Book Review: An Introduction to the Book of Abraham

Hugh Nibley once quipped that the controversy surrounding the Book of Abraham was “a great fuss . . . being made about a scrap of papyrus.”1 Were it not for the fact that it is tied up in religious polemics involving Joseph Smith, founder and first prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there would probably be little care outside a handful of Egyptologists who specialize in Greco-Roman Egyptian religious literature for the text commonly designated the Book of Breathings; what the ancient Egyptians themselves called the šˁt n snsn ỉr.n ˁIst n snỉ.s Wsỉr, or the Document of Breathings Made by Isis for Her Brother Osiris.2 But because the text is tied to a book of scripture claiming to be “a translation of . . . the writings of Abraham, while he was in Egypt,”3 there has been an unusual amount of interest (to say nothing of a boisterous fracas) among laypersons surrounding this “scrap of papyrus.”

One major problem is that anyone wishing to better understand the Book of Abraham and the associated Joseph Smith Papyri is going to face a mountainous climb that traverses a number of interdisciplinary crests and vales. As Nibley observed:

Consider for a moment the scope and complexity of the materials with which the student must cope if he would undertake a serious study of the Book of Abraham’s authenticity. At the very least he must be thoroughly familiar with (1) the texts of the “Joseph Smith Papyri” identified as belonging to the Book of the Dead, (2) the content and nature of mysterious “Sen-sen” fragment, (3) the so-called “Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar” attributed to Joseph Smith, (4) statements by and about Joseph Smith concerning the nature of the Book of Abraham and its origin, (5) the original document of Facsimile 1 with its accompanying hieroglyphic inscriptions, (6) the text of the Book of Abraham itself in its various editions, (7) the three facsimiles as reproduced in various editions of the Pearl of Great Price, (8) Joseph Smith’s explanation of the facsimiles, (9) the large and growing literature of ancient traditions and legends about Abraham in Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Greek, Slavonic, etc., and (10) the studies and opinions of modern scholars on all aspects of the Book of Abraham.4

Thankfully there are knowledgeable guides who are well-equipped to lead us on the journey. One such reliable escort is John Gee, who has studied the Book of Abraham and the Joseph Smith Papyri extensively, and has left voluminous writings on the subject.5 In 2000 Gee published his introductory guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri.6 His new offering with the Religious Studies Center at Brigham Young University, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, builds on his decades of scholarship and widens his scope to include not just the papyri but the Book of Abraham.7 It is a book that fills a much-needed void, as there are heretofore no introductory works on the Book of Abraham to speak of that are accessible to a general audience while still being grounded in top-shelf scholarship. “The goal with the Introduction to the Book of Abraham is to make reliable information about the Book of Abraham accessible to the general reader” (p. ix). Gee’s book laudably accomplishes this goal. This is indeed something to celebrate, since most treatments on the Book of Abraham and the Joseph Smith Papyri are usually: (A) too technical, and thus riddled with academic jargon only comprehensible to scholars, (B) too general or amateurish, and thus riddled with inaccuracies, (C) too hyper-focused on just this or that single aspect of the issue, and/or (D) scattered across various journals, monographs, and edited collections, some of which are more accessible (and affordable) to a general reader than others. An Introduction to the Book of Abraham largely remedies this problem. Gee keeps his treatment scholarly while not bogged down in academese, general while not being loose with the data, focused on the main issues without becoming pedantic, and easily accessible at an affordable $20.00.

The organization of An Introduction to the Book of Abraham flows logically and keeps the reader’s attention. Gee begins with an overview of the background of the papyri (pp. 1–12), their acquisition by Joseph Smith and their chain of custody from his death to their return to the Church in 1967 (pp. 13–42), the content of the Abrahamic record Joseph translated (pp. 43–48), the relationship between the Book of Abraham and the Joseph Smith Papyri (pp. 83–86), and the evidence for the historicity of the text (pp. 87–142). Gee likewise provides overviews of what we know about the ancient owners of the papyri (pp. 57–72) and their contents (pp. 73–82). He also discusses the Facsimiles (pp. 143–156) and the role of the Book of Abraham as scripture in the Church today (pp. 163–174). The book concludes with a helpful chapter on frequently asked questions that summarizes the main points of discussion (pp. 175–184). I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that John Gee is perhaps one of the few people alive who could do all of this by himself. That he is basically able to cover each of the sub-issues identified by Nibley as being necessary to discuss the Book of Abraham intelligently is a monument to his scholarly acumen.

