Criticism of Mormonism/Video/Search for the Truth DVD/Book of Abraham

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PERSPECTIVES MEDIA QUESTIONS RESOURCES 2014 CONFERENCE

    Jesus Christ/Joseph Smith or Search for the Truth DVD

Book of Abraham

Claim: "For generations scholars have shown irrefutable evidence that the ...Pearl of Great Price... [is] faulty" and that the translation is "completely false."

The Church always forthright

The Church has always been frank and open about what is on the papyri in its possession. When the papyri were rediscovered in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and donated to the Church on 27 November 1967, the Church immediately published an article in their official magazine less than two months later. A follow-up article on an additional papyrus fragment was published the following month, complete with photos:

  • Jay M. Todd, "Egyptian Papyri Rediscovered," Improvement Era (January 1968), 12–16.
  • Jay M. Todd, "New Light on Joseph Smith's Egyptian Papyri: Additional Fragment Disclosed," Improvement Era (February 1968), 40.
  • Jay M. Todd, "Background of the Church Historian's Fragment," Improvement Era (February 1968), 40A–40I.

LDS scholar Hugh Nibley began a series of articles in the January 1968 edition which ran for months. Nibley was not hesitant in explaining what was on the papyri in the Church's possession. In August 1968, he repeatedly emphasized that much of the text was the Egyptian Book of the Dead:

  • "...the texts of the 'Joseph Smith Papyri' identified as belonging to the Book of the Dead" (p. 55)
  • "...The largest part of the Joseph Smith Papyri in the possession of the Church consists of fragments from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the fragments having been recently translated and discussed by no less a scholar than Professor John A. Wilson." (p. 57)
  • "These points can be illustrated by the most easily recognized section of the Joseph Smith papyri, namely, the fragment with the picture of a swallow, Chapter 86 of the Book of the Dead..."(p. 57)
  • "..we may take the best-known picture from the Book of the Dead, the well-known judgment scene or 'Psychostasy,' a fine example of which is found among the Joseph Smith papyri." (p. 59)

Lest the reader miss this claim in the small print, it was reprinted in large bold type across two pages:

  • "The largest parts of the...papyri in possession of the Church consists of fragments from the Egyptian Book of the Dead..." (pp. 56-57) See image (680 KB).

Oversimplifying the translation issues

The issues surrounding the translation of the Egyptian papyri that resulted in the Book of Abraham are much more complex than critics would like us to believe. Foremost, it is significant to realize that we don't have all the papyri that were originally owned by Joseph. Of the five scrolls originally owned by Joseph, only eleven fragments of two scrolls have survived—one of which is an Egyptian Sensen text containing the vignette for Facsimile 1 from the LDS Book of Abraham. Basically, we don't know exactly what was missing, so we can't say for certain that Joseph Smith's papyri collection didn't contain a document that could translate into the Book of Abraham.

But why, some might ask, would a Book of Abraham be present among ancient Egyptian funerary scrolls? We know from other ancient documents that sometimes scrolls with different material were attached together. Some ancient copies of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, for example, have been found to contain a variety of other non-funerary texts including stories similar to the sacrifice of Abraham (involving different personalities), temple rituals, and more. Yale-trained, professional Egyptologist Dr. John Gee estimates that about 40% of known Sensen texts have other texts attached to them.

Some Egyptian papyri, for example, contain Egyptian instructions on one side and Semitic writings on the back side—in one case Psalms chapters 20–55. One Egyptian temple archive (with an extensive collection of Egyptian rituals), provides an early copy of the “Prayer of Jacob” and two copies of the “Eighth Book of Moses” with a discussion of the initiation into the temple at Jerusalem. Both Moses and Abraham are mentioned in this collection and the most commonly invoked deity is Jehovah.

Finally, we know that ancient Israelites sometimes used Egyptian symbols to convey religious teachings. Many Biblical scholars, for instance, believe that an ancient Egyptian book—the Instructions of Amenemope—may have been the source for portions of the biblical book of Proverbs. An ancient Testament of Abraham also seems to have a connection to the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

It is not unlikely—in fact it seems plausible in light of other documentary discoveries—that an ancient Book of Abraham was attached to the Egyptian papyri owned by Joseph Smith. Properly interpreting the Egyptian elements in the Facsimiles may well require that we understand how Jewish authors understood and adapted such elements.

