The Book of Abraham Suddenly Makes More Sense: It’s Discussing Geocentric Astronomy

I just watched Daniel Peterson’s video on the geocentric nature of the Book of Abraham, and came away with a better appreciation for the astronomy presented in that ancient text. (The video is “‘And I Saw the Stars’: The Book of Abraham and Ancient Geocentric Astronomy” by Daniel C. Peterson, William J. Hamblin and John Gee, produced by FARMS.) Rather than trying to reconcile Abraham’s views with modern science, we can now appreciate that Abraham’s discussion of astronomy was based on the ancient geocentric perspective.

In the Book of Abraham, Abraham is looking at the stars from his perspective on earth. The Lord tells him a few things about what he is seeing, not to give him a detailed scientific understanding, but that Abraham might be prepared to converse with Pharaoh. And to achieve that purpose, the Lord explains things using the basic paradigm that educated people of the world had back then, the geocentric perspective. Peterson points to many clues that support this. And once you realize that, all the discussion of one heavenly body being above another and having slower times and so forth all fits beautifully with ancient geocentric astronomy.

Now if Joseph really just made up the Book of Abraham by absorbing cultural influences, one would expect him to have a Copernican perspective. Geocentrism was long dead in his day, but there it is, richly presented in its ancient form in the Book of Abraham.

Here is an excerpt on this topic from the FairWiki entry on the Book of Abraham (see the source for the footnotes):

With regard to astronomy, we find that in Joseph Smith’s day “heliocentricity” (as proposed by Copernicus and Newton) was the accepted astronomical view. Nineteenth-century people (including the most brilliant minds of the day) believed that everything revolved around the Sun–therefore the term “heliocentric” (Greek helios=sun + centered). (In the twentieth-first century we generally accept an Einsteinian view of the cosmos.) The Book of Abraham, however, clearly delineates a geocentric view of the universe–or a belief that the Earth (Greek geo) stood at the center of the universe, and all things moved around our planet.

According to ancient geocentric cosmologies and what we read in the Book of Abraham, the heavens (which is defined as the expanse above the earth–no celestial object is mentioned to exist below the earth) was composed of multiple layers or tiers–each tier higher than the previous. Therefore the Sun is in a higher tier than the moon, and the stars are in higher tiers still (compare Abraham 3:5, 9, 17).[34] According to geocentric astronomy, celestial objects have longer time spans (or lengths of “reckoning”) based upon their relative distance from the earth. “Thus, the length of reckoning of a planet is based on its revolution [time to orbit around the center, in this case the earth](and not rotation [time to spin on its axis, as the earth does every 24 hours]).”[35] The higher the celestial object, the greater its length of reckoning (compare Abraham 3:5). Likewise, in Abraham 3:8-9, we read that “there shall be another planet whose reckoning of time shall be longer still; And thus there shall be the reckoning of the time of one planet above another, until thou come nigh unto Kolob.”

Ancient geocentric astronomers believed that the stars were “the outer-most celestial sphere, furthest from the earth and nearest to God.”[36] We find in the Book of Abraham that the star Kolob was the star nearest “the throne of God” (Abraham 3:9). In the ancient, yet recently discovered, Apocalypse of Abraham (which dates from about the same time period as the JSP [Joseph Smith Papyri]), we find that God’s throne is said to reside in the eighth firmament (the firmaments, being another term for the varying tiers in the heavens above the Earth).[37]

The Book of Abraham also reveals that those celestial objects that are highest above the earth, “govern” the objects below them (see Abraham 3:3, 9 and Facsimile 2, fig. 5). This sounds similar to the beliefs of those who accepted an ancient geocentric cosmology:

Throughout the ancient world the governing role of celestial bodies was conceived in similar terms. God sits on his throne in the highest heaven giving commands, which are passed down by angels through the various regions of heaven, with each region governing or commanding the regions beneath it.[38]

We find this governing order described in the Apocalypse of Abraham and other ancient sources. All of this makes sense only from an ancient geocentric perspective (such as that believed in Abraham’s day) and makes no sense from a heliocentric perspective (which is what Joseph would have known in his day).


