Richard Bushman’s Views on the Book of Abraham

Joseph Smith PapyriProbably all of you have already read Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, so this isn’t anything new to you. But I wanted to replicate his discussion and explanation for the Book of Abraham in its entirety here. If I merely summarize, I’ll run the risk of interpreting and I want to avoid that risk. Later on I’ll use this as the basis for future discussion that I can refer back to. So here it is: Richard Bushman’s take on the Joseph Smith Papyri and the Book of Abraham that it inspired.

The Abraham texts gave Joseph another chance to let his followers try translating. While working on the Book of Mormon in 1829, Joseph invited Oliver Cowdery to translate: he tried and failed. Now with the Egyptian papyri before them, Joseph again let the men with the greatest interest in such undertakings – Cowdery, William W. Phelps, Warren Parrish, and Fredrick G. Williams – attempt translations. …

Through the fall of 1835, the little group made various attempts. … They seem to have copied lines of Egyptian from the papyrus and worked out stories to go with the text. Or they wrote down an Egyptian character and attempted various renditions. Joseph apparently had translated the first two chapters of Abraham …and the would-be translators matched up hieroglyphs with some of his English sentences. [Their method seemed to follow the revelation given to] Cowdery after he failed to translate the gold plates: You must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right, I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you.” One can imagine these men staring at the characters, jotting down ideas that occurred to them, hoping for a burning confirmation. They tried one approach after another. Joseph probably threw in ideas of his own. Eventually they pulled their work together into a collection they called “Grammar & Alphabet of the Egyptian Language,”….

Of all the men working on the papyri, only Joseph produced a coherent text. What was going on as he translated? For many years, Mormons assumed that he sat down with the scrolls, looked at each Egyptian word, and by inspiration understood its meaning in English. He must have been reading from a text, so Mormons thought, much as a conventional translator would do, except the words came by revelation rather than out of his own learning. In 1967, that view of translation suffered a blow when eleven scraps of the Abraham papyri, long since lost and believed to have been burned, were discovered in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and given to Latter-day Saint Leaders in Salt Lake City. Color pictures were soon printed and scholars went to work. The texts were thought to be the Abraham papyri because Joseph had published facsimiles from the papyri with his translation, and the same pictures appeared on the museum fragments. Moreover, some of the characters from the Egyptian grammar appeared on the fragments. The translation of these texts by expert Egyptologists would finally prove or disprove Joseph’s claims to miraculous translating powers. Would any of the language correspond to the text in his Book of Abraham? Some Mormons were crushed when the fragments turned out to be rather conventional funerary texts placed with mummified bodies, in this case Hor’, to assure continuing life as an immortal god. According to the Egyptologists, nothing on the fragments resembled Joseph’s account of Abraham.

Some Mormon scholars, notably Hugh Nibley, doubt that the actual texts for Abraham and Joseph have been found. The scraps from the Metropolitan Museum do not fit the description Joseph Smith gave of long, beautiful scrolls. At best the remnants are a small fraction of the originals, with no indication of what appears on the lost portions. Nonetheless, the discovery prompted a reassessment of the Book of Abraham. What was going on while Joseph “translated” the papyri and dictated text to a scribe? Obviously, he was not interpreting the hieroglyphics like an ordinary scholar. As Joseph saw it, he was working by inspiration – that had been clear from the beginning. When he “translated” the Book of Mormon, he did not read from the gold plates; he looked into the crystals of the Urim and Thummim or gazed at the seer stone. The words came by inspiration, not by reading the characters on the plates. By analogy, it seemed likely that the papyri had been an occasion for receiving a revelation rather than a word-for-word interpretation of the hieroglyphs as in ordinary translations. Joseph translated Abraham as he had the characters on the gold plates, by knowing the meaning without actually knowing the plates’ language. … When Chandler arrived with the scrolls, Joseph saw the papyri and inspiration struck. Not one to deny God’s promptings, the Prophet said what he felt: the papyri were the writings of Abraham and Joseph. The whole thing was miraculous, and to reduce Joseph’s translation to some quasi-natural process, some concluded, was folly.

The peculiar fact is that the results were not entirely out of line with the huge apocryphal literature on Abraham. His book of Abraham picked up themes found in texts like the Book of Jasher and Flavius Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews. In these extra biblical stories, Abraham’s father worshiped idols, people tried to murder Abraham because of his resistance, and Abraham was learned in astronomy – all features of Joseph Smith’s narrative. Josephus says, for example, that Abraham delivered “the science of astronomy” to the Egyptians, as does Joseph’s Abraham. The parallels are not exact; the Book of Abraham was not a copy of any of the apocryphal texts. In the Book of Jasher, Abraham destroys the idols of King Nimrod with a hatchet and is thrown into a furnace; Joseph’s Abraham offers no violence to the idols and is bound on a bedstead. The similarities are far from complete, but the theme of resisting the Icing’s idolatry and an attempted execution followed by redemption by God are the same. The parallels extend to numerous small details. Joseph may have heard apocryphal stories of Abraham, although the Book of Jasher was not published in English until 1829 and not in the United States until 1840. A Bible dictionary published by the American Sunday School Union summed up many of the apocryphal elements. Whether Joseph knew of alternate accounts of Abraham or not, he created an original narrative that echoed apocryphal stories without imitating them. Either by revelation, as his followers believed, or by some instinctive affinity for antiquity, Joseph made his own late-and unlikely-entry in the long tradition of extrabiblical narratives about the great patriarch.

