Book of Abraham Translation

When Joseph Smith used the word “translate”, it meant something different than what we usually think of as translating. The Book of Abraham is a very intriguing example of the process that, while it still has a lot of unknowns, does provide some insight into the process. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint blog From the Desk, Stephen O. Smoot discussed the Book of Abraham translation. What follows here is a co-post (a shorter post with some excerpts and discussion).

To start, much like the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith never left a clear statement about how he produced the Book of Abraham:

We have no firsthand account from Joseph explaining how he produced the Book of Abraham. We have vague accounts from those who assisted him in the translation, and we have clues from the surviving manuscripts, but nothing directly from the Prophet. Because of this, there has been no shortage of controversy over the years as scholars and polemicists alike have propped up theories to explain the production of the text. …

Ultimately, it was done by the gift and power of God. As with the translation of the Book of Mormon, we will probably never know all the particulars of how the Prophet translated the Book of Abraham. But what we do know is that the work was accomplished by revelation.

It sounds very much like the translation of the Book of Mormon in that regard.

Based on what we do have, though, we can make some educated guesses. As Smoot wrote:

From what we can tell, by “translate” Joseph Smith appears to have meant conveying the ancient record of Abraham written in the Egyptian language into modern English. So in that sense, he probably meant it the way the word is typically used today.

However, he also appears to have understood the method of rendering that translation to have been revelation, not secular academic training. So in another sense, the way he used the word “translate” is different than how it is usually used today….

“Translation” and “revelation” were nearly synonymous in early Latter-day Saint usage, almost to the point of them being used interchangeably.

This is very clear when you see how early Saints spoke about the production of the Book of Mormon in contemporary accounts of its origins and nature….

And why not? After all, Joseph claimed the translation of the text came from revelation as he utilized the seer stones—a process he called “the gift and power of God.” So these two things were closely linked in early Latter-day Saint conceptualizations. …

This isn’t some new way to think about the translation of the Book of Mormon. We can see it almost as soon as the book is published and missionaries are sharing it with others, and pretty quickly it takes root in Latter-day Saint discourse surrounding the text.

So, while we call it a translation, it was probably more of what we would consider a revelation, as Elder Ulysses Soares indicated a couple years ago in general conference.

Now, how does the translation of the Book of Abraham compare with other translations projects?

By situating the production of the Book of Abraham next to the production of the Book of Mormon and the Prophet’s other revelatory and translation outpourings, we can do a useful comparative analysis that helps us appreciate how these texts are similar but also how they show signs of unique differences. …

Two items that aren’t usually talked about as translations, but which can be considered in the category, can be handy in thinking about this:

Actually, we need to consider two sections of the Doctrine and Covenants: Section 7 and Section 93. Section 7 is the Prophet’s revealed translation of some heretofore lost or unknown writings of John the Beloved Disciple said to have been preserved on a physical manuscript (“parchment”).

Section 93, specifically verses 6–18, is another revelation of the writings of another figured called John, presumably also the Beloved Disciple but we don’t know for sure.

Both of these revelations purport to give a translation of these lost writings, but in neither case was Joseph actually handling an ancient record. Section 7 especially has a fascinating compositional history, as it underwent revision and expansion from its manuscript form to its canonical form, and early versions of this text go back and forth on calling it a “revelation” and a “translation.”

These two sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, in my opinion, are textbook examples of how these two categories (“revelation” and “translation”) were collapsed into each other in Joseph Smith’s prophetic lexicon.

Now, one point that Smoot was keen to make is that the text is greater than its origins:

One point my coauthors and I emphasize in A Guide to the Book of Abraham is that we can best judge the Book of Abraham on its own merits, rather than on the (as of yet) unanswerable question about how it was translated.

Hugh Nibley was making this point decades ago. The inspired contents of the Book of Abraham are the best evidence for its authenticity, regardless of the method of how it was produced. So while I am always excited to explore how the Book of Abraham was translated, and I think it’s important to keep investigating this subject, I also think it’s more important not to lose focus on the truly extraordinary and inspired text the Prophet gave us.

