Discussions of Book of Mormon issues and evidences, plus other topics related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Trying to Take the Shine off Shinehah: Vogel's Response to a Commonly Cited Evidence for Book of Abraham Authenticity

This morning I was reading from what may be the premier work of Latter-day Saint scholarship on the Book of Abraham, the far-ranging magnum opus of Dr. Hugh Nibley with the help of Michael D. Rhodes, One Eternal Round (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute, 2010). On pages 333 to 334, I was reminded that the word "Shinehah," said to be the sun in Abraham 3:13, actually can mean the sun in ancient Egyptian. It's one of the numerous clues in the Book of Abraham that something is going on other than Joseph Smith just making up garbage. Indeed, it's now one of multiple evidences of ancient origins that LDS defenders often refer to in discussing the Book of Abraham. See, for example, "Shinehah, The Sun: Book of Abraham Insight #16," Pearl of Great Price Central, Oct. 23, 2019, https://www.pearlofgreatpricecentral.org/shinehah-the-sun/, and also see the Shinehah entry in the Book of Mormon Onomasticon.

What's especially interesting is that Shinehah was not widely used to mean the sun in ancient Egypt. Use of that term for the sun is only attested during a relatively brief span of about six centuries that overlaps with the likely time that Abraham lived, as John Gee notes in "Fantasy and Reality in the Translation of the Book of Abraham," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 42 (2021): 127-170, published in January this year. Interesting! 

As I read Nibley's observations, I recalled reading about Shinehah several times in Dan Vogel's new book, Book of Abraham Apologetics, criticizing the Book of Abraham and its defenders, but I could not recall how Vogel attempted to refute the main point that Joseph's identification of Shinehah as the sun was plausible in ancient Egypt. Here is where things get quite interesting and even revealing. Vogel has quite a lot to say about Shinehah. He's obviously aware of the importance of this topic. 

A discussion begins on p. 155 (I'm using page numbers from the Kindle edition --  I think the printed book numbers are roughly 21 less, since page 1 in Kindle begins with the preface material, causing chapter 1 to begin on p. 21). Here Vogel claims that Shinehah did not originate with the translation of the Book of Abraham, but as a code name used in the Doctrine and Covenants printing of 1835. He argues that Shinehah came first as a code name and then was added to the Book of Abraham in 1842 when Joseph did the translation of Abraham 3. Here I won't get into the reasons why Abraham 3 was likely translated, at least initially, in 1835, but it's clear that at least some of the Book of Abraham had been translated before the Doctrine and Covenants was printed in 1835. But whether the word Shinehah first appeared as a random code word in the Doctrine and Covenants that would be the same as a word in Abraham 3:13 or was first created for the Book of Abraham and then adopted as a memorable code word for Kirtland, the meat of the argument about Shinehah is that Joseph Smith correctly identified a real Egyptian word as the sun in Abraham 3:13. So how does Vogel deal with that argument? 

Vogel goes on for several pages, arguing that Abraham 3 was not translated until 1842 and that its use of Shinehah may derive from an 1838 revelation that mentions the "the plains of Olaha Shinehah," etc., and argues that Hebrew words in Abraham 3 like Kokaubeam for stars points to an 1842 date of translation, discounting the argument that Joseph's brief 1842 translation work could have included working in Hebrew terms to the existing text, asserting the the Hebrew terms in 1842 requires Joseph to have done the translation then -- even though the many added foreign code names in the 1835 printing of the Doctrine and Covenants already set a precedent for updating an earlier revelation with added names. 

But through all this talk of Shinehah, a word mentioned 28 times by my count in Vogel's text, and the meandering issues of where it first occurred and when, it was only today when I noticed something astonishing: There is no discussion of why this term is considered evidence for the Book of Abraham or why it matters to Latter-day Saint defenders. It's as if Vogel is just innoculating readers against a commonly cited evidence without creating any awareness of what the evidence is, so that when someone mentions Shinehah, they can shake their heads and repeat the mantra, "That's been totally refuted. Vogel crushed it completely." But unless I'm missing something that escaped my readiing and repeated searching, he never says that yes, it can, as a very lucky guess or something, possibly mean "the sun."

Here I was really quite surprised. Here we have an entire book allegedly dealing with LDS apologetics for the Book of Abraham that won't even mention some of the most interesting evidence that the apologists are using, though it tries to indirectly refute the unmentionable evidence without explaining it. It deals with Shinehad in a significant block of text without mentioning why it's important and what argument it supports, and never once cites the foundational works that raise the vital argument. Not only is there no admission that Hugh Nibley and others have pointed out that it is an accurate transliteration of an Egyptian word for the sun, but there is not even a footnote to let readers see what those disreputable Latter-day Saint apologists have said about Shinehah. Indeed, Nibley's One Eternal Round is not even mentioned.

Dan Vogel's book claims to be a fair, dispassionate treatment of the claims of Latter-day Saint apologists that examines all relevant documents. How can this be the case if vital evidence is repeatedly neglected and if arguably the single most impostant Latter-day Saint work on the Book of Abraham is never even mentioned?

Around and Around Without One Eternal Round?

Often called the father of Latter-day Saint apologists, the extensive writings of the remarkable scholar Hugh Nibley certainly form the foundation for the defense and the understanding of the Book of Abraham and its connections to the ancient world. Nibley had a surprising mastery of many ancient languages and far-ranging knowledge, much of which was brought together in One Eternal Round, which focuses on the facsimiles but naturally deals with much of the content of the Book of Abraham. Some of the greatest insights into the meaning of the various figures and of the epic dramas in the text are brought out as Nibley explores the related ancient myths and rituals. It is a challenging book, to be sure, involving not just ancient mythology and Egyptology but also geometry, astronomy, and a host of other fields. 

This is a book Nibley worked on for years, viewing it as the culminating work of his scholarship. When you see the citation, Hugh Nibley and Michael D. Rhodes, One Eternal Round (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute, 2010), you may be surprised to see that this work was published 5 years after Nibley died in 2005. This work, with many versions of many chapters and large stacks of related notes, was completed and published posthumously with the help of Dr. Michael D. Rhodes, a scholar with the Egyptological and other skills needed to distill and refine the work. He took on the commission from Hugh Nibley on his deathbed to bring his massive, sprawling work to completion, giving us the most updated and arguably the most thorough and most far-ranging of all Nibley's numerous works, and clearly the most important source from Nibley on the Book of Abraham.  It is a book that demands more attention, not just as the foundation for understanding Latter-day Saint apologetics on the Book of Abraham, but for any student of the scriptures who simply wishes to understand the Book of Abraham more deeply. 

Any serious debate over the merits of Latter-day Saint defenses of the Book of Abraham ultimately must revolve around this work (at least for an orbit or two). A work claiming to treat the gamut of Latter-day Saint scholarship defending the Book of Abraham that does not even cite One Eternal Round must utterly lack gravitas. Such is the disappointing case for the apparently polemical magnum opus of a zealous critic of the Book of Abraham and of Latter-day Saint apologetics, Dan Vogel, whose Book of Abraham Apologetics makes the bold statement that no knowledge of Egyptology is needed to refute the body of Latter-day Saint scholarship on the Book of Abraham. Having summarily dismissed the need for the skills and knowledge of Nibley, there is apparently no need to seriously consider the massive core of evidence and perspective from Nibley's uncited magnum opus. Some earlier works of Nibley are cited, but the sweeping vistas of Joseph Smith's views related to the dramas and purposes of Egyptian mythology and Abrahamic lore are given no attention. 

Vogel's treatment of Shinehah reveals that he knows the argument and must know it's important to us, but apparently does not wish to address it or the works that deal with it. Unfortunately, that calls into question the alleged approach being taken. 

Back to Shinehah and the Apparently Early Use in the Doctrine and Covenants

A stronger agument, at least in apparence, than Vogel's treatment of Shinehah can be made against the Book of Abraham being the source of the use of Shinehah in the Doctrine and Covenants. It's a simple as pointing to a document in the Joseph Smith Papers website from Revelation Book 2, specifically the 1833 revelation that is now our Section 96, where we can see a scrap of paper that was attached to Section 96 with the word "Shinehah." So Shinehah had been written down already in 1833, right? That's a visually compelling argument. But not so fast. That slip of paper is not part of the dictated revelation from 1833, but was obviously added later. But when? Here the incomplete information on the JSP website seems to leave readers with the impression that this slip has the same date as the revelation it was pinned to. That would be an inaccurate impression. 

