RSC: You earned an undergraduate degree from BYU in Psychology. How did you go from Psychology to Egyptology, how do the two relate and how do you, if at all, use Psychology in your studies today?
Dr. Muhlestein: I don’t use Psychology very much today but I use the way of looking at the world and methods of understanding anthropology and so forth that I learned in Psychology a great deal. Therefore, I didn’t focus on counseling in psychology or treatment of problems but more on theoretical psychology and how people view the world and cognitive learning. Much of my study was theoretical and philosophical and that does tie in with anthropology fairly well. A lot of what I do is anthropologically related so it helps me to look at things from a broader perspective and be able to take a step back. It also really intimidates some of my colleagues when we deal with this stuff and I tell them I have a degree in Psychology.
RSC: Was going from Psychology to Egyptology originally the plan or did that develop over time?
Dr. Muhlestein: No, actually, it was not the original plan. I originally planned to teach seminary and just get my bachelor’s so I wanted a degree that would help me understand how students learn. But part way through I set my sights a little differently. I thought about changing my major but I saw the value in what I was doing and so instead I decided to minor in Hebrew.
RSC: Tell us about your experience studying in an intensive Hebrew program at the Jerusalem Center.
Dr. Muhlestein: The Jerusalem Center no longer offers that program but I enjoyed it thoroughly. We had classes in Modern Hebrew but also in Biblical Hebrew and focused on scriptural themes as well. It was a wide variety of things with a large emphasis on speaking the language. We actually had an interesting experience—when I was there, the Hebrew University, which is right next to the Jerusalem Center, experienced a teacher’s strike so we were able to get a Hebrew teacher from Hebrew University to come and teach us and she arranged for us to come and use the facilities at Hebrew University so we would go to their computer labs and do exercises there on this basically empty campus, so the timing was good.
RSC: How does Hebrew help you with your Egyptology studies if at all?
Dr. Muhlestein: It does in a few ways: first, Hebrew is a Semitic language and Egyptian is what we would call an Afro-Semitic language or Afro-Asiatic or Hamito-Semitic—there are numerous ways to categorize it but Hebrew and Egyptian have many similarities such as the use of prefixes and suffixes and verbs—there are many similarities and so I feel that I understand each of the languages better for knowing the other. Additionally, there are many times when the Kingdom of Egypt interacts with the Biblical world. I recently returned from a conference in Israel on Canaan/Israel and Egyptian Interactions and there were not very many scholars who could actually play both sides. There were a few and they were the core group but there were many scholars who were versed in Egyptology or versed in Biblical subjects but only a few of us who could deal with both. And that is the great advantage—when there is Biblical interaction with Egypt I can competently deal with the arguments that are coming from the Biblical side, from the Egyptological side, and evaluate and incorporate and synthesize with those. Additionally, for my Ph.D., as with most Ph.D. programs in the Ancient Near East, alongside my primary area of focus of Egyptology, I had to choose a secondary area of focus and take classes and pass exams in this secondary area. So Hebrew language and literature became my secondary area of focus. I had to show proficiency in Hebrew and Aramaic and Phoenician and Moabite and other languages. So having completed an M.A. in Biblical Hebrew and a minor in Hebrew was a valuable asset to me in my doctoral program. Because of this background I finished my doctoral program more quickly than most because I already was competent in that area whereas most people are starting learning about their secondary area, but for me it was my area of strength.
RSC: One such interaction between Egypt and Israel is the death of King Josiah at the hands of Pharaoh Neco (2 Chronicles 35). It has been seen by some as hard to believe, or fanciful. In your eyes, is it valid or some sort of interpolation? If valid, can you give us the background to help us understand why Josiah would do that?
Dr. Muhlestein: There is not much to make me doubt the veracity of the record. During this time Egypt is very dominant in that area and is controlling the area. The Assyrian empire and Egypt were collaborating to a degree and there was an ebb and flow between the two over control in that area during that time. It seems that the Egypt’s control was waning and I think that Josiah was trying to take advantage of that but as we can see it wasn’t waning as much as he thought it was and that proved to be his death. But the story seems feasible in light of the geo-political climate of the time.
RSC: After receiving your Ph.D. you first went to teach at BYU Hawaii. Do you view that experience as a stepping-stone to lead to the ultimate goal here at BYU Provo or how do you view that experience?
