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Some Lessons in Assimilation, Archaeology, and Texts

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. 

Comments

  1. As an aside, this seems like a possible source of inspiration for Zenos' Allegory of the Olive Tree. Wild branches being grafted in while natural branches being planted elsewhere. And the wild branches bringing forth good fruit.

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  2. Great post and excellent points. I think that we (speaking generally) overlook or under-appreciate the didactic (and polemic) nature of the major authors in the Book of Mormon, and all that gets emphasized and omitted as a result. It's a bit like trying to reconstruct a clear and complete history of the entire United States from, say, "Essentials in Church History" by Joseph Fielding Smith.

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  3. The Book of Ruth emphasizes that a person who was not born a member of Israel can be fully integrated into Israel and become an ancestor of a king in Israel.

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  4. Neal,

    Do you believe that this small group of Lehites were assimilated into the Meso-american culture? If so, how do you reconcile this with the Book of Mormon and it's claims that the religion brought with this small group became dominant both politically and culturally? The very evidence you're citing would appear to undermine the claims of the Book of Mormon. Why didn't the religion that the Nephites brought with them disappear within 100 years such as the religion that the foreigners brought with them to the Assyrian province? Or are you attempting to invoke some sort of special pleading here?

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    1. I do believe that they assimilated, and this is hardly problematic for the Book of Mormon. Religion and culture are connected, but not identical, and given the aniconic nature early Israelite religion, you wouldn't expect to find clear evidence in material culture (which is what archaeology actually deals with). While material evidence may not indicate the presence of a different religion, that does not mean it is isn't there and does not continue on. You wouldn't know the difference between Israelite religion and Canaanite religion without the biblical texts, because they employ the same symbolism and imagery.

      And your reading of the text is pretty elementary. The Lamanites (which are described as a much larger population throughout the text) did not maintain the religion of their fathers. Neither did the Mulekites, also said to be a larger population than the Nephites. Nephite religious leaders are constantly lamenting the overall wickedness of the Nephite people. The religion of the Nephites was hardly politically and culturally dominant.

      And no, this is not special pleading. You are making a hasty generalization. In this example, the religion disappeared from the material culture, but that is not always the case. And as I said, that does not always mean the religion itself has disappeared. Israelite religion was aniconic, and the late pre-Classic (400 BC-AD 250) in the Grijalva River valley (where Sorenson and others place Zarahemla and the majority of the Nephite polity) is also largely aniconic, based on current evidence. But Nephite expressions of religion, like that of the Israelites, likely took the form of expression found among the their neighbors, so even if their was material culture, there is no reason to expect it to tell us the difference between Nephite religion and its neighbors.

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    2. So does a highly literate and religio-centric culture spanning the pre-classic and a large part of the classic period leave no written texts concerning their religio-centric culture while their counterpart in the religio-centric culture that they derived from leave a plethora of written texts describing this same culture? With the emphasis in the BOM on record keeping, wouldn't you expect to find written histories similar to what we have in ancient Israel? More special pleading as to why not?

      And I'll ask again, why didn't the religion that the Nephites brought with them disappear within 100 years such as the religion that the foreigners brought with them to the Assyrian province? Honestly, what are your thoughts? The native population would have been in the millions and we know undeniably that these societies were well established in every aspect including religion, politics and culture at the supposed incursion of the Nephite population. How did such a small group completely take over the polity of such a large area?

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    3. "The religion of the Nephites was hardly politically and culturally dominant."

      This statement interests me. Am I mistaken to believe that for most of the duration of the Nephite culture in the BOM their Kings were both the King as well as being the head of the church? And often their Judges were also prominent leaders in their church. Are you arriving at this conclusion based on the text of the BOM? If so, can you please point me to it?

      Also, how do you reconcile the integration of the Lamanite and Nephite culture for 2 centuries after Christ's visit to the americas with your theory on the limited extent of religious diffusion?

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    4. "So does a highly literate and religio-centric culture spanning the pre-classic and a large part of the classic period leave no written texts concerning their religio-centric culture while their counterpart in the religio-centric culture that they derived from leave a plethora of written texts describing this same culture?"

