Sunday, January 6, 2019

Simeon McIntier and Isabel Nicol Pioneer Family


I can speak for at least three generations.

No one during the last three generations has any clear idea why Isabel Nicol, after her abandonment by Simeon McIntier (with no mention of divorce) was married to the same man that her sister Agnes had married (William Austin); neither do we understand why within two years after Isabel's death on the pioneer trail, William, thirty years the senior, would marry her own daughter, Agnes McIntier.

Yet, while puzzled, we have known that pioneer marriages, and later sealings, often had as purpose the safety and welfare of a widow or lone woman. Isabel Nicol had been, as a letter from her brother stated, "deserted" by her husband, somewhere in Iowa. The reason for the desertion is not known, but we acknowledge the stress of poverty and an uncertain future. Did Simeon leave in desperate hopes of bettering the family's economic circumstances? A census record indicates a possible stay in the gold mines of California--but that could be another lost soul of a Simon McIntyre. He apparently left in the company of one or more young sons. Perhaps he had left home more than once over the long thirty years of marriage.

As daughter Agnes tells us, the rural family from the cold but fertile borderline of Canada and New York "had worked their way to the eastern part of Illinois," over tiring years. They had to work along the way: there had been a quiver full of children already at journey's beginning; one, a little girl now lay buried in Nauvoo, Illinois, where she had died in 1843. Shortly thereafter, the family temporarily left Nauvoo looking for work again--and so the pattern unfolded--each step leading inexorably to a greater uncharted loneliness.

Given the circumstances of poverty and exile in a wilderness, a wilderness which would soon claim Isabel's life, we understand that a marriage served the same purpose as welfare services would serve today, that is, the protection and preservation of life. Exiles in the American wilderness had no access to social workers, Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, and the like. There was, however, a responsible person, who was willing to provide for his wife's sister, Isabel--and later, however baffling to us, for both wife's niece and wife's daughter in marriage: William Austin. William's later marriage with Isabel's own daughter, now bereft of both father and mother, becomes the unanswerable question, but we lose sight of family bonds, of family welfare, of family loyalty, a loyalty forged in refugee trials we scarcely comprehend.

Why William and Agnes decided to seal in marriage Agnes's husband with her own mother in the Endowment House, some twenty years after Isabel's death, is also mysterious beyond measure, even to minds and hearts fully nurtured on multiple family histories abounding in plurality of wives. Yet the doctrine of sealing was only in part understood at that time, and may be best understood by us as an acknowledgment that family belongs together--always. As William Austin had served in place of husband, caretaker of Isabel's temporal welfare after Isabel had been abandoned by her own husband, so in the next world, William Austin would also preside over her spiritual welfare.

Such a network of plural marriages--sisters, and then aunt and niece, mother and daughter--would have been rare (and perhaps exceptional) even in those days of plural marriages and plurality of sealings, but we must recall the plural difficulties, too, of what the younger Agnes later called "the long trek to Utah," a trek that had begun in 1838, from New York, and thence on-and-on, over 15 years. But one thing is for sure. We should not delete the record of marriage--"No marriage"--for William and Isabel, as a well-meaning contributor on FamilySearch, either in bafflement or denial, recently did (and we cannot delete the record of sealing), solely because marriage in the days of the pioneer cannot signify the same thing that it signifies to us today.

Records indicate that Simeon McIntier himself eventually showed up in Utah Territory and, clearly in good favor and standing in the Church, received at journey's end his own pilgrimage promises, blessings, and endowments in the Endowment House. He later died at the home of his son, near Ogden, Utah. Letters between family members show the great concern and love of the Austin household for Simeon McIntier. Had Simeon, lost in dreams or work--and work is also a dream--expected to reunite with his wife in Utah? If so, he was too late. Isabel had died of "mountain fever" in the once great Pioneer Encampment, long lost to view and presumably located a few hundred yards to the Northeast of Cache Cave, just over the border from Wyoming.

Filled with rumors, I went to the Cave on the one day it opens during the year, the first of Spring, seeking traces of autumnal pioneer burials. I found none; for there are none to find. The sheep rancher, who owns the property, drove me a little ways northward from the famous cave, and pointed to the Northeast: "The Camp must have been there," he said. It is there still, in the mystery of an untroubled stillness.

I went on exploring that day--on to Echo Canyon, where the only reverberations one hears today are the tremulous voices of history.


Little, if anything, in letters the children exchanged about their father's death, expresses blame, resentment--or even sorrow. Remember: These were Latter-day Saints and Pioneers. Daughter Agnes McIntier Austin left on record a single, parsimonious, sentence about Bentonsport and Winter Quarters: "We suffered hardships along with the rest of the Saints."

When the grandchildren of Simeon McIntier and Isabel Nicol went to the Logan Temple for the purpose of sealing in eternal marriage this long-separated couple, they did so without any sense of blame, resentment, or even full understanding of two victims, perhaps flawed martyrs, of the American Frontier. They did well.



Sketch of the Life of AGNES McINTIER AUSTIN, written by herself.

I was born in Hammond, St. Lawrence Co., New York, October 11, 1830. My parents, Simeon and Isabell Nicol McIntier, joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when I was about seven years old. I was eight years old when my parents left New York and started west. They worked their way into the eastern part of Illinois. While we were living in Illinois, two Mormon Elders came to our house and made it their home for quite some time while they traveled around and preached the gospel to the people in the neighborhood. 

We moved into Nauvoo, Ill. sometime during the year 1841. I have seen the Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum and heard them preach the gospel of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, quite a few times. I was present at the conference of the Church which was held in Nauvoo, Ill. on the 6th of October, 1843, and heard the Prophet say concerning Sidney Rigdon: "I have thrown him off my shoulders and you have again put him on me. You may carry him but I will not."

I was baptized in the Mississippi river; I think it was in May, 1844. I was baptized by Elder Augustus Stafford. On May 5th, 1844, my parents moved from Nauvoo for the summer, thinking they might get more work, but they returned to Nauvoo in September 1844, and remained there until the Saints left for the migration westward. 

We crossed the river in April and worked our way westward. We came to Bentensport [Bentonsport, Iowa] in the spring of 1846, and in the fall of 1847 we arrived at Winter Quarters, Nebraska. We suffered hardships along with the rest of the Saints. In 1852 we commenced the long trek to Utah. My mother, Isabell Nicol McIntier, took sick at Green River, with mountain fever. She died, and we buried her in Echo Canyon, Utah, just a little east of Cache Cave. We arrived in Salt Lake City, Utah, on October 8th, 1852.














Friday, June 15, 2018

Is The Book of Abraham "All Wrong"?


While Latter-day Saints may find critical reviews of the Pearl of Great Price 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.

Multiple voices proclaim the downfall of the book of Abraham. And it's just a wee book: 12 pages, one for each of the tribes of Israel. Let it go. But is the wee book a flimsy book?




I  Reviewing The Gospel Topics Essay: "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham"


The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in the interests of sustaining the scriptural claims of the book of Abraham published a Gospel Topics essay on her official Webpage. "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham," got wide coverage and summaries of it have become part of the Youth curriculum, 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 various Gospel Topics Essays have surprised, even dismayed, many a reader, Saint or none. That mistakes would be made, misunderstandings abound, essays updated as needed, more questions swirl, was made clear by Church leaders from the start. We learn together and questions swirl: Has the Church herself now renounced or downgraded the book of Abraham? or any other part of her vast Scriptural, historical, or doctrinal heritage? 

Learning requires a measure of vulnerability, and new learners and essays alike need a space for reflection and review, but the newspapers wouldn't let either the essays or the learners alone. Starter essays drew attention from the Salt Lake Tribune and New York Times alike, and misinterpretation immediately sprang up in that nutrient sparse, low-depth soil. "Church officially admits Joseph Smith practiced polygamy! Lifelong Members Stunned!" 

How can anyone argue with that kind of ignorance? Church authorities, who saw the essays (mostly) as updated summaries themselves were stunned at the reports. I remember a round rebuke from a member of the Quorum of the Twelve at a stake holiday event: Go back, and "read every word." 

Readers, in the delicate moment, found no refuge for independent thought.

And what of the rough-and-tumble "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham"? 

Professor 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." The volley falls short of the mark. The very title speaks to historicity: the essay makes claims based on historicity and backs them with evidence from expansive bibliography the reader is free to study. 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. 

And what of this "serious dispute" over the book of Abraham as "verifiable history"? Has there yet been any Jewish or Christian scholar, or any other believer for that matter, who puts forth the claim that the history of Abraham's life, as recorded in Genesis, is "verifiable history" in the same way that historical figures appearing in a multiplicity of ancient or modern records meet some standard or other of verification? No. That the life of Abraham appears only in Scripture has never been a matter of "serious" nor any other kind of "dispute". So exactly how does the Church's Gospel Topics essay "now officially acknowled[ge]" denial of such a commonplace recognition of the lack of extra-Biblical evidence for the Patriarchal narratives in the Bible? Was there, then, an earlier opposing position officially argued by Church authorities? If so, where published? Or does the appearance of the essay's lengthy bibliography supporting the historical claims of the book of Abraham--sustaining not verifying--the first such ever "officially" published, reflect a surging "serious dispute" over "verifiable history"?

