Thursday, January 14, 2016

Responding to RT's Review of Traditions of Our Fathers

          I appreciated RT’s lengthy post and review of Brant Gardner’s workTraditions of our Fathers: The Book of Mormon As History, at Faith Promoting Rumor. I haven’t had a chance to read the book yet, though the previews I’ve seen and the review here suggests that Gardner has used some my work into military history. I’m also not a biblical scholar but my work into military history might inform a few of RT’s points. Unfortunately, upon closer examination and comparison with my research RT shows a stunning lack of knowledge concerning insurgency. At points he indicates a lack of awareness or skill in the tools used by historians, and in some places seems unaware of  Book of Mormon scholarship. (All block quotes from RT's post.)

“The reason the Lamanites suddenly attacked Ammonihah was to obtain sacrificial victims (p. 309-10)? And yet the BoM claims that “every living soul of the Ammonihahites was destroyed” (Alma 16:9).”

          There are actually two slightly different versions of the story. As Grant Hardy described in “Mormon the Editor,” Hardy contends that Mormon emphasized the complete destruction because he was acting as Mormon the prophet.  He sacrificed historical accuracy, (the “others taken captive”), to amplify the spiritual message that disobeying the prophets leads to destruction. But Mormon the historian had to be accurate and included the idea the comment: “And taken others captive into the wilderness” (Alma 16:3).  Thus, the scriptures don’t reject Gardner’s reading as RT suggests. Its also the first instance of a strange literalism that some show when commenting upon the Book of Mormon. At some points critics can offer rather ingenious fantasies about how Joseph Smith might have written the Book of Mormon as fiction and copied maps, but then they hold to a rather obtuse reading of the text to deny other theories. In his post RT spends the bulk of his organized review justifying the only acceptable framework for studying the Book of Mormon as a 19th century one, and concludes anything else is begging the question.  Instead of disputing methodology (and essentially repeating anti Mormon techniques of dismissing evidence by saying it’s a 19th century book at face value then disqualifying anything else), in this instance RT simply had to read the entire account carefully, and perhaps read some of that dreaded FARMS material like Hardy's chapter to show how flimsy his argument really was.

“By contrast [to Biblical type scenes], the historical and political contexts in which secret combinations appear in the BoM are significantly different from one another, ranging from military (Ether 14), to political intrigue (Hel 2), to insurrection (3 Ne 2-3), to infestation (Morm 1:18). For most of BoM history, the name of this secret society is the same, the Gadiantons.”

          I don’t know much about Biblical type scenes but I have studied insurgencies for years. (Well and trained for a counter insurgency even longer.)  At some points they seem like a rural based military conflict. In fact, “infestation” is a rather common term from ancient history to describe them.   And yet other times they seem to act as rival states. The bands of “robbers,” (as they were called by contemporary historians) commanded by local Roman elites often become the basis of power for lords in early medieval period for example.  Sometimes they seem more like local cartels or mafia with selected hits and use of muscle as part of their political intrigue against the central government. The Akuto (translated as evil gangs) of Medieval Japan for example often competed with Shoen (local landlords) for economic control of lands.  These evil gangs participated in a variety of activities ranging economic collusion, use of muscle to collect rent or make selected hits against enemies, law suits, and hit and run tactics against rival forces (government or otherwise.) Mao’s insurgency featured an intense argument over the location (urban or rural) and tactics such as selected assassinations from urban based elements, swift preemptive strikes on cities from rural bases,  or rural based mini states.

          In short, when RT says those scriptures are “significant differences,” I see them as closely related and often overlapping elements of the same type of conflict. Thus it would make sense to group and associated them with the same label. 

