I am happy for this opportunity to respond in some way to Stephen
Thompson's study of egyptological character of the Book of Abraham.
Earlier this year he sent me a manuscript of a larger study, to
which I responded in writing to him. The paper read today is a
shortened and revised version of that earlier paper. Much of what
I might have had to say as a critique was taken care of in my
written response to him, and what objections I had have been addressed
in this version. What I would like to do in this oral response
today therefore is not so much raise questions against his thesis,
but to give an indication what other evidence exists that supports
his basic argument. I agree with him that the Book of Abraham
does not derive from Abraham and is apparently not historical.
If I have any quibble with Thompson it is that I think that we
can be much more confident about these conclusions and that we
can go further and argue in fact that the book is not ancient
but specifically the composition of Joseph Smith. The bits of
evidence I raise have more to do with matters of Hebrew and the
Bible. Thompson's evidence shows one aspect of the character of
the Book of Abraham; that it does not readily reflect a knowledge
of Egyptian language, religion, and culture. My evidence shows
a complementary aspect of the book's character; that it really
has a textual origin in the KJV and to some extent the Hebrew
text of the Bible. The ancient language it is familiar with is
not Egyptian but Hebrew.
- The first point to recognize is that though the Book of Abraham,
particularly in the interpretations of the facsimiles, claim
familiarity with two languages, Hebrew and Egyptian, it appears
it only really knows Hebrew. I am not an Egyptologist and so
I will not claim definitiveness here, but from what I have read
by those who have made putative connections between the Egyptian
words in the Book of Abraham and what is known of the Egyptian
language today, the Book of Abraham does not get things right.
Specifically, the meanings it gives for supposed Egyptian words
is not right nor does the form or morphology of the Egyptian
words correlate correctly. Thompson has dealt with some of these
points and perhaps he might be willing to give a more comprehensive
statement with regard to this matter in his response to me.
The point here is that this lack of correspondence between the
Book of Abraham Egyptian terms and what is known about the Egyptian
language contrasts in the most extreme way with the knowledge
of Hebrew portrayed by the book. Here most everything is correct
and easily verifiable. The reason why the Hebrew is correct,
of course, is that Joseph Smith was at the time of producing
the Book of Abraham studying Hebrew with Joshua Sexias. The
transliterations of Hebrew used in the Book of Abraham are those
employed in Sexias grammar that Joseph Smith used. The difficulty
verifying the Egyptian vis-a-vis the ease in verifying the Hebrew,
in my view, gives greater relief to the impression that the
book has no real connection with Egyptian language and culture.
- If we take a moment to stand back--to look at the "big picture"
often urges us to do--and look at the flow of the story in the
Book of Abraham we see that it has a close connection with the
biblical story of Abraham and specifically reflects the language
of the KJV. While Book of Abraham 1 and 3 are wholly new (i.e.,
they do not have parallels in the Bible), Book of Abraham 2
parallels Genesis 11:27-12:13 (with modifications) and Book
of Abraham 4-5 parallel Genesis 1-2 (with modifications). This
suggests that a main source of the text is the KJV. This is
not decisive in and of itself but it is a consideration which
needs to be put into the hopper.
- Joseph's Hebrew learning is reflected in the creation story
of the Book of Abraham. This ties it more firmly to the Bible
as a source. Instead of the KJV's "without form and void" for
the Hebrew tohu vavohu, the Book of Abraham uses "empty and
desolate"; instead of KJV's "moved upon the face of the waters"
for the Hebrew merahefet al pene hamayim, Book of Abraham has
"was brooding upon the face of the waters"; instead of KJV's
"firmament" for Hebrew raqia, Book of Abraham has "expanse";
in addition to KJV's simple "divided the light from the darkness"
for Hebrew wayyavdellhivdil ben haor uvenhahoshek, Book of Abraham
adds a gloss "divided the light, or caused it to be divided,
from the darkness." These differences or additions are all found
in Joshua Seixas' Hebrew grammar. Hebrew knowledge and use of
the Bible is being reflected here, not Egyptian and the used
of an Egyptian text.
- Most critical scholars of the Bible agree that there were
originally two creation stories in Genesis 1-2, story A in 1:1-
2:4a and story B in 2:4b-25. The reasons for seeing two stories
is because of a difference in style, vocabulary, and contradictions
between the two. Story A, for example, has plants created on
the third day, animals created on the fifth and sixth days,
and humans on the sixth day. Story B has a different order:
the male is created first, then some trees (perhaps plants are
included here too), then the animals, then the woman. Though
there are different arguments about whence these stories derive
in Israelite tradition and about how and when they were brought
together, it is generally recognized that they were brought
together at a relatively late date, no earlier that 900 BCE
and more probably in the sixth century BCE. Both arose in separate
circles and were originally independent. Because the creation
story in Book of Abraham 4-5 reflects these two stories together,
then the Book of Abraham text must post-date the time when the
biblical texts were brought together. That is from long after
the supposed time of Abraham.
