Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Another Reason Why the Ancient Covenant Formulary Matters

Some LDS writers have talked about the ancient covenant pattern found in the Near East as possible evidence for the ancient authenticity of the Book of Mormon (where it may be present in King Benjamin's speech) as well as the LDS temple. Regarding its use in the Book of Mormon, see Stephen D. Ricks, "The Treaty/Covenant Pattern in King Benjamin's Address (Mosiah 1- 6)," BYU Studies, vol. 24, no. 2, Spring 1984, pp. 151-62. Also see Stephen Ricks, "Kingship, Coronation, and Covenant in Mosiah 1-6," in King Benjamin's Speech, ed. John Welch and Stephen Ricks, Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1998, pp. 233-275. For basic information on the covenant formulary and its presence in the Bible, see Jon Levenson, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1985), p. 23ff, and Kenneth A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 283-294. [Most of these references were added in an update on April 5, 2016.]

The six-part structure of ancient Hittite treaties, also found in the Bible, was only noted and studied in the 1900s, making it unlikely that Joseph Smith could have known of this or consciously imitated it. Osmosis, luck, and bad LDS apologetics are alternate explanations. But the understanding of ancient covenants is important for an issue of more general interest: the Bible and its origins.

In the debates over the origins of the Bible, a large number of modern scholars have found it fashionable to view the early books of the Bible as late fabrications largely composed after the Exile. The details of Moses and the Sinai covenant, for example, are often presented as a late evolutionary development not grounded in history. However, the presence of such ancient treaty structures, significantly different from known treaty structures in the Near East after the Exile, suggests that the accounts in the Bible have much more ancient roots.
The similarity of the form of the "Hittite" type of treaty with the structure of Exodus 24-Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Joshua 24 directly bears on the question of the dating of these narratives. Many scholars acknowledge the antiquity of these biblical treaty-texts because of the similar structure of the six points of the Hittite treaties. Mendenhall, for example, concluded: "It is very difficult to escape the conclusion that this narrative rests upon traditions which go back to the period when the treaty form was still living." Klaus Baltzer maintained that "it remains, however, a striking and historically unexplained explained fact that the Old Testament texts resemble most closely the highly developed formulary of the Hittite treaties." Kitchen determined that "if we take the nature and order of nearly all the elements in the Old Testament Sinai covenant and its renewals [i.e., Deuteronomy and Joshua 24] ... it is strikingly evident that the Sinai covenant and its renewals must be classed with the late-second-millennium covenants."
Source: James K. Hoffmeier, Ancient Israel in Sinai: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Wilderness Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), Kindle edition, chapter 8, section IV, "Ancient Near Eastern Treaties and the Sinai Legislation."
Hoffmeir goes on to review the attempts of some scholars to dress the Biblical covenant material with much later robes, but the fit is rather poor.

My first introduction to these ancient covenant patterns came while reading Jon Levenson's marvlous book, Sinai and Zion. This aspect of ancient covenants deserves more attention for better appreciating the Old Testament as well as LDS material.

9 comments:

James Anglin said...

However old Exodus turns out to be, it won't rock my world view appreciably either way. I am curious, however, just how much evidence we have for these "ancient covenant forms".

Do we have one old cuneiform tablet, or something, which uses one form, and no-one's found any other records of bargains of any kind, so at the moment that form is our best guess for the way business was done in 2000 BC — but the truth is we have no real idea how covenants were written?

Or do we have thousands of cuneiform tablets recording various agreements, and thousands of hieroglyphic inscriptions and Phoenician whatevers and on and on, and 99% of them all follow exactly the same pattern of statements — so we actually know pretty darn well how legal agreements were framed in those times, and it was a remarkably consistent form across thousands of miles and years?

Ancient history is hard. Sometimes it can be done really well, in spite of how hard it is. Other times, imaginative writers tell fine stories and people put their books on their coffee tables, but the evidence for it all is very thin. So I'm prepared to be impressed by this stuff about ancient covenant forms; but I'm not impressed right away.

Rocky said...

The six-part structure of ancient Hittite treaties, also found in the Bible, was only noted and studied in the 1900s, making it unlikely that Joseph Smith could have known of this or consciously imitated it. Osmosis, luck, and bad LDS apologetics are alternate explanations.

Another explanation is that any written covenant between an authority such as a king and those subject to the authority is likely to have most of the six elements of "ancient Hittite treatises." The Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence, and US Constitution each have a preamble, stipulations, deposition of the text, and list of witnesses. The Declaration of Independence has a historical prologue. The Magna Carta and US Constitution each contain results of obedience or disobedience. Evidently, a written covenant is not unlikely to contain these elements, whether its author is an ancient Semite or not. It's therefore not implausible that someone attempting to imitate biblical covenants in the early United States should include some of these elements in his compositions.

Jeff Lindsay said...

