Friday, October 7, 2016

Observations on Kerry Muhlestein's Interpreter Article (Volume 22, 2016): "Assessing the Joseph Smith Papyri"

I applaud Kerry Muhlestein for being a faithful Mormon, a believer that is willing to defend the Book of Abraham.  All Book of Abraham scholars that are faithful Mormons ought to be congratulated for this.  I also congratulate Muhlestein in recognizing the vailidity of personal revelation as part of the epistemology for how one knows that the Book of Abraham is true, and for Mormons, the primary reason.  Yes, we have been accused for having that as our trump card to be able to dismiss other evidences, but that is not true.  Actually, it is true that as Mormons, our biases based on personal testimony lead us to know in our subjective selves that the Book of Abraham is in fact true and historical.  That doesn't mean that any evidence needs to be dismissed if it is truly taken into account properly, and has a proper explanation for it.  That doesn't mean that we will side with the critics in our ultimate conclusion about the historicity and truth of the text.  It only means that we must take all evidence into account and explain it as best as we know how.

Forensic Facts Matter, not old 19th Century Journal Entries and Newspaper reports

The difference between different types of apologists, however, as I have observed in other posts on this blog, has to do with the types of apologists that actually explain evidences in a Mormon faithful interpretive framework, versus Mormon apologists that EXPLAIN AWAY the forensic evidences in favor of some other fairy-tale worldview, or who give too much weight to evidences that are not forensic, but instead are documentary accounts that are either late reminiscences, or are given by people that have not forensically been able to establish the facts of what evidences there are, but who rather use hyperbole, exagerration, or who just plain don't get the facts straight in some other way.  While some apologists strive to be the former type of apologists (like for example Brian Hauglid), unfortunately, Kerry Muhlestein and John Gee continually end up being the latter type of apologists, who evade evidence continually, and uphold discredited worldviews, and give Mormon Apologetics a black eye.  Until they choose to change this type of behavior, we will continue to have the problems that we have between apologists and critics with regard to fundamental disagreements about the nature of the forensic evidence before us.  Rather, I seek (as I think Brian Hauglid does), to have conversations with critics and come to a consensus among all scholars, critics and apologists alike, to come to a fundamental agreement on FORENSIC FACTS.  Interpretations of facts will always differ, as they will.  Here are some samplings of these types of articles where I have called for this:

Muhlestein writes:
Combs sold most of the collection to a man who put them in the St. Louis Museum. For a long time, it was thought the entire collection was at the St. Louis Museum. As it turns out, at least two mummies and the two long papyri rolls (one described as the long roll, one as the short, though it still seems to be quite lengthy) were taken there . . . (emphasis added).
I have recently completed an extensive article which examines the eyewitnesses who saw the papyri and heard something about what Joseph Smith was translating from. This study concludes that the majority of people who saw the papyri and heard something about the source of the Book of Abraham did not specify whether that source was on the scrolls or the fragments, but about a dozen did. Based on the testimony of these eyewitness accounts, our only real historical evidence, it is clear that if the translations did indeed come from the papyri (an idea that is possible but not sure and to which we will return below), the long roll was the source of the Book of Abraham. While we cannot yet say what the source of the Book of Abraham is, we can say what it is not: according to the eyewitness accounts, it is not the text adjacent to Facsimile One. It is too early yet to tell how this evidence and argument will be received by the academic community.  (emphasis added).
Once again, Muhlestein, in his article, refers us to the same old reports from the 19th century that seem to allege that there was a papyrus that does not meet the description of the one that is before us, and he relies yet again on these things to try to establish that there was a Missing Papyrus.  While it is true that Muhlestein notes other possibilities, the Missing Papyrus theory still seems to be his favorite (else why argue so devotedly to the prospect of 19th century documentation), yet according to forensic evidence, it is not plausible.  An extremely remote possibility, yes, but not a plausible option.  Again, if one talks with John Sorenson about old 19th Century reports about Book of Mormon Geography and their reliability, then one can come to understand why primary evidence must take precedence.  In the case of the Book of Mormon Geography, the text is primary.  In the case of Book of Abraham studies, the forensic evidence in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers and the Sensen Papyrus is primary.

