The Facsimiles and Semitic Adaptation of Existing Sources
The Facsimiles and Semitic Adaptation of
Kevin L. Barney
Latter-day Saint descriptions of the historical
background to the Joseph Smith Papyri sometimes set the stage with an account
of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798.1 Napoleon
brought with him a small army of scientists and artists, whose published reports
of the wonders of Egypt2 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. Thus, Napoleon’s scholars
and the European reaction to their work established the conditions that would
eventually lead to the purchase of a collection of Egyptian antiquities by
a group of Latter-day Saints, including Joseph Smith, in Kirtland in 1835.
Joseph would go on to translate certain papyri from this collection as the
Book of Abraham.
Much like the wide-eyed Europeans of the
early nineteenth century, Latter-day Saints (and their critics) have been
fascinated by the Egyptian aspects of the Book of Abraham since its first
publication in the Times and Seasons
in 1842. This is a perfectly understandable fascination
and one that I myself share. In the twentieth century, the Book of Abraham
weathered two critical attacks on its authenticity, both of which were grounded
in the Egyptian material related to the book. First, in 1912 Franklin S. Spalding,
the Episcopal bishop of Utah, sent copies of the facsimiles from the Book
of Abraham to a number of prominent Egyptologists of the day, together with
Joseph’s proffered explanations. The Egyptologists concluded that the Prophet’s
explanations were not correct.3 Second, in 1967 a small portion of
the original collection of Joseph Smith Papyri was recovered from the
Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, including the original from which
Facsimile 1 was taken. Critics argued that Joseph "thought" he was
translating the Book of Abraham from a papyrus that was part of this restored
collection, called the Sensen Papyrus (now identified as Joseph Smith Papyrus
[JSP] I, XI, and X). When modern Egyptologists translated this papyrus, it
was found to contain not something like the English text of the Book of Abraham
but rather an Egyptian "Book of Breathings."4 Following each of these events, many critics
were certain that the downfall of the Book of Abraham (and, they hoped, the
church with it) was imminent. It is no doubt with a sense of frustration that
they have witnessed belief in the Book of Abraham and the divine mission of
the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints proceed apace during the more
than thirty years since the recovery of the Joseph Smith Papyri from the Metropolitan
In this paper, we shall briefly review the Spalding pamphlet and the contemporary
LDS response to it. We shall see that the early LDS respondents clearly rejected
some of the facile assumptions that some seem to have held about the papyri,
most particularly the assumption that the papyri possessed by Joseph represented
the actual holographic original penned by Abraham himself (as opposed to being
a later copy of Abraham’s text). Notwithstanding the early rejection of these
assumptions by the LDS respondents, such assumptions have continued to exert
a sometimes misleading influence on LDS perceptions of the papyri.
When we, together with the 1912 respondents,
properly reject the autographic assumptions about the papyri, we find other
possibilities concerning the origins and history of the Book of Abraham. For
instance, that book may have had its origin as a Semitic text that experienced
the normal transmission processes of copying, translation, and redaction from
the time of Abraham in the Middle Bronze Age until the Greco-Roman era when
the Egyptian papyrus copies were made.
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. We shall then conclude by
describing the general explanatory power of the Semitic adaptation theory.
The Spalding Pamphlet
Of the two great flurries of activity regarding the Book of Abraham, the more
challenging was that of 1912, if only because the Saints lacked a Hugh Nibley
to take their part in the discussion. Spalding’s pamphlet attracted the Saints’
attention for several reasons. The first (and most obvious) reason was the academic
prestige of Spalding’s panel of experts. Second was the disarming tone of the
piece. The Latter-day Saints were accustomed to bitter polemical battles, but
Spalding wrote in a friendly manner. He dedicated the pamphlet to his many LDS
friends, describing them as "honest searchers after the truth."5
He also used a little flattery. His opening sentence sets the stage: "If
the Book of Mormon is true, it is, next to the Bible, the most important book
in the world."6 Note that Spalding
does not use a contrary-to-fact condition; he does not say "if the Book
of Mormon were true, it would be" important. Rather,
he gives the appearance of being open minded, of genuinely allowing for the
possibility that the book may be true. If in fact it is true, he says, it is
of great value to New Testament and other religious scholars, archaeologists,
and scientists, including botanists, zoologists, and geologists. He then states
that "it is inexcusable that the book has never had the serious examination
which its importance demands."7
With all of these statements, his LDS readers would have been nodding their
heads in solemn concurrence.
In several more chapters, he describes how the ultimate test of the correctness
of the Book of Mormon translation is not possible, because the plates from
which it was taken are not extant. We do, however, have the Book of Abraham
with its facsimiles. So here is a way to test Joseph’s skill as a translator
and indirectly to test the value of the Book of Mormon as a translation. With
this setup, in his final chapter he reproduces, without significant comment,
letters from eight orientalists, including some of the most prominent Egyptologists
of the day, all concluding that Joseph’s interpretations of the facsimiles
The first Latter-day Saint to respond to Spalding was B. H. Roberts. Roberts
was a personal friend of Spalding’s, and his initial take was that Spalding
had been completely fair in his production, praising Spalding’s courtesy and
even generosity in prosecuting his case.8 But as others began to look at the pamphlet
more closely,9 it did not take long
to discover that Spalding’s fairness was superficial only, a veneer of sheep’s
clothing covering a wolfish anti-Mormon attack. Particularly vexing was the
fact that Spalding never did release the correspondence he had used to solicit
the experts’ opinions, and the letters of the scholars showed indications
of having been prejudiced against Joseph’s interpretations by coaching in
the solicitation letters (as opposed to a completely blind solicitation).10 Spalding’s failure to trust his position
implicitly, which apparently induced him to poison the waters with his scholarly
correspondents, was a serious mistake that undercut his credibility with his
Spalding made other mistakes as well. For instance, in my view, as a forensic
matter, it was a strategic error to press an inferential case against the
Book of Mormon rather than focusing his effort directly on the Book of Abraham
itself. A review of the literature of the controversy discloses additional
strategic errors, such as the following: (1) he failed to address the hypocritical
double standard of attacking Mormon scripture on the backs of agnostic scholars
while simultaneously defending the Bible from the very similar attacks of
the higher critics;11 (2) he apparently
was unable to convince his panel of the importance of the inquiry, resulting
in the superficial, almost flippant correspondence he received from the experts
(who simply made heavily authoritarian statements with little or no analysis
or recitation of evidence);12 (3) he failed to address the apparent contradictions
among the scholars in their statements;13 and (4) in general, his study lacked even
the most fundamental scientific rigor.14
The third reason Spalding’s pamphlet effectively garnered attention was that
it was based on a web of assumptions that seem to have been commonly accepted
by Mormons at the time. These assumptions included the following:
- The papyrus from which the Book of Abraham was taken was an original autograph
of Abraham and was penned by the great patriarch himself (that is, Abraham’s
own hand had touched the very papyrus that came into Joseph’s possession,
as opposed to the papyrus being a later copy of a text written by Abraham).
- The papyri from which the facsimiles were taken were part and parcel with
the Book of Abraham and similarly were autographic documents (that is, they
were drawn by Abraham’s own hand).
- Since all these papyri had been written by Abraham himself, it necessarily
follows that Abraham originally composed them in the Egyptian language.
- Accordingly, there was no textual transmission of these documents in antiquity.
- Therefore, as purely Egyptian documents, the facsimiles could properly be
tested without any reference at all to the Book of Abraham (to which they
purport to relate).
For convenience of reference, I will refer
to these concepts as the autographic assumptions. The autographic assumptions, if accepted, gave Spalding
an advantage in a couple of important respects. First, by insisting that the
papyri underlying the Book of Abraham and the facsimiles were autographic
documents, he established a very early baseline for claims of historical anachronisms.
Since Abraham is generally believed to have lived around the twentieth century
B.C., give or take a few centuries,
if documents of the type represented by the facsimiles could be shown to date
only to a substantially later period, the facsimiles could not in fact have
derived from Abraham. Second, if the papyri were penned by Abraham himself
in Egyptian, then the Egyptian content of the facsimiles must have been fully
intended by Abraham, and the facsimiles could be judged as ordinary Egyptian
documents, just like any other Egyptian papyri. Therefore, it would be proper
for the Egyptologists to evaluate the authenticity of Joseph’s proffered explanations
without taking into account the English Book of Abraham (the papyrus source
of which no longer being extant).
