While the development of my testimony is too multifaceted and encompassing to relate in its entirety here, I am very pleased to be able to talk about my testimony in relation to my academic work. In the end, they are really both the result of my desire to search for truth. Because I want so much to be able to continue learning and to acquire as much truth as I can, I seek it via every avenue I can. I cannot imagine that the Lord does not expect us to employ every means available to us as we seek for enlightenment. Would he expect us to do anything less than bring everything we have to the table, every bit of emotional, social, intellectual, and spiritual capacity we possess?
Because of this conviction, I have sought to find God with all of my mind, with all of my soul, and with all of my heart. I have found him in all of these ways. Having done so, I also know the variations of reliability between these differing sources of knowledge. Epistemologically, spiritual revelation is a more reliable source than intellectual investigation. Simply put, experience has shown me that we are ever learning in our intellectual pursuits, learning today that what we taught yesterday was incorrect, but that this is never the case with that which I have learned through revelation.
I have had too many experiences confirming the truth of the existence of God, the atoning power of His Son, and the restoration of His gospel through Joseph Smith to be able to retell them all in any setting. Some of these epistemological experiences have been large and powerful. They have come in the way of direct answers to prayers via powerful communication. They have come in unsought-for moments when I have been engaged in work associated with the Gospel. They have at times come unexpectedly when I have been about the tasks of daily life, but have let my thoughts be drawn out to pondering all manner of ideas. They have come in moments of first waking and in hours of exhaustion. These communications have sometimes been so tangible that I have wondered if there were physical and tangible beings or objects nearby.
Yet more often I have experienced quiet confirming nudges of spiritual communication. These are not typically overwhelming or awe-inspiring, yet they are real and recognizable as reminders that those things I have already learned continue to be unchangeable and steadfast truths. It takes familiarity with the language of the spirit to come to recognize these frequent bolsterings of the soul, but in my view they are more important and wonderfully welcome than the ostensibly larger events of life
I know there are those who have not had these experiences, and so they either do not understand them, they doubt them, or they stubbornly refuse to acknowledge that they are possible. In this they are wrong, for I have experienced them and know them to be real. While I have no intent of condescension, I honestly feel sorry for those who have either not experienced or recognized spiritual communications. They have never developed a vital, important, and exhilarating sensory ability. Like someone who insists that ultra-violet does not exist on the color spectrum because he himself has not experienced it, they limit their acknowledgment of reality because of their limited sensory ability. My pity for those who have not taken advantage of the opportunity to develop other avenues of learning does not cause me to value this venue of knowledge less. While it may take away opportunities for open discussion, it does not detract from a more sure form of knowledge.
With hope I warmly welcome all to seek out this form of learning. Study the words of ancient and modern prophets to learn how to experience spiritual communication. It is real, and is readily available to all who sincerely seek it.
Anyone with any experience in academia is aware that we are continually developing both better tools and skills for learning, and a better store of knowledge. This is exactly what we should be about. Yet inherent in such a system is the fact that things we hold to be true today may no longer be accepted as truth tomorrow. Even in studies such as physics we often have to unlearn certain principles as further evidence demonstrates that our former belief/knowledge was incorrect. This is certainly true of my own discipline, Egyptology. I have taught many things in the past that I can no longer teach today because we have learned now that they are not correct. I have often uncovered data myself which contradicts things which I had championed in the past. This is the nature of my profession, and any honest and good academician will operate with this understanding in view.
Yet this is certainly not the case with knowledge revealed from God. Truths learned from Him, via inspiration and revelation, never change. Thus it would be quite foolish of me to discard truth I have learned from God in favor of truths I have learned from even the most vigorous inquiries of my discipline. Having learned countless times in numerous, undeniable, unmistakable, and powerful ways that Joseph Smith is a prophet, I would be ill advised to discard this truth because of information that seemed to contradict it in my discipline. Thus I value knowledge learned from God more highly than knowledge acquired by my flawed intellect.
