No official position?

Here is an interesting statement from Blair Hodges that new Maxwell Institute “has no official position on the Book of Abraham” (posted on David Bokovoy’s Facebook page.)

Blair Hodges Just to be clear: the Maxwell Institute as such has no official position on the Book of Abraham, and the articles from Gee and Muhlestein represent their own perspectives. The Institute welcomes a variety of perspectives on these things.

This sort of vague statement naturally raises more questions that it answers:

No official position on Abrahamic authorship Book of Abraham?

No official position on the historicity of the Book of Abraham?

No official position on antiquity of the Book of Abraham?

No official position on the relationship of the Book of Abraham to the papyri?

No official position on the authenticity  of the Book of Abraham?

No official position on the scriptural status of the Book of Abraham?

No official position on the production of the Book of Abraham?

No official position on what Joseph Smith claimed about the Book of Abraham?

Does the Maxwell Institute have an official position on some of these questions, but not on others?  If so, which ones, and what positions?

And if the Maxwell Institute has no official position on the Book of Abraham, does it also have no official position on the Book of Mormon?

Some clarity would be welcome.  (And, unfortunately, unexpected.)

37 thoughts on “No official position?

  1. I found that statement by the official spokesman of the Maxwell Institute really striking, as well. I’ve asked for clarifications, but, thus far, haven’t received any response. (I understand: It’s Sunday, etc.)

    • I don’t see a place at the end of the comments section to leave a reply, so I’ll reply here.

      Cynthia L. is correct when she says (below): “it looks like Blair Hodges was simply noting that just because MI publishes an author’s article, doesn’t mean that author speaks for MI or represents its official position. I understand that’s slightly different from what Blair wrote, but it certainly seems (to me) to be what he meant.”

      That is right, and from what I understand, it isn’t a policy change. Trying to pin down the Institute’s official position reminded me of the BBC journalist/anti-Mormon John Sweeney’s interrogation of Elder Holland:

      John Sweeney: “Joseph Smith got these papyri, and he translated them, and subsequently as the Egyptologists cracked the code, [it's] something completely different.”

      Elder Jeffrey R. Holland: “All I’m saying is what got translated got translated into the word of God. The vehicle for that, I do not understand and don’t claim to know, and know no Egyptian.”

      (from John Sweeney’s BBC documentary, “This World: The Mormon Candidate.”)

      I think Elder Holland’s epistemic humility, combined with his affirmation that the account represents the word of God to the Latter-day Saints, provides sufficient common ground upon which a variety of perspectives on the Book of Abraham can be discussed. Elder Holland affirms the work as the “word of God,” and by bringing up his lack of knowledge of Egyptian he implies that academic tools may be utilized, but that they are not the preeminent consideration when it comes to revelatory texts. That is where the Maxwell Institute is situated, also recognizing that we are only part of a wider conversation on these things.

      I hope this is specific enough to resolve the concerns that have been raised because I don’t plan to respond to all the peripheral questions.

      Take care.

  2. To clarify, in context, Blair Hodges’ comments referred specifically to the way in which the Book of Abraham was produced and its relationship to other ancient literature, not its scriptural value.

    For Latter-day Saints, the Book of Abraham is a challenging issue and scholarly opinions vary. John Gee has gone so far as to state that “the Book of Abraham is not like the Book of Mormon; it has no equivalent of Moroni’s promise; it is not a sign of the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith.” Gee has also said publicly that “the Book of Abraham is not central to the restored gospel of Christ.”

    See here:

    http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/57738/The-Book-of-Abraham-The-larger-issue.html

    I believe Gee’s perspective makes sense in light of the implications that his arguments (and those published by BYU Egyptologist Kerry Muhlestein) hold when carried to their logical conclusion.

    The BofA revises the opening chapters of Genesis which scholarly consensus attributes to two separate Judean sources that date long after the time period associated with Abraham. This combined with the fact that the papyri Joseph used to produce the BofA dates to the Ptolemaic period in Egyptian history means that if Gee and Muhlestein are correct in their arguments that the BofA literally appeared on the papyri Joseph possessed, the BofA would be a late pseudepigraphic text authored by either an Egyptian or Jewish scribe who syncretized Jewish and Egyptian religious traditions.

    If simply discovered in a catacomb in ancient Egypt, I suspect that the vast majority of believing Latter-day Saints would have a very difficult time accepting such a document as inspired scripture. Therefore, it seems far superior from my perspective for a believer to approach the papyri and the BofA from a different vantage point.

    Personally, I see no reason that a Latter-day Saint could not logically hold the position that instead of a supernatural translation of a pseudepigraphic Book of Abraham featured on a conveniently missing papyrus scroll, that through working with the papyri, the Prophet’s mind was directed in an inspired way to produce the scriptural Book of Abraham. In fact, it seems logical to me that rather than diminishing the scriptural nature of the BofA, approaching the text from this perspective would actually provide an even greater authoritative stamp upon the book than the one achieved through the apologetic arguments Gee and Muhelstein offer. Their apologetic arguments leave Latter-day Saints with simply a translation (however miraculous) of a non-biblical pseudepigraphic text, produced not by Abraham, but by a scribe revising the Genesis account to accord with Egyptian mysticism.

    In contrast, I believe that the approach to the BofA I’m suggesting has great power. It puts an end to the necessity of problematic arguments rightfully criticized by non-LDS scholars and places the BofA on a sphere not subject to scientific objection. From this perspective, the BofA may be considered “central to the gospel of Jesus Christ,” and a “sign of the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith.”

    However, from my perspective, the Maxwell Institute is wise to follow the Church’s lead and not adopt an official position on this matter. I believe that the Church’s official view is that the Book of Abraham is authentically revealed scripture for our day. Therefore, those who attempt to present their own perspective on how the BofA was produced as “the” standard of orthodoxy are in my opinion severely out of line.

