Only a few of my colleagues have asked me how I can be a believing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and an Egyptologist at the same time. I suppose that more have simply not dared to ask me. I write this for them, and for any others who might benefit from it.
Egyptology likes to think of itself as an empirical discipline, restricting itself only to things that can be seen and measured. Some Egyptologists even imagine that they are engaged in science, even though in theory and substance what we do is not remotely like what science does. We do not think like scientists. We do not and cannot do experiments and there is often no way to test between alternate hypotheses. Because we cannot decide between various hypotheses based on the available evidence, we must take some things on faith. Even in the texts that we read, we are at the mercy of others who have looked at the texts and decided what is written. Some of my colleagues insist that they take nothing on faith and will not believe what someone else’s printed edition of the text says; they then ironically and presumptuously turn around and ask everyone else to take their word for the readings they provide. Though I have the training to collate the texts, I am usually satisfied to take other’s word for their readings since I may never have the opportunity to examine the text for myself in this life. I went through almost my entire graduate studies in Egyptology without ever having been to Egypt. I still have never been able to visit some of the sites I am most interested in. I have been willing to take a great deal on faith, and that is just in Egyptology. In that regard, I do not consider studying Egyptology all that much different than studying my own religion, which has its own means of verification.
Such experiences provide me with a background to have faith—that is, trust—in God, but Latter-day Saints believe that God has told us to “seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning” because “all have not faith” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:118). Learning thus becomes an adjunct to our faith or trust in God. Because learning does not necessarily presume a background of faith, Latter-day Saints sometimes attempt to express in the language of learning (as ill-suited as that usually is) the reasons for the hope that is in us. Egypt, I am convinced, can play a role in this endeavor.
Egypt is one of two places on the earth with continuous contemporary historical documentation dating back five thousand years. It has some of the oldest books on earth, and we Egyptologists are the ones who study them. The Christian writer C. S. Lewis voiced the thought through his devil Screwtape: “Only the learned read old books, and we [the devils] have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so.” This thought, written over half a century ago, is still as true today. As eminent an Egyptologist as Jan Assmann astutely ends his survey of Egyptian history remarking, “Today we know infinitely more about Egypt than did the experts of the eighteenth century. But we are also infinitely less sure of what to do with that knowledge.” Egyptology itself provides no framework for making use of the knowledge of ancient Egypt that our discipline provides. Grounding in the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, however, provides precisely such a framework. That framework led me to the field of study and without it there seems little point in looking back thousands of years if they have nothing to offer. I am an Egyptologist because I am a Latter-day Saint, not despite being one.
Being a Latter-day Saint changes the way I look at the Egyptological record both consciously and unconsciously. Consciously, I have looked at the invariably inaccurate way in which almost all non-Mormons depict Latter-day Saints and have asked what in their approach made them get even basic things incorrect and what could they have done to rectify their work. Their methods have obviously failed them. If a method does not work examining something I know well, should I have faith in it when examining a subject I do not know as well? The answers to those sorts of questions then become the basis for looking at Egyptian religion. I thus attempt to look at practices that were done all the time and texts that are frequently found and often repeated. I also look for assumptions made about ancient Egyptian religion and society that may not necessarily be so. For example, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has no theology—that is, no systematic setting forth of propositions about God based on human reasoning alone; in that sense it may even be said to be anti-theological. Because I come from a religious background that is atheological, I see no reason to assume that the ancient Egyptians had a theology either, and they also seem to have no systematic setting forth of propositions about God or anything else in their religion.
Two scriptural texts inform my view of ancient Egypt and its religion and provide a means of fitting it into a larger picture. The first is in the Book of Mormon: “the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have” (Alma 29:8). So from a Latter-day Saint perspective, God allows truth to be taught by all nations, including the ancient Egyptians. Not only am I not surprised to find truth among the Egyptians, I expect it. The second scriptural text is from the Book of Abraham. Speaking specifically of the Egyptians, it says that “Pharaoh, being a righteous man, . . . judged his people wisely and justly all his days, seeking earnestly to imitate that order established by the fathers in the first generation” (Abraham 1:26). This tells me that I should expect to see an imitation of the truth among the Egyptians. Like the Ptolemaic restorations of Thutmoside reliefs in the Karnak temple, the imitations are not real and will contain a mixture of the true and false, but they will contain some truth. There is thus the opportunity to gain both truth and wisdom by studying the ancient Egyptians.
One of the persistent phenomena found among the Egyptians is their insistence that the gods talked to men. We Egyptologists term examples of this phenomenon oracles: A group of priests carried around a boat on poles that contained a shrouded image of the deity. Individuals approached the deity and asked it questions and received answers. We have recorded instances of individuals asking who stole items from them and receiving the correct answer (even telling the exact location of the stolen item). The Egyptians said that the god gave the answer. Our explanations of the events invariably contradicts the account of the ancient texts. The “texts specifically say the gods speaks, but modern scholars have with reason preferred not to take them at their word.” This statement by a colleague is extremely telling. This is an example of where our empiricism can blind us to the evidence from ancient Egypt. Not believing the historical record left by the Egyptians is the preference of modern Egyptologists. The unstated “reason” for this preference is that we prefer to believe myths of our own construction.
