Book of Abraham, I Presume

John Gee
August 2012

Book of Abraham, I Presume

[Editor’s Note: This is a transcription of a presentation made at the August 2012 FAIR Conference. The transcribers added footnotes for clarification and as suggestions for further study. The footnotes are thus not Dr. Gee’s but the transcribers’. Grammatical corrections have also been made for readability.]

It’s good to be here. According to some Internet discussion groups I understand I’m here as the comic relief. I’ve rewritten this talk several times never quite settling on a subject and some of you may find evidence of that in the program. So when they asked me what I was going to talk on I said, “Book of Abraham, I presume.” I was originally going to talk about how the presuppositions we make about the Book of Abraham color the way we look at the text, but now I’m going to give you a baker’s dozen of things that I’ve published about the Book of Abraham in the last five years. And this is not all that I’ve published, not even all that I’ve published on the Book of Abraham and also includes only the work that has actually appeared in print and none of the things that are still in the pipeline. And I’m organizing these topics not chronologically, but rather in something of a logical order.

So let’s start with the relationship of the Book of Abraham to the Joseph Smith Papyri. There are three different points of view here. One, that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham from the papyri that we have. Almost no one really believes this. But to hear the critics tell it this is the official position of the church. It’s not. Nor do most members of the church subscribe to this so far as I can tell. So, it’s a strawman. The second one is that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham from papyri that we do not currently have and this is the position that most accords with the historical evidence. And the third one is that Joseph Smith received the Book of Abraham strictly by revelation and it did not come from the papyri at all. This position seems to be popular among Latter-day Saints but seems to have no historical evidence to support it.

Now, let’s illustrate this in another way. Let’s let these represent the scrolls that Joseph Smith had. These are not all to scale, they are not in size, but we have the scroll of Horus, the scroll of Semminis, Amenothis scrolls another scroll and these mounted fragments. And the first theory says that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham from the mounted fragments. This is an anti-Mormon theory and Latter-Day Saints simply do not believe it. (Though you might find a few that do.) The second theory says that the Book of Abraham was translated from another scroll without necessarily specifying which one, but not from the mounted fragments. And the third theory says that the Book of Abraham was not on any scroll that Joseph Smith presented.

Now Egyptologists tell us the mounted fragments were from the Book of the Dead and the Document of Breathings made by Isis. We agree with them. Egyptologists also tell us that neither of these is the Book of Abraham and we agree with them there too. The contents of the mounted fragments we currently have are irrelevant to the debate about the Book of Abraham since the historical sources say that the Book of Abraham was on a scroll not on the fragments. So it does not matter what W. W. Phelps thought about the papyri. We can stipulate that the text of the mounted fragments are the Book of the Dead and the Document of Breathings made by Isis. So it is useless for Egyptologists to try to prove what we have already stipulated.

Now the problem could be looked at another way. He had a scroll of Horus, a scroll of Semminis, a hypocephalus of Shesonqis, some fragments from Imuthis, maybe a scroll, we don’t really know. And then we have these eyewitness descriptions so that one of them is that there were “a number of glazed slides, like picture frames, containing sheets of papyrus with Egyptian inscriptions and hieroglyphics.” There was “a long roll of manuscript”, “another roll” and “two or three other small pieces of papyrus with astronomical calculations, epitaphs, etc.” 1 Now, the number of glazed slides went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and then went to the Church. The long roll of manuscript, the other roll, and the two or three small pieces of papyrus seem to have gone to the Wood Museum, though you could probably argue that some of the two or three small pieces may be the glazed slides. And all the Mormon and non-Mormon eye-witnesses identify the long roll of manuscript as the one containing the Book of Abraham so the fact that you don’t find the Book of Abraham on these mounted fragments isn’t a problem because the historical sources say it’s on a different papyrus.