Sometimes, it can be helpful to look more at the text itself and its impact than its origins. While this may seem to be a “pay no heed to the man behind the curtains” approach, there is value in engaging with the text on its own merits (though I personally would encourage looking at all aspects together).

Anyway, for more on the Book of Abraham translation, head on over to the Latter-day Saint blog From the Desk for the full interview.

As an additional recommendation, check out Jonathan Green’s “Putting the grammar back in GAEL” series.

11 comments for “Book of Abraham Translation

  1. I think “both a translation and a revelation” is a good description. There’s no need for the two categories to be seen as opposites when it comes to Abraham (or anything else).

    In some contexts, it’s appropriate to write cautiously and emphasize the unknowns, but I think with something like a special issue of BYU Studies, it would have been possible to explore some of the possibilities in greater depth. I think Abraham might just offer the most detailed glimpse we have of how translation and revelation work together in practice.

  2. “When Joseph Smith used the word “translate”, it meant something different than what we usually think of as translating.”

    To some extent. No doubt you can find examples. But there is no doubt that when Joseph Smith said he was translating something that a lot of the time he meant translate in the sense of “mi nombre es Juan = my name is John” translation. Apologists like to point out other connotations of translate as an obfuscation tactic and in order to avoid owning the basic fact that the original papyri that Joseph Smith obtained and based the Book of Abraham on have nothing to do with the actual Book of Abraham.

    “The Book of Abraham is a very intriguing example of the process that, while it still has a lot of unknowns, does provide some insight into the process.”

    The Book of Abraham clearly contains a lot of “nombre=name” translations. The Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language shows that Joseph Smith and his scribes were attempting to render all sorts of “nombre=name” translations from what they found in the Breathing Permit of Hor scrolls.

    Smoot would do well do seriously engage Robert Ritner and Dan Vogel on the Book of Abraham. For Ritner and Vogel point out extensively the shoddy work of previous apologists on the Book of Abraham. What I’ve seen from Smoot’s work is repetitions of the same logical fallacies, misunderstandings, and lies of previous apologists, an abysmal lack of understanding of the history of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, severe confirmation bias, an over eagerness to hastily jump to conclusions that align with his traditional beliefs, an inability to connect with non-LDS scholars, generous dollops of disingenuousness, defensiveness, denial, and intellectual dishonesty. He enjoys name-calling and ridiculing those who challenge him as well. He would have made Nibley proud. Two pseudo-scholars extraordinaire.

    Let’s stop defending the Book of Abraham, folks. There is nothing to defend. It isn’t historical in any way, shape, or form. It is obviously a fake, and the most solid evidence we have of Joseph Smith being a serial fabricator. Of course, apologists generally tend to react to comments like mine with a lot of crying and Gish galloping with a bunch of pseudo-factoids. To that I say, don’t address me, apologists. Address the wider scholarly audience. Convince them that there is evidence that Abraham wrote a book in the Egyptian language. Convince them that there is merit to these ridiculous claims.

  3. Aaaand there it is. There’s something about the Book of Abraham that triggers certain sectors and really makes them apopletic. With most other religion claims it goes something like “okay, I don’t really agree with how you’re interpreting things but whatever,” (except here it’s not even that since, if you actually read the response, he’s conceding that “so in that sense, he probably meant it the way the word is typically used today”).

  4. SaJGaL: You’ve got some nerve to bash Smoot for name-calling when your first action here is to call me a liar.

    So let’s hear it. I wrote 15,000 words over 10+ posts about the translation of the Book of Abraham. Chad linked to it. All but a few sentences toward the end are purely academic in approach. So point out where I lied. Otherwise, I’ll take your silence as a shamefaced apology.