While the autographic assumptions seem
to have been commonly accepted among the Saints of the day, that was only
because they had been unexamined. In fact, if Spalding made strategic errors
in his pamphlet, the Saints who responded to him also made missteps. Their
first and biggest error was not being prepared, even though they knew (or
should have known) from studies or comments circulated earlier that the interpretation
of the facsimiles would become an issue.15 In
his review of the incident, Hugh Nibley quite rightly chastised the Latter-day
Saint academics of the day for being caught flat-footed.16 Having no one on their side knowledgeable
in the young science of Egyptology was a tremendous disadvantage.
While Spalding’s pamphlet caused no little stir over the short term, in the
long run it was beneficial to the Saints, because it caused them to reexamine
their assumptions (including, in particular, the autographic assumptions)
about the facsimiles. This reexamination began almost immediately, as certain
respondents challenged the premises on which Spalding’s case was built. So,
on the supposed autographic nature of the papyri, Homans (Webb) wrote:
Some of the Latter-day Saints seem to have believed that the papyri in question
represented the actual autographic work of Abraham and Joseph—that the
hand of Abraham had pressed the very papyrus handled by Joseph Smith. Such
a conclusion, however, does not seem to be involved in the text of Smith’s
account, and need not be considered authoritative.17
Osborne Widtsoe objected to the assumptions that the facsimiles (1) had precisely
the same provenance as the Book of Abraham and (2) were themselves autographic
Instead of the three facsimiles forming the original text of the Book of
Abraham, they really constitute no part thereof. They were merely found with
the mummies. Instead of the facsimilies, being written in Abraham’s own hand,
and thus recording a unique revelation to Abraham, it is undoubtedly true
that they are facsimilies of "a series of documents which were the common
property of a whole nation of people." It does not affect the importance
of the facsimilies , therefore, if they belong to a period centuries later
than that of Abraham.18
On the question of the original language of the Book of Abraham, as John
A. Widtsoe pithily asked, "Who says or has said that Abraham wrote the
Book of Abraham in Egyptian?"19 Since the papyri themselves were written
in Egyptian, that is certainly one of the languages we must consider, but
if the papyri are not autographic documents, then the great passage of time
from the age of Abraham to the date of the papyri hardly makes an Egyptian
composition of the book a foregone conclusion. Widtsoe sensed that the answer
to this question would probably lie in a careful reading of the Book of Abraham
itself, which the experts generally ignored.20
When a previously unknown book from antiquity is discovered, scholars do
not simply assume that the book was originally composed in the language in
which the book happens to be extant. They do not, for instance, assume that
the Apocalypse of Abraham was composed in Old Slavonic just because that is
the language in which the text happens to be preserved. Rather, they examine
the book carefully for clues as to its language of composition. Sjodahl made
the very sensible and perfectly obvious observation that Abraham was a Semite
whose native language would have been Semitic.21
Much of the material in the Book of Abraham has nothing to do with Egypt.
Further, I believe that a careful study of the Book of Abraham itself would
likely highlight the book’s profoundly Semitic character. In my view, the
autographic assumptions are incorrect.22
It seems much more likely to me that, if Abraham composed the original text
from which the Book of Abraham derives, then
- Abraham may have composed the text in a Semitic language. Whether this would
have been an East Semitic language, presumably some form of Akkadian (the
Semitic lingua franca of its day), or a West Semitic language, presumably
some sort of early Canaanite dialect (analogous to Ugaritic), is difficult
to say. It certainly would not have been composed in Hebrew, which did not
really come into existence as such until about 1200 B.C. Abraham may have
written his text in cuneiform in a medium suitable to that type of writing,
such as clay tablets.
- Between the time of Abraham’s composition of the text and the early second
century B.C. (or first century A.D.) papyrus copies that later would come
into Joseph Smith’s possession, there was a transmission of the text. This
may have included versional translation into Egyptian and, possibly, other
languages (such as Hebrew), scribal copying, and, possibly, redaction of the
- The facsimiles may not have originated with Abraham; rather, they may have
become associated with the Book of Abraham as part of the redaction and transmission
of the text. This last point will require some further explanation.
To a great extent I believe that Mormon scholars have correctly rejected
the false premises of the autographic assumptions on which Spalding’s attack
was based. But in one very important respect, both critics and too many defenders
myopically have continued to look at the facsimiles in much the same way that
Spalding and his Egyptologists did. The standard to which Spalding wanted
to hold Joseph’s interpretations of the facsimiles was whether they accorded
with what the facsimiles meant to modern Egyptologists. Mormon scholars have
refined this standard somewhat, by asking also what the facsimiles would have
meant to an ancient Egyptian.24 Now, what the facsimiles mean to modern Egyptologists
and what they would have meant to ancient Egyptians are both important, necessary
questions to ask, and studies along these lines must continue. Nevertheless,
it seems to me that they should represent the ultimate question only if we
accept Spalding’s premise that Abraham drew the facsimiles and was in every
respect their creator and author. But what if Abraham did not draw the facsimiles?
What if they already existed and were either adopted or adapted by an Egyptian-Jewish
redactor as illustrations of the attempt on Abraham’s life and Abraham’s teaching
astronomy to the Egyptians? (For convenience, I shall refer to this hypothetical
Jewish redactor as "J-red.") In this case, the facsimiles would
have both an Egyptian context (reflecting the religious purpose for which
they were originally created by the Egyptians) and a Semitic context (reflecting
the religious purpose for which they were adopted25
or adapted by J-red).26 Thus, the ultimate question would not be
"What do the facsimiles mean to modern Egyptologists?" nor "What
would the facsimiles have meant to an ancient Egyptian?" but rather "What
would the facsimiles have meant to J-red?"
We have a tendency when looking at the facsimiles to think of Abraham as
well schooled and articulate in Egyptian religion, as if he were some sort
of an Egyptian priest. But this is only an assumption. Although according
to the biblical canon Abraham visited Egypt, we do not even know whether he
learned the Egyptian language, much less became knowledgeable in the Egyptian
mysteries. The attempt to sacrifice Abraham did not take place in Egypt, and
Abraham received his revelation of the heavens outside of Egypt. When Abraham
finally did go to Egypt due to famine, he taught the Egyptians astronomy.
But note that Abraham was the one doing the teaching, not vice versa. For
all we know, he may have communicated with the Egyptians in his own language
Defenders of the Book of Abraham have
long sought to understand Joseph’s explanations of the facsimiles in terms
of conventional Egyptian religious interpretations. Again, for reasons that
will become clear below, I believe that this activity is appropriate and necessary,
as far as it goes. But what if we were to take this activity to its logical
conclusion: suppose we were to succeed in showing that Joseph’s explanations
in every way matched those of the Egyptians themselves? That might (or might
not) satisfy the critics, but then what would be their religious value to
us? Do we worship Atum-Re? Should we revive the Egyptian cultus? It seems
to me that these documents have religious value to us only if they are reinterpreted
in accordance with Semitic sensibilities as applying to events in the life
I suggest that as part of the redaction of the text, J-red (our hypothetical
Egyptian-Jewish redactor) adopted or adapted vignettes from a Book of Breathings
and a hypocephalus as illustrations for the Book of Abraham. In co-opting the
papyri to a new purpose, this person reinterpreted them in accordance with Semitic
religious sensibilities and the requirements of the Abraham story. Therefore,
the Egyptian material in the facsimiles has been refracted through a Semitic
prism. It is only by viewing the facsimiles through a Semitic lens that we can
clearly see how the explanations relate to the figures.
The Instructions of Amenemope
In very general terms, Jewish cultural
and religious adaptation of Egyptian materials may be illustrated by the parallels
between the Instructions of Amenemope and portions of the book of Proverbs.
The Instructions of Amenemope is a collection of wise sayings written in Egypt
during the New Kingdom (1550—1069 B.C.) and first published by E. A. Wallis
Budge in 1923.27 The papyrus was found inside a statue of Osiris from
a tomb in Thebes. Another fragmentary copy was discovered and published in
and additional copies are known from writing boards in the Turin Museum, the
Pushkin Museum in Moscow, and the Louvre.29
Budge mentioned a couple of parallels between Amenemope and Proverbs, but it
was a later article published by Adolf Erman in 1924 that really drew the attention
of scholars to such parallels.30 A tremendous
amount of scholarly ink has been spilled since that time attempting to articulate
the relationship between the two texts. Most scholars see Proverbs as dependent
on either Amenemope or a common source; a small minority argues that the dependence
goes the other way; and some scholars argue that there is no connection and
that the similarities are to be explained by polygenesis.31
I would agree with the majority of scholars that Proverbs depends, whether directly
or indirectly, on Amenemope (or a common source). These parallels are well accepted.
