The Book of Abraham

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I just returned from a couple of weeks in Europe where I presented at FAIR conferences in Darmstadt, Germany and Milan and Rome, Italy, on the Book of Abraham.  (Other presentations included topics like the Book of Mormon, race issues, polygamy, and Joseph Smith’s visions.)  This was my first trip to Europe and I had a great time.  Now that I’m back, I thought I would post my remarks on the BoA here for your interest and so that I can conveniently refer people to them in the future.

The Book of Abraham

Kevin L. Barney

When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, he brought with him a small army of scientists and artists, whose published reports of the wonders of Egypt in the many volumes of the French series “Description of Egypt” published between 1809 and 1813 soon fueled a wave of Egyptomania among Europeans.  This intense interest in all things Egyptian spurred a demand for Egyptian antiquities, which men like Antonio Lebolo, the excavator of the Joseph Smith Papyri, were all too willing to meet.  The Italian Lebolo had been a gendarme during Napoleon’s occupation of the Italian peninsula.  When Napoleon was defeated, Lebolo moved to Egypt in voluntary exile.  There he was employed by Bernardino Drovetti, the former consul general of France in Egypt, to oversee his excavations in Upper Egypt.  Lebolo also did excavating on his own.  Some time around the year 1820, give or take a couple of years, Lebolo excavated 11 well preserved mummies from a pit tomb on the west bank of the Nile opposite the ancient city of Thebes (modern Luxor).  These mummies were shipped to Trieste and consigned for sale through Albano Oblasser.  Oblasser sent the mummies to New York, where they were purchased by an entrepreneur from Pennsylvania named Michael H. Chandler some time early in the year 1833.

Chandler took the collection on an exhibition tour of the northeastern United States, occasionally selling off a mummy or two.  In July 1835 he made his way to Kirtland, Ohio and sold what remained of the collection (four mummies, two or three rolls of papyri and some loose papyrus sheets) to a group of citizens who purchased them for $2,400 on behalf of Joseph Smith and the Church.  Not long after that Joseph announced that the papyri contained writings of the biblical patriarchs Abraham and Joseph.  Various entries in his journal indicate that Joseph immediately began working on a translation of the Abraham material.

Sometime during the Kirtland period, Joseph and his scribes (W.W. Phelps, Warren Parrish, Oliver Cowdery, Frederick G. Williams and Willard Richards) created a collection of some 16 documents totaling about 120 pages.  These are referred to today collectively as theKirtland Egyptian Papers (“KEP”).  The KEP are of two types.  Ten of these documents purport to be Egyptian alphabet and grammar documents of some sort, the most extensive of which is a bound book titled “Grammar & aphabet [sic] of the Egyptian language,” containing 34 nonconsecutive pages of writing and 186 blank pages (an average of three written pages being followed by 18 to 20 blank pages).  The other six are Book of Abraham manuscript documents, presenting the English text of material from the first couple of chapters of what we know today as the Book of Abraham.  Some of these documents have Egyptian symbols in the left hand margin of each paragraph of text.  The KEP were never explained or published, and after they were brought out west they were placed among the papers of the Church Historian’s office and eventually forgotten, until they were rediscovered well into the twentieth century.

What we know today as the Book of Abraham was finally published in three issues of the Times and Seasons (March 1, March 15 and May 16, 1842).  This material was republished in England in the Millennial Star in July 1842, and eventually in the first edition of the Pearl of Great Price.  In February of 1843, Joseph promised that more of the text would be published, but none ever was, and no manuscript evidence of additional text has been discovered.  The Book of Abraham comprises five chapters of text and three facsimiles of vignettes from the papyri collection, together with Joseph’s proffered explanations.

In the twentieth century there were two events that put the authenticity of the Book of Abraham as an ancient text (and not a modern pseudepigraphon) in doubt.  First, in 1912 Franklin S. Spalding, the Episcopal bishop of Utah, sent copies of the facsimiles from the Book of Abraham to eight prominent Egyptologists of the day, together with Joseph’s proffered explanations. The Egyptologists gave standard egyptological explanations of the facsimiles and concluded that Joseph’s explanations were not correct.  The publication of this pamphlet led to a firestorm of responses from Mormon intellectuals, with at least a couple of dozen appearing between 1912 and 1918 in the Improvement Era (the Church’s magazine for adults at the time).

