Faith and Reason 13: If/And Conditional Sentences

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From the book: Of Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting the Prophet Joseph Smith

by Michael R. Ash

Dr. Daniel Peterson and Dr. Royal Skousen recently discovered that the Book of Mormon contains odd sentence structures utilizing the conditions if and and. In the original Book of Mormon manuscript, as dictated by Joseph Smith to Oliver Cowdery we find several examples, such as the following:

…yea and if he saith unto the earth move and it is moved…

…yea if he say unto the earth thou shalt go back that it lengthen out the day for many hours and it is done…

…and behold also if he saith unto the waters of the great deep be thou dried up and it is done…

In modern editions of the Book of Mormon,  these phrases were edited to sound more grammatically correct to English readers.

The if/and conditional sentence structure is also found in ancient Hebrew and biblical Hebrew. It is not surprising that the if/and sentences in the King James Version of the Bible, were also modified to make it sound more palatable to English readers.

As far as the research of Skousen and Peterson have shown, this authentic Hebrew sentence structure was not available in any other English text in Joseph Smith’s lifetime, but is a strong evidence for the Hebraic background of the Book of Mormon text.

Michael R. Ash is the author of: Of Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting The Prophet Joseph Smith. He is the owner and operator of MormonFortress.com and is on the management team for FairMormon. He has been published in Sunstone, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, the Maxwell Institute’s FARMS Review, and is the author of Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One’s Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt. He and his wife live in Ogden, Utah, and have three daughters.

Julianne Dehlin Hatton  is a broadcast journalist living in Louisville, Kentucky. She has worked as a News Director at an NPR affiliate, Radio and Television Host, and Airborne Traffic Reporter. She graduated with an MSSc from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University in 2008. Julianne and her husband Thomas are the parents of four children.

Music for Faith and Reason is provided by Arthur Hatton.

Fair Issues 61: Book of Mormon evidences today

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MAIn this episode Michael Ash illustrates the modern evidences concerning issues such as “steel” being used in ancient times.  He also relates how the setting in one of Lehi dreams parallels those of an actual ancient Arabian landscape.

 

The full text of this article can be found at Deseret News online.

Brother Ash is author of the book Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One’s Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt, as well as the book, of Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting the Prophet Joseph Smith. Both books are available for purchase online through the FairMormon Bookstore. Tell your friends about the Mormon Fair-Cast. Share a link on your Facebook page and help increase the popularity of the Mormon Fair-Cast by subscribing to this podcast in iTunes, and by rating it and writing a review.

The views and opinions expressed in the podcast may not reflect those of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or that of FairMormon

Articles of Faith 10: S. Matthew Stearmer – A Reflection on the Cultural Construction of Sexual “Needs”

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stearmer_picMatt Stearmer is a Ph.D. Candidate of Sociology at The Ohio State University. His academic interests include social movements, gender, networks, public health and religion. His work has appeared in the Journal of Peace Research, and in a book titled Sex and World Peace. He currently serves as the first councilor in the Young Men’s Presidency. He and his partner Janille have four children ages 5-16. He is the author of an article entitled, A Reflection on the Cultural Construction of Sexual “Needs” in the journal SquareTwo found at SquareTwo.org Welcome S. Matthew Stearmer.

Questions addressed in the interview:

Your article is quite possibly one of the most potentially volatile mixes of topics; sex, and religion. Throw in politics and you will probably have a perfect recipe for social conflict cocktail. Let’s try and ease into a bit by maybe first addressing why sex in a religious or faith based context is either difficult or even contentious at times?

In your article you open with, “Recently, the topic of male sexuality, responsibility and faithfulness came up in a discussion among several LDS friends and co-workers.” First of all, I am glad to hear that even after this conversation you are still referring to them as friends and co-workers, not enemies….if one were to be a the proverbial fly on the wall in that discussion what would we have heard? What were some of the opinions that were injected in that conversation?

Is there a doctrine on this subject of marital intimacy? Responsibility of sex in the marriage? Your article asserts the following: “The central aim of the doctrine of the Restored Gospel is unity. Anything that divides us and creates hierarchy, especially between spouses, must be renounced for the evil it is.”

