Criticism of Mormonism/Video/Robert Ritner

FAIR Answers Wiki Table of Contents

A review of claims made in Dr. Robert Ritner's three-episode interview with John Dehlin

Summary: On July 31, 2020, critic John Dehlin was joined by Dr. Robert Ritner, an egyptologist at the University of Chicago and long-time critic of the Book of Abraham, to discuss the Book of Abraham and its authenticity. Dehlin and Dr. Ritner spent over twelve hours discussing different aspects of the Book of Abraham. This page was created as an index to all the major arguments made and to provide responses to claims that FAIR already had written material for. More responses will be forthcoming. Ritner spends most of his time criticizing the Book of Abraham generally but attempts character assassinations on Dr. John Gee of BYU and Michael Rhodes—former professor at BYU—and their scholarship on the Book of Abraham. This response will focus specifically on claims made about the Book of Abraham.

Thus we are reviewing the claims made in the following three episodes of Mormon Stories podcast:

  • Mormon Stories #1339: Dr. Robert Ritner - An Expert Egyptologist Translates the Book of Abraham Pt 1
  • Mormon Stories #1340: Dr. Robert Ritner - An Expert Egyptologist Translates the Book of Abraham Pt 2
  • Mormon Stories #1341: Dr. Robert Ritner - An Expert Egyptologist Translates the Book of Abraham Pt 3


This page is still under construction. We welcome any suggestions for improving the content of this FAIR Answers Wiki page.

Claims about the Book of Abraham Generally

The author(s) of Mormon Stories #1339: Dr. Robert Ritner - An Expert Egyptologist Translates the Book of Abraham Pt 1 make(s) the following claim:

Ep. 1: 92:16-92:25 - These fragments date between the third century BCE and the first century BCE long after Abraham lived.

FAIR's Response

Fact checking results: This claim is based upon correct information - The author is providing knowledge concerning some particular fact, subject, or event

The surviving fragments of the papyri in Joseph Smith's possession and from which he may have translated the Book of Abraham date to anywhere between the third century BCE and the first century AD. But this does not have to deter us from believing that Abraham could have played a role in the authorship of the Book of Abraham.


Question: Since the papyri from which the Book of Abraham was translated date to the 3rd century BCE to the 1st century CE, does this mean that the events recorded in the Book of Abraham cannot be historical?

Introduction to the Criticism

In 1835, Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, began the translation of some Egyptian papyri that was sold to him in the Church’s then-headquarters—Kirtland, Ohio. Joseph Smith claimed that the papyri purported to be the writings of the ancient biblical patriarch Abraham. This translation was made part of the official canon of the Church in the 1880s.

In 1967, the Church acquired some surviving fragments of the papyri from which the translation was rendered from the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art through the help of Dr. Aziz Atiya, a professor at the University of Utah.

As papyrological work was done, scholars discovered that the papyrus dated to at least 1700 years (Between 300 BCE – 100 CE) after the prophet Abraham is traditionally claimed to have lived (2000 BCE).[1]

Many have naturally asked the question of how can the papyri date to such a late time and record genuinely historical events from the life of a supposedly historical prophet.

This article addresses the question.

Review of the Criticism

Examples of Texts that have Survived for Long Periods of Time

In response to the above criticism, it may be noted that we do have knowledge of texts that record historical events and survive scribal transmission for a long period of time.

For example, The Book of the Dead was copied from the New Kingdom period of ancient Egyptian history clear down to the end of the Ptolemaic Period. That's 1000+ years of transmission.

Additionally, the oldest portions of the Pentateuch (e.g. the Song of Moses in Exodus 15) were passed through scribal transmission for well over 1,500+ years.

What's more, narrative texts from the Middle Kingdom period in Egyptian history like the Story of Sinuhe were preserved in copies belonging to the New Kingdom period, which would be around 700+ years of transmission.

Perhaps our best parallel would be the Holy Bible. It has a pretty long manual transmission history from autographs penned in the Iron Age all the way down to when they were placed in print editions of the Bible starting in the 1500s. In other words, people were hand-copying these texts with a fair degree of accuracy for over 3,000 years and yet we hold their texts as fairly accurate historically speaking.