The standard scholar’s edition of the Hebrew Bible, in the Latin notation system
of its critical apparatus, makes a number of references comparing the Hebrew
to the doctrina Amenemope.32
A synopsis of the relationship between the two texts follows this article.33
Now to an illustration of a Semitic adaptation of an Egyptian source that
is of more specific relevance to the Book of Abraham. A number of Latter-day
Saint scholars have commented on the parallels between the Book of Abraham
on the one hand and both the Testament of Abraham and
the Apocalypse of Abraham on the other. It is not my intention to revisit those
parallels; rather, I will focus here on one particular scene from the Testament of Abraham
and later on one particular aspect of the Apocalypse of Abraham.
First, a brief introduction to the Testament is in order. The Testament of Abraham was probably composed in Greek34
and most likely dates to first century (A.D.)35
Egypt.36 The text exists in two main
recensions, the longer called Recension A and the shorter Recension B.37
Both recensions exist in a handful of Greek manuscripts and a Romanian version;
Recension B also exists in Slavonic, Coptic, Arabic, and Ethiopic versions.
The Testament of Abraham tells the story of how when Abraham had lived
the full measure of his mortal existence, God sent the archangel Michael—his
"commander in chief"38—to
inform Abraham so that he might arrange his affairs prior to his death. Abraham
refuses to follow Michael, however, and desires a tour of the whole inhabited
world before he dies. Michael and Abraham survey the world in a divine chariot,
and whenever Abraham sees someone sinning he asks for the sinner to be struck
down. God then puts an end to the tour, since his own practice is to be patient
with sinners in order to give them an opportunity to repent. Abraham is then
shown the judgment, which is the scene we will examine in some detail below.
Abraham repents of his harshness, and the sinners who had been struck down at
his request are restored to life. Abraham, however, still refuses to follow
Michael. So God sends Death, who, by a deception, gets Abraham’s soul to accompany
him, whence he returns39 to the presence
For our purposes, the critical part of the story is the judgment scene. As
recounted in Recension A, Abraham sees two fiery-looking angels driving myriad
souls to judgment. The judgment hall is situated between a narrow gate for
the use of the righteous and a broad gate for the wicked. In the judgment
hall there is a terrifying throne, and seated on the throne is a wondrous
man, with an appearance like unto a son of God. In front of this figure is
a crystal-like table, covered with gold and fine linen. Resting on the table
is a book. On either side of the table are angels holding papyrus and ink.
In front of the table is a light-bearing angel holding a balance, and on his
left is a fiery angel holding a trumpet full of fire. The man on the throne
judges the souls. The two angels with papyrus record; the one on the right
records the deceased’s righteous deeds, and the one on the left records sins.
The angel with the balance weighs the souls, and the fiery angel tries them
with fire. Michael informs Abraham that this scene represents judgment and
Abraham asks Michael specifically who all of these figures are and is informed
that the judge seated upon the throne is Abel, who judges men until the Parousia
(second coming). At the Parousia, everyone is to be judged by the twelve tribes
of Israel, and, finally, God himself shall judge all men, so that the judgment
may be established by three witnesses. Michael tells Abraham that the angels
on the right and left record righteous deeds and sins. The sunlike (ηλιμορφο heliomorphos) angel holding the balance is the archangel Dokiel,40
the righteous balance-bearer, who weighs the righteous deeds and sins. The fiery
angel who tests the works of men with fire is the archangel Purouel.41
Everything is tested both by fire and by balance.
In the shorter Recension B, which lacks most of this detail, there is only
one recorder, who is identified as Enoch.
This scene is significant because it is widely recognized42 as having been influenced by an Egyptian
psychostasy ("soul weighing") papyrus, which is related to chapter
125 of the Book of the Dead. It may even be that the author was gazing on
such a psychostasy papyrus as he penned this account. But while there is a
clear relationship between the Egyptian psychostasy scene and the judgment
scene of the Testament of Abraham, the scene has been transformed to accord with Semitic
needs and sensibilities. Osiris has become Abel; the Egyptian gods have become
angels. Our author looks at the Egyptian illustration, yet sees a situation
peopled with Semitic characters. I suggest that this scene establishes a paradigm
for understanding the facsimiles to the Book of Abraham: "As is the vignette
for chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead to the Testament of Abraham,
so are the facsimiles to the Book of Abraham."
This paradigm can, I believe, best be appreciated by means of an allegory.
Imagine that, instead of the Book of Abraham, Joseph Smith translated and
published a book called the Testament of Abraham, which
roughly corresponds to the Testament of Abraham as we know it. Further, imagine that, although the
authentic and genuinely ancient, no papyrus copy of it has yet been discovered,
so the Latter-day Saints accept it on faith while their critics dismiss it
as a fantasy. Suppose that together with the text of the Testament, Joseph published
a facsimile of an Egyptian psychostasy papyrus as an illustration of the judgment
scene. For convenience we will refer to this as "Facsimile P" (for
psychostasy). (This facsimile looks something like the psychostasy papyrus
from the Joseph Smith collection, Joseph Smith Papyri III.) Now, suppose that,
together with Facsimile P, Joseph published certain explanations of numbered
figures in the facsimile. Without trying to reproduce the full text of what
his explanations might have been, below is the substance of them:
- Represents righteous Abel, the son of Adam, whom wicked Cain slew, and who
sits on a throne of judgment. Abel judges the entire creation, examining both
the righteous and sinners. [Referring to the seated Osiris figure on the throne.]
- The balance of judgment, in which the souls of the dead are weighed against
God’s righteousness. [Referring to the scales.]
- Represents Dokiel, the righteous balance-bearer, who weighs dead men’s souls.
[Referring to the Anubis figure on one side of the scales.]
- Represents Purouel, who tries men’s deeds by fire. [Referring to the Horus
figure on the other side of the scales.]
- Enoch, the scribe of righteousness, recording both the good deeds and the
sins of the dead in the Book of Life. [Referring to the Thoth figure.]
- An angel of the Lord. [Referring to the Maat figure.]
- The soul being presented for judgment. [Referring to the figure representing
After the publication of this Testament, some seventy years elapse, and Franklin Spalding submits
Facsimile P to a group of Egyptologists, together with the proffered explanations.
The Egyptologists promptly declare the interpretations to be "bosh."43 The Egyptologists refuse even to allow Joseph
any lucky guesses, as might be suggested by the explanations that are closest
to their Egyptian counterparts, figures 2 and 7. These Egyptologists aver
that figure 1 represents Osiris, not the biblical Abel. In figure 3, the name
Dokiel is clearly not Egyptian, this being a reference to the Egyptian god
Anubis. In figure 4, not only is Purouel not an Egyptian name, it appears
to be an inept amalgam of Hebrew and Greek, showing that only an ignorant
knave like this Joseph Smith fellow could have coined it. The figure actually
represents the Egyptian god Horus. Figure 5 does not represent the biblical
Enoch but rather the Egyptian god Thoth, and figure 6 is not "the angel
of the Lord," but the Egyptian goddess Maat.
The Saints of this hypothetical situation,
stunned by these disclosures, scramble for answers. A big debate ensues, the
results of which are inconclusive. Over time, defenders of the church claim
that the explanations are "generally" consistent with Egyptological
understanding, while critics discount any "lucky guesses" and characterize
Joseph’s explanations as completely incorrect and made up.
And so the matter sits. Now, from our perspective outside of this hypothetical,
we can see that people are looking at Facsimile P as if they were in Plato’s
cave, forced to view mere shadows on a wall. From where we sit, however, we
can see clearly that Joseph’s explanations are completely correct. The Egyptologists
are also correct enough, but only as to the meaning of Facsimile P in its
Egyptian context. But Facsimile P has another, a Semitic context,
as an illustration of the Testament of Abraham. That context
cannot be appreciated by studying Facsimile P in isolation (which leads to the
tendency to think of it in purely Egyptian terms); rather, the facsimile must
be considered together with the text it purports to illustrate, the Testament
of Abraham. When viewed in that light, the plausibility of Joseph’s explanations
is made manifest. If, by some chance, an actual manuscript of the Testament
were to be discovered in this hypothetical situation, the mystery would be completely
solved, and the people would be able to see clearly (as do we) just how Joseph’s
explanations relate to the facsimile.
From this allegory we can see why it is important to continue to study the
Egyptian background of the facsimiles. We have no way of knowing to what extent
J-red based his use of the facsimiles on their Egyptian meaning; it is only
by careful study of the Egyptian context of the facsimiles that we can determine
how much Egyptian content is to be found in the explanations. The reason scholars
are able to recognize the Egyptian influence in the Testament of Abraham psychostasy
scene is that enough Egyptian elements are present for the connection to be
drawn. But we can also see why studying only the Egyptian context of the facsimiles
will never yield a complete explanation of the significance of Joseph’s interpretations.
