There’s a lie being perpetuated by both sides of the Great Apologetic War. This falsehood, this fairy tale is being spread by both Mormon apologists and their critics. It comes to us from well-meaning BYU religious instructors,  and it is presented to us by world-renowned secular Egyptologists. The great lie is really quite simple. And you’ve heard it, even if you haven’t recognized that you’ve heard it. The lie is that a Mormon cannot be both critically minded and religious.
Either there was a missing papyrus scroll that Joseph literally translated the Book of Abraham from, or Joseph Smith was a fraud. Either there were “Egyptians” who knew about Abraham, or Mormonism is a false religion. I reject this dichotomy presented to us through the Great Apologetic War. To put my feelings into Mormon nomenclature, I reject this falsehood “with every fiber of my being!” A person can be both academic and religious. It happens in Judaism and it certainly can occur in Mormonism. Tragically, this notion that one must be either religious or academic runs counter to the very heart of Mormon theology, which in its true essence, seeks to access divinity through a development of both mind and spirit.
Mormon apologists must come to terms with the fact that in this Great War, they are “losing the battle and not even knowing it.” It doesn’t do Mormonism any good for LDS apologists to present convoluted, problematic arguments in defense of the Book of Abraham as scripture when these arguments are rejected by the academic world. Apologists could get away with this approach before the advent of the Internet. But the information accessibility the Internet now provides has changed everything! Until LDS apologists come to terms with the fact that in perpetuating the notion that there were either “Egyptians” who knew Abraham, or the Book of Abraham is not true, they are unintentionally leading truth seekers away from the Church.
So what is the Book of Abraham? Well, it depends upon your perspective. For me, as a believing Latter-day Saint academically trained in Historical Criticism of the Bible and the ancient Near East, the Book of Abraham is scripture, plain and simple (ok, maybe not so simple). So what makes scripture “scripture”? While this question is in reality a very complex issue, the noun “scripture” means at least this: “a text that is considered sacred or authoritative.” For Latter-day Saints, the Bible is “scripture,” no matter who authored its various texts. Concerning the Bible, one of Joseph Smith’s revelations on the subject states:
“And again, the elders, priests and teachers of this church shall teach the principles of my gospel, which are in the Bible” (D&C 42:12)
Simply because a non-identified Priestly author wrote Genesis 1-2:4a and a non-Priestly scribe composed Genesis 2:4b (the texts that appear in Abraham 4-5) does not change the fact that Mormon scripture specifically defines the Bible as a sacred authoritative text. Of course there are many other ancient Jewish writings outside of the Bible that various religious groups consider “scripture” that Latter-day Saints do not define as “authoritative.”
These texts would include the pseudepigraphic works falsely attributed to biblical figures including Enoch, Isaiah, Moses, and yes, even Abraham. Since these sources were not written by these biblical figures, and in light of the fact that Mormon scripture does not do for these pseudepigraphic texts what it does for the Bible (namely identify these sources as “scripture”), the pseudepigraphic books are not considered authoritative to Latter-day Saints.
Returning to the Book of Abraham, if the book did appear on a missing portion of the papyri in Joseph’s possession (a rather improbable claim), the BofA would be a lost example of one more pseudepigraphic Jewish text, even though admittedly, the fact that the text would be a Late Second Temple Jewish document would not automatically disqualify the BofA as “scripture” since the Bible itself contains many pseudepigrahic sources including the Book of Deuteronomy and its 1st person sermons spoken by Moses.
I suspect, however, that many Latter-day Saints would not feel comfortable in simply defining a book “purportedly” written by Abraham, but in reality composed by a Hellenized Jewish scribe, as authoritative “scripture,” at least not without an official declaration similar to the one featured in the D&C concerning the Bible. I therefore see no reason whatsoever for Mormon apologists to present problematic theories of missing papyrus scrolls, or overly complex mathematical computations in order to defend a pseudepigraphic text “purportedly” written by Abraham (again, referring to the way the book was introduced until 1878).