8 thoughts on “Richard Bushman’s Views on the Book of Abraham

  1. Is this your summary or a long excerpt from Bushman? Seems a bit beyond “fair use” if an excerpt.

    Whether one believes Joseph was inspired or not, Joseph certainly was audacious. Few of us would dare write down our inspirations as Joseph did, which is part of why he was the kind of person required for the kind of restoration Mormons believe in.

    Subsequent prophets have adjusted details of Joseph’s theology, but none have come close to fundamentally altering/creating a religious world view on the scale Joseph achieved.

  2. Well, I suppose a court would ultimately have to decide, but this does not seem to me to violate fair use.

    Fair use is partially a matter of length, as Meg notes, but it’s made up of a number of factors and copies of substantial length far more than this often do still fall under fair use depending on the transformative nature of the copy.

    In this case, I am making sure I’m completely duplicating Bushman’s argument and not in any way interpreting it. I cut out what I could that was unnecessary but did not attempt to interpret his argument. So based on the need to properly explain his argument in an uninterpreted manner for future critical analysis, the need to make the quote longer is required for the critical use intended. Length alone is not the determining factor for fair use.

    I suppose Meg’s argument is that I should instead summarize more, but I feel there is a definitive risk of improperly representing his argument if I do that. Use for critical analysis does make a difference as does intent for education. (For example, copying a whole poem — or even a whole article — for a class probably does not generally violate fair use even though the poem is copyrighted. This probably depends in part on if it’s done occaisionally or every year, if there is danger of loss of profit, and a number of other factors.) But even an extended quote like this is not a sizable portion of even one chapter and involves neither profit motive nor potential for loss of profit for either the publisher or author. In fact, it’s likely to increase potential for profit through simulating interest in the book. So certainly it does not seem to violate the spirit or letter of the law as I have researched it.

    Just in case I’m misinterpreting the law — I am not a lawyer, I admit — I’ll run this past a lawyer friend to double check my understanding. But the key points for fair use here are:
    1. The length is required for the critical analysis intended, which makes this a transformative work — i.e. a critique (courts have even allowed full copies in situations that seem far less transformative to me. And I am not even close to a full copy. I took only exactly the number of words necessary to capture his full argument.)
    2. No potential for loss of profit
    3. No profit motive on my part

    If I’m misinterpreting the law, I’ll go back and reduce the quote and add more summary. This would be a loss because of course then the charge that I’m just misinterpreting him can easily be raised. But it is my understanding as of this moment that this is not a violation of fair use.

  3. I must admit I enjoy it when content is available on the internet. It’s so nice when I can type in a handful of words and have the search engine regurgitate to me chapter and verse of the thing I was desiring.

    There was, however, something about how you introduced this that raised the internal flag for me.

    As for Bushman’s discussion about the papyri and Joseph’s translation process, it is extremely useful to have an instance with source material that is extant. One could then assume that the process was similar for the Book of Mormon, for which the source material isn’t extant.

    We have these lovely images painted by folks who didn’t know about or care about the actual descriptions of the process. In these images, Joseph is diligently studying the original document before him, with some fabric barrier between him and the person performing the transcription. But we know that often the original document wasn’t even in front of Joseph, and Joseph sometimes used his hat and seer stone as part of the translation process.

    It makes me laugh, therefore, when we hear individuals in the Book of Mormon bewail the inadequacy of their language. It might have been a problem, had Joseph actually been performing a verbatim translation. But since Joseph wasn’t constrained by the apparently painful limitations of their written language, it was a moot point, as in Joseph’s method of receiving the word of those scriptures made the weakness of their written language of no account. From the standpoint of Mormon and others, this was a great and wonderful miracle, something for which they no doubt poured out their souls over generations and centuries.

    I would love to see an artist’s rendition of the hat scene that shows Joseph viewing the scene being translated, an image that has already been created for us by those attempting to put the pensieve experience from the Harry Potter books into a film format. The current images of the hat translation tend to be produced in muddy colors with primitive technique and show a crouching Joseph who pretty much looks like he’s ralphing into his hat to avoid spoiling the rest of the cabin.

    When you consider the pure joy that exudes from the Book of Abraham portion of Joseph’s ‘translation’ of the papyri, the ralphing hat image is simply incongruous. I actually think he had moved on from needing the crutch of the hat and seer stone by then anyway. However there’s no particular reason to think he was ever “translating” our sacred texts the way a modern scholar might.

    If one believes Joseph was a true prophet, that shouldn’t be a problem. The dissonance is primarily the difference between the expectation produced by “faith promoting” but incorrect art and actual documentation.

    If one doesn’t believe Joseph was a true prophet, then I don’t know why one would care what method was used and whether it resembled scholastic translation.

  4. “some instinctive affinity for antiquity”

    What an amusing way of avoiding stating the obvious: that Joseph Smith hit the Abraham/Egypt ball out of the park.

    I would highly recommend Hugh Nibley’s last book One Eternal Round. (Michael D. Rhodes helped polish it off, since it was published posthumously). It’s basically an extended analysis of the hypocephalus. Joseph Smith, if he had an “instinctive affinity for antiquity”, he was a pure genius. I think Brother Joseph, if he were here to tell us, would give all glory to his God for his gifts.

  5. I think the text as used is potentially within fair use, but that the post would benefit from using quotation marks, and a detailed citation. Also if anything was omit with the text posted the “…” approach should be used.

    Overall I think Bushman’s point is well taken that it is quite possible that none of Joseph’s “translations” are a literal word (or concept) by word work. Rather they are inspiration from God for which the “records” served as a starting point.

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