Israelite Origins and Mormonism (Ryan Wimmer’s 2019 Sunstone Symposium, guest post)

Audio for 2019 Sunstone Symposium, session #126, Israelite Origins and Mormonism, by Ryan Wimmer:

Ryan Wimmer received a B.A. in History from the University of Utah, and an M.A. from Brigham Young University.  He has been published in the John Whitmer Historical Journal, and he has presented papers at the Mormon History Association, and other conferences on topics such as Japanese Americans in Utah, and Mormon/Native American relations.

Below are images of the slides from Ryan’s presentation, along with the text of the paper he presented:

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Israelite Origins and Mormonism

In March of 1842 Joseph Smith wrote a letter to John Wentworth, a Chicago editor, about the “rise, progress, persecution, and faith of the Latter-Day Saints.” At the end of the letter Smith wrote thirteen statements of belief that were later canonized in 1880 in the Mormon scripture the Doctrine and Covenants as the Articles of Faith.

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The tenth statement says, “We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and the restoration of the Ten Tribes. That Zion will be built upon this continent. That Christ will reign personally upon the earth, and that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory.”1

The belief in a literal gathering has been a central tenet in Mormonism since its beginning. While belief in the gathering of Israel has undergone multiple stages becoming less literal it is still taught in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to this day.2

The following presentation will discuss the developing doctrine of Israel’s gathering and explore how this belief is difficult to maintain with what is being discovered by biblical scholars about the origins of the ancient Israelites.

Mormon apologists and now the institutional LDS church with the Church History Gospel Topics Essays have addressed many of the historical and scientific problems of Mormon belief and doctrine.

However, the much larger controversies and problems from modern biblical scholarship are almost never addressed in any Mormon apologetic circles. The issue of Israelite origins is much larger than Mormonism, it strikes at the heart of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

If the biblical characters of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are mostly fictitious what is to be done with the covenant made between God and Abraham’s descendants?

If Israel did not originate with the twelve sons of Jacob but are actually myth, how can there be a literal gathering?

If the Israelites are descendants of the Canaanites rather than the conquers of the promised land by Gods hand then what makes any promise made by God to Jacob’s descendants special?

And lastly, what are the options for the Mormon faithful in light of the historical reality?

1-Joseph Smith to John Wentworth, March 21, 1842, in Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, edited by Dean C. Jesse, rev. ed. (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2002), 241-248.

2-The traditional use of the words “LDS” and “Mormons” will be used in this essay when referring to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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The Book of Mormon was published in March of 1830 and was the first publication of Joseph Smith’s scripture. The literal belief in the dispersion and gathering of Israel was articulated throughout the book’s narrative.

The first prophet in the story, Lehi, declared that “after the house of Israel should be scattered they should be gathered together again.”3

Lehi’s son, Nephi, said thru revelation that most of the Israelites were going to be scattered upon all the face of the earth. Prior to the Babylonian exile, Nephi said most the Tribes had already been scattered upon all the isles of the sea; the implication being the Lost Ten Tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel that fell to the Assyrians in 721 B.C.

In the Book of Mormon narrative, Lehi’s family was led away to their own isle of sea on the American continent in 600 B.C. just prior to the destruction of Jerusalem.4  After the destruction of Jerusalem in 592 B.C. the remaining tribes were carried away into captivity in Babylon.5  But, there is a prophetic promise in the Book of Mormon to restore Israel again.

In the narrative, Nephi quotes from a prophet named Zenos that “the day cometh” when Israel will be gathered “from the four quarters of the earth.”6  The gathering was to be both temporal and spiritual starting with the spiritual gathering.7

3-1 Nephi 10:14.
4-1 Nephi 22:2-12; also see 3 Nephi 15:15.
5-2 Nephi 6:7-9.
6-1 Nephi 19:15-16.
7-1 Nephi 22:3; 2 Nephi 30:5-7; 3 Nephi 20:30-33.

 

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The spiritual gathering applied to those converted to the true church of God whereas temporal was Israel being literally gathered “home to the lands of their inheritance” and to be “established in all their lands of promise.”8

Nephi later prophecies the Lord will again restore his people a second time and proceed “to do a marvelous work and a wonder among the children of men.”9

8-2 Nephi 9:2.
9-2 Nephi 25:17.

