The Book of Abraham with John Gee

Kurt Manwaring and respected Egyptologist John Gee sat down to talk about the Book of Abraham in an interview posted on Kurt’s website today. Kurt has allowed us to cross post a portion of that interview here at M*.

John Gee is author of An Introduction to the Book of Abraham. Gee is Mormon and shares his thoughts and experiences regarding the intersection of faith and scholarship. (Image of John Gee courtesy of BYU Religious Studies Center)

Kurt Manwaring: Welcome. Before we begin, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you first got interested in Egyptology?

John Gee: I had never heard of Egyptology until I got to college. My freshman year, my brother and I stumbled across a book in the bookstore on learning hieroglyphs. There were two copies and so we each got one. I read it and got interested in the subject. He read it and went into something more useful.

Kurt Manwaring: What role did your Mormon faith play during the pursuit of your doctorate at Yale? Did it ever cause problems or open doors?

John Gee: In certain cases, being a faithful Latter-day Saint opened doors. More often it has caused problems.

For example, when I first got to Yale, it took me a while but I finally found a place to stay. After about a week, the fellow who owned the apartment, one of the Yale faculty, found out I was a Latter-day Saint and kicked me out for that reason.

A couple of weeks later I got a letter. Just before going to Yale I had participated at an international conference. My paper was decently received but the letter was from the editors of the proceedings volume rejecting my paper on the grounds that I was a member of the Church.

Such attitudes are still prevalent in academia and I still encounter them with some frequency.

Years ago, Elder [Neal A.] Maxwell warned that “the Saints—meaning you and I—must not make the mistake of assuming the existence of any truce between the forces of Satan and God. To believe so, . . . is a very great delusion, and a very common one.”

Given my own experience and Elder Maxwell’s warning, I do not think this kind of thing is going to go away.

Kurt Manwaring: Did you work with Hugh Nibley? How would you describe him to those today who do not know who he is?

John Gee: I worked with Nibley, first as a student, then as a source checker, and finally something of a colleague. Nibley was about my grandfather’s age, and I am younger than any of his children, so there was always a distance.

My experience with him stretched over about twenty-two years in a fairly broad range of academic settings. But I probably got to know him about as well as anyone of my generation outside of his family could. I have lots of experiences and lots of stories.

Nibley was a genius, smarter than I will ever be. One of the grand old men of biblical studies once commented about Nibley that it was obscene for one individual to know so much. He was also an extremely gifted writer. Most writers can be improved by a good editor; unless they were very careful, editors tended to make Nibley worse. He could turn a phrase better than almost anyone I know and had a very dry and biting wit.

Those who do not know Nibley might benefit from looking at his approach to problems. Nibley did not confine himself to one field because for him,

“There are no fields—there are only problems—meaning that one must bring to the discussion and solution of any given problem whatever is required to understand it: If the problem calls for a special mathematics, one must get it; if it calls for three or four languages, one must get them; if it takes twenty years, one must be prepared to give it twenty years—or else shift to some other problem. Degrees and credentials are largely irrelevant where a problem calls for more information than any one department can supply or than can be packaged into any one or a dozen degrees.”

Nibley recognized that the key to accessing any knowledge from the past is language, and so he learned lots of them so that he could have access to documents from the past. “All knowledge of the past—historical, philosophical, literary, religious, etc.—comes to us through written texts which . . . cannot be critically examined or understood in translation.”

He chided his colleagues in the history department for not preparing themselves better by learning languages:

“They are like a man setting out to explore a wonderful cavern without bothering to equip himself with either lights or ropes…. They are like dentists who insist on performing delicate brain surgery because that is more interesting than filling teeth. Nice for them—but what about their patients.”

Because of the problems that Nibley was interested in, he often wandered over into other people’s fields. Many of his colleagues loved him, except when he was dealing with their subject, because he would deal with it differently than they would.

He would bring insights from other subjects into theirs and would often see through professional posturing and academic fads. Nibley noted that Mormon intellectuals “tend to panic when anyone threatens to substitute serious discussion for professional camaraderie.” So they “will promptly sound the alarm and attack them as fanatics and troublemakers.” Nibley knew that the praise of the world and of colleagues was a trap that often kept one from serving God.

Although Nibley published a great deal, professionally and for the Saints, he was not interested in publishing for the sake of publishing.