    You want engagement with Vogel? You’ll find it there. His book has some important insights. And it makes a few factual errors, and he’s ill-equipped to respond in a substantive way to Terryl Givens, and – most of all – his contributions to understanding the translation of Abraham are nearly overwhelmed by his obsessive focus on John Gee and what other apologists wrote 20-50 years ago. It would have been a great article, but it’s nearly unreadable as a book.

    At least Vogel has the courtesy to be familiar with the documents he’s writing about. If you think the GAEL documents a simple “nombre=name” method of translation, then you’ve either never bothered to read it, or didn’t understand it. That’s okay; most people haven’t read it, fewer understand it, and they’re perfectly happy with their lives. But neither do they rush online to insult the people who have. I promise you, it’s quite possible to read all the documents and face all the facts and find in them some great insights about Joseph Smith’s approach to revelation and a deeper appreciation of his calling as a prophet.

    For your own sake, please read smarter sites than MormonThink. I remember when the proprietor was trying to launch his site by contacting Mormon blogs and begging for links, claiming to be a simple LDS guy who was just asking questions.

  5. “To that I say, don’t address me, apologists. Address the wider scholarly audience. Convince them that there is evidence that Abraham wrote a book in the Egyptian language. Convince them that there is merit to these ridiculous claims.”

    I don’t need the approval of scholars on the Book of Abraham’s provenance to know that the content of the book is true. Critics tend to obsess over how we got the book without saying much about what’s in the book. And that–to me–is evidence of a lack of real curiosity about the truth.

  6. Jack: The Lord of the Rings is jam-packed with truth. It would be a great guide on how to conduct one’s life. It’s content is true. I’m not trying to look for actual hobbits

  7. I love the Lord of the Rings–and I agree that it is full of truth. But there are truths that have to do with precepts and truths that have to do with events. The LofR contains the former but not the latter–not in real terms. The scriptures contain both: truthful precepts and truthful events. It’s not enough to say that Jesus taught the truth–but his resurrection is fiction. We must except the reality of his resurrection or the claims of the restored gospel fall apart–irrespective the precepts he taught.

    And so, while I may not be looking for Hobbits I am looking for spiritual transformation and physical resurrection.

  8. I see both sides of the issue. I get why people think the book is bunk and some think its true scripture. Either take does not cause me to believe or disbelieve that this is the restored gospel. Even if its bunk, it is my opinion that JS was not trying to be deceitful. I think he thought it was a correct translation. I have a hard time accepting the catalyst theory so at this point I am planning on asking JS or Abraham after I die, what the deal is going on. :) Until then, I appreciate others thoughts on both sides of the matter.

  9. I must say that I am impressed by the open-handedness of this site’s moderators. While I appreciate a thoughtful, two-sided, clear-headed discussion of any useful topic, it seems that the discussion will soon go off the rails when somebody begins his post with ‘Smoot and Jonathan Green are liars’. If I had been in charge, that alone would have been grist for deleting the comment. Just sayin’.

  10. Raymond, as you indicated, that alone would normally be grounds for deleting the comment. However, the conversation had moved further along by the time I checked and it seemed best to let it stand as context to the conversation.

  11. “Smoot would do well do seriously engage Robert Ritner and Dan Vogel on the Book of Abraham.”

    You mean something like this, perhaps?

    I really don’t mind if people disagree with my position on the Book of Abraham. But what I just find really funny (and at this point, if I am being totally honest, more than a little obnoxious) is this idea that I’m some clueless dolt who just parrots the threadbare apologetics of yesteryear. I am making original contributions to the discussion surrounding the Book of Abraham (see my recent publications in the Journal of Mormon History, BYU Studies Quarterly, the Temple on Mount Zion symposium, and the Religious Educator for some examples). I’ve done my homework on this issue, thank you very much. I promise you I am well aware of what Robert Ritner and Dan Vogel have to say about this stuff, and have provided plenty of reasons in print and elsewhere online why I don’t agree with their negative assessments.

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