Joseph and the Book of the Dead

The Egyptian Book of the Dead is a large body of writings, used from the New Kingdom to the Ptolemaic Period, that is meant to help one obtain a place in the afterlife among the gods. In July of 1835, Joseph and several others purchased a collection of Egyptian antiquities, including four mummies and a number of papyri. Joseph soon announced that among this papyri was a Book of Abraham, which he eventually would translate, publish in the Times and Seasons, which would be printed as part of the British Mission pamphlet A Pearl of Great Price, which would be canonized as scripture in 1880. Interest in the JS Papyri has focused on the papyri thought to relate in some way to the Abraham text, namely the Hor Book of Breathings and the Sheshonq Hypocephalus. But this little collection also included three Ptolemaic era copies of the Book of the Dead. The most extensive fragments are from a Book of the Dead belonging to someone named Tshemmin; one fragment belonged to a woman named Neferirnub. (The third Book of the Dead belonged to someone named Amenhotep, but has not survived.)

The Book of the Dead papyri finally have their day in the spotlight, in the new publication by Michael D. Rhodes, Books of the Dead Belonging to Tshemmin and Neferirnub: A Translation and Commentary (Provo: Maxwell Institute, 2010), volume 4 in the Studies in the Book of Abraham series. This volume is available through the BYU Bookstore, among other venues.

I don’t know Rhodes personally, although I did see him present at a conference once. He has an intriguingly eclectic background. He has spent the last 17 years as a research professor in the Department of Ancient Scripture at BYU, but before that he taught physics at the Air Force Academy. Although he doesn’t have a Ph.D. in the subject, he has strong graduate level chops in Egyptian, having studied at Johns Hopkins, the Freie Universitat Berlin, and Oxford. In 1977 Rhodes published a truly seminal article, “A Translation and Commentary of the Joseph Smith Hypocephalus” in BYU Studies. He has kept the article up to date on his website here. His experience in improving the presentation of the Egyptian material in that article has paid big dividends in his recent publications of the Joseph Smith Papyri. His publication of the Hor Book of Breathings (volume 2 in the Studies in the Book of Abraham series) was simply outstanding, and his new publication of Joseph’s copies of the Book of the Dead follows a very similar format.

The book begins with a concise explanation of what Books of the Dead are, and then moves to a description of the provenance of these papyri. A detailed description of the Tshemmin papyrus follows, including measurements and technical subjects such as the palaeography, orthography and grammar of the text. The text itself is then presented, in both transliteration and translation, using other Ptolemaic copies of the Book of the Dead to fill in gaps. Similar, but of course much shorter, material is then presented for the Neferirnub text, which is the vignette accompanying chapter 125 (a psychostasy or judgment scene). There then follows a section with complete color plates together with hieroglyphic transcriptions of both texts. There are two glossaries: one of gods and place names, and another complete glossary of all words appearing in the texts. A bibliography and index conclude the volume.

This is not a text for your Gospel Essentials class. It is a very detailed and technical scholarly presentation of Egyptian texts. It is a book first and foremost for those interested in ancient Egyptian language and religion, especially of the Ptolemaic period. But it is also a book for serious–and I emphasize serious–students of Mormon history and scripture. These are texts that Joseph studied and proudly displayed, as did his mother after him. Although Joseph never proferred a translation of these papyri, Oliver Cowdery gave a description of them, characterizing this material as a book of Joseph, and describing several of the vignettes (such as a serpent with legs).

I’m interested in languages, and I think Rhodes’ presentation of the text is simply excellent, from plates, to hieroglyphic transcription, to transliteration, to translation, to glossaries and explanations of the particularities of the language. My congratulations to him for a job well done.

Comments

  1. The word Kolob always seemed so weird-sounding to me – I had no idea that it was connected to the semitic root qlb (heart, center, middle) – as the linked paper from Rhodes explains. That’s a word root I learned while studying Hebrew and Arabic at BYU and it makes much more sense.

    Suddenly that particular word use seems a lot less trekkie and a lot more Middle Eastern / biblical to me. That alone made reading this worthwhile. Thanks for posting this.

    Michael Rhodes attends the same ward as my parents and he used to visit (as a high council rep) the singles ward where my wife and I met. So it’s always fun to see him at church when we’re visiting Utah. I knew he was quite the linguist but I didn’t appreciate it as much before. Next time I see him I’m going to have to thank him.

  2. Kevin, a couple of questions:

    1) Is this volume going to be of interest to non-Mormons. Why or why not?

    2) How might Mormon scholars (or history, scripture or other) use this volume?

    thanks for the write-up.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    1) As I indicated, non-Mormon interest will mostly be among Egyptologists. That is actually the primary audience, I think. It is a document of Egyptological scholarship.

    2) For Mormon scholars, probably the most significant angle is the Book of Joseph. I have an old BYU Pearl of Great Price Symposium volume, and in the Q&A the BYU scholars were acting as if we don’t have the Book of Joseph, that that should be high on our list of things to look for. But that was ridiculous. In my opinion, there can be little doubt but that this Book of the Dead manuscript is the material Joseph identified as a Book of Joseph. As I suggested, this comes from Oliver Cowdery’s description of four vignettes: the serpent with legs, the trinity, one I can’t recall off the top of my head, and the tower of Enoch. The tower of Enoch one is a little ambiguous, but the other descriptions to me are clearly referring to vignettes in this document.

    Of course, from that perspective the main interest will be the high quality color plates of the papyri themselves.

  4. This is out of my area, so forgive my ignorance, but will this be a significant contribution in Egyptology?

  5. Thanks for the review, Kevin. I Mike is pleased to have this out.

  6. “I know”

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    I think so, J. Not that it’s groundbreaking or anything. But most Egyptologists concentrate on an earlier period, so this publication of a Ptolemaic era Book of the Dead will be an important contribution.

  8. Andrew Cook and Christopher Smith present some heady and compelling criticism of “missing papyrus theorists” in their “Original Length of the Scroll of Hor,” Dialogue 43:04, Winter 2011. Seeing as these were going through publication at the same time, one could hardly expect Rhodes to have raddressed their conclusions. But do you suppose any specific response will be forthcoming from Rhodes/Maxwell Institute? Also, the link’s broken.

  9. Thank you for the review.

    But it is also a book for serious–and I emphasize serious–students of Mormon history and scripture.

    Having seen the price of the book, I’d say that it is a book for serious and independently wealthy students. I’d like to buy this book and Hauglid’s book, but I would need to take out a student loan.

  10. 4304 winter 2010!

  11. Nice write-up, Kevin. The Maxwell folks deserve recognition for doing all this fine work, but you have to wonder whether there would be any reason to do it had canonization not occurred in 1880. In retrospect (with the benefit of a century and a half of scholarship), it seems like “the British Mission pamphlet A Pearl of Great Price, which would be canonized as scripture in 1880″ is the real problem that is generating Mormon scholarly interest, not the texts themselves.

