Friday, November 4, 2016

Brigham Young in the office (leaders at work)


Brigham Young's office style


"The stream of visitors poured steadily through the outer office and trickled in orderly sequence into his own office, hour after hour. No one was ever denied admittance. His two counsellors, various members of the Twelve who were at home, sat with him and gave opinions or help in the various matters presented for the Leader's decision.

He was exceedingly quick at reaching the core of any matter brought to his attention, and was sometimes impatient with the circumlocution or hesitancy of his callers, especially so if guile were used in leading up to the point of issue. At such times he would interrupt a caller or a council meeting, would state the issue and answer yes or no, quietly and decisively. He was never ambiguous or involved in answer or statement, nor did he waste time or words. The kindly tone, the sympathetic glance, softened the rigour of the denial, added joy to the affirmative yes. He used to say that he knew when men wanted him to say yes and he usually gratified that desire," The Life Story of Brigham Young by Susa Young Gates (his daughter), 1939, 337-338.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Doctrine and Covenants 59: Oblations and Sacraments on the Lord's Day

My father used to talk about how the latterly generations likely do not understand the meaning of many of the words used in the Doctrine and Covenants, while the generation that first received the words likely understood them very well. So do we understand the scriptural usage or not? Or, just how much of it escapes us today? Twenty-five percent? Forty?

Again, I've often noted how many college students struggle in coming to grips with 19th century American usage--even a single paragraph can overwhelm, or even drown. So I've often felt grateful at being exposed, by much reading and reflection at a very young age, to such usage. That reading certainly included the seven volume History of the Church, which, in its turn, includes the sections of the Doctrine and Covenants.

Yet much escapes me. There are many things in the Doctrine and Covenants, both in language and doctrine, which I don't even pretend to understand. There may be some Saints who understand all these words, phrases, and nuances, but I'm not among that number.

For instance, I've never understood why Doctrine and Covenants speaks of paying and offering our devotions, oblations, and sacraments--and note the troubling plural--on the Lord's day. Why sacraments, instead of the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper?

"Pay thy devotions" seems straightforward enough--but read the very next verse. "Pay thy devotions," in this case, apparently means "Make vows to God," "Vouch and commit to a more saintly life."

Why oblations?

Today, after a simple dictionary search--something we all resist in our own native tongue--I see an answer.

Laying aside what oblations may mean broadly, or what the word may generally connote, the denotation we should be looking for in Doctrine and Covenants 59, says Merriam-Websters, is "(specifically capitalized) the act of offering the eucharistic elements to God."

Now that's so simple and so clear that I'm stunned I never knew it before. It's common knowledge which I haven't had any share in whatsoever.

So should I be embarrassed or just grateful to learn technical English usage? Gratitude best fits the subject.

The early Saints, at the time the revelation was received, would have taken the phrase "oblations and sacraments" as being specifically the "offering [of] the eucharistic elements--note the plural--to God." Our Sunday School and Institute Manuals veer off in every direction--to every connotative nuance--and miss the simplicity of the specific Oblation. Even so, we ought to weigh both the denotative and the connotative in reading Scripture--we do continue to study and to ponder. And we can take an occasional peek at etymology. (The etymology of oblation has little to tell us--it's just an offering.)

Yet it's wonderful to realize a simple truth: We do not understand the meaning of the words and phrases in the Doctrine and Covenants in the purity with which our forebears would have understood them.

For me, clarity is coming a word at a time: the phrase "oblations and sacraments" ought to be capitalized "Oblations and Sacraments," and it ought, first, to be understood as a precise, technical term (however poetic) for the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper, the elements of which we offer up to God.

There may be many sacramental ordinances spoken of in Mormonism, thus many sacraments, but Oblations and Sacraments speaks to the Eucharist. And this last term? Latter-day Saints don't use it in its English form, but nothing stops any Latter-day Saint from picking up a Greek Testament or asking Greek brothers and sisters about it. The simplicity of the language of the Gospels in Greek recalls the purity and the simplicity of Spanish for English speakers. Get the knack of it, and you breeze right through. Never let anyone tell you that it is difficult, or for the "scholarly." The Prophet Joseph studied his Greek Testament and pondered long over the meaning of words and phrases. We can do the same--one word at a time.

Meanwhile, let's not neglect our lessons in Nineteenth Century American and British English nor put aside the tomes of the Oxford English Dictionary. There's much left to learn.


Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Why Is It There? Book of Abraham Facsimile 1 and the Opening Vignette of the Joseph Smith Book of Breathings

The Joseph Smith Book of Breathings opens with a vignette representing Osiris on a lion-couch.

The Book of Abraham opens with a vignette, in facsimile, representing Abraham upon an altar.

The vignette is one and the same--and it's been a delight to visit the Church History Library of late, where the vignette is on display.

(For a digitized copy, see: http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/egyptian-papyri/1.)


Both the Abraham narrative and an accompanying Explanation for Facsimile 1 set forth why the vignette opens the Patriarch's account. But what is the explanation for its appearance at the beginning of the Book of Breathings?


I

To look at the papyrus is a breathtaking thing--the figure on the altar stirring to life as he greets the manifestation of the reviving soul in the form of a descending falcon (see Klaus Baer, "The Book of Abraham Papyrus," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 1968, 3/3, 118). And just to the right of the figure, following the priestly titles of Hor of Thebes, we find, boldly writ, the blessing: "May his soul [his ba] live in their midst!" (see Michael Rhodes, The Hor Book of Breathings: A Translation and Commentary).

