Sometime around the year 2012, the LDS Church began adding to the Gospel Topics pages of lds dot org. As they were “fleshed out”, they existed among the Topics but were hard to find. I believe in 2014 they were linked to from their own landing page, along with a video by the Church Historian, Elder Steven E. Snow. In this video, he exhorts Church members to study Church history and these “essays” (the term by which the new Topics were to become known) and laments the lack of knowledge Church members actually have about the Church’s own history.
In February 2016, Elder Ballard made several statements of interest to this topic. The summary of his talk can be found here. Among several key points he made are these:
“Gone are the days when a student asked an honest question and a teacher responded, ‘Don’t worry about it!’ Gone are the days when a student raised a sincere concern and a teacher bore his or her testimony as a response intended to avoid the issue. Gone are the days when students were protected from people who attacked the Church.”
“Church leaders today are fully conscious of the unlimited access to information, and we are making extraordinary efforts to provide accurate context and understanding of the teachings of the Restoration,” *Note: This refers in part to the writing of the “essays”. The Church’s point of view is that they provide this “accurate context and understanding”.
Using the 11 Gospel Topics essays available on LDS.org as an example, Elder Ballard said it is crucial that teachers “know the content in these essays like you know the back of your hand.” *Note: The Church acknowledges many Bishops and Stake Presidents have never read these “essays”. Ask your own leadership about these essays, about their contents. Test them. Don’t be surprised if they are unaware of them or, if aware, are unfamiliar with their contents.
To summarize, the Church wants the membership to do more than just read the “essays’, but to know them, like the back of their hand! That’s a bold move, in my opinion. But here’s the thing, even knowing these “essays”, just how much content is actually “accurate”? Let’s explore one such “essay”.
Here is the link to the landing page of the “essays”. This is the link to the “essay” on the Book of Abraham. Please, click my link to the “essay” and keep that window open for reference, if you wish.
We begin. From the “essay”:
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints embraces the book of Abraham as scripture.”
“The book of Abraham was first published in 1842 and was canonized as part of the Pearl of Great Price in 1880. The book originated with Egyptian papyri that Joseph Smith translated beginning in 1835. Many people saw the papyri, but no eyewitness account of the translation survives, making it impossible to reconstruct the process. Only small fragments of the long papyrus scrolls once in Joseph Smith’s possession exist today. The relationship between those fragments and the text we have today is largely a matter of conjecture.”
Interesting. “Conjecture.” Really?
“… with W. W. Phelps and Oliver Cowdery as scribes, I commence the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics, and much to our joy found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham, another the writings of Joseph of Egypt, etc. – a more full account of which will appear in its place, as I proceed to examine or unfold them. Truly we can say, the Lord is beginning to reveal the abundance of peace and truth.” (History of the Church, Vol. 2, p. 236).
This seems to indicate a standard definition of “translate”, doesn’t it? It seems Joseph was evaluating each character in a small sample, right? It indicates that to fully translate, Joseph would be involved in examining or unfolding the scrolls, right?
That’s how it seems to me.
Further, the preface to the Book of Abraham declares:
“THE BOOK OF ABRAHAM
TRANSLATED FROM THE PAPYRUS, BY JOSEPH SMITH
A Translation of some ancient Records, that have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt. – The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus.”
It seems clear. “TRANSLATED FROM THE PAPYRUS, BY JOSEPH SMITH” and “written by his own hand, upon papyrus.” The indication is that the writings of Abraham existed physically ON THE PAPYRUS. That Joseph went through the exercise of translation character by character. Michael Chandler, the person from whom Joseph bought the mummies and papyrus scrolls, even gave Joseph a “certificate” as follows (recorded in the History of the Church):
“Kirtland, July 6, 1835.
This is to make known to all who may be desirous, concerning the knowledge of Mr. Joseph Smith, Jun., in deciphering the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic characters in my possession, which I have, in many eminent cities, showed to the most learned; and, from the information that I could ever learn, or meet with, I find that of Mr. Joseph Smith, Jun., to correspond in the most minute matters.”
A search of the History of the Church finds several entries regarding the translation process:
The remainder of this month [July 1835], I was continually engaged in translating an alphabet to the Book of Abraham and arranging: a grammar of the Egyptian language as practiced by the ancients.
October 1, 1835, This afternoon I labored on the Egyptian alphabet, in company with Brothers Oliver Cowdery and W. W. Phelps, and during the research, the principles of astronomy as understood by Father Abraham and the ancients unfolded to our understanding, the particulars of which will appear hereafter.
On October 7, 1835 …this afternoon I recommenced translating the ancient records.
November 19, 1835, I returned home and spent the day in translating the Egyptian records.
