The Book of Abraham

I chose the Book of Abraham as my first post because I believe it most clearly illustrates how divergent belief paths can be taken when confronting a difficult issue in Mormonism. I will present as many resources as possible to illustrate literal belief, non-literal belief, and non-belief. Just remember, however, that a person doesn’t need to fit neatly into just one category of belief.

Before you begin reading, may I encourage you to do two things? First, read the entire Book of Abraham from start to finish and study the included facsimiles and the interpretations given. Second, you may wish to view this short video which gives a good overview of the papyri that Joseph Smith purchased, what happened to it, and what explanations are given for the translations we now have in the Book of Abraham.

LITERAL BELIEF:

Gospel Topics essay on lds.org.

https://www.lds.org/topics/translation-and-historicity-of-the-book-of-abraham?lang=eng

This essay, like all the other Gospel Topic essays is the result of committee work. Once completed these essays are signed off by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. I know for certain that the main contributors to this essay were Kerry Muhlestein and John Gee, both LDS Egyptologists, and BYU professor/Maxwell Institute chair, Brian Hauglid who also holds a PhD and is considered an expert on the Book of Abraham. I know there were others as well. From my understanding, it was Jed Woodworth- who served as the editor for Richard Bushman’s “Rough Stone Rolling”- who was actually tasked with putting the essay down on paper since there was enough disagreement between the participants that no one individual felt comfortable serving as the main author. In reading the final result, the multiple authorship styles are very apparent.

The LDS church accepts the Book of Abraham, contained in the Pearl of Great Price, as canonized scripture. The heading to The Book of Abraham states that the papyrus was actually written on by Abraham himself:

“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.”

Joseph Smith stated quite clearly that he was translating the actual hieroglyphic characters on the papyri and it was revealed to Joseph that he had the writings of Abraham and Joseph:

“… with W. W. Phelps and Oliver Cowdery as scribes, I commenced the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics, and much to our joy found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham, another the writings of Joseph of Egypt, etc. – a more full account of which will appear in its place, as I proceed to examine or unfold them. Truly we can say, the Lord is beginning to reveal the abundance of peace and truth.” (History of the Church, Vol. 2, p. 236).

“On the 3d of July Michael H. Chandler came to Kirtland to exhibit some Egyptian mummies. There were four human figures, together with some two or more rolls of papyrus covered with hieroglyphic figures and devices. As Mr. Chandler had been told I could translate them, he brought me some of the characters, and I gave him the interpretation, and like a gentleman he gave me the following certificate: (Joseph Smith)

“This is to make known to all who may be desirous, concerning the knowledge of Mr. Joseph Smith, jun., in deciphering the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic characters in my possession, which I have, in many eminent cities, showed to the most learned; and, from the information that I could ever learn, or meet with, I find that of Mr. Joseph Smith, jun., to correspond in the most minute matters.”- Michael Chandler (History of the Church 2:235, July 3-6 1835

“The remainder of this month, I [Joseph Smith] was continually engaged in translating an alphabet to The Book of Abraham, and arranging a grammar of the Egyptian language as practiced by the ancients.”- History of the Church 2:238, July 1835

“The prophet took [the scrolls] and repaired to his room and inquired of the Lord concerning them. The Lord told him they were sacred records, containing the inspired writings of Abraham when he was in Egypt, and also those of Joseph, while he was in Egypt…” – Orson Pratt, 25 Aug. 1878, Journal of Discourses, 26 vols.

The Doctrine and Covenants specifically states that the head of the church is given the gift from God of being a translator. According to Orson Pratt, this distinguishes the LDS church from all other denominations.

Behold, here is wisdom; yea, to be a seer, a revelator, a translator, and a prophet, having all the gifts of God which he bestows upon the head of the church. D&C 107:92

“The Prophet translated the part of these writings which, as I have said is contained in the Pearl of Great Price, and known as the Book of Abraham. Thus you see one of the first gifts bestowed by the Lord for the benefit of His people, was that of revelation—the gift to translate, by the aid of the Urim and Thummim, the gift of bringing to light old and ancient records. Have any of the other denominations got this gift among them? Go and inquire through all of Christendom and do not miss one denomination. Go and ask the oldest Christian associations that are extant; go to Italy, headquarters, and ask the man that holds the greatest power and authority in the Romish Church, “Can you translate ancient records written in a language that is lost to the knowledge of man?” “No,” he would say, “we cannot, it is out of my power to do it.” …”– Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses , Volume 20, P. 65

During the translation process, Joseph’s and his scribes, W.W. Phelps and Warren Parrish, created a notebook of “Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar.” These are found in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers. This book shows Egyptian characters in the left column with explanations in English to the right. One single character was often “translated” into multiple English sentences. Here is a picture of how the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar corresponds with the papyri.

Egyptian Alphabet & Grammar

LDS author William E. Berrett describes Joseph’s accomplishment this way:

“Joseph Smith had been unable to translate the Book of Mormon without divine aid. That divine help was given. But Joseph did not expect the Lord to forever aid him in understanding ancient languages. He could learn many of these for himself and he set about to do so. He began a study of Egyptian, Hebrew and Greek to enable him to better understand the Bible and ancient documents concerning God’s people. This study continued at intervals until his death. His most notable achievement was the development at Kirtland of a grammar for the Egyptian hieroglyphic form of writing. This was used by him, as well as divine aid, in translating ancient writings of the Patriarch Abraham, now published as the Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price.This grammar was never published, and was perhaps never used by any one other than the Prophet. It was, however, the first Egyptian grammar in America and was developed entirely independent of Champollion’s Egyptian Grammar.”- “The Restored Church”

William E. Berrett was an editor for the Church Educational System (CES) and his book, “The Restored Church,” went through at least 16 different publications. The Department of Education for the church requested him  to write this book, for use as a text in the senior seminaries and schools of the L. D. S. Church.

What do most LDS church members believe about The Book of Abraham? See video below starting at 45:07.

It is a well accepted fact that Joseph’s “Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar,” bears no resemblance to the actual meaning of the characters on the papyri. LDS Egyptologist Kerry Muhlestein (one of the main contributors to the Gospel Topics essay) agrees as well and while conceding that not much is known about Joseph’s motivation, attempts to give his best guess as to why he created this grammar system.

Perhaps we just need to adjust our definition of the word “translation.” There are other examples of Joseph “translating” where Joseph was in reality just receiving inspiration.

Perhaps what Joseph Smith “translated” into what we now know as The Book of Abraham, was from a portion of the papyrus that was burned in the museum fire. This is called the Missing Papyri theory.

“Critics have long attempted to make a case against the book of Abraham. They argue that some ancient texts do not support the book. They 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; but Hugh Nibley has made an exhaustive study of these claims and has shown that the papyri we now have were probably not the ones from which Joseph Smith translated the book of Abraham. 29 And recent research into ancient texts continues to give firm support for what the Spirit has whispered for over a century and a half—that the book of Abraham is authentic.

Most of us have stared wide-eyed at the fascinating pictures in the book of Abraham and have read with awe this translation by the Prophet Joseph Smith of a record of people and events far distant in time. In addition to the strong testimony of the Spirit, there is now scholarly evidence that these scriptures truly convey ancient teachings about eternity and accurately reflect the antiquity from which they came.” LDS.org article “News from Antiquity”- Daniel Peterson- January 1994

“To the disappointment of many, while these remaining fragments contained the original drawing for facsimile 1, they were not the portion of the papyri that contained the text of the Book of Abraham.”“A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri”- John Gee LDS Egyptologist

Most critics and non LDS egyptologists agree that Fascimile one does NOT depict Abraham lying on an altar, ready to be sacrificed. But there are some LDS Egyptologists and apologists that do not dismiss this so quickly. As you can see from the picture below, there are missing portions of the papyri where markings were drawn in to depict the head of a priest, a knife held by the priest, and the hands of Abraham (two hands reaching up instead of one).

Book of Abraham Missing Parts Facsimile 1

Here is an explanation given by Kerry Muhlestein on Facsimile 1:

What about the other Facsimiles? Did Joseph Smith translate ANY of the symbols correctly? According to Kerry Muhlestein, he had a few dead-center bullseyes.

“…Moreover, the Prophet’s explanations of each of the facsimiles accord with present understanding of Egyptian religious practices.”- LDS Egyptologist Michael Rhodes- Encyclopedia of Mormonism

Kerry Muhlestein on his qualifications as an Egyptologist:

Does Historicity Matter?

“The default assumption of non-LDS is that the unique LDS scripture in the Pearl of Great Price and the Book of Mormon are ahistorical.  That is, they do not describe actual historical people, places and events.  There never was a Nephi or a Moroni, and Jesus certainly didn’t visit the Lehites in the New World.  Abraham, if he existed, did not do or write the things attributed to him in the Book of Abraham.  Rejection of the historicity of LDS scripture is universally held by those who reject the authenticity of the LDS Church.

Likewise the default assumption of the vast majority of LDS is in the historicity of LDS scripture.  The contents of the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham–even if recorded, edited and transmitted by fallible humans–are commemorations of real people, places and events.  The resurrected Jesus really did visit the descendants of Lehi in the New World.  The Book of Mormon is not a parable, nor inspired fiction; it is history.

In the past half century, largely in response to secularizing indoctrination in graduate schools, a handful of LDS scholars have put for the claim that LDS scripture can be “inspired fiction.”   That is, they reject the historicity of LDS scripture, but maintain that “fiction can be inspired.”  (This is nothing new; it seems that each generation of scholars must undergo this trial by fire.)

I believe this position is an untenable position entailing both an equivocation and an obfuscation.  It is an equivocation because of shifting the meaning of the world “inspired.”  It is an obfuscation because it obscures the universally agreed reality that some fiction can be inspired (e.g. Jesus’ parables, and the Allegory of the Olive Tree in the Book of Mormon).  The real question, perpetually sidestepped by the ahistoricists, is: is all scripture only fiction?  The claim that Jesus told a fictional parable about the good Samaritan is quite a different matter than the claim that the apostles told a fictional parable about Jesus’ resurrection.

Thus we have three different positions:

1- Non-LDS = LDS scripture is not historical and not inspired

2- Liberal LDS = LDS scripture is not historical, but is “inspired” (in some broader sense of the term)

3- LDS = LDS scripture is historical and is inspired.

It is worth noting is that the liberal LDS position is held by only a miniscule fraction of all people, either LDS and non-LDS.  The vast majority of people who reject the historicity of LDS scripture also reject the authenticity of the Restoration.  The vast majority of people who accept the authenticity of the Restoration also accept the historicity of LDS scripture.  Those few–very, very few–in the middle are trying to have their imaginary cake and eat it too.  (Something that is possible only with imaginary cake, by the way.)  I believe the inspired fiction theory is ultimately untenable and incoherent.  The position contains too many internal contradictions; those who profess it in a self-reflective manner will inevitably be forced to conclude that the Restoration is not authentic, and indeed, that the claims of Joseph Smith himself are ahistorical.

So let me end with a little question.  If there was no historical Melchizedek, and he did not have the priesthood of God, how are LDS claims to have a restoration of the Melchizedek priesthood any different from a claim to have the priesthood of Yoda, or the priesthood of Gandalf?  How is an inspired fictional priesthood different from no priesthood at all?”- “History as Dividing Line”- BYU Professor William Hamblin- July 2014

Additional resources:

FAIRMORMON.org- Book of Abraham

Michael Rhodes- LDS Egyptologist- 3 part YouTube series

Michael Ash and Kevin Barney- ABC’s of The Book of Abraham- 6 part YouTube series

John Gee- LDS Egyptologist- A guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri

The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment- Hugh Nibley

“And I Saw the Stars”- The Book of Abraham and Ancient Geocentric Astronomy- John Gee, William J. Hamblin, and Daniel C. Peterson

Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant- 1999 Book of Abraham conference

“Thoughts on the Book of Abraham”- Brian Hauglid

“A Textual History of the Book of Abraham”- Brian Hauglid

Introduction to the Book of Abraham Manuscripts- Joseph Smith Papers

Introduction to Egyptian Material- Joseph Smith Papers

High Quality digital images of the existing papyri- Joseph Smith Papers

Bill Hamblin- If not a literal translation, it’s a fraud

FairMormon Podcast on The Book of Abraham

FairMormon DVD advertisement for Book of Abraham authenticity

Comprehensive Bibliography on Book of Abraham literature

Improvement Era article 1968 detailing the discovery of the papyri from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

NON-LITERAL BELIEF:

There are many active, faithful members of the LDS church who fully concede that Joseph Smith really had no idea what he was actually translating and that the papyri that were found with the mummies were indeed just common funerary texts which can be translated easily by Egyptologists and they have no correlation whatsoever to Abraham. In spite of these concessions, these faithful members consider Joseph Smith a prophet and accept The Book of Abraham as divine scripture.

Some believe that the papyri merely served as a catalyst for Joseph Smith to receive the doctrine found in The Book of Abraham, so the fact that papyri do not match the actual translation is less troublesome.

