The Book of Abraham is my favorite book of scripture. Mostly it is because of chapter 3, which contains information that is not found anywhere else in LDS scripture. I also remember discovering the facsimiles as a child and thinking that they were really neat. Unfortunately, the Book of Abraham has also become a favorite for critics to attack, as it is the only book of scripture that Joseph Smith translated for which there appears to be any extant source material, and that material does not seem to match what is in the Book of Abraham. But it’s really much more complicated than that.
This book explains what is currently known about the Book of Abraham and its associated artifacts and documents, and why the critics are wrong. It is written by John Gee, who is a professor of Egyptology at BYU. He got his PhD in Egyptology at Yale and has written many research publications for professional journals as well as writing for LDS audiences. The book is written to be understandable by any reader (although an LDS background is very helpful) in a straightforward manner that actually makes for a fairly quick read.
The book contains 17 chapters, most of them fairly short, that build on each other. At the end is a series of questions and answers that basically provides a summary of the book. It also has photos of the extant papyri, maps, charts, diagrams, and other helpful or interesting illustrations scattered throughout. At the end of most chapters is a list of “Further Reading” with notes about each item. Unfortunately, there are not many footnotes in the book; they only exist to provide sources for quotes. So you have to refer to the notes in the “Further Reading” section to deduce where some of the information came from. This did lead me to find one inconsistency - on page 97, it says “The Book of Abraham begins much like other autobiographies from Abraham’s time and place.” However, on page 103 in “Further Reading,” there is an entry that says, “This essay is a comparison of the Book of Abraham with the only other autobiographical inscription to survive from the approximate time and place of Abraham.”
After the introduction, the book begins with a historical overview which explains how Joseph Smith got the papyri and then what happened to them after his death, with the church finally receiving surviving fragments in 1967 (most of what Joseph had in his possession ended up burning in the Chicago Fire of 1871). “To the disappointment of many, although these remaining fragments contained the illustration that served as the basis for Facsimile 1, they were not the portion of the papyri that contained the text of the Book of Abraham” (page 9).
The next chapter is about the translation. Some have thought that Joseph may have used a seer stone, but Gee says that “Some thirdhand accounts claim he did, but those accounts do not come from anyone who actually observed the translation” and that “By the time that Joseph finished translating the Book of Mormon in 1829, he no longer needed to use the Urim and Thummim to receive revelation” (page 20.) What is known is that much more was translated than what ended up being published (the rest has been lost), and that it was done without using a dictionary or grammar as a conventional translation normally would. It does appear that W. W. Phelps attempted to compile an Egyptian grammar after the translation, but the extent of Joseph’s involvement in that is unknown.
Chapter 6 is about what is actually on the surviving fragments. It has been identified as the earliest known manuscript of the Document of Breathings Made by Isis, but is an abbreviated version. In fact, the translations that have been made of it and published as purported translations of the Joseph Smith Papyri have generally been a translation of the fuller versions available and “are not actually translations of the Joseph Smith Papyri” (page 76). It is noted in the Further Reading that Facsimile 1, which is included in the surviving fragments, is not used in any other copy of the Document of Breathings Made by Isis, which means it may not actually belong with it.
The next chapter covers the question of what the papyri have to do with the Book of Abraham if their content does not actually match it. There are three theories - that it came from the surviving fragments, that it came from the larger portion that no longer exists, or that it didn’t actually come from the papyri. Critics tend to go with the first theory, as mentioned at the start, which does not match historical eyewitness accounts. “The current fragments of the Joseph Smith Papyri...were all mounted on heavy paper and placed in glass frames in 1837. None of them can be the long roll described in the 1840s and 1850s.” The second theory “accounts for that evidence but is frustrating to many people. Because the papyri are no longer extant, there is no possible way to check Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Abraham” (page 85). The third theory does have some validity. Doctrine & Covenants Section 7 is a translation of ancient writing that Joseph only saw in vision, so it’s possible the Book of Abraham was produced in similar manner. However, Joseph at least thought that he was translating the papyrus in his possession.
