Friendly Fire from BYU: Opening Old Book of Abraham Wounds Without the First Aid

Note: Since the Maxwell Institute launched another revision of their website, it appears that most links to their past material are broken, including the link to their own video of the Hauglid-Jensen seminar, formerly By manual searching, however, I found the new link at Even that has some confusing problems (the video shown is not from the presentation), so the link below is to Youtube. Unfortunately, many materials once archived there are there no longer, as explained in my June 27, 2019 post, “Lost Treasures from the Maxwell Institute.”

I was pained to receive a message from an LDS member who once had successfully overcome many challenges to his testimony. His testimony was now challenged  by serious new wounds inflicted by “friendly fire” from the Maxwell Institute and two professors at BYU. I respect the Maxwell Institute (even donating to them occasionally) and also the professors who spoke (both outstanding men and scholars), but feel a need to respond in light of the unintentional harm that may have been caused by this event.

A January 19 presentation from the Maxwell Institute, “A Window into Joseph Smith’s Translation” by Brian Hauglid and Robin Jensen, was given to a large body of students and others. These two men have been active in preparing the manuscripts for Volume 4 of the Joseph Smith Papers, including the Kirtland Papers and related documents, and I am very grateful for their work for that publication. But I am rather troubled by the presentation they gave to so many students. Contrary to the impression they create (my opinion) of revealing important new facts, the papers they have published and the questions they raise have been discussed for decades, including the issue of whether the Joseph Smith Papyri have any relationship to the Book of Abraham.

There are troubling issues that can catch members off guard (shook my testimony when I encountered essentially the same arguments, but from the Tanners, not BYU at that time) and too many good people have left the Church over the arguments that can be crafted. This unnecessary rehashing of old arguments against the Book of Abraham was done in the name of objective scholarship and just being honest, but they did so without mentioning the decades of work from reputable LDS Egytpologists and scholars that have addressed the very issues that were raised.  It may have been honest and fair in their view, and rehashing past apologetics may have also seemed outside the scope of their presentation, but in my opinion, it was a poor choice (perhaps lack of time or perhaps concern that others have not been careful enough in addressing the Kirtland Papers?). Sad to see it coming from the organization at BYU that once has long been known for defending the Church and its scriptures, though again, the possible problems were certainly not intentional, but may reflect a lack of experience in dealing with faith challenges caused by misunderstood data.

Many in the audience may have come away thinking they were learning about embarrassing new dirt that was just being revealed to the world through the Joseph Smith Papers project, when in fact the documents and the problems they raise have been treated in detail for many years. What was presented was not breathtaking new scholarship that forces us to rethink everything about the Book of Abraham and Joseph’s status as a prophet. New wounds were opened without the first aid. Seemingly new scholarship was presented while neglecting (perhaps due to time pressures) the relevant literature and previous scholarship.

The two speakers essentially created (IMHO) the impression that the Book of Abraham was translated by Joseph Smith with nothing other than the surviving papyri fragments, the Joseph Smith papyri. The floundering member who contacted me said their work completely undermines the possibility of there being lost scrolls, etc., that may have been the source. This is simply untrue. The evidence from witnesses and other sources gives us strong reason to believe that Joseph was working with other documents, not just the fragments that remain. I treat some of these issues in my LDSFAQ pages on the Book of Abraham.

For such a sensitive issue, why was no balance provided by at least acknowledging that some LDS scholars and even Egyptologists exist who see profound evidence for the authenticity of the Book of Abraham and dispute the argument that the translation was done from the Joseph Smith Papyri? Why wasn’t John Gee mentioned? Why wasn’t he invited to also speak? Where were the LDS Egyptologists? Where was the acknowledgement that these issues have already been treated for decades by scholars competent in Egyptian and the ancient Near East (John Gee, Kerry Muhlestein, Hugh Nibley, and others)? Where was the reference to John Gee’s analysis of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers (for great color photographs and analysis, see his book, A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri ) indicating that the Egyptian characters were added to the pages after the English translation had been written, suggesting that someone was trying to decipher characters using an already revealed text, rather than the other way around? Where was a mention of works like An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, the many evidences for ancient roots in the text, and so forth? If time was the problem, at least point the audience to sources that might provide tools to cope with the challenges and pain some may be facing as they cope with the toughest issues around the Book of Abraham. “There are other ways of looking at this, and a host of evidences for the antiquity of the content in the Book of Abraham. We’re out of time, but please look at some of the publications of John Gee, Kerry Muhlestein, Hugh Nibley, and Michael Rhodes on this topic, and look at some of the overviews at and many related publications at the Maxwell Institute. We may not agree with all of it, but there are some profound points there to consider.” That brief statement would have really helped.

