Hebrew Studies and the Book of Abraham

We’re continuing our discussion of Joseph Smith’s translations and the recently-released volume Producing Ancient Scripture today, turning to the Book of Abraham in an interview with Matthew Grey.  This is a co-post to Kurt Manwaring’s interview with Matthew Grey, where he discusses his research about the ways in which Joseph Smith’s study of Hebrew affected the translation of the Book of Abraham.  To read the full interview, which I highly recommend, follow the link here.

Last week, we discussed how Joseph Smith seems to have drawn upon contemporary scholarship (the Adam Clarke commentary) as part of his translation of the King James Version of the Bible.  In that interview, Thomas Wayment made the interesting remark that: “Clarke may be part of Joseph’s heritage of coming to understand how ancient languages work,” since the study of both Hebrew and the Kirtland Egyptians materials followed his main work on the Bible revision project.[1]  Matthew Grey adds his insight in this week’s interview that the major catalyst for both the Egyptian materials and Joseph Smith’s study of Hebrew seems to have been the translation of the Book of Abraham.  This seems to show, in the words of Grey, “a recurring pattern in Joseph Smith’s translation projects, in which he was inspired by ancient objects (including gold plates, the King James Version of the Bible, and Egyptian papyri) and proceeded in his translations by blending his revelatory gifts with his best academic efforts (such as reaching out to local scholars for insights, consulting contemporary biblical commentaries, and learning Hebrew from a Jewish instructor).”

Now, the chronology of the Book of Abraham translation project is important to understanding why scholars like Grey feel that the study of Hebrew and the Kirtland Egyptian materials are tied into the project.  Matthew Grey notes that: “Some scholars have argued that Joseph Smith completed translating the entire Book of Abraham in the summer of 1835 (almost immediately after acquiring the papyri), that the Egyptian alphabet and grammar documents were produced later that year and were therefore not directly connected to the Abraham translation project (or even to Joseph Smith himself), and that Joseph’s study of Hebrew in late 1835/early 1836 was an entirely unrelated initiative.”  The alternative point of view is, “while the translation of Abraham 1:1–2:18 is attested by the summer of 1835, the rest of the text (Abraham 2:19–5:21 and the facsimile explanations) is not attested until the spring of 1842, suggesting that the Book of Abraham translation actually occurred over a several year period (a position supported by contemporary journal entries).”

In addition to journal entries, Grey observed that:

Hebrew elements only appear in Abraham 3–5 and the facsimile explanations, which is material that is only attested in manuscript form in 1842, several years after Joseph’s Hebrew studies.

(The only portion of the text that contains no traces of Seixas-inspired Hebrew is Abraham 1:1–2:18 which, not coincidentally, is also the only portion of the text attested in the summer of 1835, a few months prior to Joseph’s Hebrew studies.)

Therefore, the Hebrew elements support the latter chronology and confirm that the Abraham translation process did indeed continue well past 1835 (into 1842), with Joseph’s experimentation with the Egyptian alphabet documents and his Hebrew study both contributing to that process at different points.

The reason this is controversial is that “for some, this close relationship between the Book of Abraham and the Egyptian documents could be seen as potentially compromising the inspired nature of the Abraham text.”  Yet, as Grey states in response to these concerns, “I see no compelling reason why Joseph’s Abraham translation can’t still reflect an inspired process if it spanned several years and included his best academic efforts, both in his creative attempts to make intellectual sense of the then-unknown Egyptian characters, and in his learning and incorporating Hebrew content into the final text of the Book of Abraham.”

In connection with these observations, Matthew Grey offered some explanations about why Joseph Smith may have been interested in studying Hebrew and why he engaged in some created efforts to understand Egyptian hieroglyphics when he was working with Egyptian papyri.  As a bit of context, the 1830s, study of Egyptian was still in its infancy.  It was really at the turn of the nineteenth century that interest in ancient Egyptian had blossomed, largely beginning with Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 and the accompanying scientific investigations.  Work with the Rosetta Stone, which allowed scholars to gain an understanding of how hieroglyphics worked, was still ongoing and unpublished (at least in English) during the 1830s.  Hence, at the time, not much was known about Egyptian hieroglyphics, and many scholars in the United States “believed that Egyptian and Hebrew were both descended from the original language of humanity that was confounded at the Tower of Babel, and that therefore an academic knowledge of Hebrew (which had been understood by western scholars since the time of the Reformation) could provide valuable assistance in deciphering Egyptian.”  There were also some common beliefs in the culture that “hieroglyphs represented mystical symbols that could only be deciphered through supernatural means.”  Many early Latter-day Saints “adopted some of the assumptions circulating in their nineteenth century intellectual climate, including the common views mentioned above.”  Hence, it was not long after Joseph Smith obtained the papyri and began working on translating it that he looked to hired a Hebrew instructor.

