Once upon a time, when I had to choose an ancient language to study, my advisor — who knew I was a Mormon — advised me not to study Egyptian. “Mormons should stay away from Egyptian,” he said. The implication was that an induction in hieroglyphics would shatter my faith.
He was referring of course to the Book of Abraham, canonised Mormon scripture that Joseph Smith claimed to have translated by the power of God from ancient Egyptian papyri. Unlike the Book of Mormon, this is a claim that can be empirically tested to some degree, as the Church still has some of these papyri today.
Anti-Mormons claim that the Book of Abraham (and consequently Joseph Smith and the whole of Mormonism) utterly fails this test: when translated by Egyptologists, the papyri turn out to be simple funerary documents (the Book of Breathings), with no mention of Abraham to be found. A slick video documentary has even be made to establish this “fact.”
Now, there’s an awfully complicated argument to be had about the nature of the papyri and their relationship with the Book of Abraham (in short: do we actually have the papyri used to translate the Book of Abraham text? Go to the Fair wiki to explore this further, or read anything by John Gee. There’s also the question as to whether the Book of Breathings is an “ordinary” funerary document). Let us instead consider one part of the Book of Abraham where we have both the Egyptian original and the Joseph Smith interpretation: the facsimiles.
Facsimile 1 is particularly useful because it is mentioned in the text itself (Abraham 1:12) as being a representation of the attempted sacrifice of Abraham. The interpretations given by Joseph Smith for the facsimile also follow this line.
“Problem”: facsimile 1 is in fact a vignette from a late Egyptian funerary text showing a priest enbalming the body of a deceased person. The “bird” is the spirit, or “ba” of the dead man; the jars beneath the couch are the “canopic jars” that held the organs. This is not some anti-Mormon fantasy, but the sober interpretation of professional Egyptologists. There is no getting away from it. So why do the Book of Abraham text and explanations claim it to be a representation of Abraham?
Our man Kevin Barney has a solution: a later Jewish redactor of the Abraham text used an Egyptian motif (the enbalming scene) to illustrate the Abraham story:
“[These Egyptian vignettes] were either adopted or adapted by an Egyptian-Jewish redactor as illustrations of the attempt on Abraham’s life and Abraham’s teaching astronomy to the Egyptians.”*
This idea relies on the assertion that the Book of Abraham manuscript (now lost) was attached to or somehow associated with the Book of Breathings (what the Church owns), and that the text Joseph translated was not an autograph from the time of Abraham, but a later edition.
Kevin’s is not the only possibility. How else to approach the Book of Abraham and its relationship to the papyri? I’m assuming for the sake of this argument that a) facsimile 1 is from an Egyptian funerary text,** but b) that despite a), Joseph was not a fraud.*** I’m interested in how other Latter-day Saints (beyond the scholars) deal with what might look like a contradiction there.
* Kevin L. Barney, “The Facsimiles and Semitic Adaptation of Existing Sources,” Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant, 114.
** It really is!
*** There are plenty of other places where that solution will find a home. Let’s just say that sure, it’s a philosophical possibility, and leave it at that. The majority of BCC readers and bloggers are willing — for reasons of testimony — to give Joseph the benefit of the doubt. As for Joseph the “pious fraud,” well…sigh.