According to Professor Klaus Baer:

"Lines 1-5 give the titles, name, and parentage of the man for whose benefit the Breathing Permit was written:

. . . the prophet of Amonrasonter, prophet[?] of Min Bull-of-his-Mother [now read by Marc Coenen as Min-Who-Massacres-His-Enemies], prophet[?] of Khons the Governor. . . Hor, justified, son of the holder of the same titles, master of secrets, and purifier of the gods Osorwer, justified[?]. . . Tikhebyt, justified. May your ba live among them, and may you be buried in the West. . ." (Klaus Baer, "The Book of Abraham Papyrus," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 1968, 3/3, 116-117).

Baer queries in a footnote to the words "among them": "Hor's parents?"

Somehow the expression embraces both parentage and the rich endowment of priestly offices and blessings therewith associated.

'nx b3.k m-hnw.w

May thy ba-soul live therein!

That is, "is the midst of these blessings and offices and authorities."


To see the scene in person, and all together, is to capture both words and vignette as a single whole. It is to grasp the point of the vignette as thematic title of the Breathings Text that follows. It strikes me like a bolt of lightning:

That his soul may live!

And is this not the very title of the book that follows such preliminaries:

The Book of Breathings made by Isis, so that her brother, Osiris, may live?

The Book of Breathings, written by Isis, so that her brother, Osiris, may live!

As Hugh Nibley tells us in One Eternal Round, that title bears astonishing likeness to the words instructions revealed to Abraham for his wife Sarai, as they enter Egypt, words found both in Genesis 12:11-13 and in Book of Abraham 2:23-25:


And it came to pass when I was come near to enter into Egypt, the Lord said unto me. . .see that ye do on this wise:

Let her say unto the Egyptians, she is thy sister, and thy soul shall live.

And it came to pass that I, Abraham, told Sarai, my wife, all that the Lord had said unto me--Therefore say unto them, I pray thee, thou art my sister, that it may be well with me for thy sake, and my soul shall live because of thee (Abraham 2:23-25).


The story of Osiris and Isis and that of Abraham and Sarah thus come together on a single papyrus. They come together in the scene of the figure stirring at the appearance of his soul, at the moment in which his soul in truth may live.

Abraham's first rescue on the altar, after the manner of the Egyptians, only foreshadows the rescue, just as marvelous, at his first entrance into Egypt with Sarai: trial follows trial, deliverance after deliverance. And the opening vignette, as title-piece, patterns the whole. Deliverance does come, and as Hugh Nibley notes, the three vignettes of the Book of Abraham show the journey from altar to vision to throne. And as Hugh Nibley was at pains to show, in a lengthy volume of commentary, the Book of Breathings constitutes an Egyptian Endowment of Power. The deceased attains to the glory of the sun, the moon, and the stars.

Who is there that would not seek the blessings of Abraham? Who would not wish to win the glory of Abraham?

There is a likeness here to the glory of Osiris. There is a likeness to the glory sought by the Theban priesthood--and by the priest named Hor (after the son of Osiris).

May his soul live.

Count the times the word soul or living soul appears in the wee 14 page Book of Abraham--it's a surprising thing, this doctrine of the soul.

Since we've cited Hugh Nibley a couple of times, it's essential to recall several finely crafted pieces he wrote 50 years ago in which he argued that Egyptian vignettes need have nothing to do, or nothing much to do, with accompanying text--a very strange phenomenon. Everything he says is correct--with one exception: as we build on the totality of Professor Nibley's work, it becomes clear that the Book of Breathings vignette makes a fine title piece for the surrounding writing, both for the introductory sentences and for the Breathings text that follows.

"But it's referenced in the Gospel Topics essay on the Book of Abraham!"


"Some have assumed that the hieroglyphs adjacent to and surrounding facsimile 1 must be a source for the text of the book of Abraham. But this claim rests on the assumption that a vignette and its adjacent text must be associated in meaning. In fact, it was not uncommon for ancient Egyptian vignettes to be placed some some distance from their associated commentary."


No matter. Things advance over half-a-century. And there may even be other things in "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham" that will require modification by 2076. That's how it ought to be. Indeed, there are items in that thoughtful piece, both things Egyptian and things English, that ought to be modified today. Our times are so busy, late and soon: if we don't get to it, posterity will.

The Book of Abraham is not going anywhere--except to the billions of his posterity throughout the world. Billions will hold in their hands Abraham's witness of the Lord Jesus Christ--including his witness of the Plan encompassing both Creation and Resurrection.


II

And what of the notion of sacrifice, the priest who attempts "to offer up" the figure on the altar--if that's what's going on?

The introductory words also address the matter--for a single vignette can handle a variety of ideas and scenarios grasped by the Egyptian mind. Like poetry, these vignettes come packed.

Among the inherited priestly offices held by Horos (or Hor), says Marc Coenen, is the obscure Prophet of Min who massacres his enemies. Min, in this case, appears in the likeness of divine Horus, who avenges the death of his father, Osiris. A surprising bronze statue shows us how the Prophet of Min who massacres his enemies is to be represented, and the clothing matches that worn by the Anubis figure in our vignette.