Now looking at some of the studies published, the American in Research Center in Egypt meetings I presented a paper that shows that much of what the Egyptological community thinks it knows about the Joseph Smith Papyri is wrong.2 Egyptologists have either not read the literature on the Joseph Smith Papyri or they have not understood it. They seem to think that Latter-day Saints believe that Joseph Smith somehow translated the Book of Abraham from the Document of Breathings made by Isis, but we don’t. Therefore they think that all they have to do is translate the Document of Breathings Made by Isis and that it will convince Latter-Day Saints to give up their religion because they have demonstrated that what they think we believe is not true. And all they’ve shown is what they think we believe isn’t true, because it isn’t what we believe. What they really demonstrate when they do this is that they don’t understand the argument.

Now, in an editor’s introduction to An Approach to the Book of Abraham, I tell the story of how Hugh Nibley got started in Egyptology and show how the story of the rediscovery of the Joseph Smith Papyri was nothing of the sort.3 The Metropolitan Museum of Art always knew what they had, they always knew it belonged to Joseph Smith, they’d circulated photographs in the early 1960’s and Hugh Nibley had actually seen some of these before the papyri were rediscovered. So that story isn’t quite correct and if you want to you can read what I have to say in that book in the introduction to that book will give you some of the documentation.

One of the more remarkable aspects of Hugh Nibley’s involvement in this is that he was in the library stacks one day in the late 50’s and got this prompting that he ought to go study Egyptology. Now he tried to do this before and it was that he should go to Berkley and study Egyptology. So he arranged for a sabbatical and he thought it was going to be a big waste of time because he went round and round with [Henry L. F.] Lutz before and never got anywhere because Lutz hated Mormons, and he arrived at Berkley the day that Lutz was packing his office, having retired and Klaus Baer stepping in. But he was able to take that one impression and use his mind, his training, to study Egyptian and to prepare himself so that when the papyri actually came forth again in `67, he recognized what was the Book of the Dead and that there was another document, this Document of Breathings Made by Isis, that everyone had just assumed was the Book of the Dead without bothering to read it and he read it and said, “This isn’t the Book of the Dead, this is this other text,” and he was the one that identified that. Klaus Baer would give him credit; nobody else does.4

Now the Joseph Smith Papyri tell us a few things about the owners of the papyri and one of these is the titles of Horus, the owner of Joseph Smith Papyrus I , XI and X. Now one of his titles is “The Prophet of Min who Massacres His Enemies”. An examination of everything known about this obscure cult and figure shows that Horus would have been involved in mock human sacrifice on a regular basis. Other things that show up in here is that we have some genealogy now for Horus, but this expands it and provides some of the people with genealogy with actual dates. So in the past they’ve fudged where it actually dates to and this one gives some actual dates to some of the people who owned the papyri.5

Now, as some of you may be aware, I caused something of a furor five years back here at the FAIR Conference when I applied a formula developed by my colleague Friedhelm Hoffmann to the Joseph Smith Papyri.6 Now, the idea behind the formula is that the interior portion of a papyrus is contained by the outer portion of the papyrus and thus is bounded, finite and can be calculated. Now I had applied Hoffmann’s formula to the Joseph Smith Papyri years before and sat on the results because when I used standard papyrus lengths and said well they would have been about ten feet long no one would believe me and so when I did the calculations and they came out at forty-one feet I knew no one was going to believe me on that either. And this has proven to be the case. But I’d applied it to Joseph Smith Papyrus I, X, and XI and I hadn’t applied it to the others, but when I applied it to the others the numbers came out reasonable so I said well I may as well let this go. No one complained, or has complained, as they should have, that the results for the other papyri are too short. But, as a result, Andy Cook developed a slightly different formula and he and Chris Smith applied it to one of the papyri and they’ve been loudly proclaiming that they who have never worked with papyri know more than I who have been working with papyri for a quarter of a century.7

Now, I realized that none of these formulas had ever actually been tested with a real papyrus to see if they work. So I measured a scroll in Toronto that I had seen in the back rolls of the museum before it was unrolled and I applied these various formulas to the measurement to see how they fared and this was published this year in an article called “Formulas and Faith”.8

Now, this graph is the result of my little study. You can see Hoffmann’s formula is somewhat erratic. It matches the actual length of the scroll much better than Andy Cook’s formula, which is the one there on the bottom. Cook made some errors in his calculations and to show you the errors in the calculation I want to show you the same chart at a slightly different scale and I’m going to take Hoffmann’s formula out.

