For those who are not familiar with the Book of Abraham, it is a book of LDS scripture that Joseph Smith claims to have translated from Egyptian scrolls that he purchased from a traveling salesman. The introduction to the book claims that it is a record that was originally written by Abraham himself.
The Book of Abraham presents some very challenging issues. It was not the primary cause of my concerns, but it is a very significant piece of a bigger picture in which many issues tie together. It is an issue that ultimately has a lot to say about Joseph Smith’s claims to being a “translator” of ancient texts, and about his methods of creating scripture. As has been the case with so many other topics, I long ago thought I had a pretty good understanding of the challenges relating to the issue, but it turned out that the rabbit hole went far deeper than I thought.
I had originally turned to and trusted some articles and publications from some supposed LDS “experts” on the subject (BYU Egyptologists John Gee & Kerry Muhlestein). Sadly it has turned out that this was a terrible mistake. These men had been making some very massive and misleading overstatements of evidence, supporting apologetic views that turn out to be extremely problematic, and failing to include some of the most crucial and significant available evidences from their discussions and publications. Their failures were egregious enough that they owe the LDS world an apology. John Gee, once considered the go-to voice on these issues for believers has now been found to be so out of step that he’s actually at odds with the folks at the Joseph Smith Papers project. It turns out that some of the most significant evidence regarding these issues does not require one to be an Egyptologist to understand.
Suffice it to say that the issues and available evidence turned out to be far messier than I’d been led to believe, and I felt betrayed. Unfortunately, my feeling is that the 2014 LDS.org essay on the subject still betrays members by withholding from them some of the most significant information, and even misleading them on some key issues. It also makes some egregious and misleading statements about supposed evidence in favor of the Book of Abraham’s ancient nature. I hope that we might see more openness there in the future, and I hope this post can be a helpful aid for those who would like to more fully understand the issues involved.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE CONTROVERSY AND DEVELOPMENTS SURROUNDING THE BOOK OF ABRAHAM
Around 1820 big breakthroughs were being made with the Rosetta Stone, but it wasn’t until the 1850’s that our ability to read Egyptian was becoming well developed. It was in 1835 that Joseph claimed to have translated the Book of Abraham from Egyptian scrolls by the power of God. Thus, at the time there wasn’t a whole lot of ability to critique Joseph’s “translations.”
By 1856 Joseph’s wife Emma had sold the mummies and the papyri to Abel Combs. We now know that some mounted papyri fragments remained in the family of his housekeeper. The rest seem to have ended up in a Chicago museum where they were ultimately burned in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. For the next century Joseph Smith’s papyri were all believed to be lost forever. Thus, from 1871 onward the only thing that Egyptologists could really critique were the three facsimiles that were published in the Book of Abraham. Thus, the earliest challenge for Joseph’s claims were these three facsimiles and Joseph’s given translations of them.
THE EARLIEST CHALLENGE: THE FACSIMILES
These facsimiles alone generated plenty of controversy. Over a century ago Egyptologists recognized the facsimiles in the Book of Abraham as scenes that had similar counterparts in common Egyptian funerary texts (texts that were buried with the dead to guide them in the afterlife). They were said to have nothing whatsoever to do with Abraham. Furthermore, the translations Joseph offered of characters on the facsimiles were demonstrated to be incorrect. In some cases, various Egyptian gods are actually identified by name in the vignettes, and Joseph incorrectly claims that this very writing identifies them as Abraham and others. Missing figures and texts are known to be improperly restored. One of the vignettes is even known to have been created for a completely different individual/mummy (they’re named in the vignettes themselves) than the other two–so they couldn’t possibly have even all come from the same record!
The following is just a brief introduction to the sorts of challenges that arise from the three facsimiles:
Facsimile 1 is identified by Joseph as Abraham being sacrificed by a priest. This is problematic for a number of reasons. Very similar “lion couch” scenes are found in many other funerary texts. They do not represent human sacrifice. The “lion couch” is not an altar, but an embalming table. These scenes generally depict the preparation of a dead body by the embalming God Anubis (in this case perhaps a resurrection scene–suggested by the lifted leg). The jars below the table (identified by Joseph as “idolatrous gods”) are canopic jars that hold the organs of the deceased (in this case a man named Hor—whom the text was created for). In every other instance of this scene, the man Joseph identifies as a priest (really Anubis) actually has a jackal head. When the papyrus containing this facsimile was eventually found, it just so happened that this portion of the papyrus was missing, and a human head happens to be penciled in (as well as the knife). Also, not only is the content of the facsimile known to fit perfectly in the context of a funerary text, but when the papyrus containing this facsimile was found it happened to be at the beginning of the Book of Breathings–a common funerary text.
Facsimile 2 is known as a hypocephalus, because they were placed under the head of the deceased. This particular one is now known as the Hypocephalus of Sheshong. Sheshong is the owners (mummies’) name, and is found in the hieroglyphs on the facsimile. His mother’s name is also found there. There are a lot of small figures in this facsimile, so I wont attempt to outline all the differences in translation/interpretation here. One particular item of interest is that one of the images that Joseph identifies as God sitting on his throne is actually identified by Egyptologists as the “phallic” God Min. “Phallic” meaning that he has an erect penis in the figure–symbolizing fertility. Apparently, church leaders were aware of this long ago because the “phallus” was actually taken out of the facsimile for some time, and then put back in 1981 with the release of triple combinations. As with facsimile 1, we know that some of the figure was missing in the original papyrus, and was incorrectly restored. Characters from the Book of Breathings were actually put into it, and were placed upside down compared to the other text.
Facsimile 3 is known to have been at the end of the Hor Book of Breathings, and it references Hor by name. The facsimile is identified by Joseph as Abraham sitting on Pharaoh’s throne teaching astronomy to Pharaoh’s court. Egyptologists tell us that this is another common scene from funerary texts (the Book of the Dead). The figure identified by Joseph as Abraham is known to be the god Osiris (the text above him actually says his name). The figure behind him identified by Joseph as the Pharaoh is actually Isis, the mother of Osiris (again, identified by the text above her). The figure identified by Joseph as the King’s waiter is identified in the text above him as Hor. The figure identified by Joseph as a slave (you know, the one that looks like a black guy) is actually Anubis–the God of embalming.
