Kerry Muhlestein: The Grand Adventures of the Book of Abraham
When Kerry Muhlestein received a PhD in Egyptology from UCLA, he had no plans to research the Book of Abraham. But when people kept asking him about the scripture’s origins, he decided to devote his time to finding the answers. Years later, Dr. Muhlestein is considered an expert on all things Old Testament and the Pearl of Great Price. He joins us on this week’s episode to help us get excited for this year’s Come, Follow Me study.
If you lose faith in the Restoration, you have lost—in some ways—everything. Of course, you can believe in Christ and not believe in the Restoration, but believing in Christ, in the way He is taught to us through the Restoration, gives us a chance for an exaltation and a peace in this life and a joy in this life that really isn't possible any other way.
Dr. Muhlestein’s book: Let’s Talk About the Book of Abraham
Other Old Testament/Pearl of Great Price resources by Dr. Muhlestein:
- Podcast: The Scriptures Are Real
- Website: Outofthedust.org
Also recommended by Dr. Muhlestein: Pearl of Great Price Central
5:53- Historicity of Scripture
14:36- Finding God in the Old Testament
18:45- Getting the Most Out
20:43- Being Okay With Ambiguity
25:55- Lost Manuscripts
40:18- Evidence of Truth?
47:39- Book of Moses
48:55- What Do We Have To Gain?
51:37- What Does It Mean To Be All In the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
Morgan Jones 0:00
It is a story that feels like it belongs in a film Raiders of the Lost Ark or National Treasure–something like that. It involves an adventure and Egyptian mummies but this story, it actually happened. It is the origin of the Book of Abraham.
Kerry Muhlestein is a professor and former Associate Chair of the Department of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University. He has taught in the history department of three universities and has been part of award winning history publications. He received his bachelor's degree in psychology with a Hebrew minor from BYU, his master's in Ancient Near Eastern Studies from BYU and his PhD from UCLA in Egyptology. He is also the director of the BYU Egypt excavation project. He is the author of multiple books, including his most recent releases, Let's Talk About the Book of Abraham, and Learning to Love Isaiah.
This is All In, an LDS Living podcast where we ask the question, what does it really mean to be all in the gospel of Jesus Christ? I'm Morgan Jones. And I am so thrilled to have Kerry Muhlestein on the line with me today. Kerry, welcome.
Kerry Muhlestein 1:16
Thank you. It's good to be here. Thank you.
Morgan Jones 1:18
Well, I have been looking forward to this interview so much. I have read your book, Let's Talk About the Book of Abraham, which is fantastic. And I recommend to listeners because I think despite the fact that it's a small book, we will probably only scratch the surface of everything that you cover in there today. But I wanted to start today's conversation by talking a little bit more about you and your background, if that's okay.
You have a PhD in Egyptology from UCLA. How did you initially become interested in that? And what role did your faith play in that choice to study that?
Kerry Muhlestein 2:00
Great question. Thanks for asking that Morgan. So, we don't want to go too far back in my history, but at some point, I decided that I'd like to teach seminary and Institute and then I decided actually, I love researching as much as teaching, so I'd like to teach at the collegiate level.
And, and initially, I was going into Biblical Studies, especially Hebrew Bible, and so my master's is in ancient near Eastern studies but specifically Biblical Hebrew. And I was really pushing forward in that, and I loved it, I still absolutely love that world. At UCLA, my secondary emphasis was Hebrew language and literature. I just, I still research and write a ton on that and teach that–I love it.
But, I also got kind of tired of some of the, I guess, the rancor that happens in Biblical studies between people who believe that nothing is true in the Bible, and people think every single comma is true, and so on, right?
And these arguments, and I–it's ironic that instead of the Book of Abraham study has just as much rancor, but I didn't realize I was going to do Book of Abraham stuff at the time.
At the same time, as I was coming to understand this, I thought–and studying the Hebrew Bible–I thought, you know, symbolism, and we'll probably talk about this more later, but symbolism is, in many ways, their primary language, even more so than Hebrew. They really speak in the world of symbolism.
So I just kind of dedicated myself to trying to understand symbols. And it turns out, no one uses symbols as much or as masterfully as the Egyptians. So as I started to study, Egyptian symbolism, I just fell in love with it.
I was taken hook, line, and sinker with studying ancient Egypt. And so even while I was doing a master's in Biblical Hebrew, I started studying as much as I could about ancient Egypt, and was just so drawn into that. And that just took me into applying to programs that–there aren't very many programs where you can get a PhD in Egyptology, but I applied to those programs got accepted to several but found the person that I really, really wanted to study with at UCLA, and had a fantastic, absolutely fantastic experience there.
And so my faith played a role in that it was because I wanted to understand my faith better that I was studying the Bible, and wanted to understand my faith better that I want to understand symbolism. I initially did not want to study Book of Abraham stuff, I wanted to stay away from that, if at all possible, because I knew it was kind of cantankerous.
But after a while, people asked me so many questions, I thought, well, I need to be able to answer these questions and not look stupid. So I started to study that and found that there were a lot of people with genuine questions that really wanted to know, and I wanted to help them and I found it pretty fascinating as well.
So while I had been studying that period that would tie in with the Exodus period, and the Bible, it kind of shifted as well to studying the period of Abraham's middle kingdom, which is in Egypt, which is a period I loved anyway.
And so it just kind of–I didn't really get into Book of Abraham stuff until I was done with my PhD to be honest. I was familiar with a couple of the issues, turns out my dissertation does tie into it. And I was kind of aware of that it wasn't aware very much of how much because I really wasn't in the Book of Abraham studies at the time. And it was only after that–probably about five years after I got done with my PhD that I did my first real research and publishing on the Book of Abraham. So that came a little bit later.
