Notes on the Book of Abraham

Facsimile 2I’m only a translator in the sense that people keep paying me to translate things for them.

I mean, I have a reasonably high level of proficiency in another language, some experience writing in English, and some level of enjoyment of the activity of translating. I’ve familiarized myself with the tools of the trade and done some reading about translation theory (while it can provide some useful ideas, it seems to be a surprisingly acrimonious field). The translation project managers I work with seem generally satisfied with my work, my clients keep returning to me for business, and I’m able to find enough work at tolerable rates to continue providing for a reasonably sized family.

But by some standards I’m not a real translator. I don’t have a degree in translation studies. I’m not certified by any professional association or even a member of one. At the moment, I’m not convinced that the effort to become a real translator – by someone else’s definition – would make me a better translator or justify itself in higher income.

A real translator would likely specialize in a narrower field, but I still enjoy life as an omnivore. I like seeing the sheer variety of things requiring translation and the situations in which translations are needed and the technical problems that have to be solved along the way.

There are some situations that call for a translation that reflects the original text as closely as possible. That’s my own inclination – I love fine points of grammar and semantic nuance – and it’s how a lot of people think of translation. But that’s not always what a client wants. More often than not in my experience, it’s just as important – or even more important – that a translated text is also good sales copy for the target audience, or that it’s adapted to fit the expectations of a target culture. Last week a client encouraged me to take more liberties with the translation of his book to make it sound more American. I aim to please. There’s a whole subfield of translation – “transcreation” – that deals with issues raised by this kind of work.

There’s not a clear boundary between a translation, a transcreation, an adaptation and an album inspired by a movie based on a novel. And what determines a good translation in one context (both partners and their teams of lawyers are in agreement about what each clause means in the contract they’re about to sign) can lead to some very bad translations in another (if the Spanish sales funnel leads to a collapse in sales in Argentina, or English-speaking viewers don’t have time to read the long, complicated subtitles burdening a Korean drama). Telling a good translation from a bad one is a difficult theoretical and practical problem. It’s often quite easy to distinguish between a happy and an unhappy client, however.

All of this is my way of saying that Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Abraham from Egyptian papyri doesn’t present any particular problems to us as members of the church. We can and should celebrate Joseph Smith’s translation. We can learn useful and interesting things from it.

Some fragments of the papyri from which Joseph Smith worked survive today. Reconstructing what the complete papyri may have looked like is important and fascinating work – did I ever tell you about the time I reconstructed a medieval codex from a few fragments? Well, four times, actually – but we should not assume, and our understanding of the Book of Abraham should not rely on the assumption that Joseph Smith worked with anything except Egyptian funerary texts. Everything, from the extant fragments to the published facsimiles, points in that direction. I have a firm conviction that the Book of Abraham is scripture, so I will learn more about scripture by staring the facts in the face than by desperately seeking out alternative facts.

At the same time, the textual mismatch between the Book of Abraham and the Egyptian funerary texts of the papyri doesn’t make the Book of Abraham a bad translation because we are not going to persist in a naïve or uninformed view of what constitutes translation. Egyptian funerary texts were placed with mummified corpses so that the deceased would have access to all information necessary for proceeding into the afterlife. The material presented in the Book of Abraham on the Creation and Pre-existence is a central part of our own temple liturgy, which serves a similar purpose. The similarity between the two brings Joseph Smith’s translation within the realm of transcreation and adaptation. The question is not: Do the words match? But rather: Does the translation fulfill its purpose, and does it have the approval of the one who commissioned it? I’m convinced that it does.

This isn’t an argument for the logical necessity that Joseph Smith was a prophet and seer – if you’re uncertain, you’ll have to reach a conclusion by the usual methods. It is instead only an argument for the internal coherency of accepting the Book of Abraham as scripture. The Egyptian text of the papyrus says things one way, and the Book of Abraham says things another way, and after gaining some experience as a translator, I don’t see anything wrong with that. The Book of Abraham contains some of our most profound doctrines and is deeply connected to our most sacred and inspiring ordinances. Anyone urging us to remove the Book of Abraham from our canon does not have the best interests of the church at heart and is working against our spiritual welfare.

If we accept Abraham as scripture, and deal with facts as they are, we can learn some interesting things. The definition of translation involved seems to be very wide (but doesn’t necessarily contradict tight control of the text, about which I’m agnostic for this post). Does that mean that the translation of the Book of Mormon was equally wide? Not necessarily, since that translation came much earlier in Joseph Smith’s career and involved different methods, but possibly so. Interesting! As soon as we get the plates back, we can check.

Joseph Smith invested considerable effort in learning Egyptian. By the standards of today, he didn’t get very far, nor could he have. And yet this does not seem like wasted effort. It stands at the beginning of a Latter-day Saint intellectual tradition that respects secular learning and seeks to integrate it with revealed knowledge. We’re still working with papyrus today. The translation of the Book of Abraham is a great example of what to do when we’re in need of revelation: Study things out in our minds. Figure out as much as we can. Prepare our minds for revelation, and accept whatever comes after that as given by the grace of God. I don’t know if the Kirtland Egyptian Papers document Joseph Smith’s revelation process, as there are various opinions about that (speaking of acrimonious fields), but it would be awesome if they did.

So I’m not particularly worried whether the Book of Abraham meets someone else’s definition of what constitutes a real translation. The question is only whether it serves its stated purpose and meets the approval of its Commissioner. And on that point I’m entirely satisfied.

60 comments for “Notes on the Book of Abraham

  1. March 26, 2020 at 11:36 am

    I agree with you. Though I do think that it would help if in the Pearl of Great Price that either the images get dropped, or have the real interpretations next to what Joseph Smith taught what they were. I think it would help people start on the path of understanding that the papyri may have been more of a catalyst for revelation than a translation.

  2. March 26, 2020 at 12:03 pm

    Jonathan, great post. I especially love “The question is only whether it serves its stated purpose and meets the approval of its Commissioner. And on that point I’m entirely satisfied.”

    Has anyone here read Terryl Givens’ recent book on the Pearl of Great Price? I thought it was great, though reading some reviews, some people get irritated at Givens for using “naturalistic” terms like “Joseph’s prophetic imagination,” or for ascribing to the catalyst theory (which you allude to, jader3rd). It’s arguable whether GIvens emphasizes the human side of revelation too much, but it’s a possibly needed over-emphasis, because I think we assume all revelation is divinely dictated, which doesn’t seem to me helpful. I think it’s more like what you say, Jonathan: Joseph reached vertically AND horizontally, studying out of the best books, and God helped him. (That seems especially the case with the JST.)

    I’m divided as to whether the Book of Abraham is a JST-like creation of Joseph’s; a direct revelation of something by the actual Abraham; pseudepigrapha; or something in between these. Like you said, there’s a lot of debate there. But like you, I’m convinced it’s scripture, and that it’s “true” in the ways that count.

  3. Brandon
    March 26, 2020 at 12:12 pm

    “The question is only whether it serves its stated purpose and meets the approval of its Commissioner.”

    I have every reason to believe based on extensive research by Dan Vogel, Robert Ritner, and several other experts on Egyptology and early Mormon history (I haven’t personally engaged with primary source material, but few have especially as deeply as Vogel and others) that part of Joseph Smith’s stated purpose in “translating” the Book of Abraham was to keep up his image as a person with divine powers to translate supposed ancient religious texts and that he did indeed intend to convince people that he could actually convey the meaning of the ideas, words, and symbols recorded in pictures and writings on the ancient Egyptian papyri into English as a translation in the same sense that conveying “mi nombre es Juan” from Spanish as “my name is John” into English is a translation. Why else did Joseph Smith have facsimiles made and why else would his followers include the facsimiles in what became the Pearl of Great Price? Why else would Joseph Smith undertake the writing of Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar using Egyptian hieroglyphics in sequence from the papyri if not to convince people around him that he had divine translating powers and to awe them at his prophetic gift? Of course translate can have several meanings and it also can be argued to have several meanings in the context of the Book of Abraham, but clearly conveying actual meaning of ancient Egyptian words into English was one of these meanings, and an important one.

    As to what to do with the Book of Abraham, it has never received that much focus in popular Mormonism. The challenge is always to read the Book of Mormon and memorize scriptures from it. I’ve never heard someone say in a testimony meaning that they know that the Book of Abraham is the word of God and is true. It already has a sort of secondary status as is. Its doctrines are not featured prominently in manuals and general conference talks. It is not invoked too often. It is there, but not frequently. In fact, I never even sat down to read the Book of Abraham until after my mission. It was something I always ignored, and I imagine others did to. My point in saying this is that the church doesn’t really have to do or say anything regarding the Book of Abraham. It can just keep plodding along as is and the controversy over the Book of Abraham won’t have much more impact than it has already had.

  4. March 26, 2020 at 1:31 pm

    Hah, way to bring us down to earth, Brandon. I mean that sincerely, since I think your point is fair–and an unfortunate corollary to how little we pay attention to the Old Testament (which along with the entire Bible, should be studied SO MUCH MORE than it is, as far as I’m concerned).

    My only quibbles–both arguable–with your point about popular Mormonism: (1) for all we ignore the Book of Abraham as a people, Abraham 3:21-24 alone has had an outsized influence on how we imagine the Plan of Salvation. And (2), a dearth of proper contextualization for the Book of Abraham, which the OP and some recent books have provided, have given plenty of people rational reason to leave the church. (To be fair, I don’t know how much the BOA actually contributes to people leaving, but it seems to be A reason.)

