Creation from Chaos

Book of Abraham Insight #19

Creedal Christianity teaches that God created the universe ex nihilo or out of nothing. As explained by one scholar,

The most widely accepted theistic explanation of initial creation is the theory that God created the universe from absolutely nothing. . . . Most major theologians in Christian history—for example, Irenaeus, Augustine, Catherine of Sienna, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, Karl Barth, and Paul Tilich—believed that God initially created the universe from absolutely nothing. . . . [M]any influential Christians throughout history have affirmed the theory.1

By contrast, Joseph Smith taught that God created the universe ex materia or out of pre-existing matter. “[T]he learned men who are preaching salvation say, that God created the heavens and the earth out of nothing,” the Prophet acknowledged in a sermon on April 7, 1844. “The word create [in Genesis 1:1] came from the word baurau [bārā]; it does not mean so; it means to organize; the same as a man would organize a ship. Hence we infer that God had materials to organize the world out of chaos; chaotic matter, which is element, and in which dwells all the glory.”2 

This teaching is also found in the Book of Abraham,3 and the Prophet’s later teachings about Creation may well indeed have been influenced by Abraham’s record and his study of Hebrew related to the translation thereof.4

According to the Book of Abraham, there was one in the pre-mortal council “like unto God” who proclaimed: “We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell” (Abraham 3:24). In the next chapter, the text says that the Gods (the members of the heavenly council) “organized and formed the heavens and the earth” as opposed to creating the earth (Abraham 4:1). The verbs organize and form are used throughout the Book of Abraham’s Creation account instead of create, clearly indicating some kind of divine activity or fashioning of material as opposed to creating all matter ex nihilo.

Scholars now recognize that the ancient cultures of Egypt, Syria-Canaan, and Mesopotamia did not seem to countenance ideas of creation ex nihilo but rather envisioned creation as the emergence of an ordered cosmos out of pre-existing chaos. This pre-ordered chaos is often personified as a primordial cosmic ocean or as a primeval cosmic combat between gods in ancient Near Eastern creation myths.5 For instance, in ancient Egyptian mythology, the earth first emerged as a primeval hillock springing out of a preexisting, chaotic, and unorganized primordial ocean called Nun.6 In the Mesopotamian myth known today as Enuma Elish (from the opening lines of the text meaning “when on high” in ancient Akkadian), the evil goddess Tiamat is defeated in battle by the god Marduk and her body is split in half to form the cosmos.7

Although not obvious from reading the King James translation, Creation is similarly imagined in the Bible as order emerging from a state of disorder. As the eminent biblical scholar Marc Zvi Brettler has noted:

The opposite of structure is chaos, and it is thus appropriate that [Genesis] 1:1–2 describe primeval chaos—a world that is ‘unformed and void,’ containing darkness and a mysterious wind. This story does not describe creation out of nothing (Latin: creatio ex nihilo). Primeval stuff already exists in verses 1–2, and the text shows no concern for how it originated. Rather, it is a[n account] about how God alone structured primordial matter into a highly organized world.8

This may hold significance for the Book of Abraham’s depiction of the Gods “ordering” the elements of the cosmos, which “obey” when so commanded (Abraham 4:7, 9–12, 18, 21, 25). This language “conjures [imagery] typical of the Near Eastern creation mythology . . . . of kingly dominion establishing order over a previously chaotic cosmos.”9

So while the Book of Abraham’s teachings about Creation might be out of place in the typical Christian thinking of Joseph Smith’s day, they are not out of place in the world of the ancient Near East.

Further Reading

John Gee, “The Creation,” in An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2017), 129–142.

Stephen O. Smoot, “Council, Chaos, and Creation in the Book of Abraham,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22, no. 2 (2013): 28–39.

Kevin Barney, “Examining Six Key Concepts in Joseph Smith’s Understanding of Genesis 1:1,” BYU Studies 39, no. 3 (2000): 107–124.

Footnotes

 

1 Thomas Jay Oord, “Creatio Ex Nihilo: An Introduction,” in Theologies of Creation: Creatio Ex Nihilo and Its New Rivals, ed. Thomas Jay Oord (New York, NY: Routledge, 2015), 2.

2 “Conference Minutes,” Times and Seasons 5, no. 15 (August 15, 1844): 615. For the reports of this sermon, see Discourse, 7 April 1844, as Reported by William Clayton, 16; Discourse, 7 April 1844, as Reported by Thomas Bullock, 18; Discourse, 7 April 1844, as Reported by Willard Richards, 68; Discourse, 7 April 1844, as Reported by Wilford Woodruff, 136.

3 See the overview in Stephen O. Smoot, “Council, Chaos, and Creation in the Book of Abraham,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22, no. 2 (2013): 28–39.

4 Joseph Smith’s study of Hebrew appears very likely to have influenced his translation of the Book of Abraham, including the decision to render the verbs in these verses as organize and form. The lexicon utilized by Joseph as he studied Hebrew in Kirtland, Ohio defines the verb bārā as “to form, make, create,” although not “organize.” Josiah W. Gibbs, Manual Hebrew and English Lexicon (New Haven, Conn: Hezekiah Howe, 1832), 36. As recognized by one scholar, however, it is “doubtful” that Joseph got his teaching of creation ex materia from his study of Hebrew alone. Louis C. Zucker, “Joseph Smith as a Student of Hebrew,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3, no. 2 (Summer 1968): 52. The extent to which Joseph’s study of Hebrew influenced his later teachings and translations thus remains open to discussion. For a recent perspective, see Matthew J. Grey, “‘The Word of the Lord in the Original’: Joseph Smith’s Study of Hebrew in Kirtland,” 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), 249–302.

5 For representative scholarly overviews of this topic, consult Robert A. Oden, Jr., “Cosmology, Cosmology,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1992), 1:1162–1171, esp. 1164–1165; Shalom M. Paul, “Creation and Cosmogony in the Bible,” in Encyclopaedia Judaica, ed. Fred Skolnik, 2nd ed. (Detroit, MI: Thomson Gale, 2007), 5:273–275; Abraham Winitzer, “Chaos. I. Ancient Near East,” in Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception, ed. Constance M. Furey et al. (Berlin: De Guyter, 2012), 4:1158–1159. See also generally John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 179–195; Genesis 1 As Ancient Cosmology (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2011), esp. 23–121.

6 Günter Burkard, “Vorstellungen vom Kosmos—Die Weltgebäude,” in Ägypten: Die Welt der Pharaonen, ed. Regine Schulz and Matthias Seidel (Germany: Könemann, 1997), 447. See also Geraldine Pinch, Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002), 172–173; Richard H. Wilkinson, The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt (London: Thames and Hudson, 2003), 117–118.

7 “The Epic of Creation” in Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others, rev ed., trans. Stepheanie Dalley (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000), 228–277; “Enuma Elish – The Babylonian Epic of Creation – Full Text,” online at www.ancient.eu; Thorkild Jacobsen, “The Battle Between Marduk and Tiamat,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 88, no. 1 (1968): 104–108; Mary K. Wakeman, God’s Battle with the Monster: A Study in Biblical Imagery (Leiden: Brill, 1973), 16–24.

8 Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Bible (Philadelphia, Penn: The Jewish Publication Society, 2005), 41. See also the comment by Hermann Spieckermann, “Creation: God and World,” in The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion, ed. John Barton (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 275. “God’s creation as described at the beginning of the Bible is not a creative act out of nothing. The conception of creatio ex nihilo first came to the fore in Hellenistic Judaism (2 Macc. 7:28). After the heading of Gen. 1:1 comes a description of the world before God’s first deed, the generation of light. Three elements characterize the world at this time: tōhû wābōhû (formless and void), ḥōšek (darkness), and tĕhôm (the deep). Present in Mesopotamian myths and even Old Testament texts, this triad alludes to Chaos. The term tĕhôm betrays an inherent conception of Chaos.”

9 Smoot, “Council, Chaos, and Creation in the Book of Abraham,” 34.

The Divine Council

Book of Abraham Insight #18

One thing that differentiates the Book of Abraham’s account of the Creation from the biblical account in Genesis is that the Book of Abraham mentions plural “Gods” as the agents carrying out the Creation. “And then the Lord said: Let us go down. And they went down at the beginning, and they, that is the Gods, organized and formed the heavens and the earth” (Abraham 4:1). These Gods are mentioned thirty-two times in Abraham 4 and sixteen times in Abraham 5. Significantly, these Gods are said to have taken “counsel” amongst themselves during the Creation (Abraham 4:26; 5:2–3, 5).

This language of the Gods taking counsel amongst themselves in Abraham 4–5 appears to be a natural continuation of the description of the premortal council in heaven in Abraham 3:22–28. One of “rulers” in the pre-mortal council who was “like unto God” is depicted as saying, “We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell; And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them” (vv. 24–25). In this manner the council of Gods in Abraham 3 counseled with each other during the Creation in Abraham 4–5.

