Update, Aug. 29, 2019: There has been an important and welcome update to John Gee’s recent article, “The Joseph Smith Papers Project Stumbles,”
at The Interpreter that clarifies and to some degree softens some of the concerns he raised. This is a welcome sign of dialog occurring with the Joseph Smith Papers Project, as we learn in the editor’s note announcing the revision:
[Editor’s note: This review was edited by the author, after initial
publication, to address multiple requests for clarification. In part,
these clarifications came after a substantive conversation between the
author and principal figures in the Joseph Smith Papers Project.]
I am elated that there was a substantial conversation between leaders of the JSPP and John Gee. I will note an important addition to Gee’s comment that is cited below. Likewise, if my comments here, at The Interpreter, or in the two-part series just published at Meridian Magazine (Part One, “Friendly Fire,” and Part Two, “The Twin Manuscripts“) offer anything that they feel is unfair, unjustified, unkind, or utterly unfounded, I would also welcome dialog and input so that I can make suitable corrections or statements to rectify the problem, an effort I undertook already prior to publication at The Interpreter. I do appreciate Robin Jensen informing me in comments on this blog of the errata page for this volume (which now notes that an upside-down document mentioned by Gee was printed upside down, but does not yet address any of the issues I have raised), and would welcome any further dialog to address their concerns regarding my reviews, as well as issues regarding possible ways to deal with apparent serious errors in the Book of Abraham volume. For the record, I welcome dialog.
“The Joseph Smith Papers Project Stumbles” is the title of a troubling new review at The Interpreter by John Gee on The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 4: Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts, eds. Robin Scott Jensen and Brian M. Hauglid (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2018). A few weeks ago my review of the same work, “A Precious Resource with Some Gaps,” was also published at The Interpreter.
One could summarize my review as, “Technically strong, very valuable, but rife with bias and errant assumptions in the commentary, footnotes, and dating.” But now, in light of Gee’s review, I have to admit to being wrong in my assessment, for even the basic technical aspects of JSPRT4 have some painful flaws as well, such as more errors in transcription than I found, a fundamental flaw in the order of documents presented that reflects bias rather than data, printing
two a document s of Egyptian characters upside down, and many unfortunate errors involving Egyptian characters.
Today was the first time I saw Gee’s response, and I was taken aback, especially by a statement made in the penultimate paragraph:
It is regretful that although The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints counts several faithful Egyptologists among its membership, the editors deliberately chose not to involve them in any serious way. [emphasis added]
Update, Aug. 29, 2019:
A few important sentences have been added to John’s statement that softens the original. The sentence quoted above is till there, but the addition that follows clarifies the matter significantly:
Anything the editors say about Egyptian language, papyri, or characters is beyond their skill and training. It is regrettable that although The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints counts several faithful Egyptologists among its membership, the editors deliberately chose not to involve them in any serious way. It is true that two of that number were given a month to peer review the volume and some of their suggestions were accepted, but no photographs were included in what was reviewed, nor did the Egyptologists see the appendix on the Egyptian characters. One might argue that this series is about nineteenth-century religious history, but this volume, in particular, is about early Latter-day Saint leaders’ involvement with Egyptian characters. The volume editors cannot adequately deal with early Latter-day Saints’ interaction with those characters without some understanding of those characters of their own.
In sum, this volume does not display the care one has come to expect from the Joseph Smith Papers Project. The editors may have followed the general guidelines of the Joseph Smith Papers Project, but the material in this volume is not like the other material in the series and would have benefited by adapting the guidelines to the nature of the material. While it is great to have good-quality images of the documents finally available to the public, the transcriptions and notes are often inadequate to the needs of the ongoing debates about the documents. One still needs to be extremely careful using the material. This means that other than legal access to the photographs, neither the serious researcher nor the lay person is in a better position than they were before the volume was published. As the online version will be updated to reflect new information, it may become, over time, the preferred version to use.
