I Reasoning, Learning, and Revelation
"I learned it by translating," Joseph Smith told his hearers at the Grove eleven days before his Martyrdom: "I learned it by translating the papyrus now in my house." Here we see Joseph's childlike capacity for receiving knowledge from any channel God might open for investigation and advancement. "I learned a test[imony] concerning Abraham and he reasoned concerng the God of Heaven--in order to do that sd he--suppose we have two facts that supposes that anotr fact may exist two men on the earth--one wiser than the other--wod shew that antr who is wiser than the wisest may exist--intelligences exist one above anotr that there is no end to it." "Abra reasoned thus" (16 June 1844, Grove East of Temple, Thomas Bullock reporting, The Words of Joseph Smith, ed. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, 380).
Translation required of Joseph re-flection: to bend his mind to reasoning upon spiritual truth. That same pattern--"I began to reflect"--led to the First Vision of the Father and the Son. Further knowledge lay ever ahead. He must "study it out in [his] mind" (see Doctrine and Covenants 9). His mind must reach the mind of Abraham, who envisions the order of the stars and, by reasoning and by revelation, perceives a like order of intelligence among the spirit sons and daughters of God. Abraham thus reasons concerning the God of Heaven.
In the Book of Abraham itself, it is the Lord who reasons with Abraham in a patient, fatherly, yet focused tutelage:
"Now, Abraham, these two facts exist". . . "And where these two facts exist". . ."If two things exist". . ."Now, if there be two things". . . "These two facts do exist."
Abraham 3: 16-19: "If two things exist, and there be one above another, there shall be greater things above them."
Reasoning leads to a spiral staircase of "Revelation upon Revelation" by which we ascend to a "Fulness of Light and Truth":
19 And the Lord said unto me: These two facts do exist, that there are two spirits, one being more intelligent than the other; there shall be another more intelligent than they; I am the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent than they all.
It is indeed a tutoring Lord who does the reasoning--yet Joseph saw it clearly, for the Lord requires that we reason right along with Him. Should Abraham stop reasoning, even for a moment, about the God of heaven, the vision is closed. It is Abraham's record. The Action of writing but continues the lesson; the pupil struggles to get it all down and to get it right. As the Seer, in his turn, struggles, under inspiration, to read the hieratic characters on the papyrus at his house, the invitation to reason concerning the God of heaven now falls upon him. Then as Revelator, he turns over the task to us. Abraham may be the starting point, but God "sendeth an invitation unto all men" (Alma 5:33).
New Scripture brings new covenantal obligation.
And what have we done with the responsibility? Shall the vision close? If we will exercise our own capacity to "reason out of the scriptures" and pray to the Father in faith, we also may continue to learn truths about God's eternal order (see Acts 17:2). We may gain further light about the purposes and messages of prophets, seers, and revelators. Perhaps we, like Joseph, may learn a testimony about Abraham--and his book.
II The Sacred Record
So it is that in his last Sabbath sermon, Joseph claims that Abraham Chapter 3 was translated from some papyrus in his keeping. That particular portion, however, is not in our keeping, though some of the hieroglyphs on Abraham Facsimile 2 match words and themes found in Chapters 1 and 3. (More on Facsimile 2 below.) While I can only surmise how prophets received, passed down, or translated any of our scriptures--and scripture remains an article of faith--I don't see wiggle room here: Joseph is quoting Abraham 3:16-19. As Professor W.V. Smith concisely puts it: "Joseph Smith [on 16 June 1844] references the papyri as the source" (A Joseph Smith Commentary on the Book of Abraham, Book of Abraham Project Web page, 112 n. 212).
The specificity about Chapter 3 and "papyrus now in my house" calls to mind a journal entry, written in the Prophet's own hand, under date of Sunday, 20 December 1835: "Brothers Palmer and Tailor Came to see me I showed them the sacred record to their Joy and sati[s]faction [the f in satifaction likely doubles for both s and f]" (Joseph Smith Papers, Journal I: 135). The entry tells us what Joseph himself, not scribes or associates, called at least that portion of the papyri which purported to be "The Book of Abraham, written by his own hand on papyrus": The Sacred Record. Scribe William W. Phelps, writing to his wife, calls that same portion both the "sacred record" and the "sacred writing." "From the very beginning," notes Hugh Nibley, the Saints "viewed and discussed" the hieratic Record of Abraham (a label also appearing in the journal) "as authentic scripture" (Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Abraham, 514). The record, said Joseph, penning a note to Sister Phelps in his own hand, reflected scriptural promises of "'hiden things of old times,' even 'treasures hid in the sand' (citing Deuteronomy 33:19)" (Nibley, Approach, 514 and n. 38).
Brother Joseph likely considered the entire Egyptian purchase sacred by virtue of its wonderful antiquity alone--a voice from the sand; he understood some of it as voicing Scripture. "I, Abraham" catches the breath away. Imagine translating that! For Hugh Nibley, the phrase sounds a trumpet blast. Sharon Keller speaks in ecstatic tones of stumbling across the wording of the Priestly Blessing of the Hebrews in hieroglyphs. I could show Professor Keller another such instance--but "I, Abraham"!
