Questions about the Book of Abraham, Part 3:
Does It Agree with other Ancient Texts?
Critics of Joseph Smith and the Book of Abraham typically pick at the drawings (facsimiles), largely ignoring the actual text that Joseph presented to the world as his translation of an ancient Egyptian scroll. Shouldn't the text itself be held up for examination? In fact, it contains numerous hints that point to ancient origins, as we explore here. This is Part 3 of a three-part series on the Book of Abraham, all of which is part of my suite of "Mormon Answers: Frequently Asked Questions about Latter-day Saint Beliefs." This work is solely the responsibility of Jeff Lindsay and is subject to all manner of human error and bias - but I try to be accurate.
Part 1 of the Book of Abraham FAQ deals primarily with questions about the source of the Book of Abraham, including a discussion of the original scrolls and the existing papyrus fragments, as well as the Egyptian papers. Part 2 deals with the content of the book and Joseph Smith's comments on three Egyptian drawings that have been attached to the published Book of Abraham. The Book of Abraham can be read online at LDS.org, facsimiles included. Also see the Church's 2014 statement on "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham at the Gospel Topics section of LDS.org.
A key reference cited in the discussion of evidences for the Book of Abraham below is Traditions about the Early Life of Abraham, edited by John A. Tvedtnes, Brian M. Hauglid, and John Gee (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2001). A photo of the cover of this highly recommended work of scholarship is shown to the right.
Also see a summary of several compelling evidences for the Book of Abraham in Daniel Peterson's 2012 column, "How Could Joseph Know All of This?" and, for an older but still valuable scholarly perspective, see Hugh Nibley's book, Abraham in Egypt, especially the first chapter, which refutes some common complaints about the Book of Abraham and makes insightful comparisons to some other ancient documents that Joseph Smith could not have known about. There is also some intriguing Book of Abraham information by Kerry A. Shirts, and an interesting 1968 thesis on this topic by Rabbi Nissim Wernick entitled "A Critical Analysis of the Book of Abraham in the Light of Extra-Canonical Jewish Writings" which was done at BYU.
Another recent article I recommend is "The Book of Abraham and Continuing Scholarship: Ask the Right Questions and Keep Looking" by Stephen Smoot, which highlights some recent progress in appreciating the Book of Abraham. For example, the name "Elkanah" makes a lot of sense. The article is a good reminder that the debate on the authenticity of the Book of Abraham is hardly over.
2011 Update: Recent Evidence Adding Exciting New Evidence for the Book of Abraham
There have been some exciting discoveries since I began this web page. Some of the most significant are mentioned by Dr. John Gee, one of a few scholars deeply familiar with the Egyptian texts potentially relevant to the Book of Abraham. Dr. Gee shows how modern scholarship is helping to better place the Book of Abraham in history. However, before I share some news from Dr. Gee, let me remind you of some of the controversy over the location of the Book of Abraham. Here is a background passage from Daniel C. Peterson's article, "News from Antiquity," in the January 1994 issue of the Ensign (for the footnotes omitted below, see the related quote on Part 2 of my Book of Abraham LDS FAQ page):
The book begins with Abraham "in the land of Ur, of Chaldea." (Abr. 1:20.) It is obvious that this "Chaldea" was a place under strong Egyptian influence. It was there that Abraham's own fathers turned aside from worship of the true God to the service of "the god of Pharaoh, king of Egypt." (Abr. 1:6; facsimile 1, fig. 9.) Apart from a passing reference in Joshua 24:2 [Josh. 24:2], the Bible does not tell of the idolatry of Abraham's ancestors. However, their worship of false gods and Abraham's faithfulness in worshipping the true God, as well as his attempts to convert his family, are common themes of many very old Jewish and Christian stories. 
Where was Ur of the Chaldees? Since the nineteenth century, most authorities have identified it with the modern Tell al-Muqayyar, a site in southern Iraq. However, certain elements of the book of Abraham do not seem to fit well in southern Iraq; in particular, Egyptian influences appear to be lacking there during the time of Abraham (traditionally placed around 2000 B.C.). It is thus interesting to note that some recent reevaluations of the question locate Ur in the area known anciently as Aram-Naharaim, or northwestern Mesopotamia (northeastern Syria and southeastern Turkey, in terms of modern geography). This was a region under Egyptian influence at the time of Abraham. The book of Abraham mentions a place it calls "the plain of Olishem" (Abr. 1:10), which was apparently part of the land of Chaldea. No such place is mentioned in the Bible, but the name does occur in an inscription of the Akkadian ruler Naram Sin, dating to about 2250 B.C. Remarkably, it refers to a place located precisely in northwestern Syria.