(For references see http://valsederholm.blogspot.com/2011/12/what-hugh-nibley-meant_08.html.)

Min is, naturally, also Resheph-Min, Resheph being the corresponding Canaanite divinity. It is the priest of a god at once Egyptian and Canaanite, and at once Min, Resheph, and Horus, that come together in the office held by Horos, according to Professor Coenen. What Coenen does not notice is that the clothing of the Anubis figure on our vignette matches that found on the bronze statue of slaughtering Resheph-Min, who is "dressed in a short kilt, held up by two bands that cross over the breast and back."

When Marc Coenen's astonishing articles first appeared, articles which also transformed our understanding of the dating of the papyri and the genealogy of this particular priestly family, I wondered what Latter-day Saints would make of the idea of Min who massacres his enemies in light of our own Facsimile 1. Following on Coenen's work, BYU professor John Gee has not only noted the significance of this priestly office of Resheph-Min for Book of Abraham studies, but has further identified the office of Amonrasonter as part of a ceremonial complex of symbolic slaughter of the Enemy. Yet given the fragmented nature of our vignette--the fragment we have shows no knife--tying such offices with the vignette remains, perforce, a delicate matter. Yet there is the matter of the ritual clothing of the would-be knife-holding figure.

Nonetheless, if we take the vignette as bearing no relationship to the surrounding text, a misplacement--What a misplacement! The matter, as Brother Joseph might say, is as plain as a pikestaff!

Speaking of pikestaffs, it's worth noting how the later Egyptian word for the pole-axe that smites the Osirian Enemy and also for the corresponding verb of smiting itself are both djedi. That the word further alludes to the Osirian djed-pillar, the symbol of the resurrection of Osiris and the subsequent permanence of his dynasty is plain. What the irony expresses is that Osiris must violently die to live. No wonder the Egyptians sometimes (both apotropaically and in symbolic reversal of roles) call Osiris himself, the Enemy of Osiris. Who is the Enemy? We have met the enemy and it is us! Nibley would call this a game of substitution, the substitute sacrifice. And note, in Abraham's narrative it is tellingly the standing figure, the priest, who must die, while Osiris or Abraham is delivered from the gates of hell.

But how can the Egyptians represent avenging Min, the knife-wielding slaughterer of the Enemy, with the figure of Anubis, the mummifier? Aren't they distinct divinities playing far-different roles? That's what the handbooks say. . .

The role of Anubis is to prepare the body for the moment of resurrection. Hold on: Isn't it to prepare the body for burial? To transform the corpse into a perfect body--for that's what a "mummy" is meant to be--is to bring about its perfected state in resurrection. Mummification therefore spells triumph over Death as the Enemy. And even the act of violently opening the body for mummification becomes, then--and most ironically--the act of triumph over death. In every ceremonial performance associated with this god, even when he tears the Osirian corpse with sharpest claws, Anubis massacres the Enemy of Osiris. The act of tearing and cutting finds conceptual "reversal" as an act of binding, binding up, and healing. In like manner, for the Egyptians, "to wrap" (wt) is also--and always--to kill (mwt).

The Ancient Egyptians followed a multivalued logic, says Erik Hornung. Throw away Plutarch and handbooks and bookstore encyclopedias, and the idea that x=y and only y, because distinctions, roles, and correspondences get to be a very delicate matter. Consider the following lines from the New Kingdom Book of the Night: "You are the rebels that made a wrapping, made a wrapping Father Osiris. Accordingly, Father Osiris commanded that I [Horus Mekhenty Irty] should smite this your enemy" (The Book of the Night).

What!?

There is clearly a lot going on in these texts and vignettes--but it's clear that the vignette we call Facsimile 1 is exactly where it needs to be.

It's the title piece of the whole--and it both opens the narrative and shows its victorious culmination in eternity.

There is danger, there is death--but that his soul may live, his sister and wife comes to the rescue in the image of the descending falcon.

The scene, which also signals the union of Isis and Osiris, thus also teaches us that Osiris' soul shall continue to live through his royal posterity, even Horus, king of Egypt (Baer, 118-119). In like manner, Abraham writes for the benefit of his posterity who shall come. We recall that these scenes represent the mere opening of the Patriarch's career--the promise of posterity lies ahead: his son Isaac.


III

And how does the fragment we possess of the Book of Abraham end?

The presentation of Eve to Adam.

We go with Abraham and Osiris from altar to Throne.

Moving from vignette to vignette, we keep the story of the soul and of its eternal identity and worth. The doctrine thus also appears in hieroglyphs on the panels of the hypocephalus, Book of Abraham Facsimile 2: "Cause that his soul may live!"--an expression, if we evoke the setting of "the Holy Temple of God," wherein God's Plan is set forth, that Joseph Smith apparently considers beyond the willingness of "the world," that is, the worldly, to receive (see Explanation, figure 8). Look at the world's doers and shakers today. Which of them, in many lands and climes, might you consider a candidate for reflection on the eternal life of the soul? Many of them seem far too busy cheapening even the landscape of this life: accusation, invective "something too round," "hard speeches," and demeaning talk prevail. Isn't that simply what Joseph Smith had in mind here?

There may be more to it--but "that's more than we know," or "more than we should seek after" "at the present time," "for we know enough" to "hold to thy way."

