Monday, July 28, 2014

Follow-Up Statements from Brian Hales and Don Bradley

Brian Hales (right) and Don Bradley (left) at Pioneer Bookstore in Provo, Utah discussing their research on Joseph Smith's polygamy (March 2013). 
Last week I criticized Jeremy Runnells, who has no academic qualifications in Mormon history, for hypocritically accusing Brian Hales of being an "amateur" when it comes to research on Joseph Smith's polygamy.

In response to Runnells' accusation, Brian Hales released a statement that he emailed me and posted on his Facebook page. Here is the statement.

It is interesting how the bloggernacle expands things so quickly.  Regarding Jeremy’s comments above, I detect some irony because he accuses me (on FB) of mounting a “personal ad hominem attack” and then he labels me an “apologist disguising himself as a scholar.” Runnells is correct that I am an amateur historian. I do not have a PhD in history and so will never be a professional historian. In fact, I tell people my books are part of my “full anesthesia services.”

It is also true that Don Bradley did most of the field research. In addition, he contributed to the overall interpretations in the book, but I alone am responsible for what is written. Don was living with my family at the time and we had so many conversations regarding the evidences, that I ultimately listed him as an assistant, a title he clearly deserved. For clarification, I did all the writing, except for a few excerpts from emails Don sent to me that are all plainly identified and footnoted. Don did a great job and I’m grateful for his help. The three volumes could not have been written without his contribution.

Frankly, I’ve never been a fan of labels like “apologist” and “anti-Mormon.” I think people resort to labels when they run out of evidence to support their positions. I have invited Jeremy to defend his interpretation of Joseph Smith’s involvement with plural marriage. I don’t expect to change his current convictions (but I wish he would for his sake). I do believe that he and many other writers have used assumptions, misrepresentations, and half-truths to support their claims. The way for everyone to win (even though we will undoubtedly not agree) is for Jeremy and me to use documentation and less rhetoric in explaining and defending out interpretations. That is the challenge.

Over the past few years I’ve tried to view every known document dealing with polygamy. As a consequence of that effort, my belief in Joseph as a true prophet, a reluctant polygamist, and a man who tried sincerely to live his teachings, has been strengthened. It is quite a different story than the fraud, hypocrite, and adulterer portrayed by Jeremy. I believe that when all of the evidence is available, Joseph does just fine.

Jeremy has promised me a response so I wait. I agree with Austin Farrer who said: “Though argument does not create conviction, the lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish.” The process continues.


Brian Hales

One thing that Runnells picked out in this statement was Hales' comment that, "I am an amateur historian. I do not have a PhD in history and so will never be a professional historian."

Now, if you ask me, Brian is being modest. He may in fact not have a PhD in history or be a professional historian, but he is hardly an "amateur" when it comes to the history of Joseph Smith's plural marriage. Certainly not in the derogatory, pejorative (and, again, hypocritical) sense that Runnells keeps using. His publication record on this subject speaks for itself, and amply demonstrates Brian's erudition and expertise. (I would again invite Runnells to put his money where his mouth is if he thinks Brian's work is shoddy, and challenge him to refute it in the same peer reviewed publications where this work has appeared.)

And keep in mind the fact that Brian's first book, Modern Polygamy and Mormon Fundamentalism: The Generations After the Manifesto, won the John Whitmer Historical Association’s Smith-Pettit Best Book Award in 2007. Not too bad for an "amateur," I'd say.

In addition to Brian's comments, here is also this comment from Don Bradley, which he sent me in an email.
I'm totally good with you putting me forward as an example of someone who knows all the sources on Joseph Smith's polygamy and fully believes in the Restoration. I think it's important that people know that one can do both. The critics' contention that to be informed is to lose one's faith is simply false. I became as informed as any living person has been on Joseph Smith's polygamy and then found my faith.
This, I think, is highly significant. Hopefully it will give real amateurs like Runnells a bit of pause before triumphantly announcing that the critical, negative interpretation of the historical data surrounding Joseph Smith's plural marriage is the only viable interpretation, or that one cannot possibly maintain faith in Joseph Smith after learning the "real" history of plural marriage.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Resources on the First Vision

"One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!" (Joseph Smith–––History 1:17)
Joseph Smith's First Vision has attracted considerable criticism over the years. For anyone who may have encountered criticisms of the First Vision and are looking for some good resources responding to these criticisms, or at least for anyone who is just interested in more information on the First Vision, I would recommend the following.

