While doing some reading on the events of the 8th and 7th centuries BC in Israel and Judah, for research on a writing project I am working on, I came across some interesting gems talking about the relationship of some biblical accounts and the archaeological record.
Specifically, I was reading about Samaria—the northern Israelite capital—as an Assyrian province. Taken over ca. 720 BC, tens of thousands of Israelites were displaced and an equal or greater number foreigners were brought in to replace the population there, a process that continued “in many stages, well into the seventh century.” Naturally, these non-Israelites brought with them different religious beliefs and practices. But before the end of the seventh century, assimilation makes these foreigners all but invisible. Mordechai Cogan explains:
“Toward the end of the seventh century BCE, all traces of the non-Israelite forms of worship imported by the foreign settlers seem to have disappeared from Samaria. … Assimilating Israelite customs, the foreigners became virtually indistinguishable from the autochthonous population. And by the mid-sixth century, the residents of Samaria had developed into a community of faithful who worship the God of Israel and who pressed to participate in the rebuilding of the Temple alongside the Judeans who had returned from Babylon. These Samarian must have been scrupulous enough in their religious practice, for some them married into the high priesthood in Jerusalem.” (Mordechai Cogan, “Into Exile: From Assyrian Conquest of Israel to the Fall of Babylon,” in The Oxford History of the Biblical World, ed. Michael D. Coogan [New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998], 342, previous quote from p. 341)
Speaking of Biblical accounts (2 Kings 23:15–20; 2 Chronicles 34:9, 33; 35:18), about Samaria/the northern Israelite territories from this time, Cogan writes:
“Neither of these reports acknowledges the presence of foreign rituals in Samaria; even the foreigners themselves have disappeared from the record. Considered from a critical point of view, these sometimes polemical biblical descriptions suggest that within three or four generations of their arrival in Samaria the foreign settlers were on their way to being absorbed by those Israelites who had escaped deportation and still lived in the land.” (Cogan, “Into Exile,” 342.)
In short, in less than 100 years from when the last foreigners were imported into the region, literally tens of thousands of non-Israelites become “virtually indistinguishable from the” pre-existing Israelite population, thanks to cultural assimilation. Furthermore, biblical texts involving them simply do not acknowledge the existence of them or their religious practices.
This is extremely illustrative for when considering the Book of Mormon and archaeology. For the Nephites, we do not start with tens of thousands of Israelites flooding into Mesoamerica (or wherever in the Americas you choose to place them). Instead, it starts with a single clan—say 30–50 people. If tens of thousands of people can become so thoroughly assimilated in ca. 100 years so that they are archaeologically invisible, how can we possibly except this small clan to be culturally distinct and “obvious” by the time their descendants (likely an assimilated, intermarried group, just like Samarians) finally form a population large enough to leave an archaeological trace, a few hundred years later?
The way the biblical reports mentioned ignored the non-Israelite presence is likewise instructive, since the Book of Mormon is frequently criticized for not mentioning the vast non-Israelite populations that certainly existed in the Americas, and which they likely interacted. The Book of Mormon certainly hints at the presence of these peoples, but just the non-Israelites of the northern territories were of no consequence to authors of Kings and Chronicles, so they seem to be irrelevant to Nephi and Mormon.
Certainly, this does not prove the Book of Mormon true, but it does expose the faulty assumptions upon which demands for “archaeological evidence” often rest. Just as I have said before, this is not to say no kind of evidence or correlation between the text and archaeology is to be expected, but rather to illustrate the kind of difficulties that exist and need to be taken into consideration by anyone attempting to comment, pro or con, on the issue of archaeological evidence.