Your article presents another good quote, “The goal from a gospel perspective is not more sex, but more unity. Intimate sexual relationships between a husband and wife may be one means of getting there, but it is not the locus of the unified relationship.” The article makes the assumption, and there are probably statistics to make this a well founded assumption, that men see sex as a need, and women see responsibility as filling that need, as something to give up to their husbands. This paradigm, according to your article, leads to disunity. The next assumption, and maybe I am reading this wrong, is that this condition is far more universal than many may notice, even in temple sealed LDS marriages.

You give one such example of a couple who came to you for some counseling on the matter. Could you share that example?

There are three points that you feel is critical to having a healthy relationship, but one that actually falls in line with doctrinal precepts. Let’s go through those three:

- The first, sex is not intimacy.

- Second, even in marriage, sex does not necessarily lead to unity.

- Third, a focus on who “needed” what, and who did or did not get what they felt they “needed” from their spouse sexually, would have been an unnecessary, confusing, and further damaging approach to the problem being faced.

When one ventures into calling sex a spiritual or sacred thing, that can sometimes be a bit off putting, maybe even a mischaracterization. Here again, you face the idea head on with the article by making an assertion that placing sex as a “need” in a marriage is spiritually damning. How are these things connected?

This is even tied further to the idea that people who have committed sexual sins, either in or out of marriage covenants, seek to establish an excuse for their actions because sex was a need that was not being met.

This same idea is actually tied back to the Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood. How is that?

S. Matthew Stearmer is author of the article A Reflection on the Cultural Construction of Sexual “Needs” in the journal SquareTwo found at SquareTwo.org Thank you for coming on.

 

Mormon Fair Cast 252: Scott Gordon and the histroy of FairMormon plus the Joseph Smith papers

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Scott GordonMartinTannerMartin Tanner who is the host of “Religion Today” on KSL FM 102.7 and AM 1160 interviews Scott Gordon who is the president of FairMormon on the upcoming annual conference of FairMormon on the 7th and 8th of August.  Brother Gordon talks about some of the speakers and the subjects that will be covered during this conference.

In the second section of this episode brother Tanner discusses  the Joseph Smith papers and the detail that is available on this subject.  The Joseph Smith papers is one of the many topics that will be addressed during the FairMormon conference this year.

 

This broadcast originally aired on the 20th of July 2014.

The views and opinions expressed in this podcast may not represent those of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or that of FairMormon.

 

Faith and Reason 12: Stylometry and The Book of Mormon

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From the book: Of Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting the Prophet Joseph Smith

by Michael R. Ash

Critics generally claim that Joseph Smith either created (rather than dictated) The Book of Mormon, or that he plagiarized the text from some other nineteenth-century scholar. The invention of the computer has brought a new tool with which to test a document’s authorship. Stylometry (or word print studies) can detect an author’s fingerprint style by the individual word patterns they use for non-contextual words such as a, of, the, and it. These patterns are typically unconscious to the author and are not easily altered. Using stylometry, scholars have compared the writings of Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and other contemporaries to the authors in The Book of Mormon. According to the experts who conducted the research, word prints conclusively demonstrate that The Book of Mormon was written by many authors (there were twenty-four distinct word prints) –none of which matched Joseph Smith or the contemporaries tested.

Michael R. Ash is the author of: Of Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting The Prophet Joseph Smith. He is the owner and operator of MormonFortress.com and is on the management team for FairMormon. He has been published in Sunstone, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, the Maxwell Institute’s FARMS Review, and is the author of Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One’s Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt. He and his wife live in Ogden, Utah, and have three daughters.

Julianne Dehlin Hatton  is a broadcast journalist living in Louisville, Kentucky. She has worked as a News Director at an NPR affiliate, Radio and Television Host, and Airborne Traffic Reporter. She graduated with an MSSc from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University in 2008. Julianne and her husband Thomas are the parents of four children.

Music for Faith and Reason is provided by Arthur Hatton.

