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CES Reply: The Book of Abraham (Part II – with a musical twist!)

The following is a side-by-side comparison of what Joseph Smith translated in Facsimile 1 versus what it actually says according to Egyptologists and modern Egyptology:

abe 3Ah, we meet again, MormonInfographics.com. This is the same outfit that thinks it’s a scandal that Joseph Smith couldn’t choose between the words “light” and “fire,” or that a nine-word reference to the First Vision needs to include every element found in the Pearl of Great Price version in order to be accurate. I don’t understand why you discount everything “unofficial apologists” have to say because they’re supposedly too biased to be credible, yet you accept nonsense like this without qualification because it comes from people who are critical of the church, which means they must be objective.

Do you really think that bias is a ratchet that only goes one way?

Okay, fine, never mind. Let’s wrestle with this latest goodie from our Infographical pals. To do so, we need to start out by admitting where all of us fall short. I’m not an Egyptologist, and neither are you. And neither, I might add, are the good people at MormonInfoGraphics.com. So who provides your authoritative “Modern Egyptological Interpretation” that makes its way into the graphic that provides the foundation of your argument?

The answer can be found in the link in the bottom left-hand corner of the graphic. There we find this link – http://bookofabraham.com/boamathie/BOA_6.html – which leads us to a piece on the subject by someone named Kevin Mathie. And who is Kevin Mathie? Is he an Egyptological authority upon whom we can readily rely? I visited his website to find out, and here’s what I found…

Abe 4Mathie’s Egyptological qualifications, as per his website:

Kevin Mathie is a professional composer, music director, and pianist who has more than 25 years’ experience working in the music industry. He specializes in orchestral and hybrid orchestral music (i.e., orchestral music combined with electronic instruments such as synths and guitar). 

His compositions have been featured on the television network SHOWTIME®, and have also been used in film, television, radio, and live theater. During his career, he has also led more than 100+ musical productions, and received numerous awards for his work, including:

Best Behind-the-Scenes Musical Theater MVPs (i.e., Most Valuable Player, 2013) – Salt Lake City Weekly’s 2013 Arty Award

Best Musical Score (2014) – Las Vegas 48-Hour Film Project, for the film Enthusiasm

Best Musical Score (2009) – Salt Lake City 48-Hour Film Project, for the film, S.H.A.T.

Kevin is currently the music director and arranger for Salt Lake Acting Company’s popular annual production of Saturday’s Voyeur, and also regularly composes for and performs at several other theaters. He is a member of both ASCAP and the Dramatists Guild of America.

Unlike your previous impeccable scholarly source Brad Kirkland, however, Kevin Mathie has apparently spent no time involved in productions that feature killer tomatoes.

So what on earth makes his opinion on this subject any more valuable than my own? After all, I have a prestigious BFA in Theatre from the University of Southern California, which was recently established to be the most expensive university in the country.  I have been active in the theatre for over four decades. I have at least as much musical theatre experience as Mr. Mathie does. I’ve even played Harold Hill in The Music Man – twice! By your standards, that makes me at least as authoritative an Egyptologist as Mathie, yes?

So, having burnished my Egyptological credentials, let me tell demonstrate why even a cursory review of the so-called “Modern Egyptological Interpretation” reveals it to be useless.

The problem is that you’re conflating art with text, as if both impart information in the same manner and with the same restraints. They don’t. The reason they say that “a picture is worth a thousand words” is that it takes at least a thousand words to textually describe an image, and even then, words are inadequate to the task.

For instance, take Kevin Mathie’s splash page, pictured above. Without actually providing the image, I can tell you that it features a large fellow with a beard seated at a grand piano on top of a mountain, with a host of other mountains in the background. He is surrounding by flying musical instruments, including a violin with wings, as well as sheet music that appears to be blown around by the high mountain air.

Now is that an accurate description? I think so. Is it a comprehensive description? By no means. There are a lot of elements left out – the musical score that seems to be following one of the violins, for example. And my description of the sheet music, while technically accurate, is obviously not how Mathie intended it to be interpreted. The music looks like it’s just blowing everywhere, but I get the sense that this is a visual representation of how music is supposed to sound. Like the historically inaccurate church art we reviewed earlier, he’s using iconography to emotionally convey a number of different ideas and feelings, and each element in the picture is fraught with symbolism that is subject to multiple interpretations.