Yes, it's cool that there is new evidence from an ancient text for the plains of Olishem in the Book of Abraham, but the real purpose of this passage is to remind you that modern LDS scholarship points to Ur of the Chaldees and the initial setting for the Book of Abraham as being in the north, perhaps in Syria, not in southern Iraq. Now we turn to Dr. Gee for an update included in his presentation at the Eleventh Annual FAIR Conference, August 6, 2009 entitled "The Larger Issue."
For years the critics have noted that the Book of Abraham has Egyptians up in Abraham's homeland in Abraham's day. This is something that they see as problematic. In the 1960s Georges Posener first suggested that there was an Egyptian empire in Syria in those days, but most scholars rejected it. There simply was not enough archaeological evidence for it in their opinion. Two articles last year change the picture. One was the publication by the President of the International Association of Egyptologists of a new autobiographical text from the Middle Kingdom. It details how this Egyptian led an expedition to Byblos and while there became involved in a military altercation between Byblos and Ullaza and ended up taking over both. This became the beginning of Egyptian involvement in northern Syria in the Middle Kingdom. Confirmation of the story comes from Byblos where the former kings are replaced by Egyptian appointed governors who began recording their titles in Egyptian. The second article came out in the premier peer-reviewed Egyptological journal in North America and detailed how a careful examination of the textual and archaeological sources indicates that Egypt had a presence in the northern Levant only during the reigns of two pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom: Sesostris III and Amenemhet III.
These articles point to a specific historical scenario for the Book of Abraham. The first chapter of Abraham takes place when Egypt controls Abraham's homeland in northern Syria, and this can only be during a short, sixty year time period, about 1860-1800 BC. We know from archaeological evidence of that time period that Egyptian gods were worshiped at Ebla, and that Ebla is mentioned in Egyptian texts of the time. We also know that Egyptian sphinxes inscribed for monarchs of the time were found at Aleppo and Ugarit. This gives us an idea of the area under the Egyptian monarchs Sesostris III and Amenemhet III. It also explains Abraham's travel route. He crosses the Euphrates to Harran, outside the Egyptian sphere of influence and stays a few years, during which time the Egyptian empire of the Middle Kingdom collapses making it safe for him to return to formerly Egyptian held territory.
Unfortunately, the time period when Abraham lived is almost unknown to Egyptology even today. The debates among Kim Ryholt, Manfred Beitak, Jim and Susan Allen, Daphna Ben Tor, and Chris Bennett about this time period shows how much is up in the air even today.
It might come as some surprise to some that Abraham is in the area of northern Mesopotamia and Syria. The term Chaldean did not mean the same in Joseph Smith's day as it does now. In the present day, the Chaldeans are equated only with the tribes of the Kaldu that lived in the Iron Age in southern Mesopotamia. In Joseph Smith's day it referred to the language that we call Aramaic and especially the Aramaic dialect that we call Syriac. It also referred to those who spoke that language (which originated in northern Syria). It also referred to the general area of greater Mesopotamia. Additionally, it was used as a term for superstitious.
The Chaldeans do not appear as such in the Hebrew Bible. Abraham is said to be from Ur of the Kasdim, not the Chaldeans. Though Kasdim is translated as Chaldeans, that is no indication that the Kasdim are the Kaldu. Recent analysis of the names in the biblical account of Abraham indicates that all of them originate in northern Mesopotamia. The name Abram itself, is attested only in northern Mesopotamia. The name is also only attested at the time when the Book of Abraham predicts it. Several towns are named Ur in Mesopotamia, that is the reason why it must be qualified as the Ur of the Kasdim.
Another example of how the Book of Abraham matches its day is the mention in the Book of Abraham of human sacrifice after the manner of the Egyptians. We know from archaeological evidence that the Egyptians practiced human sacrifice at that time, in areas that they dominated outside of Egypt. This archaeological evidence corresponds in practice to later ritual texts that describe how do human sacrifice. It also corresponds to historical records from Egypt that detail the circumstances under which human sacrifice occurred in Abraham's day. Almost none of this material was available even to Nibley. This shows how much the picture can change in a few years. We also know the type of people targeted for human sacrifice: sbi, rebels or apostates (the term is used for both). Abraham says that his "fathers . . . utterly refused to hearken to my voice" (Abraham 1:5) when he condemned them for "having turned from their righteousness, and from the holy commandments which the Lord their God had given them, unto the worship of the gods of the heathen" (Abraham 1:5), instead they "endeavored to take away my life" (Abraham 1:7). There was no separation of church and state in ancient Egypt and the Pharaoh was the head of both. So to revolt against his authority, whether religious or political, made someone a rebel and subject to a ritualized death penalty. Archaeological evidence for this practice was first discovered about fifty years ago, but more archaeological evidence has appeared in the last ten years.
