ‘Hellenistic-Roman’ Deuteronomistic materials.”[6] While Dever opts not to go through such a tedious exercise, the clear implication is that since the Biblical texts that record events set in the 9th–6th centuries BCE have many overlapping personal names with recovered seals from that same time period, those texts were likely based on real historical events, of which the authors had authentic, contemporary records, and not just some fictional narrative made up out of whole cloth in the Hellenistic/Roman era.
A few pages later, Dever makes this argument more explicitly (though he still opts not to belabor the point by going through the various names). While discussing ostraca which date to the same time period, Dever notes that among “several interesting convergences with biblical texts,” found in these ostraca, “The personal names are usually similar to those known in the Hebrew Bible, consistent even to the short form of the divine name, -yaw in northern compound names, compared with -yahu in Judah.”[7] So Dever clearly sees names as a legitimate type of convergence that can be used to determine when and where a text was written. Hence, the exercise undertaken by Ricks (and many others) of comparing Book of Mormon names to the kinds of names found in ancient Israelite and other Semitic sources is entirely legitimate.
A particularly interesting comment comes from Dever when he is discussing bullae (the hardened clay with the seal impression in it). Responding the suggestion, made by some, that the bullae are forgeries, Dever argues, among other things, that a forger simply could not have invented the many “nonbiblical personal names that are precisely of biblical type,”[8] which are found throughout the various bullae collections that have been recovered. As has been pointed out by many scholars, this is exactly what we find in the Book of Mormon: many biblical names, yes, but also many of the right type of non-biblical names (a good deal of which are now attested in some of the very ostaca and bullae to which Dever refers).[9] If the foremost Syro-Palestinian archaeologists doubts this can be done in forging seals and bullae, then I think we are more than justified in being skeptical that Joseph Smith could have achieved the feat while forging a lengthy and complicated text with hundreds of names, and in the early 19th century, at that, when there was far less data regarding ancient Near Eastern names to draw on.

[1] Stephen D. Ricks, “Some Notes on Book of Mormon Names,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 4 (2013): 155–160.
[2] Stephen D. Ricks, “A Nickname and a Slam Dunk: Notes on the Book of Mormon Names Zeezrom and Jershon,” Interpreter: A Journal of Book of Mormon Scripture 8 (2014): 191–194.
[3] Stephen D. Ricks, “Some Notes on Book of Mormon Names,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 4 (2013): 155, quoting Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert; The World of the Jaredites; There Were Jaredites (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988), 3; quoting William F. Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1942), 62.
[4] Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel, 63; as quoted by Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, 3.
[5] At least, according to Wikipedia: “It is a narrative set in the aftermath of the death of Pharaoh Amenemhat I, founder of the 12th dynasty of Egypt, in the early 20th century BC. It is likely that it was composed only shortly after this date, albeit the earliest extant manuscript is from the reign of Amenemhat III, ca. 1800 BC. There is an ongoing debate among Egyptologists as to whether or not the tale is based on actual events involving an individual named Sinuhe, with the consensus being that it is most likely a work of fiction.”
[6] William G. Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know & When Did They Know It? (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001), 206, brackets mine. Since nearly all dates given in the book are BC (or BCE), Dever has a tendency to consider that to be a “given” and not constantly specify BC/BCE.
[7] Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know, 210.
[8] Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know, 208.
[9] I recommend browsing through the Book of Mormon Onomasticon to see for yourself.