Sunday, April 28, 2013

Why I leave, Part 3: Cracks become holes, then broken dams.

The Book of Abraham. Oh, the Book of Abraham. Never did a religious innovator leave such clear proof of his fraud than Joseph's Book of Abraham. If Muhammad had been born in the 19th century rather than the 7th, I wonder if he might have been exposed as quickly or thoroughly as has Joseph Smith. I doubt any believer can come through an objective study of the book and still be the same.

The Book of Abraham was the real rabbit hole for me. Growing up in the church I was taught that the book was written by Abraham as a captive in Egypt, that he eventually escaped captivity (from his idolatrous father, no less), and that Joseph Smith got a hold of these papyri and translated them. The book contains large portions of the most important doctrine I was taught as a child, including the scriptures on the "noble and great ones" (Abraham 3:25, I think). While my testimony didn't stand or fall on the book, if the book was proven a fraud it would force me to abandon one of the core doctrines I had been taught: that Mormons are exceptional, better than the world.

Dave's first mention of this Book of Abraham was the first time I had even heard there was a problem with it, or at least the first time that the possibility there was a problem registered in my mind. I first looked to church sources for a discussion, but that proved as fruitless as listening to an average sacrament meeting talk. So I went elsewhere. My search eventually led me to the Fair Mormon website. The content has changed somewhat since then, but most of the original information I found there still exists.

Fair was my first exposure to real apologetics (although I've realized since then my position was that of an apologist for the majority of my discussions with Dave). It didn't take long for me to discover there were problems with my idea of the book of Abraham, but the Fair website was somewhat scant on the details. This is about what I was able to piece together from the fair information:

Joseph did, in fact, purchase papyri from a vendor that passed through Kirkland, Ohio in 1835, and did claim to translate it. Joseph said the papyri he purchased were the Book of Abraham and the Book of Joseph (son of Jacob). After he "translated" the papyri, he left them, along with some other Egyptian artifacts, in the care of his mother Lucy.

Following Joseph's death, Lucy decided not to follow Brigham west. When she died in 1855, Emma took custody of all the Egyptian artifacts, and about a year later sold them. It was thought that the artifacts were taken to the Chicago History Museum. In 1871, a great fire destroyed large sections of Chicago, and the History Museum was destroyed, and presumably so were the papyri.

In 1966, though, some of the fragments were found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The papyri were given to the Church in November 1967 and reported they had them in the church's "Improvement Era" in January of 1968. The article mentions that 11 papyrus fragments were found, that one was signed by Emma Smith and was a common funerary document, and that "It is not clear at this time whether the 10 other pieces have a connection with the Book of Abraham". A later, frankly incoherent article from Hugh Nibley recounts some historical objections to the Book of Abraham made by non-Mormon Egyptologists, but what their objections were isn't immediately clear through his insulting rhetoric.

Further Fair reading revealed more, though:

  • Fair never puts it in their headings, and doesn't advertise the fact, but translations by both Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptolygists reveal absolutely no connection between Joseph Smith's translation and the text of the papyri found in the Met.
  • While we can't be sure if all the text Joseph had when he "translated" are available (Joseph never actually says how many there were), but at the very least the first facsimile from the Book of Abraham was in the documents.
  • Fair acknowledges the lack of connection between the funerary texts and the Book of Abraham. They come up with a number of theories to explain this, but none of them are very plausible. Therefore, the opinions of the critics can't be lightly dismissed.
Fair's final statement provided little comfort to my increasingly troubled mind. The text is basically the same now as I remember reading two years ago:
We do not claim to know why the text of the Book of Abraham (or the missing Book of Joseph) is not in evidence on the fragments of papyrus that were recovered. Critics, of course, simply assume this to be conclusive evidence that Joseph was a fraud.
At this point I could no longer justify ignoring the critics. Although I had been cautioned by leader after leader not to dabble in research that isn't faith promoting, I realized these leaders were the same people that taught me Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham directly from papyri I now knew didn't contain that translation. I'm an adult, I reasoned. I can decide for myself whether their arguments are valid or not. I was willing to deal with the consequences.

