A look at Hugh Nibley on the Book of Abraham

A look at Hugh Nibley on the Book of Abraham

Shulem The Waiter

In Facsimile 3 of the Book of Abraham (BoA), Joseph Smith identifies figure 5 as �Shulem, one of the king�s principal waiters as represented by the characters above his head.� This identification is at variance with Egyptologists who state that figure 5 represents a deceased person named Hor or Horus.

To satisfy my curiosity as to how a Mormon scholar would explain this difference in interpretation, I read �Nibley On The Facsimiles�, which is posted on a Mormon site at BYU called the Book of Abraham Project.

A copy of the portion of this document, that discusses Shulem, follows:

Perhaps the neatest bull’s eye that the Prophet Joseph makes in the Explanatians, is in designating Figure 5 in FacsimiIe No. 3 as “Shulem, one of King(s principal waiters.” Wherever did he get that idea? Nobody ever heard of Shulem, who is never mentioned anywhere else, before or after, in our story. Indeed. it seems that nothing in Smith’s interpretation of this Facsimile is as the normal candid observer would see it. The figure standing in the center of the picture with upraised hands should be Abraham discoursing on astronomy, while the man on the throne should certainly be Pharaoh, and the two ladies (which any three-year old would point out to you as females without a moment’s hesitation) might be Pharaoh’s wife and daughter–or perhaps Figure 4 could even be Sarah, introducing her husband to the King, while Abraham’s colored servant, Eleaser, stands behind him. Almost anything is more reasonable than what Joseph Smith has given us! But if we consult the court scenes on other biographical or autobiographical records, we soon learn that the man standing in the center of the picture is almost always the owner of the stele, what is more that he is usually some personal servant or palace officer attendant on Pharaoh. From the collection of H. R. Hall we go down the list of “Chief of Bowmen…Fan-bearer, King’s Messenger, Treasury Guard, King’s Chief Charioteer, Pharaoh’s Chief Boatman, Warden of the Harim, the Queen’s Chief Cook,” etc., etc. They were simply servants. but to serve in the most menial capacity in close personal and intimate attendance on the King has ever been considered an appointment devoutly to be wished for. Some of the officials. e.g., the King’s Chief Charioteer, bore good Canaanite names, and so does “Shulem, one of the King’s Principal Waiters” (p.161). How naturally he fits into the picture! This is his show and this is his document. It seems to recall the time when he was introduced by the Pharaoh to an illustrious fellow- countrymen whom the King was honoring as a great and famous visiting teacher. Why do we depend on Shulem for our information? M. Gemoll gives us a clue for he notes that the best way for Abraham to have preserved his record after he had moved back to Palestine, would be to leave it reposing safely in an Egyptian tomb. The Joseph Smith Papyri were found preserved in the vaults of a priestly family of Thebes among many documents dating from different times. “I will not say who these people were,” wrote the Prophet of their ancient owners, though he denied that the mummies were those of Biblical characters, and identified one princess by the perfectly good Egyptian name of Ka-tu-men, as having lived a thousand years after Abraham. No one has explained more fully or, in view of much modern research more accurately than Joseph Smith the manner in which ancient records were transmitted through many hands, with~much editing, abridging, re-copying, commentating, deletion and addition; and hon some were deliberately sealed and hidden away “to come forth in their purity.” Joseph had constantly to restrain the enthusiasm of his followers in Kirtland in leaping to romantic and quite unjustified conclusions regarding the papyri–as LDS students still do. But he himself never goes out of bound. As far-fetched as his Explanations once appeared, and still do appear to those not bothering to look beyond the superficial aspect of things, they can at the very least be held up at plausible to those who are inclined to search farther.

In spite of the fact that the explanation for figure 5 is �Shulem …, as written above the hand� Nibley does not translate any of the Egyptian characters. Nevertheless, he claims that Smith�s explanation is “the neatest bull’s eye that the Prophet Joseph makes…” Nibley discusses other variations of this vignette from the Book of the Dead, where the deceased person is usually a personal servant of the pharaoh. Following that reasoning, he implies that Smith�s waiter explanation is correct! I find this reasoning bewildering. Papyri of this type, although all similar, were customized for the dead person. One would expect the descriptions of the dead persons to be different. If on another papyrus, the dead person is identified as a servant, that fact should be irrelevant as far as the identification of the dead person in Facsimile 3. A more logical approach would be to read the writing on the papyrus. According to Stan Larson (page 102 of Quest For The Gold Plates), Hor or Horus was the priest-owner of the papyrus roll of which Facsimile 3 is a part, not Shulem the waiter.

On the same page, Stan Larson implies that both Theodule Deveria and Klaus Baer translated the characters above the hand of figure 5 as Hor or Horus. I could not find any confirmation of that assertion. In Volume 3 of The Case Against Mormonism, by Jerald & Sandra Tanner, it states that Deveria and Baer translated the characters at the bottom of Facsimile 3. Although the Tanners quote Deveria and Baer as identifying the deceased person as Hor or Horus, they also indicate that the identification was taken from the bottom rather than the two columns above the hand of Figure 5. The details are:

Pages 5 and 7 state that that Klaus Baer read the name Hor from the bottom of the facsimile.

On page 7, Deveria is quoted as stating �The deceased led by Ma into the presence of Osiris. His name is Horus, as may be seen in the prayer which is at the bottom of the picture.� Source of the quote is Vol. 2 of A Journey to Great Salt Lake City, as quoted in Deseret News, Jan. 4, 1913.

Dee Jay Nelson has translated the characters above Figure 5. This is on page 48 of the Tanner�s book and reads �Osiris Hor, who is true of word (justified), through all eternity.� Although Dee Jay Nelson may be correct, his reputation as an Egyptologist has suffered since it was revealed that his degree was bogus. For that reason, I would like to find another Egyptologist�s translation.

I found it difficult to follow Nibley�s explanations because rather than taking the straightforward approach of reading the papyrus, he chooses to investigate other areas. His approach reminds me of the story about the abuse of Aristotelian logic by some philosophers in the Middle Ages. In that story, the philosophers, after discussing the topic for many hours, are unable to come to an agreement about the number of teeth in the mouth of a horse. Even though a horse is outside the building, they never consider going outside to count the horse�s teeth. Similarly, Nibley never considers telling his readers the translation of the Egyptian characters on Facsimile 3.

Seymour Bloom

In the note above, I indicated that Dee Jay Nelson translated the Egyptian characters above figure 5 of Facsimile 3 of the Book of Abraham (Shulem the Waiter). Since then, I have found another translation of these characters. This is on James David’s website and can be found here.

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