Joseph Smith and Translation

On January 11th of this year (2019) Brian Hauglid and Robin Jensen gave a guest presentation at the Maxwell Institute titled “A Window into Joseph Smith’s Translation.” I watched the presentation at some point later after the video had been posted online (and enjoyed it). Jeff Lindsay at Mormanity [1] has recently taken exception to that presentation, both here and here, to the effect that the speakers were irresponsible not to balance their more naturalistic take on the production of the Book of Abraham (including a probable belief he was translating the Sensen Papyrus) with some of the more apologetic scholarship on the topic. But for my part, I actually appreciated their naturalistic take on the process. Let me try to explain why.

I have a background in apologetically oriented scholarship. I discovered Hugh Nibley on my mission and followed the well trod path to becoming a Nibleyophile. At BYU I ended up studying ancient languages and majored in classics. After I graduated from law school I began publishing articles, mostly having to do with LDS scripture. Many of these were apologetically oriented, but others were not and had a more naturalistic framing. For some reason I always felt comfortable with either perspective. I published both in FARMS publications but also in Dialogue, for example.

I doubt I could have really articulated why early on, but these days I take what I call an “open” view to LDS scripture. What I mean by that is I maintain an almost completely open mind about the origins of such scripture. For everyday purposes I assume such scripture is pretty much what it claims to be (at least as understood through a more scholarly lens, such as a Sorenson/Gardner type of framing for the BoM). But I’m also open to LDS scripture being pseudepigraphal. I realize I’m so open minded many people think my brains fell out long ago. But it works for me. Since I’m completely open to either supernaturalist or naturalist origins of Mormon scripture, for me it takes the pressure off and I don’t feel I have to stress over it. For everyday purposes I can and do assume LDS scripture is more or less what it claims to be, but if it turns out that is not correct, no problem, I’m already comfortable with that possibility as well. That might generate too much cognitive dissonance for a lot of people, but for whatever reason it doesn’t for me.

To Illustrate, consider my article “The Facsimiles and Semitic Adaptation of Existing Sources.” There I posited that instead of seeing the Facsimiles as produced by Abraham’s own hand, we could see them as adaptations of existing Egyptian iconography by a Ptolemaic-era Jewish redactor (whom I fancifully labeled “J-Red”). I supported this point with several examples where Jews had adapted Egyptian iconography to their own purposes. I didn’t expressly state this in the article, but in the back of my mind I was also thinking that if it would be acceptable to understand the Facsimiles as reflecting a Jewish adaptation of Egyptian sources, why  couldn’t we also place Joseph Smith himself in the redactor position, adapting existing Egyptian vignettes to a more biblical frame as relating to the patriarch Abraham?

Many years ago as I was attending a FAIR conference, at a pre-conference gathering Brent Metcalfe was there and he happened to have with him his set of beautiful color photographs of the KEP. At my request he showed me the pictures, and I immediately realized I wasn’t going to be able to make any headway with those documents until they were formally published in an editio princeps (which the JSPP has now done).(I had the old Marquardt microfilm edition but I immediately realized that was no longer going to cut it.) And so I gave up trying to figure out the KEP; that puzzle was simply beyond me.

I also look at this from the perspective of a high church leader who is responsible for the well being of the institution. Yes, there is apologetically oriented material that tries to support the traditional understanding of the Book of Abraham. But being realistic about it, there is a substantial risk that the Book of Abraham does indeed represent Joseph’s attempt to translate the Sensen Papyrus. As an amateur scholar I can affored to play around with this issue from various perspectives. But are you going to be willing to risk the organization itself by putting all of your eggs in the apologetic basket? If I’m an Apostle, I would much prefer to have a diversified portfolio of scholarly options that are considered church-acceptable on the table. We shouldn’t be signalling to people that they really ought to leave the fold if they cannot accept that the BoA is exactly what it seems to claim to be. As an Apostle I simply would not be willing to bet the church as an institution on that, and diversifying the acceptable positions members could hold would simply be a wise thing to encourage for the good of the Church. Or at least that’s how it looks to me.

[1] I don’t believe I have ever met Jeff in person, but I have long enjoyed his Mormanity blog.


