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

Sunday, July 11, 2021

The Chosen: Act Now to See the Season Two Finale Within 24 Hours

My life has been uplifted and touched deeply by the brilliant series, The Chosen, on the life and message of Christ. I just saw the finale of Season Two, episode 8, which was broadcast tonight and will be available for the next 24 hours via the app or the website. All of Season One and so far 7 of the 8 episodes in Season Two are also available on BYU TV (get the app or view it on your television via Roku or other services). 

I love so much about this series, including the attempts to provide reasonable backstories for some of the events and characters. Yes, there is plenty of speculation and artistic license, but it's done in a way that at least helps us ponder the biblical account more deeply, recognizing that there may be significant background stories for many of the details in the Gospels. I love the portrayal of the humanity of Christ in the flesh. I respect the treatment of women and the efforts made to help us better appreciate the women that were part of Christ's life and ministry. 

This grand production is offered for free to the world, relying on donations via crows-sourcing, perhaps the most remarkable fruit of crowd-sourcing in the history of entertainment. I hope you'll join me in making a donation to support the completion of Season Three and beyond (seven seasons are planned). 

Latter-day Saints watching this may think it's a Church-produced film, but it's not. The director and co-writer, Dallas Jenkins, is not a Latter-day Saint, but I think that nearly everything I've seen so far can be appreciated by those in the Church. So much of it resonates with the Christ we know from our scriptures, including of course the New Testament, but also the Book of Mormon and beyond. I feel the series can be a great tool to help us appreciate the majesty of the Savior but also what it might have been like for His mortal followers to cope with the challenges of being a disciple to a Master who often disrupted their expectations and constantly took them out of their comfort zone. So many of these issues apply directly to our day as well, with those who seek to follow Him being increasingly in tension with the world around us. 

This series can help us reconsider our own lives, better visualize and recall the example the Savior, better appreciate the value of those around, even those whom we may dislike or condemn. And if nothing else, watching this series will help us yearn to better understand the scriptures and the power of the Messiah's life and ministry. 

Please watch this series and share it with others. And please help it become available to more people (the goal of Dallas Jenkins is to have 1 billion people see it) by making a donation today to support this inspiring work.

Thursday, July 01, 2021

Embracing C3ns0rsh1p: A Survival Guide with Helpful Input From China

I marvel at the shock and outrage of some conservative voices as their posts, tweets, and entire websites are progressively downgraded in search visibility, flagged as "fake news," demonetized, deplatformed, or, in the case of a few unruly celebrities like our former President, exiled for life from major social media platforms. It's time for these complainers to embrace the new order and specifically, to embrace what they may call "c3ns0rsh1p." As I will explain, accepting and living with "c3ns0rsh1p" (better to say "fortification of democracy") is a lesson I learned in my 9 years of living in China, a place I love deeply.

As an ardent embracer recognizing the new reality, I'm not going to properly spell out the word I'm embracing (cens0rshi1p, c3nsurship, c3ns0rsh1p, sensorship, etc.) lest our very delicate search engines and deplatforming algorithms misunderstand my warm embrace as some kind of complaint against their valiant fortification work.

If your response is, "C3ns0rsh1p? What c3ns0rsh1p?," then you have already learned a basic survival lesson well. I congratulate you. No need to keep reading -- here, or anywhere else.

If this supportive post were misunderstood as some kind of complaint, that could have serious consequences. For example, Ron Paul, a former presidential candidate, an outspoken critic of President Trump, and a heavy user of social media, suddenly found he was locked out of his Facebook account immediately after he made a post complaining about so-called "c3nsorship" from the Big Tech lords of social media. Some who recognized the importance of shutting down Trump and his supporters on social media were surprised at the silencing of Ron Paul, but it makes sense when you understand social media's new and majestic role in protecting national security, as I will explain shortly. However, the chains on Ron Paul's account were soon removed as Facebook, faced with backlash from Ron Paul's many supporters, felt it was best to back off for now and declare that a mistake had occurred. We can only hope that Paul learned his lesson and will be less critical of our new democracy in the future. 

Being deplatformed for politically incorrect statements can be traumatic, especially when one uses social media tools for one's employment. I, too, have a painful lesson I learned in this regard. 