    • So, just for clarification, you believe:

      1- That the BOA is not ancient.
      2- That it is not by Abraham.
      3- That it is, instead, an imaginary story God inspired Joseph Smith to write.
      4- None of this makes any difference as long as we simply assert that the text is scripture.

      Have I understood you correctly? And you also are of the understanding that these ideas are positions the Maxwell Institute now does and should continue to officially promote, correct?

  3. Pingback: The Maxwell Institute takes ‘no official position’ on the Book of Abraham? | The Millennial Star

  4. And, I might also ask, David, if you reject the historicity of the BOA on the grounds you discuss, why not also reject the historicity of the BOM? And the Gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus for that matter?

  5. Bill, I hope to provide further clarity in my forthcoming book. However, the term “imaginary” is an intentional diminutive you’ve chosen that I would not use. And of course whether or not the text is a literal translation of ancient source carries significant implications or to use your words, “makes a difference.” However, as I explained above, in my opinion, the Maxwell Institute should follow the Church’s lead and not officially endorse a specific view concerning the production process of the Book of Abraham.

    Apologetic arguments that insist the Book of Abraham literally appeared on the papyri in Joseph Smith’s possession do not reflect the new official scriptural introduction to the text. As has been noted, the 1981 introduction to the Book of Abraham features the following statement:

    “The Book of Abraham. A translation from some Egyptian papyri that came into the hands of Joseph Smith in 1835, containing writings of the patriarch Abraham.”

    Currently, the new 2013 version of the text contains the following introduction:

    “The Book of Abraham. An inspired translation of the writings of Abraham. Joseph Smith began the translation in 1835 after obtaining some Egyptian papyri.”

    The Book of Abraham is identified as an inspired translation of the “writings of Abraham,” not a translation of “Egyptian papyri” that contain the writings of Abraham. I think it highly unwise for LDS scholars to attempt to insist for views beyond this official statement as the “orthodox” position, no matter how many articles they have published in the past arguing that the BofA literary appeared on the papyri Joseph possessed.

    • I agree that the MI should not have an official position “concerning the PRODUCTION PROCESS of the Book of Abraham.” I know of no one who does. That is not and has never been the issue. You’re dodging the questions. And that is not what Blair said. He said the MI “has no official position on the Book of Abraham.” This led to my questions.

      You correctly note that the new 2013 header reads:
      “The Book of Abraham. An inspired translation of the writings of Abraham. Joseph Smith began the translation in 1835 after obtaining some Egyptian papyri.”

      Note, this states that the BOA is the writings of Abraham. That it, it affirms historicity and authenticity. It says nothing about production.

      Which led me to the questions I asked, which you refuse to answer.

      Is the BOA text we have ancient?
      Is the BOA text we have by Abraham?
      Or is the BOA text an “imaginary” (i.e. fictional) story God inspired JS to write?

      The clear implication of what you’ve been saying is that you reject the antiquity and historicity of the BOA. If I’ve misunderstood, please clarify. If I have understood you correctly, doesn’t this position explicitly contradict the 2013 header? And, in your opinion, should the MI include the BOA as modern inspired fiction by Joseph Smith among “variety of perspectives on these things” that it will consider? For example, should it publish materials by Robert Ritner attacking the BOA?

      These are VERY SIMPLE questions. If they haven’t been considered by you and the new MI administrators, then they shouldn’t be talking about the matter. If they have been considered, a clear answer to the questions raised by Blair’s statement of the “official position” is in order.

  6. Dan & Bill: You are wasting your time. It is clear that Bokovoy considers the BofA to be: (1) modern inspired fiction that (2) is not related to the papyri in any way; (3) misleads the LDS members regarding the claims that it is a first person text that reflects Abraham’s actual visions because it reflects the conflation of post-exilic stories in the JEPD documents; (4) the Church’s new position is somehow consonant with claims 1 – 3 because (5) it takes no position on the method of translation of the text.

    I believe that Bokovoy is just wrong that (4) somehow follows from (5). In addition, because the Book of Mormon reflects these same JEPD post-exilic texts it follows that he must either adopt something along the lines of the expansion theory or reject the Book of Mormon altogether as an ancient text. But if the expansion theory is available for the Book of Mormon, why not for the Book of Abraham?

    I do not believe that Blair Hodges meant anything more than that: the scholarly claims of Muhlestein and Gee are their own (which goes without saying). One does not have to believe that there is a relation between the BofA and the late Egyptian texts described by Muhlestein nor that there is a relation between the Book of Abraham and Idrimi to be a faithful Mormon or in alignment with the Church’s position on the Book of Abraham.

    However, Bokovoy goes well beyond that position and in my view misrepresents the implications of the Church’s “position”. The Church removed the claim that the papyri were written “by Abraham’s own hand” — I supposed because it is fairly obvious that Abraham did not pen an Egyptian text of any nature in the first century BCE. However, to claim that the Church’s new position leaves open the view that there is no relation at all between the Book of Abraham and papyri flies in the face of the claims made in the text itself. The Book of Abraham states that the facsimiles are illustrations adopted “to give a representation” of what the Book of Abraham reveals.

    If perchance I am wrong and the Maxwell Institute really takes no position on whether the Book of Abraham has anything at all to do with Abraham, or the papyri for that matter, then it represents a foundational shift that pretty well abandons Joseph Smith and the long-believed-to-be-ancient revelations of the restoration.

  7. “they shouldn’t be talking about the matter”

    Bill, it isn’t for me to speak for them, but reading the “no official position” statement, it sounds to me like that’s exactly the approach they are taking (not talking about it, as you suggest). Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, and it seems like they are declining to speculate beyond what the 2013 header text says. Why is this a problem? It strikes me as wise enough.

