Scripture and “Western Liberal Orthodoxies”
James K. Hoffmeier is the leading advocate for a historical Exodus and the general reliability of the biblical text in reporting that event. His books on the subject were published by Oxford University Press, and he is a well-respected Egyptologist. In a paper published in 2012, Hoffmeier advanced the view “that the exodus and wilderness narratives are central to O[ld ]T[estament ]T[heology], and that without them, the tapestry of Israel’s faith and the foundational fabric of Christianity unravels.” (“‘These Things Happened’: Why a Historical Exodus is Essential for Theology,” in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?, ed. James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary [Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2012], 106.) Hoffmeier marshals a number of passages throughout the Old Testament he feels illustrate the centrality of the Exodus to the faith of ancient Israel. Again and again, Hoffmeier notes, Israel was called to trust in the Lord because he lead them out of Egypt. The Exodus was thus foundational, and if it did not actually happen, then the primary grounds for trusting the Lord was a falsehood.
Hoffmeier also appeals to modern trends to bolster his argument. He notes that in western nations where critical biblical scholarship has cast greater skepticism on the historicity of biblical narratives, particularly the Exodus, Christianity has been struggling while it thrives in nations less affected by such intellectual trends. In this regard, Hoffmeier appeals to Philip Jenkins, whom he quotes as saying, “the churches that are doing best in the world as a whole are the ones that stand farthest from Western liberal orthodoxies, and we should learn from their success.” (p. 134, citing Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity [New York: Oxford, 2002], 14.)
Under normal circumstances, I probably would have read past this without raising an eyebrow. This citation struck me, however, because Philip Jenkins has recently written a series of blog posts on the historicity of the Book of Mormon, all of which simply dismiss the possibility out of hand and never really engage any of the literature on the subject. William J. Hamblin has drawn Jenkins into a bit of a debate on the matter, but the exchange is only making slow progress (if any at all). So the appearance of Jenkins name in this paper stood out to me.
Assuming that Hoffmeier has properly represented Jenkins sentiments, it is strange to me that he would then turn around and suggest that the historicity of the Book of Mormon “has not the slightest impact on the existence or growth of the LDS church, nor should it.” He goes on to explain, “Newcomers join for excellent personal reasons, in search of community, of values, or new and better models of family. They are not going to abandon those powerful and enticing structures, those networks of community and family, just because a supposedly inspired text is wrong about ancient archaeology.” And,
“A religion – any religion – is vastly more than a single scripture. It is composed of the traditions and history accumulated by believers over the centuries, their experiences and memories, their shared daily realities. It is a matter of culture, and when I say that, do not take it as meaning something trivial or dismissive. Isn’t culture a vehicle for progressive revelation? As I say, I am speaking of any and all religions, Christian and otherwise.”
Yet these sentiments are exactly the opposite of his observations cited by Hoffmeier (assuming, again, that Hoffmeier has properly represented Jenkins). Many of the same tensions that exist in other Christian denominations between conservatives and liberals on matters of scripture and historicity are also prevalent within Mormonism, and extend to LDS unique scripture such as the Book of Mormon, where the miraculous means by which the text was revealed (you know, angels, gold plates, and seer stones) only serve to underscore the importance of historicity for Mormonism’s “keystone” scripture. Liberal Mormons would disagree, of course, and conservative Latter-day Saints share the same, or similar, concerns as their Christian counterparts over the deleterious effects that liberalization of beliefs (which often entails abandoning historicity of scripture) might have on the vitality of the Mormon faith. As cited by Hoffmeier, Jenkins seems to understand these issues within his own faith tradition. When he comments on Mormonism and the Book of Mormon, however, he seems to sing a different tune.
The Exodus and the “Rule of One”
There are other reasons why Hoffmeier’s essay was interesting in light of recent discussions. Jenkins has repeatedly thrown this out as a challenge to the Book of Mormon apologists:
“I offer a question. Can anyone cite any single credible fact, object, site, or inscription from the New World that supports any one story found in the Book of Mormon? One sherd of pottery? One tool of bronze or iron? One carved stone? One piece of genetic data? And by credible, I mean drawn from a reputable scholarly study, an academic book or refereed journal, not some cranky piece of pseudo-science.”
