Book of Abraham 201

Mike Ash
August 2006

Book of Abraham 201: Papyri, Revelation, and Modern Egyptology

Two years ago Kevin Barney and I gave a FAIR presentation entitled The ABCs of the Book of Abraham1or the “Book of Abraham for Dummies.” In that presentation we talked about the history of the papyri, how they got to Joseph and what happened to them after Joseph died. Kevin also provided a bibliography of the scholarly approaches to the Book of Abraham, the sources for further study and some of the criticisms against the book. Today I’m going to focus on some of those critical arguments and some possible solutions.

As a brief recap, among the scrolls owned by Joseph Smith, the most closely associated with the Book of Abraham is a scroll owned by an Egyptian named Horus, or Hor. This scroll contained at least a couple of drawings or vignettes. An early LDS woodcutter, Reuben Hedlock, created woodcut Facsimiles of the vignettes so that copies could be reprinted in the Times & Seasons and later in the Pearl of Great Price. Facsimile 1 and 3 are from the scroll of Horus; the original vignette for Facsimile 3 has never been found.

After translation some of the scrolls were cut into pieces, glued to a backing paper and mounted under glass so they could be viewed by others; some of the scrolls of Horus and parts of the other scrolls from Joseph Smith’s collection were eventually lost or destroyed in the Chicago fire in 1871 while they resided in a museum. In 1967, several scroll fragments including some important pieces of the scroll of Horus were rediscovered and given to the Church. At around the same time Gerald and Sandra Tanner, two critics of the Church, published an underground copy of parts of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers–or the KEP as it is abbreviated. These papers, which will be dealt with in much greater detail tomorrow by Brian Hauglid, have been in the Church’s possession since the days of Joseph but had been virtually unnoticed until the early 19th century. The Kirtland Egyptian Papers are not ancient papyri but are instead papers from Joseph and his contemporaries that have a relationship to the study and translation of the papyri.

Early on, even before the fragments were discovered, some scholars suspected that at least some portions of the Facsimiles had parts missing and had been inaccurately restored when they were printed. Later, other non-LDS scholars agreed and there was a general consensus that not only were these Facsimiles restored incorrectly but also that Joseph’s interpretation of the Facsimiles did not accurately reflect the understanding of Egyptologists.

Among the Kirtland Egyptian Papers is a hand drawn copy of Facsimile 2. Facsimile 2 comes from a hypocephalus, which is a small funerary amulet, a disk that was placed under the head of the deceased Egyptian. They believed it would magically cause the head and body to be enveloped in flames or radiance thus making the deceased divine. You can see in this drawing that Facsimile 2 owned by Joseph did indeed have pieces missing; the missing parts (the whole is also called a lacuna) was restored for publication and most non-LDS scholars agree that these restorations are inaccurate and we’ll come back to the restorations later.

Facsimile 1 also had a lacuna and we’ll discuss the restorations in that later as well.

Of the eleven extant or surviving papyri fragments several pieces belong to the scroll of Horus; when pieced together we find that there is a gap between Facsimile 1 and Facsimile 3, which probably came near the end of the scroll and the rest of the papyri, at least the end of what is called the ‘Sensen’ text, there are parts missing. So the part to the right there in the color is what we have and then we don’t have everything to the left but we’re pretty sure that Facsimile 3 was at the later part.

The text of the scroll tells us that it is a somewhat common Egyptian funerary text known the Book of Breathings; and I’ve got a part there in red that you can see over here and of course you can see in the round (and I’m showing on one side here) but this is Facsimile 1, you can see Abraham on the lion couch–this part here we’re going to be talking about a little bit but this is called the small ‘Sensen’ text and these are instructions for the deceased in the afterlife. Such a scroll was commonly included in Egyptian burials.

In the scholarly world this type of scroll is also referred to as the Document of Breathings Made by Isis or the Breathings Permit or the Sensen Text. The word ‘breathing’ is supposedly translated from the Egyptian ‘Sensen.’ I talked to Dr. John Gee as I was preparing this and he said that he has recently argued that that is a mistranslation–that it’s not ‘breathings,’ that ‘sensen’ doesn’t mean that.

I would like to examine the three most common arguments relating to the Joseph Smith papyri and Joseph Smith’s translation in the Book of Abraham. First the age of the “text” vs. the age of the papyri; secondly, the “restorations” of the facsimiles; and then third, the relationship between the Sensen text and the Book of Abraham.

Date of the Book of Abraham vs. the Date of the Papyri

When Joseph obtained the papyri in 1835 he reportedly said that “one of the scrolls contained the writings of Abraham . . . .” According to Joseph’s scribes this scroll was “purportedly written by his own hand, upon papyrus.”2

It seems reasonable to conclude that Joseph may have believed that Abraham himself, with pen in hand, wrote the very words that he was translating. The problem is that modern scholars (including LDS scholars) date the papyri to a few centuries before Christ whereas Abraham lived about two millennia before Christ. Obviously Abraham could not have penned the papyri himself.