At a time when the Church had much to fear from enemies, there was a perceived need to reduce risk by using code words for some information in multiple sections of the 1835 printing of the Doctrine and Covenants. None of the original revelations have the code names in them. The code names were added s insertions in some places or on separate small scraps of paper pinned to the original or on a full sheet when needed. For  details, see Christopher C. Smith, "The Inspired Fictionalization of the 1835 United Firm Revelations," Claremont Journal of Mormon Studies 1, no. 1 (April 2011): 15–31. Christopher Smith writes:

The changes to Sections 93 and 96, which appear in the handwriting of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, could theoretically have been made as early as the spring of 1834, when these men were appointed to a committee to publish the 1835 D&C. This too is unlikely, however, because changes made by Cowdery to Section 86 and by Phelps and Smith to 75 and 98 cannot have been made until Phelps and Revelation Book 1 arrived in Kirtland on May 17, 1835. Probably all five revelations were altered within a few days or weeks of each other.

Not until Phelps's arrival did work on the D&C begin in earnest. The "Six first forms" (48 leaves or 96 pages) of the D&C were printed by May 26, and printing proceeded rapidly until its completion sometime around August 17. The revelations containing code names appear near the end of the printed book, so the changes could theoretically have been made as late as early August. A date in May or June seems more likely, however. Certainly Phelps and Smith seem to have been reading the "Sample of pure Language" on or before May 26, when Phelps copied an expanded "specimen of some of the pure language" into a letter to his wife. The "Sample" immediately preceded Section 75 in Revelation Book 1. The emendations to 75 are in Phelps's handwriting and include the word "Ahman" from the "specimen". Perhaps the idea to substitute fictitious names in these revelations was first conceived in order to address the concerns implied by John Whitmer's scrawled note at the top of the Section 75 manuscript: "Not to be published now." (C. Smith, pp. 18-19.)
So it's possible that the slip of paper pinned to Section 96 mentioning the code word Shinehah was prepared after initial translation efforts for the Book of Abraham had begun and before printing commenced on Aug. 17. It would be in October 1, 1835, per Joseph's journal, when "The system of astronomy was unfolded," which is often taken to mean that either Facs. 2 or Abraham 3 was translated on or near that date. If Abraham 3:13, identifying Shinehah as the sun, was not translated until Oct. 1, I suppose it's still possible that Shinehah as an Egyptian term had been revealed to Joseph in his earlier work with the scrolls. But it's also possible that Abraham 3 was translated before Aug. 17 and the "unfolding" of astronomy refers to translating Facs. 2, or perhaps it could refer to just understanding the import of what had been translated in Abraham 3. 

Whatever the sequence of events, the real bottom line is that against all odds, Abraham 3:13 declares that an unusual word, Shinehah, is the sun, and in fact that's an actual Egyptian word for the sun that applied during a narrow span of about 6 centuries  comprising the likely time of Abraham's life.  Even if Shinehah had been written before the Joseph Smith papyri came to town in early July 1835 and was just a random nonsense word, like a few other code words seem to be, for Joseph to later pick that random word and plausibly state that it meant the sun is still remarkable. 

There's a definite case that this word came from Joseph's early translation work of the Book of Abraham and was then used as a memorable code word in the Doctrine and Covenants, and this adds weight to arguments of John Gee and Kerry Muhlestein that much of our current Book of Abraham had been translated in July 1835, with the Grammar and Alphabet and the Book of Abraham manuscripts with Egyptian characters coming later. But again, even if Shinehah first appeared on a scrap pinned to Section 96 of the Doctrine and Covenants before Joseph got to Abraham 3, the "bull's eye" of Shinehah as the sun needs to be addressed. 

The fuss over where Shinehah first showed up is a sideshow.  How did Joseph correctly give its meaning in Abraham 3:13? Vogel never addresses this important issue in Book of Abraham apologetics, nor does he even cite what may be the most important and comprehensive Latter-day Saint book on the issue of the Book of Abraham that abounds with evidences that are not treated by Vogel. The reason, of course, is that the purpose of Vogel's book is not to consider the most relevant or significant apologetic works nor to treat the best arguments of Book of Abraham defenders, but to present Dan's polemical case against it. He does that very well, but at the cost of not living up to his bold claims early in the book. It's a great work of polemics and one that merits attention, but not a reasonable or fair treatment of Book of Abraham apologetics.

Friday, April 09, 2021

New Scholarship on the Influence of the Small Plates on Mormon's Writings

One of the things that fascinates me in my role as a co-editor for the Interpreter Foundation's journal, Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship, is seeing how different scholars using different methods and working independently come up with new concepts that fit nicely together. A new article published today illustrates this effect. I refer to Val Larsen's outstanding advance in Book of Mormon scholarship in "Josiah to Zoram to Sherem to Jarom and the Big Little Book of Omni," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 44 (2021): 217-264. There's so much that this article does to help us appreciate the ancient setting of the Book of Mormon, including the conflicts between different religious factions in Jerusalem that may have carried over into the New World. This article is especially interesting when combined with another recent work of scholarship published just a few weeks ago, Clifford P. Jones, "That Which You Have Translated, Which You Have Retained," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 43 (2021): 1-64. 

A key theme in Larsen's article is the clash between Mantic and Sophic views, or the views of Lehi with a living God with a Son, with angels and a divine council, a God who provides ongoing revelation prophets, versus the views of God as a remote, distant Entity who has given statutes and laws for the scribes and scholars to figure out. A clash that was well underway in Jerusalem of 600 B.C. continued throughout the Book of Mormon. 

Larsen frames the situation nicely in his abstract:

The first 450 years of Nephite history are dominated by two main threads: the ethno-political tension between Nephites and Lamanites and religious tension between adherents of rival theologies. These rival Nephite theologies are a Mantic theology that affirms the existence of Christ and a Sophic theology that denies Christ. The origin of both narrative threads lies in the Old World: the first in conflicts between Nephi and Laman, the second in Lehi’s rejection of King Josiah’s theological and political reforms. This article focuses on these interrelated conflicts. It suggests that Zoram, Laman, Lemuel, Sherem, and the Zeniffites were Deuteronomist followers of Josiah. The small plates give an account of how their Deuteronomist theology gradually supplanted the gospel of Christ. As the small plates close, their last author, Amaleki, artfully confronts his readers with a life-defining choice: having read the Book of Mormon thus far, will you remain, metaphorically, with the prophets in Zarahemla and embrace the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ, or will you return to the land of Nephi and the theology you believed and the life you lived before you read the Book of Mormon?

Val Larsen's article explores some of the literary methods that relate the book of Omni and particularly the words of Amaleki in that book to the rest of the Book of Mormon. There's so much more going on in that small book than I had ever realized. The parallels and other relationships that Larsen explores suggest that Mormon deliberately drew upon small plates material, but this should be unlikely in the standard model that has emerged for the production of the Book of Mormon and especially the writing of the Words of Mormon. 

In that model, after the 116 pages were lost, the translation continued with the book of Mosiah and on until the very end of the large plates, followed by the translation of the added small plates of Nephi and finally the Words of Mormon, which tell us that Mormon has just discovered the small plates and felt inspired to add them for a wise purpose (which we now know was to make up for the loss of the 116 pages), even though it overlapped with what he had already written from the large plates. 

That standard model has the Words of Mormon being just about the last thing Mormon would write, apparently written right after he added the material from the small plates. That would seem to come after the large plates material had been abridged. How, then, can we understand Larsen's well-supported proposal that the book of Omni was influential in Mormon's writings? You can say it was just because Joseph made it all up himself, so everything should be related, but as always, the artfulness of the relationships seems beyond what one would expect from Joseph Smith just making things up on the fly.

Clifford Jones' essay provides background that fits in perfectly with Larsen's work. Clifford does some remarkable sleuthing and concludes that we've been looking at the Words of Mormon in the wrong way for many years now. He provides strong evidence that what we call the Words of Mormon was actually an editorial insertion by Mormon in what originally was part of the book of Mosiah. It was in reading about the transfer of the small plates from Amaleki to King Benjamin that Mormon was motivated to search and find the small plates record, and that is when he was inspired to not only add it at the end of his compilation, but to draw upon its teachings in the rest of what he would write. 

Jones provides annotation and emphasis for Words of Mormon 1:6, where Mormon writes, "I choose these things [these prophecies recorded on the small plates] to finish my record [the balance of my abridgment] upon them [making these prophecies the subject or theme of the rest of my record — it will be about them], which remainder of my record [the balance of my abridgment] I shall take from the plates of Nephi [the large-plate record]." There Jones notes that The Oxford English Dictionary lists one sense of upon as “Denoting the subject of speech or writing.” So it seems that Mormon is indicating that he is so impressed with the content of the small plates that he will finish his record drawing upon them for influence or guidance as he completes the abridgement of the large plates. In other words, the Words of Mormon are actually the earliest text from Mormon in the Book of Mormon, and they signal his deliberate intent to draw upon the small plates in the rest of his work. Some of the evidence for such influence is brought out in Larsen's analysis. 