My current work frequently involves reaching out to people on LinkedIn, which is a prized database of numerous contacts and a source of rich information that helps me almost daily. To be booted from it would be painful and harmful, so it was quite a scare when my former boss once informed me that LinkedIn had just canceled a post of mine for violating some policy. Was I on the path to being deplatformed? Perhaps! The errant post linked to an article summarizing several peer-reviewed studies that suggested we were not being given accurate information by the media about the efficacy of some treatments for COVID. I didn't say I agreed with the article, but did say that if the summary of those studies was accurate, it did raise questions about the integrity of the media. What was I thinking? My boss agreed with my post, but still, posting it was a big mistake since I had questioned the wisdom of the mainstream media and might have even unintentionally supported something once said by Him Who Must Not be Tweeted about potential treatments for COVID. That's pretty shameful, but I must live up to my error and reform.  I have carefully reviewed my past errant attitudes and now recognize the need to accept the established media authorities as authoritative. I will strive to better comply and "follow the science" by accepting authoritative declarations from anointed authorities rather than turning to the science directly or to antiquated notions of the "scientific method" where I may make grave political errors. 

Learning from China

Prior to the rise of our current administration, China was often criticized for "c3nsoring" information. Highly educated Chinese people generally know that information is carefully controlled in China -- searches on some controversial issues will reveal nothing, harmful sources of misinformation like Twitter, Facebook, and the Wall Street Journal are banned, dangerous or critical comments on social media will be censored, and severe penalties may be applied for sharing information that undermines social harmony and national security. But many of the educated in China and probably most citizens in general understand that this is necessary for a stable, healthy Communist society. They have learned that there may be some inconveniences, but that nearly everyone is better off by embracing or at least quietly accepting what Americans call "c3nsorsh1p." Don't think of it as deleting, banning, or rigging information, but as "fortifying" information to enhance national security. That's my take on how information control is generally viewed (though this issue may be highly complex).

When you realize that for a harmonious society, "national security" often means protecting the status quo and keeping the Party firmly in power, then of course the Party must take steps to "fortify" information as it works in unity with information outlets across the land. And then you won't have to worry about whether a report is "true" or not, or whether important information has been withheld or manipulated. You will understand that the information you receive is what is needed for national security and shows you the right way to view things. That should be enough. Through steady trust by the people for the government, security and democracy are fortified. There will be harmony, not the chaos we tend to have, or once had, in America.

Achieving such harmony requires tight cooperation between all aspects of social media, news, and information flow in China. Social media giants, news outlets, publishers of all kinds, and schools and universities all closely cooperate with the government to ensure harmony and national security. National security, of course, entails preserving peace and social stability with the safety, security, and respect of the Party being absolutely essential. The government is the Party. Democracy, a widely accepted and publicized value in China, is all about the rule of the Party, the people's Party, which does receive input from the people in many ways in a fortified form of democracy. (Westerners may be surprised by how frequently one sees the Chinese words for "democracy" all over Shanghai and other cities.) Preserving democracy is preserving the Party. Careful control of information and vigorous actions against sources of trouble are viewed as essential in protecting and strengthening China.

Sadly, many Americans still cling to outdated ways and view such vigorous measures to fortify democracy as "totalitarian," as some form of "thought control" or "brainwashing," and use other pejoratives like "c3nsorship."  They don't understand that such fortification is a vital aspect of national security. Harmful information can fan flames of dissent and threaten national stability, decrease trust in the Party, and stir up lawbreaking, violence, or rebellion against the Party. Violence and rebellion are sometimes used for bringing about revolution, of course, but once the revolution has established the Party as the legitimate reigning authority, the Party must strive in every way to secure national stability  by ensuring its power remains unchecked and unthreatened for the good of the people. This requires careful control of information to ensure that what the people learn engenders trust, compliance, unity, harmony, and other virtues. This should all be so basic, but remarkably, it's still quite foreign to many anti-progressive Americans who haven't waken up to the realities of our new order and still demand what they call "freedom of speech." 