In order to understand the second event, we must trace the history of Joseph’s papyri collection (the “Joseph Smith Papyri”) after Joseph’s death in 1844.  Joseph’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, continued to exhibit the Egyptian antiquities for the remainder of her life.  Soon after Lucy’s death in 1856, Emma Smith Bidamon and her second husband, Lewis Bidamon, sold the collection to a man named Abel Combs.  It was long believed that Combs in turn sold the entire collection to the St. Louis Museum, which was transferred to the Woods Museum in Chicago, and that the whole of the collection therefore perished in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.  (As a personal aside, when I began to practice law in Chicago, my office was just down the street from the Woods Theater, which had been built on the site of the destroyed Woods Museum in 1917.  The old theater was razed to the ground in 1990.)  As it turns out, however, Combs had given a portion of the papyri collection to his nurse, Charlotte E. Benecke Weaver Huntsman.  Upon her death, this collection went to her daughter, Alice Combs Weaver Heusser, who tried to sell it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 1918, but the Museum was not interested at that time.  After her death, her widowed husband Edward Heusser approached the Museum again in 1947, and this time the Museum acquired the collection.  Contrary to popular misunderstanding, the curators of the Museum understood from the beginning the connection of these pieces to Joseph, but for a long time the Church was unaware of the existence of this collection.  That changed in the 1960s, and after negotiations eventually this collection was returned to the Church in 1967.

The extant portion of the collection returned to the Church consisted of the following pieces:  (i) the original of facsimile 1 and two fragments from a Book of Breathings (also sometimes referred to as the Sensen Papyrus, as sensen is the Egyptian word for “breathing”) belonging to Hor (the name of the ancient owner of the book) [the original of facsimile 3 also would have belonged to this text]; (ii) fragments from a Book of the Dead belonging to Tshemmin; and (iii) a psychostasy (“soul weighing”) scene vignette (relating to Chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead) belonging to Neferirnub.  Although not recovered, we also know that Joseph possessed a Book of the Dead belonging to Amenophis, the Hypocephalus belonging to Sheshonq (the original of facsimile 2), and other unidentified texts.  (Translations of this material have since been published by BYU scholar Michael Rhodes in the Studies in the Book of Abraham series.)

After this material was returned to the Church and published by the Church in theImprovement Era, it was observed that the Egyptian symbols appearing next to the beginning paragraphs of the KEP Abraham manuscripts came from the beginning of the Joseph Smith Book of Breathings, and that this Book of Breathings fragment originally was connected to the original of facsimile 1 (the fibers along the join for the two fragments matched).  Given the connection with the original of facsimile 1 and the use of symbols from the beginning of this text in association with the Abraham manuscripts of the KEP, it was apparent that Joseph Smith and his scribes believed that the document Joseph had translated as the Book of Abraham derived from the Hor Book of Breathings.  But when Egyptologists translated these fragments, they were found to indeed contain a Book of Breathings (a Ptolemaic era analog to the Book of the Dead) and not something like the English text of the Book of Abraham.  This finding led to extensive apologetic publications, initially dominated by the late Hugh Nibley, and subsequently dominated by scholars affiliated with the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), an independent foundation that was later absorbed into BYU.

There have been four main apologetic approaches to the Book of Abraham issue by Church scholars.  First was the observation that the concept reflected in the Egyptian marginalia of the KEP Abraham manuscripts in each case was reflected in the associated English paragraph.  Therefore, the idea was that the Egyptian text could have been a mnemonic aid of some sort for the transmission of the Abraham story reflected in the English Book of Abraham.  Nibley initially was intrigued by this observation, but he quickly went in a different direction and rejected the mnemonic theory, which simply has not caught on in an appreciable way.

Nibley came to favor what has been called a “missing papyrus” theory, to the effect that the Book of Breathings was not the putative source for the Book of Abraham, but that that source was on some of the papyri that had been burned in the Chicago Fire.  The strength of this second theory is the undisputed fact that what is extant is only a minority portion of the original collection (estimates have ranged from 13 to 33%).  But a difficulty with this theory is that the KEP seem to suggest that Joseph and his scribes perceived there to be some sort of a relationship between the Book of Breathings (a portion of which is extant) and the Book of Abraham.  So while the missing papyrus theory remains a viable option, the apparent connection between the Book of Breathings and the Book of Abraham remains an issue that has to be adequately explained by those who favor this theory.

At this point I would like to briefly comment on the KEP.  In my view the next great hill to climb in Book of Abraham studies will be coming to a deeper understanding of the KEP.  In 1971 Nibley published a lengthy article about the KEP in BYU Studies, but until recently no further work was published on the subject, and as a result these documents were for a long time badly understudied.  It was originally assumed by critics that the KEP represented the translation working papers for the Book of Abraham (notwithstanding that the modus operandi of how one would get from the seemingly bizarre KEP to the smoothly and sensibly rendered English Book of Abraham was completely unclear).  In contrast, apologists suggested that the KEP reflected either an earlier “studying it out in their minds” stage of the project, or an attempt to use the already completed revelation in comparison with the Book of Breathings papyri in an effort to reverse engineer the Egyptian language.