 

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The Lost Tribes were also to be gathered and assist in the building of the “New Jerusalem” upon the American continent.10

In the Book of Mormon conversion to the gospel was a precondition to being physically gathered which included the Jewish people to Jerusalem.11

Although a short time later, in 1831, Joseph Smith’s own revelation gave the traditional Christian interpretation of Zechariah 13:6 that conversion of the Jews would be after the gathering and return of Christ.12

Reconciling the Book of Mormon passage and other revelations about the Jews being converted before or after the gathering has been discussed among LDS commentators ever since.13

With the exception of the New Jerusalem being built in America, most of these Book of Mormon prophecies of the scattering and gathering of Israel can be found in the Bible.14

10-3 Nephi 21:22-28.
11-2 Nephi 9:1-2; 10:7; Charles Harrell, This Is My Doctrine: The Development of Mormon Doctrine (Sandy, Utah: Greg Kofford Books, 2011), 403.
12-Doctrine and Covenants (afterword D&C) 45:51-53; Harrell, 404; Grant Underwood, The Millenarian World of Early Mormonism, (Urbana and Chicago, Illinois: University of Illinois, 1999), 83-84.
13-Harrell, 404-405.
14-See Leviticus 26:44; Deuteronomy 30:1-5; Nehemiah 1:8-9; Psalms 14:7, 107:3; Isaiah 5:25-26, 11:11-12, 14:1, 35:4, 43:5, 54:7, 61:4; Jeremiah 3:12-18, 12:14-15, 23:3, 30:3, 31:7-12, 32:37-38, 33:7-11, 50:4; Ezekiel 11:17, 20:34, 28:25-26, 34:13, 37:21-27; Amos 9:14-15; Zephaniah 3:20; Zechariah 10:6; Matthew 24:31; Revelation 18:4.

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According to historian Grant Underwood, the LDS use of the Bible and Book of Mormon resulted in a pronounced and discernible emphasis on the “glorious restoration of Israel” compared to other millenarian Christians awaiting the imminent return of Jesus.15

For the Mormons the gathering of Israel was a pivotal premillennial event.16

Joseph Smith’s revelation in September 1830 said, “Wherefore the decree hath gone forth from the Father that they [mine elect] shall be gathered in unto one place upon the face of this land, to prepare their hearts and be prepared in all things against the day when tribulation and desolation are sent forth upon the wicked.”17

15-Underwood, 9.
16-Ibid, 29.
17-D&C 29:8.

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Sidney Rigdon declared in 1833 that “unless the scattered remnants of Jacob should be gathered from all countries whither they had been driven, that no such thing as a Millennium could ever exist.”18  The millennial reign of Jesus could only happen after Israel was gathered.

The LDS narrative in the D&C, is that Moses himself appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdrey in 1836 in the Kirtland Temple and gave them the keys (authority and divine appointment) for the gathering of Israel. 19

18-The Evening and Morning Star 2 (Dec. 1833): 117. As quoted in Underwood, 29.
19-D&C 110:11.

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For Latter-day Saints, Israel included the Jews, the Lost Ten Tribes, the Native Americans, and European or American gentiles who would be adopted into the House of Israel.

Beliefs grew that Latter-day Saints literally possessed the blood of Israel as lineal descendants and that gentiles who were non-lineal descendants of Israel who converted to the Church acquired more than an adopted kinship. The word “gentile” was often applied to outsiders who had not converted to the true gospel.20

The literal belief in being the actual blood line of Israel continued to develop into the twentieth century, Daniel H. Ludlow said that “few persons not of the blood of Abraham have become members of the Church in this dispensation.”21

20-Underwood 29-30.
21-Harrell, 407.

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Missionary work was thus started in America and Europe to gather the adopted and literal blood of the House of Israel.22

Missionaries were also sent to the Lamanites or Native Americans to gather them that they may fulfill the promises made in the Book of Mormon to assist in the building of the New Jerusalem on the American continent.23

Grant Underwood points to the early Mormon focus on the gathering and building the American Zion/New Jerusalem as part of the purpose of these missionary efforts.  However, early Mormons also held traditional beliefs in the restoration of the Jewish people.