What I found didn't help me much, though. In contrast to mainstream Mormons (who never seem to even think about these kinds of things) and apologists like those at Fair (who seem mostly reactionary), the critics had science, history, and logic on their side. In about two weeks of frenzied study (I was still taking my final semester of undergrad classes at the time, so I couldn't devote all my time to it. I probably spent more time than I should have with it, though), I concluded that the evidence sits squarely on the side of the critics. Since the information is readily available, I won't elaborate too heavily, but I will give what I see as some of the most damning points:
  • Although apologists suggest Joseph might have been receiving revelation, rather than translating the papyri, Joseph himself didn't agree with them. He stated in multiple accounts that he was "translating", not "receiving revelation". He even kept notebooks detailing his idea of Egyptian grammar - and the grammar was clearly taken from the papyri found in the Met.
  • Every Non-Mormon Egyptologist that has ever looked at the facsimiles and Joseph's Interpretation has rejected them in no uncertain terms. The scroll that Joseph clearly was "translating" from was none other than the common "Book of Breathings" for one Hor, who died over 1500 year after Abraham supposedly lived. There is no Abraham, no familial sacrifice, no escape from Egypt, communion with God, deep astronomical doctrine, or Abrahamic promises. The papyri are simply not what Joseph claimed.
  • Critics knew of these problems long before the papyri resurfaced on 1966, but church leadership at the time chose to ignore their objections, just like they have since the papyri resurfaced.
  • Anachronisms in the Book of Abraham (mentioning things, places, and objects that didn't exist when the the document was claimed to be written) suggest the "translation" can't be what it claims to be.
Beyond the physical and textual evidence, though, I was dumbfounded by the Mormon apologist tactics I saw over and over again during the course of my study. Back when I read the God Delusion, one of the more compelling arguments Dawkins made was against the "God of the gaps" theory employed by the average Christian (and Muslim, I imagine) apologist. As science finds more an more evidence for evolution and against a traditional Christian God*, apologists increasingly look for the gaps in the theory and claim them as proof of divine intervention.

For example, consider the debate on human evolution. Although the fossil record isn't the only, or even the most compelling reason to accept human evolution as fact, it does provide an easily recognizable piece to the puzzle - the gradual divergence of human and chimpanzee fossils from a recognizable common ancestor. As more and more intermediate fossil forms are discovered across the world, though, the Christians simply point to each new gap between an intermediate form and the original two forms and say "Hey look, now you have TWO gaps in your precious theory! Take that science". They just have no concept of following the evidence to the explanation with the most explanatory power.

When I read about these tactics in Dawkins' book, I took comfort in the fact that Mormons don't use them. The Book of Abraham destroyed this illusion for me. Mormon apologists were no better, nor less stubborn in their apologetics. Coming from that side, I can understand their position when a central point of scripture of theirs is under attack, but that doesn't justify the half-truths, misdirects, and in a few cases outright lies that apologists use to defend their position. Beyond destroying my faith in the Book of Abraham, the real damage the apologist tactics did to me was destroy my faith in apologetics. I could no longer trust apologists to look at a subject with anything more than a completely biased, self-serving eye. Objective information would never come from Fair Mormon.

It was mid-march 2011 when I came to this conclusion. In hindsight, my "testimony" of Mormonism was probably already dead at this point, but my upbringing wouldn't let me give up yet. I honestly didn't have the emotional attachment to the Book of Abraham that I did to other stories and scriptures, mostly in the Book of Mormon. My battered and bruised zombie of a faith still stood, although you could say it had lost at least one of its arms, both of its eyes, and at least a few toes.

* By traditional Christian God, I mean a god that created the earth, basically in its present form, 6000 years ago and designed all life on earth in its present form, as well.

Edit: May 21, 2013: Changed grammatical mistakes.

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