Category Archives: Book of Abraham

Book Review: A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine & Church History

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Available from the FairMormon bookstore at 20% off

Available from the FairMormon bookstore at 20% off

In the prologue of A Reason for Faith, the editor, Laura Hales, lays out the purpose of the book. Members of the church sometimes come across new information in an unfriendly setting that damages their faith. This book is a compilation of articles about many of the topics that are not often discussed in a church or family setting, and can be difficult to understand. They are laid out by scholars in an honest but faithful manner, and while they can’t possibly cover the topics completely in the amount of space given, they are meant to be a springboard for further study where necessary.

The first chapter is by Richard Bushman, on “Joseph Smith and Money Digging.” He recounts the history of scholarship in this area, where it was originally denied by those inside the church due to being based on accounts thought to be unreliable published by critics of the church. As he began his own research, he found evidence that convinced him that Joseph was indeed involved with folk magic and seer stones, and that these things were too common in the 19th century to invalidate Joseph’s prophetic claims or be scandalous. Continue reading

Book Review: Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World

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Available from the FairMormon Bookstore at 15% off

Available from the FairMormon Bookstore at 15% off

This book is from the 2013 BYU Church History Symposium, held March 7–8, 2013. The Church History Symposium is a nearly annual (there apparently wasn’t one held in 2015) event that draws speakers from places such as Brigham Young University, other universities, the LDS Church History Department, and often LDS general authorities as well. The book contains many of the papers that were presented, but unfortunately there are a few missing, such as Steven C. Harper’s presentation on masonry. However, that and most of the other papers that were given (including all but one that is in the book) are available to view here, although the video presentations are generally abbreviated versions of what is in the book.

The conference spanned two days. The first day was held at BYU and the second was at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City. I was only able to attend the first day, which is one of the reasons I was interested in this book. The keynote address was given by Richard L. Bushman, and it was very crowded, which left many of us without seats until after he was done (apparently there were many students that had come just to hear Bushman).

The preface of the book states that the theme for the conference came out of a professional development training trip taken by new faculty from the BYU departments of Ancient Scripture and Church History and Doctrine to church history sites in Palmyra, Kirtland, and Nauvoo. As they visited these sites, they “were impressed as the extraordinary range of Joseph’s encounters with antiquity became increasingly apparent” (page xiii) and “deeper reflection upon these issues convinced us that there was an important, dynamic, and under-explored relationship between Joseph Smith’s personal interactions with ancient material and many of his unfolding revelations” (page xiv). Continue reading

Faith and Reason 67: More Book of Abraham Evidences

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An Angel Saves Abraham, by Del Parson.

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

By Michael R. Ash

Non-LDS Near Eastern scholar David Noel Freedman said that he had never encountered an Abraham account where the patriarch himself was threatened with sacrifice until he saw the claim in the Book of Abraham. Upon further reflection he acknowledged that a similar tradition existed in an ancient Abrahamic document, but an English translation was not available until the 1890’s.  What are the chances that Joseph Smith could have gotten so many things right by mere guesswork?

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 has worked as a News Director at an NPR affiliate, Television Host, News Anchor, 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.

Admission and Omission: What Is the Church’s Position on the Book of Abraham?

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“Printing Plates of Facsimiles of Papyrus Drawings, Nauvoo, IL, early 1842” (http://josephsmithpapers.org)

[This post originally appeared at Ploni Almoni.]

In his March 2015 letter to the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints appealing his excommunication, John Dehlin claims there has been a “recent admission” on the part of the Church “that the Book of Abraham is not a translation of the Egyptian papyrus, as Joseph Smith claimed that it was.” Dehlin quotes the Church’s 2014 Gospel Topics essay “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham” to wit:

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.

Dehlin raises this point again later in his letter. One of the many “disturbing facts” he “stumbled upon” in his studies is that “by the LDS Church’s own admission, the Book of Abraham is not a translation of the Egyptian papyrus.” This, among other things, Dehlin says, was “deeply disturbing and destabilizing for [him].”

