Saturday, July 29, 2017

An Egyptologist Looks at Gospel Topics Essay "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham"

Is the book of Abraham true? Yes, but it is not complete; it stops almost midair. Would that the Prophet had gone on in his translation or revelation, as the case may be--Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles

For he promised unto them that he would preserve these things for a wise purpose in him, that he might show forth his power unto future generations--Alma 37:18

But the records of the fathers. . . the Lord my God preserved in mine own hands. . . and I shall endeavor to write some of these things upon this record, for the benefit of my posterity--Abraham 1:31

Lech Lecha! (Genesis 12)
**********************************************
The Gospel Topics Essays: Why Weigh in?

The several Gospel Topics essays show themselves a labor of love. Yet each must pass the same test: the test of time. Will evidence, expression, and claim continue to hold up after a quarter of a century or half a century have passed? Will the rising generation cling to what is asserted or will it seek improvements? At what point would it be fair to weigh in on the work so thoughtfully prepared under assignment? Might the several essays need some room to breathe before pencils get sharpened?

They never had that chance. The giants of the press, moving apace, told us all what to think about each and every essay, told us what snippets to focus on. "Mormon Church Admits Joseph Smith Married Wives"--as if Mormon children, for at least a century, didn't roam the halls every Sunday with a copy of the revelation on marriage in their tiny hands. General Authorities expressed disappointment at how the press sensationalized and thus also trivialized essays of beauty, worth, and completeness. I heard one of the Twelve counsel: Read every word of that essay [on plural marriage]. Church Admits that Book of Abraham May Not Be A Literal Translation! I recalled what Elder Bruce R. McConkie taught so eloquently three decades ago: "Is the book of Abraham true? Yes, but it is not complete; it stops almost midair. Would that the Prophet had gone on in his translation or revelation, as the case may be" (https://rsc.byu.edu/archived/joseph-smith-translation-restoration-plain-and-precious-things/1-doctrinal-restoration).

The Gospel Topics Essays will do their best work if we all remember one of the first principles of Mormonism. The doctrines of salvation aside, Mormonism favors relaxed opinion over creed and wresting, the open rather than the defined (see Alma 40:15; and also 40:5, 8, 17, 20, 21).

"Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham" now enters its fourth year, and I hope it is doing the work it was designed to do. Could a better essay have done better work? We have what we have. I chose not to weigh in. Having a doctorate in egyptology doesn't qualify me to steady the ark.

Without naming the piece, I did write on how unexplained ideas about the Egyptian relics serving as a "catalyst" for the translation did not match the evidence. The essay didn't stop with the relics: "The Bible seems to have been a frequent catalyst" for the Prophet's revelations. Why the qualifying "seems to have been"? Because the idea of Bible or mummies or papyri as "catalyst" is hokum, and those who prepared the essay sensed it. The records, says Joseph Smith, "have fallen into our hands"---accident or miracle--and astonishingly "purport to be the writings of Abraham, while in Egypt." "Purport" clarifies the relation of a papyrus to Abraham: something penned on papyrus, and read and understood from the first by the Prophet, is making a claim. Purchase followed.
(See "Examining the Catalyst Theory and the Book of Abraham"; "Two Bridges: A Cautionary Note about Gospel Scholarship":
http://valsederholm.blogspot.com/2016/04/the-catalyst-theory-of-book-of-abraham.html).
http://valsederholm.blogspot.com/2016/08/two-bridges-cautionary-note-in-book-of.html

"There is a time to keep silence, and a time to speak." Jacques Barzun wrote of the duty of teachers to correct. A proud father told Barzun: "I've prepared my son from childhood to become a teacher because of your example." Barzun shared with us his response: "I feel sorry for your son." Teachers must tell students what the self-protective hope not to hear. The worldly response is to reject intellect and learning as elitist.

Teachers also face the temptation to correct with pluck. Pardon the reviewer whose burden is no less light for all his puckishness. We may not know much, any of us, but we have an obligation to share what we know of method, discipline, and beauty. 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 findings of others must thrive. The Egyptian Wisdom Literature contrasts the kebob, or cool scribe (controlled, efficient, mannerly) with 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."

A keen reading is no fire. It's a favor. I'm just inviting any curious parties to read along for a spell.

I'm "going out to clean the pasture spring." "You come too."


Part One: Review of "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham"


I  Proving that the Holy Scriptures are True

What do I think of "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham"? I will speak first as a reader of English; afterward, as an egyptologist. The opening paragraph and the later doctrinal discussion flow well and partake of beauty. These paragraphs make me think of President Henry B. Eyring. The conclusion, which speaks to study, prayer, and spiritual witness, as the "ultimate" way to learn the "truth" about Abraham's book is lovely, too--though it's also likely that many have first been convinced of the truth of the book by the proofs given in other Scriptures or by the evidences of history and language.

The response to proofs and evidences depends on each individual--some being more promptly convinced by what they learn from Scripture or from "the best books" than others. Some learn by study; some by faith. Convincing comes by one or the other force, or a combination thereof (see Alma 37; Moroni 10). Moroni anticipates that the readers of the Book of Mormon will be so astonished, so deeply moved, by the narrative sweep and spiritual power of the Book that in prayers they will only ask: "is it not [then, indisputably] true?" In large measure, Moroni was wrong. The forces warring against learning either by study or by faith prevail in the latter-days. Make no mistake. Critics not only attack our appeal to faith; they also attack all our attempts to learn Scriptural truth "by study."

For Nephi, the words of the prophets come together as "convincing" "proof." We say the same thing often of Joseph Smith: his visions and his revelatory words turn the key of proof to yet other revelatory words--line-upon-line--and the Holy Scriptures confirm it all. Yet the convincing power of historical evidence, reason, logic, cannot ever be discounted in the great story of faith.

Hugh Nibley once drew a very long line on the board and, making hash marks, showed that each person found convincing evidence, historical, linguistic, and so forth, at some different but clearly marked point along that long line. A growing body of evidence rings in, at a given point, absolute proof to that particular soul--even if not to any other. It's so simple. And what of the spiritual convincing? Draw another line. Ezra Thayre in 1830 held a copy of the Book of Mormon in his hands--that moment was enough. There is no proof, evidence, or witness, however convincing, greater than the spiritual, especially when combined with the words of the former prophets.


II  The little foxes, that spoil the vignettes

The rest of the essay baffles, even jars, and the English--hint: forget the Egyptian--proves difficult to read. I wonder whether anyone can understand many of the sentences in the essay, much less grasp the paragraphs. Yet the baffling whole has been translated into German, Portuguese, French, and Spanish. No reader can dance around the thing; we all must simply plow through. And no matter what we cut through or plow under in that honest, fearless, and seeking style which characterizes the Latter-day Saint community, the direct way is the only way that the Saints will ever arrive at clear and candid discussion about hieroglyph and papyri--and Abraham. If the essay has its flaws and follies, all the better: more to sort through, more to discuss.


Let's start with what the essay says of the several vignettes (the "little vines," or iconographic representations) from which Reuben Hedlock prepared woodblock facsimiles for printing: Facsimiles 1, 2, and 3, of the Book of Abraham.

Elegant Variation: We read "of these facsimiles" and "of these drawings" in a single sentence. The same representations are also called "vignettes" and "illustrations." Yet none of these words is entirely synonymous--and the variation, lacking simple definition, will confuse any reader. We recall Hugh Nibley's persistent reminders about these symbol-laden vignettes being anything but pictures or illustrations. Must we forget everything he wrote on the subject over four decades? must we return to what he once called "Phase One"?

And how about the hieroglyphs found on the vignettes? We read of "the hieroglyphs or hieratic characters that originally surrounded the vignettes"--but why "characters"? Even young and curious readers might be expected to know about Chinese characters, Mayan glyphs, Indus signs, Mesopotamian cuneiform, Hittite hieroglyphics, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Egyptian hieratic. And are there indeed "hieratic characters" on any of the vignettes from which the Prophet published facsimiles? If so, Where are they?

What of "hieratic characters that originally surrounded the vignettes"? Facsimile 2 has much hieroglyphic text inside--not only surrounding. How could such an oversight have been made? It's not owing to any lack of knowledge; an overabundance of proofreading works its magic.

Speaking again of these particular three vignettes, the essay postures and postulates: "Moreover, documents initially composed for one context can be repackaged for another context or purpose."

What does it mean to compose, much less "initially compose," documents "for one context"? That's not clear to me or to the teen.

"Context or purpose"? These words aren't synonyms and jar when found together. Context, misapplied and overused, jars everywhere. The authors intend: "The vignettes were originally associated with Abraham, or with his book, and were later also used by a Theban priestly family ca. 200 BC" (not BCE and CE as in this essay, unburdened as it is with a sense of audience). From Abraham to Theban priests--How could this be? We don't know--but we are standing by the claim. Indeed the Egyptians did search out and reuse older, even ancient, writings all the time and down through the millennia.

"Repackaged for another context"--it's one thing to fill paragraphs with cant and jargon, quite another to use jargon that never appears any egyptological journal. I get the point, and I don't disagree, but the sentence is hardly clear. And who is doing the "repackaging"? Hor's sons? or Joseph Smith?

"Drifted or even dislodged from that original context and reinterpreted"--again, I get the drift--but clarity also drifts here. "Reinterpreted?" To what degree? or was it just reused? Was it reused to invoke a special or ancient power? We must think more deeply here about how or why Theban priests adopted or adapted vignettes having reference to an historical Abraham in Egypt.

"Joseph Smith had published the facsimiles as freestanding drawings."

