“A Great Fuss about a Scrap of Papyrus”
Review of The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri by Hugh Nibley (Deseret Book, July 1975—$14.95). Reviewer, C. Wilfred Griggs, associate member, Institute for Ancient Studies, Brigham Young University.
“This book had to be written because a great fuss was being made about a scrap of papyrus.” Thus begins Dr. Hugh Nibley in his long-awaited study on the Joseph Smith papyri, a work that really serves two purposes. One purpose is an energetic confrontation with the erstwhile critics of Joseph Smith who, it is shown, have ever been adept at answering all the wrong questions. For example, to all who have ridiculed the Prophet Joseph for mistakenly thinking that the book of Abraham is a literal translation of the papyri, Brother Nibley states:
“The Facsimiles were published along with explanations of what they depicted, but at no time was any Egyptian text put forward as the original Book of Abraham” (p. 2). Another aspect of this confrontation focuses on the translation and meaning of the papyri. In Chapter 3, Brother Nibley points out:
“The chief weapon against the Prophet Joseph has always been the word translate, a word which none of his critics have bothered to define, but if carefully considered might lead to fruitful investigation” (p. 49).
It is precisely this problem that epitomizes the weakness of the critics in this confrontation, for they have concentrated on dismissing Joseph Smith instead of trying to understand what he did. Because the Prophet did not utilize their methods, scholars have assumed that his work could not be worthy of serious consideration.
Brother Nibley marshals a considerable array of talents in fulfilling the second and major purpose of the book, which is to discuss the meaning of the Joseph Smith papyri. Identifying Joseph Smith Papyri X and XI with the Egyptian Book of Breathings becomes a point of departure for Brother Nibley, rather than, as with other scholars, a final pronouncement. Following a reproduction and translation of Joseph Smith Papyri X and XI (and a comparison with “control” texts), Brother Nibley presents an extensive commentary on the Book of Breathings text within the context of an Egyptian temple ritual. From an impressive display of primary and secondary evidence (which is carefully documented through the equally impressive and numerous notes that are a trademark of Nibley scholarship), the Latter-day Saint can find much to enhance his own understanding of temples and sacred ordinances. Few scholars have Hugh Nibley’s ability to draw upon such a broad spectrum of literature in support of a common theme or series of themes. In his Introduction to Appendixes that follows the commentary, Brother Nibley notes:
“As in a hall of mirrors, the Book of Breathings seems to be reflected in an endless procession of documents that fade out of sight in either direction” (p. 255). The reader is then offered examples from the Dead Sea Scrolls, some New Testament apocryphal writings (including the Odes of Solomon, the Hymn of the Pearl, Pistis Sophia, and the Gospel of Philip), and from Cyril of Jerusalem’s Lectures on the Ordinances.
For layman and scholar alike, this book will provide a fascinating insight into the world of the Joseph Smith papyri and without doubt will take its rightful place among the truly significant scholarly works to be written on the scriptures during this dispensation.
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