Read that passage again--there are a large number of interesting new twists in the unfolding story of one of the most remarkable ancient scrptural texts, the Book of Abraham. Like the Book of Mormon, the evidence for the plausibility of the Book of Abraham continues to increase, making it, in a sense, "truer than ever." This is an exciting time to be LDS! Note, however, that the issue of Abraham's location is not necessarily settled. Some older evidence possibly favoring a southern Mesopotamian site is discussed by E. Jan Wilson, "Inside a Sumerian Temple: The Ekishnugal at Ur," in The Temple in Time and Eternity by Donald W. Parry, and Stephen D. Ricks (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1999).
2007 Update: Understanding the Egyptian Facsimiles Through a Semitic Lens
Kevin Barney's chapter, "The Facsimiles and Semitic Adaptation of Existing Sources" in Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant, edited by John Gee and Brian M. Hauglid (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2005), pp. 107-130, is now online. Barney considers precedents for Egyptian stories that have been assimilated into Jewish literature, with the Egyptian elements having been modified when viewed through a Semitic lens. He suggests that this approach helps explain some aspects of the Book of Abraham facsimiles. When the Semitic lens is applied to the Egyptian representations, Joseph Smith's comments make much more sense. Here is an excerpt:
Specifically, we will suggest that the facsimiles may not have been drawn by Abraham's hand but may have been Egyptian religious vignettes that were adopted or adapted by an Egyptian-Jewish redactor as illustrations of the Book of Abraham. We will illustrate general processes of Jewish adaptation of Egyptian sources and then describe in detail three specific examples from the Greco-Roman period (the same period when the Joseph Smith Papyri were produced) that each relates in some way to Abraham. We will suggest that such Jewish adaptation of Egyptian sources was common during this time period and would explain the adaptation of the facsimiles to illustrate the Book of Abraham, which may have come under this redactor's care as part of the ancient transmission of the text.
Having articulated this Semitic adaptation theory, we will examine Stephen Thompson's critique of Joseph's interpretations of the facsimiles, showing how this theory resolves the issues raised by Thompson.
Barney then provides solid support for his thesis. Understanding the possibility of Semitic adoption of Egyptian concepts adds new depth to our understanding of Joseph's translation of the Book of Abraham text and facsimiles, and helps us understand why the rejection of Joseph's work based on literal analysis of the Egyptian elements alone is inadequate.
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This is a reasonable question. After all, if the Book of Abraham really is a portion of an ancient text that was known and circulated in the past, shouldn't other ancient documents provide confirmation for the many details in the Book of Abraham that can't be found in the Bible?
Confession: I have cheated. The question above actually is NOT a frequently asked question (FAQ). Rather, it is a FREQUENTLY IGNORED QUESTION (FIQ). But to really address issues around the Book of Abraham, some of us would like to ask how Joseph Smith could fabricate a story with many details that are not found in the Bible or other sources known to Joseph, only to have those details be confirmed in numerous other ancient texts dealing with Abrahamic traditions. Translations of many of these ancient documents have been brought together in an impressive volume, Traditions about the Early Life of Abraham, ed. by John A. Tvedtnes, Brian M. Hauglid, and John Gee (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2001, hereafter "Tvedtnes et al."). Over 500 pages of text from over 100 ancient documents provide extensive support for numerous key details in the Book of Abraham. There is a breadth of sources, including ancient Jewish sources, Christian sources, Muslim sources, and other sources as well. The support for many details of the Book of Abraham is surprisingly extensive and worthy of careful investigation.
The compilation of Tvedtnes et al. is essential reading for anyone wishing to seriously study the Book of Abraham. However, I can seriously predict that this treasury of information from the ancient world will be one of the least-mentioned references in the future work of anti-Mormon critics, or will be mentioned only in passing, without addressing the numerous details pointing to ancient sources for the text of the Book of Abraham. My prediction of the silent treatment for Traditions about the Early Life of Abraham is an easy one to make. Just look at the response of critics to LDS analysis of the Apocalypse of Abraham - an ancient document dealing with Abraham that was first published in 1897 and was first translated into English the following year by two Latter-day Saints, Edward H. Anderson and R. T. Haag (Improvement Era, August 1898, pp. 705-14, 793-806). This text raised many issues in favor of the Book of Mormon that are largely ignored by critics. Further, look at how the critics closed their eyes to analysis of the Testament of Abraham, an ancient document that one non-LDS scholar describes as "a midrashic account, developed in Egypt from the LXX [Septuagint, or Greek translation], embellished by traditions from the Palestinian Targum, written in Therapeutic circles around the turn of the era [e.g., near the timeframe when Christianity began]" (George W. E. Nickelsburg, ed., Studies on the Testament of Abraham, Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1976, p. 19, as cited by H. Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981, reprinted as Vol. 14 of The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2000, pp. 26-27). Hugh Nibley's comparison of the Book of Abraham to the Apocalypse of Abraham and the Testament of Abraham has been available for over 20 years, yet, like most LDS scholarship on the Book of Abraham, the analysis remains largely ignored by critics who claim to be experts.