After the lifetime of Joseph Smith, archaeologists working in Egypt, Syria-Palestine, and Mesopotamia uncovered scores of texts written on papyrus, stone, and clay tablets. As these texts were translated, scholars and laypersons alike were surprised to discover creation myths that in many ways paralleled the biblical Creation account while differing in some significant ways.1

One way in which these creation myths were different from the Creation account in Genesis was the clear, stark portrayal of what came to be widely called the divine or heavenly council. In many of these myths, a group or family of gods or divinities work together in fashioning the components of the cosmos.2  Other times, the gods engage in divine battle over control of the cosmos.3  Whatever the specific case, almost universally these myths described multiple deities serving different roles or functions in the process of Creation.

With this extra-biblical material in mind, and with the discovery of superior manuscripts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls that provided better readings of certain biblical passages,4  scholars returned to the Hebrew Bible and re-evaluated passages which appeared to acknowledge the presence of a divine plurality. Over time a general consensus has been reached that the Bible does indeed portray a multiplicity of gods, even if there remains individual scholarly disagreement over some of the finer details.5

A fragment containing Deuteronomy 32:8 (4QDeutj) from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Unlike the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible, which speaks of the “sons of Israel” in this verse, the variant preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls speaks of the “sons of God” and has been widely understood by scholars as a reference to God’s divine council.

In contrast to typical Jewish and Christian belief in Joseph Smith’s day, the Book of Abraham frankly depicts a plurality of Gods and even uses specific language (“took counsel amongst themselves”) that invokes the presence what is now widely recognized by scholars as the unquestionably ancient concept of the divine council.

The divine council as depicted in the Book of Abraham is composed of, at least:

    • “intelligences” and “noble and great ones” (Abraham 3:22)
    • “God” (v. 23)
    • “one . . . that was like unto God,” (v. 24) who was “like unto the Son of Man” (v. 27)
    • “another” who was “second” to the one who was “like unto God” (v. 27)

According to the Book of Abraham, then, God the Father did indeed work with a council, of which Jesus Christ and other “noble and great” pre-mortal intelligences or “souls”/“spirits” (v. 23) were members. The polytheistic divine councils of the ancient Near East might well be echoes of the conception of the divine council portrayed in the Book of Abraham. To be sure, while there are striking similarities between the Book of Abraham and other ancient texts that feature a divine council, there are also notable differences. What is important for the Book of Abraham is that the text broadly (and even in some specific instances of language) shares a similar ancient conception of a heavenly hierarchy or council of divine beings.6

While it is true that Joseph Smith learned from his Hebrew studies that the word for God (Elohim) in the Old Testament is technically a masculine plural noun,7  it does not seem likely that he would have learned about the divine council from his teacher, Joshua Seixas, as the two seemed to strongly disagree on the implications this held for the biblical view of God.8  In any case, with the exception of the Bible, the surviving ancient texts that overtly depict the divine council were unknown in the Prophet’s day.

While the theological implications of the divine council remain to be fully explored and articulated,9  what can be said with a fair degree of reasonableness is that the Book of Abraham’s depiction of the divine council shares features present in other ancient Near Eastern texts, some of which date to Abraham’s day. This reinforces belief that the Book of Abraham is authentically ancient.

Further Reading

Stephen O. Smoot, “Council, Chaos, and Creation in the Book of Abraham,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22, no. 2 (2013): 28–39.

David E. Bokovoy, “‘Ye Really Are Gods’: A Response to Michael Heiser concerning the LDS Use of Psalm 82 and the Gospel of John,” FARMS Review 19, no. 1 (2007): 267–313.

Joseph F. McConkie, “Premortal Existence, Foreordinations, and Heavenly Councils,” in Apocryphal Writings and the Latter-day Saints, ed. C. Wilfred Griggs (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1986), 174–98.

Footnotes

 

1 For an accessible reproduction and discussion of some of the more prominent texts in this genre, as well as a bibliography, see Christopher B. Hays, Hidden Riches: A Sourcebook for the Comparative Study of the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 41–73. See also John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 179–199; Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2011).

2 For instance, the ancient Egyptian nine gods of the Heliopolitan Ennead or the eight gods of the Hermapolitan Ogdoad as attested in Pyramid Texts 301, 446, 527, 600 and Coffin Texts 75–81, 107, 335, 714; or the family of the Canaanite god El and his consort Athirat from the Ugaritic texts. For Egyptian cosmogony, see generally Vincent Arieh Tobin, “Creation Myths,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Egyptology, ed. Donald A. Redford (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001), 2:469–472; for Ugaritic cosmology, see generally Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

3 For instance, the combat of the gods Marduk and Tiamat from Mesopotamia. On such, see “The Epic of Creation” in Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others, rev ed., trans. Stepheanie Dalley (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000), 228–277.

4 For instance, the reading of Deuteronomy 32:7–9, 43–44 in 4QDeutj + 4QDeutq.

5 For a representative sampling of the extensive literature, see Gerald Cooke, “The Sons of (the) God(s),” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 35, no. 1 (1964): 22–47; E. Theodore Mullen, Jr., The Divine Council in Canaanite and Early Hebrew Literature, Harvard Semitic Monographs 24 (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1980); S. B. Parker, “Council,” in in Dictionary of Deities and Demons of the Bible, ed. Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, Pieter W. van der Horst (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1999), 204–208; “Sons of (the) God(s),” in Dictionary of Deities and Demons of the Bible, 794–800; Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism; Min Suc Kee, “The Heavenly Council and its Type-scene,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 31, no. 3 (2007): 259–273. For Latter-day Saint responses to this scholarship, see Daniel C. Peterson, “‘Ye Are Gods’: Psalm 82 and John 10 as Witness to the Divine Nature of Humankind,” in The Disciple as Scholar: Essays on Scripture and the Ancient World in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson, ed. Stephen D. Ricks, Donald W. Parry, and Daniel C. Peterson (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000), 471–594; Stephen O. Smoot, “The Divine Council in the Hebrew Bible and the Book of Mormon,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 27 (2017): 155–180.

6 David E. Bokovoy, “‘Ye Really Are Gods’: A Response to Michael Heiser concerning the LDS Use of Psalm 82 and the Gospel of John,” FARMS Review 19, no. 1 (2007): 267–313, esp. 272–279; see further Joseph F. McConkie, “Premortal Existence, Foreordinations, and Heavenly Councils,” in Apocryphal Writings and the Latter-day Saints, ed. C. Wilfred Griggs (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1986), 174–98.

7 On Joseph Smith’s study of Hebrew, see Matthew J. Grey, “‘The Word of the Lord in the Original’’: Joseph Smith’s Study of Hebrew in Kirtland,” 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), 249–302.

8 Discourse, 16 June 1844–A, as Reported by Thomas Bullock, 2. It does not appear to have been within Seixas’ disposition to have encouraged a “polytheistic” theology in his student Joseph Smith, since the former was an Orthodox Jew who later “adopted the basic tenets of Unitarian [Christian] belief.” As such, “it is highly doubtful that [he] would have advanced a pantheistic or trinitarian interpretation of Gen. 1.” Shalom Goldman, “Joshua/James Seixas (1802-1874): Jewish Apostasy and Christian Hebraism in Early,” Jewish History 7, no. 1 (Spring 1993): 76, 82; cf. God’s Sacred Tongue: Hebrew and the American Imagination (Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 194. Compare also the observation by Louis C. Zucker, “Joseph Smith as a Student of Hebrew,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3, no. 2 (Summer 1968): 52.

9 The Prophet Joseph Smith delivered a discourse in circa May 1841 where, referencing otherwise unknown or unpublished material from the Book of Abraham, he taught: “[An] everlasting covenant was made between three personages before the organizations of the earth, and relates to their dispensation of things to men on the earth. These personages, according to Abraham’s record, are called: God the first, the Creator; God the second, the Redeemer, and God the third, the witness or Testator.” Discourse, circa May 1841, as Reported By Unknown Scribe–A, 1, spelling and punctuation standardized. On another occasion, the Prophet taught: “I have always declared God to be a distinct personage, Jesus Christ a separate and distinct personage from God the Father, [and] the Holy Ghost a distinct personage and a Spirit. These three constitute three distinct personages and three Gods.” Discourse, 16 June 1844–A, as Reported by Thomas Bullock, 1, spelling and punctuation standardized. The unity and separateness of the Godhead was obviously an important topic for the Prophet, and subsequent prophets have added to and clarified this subject with additional teachings.