Muhlestein is correct that the Sensen Papyrus is not the source of the text of the Book of Abraham, but then he fails to ask the follow-up question:  is there ANOTHER ANCIENT reason that the Sensen symbols decorate the English text in the Book of Abraham manuscripts?  And so, if there is an ancient relationship, what is it?  This is the issue explored on this blog.  Everybody knows that the Sensen characters do not CONTAIN the text of the Book of Abraham.  That is plain to all.  What then is the relationship?  Well he could have known if he cared to pay attention to the research of other faithful LDS people working on this problem.

Muhlestein makes mention of William Schryver's theory on what the KEP is, but doesn't bother to mention other LDS people's work on the issue or the other possibilities that others have come up with.

The Battle of the PhD's Again

Muhlestein makes a logically-fallacious appeal to the authority or supremacy (however you want to see it) of the LDS Egyptologists over Non-LDS ones:
Some have noted that many LDS Egyptologists put forth what appear to be convincing arguments but some readers later come to perceive that their credibility or authority is somewhat doubtful because non LDS Egyptologists who have written about the subject have disagreed with their point of view. It seems to have gone unnoticed that the vast majority of Egyptologists have said nothing at all about this matter. A very small minority has taken any kind of position regarding the Joseph Smith papyri controversy. Of those who have, it is certainly not their primary research concern, so they have typically put very little time into investigating these issues and the associated details. Thus it is important to note that LDS Egyptologists have spent more time studying the Egyptological issues associated with the Book of Abraham than any non-LDS Egyptologists, though this does not necessarily mean they are correct about everything they write. It is even more important to note that all scholars who say something about this topic are heavily influenced by their original point of view. Understanding the different points of view of these sources of authority is an important part of the epistemological process — the process of learning about the historiography of the study of the Book of Abraham. 
I recently found that FAIRMormon has also jumped on this type of bandwagon:

Robert Ritner has spent a ton of time on this issue, who has authored a book on the issue, and who is highly respected by Brian Hauglid.  Once again, Kerry Muhlstien is just simply making an appeal to authority, nothing more, nothing less.  It is an invented strategy of how to show the LDS scholars have supremacy over the non-LDS ones.  And all he can say is, that Ritner and those like him have not spent as much time on the issue.  Well, sorry, but Ed Ashment and Steven Thompson and Brent Metcalfe have spent decades on it, much longer than Muhlstien for sure,  when Muhlstien is a newcomer to the issue, having only received his PhD from UCLA only very relatively recently, in 2003, from the available reports.  Of course, many apologists look at the fact that Brent Metcalfe has no credentials to speak of and dismiss him out of hand, but Brian Hauglid has the good sense to pay attention to him and have interaction.

And how long has Mulestien been a fully-engaged apologist for the Book of Abraham? Certainly not as long as Ed Ashment has been a critic of it.  So, it boils down to, "well these critics aren't full-time critics on the issue, but Mulestien and Gee are full time apologists on it, so that means that they are better."  I doubt they are actually spending every waking hour on Book of Abraham apologetics issues.

While Book of Abraham Apologetics is important, until everyone gets fundamental facts straight and stops this "we are better than you because..." rhetoric, we will never get anywhere.

The KEP and Related Translation Project Pre-Dated the Acquisition of the Papyri

Kerry brings up the point that some of the KEP and the Adamic Language translation projects pre-date the aquisition of the papyri.  Fair enough, but that isn't evidence that the KEP is not indeed directly related to the Book of Abraham project once the acquisition was made.  Kerry tries to distance the KEP from the Book of Abraham again by noting all the times that there is a direct correspondence between the KEP.  Once again, he deliberately underestimates the correspondences and the direct translations of Sensen symbols lifted directly from the papyrus  But then, he would have known that if he had paid attention to the research of others that he doesn't value.

