The Book of Abraham and Continuing Scholarship: Ask the Right Questions and Keep Looking

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The Book of Abraham continues to be a hotly debated book. Critics of and apologists for the Book of Abraham continue to sound forth their judgments on the fraudulence or authenticity of this controversial scriptural work. There does not seem to be any end in sight for this controversy. With the survival of some of Joseph Smith’s Egyptian papyri – ostensibly the source of the Book of Abraham – critics have, in the words of Hugh Nibley, been “endlessly dinning into the ears of the public that what was written on that small and battered strip of papyrus prove[s] beyond a doubt that Joseph Smith [is] a fraud because he thought it contained the Book of Abraham, whereas it contains nothing of the sort.”[1] The most recent salvo aimed at thrashing Joseph Smith’s interpretation of these documents comes in the form of a respected Egyptologist publishing his highly critical material with a press known for being, at times, extremely hostile towards Mormon orthodoxy. This Egyptologist’s conclusion? “Except for those willfully blind… the case is closed.”[2]

That seems to be it for the poor Mormons.

Well, maybe not.

With all due respect to this professor, who has rightly earned praise and respect for his work on Egyptian history and religion, I am trouble by this mentality, and think it is premature, hasty and uncharitable. Although I do not pretend to be a scholar who is able to offer any substantive contribution to this discussion, I am keenly aware of what some other fantastic scholars (with some impressive accomplishments to their names) have recently produced which demonstrates that maybe the case isn’t as forlorn for the Book of Abraham as asserted. I am also aware of future scholarly publications still in the works that will undoubtedly shed more light on the Book of Abraham. It is this recent progress that I wish to briefly report on here.

1. “On Elkenah as Canaanite El”[3]

The names of the Book of Abraham, some of them biblical and others original to the text, have drawn some attention. Scholars have looked at the unique names in the Book of Abraham and have tried to determine whether they are authentic ancient names or merely inventions of Joseph Smith’s fertile imagination. In an essay appearing in 2010, Kevin Barney has looked carefully at one of the names appearing in the Book of Abraham: Elkenah. He gives an in-depth analysis of several possible meanings for this curious name. His conclusion is set forth as thus:

We began by examining the Book of Abraham text to see what it tells us about the figure Elkenah. Based on an assumption that the El- element in the name is Semitic ʾel, we identified a number of possible linguistic structures for an ancient El combination. We then reviewed six concrete proposals for Elkenah, concluding that the strongest possibilities, “El of Canaan” and “El the Creator,” both point in the direction of the same deity: Canaanite El.

This deity compares favorably with the information set forth in the Book of Abraham text regarding Elkenah. In particular, the type of sacrifice described in Abraham 1 fits a cultic setting in Syro-Palestinian or Canaanite territory much more readily than it fits a Mesopotamian or Assyro-Babylonian scenario. More to the point, the scene on Facsimile 1, with its representation of a human sacrifice on an Egyptian lion couch, fits extremely well with Egyptian Middle Kingdom evidence for the cultic ritual of human sacrifice. Although there is much more work to be done (including similar studies of the other names in the Book of Abraham onomasticon), both the name Elkenah and the cult described in the text seem to point to a Syro-Palestinian context for Abraham 1.[4]

2. “An Egyptian Context for the Sacrifice of Abraham”[5]

Speaking of the sacrifice of Abraham as presented in the Book of Abraham, we turn next to John Gee and Kerry Muhlestein, who have looked at ancient Egyptian evidence for the practice of human sacrifice. After finding both textual and archaeological evidence for the presence of human sacrifice in Egypt at the time of Abraham, Gee and Muhlestein conclude:

It is clear that during the Middle Kingdom, Egyptians engaged in such practices [i.e. human sacrifice] when they deemed it necessary, and that desecrations or perceived threats were some of the situations that seemed to justify the ritual slaughter of humans. This picture matches well with that depicted in the Book of Abraham. Our understanding of the picture painted by each context can now be informed by the other, allowing us to more fully understand each individual story and the larger context in which these people lived their lives and practiced their religious beliefs.[6]

It will be remembered that a prominent theme in the Book of Abraham is Abraham’s refusal to worship Egyptian idols, which led to his imprisonment and an attempt to sacrifice him. As Gee and Muhlestein show, this claim in the Book of Abraham has been vindicated: the ancient Egyptians, at some points in their history, did in fact practice human sacrifice. What is especially interesting with the evidence offered by Gee and Muhlestein is the fact that sacrilege or desecration against the Egyptian religion (like that of Abraham’s) was one of the leading motives behind Egyptian human sacrifice.