Now this issue is very similar to that of Book of Mormon geography. It is very likely that Joseph Smith believed in a hemispheric Book of Mormon geography–it made sense to his understanding of the world around him. Such a misinformed belief or most likely misinformed belief, according to modern scholarship, makes him no less a prophet. It simply provides us with an example of how Joseph, like any other human, tried to understand new information according to his current knowledge. So, likewise, with the Abrahamic papyri: Joseph, by way of revelation, saw that the papyri contained scriptural teachings of Abraham and it would have been natural, therefore, to assume that Abraham wrote the papyri.

But how could the teachings of Abraham be present on a document written 2,000 years after Abraham lived? As Dr. Gee notes, we find the same thing with biblical manuscripts. There is a major difference, he explains, “between the date of a text [the information contained on the papyri] and the date of a manuscript [the papyri itself].”3

“The date of a text is the date when the text was written by its author. A text can be copied into various manuscripts or translated into other languages, and these manuscripts or translations will have different, later dates than the date of the original text. When we refer to the date of a text, we refer to the date of the original text. For example, the text of the Gospel of Matthew was written in the first century A.D., but the earliest manuscript that we have of Matthew was copied in the third century A.D.”4 –a couple of hundred years later.

Some scholars propose that the original Book of Abraham “text” was written by Abraham and then “passed down through his descendants (the Jews), some of whom took a copy to Egypt where it was copied (after being translated) onto a later manuscript”5 and of course the manuscript then would have a later date.

Restorations of the Facsimiles

It seems obvious in at least some instances that when the drawings were “restored” and printed for LDS publications that the restorations of the lacunae were done without inspiration. When we look at the restorations of Facsimile 2, for instance, we see that at least some of the restorations were obviously taken from the text of the Sensen text or another one of Joseph’s scrolls, the Book of the Dead–the different parts. So we can see here that this part is here. That it was filled in in some of the missing pieces. So he just kind of took some of the Egyptian parts.

When we look at the restorations of Facsimile 1 we see that missing portions were penciled on the backing paper to which they were glued before being mounted. This is how Facsimile 1 looks in restored LDS scripture.6 See the lion couch in both to kind of get your bearings. According to some LDS scholars, this is more likely how Facsimile 1 would have looked.

According to the critics, Facsimile 1 appears to be a fairly typical scene from Egyptian funerary texts; the critics note that other similar Egyptian motifs depict Osiris (on the lion couch) and the priest (an embalmer) with the head of a jackal, Anubis (an Egyptian god) rather than a bald, human head. Other comparable Egyptian embalming scenes do not show the priest holding a knife, they do not show any man pleading or praying, and they generally show two hawks. The critics claim that Joseph Smith drew in the missing parts by adding (incorrectly) those things which we find in the LDS version of this Egyptian scene. What Joseph saw as the fingers of Abraham’s outstretched hands, for instance, were actually (according to the critics) the wingtips of the missing second hawk as redrawn by the critics.

Now some of you may have noticed the blue dot on the anti-Mormon reconstruction. This is to cover the obscene ithyphallic that they claim would have been in the original vignette. Ed Ashment who is more informed on Egyptology than most critics did not include this in his reconstruction.

Now all anti-Mormon sites that I was able to find on the Internet who had a reconstruction of Facsimile 1 seemed to follow Charles Larson’s (the upper one) reconstruction with ithyphallic figure and it’s possible that Larson may have followed non-LDS Richard Parker’s 1968 claim that the Osiris figure, which is the- what we have as Abraham here, the Egyptians say that’s Osiris, and in 1968 Richard Parker thought the figure would have been ithyphallic but Ed Ashment didn’t follow that; he didn’t agree with that, and John Gee says he knows of no other papyrus lion couch scene with an ithyphallic figure or any Egyptian drawing where someone, wearing breeches as seen in Facsimile 1, is ithyphallic.

Now why do most anti-Mormons follow Larson instead of Ashment? Now some critics may be unaware of Ashment’s reconstruction and it’s possible that they follow this because it is more shocking if they’re trying to diss Mormonism.

There are at least three responses to the arguments regarding the restorations. Some scholars such as Kevin Barney and Michael Rhodes have noted the possibility that Joseph Smith, Reuben Hedlock (the engraver who made the facsimiles), or someone else may have filled in the lacunae in the papyri the best they could for purposes of publication. Nineteenth century printers didn’t have the same standards that we have today. They wouldn’t have wanted to publish incomplete facsimiles so they repaired them for publication purposes not necessary from inspiration. It’s also possible that either Joseph repaired some of the parts which may not have been in the original in order to more closely approximate the details or intent conveyed by the Abrahamic text in relation to the vignettes.

