Ep 105 – Book of Abraham Logical pt1

On this episode, we jump into the logical deconstruction of the Book of Abraham. We deal with the apologetic arguments made to claim the Book of Abraham is ‘historically plausible’. Historically plausible doesn’t mean probable or authentic, so what does it really mean? Can one believe in a book of scripture if it’s ‘historically plausible,’ even if that plausibility flies in the face of the historicity of the documents being authentic? We take apologist arguments line by line and systematically break them down into their constituent parts, hopefully arming you, the listener, with an arsenal of arguments against the historicity of the Book of Abraham.


Historical Plausibility: The Historicity of the Book of Abraham as a Case Study

MormonThink Book of Abraham essay

Stephen E. Thompson essay on BoA

Egyptology and the Book of Abraham Stephen E. Thompson

Joseph Smith Papers Egyptian materials

Translating the BoA in Joseph Smith Journal 1842

Translating Egyptian into grammar and alphabet in Joseph Smith journal

Egyptian grammar

Kerry Muhlstein Book of Abraham Challenges

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BBCHolland clip

We’ve been covering the Book of Abraham for 2 weeks now. Part one was the physical, tracking the papyri and cultural interest in Egyptology in 19th-century Western societies, colloquially referred to as ‘Egyptomania’. Part 2 covered the spiritual aspect of the Book of Abraham. A lot of interesting doctrine and theology specific to Mormonism comes from the Book of Abraham alone, including Kolob, belief in gods instead of God, the Mormon creation passion narrative practiced in the temple today, and the priesthood ban on any descendant of Cain. Today we begin the logical deconstruction of the Book of Abraham. It’s been a long wait getting to this portion of our examination and I hope you all are looking forward to this just as much as I. We’re going to examine arguments for and against the authenticity of the Book of Abraham.

While compiling the notes for this episode, it just kept growing. It hit the typical 15-page mark I use as an indicator for most episodes but even then, I had only just begun this dirty deed of counter-apologetics. I continued pulling apart the seams of the various essays and articles used to form the apologetic arguments for the historicity of the Book of Abraham and each eviscerated seam revealed a massive chasm with decades of apologetics lying underneath. Eventually the notes grew to 20-25, then nearly 30 pages and I realized the logical deconstruction of the Book of Abraham would be more digestible split into 2 parts instead of a single 3-hour lecture episode. So, my apologies for changing a 3-part series into 4 parts, but I think by the end of it all you’ll agree that it’s worth doing it this way.

Modern Book of Abraham apologetics all spawned with Hugh Nibley, one of the most prominent Mormon apologists of the 20th century, second only to B.H. Roberts. Nibley got his start in Mormon apologetics in 1946 when he wrote his critique of Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History with his pamphlet entitled, No Ma’am, that’s not history, sparking a long and colorful career in Mormon apologetics. He was the frontrunner of all apologetics surrounding the Book of Abraham and most arguments today have spawned or evolved from Nibley’s work. We won’t be dealing much with Nibley today, instead we’ll focus on much more recent work done in the apologetics for the Book of Abraham as they’re the better-formulated, more potent and distilled, and often more powerful arguments for the authenticity of the Book, all evolving from Nibley’s work. We’ll focus on the literature provided by more recent Mormon Egyptologists like Kerry Muhlstein, John Gee, Brian Hauglid, Mike Rhodes, and Stephen Ricks, and I’ll be using skepticism informed by Rob Ritner, a non-Mormon Egyptologist on a crusade to disprove the Book of Abraham in order to rebut the arguments claimed by these Mormon Egyptologists. Deconstructing the scholarly and academic apologetics will be our focus for this episode. The information today will provide the groundwork of counter-apologetics we’ll need for reading through the Church’s official statement on the Book of Abraham, known as the “Translation and the historicity of the Book of Abraham” in the gospel-topics essays section which will be the focus of the next episode. These gospel topics essays are where the Church attempts to officially deal with extremely controversial subjects of its history and spin them into a faith-promoting narrative. That essay is essentially the distilled and shinnied up version of a bunch of apologetics all cobbled together in 31 paragraphs to attempt minimizing the seriously problematic aspects of Book of Abraham historicity, and carve out a loophole for believing members to not view the Book of Abraham as problematic so much as something for which we don’t have answers.

To lay the groundwork for our logical deconstruction of Book of Abraham apologetics, let’s make some important distinctions. There’s the Book of Abraham, which is the Mormon scripture published in March of 1842. The Book of Abraham is separate and distinct from the Papyri Jo claimed to have translated the Book of Abraham from. The papyri collection, hereafter referred to as the Chandler collection, Michael Chandler being who the Mormons purchased the collection from, is from a common funerary text known as The Book of Breathings and The Book of the Dead, and the claimed Book of Abraham papyri specifically were a breathing permit created for the deceased Hor, or Horos-Re. Breathing permits were part of the funeral rites practiced in Egypt during multiple dynasties, but the papyri collection attained by Joseph Smith were part of the Ptolemaic or Hellenistic period of Ancient Egypt which began around 330 B.C.E. and continued until about 30 B.C.E. Also, Abraham is a character from the Bible with no contemporary source for his existence. His timeline begins and ends by Genesis chapter 41 which was likely written somewhere in the 7th or 8th century B.C.E, sourced from Hebrew oral traditions passed down for generations. Abraham supposedly lived from about 2000 B.C.E. to around 1850 B.C.E., about 1700 years prior to when the Chandler Papyri were created in Ptolemaic Egypt. These distinctions separating biblical Abraham, the Chandler Ptolemaic Egyptian Papyri, and the Book of Abraham are important to bear in mind as we examine the papyri, the claimed timeline of Abraham, and the Book of Abraham from the logical perspective. My biases on Mormon history are abundantly clear, so it’s my sincere hope that you leave this and next week’s episodes with a veritable arsenal of informed arguments to use in debunking the Book of Abraham.