It is amazing how much work was required to bring out a clearer understanding of these intricate details, beginning with the life's work of Royal Skousen in poring over the details of what survived from the Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon and the Printer's Manuscript to help us understand what was dictated, followed by the Joseph Smith Paper's project which has made those documents more readily available to scholars, which played an important role in Clifford Jones's discoveries. Drawing upon that scholarship, others have now sought to develop an understanding of what happened when in the translation of the plates, and then Val Larsen built on that as did Clifford Jones with painstaking evaluation of many clues from diverse sources to give new hypotheses which shook up old ways of thinking. What we are left with is a stronger vision of how intricate, consistent, and carefully crafted the Book of Mormon is, and how closely related it is to the impact of Josiah's reforms and other sources of religious conflict in pre-exilic Israel. The combined effect of Larsen's and Jones' works is an abundance of new evidences for the divinity and antiquity of the Book of Mormon. 

A Choice to Make: Do We Read the Book of Mormon through a Sophic or Mantic Lens?

Larsen wraps up his article by pointing out that the dichotomy of religious views in Nephite culture, the Sophic vs. the Mantic, is what we also face today. With a Sophic faith to inform us, we can read the Book of Mormon as the work of a lone man, Joseph Smith, whose personal views, environment, and vocabulary stand as the source of parallels, allusions, and intertextuality in the Book of Mormon. We can choose to see its prophecies and sermons as sloppy injections of modern views into an allegedly old record, its language as Joseph crude dialect and awkward grammar warped into a KJV twang, giving little more than simplistic axioms from Joseph's imagined anthropomorphic God in the form of pious fiction. That may be how many of the Nephites viewed the teachings and writings of the prophets of their day. 

Larsen's beautiful concluding words remind us that there is another way to view things:

But if, having read the small plates, we exercise Mantic faith, we will live in a world suffused with the presence and power of God, where to restore lost truths the corporeal Father and Son appear in pillars of fire to prophets, ancient and modern. Elohim will be for us behind the temple veil in the most holy place. Yahweh will be for us an unblemished lamb, sacrificed for our sins upon the altar of the temple, and he will be the atoning Christ suffering for us in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross. We will have a Mother as well as a Father in Heaven. We will see richness in the relationships between Book of Mormon authors, Amaleki being a close reader of Nephi and Jacob, Mormon and Moroni close readers of Amaleki. We will adhere to a living faith, animated by manifest gifts of the Spirit and guided by prophets who still walk among us.

While the small plates, as they close, imply that we get to choose which of the two lands we will live in, Sophic Nephi or Mantic Zarahemla, Amaleki makes it clear that we do not fully determine what we encounter in those metaphorical lands. And the outcomes he briefly describes are much more fully revealed by Mormon in the Book of Mosiah. The land of Nephi becomes the debauched, sensual kingdom of King Noah. The temple in the land of Zarahemla becomes the holy place where inhabitants of the land are reborn as purified sons and daughters of Christ through the valedictory ministrations of their prophet king, Benjamin. Decide, Amaleki implicitly tells us, where you want to live.

 

 

Thursday, April 08, 2021

Nutrition and COVID: We Need More Science to Follow

While there has been a lot of good news for the country in recent weeks, with millions now vaccinated, with COVID rates plummeting, and with some states now opening now without the constantly foretold doom that should have befallen them, it's still a disease that should motivate us to be cautious. I say this as a relative just flew to Brazil to be there for his 44-year-old brother who is now hospitalized with serious case of COVID. He seemed so healthy a short while ago, and how he's in grave danger. 

We still need more science to follow. Not just science on the best vaccines or best way to deal with hospitalized patients, or the "political science" used to justify the endless whims of politicians, but science on how individuals can reduce their risk of having serious damage from the disease. Early last year I put in a tentative plug for nutrition and nutriceuticals as a possible safe way to reduce risks (see "Coping with the Corona Virus: A New Report on Glucosamine and Other Nutriceuticals, and an Update on Masks," April 7, 2020, and "Requesting Review from Medical Experts: Can Glucosamine Help Reduce COVID-19 Mortality?," Feb. 28, 2020). There I pointed to studies indicating that some materials commonly taken as nutritional supplements or nutriceuticals may be helpful in reducing death from pulmonary disease and thus might be wise to consider in our own preparations against COVID. Those suggestions included N-acetyl cysteine, glucosamine, zinc, and Vitamin D. I was chastised for thinking that nutriceuticals played a role in infectious disease and for offering advice that was not taken from WHO or the infallible Dr. Fauci, etc., all of which is fair. But at some point, I hope people can share hypotheses without being silenced or shamed. My hypotheses were based on multiple peer-reviewed studies that seemed that they ought to be considered. I believe that I even explained that these suggestions were hypotheses in search of further expert review.

Today I noticed a 2020 publication raising some related thoughts about N-acetyl cysteine that you may wish to consider: Stelios F. Assimakopoulos and Markos Marangos, "N-acetyl-cysteine may prevent COVID-19-associated cytokine storm and acute respiratory distress syndrome," Medical Hypotheses 140 (July 2020): 109778, doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2020.109778. As with my posts, the authors are obviously only proposing a hypothesis, but it is based on logical inferences from significant peer-reviewed literature, and calling for more attention to be given to this generally safe nutriceutical. The proposed dose is simply what is normally consumed according to the label on this increasingly popular antioxidant. Before we shame these medical professionals for not keeping their mouths shut, I think there may be merit in their arguments that could be considered and pursued at low risk.

As disclaimer, I should first point out that I'm quite fond of this material, N-acetyl cysteine, found naturally in garlic and onions and a derivative of one of our essential amino acids,  even though I don't take it regularly. I'm fond of it because of its surprising role in my past and ongoing research work related to consumer products. In the fall of 2019, while on vacation in Malaysia aimed at going diving in Borneo, I became ill right as I got off the airplane in Kuala Lumpur. It wasn't the usual upper respiratory infection I used to get occasionally from a cold. It seemed pretty severe and I thought my only choice was to cancel the diving that was scheduled for 4 days later and head home to Shanghai. But the next morning I decided to not travel back to China and wreck the vacation for my wife, but to do what I could to cope, though it seemed clear I would not be diving that week. So the next morning, too ill to go to church in K.L. as we had planned, I went instead to a nearby Malaysian pharmacy to find something that might help. That was the first time I can recall seeing N-acetyl cysteine. It was in a little single dose packet that pretty much just had the name of the compound. Something about the name intrigued me. The package didn't say what it was for, but on a whim, I bought some. 

When I staggered back to my hotel room, I looked it up on the Web and found that it was used as a treatment for cystic fibrosis because of its ability in reducing the viscosity of mucous in the lungs. This made it effective in fighting the pulmonary biofilm in the lungs of cystic fibrosis patients. That got my interest up because I had recently developed a hypothesis that biofilm in clothing might be the cause for the persistent odor that athletic gear frequently develops over time, in which odor seems to persist or can quickly return after washing, unlike the original fresh clothing. How such biofilm could withstand repeated washing and drying in heated dryers seemed like a mystery at the time, but now that I had a natural, even edible material that was known for fighting biofilm in the lungs, I wondered if it could help reduce my hypothesized biofilm in clothing. 

My wife and I had some old athletic gear with us and were able to conduct some initial testing during our week in Malaysia with the help of some great gym equipment a few days later. I combined N-acetyl cysteine with some enzymatic laundry cleaning agents and after washing, tested the odor development after vigorous exercise. I found, to our surprise, that odor seemed to develop much less after an armpit had been treated with the N-acetyl cysteine plus a laundry cleaner versus the laundry cleaner alone. This lead to several patent applications (most recently United States Patent Application 20210032570, with another one to publish soon) and a variety of intriguing discoveries about N-acetyl cysteine, including an apparent discovery and new product opportunity in a cosmetic product trial I did this morning. I can't talk about how these may be used in the future, but it's been a surprisingly exciting journey since that dismal first day in Malaysia. By the way, four days after taking my first dose of N-acetyl cysteine, my congested lungs were clear and, to my surprise, I was able to go diving, though I was still nervous about it. But I survived and really enjoyed it. It was a wonderful trip overall, one of the best trips of my life. I came away loving Malaysia, loving K.L., loving Borneo and its diverse peoples, and would be happy to return. But I am especially grateful for the important conception of several inventions that occurred in Malaysia, thanks to the unexpected encounter with a compound I don't think I had ever seen before. 

So let's get back to the article from Assimakopoulos and Marangos. Here's what they say:

Accumulating evidence suggests that a subgroup of patients with severe COVID-19 might have a cytokine storm syndrome associated with acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), multiple organ failure and increased mortality. This syndrome is characterised by increased interleukin (IL)-2, IL-7, granulocyte colony stimulating factor, interferon-γ inducible protein 10, monocyte chemoattractant protein 1, macrophage inflammatory protein 1-α, and tumour necrosis factor (TNF)-α .