November 20, 1835, We spent the day in translating and made rapid progress.
February: Monday 22 Spent the afternoon translating with my scribe, Elder Warren Parrish, at his house.
The essay says, “We do know some things about the translation process. The word translation typically assumes an expert knowledge of multiple languages. Joseph Smith claimed no expertise in any language.”
And yet he did, certificate and all!
Joseph said he translated, and indications in his journal (which became entries in the History of the Church) are that he did it in the traditional sense. That is, interpreting the characters, even to the point of creating an alphabet and grammar!
Saying the method of translation is a matter of conjecture is dishonest, in my opinion! Why? Because it is misleading! The Church’s own definition of dishonesty includes being misleading.
So we now come to the content of the book. The “essay” suggests, “The relationship between those fragments and the text we have today is largely a matter of conjecture.” Let’s check that out.
This is Facsimile 1. Also known as Figure 1 in the text. Abraham 1 sets a scene that matches the figure above. In fact, in the middle of the scene setting we are interrupted by this in verse 14, “That you may have an understanding of these gods, I have given you the fashion of them in the figures at the beginning, which manner of figures is called by the Chaldeans Rahleenos, which signifies hieroglyphics.”
Check it out. Read the text. See how it matches with the facsimiles. THIS IS IMPORTANT. We can see directly, without the need for any papyrus extant, Joseph’s ability to translate. The text itself is represented by hieroglyphics, according to the self-same text. No translation by dreams. No translation by inspiration. It’s simply translation by normal means i.e. by someone who had a knowledge of two languages, one language into the other.
This blows up anything the “essay” has to say on the matter of translation. Moreover, with these three facsimiles, we have a method to check out Joseph’s ability as a translator of Egyptian hieroglyphics and the facsimiles matched with the text.
Egyptologists have weighed in on this topic, over the years.
One such, University of Chicago Egyptology Professor Robert K. Ritner, wrote:
“The published text of the Book of Abraham is accompanied by three woodcut ‘Facsimiles’ with explanations authored by Joseph Smith himself. The facsimiles are all based on ancient Egyptian documents, and the Egyptian texts of all three can now be deciphered. In addition, the representations on all three conform to well-known Egyptian models. Facsimiles 1 and 3 represent sections of one papyrus: the ‘Breathing Permit of Hôr’ (P. JS 1), part of the group of Egyptian texts purchased by Smith in 1835 and long thought lost in the Chicago fire of 1871. These papyri were rediscovered in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1967 and quickly transferred to the LDS church, which published the first photographs of the texts the next year in the church magazine The Improvement Era. Comparison of the surviving initial vignette of the Hôr papyrus with Facsimile 1 proves beyond doubt, as the LDS web post agrees, that it was ‘the vignette that became facsimile 1.’ However, neither Facsimile 1 nor 2 is a true copy, and both contain added forgeries, including the human-head and knife of the supposed ‘idolatrous priest of Elkenah’ (Fig. 3 on Facsimile 1) as can be seen in the crude pencil additions to the original papyrus sheet as mounted and ‘improved’ for publication by the LDS church in 1842. Facsimile 2 derives from a separate burial, for an individual named Sheshonq. Large portions of this published ‘facsimile’ were improperly inserted from unrelated papyri. All of Smith’s published ‘explanations’ are incorrect, including the lone example defended by the new web posting: the water in which a crocodile is swimming (Fig. 12 of Facsimile 1), supposedly a representation of ‘the firmament over our heads … but in this case, in relation to this subject, the Egyptians meant it to be to signify Shaumau, to be high, or the heavens.’ Although Egyptians might place heavenly boats in the sky, that is not relevant ‘in this case’ where the water is placed below the figures and represents the Nile, not the sky. The selective defense of these explanations by the church is telling, and all other explanations are simply indefensible except by distorting Egyptian evidence. In Facsimile 3, Smith confuses human and animal heads and males with females. No amount of special pleading can change the female ‘Isis the great, the god’s mother’ (Facsimile 3, Fig. 2) into the male ‘King Pharaoh, whose name is given in the characters above his hand,’ as even the LDS author Michael D. Rhodes accepts. Here Smith also misunderstands ‘Pharaoh’ as a personal name rather than a title meaning ‘king,’ so he reads ‘king king’ for a goddess’s name that he claims to have understood on the papyrus!”
No. Joseph did not understand Egyptian hieroglyphics. No, he did not translate. As far as the Church fomenting the idea Joseph received the Book of Abraham as an inspired dream, I might agree that the whole was a product of his imagination! A fraud.
And we haven’t even discussed the absurd astronomical notions included in this book. If I could hie to Kolob…