Besides, what are the rules, or whose rules, for verifying any historical narrative or interpretation thereof? Let's all eschew a facile historiographical scientism. And just how novel is it for leaders of any religious community to invite adherents to seek answers about Scripture, which are ever also answers touching on historicity in prayer? St. Paul, a Witness, and all Christians else, hold the Resurrection of Jesus Christ as the Event in history. 


So who gets to define epistemology, the philosophical study of knowledge?


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: Another Testament of Jesus Christ--including its historical geography--the book of Moses, and even about the latter-day visions, doctrines, and ordinances pertaining to the Restored Church in history--and still unfolding. "Translation and Historicity," despite clumsy, even painful, syntax, diction, and linking--and several unforced errors--does not partake of a rhetoric consistent with a document of surrender. No. It tackles the questions swirling about the book of Abraham head on. Acknowledging the difficult, it proposes, in places of eloquence, a reason for faith, never surrender.

Ritner's response--really a must for any reader of the essays--brings together everything he finds objectionable, including so much that Hugh Nibley tried to answer in 1968-1970, 1975, 1980, and 2013. Let's consider a few objectionable matters: 1) Joseph Smith's attempts, at publication some seven years after purchase, to deal with either flaking papyrus or lacunae in the facsimiles, here unjustly and obnoxiously labeled "forgeries"; 2) the question of anachronisms--though Joseph Smith thoughtfully translates into established Biblical and Classical idiom, thus "Pharaoh" or "Chaldeans," and "Egyptus," the last for what he originally translated "Zeptah"; 3) the bizarre names (Kolob, Enish-go-on-dosh (ins-q3-'n-dshr?), for which I would refer the reader to the Egyptian name for Mars, Hor-Dosh (Horus the Red), and suggest the underlying phrase to be 'n-dosh, "beautiful in [her] redness," of Hathor as Female Sun, which corresponds to the Prophet's explanation of the Hathor cow on Facsimile 2). 

Throughout both his response and an earlier book, The Joseph Smith Papyri: A Complete Edition, Ritner appeals to his discipline. Nibley he censors for butchering a few sacred cows: Petrie, Breasted, Mercer. But that's not the whole story: "In his personal dealings with Mercer, Nibley found him to be kind and unfailingly courteous. Dealing with him was a pleasure. In 1968, a year before Mercer died, Nibley wished him well." https://burtonkjanes.com/2017/01/11/selling-the-professors-library/ .

The family man and beloved teacher was never the monster Ritner describes. His collegiality drew many from the discipline to Provo: there were letters, calls, visits. His An Egyptian Endowment: The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri received a favorable review. Yet other reports in Ritner's pages, too painful to repeat, call to mind words of Joseph Smith: "The deceased ought never to have had an enemy. But so it was, wherever light shone, it stirred up darkness" (A. Ehat, ed., Words of Joseph Smith, 9 October 1843).


And let it be understood that to invoke abstract ideas such as scholarship or Egyptology v. apologetics hardly contests the dozens of well-expressed insights, evidences, arguments, and pointed questions about both Abraham and the Egyptians generously put forth by Hugh Nibley, Michael Rhodes (and others) over many decades. Read the "Conclusion" to Nibley's Abraham in Egypt. Here we find over fifty points of evidence for the antiquity of the book of Abraham. 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 a rhetorical declaratio 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 command space in the journals, monographs, and books published within the discipline? Never. The discipline requires a full engagement with argument on all sides of any question. Yet Latter-day Saints also bear some fault for the fray. Dr. Ritner complains often, and justly, about his own articles and books not receiving due notice, or even proper footnoting, 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 Church one belongs to, to the university at which one may teach, or not teach, or the books or articles one may have read or not read, to consider with quiet heart the arguments made by every student. 

The book of Abraham belongs as much to Samuel Mercer and 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." So why use that overworked, stunningly misunderstood, and even abstract label, which properly belongs to other Christian traditions to dismiss him? As Richard Lloyd Anderson also once told me, careful student of the New Testament that he was: Apologetics is the wrong word--which is to say, it doesn't fit the story of our community (For a glimpse at the meaning and purposes of apologetics throughout Christian History, I recommend the entry on "Apologetics" in Mircea Eliade [ed.], The Encyclopedia of Religion. Hint: More BYU's current Maxwell Institute and the Joseph Smith Papers Project than the extracurricular FAIR).



II  The Facsimiles 


Professor Ritner is quite correct in challenging the claim made for decades in the so-called "apologetic" publications that a Roman period Egyptian magical papyrus sustains what Joseph Smith says about Abraham and the lion couch in Facsimile 1. The Demotic Magical Papyrus of London and Leiden features 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 to wonder--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 by calling it a text from an "Egyptian temple library?" Placing temple and Abraham in a single sentence enchants the Latter-day Saint reader, but it's nothing more than sleight-of-hand. If you wish to enjoy potions concocted of pulverized shrewmouse or 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 fellow 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 (Hans Dieter Betz) 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? 

Laughter wonderfully stirs the honest student to assess whatever parades today as Scriptural scholarship in our Restored Gospel community, to test whether so much of what editors deem worthy of publication, amounts to little more than "Come to me, Kanab!" the apologetic dance of "pop, pop, pop," or even a chill "cha, cha, cha." As we trek toward the heart of the 21st Century, may loyal students of the Scriptures take up the challenge to write more thoughtfully, and with increasing simplicity and clarity, as befits a reverence for the Restored Word of God.

Even worse, because the magical book, or collection, postdates the Patriarchal Age by eons, the Gospel Topics essay, to make it relevant to the book of Abraham, resorts to claiming it shares a date with the Joseph Smith papyri. Yet hundreds of years also separate the magical archive from the papyri, so how does the claim stand at all? much less lend weight to a principal idea also expressed in the essay that the Joseph Smith Papyri, at the time of its purchase, 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, though what he says mostly repeats what Ed Ashment convincingly set forth 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 challenges the essay's citation of a medieval Coptic tale of Persian King Shapur and Abraham as sound evidence for the book of Abraham. (Coptic names both the Egyptian Christian Church and the last stage of the Egyptian language, an idiom written mostly in Greek letters.) The tale is Persian. While the late and derivative retelling in Coptic may show correspondences with other stories about Abraham circulating in antiquity, and while these last may in turn recall in places our own book of Scripture, its appearance in "Translation and Historicity" is an unforced error. The document is certainly not "a later Egyptian text," as too cleverly claimed, "that tells how the Pharaoh tried to sacrifice Abraham." Again, how could any Latter-day Saint reader in discussion with friends use the Coptic tale to sustain the 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.

Ritner further objects, with some justification, to the essay's referencing the ritual slaughter found indisputably in various Middle Kingdom sources to support the story of Abraham's sacrifice. And the matter may require a clearer explanation and added argument before the reader can arrive at a full assessment. No one knows, after all, when Abraham lived--and it's reckless to set tight limits. Whenever ideas and evidence are contested, however strong the evidence may appear, the opportunity becomes ours to engage fruitfully, argue with clarity and force--and also to dig deeper. Bridges to scriptural understanding via the historical record require both careful footings and also awareness of audience, lest, having the best of intentions, students either construct a "bridge to nowhere" or require of faithful and alert, but new, readers the holding of a "bridge too far." God never requires a "bridge too far for faith."

In the grand tournaments, therefore, of Abraham v. the Demotic Magical Papyrus, 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 in 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 likely gets right: the vignette we call Facsimile 1 has thematic correspondence to Hor's Breathing Document; it's there at the beginning of the document because it captures the moment of Osirian renewal and resurrection which that ritual document affords. The Gospel Topics essay renews Nibley's old observation about vignettes often being placed at some remove from passages describing them--thus "out-of-place" to our eyes. The observation holds true in many cases, but Ritner correctly refuses to disassociate the vignette from the Breathings Document. I came to the same conclusion based on what the text alongside the vignette says of the priestly office of Hor, with whom the document was buried. Among other offices, the accompanying text identifies Hor as "the Prophet of Min who massacres His enemies." 