So, the one on top is the actual length of the scroll. The one on the bottom is where Cook’s formula predicts what it will be. Now, when Cook’s article came out I read it and identified five different errors that Cook made in his formula and if you fix just one of those mistakes you get this chart which you can see that you can come up with something that tracks much more closely to the actual length of the papyrus. The errors are therefore something in Cook’s formula and methodology and not something in the papyrus measurements. It shows us that Cook’s methodology is fundamentally flawed.

Now, I attribute Cook’s mistakes to working in a new field, where neither he nor Chris Smith have had any experience working with papyrus before. And there were some math mistakes that for some reason Cook did not catch. As you can see, if he corrected one mistake it would have made a big difference in his results. There are still other mistakes in the formula that correspond to physical features of the papyri. One of them are these spikes right here. One of them are these dips right there.

And the third is this little mismatch in the corner. And the fifth one actually deals with the Joseph Smith Papyrus and not the general formula. So, unfortunately for Cook and Smith, if you fix the math on their formula, then according to their formula, the length of Horus’s scrolls needs to be about four times what they calculated. I come up with about 314 centimeters, which is about ten feet three and a half inches give or take a foot. Because wait! There’s more.

One of the things I’ve learned with this experience is that I’ve identified a number of fallacious assumptions made by both formulas that undermine my confidence in any of them. The last three errors that I identified are irreparable. The best the formulas can therefore do is give a ballpark estimate and a ballpark estimate is a useful thing to know. But in the meantime, Matt Roper has discovered a few more nineteenth century eye witness accounts of the papyri and I’ve discovered a couple of other nineteenth century sources that put the papyri in a different light and identify some other problematic assumptions that we’ve made. One of these eyewitnesses describes, after Joseph Smith’s death, the Book of Abraham being on a completely intact roll.

Now all the theories about calculating the papyri presume that they might be the damaged outer portion of a scroll that contained the Book of Abraham or the purported source of the Book of Abraham. This new source shows that we have presumed incorrectly and I actually started this mess about ten years ago with an article I wrote in the Anderson Festschrift.9 Now, it is entirely possible the fragments that we currently have of the Joseph Smith papyri could be the outer portion of an intact interior roll. I still believe that they were. But according to a newfound non-Mormon eyewitness account, the Book of Abraham seems to have been on a very long and completely intact roll and therefore not even on the same scroll as the fragments we have. And this in turn means that none of the fragments of the Joseph Smith Papyri that we have is from the same scroll as the Book of Abraham and if none of the fragments that we currently have comes from the same scroll as the Book of Abraham then the fact that none of the texts on them matches the Book of Abraham is not a problem. Critics of the church have presumed that the Book of Abraham must be on the fragments that we currently have. Why they assume that is beyond me. Historical evidence is against such a conclusion.

So, now, moving along with other matters pertaining to the papyri, one of the things that we know about Horus is that he was a prophet of Chespisichis. This means that he was involved in a religion that believed in angels and miraculous healings and had foundational stories about how Pharaohs took any woman that took their fancy and married them.10 So moving along, we’ll look at recent research on Facsimile 1. In a paper at an international Egyptological conference (this one was in Warsaw) I showed that there is a connection between Facsimile 1 and execration rituals, which are mock human sacrifices. I started out with the Joseph Smith Papyri, showed parallels to Facsimile 1 on the screen and read the execration texts that are associated with them and showed that there’s this human sacrifice and that these scenes were connected with human sacrifice by the ancient Egyptians. The Egyptologists, when they got done with it, the questions I got were, “do they do this with animals too?” So the idea of those connections isn’t odd. And they didn’t find it so.

