My first exposure to the idea or concept of “convergence” between text and history was in Brant Gardner’s 6-volume commentary Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon (Kofford, 2007–2008). Gardner, in turn, had borrowed the concept from William Dever, a prominent Syro-Palestinian archaeologist who studied the relationship between the biblical texts and archaeology. I decided that, in order to fully understand how the concept worked, I ought to pursue Dever’s work myself, and so I have since read his What Did the Biblical Writers Know & When Did They Know It? (Eerdmans, 2001) and Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? (Eerdmans, 2003). Both are excellent books, though I do disagree with some conclusions in each one. I certainly learned much more about his method reading them, and although I would make some adjustments (based on the different nuances I have seen used by other, equally reputable scholars who come to somewhat different conclusions than Dever), I am nonetheless just as impressed as Gardner is with Dever’s concept of “convergences” as a means for determining historicity, and have made it a central element in my own method to examining the historicity of the Book of Mormon.
Just what is a convergence, you ask? Dever explains, “These convergences are points at which the two lines of evidence [the text + external data], when pursued independently and as objectively as possible, appear to point in the same direction and can be projected eventually to meet” (2003, p. 227). When a convergence can be demonstrated, Dever says it is all but proof of historicity.
Whenever the two sources or “witnesses” happen to converge in their testimony, a historical “datum” (or given) may be said to have been established beyond reasonable doubt. To ignore or to deny the implications of such convergent testimony is irresponsible scholarship, since it impeaches the testimony of one witness without reasonable cause by suppressing other vital evidence. (2001, p. 107)
Of course, it isn’t quite proof, but Dever goes on to explain what it would take to overturn such convergent testimony.
This may not offer ultimate proof of what happened in history; but to overturn that would require a more likely scenario, replete with new and superior independent witnesses. In the absence of that, skepticism is not warranted, and indeed is suspect. The skeptic may remain a “hostile witness,” but such a witness is overruled, and the case may be considered sufficiently established by all reasonable historical requirements. (2001, p. 108)
So a convergence is a powerful form of evidence in favor of the historicity of the text. In order to dismiss it, one must have a more likely explanation of the same data set, including new, better evidence. What is important to realize about this standard is it is not merely a matter of finding another explanation of the data—it requires a better, more likely explanation. And, it is not simply the date in the text which must be better accounted for, either. It is the convergence that must be explained in some more plausible way than assuming historicity. That is, why the data in the text and the external data point toward the same conclusion must be explained.
What does this mean for the Book of Mormon? It means that, when there is a convergence between the putative historical and cultural contexts (and there are lots, but I’m not going to get into that here) then it requires more than merely finding an alternative parallel from the 19th century than can explain the textual data. The would-be objector must explain why the text fits its historical context, and that explanation must be more plausible than simply assuming the text is historical. Hence, counter-explanations for, say, the NHM/Nahom convergence that merely focus on 19th century ways of explaining the data in the text are misguided and naïve. As is any other effort which assumes that if any 19th century parallels can be demonstrated, the case is settled; or that ancient convergences are only valid if it can be proven that it is impossible for Joseph Smith to have thought up such an idea within his own environment. Such methods are exactly backwards—whether there is some arbitrary way of explaining the text through any number of 19th century parallels does not explain why that item converges with its ancient historical context. In short, it simply does not account for all the data.