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MormanityA Threatened and Recovered Testimony: My Experience with the Book of Abraham
by Jeff Lindsay
Many years ago a member of my ward in Appleton, Wisconsin, left the Church and eventually started a popular anti-Mormon website. When I went there to learn his story, it appeared that losing his testimony over the Book of Abraham was what led him out of the Church.
After reading the critiques on the Book of Abraham from anti-Mormon publications, he became convinced that Joseph Smith lied about his ability to translate with the power of God. I can sympathize with his initial reaction (but not with his later pursuit of full-blown anti-Mormonism) because it almost happened to me, too.
I think it was early 1995, while serving as a bishop, when I seriously looked into some of the Book of Abraham attacks published by a Utah anti-Mormon ministry. I had experienced anti-Mormon rhetoric and thought it would be easy to see through the attacks they offered, but this was different than the typical anti-Mormon pamphlet.
A seemingly clear and convincing case was presented: (1) Joseph had some papyrus documents that he "translated" as the Book of Abraham; (2) those documents were lost for many years but have now been found; (3) scholars who now can translate Egyptian confirm that the papyrus scrolls have nothing to do with Abraham. It was all a fraud. Ouch!
I was troubled by the evidence and was unprepared to deal with it. Could it be that Joseph just got it all wrong with the Book of Abraham? It sure seemed that way — but that created a real puzzle because there was no doubt in my mind, intellectually and spiritually, on the basis of extensive evidence and experience and powerful personal revelation, that the Book of Mormon was an authentic, divine work.
Could he have gotten the Book of Mormon right and then fell as a prophet to mess up the Book of Abraham completely?
I went to the Lord in prayer and asked for guidance, and explained that I sincerely wanted to know the truth, wanted to be able to bear testimony honestly of what was really true and needed to know if the Book of Abraham was divine or not. After this prayer, I simply felt that I needed to study more and be patient.
As I started digging up information on the Book of Abraham to understand the issues raised by critics, I soon felt cheated and betrayed. Not by Joseph Smith, but by the anti-Mormons who had conveniently left out some of the most important information about the Book of Abraham.
The anti-Mormon critiques I had read left the reader without the slightest hint that the Joseph Smith papyri — the fragments that were found in 1967 — were remnants of a much larger collection of scrolls, and that these remnants do not match the multiple physical descriptions of the scroll Joseph Smith translated as the Book of Abraham.
That scroll appears to have been in the collection that was sold to sold to a St. Louis museum in 1856 and then later sent to a Chicago museum, where it appears to have burned in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
The critics almost universally assert that the Book of Abraham scroll has been found, not allowing the reader to know the gaps in their argument. To inform people that some of the other related documents in the Joseph Smith collection do not deal with Abraham is just not faith-shattering enough, I guess — but even that does raise some legitimate questions, especially since some of the figures that are included with the Book of Abraham were attached to some of the other documents.
But now the debate is of quite a different flavor. The results of my investigation, and the evidence that the anti-Mormons left out, are given in my LDSFAQ page, "The Truth about the Book of Abraham, Part 1."
Now in my recent post about lies, I made a comment about the "direct hits" I see in the Book of Abraham, and was asked for specifics. I go into these in some detail in my LDSFAQ page, "The Book of Abraham, Part 2 — Evidence that Joseph Smith was a Prophet of God" and in "Part 3: Ancient Records Offer New Support for the Book of Abraham."
Here's one sample issue: Figure 6 in Facsimile 2, said by Joseph Smith and modern scholars to represent "the four quarters of the earth." Bullseye. Just a lucky guess? Here's an excerpt from my page ("Part 2") that deals with the direct hits:
Figure 6 is the same as the four canopic figures under the lion couch of Facs. 1 and is said by Joseph to represent "this earth in its four quarters." How many farmers would have guessed that four little statues represented such a thing? But it is an entirely plausible explanation based on a modern understanding of Egyptian, and fits nicely into the themes of the Hypocephalus.
E. Wallis Budge explained, "These jars were under the protection of Isis, Nephthys, Neith, and Serqet, and represented the south, north, east, and west respectively" [Budge, 1904, 1:210]. In the forward to Budge's translation of The Book of the Dead, Budge wrote that the four "children of Horus" were each "supposed to be lord of one of the quarters of the world, and finally became the god of one of the cardinal points" [Budge, 1967, p. cxxiv, emphasis mine]. Joseph was absolutely correct.
According to John Gee [Gee, 1991], the four canopic vessels represent the four Sons of Horus, each of which has its own unique name, its own animal head, and its own cardinal direction. The link between the Sons of Horus and the cardinal directions was first established in 1857 [Brugsch, 1857], so Joseph could not have drawn upon scholarly knowledge in saying that they represented the four quarters of the earth. Indeed, there was essentially no valid knowledge of Egyptian to draw upon in 1842,when the Book of Abraham was published.
