On July 9, 2014, the LDS Church issued an article on its official website LDS.org entitled “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham.” This was another article in its recent series of semi-scholarly articles on “Gospel Topics” focusing on such controversial and problematic issues as the doctrine of becoming gods, Joseph Smith’s use of a seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon, and the past ban on blacks in the Mormon priesthood. This new article addresses the fact, known for 46 years, that the text of the LDS scripture called the Book of Abraham does not correspond in meaning to the text of the extant fragments of the papyri from which Joseph had purported to translate it. As the new article states, “Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists agree that the characters on the fragments do not match the translation given in the book of Abraham.”

I plan to address a number of points in the new article in some forthcoming resources. Here I will only comment briefly on the main point of the article, which is that the Book of Abraham need not be viewed as a literal translation from any of the Egyptian papyri that Joseph Smith had acquired in 1835. The article does not, however, take a position as to how one should understand the relationship between the papyri and the book. “The relationship between those fragments and the text we have today is largely a matter of conjecture.” Instead it mentions several hypothetical explanations that Mormons have proposed and defended over the years:

  1. The restored text theory: The original text was “edited or redacted by later writers” to the point that the papyri that came into Joseph’s hands did not represent the original; Joseph was inspired to produce an English version of the original, not of the corrupt text of the papyri. The article barely touches on this explanation, but what it says leaves this hypothesis in play.
  2. The missing papyrus theory: The text of the Book of Abraham was on papyrus that is no longer extant; the surviving fragments come from a different scroll or a different part of the scroll than what Joseph translated.
  3. The catalyst theory: As Joseph Smith examined the papyri, God used them to awaken his mind to a revelation about Abraham’s life. “They catalyzed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri.”

Another theory that has sometimes been advanced is that the papyri characters are written in a kind of code, with the exoteric or surface meaning being one thing (the pagan Egyptian funerary prayers and so forth) and concealing the esoteric or hidden meaning (the story of Abraham). This theory is not mentioned in the new article.

These theories have all been around a long time. They are all examined and critiqued in a book that IRR published over twenty years ago entitled By His Own Hand upon Papyrus, which can be read online (along with a number of other resources on the subject) or obtained in hard copy. After all this time, the LDS Church is no closer to an answer. Was the Book of Abraham actually written in Egyptian on the papyri? They don’t know. The “only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth” (D&C 1:30), led by a series of presidents each of whom has been “a prophet, seer, and revelator (D&C 21:1; 107:91-92),” has no idea how to explain the relationship between the book and the papyri. The article itself is not written by President Monson, the current LDS president, nor was it written by any of the Church’s apostles. Like all of the other recent Gospel Topics articles, it is an unsigned article based, as a statement at the end explains, on “the contribution of scholars.” Indeed, it appears to have been written by a scholar, though it was no doubt “vetted” by LDS leadership before appearing on the website.

I like scholars. I’m biased, though—I am one. However, the Mormons are supposed to have a leg up on the rest of Christendom because they are not dependent on the fallible opinions of scholars but have a living prophet who hears from God on behalf of the Church. If that is true, it is puzzling that God does not tell Thomas Monson how Mormons should view the Book of Abraham. It is strange that this question—which has been one of the “historical” or factual difficulties that has most often led Mormons to question their religion—should be answered not by a confident, authoritative word from the living prophet but by a cautious, tentative word from an anonymous scholar.

Tags: , , , ,

This entry was posted on Thursday, July 10th, 2014 at 8:55 pm and is filed under Mormonism. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Trackback/Ping

  1. The Book of Abraham: A Mormon Conundrum | Mormon Coffee    Jul 24 2014 / 6am:

    […] of the Book of Abraham. (Please see Rob Bowman’s excellent discussion of this topic at “What Kind of a Translation Is the Book of Abraham? A Multiple-Choice Question.”)The Gospel Topics essay on the Book of Abraham has created a conundrum for Mormons. As Utah […]

Leave a reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.