Joseph’s corrections to the later editions of the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine & Covenants, and even the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, are all instructive on this issue. In each case, Joseph–by way of revelation, inspiration, or analysis–”restored” or amended scripture to more closely approximate the additional insights he had gleaned by divine revelation.

Thirdly, since the actual papyri was not written by Abraham himself it’s possible that the scribe who composed the particular Sensen text altered the traditional ways of creating the funerary scene in order to convey an illustration that more closely coincided with the teachings of Abraham.

It is significant to point out that the placement of the illustration of Facsimile 1 within a Sensen text appears to be highly unusual. According to Dr. Gee this is the only instance of which he knows wherein the illustration of Facsimile 1 has been found in a Sensen text. He also says that this embalming lion couch scene is significantly different than the lion couch scenes with which he is familiar. This suggests the possibility that 1) it is not a typical embalming scene; and 2) that there may be something highly unusual about this Sensen text as compared to other Sensen text. (I’ll get to more of that later too.)

There seems to be at least some evidence that the vignette for Facsimile 1 was damaged after Joseph had already translated it. Maybe this was in the original that we see in the Pearl of Great Price. One early Latter-day Saint who saw the papyri in 1841, for instance, described them as containing the scene of an altar with “‘a man bound and laid thereon, and a Priest with a knife in his hand, standing at the foot, with a dove over the person bound on the Altar with several Idol gods standing around it.’”7 Reverend Henry Caswall, who visited Nauvoo in April 1842, had a chance to see some of the Egyptian papyri. Caswall, who was hostile to the Saints, described Facsimile 1 as having a “‘man standing by him with a drawn knife.’”8

Some LDS researchers have also argued that the fingers which critics claim are the wingtips of a second hawk look more significantly more like fingers (according to Egyptian drawings) than hawk wingtips. Here we see on the left these are the thumbs and these are the wings from the drawing. And then if we look at the wings from other Egyptian drawings we see that that generally the feathers are together and that they are not always spread out. They are down in this one but they go down rather than up and this artist here obviously kept these wingtips together rather than separated which makes it look like they’re possibly thumbs. And we also see how some of these Egyptian artists drew thumbs. Here is a magnification of the thumbs and then again we look at the thumb lines in other Egyptian drawings.

It’s also interesting to note that although embalming priests are typically drawn with Anubis heads, other Egyptian graphics show that Egyptian priests are represented as bald. In fact, shaving one’s head was a common practice for those who entered the Egyptian priesthood during the Ptolemaic period which is when the Joseph Smith papyri was produced. Anubis heads were worn as masks to emulate the gods.9 Joseph got it right by representing the man with the knife as a priest so whether he has Anubis head or bald he is still represented as a priest, which is accurate.

Kerry Shirts has shown that some of the restorations of Facsimile 2 appear to be correct from an Egyptian standpoint and for the last decade and a half the late Dr. Hugh Nibley was working on his magnum opus, “One Eternal Round” which deals in part directly with Facsimile 2 and hopefully someday we’ll se that published by FARMS and I’m sure we’ll have additional insights to add to our list.

The Sensen Text and the Book of Abraham

When scholars examined the rediscovered Joseph Smith papyri and compared them to some of the pages of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers an interesting discovery was made; some of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers have Egyptian characters on the left of a vertical line and what appears to be an English translation to the right of that line–and again Dr. Hauglid will speak more about this tomorrow.

What was discovered with a return of the Joseph Smith fragments was that the Egyptian characters to the left of the line lined up with the Egyptian to the left there’s Facsimile 1 and these characters right here and that’s what is to the left of the line and this really hadn’t been earlier because they noticed then that these two pieces were separate pieces and they join together.

Some have presumed that the so-called Kirtland Egyptian papers demonstrate Joseph’s attempt to translate the hieroglyphics. According to most Egyptologists the translations do not accurately reflect the meaning of the hieroglyphics. In some cases several paragraphs of English text appear to be an English translation of a single Egyptian character. On the surface, this appears that Joseph put the characters on the left and then translated these characters on the right. As the critics correctly point out the translations do not match. Egyptologists assure us that there is no relationship between the characters and the text. To the critics this is proof that Joseph was a false prophet.

Most LDS scholars believe that the Kirtland Egyptian Papers are an example of backwards translation so that Joseph already had the translated Book of Abraham and that he and his associates were trying to match the already translated English text to plausible Egyptian characters. Joseph had learned already by now, from the Book of Mormon, that the ancient text can be written in compact script like reformed Egyptian and he may have thought that a single Egyptian character could yield several sentences of English translation–I’ll leave again the arguments to Dr. Hauglid’s talk–for the purpose of this presentation it’s important simply to note the apparent relationship.

