Ouch

Hat tip to An Open Mind.

Most objective readers would agree with Professor Robert Ritner’s opinion of Joseph Smith’s “translation” of Egyptian funerary scrolls into the Book of Abraham: “Except for those willfully blind, the case is closed.” Professor Ritner recently published The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri: A Complete Edition. From the book description:

The surviving papyri have been translated into English in their entirety. In analyzing and translating the ancient texts, Robert K. Ritner, foremost American scholar of Egyptology, has determined that they were prepared for deceased men and women in Thebes during the Greco-Roman period. They have nothing to do with Abraham, Joseph, or a planet called Kolob, as Smith had claimed.

I’ve watched with interest the treatment of Professor Ritner, who is known as one of the most respected Egyptologists in the world, by certain Mormon apologists. All sorts of accusations have been made against Dr. Ritner, from suggestions that John Gee (an LDS apologist and student of Ritner’s) had to petition for Ritner to be removed from his doctoral committee to hints that Ritner is gay. Here are a few statements by Mormon apologists about Ritner:

The fact is that Professor Gee went on to earn a doctorate from Yale in Egyptology after successfully petitioning for the removal of Professor Ritner, his appointed advisor, from his doctoral committee. (Aug 2 2006, 10:45 AM)

Perhaps you’re unaware that Professor Gee (successfully) petitioned his department at Yale to have Professor Ritner replaced as chairman of his doctoral committee. Such requests are not commonly made. And they are not commonly granted. Do you think they’re best buddies? (Jun 10 2006, 04:56 PM)

Professor Ritner was once Professor Gee’s dissertation chairman at Yale University, until he was removed from that position and replaced by another professor. There is a personal history here (of which I was aware as it played out, since Professor Gee had been a student of mine before he went off to graduate school at Berkeley and then Yale. (Mar 22 2006, 08:43 PM)

As I’ve said, various substantive responses are in the works. Whether the personal side of this will ever come out is unknown to me. I wish it would, but I don’t think that’s my decision to make. (Sep 29 2004, 01:26 PM)

“I also will not comment on his removal from my dissertation committee other than to note that it was the department’s decision to do so. There is much more to the story than what Professor Ritner has chosen to tell.” (John Gee, Mar 23 2006, 07:47 PM).

When asked to comment about these accusations, Ritner responded:

My response to Gee’s relevant academic output will be contained in the book edited by Brent [Metcalfe]. Gee has been increasingly visible, but not increasingly respected, at meetings. I do not know [one of his critics], nor how he would have any knowledge of my involvement with Gee’s dissertation (except through misrepresentations by Gee himself), but I am the one who rejected further participation in Gee’s work, and I signaled many errors in his work as a reason. If [said critic] continues to make false allegations, I may have to consider a slander or libel lawsuit. In any case, whoever he is, he is neither competent nor legally authorized to discuss the private matter. I have retained my dated correspondence and may put it on-line if such misrepresentations continue.

Sincerely, Robert Ritner

In my view, the dishonesty and nastiness of some Mormon apologists have been stunning. For some examples of the shenanigans of Mormon apologists, see Chris Smith’s excellent blog. Naturally, Chris–who is one of the kindest, most reasonable, and fairest student of Mormon history I have ever met–is routinely denounced as a “career anti-Mormon” bent on destroying the church.

It’s nice to see Ritner’s full discussion of the Book of Abraham issue in print, though he has published on the subject before. Except for William Schryver’s rather lame presentation a couple of years ago at the FAIR conference and the premature crowing from apologists about it’s “game-changing” nature, no one has been able to show that the Book of Abraham is anything more than most critics and outside observers recognize: a clumsy and easily debunked fraud.

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11 Responses to Ouch

  1. Ray Agostini says:

    John wrote: “no one has been able to show that the Book of Abraham is anything more than most critics and outside observers recognize: a clumsy and easily debunked fraud.”

    Well, I don’t accept that “conclusion”, nor, apparently, does D. Michael Quinn. I guess we must just be “sub-intellects”, or something like that because we so easily fall for a “delusion” by an “obvious con man” who was “evil incarnate”, and a total fraud.

    • runtu says:

      Ray, for heaven’s sake, don’t put words in my mouth. I don’t believe Joseph Smith was a prophet, but I know a lot of people I respect who disagree. My conclusions have nothing to do with the intellect of others (well, maybe Schryver, LOL). I have never used the words “evil incarnate” and “total fraud” to describe Joseph Smith. I think he was much more complicated than that, and I suspect he really convinced himself he was doing God’s work. That doesn’t mean he actually was.