That’s painful but may help explain some of the puzzling and unfortunate problems in JSPRT4. This may be a huge misunderstanding of some kind, but it seems more serious than just a glitch in communication.
There seems to be a serious problem here. Not just one of clashing personalities and disputes between academic peers, but of flaws in scholarship that may need correction. It was bad enough when I found that Hugh Nibley was completely excised, and that Dr. John Gee and Dr. Kerry Muhlenstein of BYU were barely recognized in the 1000+ footnotes and extensive commentary, when they have published much original, vital scholarship directly related to many core issues addressed in JSPRT4. But it is even more upsetting to now learn that some basic technical issues have serious flaws which could have been avoided if our BYU Egyptologists had been included from the beginning, when it seems that they were not. How can you deal with the Kirtland Egyptian Papers without tapping the knowledge of Egyptologists intimately familiar with the documents and the issues? Some of the gaps go beyond the minor embarrassment of getting a document or two upside down. Rather, the more serious problem, though an understandable one, is getting some documents “backwards” in terms of their relationship to the Book of Abraham, in addition to many other errors noted by Gee. An upside down photo is a minor annoyance that won’t affect anyone’s testimony or understanding, but getting the story of the documents backwards is a risk to be avoided. The bias in this volume is totally unacceptable, however it came about.
The photos are fabulous and the transcriptions for the most part seem carefully done to me, in spite of some understandable glitches, but the sequencing, the assigned dates, and the extensive commentary enforcing a particular framework for interpreting them, often show serious flaws that cry out for a correction or at least an acknowledgement that there are other perspectives that other scholars have provided.
I don’t think the many good people over the esteemed Joseph Smith Papers Project should just sit this one out and ignore Gee’s complaint. There’s a mess on our hands [here I refer to all of us who care about the Book of Abraham] that needs to be addressed. This is not about casting blame or faulting the editors for whatever perspectives they may have shared with many others that may have led to the oversights in this volume, though there is no pain-free way to deal with this. I’m comfortable assuming the flaws occurred in good faith, guided perhaps by personal confusion and perhaps by too much closeness to hostile critics of the Book of Abraham, resulting in an unjustified but socially acceptable bias against Nibley et al. and leading to an unfounded sense of confidence in the perspectives the editors developed over time. Assume good faith and normal human flaws, but recognize that we still have a genuine problem in need of correction.
Correction? If the JSP Project is to maintain a high standard of academic trustworthiness, when serious academic missteps occur, what is needed is a careful correction of some kind. One step to be considered might be a revised commentary or a list of corrections provided on the JSP website.
I have seen no indication of any public response from the editors or from the Joseph Smith Papers group to the publication of my related paper a few weeks ago, and that’s fine, but to have one of the most qualified experts on the JS Papyri and the Book of Abraham write such a review and state that he and other capable Egyptologists were left out of the process indicates that something very serious went wrong. Some kind of response would be helpful as part of the quality control for the publication, in the interest of ensuring that what is published is accurate and fair. At the moment, it may not be.
Some people have had a crisis of faith over the issues created with this volume and the summaries made by the editors. Such crises can be addressed by pointing out the flaws and bias in the perspectives provided in this volume and providing the abundant “first aid” regarding those issues, including discussion of the many positives in the Book of Abraham story that are invisible in JSPRT4. But the basic flaws in this volume itself, no matter how sincerely they were made, should be viewed as something of a problem for the JSP Project, one that should be treated the way smart organizations handle major flaws that occur in their systems, services, or products: rather than silence and business as usual, admit the problem and address it with openness. Get John Gee and other scholars more fully involved to find ways to strengthen what is being offered to the world and the Church with this publication on a critical topic. Or we can ignore the issues Gee has raised and just hope nobody will notice. Maybe nobody will, but I don’t think that’s best for the Joseph Smith Papers Project. Is an online addendum a bad idea? Your thoughts?