Saturday, November 17, 2012

An Outside View

In the early years of the Twentieth Century Theodor Hopfner assembled a massive, five volume, collection of all the Greek and Roman sources discussing Egyptian religion.[1] Looking through his compendia it is hard not to be impressed with Hopfner’s diligence and erudition. He seems to have read and extracted everything conceivable on his subject. Not only are all the major classical authors included but even the most obscure authors are as well. His thoroughness is daunting. Yet for all his effort, his work gathers dust on the shelf. The only time I can recall it ever being cited is in Hugh Nibley’s works. It is not because Hopfner is not accurate or encyclopedic but for another reason.

Classical authors writing about Egyptian religion are outsiders, not insiders. We have thousands of documents written by insiders who knew their religion better and actually understood it. There is thus no reason to rely on accounts written by outsiders who clearly did not understand the religion correctly. Hence Hopfer is neglected because his work is largely irrelevant. Outsiders rarely get details correct. One of the few outside accounts given any credence is Plutarch’s De Iside et Osiride. One cannot help wondering why this fanciful tale is trusted because it is not corroborated by native sources. It is probably because Plutarch spins a good yarn even if it isn’t accurate.

Plutarch is a sympathetic source. Other authors were downright hostile. One Egyptologist, for example, dismisses one such by saying: “Juvenal . . . is not relevant to the present discussion, since . . . he is a satirist for whom ridicule — directed indifferently toward Roman, Greek or Egyptian —was an occupation, . . . he was . . . not disposed to be particularly charitable, and . . . he had been expelled from Rome precisely for his propensity to compose offensive remarks.”[2] These remarks, coming from a source well-known for directing ridicule and offensive remarks indifferently, is ironic, but it is still wise counsel. In looking at religion we do well to avoid paying heed to those for whom ridicule is an occupation, who are not disposed to be charitable, and who have a propensity to compose offensive remarks.

These considerations should apply not just to ancient Egyptian religion but to the study of all religions, and particularly to Mormon studies. In looking at Latter-day Saints, with so much insider information are outsider accounts really necessary? Are those who are not disposed to be charitable relevant? Studies giving preference or even credence to such accounts seem less interested in characterizing Latter-day Saints as in caricaturing them.

[1] Theodorus Hopfner, Fontes Historiae Religionis Aegyptiacae, 5 vols. (Bonn: A. Marus and E. Weber, 1922-25).
[2] Robert K. Ritner, Jr., “Implicit Models of Cross-Cultural Interaction: A Question of Noses, Soap, and Prejudice,” in Life in a Multi-Cultural Society: Egypt from Cambyses to Constantine and Beyond, ed. Janet H. Johnson (Chicago: Oriental Institute, 1992), 290.