“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.”– LDS.org Gospel Topics Essay- Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham

“This [essay] now allows Latter-day Saints to adopt the view that the Book of Abraham was not on the papyri that Joseph Smith possessed as an acceptable orthodox option,” says David Bokovoy, a University of Utah religious-studies instructor who wrote a book about the Book of Abraham. At the same time, he adds, “it still allows those who wish to view the Book of Abraham in a more traditional light as a document that did appear in the papyri that Joseph Smith possessed … to adopt that perspective as well.”– Salt Lake Tribune article

“Richard Bushman, author of the acclaimed Joseph Smith biography “Rough Stone Rolling” and an emeritus historian at Columbia University, says the essay gives “a whole new view of how translations occur.” It also offers reasons why the Book of Abraham could have been a direct translation — even though the article says “Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists agree that the characters on the [remaining] fragments do not match the translation given in the Book of Abraham.” Bushman says debate on how literal of a translation the book is will likely continue. “But in a way it’s a moot question,” he adds, “because we have an alternate view that doesn’t require” a literal translation.”-Salt Lake Tribune article

“The essay concludes that the truth of the Book of Abraham can be found only through study, prayer and confirmation of the holy spirit. Philip Barlow, chairman of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University, says such a conclusion is a “two-edged sword.” It allows recognizing that a religious text should be judged on religious grounds, but he notes that most believers also want to be responsive to what scholars and science may show, too.”– Salt Lake Tribune article

“The fourth theory is called a “pure revelation” or “catalyst” theory, and holds that the papyri simply acted as an impetus leading Joseph to receive a revelation about Abraham, which he did, just as he had done in the past in connection with all his previous revealed translation projects.  Joseph consistently used the word “translation” for his revealed religious texts, which has created a problem in our modern perceptions of those texts…The perceived weakness of this theory might be that Joseph and his scribes may have misunderstood the relationship between the English Book of Abraham and the Sensen Papyrus.  But to me that is not a disadvantage at all; it is par for the course.”– By Common Consent blog- Kevin Barney

“An example of what I am talking about is the recent discovery of the papyrus scrolls from which Joseph Smith was presumed to have translated the book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price. Modern scholars, looking at the scrolls, found nothing they considered to be similar to that book. I remarked at the time that such a finding didn’t bother me in the least. God doesn’t need a crib sheet in the form of a papyrus scroll to reveal Abraham’s thoughts and words to Joseph Smith, with any degree of precision He considers necessary for His purposes. If the only function of the scrolls was to awaken the Prophet to the idea of receiving such inspiration, they would have fulfilled their purpose.” —Henry Eyring, Reflections of a Scientist, p. 46

Early in the church the narrative surrounding The Book of Abraham was very simple and was only complicated when the translation of the facsimiles was scrutinized and further complicated when the existing papyri were returned to the church. It requires a very nuanced approach, especially about the nature of revelation, to reconcile this issue.

*If the audio snippets below don’t play, right click the audio bar and click “reload”

I guess I can say that I was a consultant for the church essay along with about 5 or 6 other people, and they kept us pretty close to the vest as far as “don’t talk too much about what our meetings were like…those kinds of things,” we did have several meetings and tried to talk through some issues. And so when you look at the essay it does kind of come across a committee work, doesn’t it? You’ve got a lot of different ideas in there that are trying to be expressed, and it is trying to make sense of what used to be a very simple story before the 1960’s, actually maybe not as simple as we might think, though, because the facsimiles were an issue way before 1967, going back to Deveria, back in the 19th century. So we’ve got evidence of some back and forth between church apologists and Egyptologists going back well before the 1960’s. But, yes, in the 1960’s when the papyri was returned back to the church and Egyptologists were able to look at it, it made that very simple story very complicated. At least it does for those of us that want to stay in the church, how’s that? For some people it was very simple, it was ‘Look, this is not The Book of Abraham, therefore Joseph Smith’s a fraud, he didn’t translate this, I’m outta here.’ A lot of people have taken that road. I’m more nuanced as you know and so I don’t think about it quite that way. I think there’s interesting things you can learn about Joseph Smith as a translator by looking at what’s going on with the papyri AND with the 19th century of course, Joseph Smiths time period, and what’s going with Joseph Smith as he sees himself as a revelator and a prophet. And I look at that very differently in terms of, you know, I guess I look at, it’s quite obvious to me that Joseph Smith thought that the papyri had The Book of Abraham on it, I think that’s pretty clear. We can read that in The Book of Abraham, just at the very title of The Book of Abraham which dates to the 19th century, concurrent with Joseph Smith. And we know that from other historical accounts that people around him thought it was on there, Joseph Smith thought it was on there, so that’s the really difficult grappling point for us there. If it was on the papyri, why isn’t it on there now?– Brian Hauglid- Mormon Discussions podcast- beginning at the 12:19 mark

Is The Book of Abraham a sort of Midrash? Midrash is defined as expansion or re-working of original biblical stories.

The patterns and tendencies found in Joseph Smith’s creation narratives are not unique. Midrashic technique is found in the Bible, a large part of which resulted from the same kind of appropriation, reworking, and adaptation we find in Joseph Smith’s work on Genesis. Indeed, religious imagination and appropriation of antecedent tradition can be shown in almost all of the world’s holy books; this tradition, however, does not correspond to “inspiration” in the same sense and degree that believing Latter-day Saints see in the Bible and Joseph Smith’s writings. But inspiration, indeed revelation, can occur through such a process, for many of the texts we confess as inspired or revealed manifest these patterns and tendencies. Similarly, to see midrashic technique in the Joseph Smith scriptures does not imply that he knew anything of ancient targums or midrashim, but rather that like them his works tried to make sense of scripture by playing upon its inherent possibilities. Edward Ashment’s excellent 1979 study of the book of Abraham facsimiles demonstrated clearly that Egyptian Book of the Dead vignettes were imaginatively (and, from a strict point of view of papyrology and Egyptology, erroneously) restored and interpreted by Joseph. Ashment wisely rejected the commonly proposed dichotomy between (1) a view of Joseph as responsible for the creative restorations of the facsimiles, and also a fraud, and (2) a view of Joseph as a prophet whose insight into the original form and meaning of the vignettes was perfect. Rather, he supported a “third possibility, which is that Joseph Smith is ultimately responsible for the extensive restorations of Facsimiles 1 and 2 and can yet be a prophet” (Ashment 1979, 33). Indeed, it seems that if anything, the presence of imaginative midrashic technique, pseudonymous authorship, and the reworking of doctrines and texts in Joseph Smith tends to ally him more with the ancient prophets of Israel and authors of the Bible than it separates him from them. Still, other implications my be less affirming to traditional Mormon beliefs. Given the differences among these texts concerning the order, timing, and details of creation, it seems unwise to use them as if they were infallible and harmonious guides to the ancient history of the race or the origin of the species on the planet. Clearly, it is the theology of each story that is most important. The issues raised here ultimately feed into greater religious and existential questions of the uncertainty of all human knowledge, even that affirmed to be revealed from heaven. This issue is the one potentially most disturbing to Latter-day Saints who feel that somehow revelation resolves the problem of human uncertainty. I personally feel that we must be honest, must try to see the world as it is. If that means living with uncertainty, so be it. Such a view sees scripture and revelation less as cures to the disease of human uncertainty, than as stopgap medicines that help us endure a sometimes painful condition — not a disease, really, but simply the way we are. The stories we hold sacred, and tell to one another, rather than ridding us of doubt and giving us certainty, serve to help us raise our sensitivity and desire to serve, help us to find moral courage within ourselves, and make some sense, however fleeting, of our lives. When I first came to the conviction that Adam and Eve as described in Genesis were not historical figures, I suffered a sense of loss. When I realized that Joseph Smith’s opinions of Genesis were more reflective of his own understanding as a nineteenth-century American than of the ancient biblical tradition, I again experienced a certain disappointment. But as I came to see that these awarenesses gave me new understanding of these creation stories I loved so, and as I further understood the meaning and significance of the various scriptural authors’ contributions to the creation-story traditions outlined here, I saw that the stories still spoke deeply to me. Indeed, they in some ways gained new power because of their newly acquired clarity of meaning. Though my understanding of religious and scriptural authority changed, the stories’ power endured.– A Mormon Midrash? LDS Creation Narratives Reconsidered- Anthony A. Hutchinson-Dialogue Article Winter 1988

Doug Fabrizio: “What are your concerns?” [about The Book of Abraham Gospel Topics essay on LDS.org]

David Bokovoy: “Well…I’m a strong believer in the fact that, that The Book of Abraham was not on any of the material the Joseph Smith possessed, and yet it is still inspired and I think it makes the case too passionately, still, notwithstanding that it allows for someone to adopt my perspective. It still makes the case a little bit too passionately from my perspective that Joseph produced a translation of literal material that was on the papyri in his possession. Also, there a few inaccuracies as well, that maybe, well yeah there’s some inaccuracies historically and also from a biblical scholarly perspective. An emphasis on things that would make The Book of Abraham more consistent with the ancient world that I think are, well, an overreach, or perhaps an overstatement.

Doug Fabrizio: “So how are you understanding what happened? How are you understanding as someone who thinks ‘Nope, I don’t think those papyri had anything to do with Abraham. I think they were ordinary funerary papyri that we saw a lot of in that time.” So how are you explaining The Book of Abraham?”

David Bokovoy: Then I would return to that concept of prophetic Midrash. I think it is incredibly accurate, from a historical perspective, and using the term prophetic Midrash I believe would make a Latter-day Saint comfortable with the idea of what The Book of Abraham is, and how Joseph Smith produced it. Just to clarify for our listeners, that Midrash is a Hebrew term, it’s a venerable form of religious literature that’s typically associated with Rabbinic discourse.  Midrash refers to  a body of sacred literature produced generally by Jewish sages that are produced to explain passages in the Bible.  It expands upon the biblical text by filling in gaps regarding events and personalities really, Doug, are only hinted at in the Bible, or in Biblical law for that matter.  It is without question, scripture, for various communities. And therefore to define The Book of Abraham as Midrash, as Prophetic Midrash even, therefore implying that it is inspired and produced through prophetic creativity and through inspiration, I think is incredibly helpful for a Latter-day Saint.  Even the New Testament itself can be seen really as strong Messianic Midrash on the Old Testament, especially The Gospel of John and The Epistle to the Hebrews.

Doug Fabrizio: But do you think that Joseph Smith, um, was thinking metaphorically or was thinking about a literal figure, an Abraham, who received this, and an idea of a pre-existent life, or the idea of a Plan of Salvation? That these weren’t just metaphors, but wasn’t he thinking in quite literal terms, about literal figures who received these? Do you know what I mean, it doesn’t seem like Joseph Smith thought that the stories in the Old Testament were just stories, but that were literal history that told moral stories?

David Bokovoy: “Indeed, he did, and he even claimed to have been visited by many of those biblical figures personally, so you hit upon a very important point.  I would respond to that as well by stating that the evidence is very clear that Joseph Smith believes he is rendering a literal of the scrolls in his possession.

Doug Fabrizio: “Ok, that’s important.”

David Bokovoy: “Yes, that’s very important.”

Doug Fabrizio: “Well, what do you do with that, because you don’t believe it?”

David Bokovoy: “No, no, I think that’s it possible for Joseph to be Prophet, Seer, and Revelator and not fully comprehend the way that God is using his creativity, to produce something that creates a very inspired text.”

Doug Fabrizio: “But don’t you see where skeptics would say, ‘But, David Bokovoy, I can take Winnie the Pooh, a book, and I can look at it if I’m a prophet and I can say ‘I’m not seeing the story of Eeyore and Winnie the Pooh, I am seeing an entire Plan of Salvation, and entire cosmology for religious faith that I’m innovating.  I mean, that, people have a problem with that.”

David Bokovoy: “I can see that, of course. It’s just not the way I process these sorts of these issues concerning scripture..”

Doug Fabrizio: “Or how you see revelation working, prophecy working?”

David Bokovoy: “Exactly. Precisely. I like to use, in fact, going back to the book I wrote for Kofford, ‘Authoring the Old Testament,’ if I could just take a second and quote, I think maybe it clarifies my approach to that? I write this on page 339, ‘In the creation of scripture, Joseph’s work reflects his understanding of divine creation. It is a process whereby structure or order is given to pre-existent chaos. In translating, Joseph was imitating God and his creative work. The prophet understood translation as something whereby something or even someone was carried off or moved from one place to another, (and with that I’m quoting the Noah-Websters 1828 English definition)”

Doug Fabrizio: “Let me ask you to stop for a minute. Because there’s something that Richard Bushman, the historian and scholar, and prominent Latter-day Saint, told Lee Davidson of the Salt Lake Tribune. He says that this essay by the LDS church gives a whole new view of how translations occur. Is that your sense of it as well? That we get a sense now through this, that he used this as a catalyst or whatever it was as a jumping off point, and we now get a sense of ‘Oh, well now maybe this is how it works. It’s not a literal, actual thing, it works in a different kind of cosmic way.’”

David Bokovoy: “Exactly, which is why I don’t view it as an apologetic stance as much as a theologically rich and important perspective to understand how we, as human beings, can try to access divinity. How does the revelatory process take place? And Joseph Smith uses that word “translation” to render something from one sphere to a higher realm of existence, which is why he uses the term “translation” to define his work in the King James version of the Bible. He’s not literally working with the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek of the Old and New Testament, he’s working with the King James English, and then rendering that and taking it to translating it, literally to a higher spiritual plane. Radio West interview with David Bokovoy- from 19:50 to 26:19

Doug Fabrizio: “Here’s a comment that comes from Brian who writes, ‘This is mental contortion, to me. If he said he literally translated papyrus written by the hand of Abraham, and we are now admitting this wasn’t true, how does this not torpedo the whole LDS faith? To me, this is earth shaking, I cannot twist my mind around to see it any other way.’”

