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Sunday, July 13, 2014

LDS.org Offers "Gospel Topics" Section on the Historicity and Translation of the Book of Abraham

Among the growing body of helpful and carefully researched topics discussed in the "Gospel Topics" section of the LDS.org website, the Church has recently provided a statement that addresses some common concerns regarding the Book of Abraham and its translation. "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham" shares information drawn from some leading LDS scholars about how we obtained the Book of Abraham and how it relates to the small set of fragments from the larger collection of original scrolls that Joseph had (most of which were apparently destroyed in the Chicago fire of 1871). The relatively brief statement with 46 footnotes makes several important points. It reminds us that we do not know how the translation was done. The article mentions several possibilities that have been proposed, such as direct translation from one of the scrolls or transmission of the document directly by revelation wherein the physical manuscripts Joseph had may have served as something of a catalyst, perhaps for revelation giving a related but more ancient source.

Here is a section of the statement addressing the relationship between the Book of Abraham and the text on the recovered fragments, including the non-Abraham-related text around Facsimile 1, which is often cited as proof that the Book of Abraham is a fraud (references omitted):
Of course, the fragments do not have to be as old as Abraham for the book of Abraham and its illustrations to be authentic. Ancient records are often transmitted as copies or as copies of copies. The record of Abraham could have been edited or redacted by later writers much as the Book of Mormon prophet-historians Mormon and Moroni revised the writings of earlier peoples. Moreover, documents initially composed for one context can be repackaged for another context or purpose. Illustrations once connected with Abraham could have either drifted or been dislodged from their original context and reinterpreted hundreds of years later in terms of burial practices in a later period of Egyptian history. The opposite could also be true: illustrations with no clear connection to Abraham anciently could, by revelation, shed light on the life and teachings of this prophetic figure.

Some have assumed that the hieroglyphs adjacent to and surrounding facsimile 1 must be a source for the text of the book of Abraham. But this claim rests on the assumption that a vignette and its adjacent text must be associated in meaning. In fact, it was not uncommon for ancient Egyptian vignettes to be placed some distance from their associated commentary.

Neither the Lord nor Joseph Smith explained the process of translation of the book of Abraham, but some insight can be gained from the Lord’s instructions to Joseph regarding translation. In April 1829, Joseph received a revelation for Oliver Cowdery that taught that both intellectual work and revelation were essential to translating sacred records. It was necessary to “study it out in your mind” and then seek spiritual confirmation. Records indicate that Joseph and others studied the papyri and that close observers also believed that the translation came by revelation. As John Whitmer observed, “Joseph the Seer saw these Record[s] and by the revelation of Jesus Christ could translate these records.”

It is likely futile to assess Joseph’s ability to translate papyri when we now have only a fraction of the papyri he had in his possession. Eyewitnesses spoke of “a long roll” or multiple “rolls” of papyrus. Since only fragments survive, it is likely that much of the papyri accessible to Joseph when he translated the book of Abraham is not among these fragments. The loss of a significant portion of the papyri means the relationship of the papyri to the published text cannot be settled conclusively by reference to the papyri.

Alternatively, Joseph’s study of the papyri may have led to a revelation about key events and teachings in the life of Abraham, much as he had earlier received a revelation about the life of Moses while studying the Bible. This view assumes a broader definition of the words translator and translation. According to this view, Joseph’s translation was not a literal rendering of the papyri as a conventional translation would be. Rather, the physical artifacts provided an occasion for meditation, reflection, and revelation. They catalyzed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri.
I personally don't like the catalysis theory and don't think it is necessary to deal with some of the issues in the Book of Abraham, but it is one of several commonly discussed possibilities.

The article also discusses evidence for the authenticity of the text, mentioning a few of the interesting finds where the text as well as Joseph's comments on the facsimiles have been shown to have surprising and interesting support. The "hits" mentioned are far from exhaustive but should be sufficient to give pause to those who have been told that the Book of Abraham is a complete fabrication without a shred of evidence to support it.

Related resources: LDSFAQ page on the Book of Abraham, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3: Evidences for the Book of Abraham.