Dehlin’s allies Nadine R. Hansen and Kate Kelly also raise this point in the same letter. “The Church’s own essays openly and truthfully acknowledge this difficulty,” they write, “by stating, ‘None of the characters on the papyrus fragments mentioned Abraham’s name or any of the events recorded in the book of Abraham.'” Consequently, “While the Church may continue to maintain that the Book of Abraham is inspired, canonical writing, but it must do so while acknowledging that Joseph Smith’s early statement that it is Abraham’s writings, ‘by his own hand upon the papyrus,’ is not factbased.” (On this last point, see my article here.)

These authors are not alone in claiming the Church has made this “recent admission” about the Book of Abraham. Jeremy Runnells, in his anti-Mormon screed known conventionally as the CES Letter, remarks, “The Church conceded in its July 2014 Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham essay that Joseph’s translations of the papyri and the facsimiles do not match what’s in the Book of Abraham.”

With these statements from Dehlin and Runnells in mind, let’s take a closer look at what the Gospel Topics essay actually says about the Book of Abraham.

I. The nature of the surviving papyri fragments. On this matter, the Gospel Topics essay matter-of-factly states that the surviving papyri fragments do not contain the Book of Abraham. “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.” However, this is by no means a “recent” admission or concession by the Church. In fact, what these authors fail to inform their readers is that the Church immediately identified the Joseph Smith Papyri fragments as copies of funerary texts when it received them from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1967. In the January 1968 issue of the Improvement Era, the Church identified the recovered fragments as “conventional . . . Egyptian funerary texts, which were commonly buried with Egyptian mummies.” The Church has reaffirmed this simple fact in subsequent publications.

  • “Mormon Media” (1975): “Brother Nibley marshals a considerable array of talents in fulfilling the second and major purpose of the book, which is to discuss the meaning of the Joseph Smith papyri. Identifying Joseph Smith Papyri X and XI with the Egyptian Book of Breathings becomes a point of departure for Brother Nibley, rather than, as with other scholars, a final pronouncement.”
  • “I Have a Question” (1976): “Q: Are the three facsimiles related to each other? A: Definitely, by all being attached to one and the same document, namely, the Joseph Smith Papyri X and XI, which contain a text of the Egyptian Book of Breathings. Facsimile No. 1 is followed immediately on its left-hand margin by Joseph Smith Papyrus XI, which begins the Book of Breathings. Someone cut them apart, but the fibre edges of their two margins still match neatly. Facsimile No. 1 thus serves as a sort of frontispiece.”
  • “I Have a Question” (1988): “[Facsimile 1] can be connected with several of the other papyri fragments that relate to the text of an ancient Egyptian religious document known as the “Book of Sensen” or “Book of Breathings.”. . .  [F]rom paleographic and historical considerations, the Book of Breathings papyrus can reliably be dated to around A.D. 60—much too late for Abraham to have written it. Of course, it could be a copy—or a copy of a copy—of the original written by Abraham. However, a second problem arises when one compares the text of the book of Abraham with a translation of the Book of Breathings; they clearly are not the same.”
  • “Book of Abraham: Facsimiles From the Book of Abraham” (1992): “Only for Facsimile 1 is the original document known to be extant. Comparisons of the papyrus fragments as well as the hieroglyphic text accompanying this drawing demonstrate that it formed a part of an Egyptian religious text known as the Book of Breathings. Based on paleographic and historical evidence, this text can be reliably dated to about the first century A.D. Since reference is made to this illustration in the book of Abraham (Abr. 1:12), many have concluded that the Book of Breathings must be the text that the Prophet Joseph Smith used in his translation. Because the Book of Breathings is clearly not the book of Abraham, critics claim this is conclusive evidence that Joseph Smith was unable to translate the ancient documents.”
  • “News From Antiquity” (1994): “[Critics of the Church] point to the fragments of the Joseph Smith papyri that we now possess and claim that since the contents of these papyri bear little obvious relationship to the book of Abraham, the book is a fraud.”
  • Church History In The Fulness Of Times Student Manual (2003): “In 1967 eleven fragments of the Joseph Smith papyri were rediscovered by Doctor Aziz S. Atiya, in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. Studies of them have confirmed that they are mainly ancient Egyptian funerary texts of the sort commonly buried with royalty and nobility and designed to guide them through their eternal journeyings. This has renewed the question about the connection between the records and the book of Abraham.”