1. The Church has released this article on the First Vision that includes helpful links to the Joseph Smith Papers, so that you can read for yourself Joseph's various accounts of his 1820 theophany. Lest anyone think that this very recent article is just further evidence that the Church has been hiding this information until the Internet forced them release it, I would also recommend these articles from 1984 (see the section "Joseph Smith’s First History"), 1985, 1986 and 1996.

An excerpt of Joseph Smith's 1832 history, written in his own hand,
describing his vision.
2. FairMormon has some handy wiki articles on the First Vision (here, here, and here) addressing the major criticisms. See also this article from the excellent book BYU Religious Studies Center book No Weapon Shall Prosper. Another RSC publication that addresses the First Vision can be read here.

3. The Interpreter Foundation has published some helpful articles (see herehere, here and here) on the First Vision, including one by my good friend Neal Rappleye.

4. These two books (here and here) are excellent. You may be able to read the first one online sometime later this year, but the second one you'll have to order. Steven C. Harper had a hand in both of the books (as both an editor and an author). You can read more of his thoughts on the First Vision here in the Religious Educator. You can also listen to a podcast interview of Professor Harper here.

5. Yours truly has blogged on the First Vision here and here.

6. An interesting harmony of Joseph's different accounts can be read here.

7. Finally, some videos on the First Vision are on YouTube. Check them out below.

First Vision (with BYU professor Alex Baugh): Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Joseph Smith's First Vision: Seeking the Accounts (Part 1)

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

It should be apparent that there are very cogent responses to criticisms of the First Vision by professional, competent historians. I would go so far as to say that there are actually no real compelling arguments against it. One can choose to believe or disbelieve in the First Vision on personal, religious, or areligious grounds as one wishes, but the historical and theological arguments against the First Vision are seriously debatable at best or highly erroneous at worst.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Who's the Real Amateur?

Pictured: Brian C. Hales, a rank amateur who doesn't know the first thing about Joseph Smith's plural marriage.

Jeremy Runnells, author of the popular anti-Mormon tract "Letter to a CES Director," is upset. He's upset that Brian Hales, one of the foremost authorities on Joseph Smith's plural marriage, would dare challenge him and his accusations against Joseph Smith. On his website he pouts that Hales is nothing more than an "amateur apologist" who has authored a "hit piece" against him.

Screen shot of Runnells' website taken on July 16, 2014.
Leaving aside for a moment the fact that "hit piece" these days seems to be little more than a buzzword used by ex-/anti-Mormons for "anything that uses data and my own words to critique what I say," I find it rather amusing that Runnells would call Hales an "amateur."

Here is a list of Hales' publications on the topic of Joseph Smith's plural marriage (and related topics in Mormon history) that have appeared in peer reviewed journals.

  • “Joseph Smith’s Plural Wives after the Martyrdom,” Mormon Historical Studies, vol. 13, no. 2. Fall 2012, 255-69.

  • ”‘A Continuation of the Seeds’: Joseph Smith and Spirit Birth.” Journal of Mormon History 38, no. 4 (Fall 2012): 105–30.

  • Review of Andrew H. Hedges, Alex D. Smith, and Richard Lloyd Anderson, eds., Journals, Volume 2: December 1841-April 1843.  Vol. 2 of the Journals series of The Joseph Smith Papers.  Journal of Mormon History, 38, no. 3 (Summer 2012): 236-53.

  • “Joseph Smith’s Personal Polygamy,” Journal of Mormon History, vol. 38 (Spring 2012) no. 2, pp. 163-228.

  • “Encouraging Joseph Smith to Practice Plural Marriage: The Accounts of the Angel with a Drawn Sword,” Mormon Historical Studies vol. 11, no. 2, Fall 2010, 23-39.

  • “The Latest Word,” Review of “George D. Smith, Nauvoo Polygamy: “… but we called it celestial marriage.” (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2008). Dialogue, Winter, 2009, 42 (Winter 2009) 213-35.

  • “Fanny Alger and Joseph Smith’s Pre-Nauvoo Reputation,” Journal of Mormon History, 35 (Fall 2009) 4: 112-90.