Mormon Fair-cast 248: FairMormon conference and the Book of Job

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Utah-Valley-Convention-Center-300x177MartinTannerMartin Tanner who is the host of “Religion Today” on KSL FM 102.7 and AM 1160  recommends the annual FairMormon conference held this year in Provo Utah in the Utah Valley Convention Center on the 7th and 8th of August as a valuable tool providing the answers and information you need to faithfully deal with the criticisms leveled against the Church and the gospel.

In the second section of this podcast brother Tanner relates how the book of Job in the Old Testament parallels the teachings of Joseph Smith regarding the our pre-mortal life when the foundations of the world were made.

This broadcast originally aired on the 13th of July 2014.

The views and opinions expressed in this podcast may not represent those of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or that of FairMormon.

Letters to a Former Missionary Companion – Letter 3

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MAThe following series of articles is a fictional dialogue between Shane and Doug, two former missionary companions many years after their missions. Shane writes to his friend Doug who has posted comments about his on-going faith crisis on Facebook. The characters are fictionalized composites of members who have faced these same dilemmas but the issues are based on very real problems which have caused some to stumble. Likewise, the responding arguments are based on the author’s own personal engagement with these same concerns as well as his discussion of these issues with other members who have struggled. (By Michael R. Ash, author of Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One’s Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt, andOf Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting the Prophet Joseph Smith, and Director of Media Products for FairMormon.)

Dear Doug,

As I’ve read through your list of faith-based concerns, I see that you frequently take issue with the scriptures and modern-day prophets as not always teaching the “truth.” Like you, and possibly many members in the Church, I tacitly accepted the position that prophets (both modern and ancient) were almost like demi-gods—that basically they could do no wrong nor say anything that wasn’t the absolute truth. I thought I learned this in Church, Seminary, and Institute. In hindsight, however, I don’t think that was really what I was taught (at least not by all of my instructors and leaders). Looking back, I wonder if I came to such assumptions because of my own expectations and the fact that the topic of prophetic fallibility was never directly addressed.

Unfortunately, by not questioning my own assumptions I took it for granted that the scriptures and the words of the prophets were inerrant. This assumption proved to be disastrous when I encountered LDS-critical material. The most powerful lesson I learned as I studied my way back into the Church (by finding answers to those claims that plugged my spiritual ears) was that my initial approach to the scriptures and prophets was not only naïve but is not the official position of the Church.

The two best things that came from my faith crisis were: 1) an increased strength in the firmness of my own faith (almost as if I had gone through the refiner’s fire), and 2) a more realistic appreciation for modern-day and ancient prophets. I’m almost embarrassed to say that up until my faith crisis I read the scriptures as if they were “true” fairy tales. What do I mean by that? Well the words were “true” because they touched my soul. I knew (and I still know) that they are true because when I read them I feel more than emotion—I feel the presence of a spiritual witnesses that seems to flow both peace and other-worldly intelligence into my heart and mind. There is nothing else like it (and I hope we can discuss this feeling more directly in a future letter).

But in another ironic way, reading the scriptures was almost like reading fairy tales. While I read about scriptural characters who engaged in struggles of their own, it was almost as if they were on another planet. Looking back, I unintentionally viewed past prophets (and their followers) from a superficial one-dimensional perspective. Those stupid Israelites, I thought, they saw all these wonderful miracles from Moses and yet they still fashioned a golden calf? How could anyone be so dumb?For the most part, past prophets were able to get out of tough situations simply by commanding water to come from a rock, or the walls of an enemy’s fortress to come tumbling down, or by causing the sun to stand still, or by lying down with friendly lions which didn’t eat prophets. Sure there were exceptions to these easy escapes (and of course Christ died a painful death to atone for our sins) but in many ways the scriptures—which I believed were true because I had received a spiritual witness that they are true— seemed like fairy tales of another world and didn’t really relate in any normal way to the world in which I live.

I understood that past prophets lived in a world that was different than our twenty-first century world. I knew they didn’t have electricity, airplanes, or iPads, but I guess I envisioned them as a technologically backward group that otherwise could have fit right in with the members of my own ward (other than the fact that they seemed to see these fantastic miracles on an almost daily basis).

