Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Running from the Truth about Joseph Smith, the Book of Abraham Translation, and Little Red Riding Hood

The claim persists: the Prophet Joseph Smith believed that he was translating the Book of Abraham from the fragments of a Book of Breathings, as evidenced by particular, single, hieratic signs taken from a fragmentary sheet of papyrus and placed alongside paragraphs of copies of the first chapter or so of the Abraham translation. In light of this perceived correspondence between the signs and the translation, many leapt to the conclusion that for the Prophet one hieratic sign mysteriously produced one paragraph yield of text. 

And, without further ado, that spells fraud!

Writing some 46 years ago in an article so flawed that critics insist we must never refer to it, Hugh Nibley noted how "the disproportion between the length of Egyptian signs and English sentences is labored as the principal argument against the Book of Abraham." 


"One needs no knowledge of Egyptian to point out that a dot and two strokes can hardly contain the full message of an English paragraph of a hundred words or more. In 1967 a Mr. Heward passed around handbills at a General Conference pathetically asking, 'Why should anyone want to fight the truth?'--the 'truth' being his own great discovery that if somebody translated a single dot as the story of Little Red Riding Hood something must be out of joint: 'Could a single dot carry that much meaning?' Mr. Heward asked with eminent logic." 


"In 1970 Messrs. Howard and Turner bring forth as the crowning evidence against Joseph Smith Mr. Dee J. Nelson's sensational find that the hieratic word ms.t is translated by Joseph Smith with a paragraph of 132 words. It never occurred to anyone to ask, in the glad excitement, whether this was really Joseph Smith's work, and whether ms.t was ever believed by anyone to contain a story of 132 words" (Hugh Nibley, "The Meaning of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers").

"It never occurred to anyone to ask!" That was then--half-a-century ago. And we certainly mustn't question anything today. We mustn't look askance at science, consensus, academics, newsreaders, singers, historians, grad students, weather reports. We dare not question authority, or even claims to authority.

And we mustn't touch Nibley's biased work today; still, for decades one thing has remained quite clear to me: "a single dot" cannot--by any stretch of the imagination--carry over "as the story of Little Red Riding Hood." And yet the critics insist to this day that Joseph Smith, blindly following the prevailing notions of his times about hieroglyphic writing, unpacks single, stand-alone, ideograms into lengthy and detailed narrative, narrative which includes explanations of nouns like Rahleenos and Mahmackrah (which can take more than one spelling), discussions of priestly offices in both Canaan and Egypt, and the dramatic rescue of Abraham by an angel as well as the poetic words of revelation spoken by that same heavenly messenger. These are squiggles that scan.

Because such claims are put forward in the matter-of-fact, no-nonsense tone that all readers associate with adulthood, scientific law, and talk shows, the reader is inexorably chilled into submission. We can't downplay that effect, that chilling; for from the moment we first tune in, society tells us both what to think and how to think it. The rhetorical secret to argument in our day is tone, that tone which scolds: "You're not going to be told twice!"

No wonder so many wind up thinking that the Book of Abraham has been proved wrong--dead and definitively wrong. To think otherwise invites the scold, the grin, the double-quick double-click, a simple chart or two. And no wonder many fail to see that the critics' principal argument rests upon the basis of "a dot and two strokes" or an owl sign. An argument made--in print!--by an Egyptologist!--and everyone throws up their hands in happy defeat. Yet it's ironic how the one class of people who never care about what any one Egyptologist, or even any particular group of Egyptologists, might say about anything, are the Egyptologists themselves. But isn't that the case with all scientists, academics, literary critics, freshmen, and the like? 

And now, we turn to the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears: %! 

What we know about the Book of Mormon, or should have known, also explodes the persistent claim of the critics about how Joseph Smith went about translating the Book of Abraham.

"By the power of God," writes Joseph Smith to James Arlington Bennet in 1843, "I translated the Book of Mormon from hieroglyphics," History of the Church 6:74.)

What were these hieroglyphics?