Sharon R. Keller, "An Egyptian Analogue to the Priestly Blessing," M. Lubetski, et al. (eds), Boundaries of the Ancient Near Eastern World, 338-345; for a spell also recalling the Priestly Blessing, see The Spell for the Protection of the Face of a Newborn, V. Sederholm, Papyrus British Museum 10808 and Its Cultural and Religious Setting, 166.
"Indeed, how could writings of Abraham be considered anything but sacred?" asks Hugh Nibley (Approach, 515). By so designating the Abraham papyrus, Joseph Smith was making plain his intent to add its future translation to the bursting canon as scriptural coequal with all that came before. The intent to finish never realized, we might expect bitterness in Brother Joseph's last sermon: Abraham lost again! The Prophet instead glories in a verse or two, as if he had just emerged from his Translating Room with the fresh news from heaven. The Latter-day Saints, even now, have hardly glimpsed the treasures of Joseph Smith's translating room.
III This High Gift
No matter who does the translating, no matter the method, we're going to get "I, Abraham" from whatever portion of the papyri it was that Joseph called the sacred record. Words on papyrus remain words on papyrus. Yet when we come to visions, revelations, and doctrines, any translator other than a seer must fall short. Scripture must be transmitted even as it was once "sealed up"--"in its purity." How Joseph translated cannot be grasped. The Book of Mosiah calls prophetic translation "this high gift": "And Ammon said that a seer is a revelator and a prophet also; and a gift which is greater can no man have, except he should possess the power of God, which no man can." "For he has wherewith that he can look, and translate all records that are of ancient date" (Mosiah 8: 13, 14, 16). Such mysteries of God, as Nephi learned, can only be revealed by the power of the Holy Ghost (1 Nephi 10:17-19). Because seeric translation remains an undisclosed prophetic protocol, I cherish the counsel of Elder Quentin L. Cook: "Obsessive focus on things not yet fully revealed [such as] exactly how Joseph Smith translated our scriptures, will not be efficacious or yield spiritual progress. These are matters of faith" (Conference Report, April 2012).
Elder Cook's inspired counsel accords with the wisdom of Hugh Nibley:
Latter-day Saints are constantly asking, How did Joseph Smith translate this or that? Do we still have a seer-stone? Will we ever get the Urim and Thummim back? What about the sealed parts of the plates? Do we have the original text of the Book of Abraham? Where is the Book of Joseph?--etc., etc."
"This writer views all such questions as totally irrelevant to establishing the bona fides of the Prophet. They do not even make sense as expressions of normal human curiosity, since Joseph Smith made it perfectly clear that the vital ingredient in every transmission of ancient or heavenly knowledge is always the Spirit, which places his experiences beyond the comprehension and analysis of ordinary mortals (Hugh Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, 2nd ed., 65).
Beyond comprehension? After first looking into the Urim and Thummim, Joseph exclaimed, "I can see anything" (so Joseph Knight reports, Richard Lyman Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 60). What might a second or a third look reveal beyond that "anything"? The Seer eventually came to possess what Brigham Young called "the eye of the Lord." Wilford Woodruff thus delights in recalling how Joseph Smith did not require the Urim and Thummim to translate the record of Abraham from the papyri. Joseph the seer could "see anything." The vision of the Almighty is all Urim and Thummim: "The place where God resides is a great Urim and Thummim" (Doctrine and Covenants 130:8).
Though Joseph Smith never discloses how the "high gift" of "sight and power" effected the translation of either the Book of Mormon or the Book of Abraham, the two share the element of the tangible. Different, at first blush anyhow, appear the New Translation of the Bible (including the Book of Moses or even John 5:29, "which was given unto us"), the Parchment of John, and the expansions on the Bible found in Sections 45 and 93 of the Doctrine and Covenants (see Doctrine and Covenants 76:15 and Section 7). Hugh Nibley deems all these to be translations in the best dictionary sense of translation as transmission, that is, transmissions of lost records not in the keeping of the Prophet Joseph. But prophetic translations of present and tangible records are also no more nor less than transmissions, and the same word may apply to any other translation made by any other person.
Whatever we call the inspired reading, at essence we discern the meeting of mind with mind--a prophetic conversation to which the reader finds himself earnestly invited. But the transmission or meeting or reading, however mediated, always reflects the word once engraved, penned, painted. Beyond the record, there were also the "hints of things" once present in minds and hearts of prophets--the transmission of ancient ideas perhaps never spoken nor recorded--spiritual truths that belong to what the Pearl of Great Price calls "the record of heaven" or "the record of the Father and the Son" (Moses 6:61, 66). (For "transmission," "meeting of minds," "hints of things " in a prophet's mind, and discussion of the Parchment of John and John 5:29, see Hugh Nibley, "Translated Correctly?," The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyrus: An Egyptian Endowment--the classic essay about Joseph Smith and translation, pub. in 1975).