Update, July 16, 2014: A related article is "New Gospel Topics Essay: 'Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham.'" In addition to some useful points about the evidence for the Book of Abraham and other aspects of the Gospel Topics article, there is an intriguing observation about some of the sources relied on in the Church's statement:
As an aside, I also find it significant that this essay cited material from both “classic FARMS” publications, such as Hugh Nibley’s The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, as well as Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture. This would seem to indicate, I believe, that the claim, made by some, that the Church is trying to distance itself from these materials should be accepted with a bit of skepticism.
If you're not a fan of The Mormon Interpreter, head over there and start digging in. Useful and intelligent material for LDS readers and investigators.

25 comments:

flying fig said...

"The "hits" mentioned are far from exhaustive but should be sufficient to give pause to those who have been told that the Book of Abraham is a complete fabrication without a shred of evidence to support it"

You're right, there was a pause. And it was long enough to read the “Historical Plausibility: The Historicity of the Book of Abraham as a Case Study,” and footnotes to discover that unlike the Bible, there are still zero non-LDS scholars who support the historicity of the book of Abraham. The supposed "hits" are once again "Maybe's" and "possibilities" argued exclusively by LDS scholars. These "hits" are once again surrounded by the usual phrases of "matter of conjecture", "It is likely futile to assess Joseph’s ability to translate papyri", "The relationship of these documents to the book of Abraham is not fully understood" and leaves us with the conclusion that historicity doesn't matter anyway because "The veracity and value of the book of Abraham cannot be settled by scholarly debate" and that "The truth of the book of Abraham is ultimately found through careful study of its teachings, sincere prayer, and the confirmation of the Spirit."

Craig said...

From the article:

"The veracity and value of the book of Abraham cannot be settled by scholarly debate concerning the book’s translation and historicity."

A cynical reading of this key assertion by the LDS church could be interpreted to mean that they have invented another nice-sounding platitude that gives its members an out from seriously considering any scholarly criticism around the book of Abraham. This familiar tactic would be, and is, a shame. But the statement is revealing at another level. Let's consider why this is the case. The "veracity and value" can't be settled because the book of Abraham is not a translation and not historical. A key word here is settled. Settled by whom? In spite of a few who try to hijack science and scholarship from their ultimate Author, science, history and reason do not deny truth, but are instead glorious means through which the plan of Salvation is being accomplished.

What really made me angry was the following:

"But even this evidence of ancient origins, substantial though it may be, cannot prove the truthfulness of the book of Abraham any more than archaeological evidence can prove the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt or the Resurrection of the Son of God"

Here, plain and simple, is the LDS church sacrificing the merits of the historical claims and witness of the resurrection of Christ for their own credibility and authority. This is rebellion, plain and simple.

I would invite ALL to study and consider the historical claims of Christ's resurrection. (A good place to start is N.T. Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God) As a secondary matter, LDS church members should compare the claims to the claims of the book of Abraham, and consider coming home to the Church founded on the Rock of ages.

Horapollo said...

Jeff,

What do you think about the essay's assertion that Joseph Smith was involved with the creation of the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar/Kirtland Egyptian Papers? If I remember correctly, this contradicts what you and some other apologists have been saying for a long time. It also renders moot any arguments about missing papyri, since the Alphabet and Grammar show a one-to-one correspondence between Egyptian characters in the Book of Breathings and text from Abraham chapter 1, clearly demonstrating that the author considered the Book of Breathings scroll as source material for at least some of the text of the BoA, and not just the facsimiles. I never found the argument that Joseph was not involved in creating the Alphabet and Grammar to be plausible anyway, since it would imply extraordinary confidence by his scribes in their own ability to decipher ancient Egyptian.

Pierce said...

Craig,

The statement that makes you so angry deals with the *truthfulness of the Bible. I would like to see how archaeological evidence proves the divinity claims in the Bible, especially that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. I'm wondering; have you ever had that discussion with an actual athiest? Were they converted on the spot from all of the hard facts?

