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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