For a typical example of the silent treatment regarding the actual evidence, see Charles M. Larson, By His Own Hand upon Papyrus: A New Look at the Joseph Smith Papyri (Grand Rapids: Institute for Religious Research, 1992). Larson simply dismisses all of Nibley's work on ancient parallels to the Book of Abraham as a desperate effort to find evidence, resulting in mere speculation (p. 120), without ever letting his readers know what Nibley claimed to have found. Rather, he claims that:
"virtually every belief about the Book of Abraham . . . has been shattered by the facts. Not one trace of reliable evidence has appeared that would support the view of the Book of Abraham as an authentic scripture, while an enormous amount of evidence is available to show it is a man-made production of the nineteenth century, created by Joseph Smith to support his claim among his people to be a 'prophet, seer, and revelator'" (p. 175).
We hope that open-minded readers of this Web page will judge for themselves whether there actually is a trace or two of evidence for the authenticity of the Book of Abraham.
Amazingly, these differences find support, to varying degrees, in ancient texts that Joseph Smith did not have available when he translated the Book of Abraham. The tremendous support for the "daring innovations" in the Book of Abraham suggests that more than lucky guesses is involved. The Book of Abraham is remarkably consistent with numerous ancient traditions about Abraham, as one might expect if in fact it is derived from the ancient writings of Abraham. One of many interesting examples is the ancient Jewish text, Jubilees, first published in Latin in 1861 but dating to the second century B.C. or earlier, and used by some of the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Portions of Jubilees are printed in Tvedtnes et al., pp. 14-20, taken from O.S. Wintermute's English translation of the Ethiopic text, as printed in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, ed. James H. Charlesworth (New York: Doubleday, 1985), 2:78-84, 93-99, 129. In Jubilees, I find following relationships to the Book of Abraham:
Let's look at a sampling of specifics.
In the following discussion, unless otherwise indicated, page numbers in parentheses refer to pages in Tvedtnes et al., 2001.
According to Joseph Smith, there was a Book of Abraham. The Bible never mentions this, and many Bible scholars have assumed that Abraham was an illiterate farmer who would not have written a book. There was nothing in Joseph Smith's information environment to give him the idea that Abraham wrote a book of scripture. Since Joseph Smith's day, numerous sources have been discovered that point to the existence of recorded writings from Abraham. The previously mentioned Apocalypse of Abraham, the Testament of Abraham, and Jubilees are examples. Many other documents suggest that Abraham kept written records, or that records containing the words of Abraham existed. The Babylonian Talmud calls the book of "Jashar" the "book of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" (p. 123). The Muslim writer al-Masudi (died 956 A.D.) wrote that God revealed ten sacred books to Abraham (p. 353). Vettius Valens (A.D. 102-152) wrote a treatise on astrology that mentioned Abraham, referring to what "Abraham showed us in his books about this subject, clarifying the explanations of others and his own, discovering and testing other things, especially concerning the beginnings of journeys abroad. . ." (p. 477). Firmicus Maternus in the fourth century refers to a "tractate excerpted from the books of Abraham" (p. 479).
Facsimile 1 in the Book of Abraham shows Abraham on a pagan altar about to be sacrificed by an idolatrous priest, and chapter 1 relates the story of how Abraham was seized, bound, and put on an altar to be sacrificed by a pagan priest, who had previously sacrificed three virgins on the same altar because they refused to worship idols.
All this is wildly innovative, based on what Joseph Smith could have known about Abraham, but it fits well with numerous ancient traditions about Abraham. In fact, so many ancient texts refer to one or more attempts to the sacrifice Abraham that one can wonder why the Bible is lacking that detail. A majority of these texts indicate that the attempted sacrifice was made by throwing Abraham into fire, from which he was delivered by God's power. Though the Book of Abraham does not say that Abraham or sacrificed victims were thrown into a fire, ancient animal sacrifices typically involved killing the animal and then burning the victim, and the same may have applied to the human sacrifices mentioned in the Book of Abraham. On the other hand, since the name of the Chaldean city, "Ur," also means fire in Hebrew, perhaps some writers have assumed that Abraham's escape from Ur of the Chaldeans was deliverance from fire, possibly blending fire into the story of his deliverance from sacrifice.
