Book of Abraham/Joseph Smith Papyri/Text/Jewish redaction

The Jewish Redaction theory

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Gospel Topics on, "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham"

Gospel Topics on, (8 July 2014)
Of course, the fragments do not have to be as old as Abraham for the book of Abraham and its illustrations to be authentic. Ancient records are often transmitted as copies or as copies of copies. The record of Abraham could have been edited or redacted by later writers much as the Book of Mormon prophet-historians Mormon and Moroni revised the writings of earlier peoples. Moreover, documents initially composed for one context can be repackaged for another context or purpose. Illustrations once connected with Abraham could have either drifted or been dislodged from their original context and reinterpreted hundreds of years later in terms of burial practices in a later period of Egyptian history. The opposite could also be true: illustrations with no clear connection to Abraham anciently could, by revelation, shed light on the life and teachings of this prophetic figure.

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While it's true that the extant portions of the JSP are from the Book of the Dead and the Book of Breathings and do not, according to Egyptologists, translate to anything like the LDS Book of Abraham, this doesn't necessarily mean that the translation didn't derive from Joseph's papyri. There are other scenarios that are compatible with Joseph's claims. We know from other sources, for instance, that sometimes scrolls were attached together.

To quote Latter-day Saint Egyptologist John Gee:

Some people assume that if the documents [JSP] are funerary they cannot contain anything else. Some Book of the Dead papyri, however, do contain other texts. For example, a fragmentary Eighteenth-Dynasty Book of the Dead in Cairo...contains account texts on the front side (recto) [with the Book of the Dead on the back side]. Papyrus Vandier also has a Book of the Dead on the verso (back side), but the recto contains the story of Meryre, who was sacrificed on an altar (an intriguing similarity to the Book of Abraham). The Book of the Dead of Psenmines...and Pawerem...both contain temple rituals. Both Papyrus Harkness and BM 10507 (demotic funerary papyri) contain several different texts. Just because the preserved sections of the Joseph Smith Papyri are funerary in nature does not mean that they could not have had other texts, either on the verso or on missing sections of the rolls.[1]

It is therefore possible that the Book of Abraham manuscript was attached to the Book of Breathings. But why? Why would an important Semitic document be attached to a pagan (Egyptian) funerary text?

Kevin Barney posits that the Book of Abraham material was passed on through the generations from Abraham to Jews of the 2nd century B.C.—or the Ptolemaic period—just as Old Testament scriptures were passed on to later generations. Sometime in the Ptolemaic period, a hypothetical Jewish redactor (editor), whom Barney labels "J-red" attached the Book of Abraham to the Egyptian papyri. Why? Because of the useful symbolism contained on the Egyptian funerary text.

This claim is supported by at least three known ancient Jewish texts. Barney notes that many Biblical scholars believe that an ancient Egyptian book—the Instructions of Amenemope—may have been the source for parts of the biblical book of Proverbs.[2]:115-116

The ancient "Testament of Abraham" has several similarities to the LDS Book of Abraham. The book also has strong similarities to an Egyptian papyrus related to the Book of the Dead. For example, notes Barney, it is widely recognized that a judgment scene described in the Testament of Abraham was

influenced by an Egyptian psychostasy ("soul weighing") papyrus.... It may even be that the author [of the Testament of Abraham] was gazing on such a psychostasy papyrus when he penned his account. But while there is a clear relationship between the Egyptian psychostasy scene and the judgment scene of the Testament of Abraham, the scene has been transformed to accord with Semitic needs and sensibilities. Osiris [Egyptian god] has become Abel; the Egyptian gods have become angels. Our author looks at the Egyptian illustration, yet sees a situation peopled with Semitic characters.[2]:117-118

Note the Osiris-Abel connection, to which we will return below.

The third example comes from the book of Luke's story of the rich man and Lazarus. In this tale, the beggar Lazarus ate the crumbs that fell from a rich man's table. When Lazarus died, angels carried him to Abraham's bosom. When the rich man died, he awoke in Hell but could see—far away—Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham. The rich man begged Abraham to send the dead Lazarus to his brothers so that they would repent and not befall the same terrible fate. (See Luke 16:19–31).

Scholars have shown that this story is based on a popular Jewish tale, written in Hebrew, but ultimately based on an Egyptian story. In the original Egyptian legend, the names are different (as are some of the general details of the story) but the basic account and moral is the same. In the Egyptian version, however (the version upon which the Hebrew tradition depends), Osiris plays the part later adapted (by Jews) to Abraham.[2]:119-121 [3] It seems that the early Jews had no problem adapting the pagan god Osiris to important Judaic figures such as Abel or Abraham.

Not only do we see, in the Book of Luke, a Jewish adaptation of an Egyptian judgment scene, but we also find some interesting parallels to Facsimile 1 from the Book of Abraham. In this vignette, Joseph identified the figure lying on the lion couch as Abraham. Egyptologists, however, identify the figure as Osiris.[4] Based on an early Judaic adaptation of Facsimile 1, Joseph got it exactly right.

Instead of focusing on how Egyptians of the 2nd century B.C. or 2000 B.C. understood the motifs, Barney convincingly argues that Abraham did not draw the facsimiles (which date nearly two thousand years after Abraham lived) but that these Egyptian vignettes "were either adopted [copied wholesale as the Egyptians drew them] or adapted [altered to more accurately reflect the Semitic perspective] by an Egyptian-Jewish redactor as illustrations of the attempt on Abraham's life and Abraham's teaching astronomy to the Egyptians."[2]:114 Barney argues that we should focus our attention on understanding how Jews of the 2nd century B.C. understood the Egyptian graphics.