Clearly, the facsimiles were not what Joseph believed them to be, and he was not able to literally translate them. If these weren’t what he claimed they were, then we already have good reason to be quite skeptical about the rest of the papyri being what he claimed them to be also.
NEW CHALLENGES: THE RECOVERY OF SOME OF JOSEPH’S PAPYRI IN 1967
In 1967 things got really interesting again. Some (not all, since many were burned in the 1871 Chicago fire) of the Egyptian papyri that were owned by Joseph Smith resurfaced, and were ultimately acquired by the LDS church. These were the papyri fragments that Abel Comb’s had kept for himself after selling others to the Chicago museum. They remained in the family of his housekeeper until 1947 when they were acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. About 20 years later someone figured out what they were and the LDS church acquired them. Upon examination it was found that these papyri were created somewhere between 300BCE and 100CE (some 1500 years after Abraham lived). The papyri fragments were found to include the following common funerary texts:
Book of Breathings fragments which were created for Hor (Horus)
Book of the Dead fragments which were created for Tshemmimm
Book of the Dead fragments which were created for Neferirtnub
It was significant that one of the Book of Abraham’s three facsimiles (facsimile 1) was part of these fragments, and was found to be at the beginning of Hor’s Book of Breathings (sidenote: facsimile 3 specifically mentions Hor, and is known to have been found at the end of the same document–although we don’t have that portion of the papyri). Upon translating these papyri, Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists have agreed that there is no content on any of these recovered papyri that has anything to do with the Book of Abraham. They are simply common funerary texts.
Since then, “critics” have often argued that the Book of Breathings fragment that began with facsimile 1 is the papyrus that Joseph Smith believed/claimed he was translating the beginning of the Book of Abraham from. Meanwhile, LDS apologists have often argued that this was not the papyrus that Joseph translated from, and that the papyrus Joseph translated from is either still missing or was part of the collection that burned in the Chicago fire (we’ll call it the “missing papyrus approach”). I myself held and promoted this “missing papyrus approach” for many years because some significant information had not been given to me (and is still not available in the church’s official essay on the topic for members to learn about).
THE EVIDENCE THAT THE BOOK OF ABRAHAM WAS INCORRECTLY BELIEVED TO BE ON THE BOOK OF BREATHINGS PAPYRUS
Unfortunately, I later found that there is actually some extremely significant evidence that strongly supports the “critics” claims. Whatever we want to make of it, there are very good reasons to conclude that the Book of Breathings papyrus that the church has in its possession (and that begins with facsimile 1) is what Joseph believed to be the Book of Abraham.
- The most significant evidence is three (not one, three!) different 1835 manuscripts written by three different scribes of Joseph Smith. All three of them have the the English text of the Book of Abraham in one column, and the Egyptian characters that follow after facsimile 1 in the Book of Breathings fragment written (in order) in another column adjacent to the text. Somehow this didn’t warrant any mention in the LDS.org essay, or in other articles I’d read years ago. That is mind boggling to me. There’s really no excuse to be withholding such significant information. This is the most powerful evidence on the matter, but there are other things worth noting as well.
- There is the fact Facsimiles 1 and 3 from the Book of Abraham are now known to have been located in this same Book of Breathings (created for Hor).
- There is the fact that Abraham 1:12 states that Facsimile 1 is “at the commencement of this record,” and Facsimile 1 happens to be right at the beginning of this Book of Breathings.
- There is the fact that some missing sections of Facsimile 2 happen to have been restored with these same Egyptian characters that follow after Facsimile 1 on the Book of Breathings papyrus–which suggests that it was what they believed to be the Book of Abraham–otherwise why take them from that text?
Of course, in addition to the issues listed above, there is also the previously discussed fact that Joseph very clearly was not able to literally translate the facsimiles. If Joseph was wrong about the content and translation of the facsimiles, it certainly isn’t a stretch to assume he was wrong about the papyri as well.
A MODERN CHALLENGE: ISSUES OF SOURCE CRITICISM
Other challenges to traditional claims about the Book of Abraham have involved critique of the “translated” text of the Book of Abraham itself. This would include things like “anachronisms” (things that are out of place or don’t belong) in the text. For example, the text places Abraham in Chaldea which did not exist until about 500 to 1000 years after Abraham would have lived. However, in my mind some of the most significant information to be dealt with regarding the Book of Abraham comes from an area of study called “source criticism.” This is an area that looks at what sources can be shown or hypothesized to have been used in the creation of the text. The writings of Josephus would be one potential example, but the most obvious and demonstrable one is the KJV version of the Bible. The details of how the KJV Bible shows up in the text strongly suggests that the Book of Abraham came about through a process of studying and creating while utilizing other sources—and not through a pure translation or pure revelation. These same issues of source criticism will show their heads again as we discuss other books of scripture brought forth by Joseph Smith.
SOME POSSIBLE CONCLUSIONS
Given all these issues, some faithful Mormons have accepted that the Book of Abraham was probably never on any Egyptian papyrus even though Joseph clearly believed it was. Instead of holding out for the “missing papyrus approach,” many instead opt for a “catalyst for revelation approach” which claims that the papyri simply served as a catalyst that sparked inspiration or revelation regarding the life of Abraham, or some ancient record of Abraham. This approach has its own challenges. There are a number of reasons that it is still impossible to attribute the book to Abraham himself, and a number of indicators that it is a more modern creation. Another challenge with this approach is that it requires us to conclude that the three facsimiles were incorrectly adapted by Joseph (unwittingly) to his revealed narrative of Abraham, and to acknowledge that they were also referenced within the revealed text itself (Abraham 1:12). The 2014 LDS.org essay about the Book of Abraham did at least open the door for faithful Mormons to accept this “catalyst” approach—although this approach does directly contradict traditional views of the book as well as the claims made in the introduction to the book itself. The church made a significant change to the introduction of the Book of Mormon in 2006. I wonder if a change will ever be made to the introduction to the Book of Abraham?
Of course, we have almost half a century of apologetic responses to these issues. There are always some who are satisfied by these apologetic responses, and there will always be others who find them problematic or highly unlikely. Going forward, we will further explore some of the issues raised above, and some of the apologetic approaches that have been offered. Obviously this can’t be considered anything close to a full treatment of the issues, or of every proposed possibility. Believe me, the section above was also not a full expose of all the details and challenges facing the Book of Abraham. The intent here is to provide an introduction to the issues.