Untrue. Both facsimiles 2 and 3 show plenty of hieroglyphs, hieroglyphs which Joseph Smith said he could interpret, at least in part. Some were not to be revealed to the world at present, but he said these also were of deepest import--"to be had in the temple." "Freestanding drawings" is a stunning misstatement because only Facsimile 1 appears in the published book of Abraham without "surrounding hieroglyphs." And why is that? Perhaps the Prophet saw the accompanying hieroglyphic text on that vignette as being entirely irrelevant to the book of Abraham, as opposed to, say, the writings of sacred import on Facsimile 2. And, to be sure, much of the writing on Facsimile 2 has thematic and verbal correspondence to at least the first three chapters of the Book of Abraham: the petition for divine rescue (as Nibley noted), the "noble" and "great" god who acts in the zp tpy (the primeval time), and yet more.

As for Facsimile 3, there are also lessons here: Joseph Smith addresses specific hieroglyphs as representing names of the persons depicted. And notice how he says that the names are "written in characters" over their hands or heads. If Joseph Smith truly believed that one hieratic sign could be translated into many lines of Abrahamic text, why would he also say that several characters were required to spell a single name? Answer: Because he never believed that one hieratic sign could be translated into a paragraph of text. Read his description of the title page of the Book of Mormon; its translation balances the Egyptian with the corresponding English, one page to one page. So much for the refrain of the critics over the last half century: Joseph Smith thought he was translating sentences, even paragraphs, of Scripture from single hieratic signs.

"Illustrations with no clear connection to Abraham anciently could, by revelation, shed light on the life and teachings of this prophetic figure."

Abraham is usually known as the Patriarch, or Father Abraham, not as a "prophetic figure." The  elegant variation "Abraham" and "this prophetic figure" throw the reader off the scent, as does the vague "clear connection"-- as opposed to "any connection whatsoever"?

"Illustrations with [should be having] no clear connection [whatever that means] to Abraham anciently could, by revelation, shed light on the life and teachings of this prophetic figure."

The sentence invites but one response: How? How could illustrations (or vignettes, facsimiles, drawings), having no connection, clear or otherwise, to Abraham, anciently, then suddenly find a connection to him by revelation? What kind of a tie could that be? Right! No tie at all!

What purpose would that revelatory moment serve? Why would such an ungrounded matter need to be revealed? What then to make of the three now fictive facsimiles? Are there other revelations in which illustrations having nothing to do with an ancient prophet suddenly have much to do with him? Wouldn't that just be making a connection that's not there? Or is it there but just not clearly there? Reading clouds in the sky. Five-star bad sentence.


III  The Kirtland Egyptian Papers: the "Grammar Book"

What the essay says next of the Alphabet Document (or "Grammar book") of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers rings in an unforced error.

"Some evidence suggests that Joseph studied the characters on the Egyptian papyri and attempted to learn the Egyptian language. His history reports that, in July 1835, he was 'continuously engaged in translating an alphabet to the Book of Abraham, and arranging a grammar of the Egyptian language as practiced by the ancients.' This 'grammar,' as it was called, consistent of columns of hieroglyphic characters [not hieroglyphs and hieratic signs?] followed by English translations recorded in a large notebook by Joseph's scribe, William W. Phelps. Another manuscript, written by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, has Egyptian characters [wrong: not for Joseph Smith!] followed by explanations."

"Some evidence suggests that. . ."  What evidence exactly? Why the vague "some" cropping up everywhere in the essay to the frustration of the young reader? Why the repeated cloying adverbials ending in "that"? And if "his history reports that," why is it a matter of "some" suggestive evidence only? Because we don't know who later set down this matter of history?

The essay fails to clearly, or accurately, describe the "Alphabet document." Yet we are told what it all means by an essayist (or committee of such) who confesses the tie between that document and Abraham's book "is not fully understood."

"Columns" followed by "translations" is an unforced error: at this point transparency becomes surrender. The easy-going acceptance of translations of whole paragraphs of text from corresponding single hieratic signs perpetuates an error exploded by Hugh Nibley some 50 years ago. The sentence gives away, free of charge, the claim to Abrahamic Scripture through divine translation. If Joseph Smith thought he was translating huge segments of Scripture from a relatively few signs having nothing to do with Abraham, then the work can hardly lay claim to the imprimatur of the Divine. And yet there are many who say it's a simple matter to reconcile Joseph's weak and ignorant toying with Egyptian with the revelation of the Patriarch's brilliant visions.

Prove it. Use clear terms and bring evidence.

Here's contrary evidence that approaches demonstration: 1) The translation by W.W. Phelps (not Joseph Smith, as Chicago Professor Robert Ritner states in The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri: A Complete Edition) of a paragraph of hieratic, in Kirtland Egyptian document #7, shows how Brother Phelps understood the requisite balance of hieratic and English lines (see Hugh Nibley, "The Kirtland Egyptian Papers"). So did Phelps translate correctly? No. He wasn't a prophet. 2) We've already touched on the matter of several "characters" being required to write a single name in the Explanation of Facsimile 3, as well as the evidence from the 3) translation of the Egyptian Title Page of the Book of Mormon into a corresponding page of English; 4) Joseph Smith's explanation of that same Title Page speaks of Egyptian "running" like Hebrew: thus a running script; 5) in Moroni 9, Brother Joseph also lets us know that he is translating from an Egyptian script, like Hebrew, built around phonetic principles, not symbolic ideograms of dark and wonderful purport; 6) notes in the possession of both Oliver Cowdery and Frederick G. Williams yield examples of how Egyptian hieroglyphs, formed or reformed, translate names and noun phrases: two characters yield two or three English nouns. Did we leave anyone out? Only Warren Parrish. Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, Frederick G. Williams, William W. Phelps make up the roll, where the Kirtland Egyptian project was concerned. And they all understood alike, when it came to the nature of Egyptian writing and translation. (Before doing anything else, read Dr. W.V. Smith's "Criticisms of Joseph Smith and the Book of Abraham": http://www.boap.org/LDS/critics.html#N_19_ .)

Again, Joseph Smith's own explanations in the "grammar book" follow study of "Egyptian characters." False. That particular manuscript starts with mysterious characters having nothing to do with the papyri or hieroglyphs--the Egyptian comes later. A big error. Joseph Smith doesn't touch any "Egyptian characters" in this document--as is very well known. (See discussion in the latest volume of the Joseph Smith Papers.)

"Not fully understood": Is it, then, understood in part? "Grammar book": I like the phrase, but it's cute--this manuscript is not a book, and hardly a grammar. Where are the rules?

To repeat: all the talk about "rules" and "translations" turns the page on the entire argument for the divine nature of the Prophet's translation of the book of Abraham--and it's an unforced error. The "grammar book" is no such thing: it does not set out "rules" per se; it has certain assumptions--obscure beyond thought--but neither rules nor delineation of rules. It says nothing of nouns, verbs, adverbs, or syntax. Nor can the "grammar" be said to contain Abrahamic "translations" from hieratic signs. That's the principal anti-Mormon line, and the most fervently propagated. (See my essay, "Running from the Truth about The Book of Abraham," 2017.) A single sentence in the Gospel Topics Essay, working crossways the tenor of the whole, thus blithely gives away the entire game to the anti-Mormons, and without any attempt at defense whatsoever. Yet it's a simple thing to defend and was effectively defended half a century ago.

The various claims about the "Grammar book" are so casually and, at once, so obscurely stated that no agent or officer of the Church who might have reviewed the essay could ever have caught the full implications. Who knew them? The few, the jet set. Will Latter-day Saint youth get the point? There is no point to get; no point, no clarity, no evidence. In fairness, sometimes it's a matter of Out with the Truth--even if the Truth may be damaging. Transparency is the watchword. But the claim that these "translations" derive from the hieratic signs to the left of the Abraham texts is not only crafted in dense glass but demonstrably false--and we have as proof the Prophet's own clear and repeated words about translating from the Egyptian, over a lifetime, to prove it. We mustn't confuse transparency with surrender. No matter how often or how loudly critics promulgate untested ideas, we need not fall for them hook, line, and sinker. The subtleties of agenda, traced throughout the essay, are sure to baffle every reader--the teen quickly bends back to Instagram and Facebook.

See "What Did Joseph Smith Say about the Nature of Egyptian Hieroglyphs," http://valsederholm.blogspot.com/2017/05/what-did-ohioans-in-joseph-smiths-day.html; : "Running from the Truth about the Book of Abraham," http://valsederholm.blogspot.com/2017/01/running-from-truth-about-joseph-smith.html

IV  "Translation": Defining Seeric Translation

The essay's attempt to explain translation, any kind of translation, fails the tests of thoroughness and clarity. The confused and contradictory essay deals with matters far beyond any of us, and easy explanations about the workings of the divine get us nowhere. Can we explain the Liahona? the Interpreters? Can we understand how Brother Joseph was gifted with "the eye of the Lord," as both Brigham Young and Orson Spencer put it? Can we even explain how a papyrus roll containing Abraham's very record showed up in the Ohio village a modern Prophet called home? The essay, better words eluding, calls that last unfolding, "a set of unique historical events." And so it goes. Was not 24 July 1847 also the unfolding of "set of unique historical events"? We are dealing with a different universe of discourse, what Doctrine and Covenants 130:4 terms "prophet's time."

The essay confidently introduces the topic of translation in these uncertain words: "We do know some things about the translation process. The word translation typically assumes an expert knowledge of multiple languages. Joseph Smith claimed no expertise in any language."

The first question any reader will raise is: Are you claiming to know some things (and exactly what things?) about the translation process of Joseph Smith? or just some things about the process (or workings?) of translation--not "translation process-- in general? The answer is: Joseph Smith--but the logic of the sentence points in the other direction. And why the cloying phrase "translation process?" Jacques Barzun spent decades trying to dislodge process from America's facile wordhoard.

