LDSFAQ Lite: Quick Answers About the Book of Abraham
In Latter-day Saint religion, one of the most interesting but also problematic aspects of our faith is Joseph Smith’s inspired production of The Book of Abraham, a text said to have been translated from ancient Egyptian scrolls that Joseph acquired in 1835, originally found buried with Egyptian mummies from ancient Thebes.
The text is quite short but truly interesting. It describes a bit of Abraham’s life near Ur of the Chaldees when he was nearly sacrificed by an Egyptian priest for his refusal to worship idols. Fortunately, God miraculously delivered Abraham. It also says his father was an idol worshipper. It describes journey from his homeland to Egypt where he meet Pharaoh and is able to instruct the Egyptians on principles of astronomy and on our premortal existence as spirits before being born here in mortality. It also gives a version of the Creation account. With it are three Egyptian drawings and Joseph Smith’s comments about some of their elements. The book is part of the LDS canon and treasured by many Latter-day Saints, but has been a stumbling block for some Mormons and some investigators of the Church, for critics have been able to attack it on several points. Some say it is the weak underbelly of Mormonism, but in reality, it has some surprising strengths which ought to require a little more respect and a little more hesitation before abandoning. It demands a closer look.
Here are some quick answers to basic questions about the book. For further details, see these resources:
- LDSFAQ on the Book of Abraham, Part 1: The Source of the Book of Abraham. Discusses background on the Book of Abraham, whether the source of the Book of Abraham has really been found (comparing two different views), and whether the Kirtland papers were used to produce the translation.
- LDSFAQ on the Book of Abraham, Part 2: The Facsimiles and Other Issues. Discusses Joseph Smith’s comments on the Facsimiles in the Book of Abraham, presenting some of the many correlations to other recently discovered documents and to Egyptian concepts. Also discusses the text of the book and its relationship to other documents.
- LDSFAQ on the Book of Abraham, Part 3: Ancient Evidences for the Book of Abraham. Many ancient documents from Christian, Jewish, and other sources provide new evidence in favor of the authenticity of multiple aspects of the Book of Abraham story, aspects not found in the KJV Bible. For example, the idol worshipping vice of Abraham’s father is attested, as was the attempt on Abraham’s life for his resistance to idol worship and his miraculous delivery.
- John Gee’s recently published An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and BYU Religious Studies Center, 2017).
Q. Haven’t scholars proven that Joseph got everything wrong, now that we can read Egyptian and, since 1967, once again can examine the original papyrus documents that he used to translate the Book of Abraham?
A. There is a very serious challenge to the Book of Abraham that has led some people to reject Joseph Smith and the Church.
Long ago I had a similar crisis of faith while serving as bishop after considering a convincing argument on the Book of Abraham from a well-known anti-Mormon source. The argument is compelling: Joseph claimed to have translated Egyptian by the power of God, apparently like he translated the gold plates for the Book of Mormon. Now the Egyptian manuscripts have been found that Joseph used, and today we can read Egyptian and objectively evaluate his divine translation skills. Bottom line: He didn’t get anything right. The work is a complete fraud, as was Joseph. End of story. Ouch!
In my case, after prayerful consideration in which I reviewed my testimony of the Book of Mormon but pled great confusion over the Book of Abraham, I felt that I needed patience and further seeking of knowledge. That knowledge soon came when I got my hands on a book by H. Donl Peterson, The Story of the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1995), another excellent resource, where I learned what ought to be common knowledge among all Latter-day Saints, but isn’t: the Joseph Smith papyri, the recovered fragments from the original papyrus collection, are merely a fraction of the larger collection that Joseph used. Longer documents were sent to the St. Louis Museum after Joseph’s death, and from there they ended up in the Chicago Museum, where they apparently burned in 1871.
The existence of other significant scrolls was not mentioned by the anti-Mormon source. The statements of witnesses describing the documents Joseph used and the gap between those descriptions and the Joseph Smith papyri were not mentioned. I felt that I had been deceived with an argument that was largely accurate except for a few crucial details that were artfully left out and which changed everything. I have since encountered many cases where critics artfully whittle away data and mitigating factors in what they report to create a shocking case to shake the faith of their readers. Caution and patience is usually a wise initial response when we don’t know where to turn for answers.