Recent work has suggested, however, that both of these approaches to the KEP material may be misguided, and that in fact the KEP reflects a project seeking to describe “pure [Adamic] language.”  One example of this recent work is an article by my friend Samuel M. Brown published in Church History in 2009 with the title “Joseph (Smith) in Egypt: Babel, Hieroglyphs, and the Pure Language of Eden.” 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.  At this point what is needed is the publication of a scholarly editio princeps of the KEP, and then actual scholarship must be brought to bear in the effort to better understand these documents, bracketing for the time being both polemics and apologetics until the scholarship has more clearly elucidated the meaning of these obscure manuscripts.

A third theory holds that there is no relationship between the Sensen Papyrus and the Book of Abraham, but that the Sensen Papyrus contains material relevant to the temple endowment.  Establishing these kinds of parallels was the burden of Hugh Nibley’s magnum opus, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment.  While the insights that derive from this approach can be quite fascinating in their own right, it should be obvious that this theory does not purport to tell us anything in particular about the source of the English Book of Abraham.

The fourth theory is called a “pure revelation” or “catalyst” theory, and holds that the papyri simply acted as an impetus leading Joseph to receive a revelation about Abraham, which he did, just as he had done in the past in connection with all his previous revealed translation projects.  Joseph consistently used the word “translation” for his revealed religious texts, which has created a problem in our modern perceptions of those texts.  Because when we use the word “translation” today, we are thinking of an academic exercise, one of seeking to convey the sense of an original text in one language to others in a different language.  Translation in this sense requires an academic knowledge of both the source and the target language.  So when Mormon artists seek to portray Joseph translating the Book of Mormon, they show him studying the plates closely, using his finger to trace the characters on the plates, because that is how we translate texts ourselves, and that is therefore their personal experience.  But such artists have not studied the witness statements concerning the process of translating the Book of Mormon; Joseph put his seerstone into a hat and held it up to his face to exclude light, and then he dictated the text to his scribe.  Joseph was not translating by an academic process, but by the “gift of seeing” (for a seer is a see-er, “one who sees”).  This is the same process we see described in Mosiah 8 as to how King Mosiah is able to translate the 24 gold plates.  So, just as Joseph dictated the Book of Mormon without even looking at the plates themselves, or dictated D&C 7 without having any physical access to the parchment described in that section, so the English Book of Abraham was a revelation that Joseph dictated to his scribe, and not an academic rendering based on the papyri.  The fullest explanation of this theory was published by the late Karl Sandberg in an article in Dialogue in 1989 with the title “Knowing Brother Joseph Again: The Book of Abraham and Joseph Smith as Translator.”

The strength of this theory is twofold.  First, it makes the Egyptian materials largely irrelevant to the process (beyond stirring the quest for the revelation in the first place).  And second, it puts the Book of Abraham on a par with Joseph’s other revealed translation projects, as opposed to positing an entirely different process in that one case.  The perceived weakness of this theory might be that Joseph and his scribes may have misunderstood the relationship between the English Book of Abraham and the Sensen Papyrus.  But to me that is not a disadvantage at all; it is par for the course.  One of the conclusions Royal Skousen has drawn after studying the text of the Book of Mormon for a quarter century is that the revelation itself and Joseph’s intellectual understanding of that revelation are two different things, and that Joseph often did not accurately understand various aspects of the revealed text.  For instance, when Joseph made changes to the text in 1837 and 1840, he was acting as a human editor, and Skousen properly reverses those edits in his critical text project.  So there is really nothing new about this.

So which of these theories (if any) is the correct one?  Personally, my own approach is to keep an almost completely open mind.  I do not feel the need to constrain my thinking on this subject, since there is much that we don’t know yet and that I personally don’t quite grasp.  But I’m an attorney and have been trained to keep alternate theories of a case in mind simultaneously.  If that doesn’t work for you and you need to concentrate on a single theory, I will suggest that as a forensic matter I think the “pure revelation” theory is the most readily defensible.

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 andThe 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.

The second issue has to do with Joseph’s proferred explanations of the Facsimiles, which in general do not match standard egyptological explanations.  The traditional approach to this issue has been to focus on those that do match, or are at least arguably in the same ball park.  For example, the explanation to Figure 6 in Facsimile 2 says that Figure “represents this earth in its four quarters.”  The Figure is an image of the four Sons of Horus, who do indeed stand for the four cardinal points.  But most of the explanations have a greater distance from standard egyptological understanding than this one.