    Perhaps Joseph did want to be seen as a real translator–BUT, perhaps he was also motivated by a real desire to learn from the best books and to get revelation, and God honored those real quests in a way Joseph didn’t quite, himself, understand (to your point, Brandon, since Joseph did seem to think it was very much a real translation). And perhaps, as the OP stated, the Book of Abraham can become–instead of a reason for people to leave–a reason for people to stay, since it does seem to model a real quest for people to leave. Perhaps that’s too many perhapses, but it represents a good hope for our church’s future, I think.

  5. March 26, 2020 at 3:08 pm

    Nope. Not here, not today. If making that comment is important to you, you’ll need to start your own blog.

  6. March 26, 2020 at 4:45 pm

    I have, off and on, spent months and maybe even years tracing the translated poems in a 1850s poetry anthology back to their sources. None of these poems are Mormon in any way — they are supposed to be classics of the original language.

    Its been an interesting project because of what it shows about the 19th-century view of translation. In every case I have the name of the original poet, the name of the translator, and the text of the poem in English. Only occasionally is there a title to the poem that has also been translated from the original language. But there are quite a few poems where it is basically impossible to identify the original poem — the text in English isn’t anything close to a direct or word-for-word translation.

    And, even when I have been able to identify the original, its often clear that the original was simply an inspiration for the translation. At best some of the concepts of the original are found in the translation.

    For me this shows that the term translation had a much wider use in Joseph Smith’s day than what we might understand today. [One day maybe I’ll post in more detail about this and give some examples]

  7. March 26, 2020 at 5:11 pm

    Professional literary translator here (FI-EN). I concur with all of Jonathan’s thoughts. The BoM and BoA might as well have flashing neon watermarks on every page that scream “You are reading a translation!”

    Brandon, I mentor beginning literary translators. They never have any clue what they’re doing at first, but they do it anyway. They’re full of enthusiasm, and they take translation Very Seriously. Everything you describe about JS just sounds par for the course to me. I can only imagine how a divine dimension to the endeavour of translation could juice that natural excitement and naiveté. And a publisher who doesn’t create buzz is a terrible publisher.

    Desperately looking forward to the release of the Urim and Thummim API for Trados 2020.

    Excuse me, I need to go get frisky with the original intent of a source text.

  8. Wondering
    March 26, 2020 at 5:52 pm

    Kent, It seems to me that at least as to opera libretti and poetry, including hymns and other texts intended to be sung, “translation” still — and not only in the 19th century — has a meaning in common use that is much broader than what many expect it to mean with respect to prose. E.g.,a “literal” translation (whatever one means by “literal”) is never singable. Of course, even if a poem is not intended to be sung, a “translator” often has to make choices that are not at all literal if some of the poetic aspects of the original are to be preserved or at least imitated.
    Owen, it doesn’t take professional qualifications as a translator to see that the BoM and BoA might as well have such watermarks on every page! It probably does take some familiarity with more than one’s mother tongue and with literature to see that. I wonder sometimes why more of our people don’t seem to see it.

  9. March 26, 2020 at 6:39 pm

    Sorry…I can’t help but share this. After my last comment I switched back to another window where I’m working on a sci-fi YA novel translation. I’m one of the very few literary translators who has adopted the full suite of technological solutions available to translators these days. Electronic dictionaries, translation memory, neural AI machine translation, real-time remote collaboration…for heck’s sake, all I’m missing is a big hat to block the glare on my screen coming from the window. All those complicated questions about the authorship of the BoM and BoA? Tight vs loose? Yeah, that’s my everyday life. The list of “miracles” required for Joseph’s story to be true is very short for me.

  10. SDS
    March 26, 2020 at 7:04 pm

    Translation is a fascinating process, and this post and the comments offer some interesting insights into that process. I have to say, though, that the observations of professional or semi-professional translators or theorists may not be authoritative or responsive with respect to some of the practical concerns of ordinary members or investigators in these matters. For them, often, the question is not whether what they receive is something that sophisticates might describe as a kind of “translation.” The question is whether they have received the kind of product that they thought and were led to believe they were receiving.

    Let’s suppose that there is one kind of process that might be commonly and perhaps crudely described as “literal” or “word-for-word” translation (granting that those may be less than precise descriptions even of this kind of process). And there’s some other process that might be described as more “free form” or “creative” translation or whatever. If I give you something and lead you to believe that it is the first kind of thing, and you later find out that it is more the second kind of thing, you may not be much comforted if I explain to you that what I gave you can still be described as a kind of “translation.” Or if you relied on and used what I gave you on the assumption that it was the first kind of thing, and your reliance and use might not have happened or might not have seemed warranted on other assumptions, then again you may feel aggrieved; and again your grievance won’t be assuaged by an explanation that although you didn’t receive what you thought you received, it was still a kind of “translation.”

    I suspect that concerns felt by some over these matters are more this kind of concern, not questions about what can and cannot plausibly be described as “translation.”

  11. Brandon
    March 26, 2020 at 7:41 pm

    Jonathan, you deleted my comment, which was respectful and reasoned. As far as I can tell, the reason you deleted my comment was because it entertained a probable reality that you simply cannot bring yourself to entertain. And therein lies the weakness of your argumentation. If you get easily offended at ideas you don’t like, then no serious discussions can be had. And consequently you, as well as apologists of the Book of Abraham, are eventually forced into a position of silence. Just like the gay marriage debate. It used to be that defenders of the church’s policy would write at length calling on us to fight against it and giving us long lists of reasons of why it was wrong. But literature defending gay marriage became so abundant, accessible, and scientifically-grounded that even though the church and many of its members have not changed its position on gay marriage, they have stopped writing at length on it. And such will be with the Book of Abraham (and has already arguably happened). To write about the topic using the traditional defense narrative is only to invite people expressing very strong counternarratives, which are very hard to fend off with counterarguments to that. The counternarrative literature is simply so abundant, accessible, and grounded in high-level research that it is hard to pontificate against. So the response is to shut down discussion and wall yourself of from ideas you don’t like, just like many believers do with gay marriage: “it is the way it is and I’m not explaining why” sort of attitude.

    Your deletion of my comment also buttresses a point I raised about apologists and bias in another post: which is that Mormon apologetic discourse on a select few topics related to central beliefs are more prone to bias and their discourse cannot be as trusted on Mormonism. The freedom to discuss Mormonism exists more on non-Mormon or ex-Mormon forums. In my experience, I’ve never seen any believer comment (provided it isn’t trolling) get deleted there. Quite the contrary, in fact. Mostly if a believer makes a comment, people want to discuss and flesh it out, and respectfully. Non-Mormons interested in Mormonism and ex-Mormons simply seem less prone to offense at belief than believing Mormons are over disbelief and reasoned criticism. So no, I’m not offended that you deleted my comment. It just makes you look a bit fragile, that’s all.

    Owen, I too am a translator. I don’t know how you’d make the case that Joseph Smith translated what we find on the facsimiles. Thus clearly say something completely different.

  12. Wondering
    March 26, 2020 at 7:56 pm

    Yes, SDS, I suspect the same, though with emphasis on what they thought more than on what they were led to believe. It might be fair to say of many that they were allowed to believe in a “literal” translation process more than they were led to believe. Often the messenger (missionary, teacher) is as ignorant of the breadth of the term “translate” as are those who assume some kind of “word-for-word” translation. (This is not to say, however, e.g., that paintings showing Joseph tracing lines of text on the gold plates themselves were not foreseeably misleading in the absence of explanation.) But Church publications have used the word “translate” or an abbreviation of it in ways that do not take much thought to realize that they cannot mean anything like a “word-for-word” translation. E.g. Hymns 1985 No. 62 (“trans. by William H. Draper”) and No. 204 (“trans. by John F. Young”) and No 70 (“trans. by Frances Elizabeth Cox”). Meter and rhyme in the latter at least are clear indication that this cannot be a “word-for-word” translation.
    This usage is by no means unique to our Church, but shows up in enough contemporary hymnals, libretti, popular press, etc. (e.g., “The megamusical Les Misérables opens on Broadway March 23 for the … being produced in 42 countries and translated into 21 languages.”) that it does not take “professional or semi-professional translators or theorists” to figure out that the word does not necessarily imply any version of “literal.” And yet that is a very common assumption. More could be done to avoid the assumption in our teaching, but I would hesitate to suggest that responsibility for what may be miscommunication about “translation” lies wholly on one side.

  13. p
    March 26, 2020 at 8:56 pm

    Hear hear, Brandon. Well said and much appreciated.

  14. March 27, 2020 at 12:48 am

    Brandon, I cannot speak for Jonathan. But I saw the comment you made that Jonathen deleted, and it accused Joseph Smith of being an adulterer and a con-man, and that anyone versed in the BOA evidence who didn’t think Joseph was conning people were ill-informed. Yeah, let’s talk about what Joseph thought translation meant–I’m actually really curious! And sure, talk about pressures he was under to maintain the appearance of prophetic authority. But back that up with some quotes instead of sweeping, aggressive generalizations. And don’t make me feel like an idiot for believing that Joseph wasn’t either of the things you suggested.

    (Jonathan, sorry if that’s strong and/or a threadjack; feel free to delete this.)

