Question: Did Joseph Smith use a patriarchal blessing written by Oliver Cowdery to render Abraham 1:2?

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Question: Did Joseph Smith use a patriarchal blessing written by Oliver Cowdery to render Abraham 1:2?

Introduction to Criticism

Critics of the Book of Abraham claim that an 1834 patriarchal blessing compiled by Oliver Cowdery influenced the rendering of Abraham 1:2.[1]

Abraham 1:2 reads:

2 And, finding there was greater happiness and peace and rest for me, I sought for the blessings of the fathers, and the right whereunto I should be ordained to administer the same; having been myself a follower of righteousness, desiring also to be one who possessed great knowledge, and to be a greater follower of righteousness, and to possess a greater knowledge, and to be a father of many nations, a prince of peace, and desiring to receive instructions, and to keep the commandments of God, I became a rightful heir, a High Priest, holding the right belonging to the fathers.

The relevant portion of the patriarchal blessing reads:

...[W]e diligently sought for the right of the fathers, and the authority of the holy priesthood, and the power to administer the same; for we desired to be followers of righteousness and the possessors or greater knowledge....After this, we received the high and holy priesthood...

This article seeks to address this criticism.

Response to Criticism

This article will approach response in two ways:

  • One will need to examine assumptions as to how Joseph Smith may have used the blessing in the translation of the Book of Abraham and the timeline in which Joseph Smith is said to have begun translation of the Book of Abraham.
  • We need to see if this information about Abraham makes sense in the ancient world. If it does, then this criticism can only be about how the translation of the Book of Abraham was performed.

At the outset, we’ll assume that there is an authorial relationship between the two since the language does appear to be similar. We’ll also assume that Joseph would only have had access to the blessing after Oliver Cowdery compiled it, thus being fresh on Oliver’s mind and ready to be plagiarized from.

Dating the Translation of Abraham 1:1-3

Scholars are unsure as to the dating of the translation of Abraham 1:1-3.Whether before September 1835 (when Oliver compiled the blessing into the book) or after makes no difference to the authenticity of the Book of Abraham. This claim seems to make the only possible date for rendering Abraham 1:2 after the compilation of the patriarchal blessings--a debatable assumption. John Gee, Megan Hansen, and Kerry Muhelstein place the beginning of translation of the Book of Abraham at the end of July 1835. Robin Jensen and Brian Hauglid make it "circa July-November 1835."[2] Cowdery did not copy the patriarchal blessings to the book/quote the Book of Abraham until September 1835.[3] If we are to trust the July 1835 dating, then this shouldn't pose a big problem. This would mean that the language of the blessing is more likely to have been revealed before it could have been on Oliver’s mind. If we accept a dating past September 1835, then perhaps we may accept the language of the blessing and it’s association with the Book of Abraham as an appropriation of language to describe an ancient concept. This is something found throughout the scriptures. New Testament writers frequently took ancient prophecies and expanded on them for their own purposes, using similar language but adding additional insight.[4]

Ancient Traditions Supporting What is Expressed About Abraham in Abraham 1:2

The concepts expressed in the verse contain authentic traditions about the early life of Abraham. Following are the relevant quotes from Abraham 1:2 followed by traditions about the early life of Abraham reproduced from the 2005 FARMS volume Traditions about the Early Life of Abraham including the page number that the tradition may be found on in that volume:

“I sought for the blessings of the fathers, and the right unto I should be ordained to administer the same...I became a rightful heir, a High Priest...”

Abraham inheriting priesthood from fathers:

  • Ibn al-Tayyib 7:6, pp. 254—55.
  • Midrash Rabbah Leviticus 25:6, p. 105; Numbers 4:8, p. 109.
  • Mishnah Aboth 5:2, p. 62.

Abraham holding the priesthood:

  • Al-Nisa'bu'ri 18:4, p. 404.
  • Babylonian Talmud Nedarz'm 32b, pp. 120—21.
  • Georgius Cedrenus 1, pp. 269—70.
  • Kebra Nagast 105, p. 280.
  • Midrash Rabbah Genesis 46:5; 55:6, pp. 100, 101 Leviticus 25:6, p. 105; Numbers 4:8; 10:1, p. 109; Song of Songs 5215.1, p. 117.
  • Pesz‘kta Rabbati 40:6a, p. 81.
  • Philo of Alexandria, De Abrahamo 98, p. 41.

