Sunday, July 19, 2015

History and the Book of Mormon

Philip Jenkins continues his interaction about the comparative historicity of the Bible and the Book of Mormon in "Of Bill Hamblin, History and the Book of Mormon." These exchanges are fascinating to me as a life-long student and teacher of history. To what extent can the methods of historical scholarship establish fact?

Hamblin's position, as Jenkins summarizes it, "...denies the concept of objective evidence, a phrase he usually (and scornfully) puts in quotes. He does not believe we can speak of objective evidence of the past: we cannot seek it, will not find it, and it is futile to attempt to do so."
.... Dr. Hamblin is obviously and undeniably correct in saying that the past does not presently exist. He is also right to say that “our only capacity to interact with the past is inherently indirect. We interact with the Past by studying the evidence left by past people–texts, inscriptions, art, artifacts, monuments, tools, tombs, etc. We can understand the past only by studying those things, which were made or done in the Past, but which still exist in the present.” No less obviously, “data from the Past needs to be interpreted precisely because the Past no longer exists.” Amen and amen. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

It is flagrantly wrong, though, for him to conclude that “Hence, the study of history is not empirical–that is, we cannot directly observe with our senses or experiment on the Past. History is a non-empirical discipline.” This is false, and a non-sequitur. From his subsequent remarks in his earlier post, about “This is not objective,” I understand him to take the same wildly incorrect approach to archaeology. ....

True, the past does not currently exist. As he rightly says, though, it has left traces that do – in the form of archaeological remains, documents, inscriptions, pottery, buildings, metalwork, whatever – and those traces, those data, can be subjected to empirical research. They can be observed, collected and analyzed, commonly through quantitative techniques. Any such research is empirical, and that is what archaeologists do every day. ....

...[H]istory and archaeology are indeed empirical disciplines, and can be used to test claims about the past, such as those implied by the Book of Mormon. Claims can and must be made, and then tested.

If it is scholarship, it is neither subjective nor impressionistic. If it is subjective and impressionistic, it is not scholarship. ....

Oh yes, and he (Hamblin) also asks this:
Do you, to be consistent, reject the historicity of Abraham, since he is first mentioned in surviving texts in the Bible a good thousand years after he lived, and there is no contemporary evidence of his existence? Do you think your colleagues at Baylor are cranky pseudo-scholars if they accept the historicity of Abraham?
The question speaks volumes for your approach. Nothing in the story of Abraham as we have it in Genesis is impossible or implausible, according to what we know of the time and place. Abraham follows a style of life that is very well known from documents and archaeological remains from that period. He comes from a known city, travels to a known kingdom, and mixes with known peoples and tribes in known places and cities. By “known” I mean confirmed from contemporary documentary and archaeological sources. Whether he did exist is another issue, on which scholars will disagree. If they do make that case, they are certainly not cranky pseudo-scholars.

Now compare any of the Book of Mormon characters: Nothing in their story is possible or plausible, according to what we know of the time and place. They follow a style of life that is utterly unknown from New World documents and archaeological remains from that period, and in many crucial respects, contrasts sharply with what we do know. On no occasion do they come from a known city, travel to a known kingdom, or mix with known peoples and tribes in known places and cities. By “known” I mean confirmed from contemporary documentary and archaeological sources. Therefore, people who claim that those peoples did exist are, indeed, to use your phrase, cranky pseudo-scholars.

Let’s be absolutely consistent in applying the same criteria of evidence in both cases, as you rightly insist. And the lesson we learn about the relative historical value of the Bible and the Book of Mormon is that they are, to coin a phrase, apples and oranges. ....