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 the lot in the priesthood devolving on Hor includes a rare office associated with the (combined) deity Resheph-Min: "Prophet of Min who massacres his enemies." Does the office somehow correspond to the action depicted on Facsimile 1, or to other ideas therewith associated? 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 also bears the name Hor (that is "Horus", to cite the Greek form of the admittedly common name), why not also take on Horus' avenging role, the very same role belonging to Min and to Resheph? 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 survives  lightning, flame, and earthquake, all of which figure in Abraham Chapter One, and all of which belong to the vengeance of Min, or Min-Resheph. Besides, one of Abraham's own descendants, through Ephraim, bears--and here's ritual reversal and the sign of escape--the name Resheph, surely 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 of Osirian resurrection and the conception of Horus (for Osiris not only escapes death, he lives on 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). Osiris' violent death (and its vengeance), resurrection, and an endless posterity all form a single constellation that Facsimile 1, Osiris stirring on the lion couch, delicately manages to call forth. Joseph Smith sees in the same--"in this [particular] case," he says--Abraham's arrested sacrifice at the hands of a priestly enemy, "dressed in a short kilt, held up by two bands that cross over the breast and back," with his rising from the altar as earth and sky shake and flare.

I'm drawing on an earlier post entitled, "The Book of Abraham: Case Closed (or Sarah to the Rescue," posted Dec. 2011. 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 showing correspondences to Facsimile 1, as described by Joseph Smith, is John Gee, "Some Puzzles of the Joseph Smith Papyri," FARMS Review 20:1 (2008), 113-157. 



The Egyptian record attests a symbolic, ceremonial killing of foreigners, as depicted 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 symbolically 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]. [And] the special word for killing at Edfu [Ddj--and Edfu is also Ddj!] alludes to Osiris and the stability of his dynastic line" (Sederholm, 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. It's an Osirian paradox, an Osirian unfolding.

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 duality? 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 of course, also the priest of the Canaanite god of Elkenah, in the very same mirroring of roles and priesthoods, Egyptian and Canaanite, as depicted at Karnak. All these things come together on one postcard-size papyrus in Joseph Smith's keeping: Hor's priestly title of "Min who massacres his enemies" and, should we follow the Prophet's lead, the "Priest of Elkenah, who is also the Priest of Pharaoh, king of Egypt." Add to that Abraham Chapter One's focus on the priestly line of Abraham that compares thematically--does it not?--to the text about the lineage and inherited priestly offices of Hor, alongside the vignette, and we certainly do have the makings of a serious discussion about priesthood in the ancient world. Critics, as they delight to tell us, base their entire case against Joseph Smith on the lack of any connection whatsoever between the vignette and Abraham Chapter One. . . or between the hypocephalus and Abraham Chapter Two. . . Forget the critics, when the Gospel Topics essay all too soon insists that the Joseph Smith Papyri currently in our possession (including copies of text) do not have anything at all to say about Abraham that's an unforced error. Hugh Nibley shows how even the title of the Breathings document: "written by Isis for her brother Osiris so that his soul may live" mirrors not only the actors but the curious wording of the Abraham and Sarah story--the passage into Egypt has all the dangers and the triumphs of an initiatory ritual. 

We continue with Coenen's description of the ritual sacrifice at which Pharaoh and his divine Canaanite counterpart officiate: Behind Min "stands a tree on a hill surrounded by a wall" (which may register a specific place-name), 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). And let's not forget that a standing stone, an engraved stelae, found in Syria long after the book of Abraham's emergence, depicts great Ramesses adoring a Canaanite deity bearing the name--if I read it correctly--"Elkenah." (If not "Elkenah", then how should we read the near-matching name?)
(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.)

By killing the enemies of Osiris, Pharaoh and his designated priestly 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 recalling 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, even a moment of dramatic literary genius that only an ancient reader might fully grasp: "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? Why would he matter? 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.

The priest of Pharaoh dies a substitute for the king himself, whether we consider that king the Pharaoh in Egypt, or even Abraham, a man now wrapped in power and dread, priest and king. As Nibley notes, the priest "is slain in [Abraham's] place" (Abraham in Egypt, 26). Is it any surprise, then, that Pharaoh and Abraham--or even Osiris and Abraham--should later also exchange places on the throne, as Joseph Smith describes the scene on Facsimile 3? 

Yet every ceremonial preparation of a mummy evokes both the violent death as well as the resurrection of Osiris: a sacrifice "after the manner of the Egyptians"--the Osirian manner. To wrap (wt) is itself both to kill and also to resurrect; for, without wrapping, there can be no subsequent rising (wt resonates with mwtdie). The Ancient Egyptian Netherworld Books likely date, some of them at least, from the Middle Kingdom and flourish in the New, a span of time that also brackets the Patriarchal Age. Here's something from the little known Book of the Night: Addressing "the Asiatic, Libyan, Medjay, and Nubian threat at Egypt's four borders" (matching in exact cardinal order--east, west, north, south--the regional gods of Elkenah, Libnah, Mahmackrah, Korash, as carefully listed and depicted in the book of Abraham), the priest intones: 


"You are the rebels that 'made a wrapping,' 'made a wrapping' Father Osiris. Accordingly, Father Osiris commanded that I, in the form of Mekhenty-Irty [~ Horus], should smite this your enemy" (New Kingdom Netherworld Book of the Night II, 87-8 = Sederholm, Papyrus 10808, 126). 

Wrapping and killing collapse into one: to wrap the Osirian mummy, the action of Anubis, is thus also to kill the god with a knife, or similar instrument. The surprising phraseology found  in "You are the rebels"; "made a wrapping"; "Smite this your enemy" (which replace "you the priest"; "killed"; and "smite you") is euphemistic, ironic, delicate: the notion of substitutes runs very deep in the Egyptian sacrificial night. 

Anubis, that is, the masked priest of Anubis, who prepares the mummy, symbolically both slays and wraps. Yet, given the taboo surrounding Osiris' death, he does not "smite you," rather "this your enemy"; he doesn't kill, he wraps. The priest of Anubis thus slays the Enemy of Osiris and wraps Osiris in one succinct act. We may reject the seeric view of Facsimile 1 as the attempt by a priest of Pharaoh to sacrifice Abraham, but we're still stuck with a vignette depicting the sacrificial resurrection of Osiris, for the act of sacrifice meets the idea of resurrection; each notionally requires the other. Well-known is that paradox of Osirian ceremony in which the sharp-clawed jackal Anubis, troubler of desert burials, first cuts into the body, then wraps it, preparatory to resurrection. 

Facsimile 1, at once, both illustrates Osiris' resurrection as described in the Book of Breathings and the arrested sacrifice and escape (also in token of resurrection) of any Osiris, including the special case of Abraham. As Nibley points out, Abraham becomes as Osiris, for the Egyptians found in Abraham's heralded escape from sacrificial death a living token or surety of Osirian promise. All this makes of Abraham, to Egyptian eyes, a king, Osiris redivivus. No wonder, "by [jittery] politeness of the king," Abraham, as Osiris was allowed broad scope to substitute on the throne, as depicted on Facsimile 3, wear Osiris' Atef Crown, and then teach about the cosmic powers (Abraham Facsimile 2), which pertained to the mystery of kingship, as Professor Jan Assmann sets forth in his many books.


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, a glory of royal aura. And as Nibley points out, the symbolic journey in the facsimiles from altar to throne, becomes the journey, the promise, the blessing of Abraham. Ritner, who loftily refuses to tackle any of the deeper themes of the Book of Abraham, including the momentous theme of ritual journey and inheritance, simply points to the names and titles now appearing on the vignettes and declares that "no amount of special pleading" can save Joseph Smith's labeling the figures as king, Abraham, prince, principal waiter, slave, mixing the figures of women for men, or assigning them whimsical names, such as Shulem or Olimlah. 



By saying that there is no way out now for Joseph Smith, except by recourse to a logically fallacious special pleading, is gentle mockery. But the joke about special pleading is also a telling reminder about what constitutes professorial authority. The professor decides what will count as a piece of egyptological evidence and, with a wave of the hand, what will not. Well, how about it, this matter of special pleading? None is necessary. Nibley always answers with evidence and logic. And if the evidence verifies the names the Prophet gives us as specific and peculiar to the world of Abraham, then logic dictates that he was also working with more than one document, whether an extant physical document or one revealed in seeric vision, not the Roman Period vignette of Facsimile 3 alone. 

Shulem and Olimlah? The names (shades of Elkenah and Pharaoh) reflect the two worlds of Abraham: Syro-Palestine and Egypt. Professor Ritner never notes the possibility of such a bull's-eye, but we cannot fault an egyptologist for not knowing the latest archaeological discoveries from Syria (Nabada) that yield both Shulem (also attested at Ebla) and Ishmael (matching the name of Abraham's son). Olimlah follows an Egyptian pattern: Ol or Oli (wri)--im (imn)--lah (ra): Great is Amun-Ra (Nibley, Abraham in Egypt). And we now know enough of Ancient Egyptian phonology to prefer "lah" over "ra" for the name of the sun god. Hugh Nibley naturally isn't trying to prove that Olimlah must signify "Great is Amun-Ra," but he does establish how the name fits a common pattern. Nearly four decades on, no one has challenged, much less effectively challenged, what Nibley so effortlessly here points out. This is not "apologetics"; it would simply be irresponsible for a student of Egyptian not to point out such an obvious--though no less astonishing--correspondence. 


