Jeremy Runnells on the Book of Abraham

by Brian Hauglid

In February 2012 Jeremy Runnells experienced a faith crisis and then spent the ensuing summer and into the next year reading, reviewing, and compiling different aspects of the church that led to his crisis of faith. In the Spring of 2013 Jeremy was approached by his grandfather to discuss these issues. His grandfather felt that a friend of his, a “CES director,” would be able to help answer Jeremy’s concerns. Jeremy was asked by this CES director to share his concerns over email, so Jeremy then wrote his letter for the CES director to respond to.

According to Jeremy Runnells, of all the issues he deals with in his letter to a CES director “the Book of Abraham is the issue that has both fascinated and disturbed me the most.” He further notes, “It is the issue that I’ve spent the most time researching on because it offers a real insight into Joseph’s modus operandi as well as Joseph’s claim of being a translator. It is the smoking gun that has completely obliterated my testimony of Joseph Smith and his claims” (p. 30).

In reading Runnells’s section on the Book of Abraham (pp. 24-30) I quickly realized that this letter is just that—a letter, and not (meant to be) a fair and balanced essay or treatise that offers differing viewpoints of the issues presented. Those well versed in Book of Abraham issues will readily see Runnells’ reliance on others, especially in his use of graphics. Runnells’s points are primarily short one-sided sound bites with little or no background, context, counterpoint, or elaboration.

In the following I’ll highlight some of Runnells’s concerns and provide a few references (sometimes from opposing viewpoints) to help guide those who might be interested in pursuing the subject a bit further. Although one can go to FAIR for these issues, I’ll try to identify specific scholars who have dealt with a given problem. Suffice it to say, this will not be an exhaustive treatment of Book of Abraham issues, nor will it settle any issues one way or the other. Let those who can think critically about these issues come to their own conclusions.

In his letter Runnells identifies, in my view, the two most troublesome arguments against the Book of Abraham: (1) the discrepancy between Joseph Smith’s explanation/translation of the facsimiles and the translation of the facsimiles by Egyptologists, and (2) internal problems with the Abraham text (anachronisms, 19th century influences, etc.).1 Much ink has been spilled on arguing either a direct translation from the papyri or offering up some other kind of scenario, such as the catalyst theory put forth recently in the Gospel Topics essay.2 Yet the facsimiles, particularly Facsimile 3, and internal textual inconsistencies bear most directly on Joseph Smith as a translator.

This could explain why Runnells focuses on the facsimiles but spends no time on the so-called Kirtland Egyptian Papers. These papers are very difficult to sort out in terms of their dating, their relationship to each other, and to the Book of Abraham. Or, perhaps, Runnells was just not aware of the papers.

Although Runnells emphasizes that the facsimile explanations do not match current Egyptology, LDS Egyptologist Michael Rhodes has written an article, which argues that Smith’s explanations to Facsimile 2 do correspond to meanings found in Egyptology. However, it should be noted that Egyptologist Robert K. Ritner does not agree with Rhodes’s arguments and conclusions.3 Interestingly, both Rhodes and Ritner agree on the translation of characters in Facsimile 3.4

Runnells points out in his letter that the physics in Abraham 3 is outdated. Some LDS scholars have noticed this as well. John Gee, William J. Hamblin, and Daniel C. Peterson have argued that the geocentric universe described in Abraham 3 can be explained on the basis that Abraham is describing the visible heavens and not the entire universe.5 Astronomers Michael D. Rhodes and J. Ward Moody, on the other hand, suggest that there is harmony between the astronomy in Abraham 3 and modern heliocentric astronomy.6 I don’t know of any non-LDS astronomers weighing in on this issue.

Runnells also picks up on the anachronistic terms “pharaoh” and “Chaldee” in the Book of Abraham as well as the usage of the term “intelligence” in both the Book of Abraham and Thomas Dick’s The Philosophy of the Future State. For the anachronistic “Chaldee” one could go to Paul Y. Hoskisson’s 1991 article, “Where was the Ur of Abraham?” I don’t know of any scholarly treatment on the possible influence of Thomas Dick on the Book of Abraham (or Joseph Smith) other than the wiki article at FAIR.

I’m not sure what to do with Runnells’s criticism of Elder Holland’s saying he doesn’t know how the Book of Abraham was translated. Runnells expects that a prophet, seer, and revelator should know more. In my view, that seems to be a subjective matter.

As far as what to do with the Book of Abraham it needs to be clearly stated that no theory about the Book of Abraham can account for all the evidence. When it comes to questions regarding translation, historicity, 19th century influence, etc. nothing is certain. This leaves it open enough for people to study it out in their own minds and come to their own conclusions. Perhaps this is what Runnells has done. Whether he has thought through all the possibilities or not is not my place to judge. It’s a personal decision.

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1These criticisms are not addressed in the recent essay Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham.
2Runnells states that the catalyst theory is a concession to his point that “Joseph’s translations of the [Egyptian in the] papyri and the facsimiles do not match what’s in the Book of Abraham” (p. 30).

3See, Ritner’s The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri: A Complete Edition (Salt Lake City: The Smith-Pettit Foundation, 2011), 215-226.

4Compare Michael D. Rhodes, The Hor Book of Breathings: A Translation and Commentary (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2002), 25, and Robert K. Ritner, The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri, 139.

5“’And I Saw the Stars’: The Book of Abraham and Ancient Geocentric Astronomy” in Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant, ed. by John Gee and Brian M. Hauglid, vol. 3 of Studies in the Book of Abraham (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2005), 1-16.
“Astronomy and the Creation in the Book of Abraham,” in Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant, 17-35.

Brian M. Hauglid is a Senior Research Fellow at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, BYU.

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