Friday, June 15, 2018
Is the book of Abraham "All Wrong"? Can the Critics be answered?
While some members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may find the knowledge and critique of those who represent the outsider viewpoint on Abraham or Moses variously illuminating, the academic world ultimately seeks so much more of all of us: we are now to yield up all our Scriptures, all our claims to prophetic dispensation, and all this nonsense about freedom to express belief at will.
Many are the voices that proclaim not only the downfall of the book of Abraham, but the imperative need for Latter-day Saints to surrender any scriptural merit they ascribe to it. What to do? How to answer? It's just a wee book, 14 brief pages. Or what to do with the cornucopia of seemingly genuine names, themes, customs, and language that simply pours from the paucity of pages? What to do? How to answer?
The Church, in the interests of sustaining the scriptural claims of the book of Abraham published an essay about the book and its reception on her official Webpage. The Gospel Topics essay, "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham," got wide coverage and summaries of it have become part of Church curriculum for youth and young adults, but any reader, young or old, must now also take into account the prompt response crafted by Professor Robert K. Ritner, professor of Egyptology at the University of Chicago. To begin with, 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 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. The Scriptures were written for "the benefit of the world" and "to draw all men" to One, who "commandeth none that they shall not partake" (2 Nephi 26:24). Church members do not own the Scriptures they enfold to their hearts; all that the Saints possess in this ephemeral world are gift boxes containing the invitation a loving Savior sends to all men (see Alma 5). 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.
The Gospel Topics Essays have surprised, even dismayed, many a reader, Latter-day Saint or none. Given the sense of surprise, questions swirl. So has the Church herself now renounced or downgraded the book of Abraham? or any other part of her vast Scriptural heritage? That's the first question.
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 the reader is free to test. Much bibliography is provided. 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--and the wording is awkward and unclear--matters of "veracity and value" "cannot be settled by scholarly debate [alone]," the same sentiment has always (not "newly") been made about the Book of Mormon--including its geography--the book of Moses, and even about the divinity of the history, visions, doctrines, and ordinances of the Latter-day Church. "Translation and Historicity," despite clumsy, even painful, syntax and 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--again, a must for all readers of the Gospel Topics essay--brings together everything he finds objectionable about the book of Abraham, including so very many things that Hugh Nibley, without flinching, addressed and answered thoroughly in 1968-1970, 1975, 1980, and 2013, in a long series of articles and hefty volumes. I cannot summarize all these objections in a fairly short review (Joseph Smith's attempts to deal with lacunae in the facsimiles--here, unfairly and obnoxiously 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 a matter of being cute; it is no reasoned way to escape the hundreds of sentences, answers, arguments, evidences, insights, and pointed questions about both Abraham and the Egyptians generously put forth by Hugh Nibley (and others) over many decades. Read the "Conclusion" to his Abraham in Egypt. Here we find several dozen points of evidence for the antiquity of the book of Abraham; to review them here would take many pages. Does Professor Ritner address a single one? No. Neither does he think it necessary to do so.
I want to see dialogue based on what books say rather than statements made on the authority of capital E "Egyptology" and "Egyptologists." Speaking Ex Cathedra stuns the hapless layman, yet just how often would like noble appeals to the authority of Egyptology and scholarship appear in the journals, monographs, and books published within the discipline? Never. It is to laugh. But Latter-day Saints also bear some fault for the fray. 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, abuse, bullying, or ad hominem reference, and without reference to the university at which one may teach, or not teach, or to the books or articles one may have read or not read, to consider with quiet mind and heart the arguments made by every student.
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." A duly credentialed Hugh Nibley, by the way, never called himself an "apologist." Not once. So why use that overworked and empty label, which properly belongs to other religious traditions within Christianity, to dismiss him?
Now Professor Ritner is quite correct to challenge the claim made in several Latter-day Saint publications 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 perplexed but grateful reader 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 Latter-day Saint reader, 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 his book.
Let us spare our fellow Latter-day Saints, who know magic when they see it, from having to murmur charms and lisp spells to all challengers, while also 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." Lay readership? Even the least among us can see how the scholarly translator turned the very idea of translation into something of a joke wrapped in an enigma: "a great hiss, that is, one of some length." And how exactly should any of us explain the following command from the Demotic Magical Papyrus: "Come to me, Kanab"!? perhaps in terms of Kanab, Utah, Gateway to Zion and Kolob Canyon?
Further, because the magical book, or collection, 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. But hundreds of years also separate the archive from the papyri, so how does the claim stand at all, much less lend weight to the idea, also expressed in the Gospel Topics Essay, 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 while these last may in turn recall in places our own book, its prominent appearance in "Translation and Historicity" is an unfortunate choice, an unforced error. 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 lay readership use the Coptic tale to sustain the case of the book of Abraham? None of us can be expected just to throw out smoke: Coptic signifies Egyptian, therefore Coptic text mentioning Abraham points to our book of Abraham and to 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, and deeper reflection, before the 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 alert, but fresh, readers 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 on the same questions of evidence can only be characterized as quixotic. What we rightly seek, says Hugh Nibley, may be characterized as 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. The observation holds 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 posted a few years back:
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 text and the original intent of the vignettes, 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. Professor Ritner never notes the possibility of such a fit, 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.