N-Acetylcysteine (NAC), a well-known mucolytic agent used in respiratory infections, is a thiol-containing free-radical scavenger and a precursor of glutathione . Reactive oxygen species and oxidative stress activate important redox-sensitive transcription factors like NF-κB and activator protein-1, which lead to the co-ordinate expression of proinflammatory genes of IL-6, IL-8, and TNF-α .

The beneficial action of 1200 mg/d of oral NAC in respiratory diseases has been previously demonstrated in prevention of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease exacerbations . Moreover, a recent study including patients with community-acquired pneumonia, showed that the addition of this dose of NAC to conventional treatment improves oxidative stress and inflammatory response . The positive effects of NAC in viral lower respiratory tract infections have been associated with inhibition of IL-8, IL-6, and TNF-α expression and release in alveolar type II cells infected with influenza virus A and B and respiratory syncytial virus .

The results of these studies offer reasonable basis for the addition of 1200 mg/d oral NAC on therapeutic schemes of patients with COVID-19, as a measure that could potentially prevent the development of the cytokine storm syndrome and ARDS. This hypothesis is worth clarifying in appropriately designed clinical studies.

That makes a lot of sense. Enough sense that I think it's also reasonable for people to consider having some of this edible antioxidant in their homes and using it in low, recommended doses after exposure to COVID has occurred or the infection has begun. I'd also recommend zinc, glucosamine (for glucoasamine, the proposed benefit may require being on it for a while before infection strikes, but I'm not sure), and Vitamin D3, all safe, natural materials that can be consumed in low, recommended amounts with very little risk. Yes, I know it's heresy to suggest that nutrition might matter, but it's a heresy that I think needs more attention in science to give us better information to follow. 

Why don't I take N-acetyl cysteine regularly? It's a powerful antioxidant, but oxidants aren't all bad and antioxidants don't only do good. In fact, our immune system uses oxidants as part of its arsenal, and they may be useful in attacking cancer cells. There's a balance that is needed. So tanking up on antioxidants all the time might not be wise, though I make sure to get plenty of antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies in my diet. A good perspective on possible risks with steady N-acetyl cysteine intake is offered by Derek Lowe in "N-Acetyl Cysteine: A Warning Shot," Science Translational Medicine Blog, Oct. 4, 2019. 

I'm not a doctor or much of anything else, so use your brain, check things out yourself, and make your own decisions wisely. If that's not convenient, you can always just do whatever politicians and their experts tell you to do. But remember, as the famed scientist Richard Feynman said, "“Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts." That's actually a reasonable though maybe overly iconoclastic expression of what the scientific method is all about: healthy skepticism and a recognition that our past conclusions may be wrong.  Now get out there and follow the science -- which most certainly does not mean to just blindly follow whoever is trotted out by some politician as the expert of the day to tell us, for example, that schools are dangerous and can't be open while they send their kids to in-person classes at private schools, or who tell us that eating out and meeting with friends is deadly while they dine with their friends in five-star restaurants. Always because of science! 

P.S. -- While making dangerously irresponsible hypotheses, here's one more to consider. If the benefit of N-acetyl cysteine in reducing the impact of the cytokine storm that COVID can cause is due to its antioxidant effect, perhaps the underlying oxidative stress (higher level of oxidizing compounds) from obesity is one of the reasons why those who are obese seem to be at such high risk of harm due to COVID. Haven't done much review of the literature here, but I'd appreciate feedback on that hypothesis. Here's one study suggesting the impact of obesity on COVID outcomes may be connected with oxidative stress. Here's another one showing that oxidative stress is also present in obese children (so this effect alone of course doesn't explain why children tend to have so little risk of harm from COVID). 




Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Geocentric Astronomy in the Book of Abraham? Dan Vogel's Refutation of LDS Scholars

 

Circumpolar star trails in a long-exposure photo of several hours, showing that stars closer to Polaris move on shorter trails, thus moving more slowly. The circumpolar stars always stay above the horizon. Courtesy of Wikipedia. By LCGS Russ - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,





In Dan Vogel's new book, Book of Abraham Apologetics (discussed in Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4 of this series), after stating that a knowledge of Egyptology is not necessary to address the issues regarding the Book of Abraham, he critiques LDS Egytpologists several times for their statements about ancient Egypt. While I believe amateurs should be able to challenge scholars and that good can come from anyone's reasonable critique or analysis of past scholarship, we amateurs should also recognize that those with formal training in their field may know what they are doing, so our critiques need to be backed with good evidence or logic and still may be wrong. In his attack on the views of John Gee and others regarding the astronomical content in the Book of Abraham, Vogel's critique strikes me as highly flawed.

One of the more subtle and interesting evidences that LDS scholars have offered for the antiquity of the Book of Abraham involves the astronomical information that the Lord gives Abraham in chapter 3 to prepare him for an encounter with Pharaoh. Only recently did LDS scholars note that the astronomical model that Abraham would use to teach Pharaoh makes the most sense when viewed as a type of geocentric model, one that Pharaoh could accept, in order to teach Pharaoh some important spiritual truths. The Lord seems to have given Abraham more advanced knowledge as well, but much of the discussion seems couched in terms of what one observes from the earth and with principles that could related well to the geocentric views of the Egyptians. See John Gee, “Abrahamic Astronomy,” in An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2017), 115–120, and John Gee, William J. Hamblin, and Daniel C. Peterson, “‘And I Saw the Stars’: The Book of Abraham and Ancient Geocentric Astronomy,” in Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant, ed. John Gee and Brian M. Hauglid (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2005), 1–16. (Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant is available online, either as one PDF of the entire volume or via links to individual PDFs of each chapter.)

In "Abrahamic Astronomy," Gee makes the basic case for a geocentric model that would Abraham could have used in talking with the Egyptians:

The astronomy in the Book of Abraham uses as its point of reference “the earth upon which thou standest” (Abraham 3:3, 5–7). It mentions various heavenly bodies, such as “the stars” (Abraham 3:2), among which is Kolob (Abraham 3:3–4). These provide a fixed backdrop for the heavens. Among the stars are various bodies that move in relation to the fixed backdrop, each of which is called a “planet” (Abraham 3:5, 8) or a “light” (Abraham 3:5–7), though since the sun and moon and certain stars are each also called a “planet,” we should not think of them as necessarily being what we call planets. Each of these planets is associated with “its times and seasons in the revolutions thereof” (Abraham 3:4). These lights revolve around something, and that is the fixed reference point, “the earth upon which thou standest” (Abraham 3:3, 5–7). The Book of Abraham thus presents a geocentric astronomy, like almost all ancient astronomies, including ancient Egyptian astronomy.

Each heavenly body, with its revolution, is associated with something called a “set time” (Abraham 3:6, 10) or “the reckoning of its time” (Abraham 3:5), which seems to be its revolution around the earth and for the earth, its rotation. The greater amount of time is associated with a higher orbit and thus being “above or greater than that upon which thou standest in point of reckoning, for it moveth in order more slow; this is in order because it standeth above the earth upon which thou standest” (Abraham 3:5). The higher orbits are larger and take more time to traverse; thus, the longer the time of revolution, the higher the light is above the earth.

The ancient Egyptians associated the idea of encircling something (whether in the sky or on earth) with controlling or governing it, and the same terms are used for both. Thus, the Book of Abraham notes that “there shall be the reckoning of the time of one planet above another, until thou come nigh unto Kolob, . . . which Kolob is set nigh unto the throne of God, to govern all those planets which belong to the same order as that upon which thou standest” (Abraham 3:9, emphasis added). The Egyptians had a similar notion, in which the sun (Re) was not only a god but the head of all the gods and ruled over everything that he encircled. Abraham’s astronomy sets the sun, “that which is to rule the day” (Abraham 3:5), as greater than the moon but less than Kolob, which governs the sun (Abraham 3:9). Thus, in the astronomy of the Book of Abraham, Kolob, which is the nearest star to God (Abraham 3:16; see also 3, 9), revolves around and thus encircles or controls the sun, which is the head of the Egyptian pantheon.

The conversation between Abraham and the Lord shifts from a discussion of heavenly bodies to spiritual beings. This reflects a play on words that Egyptians often use between a star (ach) and a spirit (ich). The shift is done by means of a comparison: “Now, if there be two things, one above the other, and the moon be above the earth, then it may be that a planet or a star may exist above it; . . . as, also, if there be two spirits, and one shall be more intelligent than the other” (Abraham 3:17–18). In an Egyptian context, the play on words would strengthen the parallel.

