Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Monday, December 24, 2012

DVD Recommendation: A Most Remarkable Book: Evidence for the Divine Authenticity of the Book of Abraham

A Most Remarkable Book: Evidence for the Divine Authenticity of the Book of Abraham, written and directed by Tyler Livingston, is a professionally produced DVD from the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR) that will surprise and impress many people interested in some of the complex issues related to the Book of Abraham. While the Book of Abraham has been a favorite “weak spot” of Mormonism for critics to attack, in the past few years substantial breakthroughs in our knowledge of the ancient world have resulted in a large body of evidence actually supporting the divine authenticity of that book as an ancient work that Joseph Smith could not have fabricated based on what was known in his day.

A Most Remarkable Book helps us understand critical issues in the Book of Mormon, both in terms of refuting popular attacks and revealing exciting lines of thought based on outstanding scholarship that help us appreciate the Book of Abraham.

The video consists largely of segments of interview with a series of LDS scholars, including three Egyptologists. The interviewed parties and the description of the person’s credentials shown in the video are:

  • Michael Rhodes, Egyptologist
  • John Gee, Egyptologist
  • Michael Ash – LDS Scholar
  • Kerry Muhlstein – Egyptologist
  • Kevin Barney – Book of Abraham Scholar
  • David Bokovoy - Ancient Near Eastern Studies
  • Jared Ludlow – Near Eastern Studies
A weakness of the video is that the backgrounds of these speakers are not adequately presented apart from the short identifier shown on the screen sometimes when they speak. Several of the speakers are well known LDS scholars but others may be new to LDS audiences. For example, David Bokovoy, who makes only a very brief appearance in the video, has an interesting bio available at FAIRLDS where he was a speaker:
David Bokovoy holds a BA in History and Near Eastern studies from Brigham Young University and an MA in Ancient Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University where he is currently a doctoral candidate in Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East.

David is an LDS Institute instructor at the Boston Institute of Religion and a CES Field writer for Institute curriculum. He is a five-time recipient of the Hugh Nibley Fellowship from the Neil A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Studies.

David has published articles in a variety of journals and books including BYU Studies, the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, FARMS Insights, and the FARMS Review. He is the co-author of the book Testaments: Links Between the Book of Mormon and the Hebrew Bible.
I wish that kind of information were provided for each speaker.

The evidences presented in the video go far beyond the few nuggets currently listed at FAIRLDS’s own Evidence for the antiquity of Joseph's Book of Abraham, and significantly strengthen some of the arguments that I have summarized in my related pages such as my LDSFAQ page on Book of Abraham Evidences from Ancient Texts and my LDSFAQ page on evidences from the Facsimiles and the text. (Also see "Book of Abraham 201: Papyri, Revelation, and Modern Egyptology" by Michael Ash, which is a good review of some common issues and also some interesting evidences for the authenticity of the text.) I feel the evidences on the video are presented fairly and articulately, and are worth reflection and further study by interested viewers.

In my opinion, the evidences in favor of the Book of Abraham might be even harder to brush off than some of the evidences for the Book of Mormon. Because so little was known about ancient Egypt among the scholars of Joseph’s day, the Book of Abraham cannot be explained away with an appeal to secret partnerships with Solomon Spaulding or other highly educated friends, or to imagined access to university libraries or hypothetical vast frontier libraries teaming with the latest scholarly works from all over the world. So when we find remarkably accurate or plausible statements about the ancient world, such as the crocodile being not just an Egyptian god but also specifically “the god of Pharaoh,” or the animal headed figures in Facs. 2 being said to represent the “four quarters of the earth,” or the person on the altar being said to be praying to God when in fact the position of the hands and feet create the Egyptian glyph for supplication or prayer, or when “the god Elkenah” is shown to make a great deal of sense when plausibly interpreted as the god El of the Canaanites, then for these and many more interesting “bulls eyes” from Joseph Smith, we are left with nothing but blind luck as the only secular explanation. But after viewing the video, I hope viewers might wonder of more than dumb luck is involved.