The teaching also appears on the hypocephalus rim of the hypocephalus, as we follow the eternal round, the plan or pathway of the enlivened deceased from the tomb-shrine of the Celestial Iunu-Heliopolis, into the solar course, and thence on till he arrives at the final temple-shrine, the shrine of the prince, in the Celestial Heliopolis.

If you could hie to Heliopolis.



Sunday, October 16, 2016

How Was The Book of Abraham Transmitted? Just What We Need to Know.

The Book of Abraham is good enough to tell us about the nature of its own transmission into our "own hands." And the transmission has absolutely nothing to do with either later Jewish redactors, as some vaguely posit, or with the grab-bag syncretism of Greek, Hebrew, Egyptian, and other religious conceptions that prevailed in Greco-Roman Egypt. Neither do any of the Explanations of the three Book of Abraham facsimiles show the least trace of later Jewish interpretation of any Egyptian vignettes or ideas. The Prophet Joseph Smith is showing us a moment of convergence, a sharing of ideas, between Abraham and the Egyptians of his day--ideas that do persist in the priestly circles down to Ptolemaic times. Yet what's been called iconotropy (coined by Robert Graves for the "turning," or "misrepresentation," of icons, figures, symbols), and applied to the Explanations, makes for a Bridge Too Far. Iconotropy will not be found in Erik Hornung's classic, Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: the One and the Many. 

So let's not make things up.



The record of the Father of the Faithful, "preserved in [our] own hands," is "of ancient date" and its transmission follows the pattern Abraham himself plainly teaches, a pattern of preserving and of keeping records in responsible "hands," from "the patriarchs" "even unto this day." Now that the kept, preserved, and pure record has, as the Prophet Joseph expresses, "fallen into our hands," the question remains for each of us What shall we do with it?

Ask Abraham. He exulted in Scripture: "The records have come into my hands, which I hold unto this present time" (Abraham 1:28).

There is pure immediacy in these words, and should we suddenly sense that "this present time" reaches its treasures even into our hands, we sense truly. We are to do the works of Abraham, which includes both receiving and reading the words of Abraham in the very manner in which he once received and read the words of his own fathers (see Doctrine and Covenants 132).

"But the records of the fathers, even the patriarchs, concerning the right of Priesthood, the Lord my God preserved in mine own hands; therefore a knowledge of the beginning of the creation, and also of the planets, and of the stars, as they were made known unto the fathers, have I kept even unto this day, and I shall endeavor to write some of these things upon this record, for the benefit of my posterity that shall come after me" (Abraham 1:31).

In these words we find:

1. A plurality of records--who can say how many?--safely transmitted through the numerous generations. These include records about "the right of Priesthood," "the beginning of the creation," and "a knowledge of the planets, and of the stars." It's a very particular, specific, and peculiar set--a prize of a library--and Abraham knew it. And the subject headings recall specific titles found in the Egyptian House of Life, the ancient repository of knowledge of the stars and the structure of the cosmos.

2. A purpose: "I shall endeavor to write some of these things upon this record, for the benefit of my posterity." For the benefit of "my posterity" in the Latter-day. We are the seed of Abraham (Doctrine and Covenants 84).

3. A method: Abraham's own record upon papyrus--"this record"--combines knowledge taken directly from the patriarchal records with the further light and knowledge of Heaven, including his own independent revelation through the medium of the Urim and Thummim. Inspired writing thus requires both the study of earlier inspired writings and an independent revelation to boot--as Joseph Smith says. Note the fluidity of the process.

Abraham, in a single but neglected verse, thus teaches us just what we need to know about the transmission of the Word. The verse, at once, gives a genuine thumbnail sketch of the conservative, even rarefied, world of the Ancient Egyptian priests and scribes, "who sought diligently" to record and to transmit, without error, "the rights of the priesthood" and "a knowledge" of the workings of the sidereal heavens and the nature of the "heavenly places." For instance, the priestly centerplace of Heliopolis, prominent in the Egyptian Scriptures, is, according to Dietrich Raue, such a "heavenly place"; it is this very celestial Heliopolis that figures so repeatedly on Abraham Facsimile 2, and in particular, at the apex of the rim.

"If you could hie to Heliopolis."

However conservative, the Egyptian tradition is yet also fully participatory and additive: all seek to participate in the blessings of the fathers, including the blessings of adding to the store of knowledge, "seeking to possess a greater knowledge" (Abraham 1:2). There are always records in the plural, and there is always fluidity in the transmission--new light, new knowledge, comes with the old, never overthrowing, but rather expanding upon those pure sources. 



Did Abraham's fathers write? Abraham, no matter what dates we assign him, late or soon, lived in a world that had already known writing of every genre, on a variety of media, and in various scripts, for at least a millennium and a half. Translation was everywhere; so was code-switching. 

Even so, did not only (or mainly) the priestly and scribal elites write records? 

Since the Book of Abraham describes both Abraham and his posterity, as also his ancient fathers, as priests and rulers (patriarchs), why should we be startled to find his papyrus roll, written in Egypt and in hieratic, in intentional proximity to records kept by an elite Theban priestly family (certain scraps of which are now housed in the Church History Library)? And yet it is marvelously startling!