We need to be able to look at them the way J-red did, as Semitized illustrations
of the Book of Abraham. When we see them from this perspective, our vision gains
clarity, and the facsimiles and Joseph’s interpretations come into focus.
Another example of Egyptian material being refracted through a Semitic lens
is provided by the story of the rich man and Lazarus, which is recounted in
There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen,
and fared sumptuously every day: And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus,
which was laid at his gate, full of sores, And desiring to be fed with the
crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked
his sores. And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the
angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; And in
hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and
Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on
me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and
cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. But Abraham said, Son, remember
that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus
evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. And beside all
this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would
pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come
from thence. Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest
send him to my father’s house: For I have five brethren; that he may testify
unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment. Abraham saith unto
him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. And he said, Nay,
father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.
And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will
they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.
In his important study of this passage, Hugo Gressmann44
suggested that Luke’s account was based on a popular Jewish version, perhaps
written in Hebrew, of an Egyptian story. Neither the Egyptian original nor the
Jewish version of that original has survived; nevertheless, their existence
can be inferred from other documents that do exist. The popular Jewish version
can be deduced from seven late rabbinic splinters; these texts almost certainly
do not derive directly from the Gospel of Luke. The Egyptian original
is hypothesized based on the Demotic story of Setna, described below.45
To analogize the relationship among these texts in genealogical terms, the Egyptian
original is like a grandfather, and the popular Jewish version a father, to
the account in Luke. The story of Setna is a kind of uncle to the Lucan account,
and the seven rabbinic splinters are nieces and nephews of sorts.
The Demotic story of Setna is known from a single papyrus manuscript in the
British Museum (Pap. DCIV).46 It was
written on the back of two Greek business documents, one of which was dated
in the seventh year of Claudius (A.D.
46—47). We can therefore suggest that the Demotic story was written
sometime during the next half century, or roughly A.D. 50—100. According to the story, the magicians of
Egypt were challenged by an Ethiopian sorcerer, but no Egyptian was able to
best the challenger. So an Egyptian in Amnte, the abode of the dead, prayed
in the presence of Osiris, the ruler of Amnte, to return to the land of the
living. Osiris commanded that he should, and so the man, though dead for centuries,
was reincarnated as the miraculous offspring of a childless couple and given
the name Si-Osiris ("Son of Osiris"). Eventually, when the boy turned
twelve, he dealt with the foreign sorcerer and then vanished from Earth.
The part of the story that is relevant
to Luke 16 takes place while the boy is growing up. One day the boy and his
father see two funerals: first, that of a rich man, shrouded in fine linen,
loudly lamented and abundantly honored; then, that of a poor man, wrapped
in a straw mat, unaccompanied and unmourned. The father says that he would
rather have the lot of the rich man than that of the pauper. Little Si-Osiris,
however, impertinently contradicts his father’s wish with an opposite one:
"May it be done to you in Amnte as it is done in Amnte to this pauper
and not as it is done to this rich man in Amnte!" In order to justify
himself, the boy takes his earthly father on a tour of Amnte.
Si-Osiris leads his father through the seven classified halls of Amnte. The
dead are assigned to one of the halls depending on the merits and demerits
of their mortal lives. In the fifth hall they see a man in torment, the pivot
of the door being fixed in his right eye socket, because of which he grievously
laments. In the seventh they see Osiris enthroned, the ruler of Amnte, and
near him a man clothed in fine linen and evidently of very high rank. Si-Osiris
identifies the finely clad man as the miserably buried pauper and the tormented
one as the sumptuously buried rich man. The reason for this disparate treatment
is that, at the judgment, the good deeds of the pauper outweighed the bad,
but with the rich man the opposite was true. Now the father is able to understand
the filial wish of Si-Osiris.
Once again we are able to see how the Egyptian story has been transformed in
Semitic dress. The angels of the Lucan account appear to be an instrumentality
substituted for Horus (or the falcon of Horus).47
The "bosom of Abraham" represents Amnte, the Egyptian abode of the
dead. And, most remarkably, Abraham is a Jewish substitute for the pagan god
Osiris—just as is the case in Facsimiles 1 and 3. These relationships
are summarized in a chart following the article.
The Hypocephalus in the Apocalypse of Abraham
A kind of companion text to the Testament of Abraham is
the Apocalypse of Abraham. Like the Testament, the Apocalypse dates to the
first or second century A.D.
It tells the story of how Abraham in his youth perceived that idols were simply
creations of men and not really gods. After leaving his father’s house, Abraham
is commanded to offer a sacrifice so that God will reveal great things to
him. God sends his angel Iaoel48 to
take Abraham on a tour of heaven, during which he sees seven visions. The
text is only extant in a number of medieval Old Slavonic manuscripts, but
scholars have deduced from the presence of Hebrew names, words, and phrases,
as well as other Hebraisms (such as the use of the positive for the comparative),
that the text was most likely originally composed in Hebrew, in which event
the probable provenance of the text was Palestine.49
Michael Rhodes describes what appear to be possible allusions to a hypocephalus
in the Apocalypse of Abraham.50
During his vision Abraham is shown "the fulness of the whole world and
its circle," which appears to be a description of a hypocephalus. This
vision includes the plan of the universe, "what is in the heavens, on the
earth, in the sea, and in the abyss," which are very close to the words
used in the left middle portion of the Joseph Smith hypocephalus. The Apocalypse
also includes a description of four fiery living creatures, each with four
faces: that of a lion, a man, an ox, and an eagle. This is almost certainly
a Semitic transformation of the Sons of Horus (via Ezekiel 1—2), which
are represented as figure 6 of Facsimile 2.51
These relationships are also summarized in a chart following the article.
Having articulated this view of the relationship of the facsimiles to the
Book of Abraham, we are now in a position to compare and contrast the views
set forth by Stephen Thompson in his article entitled "Egyptology and
the Book of Abraham."52 Thompson’s
article is, in essence, a more up-to-date and sophisticated version of the
Egyptologists’ reports included in Spalding’s pamphlet. I believe that it
was necessary for someone to try to set forth in a clear way what contemporary
Egyptology makes of the facsimiles. Thompson’s article serves this function,
thus ultimately advancing the cause of truth.
Thompson quotes Michael Rhodes as stating that "the Prophet’s explanations
of each of the facsimiles accord with present understanding of Egyptian religious
practice."53 Thompson’s burden is to prove this statement
untrue. Actually, I would agree with Thompson that, without qualification,
the statement as it stands is overbroad. Unfortunately, Thompson lacks any
sense of balance, and his own treatment of the facsimiles is excessively narrow.
For instance, Thompson disallows Joseph’s explanation of the four sons of
Horus in Facsimile 2, figure 6, as representing the "earth in its four
quarters" on the grounds that the sons of Horus never bear that meaning
in a funerary context.54 I frankly find this to be an astonishingly
restrictive reading.55 I have difficulty
seeing how Thompson can refuse to give Joseph even partial credit for this
explanation. In any event, I would deny that the Joseph Smith hypocephalus
(as reinterpreted by J-red) even has a funerary context, so ultimately for
me Thompson’s reading is moot.
Thompson gives the Egyptian context for Facsimile 1, figures 12 and 11. Figure
12, which Joseph took as "designed to represent the pillars of heaven,"
is in fact a palace facade called a serekh.56
Figure 11, which Joseph took as "raukeeyang, signifying expanse or firmament
over our heads, but in this case, in relation to this subject, the Egyptians
meant it to signify Shaumau, to be high, or the heavens, answering to the Hebrew
word Shaumahyeem," are simply waters in which the crocodile (figure 9),
representing the god Horus, swims. The waters appear to be above the palace
facade, but this is simply an illusion resulting from the perspective used in
Egyptian art. Everything above the facade is to be understood as occurring behind
While this is a useful summary of the
Egyptian context of these figures, it does not address what I view as the
ultimate question: "Do Joseph’s explanations make sense as reflecting
of the scene?" I believe the answer to this question is a very strong
yes. In Hebrew cosmology, the raqîa’ or "firmament" was believed
to be a solid dome, supported by pillars.57 The
raqîa’ in turn was closely associated
with the celestial ocean, which it supported.58
In the lower half of Facsimile 1, we have the raqîa’ (1) connected with the
waters, as with the celestial ocean, (2) appearing to be supported by pillars,
and (3) being solid and therefore capable of serving itself as a support,
in this case for the lion couch. The bottom half of Facsimile 1 would have
looked to J-red very much like a microcosm of the universe (in much the same
way that the divine throne chariot of Ezekiel 1—2, which associates
the four four-faced fiery living creatures with the raqîa’ above their heads on which God sits enthroned, is
a microcosm of the universe). The Egyptian artist’s perspective is not necessarily
a limitation on J-red. The stacking effect of waters apparently both being
supported and acting as a support would have suggested to J-red the Hebrew
conception of the raqîa’.
