Joseph Smith’s Egyptian papers, with Robin Jensen & Brian Hauglid [MIPodcast #92]
Joseph Smith left a lot of documents behind when he died in 1844, from the mundane to the intriguing. Some of the more puzzling documents deal with a book of scripture in the Latter-day Saint canon called the Book of Abraham. Said to be translated from ancient papyrus, the scripture broadens the story of the Hebrew Bible’s figure of Abraham.
Where did the papyrus come from? What do modern Egyptologists have to say about it? And what do these documents suggest to Latter-day Saint historians about Joseph Smith’s work as a translator?
Brian Hauglid and Robin Scott Jensen join us in this episode to talk about the latest scholarship on the Book of Abraham. Jensen is an associate managing historian with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the project archivist for the Joseph Smith Papers. Hauglid is a visiting fellow here at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute. Together they edited Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts, part of the Joseph Smith Papers project. Lucky for you, this material is already available on the JSP website here.
Brian M. Hauglid (left) is an associate professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University and visiting fellow at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He earned a PhD in Arabic and Islamic Studies from the University of Utah. He has worked in Book of Abraham studies for over twenty years. As an editor for the Maxwell Institute’s “Studies in the Book of Abraham” series, Hauglid assisted in compiling and editing Traditions about the Early Life of Abraham and Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant. He also published A Textual History of the Book of Abraham.
Robin Scott Jensen (right) is an associate managing historian and the project archivist for the Joseph Smith Papers. He coedited the first three volumes in the Revelations and Translations series. He specializes in document and transcription analysis, and is also a member of the Church History Department Editorial Board. He earned an MA degree in American history from Brigham Young University, and a second MA in library and information science from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. He is now pursuing a PhD in history at the University of Utah.
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges.
Joseph Smith, Latter-day Saint prophet, left a lot of documents behind when he died in 1844, some more mundane, some more intriguing. Some of the more puzzling documents deal with a book of scripture in the Latter-day Saint canon called the Book of Abraham. Said to be translated from ancient papyrus, the scripture broadens the story of the Hebrew Bible’s figure of Abraham.
Where did the papyrus come from? What do modern Egyptologists have to say? And what these documents tell Latter-day Saint historians about Joseph Smith’s work as a translator? Brian Hauglid and Robin Scott Jensen join us in this episode to talk about the latest scholarship on the Book of Abraham. Jensen is an associate managing historian with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the project archivist for the Joseph Smith Papers. Hauglid is a visiting fellow here at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute.
It’s Robin Scott Jensen and Brian M. Hauglid on the Book of Abraham. Questions and comments about this and other episodes of the show can be sent to me at email@example.com.
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BLAIR HODGES: Robin Scott Jensen and Brian M. Hauglid join us today. They’re the editors of volume four, Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts, part of the Joseph Smith Papers Project. And I know both of you. So Rob, I already know that I can call you Rob laughs]. Thanks for coming on the show today.
ROBIN SCOTT JENSEN: It’s a pleasure to be here, Blair. Thank you.
HODGES: And also Brian, you’re here at the Maxwell Institute. We’ve known each other for quite some time now. But it’s good to sit down and actually be in an interview setting with you.
BRIAN HAUGLID: Glad to be here.
HODGES: So we’re talking about these Egyptian documents. Let’s begin with some context. Early Americans in Joseph Smith’s time, so we’re looking at the early 1800s, were fascinated by Egypt. It wasn’t just Joseph Smith. It wasn’t just Latter-day Saints. This was something that spread across different parts of America in general. Let’s talk about what this fascination was about. Was it a new fascination?
HAUGLID: Well, we’re looking at probably the later 1700s maybe. Somewhere around there, where you have a lot going on over in Egypt following Napoleon’s going into Alexandria there and then unloading a lot of artisans and people that would sketch things. There’s a lot that was going on at that time. Then they would of course unearth things. They had to get rid of a lot of sand first, but they unearthed lots of materials. Papyri, mummies, of course, but all sorts of other artifacts as well.
HODGES: We think of Napoleon as being involved in warfare, right? But Napoleon and the French army go into Alexandria and then they’re interested in artifacts when they get in there?
HAUGLID: Absolutely. This is not uncommon, I don’t think, for coming into a new country. Egypt I’m sure at that time was pretty mysterious to a lot of people. There hadn’t been a lot that people knew about it, obviously—
HODGES: Sort of like this lost civilization?
HAUGLID: Yeah, something like that. So then when you start getting all these artifacts that you’re unearthing from the ground and you’re finding tombs and temples and all sorts of monumental architecture it just grabs the imagination, I’m sure.
HODGES: And this wasn’t the first time that people had become aware that Egypt was there. As you said, it sort of had this aura of deep lost time. So Egyptian language was also a pretty big puzzle and in the introduction to this book, Joseph Smith’s Egyptian Documents, you talk about some of the fascination with Egyptian language that goes pretty far back. What was that about?
HAUGLID: Well, there were ideas even up into Joseph Smith’s day about Egyptian being closely related to Hebrew. They knew Hebrew, of course, but if you could crack Egyptian and see what is lying behind those languages then perhaps you can go even further back, and in a religious sense maybe even find the language of Adam, the pure language, that kind of thing. So there was a language component to it that was really important. That goes right up into Joseph Smith’s period.
But the other part with all the artifacts, it’s when these artifacts start going out into Europe. Then we have a term for it, we call it “Egyptomania,” it’s a pretty common term now, I think it’s used in scholarship, where it reaches into the United States in the early 1800s—
HODGES: Like everybody was wearing Egypt T-shirts and stuff? [laughing]
HAUGLID: Probably. Why not? I mean it’s just fascinating to these people. So when we get more into the story of the Book of Abraham we’ll see that’s a big part of it with these traveling shows basically of showing off these artifacts.
HODGES: One of the things that was discovered, I think, after Napoleon’s invasion that really advanced the ball or began to advance the ball on the Egyptian language was the Rosetta stone. Talk about the Rosetta stone a little bit.
HAUGLID: Yes. That was found in Alexandria, Egypt. I can’t remember the exact date right now off the top of my head, but it was found fairly early on. It was in three languages. One of them was Greek, the other one was hieroglyphs, and the other one was a later rendition of Egyptian that was called Demotic. Of course Champollion knew Greek and so he—
HODGES: This was a scholar—
HAUGLID: Yeah. So he was able to crack the language, if you will.
HODGES: It’s sort of like an interpretive key that could decipher these languages.
HAUGLID: Because it was the same message in all these three scripts. And he was able to figure that out.
RESOURCES AVAILABLE TO JOSEPH SMITH
HODGES: And he started working on that about the time Joseph Smith was thinking about these things too, but in the book you write that it was really an academic exercise at this point and it wasn’t seeping down to the general public.
HAUGLID: No, no, not at all. In fact you have other people working on Egyptian before Champollion. Thomas Young is one who wanted to be credited more than he probably was on laying some groundwork in this, but it’s Champollion obviously that really brings it out.
This is a little bit earlier on. I think his publication was early 1820s when he puts out his grammar. That grammar actually doesn’t really get into the United States until probably the mid 1850s I would say.
HODGES: So it was after the Book of Abraham was produced and after these documents were created.
