The Maxwell Institute takes ‘no official position’ on the Book of Abraham?

William Hamblin’s blog posts some interesting questions here.

Feel free to comment here or there.

This entry was posted in General by Geoff B.. Bookmark the permalink.

About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

24 thoughts on “The Maxwell Institute takes ‘no official position’ on the Book of Abraham?

  1. David Bokovoy makes a very interesting comment on the linked blog:

    “Personally, I see no reason that a Latter-day Saint could not logically hold the position that instead of a supernatural translation of a pseudepigraphic Book of Abraham featured on a conveniently missing papyrus scroll, that through working with the papyri, the Prophet’s mind was directed in an inspired way to produce the scriptural Book of Abraham. In fact, it seems logical to me that rather than diminishing the scriptural nature of the BofA, approaching the text from this perspective would actually provide an even greater authoritative stamp upon the book than the one achieved through the apologetic arguments Gee and Muhelstein offer. Their apologetic arguments leave Latter-day Saints with simply a translation (however miraculous) of a non-biblical pseudepigraphic text, produced not by Abraham, but by a scribe revising the Genesis account to accord with Egyptian mysticism.

    In contrast, I believe that the approach to the BofA I’m suggesting has great power. It puts an end to the necessity of problematic arguments rightfully criticized by non-LDS scholars and places the BofA on a sphere not subject to scientific objection. From this perspective, the BofA may be considered “central to the gospel of Jesus Christ,” and a “sign of the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith.”

    However, from my perspective, the Maxwell Institute is wise to follow the Church’s lead and not adopt an official position on this matter. I believe that the Church’s official view is that the Book of Abraham is authentically revealed scripture for our day. Therefore, those who attempt to present their own perspective on how the BofA was produced as “the” standard of orthodoxy are in my opinion severely out of line.”

  2. I agree with David. There are many unansweredd questions regarding the papyri and where the BoA really originated from (the papyri date to 200 BC-200 AD).

    I have no problem with Gee and Muhlstein’s publishing things they wish to publish. That said, Bokovoy’s position is perhaps stronger, and that he questions how they are nuancing words to get to their “bullseye.”

    I have no problem with MI holding no official stance. Why? Because there are many questions unanswered regarding the BoA. As for William Hamblin’s post, I think he is carrying it farther than he needs to. Saying an organization does not hold a specific position, means they are willing to consider articles from many angles. One may expect BoA articles that discuss missing papyri, mnemonic devices, or revelatory catalyst, etc. To be agnostic towards such theories means they are willing to consider any possible concept and then have others, like David, to critique them. That is how scholarship works in the real world.

    I would hate to see what would happen to the Maxwell Institute if they were to hold solidly to one theory, simply due to tradition. What if they were to insist on a 6000 year old earth? How would that affect their reviewing and considering articles on evolution and creation?

    The key is: there are organizations for defending the Church: FAIRMormon, Interpreter, etc. MI has chosen to go a different route, where they will accept a variety of scholarship, without focusing on apologetics. There is nothing wrong with that, at all. None of it is scripture. All of it is (hopefully) scholarly work.

  3. Stephen Smoot makes some interesting points:

    “Brother Bokovoy,

    I appreciate your thoughts on this, but I’m genuinely perplexed on a number of issues.

    1. You make a big deal over the changes the Church has recently made in the introduction to the Book of Abraham. You think that the change from “a translation from some Egyptian papyri” to “an inspired translation of the writings of Abraham” is significant for your apologetic arguments for the so-called Catalyst Theory. However, you seem to have overlooked the fact that the Church still prints this with the Book of Abraham (which has appeared, with slight modification, with the Book of Abraham since 1842): “A Translation of some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt. The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus.”

    How do you countenance this fact with your apologetic arguments for the Catalyst Theory? Specifically, how do you reconcile this with you apologetic claim that “the Book of Abraham is identified [by the Church] as an inspired translation of the ‘writings of Abraham,’ not a translation of ‘Egyptian papyri’ that contain the writings of Abraham”?