Turning to details of the content of the video, it begins with a brief review of the origins of the Book of Abraham and quickly gets into the most common attack against it, namely, the claim that the tiny group of fragments found in 1967 is the original text Joseph was attempting to translate, and now that we can read Egyptian, we see that it has nothing to do with the Book of Abraham. The response to this involves an appeal to the other scrolls that were part of the original collection, and the fact that the recovered fragments do not match the long scroll that Joseph had identified as the Book of Abraham. The length of the scroll is important here. A variety of peripheral related issues are touched upon, such as the tendency for Egyptian scrolls to have seemingly unrelated documents on the back and the calculation for the length of the original scroll giving an estimate of 40-44 feet.

Other arguments treated include the claim that Joseph said the scroll was crafted by the hand of Abraham, when it obviously is much later. Of course, the statement that the text was written “by his own hand” does not mean that Abraham physically prepared the copy that we have. Further, “by his own hand upon papyrus” in Joseph’s translation is actually attested in another Egyptian text where it need not mean anything more than authorship. Further, a Hebrew idiom beyadh meaning “by his own hand” means “by the authority of” and could simply mean that the original Semitic text was prepared under the direction of Abraham. In any case, when copied over and over through the centuries, that phrase indicating the authorship or the authority behind the document would be copied again.

The Bonus Features section also explores the argument that Facs. 1 was drawn incorrectly.

The meat of the video, though, is not in refuting popular attacks, but in exploring the evidences for plausibility of Joseph’s translation.

The video covers evidences from the facsimiles and the text itself. Other topics covered include the heliocentric model of the Book of Abraham, some specific names and terms in the translated text, the ancient Near Eastern concept of the Council of the Gods (or Divine Council), and the relationship of the Book of Abraham to other ancient texts such as the Apocalypse of Abraham, a ancient pseudepigraphic work with strong correlations to the Book of Abraham. This text was not available to Joseph Smith and was not yet translated to English in Joseph’s day. The abundance of ancient texts providing remarkable correlation to Book of Abraham material is the topic of one of the most impressive scholarly works on the Book of Abraham, Traditions about the Early Life of Abraham, edited by John A. Tvedtnes, Brian M. Hauglid, and John Gee (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2001).

Some of my favorite items from the video include the discussion of Facsimilies 1 and 2. Facs. 1, for example, is clearly not a typical funerary document as some have claimed, but is unique and different in many ways and contains elements that actually do relate to the translated text. It is consistent with the story of Abraham on an altar, and an Egyptian priest offering up a human sacrifice. This is strengthened by numerous ancient texts and traditions describing Abraham as a rebel against the idol worship of his day, resulting in attempts on his life by the religious establishment he threatened. The Facsimile

A few other items where the Book of Abraham makes Egyptological sense:
  • The central figure in Facs. 2 and its Egyptian role in representing the center of creation, as Joseph identified it. Also relevant and interesting is the relationship between the word “Kolob” and words meaning “near” and “center,” fitting Joseph’s description.
  • A bird as angel of the Lord in Facs. 1.
  • Figures 5-8 in Facs. 1: these were actual gods worshipped in the Near East. Indeed, there is evidence for the plausibility of the actual, specific names given in the Book of Abraham. Elkanah, or El, the principal god of the Canaanites, could well be associated with human sacrifice.
  • The crocodile as the god of Pharoah, has strong evidence in favor of Joseph Smith. The crocodile god Soebek was not only an ancient Egyptian god, but the god of Pharoah, exactly as Joseph said. “The king appears as the crocodile god Soebex” is from one of the Pyramid texts.
  • The lotus flower, an Egyptian symbol for a foreigner, a good way to describe Abraham, as Joseph said of the lotus flower in Facs. 1.
  • The pillars of heaven identified by Joseph.
  • Abraham as a substitute for Osiris, attested in several texts.
There is also a brief discussion of the “J-Red” theory of Kevin Barney, which suggests that to understand the Book of Abraham, turning to Egyptologists alone will not suffice. Instead, we should consider how a Jewish redactor might view Egyptian elements through a Hebrew lens. So while we can certainly say that some of Joseph’s interpretations are correct based on how Egyptologists now view these things, if we look at the documents in light of how a Jewish redactor might have understood it, we may find many more things that are right.