David Bokovoy: “And I should interject and state that it is not, as I understand it, the LDS church’s position now, that Joseph did not possess The Book of Abraham. Remember, there’s another way of looking at it, and it’s the one I prefer. But to answer the question then directly, I think it is important to contextualize what did Joseph Smith mean when used the term translation? It’s not an apologetic effort at contortion..”

Doug Fabrizio: But it sounds like it. It sounds like it. If he literally said he translated it, that he, I’m not sure exactly how it worked now, it seems like we’re getting all kinds of different stories about how he may have “translated” The Book of Mormon. Did he look into a hat? Did he go through these stones, or whatever? Wasn’t he conveying that story as a literal thing? Which leads to the question was he in fact  deceiving people, or was he thinking in these sort of multi-level ways that you’re talking about. That he’s thinking about it as an active inspiration that wasn’t a literal thing.”

David Bokovoy: And I would then respond and say, it’s.., what Joseph Smith had in his mind is not directly relevant to my own relationship to the text. And I also then think it’s very important, as a historian, words have meaning, they have meaning and they have to be identified in their context. And in the 19th century, the term translation meant something that is carried off or moved from one place to another. It has that specific nuance in the way Joseph Smith is using it, and so I think we should, although not necessarily be bound by what he understood the translation process to be. I think we should strive to try and understand that, and then react accordingly as believing Latter-day Saints. Radio West Interview- David Bokovoy- From 32:53 to 35:09

Bill Reel: “Let me follow this up, kind of just hinting at the same thing which you were talking about, that if we’re going to take the stance that the papyri, the missing section makes up The Book of Abraham, you’re talking about the facsimiles kind of throwing a wrench into that. And if I’m not mistaken the Kirtland Egyptian Papers also make the missing scroll theory kind of a giant stretch. Because you have Joseph or his scribes essentially matching up these kinds of translations and characters and it seems like this, The Kirtland Egyptian Papers, are directly correlated to some of the papyri that we do have, as I think you’re pointing out. It seems problematic. And I want to go to the facsimiles for just a moment. We have Joseph, so Joseph’s giving us The Book of Abraham, and in connection with this Book of Abraham, it’s not like the facsimiles are really a separate entity. They’re in a sense, a huge part of his translation of The Book of Abraham. And he’s given us a translation of what the different characters in these facsimiles stand for, the canopic jars, Abraham on the altar. And yet when we compare these facsimiles with their use in other funerary documents, we end up with almost a complete 100% miss on what Joseph is saying these things stand for, and what Egyptologists say these things mean in the terms in which they’re being used in these funerary documents. How do we make sense of that?

Brian Hauglid: “Yeah, these are problems that were going on much before 1967. These go back to the 19th century, where you get criticisms against the facsimiles as you people learned how to read Egyptian. They figured out that he was actually doing a character to character translation in the facsimiles, which we try to argue against, in terms of his translation. We try to say, well translation doesn’t mean the same thing to Joseph Smith, he’s just doing an expansion or something like this. But in the facsimiles, it seems like he is saying, ‘This character up here says Pharaoh, or this character here says this, and especially in facsimile number 3.’ And that really makes it a complex issue in terms of what are we trying to do here? What was Joseph Smith trying to do? Was he trying to come off as a bona-fide Egyptologist translator type person? Or was he just going through this material and adapting it to what he thought it should mean? Um, I mean, we’re not sure exactly what’s going on there. Those problems haven’t gone away.

The essay doesn’t really hit on the facsimiles that much as you know. And, it’s not really an issue that our Mormon apologists have really dealt with, or more of our Egyptologist apologists I’m talking about. They haven’t really tackled the facsimiles very well yet, because they agree that the translations themselves do not match up with Egyptology. And so, some will say, one, I won’t mention a lot of names here, but one apologist will say, ‘Well, Egyptology itself doesn’t really know what’s going on. They don’t agree with each other what these things mean, so how could they know whether Joseph Smith got it right or wrong.’ And, you know, I don’t know if that’s really a great explanation or not. It doesn’t really answer the question, in terms of, you know, that this, this is a problem. And I think we should acknowledge that. We should acknowledge that yes, the facsimiles have some translation issues.

Do we want to look at them as more of a Midrash, adaptation type of things? Would that be a better way to try and make some sense out of what Joseph Smith is trying to do? Is he just adapting them to the story of Abraham? Uh, and what’s going on in his own mind? Is he thinking he’s an Egyptologist in a sense and he knows Egyptian so he can translate these things? Or is he just trying to creates some sort of continuity with the pictures into the story of Abraham and he feels inspired to adapt them into that  story? Those are some of the kinds of things I wonder about with the facsimiles. I never can come out and say to anybody that asks me about the facsimiles, if they say ‘Look, Joseph Smith really messed up on these facsimiles or these translations don’t match up.’ And I just have to say ‘Yeah, you’re right, you’re right, you’re absolutely right. This is a huge challenge.’ And most of the time when I say that, the other person will say something like ‘Oh, I wasn’t expecting that. I wasn’t expecting you to say that. I was expecting an answer, some sort of a, you know, why this happened, to solve the problem.’ But the problem is still there, and we have to acknowledge it.” Brian Hauglid- Mormon Discussions Podcast

Despite all of the obvious issues with The Book of Abraham, there is still a way to hold on and maintain faith. It necessarily brings into question the nature of the revelatory process and how we define a prophet and scripture that a prophet produces.

Bill Reel: “…There are numerous anachronisms throughout The Book of Abraham including Chaldea, Pharaoh, Egyptus, and if the catalyst theory is true, this would mean that God directed Joseph to include anachronisms in The Book of Abraham and falsely attribute them to Abraham… So, in some ways, both of these reconciliation ideas [God deceived Joseph into thinking he was translating The Book of Abraham and the Catalyst theory] fall short and yet people like you and me, and Dan Wotherspoon on Mormon Matters, apologists such as Kerry Muhlestein, and John Gee, and David Bokovoy, look at this issue and still find reasons to hold on and to lead with faith and some of us reconcile things in different ways but I want to end the podcast just with your thoughts and ideas how these two theories kinda fall short and yet you still find a way to lead with faith. And maybe also speak for a moment of what you make of The Book of Abraham as scripture.

Brian Hauglid: “I think where I come down on, is, from my own personal devotional point of view, I’m not taking off my academic hat because I do recognize all of those issues and I acknowledge them. Those are sticky issues there, with both the missing papyrus theory and the catalyst theory. Neither one of them really is really able to explain all of the evidence. Where I come down on it, I guess, is I’m still probing, still exploring what it means in terms of Joseph Smith being a prophet. Now I can look at Joseph Smith and say he’s using his mind and he’s using his environment, and God is inspiring him and giving him ideas and these kinds of things and he’s trying to work with that. And so, to look at The Book of Abraham as adaptation, maybe even an imperfect one, of these revelations. I don’t really have a problem with that. So I can look at The Book of Abraham and to me, whatever I derive from it in terms of giving me something in terms of life and learning and spirituality, these kinds of things, I credit that to The Book of Abraham. Because for me, scripture is what we as a community accept as scripture in some sense and what God himself has allowed to happen, even though it’s been imperfect human beings that have produced it all. Does that make sense?

So for me, when I read The Book of Abraham in a devotional way, and it feeds me, feeds my spirit, then I’m feeling like there’s something good about it, and that’s scripture to me. Just like what I can do with The Book of Mormon, and as you know, The Book of Mormon has its own issues. And The Bible, and The Bible has its own issues. But yet, is there anything coming through to feed our spirits, to allow us to grow and to learn something, and to bring into our minds and into our hearts something that’s good. And that to me, is what scripture can do. And yet it’s even different than reading an inspirational novel or something like that. For me it’s feeding my spirit in a different way than that is. You can read Les Miserables or something like that, and Jean Valjean and all the good things that are going on there, and his life after he gets out of prison and all. But to look at the stories of Abraham and to be able to connect them the other areas the references in the scriptures, in The Bible and in The Doctrine and Covenants, and to learn more about his, it transcends, I guess all of these other issues for me. And so I guess I just don’t, I can’t see a reason for throwing all of this out because we’re not understanding exactly what happened.” Brian Hauglid- Mormon Discussions Podcast- From 45:10 to 49:22

Brian Hauglid: “I’m just going to lay out the issues on the facsimiles and then we’ll be done with me for a while, ok? Because we don’t want to forget the facsimiles here. And I’ll try to do this kinda quickly…

My own thinking, if you want to just, you know, as I’m kinda shootin in the dark here, is that the facsimiles are adapted, that Joseph Smith adapted those facsimiles to the story of Abraham. That HE did that. And that they were never actually Abrahamic documents to begin with…

Dan Wotherspoon: “But he didn’t know he was adapting them…”

Brian Hauglid: No, he didn’t know that. I don’t think he knew that. I think he thought that he was actually revealing what the documents were. That’s right.”

Dan Wotherspoon: “So I think what’s clear from what we presented so far and the minor discussion that we’ve had to this point, why somebody who has been raised LDS, you know, who is even attending Gospel Doctrine THIS YEAR, you know, with the language that’s in the scriptures, you know, the 2013 edition. Very few people would have those in their possession at this point. So they’re old scriptures, I don’t even know what the manuals say or anything like that, but you could see why somebody is coming here, and without any of this background, they would just take it at face value that these are the writings of Abraham, by his own hand upon papyrus. They wouldn’t know anything about the history of the fragments coming to us. They might have heard the Chandler story and we obtained these from that. But you could see why it’s just a big crash and burn moment for a lot of people when they start to understand the complexity here.

Brian Hauglid: “I think so and just one more point here and then I’ll be quiet for a while, but the thing that I believe we should do more of, let’s just be honest here. Those people who are finding out these things, you sit down with them and say ‘Yeah, this is what it is. You know, it is what it is here. Now, let’s talk about what does this mean about revelation? What does this mean about scripture? How we get scripture. What is scripture?’ these kinds of questions. It doesn’t have to be a negative here. It doesn’t have to be a non-starter for believing in the prophet or believing that he could translate or whatever. It doesn’t have to do that. Brian Hauglid- Mormon Discussions Podcast

David Bokovoy: “The idea of a prophetic figure such as Abraham traveling around and actually writing scripture is anachronistic, from an Israelite perspective. Originally the Israelites were an oral based society, the idea of textual scripture develops later on as Judean scribes begin to interact more and more with Hellenistic traditions, and so this combined with the idea that Hebrew itself, as a written language, only  evolves in the 10th perhaps even 9th century BCE, long after the time period of Abraham, and the texts that were used to produce the story of Abraham in the bible that The Book of Abraham adopts, were originally written in Hebrew, make it very, very  difficult if not impossible in terms of Biblical Scholarship to associate this book directly with Abraham himself. So this has been a round-about way of suggesting how I personally have approached and come to the conclusion that I have, and it’s been very easy for me to take a very critical interest in the Egyptological evidence and accept basically what critics are telling us and non-LDS Egyptologists, that really all of the evidence points against linking this intrinsically and from the papyri evidence, with the patriarchal figure Abraham himself. That’s true.

Dan Wotherspoon: Awesome. And so talk a little bit more, so now that you say let’s just get rid of that whole piece of it. Let’s just admit that there’s nothing Egyptology can teach us about The Book of Abraham, right? Do you kind of make that claim?

David Bokovoy: “Yes, absolutely. I absolutely make that claim.”

Dan Wotherspoon: “So all we’re doing is we’re spinning circles and we’re giving people you know, hope to hang a little bit of a fingernail on this cliff, and why not we just wipe this and let’s just look at scripture, look at this text as inspired scripture and start to face it in just a new way, right?”

David Bokovoy: “Yeah, that’s a good expression of my approach to it. Now that I’ve been critical, of The Book of Abraham, let me confess openly, how I really feel about it. In all sincerity, The Book of Abraham is one of my absolute favorite pieces of scripture. As a believing Latter-day Saint, I absolutely, despite my critical approach to it, believe that this is inspired scripture and that it has much to teach us about divinity and our relationship to him, and it’s an important contribution that the prophet Joseph Smith makes, to bind and link previous gospel dispensations with the modern era. Mormon Matters Podcast- Book of Abraham as Scripture 

Brent Metcalfe: “Perhaps complicating that even more, is that there are some unique things that occur within Mormon theology during that time period that also show up in very interesting ways. For example, in the Book of Moses when it talks about the rivers that are associated with The Garden of Eden, it’s very clear in their description that it places them in the old world. But by 1838, Joseph Smith had already begun discussing the location of Adam-Ondi-Ahman and the original Garden of Eden and placing them in Jackson county Missouri. So now when we get to the locations of the rivers in the Book of Abraham, they become very obscure and no longer make references to the old world. It’s that type of thing that even complicates it to another level, right? So we already have the issue with the Documentary Hypothesis, but now we also have added to that, Joseph Smith’s evolving theology and understanding of where these locations were in antiquity as they relate to the creation narrative, and the narratives are changing to adapt to that. I don’t think that those things can be ignored any more than the Documentary Hypothesis, in the context of that. And we get back to the issue of what exactly are these documents, and do they reflect Joseph Smith’s development of theology? Are they vehicles for Joseph Smith’s developing theology, or are they something else?”