Joseph also took Facsimile 2, figure 4 (the mummiform hawk with outspread wings
in a boat) as a representation of the raqîa’, the figure answering "to
the Hebrew word Raukeeyang, signifying expanse, or the firmament of the heavens,
also a numerical figure, in Egyptian signifying one thousand." The Book
of Abraham uses two alternative English words to translate raqîa': firmament,
which highlights its solidity, and expanse. English expanse
derives from Latin expandere, "to spread out"; this translation highlights
the verbal root from which raqîa’ derives, raqîa’ which means "to
spread out (from beating)," and from there simply "to spread out."
I would suggest that to J-red, the outspread wings of the mummiform hawk made
for a very natural representation of the rq’.59
In the middle section of his article, Thompson argues against any possibility
that the Book of Abraham is a holographic document. Given that Abraham lived
in the Middle Bronze Age and that the Joseph Smith Papyri date to Ptolemaic
(or Roman) times, Thompson is certainly correct on this point. He quotes Paul
Hoskisson, who in an otherwise excellent article writes that "the content
of the Book of Abraham did not pass through numerous revisions, the hands
of countless scribes."60 This statement appears to be based on an
assumption that the source for the Book of Abraham was an autographic original.
Contra Hoskisson, as I have expressed above, I believe it likely that the
Book of Abraham did undergo a textual transmission in antiquity. As a concrete
example, I would read the back references to Facsimile 1 at Abraham 1:12b
and 14 as glosses that would have been added to the text only at the time
it was first appended to a scroll containing a Book of Breathings, if in fact
that is what happened.61 Thompson
is unwilling to allow this possibility, because in his view the pronoun "I"
in verse 12 ("I will refer you to the representation at the commencement
of the record") must have been written by Abraham.62 This
insistence on Thompson’s part is naive at best; certainly anyone familiar
with critical scholarship regarding biblical redaction would not doubt the
willingness of a scribe to make such a clarification in words as if from the
perspective of an ancient prophet. Deleting these back references not only
would do no harm to the flow and sense of the text, it would actually improve
Thompson draws three conclusions, which correspond to the three parts of his
article. First, he concludes that Joseph Smith’s interpretations of the facsimiles
are not in agreement with the meanings these figures had in their original,
funerary context. I can agree with that statement to a certain extent, although
I cannot entirely agree with what I view as Thompson’s unduly restrictive handling
of the evidence. Second, he concludes that anachronisms in the text of the book
make it impossible that it was translated from a text penned by Abraham himself
(i.e., without an ancient transmission); based on the dating of the papyri,
I would concur that the source text was not a holographic original. Third, Thompson
concludes that what we know about the relationship between Egypt and Asia renders
the account of the attempted sacrifice of Abraham extremely implausible. Although
this third conclusion is beyond the scope of this article, I disagree with it.
I see the cult described in the story as being Syro-Palestinian, not Egyptian.63
We have reviewed the history of criticism
of the facsimiles, beginning with the Spalding pamphlet, and concurred with
the early reviewers of the pamphlet in rejecting the autographic assumptions.
We showed how the facsimiles can have both an Egyptian context and a Semitic
context and how Joseph’s explanations for the most part could relate to the
Semitic context of the figures as illustrations of the Book of Abraham.64
In briefly reviewing Stephen Thompson’s update to Spalding’s pamphlet, we
agreed that Joseph’s interpretations do not fully reflect the original, funerary
context of the facsimiles, and we further agreed that the papyrus copy that
came into Joseph’s possession was not an Abrahamic holograph. (We disagreed,
however, with Thompson’s reading of the cult in Abraham 1 as necessarily having
been predominantly Egyptian in nature.)
In considering the significance of the theory articulated in this paper,
for convenience of reference we shall refer to it as the "Semitic Adaptation"
theory. What are the disadvantages of positing the Semitic Adaptation theory?
Very few that I can see. This theory entails the rejection of the autographic
assumptions, which some Saints might wish to cling to as a more traditional
understanding, but it seems to me that the early date of Abraham in the Middle
Bronze Age coupled with the late date of the papyri in Ptolemaic (or later)
times requires a rejection of the autographic assumptions in any event. The
only way to salvage those assumptions would either be to assert that Nibley,
Gee, and the non-LDS Egyptologists who have examined the question are all
wrong in their dating of the papyri or to assert that the source for the Book
of Abraham was not on the roll containing Facsimiles 1 and 3 (since that roll
has been dated) and indeed was almost 4,000 years old, notwithstanding that
the other papyrus materials in the cache were only about 2,200 years old.
I would reject any such attempt to salvage the autographic assumptions.
Inasmuch as clinging to the autographic assumptions, in my judgment, is not
a serious option, the only other potential cause for concern I can see is
that the Semitic Adaptation theory posits an ancient transmission of the text,
including redaction. I can understand the desire of some to posit a text that
came to Joseph directly from Abraham’s hand without any intermediaries, unsullied
by scribal hands. But unless we can place either the papyri in the Middle
Bronze Age or Abraham in the Ptolemaic era, neither of which is going to happen,
it seems to me that we are constrained to acknowledge that at least one copy
of the original Abrahamic text was made. And once we acknowledge that the
text was copied and that there is about a 1,700-year time gap between Abraham’s
original and that late copy, it seems to me that we are then constrained to
consider the very real possibility of a transmission of the text in antiquity.
A comparison with the Book of Mormon might be instructive here. The gold
plates were untouched by human hands from the time Moroni deposited them in
a stone box in the fifth century A.D. until Joseph’s retrieval of the cache in 1827. Prior to
that time, however, the records of the Book of Mormon peoples underwent an
express redaction process at the hands of Mormon and Moroni. Similarly, the
papyrus source for the Book of Abraham sat untouched from the time it was
deposited in the tomb during the Greco-Roman age until Lebolo retrieved it.
Before that time, though, it circulated among people and was subject to normal
transmission processes. My hypothetical redactor, J-red, was in essentially
the same position with respect to the Book of Abraham as Mormon was with respect
to the Book of Mormon. The difference is that we know of Mormon and his influence
on the text, whereas the existence of J-red is hypothetical and his identity
unknown. In this respect the Book of Abraham is more like the Bible, which
certainly has undergone redaction processes (even if one rejects the large
redactional theories, such as the Documentary Hypothesis, the multiple authorship
of Isaiah, or the existence of Q) by nameless redactors. But the fact that
the Bible experienced such processes does not interfere with our ability to
accept it as scripture. In the case of the Book of Abraham, that it was translated
and put forward by a modern prophet should be sufficient to ease any qualms
one might have about the effects of an unknown redactor on the text.
The disadvantages to the Semitic Adaptation theory in my view are negligible,
yet the explanatory power of that theory is substantial. Note in particular
- Based on present knowledge, the facsimiles appear to be vignettes that should
date to a period of Egyptian history substantially (i.e., more than a millennium)
removed from the time of Abraham. There is, therefore, an inherent dating
anachronism involved in ascribing the facsimiles to Abraham. The traditional
argument would appear to entail that Abraham created these vignettes, and,
more than a millennium later, the Egyptians began to adapt Abraham’s creation
to their own religious purposes. The Semitic Adaptation theory, by allowing
separate provenances for the text of the Book of Abraham and its facsimiles,
and by allowing the facsimiles to have their origin for Egyptian religious
purposes, resolves this issue by permitting the adaptation to flow in the
- The extent to which Joseph Smith’s explanations of the facsimiles accord
with present Egyptological knowledge is debated. Generally, non-LDS Egyptologists
who have examined the question have maintained either that the explanations
are completely wrong or that they are mostly wrong, with perhaps a few lucky
guesses. Understandably, LDS scholars have pressed hard in the other direction,
articulating ways in which the explanations can be seen as consistent with
Egyptological understanding. As a faithful Latter-day Saint, I am in general
sympathetic to the observations along these lines made by LDS scholars. Nevertheless,
even putting such efforts in their best light, there remain substantial disconnects
between the proffered explanations and those of the Egyptologists. The Semitic
Adaptation theory fully explains why such disconnects exist. Under this theory,
the Egyptologists are no longer the final arbiters of the correctness of the
explanations of the facsimiles.
