the Nature of Revelation
One of the most popular "smoking gun" allegations against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and of Joseph Smith in particular, has been the Book of Abraham. This book, along with the Book of Moses, comprise the majority of what Mormons call The Pearl of Great Price, one of four works canonized as scripture by the LDS faith. To understand the nature of these allegations we must first briefly revisit the history of the Book of Abraham and of the Pearl of Great Price in general.
A Brief History of the Joseph Smith Papyri
In 1833 a man named Michael Chandler purchased a collection of mummies, scrolls and other Egyptian artifacts from an excavator named Antonio Lebolo. Chandler attempted to earn money by touring the eastern United States with the artifacts, electing to sell a number of them along the way. In 1835, while traveling through Kirtland, Ohio, Chandler sold his last four mummies along with a collection of several scrolls to Joseph Smith for $2,400. While examining the artifacts, Smith declared that the scrolls "contained the writings of Abraham, another the writings of Joseph of Egypt" (History of the Church, Vol. 2, p. 236). Smith immediately set out to translating the record and completed most of the work in the latter months of 1835. After a few revisions in 1842 the work was completed and published in the church magazine Times and Seasons later that same year. In 1880, along with other works, the Book of Abraham was canonized as scripture as part of the Pearl of Great Price.
For members of the Mormon church in Smith's time, the Book of Abraham was seen as the palpable reality of Smith's divine revelatory powers. Though members already had access to the Book of Mormon they did not have access to the golden plates. The Book of Abraham, however, retained its original primary source material in the form of ancient Egyptian scrolls. Even today most members of the church accept the Book of Abraham at face value. Few have found any reason to question its authenticity.
And though Mormons of the 19th century had an excuse to not question the Book of Abraham (the Rosetta Stone had still not been deciphered making any translation of Egyptian impossible), today's Mormon is forced to confront some difficult hurdles. Unlike 19th century historians, modern day scholars know precisely what the book of Abraham scrolls and facsimiles have to say. How? Because we have the scrolls themselves.
When Joseph Smith died in 1844, the papyri became the property of his wife, Emma. In the wake of the succession crisis over who would replace Smith as prophet, a battle that Brigham Young eventually won, Emma refused to relinquish control of the documents to the church. At some point, Emma elected to donate the artifacts to a Chicago museum. For decades thereafter it was believed that the ultimate fate of the papyri ended with their destruction in the great Chicago fire of 1871. However, in 1966 the papyri were rediscovered in the archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The papyri were then given back to the church where they remain to this day.
So What do They Say?
The natural question for us today is, "Have modern Egyptologists deciphered the papyri?" The answer is "Yes." The obvious followup question is "What do modern Egyptologists have to say?" For Mormons the answer isn't very appealing. It turns out that the papyri are nothing more than common Egyptian funerary texts from the first century B.C. (a full translation of the papyri can be found here). In addition to the papyri being common funerary texts, the facsimile's from the Book of Abraham are of note. Contrary to Smith's interpretation, modern day Egyptologists have conclusively shown that the facsimiles are not a depiction of Abraham on an altar (facsimile 1), or of Kolob and other heavenly representations (facsimiles 2 and 3). Rather they are common embalming scenes and a hypocephalus from the Egyptian Book of the Dead and Book of Breathings. When asked about Smith's interpretations of the facsimiles, Dr. W.M. Flinders of London University stated, "It may be safely said that there is not one single word that is true in [Smith's] explanations" (I recognize that these facsimiles deserve further attention but that is not the purpose of this post. You can find a plethora of good material on the topic with a simple Google search. I'll let the reader decide what are good sources for further research). In short, modern day Egyptologists have successfully shown that the Book of Abraham is not what Joseph Smith said it was. And make no mistake, this isn't a conspiracy nor an attempt to smear Joseph Smith. This is factual, provable, verifiable reality. There is no reason that I or any other Mormon should attempt to sugarcoat these undeniable facts.
Now before my Mormon friends bail on me for sounding too "anti-Mormon" hear me out for a second. Though it is true that the papyri and facsimiles are not what Joseph Smith said they were, and regardless of the fact that Joseph Smith didn't understand Egyptian in any way, shape or form, and in spite of the true interpretations of modern Egyptologists, I still maintain that the Book of Abraham is inspired scripture. Here's how:
Don't Throw the Baby Jesus
Out With the Bathwater
As I write this post we are but 2 days away from my favorite holiday: Christmas! This is truly the best time of the year! Holiday cheer is in the air, Christmas lights decorate the town, and homes smell sweet with the scent of freshly cut Christmas trees. But most importantly I love Christmas because of Christ. And though I love this holiday more than all the rest, I fully recognize the fact that almost everything we do on Christmas has nothing do do with Christ. In fact, most of what we do to celebrate this season is pagan in origin. From Christmas trees to holiday wreaths, yule logs to mistletoe, Christmas is LOADED with pagan rituals and tradition that have absolutely nothing to do with Jesus or Christianity (for more on this topic see my post here).