Jenkins calls this the “rule of one,” and basically insists that if something cannot stand up to this standard, there is no point in having any kind of conversation about it. Jenkins would latter acknowledge that,
“Nor of course is the Bible immune to historical challenges. If we took a survey of contemporary historical scholarship, we would find many scholars who give no credibility to statements in that book referring to times before the Exodus, and quite a number would discount the existence of Moses. The fact of the Exodus itself has been an academic battleground for decades. The reality of Solomon, David and their immediate successors is fiercely debated, as Minimalists deny the historical value of pretty much everything in the Bible before the sixth century BC.”
He considers these debates as wholly different from those about the Book of Mormon, and considers himself a conservative on these issues.
“I am quite conservative on those matters, to the point of defending the existence of Moses, as well as David’s dynasty. I believe in Moses partly because nobody would have invented such a convincingly foreign Egyptian name for the great Jewish national hero. I also think that, on occasion, the Minimalists are so determined to avoid evidence that runs against them that they themselves act like blinkered fundamentalists, but that is a debate for a later column.”
Not that my opinion really matters on this, but I tend to agree with Jenkins here (although, I note, the Egypticity of Moses’s name is subject to some debate). To some extent, I also agree that these are a different kind of issue than the Book of Mormon and Pre-Columbian archaeology—both the text and the archaeology is different, and those differences are important to understand. But they are not wholly different.
Take the Exodus, for example. The basics of the biblical story here are that a family or clan migrated from Canaan into Egypt, stayed there for about 400 years, where their posterity grew into a large population, so large that the Egyptians considered them a threat and forced them into slavery, killed their new born males, etc. Until one day the Lord sent Moses in to set them free by way of incredible miracles. This large population of Israelites then wanders the desert for 40 years before finally entering the promised land. In the narrative, at least two Israelites (Joseph and Moses) hold prominent positions within the Egyptian government.
This makes for a decent comparison to the Book of Mormon, because it likewise tells a story that starts with a family or small clan (smaller than that of Israel, in fact), which then grows into a large population over the course of several hundred (actually, about 1000) years. And, like the Book of Mormon in the New World, there is not a single scrap of evidence for the Israelites in Egypt or Sinai. In fact, one could aptly paraphrase Jenkins here:
“Can anyone cite any single credible fact, object, site, or inscription from [Egypt or Sinai] that supports any one story found in the [books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, or Numbers]? One sherd of pottery? One tool of bronze or iron? One carved stone? One piece of genetic data?”
The fact is there is no evidence to support the idea that the Israelites were ever there. No pottery. No inscriptions. No tools. No cities. In fact, there is no evidence to even suggest that Israelites existed before the late 13th century BC, and by then they are already in Canaan, and most experts (e.g., William Dever, Israel Finkelstein) would argue that they were an indigenous group—not immigrants from Egypt via Sinai. Again, in Canaan, there is no single piece of evidence to support a migration from Egypt. No pottery. No inscriptions. No tools. No cities. The Mernepteh Stela (ca. 1208 BC) supports the existence of Israelites in Canaan, but not that they came from Egypt. Archaeological assemblages of pottery, etc. are also argued to indicate the rise of Israel around this time, but whether such assemblages can actually represent an ethnic group continues to be debated, and these would not satisfy the “rule of one” anyway (they are, after all, assemblages of several pieces of data), and tend to point (again, per Dever, Finkelstein, and others) to indigenous origins. The inscription on the Mernepteh Stela likely passes Jenkins “rule of one” test, but does not really help with the Exodus. And since Jenkins insists that there must be evidence for the ethnic group before proceeding with the conversation (see several of his comments scattered across Hamblin’s blog), then we must wonder how he can accept Moses and an Exodus given the lack of evidence for the Israelites as a people in Egypt in the 2nd millennium BC, and prior to the late-13th century at all (anywhere). Without the Mernepteh Stela, even the existence of Israelites in Canaan ca. the 13th century would fail the “rule of one” test.
In addressing the “silence of Egyptian evidence,” as charged by a particular biblical scholar, Hoffmeier does not rush to produce “any single credible fact” for the Exodus. Instead, he starts to discuss why such an expectation is methodologically and epistemologically unsound.
