Thursday, April 14, 2016

Examining the Catalyst Theory and the Book of Abraham

By revelation or translation, as the case may be (Elder Bruce R. McConkie in 1985, 32 years ago)

Nonsensical is the oft-celebrated but never elucidated idea of an object, say, some mummy or random papyrus roll, serving as a "catalyst" to revelation. Both translations from ancient writings 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 (he references our Chapter Three) were also inkbrushed into a specific papyrus in his keeping, as he made very clear in his last sermon, given on June 16, 1844: "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, including hieratic script. Do we have the same childlike capacity? "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" (Grove East of Temple, Thomas Bullock reporting, The Words of Joseph Smith, ed. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, 380).

Mind and hieroglyph met; then the Spirit infused Joseph's mind with pure intelligence--but it has to be the right hieratic text or the right Egyptian vignette, not some random roll. The linguistic, historical, cultural, and literary evidence of such a meeting and of such spiritual infusion appears everywhere in both the Book of Abraham, the Joseph Smith Papyri that we now have, and in many an Egyptian text, so let us soldier on and never concede the game while the ball is so clearly in our court--and especially when we no longer have all the papyrus once owned by the Prophet. And let's do stop puzzling over the fact that Abraham's name nowhere appears in those fragments which are left in our hands, or wondering whether Joseph the Seer, though a true Prophet indeed, might also have been a bit of "a visionary man," sometimes carried away like Lehi by "the foolish imaginations of his heart," or perhaps merely a product of his times, who simply judged amiss (and no harm done) in respect of what we may loosely and hastily deem ordinary funerary texts (see 1 Nephi 2:11). "Imaginations?" No. The specificity of correspondence between what we do have and what Joseph Smith unabashedly published to the world as "the Sacred record"--his exact words--affords us all we could ever ask for, and more, as evidence for his "high gift" of translation (Mosiah 8:14; Joseph Smith Papers, Journal 1:135, "sacred record" is written in the Prophet's own hand). If that's not cause for rejoicing, what is?

I have a question for Latter-day Saint students who yet "ponder these things in their hearts," and in asking the question recognize that it may take decades, even weeks, for it to be taken up or even acknowledged. Yet here is the question--and let future generations judge. We may presume to explain, analyze, or even reinterpret how Brother Joseph once interpreted; we may posture and speculate and look at things "through the lens" of this and that till the cows come home; we may give talks, spin off articles, and write books that repetitively and endlessly appeal to a sophisticated view of the matter; but can we ever be justified in not coming to grips with the full weight of the Egyptian evidence, as shown by plain correspondence of text to text, of papyrus to Abraham? Can one look in a mirror and not see the reflection? 

It's a wonderful thing for each of us to reflect on how posterity, not popularity or a friend's book review, will be the final judge. Posterity can cut a road right through the "definitive." Or what does the "last word" matter decades--or even days--after the last full stop on that final chapter falls? 

Looking ahead a day or two, and perhaps till Wednesday next, I would invite posterity to consider how the hieroglyphic texts on the hypocephalus, Facsimile 2 of the Book of Abraham, show startling resemblance to the words and themes of the Book of Abraham, including the theme of Descent and Rescue, which the Prophet also associates with Facsimile 1. (Hugh Nibley noticed the shared theme--but his books have plunged out of favor.) The iconography on the hypocephalus also charts the line of Patriarchal descent, no surprise to Egyptologists, but Latter-day Saints will note how the Book of Abraham opens with the very same theme. Have we duly considered the correspondence in the hypocephalus text between the "noble" and "great" god and the theme of the "noble and great ones" in Abraham Chapter 3? or the hieroglyphs describing the name of Facsimile 2, figure 1, and the like words describing Kolob in Abraham 3? Enish-go-on-dosh forcibly recalls several names of attested stellar and planetary bodies (Tosh-iat-hut-ins; Har-Tash-Tawy; Hor-ko-pi-ranef-siu-yaminty-jo-pi), and some preliminary yet etymologically and culturally sound explanations of this unusual name may be put forward based on these parallels. I see the name as referring to the Female Sun, the exalted (go) and beautiful (on) Red (dosh) Solar Eye (Enish, Dosh). And does not Brother Joseph connect Enish-go-on-dosh with both cow and sun?  To quote Brother Joseph  about his work of translation and transmission, the hypocephalus was the one of the papyri "now in my house."

What the Prophet saw in the Abraham vignettes gave specific and peculiar detail about Abraham's unique history, teachings, and blessings. Indeed on two of the vignettes we find the signifier, or hieroglyphic signature: Abraham in Egypt. So much for Abraham not appearing on any of the papyri now in our hands. Nor is that the only reference to Abraham in the papyri now in our hands. Hugh Nibley notes the parallel in idiom between Isis composing the Book of Breathings on behalf her brother, Osiris, "so that his soul might live" and Sarah shielding Abraham, her "brother," "so that his soul might live." 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 only interpret or translate the representations and the hieroglyphs on Facsimile 3 as they now stand; he translated writing and image as it once stood on an original stela or papyrus, from whence our version was taken (see Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt). "Speaking of a typical ritual scene like Facsimile No. 3, 'Despite the bizarre iconography. . . the great spiritual significance of the idea which inspired it must be patent to all who contemplate it'" (Nibley, ibid., 123 quoting S.G.V. Brandon, Numen 5, 112). Joseph Smith once said: "If I have sinned, I have sinned outwardly; but surely I have contemplated the things of God" (Teachings: Joseph Smith, Chapter 45). Joseph Smith surely contemplated "the great spiritual significance" of what he saw on the papyri! Do we?

The gap yawns widely here, from Abraham to the Ptolemies, but the pure doctrine of the Book of Mormon prepares the mind. There, the tutoring about seers and their stones gets 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). Why, when we gladly receive, line-upon-line, new doctrines and truths from the Prophet, should we "murmur and dispute" (3 Nephi 27:4) over his revealing to us something we deem impossible and "which otherwise could not be known"? 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). 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). And note that last phrase: "parts of my scripture." The concrete nature of the engraved ancient records is telling, and we again recall the 24 gold plates of Ether discovered by the startled troop sent by Limhi to discover something else; the troop did not find the city of Zarahemla, the temporal hope of welcome and of rescue, but they did find a record replete with the nurture and the admonition of the Lord. 

There is many a "missing papyrus."

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--golden sarcophagi! mummies! alabaster vases!--Abraham's name on papyrus came as a 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 Genesis. These expansions include an elaborate prophecy attributed to Joseph in Egypt, one 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?

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 part 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, symbolic representations on papyrus into what the Lord calls a part of "my scripture"--not ours, but His alone. The drawings themselves are not Scripture, insists Brother Nibley, though the accompanying explanations are. The vignettes, grafted onto Scripture, flourish with 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 revelation 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, hintssuggestsawesinvitesenticesinspires.

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 Hutter 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 [1985]21).


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.


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