IV Records of Ancient Date
So must "all records of ancient date" be physically present in order to be translated? Did Mosiah require the 24 gold plates to produce the world of the Jaredites? Did his own father need to go through all the fuss of "a large stone brought unto him with engravings on it" to interpret said engravings "by the gift and power of God" (Omni 1:20)? If Joseph Smith could translate without the Interpreters, did he need the papyri? God chose such media for His own purposes, says Hugh Nibley, but inspired translation need not rely solely on them, and often not at all (p. 51). The stela and the 24 gold plates stirred undreamt of questions; they awakened a lively sense of doom in hearts whose "lives passed away like as it were unto us a dream, we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness" (see Jacob 7:26). The Latter-day Church, also "born in tribulation" and about to be cast into the wilderness, likewise required for her escape from the dragon "ready to devour" something more than a random mummy or an unremarkable scrap of papyrus (see JST Revelation 12:4-5). There required a "welding link of some kind or other between the fathers and the children." Without some physical link, or tie, or bond to Abraham--though it demands the trial of faith to see even the translation as such--we could not be made perfect (see Doctrine and Covenants 128:18).
Are Latter-day Saints today likewise required, by trial and faith, to acknowledge at least some of the papyri once in Joseph's hands as Abraham's record? There is no such requirement. Faith is in the keeping of one's own heart. Faith, even by trial, need never throw a bridge too far. In the spirit of Elder Cook's counsel, I affirm the simplicity of faith and doctrine in Christ.
Though Hugh Nibley always insisted that Joseph Smith did keep the "sacred record" in the form of a papyrus roll, it is like questions about the requirement or specific use of physical plates or papyri for inspired translation that he found so startling for Latter-day Saints endowed with the gift of the Holy Ghost. Yet in the case of both the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham, Joseph did have in his keeping at very least a trace of the pertinent ancient records. Whether these were complete or fragmentary or abridged or botched by copyists or lacunose (that is, in the case of the papyri), we cannot know. We do know one thing: He had plates and he had papyri (see Michael D. Rhodes, "I have a question," Ensign, July 1988, 51-53; Hugh Nibley, Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri, Chapter 3).
Joseph also kept a ponderous King James Bible and, for a fleeting, visionary moment, the Parchment of John--or at least the idea of such a parchment (Doctrine and Covenants 7). His translations consistently reference the original sources because his translations always anchor in text, whether in direct contemplation of text or in the idea of text only. (The word idea derives from the Greek verb for seeing--as in video.) There always had to be text, the touch or trace of the human mind; however fragmentary, lacunose, recopied, reworked, redacted, translated to death, corrupt, or otherwise humanly imperfect--or even lost--that text might have been. Text and Sight--and Power; Human Text and the Divine Word; Prophet reaching to Prophet across the distance of both man's time and the special reckoning of seers (see Doctrine and Covenants 130:4-8).
Joseph translated by, in, and through what Paul calls "the mind of Christ" (1 Corinthians 2:16). Accepting that, glibly pouring on adjectives about "conventional" or "literal" or "word-for-word" or "scholarly" translation, which do not shed light on any kind of translation whatsoever, amounts to little. The adjective supplied by either the Prophet or his scribes in the Manuscript History of the Church is correct: "a correct translation" of the "preserved" "writings of the Fathers" of which he was "in possession" (History of the Church 2:348ff = Joseph Smith Papers Web site, Manuscript History of the Church, vol. B-1, 31 December 1835). "For the records have come into my hands"--here's yet another concrete statement about records; though, in this case, the words are Abraham's, not those of his latter-day double. "The records of the fathers, even the patriarchs. . . the Lord my God preserved in mine own hands" (Abraham 1:28, 31). Joseph, so translating, knew whereof Abraham spoke. "Preserved" is the word best describing the Record of Abraham in Joseph's hands. Accident or miracle, the Lord can do such things. As He told aged Abraham, He delights in the impossible, which is why prophets call him "a God of miracles."
"Is any thing too hard for the Lord?" (Genesis 18:14)
V Genuine Translation
Joseph Smith describes the title page of the Book of Mormon as "a literal translation," even "a genuine and literal translation," of the last unsealed gold plate. In only one other instance does the Prophet specify the original locus of a particular place in scripture: Abraham Chapter 3 derives "from the papyrus now in my house." In other words, Visit my house, and I'll be glad to show you the very hieroglyphs I translated. And note how Joseph, when speaking of the particular gold plate that was the title page, correlates one plate to one page. Here is no mystical, pre-decipherment "reading" of hieroglyphs as Symbol, wherein each sign contains of itself sufficient capacity to supply many sentences of esoterica. No. Joseph Smith has been lambasted for, supposedly, believing a single character in Egyptian stands for many words, even paragraphs, in English. That may describe Athanasius Kircher; Joseph Smith can speak for himself. Joseph, who compares the Egyptian writing on the last plate to "all Hebrew writing in general," sees all hieroglyphs, formed or reformed or whatever, as a "running" script. That's his word. "Running": nothing could be more clear (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, 60-61).