HAUGLID: Oh yeah. Well after the Book of Abraham. I mean you did have some people working on it and publishing on it in New York that was contemporary with Joseph Smith, but it was still not as extensive and probably as much of a, I mean there were no language courses or anything I would think that were going on or teaching it in the colleges or universities at that point.
HODGES: And, Rob, there were competing theories leading up to this about how to decipher Egyptian that maybe you could talk about a little bit, whether these hieroglyphs represented ideas or whether they were just sounds sort of like our alphabet today. What kind of competing ideas were floating around?
JENSEN: So even though Joseph Smith wasn’t necessarily drawing upon the up-to-date scholarship going on in Europe he did have these assumptions, it was in the water, that these many scholars for the last one hundred plus years trying to figure out these hieroglyphs, what was this language? What did it mean?
So you had a lot of different theories. You had theories that would say one hieroglyph might have multiple meanings or one hieroglyph could have whole thoughts, complete sentences that were based upon just one hieroglyph itself.
So when Joseph Smith and others looked to these hieroglyphs they could draw upon many different theories, many different takes on what these characters may have meant.
HODGES: Talk about the mummy enthusiasm a little bit too, because the way that the papyri that Joseph Smith would eventually possess came to him was in tandem with these actual mummies, some of these antiquities that were floating into America.
JENSEN: Yeah, so along with this Egytpomania you had institutions that would purchase mummies, purchase papyri, purchase artifacts from Egypt. This was the beginning of some of these great collections throughout Europe and the United States.
As part of that you had individuals who were very curious but couldn’t afford to buy these things, so you essentially had traveling exhibits, individuals who would have mummies and just tour various places. There is evidence that one such exhibit was within just a few miles from the Smith home in Palmyra. So these went throughout the United States.
One of the things that I love and that I would love to experience if I were a time traveler are some of these unwrapping parties—I don’t know what they called them back then, that’s what I call them—where you would get a mummy and a big gathering would come together and you would just unwrap the mummy and see what was underneath.
HODGES: This seems so unreal!
JENSEN: It’s wild!
HODGES: I’m sure archaeologists and people today would just lose their minds if this were happening.
JENSEN: This is not what archaeologists or other scholars today would want to see happen, but it really does capture kind of the sense of the excitement that people had in the nineteenth century.
HODGES: And the proximity to it.
JENSEN: Yeah. I would add that we sometimes look back and say “oh, yeah, they didn’t have the Internet or TV or whatever, they were bored so they were interested in this,” but I remember as an elementary school kid learning the hieroglyphs and what they meant, and I remember in Utah they had a bunch of papyri come. It was a big deal and it was exciting. You pull out a dollar bill and there’s still pyramids on it. I mean we’re still captivated. We’ve inherited this fascination really with Egyptian civilization.
HAUGLID: It’s interesting that during this period you’ve also got sort of these fads of selling mummy wrappings, parts of mummy wrappings, mummy rags they called them, or mummy dust that they put in to make medicines out of. Those kinds of things. It was really interesting how they looked at these.
HODGES: The mummy dust couldn’t have been that helpful, I mean the mummies were dead. If they had any kind of magical powers…[laughter]
HAUGLID: It’s all of this mystique. This mysteriousness that we are talking about here, this fascination with anything ancient Egypt.
JENSEN: It’s strange to envision what people in the nineteenth century would have ingested, and that does include mummy dust.
HAUGLID: Yes, it does include that.
JOSEPH SMITH’S MUMMIES
HODGES: How did these particular mummies then get to Joseph Smith and wind up in Kirtland, Ohio of all places? You have mummies coming from Egypt and winding up in Ohio.
JENSEN: So with Napoleon’s discovery he brought scholars into Egypt. They kind of revitalized this interest in Egypt, so you had many individuals trying to fill a market of interest in Egyptian materials. So you had various individuals digging up spots in Egypt, graves, whatnot, and some of the collection made its way to America.
A man by the name of Lebolo is known to have unearthed much of this collection. The material that Joseph Smith and the Latter-day Saints obtained was actually a much smaller percentage of what was originally unearthed, and we can trace it here and there, not completely, not totally to our satisfaction, but we can trace it from Egypt into Europe, Italy, over to New York City, and then it was part of this traveling exhibit, essentially.
Shortly before this exhibit made its way to Kirtland, Ohio, we have a man by the name of Michael Chandler who was overseeing that. So he sold some of that collection off piecemeal.
Anyway, Michael Chandler in 1835 in the summer came into Kirtland, apparently with the understanding that he was going to finish off selling this collection. And he felt that Joseph Smith and other Latter-day Saints would have been an interested party for this collection.
HODGES: And so Joseph sees these mummies and the papyri, he’s very much interested, and in the book you talk about how he sort of offers up a quick translation sample to Chandler, and then Chandler sort of gives this certificate saying “oh yeah, great job on this translation.”
But as you write in the book, it was probably more that he was trying to make a sale. He was trying to ingratiate himself to Joseph and the Saints. So this initial translation was probably not what an Egyptian scholar today would produce.
HAUGLID: Chandler was probably to some degree an opportunist. I mean there’s no question about that. This was a moneymaking venture for him. There had been a total of eleven mummies originally that came into New York, and he had sold seven of them along the way, so he has four left by the time he’s going into Kirtland, and so money’s definitely an issue with all of this.
But we don’t really know exactly when Michael Chandler comes into the picture because we just find him in Cincinnati and then he comes into Kirtland, but we don’t really know what’s going on up and down the eastern coastline there, who’s responsible for it. We have an idea of some of where these mummies went and who bought some of them, but we’re not sure if there was a Chandler involved with any of that.
HODGES: Are any of those particular mummies that were part of that grouping still around?
HAUGLID: Yeah, there’s one of the heads of one of the seven mummies in the University of Pennsylvania. That was brought to BYU’s campus one time. H. Donl Peterson had it here in the early 80s when he would teach Pearl of Great Price and show it off to the students. But it got to be a liability issue.
HODGES: There are some ethical questions about that, too?
HAUGLID: Yeah, there are ethical questions as well. So eventually it had to be taken back to Pennsylvania, but it’s there. I don’t know if it’s on display. But that’s one of them.
HODGES: There are some movements to even repatriate antiquities. There’s a lot of controversy about that, about antiquities and things that were taken as part of war and whether those should remain in countries that they were taken away to or whether they should be returned.
HAUGLID: Absolutely. The Rosetta Stone is actually a good example of that. Egypt would like that back.
HODGES: Where is it housed now?
HAUGLID: It’s at the British Museum in England.
HODGES: It’s really controversial to say who should own these things?
HAUGLID: That’s right.
HODGES: Some would make the argument “well we’ve been caring for it all this time,” or “we can provide this, and look at all this great research that has happened.” But then they say this came from our country.
HAUGLID: It comes from that colonial mindset, you know, that we’re the civilized people and these are the savages so to speak.
HODGES: What about the mummies that Joseph Smith had in particular? What happened to the mummies? I know after he died they were still in the possession of Lucy Mack Smith, I think you said.
HAUGLID: Yeah. After Lucy dies in 1856 I think it is, then Emma of course takes possession of the mummies and I don’t know how long—
JENSEN: It’s within a matter of weeks. Emma apparently didn’t like dead bodies in her house. She sold them off fairly quickly.
