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Home Book of Abraham Special Section The Tanner's Arguments Against the Joseph Smith Papyri Are Goofy

The Tanner's Arguments Against the Joseph Smith Papyri Are Goofy

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Research by Kerry A. Shirts

Anyone who exclaims in obvious excitement that "Oh this stuff is dynamite!" concerning the research and premature conclusions of Jerald & Sandra Tanner's material, has, in my opinion, not really looked into their stuff.1 The Tanners are, perhaps, the most prolific anti-Mormons in existence, yet on close inspection I find them fudging, cheating, and actually coming to wrong conclusions in much of their material. They love to intermingle truth with their own made-up fiction concerning Mormonism. Most Mormons already realize this problem, many innocent people, perhaps, are less aware of it. This study seeks to correct the many blatant and incorrect views and citings of research of Mormon scholars by the Tanners, because the record needs to be set straight. The Tanners are at their worse, in my opinion, when it comes to dealing with the Joseph Smith Papyri for many reasons, none more blatantly obvious than their ridiculous abuse of Hugh Nibley's writings, and the ignoring or distorting of other Mormon scholars, such as John Tvedtnes, Richley Crapo, and Michael Dennis Rhodes, Blake T. Ostler, Jay Todd, Eugene Seaich, and John Gee.

Let me make one thing perfectly clear at the outset of this study. No Mormon scholar who I am acquainted with, nor who I have read has ever concluded we have all the right answers, let alone all the answers. This is just not possible at this stage of research into this fascinating subject. What we most emphatically do claim is that our critics have been cheating by misquoting and miscontexting the research done by Mormon scholars. Their conclusions *cannot* be correct due directly to their false accusations and terrible misuse of the research that is available to all. It is an interesting phenomenon that since Hugh Nibley has been the prolific scholar that he is, he is also the most abused by critics. This study will demonstrate this cheating and show how conclusions of the critics are just not valid nor near as solid as they love to pronounce.

My thesis is simple:


The Tanners complain that Nibley didn't translate the papyri in these articles, but that is not what he stated he was doing in this article. The Tanners then complain Nibley didn't deal with the issues, yet he did, and continues to do so in his other two books, "The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri," and "Abraham in Egypt," both of which the Tanners refuse to come to grips with.

The critics of Mormonism are misusing, as well as ignoring the Mormon scholars' research in order to arrive at their own conclusions. Because of this deliberate misuse, the critics *cannot* be correct.

I am *not* arguing that the Mormon scholars are *correct*, just because the critics misuse their research. That is another issue. I am arguing that the critics are wrong, because they are misusing and ignoring discussions already refuting the critics' arguments in the Mormon research and they then are basing many of their statements on that misuse. Hence I cannot nor do I accept the critics conclusions. I believe, based on reading the critics material, that I will be misquoted or miscontexted because of my thesis, so let me say it again. I am not trying to prove Mormonism correct by refuting anti-Mormons. That is simply incorrect. I am doing something entirely different.


The critics of Mormonism are misusing and ignoring the Mormon scholars' research in order to arrive at their own conclusions. Because of this deliberate misuse, and the ignoring of answers to questions and problems the critics keep bringing up, the critics *cannot* be correct. Dishonest use and ignoring of answers already given in Mormon research leads to incorrect conclusions of the critics. This does not automatically prove that Mormons are correct in what we are saying. That is another issue. I am saying that ***critics are incorrect in their conclusions, since such conclusions are arrived at through misusing Mormon sources.***