In Mormon 9:32, near the end of his record, Moroni tells us:

And now, behold, we have written this record according to our knowledge, in the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech.

What a clear statement to the world, a statement first published in March 1830, that Egyptian characters, or hieroglyphs, reflect the "manner of speech," that is to say, are phonetic in make-up, and can even be altered to reflect phonological change. Indeed, given the unceasing changes in the Egyptian language, the hieroglyphs were often reformed, reworked, re-tweaked, resignified, and revalued by the scribes themselves. We don't have a purely ideographic system here, or some undefinable symbolic system of mysterious import. In fact there's no mystery: the Egyptian characters write words, and they write them just as the words are meant to be pronounced.

Now note how the Prophet Joseph Smith describes the title page of the Book of Mormon. When speaking of the particular gold plate that made up Moroni's ancient title page, the Prophet correlates one plate to one page. And bear in mind that each plate was 6" in width, 8" in length, and that the English translation of the title page comprises a heading and two paragraphs. Again, here is no mystical, pre-decipherment "reading" of hieroglyphs as Symbol in which each sign contains of itself sufficient capacity to supply many sentences of esoterica or of Scripture. 


But the drumbeat continues: Joseph Smith held that a single Egyptian sign packs in a verbal outpour. That's what everyone believed back then, we are told. He accordingly wrestles with each little character, for each unfolds vistas of narrative, vision, and doctrine. 

That may describe Athanasius Kircher (it doesn't); Joseph Smith can speak for himself. And his comments on the Book of Mormon title page date from 1838/1839, three to four years after he translated the first chapter of the Book of Abraham, and three years before he translated the rest! Brother 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; History of the Church 1:71-72 = "History of the Church," Book A-1, 34-35.).

For Joseph Smith, then, should we follow his own crystalline descriptions of the nature of Egyptian writing, the 11 pages of unbroken narrative that make up the content of the published Book of Abraham would have been translated from several continuous, and presumably intact, sheets of papyrus (the translations tellingly show no gaps). Now, that's not theory ("the missing roll theory"), that's how Joseph Smith himself describes the nature of hieroglyphic text. 

The fragmentary Book of Breathings thus has nothing to do with the making of the Abraham narrative. 

Someone recently posted: Joseph Smith failed to translate the Book of Abraham!

That's become a meme, and like most memes cannot stand up to a moment of investigation. Memes make up the quintessence of the ephemeral.

Think it through: Joseph Smith failed to translate the Book of Abraham!

Then what is this book I see before me?

My answer: Joseph Smith did indeed translate the Book of Abraham. How do I know? I have a copy of the translation--and so do millions upon millions of others. And there are many, many translations made from that first translation.

While it's clear that the Prophet Joseph did not derive the book from the Breathings document, I don't profess to understand how the Prophet Joseph translated; neither do I know how anyone translates his translation from English to, say, Quechua. But I know that what got translated, and that what still gets translated, is the word of God and contains the testimony of the Lord Jesus Christ to this generation, even to Abraham's limitless seed.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

BYU, Hugh Nibley, and Collegiality--and, of course, the Scriptures

My hope is to encourage students of the Scriptures in faithful and lasting scholarship, the kind of scholarship that will endure to bless the rising generations. We travel together as journeymen, fellow readers and fellow writers. How grateful I am, in our pilgrimage and fellowship, for the nurturing words of modern prophets and apostles who foster Gospel Scholarship. I find no exceptions!

I am also grateful for Brigham Young University and for the tutelage of Truman G. Madsen, Hugh Nibley, and gifted teachers and writers there and everywhere else. BYU's tradition of fine Gospel Scholarship continues today--and we all rejoice over the Church History Department--but I have a warning about the immediate future. 

