Part 18: CES Letter Book of Abraham Questions [Section I]
by Sarah Allen
I’m going to plow through as many of these questions as I can today, and hopefully, we can get finished this week or next week and move on to the next set of questions. Jeremy spends a lot of time going through all of the supposed Book of Abraham controversies he’s managed to find, and he insinuates in places that the Church hid them from the public or only acknowledged them recently. FAIR has compiled a list of the many different responses to these supposed controversies by the Church and by its members, which you can find here. Many of the things described in this portion are refuted in these publications (and thank you to Spencer Marsh for sending me that resource!). If you want to do further reading on any of these topics, that bibliography is a great place to start researching. With that, let’s jump into the next comment.
86% of Book of Abraham chapters 2, 4, and 5 are King James Version Genesis chapters 1, 2, 11, and 12. Sixty-six out of seventy-seven verses are quotations or close paraphrases of King James Version wording. (See An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, p.19)
It’s actually 83% and 64/77 verses that correspond, which just seems like a silly mistake to make in my opinion. It took a little time to compare them but not any real effort, so it’s surprising that neither Jeremy Runnells nor Grant Palmer checked that basic math before making that claim. As an example of one of the verses that doesn’t have a match but is one of my favorite verses in all of the Pearl of Great Price, look at Abraham 2:16, which says, “Therefore, eternity was our covering and our rock and our salvation, as we journeyed….” I think that’s such a beautiful thought, and we don’t find anything like it in Genesis.
Besides the 13 verses that don’t have a match, there are some other big differences. Some verses the Bible are in a different order than in the Book of Abraham, the words used are occasionally very different, and there is often additional detail in the Book of Abraham than in Genesis. The verses are longer and flesh out the story and the doctrine more than in the Bible. I did side-by-side comparisons of the verses in question, so you can see the differences and the similarities. You can find them all here:
The accounts, while similar, are striking in their differences, which I’ll elaborate more on after giving Jeremy’s next paragraph:
If the Book of Abraham is an ancient text written thousands of years ago “by his own hand upon papyrus,” then what are 17th century King James Version text doing in there? What does this say about the book being anciently written by Abraham?
Every ancient book we have, including every copy of every book from the Bible, is a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy, etc., that was “renewed” by those who passed down the books when the old one wore out, a concept we discussed a few weeks ago. So, what it says to me is that both the Bible and the Book of Abraham came from a common source, and Genesis was likely based on/abridged from the account of Abraham and other similarly ancient books. They’re different enough that it’s clear someone was not copying it over word for word, and the things that were altered and removed are very curious.
Someone out there was pretty intent on shaping doctrine, if the Abraham account is the original. The Biblical redactors cut out instances of Jehovah speaking directly to Abraham and guiding his path, while inserting verses placing the Garden of Eden in Mesopotamia. Then, in nearly every case, “the Gods” was changed to “God” and talk of counseling together was removed, and instead of being “organized,” “ordered,” “prepared” and “formed,” the Earth and man were “created” and “made” in the Genesis account. Also, the counsel of Gods did not see “that it was good,” They saw that “that They would be obeyed.” Very, very interesting stuff, seemingly minor changes that led to big theological differences.
So, all in all, no, I don’t think it’s suspicious that there are some major similarities when we consider how ancient books were passed down, especially considering the very big differences in content/theology that also exist between them. Anyone who actually compared those chapters honestly and looked at them line by line would see just how different they really are, despite the similar content and wording in many places. Every person reading this can pull up those spreadsheets and make that comparison for themselves. To me, it seems clear that they’re two different copies of the same original book.
Why are there anachronisms in the Book of Abraham? For example, the terms Chaldeans, Egyptus, and Pharaoh are all anachronistic.