Morgan Jones 5:21
Okay, so I have a couple–
Kerry Muhlestein 5:22
I guess I should also mention, if it's all right, that I was blessed–really blessed–to be able to study very intensely, both with a philologist, so that's someone who studies language and texts, and an archaeologist. And so that's allowed me to do studies on languages and texts, but I also direct an excavation in Egypt. So I'm able to–and not that many people do–but I'm able to have a foot fairly firmly planted in both the archaeological and the textual world.
Morgan Jones 5:48
So neat. That's awesome. I have a couple of follow up questions based on what you just said. First question is, you mentioned, you know, frustrations regarding people's take on the historicity of the Bible. What is your take on the historicity of our scripture?
Kerry Muhlestein 6:11
Great question. And I'll say, it's not so much with their having different takes, I don't care if people have different viewpoints. It's when they get so cantankerous and full of rancor. I'm just . . . I'm not a, I stand up for what I think should be stood up for, but I am not really into contention and arguing. I just don't enjoy that, I think it gets silly.
So that's the part that I didn't like. And unfortunately, there are people that in almost any discipline that really get into that I thought I could get away from it. It turns out, you can't, there are always people like that.
But the disagreements and hashing things out, that I love, right. I love debate. I love all this stuff. But getting nasty, I don't love.
We're going to talk about historicity, so I think there's no doubt–and I can say this, both from what I've learned from revelation, and what I've learned academically using my intellectual ability and my academic training–no doubt that the scriptures as we have them are–the historicity is real. That they are historical, they are authentic, and so on.
Now, does that mean every single thing in them? Probably not, right. If you were going to ask me, I suspect that there's a lot more time between Noah and Abraham than what is portrayed in the Bible. And I don't think that's because the Bible is trying to be disingenuous, I think it's because they're actually not trying to convey history. They're trying to convey theology. And they do that primarily via symbolism, as I talked about earlier.
And so if symbolism, a 7000 year period does carry a set of symbols, and that's their primary goal is to teach what that set of symbols gives us, not to give us an accurate count of years, which they probably weren't capable of doing anyway. And they didn't have the mindset to do. We have a very different mindset now than they did.
So they didn't have the mindset that, "Well, we have to account for every year, and give accurate, you know, year spans and so on." I think their mindset was, "What are we trying to teach?" "Oh this? Well, these symbols teach that. Wonderful. Let's use that." So that doesn't mean that it's not historical, but it means we just need to be better at looking at things from their viewpoint rather than our viewpoint.
But I think absolute historicity, Book of Abraham, Book of Mormon, Old Testament, New Testament, these are real stories from real people in real places. And I can tell it from ancient texts, I can tell it from archaeology, from all sorts of things. It's–the evidence is overwhelming, in my opinion. We can quibble a little bit about dates and that kind of thing, but the evidence is overwhelming.
Morgan Jones 8:47
Right. Fascinating. Okay. My other question and follow up is related to this use of symbols. So this year in "Come, Follow Me," we're studying the Old Testament. It is a unique book, in that I think of all scripture, it seems to have the most symbolism. Why would you say that it's so important for us to understand that up front, and how can actually seeking to understand symbolism help us today? And also, if you have any thoughts on resources that would be helpful as people are trying to understand that that that'd be wonderful.
Kerry Muhlestein 9:23
Yeah, I'm happy to share all that. I really have this passion this year to try and help people understand the Old Testament. We've had such a great experience with "Come, Follow Me" so far. My sense is that members of the Church are just really into the scriptures more than we ever have been before.
And I don't want the Old Testament here to be the year we hit the brakes of like, "Oh, I'm scared of that, don't get that," and run away. So I'm trying to help people understand this and I'm grateful for this opportunity.
And when I talk about this–and I've done firesides and so on and I can tell you some of those resources and have been working for years on a book called Keys to Understanding the Old Testament and I haven't started writing it yet, but what I mean by working for years is for . . . probably 20 years, I've been asking my students and others, what are the things that have helped you most understand the Old Testament? And what are the things that are most difficult?
And I just keep compiling this list that will be a many year list that I'm slowly shaping into something that will help people. But as I do that, at the top of that list is really always the question you asked–understanding symbols. We need to understand when the scriptures say that God speaks to people in their own language, and according to their own understanding, that doesn't just mean that He's speaking in Portuguese or French or English. He's saying according to their own understanding, so we expect to be spoken to in kind of a post scientific revolution, right enlightenment way. They spoke in terms of symbols. And that's how they expected to be spoken to. And that's how God spoke to them.
Orson F. Whitney once said, "God speaks or teaches through symbols. That's His favorite method of teaching." I think that's absolutely true. For a whole bunch of reasons, we don't have time to go into all the why now, but He teaches through symbols, and for them, most especially symbolic action.
So when we think of symbols, we think of oh, you know, there's on the dollar bill, there's a pyramid with an eye or there's a symbol, right, and that's true. But symbolic action was the most important thing to them–how you did something.
So a number of the prophecies the Old Testament prophets made were acted out. They were actions that they went through. Symbolic action is everywhere in the Old Testament. And they expect, it's not enough to hear something from God, just in form of precept, there has to be a symbolic action attached to that. Whether that's a certain kind of sacrifice, whether that's what you do as you move through the temple, whether that's ritual washings, and anointings, whether that is someone being stricken with leprosy, whatever it is, there will always be a symbolic action component of this. That's what spoke to them.
And if we will attune ourselves to that, it will speak to us as well. And so I think that's really, really huge. So, looking for both symbols and symbolic action, and a lot of things that happen again, back to your historicity question, they really happened. Like I believe the Exodus really happened. Are the numbers correct in there? They're probably larger numbers than are accurate.
Is it a more complicated story with a lot more nuances and a lot more things going on than what we got? Absolutely. That's true of any story that we tell, right? We don't give every nuance and so on. But I think it really happened.