Even so, I relish the opportunity to apply all of my limited mental facilities to try to find out both the things of God and of this world. I am enthralled with the pursuit of truth that I undertake in my Egyptological endeavors. Moreover, I have found that when I do my best intellectual discovering, my findings align with my spiritual discoveries. To me this confirms that I am on the right track academically.
I would like to be clear that I have not set about trying to verify my spiritual knowledge with academic knowledge. I have not felt the need to defend the prophetic abilities of Joseph Smith—that defense is best left to the spirit. Yet I have always felt an almost siren-like call to apply my research skills towards better understanding the things of the scriptures and of Joseph Smith’s revelatory abilities. I have also developed a passion for helping others with honest questions find those answers. This has not been done in an apologetic way, but rather rises out of a real thirst for knowledge and a sincere desire to help other honest seekers of truth. This line of investigation has been enticing and addicting to me. I have continually found that when I apply my best efforts to learning more, those efforts confirm the truth of what I had already learned via revelation.
Let me provide a few examples. Early in my graduate career I encountered the writings of Latter-day Saints who argued that the story about the near-sacrifice of Abraham in the Book of Abraham was supported by evidence that the Egyptians engaged in this kind of sacrifice. I was somewhat repulsed by this argument for two reasons. First, as I read the Book of Abraham, it was clear that the near-sacrifice of Abraham consisted of an amalgamation of ritual trappings stemming from Canaan, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. I did not see why some would insist that the human sacrifice element had to have come from Egypt (and am still not convinced that the text dictates such a reading). Second, as an Egyptologist I had been taught that the Egyptians did not do this sort of thing. I took it upon myself to ask a few respected colleagues, who assured me this was the case. Thus I taught in classes and other settings that the Egyptians did not engage in human sacrifice, and I made light of attempts to show otherwise.
One day a colleague of mine suggested I might be mistaken in this, and suggested I look into a particular incident archaeologically attested at the Nubian fortress of Mirgissa. As I looked into this I not only saw that I might be wrong, but I found myself intrigued by how such an incident fit into a larger concept of Egyptian culture. I decided to do my dissertation on the larger concept, hoping to come to a clearer understanding of the apparent human sacrifice at Mirgissa and how it fit into Egyptian religion and culture in general. This was partially inspired by a desire to set right anything incorrect I had taught, and partially by an innate curiosity that had seen a gap in knowledge that was fascinating to me. Thus I studied the role of religious violence in Egypt, with special attention to sanctioned killing. As I studied this larger phenomenon I came to recognize many examples of ritual human sacrifice in Egypt, and to understand the kinds of circumstances that would lead to it. As the picture more fully developed, I was surprised to one day realize that the settings I was describing matched perfectly with those set out by the Book of Abraham.
Without having set out to justify that Abrahamic story, I found that I understood him and his time better, and simultaneously I unexpectedly found my intellectual learnings aligning with my spiritual knowledge. I have since taught extensively, in the United States and internationally, about ritual slaying in ancient Egypt. I have been asked by other Egyptologists to speak and write about this topic for other Egyptologists. My findings have been widely accepted. It also provided the smallest nudge of confirmation that my spiritual sensitivities were correct. This spiritual knowledge needed no such nudge, but often such bolstering confirmations come when unsolicited.
