Something truly remarkable happened in the Church’s new publication of the standard works, and so far, not too many people have seemed to notice. This very dramatic modification to the Church’s Pearl of Great Price is in my opinion truly a “game-changer.” The 1981 introduction to the Book of Abraham features the following statement:
“The Book of Abraham. A translation from some Egyptian papyri that came into the hands of Joseph Smith in 1835, containing writings of the patriarch Abraham.”
And now, the new 2013 version of the text contains the following introduction:
“The Book of Abraham. An inspired translation of the writings of Abraham. Joseph Smith began the translation in 1835 after obtaining some Egyptian papyri.”
Look carefully at what this new assertion suggests (because I would submit, it changes everything!!). The Book of Abraham is identified as an inspired translation of the “writings of Abraham,” not a translation of “Egyptian papyri” that contain the writings of Abraham. And with this single statement, the Church has successfully thrown out a plethora of poorly made apologetic videos and articles trying desperately to prove that somehow, the Book of Abraham literally appeared on the Egyptian papyri that Joseph Smith held in his possession.
Now to be fair, the new introduction does not state that the Book of Abraham was not on the scrolls, but make no mistake about it, this new introduction allows for the possibility that the Book of Abraham was never on any of the Egyptian documents Joseph Smith possessed. This is an incredible step forward that may prove the end of Book of Abraham apologetics (at least in the classical sense)!
Produced in 1835 by the prophet Joseph Smith, the Book of Abraham tells the story of the biblical patriarch’s travels from the city of UR in Mesopotamia to Canaan and down into Egypt. Joseph Smith created the scriptural text as a result of trying to interpret (“translate”) Egyptian papyri scrolls that early Church leaders purchased from a traveling Mummy exhibition in Kirtland, Ohio. The story is well-known.
The papyri owned by the prophet were all thought to have been lost in 1871 during the Great Chicago fire. Yet in 1966, several fragments from the collection were rediscovered in the archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and subsequently donated to the LDS Church. Since their rediscovery, these fragments have all been translated and shown to have no connection whatsoever to the LDS Book of Abraham. Additionally, the Book of Abraham features three facsimiles of vignettes from the papyri together with Joseph Smith’s interpretations. The prophet’s interpretation of these images and their accompanying Egyptian hieroglyphics do not reflect the way in which modern Egyptologists understand these representations. And unfortunately, these facts have contributed to one of the most common intellectual reasons that practicing Mormons abandon their faith. And classical LDS apologetics have done little to help solve the issue.
Unfortunately, in their well-intended efforts to defend the scriptural and therefore inspired authenticity of the Book of Abraham, Mormon apologists have for the most part created much more trouble than is necessary for the Book of Abraham by presenting the public with inaccurate arguments and illogical perspectives. Even though these efforts have no doubt been well intended, it is without question a fact that in the end, bad apologetics do far more harm than good.
As both a serious student of the Bible and the Ancient Near East, and a believing Latter-day Saint who accepts the Book of Abraham as scripture, I strongly maintain that these highly problematic, and to be quite frank, embarrassing apologetic videos and articles that are so easily shown to be inaccurate arguments really need to cease. I would submit that with this new introduction, the Church appears to have opened up the door for a much more sophisticated and accurate understanding of the Book of Abraham.
Egyptology has nothing to tell us whatsoever about the Book of Abraham. As a science, Egyptology is really entirely irrelevant. However, since the Book of Abraham recounts part of the life story of the biblical patriarch and features a revised version of the opening chapters of Genesis, biblical scholarship has much to offer on this fascinating subject.
The conclusion to the Book of Abraham contains an alternate version of Genesis 1-2:20. This is significant because biblical scholars universally recognize these two chapters in Genesis as originally two separate sources. The mainstream scholarly position is that Genesis 1-2:4a is a documentary source written by a Priestly author long after the time period of Abraham and the second creation story is an earlier documentary source written by an author that scholars refer to by the letter “J,” since this source tends to use the divine name “Jehovah” as a proper noun (translated as LORD in the KJV).
Currently, outside of this mainstream position held by the vast majority of North American and Israeli scholars, there exists a minor school of thought amongst some European scholars that the second source (Gen 2) is not technically a “documentary” source, but instead a fragment or supplement. But either way, scholars are convinced that these two chapters derive from two separate sources long after the biblical patriarch (the second one even seems to react and to some extent even correct the earlier creation story).
While reading the opening chapters of the Bible, have you ever stopped and asked yourself the question, “What’s going on here; it seems as if there are two different stories about creation?!” The creation story in Genesis 1 appears neatly organized into three days of preparing followed by three days of developing, with each day ending with a formulaic expression: “and there was X.” By the seventh day, all created things exist in their proper sphere, and so, God rests.