Early Mormons as well as present day members seem to have never felt responsible for the gathering of the Jewish people to Jerusalem.24  That said, Orson Hyde did go to Jerusalem to dedicate the land for the return of the Jewish people and there were small scale missionary efforts to American Jews.25

22-For information about early missionary work throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe see James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints, 2nd ed., (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1992), 56, 82-83, 160-166; Saints: The Standard of Truth 1815-1846 (Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2018), 100-105, 128-129, 138, 155-161, 214-217, 224-225, 249-256, 274-277, 286-294, 304-312, 494-495, 573-575.
23-Harrell, 404-407. Also see Underwood, 76-82; Allen and Leonard, 62-63; Saints, 98, 105, 115-124.
24-Underwood, 33-36; Armand L. Mauss, All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage (Urbana and Chicago, Illinois: University of Illinois, 2003), 164.
25-Underwood, 62-63; Mauss, 169-180.

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The gentile converts and the Lamanites were to possess America as a land of their inheritance according to the Book of Mormon.26

Joseph Smith later identified Independence Missouri as the site of Zion and where the New Jerusalem was to be built.27  All converted Saints were to gather to Zion in Missouri.

After the failure to establish Zion in Missouri, the gathering place was changed to Nauvoo, Illinois, and later, to the Salt Lake Valley.

Joseph Smith even sent instruction to Orson Hyde to have converted Jews gather to Nauvoo, while ironically, Hyde was on his way to Jerusalem to dedicate the land for the gathering of the Jewish people there.28

Despite the changes of the region to gather, Independence Missouri remained and still remains the site where Mormons believe the New Jerusalem will be established as one center of Zion and Jerusalem as the other.29

26-1 Nephi 14:2; 2 Nephi 10:18-19; 3 Nephi 16:13-16; 21:20-24; Harrell, 410.
27-D&C 57:1-3.
28-Harrell, 410, 424 note 57.
29-Ibid, 418, 420

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Through the remainder of the nineteenth century Mormon theology about the Gathering of Israel remained mostly unchanged other than in the 1890s the Church hierarchy discouraged gathering to Utah due to financial costs; in the mid twentieth century the gathering to a specific region was declared over and for converts to remain where they are and to build up Zion in their own homelands.30

James E. Talmage, one of Mormonism’s most influential figures of Mormon theology, wrote the classical work the Articles of Faith in 1899. Talmage maintained that the Jews shall return to Jerusalem, the Latter-day Saints are to conduct missionary work to every nation to gather Israel and gentiles to Zion, the descendants of Lehi would assist in the building of the New Jerusalem, and in the restoration of the Lost Ten Tribes.31

30-Ibid, 410-412.
31-James E. Talmage, The Articles of Faith, Signature Classic reprint ed. 1899 (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 2003), 341-366

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Belief about the Gathering of Israel developed with some changes of emphasis throughout the twentieth century.

The Book of Mormon said The Lost Tribes had been separated by the Father from the Jewish people. Jesus himself had visited The Lost Tribes and these people kept scriptural records that would come forth one day.32

The keys to the gathering of Israel given to Joseph Smith from Moses in 1836 specified the keys included the “leading of The Ten Tribes from the Land of the North.”33

Joseph Smith’s own revelation that alludes to the restoration of The Ten Tribes that prophets will “smite the rocks, and the ice shall flow down at their presence. And a highway shall cast up in the midst of the great deep.” Then the ten tribes will come forth “unto the children of Ephraim.” James Talmage said that the lost tribes had scattered among the nations and a large body of them remained intact and together.34

Charles Harrell notes the belief that The Lost Tribes would return as a single body was the predominate view in Mormonism until the latter part of the twentieth century.

Joseph Fielding Smith, who had a great influence over Mormon theology in the twentieth century, spoke against the concept that The Ten Tribes were scattered throughout the earth. He stated under no uncertain terms that The Lost Ten Tribes were scattered separately from the other Israelites and are in preparation to return as a single body.