HAUGLID: Do you remember who she sold them to?
JENSEN: To the Coombs family.
HAUGLID: Abel Coombs. That’s right. Yep.
JENSEN: Then Abel Coombs had them for a time. The collection apparently split into at least two collections. One collection made its way eventually to Chicago. They were on display at the Chicago Museum, and then with the great fire of Chicago that collection burned up.
HODGES: That included some of the papyri, not just mummies?
HAUGLID: That was in 1871, yeah.
JENSEN: And for a good time most scholars believed that all of the collection had burned in Chicago, but then in the 1960s it was made aware that the papyri that is existing now was in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Eventually that was acquired by the church, where it is today.
HAUGLID: I think there were two mummies as well that didn’t make it to the Chicago—
JENSEN: That’s right. I was just talking about the one in Pennsylvania.
HAUGLID: Yeah. So there’s Brian Smith, he’s done some work on this and he traced some of the four going up into Canada. That’s about where he’s kind of left off. We’re not exactly sure what’s happened since then.
HODGES: Did people just pack these up in boxes and ship them around? These mummies are just floating around in barges and whatnot?
HAUGLID: Conservation probably wasn’t very technical back in those days.
HODGES: That’s what’s amazing is these mummies lasted millennia and then within the span of two hundred years…most of them we don’t quite know. Interesting.
JOSEPH SMITH PAPYRI PRESERVATION ATTEMPTS
JENSEN: So one thing I’ll add, this question about the ultimate repository for some of these ancient artifacts, I think the physicality of the Joseph Smith papyri really kind of clarifies this issue where the papyri are, in fact, ancient documents. They were created a little bit before the time of Christ. They had meaning, interpretation, the purpose of creation. And then when Joseph Smith and his fellow clerks and leaders and whatnot acquired these papyri they made them their own essentially. They cut them up, they pasted them to backing on some fairly important paper—
HODGES: Which they thought would maybe even preserve it.
JENSEN: They were doing this with an eye of preservation. We looked at one point at these papyri and had an expert come and look at them just to understand the condition they were in and whatnot and the conservator said “you know what? It probably would be better if you removed the paper backing. That would preserve the paper better.”
But that paper backing was actually drawings of the Kirtland House of the Lord, the Kirtland Temple. These are very important nineteenth century documents for the LDS church. So here we have the papyri themselves, both ancient documents, also nineteenth century documents in the sense that they really made a mark, they were part of LDS history, and to divide the ancient context with the nineteenth century context proves very difficult. You have to understand them both in their ancient setting but also how Joseph Smith and his fellow clerks interpreted it, used it, brought their own cultural sensibilities to these documents.
UNDERSTANDING THE NINETEENTH CENTURY SETTING
HODGES: Yeah, the marriage of those documents seems like a metaphor for the Book of Abraham in some ways, where you have this intersection between the ancient world and the nineteenth century and they’ve been glued together, and trying to separate them, trying to pull them apart can do damage to both things and sort of trying to understand each of those in their respective context.
JENSEN: Yep. Intellectually you want to divide them. You want to say “well the papyri, that’s one thing. The nineteenth century setting, that’s another thing. They’re not together.” In some senses that is true. But in another way, we have to understand how Joseph Smith and others viewed the papyri, viewed them in their nineteenth century context, without trying to take on our own understanding. There’s been a lot of work in Egyptology since Joseph Smith’s day, obviously.
HODGES: I would say the vast majority of usable work has been.
JENSEN: So it’s very tempting to say “well, Joseph Smith didn’t know what he was talking about. Oliver Cowdery, Phelps, others, they were naive in thinking they could even make sense of this,” but for Joseph and his contemporaries this was a real effort. This was a real attempt to understand these papyri for what they were, what they could offer them, and what they could teach about the universality of human nature.
HAUGLID: Yes. That’s kind of where I was going to go. You have really a first response to all this Egyptomania stuff going on with all these papyri fragments and such coming in. We’re seeing Joseph Smith as one of those first responders in a sense to this material coming into their possession, and what they’re making of it is sometimes, for us we might say it’s off, it’s not Egyptology at all, and that’s okay, but just the fact that how they responded to it tells us things. It helps us understand where they’re coming from and this Egyptian material triggers that for us. So we get kind of a close-up view in a sense.
JENSEN: I also often tell people that Joseph Smith and other’s work in understanding, trying to decipher these papyri, tells us more about their own worldview than it does about the ancient world.
HAUGLID: Absolutely. I agree.
TRANSLATING THE BOOK OF ABRAHAM
HODGES: That’s Brian Hauglid and Rob Jensen. We’re talking about their new book, part of the Joseph Smith Papers Project in the “Revelations and Translations” series. It’s the volume called Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts.
So picking up the thread we were just pulling, the book itself uses different terms to describe Joseph Smith’s work here. I think one thing the book makes clear is that if someone looks at the Joseph Smith papyri that we have and compares to the Book of Abraham, modern Egyptologists would look at that and say “that’s not what’s on that papyri.”
So when we think about what translation is, we typically think about one-to-one correspondence. You have an old document in an old language, you put it into this new language, and they’re basically much the same thing. But you talk about how translation, decipherment, and transliteration are ways to think about what Joseph Smith was doing here and it’s different than what we typically think of translation today.
JENSEN: We need to remember Joseph Smith was first and foremost a prophet. He claimed that title. People of the church joined the church with that understanding. Joseph Smith was a prophet, seer, revelator. That’s how he was known to Latter-day Saints. When he claimed these translations, when he told the world essentially that he translated, we sometimes think “this is a scholarly translation. He’s pulling out dictionaries or English to Reformed Egyptian dictionaries or whatnot.” But that is not the case. This was not a purely academic approach.
For the Book of Mormon translation I think it’s actually quite helpful to understand not just the Egyptomania context for these papyri, but to understand Joseph Smith’s own translation context. Joseph Smith was not unfamiliar with producing translations. He had produced several before 1835 when these papyri came on to Kirtland.
In fact, Oliver Cowdery paints an interesting scene. Michael Chandler comes and shows him these ancient documents, these papyri, and Joseph Smith in turn shows Michael Chandler copies from the golden plates, these copies from the new world versus the old world essentially. They’re comparing writings from ancient cultures.
Joseph Smith, when he translated the Book of Mormon, had many different ways in which he would translate. He of course would use instruments such as the Urim and Thummim, the interpreters, the seer stones. He also was engaged on an intellectual level. We need to remember that when he first made copies of these original characters he was very willing to allow for scholars to assist him in the translation.
HODGES: He sent Martin Harris away with the documents.
JENSEN: Exactly. So when Joseph Smith picked up or attempted to translate the Bible for the Bible Revision Project, what we call the Joseph Smith translation, there’s a similar approach. It seems that he’s relying upon divine guidance, but he’s also with current scholarship and whatnot. It seems that he’s also relying on scholarship of the day, and that he’s looking at various biblical commentaries in the translation.
HODGES: And he started a Hebrew school and started to learn that language, based on his interest—
RECORDS OF THE TRANSLATION PROJECT
JENSEN: Yeah. He’s interested in both the divine translation, but he’s also recognizing that there’s an intellectual component there as well. Unfortunately, we don’t have much from Joseph Smith himself. At an early conference of the church, Hyrum Smith stands up and—
HODGES: —You mean much of him describing the translation project.