  15. March 27, 2020 at 12:49 am

    Okay, it seems to me that Jonathan, you’re saying that translation can be a lot more nuanced than a 1-to-1, word-for-word translation (which is what most of us think about when we hear the word translation), but that translations can be more creative and involved than that. SDS, you’re saying sure, but what about when people are led to expect that simpler kind of translation of thing? And Wondering, you say it’s less about what people are led to expect than what they assume, suggesting the responsibility for the miscommunication lies on both sides.

    If I’m following this thread right, then here’s what I’m wondering:

    1. What did Joseph think this “translation” project was, and what did he lead others to believe it was?
    2. Even if Joseph understood his project to be a simple matter of translating the glyphs 1-to-1, did Joseph have to understand the nature of how God was working with him, for the result (the BOA) to be valid? More generally, can a prophet miscategorize and/or misunderstand the nature of how God worked with them in particular cases? And does that mean anything for the validity of the scripture produced?
    3. Regardless of the answers to the first two questions, did Joseph ever intend the Book of Abraham to be canonized as scripture? And consequently, does this question of translation mean way more to us today than it did to Saints at the time?

  16. rickpowers
    March 27, 2020 at 12:51 am

    If you came to my house and picked up something off of a shelf and asked “is this a peanut?” And I said “yes, that is a peanut” when, in fact, it is a rock that looks like a peanut, you will probably break a tooth when you bite down on it. Point being: actual truth is important. We all learned that when we were very young. Others will now refute this as being simplistic and naive in relation to the Book of Abraham. Fine. But Joseph said the papyrus was one thing, and it wasn’t. and I bit down hard on it.

  17. Wondering
    March 27, 2020 at 6:34 am

    Bryan, Those questions seem worth thinking about except only that I have no idea what you mean by “valid” and “validity” in connection with the BoA and scripture respectively. (“Valid” is a word thrown around a lot in legal opinions without any specific, clear meaning there either, so my confusion is not unique to your comment.) But for those words, my responses as to Joseph’s intentions would be “I don’t know.” As to whether “a prophet [can] miscategorize and/or misunderstand the nature of how God worked with them in particular cases?” I’d say, not only by reading some prophets’ overblown rhetoric or mistaken statements, but also be reading scriptures about prophets and by extension from my own experience with how God has worked with me, “of course.”
    rickpowers, Good point. Of course, it stops short of the question whether Joseph knew the papyrus wasn’t what he said it was and of the question whether the BoA has some value as scripture even if Joseph was wrong about the papyrus.

    I have wondered when Mormons [here a broad cultural term that goes beyond the Church] complain of (deride? accuse? point out that?– not sure what the right word is) those who profess to take the Bible as the inerrant word of God as in error, or even foolish, whether they do not make the same mistake with scriptures other than the Bible and with the words of those humans they sustain patriarchs or as “prophets, seers and revelators.” I wonder if learning to take responsibility for our own beliefs and revelation (a different thing from participating in united efforts to build Zion) might be more appropriate than expecting consistent superhuman knowledge and power on the part of others.

  18. p
    March 27, 2020 at 9:04 am

    I wonder how many hundreds of these discussions I’ve read over the years. Why the word “translation” is still used in any sense to describe BoA’s relationship w/ the papyri is dumbfounding – the very definition of wishful thinking. Time to accept this, I think, as we finally seem to have accepted continental American prehistory, N&S, without a Semitic presence. This leaves us with two books of scripture w/ zero factual basis – exactly like all scripture on this planet. Scripture is aspirational, not actual.

  19. Raskolnikov's Successor
    March 27, 2020 at 10:09 am

    I guess I just don’t follow the OP. The examples of translation and translator’s craft just don’t seem to apply to the actual production of the book of Abraham. I have translated a number of texts and have degrees in comparative literature and a foreign language so have spent many years studying the transmission of texts across languages and cultures. We can say we need to redefine the word “translate” to expand it in thousands of different ways, but I think it is better just to say it doesn’t work here, despite what Joseph Smith said and what has been claimed.

    It seems to me that the analogy to the Book of Abraham is if I gave Mr. Jonathan Green an ancient papyrus scroll, he had absolutely no knowledge of the language of the scroll and couldn’t read it, but he had some general ideas about the culture that may have produced it, and then decided to write an expansive religious midrash based on his own imagination having absolutely nothing to do with the text. Trying to say that this is translation just doesn’t seem to work for me. There is no transmission of the original text.

    If you want to argue that this is what God wanted as the produced text, that is a separate argument. It is wholly speculative, but I think it fails to try to shoehorn into a author/translation/translator context. I think the value of the text as a spiritual document is also a separate conversation – one well worth having. But again, I think it needs to be divorced from the idea that the text is somehow sacred or scriptural because it is the translation of ancient prophetic writings – it simply isn’t (see Brian Hauglid’s comments after his work on the relevant Joseph Smith Paper’s volume).

    So, am I missing something?

  20. Not Fenimore
    March 27, 2020 at 12:20 pm

    I’m with Raskolnikov. Calling Rent a translation of La Bohéme, both from the French and from the 19th C, is one thing. Calling it a translation of Orpheus et Eurydice (they’re both about the intersection between art and death!) is quite another.

  21. March 27, 2020 at 4:15 pm

    Raskolnikov’s Successor, I suspect you are in fact missing something, because my own academic work involving languages also didn’t prepare me for it. In academic translation, we care about the original text quite a lot. We want to know exactly what the words say. A lot of translation situations are in fact like that, but not as universally as we’d think.

    A while back I had a conversation with a client that went more or less like this:

    Client: What does that bit of dialog in this scene say?
    Me: They’re saying X, Y, and Z.
    Client: That’s stupid.
    Me: That’s literally what it says. If you understand all the references to sports, politics, and gardening, it all makes sense.
    Client: That’s stupid. Change it.

    In some areas of translation, this would be absolutely wrong. In other areas, it would be absolutely essential. So because I accept the Book of Abraham as revealed scripture, and Joseph Smith understood his work as involving translation, then I need to modify my concept of translation in that context. Now that I’ve seen that real-world translation is a more expansive concept than I had thought, I understand that modifying how I think of translation when it comes to the Book of Abraham doesn’t require a huge mental leap. It’s an extreme case to be sure, but it accords with certain aspects of the work I’m paid for.

    If you’d prefer to call it something else, I have no objection. I care about the Book of Abraham as revelation and scripture. I’m not tied to the word “translation.” Feel free to use another term if you prefer. But you should in turn be willing to meet Joseph Smith halfway and try to understand his usage and be patient with others who also use it.

    Think of the movie Arrival. To communicate with aliens, the main character had to completely upend how her brain conceived of time and space. If someone walked out of the theater and said, “That’s not translation! Translation gives you the words of the original text. I want my money back,” you’d think they had completely missed the point. When it comes to translation of ancient scripture through prophetic revelation, I think it’s okay to apply a concept of translation that’s at least as expansive as a Hollywood movie’s account of talking to aliens.

  22. Raskolnikov's Successor
    March 27, 2020 at 4:45 pm

    Jonathan Green, I do try to have patience with people who do use the word “translation.” I feel there is a great amount of cultural weight hanging on that and there are feelings of threat if that is asked to be abandoned. I certainly don’t agree that translation works and the more common refrain that we need to expand what translation means seems to be asking to wholly change the meaning of the word. That isn’t really how language works in a communal way.

    However, I don’t have too much patience when someone tries to suggest by analogy that the Book of Abraham translation worked in a way that modern translations work, whether that is a word for word translation, a translation that is less literal, or even a translation adopted to a different context. With the Book of Abraham, what you have is a new text that has absolutely, again, absolutely, no relationship with the underlying text. If I give you a recipe for spaghetti and your translation produces Crime and Punishment, you in now way translated it. Irrespective of the beauty, spirituality and impressiveness of Crime and Punishment, it simply isn’t a translation. It is something else. And I don’t have to meet you half way because you want to claim that it is a “translation” for whatever purposes, good, evil or indifferent, you may have to claim to that word.

    And you are the one making the argument that the word “translation” works. I am just pointing at areas where I feel that it doesn’t. Feel free to defend you assertion. Saying, you can use that word and I’ll use another isn’t a defense or even a reasonable response – if it was, we would all just call things whatever we want and can ascribe meanings to words that suit us individually. As a translator, you know that is not how words work.

  23. March 27, 2020 at 6:24 pm

    @Brandon wrote “Owen, I too am a translator. I don’t know how you’d make the case that Joseph Smith translated what we find on the facsimiles. Thus clearly say something completely different.”

    So do my translations of nearly every song lyric I’ve ever encountered in any novel I’ve ever worked on. Sometimes we also change illustrations. If instead of being a random dude slinging words for money I was a prophet hell-bent on bringing his people to God? Boy howdy, then the gloves would really come off.

  24. Owen Witesman
    March 27, 2020 at 6:35 pm

    @Raskolnikov’s Successor, I would hail the spaghetti recipe translator as a genius. Imagine him doing it live! Translation as contemporary performance art? Sign me the heck up. Forgive my flippancy, but we’re talking about a dude who claims that God gave him some rocks in the 1820s that helped him translate the writings of ancient Israelites in the Americas. None of this is going to fit into any normal paradigm.

  25. Raskolnikov’s Successor
    March 27, 2020 at 6:54 pm

    Owen, sure, hail him as a genius. That isn’t the issue. Just don’t call him a translator of the Book of Abraham, which is what the argument is. There is no Book of Abraham outside of what Joseph wrote (caveat that Abraham may have written something, but I promise you it sure isn’t what is in Joseph’s book).

