The Maxwell Institute recently revamped their website after roughly a week of downtime, introducing dramatic changes (and some painful losses). The new website currently gives pride of place to a new podcast featuring the editors of the Joseph Smith Papers volume on the Book of Abraham, Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts, volume 4 in the Revelations and Translations series (hereafter JSPRT Vol. 4), where they discuss their work and what they have learned during the course of preparing the volume on the Book of Abraham. See “MIPodcast #92—Joseph Smith’s Egyptian papers, with Robin Jensen & Brian Hauglid,” interviewed by Blair Hodges, Neal A. Maxwell Institute, June 27, 2019.

While JSPRT Vol. 4 is a fabulous scholarly tool, I have argued in a series of recent posts that some of the editorial decisions and commentary reflect apparent bias and a stance that often favors common arguments from our critics (though perhaps unintentionally so). After pointing out the lack of balance, and the apparent bias, including the puzzling failure to even acknowledge Hugh Nibley and his vast collection of publications related to the materials and hypotheses touched upon in JSPRT vol. 4, I was hoping that the editors might take a more balanced approach in subsequent public presentations rather than continuing to offer what I have called "friendly fire without the first aid." Unfortunately, the comments of both editors underscore some of the concerns that have been raised.

The risk of editorial blindness to many crucial issues relative to the Book of Abraham and the possible bias against or neglect of evidence supporting the Book of Abraham as a revealed work rooted in antiquity (the disreputable stance of “abhorrent” apologists, per Hauglid’s unfortunate Facebook comment in 2018) was first made clear to me when I heard of a damaged testimony from an LDS member who listened to Hauglid and Jensen’s January 2019 seminar at BYU for the Maxwell Institute. In that presentation, problems with the Book of Abraham and Joseph’s translation work were raised with no hint of “first aid.” After writing several blog posts with criticism of that presentation and of Hauglid and Jensen’s personal opinions that appear to have influenced comments, citations, and omissions in JSPRT Vol. 4, concerns that I am confident were made known to the editors, I was disappointed to find similar comments in the new podcast. The podcast presumably did not have the tight time constraints of the BYU seminar, which I initially hoped might have been the reason for the lack of discussion of the strengths of the Book of Abraham. It was not an official scholarly document that could possibly require strict rules against discussing faith-promoting material. It was simply an informal opportunity to discuss and share views from the authors and what they have learned from their study.

Several problems are apparent in this podcast. One is that an overly simplistic view of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers is promulgated when Hauglid says:
In other words, they’ll take characters from the papyri, they’ll put them in the left column, and I think they tried to do a pronunciation guide with how to say this particular glyph or whatever. [emphasis added]
Later he adds:
Those documents [the Book of Abraham manuscripts with added characters] are unique because they have in the left margins characters taken from the fragment that was once attached to the vignette that we get Facsimile One from.
An important point that needs to be underscored is that many of the glyphs in the KEP and on some Book of Abraham manuscripts are not Egyptian at all and do not come from the papyri. As one can learn from examining the "Comparison of Characters" section in JSPRT Vol. 4, at best only 7 of the 62 characters given translations in the KEP are found on the key papyrus fragment. Some of the KEP characters come from a letter W.W. Phelps wrote about the “pure language” before the scrolls ever reached Kirtland, and some appear to come from other sources such as Greek, including archaic Greek, Masonic ciphers, etc. (and even, perhaps, one of the cipher systems used by Aaron Burr).

Only about 10% of the characters on the Book of Abraham manuscripts both have definitions in the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (GAEL) and are found on the papyrus, raising serious questions about the theory that the GAEL was an attempt to translate the papyri and was somehow used to translate the Book of Abraham. Some of the characters in the Book of Abraham manuscripts are not found on the papyri at all. To overlook the puzzling diversity of origins of the characters in the KEP is severe oversimplification that irons out some vital clues about what is or is not going on in the work with so-called “Egyptian” characters.

