“You don’t need me to tell you that human civilization is very, very old.”
So began Yale professor Christine Hayes’ introduction to the Hebrew Bible course. She’s right, of course. The earth, and humanity, has been around a lot longer than 4,000 B.C., a date traditionally accepted by orthodox Christians and, unsurprisingly, Joseph Smith, as the approximate date of creation.
As I’ve studied Joseph’s revelations over the last two years, I’ve come to understand that he was very much a Bible literalist. And why wouldn’t he be? Everyone in his day was, so I would be surprised if he weren’t. His revelations make mention of “Adam,” “the first man,” (D&C 84:16) and the “7,000 years of the earth’s temporal existence.” (D&C 76) This is consistent with an 1830 Christian worldview.
But in the year 2021, we know a little better. And, perhaps, unsurprisingly, so did the prophet-writers of the Book of Mormon. My working theory is that the humanity long pre-dates 4,000 BC and that the Hebrew Bible, rather than a story of humanity, beginning with the first man, “Adam,” is rather a history of the people we know as Hebrews. It’s their story. Their family. Their tribe. And I think the Book of Mormon supports this view. The term “Our First Parents,” which appears a number of times in the Book of Mormon, I believe may reveal that history is, in fact, much older than Christians, including Mormons, have traditionally considered.
THE HEBREW BIBLE ISN’T A HISTORY OR SCIENCE BOOK
One of the big mistakes Christians of various stripes have made over the years is a literal reading of the Hebrew Bible. We treat it as history book or science book when it is neither of those things. This has exposed sincere believers to ridicule from atheists and the broad number of individuals operating under the umbrella of “science,” who, incidentally treat the Hebrew Bible as “invented history” and “bad science.” You can search “Young Earth Creationism” and find an infinite number of videos discussing “what the Bible got wrong.” Rather than treat the Hebrew Bible as a literal description of creation, I’d think we’d be wise to treat it as what John Walton calls “an act of communication” to a certain people at a certain in in history with a certain worldview.
Archeologist William Dever said,
“We want to make the Bible history. Many people think it has to be history or nothing. But there is no word for history in the Hebrew Bible. In other words, what did the biblical writers think they were doing? Writing objective history? No. That’s a modern discipline. They were telling stories. They wanted you to know what these purported events mean. The Bible is didactic literature; it wants to teach, not just to describe. We try to make the Bible something it is not, and that’s doing an injustice to the biblical writers. They were good historians, and they could tell it the way it was when they wanted to, but their objective was always something far beyond that. I like to point out to my undergraduate students that the Bible is not history; it’s his story—Yahweh’s story, God’s story.”
It’s worth noting that Genesis 1 was written by the Priestly source sometime during or after the Babylonian exile.
4004 BC – The Date of Creation?
How did 4004 BC become the de facto date of creation? If you guessed the Hebrew Bible, you’d be correct. In 1650 BC James Ussher published “Annales veteris testamenti, a prima mundi origine deducti” (“Annals of the Old Testament, deduced from the first origins of the world”) which fixed the date of creation at October 22, 4004 BC. Ussher arrived at this number in part by using the the ages and chronology of the Patriarchs. In 1701 Ussher’s date was essentially canonized when it was added to the margin of the King James Bible–the Bible Joseph Smith used.
There are, however, difficulties with the KJV chronology. The chronologies of the Greek Septuagint (LXX) and the Samaritan Pentateuch differ from the Masoretic Text (the source of the KJV translation). Adding the ages of the Patriarchs in the LXX, we come to a potential creation date of 5,500 BC. That’s an additional 1,400 years. The Samaritan Pentateuch adds about 240 years. We also needn’t assume the ages of the Patriarchs listed in the Hebrew Bible are literal years. Further, Genesis 5, (Adam to Noah), and Genesis 11 (Shem to Abraham) are post-Exilic insertions by the Redactor, who was likely Ezra the priest. I also recommend this video by the YouTube channel “Inspiring Philosophy” which discusses the numerology of the Patriarch’s ages. Scholarship generally agrees that the ages are numerical representations, but no one has yet cracked the code.
Joseph Smith would have been naturally and understandably ignorant of these things. It does call into question the validity of some of his revelations and theology, which we’ll get to below. But I think it’s pretty safe to say that people have been around for much longer than 4,004 BC.
OUR FIRST PARENTS
“First parents” is one of those phrases that struck me as interesting. When I started to research it, I found it’s a very common phrase in Christian literature dating back centuries (but absent from the Hebrew Bible and Christian New Testament). It always refers to “Adam and Eve.” In the Book of Mormon Adam and Eve are referred to “our first parents,”
“And after they had given thanks unto the God of Israel, my father, Lehi, took the records which were engraven upon the plates of brass, and he did search them from the beginning. And he beheld that they did contain the five books of Moses, which gave an account of the creation of the world, and also of Adam and Eve, who were our first parents…” (1 Nephi 5:10-11)
Two items of note here that indicate the Book of Mormon is a cultural translation. First is the use of the contemporary phrase “first parents.” The second is “the five books of Moses.” What Nephi’s talking about is the Torah, a phrase that likely had little if any meaning for 1830s New Englanders. The Brass Plates are a greatly expanded record of creation and the Hebrew people which contains the commandments of God. (See 1 Nephi 13 and Mosiah 1:3).