    • 1- Having no official position is hardly affirming the 2013 statements.
      2- The Institute WAS founded to deal with these types of historical issues. Dodging them was not an option. Apparently until now.

      • Actually it’s even more molehill than I previously thought. In reviewing the full context, it looks like Blair Hodges was simply noting that just because MI publishes an author’s article, doesn’t mean that author speaks for MI or represents its official position. I understand that’s slightly different from what Blair wrote, but it certainly seems (to me) to be what he meant. Trying to pounce on other interpretations to imply some kind of nefariousness looks a bit like offender for a word type behavior. Not cool.

      • Blair made an ambiguous statement: “the Maxwell Institute as such has no official position on the Book of Abraham.”

        I asked Blair for clarification. I did not pounce. I did not imply there was something nefarious going on. I merely asked a question.

        Other people telling me what they think Blair really meant is of no interest to me. I am curious as to the “official position” (or lack thereof) of the Maxwell Institute on the BOA and BOM.

  8. Again, the issues are complicated and require time and space to articulate. However, I believe that genre labeling is an important guide to reading a text. A reader, for example, interprets a “parody” different than she would a newspaper editorial, science fiction book, or a college history text. Despite the fact that from an academic perspective, the Book of Abraham clearly lacks historicity, to impose our modern label of “fiction” upon the book would certainly misidentify its genre.

    Until 1878, the Book of Abraham was originally published with the following introduction:

    “Of some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands, from the Catecombs of Egypt, PURPORTING TO BE the writings of Abraham.”

    I’m in no way connected with the MI, and certainly do not pretend to speak for MI, let alone the Church, but this introduction accords with my own personal views. In essence, I believe that the BofA can be interpreted as an inspired example of “attribution.” This perspective would define the BofA in a way that accords with religious texts that appear in the Bible. As one scholar explains:

    “Attribution (attaching names to Biblical books) belongs to the realm of literary scholarship, and has little to do with the intentions of the composers of works. It isn’t so much about what an author did write, but rather it is about what he would have written (or; from the perspective of ancient literary interpreters, what he must have written).” Jed Wyrick, The Ascension of Authorship, 80.

    Blair’s comment needs to be read in context. I’ve tried to provide some. I could also add that Blair was specifically addressing the fact that in terms of the recent Journal of Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture articles by John Gee and Kerry Muhlestein, the articles represent the views of their respect authors concerning the BofA and not those of the MI itself.

    I felt that this was an appropriate reminder, especially since, from my perspective, those two articles relied upon highly problematic arguments.

    • Finally, I got an answer to an actual question: “the Book of Abraham clearly lacks historicity.” Thanks for that clarification on your position.

      You want to call this an “attribution.” Of course, Bart Ehrman–and most other people for that matter–would call it “forgery.” (One need only ask, incidentally, why did God need to reveal whatever information the BOA contains as a falsely attributed book–eg pseudepigrapha? He could have simply revealed it as a section of the D&C, right?)

      The problem is, of course, that the vast majority of the members of the Church aren’t particularly interested in an author of inspired fiction. They actually want to follow a prophet of God who delivers revelation.

      Be that as it may, you clearly reject the 2013 statement that the BOA is “an [1] inspired [2] translation of the [3] writings of Abraham.” So, you accept #1 (the text is inspired), but reject #2 (its a translation) and #3 (its by Abraham). Is that correct? So your previous claim that your position is in accord with the 2013 statement is an exaggeration.

      And I assume you have the same interpretation of the BOM, right?

      The last issue is the position of the MI on the BOA. Blair said MI had no official position on the BOA. That seemed an astonishing and incomprehensible statement to me. So I asked for clarification. Blair did not say MI had no position on the production of the BOA. He said the “the Maxwell Institute as such has no official position on the Book of Abraham.” I asked for clarification. I hope he gives some.

      • Bill, since you alluded to Bart Ehrman, I’ll cite his perspective:

        “The single most important motivation for authors to claim they were someone else in antiquity . . . was to get a hearing for their views. If you were an unknown person, but had something really important to say and wanted people to hear you—not so they could praise you, but so they could learn the truth—one way to make that happen was to pretend you were someone else, a well-known author, a famous figure, an authority;” in Forgery, 31.

        This quote illustrates how truly different the Book of Abraham is from what Ehrman identifies as “forgery” in the Bible. Joseph did not need to pretend his revelation was Abraham’s in order to get a hearing for his views. Joseph produced the Book of Abraham in 1835. For many years, the Prophet had been giving revelations from his own mouth that his audience accepted as the word of God.

        Joseph didn’t need to produce a biblical-like forgery to proclaim a revelation. He was dictating his own revelations all the time. Clearly producing a lost Book of Abraham would have legitimized Joseph’s own revelation, but still, even this perspective illustrates how different the Book of Abraham is from what Ehrman defines as a biblical “forgery.”

        Instead, I believe it makes better sense to view the Book of Abraham as an example of a biblical-like “attribution” in which Joseph did not dictate what Abraham wrote, but rather what he would have written, or from the perspective of ancient literary interpreters, what he must have written. This makes the Book of Abraham like many of the scriptural texts in the biblical canon.

        Contrary to your assertion, such a perspective does not diminish the view that Joseph was an inspired prophet of God. As I explained in my initial post, such a view does what Gee and Muhlestein’s arguments cannot do by John’s own admission. From the perspective I’m suggesting, the BofA may be considered “central to the gospel of Jesus Christ,” and a “sign of the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith.” Its historicity is irrelevant to such a claim.