Another questionable viewpoint expressed in the podcast is that the Book of Abraham was an evolving product reflecting Joseph’s culture and theology, which began in 1835 for only Abraham 1 through 2:18, and then years later in Nauvoo as Joseph’s thinking evolved he added the remaining material. The editors are quite confident of this:
JENSEN: One thing that I find interesting, if you look at the Joseph Smith Papers volume, this volume we’ve been talking about, the majority of the documents were created in Kirtland in 1835. But if you look at just the Book of Abraham itself, the majority of the Book of Abraham was actually produced, translated in Nauvoo. I think that’s something that not many have realized, where this certainly was divided into two parts. Joseph Smith first began work in Kirtland and then he stopped, the temple was being built, he moved to Missouri, there were all sorts of problems in Missouri with non-Mormon neighbors, and then it took a long time to get things settled in Nauvoo trying to get that going.

HODGES: Why did that break matter? Why should anyone care that it had this break?

JENSEN: So I find it fascinating because Joseph Smith as religious leader—you can trace his developing, understanding of theology, of the things that he’s teaching to Latter-day Saints. So to know that the first portion of the Book of Abraham is in Kirtland, historians can better how the theology as found in the first portion of the Book of Abraham was read by Kirtland Saints and the theology that was, to that point, revealed to those Saints.

But then you look at the later portion of the Book of Abraham and, placing that in a Kirtland theological setting, doesn’t make as much sense. But when you look to the Nauvoo theological setting, Joseph Smith has revealed all sorts of new information that it fits better. There’s a better context to that in Nauvoo than in Kirtland.

HAUGLID: And Joseph Smith also incorporates Hebrew terms that he learned after his Joshua Seixas tutoring at the Hebrew school in Kirtland that come out after his tutoring experience in Nauvoo, where he put some of those in Abraham chapter three and there’s other things that you find with some Hebrew connections that he would have learned.

So I think we’ve kind of got it where we can see what’s going on in the Kirtland area there pretty well. The Abraham chapter one to chapter two, verse eighteen seems to fit just fine right in that time period. Then, as Robin said, when you get up to Nauvoo that also fits that context really well in terms of his theology, in terms of how they’re looking at the language, in terms of how they’re incorporating some of the Hebrew. It fits into that Nauvoo period. Plus, you also have some plain language coming out of Joseph Smith’s journal saying “we’re translating on March eighth and March ninth for the tenth number of the Times and Seasons.” So that fits as well. So you’ve got some historical backing there. [emphasis added]
This split scenario is countered by scholarship from one of the peers decried by Hauglid. In an important work that is not acknowledged in JSPRT Vol. 4 or in the podcast or seminar given by the two editors, Kerry Muhlestein and Megan Hansen have provided compelling reasons for accepting that much more than Abraham 1 and 2 had been translated by 1835. See Kerry Muhlestein and Megan Hansen, “'The Work of Translating': The Book of Abraham's Translation Chronology,” in Let Us Reason Together: Essays in Honor of the Life’s Work of Robert L. Millet, ed. J. Spencer Fluhman and Brent L. Top (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: 2016), 139–62.

If Hauglid and Jensen had been more open to the possibility that the Book of Abraham translation preceded the creation of the relevant portions of the existing Egyptian Alphabet documents and the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language, then it might seem much more logical that those documents are drawing upon bits and pieces of the translation, including terms related to the supposedly later cosmological material and to the creation account, rather than providing a tool that could have been used for an imagined translation of the papyri. Again given that roughly 90% of the “Egyptian” characters translated in the GAEL and the Egyptian Alphabet documents are not even found on the papyrus fragment supposedly being translated, theories of Joseph using the GAEL to translate the papyrus may seem untenable.

Further, the use of Hebrew learned from Joshua Seixas in 1836 does not date the translation that employs those term to the Nauvoo era, nor does it even require that it occurred after 1836. Relevant Hebrew terms could have been added as late editorial glosses in preparing and revising the original 1835 material for publication. It was in 1835 when Joseph, while translating, indicated that the system of astronomy had been unfolded to him. (Joseph Smith History, Oct. 1, 1835, in “History, 1838–1856, volume B-1 [1 September 1834–2 November 1838],” Joseph Smith Papers website.) That would be consistent with Facsimile 2 and Abraham 3 having been already revealed then.

Among the numerous evidences raised by Muhlestein and Hansen for the translation being largely done in 1835, one of them is the vastly different pace of translation required if Joseph had translated Abraham 2:19 through Abraham 5 in the day and a half allocated to translation in 1842. Compared to the days of known translation in 1835, he would have to have translated over 2,200 words a day in 1842 compared to an average of about 250 words a day in 1835, a pace 9 times greater. Rather than generating new verses in 1842, a more reasonable hypothesis is that Joseph was editing existing translation to incorporate some things learned from Hebrew study and to make other changes to prepare the manuscript for publication.