Well, for starters, in a book that old there are bound to be anachronisms. Pretty much every ancient record we have has them, as they pass through numerous hands as part of that “renewal” process. The scribes and redactors would make insertions to clarify things for people living in their time period, or to update the language. And with a translation, it is no different. Joseph was translating the text into something 19th Century Americans would be reading, not ancient Hebrews or Egyptians. He seems to have chosen words more familiar to his day at times than he otherwise might have, and that’s not just speculation on my part or anyone else’s. We know it happened in the case of “Egyptus” in particular.
In the original manuscript, the word “Egyptus” was originally “Zeptah.” In the Book of Abraham, Zeptah/Egytpus was a descendant of Noah’s son Ham who discovered Egypt, originally underwater, and her son later became the first king of Egypt.
Memphis was believed to be under the protection of the god Ptah, the patron of craftsmen. Its great temple, Hut-ka-Ptah (meaning “Enclosure of the ka of Ptah” [or “House of the soul of Ptah”, in some translations]), was one of the most prominent structures in the city. The name of this temple, rendered in Greek as Aἴγυπτoς (Ai-gy-ptos) by Manetho, is believed to be the etymological origin of the modern English name Egypt.
Ptah is a creator god of the Old Kingdom of Egypt, synonymous with Sokar and eventually Osiris, and was a herald of Re, the sun god. In ancient Memphis, he was said to have created the world, placing Egypt at its center. The idea of Egypt being at the exact geographic center of the world persisted until just recently, in fact. The center was long thought to be in Giza, which was less than 15 miles north of Memphis.
Ptaú whose name appears as the last element in the Egyptian form was the creator god in the story told of the ancient city of Memphis. Zeptah, the form used originally by Joseph Smith, likely means “Son or daughter of Ptaú.” … [I]f it has a Hebrew meaning, it would have been understood as Zeh Ptaú, “This is Ptaú” — in other words, this is the god Ptaú or the discoverer of Egypt….
The Semitic verb Ptah means to open, to discover. The Egyptians held that the Temple at Memphis was constructed on the first piece of land rising from the floodwaters and the same tradition was attached to various other spots where temples were built along the Nile….
Hugh Nibley has dealt with the Egyptian traditions about the goddess who discovered Egypt rising out of the floodwaters. In one text she is called ‘the daughter of Ptaú’ which, as noted above, is one possible meaning of the name ‘Zeptah.’ In some accounts she is Isis, sister-wife to Osiris—both sister and wife—and mother of Horus, the first king of Egypt, making one wonder if Egyptus married her own brother, Mizraim, who is the son of Ham mentioned in the Bible and after whom Egypt takes its name in Hebrew.
And, while I don’t agree with everything Plonialmonimormon says in this article (such as the stuff about the BoA being pseudepigrapha), I do want to highlight something he stated:
The Book of Abraham provides a mythic Urgeschichte of the founding of Egypt that is striking in its similarity to Manetho’s. In both cases a descendant of Ham settles in Egypt after the flood and establishes the Egyptian race. In Manetho’s reckoning Aegyptus was a man. In the Book of Abraham Aegyptus was a woman. What’s neat about the Book of Abraham account, however, is a potential pun or wordplay in the text. “When [Aegyptus] discovered the land it was under water, who afterward settled her sons in it; and thus, from Ham, sprang that race which preserved the curse in the land.” One of the common images in Egyptian creation mythology (e.g. at Heliopolis and in the Pyramid Texts) is the idea of the primeval hillock (the Benben stone or bnbnt, associated with the bnw phoenix-bird) springing or rising out of the waters of chaos at the time of creation. Could we be seeing a similar play on imagery here in the Book of Abraham?
As for the word “pharaoh,” while it didn’t mean a ruler of Egypt at the time of Abraham, it was being used to talk about the palace of the king. Over time, that morphed into a title for the king himself, one that even Egyptologists use today. Since that was the title that everyone used to denote a king of Egypt in Joseph’s day as well as today, why wouldn’t he translate it that way? “King of Egypt” and “pharaoh” mean the same thing in today’s vernacular, so when he saw a phrase talking about said king as he was translating, why wouldn’t Joseph choose the word “pharaoh,” being that it was more succinct than “king of Egypt”? Sure, it’s an anachronism, but just like “Egyptus” it’s one that makes sense in the context of a translation.
