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

Sunday, December 08, 2019

Back and Forth with the Book of Abraham: Fascinating Circular Footnotes

One of the things I love about blogging and writing occasional articles for The Interpreter, Meridian Magazine or other places is the ability to get rapid feedback from those with different perspectives and other sources of information. The back and forth in dialog with others is so valuable to me.

As you know, I made the painful choice to criticize some aspects of a generally fabulous production, The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 4: Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts, eds. Robin Scott Jensen and Brian M. Hauglid (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2018), hereafter JSPRT4, due to apparent gaps in scholarship and painful bias in the commentary, footnotes, and numerous subtle editorial decisions. I'm grateful to at least have a response from the JSP Project team, written not by the volume editors but by respected leaders from the JSP Project and the Church History Department, Matthew Grow and Matthew Godfrey, who kindly assure us of the high standards and careful scholarship and review that was involved in producing this Church-funded and highly visible volume.

Since the JSP response was not prepared by the volume's editors who are most familiar with its intricate details, it is not reasonable to expect Matt Grow and Matthew Godfrey to dig into my lengthy critique and give substantial responses to the many technical issues I have raised, nor to spend time answering new questions about their written reply (though multiple questions in the comments section at The Interpreter suggest that some of us are hoping someone from the JSP team will be able to drop by and reply). But in any case, the publication of their response and my rejoinder have led to some vigorous dialog in at comment sections of the relevant articles at The Interpreter and elsewhere, for which I am also quite grateful. The discussion in several forums has been helpful to me and forced me to review some of my own assumptions and to reread some sources. Some of what I've encountered may be helpful to others interested in the origins of the Book of Abraham and its relationship to the unexplained Kirtland Egyptian Papers, and I'll share more on this later. Unfortunately, some new considerations underscore my deepening concerns about JSPRT4.

Most of the specific problems I have  raised about JSPRT4 were not addressed in the JSP team's response, understandably so. But one important issue Grow and Godfrey addressed was my complaint about bias in the volume regarding the timing of the creation of the translation of the Book of Abraham. A number of LDS scholars and writers point to evidence that much if not nearly all of the translation was done in Kirtland, probably by the end of 1835, but JSPRT4 favors the view that most of it came from the Nauvoo era. In response to my complaint about the one-sided way this is handled in JSPRT4, Grow and Godfrey give this assuring statement:
For instance, we believe the evidence suggests that Joseph Smith translated portions of the Book of Abraham in Kirtland and then later in Nauvoo, while Gee asserts that all of the translation occurred in Kirtland. However, contrary to the assertions of both Lindsay and Gee that a particular perspective was “assumed” and those of others were “ignored,” we carefully weighed many perspectives before making such decisions — and we qualify our explanations in terms of their probability. It has been a rich and rewarding process to see the training and expertise of multiple fields come together to produce this complex and valuable resource.
This was assuring. I was glad to here that this issue was discussed and that Grow and Godfrey feel that careful, thoughtful scholarship went into the decision to favor a particular timeline and other issues that seem contrary to the position taken by some other LDS writers. With that assurance fresh in my mind, another issue raised by comments at The Interpreter drove me to look again at JSPRT4's "Historical Introduction" to the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (GAEL). Given Grow and Godfrey's assurance of the careful scholarship that went into the position taken there, I was interested in better understanding the scholarship behind a position that previously struck me as just based on sloppy assumptions.

Circular Footnotes?

On the second page of the "Historical Introduction" for the GAEL, p. 113 in JSPRT4, there are a couple of lines that I had previously marked as just being "an assumption" with a big question mark next to it. Tonight I also noticed I had scrawled a note there saying "bad footnote" but didn't recall what had bothered me about it. I didn't dig into it for my review.  That was a mistake on my part. I should have dug a little deeper to better appreciate the scholarship on a noteworthy issue.

The controversial statements on p. 113 point to the alleged importance of the GAEL to Joseph Smith in Nauvoo and the GAEL's use in the production of the Book of Abraham during the Nauvoo era:
JS and his associates retained the volume and later used it several times in 1842 and 1843.19 This volume was used extensively when JS and his associates published Facsimile 2 and its accompanying explanation in March 1842.20
Though the GAEL project, whatever its purpose, was dropped at an early stage in Kirtland and was purely a Kirtland product, as Blake Ostler noted in an important comment here and at The Interpreter, it is possible that it was still of value in Nauvoo, but it is a controversial opinion and not established fact to simply state that it was "used extensively" in the preparation of comments for Facsimile 2, which is suggested by JSPRT4 to be a product of the Nauvoo era rather than having been largely done in Kirtland. These controversial issues (the use of the GAEL to produce the translation of text or comments on Facsimiles and the dating of the bulk of the work on Facs. 2 to the Nauvoo era) are among many issues where the editors of JSPRT4 favor a controversial position shared by some of our critics and disputed by some leading LDS scholars without adequately alerting the reader that a genuine controversy exists. I find that to be sloppy scholarship, however unintended the apparent bias was (and I believe it was unintended). But as I once again read page 113, it was obvious that I should now dig into the footnotes, given the assurance of the careful scholarship that may have gone into this decision to back a particular position contra Gee and some other LDS scholars.

Here are the footnotes in question as found on pp. 184-5:
19. One source claims that JS misidentified a Greek psalter as a dictionary of Egyptian hieroglyphics in 1842. In spring 1842, a minister named Henry Caswall arrived in Nauvoo, Illinois, incognito, "in order to test the scholarship of the prophet." Caswall, who published an account in a popular anti-Mormon pamphlet that year, wrote that he brought a Greek psalter from roughly the thirteenth century to JS and pretended ignorance of its content and age. According to Caswall, JS called it "a dictionary of the Egyptian Hieroglyphics." The Latter-day Saints published a rebuttal to Caswall's pamphlet, stating that JS had not examined the psalter and observing that Caswall's words and actions did not become is position as a minister. (Caswall, City of the Mormons, 5, 35-36, italics in original; "Reward of Merit," Times and Seasons, 15 Oct. 1843, 43:364-365.)

20. See Historical Introduction to Explanation of Facsimile 2, ca. 15 Mar. 1842, p. 276 herein. 
Footnote 19, the source for the scholarly conclusion that  Joseph Smith "used it [the GAEL] several times in 1842 and 1843," was a reference to an anti-Mormon publication quoting a hostile and admittedly deceptive source that was rebutted by the Church. Wait, seriously? Now I recall what I thought when I first saw this: there must be a typesetting error because the footnote seems so non-sequitur, and I didn't want to nitpick over a mere typographical error. But on rereading, I can see the tenuous connection, the mention of a dictionary. Still, at best, if Caswall were being completely accurate and Joseph did call some Greek psalms "a dictionary of the Egyptian Hieroglyphics," how does that tell us anything about Joseph's ongoing use of the GAEL in Nauvoo? "Bad footnote" indeed! (And why do hostile sources seem to be relied on for some critical issues when relevant sources from LDS scholars are so often neglected?)

If readers were to see Caswall's actual words in context, the words criticized by the Church in 1843, his lack of reliability would have been even more clear. Those words are cited and discussed on the FAIRMormon page about this "Greek psalter" incident:
He [Joseph Smith] has a downcast look, and possesses none of that open and straightforward expression which generally characterizes an honest man. His language is uncouth and ungrammatical, indicating very confused notions respecting syntactical concords. When an ancient Greek manuscript of the Psalms was exhibited to him as a test of his scholarship, he boldly pronounced it to be a "Dictionary of Egyptian Hieroglyphics." Pointing to the capital letters at the commencement of each verse, he said, "Them figures is Egyptian hieroglyphics, and them which follows is the interpretation of the hieroglyphics, written in the reformed Egyptian language. Them characters is like the letters that was engraved on the golden plates."
Here is what we learn from FAIRMormon on this issue:
It was claimed by Henry Caswall that an ancient text of Greek psalms (a "psalter") was misidentified by Joseph Smith as a containing "reformed Egyptian" hieroglyphics.