As for the next logical step in explaining how Joseph Smith translated, or interpreted, as he did, we must conclude that the Seer saw deeper than the reuse of the vignettes by the late Theban priests--he looked beyond the names pertaining to Ptolemaic Thebes--and instead gave us the Urtext, the original text accompanying the original representations on either papyrus or stela, and their original intent. And why else possess the seeric gift, if not to see deeper than scholarship can? It's true that no scholar, however gifted, could unpack all the meaning that the Prophet Joseph could unpack. Therefore? Though a study of Egyptian language and texts can certainly throw light on some of Joseph Smith's statements and conclusions, no modern egyptologist has the gift to recover the world of Abraham from the vignettes alone. The papyrus scroll bearing the text of Abraham's record would be another matter--but we are left with the vignettes. Never taking any credit to himself, Hugh Nibley would always say: What a marvelous production Joseph Smith gives us in the book of Abraham!


Again, Brother Joseph invited the entire learned world to "find out" and 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 that. 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 over anything. We may even answer.




III  All Wrong

From the beginning the Latter-day Saints have savored intellectual challenge for the opportunities it provides to share the Scriptures of the Restoration. And here's something to welcome with rejoicing: 

"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 a more considered essay might have composed, 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 minds a cannot be the equivalent of not (that is, -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 astonishment.

Now consider what Joseph Smith says in his Explanation of Facsimile 1: elsewhere such-and-such a figure or configuration signifies x, "but in this case, in relation to this subject, the Egyptians meant it to to signify" y. In other words, figure x, here, signifies both a and -a. 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, or to both at once. 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 parade, rather than neglect as it does, such a direct hit.

Egyptian Religion is not a monolith, a fact to keep in mind when we interpret the representations found on temple walls and in 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 to say, "The sky according to [Professor] Sethe"--and also 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? might 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--again, 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 the ritual height of sacrifice, and, at once, to the watery depths below. 

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 terming explanations, rather "explanations."

We all 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, and Latter-day Saints? Latter-day Saints should never get flustered, or throw up hands in surrender, just because an egyptologist or assyriologist gets testy or declines to discuss a particular position or point of evidence.

Oxford Professor John Baines 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. Baines laments his take-no-prisoners discipline, riddled with cliques, 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. 

Yet while showing full charity to critics of the Book of Abraham, and even acknowledging that any or all of them make their own assessments in good faith, let's also remember to lend a little kindness to Joseph Smith, who worked after the hieroglyphs had been cracked but before the discipline was well launched. Lacking access to those few then working in the field, he still had the good faith to share his ideas with the world--his book appeared in the pages of the most prominent newspaper in New York City so well as in Nauvoo. Does the Prophet 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 holding to the conclusions of egyptologists working in the discipline's genesis, then to pronounce (as does Ritner): Joseph Smith--Wrong for a century-and-a-half! Some of the best work came early on, it is true, but the differences in understanding are revolutionary. Nibley finds powerful correspondences between Joseph Smith's Explanation of Facsimile 2 and those of 19th Century students of the hypocephalus; in the 21st Century the astonishment, as publications abound, only grows the greater. Who is reading? Who has taken even a first look at the new material?

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: 


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. . . (quote from Ritner, "Review")


Is Ritner correct? The "ceaselessly flowing" example from Kircher by which the professor 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 records of the persecution he suffered at the hands of 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?

Even should we not a jot of it, we can all take a charitable look at Joseph Smith's explanation of Kolob (the central figure, the transcendent Amun-Ra in the form of the archaic Ram of Mendes) 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 eager sophisticates in train, 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 both on and in works of great antiquity. They've simply "reddit."


Nibley and Rhodes (2013: ps. 240-241) helpfully sum up Joseph Smith's "brief explanation" with the following headings for "words used":

1) cosmology: earth, planets, firmament, Sun, stars, moon, revolution
2) measurement and number: measurements of timecelestial 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 decisively to Kircher, or to what contemporary egyptologists say about the hypocephali or the various books of the netherworld is a matter for the diligent reader to discover. A careful study of both Scripture and egyptology is all Hugh Nibley ever asked of his readers.  


Another complaint, rhetorically crafted and targeted for a particular, and blithely uninformed, lay audience (the target audience of the critics): "Smith confuses human and animal heads and males with females." But as all students know, Ancient Egyptian Religion unfolds to the Western view as a parade of shifting crowns, heads, bodies marching across temple walls and down papyrus rolls. 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 on the rough Hedlock woodcut, from which the facsimile was printed, the nipple can be seen; on the original papyrus, the nipple would have been indisputably clear; the same must be said for the Isis figure behind the throne. 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, in plain sight,  make the same kind of illogical and improbable associations, x equals both a and -a, that the Egyptians themselves make in every place? (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 or the animals from the people on the vignette. He could, but that was only the beginning of interpretation. What's the point of having a Seer, unless he can scan semiotic horizons not familiar to the minds and logic of moderns? 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, including the quoted works of hundreds of egyptologists? 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 or delving into their footnotes. 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? before every waving of diploma?



IV  Come and See

Recently I visited the Church History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, and saw once more the vignette from which book of Abraham Facsimile 1 is taken. I looked at it several times, and thought deeply. What a joy to see the papyrus itself, not a facsimile, not a photograph nor a digitized copy, but the very ink, the very hieroglyphs, the vignette itself  in all its design and character!

To understand the vignette in its fullness, we must turn to the pages of the book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price and read the explanations of a latter-day Seer. Otherwise, we risk seeing only a part of the meaning, that part which reflects darkly in the mirror of modern scholarship, a scholarship at a dusty multi-millennial distance from the lost past.

I do not fault today's scholars for not seeing what Joseph Smith saw: Who can be expected to possess the high gift of the seer to see things as they really are, and as they really once were?

Yet I do detect a mote in the scholarly eye, when students of an ancient civilization pretend to a preeminent knowledge of that past. We learn to read an ancient script, yes, and master our tentative lexical lists--but to boast? "Yea, how quick to boast" (Helaman 12:5).

What do we know? What can we know? Professor Westendorf would tell his students that no living person can know Ancient Egypt as it once was; the best we might do is to build theoretical models by which to approximate that past. We may come, thereby, if not to understanding, at least to a common ground for observation and discussion. We all recall those ridiculously disproportionate models fashioned by scientists to teach the public something of the swirling atom, to grant students a brush with a molecule, and the like. Without the model, there can be no logos, that is to say, no -ology. We would all drift toward incoherence, then into stillness.

Such limitations, however, do not apply to seers, because "things shall be made known by them which otherwise could not be known" (Mosiah 8:17). Such gifted revelators something call to mind the transcendence of translated beings, like Enoch or John the Beloved, being themselves translating beings capable of putting disparate peoples and cultures in touch with each other, as though they themselves transcended both space and time and differences in language and culture.

As I consider the tone of scholarship everywhere today, I wonder how well any of us are doing at building models that invite dialogue--open, demanding, cheerful dialogue--about the forgotten past.

For instance, as Professor Robert Ritner, in The Joseph Smith Papyri: A Complete Edition, winds up his argument against the Prophet Joseph's explanation of Facsimile 1, an argument consisting of merest ex cathedra declaration after declaration of Folly and Error, he bangs down the gavel:


"Except for those willfully blind, the case is closed."


The words of Scripture best suited to set alongside such a declaration are those of King Limhi in Mosiah 8: 

"And now, when Ammon had made an end of speaking these words [about the interpreters and the high gift of seers] the king rejoiced exceedingly, and gave thanks to God, saying: Doubtless a great mystery is contained within these plates, and these interpreters were doubtless prepared for the purpose of unfolding all such mysteries to the children of men."

I say the same of Facsimile 1, or of any of the Abraham facsimiles: a great mystery is contained within that vignette, rich as it is with representation and symbolism. And, as I see it, Joseph the Seer has unfolded a portion of its ancient "mysteries to the children of men" in latter-days, with more unfolding to come for those who seek. Neither is the door shut to those who seek either to understand or add to the Prophet's Explanation of Facsimile 1 by the study of Near Eastern languages and cultures. I attest to just how very open that door lies. Enter and seek--and find. It doesn't make a jot of difference whether anybody attempts to stop up that avenue of pursuit: seek and you will find abundance "of treasures hid in the sand." "And [you] shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures." Yes, you shall find even the Pearl of Great Price (Deuteronomy 33; Doctrine and Covenants 89).

As I reflect on Professor Ritner's pronouncement of blindness, even willful blindness, I am compassionately startled at what many apparently cannot see or do not even care to look for. "Look to God and live" (Alma 37). Like Limhi I feel to exclaim:

"O how marvelous are the works of the Lord, and how long doth he suffer with his people; yea, and how blind and impenetrable are the understandings of the children of men; for they will not seek wisdom, neither do they desire that she should rule over them!"


