“The Book of Abraham typifies Joseph Smith’s experience as revelator and translator–Smith sought divine truth from his own age and from ancient documents, recorded that truth in a scriptural text, and imparted it to his people and the world. Understanding his efforts to decipher the Egyptian language adds nuance and detail to the complex story of the translation of the Book of Abraham.” Introduction to Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 4, xxix.
The Joseph Smith Papers Project’s publication of the Book of Abraham manuscript and related documents is more than the production and contextualization of documents. It provides a new way for looking at the Book of Abraham as a sacred text. Over the past several decades, scholars and apologists have battled over whether Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham (from hieroglyphs to English) or whether they had any connection to the translated text. Robin Jensen and Brian Hauglid, the volume’s editors, chose to frame their contextualization along the lines that early Latter-day Saints understood their prophet’s translation of the materials used in the Book of Abraham as “revelations” and not as a language-to-language translation. This places the Book of Abraham squarely within the family of sacred texts “translated” by Joseph Smith. Using words often associated with the “translation” of the Book of Mormon, the Book of Abraham is said to have been translated by “the gift and power of God” and not as a completed language project.
Jensen and Hauglid lay out the logic of their decision to frame the Book of Abraham as one of Joseph Smith’s revelatory projects cogently and convincingly. They explain that extant materials confirm that Joseph Smith did not succeed in learning ancient Egyptian to the point that he could translate the document as experts could today. They also explain that Joseph Smith and his associated did try to translate the Egyptian hieroglyphs into English, using what is now called the 1) Egyptian manuscripts 2) Egyptian Alphabet 3) Egyptian counting document 4) Egyptian Grammar and Alphabet. These documents are all reproduced in gorgeous photos and with helpful explanations, assisting readers understand how Joseph Smith tried to translate from hieroglyphs to English, but eventually opted to translate a revelation rather than successfully recover the original textual meaning of the extant manuscript.
Framing the Book of Abraham as a revelation as much as a canonized “translation” allows scholars and Latter-day Saints alike to recognize that “little is known concerning the process Joseph Smith employed in bringing for the Book of Abraham.” This helps academic and religious readers recognize that some of Joseph Smith’s nineteenth-century context can be seen in the production of the Book of Abraham. As Jensen explained in a podcast that dives into Revelations and Translations, Volume 4, certain elements of Egyptomania undoubtedtly influenced Smith’s fascination with, and translation of, the Book of Abraham.
The editors do not try to answer any questions about theology or praxis or reception of the book by its early or modern readers, or, indeed, of how definitions of “translation” of Smith’s sacred texts have changed over time. That falls outside the scope of the Smith Papers’ aims. However, any aspiring graduate students in American religion may want to consider writing about the production, reception, and changing exegetical readings of Mormonism’s sacred texts from 1830 to the present. #FreeThesisIdea
All in all, I’m deeply impressed with the editor’s work, the publisher’s work, and the design team’s work. I look forward to seeing what scholarly work will come out of (relatively) affordable publication of the documents related to the Book of Abraham.