What puzzles me is that some of the vital evidence relating to Book of Abraham plausibility was published by John Gee and Brian Hauglid apparently working together, so it’s not like Brian doesn’t know John or isn’t aware of some of the most interesting evidence supporting the antiquity of at least some of the Book of Abraham material. See Traditions about the Early Life of Abraham, edited by John Tvedtnes, Brian Hauglid, and John Gee. I own and love this book, by the way. It contains dozens of accounts from various ancient sources about Abraham that show remarkable parallels to the Book of Abraham, things like Abraham nearly being sacrificed for his opposition to idols, etc. Truly fascinating and quite relevant to the topic at hand. It would have been nice for Hauglid to acknowledge his own publication that some of us value for contributing to the case that the Book of Abraham is not something Joseph could have just made up based on what he knew from the Bible and his environment. Shouldn’t such evidence at least be considered in weighing what the origins of the Book of Abraham are (modern, ancient, or both)?

I am looking forward to a second seminar at the Maxwell Institute to get into some of the “first aid” that may be helpful and appropriate as a follow up on the magnificent publication that Brian Hauglid and Robin Jensen have edited for the Joseph Smith Papers. There’s so much more to the story!

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:

Author: Jeff Lindsay

58 thoughts on “Friendly Fire from BYU: Opening Old Book of Abraham Wounds Without the First Aid

  1. Because the balance you mention does not exist, Jeff!
    As for those who will proclaim loud and wide that these things have always been known among rank and file members of the church, may I please refer you to your nearest member of the church. Ask one! So very few are familiar with ANY of these insights into how things were done. A few years ago the church published a picture of Joseph's seer stone, but that has not made it's way into gospel doctrine or Sunday school discussions. Not in a meaningful way. If you don't believe me, ASK AROUND.

  2. Are you aware of the professional reputations of John Gee, Kerry Muhlenstein, and Hugh Nibley in the academic community?

  3. Valid question:
    Are you aware of the professional reputations of John Gee, Kerry Muhlenstein, and Hugh Nibley in the academic community? Oh how Mr. Muhlenstein presents one set of data to academia and another to the church?

    Can you please list "All the others" that you mention. I am only aware of Gee and Muhlenstein which have different theories.

    I would ask that you be open to new evidence and ideas, not just that the way we used to do it. As we can see with recent changes in the church that we are all changing based on new information.

  4. First aid isn’t for old wounds. . .

    It’s likely these scholars are familiar with the apologist voices you mentioned. That they didn’t address them is either an overnight/error on their part or intentional. My guess is it was intentional and is indicative of how valuable they view those sources in relation to their own findings and to the academic discourse regarding the subject matter. They have both been in academia for a while and know how to present an academic paper.

    Is BYU an institute of higher learning and research or a coddling pen for religious belief?

  5. There’s another old wound that’s been reopened here—the wound that the Maxwell Institute inflicted on apologetic pseudo-scholarship when it fired Dan Peterson from Mormon Studies Review in 2012.

    — OK

  6. Nothing like anonymous internet commenters questioning the credibility of real scholars, with real PhDs, real peer-reviewed publications, based on … what exactly? Some nasty comments by robert Ritner–who is demonstrably an anti-Mormon? Or a nasty, ad hominem, and highly unprofessional email from Kara Cooney–who is also known to be anti-Mormon (a Latter-day Saint who took one of her classes has told me directly of the anti-Mormon jabs she'd make in class)?

    Do you know THEIR reputations in the field? There are some folks who REALLY dislike them. On the flip side, there is a whole wide world of Egyptologists and ancient Near Eastern scholars beyond Ritner and Cooney's little circle who have great respect for Gee, Muhlestein, and Nibley. I spoken to some them personally. I know someone who's spoken to several others who have said many wonderful things about Gee and Muhlestein.

    This rumor that they have poor reputations in the field is a nasty, ex-Mormon myth, good for nothing but pure ad hominem in the face of arguments none of ya'll can deal with.

  7. Quinten, you know as well as the rest of us that none of these apologists got their Ph.D. by doing apologetics. None of them publish any of their apologetics in professionally respected peer-reviewed journals. That’s because their defenses of the antiquity of the BoM and BoA won’t hold up under the scrutiny of their non-LDS peers. It’s fundamentally unsound work.

    — OK

  8. OK:

    Who are the individuals who have obtained Phds in apologetics whom you believe worthy to opine regarding the BoM and the BoA?