"…and to be a father of many nations…”

Believers are seed of Abraham:

  • Armenian Paraphrase of Genesis: after Genesis 11:30, versions A and B, pp. 284–85.
  • Midrash Rabbah Genesis 14:6, pp. 89—90.
  • Qur’an 14:36, p. 293.

“...greater follower of righteousness...”

Abraham seeks a God earnestly:

  • Al-Kisa‘fi' 51, pp. 386—87.
  • Al-Mas‘u‘di, Meadows 4:1, p. 352.
  • Al-Rabghu'zi 16, p. 438.
  • Al-Tabari 252—7028—10, p. 336.
  • Al-Tha‘labi 2:10, pp. 364—65.
  • Apocalypse of Abraham 7:12; 8:3, pp. 56, 57.
  • Armenian Paraphrase of Genesis: after Genesis 11:30, versions A and B, pp. 284—85.
  • Augustine, City of God 10.32, p. 200.
  • Book of Jasher 11:14, p. 140.[5]
  • Clementine Recognitions 33, p. 186.
  • Falasha Story 2, pp. 485—86.
  • George Hamartolos, pp. 237—38.
  • Gregory of Nyssa, pp. 187—88.
  • Ibn Isha‘q 5—6, pp. 304—5.
  • Jubilees 11:17, p. 15.
  • Kebra Nagast 14, pp. 278—79.
  • Medieval Testament of Naphtali 10:2, p. 128.
  • Michael the Syrian 2.6.2, p. 263.
  • Other Muslim Traditions: Prophet Abraham 5, pp. 460—61.
  • Pesz'kta Rabbati 3323a, p. 80.
  • Philo of Alexandria, De Abrahamo 68, p. 39.
  • Pirqe dc Rabbi Eliewr 26, pp. 45—46.
  • Zohar: Genesis 76b, 86a, pp. 155, 160—61.

Conclusion

There seems to be little evidence to support this argument unless one assumes (arbitrarily) that a) Joseph could not have rendered 1:2 until after September 1835, b) that the elements found in the Book of Abraham could have only stemmed from Oliver Cowdery, c) that reappropriating language can't be a valid way of expressing something authentic, and/or d) the elements found in Abraham 1:2 can't be authentic. In light of the preceding evidence, these assumptions are significantly weakened.

Notes

  1. Michael W. Goe, Mormonism Without Theism: The Non-Theistic Origins of Mormon Theology and Mythology (N.P.: Self-Published, 2017), Kindle Loc 4090-4100. David Persuitte, Joseph Smith and the Origins of the Book of Mormon, 2nd ed. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & co., 2000), 281–82. Persuitte places the date of the blessing as December 1833 rather than 1834.
  2. See Kerry Muhelstein and Megan Hansen, “The Work of Translating: The Book of Abraham’s Translation Chronology,” Let Us Reason Together: Essays in Honor of the Life’s Work of Robert L. Millet, J. Spencer Fluhman and Brent L. Top, eds. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2016), 139–62; John Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2018), 15–16; Robin Scott Jensen and Brian M. Hauglid, The Joseph Smith Papers Revelations and Translations Volume 4: Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts (Salt Lake City: Church Historian's Press, 2018), intro. The reason for the discrepancy is disagreement over validity of a W.W. Phelps' letter of July 1835 suggesting that Joseph Smith and his associates had begun translation, a July 8, 1838 revelation in the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C 117) that shows the translated Egyptian term "Shinehah" being used that can also be found in Abraham 3:1 (suggesting that they had translated at least up to that point by the end of 1835), and the presence of Hebrew terminology in the earliest Book of Abraham manuscripts which likely wouldn't appear until after Joseph's formal introduction to learning Biblical Hebrew beginning circa March 1836.
  3. Gee, An Introduction, 15-16.
  4. See here for a fuller treatment of this argument
  5. The Book of Jasher reads: "And Abram knew the Lord, and he went in his ways and instructions, and the Lord his God was with him." The Book of Abraham reads "[n]ow, after the Lord had withdrawn from speaking to me, and withdrawn his face from me, I said in my heart: Thy servant hast sought thee earnestly; now I have found thee[.]”