Author: Jeff Lindsay

49 thoughts on “The Book of Abraham Suddenly Makes More Sense: It’s Discussing Geocentric Astronomy

  1. I find this argument fascinating and worth greater attention and detail: “The BofA is true because it is false.” I actually think that it’s a pretty good argument with interesting consequences for a Mormon view of scripture.

  2. God’s explanations to Abraham, using limited paradigms and concepts chosen for their intelligibility to those of Abraham’s day rather than our day, are not unlike the use of “six days” to explain the Creation.

    It’s not necessarily false, but necessarily limited and incomplete, but adequate for the teaching purpose needed in that time.

  3. In any case, I agree with jeff about the fascinating nature of the evidence and its implications for BOok of Mormon descriptions of animals and plants.

    It’s good historical method and it’s about time that people start recognizing that good historical method can be applied to Mormon scripture too (the rest of the Christian world began recognizing concerning the Bible about a century ago).

  4. Oh c’mon! Can we really say that geocentrism is anything less than false? Now it might be said that God didn’t actually teach geocentrism, but rather adopted His message to such a paradigm. That seems like a bit of a stretch: God teaches Abraham about the stars and cosmos, without correcting a geocentric understanding of the universe? That doesn’t make any sense at all.

    Let us assume, however, just for the sake of argument, that such a justification is more or less right. This is exactly what I was suggesting needs to be elaborated. For if we are going to allow prophets to write revelations which assume or even flat out assert false theories which God simply didn’t take the time to correct, then our confidence in revealed truth seems to be seriously compromised.

    The scriptures teach, to some extent, a geocentric model of the universe. Does this not bother anybody?

  5. This is a very interesting dialogue, jeff g.

    In premise, I tend to agree with you–some prophets MAY have held incorrect views about the nature of the universe.

    However, for some reason unbeknownst to me, it compromises your faith in revelation while it enriches mine. Assuming you accept the Doctrine and Covenants as revealed word (I do not know your religious proclivities, so I am–perhaps falsely–that you do), the Lord himself says in section one that he speaks to his servants in their weakness and in their language. So if you want to reject that as the word of the Lord, that is your prerogative. However, in doing so, you have essentially created your own God, one that thinks and acts as you do and not necessarily as he actually is.

    Also, it is interesting that you suggest we assume all prophets from all scriptures to be on exactly the same level not only in terms of spirituality but in terms of astronomical knowledge. Do some scriptures suggest competing models for astronomy? Certainly (Joshua and Alma 30:44 being the most obvious examples). There is no concern.

    All of us, prophets included, continue to search for light and it’s given to us line upon line.

    The scriptures’ saving doctrine however, is far more accessible.

  6. jeff g:

    If you would be so kind as to enlighten us with the knowledge of where the true center of the universe lies, I will accept your assertion that geocentrism is “false”. Otherwise, it’s simply a different frame of reference.

  7. Pops,

    Geocentrism is the idea that everything, including the sun and all other planet revolve around the earth rather than all planets revolving around the sun. This is a false idea from pretty much every reasonable perspective.

    BTW, the universe has no center. There is no true answer to a false question.


    While I can see how this whole idea enhances one’s confidence (the word “faith” is far too ambiguous) that revelation has been received, it certainly seems to undermine any confidence that what has been received in actually true or trustworthy. That is the problem.

  8. Jeff I’m not quite following your argument. You are saying that an allegory that used the astronomical understanding of the time is bad because God should have taught Abraham modern physics? But wasn’t God’s point theological and not physics? I guess I’m at a loss to quite understand the point you are making.

  9. Clark,

    My point assumed that God was actually teaching Abraham about the stars rather than simply using the stars to teach Abraham something else. I think that this is a fair reading, for while some allegory can be gleamed from the account, such a gleaming seems indirect and secondary.

    How would we feel, after all, if God used cosmic ether to teach us something? Would we not assume that there must be something which is more or less ether-like? While I’m sure that you, Clark, would not be uncomfortable with an agnostic approach to such a question, the average Mormon reader would see this as a divine confirmation of the ether-theory.