The other example, “Chaldeans,” is interesting to me. The Chaldeans were a nomadic tribe of Semitic origin who eventually settled in lower Mesopotamia (centuries after the time of Abraham), and ended up becoming, over time, representative of the Babylonians. No one really knows where they came from before that, but it’s believed they originally came from Northern Mesopotamia.
Abraham, however, was from a place called Ur of the Chaldees. Current mainstream belief pegs the location of that city in southern Mesopotamia, around what is now southern Iraq, though there is dispute over that. Traditionally, Mesopotamian legends put Abraham’s birthplace much farther north, in Syria or Turkey, and Latter-day Saint scholars and others outside of our faith believe that is a much more likely location.
One article states, “No one in southern Mesopotamia was called a ‘Chaldean’ in Abraham’s day, but since the story was written much later, we assumed that the author retrojected a contemporary label to an ancient situation. Some of the texts imply that Abraham went straight from ‘Ur of the Chaldees’ to Canaan, but the story in Gen. 11:27-32 says that he moved with his father Terah from Ur-Kasdim to Haran (now in northeastern Syria), but stopped there, remaining until Terah died. Genesis 12 picks up the story in Haran, with God’s call for Abraham to proceed to ‘the land that I will show you’ (12:1). We know that there were Chaldeans in southern Mesopotamia during the Neo-Babylonian period, 1000 years after Abraham’s time, and the Babylonians of that time were also popularly known as Chaldeans. Some ancient sources, however, suggest that the Chaldeans’ original home was in Anatolia, now a part of Turkey, before some of them migrated south. … This is likely the same city, in southern Turkey, that is now called Urfa. It turns out that local Jewish, Islamic, and Christian traditions have considered Urfa to be the birthplace of Abraham for more than a thousand years. The biblical names of Abraham’s grandfather Nahor and great-grandfather Serug are also the names of towns located near Urfa.”
There are several reasons for preferring this location. Firstly, the route Abraham takes in leaving Ur would make little sense if it was in southern Iraq. Abraham leaves Ur for Haran and then eventually makes his way down to Canaan, then Egypt, before going back to Canaan. It was considerably out of his way for Abraham to go from a southern Ur to Haran before going to Canaan, the opposite direction of where he needed to go. Cyrus Gordon stated that, “Ur of the Chaldees in Genesis has to be north or east (probably northeast) of Haran for Terah’s itinerary to make sense. By the same token, the ‘Chaldees’ of Abraham’s Ur have nothing to do with Babylonia.”
Second, while the KJV text of Joshua 24:2-3 talks about Abraham and Terah being from “the other side of the flood,” the Torah translates that to “beyond the River,” meaning the Euphrates. It was saying that originally, Abraham came from the other side of the Euphrates from Israel. The city currently labeled as Ur is on the same side of the Euphrates as Israel, so if that translation is correct, that makes no sense.
Third, Ur was under Egyptian influence at the time, as a priest of the Egyptian pharaoh was the one who tried to have Abraham sacrificed. Stephen Smoot states, “Besides many of the factors explored above that appear to put Abraham in the north, a northern Ur is especially attractive to many Latter-day Saints if for no other reason than there is evidence for Egyptian contact with the northern Levant during the time of Abraham.” Paul Hoskisson agrees, “The only area in Asia that we know was under Egyptian influence at any time is an area comprising approximately all of present-day Israel, Lebanon, and western Syria from Ebla to the coast. In fact, southern Mesopotamia has never been under Egyptian cultural or religious influence, and on that point alone, it could be ruled out as the site of the Ur of Abraham.”