As mentioned earlier, there are some clear impacts that studying Hebrew had on Book of Abraham.  Matthew Grey summarized these as follows:

These insights [from studying Hebrew] can be seen in three aspects of the Abraham translation.

First, Joseph incorporated several Hebrew terms—all distinctly spelled and defined as taught to him by his teacher, Joshua Seixas—as part of his editorial explanations of images contained in Facsimile 1 and Facsimile 2.

In particular, he occasionally used transliterated Hebrew words such as raukeeyang (“firmament” or “expanse”), shaumahyeem (“heavens”), and ha-ko-kau-beam (“the stars”) to elucidate certain figures and astronomical concepts as he understood them to be represented in the Egyptian vignettes that accompanied the papyri (see, for example, Fac. 1: Fig. 12 and Fac. 2: Fig. 4 and 5).

Using the phrase, “answers to the Hebrew…” to highlight correspondence between these Hebrew terms and the Egyptian images he was describing, Joseph clearly felt comfortable as an editor drawing upon his academic insights to help explain this new and complex material.

Second, in addition to using Hebrew in his editorial commentary on the facsimile images, Joseph incorporated similar transliterated Hebrew vocabulary—such as kokob (“star”), kokaubeam (”stars”), and gnolaum (“eternity” or “eternal”)—into his translation of Abraham’s astronomical revelation (see Abraham 3:1–28; esp. verses 13, 16, and 18). This translated portion of the text inserts Hebrew glosses into the dialogue between God and Abraham on the nature of the cosmos, showing that Joseph also felt comfortable as a translator enhancing the text with verbiage he had acquired in his academic pursuits.

Finally, the most subtle—but also perhaps the most profound—use of Hebrew in the Book of Abraham can be found in Joseph Smith’s translation of the Abrahamic creation account (Abraham 4:1–5:21).

Apparently believing that the Book of Abraham contained original source material for the biblical book of Genesis, Joseph drew upon the structural framework of the creation accounts in the King James Version (KJV) of Genesis 1–2 and made key adjustments to the language of those accounts based on insights he acquired in his Hebrew studies in early 1836.

For example, having learned in class that technically the Hebrew word for “God” (elohim) is plural in form, throughout Abraham 4–5 Joseph changed every instance of the singular “God…” in KJV Genesis 1–2 to the plural, “they, the Gods…” (e.g., Abraham 4:1–7). Similarly, having learned from his lexicons that the Hebrew verb traditionally translated as “to create” could also mean “to organize” or “to form,” Joseph changed all creative language in KJV Genesis 1–2 to reflect an organization of pre-existing materials (e.g., Abraham 4:1–2).

Other examples of Hebrew influences in the Abraham creation account include Joseph’s changes from the KJV of “firmament” to “expanse” (Abraham 4:6–7), “heaven” to “heavens” (passim), the spirit of God “moving on the face of the water” to “brooding on the faces of the water” (Abraham 4:2), and several minor grammatical adjustments, all of which demonstrably can be traced to things he learned in his coursework with Joshua Seixas or the Hebrew resources he consulted in his studies.

These Hebrew-inspired enhancements to the creation account not only profoundly shaped the final publication of the Book of Abraham text, but would also deeply inform Joseph Smith’s subsequent doctrinal teachings and temple instruction.

Grey was able to make the comparisons with Joseph Smith’s coursework in studying Hebrew by examining “the instruction he received from his teacher (Joshua Seixas), the textbooks and lexicons he used in his studies, and the ways in which his formal coursework was structured.”

What this seems to indicate is that Joseph Smith’s translations were not created without involvement on his part.  Matthew Grey discussed this when elaborating on what he has learned about Joseph Smith’s revelatory processes from his studies.

This example of Joseph Smith—who saw academic learning as necessary to the revelation process—is an important reminder that, in Latter-day Saint theology, humans are not just blank slates waiting to be passively filled with knowledge from heaven.

Instead, for Joseph, the process of becoming like God is designed to be an active and collaborative effort between humans and deity, in which both need to work together to allow the human mind, heart, and spirit to achieve its divine potential.

This research into the Book of Abraham is yet another interesting example of how we are learning more about Joseph Smith’s revelations and translations through examining the materials he left behind.

For more details about what has been discussed above, interesting speculation about how Joseph Smith’s later language studies might have impacted the Book of Mormon if he had translated it afterwards instead of before, etc., follow the link here to Kurt Manwaring’s interview with Matthew Grey.  And, for more interesting information about Joseph Smith’s translations, we have an interview with Richard Bushman about the gold plates coming next week to which we can look forward.



