One Side of a Nonexistent Conversation

Review of Thomas D. Cottle. The Papyri of Abraham: Facsimiles of the Everlasting Covenant. Portland, Ore.: Insight, 2002. xv + 229 pp. $14.95.

One Side of a Nonexistent Conversation

Reviewed by John Gee

As new research comes out on a subject, it is useful to have an occasional summary
of the state of affairs. Two recent attempts have been made to summarize the state
of research on the Book of Abraham: one from the anti-Mormon perspective and the
other—the book under review—from a Latter-day Saint perspective. Unfortunately,
both were already seriously out-of-date when they appeared.1 Though the work under
consideration has certain merits, it also contains a number of errors.

Talking Past Each Other

Thomas Cottle, an amateur enthusiast who once served in a temple presidency, approaches
the Book of Abraham from the perspective of a believer. He is vaguely aware that
the Book of Abraham is controversial but gives the controversy no heed. He claims
that “the leading scholar in substantiating Abraham and his works was Hugh
W. Nibley, with other contributors being Michael Dennis Rhodes, H. Donl Peterson,
Michael Lyon, Jay M. Todd, and John Gee, to name a few. Their contributions on
the Book of Abraham and facsimiles have quieted all serious opposition to this
theological work” (p. xiv). Would that that were so!

Cottle’s naiveté on this point touches on a more important point
in Book of Abraham studies. Latter-day Saints do not generally pay any attention
to what outsiders or critics may say about the Book of Abraham. On the other hand,
we should not imagine that anti-Mormons2 bother to read what members of the Church
of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have to say about any of their own scriptures,
especially the Book of Abraham. There is simply no conversation taking place on
the subject of the Book of Abraham. The two sides, if we can call them that, are
not talking to each other; they are talking to themselves.

There is nothing wrong with the various sides talking to themselves so long as
they do not pretend to be engaged in dialogue. Members of the Church of Jesus
Christ in general have no pretensions about holding any dialogue with critics.
They simply do not, for the most part, care what their critics say. Seeing themselves
in a position similar to that of Nehemiah, they generally respond by “saying,
I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down: why should the work cease,
whilst I leave it, and come down to you?” (Nehemiah 6:3). They want to understand
their scripture and, while they appreciate the insights that scholars have to
offer, they think that prophets, rather than scholars, are the final interpreters
of prophetic scripture. Anti-Mormons, on the other hand, make a pretense of addressing
the Saints, even though they are largely engaged in propaganda for the purpose
of boundary maintenance. Because anti-Mormons are not genuinely interested in
dialogue, they do not bother to state the position of members of the Church of
Jesus Christ with accuracy; in some cases, anti-Mormon caricatures of that position
are not even recognizable.

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ are mostly interested in the content of
the Book of Abraham. Anti-Mormons are dismissive of its content and concentrate
on its production, a subject to which most Latter-day Saints are indifferent;
they do not care what besides revelation is involved. Suppose for a moment that
some people disagreed with Francis Ll. Griffith’s translation of Papyrus
Rylands IX and, furthermore, argued that his translation was completely bogus.
Suppose further that in their efforts to demonstrate that it was a fraud they
scoured Griffith’s notebooks, as well as those of his student, Alan Gardiner,
but they neglected to examine Griffith’s translation. As strange as this
approach sounds, it is the typical anti-Mormon approach to the Book of Abraham.
This also illustrates why members of the Church of Jesus Christ and anti-Mormons
are not engaged in any authentic sort of dialogue; they simply talk past each

Merits . . .

In keeping with the typical position of members of the Church of Jesus Christ,
in his book Cottle tells the story of Abraham and then proceeds with a commentary
on the facsimiles. He weaves his narrative from the Book of Abraham and from biblical
and a few extrabiblical sources, which include (in chronological order): The Genesis
the book of Jubilees, writings of Flavius Josephus, and the Book of
Before the publication of Cottle’s book, however, a work came out
containing over thirty times this number of noncanonical accounts that Cottle
could have taken into consideration.3 The increase in the number of known
traditions about Abraham raises the question of why Cottle should privilege the
late Book of Jasher over other, earlier accounts.