  • “Emma Smith, Eliza R. Snow, and the Reported Incident on the Stairs,” Mormon Historical Studies, vol. 10, no. 2, Fall 2009, 63-75.

  • “’Guilty of Such Folly?’: Accusations of Adultery and Polygamy Against Oliver Cowdery,” Mormon Historical Studies vol. 9, no. 2, Fall 2008, 41-57.

  • “The Joseph Smith – Sylvia Sessions Plural Sealings: Polyandry or Polygyny,” Mormon Historical Studies vol. 9, no. 1, Spring 2008, 19-28.

This list, of course, is not counting his 3 volume work Joseph Smith's Polygamy: History and Theology or his essays that have appeared in the Persistence of Polygamy series published by John Whitmer Books.

I'm curious to know exactly how many articles Runnells has published in peer reviewed journals. And how many of those articles were on the topic of plural marriage specifically?

Of course, just having published in peer reviewed journals doesn't make Hales automatically correct in all of his interpretations. But it does show that he's anything but an "amateur."

If Runnells, whose singular achievement in the field of Mormon historiography is having written a self-published, non-peer reviewed online tract that is only given credence on message boards or Internet sites inhabited chiefly by anonymous and overly self-confident ex-Mormons, wants to be taken seriously at all, and doesn't want to appear as obliviously suffering from an amusingly ironic case of psychological projection, I'd recommend he put his money where his mouth is and at least match Hales' prodigious publication output in reputable journals. Then, and only then, could he possibly with a straight face get away with calling Hales an "amateur."

And no, Jeremy, I'm afraid that John Dehlin's podcast doesn't count.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Deutschland ist Weltmeister!

The year was 1954, and it was the FIFA World Cup. It had been just one decade since Germany had been decimated by the Allies in World War 2, and the German populace was demoralized and disheartened. But then West Germany, the underdog, beat the powerhouse Hungary in a 3-2 championship match in Bern, Switzerland that has since been dubbed "Das Wunder von Bern" or "The Miracle of Bern."

The words of German radio commentator Herbert Zimmermann have become legendary in Germany today. "Aus dem Hintergrund müsste Rahn schießen, Rahn schießt - TOR, TOR, TOR, TOR!" Zimmermann screamed as Germany made its winning goal. "Halten Sie mich für verrückt, halten Sie mich für übergeschnappt," Zimmermann cried with passion.

When the whistle blew, Zimmermann exulted, "AUS! AUS! AUS! AUS! Das Spiel ist aus. Deutschland ist Weltmeister, schlägt Ungarn mit 3 zu 2 Toren im Finale in Bern!"

(Go to 4:00)

Today, after a nail biting 120 minutes with Argentina, German fans everywhere can once again shout "Deutschland ist Weltmeister!" At the 113th minute, Mario Götze finally scored for Germany in a goal that would clinch the game.

Although perhaps not as dramatic as the 1954 game, this win is still significant in that it is the first time a European team has won the World Cup in South America.

It also rocks because now I can yell, "Deutschland ist Weltmeister!"

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Final Game–––Germany Vs. Argentina

Just one game away . . .
I have been following Germany in the 2014 FIFA World Cup since the team's first game against Portugal. I was overcome with joy when Germany beat France a week ago (take that, you cheese eating surrender monkeys!), and was delightfully dumbfounded when the team scored a Brazillion points in the semifinal game.

Sunday will be the championship game against Argentina. I will be offering my sacrifices to the soccer gods and drawing my magic circles this Sunday. (Also, don't tell my bishop, but I'm going to skip Elders Quorum to watch it.) I can't wait!

(Left to Right): Herr Almoni with his pals Herr Parker, Fräulein Lauren, and Herr Tim (who's actually from Germany) on the day of our smashing 7-1 blitzkrieg against Brazil.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Catalyst Theory in Church Publications

One aspect of the new Gospel Topics essay on the Book of Abraham that has made many excited is this.
Joseph’s study of the papyri may have led to a revelation about key events and teachings in the life of Abraham, much as he had earlier received a revelation about the life of Moses while studying the Bible. This view assumes a broader definition of the words translator and translation. According to this view, Joseph’s translation was not a literal rendering of the papyri as a conventional translation would be. Rather, the physical artifacts provided an occasion for meditation, reflection, and revelation. 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.
The excitement seems to be because, in the words of David Bokovoy, "This document articulates in an official, correlated, LDS church-sponsored source, the idea that Joseph did not produce a literal translation, that in fact, the Book of Abraham never was on the material that he possessed, and yet he produced something that can be interpreted by believing Latter-day Saints as very much inspired."