I want to be transparent here. I’ve read Rob Ritner’s book which makes a compelling case against the authenticity of the Book of Abraham. I haven’t read any books by Mormon apologists claiming an authentic historicity for the Book of Abraham for a few reasons. I have, however, read a LOT of articles by them which are just more concise iterations of their arguments. A person can claim that the truth lies in the nuance and that it takes all of these books to introduce and articulate the necessary nuance to make the Book of Abraham authenticity a plausible argument, but if the foundational arguments in the books are just expanded versions of the arguments presented in these articles and journal and those arguments are fundamentally flawed, why engage with the expanded works? You can build incredibly beautiful and ornate structures, but if the foundation is flawed, the structure is condemned. We’ll go through some lines of argument provided to make the case for an authentic Book of Abraham and point out any formal or informal logical fallacies, any twisting or misrepresentations of the data, or anything which could be perceived to be blatantly dishonest. Where nuance is necessary to understand a larger point, I’ve done my best to go into further investigation, which has usually led me to conclude just how insidious the apologetics behind an authentic Book of Abraham really are.

Let’s begin with talking about the methodology used to ascertain the apologetic case for the authenticity of the Book of Abraham. When a case is made for an authentic Book of Abraham, it simply cannot be proven to be authentic. What Mormon Egyptologists have instead done is carve out a complex and confusion system where it is historically plausible for it to be what Joseph Smith claimed it to be. An authentic historical document is much harder to prove than historical plausibility, and you’ll hear that phrase thrown around a lot, but I want to be clear about how much gravity the term ‘historical plausibility’ has. It’s historically plausible that the Romans conquered the Americas and build the Mayan civilization in 100 C.E. There’s absolutely no evidence for it, but it feels like it could be true in my mind so I’ll therefore consider it historically plausible. Historically plausible says nothing of historical probability. Scientific theories are based on probabilities and those probabilities are discovered by introducing hypotheses which are plausible. Studying history isn’t a science, but historical models are constructed in much the same way. Something is introduced as historically plausible, the Romans build the Mayan civilization, and then we use other evidence to ascertain historical probability. Romans building the Mayan civilization is plausible because I said it, but it runs counter to all archaeological, anthropological, linguistic, and historical studies and therefore has a 0% chance of being historically probable. Book of Abraham apologists will throw out the term historical plausibility like it’s some level of proof over and over again, when historical plausibility really comes down to being equally as factual as your racist grandpa at thanksgiving saying I have a theory that prisons are overrun by black people because they have the mark of Cain. Sure grampy, you can live in your comfortable little world of unsubstantiated plausibilities, I’ll live in a world where we’re constrained by facts and deal in probabilities.

An article discussing the historical argument for an authentic Book of Abraham is titled “Historical Plausibility: The Historicity of the Book of Abraham as a Case Study,” published through and hosted on BYU.edu, written by John Gee and Stephen Ricks, who frequently publish articles and book on this subject. This article is dense but I’ve extracted what I think captures their methodology of historical plausibility which seems broadly applied by most apologists making the case for an authentic Book of Abraham historical model. This article is largely representative of many of the arguments made for the Book I’ve seen thus far. You’ll find it linked in the show notes should you want to read it in its entirety. Let’s get started.

“In attempting to prove the historicity of any document or event, historians should use primary sources. For the historian of the ancient world, however, these sources are often both rare and obscure. By comparing a text with other texts and archaeological material from the same time and place, a historian can propose the historical plausibility of a document when its authenticity is not certain. In order to establish the Book of Abraham as a historically authentic ancient document, one must consider many elements, including: setting; the presence and nature of Egyptian influence in Abraham’s place and time, including governmental, social, and religious institutions; and the presence of comparable personal and place names in the ancient Near East of Abraham’s day. Yet even under the best of circumstances, historical plausibility establishes probability, not proof.

“The historian of antiquity has to make do with what is available. How does he or she determine whether a later secondary source is accurate? For example, most of the history of ancient Israel is based on the books of Samuel and Kings in the Bible. Yet those books were compiled at a much later time—after all, they mention events in the “seven and thirtieth year of the captivity of Jehoiachin king of Judah” (2 Kgs. 25:27). [2]

Right at the onset, this is equating the methods used to prove the historicity of the Bible with the historicity of many other ancient works not regarded as scripture. The vast majority of the occurrences in the bible with a few notable exceptions simply cannot be corroborated by outside contemporary sources which presents many challenges for historians. Lack of outside sources to corroborate singularly-attested events is a common lacking with many ancient historical sources. Due to ancient documents’ obscurity and rarity, they often are only internally consistent and can’t be proven by any outside primary or secondary information. For example, we have Sumerian records of the fall of Israel recounted in the Bible, but contemporary sources of the majority of Bible prophets simply don’t exist. Most of the historicity of the Bible only happens in the Bible as is the case with so many ancient documents. That’s a rather sobering fact when examining the historicity of any ancient source, Bible or otherwise. Intellectually honest historians don’t regard the Bible and the events contained therein as unequivocal fact, they merely grant historical plausibility to the events recorded in the earliest manuscripts and assess probability based on how outlandish a specific claim is. For example, documenting warring tribes in the Bible, that has a high probability of having happened, even if the dates, locations, and people involved can’t be proven as accurate according to the Bible. A specific person rising from the dead after being crucified, that simply could never be proven for myriad understandable reasons. Jesus raising from the dead is historically plausible because secondary, non-eyewitness people claimed it happened, but the probability is absurdly low to the point of being not even worth arguing. Establishing historical plausibility and assessing historical probability are pillars to the field of historical studies, but they’re separate and distinct and should never be conflated.

The article continues to qualify its methodology for evaluating the Book of Abraham:

“Historical plausibility offers a possible solution to this sort of problem. We will illustrate both the problem and the solution with the Book of Abraham and several other ancient documents. We want to avoid the sort of special pleading that is often applied to scriptural texts—that because the texts are scriptural, they are not allowed the latitude normally granted other texts.”