Cottle’s commentary on the facsimiles simply uses them as a springboard
to talk about various tangential topics. It is not an Egyptological commentary,
nor even an Egyptologically informed commentary, on the subject, although there
is nothing particularly objectionable about the doctrinal content. Since he is
writing for Latter-day Saints, there can be no objection to that part of his commentary;
it is only when he makes pretenses of an Egyptologically informed commentary that
his display of specious learning causes problems. Cottle hopes that because of
his commentary “individuals will no longer respond to the facsimiles like
a statement made by Shakespeare. ‘I cannot too much muse such shapes, such
gesture, and such sound expression, a kind of excellent dumb discourse.'”
(p. xv).4 I fear that his commentary does not fulfill his objectives, but,
ironically, his Shakespearean quotation becomes self-descriptive.

. . . And Demerits

As with most self-published efforts, Cottle’s work contains a number of
errors, some of which are minor and others of which significantly detract from
his work. The most serious problem is his use of images without permission, including
all of appendix C. Even when he does include a permission statement, it is invariably
not from the entity that owns the copyright. This is, unfortunately, a common
problem with publications on the Book of Abraham, including most anti-Mormon publications.

Examples of other errors include:

“Ldy” for “Lady” (p. 173)

“Ta-khred-Khonsu” for Senchons5 (p.

“Wst-wrt” for Esoeris6 (p. 175)

Authors’ names are often deleted (pp. 195, 200, 204, 207-8, 217,
222). John Gee is changed into “John A. Gee” (p. 191) and also into
Stephen Ricks (pp. 191, 227).

Some errors are less obvious: “Where Abram lived exactly is not known. It
was possibly the great cultural center of Tanis, the capitol of Egypt for 350
years, but to date, the location of this city has not been found” (p. 14).
Actually, Tanis (San el-Hagar) has been under excavation since the end of the
nineteenth century and during World War II yielded spectacular finds of undisturbed
royal burials rivaling or surpassing those of King Tutankhamun.7 Tanis was a royal
city for an extended period, but that period began about the time of Saul, long
after the days of Abraham.

Final Note

Insofar as one can overlook historical and philological inaccuracies in a
commentary on the facsimiles and the author’s uses of the facsimiles as a springboard
for homiletics, one might find this book useful. If one is looking for something
else, one should look elsewhere.


  1. The other summary, besides the book under review, is Robert K.
    Ritner, “The ‘Breathing Permit of Hor': Thirty-Four
    Years Later,” Dialogue 33/4 (2000): 97-119, which appeared in spring
    2002. As inadequate as the following work may be, the best summary to date is
    probably John Gee, A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000).

  2. While a few of the authors mentioned in this list might choose to describe
    their activities otherwise, they are “anti-Mormon” because they
    fight against the Church of Jesus Christ, which is the root meaning of the term.
    In the nineteenth century, those who fought against the Church of Jesus Christ
    designated themselves “anti-Mormon,” and I see no reason not to
    apply the same term to their followers who are engaged, although sometimes more
    politely, in the same activity.

  3. John A. Tvedtnes, Brian M. Hauglid, and John Gee, comps. and eds., Traditions
    about the Early Life of Abraham
    (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2001).

  4. The quotation is from William Shakespeare, The Tempest 3.3.38-39.
  5. Erich Lüddeckens et al., Demotisches Namenbuch (Wiesbaden: Reichert,
    1980-2000), 15:1144.

  6. Ibid., 2:76.
  7. For overviews, see Geoffrey Graham, “Tanis,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia
    of Ancient Egypt
    (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 3:348-50; and
    Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson, The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt (New York: Abrams,
    1995), 282-83. Excavation reports include W. M. Flinders Petrie,
    Tanis (London: Trübner, 1885-88); Pierre Montet, Les nouvelles fouilles
    de Tanis
    (Paris: Les belles lettres, 1933); Pierre Montet, La nécropole
    royale de Tanis
    (Paris: n.p., 1947-60); Pierre Montet, Le lac sacré
    de Tanis
    (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1966); Georges Goyon, La découverte
    des trésors de Tanis
    (Paris: Perséa, 1987); Philippe Brissaud,
    comp., Cahiers de Tanis (Paris: Editions Recherche sur les civilisations, 1987).
    For reused monuments at Tanis, see Eric P. Uphill, The Temples of Per Ramesses
    (Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1984), 8-95, 129-52.