      Are you sure there's a "plethora" of written texts from the pre-Classic Maya?

      I ask because last month David Stuart, the world's leading Maya epigrapher, spoke at the Society for American Archaeology, where he said, "Late Preclassic political entities and geopolitical structures are impossible to reconstruct on current evidence," and furthermore that "no historical texts (epigraphic evidence) exists before the Early Classic."

      Oh, and do you know how many Classic and post-Classic Maya codices survive? Want to make a wild guess?

      (I'll give you a hint: you can count the number on two hands.)

      So tell me again about this "plethora" of evidence we're supposedly looking at.

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    5. Sorry, I was actually wrong.

      You can't count the number of pre-Classic and Classic Maya codices because none exist, and you can count on one hand the number of post-Classic Maya codices.

      Good luck, Jeremiah!

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    6. "Are you sure there's a "plethora" of written texts from the pre-Classic Maya?"

      While the Mayan culture very well might have been a religio-centric culture in some respects, I was obviously referring to the plethora of texts emanating from the jewish tradition that the Nephites supposedly derived from. So while I assume your comments were attempting to challenge my point, I think you actually made it quite nicely.

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    7. Wow, Jeremiah. I am no expert on the Maya or Mesoamerica, but you prove your utter ignorance on the subject. A "plethora of written texts describing this same culture"? Maybe in your imagination. See Stephen's comments. And would note, that most scholars DO think that Mesoamerican cultures were literate and writing during the pre-Classic. Their writing just hasn't survived. So how is it special pleading to say the exact same thing about the Nephites?

      Nephite culture spanned "a large part of the classic period"? Bro, do you even know the Book of Mormon chronology? Classic period starts ca. AD 250, and spans through AD 900. The Nephite culture is dead ca. AD 386. That's about 136 years. And the Nephites are largely apostate, religiously, by that point, and politically weak and overrun by their more dominant neighbors.

      And yes, the religion of the Nephites was not politically dominant for reasons I already explained and you never engaged. Pointing out that Kings and Judges were also religious leaders does not do anymore to "prove" that they were dominant. I mean, Trinidad and Tobago has political leaders, but they are not dominant in any sense of the word in world politics. Every indication from the text suggests that the Nephites were a minority polity, and as I already mentioned much of the time the population at large does not seem to have followed the leaders religious ideals, as they are constantly being called to repent. If you need references for any of this, I would suggest you need to read the Book of Mormon a little more because it is all over the place.

      "The native population would have been in the millions and we know undeniably that these societies were well established in every aspect including religion, politics and culture at the supposed incursion of the Nephite population. How did such a small group completely take over the polity of such a large area?"

      Again, major assumptions revealing ignorance. No one (or at least no one relevant) is saying they took over the entire polity of a large area. Most of Mesoamerica, in fact, was not Nephite, and much of it wasn't even Lamanite. And, polities were hardly well established when the Lehites arrived. Coastal Guatemala between 750-500 BC was sparsely populated by villages and hamlets. The Olmecs were in the decline and the Maya polities hadn't quite emerged yet. The institution of Maya kingship was only beginning to emerge ca. 650-400 BC in highland Guatemala. As it happens, this the very time period Nephi's people want him to become a king, and Sorenson places the land of Nephi in highland Guatemala. So the Book of Mormon fits marvelously well into this picture, and it is not far fetched to imagine that a small group of newcomers could gain a modest following which grew over time but always remained a minority. The setting was actually perfect for just such an scenario.

      Certainly, this is pretty different from the kind of assumptions people tend to make about the Book of Mormon, but that is par for the course when ancient texts are actually contextualized in their proper time and place. The way the average Christian reads the Bible is quite different from how it gets interpreted by historians and archaeologists who are seeking to situate the text in its proper time and place. Context changes how the text is read, so the fact that it does not square with modern assumptions, even those typically made by church leaders, is hardly a problem. It is EXACTLY what should be expected from a real historical record.

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    8. "While the Mayan culture very well might have been a religio-centric culture in some respects, I was obviously referring to the plethora of texts emanating from the jewish tradition that the Nephites supposedly derived from. So while I assume your comments were attempting to challenge my point, I think you actually made it quite nicely."