When we Egyptologists try to reconstruct Egyptian history, we reconstruct not what really happened, which we may never know, but what we think may have happened in conformity to our own biases, theories, and prejudices. If our assumption is that there is no God and, thus, that no god could have talked to the Egyptians, then it simply does not matter what evidence like an ancient text tells us, we will ignore it. If our assumption is that there is a God, but the Egyptians only had false ones, then for all practical purposes, our theories of the past will look like the atheist ones. That God might have talked to the Egyptians or that he might talk to us today does not seem strange to me. I know it can be real. I have experienced it and I am willing to allow that the Egyptians could have experienced it as well.
Some of my colleagues may think that my faith contains what they see as contradictions. Some of those contradictions they see because they assume me to think things that I do not think; they would do well to inform themselves on what Latter-day Saints actually believe. For example, I—along with many, if not most, Latter-day Saints—do not think that the Book of Abraham was derived from the currently remaining fragments of the Joseph Smith Papyri. After a quarter of a century of looking at the issue very carefully, I am unimpressed by colleagues who clearly have not carefully studied the Joseph Smith Papyri trying to tell me what they do or do not say. Many of the other contradictions and dilemmas my colleagues might see in the Church of Jesus Christ find close parallels in the discipline of Egyptology. For example, we currently possess direct archaeological confirmation for the location neither of Zarahemla nor of Punt. That does not seem to me to be a reason to deny the ancient authenticity of either one. We do, however, have records from both places. If I am asked to give up my faith because of some perceived contradiction then I am asked to give up my profession as well, since it has the same sorts of contradictions. A discipline with so many unresolved issues has no business pointing fingers at others for having some. Usually, in Egyptology, we think of an unresolved issue as an opportunity for further inquiry.
From my perspective as a Latter-day Saint, I do not worry about whether my studies will provide evidence to refute my faith. So far, any time that (1) there has been sufficient evidence, (2) I have looked through the relevant available evidence, and (3) done the Egyptology correctly, it has always supported my faith. In many cases, the evidence that would decide the issue one way or another simply does not exist. In other cases, our theories may be flawed and need to be reexamined. I do not mean to say that all my questions have been completely answered, but I can put my trust in God for the present because I have proved him in days that are past. I have enough experience for myself to know that God is real, even if I cannot prove him to others.
What if the Church of Jesus Christ is not true? If “life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more, . . . a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” then Egyptology is a waste of time. Since Egyptology every year produces far more written material than anyone can keep up with, most of what we write now is hardly read. Who will care about our research in twenty, or two hundred, or two thousand years? If, on the other hand, the gospel is true, then death is not the end and the research I do can have an eternal aspect to it. These people whom I study now I may meet one day. What will they think about what I have written about them? I will need to be not just fair to them, but I need to strive to actually get it right.
I know my colleagues well enough to know that many if not most of them will not follow me in my belief that God exists. If you do not believe the Egyptians, why should I think you will believe me? (We are back to what C. S. Lewis said, again.) The way is open to you to find out for yourselves; God is perfectly willing to answer you as he has me. But the veracity of a proposition is not dependent on its popularity, and what I know for myself is not dependent on whether or not anyone else accepts it. It is still true.
John Gee (Ph.D., Yale University) is currently the William (Bill) Gay Research Professor of Egyptology and a Senior Research Fellow at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. He formerly taught at Yale University, and worked in the Department of Egyptian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
He is currently the only Egyptologist from North America affiliated with the Totenbuch-Projekt of the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn.
Professor Gee has given papers at Egyotological conferences in Atlanta, Baltimore, Berkeley, Bonn, Boston, Brussels, Budapest, Cambridge (Massachusetts), Copenhagen, Giza, Grenoble, Jersey City, Laie, Leuven, London, New Haven, Paris, Philadelphia, Prague, Providence, Reading, Rhodes, San Diego, Seattle, Stevenage, Toledo, Toronto, Tucson, Vancouver, Warsaw, and Washington D.C.
He has published Egyptological work with E. J. Brill, Peeters, Praeger, Harrassowitz Verlag, Archaeopress, Styx, Sheffield Press, the Carsten Niebuhr Institute of Near Eastern Studies, the American University of Cairo Press, the Association Égyptologique Reine Élisabeth, the Musée Hongrois des Beaux-Arts, the MEBT-ÓEB Comité de l’Égypte Ancienne de l’Association Amicale Hongroise-Égyptienne, the Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale du Caire, the Bulletin for the Egyptological Seminar, Göttinger Miszellen, the Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, the Journal of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities, and the Journal of Egyptian History.
The Aigyptos Datenbank lists him as having published on Amasis, archives, art, British Museum EA 10416, Book of the Dead, Book of the Dead 31, Book of the Dead 69, Coffin Texts, Coptic language, Coptic studies, daily ritual, Demotic papyri, Demotic studies, Greek papyri, Greeks in Egypt, hypocephali, initiation, lamps, language, Late Period documents, Late Period hieratic papyri, Late Period iconography, Late Period tomb equipment, law, Louvre E 7846, love, marriage, marriage contracts, Mesopotamia, Middle Kingdom literature, Middle Kingdom titles, Near East, New Kingdom documents, New Kingdom hieratic papyri, oaths, oracles, philology, phraseology, priest, prosopography, Ptolemaic Period iconography, Ptolemaic period tomb equipment, religion, ritual, Roman period tomb equipment, Romans in Egypt, seals, Shipwrecked Sailor, social structure, society, society and culture, text, Thebes, title, verbal system, and wab-priest.
Professor Gee serves on the Board of Trustees of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities and as editor of the Journal of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities. He also serves on the program committee for the Egyptology and Ancient Israel Section of the Society of Biblical Literature.
Posted March 2010