Hugh Nibley's articles, books, lectures, and speeches, from the 40's on, provided students with a reason for their faith in the historicity of the Bible, Book of Mormon, and the Pearl of Great Price. Lionized by countless readers as he was and is, it remains clear that Nibley's purpose was always to stir students to greater thought, faith, and endeavor, never to seek any laurels. And as it ever is with the best scholarship, his contributions also met, from the very beginning, a perennial backlash from some of the faculty at BYU as well as members of the local intellectual community. He was never exempt from critique, and even a few of his colleagues in Religious Education and History joined in the chorus. I doubt that many attacks surface publicly today at BYU; it's more likely he is increasingly unread, his contributions ignored or brushed aside. He's labeled an apologist, a word he never used, or would have used. 

Yet because so many of the false ideas about Scripture being paraded throughout BYU and the Latter-day Saint Community today were also deftly deflected by him decades ago, I share a letter written today (found below) as a defense not so much of the man, but of his contribution to Biblical and Book of Mormon scholarship. I wrote the letter to a student who says that she was not permitted to discuss Hugh Nibley at BYU without facing what she describes as "increasingly intense" backlash from both students and faculty. 

Now for the warning--or a dozen or so questions worthy of our consideration. 

Many press on with high praise of the kind of Gospel Scholarship that Madsen and Nibley represent. yet, while praising, might we somehow fail to distinguish present moments of jejune or bricolage "apologetics" from what we find in Nibley's balanced and logical prose? And if you find yourself swirling about in a pool of "suppose" or "plausible," it's time to get out and dry off. Scholarship, like poetry, takes a spot of work--and an abundance of l'esprit de finesse. Can it even be taught? It can be taught to be recognized. All who teach must face the question: Are we fostering or are we damaging that delicate unfolding?

Latter-day Saints everywhere ought periodically to reflect on the matter of Scripture and scholarship. Do we accept the historicity of the Bible or don't we? Do we receive the Book of Mormon as it was intended to be received? Or are we past all that? Have we grown up? Do new Doktorvaters command our allegiance? Do our PhD's now compel us to set things straight about just what the Bible is and what it is not? Is it time to let fellow Mormons know, in word and in blog, just how hopelessly uninformed they all are when it comes to reading and understanding Scripture? Are Leviticus and Deuteronomy just mumbo-jumbo? or of post-exilic priestly mint? Did Nephi drop the ball on Deutero-Isaiah? Do we need a revolution in Scriptural understanding to save the Church? Is the Internet about to do us in? 

Or do we need to go back to the telling question: If you don't believe this, and you don't credit that, then what exactly do you hold to any longer?

Or do we need to look differently at contradictions between current scholarship, even consensus, and our own beliefs? Such contradictions should help to prod the faithful to undertake new journeys of discovery. Some of the journeys may be of lasting worth to all humankind: I think, for instance, of the recent work of Lincoln H. Blumell on Luke's account of Gethsemane. And of what worth is any scholar, writer, or artist who faints before consensus and contradiction? 

The Lord has in store great opportunities for the diligent Latter-day student. 

We may look at the challenge of searching for knowledge primarily as an effort to defend truth, if we wish, but the challenge certainly embraces more than that. We can help cut new paths, discover and decipher new findings, revisit and reinterpret stolid consensus. The Lord, who permits all the thorny contradictions, also gives us the accompanying challenges not only to try our faith but to test our mettle and to foster our intellects. He wishes to use us to bless all mankind with greater views on both the Holy Scriptures and also on the full history of His dispensational dealings with the children of men. Much will be required--and it won't help for any of us to sideline much that has been given.

Hugh Nibley never yielded "an inch to the Gentiles." That's what he said. That's what he asked of his students and of his university and community. "You receive no witness, until after the trial of your faith."

And now to the letter about the "cool scribe" and the art of cheerful scholarship, which speaks to the matter of whether we should occasionally appreciate the contributions of our own teachers, or just toss them into the wastebin; of whether we should listen to any contributor, or only to those who reciprocally call us Rabbi.

Thank you, Dear Sister M.,

News of gleeful attacks in BYU classrooms on the contributions of Hugh Nibley and other notable teachers comes as no surprise.

Some professors confuse lectern-thumping fatwas for expressions of truth and intelligence. Reading through the new biography of Truman Madsen, I don't see cynicism. It's all about joy and gospel service at BYU and everywhere else; it's all about the joyous quest for greater light and truth.