  26. March 27, 2020 at 9:41 pm

    Raskolnikov’s Successor, you say that the Book of Abraham has “absolutely no relationship with the underlying text.”

    The weird thing is that’s not actually correct. The Egyptian funerary papyri served a purpose, as I noted in my post: to provide the deceased with information for safe passage into the afterlife. And in an odd turn of events, the Book of Abraham, with its treatment of Creation and pre-Earth life, is tied to how we do much the same thing. The relationship is indirect, but it’s real enough that I think the word translation is justified. What Joseph Smith was up to wasn’t just creative invention according to his own whims. There’s enough similarity of purpose to give us pause.

    So that leaves us with a question. If you put Egyptian funerary literature into Joseph Smith’s hands, and the goal is to make a contribution to the Restoration, what’s the best way to translate it into English? Are we sure that the Book of Abraham isn’t it?

  27. Wondering
    March 27, 2020 at 10:25 pm

    Jonathan, Would you say the similarity of purpose depends upon taking BY (and others) literally when they said or quoted?:

    President Brigham Young (1801–77) said of the endowment: “Let me give you a definition in brief. Your endowment is, to receive all those ordinances in the house of the Lord, which are necessary for you, after you have departed this life, to enable you to walk back to the presence of the Father, passing the angels who stand as sentinels, being enabled to give them the key words, the signs and tokens, pertaining to the holy Priesthood, and gain your eternal exaltation in spite of earth and hell.”*
    * Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe (1941), 416.
    Quoted by President Boyd K. Packer, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles;
    Adapted from The Holy Temple (1980). https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/2007/10/come-to-the-temple?lang=eng

    Some committed Latter-day Saints have thought that language more symbolic of the importance of implementing those key words in one’s life than literal as to sentinels charged with keeping the pure in heart — those who have become “new creatures” through the atonement of Christ — out of the Father’s presence if they can’t provide secret passwords and gestures. If that were the case, does it do anything to the similarity of purpose you perceive?

  28. Raskolnikov’s Successor
    March 27, 2020 at 10:26 pm

    Jonathan,

    I guess if you feel a riff on KJV Genesis story and a pre-mortal life midrash is similar in purpose to Egyptian funerary texts, then you can apply translation to almost anything. I think it makes the world meaningless.

    On a personal note, for me these types or arguments — trying to cling to words arising from traditions but now stripped of any real meaning or stretched beyond reason – created more dissonance and frustration with apologetics.

    Other than to try to defend a claim that Joseph made, what is the purpose of clinging to the word “translation.” Authority? Legitimacy? What happens if it isn’t a translation?

  29. Todd
    March 28, 2020 at 2:39 am

    Back when I would process humanitarian shipments and attempt to avoid “value added taxes”, I would receive many documents written in Spanish. Though unfamiliar to Americans, most of the world ingratiate themselves to whom the are writing. I tried several different approaches to translating these documents, and found one that I thought best.

    I would directly translate everything. Then, I would put away the original and, using my literal translation, create a work that, in my own words, expressed everything that had been expressed in the original, except for the ingratiating language that Americans hate, because it is seen as deception.

    So, some would say I did a lousy translation job. I think I did a very good job. You see, I took a document written in a foreign language, with foreign linguistic customs, and made it legible to an American. (A side note: I kept telling my superiors to ingratiate themselves when writing to these foreign people. They never did, and they never got answers back, while I did.)

    How does this pertain to the The Book of Abraham? I have been reading Temple and Cosmos by Nibley. Based on what I have been reading, I would like to offer a theory. Let’s assume that Abraham taught pharaoh what he could from his vision/s. Let us further assume that pharaoh wanted this information in the next life, so it was placed in his tomb. Is It possible that the Book of the Dead, was and is a very corrupt version of the Book of Abraham? I think a good translator writes what is meant, not what is written. I believe Joseph was a good translator.

  30. March 28, 2020 at 12:47 pm

    Raskolnikov’s Successor, I appreciate your note about the social nature of meaning. I’m on board with that. At the same time, you’re making a very prescriptive argument about usage, and I don’t think that follows. It’s also the case that sub-groups – i.e. us – can preserve a historic meaning, or generalize a specific meaning, or create a subgroup-specific meaning for a word, and in that social context, the meaning is understood and valid. The downside to that is it makes in-group discourse harder for outsiders to understand, but it goes on everywhere.

    Also, I’m not particularly interest in apologetics here. I’m simply declaring victory in the apologetic argument and moving on from there. If you’re not interested in apologetics, that’s fine. I’ve already decided that Joseph Smith was a prophet, and the Book of Abraham is revealed scripture, and I’m not actually interested in revisiting those topics.

    Because taking Abraham as revealed scripture doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to discuss. It should be the opening point of the discussion: Joseph Smith was a prophet, and he called the Book of Abraham a translation, so what does that tell us? Maybe it means he was using the word ‘translation’ in a particular way, or maybe it means something else. It’s the rejection of Abraham-as-translation that forces the discussion back into an apologetic argument. If you’re not interested in a post-apologetic argument, that’s okay. But if we can get past the point of being dismayed about redefining words, there are interesting things to observe: how the redefinition plays out within the church over time, for example, or comparisons to prophetic redefinition in other times and places (there was a 16th-century radical who interpreted the dot used as punctuation, our period, as a revelation of the divine, for example).

  31. frederickgedicks
    March 28, 2020 at 8:00 pm

    It seems that Jonathan, in his last post, is suggesting that he is committed to the word “translate” because (i) that’s the word Joseph used to describe how he brought forth the Book of Abraham, (iI) the conventional meaning of the word captures what Joseph thought he was doing when he put the Book of Abraham to paper, (therefore?) (iii) use or preservation of the word in descriptions of the origins of the BA is necessary to the truth of his claim of prophetic authority, so (the apologetic imperative?) (iv) the meaning of “translate” has to be enlarged beyond its conventional meaning.

    I believe in the scriptural authority of the BA, but I don’t believe (iii) follows from (i) and (ii), and I think (iv) tends to confuse more than enlighten (as I think this thread illustrates). A widespread interpretation of “the spirit wrought upon the man” in 1 Nephi is that God inspired Columbus to sail west to bring the Americas into contact with Europe, even though Columbus himself thought he was off to find a shorter route to the East Indies. Mormon appended the small plates of Nephi because he found their content inspiring, not because he knew Martin Harris was going to lose the 116 pages translated from the large plates and we’d need a replacement. I suspect there are other examples.

    Joseph rendered Egyptian characters into apparent English word equivalents. These and other of his writings make pretty clear that both he and those around him thought he was translating in the conventional sense, as Hauglid and Givens persuasively show; subsequent developments make pretty clear he wasn’t, as H & G and many others have also shown. One still believe that the BA is “revealed scripture” even if Joseph thought he was translating the papyri when he really wasn’t; God works in mysterious ways.

    Perhaps the Church insists on describing the BA as a “translation” as a marker of its authority, as SDS suggests in his post starting a related thread. After all, we call the “keystone of our religion” a “translation,” when everyone realizes it’s a revelation–a “revelatory translation,” if “by the gift and power of God”. Joseph knew not a word of “reformed Eygptian,” and made no pretense of conventionally translating the plates from RE into English. I think we get a lot farther down the road if we think of the BA in the same way.

  32. Raskolnikov’s Successor
    March 28, 2020 at 10:55 pm

    Well said, frederickgedicks. My comments were not intending to speak to the scriptural authority of the text or its revelatory nature. I was merely trying to speak to the arguments raised in the original post that a modern day translators use of expansive or non-literal translation, or even cultural translation, has anything to do with the mechanics of translating the Book of Abraham. I think that Jonathan’s last comment shows there are a lot of assumptions and conclusions leading to a particular interpretive framework. I think your comment shows that the conclusions don’t necessarily follow or need to follow.

    I will likely bow out of the conversation with Jonathan since I think it may have reached any productive end (typically the assertion of testimony as argument signifies a stopping point to open discussion).

    I’d be curious to read his or others responses to your post. Thank you for your insights.

  33. March 29, 2020 at 9:11 am

    I speak English, Spanish, Mandarin and Japanese. I’m convinced that all translation involves interpretation; the more different the languages, the more interpretation is needed.

    I’m also convinced that every language is a world into itself. Japanese, Chinese, Americans and Spaniards might inhabit the same planet but they all inhabit their own world’s.

    So all of Joseph’s translations required interpretations that 1)were dependant on the KJV Bible and 2)made sense in the 19th century Yankee world that his first readers, arguably the most important readers(the first generation of latter-day saints) lived in.

  34. March 29, 2020 at 12:33 pm

    Frederick Gedicks: No, I wouldn’t say that’s a good summary of what I’m saying, not at all. What you call point (iv) is not the conclusion, but the starting point of my thoughts. The problem with the conventional definition of “translation” is that even in quite mundane contexts, it largely misses what’s involved in translation. This isn’t a controversial point in the field of translation studies. In many, many situations, the common-sense approach to translation leads to entirely inappropriate and unusable results. This isn’t just in literary translation – the words on the page of something as ordinary as a school report card are nearly meaningless without a much longer explanation of how classes fit together into a curriculum and one school year fits into a whole educational system and what the result of completing a school year is supposed to mean. You don’t get very far into a translation before having to think about: who is this for? what’s it supposed to accomplish? will the client be satisfied with the result and be able to use it for their purposes? I’m not sure why people are so tied to the conventional definition of translation, because it’s badly flawed and has to be jettisoned anyway if we’re going to think about translation in any useful way, and that’s the case whether you’re translating restaurant menus or Proust or Egyptian papyri.