But I think it happened in a way that there are a tremendous amount of symbols behind it that that story actually teaches us through the actions of what happened. And it would have spoken even more to them because they were attuned to those symbols a little bit more than we are.
So if we're going to think of resources–actually, interesting you'd asked me today, just this morning, I thought, you know, for the next Old Testament year, I'm going spend the next three years writing a book on symbols of the Old Testament, and the keys to the Old Testament–those are two books I'm working on. We will see if they get done in four years. But–because I have 17 other things I'm working on–books I'm working on as well–but one thing that I'm trying to do, I just did a fireside actually, for my own ward on keys to understanding the Old Testament where I talked about symbols and symbolic action more in depth.
I posted that on my own podcast and YouTube channel. So it's called "The Scriptures are Real," you can find it on, you know, Spotify, and Apple and whatever else and YouTube. "The Scriptures are Real." There's a fireside that I did on understanding the Old Testament, talk about symbols more in depth there.
I've got a website that I've created. It's a hokey website, because I'm not a web designer, I'm a researcher, and not a web designer but I just made this thing and so it looks bad, but it's got tons and tons of resources on there. It's called outofthedust.org. And you can find on there a page for understanding the Abrahamic covenant, a page for understanding Isaiah, a page for just resources and aids for understanding the Old Testament.
On there, I put up the, "Oh, here's an article that has something about symbols," or I've got videos that I've made to help you understand different symbols. When we get to Isaiah, I'll have tons of little videos about this symbol, that symbol, this symbol, that symbol, and so on. It also has a page for the podcast, so I'm trying to make those kinds of things available to people.
Morgan Jones 14:22
Well, I think that's wonderful. So it's "outofthedust.org."
Kerry Muhlestein 14:25
Morgan Jones 14:26
Kerry Muhlestein 14:27
Don't judge my web building abilities. Just be charitable in that way.
Morgan Jones 14:32
I will not.
Kerry Muhlestein 14:33
Morgan Jones 14:33
I'll just come for the information.
Kerry Muhlestein 14:34
Morgan Jones 14:35
Okay. So based on that answer, I have a couple of other follow up questions. One, you mentioned Isaiah, and I think it's important to mention that you also have a commentary coming out about Isaiah, looking ahead–
Kerry Muhlestein 14:51
It's actually out now.
Morgan Jones 14:52
Oh, it is! Okay, what is the name of that?
Kerry Muhlestein 14:55
It's called Learning To Love Isaiah: A Guide and Commentary and it's got the King James Version texts in one column and then my commentary in another column. So you can just read it as you go along . . . like, "Here's historical things," "Here's how these things fit together with other chapters." "Here's how it ties in with Book of Mormon," and that kind of thing. I think it's the largest and most comprehensive LDS commentary that we have so far, where I've honestly tried to make sure that every verse in Isaiah is explained in some way, not every explanation that could be possible, but in some way.
Morgan Jones 15:29
That's amazing. So looking ahead to studying Isaiah, because I think Isaiah is daunting, at least for me. So as we look ahead for somebody that has studied it as much as you have, what would you say are the biggest things we are meant to take away from Isaiah, or that the Lord would hope we would take away from Isaiah?
Kerry Muhlestein 15:51
I'm happy to answer that question. I'll say what's true of Isaiah is true of the Old Testament as a whole, in a couple of ways. One, and that's why I've got this commentary coming out. Now, again, I feel like the Old Testament is what people are most afraid of in our books of Scripture. And Isaiah is what they're most afraid of overall. And that's frustrating to people, because they know the Old Testament was important and Christ told us to study Isaiah, you get to the Book of Mormon, and you're cruising along, and then you hit Isaiah, and then people just feel guilty and frustrated.
And that's what we're trying to end, right? We just want to get rid of that. So have a great experience with all of these things. And so hopefully, between all the stuff I've been doing in this book, we can help people have their best Isaiah experience and their best Old Testament experience ever.
So in–and they mirror each other. Isaiah is really a microcosm of the whole Old Testament. So greatest messages are this, that God will never stop working and helping His people. And that if they are willing to make and do their best to keep a covenant, and keep trying again, after they've messed up, that they will–that God will save them. He'll keep working with them, keep giving them another chance and He will save them.
So ironically, and I know that people are going to say, "Well, that's weird," but I believe it's absolutely true. I think it's accurate, you just have to learn how to understand this. I think you see God's mercy and love and hope in the Old Testament more than any other book of scripture. It's really strong in there.
Most people think, "Oh, wrath-y Old Testament." That's because they didn't keep reading the next part of the story, right. God humbled them and then he gave them another chance. And I think that's true of Isaiah as well. He has all sorts of warnings, but then he always holds out this little bit of hope at the end.
So I guess if we're talking verses–this has turned into me doing shameless plugs kind-of-session, but I actually wrote a book, the first book I ever wrote, which is still one of my favorite books, I think it's probably my favorite thing I ever wrote, was about seeing God's mercy and love in the Old Testament.
It's out of print now, except for as an electronic version, but it's called Return Unto Me. And it's just a short, little readable book that I hope helps people see the message of mercy and hope in the Old Testament that is the message of Isaiah as well. And again, covenant and symbolism are what will help you get the Old Testament in general. So I've also written a book on the covenant. But anyway, symbolism, that's what will help you get out of the Old Testament and Isaiah. Those are the some of the main keys.
Morgan Jones 18:16
Okay, so I think this is so interesting, because I think a lot of people think of the God of the Old Testament as maybe being different than the God that we read about in the New Testament, or in the Book of Mormon.
And, and so I think that it's good to focus on the fact that it is the same God and He has the same characteristics.
Kerry, I wanted to ask you, as we begin a study of the Old Testament, and of portions of the Pearl of Great Price, specifically Moses and Abraham, what other advice do you have for us in understanding, and what do you think could fundamentally change our study this year, and make all the difference in what we take away?