After Joseph Fielding Smith’s time as church president, the belief that The Lost Tribes were scattered throughout the nations gained currency.

Bruce R. McConkie, who was likely the largest influence on Mormon theology in the twentieth century, was a proponent of The Ten Tribes being scattered among many nations.35

McConkie also stated that the Ten Tribes would not return with their own prophets, their only prophets would be elders from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.36

In contrast Legrand Richards who was a contemporary with McConkie wrote the Mormon classic, A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, said the lost tribes have their own prophets.37

32-3 Ne 15:20; 16:1-4; 2 Ne 29:12-13; Harrell, 412.
33-D&C 110:11.
34-Talmage, 353-354.
35-Harrell, 413-414.
36-Bruce R. McConkie, A New Witness for the Articles of Faith (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1985), 520-521.
37-Legrand Richards, A Marvelous Work and a Wonder (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1950), 213-214.

 

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The Lamanite role in the gathering of Israel and the end times also underwent development from the founding of the Church to the present.

As stated above, missions to the Native Americans had been launched early on, but the Mormons had found little Lamanite receptivity.

In the Mormon mindset the Lamanites became viewed as simply “Indians” similar to other Americans.38

In the early twentieth century Lamanites were rarely referred to as part of the gathering of Israel at all.39  The identity of the Lamanites began to shift towards Central and South America during the last quarter of the Twentieth Century.40

While missionary success among these new Lamanites of the south finally fulfilled the long promised success among the Lamanites the role the Lamanites would play in the end times became less emphasized.

38-Mauss, 41-42.
39-Ibid, 68-69.
40-Ibid, 81, 96, 136.

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While there were some changes and developments, many central ideas of the gathering remained intact throughout the Twentieth Century.

Joseph Fielding Smith continued the teaching that Israel is to be gathered by people joining the church through missionary work and Judah will be gathered to Jerusalem.41

Bruce R. McConkie maintained there was first a spiritual gathering of Israel through missionary work and temporal gathering to lands of promise.42

According to McConkie, this temporal gathering would not be completed prior to the Second Coming of Christ.43

Smith continued to teach the literal bloodline of Israel that most members are literal descendants but those that are not get “grafted” or adopted into the House of Israel.44

Prior to converting to Mormonism, BYU professor Roger R. Keller, conducted a comparative study of Mormonism and the Reformed Protestant tradition. Keller found that the theological belief of the gathering of Israel was far greater emphasized in Mormonism than the Reformed tradition. Keller noted:

“All persons know that the Jews are descendants of Israel, but Mormons believe there are many other descendants who have leavened the world through intermarriage, thereby making virtually every human being a literal member of Israel. Thus, every person who becomes part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is either a descendant of Abraham by blood (the majority of persons who join the Church) or by adoption. Israel was God’s true church, for Israel bore the priesthood. It is eternal. The only difference between Israel and the Mormon church is that Israel awaited the coming of Jesus and his atoning death, while The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints looks back upon it as the center of time. Those few individuals in this day who are not the literal Israelite bloodline are adopted into the lineage of Abraham.”

Keller goes on to say that Mormons go beyond the biblical literature in claiming literal lineage.45

Grant Underwood noted the early Mormonism emphasis on the gathering of Israel went beyond most all other millenarians of the Nineteenth Century; near the close of the Twentieth Century, despite many changes and doctrinal developments, Roger Keller still noticed the extra theological emphasis on the gathering of Israel.

41-Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, comp by Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1956), 3:255-260.
42-Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1966), 305-307. Also see Richards, 222-225.
43-McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 306.
44-Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 3:246; also see Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, 5 vols. (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1979), 2:56-57.
45-Roger R. Keller, Reformed Christians and Mormon Christians: Let’s Talk (Pryor Pettengill, 1986), 129-130, 132, 136.

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The LDS church continues to emphasize the gathering of Israel in the Twenty-First Century.

What is often termed as quasi authoritative, the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, states the same belief in the temporal and spiritual gathering, but de-emphasizes the gathering the literal blood descendants of Israel.

