Kerry Muhlestein, professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, PhD in Egyptology at UCLA in 2003.
As we discuss all of the Facsimiles, we must keep in mind what I wrote about Challenge Two. I must be emphatic: we do not know what paradigm we should use as we try to evaluate Joseph Smith’s interpretations of the Facsimiles. It may be useless to compare his interpretations to that of Egyptologistsi. It is equally likely, perhaps more so, that we should be looking for an ancient Jewish interpretation of such representations, or how a small group of Egyptian priests would have interpreted them, or a spiritual interpretation. Still, for the sake of thorough research it is fun to compare it to an Egyptological perspective, and it just might have merit. Moreover, studying these drawings from an Egyptological point of view is an academic and human endeavor worthy in its own right. Studying how they may have been understood in different ways, by different groups, at different periods of time is even more enticing.
I must also reiterate that none of the similarities between Joseph Smith’s interpretations and those that we find in Egyptian sources proves that Joseph Smith was correct. They cannot do so. The true point is that it presents a case of plausibility.ii Arguments against Joseph Smith are not well founded when what he tells us is plausible.
In order to more fully understand the vignettes of the Joseph Smith papyri that were made into the Facsimiles in the published Book of Abraham, let us look more carefully at the zeitgeist from which the papyri came. The zeitgeist were created in a day of internationalization in Egypt. They were created in a day when the Egyptians were living among a great number of Greeks and Jews.iii Each of these cultures borrowed from each other. The Greeks created gods and cultic practices heavily influenced by the Egyptians.iv The Egyptians borrowed from both the Jews and the Greeks in their religious and cultic practices and representations,v and many Jews were similarly influenced by the Greeks and Egyptians.vi All of these cultures found their ways of understanding and representing their own religious beliefs to be changing and evolving as a result of the pastiche of religio-cultural identity they were melding into. As a result, we find curious uses of foreign religious ideas and identities manifesting themselves in each of these cultures’ religious practices and traditions. This impacts the possible interpretations of the Facsimiles.
To illustrate, let us look at some possible scenarios for the Facsimiles. As already mentioned, we know that some Jews were using foreign representations in their own way.vii Besides those mentioned in Challenge Two, let us look at their later use of the Zodiac. In a few synagogues, such as those at Beit Alpha and Sepphoris, a mosaic of a zodiac was incorporated into the floor of the synagogue. Clearly it could not carry with it the full meaning that it would have had in Greek culture and still be compatible with the strict monotheism of Judaism. Thus we must conclude that the Jews who created or worshipped in these synagogues were using representations from the cultures around them but using and understanding them in their own unique way. Isn’t it possible that this was also done with all three Facsimiles? Couldn’t these all represent a Jewish way of understanding Egyptian style drawings? Shouldn’t we expect that at least some of the large number of Jews in Egypt adopted the Egyptian depictions around them and used them in their own way? Wouldn’t we actually be shocked if this didn’t happen?
On the other hand, we also know that at least some Egyptians were using Jewish stories and ideas in their religious practices and writings.viii They used their typical religious rituals but inserted Jewish, Greek, Mesopotamian, and other religious elements into these rituals, texts and spells, thus slightly altering and adapting their ritual and textual representations.ix Would we not expect them to do the same with their religious pictorial representations?
i See Kerry Muhlestein, “The Religious and Cultural Background of Joseph Smith Papyrus I.” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture22.1 (2013): 20-33. Print.
ii See, for example, John Gee and Stephen D. Ricks, “Historical Plausibility: The Book of Abraham as a Case Study,” in The Historicity of the Scriptures, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2001), 63-98.
iii See, for example, Life in a Multi-Cultural Society: Egypt from Cambyses to Constantine and Beyond, ed. Janet H. Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992); and Thomas Schneider, “Foreign Egypt: Egyptology and the Concept of Cultural Appropriation,” in Ägypten und Levante 13 (2003): 160–61.
iv The cult of Serapis is demonstrative of this. Also see Shanna Kennedy-Quigley, “Ptolemaic Translation and Representation: The Hellenistic Sculptural Program of the Memphite Sarapieion,” in Evolving Egypt: Innovation, Appropriation and Reinterpretation, ed. John Gee and Kerry Muhlestein (Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, 2012), 87-98.
v Kerry Muhlestein, “Abraham, Isaac, and Osiris-Michael: The Use of Biblical Figures in Egyptian Religion,” in the proceedings of Achievements and Problems of Modern Egyptology, ed. Galina, A. Belova (Moscow: Russian Academy of Sciences, 2012), 246–59; and Kerry Muhlestein, “The Religious and Cultural Background of Joseph Smith Papyrus One,” in The Journal of Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22/1 (2013), 20-33.
vi See Erich Gruen, Heritage and Hellenism: The Reinvention of Jewish Tradition, Berkeley, 1998); and Jared W. Ludlow, “Reinterpretation of the Judgment Scene in the Testament of Abraham” in Evolving Egypt: Innovation, Appropriation and Reinterpretation, ed. John Gee and Kerry Muhlestein (Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, 2012), 99-104 and Kerry Muhlestein, “The Religious and Cultural Background of Joseph Smith Papyrus I.” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture22.1 (2013): 20-33.
vii See also Kevin L. Barney, “The Facsimiles and Semitic Adaptation of Existing Sources,” in Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant, ed. John Gee and Brian M. Hauglid. (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies and Brigham Young University, 2005), 107–30.
viii Muhlestein, “Abraham, Isaac, and Osiris-Michael.”
ix See Kerry Muhlestein, “The Religious and Cultural Background of Joseph Smith Papyrus I.” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture22.1 (2013): 20-33. Print.