click to enlarge

Some aspects of Gee’s work on the Book of Abraham may seem iconoclastic at first from a conservative Latter-day Saint perspective. For instance, Gee argues that “the Book of Abraham . . . presents a geocentric astronomy, like almost all ancient astronomies, including ancient Egyptian astronomy,” as opposed to a modern scientific cosmology (p. 116). If we follow Gee’s proposition that the Book of Abraham reflects a cosmology that would be comprehensible to the ancient Egyptians (cf. Abraham 3:15), then we should not concern ourselves with bizarre theories that attempt to either prove or disprove that Abraham 3 is reconcilable with modern science, since both attempts would fundamentally be missing the entire point of the text. This may seem jarring at first for more conservative Latter-day Saints who have inherited Protestant assumptions about scriptural concordism,8 but when properly understood Gee’s argument actually strengthens belief that the Book of Abraham is ancient. After all, if Abraham was writing his text in the Bronze Age, wouldn’t it make sense that it reflect a Bronze Age understanding of the cosmos that he would have understood?9

On the other hand, some aspects of Gee’s arguments are sure to rankle more liberal scholars who want to make the Book of Abraham a pseudepigraphical text on the basis of, for instance, source critical methods. In his chapter on the creation account recorded in Abraham 4–5, Gee challenges efforts to demonstrate that the Book of Abraham is dependent on Genesis by appeals to source criticism (pp. 136–138). Gee does not dispute that the author of Genesis “had some access to written or oral sources,” but “whether or not source criticism can correctly identify those sources” (p. 137). Gee is skeptical that source critics are capable of doing such, even going so far as insisting that “if one accepts the historicity of the Book of Abraham, then one cannot accept the validity of source criticism. Likewise, if one accepts the validity of source criticism, then one cannot accept the historicity of the Book of Abraham. The two are incompatible” (p. 138). While I am personally not entirely sure that the two are incompatible, Gee’s bigger point is one worth considering: when it comes to the Book of Abraham, do we grant the text any evidentiary precedence against other theories? And, if so, how much?

While much of what Gee offers won’t be especially new or groundbreaking for those who have followed the scholarship on the Book of Abraham, he nevertheless brings fresh insights to the text that will be appreciated by both seasoned and novice readers. He notes, for example, the presence of an Egyptian pun at Abraham 3:17–18 (p. 117), as well as how from an ancient Egyptian perspective Abraham was subtle but not necessarily lying in calling Sarah his sister rather than his wife at Abraham 2:22–25 (p. 102). Gee also draws attention to a paper published by a Turkish archaeologist excavating the site Oylum Höyük which posits a possible connection between the site and the place name Olishem from Book of Abraham (p. 104). Gee’s work on the family history and occupation of Hor, the ancient owner of the Joseph Smith Book of Breathings, has appeared in mainstream (yet obscure by laypersons’ standards) Egyptological venues, but now with An Introduction to the Book of Abraham this fascinating (and extremely relevant) information is readily available and is sure to renew appreciation for how the Book of Abraham could plausibly fit in an ancient context.