Dr. Muhlestein: Teaching at BYU Hawaii was one of the greatest blessings that ever happened to me. I actually was offered a position here in the history department at the same time that I was offered a position at BYU Hawaii which was a joint religion and history position. One of the best things that ever happened to me was BYU Hawaii and when we had the job offer here at BYU Provo my wife and I actually decided we would like to stay there at BYU Hawaii but it was only through feeling direction otherwise that convinced us to come to BYU Provo. They are having some changes now and maybe I would not feel the same way now but at the time it felt like the perfect place for me. I loved that joint position between history and religion. There are some things that I was able to do and learn there that would not have happened for me anywhere else. Yet there are things that I can do here that I wasn’t able to do there just by nature of the resources available here both in terms of colleagues and library, etc. But I am grateful to have been able to have both experiences. I think that having both experiences has made me both a better teacher and scholar.
I originally had as my goal to come and teach at BYU Provo but my wife and I, on our honeymoon, visited the BYU Hawaii campus and we thought “wow we really need to come here and teach.” But to begin with I couldn’t figure how I could ever possibly accomplish both goals. In the end it did work out and I have accomplished both. I wish I could have been able to stay there a little longer but I am happy to have done both.
RSC: You have found great success in all of your academic endeavors even graduating cum laude. What advice do you have for those who are trying to follow in your footsteps?
Dr. Muhlestein: My first advice would be not to try to follow in my footsteps—it’s a good way to get in trouble. But in all seriousness, I’m not sure graduating cum laude actually helps very much or not. As I was finishing up my doctoral program I did evaluate incoming applications and what kind of students come to graduate school and who shouldn’t and my impression is that you have to have good grades and you have to score well on the GRE. Those are the minimum bar in a way. If you don’t have those you probably won’t be considered—it doesn’t have to be a 4.0 GPA or even a 3.9 but you have to have high enough grades and a high enough GRE score that they’ll say, “Alright, this person is good.” And then they will start looking for specific things that you have done such as experiences you have had or courses you have taken. Mentoring experiences are great. Any kind of in-field experience, travelling, such as the Jerusalem Center, or archaeological experiences, or employment as a Research Assistant, or another thing that I had that helped was the years that I worked on the Dead Sea Scroll Database Project. I think they saw that as something that very few of their applicants had been able to do.
RSC: Did you do that with Donald Parry?
Dr. Muhlestein: Yes, that’s the same one. I spent a number of years putting that together and creating the lexicon that is on there. So anytime you are looking up words in the Dead Sea Scrolls Electronic Library—I did about 80% of that lexicon so most of the words you are looking up—I created those entries. It was mostly data entry and figuring out what verb stems a word came from and root words. I think those are the things that graduate schools are looking for—the things that sets someone apart—that shows that you are coming to a program with certain abilities and understandings that mean that you are a step ahead already in the program and that you have succeeded in doing those kinds of things. They also look to see that you have succeeded in working with a professor because graduate school is really about learning but also, you will not succeed in graduate school if you cannot work closely with a professor and learn from him or her and succeed in doing so. So being a research assistant, teaching assistant, mentoring opportunities, those things really will stand out in their mind because they see it as if in a way you have already done a mini-graduate school and you have succeeded. Those things, in my mind, are more important than most of the things we usually think of—get good enough grades and good enough GRE but do other things as well that get you ahead. And if you can publish, such as in the student journal we have here, Studia Antiqua, what a great thing. Anything like that—presentations at symposia—these things set you apart. There are many people with good grades and good GRE scores so you need something else to set you apart.
RSC: Sadly, many Latter-day Saint scholars who pursue Egyptology fall away from active membership in the LDS church. What advice do you have for those who want to study Egyptology but are committed LDS members?