Once Again, Still Defending the Facsimile Explanation Translations ONLY, but Not the Translations in the KEP

Muhlstien writes:

The question that Spaulding, Deveria, and many others today have asked is about how Joseph Smith’s explanations of the facsimiles compares to those of ancient Egyptians. The question is more complex than it initially appears, and many have opted for simple answers instead of investigating the complexities. Here we will not be able to go in depth into these issues, but we can at least highlight some of the questions to be considered.
Even though it is obvious to ask whether or not Joseph Smith’s explanations of the facsimiles match those of Egyptologists, it is not necessarily the right question to ask; we do not know if Joseph Smith was trying to tell us what ancient Egyptians would have thought of these drawings. What if Abraham’s descendants took Egyptian cultural elements and applied their own meanings to them?
We know this happened in other cases. For example, Jesus himself did this when he gave the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, which clearly draws from the Egyptian tale of Setne-Kamwas. The Apocalypse of Abraham and Testament of Abraham are two more examples of Semitic adaptations of Egyptian religious traditions. Therefore, maybe we should not be looking at what Egyptians thought the facsimiles meant at all but rather at how ancient Jews would have interpreted them . . .
Or perhaps Joseph Smith was providing an interpretation that a small group of Egyptian priests who were familiar with Abraham would have seen in this vignette. 
We know that from about the same time and place as when and where the Joseph Smith Papyri were created, there were priests very familiar with Abraham, who used him in their own religious texts and rituals. 
So here, to Muhestein's credit, he notes that Iconotropy is the most likely explanation for what is happening here, where someone applied their own meanings to the drawings.  While Abraham's descendants are one of the candidates who would have done this, what if Egyptians themselves who were syncretists who valued the stories of the Jewish Patriarchs were the ones that did it?  And again, to Muhestein's credit, he notes that it indeed could have been a small group of Egyptians that were aware of Abraham that did it.

The scholars like Muhlstien continue to defend the Facsimiles Explanations primarily with this principle, rightly, which continues to be the best and most plausible and well-established one.

Yet Muhlstien and the rest of the scholars like him continue to not realize or recognize the fact that textual hieroglyphics are still hieroglyphics.  In spite of the fact that they constitute "text," they are still fundamentally little pictures just like the big illustrations, the translations of which Muhlstien is willing to defend.  Why is Muhlstien still unaware, or unwilling, to defend the LITTLE PICTURES with the same principle:  adapting them to other meanings by the ancients?  Why doesn't Muhlstien notice that the little pictures also have the same types of adaptations for their definitions in the KEP, as the big pictures in the Facsimiles Explanations?  So this is my biggest criticism, pretty much as it always has been.  They are willing to defend the Facsimiles Explanations with this principle, but unwilling to extend the explanations to the little pictures in the text, which in their narrow-minded way, can only see as text.  And, they pay no attention to this criticism, so they continue to wallow in the hole that they are in with regard to this thing.  The same exact principle that explains the big pictures also explains every single problem in the KEP, and with the use of symbols from the Sensen Papyrus in it.  But they don't care, and they aren't paying attention.  If they would see it in this light, they would not have to keep applying nonsensical explanations to the matter like trying to say that the Sensen text doesn't belong with Facsimile 1, which it plainly does.  If the Sensen text are viewed as individual illustrations that were transformed to different meanings than they were used for in the context of a text, then all of the problems go away.

The exact same problem exists with regard to the text in Facsimile #3.  As Muhlstien writes
There is a key difference with Facsimile Three compared to the other two: the explanations for Facsimile Three label some of the hieroglyphs above the heads of the figures differently than the way I would translate them as an Egyptologist. As an LDS Egyptologist, it seems to me that the most likely explanation for this is that Joseph Smith was teaching either how ancient Jews or a small set of ancient Egyptians would have interpreted the drawings or how we should interpret them, after which he then assumed that the glyphs would translate that way. Again, Joseph Smith did not claim to be able to read hieroglyphs. This particular issue has not yet received much scholarly attention.
What about a way some Jews or a small set of Egyptians would have re-assigned little pictures in text with meanings that are not the original meanings?  Once again, the same exact solution is the answer.