MORE ON THE KEY ISSUES AND THE APOLOGETIC RESPONSES
ON TWO OF THE FACSIMILES BEING LOCATED IN THE BOOK OF BREATHINGS
First, we need to remember that this is complicated a bit by the fact that Abraham 1:12 states that facsimile 1 is “at the commencement of this record,” and that Facsimile 1 is found at the beginning of the Book of Breathings.
Again, there are some who simply conclude that the Book of Abraham was never on any papyrus, and who are comfortable admitting that the facsimiles must have been adapted or re-purposed unwittingly by Joseph Smith even though they never truly had any connection to Abraham. But for those who defend a real Book of Abraham on papyrus that really included these vignettes, the fact that two of the vignettes come from Hor’s Book of Breathings is generally explained by simply saying that it wasn’t uncommon for vignettes to be placed some distance from the text that actually refers to them. The LDS.org essay offers this apologetic. But let’s be clear about what is actually being claimed when this apologetic is offered. In this case, it’s not like we’re saying the facsimiles were just a few pages away from the text they refer to. You’d have to be claiming that they were either an entire book later on the same papyrus, or else on a completely different scroll, both of which in my opinion are quite a stretch. I’ll explain these two approaches further:
Some attempt to explain this issue by claiming that there must have been two entire books on this one roll of papyrus–the first being the Book of Breathings and the second being the Book of Abraham. Thus, when the text says it is “at the commencement of this record,” it is just skipping back an entire book to the beginning of the Book of Breathings which is technically on the same “record” or “papyrus” (2 books, one “record”).
Others say the Book of Abraham could have been on an entirely different scroll that is missing, and still could have referenced facsimiles that were placed in the Book of Breathings scroll, and that these multiple scrolls/papyri were together considered to be a single “record,” and that the Book of Breathings was the beginning of this multiple scroll “record.”
All of this seems highly unlikely to me. It’s not like these facsimiles were just a little out of place compared with the text that refers to them. One of them (facsimile 2) was on an entirely different record that was created for an entirely different person. Another one (facsimile 1) was an entire book away if not on an entirely different scroll! And let’s remember that none of them have anything to do with Abraham, and that Joseph’s interpretations of them were nowhere close to correct. At some point you have to acknowledge when something is a massive stretch.
Furthermore, although I don’t doubt that these vignettes are sometimes out of place relative to the text they reference, it seems unlikely to me in this particular case with facsimile 1. Facsimile 1 makes sense right in the context in which it is found in Hor’s Book of Breathings. The facsimile is thought to depict Osiris—the God of the afterlife—on an embalming table. Although it typically depicts mummification, in this case it is believed to represent his resurrection. Dead kings/people (in this case Hor) were identified or equated with Osiris at death. Osiris was the dead and resurrected god, and by union with him they were resurrected also. In the recovered papyrus, the lines directly adjacent to the vignette at the very beginning of the scroll (almost seeming to be connected directly with the vignette) speak of Hor’s need for a proper burial, and his need to live again with his ancestors. A resurrection from an embalming table seems to fit the context perfectly. It doesn’t seem likely (in fact I’d say it’s an absurd proposition) that a scribe started the scroll by writing just a few lines (which match nicely with the vignette that is right next to them no less), then added a vignette about Abraham being sacrificed that isn’t going to have meaning until an entire book later on the same scroll, then continued the Breathings text. Sorry. Can’t buy it. Surprised anyone would propose it, really. But I suppose if you don’t know the details of the situation I suppose it could seem like a reasonable apologetic.
ON THE GROSS MISINTERPRETATION OF THE FACSIMILES
When it comes to the gross misinterpretation of the facsimiles, the arguments have been forced to focus on the idea that either Joseph Smith or a Jewish writer from around 300BC must have adapted, re-purposed, or re-interpreted common Egyptian funerary vignettes into the context of a narrative about Abraham even though they were clearly originally created for a different purpose. This is referred to by some as “semitic adaptation.”
If we assume a Jewish writer from around 300BC did it, then we are presuming that there was a real Book of Abraham on papyrus. Even if I accept that such a writer would have re-purposed these vignettes into a Jewish context (semitic adaptation), it’s hard for me to imagine that this writer would have written a narrative about Abraham that referenced three facsimiles—two of which would have ended up in the Book of Breathings, and one of which came from an entirely separate document that was created for an entirely different person/mummy. Even if we believe there was a real Book of Abraham on papyrus, the facsimiles don’t seem to belong (yet one of them is referenced in the text).
If we assume Joseph Smith did the re-purposing or adaptation (perhaps unwittingly?), then we can either propose that he adapted and re-purposed them to a real Book of Abraham that was on papyrus, or that he adapted and re-purposed them to a book that he simply brought about through inspiration/revelation. In either case it has some implications for how we view this text. If we assume a real Book of Abraham on papyrus and some legitimate process of “translation,” then we would have to acknowledge that Joseph added the reference to the facsimile in verse 12 to the translated text.
ON THE EVIDENCE THAT THE BOOK OF ABRAHAM WAS FALSELY BELIEVED TO BE CONTAINED ON THE BOOK OF BREATHINGS
For me, the evidence very strongly suggests that the Book of Abraham was wrongly believed to be on the Book of Breathings. In my experience, many faithful Mormons are still fighting very hard against this conclusion, and we’ll discuss some of their arguments here as well as in the next section. On the other hand, I’m aware of some faithful Mormons who agree with this conclusion. Some of them are comfortable saying that the Book of Abraham was probably never on any papyrus. They instead look to a “catalyst for revelation” approach and propose that the facsimiles were inappropriately adapted to the narrative. Others continue to propose that the Book of Abraham was truly on some missing papyrus, but they just admit that the evidence suggests that Joseph probably didn’t know where it was actually located in the papyri (the argument here being that Joseph didn’t even use the gold plates to “translate” the Book of Mormon, so he wouldn’t necessarily need to know where the Book of Abraham was on the papyri to translate it. Anyway, on to the evidence.
The first issue here is that two of the three facsimiles published in the Book of Abraham are definitively known to have been found in Hor’s Book of Breathings, and we also have the related issue that one of these two facsimiles (facsimile 1) is referenced directly in Abraham 1:12. We’ve already addressed those issues above.
