in Religion

CES Reply: The Abrahamic Finale

Continuing my reply to Jeremy Runnell’s “Letter to a CES Director,” with Jeremy’s original words in green:

8. There’s a book published in 1830 by Thomas Dick entitled The Philosophy of the Future State.

1830. A very good year, indeed. Same year, in fact, that the Church was organized and the Book of Mormon was published. Joseph was already pretty far down the road with Mormon theology by this point, so this book couldn’t have been included in all the stuff he supposedly plagiarized to write the Book of Mormon. Maybe this made for a bit of light reading after he was poring through View of the Hebrews, The Late War between the United States and Great Britain, The First Book of Napolean, oodles of Captain Kidd stories, and dozens of obscure local and African maps.

But, okay, here we go. One more accusation of plagiarism. Excuse me for not being staggered, floored, or astounded. You can only cry wolf so many times.

Joseph Smith owned a copy of the book and Oliver Cowdery quoted some lengthy excerpts from the book in the December 1836 Messenger and Advocate.

Indeed! And Oliver participated in the Book of Abraham translation process. Why would a plagiarist call attention to his source? A source which, just by reading the excerpt to which you link, clearly bears no textual resemblance to the Book of Abraham at all?

Klaus Hansen, an LDS scholar, stated:

Klaus Hansen? Am I supposed to know who he is? Why is it that the only LDS scholars you respect are those who agree with you, while those who disagree are just “unofficial apologists?”

But OK. What did the good Mr. Hansen state?

“The progressive aspect of Joseph’s theology, as well as its cosmology, while in a general way compatible with antebellum thought, bears some remarkable resemblances to Thomas Dick’s ‘Philosophy of a Future State’.”

That may be why Oliver chose to quote from him. I quote from C.S. Lewis on my blog all the time, because I’m thrilled to find a non-Mormon writer advancing what seem, to me, to be some very remarkable resemblances to Mormon ideas. To my knowledge, no one has accused me of plagiarism as a result, nor should it surprise us when people from different backgrounds arrive at similar philosophical conclusions. Because that’s what we’re talking about here – ideas that Thomas Dick had that bear some similarity to ideas in the Book of Abraham. Clearly none of Dick’s text can be found in the B of A, so insinuations of plagiarism are pretty silly.

Hansen continues:

“Some very striking parallels to Smith’s theology suggest that the similarities between the two may be more than coincidental. Dick’s lengthy book, an ambitious treatise on astronomy and metaphysics, proposed the idea that matter is eternal and indestructible…

Correct.

… and rejected the notion of a creation ex nihilo.

Incorrect.

“None but that Eternal Mind which counts the number of the stars, which called them from nothing into existence, and arranged them in the respective stations they occupy, and whose

eyes run to and fro through the unlimited extent of creation, can form a clear and comprehensive conception of the number, the order, and the economy of this vast portion of the system of nature.” [Emphasis added]

– Thomas Dick, Philosophy of a Future State, pp. 206-207.

Calling things from “nothing into existence” is the very definition of ex nihilo creation, which Dick clearly accepts and the Book of Abraham explicitly rejects. Mr. Dick has a bunch of other ideas that fly in the face of Mormon theology. His God is “a spiritual uncompounded substance, having no visible form, nor sensible quantities, ‘inhabiting eternity,’ and filling immensity with his presence, his essential glory cannot form an object for the direct contemplation of any finite intelligence.” (p.202) This deity also “existed alone, independent of every other being” for “[i]nnumerable ages before the universe was created.” (p. 56)

That’s about as un-Mormon – and un-Book of Abraham – as a God can possibly be.

Much of the book dealt with the infinity of the universe, made up of innumerable stars spread out over immeasurable distances. Dick speculated that many of these stars were peopled by “various orders of intelligences” and that these intelligences were “progressive beings” in various stages of evolution toward perfection.

Those, apparently, are the parts of the book that Oliver liked, which is why he quoted from them in the Messenger and Advocate. Like you, he apparently prefers to quote scholars when they agree with him.

In the Book of Abraham, part of which consists of a treatise on astronomy and cosmology, eternal beings of various orders and stages of development likewise populate numerous stars. They, too, are called “intelligences.”

Same name, yes, but with entirely different functions. Dick’s divine intelligence is completely and forever removed from every other intelligence, all of which is far too limited and weak to ever understand the Eternal Mind. Abraham 3, where God steps into the midst of intelligences and proclaims “These I shall make my rulers” is antithetical to Dick’s conception of deity.

Dick speculated that “the systems of the universe revolve around a common centre…the throne of God.” In the Book of Abraham, one star named Kolob “was nearest unto the throne of God.”

“Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple: and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them.” – Revelation 7:15

“And he that shall swear by heaven, sweareth by the throne of God, and by him that sitteth thereon.” – Matthew 23:22

“Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.” – Hebrews 12:2

Emphasis added in all above biblical passages. There are plenty more. The “throne of God” even makes several appearances in the Book of Mormon, which was published before Joseph got his hands on Philosophy of a Future State. Incredible as it may seem, this is proof that Joseph could have thought of using this three-word phrase without Thomas Dick’s help.

