religion

The Book of Abraham: Sacred Translation?

 

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In 1835, a man by the name of Michael H. Chandler would have a chance meeting with the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith. Little did Mr Chandler know that the meeting would play a large part in altering the course of Mormon theology forever.

Chandler, the owner of some Egyptian artifacts, was touring the American frontier, showcasing his ancient treasures to curious spectators. The artifacts contained writing that Mr Chandler could not decipher. At some point in time, it was suggested to him that Joseph Smith had the ability to translate the mysterious writing on the Egyptian artifacts. Such an ability was absolutely remarkable in mid-19th century America.

Today, translating ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs seems like a relatively menial task – surely any academic who studies such things could provide a translation. However, in the 1830s such a task would have been considered absolutely remarkable.

Why? Because the key that unlocked the mystery of Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Rosetta Stone, had only been discovered about 36 years prior, and an English translation of the demotic (Egyptian) text from the Rosetta Stone in the United States was not published until 1858, twenty-three years after Smith’s acquisition of the artifacts from Chandler (and fourteen years after Smith’s death).

Despite this, Smith began his miraculous translation process sometime after the purchase of the artifacts. It wasn’t long before he discovered, “much to [his] joy” that “one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham, another writings of Joseph of Egypt, etc.”[1]

By some happy coincidence, Joseph Smith happened upon ancient Egyptian writings of Hebrew patriarchs in the frontier lands of North America and was able to translate them twenty-three years before their language was deciphered into English.

The result? The Book of Abraham (Abr), now part of the Mormon scripture Pearl of Great Price. In it, among many things, Latter-day Saints (LDS) are given a parallel narrative to Genesis that introduces new theology such as polytheism and the location of Heavenly Father’s throne, which is nearest to the star of Kolob (Abr 3:3).

Such a coincidence is entirely miraculous or doubtful. Lately, the LDS Church has given reason to suspect the latter.

TRANSLATION, TRANSCRIPTION, OR SIMPLY IMAGINATION?

The LDS Church has recently published an essay officially distancing itself from Smith’s incredible, eyebrow-raising tale of the Book of Abraham’s origins. Formerly, the LDS Church officially promoted the view that the Book of Abraham was “translated from the papyrus by Joseph Smith.”[2] However, after years of scholarly scrutiny, it has been adequately demonstrated enough for the LDS Church to admit that Joseph Smith’s supposed translation of the papyrus has nothing to do with it.

The ancient text is not an account of Abraham’s life as Smith taught. Instead, it contains religious ritual instructions belonging to a work called the Book of Breathings, which dates back to the Ptolemaic Era (305–30BCE) well after Abraham’s time.

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A facsimile of what Joseph Smith purported to be an attempted sacrifice of Abraham by an idolatrous priest of Elkenah. In actuality, it is a deceased Egyptian citizen being mummified. His soul is seen leaving his body in the form of a bird.

 

Yet, as the article reminds us, the LDS Church firmly holds the Book of Abraham as scripture. It is scripture regardless of evidence that the original text has nothing to do with the end result.

(Imagine, for a moment, if we discovered that the Gospel of Matthew was not an account of Jesus’ life, but was actually a collection of Roman tax documents, and you’ll quickly realize the issue at hand.)

So, what does the LDS Church do with evidence that Joseph Smith fabricated a faulty translation to produce a text that radically departs from the Bible? One sentence from the article encapsulates their action well.

“The book of Abraham’s status as scripture ultimately rests on faith in the saving truths found within the book itself as witnessed by the Holy Ghost.”

In other words, it doesn’t really matter whether or not Joseph Smith fabricated the Book of Abraham based on papyrus belonging to a work called the Book of Breathings. What matters at the end of the day is whether or not it lines up with saving truths.

The Book of Abraham is no longer a sacred translation, but questionable interpretation. 

This, of course, begs the question – what are “saving truths”? It is more than safe to assume that these “saving truths” are found exclusively within Mormon theology. So, ultimately, as long as the fabricated “translation” of the Book of Abraham aligns with Mormon theology it is considered Mormon scripture.