Elements of the Book of Abraham that Date to the Time of Abraham

Elements from the Book of Abraham that can definitively place it in the time that the historical Abraham is claimed to live can help us construct the historical core of the Book of Abraham and bolster the claim of historical authenticity. Some of these elements that can more than plausibly date to Abraham’s day include:

Conclusion

These and other elements can help to understand that, even though a text does have a very, very long transmission history, it can still plausibly preserve literal historical events from the lives of the first authors. That does not mean that the text must be ancient in every regard. Scribes could have made inspired emendations to the text over the years and we would still have a text that dates originally to the time of Abraham. In sum, we have no reason to believe that the dating of the papyri from which the Book of Abraham was translated threatens the possibility of being genuine writings from the prophet Abraham and no reason to believe that the dating of the papyri threatens the core theology of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.


The author(s) of Mormon Stories #1339: Dr. Robert Ritner - An Expert Egyptologist Translates the Book of Abraham Pt 1 make(s) the following claim:

Ep. 1: 92:37-95:05 - The Church's own Book of Abraham essay says none of the characters on the papyrus fragments mentioned Abraham's name or any of the events recorded in the Book of Abraham. Mormon and Non-Mormon Egyptologists agree that the characters on the fragments do not match the translation given in the Book of Abraham.

FAIR's Response

Fact checking results: This claim is based upon correct information - The author is providing knowledge concerning some particular fact, subject, or event

The Church's essay indeed does say that. Little is known with certitude about the exact relationship between the papyri from which Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham and the translated text canonized in the Pearl of Great Price today. Three theories have emerged to try and explain this relationship. To become acquainted with these theories, we recommend the reader see this essay by Pearl of Great Price Central on the topic.


The author(s) of Mormon Stories #1340: Dr. Robert Ritner - An Expert Egyptologist Translates the Book of Abraham Pt 2 make(s) the following claim:

Ep. 2: 5:20-6:16 - If there were post-biblical traditions of Abraham, you would expect to find a reflex of that in the continuing cultures in the Near East. They haven't forgotten everything. And the Abraham story is not only alive and kicking, it's predominant, it is more important than Moses in the current world of Egypt. And yet there is not one trace, not a scintilla, not any reflection of the Book of Abraham tradition, whereas the biblical tradition is extremely predominant. So one has to wonder, if there were a second story, why is it that it is not enshrined in living testimony when Abrahamic lore is so strong?

FAIR's Response

Fact checking results: This claim is false

There is extra-biblical lore that supports many elements unique to the Book of Abraham. This is made clear by following the links to the two articles below


Did Joseph Smith plagiarize Genesis?

Summary: Some have questioned if Joseph plagiarized the creation account in Genesis as well as the narrative about Abraham in the Book of Genesis in his translation of the Book of Abraham. We address these questions on this page.

Jump to Subtopic:


Claims about the Translation Process

The author(s) of Mormon Stories #1339: Dr. Robert Ritner - An Expert Egyptologist Translates the Book of Abraham Pt 1 make(s) the following claim:

101:59-102:25 Part of the Book of Abraham was sort of translated in 1835, up through Abraham chapter 2 verse 18, and the balance was translated in early 1842 in Nauvoo and then it was printed in the church newspaper starting I think in March of 1842.

FAIR's Response

Fact checking results: This claim contains propaganda - The author, or the author's source, is providing information or ideas in a slanted way in order to instill a particular attitude or response in the reader

There is no consensus on the timing of the translation of the Book of Abraham as of this moment. For some different views of the timing of translation, see the citation.[6]


The author(s) of Mormon Stories #1340: Dr. Robert Ritner - An Expert Egyptologist Translates the Book of Abraham Pt 2 make(s) the following claim:

1:26:05-1:26:52 Some try and say that this is a revelation instead of a translation. But if you look in the actual scriptures that we have in the Pearl of Great Price Book of Abraham under the explanations, facsimile number two, you will find, it goes through all these different figures. In the bottom, it says this, "The above translation is given as far as we have any right to give at the present time." It is very difficult, if not impossible, to try and characterize what Joseph Smith presented as doing here as anything other than a translation. That's exactly what he calls it there. So Joseph and his scribes clearly call this a translation in their work.