I have a different perspective on this issue, which I published in my article “The Facsimiles and Semitic Adaptation of Existing Sources” in the book Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant.  In that article I began with a review of the circumstances surrounding the Spalding pamphlet and the Mormon responses to it.  I observed that the Mormons of the time had made a number of facile assumptions about this material: that the papyrus underlying the Book of Abraham was an autographic document (meaning Abraham’s hand had touched the very papyrus in Joseph’s possession), that the vignettes underlying the Facsimiles were drawn by Abraham and were similarly autographic, and therefore that there was no ancient transmission of these documents.  The Mormon respondents to Spalding quickly rejected these facile assumptions, but since so few people today have read this material, Latter-day Saints are unaware of this and tend to continue to hold to these assumptions.  But the papyri in Joseph’s collection do not date to the time of Abraham in the Middle Bronze Age; they date to the Ptolemaic era, or roughly what we think of as Greco-Roman times.  So there was no autographic original in the cache, but at the most copies.  Now, once we acknowledge that we’re talking about copies and not autographic originals, the door is then opened wide to varous processes of ancient textual transmission with which scholars are familiar.  These include copying of texts, translation from one language to antoher, copying from one medium to another, and redaction.  Further, seeing a textual transmission involved also allows us to understand the text and the Facsimiles as having separate provenances.

So, I wondered, what if Abraham composed his text in, say, Akkadian written on clay tablets, which would make more sense for a Semite in the Middle Bronze Age than brush and ink on papyrus?  And what if the vignettes underlying the Facsimiles had a separate provenance than the text itself?  If the text came into the care of an Egyptian-Jew in the Greco-Roman era (and I fancifully labeled this hypothetical scribe J-Red, for “Jewish Redactor”), he may have adopted or adapted Egyptian vignettes as illustrations of the Abraham story contained in the text.  This may sound fanciful at first, but I then went on to show several examples from that time and place where this is exactly what happened.  For instance, in the Testament of Abraham, the vignette accompanying chapter 125 of the Egyptian Book of the Dead is reimagined in Semitic terms.  Osiris sitting on the throne of judgment becomes Abel; the Egyptian gods become Semitic angels; the scribe Thoth becomes the biblical Enoch.  So I posited as a possibility that, “As the vignette for chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead is to the Testament of Abraham, so are the Facsimiles to the Book of Abraham.”

Another example I gave from this same time period was the Demotic Story of Setna, which is adapted into Jewish lore with seven rabbinic splinter stories, and ultimately finds its way into the Gospel of Luke as the story of Lazarus and the rich man.  In that Gospel account, Abraham is used as a Jewish substitute for the Egyptian Osiris, just as we see in Facsimiles 1 and 3.  So it was common for Jews living in Egypt around the turn of the era to adopt or adapt Egyptian iconography to their own purposes as illustrations of their own stories.  Now, in my published paper I did not go this far explicitly, but let me make the point here that if it was acceptable for Jews to adopt or adapt Egyptian iconography to their own purposes, making Abraham a Semitic substitute for Osiris, why would it not be acceptable for Joseph Smith to do the very same thing himself?

Critics of the Book of Abraham like to focus on the exotic Egyptian material; that is the strength of their argument.  But what of the English Book of Abraham?  That had to come from somewhere, and it’s an impressive text.  Klaus Baer, Nibley’s friend and mentor in Egyptian studies at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, was impressed by the Book of Abraham, and opined that if it had been rendered into standard modern English rather than King James idiom, it would have had every appearance of an ancient book.  Much of the detail of the English Book of Abraham, having to do with such matters as the attempt to sacrifice the young Abraham and Abraham’s teaching astronomy to the Egyptians, are things that are missing from the canonical, biblical text, but that are indeed preserved in other ancient religious texts.  There is a very thick book published by the Maxwell Institute titledTraditions of the Early Life of Abraham that has numerous examples of material similar to what we have in the Book of Abraham.

In the end, of course, acceptance of the Book of Abraham is a matter of faith, which is true of all scripture, whether ancient or modern, whether deriving from the Old World or the New.  I personally find the Book of Abraham to be a completely fascinating little volume.  I’ve studied this book with interest for over 30 years.  I have in the hutch in my pantry an extensive collection of rare, out of print and very hard to get materials about this book.  I don’t claim to know all there is to know about it, but I’m familiar with the intellectual history of the debates concerning it over the past century and a half.  I remain intrigued and fascinated by this little gem of a text, and yes, I do accept it as divine scripture.

* This is cross-posted from By Common Consent.

2 thoughts on “The Book of Abraham

  1. Pingback: 27 June 2013 | MormonVoices

  2. Dr_Angel_Face

    Well written article. I appreciate your time and effort. I had forgotten exactly how the papyri collection fell into the museum’s hands. Good stuff…

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