Kolob, The Governing One

Book of Abraham Insight #17

One of the more memorable contributions of the Book of Abraham is its depiction of Kolob (Abraham 1:3–4, 9, 16; Facsimile 2, Fig. 1). According to the Book of Abraham, Kolob is characterized by the following features:

    • It is a star.1
    • It is a “great [star]” and a “governing one.”
    • It is “near unto [God]” or “nigh unto the throne of God.”
    • It was used to tell relative time (“one revolution [of Kolob] was a day unto the Lord, after his manner of reckoning, it being one thousand years according to the time appointed unto that whereon thou [Abraham] standest”).
    • It “signify[ed] the first creation, nearest to the celestial, or the residence of God. First in government, the last pertaining to the measurement of time. The measurement according to celestial time, which celestial time signifies one day to a cubit.”

Latter-day Saints have long been interested in Kolob for its doctrinal and potential cosmological significance.2 The opening words to the beloved Latter-day Saint hymn “If You Could Hie to Kolob” written by W. W. Phelps was, of course, inspired by Kolob in the Book of Abraham.3

In recent years, spurred on by promising discoveries in Egyptology and Near Eastern archaeology, some Latter-day Saint scholars have sought to situate Kolob in the ancient world. Although there are still many uncertainties, a few points in favor of Kolob being authentically ancient can be affirmed with reasonable plausibility.

First is the matter of the etymology of the name Kolob. One of the more common proposals is that the name derives from the Semitic root qlb, meaning “heart, center, middle,” and is thus related to the root qrb, meaning “to be near, close.”4 This explanation is enticing because it works well as a pun on the name provided for Kolob within the Book of Abraham itself: “the name of the great one is Kolob [qlb; “middle, center”], because it is near [qrb] unto me [i.e. the Lord]” (Abraham 3:3).5 The drawback to this theory, however, is that qlb as a Semitic word is only attested as far back as Arabic, which is considerably later than Abraham’s time.6 That being said, there are conjectural Afroasiatic roots that could potentially place this word in Abraham’s day.7

Another promising proposal is that Kolob derives from the Semitic root klb, meaning “dog.”8 This theory has been circulating since at least the early twentieth century, when a non-Latter-day Saint named James E. Homans (writing under the pseudonym R. C. Webb) postulated this idea in 1913.9 This, in turn, has prompted some to identify Kolob with Sirius, the dog-star.10 Known as Sopdet (or Sothis in Greek) in ancient Egypt, Sirius held both mythological as well as calendrical significance to the ancient Egyptians. Usually associated with the goddesses Isis and Hathor, the star Sirius “had a special role because its heliacal rising coincided with the ideal Egyptian New Year day that was linked with the onset of the Nile inundation.”11

Both Sirius and Kolob share a number of overlapping characteristics, including:

    • Both are associated with the throne of God.12
    • Both are recognized as the “greatest” (probably meaning brightest) of stars.13
    • Both are depicted as governing other stars.14
    • Both are associated with creation.15
    • Both are significant in measuring time.

While these convergences are compelling, the main drawback to this theory is that, as far as is currently attested, klb (“dog”) appears to have been used anciently to identify the constellation Hercules as opposed to Canis Major (which contains Sirius).16 However, by the Greco-Roman period of Egyptian history (the period that the Joseph Smith Papyri and facsimiles date to) there is evidence that Sirius (Isis-Sothis) was “represented as a large dog,”17 and it is possible that this representation pre-dates Abraham’s day, although this point is disputed among Egyptologists.18 At this point, the identification of Kolob as Sirius is promising but remains unproven.

A depiction of Isis-Sothis riding a large dog in Salamuni Tomb 8 from Akhmim, Egypt. Image from Venit (2016), 184.

Conceptually, the way Kolob is depicted in the Book of Abraham interplays well with ancient Egyptian cosmology. As explained by Egyptologist John Gee:

The ancient Egyptians associated the idea of encircling something (whether in the sky or on earth) with controlling or governing it, and the same terms are used for both. Thus, the Book of Abraham notes that “there shall be the reckoning of the time of one planet above another, until thou come nigh unto Kolob, . . . which Kolob is set nigh unto the throne of God, to govern all those planets which belong to the same order as that upon which thou standest” (Abraham 3:9; emphasis added). The Egyptians had a similar notion, in which the sun (Re) was not only a god but the head of all the gods and ruled over everything that he encircled. Abraham’s astronomy sets the sun, “that which is to rule the day” (Abraham 3:5), as greater than the moon but less than Kolob, which governs the sun (Abraham 3:9). Thus, in the astronomy of the Book of Abraham, Kolob, which is the nearest star to God (Abraham 3:16; see also 3, 9), revolves around and thus encircles or controls the sun, which is the head of the Egyptian pantheon.19

While questions about the identification of Kolob still remain, there are some very tantalizing pieces of evidence that, when brought together, reinforce the antiquity of this astronomical concept unique to the Book of Abraham.

Further Reading

John Gee, “Abrahamic Astronomy,” in An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2017), 115–120.

Hugh Nibley and Michael D. Rhodes, One Eternal Round (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 2010), 250–260.

John Gee, William J. Hamblin, and Daniel C. Peterson, “‘And I Saw the Stars’: The Book of Abraham and Ancient Geocentric Astronomy,” in Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant, ed. John Gee and Brian M. Hauglid (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2005), 1–16.

Footnotes

 

1 The Book of Abraham tends to conflate “star” with “planet,” leading some Latter-day Saints to speak of Kolob as a planet or world. See for instance Brigham Young, “Territory of Utah: Proclamation, for a Day of Praise and Thanksgiving,” in Journals of the House of Representatives, Council, and Joint Sessions of the First Annual and Special Sessions of the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Utah (Salt Lake City, UT: Brigham Young, 1852),​ 166; John Taylor, “Origins, Object, and Destiny of Woman,” The Mormon 3, no. 28 (August 29, 1857); Orson Pratt, “Millennium,” The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star 28, no. 36 (September 8, 1866): 561; Bruce L. Christensen, “Media Myths and Miracles,” BYU Devotional, November 8, 1994. While confusing for modern readers, this conflation makes sense from an ancient perspective, as discussed in John Gee, William J. Hamblin, and Daniel C. Peterson, “‘And I Saw the Stars’: The Book of Abraham and Ancient Geocentric Astronomy,” in Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant, ed. John Gee and Brian M. Hauglid (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2005), 11.

2 B. H. Roberts, A New Witness for God (Salt Lake City, UT: George Q. Cannon & Sons, 1895), 446–448; George Reynolds and Janne M. Sjodahl, Commentary on the Pearl of Great Price (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret News Press, 1965), 308–312; The Pearl of Great Price Student Manual (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2017), 71–73, 78, 81.

3 Hymn #284 in the current hymnal of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; first published in 1856 under the title “There is No End,” Deseret News (November 19, 1856), 290.

4 Janne M. Sjodahl, “The Book of Abraham,” Improvement Era 16, no. 4 (February 1913): 329; “The Word ‘Kolob’,” Improvement Era 16, no. 6 (April 1913): 621; Sidney B. Sperry, Ancient Records Testify in Papyrus and Stone (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1938), 86; Robert F. Smith, “Some ‘Neologisms’ From the Mormon Canon,” in Conference on the Language of the Mormons (Provo, UT: Language Research Center, Brigham Young Uniersity, 1973), 64; Michael D. Rhodes, “The Joseph Smith Hypocephalus . . . Twenty Years Later,” FARMS Preliminary Report (1994), 8; “Teaching the Book of Abraham Facsimiles,” Religious Educator 4, no. 2 (2003): 121; Richard D. Draper, S. Kent Brown, and Michael D. Rhodes, The Pearl of Great Price: A Verse-by-Verse Commentary (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2005), 289–290; Hugh Nibley and Michael D. Rhodes, One Eternal Round (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 2010), 250–251.

5 The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, ed. John A. Brinkman et al (Chicago, Ill.: Oriental Institute, 1982), s.v. qerbu; Jeremy Black, Andrew George, Nicholas Postgate, eds., A Concise Dictionary of Akkadian (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2000), 288.

6 The closest attested word in Abraham’s day to the Arabic qalb would probably be the Old Akkadian qabla or qablu (qablītu), meaning “in the middle” or “middle part.” The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, s.v. qabla, qablītu; Black, George, Postgate, A Concise Dictionary of Akkadian, 281.

7 See Antonio Loprieno, Ancient Egyptian: A Linguistic Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 32, who cites the reconstructed Afroasiatic root ḳlb/ḳrb for the Egyptian and Akkadian cognates qꜣb (“interior”) and qerbum (“inside”), respectively; compare James P. Allen, The Ancient Egyptian Language: A Historical Study (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 35.

8 The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, s.v. kalbu; Black, George, Postgate, A Concise Dictionary of Akkadian, 142.

9 Robert C. Webb [James E. Homans], “A Critical Examination of the Fac-Similies in the Book of Abraham,” Improvement Era 16, no. 5 (March 1913): 445; cf. Joseph Smith as a Translator (Salt Lake City, UT: The Deseret News Press, 1935), 102–103.