Both historical sources and the text itself make clear that Joseph Smith was literally attempting to decipher the papyri in his possession. The prophet used the Facsimiles to help produce his book. My question is in light of the fact that Abraham could not have possibly written the BofA (see post 1), why not simply take the opportunity provided by the new 2013 introduction to the book and abandon all of these highly problematic apologetic arguments that have not only failed to convince many believing Latter-day Saints, but also every non-LDS specialist in Egyptology?
Personally, I see no reason that a believing Latter-day Saint could not hold the position that instead of a supernatural translation of a pseudepigraphic Book of Abraham featured on a conveniently missing papyrus scroll, that through working with the papyri, the Prophet’s mind was directed in an inspired way to produce the scriptural Book of Abraham.
In fact, it seems logical to me that rather than diminishing the “scriptural” nature of the BofA, approaching the text from this vantage point would actually provide an even greater authoritative stamp upon the book than the one achieved through the classical apologetic argument which leaves Latter-day Saints with simply a translation (however miraculous) of a non-biblical pseudepigraphic text, produced not by Abraham but by a Hellenized Jewish scribe revising the Genesis account.
This approach to the BofA has great power. It puts an end to the necessity of the problematic apologetic arguments rightfully criticized by non-LDS scholars and places the BofA on a sphere not subject to scientific objection. After all, if the text presents theological constructs that a reader connects with spiritually, then the book is inspired. It is “scripture.”
Interestingly, instead of a literal “translation” of an Egyptian document, if one accepts the BofA as an inspired religious text received by the prophet Joseph Smith directly from God himself, this view actually accords with the revelatory process and production of sacred scriptural texts in Jewish traditions. For example, in an effort to argue in favor of the canonical nature of the erotic love poems in the Song of Solomon (a text whose scriptural value was highly disputed in some Jewish circles), Rabbinic discussions of the Song’s inspired nature argued that a human author did not compose the text. Instead, some Rabbinic commentary referred to the Song of Solomon as the “holiest of holies,” arguing that even though the book was transmitted to a human scribe, the text was literally composed by either God himself or his angels. The Song was even understood in some circles to have been originally revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai (or at the Red Sea), even before the rest of the Torah.
God himself is the author of scripture according to this Jewish perspective, even when texts are produced by Judean scribes as pseudepigrapha. In order to legitimize a text as religiously authoritative, Rabbinic commentators would go so far as to identify later biblical sources as books originally revealed to Moses. We see this process at work in the Jerusalem Talmud with regard to the post-exilic Book of Esther:
“Rab, R. Ḥaninah, R. Jonathan, Bar Qappara, and R. Joshua b. Levi said, ‘This scroll was stated to Moses at Sinai, for there is no chronological order in the Torah.” (J. Megillah 1.5).
Recognizing this approach to scripture would obviously extend the concept of “scripture” to a pseudepigraphic Book of Abraham written by a late Hellenized Jewish scribe (i.e. the position that would be the ultimate result if the classical LDS apologetic was correct). But really, there’s no need to assume this position by putting together the convoluted ideas rightfully dismissed by critics. I would submit that a more sophisticated view of the BofA, one that answers the objections raised by its critics, would be to simply accept Joseph Smith as “scribal author.”
In fact, in light of what we know about the development of the opening chapters of the Bible through biblical scholarship, this is really the only truly viable option for a believing Latter-day Saint to adopt. Technically, the new introduction to the Book of Abraham identifying the text as the “writings of Abraham” is correct; for even though the evidence leads us to the conclusion that Abraham could not have literally written the text Joseph produced, the book still presents itself as the writings of Abraham, just like the pseudepigraphic Book of Deuteronomy presents itself as the book of Moses.
