by Kerry Muhlestein
Cross-posted from The Interpreter Foundation
[Kerry Muhlestein also gave a presentation at the recent FairMormon Conference on “Egyptian Papers and the Translation of the Book of Abraham: What Careful Applications of the Evidence Can and Cannot Tell Us.” You can purchase access to watch the full conference here.]
We live in an era of online communications. If you want to reach large numbers of people in quick fashion, then online videos, blogs, memes, and podcasts have become the tool of the moment. These tools are effective at conveying information in an attractive and user-friendly format and in a way that can reach across the globe in mere minutes. Moreover, they are quite convenient for the consumer, which further helps spread the message. They certainly have their place, and do some things very well.
If these online communications have a downside, it is insuring the accuracy of the information they convey. Many are accurate, many are not, and it is difficult to tell which is which. Like news sound bites, such media often seem to lend themselves to simplistic and over-reduced explanations that frequently misrepresent complex matters. Further, somehow they often easily fall into a low level of discourse. This is not true of all them, it really depends on the hosts and forums. Yet too often this is exactly what happens. Some who engage in these electronic venues work very hard to try to provide accurate information at an honorable level of rhetoric, but the forum does not require it and thus many are extremely poor at ensuring a high academic quality of information and sometimes make little to no effort at maintaining the kind of respectful and noble level of discourse that is supposed to be the hallmark of the academic world. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in some podcasts that have recently been released in various venues about the Book of Abraham.
Please do not mistake my meaning. I have personally participated in creating videos and doing podcasts. I respond to very few of the requests I get to do such things because of the very few items noted above. Yet I also realize their potential to reach different audiences, and the way some institutions engage in them I find to be appropriate, helpful, and honorable. I will probably continue to participate in such venues on some occasions in the future. When I do participate, I try to do all I can to make sure that the platform will encourage and maintain an appropriate kind of accurate discourse.
One of the problems with podcasts, videos and blogs is that there is no intrinsic mechanism for ensuring appropriate tone or accuracy. It is up to each creator as to whether they will take steps to ensure this or not, and many don’t. An additional downfall of these media is that there is also no truly appropriate and effective way to respond to inaccurate or unbecoming podcasts or blogs that already exist. Any similar response, no matter how high the quality, quickly takes on the semblance of a tit-for-tat kind of exchange, and makes the job of the audience who is trying to discern truth from error all the more bewildering. Even a response that is determined to maintain a high level of discourse, if it is going to respond to a low level, somehow takes on the appearance of having sunk to that lower level. Moreover, responses always appear to be a level lower, even when they are not. As in athletics, it is often the responder to an unsportsmanlike foul that will receive the flag.
And yet, I have a concern for the audience. Those who are honestly trying to find truth and avoid error will not know how or where to find truth if only error has been presented to them. Many people will hold to their own views no matter what they encounter, but some really are trying to see their way through the myriad smoke and mirrors they are being presented with. For their sakes it seems worth presenting another side, or at least making an attempt to fan away some of the smoke.
I also have a great desire to come to greater clarity and understanding of the Book of Abraham. There is much to learn, and I believe that if we do it the right way, we can make real advances. It is not always easy to take a mess and turn it into something worthwhile. Yet in this case I think it is worth the effort, and I am optimistic that if many parties are willing, together we can find success.
For example, some of the podcasts have addressed ancient Egyptian aspects of the Facsimiles in the Book of Abraham. A lot of good scholarship has been exhibited when discussing the Egyptological interpretations of those drawings, and I find that discussion to be fruitful. Yet the valid data is then applied to the topic at hand based on a misunderstanding of what Latter-day Saint scholars believe or have said. In such a case we end up with good data and problematic application of it. This must be at least partially the fault of Latter-day Saint scholars. Apparently we need to do a better job of communicating what we think about these things. Hopefully a dialogue can be struck where we learn from one another rather than talk past one another. Until then, online communications will inevitably present somewhat meaningless sides of a discussion on different trajectories. Misrepresentations of points of view, even unintentionally, can only lead to misinformation.
Further, presumably because of the difficulty of delving into complex matters in simple forums, often only partial information is conveyed. This, combined with the problems outlined in the previous paragraph, leads to discussion that can be misleading for the audience, and yet seems so convincing.
