"What greater witness can you have than from God?"
I recently attended a stake conference in Spokane, Washington, where Elder David A. Bednar was visiting. During the course of his conference talk regarding the influence of the Holy Spirit, he stated that, "impressions come in the form of conclusions, not explanations. When we say, "God told me this because..." everything after "because" is our own impressions. We don't need to know why every time."
And so it is with the Book of Abraham.
I can testify that Elder Bednar's explanation is true. The spirit has borne witness to me that the Book of Abraham is a true book of scripture. It was not revealed to me how Joseph translated, or what material he translated from, or any of the other issues associated with the Book of Abraham; what I know is that the book of scripture is true. Therefore, when our assumptions about the Book of Abraham (or other Gospel related subjects) are brought under investigation, it is unwarranted for us to question the validity of our testimonies; rather, we should use criticism as a tool to augment our assumptions. Hugh Nibley is reported to have said, "We need more anti-Mormon books. They keep us on our toes!"1 Our reactions to criticism is an evidence of our level of faith.
When the Book of Abraham was first published in 1842, Egyptology was in its infancy. When significant criticism began in 1912, "Egyptology was essentially an amateur subject."2 The reception of some of the papyri by the Church in 1967 brought significant attention and a new round of commentary by Egyptian scholars with greater technical ability (as well as pseudo-scholars). In 1912 the primary focus of criticism was on Joseph Smith's "translation" of the facsimiles (curiously, Joseph calls them "explanations" rather than translations, while the text of the Book of Abraham is referred to as a translation). In 1967 and subsequently, the focus of criticism has primarily been on the "Joseph Smith Papyri" which contains Facsimile 1 from the Book of Abraham, and some other fragments of papyri.
The insights provided by scholars (both LDS and non-LDS) have helped us to reconsider some of our assumptions regarding Joseph's translation of the Book of Abraham. Unfortunately, however, the comments made by some of these scholars have caused some Latter-day Saints to doubt their testimonies, and some individuals have apostatized from the Gospel. It is regrettable that these individuals have left the Church because their assumptions regarding the Book of Abraham were called into question, and they mistook their assumptions for their testimonies.
When "the ship was covered with the waves," the Lord asked His disciples, "Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?" (Matthew 8:24, 26) Likewise, when encompassed by an intellectual tempest, we need to exercise faith and recognize the Source of our testimony. Let us not drown in doubt, but remember the words of the Lord to Oliver Cowdery, and liken them to ourselves:
Verily, verily, I say unto you, if you desire a further witness, cast your mind upon the night that you cried unto me in your heart, that you might know concerning the truth of these things. Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God? (D&C 6:22-23)With this introduction, please keep in mind that we are trying to better understand the issues related to the Book of Abraham, not whether the book is actually true, as that can only be obtained by revelation from the Lord (see Moroni 10:3-5). Also keep in mind the Lord's words, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts." (Isaiah 55:8-9) Therefore, we don't need to be alarmed if man's methods don't necessarily appear to reconcile with the Lord's methods (we'll continue this in another post).
Since Joseph Smith is a true prophet, and since the Book of Abraham is a true book of scripture, our investigation of peripheral Book of Abraham information should be with minimal concern in relation to adjusting our assumptions. Increasing our understanding and expanding our perspective should be our purpose, and as Brigham Young taught, "If you can find a truth in heaven, earth, or hell, it belongs to our doctrine. We believe it; it is ours; we claim it."3 Let us seek for what is true and ask for the Lord's guidance as we try to understand relevant information related to the Book of Abraham.
1 Nibley on the Timely and the Timeless, Truman G. Madsen, Ed. (Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1978), xii
2 "Editorial Foreword," by Anthony Leahy, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 76 (1990): vii; as cited by John Gee in "A Tragedy of Errors: A Review of By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus: A New Look at the Joseph Smith Papyri by Charles M. Larson, FARMS Review 4/1 (1992): 103
3 Journal of Discourses (April 24, 1870), 13:335