    The whole episode ought to be generating reflection on the Mormon canonization process. It ought to be a study rooted in the sociology of religion, not Egyptology.

  12. J. Stapley, I’m not so sure Rhodes is well thought of by many Egyptologist. I don’t remember the politics of the situation though. So I suspect that conflict plus the nature of the publishing means even were it significant that a lot of Egyptologists would discount it out of hand.

    Dave, I think it’s a bit more tricky than that. I don’t think Rhodes would say Abraham isn’t a legitimate text. Indeed both he and Gee have written quite a few apologetics on it. I am curious as to how Rhodes gives the apologies about the Book of Joseph though and how that ought affect how we view the Book of Abraham’s connection to the Book of Breathings. Clearly some apologetic arguments from the 90’s have weakened considerably in the intervening years.

  13. Anyone who will read Sam Brown’s “The Early Mormon Chain of Belonging” (Dialogue Spring 2011–in the mail) should be convinced that the PoGP/”Egyptian Project” represents the documentation of a unique and marvelous cosmological epiphany, foundational to Mormonism. To approach it as a problem for the apologetics of arcane scholarship and dead languages could not begin to address its relevance as latter-day scripture.

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    Just to be clear, this book has absolutely nothing to do with BoA apologetics. It is strictly a scholarly work.

  15. Kevin, a personal question. Since you believe this was identified by Joseph Smith as the Book of Joseph, how do you reconcile this theologically with the fact that we now know this had nothing to do with Joseph.

    Book of Abraham apologetics has been bending over backwards to come up with a missing roll in order to explain why Joseph Smith couldn’t translate Egyptian as he claimed. By asserting a missing source, they say no one can really say if Joseph Smith could not translate Egyptian. But if LDS scholars take it for granted that the Book of Joseph is extant, then they might as well give up on all the other apologetic stuff and just admit Joseph got it all wrong. If he couldn’t translate the Book of Joseph (or the facsimiles for that matter) then why are they fighting tooth and nail to establish a missing Q document from which the Book of Abraham allegedly derives?

  16. Surely there must be some level of apologetic value in this book, or else I suspect it never would have been published. One apologist named Will Schryver is on a message forum claiming JOhn Gee’s 40ft roll theory is being established using “three formulae being tested for accuracy against a recently unrolled Ptolemaic-era Book of the Dead.” The timing of this novelty apologetic with Rhode’s publication makes me wonder if there is a connection.

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    If there’s an apologetic angle to the book, I frankly don’t see it. My understanding is that it took quite a while for the book to see print, essentially because it was just pure scholarship and didn’t have apologetic relevance.

    The descriptions Oliver gave of the vignettes are just sort of common sense explanations in a biblical culture, such as the serpent with legs being the serpent of the Garden of Eden before it was cursed, or the “trinity” vignette being a representation of the Christian trinity. Attributing the book to Joseph is really the main mistake. But I’m sure I’m very liberal on this point, and that a lot of folks wouldn’t be comfortable with my equation of this roll with the Book of Joseph.

    As to the BoA, I’m completely open minded. I’m waiting for the scholarship to be published before making any hard and fast conclusions. (We don’t even have a decent editio princeps of the KEP yet. And I’m not really interested in a lot of polemical argument about this until I see actual scholarly engagement with these texts and some cogent explanation of just what the hell these guys thought they were doing. There will be plenty of time for polemics later.)

  18. Paul Bohman says:

    Re #15 Kevin G:

    I too am very interested to know how any of these Egyptian artifacts can be reconciled in any way with the Pearl of Great Price writings Joseph Smith produced as a result of coming in contact with them. For all the reading I’ve done on the topic, all of the “bending over backwards” by Mormon apologists that Keven G refers to has always appeared to be tenuous at best, and a misguided exercise in futility at worst.

    The original Egyptian documents are impossible to reconcile with the Pearl of Great Price, except under a few strained assumptions. Namely:

    1. The texts have a double meaning,
    2. The texts served to inspire Joseph Smith, but were not the source documents he worked from (and in fact, there were no source documents for his inspiration; the inspiration came through revelatory channels alone and the texts were superfluous)
    3. We don’t have all of the original papers that Joseph Smith had, so all text-based criticisms are irrelevant.

    I realize that we don’t have an official Joseph Smith translation of the Book of Joseph, but if he had lived long enough to produce such a translation, that would create the same kind of problems that we already have with the Book of Abraham.

    If we have the documents originally identified as the Book of Joseph as Kevin believes, and if these documents have nothing to do with a Book of Joseph, according to the evidence, that excludes the third option from the list above as even plausible, at least in reference to the Book of Joseph, and simultaneously casts doubt on the origin of the Book of Abraham. The first option from my list above isn’t much better, because it requires us to essentially say that the “real” meaning of the text is so hidden as to be absolutely and completely absent in all rational readings of the text. That leaves us with the second option, which is that Joseph claimed (and maybe believed) that he was translating the documents, when in fact he was doing nothing of the sort, even if the final documents that Joseph Smith produced were inspired.

    None of these options are particularly appealing to me. It’s much easier to say: well, he said they were translations, but obviously they’re not. Oh well. I guess he was wrong.

    But what’s the fun in that? That casts doubts on everything else Joseph Smith did too, and leaves us with nothing to blog about here.

  19. I liked Gee’s theory back in the 90’s although since then I’ve become more skeptical. It’d be nice to figure out if we can falsify these things. Out of curiosity what forum is this on?

    My impression is that FARMS (now the Maxwell Institute) is moving away from apologetics somewhat. I think FAIR is starting to take over that role. So a lot of things being done by the Maxwell Institute are, as Kevin notes, completely non-apologetic. I think this wise although were it not for FAIR I think we’d really be losing something. And FAIR hasn’t totally fulfilled the role of FARMS. (And as I’m sure FAIR would be the first to admit has limits )

    Kevin, does Rhodes provide apologetics on the Book of Joseph issue elsewhere? (I confess I’ve not kept up with apologetics since I started a new business and had to drop out of FAIR)

  20. Paul, I’ve not kept up with the issue the past 12 years or so. However I know in the late 90’s #3 was the most popular position. Although as Kevin noted some of the more extreme versions of this were always unpersuasive (and perhaps a bit of wish fulfillment). Gee had the strongest arguments for this and it’d be interesting to see if his hypothesis has been falsified at all.

    I think the assumption Joseph would have translated these documents into a Book of Joseph is pure speculation. There’s no evidence for that in the least.

  21. Paul Bohman says:

    I can’t claim to be an Egyptologist (as so few can), but the latest Dialogue contained a persuasive argument against the proposition that the scroll was as long as some apologists have claimed.