From the first sentence in their chapter on the Book of Abraham, the Tanners mistate the issue. "The Book of Abraham was supposed to have been written on papyrus by Abraham about 4,000 years ago. According to Mormon writers, this same papyrus fell into Joseph Smith's hands in 1835."2 They have to maintain that this is accurate because one of their arguments against the papyri is "...the papyrus fragment in question [the Sen-Sen text, J.S. Pap X, XI] dates from long after Abraham's time, much nearer, in fact, to the time of Christ."3 The problem here is that Hugh Nibley in an article, in the same year of 1968, directly behind Heward's and Tanner's article in "Dialogue," so it is doubtful that they have not seen it by 1981 (!), noted that he had already dealt with this issue of the Book of Abraham being "written by his own hand", meaning Abraham's. To assume, as the Tanners do then, that Abraham wrote this himself, and the LDS have the actual text itself that Abraham wrote is blatantly incorrect. But more interesting still, Hugh Nibley demonstrated in his article "A New Look at the Pearl of Great Price," in Feb. 1968 that Bishop Osborne J.P. Widtsoe, already had shown that we do not have the original Book of Abraham as the Reverend Spaulding so falsely proclaimed in 1912. And Osborne wrote this in the "Improvement Era," in 1912! We find nothing mentioned of Widtsoe in the Tanner's argument here. What, is Widtsoe's article at BYU too hard for the Tanner's in Salt Lake City, only 60 miles away to obtain? I live over 300 miles away and I got the article. If distance isn't the problem then what? What indeed! Not only do the Tanner's ignore Widtsoe (surprise!), but they never acknowledge Nibley, either in the "Improvement Era,"4 nor in his "Dialogue"5 article directly behind their own. Typical of critics to ignore information so they can build up strawmen arguments. Not too awful convincing, but really rather typical. Wistsoe said very clearly that "This particular roll may or may not have been written by Abraham's own hand. Possibly it was a copy of Abraham's original manuscript."6 Again, Hugh Nibley in another article "As Things Stand," in the "BYU Studies" discussed just this idea, and which, of course, the Tanners, true to form, ignore. So it is time to see the full explanation which is never understood from a reading of the Tanner's material.

By the Hand of Abraham

When the Book of Abraham was first published, being personally edited by Joseph Smith, it was designated by him as "A translation of some ancient Records, from the Catacombs of Egypt, purporting to be the writings of Abraham, while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus." Note that Smith himself designates the writings only as "some ancient Records," then he tells us what they are purported to be, and finally gives us the title of the document. Here "written by his own hand" is not Joseph Smith's verdict but part of the original title of the document translated. Such long explanatory titles are characteristic of Egyptian writings.

Two important and peculiar aspects of ancient authorship must be considered when we are told that a writing is by the hand of Abraham or anybody else. One is that according to Egyptian and Hebrews thinking any copy of a book originally written by Abraham would be regarded and designated as the very work of his hand forever after, no matter how many reproductions had been made and handed down through the years. The other is that no matter who did the writing originally, if it was Abraham who commissioned or directed the work, he would take the credit for the actual writing of the document, whether he penned it or not.

As to the first point, when a holy book (usually a leather roll) grew old and worn out from handling, it was not destroyed but renewed. Important writings were immortal--for the Egyptians they were "the divine words," for the Jews the very letters were holy and indestructible, being the word of God. The wearing out of a particular copy of scripture therefore in no way brought the life of the book to a close--it could not perish. In Egypt it was simply renewed (ma.w, sma.w) "fairer than before," and so continued its life to the next renewal. Thus we are told at the beginning of what some have claimed to be the oldest writing in the world, "His Majesty wrote this book down anew . . . His Majesty discovered it as a work of the Ancestors, but eaten by worms . . . So His Majesty wrote it down from the beginning, so that it is more beautiful than it was before." It is not a case of the old book's being replaced by a new one, but of the original book itself continuing its existence in a rejuvenated state. No people were more hypnotized by the idea of a renewal of lives than the Egyptians--not a succession of lives or a line of descent, but the actual revival and rejuvenation of a single life.

Even the copyist who puts his name in a colophon does so not so much as publicity for himself as to vouch for the faithful transmission of the original book; his being "trustworthy (iqr) of fingers," i.e., a reliable copyist, is the reader's assurance that he has the original text before him. An Egyptian document, J. Spiegel observes, is like the print of an etching, which is not only a work of art in its own right but "can lay claim equally well to being the original . . . regardless of whether the individual copies turn out well or ill." Because he thinks in terms of types, according to Spiegel, for the Egyptian "there is no essential difference between an original and a copy. For as they understand it, all pictures are but reproductions of an ideal original." Being itself but a copy of "an ideal original," the first writing of a document enjoys no special superiority over later copies.9 Thus an Egyptian who handed us a writing or drawing of Abraham's would be nonplussed if we asked him whether Abraham really made it. Who else?