    2. You seem completely fine with the Book of Abraham being 19th century pseudepigrapha, but not as ancient pseudepigrapha. Why? Pseudepigrapha is pseudepigrapha is pseudepigrapha, no? Leaving aside for a moment the arguments for or against the Book of Abraham’s historicity, why do you give preference to the theory that Joseph Smith was inspired to write 19th century pseudepigrapha over the theory that he was inspired to translate ancient pseudepigrapha? And, what’s more, since you are obviously keen on modern critical biblical scholarship, do you accept the consensus of many (most?) modern critical scholars that many biblical books are likewise pseudepigrapha? If so, then why is ancient biblical pseudepigrapha to be considered inspired, but not ancient non-biblical pseudepigrapha?

    3. You already mention that you “believe that the BofA can be interpreted as an inspired example of ‘attribution’.” If so, then why is it okay to allow Joseph Smith to attribute the material to Abraham, and have it still be considered inspired, but not an ancient Jewish or Egyptian scribe? What is the difference between Joseph Smith being inspired to attribute material to Abraham, and Joseph being inspired to translate material attributed to Abraham by an ancient Jew or Egyptian? (This is related to question 2. Why is it okay to consider an ancient Christian attributing material to Paul inspired, but not an ancient Jew attributing material to Abraham?)

    The way I see it, either way God directed Joseph to bring forth this material for the benefit of the Saints. This is what you mean by the Book of Abraham being “inspired”, right? God revealed this information to Joseph Smith, in one way or another? So why is one method considered more inspired than the other?

    4. Since we’re on the subject of attribution, do you allow for the possibility of a historical Abraham writing an account that, through the process of redaction much like the redaction that shaped the final form of the Pentateuch, took it’s final form during the Ptolemaic Era (or perhaps even earlier)? I’m aware of critical scholars who accept the JEDP hypothesis, but also allow for some material in the Pentateuch to be attributable to a historical Moses. Is not the same also possible with a historical Abraham and the text that we now call the Book of Abraham?

    5. You say that “the Book of Abraham clearly lacks historicity.” So may I take it then that you are not impressed with any of the arguments for the Book of Abraham’s historicity? Nothing from Nibley, Gee, Muhlestein, Rhodes, or others has at least gotten you to consider the possibility that it’s ancient? Is that correct?

    6. You state: “[Gee and Muhlestein’s] apologetic arguments leave Latter-day Saints with simply a translation (however miraculous) of a non-biblical pseudepigraphic text, produced not by Abraham, but by a scribe revising the Genesis account to accord with Egyptian mysticism.” But don’t your own apologetic arguments for the Catalyst Theory leave Latter-day Saints with simply an attribution (however miraculous) of a non-biblical pseudepigraphic text, produced not by Abraham, but by Joseph Smith revising the Genesis account to accord with Egyptian funerary papyri? I don’t mean to belabor the point, but, again, what’s the substantive difference between your apologetic arguments and Gee’s and Muhlestein’s besides just a matter of dating and authorship (Joseph Smith in the 19th century vs. ancient scribe in Ptolemaic Egypt)?

    For the record, I have no problem with the Book of Abraham being ancient pseudepigrapha. None. I’m also not opposed, on principle, to it being modern pseudepigrapha (i.e. the Catalyst Theory), although I think both logic and evidence runs against this proposition.”

  4. I’m not convinced that citing chapter heading and introductory material is the best way to hold our fellow Latter-day Saints’ feet over the fire in our inquisitional orthodoxy hunts. After all, until recently the Book of Mormon referred to Lehites as “the principal ancestors” of American Indians in general, and there were “coins” in the Book of Mormon.

