Reynolds summarizes the historical and archaeological debate on the origins of the ancient state of Israel, highlighting evidence that supports core aspects of the biblical exodus narrative as well as how the mainstream consensus is both clarified by and supports the Book of Mormon.
In this article Noel B. Reynolds provides a summary of the academic debate on the historical validity of early portions of the Old Testament. His arguments build on his previous work hypothesizing a plausible historical context for the Brass Plates as the product of an ancient Abrahamic and Manassite scribal tradition, showing how modern archaeology leaves room for belief in the core biblical narrative that underlies his hypothesis, as well as how it provides support for the Book of Mormon’s peculiar view of Israel’s history (i.e., one that seems opposed to Josiah’s reforms and that fails to lionize David and Solomon).
Reynolds begins by outlining the current mainstream consensus on Israel’s origins, and how that consensus came about. Having once been almost exclusively based in the biblical text, that text is now usually understood as a late, agenda-laden product of competing oral traditions, with little connection to objective history. Rather than arriving en masse via an exodus, mainstream scholars instead propose that Israel’s population was largely indigenous to the area. Though they identify the period of Israel’s rise as an important social and economic transition associated with the collapse of Bronze Age Canaanite culture, such scholars see that transition being powered by those “at the fringes” of Canaanite society instead of by Joshua’s external invasion. The evidence generally cited for this is that the material culture of those settling in Palestine appeared to already be suited to agriculture in the region, instead of being inexperienced pastoralists from regions outside Canaan. (Note Reynold’s summary of a technical debate on the limitations of material culture for defining ethnicity.)
This theory obviously clashes with the view of Israel’s history presented in the Book of Mormon, which Reynolds sees as an important tool in reconciling the historical debate. In place of oral myths and traditions, the Book of Mormon identifies an independent written record of Israel’s history (i.e., the Brass Plates) that largely validates Old Testament narratives and that implies a robust scribal tradition extending back to Abraham. Reynolds notes at least one scholar, D.N. Freedman, who supports the idea of original written sources for the Old Testament.
Noting the increasingly recognized limitations of archaeological science, and the importance of humility in how archaeologists present their interpretations, Reynolds points out that the stories mainstream scholars use to replace the biblical narrative are themselves far from consistent. In that light, and with no apparent hard evidence that directly disproves the traditional biblical account, the mainstream consensus continues to be dogged by lingering skepticism. Reynolds presents a number of reasons and pieces of evidence to fuel such skepticism, including:
- Historical and linguistic evidence for a Hebrew-speaking influx of pastoral migrants from the southern Levant.
- The distinctive ideology and religion that characterizes israelite ethnicity.
- An Egyptian inscription, dated to about 1200 BCE, that names Israel as a people centuries prior to the compilation of the Old Testament. (Note that Egyptian evidence often isn’t considered by archaeologists studying Palestine, since they don’t generally have mastery of Egyptian languages and artifacts.)
- The strong cultural memory that the exodus narrative represents, which may have been difficult to successfully fabricate.
- The works of noted scholars that provide detailed documentation for the evidence in support of the biblical narrative, including those of Kenneth A. Kitchen, James K. Hoffmeier, and Joshua Berman.
- The 1980 discovery of an altar that closely matches the description of the one Moses instructed Joshua to build on Mt. Ebal, a striking find that would provide direct support for the biblical account and place the history of Israelite religious practice (as well as the use of Hebrew script) much earlier than otherwise supposed.
- The Book of Mormon, where its writers repeatedly reference the exodus and affirm the Brass Plates as a written text, one that implies a scribal tradition predating the Old Testament.
Reynolds goes on to identify the ways that the Book of Mormon’s framing of Israelite history differs from what we see in the Old Testament, and how it receives support from the archaeological record. This includes an archaeological focus on ancient Manasseh as the largest and most advanced center of early Israelite culture, a finding that runs counter to the Old Testament’s focus on the Judah of David and Solomon. This shift has led scholars to move the dating of a unified Israelite state from the late 11th century to the early 9th century, with economic and political power residing in the northern kingdom before that time. In searching for the cause of the disconnect between the Old Testament and the archaeological record, scholars have pointed to the revisions of the Deuteronomists during the reign of Josiah, which introduced a biased emphasis toward Jerusalem and the Davidic Dynasty.
Though he notes some dissent to this updated chronology, this perspective sets the stage well for Reynolds’ hypothesized view of Lehi, Nephi, and the Brass Plates. That prosperous and advanced northern kingdom would eventually be destroyed by the Assyrian conquest, bringing thousands of refugees, mainly skilled elites, streaming into Jerusalem. Not only did this help Judah develop into an actual state, but that stream of refugees may have included Lehi’s immediate ancestors. Had the historical traditions of the northern kingdom survived, it would have looked very different from the Old Testament record available to us, and perhaps a bit like the record of the Brass Plates as described in the Book of Mormon.
I realize I might be late to the game when it comes to appreciation of Noel Reynolds, but his recent Interpreter articles have expanded my perspective when it comes to situating the Book of Mormon in a meaningful Old World context. Based on the confidence of some commentators, it would be easy to get the impression that the idea of an authentic historical exodus is dead in the water. But it’s interesting (though not altogether surprising) to hear that there’s a great deal of nuance hiding underneath the iceberg of mainstream consensus, and a great deal of room for belief in the core aspects of the traditional biblical narrative. Though Reynolds doesn’t outline every argument and piece of evidence that stands in play for this debate, he’s pointed us to a number of valuable resources that will help me sort that evidence out for myself (assuming I can find the spare change to apply to my Kindle).
For me, this article also highlights the importance of true skepticism—of open-mindedness, of continuing investigation, and of taking into account all the evidence we have at our disposal. Those promoting the current mainstream hypothesis of Israel’s origins weren’t wrong to try to poke and prod at traditional narratives and assumptions. Where they may have gone off the path, though, is in the wholesale rejection of those narratives as a metaphysical and methodological starting point. I can understand being skeptical of parting seas and a camp of millions spending 40 years wandering the deserts of the Levant. Leveraging that doubt to toss out the entire idea of Egyptian captivity, and being eager to credit whatever alternative theory crosses one’s path—that seems to me a bridge too far.
Reynolds also emphasizes for me the powerful role the Book of Mormon can play in these conversations, if we allow it to do so. If scholars could crack open the door to seeing the Book of Mormon as valid evidence of Israelite history, the debate would take an immediate and radical turn. And seeing the Book of Mormon in the light of the archaeological record seems to lend it a further and residing strength. For someone in the 19th century to have conjured the Brass Plates as a competing text to the Old Testament, and for that to later provide a plausible fit for what we’d expect given a deeply nuanced historical context—that might just be harder for me to believe in than the idea of angels and seer stones.