Kerry Muhlestein 19:06
So of those, the things that I think make the biggest difference, we've already mentioned several–symbolism. Looking for the whole story, see God's mercy and love. And probably the last one is to really understand the Abrahamic covenant.
The Abrahamic covenant is the primary theme of the Old Testament. And let's put it this way, the Abrahamic covenant and how God–well, really how Christ saves us if we are part of that covenant, right? So Christ and the Abrahamic Covenant are the primary theme of all books of scripture it turns out, but especially the Old Testament.
And when you come to understand what that covenant is and how to recognize it, then you'll be able to start to see it all over in the Old Testament better. You'll start to identify with it as covenant holders. We are part of the Abrahamic covenant, we enter into it at baptism. Another name for it is the new and everlasting covenant. It's the covenant we're all part of.
And so if you just come to be familiar enough with it, that you start to recognize that prophets are talking about it all the time. And, and you self identify, because "Oh, you're part of this covenant," then not only do you understand the scriptures more, but they come to life for you more, they seem more applicable to you. So I'd say those are some of the greatest keys to understanding the Old Testament.
Morgan Jones 20:29
Perfect. Okay, I want to shift a little bit to the Book of Abraham, specifically. I think my biggest takeaway from your book, aside from that it's a fascinating story, and learning about all the different theories was so interesting. One of the biggest things was to be okay with ambiguity, because there's a lot that we don't know. Why would you say that the Book of Abraham teaches us that we need to be okay with that?
Kerry Muhlestein 20:59
So it's a good question. And it does in a couple of ways, both through the text, and through the story around the Book of Abraham. So maybe let me put it this way, I think one of the greatest keys to being a good scholar, and I'll also say one of the greatest keys to being a good disciple, is a good dose of humility. To just recognize what we're capable of, what we're not capable of, and be okay with that.
Some people when they realize what we're not capable of start to feel anxious, or hopeless, and so on. We don't need to be capable of all that either as a disciple or as a scholar, just have patience. It's all going to work out, God's going to make it all work out. But we need to be aware of what we can and can't do with our own abilities, and the information that we have as a scholar or a disciple.
So the text of the Book of Abraham, I think, teaches us that in terms of being a disciple. So Abraham, is not going to survive without God's help in chapter one. He's not going to have peace or a place to live or anything else in chapter one, and two, without God's help but God brings him where he needs to be, he's not going to survive in Egypt without God's help but God helps him there. He's not going to be able to approach God or receive exaltation without God's help and so God gives him the covenant, which is chapter two.
Chapter three is all about how God is so much more glorious than we are, well, that's the first half of chapter three. But then we get to the second half, which is, Well, God is giving us an opportunity to join Him there, right. So it's always about humility, and then about how God will take care of it, He'll make it work for us.
So that's the kind of the disciple theme that's in the text of the Book of Abraham. And so hopefully, we learn to be okay with ambiguity and with understanding that there are some things we're capable of doing and capable of knowing. And there's some things that we're not, but we will be eventually. That's kind of that discipleship textual teaching from the Book of Abraham.
And it applies every bit as much to scholarship about the Book of Abraham, and especially about scholarship in terms of, what is the Book of Abraham? How did we get it? What is Joseph Smith's role? Is he an inspired prophet or not? Because it turns out for really every question that I would like to really answer, we don't have enough data to fully answer it using our intellectual and academic abilities.
There's just not enough information for almost–I'm sure it's an exaggeration to say every question, but really, right now I'm having a hard time thinking of one where I feel like, "Oh, yeah, we can answer that. Done deal." We just don't have enough data. And that's part of why–and in the book, I go into this more in depth–but this idea that, you know, we should pursue learning through all avenues available, including our mind and revelation.
But it turns out with limited ability to reason and limited data or information, we can't make a lot of conclusions using that method that we can use in the revelatory method, because God does know, and He does have that ability, and He can reveal it to us, He can tell us and then we know. Even though we may not understand all the details of how we get there, right.
But that's–most people who have had struggles with the Book of Abraham, have had those struggles because someone is telling them that this or this is true, which means that this and this can't be true. And when they're saying that they are being misleading, they don't have enough information to make the conclusions. If they were being honest and clear and fully understood the issues, they would have to say, "We don't have enough information to really make a conclusion on that."
But that's not what they say, they say the opposite. And it's misleading and disingenuous. I think most of them do it unknowingly. They've been told by someone else and they just believe what they've been told and so on. But to be honest, we just need to have a little bit more humility as scholars. And the best scholars are humble and will say, "Okay, we don't know that." "Oh, what I thought before is wrong." And the worst scholars are sure all the time.
But that dose of humility and being–as you said–being okay with ambiguity, being okay with not knowing is part of this life. And it's part of what drives us to trusting God, which is what we need. Because there's no way to be exalted with our own abilities, we have to learn to trust in God. And that He has the capacity to make up our differences. And so ambiguity is an essential part of the gospel, we're going to find it in every element. Because God is trying to help us come to just rely on Him.
Morgan Jones 25:30
Perfect. I think that this is also so fascinating, because–like you said–you have to be okay with not knowing and I really love in the book the way that you present it with, there are a couple of places where you say, "Because we don't know, we have to make a hypothesis."
And then you present like, "Okay, let's say this were the hypothesis that we were exploring, then we build out from there." One of the things that's interesting, is that the reason–so I think one reason people get kind of caught up in this is because we don't know what Joseph Smith meant, or what firsthand witnesses meant when saying that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham.
