Whether you agree with Hugh Nibley or not, those doing research on the Book of Abraham and the Kirtland Egyptian Papers must recognize that he was certainly the most prolific scholar to dig into those issues. While he would modify many of his early viewpoints on several issues and would surely withdraw or modify some, in light of ongoing discoveries, were he around today, much of what he discovered and published remains relevant and at least deserves to be considered.

In a recent conversation with an LDS graduate student digging into ancient languages including Egyptian, I learned that he had great respect for Nibley’s magnum opus on the Book of Abraham, One Eternal Round.  He felt it had a great deal of value that most LDS members and perhaps most LDS scholars have failed to consider. When my copy of The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 4: Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts, edited by Robin Scott Jensen and Brian M. Hauglid (Salt Lake City, UT: Church Historian’s Press, 2018, hereafter JSP Vol. 4) finally reached me in Shanghai, I was anxious to see how this valuable volume would treat past scholarship on the Kirtland Egyptian Papers and the Book of Abraham. I was especially interested to see how it would respond to the intricate analysis presented in One Eternal Round and other voluminous works of Nibley, the first scholar to dig into the Joseph Smith Papyri and perhaps the most important scholar to have addressed numerous issues around the Kirtland Egyptian Papers (KEP), the papyri, the Facsimiles, and the text of the Book of Abraham.

To my amazement, as I read JSP Vol. 4, it seemed that every time there was an issue where I would expect a helpful reference to findings from Hugh Nibley or other scholars such as John Gee, Kerry Muhlestein, or others, there was simply silence.   Turning to the list of works cited (pp. 340–349), I was even more surprised to see Nibley was completely missing. This volume has hundreds of footnotes: 205 in the section on the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (GAEL), 215 in the section for the Egyptian Alphabet documents, 128 in the Introduction, 209 in the section on the Facsimile printing plates and published Book of Abraham, etc. JSP Vol. 4 is willing to cite a non-LDS critic to the effect that there is "some evidence" suggesting the Book of Abraham is derived from the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, but chooses not to mention that there is abundant evidence from multiple scholars for the opposite conclusion, that the Kirtland Egyptian Papers are derived from an already existing translation. What’s going on? This points to what may be a gap in the interpretive framework that is implicitly if not explicitly presented in JSP Vol. 4. Much more than just Nibley may have been overlooked.

Sadly, the editorial comments in the JSP Vol. 4 seem to avoid any hint that there may be antiquity or authenticity anywhere in Joseph’s translated text or in the comments on the Facsimiles, when the neglected works of Nibley and others, even if only cited by way of reviewing the past LDS responses to the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, could at least have pointed to help for readers wishing to understand the potential for authenticity. John Gee and Kerry Muhlestein are LDS Egyptologists and professors at BYU who have dealt with many of the thorny issues of the Book of Abraham and have been able to point to numerous fascinating details in favor of some ancient roots in the texts, while also recognizing the challenges. Their relative absence from this volume is disconcerting. [Update, May 29&30: (Deleted a contested sentence here after receiving further input.) Yes, I understand that for the purposes of presenting the documents for the JSP Project, there really is no fundamental need to cite any works of Nibley or other LDS scholars on what the documents do or do not mean. So I suppose that if there were no commentary in the volume pointing to the meaning and purpose of the documents, no attempts to guide the reader by presenting context and environmental influences and theories regarding the "translation," just the documents and their transcriptions and the barest of solid facts about who wrote what when, then there might be no imbalance in excluding Nibley's work. But this is a book that needs commentary and context!]

Fortunately, the important Introduction of JSP Vol. 4 does not fail to cite Gee and Muhlestein, treating them with better respect than Nibley. But not much more. Gee’s valuable Introduction to the Book of Abraham is cited on p. xviii regarding a tiny detail in the chain of events regarding the bringing of Egyptian artifacts to America. On p. xiv,  three of his works are cited on the issue of how long the scrolls were, but only after citing and accepting the views of others who claim they were much shorter than Gee’s calculation (that’s not to say Gee’s calculation was correct, but rather illustrates the general neglect of many weightier matters Gee addresses). That appears to be the extent of references in the Introduction to Gee’s work. Elsewhere, the occasional references appear to be about tiny details rather than to his overarching views and major contributions to the debate over the Book of Abraham. As for Muhlestein, he is cited once in the Introduction on p. xxv to the effect that the Kirtland Egyptian Papers have been found by scholars “to be of no actual value in understanding Egyptian.” That is certainly true, but Muhlestein, like Gee, has much more to say about the actual value of Joseph Smith’s work and how faithful readers can cope with some of the puzzles. On that, there is silence.

But perhaps I am misunderstanding something. Am I asking the Joseph Smith Papers to abandon scholarly credibility to pursue my apologetic fantasies?

The outstanding and brilliant JSP Project is clearly not about creating and publishing apologetics, but rather sharing documents for future scholarly work. But if the goal is not apologetics, neither can it be polemics. Unscholarly bias that supports positions that can undermine faith and weaken respect for the LDS scriptures must be avoided. Balance, openness, and scholarship must mean more than sharing only one perspective. Cited scholarship and perspectives on the complex interpretative issues around the KEP must not exclude and ignore relevant scholarship that refutes or undermines key positions of critics of the Church. Acknowledging such past scholarship should be a matter of course in a work like this, and could at least point readers to other ways of seeing the issues involved with the complex and puzzling documents that are presented.

It’s one thing to disagree with Nibley, but to pretend he does not exist reflects something other than openness and objective scholarship, IMO.

JSP Vol. 4 does much more than simply present and transcribe documents. There is extensive commentary and over a thousand footnotes, with each sentence of commentary and each choice of what to cite and what to ignore having the potential to reflect personal views of the editors. As is stated on the book cover and on the JSPP website,
The introductory material situates Smith’s efforts in the broader context of the nineteenth-century fascination with Egyptian history and culture, of his own effort to reveal truths from the ancient past, and of his other translation efforts. The annotation in this volume explores the relationships between and among the various manuscripts.  
The existence of extensive commentary and footnotes that identify (or ignore) relationships and create a “context” for the translation effort opens very large doors for editorial bias to influence the result. Unfortunately, the positions favored seem to support derivation of the Book of Abraham from the Kirtland Egyptian Papers rather than the other way around. They favor the critic's analysis of two related Book of Abraham manuscripts said to show Joseph Smith "translating" in live dictation, when there is strong evidence that those manuscripts were being copied by the scribes from an existing text, with Warren Parrish doing the dictation rather than Joseph Smith. They favor the "Egyptomania without Champollion" viewpoint where Joseph supposedly thought one Egyptian character could give huge chunks of text in a mystical "translation" process.

How the documents are presented and which perspectives are acknowledged and which are ignored is a critical issue that cannot be done with pretended obliviousness to the debates based on the documents in question.  Faithful Latter-day Saints have confronted the warts of the Book of Abraham and related documents for decades and have found ways to understand and cope with the issues without losing faith in the divine nature of the Restoration. Faithful Latter-day Saints have also seen great treasures in the Book of Abraham that point to the ancient roots of the Book of Abraham and the sacred value of the text, however it was revealed and crafted. A publication like JSP Vol. 4 that digs into the warts should, in my opinion, also not be afraid to hint, if only indirectly, at some of the beauty and not be ashamed to recognize the existence of scholarly perspectives of Nibley and others.  Nibley's responses to the Joseph Smith Papyri debates and the Kirtland Egyptian Papers are part of the history around the documents and a vital part of the broader context of the Book of Abraham story. It's a shame Nibley has been excised from the record. 

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