The Encyclopedia also quotes McConkie in emphasizing the Lost Ten Tribes will be gathered through conversion in many nations.46

Another quasi authoritative work, LDS Belief (the apparent replacement to Bruce R. McConkie’s, Mormon Doctrine), emphasizes the belief in the spiritual gathering through missionary work and the temporal gathering to Zion. It mentions the gathering of “Lehi’s descendants” but nothing about their role in the building New Jerusalem. It states that The Lost Ten Tribes will “principally” be gathered during the Millennium and there is no mention of literal blood descendants among converts.47

The newest version of the LDS publication, Gospel Principles, maintains a literal belief in the Gathering. This official publication teaches the traditional story that Jacob had twelve sons that became known as The Twelve Tribes of Israel. This official publication also mentions the spiritual gathering of Israel is accomplished as people join the church without mentioning them being blood descendants. It also says the temporal gathering will not be completed until the Millennium.48

46-Terry L. Niederhauser, “Israel: Gathering of Israel,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols. (New York, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992), 2:709-711.
47-Robert L. Millet, Camille Fronk Olson, Andrew C. Skinner, and Brent L. Top, LDS Beliefs: A Doctrinal Reference, e-book version, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2011), 797-802.
48-Gospel Principles (Salt Lake City, Utah: Intellectual Reserve Inc, 2009), 247-249.

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The literal gathering of Israel remains a central tenet of Mormonism.

Many of the changes since 1830 are likely due to the historically and scientific implausibility of literal blood descendants of converts.  It is implausible that converts would be alleged direct descendants of the ancient Israelites, or that such a claim as the Lamanites/Native Americans being lineal descendants would be accurate. Modern sensitivities about race is also a likely factor in this theological development.

The biggest change that will need to be made is yet to be done, and it is likely years down the road.

As the methodology of archaeology has improved the story of the Israelites have proven to be largely legendary.

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There are several proposed models for the origin of the Israelites. The first is the biblical account of conquest.

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When the discipline of biblical archaeology was led by William Foxwell Albright, many of the finds were interpreted as confirming the biblical account.

Unfortunately as the discipline became more sophisticated many stories in the Bible began to unravel. Scholar John J. Collins says “the attempt to corroborate the biblical account by archaeological research backfired.” He goes on to say “the archaeological evidence does not match the biblical account of the conquest.”49

49-John J. Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 2014), 192. Bible literalists, often called evangelicals, have struggled how to adjust to this reality after believing for so long that archaeology verified biblical stories.

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Multiple regions Israelites supposedly conquered were not occupied in the Late Bronze period, which is the Late Thirteenth Century B.C.E, such as Hormah, Ba’alat Beer, Amalek, Bethel-of-the-Negev, Ziklag, Arad, Iyeabarim, Heshbon, and Dibon.50

There were also was no walled cities, including Jericho during this time period.51

Concerning the Israelite conquest of Jericho scholar James Kugal says, “According to archaeologists, it didn’t happen.”52

As for the frequent claim that the walls of Jericho have been found, archaeologists confidently believe Jericho was conquered in the 15th Century B.C.E. at the hands of the Egyptians who were expelling the Asiatic Hyskos.53

50-William G. Dever, Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 26-35; also see Collins, 192-193.
51-Collins, 193.
52-James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible (New York, New York: Free Press, 2007), 373.
53-Dever, Who Were the Early Israelites, 45-46; Collins, 193; Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts (New York, New York: The Free Press, 2001), 73-75.

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Of the twenty identified sites conquered by the Israelites only Hazor and Bethal have evidence of destruction during the appropriate time period.54

Other anachronisms include the “King of Edom” refusing to allow the Israelites to pass by.55

There were only a few settlements in Edom in the 13th Century B.C.E. on the Northern plateau of Edom and none in the South. The area was largely Nomadic until the 7th Century B.C.E. and therefore there would not have been a king to deny access.56

One narrative is that the Israelites thought about entering Canaan by way of the Philistines. However, the Philistines did not settle Canaan until 1180 B.C.E.57

54-Collins, 193; also see Megan Bishop Moore and Brad E. Kelle, Biblical History and Israel’s Past: The Changing Study of the Bible and History, Kindle ed. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2011), Loc. 1337.
55-Numbers 20.
56-Dever, Who Were the Early Israelites, 28-29
57-Dever, Who Were the Early Israelites, 23. Also see Collins, 119; Finkelstein and Silberman, 37-38; Wayne T. Pitard, “Before Israel: Syria-Palestine in the Bronze Age,” in The Oxford History of the Biblical World, ed. Michael D. Coogan (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 28.