And the thing that's interesting to me about this is that the reason that people get caught up in it is, you know, the Book of Mormon, we don't have the record of the Book of Mormon. Whereas with the Book of Abraham, we have these remnants of papyrus that were part of the story, but also recognizing that the long scroll got burned in the Chicago Fire, which is, what are the odds of that? But because of that, we get fixated on this, and it can be a stumbling block for people, I think.
So I wondered if you could–if we could start by having you just quickly give listeners a little recap of the events that we know, leading up to Joseph Smith having this papyrus and these mummies?
Kerry Muhlestein 27:12
I'd be happy to. And I think this is one of the most interesting and fascinating stories out there, one of the whole bunch of books that I told you I'm working on is–and I am actively working on this one, but it's just going to be a long process–is to write a really detailed story from Abraham's day to the day of the owner of the ancient owner of the Papyrus in like 200 BC, through Napoleon, and the adventures in Egypt, all the way up to our day, you know, with the Nibley, and everyone else in there. I mean, they're just fascinating, just fascinating stories.
Morgan Jones 27:42
It's like Indiana Jones type stuff.
Kerry Muhlestein 27:43
There is some–I mean, some of the characters involved with this. So let's do that part. So there was an ancient owner that owned these papyri, and they're buried with him, and that's about 200 BC. And then we don't get back to the story until about 1800 BC.
In the meantime, you've had Islam come through, and then you've got the Ottoman Empire controlling Egypt, and then Napoleon invades, and then the British ally with the Ottomans to kick the French out, because the British and the French are always trying to have this kind of contest. But that opens Egypt up to Western explorers.
And so you get a couple of Italians that end up working for the French government, they can't go back to Italy because they supported Napoleon and that's not very popular at the time, and so on. So they're staying in Egypt working, and then they have a while where they're not employed by the French government, and then they are again and so on.
During that time, they're not employed, they're sending stuff out, just selling it on their own. And one of these is a fella named Antonio Lebolo who, yeah, if you're, I mean, Indiana Jones in some of the less good ways. I mean, he's an adventurer, they're stories of him that he and other people that are pulling guns on each other, trying to establish who gets to have this antiquity to sell or not, and stories of him using poison and all sorts of stuff. He may not be the most savory character ever, but he's getting his stuff done.
And so there's some pretty adventurous stories. And he ends up with a collection of mummies and papyri, and it's not clear whether he found them himself. I think it's probably even more likely that the locals–we know that lots of locals were out digging and bringing stuff to him to sell to him. They knew he'd pay them. And so this is a source of income for them.
So anyway, however, he comes up with this he has a collection of mummies and papyri that he is selling. He dies before they're sold, this widow arranges for a shipping company to ship them to the US to sell them there. They're the first collection of Egyptian antiquities of that size to go to the US, there being 11 mummies and several couple rolls and several fragments of papyri, and they just are traveling around the country being shown in hotel lobbies and charging people 25 cents to see them.
Eventually they start to sell off the mummies. They get down to four mummies and two rolls and some fragments, and they come to Kirtland, Ohio and Joseph Smith wants to buy the papyri rolls. He feels impressed that he should buy them. He's been shown them, he's looked at them, he immediately starts translating them, by one account as soon as he sees them and by another account he does more the first night, then he wants to buy them.
So the owners or at least the representative won't sell the mummies, or the papyri separate from the mummies so Joseph Smith buys four mummies, two rolls and a bunch of fragments of papyrus. And that's when he starts really translating and translates the Book of Abraham.
So that's the short version of that story, but it's a fun one. And the story goes on from there, all sorts of fun stuff, people trying to steal the mummies and subterfuge and hiding them under girls beds and all sorts of stuff. It's, it's an interesting thing, so.
Morgan Jones 30:43
So remind me again, where was the–how did the long roll end up getting burned in the Chicago Fire?
Kerry Muhlestein 30:50
Okay, so let's take that second part of the story.
Morgan Jones 30:52
Kerry Muhlestein 30:52
So Joseph, acquires them and starts translating in July of 1835, in Kirtland, Ohio. There are some adventurous elements to the papyri and mummies getting to Missouri and then to Illinois, but they end up in Nauvoo. So when they're in Nauvoo he publishes them in the Church's newspaper, and he does at least some form of translation on them. It's not clear whether he actually translates more of the Book of Abraham there or if he's revising what he's already translated in an inspired way and also doing Hebrew translation that he inserts into the Book of Abraham, he certainly does that.
So it's not clear exactly what's going on in terms of translation there, but he publishes it, always wants to publish more, promises he'll publish more but never does get around to it. Stuff happens in Joseph Smith's life, he has all sorts of things going on for him. And then when he dies, his mother, Lucy Mack Smith, who had, since they came to Illinois been supporting herself by charging people to see the antiquities, she keeps doing that.
When she dies, Emma Smith sells them to a person named Abel Combs. And Abel Combs sells the mummies, or at lease two mummies, we don't know what happened to the other two mummies. We have two mummies we don't know where they went. So, like to find that out. But anyway–I told you, there's so many things we'd like to learn more about.
But he sells the two rolls and two mummies to the St. Louis museum. And the St. Louis museum shows them for quite a while. And then when it seems like everyone who they're going–the mummies are going to serve as an attraction to get them to come to the museum, once they've all seen them they're not making them any more money, they sell to a museum in Chicago, which bought by a fella named Wood, and it's called The Wood museum.
And then, during the Great Chicago Fire, that museum burns, and papyri are really, really flammable. That's kind of like, you know, having a collection of newspapers in a fire, they don't survive. So, and we can demonstrate that they didn't survive that fire. So the large roll that all of the witnesses agree was what Joseph Smith was translating from, burned in the Great Chicago Fire.
Morgan Jones 33:02
And who were some of those, when you say, "Witnesses," do we know who it was that, you know, talked about Joseph having translated them?
