Today, the LDS Church published another of their articles on difficult subjects over at LDS.org. This one is on the Book of Abraham issue. https://www.lds.org/topics/translation-and-historicity-of-the-book-of-abraham
I would like to give my stream of consciousness response to the article, written as I read it. I may (some day) write this all up, and try to make a reasonable essay out of it, but for now, here's just my stream of consciousness thoughts:
In the section on "The Book of Abraham as Scripture" it's fascinating to think how EVERY element (except ex nihilo creation) is one that I now reject. For example, I now believe that the pre-mortal life makes no sense. Priesthood in a chain going back to a historical Adam.... nope. Christ just being one of God's children, just more "advanced" for some reason... nope. This Christology really doesn't work for me any more. So all these "unique" doctrines of the Book of Abraham are elements that I now reject. Except the rejection of creation ex nihilo, which is likely correct (in my opinion).
All the Egyptian and Mesopotamian creation myths presuppose creation from existing matter. And the Jewish text of Genesis 1 and 2 follows them very closely in most respects.
The Jewish text is just ambiguous enough about creation ex nihilo that you can argue about it (and people have) without a firm and obvious conclusion. However, if the Biblical authors really wanted to imply something so very different from the texts and traditions around them, then it seems to me that they would have been intentionally explicit. Which they very clearly aren't. Since they aren't, we can assume they were intending to imply what a person from that culture would assume by default. Namely, creation from pre-existent matter.
"Only small fragments of the long papyrus scrolls once in Joseph Smith’s possession exist today."
Very good research shows that the actual length of the original rolls was such that we actually have a reasonable proportion of the scrolls preserved. They used the thickness of the rolls, and the spacing of the lacunae, and some simple calculus to calculate the original length of the rolls. There is no LONG missing papyrus as posited by John Gee, and as implied by this article.
See: Cook, Andrew W.; Smith, Christopher C. (Winter 2010), "The Original Length of the Scroll of Hôr", Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 43 (2): 1–42 and Smith, Christopher C. (Spring–Summer 2011), ""That Which Is Lost": Assessing the State of Preservation of the Joseph Smith Papyri", John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 31 (1): 69–83.
"The relationship between those fragments and the text we have today is largely a matter of conjecture."
Umm... no. Joseph claimed to be translating from THESE papyri, as proved by both Facsimile 1, 3, and the Kirtland papers.
This part actually makes a lot of sense:
"Much like the Book of Mormon, Joseph’s translation of the book of Abraham was recorded in the language of the King James Bible. This was the idiom of scripture familiar to early Latter-day Saints, and its use was consistent with the Lord’s pattern of revealing His truths “after the manner of their [His servants’] language, that they might come to understanding.”"
This point is often mocked by people, but it's actually how translation works. My Hebrew final was to translate Genesis 1. I remember the KJV just flowing out of me, even though I had the Hebrew sitting right in front of me. I think people who use this particular point against the Church are barking up the wrong tree.
This is true for the Book of Mormon too.
"It is likely futile to assess Joseph’s ability to translate papyri when we now have only a fraction of the papyri he had in his possession. Eyewitnesses spoke of “a long roll” or multiple “rolls” of papyrus.32 Since only fragments survive, it is likely that much of the papyri accessible to Joseph when he translated the book of Abraham is not among these fragments. The loss of a significant portion of the papyri means the relationship of the papyri to the published text cannot be settled conclusively by reference to the papyri."
NO. As I said already, the long missing rolls thing is a fantasy. More importantly, we can SEE Joseph's false translation in light of Facsimile #3, where he very clearly gets the text wrong. There can be no argument about "well, the text he was ACTUALLY translating is just elsewhere on the rolls" in that case. Clearly Joseph Smith could NOT translate what he claimed to translate. Thus, it's entirely possible to assess Joseph Smith's translation ability from the Book of Abraham, and to find it severely wanting.
"Alternatively, Joseph’s study of the papyri may have led to a revelation about key events and teachings in the life of Abraham, much as he had earlier received a revelation about the life of Moses while studying the Bible. This view assumes a broader definition of the words translator and translation.33 According to this view, Joseph’s translation was not a literal rendering of the papyri as a conventional translation would be. Rather, the physical artifacts provided an occasion for meditation, reflection, and revelation. They catalyzed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri."
The problem with this theory, which I held myself for many years, was (ironically) expressed to me by John Gee... namely, that this is not what Joseph seems to have claimed about the papyri. Joseph seems to have thought that he was actually translating the text of the Papyri. So to hold to this theory, you have to assume that Joseph himself didn't know what he was doing. John Gee rejects that idea (as I now do), and that's why he clings to the impossible "missing text" theory.
Finally, here's my problem with the section titled: "The Book of Abraham and the Ancient World"
This section essentially combs through all the apocryphal and traditional Christian, Jewish, and Islamic literature about Abraham, and then lists the connections or similarities that can be found to the Book of Abraham. My problem with this approach is epistemological. One can always find similarities when one has a large enough corpus of texts to compare with. And their analysis is only listing the similarities, and ignoring all the many differences. There are FAR more points of disagreement between these texts and the Book of Abraham, than there are similarities. But if you believe that all the similarities are evidence that the book is true, while believing that all the differences are just proof that the tradition was corrupted, then you can pretend that this all means something. But to do this, you have to ignore the fact that such similarities are almost a statistical certainty for any text like this, and don't actually mean anything.
In addition, there are several rather serious anachronisms in the BOA. I had a list of many of them at one point.... but I can't find it now... I should go look that up.
But, in any event, even a few provably anachronisms are a LOT more important than even 50 random connections to apocryphal texts that match up here and there.
That was my feeling about Nibley, John Gee and Daniel Peterson's work on this, which the article seems to blindly parrot.