- A substantial part of the debate over the facsimiles has revolved around
whether the facsimiles were incorrectly restored. While I expect that these
debates will continue, ultimately the Semitic Adaptation theory moots the
question. That is, for example, even if the priest standing to the left on
Facsimile 1 were wearing the jackal mask of Anubis and did not hold a knife
in his hand, it still would have been quite natural for J-red to perceive
the scene as showing the attempted sacrifice of Abraham. Therefore, under
this theory the details of the reconstruction of the facsimiles become largely
immaterial vis-à-vis the explanations of the figures.
- I believe the Semitic Adaptation theory has the potential to put the "missing
papyrus" theory on a sounder footing. John Gee has suggested that there
may have been another text on the roll containing the Book of Breathings.
The Semitic Adaptation theory explains why the text of the Book of
Abraham may have been appended to a Book of Breathings: because J-red intended
to adapt the vignettes of the Book of Breathings as illustrations for his
text, the Book of Abraham. This placement of the text would also explain why
the back-references to Facsimile 1 as being at "the commencement of this
record" and at "the beginning" (which were meant to refer to
the beginning of the scroll, not the beginning of the book) may have been
misunderstood and led those involved in the production of the Kirtland Egyptian
Papers, in their attempt to reverse engineer the Egyptian language, to begin
with the Book of Breathings itself at the beginning of the scroll.
- The Semitic Adaptation theory, by allowing for an ancient transmission of
the text, takes the Book of Abraham seriously as an ancient book. That a 4,000-year-old
papyrus was commingled among a cache of 2,200-year-old papyri would be a most
difficult proposition to accept. Some acknowledge that the papyrus source
of the Book of Abraham is a copy, thus at least nominally rejecting the autographic
assumptions, yet continue to be influenced by those assumptions. They therefore
seem to want to see the Abrahamic original as drawn with brush and ink on
papyrus in Hieratic Egyptian, together with the facsimiles, which papyri then
sat untouched for over 1,500 years until they were finally copied—once—and
the copy was deposited in a tomb in Thebes. This is not a realistic picture
of the history of the text. In my view, allowing for a transmission of the
text (including copying, translation, and redaction) is a more realistic means
of getting a text from the Semitic, nonnative Egyptian Abraham in the Middle
Bronze Age to an Egyptian papyrus in the Ptolemaic era.
- Thompson posits a number of anachronisms to Abraham’s day in the Book of
Abraham. As things stand, we would appear to have three choices when faced
with a purported anachronism in the text: (a) deny that the anachronism exists
and assert that, although it has not yet been attested in an extant source,
the posited characteristic does indeed date back to the Middle Bronze Age;
(b) acknowledge the anachronism, but assign it to Joseph Smith as a translator’s
anachronism, which does not in and of itself compromise the Book of Abraham
as a translation of an ancient source; or (c) acknowledge the anachronism
and assign it to Joseph Smith as the modern author of the text. The Semitic
Adaptation theory, by suggesting that the text underwent an ancient transmission,
allows a fourth option: that we acknowledge the anachronism but assign it
to an ancient redactor.
- We have pointed to general processes of Semitic adaptation of Egyptian texts
and iconography. We have also identified three specific examples that date
to Greco-Roman times (the same general time period during which the Joseph
Smith Papyri were produced), all of which relate in some way to Abraham. Under
traditional theories this evidence is of limited relevance, since it dates
almost two millennia after the time of Abraham. Under the Semitic Adaptation
theory, however, this evidence now comes from the right time period to say
something meaningful about the ancient production of the Book of Abraham and
its facsimiles. Under that theory, this evidence is transformed from late
(and therefore relatively weak) evidence to becoming a powerful illustration
of how Jews during this time period adapted Egyptian sources to their own
purposes. The adaptation of an Egyptian psychostasy vignette from chapter
125 of the Book of the Dead in the judgment scene of the Testament of
Abraham, the adaptation of the Egyptian original underlying the Demotic
Story of Setna in a Jewish popular version (replacing Osiris with Abraham),
and the adaptation of a hypocephalus in the Apocalypse of Abraham
provide a stunning glimpse of how J-red, living and working in the same era,
may have adapted vignettes from a Book of Breathings and a hypocephalus as
illustrations of the Book of Abraham, which had come under his care as a part
of the ancient transmission of the text. In my view, the Semitic Adaptation
theory turns the facsimiles and their interpretations from a perceived weakness
of the Book of Abraham into a real strength.
Synopsis of Relationship between Amenemope and Proverbs
1. 3/9—11, 16
Appeal to hear
Purpose of instruction
Learning a worthy response
Do not rob a wretch
Avoid friendship with violent
Lest a trap ruin you
Do not remove landmarks
Skillful scribes will be courtiers
Eat cautiously before an official
Wealth flies away like an eagle/geese
Do not eat a stingy person’s
Do not speak before just anyone
Do not remove landmarks of widows
Rescue the condemned
Semitic Transformations from the Vignette to Chapter 125 of the Book
of the Dead to the Judgment (Psychostasy) Scene of the Testament of Abraham
Enoch or an angel
Semitic Transformations from Hypothetical Egyptian Original Underlying
the Demotic Story of Setna to the Deducible Jewish Popular Version (from which
the Lucan Account of the Rich Man and Lazarus Descends)
Bosom of Abraham
3. Horus (or falcon of Horus)
Semitic Transformations from a Hypocephalus to the Apocalypse of
1. A circular disk representing
the upper world and the netherworld
Abraham is shown "the fulness
of the whole world and its circle"
2. "O Mighty God, Lord
of heaven and earth, of the hereafter, and of his great waters"
[from Facsimile 2, left middle]
Abraham is shown "what
is in the heavens, on the earth, in the sea, and in the abyss"
3. Four Sons of Horus
A. Hapy [baboon]
B. Imsety [man]
C. Duamutef [jackal]
D. Qebehsenuf [falcon]
Four fiery living creatures,
each with four faces (via Ezekiel 1—2)
Lion [or ox]
Ox [or lion]
1. See, for instance, H. Donl Peterson, "Antonio
Lebolo: Excavator of the Book of Abraham," BYU Studies 31/3 (1991):
9—11; H. Donl Peterson, The Story of the Book of Abraham: Mummies,
Manuscripts, and Mormonism (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1995), 36—42;
and John Gee, "A History of the Joseph Smith Papyri and Book of Abraham"
(FARMS paper, 1999), 1—3.
In the many volumes of E. F. Jomard, Description de l’Egypte, published between 1809 and 1813.
See Franklin S. Spalding, Joseph Smith, Jr., as a Translator (Salt Lake City: Arrow, 1912).
The inauguration of this stage of criticism was marked by a series of articles
in Dialogue 3/2 (1968), including John A. Wilson, "A Summary Report,"
67—85; Richard A. Parker, "The Joseph Smith Papyri: A Preliminary
Report," 86—88, and "The Book of Breathings (Fragment 1, the
‘Sensen’ Text, with Restorations from Louvre Papyrus 3284)," 98—99;
Richard P. Howard, "A Tentative Approach to the Book of Abraham Identified,"
92—98; and Hugh Nibley, "Phase One," 99—105; followed
by Klaus Baer, "Breathing Permit of Hor," 3/3 (1968): 109—34.
Issues related to the Sensen Papyrus are in general beyond the scope of this
essay. For a bibliography until 1992, see Adam D. Lamoreaux, "Pearl of
Great Price Bibliography" (FARMS paper, 1992).
B. H. Roberts, "A Plea in Bar of Final Conclusions," Improvement Era,
February 1913, 310; this is an expanded version of "Remarks on ‘Joseph Smith, Jr., as a Translator': A Plea in Bar of Final Conclusions,"
Salt Lake Tribune, 15 December 1912, 33.
Many of the responses appeared in the Deseret Evening News
therefore accessible only with great difficulty in barely legible microfilm
copies; fortunately, the more significant pieces were reprinted, sometimes
in expanded form, in the Improvement Era. Note in particular the following:
John Henry Evans, "Bishop Spalding’s Jumps in the Logical Process,"
Improvement Era, February 1913, 343—46; James
Edward Homans [Robert C. Webb, pseudo.], "A Critical Examination of the
Facsimiles in the Book of Abraham," Improvement Era, March 1913, 435—54, “Joseph Smith, Jr., as a Translator,” Improvement Era, May 1913, 691—702, "Truth
Seeking: Its Symptoms and After Effects," Improvement Era, September 1913, 1071—99, and "Have Joseph
Smith’s Interpretations Been Discredited?" Improvement Era, February 1914, 313—51; N. L. Nelson, "An
Open Letter to Bishop Spalding," Improvement Era, May 1913, 603—10; Frederick
J. Pack, "An Open Question to Dr. Spalding," Improvement Era, May 1913, 702—4, "The Spalding Argument,"
Improvement Era, February 1913, 333—41, "Dr. Pack to Dr.
