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

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!