    My second observation, based on my experience while translating (and as noted by Owen Witesman as well) is that translation involves a surprising amount of expansion, adaptation, creative input, or whatever you want to call all the stuff that goes beyond turning words in one language into words in another language. So I’m not particularly persuaded by appeals to the conventional definition of translation, when I spend hours each day necessarily trampling on the limits of that definition.

    Is even an expansive definition of translation applicable to the Book of Abraham? I think so, and that’s what I argue in my post, but using that particular word isn’t what I care most about. It’s worth asking, though, what would be lost by calling it something else.

    a. Preservation of historical usage isn’t everything. But it’s not nothing, either.
    b. There is still that eerie similarity in function of the two texts, which we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss out of hand. If we adhere to a strict catalyst theory of the Book of Abraham, then it shouldn’t matter what was placed in front of Joseph Smith, but I don’t think we can say for sure that’s the case.

    Note though that even adopting a catalyst theory of revelation doesn’t solve the problem of whether or not “translation” is the right term. If a client hands you a text from one particular context and tells you to adapt it for use in a dramatically different language and context, and you come back a month later with your finished product and the client says, “That’s perfect,” does it matter what process you used to arrive at the translation? If you used a dowsing rod and a dictionary, but the client is completely satisfied, are you a translator? What else would we call the person who produces the translation? Studying Egyptian and trying to puzzle out meanings of hieroglyphs seems like not a bad way to put one’s mind in the right frame to receive revelation. If Joseph Smith thought he was translating (in the narrow conventional sense), but he was actually translating in a very broad and expansive sense, why not call the Book of Abraham a translation? It’s fine if you prefer another term, but it’s also useful to use “translation” at least to remind ourselves that we don’t have everything figured out yet.

    Also: I don’t think it’s essential to your argument, but Columbus was definitely not only looking for a faster trade route. As Robin Barnes puts it (in the Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism [2000] 2:146), Columbus “was inspired in large measure by the belief that by sailing to the Indies he was helping to fulfill the divine plan, according to which all lands and peoples would be converted to Christ before the end.” I think your argument was that people can further the divine will even when they think they’re doing something else, and I agree, but Columbus may not be a good example.

  35. frederickgedicks
    March 29, 2020 at 5:09 pm

    I agree that “translation” entails enormous creativity, and differing purposes can legitimately yield different translations. But the creations are always in service to a re-creation; the translator must always ask, can the original plausibly bear the imposition of my creative renderings, whatever my purpose? I think the BA fails as a plausible rendering of the papyri, even with a “broad” understanding of “translation” and however much they might share the same function.

    Can one call Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus a “translation” of Christopher Marlowe’s Faust from 16th century English to 20th century German? That seems a very odd use of “translation.” Could one set the language difference aside, and call Mann a “broad translation” of Marlowe, because they share the Faust theme, but little else? Perhaps; one might say that Mann took Marlowe from his 14th century English context and “translated” hiim into a 20th Europe engulfed in world war, with Nazi Germany as the Faustian anti-hero. Then we’re really using “translation” in a different way, as “interpretation” or “application”. But every translation is necessarily interpretation, so fair enough.

    Perhaps Jonathan is saying that Joseph took the Egyptian papyri and “broadly translated” them from their 2000ish BC (or whatever) royal Egyptian funerary context into an 1840s Nauvoo Mormonism hungry for knowledge of the plan of salvation; the BA, in other words, is a Restoration translation/interpretation of the Egyptian narrative. They’re both instructive texts about how to complete journeys of cosmic significance through daunting challenges. If this is what Jonathan is saying, I’m more sympathetic, though problems remain.

    For one, all Joseph’s hierogyphic and other notations attest that he didn’t understand Egyptian. He could not have intepreted the cosmic funerary narrative, nor have even been influenced by it, because there’s no evidence he knew it was there. He took some vague understandings of of ancient Egyptian themes floating in the cultural air of mid 19th-century America and spiritually ran with them, right to the story of Abraham. That would make the BA a “broad translation” of . . . what, exactly? Maybe Genesis, but not the papyri.

    The crux of the matter is the insistence on “translation” over something like “influence” or even “catalyst” (say, for revelation of the BA)? Jonathan starts from the apologetic premise that it is crucial to the scriptural authority of the BA or the prophetic mission of Joseph (or both) that the BA be a “translation” of the papyri in some plausible, defensible sense. So someone like me can’t agree with him by simply using another word, as he suggested, because evidently no other word will do. As I’ve said, I think the premise is false and confusing; it “declares victory” in a battle that need not be fought, and leads to complicated questions, like ow the Church, its leaders, its members, and the societies in which they all live (including elites versed in translation studies) use and understand the word “translate”, and which meaning should control here.

    For those who accept Jonathan’s premise–which includes both believers and unbelievers–the question is whether his definition and use of “translation” succeeds in preserving scriptural authority and prophetic mission in a way that would be threatened by “infuence” or “catalyst.” For the reasons I and others have indicated, I don’t think it does.

    As for Columbus, I appreciate Jonathan’s acknowledgement of the point, if not the example.

  36. March 29, 2020 at 9:40 pm

    Frederick Gedicks: Think of this as my living room, and we’re just here enjoying some conversation. So, rhetorically, it’s odd that instead of talking to me, you’re making pronouncements about what I think, not entirely accurately, to everyone else chatting away in my living room, while I’m sitting right here, ready to answer any questions or clarify any points of confusion, push back or concede a point. It’s…odd.

    You write,”The translator must always ask, can the original plausibly bear the imposition of my creative renderings, whatever my purpose.” It sounds nice and is often true, but not always. It’s a big world of translation out there, and the rules we think must always apply often don’t, or didn’t. Often the translation is not at the service of the original text, but of the author or audience. And if the author – or Client – is God, trying to impose our preconceived rules on what is and isn’t allowed is risky business. It’s far more interesting in any case to investigate, describe and analyze than to get stuck on a narrow definitional question.

    Your third paragraph gets close to what I’m proposing. If you’d prefer to call that an adaptation or a rendering or something else instead of a translation, I won’t object. You say that problems remain, and I wouldn’t claim otherwise.

    I don’t think that Joseph Smith not understanding the text of the papyri is one of those problems, however. We only need him to do the prophetic work of receiving revelation, not the cognitive work of translation, however defined, as that part can be done upstream of his rendering the revelation into English. The Book-of-Abraham-as-somehow-translated doesn’t depend on Joseph Smith’s understanding of the papyri to preserve some connection to them.

    I’m not quite sure what to make of the rest, beginning with the fifth paragraph, the “crux of the matter,” as it doesn’t bear much resemblance to what I’ve said so far. Every sentence misconstrues what I’m saying at one or multiple points, so I’m left wondering if you’re coming to the conversation with assumptions I’m not aware of. To be clear: I’m not insisting on “translation,” merely defending the legitimacy of at least occasionally using the word, and not being embarrassed when we do use it. I’ve stated several times that I have no objections to other terms. I don’t think the Book of Abraham’s authority as scripture depends on its status as a translation, so that’s certainly not my starting premise.

    A discussion involving the Church, its leaders, its members, and society at large of the nuances of translation honestly sounds like a good thing. If this post somehow makes a contribution to that discussion, all the better.

  37. frederickgedicks
    March 29, 2020 at 10:34 pm

    Jonathan, if I were in your living room, I would say much the same thing–i.e., “this doesn’t make sense to me, is this what your saying?” Explanation from you. “Still don’t get it–is it this?” Etc. I’m sorry for the misunderstanding; I should have been more conversational and less formal. My apologies.

    I remain generally unconvinced, and still a bit puzzled, but I do understand your thoughts better, and it’s made me think hard about the way I view the origin of the BA. I thank you for that.

  38. March 30, 2020 at 10:52 am

    Frederick, thanks, it’s good to be speaking to each other. Leaving people unconvinced and puzzled is probably the best I can do for now, but I too will keep in mind your responses as I keep thinking about this topic.

  39. Blake Ostler
    March 30, 2020 at 3:42 pm

    The Book of Abraham is one of my favorite books of scripture. I studied Egyptian so that I could get a better handle on it. I am o Egyptologist but I have at least a solid basis). With respect to translation I have a hybrid view that is not exactly catalyst theory and not exactly direct translation but of the same kind of translation we see in the Book of Mormon, the Book of Moses and the parchment of John (in other words ,I see all of Joseph Smith’s translation efforts as the same kind of process).

    I have always been struck by how Joseph Smith illuminated accurate and insightful explanations of the facsimiles where I see him giving us a visual connection between the papyri and the way the Jewish scribes (or pseudepigraphic prophets) used these very same papyri. He nailed such unlikely interpretations as the Hathor cow (Fac. #2) and the god Sobek (the crocodile in Fac. #1) as representing the sun and and the waters (the squiggly lines at the bottom of Fac. #1) representing the vault or expanse of Hebrew thought and thus as the waters in which the sun sets. I could go on but almost all of the figures in the Facsimiles have a very plausible connection to Joseph Smith’s interpretation. But note that he is not “translating” pictures! He is deriving the text, it seems to me, not from the writing on the papyri but from the interpretation of the facsimiles that he gave us. Otherwise he would have given the text of the papyri and said what it means.

