Book of Abraham/Astronomy/Revolution Time

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QUESTIONS


A critic asserts the following: "LDS doctrine regarding astronomy is permeated with references to time being measured, or 'reckoned' according to a star's or planet's rate of rotation. Furthermore, this 'reckoning of time' is a prime distinguisher in terms of 'greatness.' From the standpoint of modern cosmology, this makes no sense at all. Rates of rotation are largely arbitrary, and of little comment or concern from a fundamental point of view."


To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

CONCLUSION


Once again, a critic of Joseph Smith's revelations has chosen to interpret difficult and ambiguous phrasing in a way that serves his ultimate goal — to set up straw man that is easily demolished. And the critics just do it to mock. But Abraham's astronomical statements are far more reasonable than the some claim and fit into a picture that makes sense in the cosmic world view of Abraham's contemporaries, a conclusion that was also reached in John Gee's 2009 FAIR conference talk, "The Larger Issue". Yet other faithful theorists disagree with Gee's conclusions, such as Michael Rhodes, and others, but still great respect is had for Gee's points of view. One researcher has shown evidence for both a geocentric and also a more literal interpretation, the one being a symbol of the other.

DETAILED QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

The biggest issue at hand is that the authors of the web page where the above criticism of the Book of Abraham was found have pretended to know the meaning of these scriptures to be able to set up yet another straw man to refute. The problem is, that the Book of Abraham cosmology is so ambiguous that not even LDS people, let alone critics of the Church, can claim to know what it is actually trying to say, so any criticism automatically creates a straw-man. Various LDS theorists have differing points of view on this.

One possible refutation of the above criticism is that the authors of that web page have confused rotation with revolution. Though the technical distinction is often blurred today, even by astronomers, at the time of Joseph Smith the two terms denoted technically different things. 'To rotate' means to spin on an axis, like a top or like a planet. It applies only to an extended body. 'To revolve' means to go around a central point and may be applied to any point that moves around another point. The Book of Abraham uses the term 'revolution,' and it is clearly being used in the technically correct sense. According to Abraham 3:5,9,

5 And the Lord said unto me: The planet which is the lesser light, lesser than that which is to rule the day, even the night, is above or greater than that upon which thou standest in point of reckoning, for it moveth in order more slow; this is in order because it standeth above the earth upon which thou standest, therefore the reckoning of its time is not so many as to its number of days, and of months, and of years.
9 And thus there shall be the reckoning of the time of one planet above another, until thou come nigh unto Kolob, which Kolob is after the reckoning of the Lord’s time; which Kolob is set nigh unto the throne of God, to govern all those planets which belong to the same order as that upon which thou standest.

So the picture is geocentric (nothing wrong with that — Relativity tells us that one point is as good as another), and clearly refers to the revolution of the heavenly bodies about the Earth. The Earth rotates on its axis once per day and so a point on the surface of the earth revolves about the axis at the same rate. This is the fastest motion in the heavens. The Moon is next, with an orbital period of 27.32 days. The Moon also rotates once per revolution, so it always shows the same face toward the Earth. (This is not a coincidence, but the result of tidal dissipation.) The Sun revolves slower still, with a sidereal period of 365.256363 days. The solar rotation period, by the way, is about 24.5 days at its equator and a little longer as one approaches the solar poles, not that that matters to anything. And, apparently, Kolob revolves about the Earth once per... Well, does Abraham ever give the time for Kolob to revolve around the Earth, as seen from Earth? Remember that God does not live on Kolob. Kolob is only the great star that is nearest to the throne of God. In Abraham 3:4, we read

4 And the Lord said unto me, by the Urim and Thummim, that Kolob was after the manner of the Lord, according to its times and seasons in the revolutions thereof; that one revolution was a day unto the Lord, after his manner of reckoning, it being one thousand years according to the time appointed unto that whereon thou standest. This is the reckoning of the Lord’s time, according to the reckoning of Kolob. (emphasis added)

which seems to say that Kolob's orbital period about the throne of God is 1000 years, and that it is used by God as his unit of time. Of course, since Kolob is still far above the Sun, it "moveth in order more slow" (Abraham 3:5). Thus, as seen from Earth, it encircles and "governs" all intervening stars and planets. We are left to wonder. Is the Throne of God at the center of the Galaxy (in which case it would take 220,000,000 years to orbit the Earth) or at the center of the Universe (in which case, observations limit the rotation of the Universe to be very small indeed, maybe even zero) or is it somewhere else altogether?

Yet Another View On This Issue

As was stated at the beginning, LDS theorists have differing points of view on the meanings of these passages in the Book of Abraham. Some interpret the statement in Abraham 3:4 as meaning the rotational period of Kolob's axis (the angular motion) when referring to the "revolutions" of Kolob that take one thousand years. Because in the context, it is speaking of a "day" to the Lord. The word "day" when applied to normal usage refers to the earth or another body rotating on its axis. A "year" (as the term is used normally in English) refers to a revolution of a body around its parent body. Therefore, it is difficult to see how a "year" in Kolob, or its rotation around the parent body is a "day" to the Lord, or a day in Kolob. In this case, it seems pretty straight forward that the word "revolution" refers to the rotation on the axis. It is understandable how critics could interpret it this way, as meaning Kolob's rotation on its axis, because this is the way some reasonable people believe about this passage even in the Church. This is further evidenced by the fact that in the explanation for the Facsimile #2, Figure 1, it says:

The measurement according to celestial time, which celestial time signifies one day to a cubit. One day in Kolob is equal to a thousand years according to the measurement of this earth.

