The Book of Mormon and the Jehoash Inscription: Parallels, Anomalies, and Methodology

An inscription turned up on the antiquities market several years ago which purported to be a royal record of King Jehoash of Judah, concerning a repair he made to the Jerusalem Temple.

The importance of this inscription, if authentic, looms large. Avigdor Hurowitz (who believes it is a forgery) says that if “authentic it can call into question many of the solid consensuses of Biblical scholarship of the last century and beyond concerning the composite nature of biblical literature, as well as the time of composition of the literary strata incorporated in the Bible.” Beyond literary and source criticism, it would establish the presence of a Temple built by Solomon, severly undercutting the Biblical minimalists who contend that everything in the Hebrew Bible prior to the Babylonian exile is a late literary creation.

Because the inscription was not discovered in situ, there was no pottery, no archaeological stratum or layer, indeed, no physical context whatsoever to authenticate it. The means of identifying whether it really comes from the 8th century BC or not is the text itself, ie. purely internal evidence.

What does this have to do with the Book of Mormon? Patience, my precious, patience… I’m getting there.

David Noel Freedman and Frank Moore Cross represent the same approach, general bias, and scholarly background. Indeed, they wrote two joint dissertations at Harvard. Their opposite conclusions cannot therefore be dismissed as growing out of their individual biases. Cross says, “I do not believe that anyone with serious historical-critical skills can suppose the Yehoash [Jehoash] inscription to be authentic.” Biblical Archaeology Review, Sept/Oct. 2005, 58.

Freedman, who has equally serious “historical-critical skills” says, in effect, “Whoa there… Not so fast.”

There is nothing in the language of the Jehoash inscription that requires us to label the writing a fake.
Those who argue that the Jehoash inscription is a fake raise serious linguistic issues. Citing a number of instances, they argue that an incompetant forger tried to imitate the language of the Hebrew Bible, but inadvertently introduced expressions and constructions deriving from much later Hebrew. [Linguistic anachronisms]

Their case assumes, however, that we know the Hebrew of the ninth and eight centuries B.C.E. well enough to make such a judgement.

But what do we really know about the Hebrew of official royal inscriptions of Judah in the eighth and ninth centuries B.C.E.?

The answer is rather simple: not much. To say, therefore, that the language of the Jehoash inscription is inconsistant with what we would expect of such a royal inscription from the time of Jehoash is to assert an authority that is not merely audacious, but imaginative.

Authenticated inscriptions frequently challenge our knowledge of Biblical Hebrew, containing syntax, vocaublary and orthography (spelling) that differ from Biblical usage. Of those very few inscriptions of any kind from this period, including those of neighboring nations, every one provides something novel and sometimes disturbingly surprising about a language we think we know, but don’t always fully grasp. And the surer we are, the the more surprised we are likely to be by what comes out of the ground.

In other words, if anomalies exist in both authentic inscriptions and (presumably) in the fakes, at what point in the evaluation do we know how to tip the scale? How many anomalies are required to prove an inscription is a fake?…

I suspect that scholars as well as laypeople are likely to come away with the same opinion regarding the inscription’s authenticity that they bring to the table in the first place. Those who are predisposed to see the inscription as genuine will interpret the evidence in a way to support that conclusion. Those who wish to see it as a fake will find it easy to make this judgement.

One can argue that the Jehoash inscription is a fake either because it contains so many deviations from standard monarchic Hebrew that it must be a fake, or that the inscription conforms so well to biblical Hebrew that it must have been borrowed directly from the Biblical text. In either case, you can conclude it is a fake. Too many anomalies prove it is a fake, and too few anomalies prove it is a fake whose creator simply copied the bible. …For the moment, we must conclude with a Scottish verdict: unproven. The verdict at this time is in effect a non-verdict. We simply don’t know with any reasonable certainty whether it is fake or authentic.

Biblical Archaeology Review, Mar/Apr. 2004, 49-51.

I can’t help but think of the Book of Mormon as I read through the authenticity debates, since authenticity (or historicity) occupies a prime position in both LDS missionary work and apologetics. The Book of Mormon and Jehoash inscription share several general characteristics.

1) Both are unprovenanced.
Though their circumstances are, of course, different, if archaeologists had dug up the Book of Mormon, or we still had the gold plates (a new script and language to learn!!), there would be more factors to the authenticity argument than the text itself.

2) Both have insufficient data for comparison or control.
The Book of Mormon is much more complex than any single inscription. Much like the bible, it spans a long period of time, different languages, and late editing (though the editorial process of the BoM is much clearer than that of the Bible.)

The BoM has been evaluated from many angles against the Old World setting, and I believe it stacks up quite well there in terms of “what should we expect?” However, the vast majority of the text takes place in the New World. The BoM is well over and done by the time we reach the Mayan Classic period about which we know the most. We know precious little about the preclassic period, and that’s assuming the correctness of Sorenson and the LGT. If the Nephites were really clustered in New York the whole time, we have even less to work with.

3) Even if there were a control document of some kind, or firmly established knowledge, differences would not necessarily prove fatal to its authenticity.