    • Allan says:

      Ray, I’m curious. What is your explanation then? Because the Book of Abraham is quite clearly NOT what Smith claimed it to be.

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  4. Guest says:

    This does nothing to attack or disprove Mormonism. My BYU professor in the early 1980s said the exact same thing – that the documents themselves were not direct translations because, translated, they say nothing Joseph said they did. He theorized that Smith was using the manuscripts as a conduit to receive revelation directly from God and when he was “translating,” he was receiving revelation. Joseph did not distinguish between the two acts. Obviously, you don’t agree, but you have to recognize that mainstream Mormonism has known this for 30+ years.

    • runtu says:

      I’m very familiar with the catalyst theory, which would work if we didn’t have the facsimiles in the Book of Abraham. Joseph Smith claimed he translated the vignettes, though he got them wrong and even filled in the missing portions with gibberish. But I sympathize, as the catalyst theory is the only one with any shred of plausibility left.

      • Guest says:

        I disagree with your assertion regarding the facsimiles. If Joseph was, indeed, receiving revelation from God he could very easily have believed that he was translating the glyphs and, therefore, provided a “translation” for the parts he could not actually translate (admittedly the vast majority). Thus, if the “translation” were provided by revelation, he likely would have believed that the documents were written by Abraham’s hand.

        The “catalyst theory” seems to explain Joseph’s own descriptions of how he translated the Book of Mormon as well – his method of translation involved some combination of seer stones (U&T), glasses, a hat, etc. These means and methods all relied on direct revelation for the meaning of the text. In other words, Joseph Smith never distinguished between translating and receiving revelation. People have read too far into his “translation” claims and are holding him to a higher standard than he even set for himself.

        As a final note, I think it is interesting to consider what would have happened if these glyphs were found and happened to perfectly say exactly what Joseph Smith claimed they did. Where would the faith be? No faith would be required – mankind would be robbed of its agency to choose to follow. Serious studies of Joseph Smith and his work (ie not the apologists, not the anti-mormons) always have a knack of placing him somewhere in that gray area between charlatan and saint. Thus, it is left up to us to query God and, upon receiving an answer, exercise faith.

  5. Guest says:

    That all being said, the other possibility is that the PoGP was just Joseph’s opinions and conjecture about what the manuscripts meant and it was not really a revelation from God after all. There is a reason why the PoGP is never discussed in LDS Church meetings. While I believe that it was revelation (based on my own spiritual witness and experiences), I would not be shocked or horrified if its status were downgraded to apocrypha in my lifetime.

  6. runtu says:

    I have no problem with saying that Joseph Smith received the Book of Abraham by revelation, which is, as I recall, David
    Bokovoy’s position. (He is an LDS scholar I completely respect.) I just find it fascinating that to defend the Book of Abraham, you have to say that Joseph Smith erroneously thought he was translating, that God allowed him to believe he was translating, and that the bogus translations were mistakenly canonized by prophets, seers, and revelators.

    It is a bit misleading to say Joseph Smith didn’t distinguish between translation and revelation. The revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants, for example, are given as revelations, and when translation is involved, such as the “parchment” of Section 7, it is identified as a translation. What isn’t always distinguished is, as you correctly point out, the method of translation.

    And for the record, I have repeatedly said that I believe Joseph Smith was “somewhere in that gray area between charlatan and saint.” I believe the Book of Abraham is a clumsy fraud, but I would not hazard a guess as to whether it was well-intentioned or not. Both the source materials and the anachronistic text point to an apocryphal nineteenth-century creation.

    Incidentally, a few years ago I sent the text of the Book of Abraham to one of the foremost experts on Abrahamic pseudepigrapha to ask his opinion of it. I sent the text without indicating its origin and simply said it was claimed to be a record of Abraham. He wrote back a week or so later and said he had read through the text and thought it was a “late Protestant” production. He asked me the source, and when I told him, he said he was happy for me to use his opinion, but he did not want me to use his name because he didn’t want to burn bridges with his LDS friends.

    As for your statement that the “PofGP is never discussed in LDS Church meetings,” I wonder what church you attend. Apparently you mean it’s never discussed outside of Sunday School, seminary, institute, or this manual: http://www.lds.org/manual/the-pearl-of-great-price-student-manual?lang=eng.

    I think it’s fine to pray about the truth of things, but that shouldn’t require dismissing logic, reason, and evidence ahead of time.

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