One might quibble here or there with the wording of these passages. For example, the Pearl of Great Price Student Manual mentions the late date of the papyri, but doesn’t explicitly mention that the papyri are fragments from the Book of Breathings and the Book of the Dead. Nevertheless, when these sources are combined, the basic point cannot be negated: the Church has straightforwardly taught that the surviving papyri fragments do not contain the Book of Abraham, but instead contain late copies of Egyptian funerary texts. Dehlin and Runnells are misleading their readers by claiming this “admission” is recent, or has just now been recognized by the Church in the 2014 Gospel Topics essay. In fact, the Church has acknowledged this fact since at least 1968.

II. On why the Book of Abraham is not contained in the surviving papyri. Dehlin and Runnells both conspicuously fail to alert their readers to the part of the Gospel Topics essay on the Book of Abraham that explicitly addresses reasons why the Book of Abraham text was not recovered in the surviving papyri fragments. The essay clearly identifies at least two potential reasons. “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,” the essay notes. “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.” In other words, the essay clearly recognizes the so-called “missing papyrus theory” as a possible explanation for why the surviving fragments don’t match the Book of Abraham.

The essay also mentions the so-called “catalyst theory” for the Book of Abraham as another possible explanation.

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.

From this we see that Dehlin and Runnels have misled their readers by selectively presenting what the Gospel Topics essay claims about the relationship between the papyri and the Book of Abraham.

III. What about Elder Holland’s BBC Interview? Although not explicitly mentioned by Dehlin in his letter to the First Presidency (although it is mentioned and, not surprisingly, distorted by Runnells), it is worth quickly looking at Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s remarks on the Book of Abraham made in a 2012 interview with BBC reporter John Sweeney. When Sweeney pressed Elder Holland on the matter of the translation of the Book of Abraham, Elder Holland responded, “[W]hat got translated got translated into the word of God; the vehicle for that I do not understand.” What does this statement reveal? First, notice carefully that Elder Holland calls the Book of Abraham a “translation.” He also calls it the “word of God.” So Elder Holland, it appears, both accepts the Book of Abraham as an authentic “translation” and as inspired scripture. Second, notice that Elder Holland simply remarks that he doesn’t know the mechanism (“vehicle”) of the translation of the Book of Abraham. In other words, he doesn’t know precisely how the translation was performed. This is different from how Runnells and others have characterized Elder Holland’s remarks. Due to some obviously heavy editing of the original footage into what became the broadcasted program, it is impossible to know precisely what, if anything, Elder Holland said in addition by way of clarification. Notwithstanding, at the risk of speaking on behalf of Elder Holland, I believe it is safe to assume that he merely meant he didn’t know the precise nature of the translation (e.g. “missing papyrus,” “catalyst,” or something else), and wasn’t obfuscating in some way about the Church’s position.

IV. The Facsimiles. Dehlin and Runnells also omit the Gospel Topics essay’s comments on the interpretation of the facsimiles. The essay explains,

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. Moreover, documents initially composed for one context can be repackaged for another context or purpose. Illustrations once connected with Abraham could have either drifted or been dislodged from their original context and reinterpreted hundreds of years later in terms of burial practices in a later period of Egyptian history. The opposite could also be true: illustrations with no clear connection to Abraham anciently could, by revelation, shed light on the life and teachings of this prophetic figure.

The essay therefore provides an explanation for why images illustrating the Book of Abraham could’ve ended up attached to an Egyptian funerary text, and why there is otherwise disjunction between Joseph Smith’s interpretation of the facsimiles and Egyptologists’ interpretations. In fact, the essay goes on to further explain, “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.” Thus, in order to fully appreciate the Church’s explanation of the facsimiles, one needs to keep this commentary in mind. To omit it is to ultimately distort a critical aspect of the Church’s apologia for the Book of Abraham.

