This page pertains to a prior version of the CES Letter. Needs updating
The author of The CES Letter fails to inform his readers that these statements were made over a century ago by scholars whose work is now considered largely obsolete and out-of-date. He also fails to inform his readers that their comments were solicited by the Episcopal cleric Franklin S. Spalding–––hardly an unbiased source when it comes to evaluating the claims of Joseph Smith. Since 1912 there has been an avalanche of scholarly writing on the Book of Abraham that far supersedes the hasty and dismissive comments made by the 1912 scholars consulted by Spalding.
For example, the actual Joseph Smith Papyri resurfaced in the late 1960s, long after the 1912 scholars expressed their views. The rediscovery of the papyri launched Book of Abraham studies far beyond anything produced in 1912. By way of comparison, relying on the comments of the 1912 scholars to disprove modern Book of Abraham scholarship is akin to relying on statements made by Isaac Newton to disprove Albert Einstein on matters of cosmology and physics.
What's more, scholars have recognized serious problems with the bias exhibited by the scholars solicited in 1912. The Egyptologist John A. Wilson (a non-Mormon), for instance, characterized the comments of the scholars quoted by The CES Letter as “several off-hand and hostile opinions” that amounted to little more than “a lot of indignant snorts.” He based this opinion on the fact that these Egyptologists did not show due diligence in their investigations. Another non-Mormon Egyptologist, Klaus Baer, lamented that the 1912 scholars quoted by The CES Letter "behaved like pompous asses with a claim to infallibility [and] restricted themselves to ill-considered snap judgments in dealing with Mormons that they never would have ventured to produce if there had been a risk of critical examination by their colleagues, evaded problems, and insisted that the layman accept their opinions without qualifications."
Hugh Nibley also took these scholars to task for their bias and in some cases lack of qualification to deal seriously with the facsimiles and the Book of Abraham. He has exposed some fatal problems with the comments made by Spalding's panel of experts:
At that time it was claimed that the pronouncements of five of the greatest scholars of all time had "completely demolished" all grounds for belief in the divine inspiration or historic authenticity of the Book of Abraham and, through it, the Book of Mormon. It turned out, however, that Bishop Franklin S. Spalding, in gathering and manipulating the necessary evidence for his determined and devious campaign, had (1) disqualified the Mormons from all participation in the discussion on the grounds that they were not professional Egyptologists; (2) sent special warnings and instructions to his experts that made it impossible for any of them to decide for Joseph Smith; (3) concealed all correspondence that did not support the verdict he desired; (4) given the learned jury to understand that the original Egyptian manuscripts were available, which they were not; (5) said that Mormons claimed them to be the unique autobiographic writings and sketching of Abraham, which they did not; (6) announced to the world that Joseph Smith was being tested on linguistic grounds alone, specifically as a translator, though none of his experts ventured to translate a single word of the documents submitted; and (7) rested his case on the "complete agreement" of the scholars, who agreed on nothing save that the Book of Abraham was a hoax.
The experts (1) did not agree among themselves at all when they spoke without collusion; (2) with the exception of James H. Breasted, they wrote only brief and contemptuous notes, though it was claimed that they had given the documents "careful consideration"; (3) they admitted that they were hasty and ill-tempered, since they at no time considered anything of Joseph Smith's worth any serious attention at all; (4) they translated nothing and produced none of the "identical" documents, which, according to them, were available in countless numbers and proved Joseph Smith's interpretations a fraud. They should have done much better than they did since they had everything their own way, being free to choose for interpretation and comment whatever was easiest and most obvious, and to pass by in complete silence the many formidable problems presented by the three facsimiles. Those Mormons who ventured a few polite and diffident questions about the consistency of the criticisms or the completeness of the evidence instantly called down upon their heads the Jovian bolts of the New York Times, accusing them of "reviling scholars and scholarship." A safer setup for the critics of Joseph Smith could not be imagined. And yet it was they and not the Mormons who insisted on calling off the whole show just when it was getting interesting. It was not a very edifying performance.
These three scholars are not alone in noticing serious problems with Spalding's 1912 treatment of the facsimiles. Kevin L. Barney has likewise noted issues with Spalding's methodology that severely undermines the value of the commentary provided by the 1912 experts:
[A]s others began to look at the pamphlet more closely, it did not take long to discover that Spalding's fairness was superficial only, a veneer of sheep's clothing covering a wolfish anti-Mormon attack. Particularly vexing was the fact that Spalding never did release the correspondence he had used to solicit the experts' opinions, and the letters of the scholars showed indications of having been prejudiced against Joseph's interpretations by coaching in the solicitation letters (as opposed to a completely blind solicitation). Spalding's failure to trust his position implicitly, which apparently induced him to poison the waters with his scholarly correspondents, was a serious mistake that undercut his credibility with his Mormon audience.
Spalding made other mistakes as well. For instance, in my view, as a forensic matter, it was a strategic error to press an inferential case against the Book of Mormon rather than focusing his effort directly on the Book of Abraham itself. A review of the literature of the controversy discloses additional strategic errors, such as the following: (1) he failed to address the hypocritical double standard of attacking Mormon scripture on the backs of agnostic scholars while simultaneously defending the Bible from the very similar attacks of the higher critics; (2) he apparently was unable to convince his panel of the importance of the inquiry, resulting in the superficial, almost flippant correspondence he received from the experts (who simply made heavily authoritarian statements with little or no analysis or recitation of evidence); (3) he failed to address the apparent contradictions among the scholars in their statements; and (4) in general, his study lacked even the most fundamental scientific rigor.
The author of The CES Letter, in selectively quoting only snippets from the 1912 scholars, and ignoring any discussion of the background of their comments or the Mormon responses, leaves out glaring problems that undermine his argument. His appeal to the 1912 scholars is thus little more than a fallacious appeal to authority.
It should be noted too in passing that the present author is aware of forthcoming work on Spalding's 1912 attack on the Book of Abraham that sheds considerable light on the background of Spalding's undertaking, and largely vindicates the reservations articulated by Nibley and Barney. Of course, it would be unfair to blame the author of The CES Letter for being unaware of this unpublished work. That is not this author's intention. Rather, readers should be aware that work on this subject considerably more rigorous than anything produced by the author of The CES Letter is forthcoming, and that they would do well to set The CES Letter's treatment aside for this forthcoming work when it appears.
"A New Look at the Pearl of Great Price" (Improvement Era, January 1968–May 1970), reprinted in An Approach to the Book of Abraham. (Note: the chapters "Challenge and Response" and "Conclusion: Taking Stock" deal specifically with the 1912 controversy.)
Additional Book of Abraham Resources:
FAIR Conversations, Episode 7: Brian M. Hauglid p.1, Brian M. Hauglid, 0:50:15A
FAIR Conversations, Episode 8: Brian M. Hauglid p.2, Brian M. Hauglid, 0:55:52
Mormon FAIR-Cast 62: “A Most Remarkable Book”, Tyler Livingston, 0:09:59
Mormon FAIR-Cast 139: “The Book of Abraham and the Prophetic Power of Joseph Smith,” Martin Tanner, 0:19:54