The Lost Book of Abraham: Investigating a Remarkable Mormon Claim
The Lost Book of Abraham is a VHS/DVD formatted movie that stirred once again the controversy over Joseph Smith's translating abilities, or lack thereof, depending upon who is talking. The movie seriously questions Smith's role as prophet, but instead of humdrum rehashed data, it culls a new host of qualified experts. This is the first movie dedicated solely to interviewing Egyptologists, historians, and other specialists on Smith's scripture beyond the Book of Mormon.
The movie is well executed. It makes no claim for Hollywood competition, but it passes the muster as a documentary and appears acceptable for airing on cable and smaller stations. The movie has a rough beginning where the narrator appears unnatural and a bit stumbling in his script. Choreographically, though, it quickly recovers with a dramatized 1830's history set in a beautiful and realistic Ohio landscape. I grew up in Ohio and have visited Kirkland several times. The scenery selection makes the native Ohioan feel at home with its picturesque landscape of brilliantly colored fall trees. This attention to detail marks the film with a realism that enlivens your senses.
Scholarly and expert interviews intertwine the narrative to tell Smith's story about obtaining and translating the Egyptian hieroglyphic scrolls found in four mummies. The young Mormon Church purchased the scrolls for $2,400 from Michael H. Chandler's traveling sideshow. Smith's astounding claim that he had discovered the writings of Abraham and Joseph (curiously within these four mummies that happened through Ohio!), the Old Testament patriarchs, sets the table for debate. The film succeeds in balancing the pro and con arguments on Smith's translation of the Mormon sacred scripture, the Book of Abraham, but in the end, little is left in favor of Smith except to say that he "spiritually" translated the text regardless of what linguists challenge.
As an added bonus, the movie exposes Smith's fraudulent Egyptian/English alphabet and grammar. Without divine aid, it would have been impossible for Smith to translate the Egyptian alphabet without the minimal aid of Egyptian from the not-yet-published translation of the Rosetta Stone. Smith had no education in Egyptian hieroglyphs, yet he also produced an Egyptian grammar. This too was impossible without knowing the language. Genuine Egyptologists regard both of Smith's works as deceptive frauds. The weight of evidence against Smith is overwhelming as qualified Egyptologists refute him from the 1850's to our present time. Yet Smith's supporters are forced to stand by his Egyptian alphabet and grammar, since he apparently used them in translating the Book of Abraham.
One wonders just how the Mormons will answer the experts. I think that the Mormon viewer will be challenged. One indication of this is that defenders of Mormonism churn out little more than nit picking in answering world-renowned scholars. For example, FAIR (Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research) has written a typical unFAIR review of the film. In FAIR's review, Ben McGuire levels a serious charge: "This film, while trying to maintain a scholarly facade, loses much of its credibility because of this fact--it fails to acknowledge current scholarship." In reality, McGuire creates a facade by failing to answer and account for current scholarship on Egyptology that refutes the Book of Abraham. In his effort to rescue Joseph Smith's sinking credibility as a prophet and translator of ancient texts, McGuire blinds himself to anything presented by bone fide Egyptologists and settles for two plans of attack: one on the papyri's age and the other on defining "translation." Neither attack has any weight since he merely raises additional questions, and raising questions does nothing to refute the film's data. In the end he settles for the invisible, subjective (and flimsy) Mormon "testimony" that the book is true. Clearly, McGuire and FAIR can't answer the hard-hitting facts present in the film with a Sunday testimony.
If McGuire wishes to refute the film's assessment of the papyri's age (the Egyptian papyri actually dates thousands of years later from the time of Abraham), he should use more than subjective analysis (e.g., "I read into Joseph's remarks..."). Reading between the lines does nothing to solve the problem since the opposing argument can easily be "read into" it with equal validity. McGuire reads that Smith is speaking of the "buried papyri in general, and not specifically to those in his possession," but this is refuted by the first published Book of Abraham "translation" in the Times and Seasons, where Smith specifically states it is Abraham's writing "by his own hand, upon papyrus." McGuire completely ignored this "specific" reading and trades it for his subjective "general" reading. Smith refutes McGuire.