Stephen E. Thompson criticizes Joseph Smith's interpretation of Figure 4 [Thompson, 1995]. Concerning the claim of LDS scholars that the fours sons of Horus represent the four quarters of the earth, Thompson objects:
"As far as ancient Egypt is concerned, there is no evidence currently available to support this claim. There is only one context in which the sons of Horus are associated with the cardinal directions, i.e., 'the earth in its four quarters.' They were sent out, in the form of birds, as heralds of the king's coronation....I must emphasize that it is only in this context, and in the form of birds, that these gods were associated with the cardinal points. In the funerary context no such relationship is evident. Furthermore, the fact that these gods are sent to the four quarters of the earth does not mean that the Egyptians equated them with these directions. There is no evidence that they did so."
Thompson's approach fascinates me. Instead of marveling at how Joseph could have guessed even a remotely plausible meaning for the canopic figures, he quibbles. After flatly stating that there is no evidence for a link to the four quarters of the earth, then he admits that there is only one context — coronations — in which such a link exists. He then denies the relevance of that link, alleging that Facsimile 2 is only a funerary scene.
I wonder if he is unaware of what Hugh Nibley has been writing about Facsimile 2 for many years: that it is centers around the concept of the endowment, which is the "coronation" of the resurrected soul in the kingdom of God. Indeed, non-LDS scholars acknowledge that figures of this type (the hypocephalus) are concerned with the life after, with a triumphant resurrection and entrance into eternity. It seems entirely reasonable to me to place Facsimile 2 into the context of a coronation scene, the one scene for which Thompson says the sons of Horus are linked to the four quarters of the earth. But Thompson can allow no room for plausibility in anything Joseph says.
I also disagree with Thompson's stance that only one context permits a relationship between the sons of Horus and the cardinal directions. John Gee provides others in his article. For example, in the Pyramid Texts, "the Sons of Horus are associated with the orientation of the four corners of the earth and used to orient the Pyramid" [Gee, 1991, p. 38]. They are also connected to winds from the four corners of the sky.
I feel that identifying the "four quarters" with the sons of Horus in Figure 6 is especially appropriate, since the four legs of the adjacent cow, Hathor = “house of Horus,” have a similar meaning mentioned in the quote from Campbell above.
Still puzzled about Thompson's allegation, I borrowed a copy of Richard W. Wilkinson's Symbol and Magic in Egyptian Art [Wilkinson, 1994] from our local library. The discussion of the Sons of Horus in Wilkinson clearly links them to the four quarters of the earth or the four cardinal directions, with no hint at all that this connection only occurred during coronation ceremonies.
For example, Wilkinson's glossary entry for the Sons of Horus explains that they "were four genii or minor deities connected with the cardinal points and which guarded the viscera of the deceased. Originally human-headed, they were regularly portrayed with the heads of different creatures: Imsety, human-headed (south); Duamutef, jackal-headed (east); Hapy, ape-headed (north); Qebesenuef, falcon-headed (west)" (p. 213).
His section on the meaning of the number four notes that the four Sons of Horus were one of several groups of four commonly found in Egyptian art. Then he writes, "Frequently the number [four] appears to connote totality and completeness and is tied to the four cardinal points...The four cardinal points are certainly an ancient concept.... Usually ... the four areas represent the four quarters of the earth alone. This is the case in most religious rituals which find representational expressions" [Wilkinson, 1994, pp. 133-134, emphasis mine].
He does cite the coronation of the king as well as the jubilee ceremony as examples involving the cardinal directions, but there is no hint that the connection between the four Sons of Horus and the four quarters of the earth only occurs in a narrow and limited context.
Page 145 of Wilkinson shows a photograph of canopic jars (shaped as the Sons of Horus, containing human viscera) in a decorated chest (22nd Dynasty). Each side of the chest also has one of the four Sons of Horus on it, being protected by the goddesses Isis, Nephthys, Neith, and Selket.
This concept is discussed on pages 70-71 in the context of placement of coffins, which were sometimes oriented with the cardinal directions (head to the north, with the body sideways facing east). The four Sons of Horus were sometimes placed on the long sides of the coffin, with two on the west side and two on the east.
Wilkinson then notes that the Son of Horus are sometimes represented on the four sides of the chests in which canopic jars were stored. Again, the Sons of Horus are linked to directions in a context other than coronation rites alone.
Joseph's "four quarters of the earth" remains a "direct hit," in my eyes. Now how can the critics explain that? If Joseph were a fraud, why the direct hits?
Since that time some outstanding new insights have come out revealing many more impressive hits for Joseph Smith. Some of these are discussed in a recent new DVD, available from FAIRLDS, “A Most Remarkable Book: Evidence for the Divine Authenticity of the Book of Abraham.” I review the DVD over at my Mormanity website.
There are still many questions and some genuine problems for which we don’t have clear explanations, but it is also clear that something more than random guessing by a conman is needed to account for the remarkable treasures we have in the Book of Abraham. It is simply the wrong reason for someone to abandon their faith.
When we hit problem spots, my advice is to recognize that doubts and questions are normal. Dig in, hold in, and continue pressing forward. See also my recent post, “A Fellowship of Doubters.” As we patiently move forward, we may find that some of the weak spots in our testimony became centers of strength. The Book of Abraham may be an example of that.
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