V. The 2013 edition of the Pearl of Great Price. Before concluding, it is worth highlighting the changes made to the 2013 edition of the Pearl of Great Price. The pre-2013 edition of the Pearl of Great Price identified the text as “[a] translation from some Egyptian papyri that came into the hands of Joseph Smith in 1835, containing writings of the patriarch Abraham.” By comparison, the 2013 edition characterizes the Book of Abraham as “an inspired translation of the writings of Abraham. Joseph Smith began the translation in 1835 after obtaining some Egyptian papyri.” Some have argued that this is another admission by the Church that the Book of Abraham isn’t really a translation. This seems unlikely, however, since the 2013 edition still retains the (slightly modified) header that has accompanied the Book of Abraham since its 1842 publication: “A Translation of some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt. The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus.” If the Church really was ceding ground on the Book of Abraham as a translation, one has to wonder why they left in this rather explicate superscript to the text.

Another overlooked change in the 2013 edition of the Pearl of Great Price comes at the beginning of the introductory page. The pre-2013 edition explains that “[t]hese items [i.e. the contents of the Pearl of Great Price] were produced by the Prophet Joseph Smith and were published in the Church periodicals of his day.” The 2013 edition, however, reads, “These items were translated and produced by the Prophet Joseph Smith, and most were published in the Church periodicals of his day.” Notice here the word “translated” was deliberately added in reference to the materials found in the Pearl of Great Price, which would presumably include the Book of Abraham. Thus, far from backing away from the Book of Abraham as being a translation of some sort, the Church, it could be argued, has in recent years actually reinforced an understanding of the Book of Abraham as a “translation.” The new edition of the Pearl of Great Price simply affirms that the Book of Abraham is an “inspired translation of the writings of Abraham,” while omitting details of the exact process, which remains up for debate.

In conclusion, one would do well to eschew the mishandled and misleading presentations of the Church’s position on the Book of Abraham offered by Dehlin and Runnells. The 2014 Gospel Topics essay hasn’t “conceded” or “admitted” anything about the Book of Abraham. The contents of the essay have, by and large, been circulating in both Church materials and other Mormon publications for decades. On the other hand, Dehlin and Runnells have omitted important material that helps us better understand this remarkable scriptural work.

Interpreting the Abraham Facsimiles

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Abraham

By Kerry Muhlestein

Many people often ask about how Joseph Smith’s explanations of the Facsimiles compares to those of Egyptologists. This is a question worth asking. As with all things regarding history, symbolism, and interpretations, those who want a simple answer will find themselves unsatisfied with an accurate answer. Sadly, many times people opt for simple answers in order to avoid the messy, complicated situations of which history is made. Here we will not delve into all the complexities, but we will at least consider enough factors to answer the question accurately.

First, we must be clear that we do not know for sure that Joseph Smith authored the explanations of the facsimiles that were printed in the Times and Seasons, (on the acquisition of the papyri and publication of the Book of Abraham, see column 2,) which eventually became part of the Pearl of Great Price. While we do not know if Joseph Smith is the original author of these interpretations, we know he participated in preparing the published interpretations and gave editorial approval to them.

To continue reading this article, please visit the Meridian Magazine website.

How Joseph Smith Translated the Book of Abraham

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photo1

By Kerry Muhlestein

For most people, the idea of translating is fairly straightforward. Conventionally, when someone translates, he reads a document in one language he understands and renders it into another language he understands. The difficulty in assessing the Book of Abraham is that while Joseph Smith says he translated the Book of Abraham from papyrus, he never uses that word in the conventional way. It will be helpful to first look at the other ways Joseph Smith used the word “translate.”

Joseph Smith’s first translation project was the Book of Mormon. It was written in a language he clearly did not know. He never claimed to understand the language it was written in. Instead, he said he was given the ability to translate by the gift and power of God. We don’t know a lot about the Book of Mormon translation process. We know that the Prophet used the seer stones we call the Urim and Thummim, as well as another seer stone he often used. While we cannot nail down the exact details, it seems he often was not looking at the gold plates at all during much of this process. What we can be sure of is that Joseph Smith provided us with a translation of a language he did not know, frequently without referring to the physical text he had. His translation came from God.

To read this article in its entirety, please visit the Meridian Magazine website.