I will use one example. In one recent podcast Joseph Smith was attacked for what the guest felt was an inaccurate reconstruction of a missing part of a drawing on a papyrus. The debated point is whether a now-missing depiction of a head should have been of a human head or the head of the Egyptian god Anubis. If that part of the papyrus were already missing, then Joseph Smith seems to have directed the engraver of the facsimile to depict the figure with a human head, although we cannot be positive even on that point. In the podcast it was stated that this is not how such depictions were drawn, and thus Joseph Smith was inaccurate.
At the same time there were several things which were not stated in the podcast. For example, the glue marks suggest that the part of the drawing in question, which is missing now, was not always missing. It is quite possible, perhaps even probable, that it was actually in place when Joseph Smith first had the papyri, and that the facsimile was based on what he had actually seen at one point. Further, we cannot tell the extent to which Reuben Hedlock, the artist, was acting on Joseph Smith’s instruction and how much was his own initiative.
Further, in the same podcast it was pointed out that there are a number of unique features about this particular drawing (not all of which the guest or host pointed out). It seems logically inconsistent to dictate that one unknown part of the papyrus must conform to known drawings when other known parts of the papyrus clearly do not. In fact, a good scholarly treatment of this vignette should admit that there are enough unusual things about it that we cannot honestly claim that we fully understand what is going on with it.
Additionally, whether originally the drawing depicted Anubis’s jackal head or the head of a human, it would have been understood that the role being performed would have been performed by a priest. Perhaps it was a priest representing Anubis, but a priest nonetheless. Thus, if that piece of papyrus were missing when Joseph Smith first acquired it, and if he said it should be reconstructed to depict a priest, such a reconstruction would be accurate to the meaning of the drawing, which would be remarkable in and of itself.
Moreover, we do not know if Joseph Smith was intending to provide us with what this would have been like anciently, or if he was trying to provide us with what we should derive from it spiritually in our day. We just don’t have enough data to know if the Prophet engaged in reconstructing this depiction, and if he did, why he did so or the relationship between their original context and their new one. Nor do we know enough about the intent of the original creators of the depiction. There is too little data to reach any firm conclusions on this point.
Thus, while on the podcast, it was spoken of as if this were a simple, open-and-shut case, even the brief and simplistic treatment provided here should be enough to demonstrate that this issue is not so simple, and it is anything but closed. I believe it misrepresents the complexity and richness of the vignette and the possible ways Joseph Smith interacts with it. This kind of thing happens again and again in these forums, and the reader needs to be aware that they are not being given the whole picture. This is a shame, because an exciting and beautiful discourse could be had about this subject if the involved parties were willing to really engage. We could all have our understanding expanded. Instead, what is currently happening is misleading for listeners.
Again, this is the inherent flaw in the kind of podcasts that have been produced of late. It is not a forum that lends itself to truly complex matters, and delving into the ancient world and modern revelation is inevitably a complex undertaking. This is all the more so when all the participants are bent on coming to the same conclusion. Thus, one should be very, very careful about how much stock should be put in a communication that is taking place in a medium that is not capable of handling the nature of the communication.
As a result of this and other issues, many of the online communications about the Book of Abraham have been deeply problematic. For my own research purposes I have listed dozens of examples of places where incorrect information, unstated incorrect assumptions, mischaracterization of arguments, and withholding of information or evidence was rampant. I have also listed many places where participants said incorrect things about colleagues. These are things that I personally know were just wrong. As someone with in-depth knowledge about the issues and the people, I found the miscommunications and misinformation that were in these podcasts to be disappointing. Yet I do not want to turn this essay into something problematic either. So I will instead put my efforts into creating the kind of careful, systematic writing that can advance the field. I will just push forward in good research. For those who are patient, such good research will carry us through.
Many of the arguments in these online forums can sound very convincing. Guests and hosts can create an online echo chamber in which they self-reinforce circular arguments, unnoticed assumptions, and mischaracterization of others’ arguments, and then self-congratulate one another on their conclusions in a way that seems so very convincing. To the trained and informed observer, many of the arguments that the involved parties paint as being so convincing, are instead immediately obviously deeply problematic. To be fair, some reasonable and important points have also been raised, and if we were to change the discourse so that we conduct the discussion according to high academic standards in an academic venue, I believe that together we could make true scholarly progress. Yet most points raised online have been overly full of intellectual fallacies, mischaracterization of the issues, bad underlying assumptions, and circular arguments.
I anticipate that as time goes on these will be discussed in an appropriate and reasonable fashion. This will happen over the course of time, and for some audiences it is crucial that they know now that the self-congratulatory echo chambers they may have encountered are not all that they seem.