With an interesting Egyptian wordplay, the purpose of the astronomical material being given to Abraham becomes apparent. By teaching Pharaoh about the order seen in astronomy, with one star near God governing all others because it is in order most high with the longest time of reckoning, so can the same principle be implied when it comes to souls, with God being higher than all. Using this roundabout astronomical approach to lay a metaphorical foundation, Abraham can help Pharaoh see that there is a God higher even than the Sun, higher than the Egyptian pantheon,  and higher than Pharaoh. Speaking such things directly could be seen as an attack on Pharaoh and Egyptian religion, a capital offense, but the  astronomical analogy could help Pharaoh learn the principle without getting Abraham killed. 

Vogel is not impressed. He begins a rather meandering discussion of astronomical issues with this:

However, the model they use to interpret Abraham Chapter 3 requires the earth to be spherical with the sun, moon, and planets revolving in concentric circles around it, a model that, in fact, dates many centuries after Abraham. Indeed, all (but one) of the authors’ examples range from the third century BCE (Greek philosophers) to fourteenth-century-CE Italy (Dante). (pp. 133-134, Kindle edition--the printed version may be around p. 112; emphasis added)
This is a very unfortunate misreading of Gee, Hamblin, and Peterson. Their argument absolutely does not require the advanced Ptolemaic version of geocentrism and, in fact, is compatible with flat earth models from ancient Egypt. Vogel's footnote at this point adds another argument or two:

The exception [the alleged "one" example relied on by Gee et al. not datng to many centuries after Abraham] is the Egyptian belief that the earth, personified by the god Geb, and sky, personified by the goddess Nut, are separated by Shu, god of air. While Gee et al. state that this concept of the cosmos "goes back at least as far as the Middle Kingdom (and thus to the approximate time of Abraham)," they do not explain that in the Egyptian cosmos the earth is flat and instead emphasize an Egyptian text which says the "Sun-disk encircles, that which Gen and Nut enclose" (Gee et al., "'And I Saw the Stars," 7). Thus they imply that Egyptians believed the sun revolved around the earth. In their description of the first of the four types of geocentricity, they state that the "sun, moon, stars, planets, etc.--surrounded and encompassed the earth in a single undifferentiated heaven" (ibid., 5). In the footnote they reference the "view of the heavens from the tomb of Seti I," which clearly shows the earth as flat with the heavens over it. The ancient Egyptians believed the sun (Ra) traveled on a barge at night to emerge in the east the next morning, and not that the sun revolved around the earth.

Vogel seems to assume that a flat earth model is contrary to a geocentric view, perhaps because he assumes that "geocentric" must refer to the latest, well-known versions of geocentrism with heavenly bodies acting as if connected to revolving spheres moving around a spherical earth. But more primitive flat earth models can accurately be described as geocentric. If it is the sun literally moving across the sky rather than the earth rotating on its axis, and if the motion of the stars each night is from their motion relative to the earth, we clearly have a geocentric model, regardless of how the sun gets back to its starting point each morning. 

Vogel chastises Gee et al. for only considering one piece of evidence from ancient Egypt. Here he has not carefully read the article he criticizes. Speaking of the ancient Egyptian views on astronomy, Gee et al. state that "numerous references make it clear that their worldview was fundamentally geocentric" (Gee et al., "I Saw the Stars," p. 7, emphasis added). Their footnote here cites James P. Allen, Genesis in Egypt: The Philosophy of Ancient Egyptian Creation Accounts (New Haven: Yale Egyptological Seminar, 1988), pp. 3-7, a work that considers the astronomical implications of 16 Egyptian sources. It has significant evidentiary value in support of the point made in "I Saw the Stars." We'll come back to that in a moment. 

Vogel goes on to propose that Joseph Smith in his revelations was just borrowing from the modern cosmology expressed by authors such as Thomas Dick, an argument that is no more reasonable than when Fawn Brodie proposed it decades ago. See my treatment of that flawed proposal as a slight detour in "Joseph Smith’s Universe vs. Some Wonders of Chinese Science Fiction," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 29 (2018): 105-152.

In responding to Vogel's arguments against the geocentric features in the Book of Abraham proposed by Gee et al., I wish to first suggest that the pro-Book of Abraham articles discussing Egyptian astronomy might have been more clear if they had discussed the different types of stellar motion the Egyptians and other ancients saw in their stargazing and how that related to Egyptian belief. Of special interest, in my opinion, are the Egyptian views on the pole star and the nearby "circumpolar stars," depicted in the figure at the beginning of this scroll post. The circumpolar stars are the ones that stay in the north part of the sky and never set below the horizon (for those in the Northern Hemisphere), revolving around the pole star, currently Polaris (different stars in that region have been the pole star anciently as things slowly shift over time--Thuban was the pole star from the 4th to 2nd millennium BCE). In considering recent investigations of ancient Egyptian cosmology, it seems to me that the evidence for the Book of Abraham based on the astronomical passage in Abraham 3 may be even stronger than Gee et al. have indicated. 

I should also explain that while it appears that Abraham was given some advanced information about the nature of stars and perhaps the earth (speaking of the "set time" of the earth as well as other bodies itself implies that the earth rotates, for example), he is given information couched in terms of what is seen from the earth, as Gee, Hamblin, and Peterson note, including the  various times of "reckoning" which we now know were very important to the Egyptians. What I think is happening is that God is sharing some advanced information with Abraham, but giving him the terminology and perspectives to relate to what is observed from earth and the attendant geocentric model of the Egyptian court. Abraham will be able to discuss the various categories of stars and their differing "set times" and relate that and other details to the spiritual order with God as the Supreme Being, just as there are special slow-moving stars (relative to the horizon in the sky as seen on earth) in Egyptian mythology that are "immortal." associated with deity, and govern the cosmos.  Accurate details on observed set times and times of reckoning from a terrestrial perspective are not "wrong" but tailored for the paradigm of the Egyptians. Abraham may have shared more in his discourse, we don't know, but it's not accurate to frame Abraham 3 as the Lord lying to Abraham about the cosmos. He's revealing grand information, letting Abraham see important truths, but also enabling Abraham to relate his knowledge to terrestrial observations and the Egyptian's astronomical model. His purpose, of course, in the proposals of Gee et al., was not to upgrade Egyptian science but to use astronomy as a tool to discreetly share spiritual truths.  With that preface, we now briefly gaze at Egyptian astronomy. [This paragraph was added April 2, 2021.]

Let's begin with Bernadette Brady in her chapter "Star Phases: the Naked-eye Astronomy of the Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts," in Fabio Silva and Nicolas Campion, eds., Skyscapes: The Role and Importance of the Sky in Archaeology (Oxford: Oxbow 2015), pp. 76-86, a chapter available via Academia.edu. Bernadette notes how many scholars have failed to recognized the meaning of seemingly confusing passages in the very ancient Pyramid Texts due to a lack of awareness of the different behaviors of stars that can be identified and categorized by simple visual observation. She categorizes star behaviors into four groups (pp. 78-79), showing that Ptolemy's various labels are reasonable: 1) stars that are always in the sky and never set (Ptolemy called these the circumpolar stars, which is the modern term as well); 2) stars that are visible every night, though they may sometimes descend below the horizon for a while (Ptolemy's "Circumpolar Curtailed Passage" stars); 3) stars that are sometimes visible, at some times of the year rising or setting during the night while at other times not seen at all during the whole night (Ptolemy's "Arising and Laying Hidden" stars), and 4) stars that never rise for a viewer at a given local (Ptolemy's  "Never Rises" category). She pays special attention to the third category, abbreviated as ALH ("Arising and Staying Hidden") stars, for which two different behaviors or "star phases" can be seen in their annual motions, elucidated in her Table 7.2 (p. 82), and then resolves some sources of confusion about the Pyramid Texts:

With an awareness of these two distinct star phases we can now consider the Pyramid Texts. Samuel Mercer (1956, 4) describes the texts as being, ‘remnants of much earlier literature than that of the historical period in Egyptian history.’ Thus although the first Pyramid Texts are dated to the pyramid of Unis (also written as Unas), whose reign is estimated to have been from 2375–2345 BCE, in terms of their contents, they are considered to have come from an earlier period, at least from the 4th Dynasty if not considerably earlier. According to Allen (2005, 9), at the time of the Old Kingdom the Egyptian sky consisted of a skyscape which was a reflection of their landscape: The Marsh of Rest or Offerings were located in the northern parts of the sky, The Marsh of Reeds occupied the southern sky, and the path of the sun was known as the Winding Canal. Located around these places were the stars. The Egyptians recognised three separate groups of stars, with three different sky-narratives, each defined by their relationship to these places. The Imperishable Stars, those that dwelt in The Marsh of Rest, were the circumpolar stars, and they were imperishable as they were never taken below the earth (Faulkner 1966, 156–157; Lesko 1991, 99). Joseph Bradshaw (1990, 38) refers to the holiness that the Egyptians attributed to the northern part of the sky and points out that their entire universe hung from the northern pole. Upon their death, the divine kings, not only had the right to re-join these stars but were required to do so for the cosmic health of the nation (Davis 1977, 164). Allen (2005) translates an utterance from Unis’ pyramid as, ‘The populace will cry out to you once the Imperishable Stars have raised you aloft’ (W147). Hence, in the 5th dynasty, the observation that the circumpolar stars remained visible for the whole night throughout the whole year and thus never touched the horizon was considered to be a statement of their divine nature. These stars were immortal beings who the king was destined to join and thus rule the cosmos. As Davis (1977, 166) puts it, ‘In the ascent, the King re-enters the realms of celestial divinity and is given royal authority, just as he entered the world of men and was invested with similar authority.’ (pp. 81-82)

Brady continues to relate other classes of star and their various phases to references in the Pyramid Texts, always with  religious meaning. 