The critics' "irrefutable evidence" is anything but.

To read more:

Claim: "Part of the papyri translated by Joseph allegedly shows a priest about to sacrifice Abraham on an altar, but in reality it has been discovered that the papyri actually depicts a common funeral text many centuries after Abraham’s time."

There are two issues in the above accusation. (1) The Sensen text (from where we get Facsimile 1 showing the near-sacrifice of Abraham) is supposedly a "common" Egyptian "funeral text", and (2) this text dates "many centuries after Abraham's time." Both issues are examined below:

  1. The late Dr. Klaus Baer, a renowned non-LDS Egyptologist from the University of Chicago, claimed that the Book of Abraham's Facsimile 1 is not typical of similar vignettes found among Egyptian papyri. While other "lion couch" scenes can be found in Egyptian papyri, the Book of Abraham's "lion couch" scene is unique. Dr. John Gee, an LDS Egyptologist, knows of no other instance where it is included in a Sensen text or in a copy of the Book of the Dead.
  2. While the date of the actual papyri and style of the vignette date to many centuries after Abraham's time, we find the same thing among most ancient manuscripts—even biblical manuscripts. The earliest manuscript we have of Matthew, for instance, is a third-century copy. This doesn't negate the fact that Matthew's original copy was penned centuries earlier, probably in the first century A.D. It seems only reasonable that followers of Abraham continued to preserve copies of the Book of Abraham for centuries after the original account was recorded (we find the same thing among nearly all Old Testament manuscripts).

To read more:

  • Daniel C. Peterson, "News from Antiquity [‘Evidence supporting the book of Abraham continues to turn up in a wide variety of sources’]," Ensign 24 no. 1 (January 1994), 16–21. off-site
  • Kevin L. Barney, "The Facsimiles and Semitic Adaptation of Existing Sources," off-site
  • Book of Abraham

Claim: "We have not found one non-LDS Egyptologist who supports [Joseph Smith's] translation [of the Book of Abraham papyri]." [Video cuts to Charles Larson, credited as "Historian, Author."] LARSON: "I first became aware that the Book of Abraham had a problem when I had been studying other Mormon literature and anthropology...."

By mentioning "non-LDS Egyptologists" and then immediately transitioning to Charles Larson, the video implies that Larson is, himself, an Egyptologist, or at least qualified to speak on Egyptology. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth—he has no training in these fields.

Larson is the author of the well-known but deeply flawed anti-Mormon book "By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus": A New Look at the Joseph Smith Papyri. This book has been reviewed by LDS Egyptologists who hold degrees in the field. One reviewer summed up Larson's work:

Larson's historical method is as follows: Invent evidence, read minds, attribute motives, misquote sources, argue from circumstantial evidence—or better yet—argue from no evidence....
If Larson stumbles as a historian, he falls flat on his face as an Egyptologist. He betrays no knowledge of any foreign language, yet offers to guide us through Egyptian, "a unique area of study that is extremely difficult to master."
—John Gee, "A Tragedy of Errors," p. 99.

The only qualifications listed for Larson at his publisher's web site are "former Mormon and Brigham Young University graduate." If the producers of the video can dismiss trained Egyptologists only because they are Mormon, is it reasonable to likewise dismiss critics like Larson because of his religious beliefs? Or should we add to those critical religious beliefs the fact that he is not trained in Egyptology at all? The producers willingly apply a double standard here.

To read more:

  • John Gee, "A Tragedy of Errors (Review of By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus: A New Look at the Joseph Smith Papyri by Charles M. Larson," FARMS Review of Books 4/1 (1992): 93–119. off-site
  • Michael D. Rhodes, "The Book of Abraham: Divinely Inspired Scripture (Review of By His Own Hand upon Papyrus: A New Look at the Joseph Smith Papyri by Charles M. Larson)," FARMS Review of Books 4/1 (1992): 120–126. off-site
  • Book of Abraham
  • Note: Perhaps hoping that repetition can replace evidence, the video returns to these themes again here in less detail.
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