  1. Thanks for this Kevin. I’ve always admired your work, in all of the venues you’ve published. Perhaps its your (our) legal training that makes it possible to more clearly entertain both sides of this particular argument without getting wrapped around the axle about either. I think a good example of the tightrope the leaders of the Church are walking is in the Topical Essay on the Book of Abraham. It opens other possibilities to be considered.
    There is a background to Jensen and Hauglid’s presentation which crops up in the comments in Lindsay’s post about Hauglid’s Facebook post where he denounces and repudiates the work of Gee and Muhelstein (and his former work for FARMS). It appeared to have some passion behind it rather than simple academic disagreement. In my opinion (without knowing Hauglid or Jensen), it appears to me that the renouncement is the reason they didn’t provide what Lindsay thought they should have. Frankly, I think they should make the kind of acknowledgement Lindsay is asking for in the first post (just as I think it should go the other way). It doesn’t take much.

  2. Nice take. Although I think Jeff’s concern were those in the audience not prepared or spiritually stable enough to handle the naturalistic take. Part of me thinks that BYU should be run as a college and they’re adults able to figure these things out themselves. The desire by some (especially many parents) to treat BYU as a “safe space” that’ll protect people from any challenges to their faith is not only not realistic but ultimately counterproductive. They’ll be on their own eventually. That said people don’t magically become mature and it is helpful to offer some ways of thinking about the information. I think it fair to worry that in a public presentation to students that the Maxwell Institute might have considered that worry. So while my normal inclination is to take a “let the chips fall where they will” part of me also thinks we have responsibility to those weak in the faith. Not having been there I can’t say if that criticism of Jeff is fair or not so I’ll not chime in on that.

  3. I appreciate the open mind, Kevin. I think it has been a fertile source of good work.
    The puzzle for Church leaders, and for speakers at an open session, is a real challenge. I appreciate that it isn’t mine.

  4. Thanks, Kevin. I appreciate your writing in several genres — and the open mind.

  5. your open attitude is what allows you to both be skeptical and believing of official explanations. some will see this as a contradiction but I understand your mentality. it is similar to my attitude about church history. i’m open to every “official” story I hear being true, but i’m pretty sure many of them are not and that is ok. and that’s because I compartmentalize between core gospel doctrine and everything else. the “everything else” is subject to change. that’s how I roll with the contradictions I encounter in all things LDS.

  6. I think that Jensen’s and Hauglid’s work is a piece of the current work being done on the JST and D&C. That work generally points to the same conclusion.

  7. Well said, Kevin. I have been a follower of Jeff’s blog since the early days of blogging, and I admire him for fighting the good apologetic fight in a friendly conversational way, despite getting ugly flak from time to time in the comments.

    But LDS translation claims are on a much different footing now, in 2019, than say in 1968 when the Church confidently published photographs of the recovered but as-yet untranslated fragments that were connected with the Book of Abraham. The open view of translation that Kevin articulates is really the only responsible position to hold at this point. The presentation by Hauglid and Jensen is a good sign that the open view is acceptable in LDS discourse, not a sign that the apostates are taking over. The open view doesn’t exclude those who continue to defend strong translation (actual translation, real translation, whatever you want to call it), it just means they shouldn’t be pushing that view as the only acceptable LDS view or encouraging LDS leaders, senior or local, to view an endorsement of the strong view of Book of Abraham translation as a condition of full fellowship in the Church.

    That is sort of what Jeff and other old school apologists are doing when they push strong translation without a disclaimer. They are, whether intentionally or not, weaponizing strong translation for use by local or senior leaders. That, I think, is misguided and works harm within the Church. That approach is more of a danger to the Church and its membership than a lecture at BYU that shares ugly facts that conflict with beautiful but increasingly untenable theories.

  8. I think, at a minimum, the fact that Joseph Smith called the biblical revision project “translation” tells us something about how broadly he used that term, which leaves open all kinds of possibilities.

  9. I agree that Kevin’s view is probably the one that the Church and most members should take (for my part, I sincerely believe the Book of Abraham to be a translation of a document that purported to be by Abraham, and that that document ultimately originated with Abraham). However, I do think that there is a lot of value in people “taking sides” so to speak on these issues because the debate helps refine all of the possibilities. That necessarily means some people can’t adopt the “open” approach. After having read, the Mormanity posts, I think Jeff’s approach is appropriate. His major complaint seems to be that members should be exposed to additional perspectives. Such a complaint would have been valid on the other side of the coin had, for example, John Gee given a presentation that excluded any discussion of the naturalistic take on translation.