Again: Does translation really (or even "typically") assume "an expert knowledge of multiple languages?" Define "expert." People translate every day, and in every type of conversation or business transaction imaginable. Parents are forever lugging children to offices to do a day's work of translation. Ah! That's why we need the process. Translation meets up with expert and the precisely qualifying typically to signal that we are now entering the professional world through the gates of scientism. And while Joseph Smith doubtless never claimed "expertise in any language," including his native English(?), he constantly translated words and phrases from Hebrew, Greek, and German before audiences numbering in the thousands. He would cite lexicons, translate, and then call on the dozens of native Germans congregants to give the thumbs up. Weak he may have been, but he was not shy.

Nor did he simply "receive" "knowledge about the life and teachings of Abraham," as the essay states, in apparent, and bland, reference to the complex book of Abraham. He had to work at it over a span of decades. Knowledge of Abraham came through Brother Joseph's intense work in Book of Mormon translation, through his inspired additions to the Bible, by his entertaining an heavenly messenger from the "dispensation of the gospel of Abraham," through startling revelations of Abraham's priesthood, doctrine, and covenants, often expounded upon in his public discourses, and from what he himself--in his own handwriting--called "the sacred record" of Abraham on papyrus. None of the several elements that make up this decades-long revelation of the covenants and dispensation of Father Abraham was a simple matter of a dense or unaware instrument picking up knowledge in the manner of radio, television, or Internet.

The essay correctly quotes Scripture about Brother Joseph's translations being effected by "the gift and power of God." But remember the further scriptural injunction to "stir up the gift of God, which is in thee" (2 Timothy 1:6). Then power comes.

And the last scripture also explains the long entombed papyri--it came to stir us all up! And how it stirs us up! It emerged from the catacombs to awaken again the Prophet's seeric gift of translation from a surviving, nay, resurrected, ancient record. And how it awakens our minds to Abraham! The papyri sounds in our ears an alarm--and there is no snooze button. How uncomfortable it makes us--Ah! the plan of God at Millennial Morning: "Awake, and hear the words" (Mosiah 3:3)! Should the papyri disquiet--that is the hand of God working His perfect work. Never mistake the hand that wrenches your very heart strings as a sign that the Divine Work is frustrated, or about to collapse (Doctrine and Covenants 3). Joseph had already wrestled with the angels of the Abrahamic dispensation--lo these many years--now he was to wrestle with the word of God on papyrus. To the very last week of his life that wrestle with learning "from the papyrus now in my house" never left his mind. The concrete is no dream: we try to shake it off, explain it away, but Material Papyri and Conscious, Knowing Translation remains. We speak of the papyri serving as a catalyst to revelation, to Abraham. Forget it. Joseph Smith had already been "catalyzed" on the subject. He would now translate by stirring up the gift of God, which was in him.

The Abraham papyrus, though astonishing, surely works as one of the "small and simple," even "foolish," Scriptural means through which God in His wisdom ministers salvation to His children. A torn sheet of papyrus, about the size of a postcard, is all God requires to confound the wise. That tightly rolled and tarred papyrus, in all its long itinerary, simple step-by-step to Kirtland, carries all our hopes for exaltation in the eternal family covenant. And by "carries" I mean it yet so carries--for the book, "stopping midair" with the marriage of Adam and Eve, "is not complete"--neither is our eternal mansion (see Alma 37).

Promises locked in past dispensations require the high gift of a seer. But defining that seeric work demands something more than Webster's.

The following sentence, which cites Webster's American Dictionary (1828), would make any teen dizzy:

"In Joseph Smith's day, the word translate could mean 'to interpret; to render into another language.' The word interpret could mean 'to explain the meaning of words to a person who does not understand them,' or 'to explain or unfold the meaning of predictions, vision[s?], dreams, or enigmas; to expound and lay open what is concealed from the understanding.'"

I'm intrigued by Webster's, but the point of citing a dictionary made specifically in Joseph Smith's early 19th century American setting is to show how words used in that particular time and place differ from how the same words are used in other times and places. Can we be quite sure that "the word translate" doesn't also (lose the infirm qualifier could) "mean 'to interpret; to render into another language,' in Johnson's Dictionary or in any other English dictionary? Of course it does. The OED would serve better, for it shows how the connotations of words change over time, that is, when they do change.

And what of the dictionary game? Translate means interpret; interpret means explain enigmas; and so forth. What are we left with? A merry-go-round of coulds. What the Prophet taught in his last public discourse: "I translated it [Abraham Chapter 3] from the papyrus now in my house" by lexical legerdemain now "could mean": "I laid open the enigmatic vision I had after studying, noticing, glancing at, the papyrus now in my house." The pursuit of scholarship frees us from the dominion of such games. Let's be free of them.

And just who did all the translating? "Joseph Smith, or perhaps a colleague, introduced the published translation by saying that the records were 'written by his [Abraham's] own hand, upon papyrus.' The phrase can be understood to mean that Abraham is the author and not the literal copyist."

I don't understand the last phrase: "the literal copyist." Would a teen understand it? What the author intended was: "Abraham wrote his book; other hands made copies of it over time; a Late Egyptian copy fell into Joseph Smith's hands. 'By his own hand upon papyrus' may imply composition not copied manuscript."

"Or perhaps a colleague"? Did the "highly esteemed" Seer and Translator have a colleague? (I'm quoting from 2 Nephi 3.) Was Willard Richards, the Prophet's scribe, the colleague? W.W. Phelps? Hugh Nibley is immediately cited as source, but what Nibley said half a century ago--and the authors of the essay know it--was that "The Book of Abraham Written by His Own Hand upon Papyrus" serves up a complete and typical ancient title. (The scribe was responsible for the faulty capitalization and punctuation, as it now stands.) The mere existence of that odd title, so casually punctuated, may well be the best evidence we have for a book of Abraham really present "upon papyrus" in Brother Joseph's house! And the fact of the title's being misunderstood by critics ranks high among the abundant ironies with which the anti-Mormon literature teems. No wonder Hugh Nibley stated: "We need more anti-Mormon literature"!

Conclusions about translation:  "A careful study of the book of Abraham provides a better measure of the book's merits than any hypothesis that treats the text as a conventional translation."

I think I know what all this means, as I hurry along. It later becomes the sentence I read most often. There's a fine air about it; it's been highly polished. Let's translate it into French and fork it over to a delightful teen in Grenoble who's been asked a couple questions about the merits of the Book. I'm remembering a French grad student I knew in Indiana, an Hebraist. When I assured him that, yes, Abraham could read and write, astonished denial filled the air. So I brought up our wee Book. Full-blown academician's distress set in. He couldn't allow me to speak! and left in a huff. Our teen might be son petite cousine. She inhabits a universe sliced through with logic, steadied only by geometric proofs. So what's her answer? her saving esprit de finesse?

Let's look at the sentence at which her brow furrows:

"Study" "provides a better measure of the book's merits." Yields would be the simpler word; or gives; or better takes the measure; better shows the book's merits. And are these the book's intrinsic merits? its literary or historical merits? or its merits as a translation from "text"?

Science built this sentence: "Study" "a better measure" "than any hypothesis" (are not these always the result of study? even of measurements?) "that treats" (the scientific language continues) "the text" (another rather technical word perhaps referring to the above mentioned "book"--or is it a hint at the original text in hieratic?) "as a conventional translation" (as opposed to What?).

President John Taylor admired French philosophy--and he called it "fried froth." We think if we speak the frothy language of grad school--and the kids will pick up on it, that's for sure!--we're just going to knock 'em dead.

Then I start to wonder whether there is one "hypothesis" here that I am to avoid by study, or perhaps even several hypotheses about the translation of Abraham being "a conventional translation." Yet isn't the premise of the book that Abraham wrote down an autobiography in Egypt and that Joseph Smith published its equivalent in conventional English, that is, pretty much word-for-word? Or is that hopelessly naive? And would not such a transmission of content stand consistent with the idea of translation in every time and place? Doesn't the book, then, claim to be a "conventional translation"?

But it is the manner of translation, not the translated text, to which the sentence refers. Yet even if Brother Joseph understood and conveyed the Egyptian text by means of an instrument--his spiritually endowed eyes and mind--isn't the result the same as what a "conventional translation" would produce? Isn't that the point of the whole enterprise of translation--especially prophetic translation? What does the Book of Mormon say about translation? Text is transmitted, period. Is the Book of Nephi really not, in fine, a "conventional translation" of what was on Nephi's plates. The method shouldn't matter. It's a miraculous method, yes--but on to the miracle of the book itself and to its merits.

Aha! That's what the sentence means--I knew it all along!


We know come to deep waters--deep and murky. No amount of reading helps teen know what sentence says:

"It is likely futile to assess Joseph's ability to translate papyri when we now have only a fraction of the papyri he had in his possession. Eyewitnesses spoke of 'a long roll' or multiple 'rolls' of papyrus. Since only fragments survive, it is likely that much of the papyri accessible to Joseph when he translated the book of Abraham is not among these fragments. The loss of a significant portion of the papyri means the relationship of the papyri to the published text cannot be settled conclusively by reference to the papyri."

"It is likely futile to assess Joseph's ability to translate [the gold plates] when we now have [no plates at all] he had in his possession." At first blush, the sentence evinces a flawless logic. Then we start to think: But what of all the philological and other work done throughout many decades on the text of the Book of Mormon? Look at the names, themes, historical correspondences, look at the archaeology and anthropology done by so many, for so very long, on the Book of Mormon, or even on Abraham. Isn't this the stuff on which assessments are made. The book of Abraham weighs in at 14 pages. There is hands down more linguistic, literary, historical, and archaeological evidence for the genuine nature of that book than for any other ancient book of comparable size. As with the Book of Mormon, Abraham's egyptianisms and hebraisms also abound and refute the simplistic "likely futile to assess Joseph's ability to translate" papyri. This sentence robs any curious young reader of the opportunity to address such linguistic or thematic bull's-eyes.

Another sentence defies logic altogether: "Since only fragments survive" [stated as fact], "it is likely that [here comes the argument] much of the papyri accessible to Joseph. . . is not among these fragments." "Likely"? Obvious. And why the pretentious and unclear "accessible"?