There is no other evidence of Caswall's claim save his anti-Mormon work. That Caswall took no steps in Nauvoo to get Joseph on record is fatally suspicious, since this was the entire reason he claimed to be there. He is also clearly attempting to make Joseph Smith appear uncouth and ignorant, having him say "them plates" and "them characters", when this contrasts markedly with other known examples of Joseph's speaking and writing style at the time. [1] Furthermore, Joseph was familiar enough with Greek to recognize Greek characters, and so is unlikely to have mistaken them for an unknown language—even if we believe Joseph was attempting to deceive Caswall, it seems unlikely he would fail to recognize the characters of a language he had studied.

Those who tell this story rarely provide the source details for the tale, and do not inform their readers about John Taylor's witness regarding Caswall's later dishonesty....
There is much more pointing to Caswall's dishonesty, his hostile intent, his contradictions of aspects his story elsewhere, making his statement an utterly ridiculous and hostile source to turn to for such an important point that footnote 19 supposedly supports. But again, even if Caswall were utterly accurate and honest in his account, at best it tells us that Joseph mistook some Greek writing for an Egyptian dictionary. It tells us absolutely nothing about Joseph's use of the GAEL. Am I missing something? There may be ways to better support their argument, but as printed, footnote 19 is a disaster that suggests at least a minor glitch in the scholarship. That happens occasionally with many good scholars and is the kind of thing that can readily be fixed with an errata page. There is an errata page for JSPRT4, but this bad footnote is not included, nor are any of the problems I have pointed out addressed there. I look forward to seeing what interesting finds were perhaps meant to be cited in footnote 19.

Footnote 19 arguably deals with a minor issue. Much more important is footnote 20, telling us that the GAEL "was used extensively when JS and his associates published Facsimile 2 and its accompanying explanation in March 1842." As the editors imply elsewhere in JSPRT4, they are suggesting that the GAEL served as a source for at least some content in the Book of Abraham, rather than the position of multiple LDS scholars that the GAEL is much more likely to have been derived from the existing translation. This is a crucial issue that deserves the utmost caution and careful scholarship. And if the scholarly process described by Grow and Godfrey were used for this and other controversial issues, one would expect the supporting documentation to be impressive. The supporting scholarship cited in footnote 20 points to another section of JSPRT4 at page 276. Fair enough. So let's dig in.

Here's the relevant text on p. 276:
No evidence indicates that JS studies any of the hieroglyphics from the hypocephalus in his 1835 effort to understand the Egyptian language. However, the explanation of Facsimile 2 is clearly related to that effort, since some of the entries in this document borrow heavily from the Grammar and Alphabet volume.97
There it is, a footnote that should finally justify the scholarly conclusion that the GAEL is the source for some of the explanations of Facsimile 2 since Facsimile 2's comments "borrow heavily" from the GAEL and not the other way around. At this point, I didn't recall having paid much attention to this statement and its footnote, and in light of Grow and Godrey's assurances, I was now keenly curious to see what new finds were hidden there to justify the controversial statements on p. 113 and 276.

Now here's the important and instructive footnote 97 from page 292, the one that gives support to critically important statements made on p. 276, which in turn is the source for a similar critically important statement made on p. 113:
97. See Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language, ca. July--ca. Nov. 1835, p. 113 herein. 
Or, if I may be so bold as to paraphrase:
97. To see the support for our controversial statement on page 276 that is cited as the support for our similar controversial statement on page 113, please read our original controversial statement on page 113 and see its footnote which will refer you to page 276 and its footnote 97 (i.e., this footnote). And so on.
Circular footnotes! Fascinating, but somehow not as convincing as I was expecting. I am sure that something more than self-referential fantasy was intended here.

In fairness, this could have just been an unfortunate mistake and the detailed scholarship behind the conclusion was accidentally left out through typographical errors or some other unintended glitch, but in any case, it points to an obvious defect in JSPRT4 that demands some kind of correction, even if the apparent bias and unfounded assumptions related to these issues have profound scholarly support with evidence that was carefully considered by many scholars.

Of course, given the pervasive errors in JSPRT4 that tend to align with the views of critics but without adequate scholarship to support those views and often without a fair recognition that a controversy even exists, there is a need to provide much more than simply a list of a few revised footnotes. Now that JSPRT4 is being cited by some outside sources to create the impression that the Church has taken a stance on some controversies such as long scroll vs. short scroll (as mentioned in one of the comments at The Interpreter), there is a need for added clarity. Did the Church really decide to endorse the particular viewpoints on various controversies woven into JSPRT4, choosing to overturn the positions of Gee, Muhlenstein, Nibley, and others, or was it not even noticed that such positions were subtly being taken? I think the Church was focused on the deliverables of getting the documents and the transcriptions published, without noticing the problems woven into the many hidden assumptions in this volume. The assurances of good scholarship are welcome, but those assurances don't seem to align with the details I see in the text when it comes to some of the most important and often hidden controversies.

I welcome your views. 

Friday, December 06, 2019

New Video on a Few Evidences of Antiquity in the Book of Abraham: Kudos to Pearl of Great Price Central

A few evidences for the ancient roots of the Book of Abraham are provided in an interesting new video from the Pearl of Great Price Central. It doesn't include some that we have discussed here before, such as the apparent Egyptian wordplay behind Abraham's discourse on stars and souls in Abraham 3, the accuracy of some of the comments for Facs. 2 such as the four sons of Horus representing the four quarters of the earth, the simple observation that the posture of Osiris/Abraham in Facs. 1 matches the hieroglyph for prayer or supplication (rotated 90 degrees), or the numerous parallels to specific elements in the Book of Abraham that can be found in various ancient traditions and texts, most of which could not have been accessed by Joseph (though Josephus mentions Abraham's fascination with astronomy, for example). But it does raise some important topics.

One of the presented evidences given can be challenged by noting that Joseph learned about the plural nature of "Elohim" in his Hebrew studies and so could have revised his translation of Abraham 5 to refer to "the Gods." But the bull's eye for the ancient concept of the council of the gods still strikes me as impressive and not something Joseph would have picked up from his local library or itinerant preachers, but in Joseph's secret study of world literature, when he turned to the Iliad, he might have noticed the ancient Greek concept of "the council of the gods" among pagan gods. Bingo -- that explains it! Or maybe Hebrew study helped lead to that concept. But its origin for Joseph may have started with what he learned in his translation of the Book of Abraham, however that was done.

For more insight on just how interesting, ancient, and appropriate that concept is, be sure to see Stephen O. Smoot, "Council, Chaos, and Creation in the Book of Abraham," Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22/2 (2013): 28–39.

It's an easily digested video just under 10 minutes, but hopefully it will lead some to further study on these topics. There are links below the video on the PGP Central page that can take you into the supporting details for the evidences presented.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

No, We Are Not Decanonizing the Book of Abraham

In my previous post, I noted that faithful members of the Church can hold various theories about the Book of Abraham, and one can even feel that it is "inspired fiction" without being considered an apostate. One anonymous person strongly objected and was shocked that I could say such a thing, fearing that the Church is losing its roots by decanonizing the Book of Abraham. I want to make sure people understand that neither I nor the Church (as far as I know!) are calling for decanonizing anything.

One can also see the story of Job as fictional but inspired, a story to teach us of God's mercy and our need for patience in affliction. The very ancient era of the patriarchs is murky. All accounts about them have questionable and puzzling elements. Some faithful Jewish and Christian scholars aren't sure there even was a historical Abraham (for the record, I believe there was). If not, a Jewish account that became an Egyptian text of interest to some Egyptian priests in ancient Thebes could have been translated in 1835 by the gift and power of God to give us a pseudepigraphical text (a text falsely ascribed to a particular source) that may have religious value, even scriptural value, and may be a true miracle in spite of some murkiness.

If a member believes that the Book of Abraham is inspired, even miraculous, but has some doubts about its literal historical accuracy, is that member on the path to perdition? Is that member's faith in question? Should we add a question to the list of temple recommend questions to screen out such infidels? Of course not. One can believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and yet hold that he was mortal, that he made mistakes, and that his translation of the Book of Abraham has flaws, while still accepting that it is a vehicle that gives us revelation and truth. Flaws, murkiness, uncertainty in the mode of translation, the possibilities of human errors -- these issues affect all scripture, unfortunately. There's no need to panic or decanonize anything, but there may be a need to temper our expectations of perfection when it comes to prophets, ancient records, and even modern scripture. It's a murky world.