    Also, isn't it a quite unremarkable thing to claim that all non-LDS peers of Gee et al don't accept the antiquity of the BoM and BoA? After all, if they did, isn't there a good chance that they would then become members of the church that accepts the antiquity of said works?


  9. To answer your question, NJ:

    The number of Egyptologists etc. who examine the evidence of the BoA’s antiquity and are convinced by that evidence to join the Church is equal to the number of astronomers who examine the evidence for the earth’s shape and are convinced by that evidence to join the Flat Earth Society.

    It could happen, if the evidence were there. But it doesn’t happen, because the evidence isn’t there.

    What Jeff and other apologists call “evidence” is typically evidence of something other than antiquity, or simply an artifact of a flawed methodology.

    — OK

  10. According to Oxford University’s and the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München’s Online Egyptological Bibliography, Dr. Gee is in the top 4 percent of Egyptologists historically in terms of number of Egyptological publications.

    So he seems to have fooled his peers better than 96% of all Egyptologists ever.

    One might disagree with him, but one cannot do so on the grounds that he does not have the credentials, or the credibility among his peers, to do so.


  11. OK, I suppose that you know that your answer is not responsive to my questions, so I will move along. Best, NJ

  12. " None of them publish any of their apologetics in professionally respected peer-reviewed journals. That’s because their defenses of the antiquity of the BoM and BoA won’t hold up under the scrutiny of their non-LDS peers. It’s fundamentally unsound work."

    This is, of course, a fundamentally different claim than insinuating that they have poor reputations in the field. Yet it remains an intellectually lazy argument, only made by people wholly incapable of actually engaging with their arguments. It should be obvious to ANYONE the no mainstream journal or publisher is going to want to publish something with major religious implications, no matter how rigorous (unlike with the Bible, there is no way around accepting Joseph as a prophet if the Book of Mormon or Book of Abraham are ancient/historical).

    But it's a mistake to assume that means their work is bad. As a matter of fact, both Gee and Muhlestein make many of the EXACT same arguments in their mainstream publications as they do in their LDS ones; the only difference being in their LDS publications, they say, "Hey look, this cool thing from ancient Egypt/Near East is also in the Book of Abraham."

    But you'd have to actually spend some serious time reading some of their LDS and non-LDS work to figure that out, so I am not surprised you don't know that.

  13. Oh for God’s sake Quinten I actually have engaged with several of the purportedly strongest LDS apologetic arguments, sometimes at some length. Perhaps you just haven’t read the replies in which I’ve done so.

    In particular I’ve criticized the methodology of the apologetic work of Stanford Carmack, whose “EModE in the BoM” argument strikes me as a textbook case of the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. I’ve also had quite a bit to say about the work of Brian Stubbs. I’m not going to rehash the whole thing here; I’ll just say that if one goes rooting around in a very lengthy text, looking for words, phrases, grammatical structures, or literary devices resembling those found in ancient Hebrew, or ancient Egyptian, or any of a number of variants of Uto-Aztecan, or even for some inexplicable reason Early Modern English, one is very likely to turn up all kinds of correlations completely by chance. I have never, however, asked Carmack to take my word for this, merely to run his methodology past some independent non-LDS linguists for their feedback and then report their comments back to us.

    Also, where did I impugn anyone’s non-apologetic work or their overall reputations in their fields?

    — OK

  14. "Are you aware of the professional reputations of John Gee, Kerry Muhlenstein, and Hugh Nibley in the academic community?"

    I'm pretty well acquainted with John Gee's professional reputation in the academic community. It's quite good. At least as good as the professional reputations of Brian Hauglid and Robin Jensen, and certainly more international.

    And let's grant, for the sake of discussion, that Dan Peterson is a pseudo-scholar. Why exactly is he relevant here?

  15. I suppose I should add here that Brian Hauglid has recently addressed the work of John Gee and Kerry Muhlestein, albeit only informally, in a Facebook post in which he writes this:

    “I no longer agree with Gee or Mulhestein. I find their apologetic ‘scholarship’ on the BoA abhorrent.”

    So perhaps it’s just as well he left his opinion of LDS Egyptologists out of his BYU presentation.

    Faith transitions can be painful. I get that. But living in accord with reality has its compensations, as many, many who have gone through it can attest.

    — OK

  16. I attended Jensen's November lecture at the tabernacle at Temple Square. My wrote down my quick impression at the time:

    "Robin Scott Jensen's talk was a mixed bag. On one hand, he mentioned that many in Joseph Smith's time were interested in Egyptian things. Of this group some made creative, sincere, but wrong attempts, to decipher the hieroglyphs and publish their guesses. He put Joseph Smith in this intellectual camp.