Mircea Eliade often writes of a phenomenon he termed "kill the teacher," a compelling Freudian wish to turn on one's Doktorvater, or even a favorite teacher. It's much more than reassessment. This drive to overturn reputations, cast doubt on the teacher's soundness, or even sanity, is a very common psychological malady at the university. Heroic in flavor, it unwittingly betrays a certain herd mentality, a lack of independent thought. Whether maturity, therapy, reading books, or plain humility is the cure, science cannot yet determine. 

Moroni records how Jesus taught him "in plain humility."

Although standards remain non-negotiable, scholarship ought to be a cheerful, joyous enterprise and colloquium, an on-going effort in which (a very few) errors prove not fatal but instructive, and much collegiality and openness to the contributions of others must thrive. 

John Baines, Professor of Egyptology at Oxford University, laments the lack of collegiality in his own discipline. He further censures the encrusted lack of openness to any contributor not belonging to the professional guild. (The article to read is "Restricted Knowledge, Hierarchy, and Decorum: Modern Perceptions and Ancient Institutions," JARCE 27:1-23.) 

The style of collegiality I favor follows the model put forth in Ancient Egyptian Wisdom Literature of the kbob, or cool scribe (controlled, efficient, mannerly), versus the hot-headed scribbler (pushy, self-willed, angry). A jar overflowing with pure, cool water becomes the hieroglyphic signature of the cool scribe; the hothead explodes "like fire in hay."

Yours Truly,
Val Sederholm

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Ether 6:19-21 Numbering the People and Granting their Desires (Verbal Root mnh). Or, Why did Orihah choose The Kingship?

In Ether Chapter 6 we find a classic example of the panegyris, the Great Assembly of which Hugh Nibley so often spoke. The unfolding actions of gathering, census or tally, establishment of the institution of kingship, the orderly transfer of power, and the royal granting and bestowal of desires (sparsiones), all constitute the panegyris.

Panegyris marks the both "the Eternal Return" to the Beginning (Mircea Eliade) and the New Order, the New Year. As Tennyson writes: "The old order changeth yielding place to new" = "And the brother of Jared began to be old." "The rites of the New Year," says Hugh Nibley, "being the death of the old, had to begin with a funeral. 'The old prehistoric mysteries of Abydos [in Egypt],' writes Wolfgang Helck, 'necessarily include both the funeral of the dead king and the installation of his successor'" (Hugh Nibley, Michael Rhodes, One Eternal Round, 164; Chapters 3 and 4 cover the ground).

In the following passage from Ether 6, I put in italics activities that are both semiotically and also semantically linked, although the semantic link is more implied than expressed: 1) numbering and 2) bestowing desires. These seemingly disparate doings come together in the Proto-Semitic verbal root *mnh. Such associations run deeper than what we may be tempted to name it: a play on words. The semantic link, rather, reveals a semiotic of a particular culture: a peculiar and specific view of the economy of the inhabited world at the moment of panegyris. That the Jaredites were, at least in part, inheritors of the Proto-Semitic language and culture needs no argument: most of their names point unerringly to that source: Jared, Ether (Track, Trace--so Hugh Nibley), Riplakish (Lord of Lakish--Hugh Nibley), Amgid (People of Sinew), Emer, Omer, Heth, Levi, Shule, Amnigaddah, Aaron, Lib. A few names: Coriantumr, Coriantor, Coriantum, Corom (did they have trouble pronouncing this odd name?), Corihor, Moriancumr, and the like, suggest a relaxed blending of ethnicities, so we mustn't think in terms of a rigid identity.

Consider the nuanced meanings, as they develop in the various languages, of the Proto-Semitic root *mnh or *mn (as brought together by Bernice Verjick Hecker, in her recent dissertation: "The Biradical Origin of Semitic Roots," taken from the chart on page 113):

MN II quantity: manu: count, hand over; mana: unit of weight min: a portion; manah: count, assign; maneh: a weight; minxah: tribute, offering manay: assign, apportion; minru: count; manna: grant, award; mana─ža: bestow, confer.