V  A Word to the Wise: Any Fool Can See

Wisdom! You may rule over me! Like Emerson, "I am weary of the surfaces, and die of inanition." If Hokhmah, Ma'at, Sofia, the Wisdom of the Ages, not sophistication nor prating invective, desires to rule my mind, a mind that now hopes to see, She may.

Let's take a look at her judicious works.

Journalist Doug Gibson, reprising on Twitter a frankly objective review of Professor Ritner's edition of the Joseph Smith Papyri, a review originally published in the Ogden Standard Examiner, observes:


"To Ritner, the 'case is closed.' What Smith claimed, and the LDS Church claims today, is simply false, he says.

"Ironically, that certainty of Ritner's may be the weakest point of his arguments. One can make a case that to draw any conclusion that science is settled can be called unscientific.

"With ancient Egyptian-era digs going on in the world, it's an audacious claim to say that part of a book that millions regard as scripture is forever concluded to be a hoax"
(Mormon History and Culture: "The Mummy's Curse and the Book of Abraham").
http://www.standard.net/stories/2012/04/29/scholar-challenges-joseph-smith-translation


While there is little original about the case Ritner presents against the book of Abraham, he presents it with a blare of trumpets. And, as we have already seen, few blasts sound so sharply as his ridicule of the Prophet's explanations of certain goddesses appearing on Facsimile 3. How is it that the Prophet confuses goddesses with mortal males?

Yet addressing the very same embarrassment in 1956--when Professor Ritner was barely three--Hugh Nibley had the following to say (in the form of an imaginary dialogue):

"'It is rather quaint,' Professor F. commented. 'Any fool can see, for example, that the figures called Pharaoh and his son are women.'

"Yes,' Mr. Blank answered, 'a myopic moron could see that, and that is why it so remarkable. It is plainly intentional.'"

Mr. Blank, in search of the patiently recovered remarkable rather than the surface visible, goes on to cite arcane works of egyptology in hopes of revealing why Joseph Smith discerns a trace of Pharaoh or Prince in the outward form of a goddess (Lehi in the Desert. The World of the Jaredites. There Were Jaredites, 336-337).

To read anything of the Egyptian past, the student must drop all preconceived notions, including the norms of Western logic, and, well, venture. . .


As a serious reader of Professor Ritner's Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri: A Complete Edition, I note both strengths and weaknesses; I note sound transcription, sound translation--and the unsound (and I've tallied a list). But what surprises this reader is the professor's singular lack of intellectual curiosity about the documents he assays to translate. Everything translates into the matter-of-fact, if not the outright dull--these documents bore the professor. Such dull, technical work, hardly conveys the original intent: shall we even call these translations? Neither does Ritner await anyone else's sheaf-laden return from the library. Even as we, brim with joy, rejoice in discovery and ready our report, he interrupts by slamming the classroom door in our faces. And Ritner makes it abundantly clear that he is not the first to do so. Student after student, he notes, has slammed the door on the book of Abraham since, say, 1861. Yet as Nibley asks: Will the latch hold?

A year after declaring the "case closed" "for all but the willfully blind," in his Complete Edition, the busy professor returns to the subject with the same fervid rhetoric in his review of the Gospel Topics essay.

The latch never holds.

Intellectual Curiosity? We wonder whether documents such as the Book of Breathings or the hypocephalus have anything profound to tell us about the Egyptian mind? Do they yield a chapter in the intellectual history of the race? Might they have something--anything--to say to religious seekers? Or are they, as the Chicago Professor dryly puts it: "amulets" of "common" funerary hopes? Contrast Nibley's own translation of one of these "amulets," the rare Breathings text (and keep in mind that Nibley dismissed the results as being both tentative and technical)--and it's a joy to read, mistakes or none. There's a sweep that captures the Egyptian usage and idiom and makes exchange in poetic coin.

Ritner's "complete" transcriptions and translations, fleeting in comment, carry a cold and hurried air. We don't come to understanding. The book evinces a single-minded purposefulness in an impatient and aggrieved tone. Ritner not only declares: All Joseph Smith says is false! He also insists of the supposedly ubiquitous, thus "common," "amulets": Nothing to see here, move along.

The tone runs counter to that of Professor Ritner's other famous book, The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practice, which the reader can hardly put down. And Ritner's terse museum-label comments about these particular Egyptian texts also stand at odds with the trend of egyptological writing since 1980. Go to any library and select books written by Jan Assmann, Erik Hornung, Alexandra von Lieven, Dimitri Meeks, Sylvie Cauville, John Baines, and so on, and see whether these ever fail to stir the soul with the wonders of the Egyptian mind, see whether these don't seek to draw the universal treasuries into the expanding picture.


Hugh Nibley also draws together documents of like thematic and cultural bearing, treasures he believes ought to read in light of the Joseph Smith Papyri and vice-versa. He invites the reader to study these, ponder the larger Kulturkreis, and then to decide whether such productions of the Egyptian mind as the hypocephalus, the Breathings document, or the vignettes, are worthy of our attention, whether we also read Abraham's record or not (see The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri (1975) and One Eternal Round (2010). Amulets? Shall we brush these collections aside in our knowing simplicity? or shall we take a second look?

The test has to do with curiosity--and with attentiveness to matters of both intellectual history and of eternal concern. Ever reading, ever studying, ever discovering, we wait on the Lord for the fullness of truth.


VI  The Rise of the Book of Abraham

Professor Ritner closes his review of "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham" by asking the Authorities of the Church of Jesus Christ 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 cries Checkmate: "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."

The Apostles 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 restored 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, besides ringing with antiquity, 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.
****************************************************************















Earlier Draft


While Latter-day Saints may find critical reviews of the Pearl of Great Price 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.

Multiple voices proclaim the downfall of the book of Abraham. And it's just a wee book: 12 pages, one for each of the tribes of Israel. Let it go. But is the wee book a flimsy book?




I  Reviewing The Gospel Topics Essay: "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham"


The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in the interests of sustaining the scriptural claims of the book of Abraham published a Gospel Topics essay on her official Webpage. "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham," got wide coverage and summaries of it have become part of the 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 various Gospel Topics Essays have surprised, even dismayed, many a reader, Saint or none. That mistakes would be made, misunderstandings abound, essays updated as needed, more questions swirl, was made clear by Church leaders from the start. We learn together and questions swirl: Has the Church herself now renounced or downgraded the book of Abraham? or any other part of her vast Scriptural, historical, or doctrinal heritage? 

Learning requires a measure of vulnerability, and new learners and essays alike require a space for reflection and review, but the newspapers wouldn't let either the essays or the learners alone. Starter essays drew attention from the Salt Lake Tribune and New York Times alike, and misinterpretation immediately sprang up in that nutrient sparse, low-depth soil. "Church officially admits Joseph Smith practiced polygamy! Lifelong Members Stunned!" 

How can anyone argue with that kind of ignorance? Church authorities, who saw the essays (mostly) as updated summaries themselves were stunned at the reports. I remember a round rebuke from one of the Twelve at a stake event: Go back, and "read every word." 

Readers, in the delicate moment, found no refuge for independent thought.

And what of the rough-and-tumble "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham"? 

Professor 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." The volley falls short of the mark. The very title speaks to historicity: the essay makes claims based on historicity and backs them with evidence from expansive bibliography the reader is free to study. 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. 

And what of this "serious dispute" over the book of Abraham as "verifiable history"? Has there yet been any Jewish or Christian scholar, or any other believer for that matter, who puts forth the claim that the history of Abraham's life, as recorded in Genesis, is "verifiable history" in the same way that historical figures appearing in a multiplicity of ancient or modern records meet some standard or other of verification? No. That the life of Abraham appears only in Scripture has never been a matter of "serious" nor any other kind of "dispute". So exactly how does the Church's Gospel Topics essay "now officially acknowled[ge]" denial of such a commonplace recognition of the lack of extra-Biblical evidence for the Patriarchal narratives in the Bible? Was there, then, an earlier opposing position officially argued by Church authorities? If so, where published? Or does the appearance of the essay's lengthy bibliography supporting the historical claims of the book of Abraham--sustaining not verifying--the first such ever "officially" published, reflect a surging "serious dispute" over "verifiable history"?

Besides, what are the rules, or whose rules, for verifying any historical narrative whatsoever or establishing any one of the multiple interpretations to which historians subject all narrative? Let's all eschew a facile historiographical scientism. And just how novel is it for leaders of any religious community to invite adherents to seek answers about Scripture, which are ever also answers touching on historicity in prayer? St. Paul, a Witness, and all Christians else, hold the Resurrection of Jesus Christ as the Event in history. 


So who gets to define epistemology, the philosophy of knowledge?



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: Another Testament of Jesus Christ--including its historical geography--the book of Moses, and even about the latter-day visions, doctrines, and ordinances pertaining to the Restored Church in history--and still unfolding. "Translation and Historicity," despite clumsy, even painful, syntax, diction, and linking--and several unforced errors--does not partake of a rhetoric consistent with a document of surrender. No. It tackles the questions swirling about the book of Abraham head on. Acknowledging the difficult, it proposes, in places of eloquence, a reason for faith, never surrender.