As I explained in my first letter, it wasn’t until I began my personal studies (beginning with the writings of Hugh Nibley) that the characters in the scriptures (and eventually the characters of the Restoration) took on real human form. It wasn’t until I made this obvious but somehow missed connection that I began to understand scripture and revelation and how it pertains to prophets.

You see Doug, Adam, Moses, Isaiah, Mormon, Peter, Alma, and to some extent Jesus, were just like you and me. I’ve had undeniable personal revelation. Now I admit there was a time when I was struggling that I began to look for ways to argue away past revelatory experiences. In other words, I tried to find logical emotional and psychological explanations for how I was affected by revelation—ways that didn’t need to involve the supernatural. I spent enough time in my college psychology classes to know that we humans are great at convincing ourselves that things are real even if they aren’t, and that our brains can trick us and can even create real emotive responses to fake stimuli. Even though I knew all of this—all of the psychological and biological explanations that seemed to undermine an acceptance of the supernatural—I was never really able to completely push aside my spiritual experiences. While my brain could find excuses, my heart—my soul—told me that there was something more going on; that something tasted good and sweet and filled me in ways that the intellectual arguments could not.

My own personal revelations were not always—if ever—perfect.  I’ve always been aware that they came to me, an imperfect vessel, in ways that required me to think them through in light of the things I already knew. While I’ve had a few instances of a clear loud voice, most of my revelatory experiences have been of the still small voice kind. And like listening to a still small human voice, it’s sometimes difficult to hear what’s being said because of ambient noise.

It was during my liberation from my faith crisis that I realized that prophets undoubtedly received revelation just like I received revelation. Sure there were the occasional big revelations like the First Vision, the appearance of the Resurrected Christ, or Alma (the younger) and Saul’s conversion stories, but I think that the typical prophetic revelations came to the mind and hearts of the prophets just like they came to me—“through a glass darkly,” as Paul said. Revelation for prophets works like revelation to each us; we get bits and pieces of direction, inspiration, and insight, but we have to typically figure out how to understand and define this information in the context of what we know. The primary difference between a prophet’s revelations and my revelations are the scope or sphere of stewardship. While I can receive revelation for myself or family (or my ward when I was a bishop), a prophet can receive revelation for all mankind during the prophet’s tenure.

The fact that we both receive revelation in like manner, however, pretty much guarantees that, at times, Heavenly Father doesn’t always reveal answers on issues that aren’t pertinent to our salvation or even in a timeline we’d prefer on issues that are pertinent (or “expedient” as we read in D&C 88:64). The contents of my brain don’t get magically replaced with all of God’s wisdom and knowledge when I receive revelation, so we shouldn’t expect this of our prophets. They—like us—are still going to make incorrect assumptions, wrong interpretations, and mistakes. President Uchtdorf acknowledged this very fact in a recent General Conference address.

The scriptures record the stories of people who—although inspired by God—still had to engage real world problems from within a context of ancient societies. There is no escaping the fact that we (and prophets) will naturally try to understand new revelation in the context of our own experiences, cultural, etc. As the Lord told Joseph Smith,

Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding (D&C 1:24).

“Language” includes more than words. It includes the context of those words according to the worldview of the person listening/writing as well as those who hear/read those words. In other words (no pun intended), “languages” are expressions of thoughts according to the context of one’s environments. Old Testament, New Testament, and Book of Mormon cultures had a different “language” (both in words and ideas) than we have today. So did the people of Joseph’s Smith generation. Undoubtedly, future generations will be able to correct our misconceptions and false assumptions that resulted from our weak language or understanding of the scriptures or history.

Once we understand this important point, we can recognize that not everything in the scriptures is based on scientific fact, on fully accurate history, or on a complete understanding of God’s directives. As members we need to learn to be open to new and better understanding of not only God’s Word but of science, history, and the world in which the scriptures were recorded.

So when we read about the angry and seemingly vindictive God of the Old Testament, we have to recognize that many of the books of the Old Testament are almost certainly based on a compilation of oral traditions—influenced by the culture of the times—which were put into writing many centuries after the events transpired. While some might argue that this would make the Old Testament a work of fiction, I woulddisagree. What such a position proposes is that God inspired the record-keepers of the Old Testament to record important spiritual messages so they could be used as symbols and archetypes by future generations. The general messages related in the scriptures are God-inspired, but the stories in which they are framed may rely on the imprecision of oral traditions rather than detailed factual history.