This was neither the first nor the last time that my academic undertakings paralleled my revelatory experiences. I will share just one more. I once had a well spoken and well intentioned friend of another faith correspond with me about some questions he had regarding the Book of Abraham. He asked me if there were any known examples of Egyptian priests possessing texts which spoke of biblical figures. I realized that I did not know much about this, and was not sure if anyone did. I knew that the owner of the papyrus from which the Book of Abraham was most likely translated was a priest from Thebes around 200 BC. But I did not know much about what priests from this or other periods knew concerning Jewish beliefs. I was aware that this was a time of real internationalization in Egypt, and that among Hellenistic and Egyptian elites there was a vigorous search for intercultural knowledge. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that came from Egypt, arose at least partially from this cultural phenomenon. I was also aware of other phenomena which suggested that Egyptians had a knowledge of things biblical. But I was sure there was more to be learned about this. Both Latter-day Saints and people interested in Judaism, Early Christianity, and Egypt in general would be interested in this topic. Furthermore, I had recently become involved in a project that was investigating the rise of Christianity in Egypt, and I felt that a greater understanding of what Egyptians knew of the Bible would be important background knowledge for understanding the advent of Christianity in that country. And so I set about finding some answers. It seemed to me that I would better understand a great number of things important to Egyptology and Latter-day Saints much better if I knew more about the spread of biblical knowledge in Egypt.
I found that my good friend and colleague John Gee had already done work on this (as he typically has with anything Egyptological that is in any way connected with the Book of Abraham). I started with what John had done, and attempted to go a step or two further. It was a fun and invigorating project, requiring me to stretch my academic abilities and to acquire a great deal more knowledge on some key subjects than I already had. This was exciting. Careful research yielded more and more, until I decided that the project was really something that I would have to break down into a few separate studies and papers. Work on some of these continues forward even as I write this.
It became very clear that Egyptian priests had an extensive knowledge of stories about biblical characters, both those that were in the Bible and stories that went beyond the canon. While I don’t think we can generalize this statement to all priests in Egypt, it is inescapable that at least a number of priests in Thebes had such knowledge, and hence presumably had texts which conveyed this knowledge. What was surprising to me was the way the evidence forced me to a conclusion about the timing of this. As I attempted to determine when the latest date could be for these Theban priests to have gained access to such texts, the evidence led me to positing that it was certainly by 150 BC, and almost surely by 200 BC. This was astonishing. Since it appears, from examining the Joseph Smith Papyri, that the Book of Abraham was owned by a Theban priest about 200 BC, it was almost too serendipitous to find evidence that Theban priests in 200 BC had texts about biblical characters, both canonical and non-canonical, and especially about Abraham. I have never based my testimony on such evidences, and would never think that something like this demonstrates the truth of this scriptural record. Yet it is always exciting to find one avenue of pursuing truth that matches another. I still remember when I was first able to put a finger on the date 200 BC and the city of Thebes that I sat in my office and experienced a wash of both emotions and spiritual inflows. It was another small reminder of things I had already learned more powerfully and more surely earlier. Yet I am grateful for these reminders.
These are only a few of the examples I could share. Most of the learning experiences I have had are too personal to share in such an open forum.
I am grateful for all of the learning experiences I have had, for all of the various avenues of learning which I have experienced. I am awash in real revelations regarding the existence of God, His overwhelming love for us, the supernal gift of His Son, the incomparable power of the atonement, and the gracious gift of the restoration of the Gospel through Joseph Smith. I look forward to more and more opportunities to learn about these truths, and to understand them in ever expanding ways. I trust that I am only at the beginning, and that there is more growth and learning in store via more avenues than I have guessed. While I have some questions that have not yet been answered, all of my past experiences assure me that there is an abundance of answers that will come in an endless variety of ways. My past knowledge gives me great hope for the future. Not just hope, but an assurance of those things which have already come and which are yet to come.
Kerry Muhlestein is an associate professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University. He received his B.S. from BYU in psychology with a Hebrew minor, spending time in the intensive Hebrew program at the BYU Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies. He then proceeded to receive an M.A. in ancient Near Eastern studies from BYU and a Ph.D. in Egyptology from UCLA. He has taught at Cal Poly Pomona, UCLA, and BYU-Hawaii. His research focuses on the texts and iconography of Egyptian religion, international contact between ancient Egypt and her neighbors, the Egyptian juridical process, Egyptian literature, and the overlap of the biblical and Egyptian worlds, including the ancient and modern history of the Pearl of Great Price, among other things. He and his wife, Julianne, have six children.
Posted May 2010