Another interesting issue (though not the most powerful of the evidence) is that missing portions of facsimile 2 were restored with Egyptian characters from the Book of Breathings that follow after facsimile 1 on the papyrus. Apologists explain this by saying that it was done purely for esthetic purposes to complete the picture, and that Joseph didn’t offer translations or explanations of those figures for that reason. That may be true, but I do think it is at least worth noting that they once again chose to use this same section of the papyrus that all of the other evidences point to. Coincidence?
The most significant issue is the three (not one, three!) different 1835 manuscripts of the Book of Abraham in the handwriting of Joseph’s scribes (WW Phelps, Warren Parrish, Frederick G. Williams), all three of which have the English text of the Book of Abraham in one column, and Egyptian characters from the Book of Breathings papyrus that come after facsimile 1 in the other column. I’m appalled that this evidence is not more widely acknowledged, and gets no mention in the church’s Book of Abraham essay.
The most common first response is to declare that these documents were not used in the translation process, but were likely a later attempt at a “reverse translation” (using the english text of the Book of Abraham to try to decipher Egyptian). This claim is debatable, but it isn’t even worth debating because it doesn’t matter anyway. Whether it was created during or after the creation of the Book of Abraham, the documents strongly suggest that these early church leaders believed the Book of Abraham was on the Breathings papyrus.
Another response is to distance Joseph from these manuscripts and attribute it all to the scribes alone—the implication being that these scribes may have simply been mistaken as to which papyrus Joseph actually translated from. However, the claim that Joseph played no part in this project is pure conjecture. I suppose there is no way to definitively tie Joseph to these documents, because they’re written by his scribes and not him. However, it seems likely to me that he was involved. During the same year Joseph reports working with these men to create an Egyptian alphabet and grammar. I suppose the projects could have been entirely separate, but that is just conjecture.
I think we also need to acknowledge that there are some challenges with just blaming it on the scribes who supposedly must have simply mistakenly assumed the Book of Abraham followed facsimile 1. Not only did they work with Joseph to create the Egyptian alphabet and grammar, but they were also with him for at least some of the “translation” process itself. Joseph also tells us in his journal that WW Phelps was even present and acting as scribe when they “commenced the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics, and much to our joy found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham.” Thus, I find it highly unlikely that Phelps had no indication of which part of the scroll Joseph believed the BoA to be on, or that they’d have gone to all the effort to attempt some sort of reverse translation without any indication from Joseph as to which papyrus to use.
Some argue that the Egyptian characters from the Breathings papyrus could have been added by someone else many years later, and not by the scribes. Some even cite ink testing to support this conclusion. It should be known that Hauglid from BYU said the ink issue “requires more testing”, and that “it is unlikely testing will be able to give a definitive answer to the ink questions.” (Hauglid, “Thoughts on the Book of Abraham.”) I think we can agree that the most likely scenario is that the characters were in fact added by the scribes. For goodness sake, we’re talking about three different manuscripts here! If someone added the characters later, we must assume the following: (1) this person would have to have had access not only to the Abraham manuscripts but also to the papyri (2) Instead of starting their own new document for their attempted reverse translation, they decided to just start writing the characters on these existing manuscripts of the Book of Abraham. However, they didn’t just do it on one document, they did the same thing on three different documents that were written by different men—even though these three manuscripts cover much of the same sections of the Book of Abraham. This is really not a very viable argument in my view. Also, these documents have been in possession of the church history department since 1847, so it isn’t like they were just sitting in someones basement where anybody could have messed with them.
In finishing this section, I just want to say that I find it disturbing that I had read several articles from folks like Gee and Muhlestein about the very topic of this section, and they scarcely even bother to mention any of this evidence (in most there was no mention at all). In one article where Muhlestein at least gives this evidence a brief mention (and admits only in the footnotes that he and John Gee were wrong in their earlier assertions that the characters didn’t follow the order in which they are found in the Book of Breathings), he can only give the following explanation:
“I do not understand the relationship between the Egyptian characters and the rest of the papers. I think the evidence drives us to conclude that the papers are not a record of the translation process, but I am at a loss to say what they might be a record of.” (Muhlestein, Egyptian Papyri and the Book of Abraham…)
I propose that there is a need for us to more openly acknowledge this evidence, and the fact that there is good reason to believe that the Book of Abraham was incorrectly believed to be on the Book of Breathings papyrus. This should have been done decades ago, yet the LDS.org article still makes no mention of these issues at all.
I applaud Brian Hauglid of BYU for openly acknowledging these matters in many venues:
“This is where things tend to get somewhat complicated. First, the hieratic characters in the three manuscripts do, in reality, come from one of the eleven fragments. Second, this fragment, from which the Egyptian characters were taken, was initially attached to the Facsimile 1 papyrus. And third, the hieratic characters do not translate to the Book of Abraham. In fact, except for the Facsimile 1 papyrus, nothing related to the Book of Abraham appears on any of the papyri fragments the Metropolitan Museum of Art returned to the Church.” (Hauglid, Thoughts on the Book of Abraham)
Here are links to the three published copies of these manuscripts put out as part of the Joseph Smith Papers project if you want to view them:
Frederick G. Williams copy (Oct 1835): Click Here
William W. Phelps and Warren Parrish copy (summer/fall 1835): Click Here
Warren Parrish copy (Fall 1835): Click Here
ON APOLOGETIC ARGUMENTS MADE BASED ON HISTORICAL ACCOUNTS
For decades numerous articles have argued that historical evidence suggests that the recovered Book of Breathings papyrus cannot have been the one Joseph believed he was translating from. To give an example, BYU Egyptologist Kerry Muhlestein has done a number of apologetic videos. I believe they drastically overstate many supposed evidences, but one particular quote relates to this issue. He goes so far as to say the following:
“Anyone who tells you that Joseph Smith is translating from the text around facsimile 1 on the fragments that we have is just flying in the face of the historical accounts that tell us the source is the long scroll.”
That’s a really strong claim! And an extremely inappropriate and irresponsible one! First, speaking of “flying in the face” of the evidence, we’ve noted in the previous section some extremely powerful evidence that they truly believe they were “translating” from the Book of Breathings. But it is also incredibly irresponsible and absurd given the nature of the historical evidences Muhlestein is referring to. There are two pieces of historical evidence that are put forth as evidence that he translated from a missing “long scroll” (the argument here being that the Breathings fragments Joseph had were not part of a “long scroll,” and thus wouldn’t be the source).