The Theban priesthood in Ptolemaic times included direct line descendants from the royalty and high officials of Abraham's day--they were "priests forever," after the order of the ancient fathers, "seeking earnestly to imitate that order established by the fathers," as so inimitably expressed by Abraham himself (1:26). He explains it all (doesn't he?) for "the benefit of my posterity." Abraham, who certainly holds the keys of his book, wishes us to understand a few of these points with clarity. We owe it to him and to the Prophet Joseph to put aside vague ideas.


We now know both the family lineage and the high offices held by the fathers and sons of Hor, the owner of the Joseph Smith Book of Breathings, for Professor Marc Coenen has reconstructed six generations of this priestly family. Six generations! Mathematical models that show our own descent from Old Kingdom pyramid builders would clearly also insist that modern Middle Easterners, Africans, and Europeans can all claim as ancestral the same family tree! And again, Father Abraham himself is good enough to provide us with the pattern of how the ancients transmitted the genealogies and associated priestly documents: copies, abridgments, and all (Abraham 1:31). 

And the Book of Abraham is such a priestly copy--written by the hands of sober Egyptian priests--not fanciful Jewish redactors--upon papyrus. Moreover, such a pattern, and such a Theban priesthood, could not be any further from the milieu of the Greek Magical Papyri, that is, the syncretistic spells combining Hebrew, Greek, and Egyptian names (often purposely unintelligible), the amulets, and so forth, in intricate amalgamation. And, by the way, the Egyptian hypocephalus (Facsimile 2 of the Book of Abraham) is neither a "funeral amulet" nor a funerary amulet; neither does it belong to the Greek Magical Papyri. (Don't forget the celestial Heliopolis.)

The Book of Abraham is about "greater knowledge" shared in purity, not about that which glories in obscurity or in the unintelligible for its own sake; it has nothing to do with that which glories in control or manipulation or subjugation; it is about Priesthood and Creation and Stars and Souls--and God. Read it. Intelligence is the (Abrahamic) word to keep in mind. Sober is the word to keep in mind. Take the Book of Breathings. What does it have to do with the hodge-podge of syncretism prevailing in Greco-Roman Egypt? what does it have to do with manipulation? Not a thing. 

Because Jewish colonists had by Roman times already lived several hundreds of years in Egypt, where the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures was also effected, such later manuals of magic unsurprisingly, here and there, include the name of Abraham. What has that to do with the rarefied, kept, sealed book of Abraham on papyrus hid away in the Egyptian priestly family collections? Not a sober thing. That the Jewish apocalyptic tradition also includes a Book of Abraham, for which Egyptian themes have also been noted (Nibley, Abraham in Egypt), should not surprise us. Just consider the history of the Bible--hold the breath long enough to consider the historicity, if you please: Abraham in Egypt; Joseph in Egypt; Israel in Egypt; Moses in Egypt. There was an early split in the keeping of the record. Egypt kept its copy of the Abraham and Joseph Record--in its purity. Moses had his own version, copy, or abridgment, which he, in his turn, also abridged. And Latter-day Saint Scripture yet boldly upholds Mosaic authorship for the Pentateuch--and ever shall. It's in our Book of Moses; it's in our irrevocable Canon. We print hundreds of copies of the Pearl of Great Price everyday--and it's never had such a reach. 

There was a split in the conveyance of Abraham's and Joseph's records early on: We thus have Genesis, the Apocalypse of Abraham, even the Genesis Apocryphon, and so on and on--but we also have this purest of documents, the pure voice of "I, Abraham," direct from the tombs.

These records of Abraham and Joseph, along with documents of priestly initiation were passed down, either as one set or as associated documents, from fathers of both royal and priestly blood to their priestly heirs in Ptolemaic Thebes. The Egyptians had extensive libraries--in the restrictive, even prohibitive, House of Life, priests collected the books of ceremony, cosmology, and initiation--though every indication suggests the much of the Joseph Smith papyri were also family lineage documents. 


These last records constituted the very authority that confirmed priests like Hor (the principal actor or initiand of the Joseph Smith Book of Breathings) and his father, Osoroeris, in their offices. Hor, a priest of the Ptolemaic Period, aspires to possess the "greater [and thus ever more ancient ceremonial] knowledge," even as Abraham, looking back to his fathers, himself once sought, and even as Pharaoh, through Abraham, sought. Thus we see "the claim of both the King and the Patriarch to exclusive possession of and access to certain written records that went back to the beginning of time and confirmed his particular claim to legitimacy of priesthood and kingship" (Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, 92ff.). "The most important of such documents were those containing the royal genealogy, and it was to preserve them that the House of Life was built" (Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Abraham, 382). To the discerning reader the Book of Abraham narrates not only the stunning travels of the patriarch, it also reveals, with laser-like precision, just how we are to understand the various remnants of papyri, Abrahamic or not, that have fallen into "our own hands" today. 



Such a thumbnail sketch showing how the Ancient Egyptians (and others of the Ancients) transmitted sacred records, whether of Abraham or of Osoroeris, again leaves no room for any theory that posits later Jewish redactors, in Egypt or Antarctica, for Abraham's book. Neither is there any link, nor even any verifiable and meaningful trace, between Abraham's record and the bizarre syncretism that brings together bits and pieces of Greek, Egyptian, and Hebrew tradition in order to frame words of manipulative power--what Mormon calls "magics." But what of the lion couch scene and the accompanying spell that includes Abraham's name? What of the magical name sequence elsewhere that sports both Abraham and the pupil of the Wedjat-eye? I would ask: Are these meaningful links? verifiable semiotic traces between Abraham in Egypt and the kept Egyptian tradition? Even should there appear a trace, does that trace signify that the Greek Magical Papyri and the Book of Abraham ought to be read together?

