Nibley Classic on Papyri Given New Life in Second Edition
After years of intense effort, the long-overdue second edition of Hugh Nibley's 1975 book The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment is at press. This new edition has been meticulously prepared by BYU Egyptologists John Gee and Michael D. Rhodes, who upgraded this Nibley classic on many points (some unseen, others impossible to miss, such as the superior illustrations by Michael Lyon) while preserving the original content. Published by FARMS and Deseret Book, this edition is a fitting tribute to Nibley's pioneering work and will enable a new generation of students and scholars to profit from Nibley's enduring insights into an area of perennial interest for Latter-day Saints.
Message was a book ahead of its time. With the rediscovery of the Joseph Smith Papyri in 1967, critics who supposed a papyrus fragment to be the source of the Book of Abraham claimed that a lack of correspondence between the two texts proved the latter a fraud. In introductory remarks to the 1975 edition, Nibley noted this "great fuss . . . over a scrap of papyrus" and how "no one could care less about what the papyrus in question had to offer in its own right—and it is in fact a most singular document."
Thus Nibley's focus in Message is on what the papyri are rather than on what they are not. The papyri are the earliest example of ancient Egyptian religious writings known as the Book of Breathings Made by Isis. Message contains full reproductions and translations of Joseph Smith Papyri XI and X and of Louvre Papyrus No. 3284, the best-known complete manuscript of the Book of Breathings Made by Isis.
By far the largest portion of the book is Nibley's commentary on the Book of Breathings Made by Isis, a text that "is neither the Book of Abraham nor the source for the Book of Abraham, as Nibley himself clearly demonstrated," writes John Gee in his introduction to the new edition. "Some individuals were under the delusion that it was, and so Nibley had to show that it is not. . . . For Nibley, the Book of Breathings itself is interesting and deserves to be investigated for what it is rather than what it is not, a trap that some Egyptologists still fall into."
Nibley goes into immense detail, drawing on ancient and modern sources to explicate the text. He sees the Book of Breathings not merely as a funerary text but as a manual for an initiate to the ancient temple. On Egyptian temple initiation, Nibley was ahead of his time, and the topic has since become mainstream in the discipline. In his penetrating analysis, Nibley is at his best, sharing provocative insights and displaying his legendary erudition in history and ancient languages.
According to Gee, "Nibley was asking the right questions and answering both to the best of his ability and to the best of anyone's ability at the time. . . . Nibley's period piece remains a treasure trove of useful information and insights."
Nibley invites readers to discover for themselves certain parallels to modern temple ritual. "If the Egyptian endowment was but an imitation, it was still a good one," he writes, "and we may be able to learn much from it, just as we may learn much about the early church from the vagaries of the Gnostics. But it is not for a moment to be equated with the true and celestial order of things."
This new edition has been reformatted for optimal clarity and effectiveness of presentation. The extensive references have been carefully rechecked and found to be exceptionally accurate. Under the supervision of artist and art historian Michael Lyon, nearly all of the illustrations have been redrawn or replaced with new photographs. The Egyptian transliterations have been standardized, and many deletions found in Nibley's original drafts have been restored, including several pages relating to the atonement of Jesus Christ.
"What we as editors have not done, except in rare cases in footnotes, is to update Nibley," Gee explains. "To do so would have been to make the work the editors' rather than Nibley's."
While much has changed in the field of Egyptology since 1975, Nibley's study remains a landmark for its depth of analysis and stunning insights into unique religious writings from the ancient world that merit our appreciation and scrutiny. To obtain this book, use the enclosed order form or order online by visiting the FARMS Web site (farms.byu.edu) and clicking on the link for the book.