Question: Why does the Book of Abraham state that it was written by Abraham's "own hand upon papyrus" if the papyri date to after the Abrahamic period?

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Question: Why does the Book of Abraham state that it was written by Abraham's "own hand upon papyrus" if the papyri date to after the Abrahamic period?

"called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus"

When the Prophet Joseph Smith published the first installments of the Book of Abraham in 1842, the caption in the Times and Seasons read as follows:

"A translation of some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands, from the Catacombs of Egypt, purporting to be the writings of Abraham, while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus."[1]

Kirtland Egyptian Paper (KEP) - A1 likewise has the following caption:

“Translation of the Book of Abraham written by his own hand upon papyrus and found in the catacombs of Egypt.”[2]

The papyri donʼt date to Abrahamʼs time

The phrase “by his own hand upon papyrus” has drawn a number of investigative remarks. Critics have alleged that the phrase “by his own hand upon papyrus” must necessarily be indicating that Joseph Smith thought that the papyrus he obtained was written by the hand of Abraham himself. The problem, however, is that the papyri donʼt date to Abrahamʼs time. Critics have argued that this is, therefore, another point against Joseph Smith and the authenticity of the Book of Abraham.

LDS scholars have approached this issue from a number of perspectives

LDS scholars have approached this issue from a number of perspectives. There are two underlying LDS scholarly approaches that have been advanced in evaluating the significance of this phrase in the heading for the Book of Abraham. These approaches are:

  1. “By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus” as an Egyptian Title
  2. “By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus” as a 19th Century Redaction

Whether or not one accepts that the phrase “by his own hand upon papyrus” is an ancient or modern redaction to the text, a few things are certain. [3]

First, if the phrase was a part of the ancient title of the text then there is no justification from the Egyptological evidence that the phrase requires a holographic nature of the papyri. The ancient Egyptians who used the phrase or ones like it never mandated that such be viewed as implying holographic claims.

Second, if the phrase is a 19th century redaction to the text then this is an issue concerning not the Book of Abraham's authenticity but the assumptions of Joseph Smith and his associates. If Joseph Smith did in fact harbor such assumptions, that has nothing to do with the authenticity of the actual Book of Abraham itself. Likewise, unless it can be shown that Joseph Smith’s views of the nature of the authorship of the papyri came by revelatory means, then one cannot hold the Prophet to an impossible standard of perfection (one that the Prophet never established for himself) and criticize him for merely doing what humans do; have opinions and speculations.

Thirdly, if the phrase “by his own hand upon papyrus” is a 19th century redaction and if Joseph Smith assumed a holographic nature of the papyri, then the whole issue is one of assumption. If one believes that Prophets must be right about everything or they are false prophets, then such an assumption reflects only the thoughts and background of the person holding the assumption. The same for those who hold no such assumption and acknowledge the fallibility of Prophets. We should therefore be careful to not impose our own assumptions on those figures in the past who may not have shared such assumptions or standards.

In each of these three cases, the phrase “by his own hand upon papyrus” cannot be used as evidence against the authenticity of the Book of Abraham.

Regardless of which approach may be correct, it is clear that the assumptions of those critical of the authenticity of the Book of Abraham are unfounded in this regard.[4] Either option resolves the issue; both would have to be untenable for the critics to have a case.

Notes

  1. "The Book of Abraham," Times and Seasons 3 (1842): 704. KEPA 4, the manuscript used for publication of the first installments of the Book of Abraham and written in the hand of Willard Richards, likewise contains this caption used in the Times and Seasons.
  2. Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Abraham, edited by John Gee, Vol. 18 in the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley (Salt Lake City and Provo, Utah: Deseret Book / FARMS, 2009), 546. ISBN 1606410547.
  3. This wiki article is based on a paper written by Stephen O. Smoot and included here with his permission. Given the nature of a wiki project, the original may have been edited, added to, or otherwise modified.
  4. Unless otherwise noted, the assumption underlying these theories run along the so-called “missing papyrus theory” as proposed by scholars such as Professor John Gee. This theory states that Joseph Smith owned a portion of physical papyri dating to the Ptolemaic Era that contained the text of the Book of Abraham as translated by the Prophet but that said papyri were subsequently destroyed and are no longer extant. See: Missing papyrus? for further details.