But did Joseph believe, or possibly believe, that the Egyptian characters on the Sensen text translated as the Book of Abraham when Egyptologists tell us they do not? The answer lies in the Book of Abraham itself.

In more than one verse we read that Facsimile 1, this representation, is found at the beginning of this record:

And it came to pass that the priests laid violence upon me, that they might slay me also, as they did those virgins upon this altar; and that you may have a knowledge of this altar, I will refer you to the representation at the commencement of this record. (Ab. 1:12)

That you may have an understanding of these gods, I have given you the fashion of them in the figures at the beginning, which manner of figures is called by the Chaldeans Rahleenos, which signifies hieroglyphics. (Ab. 1:14)

To the early Saints and most of us today this would have seemed to indicate that the record of Abraham began with the text following Facsimile 1.

Dr. Gee believes that Joseph Smith originally had five papyrus scrolls. Of these five scrolls, only eleven fragments of two scrolls have survived. And part of the reason why he believes there was five different scrolls is that he had one scroll per person and here’s the names of them and that includes the hypocephalus down here–so there’s five different scrolls and the colored portions are what we had left so there’s a lot missing.

He says of the five scrolls only eleven fragments of two scrolls have survived. Hugh Nibley claimed that according to tradition one of the scrolls was so long that when it was unrolled it extended through two rooms of the Mansion House.

Not all of the Sensen text are of equal length and Dr. Gee estimates that the Joseph Smith Sensen text may have been longer than some or most of comparable Sensen texts; and keep in mind that the presence of Facsimile 1 in the Joseph Smith Sensen text suggests that this Sensen text may have been very different than other similar Sensen texts. Dr. Gee suggests that Joseph may have had eight times as much papyri as what is currently extant.

A number of scholars contend that the reason that the extant papyrus fragments don’t have anything to do with the Book of Abraham is because we no longer have the portion of papyrus which would have contained the Book of Abraham text.

In rebuttal, the critics claim that since the scroll of Horus is a fairly typical Sensen scroll that the entire scroll would not be much longer than those portions that we have and so they say basically there couldn’t have been anything else and furthermore they contend we know that this particular scroll is the source because Abraham claimed that Facsimile 1 was at the commencement of this record. Now there are problems with this claim.

To quote Dr. Gee, “Some people assume that if the documents [Joseph Smith Papyri] are funerary they cannot contain anything else. Some Book of the Dead papyri, however, do contain other texts.”10 He notes in fact that about 40 percent of Sensen text have other documents attached to them. Almost 40 percent–that’s a lot of other texts that have something attached to them. So when Abraham said that Facsimile 1 began at the commencement of this record, he–or more likely the scribe that composed the roll (as we’ll discuss momentarily) was referring to the commencement of this scroll. So if the Book of Abraham was attached on here but the Abraham text said at the commencement of this scroll right here, it would’ve seemed natural to think that perhaps this was the Book of Abraham text but more likely he was referring to the beginning of the scroll when he said beginning of the scroll–scroll and record being interchangeable.

The question then arises why would an important Semitic document–the Book of Abraham–be attached to a pagan Egyptian funerary text? First it’s important to understand that despite the claims of the critics, some Egyptians had a detailed knowledge of Abraham.

In more than one known instance, Egyptian papyri which contain Egyptian instructions on one side also included Semitic writings on the backside. In one case, Psalms 20 through 55. One Egyptian temple archive with an extensive collection of Egyptian rituals provides the only manuscript for the prayer of Jacob that is included in the Charlesworth Pseudepigrapha volume as well as two copies of the eighth book of Moses which discusses the initiation into the Temple at Jerusalem. The most commonly invoked deity in the collection is Jehovah. Moses and Abraham are also mentioned in the collection.

Kevin Barney posits that the Book of Abraham material was passed on through generations from Abraham to Jews of the 3rd century B.C.–or the Ptolemaic period–just as Old Testament scriptures were passed on to later generations. Sometime in the Ptolemaic period, a hypothetical Jewish redactor (which is an editor), whom Barney labels “J-red” attached the Book of Abraham to the Egyptian papyri. Why? Because of the useful symbolism contained on the vignettes of the Egyptian funerary text. Numerous studies show that all people recontextualize images according to their current environments and specific needs and beliefs. Early Mormons, for example, recontextualized Masonic symbols for Temple use; early Christians adapted common Pagan symbols to convey Christian truths. This phenomena is found throughout the world; it seems very likely that the Egyptian vignettes–as reproduced in the Joseph Smith Papyri–provided the rich symbolism that could graphically convey ancient Jewish beliefs about Abraham.