JENSEN: Exactly. At this early conference of the church Hyrum stood up and said, “hey Joseph, why don’t you tell those assembled how you translated the Book of Mormon?”—I’m paraphrasing, obviously. Joseph Smith stood up and said, “no, I’m not going to tell you. It’s not for the world to know.” The closest we have, or the most detailed description we have for the Book of Mormon translation from Joseph Smith is “I translated it by the gift and power of God.”
So what we need to remember when we hear these words translate, decipher, whatnot, Joseph Smith is relying upon a divine component in translating. But we also need to remember that there is an intellectual component as well.
So it shouldn’t surprise us, in fact it would surprise us if we didn’t have some of these documents that they produced in trying to decipher the Egyptian language. It was essentially them following scriptural mandate in “studying out in their mind.” (Doctrine and Covenants 9:8)
We, of course, remember the story when Oliver Cowdery was helping, assisting Joseph Smith in the Book of Mormon translation and he wanted to have a go. He wanted to translate. Joseph Smith allowed him to try it out. He tried, failed. They received a revelation that essentially said, “Oliver, you didn’t think this through. You thought you would just get the translation, but you have to study it out in your mind.”
I believe that the Egyptian language documents that are published in this volume is the documentary record of Joseph Smith and others studying out in their mind.
HODGES: You also include a number of quotes from people, associates of Joseph Smith describing the process. So, while Joseph didn’t say “here’s exactly how it worked,” other people were making assumptions and talking about it.
For example, some people were talking about the Urim and Thummim and saying that he would use that to translate. In other accounts that’s not present there. So you also have some different accounts from Joseph Smith’s own associates about how it was working.
JENSEN: Yeah, and actually we have more about Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon than we do with the Book of Abraham. We just have very little from Joseph Smith’s associates on how the Book of Abraham was actually translated.
We have a few references to instruments. The very best reference comes from Wilford Woodruff in his daily journal in Nauvoo; he was assisting in the printing office in setting the type when they were publishing the Book of Abraham for the church. He in his journal mentioned that Joseph Smith was translating these hieroglyphs through the aid of the Urim and Thummim.
We have another close associate, Warren Parrish, who after he’d left the church—he was fairly bitter actually towards Joseph Smith—he said that he sat by Joseph Smith’s side as he, Joseph, translated, or so he claims, these hieroglyphs. So even this kind of antagonistic source claims that Joseph Smith indicated that his translation was through divine guidance.
HODGES: That he wasn’t just sitting down and—He didn’t know how to read Egyptian, in other words.
Brian, I wanted to ask you now about different kinds of documents that are in this Joseph Smith Papers volume. It’s not just the Book of Abraham. This part of the history of these documents is lesser known. So your volume contains three different categories of documents. It contains the papyri, it contains Egyptian language documents, and then it contains manuscripts and the first publication of the Book of Abraham itself. Differentiate between those for us if you would.
HAUGLID: Sure. So with the papyri we have all of the fragments that were returned to the church in 1967, so all those fragments are now in possession of the church.
HODGES: And that includes one of the facsimiles…
HAUGLID: That includes one of the vignettes for Facsimile One. That was connected to another fragment, that’s very important, that we’ll bring up in a minute. Now I don’t know how far we want to go here but those fragments generally speaking are funerary documents. In other words, Book of the Dead, Book of Breathings is a very common title that you’ll hear—
HODGES: So these are texts that the ancient Egyptians would create to bury with someone who died and it would sort of be a guidebook or pass book in the afterlife.
HODGES: Almost like a passport.
HAUGLID: Something like that, yeah.
HODGES: So it’s not a narrative of the Book of Abraham in these particular documents.
HAUGLID: No, none of these documents have any of the Book of Abraham on them. Except for just the vignette, from which we get Facsimile One. That’s all we have. And so these documents do not have the Book of Abraham on them.
HODGES: In fact, you edited a series that first published translations of those through the Maxwell Institute.
HAUGLID: That’s exactly right. Yes. Through the “Studies in the Book of Abraham” series, where Michael Rhodes puts out his translation and commentaries of two of the major, I guess, scrolls if you want to call them that, or rolls of papyrus.
One is the Scroll of Hor, the one with the image of the Facsimile One on it and the papyri that goes with that. Then there’s the other one, the Ta Sherit-Min, which is a different roll that he also translated and provided commentary for. That’s more related to what we’ll talk about as “the notebooks” in just a moment here.
So you have the papyri, and we could go on and on and on about the papyri—
HODGES: And we don’t have it all. Some of it’s missing?
HAUGLID: Yeah. We don’t have everything that was in the possession of Joseph Smith. But what we do have is pretty significant. We’ll talk about why it’s significant as we go along here.
JENSEN: Maybe I’ll just jump in. The Joseph Smith Papers, it’s a collection of documents created by or owned by Joseph Smith. Some might say “well these papyri, they were created two thousand years ago, why are they part of the Joseph Smith Papers?” It’s under that criteria of ownership. Joseph Smith purchased these documents. They were in his possession. He showed them to many people. Because of that criteria we have published the papyri.
HODGES: Was there something in particular about that criteria? Was there something that the Joseph Smith Papers Project, as it was originally envisioned, wanted to include? There’s a logic to it, but I’m interested in why that logic was what was landed on.
JENSEN: It helps in publishing the papyri, but it actually helps us publish incoming correspondence. He’s not obviously writing letters that are coming to him, but we wanted to capture those, and so ownership was the way in which we could incorporate the incoming correspondence.
THE NOTEBOOKS AND ALPHABET DOCUMENTS
HAUGLID: So then you mentioned another category of documents, the Egyptian documents. What we have there is a couple of notebooks that have drawings in them from some of the papyri.
HODGES: So someone copied drawings. They looked at the papyri, Joseph Smith’s clerks looked at it and sort of made copies of those drawings.
HAUGLID: Exactly. Then you also have some of the characters drawn from some of the papyri as well written into these notebooks. And we’re not exactly sure what these notebooks were used for. They could have been some of the initial scribblings that they made when they first got the papyri perhaps, because a lot of it is in Oliver Cowdery’s and W. W. Phelps’ handwriting, who were the ones that were named as those who were going to help translate the Book of Abraham. So I can see why their names would kind of be prominent there.
But those notebooks are—there’s two of them. One of them has “ancient records found buried in ancient Egypt” or something like that and then Joseph Smith’s signature is underneath that. So they’re pretty interesting.
We could go on and on about that again, but let’s go to the next Egyptian papers, and that’s three 1835 Egyptian alphabet documents in the handwriting of Joseph Smith with some help from Oliver Cowdery on that one, W. W. Phelps of course, and then Oliver Cowdery again. They pretty much cover the same material in these.
In other words, they’ll take characters from the papyri, they’ll put them in the left column, and I think they tried to do a pronunciation guide with how to say this particular glyph or whatever. We don’t know exactly where those transliterations came from, quite honestly.
HODGES: They didn’t write where it came from. There’s no record?
HAUGLID: They didn’t tell us where it came from. My guess is, this is just me, I’m suspecting that they’re thinking this is all a revelatory process. So they wouldn’t have to tell us where it’s coming from if it was in that sense, being a revelation. But that’s just my opinion.
