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Antiquity of the Book of Abraham
Antiquity of the Book of Abraham
Question: Since the papyri from which the Book of Abraham was translated date to the 3rd century BCE to the 1st century CE, does this mean that the events recorded in the Book of Abraham cannot be historical?
Introduction to the Criticism
In 1835, Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, began the translation of some Egyptian papyri that was sold to him in the Church’s then-headquarters—Kirtland, Ohio. Joseph Smith claimed that the papyri purported to be the autobiographical writings of the ancient biblical patriarch Abraham. This translation was made part of the official canon of the Church in the 1880s.
In 1967, the Church acquired some surviving fragments of the papyri from which the translation was rendered from the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art through the help of Dr. Aziz Atiya, a professor at the University of Utah.
As papyrological work was done, scholars discovered that the papyrus dated to at least 1700 years (Between 300 BCE – 100 CE) after the prophet Abraham is traditionally claimed to have lived (2000 BCE).
Many have naturally asked the question of how can the papyri date to such a late time and record genuinely historical events from the life of the supposedly historical Abraham.
This article addresses the question.
Review of the Criticism
Examples of Texts that have Survived for Long Periods of Time
In response to the above criticism, it may be noted that we do have knowledge of texts that record historical events and survive scribal transmission for a long period of time.
What's more, narrative texts from the Middle Kingdom period in Egyptian history like the Story of Sinuhe were preserved in copies belonging to the New Kingdom period, which would be around 700+ years of transmission.
Perhaps our best parallel would be the Holy Bible. It has a pretty long manual transmission history from autographs penned in the Iron Age all the way down to when they were placed in print editions of the Bible starting in the 1500s. In other words, people were hand-copying these texts with a fair degree of accuracy for over 3,000 years and yet we hold their texts as fairly accurate historically speaking.
Elements of the Book of Abraham that Date to the Time of Abraham
Elements from the Book of Abraham that can definitively place it in the time that the historical Abraham is claimed to live can help us construct the historical core of the Book of Abraham and bolster the claim of historical authenticity. Some of these elements that can more than plausibly date to Abraham’s day include:
- Human sacrifice
- The God of Elkenah
- The idolatrous gods represented by the canopic jars in facsimile 1.
- Stating that autographs are “written in the hand” of that person.
- Identification of Shinehah as “the sun”.
- The name "Shulem" as reference to the king's waiter.
- The astronomy of the Book of Abraham.
- The identification of a crocodile as "The God of Pharoah".
Stephen Smoot and Kerry Muhelstein’s Paper on the Transmission of the Book of Abraham
Stephen O. Smoot—a PhD student in Egyptian and Semitic Languages and Literature—and Dr. Kerry Muhelstein (PhD Egyptology, UCLA)—a professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University—have outlined a plausible scenario in which a text containing the autobiographical writings of Abraham could have been preserved and transmitted for that long of time and on the type of papyrus that Joseph Smith claimed to translate from. We strongly encourage readers to review their paper published in BYU Studies on the subject.
BYU Studies, "Prophets, Pagans, and Papyri: The Jews of Greco-Roman Egypt and the Transmission of the Book of Abraham"Stephen O. Smoot and Kerry Muhelstein, BYU Studies 61/2 (2022)
Complications and questions abound regarding the historicity of the Book of Abraham, its relationship to the papyri owned by Joseph Smith, the way it was translated, and the Prophet’s interpretation of the three facsimiles that accompany the text. Given the gaps in the historical record (to say nothing of the diverse methodological assumptions that have undergirded different approaches to the text), this subject will give scholars plenty of fodder for continued academic investigation. One question that remains open for examination is how a purported autobiography of the patriarch Abraham could have been transmitted from his time (most likely circa 2,000–1,800 BC) into the Ptolemaic period (when the Joseph Smith Papyri were created)—a journey of well over a millennium and a half! How feasible or likely is it that a copy of Abraham’s writings could have been recovered from a point in history so far removed from his own time? How was the text transmitted, and when? And by whom? And for what purpose(s)? And how likely is it that Abraham’s writings would have been associated with a collection of funerary papyri seemingly unrelated to anything Jewish or biblical?
These and other elements can combine to help us understand that, even though a text does have a very, very long transmission history, it can still plausibly preserve literal historical events from the lives of the first authors. That does not mean that the text as it has been preserved to us today must have originated entirely from the mind of the historical Abraham. Scribes and redactora could have made inspired emendations to the text over the years and we would still have a text that dates originally to the time of Abraham. In sum, we have no reason to believe that the dating of the papyri from which the Book of Abraham was translated threatens the possibility of being genuine writings from the prophet Abraham and no reason to believe that the dating of the papyri threatens the core theology of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
- "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham," The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, accessed November 4, 2019, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/translation-and-historicity-of-the-book-of-abraham?lang=eng&query=Abraham.
- John Gee, "Four Idolatrous Gods in the Book of Abraham," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 38 (2020): 133–52.
- "Abraham and Idrimi," Pearl of Great Price Central, August 1, 2019 https://www.pearlofgreatpricecentral.org/abraham-and-idrimi/.
- "Shinehah, The Sun," Pearl of Great Price Central, October 23, 2019, https://www.pearlofgreatpricecentral.org/shinehah-the-sun/.
- John Gee, "Shulem, One of the King's Principal Waiters," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 19 (2016): 383–95.