Fair enough. I suppose if the so-called catalyst theory for the Book of Abraham is your cup of tea, this might indeed be an exciting and welcomed feature of the new essay.

But is this really some new, groundbreaking, paradigm-changing way to understand the Book of Abraham? Not really. Consider, for example, Michael D. Rhodes' 1988 article in the Ensign that articulated exactly what the 2014 essay says. After explaining the production of the JST and D&C 7, Rhodes throws out this possibility.
Instead of making a literal translation, as scholars would use the term, [Joseph Smith] used the Urim and Thummim as a means of receiving revelation. Even though a copy of Abraham’s record possibly passed through the hands of many scribes and had become editorially corrupted to the point where it may have had little resemblance to the original, the Prophet—with the Urim and Thummim, or simply through revelation—could have obtained the translation—or, as Joseph Smith used the word, he could have received the meaning, or subject-matter content of the original text, as he did in his translation of the Bible. This explanation would mean that Joseph Smith received the text of our present book of Abraham the same way he received the translation of the parchment of John the Revelator—he did not even need the actual text in front of him.
Since at least 1988, then, "an official, correlated, LDS church-sponsored source" has given the catalyst theory consideration. What's more, quasi-official sources, such as the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, have also done this. Here is Rhodes again in a 1992 article.
A major question about [the Book of Abraham's] authenticity continues to revolve around whether Joseph Smith translated the work from the papyrus fragments the Church now has in its possession or whether he used the Urim and Thummim to receive the text of the book of Abraham by revelation, as is the case with the translation of the scroll of John the Revelator, found in Doctrine and Covenants section 7, or the Book of Moses, which is excerpted from the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible and is also found in the Pearl of Great Price. From these examples, it is evident that for Joseph Smith it was not necessary to possess an original text in order to have its translation revealed to him. In his function as prophet, seer, and revelator, many channels were open to him to receive information by divine inspiration.
Keep this in mind as you read the new Gospel Topics essay. The catalyst theory, though perhaps not as widely held by Church members as some may like, has been around for a while and has been entertained in at least one other official Church publication and one semi-official publication. Contrary to a remark Bokovoy recently made on his Facebook page, the 2014 Gospel Topics essay on the Book of Abraham is not "the very first explicit laying out of a Catalyst theory in a correlated Church publication." Michael Rhodes beat this new essay to the punch by 26 years.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

David Carr on "The First Creation"

The first five verses of Genesis 1 in Hebrew.

David Carr has some interesting things to say about the account of the creation in Genesis 1. His comments have significant overlap with Mormon cosmology, especially as it is found in the Book of Abraham.

The first verse of Gen 1 is usually translated “in the beginning when God created heaven and earth,” and most people picture God conjuring parts of the universe like a magician: “Let there be ... and it was so.” But historical research suggests that the traditional translation is wrong. Instead, the first two verses of the Bible describe the chaos that preceded God’s creative ordering of the cosmos: “when God first created the heaven and the earth—and the earth was a formless void, darkness was on the face of the deep, and a divine wind hovered over the waters—God said ....” In the beginning, so to speak, was chaos.

The rest of Gen 1 then describes how God transforms that dark chaos into an ordered, inhabited, “very good” cosmos. God creates light first, and this helps ground the pattern of day and night that dominates the rest of the chapter. On day two, God creates a dome (often translated “firmament”) that creates an air bubble between the upper and lower primal oceans, in which the rest of creation can flourish. Day three brings the creation of dry land and God’s command for that dry land to spring forth with plants. The next three days each correspond to one of the first three: God creates heavenly lights on day four, corresponding to light on day one; God creates sea and air creatures on day five to inhabit the realms focused on in day two; and God creates animals and humans on day six to inhabit the dry land created on day three and to eat the plants that sprung forth then. Throughout, God speaks commands like a royal ruler, and God’s commands are executed, marked by notices such as “and it was so.” Then, God looks on God’s work and pronounces that “it is good.” Indeed, after creating animals and humanity on the sixth day, God proclaims the inhabited cosmos to be “very good.” If there is one message that Gen 1 wants to give about God and the universe, it is that God is in charge and the world that God ordered is “very good.” Note here that the emphasis throughout the chapter is on God's power to organize creation into the different parts of a cosmic temple, not God's magical "creation" of matter out of nothing. The main idea is the goodness of creation and humanity's role in it.