Then they’d have in the far right section the meaning. They were kind of lexical papers. They were in kind of a lexical format where you have glyphs, how to say it, and then the meanings of these glyphs.
Those materials were further elaborated upon in what was called the Grammar Book, the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar Book. That’s mostly in Phelps’ handwriting. There’s a little bit of Parrish in there. Those expanded on those three Egyptian alphabet documents and go further into another system that we call, I guess, a “five-degree system” where the lower degrees where the meanings of the text, the glyphs and such, go from a lesser meaning to a greater meaning.
HODGES: So there’s like five levels of meaning. So you have a glyph and it just means something basic, but then there’s a second level of meaning, so it means this bigger thing, and then a third level, and a fourth level, and a fifth level which could be like a whole paragraph or something.
HAUGLID: Generally speaking, I mean we found some exceptions to this, but generally speaking that’s what we’re seeing.
HODGES: And that’s not how the Egyptian language actually works?
HAUGLID: No. Not at all. Once I showed it to an Egyptologist, a friend of mine, and I said what do you make of these Egyptian papers here? And he said that they’re not Egyptian. They’re just not Egyptian. But I guess those are the three main components of the Egyptian part. The notebooks, the alphabet documents, and then the grammar book. We could probably say those are the three main components of that.
Then the next component, or the next category you mentioned, is the Abraham manuscripts getting ready for publication. The Abraham manuscripts, we have three sets of 1835 documents that cover Abraham chapter one through chapter two, verse eighteen. Not all three of them cover that exact range, but it’s just roughly so that we’re talking about. Those documents are unique because they have in the left margins characters taken from the fragment that was once attached to the vignette that we get Facsimile One from.
In other words, let me try to simplify this a little bit. For the Egyptian alphabet, they’re taking glyphs from the Facsimile One fragment and generally speaking they’re going from right to left, okay? They go all the way down on the last column and then they go to the next fragment that was once attached and they take three of the lines of characters from that and put it in these 1835 Abraham manuscripts.
We’re talking basically all of Kirtland period here when we’re talking about these. There’s still a Nauvoo period where there’s another Abraham manuscript—
BREAK IN TRANSLATING PROCESS
HODGES: Yeah, there’s a break between when they did this first part of the book of Abraham and when Joseph did the later part of the Book of Abraham?
HAUGLID: Exactly. That document, it basically appears to be more as a—I like to call it sort of a printer’s manuscript because it has the Times and Seasons paragraph numbers on it in pencil. So I kind of look at it that way as sort of a printer’s manuscript that you get in the ninth issue of the Times and Seasons.
JENSEN: One thing that I find interesting, if you look at the Joseph Smith Papers volume, this volume we’ve been talking about, the majority of the documents were created in Kirtland in 1835. But if you look at just the Book of Abraham itself, the majority of the Book of Abraham was actually produced, translated in Nauvoo. I think that’s something that not many have realized, where this certainly was divided into two parts. Joseph Smith first began work in Kirtland and then he stopped, the temple was being built, he moved to Missouri, there were all sorts of problems in Missouri with non-Mormon neighbors, and then it took a long time to get things settled in Nauvoo trying to get that going.
HODGES: Why did that break matter? Why should anyone care that it had this break?
JENSEN: So I find it fascinating because Joseph Smith as religious leader—you can trace his developing, understanding of theology, of the things that he’s teaching to Latter-day Saints. So to know that the first portion of the Book of Abraham is in Kirtland, historians can better how the theology as found in the first portion of the Book of Abraham was read by Kirtland Saints and the theology that was, to that point, revealed to those Saints.
But then you look at the later portion of the Book of Abraham and, placing that in a Kirtland theological setting, doesn’t make as much sense. But when you look to the Nauvoo theological setting, Joseph Smith has revealed all sorts of new information that it fits better. There’s a better context to that in Nauvoo than in Kirtland.
HAUGLID: And Joseph Smith also incorporates Hebrew terms that he learned after his Joshua Seixas tutoring at the Hebrew school in Kirtland that come out after his tutoring experience in Nauvoo, where he put some of those in Abraham chapter three and there’s other things that you find with some Hebrew connections that he would have learned.
So I think we’ve kind of got it where we can see what’s going on in the Kirtland area there pretty well. The Abraham chapter one to chapter two, verse eighteen seems to fit just fine right in that time period. Then, as Robin said, when you get up to Nauvoo that also fits that context really well in terms of his theology, in terms of how they’re looking at the language, in terms of how they’re incorporating some of the Hebrew. It fits into that Nauvoo period. Plus, you also have some plain language coming out of Joseph Smith’s journal saying “we’re translating on March eighth and March ninth for the tenth number of the Times and Seasons.” So that fits as well. So you’ve got some historical backing there.
COMPETING PICTURES OF JOSEPH SMITH’S EGYPTIAN PAPERS
HODGES: This is where it gets tricky I think, because people want to look at things that Joseph Smith produced as ways to determine whether or not he was a true prophet, or whether or not the claims that he made were true or false.
So when we look, for example, at the Book of Abraham translation we can see this difference between the early part of that and the later part of that. So skeptics who would criticize the prophet could say, “this is an example of Joseph Smith later on, kind of making up some new theology. So you see that come out of the Book of Abraham.” People who believe in the prophethood and the inspired role that Joseph Smith had would say, “this is Joseph Smith receiving revelation and learning from the revelation, and then his theology develops accordingly.”
Can history and the historical record arbitrate between these competing pictures of how to account for Joseph Smith?
JENSEN: I would say no. I often tell people that for members of the church, both nineteenth century and today, miraculous events do not leave in and of themselves a documentary record. The Holy Ghost is not writing texts. Miracles, religious events, do not in and of themselves offer scholars any documentary trail. Of course, the way those religious experiences, the miracles, the feelings, are manifested in individuals and those individuals then write up their experiences, that’s another thing.
But to use the historical record, to use the historical profession and say, “See, I can now prove to you that Joseph Smith was a fraud,” or “Based upon these records I can prove to you that Joseph Smith was in fact a prophet,” it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work either way. We can understand Joseph Smith’s events, what he’s doing, the types of things he’s saying, but truth claims are not provable through scholarship, and I think most members of the church inherently understand that. You can look no further than the Book of Mormon itself, right? Where Mormon at the very end of the book says, “here it is. You can read it. But you’re not going to get a testimony. You’re not going to know the truthfulness until you pray about it,” and so the miracle of the testimony is independent from the words on the page.
HAUGLID: I wonder if it would be helpful to step back just a little bit because this is all coming out of earlier critiques on the Book of Abraham here. You have in the 1850s Théodule Devéria who is looking at Joseph Smith’s explanations of the facsimiles and finding that they’re not matching up with his understanding of Egyptian, so that’s one of the first, and then of course later on in 1912 you have Solomon Spalding, the episcopal bishop up in Salt Lake, consulting with eight well-known scholars I would say, and them coming up with basically the same thing. But we’re all on the facsimiles here, of course, that these explanations are not matching up.
So discussions of Joseph Smith’s credibility as a translator goes pretty far back, and then once you get into 1967 where you get the return of these fragments to the church from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, then the plot gets even a little thicker. Because now we have the papyri fragment that was the source for these glyphs in the Abraham manuscripts, which on the surface just look like translation manuscripts. So that even makes it a little more difficult to try to navigate.
