Question: Do the Joseph Smith papyri date back to the time of Abraham?

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Question: Do the Joseph Smith papyri date back to the time of Abraham?

Richard Turley: "There’s a difference between the date of the copy and the date of the text"

[Brother Turley]: There’s a difference between the date of the copy and the date of the text. So the text, yes, we believe is older. The actual copy could be later."

This is a very important point to keep in mind. There is a difference between the date of a text and the date of a particular manuscript of a text. For example, biblical scholars recognize that even though our earliest manuscripts for the books of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) are currently found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, which date to circa 200-100 BCE, the date of the composition of the text of the books themselves go back many centuries.

The same point applies to the Book of Abraham. As Professor Kerry Muhlestein explains:

Critics say that if this papyrus was written in the second century BC it could not possibly have been written by Abraham himself. In regard to this assumption, I ask, who said this particular papyrus was written by Abraham himself? The heading does not indicate that Abraham had written that particular copy but rather that he was the author of the original. What these critics have done is confuse the difference between a text and a manuscript. For example, many people have a copy of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings; each has a manuscript copy of the text that Tolkien originally wrote. A text, regardless of how many copies of it exist in the world, is written by one author. However, each copy of that text is a manuscript.

The earliest known copies of the book of Isaiah date to hundreds of years after the prophet’s death. Yet this has not led to the conclusion that Isaiah was not the author of the book of Isaiah. Clearly the manuscripts we have are copies of the original text that he wrote during his lifetime. We all know that when an author of the ancient world wrote something, if those writings were to survive or be disseminated, the text had to be copied again and again and again, for generation upon generation. When the heading states that the text was written by Abraham’s own hand, it notes who the author is, not who copied down the particular manuscript that came into Joseph’s possession. If critics had carefully thought through this issue, they would never have raised it.

These issues also highlight the question of how the Book of Abraham came to be in Egypt in the first place. There are a dizzying number of possibilities. Abraham himself was in Egypt, as was his great-grandson Joseph and all of his Israelite descendants for hundreds of years thereafter. After the Exodus, Israelites continued to travel to and live in Egypt. After the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, large groups of Jews settled in Egypt and created longstanding and thriving communities, even to the point that they built a temple. It was during this time period that Joseph Smith Papyri 1, 10, and 11 were created. Copies of these papyri could have moved back and forth between Egypt and Israel during any of these eras. [1]

Notes

  1. Kerry Muhlestein, “Egyptian Papyri and the Book of Abraham: A Faithful, Egyptological Point of View,” in No Weapon Shall Prosper: New Light on Sensitive Issues, 230–31. See also http://en.fairmormon.org/Book_of_Abraham/By_his_own_hand