Fourth, there was a famine in Ur when Abraham left, and there was also one in Haran. Hoskisson continues, “… [W]hen Abraham left Ur of the Chaldees, there was a famine in Haran as well as in Ur. Therefore, Ur of the Chaldees and Haran likely lay within the same ecological system. Since Haran lay within the Fertile Crescent, normally an area with adequate annual rainfall, Abraham’s Ur was probably within the Fertile Crescent as well. Both northwest Syria and southern Turkey are within the Fertile Crescent. Ur of southern Mesopotamia, however, lies below the Fertile Crescent, in an arid plain where irrigation is necessary.”
Fifth, as Stephen Smoot points out, there is considerable evidence showing that Abraham and his family come from a northern location as opposed to a southern one. He states, “Following the early arguments of [Cyrus] Gordon, scholars including Bright, Lundquist, Tvedtnes and Christensen, Freedman, Frayne, and others have appealed to the wealth of documentary evidence from Mari (2900–1750 BC), Ebla (2500–2250 BC), Nuzi (1450–1350 BC), Ugarit (1450–1200 BC), and other sites in northern Mesopotamia and Syria to fashion a Sitz im Leben for the Genesis narratives revolving around Abraham and his family. The religious attitudes, social customs, names, and migration patterns of Abraham and his immediate descendants, per these scholars, find ready home in northern Mesopotamia and Syria and betray little awareness of the same in and around Tell el-Muqayyar [the southern Ur].”
And sixth, there is other evidence regarding the plain of Olishem (which I will elaborate on more fully in another post) that points strongly to a northern location for Ur. Smoot continues, “… [A] northern Ur would appear to converge with some of the geographical details unique to the text. For instance, the book of Abraham identifies a certain “plain of Olishem” (Abr. 1:10) as being in the vicinity of Abraham’s Ur. This specific detail has captured the attention of Latter-day Saint scholars, since there is a very high likelihood that Olishem has been identified. Even Woods acknowledges the possibility that the book of Abraham’s Olishem could be identified with the Ulišum mentioned in an inscription of the Akkadian king Naram-Sin (c. 2261–2224 BC), even if he is quick to dismiss such as little more than a lucky guess on Joseph Smith’s part. A southern Ur, however, would effectively negate the weight of this evidence for the book of Abraham’s historicity. Abraham 1 clearly places Olishem near Abraham’s Ur, not the hundreds of miles away that it would be if Abraham’s Ur was Tell el-Muqayyar….”
All of which is to say, “Chaldean” being an anachronism is really only true if Ur is the southern Tell el-Muqayyar settled much later by the nomadic Chaldeans, rather than the northern Ur-Kasdim in the area where the Chaldeans likely originated. If the original tribe literally came from a place called the Chaldees, what else would you call them but Chaldeans?
Additionally, Abraham refers to the facsimiles in 1:12 and 1:14. However, as noted and conceded above in the Church’s essay, these facsimiles did not even exist in Abraham’s time as they are standard first century C.E. pagan Egyptian funerary documents.
Actually, the essay “notes and concedes” that the text on the fragments beside Facsimile 1 doesn’t match the Book of Abraham text, but goes on to say that assuming the text has to be related to the illustration is an inaccurate fallacy.
“Some have assumed that the hieroglyphs adjacent to and surrounding facsimile 1 must be a source for the text of the book of Abraham.” – Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham essay, lds.org
Yes, and the very next lines of the essay are, “But this claim rests on the assumption that a vignette and its adjacent text must be associated in meaning. In fact, it was not uncommon for ancient Egyptian vignettes to be placed some distance from their associated commentary.” Do you guys see the dishonesty in the way Jeremy cites his sources? He deliberately crops things to make his point while ignoring everything else that contradicts him, and then pretends that he’s just asking innocent questions.