First, we have a letter from Charlotte Haven to her mother about her experience being shown the papyri (supposedly including the Abraham papyrus) by Joseph Smith’s mother in which she describes them as “long rolls.” This letter is clearly full of numerous other inaccuracies and absurdities. For example, it claims that Lucy said they were written in Sanskrit and Hebrew (not Egyptian), and she supposedly proceeded to simultaneously read/translate the text for several minutes.
Secondly, we have a third hand account of a 5 year old’s childhood memory, given 63 years after the fact, which describes seeing a long roll.
The “historical evidence” is certainly not nearly as powerful as Muhlestein suggests. I believe he is grossly misrepresenting the evidence and setting up false expectations. He ignores the extremely powerful evidence that the Book of Breathings was the document they believed they were “translating” from, and bases everything on the fact that two questionable sources described a “long scroll.”
Other common arguments have been based on descriptions of the scrolls that were given by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. These arguments involve a claim that the Abraham scrolls are said to have red ink and rubrics on them, and that the Breathings papyrus didn’t have these things. This argument originated with Hugh Nibley. In the interest of brevity, I wont copy and paste the quotes here, but will just note that even the prominent LDS apologist Jeff Lindsay has admitted that these arguments were based on false assumptions made by Nibley, and that there really isn’t any good substance to them. He even suggests that these quotes could be seen as supporting the conclusion that they believed the Book of Breathings was the source. See the two different “2013 update” boxes that were added to his article here: http://www.jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/FQ_Abraham.shtml#point2
ON THE PAPYRI BEING DATED ABOUT 1500 YEARS AFTER ABRAHAM EVEN THOUGH JOSEPH BELIEVED IT WAS “WRITTEN BY ABRAHAM UPON PAPYRUS”
Again, there are many LDS faithful who simply admit that it was never really on any papyrus even though the introduction makes the claim above, and even though Joseph clearly believed/claimed it was. Those who defend the possibility that it was originally written by Abraham simply argue that the papyrus Joseph obtained could have been a copy of a copy of a copy…..you get the idea. The LDS.org essay proposes this. It is worth noting however, that Joseph does seem to think that it was literally written by Abraham himself.
For me, even if we accept the “copy of a copy of a copy” argument, there are numerous reasons why trying to attribute the book to Abraham is problematic. One reason (out of many) comes from source criticism. The writer of the Book of Abraham seems to have drawn on the two different creation accounts in the book of Genesis—which would not have been combined together until LONG after Abraham lived. If you see my post on the Old Testament you’ll begin to understand other reasons why I don’t believe Abraham ever wrote this book. If he was a real person, the history we have of him would be oral tradition passed down, and not any written document that was passed down from Abraham’s time. Thus, for me, even if someone wants to argue for a real Book of Abraham on papyrus, then the only viable option is to view it as a revealed pseudepigrapha (attributed to Abraham even though it was written by someone else long after the fact (perhaps 3rd century BCE).
ON THE ANACHRONISMS IN THE FINAL TEXT
The anachronisms are generally dealt with in 3 ways.
One approach sticks with the claim in the introduction of the book which says that the Book of Abraham truly does date back to Abraham’s time, and it assumes that the anachronisms were added in by ancient scribes as they recopied it over the next 1500 years or so until Joseph’s papyri were created around 300BCE (again, if you see my Old Testament post, you’ll understand why I find it very difficult to try to place the book’s origins in Abrahams time)
Others ditch the idea that the Book of Abraham had origins in Abraham’s time and instead believe that the Book of Abraham was likely created much later as a pseudepigraphic document (attributed to Abraham, but not written by him). For example, some believe it can be defended best as a document that could have been written around 300BC (which is when the papyri date to). If it was created some 1500 years after Abraham, then that could explain why there would be some anachronisms in the text. However, it would also represent a huge change to traditional claims about the book, and to the claims in the book’s introduction.
Some account for the anachronisms as part of the “translation process.” They assume a real ancient Book of Abraham, but assume that Joseph may have changed some wording here or there so that it would make more sense in our time. For example, he could have changed the word “king” to the word “pharoah” even though pharaohs may not have existed yet in Abraham’s time.
I think the key challenge I have with any of these approaches comes from the next section. I believe there is strong reason to believe that the Book of Abraham came about through a process of study and creation in the 19th century, and not simply through revelation or translation of an ancient document.
ON SOURCE CRITICISM (MODERN CONTENT IN THE BOOK OF ABRAHAM)
I admit that I’m not aware of a whole lot of apologetics dealing with these specific issues at this point, so this will mostly be a review of these issues.
In source criticism we are looking at what sources can be hypothesized or demonstrated to have been drawn from or used directly in the creation of a text. In the case of the Book of Abraham, if it can be shown that modern sources were used in the creation of the text, then this tells us a lot about the origins of the book, and about Joseph’s “translation” process. It also puts traditional claims about the book into serious question. There are a lot of possible sources of information that Joseph could have drawn from, some of which I’ll discuss a bit more as we go along. The writings of Josephus could have given Joseph the tradition of Abraham teaching astronomy to Pharoah’s court. The Quran, the Genesis Rabbah, and Jasher ALL preserve the traditions of Abraham living in a time of idolatry, destroying idols, and an attempt on his life from which he’s delivered by God. And it’s very possible that Joseph wouldn’t have even needed to consult these books directly. Given how much interest there was in these issues at the time, it’s very possible that he encountered some summary of the extra-biblical Abrahamic traditions. As we go along, I will also provide powerful evidence that the story of “Egyptus” and the origins of Egypt in Joseph’s Book of Abraham were borrowed from a false story in the writings of the Christian Father Eusebius. Another very powerful evidence of Joseph’s use of modern sources when creating this book is its dependence on the book of Genesis–specifically the KJV version.
Interestingly, John Gee has recently said the following about source criticism and the Book of Abraham:
“If one accepts the historicity of the Book of Abraham, then one cannot accept the validity of source criticism. Likewise, if one accepts the validity of source criticism, then one cannot accept the historicity of the Book of Abraham. The two are incompatible” (John Gee, “An Introduction to the Book of Abraham”)
A REWORKING OF GENESIS:
One example I already mentioned previously is the fact that we have solid evidence that the writer of the Book of Abraham was using/reworking the book of Genesis. One evidence of this is the fact that we can see remnants of the two different creation accounts found there. In other words, the Book of Abraham shows literary dependance on Genesis. Although this makes it much harder (impossible in my view) to attribute the text directly to Abraham, someone could still argue that the Book of Abraham was written by someone anciently. For example, a Jew/Egyptian around 300BCE could have reworked the Genesis account in his creation of a psuedepigraphic document about Abraham, because it could have been available to him. In any case, Genesis provides us with many of the themes in the Book of Abraham.