One very important ancient document is the Egyptian scroll known as P. Leiden I 384 (also called PGM XII and PDM xii), dated to the second century A.D. A figure on the scroll shows a lion couch, much like the lion-headed bedstead/altar of Facsimile 1 in the Book of Abraham. A wrapped mummy is on the couch, with the god Anubis standing over him. The associated text, though fragmentary, includes the words "Abraham who is upon" followed shortly thereafter by "bind them" and then "incinerate her" (p. 502). The words appear to be part of a love spell of some kind, but are significant in that they associate Abraham with the lion couch, as does Joseph Smith's interpretation of Facsimile 1. (Could these words reflect a tradition about Abraham's sacrifice on such bed, including the planned incineration of the victim?) A drawing and photograph of the image on the scroll are included in Tvedtnes et al., pp. 502 and 523. The word Abraham appears directly below the lion couch drawing, and the instructions on the scroll tell the user to write the words and the drawing on a new papyrus, showing that the words (including the name Abraham) and the lion couch drawing belong together.
Other examples include the following:
Abraham 1:15-17 has the Lord speaking to Abraham as he is on the altar, explaining that he has "come down" to rescue Abraham, but this occurs as the "angel of his presence" stood by Abraham. Most of the texts that discuss the attempted slaying of Abraham affirm that he was delivered by the power of God, and many times an angel plays a role in the delivery, as is taught in the Book of Abraham. Some texts say that God himself rescued Abraham directly, others say that God sent an angel, and some mention both. Examples:
A truly surprising part of the Book of Abraham story is that Terah is behind the attempt to kill Abraham. Abraham 1:5-7 indicate that his fathers, in their rebellion, refused to listen to Abraham and "endeavored to take away my life by the hand of the priest of Elkenah" who was a priest of Pharaoh in the land of Chaldea. Interestingly, several ancient texts indicate that not only was Terah an idol worshipper, but that he was the instigator in trying to have the king or his agents kill Abraham. Examples:
The Book of Abraham reports that Terah, being sorely afflicted by a famine in Chaldea, repented of his evil in seeking to kill Abraham (Abr. 1:30) and then followed Abraham into Haran (Abr. 2:4), but turned again to idolatry after the famine abated (Abr. 2:5). Ibn Al-Tayyib, the Arabic Nestorian Christian of the eleventh century, a source of extensive commentary on the scripture, likewise wrote that Terah repented only half-heartedly (pp. 254-255):
Terah had already started for the promised land, and yet he remained at Haran, because his intention was not pure like that of Abraham, who was the first to turn away from the cultic objects, that is, the idols. Neither Nahor nor Bethuel nor Laban converted perfectly, even after having learned that God had helped Abraham so magnificently.
Further, the Chronicles of Jerahmeel from the twelfth century reports that Terah repented when he saw that God delivered Abraham (p. 133). The midrashic Hebrew text, Tanna debe Eliyahu, says that Terah left his dwelling place in Chaldea "for the sake of heaven," implying repentance.
Though one could easily and correctly assume that idolatry was widespread in Abraham's day, the Bible offers no details on this topic relevant to Abraham's life. Yet idolatry becomes a critical issue in the Book of Abraham. Abraham lives in a world dominated by idolatrous religion, with people worshipping "gods of wood or of stone" (Abr. 1:11). Three virgins are sacrificed because of their refusal to worship idols, and Abraham's life is also threatened, implicitly for the same reason. The influence of idolatry is so great that his own father is led astray and becomes an idol worshipper. But Abraham resists, and though he is nearly killed, the Lord delivers him, kills the evil priest, and breaks down the idols of the land (Abr. 1:20). These powerful collisions between idolatry and Abraham's life are persistently verified by other ancient texts. Several parallels in this area have already been given above.
A specific example cited in Abraham 1:9-11 is the sacrifice of three virgins by a priest of Pharaoh. Several ancient sources pointing to such practices are discussed by Kerry Shirts on his page, "The Sacrificial Virgins a Genuine Historical Touch."
2014 update: Scholars have recently discovered more evidence for child sacrifice possibly relevant to the Book of Abraham account. See Kevin Barney, "Child Sacrifice at Carthage," for a discussion of Patricia Smith, "Infants Sacrificed? The Tale Teeth Tell," Biblical Archaeology Review, 40/4 (July-August 2014): 54-56, 68.