This means that, so far as the method of creation is concerned, there is no difference between the Book of Abraham and Doctrine & Covenants, Mormon scripture consisting mainly of spiritual revelation purportedly given to Smith. In both instances, the Mormon prophet simply declared his words as scripture, which made it so.

The question becomes, why not do the same with the Book of Abraham? Clearly, Smith was comfortable creating scripture. Why go to great lengths in “translating” some papyrus to create the Book of Abraham?

SAVING TRUTHS

For whatever reason, Smith decided to create the Book of Abraham in a unique fashion unlike Doctrine & Covenants. (Not so unique when you consider his previous venture in creating the Book of Mormon). Fast-forward to today and the LDS Church is placed in the awkward position of explaining why their founding prophet did not actually do what he said he did.

The solution is just as dubious as the claim Smith made – officially, the Book of Abraham is  scripture based on a text that has nothing to do with the scripture itself, because it aligns with “saving truths.”

Essentially, the LDS Church is saying, “Our prophet Joseph Smith translated the German phrase ‘Ich liebe dich’ as ‘The train station is blue,’ even though the actual translation of that German phrase should read ‘I love you.‘ But, that doesn’t really matter because the point of the translation is to inform us that the train station is blue.”

The LDS Church’s defense of Smith’s fabrication is, frankly, absurd.

Frankly, this is absurd. No one would allow such a low standard of translation (if the term translation can even be used here) to apply to the Bible. Again, if the Gospel of Matthew was actually Roman tax documents and a pastor told you that what really matters is whether or not the fabricated information in the Gospel dealt correctly with salvation, how would you react? Hopefully, your reaction would be to reject both the pastor’s authority and the defunct text.

BOOK OF ABRAHAM VS. THE BIBLE

Regardless, I think it’s important to look past the obvious (that Smith fabricated his “translation”) and examine the LDS Church’s essential claim about the message of the Book of Abraham – does the Book of Abraham align with “saving truths” found in the entirety of the Mormon scriptural corpus? Unfortunately, for the LDS Church, it quickly becomes apparent that the answer is ‘no.’

First, there are a few internal issues that must be dealt with, aside from the apparent showcasing of Smith’s newly learned Hebrew language skills.[3] For example, the Bible informs us that Abraham was 75 years old when he departed Haran for Canaan (Gn 12:4). The Book of Abraham, however, disagrees. It states that Abraham was only 62 years old when he departed Haran (Abr 2:14). This is a striking oversight on Smith’s part. Failing at something as small as getting Abraham’s age correct should immediately raise a red flag.

Additionally, the Bible teaches us the folly of Abraham’s decision of identifying his wife, Sarah, as his sister for fear that the Egyptians would kill him to wed her. If you recall, Abraham convinced Sarah to tell the Egyptians that she was Abraham’s sister, not his wife. Eventually, it ends up going badly for Abraham since Pharaoh figures out what was going on and kicks them out of Egypt (Gn 12:17–20).

The Book of Abraham does not clarify Abraham’s life, it contradicts it.

The Book of Abraham, however, actually attributes that folly to God himself, changing the story to God forcing Abraham’s hand in the decision (Abr 2:22–25). In my opinion, in stark disagreement with the recently published article defending the spiritual value of the Book of Abraham, such a flaw does not “support” nor “clarify” the biblical account of Abraham’s life. It contradicts the account, making God out to be the cause of sin in Abraham’s life.

Simply brushing off the historical translation difficulties of the Book of Abraham does nothing in addressing the theological inconsistency between it and the Bible. Of course, the article does not address theological issues within the Book of Abraham; however, any attempt at defending its historicity should be coupled with its veracity. It is not enough to simply defend its legitimacy – the greater question is whether or not it is true, whether or not it coalesces with the Bible.

At the end of the day, there is very little difference between ancient pseudepigraphic or Gnostic writings and the Book of Abraham. Both came well after canonization and were formed for the specific purpose of forcing the biblical message and narrative into a system of theology far from what the original Bible authors attested to.

 CLARIFYING THEOLOGY?

