This morning I was reading from what may be the premier work of Latter-day Saint scholarship on the Book of Abraham, the far-ranging magnum opus of Dr. Hugh Nibley with the help of Michael D. Rhodes, One Eternal Round (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute, 2010). On pages 333 to 334, I was reminded that the word “Shinehah,” said to be the sun in Abraham 3:13, actually can mean the sun in ancient Egyptian. It’s one of the numerous clues in the Book of Abraham that something is going on other than Joseph Smith just making up garbage. Indeed, it’s now one of multiple evidences of ancient origins that LDS defenders often refer to in discussing the Book of Abraham. See, for example, “Shinehah, The Sun: Book of Abraham Insight #16,” Pearl of Great Price Central, Oct. 23, 2019, https://www.pearlofgreatpricecentral.org/shinehah-the-sun/, and also see the Shinehah entry in the Book of Mormon Onomasticon.
What’s especially interesting is that Shinehah was not widely used to mean the sun in ancient Egypt. Use of that term for the sun is only attested during a relatively brief span of about six centuries that overlaps with the likely time that Abraham lived, as John Gee notes in “Fantasy and Reality in the Translation of the Book of Abraham,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 42 (2021): 127-170, published in January this year. Interesting!
As I read Nibley’s observations, I recalled reading about Shinehah several times in Dan Vogel’s new book, Book of Abraham Apologetics, criticizing the Book of Abraham and its defenders, but I could not recall how Vogel attempted to refute the main point that Joseph’s identification of Shinehah as the sun was plausible in ancient Egypt. Here is where things get quite interesting and even revealing. Vogel has quite a lot to say about Shinehah. He’s obviously aware of the importance of this topic.
A discussion begins on p. 155 (I’m using page numbers from the Kindle edition — I think the printed book numbers are roughly 21 less, since page 1 in Kindle begins with the preface material, causing chapter 1 to begin on p. 21). Here Vogel claims that Shinehah did not originate with the translation of the Book of Abraham, but as a code name used in the Doctrine and Covenants printing of 1835. He argues that Shinehah came first as a code name and then was added to the Book of Abraham in 1842 when Joseph did the translation of Abraham 3. Here I won’t get into the reasons why Abraham 3 was likely translated, at least initially, in 1835, but it’s clear that at least some of the Book of Abraham had been translated before the Doctrine and Covenants was printed in 1835. But whether the word Shinehah first appeared as a random code word in the Doctrine and Covenants that would be the same as a word in Abraham 3:13 or was first created for the Book of Abraham and then adopted as a memorable code word for Kirtland, the meat of the argument about Shinehah is that Joseph Smith correctly identified a real Egyptian word as the sun in Abraham 3:13. So how does Vogel deal with that argument?
Vogel goes on for several pages, arguing that Abraham 3 was not translated until 1842 and that its use of Shinehah may derive from an 1838 revelation that mentions the “the plains of Olaha Shinehah,” etc., and argues that Hebrew words in Abraham 3 like Kokaubeam for stars points to an 1842 date of translation, discounting the argument that Joseph’s brief 1842 translation work could have included working in Hebrew terms to the existing text, asserting the Hebrew terms in 1842 require Joseph to have done the translation then — even though the many added foreign code names in the 1835 printing of the Doctrine and Covenants already set a precedent for updating an earlier revelation with added names.
But through all this talk of Shinehah, a word mentioned 28 times by my count in Vogel’s text, and the meandering issues of where it first occurred and when, it was only today when I noticed something astonishing: There is no discussion of why this term is considered evidence for the Book of Abraham or why it matters to Latter-day Saint defenders. It’s as if Vogel is just inoculating readers against a commonly cited evidence without creating any awareness of what the evidence is, so that when someone mentions Shinehah, they can shake their heads and repeat the mantra, “That’s been totally refuted. Vogel crushed it completely.” But unless I’m missing something that escaped my reading and repeated searching, he never says that yes, it can, as a very lucky guess or something, possibly mean “the sun.”