The KING JAMES BIBLE:
A more challenging issue is that the modern King James Version of the Bible can be shown to have been used in the creation of the Book of Abraham (as well as the Book of Mormon and Book of Moses). It isn’t just that these texts “sound like” the KJV. That wouldn’t be a big deal at all. It’s that the KJV was clearly utilized in the creation of the texts. How do we know this? A few reasons:
First, there isn’t always one correct way to translate an ancient language. Slightly different words or sentence structures are inevitably chosen by various translators which can ultimately convey the exact same meaning and can be equally correct. However, the Book of Abraham follows the exact wording chosen in the KJV in many instances—the extent of which would not happen by chance. More importantly, it sometimes chooses the exact same wording as the KJV even in instances where there are known errors in translation in the KJV.
Why does this matter? It suggests that the Book of Abraham was not brought about simply through a process of direct revelation or a pure translation, as has traditionally been believed. Rather, it was brought about through an active process of study and creation (inspired or not) that took some significant effort and thought. Some faithful Mormons are comfortable with this, and they view the book as sort of a modern “Midrash.” In other words, Joseph did what many ancient Jewish writers often did—which is that he started with other ancient texts as a baseline, and then he rewrote them while adjusting, clarifying, adding to, or taking away from the original narrative—perhaps combining multiple traditions into one. Another way to look at it would be to say that he was basically doing the same thing he was doing when he created the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, except that he was adding a lot more new material to the Book of Abraham. It wasn’t really any kind of a translation at all, but rather a reworking of the ancient texts.
The obvious challenge is that this doesn’t seem to square up with the claims that Joseph made about the origins of the book. It seems to me that he would have known that he wasn’t really “translating” an ancient text (even if we do take that term in a very loose sense), but I suppose it could be argued that he really felt he was being inspired during this process of creation. In any case, the info causes us to make significant changes to our understanding of what Joseph means when he says he “translates” an ancient text, and it challenges traditional claims about the origins of these books.
As far as apologetic arguments go, the most common proposal seems to be that if Joseph recognized areas where the text was similar to what we have in the Bible, he simply stopped and copied the wording found in the King James Bible, then resumed translating. The problem with this is that in some spots the Book of Abraham is undeniably shaped by the KJV, but then it will also quickly deviate from it in trivial ways. If he was intending to just follow the KJV where appropriate, then why not do it all the way through those sections?
For me, the most reasonable and likely explanation for the data is that Joseph was using the KJV Genesis as a base text, and that he was then making changes and additions to it where he saw fit. Some are comfortable with this. Personally, I find it hard to make it jive with Joseph’s claims. At very least, it causes us to view this piece of LDS scripture differently.
Here are a few sources where these issues can be explored further:
THE WRITINGS OF JOSEPHUS:
Although the KJV is the most demonstrable source text for the Book of Abraham, many have proposed that the writings of a 1st Century CE Jewish Historian named Josephus contributed to the Book of Abraham. Josephus preserves some traditions about the patriarch Abraham, as well as some writings of a 300BCE Egyptian historian named Manetho. The writings of Josephus provide some themes found in the Book of Abraham—most notably the tradition of Abraham teaching astronomy to pharoah’s court. This would no doubt be brushed off as pure coincidence if not for the fact that we actually have Hyrum Smith’s copy of the writings of Josephus, and we have other early brethren on record referring to his writings—making more than plausible to suggest that these writings influenced the Book of Abraham.
THOMAS DICK’S “PHILOSOPHY OF A FUTURE STATE”:
Another proposed source text is Thomas Dick’s “Philosophy of the Future State.” This book was very popular at the time, and among the LDS community. Lengthy excerpts of it were even quoted in the LDS newspaper in Kirtland. It rejects creation ex nihilo, proposes “various orders of intelligences,” proposes that matter is eternal and can’t be destroyed, and proposes that the universe revolves around a common center which is the throne of God (compare Kolob). Apologists note that Thomas Dick’s book doesn’t accurately represent the big picture cosmology presented in the Book of Abraham. That may be true, but we don’t have to assume that the Book of Abraham has to have adopted all of Thomas Dick’s philosophy in order to admit that it likely had some influence.
EGYPTIAN HISTORIAN MANETHO (as preserved by the Christian father Eusebius):
When I had discovered the true depth of the problems with the Book of Abraham and was seeking out the best faithful answers for them I once discussed with LDS apologist Stephen Smoot in a public forum. At one point he claimed that similarities between the Book of Abraham and the Manetho traditions were an evidence for an authentic ancient record, and he even began questioning my sincere search for truth when I didn’t find this proposed supporting evidence convincing. Although I suppose it isn’t possible to definitively prove one way or the other, in spite of Smoot’s attempt at shaming I would suggest to you that this issue actually serves more strongly as evidence for modern origins of the Book of Abraham, and for Joseph’s borrowing from Manetho traditions as preserved by the Christian father Eusebius.
The issue is that Eusebius preserves a tradition that he attributes to Manetho wherein he claims that Ham had a son named Aegyptus who ultimately settled Egypt, with the implication being that this is how “Egypt” ultimately got its name. Of course, the Book of Abraham has a very similar narrative, claiming that Ham had a daughter named Egyptus who settled Egypt, giving Egypt its name. The big issue is whether or not this was a legitimate tradition from Manetho, or whether Eusebius was fudging the record. If Eusebius was fudging or adding to the original record, then we have good reason to suspect that Joseph encountered and borrowed from these writings of Eusebius (perhaps encountered through his fascination with Egyptian origins).
The kicker is that there are several reasons to suspect that this tradition did not originate with Manetho. First of all, neither of the earlier writers who preserved Manetho (Josephus and Africanus) had preserved this tradition! Furthermore, even the introduction to these writings from the Loeb library cautions us that Eusebius is “responsible for unwarranted alterations to the original text of Manetho.” It goes on to say that “many problems are involved, and that it is extremely difficult to reach certainty in regard to what is authentic Manetho and what is spurious or corrupt.” It further notes that the “work of Manetho was further exploited by Jews and Egyptians in their polemic, in the course of which additions to Manetho’s works were made.” Furthermore, given that these spurious additions were made in a battle between Jews and Egyptians, a narrative connecting Egyptian origins to Ham might be just the sort of thing we’d expect would get added.