    See the article by Andrew W. Cook and Christopher C. Smith: The Original Length of the Scroll of Hôr, Vol. 43, Num. 4 – Winter 2010, p. 1.

    I don’t suppose this article alone puts the last nail in the coffin of all arguments claiming that we don’t have all of the texts that Joseph Smith had access to, but it does narrow the list of conceivable rational explanations.

  22. Kevin Barney says:

    Clark, I’m unaware of any apologetic from Rhodes on the Book of Joseph issue.

  23. Clark,

    John Gee’s various theories have been falsified. So many times, in fact, that I find it difficult to ever take him serious again. Virtually everything he has done in this field has had some kind of apologetic purpose behind it. Here is just a short list of things John Gee has gotten wrong over the past decade alone:

    John Gee was horribly wrong about a Seyffarth citation which he used to argue that the Book of Abraham was attached at the end of the scroll. He mangled the citation in a way that made it says something it didn’t, and left it up to critical readers to chase down the source to see is he was being honest with the text. Well, he wasn’t.

    He used faulty measurements to come up with a missing 40 ft of scroll. Chris Smith and Andrew cook have published on this subject and determined quite conclusively that Gee’s missing 40 feet of papyrus is an apologetic fantasy. But the existence of missing papyri doesn’t change the fact that all historical evidence points to the source for the source of the Book of Abraham being that which is extant.

    He manipulated the KEP photos – in his silly 2001 “Guide” which was more of an apologetic manifesto – to give credence to his “overrunning” and “two ink” argument. He was being disingenuous at the least about his two ink argument, because he didn’t know at the time that Brent had color photos and could easily disprove it – which he quickly did. After a few years of taking a beating over this issue, Gee finally gave up the ghost and admitted his theory was baseless. Michael Rhodes even admitted this once at a FAIR conference after looking at color photos on Brent’s laptop.

    He falsely asserted Joseph Smith had done no translating in 1842 in order to prop up his argument that the entire Book of Abraham was finished in July 1835. When he was shown evidence to the contrary, he then said Joseph Smith only “revised” his translations in 1842, despite the two clear unambiguous statements by Joseph Smith that he had to start “translating” again in March 1842 in order to prepare for the second publication that began at Abr 2:19. Gee simply cannot be trusted with primary sources.

    And perhaps the most embarrassing argument by John Gee thus far was found in his recent FAIR presentation, which was given by William Schryver, who, shortly after said he didn’t agree with the presentation he just gave! In short, Gee tried to argue that the characters deriving from the lacuna were actually copied at random from different portions of the papyrus. That he thought anyone with a brain would actually buy this argument is astounding. The characters look nothing like what he said had been copied. But his argument was born out of apologetic necessity as a way to say the Kirtland Egyptian Papers couldn’t have been dictated from the characters in sequence, as we might expect.

    He also misrepresented Fascimile 2 saying it had nothing significant to say about astronomy, therefore there must be missing translations to which Joseph Smith referred.

    That’s just off the top of my head, but I know there are more. His apologetics permeates his “scholarship,” and he has been shown to be less than scholarly in his handling and representation of the relevant evidence.

    The forum you were asking about can be found here: http://mormondiscussions.com/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=16962

    Kevin

  24. Kevin B,

    Were you aware of Brian Hauglid’s recent book that details the translation history of the Book of Abraham? It includes full blown color photos of the KEP so people can finally see what they are and analyze for themselves.

    As far as what the hell these guys thought they were doing, I think it is quite obvious. There never seemed to be much of a mystery until apologists like Nibley felt one needed to be created. THe documents are in the handwriting of Smith’s hired scribes. The manuscripts in the handwriting of Williams and Parrish represent the original dictated transcripts for the Book of Abraham (http://mormondiscussions.com/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=14289), with corresponding Egyptian characters in the left margin which were taken in sequence, from the Sensen text just left of Facsimile #1. Abr 1:12 even identifies the scroll for us saying the Facsimile could be found at the commencement. Brent Metcalf and Ed Ashment’s work on this is quite compelling and since the 2006 FAIR conference we have been bombarded with one faiuled promise after another about upcoming refutations. The apologists went from promising textual ink analysis, to the missing scroll theory, and now to Schryver’s left field cipher theory which hasn’t a chance in hades of being vindicated.

    But to me all this apologetic hoopla is superfluous, because we already know Joseph Smith could not translate ancient documents because he got virtually everything wrong when trying to translate the Facsimiles. And of course, the evidence strongly suggests he believed the fraudulent Kinderhook Plates were genuinely ancient as well. This is what did me in, eventually, and I am always curious to know how other LDS folk who are aware of these issues reconcile them with their brand of Mormonism. Are you going to go with the “catalyst theory” on the day apologists are left with no other choice but to concede the point Metcalf and Ashment have been making for decades?

  25. Kevin Barney says:

    I have Brian’s book and will be posting on it in the near future. But it does not contain the Egyptian mss. of the KEP. He is working on those and that will come out in a future volume. Presumably Brent is still planning on publishing his edition as well.

    Sam Brown’s article on the KEP is an example of the kind of scholarship i am calling for. We need to understand those documents on their own terms first.

    And yes, I’m quite open to the catalyst theory and always have been.

  26. I agree with virtually everything Sam Brown has argued in publication. But I don’t see Brown as an apologist, nor do I see his writings as being much help for other apologists. I see folks like Schryver borrowing ideas from Brown, but not ideas which Brown would necessarily agree with. For instance, Schryver finds apologetic value in Brown’s focus on Phelps as “ghostwriter” because he thinks this allows him to distance Smith from the BoA translations found in the KEP. But Brown never argued Phelps was a ghostwriter for the KEP, and has gone on record agreeing with the critics who say the so-called Kirtland Egyptian Papers involved projects that were supervised by the Prophet.

  27. Kevin Barney says:

    That’s my point. We need scholarship first; apologetics and polemics (beyond that which already exists) can follow.

  28. Incidentally, Brian informed me that he hopes to follow up with another volume containing the Egyptian papers.

  29. Paul Bohman says:

    Re #25 Kevin Barney:

    I’m not entirely opposed to some version of the catalyst theory, in principle. The trouble with it, or at least one of the troubles with it, is that there is essentially no doubt that we have the facsimiles for which Joseph Smith provided translations, and there is also essentially no doubt that his translations are entirely wrong, unless we go with the approach that the documents have deep hidden meanings undetectable to all current scholars. Joseph’s translations of these facsimiles are presented as confidently authoritative. He goes so far as to designate certain things as too sacred to be revealed at this point in time, meaning that he claims to know the interpretation, but won’t give it to us, as in these excerpts below:

    – Ought not to be revealed at the present time.
    – Also.
    – Also. If the world can find out these numbers, so let it be. Amen.
    – Figures 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, and 21, will be given in the own due time of the Lord.

