The Book of Abraham: Sacred Translation?

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In 1835, a man by the name of Michael H. Chandler would have a chance meeting with the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith. Little did Mr Chandler know that the meeting would play a large part in altering the course of Mormon theology forever.

Chandler, the owner of some Egyptian artifacts, was touring the American frontier, showcasing his ancient treasures to curious spectators. The artifacts contained writing that Mr Chandler could not decipher. At some point in time, it was suggested to him that Joseph Smith had the ability to translate the mysterious writing on the Egyptian artifacts. Such an ability was absolutely remarkable in mid-19th century America.

Today, translating ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs seems like a relatively menial task – surely any academic who studies such things could provide a translation. However, in the 1830s such a task would have been considered absolutely remarkable.

Why? Because the key that unlocked the mystery of Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Rosetta Stone, had only been discovered about 36 years prior, and an English translation of the demotic (Egyptian) text from the Rosetta Stone in the United States was not published until 1858, twenty-three years after Smith’s acquisition of the artifacts from Chandler (and fourteen years after Smith’s death).

Despite this, Smith began his miraculous translation process sometime after the purchase of the artifacts. It wasn’t long before he discovered, “much to [his] joy” that “one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham, another writings of Joseph of Egypt, etc.”[1]

By some happy coincidence, Joseph Smith happened upon ancient Egyptian writings of Hebrew patriarchs in the frontier lands of North America and was able to translate them twenty-three years before their language was deciphered into English.

The result? The Book of Abraham (Abr), now part of the Mormon scripture Pearl of Great Price. In it, among many things, Latter-day Saints (LDS) are given a parallel narrative to Genesis that introduces new theology such as polytheism and the location of Heavenly Father’s throne, which is nearest to the star of Kolob (Abr 3:3).

Such a coincidence is entirely miraculous or doubtful. Lately, the LDS Church has given reason to suspect the latter.

TRANSLATION, TRANSCRIPTION, OR SIMPLY IMAGINATION?

The LDS Church has recently published an essay officially distancing itself from Smith’s incredible, eyebrow-raising tale of the Book of Abraham’s origins. Formerly, the LDS Church officially promoted the view that the Book of Abraham was “translated from the papyrus by Joseph Smith.”[2] However, after years of scholarly scrutiny, it has been adequately demonstrated enough for the LDS Church to admit that Joseph Smith’s supposed translation of the papyrus has nothing to do with it.

The ancient text is not an account of Abraham’s life as Smith taught. Instead, it contains religious ritual instructions belonging to a work called the Book of Breathings, which dates back to the Ptolemaic Era (305–30BCE) well after Abraham’s time.

Facsimile 1

Yet, as the article reminds us, the LDS Church firmly holds the Book of Abraham as scripture. It is scripture regardless of evidence that the original text has nothing to do with the end result.

(Imagine, for a moment, if we discovered that the Gospel of Matthew was not an account of Jesus’ life, but was actually a collection of Roman tax documents, and you’ll quickly realize the issue at hand.)

So, what does the LDS Church do with evidence that Joseph Smith fabricated a faulty translation to produce a text that radically departs from the Bible? One sentence from the article encapsulates their action well.

“The book of Abraham’s status as scripture ultimately rests on faith in the saving truths found within the book itself as witnessed by the Holy Ghost.”

In other words, it doesn’t really matter whether or not Joseph Smith fabricated the Book of Abraham based on papyrus belonging to a work called the Book of Breathings. What matters at the end of the day is whether or not it lines up with saving truths.

The Book of Abraham is no longer a sacred translation, but questionable interpretation.

This, of course, begs the question – what are “saving truths”? It is more than safe to assume that these “saving truths” are found exclusively within Mormon theology. So, ultimately, as long as the fabricated “translation” of the Book of Abraham aligns with Mormon theology it is considered Mormon scripture.

This means that, so far as the method of creation is concerned, there is no difference between the Book of Abraham and Doctrine & Covenants, Mormon scripture consisting mainly of spiritual revelation purportedly given to Smith. In both instances, the Mormon prophet simply declared his words as scripture, which made it so.

The question becomes, why not do the same with the Book of Abraham? Clearly, Smith was comfortable creating scripture. Why go to great lengths in “translating” some papyrus to create the Book of Abraham?