The statement itself makes complete sense. Jesus taught that if anyone will do his will, he will know if the doctrine comes from God (John 7:17). He didn't say that he will be vetted by archaeological evidence. The statement is asserting the same thing: despite evidence surrounding Mormon scripture, it does not prove the truth statements found within them, similar to how archaeological evidence surrounding the Bible does not prove the truth statements contained in it (like Jesus being the Son of God). That is not a rebellious statement. That is logic. And, it is scriptural (John 7:17).

Craig said...

Pierce, thanks for your response. Part of the problem is that the LDS church here is comparing the *truthfulness of the Book of Abraham with actual historical claims - such as the exodus or the resurrection of Christ. From the LDS church:

"But even this evidence of ancient origins, substantial though it may be, cannot prove the truthfulness of the book of Abraham any more than archaeological evidence can prove the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt or the Resurrection of the Son of God."

Distilled: Evidence is is not capable of evaluating the truthfulness of the Book of Abraham to the extent it is capable of proving the historical claims of the resurrection.
* Therefore, the more capable evidence is of evaluating the historcity of the resurrection, it is less capable of evaluating the truthfullness of the Book of Abraham.
* Therefore, the more capable evidence is of evaluating the truthfulness of the Book of Abraham, the less capable it is of evaluating the historcity of the resurrection.

All these statements are consistent and follow logically from the LDS church article. They are nonsensical and heretical claims. They do a disservice to the value of evidence in evaluating the historical record and/or to the historicity of the resurrection.

Anonymous said...

"The statement itself makes complete sense. Jesus taught that if anyone will do his will, he will know if the doctrine comes from God (John 7:17)."

I don't think it is a good idea to take the words of Christ spoken within a very specific context and stretch them to apply to something else. Christ never said, "Do what you learn in the Book of Abraham to find out if it is true." The tendency for Mormons to think anything spoken by Christ in the New Testament can be applied to everything Mormon leads to a mindset that cannot separate Christ from Mormonism. And if Mormonism is true, I guess that is great. But in the chance it isn't, you may find yourself no where near Christ at all. Not a risk I am willing to take. Find Christ first. Then he will tell you where to go. But don't go somewhere first, and then say, "I want to know Christ, and this knowledge needs to come through this channel."

Pierce said...

Craig,

The two sides of the statement are actually equal in what they are saying. Here is how I see it:

a. The Book of Abraham is a book of scripture that describes an interaction between God and Abraham. It describes actual events and is considered scripture.
b. The "hits" or evidence supporting the authenticity of the text regarding its ancient origins does not prove that the content itself is "true," meaning God spoke with Abraham and we should follow its teachings.

Similarly:
x. the Bible describes an exodus in which several miraculous plagues hit at once, miracles are commonplace, the Israelites follow a pillar light/clouds, the red sea is parted, and manna feeds the people. It also describes Jesus as having rose from the dead.
y. Though it may be possible to uncover evidence surrounding an exodus, the "truth" claims surrounding the exodus cannot be proven (perhaps this wasn't stated well in the article, but remember--the point is that they are drawing parallels). Also, though there is historical evidence that the man Jesus existed, it cannot be empirically proven today that he was resurrected or that he is in fact the Son of God.

The problem I see with your statement is that you believe the resurrection of Jesus is a given as a historical event. Perhaps you base this off of the witnesses that the Bible speaks about. Though you and I believe this was a historical event, it is based off of faith rather than scholarship. Scholarship can provide much evidence regarding the plausibility of what we read in the scriptures, but it does not set out to prove the "truth claims" found within them. Otherwise, Christianity would be a slam dunk.

Pierce said...

"I don't think it is a good idea to take the words of Christ spoken within a very specific context and stretch them to apply to something else"

Anon, I agree that context is important. But you don't have to stretch his words to make them applicable. Jesus' teachings were not meant to be so narrowly interpreted that they could not be applied outside of the situation in which they were given. Jesus taught a principle: a person must act in the doctrine in order to know that it comes from God or if it comes from somewhere else.

If we're talking about context, then the people listening to Christ were concerned about his credentials as a speaker. Did he prove his credentials? Did he tell them to research his bloodline? To hit the scrolls? No, he taught that ultimately the only way you were going to know if he was who he said he was was to do his will.