    I have no qualms about keeping sacred things sacred. That’s not my point. My point is that he represented himself as having an almost absolute knowledge about the meanings of the facsimiles, in a very literal way (and not some abstract catalyst way), and yet the items that he did translate are, to the best of everyone else’s knowledge, so far off base as to allow only two possible conclusions.

    Either:
    1) he made it all up, or
    2) there really is hidden meaning in these things that no one else can detect.

    I don’t see any other way to interpret this. You can’t claim that he was using other documents that we no longer have access to, because the facsimiles are right there in the Pearl of Great Price.

  30. I think Joseph clearly portrayed the meanings he assigned to the facsimiles as representing highly esoteric knowledge, i.e. not just a straightforward translation of the characters. It’s not as if, while writing:

    – Ought not to be revealed at the present time.
    – Also.
    – Also. If the world can find out these numbers, so let it be. Amen.

    he was thinking to himself, “well, I hope nobody with actual knowledge of ancient Egyptian ever looks at these and reveals the secrets.”

    Translation is a messy, messy thing in JSJ’s world, a process which hardly corresponds to what modern linguists denote with the term. In the case, for example, of the Book of Mormon I think there’s a strong case to be made that even from a perspective that accepts the Gold Plates and their ancient origin the text that Joseph and his scribes produced is not a clinically accurate, word for word translation of the characters on the plates. For JSJ, records are translated but so are individuals and societies.

    I’m not trying to dismiss or elide the difficulties that the BoA presents under serious scholarly scrutiny. But I don’t think JSJ’s interpretation of what the facsimiles really mean is an open and shut exhibit pointing toward fraud. In other words, I don’t think your conclusion #2 is as far fetched as you seem to think it is (though I could be misreading you). I think it’s by far the most sensible conclusion to be drawn regarding JSJ’s own understanding of the meanings he presented.

  31. Kevin, as I said, I’ve not really followed apologetics for quite a long time. (One of the reasons being the style that one sees in that forum – a lot more heat than light which makes it hard to see the arguments) However I’m pretty sure it was widely known before 2001 that Brent had color photos of the documents. I remember back then he was saying he was going to publish. It’s funny that it’s been basically 12 years since I last really looked at things and he’s still not published.

    Is the argument of Chris Smith and Andrew Cook anywhere on the net? I confess that it’s unlikely I’ll have time to make it up to campus to look up the article. (Heck, if I had that much time there are a dozen philosophical things to write on first)

    Kevin B, I agree that we should try and get the facts straight before theorizing. I’m a bit shocked that after 10 years we aren’t further along in that regard.

    Kevin G, I’m not sure thinking something is ancient initially or might contain something entails that he would have so thought upon trying to translate. In any case the catalyst theory seems to work equally well as a explanatory theory and has the benefit of corresponding to what he explicitly did with the JST.

    I glanced through that forum. As I said a lot more heat than light and it was kind of annoying for someone not part of the game to try and figure out the actual arguments. That said I did notice someone said that there were masonic cypher glyphs in the KEP which was news to me. That’s pretty interesting honestly. Someone else said they thought the purported Anthon Transcript also did. Any *good* places to read on this? (i.e. something presented a little more systematically)

  32. Paul a very old apologetic hypothesis was that what counts isn’t the documents in their original Egyptian context but how they might have been used in a 1st century context of a person with syncretistic religious tendencies. I think this theory came out as soon as the dates of the papyri were known. As such then what matters would be less the Egyptian sense of the documents including vignettes than how someone may have used them.

    I should add regarding the Masonic cypher claims that what’s interesting to me is how little attention has been paid to various 1st century ciphers. I know that once again back in the 90’s people were finding interesting parallels to the purported anthon transcript from various late hellenistics, Roman, and even Islamic cyphers including those used for economic data. I don’t know if that has really been pursued though. Given the limited number of scripts (and because I find it unlikely masons adopted their cyphers from scratch) I suspect this would be a fruitful avenue of investigation for apologists. (Note I’m not in the least denying masonic connections – I’ve long thought masonry was much more heavily involved in such things if only in terms of a paradigm for those in Nauvoo to try and interpret things religiously)

  33. Paul Bohman says:

    Given that Joseph Smith didn’t even look at the gold plates while translating them (he either used the spectacles/urim and thummim or looked at a seer stone in a hat or used nohing at all), and that he didn’t go out of his way to hide this fact, I can agree that there is a basis for accepting conclusion 2 from the standpoint of internal consistency within Joseph’s world. Even so, the translations if the facsimiles don’t fit this pattern. All of his interpretations (the ones I didn’t quote above) are very concrete and matter-of-fact. He was obviously looking at the drawings and saying this part means such and such, and this other part means so and so. He presents the drawings to us and says here they are and this is what they mean. Everything about his presentation is and representation of the translation is as straightforward as can possibly be.

    The meanings of the interpretations may themselves be esoteric, as you might expect from any religious document, but there really isn’t anything esoteric about where he claims to have found those meanings. Here is the picture. Here is the interpretation.

    That’s why I say the only way that I can imagine his claims to be credible on any level is if there is hidden meaning in the facsimiles undetectable by everyone else. In this sense, the facsimiles are a special case. Joseph Smith does not give us an illustrated line by line translation of the text of the Book of Abraham, but that’s exactly what he does with the facsimiles. And now we know that the drawing and the translation don’t match up. At all. So what are we supposed to make of that?

  34. Once again the standard response is just that religious use need not line up with literal meaning. I’m not in the least saying that’s the answer. Just that one shouldn’t discount it out of hand given semiotic drift of many religious texts and artifacts in many cultures. (Especially when under syncrestic movements)

  35. To add, masonry itself is an obvious example of that.

  36. Paul Bohman says:

    (Sorry about the typos in the last post. I’m using a cell phone to write.)

    Another strained possibility is that our current knowledge of Egyptian is all wrong. I’m not going to jump on that bandwagon anytime soon though.

    I do want to point out that I’m open to whatever the real answers are to all of these questions. It would be convenient for me and for Mormonism if the evidence coincided with Joseph Smith’s claims. The moment I stop feeling defensive about the faith I was brought up on, though, and look dispassionately at the evidence before me, I have to admit that none of the evidence, as currently understood, supports Joseph’s claims. In fact, it seems to falsify Joseph’s claims rather soundly. Is the jury still out? Perhaps. There’s a lot more to this faith than the provenance of the Book of Abraham or the translation of the facsimiles. Even so, the evidence against them is what it is, and as Joseph Smith himself once said, “facts are stubborn things.”

  37. That’s exactly the point I’m trying to make, Paul. I think that the case that Joseph believed and attempted to convey that there is hidden meaning in the facsimiles undetectable by everyone else makes itself. I don’t see any reason to think that he intended the public to understand his descriptions of the facsimiles as plain, straightforward, literal translations of the figures—as precisely how a well-informed and well-trained Egyptologist would translate them. He is presenting a portion of an interpretation which, he claims, reveals secret, mysterious, esoteric, ancient knowledge, hidden from the world.

