I’m grateful to the Interpreter Foundation for publishing my lengthy, controversial, and painful (at least to me) article reviewing the Joseph Smith Papers’ volume on the Book of Abraham, a volume that is a magnificent accomplishment in many ways, but also has some serious gaps. One of those gaps was the complete neglect of the foundation of scholarship laid by Dr. Hugh Nibley in many aspects of Book of Abraham studies and understanding of the related documents.
In response to the article, I was intrigued by the comments offered by Terry Hutchinson there:
Nibley’s research (as he would be the first to admit) was preliminary. I don’t think he needs to be cited if subsequent research has overtaken what he put out. Having said that, I view Nibley’s theories on the Book of Abraham in the same light as those he had for the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi codices, especially his observations about there being a consistent teaching of doctrine and rituals. When they [his writings and theories about the Scrolls and Codices being initiatory rites] came out, they were met with silence or scorn in the academic community. His observations about Egyptian practices, which he first published as a translation and commentary on the Egyptian Book of Breathings , (The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: an Egyptian Endowment, Deseret Book, 1975) were treated in a similar fashion. By the time a 2d Edition was published three decades later, things had changed.
From the Foreword to the 2d Edition (p. xxii): “Nibley’s long work on comparative religion sensitized him to recognize certain ritual patterns, and thus he saw in the Book of Breathings an initiation text at a time when the only Egyptologists who thought that initiation existed in ancient Egypt were Walter Federn, Claas Bleeker, and Gertrud Thausing, who were definitely on the margins of the discipline. Since that time [three decades], the topic of initiation has become mainstream in the discipline, although some Egyptologists still dislike the term and the subject.”
In that book, Nibley also took the original step of including Appendices containing excerpts from the Dead Sea Scrolls, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha [the Odes Of Solomon], an early Christian hymn known as the Pearl, the Pistis Sophia and quotations from an early Church Father, Cyril of Jerusalem. He finished with a few extracts from the Gospel of Philip [one of the Nag Hammadi Codices]. Nibley pointed out that the Book of Breathings had its predecessors in, “the Egyptian funerary and temple texts that go back to the beginning” which he dealt with in the main text of the book and, “after it comes an equally impressive succession of early Christian and Jewish writings that move on down through the patristic literature to our own day.”
In other words, using his comparative religion experience, Nibley placed his view of Egyptian initiatory rites in a direct line from an older history to our day. Nibley’s readings of these documents and postulating their relationship to “ordinances” [rituals] are becoming more plausible in light of modern scholarship. Nibley was one of the first to view Egyptian funerary rites as “initiatory”. His additional view of the Pistis Sophia, the Books of Jeu, the Gospel of Philip and other early Christian finds as “initiatory rites” or “ordinances” as he called them, was also considered on the “fringes” when he first published them.
Since 1997, however, modern scholars of these documents have moved in Nibley’s direction, as they did with the Egyptian example above. Erin Evans specifically identifies the Pistis Sophia and the Books of Jeu with Egyptian funerary rites and states that they are “initiatory” information passed to the living to prepare them for the afterlife. (See “The Books of Jeu and the Pistis Sophia as Handbooks to Eternity: Exploring the Gnostic Mysteries of the Ineffable, (Leiden, Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill, 2015)”; Hugo Lundhaug, has the same view of the Gospel of Philip. Lundhaug also, “shows how the text presents salvation and transformation through rituals and text, . . ..” see Lundhaug, Hugo, “Images of Rebirth: Cognitive Poetics and Transformational Soteriology in the Gospel of Philip and the Exegisis on the Soul, (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2010)”. Van Os specifically wrote a long thesis arguing that Philip is an initiatory rite. “van Os, Bas, Baptism in the Bridal Chamber: The Gospel of Philip as a Valentinian Baptismal Instruction, (Goningen, Netherlands: University of Groningen, 2007) available http://dissertations.ub.rug.nl/faculties/theology/2007/l.k.van.os/.”
While there are significant differences between Nibley’s Latter Day Saint interpretations and these recent efforts, modern scholars are closer to Nibley than to the long-established academic tradition of denying the initiatory aspects of these rituals. Nibley’s genius is still intact in many ways, and, in fact, is substantiated by more and more scholarship. That’s not to say that he hasn’t been superseded in some respects, but he certainly should be part of the equation rather than summarily dismissed.
Today there may be growing academic acceptance of Nibley’s controversial proposal that the relevant Egyptian documents weren’t merely funerary documents but were related to Egyptian rituals for the living. Robert F. Smith kindly followed up with a reply:
Yes, the mistake has so often been to portray Egyptian documents as funereal, as though they were only written to be deposited with the dead. That was never true in ancient Egypt.