As Freedman points out in has last paragraph, clearly and undoubtedly authentic inscriptions frequently challenge our knowledge and expectations. The arguments essentially come down to parallels (things we might have expected because they match what we find elsewhere) and anomalies (things that contradict our current knowledge and have no parallel elsewhere). Biblical scholars frequently argue among themselves about the relevance of parallels and anomalies of something in particular and arrive at different conclusions about both the item in question and the methodology used.

In regards to the Book of Mormon, Freedman’s last paragraph has been well illustrated by the Tanners of Utah Lighthouse Ministry. “To be a true religious book, according to hints dropped along the way by our canny counselors (they never do give a definition), it must: (1) not be similar to the King James Version of the Bible, (2) contain all the words that are in the KJV, and in the same ratio, although they will be denounced as plagiarism as soon as they’re found.” Tom Nibley, FRB 5 (1993).

Too much like the Bible? Plagiarism!

Not enough like the Bible? Unbiblical! (Damning criticism for a Protestant.)

An archaeological example of this back-and-forth of parallels vs. anomalies took place in BAR between Amihai Mazar and Michael Coogan with regards to the function of a particular site. Mazar put forth a theory, Coogan argued against it, in part by saying that there was no similar site known. Mazar responded, “As for Coogan’s fourth criterion [in evaluting his proposal], “parallels,” if we expect to find parallels to every new archaeological feature, we probably will never be able to advance our research in this field of study.” Biblical Archaeology Review 14:4 In other words, if we can’t establish anything unless it has precedent, how in the world do you discover something new?

(Sometimes when I’ve read Evangelical or misguided LDS arguments about revelation and progression, I have mentally paraphrased the ninth Article of Faith to reflect their (mis-)understanding. “We believe all that God has revealed, that he reveals the same thing today, and believe that he will yet reveal the same thing. Again.” That’s not to say that God doesn’t continue to confirm the basics of the Gospel, but rather we needn’t have a scriptural or prophetic precedent for something that is revealed today.)

Freedman concludes his BAR article by noting that the jury is out and probably will remain so. Personally, I doubt that the authenticity of the Jehoash inscription will be proven one way or the other by scholarly means. Similarly, I believe that an honest examination of the Book of Mormon yields a hung jury. There are some funny, unexpected things in there (e.g. the presence of the “horse,” which may either be a horse or translator anachronism) as well as some others that fit into an ancient setting ways Joseph could not have known (e.g. the Hebrew wordplay between “inheritance” and “Jershon” in Alma 27:22).

One non-LDS who has examined the BoM in depth concluded that “the Book of Mormon is the most complex, ambitious, and influential pseudotranslation that the world has ever seen or is, indeed, ever likely to see.” ( David Shepherd, “Rendering Fiction: Translation, Pseudotranslation, and the Book of Mormon” in The New Mormon Challenge, 395. See also Kevin Barney’s response in the FARMS Review. ) In other words, if it’s not authentic (as he concludes it is not), it is yet a pretty amazing piece of work.

While the scholarly jury continues to wait for the evidence to be fully marshalled on both sides, the Book of Mormon offers a different epistemological solution that does not involve Hebrew, scholarship, or long argument. Read it, think about it, pray about it.

18 thoughts on “The Book of Mormon and the Jehoash Inscription: Parallels, Anomalies, and Methodology

  1. Ben, as many apologists have pointed out, it’s fascinating how many people denying the authenticity of the BoM have never bothered to read it. I would think more Mayan scholars, for example, would want to read it just to see if there’s anything that would give them clues to what may have been going on in that region. But it appears that relatively few are even willing to give it a try.

  2. Thanks Ben. That was very interesting. It is good to see that the Bible crowd has a fair swarm of people willing to admit how little is known and what that implies for provability.

    Is the scrap a copy or an original? Is there any carbon dating style way to confirm it? Obviously that depends on what it is written on so probably not.

  3. Ben: Your solution reminds me of the discussions re: (in)activity. Apparently there are many “reasons” for inactivity. Yet, to me it seems like the _only_ answer is to read, think and pray. I’m not sure that scholarly arguments re: historicity, or whatever is the source of claimed irritation with the church, will ever yield results; much as you write in re: to this inscription.

  4. Hello Ben,
    This is interesting, but I am not entirely convinced that the BoM are Jehoash inscription face a similar scholarly problem. Perhaps you can explain what the implications are for biblical and historical studies for the Jehoash inscription. Are the objections to its authenticity only grammatical/epigraphical, or do they site anachronistic ideas/concepts?

  5. Taylor,

    I would guess that part of the problem is determining what is “anachronistic”. To do that you need a good handle on what is “chronistic”, which we don’t really have. Thus, for those that think there was no Solomon’s temple, such a mention is anachronistic. But that is based as much on assumption as evidence.

    On the other hand, jet planes in 800 BC would probably fit everybodies list of anachronistic.

  6. Frank, are you saying that we have just as little evidence for determining what is “chronistic” from the 6-7th c BCE as we do for the 9-10th c BCE?