My great-grandfather fought in World War I. He never kept a journal and never wrote down his war experiences but he did share some of those experiences with his wife and children. One of his sons (my grandfather) kept those stories alive by sharing them with his son (my father) who shared them with me. Chances are that if my great-grandfather had recorded his wartime encounters with a Go-Pro video camera mounted to his helmet, the events would probably be different than the stories I know from the oral tradition. It’s human nature for the mind to focus on some aspects of an event, while ignoring other aspects. It’s human nature to emphasize and embellish, or to tell past events in light of additional knowledge, wisdom, or hindsight that comes years after the events.

The fact that a video recording of my great-grandfather’s war history would be different than the oral retelling of his history would not mitigate the historicity of World War I, that he was sent overseas to fight in that war, that he saw several of his friends die, that he had to kill other men in combat, or that a wound to his left foot caused him to limp in pain for the rest of his life.

If a movie were made about his life, the main character would represent a real person and real events but would undoubtedly also contain artistic embellishments.In today’s book market we have the genre of “historical fiction”—such as the popular LDS The Work and the Glory book series. Another genre of fiction is the “non-fiction novel” which describes real events and real people but incorporates fictitious conversations and fictitious story-telling techniques to relate the tale.

In Hollywood there are movies based on actual events as well as movies “inspired” by actual events. Inspired doesn’t mean that the story is historically accurate or even factual, but that the story’s theme is based on something that actually happened. The award-winning movie and historical drama, The Butler, for example, isn’t historically accurate. While the primary character (Cecil Gaines) is fictional, the concept of a black White House butler who served for many years and had close relationships with several presidents is based on a very real man (Eugene Allen).

It’s almost certain that those who wrote the scriptures (especially the Old Testament) took similar paths to persevering or recording important elements of their faith. Past generations didn’t look at historical accuracy in the same light we do in modern times. Modern historians are primarily concerned with representing the past wie es eigentlich gewesen, or “as it really was” (to use the phrase of the important 19th century German historian Leopold von Ranke). But this mentality when approaching history is relatively modern, and simply wasn’t an assumption widely shared by ancient authors. For example, the great Greek and Roman historians and authors felt it was entirely within their prerogative to invent dialogue or speeches for their subjects to further a desired narrative or maintain a certain characterization.

That being the case, it’s important to remember that there was nothing inherently wrong with this type of storytelling. The importance of the tale was to teach a principle or morale, while historical accuracy took a back seat. God’s work isn’t furthered by the precise historical accuracy of an event so much as it is furthered by the way scripture study can open the heavens for our own personal revelations and testimony of the divine.

I believe that Old Testament prophets received revelation for the direction of the House of Israel, that Jesus was the Son of God, walked the earth, preformed miracles, and was crucified for the sins of the world. Likewise I believe that a group of early Americans (known to us today as Nephites, Lamanites, and Jaredites) also had real interactions with God and that about 2000 years ago some of them witnessed the resurrected Christ who blessed them and taught them eternal doctrines.

Despite my testimony of these things I do think it’s important to recognize that the scriptures—although God-inspired—were recorded by humans with all the frailties that accompany the human mind and memory. Therefore, not every word written in the scriptures represents the way God would behave, what He would teach, or what could have been recorded on a Go-Pro if it had been available. It is thus important to use critical thinking skills when approaching the scriptures as much as it is important to be sensitive to the whispers of the Spirit. When we approach the scriptures with a balance of faith and reason, we can probe questions such as how to discern truths embedded in both historical and non-historical parts of the scriptures and how to avoid misreading ancient scripture through our modern cultural or linguistic lenses.

With this preface on the Word of God, in my next letters I hope we can discuss some of your particular concerns about the scriptures.

Letters to a Former Missionary Companion – Letter 1

Letters to a Former Missionary Companion – Letter 2

Fair Issues 60: Nephi, Laban and the brass plates

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MAWhile encamped in the Valley of Lemuel, Lehi sent his sons back to Jerusalem to obtain their own religious record – the “plates of brass.”  In this podcast Mike Ash discusses this event as recorded in the Book of Mormon along with recently discovered  evidences  that parallel such statements as “Laban and his fifty.”

