Monday, December 26, 2011

How Apologetics and Polemics Really Work: Mormon Apologists and Polemicists as a Test Case

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the LDS, the Utah Mormon Church, there are four basic holy scriptures: The Bible, as far as it is translated correctly, the Book of Mormon, The Book of Abraham, and the Doctrine and Covenants, the revelations that the Church Prophet, Joseph Smith was the first, has received over the years from God and Jesus Christ. The divine origins of all of these have been quite controversial over the years with Mormons willing to believe them divine in origin, and Gentiles, the term Mormons use for non-Mormons, generally unwilling to accept their "divine" status.

In the rest of this short essay I want to concentrate on the Book of Abraham. The Book of Abraham has its origin in an Egyptian manuscript that Mormon prophet and first Church President Joseph Smith purchased from Michael Chandler, the proprietor of a traveling mummy show that passed through Kirtland, Ohio, one of the earliest Mormon communities, in July of 1835. In November Smith began "...translating an alphabet to the Book of Abraham and arranging a grammar of the Egyptian language as practiced by the ancients". You can, by the way, buy Smith's Egyptian alphabet and grammar from the Tanners, those famous ex-Mormons turned evangelical who believe their calling is to convert Mormons from "false" pseudo-Christianity to "true" evangelical Christianity (

With the help of this alphabet and grammar Smith was able to "translate" what he called the Book of Abraham. The Book of Abraham ( tells the tale of the life of the Hebrew patriarch Abraham and his sojourns throughout the lands of Canaan, the land promised by God to Abraham and his progeny, and Egypt. Chapters 1 and 2 of the Book of Abraham tell the story of Abraham’s early life and his fight against the idolatry in both his family and in society at large. It recounts how pagan priests tried to sacrifice Abraham and how an angel came to his rescue. Chapter 2 contains information about God’s covenant with Abraham and how it would be fulfilled. Chapters 3 through 5, the heart of the Book of Abraham, delineate the vision of the creation of the world and the creation of man that God gave to the Hebrew patriarch.

The Book of Abraham that Smith "translated" is more than simply a text. It also contains three important pictorial facsimiles. According to Smith the first pictorial "translation" depicts the attempt by the idolatrous priest of Elkenah to sacrifice patriarch Abraham while he is tied to an altar ( Pictorial translation 2 contains representations of celestial objects including the heavens and earth, 15 other planets or stars, (including Kolob; Kolob would become Kobol in Mormon Glen Larson's Battlestar Galactica), the sun and moon, the number 1000, and God's revelation of the grand Key-words of the Holy Priesthood ( Pictorial translation 3 portrays Abraham in the court of Pharaoh "reasoning upon the principles of Astronomy" ( All of these facsimiles are central to the rituals and symbols of the Mormon Temple ceremony as one of my Mormon friends and informants told me.

The Book of Abraham was first published in March and May of 1842 in the LDS newspaper Times and Seasons and was accepted as scriptural by the Utah Church in 1880. Believing Mormons, of course, have generally believed that Joseph Smith was given the gift of divine translation by God and that the "Book of Abraham" is literally true. The facsimiles of the Book of Abraham have become central to the Mormon Temple ceremonies, rituals and symbols at the heart of Mormon culture. Non-Mormon and Mormon critics, of course, have not generally accepted that the Book of Abraham has divine origins. Critics of the Book of Abraham have long pointed out the historical problems with the Book of Abraham. Critics have noted, particularly after the rediscovery of the "Book of Abraham" papyri in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 1966 that Smith had made his translation from. These rediscovered manuscripts show that the documents Smith had translated the Book of Abraham from were actually common Egyptian funerary texts and that Smith's translation bore no relationship to the literal words of these funerary texts.

Defenders of the Mormon faith have responded to the rediscovery of the Book of Abraham manuscripts in a number of different ways over the years. Some have argued that Smith did not translate the documents. Instead, he interpreted the manuscripts through the medium of divine revelation in the same manner as he had "translated" the Bible earlier. Others have claimed that the Museum of Art papyri represent a corrupted version of a document originally written by Abraham and translated by Smith. Still others have argued that the are other messages and meanings embedded within the text of the funerary manuscripts. Still others have argued that the fragments found at the New York Museum of Art are only part of the complete original papyri and that it was the missing manuscripts that Smith translated (the proving something from nothing argument). And still others have argued that underlying the Egyptian funerary texts is a Hebrew document about the patriarch Abraham and this is the one Smith "translated".

As an outsider, a Gentile, who has listened to and explored, or once listened to and explored, the apologetic side of the Book of Abraham as an authentic document argument, there are, at least for me, several problems with the arguments of Mormon defenders of the Book of Abraham faith. The fundamental problem with them all is that all of them are, in the final analysis, apologetic and polemical. In the end almost all arguments of the believing defenders of the faith enunciated above show, have to take refuge in the god did it through divine revelation argument, "the limits of human understanding" argument ( Such an argument, of course, will not satisfy empirical critics like myself though it may satisfy the minds of some intellectually oriented believers. And this, of course, is the real purpose and function of the apologetic and polemical arguments.