Lead image: Hebrew School Textbook. Joshua Seixas, A Manual Hebrew Grammar for the Use of Beginners, second edition, 1834. Photograph by Welden C. Andersen. (Church History Library, Salt Lake City.)

[1] “Thomas Wayment and the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible,” From the Desk of Kurt Manwaring, 10 August 2020, https://www.fromthedesk.org/thomas-wayment-jst/.


38 comments for “Hebrew Studies and the Book of Abraham

  1. Thank you, this is interesting.

    I had always wondered why Joseph Smith would bother with “Hebrew” in his explication of what is ostensibly an Egyptian document. I came to realize that he was not particularly interested in the Egyptian point of view; he was interested in the Hebrew prophets, and saw this Egyptian source as a way to gain insight into the Hebrew understanding.

    Put another way, he was interested in truth, not scholarship, and so a document like this was something to be put through a filter, with all the items of interest retained – in this case, anything with a direct or indirect connection to the Hebrew faith (e.g., “answers to the Hebrew”) – and everything else dispensed with (“ought not to be revealed”, etc.) That filtering process also suggests that the connection between the revealed text and the manuscripts may be a complex one, since not everything in the manuscripts (certainly not everything in the facsimiles) appears to be relevant to the translation.

  2. Recognizing the influence of Hebrew on Joseph’s translated texts is important.

    One thing to consider is that it isn’t so much the Hebrew itself that scholars ought to be looking at—it’s the cosmology that is associated with the Hebrew language—like alphabet mythology. This is where Kabbalah informs.

    Already, Hebrew scholar Dr. Hartley Lachter has lectured (YouTube & Maxwell Institute) about how “Kabbalist” Joseph’s cosmology really is:


  3. “What this seems to indicate is that Joseph Smith’s translations were not created without involvement on his part”

    So he wrote them. Exactly.

    By the way, John Dehlin has some 10+ hours of interviews with Robert Ritner up for our viewing pleasure. See what a real Egyptologist has to say about the Book of Abraham. Not a sham Egyptologist like Muhlestein and Gee.

  4. Why has T&S allowed the comment section to be taken over by ignorant exmo trolls who get their information from John Dehlin?

  5. Ethan,

    I just learned about John Gee’s latest Egyptological publication.

    I don’t know about you, but I am absolutely disgusted that he was allowed to publish in ‘New Approaches in Demotic Studies: Acts of the 13th International Conference of Demotic Studies’ published by De Gruyter as a supplement to the Zeitschrift für ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde which is literally the oldest and most prestigious Egyptological journal on the planet.


    I have no doubt that every word of this article is just dripping with nasty ad hominem, pseudo-scholarly apologetics, and hateful gaslighting. (Now I’m not *exactly* sure because I haven’t read it, which I’m sure you can relate to, Ethan. Why read when you can listen to 10+-hours of podcasts, amirite?)

    Do these people at De Gruyter and ZÄS have any idea what Robert Ritner had to say about Gee on the august and authoritative Mormon Stories podcast?

    I am *literally* shaking right now.

  6. TT, pretty sure Deity not pleased when we’re rude & hateful w/ co-religionists. Just sayin’

  7. Ethan,

    I like that John Dehlin tries to provide a space for those that put distance between themselves and either the institution or the church (or both). I think his attacks on the institution are fair.

    That said, using Dehlin’s platform to argue that Ritner is better than Gee leads me to question whether you have read Ritner or Gee. Both are fantastic scholars.

    In the long-run, ironically, Ritner will be remembered and associated with his work on the Book of Abraham, and John Gee will be remembered and associated with his work as an Egyptologist.

  8. DeclineAndFall, I try to allow comments from multiple perspectives, even if they include input from John Dehlin and his podcasts. Even though we aim to be a forum for believing members or for others who are willing to respect members’ beliefs, it is a normal part of rounded discussions to look at things from many different angles, including ones opposed to the official stance of the Church. You are more than welcome to share your perspectives in ways that move the conversation forward in a manner that you view to be more positive.

    That being said, rudeness and personal attacks or insults do go against our comment policy. Those who have had comments removed are welcome to express their critique of the position of other individuals in the conversation in more productive ways. In general, I advise all involved in the conversation to keep a level head.

  9. Ok. Your call to allow flagrant trolls. Doesn’t do good things for the commenting/reading environment.

  10. “ignorant exmo trolls”
    “flagrant trolls”

    This is definitely helping the reading environment. Thanks for contributing to a well written and thoughtful post.