SAVING TRUTHS

For whatever reason, Smith decided to create the Book of Abraham in a unique fashion unlike Doctrine & Covenants. (Not so unique when you consider his previous venture in creating the Book of Mormon). Fast-forward to today and the LDS Church is placed in the awkward position of explaining why their founding prophet did not actually do what he said he did.

The solution is just as dubious as the claim Smith made – officially, the Book of Abraham is  scripture based on a text that has nothing to do with the scripture itself, because it aligns with “saving truths.”

Essentially, the LDS Church is saying, “Our prophet Joseph Smith translated the German phrase 'Ich liebe dich' as 'The train station is blue,' even though the actual translation of that German phrase should read 'I love you.' But, that doesn't really matter because the point of the translation is to inform us that the train station is blue.”

The LDS Church's defense of Smith's fabrication is, frankly, absurd.

Frankly, this is absurd. No one would allow such a low standard of translation (if the term translation can even be used here) to apply to the Bible. Again, if the Gospel of Matthew was actually Roman tax documents and a pastor told you that what really matters is whether or not the fabricated information in the Gospel dealt correctly with salvation, how would you react? Hopefully, your reaction would be to reject both the pastor’s authority and the defunct text.

BOOK OF ABRAHAM VS. THE BIBLE

Regardless, I think it's important to look past the obvious (that Smith fabricated his "translation") and examine the LDS Church's essential claim about the message of the Book of Abraham – does the Book of Abraham align with “saving truths” found in the entirety of the Mormon scriptural corpus? Unfortunately, for the LDS Church, it quickly becomes apparent that the answer is ‘no.’

First, there are a few internal issues that must be dealt with, aside from the apparent showcasing of Smith’s newly learned Hebrew language skills.[3] For example, the Bible informs us that Abraham was 75 years old when he departed Haran for Canaan (Gn 12:4). The Book of Abraham, however, disagrees. It states that Abraham was only 62 years old when he departed Haran (Abr 2:14). This is a striking oversight on Smith’s part. Failing at something as small as getting Abraham's age correct should immediately raise a red flag.

Additionally, the Bible teaches us the folly of Abraham’s decision of identifying his wife, Sarah, as his sister for fear that the Egyptians would kill him to wed her. If you recall, Abraham convinced Sarah to tell the Egyptians that she was Abraham's sister, not his wife. Eventually, it ends up going badly for Abraham since Pharaoh figures out what was going on and kicks them out of Egypt (Gn 12:17–20).

The Book of Abraham does not clarify Abraham's life, it contradicts it.

The Book of Abraham, however, actually attributes that folly to God himself, changing the story to God forcing Abraham’s hand in the decision (Abr 2:22–25). In my opinion, in stark disagreement with the recently published article defending the spiritual value of the Book of Abraham, such a flaw does not “support” nor “clarify” the biblical account of Abraham’s life. It contradicts the account, making God out to be the cause of sin in Abraham's life.

Simply brushing off the historical translation difficulties of the Book of Abraham does nothing in addressing the theological inconsistency between it and the Bible. Of course, the article does not address theological issues within the Book of Abraham; however, any attempt at defending its historicity should be coupled with its veracity. It is not enough to simply defend its legitimacy – the greater question is whether or not it is true, whether or not it coalesces with the Bible.

At the end of the day, there is very little difference between ancient pseudepigraphic or Gnostic writings and the Book of Abraham. Both came well after canonization and were formed for the specific purpose of forcing the biblical message and narrative into a system of theology far from what the original Bible authors attested to.

 CLARIFYING THEOLOGY?

In the article, the LDS Church adamantly contends that, despite contradictions like the two examples above, “The book of Abraham clarifies several teachings that are obscure in the Bible." It has been briefly demonstrated that the Book of Abraham does not clarify teachings in the Bible, but contradicts them. Yet, the LDS Church must have taken this stance for a reason. What reason would lead them to hold fast to such a stance?

I believe the LDS Church needs the Book of Abraham in its current form not because it clarifies the Bible, but because it clarifies Mormonism. In that way, the sentence above should read, “The book of Abraham clarifies several teachings that were made obscure in the Bible by Mormon theology.”

What leads me to believe that?