It is, of course, typical of apologists and polemicists, including Mormon apologists and polemicists at FAIR, the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, and FARMS, the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, to avoid the give and take of real empirical debate (one example: and to sometimes resort to ad hominem rather than empirical arguments. If you don't believe me just listen to right wing political debates in contemporary America. It is common in much of this apologetics and polemics for statements to be made with little if any empirical evidence to back them up, with little if any debate over, response to, or dissection of contrary arguments, and for ad hominem arguments to be the far too common final resort of the apologetic and polemical mind. Of course, this is demagoguery, apologetic and polemical demagoguery, in its fundamental form and it is the dominant form of "argument" taking place in cyberspace, in the blogosphere, and on the Fox News Channel.

I do realise that not all apologists and polemicists are alike or equal. Once upon a time when I was a biblical studies major. In biblical studies classes we talked about the need for beginning analysis with exegesis, textual analysis, the study of texts and textual variants in their historical and archaeological contexts, then moving on to hermeneutics, the study of texts and their meanings, their sometimes changing textual meanings as some texts, like the Bible or Shakespeare float through new textual contexts, and finally moving on to homiletics, "preaching" about texts on the basis of a sound understanding of a text's exegesis and hermeneutics.

Polemicists and apologists do sometimes engage in this form of more careful and historically sensitive textual analysis but even at their best, in my opinion, these apologists and polemicists tend to engage in a weird sort of exegesis which mixes ancient contexts with modern ideology (in this instance religious belief) and engage in a hermeneutics that mixes time and space in a kind of Doctor Whoy sort of way. Don't get me wrong I love Doctor Who but I don't mistake it for sound academic and intellectual analysis. Even the "best" religious oriented apologetics and polemics, in other words, seem to me to engage in a rather a weird sort of ahistorical apologetics and polemics which, in its practise, creates a ahistorical hybrid monster that conflates exegesis, hermeneutics and homiletics and tells us more about ourselves today and the beliefs and hopes some have about the Book of Abraham, than about the historical texts of the past, in this case Egyptian funerary papyri.

Some questions and some responses to certain interpretations of the Book of Abraham...
Hmmm, this [the notion that Smith "translated" a Hebrew tale hovering within and beneath the Egyptian funerary texts from which the Book of Abraham was translated] sound like an episode of Dr. Who. So Smith was not "translating" an Egyptian funerary text, he was looking at an Egyptian document but was really seeing a "Semitic" document that inhabited the same time/space as the funerary text? was this "Semitic" document brought into Smith's consciousness by the Egyptian text? stimulated by it? Was this "Semitic" document written by a Bedouin despite the fact that historically speaking, writing and Bedouins generally aren't spoken of in the same breath?

Archaeological question: what Bedouin group has bequeathed to the world a body of astrological speculation? So is the argument here that Abraham the Bedouin learned to write in Egypt? the Ancient Near East? Ur of the Chaldees? Any evidence of Bedouin picking up writing skills in the Ancient world and using this to engage, in writing, in cosmological speculation?

Several questions remain beyond the issue of Bedouins and writing? Texts, of course, as we know can be orally transmitted. Examples; the Iliad, Odyssey, likely parts of the Torah (Jacob Saga, the Joseph Saga). What evidence exists, beyond the Biblical text, that Hebrews were ever in Egypt? Is there evidence for Hebregyptian in the Davidic and Solomonic kingdoms? Is there any evidence for an Egyptian and Hebraic text existing in the same time/space beyond this controversial one?

It seems clear that so much of the Torah and Ketuvim were indeed influenced, deeply influenced, by the larger and much stronger (imperialistic, colonial) Egyptian and Middle Eastern cultures around them. Examples: Wisdom literature, the second creation story. But is there anywhere in the Middle East evidence for a text in one language (Egyptian) underlain by another entirely different one (Hebregyptian)?

Yes, the Tanakh has been much influenced by its broader Mediterranean contexts. The Mediterranean was clearly a region marked by economic, political, and cultural interactions. The question becomes when did those influences impact Israel, a state in which writing, as opposed to oral recitation, did not begin until the time of David and after. I agree interaction and, to use that academic fad term, hybridity, does not prove the "ancientness" of the Book of Abraham. It proves that Israel, a small and relatively powerless state, was influenced by cultures, more powerful cultures, in its Mediterranean environment.

All this [arguments that the Ancient Hebrews were impacted by more powerful cultures (Egypt, Sumeria, Babylonia, Persia) in its broader cultural environment] is not unlike the cultural, economic, and political power of the West in the World today. Dallas was the number one TV programme in the world in the 1980s while Upstairs Downstairs was shown on, if memory serves, over 100 TV channels around the world. In an article by Katz and Liebes, by the way, those two scholars show how different ethnic groups in Israel, to use another trendy academic term, imbibed and used Dallas in different ways.

Speaking of the TV show Dallas, I once met a Algerian who matriculated at SMU because he liked the show Dallas. His image of Dallas, however, and the reality of Dallas he found when he got there caused him a bit of cognitive dissonance.

A general question...
Why do so many Mormon apologists and polemicists come from the legal profession?

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