China, for the record, points out that among the many rights that the government kindly provides to its people is freedom of speech, provided that it is done according to law and the dictates of national security, which may differ from the chaotic, non-fortifying version some Americans demand.  (Article 35 of the Constitution of the People's Republic of China grants freedom of speech, of the press, and of assembly, and Article 36 provides for freedom of religion, though all must be done according to law, which may, of course, impose certain restrictions as needed to fortify national security, etc.) The enumerated rights granted by the government are impressive. On the other hand, many Americans don't see their freedoms as rights that are granted by government and subject to any limitations by law, but insist that their freedoms are given by God and that certain rights cannot be taken away by government. It may take some reeducation to remove those old notions. Our schools and universities are succeeding in shaping proper attitudes among the young who are taught to revile the founders of this nation and its original principles, graduating with almost no real knowledge of the Constitution and the noble principles behind the Republic, but what of those still clinging to the old ways? Limiting their influence may be the most humane thing possible, as far as state security goes.

Fortifying Our Democracy with Fortified Information Control

One you recognize that there is a need to "fortify" information to protect national security (which, of course, means protecting the power of those who rule), you will more easily drop the doubts and stupid questions that can disrupt our national harmony. You won't fall for crazy conspiracy theories, even if they are later accepted by the authoritative media, because you will trust the timing of when you should believe what, knowing that there may be a national security purpose behind it. A very practical example comes from the history of COVID pandemic, when it was initially "bad" to think that everyone needed to wear a mask, and later it was essential to believe that. It's not that the scientific "truth" changed, but that there was initially a political need to suppress individual mask purchases to ensure that there were enough masks for healthcare workers. You might be tempted to complain that Fauci and others "lied" to you at first for political reasons, but the right and noble thing to do is trust that there must be reasons for the information tweaking, and then comply. Ditto for other declarations coming from trusted authorities that seem to change radically over time due to political issues.

When you are enlightened about the need for national security above all, you won't ask harmful, doubt-stirring questions but will comply as needed and maintain harmony. More specifically, you won't read authoritative statements from the Party or its major media outlets/PR organs looking for contradictions or questioning their "truth," resulting in arguments and hostile feelings from others who better embrace the new order.  You won't ask ridiculous questions about why the mainstream media refused to carry stories about the disclosures of Tony Bobulinski ("Tony who?" -- yes, that's the right response!) in October 2020 prior to the election, or why news about Hunter Biden's laptop was not reported widely before the election ("what laptop?" -- another perfect answer). 

You won't make the mistake of millions of angry Americans who misinterpreted the authoritative article in Time Magazine about the fortification of the 2020 presidential election. I refer to the thoughtful and reverent reflections shared by Molly Ball in "The Secret History of the Shadow Campaign That Saved the 2020 Election" (Time.com, Feb. 4, 2021). This article carefully details how a group comprising insiders from the Party, CEO's of Big Tech and other corporations, and other entities closely cooperated to ensure that Trump was overthrown, the only and obvious "proper outcome" of the election. Angry Americans looking for fault have criticized this as if it were revealing a conspiracy to rig the election. What they don't get is that this shows the the important and benevolent role of Big Tech in fortifying our democracy, something they should celebrate, not condemn. Here's an excerpt on the fortification that some have misunderstand -- but by now, I trust you will understand and embrace it:

This is the inside story of the conspiracy to save the 2020 election, based on access to the group’s inner workings, never-before-seen documents and interviews with dozens of those involved from across the political spectrum. It is the story of an unprecedented, creative and determined campaign whose success also reveals how close the nation came to disaster. “Every attempt to interfere with the proper outcome of the election was defeated,” says Ian Bassin, co-founder of Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan rule-of-law advocacy group. “But it’s massively important for the country to understand that it didn’t happen accidentally. The system didn’t work magically. Democracy is not self-executing.”

That’s why the participants want the secret history of the 2020 election told, even though it sounds like a paranoid fever dream–a well-funded cabal of powerful people, ranging across industries and ideologies, working together behind the scenes to influence perceptions, change rules and laws, steer media coverage and control the flow of information. They were not rigging the election; they were fortifying it. And they believe the public needs to understand the system’s fragility in order to ensure that democracy in America endures.

