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University of Chicago Professor Responds to Book of Abraham Statement

We recently reported on one reaction to the LDS Church’s new Gospel Topic entry about the Book of Abraham.

Today, Signature Books (a sponsor of Approaching Justice) published another response and analysis of the statement. This time the response is by Robert Ritner, a professor of Egyptology at the University of Chicago.

Here is an excerpt:

The recent web posting on the Book of Abraham … represents new reflection on a document whose authenticity as verifiable history is now officially acknowledged to be in serious dispute.1 Thus the position paper concludes with a concession by noting (unnamed) modern scholarly opposition to the Book of Abraham, followed by a defense against any such scholarly debate: “The veracity and value of the book of Abraham cannot be settled by scholarly debate concerning the book’s translation and historicity.” Rather, the truth of the book is sought in ways that cannot be verified externally, relying exclusively upon traditional faith: “a careful study of its teachings, sincere prayer, and the confirmation of the Spirit.”

Such a declaration may seem reasonable to those already predisposed to accept it, but on closer reading, the LDS church posting suggests discomfort with its own conclusions and reasoning. Not a single opposing scholar is mentioned by name, nor are their reasons for rejecting the Book of Abraham. Yet the LDS paper attempts to engage in scholarly debate from a one-sided position, repeatedly citing in the footnotes the same limited set of apologists who are primarily church employees at BYU in Provo. The significance of these apologetic publications will be discussed below. If scholarly dispute over translation and historicity is ultimately irrelevant, why bother to devote extended paragraphs to rebuttals of unmentioned objections on “Translation and the Book of Abraham,” “The Papyri,” and “The Book of Abraham and the Ancient World”?

You can find Ritner’s full paper here at the website of Signature Books.

Please, share any of your thoughts about his analysis and conclusions in the comments below.

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Comments

  1. The response strikes me as naive at best, and disingenuous at worst. It’s responding to the lds.org statement from the assumption that it is making an academic argument, and making that argument poorly. Moreover, it’s demanding that we stand with Joseph Smith in his assertion that he is, in fact, translating the papyri, and that “translation” means what we think of when we think of translation. Both these assumptions strike me as problematic and inaccurate.

    On the first, this is clearly a pastoral/apologetic statement. It’s being couched in semi-academic language, and footnoted to semi- to actually-academic support, but it doesn’t pretend to academic argument. That it doesn’t refer specifically to opposing arguments cements this.

    I mean, I don’t demand that everybody who claims that taxes are too high provide an academic argument demonstrating that we’re in uncharted tax territory; I recognize that people making arguments make them in different modes. A pastoral argument is just that.

    On the second point, that Joseph described it as direct translation isn’t binding on contemporary Mormonism. We’ve largely accepted the Midrashic nature of the JST; there’s no reason that, just because Joseph and his contemporaries believed it was a strict translation, and Joseph even aimed toward it, that it was.

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