Now suppose I were to ask you to “translate” Mathie’s picture into ancient Egyptian. Does the flying violin represent the beauty of music, or its ability to transcend space and time, or Mathie’s personal talent, or music’s innate spirituality? I think a case can be made for all those things. Does each image within the larger image have a single, static interpretation the way words do? Of course not.

So back to non-Egyptologist/Saturday’s Voyeur songwriter Kevin’s Mathie’s official “Modern Egyptological Interpretation.”  Let’s start at the end and see where that takes us.

Joseph Smith’s explanation of Item #12 is lengthy and involved, but Mathie assures us that “This is just the water that the crocodile swims in.” Um, okay. Why is there a crocodile in the first place? Why did the artist put water with a crocodile under a picture of a human sacrifice? This would be like looking at the winged violin in the Mathie splash page and interpreting the wings as “just the wings the violin uses to fly.” Well, yes. But why is the violin flying? Violins don’t generally fly – shouldn’t we assume some deeper symbolism there? By the same token, crocodiles swimming in bodies of water can’t usually be found underneath people lying on couches. Insisting that there is one, and only one interpretation of any of these images is something a real, non-musical theatre Egyptologist would likely reject.

Similarly, in items 5-8, Joseph provides detailed explanations for the jars under the couch, but Mathie insists these are only “Canopic jars containing the deceased’s internal organs.” That’s simply wrong on its face. In the first place, the guy on the couch clearly isn’t deceased. He’s raising his leg and waving his arm, which, as Nibley points out, indicates that this guy ain’t dead yet. That makes him completely different from the other images you provide, all of which are clearly King Tut-esque mummies with no movement at all. The lazy Mathie interpretation is predicated on the false premise that this is a corpse like all the other corpses in other pictures, while this picture is showing us something else entirely.

Also, why do these canopic jars have animal heads? What’s the significance of one being an eagle and one being a jackal, etc.? Are we to presume that there’s no way they could represent false gods, the way Joseph says they do? (Isn’t Anubis a false god? Doesn’t he have a jackal’s head?) Are we simply to assume this is just like the crocodile water, which is only crocodile water? Is there no other way to interpret a flying violin with wings as anything other than an actual flying violin?

This is what happens when you argue from authority, especially when the authority you’re invoking doesn’t really exist. The implication of the graphic is that this is an explanation providing by actual Egyptologists, when it’s actually provided by a musical theatre aficionado combing through articles he doesn’t understand and cherry-picking explanations he likes. There is no actual repudiation of the Book of Abraham by non-Mormon Egyptologists, because, frankly, they don’t care enough about the issue to pay any attention to it. To argue, then, as you seem to be arguing, that there has been a deliberate and definitive debunking of the Book of Abraham’s claims by contemporary Egyptologists is to overstate your case considerably.

People who dive into the Egyptological elements of the Book of Abraham tend to be Mormons, because the Mormons are the only ones who care. But no matter how cogent or brilliant these Mormons may be, you can just label them “unofficial apologists” and nonchalantly toss out everything they say without consideration, all the while placing your complete Egyptological confidence in the guy who won Salt Lake City Weekly’s 2013 Arty Award for Behind-the-Scenes Musical Theatre MVP. I don’t think that places you in an intellectual position of strength.

And it should be noted that there are, in fact, well-educated Mormon Egyptologists, trained outside of Brigham Young University, who do not view the facsimiles as problematic. In fact, they believe there are striking correlations between the facsimiles and the Book of Abraham with Egyptology and apocryphal Abrahamic traditions. If anyone’s interested in diving down that rabbit hole, they’re welcome to do so – here might be a good place to start. I’m not going to review the arguments they make, as I’m no more qualified to authoritatively evaluate them than either you or Kevin Mathie, but I think it appropriate to point out that there are serious and significant scholars making such arguments, and that calling them names or pretending they aren’t there isn’t the same thing as discrediting them.

Figure #3 is supposed to be the jackal-headed Egyptian god of mummification and afterlife, Anubis; not a human.