"The loss of a significant portion [Alas! the weary significant: how much, more or less?] of the papyri [owned by the Prophet] means the relationship of the papyri to the published text cannot be settled conclusively by reference to the papyri." Why "settled conclusively," and not just "settled"; or why "settled. . . by reference"? What "papyri"? Why "published text"? The first mention to papyri is clear: all papyri owned by the Prophet; but how about the second and third mentions of the same word? As a lifelong student of the history of the Joseph Smith papyri, I would first take the author's intent to be: "The loss of much or most of the papyri once owned by the Prophet means that the relationship of the limited papyri, elsewhere termed 'fragments,' now in the Church's hands to the published text of the book of Abraham cannot be settled [omit unnecessary "conclusively"] by reference to these same papyri now in the Church's hands." More likely, the author's intent was: "The loss of much of the papyri once owned by the Prophets means [that] the relationship of that entire set of papyri to the published Abraham text cannot be settled by reference to the fragments and sheets of papyri now in the Church's hands." That's a true statement.

We now turn to the paragraph heralded by the Salt Lake Tribune, the New York Times, and the British papers, as a mighty breakthrough in the Church's stance on the Book of Abraham translation.

"Alternatively, Joseph's study of the papyri may have led to a revelation about key events and teachings of the life of Abraham, much as he had earlier received a revelation about the life of Moses while studying the Bible. This view assumes a broader definition of the words translator and  translation. According to this view, Joseph's translation was not a literal rendering of the papyri as a conventional translation would be. Rather, the physical artifacts provided an occasion for meditation, reflection, and revelation. They catalyzed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri."

The famous paragraph opens with Alternatively--a headline catching word! But no matter how often or how carefully read, the keen reader fails to see any argument or statement for which an "alternative view" is now stated. Consider again the preceding paragraph. Does it give a view for which an alternate now appears? Shall we search further up the essay for the link? Alternatively simply hangs there, without referentiality.

"Joseph's study of the papyri may have led to a revelation"--this is clear, without need of Alternatively, that is, whether we accept one or another of the speculations about how he translated or "translated."

"A revelation about key events and teachings of the life of Abraham": Does the sentence mean to say that an alternate view of the book can also discard the autobiographical presentation, and instead amount more amorphously to "key events and teachings of the life." Has the autobiography now been recast as a manual and travelogue? The book of Abraham, with its sweeping views, including the surprising scene from Abraham's premortal "life," is something much beyond "key events and teachings of the life of Abraham."

"Much as he had earlier received a revelation about the life of Moses while studying the Bible." "Studying the Bible" hardly catches the supreme import of the projected translation. And why "the life of Moses"? not Moses' vision? Besides, had Joseph not also received a revelation about Adam, Eve, Abel, Enoch, Lamech, Noah, and even Abraham himself while preparing his New Translation of the Bible?  The sentence means: Could not "study" of the papyri have occasioned a revelation of the autobiography of Abraham, just as study of the Bible led to a revelation of additional details of Abraham's life, now found in the Joseph Smith Translation. Now we have the meaning of the sentence clearly in mind, it's a simple thing to show the error of its claims.

Let's think it through. How well does Joseph's "study of the papyri" match his "study of the Bible"--are they the same, even similar, kinds of study. Again, "study of the Bible" hardly describes the New Translation. And to what degree do details, or longer additions, to the life and teachings of Abraham match in kind what we see in the elaborated book of Abraham? And why was the ancient title of the book: "The Book of Abraham Translated from His Own Hand upon Papyrus?"

Or what exactly is the purport of the words in the Prophet's last sermon, 16 June 1844, that he learned the content of Abraham Chapter 3 "from translating the papyrus now in my house?" Here we also note words written by Joseph in "his own hand" about "papyrus": he calls some of his collection: "the sacred record." Is not "the sacred record" the same "papyrus now in my house" from which he is "translating"? Right from the beginning, Joseph Smith recognized some of the papyri as containing a record of the Patriarchs. To so recognize, or identify, there must have been some moment of divine translation in which certain hieratic signs yielded specific English text (the title?). That's what led to purchase, then to study, then to "translation or revelation as the case may be." Remember that the Prophet, to satisfy Mr. Chandler's mind about the gift of interpretation, presented him with a translation of some of the writing found with the mummies. In this case, there was no mention of the Patriarchs; the Prophet was reading some undoubtedly curious but rather mundane lines. And perhaps what he so translated were the very titles belonging to the priest Hor, as found alongside our Facsimile 1. If not so, these best illustrate the nature of Joseph Smith's first seeric translation from the collection, names, ancient ownership, etc.

"This view assumes a broader definition of the word translator and translation.  According to this view, Joseph's translation was not a literal rendering of the papyri as a conventional translation would be."

Again, how to make a coherent link between "this view" and "alternatively," or between "alternatively" and some unstated different "view." Has "this view" yet been defined? "A broader definition": Broader that what? What definition? We're never once told! A startling new and alternative view is now allowed--and what is that "view"? A broad definition of "translator." But didn't we always know the the Prophet translated after a manner enigmatic and divine? And that's all we know because he never explained anything to us about his "high gift" (see Mosiah 8). Nor could he explain any such thing--nor could even Gabriel himself--to our dark minds, to recall what Joseph Smith told the Elders preparing for the preliminary ordinances of the priesthood endowment.

"According to this view [still undefined], Joseph's translation was not a literal rendering of the papyri as a conventional translation would be." Now we're getting somewhere! Some Latter-day Saints have long believed, without any taint of official criticism at any time, that Joseph's translation of Abraham "was not a literal rendering of the papyri as a conventional translation would be [i.e., would have been]." Again, What papyri are we speaking about here? The entire collection, or that which we now have? Since a "literal rendering" (whatever the phrase means) of the papyri we now have yields only chapters from the Book of the Dead and the Breathings Document, how could anyone believe--and no one ever has so believed--that Joseph's translation of Abraham was a "literal" or any other kind of "rendering" from that limited set of fragments?

What, then, does the sentence imply? It simply implies that Joseph Smith, weak and ignorant instrument that he ever was, clearly thought that he was translating from the same papyrus that contains the Breathings Document, but--oops!--he wasn't, though he may have been composing or rendering some divine, but unseen, music from that score.

And how do we all know this? By what Paul calls "imaginations." We're an imaginative lot. To speculate on mysteries has ever been the campfire entertainment of the Latter-day Saint community. Today such "vain imaginings," as Nephi puts it, parade as if demonstrable fact. We simply know what it was that Joseph knew--and what he didn't. We've set the bounds and the stakes as narrowly as we possibly can, and all despite his own repeated warnings about narrowness, fancies, and stakes. Did Brother Joseph only imagine that he was talking with an Elias from Abraham's gospel dispensation, when receiving his message and keys in the Kirtland Temple? divine messages? No. Then why say that the Seer, with his "high gift," only imagined, he was translating from the papyri? That's the big news today, as published in both BYU's Religious Educator and the latest volume (Fall 2017) of the Joseph Smith Papers: "If Joseph Smith thought he was translating the papyri [which papyri?] but he wasn't, what, then, does Joseph Smith's inspired translation process really mean?" (Brian Hauglid, "The Book of Abraham and Translating the Sacred," Religious Educator, Winter Review 2017). Institute teachers need not worry since "scholars" are busy "analyzing the revelatory process of Joseph Smith" (Robin Scott Jensen, "The Joseph Smith Papers and the Book of Abraham," RE). In fact, as the result of sampling some extant evidence, the analysis is already in: "Following a period of studying some [which?] of the papyri, Joseph dictated a manuscript containing the Book of Abraham, which he believed was a translation of the papyri [which?]. While significant portions [which?] of the papyri collection are missing, the extant papyri in fact [here's the analysis] contain relatively [mandatory qualifier] common Egyptian funerary texts" (ibid.).

The burden of proof rests on the one who so speculates.

Prove it, or drop it.

Again, a look at what the Prophet says of the translation of the Title Page of the Book of Mormon, of Egyptian names being the equivalent of several "characters," and of Egyptian being a "running" script based on phonetic principles (Mormon 9), would lead to the truth about his supposed "renderings" from the Book of Breathings. Or does one little owl hieroglyph really yield several lines of narrative, studded with elaborate names like Elkenah and Potiphar and Mahmackrash (including spelling variants like Elkenner)? We also have an eyewitness account, both famous and overlooked, showing us, in brief scope, what it would have been like for any of us to sit in the translation room with the Seer (see "Eyewitness: Joseph Smith 'Interpreted Hieroglyphics for Us': http://valsederholm.blogspot.com/2017/06/joseph-smith-interpreted-hieroglyphics.html).

But the Church now confirms the circular alternative theory! The Church does no such thing. Not as "explained" by "Translation and Historicity," anyhow. Sorry New York Times.

Besides, Latter-day Saints think as they choose. Do any of us wait for the Church to confirm a thing before we choose to think or to believe it? What would the point of that be? To limit the choice of others to believe as they might see fit? Highly educated Saints are forever running to the Church to do their thinking for them. We loudly yearn, like so many children, to have our own notions stamped Authorized and blog triumphantly when we think it happens. In Alma 4:8 we read that "the people of the church" often scorned and policed members "that did not believe [some point of doctrine] according to their own will and pleasure." Forget Abraham--these words describe our every intellectual move to a tee. The result: "great contentions in the church," which "began to fail in its progress" (4:9-10). Without room to think--and the Nephites never allowed anyone an inch of room--and especially to think erroneous thoughts, there can be no progress.

And why this tendentious word assumes: Do views assume? A view implies a point of view, a standpoint, or high ground. Is the standpoint here an "assumption," then? or does it rest upon some basis? I nitpick. Yet every single word from a sentence so trumpeted by the press as the longed-for breakthrough about translation being merely "translation" calls for weighing. And why not? The lions of the press never read the paragraph word-for-word: they simply reproduced it as Hieroglyph in bulk.

