One way of determining whether the Book of Abraham is a translation of an underlying Egyptian document or if it was originally composed in English is to see if the text contains what might be called Egyptianisms, or literary and linguistic features of the Egyptian language. The presence of Egyptianisms in the text of the Book of Abraham “might indicate some knowledge of Egyptian on Joseph Smith’s part.”1 Because “Egyptian was not really understood in Joseph Smith’s day,”2 any knowledge of Egyptian Joseph Smith may have possessed could only have come by revelation.
A careful reading of the Book of Abraham does reveal some potential Egyptianisms in the English text. For example,
The earliest manuscript containing Abraham 1:17 reads “and this because their hearts are turned they have turned their hearts away from me.” The phrase “their hearts are turned” was crossed out and “they have turned their hearts” was written immediately afterwards. In Egyptian of the time period of the Joseph Smith Papyri the passive is expressed by the use of a third person plural. So the two phrases would be identical in Egyptian. The translator has to decide which way to render the passage.3
Another type of Egyptianism in the Book of Abraham is paronomasia or word play. Paronomasia is an attested feature of ancient Egyptian literature.4 In Abraham 3, the Lord showed Abraham a panoramic view of the cosmos and then a vision of the pre-mortal council in heaven.
The conversation between Abraham and the Lord shifts from a discussion of heavenly bodies to spiritual beings [halfway through the chapter]. This reflects a play on words that Egyptians often use between a star (ach) and a spirit (ich). The shift is done by means of a comparison: “Now, if there be two things, one above the other, and the moon be above the earth, then it may be that a planet or a star [ach] may exist above it; . . . as, also, if there be two spirits [ich], and one shall be more intelligent than the other” (Abraham 3:17–18). In an Egyptian context, the play on words would strengthen the parallel. . . . The Egyptian play on words between star and spirit allows the astronomical teachings to flow seamlessly into teachings about the preexistence which follow immediately thereafter.5
The question remains whether Abraham himself was responsible for these Egyptianisms or if they were the result of later scribes and copyists. Abraham appears to have been writing to a non-Egyptian audience (presumably his own descendants) and it is currently unknown what language he originally spoke.6 While Abraham taught the relationship between stars and spirits to the Egyptians and their own language would have supported paronomasia, it is possible that these Egyptianisms were introduced in the circa 300 BC copy of Abraham’s writings that were preserved on the papyri acquired by Joseph Smith. This, in turn, could potentially explain how Egyptianisms appear in a text written for Abraham’s Hebrew posterity.
While these Egyptianisms in the Book of Abraham do not indisputably prove that Joseph Smith was translating from ancient Egyptian, they are consistent with his claims to have done so.
John Gee, “Joseph Smith and Ancient Egypt,” in Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World, edited by Lincoln H. Blumell, Matthew J. Grey, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2015), 427–448.
1 John Gee, “Joseph Smith and Ancient Egypt,” in Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World, edited by Lincoln H. Blumell, Matthew J. Grey, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2015), 442.
4 See Siegfried Morenz, “Wortspiele in Ägypten,” in Festschrift Johannes Jahn zum 22. November 1957 (Leipzig: E. A. Seemann Verlag, 1957), 23–32; Antonio Loprieno, “Pun and Word Play in Ancient Egyptian,” in Puns and Pundits: Word Play in the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Literature, ed. Scott B. Noegel (Bethesda, MD: CDL Press, 2000), 3–20; Penelope Wilson, Hieroglyphs: A Very Short Introduction (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2003), 62–69; Barbara A. Richter, The Theology of Hathor of Dendera: Aural and Visual Scribal Techniques in the Per-Wer Sanctuary (Atlanta, GA: Lockwood Press, 2016), 13–19.
5 John Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, 2017), 117, 119; cf. Silvia Zago, “Classifying the Duat: Tracing the Conceptualization of the Afterlife between Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts,” Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache 145, no. 2 (2018): 212.
Chiasmus, or inverted parallelism, is “a two-part [literary] structure or system in which the second half is a mirror image of the first, i.e. where the first term recurs last, and the last first.”1 Most Latter-day Saints who know about chiasmus have probably heard about their presence in the Book of Mormon and the Bible.2 Chiasmus, however, also appears in the Book of Abraham. For instance, the opening verses of the Book of Abraham contains a chiasm highlighting Abraham’s right to priesthood:
A It was conferred upon me
B from the fathers;
C it came down from the fathers, from the beginning of time,
D yea, even from the beginning,
D’ or before the foundation of the earth,
C’ down to the present time, even the right of the firstborn, or the first man, who is Adam, or first father,
B’ through the fathers
A’ unto me.
