Question: Why would the Book of Abraham contain anachronisms?

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Question: Why would the Book of Abraham contain anachronisms?

Anachronisms may simply mean that the text that we have now has a rich transmission history. All anachronisms in the Book of Abraham are problems only if we assume that the Book of Abraham must, in every instance, at this very moment, represent a holographic narrative of the prophet

Many critics speak about some supposed anachronisms in the Book of Abraham. Among those commonly cited are the scenes in the facsimiles, Egyptus, the name “pharaoh” given to an Egyptian king, and the mention of “Chaldeans”. Anachronisms in the Book of Abraham may not be everything that critics think they are. It may simply indicate that the manuscript has a rich textual history—with redactors, copyists, and other handlers adding their own interpolations to the text as they transmitted the data and found ways to explain their stories through the tools that they had available to them. In the case of the Book of Abraham, we can react to anachronisms in one of four ways:

  1. Deny that the anachronism exists and assert that, although it has not yet been attested in an extant source, the posited characteristic does indeed date back to the Middle Bronze Age.
  2. Acknowledge the anachronism, but assign it to Joseph Smith as a translator’s anachronism, which does not in and of itself compromise the Book of Abraham as a translation of an ancient source;
  3. Acknowledge the anachronism but assign it to an ancient redactor or copyist.
  4. Acknowledge the anachronism and assign it to Joseph Smith as the modern author of the text. This is generally the stance of our critics.

The Joseph Smith Papyri from which the Book of Abraham was translated date to about 200 B.C. during the Ptolemaic period in Egyptian history. To resolve this issue, it has been pointed out by many scholars that the Book of Abraham as we have it to date may very well be a later manuscript of an earlier text[1].

As is common of many texts, ancient redactors or copyists could have used contemporary tools and language to describe ancient elements that were contemporary to Abraham or to illustrate theological points. [2]:115-116. This is a challenge that scholars have today: what comes from Abraham’s time and what is more contemporary to redactors and copyists? By way of a small example, the Canaanite El was a deity more contemporary to Abraham and matches “the idolatrous God of Elkenah mentioned in Facsimile 1 Ex 1[3]. Conversely, elements such as an adaptation of Osiris to represent Abraham are more contemporary to a later copyist or redactor[4]. Though an earlier attestation of this isn’t entirely forgone, the more likely option seems to be that Joseph translated something that was more contemporary to a later copyist or redactor. This doesn’t mean that as researchers we should become complacent and not research the matters further, but that we simply recognize what explanation fits the data the best at this moment.

If we allow ourselves to keep our minds opened, we can discover new things that help us understand the nature of the text and its transmission history. Regardless of textual transmission and provenance of different elements found within the Book of Abraham, there is nothing that affects our core theology or compromises the validity of the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith. What should matter to us most, perhaps, is the ancient authenticity of the Book of Abraham and not the way in which the Book of Abraham is authentically ancient.

Notes

  1. name="gee">:28As Dr. John Gee (PhD, Egyptology, Yale) notes, "some of the texts in the Book of the Dead manuscripts from the same time as the Joseph Smith Papyri (and even later) are also attested in manuscripts that go back before the time of Abraham." This was a personal communication to FairMormon Answers Wiki editors, 10 August 2007, cited with permission.
  2. Kevin L. Barney, “The Facsimiles and Semitic Adaptation of Existing Sources,” in John Gee and Brian M. Hauglid (editors), Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2006).
  3. Barney, Kevin L. (2010) "On Elkenah as Canaanite El," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies: Vol. 19: No. 1, Article 5. Available at: https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/jbms/vol19/iss1/5
  4. Barney, “Semitic Adaptation”