In the article, the LDS Church adamantly contends that, despite contradictions like the two examples above, “The book of Abraham clarifies several teachings that are obscure in the Bible.” It has been briefly demonstrated that the Book of Abraham does not clarify teachings in the Bible, but contradicts them. Yet, the LDS Church must have taken this stance for a reason. What reason would lead them to hold fast to such a stance?

I believe the LDS Church needs the Book of Abraham in its current form not because it clarifies the Bible, but because it clarifies Mormonism. In that way, the sentence above should read, “The book of Abraham clarifies several teachings that were made obscure in the Bible by Mormon theology.”

What leads me to believe that?

The Book of Abraham came at a convenient point in Mormon history. Early in the Church’s history, we see Mormonism (especially the Book of Mormon) teaching a type of modalism, the belief that the Father and the Son are literally the same god. So, for example, the Book of Mosiah (within the Book of Mormon) declares that the messiah was prophesied to be called “Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Father of heaven and earth (Mosiah 3:8).”

However, by 1833 Joseph Smith no longer held to this early modalistic view. Smith came to believe in two distinct gods (or personages), the Father and the Son, through his studies of the Hebrew language. He made a distinction between two Hebrew words for God – elohim and Yahweh – by assigning them to the Father and Son respectively.[4] By the mid-1830s, Mormonism shifted from modalism to binitarianism, the belief that two Gods, Elohim and Yahweh, were to be worshipped.

Without the Book of Abraham, the doctrine of eternal progression is in jeopardy.

Yet, the theological evolution of God was not complete in Mormon thought. When the Book of Abraham was published in 1842, the LDS Church had made the transition from binitarianism to henotheism, the belief that although many gods exist only one should be worshipped. Not only this, but faithful Mormons may actually join the ranks of these other gods in a process called apotheosis, which is known by Latter-day Saints as the doctrine of eternal progression. This is the position the Church holds today.

It would be extremely difficult for the LDS Church to support polytheism without the Book of Abraham. Even Joseph Smith himself presented a very weak argument for polytheism by appealing to the Bible alone in his famous King Follett Discourse. Without the Book of Abraham, there is no definitive polytheism.

Without a definitive polytheism, there is no apotheosis. Without apotheosis, Smith’s words from the King Follett Discourse turn from revelation to heresy. “You have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves,” Smith declared, “to be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done.”[5]

Without the Book of Abraham, Joseph Smith is a false prophet.

This is ultimately what is at stake – whether or not Joseph Smith was speaking God’s truth when he declared, “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens!”[6]

If that’s not true, then not only is Joseph Smith a false prophet but the religious system he left behind is preaching a gospel contrary to the one preached by the apostles of Jesus Christ. So, the question deserves to be asked – do you believe the Book of Abraham is scripture? Much is resting on your answer.

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[1] History of the Church 2:236

[2] Introduction to the Book of Abraham, Pearl of Great Price

[3] It is widely known that Joseph Smith received Hebrew language training at Kirkland, Ohio in the School of the Prophets in the mid-1830s near the time when the Book of Abraham artifacts were acquired. Evidence of his training is clearly seen in the finished work. For example, Smith borrows from the Hebrew kowkab (star) for “Kolob” and translates the Hebrew word for ‘eternity’ as “gnolaum,” which is apparently an old transliteration of the Hebrew owlam. Another example is Smith’s “Kokaubeam” for ‘star,’ which is actually the Hebrew kowkab.

[4] Boyd Kirkland, “Jehovah as the Father: The Development of the Mormon Jehovah Doctrine” (Sunstone Magazine), 37.

[5] King Follett Discourse

[6] Ibid

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“I Share Your Faith”: Glenn Beck at Liberty University

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Last month, evangelical mega-college Liberty University made a splash in the news by inviting, yet again, Glenn Beck to speak at its final convocation.

The reasons that Liberty’s president, Dr Jerry Falwell Jr., gave for Mr Beck’s invitation to the university are hardly objectionable, especially considering the university’s history with American conservatism. Dr Falwell introduced Mr Beck as a “patriot, one of America’s leading multimedia personalities” whose radio and television programs have “ordained him as an iconic figure in American culture.”