Another chiasm appears in Abraham 3 that emphasizes the “selection of . . . noble ones as rulers”3 on earth:
A Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was;
B and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones;
C And God saw these souls that they were good,
D and he stood in the midst of them,
E and he said: These I will make my rulers;
D’ for he stood among those that were spirits,
C’ and he saw that they were good;
B’ and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them;
A’ thou wast chosen before thou wast born.
What makes the presence of literary parallelism in the Book of Abraham significant besides being evidence for a “tight and deliberate literary structure”4 of the text is that this type of literary device is “an unmistakable feature” of ancient Egyptian literature.5 This includes chiasmus or inverted parallelism, which has been identified in Egyptian art and architecture,6 as well as in ancient Egyptian texts.7 This is seen in texts from the time of Abraham such as the Stela of Sobk-Iry, which contains a hymn to the god Osiris and features these lines:8
A “Whose awe Atum set [qmꜣ ] in the heart of men, gods, spirits, and dead,
B Whom rulership was given [rdỉ] in On;
CGreat [ˁꜣ ] of presence in Djedu,
DLord [nb] of fear in Two-Mounds;
EGreat [ˁꜣ ] of terror in Rostau,
FLord [nb] of awe in Hnes.
F’Lord [nb] of power in Tenent,
E’Great [ˁꜣ ] of love upon earth;
D’Lord [nb] of fame in the palace,
C’ Great [ˁꜣ ] of glory in Abydos;
B’ Whom triumph was given [rdỉ] before the assembled Nine Gods,
A’ For whom slaughter was made [qmꜣ ] in Herwer’s great hall.”
Additional texts from Abraham’s time known today as the Story of Sinuhe and the Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor both contain a macro-chiasm that structures the overall narrative as an inverted parallelism.9
Since Abraham was not writing Egyptian literature for an Egyptian audience, the significance of ancient Egyptian texts and the Book of Abraham sharing common literary features like chiasmus and parallelism is noteworthy, but should not be overstated. It seems, rather, that because Abraham was presumably writing using literary features from his own culture to those who were not Egyptian (Abraham 1:31),12 the presence of chiasmus in the Book of Abraham demonstrates the prevalence of this literary feature in the ancient world generally, including Abraham’s own culture, and can be viewed generally as a marker of the text’s ancient origin.
So while chiasmus in the Book of Abraham doesn’t necessarily prove the text is ancient, the presence of such in the Book of Abraham is consistent with expectations that the text bears a high degree of historicity and reinforces its overall credibility and literary quality.13
4 Smith, “A Note on Chiasmus in Abraham 3:22–23,” 189.
5 Jacqueline E. Jay, Orality and Literacy in the Demotic Tales, Culture and History of the Ancient Near East 81 (Leiden: Brill, 2016), 91–96, quote at 93.
6 Christian E. Loeben, “Symmetrie, Diagonale und Chiasmus als Dekorprinzipien im Bildprogramm des Großen Tempels von Abu Simbel,” in 3. Ägyptologische Tempeltagung, Hamburg, 1.–5. Juni 1994: Systeme und Programme der ägyptischen Tempeldekoration, ed. Dieter Kurth (Wiesbaden: Karrassowitz Verlag, 1995), 143–162.
7 Jay, Orality and Literacy in the Demotic Tales, 29–30; Robert F. Smith, “Chiasmus in Ancient Egyptian & in the So-Called ‘Anthon Transcript’,” unpublished paper in authors’ possession.
8 For translation and discussion of the chiastic structure of this passage, see Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume I: The Old and Middle Kingdoms (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1973), 202–203.
9 See the comments of Richard Parkinson on the “internal symmetry” of Sinuhe’s “tightly structured” narrative. The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems, 1940–1640 BC (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1997), 11, 21–26; as well as John Baines’ comment about the “internally cyclical forms” (i.e. chiasmus) of these texts. John Baines, “Interpreting the Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 76 (1990): 67.