10 Webb, “A Critical Examination of the Fac-Similies in the Book of Abraham,” 445; Joseph Smith as a Translator, 103; Nibley and Rhodes, One Eternal Round, 251–252.

11 Joachim Frederich Quack, “Astronomy in Ancient Egypt,” in The Oxford Handbook of Science and Medicine in the Classical World, ed. Paul T. Keyser and John Scarborough (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018), 62. See also Raymond O. Faulkner, “The King and the Star-Religion in the Pyramid Texts,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 25, no. 3 (July 1966): 157–160; Richard H. Wilkinson, The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt (London: Thames and Hudson, 2003), 167–168; Jay B. Holberg, Sirius: Brightest Diamond in the Night Sky (Berlin: Springer, 2007), 3–14.

12 One of the ancient Egyptian epithets for Sopdet/Sirius was wˁbt swt or “pure of thrones” in Pyramid Text 442 (§822a) and Pyramid Text 504 (§1082d). The image of the Throne of God in the heavens is commonplace in the Bible (e.g. Psalm 11:4; 103:19; Matthew 5:34; 23:22; Revelation 4:1–2, 5–6).

13 “[Seirios] originally was employed to indicate any bright and sparkling heavenly object, but in the course of time became a proper name for this brightest of all the stars” (Richard Hinckley Allen, Star-Names and Their Meanings [New York, NY: G. E. Stechert, 1899], 120). “Greek writers made special reference to Sirius, the brilliant star in the constellation [Canis Major]. The name has been derived from Seirios, ‘sparkling.’ This term was first employed to indicate any bright sparkling object in the sky, and was also applied to the Sun. But after a time, the name was given to the brightest of all stars” (Charles Whyte, The Constellations and their History [London: Charles Griffin, 1928], 231–232). “[Sirius] is the brightest of the fixed stars. . . . [and] has been throughout human history the most brilliant of the permanent fixed stars” (Robert Burnham, Jr., Burnham’s Celestial Handbook: An Observer’s Guide to the Universe Beyond the Solar System [New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1978], 1:387, 390). “Among the brightest stars of the northern winter sky, Sirius is prominent as the principal star of the constellation Canis Major, Latin for the Greater Dog” (Holberg, Sirius, 15).

14 As “the star which fixes and governs the periodic return of the year” (James Bonwick, Egyptian Belief and Modern Thought [London: K. Paul & Co., 1878], 113) and the annual inundation of the Nile, Sirius (specifically its godly manifestation as Hathor/Isis) bore the epithets “Lady of the beginning of the year, Sothis, Mistress of the stars” (nbt tp rnpt spdt ḥnwt ḫꜣbꜣ.s) and “Sothis in the sky, the Female Ruler of the stars” (spdt m pt ḥqꜣt n[t] ḫꜣbꜣ.s). Barbara A. Richter, The Theology of Hathor of Dendera: Aural and Visual Scribal Techniques in the Per-Wer Sanctuary (Atlanta, GA: Lockwood Press, 2016), 4n8, 96.

15 Richter, The Theology of Hathor of Dendera, 4n8, 96–97, 173, 185; Holberg, Sirius, 14. One late Egyptian text describes Sirius as “[the one] who created those who created us” (r-ir qm nꜣ ỉỉr qm.n), making the star the supreme creator, as it were. “She is Sirius and all things were created through her” (spt tꜣy mtw.w ỉr mdt nb r-ḥr.s). Wilhelm Spiegelberg, Der Ägyptische Mythus vom Sonnenauge (Strassburg: R. Schutz, 1917), 28–29.

16 The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, s.v. kalbu; Douglas B. Miller and R. Mark Shipp, An Akkadian Handbook: Paradigms, Helps, Glossary, Logograms, and Sign List (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1996), 55; Black, George, Postgate, A Concise Dictionary of Akkadian, 142. In Syriac, kelb does refer to Sirius, although this language post-dates Abraham considerably, and so it is uncertain if this identification extends as far back as the Middle Bronze Age in earlier proto-Semitic forms. R. Payne Smith, A Compendious Syriac Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon, 1903), 215.

17 Wilkinson, The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, 168; Marjorie Susan Venit, Visualizing the Afterlife in the Tombs of Graeco-Roman Egypt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 183–184, 186, 192–193; Catlín E. Barrett, Egyptianizing Figurines from Delos: A Study in Hellenistic Religion (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 187–189.

18 Barrett, Egyptianizing Figurines from Delos, 187; Laszlo Kakosy, “Sothis,” in Lexikon der Agyptologie, ed. Wolfgang Helck and Eberhard Otto (Wiesbaden: Harrosowitz Verlag, 1986), 5:1115.

19 John Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2017), 116–117; compare Kerry Muhlestein, “Encircling Astronomy and the Egyptians: An Approach to Abraham 3,” Religious Educator 10, no. 1 (2009): 37–43.

Shinehah, The Sun

Book of Abraham Insight #16

One of the astronomical terms defined in the Book of Abraham is Shinehah, which is said to be the sun (Abraham 3:13). Earlier in the Book of Abraham the “god of Shagreel” is identified as the sun as well (Abraham 1:9). The context of these passages suggests that Shagreel is a Chaldean (Northwest Semitic) name or word while Shinehah is an Egyptian name or word, although this is not explicit from the text.1 We do not know how Joseph Smith intended this word to be pronounced; whether, for instance, shine-hah or shi-ney-hah or some other way.2  However it is pronounced, contrary to the claim made by some of Joseph Smith’s skeptics,3 there is evidence that Shinehah is an authentic ancient Egyptian word.

Beginning around 2350 BC, “the walls of the inner chambers and corridors of ancient Egyptian pyramids were inscribed with a series of ritual and magical spells” known today as the Pyramid Texts. “These inscriptions constitute the oldest body of Egyptian religious writings,” and were later copied “on tombs, sarcophagi, coffins, canopic chests, papyri, stelae, and other funerary monuments of nonroyal Egyptians.”4 Discovered in 1880 and translated into English for the first time in 1952,5 the purpose of the Pyramid Texts was to outline the “deceased’s relationship to two gods, Osiris and the Sun,” and guide them through the afterlife as a glorified spirit.6

Among other things, the Pyramid Texts provided astronomical or cosmological information meant to help guide the deceased on this afterlife journey.7 “Since it was predicated on the Sun’s daily cycle of death and rebirth, the deceased’s own afterlife was envisioned as a journey in company with the Sun.” The path of the sun through the sky from east to west, known as the ecliptic, was envisioned in the Pyramid Texts as a celestial canal or waterway that bisected the sky into northern and southern hemispheres.8 Indeed, this canal or waterway was probably seen as “the celestial counterpart of the Nile.”9 Inscriptions from the Pyramid Texts overtly speak of the sun (or the solar barque) traveling along this celestial waterway.10

There are two names given for this celestial canal or waterway (the sun’s ecliptic) in the Pyramid Texts. The more common spelling is mr-n-ḫꜣ and is translated by Egyptologist James Allen as “Winding Canal.”11 A less common but still attested second name for this same “Winding Canal” in the Pyramid Texts is spelled in a way that by Abraham’s time would have probably been pronounced similar to shi-ne-hah (š[ỉ]-n-ḫꜣ).12 Although they alternate in the Pyramid Texts, the different spellings of the name would have likely been seen as being synonymous,13 and so Egyptologists today typically standardize the spelling to read all attestations of the name the more common way (mr-n-ḫꜣ ).14 Despite this, the name survived into Abraham’s day in texts known today as the Coffin Texts (which were, in part, something of a “direct descendant” of the Pyramid Texts) predominantly as š(ỉ)-n-ḫꜣ.15

One of the attested hieroglyphic spellings for the sun’s ecliptic (š[ỉ]-n-ḫꜣ) in the ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts.

From this evidence it is clear that both š(ỉ)-n-ḫꜣ and mr-n-ḫꜣ are attested as names for the sun’s ecliptic. The latter is more common in the Old Kingdom (circa 2686–2181 BC) but the former is more common in the Middle Kingdom (circa 2040-1782 BC) and thus Abraham’s day. The spelling of the name as attested in the Coffin Texts from Abraham’s day matches the spelling of Shinehah in the Book of Abraham fairly closely. What’s more, the context in the Book of Abraham is significant since Shinehah (the sun) is oriented in a tiered cosmos of graded celestial bodies (the moon, stars, etc.) rotating around the earth at faster or slower revolutions depending on their relative distance to the earth (Abraham 3:4–9, 16–17).16 In other words, the Book of Abraham appears to conceive of the position of the sun in the cosmos in a way similar to how it is conceived in ancient Egyptian texts: as a heavenly body traversing the sky from the relative vantage point of the earth below.

So while the Egyptian word for the sun itself is not the same as in the Book of Abraham,17 one of the Egyptian words for the sun’s ecliptic (the path of the sun through the sky) as attested in Abraham’s day is. This in addition to the cosmic orientation of Shinehah or the sun in the Book of Abraham that parallels ancient Egyptian views reinforces belief that the text is authentically ancient.18

Further Reading

John Gee, “Abrahamic Astronomy,” in An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2017), 115–120.