  10. I must say, Hauglid has some balls of steel, especially in light of his Facebook post in which he calls out Gee and Muhlestein.

  11. MikeInWeHo says:

    Thanks for this, Kevin. I’ve been a fan of your writing for over a decade now. I feel like I have been watching you and your peers inexorably move from an apologetic to naturalistic view of the LDS canon, starting with the BoA but then on to the BofM itself. For some the shifts come abruptly like tectonic plates: Some of the most conservative a decade ago are now out of the church. Others like you have been making the transition smoothly and almost imperceptibly, and seem more likely to stay within the fold. The leadership in SLC may be reading you much more closely than you realize, because you light the path forward.

  12. Huge Kevin Barney fan, here.

    And huge admirer of this statement: “For everyday purposes I can and do assume LDS scripture is more or less what it claims to be, but if it turns out that is not correct, no problem, I’m already comfortable with that possibility as well. That might generate too much cognitive dissonance for a lot of people, but for whatever reason it doesn’t for me.”

  13. “The presentation by Hauglid and Jensen is a good sign that the open view is acceptable in LDS discourse, not a sign that the apostates are taking over.”

    It is a sign that the many intellectuals are indeed acknowledging that apostates were right all along on the Book of Abraham. You should look at Hauglid’s Facebook post, in which he denounces Gee’s and Muhlestein’s apologetics as “abhorrent” and openly agrees with long-time critics of LDS truth claims Dan Vogel and Brent Metcalfe. Here is his November 2018 Facebook post in full:

    “For the record, I no longer hold the views that have been quoted from my 2010 book in these videos. I have moved on from my days as an ‘outrageous’ apologist. In fact, I’m no longer interested or involved in apologetics in any way. I wholeheartedly agree with Dan [Vogel]’s excellent assessment of the Abraham/Egyptian documents in these videos. I now reject a missing Abraham manuscript. I agree that two of the Abraham manuscripts were simultaneously dictated. I agree that the Egyptian papers were used to produce the BoA. I agree that only Abr. 1:1-2:18 were produced in 1835 and that Abr. 2:19-5:21 were produced in Nauvoo. And on and on. I no longer agree with Gee or Mulhestein. I find their apologetic ‘scholarship’ on the BoA abhorrent. One can find that I’ve changed my mind in my recent and forthcoming publications. The most recent JSP Revelations and Translation vol. 4, The Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts (now on the shelves) is much more open to Dan [Vogel]’s thinking on the origin of the Book of Abraham. My friend Brent Metcalfe can attest to my transformative journey.”

    I think that Hauglid is testing the waters. The Facebook post suggests that he essentially believe that the Book of Abraham is fake. Of course, I doubt that he would call it that directly, since if he did, his job at BYU would be in jeopardy. My take is that he is producing a new narrative through which the LDS church could feasibly transition away from the Book of Abraham. It is a clearly a major thorn in the side for the LDS church. Most members don’t understand the history behind the Book of Abraham and take it at face value that it is scripture like any other of the standard works. Finding a critical video or two of the Book of Abraham is often enough to push members to believe that Joseph Smith was a fraud. Many simply don’t have patience for the seemingly convoluted apologetics trying to uphold the book’s historicity. Joseph Smith clearly presented himself to be translating from the Sensen Papyrus and was dead wrong in every aspect of his translation.

  14. Ryan Mullen says:

    Loved the Hauglid and Jensen presentation. Thanks for the link.

    I can understand why Jeff Lindsay’s unnamed friend had a hard time with the presentation. It is a marked shift from the way I was taught about the BoA as a youth. I just hope that Jeff appreciates that his blog (2nd link) makes me every bit as uncomfortable as I suspect his friend was during Hauglid & Jensen’s presentation.

  15. Yes yes yes. Thank you.

  16. Couldn’t help but think of the stages of grief as I read this. Sounds like bargaining.

  17. Why no revelation on this?

  18. I haven’t been able to figure out why there has been so much resistance to the catalyst type theories of translation. The question is whether or not the revelation Joseph Smith was receiving was of God, and whether he was mistaken or not about what was sitting right in front of him seems mostly irrelevant to that question.