click to enlarge

While most of Gee’s arguments are persuasive, some of his positions seem debatable. His discussion of the timeline of the translation of the Book of Abraham is one such debatable point. Gee believes the extant text of the Book of Abraham was translated by the end of 1835. “Joseph revised the translation preparatory to its publication in 1842, but other than that, no evidence has survived that he worked on the translation of the existing Book of Abraham after 1835” (p. 15). In this Gee appears to be following the translation timeline laid out by Kerry Muhlestein and Megan Hansen.10 While this position is arguable, I am not so sure it is as definitive as Gee would have us suppose. The key piece of evidence that would appear to contradict this timeline is the appearance of transliterated Hebrew words in Abraham 3 that are clearly drawn from Joshua Seixas’ Hebrew classes offered in Kirtland beginning in 1836. Their appearance in the Book of Abraham, as well as the text’s recognition that elohim is technically a plural noun (cf. Abraham 4:1–12, 14, 16–18, 20–22, 24–29, 31; 5:2–5, 7–9, 11–16, 20), it could be argued, would seem to indicate that Abraham 3 onward was translated after Joseph Smith studied Hebrew in 1836. Muhlestein and Hansen believe this can be reconciled by understanding the transliterated Hebrew words in Abraham 3 as interpretative glosses added by Joseph Smith in his preparations for the publication of the Book of Abraham in 1842 after he initially translated the text in 1835.11 While this seems possible, it remains speculative. It seems we simply don’t know enough at the moment to stake out any definitive answers. Further work, such as that being undertaken by Brian Hauglid and Robin Jensen with the Joseph Smith Papers Project,12 may shine further light on this down the road. For now, while Gee’s position is arguable, readers, I believe, should at least be aware that this remains a contested point.

Whatever I found debatable in An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, however, did not dramatically detract from the overall quality of the book. With something as perplexing and often vexatious as the Book of Abraham, there is inevitably going to be disagreement on a number of issues. Whether you agree with all of his conclusions or not, there is no denying that Gee is a qualified scholarly voice in this discussion and is worth listening to. As such, Gee’s new work has easily become my new go-to resource for when I will inevitably be asked questions about the Book of Abraham down the road. When members of the Church ask me what I study and I inform them that I study Egyptology, they (understandably) often begin asking questions about the Book of Abraham and Joseph Smith Papyri. Along with the Church’s Gospel Topics essay on the Book of Abraham, I can now direct their attention to An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, which very nicely presents often complicated scholarship on a number of issues related to the Book of Abraham in an enjoyable and accessible manner.

  1. Hugh Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, 2nd ed., The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley: Volume 16 (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 2005), xxv.
  2. Or possibly the Letter of Fellowship Made by Isis for Her Brother Osiris. See the discussion in John Gee, “A New Look at the ˁnẖ pȝ by Formula,” in Actes du IXe congrès international des études démotiques, Paris, 31 août–3 septembre 2005, ed. Ghislaine Widmer and Didier Devauchelle (Paris: Institut Français D’Archaéologie Orientale, 2009), 136–138; Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri, 95–130.
  3. “Book of Abraham,” Times and Seasons 3, no. 9 (March 1, 1841): 704.
  4. Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, 2nd ed. The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley: Volume 14 (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 2000), 154–155.
  5. Most of Gee’s research can be accessed on the Neal A. Maxwell Institute’s website.
  6. John Gee, A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000).
  7. John Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and the Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2017).
  8. Gee, in fact, questions whether concordism is the best route to take when it comes to harmonizing the scriptures with modern science. “Should our understanding of scripture necessarily match our understanding of science? Whether our understanding of the stories of God’s dealings with men, which are designed to help us come to an understanding of things that God thinks we ought to know and act on, should necessarily match human theories that for the moment have not yet been proven false is a matter that is at least open to debate. It is not obvious that the two things should have to match on any given point at any given juncture in time. When they do, that is something to be grateful for” (pp. 139–140).
  9. I have made a similar point in Stephen O. Smoot, “Council, Chaos, & Creation in the Book of Abraham,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22, no. 2 (2013): 28–39.
  10. Kerry Muhlestein and Megan Hansen, “‘The Work of Translating’: The Book of Abraham’s Translation Chronology,” in Let Us Reason Together: Essays in Honor of the Life’s Work of Robert L. Millet, ed. J. Spencer Fluhman and Brent L. Top (Provo, UT and Salt Lake City, UT: Religious Studies Center, Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, and Deseret Book, 2016), 139–162.
  11. Muhlestein and Hansen,”‘The Work of Translating’,” 149–153.
  12. Brian M. Hauglid, “The Book of Abraham and Translating the Sacred,” BYU Religious Education Review, Winter 2017, 12–15; Robin Scott Jensen, “The Joseph Smith Papers and the Book of Abraham,” BYU Religious Education Review, Winter 2017, 16–17.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: An Introduction to the Book of Abraham

Leave a Comment