In addition to Jubilees discussed above, other sources confirm that Abraham had access to sacred records from the patriarchs. Examples:
The Bible indicates that Melchizedek was a priest to whom Abraham paid tithes, but does not teach that Abraham was a priest. In fact, according to the Book of Abraham, Abraham was not only a priest, but a high priest (as was Melchizedek, according to Alma 13 in the Book of Mormon - another issue challenged by a critics). These alleged innovations of Joseph Smith find strong support in other ancient texts that Joseph did not have. For example, Genesis Explanation 46:5 of Midrash Rabbah (p. 100), states:
"And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly." (Genesis 17:2)
R. Ishmael and R. Akiba [reasoned as follows]. R. Ishmael said: Abraham was a High Priest, as it says, The Lord hath sworn, and will not repent: Thou are a priest for ever after the manner of Melchizedek.
If Abraham was understood to be a high priest on the basis of Psalm 110:4, it was obviously understood that Melchizedek was a high priest as well. (Several ancient texts explicitly state that Melchizedek was a high priest, such as the writings of George Syncellus, a Byzantine scholar around 800 A.D. (p. 225), and others - see my discussion at http://www.jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/FQ_BMProb3.shtml, which treats alleged plagiarism in the Book of Mormon - see the section on Alma 13.)
This argument is further strengthened by the Pesikta Rabbati, a ninth-century Hebrew document that includes discourses from rabbis of the third and fourth centuries A.D., where we find this passage in Piska 40:6 (p. 81):
Another comment on Moriah [the mountain where Abraham was told to sacrifice Isaac]: Abraham said to God: "Master of universes, am I fit to offer Isaac up? Am I a priest? Shem is High Priest. Let him come and take Isaac from me for the offering." God replied: When though reachest the place, I will consecrate thee and make thee a priest. Accordingly, the term Moriah suggests that Abraham was to be a substitute for Shem, his replacement.
In Jewish tradition, Shem is commonly identified with Melchizedek. This passage from Pesikta Rabbati is of interest to Latter-day Saints for several reasons. It indicates that high priests were a known office in the day of Abraham, making it reasonable that Melchizedek was a high priest and showing that Abraham also became a high priest, both consistent with Alma 13. Naming Shem as a high priest is also interesting in light of the revelation in Doctrine and Covenants 138:41, wherein Joseph F. Smith had a vision in which he saw, among many others, "Shem, the great high priest."
Further, Ibn Al-Tayyib, the Arabic Nestorian Christian of the eleventh century, provided commentary on Genesis that mentions Abraham as a high priest. He wrote, "Henana says that Abraham was a high priest and son of a high priest" (p. 254). This agrees nicely with the Book of Abraham, which states that Abraham sought and received the priesthood "from the fathers" (Abr. 1:3), and the Lord later states that "I will take thee, to put upon thee my name, even the Priesthood of thy father, and my power shall be over thee" (Abr. 1:18). Thus, there is support not only for Abraham as a high priest, but also for the Book of Abraham teaching that Abraham's father was a high priest.
The rabbinic understanding that Abraham was a high priest also resonates with the material on Abraham that was provided through Joseph Smith. In light of Alma 13 and other statements about Abraham and the Priesthood, LDS scriptures teach that Abraham was one of the "many" who became high priests anciently (Alma 13:10 - see also Alma 13:6-10, where the whole context of this chapter is about those who became high priests). Doctrine and Covenants 84:14 teaches that Abraham received the priesthood from Melchizedek, and Abraham 1:2 teaches that Abraham became a high priest, "holding the right belonging to the fathers," desiring to be "a prince of peace" (as was Melchizedek in Alma 13). To the critics, this must appear to be a radical innovation of Joseph Smith. But as we saw above, Abraham was understood to be a high priest in at least some ancient Jewish traditions.
The Midrash Rabbah, Genesis Explanation 55:6 (p. 101 of Tvedtnes et al.), provides further evidence that rabbis understood Abraham to have been a priest like Melchizedek:
R. Joshua said: . . . Now Abraham said, Here am I - ready for priesthood, ready for kingship, and he attained priesthood and kingship. He attained priesthood, as is says, The Lord hath sworn, and will not repent: Thou are a priest for ever after the manner of Melchizedek; kingship: Thou art a mighty prince among us..
This rabbinic statement pointing to the priestly/kingly parallels between Abraham and Melchizedek resonates with the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham, where both Abraham and Melchizedek were or sought to become "princes of peace" and high priests.