Does this truth about Christmas take away from the holiday season? Is it the duty of all good Christians to reject these traditions? Does the baby Jesus care that we celebrate his birth with pagan symbols in the dead of winter? I contend that he does not. What matters is that Christmas, even with all of its pagan elements, is the medium through which we celebrate the birth of Christ. We are imperfect people. Imperfect people make mistakes. This means that it is only natural that our imperfections will manifest themselves through our traditions, customs and yes, even our history.
And the same is true of the Book of Abraham. Is the book good history? Absolutely not. Is it good scripture? No doubt about it. And make no mistake, there is a clear difference between history and scripture. The former must be analytical, objective and rely on demonstrative evidence, while the latter is allegorical, inspiring and faith-promoting. For critics to expect perfection from the Book of Abraham is to expect what never was, is, or ever will be. Or as the poet Alexander Pope put it:
Whoever thinks a faultless piece to see.And though my defense of the Book of Abraham will no doubt come off sounding like the rantings of a biased apologist to critics, I still maintain that the Book of Abraham is inspired scripture, and to support this claim I now turn to the Book of Abraham's "twin sister" in the Pearl of Great Price: the Book of Moses.
Thinks what ne'er was, nor is, nor e'er shall be
In every work regard the writer's end,
Since none can compass more than they intend,
And if the means be just, the conduct true,
Applause, in spite of trivial faults, is due.
Enoch: The Mystery Man
Unlike the Book of Abraham, the Book of Moses was the result of direct revelation to Joseph Smith while he attempted his revision of the Holy Bible. The work was completed long before the book of Abraham (1830-31) and was incorporated into the Pearl of Great Price as a "sister book" to the BoA. In Smith's translation, 3,422 words were added to the Genesis story up until chapter 6:13, which is where the Book of Moses ends. That almost exactly doubles the conventional word count of Genesis up to that point in the King James Version. The Book of Moses deals with the creation story and a few short narratives on Moses himself, but the bulk of it centers on the story of Enoch. This is significant because the story of Enoch is almost non-existent in most Christian scripture (particularly the Bible) but is the central theme of the Book of Moses. And it also helps that the Enoch of the Book of Moses just happens to fit very nicely with the Enoch from the actual ancient texts. For example:
Moses 7:67 "And the Lord showed Enoch all things, even unto the end of the world."Needless to say, the similarities between Smith's Book of Moses and the actual records of Enoch are striking (and there are a lot more than what I listed above). These incredible similarities are a fact not lost to many experts. For example, noted Yale scholar Harold Bloom, who specializes in ancient and sacred literature, stated that the Book of Moses (and Abraham) is "strikingly akin to ancient suggestions" that essentially restate "the archaic or original Jewish religion, a Judaism that preceded even the Yahwist." Bloom continued by stating that he found "enormous validity" in the way these writings "recapture critical elements in the archaic Jewish religion...that had ceased to be available either to normative Judaism or to Christianity and that survived only in esoteric traditions unlikely to have touched [Joseph] Smith directly." So while the Book of Abraham is often the recipient of criticism, it's "sister book" has been praised by scholars in a variety of fields.
2 Enoch 40:1 "Now therefore, my children, I know everything;...my eyes have seen from the beginning even to the end, and from the end to the recommencement."
Moses 7:4 [the Lord said to Enoch] "Look, and I will show unto thee the world for the space of many generations."
3 Enoch 45 "And I saw Adam and his generation, their deeds and their thoughts...And every deed of every generation, whether done or to be done in the time to come, to all generations, till the end of time."
Moses 6:51 "And he called upon our father Adam by his own voice, saying: I am God; I made the world, and men before they were in the flesh."
2 Enoch 23:4-5 "You [Enoch] sit down and write all the souls of men, whatever of them are not yet born,...For all the souls are prepared for eternity, before the composition of the earth."
Moses 7:44 "And as Enoch saw this, he had bitterness of soul, and wept over his brethren, and said unto the heavens: I will refuse to be comforted.
2 Enoch 41:1 "And I [Enoch] sighed and burst into tears, and I said concerning their disreputable depravity, Oh how miserable."