In Facsimile 1 (the lion couch scene), for instance, under the floor there is a crocodile. Under the crocodile are numerous vertical lines. Joseph interpreted these lines as representing the "pillars of heaven." Egyptologists, however, tell us that this is incorrect. These lines really signify the palace façade. The etched lines around the crocodile signify, according to Joseph, "Raukeeyang" or "the expanse or firmament over our heads," or the high "heavens." Egyptologists, however, tell us that the lines are simply waters in which the crocodile swims. So according to an Egyptian interpretation, Joseph got it all wrong.

What if we compare Joseph's interpretation to how 2nd century B.C. Jews might have understood the scene? Firstly, Joseph's "Raukeeyang" is very similar to the Hebrew word for "expanse."[2]:123 [5] "In Hebrew cosmology," writes Barney, "the Hebrew 'firmament' was believed to be a solid dome, supported by pillars." Recall the vertical lines in the vignette. This, "in turn was closely associated with the celestial ocean, which it supported." And remember that in Facsimile 1 it appears that the pillars are under the water in which the crocodile swims.

In the lower half of Facsimile 1, we have [the firmament]...(1) connected with the waters, as with the celestial ocean, (2) appearing to be supported by pillars, and (3) being solid and therefore capable of serving itself as a support, in this case for the lion couch. The bottom half of Facsimile 1 would have looked to J-red very much like a microcosm of the universe (in much the same way that the divine throne chariot of Ezekiel 1–2, which associates the four four-faced fiery living creatures with the [firmament]...above their heads on which God sits enthroned, is a microcosm of the universe).[2]:123

If we accept a Jewish redactor adapting Egyptian motifs to a Hebrew understanding, we can easily appreciate the possibility that "J-red" attached the Book of Abraham manuscript to the Book of Breathings in order to graphically convey the doctrines portrayed in the manuscript. Barney gives this useful comparison to the Book of Mormon:

The gold plates were untouched by human hands from the time Moroni deposited them in a stone box in the fifth century A.D. until Joseph's retrieval of the cache in 1827. Prior to that time, however, the records of the Book of Mormon peoples underwent an express redaction [abridgement or editing] process at the hands of Mormon and Moroni. Similarly, the papyrus source for the Book of Abraham sat untouched from the time it was deposited in the tomb during Greco-Roman age until Lebolo retrieved it [about 1820]. Before that time, though, it circulated among people and was subject to normal transmission processes. My hypothetical redactor, J-red, was in essentially the same position with respect to the Book of Abraham as Mormon was with respect to the Book of Mormon.[2]:126

The Egyptians, like the Hebrews, wrote from right to left. And while Joseph didn't know Egyptian, he was (at this point in his life) studying Hebrew and he may have assumed that the Egyptians wrote in the same direction. At the right end of the scroll (the beginning of the scroll), we find Facsimile 1. Abraham referred the Facsimile ("the representation") at the beginning of "this record." To the Joseph, and other early Saints, this would have seemed to indicate that the "record" of Abraham was part of the early portion of the scroll and thus they began their backwards translation from this point. In reality, however, "this record" probably referred to the beginning of the combined scrolls (that begins with Facsimile 1) but not the beginning of the Abrahamic text (which would have been appended to the Book of Breathings scroll).[2]:127

It must be remembered that Joseph could not read Egyptian. He did not "translate" in the normal sense—as evidenced by his after-the-fact effort to reverse engineer Egyptian via his divinely-given translation. He translated by the power of God. It is possible that Joseph, at times, translated the Book of Mormon while the plates were covered, or perhaps even while the plates were removed from the room.

While an actual Book of Abraham manuscript could have been appended to the Book of Breathings manuscript, it is significant to recognize that revelation was the method by which the text was translated. This realization allows for still other possibilities. If, for example, the appended Abrahamic scroll was damaged, Joseph would still have been able to "translate" the text. If the appended scroll was partially missing, the "translation" might not have suffered. It's also possible that Joseph, in the process of creating the KEP, looked at the Egyptian characters and—thinking that they were the Egyptian symbols composed by Abraham—proceeded to "translate" from these characters. In such a scenario the actual Book of Abraham translation could still be based on a real manuscript, but not on what Joseph thought was the manuscript. In any case, we need not reject Joseph's prophetic calling or ability to translate.


  1. John Gee, "Eyewitness, Hearsay, and Physical Evidence of the Joseph Smith Papyri," The Disciple As Witness: Essays on Latter-day Saint History and Doctrine in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson, eds., Stephen D. Ricks, Donald W. Parry, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo: FARMS, 2000).
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 Kevin L. Barney, “The Facsimiles and Semitic Adaptation of Existing Sources,” in John Gee and Brian M. Hauglid (editors), Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2006).
  3. Blake T. Ostler, "Abraham: An Egyptian Connection" (FARMS paper, 1981)
  4. Charles M. Larson, By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus: A New Look at the Joseph Smith Papyri, 2nd ed., (Grand Rapids, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 1992), 102.
  5. Tvedtnes, "Authentic Ancient Names." [citation needed]