While Abraham’s map of the cosmos is interesting in light of the ancient geocentric model (stars nearest god, different revolution times or “set times” for different tiers, etc.), something which would be utterly foreign to Joseph, David Bokovoy explains that it becomes even more astounding when we understand the imagery that is deliberately used to invoke themes from the Council of Gods theme in the ancient Near Eastern perspective. David explains that stars are linked with human beings and the heavenly host, and in bis view the imagery used with Kolob identifies it with Jesus Christ – the Being who is nearest God. An interesting segment!

In the video, Egyptologist Kerry Muhlstein makes this statement:
It is interesting that the text of the Book of Abraham presents us a picture that even ten years ago, Egyptologists would have thought that that doesn’t fit with what we know of ancient Egypt. But now we see that it is a perfect fit. It weds together abolsutely perfectly with what we find in Egyptian history. The key is that no one had ever sat down and looked at it carefully. If we do the Egyptology correctly, it supports what we find in the Book of Abraham.
I know people who left the Church over the apparent weakness of the Book of Abraham. I wish they had been a little more patient, because now we have the luxury of not only having some good answers to at least a few of the most common attacks on the Book of Abraham, we also have some compelling evidence to argue for the divine authenticity of this remarkable book. Faith and patience is still required, and we should never expect to be able to "prove" the Gospel based on evidences. But we can strengthen faith and help overcome attacks on faith with a growing body of evidence that something besides fraud and dumb luck is involved in the Book of Abraham, though some puzzles and problems certainly remain.

Kudos to Tyler Livingston and his team for this excellent video. Length is slightly over 1 hour. Cost is $13 at FAIRLDS. Highly recommended!


KhyEllie said...

Sounds incredible! Thanks Jeff!

Jared said...

Like all faithful church members I am anxious for the attacks on the Book of Abraham to be countered by works like "A Most Remarkable Book..."

However, I think it is critical that we understand and declare that the very best source of "knowledge" regarding the restoration of the gospel through Joseph Smith comes by the power and influence of the Holy Ghost.

This God given testimony should be held up as the primary source of our faith.

Unknown no longer said...

The video ends with the testimonies of the scholars who appeared in the video, who testify how they know the book of Abraham to be true and how others can know it to be true. Intellectual reasoning can only get you so far, but we must have that witness to confirm it. The video covers exactly what you ask.

Anonymous Bosch said...

The best idea I've heard for the interpretation of Kolob is "dog star." This was advanced at least once by John Gee, motivated in part by the interpretation of the Semitic root word KLB as "dog." Of course, Joseph Smith had studied Hebrew by the time the Book of Abraham was published. I guess that Hebrew was part of that "vast frontier library." There is a book that was potentially in that "vast frontier library" that claims that the Egyptians believed that Sirius, or the dog star, governed all the other heavenly bodies. That book was "The Hieroglyphics of Horapollo." Interesting parallel, I think. Other parallels with that book are the idea that the Egyptians equated length with time (compare Horapollo's explanation for how the year is depicted with facsimile 2, explanation 1); and the idea that the cynocephalus depicts the moon or habitable world (figures 22 and 23 of facsimile 2 are examples of cynocephalus). The reason that these parallels are interesting is that Horapollo got them wrong.

Also, recall the Greek psalter incident. Joseph Smith declared that the Greek psalter was a dictionary of hieroglyphics. He was wrong, of course, but why would he have made that particular guess? That's exactly what "The Hieroglyphics of Horapollo" purported to be: a dictionary of Egyptian hieroglyphics. What similarity was there between "The Hieroglyphics of Horapollo" and the Greek psalter? The Hieroglyohics of Horapollo had the definitions for the hieroglyphics written in Greek. Interesting parallel. How could a New York farm boy have known?

So are the Book of Abraham enthusiasts saying that it depicts a heliocentric model now? Last time it was geocentric. Of course, scrutiny of the text reveals that it's not heliocentric, since the sun is said to move (explanation 5 of facsimile 2).

matejoh said...

Bueller?... Informative response, Bosch. There is also the book of Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar that the Church refuses Joseph Smith wrote, even though Joseph referenced terms from it in talks given. If the video doesn't mention this, that would be a glaring oversight.