Thoughts on The Book of Abraham
The Book of Abraham, a controversial section of LDS Scripture, is in the news again. Earlier this month the LDS Church posted an essay about the book’s origins on its website. Its origins are what especially has made it controversial. Joseph Smith supposedly translated it from some Egyptian papyri which were then lost. But then over a hundred years later, in 1966, some of those papyri were found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Scholars quickly determined that they had nothing to do with Abraham but instead described Egyptian burial rituals.
You can well imagine the uproar that arose from those findings. Or maybe you can’t. Many observers of Mormonism figured that this would trigger a flood of people leaving Mormonism since obviously Smith’s translation was a fraud. But the reality resembled more of a trickle than a flood. Many LDS members believe that Joseph had given a spiritual interpretation of the words. I’m no prophet but I’m not expecting a much different response from LDS members this time around.
That you have to take Smith’s translation by faith has been the consistent position of the LDS Church. Following is what its official manual on The Book of Abraham, copyrighted in 2000, states: “The Prophet Joseph Smith never communicated his method of translating these records. As with all other scriptures, a testimony of the truthfulness of these writings is primarily a matter of faith. The greatest evidence of the truthfulness of the book of Abraham is not found in an analysis of physical evidence nor historical background, but in prayerful consideration of its content and power.” (The Pearl of Great Price Student Manual, p. 28)
Maybe I’m just not talking to the right type of LDS member, but most of the ones I talk with aren’t that interested or bothered by all this. They are more focused on doing what they have to do that day: keeping the commandments and living righteously. They are more bothered by feelings of unworthiness or the guilt of unforgiven sins gnawing at them. On the other end of the spectrum are those who feel pretty satisfied about where they are in life. But rare are the ones who are troubled by such scholarly issues as the origins of The Book of Abraham.
Last month our mission team got into hundreds of prolonged discussions (1/2 hour to 4 hours) with LDS members in Utah. In almost every case, the focus of the discussion was on how a person was acceptable to God and was worthy to live in his presence for all eternity. That is what piqued the interest of many Mormons. That is what they were eager to discuss.
I personally find the information about The Book of Abraham’s origins devastating to Smith’s claim to be a prophet of God. I further think that this is useful information to share with Christians as an illustration of Mormonism’s problems. But I have not found this not to be that helpful in discussing with most grass-root Mormons. With them, as we experienced against last month, topics like being assured of God’s forgiveness is what sparked their interest. There is nothing more attractive – and more powerful - than the simple message of the gospel of our perfection right now in Christ Jesus.