FAIR's Response

Fact checking results: This claim contains propaganda - The author, or the author's source, is providing information or ideas in a slanted way in order to instill a particular attitude or response in the reader

As any scholar of Joseph Smith's translation projects knows, Joseph Smith used the word "translate" in many different ways. Sometimes this means receiving the text by revelation alone like with the Adamic Language. Sometimes it means doing more mechanical translations as was the case with the Kinderhook Plates. What Dr. Ritner's distinction fails to take account for is that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has always said that the translation of the Book of Abraham came by revelation. It does not make a big difference that they call it a revelation of if they call it a translation.


The author(s) of Mormon Stories #1341: Dr. Robert Ritner - An Expert Egyptologist Translates the Book of Abraham Pt 3 make(s) the following claim:

Ep. 3: 1:31:45-1:39:20 Joseph Smith pretended to speak Egyptian in his address to the Green Mountain Boys.

Did Joseph Smith pretend to speak Egyptian in his address to the Green Mountain Boys?

Joseph Smith did not write the Green Mountain Boys address.

FAIR's Response

Fact checking results: This claim is false

Joseph Smith did not write the Appeal to the Freemen of the State of Vermont, the "Brave Green Mountain Boys," and Honest Men. This was ghostwritten by W.W. Phelps. That Dr. Ritner is not aware of this is shocking given that this point has been settled in Latter-day Saint scholarship since at least 1992 in Bruce Van Orden's BYU Studies paper "William W. Phelps's Service in Nauvoo as Joseph Smith's Political Clerk."


Question: Could Joseph Smith translate Egyptian?

At that time, nobody could translate Egyptian . The only way Joseph could translate would be through revelation.

Many students of the Book of Abraham have asked if Joseph Smith could have had access to means that he might learn Egyptian and translate the Book of Abraham and/or if he ever claimed to be able to translate Egyptian mechanically. Joseph couldn't translate Egyptian. At that time, hardly anyone in the United States could translate Egyptian. Jean-Francois Champollion would only recently (relatively speaking) be completing his transliteration of the Rosetta Stone. Joseph was able to receive the text of the Book of Abraham in the same manner that he did for the Book of Mormon, by revelation.

Some critics believe that Joseph claimed he knew Egyptian.

Some critics believe that Joseph claimed to know Egyptian for a couple of reasons.

One of these is an 1844 publication entitled Appeal to the Freemen of the State of Vermont, the "Brave Green Mountain Boys," and Honest Men that was purportedly written by Joseph Smith and in which an appeal to the GAEL is made to provide a translation for an Egyptian-sounding phrase.[7] However, this publication has been demonstrated to have been ghostwritten by W.W. Phelps acting as Joseph Smith.[8] Additionally, it would have been written after all the translation of the Book of Abraham was complete thus making it so that, prior to and during the translation, Joseph would not have claimed to know Egyptian.

A second reason is the GAEL itself and Joseph's use of it when doing his one-character "translation" of the Kinderhook Plates. As Latter-day Saint historians Don Bradley and Mark Ashurst McGee have observed in their definitive treatment of the Kinderhook plates, "[Joseph] Smith’s autonomous use of the Egyptian Alphabet book...in the translation of the Kinderhook plates shows that he considered it a legitimate translation tool."[9] However, as the Gospel Topics Essay on the Book of Abraham has stated, the relationship of the GAEL to the Book of Abraham is not certain. Some have argued that the GAEL represents an attempt by Joseph Smith's scribes to reverse engineer the translation of the Book of Abraham to the papyri without the aid of revelation. If that is true, then Joseph Smith is not necessarily claiming by revelation to know how to translate Egyptian mechanically as academic translators do today with grammar books, dictionaries, etc. It simply means that Joseph received a translation of the papyri by revelation and then without the aid of revelation tried to discern the meaning of the characters on the papyri to try and learn Egyptian.