With the semanitics of *mnh now well in mind, let's look at Ether 6:

19 And the brother of Jared began to be old, and saw that he must soon go down to the grave; wherefore he said unto Jared: Let us gather together our people that we may number them, that we may know of them what they will desire of us before we go down to our graves.

That is to say, "that we may number them, that we many know of them what they will desire of us" as a bestowal. The onerous task of tally once completed, the assembly as a whole mulls over the future: the act of numbering, at once, become an act of inquiry. "You're tallied--so what would you like as a gift? Speak up!"

The following verse (20) shows a tally of the sons and daughters of both Moriancumr and of Jared, a mere fraction of the total, but which perhaps expresses a sort of firstfruits in-gathering, with the family of the leadership the first to be registered. They were not, ironically, the first to be consulted; for the text makes clear that while the people desired a king, the sons of Moriancumr and of Jared firmly refused the offer. Orihah, the son of Jared, youngest of them all, finally consented to be king.

Was that a matter of ambition? of ego? No. Orihah saw the results of a blanket refusal from the leading clan--another clan would then take precedence, and eventually do harm to the honor and memory of his father's house. Orihah should be thanked for keeping the right and reins of governance in that great and righteous founding family. He was prudent and pragmatic enough to save his family from the consequences of its own otherworldly meekness. And he was simply following a course expected of him: with each refusal, the pressure to accept the burden of kingship must have substantially increased down the chain until reaching very youngest. Instead of gladly taking the honor, the youngest and least of all was courageously taking up what was now already a crushing weight of responsibility.

And note how the Book of Ether gives us a perfect example of these archaic rites of selection as a game, as are all juridical proceedings (see J. Huizinga, Homo Ludens). It's all very much a back-and-forth, a barter, a contest, between "the People" (a common descriptor in Ether) and the primary Clan, the result of which is a full cession of power to that clan.

We are told that the Assembled People systematically went down the list, choosing each several son of Jared's Brother, then, in their turn, each of Jared's sons. It's a merry dance of wills. When Pagag, the first choice of all, turned the People down flat, they became restive and frustrated, and resorted to compulsion, whereupon the Brother of Jared set into place the first of all laws: they were to "constrain no man to be their king."

By the time the Assembly got to Orihah, which might have taken hours or even days, tensions must have been running very high, but fair play remained the name of the game. Despite that stand-off, the Assembly settled in and tallied downward, a switching of roles in action of elimination, in what must have been an assurance that the Clan would eventually conform to the uniform wish of the people--as the ruling brothers had promised. Once elected by the Assembled People, Orihah's line was to be the ruling house forever, the dynastic choice was clearly intended to be made just once, for all time.

Despite the topsy-turvy nature of the subsequent Jaredite history, that history resolves in Ether, the last of Orihah's line. The dynastic contract was a sacred covenant, and though Ether was Prophet not King, he contrasts dramatically with Coriantumr, the acknowledged but false king. Coriantumr and Ether make up the only survivors of that great people--but while Coriantumr survives only to see another people take control of Jaredite lands, Ether lives to record the long history of his people and to bring the story to full circle.

And as all readers know, the end of the Jaredite story makes up a grim final countdown (and that's after 2 million men, women, and children fall in speedy yet prolonged battles), a bitterly marvelous game of tally, face-off, and of royal election--the men of Shiz, the challenger, and the subjects of Coriantumr: 69-52; then 32-27 (numbers that show the royal guard to be, as we would expect, the strongest warriors); after two days more it's 1-1, yet a total tally of 3: Coriantumr battling Shiz for the kingship; Ether, the true king, watching from a secure place. Shiz slain, there remain 2; Coriantumr's death has been prophesied, so Ether seems to get the last word--he continues--and even mysteriously speculates about whether, as a translated being, he might forever continue, a sort of Once-and-Future King, held in reserve for a future day. Orihah's people are everlastingly gone, but his prophetic power also continues in the form of the 24 gold plates, the sacred history, which are left behind for another people to discover, to translate, and to read.