I think that is beautifully and accurately expressed. The media is not "rigging" or "c3ns0ring" anything; they are just working with the Party to fortify our democracy. Fortification is something you really must learn to embrace if you are to survive the new order. 

Likewise, with a healthy appreciation of the importance of state security, you won't make the offensive and silly mistake of publicly asking why, if COVID is so frightening and requires that we surrender so much, must we then open our borders and allow tens of thousands of people to wander into the country without being tested for COVID, and why our government won't answer questions about how many COVID cases have been introduced through the non-crisis at the border? The answer, of course, is that this must all be about national security and the long-term security of the Party. Trust the decision, trust the omniscience of our rulers, and don't trust those who moan about "crisis" at the border (what crisis??). If national security is being fortified, it's for our good (i.e., the good of the Party) and no complaints should be tolerated, even if some things seem illogical or questionable based on our limited knowledge. And you won't make Ron Paul's mistake of denouncing the enhancement and fortification of information because you will understand that the purpose of social media and of journalism itself is not to spread information or uncover unpredictable stories, but to protect and fortify national security. To criticize the PR team of the nation and its party is, therefore, to undermine national security. You can trust that the silencing, though temporary, was certainly appropriate. It's all about national security and trust.

Remember, in Gov we trust.

Don't criticize and cry foul when you are disappointed by fortification. If the government announces that chocolate rations are being doubled, don't do your own hostile "fact checking" based on outdated data like last month's allotments and cry out that the new 50-gram ration is only half of the previous 100=gram ration. You must recognize that for purposes of national security, there must be a good reason for the new "doubled" ration. Smile, be grateful, and go on, doing your duty quietly. Life will be much more harmonious that way. 

More from China to Ponder

Shortly after President Trump was banned from Twitter, I had a surprising conversation with a citizen of China. "Jeff, how can this happen in America?," she asked. "He's irresponsible, yes, but he's the President of the United States. If he can be censored in his own country, what will happen to freedom of speech for the rest of you? That's what America stands for, and if that's lost, what will happen?" I was somewhat speechless and didn't want to say anything that might encourage her in a potentially sensitive rant. At that time, I didn't understand the nature of our own revolution underway, otherwise I could have simply explained that silencing enemies is necessary for national security in the new state. Perhaps she would have understood, perhaps all too well. 

Caught off guard, I muttered something foolish about biased media with a double standard, citing an example of hateful rhetoric from the leader of Iran calling for the destruction of Israel that has remained on Twitter in spite of its supposed policies against hate speech (I won't risk linking to the article, but you can read one side of the story from the Jerusalem Post under the headline, "Twitter downplays Khamenei calls for genocide as political speech.") I apologize for that error. In fact, I now understand that no hypocrisy or double standard is involved. There is only one standard now: national security, which naturally entails protection of the Party and silencing of enemies. Twitter knows what they are doing, and we should trust them, of course, though China doesn't for some reason.

China has some valuable things to teach Americans as we adjust to the new dawn of enhanced informational guidance in America. I lived there for 9 years and deeply respect the Chinese people and love much about China, and have often been criticized by Americans for talking about some of the very positive things there like its world-class intellectual property system and the economic freedoms that have lifted many from poverty. While China is very different from America, or has been historically, it has much to teach us about surviving and staying out of trouble. 

In the very progressive land of China which has evolved to a one-party state where we don't have the bitterness and divisions that come from multiple parties and the many problems of elections, state security and stability are essential. Security is obtained by preventing dangerous uprisings, requiring most public gatherings to be approved by and monitored by the government, carefully monitoring what people say and do online, using observed behavior and input from others to create a "social credit score" for every person that determines what rights the government chooses to grant you, etc. Though very different than our historic traditions (many of which must be dismantled anyway for social progress), it's a very effective and powerful system, developed in part with the help of tools from Big Tech.

To live in China is to understand that there are some things you just don't want to say, ever. We recognize that our emails, texts, phone calls and online actions are monitored, whether by humans or creative electronic tools. It's important to accept this and act appropriately in China, and we should probably do the same here for our own good. We Americans often say that we want our voice to be heard. We need to adjust that kind of thinking to be more like, "We want our voice to be heard, provided it is consistent with WHO and government guidelines and properly fact-checked by government-approved corporations." Who would want anything more? When you know that your government is  trustworthy, objective and always accurate, then surely it should be wrong to disagree. Why allow people to say and think things that are wrong?