      • David, first Ehrman is talking about many types of forgeries. The fact that you don’t think the BOA fits one particular category is irrelevant. Do you really think Ehrman would NOT consider the BOA a classic example of the type of forgeries he is discussing in his book? Shall we ask him?

        Second, you are absolutely right that JS did not need to produce an Abraham pseudepigrapha to present a new revelation to the Church. Which leaves the fundamental question: Why in the world would God inspire him to do so? Why not inspire him to produce a new section or two of the D&C? Why would God inspire JS to produce a fictional non-historical story about Abraham? Why not reveal something actually true about Abraham? Why does God inspire JS to include geocentric astronomy in the BOA? Remember God can inspire JS to write whatever he wants.

        Finally, you really should stop all your rhetorical posturing of the superiority of your method over that of the “apologists.” Your ad hoc assertion that the BOA is an inspired pseudepigrapha, and JS was therefore a prophet is just as “apologetic” as the positions of Gee and Muhlestein.

  9. By the way, the phrase “purporting to be” is neither an affirmation nor a denial of Abrahamic authorship. It is, instead, simply a straightforward statement of fact. The text of the BOA does indeed purport to be by Abraham.

  10. Brother Bokovoy,

    I appreciate your thoughts on this, but I’m genuinely perplexed on a number of issues.

    1. You make a big deal over the changes the Church has recently made in the introduction to the Book of Abraham. You think that the change from “a translation from some Egyptian papyri” to “an inspired translation of the writings of Abraham” is significant for your apologetic arguments for the so-called Catalyst Theory. However, you seem to have overlooked the fact that the Church still prints this with the Book of Abraham (which has appeared, with slight modification, with the Book of Abraham since 1842): “A Translation of some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt. The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus.”

    How do you countenance this fact with your apologetic arguments for the Catalyst Theory? Specifically, how do you reconcile this with you apologetic claim that “the Book of Abraham is identified [by the Church] as an inspired translation of the ‘writings of Abraham,’ not a translation of ‘Egyptian papyri’ that contain the writings of Abraham”?

    2. You seem completely fine with the Book of Abraham being 19th century pseudepigrapha, but not as ancient pseudepigrapha. Why? Pseudepigrapha is pseudepigrapha is pseudepigrapha, no? Leaving aside for a moment the arguments for or against the Book of Abraham’s historicity, why do you give preference to the theory that Joseph Smith was inspired to write 19th century pseudepigrapha over the theory that he was inspired to translate ancient pseudepigrapha? And, what’s more, since you are obviously keen on modern critical biblical scholarship, do you accept the consensus of many (most?) modern critical scholars that many biblical books are likewise pseudepigrapha? If so, then why is ancient biblical pseudepigrapha to be considered inspired, but not ancient non-biblical pseudepigrapha?

    3. You already mention that you “believe that the BofA can be interpreted as an inspired example of ‘attribution’.” If so, then why is it okay to allow Joseph Smith to attribute the material to Abraham, and have it still be considered inspired, but not an ancient Jewish or Egyptian scribe? What is the difference between Joseph Smith being inspired to attribute material to Abraham, and Joseph being inspired to translate material attributed to Abraham by an ancient Jew or Egyptian? (This is related to question 2. Why is it okay to consider an ancient Christian attributing material to Paul inspired, but not an ancient Jew attributing material to Abraham?)

    The way I see it, either way God directed Joseph to bring forth this material for the benefit of the Saints. This is what you mean by the Book of Abraham being “inspired”, right? God revealed this information to Joseph Smith, in one way or another? So why is one method considered more inspired than the other?

    4. Since we’re on the subject of attribution, do you allow for the possibility of a historical Abraham writing an account that, through the process of redaction much like the redaction that shaped the final form of the Pentateuch, took it’s final form during the Ptolemaic Era (or perhaps even earlier)? I’m aware of critical scholars who accept the JEDP hypothesis, but also allow for some material in the Pentateuch to be attributable to a historical Moses. Is not the same also possible with a historical Abraham and the text that we now call the Book of Abraham?

    5. You say that “the Book of Abraham clearly lacks historicity.” So may I take it then that you are not impressed with any of the arguments for the Book of Abraham’s historicity? Nothing from Nibley, Gee, Muhlestein, Rhodes, or others has at least gotten you to consider the possibility that it’s ancient? Is that correct?

    6. You state: “[Gee and Muhlestein's] apologetic arguments leave Latter-day Saints with simply a translation (however miraculous) of a non-biblical pseudepigraphic text, produced not by Abraham, but by a scribe revising the Genesis account to accord with Egyptian mysticism.” But don’t your own apologetic arguments for the Catalyst Theory leave Latter-day Saints with simply an attribution (however miraculous) of a non-biblical pseudepigraphic text, produced not by Abraham, but by Joseph Smith revising the Genesis account to accord with Egyptian funerary papyri? I don’t mean to belabor the point, but, again, what’s the substantive difference between your apologetic arguments and Gee’s and Muhlestein’s besides just a matter of dating and authorship (Joseph Smith in the 19th century vs. ancient scribe in Ptolemaic Egypt)?

    For the record, I have no problem with the Book of Abraham being ancient pseudepigrapha. None. I’m also not opposed, on principle, to it being modern pseudepigrapha (i.e. the Catalyst Theory), although I think both logic and evidence runs against this proposition.

    I’m genuinely interested to see how you’d answer these questions of mine.

    Thanks again for your thoughts.

  11. Dear Stephen,

    Thank you for the thoughtful questions. Unfortunately, due to the fact that the semester literally starts today, I will not have time to respond in detail. If you would like to visit in person at some point, I would be happy to try and provide greater clarity.