Is it so far off to say that if that's how we are to judge the Son of Man, that a similar test could be carried out to prove prophets and scripture? By their fruits? That is all this statement sets out to say: Ultimately, scholarship won't prove the truthfulness of the message, personal revelation and the Holy Spirit does.

Pierce said...

I could be totally wrong about this, but from what I have gleaned, the consensus so far in scholarly circles is that there is no real good evidence that the exodus of Israel from Egypt happened. Is that correct? And is that what this statement was alluding to?

Craig said...

Pierce, you are right that there is a difference between 'proof' and 'plausability'. The plausibility of Christ's resurrection, measured by scholarship alone, regardless of one's faith, is vastly superior to the plausibility of the veracity the claims surrounding the Book of Abraham. This was my earlier point, and the LDS church obfuscates this with their statements, because they would prefer evidence and scholarship not be a part of the conversation. While we still see dimly, scholarship and evidence supports the claims of Christianity, not the LDS church. The LDS church would like to avoid this by keeping everything focused on feelings. So - why is Christianity not a 'slam dunk'? Romans 1 gives us part of the answer - while God has clearly revealed himself, men deny and suppress the truth - much like the LDS church denies and suppresses facts that are not 'faith promoting'. All truth is faith promoting in God's eyes. Yes, it may cause us to mourn, and it may not bring us glory, but he is all powerful and all knowing.

Pierce said...

Craig,

Your assessment is simply based on opinion, which is ok since you said said that the article made you mad, and I can't change that. But for the sake of discussion, here are statements of opinion that you treat as fact:

" The plausibility of Christ's resurrection, measured by scholarship alone, regardless of one's faith, is vastly superior to the plausibility of the veracity the claims surrounding the Book of Abraham."

Do you honestly believe that a man returning from the dead as a resurrected God is really made "plausible" by scholarship? What is the vast evidence for this you are referring to? You might have a case for people and places in the Bible being more plausible than the BOA, but not for faith claims like this. Believing the statements in the BOA requires faith at some point (and the article explains why--and it is absolutely plausible), and belief in the resurrection of Christ requires faith.

"they would prefer evidence and scholarship not be a part of the conversation."

Yet the church supports scholarship and LDS scholars have published much about what they consider to be evidence. The purpose of the Church and its leadership is to promote the Gospel, so you are right in that regard--but not in the way you think. Whenever I am talking to Christians, they also promote the Holy Spirit, being spiritually converted, being saved, and having faith rather than have a conversation about archaeology. In other words: "feelings." I think there is a double standard here.

"scholarship and evidence supports the claims of Christianity"

Which claims are you referring to? Certainly not faith claims. And certainly not every person, event, story, or place mentioned in the Bible. You are too broad in your claim.

" So - why is Christianity not a 'slam dunk'? Romans 1 gives us part of the answer"

Again, this is the opinion of a believer who is referring to his book of scripture to explain why someone is not a Christian. You don't want to explore the idea that the scholarship and vast amounts of evidence you are referring to doesn't really support the faith/truth claims in the Bible, despite the plausibility of the people/places/events having existed. You have simply overstated the case.

flying fig said...

"NONE of the characters on the papyrus fragments mentioned Abraham’s name or any of the events recorded in the book of Abraham. Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists agree that the characters on the fragments do not match the translation given in the book of Abraham" -Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham

So everyone agrees Smith's translation of the papyri was a fabrication. Why should we then trust the rest of the translation? Did he suddenly get the rest of it right?

flying fig said...

Can someone please explain these two statements?

"None of the characters on the papyrus fragments mentioned Abraham’s name or any of the events recorded in the book of Abraham. Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists agree that the characters on the fragments do not match the translation given in the book of Abraham"

Followed by-

"It is likely futile to assess Joseph’s ability to translate papyri when we now have only a fraction of the papyri he had in his possession"

-Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham. lds.org

Didn't they JUST assess His ability? He got it wrong but then we can't tell if he got it wrong? Call me an "anti-Mormon" if it helps, but shouldn't anybody wonder about this?