No. As Brother Edward H. Ashment has long since shown, there is no basis for connecting the two. To build a bridge between Abraham and the Greek Magical Papyri is to build a Bridge to Nowhere. 



The marvelous records of priestly authority and Divine marvels were "sealed up" or "kept" "to come forth in their purity," as Nephi says. The first person narrator of the Book of Abraham speaks to his posterity today with a purity and a clarity, an intelligence and a directness, that can only come from a diligently preserved ancient writing. Copies there may have been, copies framed in intent of exactitude, but the book betrays not a hint of any loose or corruptible pattern of transmission. 

Abraham advances the culturally specific details of how it was done right in Chapter One. He claims to belong to a linked tradition of writers who record "the right of Priesthood" for specific "ruling fathers," or "patriarchs"--and for very blessed posterity. And as Hugh Nibley notes, ancient writings on the creation and astronomy belong only to the very elect. 

No wonder doors flew open for Abraham wherever he went: with his books and charts, he was the custodian of a remarkable body of knowledge, the very secrets of the universe. Abraham the reader, the learned, precedes Abraham the writer. And given the sort of introductory remarks given by Abraham in Chapter One, the telling details of which point to its genuine antiquity, we must insist that Abraham wrote. Here are culturally specific details of which Genesis affords us not a word. Joseph Smith hits the nail on the head here. This is the most authentic of all verses here--but, then, Abraham packs in a whole array of stunners in his brief 16 pages. Count them. No other record from Egypt carries such a burden of authenticity nor of the genuine.

There are many Abraham's, no doubt. Joseph Smith really gave us two Books of Abraham: that of the Pearl of Great Price and that of the New Translation of the Bible, where new Abraham pages nearly match our 16 in number. We overlook this second Abraham. Then there is the Abraham of the Book of Mormon, as well as the surprising Abraham of the Doctrine and Covenants. 

The Abraham of Genesis is ever active, on the move, stirring and forging ahead. He is also reflective and questioning. The Abraham of the Egyptian record is all that, yet he is clearly more deeply reflective than active, part of an elitist tradition. His literacy and intelligence explain to his hosts something of the miracles which surround him and buoy him up, even the Divine Spirit in which he lives and moves and has his being. At a loss to capture him fully, the once-and-fleeting kings capture him in part.

Abraham is like a flask of myrrh--and so his book.

It's earthshaking to see Abraham as a writer. Of course he was--and specifics appear on every hand in the 14 wee pages--he is, in breathtakingly condensed fashion, historian, astronomer, prophet, and a bit of a narrative geographer. He wakens the sympathy of his readers from the very first verse--and from the first chilling episode--then he sweeps us up in one of the most expansive visions ever captured in words. And off he goes: adding to, redacting, abridging sources, perhaps even translating--for every reader will see he is working in several languages, interpreting words and explaining ideas along the way. At very least, the record shows him to be trilingual. Yes, Abraham comes to us at full tilt: we have to stretch our minds to the utmost since every word counts and entices, as he juggles languages and cosmogonies and analogies back and forth with the thriftiest of economy. Fourteen Pages, and setting aside the three facsimiles, a mere Eleven Pages. Eleven Pages! Here is Abraham.

If the Prophet Joseph had given us even the fifteenth page, we could not then have handled it. We couldn't handle it even now. We can't bear the sweeping power of it. We mumble an incantatory spell or two about how we know all there is to know about Egypt and the Bible; we repeat, in knee-jerk reaction, that Abraham never existed at all.

We cannot bear the intelligence and the vision of it all. We stop reading, stop reflecting, stop pleading, stop living up to our own dreams of victory. We pour heart and soul into fighting a "book" of 14 pages. We listen to the drum roll of Internet voices--then surrender into empty agnosticism our own freedom to pursue the things Abraham pursued: greater knowledge, happiness, peace, rest.

Some boldly state that the Book of Abraham has fallen.
They forget that Abraham himself has risen.

He lives on. 
He names us his seed.
He calls us to read with reflection.

Here is Abraham.  






Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Two Bridges: A Cautionary Note in Book of Mormon Scholarship (Revision)

My purpose is to cheer on the promising buds of gospel scholarship.

As a Latter-day Saint who prizes thoughtful writing on the Book of Mormon and on the Pearl of Great Price, I will henceforth keep in mind a cautionary note, what I shall call the Two Bridges.

The first bridge is The Bridge to Nowhere. The second evokes strategy--even The Bridge Too Far.

We may, at times, meet sloppy prose, slippery logic, weak argument, incoherent transitions, and bizarre claims. Of these faults, the most serious is the lack of judicious discrimination in handling sources.

Here juts The Bridge to Nowhere. . .

Elsewhere, we find intricacy, detail, baroque piles, with multitudinous accompanying signs posted on interminable byways and winding paths: The Highway to Faith Just Ahead. One More Bridge

Before us lies. . . The Bridge Too Far.