      If I misread you that's my bad.

      But no, it still doesn't help you.

      If you're talking about Old World texts such is irrelevant.

      If you're talking about New World Nephite texts, maybe you need to pay attention to what's happening in the book of Mormon at the end of Nephite history, where records were being destroyed by the Lamanites as Nephite culture waned (Mormon 2:17, 6:6).

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    9. Wow is right. If Stephen and yourself can't comprehend something as obvious as the plethora of texts I'm referring to being the biblical texts etc. from the jewish tradition then I'm not sure there's much hope of discussing BOM content with you...or anything else for that matter.

      "And yes, the religion of the Nephites was not politically dominant for reasons I already explained and you never engaged."

      Please point out where you explained this bald assertion prior to the limited and untenable explanation that you gave in this latest response?

      Pointing out that religious leaders were successively the kings and leaders of the polity SPECIFICALLY suggests that this was the case. All you can say is that this doesn't "prove" it to be the case. Why don't you point out the indications from the text that suggest that the Nephites were a minority in the polity so we can discuss them specifically? Honestly, why are apologists always so preoccupied with possibilities rather than probabilities?

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    10. "If you're talking about Old World texts such is irrelevant."

      Nice.......that's what I love about apologetics. You guys kill me.

      "If you're talking about New World Nephite texts, maybe you need to pay attention to what's happening in the book of Mormon at the end of Nephite history, where records were being destroyed by the Lamanites as Nephite culture waned (Mormon 2:17, 6:6)."

      Now this is worth discussing. I was hoping one of you would bring this up as it's the best of the weak apologetics that I've heard regarding this. It's obvious that Mormon believed that any records falling into the hands of the Lamanites would be destroyed and we can safely assume that he believes this because of a 1st or 2nd hand witness. I think we should take the text at it's word in this instance. However, this also accentuates the fact that Mormon as well as his brethren were aware of the Lamanites desire to destroy their records and did in fact take steps to preserve them. Would we not expect to find other preserved texts? Other than a record given to a farm boy by God in the 19th century? Also, having the technology to create and preserve texts is a valuable technology, why would we not find references to this unique culture spanning a millenia from outside texts and sources? Why is there never diffusion with any of these technologies? I understand what the reality of meso-american culture in the classic and pre-classic periods was, my question is why doesn't it match what we would expect if the BOM was actual history?

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    11. "Would we not expect to find other preserved texts?"

      Sounds good! Where do we start looking, Jeremiah?

      Also, go ahead and throw together a grant proposal and see what you can swing with donors and the Guatemalan government. Let us know when you've got that.

      "Also, having the technology to create and preserve texts is a valuable technology, why would we not find references to this unique culture spanning a millenia from outside texts and sources?"

      Did you ignore my comment where I quote David Stuart as saying we have "no historical texts (epigraphic evidence). . . before the Early Classic"?

      If that's the case, if we have NO pre-classic texts and only 4, count 'em 4, post-Classic texts, then why should we expect to find references to this?

      "I understand what the reality of meso-american culture in the classic and pre-classic periods was, my question is why doesn't it match what we would expect if the BOM was actual history?"

      Go ahead and tell that to Mark Wright, Kerry Hull, Brant Gardner, John Sorenson, and John Clark.

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    12. "Did you ignore my comment where I quote David Stuart as saying we have "no historical texts (epigraphic evidence). . . before the Early Classic"? "

      Uh....yes, hence my comment :

      "I understand what the reality of meso-american culture in the classic and pre-classic periods was, my question is why doesn't it match what we would expect if the BOM was actual history?"

      I understand that the reality is that there are NO texts, my question was why not? This was a very valuable technology, that being the ability to create and preserve texts int he manner the BOM describes. Yet again, just as so many other technologies claimed in the BOM, the apologetic is that it vanished and didn't diffuse.

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    13. "Go ahead and tell that to Mark Wright, Kerry Hull, Brant Gardner, John Sorenson, and John Clark."

      That's a nice list of apologists. Why not list some non-mormon scholars that agree with them....you know...guys that have nothing on the line concerning the truthfulness of the BOM.

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