That line is important to discuss because they are acknowledging that biases exist when historically examining a book of scripture, but not the biases we would expect them to articulate. Essentially, the claim is that books of scripture are more scrutinized because they are scripture, thus making people more skeptical of the claims for that reason alone. I seem to see that bias cutting the other way in so many instances, that certain people don’t evaluate scripture with the same level of scrutiny as they would other non-scriptural historical records because to do so may cause them to not believe in it as scripture. I think the simple existence of the entire field of apologetics surrounding the Books of Abraham, Mormon, and the Bible makes that fact abundantly clear. Religion poisons everything and that poisoning effect is felt heavily in the field of historical studies surrounding religions. Being Mormons and employed by BYU, which is owned by the Church, Ricks and Gee claim to lay that bias aside with the rest of the paragraph by stating this:

“One of the ironies of historical plausibility is that “for the purpose of the exercise, we shall suppose that, like the Babylonian and Egyptian works, the Pentateuch [or whatever work we are interested in testing, such as the Book of Abraham] has no religious relevance to us.”

Okay, the claim has been made, they will not be granting special pleading to the Book of Abraham for their examination of the historicity of the Book of Abraham by ignoring it because it’s scripture like most historians do. I would argue that they’re making a case of special pleading by granting the Book of Abraham status as scripture and therefore exempt from many of the metrics by which historians usually construct historicity or lack thereof, but let’s continue to walk through more extracts to see how they make the case. Let’s see if those religious and employment biases poison their presentation on the historical plausibility of the Book of Abraham.

In order to establish the argument, the article begins with assuming a false dichotomy for evaluating the accuracy of ancient documents:

“The problem centers around which of two mutually exclusive methodological assumptions one chooses…

1. Where no sound evidence exists to the contrary, an isolated document, according to its capacity, is to be accepted as historically accurate until proven otherwise. Without this principle, there would be no hope of writing political history for ancient Babylonia. [5]

2. Undoubtedly many scholars still adhere to the opinion that the statements of a source can be regarded as reliable as long as the opposite has not been proved. It must be emphasized, however, that . . . the burden of proof does not rest on the skeptical scholar but on the scholar who accepts the statements of his source as credible evidence.”

I propose a third option without absolutes as were presented in these assumptions. An isolated document exists and should be granted historical plausibility with X degree of probability of accuracy increasing as corroborating evidence supports it. However, if a fatal flaw exists in the historicity of any document, such as anachronisms, inconsistencies in narrative or content, or complete lack of corroborating evidence, and historical consensus deems those flaws to be truly fatal, the document in question should be abandoned as an accurate document as its historical probability is reduced to 0% until other outside evidence can mitigate that fatal flaw. Another point worth adding, unanimity among historians for any given historical event rarely, if ever, occurs. However, the variables of historical consensus and historical probability scale in tandem with each other.

The BYU article continues to articulate how these methods will be applied to the Books of Mormon and Abraham:

“Showing that the document is ancient is a sufficient condition for establishing the historical accuracy of the Book of Mormon or the Book of Abraham. Since both the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham are often rejected as being neither ancient nor authentic simply by virtue of the story of their translation, explaining how they can possibly be historically plausible becomes more difficult than the alternative. … Joseph Smith lived in a different culture separated in time, space, and language from the books he translated. Thus this same test of historical plausibility can and should also be applied to our study of the Book of Abraham. Because the Book of Abraham is available to us only in translation, considerations of layout, language, script, paleography, and vocabulary play a much lesser role. [32]Still, considerations of genre, specificity, onomastics, and cultural referents (including religious, social, and governmental institutions) can be used.

Key to the discussion of the Book of Abraham as a historically authentic ancient document is its likely setting (whether in northern or southern Mesopotamia), the presence and nature of Egyptian influence in that part of the world in the late third to early second millennia B.C. (the likely time period for Abraham’s activities), and the presence of comparable personal and place names in the Book of Abraham and in the ancient Near East at that time.”

Let’s continue to let this article make the case for the Book of Abraham from the apologetic stance before completely ripping the rug out from under it in our conclusion. Gee and Ricks center around a few points which seem to grant plausibility for the Book of Abraham being a legitimate ancient text, but they fail to address the primary concern which completely eradicates the need for any apologetics surrounding the Book of Abraham. It makes arguments in the following categories: Genre, Specificity, Onomastics (the study of proper nouns and place names), Government, Social organization, and Religion.

In the Genre category, it establishes that the Book of Abraham is autobiographical which is not completely unique in comparison to other ancient Near East texts from the Ptolemaic period in Egypt. In response to that, I’d just say that passion narratives, fictional writings, religious texts, and a number of other genres occur much more frequently with respect to the purported time frame of the Book of Abraham and almost all writings from the Ptolemaic period across the entire Eastern world were written in third person, making the first-person narrative in the Book of Abraham nearly a complete outlier. This isn’t an argument for the Book of Abraham being consistent with writings of a similar date, it merely shows how relatively out of place the Book of Abraham is with its claimed timeline. Even used as an apologetic, the genre argument for the Book of Abraham’s authenticity is being wielded in the wrong direction and only seems to exhibit it as an outlier given the first-person narrative.

The next argument is specificity. It claims that because there’s no “once upon a time” element, no anonymity about main characters, no vagueness about locations, and no fantasies or magic marvels, that it reads like a legitimate autobiography. To be clear, it recounts Abraham speaking with God face to face, and God shows him visions of the universe after saving Abraham’s life by the power of God from being sacrificed on an altar…. Yeah, there’s no way to interpret that as fictional. It goes on to argue that the place names listed in the Book of Abraham all lie outside Egypt and therefore establish a believable itinerary of Abraham before he arrived in Egypt. It lists Potiphar’s Hill, the plains of Olishem, the land of Ur of Chaldea (which has its own problems), Haran, Jershon, Shechem, Bethel, and Hai. Okay, all of those might be places outside of Egypt through which Abraham travelled, but granting that these place names being included in the Book of Abraham somehow proves its authenticity is tantamount to saying that Jason Bourne was a real person because the specific cities the Bourne narrative lies somewhere in Russia, France, Britain, and the U.S. are real places. Fictional narratives are often constructed on places which really exist, it does not logically follow that those fictions are made true solely because they are placed on real geography. This is a major logical leap to the point that any logic completely and utterly breaks down.