Another reason to suspect this narrative was added by Eusebius is because we know that this narrative is a false one to begin with, as Egypt got its name much later than that, and in a very different way. The name Egypt has its roots much later with the Greeks, who transliterated the name of an Egyptian capital city and came up with Aigyptos. The version we get from Joseph (Egyptus) is closer to the Latin version found in Eusebius’ preservation of Manetho which is “Aegyptus.” This could potentially be seen as further evidence that Joseph was borrowing from Eusebius. If nothing else, the fact that this narrative of how Egypt got its name isn’t true or historical at a minimum further suggests that the text does not date back to Abraham, and would be better defended as 3rd century pseudepigrapha if someone is going to attempt to defend it as an ancient document.
Smoot and others dismissed all this with a claim that there is no evidence that Joseph read the Christian fathers, and acted as if it was absurd for me to propose it without direct evidence. Personally, I see loads of evidence that Joseph read the Christian fathers as I see lots of his ideas coming from them (degrees of heaven, becoming gods, Jesus subordination to the Father, a “social trinitarian” sort of doctrine, etc). However, even if he didn’t read other Christian fathers or even all of Eusebius, his serious fascination with Egyptian origins alone could easily have led him to encounter these alleged Manetho traditions. Egyptian origins were a hotly discussed topic at the time, so it isn’t at all a stretch to say Joseph may have encountered these traditions from some source. If we didn’t happen to have Hyrum Smith’s personal copy of the writings of Josephus these apologists would similarly be claiming that there is “no evidence” that they read Josephus, and would scorn people for proposing such a thing without evidence. A hundred years from now would you expect to have knowledge or direct evidence of every book I ever read or all the information I encountered? No, you wouldn’t. I have to add that it is interesting that people in Joseph’s time were extremely interested in determining the origins of both Native Americans and Egyptians. Funny that the scripture Joseph produced proposed answers to both questions.
THE BOOK OF JASHER:
This one might be less likely than the others to have been available to Joseph, but it is definitely in the realm of possibility. The Book of Jasher preserves some Abrahamic traditions, and some have suggested it as a source. We do know that Joseph had a copy of the book by 1841 or 1842, and that the Book of Abraham wasn’t published until 1842. To my knowledge, the Book of Jasher as a whole wasn’t available to the public in 1835 when Joseph began the “translation.” However, there are several reasons that this wouldn’t preclude Jasher from having influenced the Book of Abraham.
First, given how much interest there was in these kinds of issues at the time, it is possible that some Abrahamic traditions from Jasher were discussed in other sources (articles? commentaries?) prior to the time the whole book was available to the public. In addition, although we can’t currently pin down the dates of when various parts of the Book of Abraham came about, it was almost certainly far from completed in 1835. Gee and Muhlestein have tried to argue that it was essentially completed in 1835 (though they do admit that “Joseph revised the translation preparatory to its publication in 1842″ –-link HERE). But this is a highly questionable claim with powerful evidence to the contrary. Stephen Smoot has acknowledged that there is strong evidence that “Abraham 3 onward was translated after Joseph Smith studied Hebrew in 1836″ (see HERE). Also, the church’s own book “Saints” reports that “Joseph Smith worked on the translation of the book of Abraham during the summer and fall of 1835, by which time he completed at least the first chapter and part of the second chapter. His journal next speaks of translating the papyri in the spring of 1842″ (link HERE). This leaves plenty of time later on for the book of Jasher to have influenced the Book of Abraham–either during revision, or during “translation.”
The church’s essay on the Book of Abraham says in footnote 46 that: “Some of these extrabiblical elements were available to Joseph Smith through the books of Jasher and Josephus. Joseph Smith was aware of these books, but it is unknown whether he utilized them.” The specific “extrabiblical elements” in question are listed as follows:
“Other details in the book of Abraham are found in ancient traditions located across the Near East. These include Terah, Abraham’s father, being an idolator; a famine striking Abraham’s homeland; Abraham’s familiarity with Egyptian idols; and Abraham’s being younger than 75 years old when he left Haran, as the biblical account states. Some of these extrabiblical elements were available in apocryphal books or biblical commentaries in Joseph Smith’s lifetime, but others were confined to nonbiblical traditions inaccessible or unknown to 19th-century Americans.”
It bears repeating that the Quran, the Genesis Rabbah, and Jasher ALL preserve the traditions of Abraham living in a time of idolatry, destroying idols, and an attempt on his life from which he’s delivered by God, and that the writings of Josephus could have given Joseph the tradition of Abraham teaching astronomy to Pharoah’s court. So all of those themes were very much available to Joseph Smith.
In my view, issues of source criticism will likely provide some of the biggest new questions and challenges for modern LDS scripture going forward. They suggest that these books came about through a process of study and creation, and not through literal translations of ancient documents. Unfortunately, these issues have not been explored, written about, or acknowledged as much as some of the other issues. However, some have begun to explore them. Richard Bushman recently called upon LDS scholars to do more to address issues of 19th century content in the Book of Mormon (HERE), and I’ll write about these issues in another post. A great introduction to these issues as they relate to the Book of Moses can be seen HERE. Another issue is Joseph’s “translation” of a “record made on parchment by John”–the original transcript of which is about half the size of the version in D&C 7–which once again suggest a process of development and creation, and not a literal translation.
ON PARALLELS WITH OTHER ANCIENT DOCUMENTS AND ABRAHAMIC TRADITIONS
A large focus of Book of Abraham apologetics has been to find evidences and parallels that tie the book to the ancient world. The LDS.org essay on the Book of Abraham deals with these issues, stating the following: “Evidence suggests that elements of the book of Abraham fit comfortably in the ancient world and supports the claim that the book of Abraham is an authentic record.” For those who want to explore them, the last section of the LDS.org essay gives some examples.