To begin with, we must ask if vignettes are always associated with the adjacent text in other Egyptian papyri from this time period. We know with some degree of precision the dating of the Facsimile 1 papyrus (also known as Joseph Smith Papyrus 1, or JSP 1), because we know exactly who the owner of this papyrus was. He lived around 200 BC and was a fairly prominent priest in Thebes. (Incidentally, this priest is not alone as a practitioner of Egyptian religion who possessed or used Jewish religious texts. We can identify many others, particularly priests from Thebes). During this period, it was common for the text and its accompanying picture to be separated from each other, for the wrong vignette to be associated with a text, and for vignettes and texts to be completely misaligned on a long scroll. Frequently there is a mismatch between the content of a vignette and the content of the text, or the connection is not readily apparent. This is particularly common in Books of Breathings, the type of text adjacent to Facsimile 1 on the Joseph Smith Papyri. Incongruity between texts and adjacent vignettes is endemic to papyri of this era. Thus, the argument that the text of the Book of Abraham had to be translated from the hieroglyphs next to the vignette is not convincing when compared with ancient Egyptian texts from the same period.
In big, red, capital letters, Runnells continues, “WHY WOULD ANYONE ASSUME THAT?” (referring back to the quote from the essay about the fragment text being the source of the Book of Abraham), followed by this verse:
“And it came to pass that the priests laid violence upon me, that they might slay me also, as they did those virgins upon this altar; and that you may have a knowledge of this altar, I will refer you to the representation at the commencement of this record.” – Abraham 1:12
The snark of those big red letters makes me laugh because that verse is not an answer to that question. I spoke earlier about scribes making inserts into ancient records to clarify things for readers of their day. This is potentially what happened here. Perhaps Hor—or a scribe copying the records onto the long roll for Hor—added those lines referring back to Facsimile 1 for clarification’s sake. Or perhaps even Joseph inserted those lines into his translation for the same reason. Or perhaps, there was another illustration that Abraham included that was redrawn in an Egyptian style that the scribe would have been familiar with. There are multiple possibilities for where those comments came from, and each of them makes perfect sense with the Book of Abraham being a translation of a later copy of a book that was originally written by Abraham.
Regardless, “at the commencement” means at the beginning. If the verses making that mention are from the very first chapter of Abraham and the text of the book is taken from the writing right next to the image, why would they need to refer back to the picture from the beginning? If it was right beside it, there would be no need. But if the Book of Abraham was down below the Book of Breathings, that second record we know was contained on the long roll under Facsimile 3, those verses referring back to the beginning of the scroll make far more sense. So, the answer to Jeremy’s question here is, “Because they’re making faulty assumptions instead of considering the evidence.”
Facsimile 2, Figure #5 states the sun receives its “light from the revolutions of Kolob.” We now know, however, that the process of nuclear fusion is what makes the stars and suns shine. With the discovery of quantum mechanics, scientists learned that the sun’s source of energy is internal and not external. The sun shines because of thermonuclear fusion. The sun does not shine because it gets its light from any other star or any other external source.
No, Facsimile 2, Figure 5 states that it “is said by the Egyptians to be the Sun, and to borrow its light from the revolutions of Kolob through the medium of Kae-e-vanrash…the governing power….” Joseph didn’t state that “the sun receives its light from the revolutions of Kolob.” He wasn’t making any kind of grand, prophetic, cosmological declaration about the way the universe works. He stated pretty clearly that those words were said by ancient Egyptians. That was their way of describing the universe according to their understanding. It was not Joseph’s. While he was teaching them astronomy, Abraham was likening gospel truths to concepts that the Egyptians already understood. It doesn’t have to be accurate to our understanding today to have made sense to them.
And, as Jim Bennett points out, we don’t know what “the medium of Kae-e-vanrash” is. Who are we to say that doesn’t involve thermonuculear fusion? Why can’t Kae-e-vanrash be God setting in motion the process of hydrogen atoms combining to create energy? Just because ancient Egyptians had no concept of nuclear reaction doesn’t mean they were completely wrong about everything. There is much we don’t know yet about how the universe works and what God’s role is in governing it. What we do know are just drops in the bucket compared to the light and knowledge we’ll gain in the eternities. Dismissing this concept out of hand as nonsense—especially when you don’t seem to understand the actual point being made about God channeling His power through various mediums in order to govern the universe—is shortsighted.
