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.