“Publish or perish” is too mechanical and unimaginative a rule to apply everywhere, but it is not too much to insist on the rule, “Publish or shut up!” He kept publication in perspective: “Above all, I could see no point to going on through the years marshaling an ever-lengthening array of titles to stand at attention some day at the foot of an obituary.”

As a teacher Nibley was unique. One Pearl of Great Price class he was over halfway through the semester before he got to Moses 1:1 because he had been giving background. Another time, he started by giving the first class on Job in Hebrew, the second class on Goethe’s Faust in German, and the third class with the Shabako Stone in Egyptian.

The student’s entire grade depended on the student’s answer to a one question essay final. Nibley wanted to see if the student could think for themselves.

Most didn’t. And so most got a C.

Every semester there would be a line of students wanting him to change their grade. I don’t know that he ever did. If you read their essays, you could see that they deserved the grade they got. Nibley stopped teaching after a BYU administrator changed the students’ grades without his permission.

As far as the Book of Abraham goes, I am very impressed with Nibley’s work, even where I do not agree with some of it.

Nibley was always asking the right questions and answering them to the best of anyone’s ability at the time. Half a century later, there are thousands of texts that have been published that Nibley did not have access to and so we would answer some of the questions differently now, but we are still answering the same questions that he asked.

And for a subject that has seen as much change as the Book of Abraham has, it is somewhat surprising that Nibley’s work has held up as well as it has.

Kurt Manwaring: So much about how the ancient Egyptians thought about the afterlife is astonishingly profound. How would you describe their desire to commune with the divine? Was a significant portion of mortality devoted to this pursuit, or were funerary texts largely reserved for end-of-life cramming sessions?

John Gee: Some of the most interesting texts in this regard are not funerary texts but requests for revelation from a deity.

They asked about whom they should marry, whether they should take a new job offer, whether a child will recover from illness, who should be appointed to a particular priestly office, and other things.

There are a number of wishes to dwell in the presence of the god after death, but communion with deity was something for this life as well.

Kurt Manwaring: What are some of the most common misconceptions about the Book of Abraham?

John Gee: I will deal here with only three:

The first is that the fragments that we currently have must be the papyri from which Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham. A careful examination of the accounts left by nineteenth century eyewitnesses shows that cannot be the case.

The second is that the speculations of W. W. Phelps and Oliver Cowdery that were in Phelps’ possession are actually Joseph Smith’s and that they somehow give us some sort of key to understanding the translation process. The arguments put forward for this are usually circular and therefore logically fallacious.

The third is that one can assess the validity and authenticity of the Book of Abraham and understand its contents without reference to the ancient world of Abraham’s day. If all one studies and all one knows is nineteenth century history, then all one will be able to see is the nineteenth century; one will never be in a position to see anything ancient in the Book of Abraham.

Kurt Manwaring: “An Introduction to the Book of Abraham” is remarkably even-keeled in its tone. How do non-Mormons react to your approach to the Joseph Smith papyri? I’m curious if you find respect by being respectful, or if there is always an unspoken stigma surrounding you in the academic world.

John Gee: The Joseph Smith Papyri are religious papyri that date to the Ptolemaic period. There are only a handful of Egyptologists in the world who are interested in the intersection of those two subjects and most of them live in continental Europe. I get along pretty well with most of them.

In general, my colleagues tend to respect competence. They seem to react fairly well to my treatment of the papyri as documents from ancient Egypt. My commitment to the Church seems to strike them as somewhat odd.

In the academic world being known as a faithful Latter-day Saint will surround one with a stigma. A surveys of university faculty from a few years ago showed that more than half of professors are prejudiced against Latter-day Saints. That number is smaller among business and the sciences but larger in the social sciences and humanities. Prejudice against Latter-day Saints is second only to Evangelicals; every other religious group has a generally favorable rating among professors.

Kurt Manwaring: What is it about the Book of Abraham that persuades so many scholars to set aside standard academic training and embrace bias? Similarly, what it is about the papyri that inspire so many Mormons to set aside the search for truth and embrace blind faith in often-inaccurate claims?

John Gee: I suspect that if you look at individual cases you will find a host of different individual reasons. Let me suggest a couple of ways of looking at things that might cover some of the cases:

(1) In the Book of Abraham God asks Abraham to leave his family (which was much more important in his day than it is in ours) and go to a place that had been under the control of people who were trying to kill him. His reaction was as follows: “Thou didst send thine angel to deliver me from the gods of Elkenah, and I will do well to hearken unto thy voice” (Abraham 2:13). Abraham has faith, but it does not seem to me that he has blind faith. I would call it reasoned faith.