    I have chosen my words carefully. I have never referred to the proposal I offered as “the Catalyst theory,” and for good reason. If a Latter-day Saint believes that the Book of Abraham is inspired, then the papyri were a catalyst for revelation. Believers can debate the details concerning how Joseph used the papyri, but for a believer, they were a catalyst and should not be referred to as a “theory” out of respect for the LDS tradition.

    Similarly, please note my actual statement you referenced:

    “From an academic perspective, the Book of Abraham clearly lacks historicity.”

    Also, you’ve noted the fact that the LDS Church still publishes the introduction to the Book of Abraham that refers to the text as a “translation.” However, as has been noted by many commentators, the term “translation” in Joseph Smith’s writings is heavily nuanced. One thing is certain, it does not mean “translate” as in critically assess the original meaning of a foreign word or script in order to render it into another language. For example, Joseph Smith referred to his revision of the King James version of the Bible as a “translation” even though he did not use the original biblical languages to produce his work. It was a revelatory experience. The fact that the LDS Church continues to use the term “Joseph Smith Translation” should clarify that retaining the word “translation” in the Book of Abraham introduction does not imply that Joseph produced a literal rendering of the papyri.

    In contrast, the switch from translation of papyri to translation of the writings of Abraham is surely significant (for my views on how “writings of Abraham” might be nuanced see my comments on attribution).

    Finally, if I were to sum up what I perceive as the “common denominator” running through your questions it would be this:

    “Pseudepigrapha is pseudepigrapha is pseudepigrapha, no?”

    And my sense is that for a Latter-day Saint, the answer to this question is NO. If a Latter-day Saint believes she has received a spiritual witness from God that Joseph Smith was a Prophet, then a “pseudepigraphical” text that Joseph produced as inspired conduit would hold considerable scriptural weight. The same could be said for pseudepigraphical texts that appear in the Bible since the LDS Church holds the position that it is the word of God “as far as it is TRANSLATED correctly.”

    The same could NOT be said, however, for a literal translation of some Egyptian papyri created by an unknown Jewish or Egyptian scribe “purporting to be that writings of Abraham” and that happened to fall into Joseph’s possession. My sense is that most Latter-day Saints would not be comfortable adopting such a text as “scripture.” Since this is the logical implication of Gee and Muhlestein’s approach, it explains why John has stated that “the Book of Abraham is not like the Book of Mormon; it has no equivalent of Moroni’s promise; it is not a sign of the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith.” And that it is “not central to the restored gospel of Christ.”

    Warm regards,

    –DB

    • You discuss two options:

      1- God inspired JS to produce a pseudepigraphic Abraham text.

      2- God inspired an unknown ancient author to produce a pseudepigraphic Abraham text, and then inspired JS to reproduce that ancient Abraham pseudepigrapha.

      Why is option #1 acceptable, scholarly, logical, while #2 is not? If JS’s assertion that the pseudepigraphic BOA is inspired should be accepted by LDS, why should an assertion by JS that he translated an ancient inspired pseudepigraphic scripture be rejected? Your position is nonsense.

    • Hi David,

      Thanks for taking time to respond to my questions. I can appreciate how busy you must be with the beginning of a new semester. I just have a few more thoughts/comments, then I’ll leave you be. If you don’t have time to respond, that’s totally fine.

      You write: “you’ve noted the fact that the LDS Church still publishes the introduction to the Book of Abraham that refers to the text as a “translation.””

      Actually, what I was hoping to highlight was the fact that the introduction states Joseph was translating “some ancient Records” from “the catacombs of Egypt.” I am aware of the fact that Joseph’s understanding of the term “translation” is more on par with “revelation”, but I feel that before you can fully divorce the Book of Abraham text from the Joseph Smith Papyri you must first account for why the Church, since 1842, has been claiming that there is a connection. This introduction seems rather straightforward, in my opinion, and cannot be dismissed.

      With regard to your comments on pseudepigrapha, the inspiration thereof, I suppose it boils down to a question of assumptions. I, for one, as I said, am not at all disturbed at the proposition that God led Joseph to translate inspired, ancient pseudepigrapha. If God led Joseph to the papyri, or, maybe more accurately, the papyri to Joseph, and if God inspired Joseph to reveal this text because of its doctrinal contributions, who am I to say what God should and shouldn’t do?

      Actually, the reason why I am comfortable with the Book of Abraham being ancient pseudepigrapha is because it allows more room for other inspired ancient pseudepigrapha that could potentially contain important doctrinal truths. What the Lord says in D&C 91 about the Apocrypha I am certain also holds true to any ancient pseudepigrapha. “There are many things contained therein that are true. . . Therefore, whoso readeth it [either the Apocrypha or pseudepigrapha], let him understand, for the Spirit manifesteth truth; And whoso is enlightened by the Spirit shall obtain benefit therefrom.”

      What’s more, as we learn in the temple, all truth can be circumscribed into one grand whole. Just as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Emanuel Schikaneder utilized Egyptian material in their profound (and, I believe, inspired) opera Die Zauberflöte, so too, I believe, Joseph could be inspired by Egyptian material, pseudepigraphal or otherwise. Or, perhaps said another way, I am completely comfortable with the Lord inspiring any man or woman to produce scripture. Who’s to say that what the First Presidency said in 1978 about Muhammad, Confucius, or Plato couldn’t also be said about an anonymous Egyptian or Jewish scribe?

      I suppose where we diverge is that you seem unwilling to acknowledge the inspiration of non-biblical pseudepigrapha, whereas I am willing to acknowledge such. (Please correct me if I’m mistaken.) Again, this just boils down to a question of assumptions.

      Finally, you comment: “My sense is that most Latter-day Saints would not be comfortable adopting such a text as “scripture.””