There is an ongoing and politically necessary fortification (critics may call this a "purge") underway now, like fortifications that have happened in many other well fortified nations in the past.  Here it's being done mostly by large, trusted corporations, the ones who vigilantly control most of the information that Americans receive via social media and mainstream media sources to help fortify our nation. Concerted action by these giants has led to the silencing of thousands of unruly voices, the elimination of unwanted competitors, and the creation of fortification warriors (called "mobs" by some haters) that help "cancel" harmful voices of doubt and dissent. It's a new age, and one that we had all better welcome, or else. 

Some benighted foes might say that this is not a step toward a healthy democracy, but a step toward "tyranny. " That's a sad way to describe a fully fortified democracy. I could like to tell you to please disregard what they say, but there's actually no need, for the system will quickly disregard them for you. They will be cancelled and silenced, and we should be grateful for that. The new age brings great progress toward unity by eliminating dissent, and you can stay happy and safe if you just do the new American thing by laying low and cooperating. To achieve peace and unity, it's vital that you don't ask questions. Compliance is peace. Trust is harmony. Canceling is unity. Follow the science.

If you've heard of alleged cases of dissent being cancelled or silenced, don't get agitated, but calmly learn from their experience. Understand where they went wrong and avoid that mistake. This applies to individuals in most cases so far, but will increasingly apply to institutions, including religions. There may be a need to tone down some doctrines and update certain scriptures and policies to more fully fully support whatever national security needs may arise.

This is the time to prepare to more fully embrace the fortification of democracy -- which is absolutely vital, of course, to national security. Follow the science. Comply. Do your duty. And be very careful about what you say and where you say it. It's the enlightened thing to do.



Monday, June 14, 2021

BillionGraves: A Remarkable Tool for Finding Graves of Your Ancestors

With the need to return to Utah for a while, my wife and I decided to drive instead of our normal routine of flying. This gave us a chance to visit family in a couple of other states and see more of the US after having been away in China for 9 years. Our plans included spending a night in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The day before, I noticed an email from FamilySearch.org providing information about a tombstone of one of my ancestors, Selar Cheney, who was buried in Wilson, Wyoming. Intrigued, I found that they provided a link to the tombstone information at BillionGraves.com. I was fascinated to see that BillionGraves could show not only where the cemetery was, but precisely where in the cemetery the grave marker could be found. I ended up downloading the app and my wife and I decided we would stop at the South Park Cemetery, only 8 minutes away from our hotel, to see Selar Cheney's grave. 

The night before, instead of trying to get in a few more hours of work, I wondered if there were other relatives of mine at that cemetery. By using both my FamilySearch app and the BillionGraves app, I was able to locate several other relatives in the South Park Cemetery, and also find that the Elliott Cemetery in Wilson had several more relatives of mine. Further, nearby Victor Idaho had the grave of one of my most notable ancestors, Talitha Cumi Garlick Cheney (later Avery). It was on the way to Salt Lake. WE were able to see all three cemeteries. 

Finding a tombstone in a cemetery can be a frustrating experience unless you have some guidance about the location. BillionGraves makes it so easy to find people with its smartphone app, guiding to the precise location. This saved us hours of time and made it possible to visit all three cemeteries and find a significant handful of ancestors in spite of a tight schedule. It was such a blessing. 

Here are some screenshots from the app and a couple of photos of some graves of our ancestors. Elijah Nicholas Wilson, by the way, is the brother of my direct ancestor Sylvester Wilson. Elijah is the subject of the book, The White Indian Boy, telling his story of running away from home in Salt Lake City and living among the Shoshone Indians, and later becoming a rider for the Pony Express. He founded the town of Wilson and was a remarkable multidisciplinary man who also did some time as a Federal inmate for "cohabitation" since he had two wives. There's an entry for him in Wikipedia. What a delight it was to find his grave and the nearby Pony Express plaque honoring his contribution. 

FamilySearch and BillionGraves turned the last day of our drive into a remarkable highlight of our trip that rekindled my interest in family history. The exploration resulted in learning more stories and better appreciating the lives of ancestors who lived in rugged and beautiful parts of the world.