No matter how opaque the Egyptian darkness of the essay's earthshaking moments, we all must join in the groundswell of thrill and emotion. "Translation and Historicity," say all the papers, is a feel good essay.


V  "Historicity"

In search of clearer freshets, we move on to the matter of historicity: 

"The book of Abraham speaks disapprovingly of human sacrifice offered on an altar in Chaldea." What on earth! Would a student ever write: The Torah or Kings speaks disapprovingly of human sacrifice offered in Canaan? Speaks disapprovingly--no native speaker of English would ever bark out such a howler. The right word is condemns, excoriates, abhors. Imagine reading in Abraham: "I rahther disapprove of being sacrificed."

As for the statement that people were executed for opposing "the religion of Pharaoh," not only does the evidence, however arresting, remain delicate, nowhere in all the egyptological literature will the reader find such a "religion of Pharaoh." What does it mean? The phrase indeed appears in the writings of Kemetology and in an old tract from the early 18th century, but not in any careful work. 

"Punishment dating to Abraham's time" and "now known to have been meted out in the Abrahamic era" also overclaim. We simply don't know the dates of the Patriarchal Age. Has the author of the essay any new insights on the matter? Again, the matter of ritual killing in Middle Kingdom Egypt is itself of deep interest, but it's not clear yet how it might specifically support the historicity of the book of Abraham and the sacrificial practices in Ur of the Chaldees. On the other hand, though his work on the theme may call for revisiting, Hugh Nibley had much to say of the rival claims of royalty and priesthood in the Abraham stories--an often deadly game--of the tales of attempted sacrifice and escape throughout the Ancient Near East and Classical world, of the theme of drought and sacrifice, the motif of the three sacrificial virgins of royal blood, and so on. 

As is already apparent then, the several evidences of historicity that the essay introduces, though perhaps chosen as a sampling of the very latest from many hands, were poorly chosen or injudiciously treated. More peculiar, germane, and specific evidence could have been put forward.

Again, the note on the inverted parallelism of a couple verses in Chapter 3, while not wrong, has, in its placement, the feel of an afterthought. Verbal parallelism does obtain in lines labeled C through D, though not so clearly in A through E. The idea merits study, and the sole and casual sentence describing the findings serves it poorly: "Further, Abraham 3:22-23 is written in a poetic structure more characteristic of Near Eastern languages than early American writing style." One wonders what is meant by "more characteristic" of one set of "languages" than of the "style" of another? And what of the composition and style of the book as a whole?

The essay also refers to "a town called 'Ulisum." Town is the wrong word for the ancient place. But whether Ulisum has any relation to Abraham's plain of Olishem, the essay misses an opportunity to be more specific about the similarity in the form of the name. John Gee and Christopher Woods (Chicago) both note that Ulisum can also be transcribed from the cuneiform as Ulishim or even Olishem. "Certainly," Woods concedes, "Ulisum could be superficially linked on phonetic grounds to the Olishem mentioned in the Book of Abraham," though "much more substantial evidence" is required (p. 91). I agree, even when "certainly" and "superficially" make for jarring company (See Christopher Woods, "The Practice of Egyptian Religion at 'Ur of the Chaldees," in Robert K. Ritner, The Joseph Smith Papyri, 89-91).

"Facsimile 1 and Abraham 1:17 mention the idolatrous god Elkenah. This deity is not mentioned in the Bible, yet modern scholars have identified it as being among the gods worshipped by ancient Mesopotamians." "As being among the gods worshipped by ancient Mesopotamians" leaves the curious reader with absolutely nothing: no added knowledge of Mesopotamian deities, worship, or anything else. There are many, many Mesopotamian gods and many, many Mesopotamian cultures, but it is Canaan not Mesopotamia to which the essay's footnotes on Elkenah point the reader. "Modern scholars" is tendentious. Name the scholar. "Deity" and "it" also break with usage: have identified him. 

"Joseph Smith represented the four figures. . . as 'this earth is its four quarters.'"

"A similar interpretation has been argued by scholars who study identical figures in other ancient Egyptian texts." "Similar interpretation?" Wouldn't the same interpretation be better? And what's the difference stated here? Here's what appears to be an "opposing" interpretation of the four figures, or just a telling rhetorical dodge: "While any group of four can have directional relevance [the cardinal points], that is hardly the pivotal significance here" (Robert K. Ritner, The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri," 274.) Yet who can say which of various ideas in the mind of the Egyptian priest in the most "pivotal" or germane to the specific matter at hand, "in this case, in relation to this subject." Again: "Interpretation has been argued by scholars who study"? Hmm. "Scholars who study!?" And do scholars "argue" an "interpretation"? or just put interpretations out? The sentence obscures beyond repair a clear fact: corroborating evidence exists for Joseph Smith's identification of the four sons of Horus (or, to quote the Prophet again, "in this case, in relation to this subject," the four sons of Geb = Earth]); similar support exists for Joseph Smith calling the crocodile, the "god of Pharaoh." With a little care, these weighty points could have both been made and clearly made.

Here's another opportunity tossed away: mention is made of extra-biblical literature, nearly all of which was unavailable to Joseph Smith, that sustains what appears in the book of Abraham. This telling literature includes the Apocalypse of Abraham, The Testament of Abraham, and the Genesis Apocryphon (from the Dead Sea Scrolls). Instead of mentioning any of these by name, the essay lamely notes: "Some of these extrabiblical elements were available to Joseph Smith through the books of Jasher and Josephus. Joseph Smith was aware of these books, but it is unknown whether he utilized them." "Utilized" or "used"? "Through the books?" or "in the books?" "The books of Jasher and Josephus? Since when is there is a Book of Josephus? What a howler! As for the Jasher, my Hebrew professors always insisted on it being a late medieval forgery. Joseph Smith is on record as saying that despite rumor, we don't claim to have the Book of Jasher. Why are these two "books" mentioned, and such records as the Genesis Apocryphon, stock full of matter supporting the book of Abraham, set aside? (See Ed Brandt, "The Book of Jasher and the Latter-day Saints.") It's the Hebrew evidence for  Joseph Smith's Abraham that most stirs mind and soul.

Reviewers properly focus on content rather than omissions or missed opportunities, except those brushed by--then brushed aside. Yet there is one matter so glaring in its absence that a few words are required. "Translation and Historicity" makes no reference whatsoever to the embarrassing planet Kolob! That's like the guides in the Beehive House never mentioning that Brigham Young had wives, until a visitor demanded to hear about the facts. The response eked out in a few pained words. All Latter-day Saints know what it is to eke out a few pained words!

Embarrassing or not, Kolob, "near to the throne of God," since Janne Sjodahl's findings a century past, has rightly been associated with the Semitic verbal root q-r-b (to be near, draw near, etc.) Hugh Nibley added to the significance of the root, when he noted how the Arabs have used both q-r-b and k-l-b to name the greatest of stars: the heart star, the dog star, the middle star, etc. Michael Rhodes also notes how the same root appears in Egyptian (spelled q-3-b), belly, middle, heart, m-q3b, in the midst of (sometimes used of Re), etc. Is this unwelcome news, not to be shared? As they say in Swahili, Karibu! Karibu! Welcome! Welcome! Draw Near!

Draw near to the wellspring of light and truth! Drink from the fountains of latter-day revelation!

And how to interpret the Kolob figure on the hypocephalus (Facsimile 2, figure 1)? (See "Kolob in Color": http://valsederholm.blogspot.com/2012/04/kolob-in-color.html)

The hieroglyphs on the hypocephalus panels call figure 1 "noble" and "great" and say that he inhabits the primeval "first time," the zp-tpy. What a match with Abraham Chapter 3! And who said that Joseph Smith could not read Egyptian? 

David Klotz simply struggles for the best way to render the name of this same supernal Ram-figure in his "transcendent, invisible, and ineffable" manifestation as the Creator, whom the Egyptians variously call "Amun with four ram-heads upon one neck" or "Amun within the Iris" or "Amun with ten names" (ten being the "deep" number): the Cosmic Deity, the Cosmic Shu-Amun, even the Transcendent Amun (David Klotz, Adoration of the Ram, 183 [Yale University Press, 2006]). 

"A universal purview," says Professor Donald Redford in a startling new book, "attaches itself to the Ram of Mendes. He becomes the Father of the Gods ["the First Creation" says Joseph Smith], the Ram of Rams, the King of the Gods, the Manifestation (bai) of every god, the Heir of Tatenen (the primordial earth-god), the Unique God with overwhelming awfulness" (Donald Redford, City of the Ram-Man, 134). His being flows "unrestricted in the universe": "Besides his essence as the earth, he is also water 'who comes as the inundation that he may bring life to the Two Lands.' As the Living One of Re he becomes the source of living heat 'that brightens heaven and earth with his rays'; as the air 'he is breath for all people'" (Ibid., from the Mendes Stela). As the four-faced Ram, he is "identified as the great creator, the 'Complete One" [Atum], even "He Who Rises on the Horizon with Four Faces. The Ram of Mendes likewise becomes the manifestation "of the union of dynamic solar power (Re) with latent fertility (Osiris)." With the Mendesian Ram now also becoming "the embodiment of national existence, Amun-Re" ["First in government," says Joseph], we end up with "a primordial deity of unequaled antiquity and immanence" (Ibid., 135-6). It all seems too much--the snowball effect that is Egyptian Religion--but we must remember that an unquenchable aspiration to become was for Egyptians the only way out of the predicament of the static. 

We don't heighten at Kolob; we hie to Kolob!



Part 2: Responding to the Critics of the Essay--and of Abraham

While the Saints may often find the knowledge and critique of those who represent the outsider viewpoint on Abraham, Moses, etc., satisfying--the academic world ultimately seeks so much more of us: we are now to yield all our Scriptures, all our claims to prophetic dispensation, and all this nonsense about freedom to express belief at will.