Read the quote from Brady in light of what the Lord is seeking to teach Abraham and Pharaoh. The link between stars, souls, and deity is not a completely foreign concept that would puzzle Pharaoh. At least for Pharaoh, his destiny would be immortality, joining the gods in the sacred circumpolar realm near the polar star, a realm that governed the cosmos. A view that would seem to resonate well with Egyptian astronomy is the concept that a star that was slower in its time of reckoning than all the rest would be associated with ruling the cosmos. Abraham 3 is genuinely interesting!

So where did Joseph Smith get the idea of stars associated with deity, that moved more slowly, and that governed the cosmos? This was not something plucked from a local Methodist sermon or common knowledge among farmers on the frontier. Yet it fits some aspects of the ancient geocentric model of the Egyptians and their sacred cosmology, conveying information to Abraham in terms well suited for engaging with the Egyptians.

Here Hugh Nibley's grand and overly neglected work, One Eternal Round, should be consulted. Early in the book Nibley lays out the importance of starts to the Egyptians as sacred places that also represent our destiny, and the circumpolar stars were of special importance. See Chapter 2, especially pp. 41-52. Hugh Nibley and Michael D. Rhodes provide extensive analysis of the Book of Abraham, including details of the Facsimiles, giving what may be the leading source of fascinating apologetic information in support of the Book of Abraham (more on that later). How does Vogel address the extensive arguments Nibley's magnum opus? The book doesn't even get a mention. Nothing. For a book directed to LDS apologetics, to neglect the wealth of material in the richest source of Nibley's Book of Abraham work seems rather surprising. But at least Nibley gets mentioned a few times. [This and the previous paragraph were added April 5, 2021.]

The Egyptians long before Abraham's day were keenly aware of the different motions of celestial bodies, with the slowly rotating but never setting circumpolar stars being associated with immortality and deity. They equated the rising and setting of bodies such as the sun birth and death, with the sun being born each day as it passed over the earth -- of course this is heliocentric! -- only to be reborn again the next day. The immortal stars, the circumpolar ones, never seemed to set. The sun and the moon would rise and set daily, but both also had their own times describing their periodic motion relative to other stars, with the sun taking a year and the moon taking a lunar month. 

But, Vogel may object, if the sun returns to the east by sailing in a boat instead of revolving around a spherical earth on a celestial sphere, how can that be geocentric? Please note that the Egyptians were concerned with what they observed and their purpose was not to describe physical reality, but religious or mythological concepts (Allen, pp. ix-x). They conceptualized the sky as a goddess stretched over the earth, but that doesn't mean they literally thought you might be able to see a belly button or shoulders in the sky on a clear day. How the sun returned to be reborn from the east was explained in a couple of different ways, as we'll see in a moment, but however that happened, it was the sun that moved across the sky as they observed each day, not the earth rotating relative to the sun. Ditto for all other celestial bodies: they moved in different ways, at different speeds, relative to the earth, and some very special ones moved very slowly and never set. What else can this be called but a geocentric model? And not just any geocentric model, but one that makes Abraham 3 an ideal presentation of concepts that Pharaoh could understand. Concepts of concentric celestial spheres had not yet been worked out, and are not hinted at in Abraham 3. The models of Ptolemy or Dante or others are not needed to qualify as ancient and geocentric. In fact, it might be a strike against the Book of Abraham if such relatively modern geocentric formulations were inherent to Abraham 3, but one could argue that they might have been written later when the documents were physically prepared and when geocentric ideas were better fleshed out (though still before the enrichments Ptolemy would provide). But for my tastes, its neater if the astronomical concepts in the Book of Abraham really were at home in Pharaoh's court. It would be a primitive geocentrism that the Pharaoh of Abraham's day likely embraced, but may have still have been relatively sophisticated in terms of employing centuries of detailed astronomical observation.

Let's turn now to the primary source cited by Gee et al. as evidence of Egyptian geocentric views, James P. Allen's Genesis in Egypt: The Philosophy of Ancient Egyptian Creation Accounts (New Haven: Yale Egyptological Seminar, 1988), available at Archive.org. Exploring the first of his Egyptian texts, the Cenotaph of Seti I (ca. 1280 B.C.), Allen explains that the sun moves across the sky (the goddess Nut) after bring born anew each day, and at night enters the mysterious Duat and returns back to the east. Duat is sometimes described as being below the earth or it can be within the body of Nut:

The relationship between Nut and the Duat in this scene reflects an ambivalence m the Egyptian conception of the Duat. On one hand, the Duat is thought to lie inside Nut’s body, as in Text ICl and 1C4. This is a concept as old as the Pyramid Texts:

The sky has conceived him,
the Duat has given him birth. (Pyr. 1527a)5
On the other hand there are indications—equally as old—that the Duat was also envisioned as lying beneath the earth. The Pyramid Texts associate the Duat with the earth and its gods Geb and Aker, and the Coffin Texts refer to the “lower Duat.” This ambiguity is probably no more than a reflection of the fact that the Duat, though part of the world, is inaccessible to the living, outside the realm of normal human experience— though its topography and inhabitants are nonetheless conjectured in great detail in the Amduat and similar funerary “books.”

Together, sky, land and Duat comprise the world of the ancient Egyptian—a kind of “bubble” of air and light within the otherwise unbroken infinity of dark waters. These elements form the background to the Egyptian understanding of the cycle of life and I human destiny, determined by the daily drama of sunset and sunrise. They are also the starting-point for all Egyptian speculation on the origins of the universe. (Allen, pp. 6-7)

Later Allen again discusses the ambiguity the Egyptians had about Duat, nothing that it may be in the sky, below the earth, or both (p. 56). "The Duat is a dangerous region, yet full of the power of regeneration. Like a mother’s womb, it is where the sun, and the human dead, are reborn to rise into new life each dawn."

Allen also speaks of "the Egyptians’ concept of the universe as a limitless ocean of dark and motionless water, within which the world of life floats as a sphere of air and light. The texts describe this ocean as existing above the sky (Text lAl, 11)" (p. 4). This seems similar to the "firmament" of heaven in Genesis. 

Allen also reminds us that the cosmos of the Egyptian is not about things, but personalities. The sky, the sun, the earth, the air, the waters, Duat, etc., are all gods (p. 8). To understand the cosmos, one must understand the actors, the gods. I would then suggest that we should not expect sacred Egyptian texts to be written to explain their views on physical reality.

Interest in astronomy, however, also had some practical, non-mythological aspects. At least by the 24th century B.C., "star clocks" had been developed using the rising and setting of stars to assist in telling time. See R.A. Parker, "Ancient Egyptian Astronomy," Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series A, Mathematical and Physical Sciences 276, no. 1257, The Place of
Astronomy in the Ancient World
(May 2, 1974), pp. 51-65, https://www.jstor.org/stable/74274.  In spite of the star clocks Parker in this 1974 article seems to feel that astronomical knowledge in ancient Egypt was highly primitive, or "Egyptian astronomy, in a quantitative sense, was almost non-existant" (p. 65).  Later research would challenge that perspective and strengthen our understanding of how advanced Egyptian understanding was in terms of quantitative knowledge regarding the times of reckoning related to celestial bodies. See Joanne Conman, "It's about Time: Ancient Egyptian Cosmology," Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur 31 (2003): 33-71, https://www.jstor.org/stable/25152883. Conman rejects the old "decanal belt" theory that had stood in the way of appreciating the physical reailty behind Egyptian documents describing the actions of stars and shows that Egyptian astronomical statements can make a great deal of sense. Conman concludes: 

They understood that time manifests itself through the continually changing sky, a concept that was personified by the goddess Nut. The constantly turning sky was not a stationary background but an active force that moved the sun and stars around. The sun was attached to the sky and functioned as a mobile meridian, so that time and direction were not easily separable concepts in ancient Egyptian thought. The star model from the tombs of Seti I and Ramses IV, as explained in the Carlsberg papyri, works properly only if stars are observed in the same location (the msqt region) in the same state (rising) at different times of the year. The Asyut coffins' decan lists are part of this same system, tracking stars during their "work" phase. Ancient Egyptian sacred texts were not and should not be mistaken for "primitive" astronomy.... (p. 68, emphasis added)
With an emphasis on the times of reckning in their astronomical work, the Egyptians, then, would likely appreciate Abraham's reference to the "times of reckoning" and the "set times" of celestial bodies (Abraham 3: 4-11). There also appears to be a spectrum of "set times" for the stars that vary with position as one looks toward or moves toward the location of Kolob:

7 Now the set time of the lesser light [the moon]  is a longer time as to its reckoning than the reckoning of the time of the earth upon which thou standest.