Evidence for Authenticity?
Q. Is there any evidence for the authenticity of the Book of Abraham as an ancient text?
A. Yes, there have been a variety of surprising discoveries that seem to demand we give the Book of Abraham a little more respect. The most recent one involves the place Olishem mentioned in Abraham 1:10. This describes a place with plains near a hill called Potiphar’s Hill. Amazingly, recently discovered documents confirm that such a place existed in the right area, and more recently a Turkish archaeological team found what they claim us the place of that name. First, John Gee explains the plausibility of the Book of Abraham regarding Abraham’s travel from his homeland to Olishem:
Biblical scholars have not agreed on the time and place that Abraham lived, but the Book of Abraham provides additional information that specifies both. In the Bible, Abraham must flee his homeland (môladâ) in Ur of the Chaldees (Genesis 12:1). Later he sends his servant back to his homeland (môladâ) to find a wife for his son (Genesis 24:4, 7). The servant is sent to Aram-Naharaim in modern-day northern Syria or southern Turkey (Genesis 24:10) and not Mesopotamia as the King James translators rendered it. This location of Aram-Naharaim must have been the location of Abraham’s homeland. The Book of Abraham also indicates that Abraham’s homeland was in that area. Olishem (Abraham 1:10), one of the places mentioned near Ur, appears in Mesopotamian and Egyptian inscriptions in association with Ebla, which is in northern Syria. (An Introduction to the Book of Abrah, pp. 98, 101)
Now see the press release “Prophet Abraham’s lost city found in Turkey’s Kilis” in The Hurriyet Daily News, August 16, 2013. On this matter, Gee has noted the potential value but urges patience as more work is needed. See John Gee, “Has Olishem Been Discovered?,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22/2 (2013): 104–7.
Finding the place name Olishem was interesting enough in many ways before the actual archaeological site was found and its connection to Abraham made. In a rather technical 2010 post, Val Sederholm explores the significance of Olishem and related Egyptian and Semitic words in “The Plain of Olishem and the Field of Abram: LDS Book of Abraham, Chapter One,” I Begin to Reflect, April 27, 2010. “Is the place of Ulisum or Olis(h)em the plain of Olishem? Conclusions remain premature, but it would be remiss not to point out the similarity and, by so doing, show that the Book of Abraham merits a second look.” Sederholm then explores the rich association of meanings related to Olishem that may make it an entirely appropriate name for a place with a hill, suggesting the possibility not only of a phonetic connection between the Akkadian account and the Book of Abraham, but also a semantic connection. Indeed, there are many such fascinating issues in the Book of Abraham, leading Sederholm to make a strong but supportable statement:
Exactly how does a book of 14 pages produce dozens upon dozens of linguistic, cultural, thematic, theological, and literary points of comparison to the Ancient Near Eastern record? The numbers are no exaggeration. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with no hesitation whatsoever, not even a hint of abatement, continues to post the canonical Book of Abraham on line and to print copies by the tens of thousands in scores of languages. There is a lot of explaining to do.
That’s just one issue. There’s much more, such as Egyptian wordplays built into the text (see my review of John Gee’s book), numerous ancient texts not known to Joseph Smith supporting many aspects of the Book of Abraham story that are not found in the Bible (see my LDSFAQ page, “Ancient Evidences for the Book of Abraham“), good cultural matches between issues described in the Book of Abraham and what we now know about life in the regions mentioned in Abraham’s era (see An Introduction to the Book of Abraham), and many details in the facsimiles that seem to be at least “lucky guesses” by Joseph Smith, though there many things that are still confusing (see LDSFAQ on the Book of Abraham, Part 2: The Facsimiles and Other Issues).
The Kirtland Egyptian Papers
Q. What Do the Kirtland Egyptian Papers (KEP), including the “Alphabet and Grammar,” tell us about how Joseph translated the Book of Abraham? Don’t they show his translation was utterly absurd?
