My First Weighty Shelf Item

Shelf. A place to put things.

Mental Shelf. A place to put things to be dealt with later.

Cracked shelf. A shelf with too many things on it to deal with or one holding very weighty items.

Crashed or broken shelf. A shelf destroyed by the number of things and/or the weight it held.

It is common in the ExMormon world to describe a broken shelf incident or incidents. A broken shelf is a destroyer of testimony.

There are things that are put off for later that demand attention due to their sheer number or their heavy weight. If not dealt with soon enough or sufficiently enough, the shelf breaks. A cascading event then takes place that usually involves, eventually, each of the related shelf items. Testimony is lost.

My very first major shelf item was the Book of Abraham. I have written about this before but I will retell the story. Picture it:…no, wait, that’s Sophia’s (think “The Golden Girls”) storytelling setup! I’d better tell it my way.

We lived in Birmingham, Alabama from 1966-1968 (I think that’s the range!). In November of 1967, I would turn 13 years of age. I seem to remember it was about this time that it was announced the Church would be publishing a special edition of the Church’s magazine, “The Improvement Era”, soon due to the recent re-discovery of some papyri fragments associated with the Book of Abraham, which is in one of the Church’s “Standard Works” called the Pearl of Great Price.

I had previously become fascinated by both the Book of Abraham and the Book of Moses. With the Book of Moses, we had Joseph seeing and repeating a vision given to Moses. With the Book of Abraham, Joseph translated Egyptian papyri that came with some mummies the Church purchased from one Michael Chandler. Read the story, under the section heading “Origin of the Book of Abraham”, here.

With this announcement of the found papyri fragments, I eagerly awaited that upcoming magazine issue! Why? The Book of Abraham is unique among Mormon scripture in that there are these three drawings, called “facsimiles” that were part of the scrolls Joseph translated. These facsimiles had translations themselves, apart from the text of the Book of Abraham but were, at the same time, referenced in the book’s text. In effect, the text had places where it had a sort of “see reference 2” or “see Table 1” convention that referred to the facsimiles. See Abraham 1:12, particularly, “I will refer you to the representation at the commencement of this record.”

What, though, got me so excited? The rediscovery of these fragments would show the world that Joseph could translate Egyptian and we could, therefore, rely on his ability to have translated the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon came and, ultimately, would prove Joseph could do what he said he could and was who he said he was: a prophet, seer, and revelator. Wouldn’t this excite you if you were a Mormon?

January 1968 saw the arrival of the anticipated issue of “The Improvement Era”! It did, indeed, dedicate itself completely to Egypt and the papyri fragments and their rediscovery.

But I was sorely disappointed to find there was no concrete confirmation that Joseph could translate Egyptian. Instead, the papyri were discovered to be nothing more than common funerary text.

“CRACK!” went my shelf.

It held, though. For many years.

After reading the “History of the Church” in 2013-14, particularly volume 6, I discovered Joseph really did pretend to translate, with “translate” carrying the meaning as commonly used. He worked on translating characters. He worked on the grammar of the Egyptians. This took months. He received a certificate from Michael Chandler, from whom he (um, “the Church”) had purchased the papyri and mummies, declaring Joseph very capable of translating Egyptian. Remember, the Rosetta Stone existed but had yet to be deciphered at this time. Joseph allowed this certificate to be published in the Church newspaper, he being the Editor, but he never really declared that he knew how to translate Egyptian, himself. Others had spread that rumor and Michael Chandler added his certification, true or not!

So, even though Joseph professed to work on translation, he was rumored to be a translator, and Michael Chandler certified Joseph to be a translator, the translation is totally wrong.

Modern apologists excuse this. The link above to the Church’s essay on the subject confirms Joseph obtained what is written in the Book of Abraham in an unknown way, not necessarily by direct translation.

But in Joseph’s day, Joseph allowed the impression that he was translating in the manner commonly understood to be an actual translation. Not some vision. Not some dream. This took months. He worked on it.

Worse, the text in the Book of Abraham refers to the facsimiles. The facsimiles have translated portions. All of it is wrong. Totally wrong.

Even worse than that, the principles of astronomy contained in the book are 19th-century ideas and are now known to be completely bogus.

My shelf lay in fragments, like the papyri.

But don’t take my word for it. Study it yourself.

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