Some people will find these things very convincing. I can understand this completely, because I myself once found these sorts of evidences very powerful—particularly with regard to the Book of Mormon. But what I once considered to be very powerful evidence for the authenticity of these books, I now feel can be rather easily accounted for through a combination of chance, parallelomania, source criticism, recognizing overstatement, etc. One major issue was that I wasn’t aware of how many sources were available to Joseph that preserved the major traditions in his Book of Abraham (see section above for more on that). Another issue is that these sorts of evidences are often overstated and made to appear much more powerful than they are. The LDS.org article gives us a few examples of information that I believe is significantly overstated:
The essay claims: “A third-century papyrus from an Egyptian temple library connects Abraham with an illustration similar to facsimile 1 in the book of Abraham.”
On a quick read, this will sound to many as if Abraham was actually a significant subject in the vignette. In reality, the figures are once again believed to be Osiris and Anubis (just as in facsimile 1), and they are invoked here as part of a magical “love spell” that is intended to turn a woman on (wink wink). These spells often invoke “magical names”—including many from the Old Testament. The claim made in the LDS.org essay will give many people an overstated sense of the evidence, as the actual content of the facsimile doesn’t relate to Abraham at all. At best this evidence serves as an example of the fact that Egyptian and Israelite traditions did sometimes meet up. However, I think the full context here significantly changes the way people will see the evidence. On the bright side, this is a step up from previous claims of BYU Egyptologist Kerry Muhlestein who had been incorrectly claiming that the text actually identifies Abraham as the figure on the couch.
Next, the essay claims: “A later Egyptian text, discovered in the 20th century, tells how the Pharaoh tried to sacrifice Abraham, only to be foiled when Abraham was delivered by an angel.”
The trouble with this is that scholars have put forward evidence that this text does not refer to the patriarch Abraham at all, but rather to a Christian Martyr named Abraham. The word Gee translates as pharaoh can simply be translated as King—in this case known to be Persian King Shapur II. Even if Gee disagrees with this interpretation, it is important for people to understand that there is controversy involved with this claim—and no sense of that is given in the essay.
There are many other examples such as some videos done by Kerry Muhlestein that pick up on these same arguments, and some others that are just as problematic when evaluated. I sometimes can’t even believe he is making some of the claims he is making. And yet, to the uninformed viewer, they will appear to be extremely powerful and inspiring evidence for the Book of Abraham. All I’m saying is that caution and judgement needs to be used, because even folks like Gee and Muhlestein—whom most Mormons will be very trusting of—have often overstated their evidence rather than painting a realistic picture that gives reasonable expectations.
Even LDS scholar David Bokovoy noted in an interview some feelings that the LDS.org essay overstates some evidences in this regard:
“Also, there a few inaccuracies as well, that maybe, well yeah there’s some inaccuracies historically and also from a biblical scholarly perspective. An emphasis on things that would make The Book of Abraham more consistent with the ancient world that I think are, well, an overreach, or perhaps an overstatement…” (interview with Doug Fabrizio on Radio West)
MY FINAL THOUGHTS REGARDING THE BOOK OF ABRAHAM
In my opinion, many different lines of evidence very powerfully tell us that the Book of Abraham was never on any of the Egyptian papyri that Joseph acquired. Frankly, given the evidence, I find it hard to fathom how some seemingly informed apologists still feel comfortable defending this as a viable position. I think the available evidence needs to be openly acknowledged and faced, and I believe the church’s official Book of Abraham “gospel topics” essay does a very poor and even dishonest job of it. I believe when known the evidence will require most believers to adopt a “catalyst for revelation” sort of approach. I’m pleased that the LDS.org essay at least opened the door for faithful Mormons to more openly adopt and discuss this approach without facing repercussions. In a 2012 article (Formulas and Faith), John Gee of BYU reported that most members simply found the issue “unimportant,” but reported that the majority of those who “care” and have an opinion believed that the “Book of Abraham was received by revelation independent of the papyri.” Interestingly, this view directly contradicts the views and claims of Joseph Smith, and the statement found in the actual introduction to the Book of Abraham itself. The church did make a significant change to the Book of Mormon introduction in 2006. I wonder if they will ever make a change to the Book of Abraham introduction? It seems to me that they should.
Even if the “catalyst for revelation” approach is taken, there are still multiple options…
Some will still defend the notion that Joseph revealed a legitimate ancient text that really existed existed at one point even though not on any of these Egyptian papyri. Given all the evidence I personally find it surprising that many apologists still defend this view, but if it is going to be proposed, I would suggest that the only approach that could even be attempted would be to say that Joseph could have revealed a pseudepigraphic document that was created long after the death of Abraham (perhaps in Ptolemaic Egypt—around 300BC–which is what is often proposed if apologists are backed into a corner). In my view, a key problem with this approach (apart from the fact that it doesn’t square with Joseph’s claims and beliefs or the statements in the book’s introduction) is the issue of source criticism. There is too much evidence that Joseph is playing an active role in the creation (not just a loose translation) of the text. He seems to be putting in a lot of thought and effort while utilizing and reworking other modern resources. In addition to the other possibilities I’ve noted, the book not only draws from Genesis, but specifically from the King James Version of Genesis. Even if the KJV Bible is the only source we acknowledge, the evidence still suggests this was not an ancient document.
This being the case, I propose that the best option for believers is to view the Book of Abraham as a sort of inspired midrash. In other words, Joseph is using sources available to him, and he is reworking, combining, adjusting, and adding to them to create a new narrative of Abraham—much like many ancient Jews did in their own documents. However, this once again appears to go against Joseph’s claims/beliefs, and forces us to reconsider what it really means when Joseph Smith says he “translates” an ancient document. It forces us to reconsider and adjust our traditional views of scripture. In my view the Book of Mormon “translation” begins to make more sense when one begins to see how the Book of Abraham was created.
In summary, my personal feeling is that the best case believers can adopt for the Book of Abraham is to view it as a sort of “inspired midrash” given by a man who didn’t quite have an accurate view of how God was using him, or what he was really doing, and therefore made some false claims in the process.
Of course, the million dollar question you must decide for yourself is this:
Was it really “inspired,” or was it just “midrash?”
Some interesting podcasts for those who would like to hear more discussion of these ideas and issues:
LDS scholar David Bokovoy on Radio West (right click the “play” button for option to download):
BYU faculty Charlie Harrell, and Brian Hauglid (who has examined the Abraham documents firsthand), and others.
A shorter but less detailed one with Brian Hauglid on Mormon Discussion Podcast: