Saturday, July 12, 2014

A Musing on the Book of Abraham

This post is a specific response to a thread which started on facebook, as a result of this post by the LDS church regarding the Book of Abraham, a portion of LDS scripture known as the Pearl of Great Price, and this subsequent article by the Salt Lake Tribune. The SLTrib article rubbed me the wrong way, due to it's rather sensationalist feel but lack of any real substance, and due to the fact that they didn't bother to reference the original article they were writing about (what can I say working fro 8am to 2am for a week had me in a cranky mood).

At any rate, a recurring question appeared around the pictographs contained in the Book of Abraham (which can be found here). The question in essence being, since these pictures are common pictures found in Egyptian Funerary texts (Known as the Book of Breathings or the Book of the Dead, and since present day scholars (and presumably scholars in Joseph Smith's time, given that the debate over the veracity of the Book of Abraham goes back to the early 1800's), does this not at the very least discredit the Book of Abraham, as a literal translation, and possibly even exposes Joseph Smith as a fraud?

First let me wade through a few points I already discussed for the sake of completeness. I am not aware that the Church at any time has taught as doctrine that the scriptures are a literal translation. The Joseph smith was relatively uneducated, seems to suggest that they were not literal translations.

Let me also for completeness include the definition of a literal translation as one which is a word-for-word rendering in another language, and point out that literal translations are frequently not useful, as a word-for-word translation fails to convey the correct culture, and often ideas or meanings the author intended. And since some scripture is poetic in nature, it is often necessary to translate non-literally in order to maintain the flow, which can be just as important as the words in presenting the intended meaning.

I would further point out that this makes accurate translation a very tricky business, since it is meaning which is most important (spend a little time at song and you will get an idea what I mean. just one example is Radioactive by Imagine Dragons, it is interpreted as everything from dealing with depression (the most likely, given that author of the song said it was this) to drug use, to a promotion of new age religion).

So, that out of the way, let me come back to the facsimiles. First, since the recovered portion of the scrolls from which the Book of Abraham is said to have been translated represents roughly 12% of the entirety of the scrolls, what we have represents no real proof of anything. Insufficient data.

But that aside, and based on what little information we actually do have, let me propose one alternative which fits.

Several years ago I had the opportunity to become acquainted with a man who was a Freemason, of relatively high rank - I do not recall the title now. In our conversations, he shared with me some details of the Freemason ceremonies. While not wishing to divulge detail around what he shared, as it is considered secret/sacred. I will say that I found a curious number of similarities between it, and certain ceremonies performed in LDS temples, including specific clothing, hand shakes, hand gestures...

In fact some have claimed the Joseph was  Freemason and that he borrowed from their ceremonies to create the temple ceremony. But where did the Freemasons come by it? There history, as explained to me traces it back to one of three origins. The first is that it was an organization of craftsmen founded in the middle ages. This is based on the earliest known documents related to the Freemasons.

Freemason tradition however points to an earlier source. Many indicate that its origins are tied to the Temple of Solomon, where workers who constructed the temple gleaned the rituals of Solomon's temple. Others however indicate that it predates Solomon's temple, and in fact traces back to Egypt. In either of these cases, the constant is that it was tied to, or gleaned from ancient Israel (referring to the progeny of Jacob, Son of Isaac, son of Abraham).

Now, going to Jacob and moving forward: Bible history says that Jacob had a Son, Joseph, who was sold into slavery in Egypt, and then rose to power, as the Pharoah's right hand man. This was accomplished through Joseph's interpretation of a dream which Pharoah had, predicting a seven year period of abundance, followed by a seven year famine. this foreknowledge allowed Pharoah the opportunity to prepare for the famine during the prosperous years. These events culminated in Jacob and his family migrating to Egypt and reuniting with Joseph.

Now consider: This event would have made the Pharoah quite prosperous. It is reasonable to assume that, at that point, Joseph, and by association Joseph's family - were held in relatively high regard by the Pharoah, and those around him.It is also reasonable to assume that Joseph, being devoutly religious shared his religious views and history with Pharoah and others within his circle of influence.

So then, is it possible that the book of the Dead, an Egyptian text, did in fact originate, or at the very least was influenced by Joseph, and his Family? I have a friend who had the opportunity to see parts of a Book of Breathings on display in the Musee du Louvre. I have not had the opportunity to personally  study the book of the dead, or its translation, so I am trusting my friend at his word, but his description of the Book of the dead  and translation offered included parts which again bore striking resemblance to portions of the Masonic ceremonies, and LDS temple ceremonies.

As such, it seems  possible that the Book of the dead may have in fact been influenced by Abraham's progeny. It seems possible that portions of Abraham's writings may have found there way into Egyptian texts.

I don't offer this as fact, I have never heard anyone else pose this theory, this scenario is entirely my own creation. It is not offered to prove or disprove any point in particular, only to point out that there are other alternatives to the extremes being offered by the media, the religiously or intellectually overzealous on either side of the debate.

It goes back to a point I have made before, that we humans are not nearly as smart as we think we are. We are incredibly bad at keeping an unbiased view, and are therefore quite often blinded to many possible scenarios which fit the limited data we have to work with. Frequently I hear arguments that "God doesn't exist because (insert fact) is a contradiction". Well, no. (fact) doesn't disprove the existence of an intelligent being, it only calls into question certain assumptions about the characteristic of said being.

We assume too much and understand too little. We all too often place on a pedestal, and blindly accept as infallible, "prophets" of either a spiritual or intellectual nature. And where one worships, another seeks to dethrone by exposing their malice. We would be much better served by a general tendency to trust, respect and the liberal application of Hanlan's razor ("Never attribute to malice that which can be explained by ignorance or incompetence").

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