With this introduction, any conservative-leaning institution could have such a speaker. But there’s one crucial aspect that Dr Falwell left out – Mr Beck’s faith. As a Mormon, or Latter-day Saint (LDS), Glenn Beck is at stark odds with much of what is taught at Liberty.

Luckily, Mr Beck did not neglect to touch on his faith.

“I share your faith,” Mr Beck claimed in his speech-turned-sermon. “I am from a different denomination. And a denomination, quite honestly, that I’m sure can make many people at Liberty uncomfortable. I’m a Mormon. But I share your faith in the atonement of the savior Jesus Christ.”

A Latter-day Saint, speaking at an evangelical university, stated that not only is the Mormon faith simply a denomination of Christianity, but that he shares in the same “faith in the atonement of the savior Jesus Christ.”

And with one sweeping statement, the problem of inviting a Mormon to speak at an evangelical university was made painfully apparent.

POLITICAL GAIN > THEOLOGICAL CLARITY

As you could imagine, the blogosphere has exploded over this speech (of which, admittedly, I am now adding a few more powder grains). Some have sharply criticized Liberty while others have jumped to her defense. Many have discussed the most glaring issue of inviting a Mormon to speak (or, rather, preach) at an evangelical university, but few have identified this event as one more step in a continuing development of Liberty bending her theological identity to accommodate for political gain.

The problem isn’t that Glenn Beck spoke at Liberty; the problem is that Liberty has, intentionally or not, made concessions to allow for Glenn Beck to speak. And this is not the first time.

“Beck is best known for his message, not his medium,” Dr Falwell clarified. That message, of course, is patriotic conservatism. Again, a conservative political pundit speaking at a conservative university is nothing to be surprised about. The issue comes when one considers that Mr Beck is not simply a conservative, but a conservative Mormon, and Liberty is not just a conservative university, but a conservative evangelical university.

And the one who bent their identity to allow for the other’s company wasn’t the conservative Mormon, but the conservative evangelical.

I say this not as an apathetic observer, but as someone with a Liberty degree hanging on his wall. I don’t hate Mormons, neither am I angry with Liberty, but I am concerned that Liberty is exhibiting a continual pattern of blurring important theological lines in exchange for a temporary political alliance.

The one who bent their identity wasn’t the conservative Mormon, but the conservative evangelical.

To demonstrate what I mean, consider that this is not the first time Liberty has invited Mr Beck to speak, nor is it the first time they have invited a Mormon. Previously, Mr Beck spoke at the 2010 commencement when he received an honorary doctorate from the university. During the height of the last presidential campaign, Liberty invited Mitt Romney, also a notable Latter-day Saint, to speak at the 2012 commencement.

It struck me as very strange when Mr Beck was first announced as the 2010 commencement speaker. When I first applied to Liberty I was required to fill out a theological questionnaire that was very unfriendly to LDS theology. Most notably, I was expected not to hold the following beliefs:

  • Exaltation (The LDS doctrine that a man can become a god)
  • Satan and Jesus are spirit brothers
  • Satan was born, not created
  • Ancient American tribes are equated with the lost tribes of Israel
  • Book of Mormon is true revelation from God

If I held any one of these beliefs, which are all uniquely Mormon, then I would be denied admission to the university.

Yet, here was Mr Beck speaking in front of many students who testified that Mormonism is untrue through Liberty’s own questionnaire. Not only this, but Mr Beck later received an honorary doctorate from a university that would have otherwise denied him entrance due to his beliefs.

I decided that there must have been some type of mistake. How could anyone receive a doctorate from Liberty University who believes that the Book of Mormon is an inspired work from God? Surely, they would have violated the theological questionnaire that I had signed.

For Liberty, political gain seems more important than theological clarity.

That day, I went to the seminary’s website and retrieved the questionnaire I had filled out just one year earlier.  Much to my surprise, there was an updated version.  However, the new version was different from the first – they had removed many of the unfriendly LDS theological statements. Essentially, they softened their stance on LDS theology, so far as this questionnaire was concerned.

My initial reaction was disappointment. Shouldn’t an evangelical university with a seminary not be more concerned with theology than any other topic? The reason seemed obvious to me – although they disagree with Mormon theology, Liberty University valued mutual ideologies with a Mormon and wanted to honor him with the highest degree the university can confer.