We accordingly see Joseph Smith taking pains to supply the right adjectives. "The English version" "of the very last leaf" of "the original Book of Mormon" is a "genuine and literal translation" from the Egyptian hieroglyphs. The Book of Abraham aims to be "a correct translation." Further, the English version of the Book of Mormon title page "is not by any means a modern composition, either of mine or of any other man." Some wonder whether Joseph Smith himself composed the Book of Abraham solely as an inspired vehicle for introducing a transcendent doctrine--a symbolic link to a symbolic rather than an historical past. Those few so supposing would describe prophetic "trans-lation" as an ingenious re-imaging or re-imagining of the ancient scriptural heritage--a justifiable theological enterprise--and, by so describing, think to save and detach inspired comment and composition from the imperatives of scholarship. It doesn't take much imagination, though, to hear the Prophet's frank response: Neither is the Book of Abraham "a modern composition, either of mine or of any other man who has lived or does live in this generation."
As for the revealed explanations of the three Book of Abraham facsimiles, these, too, are not a composition "of any other man who has lived or does live in this generation"--the imprimatur of Joseph the Seer lies powerfully upon them.
We are not talking about translation of correspondence or of state or legal documents from, say, Italian into Spanish, a labor which may seem conventional, or, perhaps, even literal. No. We are talking about translation from ancient and classical languages, what we term dead languages. For the remainder of the children of men, those whom angels, says Moroni, do not visit, translation from dead languages requires training in the use of dictionary and grammar (however fragmentary and misleading these may be), and ever involves the student in leaps of imagination.
Scholarly translation of dead languages thus often amounts to spectacular guesswork. The hundreds of Bible translations so attest. And Hugh Nibley, citing the "experts," shows how such intuitive leaps especially apply to those who work with Egyptian ("Translated Correctly?"). And let's be frank: scholarly translation also connotes the dryasdust.
Where the salvation of the human family is at stake, neither scholarly "translation" nor scholarly bafflement will do. The difference between all others who translate from dead languages and the Prophet Joseph is that living touch with living mind, with living idea, with gospel truth, which requires neither dictionary nor grammar. The God of Abraham is not the God of the dead but of the living. Joseph translated the languages of the Living, and with living tongues of fire.
Not that the merely human endeavor deserves despite. Joseph Smith studied Greek, Hebrew, and German; he also pondered and preached from Elias Hutter's old polyglot New Testament (Nuremberg, 1602): Hebrew, Greek, Latin, German. A convert had given Brother Joseph the Testament in Nauvoo, and he seemed to treasure it in the same way he treasured the papyri. He naturally tried his hand as student translator, and even at emending unclear places (an irresistible game for any student of Biblical languages), and he made his mistakes, as all students must. But even while wrapped in study, he sought the further inspiration of God.
Study weds faith in the journal entry of 19 January 1836: "Spent the day at school; the Lord blessed us in our studies. This day we commenced reading in our Hebrew Bibles with much success. It seems as if the Lord opens our minds in a marvelous manner to understand His word in the original language." A breathtaking prayer follows: "And my prayer is that God will speedily endow us with a knowledge of all languages and tongues" (see Joseph Smith Papers: Journal I:164). "All languages" evokes Mosiah's "all records which are of ancient date"; it also points to the Prophet's powerful desire to bring the Gospel to all people.
VI Purity and the "modern word"
The Nauvoo discourses show several such translations, emendations, or transcendent explanations of Greek, Hebrew, and even German words and phrases. Salvation becomes a matter of heaven and hell; yet "salvation," "heaven," and "hell" bear interpretive cargoes of connotation and comment. Joseph sought to set words free. He wondered about the origin of paradise: "find the origin of Paradise--find a needle in a hay mow" (11 June 1843, Willard Richards report, The Words of Joseph Smith, 211). The word comes from either the Avestan pairidaeza or Old Persian paradayadam or paridaidam (Av. an enclosure, walled garden; OP "perhaps 'pleasant retreat'"; "that which is beyond or behind the wall"; Gr paradeisos "park"), but Joseph didn't need to know that to translate. Knowledge of Persian, could he have attained to that grace, would have availed nothing. Translation required translation: Joseph, like Paul, knew a man who had been caught up to the spiritual world--and that rapture more than sufficed. Paradise signified "a world of spirits," not heaven, as the divines would have it (Roland Kent, Old Persian: Grammar, Texts, Lexicon , 195).
Words like paradise and hell--and perhaps a dozen other English words in the Authorized Version--with all their accumulated signatures, were, at essence, made-up words: "a modern word," he says. They were signifiers pointing to nothing a seer might glimpse yonder. "Five minutes" scanning heaven would overthrow all dusty books, he claimed. Uninspired translators foisted such words on the language, and in the language they were destined to remain as stumbling blocks to truth.