Other stars, in ever diminishing order, were placed in increasing distances from this center.” – Mormonism and the American Experience, Klaus Hansen, p.79-80, 110

I’d very much like to read the rest of this passage from Klaus Hansen, as the few articles I can find of his suggest that he’s a faithful Latter-day Saint. I don’t have a copy of his book, and the text is unavailable online. It would be interesting to see if these observations are tempered by a broader context that you neglect to cite, as I suspect they probably are.

9. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland was directly asked about the papyri not matching the Book of Abraham in a March 2012 BBC interview:

Sweeney: Mr. Smith got this papyri and he translated them and subsequently as the Egyptologists cracked the code something completely different…

Holland: (Interrupts) All I’m saying…all I’m saying is that what got translated got translated into the word of God. The vehicle for that, I do not understand and don’t claim to know and know no Egyptian.

Is “I don’t know and I don’t understand but it’s the word of God” really the best answer that a “prophet, seer, and revelator” can come up with to such a profound problem that is driving many members out of the Church?

Is paraphrasing Elder Holland to torture his words into sounding more ignorant than they actually were really the best way to make your argument?

Elder Holland didn’t say “I don’t know and I don’t understand but it’s the word of God.” What he said was that he didn’t understand “the vehicle for that,” meaning the means of translation, and that he didn’t know Egyptian. If you actually watched the documentary, which I did at the time, you’d recognize that Sweeney was about as obnoxious to Elder Holland as he could have possibly been. Elder Holland’s patience and grace under hostile fire was impressive by any objective standard.

This may be a tangent, but that documentary merits additional comment. Throughout the piece John Sweeney gets all the simple details wrong. For example, he constantly refers to chapels as temples; yet when he stands outside the Boston Temple, he claims Mitt Romney was “a bishop here.” Well, no. As any Mormon knows, regular meetinghouses and temples serve very different purposes. If someone’s going to warn the world about Mitt’s scary cult, which was the purpose of the piece, maybe they should get the little things right if they want us to trust the, on the big things.

It’s clear who Sweeney trusts, though – dissidents. He spends about twenty minutes interviewing modern polygamists who have zero connection to the church to which Mitt Romney belongs, and then another twenty or so interviewing unstable people who’ve left the church, one of whom claims to have been “followed,” although whether or not it was the church that was following him, he can’t be sure. Sweeney makes one offhand comment that the vast majority of the people who knew Mitt as a bishop really liked and respected him, but that comment comes before a lengthy interview with the one woman who didn’t.

That’s the approach. If you hate the Mormons, then you’re honest and credible. If you like them, then you’re hiding something.

Sound familiar, Jeremy?

At one point in Sweeney’s piece, some wackadoodle, random hairy dude claims that Mormon spies are trained by the CIA to learn how to snoop on church members’ private lives. Sweeney then cuts to a spooky shot of the Church Office Building and scarily intones that he has contacted a CIA agent “who refuses to reveal his name.” This CIA wannabe Deep Throat confirms… that the CIA does, in fact, employ Mormons. That’s it. That’s the smoking gun evidence of some secret Mormon spy network. No word if Lutherans who work for the CIA are also being trained to spy on parishioners.

After giving full hearing to reports by the angriest people imaginable about all the horrors of Mormonism, he then ambushes Elder Holland and asks him to deny these horrors, which he does, after which Sweeney presents some variation of “Oh, sure, Elder Holland. You may claim that you don’t follow people and shun people and cut them out of their families, but I’ve found thirty people” – Sweeney’s own, admitted number – “who beg to differ.”

That’s the tone of this piece – thirty loopy, ex-Mormon cranks vs. the entire faithful membership of the LDS Church, the whole of which gets about a fifth of the total screen time.

But you’re right – as he was being badgered by a hostile interviewer who was unwilling to give him time to respond, Elder Holland did not provide a comprehensive understanding of the Book of Abraham in the five seconds he was allotted before the next question. Or perhaps he did go on at length, and Sweeney left it on the cutting room floor. Making Elder Holland look good was not on John Sweeney’s agenda.

The following are respected Egyptian scholars/Egyptologists statements regarding Joseph Smith and the Book of Abraham:

“…these three facsimiles of Egyptian documents in the Pearl of Great Price depict the most common objects in the Mortuary religion of Egypt. Joseph Smith’s interpretations of them as part of a unique revelation through Abraham, therefore, very clearly demonstrates that he was totally unacquainted with the significance of these documents and absolutely ignorant of the simplest facts of Egyptian writing and civilization.”

– Dr. James H. Breasted, University of Chicago

“It may be safely said that there is not one single word that is true in these explanations…” – Dr. W.M. Flinders Petrie, London University

“It is difficult to deal seriously with Joseph Smith’s impudent fraud…Smith has turned the goddess [Isis in Facsimile #3] into a king and Osiris into Abraham.”

– Dr. A.H. Sayce, Oxford professor of Egyptology

Man. You left all the big guns for the end, didn’t you? If you had all these respected Egyptian scholars in your back pocket, why did you keep trotting out the guy who wrote Saturday’s Voyeur to make your case?