For Liberty, political gain seems more important than theological clarity and distinction. Or, at least, that’s the message that they are sending to the world. Unfortunately, it seems that Liberty has latched on to a policy that mutually agreed upon social values trump theological truths.

 WHAT HAS SALT LAKE TO DO WITH LYNCHBURG?

I must say, though, that I’m not entirely against every aspect of Mr Beck’s speech. He spoke about liberty, specifically religious liberty, which is wonderful because it is such a wonderful gift! Anytime a Mormon and evangelical can publicly support religious liberty, we should celebrate. But the same could be said of a Muslim and evangelical, a Buddhist and evangelical, a Scientologist and evangelical.

Yet, for some reason, Liberty has allowed Mr Beck to take it a step further. By allowing Mr Beck to say what he said, Liberty has communicated to the world that they believe the LDS Church and evangelicals are not merely allies in religious liberty, they are two stripes of faith in the same vein of Christianity. Here, then, is where the issue lies. Not that Liberty sees itself allying with Mormonism politically, nor for championing religious liberty, but for blurring the lines between Joseph Smith and the Apostle Paul.

Let me put it another way. In tear soaked eyes, Mr Beck recounted that he prayed to the Lord that he would pour over his “word” and challenged Liberty’s students to do the same. In a world where politics is valued over theology, so long as that “word” is from the God of Judeo-Christian morality, then it doesn’t really matter what that “word” precisely entails. We can include Christians of every stripe, Jews, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and even (to a very limited extent) Muslims in the arena of pouring over God’s “word.”

Nonetheless, in a world where theology is valued over politics, we cannot seriously respond to Mr Beck’s challenge for Liberty’s students to pour over the “word” knowing full well that Mr Beck’s definition of the “word” goes beyond the Bible and into the realm of unique LDS works such as Doctrine & CovenantsPearl of Great Price, and Book of Mormon.

If Liberty invites Mormons to speak on religious liberty, would they extend that same invitation to Jehovah’s Witnesses or Muslims?

Do you suppose Liberty would invite a Jehovah’s Witness to speak at convocation? A Muslim at commencement, even if they were running for president on a conservative platform? Perhaps a Christian Scientist during chapel? These all seem highly unlikely. So, here’s the question – why this exception?

What has Salt Lake to do with Lynchburg? Political similarities: sure. Religious liberty issues: yes. Interfaith dialogue: absolutely. Preaching to evangelical students about matters with deep, theological meaning: no.

If a Jehovah’s Witness challenged Liberty’s students to study the Bible, would we agree knowing that the official New World Translation of the Watchtower Society intentionally strips Jesus of his divinity? If a Christian Scientist implored Liberty’s students to study the scriptures, would we agree if we knew she included the writings of Mary Baker Eddy in her idea of “scriptures”?

So why, when a Mormon implores the students of Liberty to read the “scriptures,” are we not shocked to realize that he includes Pearl of Great PriceDoctrine & Covenants, and Book of Mormon, whose collective teachings alone count for many of the differences between Christianity and Mormonism – differences that Mr Beck himself identified as “uncomfortable”?

There is no difference between Glenn Beck challenging Liberty’s students to read the “scriptures” as there would be if a 3rd century Gnostic were to do the same. Both Mr Beck and the Gnostic seem like Christians, but they cherish different scripture that teach a different gospel.

And this here is my concern – the gospel.

Each time Liberty bends her theological identity to accommodate social conservatism, I believe she is leaning further away from theological clarity in the public eye. Sure, Liberty gains a louder voice in American conservatism, but the university also gives credence to the Mormon couplet “As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may become.” True, Liberty may pull more sway with the political right, but the university also nods to the Book of Mormon’s idea that salvation comes only “after all we can do.”

Liberty University is doing these things – unintentionally, I’m sure – whether her leaders know it or not and whether they like it or not. If a university claims to train champions for Christ, then it needs to do so. Part of what it means to champion Christ is to champion his gospel, something that is difficult to find within the pages of the Book of Mormon.

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