On a sidebar the article straightforwardly concludes, "Genesis 1 describes God’s ordering of primeval chaos, not creation 'out of nothing.'"

So far so good. As you may well know by now, I've made this exact same argument before.

But then here is Carr's next section.

Some people have suggested that Gen 1 can be made compatible with modern science if one understands the word “day” in the story to refer to an “era” potentially spanning thousands or even hundreds of thousands of years. What these readers miss is that the whole six-day structure of Gen 1 leads to a conclusion based on an actual week: God’s rest (Hebrew shabbat) on and blessing of the seventh day (Gen 2:1-3). No other ancient creation account is organized this way. Some describe the gods resting after creation, but only because they had created humans to do their work for them. Gen 1 is unique in describing creation as a seven-day process crowned by God’s establishment of a weekly holiday on which not just God but eventually humans as well are to rest (for example, Exod 20:8-11, Exod 31:12-17). This Sabbath rest is not a burden but another way that humans can reflect God’s “image and likeness.” Thus to reinterpret the “days” of Gen 1:1-2:3 as metaphorical “eras” or the like is to miss the whole emphasis of this story on God’s introduction of a Sabbath rest in the week we all know.

I wonder how to reconcile this idea with the Book of Abraham's use of "time" in its creation account (cf. Abraham 4:8, 13, 19, 23, 31; 5:2–3), or with Elder Bruce R. McConkie's views expressed in 1982: "But first, what is a day? It is a specified time period; it is an age, an eon, a division of eternity; it is the time between two identifiable events. And each day, of whatever length, has the duration needed for its purposes." ("Christ and the Creation," online here.) What implication does this apparent divergence between the Book of Abraham and Genesis hold for the historicity of the former? I am not sure how to answer this question, or if any such reconciliation is possible. These comments by Carr have prompted me just now to think about this aspect of the Book of Abraham's creation account, which aspect I had heretofore ignored or otherwise neglected to ponder. I'll get back to you as soon as (or if) I come up with something.

In the end, though, I agree with Carr's assessment here.
The text [of Genesis] depicts the universe as a cosmic temple over which God presides and in which God offers God’s blessing. Within this context humans are depicted as earthly replicas of God (made in God’s “image and likeness”), reflecting God’s sovereign and creative power in the way that they “rule” over creation and themselves create children. It is not a scientific account of the origins of the universe, nor can it be made compatible with contemporary science. Instead, it is a story by theologians, meant to show God’s ultimate power over the universe and the ways in which humans share that power.
I have a blog post on this idea of the creation account in Genesis being a depiction of a "cosmic temple." I believe one can make a good argument that such is the case. But should Latter-day Saints feel uncomfortable with reading Genesis as a non-scientific approach to creation? No. Here is Elder James E. Talmage in 1931. "The opening chapters of Genesis, and scriptures related thereto, were never intended as a text-book of geology, archaeology, earth-science or man-science. . . . We do not show reverence for the scriptures when we misapply them through faulty interpretation.” (James E. Talmage, "The Earth and Man," address delivered in the Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, Utah, 9 August 1931. Originally published in the Deseret News, Church Section, 21 November 1931, 7–8.).

Remember, "myth" is not the opposite of "truth," and the sweeping, grand, mythic cosmology of the books of Genesis, Moses, and Abraham isn't lessened or diminished if it doesn't fully accord with modern scientific understanding. We can appreciate these beautiful scriptural texts for what they are and still affirm their inspiration without fussing about trying to reconcile them with current scientific thought. For, as Daniel C. Peterson wisely observed, "If we scurry too hard to make our theology match the latest journal articles, we’re likely to find our theology out of sync with the next issue of that very journal. The final synthesis of science and religion is still quite some distance away — partially because scientific discovery itself is nowhere near coming to a halt. I wouldn’t expect it before the Millennium, at the very least." ("Some Notes on Faith and Reason," xvi, online here.)

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

New Gospel Topics Essay: "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham"

Papyrus Joseph Smith I, containing the original illustration of facsimile 1 from the Book of Abraham.
Papyrus Joseph Smith I, containing the original illustration of facsimile 1 from the Book of Abraham.
[Cross posted from the FairMormon blog.]