The final reason comes from the Gospel Topics Essay on the Book of Abraham on churchofjesuschrist.org which states the following:

Phelps apparently viewed Joseph Smith as uniquely capable of understanding the Egyptian characters: “As no one could translate these writings,” he told his wife, “they were presented to President Smith. He soon knew what they were.”[10]

This quotation from Phelps has been interpreted by critics to mean that Joseph Smith was claiming to know the Egyptian language.[11] However, it is clear from context that this did not mean that Joseph was claiming to have a working knowledge of Egyptian that he could use to translate documents mechanically, but that he was capable of discerning the meaning of the writings by revelation given to him because of his role and stewardship as prophet of God and President of the Church.


Claims about the Kirtland Egyptian Papers

The author(s) of Mormon Stories #1340: Dr. Robert Ritner - An Expert Egyptologist Translates the Book of Abraham Pt 2 make(s) the following claim:

55:44-57:11 [RFM:] The Kirtland Egyptian Papers were kept by the Church in its vault, for many, many, many decades and didn't tell anyone they had them and these only got produced when the Tanners and others sort of forced the church's hand in the ‘65, ‘66 timeframe. The Tanners did have leaked to them a transcript of the Abraham Egyptian papers and then they had leaked to them an actual microfilm version of the Abraham Egyptian papers, which is what I think Dr. Ritner had to use in his 2014 response to the church essay. Because until the last couple of years now, as a result of the efforts of Brian Hauglid and the Joseph Smith papers project only in the last three or four years, to my understanding has the church finally allowed to be published the actual papers that were used by Joseph Smith and his scribes to translate the Book of Abraham, i.e. The Abraham Egyptian papers. I was shocked to find out that as recently as six years ago, in 2014, they were not publicly available and that Dr. Ritner had to go to extraordinary links in order to find the Tanners version of it so he could use it in responding to the church essay because the church would not allow him to have access to the originals or reproductions of the originals through the church.

FAIR's Response

The author(s) of Mormon Stories #1341: Dr. Robert Ritner - An Expert Egyptologist Translates the Book of Abraham Pt 3 make(s) the following claim:

2:24:36-2:44:35 The “Valuable Discovery” document proves that the KEP were intended to be translations of the Egyptian characters. This [the Amenhotep Book of the Dead] likely would have been the Book of Joseph had Joseph Smith continued to work on translating the papyrus.

FAIR's Response

The author(s) of Mormon Stories #1341: Dr. Robert Ritner - An Expert Egyptologist Translates the Book of Abraham Pt 3 make(s) the following claim:

The KEP show that Joseph Smith thought he was translating characters from Fragment XI into the text of the Book of Abraham. Warren Parrish said, “I have sat by his side and penned down the translation of the Egyptian hieroglyphics as he claimed to receive it by direct inspiration of heaven.” Also, Egyptian is more difficult to write than Hebrew, despite what the Book of Mormon claims.

FAIR's Response

Fact checking results: This claim is false

The KEP do not have this type of a relationship with the Book of Abraham. Tim Barker and Kerry Muhelstein have provided excellent evidence of that.


Tim Barker, "Translating the Book of Abraham: The Answer Under Our Heads"

Tim Barker,  Proceedings of the 2020 FairMormon Conference, (5 August 2020)
Not everybody listening to this presentation may be fluent or even familiar with the controversies regarding The Book of Abraham. I will not attempt to summarize every criticism leveled against The Book of Abraham here, of course, but I will be addressing the primary argument that has been used against the translation of The Book of Abraham for over fifty years now. The substance of this argument has not changed nor has it been materially improved upon since it was put forth by Grant Heward and Jerald Tanner in 1968. The only noticeable changes to this argument since 1968 has been with respect to the aesthetics in presentation.

Click here to view the complete article


Claims about Chapter 1 of the Book of Abraham

The author(s) of 8: The Mormon Proposition make(s) the following claim:

Fred Karger states that Latter-day Saints "didn’t allow blacks in the Church until 1978."