Friday, May 28, 2021

A Plea for Toleration and Kindness for Those Who Don't Wear Masks

As some units of the Church return to more normalcy, including in-person meetings where muffled singing through masks is finally allowed, a challenge some will face is discomfort with those who don't mask. There are some who say that even those who have been vaccinated or already have had COVID still need to keep wearing facemasks. There are those who feel that even small children need to wear masks. I think we need a reminder about the needs of others and the physical realities of life.

Wearing a mask can be more than annoying and uncomfortable. While evidence suggests that oxygen levels don't drop as a result of wearing a mask, it can certainly make it harder to breathe. I recently gave a 90-minute presentation for the University of Utah's Executive MBA program, and was surprised to find that even though I would be much more than 6 feet away from the nearest person in the audience, I was still required to wear a mask the entire time. I like to walk around, be somewhat animated, and talk fast and loud. I exercise a lot, but doing my presentation with a mask on was physically challenging (unlike just walking briskly through Walmart). I had to pause a moment to catch my breath a few times, occasionally pulling the mask slightly away from my face to take an unimpeded deep breath of air. My oxygen level was probably fine, but I wasn't. Perhaps it was a low-permeability mask, I'm not sure.

The increased difficulty of breathing can be quite challenging for some people, including pregnant women, those with respiratory or heart problems, the elderly, and small children. If you have not been vaccinated for some reason and you see someone comes to church without wearing a mask, you may wish to maintain reasonable social distance, but please don't be judgemental and angry. Don't give them a lecture about their failure to think of the needs of others. Instead, assume that they may have needs that you don't understand and be kind. Don't order them to put on a mask. Don't treat them as deplorables in need of shaming. If you suspect they may have forgotten their mask or just don't have one for some reason, you could say, "By the way, if anybody wants a mask, there are some over there by the door to the chapel" (assuming your unit has wisely provided masks for those who need them). 

Of course, if you have been vaccinated or have already had the disease, there is very little to worry about, so don't fret over those who aren't wearing a mask. Let others live their own lives, and if you still feel that your vaccination isn't going to help, feel free to social distance and wear a mask, but don't demand it of others.  By the way, I have been vaccinated with no apparent adverse effects from the Pfizer vaccine, but I won't judge you if you have not yet been vaccinated or don't wish to take vaccine. I also won't blame you if you share the skepticism expressed by Kamala Harris in her VP debate toward vaccines pushed by leaders you don't trust: "if Donald Trump tells us that we should take it, I'm not taking it." But perhaps over time you may see that adverse effects are low and efficacy is high, which might lead you to reconsider. Your choice. This is an area where one old slogan may really apply: "my body, my choice." Here it really is your body, not someone else's young and vulnerable body with a separate brain, heart, circulatory system, unique DNA, etc. People should be able to choose what medications and what vaccines are injected into their system.

I know some very good people who are not coming back to our church meetings until the requirement to wear a mask is dropped. Some of these people have been vaccinated or have already had the disease and have no need to wear a mask, and some are physically challenged when wearing one. Should we not be considerate of their needs and welcome them back? Should we not welcome those who struggle with breathing, or, like many of the little children among us, can't stand the discomfort of masks? Or have we rewritten a verse of scripture to "Make the children suffer before they come unto Me"?

Speaking of inviting all to come unto Christ, the insistence so far on mask wearing, coupled with the ban on singing that was just lifted last week in our ward, may be a particular burden for the many African Saints and investigators from the Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi in our wonderfully diverse community. My wife and I have the most enjoyable calling ever now that we've been asked to focus on helping the many immigrants from Africa in our midst. We've been so impressed with them for many reasons, including their ability to speak what strikes me as the hardest language I've studied, Swahili. Easy to read and pronounce, yes, but such complex grammar. Amazing to see a short verb stem blow up into a word two or three times as long after adding all the prefixes and suffixes that might be needed for a particular nuanced situation. How so many people master it as a second or third language is just a wonder to me.  It seems that at least some of them are used to vibrant singing and warm social interactions, and without that, I think it's been far more difficult adjusting to Latter-day Saint worship than it should be. They are doing a great job complying with masking requirements, though some children tend to come without them.