Any review of "Translation and Historicity" must also take into account the prompt response crafted by Professor Robert K. Ritner of the University of Chicago. All Latter-day Saints should be very grateful that Professor Ritner, in the form of several articles and one book, has joined in the debate over Abraham. That's what Latter-day Saints love to see, and it shouldn't bother anyone in the least when his take on matters does not match that of Joseph Smith. Abraham invites readers, and it's the open discussion that counts--so long as that discussion never dismisses any participant, argument, or evidence, with a wave of the hand.

Ritner opens with a volley meant to stun: "Translation and Historicity" "represents new reflection on a document whose authenticity as verifiable history is now officially acknowledged to be in serious dispute." "Serious dispute" can reflect almost anything, but the volley overshoots. The title of the essay speaks to historicity, the essay makes claims based on historicity, and backs the claims with evidence we are free to test. Ritner may disagree with the evidence so presented, and he may misread the intent of the Church in sponsoring the piece, well and good; but the claim of "official acknowledgment" and "[the Church's] discomfort with its own conclusions and reasoning" rings false.

While the essay does say matters of "veracity and value" "cannot be settled by scholarly debate [alone]," the same statement--which could use finer wording--has always (not "newly") been made about the Book of Mormon--including its geography--the book of Moses, and even the divinity of the history, visions, doctrines, and ordinances of the Latter-day Church. "Translation and Historicity," despite clumsy wording and several unforced errors, is not rhetorically framed as a document of surrender; it tackles the questions swirling about the book of Abraham head on. Acknowledging the difficult, it proposes answers, not surrender.

Ritner's response includes nearly everything he finds objectionable about the book of Abraham, including so very many things that Hugh Nibley, without flinching, answered thoroughly in 1968-1970, 1975, 1980, and 2013, in a long series of articles and hefty volumes. I cannot summarize all these things in a fairly short review (Joseph Smith's attempts to deal with lacunae in the facsimiles--here, unfairly labeled "forgeries"; the question of anachronisms; names: Zeptah not Egyptus, etc). But let it be understood that to invoke abstract ideas such as scholarship or Egyptology as opposed to "apologists" is merely cute; it is not a reasoned way to escape the hundreds of answers, questions, arguments, evidences, and insights about both Abraham and the Egyptians put forth by Hugh Nibley (and others) over many decades. Read the "Conclusion" to his Abraham in Egypt.

I want to see dialogue based on what books say rather than statements made on the authority of capital E "Egyptology" and "Egyptologists." How often would like noble appeals to the authority of Egyptology appear in the journals, monographs, and books published in the discipline? Never. Dr. Ritner complains often, and justifiably, about his own articles and books not receiving due notice in discussions about the book of Abraham. From this point forward, may we all be willing, without neglect, prejudging, or ad hominem reference, and without reference to the university at which one may teach, to diligently and equally consider the arguments made by every student.

If quantum mechanics is the theme, whether today or in 2050, I wish to hear of Niels Bohr. But it's the Latter-day Saints themselves who have slammed the door on Hugh Nibley and his many thousand pages of dense and beautifully written argument. Just this Spring an article touting a startling new interpretation about what Joseph Smith intended with the facsimiles appeared in the Mormon Interpreter. Its author stated categorically that all earlier scholarship on the matter was based on mere "assumption," an empty word he drummed a dozen times, without even naming his worthy predecessors. They were all just wrong--period. We may consider the article on its own merits, but what self-respecting reader allows himself to be snowed under by a vast cloud of abstraction?

The book of Abraham belongs as much to Robert Ritner as it does to anybody else--it is certainly not the special province of the "educated" or of the "apologist." Hugh Nibley, by the way, never called himself an "apologist." Not once. So why use that increasingly overworked and empty label, which properly belongs to other religious traditions, to dismiss him?

And Professor Ritner is quite correct to challenge the claim that a Roman period magical papyrus from Egypt should somehow invoke what Joseph Smith explains about Abraham and the altar, or lion couch. The Demotic Magical Papyrus of London and Leiden gives us a picture of a lion couch in connection with a love charm--and Abraham is one of the various magical names written under the couch. But what of that? The vignettes don't look anything alike! Abraham, in the middle of another elaborated chain of invoked names, also appears next to Pupil of the Wedjat-Eye. Does that side-by-side occurrence, or link, automatically spell hypocephalus and thus Abraham Facsimile 2"? No. If so, how? and exactly how? Latter-day Saint students, a quarter-of-a-century since, wondered about a link between the magic and the facsimiles--well and good--but what is the substance of the claim? In other words, What should a teen do with such a claim? Teach it to friends?

And why does the Gospel Topics essay disguise the magic manual as a text belonging to an "Egyptian temple library?" Placing temple and Abraham in a single sentence may enchant the hapless Latter-day Saint teen, but it's nothing more than sleight-of-hand. If the reader wishes to enjoy potions concocted of pulverized shrewmouse, if he wishes to revel in jumbled chains of Egyptian, Greek, Hebrew names invoked for the greater cause of love or power, The Demotic Magical Papyrus of London and Leiden is your book.

Let us spare our teens, who know magic when they see it (if no one else does), from having to murmur charms and lisp spells to all comers, while choking back laughter: "CHA CHA CHA CHA CHA CHA CHA. Then clap thrcc timcs, TAK TAK TAK, go 'pop, pop, pop' for a long timc; hiss a grcat hiss, that is, one of some length." And how exactly would they explain the following command: "Come to me, Kanab"!? perhaps in terms of Kanab, Utah, Gateway to Zion and Kolob Canyon?

Further, because the magical archive postdates the Patriarchal Age by eons, the essay, to make it relevant to the book of Abraham, must resort to claiming it shares a date with the Joseph Smith papyri. Because hundreds of years separate the archive from the papyri, how does the claim jive with the idea that the Joseph Smith Papyri included what was merely a copy, or copy of a copy, of a very ancient book of Abraham?

Ritner therefore rightly contests any attempt to link these magical texts with the Abraham facsimiles--and what he says mostly repeats what Ed Ashment set forth so convincingly decades ago. Let's drop the matter, appreciate the work of these brethren in the vineyard of scholarship, and go on our way rejoicing.

Professor Ritner also correctly sets forth the difficulties in using a medieval Coptic text about the Persian King Shapur and Abraham as sound evidence for the book of Abraham. The document, after all, points to Persia, not to Ancient Egypt. While the late and derivative Coptic text may show correspondences with other stories about Abraham circulating in antiquity, and these last may in turn recall in places our own book, its prominent appearance in "Translation and Historicity" is an unfortunate choice. The document in question is certainly not "a later Egyptian text," as claimed, "that tells how the Pharaoh tried to sacrifice Abraham." Again, how can our youth use the Coptic tale to sustain the case of the book of Abraham? They can't be expected just to throw out smoke: Coptic = Egyptian, therefore Coptic text mentioning Abraham = Abraham in Ancient Egypt.

While Ritner further objects, with some justification, to the use in the Essay of the various Middle Kingdom sources referencing ritual slaughter to support the story of Abraham's sacrifice, the matter requires a closer look before teen or student can make a proper assessment. Bridges to scriptural understanding require careful building and awareness of audience; yet, with best intent, students may sometimes construct a "bridge to nowhere" or require of youth the holding of a "bridge too far," that is to say, "a bridge too far for faith." God never requires a "bridge too far for faith."

In the grand tournaments, therefore, of Abraham and the Demotic Magical Papyrus, to cite but one instance, we all must call points as we see them, as do watchful and mature umpires, on the chair or the line, and never as partisans in a religious contest. Besides, the games and the sets play themselves out so very often as a contest of personalities and academics, each opponent vying for the mastery. The sets once lost, the tournament ended, a continuing challenge can only be characterized as quixotic. Insistence over a particular geography, a particular reading of science, ancient or modern, all appear quixotic. We seek the specific and the peculiar, the kind of evidence that approaches demonstration. The deep faith undergirding the Holy Scriptures, in their inspiration, in their writing, transmission, and preservation, in their restoration, reception, and their reading, as we strive to receive into our spiritual bloodstream the nutrients vital to eternal life, cannot flow from a tilting at windmills, from sets lost, or from trying to hold a bridge far, far, behind the line.


Here's something else that the Chicago Professor gets right: the vignette we call Facsimile 1 belongs at the beginning of Hor's Breathing Document. The Gospel Topics essay had renewed Nibley's old observation about vignettes often being placed at some remove from passages describing them. That is true in many cases, but Ritner correctly refuses to disassociate the vignette we call Facsimile 1 from the Breathings Document. I had already reached the same conclusion based on what the accompanying text says of the priestly office of Hor, with whom the roll was buried. Among other offices, the accompanying text identifies Hor as "the Prophet of Min who massacres His enemies."

I quote from something I posted some years ago:

Latter-day Saint students, running in the track of Professor Marc Coenen's clarifying publications about the ancient owners and dating of the Joseph Smith Book of Breathings, all take note that Hor's lot in the priesthood includes a rare office associated with Resheph-Min: "Prophet of Min who massacres his enemies." Does the office somehow correspond to the action depicted on Facsimile 1? Resheph, who dwells in the house of Montu [Manti], a Canaanite god of war inducted into the Egyptian pantheon, shares an identity in Min, who, in turn, shares a role with Horus as avenger of his father, Osiris.