First, the delta of Egypt, within which was the land of Goshen where the Hebrews resided, is the least excavated area of Egypt. Second, because of the moist environment of northern Egypt from millennia of annual Nile inundations, objects made from perishable materials do not survive. In fact, not a single scrap of a papyrus document has survived from the delta from pharaonic times. Only a few Roman-era papyri have been found in Tanis, thanks to the carbonized condition of some that were kept in clay jars (à la the Dead Sea Scrolls). Third, those who excavate at delta sites are normally limited in accessing lower levels from earlier history, owing to high water tables. … Thus, when a biblical scholar points out that there is no Egyptian evidence to support the presence of Hebrews in Egypt, or for the exodus, it is rash to conclude that this absence of evidence is evidence of absence. (p. 108–109).
This is not unlike Hamblin’s own attempt to explain why the kind of evidence Jenkins is insisting on—and why simply measuring up to his “rule of one”—is not reasonable for the Book of Mormon in Pre-Columbian America. I should note that it would not be accurate to say that Hoffmeier thinks there is no evidence. There is plenty of evidence, which he complies and discusses in his volumes published through Oxford University Press. But it is largely circumstantial, and does not meet the “rule of one” criteria. This is similar to the scenario for the Book of Mormon.
Unsurprisingly, the same biblical minimalists that Jenkins criticizes (see above) respond much the same way Jenkins does when these issues get raised: they dig in their heels and demand that the “apologist” produce the evidence, as they have narrowly defined it, or just shut up.
Yet, as Hoffmeier demonstrates with the Exodus, the strength of the case is not in “any single credible fact,” but in a myriad of subtle, circumstantial details that converge between the text and the external data. As such, there is no single data point that can satisfy a challenge like that of Jenkins for the Exodus. And things are similar for the Book of Mormon and Pre-Columbian America. Jenkins asserts over and over again that the Mormon apologists are methodologically impoverished (my word, not his), yet the truth is they have modeled what they do after the methods of scholars like Hoffmeier. I know this because I have read both the works of Mormon apologists and the works of Hoffmeier. I remember being struck by the similarity of argument and method when I first started reading Hoffmeier. I personally started reading Hoffmeier, along with others like Kenneth Kitchen, William Dever, Iain Provan, Israel Finkelstein, Baruch Halpern, and Amihai Mazar specifically so that I could learn by their examples about how, methodologically, to engage with text and archaeology responsibly. In doing so, I did indeed begin to notice some methodological weaknesses in how some Mormon apologists have practiced what I’ll simply call “historicity studies.” But others—and, I’ll go ahead and say most of those with professional degrees—have proved to practice historicity studies as rigorously as the above scholars do with the Bible. And when they haven’t, Mormons themselves have not given other Latter-day Saints a pass on this. The recent review by Brant Gardner and Mark Wright of John L. Sorenson’s Mormon’s Codex serves as the most recent example, but others could be cited going at least back in the to 1980s, when FARMS first started.
Some Concluding Thoughts
As the saying goes, what is good for the goose is good for the gander. Alternatively, I think it is also true that was is bad for the goose is bad for the gander. Moving away from historicity has been detrimental to the vitality of several faith communities of the last few centuries and decades, including protestant Christianity. That is not to say that some people can’t make a meaningful faith out of less-historical readings of scripture—for those who can, I say more power to you. But as a whole, these sorts of approaches have proved to weaken Jewish, Christian, and Mormon faith communities which have adopted them (Louis Midgley has written numerous essays on the subject within the Mormon context). Jenkins, as quoted by Hoffmeier, seems to understand that this is bad for the goose (his own evangelical Christianity), yet he recommends it to the gander (Mormonism). At the same time, based on his profession of being “conservative” on historical matters like the existence of Moses, etc., Jenkins seems to be (though I admit I do not know for certain) open to, and even accepting of, the methods and arguments advanced by Hoffmeier and others on the Exodus—these arguments and their methodologies are good for the goose. Yet here, he rejects them for the gander. To me, the double standard here seems obvious, but then again, I have tasted both the goose and the gander (i.e., I have read scholarship on both the historicity of the Bible, and that for the Book of Mormon as well), whereas Jenkins keeps eating his goose while steadily refusing to try the gander. Perhaps herein lies the real problem.