    I am also very struck by the relation between the way that the Testament of Abraham and the Apocalypse of Abraham used these same papyri (or very similar from chapter 120 of the Book of the Dead) using the psychostasy scene (or weighing of the souls) to illustrate Abraham’s experiences and visions. These same texts used the Egyptian papyri as a basis for Abraham’s visions and experiences where Abraham is transposed for Osiris and the Horus Hawk for the angel of the Lord in the same way that Facs. #1 and #3 interpret the scene. Of course these pseudepigrapha date from about 70 A.D. or just later (about the same time period as the Sen Sen papyri that Joseph Smith possessed) and not to the time that any historical Abraham .

    I am also struck by the close and quite unique parallels between the Apocalypse of Abraham and the Book of Abraham wherein both present a vision of the rupture of Abraham with Terah (his father), and idolatry creation of the world by the council of gods, a vision of pre-mortal spirits and of human sacrifices. It seems to me that Joseph Smith anticipates the story of the Apocalypse of Abraham (which also has the story of Terah and idols and Abraham’s departure from the idolatry of his father just like the Book of Abraham).

    So I believe that Joseph Smith received a revelation of a deeper and more meaningful connection between the papyri that he possessed and Abraham that is invaluable and essential to the Restoration for the knowledge of the council of gods, pre-mortal existence and purpose of creation and God’s plan. Admittedly an Egyptologist would not (and could not) see that meaning. it takes a lot more knowledge of the relation between Abraham and the that the papyri were actually used to illustrate Abraham’s visions.

    I give little weight to finding of Vogel because I believe the evidence shows that he is wrong about the relationship between the KEP and related documents and the text of the Book of Abraham. But Vogel being wrong is not important to how I see the Book of Abraham.

    So I see the Book of Abraham as giving us a true and accurate (In Joseph Smith’s vernacular) “translation” of the connection between the papyri and the way they were used by Jewish scribes to illustrate Abraham’s experiences (or perhaps their own revelations of Abraham’s experiences) — but certainly not a translation of an Egyptian script.

  40. Blake Ostler
    March 30, 2020 at 4:02 pm

    Brandon your experience of how believers are treated on non-mormon or ex-mormon boards is completely different than mine. I have had numerous comments deleted and the abuse I have put up with is enormous. that you are allowed to spout of here is a sheer grace.

  41. Brandon
    March 31, 2020 at 10:49 am

    “that you are allowed to spout of here is a sheer grace.”

    Blake, first your thoughts about the Book of Abraham seem incoherent. It is both a translation and not a translation at the same time? The facsimiles are relevant and irrelevant at the same time?

    Second, I haven’t been allowed to express relevant ideas (which you so charitably call “spouting off”) on this blog and constructively contribute to the discussion. Jonathan Green, like many apologists, is an overly sensitive guy who easily gets his feelings hurt and feels the need delete comments that he disagrees with. You’re a real class act, Jonathan.

  42. Blake Ostler
    March 31, 2020 at 11:45 am

    Brandon: Your comments are sometimes just obtuse and abrasive. You have not demonstrated an incoherence but asserted an erroneous conclusion. I trust that you recognize that mere assertion demonstrates nothing. I will let others judge if you are just being obtuse in your comment regarding my position.

    The facsimiles are directly relevant because they were the basis for the revelation that constituted the Book of Abraham. They provided content for the text but not in the way a translation of a script does. Joseph Smith was straightforward. He gave us the Egyptian documents relevant to the text and explained how they related to the text (e.g. “That you may have an understanding of these gods, I have given you the fashion of them in the figures at the beginning, …” BAbr. 1:14) His descriptions of the facsimiles mirror those of Jewish authors who used the same Egyptian documents to illustrate Abraham’s experiences and visions in texts very similar to the Book of Abraham. In a very real way, the Jewish pseudepigrapha regarding Abraham were inspired by these Egyptian documents in largely the same way that they provided content and inspiration for Joseph Smith and they both made the same indentifications of the Egyptian dramatis personae with Abraham. There is nothing incoherent about that. In fact, if something is incoherent then it is impossible. But there is a very simple rule of logic that states that if something actually occurred then it is not impossible and therefore not incoherent. Well, what Joseph Smith did actually occurred so it is not incoherent. I suggest that you either do not understand or just refuse to understand so I have taken the chance to see if another clarification will assist you.

  43. Blake Ostler
    March 31, 2020 at 11:52 am

    Just a further note Brandon. Do you mean a logical incoherence? In terms of logic, an incoherence is a formal demonstration of a logical contradiction between two propositions. You have not come close to demonstrating such an incoherence. When I teach logic classes I teach my students how to do formal proofs of incoherence so I am a bit of a stickler about such claims. If you believe there is an incoherence in my view, I invite you to give such a forma proof of incoherence.

  44. March 31, 2020 at 11:59 am

    Blake, thanks very much. It seems like embarrassment and despair are sometimes held out as the only legitimate responses to the Book of Abraham (and the Book of Mormon, and Joseph Smith, and so on). I like to see other options made available.

    Brandon, welcome back to my living room. I’m not particularly troubled by disagreement. If you insult my wife, however, I will see you out the front door immediately and without apology. There are people and things I care very much about, and I will not let anyone use my platform to disparage them. That’s the rule, and if you don’t like it, I believe you may find a more congenial environment elsewhere.

    Also, in these conversations, you are sometimes something like the guy who insists on standing on the coffee table and lecturing at everybody until they’re all looking at you, and restarting your lecture if anyone disagrees or changes the topic. I wasn’t willing to let that happen again after just a few comments. I believe the subsequent comments have been more varied and more valuable than they would have been otherwise. There are times for intense discussion when it serves a purpose, and time to step back and let others have a turn.

  45. Raskolnikov's Successor
    March 31, 2020 at 12:09 pm

    Blake,

    Thank you for your comments. Do you have any sources that expand on the idea that “Jewish authors . . . used the same Egyptian documents to illustrate Abraham’s experiences and visions in texts very similar to the Book of Abraham.” I am aware of Abraham pseudepigrapha such as the Apocalypse of Abraham, but I haven’t seen research that shows that some of this pseudepigrapha was the result of their using the same (or similar) Egyptian funerary texts that Joseph used. I would love to read more into that.

    And, to be clear, since internet posting can sometimes skew intent, I am genuinely curious and not asking with snarky skepticism.

  46. Blake Ostler
    March 31, 2020 at 12:27 pm

    Raskilnikov’s Successor (couldn’t you choose a shorter name?): My earliest take on this view of the Book of Abraham is found here: http://blakeostler.com/docs/Abraham.pdf

    Kevin Barney’s development of the view is found here: http://www.ldsscriptureteachings.org/2018/03/10/the-facsimiles-and-semitic-adaptation-of-existing-sources/

    Jared Ludlow’s development of the same views is found here: https://www.amazon.com/Abraham-Meets-Death-Narrative-Testament/dp/0826462049

    and here:on this same blog: https://www.timesandseasons.org/harchive/2006/03/an-interview-with-jared-ludlow/

  47. Raskolnikov's Successor
    March 31, 2020 at 4:24 pm

    Thank you, Blake. I spent a couple hours with the sources (aside from Jared’s book). Unless I am missing something (and I acknowledge I am not an Egyptologist), these don’t seem to support the idea “Jewish authors . . . used the SAME Egyptian documents to illustrate Abraham’s experiences and visions in texts very similar to the Book of Abraham.” I think it suggests that pseudepigraphal authors used Egyptian texts to create Abrahamic legends and stories.

    I guess I was looking for an example that someone used the very common funerary text that Joseph did to create Abrahamic pseudepigrapha since you claimed they use the “same Egyptian documents” rather than that they used “Egyptian documents.” While I think it is interesting and worth considering, I don’t think it fully supports that claim.

    Also, do you have any thoughts on the idea that some of the Abrahamic pseudepigrapha was transmitted orally and known by educated Jews? Without any evidence (outside the Book of Abraham), if this is possible, then it could be possible that Joseph was exposed to it through his relationship with Sexius. I have no position on that issue, just wondering if could mitigate the “there was no way he could have known” style of argument.

    I appreciate the links and the interesting reading.

    And agreed, the name is long and unwieldy.

  48. Blake Ostler
    March 31, 2020 at 6:10 pm

    Raskolnikov: You have asked a good question. The Psychostasy scene clearly used in the Testament of Abraham as the basis of Abraham’s visions illustrates ch. 120 of the Book of the Dead. It is very much like Fac. #3 where the initiate is led by Anubis to Osiris behind a veil and sitting on his throne. It is essentially “the same” vignette. You have to realize that this type of funerary papyri was very stylized but often had its own unique elements. Fac. #3 is essentially the same as the Psychostasy vignette used for the Testament of Abraham. Further, the use of a hypocephalus like Fac. #2 is behind the visions of Abraham in the Apocalypse of Abraham. There are literally hundreds of hypocephali in existence and all very much alike; but no two are exactly the same.

    There is absolutely not chance that Seixas knew of either the Apocalypse or Testament of Abraham. There are legends in Josephus that both he and likely Joseph Smith knew about that would fall far short of the use of the papyri in the same way to come up with a very similar text.

  49. Raskolnikov's Successor
    April 1, 2020 at 1:37 pm

    Thank you, Blake. I was aware of the great number of hypocephali in existence, but hadn’t come across the argument that there were similar vignette’s used by pseudepigraphal authors in their Abrahamic writings, or that there were similarities to Joseph’s creation of the Book of Abraham and use of papyri facsimiles. I appreciate the reading material and will definitely spend some time thinking this through.

