[Another FairMormon member, Rene Krywult, has contributed a second review of this book.]
“The goal with the Introduction to the Book of Abraham is to make reliable information about the Book of Abraham accessible to the general reader.” With these words, John Gee begins his new book.
And it is a high goal the well-known Egyptologist, professor of Egyptology at Brigham Young University and the William (Bill) Gay Research Chair, author of over a hundred academic papers on Egyptology and ancient scripture, and researcher of the Book of Abraham for more than 25 years, sets for himself. How to do justice to a topic that is specialized enough that only a few experts in the world can speak about it with authority, and how to do it in a language that the interested lay man can understand? How to do it, with a topic that has been controversially debated for the last 105 years, often with far more zeal than knowledge? How to do it, when there is so very much to discuss and to know on one hand, and yet the “common knowledge” is almost nonexistent?
So, the good thing here: This is an introduction. Gee is not only an expert on the Egyptian but also masters the English language. The book is very easy to read. Nevertheless, there is much information to impart, and Gee does so by introducing us to the topics, all with the well researched and documented footnotes one expect from a scholar of such caliber, only to follow up with an extensive “Further Reading” section at the end of each chapter, a bibliography with explanations. This way, he who wants to know more knows what books to buy and what articles to read.
To do this work justice, I decided to go through the chapters one by one.
As it is fitting for an overview, the book starts by detailing the history of the Book of Abraham, starting with the history of the papyri that led to the book, from their discovery in 1825 over the Nauvoo period and their being lost and found again, all with very fine visual aids, like maps, paintings and photos.
This is followed by a chapter about the history of the papyri while in Joseph’s hands, including a translation timeline and a publication history. (Did you know that there was more translated than there was published? Unfortunately the unpublished part is lost). Joseph’s role as a translator and his translation methods as a whole are discussed, starting with the Book of Mormon. Another topic is the existing manuscripts of the Book of Abraham (yes, photos are included, as is a detailed description), and we even get photos of the original printing plates of the facsimiles. The chapter is concluded by an analysis of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers.
Chapters three and four give an overview of the contents of the Book of Abraham, and what ancient Egyptians knew and thought about Abraham, and how this squares with what Joseph translated, while chapter five is back to history. “The ancient owners of the Papyri” (Who were they? What was their education? What about their religion? Is there a connection to Abraham?). Chapter six highlights the connection between the Papyri and the Book of Abraham, discussing the various theories that exist in this area, including a discussion of pros and cons, followed by the question of “Historicity of the Book of Abraham” – and ways to answer it.
All those chapters logically lead to how Gee primarily deals with the question: Since we do not have all the papyri Joseph had, since we do not know the exact connection between the papyri and the text, we should stay with what we surely have: The text and Abraham’s role in antiquity. If we take the Book of Abraham as an ancient text, how does it fit in with what science already knows? What could Joseph have known; what did we only discover in the 20th century? Are there bulls-eyes or obvious smoking guns?
Chapter 10 focuses on one of the bulls-eyes: The formal attributes of a covenant in the days of Abraham. These formal attributes make it possible to pinpoint Abraham and the story within the book of Abraham to a very specific period of ancient history.
By the way, did you ever ask yourself, why there is a chapter in the Book of Abraham that talks about astronomy? Chapter 11 discusses the astronomic principles that were revealed to Abraham, and how Abraham’s audience, the Egyptians would have understood the patriarch’s teachings – as a profound critique of their religion. This almost organically leads to the chapter: creation, creation accounts and even science and creation.
The facsimiles are the main focus of the next chapter. Dr. Gee has another book finished (and is looking for a publisher – hint to publishers: we want that book) that deals solely with the facsimiles, where he discusses every single point of them from an Egyptological and LDS point of view. For an introduction, this would have been far too much, so he decided to only give a short overview of what the facsimiles are and what we know about them in general, without going into the meaning of the figures and text, and without comparing them to what Joseph said about them.
The book ends with a discussion of the place of the Book of Abraham in LDS theology, including the role of Joseph Smith as a reader and commentator of the book, trying to make sense of the teachings contained, and a FAQ, a scripture index and the obligatory index.
All in all, no matter what your opinion of Joseph Smith is, no matter if you believe the Book of Abraham to be based on an ancient Vorlage or the work of a creative 19th century mind, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham is a must read for everyone who wants to discuss the issues involved intelligently. If you are new to the topic, the book will pick you up where you are and leave you with a more than basic knowledge. On the other hand, my interest in the Book of Abraham started 15 years ago. I have already read much about it, and still, this book gave me information that I didn’t have before, and a reading list for the next year at least.