The next argument is Onomastics, or the study of names and proper nouns. This is relatively dense for our purposes but suffice it to say if a name crops up that’s completely out of place from Abraham’s day, like say a Greco-Roman name in an Ancient Hebrew narrative, that’s an anachronism and undermines the plausibility of the claimed book. The article states the importance of onomastics with this paragraph:

“There must be a plausible use of personal names, that is, names of men, gods, and places that fit the area and period of time. Some of these names suggest a linguistic and cultural melting pot, [84] but it is better to concentrate on those names that are attested in the proper time and place. [85] That there are few written documents from the region at the time of Abraham means that we must usually cast our net wider to include examples from other periods and areas.”

As with any historical studies, yes, onomastics are important. But, and I truly cannot stress this enough, in order for it to prove authenticity for the Book of Abraham, Joseph Smith couldn’t have had access to any information about Ancient Egypt or the Bible, but we know his entire world was based on the Bible and Egyptomania was a cultural driver in Joseph’s day. With how popular Egyptology was in western societies during his lifetime, he had access to these names and it should be no surprise that we find them in the Book of Abraham. The breakdown here is authorship attribution. Gee and Ricks have already assumed the Biblical Abraham to be the author of the Book of Abraham, because that’s what it says it is, but when we assume Joseph Smith as the author, all these logical contradictions and grasping at straws completely evaporate.

The article goes on to articulate that many of the names included are of Hebrew sound, which shouldn’t be surprising if the Hebrew father Abraham wrote the Book but should be even less surprising when we know that Joseph Smith studied Hebrew on and off throughout his ministry starting in 1835 when the School of the Prophets hired Rabbi and Jewish Scholar, Joshua Seixas, to teach them Ancient Hebrew. The article continues in the onomastics section to describe Abraham’s invocation of various words ascribed to locations, the objects observed by Abraham during his visions, and the religious practices of the Egyptians. It’s important to study the genesis of these words, but not when that genesis extends beyond what Joseph Smith was exposed to or had some level of access to. Most of them like Rahleenos, Mahmackrah, Elkenah, Libnah, Korash, Olishem, have some level of Hebrew etymological similarities, but none of them are real words. They came from, and once again I can’t stress this enough, Joseph’s mind.

The article goes on to make the case that the government system described in the Book of Abraham seems consistent with what Egyptology would tell us. To the extent that the Book of Abraham describes Egyptian government, this is logically consistent. Abraham tells us of the Pharaoh, but withholds naming the specific Pharaoh, just naming the office instead of the actual person, and lists priests. That’s the extent Egyptian government is described in the Book of Abraham. This would prove historical plausibility if no other government like that described in the Book of Abraham ever existed, or if Egyptomania in 19th-century Western culture wasn’t a thing, but the vast majority of historical governments have been made up of singular rulers like a king or Pharaoh, with advisors who were religious as much as government with the label of priests. To claim the Book of Abraham’s vague inclusion of allusions to Egyptian government is an argument for its authenticity is once again a case of special pleading and an argument from historical ignorance when there is absolutely no evidence to support the case. When one bases arguments on historical ignorance, we end up with Hebrews coming to America in wooden submarines in Abraham’s time.

The article then moves into the realm of social organization to makes its argument for the authenticity of the Book of Abraham. It uses the language of “land of Chaldeans,” and “land of Canaan” etc. to put forward the claim that this was articulating political details of how society was structured. This is what the article says:

“Egypt is clearly depicted as a state, while the land of Chaldea is a smaller political entity, having some social order and controlling some towns. But the lands of Canaan and Jershon are not political units, nor does Haran control more than presumably its immediate surroundings. This matches the picture of the Egyptian state during the Middle Kingdom as well as what we know of the social organization of northern Syria [143] and the city states of the land of Canaan during the Middle Bronze Age II period.”

Basing the argument that the Book of Abraham articulates accurate social structure of Ancient Egypt using these scant few passages which are merely referencing where Abraham supposedly travelled could be classified as a reification fallacy by overstating the evidence and reaching faulty generalizations based on the extremely limited data set heavily impacted by historical ignorance. It’s tantamount to somebody who said that they travelled to America, Mexico, Haiti, and the Caribbean is somehow telling us anything about the political or social structure of the American government. Everything about this line of argumentation is flawed and it’s a vast overstatement of the evidence to the point of either absurdity or blatant dishonesty, or possibly even both.

The final line of argumentation made in the essay is on the basis of Religion. It builds an entire case on the crocodile in the papyrus facsimile 1 which Joseph ascribed to the idolatrous god of Pharaoh. I simply can’t take issue with this line of argumentation because of lack of education in Egyptology. The crocodile is interpreted in Egyptology as the crocodile god Sobek, a lustful, aggressive, and carnal god. If the label idolatrous, as used in the Book of Abraham, can be used to represent any god other than Yahweh, then any religious text dealing with any god other than Yahweh is, by this definition of the word, idolatrous.

This isn’t a case of moving the goal posts fallacy, it’s a case of never even putting the goal posts down in the first place. The entire argument they build in defining Sobek as an idolatrous god fails to define what was meant in the passage of the Book of Abraham where it uses the word ‘idolatrous,’ and you can’t argue when words are used so clumsily and without any solid definition. You can’t argue with it, because no argument has been presented in the first place. This line of argumentation uses the fact that Joseph claimed the idolatrous god of Pharaoh as the crocodile which strikes similarities with a specific god described in Egyptology to build the case, yet ignores every single other instance where the facsimiles didn’t match up with Egyptology, making it a textbook Texas sharpshooter fallacy asserted based on extremely faulty and vague assumptions.