The Babylonian Talmud indicates that the priesthood was given to Abraham, and that he was a priest because of the words of Melchizedek (p. 120). Genesis Explanation 55:7 in Midrash Rabbah also has R. Judah affirm that Abraham was a priest, citing again Psalm 110:4. Further, Leviticus Explanation 25:6 in Midrash Rabbah reports that:
It was taught at the school of R. Ishmael: The Holy One, blessed be He, sought to make Shem the progenitor of the priesthood; for it says, And Melchizedek king of Salem... was priest of God. But when he blessed Abraham before blessing the Omnipresent and Abraham said to him: "Should the blessing of the servant be given priority over the blessing of the Master?", the Holy One, blessed be He, took the priesthood away from him and gave it to Abraham; as may be proved by the fact that it says, The Lord saith unto my lord, and after this it is written, The Lord hath sworn, and will not repent: Thou art a priest for ever after the manner (dibrathi) of Melchizedek; this means: after the speech (dibbur) of Melchizedek. Hence it is written, Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Maker of heaven and earth. R. Ishmael and R. Akiba reasoned differently. R. Ishmael holds that Abraham was a High Priest. Thus it is written, "The Lord hath sworn, and will not repent: Thou art a priest for ever."
(Tvedtnes et al., p. 105)
A similar point in made Numbers Explanation 4:8 of the Midrash Rabbah, stating that Shem passed the priestly office on to Abraham who received it not because he was a firstborn, but because he was a righteous man (ibid., p. 109).
There are other ancient documents which suggest that Abraham was a high priest. For example, Ibn Al-Tayyib, the Arabic Nestorian Christian who lived in Baghdad during the eleventh century and provided numerous writings about religion, appears to have been familiar with traditions regarding Abraham. He writes, "Henana says that Abraham was a high priest and son of a high priest. . . ." (p. 254). Certainly, if Abraham was a high priest, Melchizedek must have been a high priest, also. Thus, LDS scriptures appear to be on solid ground on this point.
Genesis 12:5 speaks of souls that Abraham "had gotten in Haran," leading many to think this referred to purchased slaves or servants. The Book of Abraham indicates that these were converts that Abraham won. Many ancient documents confirm this concept. Examples:
Facsimile 3 shows Abraham on the throne of Pharaoh, as his honored guest, teaching principles of astronomy. This concept must have seemed utterly ridiculous based on what was known about Abraham in his day, though if he had read enough he might have found a couple of sentences supporting this idea. The hint is buried within the writings of Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 1, chapters 7 and 8), who states that Abraham was skilled in "celestial science" and later that he taught astronomy to the Egyptians. There is no evidence that Joseph studied Josephus prior to translating the Book of Abraham, and even if he had, would had noticed this trivial detail and known to take it seriously? But it's a detail worthy of serious attention, for numerous ancient texts confirm this point, and confirm additional details of the Book of Abraham regarding astronomy that no one could have gleaned from Josephus. Examples:
Abraham 3 describes how Abraham learned of the stars and the heavens. He had a tool God gave him, the Urim and Thummim, through which he saw the stores, including the one closest to God's throne (Abr. 3:1-2). God then explained the stars to Abraham, indicating which were the greatest or governing stars, and revealed to him further details through the Urim and Thummim, such as the "times and seasons in the revolutions" of the stars (v. 4), and information about the earth, the sun, the moon, and planets. In one dramatic portion of Abraham 3, God puts his hand over Abraham's eyes and shows him all his works:
11 Thus I, Abraham, talked with the Lord, face to face, as one man talketh with another; and he told me of the works which his hands had made;
12 And he said unto me: My son, my son (and his hand was stretched out), behold I will show you all these. And he put his hand upon mine eyes, and I saw those things which his hands had made, which were many; and they multiplied before mine eyes, and I could not see the end thereof.
13 And he said unto me: This is Shinehah, which is the sun. And he said unto me: Kokob, which is star. And he said unto me: Olea, which is the moon. And he said unto me: Kokaubeam, which signifies stars, or all the great lights, which were in the firmament of heaven.
14 And it was in the night time when the Lord spake these words unto me: I will multiply thee, and thy seed after thee, like unto these; and if thou canst count the number of sands, so shall be the number of thy seeds.
15 And the Lord said unto me: Abraham, I show these things unto thee before ye go into Egypt, that ye may declare all these words.
Thus, the information on astronomy that Abraham taught in Egypt was based on revelation from God, in which he saw stars without end. This is attested in the Pesikta Rabbati, a ninth-century Hebrew document that includes discourses from rabbis of the third and fourth centuries A.D. This document states that "God let Abraham first see a definite number of stars, and then turned around and let him see an infinite number. . . . And why did he show him [heaven] in this way? Because by such symbols He showed him how He would increase the children of Israel in the world" (p. 78). Abraham sees first one, then two, then three, then twelve, then seventy, "and finally stars without end" (p. 79). Abraham is also said to be likened to the sun, Isaac to the moon, and his children to the stars.
