A new year of LDS seminary is just starting up, and this year’s course of study is the Old Testament. The first week of lessons gives some Mormon framing: (1) an introduction to the Old Testament (it “contains images, symbols, and teachings about the Lord Jesus Christ” and “in the Old Testament, Jesus Christ is known as Jehovah”); (2) a review of the Plan of Salvation (essential elements: Creation, the Fall of Adam and Eve, and the Atonement); (3) a module on how to study the scriptures; and (4) a lesson on the Bible (with a timeline starting with Adam at 4000 BC). Then lessons 6-16 cover the LDS Book of Moses, followed quickly by three lessons (19-21) on the LDS Book of Abraham. The material in Genesis 1-5 is never studied directly. The student reading chart includes all of Moses and all of Abraham but omits Genesis 1-5. The early lessons use Moses references almost exclusively.
Putting the books of Moses and Abraham in the foreground seems almost designed to raise a few questions in the minds of students about these LDS texts and their relation to Genesis.
First, what is the Book of Moses and how was the text produced? The first few chapters of the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible are what we now have as the Book of Moses. The short introduction to the Book of Moses in the Old Testament teacher’s manual says it “is the Prophet Joseph Smith’s inspired translation of selections from the writings of Moses.” This seems frankly misleading considering Joseph used the KJV Bible, not any independent writings of Moses, as the point of departure for his work, and he didn’t even claim to translate anything. Later, the introduction describes the process somewhat differently: “[T]he Lord revealed the writings of Moses to the Prophet Joseph Smith.”
Second, what is the Book of Abraham and how was the text produced? Again, the introduction to the Book of Abraham in the teacher’s manual starts off describing it as “an inspired translation of the writings of Abraham.” Two detailed paragraphs then more or less summarize the discussion in the Gospel Topics essay “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham.” Among the statements in this summary are that “neither the Lord nor Joseph Smith ever explained his precise method of translating the book of Abraham”; that the actual papyri now in the possession of the Church date to 300 BC at the earliest, whereas Abraham lived about 2000 BC; that Joseph “may have been working with sections of the papyri that were later destroyed”; and that “we now have only a fraction of the papyri he had in his possession.”
Neither introduction notes that these books were not canonized until 1880, although the Gospel Topics essay does so. Furthermore, the essay does confront rather directly a problem that the teacher’s manual avoids: “None of the characters on the papyrus fragments mentioned Abraham’s name or any of the events recorded in the book of Abraham. Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists agree that the characters on the fragments do not match the translation given in the book of Abraham ….” The essay also proposes an alternative to the missing papyri solution to the translation problem: “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.” Call that the revelation-not-translation solution.
It is a bit surprising that the Gospel Topics essay, addressed to LDS membership at large, contains considerably more detail on these points than the manual for LDS seminary teachers, who may be required to respond to student questions. While teachers are directed to go to Gospel Topics at LDS.org and search “book of Abraham” to get “more information,” no direct reference or link address for the essay is provided in the manual. I suspect most students or teachers are more likely to do a Google search on “book of Abraham,” which brings up the Gospel Topics essay as the top link, but also brings up on the all-important first page links to several sites disputing the LDS account.
Of course, I don’t know how much of this material about Moses and Abraham makes it from the teacher’s manual to the actual presentation to students, either directly or in response to questions from students. I don’t know whether LDS students even have questions to ask. It would be interesting to get some feedback in the comments about how seminary students or teachers approach the first few chapters of Genesis by way of Moses and Abraham.
Here is one interesting observation from Lesson 8 on Moses 2, paralleling material in Genesis 1. Genesis 1:26-27 (man and woman created in the image of God) is used for a scripture mastery selection. The manual specifically notes, “Genesis 1:26-27, rather than Moses 2:26-27, is designated as a scripture mastery passage so students will be prepared as missionaries to help others locate this passage in their Bibles.” All other references in the lesson to the material cite verses in Moses 2.
Note: The focus here is on Genesis and LDS seminary, not a rehash of issues regarding the Book of Abraham. Try to keep that in mind while commenting.