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Collins concludes, “In light of the available evidence, we must conclude that the account of the conquest in Joshua is largely if not entirely fictitious.”58

Scholar Marc Zvi Brettler similarly says “the account of the extensive conquest by all Israel given in Joshua does not match the archaeological record as we currently understand it.”59

Archaeologist Amihai Mazar says that most archaeologists of the last generation have concluded that the biblical account of conquest contradicts the archaeological record and that these stories were a later literary work to create a national saga.60

58-Collins, 193.
59-Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Bible (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Jewish Publication Society, 2005), 23. Also see Finkelstein and Silberman, 72; Michael D. Coogan and Cynthia R. Chapman, The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures, 4th ed. (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 198-199.
60-Israel Finkelstein and Amihai Mazar, The Quest for the Historical Israel: Debating Archaeology and the History of Early Israel (Atlanta, Georgia: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007), 62. Also see Moore and Kelle, Loc. 1341.

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The fact that the Bible is wrong about the origins of Israel still leaves the question of where the Israelites came from unanswered of which there are other theories. One is the gradual and peaceful immigration process.

This theory has largely been rejected due to the newest evidence suggesting the Israelites did not immigrate from the outside at all, but were rather of Canaanite origin themselves which most other theories revolve around.61

61-Collins, 192, 196.

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Another is the Revolt Model. In this model it is believed troublemaking renegades known as the Habiru/Hapiru/Apiru/Abiru rebelled against society and overtook the land of Canaan. Knowledge of this rebellion largely comes from the Armana letters that date from a time more than a century before the accepted date of the Exodus. Most have come to view this as anachronistic.

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The Gradual Emergence Model is the current consensus among archaeologists.

John Collins says, “The consensus on the subject at the beginning of the Twenty-First Century, insofar as there is one, favors the view that the Israelites were basically Canaanites who gradually developed a separate identity.” A group of Canaanites increasingly settled in the highlands, but it is unknown exactly why they did.62

The pre-monarchial material culture of the Israelites is indistinguishable from others living in Canaan; such as pottery, house plans, agricultural practices and settlement patterns.63

62-Collins, 197; Coogan and Chapman, 218.
63-Coogan and Chapman, 218-219. Also see Amihai Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible: 10,000-586 B.C.E. (New York, New York: Doubleday, 1992), 232-294.

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If the ancient Israelites originated in the land of Canaan what about the Exodus from Egypt?

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Like the conquest, this did not happen either, at least not like it is told in the biblical record. James L. Kugel says:

“In our day, the silence of ancient Egyptian records has been compounded by the
silence of archaeologists: many of the sites mentioned in the account of the
Israelites’ desert wanderings have been identified and excavated, but none of them has yielded anything that can be construed as attesting to the presence of such a mass of Israelites (or even a considerably smaller number).”64

64-Kugel, 204-205

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Other than a few diehards this is the predominant view among 21st century scholars and archaeologists (that the Exodus as told in the biblical account never happened).65

While most do not believe the Exodus happened as told in the biblical account a many believe an exodus of some kind happened, which is an important concept for Israelite origins.

65-Collins, 110, 122; Coogan, 102-103; Israel Finkelstein and Amihai Mazar, The Quest for the Historical Israel, 41-66; Brettler, 96; Finkelstein and Silberman, The Bible Unearthed, 48-71; Moore and Kelle,, Loc. 1112-1297;.Karen Armstrong, The Bible: A Biography (New York, New York: Grove Press, 2007), 13-15; Dever, Who Were the Israelites, 7-21; William Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know & When Did They Know It?: What Archaeology Can Tell Us About the Reality of Ancient Israel (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001), 99, 121; William G. Dever, Beyond the Texts: An Archaeological Portrait of Ancient Israel and Judah (Atlanta, Georgia: SBL Press, 2017), 120-124, Carol A. Redmount, “Bitter Lives: Israel in and out of Egypt,” in The Oxford History of the Biblical World, ed. Michael D. Coogan (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 58-89; Donald B. Redford, Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), 408-429; David Elliott Friedman, The Exodus (Broadway New York, New York: HarperCollins books, 2017), 12-16. For the diehard conservative view see K.A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006); James K. Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III, A Biblical History of Israel, 2nd ed. (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015).