Since our Theban priest, Hor, is the namesake of Horus, why not also take on Horus' avenging role, the very role belonging to Min and to Resheph? (Hor is a very common name--but let's mull over the likenesses.) Any other likenesses? That the Book of Abraham's violent "god of El-Kenah" bears comparison with Canaan's Resheph, whose name (r-sh-p) bespeaks the vivid lightning and flames of fire, must be clear to the attentive reader of the Book of Abraham! Abraham, the survivor of lightning, flame, and earthquake (see Abraham Chapter One), certainly also escapes Min-Resheph-Hor. Besides, one of Abraham's own descendants, through Ephraim, bears--and here's ritual reversal and the sign of escape--the name Resheph, perhaps now to be understood as descriptive of the God of Israel: "I cause the wind and the fire to be my chariot," Jehovah tells rescued Abraham (Abraham 2:7; see 1 Chronicles 7:25). For Resheph in a chariot see Professor Muennich's, The God Resheph in the Ancient Near East, 112f.

Though Professor Coenen sees in Facsimile 1 not a scene of sacrifice but one of Osirian resurrection and the conception of Horus (and Osiris not only escapes death, he lives to found a dynasty)--the figure on the vignette that Joseph Smith names the priest of Elkenah, or the priest of Pharaoh (who is thus the priest of the living Horus, the living king), does something recall a surviving bronze figure of "Min who massacres the enemy": "dressed in a short kilt, held up by two bands that cross over the breast and back" (p. 1113). We can add sacrifice to Coenen's descriptions of our Facsimile 1. Sacrifice, resurrection, and an endless posterity all form a single constellation that Facsimile 1 delicately manages to display.

See Marc Coenen, "The dating of the Papyri Joseph Smith I, X and XI and Min who massacres his enemies," in Willy Clarysse, Egyptian Religion: 1103-14. A detailed review of the Hor Book of Breathings and the nature and historical setting of the priestly offices of Hor and Osoroeris, including examples of symbolic slaughter and burning having correspondences to Facsimile 1, is John Gee, "Some Puzzles of the Joseph Smith Papyri," FARMS Review 20:1 (2008), 113-157. Also see "Conclusion," Abraham in Egypt, by Hugh Nibley.


The Egyptian record attests a symbolic killing of foreigners, a ceremonial act or depiction only, at centers like Philae, Edfu, and Karnak, with special maces, swords, and clubs, including "a particular kind of [bladed] mace much resembling in shape the Dd-pillar, the symbol of Osiris' enduring life and dynasty," as also resurrection (Val H. Sederholm, Papyrus British Museum 10808 and Its Cultural and Religious Setting, Leiden: Brill, 2006, 114). How strange that the bladed mace used to kill foreign victims in royal ceremony also symbolizes the perpetuity of the Osirian dynasty. But the Egyptians are not finished: "The king, playing Horus-Min, cuts off the heads of his father's enemies at the stroke of a pole-axe [or bladed mace, both sword and club]. The special word for killing at Edfu [also Ddj!] alludes to Osiris and the stability of his dynastic line" (Papyrus 10808, 117). Both name, action, and instrument of sacrifice thus confirm the dynastic line. No sacrifice; no posterity. That's also the paradox of Abraham and Isaac.

At Karnak we see paired depictions of Resheph and "the pharaoh stabbing two prisoners kneeling in a metal kettle [for burning] with their arms tied behind their backs in front of [a representation of] 'Min who [massacres] his enemies' " (Coenen, 1113). Why the doppelganger? Does the depiction show Pharaoh as both priest and king? Or does it hint at the king working in concert with his priestly representative? Pharaoh, twinned with a Canaanite god, here acts in the office of Min who massacres his enemies. And as Pharaoh, so Abraham's "priest of Pharaoh," who is also the priest of the Canaanite god of Elkenah. And as Elkenah, or as Resheph-Min, so also Ptolemaic priest Hor. Behind Min "stands a tree on a hill surrounded by a wall," a setting that recalls "the hill called Potiphar's Hill, at the head of the plain of Olishem"; the tree (or, Heliopolitan pillar) likewise recalls the sacrifice of the "three virgins" who "would not bow down to worship gods of wood or of stone" (Abraham 1:10-11; Coenen, 1113; for ceremonial hills marked with standing stones see Nibley and Rhodes, One Eternal Round, 170-3; for another royal massacre and burning of enemies, 179).

By killing the enemies of Osiris, Pharaoh and his designated priest, or double, reverse the inimical act of killing Osiris himself, and thus ensure both Osiris' resurrection and Horus' (that is, Pharaoh's) dynastic claims. It bears repeating: As the priest of Min who massacres his enemies, Hor himself becomes Pharaoh's (Horus') stand-in, a role evoking the sacrifice-mad "priest of Pharaoh" in Abraham's account. The role, however essential, is not without its risks. And here's a genuine touch: "And the Lord. . .smote the priest that he died; and there was great mourning in Chaldea, and also in the court of Pharaoh" (Abraham 1:20). "Great mourning" in Pharaoh's court? for a distant priest? By smiting the Pharaoh's ceremonial agent, God has smitten the Pharaoh himself and has also smitten his dynastic line (cf. the slaying of the firstborn in Exodus and the subsequent swallowing up of Pharaoh in the Red Sea). It is the priest's office, as agent, that matters, and the mourning over his death must then match in intensity and cloud of disaster that which prevails at the actual death of a king. One can picture the choking dust storm at Ur sweeping down to Egypt. A panicked herald runs with the news.

That is the world of Facsimile 1. But what of Facsimile 3? It's the very same thing. The Theban priesthood, following a hoary tradition, diligently searched out and put to use earlier vignettes and writings with which to interlace their own glory. As as Nibley points out, the symbolic journey in the facsimiles from altar to throne, becomes the message of Abraham. Ritner, pointing to the names and titles now appearing on the vignettes, declares that "no amount of special pleading" can save Joseph Smith's references to the figures such as king, prince, principal waiter, slave, having names like Shulem or Olimlah above their hands or heads. None is necessary.

The Seer saw deeper than the reuse of the vignettes of the late Theban priests--he looked beyond the insignificant names attached in Ptolemaic Thebes--and instead gave us the Urtext, the original intent, as he did in his New Translation of the Bible. What's wrong with that? Why else possess the seeric gift? Urtext is the obsession of modern philology. As for Shulem and Olimlah, the names fit perfectly in the world of Abraham. The reviewer never notes the possibility, but we cannot fault an egyptologist on the count of special pleading for not knowing the latest archaeological discoveries from Syria (Nabada) that yield both Shulem and Ishmael.

Again, Brother Joseph invited the entire learned world to "find," that is, to translate all they could--and to share it posthaste. He wasn't working in a corner, hiding from the latest breakthroughs, or anything remotely like it. "Special pleading" was not his style. Neither is it ours.

Thus, when that same learned world makes and shares its findings, welcome or blistering, we need not gloss anything over. We may even answer.


All Wrong

For instance: "All of Smith’s published 'explanations' are incorrect, including the lone example defended by the new web posting: the water in which a crocodile is swimming (Fig. 12 of Fascimile 1), supposedly a representation of 'the firmament over our heads … but in this case, in relation to this subject, the Egyptians meant it to be to signify Shaumau, to be high, or the heavens.' Although Egyptians might place heavenly boats in the sky, that is not relevant 'in this case' where the water is placed below the figures and represents the Nile, not the sky. The selective defense of these explanations by the church is telling, and all other explanations are simply indefensible except by distorting Egyptian evidence."

Although Ritner quite correctly notes a jumbled use--or "selected defense"--rather than a proper thematic interweaving of what evidence we might offer, the only distortion here is the typical critic's distortion of method. As all students of Egypt know, representations may signify more than one thing, and interpretation remains perforce delicate. To Western eyes a cannot be the equivalent of -a; for the Egyptians x may be both a and -a. Through the decades, egyptologists have described such a many-valued logic in tones of wonder and astonishment.

Now consider what Joseph Smith says in his Explanation of Facsimile 1: elsewhere it is x, "but in this case, in relation to this subject, the Egyptians meant it to be to signify" y. Nibley, who calls the "folly of giving just one interpretation" "the pit into which Joseph Smith's critics have always fallen," quotes E. Otto: "the greatest possible number of meanings in the briefest possible formulation"; "a mysterious plurality of meaning"; and H. Frankfort: "unbridled chains of associations and conclusions"; "we must attempt to hear the resonance of this polyphony of meaning." ("Many-valued logic": Erik Hornung, Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt; Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, 116-17, 124).

Ritner, therefore, is not wrong in identifying these zigzags with the Nile and with the story of the act of collecting, by crocodile, the members of Osiris preparatory to his resurrection; neither is he wrong when he elsewhere also wonders whether they may represent the Lake of Khonsu. Yet for all egyptologists, since we're using the word all, it goes without saying that in writings of ritual significance, Nile may refer either to the terrestrial or to the celestial Nile. As for the mysterious Lake of Khonsu, the place of passage and transition in the burial rites, the whereabouts of its otherworldly counterpart is anybody's guess. Facsimile 3 conveys, in text and in iconography, all three levels of the cosmos: the starry heavens, the terrestrial court, and the netherworld--and the events depicted thereon may unfold in any one, or all, of those realms (Abraham in Egypt, 123). Then why not so with Facsimile 1? Again: "All of Smith's published 'explanations' are incorrect." Here is special pleading; for Ritner elsewhere confirms the idea of the croc as "god of Pharaoh": "Horus-Sobek was a god of Pharaoh, so one out of five [explanations] is correct" (Robert K. Ritner, ed., The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri, 118). That being so, you would hope that "Translation and Historicity" would place emphasis on, rather than neglect, such a direct hit.

