Fascinating new research regarding the Book of Abraham has been published in the most recent edition of the Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture, published by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. The two articles are by Egyptologists Kerry Muhlestein (PhD, UCLA) and John Gee (PhD, Yale).
As the title would suggest, Professor Muhlestein’s article covers the ancient historical context behind Joseph Smith Papyrus I. This papyrus fragment was returned to the Church in 1967, and contains the original to Facsimile 1 in the Book of Abraham. The fragment has proven controversial, with both Mormon and non-Mormon scholars weighing in on its nature and Joseph Smith’s interpretations of the figures thereon.
However, while much has been said with regard to Joseph Smith’s interpretations of this fragment, comparatively little has been done to examine its ancient background. Here Professor Muhlestein’s article proves especially enlightening. “We can better appreciate the text of the Book of Abraham as we learn more about the culture and history in which it was created,” Professor Muhlestein writes. This includes “studies about Egypt, Canaan, and Mesopotamia during Abraham’s day” as well as “the era when the papyri we still have were created.”
Professor Muhlestein’s research into this historical background has yielded significant discoveries, specifically that “biblical names and figures were used in Egyptian contexts.” Accordingly, Professor Muhlestein seeks to answer the following questions in his article:
(1) Who used biblical figures and stories? (2) What figures and stories did they use? (3) How did they use them? (4) Why did they use them? (5) When did they use them? (6) How did they learn of them? And (7) When did they learn of them?
As explained by Muhlestein, the ancient Egyptians were evidently not only aware of biblical figures, including Abraham, but also comfortably syncretized biblical figures with their own religious figures. This is especially apparent in the so-called Greek Magical Papyri, but also in other Egyptian documents. One text even depicts a figure on a lion couch similar to the one in Facsimile 1 as being Abraham. “The vignette depicts a mummiform figure on a lion couch. Here we would typically expect to identify the figure with Osiris, but the text notes that it is Abraham on the couch.” With this and other evidence in mind, Professor Muhlestein concludes that “there are enough instances in which Abraham appears in contexts normally occupied by Osiris that we must conclude the Egyptians saw some sort of connection between the two.”
Why is this significant from an apologetic perspective? For starters, critics of the Book of Abraham have typically claimed that the Joseph Smith Papyri have nothing to do with Abraham. This is certainly true insofar as the papyri we currently possess do not translate as the English Book of Abraham published in 1842 by Joseph Smith. However, critics usually take this criticism a step further. They typically assert that any connection between Abraham and Egyptian religion is nonsense. “How,” the critic typically asks, “would a book about the biblical figure Abraham end up being buried with some funeral papyri belonging to an Egyptian priest?” Or, as put by Charles Larson:
Since the Joseph Smith Papyri have been identified with absolute certainty as prayers to pagan Egyptian gods that, by biblical definition are ripe with occultism, it is inconceivable, given the holy character of God, that He would associate Himself or His revelation in any way with these pagan religious documents. This fact alone is ample grounds for totally rejecting the Book of Abraham as a revelation from the one True and Living God.
Besides the fact that this assertion ignores the clear sycretization of Israelite religion with earlier Canaanite “pagan” religion, the claim that there are no connections between Abraham and ancient Egyptian religion now proves wholly unpersuasive, as Professor Muhlestein’s article now shows beyond any doubt that such connections did take place. As Professor Muhlestein explains:
As a result of these conclusions we can better understand why Hor, a Theban priest in 200 BC, would possess papyrus associated with Abraham. He was a product of his times who was informed by his culture and in turn had opportunity to inform that culture. His interest in biblical characters and his possession of both biblical and nonbiblical stories about these characters was part of his occupation. Hor would undoubtedly have been interested in any religious stories that could have been incorporated into, and thus given more power to, his priestly duties.
Professor Muhlestein’s article also explores how biblical figures were imported into Egypt and how they were employed in various texts.
Finally, before any critics complain that this is a Mormon writing in a Mormon publication for a Mormon audience, I note that this research has been published elsewhere by Professor Muhlestein in a professional, non-Mormon Egyptological venue. If it’s good enough for Professor Muhlestein’s non-Mormon Egyptological peers, it should certainly be good enough for anonymous critics on the Internet.
The article directly succeeding Professor Muhlestein’s comes from Professor John Gee, and explores what he has elsewhere called a “Book of Abraham Bullseye.” According to Professor Gee, there exists but one known autobiographical text from Syria roughly contemporary to the time of Abraham. It is the autobiography of the Syrian king Idrimi, “the ruler of the town of Alalakh.” At first glance this autobiography may not attract to much attention to readers of the Book of Abraham. That is until we realize that “Idrimi’s autobiography compares well with Abraham’s autobiography in both subject and form.”
These similarities include: 1) being told in the first person, 2) geographical details, 3) travelogues, 4) discussion of covenants, 5) motivation for writing an autobiography, and 6) some discussion of genealogy. There are differences between the two, Professor Gee notes, but “the autobiographical form seems to require the mention of certain topics, including (1) continuity with the past tradition through references to the house, gods, and records of their fathers and (2) piety to the gods they serve by describing their explicit service and following the revelation they receive from their god.”
Professor Gee ends his article by concluding that “the Book of Abraham belongs to the same specific literary tradition as Idrimi’s autobiography,” as well as with this probing question, which critics of the Book of Abraham would do well to address: “How did Joseph Smith manage to publish in the Book of Abraham a story that closely matched a Middle-Bronze-Age Syrian autobiography that would not be discovered for nearly a hundred years?”
With this new research, perhaps we should re-think the assertion of one critic that “anyone investigating claims of ancient evidence for Smith’s translation should not ‘waste his time’.” Not only is there ancient evidence for the Book of Abraham, but that evidence keeps coming.
: Charles Larson, . . . By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus: A New Look at the Joseph Smith Papyri (Grand Rapids, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 1992), 120.
: That Canaanite religion influenced the development of Israelite conceptions of deity has been abundantly demonstrated by biblical scholars since at least the discovery of the Ugaritic texts in the late 1920s, if not earlier.
: See Kerry Muhlestein, “Abraham, Isaac, and Osiris-Michael: The Use of Biblical Figures in Egyptian Religion, A Survey,” in Achievements and Problems of Modern Egyptology, ed. Galina A. Belova (Moscow: Russian Academy of Sciences, Center for Egyptological Studies, 2011), 246–259.
: See here.