Bradshaw, Larsen, and Whitlock discuss the challenges of comparative research, stressing the need for careful analysis and caution against excessive claims, especially in their study of Moses 1 and its ancient connections.

Jeffrey M. Bradshaw

Bradshaw, Jeffrey M., David J. Larsen, and Stephen T. Whitlock. "Moses 1 and the Apocalypse of Abraham: Twin sons of different mothers?", Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 38 (2020): 185–8

David J. Larsen, Stephen T. Whitlock, Jeffrey M. Bradshaw
David J. Larsen, Stephen T. Whitlock, Jeffrey M. Bradshaw
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Can Comparative Research Be Conducted in a Methodologically Sound Manner?

Why has the popularity of comparative research varied over time? Recent decades have seen a relative decline of interest in comparative studies among Latter-day Saints. In part this is due to the recognition that such research has not always been conducted with adequate attention to needed methodological controls. Such carelessness may lead to unreasonable or excessive claims. The up and down trajectory in comparative study of Latter-day Saint scripture is somewhat analogous to the initial waxing and later waning of comparative research in biblical studies, as described by J. J. M. Roberts:

The tendency has been to overstress the importance of the background material in the first flush of discovery, and then, when [Page 186]the flaws in the early interpretations have become obvious, to swing to the other extreme of largely ignoring the comparative material.27

How can common pitfalls in comparative research be avoided? To remedy flaws common in comparative analysis, several scholars have offered useful compendia of the pitfalls of the comparative approach, along with helpful guidelines.28 Though studies that compare English translations of modern scripture to texts in ancient languages do not lend themselves to every technique employed in formal vocabulary studies, several types of controls can still be applied. As a starting point when comparing Moses 1 and ApAb, we have tried to address the following questions:

Could common factors in the environments of the authors of the accounts being compared account for their similarities? We have not yet encountered significant, specific resemblances to Moses 1 as a whole in the writings of the biblical commentators and visionaries of Joseph Smith’s time. Nor have we found evidence that the Prophet had access to relevant ancient accounts from which he could have borrowed significantly — other than the Bible itself. With respect to the Bible, a common explanation for Joseph Smith’s account of Moses’s heavenly ascent is that it was inspired by the story of Jesus’s encounter with Satan in Matthew 4. However, as it turns out, Matthew’s account is a relatively unfruitful source of comparison. Although Moses 1 and Matthew 4 share some general elements of one particular type scene tradition out of which both texts may have grown,29 the specific resemblances are weak and limited to a small fraction of the Moses 1 narrative.

Are the resemblances densely or sparsely distributed?30 “Shotgun” approaches, where the text of primary interest is analyzed in relation to a much larger comparative text, almost inevitably pick up similarities in wording scattered sparsely throughout the longer text. To minimize this problem in the present study, we have limited the primary thrust of our comparison to two relatively short documents: our target of interest (Moses 1) and a cohort of reasonably comparable length (the heavenly ascent chapters of ApAb).

Are the accounts similar in genre and setting? When commonality in genre and setting at the general level [Page 187](similar in spirit to what Nicholas Frederick calls “shared context”31) undergirds the accounts being compared, it strengthens the argument for additional, more specific resemblances. In the case of the heavenly ascents of Moses 1 and ApAb, the genres and settings of the two texts are highly similar.32

How much of the entire narrative is spanned by the resemblances?33 How strong are the resemblances? When comparing two accounts, it is important to avoid the tendency to highlight only a few points of narrative overlap with the primary text of interest.34 The results of comparative studies are most convincing when strong evidence of common themes and narrative elements can be found across a large proportion of the text of primary interest.

To what extent do similar elements follow the same sequence?35 In the present study we do not merely consider the number of overlaps in narrative structure, but also commonalities in their sequence. A high correlation in the sequence of major narrative elements of the text of primary interest and its comparative cohort is a powerful form of evidence.

To what extent are both similarities and differences discussed? Some studies rely on “cherry picking,” selecting only a small fraction of the most convincing similarities for comparison with the text of primary interest while ignoring or downplaying contradictory indications. In our study, we try to identify not only commonalities in narrative elements but also some of the more important differences in perspective within those elements. For example, although the heavenly ascents of Moses 1 and ApAb are similar in that they culminate in the presence of God, we highlight and attempt to account for the fact that Moses sees God “face to face” whereas ApAb insists that Abraham will not (and, presumably, cannot) see Him. We also employ Frederick’s criterion of “dissimilarity,”36 making note of significant instances where Moses 1 and ApAb uniquely share an unusual description or event that is neither found in the Bible nor elsewhere in relevant pseudepigrapha.

While it has not been possible to apply every recommendation in the literature to our study in rigorous fashion, we have tried to be sensitive to the pertinent issues. In some cases, we have had to adapt standard practice to deal with challenges specific to our two texts. For example, we have tried to avoid placing too much stress on the specific wording of resemblances in Moses 1 and ApAb — especially because in both cases we are dealing with English translations rather than ancient originals.37 Instead, we usually focus on resemblances in themes and sequencing of narrative elements, especially where the presence and ordering of such elements are recognized by relevant scholarship as belonging to the genre.

Summary and conclusions. In concluding this section, we cite the perspective of John Walton, who shares our optimistic view of the value of comparative study and the possibility of respectful collaboration with scholars of all persuasions. A comparative study of the kind he advocates "does not attempt to negate the concept of sources or the idea of long periods of composition. It merely indicates [in some cases] that comparative study is capable of offering some correctives to some of the assumptions and conclusions of source theory. … Despite [some] pockets of resistance, critical scholarship as a whole has tended to absorb the data provided by comparative studies and adjust its theories accordingly. Comparative study poses a threat not to critical scholarship but only to occasional theories that critical scholars have espoused."38

We also agree with the balanced assessment of J. J. M. Roberts about the value of comparative analysis. He notes that although it “has never proven a particular interpretation, it has certainly ruled out some and suggested others.”39 In addition, we are persuaded that the process of careful comparison can increase understanding and appreciation of otherwise obscure details that appear in both modern scripture and ancient texts.

Of course, we do not think it advisable, or even possible, to “find the key to every [scriptural] phenomenon in some ancient Near Eastern precedent.”40 However, we think that in the case of Moses 1 it is appropriate to put the claim of ancient affinities in modern scripture to the test of scholarship by “silhouett[ing] the [scriptural] text against its wider literary and cultural environment”41 in antiquity. And, importantly, in doing so “we must not succumb either to ‘parallelomania’ or to ‘parallelophobia.”42

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