The full text of this article can be found at Deseret News online.

Brother Ash is author of the book Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One’s Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt, as well as the book, of Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting the Prophet Joseph Smith. Both books are available for purchase online through the FairMormon Bookstore. Tell your friends about the Mormon Fair-Cast. Share a link on your Facebook page and help increase the popularity of the Mormon Fair-Cast by subscribing to this podcast in iTunes, and by rating it and writing a review.

The views and opinions expressed in the podcast may not reflect those of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or that of FairMormon

 

Faith and Reason 11: Book of Mormon Politics Unlike Joseph Smith’s

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From the Book: Of Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting the Prophet Joseph Smith

by Michael R. Ash

In 1976, during America’s bicentennial, Latter-day Saint historian Dr. Richard Bushman was preparing a speech and turned to The Book of Mormon to find some quotes that would resonate with the principles in our Constitution. To his surprise, he found that besides some superficial similarities, The Book of Mormon did not reflect typical U.S. political thought. Instead, Bushman found that the Nephite scripture was “an anomaly on the political scene of 1830″. He continues, “Instead of heroically resisting despots, the people of God fled their oppressors and credited God alone with deliverance. Instead of enlightened people overthrowing their kings in defense of their natural rights, the common people repeatedly raised up kings, and the prophets and the kings themselves had to persuade the people of the inexpediency of monarchy”. According to Bushman, The Book of Mormon is “strangely distant from the time and place of its publication” but it’s political attitudes are at home when we compare it to the history of the Israelites.

Michael R. Ash is the author of: Of Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting The Prophet Joseph Smith. He is the owner and operator of MormonFortress.com and is on the management team for FairMormon. He has been published in Sunstone, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, the Maxwell Institute’s FARMS Review, and is the author of Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One’s Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt. He and his wife live in Ogden, Utah, and have three daughters.

Julianne Dehlin Hatton  is a broadcast journalist living in Louisville, Kentucky. She has worked as a News Director at an NPR affiliate, Radio and Television Host, and Airborne Traffic Reporter. She graduated with an MSSc from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University in 2008. Julianne and her husband Thomas are the parents of four children.

Music for Faith and Reason is provided by Arthur Hatton.

New Gospel Topics Essay: “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham”

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Papyrus Joseph Smith I, containing the original illustration of facsimile 1 from the Book of Abraham.

Papyrus Joseph Smith I, containing the original illustration of facsimile 1 from the Book of Abraham.

A new essay has been posted on the Church’s Gospel Topics website, this time addressing the subject of the translation of the Book of Abraham. The article begins by affirming, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints embraces the book of Abraham as scripture.” What follows is an overview of what’s known about the translation and publication of the Book of Abraham, in addition to a look at the history of the Joseph Smith Papyri and evidences for the antiquity of the Book of Abraham. The essay is divided into a number of sections, including “The Book of Abraham as Scripture,” “Origin of the Book of Abraham,” “Translation and the Book of Abraham,” “The Papyri,” and “The Book of Abraham and the Ancient World.” Each section is devoted to addressing the different aspects of the controversy surrounding the Book of Abraham, which is complex and multi-faceted.

“The Book of Abraham as Scripture”

After an introduction to the subject as a whole, the essay points out the importance of the Book of Abraham as modern scripture. “Thousands of years ago, the prophet Nephi learned that one purpose of the Book of Mormon was to ‘establish the truth’ of the Bible. In a similar way, the book of Abraham supports, expands, and clarifies the biblical account of Abraham’s life.” Accordingly, we read in the Book of Abraham important details about the life of the great patriarch that augment and compliment the biblical account. This includes details about the life of Abraham, the Abrahamic covenant, the pre-mortal existence, and the creation. “Nowhere in the Bible is the purpose and potential of earth life stated so clearly as in the book of Abraham,” which makes the Book of Abraham such a valuable book of scripture.