Ritner's response--really a must for all readers of the Gospel Topics essay--brings together everything he finds objectionable about the book of Abraham and the essay, including so many things that Hugh Nibley, without flinching, addressed and answered as thoroughly as he was able in 1968-1970, 1975, 1980, and 2013, a half-century of articles and hefty tomes. I can't summarize all Ritner's objections in a review (Joseph Smith's attempts, at publication seven years after purchase, to deal with flaking papyrus or lacunae in the facsimiles--here, unjustly and obnoxiously labeled "forgeries"; the question of anachronisms; the bizarre names). But let it be understood that to invoke abstract ideas such as scholarship or Egyptology as opposed to apologetics is no reasoned way to escape the many dozens of well-expressed insights, evidences, arguments, and pointed questions about both Abraham and the Egyptians generously put forth by Hugh Nibley, Michael Rhodes (and others) over many decades. Read the "Conclusion" to Nibley's Abraham in Egypt. Here we find over fifty points of evidence for the antiquity of the book of Abraham. 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 a rhetorical declaratio 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 command space in the journals, monographs, and books published within the discipline? Never. The discipline requires a full engagement with argument on all sides of any question. Yet Latter-day Saints also bear some fault for the fray. Dr. Ritner complains often, and justly, about his own articles and books not receiving due notice, or proper footnoting, 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 Church one belongs to, to the university at which one may teach, or not teach, or the books or articles one may have read or not read, to consider with quiet 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, stunningly misunderstood, and even abstract label, which properly belongs to other Christian traditions to dismiss him? As Richard Lloyd Anderson also once told me, careful student of the New Testament that he was: It's the wrong word--which is to say, it doesn't fit our story or our community (For a glimpse at the meaning and purposes of apologetics throughout Christian History, I recommend the entry "Apologetics" in Mircea Eliade [ed.], The Encyclopedia of Religion. Hint: A little more BYU's current Maxwell Institute and JSPP than the extracurricular FAIR.)



II  The Facsimiles


Now Professor Ritner is quite correct in challenging the claim made for decades in the so-called "apologetic" publications that a Roman period Egyptian magical papyrus sustains what Joseph Smith says about Abraham and the lion couch in Facsimile 1. The Demotic Magical Papyrus of London and Leiden features 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 to wonder--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 by calling it 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 or 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 fellow 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 (Hans Dieter Betz) 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? 

Laughter wonderfully stirs the honest student to assess whatever parades today as Scriptural scholarship in our Restored Gospel community, to test whether so much of what editors deem worthy of publication, amounts to little more than "Come to me, Kanab!" the apologetic dance of "pop, pop, pop," or even a chill "cha, cha, cha." As we trek toward the heart of the 21st Century, may loyal students of the Scriptures take up the challenge to write more thoughtfully, and with increasing simplicity and clarity, as befits an enhanced reverence for the Restored Word of God.

Even worse, because the magical book, or collection, postdates the Patriarchal Age by eons, the Gospel Topics essay, to make it relevant to the book of Abraham, resorts to claiming it shares a date with the Joseph Smith papyri. Yet hundreds of years also separate the magical archive from the papyri, so how does the claim stand at all, much less lend weight to a principal idea also expressed in the essay that the Joseph Smith Papyri, at the time of its purchase, 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, though what he says mostly repeats what Ed Ashment convincingly set forth 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 challenges the essay's citation of a medieval Coptic text about Persian King Shapur and his dealings with Abraham as sound evidence for the book of Abraham. (Coptic names both the Egyptian Christian Church and the last stage of the Egyptian language, an idiom written mostly in Greek letters.) The text points to Persia, it derives from Persia. While the late and derivative Coptic story may show correspondences with other stories about Abraham circulating in antiquity, and while these last may in turn recall in places our own book of Scripture, its prominent appearance in "Translation and Historicity" is an unforced error. The document is certainly not "a later Egyptian text," as claimed, with sleight-of-hand, "that tells how the Pharaoh tried to sacrifice Abraham." Again, how could any Latter-day Saint reader in discussion with friends use the Coptic tale to sustain the 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.

Ritner further objects, with some justification, to the essay's references to ritual slaughter, found in various Middle Kingdom sources, to support the story of Abraham's sacrifice, and the matter, promising as it may be, does require a clearer explanation and added argument before the reader can arrive at a full assessment. When ideas and evidence are contested, however strong the evidence may seem to be, the opportunity now becomes ours to engage productively--and also to dig deeper. Bridges to scriptural understanding via the historical record require both careful footings and also awareness of audience, lest, having the best of intentions, students either construct a "bridge to nowhere" or require of faithful and alert, but new, readers the holding of a "bridge too far." God never requires a "bridge too far for faith."

In the grand tournaments, therefore, of Abraham v. the Demotic Magical Papyrus, 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 in 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 likely gets right: the vignette we call Facsimile 1 has thematic correspondence to Hor's Breathing Document; it's there at the beginning of the document for a reason. It captures the moment of Osirian renewal and resurrection which that ritual document afford. The Gospel Topics essay had renewed Nibley's old observation about vignettes often being placed at some remove from passages describing them--thus "out-of-place" to our eyes. The observation holds true in many cases, but Ritner correctly refuses to disassociate the vignette from the Breathings Document. I had already reached the same conclusion based on what the text alongside the vignette says of the priestly office of Hor, with whom the document was buried. Among other offices, the accompanying text identifies Hor as "the Prophet of Min who massacres His enemies." 

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 the lot in the priesthood devolving on Hor includes a rare office associated with the (combined) deity Resheph-Min: "Prophet of Min who massacres his enemies." Does the office somehow correspond to the action depicted on Facsimile 1, or to other ideas therewith associated? 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 also bears the name Hor (that is "Horus", to cite the Greek form of the admittedly common name), why not also take on Horus' avenging role, the very same role belonging to Min and to Resheph? 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 survives  lightning, flame, and earthquake, all of which figure in Abraham Chapter One, and all of which belong to the vengeance of Min, or Min-Resheph. Besides, one of Abraham's own descendants, through Ephraim, bears--and here's ritual reversal and the sign of escape--the name Resheph, surely 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 of Osirian resurrection and the conception of Horus (for Osiris not only escapes death, he lives on 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). Osiris' violent death (and its vengeance), resurrection, and an endless posterity all form a single constellation that Facsimile 1, Osiris stirring on the lion couch, delicately manages to call forth. Joseph Smith sees in the same--"in this [particular] case," he says--Abraham's arrested sacrifice at the hands of a priestly enemy, "dressed in a short kilt, held up by two bands that cross over the breast and back," his rising from the altar as earth and sky shake and flare, and his promise of an endless posterity.

I'm drawing on an earlier post entitled, "The Book of Abraham: Case Closed (or Sarah to the Rescue," posted Dec. 2011. 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 showing correspondences to Facsimile 1, as described by Joseph Smith, is John Gee, "Some Puzzles of the Joseph Smith Papyri," FARMS Review 20:1 (2008), 113-157. 



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 symbolically 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 [Edfu is also Ddj!] alludes to Osiris and the stability of his dynastic line" (Sederholm, 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. It's an Osirian paradox, an Osirian unfolding.

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 duality? Does the depiction show Pharaoh as both priest and king? He is both, after all. 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, the owner of our Breathings document. We continue with Coenen's description of the ritual sacrifice of Pharaoh and his divine Canaanite counterpart: Behind Min "stands a tree on a hill surrounded by a wall" (which may register a specific place-name), 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 recalling 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, even a moment of dramatic literary genius that only an ancient reader might fully grasp: "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.

The priest of Pharaoh dies a substitute for the king himself, whether we consider that king the Pharaoh in Egypt, or even Abraham, a man now wrapped in power and dread, priest and king. As Nibley notes, the priest "is slain in [Abraham's] place" (Abraham in Egypt, 26).

Yet every ceremonial preparation of a mummy evokes both the violent death as well as the resurrection of Osiris: a sacrifice "after the manner of the Egyptians"--the Osirian manner. To wrap (wt) is itself both to kill and also to resurrect; for, without wrapping, there can be no subsequent rising (wt resonates with mwt, die). The Ancient Egyptian Netherworld Books likely date, some of them at least, from the Middle Kingdom and flourish in the New, a span of time that also brackets the Patriarchal Age. Here's something from the little known Book of the Night: Addressing "the Asiatic, Libyan, Medjay, and Nubian threat at Egypt's four borders" (matching in exact cardinal order--east, west, north, south--the regional gods of Elkenah, Libnah, Mahmackrah, Korash, as carefully listed and depicted in the book of Abraham), the priest intones: 


"You are the rebels that 'made a wrapping,' 'made a wrapping' Father Osiris. Accordingly, Father Osiris commanded that I, in the form of Mekhenty-Irty [~ Horus], should smite this your enemy" (New Kingdom Netherworld Book of the Night II, 87-8 = Sederholm, Papyrus 10808, 126). 