A. Good question. The KEP is a collection of papers from Joseph Smith and his scribes related to the scrolls and the Book of Abraham. Some of the paper includes an occasional lone Egyptian character, or part of a character, or other strange mark from some other source, placed in the margin of translated text from the Book of Abraham. Many have assumed that this represents Joseph’s translation process: taking a tiny mark or character and extracting full paragraphs of text from it. That would be crazy! But the critics may be making some bad assumptions. The pages in question appear to have been made after the translation was done. You can see from the original documents that the text was written down first on the page, and then some Egyptian or other characters were added to the margins. We don’t know for sure who added those characters and why. Perhaps someone was trying to work out a guide for translating Egyptian — but based on the already completed translation from Joseph. But another possibility is discussed by Kevin Barney in “The Book of Abraham” at FairMormon.org, July 27, 2013. He suggests that previous theories are wrong in assuming the KEP is about translating Egyptian. Rather, he suggests it was some effort to recreate a “pure Adamic language.”
Some of the observations that have led in this direction include the following: (i) the Egyptian symbols used in the KEP manuscripts don’t come in any discernible sequence, but seem to come from various locations on the papyri seemingly at random; (ii) most of the symbols are not even Egyptian at all, but are symbols that appear to have been simply made up, or in some cases the symbols are derived from Masonic ciphers; and (iii) the KEP is not concerned exclusively with material in the English Book of Abraham, but also with some of Joseph’s earlier revelations, including in particular D&C Sections 76 and 88.
Certainly more work needs to be done. But in any case, the KEP does not tell us how Joseph prepared the inspired translation. Rather, it seems to reflect a secular process after the revelation was over, seeking to make sense of the revealed material either to gain insights into a “pure language” or to understand the relationship between the translation and some parts of the papyri.
Deception in the Facsimiles?
It is often alleged that the Facsimiles have been heavily altered, showing deception and an effort to make them better match Joseph’s story. This reflects an unfortunate misunderstanding. Kevin Barney explains:
When we come to the Facsimiles, there are two major issues. The first issue is whether the Facsimiles were correctly restored. And to that question in my view the answer is clearly ‘No.” But I don’t understand why anyone would expect anything different. We have the original of Facsimile 1, and we can see that the top was damaged. So, for example, the standing figure on the left originally would have had the jackal head of Anubis; the bald human head has been copied from the figure lying on the bier. We don’t have the original of Facsimile 2, but we do possess a contemporary drawing of it, and it is clear from that drawing that there was a lacuna in the text running from the upper right side to the middle, and it is in precisely this location that hieratic text from elsewhere in the collection has been inserted in what is otherwise a hieroglyphic document. In the case of Facsimile 3, we have neither the original nor a contemporary drawing of it, but the head of the figure on the right is so misshapen that clearly there was damage to the papyrus at the time it was in Joseph’s possession. To me, none of this is a big deal. Reuben Hedlock, the engraver of the Facsimiles, filled in lacunae in the papyri as best he could in order to present complete pictures for purposes of publication. This wasn’t done to deceive anyone, but for stylistic reasons. I compare this to the difference between the books Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith and The Words of Joseph Smith. In Teachings, the Prophet’s discourses have been heavily edited for presentation purposes. They have been drastically cleaned up. That was the presentation style at the time. But in Words, the reports of the Prophet’s Nauvoo discourses are given as close to possible as they actually exist in the original sources, even in their fragmentary state, with bad grammar and misspellings and missing text and all. The preferred presentation style had changed over time, and scholars did not want to read a prettified, edited text. The edits can be significant, and scholars want to see the imperfect originals so they can draw their own conclusions about them. We wouldn’t try to fill in the holes in a publication of the Facsimiles today, but it’s unfair to judge what Hedlock did in his engravings by our modern sensibilities rather than those that prevailed at the time.
On the other hand, there is evidence that some criticized aspects, such as the bald head of the priest, are plausible and need not have been Hedlock’s or Joseph’s idea.
More to come….
Posted: Nov. 19, 2017; updated Dec. 10, 2017.