  11. TT, your comment gave me a good laugh. Thanks for that.

    On a similarly facetious note, I wish the scholarly world would permit more creative titling when it comes to papers. John Gee has some good paper titles with FairMormon. “Abracadabra, Isaac, and Jacob” is a gem for one. Meanwhile, every time I pick up a conference report or essay collection entitled “New Directions/Approaches/Horizons/Pathways in ____ Studies” my heart dies a little.

  12. Ethan R, I believe you owe John Gee and Kerry Muhlestein an apology. I don’t know if you have any qualifications at all for evaluating an academic CV, but both Gee and Muhlestein have quite respectable doctorates and publications in Egyptology. A neutral observer would likely say that their CVs document strong profiles for well-trained scholars now working largely or primarily within the scholarship and teaching of their religious tradition.

  13. Dr. Gee is well credentialed and has published his academic work in prestigious journals. But his work with the Book of Abraham is, as his fellow BYU colleague put it, “abhorrent”.

    You don’t need to be a Yale credentialed Egyptologist to see for yourself that there’s no documentary foundation for the Book of Abraham from the funeral scrolls Joseph said he was translating. The Church’s own essays acknowledges this. We should all stop speculating and rely on our faith for greater understanding.

  14. Something I’m more interested in than Dr. Gee’s credentials is how people take the information that Matthew Grey presents and incorporate it into a faithful perspective about the Book of Abraham. In particular, his conclusion that: “Apparently believing that the Book of Abraham contained original source material for the biblical book of Genesis, Joseph drew upon the structural framework of the creation accounts in the King James Version (KJV) of Genesis 1–2 and made key adjustments to the language of those accounts based on insights he acquired in his Hebrew studies in early 1836” stands out to me. It makes sense to me, for example, if you compare the version of the creation account in the BoA to the King Follett Discourse or if you take the Documentary Hypothesis into account when approaching BoA, chapters 4-5, but does provide some challenges to the traditional understanding of the translation process (i.e., those chapters might be seen more as a second edition of the Joseph Smith Translation than something based on the papyri Joseph Smith had).

    Ethan R. immediately jumped to one end of the spectrum of reactions in claiming that “he wrote them.” I suppose the other end of the spectrum would be to ignore the findings and hold to the traditional claims that he was providing a linguistic translation of the papyri. What I’m interested to see is how people process the information in ways that are more middle-ground between the two. I know Jonathan Green shared one approach to it earlier this year (http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2020/03/notes-on-the-book-of-abraham/), and Zerubbabel shared some thoughts in this comment thread before we got a bit sidetracked. What other insights and thoughts do people have about what this information means for understanding the nature of the Book of Abraham and the process by which it was created?

  15. Chad-dude,

    What do you think about a Kabbalist approach?

    There is a lot of evidence that Joseph was well-acquainted with Kabbalah. Those who know Kabbalah, can see the influence throughout Joseph’s cosmology. Dr. Lachter outlines the connection here:


    It would be useful for LDS scholars to see the different way creation text is interpreted by say, an Orthodox Jew and a Kabbalist. The Kabbalist’s rendering is Joseph’s cosmology.

    Prominent Kabbalist scholars Harold Bloom (essay and Hartley Lachter seem to understand where Joseph is coming from.

