*Updated: Feb. 2, 2018
In January 2018, I had the privilege to interview John Gee, author of “An Introduction to the Book of Abraham.”
Gee is perhaps today’s most well-known Mormon Egyptologist and has been gracious enough to sit down for an interview to share his thoughts and experiences about the intersections of faith and scholarship.
Kurt Manwaring: Welcome. Before we begin, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you first got interested in Egyptology?
John Gee: I had never heard of Egyptology until I got to college. My freshman year, my brother and I stumbled across a book in the bookstore on learning hieroglyphs. There were two copies and so we each got one. I read it and got interested in the subject. He read it and went into something more useful.
Kurt Manwaring: What role did your Mormon faith play during the pursuit of your doctorate at Yale? Did it ever cause problems or open doors?
John Gee: In certain cases, being a faithful Latter-day Saint opened doors. More often it has caused problems.
For example, when I first got to Yale, it took me a while but I finally found a place to stay. After about a week, the fellow who owned the apartment, one of the Yale faculty, found out I was a Latter-day Saint and kicked me out for that reason.
A couple of weeks later I got a letter. Just before going to Yale I had participated at an international conference. My paper was decently received but the letter was from the editors of the proceedings volume rejecting my paper on the grounds that I was a member of the Church.
Such attitudes are still prevalent in academia and I still encounter them with some frequency.
Years ago, Elder [Neal A.] Maxwell warned that “the Saints—meaning you and I—must not make the mistake of assuming the existence of any truce between the forces of Satan and God. To believe so, . . . is a very great delusion, and a very common one.”
Given my own experience and Elder Maxwell’s warning, I do not think this kind of thing is going to go away.
Kurt Manwaring: Did you work with Hugh Nibley? How would you describe him to those today who do not know who he is?
John Gee: I worked with Nibley, first as a student, then as a source checker, and finally something of a colleague. Nibley was about my grandfather’s age, and I am younger than any of his children, so there was always a distance.
My experience with him stretched over about twenty-two years in a fairly broad range of academic settings. But I probably got to know him about as well as anyone of my generation outside of his family could. I have lots of experiences and lots of stories.
Nibley was genius, smarter than I will ever be. One of the grand old men of biblical studies once commented about Nibley that it was obscene for one individual to know so much. He was also an extremely gifted writer. Most writers can be improved by a good editor; unless they were very careful, editors tended to make Nibley worse. He could turn a phrase better than almost anyone I know and had a very dry and biting wit.
Those who do not know Nibley might benefit from looking at his approach to problems. Nibley did not confine himself to one field because for him,
“There are no fields—there are only problems—meaning that one must bring to the discussion and solution of any given problem whatever is required to understand it: If the problem calls for a special mathematics, one must get it; if it calls for three or four languages, one must get them; if it takes twenty years, one must be prepared to give it twenty years—or else shift to some other problem. Degrees and credentials are largely irrelevant where a problem calls for more information than any one department can supply or than can be packaged into any one or a dozen degrees.”
Nibley recognized that the key to accessing any knowledge from the past is language, and so he learned lots of them so that he could have access to documents from the past. “All knowledge of the past—historical, philosophical, literary, religious, etc.—comes to us through written texts which . . . cannot be critically examined or understood in translation.”
He chided his colleagues in the history department for not preparing themselves better by learning languages:
“They are like a man setting out to explore a wonderful cavern without bothering to equip himself with either lights or ropes…. They are like dentists who insist on performing delicate brain surgery because that is more interesting than filling teeth. Nice for them—but what about their patients.”
Because of the problems that Nibley was interested in, he often wandered over into other people’s fields. Many of his colleagues loved him, except when he was dealing with their subject, because he would deal with it differently than they would.
He would bring insights from other subjects into theirs and would often see through professional posturing and academic fads. Nibley noted that Mormon intellectuals “tend to panic when anyone threatens to substitute serious discussion for professional camaraderie.” So they “will promptly sound the alarm and attack them as fanatics and troublemakers.” Nibley knew that the praise of the world and of colleagues was a trap that often kept one from serving God.
Although Nibley published a great deal, professionally and for the Saints, he was not interested in publishing for the sake of publishing.
“Publish or perish” is too mechanical and unimaginative a rule to apply everywhere, but it is not too much to insist on the rule, “Publish or shut up!” He kept publication in perspective: “Above all, I could see no point to going on through the years marshaling an ever-lengthening array of titles to stand at attention some day at the foot of an obituary.”
As a teacher Nibley was unique. One Pearl of Great Price class he was over halfway through the semester before he got to Moses 1:1 because he had been giving background. Another time, he started by giving the first class on Job in Hebrew, the second class on Goethe’s Faust in German, and the third class with the Shabako Stone in Egyptian.