Faulty Assumptions about the Book of Abraham

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Abraham

[Written by Kerry Muhlestein]

As was mentioned in the last column (link to column here), it was almost universally assumed that all of the papyri Joseph Smith had once owned had been destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Thus many were surprised when the papyri surfaced in 1967. One of the papyri fragments contained the drawing which was the original source of Facsimile One. This papyrus drew the most immediate interest.[i]

Part of the reason this fragment drew so much attention was because of the possibilities it suggested. It seemed that perhaps we could now test Joseph Smith’s revelatory abilities. Many members of the LDS Church assumed that the text on the papyri which surrounded the original of Facsimile One was the source of the Book of Abraham.

This may give them to chance to demonstrate Joseph Smith’s prophetic abilities. Anti-Mormons also assumed that the text adjacent to that drawing was the source of the Book of Abraham and were excited about the opportunity to disprove Joseph Smith’s prophetic abilities.[ii] Sadly, neither of these groups took the time to carefully and rigorously examine their assumptions. Thus, when the text was translated and we learned that it was a fairly common Egyptian funerary document called the Book of Breathings, many felt that they could now demonstrate that Joseph Smith was not an inspired translator.

[To continue reading this article, please visit the Meridian Magazine website by following this link.]

How we got 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.

[This article was written by Kerry Muhlestein and originally posted at Meridian Magazine. An excerpt is reposted here with permission.]

When Napoleon invaded Egypt he opened it up to a wave of Western exploration that the country had never known. Soon after his defeat there, many European countries sent consuls to Egypt with one major goal: bring back amazing antiquities—and that is exactly what they did.

The man who oversaw Egypt on behalf of the Ottoman Empire, Mohammed Ali, was eager to seek Western European help in modernizing his country. He, and most Muslims of the time, also viewed the ancient Egyptian monuments as relics of abominable paganism. So he was happy to trade monuments for modernization, and a flood of artifacts flowed from Egypt into European museums, creating the foundation for some of the greatest museums of the world, such as the British Museum, the Louvre, and the Berlin Museum.[i] In one of the most interesting twists of history, this movement of artifacts would bring the Book of Abraham to Joseph Smith.

Many people have questions about the Book of Abraham. It is an interesting, yet complex subject.[ii] In order to help people find answers to these questions, I will write a series of columns, each addressing a separate subject. In these essays I will attempt to be fully forthcoming and transparent, honestly talking about the answers we have, the mistakes we have made, the incorrect assumptions people have long believed, and the answers we don’t have.

This first column will only be a history of the papyri. Other subjects, such as the source of the Book of Abraham, the interpretations of the Facsimiles, the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, etc., will follow in future columns. These columns will not be heavily footnoted. They are instead designed to be read quickly by the lay reader, the honest seeker for truth, and to have just enough notes to point people who want more to places where they can read further. The story is interesting and complex enough to fill more than one volume of books, but here we give a more condensed version.[iii]

[To continue reading this article, please visit the Meridian Magazine website link above.]

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.

Articles of Faith 5: Kevin Christensen on Inevitable Consequences of the Different Investigative Approaches of Jeremy Runnells and Jeff Lindsay

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kevin-christensenKevin Christensen has been a technical writer since 1984, He has a Bachelors in English from San Jose State University.  He has published articles in Dialogue, Sunstone, the FARMS Review of Books, the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Insights, the Meridian Magazine, including his article in the Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture entitled Eye of the Beholder, Law of the Harvest: Observations on the Inevitable Consequences of the Different Investigative Approaches of Jeremy Runnells and Jeff Lindsay. Kevin comes to us today by phone to discuss that article. (The article is not yet public-visit The Interpreter website to find the text when available.)

Some questions from the interview:

Some of your prior articles for the Interpreter have been dealing with Temple Mysticism and temple theology with an emphasis on the works of Margret Barker, a Methodist who seems to be making her way into the minds of some LDS scholars. This article that you have coming out in the Interpreter has very little if anything to do with such a topic; what brought about the shift in topic?