10 Modified from Smith, “Chiasmus in Ancient Egyptian & in the So-Called ‘Anthon Transcript’,” 8.
11 Following Baines, “Interpreting the Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor,” 67.
In the current (2013) edition of the Pearl of Great Price, the Book of Abraham is prefaced with this explanatory note: “A Translation of some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt. The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus.”1 This editorial title is based on the 1 March 1842 printing of the Book of Abraham in the Times and Seasons, with some alteration. A look at the Kirtland-era manuscript evidence for the Book of Abraham reveals a similar phrase: “Translation of the Book of Abraham written by his own hand upon papyrus and found in the CataCombs of Egypts.”2
Some have wondered how the papyrus acquired by Joseph Smith could have possibly been written by Abraham’s “own hand” when the papyri date to circa 300 BC, many centuries after Abraham’s lifetime.3
Before answering this question, the first issue to determine is whether the phrase “by his own hand upon papyrus” was part of the ancient Book of Abraham text or a modern assumption made by Joseph Smith or his scribes about the nature of the papyri they acquired. Some evidence suggests Joseph Smith and the early Latter-day Saints believed the papyri was as old as Abraham himself,4 although caution is necessary in evaluating this evidence since some of these sources are hearsay that “may have confused ‘written by the hand of Abraham’ (authorship) with ‘handwriting of Abraham’ (his personal penmanship).”5
On the other hand, some scholars have argued that the phrase “the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus” was the ancient title of the text itself. As they have observed, the phrase “by his own hand,” or something similar to it, was used in ancient Egypt simply to denote authorship.6 For example, one ancient Egyptian text features this line:
[If it (so) happens] that you want to recite a writing, come to me, so that I can have you taken to the place where this (particular) Book [lit. “papyrus”] is, of which Thoth was the one who wrote it with his own hand, himself, when he had come down after the (other) gods.7
The literal idiom used here in ancient Egyptian is “with his own hand” ([n-]ḏr.ṱ=f ḥˁ=f), which indeed denotes authorship.8 A similar idiom—“written . . . with his own fingers” (m ḏbˁw=f)—is also attested from ancient Egypt as a way to attribute authorship.9
The idiom “in the hand” to denote authorship, authority, or possession (“in the possession, charge of,” “from,” “through,” “because of,” “be done by,” etc.) also appears in the Egyptian language as spoken in Abraham’s day, reinforcing (though not proving) the possibility that the phrase was original to the ancient text prepared by Abraham.10
This phrase also appears in the Bible. For example, some prophetic books speak of oracles or “the word of the Lord” coming through or by certain prophets (e.g. Malachi 1:1; Haggai 1:1; 2:1; Zechariah 7:7, 12). The literal Hebrew idiom in these passages, however, is “by/in the hand” (bĕ yad). In the New Testament, some of Paul’s epistles conclude with a short phrase indicating the apostle wrote “with his own hand,” even though he surely employed scribes in helping him compose his letters, and even after those letters were copied by subsequent scribes (1 Corinthians 16:21; Galatians 6:11; Colossians 4:18; 2 Thessalonians 3:17; Philemon 1:19).11
Significantly, an “autobiography” of a Semitic ruler named Idrimi from Abraham’s time attributes authorship of the text to the ruler himself while at the same time overtly mentioning the name of the scribe who physically wrote the text.12 It would not be difficult to imagine a similar situation with Abraham as he composed his record.
Whatever Joseph Smith and early Latter-day Saints may have thought about how old the papyri were or who physically wrote them, the following conclusion can be safely drawn from the surviving evidence:
The heading [of the Book of Abraham] does not [necessarily] indicate that Abraham had written that particular copy but rather that he was the author of the original. . . . 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. . . . 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.13
Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, 2nd. ed. (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2000), 4–9.
1“The Book of Abraham,”Times and Seasons 3, no. 9 (March 1, 1842): 704. The Salt Lake City 1878 edition of the Pearl of Great Price dropped the phrase “purporting to be” in the title. This omission was retained in subsequent editions, including the 1902 edition prepared by James E. Talmage that serves as the basis for the 1981 and current 2013 editions of the book.
3 Marc Coenen, “The Dating of the Papyri Joseph Smith I, X and XI and Min who Massacres his Enemies,” in Egyptian Religion: The Last Thousand Years, ed. Willy Clarysse, Antoon Schoors, and Harco Willems (Leuven: Peeters, 1998), 2:1103–15; Michael D. Rhodes, The Hor Book of Breathings: A Translation and Commentary (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2002), 3.