- A further point can be made with respect to the creation stories.
Here I need to bring in the creation story from the Book of
Moses. It seems that the differences between the Book of Abraham
and Book of Moses creation stories vis-a-vis that (or those)
in the Bible are apparently due to an attempt to make sense
of the contradictions that appeared between the two Bible stories.
In the Book of Moses the parts of the story that correspond
to the Genesis A and B stories are presented as sequential events.
Story-A happens first, then B. Notably the physical creation
of humans, plants, and animals is viewed as occurring only in
the B-story. Statements are added in this part of the story
explaining that the creation of these life forms in the A-part
of the story was just a spiritual creation. Plants, animals,
and humans were not actually created physically during the six
days of creation.
If the stories are read sequentially in the Book of Moses, then
the question arises as to when life forms were created. A consecutive
reading would lead to the conclusion that it was on the seventh
day, when God rests, since story B immediately follows this temporal
notice. This turns out to be right on the mark. DC 77:12 (produced
two years after the Book of Moses) confirms it when it says: "We
are to understand that God made the world in six days, and on
the seventh day he finished his work, and also formed man out
of the dust of the earth." The language saying man was formed
out of the dust of the earth is from the B creation story.
This solution was innovative and it gave a basis for arguing
that people and other life forms had a spiritual creation before
their physical creation. But it was a problematic solution. It
placed the spiritual creation of these entities during the middle
of the creative enterprise. Humans were only spritually created
on the sixth day! This formed a contradiction with the notion,
also expressed in the text, that Jesus was on hand from the beginning
of creation. It seemed to say that humanity at large were spiritually
created at a time different from Jesus.
The Book of Abraham creation story solved this difficulty. For
story A instead of speaking about spritual creation, it spoke
of preparation of the earth to bring forth the life forms. Note
the phrases: "the Gods organized the earth to bring forth grass";
"Let us prepare the waters to bring forth abundantly the moving
creatures"; "the Gods prepared the earth to bring forth the living
creature." As for humans, the Gods only go down on the sixth day
in order to create; the text does not say that humans were created
on the sixth day. It is on the seventh day, in the sequence of
the story, that the humans are created with the other life forms.
Where is the spiritual creation? It is pushed back one chapter
to chapter 3. Human spirits now exist before any work on the creation
of the earth begins.
This logic in explaining the differences between the Genesis,
Book of Moses, and Book of Abraham creation stories shows that
the real order of composition was Genesis, Book of Moses and then
Book of Abraham. This corresponds with the date of their production:
the Bible is old and the KJV was produced in 1611; the Book of
Moses was produced in c. 1830; D&C 77 in 1832; and the Book of
Abraham in 1835 and thereafter. The traditional order of Book
of Abraham, then Book of Moses, then Genesis, does not make conceptual
sense. Why would the Moses account, presumably later than Book
of Abraham in this view, place the spiritual creation of humans
on the sixth day after Abraham had given such a nice presentation?
These considerations show that Genesis is the primary text and
the others are responses to it.
These evidences coupled with Thompson's observations show that
the Book of Abraham is not the composition of Abraham, not historical,
and, in fact, the product of Joseph Smith's creative--inspired,
if you will--exegesis. This auctorial conclusion can be made with
confidence. It is far from a wild speculation. In contrast it
must be noted that much of the scholarship that has been written
defending the antiquity of the book (and Abrahamic authorship
or its historicity), most of it by Hugh Nibley, is weak and speculative
if not essentially flawed by lack of precision in reading texts
and by methodological looseness.
If I have any questions for Thompson, they have to do with the
future of the Book of Abraham as an object of scholarly interest
and as a work of scripture in Mormon tradition. On the scholarly
side of things, if we can confidently think that Joseph Smith
is its composer, what further issues remain to be studied? What
tools are necessary for those who would seek to study the Book
of Abraham on this basis? What interests might scholars bring
to bear on the book? On the religious side of things, what should
the church (or churches) do with the Book of Abraham? Should the
book be demoted from the canon? If not, is there a need for revising
the understanding of what scripture and even revelation is?
Letter at disciplinary council
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