The title of the article is perhaps a bit verbose so I guess it serves as both the abstract and the title, it is Eye of the Beholder, Law of the Harvest: Observations on the Inevitable Consequences of the Different Investigative Approaches of Jeremy Runnells and Jeff Lindsay. Without knowing the two individuals Jeremy Runnels and Jeff Lindsay the article might be of a diminished value. Why don’t you give a summary of who these two men are and why they are the subjects or case studies of your article?

In a recent devotional at BYU Idaho, Elder D. Todd Christoferson invited the audience to have patience when doing investigation of the history of the church, and its teachings. In some ways it seems as if the subtext of that statement is that if you stop half way you will inevitably find yourself in a faith crisis. The only way to a faithful conclusion is to be diligent in learning by study and by faith. You insert a theory on just such a thing with your article, what is that hypothesis?

You put on a sort of spiritual doctor or maybe even a spiritual mathematician kind of hat as you write this article. I won’t call it an autopsy or audit of Jeremy Runnells spiritual journey, but rather an analysis or a diagnosis of how one comes to negative conclusions about the LDS faith. There is even an equation that you employ to describe this process, can you explain those two, let’s call them, equations?

I want to read a paragraph from your article as an introduction to my next question: “The familiar fable of Henny Penny (also known as Chicken Little) makes a related point. In the fable, a chicken interprets the fall of an acorn as evidence that “The sky is falling!” Another interpretation of exactly the same event would be that “The sky is not falling, but just an acorn. No big deal. No crisis. Acorns fall from oak trees all the time. It’s natural and to be expected.” Another character in the more cautionary versions of the fable, Foxy Loxy, sees not a crisis, or a non-event, but an opportunity to exploit fear and ignorance for his own gain. Same data. Different interpretation. The information does not speak for itself, but must be interpreted within an informational context and a conceptual framework.” This echo’s your title, the Eye of the Beholder. How we see things greatly informs our decisions. This is perhaps not that new a concept for some, but what is happening in the subtext of that statement is putting the onus on one’s spirituality and the way they take their spiritual path is their own fault. In other words Chicken Little’s interpretation of the sky falling is not the acorns fault. Nor is it the tree’s fault. These things just happen naturally. How them does this play into viewing the Jeremy Runnels of the world? For that matter, the Jeff Lindsay’s as well?

You pose the question or the situation, “what are we to do with the issue of perfection, meaning perfection of translation, etc.” That was an opening critique of the CES Letter, and that ends up being a pivotal start in determining Runnells mindset. How so?

When it comes to some of the arguments against latter-day Saint teachings, there is often a complaint about a given topic, such as prophets, but rarely offers an alternative definition. It is not so much that these individuals think that they are right, but that others are wrong.

You continue to go down the row, not necessarily point by point, but you do give some feedback on the faults of the Runnels argument. We don’t need to go into details about each one, but perhaps you could give a listing of some of the other topics that you address in Runnells argument.

You have a phrase in this article that is mentioned with respect to concerns that are raised about scientific issues, here is the quote, “I learned long ago to pay as much attention to the networks of assumptions involved as to the observations which are then fitted into that network.” Expand on that for a minute if you could.

I want to give an encapsulated example of the many issues you address and how you address them. So, I wanted to take on an issue that I am becoming more and more confused by, and that is the issues surrounding the Book of Abraham as a Smoking Gun argument. Let’s consider for a moment that I know nothing of this issue, take me from the beginning of this segment of the article and walk me through how you approach it. You start off by giving Runnell’s claims, “Of all of the issues, the Book of Abraham is the issue that has both fascinated and disturbed me the most. It is the issue that I’ve spent the most time researching on because it offers a real insight into Joseph’s modus operandi as well as Joseph’s claim of being a translator. It is the smoking gun that has completely obliterated my testimony of Joseph Smith and his claims.” That is a heavy indictment indeed. But why is this statement in and of itself quite telling as to what has gone into his research?

There is so much that this over 30 page article goes into, but the end goal of the article is to raise the question, “Why is it that when Jeff Lindsay studied these issues does his faith expand, and Runnells faith shatter? How can two individuals study the same issues and come to complete opposite conclusions?

If you could give one or two pieces of advice for the individual who is approaching various gospel subjects and is facing the junction of heading towards the Runnells conclusion or the Lindsay conclusions? Why is your approach the best approach?