8 And where these two facts exist, there shall be another fact above them, that is, there shall be another planet whose reckoning of time shall be longer still;

9 And thus there shall be the reckoning of the time of one planet above another, until thou come nigh unto Kolob, which Kolob is after the reckoning of the Lord’s time; which Kolob is set nigh unto the throne of God, to govern all those planets which belong to the same order as that upon which thou standest.

I would suggest that this may be metaphorical or intended as a way of representing the hierarchies of the heavens in a way the Egyptians could relate to.

If the pole star was considered the most sacred star of all, the point upon which the sky is hung, the abode of the immortal ones and the destiny of Pharaoh, and was noted for not rotating in the sky or rotating only very slowly and, of course, never "dying" by passing below the horizon, it would seem to be a plausible fit to represent Kolob in the astronomical explanations being given to Abraham to aid in teaching Pharaoh. Everything in that passage is being referenced to the earth upon which Abraham stood, as also occurred in the Egyptian model.

Based on several factors, the Book of Abraham not only makes sense in terms of explanations being given in terms of a geocentric model, but also as an excellent way to engage with the Egyptian court and provide teachings in terms they would easily grasp but that could also help teach religious truth without committing a capital offense. It's a brilliant chapter, complete with an Egyptian word play that perfectly fits the scene, ideally crafted for the geocentric model of the Egyptians using concepts and terms that they would readily grasp. It and the writings of John Gee et al. on Abraham 3 deserve a little more respect.  

 

Update, 3/31/2021: One reader raised a good question about the references to the earth's set time, as if the revolution of the earth about its axis were involved. Yes, it seems to me that what was revealed to Abraham included much more than just the geocentric model that he may have needed for effective engagement with the Egyptians. On the other hand, it's also possible that the earth's "set time" was defined as equal to one day based on the all-important impact of the sun's journey on the earth, without necessarily revealing why it was the same. But it also appears that Abraham was shown some scenes through the Urim and Thummim that may have allowed him to have a better feel for the nature of the cosmos and the stars. So it's possible that what Abraham learned was complex and not limited to geocentric views, though I would guess that the advanced perspective was not part of what he shared directly with Pharaoh, thought it may have played a role in their discussion. We really don't know. But there is a reasonable case to believe that more than geocentrism alone was conveyed to Abraham, though I think all the terminology could fit well within Egyptian models except for the set time of the earth, unless its set time was viewed as a direct by product of the sun's effect and this equal to the sun's time of reckoning or set time.


Monday, March 29, 2021

A Highlight from Dan Vogel's Book: A Clever Explanation for the Most Obvious Evidence of Scribes Using an Existing Translation in Making the Book of Abraham Manuscripts

In my previous posts reviewing Dan Vogel's recent Book of Abraham Apologetics (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 2021), including Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, I've noted that Dan has compiled a comprehensive, comprehensible compendium of seemingly compelling arguments against the Book of Abraham. While I strongly disagree with many of his arguments and much of his methodology, he deserves credit for what he has accomplished.  Perhaps the highlight for me in reading his book involved the very creative and almost elegant model he offers to overturn what may be viewed as the most clear-cut evidence that the "smoking gun" Book of Abraham manuscripts (the ones with Egyptian characters in the margins next to part of the Book of Abraham English text) were made by scribes using an already existing manuscript with the English text, contrary to the model of critics in which those documents represent a "window" to the method Joseph used to create the translation.

This evidence of copying from an existing manuscript--one of many such evidences, but probably the most dramatic and difficult to overlook--is the large copying error known as a dittography in Book of Abraham Manuscript A by Frederick G. Williams. A dittography is an error where a scribe accidentally copies text that was already copied, perhaps by mistakenly looking back to an earlier part of the original manuscript. This occurs on the last surviving page of Williams's manuscript

The Joseph Smith Papers website allows you to examine the details of the page with the dittography, Williams' Book of Abraham Manuscript A at page 4, where you can examine both the transcript and a high resolution photo of the document with a zoom function to expand the image. A screenshot of the lower portion of page 4 is below. Next to the characters in the margin, you can see "Now the Lord had said unto me Abraham...." You see the same text begin about two-thirds the way down on the screen shot, shortly before the left margin of the text shifts to the side of the page, creating a strange duplicate section (a dittography) wherein a lengthy section, corresponding to Abraham 2:3 to 2:5, is repeated. It would be highly unlikely, even virtually impossible, for Joseph Smith to accidentally redictate this much text word for word in a purely oral process, especially if he were composing it on the fly. But this kind of error could  occur if Willams were copying an existing document. Theoretically, it could occur in an oral process if the one giving dictation were reading from an existing manuscript, though that seems less likely than simply copying from a text one can see. In the latter case, there would be two minds working that could detect the repeat and catch the error in progress. So I think the only plausible way to view this is that Williams was looking at an existing manuscript as he was copying here. John Gee and others see this as clear evidence that Joseph Smith was not dictating and that the scribes were working with existing translation, totally undermining the proposal that live dictation and translation by Joseph is occurring here. To his credit, Vogel does not ignore this evidence and actually provides what I consider to be a very clever, if not brilliant, explanation that fits with his overall paradigm.

Vogel suggests that when Williams and Warren Parrish allegedly took simultaneous dictation from Joseph to create the similar "twin manuscripts" (Book of Abraham Manuscript A and Manuscript B, respectively), Williams for an unknown reason wrote an extra paragraph of dictation that Parrish did not write (our current Abraham 2:3-5). Parrish later copied that extra text from Manuscript A into Manuscript C, along with the text Parrish had from his own Manuscript B. Manuscript C had been started by W.W. Phelps and originally just had Abraham 1:1-3. It would become what Vogel seeks as the "translation book" creating the key record for the early Book of Abraham translation. Then maybe a week later in late November 1835, Parrish took more dictation of new translated text from Joseph Smith for Abraham 2:6-18. For some reason, Williams later wanted to add some of the new material to his own manuscript. Since his manuscript originally ended with the word "Haran" in "Therefore he continued in Haran," he searched for "Haran" in Parrish's document (a word that occurs multiple times) and found the wrong place, Abraham 2:2, and actually the wrong word, but a similar one. Abraham 2:2 ends with "Who was the daughter of Haron." Seeing "Haron" (not the "Haran" he was looking for), he began copying from the sentence following "daughter of Haron," copying for a second time our current Abraham 2:3 and continued copying a full paragraph of material he had already written, not noticing the duplication. This is really a clever explanation. Kudos!

It's important enough that I will quote directly from Vogel to ensure that his nuanced argument is fully presented. This quotation comes from pages 43 to 46 of my Kindle edition (probably about 21 pages earlier in the printed book since the Kindle version has chapter 1 starting on p. 21):

There is a reconstruction of the events that best explains how the dittograph occurred, and once understood, it becomes clear that this repetition in no way threatens the oral dictation theory. 

When Parrish and Williams recorded from Smith’s dictation, probably on 19 and 20 November 1835, Williams wrote one more paragraph than Parrish. Parrish drew the last hieratic character, but left the remainder of the page blank. 

Next, Parrish copied the English text onto seven pages of the translation book following the half page Phelps had previously scribed, making some slight changes. After skipping a line, Parrish then copied the paragraph that had been dictated in his absence from the Williams document. At this point, Parrish again began writing from Smith’s dictation directly into the book, which, as previously discussed, is evident from the in-line corrections made in his new English text. This possibly occurred on 24 and/or 25 November 1835, which are the last two entries in Smith’s Kirtland journal in which translation is mentioned.

Later, Williams wanted to copy the new text from the translation book into his manuscript to make it complete. The paragraph that Williams last wrote ended with the word “Haran” on a line by itself. As he turned the pages of the translation book looking for a paragraph that ended with that word, Williams would first have come to the top of page 7 and would have accidentally began copying the paragraph that he had already recorded from Smith’s dictation. He was apparently unaware that the next paragraph also ended on the following page with “Haran”. 

What may have added to Williams’s confusion was the blank line before the paragraph and the possibility that either Parrish’s or Williams’s document or both did not have the characters in the margin next to the paragraph. As previously mentioned, Parrish had evidently copied the characters into the margin before copying the English text but, having miscalculated the number of lines, found it necessary to scrape off two groups of characters on page 7, precisely where the dittograph occurs. 