Academics faced with the Book of Abraham (or the Book of Mormon) are usually intelligent enough to realize that if it is true, that will necessitate a change in their life as great as the one Abraham faced. They, however, may not have had an experience like Abraham’s that would give them the basis for a reasoned faith. Without that, the reasonable thing is to stay in Haran.

(2) From the Latter-day Saint side, perhaps it might help to look at a different case when many Latter-day Saints did embrace blind faith in inaccurate claims.

In the early 1980s Mark Hofmann fabricated documents to support certain speculations about early LDS history. He encouraged people to accept his documents on blind faith and many people, especially Mormon historians, did. If you look at President [Gordon B.] Hinckley’s public statements on the forgeries as they came out, they usually have some statement like: ‘This document, if authentic, shows such-and-such.’

Unfortunately, it is hard to find anyone else who followed President Hinckley’s cautions.

Why did so many Mormon historians—including well-respected historians like Richard Bushman, Jan Shipps, and Ron Walker—embrace blind faith in Hofmann’s inaccurate claims?

I suspect that each had a different set reasons, only some of which overlapped with others.

Kurt Manwaring: Is there anything about the history of the Book of Abraham that should trouble the faith of members of the Church?

John Gee: No. Misinformation and misconceptions about the Book of Abraham can trouble to Latter-day Saints, but usually, the part that people find troubling is assuming that the misinformation is true.

 

[To see the full interview, go to Kurt’s website, fromthedesk.org.]

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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the LDS church for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but may have privately defied the commandment for love of his wife, Emma.

15 thoughts on “The Book of Abraham with John Gee

  1. I got a B+. I feel so much better about myself now.

    Thank you for sharing this, especially Gee’s view of the common misconceptions (I think that #2 has a typo). I think that the PofGP is sometimes weighed lightly among the canon of scripture.

  2. Mike, you got a B+ in that class? That’s impressive, both considering the specifics John mentioned as well as what the entire story was meant to convey.

    Do you still have a copy of your paper laying around?

  3. I have loved the Book of Abraham and felt its power as scripture since I first read it in my teens. At that time critics scoffed at the facsimiles published in the Pearl of Great Price, dismissing them as highly innacurate. When the fragments containing the original illustrations were found it turned out that the facsimiles were relatively good copies. The critics turned their scorn to other issues. On Sunday, January 28 T 7 PM I tuned in to the initial broadcast of a new radio series by the Interpreter Foundation on Ktalk radio. The work of Gee and others was addressed. It is gratifying when the witness of the Spirit is supported by the work of careful scholars. In the interview with Kurt Manwaring John Gee mentions the issue of disdain of a academics. It can be a problem for students who are unaware of the forces that compromise integrity in many areas of study. In American academia there is real prejudice toward Christians, including Mormons.

  4. Kurt,

    Not knowing what Dr. Gee shared above at the time, I think that my young, foolish self was disappointed and I have long since discarded it. However, in retrospect I am now certain that the grading was actually quite generous. (Glad that I did not stand in line looking for a grade change.) It was a long time ago, early 90’s.

    Nibley taught an interesting course. Although it was billed as the second half of the BOM, he started in early Mosiah and did not make it through all of Alma. I am willing to bet that his next semester would have started in late Alma and just gone as far as it would go. I think that he felt that there was value to be found in every chapter and would just spend the time on each that he wanted to, regardless of schedule or syllabus.

    Sadly, not a lot of questions were asked in class. I wonder if that disappointed him, or if he noticed. I think there was a mix of being overwhelmed, not wanting to interrupt the stream of consciousness, and some intimidation of not being sure of the worth of the questions. 20-somethings tend to worry too much about asking what they fear are stupid questions. I suppose I still do even now.

  5. Pat,
    Thanks for your comments. I think it’s important to also note that while John mentioned experiences in which he experienced prejudice as a Mormon, he also indicated, “My colleagues tend to respect competence. They seem to react fairly well to my treatment of the papyri as documents from ancient Egypt. My commitment to the Church seems to strike them as somewhat odd.”

    Additionally, he commented not only on prejudice of scholars against believers, but also believers against scholars. His latest book has an incredible tone that is inviting to both.

