Egyptology and the Book of Abraham

David P. Wright (his academic and research site)
Response to Stephen E. Thompson
Egyptology and the Book of Abraham
Boston Sunstone Symposium
November 13, 1993

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 books 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.

(1) 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.

(2) If we take a moment to stand back--to look at the "big picture" as Nibley 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.

(3) 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 Sexias' Hebrew grammar. Hebrew knowledge and use of the Bible is being reflected here, not Egyptian and the used of an Egyptian text.

(4) 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.

(5) 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.

Conclusion: 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?


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