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: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: erica_palmer