A Method for Studying the Facsimiles
A Method for Studying the Facsimiles
Reviewed by John Gee
The facsimiles from the Book of Abraham continue to fascinate, if only by their
strangeness. The only illustrations in our scriptures, they attract attention
not only because of their rough-hewn quality but by their very existence as
a visual medium in the midst of the written word. Their unusual origin and foreign
iconography make them the source of endless uninformed speculation. Allen J.
Fletcher puts himself forward as a guide to the facsimiles.
The question that is constantly asked about the facsimiles is how Joseph
Smith’s interpretations match those of the ancient Egyptians. Fletcher goes
through the facsimiles, figure by figure, and asks three questions: (1) “What
does this figure represent in the world of the Egyptians?” (2) “What
meaning is given to this figure by the Prophet Joseph Smith or Abraham?”
and (3) “If we look at this Egyptian figure as an imitation, what
gospel principles can we see in it?” These are good questions. Not everyone,
however, will answer them the same way.
The answers to the second question are generally straightforward even if
one might have quibbles with Fletcher’s particular interpretations. Fletcher’s
answers to the third question are homiletics on which I will take the Book
of Mormon position that “every thing which inviteth to do good, and to
persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ”
(Moroni 7:16), and I will thus refrain from critiquing them. It is Fletcher’s
answers to the first question with which I disagree (and they, of course,
have a direct impact on the basis for Fletcher’s homiletics). I disagree with
his answers because I disagree with many of Fletcher’s assumptions and his
method. I shall not analyze most of his assumptions here but will, instead,
focus on his method.
Towards a Methodology for Studying the Facsimiles
Fletcher’s method for understanding the facsimiles from the ancient Egyptian
point of view is simply arbitrary. Fletcher has fallen into a common trap when
dealing with the facsimiles from an Egyptological view. We want to know: does
X (the interpretation of Joseph Smith) = Y (the interpretation of the ancient
Egyptians)? But in reality the question is usually modified slightly by asking:
does X (the interpretation of Joseph Smith) equal Z (the interpretation of modern
Egyptologists)? As I have already tacitly demonstrated elsewhere (at least for
Facsimile 2), Z (the interpretation of modern Egyptologists) usually does not
equal Y (the interpretation of the ancient Egyptians).1 Z is therefore irrelevant. Of the twenty-seven interpretations
that Fletcher gives for the figures in the facsimiles (pp. 25–30),
only two are certainly correct while eight are certainly wrong; the remainder
are quite likely wrong. At the present time, it is perhaps more important that
we determine a method for ascertaining what the ancient Egyptians who drew the
facsimiles might have understood by them. I published this methodology some
time ago. While I wrote about hypocephali in particular, the same methodology
needs to be followed for all of the facsimiles. The methodology comprises four
Step 1. If we wish to understand the
iconography of the facsimiles we must pay careful attention to those instances
in which the ancient Egyptians actually identify a figure.2
As a result, we must gather various examples of parallels to the facsimiles
and determine when, if ever, the figures are identified.3 All the
various parallels need to come from the time period of the facsimiles and
not thousands of years earlier in the New Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, or Old
Kingdom. The parallels should be as close as possible, preferably having at
least half of the figures in common with the facsimiles. If, after gathering
various parallels to the facsimiles, some figures are still unidentified,
any identifications we assign them will be merely guesses.
Step 2. “Identification of the
figure will not tell us what the ancient Egyptians understood by the figure.
That understanding will only come as we assemble information from ancient
Egyptian sources of the proper time. Sources from the Old Kingdom, Middle
Kingdom, and New Kingdom are only of secondary value to understanding what
is meant by Egyptian of Saite or Greco-Roman times of the same figures.”4
As most handbooks on iconography and religion deal principally with the New
Kingdom or earlier periods, they are of little to no use in understanding
Step 3. The various figures are placed
in relationship to each other for a reason. One ought, therefore, to pay attention
to the placement of the figures. In this regard, explanations in Greco-Roman
sources that mention relationships between the figures might be of some importance.5 We should strive not
only to be able to identify a particular figure but also to be able to understand
why two figures are placed in a particular relationship in the facsimiles.
Step 4. One should endeavor, where
possible, to match the identified figures with the texts that relate to them,
whether adjoining or not.6
Fletcher has followed none of these steps. His arguments and conclusions
on the subject are methodologically invalid. But he is in good company, since
to date few Egyptologists have produced a methodologically valid explanation
of the facsimiles, as an explanation either of the facsimiles or of the class
of objects and parallel vignettes. Thus the substitution of X=Z for X=Y is
A table showing the differences of interpretation by various authors using
different methods might illustrate the difference that the proper method can
make. The table gives published identifications of hypocephali (Facsimile
2) from Louis Speleers,7 Edith Varga,8 ancient
Egyptian identifications,9 and Fletcher (pp. 27–29):
Table 1. Various Interpretations of the Figures in Facsimile 2
Ancient Egyptian Identifications
the soul of Re and his three forms
quadripartite ram-headed deity
soul coming into being (bɜ
he who is in his disk / he who
the one who created himself
belonging to the life of salvation
the lord of the divine ship
Isis, Nephthys, and Kheperi (ỉs.t,
Mehetweret or Hathor
the great cow who bore the sun
the four sons of Horus
the four sons of Horus
Imseti, Hapi, Duamutef, Qebehsenuef
The Four Sons of Horus
Nehebkau and the deceased
the Lord of the Universe and Nehebkau
the great god (nṯr
two lunar genies
The Apes of the dawn
One can see that with the exception of figure 6, there is little consistency
between the various interpretations. One should also note that this is merely
the process of identification; it tells us nothing about what the Egyptians
of the Greco-Roman period who produced the facsimiles understood by the identifications.
