Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Article by Stephen O. Smoot in Interpreter

This turned out to be a very good article by Stephen O. Smoot.   It is not often that I can agree wholeheartedly with everything in an article put out by either FAIRMormon (Former FAIR) or Interpreter (Former FARMS) on the subject of the Book of Abraham.  Usually, I end up disagreeing with most of the content of articles like that and only agreeing with a little bit in them.  This turned out to be a very good one.  My compliments Stephen.  He writes:

Although we must be cautious in evaluating this evidence, these statements seem to suggest that Joseph Smith and other early Saints understood the papyri to have been an Abrahamic holograph. If this is the case, then, as we asked earlier, what implications does this have for the authenticity of the Book of Abraham? Actually, I believe this evidence has little to no serious implications for whether the Book of Abraham is an authentic ancient text. All these statements tell us is what the early Saints seemed to assume about the Book of Abraham, not what the Book of Abraham says about itself. Joseph Smith’s or Wilford Woodruff’s or anyone else’s opinions have little bearing on authenticity of the text itself, in other words.

This figures in to what Richard Bushman wrote:

Joseph translated Abraham as he had the characters on the gold plates, by knowing the meaning without actually knowing the plates' language. Warren Parish, his clerk, said, “I have set by his side and penned down the translation of the Egyptian Heiroglyphicks as he claimed to receive it by direct inspiration of heaven.” When Chandler arrived with the scrolls, Joseph saw the papyri and inspiration struck. Not one to deny God's promptings, the prophet said what he felt: The papyri were the writings of Abraham and Joseph. (Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, p. 292). 

All that mattered was what the Spirit was telling Joseph Smith, not the technical, nuanced reality before him.  It is an important point that it doesn't matter what Joseph Smith thought of the Papyrus that he was translating.  However, it is NOT precisely as Brian Hauglid writes:

Another factor [is] . . . the idea that Joseph Smith may have thought he was translation from the characters but, in reality, was not.  This theory argues for some type of idiot-prophet scenario.  However, without the originally dictated manuscripts, it is impossible to conjecture how the translation process took place. (“Thoughts on the Book of Abraham,” No Weapon Shall Prosper, p. 252)

On the one hand, we have the original translation manuscripts among the Kirtland Egyptian Papers before us, even if some of them are copies.  I don't buy Hauglid's logic to try to put off coming to solid conclusions because we don't have every last shred of evidence that is no longer extant.  That doesn't hold up.  On the other hand, this is not precisely an "idiot-prophet" scenario.  Rather, it is Joseph Smith doing the best he could according to the whispers of the Spirit in him, that did not reveal to him Egyptologically mechanical Egyptian.  In my opinion, it does matter that Joseph at least believed he was doing something to produce the Book of Abraham, to render it in modern speech, and that he was using the papyri in question to do so.

Because the historical evidence DOES point to the fact that Joseph Smith thought he was translating a holograph of Abraham.  Since Egyptologically, it is not, then something else is going on, and God knew the details of that even if Joseph didn't.  In other words, it is clear that as I am motivated by faith as any other LDS person.  Therefore, since the SPIRIT did not manifest the EXACT situation to Joseph Smith, it is a question of nuance and line-upon-line type of thing.

And I do this for a wise purpose; for thus it whispereth me, according to the workings of the Spirit of the Lord which is in me. And now, I do not know all things; but the Lord knoweth all things which are to come; wherefore, he worketh in me to do according to his will . . . And now I, Mormon, proceed to finish out my record, which I take from the plates of Nephi; and I make it according to the knowledge and the understanding which God has given me. (Words of Mormon 1:7,9)

As I said from the beginning, I take Joseph Smith seriously that he was RECOVERING the content of the holograph of Abraham, just as he recovered the content of D&C 7.  The evidence shows that it appears that he recovered or reconstructed a derivative composition, which employed Sensen characters in a custom usage with Abrahamic material.  It was according to the knowledge and understanding that he had at the time, that was not as detailed as our view of the evidence and our understanding of the evidence today.  I take Joseph Smith seriously that his RECONSTRUCTIONS of the Papyri manifest a reconstruction that effectively goes a long way toward a goal of reconstructing the content of the autograph of Abraham, but it was a reconstruction more precisely of this derivative composition.  In this, the truth of the matter means that the Hor Papyrus became source material in the same sense that bricks are source material to build a house.  In translating, Joseph Smith's activities do not represent the transmission of the content of the Sensen Papyrus in its pristine form according to the intent of the original author of that document.  Rather, his activities with the Sensen Papyrus resemble something more like tearing down one house and using its bricks to build another house.  This is what the ancient person did in the first place, was to use bricks from the Sensen Papyrus to create a derivative, hybrid composition, with Abrahamic content.  That doesn't mean that Joseph Smith knew all the details of this.

The miracle was not the preservation of the ancient papyrus that contained the actual holograph of Abraham.  Rather, the miracle was that the materials at hand where sufficient for the need at hand.  That is the actual marvelous thing here.  This is akin to using Masonic material to reconstruct a Temple Ceremony.  Nobody would doubt that Masonry was not authentically a Temple Endowment, however much little pieces of an ancient endowment may have been scattered among the contents of Masonic ritual.  Similarly, the Sensen Papyrus was sufficient to the need of reconstruction of Abrahamic content, and in an Abrahamic context, the characters do actually translate the way he said they did.  And an ancient person did use the Sensen Papyrus characters in this custom way.  Joseph Smith just followed what ancient people did.

And furthermore, as I have said in other posts, I say that there is evidence that Ancient people from Egypt used these types of papyri in a repurposed fashion to begin with, in derivative compositions, to associate them with Abraham and Joseph the patriarchs.  So Joseph Smith did not invent the idea that these types of things were to be understood in that light.  He was practicing something that was done by the ancients before him.

Just as I said in a previous post, as in the game of Senet, of which the facsimiles and papyri share affinities and representations, the characters in these papyri are like game pieces, to make one metaphor.  Or as in this post, I argue they are like bricks.  Whatever you do with them in your own derivative compositions or derivative games is your own business, whether you play chess, or checkers or some other game you invent, according to the rules you impose on them, as you intend them to be used or repurposed.  Joseph Smith didn't invent the rules of the game.  The ancients did.  He just recovered the games and its rules.  He recovered its ancient intent according to the way the ancients used it.  It is this that makes Joseph Smith authentic, and makes the modern English Book of Abraham as published by the LDS Church an authentic reconstruction of an ancient document.