This claim is supported by several known ancient Jewish texts. As an illustration of Semitic recontextualization of Egyptian material, Barney notes that many Biblical scholars believe that an ancient book–the Instructions of Amenemope–may have been the source for parts of the biblical book of Proverbs.11

The ancient and recently discovered “Testament of Abraham” has several similarities to the LDS Book of Abraham. The book also has strong similarities to an ancient papyrus related to the Book of the Dead. For example, notes Barney, it is widely recognized that a judgment scene described in the Testament of Abraham was “influenced by an Egyptian psychostasy (“soul weighing”) papyrus…. It may even be that the author [of the Testament of Abraham] was gazing on such a psychostasy papyrus when he penned his account. But while there is a clear relationship between the Egyptian psychostasy scene and the judgment scene of the Testament of Abraham, the scene has been transformed to accord with Semitic needs and sensibilities. Osiris [Egyptian god] has become Abel; the Egyptian gods have become angels. Our author looks at the Egyptian illustration, yet sees a situation peopled with Semitic characters.12

Note the Osiris-Abel connection, because we’re going to come to that in a second.

Another example comes from the book of Luke story of the rich man and Lazarus. In this tale, the beggar Lazarus ate the crumbs that fell from a rich man’s table. When Lazarus died, angels carried him to Abraham’s bosom. When the rich man died, he awoke in Hell but could see–far away–Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham. The rich man begged Abraham to send the dead Lazarus to his brothers so that they would repent and not befall the same terrible fate. (See Luke 16:19-31).

Scholars have shown that this story is based on a popular Jewish tale, written in Hebrew, but is ultimately dependent on an Egyptian legend. In the original Egyptian story, the names are different (as are some of the general details of the story) but the basic account and moral is the same. In the Egyptian version, however (the version upon which the Hebrew tradition depends), Osiris plays the part later adapted (by Jews) to Abraham.13 It seems that the early Jews had no problem adapting the pagan god Osiris to important Judaic figures such as Abel or Abraham.

Not only do we see, in the Book of Luke, a Jewish adaptation of an Egyptian judgment scene, but we also find some interesting parallels to Facsimile 1 from the Book of Abraham. In this vignette, Joseph identified the figure lying on the lion couch as Abraham. Egyptologists, however, identify the figure as Osiris.14 Based on an early Judaic adaptation of Facsimile 1, Joseph got it exactly right if we view this vignette from within a context of a Ptolemaic period Jewish understanding.

Instead of focusing on how Egyptians of the 2nd century B.C. or 2000 B.C. understood the motifs, Barney argues that Abraham did not draw the vignettes (which date nearly two thousand years after Abraham lived) but that these Egyptian vignettes “were either adopted [copied wholesale as the Egyptians drew them] or adapted [altered to more accurately reflect the Semitic perspective] by an Egyptian-Jewish redactor as illustrations of the attempt on Abraham’s life and Abraham’s teaching astronomy to the Egyptians.”15 Barney argues that we should focus our attention on understanding how Jews of the 2nd century B.C. understood the Egyptian graphics.

In Facsimile 1 (the lion couch scene), for instance, under the floor there is a crocodile. Under the crocodile are numerous vertical lines. Joseph interpreted these lines as representing the “pillars of heaven.” Egyptologists, however, tell us that this is incorrect. These lines really signify the palace faÁade. The etched lines around the crocodile signify, according to Joseph, “Raukeeyang” or “the expanse or firmament over our heads,” or the high “heavens.” Egyptologists, however, tell us that the lines are simply waters in which the crocodile swims. So according to an Egyptian interpretation, Joseph got it all wrong.

What if we compare Joseph’s interpretation to how 2nd century B.C. Jews might have understood the scene? Firstly, Joseph’s “Raukeeyang” is very similar to the Hebrew word for “expanse.”16 “In Hebrew cosmology,” writes Barney, “the Hebrew ‘firmament’ was believed to be a solid dome, supported by pillars.” Recall the vertical lines in the vignette. This, “in turn was closely associated with the celestial ocean, which it supported.” And remember that in Facsimile 1 it appears that the pillars are under the water in which the crocodile swims.

