A Tale of Two Translations
The Pearl of Great Price is composed of the Book of Moses (which is actually Joseph Smith’s version of the first several chapters of Genesis), the Book of Abraham, Joseph Smith’s version of Matthew 24, excerpts from the History of the Church, and the Articles of Faith.
The Book of Moses
We have in the Book of Moses something quite remarkable. It does not claim to be a translation of an ancient text, but it is more than mere commentary. It is actually a selection from the Joseph Smith Translation — sometimes (and more appropriately, in my opinion) called the “Inspired Version” — of the bible. The word ‘translation’ in Joseph Smith Translation is misleading. As I said, Joseph was not working from a source text (other than his own KJV bible).
The text itself has actually undergone quite a few changes (see this discussion), the most significant and substantial of which occurred early on. From what I gather (and I am no specialist), Joseph began work on the JST almost immediately after the organization of the Church. The earliest MS we have dates back to June 1830 — two months after the founding. About 9 or 10 months later, Joseph returned to the project and substantially revised his original revelation. Kent Jackson (see the link above) writes,
Some of those [revisions to the text of the Book of Moses] are editorial in nature and clarify and smooth out the words of the dictated text. But others are inspired additions and corrections that provide new insights or even change the meaning of what had been written before.
So, this was not a case of the windows of heaven being opened and Joseph simply dictating what he saw. It was an unfolding–a gradual accretion of inspiration–that occurred over months and years.
The Book of Moses contains some of the most beautiful passages in Mormon scripture. In addition to the wonderful teachings on the page, the process of how we came to have them should teach us something about the nature of revelation.
The Book of Abraham
The Book of Abraham is perhaps the most problematic of Joseph’s scriptural productions, and it tops the list of historical issues that shake people’s faith in the truth claims of the Church (at least according to John Dehlin’s survey of doubters). Learning more about the Book of Abraham certainly caused me to reexamine my own views on revelation and and the nature of scripture. From the evidence, it is hard for me to believe that the scripture we have was translated in any straightforward sense of the word from the actual papyri in Joseph’s possession at the time.
Why would he claim to have translated the papyrus? During his translation, Joseph went so far as to create a dictionary of Egyptian hieroglyphs to aid the work of translation. It seems apparent that he believed (or wanted people to believe) that he was actually translating the papyri in the usual sense of the word.
Beyond its origins, the text itself is considerably stranger and (to my mind) more problematic than most anything else we have canonized of Smith’s writings. Among other gems, we have references that seem to corroborate the dubious ‘curse of Ham’ theology (1:24), Kolob and other bizarre astrological references (3:4), and it all seems to end rather abruptly (before we even get to the Fall).
The best of times… the worst of times…
So, where can we go from here? One possibility is to just throw it all out. I can respect this decision. At times the weight of the evidence against the divinity of Joseph’s calling seems to far outweigh any supporting evidence.
Another possibility is to uncritically accept it all. If you’ve read anything else that I have written so far, you know that I don’t think this is very defensible (and if you are still reading, you probably agree).
As with so many things in life, I think the correct answer lies somewhere between the two extremes. Having an open canon is a wonderful blessing, but it is also a weighty responsibility. It calls us to critically evaluate scripture. We should be ready to accept the good, but we also need to be willing to let go of the bad.