      That may be, but my sense is that many Latter-day Saints would be equally uncomfortable with your own proposition, i.e. the Book of Abraham is 19th century pseudepigrapha (inspired or otherwise) written by Joseph Smith. I could be mistaken, but that’s what my gut tells me. I suppose without a Church-wide poll we’ll never know for certain! (Actually, my gut tells me that most members of the Church probably wouldn’t care about any of this stuff! )

      Thanks again for your thoughts. Please give my regards to Colby when you see him. I wish I could take your Book of Mormon as Literature Class. I’m sure it’d be very interesting.

      Cheers!

  12. Bokovoy: “Instead, I believe it makes better sense to view the Book of Abraham as an example of a biblical-like “attribution” in which Joseph did not dictate what Abraham wrote, but rather what he would have written, or from the perspective of ancient literary interpreters, what he must have written. This makes the Book of Abraham like many of the scriptural texts in the biblical canon.”

    This view is both a dodge and suggests the impossible. You claim that Joseph Smith was not attributing to Abraham what Abraham wrote, but what Abraham clearly did not write and could not have written because as I understand your view first person biographical narratives of the kind we find in the Book of Abraham had not even been invented in Abraham’s time. Apparently those writing circa Abraham’s time were capable of writing first person-fiction accounts (like Idrimi) but just couldn’t make the leap to non-fiction?

    There simply is no truth about what “Abraham would have written” – and given your view it is not what Abraham “would have written” because: (1) it relies on subsequent texts that did not exist in Abraham’s time; (2) the genre of first-person narrative form did not even exist in Abraham’s time; and (3) it “clearly lacks historicity”. So not only is there no truth about what would have happened that did not in fact happen, it is clearly not what Abraham would have written. It seems to me that your claims are just incoherent.

    The problem with the notion that Joseph Smith was writing what he thinks Abraham would have written is simply what the text of the Book of Abraham clearly says: it explicitly attributes to Abraham what you claim Abraham did not write. I think that Stephen Smoot’s questions are rather important. Why is it somehow difficult to believe that Joseph could have received a revelation of what Abraham actually did write and not merely what he would have written? Why not a revelation an ancient pseudepigrapha that relied on the Egyptian writings as their own catalyst to represent Abraham’s visions?

    • Indeed.

      It makes absolutely no sense for God to reveal to Joseph Smith a book containing things Abraham did NOT really do and say–while attributing it to Abraham–rather than revealing to JS an entirely different BOA of things that Abraham really DID do and say.

      David’s argument is simply post hoc apologetic rationalization to attempt to preserve some vague sense of inspired authority for a book whose authenticity David has rejected.

      • Meek: “You claim that Joseph Smith was not attributing to Abraham what Abraham wrote, but what Abraham clearly did not write and could not have written because as I understand your view first person biographical narratives of the kind we find in the Book of Abraham had not even been invented in Abraham’s time. Apparently those writing circa Abraham’s time were capable of writing first person-fiction accounts (like Idrimi) but just couldn’t make the leap to non-fiction?”

        The issues are much more nuanced than that. Gee’s article consistently refers to both the BofA and the Idrimi inscription as “autobiographies,” and in the process, Gee cites Edward Greenstein’s article “Autobiographies in Ancient Western Asia” published in volume four of the series Civilizations of the Ancient Near East edited by Jack M. Sasson. Greenstein’s article, however, makes clear that the contemporary notion of an “autobiography” is a misnomer when it comes to Near Eastern literature. He writes:

        “There is no autobiography as such in the ancient world. . . There are, however, ancient texts that seem autobiographical, in which first-person narrators recount what they represent as parts of their own lives. We may therefore speak of ‘autobiographical’ texts in the ancient world, and in the ancient Near East in particular, without implying that such texts tell the actual history of a life.”

        Greenstein’s point that these autobiographical inscriptions should not be read as an “actual history of a life” is especially important. Greenstein goes on to state that rather than true first-person narratives, these types of ancient texts “were nearly all the direct product of scribes, not of the autobiographical subjects themselves.”

        The same point has been made recently by Karel van der Toorn in his study Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible. Concerning autobiographical accounts, van der Toorn writes:

        “No one kept this kind of personal diary. . . The ancient Near East has no documented parallel to a private record of inner struggle with one’s destiny” (p. 189).

        In other words, if the BofA was literally an autobiographical account written “by the hand of Abraham” it would be unlike anything we see attested in the ancient Near East, including the inscription of Idrimi.

        As Greenstein notes in his article regarding the Idrimi inscription that Gee cites, “the inscription is autobiographical in character but not strictly autobiography; it may have been commissioned by Idrimi, but it was composed after his death.” This makes the Idrimi royal inscription much more like the famous Code of Hammurabi than it does the BofA, which purports to be an autobiographical account literally written by Abraham himself.

        True enough, as Gee notes, both texts feature first person references, but so does the canonized Joseph Smith History. In fact, many of the same thematic and structural links between Idrimi and the BofA noted by Gee can also be found in the Prophet’s own history including first person reference to his father’s family, various moves to another place of residence, references to his father’s religious practices, etc. These parallels suggest that the links Gee articulates between Idrimi and the BofA are really not that significant.

        Meek: “There simply is no truth about what “Abraham would have written” – and given your view it is not what Abraham “would have written” because: (1) it relies on subsequent texts that did not exist in Abraham’s time; (2) the genre of first-person narrative form did not even exist in Abraham’s time; and (3) it “clearly lacks historicity”. So not only is there no truth about what would have happened that did not in fact happen, it is clearly not what Abraham would have written. It seems to me that your claims are just incoherent.”

        They’re not. The ancient literary art of attribution could conceptually produce what the subject would have written from the author’s perspective if he was able to write an account. Or what (at lest from the perspective of the true author), the subject SHOULD have written. Again, this is the way that Jed Wyrick describes the issue in his impressive work “The Ascension of Authorship.” It’s a Harvard University Press release and quite coherent.