    My current question is how this relates to the claims that these are Abraham’s writings (my fairly significant studies on the creation of the bible, source criticism and critical biblical scholarship makes me almost unable to accept that what Joseph created is ancient – though we could surely layer in your expansion theory to this as well). It seems that if we accept the argument of the similarities, then the implication is that Joseph participated in a midrashic creation similar to early CE Jewish pseudepigraphal authors. A pretty amazing occurrence, but one that doesn’t necessarily support that this is the actual story of Abraham and what he experienced — rather it is what Joseph Smith creates in support of his theology. That works depending on your views of a prophet, but I think is significantly different than what most Mormons believe or are willing to believe (see Jonathan’s argument as exhibit A).

    I remain unconvinced that the Book of Abraham is an expansion/revelation of the facsimiles divorced from the text or that Joseph didn’t at least pretend, claim or think he had translated the actual text. I think there are significant issues with his statements and the views of others involved in the translation that your theory doesn’t deal with.

    And what about the scroll of Joseph of Egypt that Joseph Smith said he found — was that just referenced or inspired by his study other facsimiles or was there actually the text? It seems that there were specific and definitive claims to the actual texts and not just the facsimiles. I think your theory may provide an alternative way of viewing it, but I think it ignores many other issues (including some, not all, of the conclusions and views of Hauglid and Jensen). These textual views (as opposed to limiting things to facsimiles) is what Jonathan Green seems to be desperately clinging to in his need to assert a “translation, a translation we have a translation*” (*translation meaning anything we want it to mean).

    But again, thank you for engaging in such a thoughtful way. This is quite refreshing and I hope my questions come across as sincere. I am not trying to prove or disprove anything, I am merely to try to work through this new information with my own assumptions and conclusions based on information I have looked at.

  50. Blake Ostler
    April 1, 2020 at 2:01 pm

    Raskolnikov: I need to correct that the psychostasy scene vignette that is very close to Fac. #3 is attached to chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead (of which the Sen Sen papyri that Joseph Smith possessed are a form) and not ch. 120 like I stated above. BTW you may be interested in what the initiate says when brought to the veil behind which Osiris sits on the throne in ch. 125:

    The rubric accompanying chapter 125 reports that ‘‘this chapter is said by the deceased when he is cleansed and purified, and is arrayed in linen garments and shod with sandals of white, and his eyes are anointed with antimony, and his body anointed with oil.” The candidate announces, “I am pure! My breast is purified by libations, my hind parts have been dipped in the lake of truth. . . . I have washed myself.” The initi-ate is then introduced at the curtain or veil that divides the initiate from Osirs: “Let thyself advance!” A question-response occurs as the gatekeepers ask, “‘Who art thou?,’ They say to me, ‘What is your name?’” The reply is a code name. The gatekeepers reply, “We will not allow thee to enter unless thou tellest us our names.” When the initiate announces the names of the seven gates, they reply, “Thou knowest us, pass therefore by us.” At the seventh and last gate the ordinance is a bit more elaborate. The doorkeeper announces, “Thou shalt be announced [to the god of the gate].” The initiate is asked, “For what purpose hast thou come?” To this he replies, “I have come and journeyed hither that my name may be announced to the god!” The guide-psychopomp asks, “In what condition art thou?” “I am purified from evil defects and wholly free from the curses.” Thoth replies, “Therefore thy name shall be announced to the god.” The keeper asks, “What is that?” The initiate replies, “He is Osiris [the great Egyptian god].” Thoth says, “That is correct. Advance now.”

    The entire Sen Sen Book of Breathings is an initiation into the afterlife based on ordinances that were performed with either a living initiate or with the body and mummification process. It is a form of what LDS know as the temple endowment, Joseph Smith was clear that the facsimiles had a close relationship with matters that were to be “revealed only in the temple.:” (See Fac. #2).

  51. April 1, 2020 at 2:14 pm

    RS, I have no issues with anything Blake has proposed, and I think his approach to the facsimiles reinforces the point of my post, so you’ll probably need to find something else for your Exhibit A.

  52. Blake Ostler
    April 1, 2020 at 2:25 pm

    Raskolnikov: I think that you are right that my view does not directly support that the Book of Abraham was written by a historical Abraham. My view does not support Jonathan’s view that somehow we are dealing with a translation of Egyptian hieratic and hieroglyphics on the Sen Sen papyri. As I have explained, Joseph Smith gave us the facsimiles as the basis of the Book of Abraham and not any text from the Sen Sen papyri. I do not believe that Joseph was purporting to derive the Book of Abraham from the text of the papyri. If he believed that the text of the Book of Abraham were derived from the Sen Sen text then he would have given us the text of the Sen Sen papyri and stated that he had an accurate translation in the Book of Abraham. But that is just not what he did. Further, I do not believe that Joseph Smith had a role in the KEP and related documents. In fact we can demonstrate that Joseph Smith was not even present when most of the KEP and related documents were produced.

    What I suggest my argument supports is that Joseph Smith received a revelation of the meaning of the facsimiles as they were used by Jewish authors who wrote pseudepigraphically about Abraham’s visions. Joseph did not know Egyptian. He could not “translate” from a language he did not know in anything like the way translation occurs because one knows both languages and does one’s best to render what is expressed in one language into another. If Joseph Smith had any knowledge of the papyri or facsimiles at all, he had to derive it from revelation.

    I regard the Apocalypse of Abraham as an actual experience being portrayed by its writer of what Abraham himself experienced. I believe that the evidence shows that the same (or very similar) Egyptian documents that inspired and were the basis to illustrate Abraham’s visions in both documents. That is the connection between the facsimiles and the Book of Abraham.

    Kevin Barney on the other hand has posited the existence of an original Hebrew text derived from Abraham that is reflected in the papyri that Joseph Smith possessed. You have read his article and so you can judge the persuasiveness of his view for yourself. My own view is that, given a date of 200 BC to about 100 AD for the Sen Sen papyri, that the likelihood that they go all the way back to an actual Abrahamic manuscript is minimal. However, the probability that they reflect actual Jewish texts from the same time and place (the Testament of Abraham was probably produced in Egypt) is pretty high.

    I believe that Joseph Smith believed that the papyri that had a snake walking on legs was related to a papyri of Joseph but we clearly do not have that papyri — but Joseph Smith clearly did. It is difficult to assess but I am skeptical that Joseph had an actual Joseph scroll.

  53. Blake Ostler
    April 1, 2020 at 2:27 pm

    Apparently I do not understand Jonathan’s position as well as I thought I did. I withdraw the comment that my view does not support his view.

  54. Blake Ostler
    April 1, 2020 at 2:39 pm

    ROSKOLNIKOV: I would add that if you look at the first appendix to what I wrote you will find a diagram created by K. Grobel where he argues that the evidence requires an original Hebrew text of Abraham’s visions that is derived from an Egyptian text. I am also open to that possibility.

  55. Raskolnikov's Successor
    April 1, 2020 at 3:10 pm

    Blake: Thank you for these clarifications. Much to think about.

  56. Brian G
    April 1, 2020 at 9:14 pm

    Whatever magic just resulted in this thread needs to be bottled and distributed throughout the interwebs. Can you imagine if people actually talked like this on the internet? The world would be amazing. Really given me a lot to think about.

  57. Dan Vogel
    April 10, 2020 at 10:02 am

    Jonathan: You really offer nothing new to the discussion than what Nibley said long ago much better but nevertheless irrelevant and extremely flawed. Your note is nothing more than an attempt to define “translation” in the most liberal and question-begging fashion. In other words, you attempt to define translation in a way that both excludes criticism and is untreatable. This is fallacious reasoning.

    You skip discussion of Abraham 1-2, where we have English text associated with specific hieratic characters, and go directly to Abraham 3-5 dictated in Nauvoo before Smith reveled his temple endowment ceremony.

    “Egyptian funerary texts were placed with mummified corpses so that the deceased would have access to all information necessary for proceeding into the afterlife.
    The material presented in the Book of Abraham on the Creation and Pre-existence is a central part of our own temple liturgy, which serves a similar purpose. The similarity between the two brings Joseph Smith’s translation within the realm of transcreation and adaptation.”

    You make a loose connection between Abraham and the temple, but your argument is incoherent because you don’t connect it to the papyri. You don’t seem to understand the issues surrounding the papyri and Smith’s translation. You have only implied Abraham 3-5 is like the temple ceremony, which it isn’t, but both came from Smith about the same time. What does that prove?

    I presume you are attempting to follow the argument of Nibley (and most recently Givens) that the Book of Breathings is similar to Smith’s temple ceremony. But are there parallels, or are they examples of the familiar problem we all know as parallelomania? Smith never claimed the endowment came from the Egyptian papyri, although he said certain things on Fac. 2 could be found in the temple.

    “The Egyptian text of the papyrus says things one way, and the Book of Abraham says things another way, and after gaining some experience as a translator, I don’t see anything wrong with that. The Book of Abraham contains some of our most profound doctrines and is deeply connected to our most sacred and inspiring ordinances.”

    Abraham 3-5 has nothing to do with the temple or ordinances, although both talk about creation and preexistence. Both subjects were always very much a part of Smith’s evolving theology. The discussion in Abraham 3-5 pertaining to Kolob, Kokaubeam, gnolaum, and creation reflects Smith’s 1836 Hebrew lessons. Yet the temple version is nothing like Abraham. Nibley (and Givens) compares the Book of Breathings to the temple endowment in the broadest terms, but you compare the Egyptian funeral text to the Book of Abraham, which is nonsensical.