Hugh Nibley and Michael D. Rhodes, One Eternal Round (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 2010), 333–335.

Footnotes

 

1 The identity of this god isn’t certain, but there are a number of plausible possibilities. See the explorations in Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS), 416–417; Hugh Nibley and Michael D. Rhodes, One Eternal Round (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 2010), 173–175; Robert F. Smith, “A Brief Assessment of the LDS Book of Abraham,”  24; Richard D. Draper, S. Kent Brown, and Michael D. Rhodes, The Pearl of Great Price: A Verse-by-Verse Commentary (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2005), 251.

2 The 2013 edition of the Pearl of Great Price published by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not provide a standardized pronunciation for Shinehah or the other astronomical terms in the Book of Abraham.

3 Samuel A. B. Mercer, “Joseph Smith As An Interpreter and Translator of Egyptian,” Utah Survey 1, no. 1 (September 1913): 33–34.

4 James P. Allen, trans., The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, ed. Peter Der Manuelian (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005), 1.

5 Allen, The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, 2.

6 Allen, The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, 7–8.

7 Rolf Krauss, Astronomische Konzepte und Jenseitsvorstellungen in den Pyramidentexten (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 1997).

8 Krauss, Astronomische Konzepte und Jenseitsvorstellungen in den Pyramidentexten, 14–66; Allen, The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, 9; John Gee, “Hypocephali as Astronomical Documents,” in Aegyptus et Pannonia V: Acta Symposii anno 2008, ed. Hedvig Györy and Ádám Szabó (Budapest: The Ancient Egyptian Committee of the Hungarian-Egyptian Friendship Society, 2016), 60.

9 Robert G. Bauval, “A Master-Plan for the Three Pyramids of Giza Based on the Configuration of the Three Stars of the Belt of Orion,” Discussions in Egyptology 13 (1989): 10.

10 PT 334 (§543a–b), PT 548 (§§1345c; 1346a–c).

11 Allen, The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, passim, 444. PT 263 (§340d), PT 264 (§343a), PT 265 (§352a), PT 266 (§359b), PT 304 (§469a), PT 334 (§543b), PT 359 (§§ 594b–f; 596b; 599a–d; 600a–b), PT 504 (§1084b), PT 507 (§1102d), PT 522 (§1228b–c).

12 PT 437 (§802a), PT 512 (§1162c), PT 555 (§§1376c; 1377c), PT 569 (§1441a), PT 624 (§1759b), PT 697 (§2172c), PT 767 (§20). There is some question about the original pronunciation of the first consonant in the name š(ỉ)-n-ḫꜣ. The hieroglyph used to represent the sound sh (š) (cf. Rainer Hannig, Ägyptisches Wörterbuch I: Altes Reich und Erste Zwischenzeit [Mainz: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 2003], 1278–1279) was also used in Old Egyptian (the form of the Egyptian language the Pyramid Texts were written in) to represent the sound x (). Questions remain as to whether the glyph was originally pronounced sh (š) or x (). See the discussion in Antonio Loprieno, Ancient Egyptian: A Linguistic Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 34; James P. Allen, The Ancient Egyptian Language: An Historical Study (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 44–45; Grammar of the Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, Volume 1: Unis (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2017), 25–26. By Abraham’s day several centuries later, the glyph was being pronounced uniformly as sh (š), so while the original pronunciation of this spelling of the name remains debated, the way the word is rendered in the Book of Abraham with sh is entirely justifiable. Unfortunately, because the vocalization of ancient Egyptian is still largely unknown, especially when it comes to the vowels, at this point we can only give approximations or educated guesses about how š(ỉ)-n-ḫꜣ would have been pronounced in Abraham’s day. What matters most for Shinehah in the Book of Abraham is that the consonants match š(ỉ)-n-ḫꜣ rather nicely. On Middle Egyptian vocalization, see James P. Allen, Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs, 3rd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 18–21.

13 This might explain the odd spelling mr-{š[ỉ]}-n-ḫꜣ in PT 510 (§1138d).

14 Krauss, Astronomische Konzepte und Jenseitsvorstellungen in den Pyramidentexten, 15; James P. Allen, A New Concordance of the Pyramid Texts, Vol. 1: Introduction, Occurrences, Transcription (Providence, RI: Brown University Press, 2013), passim; also mr nḫꜣỉ in Allen, The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, 444.

15 Rendered “Winding Waterway” by Raymond O. Faulkner, The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts, 3 vols. (Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 1973–1978), passim. CT 18 (I 53); CT 61 (I 259); CT 62 (I 270); CT 163 (II 405); CT 214 (III 174); CT 241 (III 326); CT 268 (IV 1); CT 285 (IV 35); CT 347 (IV 380); CT 393 (V 67); CT 418 (V 253); CT 473 (VI 15); CT 474 (VI 26); CT 479 (VI 42); CT 582 (VI 199); CT 905 (VII 111); CT 987 (VII 194); CT 1129 (VII 458). Attested as mr-n-ḫꜣ in CT 305 (IV 59). The first attempt to compile and publish the Coffin Texts was undertaken by the French scholar Pierre Lacau beginning in 1904. Adriaan de Buck published the first complete collection of these texts between 1935–1961. The first accessible English translation of the complete (or near-complete) corpus of Coffin Texts were the volumes published by Raymond Faulkner cited above.

16 John Gee, William J. Hamblin, and Daniel C. Peterson, “‘And I Saw the Stars’: The Book of Abraham and Ancient Geocentric Astronomy,” in Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant, ed. John Gee and Brian Hauglid (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2005), esp. 7–8, 12.

17 The word for the sun itself in ancient Egyptian is , the same word for the name of the sun-god Re.

18 See further Nibley and Rhodes, One Eternal Round, 333–335, who propose an etymology for Shinehah deriving from the Egyptian words šnỉ (“to encircle”) and nḥḥ (“eternity,” “many,” “millions,” etc.) and thus reconstruct the word as *šn+ḥḥ (effectively, “one eternal round”). While this is plausible etymologically, the main drawback to this proposed origin for the word Shinehah is that it is hypothetical and reconstructed, whereas š(ỉ)-n-ḫꜣ is attested. Nibley and Rhodes also rightly pick up on the cosmological significance of the sun’s “motion relative to that of other heavenly bodies” in Abraham 3:13.

Abrahamic Astronomy

Book of Abraham Insight #15

The Book of Abraham is noteworthy for its description of so-called Abrahamic astronomy. Chapter 3 of the Book of Abraham, along with Facsimile 2, contains this astronomical portrait, which is not always easy to understand. Scholars looking at the text have articulated at least three different models for interpreting this chapter.

The first model seeks to understand the astronomy in the Book of Abraham through a scientific lens. Those who accept this paradigm have offered arguments for how Abrahamic astronomy can be harmonized with modern science.1

The second model works under the assumption that the astronomical concepts presented in the Book of Abraham are rooted in ancient cosmology. In particular, this model sees the Book of Abraham as depicting a geocentric (earth-centered) view of the cosmos, which differs from our modern scientific understanding that the sun is at the center of our solar system.2

The third model argues for essentially an inverse of the second model and puts forth a reading of the Book of Abraham’s astronomy that places Kolob, not the earth, at the center of the cosmos. This model argues that while the astronomy of the Book of Abraham may be ancient, the main focus should be on the spiritual truths that can be gleaned from the text.3

Each of these models have their respective strengths and weaknesses. For the purposes of this series placing the Book of Abraham in the ancient world, the second model that sees the Book of Abraham’s astronomy as an ancient geocentric cosmos is worth paying close attention to.

The cosmology of the Book of Abraham when read as a geocentric text. Courtesy of Mike Parker.

As summarized by John Gee, a leading proponent of the geocentric model,

The astronomy in the Book of Abraham uses as its point of reference “the earth upon which thou standest” (Abraham 3:3, 5–7). It mentions various heavenly bodies, such as “the stars” (Abraham 3:2), among which is Kolob (Abraham 3:3–4). These provide a fixed backdrop for the heavens. Among the stars are various bodies that move in relation to the fixed backdrop, each of which is called a “planet” (Abraham 3:5, 8) or a “light” (Abraham 3:5–7), though since the sun and moon and certain stars are each also called a “planet,” we should not think of them as necessarily being what we call planets. Each of these planets is associated with “its times and seasons in the revolutions thereof” (Abraham 3:4). These lights revolve around something, and that is the fixed reference point, “the earth upon which thou standest” (Abraham 3:3, 5–7). The Book of Abraham thus presents a geocentric astronomy, like almost all ancient astronomies, including ancient Egyptian astronomy.4

Importantly, the Lord explicitly told Abraham: “I show these things [the heavenly bodies described in Abraham 3] unto thee before ye go into Egypt, that ye may declare all these words” (Abraham 3:15). Evidently the astronomy revealed to Abraham was meant, in part, to take conceptions of the cosmos familiar to the ancient Egyptians and replace them with a proper gospel understanding. “Abraham was to teach not only astronomy but also gospel principles the Lord explained through astronomic means.”5 This could explain why the Book of Abraham contains an apparently pre-scientific description of the cosmos rooted in the ancient world. This could only be feasibly accomplished if Abraham communicated to the Egyptians and likened the cosmos to gospel truths in ways they understood.