The student’s entire grade depended on the student’s answer to a one question essay final. Nibley wanted to see if the student could think for themselves.
Most didn’t. And so most got a C.
Every semester there would be a line of students wanting him to change their grade. I don’t know that he ever did. If you read their essays, you could see that they deserved the grade they got. Nibley stopped teaching after a BYU administrator changed the students’ grades without his permission.
As far as the Book of Abraham goes, I am very impressed with Nibley’s work, even where I do not agree with some of it.
Nibley was always asking the right questions and answering them to the best of anyone’s ability at the time. Half a century later, there are thousands of texts that have been published that Nibley did not have access to and so we would answer some of the questions differently now, but we are still answering the same questions that he asked.
And for a subject that has seen as much change as the Book of Abraham has, it is somewhat surprising that Nibley’s work has held up as well as it has.
Kurt Manwaring: So much about how the ancient Egyptians thought about the afterlife is astonishingly profound. How would you describe their desire to commune with the divine? Was a significant portion of mortality devoted to this pursuit, or were funerary texts largely reserved for end-of-life cramming sessions?
John Gee: Some of the most interesting texts in this regard are not funerary texts but requests for revelation from a deity.
They asked about whom they should marry, whether they should take a new job offer, whether a child will recover from illness, who should be appointed to a particular priestly office, and other things.
There are a number of wishes to dwell in the presence of the god after death, but communion with deity was something for this life as well.
Kurt Manwaring: What are some of the most common misconceptions about the Book of Abraham?
John Gee: I will deal here with only three:
The first is that the fragments that we currently have must be the papyri from which Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham. A careful examination of the accounts left by nineteenth century eyewitnesses shows that cannot be the case.
The second is that the speculations of W. W. Phelps and Oliver Cowdery that were in Phelps’ possession are actually Joseph Smith’s and that they somehow give us some sort of key to understanding the translation process. The arguments put forward for this are usually circular and therefore logically fallacious.
The third is that one can assess the validity and authenticity of the Book of Abraham and understand its contents without reference to the ancient world of Abraham’s day. If all one studies and all one knows is nineteenth century history, then all one will be able to see is the nineteenth century; one will never be in a position to see anything ancient in the Book of Abraham.
Kurt Manwaring: “An Introduction to the Book of Abraham” is remarkably even-keeled in its tone. How do non-Mormons react to your approach to the Joseph Smith papyri? I’m curious if you find respect by being respectful, or if there is always an unspoken stigma surrounding you in the academic world.
John Gee: The Joseph Smith Papyri are religious papyri that date to the Ptolemaic period. There are only a handful of Egyptologists in the world who are interested in the intersection of those two subjects and most of them live in continental Europe. I get along pretty well with most of them.
In general, my colleagues tend to respect competence. They seem to react fairly well to my treatment of the papyri as documents from ancient Egypt. My commitment to the Church seems to strike them as somewhat odd.
In the academic world being known as a faithful Latter-day Saint will surround one with a stigma. *A third of faculty are prejudiced against Latter-day Saints, but 42% of the humanities faculty [according to a study by] Gary A. Tobin and Aryeh K. Weinberg. Prejudice against Latter-day Saints is second only to Evangelicals; every other religious group has a generally favorable rating among professors.
Kurt Manwaring: What impact does the Joseph Smith Papers Project have on the study of issues related to the Book of Abraham? Have volumes from the project started to receive citations in academic works within your field?
John Gee: The Joseph Smith Papers Project is very important in its sphere. But few of the documents published so far have any relation to the Book of Abraham. Those volumes are still in the future. It seems to me that although the project is significant and important, it is largely unknown outside of those interested in Latter-day Saint history.
The project seems to be completely unknown in Egyptology except among those who are Latter-day Saints. Even among Latter-day Saints, it is not very well-known and like many things is probably not as well-known as it should be.
The documents that will be published in the volume dealing with the Book of Abraham manuscripts have been known for at least half a century.
The Joseph Smith Papers Project is actually the fourth project I know of to attempt to publish the materials from Joseph Smith. Virtually all of the material in the Joseph Smith Papers Project that deals with the Book of Abraham was known, and much of it published, long ago. You can find almost all of it in the older publications of Dean Jessee from the 1980s and 1990s, which is where I encountered it. There are a number of new and important documents published by the Project but I cannot think of any that deal with the Book of Abraham.
In saying this, I am not minimizing the importance of the project. Yet its potential for helping us understand the Book of Abraham is limited because the scriptural text of the Book of Abraham has comparatively few variants, and because Joseph Smith was a translator, not an author.
The origins and context of the Book of Abraham are to be found in antiquity not in the nineteenth century.
Kurt Manwaring: What is it about the Book of Abraham that persuades so many scholars to set aside standard academic training and embrace bias? Similarly, what it is about the papyri that inspire so many Mormons to set aside the search for truth and embrace blind faith in often-inaccurate claims?