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Hebrew scholar Richard Elliott Friedman has written the most extensive study of this particular theory. Friedman agrees with the scholarly consensus that there was no large exodus from Egypt, he says:

“For heaven’s sake, did we need archaeological work to confirm that an exodus of two million people was, shall we say, problematic? It had already been calculated long ago that if the people were marching, say, eight across, then when the first ones got to Mount Sinai, half the people were still in Egypt.”66

66-Friedman, 28.

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Friedman turns to the text rather than archaeology. Among the Israelites only the Levite tribe have Egyptian names: Moses, Hophni, Hur, Phinehas, Merari, Mushi, and Pashhur. Friedman believes these Levite names indicates an Egyptian origin of the tribe of Levi.

Friedman and many others also believe it is unlikely that a story of slavery would have been completely made up.68

According to the theory a small group escaped from Egyptian slavery and found refuge among the Israelites in Canaan. Eventually the story of the Exodus became part of the national narrative.69

The ancient Israelites were therefore primarily Canaanite with possibly outside immigrants.

68-Ibid, 81-83. For others that view the Exodus as a small event see Kugel, 204-206; Collins, 111; Jodi Magness, The Archaeology of the Holy Land: From the Destruction of Solomon’s Temple to the Muslim Conquest (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 25.
69-Friedman, 104-118.

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What about the ancient patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob from whom the biblical stories say all the Israelites came from?

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Like the Exodus and the settling of Canaan, the Patriarchal stories are largely viewed as legendary containing anachronisms.

For example between 2000 and 1650 B.C.E. was not a time of migration like previously believed and therefore could not be associated with the patriarch and matriarch migratory patterns.70

Camels were not in wide use until the Second Millennium B.C.E., Arameans were not a major people until the 900s, and all the sites mentioned in the patriarchal narratives did not exist until the First Millennium B.C.E.71

Genesis 26:1 mentions Abimelech as king of the Philistines in Gerar, but the Philistines had not settled along the coastal plain of Canaan until after 1200 B.C.E. and Gerar was nothing more than a small village until the Late Eighth and Seventh Century B.C.E.72

70-Moore and Kelle,, Loc. 444, 847.
71-Ibid, Loc. 858-861. Also see Finkelstein and Silberman, 37.
72-Finkelstein and Silberman, 37.

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Since the 1970s, a large number of historians believe the patriarchal traditions originated in the Iron Age.73

Amihai Mazar says “today most scholars indeed define the Patriarchal tradition as a late invention with no historical validity.”74

William Dever says “all respectable archaeologists have given up hope of recovering any context that would make Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob as ‘historical figures.’”75

73-Moore and Kelle, Loc. 887.
74-Israel Finkelstein and Amihai Mazar, The Quest for the Historical Israel, 58.
75-Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know, 98.

 

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Perhaps Thomas L. Thompson said it best:

“[N]ot only has “archaeology” not proven a single event of the patriarchal traditions
to be historical, it has not shown any of the traditions to be likely. On the basis of
what we know of Palestinian history of the Second Millennium B.C., and of what
we understand about the formation of the literary traditions of Genesis, it must
be concluded that any such historicity as is commonly spoken of in both scholarly
and popular works about the patriarchs of Genesis is hardly possible and totally
improbable.”76

Of course Christian apologists have responded with the same methodology the Mormon apologists use, attempt to remove the obstacles that make the stories impossible to argue that they are at least plausible even without actual evidence.77

To such apologetic plausibility claims, Megan Moore and Brad Kelle say, “To most historians, these efforts remain unconvincing on the whole.”78