Take into consideration that Kolob is a metaphor for Jesus Christ. Joseph essentially stated that the sun borrows or obtains its light from the Son. D&C 88:6-13 teaches us that the Light of Christ is in the sun and the light of the sun and the power by which it was made, and in the moon, and stars, and earth, and all of us and all things, filling the immensity of space, giving life to all things, governing all things, and is the power of God who sits on His throne in the midst of all things and in the bosom of eternity. It’s Priesthood power. Since Jesus Christ is Jehovah, and Jehovah is the one who formed the universe under God’s guidance and direction, through the power of the Priesthood, of course the sun got its light from Christ. That doesn’t mean it can’t also get its light from thermonuclear fusion. That is simply the means through which Christ provided the sun with its light. All things are governed by the power of God, including nuclear reactions.
In Abraham 3, the discussion begins with Jehovah teaching Abraham about the governing order, using astronomy as a metaphor. Kolob is the greatest of all, and then the power gradually lessons as it descends down the line. The sun is greater than the moon, which is in turn greater than the stars, etc. It’s the same gradation we see in the Three Degrees of Glory: the Celestial Kingdom has a higher glory than the Terrestrial Kingdom, which in turn has a higher glory than the Telestial Kingdom. The Kingdoms are defined by their proximity to Christ and the Father, just like the description of the universe Jehovah gives Abraham.
It’s here that “[t]he conversation between Abraham and the Lord shifts from a discussion of heavenly bodies to spiritual beings. This reflects a play on words that Egyptians often use between a star (ach) and a spirit (ich). The shift is done by means of a comparison: ‘Now, if there be two things, one above the other, and the moon be above the earth, then it may be that a planet or a star may exist above it; … as, also, if there be two spirits, and one shall be more intelligent than the other’ (Abraham 3:17–18). In an Egyptian context, the play on words would strengthen the parallel. … The Egyptian play on words between star and spirit allows the astronomical teachings to flow seamlessly into teachings about the preexistence which follow immediately thereafter.”
The Pearl of Great Price Student Manual sums all of this up nicely:
Abraham learned that wherever there are two stars one will be greater than the other, and that there are other stars greater than those two, until Kolob, which is the greatest of all. He learned that it is not size that makes one star or planet greater than another, but rather its proximity to Kolob. So it is with the children of God—their greatness and glory will depend upon their proximity to the Creator, Jesus Christ, who is “nearest unto the throne of God,” “the great one,” “the first creation,” and is “set to govern all those which belong to the same order.” Thus the great star, Kolob, is a symbol of Jesus Christ.
As we draw nearer to Christ, the more of His power will reach us and the greater we can become. This was the concept that Joseph was teaching us, using the facsimile as an illustration, and what Abraham was trying to teach the Egyptians. Neither of them was giving us a physics lesson.
There is a book published in 1829 by Thomas Dick entitled The Philosophy of a Future State. Joseph Smith owned a copy of the book and Oliver Cowdery quoted some lengthy excerpts from the book in the December 1836 Messenger and Advocate.
Anyway, I was hoping to get through all of the rest of the Book of Abraham items today, but there are still a few other tiny ones to get through and this is getting long. Jeremy just crams so many things under each question/accusation that it’s impossible to breeze through them. We should wrap up for sure next week, though.
Sources in this entry:
Sarah Allen is brand new in her affiliation with FAIR. By profession, she works in mortgage compliance and is a freelance copyeditor. A voracious reader, she loves studying the Gospel and the history of the restored Church. After watching some of her lose their testimonies, she became interested in helping others through their faith crises and began sharing what she learned through her studies. She’s grateful to those at FAIR who have given her the opportunity to share her testimony with a wider audience.