Nibley's Abraham in Egypt:
Laying the Foundation for Abraham Research
Nibley’s Abraham in Egypt: Laying the Foundation for Abraham Research
Reviewed by Brian M. Hauglid
Hugh Nibley is likely one of the most widely read Latter-day Saint scholars
and has been so for over forty years. His academic studies of the Book of Mormon
were groundbreaking, and his social essays have been, for me, inspirational
and, in many cases, convicting. When I read Nibley it quickly becomes apparent
that he is not only a brilliant scholar but also a committed disciple of Jesus
Christ. His consistent blending of faith and reason bolsters my respect for
him and my confidence in what he says. Nibley’s writings exemplify Peter’s counsel
to “be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason
of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear [i.e., reverence]” (1 Peter
The new edition of Abraham in Egypt (volume 14 in the Collected Works of Hugh
Nibley) published conjointly by Deseret Book and the Foundation for Ancient
Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) is a fine example of Nibley’s command of
languages, literature, and history. He lays the foundation for various aspects
of Abraham research, such as responding to the Book of Abraham critics, examining
parallels between the Book of Abraham and ancient texts, and analyzing connections
of Book of Abraham materials with Egyptian religion and culture. Of course Latter-day
Saints will be pleased because Nibley never forgets who his audience is and
seeks to bring all his research under the umbrella of the gospel.
This new edition is superior in several ways to the 1981 edition published
by Deseret Book. These improvements were made under the supervision of Gary
Gillum and staff members at FARMS. Added to this second edition are several
chapters from Nibley’s series A New Look at the Pearl of Great Price, which
originally appeared in the Improvement Era from 1968 to 1970. A few of these
added chapters are, however, placed anachronistically in the book. For instance,
chapter 4, “Setting the Stage—The World of Abraham,” was written twelve years
before chapter 2, “Joseph Smith and the Sources.” Still, because these chapters
do not generally address the same subject I think their placement makes the
book well rounded and adds to its overall purpose. Some of my favorite articles
from the New Look at the Pearl of Great Price series found in this new edition
include “Setting the Stage—The World of Abraham” and “The Sacrifice of Sarah,”
as well as Nibley’s delightful and at times humorous “Joseph Smith and the Sources”
and “Joseph Smith and the Critics,” both of which take to task some of the earlier
critics of the Pearl of Great Price.
Endnotes in each chapter of this new edition have been source checked and
updated, and if a particular source could not be found or Nibley’s assertion
could not be verified, such is mentioned in the endnotes (see, for example,
pp. 546-53 nn. 170, 259, 371). Only a few instances occur where sources
are not directly referenced in the endnotes.1
Excellent editing of a volume of over seven hundred pages with literally hundreds
of endnotes is nothing short of miraculous, and the typesetting and layout of
this book look almost impeccable. I found only one misspelled name that was
likely transmitted from the earlier edition. On pages 300 and 301 (see p. 110
in 1981 edition) Eupolemus is misspelled Eumolpus. As far as I know no such
person named Eumolpus exists.
Among the impressive features of this edition are the numerous illustrations
accompanying the narrative and rituals; some are drawn by the talented Michael
Lyon, and others are computer-enhanced. In addition, the volume contains maps,
charts, and helpful indexes. Even though Nibley did not update the research
in this volume, these changes and improvements have, I think, justified a second
edition to this classic work.
However, Latter-day Saints should not look at this book as the final word
on Abraham research. Much is happening among Latter-day Saint scholars that
either builds on Nibley’s previous foundational work or is opening new areas
of research to increase our understanding of the Book of Abraham. For the past
several years FARMS has sponsored the Studies in the Book of Abraham project.
This project opens a venue for Latter-day Saint scholars to publish their research
on various aspects of the Book of Abraham. Two volumes of the Studies in the
Book of Abraham series have recently been published.2 I believe the first volume,
Traditions about the Early Life of Abraham, updates Nibley’s previous research
by comparing Abraham traditions from Jewish, Christian, and Islamic texts with
the Book of Abraham. While Nibley provides a stimulating comparison and analysis
of the Apocalypse of Abraham and the Testament of Abraham in the chapter “The
Book of Abraham and the Book of the Dead,” the Traditions book builds on Nibley’s
previous work by not only presenting these two traditions but also offering
over one hundred others that have specific relevance to the Book of Abraham.
Some of these traditions appear for the first time.3 In addition, the 1999 Book
of Abraham conference “Astronomy, Papyri, and Covenant” and the 2001 conference
“The World of Abraham” sponsored by FARMS both updated and presented new materials
on Abraham research.
Still, Abraham in Egypt is a provocative foray into the heart of the Book
of Abraham. From Nibley we gain a much better appreciation for its setting in
antiquity and the veracity of its characters and events. Using a comparative
approach, Nibley demonstrates that the Book of Abraham contains a number of
themes—such as idolatry, child sacrifice, the threat to Abraham’s life, and
astronomy—not found in the Old Testament and finds “striking parallels in
the apocryphal Abraham literature” (p. 648).
In his discussions of the Book of Abraham, Nibley not only takes us deep into
the Egyptian world of Pharaoh’s court but also analyzes Egyptian connections
to Ham, Egyptus, and the Egyptian skill of beekeeping. Nibley concludes that
the Book of Abraham has propelled Latter-day Saint understanding of Abraham
well beyond the scholarship of his day.
My colleague Daniel C. Peterson likens Nibley to an eager and curious antique
collector who discovers a home filled with antique collectibles in every room.
With youthful excitement he rushes from room to room jotting down notes with
each new find. One room may require a knowledge of Egyptian, another Hebrew
or Arabic, and yet another Greek, German, or French. Nibley’s research on the
Book of Abraham has laid a foundation in each of these areas. However, successive
scholars must now painstakingly plod through each of these rooms and make necessary
revisions, corrections, or updates. Thanks to pioneering works such as Abraham
in Egypt, Abraham research today stands on a much firmer foundation.
- See, for example, the two quotations from the chapter “The Rivals”
(pp. 226-27) that are not directly referenced in endnotes 33 and 34 (p. 250).
- John A. Tvedtnes, Brian M. Hauglid, and John Gee, comps. and eds., Traditions
about the Early Life of Abraham (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2001); and Michael D. Rhodes,
The Hor Book of Breathings: A Translation and Commentary (Provo, Utah: FARMS,
2002). An additional aid in Abraham studies is John Gee, A Guide to the Joseph
Smith Papyri (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000).
- Ishaq Ibn Bishr (d. 821), for example, was not available to Nibley and is published
for the first time in both English and Arabic. Cf. Tvedtnes, Hauglid, and Gee,
Traditions, 310-26, 515-19.