  38. To be even more clear: I think the most straightforward reading of the facsimile descriptions is as JSJ saying “here is the secret meaning, hidden from the rest of the world, behind these ancient symbols. The world can’t figure it out, but it’s been revealed to me what they really mean.” That’s not a claim which can be falsified or verified by linguistic or philological scholarship. Like virtually all of JSJ’s major, defining, religious claims (and notwithstanding the impulse of many LDS apologetic scholars), it’s not really subject to independent confirmation or disconfirmation.

  39. Paul Bohman says:

    Yeah, but there is a difference between a meaning that is hidden due to symbolism or allegory (like the Book of Revelation, perhaps), and a meaning that is hidden because it is completely unrelated to everything in the text. The latter is a bit like finding a set of instructions on how to assemble an IKEA cabinet and claiming that it’s really an ancient document of supreme theological importance. I realize that’s a flippant example, but the unrelatedness of the translation of the scholars to Joseph’s translation is striking.

  40. “…the unrelatedness of the translation of the scholars to Joseph’s translation is striking.”

    That is definitely true. But it still fits within the interpretive framework I’m describing, particularly when we’re dealing with non-alphabetic characters. It’s much more plausible that the hidden meaning would bear no obvious relationship to the conventional meaning in the case of the kinds of characters we’re talking about (and this is assuming that JSJ is simply revealing rather than, in some sense, assigning meaning to the characters to make them illustrative of the texts they’re meant to illuminate).

  41. Clark #31: “Is the argument of Chris Smith and Andrew Cook anywhere on the net?” – Here it is: https://dialoguejournal.com/2010/the-original-length-of-the-scroll-of-hor/

  42. Thanks David. I glanced through it quickly. Looks like they made it more complex than it needs to be. But I’ll read it in more depth later.

  43. Brad,

    Contrary to your assertion there is every reason to believe Joseph Smith, “intended the public to understand his descriptions of the facsimiles as plain, straightforward, literal translations of the figures,” since that is precisely what he claimed to be doing. This idea that the word translate doesn’t really mean translate is an [i]ad hoc[/i] apologetic notion for which there is zero evidence.

    To say it is the “most sensible” conclusion that Joseph Smith detected a hidden meaning that no one else can detect, fore it is falsifiable, is justified only by an apologetic need to make in unfalsifiable. The argument itself is incoherent. So the Egyptians used these characters to represent a legitimate language, but in some mysterious, esoteric way, the same language had another meaning buried inside it? There is absolutely zero evidence for this line of thought, so there I see no basis for calling it sensible, let alone the “most sensible” conclusion.

    Kevin B,

    Michael Rhodes, if memory serves, has written apologetically for the Book of Abraham in the past. I believe he has presented at the FAIR conferences as well. His input has been minimal, but he was the one responsible for asserting that material used to fill in the lacuna was done merely for “aesthetic” purposes. His evidence for this? None.

    Clark,

    The catalyst theory has very little explanatory power. Will Schryver once tried to push this argument by saying Joseph Smith never needed the gold plates in order to translate the Book of Mormon, therefore the papyri wasn’t needed either. If that were true, then it seems like the Ancient Nephites went through a whole lot of trouble for nothing; to suffer pain and death for centuries to preserve a record that, as it turned out, didn’t need to be preserved.

    There are a few masonic ciphers incorporated with a number of symbols Joseph Smith believed to be Egyptian. So what? In 1832 Joseph Smith provided a character set of Masonic ciphers that he translated to be representative of the “pure” Adamic language. Those same masonic symbols appear in the GAEL but with different sounds/meanings attributed to them. Smith believed there were similarities between Egyptian and the pure language of Adam, but he also believed there were similarities between that and English.

    You also said, “we should try and get the facts straight before theorizing.” Just how many facts do we need before theorizing is tolerated by the apologists? I’m not sure you appreciate just how much we do know. Do you really think it is unreasonable to conclude Joseph Smith’s various, unambiguous mistranslations, should actually be used to prove he couldn’t properly translate ancient documents?

  44. “fore it is falsifiable” should read “therefore it is unfalsifiable”

  45. Kevin (Barney), my husband and I were talking about the BoA just last week after I read an article in the New Yorker about the problems with Scientology’s foundational documents. There is fairly good evidence that these documents are forgeries, although Scientologists respond that the documents are either lost or the documents don’t say what the text actually says.

    It’s more problematic in the Scientologists’ case, however, since their documents are written in English and signed by a military official who never existed.

    As much as I may want to give the benefit of the doubt to the Church’s official position that the BoA is an actual translation of ancient records, I just don’t know how we can possibly agree with this statement with any level of confidence.

    We are still looking for answers to why Joseph “translated” the Egyptian characters incorrectly, and why the papyri are not, in fact, written “by the hand of Abraham”. As Paul and Kevin G point out, Joseph Smith’s own assertions that the characters said what he said they said are particularly problematic.

    I guess at this point, I’m concerned that the institutional Church is covering over serious problems with the BoA by asserting that all the answers are in “lost” fragments of the papyri.

    Given the evidence, faithful Mormons who have ventured outside the Church’s official statements on the BoA and studied the BoA independently may conclude that the BoA isn’t particularly relevant to their faith or practice. Which is a fine approach, but it’s difficult to get to this place when the Church keeps insisting that Joseph “translated” the BoA from the papyri and that they contain the writings of Abraham, when it’s clear from the research that he did not and they do not.

    Thus, I’m mostly concerned with the language the Church uses to describe the translation process of the papyri, because it leaves literally no room for members who discover on their own that (among other things) Joseph Smith did not translate these documents in any sense of the word. The Church says Joseph “translated” the documents, and so any questioning or challenge to this official position is discouraged and disparaged.

    This March 1997 Ensign article illustrates this point well:

    http://lds.org/ensign/1997/03/the-book-of-abraham-a-most-remarkable-book?lang=eng&query=book+abraham

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that the Church’s account of the BoA strains credulity, yet faithful members are nevertheless assumed/required to believe the Church’s BoA account is true and accurate. Isn’t this a case of two plus two equals five?

  46. Kevin Barney says:

    Kevin G., yes, Rhodes has been involved in BoA apologetics. I only said that this book had nothing to do with the subject, and that I’m not aware of any contribution from him on the subject of the Book of Joseph.