        Bill: “It makes absolutely no sense for God to reveal to Joseph Smith a book containing things Abraham did NOT really do and say–while attributing it to Abraham–rather than revealing to JS an entirely different BOA of things that Abraham really DID do and say. David’s argument is simply post hoc apologetic rationalization to attempt to preserve some vague sense of inspired authority for a book whose authenticity David has rejected.”

        To quote you Professor Hamblin, “NONSENSE!” Fundamental to Joseph Smith’s theology is the notion of a restoration of religious truths and a binding together of past generations. Producing a “Book of Abraham” with spiritual and doctrinal constructs (some of which can be found in ancient Near Eastern religious constructs) would help facilitate that process in a way that a modern D&C revelation would not. This is a logical position that a believer might hold when he or she encounters the evidence that the text could not have been written by Abraham.

      • David, most of what you have to say here is merely silly quibbling. The fact that ancient autobiographies are different from modern autobiographies does not mean they are not autobiographies in the ancient sense. Scholars consistently call them autobiographies, while emphasizing that they are different from the way a modern person writes an autobiography. (Greenstein’s article “Autobiographies in Ancient Western Asia”; Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian autobiographies, 1988) So? The BOA is not an autobiography in the modern sense either; far from it. Gee’s point is that is not that we should or should not call it an autobiography. It is that the BOA exhibits a number of characteristics similar to the Idrimi autobiography. So what if it was composed by a scribe? Why can’t you simply say, “that’s an interesting parallel”? Why can’t you consider evidence that runs counter to your apologetic?

        As to your other point:

      • Fundamental to Joseph Smith’s theology is the notion of a restoration of religious truths and a binding together of past generations. Producing a “Book of Abraham” with spiritual and doctrinal constructs (some of which can be found in ancient Near Eastern religious constructs) would help facilitate that process in a way that a modern D&C revelation would not. This is a logical position that a believer might hold when he or she encounters the evidence that the text could not have been written by Abraham.
      • So Joseph Smith wants to restore ancient religious truths, and therefore God inspires him to do so by inventing religious fictions about ancient things? Really? Instead of revealing truths about ancient things? You really think this makes sense? While “a believer” may find this satisfying, some of us prefer to follow a religion that is actually correspond to some degree with reality, a prophet who gives us more than imaginary pious fictional tales, scriptures that are authentic revelation, and a God who reveals truth rather than fiction.

  13. Bokovoy: “…supernatural translation of a pseudepigraphic Book of Abraham featured on a conveniently missing papyrus scroll…”

    Bokovoy: “I have chosen my words carefully.”

    I don’t know of anybody who thinks it a convenience that papyri is missing, or rather destroyed. I’m pretty sure everybody interested in this subject wishes that we had all of the papyri that Joseph formerly had. Your ‘careful’ choice of wording is also deliberate then in ignoring all of the eyewitness accounts, and discounts Gee’s “Eyewitness, Hearsay, and Physical Evidence of the Joseph Smith Papyri,” which is exactly what people generally do when they don’t like the idea of Joseph actually translating the Book of Abraham, be it pseudopigraphic, or whatever. Your careful choice of wording illustrates your dismissal of relevant evidence in favor of your interpretation, which is hardly a scholarly approach to the issue; with all due respect.

    Tim Barker

  14. The average member truly struggles to even grasp the issue. Apologists rarely delve into saying what the good criticisms are and Critics are just as one sided. With that the average Joe has trouble making heads or tails of this whole issue. Is there a good book that tries to play unbiased where one can study out the issues as unbiased as possible. How does one who is interested wrap their arms around this subject? Help is appreciated

  15. This summer my friend, his wife, and his brother met with a close friend of their family — Marlin K Jensen. They discussed the Book of Abraham issue among other issues. They met in person for an hour and then continued the conversation via email for a time.

    Regarding the Book of Abraham, MKJ said “I subscribe to the Catalyst Theory.” and then brought up D&C 7 as supporting evidence of that type of “translation” in respect to JS “translating” a document that wasn’t directly in front of him.

    Just thought I’d add that data point.

  16. David: Thanks for your thoughtful response. I am not persuaded that your arguments regarding Gee’s article are either fair to him or hold much water. First, the attenuated biographical nature of the Idrimi text was acknowledged multiple times by Gee and he both explains and puts it into context regarding the Book of Abraham. I believe that you ought to acknowledge that your criticisms were both anticipated and responded to by Gee. As I read your response, you present the notion of fictional autobiography as if Gee had not discussed it and chide him for it. That is not fair to him in my view and is a straw man argument.

    Further, there is no reason that the ancient Book of Abraham could not be the same kind of scribal work as Idrimi — to the extent it is not just a fictional account as some scholars now maintain. (E.g., Tremper Longerman in Fictional Akkadian Autobiography). Such a view is quite consonant with Gee’s argument. I personally have a very difficult time believing that the Akkadians were nuanced enough to come up with “fictional autobiography” but could not quite see how it could apply to real people. I think that the arguments made for merely fictional autobiography are not very convincing and ought to be taken with a grain of salt.

    I appreciate your efforts to make sense of the Book of Abraham given your rejection of any possible historicity. But I must admit that your efforts make little sense to me. It seems to me that the Book of Abraham is not merely the result of a 19th century redaction two English sources of creation stories reckoned with in the JEPD theory, but a very different take on those documents that evinces knowledge of the council of El and the gods participation in creation as a council. I believe that you have argued for that view in the past. Have you now given up on such insights?

    • It has never been my intent to “chide” John Gee. Despite our opposing views, I hold John in high esteem, both as an individual and as a scholar. I disagree with many of his perspectives, yet I strongly believe one can disagree (even passionately, without being disagreeable).