Here I was really quite surprised. Here we have an entire book allegedly dealing with LDS apologetics for the Book of Abraham that won’t even mention some of the most interesting evidence that the apologists are using, though it tries to indirectly refute the unmentionable evidence without explaining it. It deals with Shinehah in a significant block of text without mentioning why it’s important and what argument it supports, and never once cites the foundational works that raise the vital argument. Not only is there no admission that Hugh Nibley and others have pointed out that it is an accurate transliteration of an Egyptian word for the sun, but there is not even a footnote to let readers see what those disreputable Latter-day Saint apologists have said about Shinehah. Indeed, Nibley’s One Eternal Round is not even mentioned.
Dan Vogel’s book claims to be a fair, dispassionate treatment of the claims of Latter-day Saint apologists that examines all relevant documents. How can this be the case if vital evidence is repeatedly neglected and if arguably the single most important Latter-day Saint work on the Book of Abraham is never even mentioned?
Around and Around Without One Eternal Round?
Often called the father of Latter-day Saint apologists, the extensive writings of the remarkable scholar Hugh Nibley certainly form the foundation for the defense and the understanding of the Book of Abraham and its connections to the ancient world. Nibley had a surprising mastery of many ancient languages and far-ranging knowledge, much of which was brought together in One Eternal Round, which focuses on the facsimiles but naturally deals with much of the content of the Book of Abraham. Some of the greatest insights into the meaning of the various figures and of the epic dramas in the text are brought out as Nibley explores the related ancient myths and rituals. It is a challenging book, to be sure, involving not just ancient mythology and Egyptology but also geometry, astronomy, and a host of other fields.
This is a book Nibley worked on for years, viewing it as the culminating work of his scholarship. When you see the citation, Hugh Nibley and Michael D. Rhodes, One Eternal Round (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute, 2010), you may be surprised to see that this work was published 5 years after Nibley died in 2005. This work, with many versions of many chapters and large stacks of related notes, was completed and published posthumously with the help of Dr. Michael D. Rhodes, a scholar with the Egyptological and other skills needed to distill and refine the work. He took on the commission from Hugh Nibley on his deathbed to bring his massive, sprawling work to completion, giving us the most updated and arguably the most thorough and most far-ranging of all Nibley’s numerous works, and clearly the most important source from Nibley on the Book of Abraham. It is a book that demands more attention, not just as the foundation for understanding Latter-day Saint apologetics on the Book of Abraham, but for any student of the scriptures who simply wishes to understand the Book of Abraham more deeply.
Any serious debate over the merits of Latter-day Saint defenses of the Book of Abraham ultimately must revolve around this work (at least for an orbit or two). A work claiming to treat the gamut of Latter-day Saint scholarship defending the Book of Abraham that does not even cite One Eternal Round must utterly lack gravitas. Such is the disappointing case for the apparently polemical magnum opus of a zealous critic of the Book of Abraham and of Latter-day Saint apologetics, Dan Vogel, whose Book of Abraham Apologetics makes the bold statement that no knowledge of Egyptology is needed to refute the body of Latter-day Saint scholarship on the Book of Abraham. Having summarily dismissed the need for the skills and knowledge of Nibley, there is apparently no need to seriously consider the massive core of evidence and perspective from Nibley’s uncited magnum opus. Some earlier works of Nibley are cited, but the sweeping vistas of Joseph Smith’s views related to the dramas and purposes of Egyptian mythology and Abrahamic lore are given no attention.
Vogel’s treatment of Shinehah reveals that he knows the argument and must know it’s important to us, but apparently does not wish to address it or the works that deal with it. Unfortunately, that calls into question the alleged approach being taken.
Back to Shinehah and the Apparently Early Use in the Doctrine and Covenants
A stronger argument, at least in appearance, than Vogel’s treatment of Shinehah can be made against the Book of Abraham being the source of the use of Shinehah in the Doctrine and Covenants. It’s a simple as pointing to a document in the Joseph Smith Papers website from Revelation Book 2, specifically the 1833 revelation that is now our Section 96, where we can see a scrap of paper that was attached to Section 96 with the word “Shinehah.” So Shinehah had been written down already in 1833, right? That’s a visually compelling argument. But not so fast. That slip of paper is not part of the dictated revelation from 1833, but was obviously added later. But when? Here the incomplete information on the JSP website seems to leave readers with the impression that this slip has the same date as the revelation it was pinned to. That would be an inaccurate impression.