While the Book of Abraham’s astronomy symbolically teaches important truths about the Plan of Salvation,6 and while it is interesting to explore how modern science might inform our understanding, the cosmology in the text can also be comfortably grounded in the ancient world.

Further Reading

John Gee, “Abrahamic Astronomy,” in An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2017), 115–120.

Kerry Muhlestein, “Encircling Astronomy and the Egyptians: An Approach to Abraham 3,” Religious Educator 10, no. 1 (2009): 33–50.

John Gee, William J. Hamblin, and Daniel C. Peterson, “‘And I Saw the Stars’: The Book of Abraham and Ancient Geocentric Astronomy,” in Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant, ed. John Gee and Brian M. Hauglid (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2005), 1–16.

Michael D. Rhodes and J. Ward Moody, “Astronomy and Creation in the Book of Abraham,” in Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant, ed. John Gee and Brian M. Hauglid (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2005), 17–36.

Footnotes

 

1 Michael D. Rhodes and J. Ward Moody, “Astronomy and Creation in the Book of Abraham,” in Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant, ed. John Gee and Brian M. Hauglid (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2005), 17–36; cf. Michael D. Rhodes, “The Scriptural Accounts of the Creation: A Scientific Perspective,” in Converging Paths to Truth, ed. Michael D. Rhodes and J. Ward Moody (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, Salt Lake City, 2011), 123–50.

2 John Gee, William J. Hamblin, and Daniel C. Peterson, “‘And I Saw the Stars’: The Book of Abraham and Ancient Geocentric Astronomy,” in Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant, 1–16.

3 Kerry Muhlestein, “Encircling Astronomy and the Egyptians: An Approach to Abraham 3,” Religious Educator 10, no. 1 (2009): 33–50.

4 John Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2017), 115–116.

5 Muhlestein, “Encircling Astronomy and the Egyptians,” 35.

6 Muhlestein, “Encircling Astronomy and the Egyptians,” 43–48.

The Ancient Owners of the Joseph Smith Papyri

Book of Abraham Insight #14

Thanks to the work of Egyptologists over the past decades, in addition to knowing what texts the extant Egyptian papyri acquired by Joseph Smith in 1835 contain,1  we also know quite a bit about the ancient owners of the papyri. “From the names, titles, and genealogies written on the Joseph Smith Papyri, we know” the owner of the papyri designated Joseph Smith Papyri I, XI, and X (from which Joseph Smith got Facsimiles 1 and 3) was a man named Hor (or Horos in Greek).2

Hor lived “about the same time period as the Rosetta Stone,” that is, around 200 BC, and was a priest or prophet of three Egyptian deities in the ancient city of Thebes.3  “As prophet, he was a spokesman for various gods, who interacted with prophets on a regular basis. As a prophet, Hor had been initiated into the temple’s sacred places, which represented heaven, and had promised to maintain strict standards of personal conduct and purity.”4

Being a priest or prophet in ancient Egypt had its privileges. For example, a prophet like Hor “had access to the great Theban temple libraries, containing narratives, reference works, and manuals, as well as scrolls on religion, ritual, and history.”5 Hor lived at a time when Egyptian religion was eclectic, with elements of “Greek, Jewish, and Near Eastern traditions” making their way into Egyptian culture during this time.6 “The papyri owners also lived at a time when stories about Abraham circulated in Egypt. If any ancient Egyptians were in a position to know about Abraham, it was the Theban priests.”7

The first god for whom Hor served as a prophet was Amun-Re, whose magnificent temple still stands today in modern Luxor, Egypt. As a prophet of this god, Hor “would have gone into the holy of holies and would have encountered the statue of the deity face to face. He also would have participated in the daily execration ritual, in which a wax figure of an enemy was spat upon, trampled under the left foot, smitten with a spear, bound, and placed on the fire. He also would have known a creation account that starts with God creating light and then separating out the dry land from the water, followed by the creation of multiple gods who together plan the creation, cause the sun to appear, and vanquish evil.”8

The temple of Amun-Re at Luxor/Karnak via Pinterest.

Hor was also a prophet of a god named Min-Who-Massacres-His-Enemies. This lesser-known god was a syncretized or combined deity between the Egyptian god Min and the Canaanite warrior-god Resheph. “This deity was worshipped by performing human sacrifice in effigy. Two rituals are known for certain: one involves the subduing of sinners by binding them, and the other involves slaying enemies and burning them on an altar. These rituals seem to have also been part of the execration ritual that [Hor] would have performed as prophet of [Amun-Re].”9

Finally, Hor was a prophet for the god Khonsu (or Chespisichis in Greek). In this capacity he “was involved in a temple that dealt with healing people and protecting them from demons. The founding narrative of this temple deals with a pharaoh who had extensive contact with far-flung foreign lands, who takes any woman he thinks is beautiful as a wife, and who asks for and receives directions from God. The narrative also deals with the appearance of angels and God appearing in dreams to give instructions.”10

By knowing these details about Hor and his occupation we can say something about the plausibility of a text like the Book of Abraham having attracted his interest or having come into his possession, or at the very least why the illustrations from his papyri (Facsimiles 1 and 3) were used by Joseph Smith to illustrate the Book of Abraham.

The hieroglyphs in this column to the right of the image reproduced in the Book of Abraham as Facsimile 1 contains the priestly titles of Hor, the owner of the papyrus. The text reads: “[Osiris, God’s father,] prophet of Amun-Re, King of the Gods, prophet of Min-Who-Massacres-His-Enemies, prophet of Khonsu, the one who is powerful in Thebes.” Hieroglyphic text from Rhodes (2002), 21, translation modified.

As a priest in Thebes, Hor would have been highly literate and would have had access to texts about Abraham and other Jewish figures.11  As a prophet of Amun-Re he would have had an interest in themes such as temple initiation, seeing God face-to-face, and creation. As a prophet of both Amun-Re and Min-Who-Massacres-His-Enemies he would have “had a professional interest in . . . stories about slaughtering and then burning people on an altar.”12  Finally, as a prophet of the god Khonsu or Chespisichis he would have been attracted to a text that featured angels, contact with foreign lands, and a king who takes any woman he thinks is beautiful. These elements are, of course, prominent in the Book of Abraham.

While this does not prove that Hor had a copy of the Book of Abraham, it does reinforce the plausibility that he could have taken an interest in a text like the Book of Abraham and would have wanted to retain a copy for himself which then fell into the hands of Joseph Smith many centuries later.

Further Reading

John Gee, “The Ancient Owners of the Papyri,” in An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book, 2017), 57–72.

Kerry Muhlestein, “The Religious and Cultural Background of Joseph Smith Papyrus I,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22, no. 1 (2013): 20–33.

John Gee, “Some Puzzles from the Joseph Smith Papyri,” FARMS Review 20, no. 1 (2008): 113–137, esp. 123–135.

John Gee, “The Ancient Owners of the Joseph Smith Papyri,” FARMS Report (1999).

Footnotes

 

1 Hugh W. Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005); Michael Rhodes, The Hor Book of Breathings: A Translation and Commentary (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2002); Books of the Dead Belonging to Tshemmin and Neferirnub: A Translation and Commentary (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2010).

2 John Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book, 2017), 58; cf. 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, Part II: Studies Dedicated to the Memory or Jan Quaegebeur, ed. Willy Clarysse, Antoon Schoors, and Harco Willems (Leuven: Peeters, 1998), 1103–1115; “Horos, Prophet of Min Who Massacres His Enemies,” Chronique D’Égypte LXXIV (1999): 257–260; John Gee, “History of a Theban Priesthood,” in «Et Maintenant Ce Ne Sont Plus Que Des Villages…» Thèbes et Sa Région aux Époques Hellénistique, Romaine et Byzantine, Actes du Colloque Tenu À Bruxelles les 2 et 3 Décembre 2005, ed. Alain Delattre and Paul Heilporn (Bruxelles: Assocation Égyptologique Reine Élisabeth, 2008), 59–71; “Horos Son of Osoroeris,” in Mélanges offerts à Ola el-Aguizy, ed. Fayza Haikal (Paris: Institute Français D’Archéologie Orientale, 2015), 169–178.

3 Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 59.

4 Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 59.

5 Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 59–61.

