Kerry Muhlstein’s Let’s Talk about the Book of Abraham Is the latest entry in a series that Deseret Book has been publishing to address controversial or touchy topics in the Church. Based on my experience with Brittany Chapman Nash’s Let’s Talk About Polygamy (the previous volume in this series of books), I had expected something like the Very Short Introduction series by Oxford University Press, with a scholarly discussion of the topic. Muhlstein’s work does indeed follow this pattern, presenting a concise, readable, and informative in discussing the Book of Abraham. Unlike the Very Short Introduction series, though, it is written from an overtly faithful perspective and is apologetic in its orientation. It is a good, fast-paced introduction for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to the ongoing discussion of this controversial entry in the Pearl of Great Price.
The book is divided into three sections. The first explores the history of the Book of Abraham, looking at Abraham, the papyrus scrolls that Joseph Smith would later purchase, the translation project, and eventual publication of the book. The second section explores a series of questions about the Book of Abraham, including questions about the process of translating the Book of Abraham, the facsimiles and explanations offered in the published Book of Abraham, and historical evidences that align with the contents of the Book of Abraham. The final section is small (less than 10 pages) and briefly explores some of the content of the Book of Abraham. At 144 pages (106 of pages text), it’s a very fast read and it’s also highly affordable at $11.99 for the paperback.
I felt like there were a lot of good things going for Let’s Talk About the Book of Abraham. It’s engaging, informative, and covers a lot of ground in a little amount of space. It also briefly discusses several possible ways to interpret the information and presents prevalent theories at most junctures in the book. I was left with a lot to think about when it came to the Book of Abraham that I hadn’t known or thought about before. For example, the detailed explanation of why it’s unlikely the surviving fragments are the sections Joseph Smith studied while working on the translation project was something that made a lot of sense to me that I wasn’t familiar with before. Some of the information about Egyptian studies that support the Book of Abraham were really neat to become more acquainted with. The details about the ancient owner of the papyrus (Hor) was also fascinating. The author has an extensive background in both Egyptology and the history of the Book of Abraham that shows throughout the book.
My main complaint has to do with the writing style rather than the information covered. When I reviewed Chapman’s book, I noted that:
It is written by a believing Latter-day Saint with believing Latter-day Saints as the primary audience. Because of this, there are apologetic elements woven into the fabric of the book. I appreciated, however, that it didn’t feel like it was being crammed down my throat while reading.
Muhlstein’s book is likewise written by and for believing Latter-day Saints, but this time around, I frequently felt like the testimony and apologetic elements were being crammed down my throat. I’m sure some people will find the constant restatements of Muhlstein’s belief that Joseph Smith was a prophet, that Smith translated the Book of Abraham by the power of God, that we are blessed to have the Book of Abraham, that revelation is the only way to really learn the truth about the Book of Abraham, and discussions about epistemology to be comforting. I personally found it tiring and distracting. To me, this was a detriment to an otherwise engaging and informative book.
My only other complaint was that I would have loved more discussion on a lot of topics. It’s meant to be a brief introduction to the general topic, so it’s understandable that the book wasn’t able to explore every detail about the Book of Abraham. Still, it felt like there were a lot of topics that were mentioned in passing that warranted further discussion. For example, it’s mentioned in passing a couple times that Joseph Smith may have had more involvement in creating the text we have today than we’ve traditionally thought and that his study of Hebrew was connected to the Book of Abraham translation project. There wasn’t a lot of detail shared about the implications of or reasoning behind those statements. One facet of this that could have been explored more deeply is Matthew Grey’s work on exactly how Joseph Smith’s Hebrew studies connect with the text of the Book of Abraham. Grey’s work is referenced in the endnotes, but not really used extensively in the discussion about translation. Another area that could have had more detail is the interpretation of the facsimiles. Muhlestein mentions that Egyptologists have different interpretations but rarely shares what those interpretations are, choosing instead to focus on ways to dismiss those Egyptologists’ interpretations and discussing interpretations that do align with how the facsimiles are presented in the Book of Abraham. There are a lot of areas that I would have liked to see more details and discussion with, though that is most likely due to the nature of the book and its size than anything else.
Thus, overall, I have a positive impression of Kerry Muhlestein’s Let’s Talk About the Book of Abraham. It’s a quick read, but also very informative. I learned a lot that I hadn’t been introduced to before. My only complaints were relatively minor ones (writing style is personal preference and wanting to have more of the book is an indication that I found what we do have to be good enough to warrant more), so I would say it is worth picking up and reading.