Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Book of Abraham and Scholarship: An Invitation

Why was a surviving physical instance of the ancient word, in plates or papyri, requisite for some of our scriptures and not for others? 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 (Hugh Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri, 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).

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 them 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 readers 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, so 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 5) thence "came down" to save Osiris so-and-so. The match between the words, phrases, and themes found on this and other hypocephali and words, phrases, and themes found throughout the chapters 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" in Abraham 3 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. 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.

Whereas 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 (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. 


See also: http://valsederholm.blogspot.com/2014/08/i-learned-it-by-translating-says-joseph.html

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