The Book of Abraham came at a convenient point in Mormon history. Early in the Church’s history, we see Mormonism (especially the Book of Mormon) teaching a type of modalism, the belief that the Father and the Son are literally the same god. So, for example, the Book of Mosiah (within the Book of Mormon) declares that the messiah was prophesied to be called "Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Father of heaven and earth (Mosiah 3:8)."

However, by 1833 Joseph Smith no longer held to this early modalistic view. Smith came to believe in two distinct gods (or personages), the Father and the Son, through his studies of the Hebrew language. He made a distinction between two Hebrew words for God – elohim and Yahweh – by assigning them to the Father and Son respectively.[4] By the mid-1830s, Mormonism shifted from modalism to binitarianism, the belief that two Gods, Elohim and Yahweh, were to be worshipped.

Without the Book of Abraham, the doctrine of eternal progression is in jeopardy.

Yet, the theological evolution of God was not complete in Mormon thought. When the Book of Abraham was published in 1842, the LDS Church had made the transition from binitarianism to henotheism, the belief that although many gods exist only one should be worshipped. Not only this, but faithful Mormons may actually join the ranks of these other gods in a process called apotheosis, which is known by Latter-day Saints as the doctrine of eternal progression. This is the position the Church holds today.

It would be extremely difficult for the LDS Church to support polytheism without the Book of Abraham. Even Joseph Smith himself presented a very weak argument for polytheism by appealing to the Bible alone in his famous King Follett Discourse. Without the Book of Abraham, there is no definitive polytheism.

Without a definitive polytheism, there is no apotheosis. Without apotheosis, Smith's words from the King Follett Discourse turn from revelation to heresy. "You have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves," Smith declared, "to be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done."[5]

Without the Book of Abraham, Joseph Smith is a false prophet.

This is ultimately what is at stake – whether or not Joseph Smith was speaking God's truth when he declared, "God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens!"[6]

If that's not true, then not only is Joseph Smith a false prophet but the religious system he left behind is preaching a gospel contrary to the one preached by the apostles of Jesus Christ. So, the question deserves to be asked – do you believe the Book of Abraham is scripture? Much is resting on your answer.

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[1] History of the Church 2:236

[2] Introduction to the Book of Abraham, Pearl of Great Price

[3] It is widely known that Joseph Smith received Hebrew language training at Kirkland, Ohio in the School of the Prophets in the mid-1830s near the time when the Book of Abraham artifacts were acquired. Evidence of his training is clearly seen in the finished work. For example, Smith borrows from the Hebrew kowkab (star) for “Kolob” and translates the Hebrew word for ‘eternity’ as “gnolaum,” which is apparently an old transliteration of the Hebrew owlam. Another example is Smith’s “Kokaubeam” for ‘star,’ which is actually the Hebrew kowkab.

[4] Boyd Kirkland, "Jehovah as the Father: The Development of the Mormon Jehovah Doctrine" (Sunstone Magazine), 37.

[5] King Follett Discourse

[6] Ibid

Evidence of God from Dr. Judge the Leviathan

WIT

So, there's this article floating around the internet that claims scientists have discovered the first evidence of God's existence. (No need for you anymore, Romans 1...)

The article has been shared almost a quarter-million times on Facebook, where I first came across it. The title was intriguing, so I went ahead and clicked on it. But the more I read, the more things seemed fishy to me. By the time I finished I felt like I was as at a fisherman's wharf.

Why? Because this article is obviously not real. It's completely fake.

Let's count the ways in which this article should raise some red flags:

  1. It's from the Wyoming Institute of Technology... which doesn't actually exist. Don't believe me? Go to their website and try to apply or even get a campus tour. Good luck!
  2. It claims that a fictitious institute joined up with the Human Genome Project and Bob Jones University, but neither of these real institutions make the same claim.
  3. Its author is Dr. Richter DasMeerungeheuer, which means Judge the Leviathan in German – not a real name.
  4. It cites BJU professor Matthew Boulder as being part of the discovery who is about as real as Dr. Judge the Leviathan.

All this reminds us of one simple lesson – you can't always trust everything you read on the internet, even if you want to.

It's not bad apologetics, it's fabricated apologetics.

Not only this, but it's a false witness. Assuming the author of this article wants to promote faith in God through science, he or she is going about it in a very bad way. This article is worse than bad apologetics for the Christian faith.