  5. Bro. Smoot does not need my defense, but there is significant differences between the description of “ancient records that have fallen into our hands” in relation to the Book of Abraham and the language removed from the introductory materials of the Book of Mormon related to whether the Lehites were the principal ancestors of the American Indians. The language describing the Book of Abraham was published during Joseph Smith’s lifetime and a strong inference can be made on its face that he could be relied upon to speak about tangible items that he had in his own possession, much like we rely upon his representations regarding the Gold Plates. To my knowledge, the introductory materials to the Book of Mormon that made reference to the ancestry of Native Americans was not published originally until long after Joseph Smith’s death, and dealt with items that Joseph would not have had first hand, hands on, experience with in any event. Comparing the two is comparing apples with oranges.

    The problem I have always had with the catalyst theory (as touching the Book of Abraham) is that it requires that you ignore what Joseph and others said about the production and translation of the Book of Abraham. This is particularly perplexing given that the Book of Moses and large parts of the JST were produced in a manner consistent with the catalyst theory. If the Book of Abraham was given in the same manner as the Book of Moses, then why the difference in descriptions of the process?

  6. Catalyst Theory: Joseph Smith used an item to receive a revelation that went far beyond it. Let’s test that theory with how Joseph worked:

    Book of Mormon: Joseph peered into the U&T or his seer’s stone, often with his head down into a hat to help him concentrate. The plates sat on the table next to him, usually covered. Joseph did not do a direct translation from the plates, as he did not use them directly.

    Book of Moses and Inspired Corrections to the Bible: Joseph was given the inspired task of studying and correcting the Bible. This was mostly to prepare his mind to receive greater revelations. In the Book of Moses, the writings on Melchizedek and other portions of the Bible, Joseph did not just correct the Bible, but he added many chapters of information that is nowhere to be found in any other existing document.

    John’s Parchment: In D&C, Joseph sees a parchment that the apostle John hid under a rock, and translated it. He also receive some additional teachings that John wrote that we now have in D&C 93.

    In the Catalyst Theory for the Book of Abraham, those scholars believing it, believe that the papyri did not originally have anything to do with Joseph Smith, but God used it to catalyze a revelation on Abraham, perhaps something Abraham once actually wrote and hid under a rock or something, in order to restore that teaching today.

    Is the Catalyst Theory plausible? Yes. Given that Joseph used it on several other occasions, we can easily see how he could also have used it to develop the Book of Abraham.

    As for the BoA’s historicity, I say that there are internal things to the text that are suggestive of ancient things. However, it is evidence, and not strong proof. I keep an open mind as to how historical it may be, given in Abraham’s day people did not write a lot of history as we know it today. Pseudepigrapha? Certainly. It just isn’t clear who originally wrote it: some ancient man, God, etc.

    As for differences in the process, I think it is because by that time, Joseph and others had studied Hebrew under Professor Seixas, and were trying to find other methods to read or understand the text, hence the KEP.

  7. While we are all becoming comfortable with the idea of pseudepigrapha in the Bible and the translations of Joseph Smith, are we also asking ourselves how much historicity need be part of the text in order for us to accept it as “true” or at least “from God?” Do we believe that an inspired pseudepigraphic text can contain at least some mythical elements, heresay, poetic or prophetic license, or recounts of oral or written traditions that have a high degree of implausibility? How much accountability does a prophet, (or God) have for the exact historicity of a pseudepigraphic text? Do we ascribe perfect faith in God’s pseudepigraphic revelations to his prophets as absolutely factually accurate, partially accurate, or the historicity doesn’t matter at all?

  8. It seems to me that certain critics want the Maxwell Institute to take a stand, one way or another, on the issue–beyond simply supporting what Elder Holland recently said about the text.

    Frankly, when there’s so much honest debate on the issue by those who understand the issue the best, I think it’s silly to demand a firm stance from MI. MI is better off saying “we don’t have a position” and letting academics actively debate the issue–at least for now.

  9. Can I just point to the Book of Mormon and one of the expressly stated purposes of it was to show that the Bible was true, in these latter-days when the authenticity would be doubted?

    If the BOA serves that purpose surely the BOA also serves and reinforces that as well.