If there are stories in the Old Testament that didn't really happen the way they are recorded, it doesn't mean we have to abandon the Bible. If Abraham's account, even though translated by an authorized prophet using prophetic gifts, didn't happen exactly as that text relates, it does not mean we need to abandon the Book of Abraham. A pseudepigraphical text can still be ancient, authentic, and contain precious and revealed truth, or can be a vehicle for a prophet to teach revealed truth. So it can be "inspired fiction" or, better said, a divinely provided tool to teach us inspired truths, even if Abraham didn't actually teach astronomy in the Egyptian court. But, for the record, I personally think that he did. My testimony of the Gospel of Jesus Christ does not depend on that. My faith in God does not depend on that. If Abraham only taught astronomy to a few shepherds in Canaan, or if the astronomical material was edited into a Book of Abraham text by some well-meaning scribe with an inspired passion for cosmology, so be it. I'll be OK, and hope you will, too.

Our records and our knowledge are incomplete, imperfect, and often murky. We anxiously look forward to more light and knowledge.

Viva Dialog! The JSP Team Responds to My Complaints About Their Volume on the Book of Abraham

A few of you may have noticed that the Joseph Smith Papers team has publicly responded to my unfortunate complaints about bias and flawed scholarship in their volume on the Book of Abraham, Volume 4 of The Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations and Translations (hereafter JSPRT4). I say "unfortunate" not just because it must be annoying and frustrating to have a fellow member of the Church complain about such a beautiful and carefully crafted work, but even more unfortunate because there may be a legitimate basis for the complaints. This is one case where I would gladly be wrong, and would have welcomed a correction that clearly rebutted my objections and showed exactly where I went wrong in questioning the scholarship and finding bias in the work. The response is truly welcome, but in my opinion, does not resolve the fundamental and detailed issues I have raised both at The Interpreter ("A Precious Resource with Some Gaps") and also at Meridian Magazine.

The response is given in Matthew J. Grow and Matthew C. Godfrey, "The Joseph Smith Papers and the Book of Abraham: A Response to Recent Reviews," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 34 (2020): 97-104. Matthew J. Grow is managing director of the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a general editor of the Joseph Smith Papers. He served as director of publications at the Church History Department from 2010 to 2019. He has a PhD in American history from the University of Notre Dame. Matthew C. Godfrey is a general editor and the managing historian of the Joseph Smith Papers. He holds a PhD in American and public history from Washington State University. It's an honor to have a response from both of these fine men. I was puzzled, though, why the response was not from the co-editors of the volume. Nevertheless, I appreciate the thoughtful comments they made and the time they took to both read my articles.

They do assure us that good methodology was followed and state that my complaint about the neglect of Nibley is an inappropriate call for "historiagraphy," the detailed history of who said what, when that is not the purpose of the JSP Project. I appreciate both of these points, but find that they do not adequately address the key issues raised. I explain this in my rejoinder that was also published the same day as their reply. See Jeff Lindsay, "A Welcome Response, but Flaws Remain," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 34 (2020): 105-112.

John Gee's rejoinder to Brothers Grow and Godfrey is given in John Gee, "Taking Stock," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 34 (2020): 113-118. He also feels that the many specific issues he raised have not yet been resolved, but also expresses gratitude for the response.

One thing still puzzles me in the carefully written reply of Grow and Godfrey. In their conclusion, they state:
Scholarly communities thrive when their members engage in vigorous debates of ideas rather than attacks on the character of colleagues. We reject the notion that calling into question the faith of fellow Latter-day Saints has any place in public discourse — scholarly or otherwise.
I fully agree with this, and I think most people would. So why state this? Why did they feel a need to say this in their response to what John Gee and I have written? My article expressly points out that faithful Latter-day Saints can hold a wide variety of views on the origins of the Book of Abraham, including the personal views of the editors of JSPRT4 that seem to be favored in the handling of many details. I have explicitly pointed out that I am not attacking the editors' faith nor calling them apostates. My issue is not with their faith nor their right to have differing views. It is flawed scholarship that I am objecting to. The same applies to John Gee's critiques: I see no evidence that he is questioning faithfulness, only scholarship.

In the first comment posted for Grow and Godfrey's reply, I made this query:
I believed my original article made it clear that members of the Church can, in good faith, take a variety of views on the origins of the Book of Abraham, and that I was not calling anyone’s faith into question. As I read your reply once again, that statement comes across as an undeserved rebuke. Could you explain where I went wrong? I also don’t think John Gee wrote anything that could be interpreted as denying the faithfulness of the co-editors.

My objective was to point out problems with bias and flawed scholarship, not to question anyone’s faith. Please let me know where I went wrong.
So far, over a week later, there has been no response. I hope that they were simply thinking of what other Latter-day Saints might say who are unhappy to see the unfortunate bias in JSPRT4, but it would have then been helpful to be a little more clear. As written, the statement seems to imply that at least one of us complainers is unfairly questioning somebody's faith. Or am I just being overly sensitive? Would not be the first time!

From my perspective, to engender vigorous debate and dialog, scholars should not respond to challenges about their scholarship by suggesting that a critic is unfairly questioning their faith. That's not a properly played card in this case. The objections John Gee and I have raised are, as far as I can tell, directed to the scholarship (is it accurate? is it biased? is it misleading?) and not the faithfulness of any of the JSP team. That some positions I disagree with are used by critics to undermine faith does not mean that the position or theory is "apostate," no more than modern science is inherently apostate, though it can be used (misused, rather) to undermine faith. The various positions I find in JSPRT4 that I disagree with are expressly stated to be within the realm of what faithful members can believe.

There are good members who see the Book of Abraham as Joseph's inspired fiction, a vehicle to convey some inspiring big ideas. I disagree with that position, but one can believe it and still sincerely accept the divinity of the Restoration, Christ as our Savior,  etc. Our faith does not depend on exactly what the Book of Abraham is or how it came to be, but I do think we need to treat the Book of Abraham with care and sensitivity given how its many puzzles are often exploited to undermine faith, which is part of why I hope the JSP Team will recognize that there are valid reasons for being concerned about the subtle put pervasive bias shown in their volume. But if I have been questioning the faith of others in my criticisms, please let me know where I acted improperly so I can make a retraction, issue an apology, or do whatever is needed to fix the problem. Hopefully, though, I'm just over-reacting. In any case, viva dialog and discussion!

Monday, November 25, 2019

The Christ Child: Best Nativity Video I've Seen, New from LightTheWorld.org

This 18-minute video about the Nativity is beautifully filmed and sweetly conveys some of the joy and hope that came with the birth of the Savior. It's the best version of the Nativity that I've seen. A new Christmas gift for all of us from LightTheWorld.org.

The dialog is all in Aramaic Hebrew without subtitles, but they aren't needed. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Review of Terryl Givens and Brian Hauglid, The Pearl of Greatest Price: Mormonism's Most Controversial Scripture

A new book related to the Pearl of Great Price has just been published by two well-known LDS scholars, Dr. Terryl Givens and Dr. Brian Hauglid, both currently associated with the Maxwell Institute at BYU. The book is The Pearl of Greatest Price: Mormonism's Most Controversial Scripture (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2019). Givens, one of my favorite LDS thinkers and writers, is noted for intelligent treatments of Latter-day Saint scripture and life in works such as The God Who Weeps and By the Hand of Mormon, etc. Hauglid has years of experience in dealing with the Book of Abraham in particular and is one of the co-editors of the high-profile Book of Abraham volume from the Joseph Smith Papers Project. Unfortunately, I and John Gee have independently felt compelled to point out some serious gaps and biases in that volume, some of which appear to have been imported into The Pearl of Greatest Price (my review and John Gee's review are both at The Interpreter, and I provide some additional information in an article for Meridian Magazine). The cover of The Pearl of Greatest Price indicates it is by Terryl Givens “with Brian Hauglid,” perhaps indicating that Hauglid’s contribution is secondary or perhaps largely focused on the Book of Abraham material.