Ryan said...

I think what they're saying is that Joseph did not translate from the papyri that we have now. The theory, then, is that the Book of Abraham comes from some portion of the papyri that was lost and never recovered (burned, perhaps). In other words, the fact that what we have doesn't mention Abraham doesn't mean some other part of the papyri can't have mentioned him. Since we don't have it, we can't know whether it did or not. Does that make sense (even if you don't buy it)?

Gideon said...

Ryan is certainly correct. However, the claim itself doesn't stand up to scrutiny. The Kirtland Egyptian Papers, which the essay says that Joseph Smith had a hand in creating, indicate that the first few Egyptian characters on the papyrus fragments that are currently possessed by the church correspond to the beginning of the Book of Abraham. These characters are from the beginning of the Book of Breathings and follow what is now called facsimile 1 in the Book of Abraham. This clearly associates the content of the Book of Abraham with papyrus fragments that are currently in the church's possession and can be scrutinized. Several apologists and Jeff Lindsay have strongly denied that Joseph Smith had a part in creating the Kirtland Egyptian Papers because they know the implications. Now the church's own essay has thrown them under the bus by acknowledging Joseph Smith's involvement in the creation of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers.

Flying Fig said...

To Ryan,
you said "Joseph did not translate from the papyri that we have now"

That is incorrect.

Facsimile 1 (the lion couch scene) which still exists was incorrectly translated by Joseph. Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists agree on this.

I find it ironic that in a previous post Jeff would compare non-Mormons to lawyers. The explanation lds.org would have us accept about the historicity and translation of the Book of Abraham has more twists and turns than any lawyer could weave.
You're right, I don't buy it. And if I were to give you the same explanation about the Pope (for instance) that lds.org gives about Smith, I don't believe you would buy it either.

Trust in the Bible, the true Word of God. Not only is it a book of faith but archaeology adds to the cumulative case for the historical reliability of it by empirically verifying references to specific cultural practices, beliefs, places and people. Archaeological findings have confirmed that the texts of the Bible are historical and geographical in character.


Gideon said...

Flying Fig,

A word of advice about how to argue with Mormons. The truth or falsehood of whether the Book of Abraham is an actual translation of ancient Egyptian doesn't depend on whether or not archaeology verifies the supernatural claims of the Bible. You do yourself no favors by juxtaposing the two. To any neutral observer, the supernatural claims of the Bible are no more demonstrable using archaeology than are the supernatural claims of any other religious book. (I leave the natural claims aside).

Jeff and a lot of other Mormons cut their teeth on debating Evangelicals and other Christians. They've heard it all. Many of the arguments that Evangelicals use against Mormonism can be turned around and applied to fundamentalist Christian beliefs in general. So let's debate one set of beliefs at a time.

Flying Fig said...

Gideon,
I agree the supernatural claims of the Bible are not demonstrable using archaeology. I did say it was a book of faith. But that faith is built upon empirical references to specific cultural practices, beliefs, places and people. Caiaphas, Herod Antipas and Tiberius Caesar are actual historical figures. Jerusalem, Capernaum and The Pool of Siloam are actual places.
The apostle James, son of Zebedee was killed by an actual historical figure, Herod Agrippa (10 BC–44 AD). Many people die for what they BELIEVE to be true. James would've had to have died for what he knew was a fraud.
I'm not saying this proves anything, but that fact that these were actual events recorded in history lends more support to my faith than just a feeling.

Gideon said...

It's like talking to a wall.

Pierce said...

"A word of advice about how to argue with Mormons..."

Well said, Gideon

Flying Fig said...

superior response

At the very least, my faith has something to stand on

Ryan said...

A couple of thoughts:

1) Joseph may have thought the egyptian text next to the lion couch scene corresponded to the Book of Abraham. I don't know. All I was saying is that one theory that is put forward is that the Book of Abraham comes from some other part of the scrolls. There are other theories, some of which are discussed on the lds.org article. I was just trying to answer your question.

