The Book of Abraham: The larger issue
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While critics of the Church often challenge the authenticity of the Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price, they attach more importance to it than Church members do themselves, a Latter-day Saint Egyptologist said Aug. 6 at the annual conference of the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR).
Such critics lose sight of "the larger issue," said John Gee, an associate research professor of Egyptology at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at BYU.
"The book of Abraham is true," said Brother Gee, author of A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri, at the end of his presentation. "I think it can be defended. I think it should be defended. But it's not the be-all-and-end-all of either apologetics or research or the scriptures."
Brother Gee said that in many cases the argument about the Book of Abraham has become so complex that even some of the sharpest critics lose perspective and fail to be consistent in their contentions.
"We cannot afford to lose sight of the big picture," he said.
He offered a few rules for "apologists," a word that in this context means defenders:
First, it is not necessary to refute every statement by a critic. "The critic may be wrong about a point, but if it is not central to the argument, one can often let it slide."
Second, not every argument or point is worth defending. "Even widely held opinions do not need to be defended if they are mistaken," he said.
Third, truth is not well-served by a bad argument. "We apologists make no claims to perfection, either in ourselves or our arguments, so it is simply better to let go of bad arguments."
Fourth, though God knows everything, "we do not and cannot," he said.
"So if what is most important needs to be defended, what are some of the things that need to be defended?" he asked.
He suggested six: God exists; Jesus Christ is His Son; God talked and still talks with men through the power of the Holy Ghost; Jesus Christ atoned for the sins of the world; the Atonement is available to those who trust Jesus, turn from sin, make and keep sacred covenants, and follow the course throughout their lives; and the Book of Mormon is true, an authentic record of God's interactions with actual ancient people.
"Now, we may be called upon to defend smaller points than these, but if these six things are not true, there is no point in the rest," Brother Gee said.
"Now where is the Book of Abraham in this?" he asked. "It isn't. The Book of Abraham is not central to the restored gospel of Christ."
To illustrate, he said that of all the scriptural citations in general conference since 1942, the Book of Abraham has been cited less than 1 percent of the time. Most of those citations are the seven verses in Abraham 3:22-29, which tell of the pre-mortal existence.
"This is what we as Latter-day Saints care about," he said. "It is what is important."
The critics may regard that as vain superstition, he said, "but they seem to deem it not even worthy of attack. What they attack is simply not important to the Latter-day Saints."
He said that is not to say Church members can or should forego the Book of Abraham, "but simply to give an idea of its relative importance. It is more important than some things and much less important than others."
Brother Gee gave these summary points:
"First, the arguments about the Book of Abraham have become so complex that even the best and brightest of critics end up arguing unwittingly in favor of the LDS position. "The Document of Breathings made by Isis is not the Book of Abraham, and most Latter-day Saints have never claimed it was," he said. "Can we agree on that issue and move on?
"Second, the critics do not deal with the issues arising from the Book of Abraham that Latter-day Saints care about. In that sense, their approach is legerdemain and bait-and-switch.
"Third, how the Book of Abraham was translated is unimportant. The Church does not stand or fall on the Book of Abraham.
"And fourth, regardless of how the Book of Abraham was translated, it is a remarkable document that tells us more about Abraham's day than Joseph Smith could have known."
He concluded: "These larger issues overshadow the often petty issues that we deal with as apologists, and it is high time we paid attention to the larger issue."