CES Reply: The Book of Abraham (Part I)

Book of Abraham Concerns & Questions:

Oh, goody.

1. Despite Joseph’s claim that this record was written by Abraham “by his own hand, upon papyrus,” scholars have found the original papyrus Joseph translated and have dated it in 1st century CE, nearly 2,000 years after Abraham could have written it.

I know, right? It says the same thing in my Triple Combination, and scholars have found that, it, too, was not handwritten by Abraham. What’s more, scholars have dated the paper to early 21st Century, more than 4,000 years after Abraham could have written it. To add insult to injury, my Pearl of Great Price isn’t even made of papyrus at all!

The only other explanation is that Abraham did, in fact, write this stuff on papyrus with his own hand, and people later copied it onto papyrus around the 1st Century, and then someone else, later still, typed it up and printed it out. Should we be concerned that even the online version mentions being written “by his own hand?” Because I don’t think Abraham wrote any of the Internet by his own hand, although it’s been documented that Abraham and Mark Zuckerberg have never been seen in the same place at the same time.

2. Egyptologists have found the source material for the Book of Abraham to be nothing more than a common pagan Egyptian funerary text –

Stop right there. What did you say?

 – a common pagan Egyptian funerary text –

No, not that part. That first bit.

Egyptologists have found the source material for the Book of Abraham…

And there’s your problem. Or at least a very big chunk of it. Because it is an incontrovertible fact that Egyptologists have not found the source material for the Book of Abraham, and neither has anyone else.

Nearly all of the papyri Joseph had in his possession was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, but a handful of scraps survived the flames and surfaced in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City nearly a century later. When the Church was given these fragments in 1967, they immediately published pictures of them in The Improvement Era, along with an article stating that the relatively small amount of extant text was clearly not the source material for the Book of Abraham.

Granted, that presents a number of problems that you subsequently address and to which I will subsequently respond, but it’s essential to note that everything else you write on this subject is tainted by the assumption that this meager amount of surviving material is, in fact, the “source material” for the Book of Abraham. It is not, and the Church has never once claimed that it is.

So before we dive into Egyptology and things that neither of us understand, it might be wise to outline the problem before we consider possible solutions. And the problem is this: why don’t the scraps we have match the text of the Book of Abraham? You see only one possible answer, which is that the Book of Abraham is a fraud. But as I see it, there are three other possible answers.

  1. Actually, they do match, and all Eyptologists are wrong, and the Book of the Dead as it appears in all other papyri is, in fact, the Book of Abraham.
  2. The material we have represents a small fragment – roughly 10% by most estimates – of all the papyri Joseph Smith had in his possession, and it does not match the description of the “long scroll” that included red as well as black ink that Joseph suggested was the source of the Book of Abraham. So the funerary texts were intermingled with the Book of Abraham, and the true source text used for the translation is lost to us.
  3. What Joseph had was, indeed, nothing more than common Egyptian funerary texts, yet these were the catalyst for a series of revelations that constitute the Book of Abraham, much in the same way the Book of Moses was received by revelation as Joseph read Genesis in the Old Testament.

So which of these positions is right? I don’t think it’s that cut and dried. My personal position has more in common with possibility #2 than any of the other two, but there are elements from #3, and even #1, that cannot be entirely dismissed.

There is a fourth alternative, too, one that probably represents the majority opinion of members of the Church. That opinion is as follows:

4. The Book of Abraham is scripture, and it doesn’t matter where it came from.

I do not share the second part of that opinion, but I emphatically share the first part. The Book of Abraham is arguably the most profound book of scripture we have in our possession, and the doctrines found therein define the relationship between God and his children in a way radically at odds with orthodox Christian thought and in a way that is wholly, uniquely Mormon. The importance of the idea that each of us, at our core, is co-eternal with God, cannot be overstated. The concept of pre-existence, the eternal nature of matter and the rejection of Ex Nihilo creation – all of that comes from the Book of Abraham, and, while hints of it can be found in the other standard works, nothing approaching the clarity and beauty of these magnificent truths can be found anywhere else.

The doctrine of Creatio Ex Nihilo, or Creation Out of Nothing, is central to much of the Christian world. As I understand it, the idea is that there was nothing in the universe, or even no universe itself. There was only God. And at one point, God decided He wanted there to be Something instead of Nothing. And so, out of Nothing, he made Something, and voila! Here we are!