Many texts confirm this.
Therefore Abraham, when he was desirous to learn the causes of things, and was intently pondering upon what had been told him [by an angel], the true Prophet appeared to him, who alone knows the hearts and purpose of men, and disclosed to him all things which he desired. He taught him the knowledge of the Divinity; intimated the origin of the world and likewise its end; showed him the immortality of the soul and the manner of life which was pleasing to God; declared also the resurrection of the dead, the future judgment, the reward of the good, the punishment of the evil, - all to be regulated by righteous judgment: and having given him all this information plainly and sufficiently, He departed again to the invisible abodes.
Other documents supporting the notion of Abraham teaching astronomy or being knowledgeable in it include the Greek Orphica and others.
According to the Book of Abraham, it is the Lord who warned Abraham that the Egyptians would want to kill him to get his beautiful wife. The Lord then directs Abraham to say that she is his sister in order to save his life. Genesis only reports that Abraham told his wife to say she was his sister, and does not mention that the idea came from God. The added information in the Book of Abraham finds support in several ancient texts. Examples:
The Book of Abraham provides some of the richest information in the scriptures on the premortal existence. In Abraham 3, God shows Abraham the spirits that were created before the world was formed, and shows him many great and noble souls. God explains that Abraham was one of these, and was chosen before he was born (Abr. 3:23). This material regarding Abraham and the premortal existence is not in the Bible, but is found in other ancient texts. Examples:
Abraham is shown sitting on Pharaoh's throne in Facsimile 3, where the caption says "Abraham is reasoning upon the principles of Astronomy, in the king's court." There is no mention of such a scene in the Bible, no reference to Abraham being honored in the court of the king or being treated like a king. But these concepts are consistent with ancient reports that God made Abraham a king, or that Pharaoh honored Abraham in his court, or that other kings honored Abraham. In addition to previously given examples about Abraham honored by kings for his wisdom or teaching kings astronomy, here are further relevant examples:
It is incumbent upon us to make him great, to elevate him and to do unto him all the good which thou shalt command us; and at that time the king sent to Abram silver and gold and precious stones in abundance, together with cattle, men servants and maid servants; and the king ordered Abram to be brought, and he sat in the court of the king's house, and the king greatly exalted Abram on that night" (p. 153).
There were two famines in Abraham's life according to the Book of Abraham. The Bible tells of just one when he went to Egypt. The other one in the Book of Abraham occurred when Abraham was in Ur of the Chaldees. Several documents confirm that famine in Chaldea played an important role in the story of Abraham:
Time does not permit me to relate many of the details uncovered by Tvedtnes et al., but I'll mention a few more I find interesting:
R. Eliezer the Modiite said that Abraham possessed a power of reading the stars for which he was much sought after by the potentates of East and West. R. Simeon b. Yohai said: Abraham had a precious stone hung round his neck which brought immediate healing to any sick person who looked on it . . ." (p. 123).
Some items related to the Book of Abraham are available on the Internet. These include:
Evidence for the antiquity of Joseph's Book of Abraham--a compilation of key information, courtesy of FAIRMormon.org.
"Book of Abraham 201: Papyri, Revelation, and Modern Egyptology" by Michael Ash. Good review of some common issues and also some interesting evidences for the authenticity of the text.
"Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham," the LDS Church's 2014 statement on the Book of Abraham at the Gospel Topics section of LDS.org. The brief statement with 46 footnotes makes several important points. It reminds us that we do not know how the translation was done though there are several possibilities to consider. It also gives reasonable responses to several common objections such as the lack of Abraham-related text in the papyrus fragment that contains Facsimile 1. It also discusses evidences for the authenticity of the Book of Abraham, including a few of the topics raised above.
The 'Adat El, "Council of the Gods" & Bene Elohim, "Sons of God": Ancient Near Eastern Concepts in the Book of Abraham by Kerry A. Shirts. Scholarly insights showing that the detailed Council of the Gods theme in the Book of Abraham is an authentic Near Eastern concept that Joseph could not have fabricated based on the scholarship of his day.
"On the Names of the Four Canopic Jars in Facsimile 1" by Kerry Shirts. Making sense of the names Joseph gave to the 4 Egyptian gods associated with the jars in Facs. 1.
EarlyJewishWritings.com - compilation of translated ancient Jewish documents.