Our analysis thus far has been sharply critical representing all the simple formal and informal logical fallacies I could find in this academic article written by John Gee and Stephen Ricks. A huge problem exists in that I’m not trained in Egyptology and am only using critical thinking and skepticism to point out what I see as weak points. My biases are clear, as are the biases of anything coming out of BYU. That point is driven home in the penultimate section in the article. We’ll get to it momentarily, but let’s allow another Mormon Egyptologist, Kerry Muhlstein, to make a few arguments and we’ll see what holes we can poke in his apologetic defense of the authenticity of the Book of Abraham.

I’m going to play a number of clips from a YouTube video series published by FairMormon called Book of Abraham Challenges. It’s a series of 14 videos, most of which are around 3 minutes long. You can get through it in about half an hour and I would recommend doing so in order to scratch the surface of the apologetic arguments being made. The series is simply Kerry Muhlstein sitting in front of a camera and talking about the Book of Abraham. Let’s go through a number of clips and see what we can learn. Disclaimer time, I’m reproducing these for the purposes of critique and criticism in an educational context which falls well within fair use of creative commons licensing. None of these clips are full reproductions, just extracts from the video clips and you’ll find a link to the entire source video library in the show notes. Those with finely-tuned ears for audio like yours truly will probably hear some hard cuts in the audio clips. Those are not my cuts, those are the original video cuts. I didn’t alter any of this audio. The extracts we’ll be dealing with are completely intact from the original video.

Let’s begin with Muhlstein’s interactions with other Egyptologists in his studies surrounding the Book of Abraham.

Other Egyptologists Opposed

He starts this clip by championing how unique Mormonism is and basically implies that everybody not a member out there is somehow aligned in opposition to Mormon Egyptologists. Then he goes on to tell us that there’s an anti-religious undertone in academia and that academics are out to disprove anything related to religion. That is a hopeless straw-man argument. He’s implying that all academia is on some kind of anti-holiness crusade to disprove something just because it is religious. I think he’s either ignorantly or deliberately missing the point that academia isn’t anti-religious, it’s pro-facts. So many religions are anti-facts, which by transitive property makes academia somewhat anti-religion because it’s constrained by those pesky things we call facts and theories. Due to the ignorance of this statement, whether deliberate and willful, or just simple ignorance, this is a fallacious argument and plays well into the persecution narrative so lovingly embraced by so many Mormons.

After that he goes on to articulate an issue for Egyptologists when it comes to Joseph Smith’s translation methods in comparison to the broader world of Egyptology just burgeoning at the time. Yes, Joseph Smith claimed to be able to translate Egyptian before the discipline of verifiable Egyptology had spread to America, but it’s wrong. His translation is wrong, therefore his claim to be able to translate Egyptian is wrong. Then he states that a lot of people just like Joseph Smith claimed they could translated Egyptian hieroglyphs before Champollion’s work was well-known, but they all fell by the way-side, whereas people still continue to believe in Joseph’s translation, which is 100% incorrect I might add, and asks why that is. Jo claimed to translate by divine inspiration, not by grammar or any of those boring scientific methods, but by power from God, and it got it completely wrong! What does that say about Jo’s version of God and how his methods don’t match up with science? Why would that bother scientists when they see their colleagues believing in something that’s demonstrably false? This whole clip smacks of deliberate and willful ignorance and shows that Muhlstein’s, and all Mormon Egyptologists’, work surrounding Book of Abraham Egyptology is done with ulterior motives and does not deserve academic respect. His view that this is due to some kind of anti-religious or anti-Mormon slant in academia is misplaced because academia is anti-falsehood and he’s perpetuating falsehoods.

BoA not from Fac 1

A couple of points to contend with in this clip. First off, yes, the majority of the Chandler Papyrus collection was lost in the Great Chicago fire of 1871 and the only way Egyptologists can surmise what was included in that collection is by comparing other funerary texts to the Chandler collection and assuming similarities. The Book of the Dead and Book of Breathings were long and short papyrus scrolls respectively. They were permits issued to high-ranking deceased individuals in Egyptian society to guide them into the afterlife. Think of them as a religious death certificate and final blessing in Christian traditions, only written on papyrus scrolls. Each book was made for the individual for whom the books were made and detailed their familial lineage, but the template for most of these Books of Breathings and Books of the Dead are largely similar. It so happens that the Chandler collection was created for Hor, presumably the mummy with whom the papyri were buried as these death certificates were usually clutched in the arms of the mummified person for whom they were written. If the Book of Abraham was somehow part of the lost section of the collection, it would be a singular occurrence that flies in the face of everything Egyptology would intuit about similar kinds of funerary papyri. The claim Muhlstein is making here is that the Book of Abraham text is not taken from the accompanying facsimile 1 which was printed at the beginning of the Book of Abraham when it was published in 1842. This is one of the primary claims of most apologists and it’s simply wrong.

Jo, Warren Parrish, and William Wines Phelps began creating their alphabet and grammar system when they first attained the Chandler collection in 1835. From July to November, Jo read the Egyptian papyri around Facsimile 1, while these scribes created multiple notebooks which have the Egyptian symbols in the left column of the notebooks and the interpretation of the characters to the right. Those Egyptian characters are exactly the characters surrounding Facsimile 1 and the translation in the notebook next to the characters are the constituent parts of the current first and a few verses of the second chapters of the Book of Abraham. Furthermore, Facsimile 1 has a numbered explanation with corresponding numbers describing the scene in the cut which describes exactly what is happening in the first chapter of the Book of Abraham. I’ll use Muhlsteins words here, if a person claims that the Book of Abraham was not translated from the Egyptian hieroglyphics around Facsimile 1, it flies in the face of everything the majority of historians would conclude about the history of the Book of Abraham and the Chandler papyri collection.

