CES Letter Core Question
Does the Book of Abraham teach an outdated Newtonian view of the universe?
The CES Letter alleges that Abraham 3 teaches a “Newtonian view of the universe,” but it fails to recognize the context. The (already printed) Book of Mormon clearly states “for surely it is the earth that moveth and not the sun” (Helaman 12:15) showing Joseph already knew the true configuration of the cosmos.
The author of The CES Letter ignores the work done by scholars showing how the Book of Abraham's cosmology fits nicely in an ancient setting. The text seems to portray an ancient, geocentric vision of the cosmos, and follows other ancient Near Eastern creation myths by linking the cosmos with a pre-mortal divine council of other deities, creation from unorganized chaos, and creation by fashioning pre-existing material (as opposed to creating everything ex nihilo or out of nothing). The Book of Abraham also links the creation with the temple, which is also authentic to ancient Near Eastern creation mythology.
Why would the Book of Abraham teach pre-modern and pre-scientific cosmological precepts? Wouldn't this invalidate it as the word of God? If we assume that the Book of Abraham is an authentic ancient text, then perhaps the reason it doesn't teach a modern cosmology is because God wanted to communicate truths to Abraham using the culture, mythic imagery, and language familiar to him. This is to say that God revealed eternal truths about the plan of salvation to Abraham but either the Lord or Abraham formulated those truths in a way an ancient audience would've better comprehended. After all, the Lord "give[s revelation] unto [his] servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding" (D&C 1:24).
The author of The CES Letter simply ignores the entire cosmological picture of the Book of Abraham (which begins in Abraham 3 and extends to the end of the book) and must cherry-pick from the text in order for his reading to have any support. The purpose of Abraham 3:1-11 is to give Abraham teachings to share with Pharaoh (Abraham 3:15). It was not a vision of the cosmos but provided information regarding the visible universe.
Numerous references are made to the fact that Abraham is standing on the earth (Abraham 3:3, 4, 6, 7, 9), and that God and Abraham are discussing things that Abraham can see with his own eyes ("behold thine eyes see it" [Abraham 3:6] and "I saw the stars" [Abraham 3:2, cf. v. 16]). Abraham is talking with the Lord at night, when the stars would be visible: "And it was in the night time when the Lord spake these words unto me" (Abraham 3:14).
Several ancient sources portray Abraham's as an ancient astronomer. Pseudo-Eupolemus, states that "While living with the Egyptian priests in Heliopolis, Abraham taught them many things, including astronomy, and other related things. . . . Abraham, having been trained in the science of astronomy, first went to Phoenicia, to teach the Phoenicians astronomy, then went into Egypt."
The cosmology portrayed is not unique. Kolob, which is “near unto” God is described as having a 1000 year revolution (Abr. 3:4), which is identical to Peter’s comment “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8).
"And I Saw the Stars": The Book of Abraham and Ancient Geocentric Astronomy
Council, Chaos, and Creation in the Book of Abraham
Abraham's Visions of the Heavens
Terryl Givens on the Pre-Mortal Council in the Book of Abraham
Encircling Astronomy and the Egyptians: An Approach to Abraham 3