The Pearl of Greatest Price explores the history and impact upon the Church for each of the several parts of the Pearl of Great Price, namely, the Book of Moses, the Book of Abraham, the History of Joseph Smith, and the Articles of Faith. In general, these are presented with scholarly attention to detail, and with a broad awareness of how members and critics have responded to the content and occasionally misunderstandings about the content of these work. That alone makes the book a worthwhile read.

I offer praise for most of this work, in spite of occasional disagreement, particularly a few aspects of  the treatment of the Book of Abraham.

I particularly enjoyed the insights into how the Articles of Faith responded to the environment of persecution the Church faced and yet took strong stands on some issues that would further ruffle feathers of our religious critics, while avoiding a number of more sensitive issues.

The treatment of Joseph Smith’s history was also thorough and insightful. Givens plausibly suggests that Joseph initially saw his sacred experience as a very personal, private experience, but gradually saw the need to let others know some of what happened, in part at least to correct misinformation that his enemies were spreading about him. There is a tendency for some to interpret his various accounts as if Joseph were making the story up and simply adding grander embellishments over time. Here it might have been helpful to point to some of the early evidence showing that Joseph had shared key parts of his First Vision account that did not make it into his public written accounts until years later. There is no mention of an important work, Richard L. Anderson's "Circumstantial Confirmation of the First Vision Through Reminiscences," BYU Studies 9/3 (1969): 1-27, or a variety of other resources on the issue. If elements from the later versions of Joseph's First Vision account were already known to some others years before they were put into print for the public, then skeptical hostile arguments about Joseph fabricating new embellishments to his story over time become less tenable. Of course, Givens is not seeking to resolve heated debates, but to explore Joseph's teachings, his views and his journey as he shared different aspects of his experience over time. As such, his treatment is a worthwhile and interesting contribution to understanding the First Vision.

The treatment of the Book of Moses, as thorough and scholarly as it is, seems to take it as an evolutionary product of Joseph’s ideas rather than leaving the door open to the possibility that it might have been a revelation in some way related to an ancient text. Givens discusses the intertextuality of the Book of Moses with the Doctrine and Covenants, but would have been more complete if he had noted the surprising elements of intertextuality with the Book of Mormon that suggest a one-way dependency of the Book of Mormon with the Book of Moses, or perhaps an ancient related document on the brass plates that had a significant impact on several Book of Mormon writers, particularly Nephi, Jacob, Alma, and Mormon. The foundational work in this area was published by Noel Reynolds years ago and has recently been significantly expanded. If there were is an ancient Book of Moses related to ours that was had on the Nephite’s brass plates, then we may need to look at the Book of Moses as something more than Joseph’s personal but inspired or inspiring musings. See Noel Reynolds, “The Brass Plates Version of Genesis” (link is to a PDF of a scanned image of pages from a book) in John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks, eds., By Study and Also by Faith: Essays in Honor of Hugh W. Nibley on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday, 27 March 1990, 2 vols. (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), 2:136–173, recently republished in The Interpreter (I recommend the latter version for enhanced readability). For additional data extending Reynolds' work, see Jeff Lindsay, “‘Arise from the Dust’: Insights from Dust-Related Themes in the Book of Mormon (Part 1: Tracks from the Book of Moses),” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 22 (2016): 179-232.

Givens recognizes the debate that exists regarding evidence for ancient origins of at least some of the content in the Book of Moses. He notes that there is an affinity with 1 Enoch, a text that Joseph theoretically could have encountered after its translation into English in 1821 in London, and cites voices on both sides of the debate. For the argument that Joseph must have had access to and relied on First Enoch, he cites Michael Quinn and Salvatore Cirillo's 2010 thesis, while noting on the other hand that Richard Bushman finds it "scarcely conceivable" that Joseph could have known of 1 Enoch. Givens moves on and says he is not interested in resolving the debate but in "plumbing" the nature of the parallels between the Book of Moses and the Enoch tradition and the modifications that Joseph produced, "asking what they reveal about his prophetic project, and how they factored into the shaping of Latter-day Saint writings and teachings" (p. 47). Fair enough, but perhaps a word or two more on the debate would have been worthwhile.

What is overlooked is that while the relationships to the Enoch tradition include some interesting parallels to 1 Enoch, anyone examining that text will be hard-pressed to explain how it could have served as a source for Joseph. Its major themes and most striking elements are generally absent in the Book of Moses. Further, some of the most striking parallels to the ancient Enoch tradition are not found in anything Joseph could have theoretically accessed in 1830, but are found in later publications of ancient texts such as 2 Enoch, 3 Enoch, and the Qumran Book of Giants. It is in these sources, especially the Book of Giants, where the strongest evidences for ancient origins in the Book of Moses may be found. Such evidence may have been overlooked to hastily. Givens does not mention, for example, the occurrence of the names Mahujah and Mahijah in contexts that are consistent with their ancient occurrence. Attempts to explain away the multiple detailed connections between the Book of Moses and ancient Enochian traditions fail on multiple counts, as explained in detail by Jeffrey M. Bradshaw and Ryan Dahle in "Could Joseph Smith Have Drawn on Ancient Manuscripts When He Translated the Story of Enoch?: Recent Updates on a Persistent Question," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 33 (2019): 305-374.

The treatment of the Book of Abraham, as noted above, was the primary source of disappointment with this generally useful volume.  I was disappointed but not surprised at the blind spots in the treatment of the Book of Abraham, given that many of these gaps were already identified in the approach of the recent publication by Brian Hauglid and Robin Jensen as co-editors for Joseph Smith Papers Project volume on the Book of Abraham. Readers of this blog may already be familiar with my concerns. For a summary, see Jeff Lindsay, "A Precious Resource with Some Gaps," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 33 (2019): 13-104, and Jeff Lindsay, "Dealing with 'Friendly Fire' on the Book of Abraham," Meridian Magazine, 2019. Many of the same problems are found here, resulting in flawed conclusions that suggest the Book of Abraham was more of a product of Joseph's environment and own imagination than the product of actually translating or restoring something ancient, whether it was physically on the papyri or not.

One positive difference in this volume relative to the Joseph Smith Papers' volume on the Book of Abraham, involves Dr. Hugh Nibley, the most prolific and arguably most influential LDS scholar to have tackled many aspects of the Book of Abraham, the papyri, and the Kirtland Egyptian Papers. Nibley's name is not mentioned once in any of the extensive commentary or 1000-plus footnotes of the Joseph Smith Papers volume that Hauglid co-edited, consistent with his recent "coming out" as one who finds LDS apologetics to be "abhorrent." Fortunately, this gap has been overcome in The Pearl of Greatest Price. Not only is Nibley cited and discussed, but a few of the views of LDS apologists are also mentioned. For example, the book cites the views of Nibley, Stephen Smoot, and Quinten Barney on the relationship between ancient temple texts and practices and the Book of Abraham (p. 152). Also mentioned is the appearance of Abraham's name in a variety of texts and ancient traditions related to temple worship, a pet theme of Nibley. He is mentioned many other times. That's a welcome relief.

But many problems remain. Givens and Hauglid discuss 19th century Egyptomania and recognize that it was fueled by the artifacts Napoleon brought back to Europe, but fail to recognize that foremost among these artifacts was the Rosetta Stone, and that Egyptomania was fueled by the artifact in particular and especially by the widespread recognition that Champollion had to some degree cracked the code of Egyptian by seeking to translate it. This was big news and a quick search of early nineteenth-century newspapers in the US shows that Champollion's name was a household item, even in Ohio, in Joseph's day. I can't fathom widespread Egyptomania in 1835 without Champollion and a basic understanding of what Champollion had done. However, the The Pearl of Greatest Price, like Hauglid's volume for the Joseph Smith Papers, assumes that Joseph did not know that Egyptian had been determined to be a largely alphabetic language, and that Joseph somehow still clung to the very old notion that it was a mystical, oracular language in which one character could contain a world of meaning, thus explaining how Joseph allegedly and foolishly "translated" many dozens of English words from a single character, as critics claim Joseph Smith did and as the Joseph Smith Papers volume tends to suggest in its biased discussion of the Book of Abraham manuscripts that have some characters in the margins. Such notions are belied by Joseph's own statements regarding "reformed Egyptian" and by the statements in the Book of Mormon about the nature of the language being used. I was disappointed that this flawed view persisted in this volume. Articles criticizing Hauglid's errors in this regard and on many other issues had been published long before this volume came out, though he and Givens may not have noticed them or may not have had time to reconsider prior to the publication.