To further the point, in another video, he seems to conclude that the struggle of Abraham with the idolatrous priest of Elkenah depicted in the Facsimile 1 and recounted in the first chapter of the Book of Abraham does, indeed, come from the Facsimile. Let me describe Facsimile 1 for anyone who hasn’t seen it before. It’s a picture of a priest over a person lying on a table that looks like a lion. The priest is holding a knife over the figure on the table and the figure has his two hands up in the air looking like he’s fending off the attack. The only problem is, that part of the papyri was filled in by Joseph Smith. When the Chandler collection fell into Jo’s possession, a chunk of the papyri in the shape of the state of Florida is was missing, cutting off the head of the priest and only showing the lower limbs and head of the person lying on the table. Jo filled it in incorrectly. An original intact Breathing Permit like this has the priest with an Anubis head, the Egyptian Jackal popular culture associates with Egypt and the person lying on the table has one hand down holding his erect penis while the other is up near his face. Additionally, there’s a bird with an extended wing above the person lying down which runs parallel to the lying-down person’s upraised hand. Jo filled in the missing piece with a fully clothed Abraham on the lion table, which he called an altar, and the left wing of the bird became the person’s other hand.

In this audio clip, Muhlstein describes Facsimile 1 as if the original looked exactly as Jo filled it in to look, but Facsimile 1 looks nothing like what other original Breathing Permits look like. This seems deliberately dishonest in my opinion coming from somebody who definitely knows better than for this to be just a simple oversight. Have a listen and think about what he says for yourself…

Abrahams struggle

It looks like a struggle… Yes, because that’s how Jo filled in the missing part of the picture. There are many other images accessible online which depict similar lion couch scenes on papyri and none of them look like what Joseph Smith interpolated in his drawing to fill in the missing portion, or lacuna, as it’s called in textual analysis. Any Egyptologist looking at modern pictures of Facsimile 1 can tell that it was filled in incorrectly and for somebody who spends so much time studying and writing about the Book of Abraham and Facsimile 1, Muhlstein definitely knows better and this is outright dishonest, I can’t see any other way of interpreting this information.

Muhlstein continues to focus on the sacrifice of Abraham in Facsimile 1 and the text of the Book of Abraham and makes the argument that human sacrifice was much more frequent in ancient Egypt than initially perceived, thus Abraham being almost sacrificed, yet saved by the spirit of the Lord, isn’t so far out of the realm of plausibility.

Ancient Texts about Abraham Sacrifice

I haven’t read the book to which Muhlstein is referring so I can’t debunk the information contained therein. I would merely add that it shouldn’t be surprising that human sacrifice happened in Ancient Egypt. There were a few scenarios which non-Mormon Egyptologists have clearly identified when human sacrifice would happen, and there could be some plausibility that some sacrifices were performed because of blasphemers as Abraham would have been seen to be. That human sacrifice occurred in Ancient Egypt does not prove the authenticity of the Book of Abraham, but merely that the claim of Abraham being offered as a sacrifice is plausible as depicted in the already proven-to-be inaccurate filling in of the lacuna of Facsimile 1. Here’s a little context for when Egyptologists know that human sacrifice did occur.

“The two definitions of human sacrifice that could be applied to the very early development of ancient Egypt are:

  • The ritual killing of human beings as part of the offerings presented to the gods on a regular basis, or on special occasions.

  • Retainer sacrifice, or the killing of domestic servants to bury them along with their master.

-- Human Sacrifice, Jacques Kinnaer”

The article on touregypt.net does go on to say that human sacrifices to the gods may have been in the form of slaying criminals and prisoners of war, which Abraham may have fallen into that category. But, once again, because this sacrificial ritualism did happen does not increase the probability that the Book of Abraham is true by one iota of historical measurement. This is text-book cherry-picking data to make it fit into an assumption that the Book of Abraham is true.

Next, I’m going to play two clips which seem to go together really well and fairly pose the great challenge that historical research into ancient near-east cultures is. Egypt, especially as we get closer to the Ptolemaic era, was a massive empire with a ton of documentation to provide windows into what Egyptian culture was like at various times throughout its long and storied past. The further away historians get from the Ptolemaic period in age and geography, the amount of documentable history quickly wanes and we’re left making many assumptions. The more assumptions within any historical model, the more loopholes for radical interpretations of history exist, and the Book of Abraham nestles comfortably in a number of those loopholes.

In these clips, Muhlstein makes the argument that the Book of Abraham on the Chandler papyri was a manuscript of Abraham’s writing and that the heading where it says ‘written by his own hand,’ is merely an artifact from the copies of copies of copies that were passed down for it to finally make it into the Chandler papyri. The problem with this argument is that no copies of the Book of Abraham on papyri or any other medium exist prior to 1842 when it was published by Joseph Smith in the Times and Seasons in Nauvoo. Copies of copies of copies passed down for 1800 years from a person where no extant contemporary proof exists of his existence, let alone of his writings, and all of those have been lost to historical antiquity and only one copy survived in the Chandler papyri. That is an extremely bold assertion and it’s not made without evidence, but rather counter to all other historical evidence, rendering the argument completely and offensively absurd.

Here’s the two clips and we’ll talk about them after.

Text vs. Manuscript


We already talked about the first clip before playing them, but the second clip bears quick mention. Anachronisms are fatal flaws to historical documents. If a text claims the Romans conquered the near and middle east with phaser guns or that Israelites came over to America in wooden submarines, it kinda destroys the credibility that the text is a contemporary source for those events. Needless to say, the Book of Abraham is full of anachronisms, not least of which is the 1800 year time span from when the biblical Abraham supposedly lived to when the Chandler Papyri were created.

The next clip deals with Jo and W.W. Phelps making their translation of the Egyptian alphabet and grammar which we briefly discussed earlier.