    ECS, I would be curious what you think about this article I wrote:

    http://metinewsite.farmsresearch.com/publications/books/?bookid=40&chapid=168

  47. LDS Church doctrine does not dictate that Moses wrote the Pentateuch. And yet, the themes of Eden, Covenant and the Exodus ring lose none of their resonance for that. Perhaps, as an Mormon outsider-insider it’s easier for me to {bracket} certain problems. I see a great creativity, profundity and fecundity, of thought in the KEP books of Moses and Abraham. Their provenance is no less a concern for me than the Moses provenance to Genesis. It is for their truth for which I turn. The posts which seem most promising for real progress toward that end would be #11 “[These] ought to be a study rooted in the sociology of religion”; and #25 “Sam Brown’s article on the KEP is an example of the kind of scholarship I am calling for. We need to understand those documents on their own terms first.”
    Also to #42–As worker/cheerleader for Dialogue, who at times found himself out of his depth in the Cook-Smith publication production, I nevertheless am duty-bound to defend it as the ideal model of succinctness, which falls neither an iota to the left of “not complex enough” or to a tittle to the right of “overly complex.” Although the contusions on my forehead may belie these hopes.

  48. Kevin G, your comment on the connotation of translate seems difficult to accept given the translation of the Bible Joseph was doing. Most criticism of this narrow sense of translate arises because of pretty clear examples where a broader sense of translation took place. I think the best the critic can do is argue that Joseph was a conscious fraud and that he presented the Bible translation as a translation of the original missing text in a literalistic fashion. This however is problematic given what we know of the method of translation of the Bible. So any theory of Joseph’s semantics and pragmatics of the term “translate” has to be able to explain the JST clearly.

    Regarding getting the facts right, it really depends upon the theory in question and what facts need to be firmly established for it to function logically.

    Brent, by overly complex I didn’t mean I couldn’t understand the reasoning. (I’m a physicist by training) Just that I don’t think all of that was necessary to make their argument.

    Kevin B, thanks for that link. I’d not read that before. (As I said I’ve not really had time to bother with apologetics the last decade) I only had time to glance through it but it appears a nice treatment of that old theory I’d mentioned. (Didn’t Nibley first propose the Testament of Abraham example?) Obviously for believers this is an attractive model. However there really isn’t any positive data in the texts we have that this is going on that I can see.

    What this theory needs to be persuasive rather than merely a possibility is either some existing papyri that adopts a sn-sn text in this fashion with clear semetic use or some evidence that some of the papyri Joseph had did this. (Even a name or the like) That’s lacking at this moment. Because of that I think this theory only works if there is a missing papyri theory plausibly presented.

  49. MikeInWeHo says:

    “I don’t see any reason to think that he intended the public to understand his descriptions of the facsimiles as plain, straightforward, literal translation…”

    Quick question: Where to you find evidence of that? Everything I read, in the histories, in the testimonies, in current Church publications, really everything….states that Joseph was translating ancient texts.

    BTW Kevin, thanks for this post. I find it all so interesting. Watching brilliant, educated Mormons try to deal with their foundational documents is a bit like watching an intellectual version of Cirque du Soleil.

    I’ve been thinking of writing about Mormon apologetics from a purely psychological perspective. It is absolutely fascinating.

  50. ECS, I think I’d wish the Church put in its official publications more clarity over the range of the word “translate.” However that Ensign article actually is pretty careful with terms. It’s just that the casual reader weren’t recognize that the author was narrowing things down much. Consider the careful qualification of “its original text is a first-person account written by the great patriarch.” This makes sense with the apologetics that the papyri isn’t the original text but it doesn’t inform the reader that it might not be the original text.

    While on the one hand I can understand wanting to avoid the controversy in the Ensign I think it would be helpful to prepare members for these controversies.

  51. ECS, I think your post is a just as much an oversimplification of BoA issues as is the kind of thing one finds in the Ensign, just going the other way.
    In terms of the BoA being irrelevant, it’s not as irrelevant as you might think. It’s the primary locus of such central teachings as pre-mortal existence, councils in heaven, etc. Those are certainly deeply embedded into every LDS with the common understanding of the “plan of salvation” as laid out by missionaries and the Gospel Principles manual.

  52. MikeInWenHo, I think the main apologetics (at least back when I followed) were pretty straightforward. They push the missing papyri by emphasizing accounts that sound longer. (Say the Charlotte Haven account) Critics then discount this in various ways. If we can establish that there was no missing papyri as the Dialogue article suggests, then that certainly invalidates most apologetics writings of the past decades.

  53. Clark- the ensign article is careful with its wording because it needs to conform with the preamble to the book of Abraham itself, which states that it is translated from ancient documents that were written by Abraham personally. Kevin’s article and indeed all apologetic research reject the assumption that Abraham wrote the papyri and that Joseph translated them.

    Ben S- the BoA is certainly relevant to our LDS faith tradition, but the origin of the BoA isn’t particularly relevant if you believe in joseph’s divine mission. I have no problem accepting the BoA as a divinely inspired text. I have a huge problem with the church insisting that Joseph translated the papyri and that these papyri were written by Abraham himself. While the jury may still be out on a few issues, kevin’s article shows us in exquisite detail that the church’s characterization of the origins of the BoA are extremely problematic.

  54. #42 Clark, my tone was purely facetious, as I’m sure you know, and, fraught with denial. Myself, I felt like I’d been posed the impossible task of typesetting cuneiform.

  55. ECS, I disagree. I think the author is more than aware of the apologetics and is saying original text because he doesn’t think the papyri is the original text. Not that this is a big deal. There always was a tradition within Mormonism regarding say the original text of the Bible when it “came forth from the mouth of a Jew.” I think the author is just partaking of that tradition but not being terribly clear to the audience. I’d note he never suggests the papyri is the original text.

    ECS, I don’t think many think Abraham wrote the Papyri. I looked through lds.org and I can’t find anything for the past 40 years that claims he did. And a lot of explicit ones (including an article by Michael Rhodes in the Ensign) that he didn’t. Rather most are careful to call them writings contained in the papyri suggesting some broader transmission.

    Interestingly things were much more explicit up until about the mid 90’s when the content of the Ensign changed significantly.

  56. ECS- True, but the problem is that many LDS have made a general assumption that “true”=”historical.” That equation may be valid for certain kinds of genre, but I think it would be difficult to decouple the production/source/nature of the text from the truth-value of the text in the average LDS mind.

  57. re: 56
    You’ve hit the nail on the head, Ben. Also, the notion that true=historical is emphasized over and over in conference talks, etc. Statements like “It’s either true, or all a fraud!” are highly problematic with foundational documents like the BoA (to say the least).

    It will be interesting see how this evolves over time. The 7th Day Adventists have done a much better job, in my opinion, of struggling fearlessly with the more problematic aspects of their origins and have emerged much stronger as a result.