    Maybe the logic goes, if he is mistaken about what he is translating from, then it calls into question the truth of the revelation. I guess that’s a fair enough critique, but to me falls very short of comprehending the nature of revelation in the first place. Revelation is always given in the abstract, precisely as if we had no bodies at all, and extracting that truth into human language sufficient that it matches the spirit of the abstraction is a process of wrestling.

    As I see it, the only way to judge a true revelation is to feel out the spirit of the words, and to have familiarity with the spirit of truth sufficient enough to judge whether the spirit of the words you read resonates with that spirit or not. Given our mortal natures, I’m not sure there is such a thing as complete purity of truth when it reaches written form. But inasmuch as it resonates with the spirit of truth, I take those parts to be truth, and if truth manifest for the sake of love (as opposed to being used in hateful ways), then it must be of God.

    As I see it, true scripture is meta-truth, and the abstract spirit of the teachings is the fundamental thing in question. The finer particulars are bound to have elements of mortal failings in them, and are less concerning to me. At least that’s been my experience with revelation.

  19. God told Joseph not to re-translate the 116 pages presumably so that he wouldn’t come out looking like a fraud should his original translation be modified by evil doers. In theory, God wouldn’t want his one true prophet to look like a fraud. This is what makes the BoA difficult for the Church to deal with. To everyone not born-and-raised in the Church, it immediately makes Joseph look suspect at best. All of the non-traditional explanations go something like “sure it looked like / Joseph claimed / the Church taught / we believed that ‘translation’ meant A but it really means B because of XYZ.” Why would God wan’t that? To the average member it simply doesn’t make sense. It will be interesting to see how the Church chooses to present the BoA as time goes on.

  20. Kevin, thanks for the discussion, the thoughtful tone, and reasonable perspectives. I agree that there are multiple possibilities one can consider for how the Book of Abraham or any of its parts was produced, but feel there is compelling evidence that something much more than a purely naturalistic effort is required to account for the many ancient elements and some genuinely surprising bulls-eyes. I believe the same applies to the Book of Moses and the Book of Mormon. But yes, we need to consider the data and be able to understand and assimilate whatever the realities are we encounter through careful research. For the Book of Mormon, which has received much more attention that the Pearl of Great Price, the trend has been surprisingly strong in favor of ancient origins, IMHO.

    Question for one of your readers, Ryan, who said: “I can understand why Jeff Lindsay’s unnamed friend had a hard time with the presentation. It is a marked shift from the way I was taught about the BoA as a youth. I just hope that Jeff appreciates that his blog (2nd link) makes me every bit as uncomfortable as I suspect his friend was during Hauglid & Jensen’s presentation.”

    Ryan, I’d appreciate knowing more about what I said or did that made you so uncomfortable. My objection was largely due to what I saw as a complete lack of even acknowledging that there are scholarly works that might undermine or challenge the position being asserted. The tongue-in-cheek missing script I wrote for Brian implicitly acknowledges his views, but then presents arguments that have been made with reasonable logic IMHO, whose existence at least should have been noted, especially coming from BYU. There can be a debate on each of these, of course, but recognizing the existence of that other side seems like a healthier approach than acting as if it doesn’t exist. But was my fake missing script too bombastic or assertive?

  21. John W. wrote, “Joseph Smith clearly presented himself to be translating from the Sensen Papyrus and was dead wrong in every aspect of his translation.” That’s not clear at all, in spite of what Hauglid or others might see. Eye-witness accounts of the manuscript Joseph was working with don’t patch the brief Sensen papyrus. The efforts to correlate a few characters or parts of characters to large chunks of text do not give us an insight into Joseph’s translation methodology, contrary to Hauglid’s claim, but show an effort by someone to correlate an already translated portion of the BOA to those characters. There are multiple other issues and unjustified assumptions built into the assertion that Joseph was translating from the Sensen Papyrus. It’s a stretch to claim that it’s “clear” he was doing so.

  22. Kevin Barney says:

    I just saw these comments, Jeff, and wanted to thank you for coming by and giving your perspective.

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