BYU professor speaks on unnoticed assumptions about the Book of Abraham

By Erica Palmer, For the Deseret News

Published: Tue, Aug. 12, 2014, 5:00 a.m. MDT

 Facsimile 1 from the Book of Abraham was on papyrus discovered in Egypt.

Facsimile 1 from the Book of Abraham was on papyrus discovered in Egypt.


PROVO — Brigham Young University religion professor and historian Kerry Muhlestein explored both the power and danger that comes with making assumptions, with special regard to the Book of Abraham, as part of the FairMormon Conference on Thursday at the Utah Valley Convention Center.

“What I really like to swing my claim off is how important the beginning premise, or the beginning assumption, is that people make,” said Muhlestein, who specializes in Hebrew and Egyptian studies. “And often we don’t realize this. And it’s what frequently causes disagreement among people of different faiths or people who are of no faith at all, because they don’t realize what their beginning assumptions are.”

Muhlestein said as humans, the natural assumptions that we make determine what kind of evidence we believe and what kind of evidence we discard. But he said that if we recognize each other’s beginning assumptions, we can begin to better understand each other despite our different beliefs.

“I start out with an assumption that the Book of Abraham and the Book of Mormon, and anything else that we get from the restored gospel, is true,” he said. “Therefore, any evidence I find, I will try to fit into that paradigm. …There are those who will assume that it’s not true, and on these points we’ll just have to agree to disagree. But we will understand one another better when we understand how our beginning assumptions color the way we filter all of the evidence that we find.”

Muhlestein said the assumption that causes the most doubt about the Book of Abraham is regarding its source.

According to LDS Church and secular history, a group of mummies and scrolls of papyrus were discovered in Egypt in the early 1800s by French archaeologist Antonio Lebolo. One of these mummies and scrolls found its way to the United States and was bought by Joseph Smith, who began translating it in 1835. Unfortunately, Muhlestein said there is not much record on the process or details of which pieces Joseph was translating.

Joseph’s family sold the mummy and papyrus to a museum in Chicago after his death, and it was later burned in a museum fire. One piece that survived, and was later returned to the LDS Church, is the piece containing Facsimile 1, which was included in the Book of Abraham. The immediate assumption was made that the content of the Book of Abraham came from the text on the papyrus directly adjacent to the facsimile.

Later, Egyptian historians were able to translate text next to the original facsimile and found that it was not related to the Book of Abraham in any way.

“This seemed like game over to many people,” Muhlestein said. “But what we really should do is we should check these assumptions.”

He said a study was conducted on other ancient Egyptian texts, and found that text is only associated with its adjacent picture 53 percent of the time. Thus, it is likely that Joseph Smith was not translating the text next to the picture after all, and his translation cannot be disproven.

“I want to be clear: It’s not making assumptions that is problematic,” Muhlestein said. “…We just have to test those assumptions. And that’s where the process failed early on.”

He emphasized the importance of the assumption that revelation is a valid source of knowledge for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He urged them to use revelation to study the text of the Book of Abraham and learn of its truthfulness, rather than trying to find problems that cause doubt of its authenticity.

“We would be mistaken to assume that what (we) know is safe. (This knowledge) works best when we realize its limitations,” he said.

As a professor of ancient studies, he said his text books are constantly changing and many of the things he was teaching as truth 10 years ago have since been confounded.

“But revelation is a source of knowledge that can be trusted over the years," he said. "It is a safe source of knowledge. That method of learning is one that I feel comfortable in trusting. …We should pursue things with our mind, but we should also pursue it with the part of our mind that listens to the Holy Ghost.”

FairMormon is independent of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but those contributing seek to defend its doctrine and practices.

Erica Palmer is a writer for the Mormon Times and Features department. Email: epalmer@deseretnews.com Twitter: erica_palmer

1. Gildas
Aug. 12, 2014

Another assumption commonly made is that Egyptologists have a surefire way of knowing what the hieroglyphics mean. I don't make that assumption so I want to know, very specifically, how it can be known that what we are told is a correct translation is, in fact, accurate. How do people know this? We accept the learned, sometimes, on their own high evaluation.

2. JonathanPDX
Portland, Oregon,
Aug. 12, 2014

@Gildas asks, "...how it can be known that what we are told is a correct translation is, in fact, accurate..."

Which is exactly why we are exhorted to rely on the Holy Spirit to know what is and is not true.

Many people think that it's just as simple as praying and getting an answer when it is really a long, intensive process that requires real work from the seeker. We are told to study, learn, seek out as much information about the topic as we can, and ponder that information to a point whereby we make a decision whether or not it is true.

At that point we've done all we can, we take our choice to the Spirit in humility and contriteness, and seek to know if the decision we've made is true. If we have followed the instructions carefully and done our best to learn the truth, the Spirit will reveal to us whether or not our decision is correct.

It's a lot of work on our part, but the rewards are well worth it.

3. UT Brit
London, England,
Aug. 12, 2014


Haha yes lets ignore those egyptologists with there years upon years of study! I ignore medical advice from my doctor, I see his diplomas on the wall and ignore them and ask him does he have a surefire way of knowing what is wrong with me? I check internet boards instead and get people I dont know to prescribe the cure for my ills.

Sorry this is ridiculous, the papyri used in the Book of Abraham are standard funerary texts. The eygptologists know what the hieroglyphics mean because they have seen dozens of other examples of the same text.

4. John20000
Cedar Hills, UT,
Aug. 12, 2014

Great article! Part of my job is aligning managers and we always start with assumptions. It usually takes a while before people recognize all of their assumptions and recognize that what they thought was "common sense" was not common.

5. GameTheory
Salt Lake City, UT,
Aug. 12, 2014

What Kerry Muhlestein, and Erica Palmer are talking about is confirmation bias. I can understand that in many cases and especially in theological ones, everybody will have their assumptions and presumptions. However, confirmation bias is the opposite of scholarly work. Why should i trust a professor who just said that he starts out with the assumption that the BOM and BOA, and any other thing from the restoration is true.? And that he looks for the evidence that makes it true.

Now i would pay attention to a professor who said I'm going to follow the evidence where it lies and find out the truth from there. I think this article just proves that you really can't trust somebody who only gives credit to the evidence that supports his presumptions.

I won't even go into how realistically and statistically unreliable revelation is. But ill just leave with this thought; that out of 7 Billion people in the world, supposedly 14 million get the right revelation, and the rest don't.