Egyptian grammar and translation method

Ooh Ooh, I have a theory! Jo made it up! Egyptomaina was in full-swing when he acquired the papyri and he’d claimed to have translated Egyptian before with the Book of Mormon, so why not translate some real Egyptian papyri. Plus, as Muhlstein stated, Champollion’s work hadn’t made the impact in American culture it had in Europe by this time and I’d be willing to bet that Jo was trying to jump the shark. With the thousands of European immigrants coming over thanks to Bloody Brigham Young’s emigration fund, people were probably talking a lot more about Egyptian stuff than they had before and Jo probably wanted to get his translation out as soon as possible to be yet one more of the competing alphabet and grammar lexicons on the market. So, he took the genesis narrative, peppered in a few romanticized details of Abraham’s life and times, lifting EVERYTHING from his favorite book, the Bible, and manufactured everything else to fit. That theory accounts for all the evidence including him and W.W. Phelps abandoning the task at the end of 1835 when they both must have realized that they didn’t know anything about Egyptology. Jo trying to make money off a current event makes a lot more sense than any convoluted mess of a theory apologists have constructed over the years to allow Jo to be a true prophet of God even though he got the entire translation wrong.

One wonders, if Jo had performed a perfect translation, wouldn’t all Egyptologists convert to the Church? Wouldn’t every member who studies the Book of Abraham have their testimony reinforced without fail? I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told by somebody that when they learned about the Book of Abraham they were done with Joseph Smith and the Church because it so brazenly and unequivocally proves Jo to be a false prophet. But, if the inverse were true and the translation is accurate, that should cause every member who studies the Book of Abraham and every non-Member Egyptologist who studies it to think Jo was a prophet, right?

Try to pick out all the wishy-washy language being used to deal with this issue…

Why not all Egyptologists Mormon

I’ll let that clip stand on its own merit. I think his biases and vested interests, both religious and monetary, are abundantly clear by this point, which he makes abundantly clear in this next clip.

Satisfy both sides

He’s held to a high standard by both sides of the issue. His Egyptologist colleagues will heavily scrutinize his work because they know his biases, and members of the Church will scrutinize his work if he isn’t apologetic enough. What a tenuous knife-edge to balance his scholarship. Do you think his balancing of these sides of the issue might color his conclusions and work to a noticeable degree? If he wasn’t a member of the Church, would he come to the conclusions his entire life’s work seems to be centered around? It’s merely his career, the respect of his Mormon and non-Mormon historian colleagues, his family and non-colleague friends, his life’s work and all the books and articles he’s written, and his entire eternal happiness at stake should he come to the Book of Abraham with the skepticism it deserves and renounces it as scripture. I don’t envy Muhlstein, Ricks, Gee, or anybody else who’ve built their livelihood around Book of Abraham apologetics, but I also don’t pity them. It’s just important to point out that Mormon Egyptologists have a lot riding on continuing to toe the party line when it comes to Mormon scripture.

The article we were reading through earlier by John Gee and Stephen Ricks has a similar section to what Muhlstein said in that last clip with a tiny section comprised of one paragraph called ‘What Is at Stake?’

“What is at stake if the Book of Abraham is jettisoned as unhistorical? Most Latter-day Saints do not turn to the Book of Abraham for astronomical information, nor do they generally quote the facsimiles in sacrament meeting talks. Rather, they turn to the Book of Abraham because it contains the clearest statement on the preexistence (3:21–28), the most concise statement of the purpose of life (3:25), [172] and the most comprehensive and succinct version of the Abrahamic covenant (2: ll). [173] Furthermore, Abraham’s stirring quest (1:2) is scarcely matched anywhere. [174] These are truly pearls of great price that Latter-day Saints are loath to trade for the mess of pottage that the critics offer them in exchange. What motivated the pioneers to undertake all that labor and to face all those hazards was not dim hope or wishful thinking about legends but a burning witness about what was really, historically true, a testimony of the canon of scriptures of the Latter-day Saints and the Prophet who revealed them.”

Don’t let the facts critics present get in the way of a good story, the pioneers sure didn’t and they’re up in the Celestial kingdom now. This paragraph seems to tip the hand of Gee and Ricks which they’ve been keeping close to their bosom since the beginning of the article. What other academic article includes a paragraph that says if you don’t believe in the subject matter, the cruel harsh world of academia offers you no solace?

One final clip from Muhlstein which drives this point home and really couches the entire issue of the field of study and apologetics surrounding the Book of Abraham in a single succinct 1:12 clip.

Gospel has answers

It’s not that you don’t have a perfect answer to everything, it’s that you offer answers and they’re WRONG! Those little tidbits he mentioned of Jershon and Olishem are mere cherry-picking of evidence, but that’s not how historical models are constructed. The entire field of Book of Abraham apologetics is built on a lie by Joseph Smith and the lengths needed to achieve some kind of cohesive view of the Book of Abraham to merely put it at the level of ‘historical plausibility’ are asinine and riddled with logical fallacies. Intellectual dishonesty can take many forms and this is the level of apologetics we’re dealing with when it comes to the Book of Abraham. Dishonesty, half-truths, overstating evidence, ignoring the preponderance of evidence to the contrary, all of this to satisfy a religious claim made by Joseph Smith, the prophet of God, the prophet of the last dispensation.

If all the books and the entire field of Book of Abraham apologetics relies on similar dishonesty and logical fallacies as this article and series of audio clips do, it’s no wonder Muhlstein feels attacked by Egyptologists who write critically about the subject. Academia isn’t anti-religion, it’s anti-falsehoods. When a religion calls patently absurd falsehoods it’s scripture, then academia is, by transitive property, anti-religion. Academia and science doesn’t exist to disprove religion, it exists to prove the world around us and that’s only a problem when religions claim falsehoods as truth. It’s not scientists and historians who are opposed to your religion, it’s your religion that’s opposed to facts that scientists and historians use to understand the world.

One point which has utterly escaped me in studying all of this field of apologetics is that the vast VAST majority of Mormons are never in contact with any of this information. The field of apologetics surrounding the Book of Abraham is made by extremely smart religious people, for extremely smart religious people who truly want to know about their religion. Sure, this field may cause some average, chapel-attending Mormons to put their concerns aside, but this doesn’t convince any skeptical Egyptologists. These arguments aren’t made to convert people to Mormonism, they’re made to keep people from jumping out of the sinking ship.