I’d like to see what else Dr. James H. Breasted has to say on the subject. Is he still teaching at the University of Chicago? No, he isn’t, probably because he’s been dead for over eighty years. Same with A.H. Sayce. Flinders Petrie is the kid of the group – he died in 1942. All these statements were made over a hundred years ago in the service of an anti-Mormon tract published by Franklin Spalding, an Episcopal bishop. All of them would have believed Egyptological ideas that modern scholars would now reject, based on the most current research available. Certainly all of them precede the flood of Book of Abraham scholarship that has taken place since the Joseph Smith Papyri were discovered in 1967.

Hugh Nibley, who I quote in fire red again, absolutely destroys these guys.

At that time it was claimed that the pronouncements of five of the greatest scholars of all time had “completely demolished” all grounds for belief in the divine inspiration or historic authenticity of the Book of Abraham and, through it, the Book of Mormon. It turned out, however, that Bishop Franklin S. Spalding, in gathering and manipulating the necessary evidence for his determined and devious campaign, had (1) disqualified the Mormons from all participation in the discussion on the grounds that they were not professional Egyptologists; (2) sent special warnings and instructions to his experts that made it impossible for any of them to decide for Joseph Smith; (3) concealed all correspondence that did not support the verdict he desired; (4) given the learned jury to understand that the original Egyptian manuscripts were available, which they were not; (5) said that Mormons claimed them to be the unique autobiographic writings and sketching of Abraham, which they did not; (6) announced to the world that Joseph Smith was being tested on linguistic grounds alone, specifically as a translator, though none of his experts ventured to translate a single word of the documents submitted; and (7) rested his case on the “complete agreement” of the scholars, who agreed on nothing save that the Book of Abraham was a hoax.

The experts (1) did not agree among themselves at all when they spoke without collusion; (2) with the exception of James H. Breasted, they wrote only brief and contemptuous notes, though it was claimed that they had given the documents “careful consideration”; (3) they admitted that they were hasty and ill-tempered, since they at no time considered anything of Joseph Smith’s worth any serious attention at all; (4) they translated nothing and produced none of the “identical” documents, which, according to them, were available in countless numbers and proved Joseph Smith’s interpretations a fraud. They should have done much better than they did since they had everything their own way, being free to choose for interpretation and comment whatever was easiest and most obvious, and to pass by in complete silence the many formidable problems presented by the three facsimiles. Those Mormons who ventured a few polite and diffident questions about the consistency of the criticisms or the completeness of the evidence instantly called down upon their heads the Jovian bolts of the New York Times, accusing them of “reviling scholars and scholarship.” A safer setup for the critics of Joseph Smith could not be imagined. And yet it was they and not the Mormons who insisted on calling off the whole show just when it was getting interesting. It was not a very edifying performance.

– From “A New Look at the History of the Pearl of Great Price” published in The Improvement Era, May, 1970.

Yeah, maybe the flying violin dude was your best bet after all.

The Church conceded in its July 2014 Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham essay that Joseph’s translations of the papyri and the facsimiles do not match what’s in the Book of Abraham.

Wrong. The Church announced to the world that the papyri did not match what’s in the Book of Abraham two months after the papyri were found.

From the cover story of the January 1968 edition of The Improvement Era

Some of the pieces of papyrus apparently include conventional hieroglyphics (sacred inscriptions, resembling picture-drawing) and hieratic (a cursive shorthand version of hieroglyphics) Egyptian funerary texts, which were commonly buried with Egyptian mummies. Often the funerary texts contained passages from the “Book of the Dead,” a book that was to assist in the safe passage of the dead person into the spirit world. It is not known at this time whether the ten other pieces of papyri have a direct connection with the Book of Abraham.

Emphasis added.

Since that time, there have been countless admissions that the text of the JS Papyri does not match the text of the Book of Abraham. I remember reading this article on my mission – “Why doesn’t the translation of the Egyptian papyri found in 1967 match the text of the Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price?” It was published in the July 1988 edition of the Ensign. Your statement implies that the Church only first “conceded” these facts in 2014, which is demonstrably false. There has never been any attempt by the Church to claim that the Joseph Smith Papyri contains the text of the Book of Abraham. It is patently dishonest to suggest otherwise.

Of all of the issues, the Book of Abraham is the issue that has both fascinated and disturbed me the most. It is the issue that I’ve spent the most time researching on because it offers a real insight into Joseph’s modus operandi as well as Joseph’s claim of being a translator. It is the smoking gun that has completely obliterated my testimony of Joseph Smith and his claims.

This makes me very sad, indeed. It is always a tragedy when someone loses their faith, but I consider it especially tragic when someone’s testimony is obliterated because of misunderstandings, bad information, and logically fallacious assumptions like the kind you present in your letter. The gun is smoking because you have unwittingly shot yourself in the foot.

Tomorrow: Polygamy!

CES Reply: Even More Abraham!
CES Reply: Polygamy (Part I)

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  1. Thanks for taking the time to do all this. It’s definitely something I’ll direct others too when they have questions about the topics mentioned in CES letter