Let’s move on to Facsimile 2. Now, many of you now that Facsimile 2 is also known as a hypocephalus. Hypocephali are known as round disks that are put under the heads of mummies to create a fire under the heads. As it turns out, none of these three things are true. Hypocephali are not necessarily put under the heads of the mummies. The instructions in the Book of the Dead only say that they are to be placed at the head, not under the head. So we find them both under the heads of mummies and atop the heads of mummies. The term that’s translated a “flame” one of the textual variants shows that this should be a “lamp” or a “torch”. And the other thing that turns out to be false is that they are round. They can be round but they can also be rectangular or this one which is three-dimensional.11

For a number of years, I have worked on trying to get a grasp on Egyptian religion, particularly trying to understand something about the Egyptian equivalence of the soul. And there’s a section of this on my dissertation, I’ve got four published articles on the subject. This is the latest one. As a result of that, I’m able to show that Egyptian priests when translating their native terms into Greek translate one of them as “angel”. And guess which one it is. It’s figure one in Facsimile 1 in the Book of Abraham, that’s said to be an angel. Now, I didn’t go looking for this connection, it was just a pleasant surprise to find it.

Facsimile 3 has often been neglected in discussions of the facsimiles and I have an extensive article on Facsimile 3 in this volume, another international conference, this one in Paris, and I show that there is a connection between Facsimile 3 and Abraham and have a lot of discussion about some of the things that are associated with that particular facsimile. It turns out to be very interesting and you can read it.

Now, finally we need to actually consider the text of the Book of Abraham itself. So, for Latter-Day Saints, the rest of these issues are peripheral. You go sit down at random in sacrament meeting and ask the person next to you about the Book of Abraham and they will only think of the text. So let’s look at a couple of things in the text. Years ago John Tvedtnes, Brian Hauglid and I put together a volume of all the stories that were circulating about the sacrifice of Abraham in antiquity.12 Unfortunately we missed one, and this is one of the Egyptian ones, which I published in this volume of essays dedicated to Kent Brown.13 This is the story that tells about how Pharaoh, and that’s the term they actually use in the text, tried to sacrifice Abraham, but that Abraham was saved by an angel. Then Pharaoh wants to know how Abraham was saved so he sends his court to Abraham to ask about his God. So Abraham uses astronomy to teach Pharaoh’s court about God. This sounds familiar. In fact, of all the stories that we gathered, this one is closer than any of them to the Book of Abraham and it’s in Egyptian.

One of the things that critics have found either funny or absurd is the expression from the introduction to the Book of Abraham that it was “The Book of Abraham written by his own hand upon papyrus.” One critic even used the phrase as a title for his book; he intended it to be ironic or an accusation of some sort.14 I deal with that in my contribution to this volume, where I point out that this papyrus here mentions a text that is, “written by his own hand on papyrus,” as you can see right here.

Can’t say I didn’t show it to you, you can read it for yourself. [Laughter]

Now one of the first things that pops up in the Book of Abraham of course is his sacrifice. And Kerry Muhlestein and I looked at human sacrifice in Egypt in Abraham’s day and we found that there are three clear cases and looked at their context.15 The earliest of these cases is the historical inscriptions of Sesostris I. Sesostris describes sacrificing priests at Tod who were not performing their priestly duties the way that Sesostris wanted them to. Big mistake. The next case was archaeological evidence of human sacrifice found in Mirgissa and Nubia. This is an area outside of Egypt, but under Egyptian control. The body was found as part of an execration assemblage – you’ve been hearing a lot of that term these days. For those of you who don’t know how and Egyptian does an execration thing, we know what they do with figures of wax and we also know that archaeologically this is what they do with humans. You bind the hands on the back, you write the name on it, you throw them on the ground, trample them under your left foot, spit on them, stab them, decapitate them, throw them in the fire, and spit on them while they’re burning. Lovely. And they actually found part of an execration assemblage with smashed pottery and a decapitated skeleton.