In the lower half of Facsimile 1, we have [the firmament]…(1) connected with the waters, as with the celestial ocean, (2) appearing to be supported by pillars, and (3) being solid and therefore capable of serving itself as a support, in this case for the lion couch. The bottom half of Facsimile 1 would have looked to J-red very much like a microcosm of the universe (in much the same way that the divine throne chariot of Ezekiel 1-2, which associates the four four-faced fiery living creatures with the [firmament]…above their heads on which God sits enthroned, is a microcosm of the universe).17

If we accept a Jewish redactor adapting Egyptian motifs to a Hebrew understanding, we can easily appreciate the possibility that “J-red” attached the Book of Abraham manuscript to the Book of Breathings (the Sensen text) in order to graphically convey the doctrines portrayed in the Book of Abraham document. Barney gives this useful comparison to the Book of Mormon:

“The gold plates were untouched by human hands from the time Moroni deposited them in a stone box in the fifth century A.D. until Joseph’s retrieval of the cache in 1827. Prior to that time, however, the records of the Book of Mormon peoples underwent an express redaction [abridgement or editing] process at the hands of Mormon and Moroni. Similarly, the papyrus source for the Book of Abraham sat untouched from the time it was deposited in the tomb during Greco-Roman age until Lebolo retrieved it [about 1820]. Before that time, though, it circulated among people and was subject to normal transmission processes. My hypothetical redactor, J-red, was in essentially the same position with respect to the Book of Abraham as Mormon was with respect to the Book of Mormon.18

So coming back to the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, to the relationship between the Sensen text and the commencement of this record we realize that “this record” probably referred to the beginning of the combined scrolls (that begins with Facsimile 1) but not the beginning of the Abrahamic text.

It must be remembered that Joseph could not read Egyptian. He could not “translate” in the normal sense. He translated by the power of God. It’s possible that Joseph, at times, translated the Book of Mormon while the plates were covered, or perhaps even while the plates were removed from the room.

While I believe that an actual Book of Abraham manuscript was present and probably appended to the Sensen text, it is significant to recognize that revelation was the method by which the text was translated. This realization allows for other possibilities. If, for example, the appended Abrahamic scroll was damaged, Joseph would still have been able to “translate” the text. If the appended scroll was partially missing, the “translation” might not have suffered. It’s also possible that Joseph, in the process of creating the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, looked at the Egyptian characters and–thinking that they were the Egyptian symbols composed by Abraham–proceeded to “translate” from these characters. In such a scenario the actual Book of Abraham translation could still be based on a real manuscript, but not on what Joseph thought was the manuscript. Whichever scenario, we need not reject Joseph’s prophetic calling.

Evidences Supporting an Authentically Ancient Book of Abraham

In Facsimile 2 are four mummy-like figures known–to Egyptologists–as the Sons of Horus. Their images were also on the canopic jars (the jars that stored the internal organs of the deceased) that we see under the lion couch scene in Facsimile 1. Joseph revealed that these four figures represented “this earth in its four quarters.” According to modern Egyptologists, Joseph Smith is correct. The Sons of Horus “were the gods of the four quarters of the earth and later came to be regarded as presiding over the four cardinal points.”19

Years ago, Dr. Nibley pointed out that the critics generally focus on the Egyptian vignettes in the Book of Abraham and the papyri but neglect the much richer Abrahamic traditions found in the Ancient Near East. This is really where Joseph shines. Recent studies into ancient Abrahamic lore and Jewish traditions preserved in ancient texts, show some surprising parallels to what we find in the text of the Book of Abraham. Some of these parallels are very convincing and imply that Joseph (who likely could not have had access to many of these traditions) actually restored authentic ancient Abrahamic lore. Some of these parallels include early Jewish traditions about Abraham’s life–details not found in the Bible.20 Two such ancient documents that show some surprising parallels to our Book of Abraham are the Apocalypse of Abraham21 and the Testament of Abraham22 (the Apocalypse of Abraham dates to about the same time as the Book of Abraham papyri).

Other interesting parallels include ancient names, for example, that would have been unknown to Joseph Smith. These names are accurately represented in the Book of Abraham both phonetically as well as in meaning.23 Those of you who attended last year’s conference would have heard John Tvedtnes speak on this. He pointed out that many of the names were authentic.

Another interesting parallel is ancient astronomy. In Joseph Smith’s day “heliocentricity” (as proposed by Copernicus and Newton) was the accepted astronomical view. Nineteenth-century people (including the most brilliant minds of the day) believed that everything revolved around the Sun–therefore the term “heliocentric” (Greek helios=sun + centered). (In the twentieth-first century we generally accept an Einsteinian view of the cosmos.) The Book of Abraham, however, clearly delineates a geocentric view of the universe–or a belief that the Earth (Greek geo) stood at the center of the universe, and all things moved around our planet.