    For me, your note on Abraham is merely an attempt to apply something you know about to a subject you know little about.

  58. April 11, 2020 at 12:05 am

    Dan, your objection is quite similar to those raised previously. You disagree, as others have, with my use of the word “translation,” which you see as only legitimate in the case of a direct relationship between the English text of Abraham and the Egyptian text of the papyri.

    Let’s talk about translation for a moment. If you have only dealt with translation in an academic, legal, or similar context, you can get by perfectly fine with a narrowly linguistic definition of translation. What you typically want to know is: Are these all the words of the original, and no others? Are all the words of the original reflected here?

    It was only after I gained some experience that I saw that in other areas of translation, this definition is inadequate, and not even in particularly arcane areas of translation, either. (I don’t want to overstate my credentials, but since I wrote my post, I’ve finished the translation of another book for which a client was happy to pay me a professional rate.) Any time you have to translate something so that people can read it without wanting to stick a fork in their eyes afterward, there’s a lot that involved that goes beyond reproducing the meaning of the original words. Think of these translations as the original plus something else: O + X. What X is can be a lot of things. Even when I’m editing someone else’s translation, it’s not merely a matter of accuracy. In that case, X is “Will the translation serve the client’s purpose?” (by requiring consistent use of certain words or phrases, for example). With essayistic writing, X can include elegance or rhythm of language that requires adding something more than is in the original text. Even for a non-fiction book, it means replacing examples and comparisons with things that will make sense for a new audience.

    And for these types of translations, the real work is in the X. Google Translate is getting better all the time at reproducing the meaning of the original words, but a deadly dull, stilted rendition of the original that readers can’t relate do does no one any good. For academic and legal purposes, a translation tries to match O as closely as possible. But in other areas, that’s the definition of a failed translation; the translator’s most important work isn’t O, but X. Function and purpose and audience and client satisfaction turn out to matter a lot more than I had expected. Owen Witesman said much the same thing earlier on. (That hasn’t stopped several people, with no apparent irony, from explaining to the translators what translation really means.)

    My understanding of translation is also informed by my academic work. While I may not have a BA in comp lit, I’ve published a few things, like this book, for example, where I follow a text in translation for a few centuries. Some wacky things happen to the text along the way.

    Can a translation be all X with no O and still be called a translation? Opinion seems to differ, but I’m not particularly convinced by the rebuttal that “translation” only applies in a narrow linguistic sense. We already have multiple additional uses of the word. In mathematics, translation means to resituate to new coordinates. In religious history, it means the transfer a saint’s relics to a new location. In our own religious use, it means to transfigure from mortal to immortal form.

    And as I keep saying, while my experience with translation gives me no reason to hesitate about using “translation” for Abraham, I’m perfectly happy if others prefer another term. If you prefer to say that Joseph Smith resituated or transferred or transfigured some aspect of Egyptican funerary literature, I have no objections.

    Raskolnikov’s Successor sees the papyri as only a catalyst, and while I could live with that, I think it leaves out the potential connection between the Egyptian funerary papyri (information for the deceased) and Abraham (creation and pre-existence) via the temple (information for the deceased set in a narrative about creation and pre-existence). If that connection is too tenuous for you, I’m happy to let you view the papyri merely as a catalyst for revelation. I do object, strenuously, to suggestions that Joseph Smith is a failed translator because the texts of the papyri and Abraham don’t match, as that simplistic understanding of “translation” doesn’t take into account the importance of function and client satisfaction.

    You write, “Abraham 3-5 has nothing to do with the temple or ordinances, although both talk about creation and preexistence.” But that sentences seems to contradict itself, because creation and preexistence is exactly what Abraham has to do with the temple. I suspect this is a point of fundamental disagreement where there is not much to do beyond note that we fundamentally disagree.

    Even Blake seemed to think I was saying something about the linguistic equivalent of a particular set of hieratic and hieroglyphic symbols, but I’m really not. I like his focus on the facsimiles, but that kind of linguistic work is not my province when it comes to Abraham. His detour by way of Jewish writings on Abraham that make use of Egyptian funerary images seems to me a possible example of distant relationships that might fit under the definition of “translation,” or transfer or transfiguration or resituation if you prefer.

    I haven’t read Givens’s work on Abraham, and it’s been too long since I’ve read Nibley for me to say how his work anticipates this post. I’ve certainly enjoyed and been influenced by Givens and Nibley at various times. It’s quite possible that this blog post does not surpass their achievements. And yet, here we are.

  59. Dan Vogel
    April 15, 2020 at 4:33 pm

    Jonathan, you are not following my arguments at all. I don’t disagree with your use of the word “translation.” My objection was that you are defining it and using it in a question-begging manner, by which I mean that you are attempting to make the conclusion true by definition without offering any evidence to support your conjecture. In other words, your definition is guided by what you need apologetically to escape a perceived difficulty. So, for me, your definition is circular and free floating.

    You also bypass any discussion of the Book of Abraham manuscripts that exhibit characters in the margins and the so-called Egyptian Alphabets and Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language, where your theory could be put to the test.

    The reason I said Abraham has nothing to do with the temple is because Joseph Smith never claimed the temple endowment came from Abraham. Abraham 3-5 stands alone and came before the temple endowment. That’s not to say that Joseph Smith didn’t use Abraham to springboard into his endowment ceremony, but as the latter has come down to us there is no apparent dependence on Abraham.

    He did say that information on Fac. 2 could be found in the temple, which is different than saying the endowment came from the hypocephalus. It appears to me that you are influenced by Nibley and his successors without fully understanding their argument. The comparison they made was between the Book of Breathings and Smith’s temple endowment. Their argument rests heavily on their denial that the Book of Breathings is the source for the Book of Abraham and that the real source is missing. Of course, this implies that if we hand the missing source, there would be no question that it was Abraham’s record. No one that I know of besides you has attempted to argue that Joseph Smith got both Abraham and the temple endowment from the Book of Breathings. Again, for me, your argument is incoherent.

    Joseph Smith didn’t just use the word “translation,” he pretended his translation came from specific characters and created Egyptian Alphabets and a Grammar. If you believe Smith “translated” according to your definition, you have to make a case for that, which you haven’t done. You have only agreed that there is no match between Smith’s translation and the Egyptian characters. So far, there is no way to distinguish between a fraud and your definition of translation, which may be considered a distinction without a difference.

  60. April 16, 2020 at 12:35 pm

    Dan, I’m mostly ignoring your arguments because they fundamentally misread the point of my post, so there’s not much for me to respond to. Your approach is still rooted in the assumption that translation is primarily textual, so we can look at a source and a target and say: Yes, good translation, or No, bad translation. What I’ve tried to say in a lot of different ways is that this assumption is not always true. More often than you’d think, translation is primarily social. You can’t judge the acceptability of a translation without determining if it satisfies the client and fulfills its purpose. A perfectly accurate translation can be entirely unsuitable (it happens all the time, actually), and something with little relationship to the original can be just what the client wants. In this approach, a translation isn’t defined by textual equivalence (so testing Abraham against the papyri isn’t necessarily relevant), and it’s not defined by process (so what Joseph Smith jotted where isn’t necessarily relevant, either). A translation is instead whatever satisfies the translation client.

    You can reject that basic assumption – and doing so puts you in good company – and it certainly doesn’t apply in every situation. But I think it actually applies reasonably well to the context of Abraham where the Commissioner of the translation is omniscient and sometimes inscrutable. My formulation is certainly exaggerated, but if you accept the basic premise – Joseph Smith was inspired, and Abraham is revealed scripture – then I think a theory of translation that works for Abraham would have to include at least some elements of my approach. Interestingly, it’s an approach to translation that also applies to more mundane contexts. But maybe I’m wrong, and a more textual concept of translation will be tenable, as Blake suggested; or maybe we’ll be left with only a catalyst theory, as RS proposes. I could live with either one, although I’d prefer Blake’s approach to prove ultimately correct.

    My sense – and I apologize if I have this wrong – is that you would prefer a logical argument that goes something like: Translation means X; and Joseph Smith did Y; and therefore Joseph Smith is/isn’t a translator. I’m turning the syllogism around: Joseph Smith is a translator; and Joseph Smith did Y; so what does “translation” mean? Interestingly, it would appear to mean something not entirely unrelated to what happens when I do some kinds of quite normal translation, and there’s a satisfying fit with the teleology of the Restoration. I think you see that as begging THE question, but I’d say it’s begging YOUR question. This may mean leaving you dissatisfied, unfortunately. Even with my approach there’s a time for digging into the details of manuscripts and papyri, although squiggles on a page usually refuse to interpret themselves, instead relying on previous assumptions for an interpretation.

    If you read my post and previous comments and came away with the impression that I’m arguing that the Book of Breathings is the source of both Abraham and the endowment, the perceived incoherence may not be entirely my fault. An interesting link between context and function is about as far as I’m going. But Joseph Smith using “Abraham to springboard into his endowment ceremony” is a nice way to put it.

    It’s true that there are consequences of accepting this theory of translation. It makes it impossible to judge the quality of a translation by simply comparing texts. That doesn’t mean there’s no difference between a good and bad translation: To test which is which, one must ask the Client. I heartily recommend taking that step.

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