By that reasoning, Figure #4 is “supposed to be” a King Tut-like mummy, but he’s not. If one of these figures is clearly not what he’s “supposed to be,” why should we expect the expected from the other figure?

The following images show similar funerary scenes which have been discovered elsewhere in Egypt. Notice that the jackal-headed Egyptian god of death and afterlife Anubis is consistent in every funerary scene.

abe 5 Also notice that the figure on the couch, while consistent across all four of these examples, is entirely inconsistent with the figure on the couch in Facsimile #1. The extant version of this scene found in the Joseph Smith Papyrus repudiates your contention that this is just a commonplace image, as all of the comparisons you provide confirm Facsimile #1’s uniqueness.

Facsimile 2:

The following is a side-by-side comparison of what Joseph Smith translated in Facsimile 2 versus what it actually says according to Egyptologists and modern Egyptology:

Abe facs 2

And there’s the link in the left-hand corner of the graphic– it seems Kevin Mathie strikes again. All the problems I referenced with regard to our musical non-Egyptologist’s interpretation of Facsimile #1 apply here, too, as does the error of equating art with text as having a single, conclusive, and exclusive interpretation.

Also, were you just going ignore that Joseph Smith and Kevin Mathie both interpret item #6 in almost exactly the same way? How is that possible that Joseph Smith hit a bullseye so clearly that not even a hostile critic like Kevin Mathie can pretend otherwise?

A lot more going on here than either of us understand, and you’re placing far too much confidence in authorities who really don’t have the answers you think they have.

One of the most disturbing facts I discovered in my research of Facsimile 2 is figure #7. Joseph Smith said that this is “God sitting on his throne…” It’s actually Min, the pagan Egyptian god of fertility or sex. Min is sitting on a throne with an erect penis (which can be seen in the figure). In other words, Joseph Smith is saying that this figure with an erect penis is Heavenly Father sitting on His throne.

Sorry to crack a smile, but I don’t think this is a “disturbing fact;” I think it’s a delightful one. An aversion to acknowledging the existence of genitalia is more puritanical than doctrinal, and Mormons who believe in an anthropomorphic deity ought not be surprised to learn that such a god would be anatomically correct. Egyptian mores were clearly different from the Victorian ones that still linger in LDS Church culture, and I see this as nothing more than an (admittedly crude by today’s standards) acknowledgement that God has a body. (Although there’s also some debate over whether or not that’s a penis or an arm. Actually, I’m not sure which part is supposed to be the arm/penis. As far as pornography goes, this is pretty tame stuff.)

Regardless, Egyptologists and Joseph Smith both acknowledge here we have an anthropomorphic god on a throne. Joseph Smith says it’s God the Father; flying violinist Kevin Mathie cribs from Egyptologists and announces that it’s Min. Understanding that art can have multiple interpretations, it could easily be both. In any case, it’s pretty uncanny that both would see it as a god on a throne, because to my untrained eye, it looks like a goose running with a wooden crate on its back.

I think the great deal of the problems you have with the Book of Abraham originate from a false dichotomy – either everything Joseph Smith had to say about the facsimiles and the extant papyrus text can be objectively verified by modern academics, or the Book of Abraham is a complete fraud. But reality doesn’t fit into either of those categories very well. If Joseph is a complete fraud, why does he rightly recognize a god on a throne in an image that looks like a goose with a wooden crate? Why does he identify images that represent “the four corners of the earth” that Egyptologists agree is correct? How is it that his Abraham is consistent with apocryphal Abrahamic writings that weren’t published until after Joseph’s death? Yet, on the flip side, why would he make so many other interpretations of the material that no Egyptologist recognizes?

Personally, my answer is one rooted in a broader context – the idea of myths and symbols being appropriated and modified by different cultures for different purposes, especially over vast periods of time. Prior to World War II, the gammadion cross appeared on American military airplanes, and it was also a common symbol of peace and industry in Japan and among Native Americans. But since Hitler got ahold of it and made it the icon of the Third Reich, the gammadion cross, aka the swastika, now has an entirely different meaning and association that has swallowed up all non-fascistic interpretations forever.