So now they’re saying, some of the critics or maybe some others, I don’t know, are saying “now look, we have a source for the Book of Abraham. We have a source. We have this particular fragment here that we can find on these manuscripts and you can see that Joseph Smith translated from those glyphs.” And that makes it even a little tougher now, stickier, I guess, to try to understand what’s going on with Joseph Smith in his translation.
Then we have great scholars like Nibley trying to observe these kinds of things and saying, “well, you know, I don’t think we have the actual papyri that Joseph Smith had that had the Book of Abraham on it. We don’t have that right now.” He would say something like, “I can look at the papyri that we do have,” and according to him that didn’t match what he felt was being described as the original papyri from which the Book of Abraham comes. So he kind of begins that apologetic, if you want to call it that, a defense of the church. Also Nibley looked at all these Egyptian papers and said, “all this material came after Joseph Smith had already translated the Book of Abraham, so these are all works of the scribes who are trying to—”
HODGES: Reverse engineer—
HAUGLID: Yeah, reverse engineer the translation, or they’re kind of doing their own thing. Both those thoughts, that there’s a missing manuscript, and that these Egyptian manuscripts came after the Book of Abraham are already translated are still alive and well today.
HODGES: And you would say this research in the Joseph Smith Papers overturns those theories?
HAUGLID: I don’t know if I want to say it completely overturns them, but it certainly brings them into question, I think, because we’re finding things here where you’re seeing not just textually—because textually you can find a lot in the Egyptian alphabet documents and in the grammar book that are proto- Book of Abraham materials, you can kind of see some of that happening, especially with chapter one and chapter three of the Book of Abraham—
HODGES: Like they have some of the same ideas and names and stuff?
HAUGLID: Yeah. Some conceptual things in there that seem to get sort of ironed out a little later in the Book of Abraham. Not all of it, of course, not the whole chapter or anything like that, but you can certainly see that there’s some connections going on there. Even in the historical documents of the last part of 1835 you have Joseph Smith’s journals talking about translating the Book of Abraham at the very same time he’s doing this Egyptian work. It’s happening simultaneously, concurrently. On one he’d say “yeah, we’re translating the Book of Abraham today,” in another one, “now we’re translating an alphabet to the Book of Abraham,” “now we’re working on the Egyptian project here,” “now we’re working on the Book of Abraham again,” and it’s going on just in those six months. A lot of it is focused in on October and November of 1835 that they’re really working hard on these things.
They even have one where they’re talking about transcribing characters from the papyri onto paper. They have one entry in there on that. So what do you do with all that? This is why—I’m not saying we’re overturning those things, but it certainly is giving us some other points of view that we need to pursue.
Robin, you want to comment on that?
JENSEN: So Brian and I have been working on this for quite a number of years. Brian has worked on this longer than I have, but I’ve been at this for seven or eight years.
HODGES: About as long as the Book of Abraham process. [laughs]
JENSEN: Yeah, I guess you could say it that way. And I wish we could say we have figured everything out, we know everything there is to know about it. But that’s just not the case. The manuscripts are not self-evident.
So, for instance, a lot of the documents in the Joseph Smith Papers are fairly obvious as to what they are, why they were created—if you’ve got a letter addressed to a certain individual and you’ve got a date and you’ve got the person signing it, you know what’s going on, and based upon the content of the document it’s fairly self-evident as why they’re creating it, under what context, et cetera. With these documents you don’t have that. In fact, you have a lot of question about these documents. Why do you have a book of scripture, the Book of Abraham, next to characters from papyri? There are some theories there, but it’s not self-evident. It’s not completely apparent what they’re doing. And, as I said earlier, we don’t have explicit statements from Joseph Smith and others saying—if only we had a journal entry saying “I, Joseph, am now about to dictate the Book of Abraham, and here’s the process.” We just don’t have something like that unfortunately.
And so we have, as a result, confusing documents creating multiple theories. There are incredibly important fields of scholarship that can help elucidate some of these documents. We’ve had a number of scholars approach these documents, attempt to make sense of them, give various theories. We feel that, as part of the Joseph Smith Papers, we have a certain documentary context. We have a certain understanding of how Joseph Smith and his clerks and scribes created documents, but because they’re not self-evident we’re going to have to rely on various scholars’ theories on how some of these came to be, the relationship of them, and how they were received by early Latter-day Saints.
HAUGLID: I think one thing we can say, though, is that the Egyptian manuscripts play a role. They do play a role. If you are to say that all these Egyptian documents came out after the Book of Abraham was translated, then what do they mean? You could go back to the idea of a reverse translation, that they’re just doing some post-study there. But if you put these documents in with the process of translation, what does that tell us about Joseph Smith? Is that something we should think about?
I’m not saying it’s—as Robin said, we can’t do one hundred percent certitude on any of this, but if what we’re seeing there happening with these documents—that they’re being created concurrently with each other—we can at least say that for the second half of 1835 they are being created concurrently.
JENSEN: One final thing I’ll add, Blair. The last couple things that I’ve said—that the documents are very complex and truth claims really can only come through kind of a witness of the Holy Ghost—Those have been used in the past kind of as a reason to sweep under the rug some of the complexities of the nineteenth century coming forth of the Book of Abraham. And I do not subscribe to that at all.
This is a very complex document, yes. All the more reason to study it as much as we can, for scholars to make sense of these documents, to place them within their proper context, to try to make sense of what Joseph Smith is doing, what his colleagues are doing. And if Latter-day Saints truly believe that the Book of Abraham is scripture then we should be studying this, the nineteenth century context, as much as we possibly can.
HAUGLID: As well as these documents, like what we’re trying to do with the book there.
HAUGLID: And quite frankly, I’m going to go as far as to say that the thing that the theory of the translation of the Book of Abraham all being done in July, it marginalizes these Egyptian papers, where you don’t have to take them seriously, really. You can just kind of come up with a reverse translation idea or whatever. And I like what Rob is saying there in terms of, this is something that we need to deal with. These are documents from 1835, they were serious about it, we should be serious about it.
HODGES: We can see that reluctance, I think, would stem from the idea that if Egyptologists would look at it and say, “no, this grammar is not an Egyptian grammar,” then people would say that then therefore demonstrates that the Book of Abraham is not a translation.
What other options are there, then, for Latter-day Saints? What other explanations are there for Egyptian documents that don’t reflect what Egyptologists today say is actual Egyptian and a book of scripture that is said to be translated from ancient Egyptian documents?
HAUGLID: In my mind I’m seeing Joseph Smith making statements that at least he believes, and I think others believed with him, that the Book of Abraham was on papyri, that he took that literally, and that when he says he translated from the papyri that’s what he did. That’s why I have a problem with the “catalyst” theory of translation. The catalyst theory is a nice theory, and there is catalytic revelation going on—
HODGES: —That’s the idea that Joseph saw these papyri, they got his mind working and thinking, and that opened up the door for revelation to bring the Book of Abraham to him even though it wasn’t from the papyri, even though he could have thought that it was. It just sort of got his mind cooking.
HAUGLID: And maybe there’s some of that. Certainly there’s probably some of that. But I think he’s looking at the papyri as the source for the Book of Abraham, literally.