    "On the other hand, he dismissed the missing papyri theory by providing one example of something that was interpreted wrong about one of the facsimiles (Abraham's name being in symbols over his head.)"

    A month ago I recorded "My brother attended Hauglid's lecture at the GBH building for NAMI with me. He noticed how nervous Brian was when he presented. It was a contrast to his calm and warm FairMormon conference talk. I do think he made a good case for dating writing activity and a preponderance (more likely than not) case for the attempted symbols for translation being on existing papyrus. Jensen followed up on implications, and did slightly better than he did at Temple Square by at least showing a picture of where he thought a facsimile wasn't translated correctly. It has just been an odd way to roll out the findings."

  17. Danny boy Peetersen…….bwahahaha
    A self loathing anti American, anti Jew Socialist / Communist. Peetersen supports the moslems and Hitler joining forces in WW II to wipe out Jews and approves of Western Civilization being wiped out today.
    Peetersen is full of hot air…so is his minion little Stevie Smoooooot. Both write in a self importance style where it takes half a page before they convey their point. The half page of their rambling is one long paragraph with so many side comments and full of commas (the side comments are their self importance). The reader gives up because their self importance blather is nonsense, and to keep reading is pointless.

    Jeffy can be full of hot air also, but at least Jeffy is not afraid of disagreement, and does not call people vile names when facts oppose his view point. Jeffy does not call people vile names and does not ban people when opposing facts are correct and all he has is his emotions and feelings. Peetersen and Smootie only have their emotions, feelings and opinions, no facts….typical of Socialists / Communists. Very thin skinned. No wonder Peetersen was fired from Maxwell Institute.

  18. Wow, Anon 2:35. I’d love to see some evidence that Dan Peterson is a socialist/communist etc. Strong claims require strong evidence. Without it you’re just a blowhard.

    — OK

  19. Even in a low-stakes discipline like mathematics, if I were to publicly label the work of one of my Departmental colleagues as "abhorrent", I'd anticipate getting a zero in collegiality during my next performance review.

  20. Here’s what I don’t get. Jeff assures us that these Book of Abraham issues have been openly discussed for decades. They’re nothing new, just a “rehashing of old arguments.”

    But if that’s the case, why would anyone be “caught off guard”? BYU students are pretty knowledgeable; shouldn’t they already know this stuff? Is it that the Church isn’t teaching it to them?

    Maybe what’s catching people off guard is that these arguments are now coming from respected LDS scholars rather than the Tanners? (Also, how about a little respect for Jerald and Sandra for being right all along?)

    — OK

    P.S. FWIW, I have enough respect for Jeff’s basic intellectual integrity to think that eventually he’ll leave the silly apologetics behind and adopt a more mature approach to the Mormon scriptures.

  21. It seems like this presentation was very purposeful. Unlike the gospel topics essay, these lectures made definite arguments: JS didn’t translate Egyptian into English. Instead he explored intellectually and mistakenly. He also received revelation now know as the BoA. They also showed that JS and company believed that the fragments we have were the source text for the BoA.

    The lectures were given by two key contributors to the JSP. They were given at BYU, hosted by the maxwell institute. The two lectures were designed to go hand in hand and provide a unified front.

    Basically, I’m guessing that the Maxwell institute nor Hauglid and his co-lecturer would tackle putting out that clear message without some backing from church leadership.

  22. Anonymous 12:19 AM: "I’m guessing that the Maxwell institute nor Hauglid and his co-lecturer would tackle putting out that clear message without some backing from church leadership."

    It's quite a leap to assume that the Maxwell Institute speaks for the Church on this (or any other) matter.

    1. Agreed. However, that’s not what I said. I said I doubt the maxwell institute nor Haudlid and Jensen would have put together such a pointed message without some kind of OK from church leadership.

    2. But I could see how someone might take how I originally wrote it as saying they were speaking for the church. That’s not what I intended.

  23. Ben Britton: "I doubt the maxwell institute nor Haudlid and Jensen would have put together such a pointed message without some kind of OK from church leadership."

    Do you believe that the Maxwell Institute runs talks that people will be giving at its events by the leadership of the Church in advance?

    Do you have any basis for that belief?

    1. It’s just a guess. I just can’t think that Hauglid and Jensen, who are on the JSP volume editors, volumes that are published by an arm of the church, would debut volume 4 with the message that JS didn’t have a real source text for the BoA and didn’t actually translate without checking in up top. I don’t know what involvement the apostles have with the Maxwell Institute, but I do know they are directly involved at with the JSP.