    Gershon Scholem might be the next Margaret Barker for serious LDS scholarship…

  16. I think that the Kabbalist approach is a bit far from Joseph Smith. Its a step beyond what was going on when the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed in 70 CE. One area of early Christian belief that was mostly over-looked by biblical scholars until recently was “mysticism”, which April DeConick defines as “a tradition within early Judaism and Christianity centered on the belief that a person directly, immediately, and before death can experience the divine, either as a rapture experience or as one solicited by a particular praxis [i.e., a particular practice, such as a ritual].” [April D. DeConick, “What Is Early Jewish And Christian Mysticism?”, pp. 1-24, DeConick, April D. Ed., Paradise Now: Essays on Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism, (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2006) p. 2.] The early Christians, however, “did not use the word ‘mysticism,’ which derives from the Greek word myeo, ‘to be initiated’. . . . the first Christians call their direct immediate premortem experiences of God ‘apocalypses’ (apocalypseis) or ‘revelations.’” [April D. DeConick, “Jesus Revealed: The Dynamics of Early Christian Mysticism,” pp. 299-324, Arbel, Daphna V. & Orlov, Andrei A., Eds., With Letters of Light: Studies in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Early Jewish Apocalypticism, Magic, and Mysticism in Honor or Rachel Elior, (Berlin, Germany: Walter DeGruyter, 2011), p. 306.]
    The term “mysticism” has long been viewed negatively by many members of the restored church, but DeConick’s definition is accurate. Both the early Jewish and the early Christian forms of this mysticism are, “companion expressions of Second Temple Judaism, sibling religions that developed simultaneously within comparable historical contextures . . ..” [ DeConick, 2006, op. cit., at p. 2.]
    “According to the pioneering research of R. Elior in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., Jews within these mystical circles were perpetuating Temple worship by fostering the idea of a surrogate heavenly Temple. . . . . Refusing to accept the end of their religious worship in the wake of the destruction of their cult center, they focused on the notion of a spiritual world whose cultic practices now operated on a mystical-ritual praxis. . . . The priestly ritual was understood to be performed by the angels in the heavenly sanctuary. . . . In other words, the angels performed the ceremonies originally performed by the high priest before the Temple’s destruction and, ‘the Jewish mystic could now ascend through the various hekhalot or shrines in order to journey to the inner sanctum and worship before God’s throne.” [April D. DeConick, “The True Mysteries: Sacramentalism in the Gospel of Philip”, pp. 225-261, Vigilae Christianae, Vol. 55:1, (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2001), at pp. 226-227]
    The need for this “imaginary temple”, was one of the main consequences of the destruction of Herod’s temple by the Romans in 70 C.E.. James R. Davila’s study of rituals described in what is known as the Jewish Hekhalot literature supports DeConick. He describes a “‘ritual’, as ‘those conscious and voluntary, repetitious and stylized symbolic bodily actions that are centered on cosmic structures and/or sacred presences.’”[James R. Davila, “Ritual In The Hekahalot Literature”, pp. 449-466, April D. DeConick, G. Shaw, & John D. Turner, Eds., Practicing Gnosis: Ritual, Magic, Theurgy and Liturgy in Nag Hammadi, Manichaean and Other Late Antique Literature, Essays in Honor of Birger A. Pearson, (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 2013), p. 449.] He uses the term, “‘praxis’ here to mean an assemblage of ritual acts and, often, ascetic disciplines which is created to produce a particular outcome.”[ Id., at p. 449] Among the activity Davila catalogs in his study are: “recitation of adjurations, songs, and prayers, recitation of angelic and divine names according to a prescribed pattern . . . the adoption of physical postures or dispositions, . . . standing in a magic circle, . . ., immersion in running water as well as other ablutions and anointings.” [Id. at p. 464]
    This belief was found in the Dead Sea Scrolls community as well:
    (1) the theology of ancient Judaism took for granted the belief that in its original, true, redeemed state humanity is divine (and/or angelic), and . . .
    (2) this belief pattern was conceptually and experientially inextricable from temple worship in which ordinary space and time, . . . ., are transcended because the true temple is a model of the universe which offers its entrants a transfer from earth to heaven, from humanity to divinity and from mortality to immortality. [ Fletcher-Louis, Crispin, H.T., All the Glory of Adam: Liturgical Anthropology in the Dead Sea Scrolls, (Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 2002), p. xii. See also p. 476.] “[T]he attainment now, for the redeemed, of this true humanity [i.e., its divine state] was conceptually and experientially grounded in their ‘temple’ worship . . .. ” (Id., at p. 476] There are many similar practices on the Christian side.
    DeConick viewed the Jewish Temple experience described above as similar to her observation of a version of early Christian temple worship. [April D. DeConick, “Heavenly Temple Traditions and Valentinian Worship”, pp. 308-341, Newman, Gary C., et. al., The Jewish Roots of Christological Monotheism: Papers from the St. Andrews Conference on the Historical Origins of the Worship of Jesus, (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1999) p. 310-317] “For the human practitioner, this journey generally was described in terms of the human’s transfiguration into an angel, his participation in the heavenly liturgy, or his own enthronement. In most cases, the transfiguration involved the revelation of secret knowledge about the world’s operation.” [DeConick, 2001 at p. 228].

    Kabbalah (to my mind) came about a few hundred years after this time. This period (shortly after Jesus died and the Temple was destroyed) is much more fitting to Joseph Smith than Kabballah or the Talmud.

  17. Travis-dude,

    I’m only peripherally acquainted with Kabbalist approaches (and what I do know comes mostly from my Reformed Jewish uncle), so I don’t think I can comment intelligently there. I’ll listen to the lectures you linked when I have the opportunity, though, and see what they have to say.

  18. Terry,

    Your well-cited response seems to support the idea of a “mystical” experience in Joseph’s attitude towards endowment. You quote DeConick:

    “For the human practitioner, this journey generally was described in terms of the human’s transfiguration into an angel, his participation in the heavenly liturgy, or his own enthronement. In most cases, the transfiguration involved the revelation of secret knowledge about the world’s operation.” [DeConick, 2001 at p. 228].”

    Elior and DeConick use “Kabbalah” and “mysticism” interchangeably in their work. The description above describes how the temple institutionalizes the mystical experience.