At a time when the Church had much to fear from enemies, there was a perceived need to reduce risk by using code words for some information in multiple sections of the 1835 printing of the Doctrine and Covenants. None of the original revelations have the code names in them. The code names were added s insertions in some places or on separate small scraps of paper pinned to the original or on a full sheet when needed. For details, see Christopher C. Smith, “The Inspired Fictionalization of the 1835 United Firm Revelations,” Claremont Journal of Mormon Studies 1, no. 1 (April 2011): 15–31. Christopher Smith writes:
The changes to Sections 93 and 96, which appear in the handwriting of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, could theoretically have been made as early as the spring of 1834, when these men were appointed to a committee to publish the 1835 D&C. This too is unlikely, however, because changes made by Cowdery to Section 86 and by Phelps and Smith to 75 and 98 cannot have been made until Phelps and Revelation Book 1 arrived in Kirtland on May 17, 1835. Probably all five revelations were altered within a few days or weeks of each other.
Not until Phelps’s arrival did work on the D&C begin in earnest. The “Six first forms” (48 leaves or 96 pages) of the D&C were printed by May 26, and printing proceeded rapidly until its completion sometime around August 17. The revelations containing code names appear near the end of the printed book, so the changes could theoretically have been made as late as early August. A date in May or June seems more likely, however. Certainly Phelps and Smith seem to have been reading the “Sample of pure Language” on or before May 26, when Phelps copied an expanded “specimen of some of the pure language” into a letter to his wife. The “Sample” immediately preceded Section 75 in Revelation Book 1. The emendations to 75 are in Phelps’s handwriting and include the word “Ahman” from the “specimen”. Perhaps the idea to substitute fictitious names in these revelations was first conceived in order to address the concerns implied by John Whitmer’s scrawled note at the top of the Section 75 manuscript: “Not to be published now.” (C. Smith, pp. 18-19.)
So it’s possible that the slip of paper pinned to Section 96 mentioning the code word Shinehah was prepared after initial translation efforts for the Book of Abraham had begun and before printing commenced on Aug. 17. It would be in October 1, 1835, per Joseph’s journal, when “The system of astronomy was unfolded,” which is often taken to mean that either Facs. 2 or Abraham 3 was translated on or near that date. If Abraham 3:13, identifying Shinehah as the sun, was not translated until Oct. 1, I suppose it’s still possible that Shinehah as an Egyptian term had been revealed to Joseph in his earlier work with the scrolls. But it’s also possible that Abraham 3 was translated before Aug. 17 and the “unfolding” of astronomy refers to translating Facs. 2, or perhaps it could refer to just understanding the import of what had been translated in Abraham 3.
Whatever the sequence of events, the real bottom line is that against all odds, Abraham 3:13 declares that an unusual word, Shinehah, is the sun, and in fact that’s an actual Egyptian word for the sun that applied during a narrow span of about 6 centuries comprising the likely time of Abraham’s life. Even if Shinehah had been written before the Joseph Smith papyri came to town in early July 1835 and was just a random nonsense word, like a few other code words seem to be, for Joseph to later pick that random word and plausibly state that it meant the sun is still remarkable.
There’s a definite case that this word came from Joseph’s early translation work of the Book of Abraham and was then used as a memorable code word in the Doctrine and Covenants, and this adds weight to arguments of John Gee and Kerry Muhlestein that much of our current Book of Abraham had been translated in July 1835, with the Grammar and Alphabet and the Book of Abraham manuscripts with Egyptian characters coming later. But again, even if Shinehah first appeared on a scrap pinned to Section 96 of the Doctrine and Covenants before Joseph got to Abraham 3, the “bull’s eye” of Shinehah as the sun needs to be addressed.
The fuss over where Shinehah first showed up is a sideshow. How did Joseph correctly give its meaning in Abraham 3:13? Vogel never addresses this important issue in Book of Abraham apologetics, nor does he even cite what may be the most important and comprehensive Latter-day Saint book on the issue of the Book of Abraham that abounds with evidences that are not treated by Vogel. The reason, of course, is that the purpose of Vogel’s book is not to consider the most relevant or significant apologetic works nor to treat the best arguments of Book of Abraham defenders, but to present Dan’s polemical case against it. He does that very well, but at the cost of not living up to his bold claims early in the book. It’s a great work of polemics and one that merits attention, but not a reasonable or fair treatment of Book of Abraham apologetics.