David Bokovoy: “Yes, and that’s wonderful analysis. I would also add they clearly reflect, at least specifically the Book of Abraham, it’s clearly going to reflect Joseph Smiths working with Hebrew. He’s going to adopt the Hebrew he is learning from Joshua Seixas and the School of the Prophets, and we see that incorporated into his translations, his interpretation and development of the material. So what is Joseph Smith doing? He’s drawing on his exposure, I believe, to masonic lore. He’s drawing upon his attempt to interpret The King James version of the Bible. I think a legitimate effort on his part to try and decipher what the Egyptian hieroglyphics mean, that he has in his possession, and again then working with Hebrew. He’s bringing all this material together to create this fascinating book that is the Book of Abraham.”

Brent Metcalfe: “That is very well put because point of fact, the material that is influenced the most in terms of the Hebrew classes that were taken in the School of the Prophets, are all in sections that are being translated/dictated after they actually had the class. So, a portion of the text, the opening chapters of the Book of Abraham, are dictated PRIOR to the Hebrew class and show virtually no influence from the Hebrew studies. But then you go to chapter 3 and you see very heavy influence from the Hebrew studies as well as in the interpretation. For example, Facsimile number 2, the hypocephalus. You see very direct influence from the Hebrew classes in those instances. So it’s not until he actually takes the Hebrew classes that the influence occurs in the Book of Abraham. And I think that’s an important point to note as well.”

David Bokovoy: “That’s fascinating. I wasn’t aware of that historical element. I had looked at it from the perspective of comparing the Book of Abraham and how Hebrew is adopted and used in the production of that source as opposed to the earlier Book of Moses which shows no sign of it in terms of its development. But to take it in the direction that you did, and a more careful intrinsic look at the Book of Abraham, that’s fascinating, Brent.”

Brent Metcalfe:It’s an interesting study to see when certain things come into Joseph Smith’s world view and how he expands on them and I referred to this once as prophetic eclecticism, where Joseph Smith had a propensity to take things around him and to recreate into a new revelatory theological experience. And I think from just a purely naturalistic point of view, I think that’s one of the genius elements in what Joseph Smith could accomplish. You know, I wonder too then, what is the ultimate understanding of what his scriptural text would be if they’re not all historical, and I’m even leaving aside for right now, the issues which are very complex relating to The Book of Mormon. But if we look at the text of the Book of Abraham and we say that this is not actually a work written by Abraham himself, what is a text like this? How should we understand a text like this in your opinion?”

David Bokovoy: I had- and I won’t name the individual- I had recently a wonderful conversation with a dear friend, a famous figure in Mormon Studies, very much a believer. And this particular scholar, we were discussing the Book of Abraham and this scholar said, “What if Joseph Smith is just up there saying, ‘My gosh, you guys canonized that? I was just messing around, trying to figure out what that was, and oh, you turned it into scripture’, and then said “Well maybe we should just take the Book of Abraham out of the canon, or at least the facsimiles. You know, just talking openly about this. And I said to him, to this person “Oh I hope not. I hope we never take it out of the canon. I love it as a person of religious faith, as someone who feels connected with divinity through this material.” I think it’s fascinating to see what Joseph Smith is doing with the various sources he has in his environment, and his culture to produce something so, from my perspective, inspired, in terms of its theological constructs and its ability to link his own revelations with the past and therefore take this central figure within Judaism, within Islam, within Christianity, Abraham, and actualize that person in and LDS context. And in my book I use the term, I link it with creation ex-nihilo. And I think this is helpful to an LDS audience, because Joseph Smith is going to reject the traditional Jewish/Christian perspective of creation out of nothing and he’ll say that God doesn’t work that way and he takes pre-existent material that exists in the Cosmos and gives it order, gives it structure. So for those of us who are open, who are believing Latter-day Saints, and yet are open to critical assessment of what this material really is, an amalgamation of Joseph Smith’s working with Hebrew, his attempts to decipher the Egyptian Hieroglyphics in his possession, his work with Masonic lore. Taking all of these sources and creating something new, he’s simply re-creating God’s creative process, from a religious perspective.”– Mormon Studies Podcast- Brent Metcalfe and David Bokovoy

Was Joseph Smith a liar, a fraud, or a pious fraud?

“And yet Joseph Smith was plainly a liar,” informs Lawrence Wright in his best-selling Going Clear. In an epilogue, Wright compares Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard to the founding prophet of Mormonism. As evidence, Wright points to Smith’s denial of polygamy and his claim that scrolls of Egyptian papyrus contained the writings of the biblical Abraham and Joseph (they were common funerary texts with no connection to the Hebrew Bible).

At least to me, it is one thing to claim that someone lied and another to claim that someone is a liar. A liar is habitually dishonest. He breathes in and lies out, at least much of the time. How many lies must one tell before one is a liar? Presumably the label requires more than the odd fib or two.

Did Smith lie about the Book of Abraham papyri? Did he know the texts had nothing to do with Abraham? Did he have no idea what the papyri contained? Presumably the hieroglyphics would have been mystifying without divine revelation. Or did he genuinely — if incorrectly — believe that the scrolls contained ancient narratives? Was he sincerely deluded?

On some matters, questions of honesty are easy to set aside. Smith reported many visions of divine beings. Did he just make up stories about them? Or, alternatively, we might presume that he had what we might neutrally term “sensory overrides,” in which he saw things in his mind that were not physically there? Did he sometimes embellish those experiences? Since we cannot peer into Smith’s mind, the authenticity of visions is hard to establish and hard to impugn.

Perhaps the biggest question in terms of Mormonism and Smith’s honesty is the matter of the golden plates, the ancient record of the Nephites and other peoples that Smith reported receiving from an angel in 1827. Unlike visions, as Richard Bushman has well explained, golden plates are physical. They were either there or not there. Many individuals confirmed that Smith had something in his presence that he claimed were the plates. Was this a clever ruse?

Was Joseph Smith a true prophet or a fake, a “liar”? Did Smith sometimes have “religious experiences” and sometimes make things up? Scholars typically bracket such questions. As a historian, I’m far more interested in other matters. Why did thousands of Americans in the 1830s believe Joseph Smith? How did early Mormonism fit into the tapestry of early American religion? What are the cultural antecedents for Smith’s theological and ritual innovations? In the classroom, though, I do not discourage my students from asking questions about honesty or truth because, simply put, those are important questions regardless of the faith tradition under study. For most faith traditions, however, we’re left with an absence of evidence rather than the abundance one encounters with Mormonism.

Was Joseph Smith, as Lawrence Wright claims, a “liar”? Since I’m not a Latter-day Saint, I think at times Smith deceived and perhaps was deceived. But a liar? I don’t like that label for Joseph Smith, any more than I like it when applied to Tom Brady (my wife’s from Boston, after all) or all Cretans. Does it apply to some individuals? Probably. I’m sure some people, and some religious leaders, are congenital liars. A journalist friend of mine once told me that he regularly saw Jim Bakker lie without any apparent hesitation or pangs of conscience.

In most cases, though, calling someone a “liar” sounds a lot like calling that individual a “sinner.” Especially given the remarkable ability we all possess to deceive others and ourselves, I don’t think that’s the most creative or searching way to understand Tom Brady, Jimmy Carter, L. Ron Hubbard, or Joseph Smith.”– “Tom Brady and Joseph Smith, Lies and Liars”- May 2015-John Turner- Non-Mormon Religious Studies Scholar

Does Historicity Matter?

“This method of using scripture is similar, therefore, to the work Joseph Smith performed in creating new expanded literary works based upon the Bible—texts such as the Book of Moses and the Book of Abraham. As theological expansions upon biblical material, Joseph Smith’s scriptural works parallel an ancient literary pattern for revelatory text. This same type of genre is seen in later Jewish pseudepigraha and Rabbinic midrash, as well as within the Bible itself.

The term “midrash” refers to a method of interpreting biblical material that fills in literary and legal gaps featured in the biblical sources. Joseph Smith’s work fits in well with the way biblical authors used scriptural sources as a springboard to create new religious literature, independent of original authorial intent and historical setting. For Latter-day Saints, a text such as the Book of Abraham, therefore, can be defined as inspired Prophetic Midrash.

Does historicity matter? Of course. But apparently it doesn’t for the creation of scripture.”– David Bokovoy Blog- “Does Historicity Matter?”- March 2015

Additional Resources:

Mormon Discussion Podcast with Brian Hauglid

Kevin Barney- Common Consent Blog 6/27/13

BYU Professor Charley Harrel- Mormon Stories Podcast that contains a good discussion of the expansive views of revelation as a divine-human hybrid

Mormon Matters Podcast with Dan Wotherspoon, Charley Harrell, David Bokovoy, and Brian Hauglid

Radio West Podcast with David Bokovoy

David Bokovoy-Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis-Deuteronomy (Kofford Books 2014)

Kevin L. Barney,Neal A. Maxwell Institute publication that presents what has been called the J-Red hypothesis

Were Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob Real People?- David Bokovoy- Patheos Blog “When Gods were Men”

NON-BELIEF:

As you can probably assume, this is the category I identify with the most. You will see more first person commentary from me here. Interestingly I can also identify with those who profess a non-literal belief because I believe they look at the evidence honestly and are not trying fit a square peg into a round hole. If you are dead set on confirming your view that The Book of Abraham is either authentically ancient and/or divinely inspired you should probably skip this section. You will find plenty to confirm your views in the previous two sections. If you are interested in possibly changing your views or at minimum understanding why someone does not believe in The Book of Abraham- and potentially many other truth claims of the LDS church- then please read on. At minimum, I hope that by reading this section you can gain greater understanding and compassion for those who have possibly left the fold and realize there are valid reasons for leaving or not believing, that are well beyond the tired trio of being lazy, wanting to sin, or being offended.

Before moving into the section below, you might want to view this video which is a very good overview of what the critics say about the Book of Abraham, and it’s presented in a pretty even tone. Snippets of this video will be shared below.

Should we ever allow our assumptions to be challenged? If we are honestly seeking truth should we start with our conclusion and embrace any evidence that confirms that conclusion but reject any evidence that disconfirms it?

“So I’d like to be clear about my beginning assumption. I believe revelation is a valid source of knowledge. We should pursue things with our mind, but we should also pursue it with the part of our mind that listens to the Holy Ghost. And so I start out with an assumption that the Book of Abraham and the Book of Mormon and anything else that we get from the restored gospel is true, therefore, any evidence I find I will try and fit into that paradigm. I don’t feel that I need to defend that paradigm, I feel that I want to understand the evidence that I find within that paradigm because to me it’s a given that it’s true. There are others who will assume that it’s not true and on these points we’ll just have to agree to disagree, but we will understand one another better when we understand how our beginning assumptions color the way we filter all of the evidence that we find.” “The Book of Abraham and Unnoticed Assumptions”- Kerry Muhlestein- 2014 FAIR Conference

This is a classic example of CONFIRMATION BIAS:

the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses. It is a type of cognitive bias and a systematic error of inductive reasoning. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs. People also tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position.– Confirmation Bias- Wikipedia

I’m actually quite astounded that a prominent apologist would admit this so directly and publicly. Typically, this is very evident when reading apologetic defenses of LDS truth claims but the authors of such work would typically have you believe they are approaching the evidence in an unbiased way.

“As a former apologist (NOT a former Mormon, I am just seriously inactive), I can say unequivocally, the PROBLEM with the assumption of apologists is that they BEGIN with the truth. Apologetics is about circling the wagons around the camp and defending the turf. It is not about learning, or discovering truth, or even analyzing new information. It is all about DEFENDING what one has, and that is simply, without question, THE TRUTH.

I was on the FAIR apologetics email list for decades, I KNOW how apologists think, and I argued with them at times about it. They can’t help it, they have a specific task, and they dutifully carry it out.

As a researcher (and you CANNOT see this when you are on the inside, I swear this is the most shocking thing I have personally discovered for myself) you begin with the answer. Then you find anything and everything that simply supports your already arrived at answer. You truly for the most part, ignore anything of dissent apart from the conclusion you have already arrived at, and the carefully selected evidence you choose gets you to that conclusion as well. That is why in ANY organized religion, they all simply pick and choose which verse in the scripture is comfortable and then pretend like THAT is the whole context and whole Gospel. NO ONE SECT actually *believes* what the Bible says and means. It is always and forever self-interpreted with self interest in mind, without exception, even when they deny that is what they are doing.

I was one of the VERY best in that regard. My zeal just blew my knowledge out of the water. I could put together research papers of 55 pages, with well over 400 sources cited in just 2-4 weeks. It was a snap. Read through [hundreds] of articles until you found something that had even a sort of similarity to what you have concluded and throw it in there. It looks mighty impressive to see a paper with 400 footnotes!!!

It’s all phony though. That isn’t research. That doesn’t lead us to anything realistic or actual. It leads us to the goal we already are determined to arrive at and it’s quite frankly, simply wrong. But, and I stress this, unless you have actually been there you cannot fathom how this works, I cannot fathom it either, YOU DO NOT SEE YOURSELF DOING THIS!– Kerry Shirts- Former LDS apologist

It is interesting to contrast the approach to truth taken by Professor Muhlestein and other LDS apologists, to the approach taken by Professor Richard Bushman- faithful LDS historian and author of the biography on Joseph Smith, “Rough Stone Rolling.” Professor Bushman is willing to challenge his assumptions and beliefs on ANY issue. Here is how he responded when asked about the production of The Book of Mormon:

“I think the Book of Mormon is a marvel. I don’t think you can make a case based on historical evidence that Joseph Smith could have written the book. It is entirely too complicated and produced with so little experience. In my opinion that does not allow you to jump immediately to the conclusion that the book was divine. I tell people it was either a work of genius or it was inspired. By genius we mean something that exceeds normal human capacities. That is certainly true for the Book of Mormon.”