The prior scholarship of Muhlestein and Hansen, along with many others, should have been carefully and addressed in some way, both for the podcast but especially for JSPRT Vol. 4.

The editors seem to see Joseph’s later use of material related to the last 3 chapters of the Book of Abraham and Facsimile 2 as evidence that his theology (and cosmology) came first, then the “translation” with related material. Here the editors might better have considered the possibility that Joseph had been learning from what he translated and applied it in later discourses. To see his evolution in thinking as the cause for the additional material in Abraham 3–5 rather than being partly a response to what he learned from Abraham 3–5 reflects an overly humanistic, secular view on Joseph Smith’s work in creating scripture. It may be that the editors and other scholars associated with this project are comfortable with that approach, but it does not represent the only reasonable approach, it does not represent sound scholarship if other approaches from other scholars are not fairly considered, and it does not fairly represent the position of the Church and faithful members (including many LDS scholars) who see the ancient and the divine in Joseph’s translations of the Book of Abraham, the Book of Mormon, and the Book of Moses.

Let us now turn to a critical issue. The editors reveal in this podcast that they are keenly aware that people have left the Church over arguments about Joseph’s allegedly failed translation of the Book of Abraham from the Joseph Smith Papyri. At that point, it would have been reasonable to offer some consolation and encouragement based on the strengths of the Book of Abraham and the many evidences for its antiquity and divine translation. Instead, they both take a stance which seems consistent with Hauglid’s “coming out” on Facebook (regarding his negative attitudes about "abhorrent" apologetics and his acceptance of some of Dan Vogel's critical views on the Book of Abraham):
HODGES: You’re just trying to make the documents themselves accessible so that people can then do work based on the documents.

HAUGLID: Right. It’s a resource for people. And so I agree. There’s plenty to talk about in terms of the content of the Book of Abraham.

JENSEN: I think increasingly you’re seeing less angst over the content of the Book of Abraham than you are with the context of the Book of Abraham. There’ve been people who may have left the church or felt frustrated with the historical narrative. It’s not so much about the content itself. It’s not about the actual narrative of the Book of Abraham. It’s about the way in which it was produced, and I find that interesting, not surprising at all that Joseph Smith as prophet, seer, and revelator, there’s a lot hanging on the Book of Abraham and what it means for Joseph Smith’s revelatory process, his translation. It’s been such an important symbol for Joseph Smith’s calling.

And when people look to the Book of Abraham and when people say, “I left the church because of the Book of Abraham,” that’s shorthand that I think almost everyone understands is, “It’s not the content. It’s “Joseph Smith produced this text from papyri. The papyri does not actually contain the Book of Abraham, therefore Joseph Smith is a fraud.” That is, frankly, a reasonable, logical conclusion to someone whose testimony is based upon this simplistic view of Joseph Smith’s translation. If we have simplistic views of how Joseph Smith produced his scripture, then it’s not going to take much to topple that simplistic understanding. So I think that producing a better understanding—kind of this nuanced understanding of production of scripture by Joseph Smith—is not only good scholarship, but I think it’s good for Latter-day Saints throughout the world.

HAUGLID: Let me just add that—maybe in defense of those who do leave—they were raised in the church. They were given the narrative they were given, that they were supposed to believe. There was no nuancing that was going on, really, with any of that as we’re trying to do now with what happened with the Book of Abraham. So yes, it’s a big decision that these people sometimes make, and perhaps there is a simplistic aspect to that, their testimonies, but I’m of the opinion that it’s not all their fault. [emphasis added]
Those believing Joseph’s translation to be divinely inspired are told that leaving the Church may be a “reasonable, logical conclusion” based on that expectation, but the expectation is said to be overly simplistic. The fault for people leaving the Church over the Book of Abraham is laid at least in part at the feet of the Church for teaching that Joseph actually translated the Book of Abraham through the power of God. The “translation” is not valid as those with “simplistic” testimonies had unwisely expected. Hauglid and Jensen seem to see the “translation” as Joseph’s (failed) human toying with the Egyptian on the Joseph Smith Papyri — there is no mention of other possibilities that many other LDS scholars have discussed at length, no mention of the clear evidences that something other than fraud and guesswork is behind the text, but an apparent acknowledgement that the critics have been right all along about the Book of Abraham, echoing Hauglid’s agreement with Dan Vogel.