    I don’t proclaim to know why or how they are what they say they are. I take it on faith because the other things these books ask me to put to the test I have personal experience with them and found them true.

    I do not believe it strengthens faith to undermine the book and then say, as if we were all in the BoM musical but still, “I believe” inspite of discounting what we purport to believe in.

    I’ve never increased in power or understanding or received greater light from placing more faith in the stories of archeological researchers as opposed to the scripture on the page.

  10. I’ve never increased in power or understanding or received greater light from placing more faith in the stories of archeological researchers as opposed to the scripture on the page.

    Chris, The problem with poo pooing archeological researchers or trained scholars is this: We all know that if researchers could prove scientifically a direct link between the papyrus and what we know today as the Book of Abraham, it would be held up high as one proof of the prophetic calling of JS. Its really disheartening to hear people essentially say: “We welcome scientific discovery when it proves our previously held notions and beliefs. When it cuts against them, we no longer accept it as relevant to our lives or (in this case) study of the scriptures.

    If you or anyone else already feels convinced that JS was a prophet of God, maybe scientific evidence will do nothing to destroy that. Good. But, I think it should at the very least change assumptions or previously held beliefs about *how* God talks to his children.

    Once we accept the textual/historical evidence that important parts of the Bible are pseudepigrapha,(which the Church officially does not) then the way God apparently worked through Joseph Smith doesn’t look quite as scandalous. When we stubbornly stick with this sort of Mormon version of scriptural inerrancy, we do ourselves and Joseph Smith a great disservice.

  11. Christian J – I’ve never been one for holding up scientific (or should I say non-authoritative) studies or statements as proof of faith. I suppose there is a balance here though as I just do willy nilly do or think everything because it’s either been revealed from on high or proved by scientific reasoning.

    Whenever I hear someone in church pulling out various levels of apologetics from the orbits to the phrases used or the archeological finds as a reason of prophecy I tend to thing, “gee that’s nice, but it can easily cut both ways” (as you suggest).

    I know what I know and I know why and through whom and how I know it (please don’t take that to mean I presume to know all things). Stubborn perhaps, circular perhaps. In my lifetime of activity and faith I wouldn’t have always been able to say that. My personal feeling is that God would like all of us to progress to that point where we have direct experiences with him and can stand firm in the face of the shifting archeological sand (or what have you).

    It may sound “anti-intellectual” (I’d just assume it’s a touch of humility), but when it comes to studies, experts, etc. I have to balance their well reasoned, sometimes life work and expertise, against the fact that at the most basic level they are simply telling a story. A story with incomplete pieces of evidence. I balance it against the fact that even right now scholars would disagree over the cause of the civil war, let alone Vietnam, Iraq, etc. That being the case, how can we expect to extrapolate so much from so little?

    Statisticians would point to many ways to do this. But the honest (humble?) ones would then turn around and tell you all the limitations and even point out how in numerous carefully designed studies where we presume to know all the variables you can always poke holes in the claims after the fact. And this is in a designed, recorded experiment from the get-go!

    No, sorry I don’t need to worry too much about the “true” author of the book of Moses or any other book. Because at the end of the day, quite frankly it comes down to you and I choosing which story to believe. I suppose apologetics have that stated aim or carving out that space where we feel we can rationally make a choice to believe without having to also declare our belief in a flying spaghetti monster. But personal experience with the spirit of revelation is always the key to a life of reason and faith.

  12. Christian J, I agree with Chris’s comment above, and I would like to also point out that apologetics is mostly a defensive exercise to help people maintain their testimonies. You are never going to convince anybody about Joseph Smith’s story. The Holy Ghost does that. Reason and “the world” simply do not convince people of the truth of the Gospel. What apologetics does (sometimes very well in my opinion) is to help the person who has gained a testimony keep it in the face of the world telling him he is an idiot for believing that whole golden plate story in the first place. Just to use one example: I have heard dozens of times that the BoM story must be wrong because there were no horses in the Americas. Good apologetics says: “well, it could be that they were using the word ‘horse’ in a general sense to apply to large four-legged animals, and horse could mean llama or something else. And, by the way, yes, pre-Colombian horse bones have been discovered in the Americas.” You cannot prove the Book of Mormon through apologetics, but you can create space for people to keep their testimonies.