  7. For the most part, objections are grammatical and epigraphic. There is one semantic/conceptual argument, in which the inscriber uses a phrase found in both modern and ancient Hebrew (with slightly different meanings). Some have read the inscription as using the modern meaning, which makes it anachronistic. The counter-argument is that it only seems to be modern Hebrew when read in isolation, as its part of a larger phrase.

    The difference with the BoM, of course, is that Joseph may well have introduced translater anachronism, something known to happen, whereas any anachronisms (perceived or actual) in the Jehoash inscription must be due to the original inscriber.

    I think the BoM fits very well into what we know of Jerusalem and Saudi Arabia c. 600 BC- Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, Daniel Peterson’s work on “Nephi and His Asherah,” Margaret Barker and Kevin Christensen’s work and deuteronomic studies of the BoM have all shown that it fits in very well. The problem is, they leave our nicely established knowledge within the first two chapters. We know comparatively little from the Mesoamerican world in the right time periods.

  8. Frank: the initial distinction that I was trying to make is that the comparison b/t Jehoash and the BoM doesn’t work because we do not have the same paucity of evidence for both periods from which they derive. I think that Ben was trying to say that we cannot rule out the authenticity of the Jehoash inscription b/c we have too little data from the period from which it claims to derive to either confirm or deny with any certainty its authenticity. Determinining what is “chronistic” is easier in the 6-7th c. BCE, which means that scholars don’t face the same situation for both texts.

    Ben: Do you mean the first two books (1, 2 Ne) are the only BoM texts that we can look for Near Eastern cultural artefacts? Also, by “translator anachronisms”, are you pointing to a theory similiar to Ostler’s for explaning the BoM, or simply explaining things like KJV and “adieu”?

  9. Taylor,

    “We know more about it than about the 9th century BC” has got to be up there as one of the world’s lowest bars of knowledge available.

    “So, Frank, what do you know about quantum physics?”
    “Not a lot, but more than we know about 800 BC Palestine.”
    “So… nothing?”
    “Pretty much.”

    Of course we know more about the 6th century, but I seriously doubt that we’ve got enough to make the Book of Mormon anywhere close to provable or unprovable. Thus I think the comparison is apt.

  10. Do you mean the first two books (1, 2 Ne) are the only BoM texts that we can look for Near Eastern cultural artefacts?

    Not completely. I assume that Old World traits decrease and New World traits increase as time goes on, so Old World “stuff” should be most prevalent in the first two. These two books are the only ones written by someone who knew Jerusalem and lots of other Jews first-hand. Jacob is born in the wilderness. Nephi later tells us that he hasn’t taught “the things of the Jews” to his people (2 Nephi 25:5-6). However, they do have written records and are trying to live Israelite religion, as based upon the plates of brass, so to some extent that counteracts the lack of Jewish/ Old World cultural continuity.

    Once we’re out of the small plates, though we continue in normal chronological order, much of the text is filtered through the mind of Mormon, who has never lived the Law of Moses, post-dates Nephi by roughly 1000 years, and tells us that even the language is different. I expect that by Mormon’s day, whatever Old World culture was brought with them was 99% gone, with the exception of the language. (I also think that Hebrew, however modified, probably became something like a liturgical or scribal language known only to few.)

    Also, by “translator anachronisms”, are you pointing to a theory similiar to Ostler’s for explaning the BoM, or simply explaining things like KJV and “adieu”?

    I think Ostler goes too far, but in his terminology (further discussion between Jeff Gilliam and myself here), I would be a minimal expansionist. I think Joseph as translator accounts for imperfectly reproduced KJV language, adieu, compass, horse, etc. I think it may go beyond word level but not as far as whole chapters of theology.

  11. Frank: “So… nothing?”

    Frank, we know a lot more about the 6th c. than “pretty much nothing”. I don’t think it is much, but I don’t think it is to our advantage to rest so heavily on a “Book of Mormon-of-the-gaps” theory, especially since the gaps are not quite as wide as you seem to think.

    And, btw, whether or not you know anything about quantum physics says nothing about whether or not quantum physics is “knowable.”

  12. Wow, thanks for this post, Ben. I found it very interesting. By the way, I love your re-telling of the Ninth Article of Faith. That fits way too many people, in and out of the church.

  13. Taylor,

    Yes, the “nothing” was a little bit of hyperbole to make things flow better. But no, we don’t really know enough about 6th century BC to make it worth basing one’s BoM testimony on it, for or against. To put it in a statistical context, the “gaps” or the unobservables are so large that one can neither reject or accept most hypotheses of interest.

    “I don’t think it is much”

    I agree.

    “but I don’t think it is to our advantage to rest so heavily on a “Book of Mormon-of-the-gaps” theory,”

    I love to see the stuff people come up with, relating te Book of Mormon to Jerusalem in 600 B.C. I think it is fascinating conjecture based on the available evidence. But I am under no delusions that those things are certain or that some of them won’t turn out to be completely wrong. So I don’t know if that qualifies as resting on a gaps theory or not, but I think it is the right place to be.

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