Keeping well in mind that the Lord asks our patience and our faith, He never requires A Bridge Too Far. Faith sufficient to study, ponder, and plant the seed of belief in the testimony of the Book of Mormon is the "invitation" sent out "to all men" (see Alma 5:33; Alma 32). That testimony comprises not only doctrine but historical narrative as well; for, like the Bible, the Book of Mormon has its own assumptions about itself.

In our very desire to support and supplement and invite faith in the word of God, and to stave off the singularly odd and repetitive attacks of the critic, might we sometimes nevertheless devise linguistic models, ethnological constructs, or geographic certainties of such complicated skein that all ultimately culminates in A Bridge too Far? 

Or might our piles and pyramids of learning by which we say we see, in occasional contradistinction to King Benjamin's tower even distort doctrinal horizons? Sometimes, with Alma, we feel to say: "Ye cannot suppose that this is what it meaneth" (Alma 40:17); or "it mattereth not" (40:5, 8). There are vital reasons why scriptural scholarship, in which history and doctrine are inseparably tied together, is the most difficult scholarship of all.

Of what, then, may sound Book of Mormon scholarship consist? And what's the point of such Scriptural endeavor anyhow? It should--and in sobriety of word and argument--invite what Hugh Nibley calls a second look. It ought not provide the artillery for public rows. Enough already of these interminable online rows about Scripture!

Hugh Nibley, in a footnote buried somewhere or other, speaks of "the peculiar and the specific." Evidence ideally ought to be "both peculiar and specific": that is the high standard Nibley strove for. Did he sometimes reach it? It's clear he thought he occasionally did. And so can we.

Proof, that is to say, "being convinced of a thing," lies within, a subjective choice ever. While the peculiar and the specific do not spell proof, that telling combination is an utterly different thing than the tenuous and the speculative. All Scriptural scholarship among the Latter-day Saints hovers somewhere between one or the other pole; I do not say it hovers safely. And if what goes into publication tends to the tenuous and speculative, so be it. Presses must roll--and posthaste! But when a correspondence simply must be pointed out, when it shines so bright as the three stars in the belt of Orion, the student will come to know what is nebulous and what is not.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Two Bridges

My purpose is to cheer on the promising buds of gospel scholarship.

As a Latter-day Saint who prizes thoughtful writing on the Book of Mormon and on the Pearl of Great Price, I will henceforth keep in mind a cautionary note, what I shall call the Two Bridges.

The first bridge is The Bridge to Nowhere. The second evokes strategy--even The Bridge Too Far.

We may, at times, meet sloppy prose, slippery logic, weak argument, incoherent transitions, and bizarre claims about the meaning of the word plausible (it does not connote the flimsiest thread binds Iron Truth), or of the role of authority (a scholar slept Here--disturb not!). Of these faults, the most serious is the lack of judicious discrimination in handling sources.

Here juts The Bridge to Nowhere. . .

Elsewhere, we find intricacy, detail, baroque piles, with multitudinous accompanying signs posted on interminable byways and winding paths: The Highway to Faith Just Ahead. One More Bridge. Watch for Ice.

Before us lies. . . The Bridge Too Far.


These Two Bridges, never fully distinct, may even converge into but One Bridge: the Bridge to Bird Island--that sandbar on Utah Lake on whose north shore Zarahemla once proudly rose (or was it the east shore and the Hill Cumorah?). And what is true of our work on the Book of Mormon may equally apply to work on Abraham or Deuteronomy or Paul.


Keeping well in mind that the Lord asks our patience and our faith, He never requires A Bridge Too Far. Faith sufficient to study, ponder, and plant the seed of belief in the testimony of the Book of Mormon is the "invitation" sent out "to all men" (see Alma 5:33; Alma 32). That testimony comprises not only doctrine but historical narrative as well; for, like the Bible, the Book of Mormon has its own assumptions about itself.

I speak of the work of independent students, what Elder Oaks calls "alternative voices," not of the publications in official Church organs. Who can but admire the careful and thoughtful work the Church sponsors on the Doctrine and Covenants and Church History? (Hint: it's small on speculation.) Faithful Latter-day Saints stand for the truth of the Book of Mormon's doctrine and storyline, but must they further vouch for any particular take, or even consensus, on geology, geography, ethnology, genetics, numerology, law, literary and lit-crit studies, linguistics, source criticism, or on what constitutes a festival or a temple text?

"Of course not," we say, "no one ever suggested any such thing!" Then why do we sometimes push our readings and interpretations to the degree we do? "Well, maybe we get a bit carried away in love and zeal and ice skates. It's like Pokemon Go: it's an exercise; it's fun; we battle monsters! Enemies we hunt up online surround us as we play! The pressure is constant!" Then let's be direct about it--lest we wind up saying to our readers: You really can't understand the book aright until you throw off encrusted tradition and read it with new eyes, that is, with our eyes--and here's the latest scholarship for you to master. Which is the same thing as saying: You jolly well must accept Zarahemla in Alaska, if you really wish to explain both the Mayans and the Mulekites, so well as the absence of snow and jungles in the Book of Mormon.