In the Book of Mormon there multiple sets of “first parents.” Jacob said,
“Now in this thing we do rejoice; and we labor diligently to engraven these words upon plates, hoping that our beloved brethren and our children will receive them with thankful hearts, and look upon them that they may learn with joy and not with sorrow, neither with contempt, concerning their first parents.” (Jacob 4:3)
He refers the family of Lehi as the “first parents of the Nephites.” The Book of Omni recounts the discovery of the Jaredite record:
“And they gave an account of one Coriantumr, and the slain of his people. And Coriantumr was discovered by the people of Zarahemla; and he dwelt with them for the space of nine moons. It also spake a few words concerning his fathers. And his first parents came out from the tower, at the time the Lord confounded the language of the people; and the severity of the Lord fell upon them according to his judgments, which are just; and their bones lay scattered in the land northward.”
As we near the time of Christ, Nephi declares to his sons, Nephi and Lehi:
“Behold, I have given unto you the names of our first parents who came out of the land of Jerusalem.” (Helaman 5)
There are three sets of “first parents.”
1) The Nephite’s “first parents” — Adam and Eve — who came out/were driven out of the allegorical garden
2) Jared’s “first parents” who came out from the Tower.
3) Lehi and Sariah, the “first parents” who came out of Jerusalem
“First parents” seems to indicate a new society, or new group of people, or those led to a promised land. A new covenant, perhaps?
What if “Adam and Eve” aren’t the first “man and woman on earth,” but the first parents of a particular family line–the people we know as Hebrews or Israelites? And that the Hebrew Bible and the Brass Plates are their story. Or as William Dever said, “Yahweh’s story.” The story of God revealing Himself to man and ultimately choosing Abraham and the Israelites as His personal witnesses before His condescension, during His mortal ministry as Jesus Christ (2 Nephi 9), and after the resurrection?
We read in Helaman 8,
“Our father Lehi was driven out of Jerusalem because he testified of these things. Nephi also testified of these things, and also almost all of our fathers, even down to this time; yea, they have testified of the coming of Christ, and have looked forward, and have rejoiced in his day which is to come. And behold, he is God, and he is with them, and he did manifest himself unto them, that they were redeemed by him; and they gave unto him glory, because of that which is to come.” (Helaman 8)
“And these plates of brass, which contain these engravings, which have the records of the holy scriptures upon them, which have the genealogy of our forefathers, even from the beginning.”
And then there’s this passage,
“Yea, and behold I say unto you, that Abraham not only knew of these things, but there were many before the days of Abraham who were called by the order of God; yea, even after the order of his Son; and this that it should be shown unto the people, a great many thousand years before his coming, that even redemption should come unto them.” (Helaman 8)
How many years constitutes a “a great many thousand years?” I suspect it’s more more than the 4,000 years between “Adam” and Christ outlined in the Bible.
I propose there were many, many contemporaries of “Adam.” There had to have been. Who did Cain marry? Why did Cain get a mark to protect him if there were only a handful of people on planet earth? How did Cain build a city by himself? “Adam and Eve” could have analogous to Lehi and Sariah–the patriarch and matriarch of a family group that existed with other family groups or even entire cities or civilizations. This also solves the “incest” problem with Adam’s son’s marrying Adam’s daughters.
One evening while searching YouTube for videos about “pre-Adamic races,” I came across a comment that perfectly encapsulated what I had been trying to articulate,
“…interpret Genesis in light of the rest of the Pentateuch – God forming and calling out particular men and women, for his purpose of obtaining thru them a people for Himself, in His image. The story of Adam and Eve isn’t the story about first humans, but rather about the first of God’s people, His tribe. If God wants to form a particular human out of the dust of the earth, it’s His earth, no problem. The final result was a demonstration that no matter how well formed, cosseted, and educated (“Do NOT eat…”) they were, they could not rise above dust.
The Old Testament is about families/tribes, not races. There is but one human race, of one blood, but there are many tribes, each with their own territorial claims and loyalties. Biblical writers never thought about races the way have in the modern West. For them, all the differences in appearance and capabilities were about family traits, characteristics inherited from it’s first families and reinforced by tribal custom. It’s not just a Jewish thing, it’s universal across the whole earth.
With Adam, male and female, God introduces Himself to humanity, and the story of humanity’s relationship with God begins. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, humanity without a relationship with God is little different than the beasts of the field. The Bible has always been the good news, from the very beginning.”
This makes a lot of sense to me.
JOSEPH SMITH’S REVELATIONS
Joseph Smith believed “Adam” was the first man:
“And of Enos, and of Seth, and of Adam, who was formed of God, and the first man upon earth.” (Luke JST)
“And the first man of all men, have I called Adam, which is many.” (Moses 1:34)
“And from Enoch to Abel, who was slain by the conspiracy of his brother, who received the priesthood by the commandments of God, by the hand of his father Adam, who was the first man…” (D&C 84)
“And also with Michael, or Adam, the father of all, the prince of all, the ancient of days…” (D&C 27, 1835 version)
“Commencing with Adam, who was the first man, who is spoken of in Daniel as being the “Ancient of Days,” or in other words, the first and oldest of all, the great, grand progenitor of whom it is said in another place he is Michael…” (Instructions on Priesthood, October 5, 1840)
In D&C 77, a Q&A on the revelation, we read,
Q. What are we to understand by the book which John saw, which was sealed on the back with seven seals? A. We are to understand that it contains the revealed will, mysteries, and the works of God; the hidden things of his economy concerning this earth during the seven thousand years of its continuance, or its temporal existence.”
If we accept Joseph’s understanding that the earth was created in 4,000 BC, we should already be in seventh 1,000-year period, the so-called “Millennium.”
I’m persuaded that Joseph Smith’s revelations aren’t actually revelations from God, but Joseph Smith’s own theological perspectives based on a literal reading of Genesis. I think the examples cited above are good examples. His revelations reflect his worldview and understanding, which is why theology and religion of Joseph Smith is so different from that of the Book of Mormon. Joseph believed humanity began at 4,000 BC, yet the Book of Mormon authors may have understood humanity’s history differently–and correctly.
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