According to ancient geocentric cosmologies and what we read in the Book of Abraham, the heavens (which is defined as the expanse above the earth–no celestial object is mentioned to exist below the earth) was composed of multiple layers or tiers–each tier higher than the previous. Therefore the Sun is in a higher tier than the moon, and the stars are in higher tiers still (compare Abraham 3:5, 9, 17).24 According to geocentric astronomy, celestial objects have longer time spans (or lengths of “reckoning”) based upon their relative distance from the earth. “Thus, the length of reckoning of a planet is based on its revolution [time to orbit around the center, in this case the earth](and not rotation [time to spin on its axis, as the earth does every 24 hours]).”25 The higher the celestial object, the greater its length of reckoning (compare Abraham 3:5). Likewise, in Abraham 3:8-9, we read that “there shall be another planet whose reckoning of time shall be longer still; And thus there shall be the reckoning of the time of one planet above another, until thou come nigh unto Kolob.”

Ancient geocentric astronomers believed that the stars were “the outer-most celestial sphere, furthest from the earth and nearest to God.”26 We find in the Book of Abraham that the star Kolob was the star nearest “the throne of God” (Abraham 3:9). In the ancient, yet recently discovered, Apocalypse of Abraham (which dates from about the same time period as the Joseph Smith papyri but wasn’t discovered until after Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham), we find that God’s throne is said to reside in the eighth firmament (the firmaments, being another term for the varying tiers in the heavens above the Earth).27

The Book of Abraham also reveals that those celestial objects that are highest above the earth, “govern” the objects below them (see Abraham 3:3, 9 and Facsimile 2, fig. 5). This sounds similar to the beliefs of those who accepted an ancient geocentric cosmology:

Throughout the ancient world the governing role of celestial bodies was conceived in similar terms. God sits on his throne in the highest heaven giving commands, which are passed down by angels through the various regions of heaven, with each region governing or commanding the regions beneath it.28

We find this governing order described in the Apocalypse of Abraham and other ancient sources. All of this makes sense only from an ancient geocentric perspective (such as that believed in Abraham’s day) and makes no sense from a heliocentric perspective (which is what Joseph would have known in his day and everybody else around him believed).

A different interesting parallel comes from Facsimile 1 (Abraham on the lion couch). According to Egyptologists, this is a typical Egyptian embalming scene and has nothing to do with Abraham or sacrifice. In fact, the critics assure us, Abraham is not a topic of discussion in Egyptian papyri, and there is no connection with Abraham and the embalming lion couch.

Recent discoveries, however, suggests that the Biblical Abraham does appear in some Egyptian papyri that date to the same period as the Joseph Smith papyri. In one instance Abraham’s name appears to have a connection to an Egyptian lion couch scene.29

The stories and worldviews we find in the translated text of our Book of Abraham coincide nicely with what we find from ancient Abrahamic lore.

In Facsimile 2 the hypocephalus–and I just inserted this a few minutes before the conference started–we read that in some ancient text that Abraham is referred to as the pupil (or iris) of the of the wedjat-eye.30 This is a graphic of it here in Facsimile 2. And what’s interesting about that is that the wedjat-eye also refers to hypocephalus–to this type of graphic–and the god of the hypocephalus would have been the pupil (or iris) of the wedjat-eye. Well some of the text refers to Abraham being that pupil of the wedjat-eye so we see an obvious relationship that some saw from Abraham to hypocephali.

The other thing is that Christians in Egypt would have referred to the underworld as “the bosom of Abraham.”31 Well the hypocephalus was placed under the head basically to keep the body warm during the long night until the morning of the resurrection and also it enveloped them with the divine power of the god of the hypocephalus–well the (inaudible) Christians referred to the underworld as “the bosom of Abraham” so we see again a connection there with Jewish and Christian thought and the Book of Abraham as Joseph Smith translated it and in ancient thought on this.

Recent discoveries basically seem to bear out that Joseph Smith not as wrong the critics claim and in many instances is correct. In fact in instances that are pretty hard to guess how he would have come up with some of these interesting parallels.

I’d like to thank you for the time and I think that Joseph Smith warrants further study and his translation process.

Thank you.

Questions and Answers

Q: On the question of thumbs vs wings in Facsimile 1, fig. 4, it seems that Reuben Hedlock’s rendition of the bird in Facsimile 2, fig. 4 shows precisely the same time of extended wing position by Egyptologists for a bird hovering over Osiris in Facsimile 1. Don’t you think this lends support to Egyptologists’ claim?

Ash: Facsimile 4 here. There is a separation on this; and in some cases in drawings of hawks there is separation and they are usually pointed down whereas in Facsimile 1 (if we can back the slide a little bit more here) we see how these are pointed up which is not typically how we would have seen this. Generally they are joined together, in some cases they are separated. Here they are pointing up and we already know how this artist draws wingtips–he draws them like this–so while it’s certainly possible that the wingtips were drawn here and as I noted there are several arguments on this. It could be that there seems to be evidence that some people have seen the lacuna portion before it was destroyed and had noted a priest with a knife and so forth and hadn’t mentioned the two hawks but it’s also possible that the Jewish redactor drew this in or that Joseph Smith later had drawn that in. So there are several possibilities all of them would still work from a logical point of view that don’t claim fraud from Joseph Smith. So personally looking at these I don’t see how these wingtips, or these fingers, could be wingtips pointing up especially since that’s how the artist already draws the wingtips.