Wrapping and killing collapse into one: to wrap the Osirian mummy, the action of Anubis, is thus also to kill the god with a knife, or similar instrument. The surprising phraseology found  in "You are the rebels"; "made a wrapping"; "Smite this your enemy" (which replace "you the priest"; "killed"; and "smite you") is euphemistic, ironic, delicate: the notion of substitutes runs very deep in the Egyptian sacrificial night. 

Anubis, that is, the masked priest of Anubis, who prepares the mummy, symbolically both slays and wraps. Yet, given the taboo surrounding Osiris' death, he does not "smite you," rather "this your enemy"; he doesn't kill, he wraps. The priest of Anubis thus slays the Enemy of Osiris and wraps Osiris in one succinct act. We may reject the seeric view of Facsimile 1 as the attempt by a priest of Pharaoh to sacrifice Abraham, but we're still stuck with a vignette depicting the sacrificial resurrection of Osiris, for the act of sacrifice meets the idea of resurrection; each notionally requires the other. Well-known is that paradox of Osirian ceremony in which the sharp-clawed jackal Anubis, troubler of desert burials, first cuts into the body, then wraps it, preparatory to resurrection. 

Facsimile 1, at once, both illustrates Osiris' resurrection as described in the Book of Breathings and the arrested sacrifice and escape (also in token of resurrection) of any Osiris, including the special case of Abraham. As Nibley points out, Abraham becomes as Osiris, for the Egyptians found in Abraham's heralded escape from sacrificial death a living token or surety of Osirian promise. All this makes of Abraham, to Egyptian eyes, a king, Osiris redivivus. No wonder, "by [jittery] politeness of the king," Abraham, as Osiris was allowed broad scope to substitute on the throne, as depicted on Facsimile 3, wear Osiris' Atef Crown, and then teach about the cosmic powers (Abraham Facsimile 2), which pertained to the mystery of kingship, a theme appearing over and again in the books of Professor Jan Assmann.


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, a glory of royal aura. And as Nibley points out, the symbolic journey in the facsimiles from altar to throne, becomes the journey, the promise, the blessing of Abraham. Ritner, who loftily refuses to tackle any of the deeper themes of the Book of Abraham, including the momentous theme of ritual journey and inheritance, simply points to the names and titles now appearing on the vignettes and declares that "no amount of special pleading" can save Joseph Smith's labeling the figures as king, Abraham, prince, principal waiter, slave, mixing the figures of women for men, or assigning them whimsical names, such as Shulem or Olimlah. 



By saying that there is no way out now for Joseph Smith, except by recourse to a logically fallacious special pleading is gentle mockery. But the joke about special pleading is also a telling reminder about what constitutes professorial authority. The professor decides what will count as a piece of egyptological evidence and what will be disqualified with a wave of the hand. Well, how about it, this matter of special pleading? None is necessary. Nibley always answers with evidence and logic. And if the evidence verifies the names the Prophet gives us as specific and peculiar to the world of Abraham, then logic dictates that he was also working with more than one document, whether an extant physical document or one revealed in seeric vision, not the Roman Period vignette of Facsimile 3 alone. 

Shulem and Olimlah? The annoying names reflect the two worlds of Abraham: Syro-Palestine and Egypt. Professor Ritner never notes the possibility of such a bull's-eye, but we cannot fault an egyptologist for not knowing the latest archaeological discoveries from Syria (Nabada) that yield both Shulem (also attested at Ebla) and Ishmael (the name of Abraham's son). Olimlah follows an Egyptian pattern: Ol or Oli (wri)--im (imn)--lah (ra): Great is Amun-Ra (Nibley, Abraham in Egypt). And we now know that "lah" rather than "ra" best describes the ancient phonological evidence for the name of the sun god. Hugh Nibley naturally isn't trying to prove that Olimlah must signify "Great is Amun-Ra," but he does establish how the name fits a common pattern. Nearly four decades on, no one has challenged, much less effectively challenged, what Nibley so effortlessly here points out. This is not "apologetics"; it would simply be irresponsible for a student of Egyptian not to point out such an obvious--though no less astonishing--correspondence. And it would simply be out-of-character for a professor not to wave his hand, for authority serves as argument enough.

As for the next logical step in explaining how Joseph Smith translated, or interpreted, as he did, we must conclude that the Seer saw deeper than the reuse of the vignettes by the late Theban priests--he looked beyond the names pertaining to Ptolemaic Thebes--and instead gave us the Urtext, the original text accompanying the original representations on either papyrus or stela, and their original intent. What's wrong with that? Urtext is the obsession of modern philology. And why else possess the seeric gift, if not to see deeper than scholarship can? It's true that no scholar, however gifted, could unpack all the meaning that the Prophet Joseph could unpack. Therefore? Though a study of Egyptian language and texts can certainly throw light on some of Joseph Smith's statements and conclusions, no modern egyptologist has the gift to recover the world of Abraham from the vignettes alone. The papyrus scroll bearing the text of Abraham's record would be another matter--but we are left with the vignettes. Never taking any credit to himself, Hugh Nibley would always say: What a marvelous production Joseph Smith gives us in the book of Abraham!


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 that. 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 over anything. We may even answer.




III  All Wrong

From the beginning the Latter-day Saints have savored intellectual challenge for the opportunities it provides to share the Scriptures of the Restoration. And here's something to welcome with rejoicing: 

"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 a more considered essay might have composed, 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 minds a cannot be the equivalent of not a (that is, -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 astonishment.

Now consider what Joseph Smith says in his Explanation of Facsimile 1: elsewhere such-and-such a figure or configuration signifies x, "but in this case, in relation to this subject, the Egyptians meant it to to signify" y. In other words, figure x, here, signifies both a and -a. 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, or to both at once. 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 parade, rather than neglect, such a direct hit.

Egyptian Religion is not a monolith, a fact we must keep in mind when we interpret the representations found on temple walls and in 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 to say, "The sky according to [Professor] Sethe"--and also 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 can yet be worked out by the student: 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 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 terming 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 Latter-day Saints? Latter-day Saints should never get flustered, or throw up hands in surrender, just because an egyptologist or assyriologist gets testy or declines to discuss a particular position or point of evidence.

Oxford Professor John Baines 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. Baines laments his take-no-prisoners discipline, riddled with cliques, 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. 

Yet while showing full charity to all critiques of the Book of Abraham, and even acknowledging that any or all of them make their own assessments in good faith, let's also remember to lend a little kindness to Joseph Smith, who worked after the hieroglyphs had been cracked but before the discipline was well launched. Lacking access to those few then working in the field, he still had the good faith to share his ideas with the world--his book appeared in the pages of the most prominent newspaper in New York City so well as in Nauvoo. Does the Prophet 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 holding to the conclusions of egyptologists working in the discipline's genesis, then to pronounce (as does Ritner): Joseph Smith--Wrong for a century-and-a-half! Some of the best work came early on, it is true, but the differences in understanding are revolutionary. Nibley finds powerful correspondences between Joseph Smith's Explanation of Facsimile 2 and those of 19th Century students of the hypocephalus; in the 21st Century the astonishment, as publications abound, only grows the greater. Who is reading? Who has taken even a first look at the new material?

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: 


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. . . (quote from Ritner, "Review")


Is Ritner correct? The "ceaselessly flowing" example from Kircher by which the professor 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 figure, the transcendent Amun-Ra in the form of the archaic Ram of Mendes) 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 eager sophisticates in train, 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 both on and in works of great antiquity. They've simply "reddit."


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 timecelestial 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 decisively to Kircher, or to what contemporary egyptologists say about the hypocephali or the various books of the netherworld is a matter for the diligent reader to discover. A careful study of both Scripture and of contemporary egyptology is all Hugh Nibley ever asked of his readers.  


Another complaint, rhetorically crafted and targeted for a particular, and thankfully blithely uninformed, lay audience alone (the target audience of the critics): "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 on the rough Hedlock woodcut, from which the facsimile was printed, the nipple can be seen; on the original papyrus, the nipple would have been indisputably visible to any observer; the same must be said for the Isis figure behind the throne. 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 ax 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. He could, but that was only the beginning of interpretation. What's the point of having a Seer, unless he can scan semiotic horizons not familiar to the minds and logic of moderns? 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, including the quoted works of hundreds of egyptologists? 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 or delving into their footnotes. 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? before every waving of diploma?



V  Come and See

Recently I visited the Church History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, and looked once more at the vignette from which book of Abraham Facsimile 1 is taken. I looked at it several times, and thought deeply. What a joy to see the papyrus itself, not a facsimile, not a photograph nor a digitized copy, but the very ink, the very hieroglyphs, the vignette itself  in all its design and character!