    Also, your response locates the temple destruction period as a point to explain why Joseph’s cosmology isn’t Kabbalist.

    I hope the strength of your response isn’t to point out that at the temple destruction, there were no officially recognized “kabbalists.” This is like pointing out that in Jesus’ day there were no officially recognized “Christians.”

    Every work you cited can be read as support for a Kabbalist context in Joseph’s cosmology.

  19. Ben S,

    Ambitious essay. You frame “fundamentalist” perception of revelation with biases of “absolute” consistency, “absolute” accuracy, and that it be “absolutely” unmediated. That is one way to stage a syllogism.

    What would be the perception of revelation without padded absolutes? Still fundamentalist?

  20. Chad, it really seems to me that you are having to jump through a lot of hoops in your series. Tons of “ifs”, “he could have”, and “it might follow that…” are implied. I applaud your effort while not fully embracing your method or the conclusions of you, Matthew and others.

  21. “What would be the perception of revelation without padded absolutes? Still fundamentalist?” A belief in divine revelation/inspiration is not inherently fundamentalist, no (nor does revelation entail or require absolutism), but it seems like an obvious question, so perhaps I’m not grasping your meaning. Rephrase?

  22. Agree rickpowers, not to mention their casual use of the word “translate” as if this is settled and typifies Jos. process in producing BoA – ludicrous, deceptive, borderline nuts and agenda-driven. Wouldn’t it be more honest/real to simply acknowledge Joseph’s obvious genius as divine?

  23. Thank you for sharing that Ben S. I appreciate your approach.

    rickpowers, there will always be a lot of uncertainty when trying to understand the past using historical methods, since we weren’t there, weren’t inside the minds of the people involved in the situations, and the people who were only captured bits and fragments of their experiences in writings and documents, so a lot of what we have to do is take those fragments and do our best to connect the dots to figure out what happened. As such, there will generally be a lot of “ifs,” “could haves,” and “might be’s.” And there will be disagreements over what the picture that emerges from connecting those dots looks like. I am curious, though, what is your take on the situation?

  24. Ben S,

    It is easy to stage an argument against absolutes, or absolutism. The idea of “composite revelation” stems from the theory or belief that Joseph received revelation from his environment. Scholars want to show how Joseph came to his understanding by analyzing “what he read” and “who he talked to.”

    If revelation occurs from within an environment, there is no “revealing,” it’s not revelation, it’s “observation” or “inspiration.” LDS scholars attempt to smooth-over the mystery of revelation by materializing it’s content—ie., “Joseph got this from freemasonry and got that from his Hebrew studies course.”

    You argue for “composite revelation” over “absolutism” or “fundamentalism.” Basically advocating for a belief system because nothing in your essay links to doctrine. Your position in the essay is to argue beliefs that help explain, legitimize, or justify Joseph’s revelation. All beliefs, all speculation about about how the magic trick happened.

    Can you imagine how revelation might be both fundamentalist-absolutist, and at the same time composite?

  25. “The idea of “composite revelation” stems from the theory or belief that Joseph received revelation from his environment.” Since I’m the one who articulated it, I can tell you somewhat authoritatively that it stems from reading a bunch of non-LDS scholars.

    Moreover, the kind of binary thinking that “revelation must be entirely separate and distinct from the environment or it can’t be revelation” also constitutes fundamentalism.

  26. Ben S,

    How is “composite revelation” different from personal thoughts, feelings, ideas, opinions?

    Revelation, by origin and definition, is distinct and separate from environment—how is revelation “revealed” if what is “revealed” is already present?

    Do you see that LDS apologists are having to redefine revelation in order to explain revelation?

  27. <>
    God is involved; it is *composite* revelation, with divine and human components, interacting in a variety of ways. At times it is God stamping, approving, directing, nudging, and at other times, it is the human recipient adapting, packaging, comprehending, conveying within his/her time period, language, cognitive horizon, and cultural environment.

    “Revelation, by origin and definition, is distinct and separate from environment” Really? By whose definitions? And who accepted them? How were they derived? How do they actually make sense of the data?

    <> We’re examining it a lot more closely instead of relying on inherited fundamentalist paradigms. I don’t see that as problematic, nor my usage of it as a redefinition, but yours certainly does, because you propose that “composite” really means “100% human,” and that’s not my argument at all.

  28. Ben S,

    Thank you for responding. I don’t assume composite means 100 percent human. I never mentioned any ratio.

    The use of “fundamentalist” to describe absolutist revelation theory as distinct from composite revelation theory is ad hominem. Logic may not be your specialty, so I’ll walk us through:

    You claim that revelation can be “stamping, approving, directing, nudging, and at other times, it is the human recipient adapting, packaging, comprehending, conveying within his/her time period, language, cognitive horizon, and cultural environment.”