LATTER-DAY SAINTS AND THE BOOK OF ABRAHAM
JENSEN: Blair, you asked what Latter-day Saints can do with some of these documents. I see the Egyptian language documents as a documentary record of Joseph Smith’s revelatory process. We, I think, sometimes in the church view Joseph Smith as a fax machine for God. In other words, God has a message for the church, he pushes a button, Joseph Smith spits it out, and there it is for the church. I think that it’s a little bit more complicated than that.
As a Latter-day Saint, as I’ve looked at the Book of Abraham and the Egyptian language documents, I’ve actually seen it more comparable to personal revelation than what I first thought. Someone within the church is taught from primary on up that if you want to seek guidance from God you need to, of course, pray, approach God through prayer, but then you also should study things out, that you should bring your own intellectual attempts at solving that problem.
The brother of Jared is the perfect example in the Book of Mormon where God doesn’t always give the answers immediately there. We are left to our own understanding, our own cultural assumptions, our own intellectual effort.
And I see Joseph Smith as doing the exact same thing, where he is putting in the effort, so to speak. He wants revelation. He’s seeking it out. As part of that, he expects a certain element of his own intellectual efforts. He’s studying it out in his mind, in other words. I see that as we look to Joseph Smith’s revelations, there’s a little bit of Joseph Smith in those revelations. The very fact that he’s dictating ancient texts in the English language means that there is a human filter involved, that God really does speak to his children “according to his own understanding, according to their own language.” [ed. note: see 2 Nephi 31:3; Doctrine and Covenants 1:24]
Joseph Smith is a prophet. He’s also a man. And I think sometimes we need to make sense of that contradiction sometimes within the revelatory process itself.
HAUGLID: Yes. Human effort, divine sanction. Just what we find in D&C there. Human effort. There has to be a human effort part, and I think these papers could be looked at that way, as representing that portion. It’s all part of inspiration. One is not inspiration and the other is just intellectual; I think it’s all inspiration to them. I think we can still consider it that way when we’re studying and trying to receive inspiration from God, that it’s all of a piece. He accepts our intellectual efforts and helps us navigate the spiritual messages that we receive.
HODGES: That’s Brian Hauglid. He’s an associate professor and a visiting fellow here at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. We’re also talking with Robin Scott Jensen, an associate managing historian and the project archivist for the Joseph Smith Papers. Together they co-edited volume four Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts as part of the Joseph Smith Papers Project.
Two other questions before we go. Rob, did the Joseph Smith Papers research team uncover anything new that was previously unknown about these documents while putting this book together?
JENSEN: Yes. Documentary editors make a big deal of small things sometimes, but it’s sometimes those small things that have lasting implications. There’s one particular instance where there are two documents in here, two Book of Abraham manuscripts in manuscript form. One written by William W. Phelps and Frederick G. Williams. These always have posed a challenge. We’ve never known precisely the order in which these were created. And as we looked more closely at these, we realized that these documents were created at the same time. In other words, there was some sort of dictation process and then Phelps and Williams are capturing this same aural, spoken, text at the same time.
One of the pieces of evidence for that that seems pretty solid is that there was—and we’re really going to get into the nitty gritty here—but there was one large piece of paper that was cut in half, divided in half. Those two pieces of paper from the same larger piece of paper make up page one of each of the respective pages of the Book of Abraham. So what we have is pretty compelling evidence that they’re there at the same time using the same piece of paper, creating this text, the Book of Abraham, that gives us a new appreciation to the dictation process. Usually when we hear about Joseph Smith dictating, it’s him dictating to one singular scribe. So it’s interesting to imagine to try to reconstruct what that would look like with Joseph Smith dictating to multiple clerks.
HAUGLID: It’s interesting that we’re now talking about this when years and years ago Ed Ashment proposed the same thing. It created a firestorm of rejection amongst our LDS scholars, but now here we are talking about this and agreeing with Ed Ashment.
HODGES: About having multiple clerks in particular at the same time?
HAUGLID: Receiving dictation, yeah.
HODGES: Why was that so controversial?
JENSEN: I have no idea.
HAUGLID: Probably because it was Ed Ashment that proposed it. [laughter]
HODGES: Okay. That’s all? Ed’s not here with us today.
JENSEN: There’s one other—I find it interesting. It’s hard to express it verbally. You kind of need to see it—but Brian earlier was talking about these notebooks they created with copies of different characters, some of the vignettes and whatnot. One of those notebooks has a blank first page, that’s not too uncommon. As we looked more closely at that I noticed a very small hole in the middle of the manuscript. I looked at that, wondering what that was. Come to find out that seemed to be the anchor of a compass. They created a perfect circle on that blank page. Not in ink or pencil but some hard metal of some sort etched into the paper itself this circle. And then they made a slightly larger circle. As I looked at that I realized that that must have been an early attempt, or maybe a trial effort, to copy down the Hypocephalus, later known as Facsimile Two.
HODGES: This circular looking thing.
JENSEN: Yep. If you look at that there’s actually two circles. There’s kind of the outer circle, then the inner circle with characters written kind of along the outer edge. And it seems that that circle, that attempt, they were going to do that and then realized, “you know what? We need a much bigger piece of paper to do this.” So one of those things that I find deeply fascinating and some of my friends roll their eyes thinking “wow, that’s very nerdy of you.”
HODGES: [laughing] cool.
HAUGLID: They also have on one of the, I think it’s on the Williams manuscript, the 1841 Book of Abraham manuscript, at the top of one of the pages we have some erased Egyptian material that comes from, or it related to, some of that earlier 1835 work on the Egyptian papers. It’s pretty interesting. But it was erased. What all that means, I’m not sure.
REASON AND FAITH
HODGES: Before we go, how would you—This is a big question, but I wonder how you would characterize as a scholar the relationship between reason and faith, Rob, between sort of using the tools of the academy and also coming to these documents as a Latter-day Saint, as a believing member of the church?
JENSEN: As a Latter-day Saint the writings of Joseph Smith, and in particular the revelations and translation, are scripture to me. They not only offer comfort to me personally, individually, they are the canon of the church. They are what holds the community together. So as I look to the Book of Abraham, in particular with this volume, I see a work of scripture that is meaningful to millions of Latter-day Saints. So as I look to that, as I read it, as I try to make sense of it, my initial upbringing within the church is to see it at face value. To read the words, to see it in print, to look at the facsimiles, and to recognize that as scripture, as the word of God.
And as I take scholarship, as I take reason, as I take my intellectual learning to the Book of Abraham, and in particular the nineteenth century coming forth of the Book of Abraham, I am faced with a recalibration, sometimes, of my previous assumptions about the Book of Abraham. I’m forced to recognize that some of the things that I learned about the Book of Abraham were not in fact based upon the facts, the evidence, the historical context. Some people see that and they realize that if one of aspect of their testimony is false, then they should reject everything. I refuse to live in that sort of a world, in that black and white thinking. It offers a very brittle view of the world of religion.
So as I look to the Book of Abraham and as I recognize that it’s a very complex document, I actually relish in the fact that the Book of Abraham can be complicated and can be true at the same time. Truth isn’t simple. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. So when I look to the Book of Abraham and when I recognize the complexity, I also find comfort in the fact that my own faith is complicated. My own faith is based upon all sorts of things within my own experience and based upon my family and friend’s experience.