    By the way, I just looked at the paintings you have posted on your website. I especially love some of the oil paintings you have posted. It’s great to see people out there mixing together scholarship and art.

  6. Mike,

    Kudos for resisting the temptation to fight the grade. It sounds like you did a superb job. Do you recall the topic of the essay and your approach?

    Your comments make me think what I would have done in your situation regarding comments in class. I’m bold enough that I don’t think I would have been afraid to ask my questions and confess my ignorance – which is really just a sincere statement of intent to learn – but having watched videos of some of his lectures I agree I would have likely been hesitant to interrupt his flow.

    And perhaps a little unsure what language he would respond in. Talk about stream of consciousness… He seemed to merge several languages into segments of discussion less than a minute long without seeming to realize he wasn’t speaking in English. I find Nibley much easier to read than to listen to. I wonder if his works are notoriously difficult to edit?

  7. Kurt,

    If I recall correctly, the topic was fairly straightforward. Something along the lines of, “How the Book of Mormon Strengthens our Faith in Christ.” I do not recall my approach.

    Dr. Nibley would mix languages. I do recall him making a comparison between Captain Moroni’s coat and Joseph’s coat while referencing some Egyptian or a Semitic language. That lecture always stuck with me for some reason.

  8. Thanks for your comment on my art Kurt. As for listening to Nibley, I heard him at an Education Week in Virginia years ago and was nearly giddy with the experience of witnessing his mental dance. He had recently encountered some information that remained obscure because it makes little sense to those who do not have the Book of Abraham in their background. I have many of his recorded speeches and radio programs that I periodically enjoy. I experienced anti-Mormon prejudice from various professors when I attended the U of U in the early 60’s and late 80’s. In 1961 a professor gave me a failing grade even though I had been earning As on tests and papers because I appended my rebuttal to the end of the final which was transparently crafted to affirm atheism. However in the 80’s while taking a class in physical anthropology from a particularly curmudgeonly and assertively atheistic professor I earned an A+ on a paper that challenged most of his assumptions. I also attended George Mason University in Virginia for several years where there was no hint of prejudice on the basis of religion.

  9. So is the Gee position that Joseph received the text we have as the Book of Abraham independent of the physical scroll (which I’ve seen described as a Book of Breathings from many centuries after Abraham’s lifetime)? Or is his position that there was a source document that is neither extant nor of the same time period as the extant papyrus?

    I adore the Book of Abraham, and am happy to embrace it even if the papyrus was merely a trigger for Joseph to receive.

    I guess I need to go buy Gee’s book… 🙂

  10. Good questions, Meg.

    An interesting two-fold response. First, the book is great but you won’t find Gee’s position there – which is part of what makes the book so appealing. He lays out different positions and explains different sides of the issue without coming down affirmatively on this side or that.

    Second, if I recall correctly he covers everything you’ve mentioned and then some: there are theories it was inspired and the papyri merely served as a revelatory catalyst and also that the entire book is word-for-word from a physical source. He breaks down the possibilities into several categories of which those two options are near-extremes. Of course, with the physical source option the gaping hole is the fact most of the source material was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

    I did find it interesting Gee said in his interview he would want to go back in time to the 1800s to “see what the process looked like to [Joseph’s] scribes and which, if any, papyrus he was using,” and “get a good look at the intact scroll as well as the book that had the more complete manuscript of the Book of Abraham.”

  11. Brian Hales’s article on the changes in the Book of Mormon was just published over at Interpreter, and he concisely summarizes Royal Skousen’s work showing the original text was received by Joseph in archaic English, then discussing the way critics have used the changes made to modernize the English as a way to criticize Mormonism.

    The thing I like about the Book of Mormon discussion is that it shows a Joseph who received an ancient scripture in what was to him a moderately foreign tongue. This strengthens the case that Joseph did receive the words via divine means rather than make it up, as so many unwilling to accept the Book of Mormon like to claim.

    Where contemporary reports show Joseph only using the seerstone and beaver hat to “translate” the Book of Mormon, the contemporary accounts of Joseph’s receipt of the Book of Abraham insert more detail that portrays the process as more typical for what people think when they hear “translate.” Joseph studies the papyri enough to come up with a guess on what the hieroglyphs mean (the GAEL), which later will lead him to make comments on the meaning of the faked Kinderhook plates. He takes images from the Book of Breathings and attempts to interpret them in light of what he’s learned in the Abrahamic content he’s receiving.