John Gee: I suspect that if you look at individual cases you will find a host of different individual reasons. Let me suggest a couple of ways of looking at things that might cover some of the cases:
(1) In the Book of Abraham God asks Abraham to leave his family (which was much more important in his day than it is in ours) and go to a place that had been under the control of people who were trying to kill him. His reaction was as follows: “Thou didst send thine angel to deliver me from the gods of Elkenah, and I will do well to hearken unto thy voice” (Abraham 2:13). Abraham has faith, but it does not seem to me that he has blind faith. I would call it reasoned faith.
Academics faced with the Book of Abraham (or the Book of Mormon) are usually intelligent enough to realize that if it is true, that will necessitate a change in their life as great as the one Abraham faced. They, however, may not have had an experience like Abraham’s that would give them the basis for a reasoned faith. Without that, the reasonable thing is to stay in Haran.
(2) From the Latter-day Saint side, perhaps it might help to look at a different case when many Latter-day Saints did embrace blind faith in inaccurate claims.
In the early 1980s Mark Hofmann fabricated documents to support certain speculations about early LDS history. He encouraged people to accept his documents on blind faith and many people, especially Mormon historians, did. If you look at President [Gordon B.] Hinckley’s public statements on the forgeries as they came out, they usually have some statement like: ‘This document, if authentic, shows such-and-such.’
Unfortunately, it is hard to find anyone else who followed President Hinckley’s cautions.
Why did so many Mormon historians—including well-respected historians like Richard Bushman, Jan Shipps, and Ron Walker—embrace blind faith in Hofmann’s inaccurate claims?
I suspect that each had a different set reasons, only some of which overlapped with others.
Kurt Manwaring: Astronomy is such an exacting field of study, and yet with the Book of Abraham we see a need for Mormon scholars in other fields to competently address it. Richard Bushman did this in “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling,” and felt insecure about his efforts. What has been your experience trying to address specifics about astronomy coming from a background of Egyptology?
John Gee: To understand the astronomy in the Book of Abraham requires only a careful reading of what the text actually says and careful attention to what assumptions the reader is making.
It helps to have an understanding of how ancient people thought about astronomy, and in that sense a background in Egyptology can be useful. Because the Book of Abraham is an ancient book, not a modern one, the task is much different than if it came out of Joseph Smith’s day.
Remember that much of the change in our understanding of astronomy was made possible because of Tycho Brahe’s exacting measurements in the sixteenth century. Before Brahe, astronomy was a much less exacting field of study. The astronomy of Abraham and the Egyptians is even before Ptolemy (the astronomer, not the rulers) made things complicated.
You do not need anything more exact than what you would find in Geminus.
The Book of Abraham’s astronomy is primarily conceptual with a minimal amount of mathematics.
Kurt Manwaring: Is there anything about the history of the Book of Abraham that should trouble the faith of members of the Church?
John Gee: No. Misinformation and misconceptions about the Book of Abraham can trouble to Latter-day Saints, but usually, the part that people find troubling is assuming that the misinformation is true.
Kurt Manwaring: If you had access to a certain blue police box with unique temporal abilities and could go back in time to witness any one event surrounding the papyri, “when” would you go and why?
John Gee: Picking one is difficult. Here are my top five:
- One could pick a date like 1 October 1835 or one of the other revelatory sessions when Joseph Smith was working on the Book of Abraham and see what the process looked like to his scribes and which, if any, papyrus he was using. That, however, would not really let one experience the translation process.
- One could pick one of the times when Lucy Mack Smith was unrolling the scrolls for visitors and get a good look at the intact scroll as well as the book that had the more complete manuscript of the Book of Abraham so one could read the portion that was not published. That, however, would only give a second-hand interpretation of the scrolls and the Book of Abraham.
- One could choose when Bernardino Drovetti and his team was excavating the scrolls in the first place so one could see which tomb the papyri came from as well as get a good look at the archaeological context of the papyri and the mummies. The papyri, however, might not have all have come from the same find.
- One could also pick when the scroll was originally created in Ptolemaic Egypt. That would give on a view of the process by which the scroll was made, which other texts might have been available, and the original that the scroll was copied from. Unfortunately, one would meet the scribe and probably not the ancient owner.
- One might pick one of the events from Abraham’s life itself. That was a fairly dangerous and difficult time, but one could meet a man who took himself from a severely dysfunctional family (his father tried to kill him) and became the father of the faithful.
*This statement was corrected by John Gee in response to a reader’s comment and originally read, “A survey of university faculty from a few years ago showed that more than half of professors are prejudiced against Latter-day Saints. That number is smaller among business and the sciences but larger in the social sciences and humanities.”