A new essay has been posted on the Church's Gospel Topics website, this time addressing the subject of the translation of the Book of Abraham. The article begins by affirming, "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints embraces the book of Abraham as scripture." What follows is an overview of what's known about the translation and publication of the Book of Abraham, in addition to a look at the history of the Joseph Smith Papyri and evidences for the antiquity of the Book of Abraham. The essay is divided into a number of sections, including "The Book of Abraham as Scripture," "Origin of the Book of Abraham," "Translation and the Book of Abraham," "The Papyri," and "The Book of Abraham and the Ancient World." Each section is devoted to addressing the different aspects of the controversy surrounding the Book of Abraham, which is complex and multi-faceted.

"The Book of Abraham as Scripture"

After an introduction to the subject as a whole, the essay points out the importance of the Book of Abraham as modern scripture. "Thousands of years ago, the prophet Nephi learned that one purpose of the Book of Mormon was to 'establish the truth' of the Bible. In a similar way, the book of Abraham supports, expands, and clarifies the biblical account of Abraham’s life." Accordingly, we read in the Book of Abraham important details about the life of the great patriarch that augment and compliment the biblical account. This includes details about the life of Abraham, the Abrahamic covenant, the pre-mortal existence, and the creation. "Nowhere in the Bible is the purpose and potential of earth life stated so clearly as in the book of Abraham," which makes the Book of Abraham such a valuable book of scripture.

"Origin of the Book of Abraham"

In this brief section the article explains the history of the coming forth of the Egyptian papyri that was eventually purchased by Joseph Smith and the Church in 1835.

"Translation and the Book of Abraham"

Besides noting simply the history of the translation of the Book of Abraham, the essay also explores possible methods of translation. "Joseph Smith worked on the translation of the book of Abraham during the summer and fall of 1835, by which time he completed at least the first chapter and part of the second chapter," the essay observes. "His journal next speaks of translating the papyri in the spring of 1842, after the Saints had relocated to Nauvoo, Illinois. All five chapters of the book of Abraham, along with three illustrations (now known as facsimiles 1, 2, and 3), were published in the Times and Seasons, the Church’s newspaper in Nauvoo, between March and May 1842." However, the essay takes care to note that "Joseph’s translations [of scriptural texts] took a variety of forms. Some of his translations, like that of the Book of Mormon, utilized ancient documents in his possession. Other times, his translations were not based on any known physical records. Joseph’s translation of portions of the Bible, for example, included restoration of original text, harmonization of contradictions within the Bible itself, and inspired commentary." This is important to remember as one approaches the translation of the Book of Abraham, as it is not entirely clear precisely how Joseph translated or revealed the English text of the book. This is explored more fully in the next section.

"The Papyri"

The debate around the relationship between the Joseph Smith Papyri and the Book of Abraham text has proven extremely controversial. At one point it was thought that Joseph Smith's entire collection of papyri perished in the Chicago fire of 1871. However, "Ten papyrus fragments once in Joseph Smith’s possession ended up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. In 1967, the museum transferred these fragments to the Church, which subsequently published them in the Church’s magazine, the Improvement Era." The significance of this discovery is noted by the essay.
The discovery of the papyrus fragments renewed debate about Joseph Smith’s translation. The fragments included one vignette, or illustration, that appears in the book of Abraham as facsimile 1. Long before the fragments were published by the Church, some Egyptologists had said that Joseph Smith’s explanations of the various elements of these facsimiles did not match their own interpretations of these drawings. Joseph Smith had published the facsimiles as freestanding drawings, cut off from the hieroglyphs or hieratic characters that originally surrounded the vignettes. The discovery of the fragments meant that readers could now see the hieroglyphs and characters immediately surrounding the vignette that became facsimile 1. None of the characters on the papyrus fragments mentioned Abraham’s name or any of the events recorded in the book of Abraham. Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists agree that the characters on the fragments do not match the translation given in the book of Abraham, though there is not unanimity, even among non-Mormon scholars, about the proper interpretation of the vignettes on these fragments. Scholars have identified the papyrus fragments as parts of standard funerary texts that were deposited with mummified bodies. These fragments date to between the third century B.C.E. and the first century C.E., long after Abraham lived.
What does this mean for the Book of Abraham, or at least for understanding how Joseph Smith revealed or translated the text? The essay lists two possibilities.
It is likely futile to assess Joseph’s ability to translate papyri when we now have only a fraction of the papyri he had in his possession. Eyewitnesses spoke of “a long roll” or multiple “rolls” of papyrus. Since only fragments survive, it is likely that much of the papyri accessible to Joseph when he translated the book of Abraham is not among these fragments. The loss of a significant portion of the papyri means the relationship of the papyri to the published text cannot be settled conclusively by reference to the papyri. Alternatively, Joseph’s study of the papyri may have led to a revelation about key events and teachings in the life of Abraham, much as he had earlier received a revelation about the life of Moses while studying the Bible. This view assumes a broader definition of the words translator and translation. According to this view, Joseph’s translation was not a literal rendering of the papyri as a conventional translation would be. Rather, the physical artifacts provided an occasion for meditation, reflection, and revelation. 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.
These two theories or explanations are conventionally called the "missing papyrus theory" and the "catalyst theory," respectively, and have been the two major theories put forth by scholars investigating the Book of Abraham. Each theory has its own evidence, but neither theory can account for all of the evidence, which is why it's wise that the essay addressed both and why it's important to keep an open mind when approaching this topic.