1 See

2 Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, ed. by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 2:235, 236, 348ñ351.

3 John Gee, “A History of the Joseph Smith Papyri and the Book of Abraham” (Provo: FARMS, 1999), 15.

4 Gee, A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri, 23ñ24.

5 Ibid., 28.

6 See

7 William I. Appleby Journal, 5 May 1841, ms. 1401 1, pp. 71ñ72, LDS Church Archives; as quoted in Gee, “Eyewitness, Hearsay, and Physical Evidence,” 184.

8 Henry Caswall, The City of the Mormons; or, Three Days at Nauvoo, in 1842 (London: Rivington, 1842), 23; quoted in Gee, “Eyewitness, Hearsay, and Physical Evidence,” 186.

9 Kerry A. Shirts, “On Anubis, Masks, and Uniqueness of Facsimile #1 in the Book of Abraham.”

10 John Gee, “Eyewitness, Hearsay, and Physical Evidence of the Joseph Smith Papyri,” in The Disciple As Witness: Essays on Latter-Day Saint History and Doctrine in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson, edited by Richard Lloyd Anderson, Stephen D. Ricks, Donald W. Parry, and Andrew H. Hedges, (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000), 192.

11 Kevin L. Barney, “The Facsimiles and Semitic Adaptation of Existing Sources,” in John Gee and Brian M. Hauglind (editors), Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2006), 115ñ116.

12 Ibid., 117ñ118.

13 Barney, “The Facsimiles,” 119ñ21; Blake T. Ostler, “Abraham: An Egyptian Connection” (FARMS paper, 1981); Kerry Shirts, “Abraham, Father of the Faithful, Or Osiris, Pagan Egyptian God?”], Mormonism Researched (accessed 6 October 2005).

14 Charles M. Larson, By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus: A New Look at the Joseph Smith Papyri (Grand Rapids, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 1992), 102.

15 Barney, “The Facsimiles,” 114.

16 Ibid., 123; see also Tvedtnes, “Authentic Ancient Names.”

17 Ibid., 123.

18 Ibid., 126.

19 Michael D. Rhodes, “The Joseph Smith Hypocephalus…Twenty Years Later.”

20 See John A. Tvedtnes, Brian M. Hauglid, and John Gee (editors), Traditions About the Early Life of Abraham (Provo: FARMS, 2001).

21 For some of the parallels see Hugh W. Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, 2nd edition, (Vol. 14 of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by Gary P. Gillum, Illustrated by Michael P. Lyon, (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Company ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2000), 8ñ40; John Gee, William J. Hamblin, and Daniel C. Peterson, “‘And I Saw the Stars’: The Book of Abraham and Ancient Geocentric Astronomy,” in John Gee and Brian M. Hauglind (editors), Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2006), 1ñ16.

22 See Jeff Lindsay, “Could there have been a real Egyptian scroll that actually, literally discussed Abraham?” (accessed 23 September 2005); Michael D. Rhodes, “The Book of Abraham: Divinely Inspired Scripture (Review of By His Own Hand upon Papyrus: A New Look at the Joseph Smith Papyri by Charles M. Larson),” FARMS Review of Books 4/1 (1992): 120ñ126; Hugh Nibley, “The Facsimiles of the Book of Abraham,” Sunstone {{{num}}} (December 1979): 49ñ51; Kerry Shirts, “The Book of the Dead and the Book of Abraham”; Hugh W. Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, 2nd edition, (Vol. 14 of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by Gary P. Gillum, Illustrated by Michael P. Lyon, (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Company ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2000), 1.

23 See John A. Tvedtnes, “Authentic Ancient Names and Words in the Book of Abraham and Related Kirtland Egyptian Papers,” presentation at the 2005 FAIR Conference; Kerry Shirts, “On the Names of the Four Canopic Jars in Facsimile 1.”

24 Gee, Hamblin, and Peterson, “‘And I Saw the Stars’”, 5.

25 Ibid., 8.

26 Ibid., 9.

27 Ibid.

28 Ibid., 10.

29 John Gee, A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000), 12ñ13.

30 John Gee, “Research and Perspectives: Abraham in Ancient Egyptian Texts.”

31 John Gee, “Abracadabra, Isaac and Jacob (Review of The Use of Egyptian Magical Papyri to Authenticate the Book of Abraham: A Critical Review by Edward H. Ashment),” FARMS Review of Books 7/1 (1995): 80.

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