  58. Kevin G, if you think I have an apologetic need to make Mormon faith claims unfalsifiable, you don’t know me very well (a forgivable oversight, given that you don’t, in fact, know me very well). I’m not talking about hidden linguistic or semantic meanings, but rather the esoteric meanings behind the more straightforward meanings of a given written character. If someone in the distant future found a scrap of preserved paper from modern America with the words (in English) “the widow’s son” written on it, and someone (with no knowledge of the English language, written or oral) claiming divine aid rendered its meaning as “a stonemason martyred for refusing to divulge the mysteries of temple architecture”, the non-alignment of the proffered interpretation with the literal meaning of the characters would be rather glaring. But if that particular interpretation was nested within a set of similar interpretations, all of which involved highly salient symbolic forms (names of gods, celestial bodies, four quarters of the earth, etc) as well as stuff like “this is a mystery” and “no one can no this” and “if the world can discern this, so be it,” then the non-congruence of the rendering with the literal semantic meaning would not necessarily falsify the claim that the interpretation was both divine and legitimate.

    All of this, of course, presumes (like so many arguments over the BoA) that the relationship between the characters on facsimiles and the interpretations given is important. I don’t personally think that there’s any relationship whatsoever between the two. JSJ, despite your dismissal of such claims as apologetic nonsense, did describe as “translation” all kinds of activities, from the dictation of the BoM without looking at the plates to Bible exegesis to the transformation and ontological elevation of individuals and societies, which do not conform to our narrow, scholarly definition of the term. I think JSJ used the facsimiles to creatively illuminate a story he was trying to tell about Abraham and the gods. Whether or not he believed there to be some direct connection between the papyri and Abraham or Abraham’s writings (which there clearly was not) is immaterial. He pressed them into the service of his revelatory/exegetical purposes. That position is, in terms of apologist/critic debates, neutral. And even a believing approach to my position does not depend for its legitimacy on JSJ’s having been conscious of what he was actually doing. He might well have believed that he was giving the world the true meanings of characters directly linked to the writings of Abraham in Egypt. He’d have been wrong about that, but there are plenty of believers comfortable with the fact that prophets are sometimes wrong.

  59. Clark, nothing about Smith’s translation of the Bible poses problems for the translation of the Book of Abraham. He pointed to the papyrus and said, “there is the signature of Abraham.” The JST was his attempt to restore lost truths from the Bible as they originally appeared when first written. This is also consistent with his attempt to restore lost material from the papyrus. We know he did this because in 1837 William West wrote, “These records were torn by being taken from the roll of embalming salve which contained them, and some parts entirely lost; but Smith is to translate the whole by divine inspiration, and that which is lost, like Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, can be interpreted as well as that which is preserved.”

    The KEP reveal an attempt to restore characters that would fall into the lacuna to keep the translation smooth in a manner perfectly consistent with the traditional meaning of the word “translate.” Further, the Book of Abraham manuscripts contain Egyptian characters in the left margin as the corresponded to English text over to the right. The same characters applied to the same translated material in three different manuscripts in the handwriting of three different scribes. Nibley’s explanation that these documents only prove his scribes were trying their hand at translation independently, while taking characters from the WRONG scroll, is nothing short of ridiculous. Smith took a character from one language and claimed to have translated it into modern English. There is no ambiguity in what he did nor is there any room for these apologetic explanations.

    So just because the JST translation didn’t involve interaction with an ancient Hebrew document, doesn’t mean he wasn’t literally attempting to translate the original documents. What apologists have done is confuse the mechanics of translation with the meaning of translation and assumed differences with the former must constitute a different meaning for the latter. This is a non sequitur which is done for apologetic purposes; as a means to liberate Smith from any accountability for having produced something that obviously had nothing to do with the documents he claimed to be translating.

    Regarding the missing papyrus, apologists focus on the fact that Facsimile #3 is mising, so therefore it follows that much more could be missing. True enough, but it doesn’t change the fact that even if there was another roll, all evidence points to the Sensen Text being the source for the Book of Abraham. Virtually all historic references to the papyri clearly allude to extant portions.

    You said, “I don’t think many think Abraham wrote the Papyri. I looked through lds.org and I can’t find anything for the past 40 years that claims he did.”

    Naturally, since the Church knew it had to back away from such claims since it had been shown to have nothing to do with Abraham. Whe papyri were rediscovered in 1967, initially LDS folks were anxious to use them to prove Joseph Smith was a true prophet. But when it turned out they had nothing to do with Abraham, the implications were clear, and so the apologetic front took over. It is the same reason DNA evidence has prompted the Church to back away from its traditional claim that the American Indians are the principal ancestors of the Lamanites. In 40 years apologists will be able to make the same argument you’re making now. But it is really beside the point.

  60. I have to admit, Kevin G., that I’m not quite sure why you are so insistent on making this conversation about your preferred topic of engagement and according to your favored model of engagement.

  61. “ECS, I don’t think many think Abraham wrote the Papyri. I looked through lds.org and I can’t find anything for the past 40 years that claims he did. And a lot of explicit ones (including an article by Michael Rhodes in the Ensign) that he didn’t. Rather most are careful to call them writings contained in the papyri suggesting some broader transmission.”

    Clark, first, why would most have to be “careful” to call them writings instead of papyri? It says in the preamble to the Book of Abraham that the Book of Abraham was translated from the papyri, which Abraham wrote “by his own hand”.

    This is what it says:

    “A Translation of some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt. The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus”

    The words “translate” and “by his own hand” are not parsed for us by the Church. The only reason I know that Abraham did not write the papyri and that there are significant questions with the BoA’s provenance is that I did my own independent research. Yet you say that “I don’t think many think Abraham wrote the Papyri.”

    I would agree with you if by “many” you meant the members of the Church who think to doubt/wonder about the official Church position that Abraham wrote the papyri from which Joseph translated the BoA. I just came home from Church, however, and I would bet you $100 that if you asked people in my ward about the provenance of the BoA, almost every single person would follow the preamble to the BoA and say that Joseph translated the BoA from the papyri written by Abraham. That’s what it says in the BoA. If this information in the preamble is false, if Abraham didn’t write the papyri “by his own hand” and Joseph didn’t translate them, then why take so much care in the Ensign article to avoid contradicting this false information?

  62. Brad,

    == I’m not talking about hidden linguistic or semantic meanings, but rather the esoteric meanings behind the more straightforward meanings of a given written character.

    But you have no reason to believe such meanings exist, aside from apologetic.

    == If someone in the distant future found a scrap of preserved paper from modern America with the words (in English) “the widow’s son” written on it…

    You’re talking about idomatic expressions, but this doesn’t help you since we’re still dealing word for word translations. You could pull this argument off, only if Smith had claimed to have sporadically translated short phrases while hopping throughout the papyrus. But he wasn’t. We are dealing with a short story from a sequence of Egyptian characters which when translated, makes perfect sense as is. You would have to assume the entire narrative from the Breathings Text was a slew of idiomatic expressions that ran together, making perfect sense when translated to English, while at the same time containing meanings hidden by idioms that made perfect sense in an entirely different translation. Try to find something comparable to this in English. And good luck.