2) I do think it a bit of a stretch to suppose that Joseph thought a single character corresponded to several lines of english text, which is what the KEP would seem to suggest. The mnemonic device theory is an interesting one there, and at least according to FAIR, the correct translation of each character does show up somewhere in the corresponding paragraph. I'm no egyptologist, so if someone can confirm or deny that, that would be cool.

3) I do find it interesting that the content of the Book of Abraham is generally historically accurate. Just like there was really a Caiphas, and a James, etc, and that James really was killed by a guy named Herod, there really was a guy named Abraham (we can all agree on that). He really is mentioned in egyptian texts that date to the same time and location as the ones Joseph had. There is really a tradition that he taught Pharaoh astronomy. Tradition really does hold that Terah was an idol worshiper. Etc. Which of these non-biblical things Joseph may have had access to is a question of ongoing debate. Nevertheless, the content of the Book of Abraham is just about as verifiable as some of the stuff in the Bible, and more so than others (like the exodus), even if one wonders how Joseph really got that content.

4) Though I agree with you on this point, I wonder what makes you sure the Bible is the word of God? I agree there is historical evidence that at least some of the characters in it really existed, just like the characters in the Book of Abraham. Of course, Mohammed really existed too. So did the Buddah (Sidhartha Gautama), and a host of others. Should we also accept their teachings as divine? Or at some point are we required to rely on the Holy Ghost, ie "feelings"?

5) Joseph also would have had to die willingly for something he knew was a fraud if indeed it was.

Just a few things to think about.

Gideon said...

The testable historical claims of the Book of Abraham don't hold up. Egypt was not founded by a woman named Egyptus and her son named Pharaoh who lived after the time of Noah.

The tradition that Abraham taught astronomy to Pharaoh is found in Josephus. Did Joseph Smith have access to an English translation of Josephus? Oliver Cowdery did. He referred to the book "Antiquities of the Jews" (written by Josephus). Cowdery said that Enoch's pillar, as mentioned in Josephus, was depicted in the Book of Joseph scroll found with the mummies. It's likely that he was referring to the Book of the Dead scroll as the Book of Joseph. Pieces of this scroll match Cowdery's descriptions. So if Cowdery was comparing Josephus with the scrolls, Joseph Smith certainly had access.

The idea that Terah worshipped other gods is found in the Old Testament (Joshua 24:2). The ideas that Terah was in the idol business and had to give up Abraham to be killed by the king are found in an English translation of "Sefer Hayasher" which was published in New York in 1840 under the title "The Book of Jasher." Did Joseph Smith have access to it? In 1842, an editorial in the "Times and Seasons" mentions the reference in the Book of Jasher to the attempted execution of Abraham and juxtaposes it with the attempted sacrifice of Abraham as depicted in facsimile 1. So Joseph Smith certainly had access to it.

Apologists like to refer to historical literary parallels to the Book of Abraham as though Joseph Smith had no way of knowing about them. This allows their lay audience to come to the incorrect conclusion that Joseph could only have supernatural access to some of these parallels. Is this kind of limited scope presentation honest? Let the reader judge. Responsible scholarly practice would include mention of specific sources of parallels to which Joseph Smith had access, allowing lay readers to draw their own conclusions rather than manipulating them into a particular conclusion.

Mary Ann said...

"The ideas that Terah was in the idol business and had to give up Abraham to be killed by the king are found in an English translation of "Sefer Hayasher" which was published in New York in 1840 under the title "The Book of Jasher." Did Joseph Smith have access to it? In 1842, an editorial in the "Times and Seasons" mentions the reference in the Book of Jasher to the attempted execution of Abraham and juxtaposes it with the attempted sacrifice of Abraham as depicted in facsimile 1. So Joseph Smith certainly had access to it. "

The concept of Abraham being offered up as a sacrifice to an idol is in Chapter 1 of Abraham. According to the LDS.org article, Joseph Smith finished Chapter 1 and the first part of Chapter 2 in 1835 just after receiving the papyri. He wouldn't have had access to the English version of the Book of Jasher 5 years before the 1840 publication. I agree with your points, though.

Gideon said...

Appreciate your point, Mary Ann. I won't use that one anymore.