    The same thing should apply to the Book of Abraham. Personally, I don’t care if Joseph Smith had an ancient document to translate from or not. I find the Book of Abraham to be one of my favorite documents because it is rich with information that I personally believe adds some really interesting things to the Gospel. But there are people who try to use the uncertainty surrounding the Book of Abraham to destroy other peoples’ faith. And in that case, apologetics may help save the testimony of people who would otherwise lose it.

  13. I used to believe the Book of Mormon was true. But then I learned it was written in pseusoparagraphs, so I don’t believe anymore.

    Deep Thoughts by Jack

  14. Seriously, the one thing that’s hard to get around is that the BoM, BoA, BoMoses, etc., are about specific characters from the past. And, in as much as these folks invoke their private experience with God as a witness of His workings, we are led to conclude that such events must be historical in order to prove God’s beneficence. We may not ever believe, for example, His love to be His highest motivation if we were to somehow learn that he really didn’t suffer all things for us. So it is with the stories from JS’s writings. Salvation is for individuals — and God is working with real individuals (in those stories) to prove his power to save.

    The supposed lack of historicity has always presented a theological dilemma for me.

  15. Geoff, I agree with your summary of the mission of Mormon apologetics. I also understand the importance of the Holy Ghost in our search for truth.

    However, I don’t see apologetics partitioned quite as neatly in LDS Church teaching. Its actually everywhere – from MD’s writing WoW articles in the Ensign to Elder Holland speculating on historical events, we jump at the chance to use evidence to bolster our previously held beliefs. We also use historical context to help us properly understand the scriptures.

    How the words on the page came to us has clearly been important to Mormons then and now. This leads me to believe that our general leaders don’t view science and reason only as the work of academics and bloggers – in journal articles and weekend conferences.

    Understanding how the BoA came to us through JS, adds vital context to how we properly understand the words on the page. Otherwise, we’re in danger of becoming just like the Reformers – who ascribed the negative attributes that they associated with sixteenth-century Roman Catholicism to first-century Judaism (esp. in the writings of Paul)

  16. I can appreciate the fact that David Bokovoy (unlike Blair Hodges) actually bothered to explain where he was coming from. It took a long time and a lot of really specific questions, but it came out and he was actually pretty specific about it. This is very impressive.

    Bokovoy’s position is, as I read it:
    1. The Book of Abraham was written by Joseph Smith and is not factually true historically (i.e. these things did not happen to Abraham)
    2. We currently accept ‘attributions’ in the Bible as scripture. (For example, it is doubted by many scholars that Matthew was written by the apostle. Many other examples could be debated. Pseudo-Paul, the Books of Moses, etc.)
    3. So we can simply accept the BoA as “the Word of God” on the same basis as we accept attributions in the Bible. We can even claim that Joseph was saying “this is what Abraham would have said” (though honestly, it seems to me that Joseph should have *said that* has he intended it.)

    I can appreciate anyone that is willing to stick their neck out with an actual argument and risk criticism of their views like believing LDS people everywhere do constantly. It suggests David Bokovoy is truly comfortable with his beliefs on this subject and that he’s prepared to have a real dialogue.

    David Bokovoy, the proper criticism of your view is that you are acting like this has no logical ramificiations for the rest of the beliefs of the LDS Church (or at least you are not mentioning them). Clearly it does.

    I would ask you if you believe the LDS Church is a restoration of primative Christianity or if you honestly believe (given your views) that the LDS Chruch has any sort of unique authority or truth meant for members of any and all other religions? Or are you really just saying that every religion is more or less the same: historically untrue writings that bring us closer to “God” (however that is defined within the context of this argument.)