This does not make the BofA a fraud, any more than Deuteronomy is a fraud. The concept of an “author” was not the same notion in antiquity that it is today, and it would be wrong for us to simply assume that our modern western notion of “authorship” is the correct one. As one scholar has observed regarding this venerable tradition of authorial attribution in the production of Jewish scriptural texts:
“Attribution (attaching names to Biblical books) belongs to the realm of literary scholarship, and has little to do with the intentions of the composers of works. It isn’t so much about what an author did write, but rather it is about what he would have written (or; from the perspective of ancient literary interpreters, what he must have written).”
So for a believing Latter-day Saint, it comes down to this: do you want to keep advocating convoluted apologetic claims to associate the BofA with an inspired Hellenized Jewish author, or would you rather abandon the problematic Egyptian apologetics, accept the option provided by the Church’s new edition of the scriptures, and associate the BofA with an inspired Joseph Smith who somehow tapped into the divine realm by working with the scrolls, and in the process produced what Abraham “would have,” or perhaps even “must have” written?!!
In a forthcoming book, I will present some of the fascinating ways in which from my perspective, the BofA reflects ancient Semitic (even biblical) efforts to tap into the divine as it lays out inspiring theological constructs concerning god, humanity, and the universe. In this blog entry, I really only have time to share one of these insights.
Joseph Smith reinterprets the presentation scene in Facsimile 3 as a depiction of the biblical patriarch Abraham seated upon a throne. Critics, of course, have rightfully pointed to the fact that the figure identified as Abraham is in reality the Egyptian god Osiris. In ancient Near Eastern conceptions, placing a man upon a throne has been linked with apotheosis or deification. Thus, taking Joseph Smith’s interpretation seriously, the temple related scene would present a type of prefiguration of the state Abraham now occupies according to D&C 132:
“Abraham received all things, whatsoever he received, by revelation and commandment, by my word, saith the Lord, and hath entered into his exaltation and sitteth upon his throne” (v. 29)
Did Joseph Smith correctly interpret the Facsimile? Of course not! For Latter-day Saints, the Prophet did something much more impressive. He produced “scripture.”
 I will not point out specifics in terms of the BofA in this brief post, however, a famous illustration of this mindset can be seen in the following quote regarding biblical scholarship and the Book of Mormon from BYU religion professors Robert Millet and Joseph Fielding McConkie: “In writing a commentary on the Book of Mormon it is not the authors’ intent to suggest that a proper understanding of this marvelous book of scripture requires the interpretive helps of trained scholars. Further, we make no pretense to being such. Ours has been the blessing of opportunity. For some years we have had occasion to be both student and teacher of the Nephite record. As to the world’s scholarship, it ought be observed that the best of man’s learning, as it has been directed toward the Bible, has not resulted in an increase of faith in that holy book. Indeed, one of the primary purposes for which the Lord gave us the Book of Mormon was to defend the Bible and its teaching against the siege of the supposedly wise and learned. Scholars are far too wont to sift the sands of faith through screens of their own making, and in doing so often find themselves left with nothing but the rocks of their own unbelief;” in Doctrinal Commentary on the Book of Mormon; vol. 2.
 See the highly critical assessment of the Book of Abraham by Robert K. Ritner. “ ‘The Breathing Permit of Hôr’ among the Joseph Smith Papyri,” in Journal of Near Eastern Studies 62/3 (2003): 161–77. Speaking personally, I am very grateful for Dr. Ritner’s contributions to the Book of Abraham discussion; I’m especially impressed by his recent Signature Book publication. However, the JNES article does give the impression that one cannot logically accept the BofA as scripture in light of Egyptology.
 See, for example, Shir Ha-Shirim Rabbah 1:12; Saul Libermann, “Mishnat Shir Ha-Shirim,” Meḥqarim be-Torat Ereẓ-Yisrael (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1991), 118-126.
 Jed Wyrick, The Ascension of Authorship: Attribution and Canon formation in Jewish, Hellenistic, and Christian Traditions (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 80.