And the third example is the Ugaf stela, which prescribes human sacrifice for anyone who is found in the sacred precinct other than a priest performing his duties. Now, looking at these cases, we’ve found four common threads. First, the ritual nature of the human sacrifice is clear. Second, the sacrifice is for cultic offenses. Third, the Pharaoh is involved and the sacrifice is under his orders. And fourth, the sacrifice could take place not only in Egypt, but areas outside of Egypt, but under Egyptian control. Now if we look at the Book of Abraham, we find the same four elements. The nature of the sacrifice is ritual so it is described as an offering and as a sacrifice and it was done “after the manner of the Egyptians”. If you look at human sacrifice up in Syria, where Abraham lived, they actually do it a little bit differently. The second thing is the sacrifice seems to be for cultic offenses. Abraham’s fathers were “turned wholly to the worshipping of the God’s of the heathen” including “the God of Pharaoh, King of Egypt” [Abraham 1:6-7]. And Abraham claims that his fathers “utterly refused to hearken to my voice” [Abraham 1:5] indicating he had spoken against such practice. And if you actually look at the Middle Kingdom execration texts, speaking against the king or his practices is a good way to get capitol punishment. The Pharaoh was somehow involved from Abraham 1:20 and the sacrifice takes place outside the boundaries of Egypt, which in our Book of Abraham he never gets to, but is in an area under Egyptian influence. So the attempted sacrifice of Abraham in the Book of Abraham matches what we know about Egyptian human sacrifice in Abraham’s day.

Now, why should we care about the Book of Abraham? Well, we need to understand why the Book of Abraham is important. The Book of Abraham is not like the Book of Mormon. It has no equivalent of Moroni’s promise. It is not a sign of the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith, but it has had a deep and lasting impact on Latter-day Saint culture to an extent that many things in LDS culture would not exist if it were not for the Book of Abraham. So this is a map of the plan of salvation showing the principle scriptural sources for each section down below. As you can see, the distinctive parts of the map for Latter-day Saints are based on different passages. And there’s more than one passage for each portion except only the Book of Abraham deals with the preexistence. Now there are other scriptural passages dealing with the preexistence, but these can be narrowly construed. For example, Moses 4 only discusses the preexistence of Jesus and Satan. We are not mentioned. Only the Book of Abraham includes all those who live on earth, have lived on earth, and will live on earth as having an existence before this mortal birth. So the Book of Abraham is really the book of scripture that gives us our ideas about the preexistence and these ideas permeate latter day saint thought. They are very distinctive.

To show the impact, consider how without the Book of Abraham we would not have the following: preexistence forms parts of the plots of books such as “Added Upon” and musicals such as “Saturday’s Warrior” and “My Turn on Earth” as well as songs such as “I am a Child of God”, “Teach Me to Walk in the Light”, “I Lived in Heaven”, “Faith”, “How Dear to God Are Little Children”, “I Will Follow God’s Plan” and “The Lord Gave me a Temple” from the Children’s Song Book. If you don’t know about these, you need to spend more time in Primary. As well as hymns such as “How Great the Wisdom and the Love”, “Again we Meet Around the Board”, “O Thou Before the World Began”, “Oh What Songs of the Heart”, “O My Father”, and, of course, “If You Could Hie to Kolob”, with its explicit references to the Book of Abraham and it was actually written by one of the scribes involved in the translation. Now, not all of these expressions of LDS culture can be considered high points. I’ll let you decide which those might be, but some of them are deeply moving expressions of heartfelt belief. There are some of us that are disappointed that we only sing four verses of “How Great the Wisdom and the Love”. Check out verse five and six some time.