"The Book of Abraham and the Ancient World"

Here the essay enumerates evidences linking the Book of Abraham with the ancient world. "A careful study of the book of Abraham provides a better measure of the book’s merits than any hypothesis that treats the text as a conventional translation," the essay explains. "Evidence suggests that elements of the book of Abraham fit comfortably in the ancient world and supports the claim that the book of Abraham is an authentic record." This evidence includes the following:

1. The archaeological verification of the practice of human sacrifice in Egypt and Canaan during the time of Abraham and later.

2. The potential identification of "the plain of Olishem" (Abraham 1:10) with a cite in northwestern Syria.

3. Elements of Joseph Smith's explanations of the facsimiles that find accord with ancient understandings.

4. Narrative details about the life of Abraham found in the Book of Abraham that are also found in other extra-biblical books from antiquity. This includes details of Abraham almost being sacrificed and Abraham teaching the Egyptians astronomy.

Additional evidence for the antiquity of the Book of Abraham not mentioned in the essay includes the astronomy and cosmology of the Book of Abraham fitting nicely in an ancient Near Eastern context (see here and here), in addition to other elements of Joseph Smith's explanations of the facsimiles finding confirmation in the ancient world (see here and here).

The essay concludes with this reminder.
The veracity and value of the book of Abraham cannot be settled by scholarly debate concerning the book’s translation and historicity. The book’s status as scripture lies in the eternal truths it teaches and the powerful spirit it conveys. The book of Abraham imparts profound truths about the nature of God, His relationship to us as His children, and the purpose of this mortal life. The truth of the book of Abraham is ultimately found through careful study of its teachings, sincere prayer, and the confirmation of the Spirit.
There are several things in this essay that are useful from an apologetic perspective.

1. There is useful clarification of what Joseph Smith may have meant by the term "translation." According to the essay,
The word translation typically assumes an expert knowledge of multiple languages. Joseph Smith claimed no expertise in any language. He readily acknowledged that he was one of the “weak things of the world,” called to speak words sent “from heaven.” Speaking of the translation of the Book of Mormon, the Lord said, “You cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.” The same principle can be applied to the book of Abraham. The Lord did not require Joseph Smith to have knowledge of Egyptian. By the gift and power of God, Joseph received knowledge about the life and teachings of Abraham.
This is reiterated later in the essay.
Joseph’s translations took a variety of forms. Some of his translations, like that of the Book of Mormon, utilized ancient documents in his possession. Other times, his translations were not based on any known physical records. Joseph’s translation of portions of the Bible, for example, included restoration of original text, harmonization of contradictions within the Bible itself, and inspired commentary.
2. The essay explains why one should be careful in assuming that the hieratic text surrounding the vignette in P. Joseph Smith I (the original illustration of facsimile 1) must be connected with the vignette. "Some have assumed that the hieroglyphs adjacent to and surrounding facsimile 1 must be a source for the text of the book of Abraham. But this claim rests on the assumption that a vignette and its adjacent text must be associated in meaning. In fact, it was not uncommon for ancient Egyptian vignettes to be placed some distance from their associated commentary."