6 Jacco Dieleman, “Coping with a Difficult Life: Magic, Healing, and Sacred Knowledge,” in The Oxford Handbook of Roman Egypt, ed. Christina Riggs (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012), 339.

7 Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 61.

8 Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 61.

9 Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 61; cf. John Gee, “Execration Rituals in Various Temples,” in 8. Ägyptologische Tempeltagung: Interconnections between Temples, Warschau, 22.–25. September 2008, ed. Monika Dolińska and Horst Beinlich (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2010), 67–80; Coenen, “The Dating of the Papyri Joseph Smith I, X, and XI and Min Who Massacres His Enemies,” 1112–1113.

10 Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 61–63; cf. John Gee, “The Cult of Chespisichis,” in Egypt in Transition: Social and Religious Development of Egypt in the First Millennium BCE, ed. Ladislav Bareš, Filip Coppens, and Kvĕta Smoláriková (Prauge: Czech Institute of Egyptology, Charles University in Prague, 2010), 129–145.

11 Kerry Muhlestein, “Abraham, Isaac, and Osiris–Michael: The Use of Biblical Figures in Egyptian Religion, A Survey,” in Achievements and Problems of Modern Egyptology: Proceedings of the International Conference Held in Moscow on September 29–October 2, 2009, ed. Galina A. Belova (Moscow: Russian Academy of Sciences, Center for Egyptological Studies, 2011), 246–259; Kerry Muhlestein, “The Religious and Cultural Background of Joseph Smith Papyrus I,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22, no. 1 (2013): 20–33.

12 John Gee, “Some Puzzles from the Joseph Smith Papyri,” FARMS Review 20, no. 1 (2008): 128.

The Ancient Egyptian View of Abraham

Book of Abraham Insight #13

Some wondering about the Book of Abraham might ask how likely it would have been for the ancient Egyptians to have known anything about the biblical figure Abraham. In fact, evidence survives today indicating that stories about Abraham were known to the ancient Egyptians as early as the time of the composition of the Joseph Smith Papyri (ca. 300–30 BC).

The earliest documented appearance of the biblical story of Abraham in ancient Egypt dates to the third century BC. It was at this time when the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible) was translated into Greek in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. This translation is commonly called the Septuagint.1

In addition to the biblical text, extra-biblical stories about Abraham circulated in Egypt during this time. For example:

    • “During the reign of Ptolemy I, Hecateus of Abdera traveled to Thebes and learned stories about Abraham from Egyptian priests; he wrote these stories in a book called On Abraham and the Egyptians. This work is now unfortunately lost, but Clement of Alexandria, a second-century AD Egyptian Christian, quoted a short passage from it in which the worship of idols is condemned.”2
    • “The writer Eupolemus, who lived under Egyptian rule in Palestine in the second century BC, recounts how Abraham lived in Heliopolis (On) and taught astronomy and other sciences to the Egyptian priests. In connection with Abraham, Eupolemus seems to think that the Egyptians descended from Canaan.”3
    • “In the first century BC, the Egyptian Jew Artapanus wrote an account of Abraham teaching astronomy to the Egyptian Pharaoh.”4
    • “Philo, a first-century AD Egyptian Jew, claimed that Abraham studied astronomy, the motion of the stars, meteorology, and mathematics, and used his reasoning on these subjects to understand God.”5
    • “The Testament of Abraham describes Abraham’s tour of the next life before he dies. Scholars think that this work was written by an Egyptian Jew around the first century AD. It is notable for its reinterpretation of the Egyptian judgment scene in a Jewish fashion. This text was read liturgically the Sunday before Christmas during the Egyptian month of Khoiak.”6
    • “[A] fragmentary text from Egypt about Abraham describes how the king (the word used is pharaoh) tries to sacrifice Abraham, but Abraham is delivered by an angel of the Lord. Abraham later teaches the members of the royal court about the true God using astronomy.”7

An additional significant body of evidence for the Egyptian view of Abraham comes from a collection of texts commonly called the Greek Magical Papyri or the Theban Magical Library. This corpus of texts from the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes preserves “a variety of magical spells and formulae, hymns and rituals. The extant texts are mainly from the second century B.C. to the fifth century A.D.”8 Significantly, numerous biblical names and figures are used in these texts alongside native Egyptian and Greek names and figures.9 The name for this common ancient phenomenon is syncretism, where elements of different religions or traditions were harmonized together into a new synthetic religious paradigm. In some important ways the religion practiced by the Egyptians during the time of the Joseph Smith Papyri was a highly syncretic one.

Why were biblical figures syncretized with Egyptian religious or magical practices? We cannot know entirely for sure, but one very plausible reason is that “Israelite religious beliefs and stories had a number of things to offer the Egyptians. . . . Israelite religion could offer the Egyptians stories associated with sanctity and sacred space, amulets, angels, a personal relationship with deity, and a god who acted in history.”10 Whatever the exact reason might be,

A noncomprehensive list of nondivine names [in these texts] includes Abimelech, Abraham, Adam, Ammon, Aziel, Dardanos, David, Emmanuel, Gabriel, Gomorrah, Isaac, Israel, Jacob, Jeremiah, Jerusalem, Judah, Lot, Lot’s wife, Michael, Moses, Solomon, and even Osiris-Michael. Names for the Israelite deity include Adonai, Adonai Sabaoth (as well as just Sabaoth, which is more common), Elohim, El, God of the Hebrews, Yaho (the abbreviated version of Jehovah that was often employed by Jews in Egypt), and blessed Lord God of Abraham, along with many variations and combinations of these names and titles that undoubtedly refer to the Hebrew God, such as “He who drew back the Jordan River,” or referencing “the God who drove the winds at the Red Sea and met someone at the foot of the Holy Mount to reveal his great name.”11

Abraham and Moses were two popular figures used by these Egyptian priests in their magical practices.12 They were so popular, in fact, that an early Egyptian Christian writer named Origen even registered his outrage that his pagan neighbors were invoking “the God of Abraham” without properly knowing who Abraham really was.13

From the evidence of the Greek Magical Papyri we can conclude that “a group of priests from Thebes possessed, read, understood, and employed biblical and extra-biblical texts, most especially texts about Abraham and Moses.”14 This evidence, along with the other evidence for a knowledge of Abraham circulating in ancient Egypt, bolsters confidence in the Book of Abraham’s authenticity by providing it a plausible ancient Egyptian historical and literary context.15

Further Reading

John Gee, “An Egyptian View of Abraham,” in An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2017), 49–55.

Kerry Muhlestein, “The Religious and Cultural Background of Joseph Smith Papyrus I,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22, no. 1 (2013): 20–33.

Kerry Muhlestein, “Abraham, Isaac, and Osiris-Michael: The Use of Biblical Figures in Egyptian Religion,” in Achievements and Problems of Modern Egyptology, ed. Galina A. Belova (Moscow: Russian Academy of Sciences, 2012), 246–259.

John Gee, “Abracadabra, Isaac, and Jacob,” FARMS Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 7, no. 1 (1995): 19–85.

Footnotes

 

1 John Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2017), 51.

2 Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 53; cf. Clement, Stromata 5.14. The authorship of this source is disputed amongst modern scholars, with some insisting the texts attributed to Hecataeus are pseudepigraphical. For a discussion, see Bezalel Bar-Kochva, The Image of the Jews in Greek Literature: The Hellenistic Period (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2010), 90–135.

3 Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 53; cf. R. Doran, “Pseudo-Eupolemus,” in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, ed. James H. Charlesworth (New York, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1985), 2:881. As with the works attributed to Hecateus, the authorship of the texts attributed to Eupolemus remains disputed. See Ben Zion Wacholder, “Pseudo-Eupolemus’ Two Greek Fragments on the Life of Abraham,” Hebrew Union College Annual 34 (1963): 83–113. Regardless of these texts’ true authorship, they nevertheless do preserve accounts about Abraham circulating in ancient Egypt (and the broader Jewish world of Antiquity) that parallel the Book of Abraham.

4 Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 53; J. J. Collins, “Artapanus,” in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 2:897.

5 Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 53; cf. Philo, “On Abraham,” in The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged, trans. C. D. Yonge (Peabody, MA.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993), 417.

6 Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 53; cf. Dale C. Allison, The Testament of Abraham (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2003); Jared Ludlow, “Appropriation of Egyptian Judgment in the Testament of Abraham?” in Evolving Egypt: Innovation, Appropriation, and Reinterpretation in Ancient Egypt, ed. Kerry Muhlestein (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2012), 99–103.

7 Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 53; cf. the Coptic homily translated and discussed in John Gee, “An Egyptian View of Abraham,” in Bountiful Harvest: Essays in Honor of S. Kent Brown, ed. Andrew C. Skinner, D. Morgan Davis, and Carl Griffin (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2011), 137–156. Additional extra-biblical texts and traditions about Abraham can be accessed in John A. Tvedtnes, Brian M. Hauglid, and John Gee, eds., Traditions About the Early Life of Abraham (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2001). 