    Do you recognize that the paradigm you illustrate makes revelation into anything and everything?

    What then, makes “revelation” revelation? What sets revelation apart from ordinary thoughts, feelings, opinions? How is this determined?

    What sets revelation apart from regular thoughts, feelings, opinions, and “environment,” is a quality of “otherworldness”—something from an outside or inside realm appears or blossoms. Paul’s definition of faith, “…evidence of things unseen,” (Heb.11.1) supports the idea that faith is a recognition of the “otherworldness,” and that the lens of faith is revelation.

    I cannot think of a single God-inspired text by any denomination that supports “composite revelation theory.” Religious texts unanimously support what you call “absolutist/fundamentalist revelation theory.”

    Composite revelation theory is secular.

    If environmental factors can explain exegesis, what need is there for revelation?

    This leads back to what-is revelation and what-is translation concerning Abraham and Moses texts, but I will hear your response first.

  29. Travis, I’m not sure that you’re using ad hominem correctly. It is a logical fallacy of attacking a person rather than a point. Your calling into question Ben’s ability to use logic is a better example, and rather unfounded and uncalled for. If you want to use his association of understanding scriptures as being inerrant expressions of God’s word with “fundamentalism” as a logical fallacy in the argument because the term often has negative connotations, poisoning of the well is a more accurate logical fallacy to bring up. And I’m not sure that would even correct apply in this case.

    To the main point (and I apologize for putting you on the defensive right off with the above–what follows is more an effort to seek for better understanding of your position), my question here is this–even if revelation is an entirely otherworldly experience, our minds and our souls are still set within bodies and brains with very limited capacity for truly experiencing or retaining interactions with the divine. That is my understanding of why we read that: “For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us” (2 Cor. 4:6-7). Our earthen vessels are imperfect, and that has an impact on how revelation is received and understood. That is, at least my personal experiences with receiving revelations through the Holy Spirit.

    My understanding of what you are saying, however, is that, despite those limitations, that our ability as humans to capture the experiences of revelation in words is capable of producing perfect representations of what God communicates. And I am asking sincerely here, am I understanding you correctly, or is there something that I am missing?

  30. Chad, your earlier question:

    “Something I’m more interested in… is how people take the information that Matthew Grey presents and incorporate it into a faithful perspective about the Book of Abraham?”

    The question has an underlying expectation that Mathew Grey’s work ought to be incorporated into a “faithful perspective.” I am not so sure.

    For me, Grey’s Hebrew/Book of Abraham work is important because it is the door that opens a Kabbalist context for Joseph’s revelation. I think the Kabbalist context is of minor importance, but that it will, in turn, open LDS scholarship to a broader body of esoteric literature—more along the lines of what Nibley was trying to do.

    What I don’t like about Grey’s recent work is that (1) it is speculative not interpretive, (2) historical materialism runs counter to revelation by definition, (3) the essay does not reconcile or expound doctrine, it merely propagates belief(s). Grey admittedly says:

    “I believe that these observations provide fascinating and inspiring insights into the mechanics of Joseph Smith’s translation process, which, it seems, was a dynamic blending of his academic efforts and prophetic gifts.”

    “I believe that identifying and contextualizing these elements can deeply enrich our reading of the Book of Abraham and can help us better appreciate Joseph Smith’s approach to scripture.”

    “I believe, I believe.” Grey is theorizing another LDS belief system.

    Do you remember those years the CES dumped millions into research for “archeological proof” of the Book of Mormon? FARMS exploded. What happened to all that? It proved useless because in the end, the academic pursuit was a belief system.

    Do you remember those years when the CES printed and financed literature that taught the belief that blackness of skin is a curse? There was never doctrine to support the belief, just a belief system.

    Neil Maxwell, teaching about the role of disciple-scholars, would have us expound upon revelation, covenant, ordinance, doctrine, and faith. He might remind us, as he does here with “An excellent quote:”

    “Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief is possible.”


  31. Chad, thank you for reaching out.

    At no point did I interpret anything Ben S said as an ad hominem attack against me, just in his argument. I appreciate Ben S.

    On revelation and translation:

    It is my understanding that Joseph received most of the things revealed to him during, or shortly after the “period of the First Vision,” and that most of our recorded “revelations” are merely an “unfolding” or exposition of the First Vision(s).

    In this framework, the Book of Abraham and Book of Moses and Book of Joseph are dream-like visionary story-stage-plays Joseph “saw.” He didn’t read or use papayri for words, but for “essence.”

    In this framework, the First Vision cumulated as an ascension experience, and is expressed in LDS theurgy as part of the endowment ordinance; there is no historical materialist assumption for temple ordinances.

