Thursday, April 14, 2016

Learning from The Book of Abraham: Our Choice

If I have sinned, I have sinned outwardly; but surely I have contemplated the things of God (Teachings: Joseph Smith)

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 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 begins the reasoning--yet He requires that we reason right along with Him. Should Abraham stop reasoning with the God of heaven, even for a moment, the vision is closed. The act 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, Val 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 to The Book of Abraham, 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.

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