Kerry Muhlestein 33:13
Yeah, and I have an article on this in the Journal of Mormon History. But you've got, for example, one of them is Joseph Smith, the third, he talks about–Joseph's son–he talks about the things that his father had translated from being in that museum and burning. Most of them are guests that come to visit. And so the majority of them are actually not members of the Church. There are a couple that are members of the Church that hear from Joseph Smith, but most of them have heard from either Joseph Smith or his mother, what he's translating from. And so you've got like Josiah Quincy and a girl who just comes and visits and writes letters, and then those are published in a newspaper and, and so on. So just a variety of people, a couple of them members of the Church, but mostly not. And over a, kind of a bit of a timespan.
Morgan Jones 34:07
Okay, so I wondered if you would be willing, one of the things that was most interesting to me was seeking to understand what may be meant by "Translation," that there are different ways in which we can, you know, explore, that possibly Joseph Smith was translating these things? Would you mind sharing, like a couple of those theories?
Kerry Muhlestein 34:36
Yeah, I'm happy to do that. It's just good, fun stuff. So this is kind of the thing I get into. So one of the theories is that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham from the papyri in a manner very similar to what he translated the Book of Mormon from the gold plates, right. So we've got the gold plates, and that's the language–written in a language Joseph Smith doesn't know, but it's a text that's actually written on those plates. And Joseph Smith translates from that text into English using the Urim and Thummim and a different seer stone, right?
So, and quite often not looking at the plates, but sometimes looking at the plates it would seem. We don't have a lot of details on that, again, we like data on all sorts of stuff. So if he did the same thing with the papyri, then what that means is that somewhere written on that papyri, and as I said, the witnesses so we end up with some fragments by the way, there are 11 fragments that the Church now has that Abel Combs, that man who bought them from Emma Smith, he'd given to his housekeeper whose daughter and her son sold them to the Metropolitan Museum of New York, and eventually they made their way to the Church.
And we do have the original of facsimile one on there, the drawing that facsimile one is a facsimile of is on there. And there's text around that. So a number of people had kind of assumed that that's what Joseph Smith translated from, but there are several ways of testing that including looking at these eyewitness accounts and it becomes clear, that's not what he was translating from.
So if he's translating from the papyrus, it's from this large roll. That's what all of them talk about is the large roll that ends up being in the museum that ends up burning. So under this theory, that text actually exists somewhere on that large roll. And Joseph Smith is translating it via inspiration and, you know, direct revelation from God.
He may or may not be using the Urim and Thummim, the eyewitness accounts aren't completely clear on that. But he's translating them everyone who knows Joseph Smith and is familiar with the process uses revelatory language, you know, "By direct inspiration from heaven," "By the power of God," this kind of thing. They don't talk about him translating in any other way, not using alphabets or grammars or anything else, they all talk about this being inspiration.
The alphabet and grammars are another really complicated story I get into just a little bit in the book, we won't want to–it's a lot of time so we probably don't have time to get into it here. But I can just say it's clear both from internal documents, those documents themselves and the eyewitness accounts, that's not what he's using to translate. It's coming from God and maybe he's using a seer stone, in any case.
So we call that "The Missing Papyrus theory" that Joseph Smith was translating from a text that was on the papyrus that is now missing, that's now been destroyed. And so that's–and Joseph Smith certainly talks about translating from the papyrus. So that's, in some ways, that almost has to be a leading theory, just because of the historical evidence where Joseph Smith is saying that's what he's translating from, and other people are saying that's what he's translating from.
But there are some other theories that are very possible. And I'll tell you kind of depends on which day and what I've been researching lately, what I'd lean towards, but one of the other most common theories is called, "The Catalyst Theory."
And that's based on the idea that this process may have looked more like the Joseph Smith translation of the Bible. So think of the Joseph Smith translation of the Bible, he has a King James Version of the Bible, that's in English, and he's giving us an English text, but the second English text has a whole bunch of stuff in it that was never on the first English text.
Because what happened is that the Bible ended up being a catalyst for Joseph Smith. He opened the Bible, and as he read it, it was a catalyst to open him up to inspiration, and then revelation came to him about text that wasn't in the original text, but that God wanted us to have.
And is it possible that that's what happened for Joseph Smith as he looked at the papyri? That as he looked at them, it served as a catalyst and opened them up to inspiration, and he gave us the text that God revealed to him, and he assumed it was on the papyrus. That's absolutely possible, I think that's very, very possible. Is it possible that it's a combination of both?
And by the way, we have just a teeny bit of evidence for that and that he once speaks of working on the alphabet and grammar and having the principles of astronomy as understood by the ancients unfolded to him. That's very revelatory language, isn't it?
That may be the explanation of facsimile two, it might be the translation of Abraham chapter three, it might be something else. But this idea of working on stuff that's not even fully that the papyri but loosely connected with it and having it unfold to him. That's pretty interesting, revelatory language, and it may be a combination of them.
So maybe they served–maybe it really was on the missing, the now missing Papyrus, but maybe they served as a catalyst to him understanding and receiving some things maybe that's Abraham chapter three is–and I'm just totally making this up, right. But maybe Abraham chapter three comes from pure revelation, but one and two was on the papyrus, or maybe all one through five was on the papyrus but the explanations for facsimile two, and one and three came as pure revelation, right? I think they had to have, actually.
So I don't know, but those are the two main theories. There are all sorts of little subsets of each of those theories. But the two main theories are that the source was on the papyrus is now missing, or that the papyrus served as a catalyst to him receiving revelation for a text it wasn't on the papyrus at all. I think we can kind of discard theories like, "Well, it's the text around facsimile one," and so on. We have enough evidence so that–we do have enough evidence to discard certain things. We don't have enough evidence to make firm conclusions what it was, but we can–we have evidence to say that it was not this.