Because he was no longer a scribe recording from oral dictation and was merely recording a second copy of a text that had already been entered into the translation book, Williams saw no need to copy the characters or to maintain the margins and paragraphing. 

We may not know exactly how Williams introduced a paragraph-long dittograph into his document, but the scenario I have proposed explains more of the evidence and facts than Gee’s assertion that the entire document is a copy based on a repeated paragraph at the end. Gee’s explanation cannot explain the presence of clear evidence of simultaneous recording from dictation that appears in the document prior to the dittograph. Nor can it explain the change in Williams’s method of recording that occurs at the point of the dittograph.

The resolution is brilliant. Yes, of course there is a dittography, and of course it was created by copying from the wrong place in an existing manuscript. But the existing manuscript was one based on his own that was copied by Parrish into another document that had added translation from Joseph, so Williams wanted a copy of the new material, but instead started copying a long chunk of what he had just copied a few days earlier. 

This explanation looks good and has convinced a few people, but I'm afraid that those who were convinced didn't ask some of the basic questions or do some basic homework to explore whether Vogel's scenario, clever as it is, really explains the documents we have. 

Pause and reflect: if Williams's dittography were actually a made a week later and was a copy of Parrish's copy of what he had already written, what might we expect to find in terms of the appearance and content of the duplicated section? 

For example, if you keep a journal or a notebook in your own handwriting, do you ever see changes in the appearance? Based on my own journals and my experience in reading letters and documents from others, it's common to see the appearance of handwriting to change between writing sessions. The writer may be relaxed one day, rushed the next, or may be using a different pen, etc., all of which can make two entries from the same person look different. In 1835, scribes without the benefit of mass-produced consistent ball point pens used ink that could vary from one session to the next. Looking at the writing of various individuals in the photographs of the Joseph Smith Papers helps us see just how much the appearance of a scribe's writing can vary. 

Further, if the first time Williams wrote Abraham 2:3-5 was based on oral dictation, while the second time it was a copy of Parrish's copy of his own earlier version of that passage, what differences might we expect to see? 

I suggest there are three tests we can consider for Vogel's proposal, apart from any problems in the chronology that I may address later:

  1. Does the duplicate text, perhaps written several days later, show use of a different ink, different pen, different ink flow, different spacing or slant of the text, or does it look as if it were written in the same session  as the immediately prior text?
  2. Does the 1st occurrence of Abraham 2:3-5 show clear signs of oral dictation and essentially no signs of visual copying?
  3. Does the 2nd occurrence of Abraham 2:3-5 show signs of copying from Parrish's document rather than copying from what may have been (in the model of some LDS apologists) the document that was the source of the first occurrence (and the entire manuscript)?

Vogel failed to ask these questions. It's not enough to offer a clever but convoluted argument that in theory could account for some details when other important details clash with the proposal. Let's consider the three factors. Note that I am using the transcript from the printed Joseph Smith Papers volume on the Book of Abraham, which is considered the final version with some differences relative to the preliminary transcript on the website. Both have errors, but the transcript in the book is more detailed and catches some things that weren't noticed when the website version was done. Most of the corrections I mention for this passage are not shown on the website, only in the book.

1. Different appearance? As Williams begins the dittography, the ink flow, the appearance of the ink, the spacing and slant of his text all continue exactly as before, as far as I can see. I find it difficult to believe that this is inn a new session several days later, now in the new mode of copying from a manuscript when all was oral dictation before.  A change does crop up when Williams abandons the left margin he had been following, but that only occurs after he has copied for a few lines. Regardless of why he allows the margin to drift, his style and ink are indistinguishable from the text above. 

2. Signs of visual copying in the first occurrence? Yes, there are indications of making a visual copy in the first occurrence of the duplicated text, just as there are throughout the rest of the preceding text. For this specific passage, these apparent copying errors include (1) writing "the" instead of "thee," an easy copying mistake to make (dropping one or more letters from a word occurs in both Williams and Parrish, with two more examples of this in the 2nd occurrence when we know that Williams is copying visually--there he drops two letters in "kindred" and more in writing "bro" for "brother's"); (2) writing an "r" to begin the word "land" before changing it to an "l" (this is indicated in the printed book, not the website); (3) initially writing "dem" and changing it to "deno" followed by "minated" to create the word "denominated" (also not indicated on the website's transcript); and (4) initially writing an "s" and then changing it to a "d" for the word "dwelt," which can make sense as a copying error (cursive "s" with an elongated upper peak can look like a "d") but not as a likely error in oral dictation (also not indicated on the website's transcript). Further, this passage has much more punctuation than is typical of scribes, including Williams specifically, when taking dictation of revelation from Joseph Smith, as discussed in my previous post. In this short passage, we have by my count (relying on the printed transcript) 6 commas, 1 period, 2 colons, and 3 semicolons. It's more heavily punctuated than some other parts of Williams's manuscript. Both the errors and the punctuation mark this passage as one more typical of a visually copied text than a scribe taking oral dictation from Joseph Smith. 

3. Is the dittography copied from Parrish's Manuscript C? I find this issue especially interesting. Parrish's version of Abraham 2:3-5, probably copied from Williams, has some notable differences relative to the first occurrence written by Williams. For example, both instances of "therefore" in Parrish follow a comma, not the colons that Williams has, and both are in lowercase, while in Williams both are capitalized. So what happens when Williams allegedly copies the text from Parrish to unknowingly create his dittography? The result is closer to his first occurrence. Both occurrence of "therefore" are capitalized, and one follows a colon and the other a line break where a colon may have been overlooked. Williams's initial colon after "idolitry" and before "Therefore" may have been inserted, according to the transcript in the book, and is missing in the dittography, but there is a line break there followed by the capitalized "Therefore".  Parrish, on the other hand, has "unto his Idolitry, therefore..." which differs twice in capitalization and once in punctuation. 

If Williams were copying from Manuscript C for the dittography, why did he fail to copy the character in the margin where the dittography began? Later, why did he fail to follow Parrish's new paragraph that begins with "But I Abram" and also fail to use the character in the margin that Parrish has there? At the place where Parrish has stopped writing is where Williams creates a dittography and stops using characters -- perhaps they were working together in some way and things changed when Parrish quit and perhaps left (that was a consideration in my prior proposal that Parrish may have been reading aloud to help Williams in making his copy for a while).

It simply doesn't look like Williams has been copying from Parrish, but appears to be using the same source (a source that may have lacked characters), though his punctuation is inconsistent.  For example, a colon in his initial "many flocks in Haran:" becomes a comma in the dittography, with "many flock in Haran," and "many" being inserted above the line. Williams may be getting tired at this point as he is making a large number of errors such as dropping the word "after," writing "bro" for "brothers," writing "sarah" instead of "Sarai," skipping "many" and having to insert it, dropping the "s" on "flocks," and, when he gets to some of the allegedly new material on Parrish's document with a very clear "but I Abram and Lot," dropping the very visible "I" to render "but Abram and Lot." Fatigue and growing errors makes sense if this were all a continuation of a serious session, reaching the end of page 4, versus starting fresh to write down a short passage of new material. Page 4, though, is probably not the end of that session since it ends in the middle of a sentence. Surely there was a page 5 and perhaps more, but no more has survived. Many relevant documents in the translation may have been lost or destroyed, not just a significant portion of the original scrolls but also the text that Williams and Parrish were using to make their copies and perhaps continue helping Phelps by adding new speculative materials to his Grammar and Alphabet, the apparent purpose indicated by the headers on both of the twin documents that refer to the "sign of the fifth degree of the second part," not the kind of header we would expect from Joseph creating a revealed text.

Vogel's hypothetical scenario is interesting but seems to fail basic criteria that we might expect if it were true. Persistent evidence points to the use of an original manuscript during the creation of Book of Abraham Manuscript A prior to the obvious copying that occurred in the dittography. The source for Williams's scribal work doesn't appear to have changed when the dittography occurs. The details of the dittography do not point to Parrish's work in Manuscript C as the source used by Williams. And the appearance of page 4 of Williams's manuscript suggest a continuous session, perhaps with an increasingly weary Williams, rather than a fresh session several days later. 

The dittography and the rest of the twin Book of Abraham manuscripts actually do not fit with Vogel's complex model, offering too much evidence for use of an existing manuscript and a dittography that was a continuation of the same session as the original occurrence of Abraham 2:3-5. Vogel's clever theory does not withstand scrutiny. The dittography still stands as compelling evidence against Vogel's paradigm. Like Ptolemy's concentric spheres in his geocentric model of the cosmos (the topic of my next post in this series), sometimes elegant models that nicely fit some of the facts must be discarded in the end, though we can still admire the cleverness of the outdated model.