  24. It's interesting that Jeff didn't mention that Brian has clearly separated himself from Gee and Muhlestien, and their BoA efforts. Why did Hauglid and Jensen not mention Gee or Muhlestein? Not because they aren't trying to be balanced, not because there is simple disagreement…but because they actually think the arguments by Gee and Muhlestein are abhorrent. There's really no more explanation needed than that.

    1. Well if David B. is pronouncing him to be a true scholar and one of the best humans on the planet, then I guess we have to conclude that Hauglid > Gee + Muhlestein … By the way , has it occurred yet to any progressive and ex Mos yet that just because someone has ‘graduated’ from or in the process of ‘graduating’ from the church’s position on moral issues doesn’t mean they are true scholars and among the best humans on the planet nor that said cliche doesn’t get really old after 2,000 or so slobbery ‘you’re so awesome!!!’ exchanges on social media.

  25. As usual, Jeff Lindsay provided us with intelligent, civil, and restrained commentary on the implications of a recent event at NAMI. I found his comments substantive and informative. I wish that I could say the same of the many comments which followed.

    I guess it was too much to hope that the commenters would abide by Jeff's simple request to keep the comments "civil, intelligent," and without "insults."

  26. "the possible problems were certainly not intentional, but may reflect a lack of experience in dealing with faith challenges caused by misunderstood data"

    Can you pinpoint exactly where Hauglid and Jensen have drawn bad conclusions or misrepresent the data in front of them?

  27. Robert F. Smith 10:02 – "restrained commentary" is accurate, in that Jeff mostly runs away from truly substantive dialogue. As for Jeff's simple request to keep comments "civil", Jeff is known to resort to name calling himself.

  28. Anonymous,
    I just hope that Jeff doesn't start calling me some horrible names. Maybe if we are on our best behavior we can avoid that. No point in kicking the hornets nest. 😃

  29. Robert 10:11 – thank for you for proving a point of the critics. Those who pretend to represent the church can do no wrong, their behavior is always blamed on others, while others who do not tow the line are protrayed as the devilish ones. Such a disposition makes truly substantive and informative discussions impossible.

  30. From Brian Hauglid on Facebook, now widely quoted on a variety of LDS blogs:
    “For the record, I no longer hold the views that have been quoted from my 2010 book in these videos. I have moved on from my days as an "outrageous" apologist. In fact, I'm no longer interested or involved in apologetics in any way. I wholeheartedly agree with Dan's (Dan Vogel’s) excellent assessment of the Abraham/Egyptian documents in these videos. I now reject a missing Abraham manuscript. I agree that two of the Abraham manuscripts were simultaneously dictated. I agree that the Egyptian papers were used to produce the BoA. I agree that only Abr. 1:1-2:18 were produced in 1835 and that Abr. 2:19-5:21 were produced in Nauvoo. And on and on. I no longer agree with Gee or Mulhestein. I find their apologetic "scholarship" on the BoA abhorrent. One can find that I've changed my mind in my recent and forthcoming publications. The most recent JSP Revelations and Translation vol. 4, The Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts (now on the shelves) is much more open to Dan's thinking on the origin of the Book of Abraham. My friend Brent Metcalfe can attest to my transformative journey.”

    Well, I guess that explains a lot. I wish Brian well. But he won't need my wishes for that. With this more naturalistic, humanistic approach that undermines traditional LDS respect for some of our sacred scriptures, I can predict that he will be hailed by the media and social media as a brave hero for coming out in favor of truth, and his future publications will receive rave reviews. But that won't change the import of what is being neglected: the Book of Abraham remains a fascinating text with some significant ancient roots that demand respect and inquiry. That doesn't end the debate of how the text was produced and what parts came from what sources, but it does make for a genuine debate, one that requires careful pondering, not just the victory dance that some are already dancing.

  31. Jeff Lindsay 8:57,
    "this more naturalistic, humanistic approach that undermines traditional LDS respect for some of our sacred scriptures,"

    I don't agree that a "naturalistic, humanistic approach" damages LDS concerns in any way. In fact, because LDS theology is highly naturalistic and humanistic, that should prove to be a strength. My objection to the new found views of Dr Hauglid (whom I do not know) is that they are based on a profound lack of knowledge about ancient Egypt, as well as upon a regressive analysis of the issues. He even sounds somewhat angry or peeved, which does not bode well for dispassionate evaluation of the issues. We all need to be less brittle, and to roll with the punches. Hauglid's open declaration indicates that he has not learned that lesson.