  10. jeff

    Your recent post to me is unclear–it builds confidence and undermines confidence simultaneously?

    I maintain that this knowledge nuances my understanding of Abraham. As highly as I think of Abraham, he, like all mortals, had mortal limitations on understanding. Would the Lord overwhelm with astronomical knowledge, changing his entire paradigm when his purpose was to instruct in the plan of salvation? If we accept Paul’s teaching of “milk before meat,” then it is not hard to accept that Abraham’s knowledge of the stars were less-then-perfect, not because of the imperfection of the teacher but because of the limitation of the student.

    And the allegory is clear, hardly secondary when the Lord states that the stars are like the souls of heaven. I think the Lord is far more concerned about souls then stars.

  11. Maybe its just me, but jeff g makes perfect sense.

    In other words, why would God teach something false (regardless of perspective it is false) in order to teach something that is true? There are far too many truthful ways to teach truth.

    This is exactly the type of dangerous blind acceptance I have alluded to on many occasions. Darkness never begets light, truth does not grow from false teachings.

    So because you are uneducated, God is going to use false teachings to get his point across?

    I’m not saying that the Book of Abraham is false, but FARMS defense of it (in this case) is absolutely laughable.

    I’m not trying to be negative here, just a voice of reason.

  12. Personally, I find this highly interesting. Partly because of my interest in astronomy, but also because of my study of old British literature which introduced the concept of Geocentrism to me, or the belief that the “spheres” all existed in planes centered around the Earth.

    It makes sense to me that when the Lord speaks to anyone, there has to be a common ground established to help understand the principles being taught. And since the purpose of these principles were to speak to Pharoh, who more than likely wouldn’t be interested in being told that his view of the cosmos was faulty, this new principle would be shared in light of his current ideas.

  13. Walker,

    “it builds confidence and undermines confidence simultaneously?”

    Read my comment again, only more slowly this time. I was very clear in what is and is not be undermined in each case.

  14. Bishop Rick wrote: In other words, why would God teach something false (regardless of perspective it is false) in order to teach something that is true?

    For much the same reason that we adults often (over-) simplify our explanations when our young children ask us complex questions.


    “Daddy, where do babies come from?”

    “Well, honey, when a mommy and a daddy love each other very much, they have a baby.”


    God is usually not interested in revealing scientific truths.

  15. Mike,

    You are simply making things up as you go there. I see absolutely no reason why God would treat Abraham as a child in the case of astronomy, especially since the whole point of bringing in the astronomy was as an intro to the creation narrative. Maybe the astronomy was allegorical, but it was not completely so. Besides, even when we do tell kids a fib about where babies come from, this does not change the fact that the fib is a fib, a false answer.

  16. jeff

    I was hoping you would at least have responded to the substance of my post. But no…

    Btw, a request for clarification my part is not a carte blanche to ignore my arguments. Your comment was exceedingly brief (a characteristic not to be confused with concise).

    If you wish to call me inane for not being able to read your inner arguments all the while ignoring mine, I guess that reflects more on your inability to maintain a serious dialogue.

    And fyi, at least amongst orthodox Christian circles, Mike’s scenario about babies is hardly a fib–I at least like to that I am the product of my parents’ love. But if not, no worries–I’ll just crumple into a corner and cry.

  17. Walker,

    Alright, here you go. While a geocentric reading of the BofA can certainly inspire confidence in the claim that the book is of divine origin, at the same time it undermines confidence in the idea that all revelation of divine origin will necessarily be true. I honestly thought that you had just read my comment too fast.

    Now, on to your other substance. Simply telling Abraham that the earth is not the center of the solar system and that it actually goes around the sun is not going to over load his brain. Indeed, one wonders if the geocentric model can be carried over into the follow chapter which describes the creation of the world. Now since God was on the subject of specifically teaching some form of science in the creation narrative, why, then is He teaching false science? That is the point, and no appeal to baby stories and weaknesses of men seems adequate to account for this.