Author's sources:
  1. No source provided

FAIR's Response

The author(s) of 8: The Mormon Proposition make(s) the following claim:

Fred Karger states that Latter-day Saints "didn’t allow blacks in the Church until 1978."

Author's sources:
  1. No source provided

FAIR's Response

The author(s) of 8: The Mormon Proposition make(s) the following claim:

Fred Karger states that Latter-day Saints "didn’t allow blacks in the Church until 1978."

Author's sources:
  1. No source provided

FAIR's Response

The author(s) of 8: The Mormon Proposition make(s) the following claim:

Fred Karger states that Latter-day Saints "didn’t allow blacks in the Church until 1978."

Author's sources:
  1. No source provided

FAIR's Response

The author(s) of 8: The Mormon Proposition make(s) the following claim:

Fred Karger states that Latter-day Saints "didn’t allow blacks in the Church until 1978."

Author's sources:
  1. No source provided

FAIR's Response

The author(s) of 8: The Mormon Proposition make(s) the following claim:

Fred Karger states that Latter-day Saints "didn’t allow blacks in the Church until 1978."

Author's sources:
  1. No source provided

FAIR's Response

The author(s) of 8: The Mormon Proposition make(s) the following claim:

Fred Karger states that Latter-day Saints "didn’t allow blacks in the Church until 1978."

Author's sources:
  1. No source provided

FAIR's Response

The author(s) of 8: The Mormon Proposition make(s) the following claim:

Fred Karger states that Latter-day Saints "didn’t allow blacks in the Church until 1978."

Author's sources:
  1. No source provided

FAIR's Response

The author(s) of 8: The Mormon Proposition make(s) the following claim:

Fred Karger states that Latter-day Saints "didn’t allow blacks in the Church until 1978."

Author's sources:
  1. No source provided

FAIR's Response

The author(s) of 8: The Mormon Proposition make(s) the following claim:

Fred Karger states that Latter-day Saints "didn’t allow blacks in the Church until 1978."

Author's sources:
  1. No source provided

FAIR's Response

The author(s) of 8: The Mormon Proposition make(s) the following claim:

Fred Karger states that Latter-day Saints "didn’t allow blacks in the Church until 1978."

Author's sources:
  1. No source provided

FAIR's Response

Claims about Facsimile 1 Generally

The author(s) of 8: The Mormon Proposition make(s) the following claim:

Fred Karger states that Latter-day Saints "didn’t allow blacks in the Church until 1978."

Author's sources:
  1. No source provided

FAIR's Response

The author(s) of 8: The Mormon Proposition make(s) the following claim:

Fred Karger states that Latter-day Saints "didn’t allow blacks in the Church until 1978."

Author's sources:
  1. No source provided

FAIR's Response

The author(s) of 8: The Mormon Proposition make(s) the following claim:

Fred Karger states that Latter-day Saints "didn’t allow blacks in the Church until 1978."

Author's sources:
  1. No source provided

FAIR's Response

Claims about Specific Figures in Facsimile 1

Claims about Facsimile 2 Generally

The author(s) of 8: The Mormon Proposition make(s) the following claim:

Fred Karger states that Latter-day Saints "didn’t allow blacks in the Church until 1978."

Author's sources:
  1. No source provided

FAIR's Response

The author(s) of 8: The Mormon Proposition make(s) the following claim:

Fred Karger states that Latter-day Saints "didn’t allow blacks in the Church until 1978."

Author's sources:
  1. No source provided

FAIR's Response

The author(s) of 8: The Mormon Proposition make(s) the following claim:

Fred Karger states that Latter-day Saints "didn’t allow blacks in the Church until 1978."

