Brown Bag Report:
Joseph Smith Papyri Project

On 7 February Michael D. Rhodes, associate professor of ancient scripture at BYU, reported on his work on the Joseph Smith Papyri project. This effort to provide translations of all surviving papyrus fragments once in Joseph Smith’s possession is expected to result in three volumes. The first, which deals with the Egyptian Book of Breathings and will be published this year, features a translation and commentary and includes a description of the text, color digital images, a glossary, and texts of related Egyptian papyri. Rhodes’s second volume, to be published next year, will be a similar treatment of the remaining papyrus fragments, which include portions of the Tshemmin Book of the Dead. A proposed third volume by Rhodes and Egyptologist John Gee would be a comprehensive reference to the Joseph Smith Papyri that would look at the papyri and the Book of Abraham from an LDS perspective.

Rhodes also spoke about the modern history and content of the papyri, which date to the second or third century B.C. More than a decade after Joseph Smith’s martyrdom, some of the papyri were sold to a Chicago museum; they were probably destroyed when the building burned down in 1871. However, in 1967 a few fragments that had been sold separately turned up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and were given to the church. These fragments, constituting about 10 or 15 percent of the original scrolls, are portions of the scroll of Tshemmin (preserving about one-fourth of the Egyptian Book of the Dead), a portion of the scroll of Neferirnub (preserving part of the illustrated judgment scene from the Book of the Dead), and portions of the scroll of Hor (preserving about two-thirds of the Book of Breathings). Nothing remains of the papyrus of Amenhotep or of the hypocephalus of Sheshonq (Facsimile 2 in the Book of Abraham), though copies of both exist from the Kirtland Egyptian Papers. Nor do the extant fragments contain any portion of the Book of Abraham or of the writings of Joseph of Egypt.

Muhammad and Religious Leadership

On 7 March BYU professor of Arabic Daniel C. Peterson reviewed the life of the Islamic prophet Muhammad and discussed his prophetic qualities and role in light of German philosopher Max Weber’s thought on the subject. Peterson began by noting that Islam is not a tradition arising from a vacuum (the conventional view of Islamic scholars) as much as it is a continuation of earlier traditions of possible Canaanite origin.

Muhammad, born in A.D. 570, was an orphan who was raised by relatives and exposed to the Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian influences of the time. Though poor, he had clan prestige and influence through his family’s priestly connection to the Kaabba shrine. As a man of integrity and character, at age 25 he married a wealthy older woman and entered a life of leisure. Peterson explained further that at that time some people were disenchanted with Mecca polytheism and were looking for someone to bring about change, creating an anticipatory atmosphere. According to one account, at age 40 Muhammad was visited by the angel Gabriel, who called him to be a prophet (in another version he sees God on his throne). Contained in the Koran are more than 100 discrete revelations that Muhammad received until his death, when prophethood and revelation ceased in Islam. In about A.D. 620 Muhammad escaped persecution in Mecca by fleeing to Yathrib, where he served as arbitrator of feuds and made the people recognize him as a prophet. Muhammad later became a states man in Medina, where he helped create the first central government in Arabia and became the political ruler of all Arabia.

Peterson then compared Muhammad with Weber’s distinctions between ethical prophets and exemplary prophets and between prophets and mere reformers and priests. Upsetting Weber’s facile paradigm of mutually exclusive religious roles, Peterson described Muhammad as a religious leader who (by Weber’s own definitions) was at once an ethical and exemplary prophet, a prophet-reformer, and a prophet-priest.

Reception History of the Book of Mormon

On 21 March Terryl L. Givens, an associate professor of English at the University of Richmond, discussed his forthcoming book, Out of the Dust: Saints, Scholars, Skeptics, and the Book of Mormon, which is to be published by Oxford University Press. His 1997 book Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy, also from the prestigious Oxford press, is a critically acclaimed analysis of Mormon “heresy” and vilification in the 19th century.

The new book emphasizes how the Book of Mormon has been received over time both within and outside the LDS faith community. It begins by examining the Book of Mormon as a sacred sign of Joseph Smith’s divine calling and of the approaching “end time.” As such the Book of Mormon functions much more powerfully by virtue of what it enacts than by what it contains, he said. The book then examines the Book of Mormon as ancient history, as a cultural product, as new theology, and as a Mormon cultural touchstone. By insisting on the literality of his vision, Joseph Smith rejected 19th-century romanticism and placed himself at odds with his culture, Givens said. He went on to explain the centrality in Western religious thought of ineffability and sacred distance and how the Book of Mormon collapses those notions with its specificity and emphatic literalism, to the outrage of critics. Those same features, he concludes, doom to failure current attempts to negotiate a middle ground in the Book of Mormon wars.