Unlike JSPRT Vol. 4, Nibley is mentioned in the podcast, but only to dismiss his arguments regarding the possibility of translation from a missing scroll and his views on the KEP coming after the translation. The basis for the editors’ belief that they have largely “overturned” Nibley’s views is that they can see bits and pieces of the Book of Abraham translation, as if the Book of Abraham later worked out those concepts more fully. But that’s a subjective view. Why aren’t not the bits and pieces of Book of Abraham concepts found in the KEP point to derivation from the Book of Abraham?

They argue that since Joseph’s history speaks of work on the Egyptian alphabet, whatever that was (we don’t know that it was the same as the extant manuscripts – an assumption is involved in the editor’s argument), around the same time as the translation, that it was a concurrent process and that the alphabet was therefore used somehow in the translation, but that process could easily involve periods of revelatory translation followed by personal attempts to understand Egyptian and crack the code. There is no new evidence presented here that overturns the reasons offered by Nibley and others for the KEP to be a derivative work based on translated material.

Both editors call for a more mature “nuanced” approach, which seems to mean that as Joseph evolved over time, he injected his theological views into the framework of a fictional Book of Abraham from a failed but perhaps sincerely attempted “translation” of papyri that he could not understand. So to understand the Book of Abraham, we don’t need to look to antiquity, to ancient literature about Abraham, or to what Egyptian priests may have known and written about Abraham, but we should only turn to the nineteenth century and consider how Joseph perceived the papyri in his nineteenth century setting, the only context which determined the fruits of his work:
JENSEN: Yep. Intellectually you want to divide them. You want to say “well the papyri, that’s one thing. The nineteenth century setting, that’s another thing. They’re not together.” In some senses that is true. But in another way, we have to understand how Joseph Smith and others viewed the papyri, viewed them in their nineteenth century context, without trying to take on our own understanding. There’s been a lot of work in Egyptology since Joseph Smith’s day, obviously.

HODGES: I would say the vast majority of usable work has been.

JENSEN: So it’s very tempting to say “well, Joseph Smith didn’t know what he was talking about. Oliver Cowdery, Phelps, others, they were naive in thinking they could even make sense of this,” but for Joseph and his contemporaries this was a real effort. This was a real attempt to understand these papyri for what they were, what they could offer them, and what they could teach about the universality of human nature.

HAUGLID: Yes. That’s kind of where I was going to go. You have really a first response to all this Egyptomania stuff going on with all these papyri fragments and such coming in. We’re seeing Joseph Smith as one of those first responders in a sense to this material coming into their possession, and what they’re making of it is sometimes, for us we might say it’s off, it’s not Egyptology at all, and that’s okay, but just the fact that how they responded to it tells us things. It helps us understand where they’re coming from and this Egyptian material triggers that for us. So we get kind of a close-up view in a sense.

JENSEN: I also often tell people that Joseph Smith and other’s work in understanding, trying to decipher these papyri, tells us more about their own worldview than it does about the ancient world.
So in light of the apparent problems the editors emphasize, it’s “tempting to say Joseph was a fraud,” but he was really trying, rather sincerely, in “a real effort.”
This nuanced approach not only makes the translation of the Book of Abraham a pious fraud, but raises obvious questions about Joseph’s translation of the reformed Egyptian that yielded the Book of Mormon. We don’t even get the reassurance that since there are compelling reasons to accept the Book of Mormon as a legitimate translation of an ancient document through the power of God, then perhaps our approach to the challenges of the Book of Abraham should be given enough “nuancing” to recognize that there may be answers to the challenges it seems to face based on the “simplistic” assumptions used by critics.

Ironically, the dangerously “simplistic” approach that can cause so much harm is not that of believing Joseph could give revealed translations of ancient documents through the power of God, but it the overly simplistic approach taken by the critics: “the only papyri Joseph attempted to translated are the surviving fragments,” “no missing scrolls can account for anything,” “these twin documents from two scribes mean Joseph was dictating the translation live from these few Egyptian characters,” “the GAEL is the source of the translation,” etc. Hauglid and Jensen tend to lend credibility to those perspectives in their podcast, their Maxwell Institute seminar, and in their editorial work for JSPRT Vol. 4, and have excluded significant and well considered alternate possibilities, even going so far as to avoid any mention of some of the most important scholarship and scholars related to their work (e.g., a complete neglect of Hugh Nibley in JSPRT Vol. 4). This is not balanced scholarship, but, even if purely unintentional as it likely is, it reflects a biased and perhaps harmful perspective.