To get at inspired translation requires cutting new channels of thought. "You must study it out in your mind," while waiting on the Lord (Doctrine and Covenants 9). We encounter Sheol, a word which the eager Hebrew student translates, well, Sheol. . . or grave or pit. "Sheol--who are you? God reveals. means a world of spirits--I don't think so says one. Go to my house I will take my lexicon" (211). We go with Joseph and look at his lexicon: "the lower world, the region of ghosts, the orcus or hades of the Hebrews" (Josiah W. Gibbs lexicon; see Journals I:107 n. 159). Note the marriage of lexicon and revelation, "by study and also by faith" (Doctrine and Covenants 88). "A world of spirits," in place of grave or pit, may not seem an earthshaking translation of Hebrew Sheol, but it opens onto a brave new world. Sheol is not hell; Paradise not heaven--both signify another place along the way to immortality and eternal life. Joseph saw Sheol, knew Sheol--and that seeric certainty, now confirmed by the lexicon, is what he translates for his auditors; it remains for us to wrestle with the implications. And note how such concern for Hebrew words of fundamental doctrinal significance, words to be grasped in their purity, matches the attention he gives to the Hebrew words in Book of Abraham Chapter 3 and in the explanations of the Abraham facsimiles. For Brother Joseph, use of a lexicon serves to carry the seeker beyond translation by tradition; it's a first foray into a purer realm of language, a realm free from the splintered light show of learned commentary, a realm where signifiers point at what seers saw--then God reveals.
Many Germans congregated at the grove where he preached. But that only encouraged Joseph to translate Luther's Bible in startling new ways. He would boldly ask his German hearers to weigh-in, even on his pronunciation, and they would respond.
Joseph never claimed mastery of German, though he daringly read from the Hutter polyglot before thousands; neither did he fuss over the possibility of contradiction from some crotchety grammarian. There is some fun in it all--yet, without hesitation, he shared his surmisings about this or that verse. He is clear, when so discoursing, about the two-step act of prophetic translation; even when the second, spiritual step, interwoven as it is with sessions of prayerful thought, can neither be reached nor replicated, unless his listeners also work by faith.
The method remains mysterious, as mysterious as thought itself, though the result of such translation recalls the lost-wax technique of casting precious metal objects. The treasured wonder alone remains, a substantial idea that can be weighed, tested, admired. The Prophet simply could not rest with the fragmentary knowledge and imaginary flights of scholarship; he sought greater light and knowledge; worked at it until he got it; then shared his revelations and translations with a spiritually thirsting world (see Neal A. Maxwell, "How Choice a Seer," October Conference 2003; For the Hutter polyglot, see http://bit.ly/18s941p ).
VII By revelation or translation, as the case may be
Just so nonsensical as the revolving door of adjectival qualification--literal translation--appears the oft-celebrated but never elucidated idea of an object, say, some mummy or random papyrus roll, serving as a "catalyst" to revelation. Translations and translations qua transmissions of the past came to Joseph Smith as a gift, by the medium of revelation, so why would things be any different with the Book of Abraham? They aren't. Joseph Smith was indeed given the Book of Abraham by revelation, but the words of Abraham were also recorded on a specific papyrus now in Joseph's home, he said on June 16, 1844.
The parallel with the gold plates holds true. Mind and hieroglyph met; then the Spirit infused Joseph's mind with pure intelligence--but it has to be the right hieroglyphic text and the right vignette. What the Prophet saw in the Abraham vignettes gave specific and peculiar detail about Abraham's unique history, teachings, and blessings. That an Egyptian priest should later use the same vignettes to illustrate his own priestly offices and his own hopes of eternal life does not in the least nullify the gift to see "the root of the matter." The Seer did not translate the hieroglyphs on Facsimile 3 as they now stand; he translated writing as it once stood on an original stela or papyrus. The gap yawns widely here, but the pure doctrine of the Book of Mormon prepares the mind. The tutoring about seers and their stones becomes very specific: "things which are not known shall be made known by them, and also things shall be made known by them which otherwise could not be known" (Mosiah 8:17). Receptivity reaches out not only to the unknown but also to the unknowable, including the lost. It's all for our benefit: "therefore he becometh a great benefit to his fellow beings" (Mosiah 8:18). For instance, the Lord encouraged Oliver Cowdery, in April 1829, to "translate and receive knowledge from all those ancient records which have been hid up, that are sacred," even "engravings of old records" that would benefit all humankind as "parts of my scripture" (Doctrine and Covenants 8:1, 11).
Receptive Oliver Cowdery, writing in 1835 to a newsy innkeeper in Gilead, Illinois, already dismissed the idea of the relics as "catalyst": "Though the Mummies themselves are a curiosity, and an astonishment, and 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" (The Messenger and Advocate, December 1835, p.237). That is to say, with all due respect to Howard Carter's "wonderful things," Abraham's name of papyrus came as sweeping surprise! The records, says Joseph, "have fallen into our hands"--accident or miracle--and, astonishingly, "purport to be the writings of Abraham, while in Egypt." The word purport, as every reader notes, clarifies the relation of papyrus to Abraham: something penned on papyrus, and understood by Joseph Smith, is making a claim. Claim and ink and papyrus and translation are one in Joseph's hands.