Having come full round, we return to the original act of the play, the first tally and royal election:

21 And it came to pass that they did number their people; and after that they had numbered them, they did desire of them the things which they would that they should do [or, bestow] before they went down to their graves.

22 And it came to pass that the people desired of them that they should anoint one of their sons to be a king over them.

So here we have a little archaic text about the inauguration of the kingly office, as a special gift of merit to a people who, so the tally, had now indeed become very great. Even a war of annihilation hewed to the law of the count--and the People got exactly what they had asked for: utter destruction. Ether, the true prophet-king, tallied the final score.

The strange little book speaks to semiotics and language, laws and games, far beyond our ken.

But we can count. A child may count them.

Remember Isaiah? "And they shall be as when a standard-bearer fainteth" (Isaiah 10:18). What a remarkable image! The battle becomes so very intense, the heat so overwhelming--and down go the colors. We recall how Coriantumr fainted after slaying Shiz: he "fell to the earth, and became as if he had no life").

"And the rest of the trees of his forest shall be few, that a child may write them" (Isaiah 10:19). The verse finds repetition in 2 Nephi 20:19, where we are told (in the chapter heading) that it typifies "the destruction of the wicked at the Second Coming," for "Few people will be left after the Lord comes again."

Moroni tellingly re-quotes Isaiah 10 (verse 3) in the final leaves of his re-cord, after re-counting the destruction of his own people--and, re-positioning the prophecy--points the words directly at the hearts of men in our own day: "And what shall ye do in the day of your visitation?"

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Reforming Marriage: A Model for Mormonism

When we Latter-day Saints speak of indebtedness to reformers such as Martin Luther, we often forget what may be his greatest contribution: a Reformation of Marriage. Of true marriage, there are many times and tides, and all manner of Christian homes. Yet there's still something subtly but inescapably touching--a touch of sanctity--hovering about that Bible-translating university professor, once hid up, outlaw, in a castle, and that coy woman who came to freedom by hiding in a barrel. They fixed the pattern for all generations that followed.

A half-millennium of Protestant Marriage in Christendom traces back to the novel vows exchanged by monk and nun. Luther would wake startled to see a pair of pigtails lying on the pillow. Katie would arise betimes "the Morning Star of Wittenberg." And we muse upon their rapport, their parenting, and their unspoiled manner of happiness, and wish it for ourselves. (The book to read is Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther.)

Tyndale's Testament, lit at the hearth of Luther's Bible, gives us words to invoke, as though long dormant, the Word of Life. Luther's stance at Worms teaches us how all tyranny must fall--one man alone against Court and Tradition. Even Luther's errors point us to other souls fired with yet brighter light and truth. But it is the marriage of Free Christian man and Free Christian woman that most reformed, that most graced, all Christendom. That revolutionary but never-changing pattern, the very essence of what the Reformation played out in the hearts and minds of everyday believers, we, as Latter-day Saints, both gratefully acknowledge and evermore hold up to all the world. Hier stehen Wir und kann nicht anders.

A Tale of Two Scribes

The tale is one of Two Scribes.

Although standards remain non-negotiable, scholarship is a cheerful, joyous enterprise and colloquium, an on-going effort in which (a very few) errors prove not fatal but instructive, and much collegiality and openness to the contributions of others must thrive.

John Baines, Professor of Egyptology at Oxford University, laments the lack of collegiality in his own discipline. He further censures the encrusted lack of openness to any not belonging to the professional guild ("Restricted Knowledge, Hierarchy, and Decorum: Modern Perceptions and Ancient Institutions," JARCE 27:1-23).

The style of collegiality I favor follows the model put forth in Ancient Egyptian Wisdom Literature of the kbob, or cool scribe (controlled, efficient, mannerly), versus the hot-headed scribbler (pushy, self-willed, angry). A jar overflowing with pure, cool water becomes the hieroglyphic signature of the cool scribe; the hothead explodes “like fire in hay.”