    == … despite your dismissal of such claims as apologetic nonsense, did describe as “translation” all kinds of activities, from the dictation of the BoM without looking at the plates to Bible exegesis to the transformation and ontological elevation of individuals and societies, which do not conform to our narrow, scholarly definition of the term.

    As I just explained to Clark, this is an incoherent apologetic that confuses the mechanics of translation with the meaning of translation. Differences with the former doesn’t mean differencess in the latter. If I travel to Los Angeles by car, by plane, or by walking, this doen’t change the fundamental definition of the word travel. To translate means to communicate in language X that which was originally given in language Y. David Whitmer claimed that while translating the Gold Plates, “frequently one character would make two lines of manuscript while others made but a word or two words.” So yes, Smith was literally translating the plates and they were present during translation and he was literally translating the papyri too. The problem is we now know he didn’t have the ability to translate any ancient documents.

    == I think JSJ used the facsimiles to creatively illuminate a story he was trying to tell about Abraham and the gods.

    And this isn’t apologetic?

    == Whether or not he believed there to be some direct connection between the papyri and Abraham or Abraham’s writings (which there clearly was not) is immaterial.

    Well it would have to be for this kind of thinking to continue. But it runs contrary to the historical record. Smith never claimed to be doing any of the stuff you choose to believe he was doing. He claimed to have translated a document he said was written by the hand of Abraham. It is really that simple.

  63. J. Stapley,

    I’ve done nothing of the sort. I’ve simply responded to popular apologetic claims that I believe to be untenable.

  64. ECS,

    This is precisely how we were taught to explain it as missionaries, too. That the Book of Abraham was translated from a papyrus written by father Abraham.

  65. “He claimed to have translated a document he said was written by the hand of Abraham.”

    I know. And in my comment I said he was wrong about that.

    And it appears I need to make clearer that my point about esoteric meanings is limited to the interpretations of the facsimiles alone, not the narrative text of the BoA. My position that JSJ used the facsimiles to illuminate a story he was trying to tell about Abraham and the gods is not apologetic, since it fits as easily with his making up the story whole cloth as it does with his being divinely guided in producing the book. What I did not do was defend the idea that there is any connection whatsoever between the papyri and the figure of Abraham or his writings. Instead, I said that JSJ was wrong if he thought there was, but that believing that there was might have facilitated his capacity to produce our Book of Abraham (either by making it up, or under revelatory guidance). In the case of the interpretations of the facsimiles, I’m claiming that it is reasonable that JSJ believed he was revealing the secret, esoteric, inscrutible meanings of the characters (although I don’t personally believe he actually was).

    You need to take a couple of deep breaths, and pick your battles more carefully.

  66. “He claimed to have translated a document he said was written by the hand of Abraham.”

    And this is what the Church currently teaches about the BoA, but I do see an emphasis away from including the words “by his [Abraham's] own hand” in descriptions of the BoA.

    See this excerpt from the Sunday School manuals:

    “The book of Abraham is a translation that the Prophet Joseph Smith made from some Egyptian papyri.”

    and this:

    “The Book of Abraham was translated by the Prophet Joseph Smith from a papyrus scroll taken from the Egyptian catacombs. This book contains valuable information about the Creation, the gospel, the nature of God, and the priesthood.”

    Except for the misleading word “translate”, I guess you could make a credible argument that these statements are substantially true, if we think of the word “translate” in a similar vein to Joseph Smith “translating” the Bible. (setting aside the technical difficulties presented by Joseph’s failed attempt at an actual, real translation of actual, real Egyptian characters).

    At the very least, the Church would do well to remove the “by his own hand” language from the preamble to the BoA if no one believes this is a true statement.

  67. But even with the facimiles he never said he was doing what you’re assuming he did. That he was merely trying to “creatively illuminate” a story.

    Since we know he mistranslated the papyrus, it seems only natural that his mistranslations of the facsimile be a result of the same thing.

  68. “At the very least, the Church would do well to remove the “by his own hand” language from the preamble to the BoA if no one believes this is a true statement.”

    Indeed.

  69. Kevin, do you really think my position that he creatively illuminated the story with the facsimiles depends on JSJ having explicitly claimed that’s what he was doing? Or would you care to read what I actually wrote?

  70. “we’re still dealing word for word translations. ”

    Objection! Assuming facts not in evidence!

  71. == Kevin, do you really think my position that he creatively illuminated the story with the facsimiles depends on JSJ having explicitly claimed that’s what he was doing? Or would you care to read what I actually wrote?

    You have yet to explain WHAT you’re basing it on. But since you said you’re not an apologist, I assumed you would actually base it on evidence of SOME kind… right? So if you’re not basing it on what Joseph Smith said, then what ARE you basing it on?

  72. == Objection! Assuming facts not in evidence!

    Then I’m afraid you don’t understand the evidence. Joseph Smith took one character and proceeded to translate it into English text, and this was consistent with what he did with the so-called “reformed Egyptian” while producing the Book of Mormon. Brad’s analogy using idioms simply doesn’t apply – nor could it – to such a narrative.

  73. My stars, there’s a lot of vituperation going on over these topics. It’s starting to sound like Tom Paine getting on his Bible soapbox. I’m hoping that a book (Human Cosmos: Joseph Smith and the Art of Translation) that I’m slowly moving toward prospectus stage that approaches Smith’s translation efforts from several interrelated perspectives will provide some useful language for this discussion, but I would warn that good scholarship on this topic will generally be of little use to these interminable debates about “the Book of Abraham problem.” An insistence on translation as only and exclusively something akin to babelfish.altavista.com seems to me to be mired in non-productive presentism.
    Incidentally, on the question of what I’m on the “record” about, I would refer people to published articles, where I spent quite a lot of time trying to consider how best to communicate my views on some of the questions relevant to the BoA.
    Kevin Barney: thanks for bringing this fascinating book to our attention.
    MikeInWeHo: while I’m very sympathetic to your intellectual curiosity about the nature of apologetics, your characterization of the efforts of bookish LDS to negotiate relationships with their history as Cirque du Soleil seemed more petty than I would expect of you. I don’t mean to be too strident on this point, as I see where you’re coming from, but the comment struck me as less than civil.

  74. Kevin G (59) You’re expanding the question further than I did. I was only addressing your claim about the semantics of the word translate. The JST has huge implications for what Joseph meant by that. I don’t think it is apologists confusing mechanism and production. Rather it’s the critics who typically do this. I think the Mormon scholars usually go to careful lengths to distinguish mechanism from production (such as the notion of tight or lose control vs. tight or loose translation of phrases).

    ESC (61) I’m just addressing the article you referred to.

    As for the chapter heading, the current form is

    A Translation of some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt. The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus.

    Note it doesn’t insinuate it was the particular papyri from the Ptolemaic period.

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