The Book of Mormon has a lot of nineteenth-century Protestant material in it, both in terms of theology and of wording. I am looking for an explanation of how and why it is there. I don’t think it is enough to say JS absorbed it from his environment. It is too complex and to far beyond his cultural range. But it is there, and we need to explain why and how.”

All I can say here is that while reading Alma in the Book of Mormon I began to google long phrases from the sermons, and they came up in sermons in very much the same doctrinal context. All the talk about Jesus in the Book of Mormon, its glory we would say, has a 19th century ring to it. In my opinion, we should become the experts on this material and figure out what it tells us about translation and the nature of the text.”

Yes you do risk losing your faith if you dig deep. It has happened to lots of people. But that does not mean you should not dig. You don’t want to feel that if you turned over every stone, somewhere there would be a snake. You have to be willing to look at everything or your faith will be shaky. My own belief is that if you run into a problem, you should plunge right into the center of it and learn all you can. Problems that are lit up with knowledge are often less scary than problems lurking in the shadows.”– Richard Bushman- Reddit AMA (ask me anything)- LATTERDAYSAINTS subreddit

Notice how he doesn’t automatically conclude that The Book of Mormon is divine, and openly acknowledges some of the issues he doesn’t have answers to. He doesn’t look at the evidence and try to fit it neatly into an existing belief paradigm. Professor Bushman is one who would rarely, if ever, say he “knows” anything for sure. In fact, if one were to ask him if he believed Joseph Smith was a prophet, he would probably respond, “What do you mean by ‘prophet’?” 

“Anselm took me to lunch soon after we arrived at Claremont and bluntly asked me how I could believe in Joseph Smith. My immediate response was that when I lived in the Mormon way I became the kind of man I wanted to be. Those words summed up a lot—my sense of having God’s spirit when I needed it, the salutary discipline of Mormon life, the friendships and commonalities of a Mormon ward, the requirement of unselfish service, the valuation of family, the tempering of pride and fear—a host of things. Like many people, I wrestle with demons. I frequently feel inadequate to my responsibilities. At the same time, I know I can be better, and when I live the Mormon way, I am lifted up. I see things more clearly. I can figure out how I really feel. I know how to relate to my wife and children and colleagues. I am temperate, incisive, generous, and focused. On bad days, Claudia and I often say we are out of sync with the universe. Over the many years I have been in the Church, I find that following the Mormon path puts me back in sync. I don’t use the word “know” a lot, but I do know I am a better person for being a Mormon.”– Richard Bushman- Reddit AMA (ask me anything)- EXMORMON Subreddit

Notice how Professor Bushman didn’t look Anselm directly in the eye and say, “I KNOW with every fiber of my being that Joseph Smith was a true prophet, and you can know too if you only ask God.” He simply responded that his life is richer by being a Mormon.  He is a Mormon because it makes him a better man. Who can argue with that?  I think he and I would get along well, because I could explain to him why being OUTSIDE of Mormonism makes  ME a better man and I’m sure he would nod along with me, and neither of us would have any interest in convincing each other otherwise.

Is revelation a valid source of knowledge, as Professor Muhlestein states?

“Things you know in your mind are good evidence of what’s going on in your mind, but if you want to make truth claims about our shared reality then you’re going to need some evidence that originates in that reality.”-  Kris Nye

While I believe it’s important to listen to our hearts, and to use our intuition at times, I think we need to be very careful about equating our subjective feelings to objective, empirical, universal truth. I think there is a very important distinction between what is good and what is true and those often get conflated. What we often do as humans is equate anecdotal evidence, or subjective feelings to objective real-word evidence and truth. 

“But I also maintain that the primary issue when determining truth isn’t and shouldn’t be whether something “works” in your life. The Buddha taught that you can tell whether something “works” by trying it, and testing whether it actually works in your life. His teachings are like Alma 32 all over again. Except there is an important difference. Alma 32 implies that if something works in your life, you know historical things, like that Lehi sailed across the ocean, and that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God. The Buddha taught that if something works to make you happy, then you know that ….. it works to make you happy. Period. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s a subtle but important distinction.“- James Carroll

It’s the conflation of good vs. true that can lead to so many people talking past each other and proclaiming they have found the “one and only true” way. Maybe it would be better to proclaim “This way is good and it works for me” vs. “This way is true and you should follow it.” Please take a few minutes and watch the video below. You will see how easy it is for people of many different religions to equate their subjective feelings with objective truths, and bear testimony of the truthfulness of their path, and how they “know” beyond a shadow of a doubt they have the truth.

How do the defenses put forward by Kerry Muhlestein stand up to scrutiny? How do his colleagues in the field of Egyptology react to his defenses of The Book of Abraham?

How do the dead-center bullseyes on the facsimiles, that Professor Muhlestein pointed out, hold up upon further investigation?

1. Lion couch scene with “Abraham.”

“ABRAAM is really there, yes. It’s part of a list of names of power, but it doesn’t connect to the lion bed at all, and it’s not labeling anything on the bed. It’s not a label or caption, in other words, but part of its own spell. It’s written in Old Coptic with Greek letters, unlike the rest of the papyrus which is written in Egyptian Demotic. At this late Roman period date, Abraham was known. Jews had been living in Egypt since the 6th century BCE, so there was some understanding of Hebrew beliefs. Judaism and Christianity were both practiced in Egypt. Kerry Muhlstein claims that the text saysthe person on this couch is Abraham“, but there is no truth to this. ABRAAM is simply written with a list of other names of power as part of a magical spell that has nothing to do with anything in the Mormon Book of Abraham or any human sacrifice or anything like that.

Dr. Robert Ritner has confirmed that the text is Roman in date. The Egyptians certainly knew about Abraham by then, but before Christianity, his name was invoked magically. It’s a late text.

So, in brief: The name Abraham was written as part of a Coptic magical spell and was not connected to the lion bed at all. I’ve written to Dr. Robert Ritner, and he has also corroborated this. I hope this helps.”

Dr. Kathlyn M. Cooney, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Egyptian Art and Architecture
University of California, Los Angeles

CESLETTER.com- Book of Abraham

“The web posting notes also two writings by John Gee (notes 44 and 45), purporting to prove a memory of the sacrifice of Abraham by Pharaoh in later Egypt. It is not fully accurate to claim that the third-century Demotic papyrus cited by Gee “connects Abraham with an illustration similar to facsimile 1 in the book of Abraham.” … but the text is a love compulsion spell intended to force a woman to submit to a male’s sexual lust, not a reflection of the Book of Abraham. As accompanying magical words of power the speaker recites: “..aydyo oryx thambyto abraam o epy … planoyegxybyoth” etc. The string of abracadabra words does include “abraam,” and this spelling has been corrected to “Abraham” in a recent edition.6 However, the name is just one of a string of magical names and no more relevant to the image than “oryx thambyto” or “planoyegxybyoth.” Moreover, there is no intent here to represent a sacrifice, just Osiris tended by Anubis, who are both invoked to inflame the libido of the female victim of the spell. The body on the lion bed is certainly that of the deceased Osiris (as it is Hôr’s vignette), not a threatened Abraham.

…The use of the name Abraham in all of these magical passages derives from late Egyptian knowledge of the Hebrew Bible and contemporary Jewish tradition, not from an apocryphal Book of Abraham.”– A Response to “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham” by Dr. Robert Ritner | Signature Books

2. The crocodile God in Facsimile 2 (figure 9) identified by Joseph Smith as “The idolatrous god of Pharaoh.”

“The lion-couch is designated as “Fig. 4”: “The altar for sacrifice by the idolatrous priests, standing before the gods of Elkenah, Libnah, Mahmackrah, Korash, and Pharaoh.” As noted above, the drawing of this“altar” is cited in Abraham 1:12 and the associated gods in Abraham 1:13–14. Accordingly, the canopic deities are identified (in inverted, right to left order) with these supposed deities. Qebehsenuef is mislabeled as “Fig. 5. The idolatrous god of Elkenah,” Duamutef is mislabeled as “Fig. 6. The idolatrous god of Libnah,” Hapi is mislabeled as “Fig. 7. The idolatrous god of Mahmackrah,” and Imseti is mislabeled as “Fig. 8. The idolatrous god of Korash.” The crocodile, who belongs to a separate register and mythological event, is joined to the canopic deities as “Fig. 9. The idolatrous god of Pharaoh.” Horus-Sobek was a god of Pharaoh, so one out of five is correct.”– “Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri, the Complete Edition,” – Robert Ritner

Interestingly Joseph Smith invented all sorts of names while “translating” the facsimiles- Elkenah, Libnah, Mahmackrah, Korash, Raukeeyang, Shamau, Shaumahyeen, etc. None of these names have any correlation to the correct Egyptological translations. Yet, if he did indeed translate this figure correctly, he could not properly identify the name Sobek or Horus?

“Yes, he identified the figure correctly as a god, but it’s rather vague, without any exact identification or name. I think such an identification could come rather easily to someone looking at an Egyptian papyrus, even with a prior religious agenda. So I don’t think it really matters. The Book of Abraham still does not match the ancient Egyptian written on the papyrus, and that is proof enough. Don’t let a little tree distract from the forest…”.– Kara Cooney, Egyptologist- MormonThink.com- email response from Kara Cooney

3. Joseph described the four Sons of Horus in facsimile 2 as follows: “Represents this earth in its four quarters.”  He also incorrectly identified the 4 canopic jars in fascsimile 1 with names of unknown Gods.

The canopic jars depicted in funerary texts were used to store the organs of the deceased during the mummification process. Their lids represent the four sons of Horus. Joseph identified the jars as the Gods Elkenah, Libnah, Mahmackrah, and Korash. They are no such thing. The four sons of Horus actually can sometimes represent the four cardinal points of the compass (North, South, East, and West) ,not regions, and the names of the four Gods are actually Imsety, Duamutef, Hapi, and Qebehsenuef. Joseph does not identify them as Gods nor does he assign names to them.

“If you ask a respected Egyptologist to describe these 4 figures in a sentence, you’re going to learn more about the gods, mummification process, and what body parts are stored in each individual jar than you are about four compass directions.

The phrase “four quarters of the earth” is neither groundbreaking nor original. This phrase appears five times in the Book of Mormon, three times in the Doctrine and Covenants, and once in Moses 7:62.

If Joseph really translated the papyri, he would have referred to the figures as the four sons of Horus and given their actual correct names of Imsety, Duamutef, Hapi, and Qebehsenuef. This would have stood as a powerful witness to the truthfulness of the Book of Abraham and Joseph’s claims. Instead, Joseph not only incorrectly misidentifies each one of the four gods associated with the jars but he gives names not found in any Egyptian documents or Egyptology.”– Jeremy Runnells- CESLETTER.com- Debunking FairMormon

 4. Professor Muhlestein mentions over and over again how ancient Egyptians identified Abraham frequently and were know to substitute Abraham for Osiris. He also points out how Kolob is similar to the semitic root Keleb which is “associated with center or being in the middle, so Joseph Smith gets this one just right again.”

There is not one single non-LDS Egyptologist that will corroborate ANY of the above points. This is simply grasping at straws and inventing parallels that don’t exist.

What did Joseph get wrong in the translation of the facsimiles? Virtually everything.

BoA Facsimile 1

BoA Facsimile 2

BoA Facsimile 3

One Joseph Smith’s most interesting mistakes is the misidentification of Min the Pagan Phallic God, who is sitting on his throne with an erect penis, as “God sitting upon his throne revealing through the heavens the grand Key-words of the Priesthood.” Interestingly, the LDS church, for years, edited the erect penis out of the facsimile entirely. They finally put the penis back on in 1981.

Min the phallic God- penis edited out

Credit: The Book of Abraham: Criticisms, Defenses, and Implications

What inspired Joseph’s creativity for his “translations” of the text and facsimiles?

Abraham 1; Facsimile #1, #3: Abraham’s biographical information in Abraham 1 and Smith’s claim of what these two Facsimile pictures portray comes from The Works of Flavius Josephus. Smith owned an 1830 edition of this book. Smith’s detailed explanations for the individual Egyptian characters on these two Facsimiles in the Book of Abraham have been thoroughly discredited by Egyptologists.

Abraham 2, 4-5: Eighty-six percent of the verses in these three chapters came from Genesis, 1, 2, 12, and 11:28-29. This material came from a 1769 edition or later printing of the KJV, including its errors.

Abraham 3; Facsimile 2: The text of Abraham 3 and Facsimile 2 has some remarkable resemblances to the astronomical concepts, phrases, and other motifs found in Thomas Dick’s, Philosophy of a Future State. Smith owned an 1830 copy of this book.

Abraham 3; Facsimile 2: Thomas Taylor’s 1816 book, The Six Books of Proclus on the Theology of Plato, especially volume 2, also has most of the motifs in Abraham 3 and Facsimile 2. Dick and Taylor both contain a number of exact phrases found in Abraham 3 and Facsimile 2.Importantly, Smith’s Newtonian astronomy concepts, mechanics, and model of the universe that he borrowed from these Newtonian books have been thoroughly discredited by Einstein’s twentieth-century model of the universe.