This concept was equally at home in Israel. An interesting passage from the Book of Jubilees recounts that Joseph while living in Egypt used to read to his sons "the words which his father Jacob used to read from among the words of Abraham." (39.6) Here is a clear statement that "the words of Abraham" were handed down in written form from generation to generation, and were the subject of serious study in Joseph's Egyptian family circle. The same source informs us that when Joseph died and was buried in Canaan, "he gave all his books and the books of the fathers to Levi his son that he might preserve and renew them for his children until this day." (45:15) Here "the books of the fathers" including "the words of Abraham" have been preserved for later generations by a process of renewal.

In this there is no thought of the making of a new book by a new hand. It was a strict rule in Israel that no one, not even the most learned rabbi, should ever write down so much as a single letter of the Bible from memory: always the text must be copied letter by letter from another text that had been copied in the same way, thereby eliminating the danger of any man's adding, subtracting, or changing so much as a single jot in the text. It was not a rewriting but a process as mechanical as photography, an exact visual reproduction, so that no matter how many times the book had been passed from hand to hand, it was always the one original text that was before one. To make the illusion complete, the old worn-out copy was never kept around--the renewed book was the original; the old one was not reused, cut up, burned or even buried, for a writing containing the ineffable name of God could not be destroyed. It simply disappeared without trace; with the completion of the process of rejuvenation, the old corruptible shell ceased to exist. It was quietly and unobtrusively walled up in a sacred building, in a geniza whose very existence was ignored by the congregation. Thus the holy book continued its life, ageless and unchangeable, through the centuries, with never a thought of its being anything but the sacred original.

But "written by his own hand"? This brings us to the other interesting concept. Let us recall that that supposedly oldest of Egyptians writings, the so-called Shabako Stone, begins with the announcement that "His Majesty wrote this book down anew. . . ." This, Professor Sethe obligingly explains, is "normal Egyptian usage to express the idea that the King ordered a copy to be made." Yet it clearly states that the king himself wrote it. Thus when the son of King Snefru says of his own inscription at Medum, "It was he who made his gods in [such] a writing [that] it cannot be effaced," the statement is so straightforward that even such a student as W. S. Smith takes it to mean that the prince himself actually did the writing. And what could be more natural than for a professional scribe to make an inscription: "It was her husband, the Scribe of the Royal Scroll, Nebwy, who made this inscription"? Or when a noble announces that he made his father's tomb, why should we not take him at his word? It depends on how the word is to be understood. Professor Wilson in all these cases holds that the person who claims to have done the work does so "in the sense that he commissioned and paid for it." The noble who has writing or carving done is always given full credit for its actual execution; such claims of zealous craftsmanship "have loftily ignored the artists," writes Wilson. "It was the noble who 'made' or 'decorated' his tomb," though one noble of the old kingdom breaks down enough to show us how these claims were understood: "I made this for my old father . . . I had the sculptor Itju make (it)." Dr. Wilson cites a number of cases in which men claim to have "made" their father's tombs, one of them specifically stating that he did so "while his arm was still strong"--with his own hand!

Credit for actually writing the inscription of the famous Metternich Stele is claimed by "the prophetess of Nebwen, Nest-Amun, daughter of the Prophet of Nebwen and Scribe of the Inundation, 'Ankh-Psametik,' "who states that she "renewed (sma.w) this book [there it is again!] after she had found it removed from the house of Osiris-Mnevis, so that her name might be preserved. . . ." The inscription then shifts to the masculine gender as if the scribe were really a man, leading to considerable dispute among the experts as to just who gets the credit. Certain it is that the lady boasts of having given an ancient book a new lease on life, even though her hand may never have touched a pen.

