Mormon essay: Abraham scripture may not be literal translation

Religion : Article sheds new light on thorny question for LDS scholars and believers.

The Salt Lake Tribune/July 8, 2014

By Lee Davidson

A new online essay by the LDS Church says its Book of Abraham is inspired scripture but perhaps not a literal word-for-word translation of ancient Egyptian papyrus scrolls by the faith’s founder, Joseph Smith.

The article says it is possible that the papyri merely served as a catalyst for revelation by Smith that led to his expanding on the biblical account of Abraham. The book is included in a church volume of scripture called The Pearl of Great Price.

 But the essay also outlines how it is possible that the book was a literal translation, but concedes that is impossible to prove or disprove now since most of the papyri used have long since vanished and are presumed destroyed. The paper adds that while scholars say existing papyrus fragments don’t match anything in the book, it says lost parts could.

"The veracity and value of the Book of Abraham cannot be settled by scholarly debate concerning the book’s translation and historicity," the article says. "The book’s status as scripture lies in the eternal truths it teaches and the powerful spirit it conveys."

"This [essay] now allows Latter-day Saints to adopt the view that the Book of Abraham was not on the papyri that Joseph Smith possessed as an acceptable orthodox option," says David Bokovoy, a University of Utah religious-studies instructor who wrote a book about the Book of Abraham.

At the same time, he adds, "it still allows those who wish to view the Book of Abraham in a more traditional light as a document that did appear in the papyri that Joseph Smith possessed ... to adopt that perspective as well."

Smith said he translated the Book of Abraham after obtaining mummies and papyri from an entrepreneur named Michael Chandler after they were uncovered in Egypt by Antonio Lebolo, a former cavalryman in the Italian army.

The essay says no eyewitness accounts have been found about the translation process. It adds that Smith did not claim to know the ancient languages he translated for the Book of Abraham or the faith’s signature scripture, the Book of Mormon.

So, the article says, it is possible that "Joseph’s translation was not a literal rendering of the papyri as a conventional translation would be. Rather, the physical artifacts provided an occasion for meditation, reflection and revelation. They catalyzed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri."

The paper explains Smith used such a process to write the Book of Moses, also in the Pearl of Great Price, as he was studying the Bible and correcting or even restoring lost portions by inspiration.

 Richard Bushman, author of the acclaimed Joseph Smith biography "Rough Stone Rolling" and an emeritus historian at Columbia University, says the essay gives "a whole new view of how translations occur."

It also offers reasons why the Book of Abraham could have been a direct translation — even though the article says "Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists agree that the characters on the [remaining] fragments do not match the translation given in the Book of Abraham."

The essay says the portion that produced the book could have been among papyri lost or destroyed. While fragments do not date back to the time of Abraham, the paper says they could be copies of writing by Abraham.

The book mentions some places and customs not generally known in the time of Smith. But Bokovoy notes some scholars complain the book contains anachronisms.

The essay concludes that the truth of the Book of Abraham can be found only through study, prayer and confirmation of the holy spirit.

Philip Barlow, chairman of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University, says such a conclusion is a "two-edged sword." It allows recognizing that a religious text should be judged on religious grounds, but he notes that most believers also want to be responsive to what scholars and science may show, too.

Bushman says debate on how literal of a translation the book is will likely continue. "But in a way it’s a moot question," he adds, "because we have an alternate view that doesn’t require" a literal translation.

Carl Wimmer, a former high-profile Utah legislator who left the LDS Church largely because he was convinced that the Book of Abraham did not match modern translations of existing fragments, is critical of the new essay.

"It is a positive step toward historical truth that has been overlooked for years and years" in discussing how modern translation of remaining papyrus fragments don’t match the Book of Abraham, Wimmer says. "But it really diminishes the importance of the more controversial aspects and stresses the importance of the parts they want their members to read and understand. I think that’s unfortunate."

The "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham" essay comes on the heels of other recent postings designed to help Latter-day Saints and others better understand sometimes-sticky theological or historical issues in Mormonism.

Other essays include explorations of the faith’s former ban on blacks from entering its all-male priesthood, its long-discarded practice of plural marriage and its teachings about the nature of God and mankind’s eternal potential.

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