Dr. Muhlestein: We don’t have as big a problem anymore with students who are seeking higher education losing their testimonies. In the past we particularly had a problem in Egyptology—the attrition rate until 1998 was 100%. Everyone who studied Egyptology either did not finish their degree or did not stay in the church. Of those who obtained Ph.D.s in Egyptology and stayed faithful and got a job as a professor Dr. John Gee is the first and I am the second. I have a colleague from UCLA who did graduate and is active in the church but has not found a job teaching. So there are a few of us, but not many, but it is getting to be more and more. I think some of that is that some of the questions that people had that they were not able to work through on their own we have since been working through and they can see that these questions don’t have to make one nervous—there are answers to them. That speaks to the larger issue. And this is the advice that I would give to anybody whether studying Biblical studies, Egyptology, or really any kind of graduate school. I can’t claim this advice as my own. One of the jobs I had as an undergrad and even in my Masters program was as a research assistant for Alan Parrish working on the biography of John A. Widtsoe. Elder Widtsoe was one of our first and at the time the best that we had in the church in academia and one of the first to have a really good advanced degree. He was once asked why people fall away from the church when they go to graduate school—this was after he served as a university president of both Utah State and University of Utah and was an Apostle. He had great perspective on this—he had sent graduate students out and had them come back and this was his idea and in my experience I agree completely. He said that there are a number of reasons why students fall away from the church. 1) They get so busy in their studies that they forget to do those things which nurture faith. And I think that’s true—it’s easy to stop studying scriptures, it’s easy to stop going to church, serving people, those kinds of things, saying your prayers, it’s not easy to do these things when you have the pressures of graduate school. So you have to commit to yourself that you won’t stop doing those things that nurture faith. 2) Immorality. These are often young single people and they get involved in immorality and the Spirit withdraws from them and they are more easily taken in by the ideas of the world. The ideas of academia at this point are decidedly anti-religious in most settings with few exceptions. And so if you do anything that causes the Spirit to withdraw from you, you are certainly going to be bombarded by those things that are going to pull you away. So you have to nurture the Spirit and not drive it away through sin. 3) He said that students will often become enamored with their professors who don’t necessarily live exemplary lives. Both from a standpoint of just religion, as many are anti-religious, but they don’t necessarily live good lives. Some professors do, but many professors lives’ are a mess. These are the things to be careful of in graduate school, so my advice would be to be aware that however good your professor is in his field you are probably, as a Latter-day Saint, a better role-model for how to live life than your professor is.
There are some exceptions. My doktorvater would be an exception—here was a man who understood life and was wise and good and kind and that kind of thing. But most of the time that won’t be the case so learn from them academically but don’t necessarily learn from them about life. Also, do all the things that you need to do to stay close to the Spirit. You have put yourself in an environment, whether you are studying Hebrew or Physics or Psychology or Sociology or anything -- the academic environment in our world today is aimed at taking you away from faith. If you are not actively shoring up your faith, then they will win—they’ll take you away. So you have to do that which will allow the Holy Ghost to testify to you continually and that way when they shoot the barbs in that are trying to sway you the other way you can at least make an informed decision understanding both sides because the Holy Ghost is teaching you as well as the world. Those who are wise will choose what the Holy Ghost teaches.f
RSC: Your dissertation is on ancient killings in Egypt. Can you give us a summary of your research and findings?
Dr. Muhlestein: The Egyptians killed people in a lot of different ways for a lot of different reasons but always with the religious idea that someone had done something that had set the world out of order and there was a need to put it back in order, to ensure that the world continued to work the way it was supposed to. I started studying that because I was interested in human sacrifice and what we see in facsimile #1 and found that there is a larger picture here that I was interested in. I became interested in understanding both the Book of Abraham with facsimile #1 and what is going on in Egypt in general. I don’t necessarily feel we need to defend a certain viewpoint—what drives me is to understand these things better and I have found that the more we understand them the more that the viewpoints don’t need defenses—if we understand them well then it just ends up making sense.
RSC: : So in facsimile #1 in the Book of Abraham Terah and the priests sought to sacrifice Abraham because they viewed him as heretical?
Dr. Muhlestein: Yes, it is clear from the text of the Book of Abraham that he had been preaching against idolatry which, to the Egyptians, was taking away from the way things should be. And there were only a few ways that you could set that right—by killing Abraham.
RSC: Briefly, what are the problems that the world finds with the Book of Abraham and how do you reconcile them?
Dr. Muhlestein: When people struggle with issues regarding the Book of Abraham and the Joseph Smith papyri they usually do so because they are making assumptions that they don’t even realize that they are making. 90% of the time they are operating on faulty information. Almost everybody who has questions about the Book of Abraham or who even attack the church in regards to the Book of Abraham have both bad information and are making bad assumptions while not even realizing that they are making any assumption at all. When we get good information and when we stop making assumptions, the problems go away and we find that there are some things we understand very well and there are a lot of things that we don’t understand very well—both in the realm of LDS views of the Book of Abraham and in the realm of Egyptology, but they are not incompatible.