    In this framework, much of what we call revelation is Joseph’s “translating” the mystical experience (ascension/coronation) into a context for Zion.

    Some relevant texts:

    Messianic Idea in Judaism, Gershon Scholem
    Ascent to Heaven, Algis Uzdavinys
    Mythic Mind, Nicolas Wyatt
    Keter, Arthur Green
    Gospel of Thomas, Samuel Zinner
    Aion, Carl Jung
    Other Judaisms, Alan Segal
    Serpent Kills, Gives Life, Robert Sagerman
    King,Cult,Calendar, Shemaryahu Talmon
    Creation, Margaret Barker

  32. Ben S,

    “Moreover, the kind of binary thinking that ‘revelation must be entirely separate and distinct from the environment or it can’t be revelation’ also constitutes fundamentalism.”

    I agree. And like much of fundamentalism, it is not consistent with the scriptural record.

    Consider what is taught in the parables. In the parable of the treasure in the field, the thing that is discovered, or revealed, is already in the world – it is merely hidden. In the parable of the pearl of great price, the thing that is discovered is actually out in the open, for all to see – but it is only the merchant who recognizes its true value, who recognizes it for what it is.

    The scriptures often represent revelation in our stereotypical view, of the heavens opening and the pure word descending. But this is not always the case, and in fact there are plenty of cases where revelation clearly comes through the world itself. Consider Jeremiah 18, where the will of the Lord is revealed as Jeremiah watches the potter at work.

  33. Travis,

    I listened to the Kabbalah lecture, and it is interesting. I’m still not informed enough about Kabbalah to make an intelligent comment, but it does sound like something interesting to pursue.

    I’m curious–on what basis do you believe that Joseph Smith received most of the things revealed to him during, or shortly after the “period of the First Vision,” and that most of our recorded “revelations” are merely an “unfolding” or exposition of the First Vision(s)? I would be interested to see some good data to back the idea up.

  34. Chad,

    You asked: “On what basis do you believe that Joseph Smith received most of the things revealed to him during, or shortly after the “period of the First Vision,” and that most of our recorded “revelations” are merely an “unfolding” or exposition of the First Vision(s)…?”

    I’m working on this. The texts I shared are an abductive data sampler. I am not yet sure how to organize the data because it’s not linear—it’s dimensional, interdisciplinary. It’s important to differentiate day-to-day topical revelation (a lot of D&C) from the apocalyptic, cosmological, and ascension type of revelation. The focus here is on the apocalyptic/cosmological/mystical-ascension stuff.

    When we discover an academic appreciation for how difficult it is to interpret archetype, and how complex the hierarchy and order of symbols of the unconscious are (we learn from Carl Jung), it becomes unreasonable to think Joseph’s cosmology was pieced together inductively.

    The same idea can explain how Joseph was able to scribe the entire Book of Mormon in a matter of weeks. I argue that Joseph received the entire self-contained BOOK of Mormon in the same way that John received the entire self-contained BOOK of Revelation:

    Figuratively, “eating” the BOOK (Rev 10:9-10), is to consume the whole—the entire revelation as a seed.

    Another example might be found in Lehi’s vision of the Tree of Life. The revelation was received by Nephi as a whole, self-contained vision. All the parts were there, though Nephi didn’t understand the symbols. Then, Nephi was instructed on the symbols—in vision. This would be a pattern to start from—that Joseph received the mystical or cosmological revelation as self-contained visions, not as linear, chronological, or historical pieces. If we perceive pieces, it is because Joseph, like Nephi, was receiving a more detailed, deeper dimensional account for what he already saw.

  35. Travis, I would be interested to hear more as you organize your data. Along those lines, as I asked you about earlier, our mortal bodies (earthen vessels) are imperfect, and that has an impact on how revelation is received, retained and understood. So, if Joseph Smith experienced this apocalyptic revelation sometime in the early 1820s, then unfolded it over the following 20-24 years, one of my major concerns would be that both his memory was imperfect (as part of being a mortal human being) and his ability to capture and communicate that experience in words and writing was imperfect as well. How do you account for that issue?

  36. Chad,

    I think you are right about Joseph’s ability to communicate the content of his revelation—I think he must have struggled with this.

    At a certain point, the translation of cosmological revelation would seem easier to communicate in the abstract medium of ritual. In this way, temple ordinance can be understood as a commemoration of what Joseph saw or experienced—be it heavenly ascension, coronation, the binding of generations, or otherwise.

    I don’t think the content of Joseph’s visions never left or faded from his memory.

  37. I don’t think the content of Joseph’s revelation *ever left of faded from his memory.

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