May we be able to be warmer in our greetings and more joyous in song soon.

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Apple Itunes Features the Witnesses Movie Trailer on the Front Page of their Movie Trailer Site

I just heard that the trailer for the new Witnesses film about the Three Witnesses is being featured on the front page of Apple's iTunes Movie Trailers site. That's pretty amazing, but is certainly appropriate given the quality and the drama of this movie. This may not last long, but I'm quite happy about it. Here's my screenshot from 5:44 PM Central Time, May 5, 2021:

The trailer can be viewed directly at the iTunes site at https://trailers.apple.com/trailers/independent/witnesses/. Get your cinema tickets in advance at https://witnessesfilm.com/.

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Witnesses, the Dramatic Movie About Some of the Book of Mormon Witnesses, Premiers on June 2

The powerful drama about the Three Witnesses of the gold plates of the Book of Mormon has now been captured in a movie, Witnesses, that is coming to some theaters on June 2. You can see the trailer at https://witnessesfilm.com/.

Salt Lake City’s ABC affiliate, ABC4, made a five-minute interview interview with Paul Wuthrich, who stars as “Joseph Smith” in Interpreter’s Witnesses film – yesterday morning. See it at https://www.abc4.com/gtu/portrayal-of-joseph-smith-in-witnesses-shows-humanity/

The story of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon is rooted in tangible details, not the imagination of a mystic. In the course of obtaining the revelation of the Book of Mormon, dirt would be dug, a stone moved, and a stone box opened, and then a set of gold plates with specific dimensions and weight wold be retrieved. They would be carefully protected with equally tangible means from others who wanted to steal them. As Anthony Sweat writes, "The Book of Mormon didn’t just pass through Joseph’s trance-induced revelatory mind: its palpable relics passed through a clothing frock, hollowed log, cooper’s shop, linen napkin, wooden chest, fireplace hearth, and barrel of beans." (Anthony Sweat, “Hefted and Handled: Tangible Interactions with Book of Mormon Objects,” in Largey, et al., The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon: A Marvelous Work and a Wonder [Provo and Salt Lake City: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University and Deseret Book, 2015], 44; see Daniel Peterson, "Many Witnesses to a Marvelous Work," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 20 [2016]: 247-260 for a more complete discussion of some of the tangible aspects of the story.) 

The plates would be hefted and touched by multiple people. Men and women would provide compelling witness to the physical reality of the Book of Mormon. But three of the many witnesses played a unique role, for they were witnesses not just to the tangible reality of the plates, but also to the divine power behind the Book of Mormon. In a majestic experience, they would see an angel and hear the voice of God, and know that this work was divine. They, like all other witnesses of the Book of Mormon, wold never deny what they had seen and experienced, though some would leave the Church in the difficult times ahead. But differences with Joseph Smith did not lead to a departure from reality, from the truth that they had experienced.

This movie seeks to stay very close to the historical record while capturing the drama of the events and lives involved. Based on the preview I saw, I'm extremely impressed with the production quality and the acting. Most impressive of all, of course, is the true story behind it. 

From an announcement at the Interpreter Foundation's website:

The film’s production team – Director Mark Goodman, Producer Russell Richins, and Executive Producers Daniel and Deborah Peterson from The Interpreter Foundation – partnered to bring this amazing story of early LDS and American history to the big screen. The film is just one prong of the broader Witnesses Project created by The Interpreter Foundation. The Witnesses Project includes the feature film WITNESSES, a documentary, UNDAUNTED, featuring scholars, skeptics and experts on all the witnesses to the Book of Mormon, and a series of “snippets” or short films about the many witnesses.

Kudos to the many people who made this important movie possible. If a theater in your community is offering it, please go see this. On the movie's website, WitnessesFilm.com, click on "Get Tickets" to buy tickets now for theaters in several states (Utah, California, Texas, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, and Idaho). 

Saturday, April 10, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Around and Around Without One Eternal Round?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 09, 2021

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

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

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

Larsen frames the situation nicely in his abstract:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Thursday, April 08, 2021

Nutrition and COVID: We Need More Science to Follow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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