8 Hans Dieter Betz, “Introduction,” in The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, ed. Hans Dieter Betz (Chicago, IL.: University of Chicago Press, 1986), xli.

9 Kerry Muhlestein, “Abraham, Isaac, and Osiris-Michael: The Use of Biblical Figures in Egyptian Religion,” in Achievements and Problems of Modern Egyptology, ed. Galina A. Belova (Moscow: Russian Academy of Sciences, 2012), 246–259.

10 Kerry Muhlestein, “The Religious and Cultural Background of Joseph Smith Papyrus I,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22, no. 1 (2013): 26.

11 Muhlestein, “The Religious and Cultural Background of Joseph Smith Papyrus I,” 23.

12 Spells from this corpus that invoke Abraham (or Abraam) can be read in Betz, The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, 8, 125, 164, 171, 191, 194, 262, 276, 300, 310.

13 Muhlestein, “The Religious and Cultural Background of Joseph Smith Papyrus I,” 26, citing Origen, Contra Celsum 1.22. The spells Origen may have had in mind include one for “driving out demons” that includes the line, “Hail, God of Abraham; hail, God of Isaac; hail, God of Jacob” (PGM IV.1235), in Betz, The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, 62; or one that reads “I conjure you all by the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that you obey my authority completely (PGM XXXV.15), in Betz, The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, 268.

14 Muhlestein, “The Religious and Cultural Background of Joseph Smith Papyrus I,” 30.

15 See the extensive discussion in John Gee, “Abracadabra, Isaac, and Jacob,” FARMS Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 7, no. 1 (1995): 19–85.

Abrahamic Legends and Lore

Book of Abraham Insight #12

As a central figure in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, there are many extra-biblical traditions about the life of the patriarch Abraham. These sources are important to study because they may contain distant memories of real events in Abraham’s life. It is also interesting to compare the Book of Abraham with these sources because the Book of Abraham might help us understand these extra-biblical sources better and vice versa.

Much of the Book of Abraham’s content that does not appear in the Genesis account parallels the extra-biblical material from these religious traditions.1 Just some of the unique elements in the Book of Abraham that are found in ancient and medieval Jewish, Christian, and Islamic sources include:

      • Idolatry in Abraham’s day
      • A famine in the land of the Chaldeans
      • An attempt to sacrifice Abraham
      • Abraham receiving a vision of God and the cosmos
      • Abraham being knowledgeable about astronomy and teaching such to the Egyptians2

For example, an early Christian author named Eusebius preserved an account of Abraham teaching the Egyptians astronomy: “Abraham lived in Heliopolis with the Egyptian priests and taught them much: He explained astrology and the other sciences to them, saying that the Babylonians and he himself had obtained this knowledge.”3  The ancient Jewish historian Josephus likewise recorded that Abraham taught the Egyptians astronomy: “He communicated to them arithmetic, and delivered to them the science of astronomy; for, before Abram came into Egypt, they were unacquainted with those parts of learning.”4

Detail of a sixteenth-century Ottoman Turkish manuscript depicting Abraham being cast into a burning furnace by the wicked king Nimrod in Tvedtnes, Hauglid, and Gee (2001), 532.

Another recurring theme in these ancient extra-biblical accounts about Abraham is his having a vision of the cosmos and being brought into the presence of God.5 Medieval Jewish sources also speak of Abraham having in his possession a “glowing precious stone” with which he read the stars and performed miracles:

Abraham wore a glowing stone around his neck. Some say that it was a pearl, others that it was a jewel. The light emitted by that jewel was like the light of the sun, illuminating the entire world. Abraham used that stone as an astrolabe to study the motion of the stars, and with its help he became a master astrologer. For his power of reading the stars, Abraham was much sought after by the potentates of East and West. So too did that glowing precious stone bring immediate healing to any sick person who looked into it. At the moment when Abraham took leave of this world, the precious stone raised itself and flew up to heaven. God took it and hung it on the wheel of the sun.6

With a few exceptions, the extra-biblical sources discussing Abraham that parallel the account in the Book of Abraham were unavailable to Joseph Smith. Even with those sources that could have been available to the him, such as the writings of Josephus, it is not clear how much exposure or access Joseph Smith had to them or how much they influenced his thinking.7  “Josephus was known to Oliver Cowdery and theoretically known to Joseph Smith, but it is not clear that Joseph Smith actually read much, if anything, out of Josephus before he translated the Book of Abraham. While some elements of the Book of Abraham agree with Josephus, there are important disagreements as well.”8

It is also important to keep in mind that these later sources do not necessarily always reflect an accurate history of Abraham’s life. “Not all [ancient] authors treated their sources [about Abraham] the same way. Some authors retold the tales they read in their own words, adding more vivid and imaginative details. Other authors repeated their sources word for word. Some authors expanded their stories, while others abbreviated them, and still others left them unchanged. This makes it difficult to come up with a general theory [for their reliability] that covers all cases.”9

What is important for the Book of Abraham is not that these sources somehow “prove” the book is true, which they don’t. Rather, they demonstrate that important themes and narrative details in the Book of Abraham fit comfortably in the ancient world and do not always fit comfortably in Joseph Smith’s nineteenth century environment.10  “The nonbiblical traditions about Abraham underscore the pervasive influence this great patriarch had on ancient and modern peoples. Because the Book of Abraham parallels so many nonbiblical stories, it is clearly part of the same tradition.”11

While they perhaps do not rise to the level of “proof,” these parallels are still evidence for the Book of Abraham because “it is difficult to argue that Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Abraham using [these] Abrahamic stories because most of them were not available to him, and those that were often contained details that do not match the Book of Abraham. On the other hand, the ancient existence of a Book of Abraham can explain why these stories existed.”12

Further Reading

Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 2009), 375–468.

Hauglid, Brian M. “The Book of Abraham and Muslim Tradition,” in Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant, ed. John Gee and Brian M. Hauglid (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2005), 131–146.

John A. Tvedtnes, Brian M. Hauglid, and John Gee, eds., Traditions About the Early Life of Abraham (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2001).

Bradley J. Cook, “The Book of Abraham and the Islamic Qisas al-Anbiya (Tales of the Prophets) Extant Literature,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 33, no. 4 (Winter 2000): 127–146.

John A. Tvedtnes, “Abrahamic Lore in Support of the Book of Abraham,” FARMS Report (1999).

Footnotes

 

1 Hugh Nibley provided pioneering work on this subject. See Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 2000), 11–42; An Approach to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 2009), 375–468. More recently, John A. Tvedtnes, Brian M. Hauglid, and John Gee have collected and synthesized a large (though not exhaustive) amount of these sources. See John A. Tvedtnes, Brian M. Hauglid, and John Gee eds., Traditions About the Early Life of Abraham (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2001). See additionally Bradley J. Cook, “The Book of Abraham and the Islamic Qisas al-Anbiya (Tales of the Prophets) Extant Literature,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 33, no. 4 (Winter 2000): 127–146; Brian M. Hauglid, “On the Early Life of Abraham: Biblical and Qur’anic Intertextuality and the Anticipation of Muhammad,” in Bible and Qur’an: Essays in Scriptural Intertextuality, ed. John C. Reeves (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), 87–105; “The Book of Abraham and Muslim Tradition,” in Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant, ed. John Gee and Brian M. Hauglid (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2005), 131–146.

2 Tvedtnes, Hauglid, and Gee, Traditions About the Early Life of Abraham, 537–547.

3 Tvedtnes, Hauglid, and Gee, Traditions About the Early Life of Abraham, 8–9.

4 Tvedtnes, Hauglid, and Gee, Traditions About the Early Life of Abraham, 49.

5 Jared W. Ludlow, “Abraham’s Visions of the Heavens,” in Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant, ed. John Gee and Brian M. Hauglid (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2005), 57–73; 

6  Howard Schwartz, Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2004), 332, citing B. Bava Batra 16b; Zohar 1:11a-11b, Idra Rabbah. As Schwartz comments, “This talmudic legend about a glowing stone that Abraham wore around his neck is a part of the chain of legends about that glowing jewel, known as the Tzohar, which was first given to Adam and Eve when they were expelled from the Garden of Eden and also came into the possession of Noah, who hung it in the ark. See The Tzohar, p. 85. This version of the legend adds the detail that the glowing stone was also an astrolabe, with which Abraham could study the stars.”

7 Lincoln H. Blumell, “Palmyra and Jerusalem: Joseph Smith’s Scriptural Texts and the Writings of Flavius Josephus,” 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), 356–406, esp. 371–373.

8 John Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book, 2017), 159.

9 Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 158.

10 See the discussion in Andrew W. Hedges, “A Wanderer in a Strange Land: Abraham in America, 1800–1850,” in Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant, 175–187.

11 Tvedtnes, Hauglid, and Gee, Traditions About the Early Life of Abraham, xxxv.

12 Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 160.