The Prophet, while taking the claim as occasion for rejoicing, needed no relic to awaken his mind to Abraham and Joseph. Already in 1831 Joseph Smith, for the New Bible, had translated what we might call books of Moses, of Enoch, and of Abraham, complete with remarkable textual expansions on, and emendations of, Genesis. These expansions include an elaborate prophecy attributed to Joseph in Egypt and showing striking variants from the very same prophecy as previously translated from the Book of Nephi. By 1835 there were already wheels within wheels.
This fresh Genesis Abraham forms part of Joseph Smith's New Translation of the King James Bible from the King James Bible. But do such changes to the Genesis narrative also prove the Bible to have served as some sort of metaphorical "catalyst?" Study of Scripture alone cannot prompt new Scripture transmitted directly from ancient texts predating our Bible. Small changes in Biblical wording aside, we should not speak of the New Translation of the Bible itself, but of the New Translation of prior gospel dispensations from concrete records long lost to view. The language of the Translation more or less recalls the English of the Authorized Version, but the remove of the New Reading from the Old makes up a mighty span. The Old Bible alone could never bridge that gap.
Joseph translated with a clear idea or two in mind: 1) the English Bible is often obscure and even obscurantist; 2) the Bible does not contain all the prophetic word necessary for our salvation. Beyond the tangles of transmission, translation, and archaic English, there were precious writings lost. Nephi lays out the matter in great plainness. God always stands ready to reveal more Scripture to generations who treasure up His word. And though Joseph in Egypt prophesied the restoration of much of God's word, he never said to expect plate-bearing angels at every turn (2 Nephi 3). Much of ancient Joseph's prophecy appeared on plates; God provided other means to reveal the rest.
While Hugh Nibley insists on Joseph translating from tangible plates and papyri, no matter how he did it and no matter whether he--"taking flight"--saw and translated beyond the extant records, the "true meaning" of translation accords with Joseph's role as transmitter. Joseph Smith brings the words of truth, temporally and spatially scattered throughout all nations, kindreds, tongues, and peoples, back again. (He also "brought the Priesthood back again.") The missing records, found on various media and written in various tongues, were all once as tangible as the plates and papyri, but by the medium of miraculous transmission we have them in English alone. For that matter, with the sole exception of one Egyptian vignette, the facsimiles of two other vignettes, and a transcription or two of a few reformed Egyptian characters--all traces of the genuine article--we have Mormon and Abraham solely in English. As Nibley puts it: The Book of Mormon is the only ancient text written and available in a modern language alone. The Book of Abraham, then, must be the only hieratic text found only in English. Even so, an Egyptian idiom peppers it. (See Message of the Papyri, Chapter 3: "Translated Correctly?")
Joseph Smith's lifelong study of scripture repeatedly opened the windows of heaven--from 1820 on. When young Joseph read James 1:5, the Holy Ghost, prompting, impressed upon him the desire to pray for wisdom, but shall we label the Epistle of James the catalyst of the Restoration? Is the King James Bible the ready and sufficient inspiration for the New Translation's sweeping views of Adam, Enoch, Noah, Moses, and Abraham?
A catalyst denotes "a substance that alters the rate of reaction with other chemicals, but does not itself undergo any permanent change." Joseph changed the Bible. Though "widely used in metaphor to suggest any agent of change," catalyst lends itself to misuse, which prompts a new style guide to warn: "Beware this weasel word" (The Wordsworth Dictionary of Modern English Grammar, Syntax and Style for the 21st Century). Fancy words replace the need for thought.
Besides, since the catalytic agent is, among other things, that element which "remains unchanged in the process," "the term [catalyst] will scarcely do for an active participant." Is the papyrus discovery "the event that sets it [translation] off?" No one ever said anything else: one discovery sets off another. The question remains How one discovery set off another?--How the Book of Abraham came into being and What the published or translated book has to do with Egyptian papyri purchased by the Prophet? (Wilson Follett, Erik Wensberg Modern American Usage: A Guide, 228).
I reframe the question: Did the Egyptian papyri play an active role in mediating the translation of the Book of Abraham? Yes. One need only consider the three distinct, though thematically related, Egyptian vignettes introduced into the body of the book. Each comes with point-by-point prophetic explanation--the matching numbers also etched onto painstakingly crafted facsimiles of the vignettes--that changes, even transfigures, pictures on papyrus into Scripture. The drawings themselves are not Scripture, insists Brother Nibley, but the accompanying explanations are. The vignettes, grafted onto Scripture, now flourish in new life. Add to the transformation from vignette to annotated facsimile the reference found in Abraham Chapter One to the various figures depicted in the first vignette, and it becomes plain as a pikestaff--as Brother Joseph would say--just how active a role at least some of the papyri played in the making of Scripture.
