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Jewish Scripture in 600-500 BC

Posted: Sun Jul 12, 2020 5:29 am
by Meadowchik
A recent internet discussion about Lehi in the Book of Mormon had me thinking about the historical Jews and their long history of rabbinical writings and scriptures. I've done a bit of reading and learned about the Babylonian exiles producing a relatively comprehensive Babylonian Talmud, when compared to the Jerusalem Talmud. Yet clearly that's nowhere close to the beginning of scripture in Judaism.

My question would be, what was Jewish scripture in the years 600 to 500 BC? What was it, and how was it transmitted? I already know about the Mormon view of the brass plates from Laban, and that's not what I'm looking for. What scripture would a small historical Jewish group perceive as essential? Would they be reliant on special officiants for it?

Any pointers for some good Jewish history sources, or some past threads of the topic? TIA

Re: Jewish Scripture in 600-500 BC

Posted: Sun Jul 12, 2020 10:37 am
by Symmachus
Hi Meadowchik,

You are absolutely right to see how far away the Talmuds are from Lehi's time. Same goes for the Mishnah (on which most of the Talmud's are commentary) and the Midrash. So any time I see apologists quoting this stuff, I tune out.

What you ask about what was part of the scriptural canon is very complex, but I would say that the current scholarly picture would exclude most of the Old Testament, at least in its present form, which is the crucial caveat. So what would Lehi have found in Laban's closet?

There were prophetic writings (Amos, Hosea, parts of Isaiah but not all of it). There were certainly some very old stories, parts of which we now have (Abrahamic material, the Exodus), as well as some very old poems (the Song of Deborah, the blessings of Jacob on his sons, and some others). The difficulty of the question is that, according to the general view of scholars, the books of the bible did not exist as such, even if much of the material was in circulation. For example, the Torah is thought to consist of several strands, and certainly the Elohist and Jahwists strands would have existed, the Priestly material probably in some form, and Deuteronomy would have been available probably only within Lehi's youth. But these hadn't been put together yet into the form we have now. So what exactly would they have been to Lehi? The general view is that the editing took place over a 200 years or so but not before the Babylonian exile—it was the circumstances of the exile and return that were the reason for putting all of the various textual and ritual traditions into a coherent whole. So, since Lehi left before the exile, what was on the Brass Plates?

Any college-level introduction to the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible will outline this (those of Michael Coogan and John Collins are probably the most prominent at present, but I'm partial to Otto Eissfeldt's masterful synthesis, last published in the 1970s. Richard Friedman's "Who Wrote the Bible" is a favorite introduction to this approach that is more readable, and I would also add a book now forgotten but also very readable and probably cheap to get on the used book market, Samuel Sandmel's The Hebrew Scriptures).

If I were a believing scholar interested in connecting the ancient world with the Book of Mormon, I would explore the question of Lehi's Brass Plates because there are many complexities and thus many interesting possibilities, and you could attempt to tie these in with Nephite theology and Nephite history. The blunt truth is that it would be something to do for a competent expert who is also a traditional believer.

For example, notice how in the Book of Mormon the priestly class is always portrayed as the dominant voice in the culture, yet then you have these wild prophets who apparently operate outside of it, perhaps indicating a different strand of Nephite religion, and then there are always parts of Nephite culture that are in open revolt against the priests, who are occasionally associated with corrupt regimes, like Noah's, or with military groups. The infusion of Mulekites and remnants of the pre-Lehite Jaredites are another interesting angle. Why can't an enterprising but believing scholar explore these and try to connect them with some of the pre-exilic strands of the Bible? Added to all this, the Book of Mormon practically invites you to read it this way, because it is just such an edited compilation of different strands. So, fine, start with the assumption that the Book of Mormon is historical, but then start exploring some possibilities that might allow us to learn something about the book as a historical document of a religion and a culture.

But of course this is too much thinking for them, because what they are really defending is not the historical Book of Mormon but endlessly validating the Primary Book of Mormon, the version of the historical Book of Mormon that they learned as children in Primary. The result is that every single bit of analysis is just a variation on the same argument: "Joseph Smith could not have known this, therefore the Primary Book of Mormon stories is historical in every aspect."

Re: Jewish Scripture in 600-500 BC

Posted: Sun Jul 12, 2020 11:49 am
by Meadowchik
Thanks very much, Symmachus! I'll be looking at the sources you've suggested.