5 Terryl Givens, The Pearl of Greatest Price: Mormonism’s Most Controversial Scripture (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019), 155. See also the discussion in John Gee, “Eyewitness, Hearsay, and Physical Evidence of the Joseph Smith Papyri,” in The Disciple as Witness: Essays on Latter-day Saint History and Doctrine in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson, ed. Stephen D. Ricks, Donald W. Parry, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000), 192–195.
6 Hugh Nibley, “As Things Stand at the Moment,”BYU Studies 9, no. 1 (1969): 74–78; Abraham in Egypt, 2nd. ed. (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2000), 4–9; cf. John Gee, “Were Egyptian Texts Divinely Written?” in Proceedings of the Ninth International Congress of Egyptologists, ed. J. C. Goyon, C. Cardin (Leuven: Uitgeverij Peeters en Departement Oosterse Studies, 2007), 806; “Literary Titles in Greco-Roman Egypt,” in En détail – Philologie und Archäologie im Diskurs: Festschrift für Hans-W. Fischer-Elfert, ed. Marc Brose et al. (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2019), 344–345.
7 Steve Vinson, The Craft of a Good Scribe: History, Narrative and Meaning in the First Tale of Setne Khaemwas (Leiden: Brill, 2017), 114; cf. Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume III: The Late Period (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1980), 128; Robert Ritner, trans., “The Romance of Setna Khaemuas and the Mummies (Setne I),” in The Literature of Ancient Egypt, ed. William Kelly Simpson, 3rd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 456; James Allen, The Ancient Egyptian Language: An Historical Study (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 191.
8Janet H. Johnson, ed., The Demotic Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago (Chicago, Ill.: Oriental Institute, 2001), 60; Thus Wrote ‘Onchsheshonqy: An Introductory Grammar of Demotic, 3rd ed. (Chicago, Ill.: Oriental Institute, 2000), 31; see the discussion in Gee, “Were Egyptian Texts Divinely Written?” 807–810, esp. 809; “Literary Titles in Greco-Roman Egypt,” 344–345.
9 Gee, “Were Egyptian Texts Divinely Written?” 809, citing P. Louvre 3284 2, 8/9 and other texts.
10 Alan Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Griffith Institute, 1957), §178; James Hoch, Middle Egyptian Grammar (Mississauga: Benben Publications, 1997), §81.
Published serially from 1 March 1842 to 16 May 1842 and canonized by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on 10 October 1880, the Book of Abraham has been valued by Latter-day Saints for its important teachings on the nature of the Abrahamic covenant, the pre-mortal existence of humanity, the Creation, and other topics. Writing not long after the text was first published, Apostle Parley P. Pratt mused, “When we read the Book of Abraham with the reflection that its light has burst upon the world . . . we see there unfolded our eternal being—our existence before the world was—our high and responsible station in the councils of the Holy One, and our eternal destiny.”
While Latter-day Saints primarily cherish the Book of Abraham for its significant doctrinal contributions to the Restoration, since at least the 1960s with the pioneering work of Hugh W. Nibley, scholars have explored the Book of Abraham to see what clues might exist that situate the text in a plausible ancient setting. Utilizing the tools of Egyptology, Near Eastern archaeology, and other disciplines, these scholars have uncovered numerous points of convergence between the text of the Book of Abraham and the ancient world from whence it purports to derive. The historicity of the Book of Abraham, or the quality, soundness, and credibility of its historical claims in light of external confirmation, naturally continues to be debated, and many as-of-yet unanswered questions remain, but the work of past and contemporary scholars makes it clear that a compelling case can be and has indeed been made in favor of the text’s historicity.
A new video by Pearl of Great Price Central brings together just a few samples of this evidence reinforcing the Book of Abraham’s historicity. Drawing from a series of short articles called Book of Abraham Insights, this new video presents some of the evidence for the Book of Abraham’s historical believability in a compelling and visually-striking manner. Going chapter by chapter through the text, this new video overviews the evidence for a plausible cultural, geographical, and historical setting for the opening chapter of the Book of Abraham (Abraham 1), explains how the form or structure of the Abrahamic covenant in the Book of Abraham matches the covenant pattern known from texts in Abraham’s day (Abraham 2:6–11), provides a believable ancient context for Abraham’s “lie” about his wife Sarai (Abraham 2:22–25), highlights one way of understanding so-called “Abrahamic astronomy” in an ancient context (Abraham 3), discusses the likely etymology of two unique astronomical names in the Book of Abraham (Kolob and Shinehah), explores the depiction of the unquestionably ancient concept of the divine council in the text (Abraham 3), and details how the Creation account in the Book of Abraham matches other texts from Abraham’s day (Abraham 4–5).