    Furthermore, there is a difference between milk/meat and false/true. Wouldn’t God’s teaching within a geocentric paradigm only prevent more meat from being gained? Doesn’t such a teaching tacitly encourage or at least endorse a false understanding of the world?

    Now, is God saying that souls are like the stars, or is He saying that the souls are like how you (Abraham) wrongly think the stars to be? The question is, where does it say that souls are like the stars? And if such a verse is to be found, does God adequately qualify His words so as to not endorse falsehoods? I don’t think so.

    The account having an allegorical interpretation does not make the account itself any less false.

    “I think the Lord is far more concerned about souls then stars.” Says who? Must it be one or the other? Aren’t you just kind of making stuff up here?

    All these things about God treating men like babies, or playing into men’s ignorance are entirely ad hoc in nature. We have no independent reason whatsoever to believe that God would be endorsing a completely false model of the cosmos.

  18. Gentlemen, what part of God’s explanations in Abraham are completely false? Geocentrism as the underlying paradigm in the Book of Abraham is a recent proposal that sheds some insight into the text. It must be inferred and drawn out from clues. God does not simply tell Abraham that the earth is immobile and that the sun rotates around it. He uses the nature of the heavenly bodies, as observed from the reference point of earth, to make an analogy about human souls, and to prepare Abrahamm to gain credibility with the Pharaoh in order that Abraham could teach and have influence for spiritual gains. His goal was not scientific education, as far as I can tell.

    Yes, as a nerd, I would have preferred the Lord to have put in a few good words for nuclear fusion in stars, gamma ray bursts, neutron stars, black holes, relativity, quarks, etc. Would have made for a more interesting Book of Abraham. But Abraham may never have written anything then. He would have just said, “What?” And Pharaoh would have thrown Abraham and his relativistic black holes out of court.

  19. As far as falsity of the geocentric model, I concur with Jeff–he’s a scientist, I’m not. He states my position quite eloquently.

    The larger point about the Lord using imperfect means to teach his children, however, is still relevant. Jesus used imperfect parables about the mustard seed being “the smallest of all the seeds.” That is certainly not the case–Jesus was using a literary effect and I would say it was…effective.

    Yes, Abraham was like a child. How often are apostles in the N.T. chastised for the immaturity in understanding? Called “of little faith”? Certainly Abraham is not exempt from this.

    And when someone summarizes an argument (as I did in relation to caring more about souls than stars), that does not warrant suggesting that I’m making things up. Do you believe in a God that cares more about stars than souls?

    You can, but that’s just not a God I could ever love knowing that I was second chair to some flaming mass in the atmosphere.

  20. jeff,

    From the perspective of the earth, the sun, the planets, and all the stars do indeed revolve around the earth. Go look up at the sky some time. Is what you see “false”?

  21. Alright, one at a time:


    Evolution has already forced people to suggest that the creation account is not about “how” is happened. Now you are making it so that the creation account doesn’t even described the final product? What do all those creation accounts actually say? What is the Mormon committed to? “God created something, somehow.”


    No, geocentrism is false, completely false from every perspective. It may appear true from some perspectives, but that does not make it true. There is an objective fact of the matter, and apparently the scriptures tell us the wrong one. At least you do appear to tacitly agree that the scripture does teach geocentrism to some extent though. Maybe you could help me out with these other people. 😉


    I see your comments as being entirely ad hoc in nature. “God cares more about souls than stars.” Where does it say this? You made it up. Even if it is true, how do you know that it is at all relevant for the case at hand? Even if its true, does that means that God doesn’t care about stars at all? If not, why all the creation accounts?

    The same can be said about Jeff’s appeal to Abraham teaching Pharaoh. How do you know what would have happened? How do you know that such a thing would prevent God from at least telling Abraham the truth? You are simply making all this up with absolutely no evidence to back it up.

    Back to Walker, why does the Lord use such imperfect means? Just because Jesus called the apostles children in some particular situation doesn’t say anything at all about Abraham. Again, you are just making stuff up and/or inventing relevancy without any appeal to evidence at all.