This idea is also the source of much mischief.

Those who propose it think that any other explanation diminishes God’s omnipotence. In contrast, the Book of Abraham insists that to create is to “organize” that which already exists. It rests on the premise that elements are eternal, and that intelligence is eternal, too. In some form or another, each of us is a unique, eternal Intelligence, co-existent with God, and God has designed the universe and organized matter and intelligence to create a circumstance by which we can become more like Him. Ex Nihilists insist that the Mormon God, therefore, is not omnipotent, because he can’t create matter or intelligence out of nothing.

It’s because of this tension that there are some very pointless arguments to be had as to what the definition of omnipotence is. The most famous is the question, “Can God create a rock so large that He can’t move it?” Or, in other words, can God do something he can’t do? Answers to questions like these end up serving the same purpose as imponderables like, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Or “what would happen if everyone on earth flushed their toilet at exactly the same time?” (OK, that second one isn’t very profound. But it’s something to think about!)

Because of the Book of Abraham, I would define omnipotence, therefore, as the capability to do everything that can be done. Ex Nihilists reject this. They say there is nothing that cannot be done, because God can do everything. OK, fine. Then you have to answer questions that don’t make God look like a very pleasant guy.

For example: You, Mr. Ex Nihilist, you believe God can do anything? Then why didn’t he create a universe free of evil, pain, and suffering? Why did make us capable of sin? Why did he create a circumstance where a great deal of his supreme creations are doomed to spend an eternity in a lake of fire? What’s the point?

The famous literary figure Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide concludes that since this is the only world we’ve got, and God is perfect, then this is, by definition, the best of all possible worlds, so stop complaining. The problem, of course, is that this places certain limits on God, too. If this is the best he could do, and even us flawed humans can see there are significant problems, then he isn’t as omnipotent as Ex Nihilists think he is, is he?

Mormons don’t have all the answers about suffering and evil, but, thanks in large part to the Book of Abraham, they do have a context for it that the rest of the world doesn’t have. What’s happening in this life was colored by what happened in the eternity before it, and it will be mitigated by what happens in the eternity after. Many people use this truth to make rash assumptions about this life’s inequities. Clearly, if I’m stronger, happier, richer, or better looking than you, then I must have been a better guy before I got here, no? Well, no. We don’t know that. Maybe you were too big a wimp to be able to handle the rough life of someone else. We haven’t been given the information, but just knowing that there is more to the story helps us understand why some things don’t seem to gibe with what we ought to expect.

The point is that Ex Nihilo creation makes good squarely responsible for all the rotgut in the universe, and it’s no use saying otherwise. My understanding of a merciful and omnipotent deity doesn’t allow for that kind of nonsense. And that understanding is firmly rooted in the precepts found in the Book of Abraham.

All that is context for why it is so difficult to simply write off the Book of Abraham because of  the evidence you cite against it, which is both weak and circumstantial. There is too much substance in the book itself to simply write it off at the first sign of trouble.

Back to your objections, which I will let you state without interruption this time:

2. Egyptologists have found the source material for the Book of Abraham to be nothing more than a common pagan Egyptian funerary text for a deceased man named “Hor” in 1st century CE. In other words, it was a common Breathing Permit that the Egyptians buried with their dead. It has absolutely nothing to do with Abraham or anything Joseph claimed in his translation for the Book of Abraham.

Not so fast. 

First of all, the Joseph Smith Papyri contain excerpts from both the Book of Breathings and the Book of the Dead, which, while both are associated with Egyptian burials, are not, in fact, the same texts. This suggests that these fragments were not a single “common Breathing Permit” but, rather, part of a collection that could well include the Book of Abraham, too. 

More importantly, it is incorrect to say that the Book of the Dead has “absolutely nothing to do with Abraham.” The discovery of the Testament of Abraham in 1892 and the Apocalypse of Abraham in 1898 show remarkable parallels with the Book of Abraham, but also tie Abraham to Egyptian afterlife traditions. Hugh Nibley’s seminal work Abraham in Egypt shows the extent to which Abrahamic traditions are tied to the Book of the Dead. Quoting from Nibley:

The evidence that has led the experts in the past ten years to recognize the closest ties between the old Abraham apocrypha and the Egyptian Book of the Dead, especially with references to the pictures in the latter, effectively eliminates the one argument against serious reading of the Book of Abraham.