Egyptian Religion is not a monolith, and we must keep that fact in mind when we interpret the figures and representations found on temple walls or on papyrus rolls. Every region, city, mesa, or kiva, as throughout Classical Greece, as at Hopi, unfurls its own religious and symbolic universe. In the Faiyum, or "the inland sea" region (pa-ym--a Semitic word), crocodile is king. The Book of the Faiyum equates that inland sea with the Mehet-Weret, the Great Flood Waters of the Celestial Cow in which the crocodile with pharaonic crown swims in one eternal round. (Horst Beinlich, Das Buch vom Fayum and this essay: http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/propylaeumdok/2891/1/Beinlich_Faiyum_2013.pdf

While the cosmos of the Faiyum might not match Facsimile 1 in every particular, local interpretations do resonate with the larger abstraction we call Ancient Egyptian Religion. Yet in light of the evidence from the Pyramid Texts, Utterance 317 (R. Faulkner, The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, 99 and n.6), according to which Sobek swims in "the flood of the Great Inundation"--"The sky according to Sethe"--and in light of the Faiyum, we can unpack what Joseph Smith sets forth, as follows:

The zigzags do not here, as in most (or many) cases, represent Mehet-Weret (Flood-Great), the Great Cosmic Flood, or the Celestial Expanse, but in this case, in relation to this [particular] subject, they represent the very heights of heaven in which the crocodile as king and sun god reigns crowned and supreme. As Horus the Elder spreads his wings over all below, so the crocodile, as god of Pharaoh, swims round his domain, master of all he surveys.

Does Pharaoh rightfully attain such reach? Yes, says Brother Joseph, for the priest of Syrian Elkenah is the priest of Pharaoh, his representative in whose name and with whose delegated power he acts. Thus, when the priest is smitten, the "court of Pharaoh" mourns. The play of identities, even of substitute death, or sacrifice--a favorite theme of Hugh Nibley's--fits the ancient world like a glove.

As in other Near Eastern and Mediterranean texts, the king (or his representative) is about to sacrifice a victim on a mountain top, when struck down by lightning. Thus: "Shamau to be high or the heavens," refers to both the ritual height of sacrifice, and, at once, to the beetling look at the watery depths below. Is there any like trace of these things in the archaeological record? A stele representing Ramesses the Great worshipping a Canaanite god is known from Syria. The name of that god should be read Elkenah.
(See: "The god of Elkenah in Hieroglyphs and in the Book of Abraham":
http://valsederholm.blogspot.com/2014/02/the-god-of-elkenah-in-hieroglyphs-and.html.)

Am I open to other interpretations of these symbols? Of course. And Ritner's (often multiple) explanations are of deepest import. That's how the discipline works. Otherwise, we're left with the sort of simplistic arrangements parading as definitive science that everywhere propagate online, that is, in the domain of the frosh. Who hasn't seen a chart comparing Joseph Smith's interpretations of the facsimiles to those of various egyptologists, including a few consigned to oblivion: in the left column, Joseph Smith; in the right, "Egyptology?" Students of Egypt never reduce themselves to such a simplistic view of the ancient evidence, x is only x and y is y, except when distorting method to snap at an unwelcome reading.

There is never any good reason to box oneself in like that--unless there's a need to box ears: "all other explanations [the Mormons may offer] are simply indefensible"; "all" Smith's "'explanations'" are incorrect"--not even worth calling explanations, rather "explanations."

We all must face amateur hour, and some, perhaps justifiably, learn to snap off "answers." Packaged books arrive in the mail; an early morning call awakes. The voice on the other end assures that Ancient Egyptian is really Finnish. I've always been curious about Finland, so wrapped in a daze, I listen. The person on the other end of the lines says he has just finished speaking, in the most favorable terms, to Professor Erik Hornung--or was he just about to call him?

How to deal with such unwelcome packages and morning calls? How to deal with the Kemeticists, Saycians, Rosicrucians, or the Mormons? Mormons should never get flustered, or throw up hands in surrender, just because an egyptologist or assyriologist gets testy or declines to discuss some position or evidence.

John Baines, Oxford University, warns against such testy response to ideas originating outside the discipline (John Baines,"Restricted Knowledge, Hierarchy, and Decorum," JARCE 27, 1-23). We might miss an insight, he says, by throwing up the walls. Alas! as Professor Baines reports, we belong to a take-no-prisoners discipline, riddled with cliques, and in which every other egyptologist must always be wrong for "us" to be right. Trenches zigzag the field--how startling, how devastating, what one egyptologist will say about another!--and we should always forgive our colleagues, for whom reputation is ever at stake, for failing to lay down the weapons of the discipline when addressing the hapless lay man who blithely stumbles into no man's land. And wo to the novice who appeals to antiquated Budge!

And in charity to Joseph Smith, let's remember that he worked after the hieroglyphs had been cracked but before the discipline was well launched. Even so, lacking access to those few then working in the field, he had the good faith to share his own ideas with the whole world--his results were published in New York City so well as in Nauvoo. Does he ever claim that his interpretations are the only possible ones? No. He asks: If the world can find out these numbers (numbered figures), please do let us know (Explanation, Facsimile 2). Coming to grips with the mind of the ancients takes decades--not a tap on the screen. Because of the powerful changes in our understanding of Egyptian religion, especially since the 1980's, it's unfair to judge Brother Joseph's work by charting the conclusions of egyptologists working in the discipline's genesis. Some of the best work came early on, it is true, but the differences in understanding are revolutionary.

Another complaint, rhetorically crafted and targeted for a particular, and thankfully uninformed, lay audience alone: "Smith confuses human and animal heads and males with females." But as all students know, so do the Ancient Egyptians, and with astonishing and bewildering frequency. As for the particular confusion of male with female, please note that the Ma'at figure in Facsimile 3 wears a sheath dress that leaves the bosom uncovered. Even in the rough Hedlock woodcut, from which the facsimile was printed, the nipple can be seen; on the original papyrus, the nipple would have been clearly and indisputably visible to any observer; the same must be said for the Isis figure behind the throne, even though the Hedlock facsimile gives us little help here. Just look at any other representations of Ma'at on papyrus--including elsewhere on the Joseph Smith Papyri. Given such artistic attention to the feminine, unmistakable to either prophet or disciple or wife or mother or visitor by the hundreds, why on earth would Joseph Smith, on purpose, make the same kind of illogical and improbable associations, x equals a; x equals -a, that the Egyptians themselves make in almost every depiction or writing? (For more on the symbolic multiplicity of the Egyptians, as well as the Prophet's symbolic reading of Facsimile 3, see Hugh Nibley, "All the Court's a Stage," in Abraham in Egypt, a book published some 40 years ago.)

Latter-day Saints will not have our minds "stolen away" into believing that Joseph Smith could not tell the women from the men on the vignette. What's the point of having a Seer, unless he can scan symbolic depths not visible to the natural eye? And what's the point of having a gifted scholar like Hugh Nibley, if we're not even going to read his words or ponder his sources? Neither neglect nor prejudice is any excuse at all. Remember, critics not only mock our appeals to testimony, they also do all they can to prevent our reading the words of our own scholars. In doing so, are they not diminishing us as a culture and as a people? Have we so little confidence in our own honor and ability as a university-building Church, that we must shrink before every wind of ridicule?

The Rise of the Book of Abraham

Professor Ritner closes by asking the Church Authorities to discard the book of Abraham as canonical Scripture and instead consider it Joseph Smith's "perhaps[!] well-meaning" but flawed attempt to sound lost cultural values beyond his depth. The confident, caustic tone insists: "With the Book of Abraham now confirmed as a perhaps well-meaning, but erroneous invention by Joseph Smith, the LDS church may well devote some reflection to the status of the text."

Church leaders made no response. Demands come and go. And it comes as no surprise when men and women "cast many things away which are written and esteem them as things of naught" (2 Nephi 33:2). The living Abraham continues upon his throne, in his exalted state, and forever holds the keys of his book (Doctrine and Covenants 132).

I do have a response to Professor Ritner's request, however.

It's high time for one realization to dawn on critics of Abraham's writings: Joseph Smith gave us more than one book of Abraham. The Joseph Smith Translation of Genesis yields as many surprises about Abraham's world as does the Pearl of Great Price. Revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants and many verses in the Book of Mormon give us yet a Third Book of Abraham. 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Nephi find a worthy match in Abraham.

Dismiss any one of these books, and we'll hand you yet another. Discard Potiphar's Hill, and see Mount Hanabal rise lofty among the Mountains of Moab. Reject Shulem, and find blessed Esaias. Each of these various "books" of Abraham also contain new words of divine revelation received in his dispensation and now offered to us--words about covenants made long ago by the Father of the Faithful.

And Latter-day Saints, by unanimous vote, stand in eternal covenant relation to the book of Abraham--to every last word and explanation. Its place, including its genuine nature, stands as one of unquestioned permanence--no matter how the translation was effected or what opinions about the ineffable method of seeric learning and reading we may choose to hold.

There is no end to the revelatory world of Joseph Smith. In like manner, our covenantal link to the World of Abraham continues. The book of Abraham belongs to what we call a Pearl of Great Price. We will never sell the pearl or give it away. Neither can the covenantal link all members have with the book--affirmed by unanimous vote in General Conference--ever be broken. As we hold true to that covenant, other books will yet come forth from the dust. There is more of parchment and of papyri than we can now imagine.

One thing we can take from the Gospel Topics Essay: The living Prophets and The Councils of the Church will never set the various books of Abraham aside--not now, not any of them, not a jot or a tittle of them, no never. Neither will the seeric Explanations of the three facsimiles ever disappear from the hundreds of thousands of copies of Scripture, copiously pouring from the presses day by day. Will living prophets claiming direct revelation (available to all) about the genuine nature of the Book of Abraham--and isn't that what the essay says?--ever stop the presses from rolling? You might as well stretch out your hand to stop the mighty Missouri River in its course, or turn it upstream.

Attacks will make no difference whatsoever to any claim carrying the revelatory imprimatur of the founding Prophet. Answers to attacks, new and old, scriptural and linguistic and historical, will continue to be shared to all willing to study them. And, in the simplest expression of which I am capable, the linguistic evidence sustaining the name and description of Kolob will never cease to hold the interest both of Latter-day Saints and of many, many others. Such telling witnesses to truth will yet fill the whole earth, as the waters fill the great deep.
****************************************************************












No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.