If one assumes that Abraham wrote “on papyrus, by his own hand” the material Joseph used to translate the book that bears his name, one also has to assume that the handwriting took place at least two thousand years before the copyist who put on the Joseph Smith Papyri got ahold of it. Two thousand years is a very, very long time. What kind of additional or extraneous meanings would cultures have attached to those symbols in the interim, symbols which were ancient even in the time of the Pharaohs? It would be the most natural thing in the world for a culture to appropriate the inherent power of an ancient symbol to graft an icon of a false god onto the icon of a true one. (And maybe, just maybe, they added a penis because they were feeling naughty.)

I took a class in Intellectual Traditions of the West at the University of Utah back in 1990, where a teacher insisted that Jesus must have been a myth because his “hero’s journey” can be found in all kinds of disparate mythological traditions that preceded Christianity by hundreds or even thousands of years. This was also the position of famed Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, who I consider to be entirely official and an honorary Mormon. Lewis’s youthful atheism was rooted in similar arguments.

I quote now from the Lewis biography “The Narnian,” written by Alan Jacobs, citation from page 48:

A different case against God, or at least against Christianity, is provided by The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer’s massive, multivolume study of ancient religious practices in Europe and the Middle East… Frazer’s exploration of “dying-god myths” – along with other common religious practices that, Frazer argued, emerged from the cycle of the seasons – convinced many intellectuals that Christianity was a late, unoriginal, and not especially appealing version of an archaic religious habit… young Jack [aka C.S.]Lewis took Frazer’s argument for granted…[that] spiritual experience was only religion, religion was only myth, and myth was only an intellectual formulation of agricultural cultures’ need to adapt themselves to, and give meaning to, the changes of the seasons and the unpredictability of weather. Jesus Christ, Osiris, even Balder the Beautiful – they were all articulations of one of the basic features of material existence: that at one time of the year things come to life, and at another they sink into the earth.

Lewis later rejected this idea and devoted a great deal of his life to actively refuting it. He called the story of Christ “a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with tremendous difference [in] that it really happened.” [Emphasis in original.] He concluded that “the Pagan stories are God expressing himself through the minds of poets.” The poets are echoing the truth of God in their stories, but “Christianity is God expressing himself through ‘real things.’” [The Narnian, p. 149]

Mormon theology allows us to take Lewis’s theory several steps further. We believe that the gospel of Christ was taught to Adam and has been part of the human family since the beginning of time. If that’s the case, then echoes of that story would have diffused into every culture and every civilization. Like a game of telephone, where children whisper a sentence into the ear of their neighbor through several iterations until the final sentence bears little resemblance to what was originally said, one should expect elements of truth to be mingled with myths that are passed down even through periods of apostasy. The fact that, say, the Legend of Gilgamesh has so many parallels with the story of Noah suggests that a true story was changed and embellished by the artistic license of the ancients.

So back to the Book of Abraham. If Abraham wrote his account “by his own hand” several millennia ago, and that account were to be passed down among Egyptian scribes for thousands of years, it would be unavoidable that scribes would borrow themes and symbols from the original story as they fashioned their own myths and legends. What seems likely to me is that whatever text and artwork was on the papyrus contained some kind of mixture of both truth and embellishment, and Joseph, via revelation, was able to extract the divine gold buried under the man-made dross. That would also mean that both Joseph and the Egyptologists are correct at the same time – the figure with the phallus represented Min, but thousands of years earlier, it represented God the Father, yet that interpretation was later modified and lost until Joseph the Seer was able to find it again.

That explanation, which does not tidily fit into the box of one of the three possible explanations I previously offered for the Book of Abraham, is the one that best matches the existing evidence. It’s why the Book of Abraham contains correct information and interpretations that Joseph couldn’t possibly have guessed by accident, but it also contains material that doesn’t jibe with a Saturday’s Voyeur’s “Modern Egyptological Interpretation.” I know the ambiguity troubles you, but honest academics are forced to acknowledge and accept that kind of uncertainty. No responsible scholar would ever claim that modern scholarship allows us to perfectly and definitively understand the ancient world.

Tomorrow: Even more Abraham!

 

CES Reply: The Book of Abraham (Part I)
CES Reply: Even More Abraham!

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