A Most Remarkable DVD: My Review of FAIR’s New Book of Abraham Video

This has been quite long in coming, but I am happy that Tyler Livingston provided me with a copy of his new DVD that he made for FAIR (Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research), entitled “A Most Remarkable Book: Evidence for the Divine Authenticity of The Book of Abraham,” and I am pleased to share my views on it.

Upon first viewing the DVD, I was quite impressed and definitely learned things about the Book of Abraham and the process of its coming to light that I didn’t previously know.  I cannot claim to be any kind of expert on the Book of Abraham, and especially not on the material evidence or Egyptological issues, nor am I any kind of film critic, but I wanted to share my humble opinions on what I, as an interested LDS viewer, was able to get out of the DVD.  Although there were some issues with the production that I thought could have been done slightly better, my general feeling, ultimately, was that this is a valuable video — a great tool for educating both LDS and non-LDS regarding the state of the latest theories supporting the LDS belief in the Book of Abraham as divinely-inspired scripture.

Livingston, et al., were successful in bringing together those individuals that you would hope to see on such a project –most everyone who knows much about Egyptology in the Church, as well as experts on other fields that relate to the topics discussed.  The contributors include Michael Rhodes (Egyptology), John Gee (Egyptology), Michael Ash (LDS Scholar), Kerry Muhlstein (Egyptology), Kevin Barney (LDS Scholar), Jared Ludlow (Near Eastern Studies), David Bokovoy (Near Eastern Studies).  These individuals are all very good at what they do and were well-prepared to provide the latest information on these topics.  If there were anyone else I could see on there, it would have been nice to have, maybe, Brian Hauglid, Kerry Shirts, or John Tvedtnes — but the line-up they have is pretty complete.

I’ll take you through a summary of the content of the production, with highlights of some of the more interesting information.  The film basically follows a set of questions posed near the beginning.  These include:

  • Where did the Book of Abraham come from? 
  • How did Joseph Smith get the Egyptian papyri that he translated? 
  • What is the relationship between the papyri and the text of the Book of Abraham?
  • What happened to Joseph Smith’s papyri after his death?
  • Have Egyptologists translated the papyri?
  • Do Joseph Smith’s translations match the Eyptologists’ translations?
These questions seem to respond to some of the major problems and criticisms that arise in discussions of the book.  They involve issues of where the book came from and how Joseph Smith got the Book of Abraham out of a group of Egyptian scrolls that, from what material evidence we have now, seem to be concerned with Egyptian funerary rights, not stories of the patriarch Abraham.  Egyptologists have looked at what fragments we have left of these scrolls and have found nothing remotely similar to what we have in the Book of Abraham.  How do we explain this?  The DVD seeks to answer these concerns. Could they have treated other issues? Yes (and they do in the Bonus Features), but I believe that this covers the majority of the significant criticisms.  The video doesn’t always answer the above questions directly and sometimes deviates considerably into more peripheral (but still relevant) issues, but the end result is to resolve the major concerns behind these basic questions.
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I’ll briefly share some notes on the key insights from the video as it attempts to provide us with some answers.
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How did Joseph Smith get the Egyptian papyri that he translated? 
–After antiquities dealer Michael Chandler acquired 11 mummies and several papyrus scrolls from the French-sponsored digger Antonio Lebolo, he ended up seeking the Mormon prophet/translator in an attempt to decipher what was on the scrolls. He travelled to Kirtland to find Joseph Smith.
–Joseph determined that the papyri contained the writings of Abraham and Joseph, the biblical patriarchs, and Joseph and other church members pooled their money together and purchased 5 scrolls and 4 mummies for $2400. Joseph kept these for the rest of his life.
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What happened to Joseph Smith’s papyri after his death?
 –One portion of the papyri ended up, after Joseph’s death, in Chicago, and was destroyed in the great fire of 1871
 –Another part of the collection ended up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC
 –In 1967, some fragments from this part of the collection were returned to the LDS Church
          –original source of Facsimile 1 included
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What is the relationship between the papyri and the text of the Book of Abraham?
How did he translate? No one really tells us the process — Warren Parrish said that Joseph said it was by revelation
Where does the Book of Abraham come from, if its not on the scrolls that we have fragments of?
     –one theory is that Joseph received a more full account (through revelation) than that which was on the papyri
     –Gee says that the majority of the BoA text was probably somewhere on the scrolls
Many assume that the papyri would have come from the time of Abraham, but they date to only 200 B.C.
     –”written by hand of Abraham” doesn’t mean that that scroll was necessarily written on by Abraham himsel
     – the BoA on the scrolls could be a copy of a copy of a copy, as our Scriptures are today — we have things purportedly        written by Isaiah, Ezekiel, etc.
     – “by the hand of” indicates authorship, can mean “under authority of” — could still have been written by
     Abraham originally, or dictated (could have been written by scribe as well)
We currently have only 8 feet of scroll, but we learn that Joseph had much more than this
     –we don’t have Facsimilies 2 or 3
     –there exists a copy of fragment from Kirtland that demonstrates that the original scroll was much longer than what we
     have now
     –there must be some papyrus missing (missing papyrus theory)
     –Gee has found that some scrolls seem to have other writing on the back, often completely unrelated to
        what’s on front — some of the images/pictures on the scrolls had nothing to do with the surrounding text
     – 19th century witnesses say that Book of Abraham was on the long scrolls
               – we don’t have the long scrolls, we have the mounted fragments
     – Gee estimates that the original scrolls were 40-45 feet long
     – When the scrolls were rolled out, they went across entire rooms
     –Book of Abraham was located on a portion of papyri that is now missing
          –this is why fragments that Church has don’t translate as the Book of Abraham
Joseph Smith seems to have translated more of the Book of Abraham than is available to us now
     –early saints claimed that BoA contained info on the Book of Mormon, the lost tribes, gathering, end of world,
     judgment, and more, which is not currently in our Book of Abraham