So the Book of Abraham kind of writ large is my own personal testimony. I’m bringing to my own faith many worldviews—kind of a twenty-first century sensibility based upon who I’ve interacted with—and I need to figure out where my own intellect ends and the faith, the miraculous, the divine begins. That’s easier said than done, and it’s a lifelong effort that we as members of the church are taught to do for the rest of our life. It’s part of enduring to the end, I think.
HODGES: How about you, Brian?
HAUGLID: Well I could certainly say that the Book of Abraham has helped me mature in my testimony. By that I mean I admit when I first joined the church I saw things pretty black and white, it’s this or it’s that, and studying the Book of Abraham and—because the Book of Abraham has pretty deep doctrines in it as we are all aware of, but also the coming forth of the Book of Abraham is challenging in a sense because it’s not what you usually think about. It brings out things that you have to kind of grapple with. You have to wrestle with it a bit. But that’s been good for my testimony. Yes, it may be a little more complicated, but that’s okay.
I still look at the Book of Abraham as scripture, I still look at it as having the ability to move me, and to reach me, to touch my spirit, and everything is still there that way. But it’s also helped me to see that Joseph Smith was a man and a prophet. That I’m a man and a spiritual being. And that we’re all that way. I think we can learn from this whole Book of Abraham thing that we shouldn’t just throw out everything because it doesn’t match some preset suppositions that we have. We need to think through it a little bit more, grapple with it, wrestle with it, what you need to do.
When I teach my students I teach them critical thinking. You have to deal with the critiques in life. Don’t just accept things for what they are. It’s okay to question. It’s okay to try and grapple with things. I mean, Jacob wrestled an angel. We’re talking about how we don’t just have to be passive machines that just accept everything. I think the Book of Abraham challenges some of those assumptions.
CHANGES IN THE CHURCH
HODGES: Do you think it seems the church is sort of going through that process as well? I mean some of the ideas about what the Book of Abraham had to be or was in the past in official church discourse is beginning to change and this publication is the number one piece of evidence of that, that the church is likewise looking at things that it previously held and deciding to revise those views, to offer something different, which some people feel wronged about as the church tries to come to grips with a better understanding as well.
HAUGLID: Yes, absolutely. I mean, it was in 2013 I think that some of the introductory material to the Book of Abraham in the introductory section to the Pearl of Great Price—
HODGES: In the canonized scriptures—
HAUGLID: In the canonized scriptures was changed. Before it was that—And Robin maybe should comment on this because I know he was actually part of this, but it was nuanced. Maybe I could just say it that way. Robin, do you want to remark on that?
JENSEN: Yeah, I think as you look to, for instance, the Gospel Topics Essays that the church released, there’s an essay on the Book of Abraham and it’s grappling with proposing various theories of the coming forth of the Book of Abraham. I think the church as an institution changes the historical narrative. The historical narrative is based upon archival research, documentary finds, historiographical theories, whatnot. Those change every generation. There’s always new things coming forth.
And I think that as I see things, church leaders and church members are grappling with new historical understanding of not just Book of Abraham, but all of its history. As a historian I think that’s great. I think that whitewashing history is not ideal. Holding up some of the past individuals, placing them on pedestals is not ideal. Finding nuanced faith means offering a nuanced narrative. And I think that’s going to be challenging because we have had narratives in the past that are tied so closely to member’s testimonies, and so as we look to this recalibration, as I call it, as we look to understanding what members of the church’s testimony is actually based upon, then we can recognize that basing testimony upon faults or simplistic historical facts is not going to help anyone out.
CONTENT OF THE BOOK OF ABRAHAM
HODGES: That last question I said would be the last question, but I think we need to do one more. I think this speaks to the whole subject, because notice one thing we didn’t talk about in this interview at all was the actual narrative of the Book of Abraham. Why do you think that is? Other than the fact that I’m the one who structured the interview, so maybe I should ask myself [laughs]—
HAUGLID: I should say first that I did deal with the narrative in my textual history of the Book of Abraham that I published back in 2010—
HODGES: Here with the Maxwell Institute.
HAUGLID: With the Maxwell Institute. Absolutely. And created a critical text out of that and looked very carefully at the narrative and how it kind of changed over time. As far as doctrinally, maybe that’s what you’re getting at? Why don’t we deal with some of that? Well this book obviously is a Joseph Smith Papers book, and that doesn’t really fit within the realm of what we’re trying to do there.
HODGES: You’re just trying to make the documents themselves accessible so that people can then do work based on the documents.
HAUGLID: Right. It’s a resource for people. And so I agree. There’s plenty to talk about in terms of the content of the Book of Abraham.
JENSEN: I think increasingly you’re seeing less angst over the content of the Book of Abraham than you are with the context of the Book of Abraham. There’ve been people who may have left the church or felt frustrated with the historical narrative. It’s not so much about the content itself. It’s not about the actual narrative of the Book of Abraham. It’s about the way in which it was produced, and I find that interesting, not surprising at all that Joseph Smith as prophet, seer, and revelator, there’s a lot hanging on the Book of Abraham and what it means for Joseph Smith’s revelatory process, his translation. It’s been such an important symbol for Joseph Smith’s calling.
And when people look to the Book of Abraham and when people say, “I left the church because of the Book of Abraham,” that’s shorthand that I think almost everyone understands is, it’s not the content. If we have simplistic views of how Joseph Smith produced his scripture, then it’s not going to take much to topple that simplistic understanding. So I think that producing a better understanding—kind of this nuanced understanding of production of scripture by Joseph Smith—is not only good scholarship, but I think it’s good for Latter-day Saints throughout the world.
HODGES: That seems to speak, again, to the importance of the church producing work like this that helps recalibrate that story. That the church is saying, “We want to get this history correct. We want there to be a record of this history, and we want to make it accessible,” even while recognizing that that can be hard.
So even though we didn’t get time to talk about all the contents of the Book of Abraham, people can read it. It’s available. They can also see the original documents now, the original documents that the Book of Abraham came from. That’s in volume four of the Joseph Smith Papers “Revelations and Translations” series. It’s called Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts.
Today we talked with the editors of that book, Robin Scott Jensen, associate managing historian and project archivist for the Joseph Smith Papers, and Brian M. Hauglid, who is here at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University.
Rob, thanks for coming in today. It was a pleasure talking to you.
JENSEN: Thank you so much, Blair.
HODGES: And Brian, as usual, it was good to spend time with you as well.
HAUGLID: Thank you, Blair.
HODGES: Thank you for listening to another episode. One last thing. Here’s your Maxwell Institute Podcast review of the month, this one comes courtesy of someone claiming the name Tiglath-Pileser? Apparently that’s some sort of Assyrian king or something. I don’t know. But here’s the review: “Even as a scholar (in training) of religious history, I find these interviews to be terribly useful; their overviews of new scholarship is just right. It’s deeper than Wikipedia (especially with the back-and-forth interplay), but it’s not like reading a technical monograph. Keep up the good work.”
Thank you T…—I’ll call you TP, how about that? You can be like TP as well, you can review the show, too, go to iTunes, and let us know what you think of the show. We appreciate everyone who takes time to rate and review. And you might show up here as the review of the month. And I might even be able to pronounce your name.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
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