Strange names: The few Hebrew names and phrases found in the Book of Abraham reflect Smith’s study with Hebrew scholar Joshua Seixas during the winter of 1835-36, in Ohio.– Former CES Educator Grant Palmer- “Insiders View of Mormon Origins”- MormonThink.com summary

Missing Papyri Theory

Some apologists will claim that since the papyri that survived the museum fire do not correspond to what we have in The Book of Abraham, then the sections of the scroll that are missing must account for what was translated. This makes no sense at all. The beginning of The Book of Abraham refers the reader to Fascimile 1, at the commencement of the record. Egyptian is read right to left and Facsimile 1 is at the beginning. Also, Egyptologists agree that Facsimile 1 does NOT represent a priest with knife, but the jackal-headed God Anubis  (God of the dead) who is attending the deceased and assisting in his resurrection. There is NO reason for him to have a knife. And if Anubis is the God of the dead, why would there be a living “Abraham” struggling on an “altar?” And just to be clear, it’s not an altar, it’s a lion couch (notice the Lion’s head). Remember, that in Abraham 1:11, it also talks about this “priest” (who is actually the God Anubis) sacrificing three virgins at one time upon the altar- that is actually a lion couch.

Here is a modern reconstruction of how Facsimile 1 should probably look:

larson-reconstruction

Charles Larson reconstruction of Facsimile 1

Compare this to Joseph’s reconstruction:

Book of Abraham Missing Parts Facsimile 1

“I know of no representations of Osiris on a couch with both hands in front of his face. One would expect only one hand in front of his face, while the other was either shown below the body (impossible in P. JS I) or grasping the phallus. It the latter case it would be hard to avoid the suggestion of Professor Richard A. Parker that what looks like the upper hand of Osiris is actually the wingtip of a representation of Isis as a falcon hovering in the act of copulation.”“The Breathing Permit of Hor: A Translation of the Apparent Source of the Book of Abraham”- Dialogue Fall 1968- Egyptologist Klaus Baer

Anubis_attending_the_mummy_of_Sennedjem

Here is a similar scene where the God of the Dead, Anubis, is attending to the dead and assisting in his resurrection. Notice the Lion couch

What do the experts say about the Facsimiles and the Missing Papyri theory. Watch the video below from 34:17 to 41:02.

“Therefore, no more than 56 cm of papyrus can be missing from the scroll’s interior. Shortly after the papyri were recovered by the LDS Church, Klaus Baer estimated the original length of the Hôr scroll to have been 150–155 cm… Our results thus corroborate Baer’s estimate of ~150 cm for the total original length of the scroll of Hôr. The lack of sufficient space on the Hôr scroll raises the question of whether the Book of Abraham source text might have been on another scroll or fragment in the original collection. This appears unlikely, since the canonized Book of Abraham text specifically places the introductory vignette of the Hôr Document of Breathing at its “commencement” (Abr. 1:12, 14). Moreover, the most reliable nineteenth-century eyewitnesses spoke of only two intact scrolls in Joseph Smith’s collection: the scrolls of Hôr and Tshenmîn. It is clear from the witnesses’ descriptions of the scrolls that the former was believed to contain the Book of Abraham, and the latter the Book of Joseph.”“The Original Length of the Scroll of Hôr “-Andrew W. Cook and Christopher C. Smith- Dialogue article Winter 2010

Anachronisms in the Book of Abraham (an anachronism is something that is out of place for the time period in question)

There are numerous anachronisms such as Chaldea, Pharaoh, Potiphar’s Hill, Egyptus, etc. Please see link below for more details on this….– “Examining the Book of Abraham”- Kevin Mathie

What do the current Prophets, Seers, and Revelators of the LDS church think of the issues surrounding The Book of Abraham?

“Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.” Amos 3:7. When I was on my mission we used this scripture frequently to make the point that God speaks to us today, through modern prophets, thereby helping us make sense of world filled with so much confusion. Yet, how often do we see the prophets and apostles give new revelations or exercise the gift of seeing? A seer is defined as “A person authorized of God to see with spiritual eyes things which God has hidden from the world (Moses 6:35–38). He is a revelator and a prophet (Mosiah 8:13–16). A seer knows the past, present, and future. Anciently, a prophet was often called a seer (1 Sam. 9:9; 2 Sam. 24:11).” LDS.org- “The Guide to the Scriptures”

Interestingly you will rarely see any statement whatsoever by the prophets, seers, and revelators of the church regarding The Book of Abraham. They leave the work up to faithful scholars to produce a committee work, or publish articles on FAIRMORMON.org, or The Maxwell Institute, or publish books on the subject. Is it any wonder there is so much confusion and speculation about The Book of Abraham? What would a prophet, seer, and revelator say to reduce this confusion, if given the chance? Listen to the first 40 seconds of the video below to see what prophet, seer, and revelator Elder Jeffrey Holland had to say about The Book of Abraham:

“Maxwell observed that, according to Doctrine and Covenants, Section 7, The Book of Abraham was translated by Joseph Smith in “catalystic fashion.” Smith, Maxwell claimed, had, in vision, seen parchments from the writings of John the Revelator. Maxwell said that, likewise, Smith may have also had revealed to him Egyptian parchment which he did not touch, physically hold or from which he did not directly translate. In other words, Maxwell said, Smith may have been “accessing” an ancient parchment that was not actually with him. Instead, Maxwell proposed, he may have had revealed to him “in some kind of vision” the source from which he then translated The Book of Abraham.

Oaks admitted he did not know how Joseph Smith translated The Book of Abraham. He said, however, that Maxwell’s explanation seemed persuasive.

Oaks also said he was familiar with the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar that Smith was constructing. I responded by going into brief detail about how Smith, or his scribes, would copy an Egyptian hieroglyph from the parchment into a left-hand column, then apparently from that single hieroglyph, produce a whole series of words and paragraphs. I noted that the words and dictionary which Smith attached to the facsimiles had absolutely no relationship with the content of the papyri–as indicated and translated by such noted and reputable Egyptologists as Klaus Bauer of the University of Chicago and others.

At this point, Oaks said, “Well, there are some things I just don’t understand and just don’t know.” But, he said, he was willing to put such matters on the shelf “until further knowledge comes.” Oaks said the jury was out on The Book of Abraham and that we should “wait and see.” Oaks admitted that “the scholars” seemed to have evidence “in their favor,” but that he himself had a “personal witness” that The Book of Abraham was true. Oaks concluded by saying that he does not let evidence “weighted against Joseph Smith on this” persuade him that The Book of Abraham is not true.”– From Steve Benson- Grandson of Ezra Taft Benson

How does the Community of Christ- formerly the RLDS church and also known as the “Josephites”- view The Book of Abraham?

“The church has never to our knowledge taken any action on this work, either to indorse or condemn, so it cannot be said to be a church publication; nor can the church be held to answer for the correctness of its teaching. Joseph Smith, as the translator, is committed of course to the correctness of the translation, but not necessarily to the indorsement of its historical or doctrinal contents.”Joseph Smith III and Herman C. Smith, The History of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Lamoni, Iowa: Herald Publishing House, 1896), 2:56

“In the light of the findings of the 1912 Egyptologists, and depending upon whether their present-day successors will substantiate their conclusions, one may be confronted with the evidence that the Book of Abraham was rather the product of a highly intuitive mind, stimulated at least in part by an earlier work of revising the creation accounts of the Authorized Version of the Bible, 1830-33. Textual comparisons between Joseph Smith’s “New Translation of the Bible” (or, “Inspired Version,” as published by the Reorganized Church) and the Book of Abraham (Genesis 1 and 2: Abraham 4 and 5) show a remarkable degree of parallelism of subject materials, language style, and content. The major difference is the monotheism of the former and the polytheism of the latter. It should be recalled also that in 1842, when Joseph Smith published the Book of Abraham, his work of biblical revision had not yet been published.”

“There will be a natural tendency for some who are dogmatically committed to the Book of Abraham and/or to an image of Joseph Smith as an infallible living oracle to minimize or even to rule out completely the possibility of any relationship existing between the recently discovered papyri and the Book of Abraham as published. However, the unmistakable connection between these recently discovered papyri and the facsimiles published by Joseph Smith in 1842 leaves little room for such maneuvering and leads the open-minded observer away from such an alternative.”

“The Pearl of Great Price is a Utah creation. It did not exist in the early church and is not a part of the Community of Christ canon. The text that has been labelled “The Book of Moses” and “Joseph Smith–Mathew” are components of the Joseph Smith Bible Revision, which is a manuscript owned by the Community of Christ and canonized as Joseph Smith’s Inspired Version of the Bible. “Joseph Smith–History” and “The Book of Abraham” were not canonized in the early church and are not canon in Community of Christ.”– John Hamer- MormonStories.org comment

So we know there are substantial issues with one scroll, identified by Joseph Smith as containing The Book of Abraham. But what about the other scroll that supposedly contains the Book of Joseph? The scroll is in the possession of the LDS church. Why has the modern church not translated this scroll?

 . . . I commenced the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics, and much to our joy found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham, another the writings of Joseph of Egypt.- Joseph Smith

Papyrus identified as The Book of Joseph- In possession of the LDS church

Papyrus identified as The Book of Joseph- In possession of the LDS church

Oliver Cowdery describes what is on the Book of Joseph Papyri in the 1835 issue of the Messenger and Advocate, p. 234-237. He was never corrected by Joseph.

“Upon the subject of the Egyptian records, or rather the writings of Abraham and Joseph, I may say a few words. This record is beautifully written on papyrus with black, and a small part, red ink or paint1, in perfect preservation. The characters are such as you find upon the coffins of mummies, hieroglyphics, &c. with many characters or letters exactly like the present, (though probably not quite so square,) form of the Hebrew without points…

“…The evidence is apparent upon the face, that they were written by persons acquainted with the history of the creation, the fall of man… The representation of the god-head — three yet one, is curiously drawn to give simply, though impressively, the writers views of that exalted personage. The serpent, represented as walking, or formed in a manner to be able to walk, standing in front of, and near a female figure, is to me, one of the greatest representations I have ever seen upon paper, or a writing substance; and must go far towards convincing the rational mind of the correctness and divine authority of the holy scriptures… Enoch’s Pillar, as mentioned by Josephus, is upon the same roll…

“Though the Mummies themselves are a curiosity, and an astonishment, well calculated to arouse the mind to a reflection of past ages,… yet I do not consider them of much value compared with those records which were deposited with them.”2

Examining the Book of Abraham”- Chapter 4- Kevin Mathie

There is only one reason why the LDS church has not translated the “Book of Joseph” papyri. Because it is NOT The Book of Joseph and is in fact the “Egyptian Book of the Dead for the lady Ta-shert-Min, daughter of Nes-Khensu.”

“From the evidence that we have today, it’s quite safe to say that Joseph Smith did not have the Book of Abraham or the Book of Joseph in front of him in the form of these papyri because they bear no relationship to the contents of the stories or to his translation.”Lanny Bell, Egyptologist

“Recent discoveries have shown conclusively that the roll of papyrus Joseph had represented as the Book of Abraham was actually the “Book of Breathings for the priest Hor.” But what of the “writings of Joseph of Egypt?” Is there any indication of what that scroll may have been?

The answer is yes. In fact, there is every indication that the scroll Joseph Smith identified as the “Book of Joseph,” was in fact the “Egyptian Book of the Dead for the lady Ta-shert-Min, daughter of Nes-Khensu.”

…It is quite apparent from the evidence Cowdery left us that he was indeed describing a typical scene from the Egyptian Book of the Dead rather than a story penned by the patriarch Joseph, as he had been led to believe. Still, Cowdery’s interpretation should not be considered unusual for the period, as he was dealing with then indecipherable manuscripts of undetermined origin and date (there being no true understanding of Egyptian mythology or funerary texts available during Joseph Smith’s lifetime). Cowdery’s impressions are merely common-sense speculations by a person with no expertise regarding the esoteric subject matter at hand.” – “By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus”- Chapter 8- Stan Larson

“The Book of the Dead belonging to the lady Tshenmin, whose mother was Skhons2 (P. JS II, V-IX, and most of IV).3 The handwriting dates it to the second half of the Ptolemaic Period, perhaps around 100 B.C.4 This is the papyrus that Joseph Smith believed to contain the Book of Joseph.” “The Book of Abraham Papyrus”- Klaus Baer- Dialogue Article

How does God work in revealing his secrets unto his servants, the prophets?

Since the papyri have no connection to either the Book of Abraham or Joseph, members have some leeway to accept that, but still believe God revealed to Joseph what they consider the precious doctrines of the Plan of Salvation. But let’s think about this for a minute. Is this how God works? So God wants to reveal to Joseph this precious doctrine. What does he do? Does he appear personally to Joseph like he did in the First Vision, where Joseph supposedly was commanded to not join any church and “and many other things did he say unto me which I cannot write at this time.” Joseph was supposedly instructed about MANY things, face-to-face with God. Does God send a trusted messenger like Moroni to reveal this important doctrine? Moroni supposedly instructed Joseph face-to-face for a period of seven years. He even came 4 times in one night to make SURE Joseph got the message right. Moroni quoted scripture to him, instructed him about the plates, told him about the early inhabitants on this continent, how judgement would soon be upon the earth, etc, etc. Those first four visits took up the WHOLE night.