Another issue is the tendency to favor the Book of Abraham as a translation produced in some kind of evolving intellectual process using the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language or the Egyptian Alphabet documents in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, though the authors at least recognize that the possibility that Joseph dictated the Book of Abraham "in a flow of oracular inspiration cannot be entirely ruled out" (p. 174). An examination of the texts in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, in my opinion, shows that the most plausible viewpoint is that the translation came first, followed by use of the translation to support whatever intellectual objective was being pursued with the Kirtland Egyptian Papers. For example, the "twin" manuscripts with characters in the margins and translated text in the right should not be seen as "windows" into how Joseph translated text in live dictation, as Hauglid has argued, but as a product of Joseph's scribes as they work with an existing text of Book of Abraham translation to create more entries for a particular unfinished section of the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language. One of several important and hard-to-miss clues for that conclusion is the very title given at the top of the twin manuscripts. Given what we know from the translation process Joseph used to create the Book of Mormon and the Book of Moses as well as the restoration of an ancient text in Doctrine and Covenants Section 7, there is no reason to believe that Joseph went about the translation of the Book of Abraham in any other way. The KirtlandEgyptian Papers do not give an window into his translation method, but tell us something else about an intellectual project whose objectives and reasons for abandonment are unclear. Further, Joseph's journal mentions creating an alphabet "to" the Book of Abraham, not "for the translation of the Book of Abraham," as if the translated text were the source for creating the alphabet.

Givens and Hauglid rely on the  common assumption that Doctrine and Covenants Section 9's language about studying things out in one's mind applies to the translation process, but this is another assumption that may be flawed. Important scholarship on this issue needs to be considered. See Stan Spencer, "The Faith to See: Burning in the Bosom and Translating the Book of Mormon in Doctrine and Covenants 9," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 18 (2016): 219-232. Also see my post, “It Depends on What the Meaning of ‘It’ Is: Reconsidering the ‘Burning in the Bosom’ and ‘Studying It Out’ in Doctrine and Covenants 9,” Mormanity, Dec. 12, 2018.

In By the Hand of Mormon, Givens evinces good familiarity with many of the evidentiary strengths of the Book of Mormon and shows no inherent aversion toward apologetics. For example, he discusses the discovery of the male name Alma in an ancient Jewish land deed and even shows an image of the document validating the much-maligned male name Alma in the Book of Mormon. He discusses apparent  Hebraisms, chiasmus, and other strengths of the Book of Mormon, and discusses recent findings that may fortify some of the potential weak spots. In The Pearl of Greatest Price, however, there seems to be somewhat less awareness of the evidence supporting the ancient roots of the Book of Abraham and the Book of Moses and perhaps more reluctance to point out the strengths of both, but perhaps that would be outside the intended scope of the work.

However, in the section on the Book of Abraham, Givens and Hauglid do mention the discovery of a plausible candidate for Olishem mentioned in Abraham 1:10 (p. 168) and note Kerry Muhlenstein's work showing that human sacrifice did occur in several forms in ancient Egypt, adding plausibility to the account in the Book of Abraham (p. 168). Parallels to the ancient biography of Idrimi are also mentioned (p. 169). Awareness of these issues is much appreciated. Many more could be mentioned, such as the various issues that have been raised at Pearl of Great Price Central and many other sources.

Granted, Givens' purpose is not to resolve debates on the origins of the Book of Abraham, but for some of the controversies and issues that are raised, I wish there had been slightly more awareness of the strengths of that text and the weakness in some of the arguments against it.

Overall, though, there is much to learn from The Pearl of Greatest Price and a few things for healthy debate. The book a valuable contribution, in spite of my objections on a few points.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Travel Tip for the Netherlands: Visit the Amsterdam Ward!

Some of the best experiences on my travels to various parts of the world have occurred when I was able to attend local a local church service. Always something interesting to experience and learn and we will often find new friends and intriguing people whose stories add rich color to the travel experience.

On Sunday, October 20, I was in Amsterdam at the beginning of an intense trip involving an intellectual property event there and a business trip to Cambridge in the UK. One of the best short trips of my life with so many highlights, but I think the best part of that wonderful visit to Europe was the chance to visit the Amsterdam Ward on Sunday. What a delightful, loving group of people from all over the world.

The Amsterdam Ward building is on a quiet, narrow street, a facility that the Saints in Amsterdam built and funded themselves at great sacrifice with financial donations and donated labor. It was truly a work of love from deeply faithful people. The couple below, the Jansens, and their son gave me permission to share the photo.  They were part of the group that built the building and were so happy to have it be finished and dedicated in 1971. Another son of theirs, Johan Jansen, is the head chef for the dining establishments at the Joseph Smith Building in Salt Lake City, where I have sampled the good and affordable food at the Nauvoo Cafe, maybe the most casual and inexpensive place there. Love their chicken pot pie and salads. Johan is also known for his "Cooking with Johan" videos on Youtube.

Here are some views of the building and the neighborhod.

The main speaker in the sacrament meeting at the Amsterdam Ward impressed me with what seemed like a solid, scripturally-rooted talk with strong delivery that made it interesting, even with the inherent limitations of on-the-fly translation. But an extremely delightful highlight was the musical number, a soloist with piano accompaniment of "Oh the Song We'll Sing." As performed, it may have been the most beautiful hymn I've heard, but it's one I've somewhat neglected all my life. So beautiful. The soloist was so good I suspected she was a professional singer. When I chatted with her and some of her fans afterwards, I learned that this was Sister Angela Bower, a professional opera singer from the States who was here in the Netherlands performing in the Mozart opera, Cosi Fan Tutti, and just had a couple performances left before completing that significant project and returning the U.S. She was remarkably gracious and it was so kind of her to share her skills and devotion for the Lord in that performance that the Ward requested from her. Unforgettably beautiful. Bravo! And unlike many celebrities who do attend sacrament meeting, I was impressed that she stayed for Sunday School and actively participated. Cool!

I also met some wonderful missionaries who impressed me. Took a photo of one, Elder David Gerrits, shared with permission. He has been in the Netherlands serving in Amsterdam for many weeks while waiting for his visa to Dutch-speaking Surinam to be granted, and now is finally on his way to the MTC briefly and then on to Surinam. Had a great conversation with him and found he was highly interested in many Book of Mormon issues and evidences, which we discussed for a while before sacrament meeting began. Sharp Elder and very interesting.

There is a nest built by storks on the top of the building, which has been taken as an auspicious sign by some of the members, one of whom spoke to me about "the miracle of the storks." Amazing birds. Saw the nest but didn't get to see any storks on my visit.

This was my third trip to Amsterdam. Love the people there and the food, especially the cheese, bread, and butter. I was honestly stunned by how good the butter is -- such a simple material, one might think, but to me the local butter there is the best I've ever tasted. Simple bread and butter can be a feast there. And one that's easy on the wallet.

One of the benefits of visiting a local church unit is that you can usually get a free copy of the Book of Mormon in the local language and often in English (which everyone seems to speak in Holland) that you might be able to give out later. I picked up an English copy with the help of the Elders and was able to give it out to a very interesting man I met two days later. He turned out to be a minister and a man with a rich faith in Christ. It was a pleasure to hear his story and learn from his experiences as we discussed some things of common interest. Was grateful I had a copy of the Book of Mormon to share with that fine man.