3. “Formulas and Faith”[7]

Another controversy surrounding the Book of Abraham and the Joseph Smith Papyri may at first seem insignificant or trivial, but is actually very important. For several years John Gee has argued that we are presently missing a substantial amount of the Joseph Smith Papyri, and that the source of the Book of Abraham is currently lost. In other words, according to Gee, the papyri fragments recovered in the late 1960s do not contain the Book of Abraham because they were not used by Joseph Smith to produced the Book of Abraham. That source is now lost. To bolster this claim, in 2007 Gee presented mathematical calculations that indicated that the length of the scroll of Hor – the Egyptian scroll believed to contain the Book of Abraham – was much longer than what has survived. Since we know of other ancient Egyptian papyri that contained multiple texts on the same scroll, according to Gee, it is therefore not impossible that the scroll of Hor could have contained both the Egyptian Book of Breathings text (the text translated from the papyri recovered in the 1960s) as well as the Book of Abraham text. This, coupled with eyewitness testimony from the 19th century, led Gee to conclude it is very likely that the source of the Book of Abraham is lost.[8]

Gee’s findings were later challenged by two researchers, who argued that the amount of missing papyri is actually very little, and that this is evidence calls into question Gee’s arguments. If there is only a little bit of missing papyri (no more than a few feet, as opposed to several feet, as argued by Gee) then the possibility of the existence of an additional Book of Abraham text is unlikely. Thus, argue these two researchers, Gee’s so-called “Missing Papyrus Theory” for the Book of Abraham is untenable.[9]

Gee has recently responded to these researchers in a 2012 article defending his position. What’s more, from his remarks in the article and at the 2012 FAIR Conference,[10] it seems that more research is presently being conducted by Gee and others that will hopefully tell us more about the physical dimensions of the scroll of Hor. The findings of this research has weighty implications for Gee’s hypothesis. Both he and his critics know this, thus generating the heated controversy. Notwithstanding, until definitive results can be found, Gee urges caution as we try to solve this conundrum:

Those interested in these sorts of questions should constantly bear in mind that the historical evidence is limited and that limitations on the evidence often preclude definitive answers, or sometimes any answers, to the types of questions that we ask. Scholarship can be useful but is often incapable of answering particular questions. But faith does not require everything to be proved. Ironically, the relationship between the Joseph Smith Papyri and the Book of Abraham is a situation in which both believers and detractors must rely on their faith.[11]

4. “An Egyptian View of Abraham”[12]

We again turn to John Gee, who has drawn attention to a Coptic document giving details about the life of Abraham that match well with what we are told in the Book of Abraham. The text itself is part of a Christian homily used to expound upon Psalm 47:9, which reads: “The princes of the people are gathered together, even the people of the God of Abraham.” The Coptic text clarifies that Abraham was to be burned alive, but was rescued by an angel and later sought out by 12 rulers of the land (at Pharaoh’s commission) to learn about Abraham’s God through astronomy. It is an exciting text that lends further evidence for the Book of Abraham’s antiquity. Along with the weighty evidence collected by Gee and his associates in 2001, this Egyptian text gives additional witness that the Book of Abraham restores ancient information about Abraham not found in the Bible.[13]

5. “Egyptian Papyri and the Book of Abraham: A Faithful, Egyptological Point of View”[14]

In this article, Kerry Muhlestein wrangles together what recent scholarship has shown us about the Book of Abraham, and attempts to distill this research into a manageable overview of this incredibly complex subject. Muhlestein looks at everything from the manuscripts of the Book of Abraham, the Joseph Smith Papyri, the facsimiles, and the text of the Book of Abraham itself. He shows that many of the criticisms thrown at the Book of Abraham are highly questionable, debatable, or simply wrong. He provides evidence for the ancient authenticity of the Book of Abraham and Joseph Smith’s interpretations of the facsimiles. But he also insists that as LDS apologists and scholars continue to probe the Book of Abraham, they must be willing to modify or discard old theories that may be challenged by new data and evidence. Ultimately, although there are many exciting new avenues to explore, we must temper our eagerness with caution and patience. As summarized by Muhlestein:

I anticipate that Latter-day Saints will do increasing amounts of good Egyptology over the next ten to twenty years. It has been my experience that when we do thorough Egyptology correctly, what we learn supports things that many of us already believe and often allows us to expand our understanding just a little. Such studies may contain many findings that confirm faith. Though there are many questions to be answered, the years ahead look promising.[15]

6. “Thoughts on the Book of Abraham”[16]

Finally, we come to Brian M. Hauglid, who is presently working on publishing a critical text edition of the so-called Kirtland Egyptian Papers, or, more properly, the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (GAEL). This enigmatic and baffling group of documents has not been adequately studied, and when they have been studied, it has usually been for explicitly polemical purposes. Critics of the Book of Abraham argue that the GAEL is evidence against Joseph Smith’s claimed ability to translate, since this alleged Egyptian “grammar” and “alphabet” is more-or-less nonsensical gibberish to modern Egyptologists. LDS scholars have put forth a number of counter-arguments to this criticism. For example, recent work by researchers such as Samuel Brown and William Schryver has created newly ignited interest in these documents.[17] Brown argues that the GAEL is an attempt to restore a pure, Edenic language, while Schryver argues that the GAEL is an attempt to encode a pre-existing Book of Abraham text.