Further, fourth LDS president Wilford Woodruff said, "Joseph the Seer has presented us some of the Book of Abraham which was written by his own hand but hid from the knowledge of man for the last four thousand years but has now come to light through the mercy of God" (Wilford Woodruff's Journal, p.155). So how could a more recent papyrus of the book be an option? This was the typical belief of those in the LDS Church prior to the 1967 resurfacing of the papyri, and there does not appear to be any LDS leader prior to 1967 who said that this particular papyrus was not actually written by Abraham.
The papyri text, according to McGuire, contains at least three things: 1) the Book of Abraham, 2) the Book of the Dead, and 3) the Book of Breathings with other Egyptian spells. Still, McGuire can't specifically point to anything from the Book of Abraham in the text. Understand this: The Book of Abraham is nowhere and the Egyptian mythology is everywhere. He hypothesizes that perhaps the papyri were altered, which claim he bases solely upon one "hostile witness" named Henry Caswell, who viewed the papyri. To McGuire, that is sufficient proof that Smith's sketches (e.g., a hand-drawn knife) was in the original because Caswell "failed to mention it." Arguments from silence are self-refuting and go nowhere.
McGuire adapts Dr. John Gee's theory about Smith's Egyptian alphabet translation pages, viz., that the Egyptian alphabetic-parallel hieroglyphs were added to the pages after the English because the hieroglyphs "run over the margins... and sometimes the English text... This indicates that the Egyptian characters were added after the English text was written." This theory is suspect since Gee refutes himself during an online exchange with Seymour Bloom by stating, "I never intended the term 'overrun' to mean 'overwrite' since they are not synonyms." McGuire, however, understood Gee that way and used it as his argument in order to dodge the problem of Smith simply creating the Book of Abraham text by granting him liberty for inspired parenthetical commentary between Abrahamic phrases.
McGuire's argument tells me that this is not Abraham's book if one can't distinguish Abraham's sentences from Smith's additions and alterations. The best McGuire can offer is that Smith produced "The Book of Abraham Obscured," since nobody can definitively point to a single clause and guarantee that it is Abraham unadulterated. McGuire's argument only supports his opponents' contention that the Book of Abraham is merely a collection of Smith's ramblings that is passed off as scripture to the unaware Mormon.
This argument, by the way, is a rehashing of Hugh Nibley's invention that there are two ways for Smith to translate: literally (mechanically) and spiritually (inspired). The conclusion for all faithful Mormons is that Smith's Book of Abraham is a "spiritual translation" and therefore bears no expected resemblance to the papyri's literalness. If it is admitted that the papyri is necessarily different from the translation due to "inspired" translation, then we must ask why Smith needed the papyri at all if he is simply creating the "inspired translation" without reliance upon the Egyptian? This mystery dissipates by suggesting that Smith used his famous Urim and Thummim stones in the translation process. These strange stones were also used by Smith for translating the Book of Mormon, so this argument for the Book of Abraham may not be in the Mormon's best interest if it is apparent that the "spiritual translation" has nothing to do with the actual text. Smith allegedly looked into the stones and correctly read the English translation that mysteriously appeared under each hieroglyph.
As amazing as this sounds, it is more amazing to think that this in any way refutes the Egyptologists and hard evidence to the contrary. The movie produces the two mutually exclusive propositions. Either Smith's production is sound and refutes the entire scholarly field of Egyptology (meaning that the entire world of Egyptologists are "know-nothings") or the world of Egyptology refutes and exposes Smith as a fraud.
LDS critics huff and puff about things that the film has already answered. If one really watches and listens to its experts, they have already answered what FAIR, FARMS (Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies), and others have challenged.
The overall value of the film is apparent in that it makes a scholarly and penetrating claim against the authenticity of the Book of Abraham. The film provides information that is hard to obtain elsewhere. The many-faceted good points far outweigh the cons.
For more information on The Lost Book of Abraham, including how to order a copy, see HERE. To watch the film online, see HERE.
Kurt Van Gorden
Utah Gospel Mission
October 26, 2004