    In other words, I can see that your argument makes sense, but only if you are also prepared to abandon the very reason for the existence for the LDS Church.

    Yes, if (as John Hamer always told me) “scripture” is just nice stories that make us feel close to “God” (Do you believe in a literal God that is a person and does or doesn’t have a body? Or do you define “God” in a non-literal way or even an “attribution” to “morality” or “that which is best within humans” or “human spirituality”?) then there is certainly no reason at all that the Book of Abraham can’t be an “attribution” by Joseph Smith.

    In fact, we can then play that card with *all* of scripture, I would imagine. Jesus wasn’t really resurrected, but the story makes us feel close to God, so whose worried about the historical nature of the resurrection since, while not historical, it’s still “scripture”. (Is that what you believe? Or do you believe Jesus was bodily resurrected?)

    I think the key thing here is that I challenge your view not as being illogical at all. I challenge it as being at all LDS, however. It honestly sounds to me that you are describing an entirely different religion tradition where all religions have various text that, while not (generally) historical, “God” (literal or not?) uses them to inspire us. This is not the teachings of the LDS Church, however.

    There is a huge chain of logic that follows from your point of view. If you have avoided that very obvious chain of logic, I would ask you to explain how you have done so so that we have your total “explanation” so to speak “all the way down.” If your explanation can have Joseph Smith making an attribution to Abraham AND the truth claims of the LDS Church can be preserved, you have done nothing to present that case.

    I’d be very interested in having you go further and explain yourself “all the way down.” Is it even possible to take the point of view you are taking and still end up with the LDS Church as a Restoration of primative Christianity or still be the only Church setup by Jesus Christ on the earth? This seems rather doubtful to me.

    However, I do see how a person that says “Yes, maybe Matthew the apostle didn’t write Matthew, but the stories he told were true” does nothing to undermine the truth claims of Christianity. And likewise I can see how someone that says “Joseph Smith received a true revelation about Abraham that was a true story” does nothing to undermine the truth claims of the LDS Church. But that doesn’t seem to me to be what you are saying at all. Thus more explanation is warranted.

    (Please avoid going to the “I’m angry that you challenge my beliefs” as this is what you are doing to others. Its impossible to avoid in an honest dialogue. And frankly, these are just fair questions given what you’ve written. I’m not accusing you of anything, I’m asking based on what seems to me to be where logic would dicate this goes.)

  17. Hi, Bruce. I explained where I was coming from in the comments to Hamblin’s post which Geoff linked to in this link/post. In short, I’m coming from an academic institution where no single contributor represents the views of the Institute as a whole. That’s no different from the way things worked before I came to the Institute, and it’s all I intended to communicate in that Facebook comment that led to so much fun the other week. If you have more questions, feel free to contact me directly any time. My contact information is freely available. 🙂

  18. Saw your invite. I’ll accept and we can chat sometime. I believe you, actually. I do understand (now) that you weren’t trying to go beyond saying MI endorses no particular theory. And I shouldn’t just assume Hamblin’s side of the arguement is accurate and I probably jumped the gun (at least on your part, though I think my questions to David are still valid.) So I’d love to hear your point of view on all that has transpired.

  19. “I’m not convinced that citing chapter heading and introductory material is the best way to hold our fellow Latter-day Saints’ feet over the fire in our inquisitional orthodoxy hunts.”

    If this comment is directed at me, I’ll reminder Mr. Graham that my citing the introductory heading of the Book of Abraham (which has been published with the text since 1842, and accompanies the text, with slight variation, of the original manuscript) was done to show Brother Bokovoy that, vis-a-vis the changes made in the 2013 edition of the scriptures, the reasoning on this point for his apologetic theory of “attribution” is questionable.

    I do not hold any Latter-day Saint to some standard of orthodoxy based on the introductory material. Rather, I wish to point out Bokovoy’s problematic reasoning for his apologetic arguments.

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