I once had a teacher who loved to say that: “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” To some degree, this is not infrequently the case when it comes to studying issues in the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Let’s Talk About the Book of Abraham is an easy-to-read summary of the important scripture text from the Pearl of Great Price. Egyptologist Kerry Muhlestein recently discussed the book with Kurt Manwaring. What follows here is a co-post to that interview (a shorter post with quotes and some discussion), but feel free to read the full interview here.
There are a lot of interesting questions to ask about the Book of Abraham, its origin, and nature. For example, one question is whether or not the text of the Book of Abraham is directly based on the text that was on the papyrus or not. Muhlestein shared his view that ultimately:
We cannot tell for sure. There is some evidence that it was. Joseph Smith certainly spoke of it that way, and that is pretty weighty evidence. Further, the more I research the life and interests of the priest who owned the papyrus fragment which contains the original of Facsimile One, the more I become convinced that this priest would have been very interested in the text of the Book of Abraham. That is circumstantial evidence that the text of the Book of Abraham was on the papyrus. If it was, then evidence points to its being on the long roll, which was burned in the Great Chicago Fire and is lost to us now. This is often called the “missing papyrus theory.”
As good as this evidence is, we just can’t be sure. When we look at translation projects the Prophet had engaged in before this, we see that one of them, the translation of the Bible, involved looking at a King James Bible, which served as a catalyst to open his mind to revelation from God. What was revealed was an inspired text that was not in the King James Version of the Bible. Thus we have to acknowledge that sometimes God worked that way with Joseph Smith, and it is possible that the papyri served as a focal point for him, something that helped him open his mind to revelation from God, which revelation yielded an ancient text God wished to restore to mankind through his Prophet, Joseph Smith. This is often called the “catalyst theory.”
There are variations to these theories. In the end, we just don’t know exactly what the relationship is between the papyri and the text.
That relationship between texts is something that much ink has been spilt. Yet, it is something that we do not have a definitive answer to–is it a direct translation from the text? Is it an inspired production by Joseph Smith that was sparked by the papyrus? Or is the nature of the text something else entirely? We don’t know for sure in any direction.
Speaking of things we don’t know, Muhlestein discussed some of the other things that we don’t really know much about when it comes to the Book of Abraham:
We don’t know whether or not the text of the Book of Abraham was on the papyri owned by Joseph Smith. We don’t know what the purpose of the alphabets and grammars are. We don’t know as much about Facsimile Three as we would like.
We don’t know why the hieroglyphic text Joseph Smith refers to in Facsimile Three does not appear to match what Joseph Smith says, though we are coming to be more precise in recognizing that we are not as able to read that text as many have said we are.
Egyptologically we don’t yet understand the kinds of drawings that Facsimile Two is as we well as we would like, which makes it more difficult to get as much out of Facsimile Two as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints want.
I would so love to better understand the Egyptological meanings of that drawing, and I am excited that it seems like we are creeping slowly towards a better understanding.
But it is slow, as it is with many other questions. Still, we are progressing.
There are a lot of things we’re uncertain on. And as an Egyptologist who has dedicated years of study in the topics, Muhlestein has the intellectual humility to demonstrate a bit of what my teacher said, even while demonstrating a depth of knowledge on the Book of Abraham: “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.”
Still, one of the major focuses on the book is discussing whether there are evidences that make the text historically plausible as an Abrahamic production. When asked in the interview for examples of evidence that could establish the historicity of the book, Muhlestein responded that:
I don’t know that we can “establish” its historicity by any method other than revelation from God. We can certainly establish that it is plausible, that it makes sense, that the text has the markings of being historical. In fact, I think we have come to the point where it requires more faith to believe that the Book of Abraham is not historical than it does to believe that it is.
There is a great deal of research in the ancient world that makes the historicity of the Book of Abraham plausible, and even compellingly likely. I will mention briefly a few here, but the reader can find even more at Pearl of Great Price Central. I do not think the series of articles you will find there are comprehensive, but there are many topics treated there in a very academically sound and thorough fashion that many people will enjoy reading.
Here we will very lightly touch on a few fun examples.
- The Book of Abraham is written in a manner that is consistent with autobiographies from that time period.
- It displays ways of writing that signal that the ancient Egyptian language influenced it.
- It contains place names (such as Olishem) that were not known in Joseph Smith’s days but which correspond to the names of places from the time period of Abraham in the place where the text says the events it describes were happening.
- It mentions Canaanite gods who were unheard of in Joseph Smith’s day but we now know were worshipped in the time and place the text says they were.
- The text of the Book of Abraham contains a word, Shinehah, that it associates with the sun and its path, which recent research has revealed was actually an ancient Egyptian word that was used only during Abraham’s day, which describes the sun on its path.
- Joseph Smith ascribes four characters in one of the facsimiles as representing the four quarters of the earth, and the Egyptians also associated the four quarters with those four characters.
- The ancient Egyptians associated Abraham with drawings similar to all three facsimiles.
- The ancient owner of Facsimile One was the kind of person who, in the time and place he lived, would have been interested in stories about Abraham, and the kinds of activities he was engaged in would have made him interested in the details and storyline we find in the Book of Abraham.
- The cultural setting for the near sacrifice of Abraham matches perfectly with the time and place he lived.
The list goes on and on, but I can say that in general, the Book of Abraham fits nicely in an ancient context. As a specialist in ancient texts I find that it reads as an ancient text. Time and again I find that it fits incredibly well with the ancient world.
It’s an interesting list to look through and weigh when considering the Book of Abraham. I will note, however, as I expressed in my review of Muhlstein’s book, one area that I would have appreciated more detail is the interpretation of the facsimiles. As is the case above, Muhlestein mentions that Egyptologists have different interpretations but rarely shares what those interpretations are, choosing instead to focus on ways to dismiss those Egyptologists’ interpretations (i.e., “we are coming to be more precise in recognizing that we are not as able to read that text as many have said we are”), and discussing more about interpretations that do align with how the facsimiles are presented in the Book of Abraham (“the ancient Egyptians associated Abraham with drawings similar to all three facsimiles”).
In any case, the interview over at From the Desk is full of interesting information. Follow the link over there to find out more about how the Joseph Smith Papers have enhanced understanding of the Book of Abraham, the unique doctrines found in the Book of Abraham, and the origin of Kerry Muhlstein’s Let’s Talk About the Book of Abraham. It’s worth taking the time to read.
In Hugh Nibley’s book The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri, Hugh asked the question “Do we really know what the authors of ancient texts were really trying to say?” I heard a conversation on the radio some time ago in which a novelist, whose name I have forgotten, involving the process of translating his novel into Mandarin, said that the question that was most frequently asked by the translator was, what did you mean? That is something that most gets overlooked when studying old texts is what did the text mean to the people to whom the texts were intended? We were not the intended audience in most cases.
On the Youtube, via Mormon Discussions (which is generally critical of the Restored Church: fair warning), “Backyard Professor” digs deep to get to the bottom of Book of Abraham textual analysis.
Unfortunately for LDS scholars, the “Backyard Professor” is more honest than they have been, and he takes us through it, point-by-point. Both Gee and Muhlstein are put under microscope and it doesn’t look good in some areas (Gee ventures into speculation and theories-to-support-theories; Muhlstein is calculated in what he uses and omits as evidence).
When LDS apologetics teases intellectual honesty, it discredits the whole. Muhlstein is honest like a lawyer is honest. He is defending the institution the best he can. He assumes that no “Backyard Professor” will fact check. He assumes his LDS audience is not intelligent enough to unravel his perfectly-tied knot. To be clear, Muhlstein is NOT dishonest, but his intellectual integrity seems compromised.