    My personal inclination is to be astounded and grateful for the pure doctrine contained in the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham, yet persuaded that Joseph wasn’t entirely aware of how he was receiving what he was receiving. And thus Joseph’s uninformed belief that he was translating when he was actually receiving text by revelation has created a stumbling block for those who expect Joseph to have translated from the physical record in a manner that was so perfect as to defy any need to standardize to modern English.

    A funny thing about the critics, though. They will go beyond reasonable criticism to assert that everything in the Book of Abraham is false. For example, they will go to great lengths to claim that Abraham was never in Egypt at all as there is no such visit documented in extant Egyptian records, ignoring the fact that Abraham’s interactions in Egypt are documented in the biblical record.

    When I pointed out the biblical Egyptian visit to them, the ardent critics then panned the Bible as a bunch of made up hooey.

    As I myself have received revelatory dreams and impressions regarding the future, I have no problem extending my experience to consider it possible that Joseph received the texts of the Book of Mormon, the Book of Moses, the Book of Abraham, and the revelations by divine means. And I don’t have a problem that Joseph, finding himself to not always be a full pass filter, sometimes would go back to earlier texts and modify points where is prior ignorance caused him to err, as I assert he did in D&C 76 when writing that persons who only merited the terrestrial kingdom in life could not hope for the celestial glory. I wish we knew if those verses were voiced by Joseph or by Sidney. But at the very least, Joseph didn’t understand that posthumous temple ordinances were possible (and had only the most rudimentary idea what temple ordinances would consist of), so it is understandable why he didn’t realize in 1832 that the description of terrestrial persons being banned from celestial glory was wrong.

  12. I was in one of Nibley’s last PGP classes and got a B+ as well. Perhaps he was feeling particularly generous by that point? I don’t recall my final paper being anything remarkable—just pointing out parallels between the divine manifestations to Moses, Abraham, and Joseph Smith. But then, he might have appreciated that approach.

  13. Meg, my understanding was there is actually more reliable and contemporaneous sourcing on the translation process of the Book of Mormon than the Book of Abraham. Gee records only a single source that fits into the realm of direct statements, and riffs on the source in a Q&A at the end of the book, writing, “He definitely did not translate it using grammars or dictionaries or using the method of Champollion.”

    That said, he may be defining the translation process as restricted to the act of translation and not including any background prep you refer to.

    Teelea, nicely done on your B+ in Nibley’s class! It’s great to see these come out of the woodword. I was sad to see Gee mention that Nibley stopped teaching when an administrator interfered and changed a grade without talking to him. I’d rather be a student with a C than the student who sparked Nibley’s retirement from teaching.

  14. Meg,
    “As I myself have received revelatory dreams and impressions regarding the future, I have no problem extending my experience to consider it possible that Joseph received the texts of the Book of Mormon, the Book of Moses, the Book of Abraham, and the revelations by divine means.”

    And that’s the key to knowing that prophets receive revelation… because _we_ can receive revelation. Once you “know how it works”, or some of the ways it works/operates, we can then extrapolate that prophets receive even more.

    Someone who claims that the Brethren aren’t receiving revelation to lead the church is essentially admitting that he/she himself/herself is not receiving revelation, or admitting they don’t believe the Brethren are prophets.

    “… extending my experience to consider it possible that [the Brethren ] received … revelations by divine means.”

    Thank-you for that. Good concise wording of something I’ve been trying to say.

  15. In response to a reader comment regarding the statistic cited about prejudice against Mormons, John Gee provided the following statement. The original post has been updated to the correction at http://fromthedesk.org/10-questions-john-gee/

    *****
    Dear Kurt,

    I need to correct the statement. I was going off of memory but have now looked it up. The correct statistic is that a third of faculty are prejudiced against Latter-day Saints, but 42% of the humanities faculty. It is the Evangelicals whom more than half of the faculty dislike. The study is Gary A. Tobin and Aryeh K. Weinberg, Religious Beliefs and Behavior of College Faculty (San Francisco: Institute for Jewish and Community Research, 2007). It is available at (http://www.jewishresearch.org/PDFs2/FacultyReligion07.pdf).

    Sorry about that.

    John Gee
    Senior Research Fellow
    William (Bill) Gay Research Professor
    Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship
    Brigham Young University

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