The papyri, once the Prophet had translated the title the book of Abraham, did move him to take up "the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham" more quickly than he otherwise might have done. There's the catalyst: he promptly began to translate. The coming of Elias and Elijah in 1836 with priesthood keys also stirred him to doctrinal reflection. Did the papyri propel him forward? No. Joseph Smith took his time--seven full years--to study and to ponder before publication. Some catalyst!--a slow burn rather. Again, remember that the Prophet had already recorded startling details about Abraham's life, teachings, visions, revelations, and covenants in his New Translation of the Bible from other lost writings of Abraham. These revealed additions and adjustments to the biblical record, never published in Brother Joseph's lifetime, come as close to matching in length, as they certainly do in substance, the wee 14 pages of the Book of Abraham. Put simply, the Prophet spent over a decade pondering the good news revealed to Abraham. The papyri were as much retardant as catalyst to translation.
Two are the restored books of Abraham; two, the modes of translation, or transmission. Yes, but exactly how does the catalyst come into play in either case? The notion of either printed Bible or penned papyri as catalyst dissolves into thin air. Catalyst assumes its pride of place among "Words owing their vogue to the joy of showing one has acquired them" (Fowler, "Vogue Words," q.v.). When it comes to papyri and Abraham that joy simply exceeds all bounds. Why? One word, evoked as if by magic, solves all--in catalytic flash--rendering further thought unnecessary. Another "joy": "pure revelation" (as opposed to what?). Now, there are worse things than catalyst: to wit, catalyst theory--I've shuddered at the phrase for decades. It comes to us not from chemistry but from sixties legalese. Anyone attuned to words gapes at monsters like the following: catalyst theory, catalyst theories(!), missing papyrus theory, redaction theory, retardant theory, just-about-any theory, Vorgang, process, bring about a process, catalyze a process, trigger an event, by pure revelation, translating word-for-word, literal translation. Scripture supplies: gift, sight, power, high gift, great power, provided a means, through faith, work mighty miracles, sealed up, in its purity.
Let's arrive at an axiom: seeric translation belongs to that class of things "babes in Christ" "cannot understand" (see 1 Corinthians 3:1; Jacob 4:14). We desire things we cannot understand and, in "the solemnity of science," summon words to "process" ideas rather than to ex-plain them (Follett, "Scientism," q.v.). We need a plain word: a mummy, a papyrus roll, a Scripture, does not catalyze; it prompts, hints, suggests, awes, invites, entices, inspires.
Even in the New Translation, the Prophet worked from text seen and from (the idea of) text unseen. Had he then known Hebrew, had a critical text of the Hebrew Bible or anything even remotely like an Urtext or Laban's Brass Plates been available to him, he certainly would have worked with the better texts. The English Bible was not merely a symbol of the prophetic past, a Great Code to reference and to rework; it was for the first years his only available avenue to that past. No wonder he so treasured the gift of the Polyglot: it gave him wings! Joseph recognized his indebtedness to Jewish Masorete and Gentile Reformer alike, and he not only pored over Hebrew, he came to prefer Luther's Testament to the Authorized Version (see 2 Nephi 29:4). As for Abraham, a scribal copy of his own writings on papyrus happened to be extant; then available, sold, bought, and read--even "by revelation or translation, as the case may be," as Elder Bruce R. McConkie puts it with plainness. And there we can let it rest.
(Bruce R. McConkie, "The Doctrinal Restoration," in eds. Monte S. Nyman, and Robert L. Millet, The Joseph Smith Translation: the Restoration of Plain and Precious Things, 21).
VIII Treasure in the Field
There is a law of efficiency. We must ask why Joseph, most inefficiently, "encouraged some of the Kirtland Saints to purchase four mummies and the papyri for $2,400, a large sum when money was desperately needed for other projects" (Richard L. Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 186). Couldn't the catalyst have quickened things up? inspiration struck? Might not even a fleeting aroma of papyrus and mummy wake the Patriarchal Age? Couldn't an angel have brought the rolls, perhaps Abraham himself, rather than the shadowy showman, Chandler? A righteous man from Abraham's day visited the Kirtland Temple just months later; he could have brought Abraham's record, when he restored Abraham's priesthood keys. Or, could not a visionary glimpse of a concrete but lost autobiography of Abraham serve the prophetic sight so well as purchased papyri? Yes, and yes--but no. We mustn't miss the point. The papyri signified: like the plates, not only did they manifest the prophetic word, they also came as link and sign.
Joseph purchased the costly rolls and mummies solely because some bold writing on the rolls, even a specific title which he claimed to understand, purported to contain the writings of Abraham while in Egypt: The Book of Abraham Written by His Own Hand upon Papyrus. That's the ancient title as worded in the ancient idiom, says Hugh Nibley. And he with the "high gift" read that title and--"for joy"--went out and raised $2,400.
IX The Records Have Fallen into Our Hands: Now What?
Why was a surviving physical instance of the ancient word, in plates or papyri, requisite for some of our scriptures and not for others? Gold plates attest to the reality of a lost and fallen people. There is a pattern: the 24 gold plates left in plain sight by Ether attest the Jaredite fall. The records, solid and surviving, vividly link us to wipe outs, forgotten palaces, secret societies, and stern prophetic warnings. They link us to glorious anticipations of the coming of the Son of God. And vitally, for the affirming of a new dispensation, Mormon's plates also served as the objective evidence to the 11 men permitted to stand as Book of Mormon witnesses.