Holland is a place really worth visiting, and I hope you'll be sure to include a visit to the Amsterdam Ward. It was a highlight, maybe the top highlight, of this trip.

Much Ado About Creation Ex Nihilo

Robert Boylan in Ireland makes some salient points in his review of a recent debate between the Latter-day Saint Kwaku El and the Evangelical Jeremy Howard. I especially liked Robert's scholarly insights into Romans 4:17, which is often misused to support the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. What follows is that portion of Boylan's post (footnotes deleted), which contains some useful scriptural, theological, and historical insights:

When the Bible speaks of God “creating,” [Jeremy Howard] reads into that “ex nihilo.”
With respect to Rom 4:17, as Blake wrote in his article, Paul is speaking of the future resurrection:

Romans 4:17. Copan and Craig next cite Romans 4:17 KJV: "even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were (καλοῦντος τὰ μὴ ὄνταὡς ὄντα)." There are two possible translations of Romans 4:17. The majority translation does not entail creation out of nothing: "[Abraham] is our father in the presence of God whom he believed—the God who makes the dead alive and summons the things that do not yet exist as though they already do."[15] Another translation indicates that God "calls into existence the things which do not exist" (New American Bible, NAB). The first translation is preferred for several reasons. First, Keith Norman has pointed out that it is contradictory for God to call to that which does not exist.[16] Second, as Moo stated, "this interpretation fits the immediate context better than a reference to God's creative power, for it explains the assurance with which God can speak of the 'many nations' that will be descended from Abraham."[17] Thus, the preferred translation merely states that God summons the future reality of the resurrection as if it already existed. This seems to me to be a far better fit with the context.
Third, as Hubler comments: "The verse's 'non-existent' need not be understood in an absolute sense of non-being. μὴ ὄντα (mē onta) refers to the previous non-existence of those things which are now brought into existence. There is no direct reference to the absence or presence of a material cause."[18] In other words, the Greek text suggests the view that God has brought about a thing that did not existas that thing before it was so created. For example, this use of μὴ ὄντα is logically consistent with the proposition that "God called forth the earth when before that the earth did not exist." However, the fact that the earth did not exist as the earth before it was so created does not address the type of material that was used to make it.
Note also that Romans 4:17 uses the negative μή, which refers to merely relative nonbeing and not to absolute nothing, as required by the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. At this point it is important to understand a bit about the ancient concept of matter in the Greek-speaking world and the distinction between relative nonbeing (Greek μὴ ὄντα) and absolute nothing (Greek οὐκ ὄντως). Platonic philosophy—both Neoplatonism and Middle Platonism—posited the existence of an eternal substratum that was material but was nevertheless so removed from the One Ground of Being that it was often said to not have "real" existence. As Jonathan Goldstein observes: "Platonists called pre-existent matter 'the non-existent.'"[19] This relative nonexistence is indicated by the Greek negative μή, meaning "not" or "non-," in conjunction with the word for existence or being.[20] When the early Christian theologians speak of creation that denies that there was any material state prior to creation, however, they use the Greek negation ουκ, meaning "not in any way or mode." As Henry Chadwick explained the usage in Clement's Stromata: "In each case the phrase he employs is ek me ontos not ex ouk ontos; that is to say, it is made not from that which is absolutely non-existent, but from relative non-being or unformed matter, so shadowy and vague that it cannot be said to have the status of 'being', which is imparted to it by the shaping hand of the Creator."[21] Edwin Hatch explained that, for Platonists, "God was regarded as being outside the world. The world was in its origin only potential being (το μὴ ὄν)."[22] He explains more fully:
The [Platonic] dualistic hypothesis assumed a co-existence of matter and God. The assumption was more frequently tacit than explicit. . . . There was a universal belief that beneath the qualities of all existing things lay a substratum or substance on which they were grafted, and which gave to each thing its unity. But the conception of the nature of this substance varied from that of gross and tangible material to that of empty and formless space. . . . It was sometimes conceived as a vast shapeless but plastic mass, to which the Creator gave form, partly by moulding it as a potter moulds clay, partly by combining various elements as a builder combines his materials in the construction of a house.[23]
Aristotle wrote that: "For generation is from non-existence (ἐκ τοῦ μὴ ὄντος) into being, and corruption from being back into non-existence (εἰς τὸ μὴ ὄν)."[24] Generation is the act of a new animal being derived from an existing one, or a plant deriving from an existing plant. It is new life from life. He used the phrase from non-existence in a sense of relative nonbeing, where "things" do not yet exist and there is only a formless substratum that has the potential or capacity to receive definite form. This substratum is not absolutely nothing but is not yet a thing. It is "no-thing." Thus, to say that God called to existence that which does not exist, as in Romans 4:17, actually assumes a preexisting substrate that God, by impressing form upon it, organizes into a thing that exists. Copan and Craig simply fail to note this important distinction, and thus their exegesis is critically flawed.
In their book, Copan and Craig cite a number of evangelical scholars who share their theological presuppositions and who opine that this verse refers to creation out of nothing (CON, pp. 75-78). Yet none of these authors provide any analysis or exegesis beyond asserting that the "non-existent" must mean that which does not exist in any sense. For example, Copan and Craig quote James Dunn's commentary on Romans 4:17, which reads in the relevant part: "'As creator he creates without any precondition: he makes alive where there was only death, and he calls into existence where there was nothing at all. Consequently that which has been created, made alive in this way, must be totally dependent on the creator, the life-giver, for its very existence and life'" (NMC, p. 117).[25] However, it is easy to see that the scriptural analogy of God bringing the dead to life in the same way that he creates "things which are not" does not support creatio ex nihilo. Resurrection does not presuppose that the dead do not exist in any way prior to their resurrection, nor does it presuppose that previously they did not have bodies that are reorganized through resurrection. Just as God does not create persons for the first time when he restores them to life through resurrection, so God does not create out of absolute nonbeing.
Moreover, note that Romans 4:17 doesn't expressly address whether things are created out of nothing or from some material substrate. It simply says that God "calls" things into existence that are not. Moreover, such a statement in no way entails or requires creation out of nothing implicitly. If I create a table then I create a table that did not exist before I created it, but it doesn't mean that I create it out of nothing. In this text, the word create is not even used. Rather, what God does is to "call forth" the non-existent. The verb καλέω means to call out loud to something, or to invite.[26] It presupposes something there to be called to or invited. God calls out to the non-existent by his Word, an act described by a verb used elsewhere in Paul's writings (Romans 9:11; 1 Corinthians 12:3; Galatians 5:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:24). Thus, the most natural reading of this text is that the "non-existent" or μὴ ὄντα refers to a preexisting reality that does not yet exist as God calls it to be. Such a reading has nothing to do with creation out of absolute nothing.

Monday, November 04, 2019

Caffeine Update: Prenatal Risks

Many members of the Church interpret the Word of Wisdom's prohibitions on tea and coffee as a hint that caffeine itself should be treated cautiously. But many feel that drinking caffeinated soft drinks is OK and the Church does not require people to avoid them. While there's a lot of evidence that soft drinks of any kind aren't the best thing for your health, one interesting aspect of caffeine itself that many people might not know about is its potentially harmful effect on unborn children.

See Ellis Voerman, Vincent W.V. Jaddoe, and Olta Gishti, "Maternal caffeine intake during pregnancy, early growth and body fat distribution at school-age. The Generation R Study," Obesity (Silver Spring), 24/5 (May 2016): 1170–1177; doi: 10.1002/oby.21466. Here is the abstract:
We examined the associations of maternal caffeine intake during pregnancy with offspring growth patterns, and body fat and insulin levels at school-age.

In a population-based birth cohort among 7,857 mothers and their children, we assessed maternal caffeine intake during pregnancy by questionnaires. Growth characteristics were measured from birth onwards. At 6 years, body fat and insulin levels were measured.

Compared to children whose mothers consumed <2 units of caffeine per day during pregnancy (1 unit of caffeine is equivalent to 1 cup of coffee (90 mg caffeine)), those whose mothers consumed ≥6 units of caffeine per day tended to have a lower weight at birth, higher weight gain from birth to 6 years and higher body mass index from 6 months to 6 years. Both children whose mothers consumed 4-5.9 and ≥6 units of caffeine per day during pregnancy tended to have a higher childhood body mass index and total body fat mass. Only children whose mothers consumed ≥6 units of caffeine per day had a higher android/gynoid fat mass ratio.