    We can’t teach high schoolers organic chemistry. Does this mean that we should teach them alchemy instead? The milk which comes before the meat is supposed to be no less true than the meat is. The meat supplements the milk rather than replacing it.

    In conclusion, the BofA says way too much about astronomy to suggest that God wasn’t teaching him about the nature of the creation. Furthermore, there is some information which is taught in the book which does nothing to further the allegory. Also, to suggest that Abraham was just a child when it came to astronomy goes against everything which has been taught in the church on the matter. Geocentrism is false and yet it is apparently endorsed by God. The problem still remains.

  22. It makes more sense to me that God would teach Abraham the truth, and then advise him what to say and what not to say in his meeting with Pharoh.

  23. Crimanently, I’m going to have to walk you through every piece of evidence. I was trying to save me some time, but since you insist…

    1. Abraham’s understanding of the astronomy was childlike
    –See Abr. 3:12 (“My son, my son”)
    2. The Lord’s lucid realization that he is teaching Abraham according to the earth from which he standeth
    –See Abr. 3:3-9
    3. The Lord, when teaching Moses in a similar manner to Abraham, states that his work is the “immortality and eternal life of man” (not of stars)–hence, the Lord would be quite willing to use
    –Moses 1:39 (a very relevant verse considering both are creation accounts–also because Moses was told to write concerning the things of the earth upon which he “standeth”)
    4. The primary allegorical nature of the BoA
    –Abr. 3:17-18 (“howbeit he made the greater star; AS, ALSO if there be two spirits”)–the rest of the chapter is devoted to the pre-existence. If the Lord’s primary purpose were to teach Abraham astronomy, why such an odd segue and why the use of the simile word “as.”

    “We can’t teach high schoolers organic chemistry. Does this mean that we should teach them alchemy instead? The milk which comes before the meat is supposed to be no less true than the meat is. The meat supplements the milk rather than replacing it.”

    High schoolers have a different educational background than Abraham. Abraham was working on his own timetable. Not the best comparison (but it works well if we accept that analogies need not be 100% dead on to be effective but only catered to a specifc context i.e. the Lord’s teaching
    of Abraham)

  24. Wow, that comment reeked of desperation.

    1) Shows nothing other than that God was Abraham’s father, just as He is everybody’s father.

    2) Shows nothing. The whole point of Jeff’s post was to show that the word “order” here means something very different from what we heliocentrists think.

    3) Moses is not Abraham.

    4) Says nothing about the chapter being PRIMARILY allegorical.

    The entire first half of the chapter says nothing of spirits. The entire next chapter says nothing of spirits. The 2nd and 3rd facsimiles say nothing about spirits. Face it, the most straight forward reading of all this is that Abraham was concerned with, and was thus taught astronomy, false astronomy judging by Jeff’s post.

    It has become clear to me that you are not really trying to find the most straight forward conclusion in this matter though. Rather, you have already made up your mind and are simply reasoning to find any way you can to that preconceived conclusion. Accordingly, I see little point in being obligated to respond to such flimsy, ad hoc reasoning any more.

  25. Geocentrism in the scriptures? Don’t forget Hel 12:14-15, in which a quick reference to heliocentrism is thrown in, almost as if Joseph were trying to correct the dissonance between the Bible’s references to the sun standing still and 19th century astronomical knowledge.

  26. That’s fine. Don’t feel under any obligation. Of course, I might make a similar argument that you are brushing off legitimate evidence, but hey, if you want to do that (something I’ve done and do in the past), there are greater tragedies in the world.

  27. Two points: (1) It seems as if no one has considered the possibility that God did tell Abraham all the technical astronomical facts but perhaps advised him to tell to Pharoah only what he (Pharoah) could understand.

    And (2) It often seems as if some folks have not considered the possibility that they do not exceed God in wisdom or intelligence.

  28. anon 9:01,

    That possibility was brought up, the problem there is that the BoA was not written to Pharoah, so why put false teachings there?

    I don’t think anyone here is saying they are more intelligent than God, but more intelligent than some men regarding certain topics, that’s another story.
    I’m not sure why so many here are defending this line of defense so vehemently.

