Book of Abraham Manuscripts. Revelations and Translations Vol. 4 of the Joseph Smith Papers on the shelf.

[Cross-posted at By Common Consent]

A permanent identical “I” is a fiction—we are not what we believe ourselves to be—the truth is very different from what we are inclined to believe —-Derek Parfit [1]

The Book of Abraham has been both a puzzle and a sort of definition of ultimate reality. At least one such definition. The text of the book arises out of a milieu where many believed that Egypt like the Hebrew language (what many at the time thought of as a near descendant of the tongue of Eden) held answers to ultimate mysteries of self and time and being. Even though few Americans at least had any real notion of what things like hieroglyphics meant. When Michael Chandler brought his traveling mummy show to Kirtland, Ohio, Joseph Smith and a number of his friends saw deep value hidden in the artifacts and purchased them for a handsome sum even though they were already submerged in an expensive and daunting temple building project. In fits and starts through the last half of the year 1835 they (Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, William Phelps, and Warren Parrish) worked to construct some kind of logic that made sense of ancient writings found in the collection. These scrolls date from roughly the period of the book of Daniel (ca. 200 BCE) to the time of Christ (that is, the second temple period).

At the same time, the Kirtland group sought divine help in translating these texts—Joseph Smith had almost immediately divined that some at least contained episodes from the life of Abraham. The whole 1835 work amounted to three manuscripts that contain most of the first two chapters of the present Book of Abraham. They (first, apparently) painstakingly and creatively produced other collections that they hoped would open another world to their view, keys to understanding the mysterious writing on the scrolls. While there are clear measures of intertextuality between these tools of translation and those contemporary Book of Abraham manuscripts, there doesn’t seem to be a one for one correspondence between them. On the other hand, both the translation tool kits and the Book of Abraham texts were reverenced in some sense by their creators.

Joseph didn’t resume steady work with the Egyptian project until 1842, when he finally published the work in three issues of the church newspaper, Times and Seasons. A fourth manuscript collection had been produced—it survives in part—and it evidently contained more or less the full text of the current Book of Abraham (including facsimile explanations?), though there are important variations among these manuscripts and between the manuscripts and the first 1842 imprint.

Is our present Book of Abraham a translation of an Egyptian text purchased from Michael Chandler? Careful consideration yields a cautious, no. Did Joseph Smith and his contemporaries in the project believe that the Book of Abraham was a translation from the Chandler scrolls? Yes, they did. Joseph Smith believed this to the end of his life. How does this fit into the faith of the Latter-day Saints? Personally, I accept the Book of Abraham as a revelation from God. Others may see the dichotomy of Joseph’s belief about translation and the reality of revelation as discordant. Whatever your belief about such matters, I don’t think any Latter-day Saint or other interested party should pass up the opportunity to get hold of the recently published (and utterly beautiful) volume in the Joseph Smith Papers Revelations and Translation series (vol. 4).

Facsimile Edition: The Joseph Smith Papers Revelations and Translations Volume 4: Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts
Volume Editors: Robin Scott Jensen, Brian M. Hauglid.
Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2018. Front matter, i-xxxviii, main text 335 pages. Back matter, pp. 337-381.

Contents: [Like the magnificent facsimile edition of the “Manuscript Revelation Books” —the initial imprint of the R&T series—this volume contains all the documents of the collection in carefully produced color images together with multiply verified transcriptions of all English text]

1. Extant Egyptian language documents from the Kirtland period.
2. Notebooks of copied Egyptian characters by the 1835 Kirtland translation team.
3. Loose documents containing copies of Egyptian characters from Kirtland.
“Egyptian Alphabet” documents produced by the 1835 team.
4. Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (again 1835).
5. Book of Abraham Manuscripts (3) ca. July—ca. November 1835.
6. Book of Abraham Manuscripts ca. February 1842—ca. 15 March 1842.
7. Facsimile Printing Plates and the Published Book of Abraham (1842 ed.)
The drawing plates that appear in our present Book of Abraham were produced by one of Joseph Smith’s clerks, Reuben Hedlock. Hedlock carefully carved “woodcuts” that is, a flat block of wood with the image of an Egyptian vignette carved in its surface and then used as a mold for a lead copy.

This is the closest I’ll ever get to the original of facsimile no. 2.

The front matter of the volume contains of Joseph Smith’s life and a map showing his major residences. An introduction discusses precise definitions of terms used in the volume, a short history of the Egyptian materials acquired in Kirtland. The final paragraph of the introduction provides some insight into the editorial thought behind the work so I’ll quote it here.

The Book of Abraham typifies Joseph Smith’s experience as revelator and translator—Smith sought divine truth from his own age and from ancient documents, recorded that truth in a scriptural text, and imparted it to his people and the world. Understanding his efforts to decipher the Egyptian language adds nuance and detail to the complex story of the translation of the Book of Abraham.

The back matter of the volume contains some excellent tools beginning with a chronology of Joseph Smith and the Egyptian project for 1835 and 1842. There is an Egyptian character key based on the 1835 grammar and alphabet materials produced by Joseph Smith and his translation team, this is a very cool thing, hard to describe but an excellent reference tool for copied characters and their sounds assigned by the team.

There is a lot that this volume does not do, does not set out to do, and probably lies beyond its mission and the parameters of the Joseph Smith Papers. It does not discuss theology, or echoes and possible allusions and other intertextual dimensions with biblical and contemporary texts. It does not engage the very broad landscape of Book of Abraham critique and counterpoint. This Facsimile Edition is a tool for scholars and others interested in the Book of Abraham to do things like theological work or ferreting out textual influences or constructing arguments over and about the text and early Mormonism. If there is a weakness, it may be in the lack of discussion of the initial imprint and its relationship to predecessor manuscripts. There is no index, something that might have helped to navigate the volume.

Revelations and Translations Volume 4. Book of Abraham Manuscripts.

Highly Recommended. Under the Christmas Tree.

———-
[1] My single theological homage to Book of Abraham chapter 3. I had to have a little fun.

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