A Powerful New Resource for Studying the Book of Abraham

Review of John A. Tvedtnes, Brian M. Hauglid, and John Gee, comps. and eds. Traditions about the Early Life of Abraham. Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2001. xxxviii + 565 pp., with appendixes and indexes. $49.95.

A Powerful New Resource for Studying the Book of Abraham

Reviewed by E. Douglas Clark

John Tvedtnes, Brian Hauglid, and John Gee, compilers and editors of Traditions
about the Early Life of Abraham,
deserve deep gratitude from every Latter-day
Saint who loves Abraham and loves studying his life. This big, beautifully bound
volume constitutes a veritable treasure trove of Abrahamic lore and legend preserved
in a wide variety of texts from early Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and other sources—enough
to keep us busy comparing and contemplating for quite some time.

Why such material is or should be of interest to Latter-day Saints is well explained
by the authors in a thoughtful introduction in which they demonstrate that, beginning
with the Prophet Joseph Smith himself shortly after the publication of the Book
of Abraham, early church leaders open-mindedly examined the few additional ancient
texts available to them for possible further information about Abraham, the one
whose covenant they were conscious of fulfilling and whose example they were commanded
to follow. “Do the works of Abraham,” the Lord commanded the church
through Joseph Smith (D&C 132:32; see 101:4-5).

This imperative continues, as President Spencer W. Kimball reminded the Saints
in his First Presidency message entitled “The Example of Abraham.”1
That example shines forth with pristine splendor, of course, in the Book of Abraham
itself, a straightforward historical record that marks the path to perfection
by showing Abraham “strictly obeying all God’s commandments (see
Abraham 3:25); diligently seeking righteousness and peace (see Abraham 1:2); making
and keeping sacred covenants (see Abraham 2:6-13); receiving the priesthood
and sacred ordinances (see Abraham 1:2 and Facsimile 2); building a family unit
(Abraham 2:2); searching the scriptures (see Abraham 1:31); keeping journals and
records (see Abraham 1:31); sharing the gospel (see Abraham 2:15); and proving
faithful in the face of opposition (see Abraham 1:5-15 and Facsimile 1).”2

The Book of Abraham further contains revelations to the patriarch of the panorama
of humanity’s origin and destiny, including the raison d’ etre
of mortal existence. From our premortal beginnings in God’s presence, we
are sent into mortality to be “prove[n] . . . to see if [we] will do all
things whatsoever the Lord [our] God shall command [us]” (Abraham 3:25)
so that we can “have glory added upon [our] heads for ever and ever”
(Abraham 3:26). Parley Pratt noted that in Abraham’s record “we see
. . . unfolded our eternal being—our existence before the world
was—our high and responsible station in the councils of the Holy One, and
our eternal destiny.”3

No wonder Wilford Woodruff felt so privileged to assist in the coming forth of
this ancient record, as he expressed when he helped set the type for its maiden
publication: “The truths of the Book of Abraham are truly edifying great
& glorious which are among the rich treasures that are revealed unto us in
the last days,”4 causing “our hearts to burn within us while we behold
their glorious truths opened unto us.”5

With this knowledge that authentic Abrahamic traditions had survived outside the
corpus of the biblical text, Wilford Woodruff was naturally open to considering
other Abrahamic lore in sources like the Book of Jasher, one of the few ancient
nonbiblical texts then available. In a public sermon to the Saints in 1865, he
referred to an Abrahamic tradition from Jasher.6 Wilford was familiar, of course,
with the revelation to Joseph Smith about the authenticity of noncanonical Bible-related
texts, a revelation declaring the Apocrypha to contain a mixture of both truth
and fiction capable of being accurately sifted only through the help of the Spirit
(see D&C 91:1-6). That Wilford Woodruff—a spiritual giant if there
ever was one—would preach about an Abrahamic legend in the noncanonical
Book of Jasher should tell us something.