The issue of the twin Book of Abraham manuscripts by Frederick Williams and Warren Parrish is particularly concerning in the podcast. The hypothesis that Joseph Smith is dictating the Book of Abraham translation live to his scribes, based on “Egyptian” characters from the papyri in the margins (some of which are not Egyptian and not from the papyri at all!) is an old one from our critics, but is raised in response to Hodges’ question, “Did the Joseph Smith Papers research team uncover anything new that was previously unknown about these documents while putting this book together?” The contribution of the authors on this issue was realizing that the scribes were writing on paper from a common source, but the textual evidence of simultaneous work is already clear. The issue, though, is what was occurring in this process. Was it really dictation from Joseph Smith giving original translation?
JENSEN: So what we have is pretty compelling evidence that they’re there at the same time using the same piece of paper, creating this text, the Book of Abraham, that gives us a new appreciation to the dictation process. Usually when we hear about Joseph Smith dictating, it’s him dictating to one singular scribe. So it’s interesting to imagine to try to reconstruct what that would look like with Joseph Smith dictating to multiple clerks.

HAUGLID: It’s interesting that we’re now talking about this when years and years ago Ed Ashment proposed the same thing. It created a firestorm of rejection amongst our LDS scholars, but now here we are talking about this and agreeing with Ed Ashment.

HODGES: About having multiple clerks in particular at the same time?

HAUGLID: Receiving dictation, yeah.

HODGES: Why was that so controversial?

JENSEN: I have no idea.

HAUGLID: Probably because it was Ed Ashment that proposed it. [laughter]
Simultaneous writing, yes, but what is the evidence that they were “creating” the Book of Abraham in that moment? That is the argument of the critics, but one that is based on assumptions, not evidence. In fact, as I have previously reported, analysis of the text suggests that the most plausible scenario for this document is that Warren Parrish was reading from an existing manuscript until he ceased and probably left, at which time the other scribe began copying directly by himself and then committed a major scribal error known as dittography (copying three verses a second time by mistake, an error typical of copying visually but unlikely for oral dictation).

The twin documents and their interpretation is at the heart of some modern attacks on the Book of Abraham. It is a pivotal issue that Dan Vogel uses to undermine acceptance of the Book of Abraham as revealed text, one that has weakened the “simplistic” testimonies of many unprepared to see past the gaps in the argument.

Why is this controversial? Our editors say they have no idea. Could it be because if their assumptions are valid, it suggests that Joseph Smith was giving live translation for a handful of characters, translation apparently derived from the characters in the margins rather than characters being added by the scribes to an already existing translation (for reasons that aren’t clear).

This scenario is controversial because it suggests that we do in fact have the very characters that Joseph was translating (no mention, again, is made of the fact that several of these characters are not even Egyptian), that the Joseph Smith Papyri were the source of Joseph’s translation work, that he foolishly thought that one character could give over 100 words of translation, and that what the Church considers to be a revealed translation is idiotic and inept, with nothing of any value (although some faithful LDS people may see and value inspiring doctrines in a fictional framework). The inability of the editors to understand why their position is controversial and potentially harmful is deeply puzzling. But it’s consistent with the tone of their previous webinar, rich in presenting warts without first aid. For those who feel that Joseph translated the Book of Abraham with divine power from an ancient document of some kind, such unbalanced and overly simplistic negative information can be harmful.

It is true that the issues are complex, that warts exist, and that nuance is needed, but not the nuance that says, “The critics were right. The Church was wrong. But Joseph had some inspiring ideas in his fiction and it's cool to see how his evolving beliefs and ninetenth-century environment shaped the beleaguered Pearl of Great Price.” We need to strengthen our awareness of the other side of the story, of the positives around the Book of Abraham and the evidences of antiquity, to help those who struggle to have the balanced information needed to have a healthier, more nuanced testimony. “Friendly fire” that zealously overlooks, denies, or even decries the existence of “first aid” (i.e., "abhorrent" apologetics) is not the solution.

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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