Our results suggest that high levels of maternal caffeine intake during pregnancy are associated with adverse offspring growth patterns and childhood body fat distribution.
This is one of several studies suggesting that expecting mothers should be careful about caffeine. Good to know. 

Sunday, November 03, 2019

An Alphabet TO the Book of Abraham: What Did Joseph Mean?

Here's another look at some minor issues around the Book of Abraham and some of the gaps in the treatment in The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 4: Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts, eds. Robin Scott Jensen and Brian M. Hauglid (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2018), hereafter JSPRT4.

In a previous post on the importance of word order in the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language, I noted that Joseph Smith's History from July 1835, p. 597, speaks of working on an "alphabet to the Book of Abraham." Not for production of the Book of Abraham, but simply to the Book of Abraham. The transcript is on the Joseph Smith Papers Project website:

July 1835 <​Translating the Book of Abraham &c.​> The remainder of this month, I was continually engaged in translating an alphabet to the Book of Abraham, and arrangeing a grammar of the Egyptian language as practiced by the ancients. [emphasis added]
Reader "Joe Peaceman" suggested that this suggest whatever the alphabet was, it seems to have been produced as a companion to the Book of Abraham (or whatever portion had already been translated) based on this language, rather than as a tool for translating the Book of Abraham. I agreed and argued that this wording "creates the logical though debatable presumption that the Book of Abraham is controlling the creation of the GAEL and not the other way around." This is in contrast to the various sometimes subtle positions taken in JSPRT4 that favor the theory that at least part of the Book of Abraham evolved from the Kirtland Egyptian Papers or was being developed at the same time, as if dependent on the human efforts with various "Egyptian" characters.

Today I'm considering the question about the meaning of that phrase, "an alphabet to the Book of Abraham." One of the meanings of "to" is to describe what role something will play or what purpose it will serve, as in "a guide to the city of Lisbon," "an assistant to the chairman," or "an invitation to disaster."  So does Joseph's usage most plausibly mean something derived on or created for an existing Book of Abraham translation (as in "a companion/appendix/guide/ to the Book of Abraham"), or something that would be used to create the Book of Abraham from the papyri? For the latter, I would expect something like "an alphabet for the translation of the papyri" or "an alphabet for [translation of] the Book of Abraham." But let's see how others use language similar to Joseph.

To begin, I considered how other English speakers have used the phrase "alphabet to." I searched in  Google Books from 1500 to 1900 for the phrase "an alphabet to" or "alphabet to the" and eliminated instances where "to" pertains to a verb (e.g., "the Phoenicians gave the alphabet to the Greeks" or "an alphabet to decode text") or other noun (e.g., "the adaptation of one alphabet to the needs of another language") or is part of a separate phrase or sentence. I found just a few relevant examples:

First there is the 1805 book Materials for an Alphabet to the Science of Medicine published in Philadelphia by a writer from Virginia. This book presumes the existence of the science of medicine, and wishes to clarify uncertainty about its principles by creating an alphabet "or a correct view of its fundamental principles." This usage would be consistent with Joseph's statement if Joseph were talking about a tool extracted from an existing Book of Abraham translation.

Next is the 1690 book, An Alphabet to the Calendar of Acts of Parliament from Henry 7th to King Charles the 2nd, which is in the British Museum and apparently not online. This appears to be a guide to understanding the Calendar of Acts of Parliament, another case where an "alphabet to" refers to something derived from an existing source.

Turning closer to Joseph Smith's day and Yankee locale, in The Public Statute Laws of the State of Connecticut (Hartford: State of Connecticut, 1835), p. 549,  there is reference to "an index or alphabet to the same" for lists of mortgages, grants, deeds, etc., to be kept in alphabetical order. Naturally, the records come first, then the alphabet follows.

In Index to the Laws of Maryland, from the Year 1818 to 1825, another 1835 publication, we find a resolution "to make a general alphabet to the land records" related to a William Bateman. Elsewhere in this volume we read of "a general alphabet directed to be made to the land records belonging to Anne Arundel county." Here the "alphabet to" in both cases seems to be an index or guide to assist in understanding existing land records and is clearly derived from those records, not a tool to create them.

Moving away from legal records, in William Philips' An Introduction to Mineralogy, (London: Longman et al., 1837), 4th ed.,  we read that "Mineralogy, therefore, is in reality essential to the geologist; it is the very alphabet to the older rocks." [emphasis original] Once again, "alphabet to" is like a "guide to" something that already exists.

In The Quarterly Musical Magazine and Review, vol. 9 (1827), p. 22, a publication from London, the skill of reading music is described as "an alphabet to the science" of music. Here the skill helps unlock the understanding of music, and is not described as the key to creating the music in the first place.

In the world of accounting from Joseph's day, The American System of Practical Book-keeping by William James (New York: Collins and Hannay, 1829), p. 9, has a page with the heading, "Alphabet to the Leger," wherein the "alphabet to" obviously represents organization of existing information. 

That's pretty much it from my searching. Searching for "alphabet for" or "alphabet of" yields many finds pertaining to language, as expected. But based on other uses of the phrase "alphabet to," it would seem the most reasonable way to parse "an alphabet to the Book of Abraham" would appear to refer to a tool derived from or based upon existing Book of Abraham materials. In other words, the translation came first, then the alphabet. Of course, this is what Champollion was doing with his alphabet. It was the existing translation of the Rosetta Stone that allow him and others to begin cracking the code of Egyptian to form what was commonly called in newspapers and articles of Joseph's era an "alphabet" for the Egyptian language. Whatever Joseph and his scribes thought they were doing with their "alphabet," it appears that it was a case of the revealed translation coming first, followed by some puzzling human work with the translation and with various characters (most of which were not even Egyptian) to create the strange Kirtland Egyptian Papers.

To interpret Joseph's declaration about his "alphabet to the Book of Abraham" to argue that alphabet came first involves some questionable assumptions and what appears to be a sloppy reading of what Joseph said. The best reading would seem to be "an alphabet to [the existing (portion of)] Book of Abraham" and not "an alphabet [for translating] the Book of Abraham [from the papyri]," a proposition that gets especially questionable when one realizes that the most of the characters in the various Egyptian Alphabet documents, the Egyptian Counting document, and the Egyptian Grammar and Alphabet are not Egyptian characters at all.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Romancing the Rio Wreck: Evidence for Ancient Transoceanic Contact in the Americas vs. a Romantic Notion of Peer Review

As a Ph.D. linguist providing his peer-review of Brian Stubbs' work on linguistic evidence of ancient Old World contact with the Americas as evidence by the Uto-Aztecan language family, Dr. John S. Robertson explained why the academic community is likely to continue treating Stubbs' work with the inadequate attention it seems to have received so far:
It is academic dogma that any prehistoric migration from the Middle East to the Americas never happened, nor could it ever have happened. Any scholar’s work would be anathema if it made such a claim. Some say Stubbs’s work is anathema — but only at the expense of ignoring the breadth and depth of the actual data. There is actually existing evidence that favors such a migration — not an archeological artifact, nor a recorded manuscript — but evidence in the form of factual, predictive, lawful linguistic data found in Stubbs 2015. Such evidence of borrowing exists in abundance, available for proper review and criticism.
In my recent post discussing Robertson's evaluation of Stubbs' work, certain critics of the Church took the stance that the work is meaningless -- no need to consider the extensive data -- until it gets formal peer review. Dr. Robertson kindly chimed in and explained that he, as a Ph.D. linguist familiar with the issues and the work, actually is a peer and is providing review. Ah, but that doesn't count, we were told, because Robertson is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and thus has an interest in the outcome, making his review unreliable. Only non-LDS academics can be trusted on such matters because, of course, non-LDS people in general naturally won't have any interest in the outcome and can be trusted to give us a fair evaluation of paradigm-busting, controversial evidence relevant to the Book of Mormon, no matter how much they may dislike the controversial book or the religion that relies on it.

