I was pained to receive a message from an LDS member who once had successfully overcome many challenges to his testimony. His testimony was now challenged  by serious new wounds inflicted by "friendly fire" from the Maxwell Institute and two professors at BYU. I respect the Maxwell Institute (even donating to them occasionally) and also the professors who spoke (both outstanding men and scholars), but feel a need to respond in light of the unintentional harm that may have been caused by this event.

A January 19 presentation from the Maxwell Institute, “A Window into Joseph Smith’s Translation” by Brian Hauglid and Robin Jensen, was given to a large body of students and others. These two men have been active in preparing the manuscripts for Volume 4 of the Joseph Smith Papers, including the Kirtland Papers and related documents, and I am very grateful for their work for that publication. But I am rather troubled by the presentation they gave to so many students. Contrary to the impression they create (my opinion) of revealing important new facts, the papers they have published and the questions they raise have been discussed for decades, including the issue of whether the Joseph Smith Papyri have any relationship to the Book of Abraham.

There are troubling issues that can catch members off guard (shook my testimony when I encountered essentially the same arguments, but from the Tanners, not BYU at that time) and too many good people have left the Church over the arguments that can be crafted. This unnecessary rehashing of old arguments against the Book of Abraham was done in the name of objective scholarship and just being honest, but they did so without mentioning the decades of work from reputable LDS Egytpologists and scholars that have addressed the very issues that were raised.  It may have been honest and fair in their view, and rehashing past apologetics may have also seemed outside the scope of their presentation, but in my opinion, it was a poor choice (perhaps lack of time or perhaps concern that others have not been careful enough in addressing the Kirtland Papers?). Sad to see it coming from the organization at BYU that once has long been known for defending the Church and its scriptures, though again, the possible problems were certainly not intentional, but may reflect a lack of experience in dealing with faith challenges caused by misunderstood data.

Many in the audience may have come away thinking they were learning about embarrassing new dirt that was just being revealed to the world through the Joseph Smith Papers project, when in fact the documents and the problems they raise have been treated in detail for many years. What was presented was not breathtaking new scholarship that forces us to rethink everything about the Book of Abraham and Joseph's status as a prophet. New wounds were opened without the first aid. Seemingly new scholarship was presented while neglecting (perhaps due to time pressures) the relevant literature and previous scholarship.

The two speakers essentially created (IMHO) the impression that the Book of Abraham was translated by Joseph Smith with nothing other than the surviving papyri fragments, the Joseph Smith papyri. The floundering member who contacted me said their work completely undermines the possibility of there being lost scrolls, etc., that may have been the source. This is simply untrue. The evidence from witnesses and other sources gives us strong reason to believe that Joseph was working with other documents, not just the fragments that remain. I treat some of these issues in my LDSFAQ pages on the Book of Abraham.

For such a sensitive issue, why was no balance provided by at least acknowledging that some LDS scholars and even Egyptologists exist who see profound evidence for the authenticity of the Book of Abraham and dispute the argument that the translation was done from the Joseph Smith Papyri? Why wasn't John Gee mentioned? Why wasn't he invited to also speak? Where were the LDS Egyptologists? Where was the acknowledgement that these issues have already been treated for decades by scholars competent in Egyptian and the ancient Near East (John Gee, Kerry Muhlestein, Hugh Nibley, and others)? Where was the reference to John Gee's analysis of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers (for great color photographs and analysis, see his book, A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri ) indicating that the Egyptian characters were added to the pages after the English translation had been written, suggesting that someone was trying to decipher characters using an already revealed text, rather than the other way around? Where was a mention of works like An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, the many evidences for ancient roots in the text, and so forth? If time was the problem, at least point the audience to sources that might provide tools to cope with the challenges and pain some may be facing as they cope with the toughest issues around the Book of Abraham. "There are other ways of looking at this, and a host of evidences for the antiquity of the content in the Book of Abraham. We're out of time, but please look at some of the publications of John Gee, Kerry Muhlestein, Hugh Nibley, and Michael Rhodes on this topic, and look at some of the overviews at FAIRMormon.org and many related publications at the Maxwell Institute. We may not agree with all of it, but there are some profound points there to consider." That brief statement would have really helped.

What puzzles me is that some of the vital evidence relating to Book of Abraham plausibility was published by John Gee and Brian Hauglid apparently working together, so it's not like Brian doesn't know John or isn't aware of some of the most interesting evidence supporting the antiquity of at least some of the Book of Abraham material. See Traditions about the Early Life of Abraham, edited by John Tvedtnes, Brian Hauglid, and John Gee. I own and love this book, by the way. It contains dozens of accounts from various ancient sources about Abraham that show remarkable parallels to the Book of Abraham, things like Abraham nearly being sacrificed for his opposition to idols, etc. Truly fascinating and quite relevant to the topic at hand. It would have been nice for Hauglid to acknowledge his own publication that some of us value for contributing to the case that the Book of Abraham is not something Joseph could have just made up based on what he knew from the Bible and his environment. Shouldn't such evidence at least be considered in weighing what the origins of the Book of Abraham are (modern, ancient, or both)?

I am looking forward to a second seminar at the Maxwell Institute to get into some of the "first aid" that may be helpful and appropriate as a follow up on the magnificent publication that Brian Hauglid and Robin Jensen have edited for the Joseph Smith Papers. There's so much more to the story!

This post is part of a recent series on the Book of Abraham, inspired by a frustrating presentation from the Maxwell Institute. Here are the related posts:

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