Why? Because it's not bad apologetics, it's fabricated apologetics.

We are called to defend faith well and honestly. This article is a great example of what it means to bear false witness and misrepresent the very God that the author seems to be defending, which presupposes that God (not faith) needs defending in the first place.

I would say to chalk this article up to bad scholarship, but it doesn't even deserve that.

It's a complete lie.

What's in a Day?

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What’s in a day? That’s the big question when it comes to any interpretation of Genesis 1 that is not a literal, plain reading of the text.

Taken at plainest reading, there is little getting around the fact that the author of Genesis recounts the timeframe in which God created the entire universe. Turns out, that’s a week – six days, with a seventh day of rest.

Then, when we add up the genealogies (assuming they don’t skip generations at any point) we are given about 5,700 – 10,000 years of history from Adam to us. This six-day creation with a young earth are central to the idea of Young Earth Creationism (YEC).

Yet, there are many who argue that a plain reading of Genesis 1 actually does the text a disservice. They say that the earth is much older than 10,000 years because of scientific evidence. These folks typically subscribe to Old Earth Creationism (OEC), along with Intelligent Design (ID) and Theistic Evolution (TE).

So, how do these last three groups marry an old earth and universe with Genesis 1? Furthermore, how do YEC maintain their belief in a young earth despite scientific evidence?

Simply put, it all comes down to the meaning of day.

WHAT'S IN A DAY

Both YEC and OEC agrees that when we read Genesis 1, we read a consistent pattern and rhythmic flow in the chronology of God's creative work.

There was evening and morning, the first day, and it was good, and there was evening and morning, the second day, and it was good, and there was evening and morning... Well, you get the picture.

At the outset, it is important to remember that Hebrew uses the word day (יום) much in the same manner that English does. In English we have three specific ways we use the word day.

  1. To distinguish between daytime and nighttime
  2. To identify a 24-hour period of time
  3. To point back to an unspecific amount of time int he past

So, for example, we can see each of these three in everyday speech...

  1. "We should only travel by day since it will be dark at night."
  2. "One day this week, we should get together."
  3. "Back in my day, we didn't have the internet."

Hebrew does the same thing:

  1. "God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day." – Gn 1:5
  2. "In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth had dried out." – Gn 8:14
  3. "The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them." – Gn 6:4
Hebrew
Meaning
Enlish Example
יום12-hour daytime (Gn 1:5)We should travel by day
יום24-hour day (Gn 8:14)One day this week…
יוםUnspecific amount of time in past (Gn 6:14)Back in my day

Even the story of creation in Genesis itself gives us a hint that a day may not mean a literal 24-hour period of time. Gn 2:4 poetically transitions the creation story by recollecting the "day that the Lord God made the earth and heavens."

This is similar to our modern English usage of the word day when we say that something occurred "back in the day." Of course, we do not mean back in the literal 24-hour period of time, on a Wednesday, but rather we are referring back to a period of time when something occurred.

So, the OEC argument goes, simply because Genesis says day does not necessarily lock us into a literal 24-hour period of time. Obviously, we need context to help us know what the author means by day. Does he mean daytime, a 24-hour day, or an unspecific amount of time in the past?

This is where the conflict between Young and Old Earth Creationists comes to a head. YEC adamantly contends that the plainest reading of Genesis should lead us to a literal, 24-hour period of time, whereas OEC disagrees by pointing out that the third type of day lines up better with the rest of the creation story as well as scientific evidence.

Let's look at two strong arguments on both side of the aisle in relation to the meaning of a day in Genesis.

OLD EARTH CREATIONISM – A FULL DAY'S SCHEDULE

First, scientific evidence has demonstrated that the earth is older than 10,000 years. Way older. In fact, it's so old that it's kind of hard to even fathom. By modern estimates, the earth is roughly 4.45 billion years old. Scientists have concluded this based on research from radiometric age dating of the oldest rocks and minerals that we can find on the planet.

If the earth is 4.45 billion years old, then is stands to reason that it, along with all its inhabitants and ecosystems, could not have been created in 144 hours just 10,000 years ago. Typically, this conclusion leads OEC to interpret the traditional reading of days in Genesis 1 as epochs or stages of earth's development over unknown periods of time rather than literal 24-hour periods.