All those rites of passage were constantly reenacted by the living in sumptuous temples, the words even engraved on the temple walls. Jack Finegan said that “the myths and related traditions were kept alive in ritual and cult, and reflected in architecture and art” (Myth & Mystery: An Introduction to the Pagan Religions of the Biblical World [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989], 15, citing C. J. Bleeker, Egyptian Festivals: Enactments of Religious Renewal, Studies in the History of Religions 13 [Leiden: Brill, 1967], 11-12).
The pharaoh and his people regularly engaged in ritual observances, and in grand festivals, just as the Hindus do in India today.
If you want to understand how the Egyptian documents related to the Book of Abraham might have fit into an ancient ritual setting, Nibley is the place to begin, the foundational work that must be considered, or at least cited if one wishes to acknowledge past relevant scholarship for the Book of Abraham and the Joseph Smith Papyri. One may disagree, but it concerns me that a book seeking to provide scholars with tools to further work with the related documents would manage to not cite Nibley even once among roughly 1000 footnotes, where some of Nibley’s critics are approvingly cited, but the most prolific scholar in that field has been excised from the record. Such a gap, and it’s only one of many, I’m afraid. And no, I take no pleasure in saying that. It pains me, partly because I know there are so many great people who worked so hard to bring forth that volume who will also feel pained to see a negative review.
This post is part of a recent series on the Book of Abraham, inspired by a frustrating presentation from the Maxwell Institute. Here are the related posts:
- “Friendly Fire from BYU: Opening Old Book of Abraham Wounds Without the First Aid,” March 14, 2019
- “My Uninspired “Translation” of the Missing Scroll/Script from the Hauglid-Jensen Presentation,” March 19, 2019
- “Do the Kirtland Egyptian Papers Prove the Book of Abraham Was Translated from a Handful of Characters? See for Yourself!,” April 7, 2019
- “Puzzling Content in the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar,” April 14, 2019
- “The Smoking Gun for Joseph’s Translation of the Book of Abraham, or Copied Manuscripts from an Existing Translation?,” April 14, 2019
- “My Hypothesis Overturned: What Typos May Tell Us About the Book of Abraham,” April 16, 2019
- “The Pure Language Project,” April 18, 2019
- “Did Joseph’s Scribes Think He Translated Paragraphs of Text from a Single Egyptian Character? A View from W.W. Phelps,” April 20, 2019
- “Wrong Again, In Part! How I Misunderstood the Plainly Visible Evidence on the W.W. Phelps Letter with Egyptian ‘Translation’,” April 22, 2019
- “Joseph Smith and Champollion: Could He Have Known of the Phonetic Nature of Egyptian Before He Began Translating the Book of Abraham?,” April 27, 2019
- “Digging into the Phelps ‘Translation’ of Egyptian: Textual Evidence That Phelps Recognized That Three Lines of Egyptian Yielded About Four Lines of English,” April 29, 2019
- “Two Important, Even Troubling, Clues About Dating from W.W. Phelps’ Notebook with Egyptian “Translation”,” April 29, 2019
- “Moses Stuart or Joshua Seixas? Exploring the Influence of Hebrew Study on the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language,” May 9, 2019
- “Egyptomania and Ohio: Thoughts on a Lecture from Terryl Givens and a Questionable Statement in the Joseph Smith Papers, Vol. 4,” May 13, 2019
- “More on the Impact of Hebrew Study on the Kirtland Egyptian Papers: Hurwitz and Some Curiosities in the GAEL,” May 20, 2019
- “He Whose Name Cannot Be Spoken: Hugh Nibley,” May 27, 2019
- “More Connections Between the Kirtland Egyptian Papers and Prior Documents,” May 31, 2019
- “Update on Inspiration for W.W. Phelps’ Use of an Archaic Hebrew Letter Beth for #2 in the Egyptian Counting Document,” June 16, 2019
- “The New Hauglid and Jensen Podcast from the Maxwell Institute: A Window into the Personal Views of the Editors of the JSP Volume on the Book of Abraham,” July 1, 2019
- “The Twin Book of Abraham Manuscripts: Do They Reflect Live Translation Produced by Joseph Smith, or Were They Copied From an Existing Document?,” July 4, 2019
- “Kirtland’s Rosetta Stone? The Importance of Word Order in the ‘Egyptian’ of the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language,” July 18, 2019
- “The Twin BOA Manuscripts: A Window into Creation of the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language?,” July 21, 2019
- “A Few Reasons Why Hugh Nibley Is Still Relevant for Book of Abraham Scholarship,” July 25, 2019