When Mormons hear about the Book of Abraham, it’s rarely in the capacity of skeptical criticisms and apologetic answers. Most contact the average chapel Mormon has with the Book of Abraham is reading a few verses out of it when hearing a lesson on the Plan of Salvation, and then that’s it. Their exposure is done and over with. They go home from church, eat dinner, and get up and go to work on Monday never thinking about the Book of Abraham with any level of skeptical scrutiny.

When this average chapel Mormon hears something critical about the Book of Abraham, their first stop won’t be byu.edu or bookofabrahamchallenges.org, it’ll the search bar at lds.org. That’s what we’ll go through, line upon line, precept upon precept next episode. We have an arsenal of arguments to point out the problems in the Book of Abraham, let’s pick up next week with ways to properly deal with that average Mormon who hears about these problems, reads the Translation and the Historicity of the Book of Abraham gospel topics essay on lds.org, and comes back living inside the tiny little carved out cognitive loophole of historical plausibility in which faith in the Book of Abraham must reside.

If you’ll hang in there for a few more minutes for a concluding thought…

The Book of Abraham doesn’t fall into the realm of Ancient Egyptology, it’s a creation of 19th-century American religious history. These video clips and the BYU article and all of the books and articles written by John Gee, Kerry Muhlstein, Hugh Nibley, Mike Rhodes, or any other Mormon Egyptologist or historians assume the Book of Abraham is what it claims to be and studies it through the lens of 12th or 13th dynasty Egyptian history, but no respectable Egyptologist believes the Chandler papyri have anything to do with the Book of Abraham. Yes, I assert that any Egyptologist who defends the Book of Abraham as what Joseph Smith claimed it to be as not worthy of respect. Sure, their other work in the field of Egyptology may be respectable, but if any of these Egyptologists are willing to cast aside the entire field of Egyptology for the sake of believing that the Book of Abraham came from the actual Abraham and was ‘translated’ by Joseph Smith, they are worthy of absolutely no respect for that level of intellectual dishonesty.

In order for that assertion to be justified, let’s draw those lines of distinction we began the show with. We have the supposed Abraham who lived somewhere around 2000 B.C.E. and left behind no writings with no contemporary evidence for his existence. Even Genesis, from which Abraham’s story is known, was only written down around 700 B.C.E., passed down from oral traditions. If Abraham was a real historical person, you think some details may have been lost in that 1300 year timespan where we have absolutely no writings about him whatsoever? Then we have Ptolemaic Egypt spanning about 300 B.C.E. to around 30 B.C.E., during which the Chandler papyri were created with little or no Hebrew influence, much less contain anything about Hebrew prophets whose existence is already a matter of conjecture. After that we move ahead another 1800 years, and to the other side of the Earth, and we have Joseph Smith come along publishing the Book of Abraham in 1842. When we examine these massively disparate points of human history, culture, religion, and events, and further attempt to connect threads among all those points spanning 4000 years of written history, EVERYTHING breaks down. We’re left with cherry-picking data, making broad overgeneralizations, moving the goalposts, sharpshooting conclusions based on overstated evidence, granting historical plausibility to completely absurd assertions, and more importantly, we’re forced to ignore the mountains of evidence staring us in the face which unequivocally prove Joseph Smith’s assertions to be false.

To complicate matters even further, the Brighamite Church has been defending the Book of Abraham as scripture since 1880 when it was canonized as a constituent book within the Pearl of Great Price. Since the rediscovery of the Papyrus collection in the Metropolitan museum in New York in 1966, Mormon apologists have spent countless mental and monetary resources defending the veracity of the Book of Abraham for what it purports, and Joseph Smith claimed it, to be. This is a vicious sunk-cost fallacy feedback loop making it seem like the LDS Church is essentially unable to abandon the Book of Abraham as scripture. What kind of face would the Church lose if they leadership came out tomorrow and decanonized the Book of Abraham because of problems with its historicity? Would it not logically follow that such a move would open up more Mormon scripture to being disavowed or removed due to similar historic inaccuracies? Once you say the Book of Abraham isn’t scripture because it’s not factual, how does that not open up the Book of Mormon, as well as every resultant teaching and doctrine following it, to the same vulnerability? Where might that lead?

Look, the Book of Abraham exists, it was a creation of Joseph Smith in 1842. The Chandler papyri existed and fragments of the collection still exist today, and that was all made around the 1st or second century B.C.E. as the funerary rights for a high-ranking individual in Egyptian society. Abraham may have existed, but any evidence of his life comes only from the Bible which is rife with historical inaccuracies already and shouldn’t be granted any greater level of historical credibility than any other religious texts from the same time periods which books of the Bible were written during. All of those facts exist separate and distinct from each other and any effort to reconcile those is an exercise in futility at best and unabashed lying to prove a narrative with no connection to reality at worst, all because of religion and the scripture it clings to. There are no respectable historians or Egyptologists who think the Book of Abraham is anything other than a creation of Joseph Smith.

Rob Ritner said it succinctly in The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri: A Complete Edition when referring to Facsimile 1 and the related text of the Book of Abraham. I’ll let Ritner put the cherry on top for today:

“Since 1861, professional Egyptologists have been justifiably dismissive of Smith’s uninformed explanations, and now Even the FARMS-sponsored publication by Rhodes (2002) has failed to defend or even cite them.

Here, at least, there is agreement that the Smith explanations are untenable, and as the images are directly cited in the narrative itself, the underlying text of the Book of Abraham has been found and Smith’s interpretation disproved. There can be no question of any “lost” section of the papyrus that contained an ancient text composed by Abraham, since the author of the supposedly pre-existent Book of Abraham both claims and depicts the Ptolemaic vignette as his own additions (Facsimile 1) to the tale. Abraham cannot have lived as late as the Ptolemaic era, the papyrus illustration of Hor cannot be dated earlier than the Ptolemaic era, and no rational defense of the narrative is possible. Except for those willfully blind, the case is closed. As an episode in American religious history and early “Egyptomania,” the text is still of interest; no investigator seeking ancient evidence should waste [their] time.”



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