Further, a sad aspect of these online communications has been the efforts to just be dismissive of those who hold opposing points of view. Those who say that scholars such as myself or John Gee are pseudo-Egyptologists or only have a patina of scholarship have either completely failed to do their homework, or have willingly misconstrued the truth, presumably to help further their agendas. By my own quick, rough count, John Gee has edited three academic books, has served as the editor for a respected Egyptological journal, has published over twenty peer-reviewed articles in respected Egyptological or Ancient Near Eastern journals, many of which are truly top tier, has published twelve articles in peer reviewed and highly respected academic conference proceedings, and eleven peer reviewed articles as chapters in respected academic books. He has authored many Egyptological entries for various academic encyclopedias. He has also been asked to serve in various capacities for several respected academic and Egyptological organizations. For example, he was the only North American affiliate of the Totenbuchprojekt (Book of the Dead project) at the University of Bonn. He was a visiting scholar at the University of Heidelberg. He has given dozens and dozens of lectures at academic Egyptological conferences. This is all without saying anything about the other areas he researches and publishes in. In short, he is a very productive and respected scholar. To call him a pseudo-Egyptologist or say he has only a patina of scholarship is very incorrect. I do not wish to speculate as to why such knowingly inaccurate statements were made, but I find them shockingly disingenuous.
I do not wish to go through a similar litany for myself. It is not my place to do so. My profile is on Academia.edu for those who wish to see that I too am an active and participating Egyptologist. One cannot be intellectually honest and informed and describe my scholarship the way these online forums have attempted to do so. It just makes the statements seem silly to those who are informed. It is an example of the kind of low-level discourse that scholars avoid because they are trying to truly deal with arguments, not win them at the cost of truth.
I wish to reemphasize that I am not saying that there is nothing of value in these podcasts, nor that every idea raised in them should be ignored. Rather it is to say that those things that are of value should be stated in an appropriate academic venue, where an appropriate response could be made. I trust that in the days to come, many of the reasonable issues that have been raised about the Book of Abraham will be dealt with in proper academic fashion. In fact, I have gained a number of insights as I have listened to these podcasts. Some of them have come as the result of good research. While I often do not agree with how the data has been interpreted, and I have identified incorrect assumptions that have led to these misinterpretations, nonetheless some of the accurate information and accurate conclusions have helped me learn and come to my own new conclusions and better understandings.
Yet as we think of these podcasts and attempting to turn them into something that is trustworthy and useful, we must keep in mind that high-level academic discourse is slow. It requires detailed and painstaking research, careful writing, review and revision, then editorial and peer review, further revision, further review, editing, typesetting, more review, and finally publication. Then others can respond in kind. And that is in a process where no problems are encountered. The review process hopefully helps identify bad assumptions, misinterpretations, etc., though it is not perfect at doing so. It is exactly this lengthy process which raises the chances that the information is viewed by many qualified individuals as being methodologically sound, and that unseemly discourse is avoided. It does not ensure that everything meets the highest standards, and not all publications go through this full process. Further, mistakes will inevitably creep in. Still, this process greatly increases the chances of good scholarship delivered in suitable rhetoric. It also allows for proper academic rebuttals that can help correct mistakes and advance knowledge appropriately.
This means that reliable responses to new arguments will be slow in coming. I can only ask that those who really want to know the truth will be patient as they wait for such response and dialogue. In the meantime, hopefully this essay will assure them that it is worth wading through true research which has already been published on both sides, and waiting patiently for further worthwhile research in the future. I believe that a lot of good scholarship has been produced in the last decade or more, and that more is on the horizon. I also believe that even parties with diametrically opposed points of view can have a measured, honorable, and productive dialogue that will benefit both groups if they maintain high rhetoric. I hope that we can turn the recent spate of online information into a real dialogue. I am convinced that I can learn from those who have different viewpoints from mine. I am equally convinced that if they will really take my research seriously that it can aid them in their desires for accurate information. Done correctly, this can be a scholarly dialogue that moves us forward in a worthwhile way.
In the meantime, I feel that the truth-seeking audience should know that there are many things that have been said about scholars, their methods, their motives, and their abilities that I believe are wildly inaccurate. In future days I will be seeking for the appropriate venue and tone to address such matters. Similarly, many will seek for fitting venues for productive discussions regarding both the good ideas and the faulty assumptions and misinformation that has been conveyed. The hope is that this can take place in a way that is helpful for all involved to really come to clarity.