Since Wilford Woodruff’s day a remarkable thing has happened. Other ancient
Bible-related texts, once widely circulated but for many centuries forgotten,
have come forth in great numbers from caves, graves, archives, libraries, and
monasteries around the world. The emergence of such texts has amazed scholars
like Samuel Sandmel, who declared in one of the forewords to the massive two-volume
set of Old Testament pseudepigrapha published in the 1980s: “By the strangest
quirk of fate respecting literature that I know of, large numbers of writings
by Jews were completely lost from the transmitted Jewish heritage. . . . Now .
. . a door is being opened anew to treasures that are very old.”7 These
texts are part of what Hugh Nibley has referred to as that “astonishing
outpouring of ancient writings that is the peculiar blessing of our generation.”8
Nibley should know, having long delved into these texts from the time he pioneered
Abrahamic research in a series of articles published in the Improvement Era during
the late 1960s and early 1970s.9 It is only appropriate that Traditions about
the Early Life of Abraham
is dedicated to Hugh Nibley.

Traditions presents a wide variety of ancient writings that relate to our Book
of Abraham, all in English translation. A number of these texts have been translated
by the editors themselves. Scholars and lay readers alike will appreciate having
these diverse and, in many instances, hard-to-locate texts collected under one
cover. A feature particularly useful for the lay reader unfamiliar with these
sources is the introductory material preceding each text and explaining something
of its origin and provenance. The book even includes selected Abrahamic artwork
from ancient sources, an intriguing bonus. (I would point out one minor error:
the explanation on page 528 to the illustration from the Cotton Genesis says that
the picture represents God commanding Abraham to go to Haran. Actually, according
to Princeton’s publication of the Cotton Genesis, this picture represents
God commanding Abraham to leave Haran.)10 Enhancing the utility of this useful
tome are three indexes, including not only a subject index and a scriptural citation
index, but also an index of themes and events from the Book of Abraham, referenced
by page number to the texts in the book.

As with any publication of this nature, there are a few inherent limitations and
cautions. The editors themselves point out that the collection does not claim
to be comprehensive. In addition, the texts have been included on the basis of
their manifest apparent, obvious, clear relevance to the Book of Abraham narrative,
a criterion that may omit texts (or portions thereof) whose relevance may be significant
but not apparent at first blush. Further, readers generally unfamiliar with this
material may tend to conclude that the authenticity of a tradition depends on
how frequently it occurs throughout the texts included in the book. In fact, some
of the most archaic and important Abrahamic traditions are like rare gems, found
only in obscure and unique texts, while it may be the case that spurious traditions
are oft repeated.

Even so, in Traditions we have been given a resource of such magnitude that it
could have been compiled only by scholars who love Father Abraham, reminding us
of the divine promise given to him, as recorded in the Book of Abraham: “As
many as receive this Gospel . . . shall be accounted thy seed, and shall
rise up and bless thee, as their father” (Abraham 2:10). We will long remain
in the editors’ debt as we use their book to discover more about the works
of Abraham and thereby qualify to be his seed.


  1. Spencer W. Kimball, “The Example of Abraham,” Ensign, June 1975,

  2. E. Douglas Clark, foreword to Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, 2nd ed. (Salt
    Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 2000), xxi.

  3. Parley P. Pratt, “Editorial Remarks,” Millennial Star 3 (1 August
    1842): 70.

  4. Scott G. Kenney, ed., Wilford Woodruff’s Journal: 1833-1898 Typescript
    (Midvale, Utah: Signature Books, 1983), 2:159, 19 March 1842.

  5. Ibid., 2:155, 19 February 1842.
  6. Journal of Discourses, 11:244.
  7. Samuel Sandmel, “Foreword for Jews,” in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha,
    ed. James H. Charlesworth (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1983), 1:xi, xiii.

  8. Hugh Nibley, Enoch the Prophet (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1986),

  9. Hugh Nibley, “A New Look at the Pearl of Great Price,” Improvement
    January 1968-May 1970.

  10. Kurt Weitzmann and Herbert L. Kessler, The Cotton Genesis: British Library
    Codex Cotton Otho B.VI
    (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 72 and plates
    2 and 166.