“The numbers reported for people who died in battle may be generic round numbers, but that does not justify concluding they are exaggerations equivalent to the colloquial expression, ‘I have seen a movie a thousand times’”

          I have a whole chapter on this coming up in my second book and those who read this blog know I’ve discussed it many times. Hans Delbruck was one of the first modern historians, and criticall examining numbers was one of the first things he did.  Numbering soldiers historically has always been inexaxct.  Eye witness chroniclers often eye balled and guessed about the numbers of soldiers. Contemporary historians often had to rely on innuendo and rumor as well as tendentious sources with motive to distort numbers. Later scribes and historians sometimes deliberately exaggerated to amplify the magnitude of the loss or victory. Other times it wrong numbers could be as simple as scribal errors in translation. On top of that, many unit names doubled as numbers. So Roman Centuries (that don't have 100 soldiers) and Greek Myriads both add to the confusion. Modern historians can also use things like logistical studies and military participation ratio to modify the numbers.   RT talks about a framework for judging information, and within mine I found Gardner’s argument about the colloquial use of numbers very strong and RT’s just as weak.  

“Further, Gardner is surely correct that the claim the groups are all somehow organically linked to one another is historically implausible (p. 327-41). But unfortunately for Gardner, that is exactly what the BoM indicates, that the devil revealed certain oaths and secret alliances to the Jaredites and did so again to the Nephites (Hel 6).”

          Just because Mormon and Nephite historians prescribed a specific cause of the Gadianton Robbers doesn’t make it an accurate depiction of what actually happened. This is another instance of RT’s obtuse literalism when it suits him. It’s fairly standard practice for historians to get origin stories wrong, and try to incorporate them with existing cultural beliefs.  Medieval historians for example often linked the Mongols to apocalyptic Christian themes. There were perfectly natural explanations such as the expanding population of the steppe and a particularly charismatic and militarily skilled leader. But if we accept RT’s literalism we would have to reject far stronger and more historical explanations in favor of either the bias and limited knowledge of an ancient editor, or fictional editor created by Joseph Smith. Instead of creating an elaborate fiction, I think its stronger to believe Mormon’s “mistake” by linking every instance of Gadianton Robbers to Satan is actually a consistent practice among ancient historians. TT and others attacked John Gee attacked after he suggested a lack of rigorous historical training in religious studies programs, yet RT seems to lack some of the basic analytical tools that historians regularly use.

“Gadianton is not a generic label, but a specific label for an organization with a coherent identity and agenda that operated for most of Nephite history”

          In my second quote RT said that the political and historical contexts were significantly different, but now he or she says they are a specific label with specific identity. I would need RT to describe these two different points in greater detail. I’ve read, researched, written, and published about dozens of insurgencies in different geographies and time periods.  I see different facets of the same type of political revolutionary warfare consistently and without exception in history and throughout the Book of Mormon. Again, not to beat a dead horse (or tapir), but when I compare RT’s statements to my research I find his arguments incredibly facile and unconvincing.      

“Finally, the Gadiantons are emphatically not a foreign entity, but rather an organization that grew up within Jaredite, Nephite, and Lamanite societies.”

         Chapter 2 of my first book discusses this in detail and provides evidence that they represent a separate ethnic group. I show how the term “robber” from history is a stigmatizing term used to delegitimize new power actors. [See here for a more comprehensive explanation.]  In fact, from RT’s description of Gardner’s argument it sure seems like Gardner agrees with me.  The British historian Gildas, late Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus among others used the same and similar terms as Nephite historians to describe what they considered social inferiors, ethnic others, and robbers.

          In conclusion, I often enjoy RT’s columns even when I disagree with them. In many cases and for a variety of reasons I demur on commenting. But this post had several glaring errors and omissions that I've directly addressed in my research.  At several other places (see bullet points 23 and 46), he dismisses Gardner’s comparisons to warfare as vague and unconvincing. I haven’t read the book so I can’t say if they are or not. I’m also not a Biblical scholar.  Yet based upon my years of research into military history and its intersection with the Book of Mormon, it is RT’s review and engagement with military matters that strikes me as weak, vague, and unconvincing.  

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