Tyler Livingston recently asked me to review his new FAIR production, “A Most Remarkable Book”, about the Book of Abraham. Previously, due to replication issues, I was sent the DVD case, but not the DVD itself, and so provided a tongue-in-cheek review of the cover.
Being a good sport, Tyler still decided to send me the DVD (now I have two cases), hoping for an in-depth review of the actual film. I was excited to review the video, to see how in-depth they would go on a variety of issues tied directly or indirectly to the Book of Abraham. For someone wanting to see the LDS arguments relating to the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, you will have to look elsewhere. There are many good papers and discussions on it at Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR), Kerry Shirts’ Backyard Professor website, and Mormon Dialogue forum.. Rather than an intensive scholarly work, this video is made for the average viewer to gain an understanding on some complex issues on a more basic level. The focus of the discussion is on the papyri itself, and the text’s and facsimiles’ ties with modern archaeological evidence.
The Book of Abraham is a very controversial book, found in the Pearl of Great Price, one of the four books of the LDS canon. The video explains the beginnings of the story in our day: papyri scrolls and mummies found in Egypt during the era when Egyptian artifacts were all the rage. The items found their way to Joseph Smith, who stated that some of the writings claimed to be of Abraham and Joseph, the ancient patriarchs of the Bible. Joseph Smith translated at least a portion of Abraham’s writing, and on three facsimiles wrote notes regarding items found in the drawings. Most of the scrolls were lost in the great Chicago fire, while a few fragments and an 8 foot long scroll were rediscovered in 1967.
The video includes a narrative setting, with good quality shots of mummies, papyri (those in Church possession, and many others), and some nice pastoral scenes to make segues between topics. There are several LDS scholars interviewed or referenced in the DVD, including: Kevin Barney, John Gee, Michael Ash, Kerry Muhlstein, Jared Ludlow and David Bokovoy. On another review, someone said he would liked to have seen Kerry Shirts in the video. Kerry Shirts and his work were mentioned, but did not appear in the DVD. As I thought about it, I figured it was probably a good thing, as he tends to explain things on very technical and detailed levels, often requiring an intermediary to interpret it. (Kerry, you can thank me later).
The video includes a variety of topics, including: the age of the Joseph Smith papyri, the Missing Papyri Theory, the Jewish Redactor Theory, a focus on the three Facsimiles, Evidences for the Authenticity of the Book of Abraham, Egyptian language and concepts not known in Joseph Smith’s day, Geographical locations from the Book of Abraham found, Astronomy, Geocentric View of the Book of Abraham, the Council of Gods, and finally the importance of a spiritual testimony of the book.
The video does tell us that the scrolls date to 200 BC, and not to Abraham’s time. It may be they are copies of copies. The fragments we now have do not translate directly into the Book of Abraham, but include portions of the Egyptian Book of the Dead and other ancient Egyptian writings. For some people, this is “proof” that the Book of Abraham is a fraud. However, there is reason to believe it is not as simple as that. There is strong evidence that much of the papyri is missing, destroyed in the Great Chicago fire. It is believed that one scroll was perhaps 40 feet long, while the longest scroll now is only eight feet long. It is also known that Egyptian hieroglyphics are able to be translated or symbolized in many different ways. Perhaps modern Egyptologists interpret the writings one way today, while someone anciently interpreted it in a different way. Such are the two theories brought forth in the video: The Missing Papyri Theory and the Jewish Redactor Theory. These show good reasons why we need not expect to find a word for word translation of the Book of Abraham. As to the various theories on how Joseph Smith translated (including the Missing Papyri Theory and the Jewish Redactor Theory, I’m agnostic. While the two theories can both be used simultaneously, it is just as possible that the papyri were a catalyst for Joseph Smith to receive a revelation regarding Abraham. His concept of translation was quite different than we use it today. I was just a little disappointed that the Catalyst Theory was not introduced here. The gold plates were “translated” while the plates generally were closed, and Joseph looked through the Urim and Thummim. His “translation” of the Bible included additional information and revelation regarding the Creation, Fall, Enoch, Melchizedek, Joseph and much more. We do not need to necessarily even have the ancient parchment that the apostle John hid under a rock, available via revelation for Joseph Smith to “translate in Doctrine and Covenants 7. The Catalyst Theory is not included in the video. Perhaps it was due to time constraints, or the producer did not want to overwhelm the viewer with too many theories. Then again, it is possible that those involved may not give as much credence to this theory.
The three Facsimiles found in the Book of Abraham, including notes by Joseph Smith explaining various aspects within them was insightful, scholarly, yet easy enough for the average viewer to understand. “Kolob”is an Egyptian term “QLB”, which means “center”, fitting perfectly with the star Kolob being at the center of God’s creations. Terms introduced by Joseph Smith, such as “gnolaum”, “Raukeeyang”, “Shinehah” and others are also discussed, showing that Joseph Smith did not just guess at terms, even though Egyptian hieroglyphics were just being figured out by Champollion in this same period. Frequently, the scholars note that Joseph Smith’s high frequency of “guessing” correctly shows that it is more than just luck involved.
Interestingly, they included discussion on the ancient Council of Gods. On my blog at joelsmonastery.blogspot.com, I often discuss the ancient divine council, and so was thrilled to see a few minutes spent on one of the most important concepts we get from the Book of Abraham. In the Book of Abraham, we find that God is surrounded by his spirit children, who are divine “great ones” and “rulers”. They actually help him design and create the earth we now live on. Abraham was told that in the premortal life, he was one of the noble and great ones. This was definitely one of the key steps in Joseph Smith developing his understanding of theosis: man becoming like God. Such a concept, as explained in the video, was very foreign to 19th century Christianity, which believed in a strong monotheism. However, recent studies by both LDS and non-LDS scholars show that the ancient patriarchs did believe in a divine council of Gods.
This video was made for the average reader/viewer. Its purpose is to explain some of the complexities of the Book of Abraham, since there is so much turmoil going on about its authenticity by naysayers and doubters. I think it does a terrific job of explaining many complex issues in a way most people can understand. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a dunce and 10 being Professor Daniel C Peterson, I’d rate the video as a 5 or 6 on the intellectual scale. A college degree is definitely not necessary, although it may stir within many people the desire to look closer at the Book of Abraham, and perhaps deeper study into the ancient Middle East.
The video ends with several of the scholars explaining that what is most important to them is the spiritual witness each has received of this remarkable book. The physical evidences they share in the video only strengthens their spiritual witness, without supplanting it. And here lies the strength of the Book of Abraham when there are so many websites and books against it. Just as with the Bible’s stories of Noah’s Flood or Jesus’ resurrection, we cannot “prove” the Book of Abraham to be true via physical evidences. We can only show that there is much evidence supporting it as an ancient text. The real power of the book comes from the Spirit, and it is an excellent way to close the video.
For those interested in learning more about the Book of Abraham, this video is definitely a keeper. It will not give you a testimony of the book, but it could likely help you gain interested in gaining a witness of it.
You can get your own copy of this excellent video at the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research bookstore for $12.99. Not a bad price for a quality documentary on the Book of Abraham.