    Just because FARMS comes up with a line of defense does not make it valid. It doesn’t even make it something that the LDS church approves.

    Unless of course, I am mistaken and all FARMS publications must go thru committee first…which is a possibility.

  29. You’re right, Rick. While I think the idea is worth examining (hence the evidence cited above), perhaps it isn’t correct. Big whoop. Welcome to the world scholarship. What ought to matter to a Mormon is that the scripture is what it claims to be.

  30. Jeff G,

    Okay, let’s back up a little bit here. Does the Book of Abraham use the word “geocentric”? No. Does it state that the sun orbits the earth? No. You really need to tell us what statement in the Book of Abraham is false, because I can’t find it.

    You took a bit of a leap when Jeff L. used the term geocentric. It was a leap not justified by the source material. Perhaps you aren’t familiar with the Book of Abraham.

    The bottom line is that the Book of Abraham doesn’t represent God as teaching a false principle to Abraham.

  31. Walker,

    You haven’t cited any evidence yet. Stop saying you have.

    All your sources were completely the point. Something only counts as evidence for theory A over theory B when the evidence in question would only arise in the case of A being true but not B. Your examples do no such thing.


    I was commenting on Jeff’s post. If you don’t accept Peterson’s geocentric reading of the BofA, then that’s fine by me.

  32. Like I said, jeff, you overly trouble yourself with my supposed lack of evidence. If you don’t wish to accept my “evidence,” (or whatever you want to call it), it’s no skin off my nose. I know the historians’ field well and I’ve seen numerous writers quibble over precisely the same pieces of data, claiming that they translate into two different interpretations. It is no surprise that the same thing would happen here. If you want to wantonly dismiss all my interpretation/evidence/rambling/demagouery,
    feel free.

    In any case, this is just a blog with all of us as anonymous nobodies.

  33. Can someone tell me what Jeff G is all upset about? What statement in the BOA is “blatantly false”? Like Jeff said, the Lord does not say the earth is immobile. So what’s all the huffing about?? Can’t we agree that the BOA doesn’t teach modern science the way we would prefer, and leave it to the individual to decide what to make of that?

    The idea that an ancient paradigm informs the BOA is interesting, though, and does not conform to the theory that Joseph made it up.

  34. Anon 10:24,

    I don’t think Jeff G is upset about anything. He is merely stating his observations regarding statements made by FARMS. The statements say that the astronomical references in the BoA were made based on a Geocentric mindset. Jeff G is merely pointing out that Geocentrism is false (even blatantly false) and questions why God would teach Abraham in such a false fashion.

    This is a valid observation and question. You may come up with an answer that satifies you and others on the blog, but so far no one has come up with anything that satisfies Jeff G (or me either really).

    That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less.

  35. Anon 10:24,

    I also pointed out that statements made by FARMS are not necessarily approved by the LDS GAs. They are usually quite on topics of this nature, so we really don’t know if they agree…at least I don’t know.

  36. At the risk of beating a dead horse, let me summarize the “geocentric” issue as I see it.

    Daniel Peterson, according to Jeff Lindsay, uses the term “geocentric” in reference to the brief astronomy contained in the Book of Abraham.

    If you read the Book of Abraham, you will discover that the astronomy is very sparse, and might be called “geocentric” only in that it describes how the cosmos appears from the perspective of planet earth.

    Nowhere does it state that the earth is the center of the universe, or that the sun orbits the earth, or that planetary motion includes epicycles, or anything of that sort.

    It is not “blatantly false” to describe the cosmos from the perspective of planet earth — the notion that it could be is utterly absurd and without merit. It is impossible to ever arrive at a heliocentric model without first measuring and recording the motions of heavenly bodies as they appear on planet earth.

    In other words, Daniel Peterson’s simplistic “geocentric” is not the same as Jeff G’s comprehensive “geocentric”. Using the latter to misrepresent the former is an error. The whole thing could have been avoided if everyone had first looked in Abraham to find out what Peterson meant by the term.