Latter-day Saints interested in the Pearl of Great Price have much to be excited about thanks to recent scholarship giving us many more insights into the significance and meaning of the Book of Abraham and the Book of Moses. There’s much to learn and some difficult, puzzling issues to grapple with, but much to appreciate, including some answers to tough questions and remarkable evidences that something interesting is going on in these texts other than just some ignoramus making up stuff. See, for example, my LDSFAQ pages on the Book of Abraham: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
The easiest part of the Book of Abraham to attack, in my opinion, is Facsimile 3. It’s easy to say that this scene is just an ordinary funerary/judgment scene related to the Book of the Dead and that Joseph has grossly misidentified its meaning. The characters don’t give the names we expect and there is something odd going on with gender (the prince and the pharaoh are obviously women). What’s up? Some believing Latter-day Saints may be OK with obvious errors, feeling that the figure is an unimportant add-on to the inspired text and not meant to be canonized, and may feel that the evidences supporting the text and the other facsimiles outweigh whatever possible error happened there. But I think it’s helpful to consider further information about the Facsimile, recognizing the misconceptions that abound regarding what it is.
For an overview and some general answers to common challenges, see:
- FairMormon’s overview of the issues at “Book of Abraham Facsimile 3: The throne scene.”
- Hugh Nibley’s groundbreaking discussion in the chapter “All the Court’s a Stage: Facsimile 3, a Royal Mumming” in Abraham in Egypt.
- John Gee, “Facsimile 3 and Book of the Dead 125” in Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant. This is important for explaining what Facsimile 3 is not.
Some related posts here on a couple of details and somewhat speculative possibilities:
- Isis and Maat in Facsimile 3 of the Book of Abraham: A Horrific Blunder by Joseph Smith?
- “Shulem in the Book of Abraham: Possible Plausibility?” (a discussion of Ryan Larsen’s approach to Shulem in Facs. 3)
Some other basic issues around the Book of Abraham are also covered in the Book of Abraham Project’s page, “Criticisms of Joseph Smith and the Book of Abraham.” The apparent weaknesses with Facs. 3 should, in my opinion, also be considered along with the strengths of the text. As a recent example of growing evidences related to the actual text of the Book of Abraham, see the discussion of the place name Olishem, as discussed in my review of John Gee’s recent book, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham. Also see the Gospel Topics publication from the Church, “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham,” which cites some of the significant evidence that the Book of Abraham, however it was translated, has an ancient source.
To evaluate a text that purports to be an ancient text, a reasonable approach should begin with taking that claim at face value and seeing how or if it fits into an ancient setting, before looking anywhere else. A theory for its origins, whether it appears to be an outright fraud or a document with ancient roots, also ought to provide a plausible explanation for the manuscript, including its strengths. (This is true of the Book of Mormon especially.) Can those strengths all be explained as lucky coincidences, outweighed by a section of the document with apparent glaring weakness? The strengths of the Book of Abraham, even the fairly simple stuff like correctly identifying the upside down four Sons of Horus in Facsimile 2 as pertaining to the “four quarters of the earth” or the relationship between the solar barque and 1000 cubits or identifying crocodile god Soebek as the god of Pharaoh should be at least noted, however grudgingly, before declaring a premature victory over Joseph Smith.
Yes, Facsimile 3 is still quite puzzling. I’m not sure what’s going on there and why it has been adapted by Joseph or the author of an ancient text for the story of Abraham teaching astronomy to the Pharaoh (which, by the way, is one of the areas with good evidence supporting it). But there’s definitely something interesting going on throughout much of the Book of Abraham, and I can say the same for the Book of Moses and the Book of Mormon, though all involve complexity and some difficult issues along with a growing body of exciting issues as well.