3. The essay provides an explanation for why the phrase "written by his own hand, upon papyrus" that appears along with the Book of Abraham isn't necessarily problematic for its historicity, despite the papyri dating much later than Abraham. "Of course, the fragments do not have to be as old as Abraham for the book of Abraham and its illustrations to be authentic. Ancient records are often transmitted as copies or as copies of copies. The record of Abraham could have been edited or redacted by later writers much as the Book of Mormon prophet-historians Mormon and Moroni revised the writings of earlier peoples." (For more on this topic, see my article on the Interpreter Foundation website here.)

(As an aside, I also find it significant that this essay cited material from both "classic FARMS" publications, such as Hugh Nibley's The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, as well as Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture. This would seem to indicate, I believe, that the claim, made by some, that the Church is trying to distance itself from these materials should be accepted with a bit of skepticism.)

In addition to the essay from Gospel Topics, the following video ("A Most Remarkable Book: Evidence for the Divine Authenticity of the Book of Abraham") produced by FairMormon may be helpful to those with additional questions about this subject.


Sunday, July 6, 2014

Die schöne Müllerin (Part 10)

"Da gingen die Augen mir über, / Da ward es im Spiegel so kraus."

Without notice or transition we're suddenly isolated with the miller and his beloved. We find them sitting alongside the brook in the middle of the night in the next song in the cycle–––"Tränenregen."

Wir saßen so traulich beisammen
Im kühlen Erlendach,
Wir schauten so traulich zusammen
Hinab in den rieselnden Bach.

We sat so cozily together
In a cool canopy of alders,
We look so cozily together
Into the rippling brook.

Der Mond war auch gekommen,
Die Sternlein hinterdrein,
Und schauten so traulich zusammen
In den silbernen Spiegel hinein.

The moon, too, had come,
The little stars behind her,
And together we stared cozily
Into the silver mirror.

Ich sah nach keinem Monde,
Nach keinem Sternenschein,
Ich schaute nach ihrem Bilde,
Nach ihren Augen allein.

I espied no moon,
nor any starlight,
I saw only her image,
Her image alone.

Und sahe sie nicken und blicken
Herauf aus dem seligen Bach,
Die Blümlein am Ufer, die blauen,
Sie nickten und blickten ihr nach.

I saw her nod and gaze
Out of the blessed brook,
The little blue flowers on the bank,
They nodded and gazed back at her.

Und in den Bach versunken
Der ganze Himmel schien
Und wollte mich mit hinunter
In seine Tiefe ziehn.

And into the brook
All of heaven seemed to sink
And wanted to pull me along
Down into its deepness.

Und über den Wolken und Sternen,
Da rieselte munter der Bach
Und rief mit Singen und Klingen:
Geselle, Geselle, mir nach!

And over the clouds and stars,
The brook gayly rippled
And called with singing and clinging:
"Friend, friend, come with me!"

Da gingen die Augen mir über,
Da ward es im Spiegel so kraus;
Sie sprach: Es kommt ein Regen,
Ade, ich geh nach Haus.

Then my eyes filled with tears,
And rustled the mirror;
She said: "The rain is coming,
Farewell, I'm going home."

The miller now gets some time alone with his beloved. The moon and stars join the pair as they stare deep into the silver mirror that is the water of the brook. But the shine of the moon and stars are lost on the miller, who can only stare with enraptured fantasy at the image of his dear milleress in the water. He is so overcome with emotion that his tears drop into the water, disturbing the peaceful water and convincing the milleress that the rain had come out.

In translating these lines for this blog post, I noticed for the first time some subtle foreshadowing in the fifth stanza. "Und in den Bach versunken / Der ganze Himmel schien / Und wollte mich mit hinunter / In seine Tiefe ziehn." These lines will be starkly fulfilled at the end of the cycle, which we'll see in the last post in this series. 

I must also wonder how these two got in this situation? Did the milleress finally fall for the miller and willingly came along (perhaps even instigated the rendezvous), or did the miller slyly trick her into coming along with him to the brook? The text never answers that question for us, so we are left to decide for ourselves.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Amlicites vs. Amalekites

My roommate made me this picture.

Click to enlarge
For info on the humor behind this joke, see the following links here, here, and here.