“Origin of the Book of Abraham”

In this brief section the article explains the history of the coming forth of the Egyptian papyri that was eventually purchased by Joseph Smith and the Church in 1835.

“Translation and the Book of Abraham”

Besides noting simply the history of the translation of the Book of Abraham, the essay also explores possible methods of translation. “Joseph Smith worked on the translation of the book of Abraham during the summer and fall of 1835, by which time he completed at least the first chapter and part of the second chapter,” the essay observes. “His journal next speaks of translating the papyri in the spring of 1842, after the Saints had relocated to Nauvoo, Illinois. All five chapters of the book of Abraham, along with three illustrations (now known as facsimiles 1, 2, and 3), were published in the Times and Seasons, the Church’s newspaper in Nauvoo, between March and May 1842.” However, the essay takes care to note that “Joseph’s translations [of scriptural texts] took a variety of forms. Some of his translations, like that of the Book of Mormon, utilized ancient documents in his possession. Other times, his translations were not based on any known physical records. Joseph’s translation of portions of the Bible, for example, included restoration of original text, harmonization of contradictions within the Bible itself, and inspired commentary.” This is important to remember as one approaches the translation of the Book of Abraham, as it is not entirely clear precisely how Joseph translated or revealed the English text of the book. This is explored more fully in the next section.

“The Papyri”

The debate around the relationship between the Joseph Smith Papyri and the Book of Abraham text has proven extremely controversial. At one point it was thought that Joseph Smith’s entire collection of papyri perished in the Chicago fire of 1871. However, “Ten papyrus fragments once in Joseph Smith’s possession ended up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. In 1967, the museum transferred these fragments to the Church, which subsequently published them in the Church’s magazine, the Improvement Era.” The significance of this discovery is noted by the essay.

The discovery of the papyrus fragments renewed debate about Joseph Smith’s translation. The fragments included one vignette, or illustration, that appears in the book of Abraham as facsimile 1. Long before the fragments were published by the Church, some Egyptologists had said that Joseph Smith’s explanations of the various elements of these facsimiles did not match their own interpretations of these drawings. Joseph Smith had published the facsimiles as freestanding drawings, cut off from the hieroglyphs or hieratic characters that originally surrounded the vignettes. The discovery of the fragments meant that readers could now see the hieroglyphs and characters immediately surrounding the vignette that became facsimile 1. None of the characters on the papyrus fragments mentioned Abraham’s name or any of the events recorded in the book of Abraham. Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists agree that the characters on the fragments do not match the translation given in the book of Abraham, though there is not unanimity, even among non-Mormon scholars, about the proper interpretation of the vignettes on these fragments. Scholars have identified the papyrus fragments as parts of standard funerary texts that were deposited with mummified bodies. These fragments date to between the third century B.C.E. and the first century C.E., long after Abraham lived.

What does this mean for the Book of Abraham, or at least for understanding how Joseph Smith revealed or translated the text? The essay lists two possibilities.

It is likely futile to assess Joseph’s ability to translate papyri when we now have only a fraction of the papyri he had in his possession. Eyewitnesses spoke of “a long roll” or multiple “rolls” of papyrus. Since only fragments survive, it is likely that much of the papyri accessible to Joseph when he translated the book of Abraham is not among these fragments. The loss of a significant portion of the papyri means the relationship of the papyri to the published text cannot be settled conclusively by reference to the papyri. Alternatively, Joseph’s study of the papyri may have led to a revelation about key events and teachings in the life of Abraham, much as he had earlier received a revelation about the life of Moses while studying the Bible. This view assumes a broader definition of the words translator and translation. According to this view, Joseph’s translation was not a literal rendering of the papyri as a conventional translation would be. Rather, the physical artifacts provided an occasion for meditation, reflection, and revelation. They catalyzed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri.

These two theories or explanations are conventionally called the “missing papyrus theory” and the “catalyst theory,” respectively, and have been the two major theories put forth by scholars investigating the Book of Abraham. Each theory has its own evidence, but neither theory can account for all of the evidence, which is why it’s wise that the essay addressed both and why it’s important to keep an open mind when approaching this topic.