Author's sources:
  1. No source provided

FAIR's Response

Claims about Specific Figures in Facsimile 2

Claims about Specific Figures in Facsimile 3

Notes

  1. Anonymous, "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham," Gospel Topics Essays. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. <https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/translation-and-historicity-of-the-book-of-abraham?lang=eng&query=Abraham>. Accessed November 4, 2019.
  2. John Gee, "The Idolatrous Gods of Pharoah," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship: forthcoming.
  3. Anonymous, "Abraham and Idrimi," Pearl of Great Price Central. August 1, 2019. <https://www.pearlofgreatpricecentral.org/abraham-and-idrimi/>. Accessed November 4, 2019.
  4. Anonymous, "Shinehah, The Sun," Pearl of Great Price Central. October 23, 2019. <https://www.pearlofgreatpricecentral.org/shinehah-the-sun/>. Accessed November 4, 2019.
  5. John Gee, "Shulem, One of the King's Principal Waiters," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 19 (2016): 383-395 off-site.
  6. As John Gee documents in An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, Joseph Smith visited Church members in Michigan in August of 1835. While he was gone, W.W. Phelps published the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants using the term "Shinehah." taken from Abraham 3:13, as a code word for Kirtland, Ohio, in sections 86 and 98 (sections 82 and 104 in the current edition). This indicates that the Book of Abraham had at least reached Abraham 3:13 before Joseph Smith left for Michigan. P. 16 of the book contains the reference. Additionally, the Book of Jasher as listed in this collection of lore was first published in New York 1840. The appearance of the English translation was noted by the church's Times and Seasons 1 (June 1840): 127 (see also 2 [15 May 1841]: 421), which also published extracts. Ibid., 5 (15 Dec. 1844): 745-46. It was duly noted, however, that the biblical Book of Jasher had not yet been found; ibid., 6 (14 Feb. 1845):800. For differing views on translation chronology see Kerry Muhelstein and Megan Hansen “The Work of Translating: The Book of Abraham’s Translation Chronology," Let Us Reason Together: Essays in Honor of the Life’s Work of Robert L. Millet, J. Spencer Fluhman and Brent L. Top, eds. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: 2016), 139–62; John Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Deseret Book: Salt Lake City, UT, 2018), 15–16; Robin Scott Jensen and Brian M. Hauglid, The Joseph Smith Papers Revelations and Translations Volume 4: Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts (Church Historian's Press: Salt Lake City, UT, 2018), Introduction. The reason for the discrepancy is disagreement over validity of W.W. Phelps' letter of July 1835 indicating that they had begun translation, textual evidence that shows by October 1835 the translated Egyptian term "Shinehah" was found in Abraham 3:13, and the presence of Hebrew terminology in early manuscripts of the Book of Abraham which suggests that some revision was done to Abraham 3 based on revelatory insights to Joseph.
  7. Robert K. Ritner, "'Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham'— A Response," <http://www.mormonthink.com/essays-book-of-abraham.htm> (21 May 2020).
  8. Samuel M. Brown, "The Translator and the Ghost Writer: Joseph Smith and W.W. Phelps," Journal of Mormon History Vol. 34, No. 1 (Winter 2008): 26–62; Bruce A.Van Orden, "William W. Phelps's Service in Nauvoo as Joseph Smith's Political Clerk," BYU Studies 32, nos. 1, 2 (1992): 81–94; Bruce A. Van Orden, We'll Sing and We'll Shout: The Life and Times of W. W. Phelps (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company; Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2018), 356–60.
  9. Don Bradley and Mark Ashurst-McGee, "'President Joseph Has Translated a Portion' Joseph Smith and the Mistranslation of the Kinderhook Plates," in Producing Ancient Scripture: Joseph Smith's Translation Projects in the Development of Mormon Christianity, eds. Michael Hubbard MacKay, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Brian M. Hauglid (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2020), 517.
  10. W. W. Phelps to Sally Phelps, July 19–20, 1835, in Bruce A. Van Orden, “Writing to Zion: The William W. Phelps Kirtland Letters (1835–1836),” BYU Studies 33, no. 3 (1993): 555. Cited in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham," <https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/translation-and-historicity-of-the-book-of-abraham?lang=eng> (21 May 2020).
  11. Robert K. Ritner, "A Response," (21 May 2020).