Are we really to believe that God somehow inspired Michael Chandler to pick up some mummies, stop by Kirtland, and seek Joseph Smith out so he could deliver to him some ancient Egyptian funerary texts that have nothing to do with Abraham, just so Joseph could use these instruments to feel “inspired” to create a narrative that has nothing to do with the papyri but succeeds in fulfilling God’s purpose of revealing this precious doctrine about The Plan of Salvation to his children?

And if the papyri have no connection to the story of Abraham, why leave the source material here on earth? How do we explain that the golden plates were taken up to heaven by an angel but the papyri were left here on earth? Would leaving the plates here on earth somehow be a detriment to faith? Then why leave the papyri, which have CERTAINLY been a detriment to faith of thousands of members who have come to realize they have built their faith and trust on a foundation of sand?

It is also interesting to follow the history of the papyri. They belonged to Joseph Smith’s mother, then his wife Emma, who sold them to Able Combs, who retained the fragments under glass, sold the others to Wyman’s museum, which moved to Chicago, and the museum was destroyed by fire. Able Combs bequeaths the surviving mounted fragments to his servant Alice Heusser. Heusser’s nephew sells the fragments to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 1947. In 1966 a U of U professor stumbles upon the fragments. In 1967 the LDS church acquires the fragments from The Metropolitan Museum of Art. All of this so we could now have actual proof that the translations don’t match the papyrus. 

Not one single time, from 1835 until Joseph’s death in 1844 did God ever intervene, or send his angels to intervene, to tell Joseph or anyone else that the translations were not correct.  Interestingly, even in the story found in the Book of Abraham, God supposedly spoke to Abraham face-to-face and gave him detailed instruction. For a God that at times is so hands on, giving detailed, face-to-face instruction to his prophets, sending Moroni to personally guide Joseph over several years, sending many ancient prophets to restore keys directly to him, sending Peter, James, John, and John the Baptist to restore the Priesthood to him, sending an angel with a drawn sword when Joseph was reluctant to practice polygamy, it just seems so out of character that when important doctrine needs to be revealed he does so in such an indirect manner.

In his sincere attempt to connect to the divine did Joseph deceive others, and allow himself to be deceived as well? Could this be how Joseph has operated since initial call as a prophet? These revelations should indeed call into question Joseph’s foundational truth claims and other works of scripture he produced.

If the Book of Abraham is not a  valid translation- let’s evaluate the doctrine

1. The Book of Abraham talks about the Pre-Mortal Existence and fore-ordination as well as the justification used for denial of Priesthood and Temple blessings to all blacks: 

24 When this woman discovered the land it was under water, who afterward settled her sons in it; and thus, from Ham, sprang that race which preserved the curse in the land.

25 Now the first government of Egypt was established by Pharaoh, the eldest son of Egyptus, the daughter of Ham, and it was after the manner of the government of Ham, which was patriarchal.

26 Pharaoh, being a righteous man, established his kingdom and judged his people wisely and justly all his days, seeking earnestly to imitate that order established by the fathers in the first generations, in the days of the first patriarchal reign, even in the reign of Adam, and also of Noah, his father, who blessed him with the blessings of the earth, and with the blessings of wisdom, but cursed him as pertaining to the Priesthood.

27 Now, Pharaoh being of that lineage by which he could not have the right of Priesthood, notwithstanding the Pharaohs would fain claim it from Noah, through Ham, therefore my father was led away by their idolatry;– Abraham 1:24-27

According to Abraham, there were many noble and great ones chosen before they were born. This teaching has been used over and over again to explain how it is that someone could be so “fortunate” to be born into an LDS family while others are less fortunate. This Mormon doctrine can be used to explain why some children are born into abject poverty and suffer from the moment they are born until the moment they die while others enjoy health, privilege, and access to the saving doctrines of the gospel. According to doctrine, the second estate here is determined by our first estate there, right? Do these beliefs have any basis in reality?

“As part of this plan of eternal progress we believe in the principle of fore-ordination— not pre-destination, for that would not conform to free agency, In this, we believe that certain personalities in the pre-mortal existence, because of their record of conduct and performance there, were chosen of God to come to earth, to this mortal state, at specified times during the world’s history and to be given the opportunity to accomplish certain things as servants of the Lord in executing His plan of eternal progress for the human race.

This principle of fore-ordination is logical because it reflects the justice of God in rewarding His children for obedience and for being valiant in helping to further His plan for the good of all mankind. Such a fore-ordained person, according to scripture, was Abraham.

We believe that we were fore-ordained to the privilege of membership in this Church and Priesthood; privileged to be born under the favorable circumstances that we have been, at such an opportune time and place…

Now, if through fore-ordination, as a result of their performance in the spirit life, certain individuals were privileged to be born under the most favorable possible circumstances, then it must necessarily follow that others would be born under less favorable circumstances, and still others under the least favorable circumstances…

Is it just or unjust on the part of God, our Creator, to enable people to be born under those circumstances and with those opportunities consistent with their conduct in the spirit world?…let me ask how you can conceive it to be justice on the part of God to allow His children to be born under the widely varying circumstances under which they are born? Do you suppose that God, the Creator of us all, does not know that spirit “X” is going to be born into such and such family? Can you reasonably believe that the circumstances of our birth are by mere chance, or by lot?

Is there any justice in a God who would just arbitrarily assign one child to birth into a fine Christian family with multiple blessings of life, and another child to birth under circumstances leading to a life of squalor or prostitution?

While the Negro and others of Negroid blood cannot hold the Priesthood, in this stage of life, apparently because of a lack of valor in the pre-mortal existence, neither are any of them likely to become Sons of Perdition — as many of the Priesthood bearers might become. Again in this we see the justice and mercy of God: that while in a certain stage of existence a man cannot attain the highest blessings, neither is he so subject to the danger of falling to the lowest state.

And in the Book of Abraham we read that at the time of the great flood when Noah with his three sons and their families were the only ones preserved, that the seed of Cain was perpetuated through one of Noah’s sons, Ham, and his wife, Egyptus, apparently a Negress, and that Ham and his descendants were denied the right to hold the Priesthood.

Among the Negroid people, as indeed among all the races of the earth, there is infinite variety and degree of circumstances of birth, of goodness, of opportunity or lack of it. There are Negroes born into families of wealth and refinement, others who are blessed with great talents, and there are those born into the lowest classes of society in Africa, in squalor and ignorance, living out their lives in a fashion akin to that of the animals.

In the above scripture from Abraham, then, we have a reliable account of the early genealogy of the Negro race, and in Abraham’s comments we have further evidence of the divine direction in the LDS Church policy of not allowing the Negro, the seed of Cain and Ham to bear the Priesthood.”“Mormonism and the Negro”- 1960- John J. Stewart

Notice that this line of thinking was very prevalent in that era and the primary justification for this abhorrent belief was “scripture” from the Book of Abraham that was erroneously translated and the ideas that were completely invented/expanded by Joseph Smith. But this was just a lay member of the church. What did the governing body of the church, The First Presidency believe?

“The basic element of your ideas and concepts seems to be that all God’s children stand in equal positions before Him in all things. Your knowledge of the Gospel will indicate to you that this is contrary to the very fundamentals of God’s dealings with Israel dating from the time of his promise to Abraham regarding Abraham’s seed and their position vis-a-vis God himself. Indeed, some of God’s children were assigned to superior positions before the world was formed. We are aware some higher critics do not accept this, but the church does. Your position seems to lose sight of the revelations of the Lord touching the pre-existence of our spirits, the rebellion in heaven, and the doctrines that our birth into this life and the advantages under which we may be born, have a relationship to the life heretofore. From the days of the Prophet Joseph Smith, even until now, it has been the doctrine of the church, never questioned by any of the church leaders, that the Negroes are not entitled to the full blessings of the Gospel. Furthermore, your ideas, as we understand them appear to contemplate the intermarriage of the Negro and White races, a concept which has heretofore been most repugnant to most normal-minded people from the ancient patriarchs till now. God’s rule for Israel, his chosen people, has been endogamous. Modern Israel has been similarly directed. We are not unmindful of the fact there is a growing tendency, particularly among some educators, at it manifests itself in this area, toward the breaking down of race barriers in the matter of intermarriage between whites and blacks, but it does not have the sanction of the Church and is contrary to Church doctrine.” – First Presidency response to Lowry Nelson- July 17, 1947

“The attitude of the Church with reference to negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the priesthood at the present time. The prophets of the Lord have made several statements as to the operation of the principle. President Brigham Young said: ‘Why are so many of the inhabitants of the earth cursed with a skin of blackness? It comes in consequence of their fathers rejecting the power of the holy priesthood, and the law of God.They will go down to death. And when all the rest of the children have received their blessings in the holy priesthood, then that curse will be removed from the seed of Cain, and they will then come up and possess the priesthood, and receive all the blessings which we are now entitled to. President Wilford Woodruff made the following statement: The Day will come when all that race will be redeemed and possess all the blessings which we now have.

The position of the Church regarding the negro may be understood when another doctrine of the Church is kept in mind, namely, that the conduct of spirits in the pre-mortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality, and that while the details of this principle have not been made known, the principle itself indicates that the coming to this earth and taking on mortality is a privilege that is given to those who maintained their first estate; and that the worth of the privilege is so great that spirits are willing to come to earth and take on bodies no matter what the handicap may be as to the kind of bodies they are to secure; and that among the handicaps failure of the right to enjoy in mortality the blessings of the priesthood, is a handicap which spirits are willing to assume in order that they might come to earth. Under this principle there is no injustice whatsoever involved in this deprivation as to the holding of the priesthood by the negroes.”– First Presidency Statement 1949

So for almost 150 years all black male members of the church were denied access to the Priesthood and not only that, males AND females were denied access to all saving ordinances performed in the temple. All of this because Joseph Smith had a revelation that was “catalyzed” by his erroneous interpretation of some Egyptian Papyri.

Interestingly, at the end of 2013 the First Presidency of the church signed off on the “Race and the Priesthood” essay and published it on lds.org. This statement completely disavows and repudiates the First Presidency statements from 1947 and 1949. So who is right? If God is not a God of confusion, how is the average member of the LDS church supposed to make sense of this?

“Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.”- “Race and the Priesthood”- LDS.org Gospel Topics essayApproved and signed off by First Presidency

2. This life is a test:

And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them” Abraham 3:25. This scripture presumes that God’s children will have equal access to his will, the things he has commanded them, so they can be tested appropriately. If not, then how can they be tested? After all, this life is the time to prepare to meet God, right? If there is only one true church upon the face of the earth, and God reveals his secrets to the prophets of that one true church, then in order to find out what God’s will is for his children, it should be essential that God’s children pay strict heed to the 15 messengers in Salt Lake City, that God has anointed to dispense his will.

If there are 7 billion of God’s children on earth, and 15 million of them are LDS that means 99.8% of God’s children are not members of the one and only true church. About 30% of LDS members are active. So 99.93% of God’s children do not interact with the one and only true church in any meaningful way nor have access to or believe in God’s will given through the 15 prophets, seers, and revelators he has chosen. If you take into account all of God’s children ever born, who indeed has had sufficient access to God’s will so they be tested appropriately during this second estate? What about all the people before Christ? What about the pre-Adamites, early humans that have been around for 200,000 years? What about all the people from the death of Christ until 1830? What about the 99.93% that now that live while God’s will is actively being distributed to the one true church but do not receive it? Who is God really testing to see if they will obey his will? Could it be that this doctrine is an invention of Joseph Smith just like the names Elkenah, Libnah, Mahmackrah, Korash, Raukeeyang, Shamau, and Shaumahyeen? What if the world works in a completely different way than we previously thought? What if God works dramatically different than the LDS church would have you believe. What if your definition of who/what is God needs to change? 

You may be wondering what my view of God is. If there is a God, I don’t believe he/she/it interacts in any meaningful way in our lives. I believe the entire translation process of the Book of Abraham bears that out, and allows me to extend that same view to all of Joseph’s other works. This doesn’t mean there is no God, or no afterlife, it just means I don’t trust any source that claims to a definitive guide on these matters. As you can see, putting your trust in a man who tells you he has a unique connection to the divine, can be a risky proposition.

3. War in Heaven:

What if there really was no War in Heaven? What if there really aren’t devils without bodies roaming the earth trying to tempt us to do bad things?

Does Historicity Matter?:

I guess from my point of view, I seek after the evidence and point of view that reflects reality. I don’t have much of a problem with the non-literal believer who believes Joseph produced inspired words even though he had no idea his translations were incorrect. That point of view is quite a stretch and does not resonate at all with me, but in my opinion it’s the only honest way to maintain belief in Joseph as a prophet. I do have an issue with apologists and literal believers who defend literal belief tooth and nail despite the mountain of evidence that proves this view is unsustainable. In my opinion it leads to a dishonest approach to seeking the truth. 

I like to view the Book of Abraham through the eyes of someone who would be investigating the church for the first time. Just a short amount of research on the internet will show the investigator that literal belief is unsustainable, or at least alert them they need to dig deeper. Alternatively, if the idea is presented to the investigator that God somehow inspired Michael Chandler to pick up some mummies, stop by Kirtland, and seek Joseph Smith out so he could deliver to him some ancient Egyptian funerary texts that have nothing to do with Abraham, just so Joseph could use these instruments to feel “inspired” to create a narrative that has nothing to do with the papyri but succeeds in fulfilling God’s purpose of revealing doctrine found in the Book of Abraham , would that sound convincing to the investigator? 