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At this point, the film launches into a discussion of the three well-known facsimiles that accompany the book.
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Facsimile 1 — a lion-couch scene
–parallel Egyptian images are usually accompanied by texts talking about human sacrifice — this matches Joseph’s
view well
–ancient owner of Facsimile 1 was an Egyptian priest in Thebes — involved in a ritual that sometimes did include human sacrifice
– they did know something about Abraham at this time in Egypt
–Josephus says that Abraham taught the priests of Heliopolis astronomy — close connection between Israelites
     and Egyptian priests in Heliopolis
–ancient sources say that they wanted to kill Abraham because he was preaching against Egyptian gods
–demonstrate that Joseph Smith’s interpretation of figures in the facsimiles are correct according to our knowledge today
–demotic papyrus has been found that has a lion-couch scene associated with Abraham — “Abraham upon his
     couch”
–in Egyptian writings (late) you begin to see Abraham being substituted for Osiris — Osiris is pictured on lion-
     couch scenes — ancient Egyptians not uncomfortable with mixing their own religion with biblical elements
(see my post here for a parallel with between Facs. 1 and the Apocalypse of Abraham that they don’t mention in the DVD)
Jewish Redactor theory (Kevin Barney) — in 3rd century B.C., these Egyptian images are being interpreted through a Semitic lens — the scene took on a much different interpretation for Jews — Jewish redactor who had the textual Book of Abraham took these Egyptian vignettes and used them as illustrations for his text
 –It is not uncommon for Egyptian texts to having Jewish scripture accompanying them, sometimes on same scroll — all through Egyptian history they have texts from foreign sources and they mingle them with their own
–they have found temple papyri that have texts written on the back — one has psalms
–people were buried with documents they thought were important — from different sources (even biblical      passages/stories)
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Facsimile 2 – a hypocephalus –hypocephalus represents all of creation with God at center
– Apocalypse of Abraham associates vision of Abraham in heaven with a circular representation of God’s creations
     –center of creation is Kolob — has semitic roots — means “near,” “center”
     –Kolob is type/figure for Jesus Christ — related to divine council imagery (Bokovoy)
     –interpretation of figure 2 corresponds to Apocalypse of Abraham account
     –Joseph Smith got enough of the figures right that it makes it hard to say that they were all lucky guesses
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Facsimile 3 — depiction related to Egyptian Book of Dead
–In some of these scenes we get the name of Abraham replacing Osiris — dead are brought before Abraham
on his throne (my note: think the Bosom of Abraham)
–Facsimiles are recognized by scholars to have multiple possible interpretations
Book of Abraham narrative fits ancient texts regarding Abraham
There were writings regarding Abraham that were floating around the country in Joseph Smith’s time, but what kind of access did Joseph Smith have to these?
     –it would have been difficult for him to have had access to all (or any) of these
–Apocalypse of Abraham has many parallels with the Book of Abraham
     –Joseph couldn’t have seen (or read) this Old Slavonic document
          –in ApAb, Abraham sees a vision of all of creation in a circle with two halves — like hypocephalus — this is how the Egyptians depicted 3D
–other parallel elements of ApAb
          –astronomy
          –elements of earth obeying commands of God
          –pre-mortal creations
          –Fall of Satan and supporters
–BoA collects many traditions found in other texts that go beyond the Genesis story — how did Joseph Smith get all of these, when many of the texts weren’t available to him?
Joseph Smith’s translation of many Egyptian names corresponds with what we know of them today
gnolaum = ‘olam in Heb
Kolob = qlb = heart/center — linguistically correct
shinehah = a real Egyptian term for path of the Sun, not used much after Abraham’s day
–most astronomical terms used in Abr 3 have been found to match ancient languages
–Archaeological support for geological locations in BoA
     –Olishem — one Egyptian and one Mesopotamian document that mention this place, discovered 150 years
     after Joseph Smith — doesn’t show up in Bible — right name, right place, right time — how could he come up with this at
     random?
–ancient documents mention famine in Abraham’s time
–strong ancient tradition that Abraham taught the Egyptian astronomy — not mentioned in Genesis
–geocentric view — that’s what we find in BoA — Joseph Smith wouldn’t have written this way
–multiple gods working together in divine council
     –gods deliberate on creation and then carry it out together
     –biblical scholars recognize that multiplicity of gods and divine council is fundamental to ancient Israelite beliefs
     and to biblical conceptions — Psalm 82