      Unfortunately, I have no time left to continue this conversation, so this will be my final post. Suffice it to say that another issue I found problematic in the article was John’s proposal that Abraham’s “homeland” of Ur was in Syria. This position runs directly counter to the scholarly consensus. The following statement by Jean-Cl. Margueron regarding Ur in the Anchor Bible Dictionary illustrates the standard academic view:

      “A very important Sumerian city that played an active role in the 3d millennium and in the beginning of the 2d millennium B.C. It’s modern name is Tell Muqqayyar. . . After Babylon, it is without a doubt the best known Mesopotamian site in the Bible because it is mentioned in connection with Abraham. According to Gen 11:31 it is from the city of Ur in Chaldea that Terah and his clan left to go to Haran, a great caravan site located in the belt of the Euphrates in n. Syria.”

      This renders Gee’s analysis all the more problematic.

      I’m pleased that you referenced Longman’s classic study on fictional autobiographies. As awkward as it may seem, Longman used that term for Mesopotamian narratives for good reason. Note his citation of James W. Thompson:

      “If any ancient wrote his autobiography the book has not come down to us. We say as much under correction of those who ought to know better; and if any more instructed reader will refer us to a Greek, Roman, or even Egyptian or Assyrian autobiography, we will thank him and lose no time in reading it.” (Fictional Akkadian Autobiography, 49).

      To refer to Idrmi as an “autobiography” is a misclassification of its genre. There are autobiographical features in Near Eastern texts, but not a single example of an “autobiography.”

      As to your final point, the BofA is filled with impressive ties to ancient Near Eastern theological constructs, from the divine council to its astrological imagery, etc. A Latter-day Saint who accepts Joseph Smith as inspired author could no doubt see such links as evidence for the Prophet’s work at restoring and binding previous dispensations into a unified whole.

      These ties, however, are not enough to overcome the fact that the Book of Abraham features two late Judean creation stories; accounts that the scholarly consensus holds derive from two separate sources long after the time period associated with Abraham. While there is some disagreement amongst scholars on whether or not these two accounts are both individuals documents, very few question the fact that they are separate historical narratives.

      Given the fact that scholars make their living by finding perspectives that counter the consensus, the fact that this position has held true for over a hundred and thirty years means that it must be taken into consideration in an academic assessment of the Book of Abraham.

  17. With regard to Brother Bokovoy’s critique of John Gee’s article “Abraham and Idrimi,” I would like to point out that Gee actually anticipated this criticism in the article. Here’s what Gee himself says on this subject: (http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/jbms/?vol=22&num=1&id=652)

    “These ancient works are called autobiographies because they are presented as first-person narratives. Nevertheless, we do not know if such ancient autobiographical texts were written by the individuals themselves, dictated to scribes, or ghostwritten by scribes. Ancient Egyptian autobiographies, for example, can often be so formulaic that one might be forgiven for wondering if the individual is reflected in the text at all. In other words, it is unlikely that Idrimi carved the words on his statue, but he may have been directly responsible for the content of the text.”

    Here is what the “autobiography” in question says:

    “Šarruwa is the official scribe. He has written, copied and reviewed (the text). And now may the gods of heaven and earth keep Šarruwa, the scribe, who has written (the text of) this statue for him, in good health; may they protect him and be his guardian. May Šamaš, lord of the upper and nether worlds, lord of the spirits, be his protector. I reigned for 30 years. I inscribed my achievements upon my statue. Let [the people read it] and continually bless me.”

    Note how at the end Idrimi, speaking in the first person, is said to have “inscribed[ed] my achievements upon my statue,” yet we know a scribe is writing the text.

    The same could easily go for the statement in the Book of Abraham that says it was “written by his own hand.”

    What’s more, it could be that the phrase “by his own hand” was not a part of the supposed ancient text, but a modern insertion by the scribes working on the translation. A look Ab 1 indicates that the phrase “by his own hand upon papyrus” is found just before Abraham 1:1, and is apart of the title: “Translation of the Book of Abraham written by his own hand upon papyrus and found in the CataCombs of Egypt.” I think it’s very likely that this inscription was not intended to be a part of the text itself, but is an interpolation by the scribes (or Joseph) working on the translation.

    I have written more on this subject here: http://en.fairmormon.org/Book_of_Abraham/By_his_own_hand

    Finally, I’d like to point something else out written by Greenstein in his essay on “Autobiographies in Ancient Western Asia.” After his introduction to this subject (which Bro. Bokovoy has already reproduced), Greenstein notes that “inner thought is, nevertheless, not altogether absent from autobiographical texts in the ancient Near East.” As examples he cites Nehemiah, the inscription of Azatiwada, and, you guessed it, Idrimi, which he refers to as an “extraordinarily personal account.”

    Speaking of Idrimi, Greenstein informs us that the inscription “is autobiographical in character but not strictly autobiography; it may have been commissioned by Idrimi, but it was composed after his death.” My question is: if we assume the Book of Abraham dates to the Middle Bronze Age, is it not possible that such a situation also took place, i.e., a scribe was employed to recount Abraham’s adventures in the first person, just as it seems is the case with Idrimi? If so, then what’s the problem? (As an aside, and very interestingly, Greenstein also notes that Idrimi’s text is unlike any other Mesopotamian royal inscription, and that its closest parallels are Egyptian texts like the Story of Sinuhe.)

    All told, I think Professor Gee’s article on Abraham and Idrimi is very interesting, and has merit. Certainly more needs to be done in analyzing ancient Near Eastern “autobiographies,” but the information adduced by Gee is impressive in its own right, and we should consider what this evidence means for the dating of the Book of Abraham.

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