I think Joseph Smith had a very creative mind and was brilliant at taking existing religious and historical information, and blending these ideas together as well as expanding upon them. I believe at times he was deliberately deceptive and other times he was sincere in his deception. I do believe he was sincerely attempting to connect to divinity and most of the time, believed he had done so successfully.

Below are some examples, that for me, serve to illustrate the creative mind of Joseph and how easy it was for him to create a narrative that had no basis in reality. 

Examples from the production of the Book of Abraham that illustrate Joseph’s creative mind

“…I commenced the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics, and much to our joy found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham, another the writings of Joseph of Egypt, etc. – a more full account of which will appear in its place, as I proceed to examine or unfold them. Truly we can say, the Lord is beginning to reveal the abundance of peace and truth.” (History of the Church, Vol. 2, p. 236).

“Joseph the Seer has presented us some of the Book of Abraham which was written by his own hand but hid from the knowledge of man for the last four thousand years but has now come to light through the mercy of God.” (Diary of Wilford Woodruff, entry of February 19, 1842, LDS archives

“Is called in Egyptian Enish-go-on-dosh; this is one of the governing planets also, and is said by the Egyptians to be the Sun, and to borrow its light from Kolob through the medium of Kae-e-vanrash, which is the grand Key, or, in other words, the governing power, which governs fifteen other fixed planets or stars, as also Floeese or the Moon, the Earth and the Sun in their annual revolutions. This planet receives its power through the medium of Kli-flos-is-es, or Hah-ko-kau-beam, the stars represented by numbers 22 and 23, receiving light from the revolutions of Kolob.”- “Translation” of figure 5 on Facsimile 2

“Zelph The Lamanite”- has implications for the “Limited Geography Theory” that most apologists subscribe to (this will be covered in a future post)

“During our travels we visited several of the mounds which had been thrown up by the ancient inhabitants of this country—Nephites, Lamanites, etc., and this morning I went up on a high mound, near the river, accompanied by the brethren…On the top of the mound were stones which presented the appearance of three altars having been erected one above the other, according to the ancient order; and the remains of bones were strewn over the surface of the ground. The brethren procured a shovel and a hoe, and removing the earth to the depth of about one foot, discovered the skeleton of a man, almost entire, and between his ribs the stone point of a Lamanitish arrow, which evidently produced his death. Elder Burr Riggs retained the arrow. The contemplation of the scenery around us produced peculiar sensations in our bosoms; and subsequently the visions of the past being opened to my understanding by the Spirit of the Almighty, I discovered that the person whose skeleton was before us was a white Lamanite, a large, thick-set man, and a man of God. His name was Zelph. He was a warrior and chieftain under the great prophet Onandagus, who was known from the Hill Cumorah or eastern sea to the Rocky Mountains. The curse was taken from Zelph, or, at least, in part—one of his thigh bones was broken by a stone flung from a sling, while in battle, years before his death. He was killed in battle by the arrow found among his ribs, during the last great struggle of the Lamanites and Nephites.”- Joseph Smith, History of the Church, Volume 1, 255

Adam’s altar, which miraculously stayed intact during the Global Flood of the earth. Joseph also claimed that The Garden of Eden was in Jackson County. There is zero anthropological evidence showing the origin and migration of the human species beginning in Jackson County.

“It was stated by the Prophet Joseph Smith, in our hearing while standing on an elevated piece of ground or plateau near Adam-ondi-Ahman (Davis Co., Missouri,), where there were a number of rocks piled together, that the valley before us was the valley of Adam-ondi-Ahman; or in other words, the valley where God talked with Adam, and where he gathered his righteous posterity, as recorded in the above revelation, and that this pile of stones was an altar built by him when he offered up sacrifices, as we understand, on that occasion.”- John Taylor, The Mediation and Atonement (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret News Co., 1882), 69.

“Again Presdet [sic] Young said Joseph the Prophet told me that the garden of Eden was in Jackson Co Missouri, & when Adam was driven out of the garden of Eden He went about 40 miles to the Place which we Named Adam Ondi Ahman, & there built an Altar of Stone & offered Sacrifize [sic]. That Altar remains to this day. I saw it as Adam left it as did many others, & through all the revolutions of the world that Altar had not been disturbed.”-Wilford Woodruff, Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 9 vols., ed., Scott G. Kenny (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1985), 7:129 (journal entry dated 30 March 1879). ISBN 0941214133.

Joseph “translated” some characters on the Kinderhook plates, which turned out to be a 19th century forgery

“I insert fac-similes of the six brass plates found near Kinderhook, in Pike county, Illinois, on April 23, by Mr. Robert Wiley and others, while excavating a large mound. They found a skeleton about six feet from the surface of the earth, which must have stood nine feet high. The plates were found on the breast of the skeleton and were covered on both sides with ancient characters. I have translated a portion of them, and find they contain the history of the person with whom they were found. He was a descendant of Ham, through the loins of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom from the Ruler of heaven and earth.”History of the Church, 5:372–79, Salt Lake City: Deseret News.History of the Church, 5:372-79

“A recent discovery of one of the Kinderhook plates which was examined by Joseph Smith, Jun., reaffirms his prophetic calling and reveals the false statements made by one of the finders. …[The find] solved a seventy-four-year-old controversy and put the plates back into the category of ‘genuine’ which Joseph Smith, Jun., had said they were in the first place. …What scholars may learn from this ancient record in future years or what may be translated by divine power is an exciting thought to contemplate. This much remains. Joseph Smith, Jun., stands as a true prophet and translator of ancient records by divine means and all the world is invited to investigate the truth which has sprung out of the earth not only of the Kinderhook plates, but of the Book of Mormon as well.”- Ricks, Welby W., “The Kinderhook Plates,” The Improvement Era (September 1962).http://archive.org/stream/improvementera6509unse#page/n21/mode/2up (the article is on multiple pages).

“A recent electronic and chemical analysis of a metal plate (one of six original plates) brought in 1843 to the Prophet Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, Illinois, appears to solve a previously unanswered question in Church history, helping to further evidence that the plate is what its producers later said it was—a nineteenth-century attempt to lure Joseph Smith into making a translation of ancient-looking characters that had been etched into the plates.”– “Kinderhook Plates Brought to Joseph Smith Appear to Be a Nineteenth-Century Hoax”- LDS.org article Aug 1981

The masonic parallels and outright duplication of some masonic rites that were adopted into LDS temples rituals is well accepted. The temple ceremonies were created just 7 weeks after Joseph’s initiation as a Master Mason, but Joseph was aware of many of the details of Masonry well before that and there is evidence he was thinking about these things during the “translation” of the Book of Abraham.

“Plenty of evidence…is available that Joseph Smith had a detailed knowledge of the Nauvoo temple ceremonies long before he introduced them in May 1842 and long before he set foot inside a Masonic hall…While Joseph Smith was translating the book of Abraham from Egyptian papyri, he wrote a series of short explanations for three of the illustrations that accompanied his translation. The Prophet noted that in Facsimile 2, figures 3 and 7 were related in some manner to “the grand Key-words of the Holy Priesthood” and “the sign of the Holy Ghost.” When he came to figure 8, he explained that this area on the Egyptian drawing contained “writings that cannot be revealed unto the world; but is to be had in the Holy Temple of God.”…– Matthew B. Brown, “Of Your Own Selves Shall Men Arise, Review of The Mysteries of Godliness: A History of Mormon Temple Worship by David John Buerger,” FARMS Review of Books 10/1 (1998): 97–131

“We have received some precious things through the Prophet on the Priesthood which would cause your soul to rejoice. I cannot give them to you on paper for they are not to be written so you must come and get them for yourself…There is a similarity of Priesthood in Masonry. Brother Joseph says Masonry was taken from Priesthood but has become degenerated. But many things are perfect.”– Heber C. Kimball to Parley P. Pratt, 17 June 1842, Parley P. Pratt Papers, LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City, Utah, spelling and punctuation standardized.

“President Heber C. Kimball, a Mason himself and a member of the First Presidency for 21 years, made the following statement: “We have the true Masonry. The Masonry of today is received from the apostasy which took place in the days of Solomon, and David. They have now and then a thing that is correct, but we have the real thing.” – “Manuscript History of Brigham Young,” 13 Nov. 1858, 1085, LDS archives; see also Stanley B. Kimball, “Heber C. Kimball and Family, The Nauvoo Years,” Brigham Young University Studies 15 (Summer 1975): 458.

Joseph Smith’s “vision” of Jesus Christ

“Said he, “There are enough here to hold a little meeting.” They got a board and put it across two chairs to make seats. Martin Harris sat on a little box at Joseph’s feet. They sang and prayed. Joseph got up and began to speak to us. As he began to speak very solemnly and very earnestly, all at once his countenance changed and he stood mute. Those who looked at him that day said there was a search light within him, over every part of his body. I never saw anything like it on the earth. I could not take my eyes off him; he got so white that anyone who saw him would have thought he was transparent. I remember I thought I could almost see the cheek bones through the flesh. I have been through many changes since but that is photographed on my brain. I shall remember it and see in my mind’s eye as long as I remain upon the earth.

He stood some moments. He looked over the congregation as if to pierce every heart. He said, “Do you know who has been in your midst?” One of the Smiths said an angel of the Lord. Martin Harris said, “It was our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” Joseph put his hand down on Martin and said: “God revealed that to you. Brethren and sisters, the Spirit of God has been here. The Savior has been in your midst this night and I want you to remember it. There is a veil over your eyes for you could not endure to look upon Him. You must be fed with milk, not with strong meat. I want you to remember this as if it were the last thing that escaped my lips. He has given all of you to me and has sealed you up to everlasting life that where he is, you may be also. And if you are tempted of Satan say, ‘Get behind me, Satan.'”- Mary Elizabeth Lightner, Address at Brigham Young University,April 14, 1905, typescript, BYU.

These examples, together with the history surrounding the production of the Book of Abraham, paint a very clear picture for me of how Joseph operated.

Additional Resources:

“The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri: A Complete Edition”- Robert Ritner, Egyptologist

A RESPONSE TO “TRANSLATION AND HISTORICITY OF THE BOOK OF ABRAHAM” (LDS.org Gospel Topics essay)- DR. ROBERT RITNER

“THE BREATHING PERMIT OF HÔR” AMONG THE JOSEPH SMITH PAPYRI”- Journal of Near Eastern Studies 2003, Robert Ritner

“Egyptology and the Book of Abraham”- Stephen Thompson- Dialogue Article Spring 1995

“The Ancient Egyptian ‘Books of Breathing,’ The Mormon ‘Book of Abraham,’ and the development of Egyptology in America”- “Egypt and Beyond”- Lanny Bell, Egyptologist

“The Breathing Permit of Hor: A Translation of the Apparent Source of the Book of Abraham”- Dialogue Fall 1968- Egyptologist Klaus Baer

“The Original Length of the Scroll of Hôr”- Andrew W. Cook and Christopher C. Smith- Dialogue Article Winter 2010

Letter to a CES Director- Jeremy Runnells

Letter to a CES Director- Rebuttal to FAIRMORMON.org on the Book of Abraham

Mormon Expression Podcast with Chris Smith

OliverCowdery.com- The Book of Abraham

Michael Marquardt- Book of Abraham

BookOfAbraham.com

“Examining the Book of Abraham”- Kevin Mathie

“By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus: A New Look at the Joseph Smith Papyri”- Charles Larson

Institute for Religious Research- The Book of Abraham

“The Lost Book of Abraham”- IRR video

20 Truths about Mormonism

MormonThink.com

“An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins”- Grant Palmer

“The Book of Abraham: Criticisms, Defenses, and Implications”- TruthSeeker2013

Conclusion:

You now have at your disposal an abundance of resources that are used to bolster support for literal, non-literal, and non-belief in the Book of Abraham as well as Joseph Smith’s calling as a prophet. I have tried to be as thorough as possible in all three areas. Regardless of which area of belief appeals to you more, I am hopeful you can gain some understanding for those who believe and think differently than you. Try to understand the motivations of others. I hope that the study of this issue and issues I will cover in future blog posts serves to empower you. I hope that you will learn to rely on your own intrinsic authority vs. the extrinsic institutional authority of the church or any other organization. I hope you will learn to probe, question, and discover truth in new ways. I hope you learn to view religion and scriptures metaphorically vs. literally and that you may understand that this approach does not have to extinguish your faith, but that it’s ok if it does. There is a wide, expansive world out there and I believe taking many truth claims of the LDS church literally shrinks that world down and perpetuates an “us vs. them” mentality. I hope you come to understand it’s ok to not believe, or not believe literally.

“You become mature when you become the authority for your own life.”- Joseph Campbell, “A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living”

Lastly, I hope you may learn to take a less rigid approach to your beliefs and practices not only as they pertain to the LDS church, but religion in general. You don’t have to lose your faith, or give up on religion, or give up your traditional definition of God just because I have.

We have to be able to laugh at ourselves. This will help you be less dogmatic and inflexible in your interaction with others. I will let Br. Jake help me illustrate this point.

Much love to you all.

1 Comment

  1. churchistrue

    Great analysis. I just found your site today and read this article. Very impressed. I look forward to reading more articles. Thank you for including the non-literal faithful view, and I hope you continue to allow for that possibility for your readers. One thing you might include is how the Kinderhook translation attempt validates that Joseph was using the KEP for translating Egyptian. Don Bradley presented this information a couple years ago. I give a summary of it in my Book of Abraham discussion. http://www.churchistrue.com/book-of-abraham/

    Reply

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