In connection with this, may I express my hope for how such things will be done in the future? Let us try to address these issues in a scholarly and noble way. Let us avoid trying to cloud the issues by attacking people, and may we especially be honest and fair in what we say about people. Let us use a high register of rhetoric and discourse. Let us attempt to publicly identify our assumptions and address them. Let us try to honestly listen to the scholarly communications of each other with open minds. Let us accurately represent the arguments of others. And then let us discourse with each other in a way that can help us all advance our state of understanding. There are ways to do this, and I hope we will. I believe we have nothing to fear, and nothing to hide. True academic discourse can move us forward.
To the lay audience, I urge both patience and wisdom. The sound and fury of the online discourse of recent days typically yields only froth. In each there are real currents that can move us forward, but those currents are almost completely covered by a foamy lather that has only air and no substance in it. I assure you that over time I and others will carefully pick our way through the much ado that has been made and find the real nuggets that are worth moving forward in a more appropriate, scholarly and effective way. In the meantime, a great deal of worthwhile research has already been done. Please take advantage of that which has hitherto been done well, and be wary of discourse which easily catches attention but does not meet the high standards to which we should adhere.
I believe that academic dialogue is important and can be fruitful. There are many scholars who are academically interested in the Book of Abraham, its translation, and its content. Some scholars have even made such study their life’s work. (This is not unusual in many specialized subject areas.)
Regardless of the area of study, all scholars approach any topic with their own sets of existing beliefs. It is impossible for a scholar to be a “blank slate” when it comes to any field of study. It is no surprise that my existing beliefs are consistent with what I view as the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith. It is likewise no surprise that others, including Professor Ritner, start with a set of beliefs that preclude divine involvement in the work of Joseph Smith.
With that in mind and because I am truly interested in academic dialogue about the Book of Abraham, before I posted any kind of response online, I personally contacted Professor Ritner. I suggested that we work together on creating an academic volume on the subject. I suggested possible guidelines for doing so, possible academic venues, possible editors, and even a potential table of contents. I modeled it after volumes on contested issues that have been successfully done in academia elsewhere. The goal would be to have a balanced approach observing the highest academic rigor and tone, creating a dialogue with each other rather than having parties who speak past each other. If done correctly, I believe that such an approach can lead to real progress.
Dr. Ritner graciously declined, citing his current health circumstances. This is very understandable. I have responded, letting him know that I am open to other options as long as we can find something that would adhere to appropriate academic standards. I have also offered to fly to Chicago, once pandemic conditions have stabilized, to discuss this matter with him.
Finally, I hope that no one will speculate about Professor Ritner’s reasons for declining my invitation. The best thing for all of us is that others do not presume they know what either his or my intentions are, and that we are both given a reasonable space to work towards something together in the midst of his difficult circumstances. I believe it is possible to make true academic progress in this matter, and will continue to work towards making that happen.
Kerry Muhlestein, September 2, 2020
Kerry Muhlestein received his BS from BYU in psychology with a Hebrew minor. He received an MA in ancient Near Eastern studies from BYU and his PhD from UCLA in Egyptology. He taught courses in Hebrew and Religion part time at BYU and the UVSC extension center, as well as in history at Cal Poly Pomona and UCLA. He also taught early-morning seminary and at the Westwood (UCLA) institute of religion. His first full-time appointment was a joint position in religion and history at BYU–Hawaii. He is the director of the BYU Egypt Excavation Project. He was selected by the Princeton Review in 2012 as one of the best 300 professors in the nation (the top .02% of those considered). He was also a visiting fellow at the University of Oxford for the 2016–17 academic year. He has published six books and over fifty-five peer-reviewed articles and has done over eighty academic presentations. He and his wife, Julianne, are the parents of six children, and together they have lived in Jerusalem while Kerry has taught there on multiple occasions. He has served as the chairman of a national committee for the American Research Center in Egypt and serves on their Research Supporting Member Council. He has also served on a committee for the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities and currently serves on their board of trustees and as a vice president of the organization. He is the co-chair for the Egyptian Archaeology Session of the American Schools of Oriental Research. He is also a senior fellow of the William F. Albright Institute for Archaeological Research. He is involved with the International Association of Egyptologists, and has worked with Educational Testing Services on their AP world history exam.