Granted, bias is a perpetual problem in any debate. Latter-day Saints can unfairly see things in ways that favor us, and our critics can also be blind to other possibilities. Everyone is at risk of having some interest or some bias, perhaps completely unconsciously, in how they look at almost any issue. The key issue is whether their scholarship is sound and their approach reasonable. Is Chris Rogers' review of Stubbs' work inherently trustworthy or untrustworthy because he's associated with BYU professor and is a member of the Church, like John S. Robertson? One dismisses Stubbs' work, the other finds it impressive. If you examine the writings of both of these professors regarding Brian Stubbs' 2015 book, I would suggest that both are sharing what they think based on their training, not based on their religious biases, and whether they are right or wrong depends on their logic and understanding of the data, not their affiliation (Robertson wins handily on that count while Rogers has completely misunderstood what he reviewed).

Peer review is vital for the progress of science, but often runs into snags when academic evidence challenges a major paradigm. It may be an unreasonable expectation to think that those doing the review, whether professors, funding officers, corporate scientists or whoever, will be objective and even-handed in dealing with controversial results that threaten "what everybody knows" or touch upon some highly sensitive issue, as is the issue of how New World civilizations arose.

There is a rather romantic notion of peer review at play here, a notion that many people have, rooted in a trust that academics and the organizations that fund and influence them (universities and governments, for example) will tend to embrace truth and knowledge, even when it defies conventional wisdom and preconceived notions. It does happen, but it takes courageous people and often a great deal of time before paradigms can be overthrown, as Ignacz Semmelweis found in trying to get the medical community to practice basic hygiene to reduce the transmission of disease from invisible agents (germs). Have any of you seen the play Semmelweis? Very touching production. Saw it at BYU when I was a student.

One critic guffawed at the idea that peer review might not give a fair shake to work that had any merit and claimed there was no evidence for such concerns and specifically criticized Robertson's claim that a fair evaluation of Stubbs' work might be impeded by academic dogma against ancient contact between the Middle East and the New World.

If there actually were any legitimate evidence for pre-Colombian Old World contact with New World peoples apart from a few Vikings making a hut or two in Canada, surely that evidence would be carefully considered by the powers that be and, after careful vetting by open-minded scholars in the academic community, would be openly published and shared with the world, let the facts declare what they may.  Right?

To shed some light on that romantic notion of disinterested, fair peer review of controversial reports that clash with reigning paradigms, let's consider an event involving several nations speaking Romance languages, Brazil, Portugal, Spain, and Italy. The story is told in a delightful and thorough book that I highly recommend, Ancient Ocean Crossings: Reconsidering the Case for Contacts with the Pre-Columbian Americas by Stephen C. Jett (Tuscaloosa, Alabama: Univ. of Alabama Press, 2017). It draws upon works of the colorful but sometimes controversial underwater explorer Robert F. Marx, widely known  for his daring treasure discoveries. The story could also begin with an Oct. 10, 1982 article in the New York Times, "RIO ARTIFACTS MAY INDICATE ROMAN VISIT" by Walter Sullivan.

Here is an excerpt from Stephen C. Jetts' book in the section "Rio’s Roman Wreck" in Chapter 10, "The Mystery of the Missing Artifacts" (Kindle edition, footnotes deleted):
Politics not infrequently plays a role in distortion and suppression of evidence. Fuller discussion must await a future book, but the case of Robert Marx and a seeming Roman wreck in Brazil is worth detailing here.

Brazil is home to many undated rock inscriptions translatable as Phoenician, Greek, Latin, or even Norse. In 1975, a diver reported retrieving ship’s fragments as well as amphorae in the Rio Urumbo of Brazil’s São Paulo state. They were allegedly Phoenician.

In 1976, a local diver discovered Roman-style amphorae on the bottom of the Bay of Guanabara, that marvelous harbor on whose shore lies Rio de Janeiro. Over the years since the mid-1960s, fishermen had found more than fifty intact specimens of these liquid-storage jars. Beginning in 1979, Robert Marx, an American adventurer and underwater archaeological investigator, interviewed local divers and fishermen who had brought up such jars, and he examined two intact examples. He asked several oceanographers to independently examine the barnacles and other marine creatures on the containers, and the organisms were determined to be from Guanabara Bay and not from the Mediterranean and to have required centuries to develop; some of the encrustations carbon-dated to about AD 500.

In 1982, Marx dove on the site, where he found that most of the pottery fragments were cemented to the bottom rock by coral. He had experts investigate representative sherds. Radiocarbon dating put their age at around 2000 years ago, plus or minus 140 years, and thermoluminescence dating gave a nearly identical age. The leading expert on sourcing and dating amphorae, the University of Massachusetts classicist Elizabeth Lyding Will, concluded that the containers were of the second or third century AD, made at Roman Kouass, the ancient port of Zilis (present Dehar Jedid) on the Atlantic coast of Morocco to the southwest of Tangier.

Using sub-bottom-profiling sonar, the MIT electrical engineer and Jacques-Yves Cousteau collaborator Harold E. Edgerton identified two targets that were consistent with their being parts of a wreck. Later probing by Marx verified the presence of wood. “Shortly after Edgerton’s report [on the sonar findings] appeared, the Portuguese and Spanish governments expressed great concern to the Brazilian government about the possibility that this discovery could displace Cabral as the discoverer of Brazil and Columbus as the discoverer of the New World” and could—as claimed Italy’s ambassador—give unrestricted rights of citizenship to Italian immigrants to Brazil. Soon afterward, the Brazilian government, initially calling the wreck Phoenician, declared the site to be a restricted zone and had a dredge barge dump tons of earth atop it for “protection”—protection of the reputations of the Renaissance explorers, it would seem, and to squelch any claims to Brazil that Italy might make. Following this literal cover-up, all further underwater archaeology in Brazilian waters was banned. [emphasis added]
So painful. Ouch!

The Brazilian side of the story may be that Robert F. Marx had taken some gold or other artifacts from Brazilian sites and was a bad actor. Thus, there was a need to ban all underwater archaeology all along the coasts of Brazil. See another New York Times article on this, "UNDERWATER EXPLORING IS BANNED IN BRAZIL" by Marlise Simons, June 25, 1985. Maybe Marx did some things improperly. Maybe he was a rogue explorer. But the reaction to ban all exploration, and the apparent dumping of dirt over the key site, makes me suspect something else was involved besides concern over one famous explorer.

It seems that a reigning paradigm or two was threatened (once the significance of the find was recognized, a process that took a little time for the antibodies to be activated) and, as is sometimes the case with big reigning paradigms, there were peripheral implications (political ones here). The response was not just silence, but an active hostility that not only suppressed the evidence, but caused harm to the already stressed ecosystem in Guanabara Bay by those who were responsible to protect it. Protecting Brazil's political interests may have came first. Welcome to the romantic version of peer review. OK, this wasn't academic peer review per se, but the results of government review, the powers that fund and influence the academics.

Politics are only occasionally the problem. Jetts illustrates other painful examples of evidence for transoceanic contact being suppressed or ignored because of assuming that the evidence must be wrong given the paradigm that "everyone knows," or because of fear that treating it seriously would result in trouble. Academics commonly won't take the possibility of pre-Colombian transoceanic contact seriously until there is suitable evidence, but what may be part of the needed suitable evidence is rejected or suppressed because everyone knows there was no pre-Colombian transoceanic contact between the Old World and the New. A lovely Catch-22.

Old flawed paradigms do get broken and overturned eventually when enough data comes to light and enough voices dare to accept the new theories needed to explain the growing body of evidence. But at the moment, there is great risk that much of the evidence of Old World contact with the Americas has been ignored, rejected prematurely, or even covered up, as we apparently see in a dramatic and environmentally harmful form from Brazilian authorities. If Jetts' account is correct, it's quite discouraging.  But perhaps the broad linguistic evidence pointing to such contact may play a role in helping to shake off an old reigning paradigm that can allow more open consideration of other evidence as well.