From being created, to naming all animal life, to getting married, Adam had a long day!

As we saw last week, such a reading lines up well with what science tells us occurred. Both Genesis and science claim that the first creative act was light, followed by the formation of land and sea, followed by the development of an atmosphere, then plants, then animals, and finally humans. The question isn't over the creative order, it's over the creative time.

Second, we tend to think about the sixth day as the day when God created Adam, then called it quits to rest on the seventh day. However, a closer look at Gn 1:24 – 2:22 reveals that much more happened on the sixth day than we typically think about. In fact, it was quite a full day's schedule as Dr. Travis Campbell points out.

On the sixth day, God...

  • Created a host of creatures to live and flourish on the land (Gn 1:24–25)
  • Created human beings (Gn 1:26–29) with the first man (Adam) out of the dust of the ground (Genesis 2:7)
  • Planted the Garden of Eden (Gn 2:8)
  • Caused trees and plants to grow in the Garden of Eden (Gn 2:9; Gn 1:11–12, 2:5)
  • Placed Adam in the Garden to steward and keep it (Gn 2:15)
  • Made a covenant with Adam (Gn 2:16–17; Hs 6:7)
  • Recognized that Adam was alone (Gn 2:18)
  • Introduced Adam to the animals, instructed him to name them all (Gn 2:19–20)
  • Created Eve as Adam's helper and wife (Gn 2:21–22)

From being created, to naming all animal life, to getting married, Adam had a long day! This is not to say that God couldn't have done all these things in twenty-four hours, but it seems quite unlikely (especially if Adam needed to name all the animals and still receive Eve as his wife).

So, how does YEC contend that the plainest reading of Genesis should lead us to a literal, 24-hour period of time?

YOUNG EARTH CREATIONISM – A DAY IS A DAY

First, YEC argues that every time the word יום (yowm) is used with a number, or with the phrase "evening and morning," anywhere in the Old Testament, it always means an ordinary day. This happens to be the case throughout Genesis 1.

Each of the creative acts that God performs is associated with a day that has an evening and a morning. This phrase, then, acts as a timestamp to draw our attention to the fact that the author did indeed mean to teach that God used all 24-hours per day.

Second, despite what OEC says about a reinterpretation of days in Genesis, many reputable Hebrew scholars point out that such a revision of the text is grammatically untenable with the original intent of the author.

He could have [created the universe] in six seconds. He is God, after all.

James Barr (Oxford University) summarized it like this – “So far as I know, there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world-class university who does not believe that the writer(s) of Gen. 1–11 intended to convey to their readers the ideas that (a) creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience (b) the figures contained in the Genesis genealogies provided by simple addition a chronology from the beginning of the world up to later stages in the biblical story.”[1]

Therefore, not only is a literal 24-hour day the plainest reading of the text, it is the plainest reading for a reason – the author meant it to be. Any scientific evidence that contradicts YEC, then, must either be incorrect or misinterpreted. After all, God could have created the earth in six days to appear as if it were 4.45 billion years old. He could have done it in six seconds. (He is God, after all.)

However, as Exodus 20:11 indicates, God specifically chose to use a six-day creation with a seventh day of rest to set an important rhythm for his creation.

CONCLUSION

So, what should we believe about the days in Genesis? I think that’s a very important question to answer for yourself through your personal investigation and research.

The most important thing to walk away from Genesis 1–3, though, is not how long it took God to create the universe but why God created the universe.

He didn’t do so because he was lonely or bored. Remember, he has perfect, eternal community within himself as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Instead, he created us out of love. And when we rebelled against him, he displayed that love by promising to reconcile us back to him.

“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel (Gn 3:15).”

Who is God talking about when he says he shall bruise your (the enemy’s) head?

Jesus.

Right there immediately after the why of creation is the how of redemption. This is the most important part of why Genesis 1–3 was written. Not primarily to give us scientific insight into creation (although it does), but to answer the question of how things should be, why they are not, and how God is going to rescue us.

So long as both YEC and OEC keeps focus on the redemption of Genesis 3:15, the days of Genesis 1 can be discussed and debated with brotherly love.

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[1] Letter from Professor James Barr to David C.C. Watson of the UK, dated April 23, 1984. (http://members.iinet.net.au/~sejones/barrlett.html)