To be sure, this evidence does not “prove” the Book of Abraham is true, but it does shed a very favorable light on Joseph Smith’s claims to prophetic inspiration in addition to bolstering confidence in the authenticity of the book which presents itself as “the writings of Abraham, while he was in Egypt.”
For an extensive bibliography on the Book of Abraham and to read twenty-two out of forty (initial) planned Insight articles, be sure to check out Pearl of Great Price Central. The Book of Abraham Insights below in particular are those highlighted in the video. Full documentation for the claims made in the video, as well as further reading for each of the topics addressed in the video, can be found in the individual Insight articles.
Videos exploring the facsimiles of the Book of Abraham, what is known about the Egyptian papyri acquired by Joseph Smith, and the translation of the text are forthcoming. For now, readers wanting to learn more about these topics are encouraged to check out the Gospel Topics essay “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham” published by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the recent book An Introduction to the Book of Abraham by Latter-day Saint Egyptologist John Gee. Additional study resources (articles, book chapters, videos, podcasts) on these related topics can also be accessed for free on the Pearl of Great Price Central bibliography for the Book of Abraham.
One of the important doctrinal contributions of the Book of Abraham is its elaboration on the nature of the Abrahamic covenant (Abraham 2:6–11).1 While some details about the Abrahamic covenant can be read in the book of Genesis (12:1–5; cf. 26:1–4, 24; 28; 35:9–13; 48:3–4), it is in the Book of Abraham where additional important aspects about this covenant are revealed.
The significance of the Abrahamic covenant as explained and expanded upon in the Book of Abraham is that it involves blessings for and responsibilities of priesthood holders and includes a charge to Abraham’s descendants to share the gospel with all the families of the earth.
Also significant is that it “has several features that appear in other covenants and treaties of the ancient world. Treaties and covenants in Abraham’s day typically have a preamble or title, stipulations, an oath or other solemn ceremony, and, more rarely, curses conditional on violation of the covenant. . . . The covenant in the Book of Abraham follows the pattern for Abraham’s day.”2
With this in mind, the Abrahamic covenant as depicted in the Book of Abraham can be structured as follows:
ANCIENT COVENANT PATTERN
But I, Abraham, and Lot, my brother’s son, prayed unto the Lord, and the Lord appeared unto me, and said unto me:
Arise, and take Lot with thee; for I have purposed to take thee away out of Haran, and to make of thee a minister to bear my name in a strange land which I will give unto thy seed after thee for an everlasting possession, when they hearken to my voice.For I am the Lord thy God; I dwell in heaven; the earth is my footstool; I stretch my hand over the sea, and it obeys my voice; I cause the wind and the fire to be my chariot; I say to the mountains—Depart hence—and behold, they are taken away by a whirlwind, in an instant, suddenly.My name is Jehovah, and I know the end from the beginning; therefore my hand shall be over thee.
And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee above measure, and make thy name great among all nations, and thou shalt be a blessing unto thy seed after thee, that in their hands they shall bear this ministry and Priesthood unto all nations; And I will bless them through thy name; for as many as receive this Gospel shall be called after thy name, and shall be accounted thy seed, and shall rise up and bless thee, as their father; And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse them that curse thee; and in thee (that is, in thy Priesthood) and in thy seed (that is, thy Priesthood), for I give unto thee a promise that this right shall continue in thee, and in thy seed after thee (that is to say, the literal seed, or the seed of the body) shall all the families of the earth be blessed, even with the blessings of the Gospel, which are the blessings of salvation, even of life eternal.
As one scholar has observed, “the covenant in the Book of Abraham follows the pattern of treaties and covenants in his day and not the pattern of later times. The covenant pattern is thus an indication that the text dates to Abraham’s day.”3 While the content of the Abrahamic covenant is what’s most important for Latter-day Saints today,4 the form or structure of the covenant as depicted in the Book of Abraham is one way the text can be grounded in the ancient world from which it purports to derive.
John Gee, “The Abrahamic Covenant,” in An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2017), 107–113.
Monte S. Nyman, “The Covenant of Abraham,” in The Pearl of Great Price: Revelations from God, ed. H. Donl Peterson and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1989), 155–70.