Fletcher’s identifications have almost no connection with ancient Egyptian
identifications or with Egyptological misidentifications either. As a result,
whatever homilies he might construct based on his identifications, however
edifying they may be, have no real connection to the facsimiles. The same
can be said for his identifications of the figures in the other facsimiles
from the Book of Abraham. One would never know, using Fletcher’s method, that
each of the facsimiles has been connected with Abraham by ancient Egyptians.10
For me, among the more interesting aspects of works on the Book of Abraham
are the various tacit assumptions made by the authors about the Book of Abraham
or the facsimiles. These assumptions always color, and in most cases overwhelmingly
guide, the work done. Yet these assumptions are rarely made explicit. In many
cases they are demonstrably false or at least open to question. In reading
Fletcher’s book, I identified a number of implicit assumptions that Fletcher
has apparently made that are at least open to question. But one overriding
assumption undergirding the book brings up an issue that is worth raising.
Earlier in this review I referred to the desire to know the answer to the
question: Does the interpretation of Joseph Smith match the interpretation
of the ancient Egyptians, or does X=Y? We know that the interpretations of
the Egyptologists typically do not match either those of the ancient Egyptians
(Z=Y) or Joseph Smith (Z=X) and so they are simply irrelevant to the issue.
But the unquestioned assumption is that the interpretation of Joseph Smith
has to match the interpretation of the ancient Egyptians (X=Y). This assumption
is related to assumptions and theories (both formal and informal) about the
nature of the facsimiles. Several such theories do not require Joseph Smith’s
interpretation to be the same or even close to that of the ancient Egyptians.
For example, ancient Jewish interpretations for various Egyptian scenes are
known that differ considerably from the ancient Egyptian interpretations and
to which Egyptological methods give us no clue.11
Before any conclusions can be drawn from any comparisons between the two,
one needs to have an answer to the question: why do Joseph Smith’s interpretations
need to match ancient Egyptian interpretations at all? I do not intend to
answer the issue here but merely to raise it. Critics should note that unless
they can answer this question satisfactorily they have no case.
A book like Fletcher’s might be useful to the extent that it is well done.
To paraphrase what I have written on the subject elsewhere: If we ignore the
ancient Egyptian identifications of the various figures in the facsimiles,
we will construct an understanding of the facsimiles that bears no resemblance
to the ancient Egyptian understanding. We will, in short, not understand them
at all.12 In the end I found very little in Fletcher’s
book, at least in his interpretation of the figures according to ancient Egyptians,
that I could agree with. One temporary conclusion must be stressed: To
date there has been no methodologically valid interpretation of any of the
facsimiles from an ancient Egyptian point of view.13
Much more work needs to be done before we can understand the facsimiles in
their ancient Egyptian setting, and only then will it be meaningful to ask
whether that understanding matches that of Joseph Smith (to the extent that
we understand even that).
1. John Gee, “Towards an Interpretation
of Hypocephali,” in “Le lotus qui sort du terre”: Mélanges
offerts î Edith Varga, Bulletin du Musée Hongrois des Beaux-Arts
Supplément-2001 (Budapest: Musée Hongrois des Beaux-Arts, 2001), 325–34.
2. Gee, “Towards an Interpretation
of Hypocephali,” 330.
3. For this first step applied to
hypocephali, see Gee, “Towards an Interpretation of Hypocephali,”
4. Gee, “Towards an Interpretation
of Hypocephali,” 330. I have changed one article in the quotation from
definite to indefinite.
5. Gee, “Towards an Interpretation
of Hypocephali,” 331.
6. Gee, “Towards an Interpretation
of Hypocephali,” 331.
7. Louis Speleers, “Le sens de
nos deux hypocéphales égyptiens,” Bulletin des Musées Royaux d’Art
et d’Histoire 1 (1943): 35–37.
8. Edith Varga, Napkorong a fej
alatt (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1998), 140–44.
9. Gee, “Towards an Interpretation
of Hypocephali,” 332–34.
10. See Janet H. Johnson, “The
Demotic Magical Spells of Leiden I 384,” Oudheidkundige mededelingen
uit het Rijksmuseum van Oudheden te Leiden
56 (1975): 33, 48; Janet H. Johnson, “Louvre E3229: A Demotic Magical
Text,” Enchoria 7 (1977):
94, 96; John Gee, “References to Abraham Found in Two Egyptian Texts,”
Insights (September 1991): 1,
3; John Gee, “Abraham in Ancient Egyptian Texts,” Ensign, July 1992, 60–62; John Gee, “Abracadabra,
Isaac and Jacob,” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 7/1 (1995): 19–84; John A. Tvedtnes, Brian M.
Hauglid, and John Gee, eds., Traditions about the Early Life of
Abraham (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2001), 501–2,
523; John Gee, “A New Look at the ʿnḫ pɜ by Formula,” Proceedings of IXe CongrÅ“s
International des Études Démotiques (forthcoming).
11. Kevin L. Barney, “The
Facsimiles and Semitic Adaptation of Existing Sources,” in Astronomy,
Papyrus, and Covenant, ed. John Gee and
Brian M. Hauglid (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2005), 107–30.
12. Gee, “Towards
an Interpretation of Hypocephali,” 330.
13. Gee, “Towards an Interpretation
of Hypocephali,” 325–34, provides identification only but does
not make the further step into interpretation. I have two other articles currently
in press that deal with aspects of steps 3 and 4 for Facsimile 2, and part
of step 4 for Facsimile 3; see Gee, “A New Look at the ʿnḫ
pɜ by Formula,” and John Gee, “Non-round Hypocephali,”
in Aegyptus et Pannonia III, ed. Hedvig Györy (Budapest: MEBT-OEB, 2006), 41–57.