It's nobody's authorial intent to so present the Case of the Book of Mormon--but what of the reader? What of the reader, fed on the seeds so liberally spread on Bird Island, who comes to believe he or she must answer all the thorny historical and scientific questions anyone could possibly ask of the Book of Mormon, and so resorts to any possible answer, however far-fetched? What of the reader (or author) who has no reason to suppose that what is being promoted as the "latest scholarship" is founded in a decades-ago exploded secondary source? No matter how pleasing the sound, everything must be tested.

Alas! the method and the manner of Bird Island. How many years will it take to root out such a deep disregard for philology? Twenty? Thirty? Could we root it out all at once! Root, hog, or die!

In our very desire to support and supplement and invite faith in the word of God, and to stave off the singularly odd and repetitive attacks of the critic, might we sometimes nevertheless devise linguistic models, ethnological constructs, or geographic certainties of such complicated skein--that all ultimately culminates in A Bridge too Far? Is our immune system in overdrive? The cleverest-seeming scholarship may, at last, serve up many a dish for the gullible. (Look up the dictionary meaning of the word sophisticated.)

Lehi in Arabia? Great. Lehi in South Arabia? Yeah. Lehi's shrine in . . ?

Lehi in America? Fine. Lehi in Mesoamerica? Okay. Lehi in that particular cenote? You jump in first.

Bunyan's Christian, that simple Bible-reading pilgrim, pauses in front of our pyramidal learning, takes in the algae-clogged sandbar, and scratches his head: "Another Slough of Despond, is't not?"

Or might our piles and pyramids of learning by which we say we see, in occasional contradistinction to King Benjamin's tower even distort doctrinal horizons? Sometimes, with Alma, we feel to say: "Ye cannot suppose that this is what it meaneth" (Alma 40:17); or "it mattereth not" (40:5, 8). There are vital reasons why scriptural scholarship, in which history and doctrine are inseparably tied together, is the most difficult scholarship of all.


Besides, the road to faith need not stretch beyond the few and evil days of our mortal probation. Brigham Young read the Book of Mormon closely and prayerfully for two, not twenty, years before seeking baptism. If he had waited twenty years, he would have missed leading the Pioneer Trail. The pageant must go on; the dispensation of the fulness of times unroll. Wagons Ho!


It's time to drop some things cold; it's time to take responsibility for what we publish.


Shall we sing loud just because we find ourselves off-key? What to do? Kicked out of the pulpit; tuned up; then kicked back in--the Brigham Young solution? So very much of what finds publication in Book of Mormon studies over the span of the decades parallels the precarious situation of one or another of these Two Bridges.


Of what, then, may sound Book of Mormon scholarship consist? Of silly Ph.D's? Of startling originality for its own sake? And what's the point of such Scriptural endeavor anyhow? It should--and in sobriety of word and argument--invite what Hugh Nibley calls a second look. It ought not provide the artillery for public rows. Enough already of these interminable online rows about Scripture!

Hugh Nibley, in a footnote buried somewhere or other, speaks of "the peculiar and the specific." Evidence ideally ought to be "both peculiar and specific": that is the high standard Nibley strove for. Did he sometimes reach it? It's clear he thought he occasionally did. And so can we.

Proof, that is to say, "being convinced of a thing," lies within, a subjective choice ever. While the peculiar and the specific do not spell proof, that telling combination is an utterly different thing than the tenuous and the speculative. All Scriptural scholarship among the Latter-day Saints hovers somewhere between one or the other pole; I do not say it hovers safely. And if what goes into publication tends to be both tenuous and speculative (or even jejune and incomprehensible), so be it. Presses must roll--and posthaste! But when a correspondence simply must be pointed out, when it shines so bright as the three stars in the belt of Orion, the student will come to know what is nebulous and what is not.





Notes
Hugh Nibley, "Bird Island."


Thursday, June 16, 2016

Book of Mormon Ammon: Hero or Zero?

When the servants of King Lamoni stream into the palace, he has the incoherent lot properly "stand forth and testify"--that mysterious newcomer Ammon (in reality the Nephite prince), has single-handedly slain and driven away his enemies, "he was astonished exceedingly, and said: Surely, this is more than a man. Behold, is not this the Great Spirit?"

"And they answered the king, and said: Whether he be the Great Spirit or a man, we know not, but this much we do know, that he cannot be slain. . . because of his expertness and great strength."

"And now, O king, we do not believe that a man has such great power, for we know he cannot be slain."

"And now, when the king heard these words, he said unto them: Now I know that it is the Great Spirit."


All this sounds like the stuff of legend: is it exaggerated? an embarrassment? Heroes embarrass us today: sum total zero.


Yet consider how Ramesses the great, the friend of the high god Amun, presents himself (in the "words" of his enemies), after driving his chariot like great Montu, none with him, through the host of his enemies:

He is no mere man, he that is among us!--
it's Seth, great of power, Baal in person!
Not the acts of a mere man are the things that he does,
that belong to one utterly unique!--
one who defeats myriads, no troops with him, no chariotry.


Note how the Pharaoh personifies several gods of war: Montu, Seth, Baal (the last, the Syro-Palestinian god). Baal, Montu, Amun: it all has the Book of Mormon flavor. No mere echoes: We hear Ammon; we hear Manti.


Indeed the "traditional image of the king" appears in the following words:

He who shoots the arrow like Sekhmet
to fell thousands of those who mistake his power


(Jan Assmann, The Mind of Egypt, 261).