“The Book of Abraham and the Ancient World”

Here the essay enumerates evidences linking the Book of Abraham with the ancient world. “A careful study of the book of Abraham provides a better measure of the book’s merits than any hypothesis that treats the text as a conventional translation,” the essay explains. “Evidence suggests that elements of the book of Abraham fit comfortably in the ancient world and supports the claim that the book of Abraham is an authentic record.” This evidence includes the following:

1. The archaeological verification of the practice of human sacrifice in Egypt and Canaan during the time of Abraham and later.

2. The potential identification of “the plain of Olishem” (Abraham 1:10) with a cite in northwestern Syria.

3. Elements of Joseph Smith’s explanations of the facsimiles that find accord with ancient understandings.

4. Narrative details about the life of Abraham found in the Book of Abraham that are also found in other extra-biblical books from antiquity. This includes details of Abraham almost being sacrificed and Abraham teaching the Egyptians astronomy.

Additional evidence for the antiquity of the Book of Abraham not mentioned in the essay includes the astronomy and cosmology of the Book of Abraham fitting nicely in an ancient Near Eastern context (see here and here), in addition to other elements of Joseph Smith’s explanations of the facsimiles finding confirmation in the ancient world (see here and here).

The essay concludes with this reminder.

The veracity and value of the book of Abraham cannot be settled by scholarly debate concerning the book’s translation and historicity. The book’s status as scripture lies in the eternal truths it teaches and the powerful spirit it conveys. The book of Abraham imparts profound truths about the nature of God, His relationship to us as His children, and the purpose of this mortal life. The truth of the book of Abraham is ultimately found through careful study of its teachings, sincere prayer, and the confirmation of the Spirit.

There are several things in this essay that are useful from an apologetic perspective.

1. There is useful clarification of what Joseph Smith may have meant by the term “translation.” According to the essay,

The word translation typically assumes an expert knowledge of multiple languages. Joseph Smith claimed no expertise in any language. He readily acknowledged that he was one of the “weak things of the world,” called to speak words sent “from heaven.” Speaking of the translation of the Book of Mormon, the Lord said, “You cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.” The same principle can be applied to the book of Abraham. The Lord did not require Joseph Smith to have knowledge of Egyptian. By the gift and power of God, Joseph received knowledge about the life and teachings of Abraham.

This is reiterated later in the essay.

Joseph’s translations took a variety of forms. Some of his translations, like that of the Book of Mormon, utilized ancient documents in his possession. Other times, his translations were not based on any known physical records. Joseph’s translation of portions of the Bible, for example, included restoration of original text, harmonization of contradictions within the Bible itself, and inspired commentary.

2. The essay explains why one should be careful in assuming that the hieratic text surrounding the vignette in P. Joseph Smith I (the original illustration of facsimile 1) must be connected with the vignette. “Some have assumed that the hieroglyphs adjacent to and surrounding facsimile 1 must be a source for the text of the book of Abraham. But this claim rests on the assumption that a vignette and its adjacent text must be associated in meaning. In fact, it was not uncommon for ancient Egyptian vignettes to be placed some distance from their associated commentary.”

3. The essay provides an explanation for why the phrase “written by his own hand, upon papyrus” that appears along with the Book of Abraham isn’t necessarily problematic for its historicity, despite the papyri dating much later than Abraham. “Of course, the fragments do not have to be as old as Abraham for the book of Abraham and its illustrations to be authentic. Ancient records are often transmitted as copies or as copies of copies. The record of Abraham could have been edited or redacted by later writers much as the Book of Mormon prophet-historians Mormon and Moroni revised the writings of earlier peoples.” (For more on this topic, see my article on the Interpreter Foundation website here.)

(As an aside, I also find it significant that this essay cited material from both “classic FARMS” publications, such as Hugh Nibley’s The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, as well as Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture. This would seem to indicate, I believe, that the claim, made by some, that the Church is trying to distance itself from these materials should be accepted with a bit of skepticism.)

In addition to the essay from Gospel Topics, the following video (“A Most Remarkable Book: Evidence for the Divine Authenticity of the Book of Abraham”) produced by FairMormon may be helpful to those with additional questions about this subject.