Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Blinded by Belief

In 1835 Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, purchased two Egyptian mummies. Inside the caskets he found fragments of papyri with Egyptian writing. He claimed that these were written by Avraham and Yosef, and produced a supposed translation of the papyri titled "The Book of Abraham." This work is considered part of Mormon scripture and informs Mormon doctrine. In 1966 the papyri were found in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When translated by Egyptologists, they proved to be standard funerary documents.[i]

When I read about the above, my first thought was, "I bet Mormons claim that Joseph Smith wasn't really translating the papyri, but that they were a means through which God revealed the Book of Abraham to him. That would solve the problem and is neatly unfalsifiable." I was right.

The official LDS website explains the discrepancy by saying, "The word translation typically assumes an expert knowledge of multiple languages. Joseph Smith claimed no expertise in any language.… The Lord did not require Joseph Smith to have knowledge of Egyptian. By the gift and power of God, Joseph received knowledge about the life and teachings of Abraham.… Joseph’s translation was not a literal rendering of the papyri as a conventional translation would be. Rather, the physical artifacts provided an occasion for meditation, reflection, and revelation. They catalyzed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri." [ii] In other words, even though Joseph Smith claimed he was translating the papyri, he wasn't really translating them, but was instead receiving a revelation from God. Is there any question that this a contrivance to explain away the discrepancy between the Book of Abraham and what the papyri actually said?

This is an obvious and egregious example of people willfully ignoring the evidence against their religious beliefs, and I'm sure that any frum person would see it as such. Why then don't they see it in their own religion? In the Zohar, which uses Spanish idioms? In Tanach, which reads like ANE mythology? In many of the counterfactual beliefs held in various parts of the frum world about the age of the universe, the development of life, or the evolution of Judaism? Because when people are invested in a system of thought, explanations like the one the Mormons offer seem reasonable. They take it for granted that the Book of Abraham is true, and all that needs to be explained is how to square that with the expert's translation of the documents it's supposed to be based on. Divine revelation using the documents as a meditative focus explains all the evidence, can't be disproved, and maintains the truth of their belief. That anyone outside the system immediately sees through the explanation as an attempt to rescue an untenable belief is irrelevant. They have an explanation, and the believers can move on, their faith secure.

When evaluating the claims of our belief systems, it is imperative to try and step outside of them, as difficult as that is. It is only then that we can evaluate our beliefs as they are, instead of as props for the system we're comfortable with.

[i] Wright, L. (2013) Going Clear. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf
[ii] Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham. Retrieved from


  1. Well, of course, when your religious beliefs are all true, evidence can only count for them and not against them. . . .

  2. John Loftus's 'The Outsider Test for Faith' is a book-length elaboration of this very theme, and is a great read.

  3. How does the Talmud read like ANE mythology? I'm not challenging I'm genuinely curious.

    1. Not the Talmud, Tanach. A couple of examples:

      the Enuma Elish, the Ugaritic creation myth, describes Marduk battling with and killing Tiamat, the great water goddess. Bereishis starts with the world covered in water and God's spirit floating over the "Tehom," which is translated as "the deep," but is a cognate of Tiamat.

      Marduk consults the council of gods before making man, just as God says, "Let us make man."

      Some of the laws in Tanach borrow from earlier ANE codes, and some are clearly polemics against existing codes.

      The Epic of Gilgamesh includes an episode where Gilgamesh meets Utnapishtim, a man who survived a world-covering flood in a boar full of animals.