76-Thomas L. Thompson, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives (1974), 328. As quoted in Moore and Kelle, Loc. 891, 895.
77-The two best apologetic examples of ancient Israel that utilize the “plausibility” argument is K.A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament; James K. Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt.
78-Moore and Kelle, Loc. 926. Also see Coogan and Chapman, 84-86; Collins, 89-93; Finkelstein and Silberman, 33-36; Dever, Beyond the Texts, 119-120; Brettler, 49-59; Kugel, 360-363; Stephen L. Harris and Robert L. Platzner, The Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (The McGraw Hill Companies, 2003), 115; J. Maxwell Miller and John H. Hayes, A History of Ancient Israel and Judah (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: The Westminster Press, 1986), 62-65; Wayne T. Pitard, “Before Israel: Syria-Palestine in the Bronze Age,” in The Oxford History of the Biblical World, ed. Michael D. Coogan (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 26-29.

 

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Therefore, the patriarchal stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are largely if not entirely based on tribal myth.

If the characters are at all loosely based on any real people they are so far removed from historical reality it makes no difference.

If there was no Abraham, there was no Abrahamic covenant.

If there was no Jacob then there were no twelve sons of Israel.

If there were never any literal Tribes of Israel then there is no need to literally gather them.

From what we now know the ancient Israelites largely originated in the land of Canaan with possible outsiders joining them who later became known as the tribe of Levi.

The foundational text of Mormonism, the Book of Mormon, is dependent on these biblical stories being literal.

Lehi is represented as a literal lineal descendant of Jacob’s son, Joseph, and quoted prophecies state that Joseph Smith would be a literal lineal descendant of that same Joseph.

Obviously, Joseph Smith was no such literal lineal descendent.79

Mormon theology, such as the Gathering of Israel, was from the beginning based on the assumption of these stories being literal.

79-See 2 Nephi 3:3-15.

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With such foundational stories based on myth, concerns like Book of Mormon historicity, disparate accounts of the First Vision, LDS Temple Ceremony similarities with anachronistic Freemasonry, Book of Abraham as something other than an actual language translation from the Papyri, etc., are rather small in comparison to the implications of non-literal, non-historical Jewish origin myths and patriarchs.

These foundational stories regarding Jewish origin myths have large implications for Judaism and the two largest religious traditions that grew out of it: Christianity and Islam.

Mormonism and its historical problems are small fish in a much larger bowl.

The LDS Church has just started addressing controversial and historical issues in the last ten years with the Church History Gospel Topics Essays.

However, these larger issues do not seem to have been addressed at all.

Even independent Mormon apologists have rarely addressed these much larger foundational problems and left that burden with non-Mormon Christian apologists.

The LDS tradition cannot ignore these issues forever.

So, what are the LDS faithful to do with these issues?

Like many they can abandon belief altogether, but I believe there are alternatives.

There are many devout Jews that continue to practice and perhaps even believe to some extent.

This essay refers to the scholarly work of Marc Zvi Brettler, James L. Kugel, and David Friedman who are all Jewish and still identify as such despite being fully aware and acknowledging the problems with the foundational stories of their religious heritage.

While Mormons are not exactly considered an ethnic group like Jews often are they can still choose to be faithful for reasons of heritage.

Many Mormons already have done this with more nuanced beliefs regarding LDS Church History.

It all depends on whether the individual still finds meaning in the tradition after fully coming to terms with the historical realities and/or fictions of those Jewish origin myths upon which their past beliefs have been based.

 

 

3 thoughts on “Israelite Origins and Mormonism (Ryan Wimmer’s 2019 Sunstone Symposium, guest post)

  1. I appreciate the content of your presentation, very well researched. Could I make one suggestion? Please rehearse your presentations a few times before giving them in a professional setting? This audio is hard to listen to, with all the constant stumbling over words, sometimes relatively easy words. In some places it sounds as though the next slide is a complete surprise to you that you’ve never read before.

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    1. I’m quite confident that Ryan did rehearse his presentation several times in advance. I attended it in person, and my experience was positive with it. I was grateful that he allowed me to include it here on my blog as a guest post.

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  2. Thank you for compiling this information! Really great content and the implications are massive for the church and Christianity generally.

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