Here we are faced with the fact that it is saying "One day in Kolob." This clearly specifies this one thousand year period as Kolob's day. In the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, when referring to Kolob, it says that:

. . . Kolob in its motion . . . is swifter than the rest of the twelve fixed stars; going before, being first in motion, being delegated to have power over others to regulate others in their time . . .

Now, the Kirtland Egyptian Papers controversy is out of scope here, but suffice it to say that it is the view of some that there is no good reason to ignore this material just because it is not in the scriptures, when it has bearing on the subject at hand, and adds critical details. So, anyway, if we say that it is swifter than the rest of the twelve fixed stars, in which way is it swifter? About Oliblish in the explanation for Facsimile #2 figure 4, it says:

. . . answering to the measuring of the time of Oliblish, which is equal with Kolob in its revolution and in its measuring of time.

If Kolob is swifter, then it is not swifter on its rotational motion on its axis, because it is equal to the rotational motion of Oliblish. Therefore, it can only be swifter in its motion around its parent body in its orbital path. Now, if we take the center of the Galaxy as a possible model of what is happening, the closest stars to the Galactic Nucleus are moving at incredibly fast speeds in the central parsec of the Galaxy. This is because the Galactic Nucleus (called "Sagittarius A*" pronounced "Sagittarius A Star" because the Galactic Center is in the constellation Sagittarius) is a super-massive black hole with extreme gravity that can easily swing huge stars around it at incredible speeds like a gigantic sling. If we take the star S2 (Sagittarius #2) around the Galactic Nucleus as a model, which is the closest, S2 has "the fastest known ballistic orbit, reaching speeds exceeding 5000 km/s (11 000 000 mph) or 2% of the speed of light . . ." ([1]). Though S2 is probably not Kolob, it stands to reason that a body that is orbiting around such an object in such close proximity in its closest approach would have an incredible speed. A very large star near to such an object would likely be the fastest of all the large bodies in its system. This is one possibility for how a very large star could be swift in its orbital motion. Therefore, Kolob is swift in its motion on its orbital path, but slow in its rotation on its axis, which takes 1000 years. So 1000 years is a day in Kolob, not a year in Kolob, according to the regular English usage of the terms. Yes, one could say in response that "revolution" is not the usual English term for rotation on an axis, at least in modern scientific terms, so why should we go in favor of this interpretation for either the word year or the word day? Well, a person can favor whatever he would like in his own personal interpretation, but some believe that this is in line with where the evidence points. Others may not, and may even disagree with the use of some of the evidence. That is the whole point. We have disagreement among theorists on these points.

Now, back to the criticism above, and we quote again:

LDS doctrine regarding astronomy is permeated with references to time being measured, or 'reckoned' according to a star's or planet's rate of rotation. Furthermore, this 'reckoning of time' is a prime distinguisher in terms of 'greatness.' From the standpoint of modern cosmology, this makes no sense at all. Rates of rotation are largely arbitrary, and of little comment or concern from a fundamental point of view.

Really? What is it about it that doesn't make sense? By the use of the word "greatness" in the scriptures, it is only referring to the length of the days. So what if the word "great" or "greatness" is used in this sense? By their use of the word permeation, they make it sound like there is a lot of emphasis put on it. We have only a few references in a few scriptures in Abraham where this is even mentioned, and only one in one verse of D&C 130. Where is the permeation? They say rates of rotation are arbitrary. So what if they are? We would expect a certain amount of randomness in nature, would we not? And the Book of Abraham is not in contradiction to that. Let's read that scripture again very carefully:

Now the set time of the lesser light is a longer time as to its reckoning than the reckoning of the time of the earth upon which thou standest. And where these two facts exist, there shall be another fact above them, that is, there shall be another planet whose reckoning of time shall be longer still; And thus there shall be the reckoning of the time of one planet above another, until thou come nigh unto Kolob, which Kolob is after the reckoning of the Lord’s time; which Kolob is set nigh unto the throne of God, to govern all those planets which belong to the same order as that upon which thou standest. (Abraham 3:7-9)

The scripture is saying that you have a range of planets, some slower or faster than others in the rotation on their axes until you go inward in the star system towards Kolob, presumably somewhere where it gravitationally dominates in the system. Kolob is the slowest of them all, taking a thousand years to rotate on its axis. It seems science has shown this to be the case as far as can be seen in general, with the discovery of exo-planets, with some being faster or slower on their axes. Just because the critics mock it doesn't mean it wasn't a valuable teaching tool for the Lord to teach Abraham a principle. Critics of the Bible could mock the stories Jesus told in parables as well, but it doesn't change the fact that the Lord chose those stories to teach something. So what's the point of the criticism, and where does it not make sense from a cosmological or scientific point of view? This criticism falls apart on close inspection.

Endnotes

None


Further reading and additional sources responding to these claims

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