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; nor is he "wrong" when he speaks of the crocodile as collecting the members of Osiris preparatory to his resurrection; nor, again, is he "wrong" when he elsewhere also wonders whether the zigzags may alternatively represent the Lake of Khonsu. Yet which Nile? which of the several roles of the crocodile? For 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 location (or 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). And does not the same thing hold true for Facsimile 1? It does. 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, a fact we must keep in mind when we interpret the figures and representations found on temple walls and 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 still resonate with the larger abstraction we call Ancient Egyptian Religion. 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"--that is, "The sky according to [Professor] Sethe"--and in light of the Book 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? does his realm extend even to Syria? 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":
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 on the Internet, that glorious domain of the frosh. Who hasn't seen a chart comparing Joseph Smith's interpretations of the facsimiles with those of a freshman's confused assortment of 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. Neither do they indiscriminately pick "Egyptologists" out of the air.
There is never any good reason to box oneself in like that--unless there's a need to box ears: "all other explanations 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 us that Ancient Egyptian is really Finnish. I've always been curious about Finland, so, dazed, I listen. The person on the other end of the lines says he has just had a wonderful exchange with 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 even those 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 woe 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.
Again, Professor Robert Ritner hears in the Prophet's Explanation voluble ravings in the manner of pre-Egyptologist Athanasius Kircher (Ritner, "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham--A Response"). Here's how Kircher translates an obeliskful of hieroglyphs, as cited by Ritner:
Hemphta the supreme spirit and archetype infuses its virtue and gifts in the soul of the sidereal world, that is the solar spirit subject to it whence comes the vital motion in the material or elemental world, and an abundance of all things and variety of species arises. From the fruitfulness of the Osirian bowl, in which, drawn by some marvelous sympathy, it flows ceaselessly. . .
Is Ritner correct? The "ceaselessly flowing" example from Kircher by which Ritner illustrates what he considers Joseph Smith's own absurd interpretations lacks the specificity, balance, concision, and coherence one finds throughout the thematically compact book of Abraham--and it lacks a little mystery besides. Kircher elaborates on but a single, spent, idea.
Joseph Smith's Abraham, including the Explanation of facsimile 2, merits a second look. Even should the reader disagree with him to the point of laughter, Joseph's take on the matter merits a jot of charity. Remember what he sadly records of the persecution he continuously suffered at the hands of even neighbors: "being of very tender years, and persecuted by those who ought to have been my friends and to have treated me kindly, and if they supposed me to be deluded to have endeavored in a proper and affectionate manner to have reclaimed me" (Joseph Smith--History 1: 1:28). Where was kindness, propriety, affection?
Whether we believe even a jot of it, we can all take a charitable look at Joseph Smith's explanation of Kolob (the central solar figure) as being: "The First Creation . . First in government, last pertaining to the measurement of time. The measurement according to celestial time." The Prophet's focus on revolutions, temporal cycles and measurement, "grand governing" and thus hierarchically descending cosmic powers; on stars, earth, and sun, and transmission of light; or on altars and sacrifices and thrones, hardly deserves to be pilloried by either supremely gifted and educated scholars (who really must smile at amateurs); or by the countless following eager sophisticates who, though professing an advanced and and up-to-millennial understanding of all things past, present, and on Wikipedia, have never given a moment's thought to the symbolic representations found on works of great antiquity.
Nibley and Rhodes (2013: ps. 240-241) helpfully sum up Joseph Smith's "brief explanation" with the following headings over "words used":
1) cosmology: earth, planets, firmament, Sun, stars, moon, revolution
2) measurement and number: measurements of time, celestial time, day, cubit, years, one thousand, quarters, revolution
3) transmission of power or energy: receiving light, borrows its light, governs planets or stars, receives its power, governing power
4) hierarchy or dominion (intelligence and purpose): creation, residence, government, key, power, God, throne, authority, crown, light, the governing power
5) ordinances and procedures (relating the above to humanity): sacrifice, altar, Temple
6) Joseph Smith's use of "special idiom or notation to convey the above," that is, the idea of representation, overlapping of symbolism, iconography conveying more than one meaning:represent, signify, pertaining to, answering to, "but in this case, in relation to this subject, the Egyptians meant it to signify" x and not just y.
Whether these last themes point to Kircher or to the work of living egyptologists on, say, the various books of the netherworld, or even the hypocephali, is a matter for the diligent reader to discover for himself.
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 (Doctrine and Covenants 84). 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.