Peters," Improvement Era, June 1913, 777—78, and "An Offshoot of
the Spalding Argument," Improvement Era, June 1913, 778—79; Isaac
Russell, "A Further Discussion of Bishop F. S. Spalding’s Pamplet,"
Improvement Era, September 1913, 1092—99; Janne M. Sjodahl, "The
Book of Abraham," Improvement Era, February 1913, 326—33, "The
Word ‘Kolob’," Improvement Era, April 1913, 620—22, and
"A Final Word," Improvement Era, September 1913, 1100—105;
Sterling B. Talmage, "A Letter and a Protest against Misrepresentation,"
Improvement Era, June 1913, 770—76; Junius F. Wells, "Scholars
Disagree," Improvement Era, February 1913, 341—43; John
A. Widtsoe, "Comments on the Spalding Pamphlet," Improvement Era, March 1913, 454—60, and "Widtsoe’s Reply
to Bishop F. S. Spalding," Improvement Era, April 1913, 616—19 [responding
to Franklin S. Spalding, "Rev. Spalding’s Answer to Dr. Widtsoe,"
Improvement Era, April 1913, 610—16]; Osborne
J. P. Widtsoe, "The Unfair Fairness of Rev. Spalding," Improvement Era, April 1913, 593—603; Levi Edgar Young, "’The
Book of the Dead,’" Improvement Era, February 1913, 346—48; and
Judge Richard W. Young, "Scientists Not Always Correct," Improvement Era, March 1913, 460—64. For a summary of this matter,
read Samuel A. B. Mercer, "Joseph Smith as an Interpreter and Translator
of Egyptian," Utah Survey 1/1 (1913): 4—36 (reprinted
by Modern Microfilm Co. and available from Jerald and Sandra Tanner) from
the critics’ side, and from the side of the Saints, Hugh W. Nibley, "A
New Look at the Pearl of Great Price," Improvement Era, which ran as a serial from January
1968 through May 1970. (In an ironic note, Mercer’s private Egyptological
library now sits on the shelves of the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU, primarily
in the Ancient Studies Room. I well remember seeing his name written into
the front covers of these volumes. On this acquisition, see Nibley, "A
New Look at the Pearl of Great Price," Improvement Era, May 1968, 55.)
in particular Osborne Widtsoe, "Unfair Fairness," and Nibley, "A
New Look at the Pearl of Great Price," Improvement Era, February 1968, 14—21.
in particular the discussions of this issue in Roberts, "Plea in Bar
of Final Conclusions"; Sjodahl, "Book of Abraham"; and Pack,
12. A theme
of several of the responses but best addressed by Nibley, "A New Look
at the Pearl of Great Price," Improvement Era,
April 1968, 64—69. Several sections of the series have been
reprinted in Hugh W. Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 2000).
observation was made and commented upon by many of the respondents, starting
with Roberts, "A Plea in Bar of Final Conclusions."
particular complaint of John A. Widtsoe, "Comments on the Spalding Pamphlet"
and "Dr. Widtsoe’s Reply to Rev. F. S. Spalding."
15. For Theodule Deveria’s early studies of the facsimiles,
see his "Specimen de l’Interpretation des Ecritures de l’ancien Egypte"
and "Fragments de Mss. Funeraires Egyptiens consideres par les Mormons
comme les memoires autographes d’Abraham," in Theodule Deveria: Memoires
et Fragments, ed. Gaston Maspero (Paris: Leroux, 1896), 165—202.
Deveria’s work first appeared in Jules Remy, Voyage au Pays des Mormons,
2 vols. (Paris: E. Dentu, 1860), which was translated into English in Jules
Remy and Julius Brenchley, A Journey to Great-Salt-Lake City, 2 vols.
(London: W. Jeffs, 1861), and republished by T. B. H. Stenhouse, The Rocky
Mountain Saints (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1873), 513—19. The
1903 correspondence of Henry Woodward and E. A. Wallis Budge is reproduced in
Wells, "Scholars Disagree."
famous taking to the woodshed of one generation by a later is to be found
in Nibley, "A New Look at the Pearl of Great Price," (January 1968):
23—24, under the subheading "The Mormons Default."
17. Homans [Webb], "A Critical Examination of
the Facsimiles," 440. The statement in the manuscript that the record was
written "by his own hand upon papyrus," and the apparent historical
allusion to Abraham’s "signature" being on the papyrus, seem to point
to an early belief in the papyri being autographic documents. These statements
appear to have been misunderstood; see Nibley, "A New Look at the Pearl
of Great Price" (February 1968): 18—21, under the subheading "Some
Basic Misconceptions"; John Gee, "Telling the Story of the Joseph
Smith Papyri," FARMS Review of Books 8/2 (1996): 53—54;
and Russell C. McGregor with Kerry A. Shirts, "Letters to an Anti-Mormon,"
Review of James R. White, Letters to a Mormon Elder, FARMS Review
of Books 11/1 (1999): 203—5. In my view, even if Joseph or other
early brethren did understand the papyri to have been Abrahamic holographs,
that was simply a mistaken assumption. Similarly, many early members of the
church wrongly assumed that the Book of Mormon lands constituted the whole of
the Americas, but the text itself must control, and in this instance trumps
these kinds of assumptions. For a lucid discussion of this issue, see John L.
Sorenson, The Geography of Book of Mormon Events: A Source Book (Provo,
Utah: FARMS, 1990), 5—35.
Widtsoe, "Unfair Fairness," 599—600.
A. Widtsoe, "Dr. Widtsoe’s Reply," 618.
for instance, Sjodahl, "The Word ‘Kolob,’" 621.
22. The date of the Book of Breathings to which Facsimiles
1 and 3 were appended is disputed. Nibley, on paleographical grounds (following
Klaus Baer), dated the papyri to the Roman period (about the first century A.D.).
Gee, on prosopographical grounds (following Jan Quaegebeur and Marc Coenen),
dates the papyri to the early Ptolemaic period (that is, early second century
B.C.). See John Gee, "The Ancient Owners of the Joseph Smith Papyri"
(FARMS lecture, 1999) and A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri (Provo,
Utah: FARMS, 2000), 15—16. Robert K. Ritner, "The ‘Breathing Permit
of Hor’ Thirty-four Years Later," Dialogue 33/4 (2000): 99, acknowledges
that the earlier dating is possible, but makes it clear that he prefers the
Roman dating. Whichever dating is correct, it should be clear that we are dealing
with a late copy of Abraham’s text, more than 1,500 years removed from Abraham,
and not an Abrahamic holograph. Given these basic facts, the refusal of some
Latter-day Saints to acknowledge that the Book of Abraham underwent a textual
transmission in antiquity is difficult to fathom.
the important comments of John Gee in his "Abracadabra, Isaac, and Jacob,"
Review of Books on the Book of Mormon
7/1 (1995): 72—74.
24. In theory, the two standards should be identical,
but in practice the knowledge of modern Egyptologists is not perfect, so this
does represent a meaningful difference. See John Gee, "Towards an Interpretation
of Hypocephali," in "Le lotus qui sort de terre:" Mélanges
offerts a Edith Varga, ed. Hedvig Gyory (Budapest: Musée Hongrois des Beaux-Arts,
2001), 325, 330—34.
the facsimiles were "adopted" for use as illustrations of the Book
of Abraham, then they would be run-of-the-mill Egyptian documents. Any lion
couch scene would have done for Facsimile 1, any hypocephalus would have done
for Facsimile 2, and any throne scene would have done for Facsimile 3. If
they were "adapted" as illustrations of the Book of Abraham, then
the artist would have made subtle changes in the typical vignette to represent
better the Abrahamic scene being portrayed. I view this as a matter for those
with Egyptological training to sort out, and I take no position in this paper
as to which is the more likely scenario.
papyri of the sort represented by the facsimiles (based on present knowledge)
substantially postdate Abraham, it seems more likely to me that a redactor
first used the papyri as illustrations of the book. Therefore, I will generally
refer to J-red in this paper. Conceptually, however, this type of adaptation
could have been undertaken by Abraham himself.
