Replacing Certainty with Pluralism through Gospel Topics Articles
With the release of the latest Gospel Topics article “Translation and Historicity of the book of Abraham” I have come to realize that the Church is making room for those with various beliefs about what our scriptures are. I see this as a tremendous step forward for the Church. The article helped me form some conclusions about where the Church is heading with its approach to scripture and history. Only the “Spiritual Confirmation” conclusion below is directly stated in the article while the rest are inferred from the article and other information related to the Gospel Topics articles.
Nuanced and Pluralistic Views are Welcome and Legitimate
Due to the influence of correlation and tradition the book of Abraham translation story has been a simple faith-promoting one. The story consisted of the Church purchasing some papyri and mummies, Joseph sees that among the papyri are the “writings of Abraham”, and by the power of God he translates the writings of Abraham word for word. While some of the components of the traditional story are there, the article adds some more unknown details and moves away from this literal translation mindset. The largest step forward in my mind is the inclusion of the “catalyst theory.” While still maintaining that the book of Abraham is divine in essence it is about as far as you can get from literal translation.
Alternatively, Joseph’s study of the papyri may have led to a revelation about key events and teachings in the life of Abraham, much as he had earlier received a revelation about the life of Moses while studying the Bible. This view assumes a broader definition of the words translator and translation. According to this view, Joseph’s translation was not a literal rendering of the papyri as a conventional translation would be. Rather, the physical artifacts provided an occasion for meditation, reflection, and revelation. They catalyzed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri.
What!?! While the catalyst view may have been acceptable in scholarly circles, it is groundbreaking to see it in an official church publication. This says, “we really don’t mind what your conclusions/theories are about the origin of scriptures, just that you respect them as such.” All I have to say is thank you for allowing me the liberty to form my own conclusions.
Prophets, Seers, and Revelators with the Assistance of Professional Historians Lack Consensus
From what I understand these Gospel Topics articles are put together by a group or council of paid Church historians to add clarity to some of the most controversial doctrines and history of the Church. The articles are reviewed by general authorities who give their stamp of approval after providing some feedback. See the “What about historical questions?” for a quick, 3-minute video on the process and purpose. While this may seem like a boring set of procedures it adds potency and authority to the articles. The men we regard as modern-day revelators do not have a single, unified consensus on these issues. In a way they are saying “if you find these issues troubling, confusing, unclear, interesting, faith-promoting, or faith-trying, then welcome to the club.”
Do Not Disparage the Church or its Scripture
The first statement of the article reads, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints embraces the book of Abraham as scripture.” The first section of the article is “The book of Abraham as Scripture”, which expresses the importance of the book of Abraham for the clarification and addition of Gospel truths. This is a line in the sand. While the article does promote studying with a critical-eye, it maintains, unequivocally, that the book of Abraham is holy scripture. The article’s structure and rules are a way of modeling what is an acceptable Church dialogue on a topic such as the book of Abraham. While scholars outside of the Church context could argue that the book of Abraham was just more of Joseph Smith’s invented deceit, this type of claim is unwelcome at Church and not acceptable for a member of the Church.
These Articles are Apologetic in Nature
These Church articles are biased. Surprise! To think that the Church would publish an article that does not promote the faith is naive. I would not hold any other institution to that standard. In the article there is a major emphasis on the faith-promoting elements of a given topic; the whole section called The book of Abraham and the Ancient World is an attestation to this fact. There is also little emphasis on the harder aspects, but I do feel that the articles cover more of the ammunition of critics than I thought they would. I don’t consider myself an expert on the book of Abraham by any means, however, I was surprised to find a new challenging detail in the article. The article speaks of a grammar book that Joseph was putting together to make sense of the Egyptian found in the Papyri.
Some evidence suggests that Joseph studied the characters on the Egyptian papyri and attempted to learn the Egyptian language. His history reports that, in July 1835, he was “continually engaged in translating an alphabet to the book of Abraham, and arrangeing a grammar of the Egyptian language as practiced by the ancients.”This “grammar,” as it was called, consisted of columns of hieroglyphic characters followed by English translations recorded in a large notebook by Joseph’s scribe, William W. Phelps. Another manuscript, written by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, has Egyptian characters followed by explanations.
The relationship of these documents to the book of Abraham is not fully understood. Neither the rules nor the translations in the grammar book correspond to those recognized by Egyptologists today….
The fact that the grammar book was even brought up in the article increases my respect for the historians and general authorities involved.
Scriptural Truth is Verified Through Spiritual Confirmation
The last and concluding sentence of the article is, “The truth of the book of Abraham is ultimately found through careful study of its teachings, sincere prayer, and the confirmation of the Spirit.” Spiritual confirmation is the underlying emphasis of the article. The Book of Mormon Translation article ended in much the same fashion.
I have to agree with this assessment.
The only way that any writing or communication has any lasting power in your life is if it provides truths, inspiration, or positive direction in your life. For me this releases me from holding only the standard works as scripture. This also allows me to include fiction into my sources of inspiration or scripture. Please refer to article of faith 9 and 13 for further confirmation of this way of thinking.