Are you calling the signatures of the authors the list of witnesses? That's not the same concept. In the treaty making ritual, those agreeing to the treaty with the sovereign do so before witnesses who help add force to the treaty. The curses and blessings is another portion of the ancient pattern that I don't think you will find in the Declaration, for example, unless memory fails me.

Jeff Lindsay said...

I am also curious about where the deposition of the treaty is found within the Declaration for example.

Rocky said...

You'll have to explain what is meant by deposition, then. I was just going off of your example at jefflindsay.com. It says that the deposition is a "writing or other means to ensure that the covenants aren't forgotten." The documents themselves are the depositions. The Magna Carta lists witnesses who are not the authors. So do the other documents. In all three documents, the agreement is between entire nations and a sovereign or authority, not just the authors or witnesses on the documents. So I don't see the difference.

However, the presence of such ancient treaty structures, significantly different from known treaty structures in the Near East after the Exile, suggests that the accounts in the Bible have much more ancient roots.

According to apologists, King Benjamin's speech is post exilic. If it contains these treaty structures, then their presence is not evidence of pre exilic composition. When people complain about apologists' arguments not being internally consistent, this is the kind of thing they're talking about.

Rocky said...

On your website, you equate "cursing and blessings" with "results of disobedience or obedience." The declaration doesn't contain that element, but the other documents do. Of course, these post exilic documents don't list supernatural results.

Jeff Lindsay said...

Rocky, while King Benjamin lived after the Exile, his records and other connections to Israel were pre-exilic. He and his people were not influenced by the Exile and the changes in treaties and records that can be seen afterwards. I do not mean to imply that Benjamin or Joseph Smith wrote anything before the Exile, but that very ancient Near Eastern patterns can be found in what they left us. It could be osmosis on Joseph's part, but I don't think knowledge of US documents accounts for the covenant structure. I think the osmosis would need to be from the Bible.

Rocky said...

while King Benjamin lived after the Exile, his records and other connections to Israel were pre-exilic.

The same could be said for any Hebrew author of the Bible who lived after the exile. Therefore, occurrence of the covenant pattern does not imply pre exilic authorship, which contradicts the main point of your blog post. As another counterexample, Acts 2 seems to fit the pattern pretty well.

He and his people were not influenced by the Exile and the changes in treaties and records that can be seen afterwards.

The suggestion that Bible passages containing the covenant pattern must be written before the exile but Book of Mormon passages containing the covenant pattern can be written after the exile is special pleading. If there were "changes in treaties and records" that occurred in the Near East making preservation of pre exilic covenant patterns unlikely, imagine how much more change the Nephite culture would be subject to if the standard apologetic model is correct, which says that a few dozen Israelites were diluted into a vastly larger Mesoamerican population. If you believe that King Benjamin can use the covenant pattern after the exile, then you really shouldn't be persuaded that Bible passages containing the pattern must be pre exilic.

It could be osmosis on Joseph's part, but I don't think knowledge of US documents accounts for the covenant structure. I think the osmosis would need to be from the Bible.

I mostly agree. My point wasn't that Joseph Smith likely borrowed from the Magna Carta or the Declaration of Independence, but that there are counterexamples to the claim that the features of the "covenant pattern" are uniquely pre exilic and near eastern. Some of these, such as a preamble or stipulations, are naturally occurring components of many agreements. Others, such as blessings and cursings, are featured conspicuously in the Bible and would be difficult not to absorb.

Jeff Lindsay said...

The deposition of the text, an important aspect of the ancient covenant formulary, is not fulfilled by the fact that the text later was printed up or stuck in a museum somewhere. It was part of the covenant itself, setting forth a means to ensure that the covenant would be recorded, remembered, and taught. I don't see anything in the Declaration of Independence that comes close to that. In the Temple, on the other hand, some covenants made at the altar, with explicit reference to multiple witnesses, refer to the aspects of the covenants explicitly recorded in volumes of scripture. The scriptures are even used as a visual aid to dramatically remind the people where the principles and laws are recorded. The terms of the covenant are recorded and remembered. The invitation to return to the temple frequently, of course, is also part of the principle of reiterating and remembering the covenant. Naturally, all contracts should be recorded, but the aspect of building in a deposition mechanism in the covenant making itself is not a natural part of our modern contracts.

The historical prologue also is a statement from the suzerain about what great things he has done for his vassals (e.g., God's work of creation, redemption, and provisions of mercy). It is not fulfilled by complaints against King George III in the Declaration of Independence. It is not fulfilled by the Preamble to the Constitution, which merely states the objectives of the document.

The specific usage of the six elements of the covenant formulary as a whole are definitely NOT routine parts of typical modern covenants, and differ significantly from Near Eastern covenant patterns after the Exile. The details of covenant patterns in the Pentateuch and Joshua effectively date their origin to a timeframe precisely consistent with the claims of the text, challenging those who believe that was all pious fiction composed after the Exile. The parallels to King Benjamin's speech and possibly the LDS temple are also quite interesting.