These theories are interesting, and worth exploring further, but much more work still remains to be done. Hauglid, who has already published a critical text edition of the Book of Abraham manuscripts,[18] will hopefully be releasing his work on the GAEL documents soon. In his article published in the same volume as Muhlestein’s, Hauglid gives an overview of what his research has yielded thus far, and gives a sampling of what to expect in future publications. As such, our understanding of these documents is in its infancy, and much work remains to be done. Hauglid’s forthcoming publication will greatly enhance our ability to thoroughly study these documents and hopefully come to a better understanding of what their purpose is.

Conclusion: Ask the Right Questions and Keep Looking

Hugh Nibley once made this wise observation on the nature of true scholarship: “The two rules to follow here are 1) to ask the right questions, and 2) to keep looking.” If we don’t do this, asks Nibley, and if we fall into the trap of dogmatism and shutting out the possibility of further developments and findings, then “how can we expect a science to make progress?”[19] This is a perfectly legitimate question. If we foster a paradigm of “the case is closed”, as our before-quoted Egyptologist would have us do, then how on earth can we expect to make any progress? Also, is it really appropriate for this Egyptologist to insist that those who disagree with his iron-strong conclusions are “willfully blind”? I do not believe it is. Is it possible that different scholars can, in good faith, have disagreements over controversial and complex issues like the Book of Abraham and still maintain their sincerity and intelligence? I believe they can.

As such, I must insist that we adopt Hugh Nibley’s attitude towards our study of the Book of Abraham, and eschew the more polemical attitude of this critical Egyptologist. As the above examples show, the case is far from closed.[20] It is still wide open. There remains much to explore and discover with the Book of Abraham. We must ask the right questions, and keep looking.


[1]: Hugh Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, 2nd ed. (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2005), xxv.

[2]:See “Scholar Says Mormon Scripture Not An Egyptian Translation,” online here.

[3]: Kevin Barney, “On Elkenah as Canaanite El,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 19/1 (2010): 22-35. Found online, here.

[4]: Ibid., 30-31. For more on Book of Abraham onomasticon, see John Gee and Stephen D. Ricks, “Historical Plausibility: The Historicity of the Book of Abraham as a Case Study,” in Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2001), 74-76.

[5]: John Gee and Kerry Muhlestein, “An Egyptian Context for the Sacrifice of Abraham,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 20/2 (2011): 70-77. Found online, here.

[6]: Ibid., 75.

[7]: John Gee, “Formulas and Faith,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 21/1 (2012): 60-65. Found online, here.

[8]: John Gee, “Some Puzzles from the Joseph Smith Papyri,” FARMS Review 20/1 (2008): 113-137. Found online, here. The material in this article was presented a year before at the 2007 FAIR Conference.

[9]: Andrew W. Cook and Christopher C. Smith, “The Original Length of the Scroll of Hôr,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 43/4 (Winter 2010): 1-42.

[10]: John Gee, “Book of Abraham, I Presume”, online here.

[11]: John Gee, “Formulas and Faith”, 65.

[12]: John Gee, “An Egyptian View of Abraham,” in Bountiful Harvest: Essays in Honor of S. Kent Brown, ed. Andrew C. Skinner, D. Morgan Davis, and Carl Griffin (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2011), 137-156.

[13]: John A. Tvedtnes, Brian M. Hauglid, and John Gee, eds., Traditions About the Early Life of Abraham (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2001).

[14]: Kerry Muhlestein, “Egyptian Papyri and the Book of Abraham: A Faithful, Egyptological Point of View,” in No Weapon Shall Prosper: New Light on Sensitive Issues, ed. Robert L. Millet (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2011), 217-244.

[15]: Ibid., 237.

[16]: Brian M. Hauglid, “Thoughts on the Book of Abraham,” in Millet, No Weapon Shall Prosper, 245-258.

[17]: Samuel Brown, “Joseph (Smith) In Egypt: Babel, Hieroglyphs, and the Pure Language of Eden,” in Church History 78/1 (March 2009): 26-65; William Schryver, “The Meaning and Purpose of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers,” online here (text) and here (video).

[18]: Brian M. Hauglid, A Textual History of the Book of Abraham: Manuscripts and Editions (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2010).

[19]: Hugh Nibley, “The Facsimiles of the Book of Abraham: A Response,” in An Approach to the Book of Abraham, ed. John Gee (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2009), 499, 501.

[20]: I also believe that these examples above are evidence against the claim of this Egyptologist that it is a “waste [of] time” to continue looking for ancient evidence for the Book of Abraham.

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