As for the papyri, Joseph Smith, in good faith, put them on public display in both Kirtland and Nauvoo. All were invited to examine the papyri and to find out what the hieroglyphs and figures conveyed. Hugh Nibley makes much of the matter of the open display and forthright invitation. If Brother Joseph had lived to see the closing decades of the 19th Century, many of the learned men of the times would have had the opportunity to see the collection, discuss it with the Mormon Prophet, and chime in on its significance.
The papyri proclaim to the world that Joseph Smith had 1) nothing to hide, 2) was willing to have his ideas and translations weighed in the balance of the learned, and 3) welcomed the participation of the learned in the open-ended quest for further light. He knew that Ancient Egypt was now open to the modern view. Though never describing or disclosing his method, Joseph Smith also never hesitated to publish his readings to a world agape. He never feared the test. Nothing about the Prophet's publication of the Book of Abraham shows contempt for scholarly method or for the 19th Century discovery of Ancient Egypt. He played fair--and the papyri so attest.
Some fuss over the lack of reference to Abraham in the extant Joseph Smith papyri, including the three facsimiles of Egyptian vignettes. Though descriptions of the roll containing Abraham's writings do not, at all, match the scraps we call the Book of Breathings, Hugh Nibley does note a parallel, peculiar and specific in wording, tying the title of that book to Abraham 2:24-25. (Joseph Smith emphasizes titles.) Isis makes a Book of Breathings for her brother, Osiris, so that his soul may live. Sarah in Egypt, and in Egyptian idiom, intervenes for Abraham that his soul may live. As for Facsimile 2 (the hypocephalus), its hieroglyphic text 1) addresses the god as both "noble" and "great"; 2) features (so Nibley) a prayer for rescue, that is, resurrection; and 3) hints at "the name of that great god" (Figure 1); who came into existence in 4) "the first time" and thence; 5) "came down" to save Osiris so-and-so. The match between the words and themes found on this and other hypocephali and those found in the Book of Abraham again partakes of the peculiar and the specific. I don't think so, says one. Go to my house, and I'll take up the lexicon: "The name of the great one is Kolob" answers to hieroglyphs labeling figure 1 of the hypocephalus: "The name of that great god."
Why gather such evidence? The marriage of history and scripture teaches us to better love both scripture and history. Love of truth "as it really is" heralds no injurious purpose, breathes no coercive air (see Doctrine and Covenants 93). In the pursuit of the things of the Spirit, all sorts of surprises turn up. Nowhere in Hugh Nibley's writings do we find the word apologist. A better label for the man is sharer. Of evidence, Brother Nibley simply says: We need to show we're still in the game, so the honest in heart will be willing to take a second look.
While Latter-day Saints have no obligation to prove anything to anybody, we are not going to stand by while persons learned and unlearned drum boring, self-righteous condemnation. And after 50 years the repetition of answered objections does start to bore. Besides, such repetition has never moved the scriptural foundation of faith. Abraham talked with God face-to-face.
We invite thorough, thoughtful, patient assessment of every particle of data and of every thread of argument. Forget the label apologist. We are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints shouldering a mandate to share His Gospel with the world (Matthew 28:19-20).
You might as well attempt to terrify God upon His throne (to borrow a phrase from Brigham Young), as to terrify Latter-day Saints with the "consensus" or the "conclusions" of scholarship. Hectoring cannot replace quiet thought or balanced discussion. Scripture endures--and as the Book of Abraham itself shows, it can span the millennia.
No matter how it was read, and no matter just how much of Abraham's or of Joseph's writings Joseph Smith had in his keeping, Abraham did deposit a record in Egypt. What we now have in translation is the fragment of a record claiming to have been built up by Abraham around yet older books, themselves divinely preserved: "the records of the fathers, even the patriarchs, concerning the right of Priesthood"--a trace of library, as Borges would have it (Abraham 1:31). And that is why the papyri, drawn inexorably to the Latter-day Joseph and held in his hands as tangible sign of Restoration, had to contain a portion of the words of the fathers.
One thing exceeds all else in importance. Both plates and papyri, reflections the one of the other, came to light as modern, tangible testators of the resurrection. Jesus Christ is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob: And "He is not the God of the dead, but of the living" (Mark 12:32, and see esp. JST Mark 12:32). No matter how the Prophet translated plates, parchment, papyri, no matter the instruments he used--or whether he used any at all--no matter the lacunae; the very survival and attestation of at least some of the writings of Nephi and Moroni and of Abraham and Joseph, though merely abridgments, copies, or even traces, stand as material witness of a new dispensation and as an earnest of the resurrection. The recovered vignette of Facsimile 1 so concretely depicts Abraham's deliverance from death on the altar. And as cloud cumulus, all the Joseph Smith papyri, which came to light after being hid for millennia in a Theban tomb, also serve as witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Other like scriptural witnesses will yet make their like appearances.
Copyrighted by Val Sederholm, 2014