Nevertheless from the high to the low, the Book of Abraham has influenced LDS culture and has done so for a long time. So, if we lost the Book of Abraham, we would still have the fullness of the gospel: faith in Jesus Christ, repentance, baptism, the gift of the Holy Ghost and endurance to the end, since these are contained in the Book of Mormon. We would also have the priesthood authority including the keys such as the sealing power. But we might note that the sealing power was not given until after the Book of Abraham that we have was revealed. And the temple endowment was not given to church members until after the publication of the Book of Abraham.

It will probably come as a surprise to many that I do not have a testimony of the Book of Abraham. That is, I have never received a spiritual confirmation of the truth of the Book of Abraham. I do not need one. I have those for the Book of Mormon, the restoration of the gospel, the calling of the Prophet Joseph Smith and the continuation of those keys and authority through the present day. If you have these things confirmed to you, you do not need to get a cold from every wind of doctrine that blows. It does not matter what some Egyptologist says about the papyri. You might be perplexed for the present, but you have already proved God in days that are past.

Abraham actually uses this reasoning in the second chapter of the Book of Abraham. So at this point in the Book of Abraham, he’s had only one experience of God to go on. This is the second time that God has actually spoken to him and when God asks him to do something difficult, he replies to God, “Thou didst send thine angel to deliver me from the gods of Elkenah, and I will do well to hearken unto they voice.” [Abraham 3:13]

It’s not for nothing that Abraham is the father of the faithful. Abraham is willing to trust God on the basis of one experience. Those of us who have made covenants with God have done so one the basis of experiences with Him. We can have faith in Him, that is, trust Him, because we have tested Him in some things. I trust God. I’m not always able to do that with some of my colleagues, and I do not trust dissenters and anti-Mormons. I’ve had too many experiences with all of them to change any of that.

Thank you.


1 For citations to these sources, see John Gee, “Some Puzzles from the Joseph Smith Papyri,” FARMS Review 20/1 (2008), 119.

2 John Gee, “New Light on the Joseph Smith Papyri,” FARMS Review 19/2 (2007), 245-259.

3 John Gee, “Editor’s Introduction: Hugh Nibley and the Joseph Smith Papyri,” in Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Abraham, ed. John Gee (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2009), xiii-xxxix.

4 See Boyd Peterson, Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2002), 289-290, 313-333.

5 See Gee, “Some Puzzles from the Joseph Smith Papyri”, 123-135

6 Gee’s presentation was published as Gee, “Some Puzzles from the Joseph Smith Papyri”, 120-122.

7 See Andrew W. Cook and Christopher C. Smith, “The Original Length of the Scroll of Hôr,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 43/4 (Winter 2010), 1-42.

8 John Gee, “Formulas and Faith,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scriptures 21/1 (2012), 60-65.

9 John Gee, “Eyewitness, Hearsay, and Physical Evidence of the Joseph Smith Papyri,” in Stephen D. Ricks, Donald W. Parry, and Andrew H. Hedges, eds., The Disciple as Witness: Essays on Latter-day Saint History and Doctrine in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000), 175-217.

10 See Gee, “Some Puzzles from the Joseph Smith Papyri”, 128-130

11 See John Gee, “Non-Round Hypocephali,” Aegyptus et Pannonia 3 (2006), 41-54.

12 John A. Tvedtnes, Brian M. Hauglid, and John Gee, eds., Traditions About the Early Life of Abraham (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2001).

13 John Gee, “An Egyptian View of Abraham,” in Andrew C. Skinner, D. Morgan Davis, and Carl Griffin, eds., Bountiful Harvest: Essays in Honor of S. Kent Brown (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2011), 137-156.

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). For two reviews, see John Gee, “A Tragedy of Errors,” FARMS Review 4/1 (1992), 93-119; Michael D. Rhodes, “The Book of Abraham: Divinely Inspired Scripture,” FARMS Review 4/1 (1992), 120-126. See also Stephen O. Smoot, “Book of Abraham/By His Own Hand,” online at the FAIR Wiki at

15 John Gee and Kerry Muhlestein, “An Egyptian Context for the Sacrifice of Abraham,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 20/2 (2011), 70-77.

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