The whole thing is well worth reading and is chock full of specifics connections between the two documents and makes it impossible to blithely assert that Abraham and the Book of the Dead have “absolutely nothing to do with” each other.

Facsimile 1: 

The bottom left shows the rediscovered papyrus and what was penciled in by Joseph Smith and his associates. The right is the final draft that’s included in the canonized Book of Abraham.

Abe 1The following image is what Facsimile 1 is really supposed to look like, based on Egyptology and the same scene discovered elsewhere in Egypt:

abe 2

I know this wasn’t your intent, but I would be remiss if I didn’t personally thank you for resolving one of my main concerns about Book of Abraham with your flawed objection here.

I was first introduced to the idea you mention here by an architect who had done a great deal of work for the Church and was on his way out of full fellowship because of his concerns about the Book of Abraham. He told me that Facsimile 1, as found in the Joseph Smith Papyri, had been altered from what it was “really supposed to look like,” as you say, and that every time this scene appeared in other settings, the guy with the knife had a jackal’s head, and so of course this was just Joseph Smith messing around. I took the architect’s word on this, and I found it troubling. From those conversations, I assumed that the scene in Facsimile 1 must be so common as that it could be found in papyri from the same period.

But what’s you’ve shown me here is that there is no other scene in any existing papyri that matches Facsimile 1.

The picture that shows what Facsimile 1 is “supposed to look like” is a modern creation. You didn’t pull it from off of papyri; someone drew in the missing pieces thousands of years later in order to match your assumptions. If there really were a scene that matched Facsimile 1, you wouldn’t have to rely on someone to whip one up.  If it’s “supposed to look like” this, then why can’t you show me a scene from actual papyri that actually looks like this?

You show me a bunch of “funerary scenes” just a bit later in your letter, but what’s striking to me is how little they look like Facsimile 1, either the original or your modern “corrected version.” Yes, there’s a guy lying on a couch, but that guy looks like King Tut’s sarcophagus in most of them, and, really, nothing at all like the guy in Facsimile 1. Where’s the crocodile? Where’s the bird? Why is the jackal-headed dude leaning over in all the other pics but not in Facsimile 1?

As you pat yourself on the back for assuming that you know what this is “supposed to look like,” you skip over a number of very significant differences which make Facsimile 1 unique.

Hugh Nibley again:

The instant reaction of most professing Egyptologists to the sight of Facsimile No. 1 is to announce that it is the most- routine and commonplace object imaginable, that countless drawings identical with this one are to be found on tomb and coffin walls and papyri. Some of the better scholars were given pause, however, and right from the beginning T. Deveria insisted that the Mormons must have made drastic alterations in the sketches, because they were decidedly not as they should be. The main effort of the learned since the discovery of the original in a damaged condition in 1967 has been to reconstruct the missing parts in a way to show that they were really nothing out of the ordinary, while quietly ignoring the really impressive uniqueness of the parts that are not missing.

For instance, an eminent Egyptologist maintained that the fingers of the reclining man’s upper hand are really the feathers of a bird. In time, however, he yielded enough to declare that even if they were fingers it would make no difference to the interpretation. Wouldn’t it? If this turns out to be the only instance known of the man on the couch lifting two hands, that would indeed make a great deal of difference. But forget about the fingers and the feathers; in what other “embalming scene” does a priest with or without an Anubis headdress, lean over a corpse that is waving both an arm and a leg? That gesture, as a number of special studies have pointed out, indicates a stirring to life and a rising from the couch, not the utter quiescence of a corpse about to be laid away. And what about the big crocodial under the couch? Or the lotus stand? You will not find them in any of the other Lion-couch vignettes. This figure waving an arm and a leg is indeed quite uncommon among lion couch scenes, being rarely described, we are told because of its peculiarly sacred nature, but it does occur, and in a most significant context.

Turns out, then, that even the unaltered pieces we have don’t look at all the way they’re “really supposed to look like.” There’s clearly a lot more going on here that you’re too willing to ignorantly dismiss out of hand.

 Tomorrow: More Book of Abraham – and some musical theater!

CES Reply: The First Vision (Part II)
CES Reply: The Book of Abraham (Part II - with a musical twist!)

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