A. Wallis Budge, Facsimiles of Egyptian
Hieratic Papyri in the British Museum, 2nd series (London: British Museum, 1923), plates 1—14.
28 B. J. Peterson, "A New Fragment of The
Wisdom of Amenemope," JEA 52 (1966): 120—28.
K. Simpson, ed., The Literature of Ancient Egypt (New Haven: Yale University
Press, 1973), 241—65. For a basic bibliography of works dealing with
the relationship between Amenemope and Proverbs, see John D. Currid, Ancient Egypt and
the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.:
Baker Books, 1997), 207—8 n. 9. The above summary of Amenemope texts
is adapted from ibid., 207—10.
30. Adolf Erman, "Eine agyptische Quelle der ‘Spruche
Salomos,’" SPAW Philosophisch-historischen Klasse 15 (1924): 86—93.
31. See the survey of Currid, Ancient Egypt and
the Old Testament, 207—16.
Kittel, Wilhelm Rudolf, and others, eds. Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (Stuttgart: Deutsche
Bibelgesellschaft, 1990), 1304—5, at apparatus notes 22:18a, 22:20b,
23:7a, 23:7c, and 23:10a.
from James L. Crenshaw, "Proverbs, Book of," in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel
Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 5:516.
are somewhat split over whether the Testament
had a Hebrew original or was composed in Greek, with earlier scholars favoring
the former view and later scholars the latter. See the discussion in E. P.
Sanders, "The Testament of Abraham," in James H. Charlesworth, ed.,
The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1983), 1:873—74.
date of this work is uncertain, with arguments ranging from as early as the
early third century B.C. to the early second century A.D. First century A.D. seems to be the most commonly accepted
date. See ibid., 874—75.
vast majority of scholars accept an Egyptian provenance, although some earlier
scholars argued for an origin in Palestine. See ibid., 875—76.
W. Ludlow’s doctoral dissertation is on this subject, entitled "A Narrative
Critical Study of the Two Greek Recensions of ‘The Testament of Abraham,’"
at the University of California, Berkeley and Graduate Theological Union.
See Insights (July 2000): 8. This dissertation has now been published as Jared
W. Ludlow, Abraham Meets Death: Narrative Humor in the Testament of Abraham (New York: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002).
38. αρχιστρατηγος archistrategos, an Egyptian-Jewish title.
See Sanders, "Testament of Abraham, Recension A," 882 n.
plea to Abraham is that he "once again [ετι απαξ eti hapax] go to the Lord." Ibid., 891.
40. The name is elsewhere unattested. Box proposed
a Hebrew original doqi’el, which would refer to exactness (in weighing).
Schmidt proposed that the original name was Tsedeqiel, "justice of God."
See ibid., 890 n. 13e.
41. As "fire" in Greek is πυρ pur,
this is apparently a graecized form of Uriel. See ibid.
42. See the citations at ibid., 889 n. 12f, and George
W. E. Nickelsburg Jr., "Eschatology in the Testament of Abraham: A Study
of the Judgment Scene in the Two Recensions," in Studies on the Testament
of Abraham, ed. George W. E. Nickelsburg Jr. (Missoula, Mont.: Scholars
Press, 1976), 23—64.
is the word E. A. Wallis Budge summarily used to dismiss Joseph Smith’s interpretations
of the facsimiles. See Wells, "Scholars Disagree," 341—43.
44. Hugo Gressmann, Vom reichen Mann und armen
Lazarus: Eine literargeschichtliche Studie (Berlin: Königliche Akademie
der Wissenschaften, 1918); K. Grobel, "’. . . Whose Name Was Neves,’"
New Testament Studies 10 (1963—1964): 373—82. LDS scholars
have begun to cite Grobel, as in H. Donl Peterson, "Book of Abraham: Origin
of the Book of Abraham," in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1:134.
We should note that the first LDS scholar to recognize the significance of Gressmann’s
and Grobel’s work to the Book of Abraham was Blake T. Ostler, "Abraham:
An Egyptian Connection" (FARMS paper, 1981). For the original text see
Francis Llewellyn Griffith, Stories of the High Priests of Memphis
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1900), 142—207, and plates.
Grobel’s chart, which is also reproduced in Ostler, "An Egyptian Connection,"
description of the text closely follows that of Grobel, "Neves."
48. A compound
of Yah, a short form of Yahweh, and El.
R. Rubinkiewicz, "Apocalypse of Abraham," in Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 1:682—83.
D. Rhodes, "The Joseph Smith Hypocephalus . . . Seventeen Years Later"
(FARMS paper, 1994), 6. This paper is an updated version of Rhodes, "A
Translation and Commentary of the Joseph Smith Hypocephalus," BYU Studies 17 (spring 1977): 259—74.
the variability of form and cultural adaptation of the sons of Horus, see
John Gee, "Notes on the Sons of Horus" (FARMS paper, 1991).
E. Thompson, "Egyptology and the Book of Abraham," Dialogue 28/1 (1995): 143—60.
D. Rhodes, "Facsimiles from the Book of Abraham," in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1:136—37, as quoted by Thompson, 143 n. 1.
"Egyptology and the Book of Abraham," 152.
it is really true that the sons of Horus do not represent the cardinal directions,
then I believe Thompson is under obligation to engage the Egyptological literature
more fully to demonstrate the point, as in both Egyptological and popular
literature it is a commonplace.
57. On the perceived solidity of the firmament, see
Paul H. Seely, "The Firmament and the Water Above," Westminster
Theological Journal 53 (1991): 227—40.
drawings of this basic cosmological understanding, see Keith Norman, "Adam’s
Navel," Dialogue 21/2 (1988): 86, and Anthony Hutchinson, "A Mormon Midrash?
LDS Creation Narratives Reconsidered," Dialogue 21/4 (1988): 22.
would appear to be a case where Joseph gives both the Semitic context (raqî’a) and the Egyptian context (the number 1,000) of the figure. A number
of LDS scholars (such as Rhodes, "Seventeen Years Later," 10) have
noted the connection between the number 1,000 and the ship of the dead. Thompson
demurs on this point, arguing that h3 in this context should rather be taken as a reference to lotus
blossoms. The question appears to me to be very much open, but even if Thompson
is correct, he does not seem to appreciate the irony of castigating Joseph
Smith for making a mistake very similar to that made by modern Egyptologists.
60. Paul Y. Hoskisson, "Where Was Ur of the Chaldees?"
in The Pearl of Great Price: Revelations from God, ed. H. Donl Peterson
and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1989), 130.
61. John Gee argues, based on Gustavus Seyffarth’s
description of the roll containing the original of Facsimile 3 as it existed
in 1856 while it was at the St. Louis Museum, that there may have been another
text on the roll following the Book of Breathings ("Eyewitness, Hearsay,
and Physical Evidence of the Joseph Smith Papyri," in The Disciple
as Witness: Essays on Latter-day Saint History and Doctrine in Honor of Richard
Lloyd Anderson, ed. Stephen D. Ricks, Donald W. Parry, and Andrew H. Hedges
[Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000], 189). If this argument is correct, and if this additional
text was the Book of Abraham, my theory would explain why J-red appended
that book to a Book of Breathings (because he meant to adopt the vignettes to
the Book of Breathings as illustrations for the Book of Abraham). On this reading,
the back references to "the commencement of this record" and to "the
beginning" were added to point the reader to the beginning of the scroll,
not the book. This would also explain why some of the Kirtland Egyptian
Papers show attempts to match characters from the Book of Breathings to the
finished English text of the Book of Abraham; those involved in the exercise
would have wrongly assumed that the Book of Abraham was the first text
on the papyrus scroll, whereas in reality it would have been the second.
Thompson, "Egyptology and the Book of Abraham," 154.
63. I plan
to address this point in a future article.
64. These conclusions relate to the various LDS theories
about the Book of Abraham described in John Gee, A Guide to the Joseph Smith
Papyri (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000), 20, as follows:
- On the relation of the Book of Abraham to the papyri: Although I am open
to a "pure revelation" theory, my argument here pursues a "missing
- On the date of the Book of Abraham: I see the book as having an Abrahamic
core but with later interpolations resulting from the transmission of the
- On the date of the Joseph Smith Papyri: I would follow Gee and accept the
date of the papyri as the Ptolemaic period (based on prosopography). (Prior
to Gee I accepted Nibley’s Roman dating, which was based mainly on the hieratic
- On the transmission of the text: In my view, Abraham’s descendants (or others)
brought the text into Egypt; it was not an Egyptian composition.