Nest-Amun hoped to preserve her name by attaching it to a book, and in a very recent study M. A. Korostovstev notes that "for an Egyptian to attach his name to a written work was an infallible means of passing it down through the centuries." That may be one reason why Abraham chose the peculiar Egyptian medium he did for the transmission of his record--or at least why it has reached us only in this form. Indeed Theodor B�hl observed recently that the one chance the original Patriarchal literature would ever have of surviving would be to have it written down on Egyptian papyrus. Scribes liked to have their names preserved, too, and the practice of adding copyists' names in colophons, Korostovstev points out, could easily lead in later times to attributing the wrong authorship to a work. But whoever is credited with the authorship of a book remains its unique author, alone responsible for its existence in whatever form.

So when we read "The Book of Abraham, written by his own hand upon papyrus," we are to understand, as the Mormons always have, that this book no matter how often "renewed" is still the writing of Abraham and no one else; for he commissioned it or "according to the accepted Egyptian expression" wrote it himself--with his own hand. 7

And Hugh Nibley, once again brought this up in his 1981 book "Abraham in Egypt," which leaves the Tanners absolutely without excuse for still claiming this strawman! How many times must they be told?8 However, the other angle the Tanner's also have missed, is that the papyri are associated with Abraham! Nibley demonstrated this in his book "The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri, which the Tanners also skip over quoting here, quoting there, but completely misunderstanding, and certainly never acknowledging there are connections with Abraham! Heavens forbid, that would wreck their pet theory!9

The Tanners then demonstrate the way the Mormons treated these papyri written by Abraham himself.10 The worth, would of course, be more than millions as they note. But notice the Mormon treatment of the papyri. Had they actually felt that this was literally Abraham's autograph, the Mormons obviously would have kept it under lock and key and not passed it around to show every one keeping the thing in the open air. They certainly would have played it up in their preaching, and they most certainly would have done anything to get them back from Emma and William Smith. In fact it was clearly pronounced way back in 1913. Again, J. M. Sjodahl commented "Some of the Latter Day Saints seem to have believed that the papyri in question represented the actual autographic work of Abraham and Joseph - that the hand of Abraham had pressed the very papyrus handled by Joseph Smith. Such a conclusion, however, does not seem to be involved in the text of Smith's account."11 In other words, "the saints never played up the idea of having autographic writings of Abraham, preferring to understand the term 'writings of Abraham' in the broad and familiar sense in which the term is applied to other scriptures, like the writings of Moses, John, or Ether, none of which pretended to be autographs."12 The Tanners by making a big whoop tee doo about the value of the papyri and how idiotic the Mormons were for letting it go, just show how silly they are really being. How many trees have lost their lives for providing the paper to all these ramblings in their books it would be hard to say.


1. Wesley P. Walters, "Introduction," in Jerald & Sandra Tanner, "The Changing World of Mormonism," Moody Press, 4th printing, 1981, p. 16. Walters claims, without providing names, so it is utterly useless information, that it was in Institute Director in Mormonism that exclaimed this comment.

2. Jerald & Sandra Tanner, "The Changing World of Mormonism," Moody Press, 4th printing, 1981, p. 329.

3. Grant S. Heward and Jerald Tanner, "The Source of the Book of Abraham Identified," in "Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought," Autumn 1968, p. 95.

4. Hugh Nibley, "A New Look at the Pearl of Great Price," in "Improvement Era," Feb. 1968.

5. Hugh Nibley, "Phase One," in "Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought," Autumn 1968, p. 103.

6. Osborne J.P. Widtsoe, "The Unfair Fairness of Rev. Spaulding," in "Improvement Era," Vol. 16 (April 1913), p. 600.

7. Hugh Nibley, "As Things Stand," in "BYU Studies," 9/1 (Autumn 1968, pp. 74-78.

8. Hugh Nibley, "Abraham in Egypt," Deseret Books, 1981, pp. 1-7.

9. Hugh Nibley, "The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri," Deseret Books, 1976, pp. 13f.

10. Tanner,s "Changing World of Mormonism," p. 329.

11. J.M. Sjodahl, "A Final Word," in "Improvement Era," Vol. 16 (Sept. 1913). p. 1102.

12. Hugh Nibley, "As Things Stand," p. 73.

Last Updated on Monday, 17 May 2010 11:04  

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