Morgan Jones 40:14
Okay, so, so–I think, I don't know, I could listen to you talk about that all day. In your book I really liked–you mentioned this earlier–how you not only like lay out, you know, the story, the theories, then you also talk about, you know, what we learn from the Book of Abraham.
And you outline from your expertise in having studied Egyptology, you outline some consistencies in the Book of Abraham, historically and culturally. But I loved this one sentence that you said, "I want to emphasize that these elements do not prove the truth of the Book of Abraham. Only revelation provides surety, instead, they demonstrate that the book certainly could be authentic."
Can you talk about a few of those things and why as someone who studied this history at length, these things could be helpful, although recognizing that revelation is the way we will gain a testimony of the Book of Abraham.
Kerry Muhlestein 41:18
Yeah, I'm happy to do that. And so it's a part of what we want to, I guess, understand, is, is this plausible? Is it plausible? Is it possible that what Joseph Smith told us is true? Because if it is, well, even if it's not revelation, it should trump everything, because there are things that we at one point thought were completely implausible, even in terms of science that now or every day, right.
In fact–so this will date me a little bit, but I can remember when I was young, and watching the original Star Trek series on TV, right, although I think it was already reruns by the time I was watching it, but and some of the things in there, that seemed so fantastic, we can do way more than that already now, right? Like it just seemed like that's so unrealistic that he would have this little teeny thing that could have books on it. I remember that episode, Captain Kirk held a little thing in his hand. And he said it had like a whole book on this little teeny electronic device. We're like, "Well, that's ridiculous."
Now my iPhone has like tons of books on it, right? I mean, so things that once seemed implausible, now are true. So we shouldn't let implausibility ruin everything because revelation can trump, but still, as an academic and a historian, I want to understand the plausibility of these things.
And so I don't actually ever set out to prove this or that because it's plausible, my goal is to understand the Book of Abraham. But as I research to try and understand what's going on with it, then I keep finding all sorts of stuff that make it more and more plausible. So just as an example, my dissertation topic, which turned into a book and all sorts of other articles and all sorts of stuff, it helped me understand and I didn't set out about it because of this, the Book of Abraham was tied in an interesting way because people asked me a question that was cited in the Book of Abraham and I said Egyptologically, "No, that's just didn't happen."
And then another Egyptologist showed me that that happened. I thought, Oh, dang, I was wrong. I got to look more into this. And looking more into it, I found a fascinating topic and just pursued it. So it turns out that the picture of the sacrifice of Abraham works really well from an Egyptological perspective. It just, it just fits the circumstances, the situation and all that kind of thing. So I find that interesting.
I can explore a couple of others. Here's one, this isn't one I found, I would have, but someone else found it first. So a colleague of mine named John Gee, did research on what we call the four sons of Horus. And in facsimile two, I think that's figure six, if I remember right, anyways, these four tall guys standing off to the side. And Joseph Smith says that it represents the earth and it's four portions, or it's four quarters or something along those lines.
And Egyptologically, we've come to understand that the four sons of Horus represent all sorts of things symbolically, but one of the things that they definitely represent is the four cardinal directions. Right? So, wow, that's pretty lucky of Joseph Smith to have guessed that right? If he's guessing. I find that really interesting.
I find things like a place names, Olishem, Joseph Smith gives us. Well we find a place, the cognate equivalent of that really Ulisum which is really easily Olishem. We find that in ancient texts that exists in the time and the place where I would have guessed–using the Book of Abraham–that it existed.
One of the things that I've been researching really heavily recently, and this is in the book a little bit, but I've learned a lot more since I wrote the book is about the ancient owner of the papyrus that facsimile one was on. And it turns out this is the kind of guy who would have been very, very interested in a text that had both elements of someone being nearly destroyed but saved from destruction and elements of creation. Well, the Book of Abraham has exactly those things in it, right.
So that makes me think, oh, this is exactly the kind of guy that would be interested, and oh, also, he's the kind of guy that would have been collecting stories about Jews, or ancient Jewish stories. So, oh, this is exactly the kind of guy that would have the Book of Abraham. And I find that really interesting.
There are a whole bunch more things like that, in fact, a great resource for this is a website called PearlofGreatPricecentral.org. Pearl of Great Price Central.org. Another resource is BookofAbraham.org. It focuses on kind of all sorts of stuff, but PearlofGreatPriceCentral.org really looks into all these ancient parallels, and you'll find on there, I think it's like 30 essays that point out some of these parallels that are very authentic where you see–here's just another quick example.
When we look at stories that someone writes about their life from Abraham's time period, they take the same kind of form that Abraham's does, right? His writing looks like the kind of ancient writing where someone would do what he's doing. It's very authentic in that way. And so there are tons of examples of this, that, as I said, they can just be a confirming nudge to a faith that we've already developed.
I don't want my–I don't think it's possible to have deep and lasting faith that makes a change in our life, based solely on our intellectual abilities. But I do think intellectual abilities should be part of our worship. Revelation is what will ultimately confirm it, but intellectual–we worship God with our heart, mind and mind, according to the Savior in the New Testament, right. And so I think it should be part of it, but revelation will be the thing that makes the biggest differences. Nephi and Laman and Lemuel found out, right.
That they, they knew they saw an angel, but that spirit didn't touch their hearts to make that difference that needs to happen. And so I would always urge everyone, besides pursuing this intellectually, you need to pursue it spiritually. Keep reading the text of the Book of Abraham and the Book of Mormon or whatever else, keep praying. And that will invite the spirit to make the difference that needs to be made, as important as our mind is–and it is–it's not enough on its own. And it would be foolish of us, that's, you know, it's like trying to do something with one arm tied behind your back, if you're trying to learn and not involve the Spirit in your life. That's just silly.
Morgan Jones 47:33
Makes complete sense. Before we get to a couple of last questions that I have, I wondered if we could divert for a second, just because a big question that I had, as I was reading your book about the Book of Abraham is where did the book of Moses come from?