He then talks about the historicity of the Book of Abraham, discussing four different positions: it is modern fiction and a fraud, it is inspired fiction, it is ancient pseudepigrapha, or it is an ancient autobiography. “While each of the four positions on the historical authenticity of the Book of Abraham is logically coherent, not all of them are intellectually stable….[O]nly the positions of ancient autobiography or modern fiction have proven intellectually stable and transmissible to the next generation” (pages 89-90). Those who think it is modern fiction tend to be more familiar with nineteenth century history than ancient history. “To recognize nineteenth century BC parallels, one would have to know something about the world in the nineteenth century BC, which is very different than that of the nineteenth century AD… Those who look at the text only through a nineteenth-century AD background will thus see only nineteenth-century parallels and will tend to conclude that the text is from the nineteenth century, and thus modern by default… Those who wish to understand the Abraham who wrote the Book of Abraham need to learn about the world in which he lived” (pages 93-94).
The next few chapters go on to talk about the ancient world (where the Egyptian word for sister means both sister and wife), the Abrahamic covenant, Abrahamic astronomy, the preexistence, and the creation. Some time is spent discussing source criticism, which is a theory that the five books of Moses in the Old Testament were separate accounts that were put together. “This theory has gained wide acceptance in certain quarters even though no manuscript evidence supports it…. Actual tests of source criticism - where scholars have used source criticism to predict sources for a text and then the actual sources have been discovered - have usually failed. Therefore, source criticism is less a scientific theory than a scholarly dogma…. If one accepts the historicity of the Book of Abraham, then one cannot accept the validity of source criticism…. The textual presentation of what might appear as two different creation narratives is actually standard in early Mesopotamian accounts of primeval times” (pages 137-138).
Chapter 14 talks about the facsimiles. It is noted that the style of the pictures would not have matched the style of Abraham’s day, and Abraham may not have actually included any in his original account. “The references to the facsimiles within the text of the Book of Abraham seem to have been nineteenth-century editorial insertions” (page 143). Also, only Facsimile 1 matches the text that we have - the rest refer to the part that was not published. Facsimile 1 was next to the Document of Breathings Made by Isis, but does not actually belong to it, because the text makes no reference to the picture, and no other copies of the text have this illustration. There are various opinions among Egyptologists regarding what it represents. Gee explains that the scene depicted would be connected to both human sacrifice and Abraham, based on similar scenes that have been found. Not much is known about Facsimile 2 or 3, but connections are made between them and ancient Egypt regarding astronomy and Abraham.
The next chapter discusses stories about Abraham from the ancient world that have details found in the Book of Abraham but not the Bible. Most of these were not available to Joseph Smith. “The ancient world was cosmopolitan, and Jews, Christians, and Muslims interacted with each other’s traditions about Abraham, not only with their own” (page 158).
Chapter 16 talks about the role of the Book of Abraham as scripture. “To Latter-day Saints, the contents of the Book of Abraham are far more important than the contents of the remaining fragments of the Joseph Smith Papyri. What we read in the book is more important than how we got it” (page 163). It is noted that “racist interpretations were not originally applied to the Book of Abraham… Racist interpretations...first appeared in the Church in 1895, but were officially discontinued in 1978” (page 164). However, early Saints saw a connection to the temple, and the part of the book that we have was published just before the endowment was introduced. “The Book of Abraham thus serves, in a way, as an introduction to the ordinances of the temple and the covenants made there” (page 166). But the main contributions to LDS doctrine have been the details provided of the pre-earth life and the purpose of life, given in Abraham 3. Joseph seems to have been teaching these concepts from the Book of Abraham in the King Follett Discourse and other sermons. In fact, “the Book of Abraham was published in 1842, but most Church leaders gained their understanding of its core teachings from the Prophet’s sermons. These they took west with them, and it was not until after the Book of Abraham became part of the Latter-day Saint canon that the teaching about the preexistence was again tied to the Book of Abraham. The secondhand impact had nevertheless been profound, and thus there were no doctrinal shifts when it was canonized. The Book of Abraham had simply come home” (page 172).
When I first heard about this book, it sounded as if it were exactly the kind of book that has been needed for years on this topic. I was excited to get the opportunity to review it, and I was not disappointed. This will be the go-to book for those that are struggling with criticisms targeted at the Book of Abraham, as well as for those that would just like to learn more about it.