To understand the vignette in its fullness, we must turn to the pages of the book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price and read the explanations of a latter-day Seer. Otherwise, we risk seeing only a part of the meaning, that part that reflects darkly in the mirror of modern scholarship, a scholarship at a dusty multi-millennial distance from the lost past.

I do not fault today's scholars for not seeing what Joseph Smith saw: Who can be expected to possess the high gift of the seer to see things as they really are, and as they really once were?

Yet I do detect a mote in the scholarly eye, when students of an ancient civilization pretend to a preeminent knowledge of that past. We learn to read an ancient script, yes, and master our tentative lexical lists--but to boast? "Yea, how quick to boast" (Helaman 12:5).

What do we know? What can we know? Professor Westendorf would tell his students that no living person can know Ancient Egypt as it once was; the best we might do is to build theoretical models by which to approximate that past. We may come thereby, if not to understanding, at least to a common ground for observation and discussion. We all recall those ridiculously disproportionate models fashioned by scientists to teach the public something of the swirling atom, to grant students a brush with a molecule, and the like. Without the model, there can be no logos, that is to say, no -ology. We would all drift toward incoherence, then into stillness.

Such limitations, however, do not apply to seers, because "things shall be made known by them which otherwise could not be known" (Mosiah 8:17). Such gifted revelators something call to mind the transcendence of translated beings, like Enoch or John the Beloved, being themselves translating beings capable of putting disparate peoples and cultures in touch with each other, as though they themselves transcended space and time and differences in language and culture.

As I consider the tone of scholarship everywhere today, I wonder how well any of us are doing at building models that invite dialogue--open, demanding, cheerful dialogue--about the forgotten past.

For instance, as Professor Robert Ritner, in The Joseph Smith Papyri: A Complete Edition, winds up his argument against the Prophet Joseph's explanation of Facsimile 1, an argument consisting of merest ex cathedra declaration after declaration of Folly and Error, he pronounces:


"Except for those willfully blind, the case is closed."


The words of Scripture best suited to set alongside such a declaration are those of King Limhi (Mosiah 8): 

"And now, when Ammon had made an end of speaking these words [about the interpreters and the high gift of seers] the king rejoiced exceedingly, and gave thanks to God, saying: Doubtless a great mystery is contained within these plates, and these interpreters were doubtless prepared for the purpose of unfolding all such mysteries to the children of men."

I say the same of Facsimile 1, or of any of the Abraham facsimiles: a great mystery is contained within that vignette, rich as it is with representation and symbolism. And, as I see it, Joseph the Seer has unfolded a portion of its ancient "mysteries to the children of men" in latter-days, with more unfolding to come for those who seek. Neither is the door shut to those who seek either to understand or add to the Prophet's Explanation of Facsimile 1 by the study of Near Eastern languages and cultures. I attest to just how very open that door lies. Enter and seek--and find. It doesn't make a jot of difference whether anybody attempts to stop up that avenue of pursuit: seek and you will find abundance "of treasures hid in the sand." "And [you] shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures." Yes, you shall find even the Pearl of Great Price (Deuteronomy 33; Doctrine and Covenants 89).

As I reflect on Professor Ritner's pronouncement of blindness, even willful blindness, I am compassionately startled at what many apparently cannot see or do not even care to look for. "Look to God and live" (Alma 37). Like Limhi I feel to exclaim:

"O how marvelous are the works of the Lord, and how long doth he suffer with his people; yea, and how blind and impenetrable are the understandings of the children of men; for they will not seek wisdom, neither do they desire that she should rule over them!"


V  A Word to the Wise

Wisdom! You may rule over me! Like Emerson, "I am weary of the surfaces, and die of inanition." If Hokhmah, Ma'at, Sofia, the Wisdom of the Ages, not sophistication nor prating invective, desires to rule my mind, a mind that now hopes to see, She may.

Let's take a look at her judicious works.

Journalist Doug Gibson, reprising via Twitter a frankly objective review of Professor Ritner's study of the Joseph Smith Papyri, a review originally published in the Ogden Standard Examiner, observes:


"To Ritner, the 'case is closed.' What Smith claimed, and the LDS Church claims today, is simply false, he says.

"Ironically, that certainty of Ritner's may be the weakest point of his arguments. One can make a case that to draw any conclusion that science is settled can be called unscientific.

"With ancient Egyptian-era digs going on in the world, it's an audacious claim to say that part of a book that millions regard as scripture is forever concluded to be a hoax" (Mormon History and Culture: "The Mummy's Curse and the Book of Abraham").
http://www.standard.net/stories/2012/04/29/scholar-challenges-joseph-smith-translation

While there is little original about the case Ritner presents against the book of Abraham, he presents it with a blare of trumpets. And few blasts are so sharp as his ridicule of the Prophet's explanations of certain goddesses appearing on Facsimile 3. How is it that the Prophet confuses goddesses with mortal males?

Yet addressing the very same embarrassment in 1956, before Professor Ritner was even born, Hugh Nibley had the following to say (in the form of an imaginary dialogue):

"'It is rather quaint,' Professor F. commented. 'Any fool can see, for example, that the figures called Pharaoh and his son are women.'

"Yes,' Mr. Blank answered, 'a myopic moron could see that, and that is why it so remarkable. It is plainly intentional.'"

Mr. Blank, in search of the patiently recovered remarkable rather than the surface visible--that is, what scholars do--goes on to cite arcane works of Egyptology in hopes of discovering why Joseph Smith might so discern a trace of the Pharaoh or the Prince in the outward form of a goddess (Lehi in the Desert. The World of the Jaredites. There Were Jaredites, 336-337).

To read anything of the Egyptian past, the student must drop all preconceived notions, including the norms of Western logic, and, well, venture. . .


As a serious reader of Professor Ritner's Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri: A Complete Edition (though not the only published edition!), I also note strengths and weaknesses; I note sound transcription, sound translation--and the unsound. The book may have its errors, and I've tallied a telling list, but the surprising, and I think the significant, thing to note is the singular lack of intellectual curiosity about the documents Professor Ritner assays to translate. Everything translates into the matter-of-fact, if not the outright dull. Another weakness is that Ritner does not await anyone else's sheaf-laden return from the library. Even as we, brim with joy, rejoice in discovery and ready our report, he interrupts by slamming the classroom door in our faces. Ritner makes it abundantly clear, however, that he is, by no means, the first to do so. Student after student, he notes, has slammed the door on the book of Abraham since 1861 or so. Yet as Nibley asks: Will the latch hold?


The latch simply never holds.


Intellectual Curiosity? We wonder whether documents such as the Book of Breathings or the hypocephalus have anything profound to tell us about the Egyptian mind? Do they yield a chapter in the intellectual history of the race? Might they have something--anything--to say to religious seekers? Or are they, as the Chicago Professor dryly puts it: "amulets" of "common" funerary hopes?

Ritner's "complete" transcriptions and translations, fleeting in comment, carry a cold and hurried air. We don't come to understanding. The book evinces a single-minded purposefulness in an impatient and aggrieved tone. Ritner not only declares: All Joseph Smith says is false! He also insists of the supposedly ubiquitous, thus "common" "amulets": Nothing to see here, move along.

If it is so, such a neglect seems to be very much at odds with Professor Ritner's other famous book, The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practice, which the reader can hardly put down. If it is so, then Ritner's terse museum-label comments about these Egyptian texts also stand at odds with the trend of Egyptological writing since 1980. Go to any library and select books written by Jan Assmann, Erik Hornung, Alexandra von Lieven, Dimitri Meeks, Sylvie Cauville, John Baines, and so on, and see whether these ever fail to stir the soul with the wonders of the Egyptian mind, see whether these don't seek to draw the universal treasuries into the expanding picture.

Professor Ritner possesses uncommon gifts in prose style. Yet had Ritner's contracting book on the Joseph Smith Papyri undergone standard egyptological peer-review or the requisite editing for printing at a standard publishing house (one not given to religious controversy), how many counts of sarcasm, what tally of personal barbs, might have vanished from the final cut? So declawed, the book, written for a specific lay audience, would have lost its crowd appeal.

Hugh Nibley also draws together documents of like thematic and cultural bearing, treasures he believes ought to read in light of the Joseph Smith Papyri and vice-versa. He invites the reader to study these, ponder the larger Kulturkreis, and then to decide whether such productions of the Egyptian mind as the hypocephalus, the Breathings document, or the vignettes, are worthy of our attention, whether we also read Abraham's record or not (see The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri (1975) and One Eternal Round (2010). Shall we brush these collections aside in our knowing simplicity? or shall we take a second look?

The test has to do with curiosity--and with attentiveness to matters of eternal concern. Ever reading, ever studying, ever discovering, we wait on the Lord for the fullness of truth.



VI  The Rise of the Book of Abraham

Professor Ritner closes his review of "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham" by asking the Authorities of the Church of Jesus Christ 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 cries Checkmate: "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."

The presiding quorums 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 restored 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, besides ringing with antiquity, 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.
****************************************************************