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Analysis:
Although I had heard a lot of this before, there were still a good number of things new to me in this film. Having it all brought together into one place was very valuable, and, together with the visuals presented, I found that it all made more sense to me after watching.  There is so much evidence out there now that supports Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Abraham that it is truly mind-boggling and very difficult to assimilate and summarize it all.  I heard John Gee give a paper at SBL (last year, I believe) that went over much of the evidence for Abraham being mentioned in documents in Egypt.  He had so much material there that more than half of the film could have been taken up with that material alone. So, the DVD could have gone into additional topics and additional evidences, but there is obviously only so much that one can do within the constraints of a single DVD without it being unwatchable. As I mentioned previously, there is a Bonus Section which goes into a large number of additional topics — very much worth watching.
On the topic of being watchable — the DVD runs smoothly and does a pretty good job of keeping your attention, but it is a lot of information to take in. I didn’t ever find it unbearable or even unpleasant, but I think there could have been more done to jazz it up / mix it up a bit. :) Maybe this isn’t being fair (and as I said, I’m no film critic), but in my opinion, the choice of music served to slow things down, and there were other factors that detracted from the excellent content a bit.  At times, video snippets of one scholar largely repeated what others had previously said — but I suppose that that type of thing is hard to avoid when you are cutting and merging segments of various conversations that are treating the same topic.  There was a time or two when a scholar seems to have misspoken and this was not caught by the editors, but nothing very noticeable or significant.

Overall, “A Most Remarkable Book” is a real winner and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who wants to know the latest in what evidences LDS scholars have gathered in defense of the Book of Abraham as sacred scripture, and of Joseph Smith’s divinely-inspired translation.  In my mind, there weren’t really any questions that I would have expected to be answered that were not.  At the end of the presentation, the scholars all shared their testimony of how they knew the Book of Abraham to be true not through the evidences presented alone, but primarily by the witness of the Holy Spirit.  While this approach may be derided by some as having no place in a scholarly discussion, I see it as one of the real strong points of this and other similar LDS productions — an emphasis on both “study” and “faith”, an approach that is considered essential in modern and ancient scripture alike.  Congratulations to Tyler Livingston and all who worked to produce this exceptional film!
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