Moses 7:59 [Enoch to God] "Thou hast made me, and given unto me a right to thy throne."
3 Enoch 10:1-3 [Enoch speaking] "The Holy One made for me a throne like the throne of glory...He placed it at the door of the seventh palace and sat me down upon it."
Of course, critics have countered these claims by pointing out the fact that the first English translation of the Book of Enoch (the Bodleian/Ethiopic manuscripts) was published in 1821 by Richard Laurence, nine years before Smith's Book of Moses revelation. However, these early translations (and others like them) do not contain the similarities mentioned above. Those come from later (and better) translations of the ancient text made long after Smith's death. In addition, though these works were published in the early part of the 19th century, they did not become popular (even in Europe) until the 1850s. So while it is possible that Smith had access to a condensed early version of the ancient Enoch, it is certainly not probable.
The Nature of Revelation
So how can one book in the Pearl of Great price (the BoA) have so many apparent problems, while the other (the BoM) receives praise? The answer lies with the nature of revelation itself. Contrary to what many believe (even within my own faith) I maintain that revelation is not some magical, mysterious, supernatural connection to heaven. I do not believe in psychics and I reject the "hocus pocus" tactics of fortune tellers. Heck, I reject a lot of the supposed "revelation" that many in my own faith hail as fact (every faith has its mythology). Instead, revelation is (in my opinion) the quiet, consistent persuasions of the mind that often lead to those "AHA!" moments. Or as Joseph Smith himself put it:
A person may profit by noticing the first intimation of the spirit of revelation; for instance, when you feel pure intelligence flowing into you, it may give you sudden strokes of ideas, so that by noticing it, you may find it fulfilled the same day or soon...And thus by learning the Spirit of God and understanding it, you may grow into the principle of revelation, until you become perfect in Christ Jesus(Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith, 1976, Pp. 151). Does that mean that anyone can receive revelation? Absolutely, and I believe that most of us receive it without our even knowing it. Revelation is a part of us. It invigorates the mind the same way air invigorates the lungs (and most of us breathe without even thinking of it). Revelation is the "light bulb" of the mind turning on to new and exciting ideas. It is what inspires the poet, motivates the scientist, drives the composer and enlightens the philosopher. This is how everything from the Bible, the Qur'an, Handel's "Messiah", and Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel can be seen as the fruits of revelation (yet all of those still have their human imperfections). I believe that some of the world's greatest thinkers received revelation. As James E Faust taught:
The great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God’s light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals.It is arrogant presumption for us to think that all of our thoughts and ideas are exclusively our own. We thank God for the air we breathe and the food we eat. Why not for the inspirations of our mind? In short, revelation is the "eye" (or "I") to enlightenment, which we discover through: "I"nspiration, "I"ntellect, "I"ntuition and "I"nstinct.
None of this, of course, can explain how the Book of Abraham can appear as an apparent historical fraud and still be inspired scripture. Much of this rests with the eye (or "I") of the beholder. What we do know is that inspiration, intellect, intuition and instincts are tricky things. We all know that they are real but they can also be quite deceiving. It's hard for us imperfect humans to fully trust our intellect, intuition, etc., but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't try. Perhaps Joseph Smith's intellect and intuition were wrong about the papyri he purchased but that doesn't mean that he wasn't inspired. Could the papyri have served to "spark" the revelation? To the critic such an assertion is ridiculous, to the believer in revelation...true revelation...it is quite probable. As Nephi put it:
But behold, there are many that harden their hearts against the Holy Spirit, that it hath no place in them; wherefore, they cast many things away which are written and esteem them as things of naught(2 Nephi 33:2).For me, the real beauty of the Pearl of Great Price rests with its lessons on revelation. Here are two books, with very different pathways to revelation, testifying of the truthfulness of the Gospel. It is true that scripture never has, nor ever will be, good history or science, but history and science have never been good scripture. History may answer the "who", "what", "where", and "when" questions, while science answers the "how" questions, but it is religion that answers the ever-important "why" questions. The truth of the matter is that we need them all to gain further light and knowledge...i.e. further revelation. As one important revelation put it: "The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth." (and dare I say that the glory of God is also Inspiration, Intuition and Instinct as well).
Let us all be grateful for the revelation we receive, regardless of its source. Whether in the form of "non-Mormon" source material or questionable historical relics is irrelevant. The work of revelation, though often painstaking and difficult to sort out, is worth all of the work. Remember, every butterfly was first a caterpillar, every flower had to first push through dirt, and every pearl of great price was first irritating sand inside of an oyster. No revelation is meant to be easy, if this were not the case, what would it be revealing?