And then, quite dramatically, everything changes! To quote one biblical scholar, “all of a sudden it is as if everything created no longer exists.” We start all over again, but this time, the sequence of events is dramatically altered. Genesis 1:26-27 states that man and woman were created together on the sixth day, after the animals. The story in Genesis 2, however, states that God created man on the first day, then God created the animals, and finally, he created the woman. So what is going on here?!
The Bible opens with two different stories about creation. In some ways, they duplicate each other, telling a story concerning the creation of animals, plants, and man, yet on other issues, they clearly contradict one another. The two stories describe the same events, but they place the actions in an entirely different sequence.
Go back and see! In Genesis 1, God creates plants, then animals, then finally, man and woman at the same time. In Genesis 2, God creates man, plants, animals, and finally woman.
And that’s not all, interestingly, the creation story in Genesis 1-2:4a uses the divine name Elohim (translated “God” in the KJV), and the story of creation in Genesis 2:4b-3 uses the divine name Yahweh/Jehovah (translated as LORD in the KJV). The two stories also differ in the way in which God/the LORD creates. In the story found in Genesis 1, God creates by simply speaking a command, and in Genesis 2, the LORD creates by physically working with the ground.
These biblical sources derive from two separate authors (one reacting to the other) that were compossed long after the time period of Abraham, and yet they both appear as a single revised strory in the BofA produced by the prophet Joseph Smith.
This means that if the Book of Abraham actually appeared somewhere on the Egyptian papyri that Joseph possessed, that the book would have been written by a Hellenized Jewish author living presumably in Egypt who revised the Book of Genesis to create a piece of literature scholars refer to as pseudepigraphon (singular of pseudeipigrapha).
Please note; if the BofA literally appeared on the Egyptian scrolls Joseph possessed it would be a book written by a later Jewish author who falsely attributed the text to the biblical patriarch. This would place the BofA in the same category as later Jewish texts falsely attributed to biblical figures in the past, including the books of Enoch, the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah, and even the Apocalypse of Abraham (a text probably written by a Jewish author around 70-150 AD).
Granted, if the book was simply a later Jewish pseudepigraphic text this would make sense of the book’s earliest scriptural introduction. Unlike the current change, up until 1878, the Book of Abraham was originally published with the following introduction:
“Of some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands, from the Catecombs of Egypt, purporting to be the writings of Abraham, while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus.”
So at first, this perspective might seem like an interesting way for a Latter-day Saint to understand the BofA. However, ultimately, I suspect that this interpretation for most Latter-day Saints will prove unsatisfactory for at least two reasons.
- The Book of Abraham actually contains theological views regarding the Divine Council and the gods that reflect earlier Israelite theological perspectives rather than later Jewish conceptions. It would be very hard to date this text conceptually to a later Hellenized Jewish author at a time period in which most religious Jews had embraced a type of radical monotheism. But the second is even more significant!
- If the BofA is simply a pseudepigraphic text written by a later Jewish author in the same way that a Jewish scribe produced the pseudepigraphic books of Jubilees, the Life of Adam and Eve, the Ascension of Isaiah, or even the Apocalypse of Abraham, why should a Latter-day Saint assume that the BofA is any more (or any less for that matter) inspired than these sources?
You see, in light of what we know about the development of the Book of Genesis, the only way that the Book of Abraham could have appeared on one of the late Ptolemaic or early Roman Period scrolls that Joseph possessed is if the text had been written by a late unknown Jewish author in the same way that other pseudepigaphic texts from the time period were written!
I would submit that even if it was correct, that this very questionable theory would make the BofA difficult for most Latter-day Saints to accept as inspired scripture. And this is huge! In other words, even if all of the apologetic arguments for missing scrolls, and the original length of the papyri were correct, we would still be left with nothing more than a pseudepigraphic Book of Abraham equivalent to the pseudepigraphic Apocalypse of Abraham (70-150 AD).
So why not just put an end to the apologetic wars and accept the offer that the new scriptural heading is presenting?!! From a Latter-day Saint perspective, the BofA is “an inspired translation of the writings of Abraham,” not “a translation from some Egyptian papyri containing writings of the patriarch Abraham.”
The question, of course, is how can a Latter-day Saint interpret the concept of “the writings of Abraham” (especially in light of biblical scholarship)? Here’s a hint, neither Egyptology, nor classical apologetic arguments are going to help us. But there is help. I promise. And I believe that it does put an end to the apologetic war. A correct understanding of the BofA places the text’s inspired scriptural validity beyond the realm of missing scrolls and complicated mathematical equations.