Tuesday, December 8, 2009

"Millions" in The Book of Mormon

Many critiques of The Book of Mormon often result from several common errors. The attack against the "millions" number from the book of Ether is a perfect example of arguments that result from shallow reading of the text and a lack of historical context.

1. Shallow Reading: The "millions" that some site is actually "nearly" that number. This equivocation is not something that I made up, it’s in the text. So critics take a figure explicitly inexact and turn it into a precise number. There is internal evidence for doubting BoM numbers elsewhere as well. At one point Mormon says that the Nephites “numbered as it were, the sands of the sea”. Yet this innumerable nation only mustered 30,000 soldiers for their war of survival against the Lamanites. (Mormon 1:7; 2:25)

But back to the chapter at hand, this number (of millions) is assumed to be from one battle in one area. This is demonstrably false. First, Ether 15:2 states that these casualties are in the past tense. So you have to look at chapter 14:
v 1-2 social order breaks down
v 3 civil war faction "gave battle" unto Coriantumur
v 4 more battles, travel
v 5 a long siege more deaths
v 6-10 more civil war and intrigue
v 11 two factions "give battle" across the land
v 13 another battle
v 14 army "smited"
v 16 a series of battles across the land
v 17 "many" cities overthrown and inhabitants killed
v 18-26 "swift" and "speedy" destruction across the land
v 27 more battle

So Chapter 15:2 is the result of the previous sanguine conflicts that ranged across the land. Not one “skirmish” in front of Ramah.

2. Historical Context: The possibly exaggerated numbers within The Book of Mormon fits many other historical accounts. Many scholars have already done a great job of pointing out the flaws in the Exodus numbers.[1] But I'm reminded of Edward Dryer's account of the "War of the Eight Princes" that decimated the Western Jin Dynasty in Ancient China. Some scholars argue the Jin army had 700,000 soldiers, and their capital at Luoyang boasted a population in the hundreds of thousands but was deserted by the end of the civil war. The battles from this civil war ranged across Northern China for only about 7 years, one contemporary observer said that the “bones had been picked” from the dynasty and one ancient historian suggests that one province had only 1% of its population survive the conflict.[2] Even earlier in Chinese history, Ralph Sawyer has pointed out that Warring States Period Kingdoms could possibly field up to half a million men for one campaign.[3] In every case these numbers are taken with a grain of salt, but that doesn’t condemn the texts that state them as a fraud.

Despite the evidence that pre modern societies could create and kill incredibly large armies over a short space of time, lets assume that the people here are right, and that other scholars who cite demographic impossibility of “millions” are right: does that destroy the historicity of the Book of Mormon?

The answer is a resounding no. In fact, having number problems would put The Book of Mormon in good company. Herodotus said the Persian army numbered in the millions. According to one scholar an army that big would have the beginning of the column in Greece before the end of the column even started![4] Kelly DeVries has discussed the imprecise nature of Medieval European military chronicles and cites the same problems.[5] As stated above, Edward Dryer doubts the numbers contained in the Imperial history of the “War of the Eight Princes” but still studies the primary sources for the conflict.

Scribal error, deliberate exaggeration, and a use of numbers as a colloquium (I told you a million times) explain the "wrong" numbers in the Book of Mormon far better than other theories and places it on a firm foundation with other ancient texts. Critics will cry foul, and argue that I just said that mistakes in the Book of Mormon prove its true, that's exactly what I did because historians  know the limitations of their sources and often accept their historicity even with those limits. To cite another example Greek historians, much like Mormon, had an ethnocentric view of their world. If all you read was Herodotus and Thucydides you would conclude that Westerners were the center of the world. But when study the Greeks with their proper historical context, you would know that there was a much bigger and arguably more influential power in Persia.[6]

So in short, there is a great deal of precedent for large numbers of soldiers being killed in battle. A careful reading of the text within The Book of Mormon suggests that an inexact number of people were killed over the course of numerous battles and locations. But The Book of Mormon is not false for possibly presenting exaggerated numbers, instead those wild numbers suggest that Mormon had the same editorial proclivities as other ancient historians. Thanks for reading, I look forward to your comments.

1. See The Church of Jesus Christ's Old Testament manual for one example.
2. Edward Dreyer, “The War of the Eight Princes”, Nicola Cosmo Ed. Military Culture in Imperial China Harvard University Press, 2009.
3. Ralph Sawyer Trans. The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China West View Press, 1993.
4. N. Whatley. "On the Possibility of Reconstructing the Battle of Marathon" N. Whatley, Journal of Hellenistic Studies 84.1 (1964):119-139.
5. Kelly DeVries. "The Use of Chronicles in Recreating Medieval Military History, Journal of Medieval Military History, 2.1 (2004): 1-30.
6. Victor David Hanson Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western PowerAnchor Books, 2001, Chapter 1.


Brian Duffin said...

Great post, Morgan. Good information, as always.

Morgan Deane said...

Thanks Brian.

Anonymous said...

I always understood that "two millions" of the Jaredites was the total number of people who had been killed during the entire reign of Coriantumr up to chapter 15, rather than casualties who had fallen in a particular battle or campaign. If indeed the entire Jaredite nation wiped itself out as thoroughly as Ether and Mornoni said it did, two million doesn't seem a very outrageous number.

Morgan Deane said...

Thats a good point. Thanks.