Kerry Muhlestein 47:52
The book of Moses is the Joseph Smith translation of the first part of Genesis. That's actually a fairly quick and easy answer, as he's, when he starts translating he gets a lot of revelation for a lot of material that's not in our current version of Genesis, and maybe it was never in the way Moses presented it to people, I don't know. But, and it was so big, he just published it separately. And so we put that in what we call the Book of Moses, but that's–just think of it as the Joseph Smith translation of the first part of Genesis.
Morgan Jones 48:20
Okay, that makes complete sense. Okay. I wanted to ask you, before we get to our last question, I watched an interview where Terryl Givens asks you, what do we have to lose as it relates to the Book of Abraham? Because I think it feels overwhelming to some people. And so they're like, "Oh, I don't even want to mess with it. Because what if I decide that I don't believe it," then like, what do they have to lose? And that was really interesting, because you said, in some ways, not a lot. But in other ways, you do have a lot to lose.
I wanted to ask you, and you're welcome to elaborate on that answer, but I also wanted to ask you, what do we have to gain by seeking to gain a testimony of the Book of Abraham?
Kerry Muhlestein 49:06
Great question and in some ways that's the same question. And so I'll say, in some ways, not a lot, and in some ways, everything. So, and the reason I said not a lot is because it's a really short book, like a really, really short book. And yet even so it has so much in it. So what we have to gain and . . . well I was about to say in small term or small picture, but it's not, it's a big picture. What we have to gain is some of our most profound teachings on our relationship with God. In terms of–like I said–God's and we talked about this a little bit already, but God's majesty and might but His willingness to bring him to where He is, His willingness to covenant with us in the Abrahamic Covenant.
The relationship that we had with him in pre-mortality. We get probably our clearest teachings about that in the Book of Abraham, and God's willingness to be a part of our lives to save us from things that are happening in this world and to exalt us. All of that are beautiful, powerful teachings in the Book of Abraham.
But more than that, there's also this issue–especially if we're going to talk in terms of what we have to lose as people–if people start to think, okay, well, the Book of Abraham is not really scripture. Now you're talking about, well, what is Joseph Smith's prophetic status? And if you lose Joseph Smith's prophetic status, you lose the Restoration. And if you lose the Restoration–and I'm not saying you can't think differently about the Book of Abraham and not be a member of the Church, of course, you can. We can accommodate all sorts of different beliefs. But the danger is what often happens and what I've seen again and again, is that when you kind of open up this little, it's like putting a little teeny pinprick in the, in the tire tube, right?
Eventually, the air gets out. Eventually, people when they lose faith in this, then they start to lose faith in this and then they start to lose faith in this. And if you lose faith in the Restoration, you have lost–in some ways–everything. Of course, you can believe in Christ and not believe in the Restoration. But believing in Christ in the way He is taught to us through the Restoration, gives us a chance for an exaltation and a peace in this life and a joy in this life that really isn't possible any other way.
And I'm not saying that to demean anyone else have any other faith or belief. I'm so grateful for all the have, and like President Hinckley, I'd say, "Bring what you have. And I think you can find that we can add to it." And you can have greater peace and greater promises for the next life.
Morgan Jones 51:37
Perfect. Kerry, thank you so much for sharing these things. My last question for you is what does it mean to you to be all in the gospel of Jesus Christ?
Kerry Muhlestein 51:50
I'm so glad you ask that question because it's actually a question of my own personal discipleship and worship I've been asking myself a lot lately. And I usually use the phrases like "Consecrated," but I think it's the same thing.
And so for me, it means–I want what God wants. And I'm trying to become the kind of person who wants what God wants more than anything. And I want to listen to God more than anything. I want to, instead of being so heavily influenced by the world, and we all are, but I'm trying to lessen the world's influence and increase God's influence. So that whatever it is He wants me to do, whatever He wants me to think and how He wants me to think that that's what I will do, right.
Even little things like I'm trying to make sure that the first thing I do in the morning instead of as it used to be, which is check email and read the news is to read at least a few verses of scripture, and take some time to just listen to God. Being all in means giving–well, it's letting God prevail in the way President Nelson talked about.
Letting God prevail in my life more than anything else, and letting Him tell me how to think about issues like social issues and every other kind of issue rather than letting the world tell me how to think. And when I'm at that point, where God is not only what I love and focus on the most, but He informs me or He–that love changes how I think about things and feel about things, then I'm all in.
Now, I mean, hopefully–I feel like I'm all in even though I'm not to that point yet, right? We have stages of this. That's the all and I'm aspiring to, for now aspiring to it is all in.
Morgan Jones 53:32
I love that. That's one thing that with this podcast, I have wanted people to know that there are varying phases, you know, and that just because you may not be at the level of being all in that you'd like to be, you can still be all in. And so I appreciate your answer so much. And thank you so much for sharing your scholarship with all of us because we probably aren't going to get a PhD in Egyptology. But by your sharing with us–
Kerry Muhlestein 54:04
If you did you probably wouldn't get a job, there aren't many jobs. But I interrupted you for a bad joke, sorry.
Morgan Jones 54:09
No, no, you're great. But by your sharing what you've learned with us, it makes us better people. So thank you very, very much.
Kerry Muhlestein 54:18
Thank you. It's my pleasure. And honestly you've helped me think more about my own consecration and my own being happy with where I'm at and aspiring to be more. I appreciate your helping me with my discipleship. Thank you.
Morgan Jones 54:35
We are so grateful to Kerry Muhlestein for joining us on today's episode. You can find both Let's Talk About the Book of Abraham and Learning to Love Isaiah on DeseretBook.com. Thanks to Derek Campbell of Mix at Six studios for his help with this and every episode of this podcast. More than anything, thank you for listening