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The Book of Abraham: Dancing around the Criticisms

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The Book of Abraham: Dancing around the Criticisms

Robert M. Bowman Jr.

The Institute for Religious Research has published two major resources challenging the authenticity of the Book of Abraham: a book entitled By His Own Hand upon Papyrus (1992) and a DVD entitled The Lost Book of Abraham (2002). As one would expect, Mormon intellectuals have sought to answer the criticisms of the Book of Abraham leveled in these and other works. One such response was a lecture by Mormon Egyptologist Michael D. Rhodes at the 2003 conference of FAIR (the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research), a pro-Mormon apologetics organization. Rhodes’s lecture “The Book of Abraham: Dealing with the Critics” (also available as a YouTube video) is a critique of IRR’s video, purporting to show “the basic flaws in the scholarship” of the video. This article will give a brief but hopefully helpful response to Rhodes’s lecture. 

Rhodes complains that critics of the Book of Abraham rarely say anything about the text itself but instead focus on “the perceived method by which it was produced.” That is not accurate. The whole point of IRR’s video and book is to look at the text of the Book of Abraham and compare it with the text of the papyrus that Joseph Smith said he was translating! The evidence proves, conclusively and beyond any doubt, that the papyrus contains an ancient Egyptian funerary text called the Book of Breathings, and does not contain the Book of Abraham. The issue here is not the “method” Joseph used, but the result—and the result is that the Book of Abraham is not an authentic translation of the papyrus. 

Rhodes probably means that critics don’t consider the ideas or the teachings of the text of the Book of Abraham on their own merits without worrying about the relation of the Book of Abraham to the papyrus. While such an analysis is not the focus of the video, it is not something we have ignored. The contents of the Book of Abraham (where they depart from the account in Genesis) are not historically plausible, and theologically they contradict the Bible. The most blatant difference between the Book of Abraham and the Bible is that the Book of Abraham claims that a group of Gods made the world, rather than one God as Genesis and the whole Bible teaches. Such theological errors are definitely worth exposing in their own right. 

As do most Mormon defenders of the Book of Abraham, Rhodes argues that Joseph Smith was not responsible for the apparent correlations between the characters on the papyrus and Joseph’s translation of the Book of Abraham seen in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers. What might get lost in the scuffle over these papers is what Rhodes concedes: at the very least, some of the Mormons who worked with Joseph Smith understood the characters in the Book of Breathings text on the papyrus to be related to the text of the Book of Abraham. Yet we now know, as Rhodes concedes, that the two texts have nothing to do with each other. Since for other reasons it remains a fact that Joseph himself claimed the papyrus contained the Book of Abraham, the Kirtland Egyptian Papers simply add further confirmation of this understanding at the time the Book of Abraham was first produced. 

While we only have “fragments” of the papyrus containing the Book of Breathings, those fragments include the drawing represented by Facsimile 1 of the Book of Abraham. The rediscovery of these fragments and especially the one containing that drawing was the “smoking gun” revealing that the Book of Abraham was not an authentic translation from the Egyptian papyrus. Rhodes’s preferred explanation is that the Book of Abraham text might have been located elsewhere on a part of the papyrus that is not extant (and he insists that having two different texts on the same papyrus would not be unprecedented). This is a strained explanation for at least two reasons: 

(1)   Even supposing the papyrus might have contained two different writings, how likely is it that those two writings would be (a) the pagan Egyptian Book of Breathings from about the second century BC or thereabouts and (b) the Book of Abraham from about the eighteenth century BC?

(2)   The extant papyrus fragments include a sizable amount of text alongside the drawing represented by Facsimile 1. If that drawing was about Abraham, one would expect that the text that appears alongside that drawing would be part of the Book of Abraham text. It is not. In fact, all Egyptologists (except a handful of Mormons such as Rhodes) agree that the drawing is about the same subject as the text it accompanies—both the text and the drawing are about an Egyptian man going to the realm of the dead ruled by Egyptian deities. Rhodes’s explanation simply has no plausible way of getting around this fact. 

Probably because he recognizes the weaknesses of the “missing papyrus fragment” theory, Rhodes hedges his bet by leaving open the possibility that the papyrus did not contain the Book of Abraham but was merely a catalyst that got him thinking about Abraham and led to his receiving the Book of Abraham by direct revelation. He doesn’t like that explanation (and gives some good arguments against it), but he won’t close the door on it. Many Mormons now seem to favor this “catalyst” theory. The book By His Own Hand upon Papyrus discusses this theory and explains some of the problems with it. 

It is worth noting that in the recent (2013) changes made to the Mormon scriptures, the description of the Book of Abraham has been changed to be compatible with the catalyst theory. The introduction used to say that the Book of Abraham was “a translation from some Egyptian papyri that came into the hands of Joseph Smith in 1835, containing writings of the patriarch Abraham.” It now says that it is “an inspired translation of the writings of Abraham. Joseph Smith began the translation in 1835 after obtaining some Egyptian papyri.” Yet Joseph Smith’s own introduction remains unchanged: “A Translation of some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt.” 

Another major difficulty for the Book of Abraham is that the papyrus dates to roughly the second century BC or later, whereas Abraham died in about the eighteenth century BC. Hypothetically, it would be possible for “written by his own hand upon papyrus” to mean merely that Abraham was the original author of the text and not that he produced the actual papyrus document in question. However, Joseph Smith on more than one occasion and in more than one way stated explicitly that the papyrus itself came from Abraham. For details and documentation, see Luke P. Wilson’s paper on our website, “Did Joseph Smith Claim His Abraham Papyrus Was an Autograph?” Mormons are in the embarrassing position of needing to argue that Joseph Smith himself was wrong about the work he supposedly translated by divine inspiration! 

As mentioned above, the finding of the papyrus containing the very drawing that was reproduced as Facsimile 1 in the publication of the Book of Abraham is the smoking gun in this matter. Rhodes in effect acknowledges that the drawing on the papyrus represented in the Book of Abraham as Facsimile 1 is a scene from the Egyptian pagan Book of Breathings. However, he claims this can be explained by saying that there was an original drawing done by Abraham that was corrupted through a process of copying with alterations down through the two thousand or so years from Abraham to the papyrus. This won’t do, for the simple reason that Joseph identified numerous elements in the facsimile as having specific meanings associated with a specific event recorded in the Book of Abraham. Joseph’s correlations are correct or they are not; Rhodes wants to have it both ways and that just doesn’t make sense. 

Rhodes devotes much of his lecture to supposed parallels to the Book of Abraham from pseudepigraphic Jewish texts such as the Apocalypse of Abraham and the Testament of Abraham. Yet no historian thinks these texts preserve any historical information about Abraham (at least beyond what one might glean from the Old Testament). Both of these works were probably written in the second century AD (or perhaps the late first century), or roughly two thousand years after Abraham’s death. What Rhodes does is to cherry-pick a few verbal or thematic parallels between the Book of Abraham and these ancient books, arguing that (of course) Joseph Smith could not have known what those books said. This supposedly means that Joseph “hit the nail on the head” by happening to produce these elements that parallel elements in Jewish pseudepigraphic writings about Abraham. In recent years this line of reasoning seems to have become the LDS apologists’ favorite argument for the Book of Abraham, but it’s hopelessly unworkable. We have no reason to think those elements actually reflect truth about Abraham (or truth about him not discernible from the Bible), and in any two books about the same subject one would expect there to be some parallels, so that the parallels in and of themselves prove nothing. Hitting the nail on the head is of no value if the nail is in the wrong piece of wood.