It was a pleasure to read John Gee’s recently published An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and BYU Religious Studies Center, 2017). This book is aimed for a broad audience with an interest in the Book of Abraham. While Dr. Gee is an expert in Egyptology, he does not get into overwhelming technical details of Egyptian language and lore while delivering clear and useful information that can help people of any faith better understand the origins and nature of the Book of Abraham.
Confusion over the Book of Abraham has flustered many members and investigators of the Church. About 20 years ago I personally had a similar crisis of faith while serving as bishop after considering a convincing argument on the Book of Abraham from a well-known anti-Mormon source. This was a few years after a previous bishopric member and his family in my town had left the Church initially over Book of Abraham issues and then started his own anti-Mormon website. The argument that I think stung both of us was compelling: Joseph claimed to have translated Egyptian by the power of God, apparently like he translated the gold plates. Now the Egyptian manuscripts have been found that Joseph used, and today we can read Egyptian and objectively evaluate his divine translation skills. Bottom line: He didn’t get anything right. The work is a complete fraud, as was Joseph. End of story. Ouch!
If Gee’s book had been available then, it would have greatly helped. In my case, after prayerful consideration in which I reviewed my testimony of the Book of Mormon but pled great confusion over the Book of Abraham, I felt that I needed patience and further seeking of knowledge. That knowledge soon came when I got my hands on a book by H. Donl Peterson, The Story of the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1995), another excellent resource, where I learned what ought to be common knowledge among all Latter-day Saints, but isn’t: the Joseph Smith papyri, the recovered fragments from the original papyrus collection, are merely a fraction of the larger collection that Joseph used. Longer documents were sent to the St. Louis Museum after Joseph’s death, and from there they ended up in the Chicago Museum, where they apparently burned in 1871.
The existence of other significant scrolls was not mentioned by the anti-Mormon source. The statements of witnesses describing the documents Joseph used and the gap between those descriptions and the Joseph Smith papyri were not mentioned. I felt that I had been deceived with an argument that was largely accurate except for a few crucial details that were artfully left out and which changed everything. I have since encountered many cases where critics artfully whittle away data and mitigating factors in what they report to create a shocking case to shake the faith of their readers. Caution and patience is usually a wise initial response when we don’t know where to turn for answers. But let’s get back to Gee’s excellent book.
Gee’s 197-page book is a well-written and richly illustrated source for answers on what the Book of Abraham is and what it is isn’t. It offers a careful discussion of the history of book and various theories regarding what the translation is, how it was done, and what relationship it has to the Joseph Smith papyri as well as to the rest of the original papyri. It is written as a general overview of many aspects of the Book of Abraham, with an emphasis its origins and its relationship to antiquity, as well as its significance for Latter-day Saints today. Along the way we encounter some pleasantly surprising issues that can strengthen our respect for this work of scripture, including a variety of issues with apologetic value, though that is not Gee’s overarching purpose, so don’t expect a complete list of the many apologetic gems that could be cited.
Gee also provides valuable insights into the Abrahamic covenant and Abraham’s teachings on astronomy, the preexistence, and the Creation. He closes with a look at the role of the Book of Abraham as a part of LDS scripture, and finally provides a succinct but excellent set of answers to frequently asked questions.
The book is nicely illustrated with samples of the Joseph Smith papyri, original documents from Joseph Smith and his peers related to the Book of Abraham, the facsimiles, and related images from Egypt and other areas. It is well organized and tightly written to deliver what often seems like just the right level of detail to help a non-specialist understand important issues without getting caught up in unfruitful detours.
The book is distilled from a lifetime of research into issues related to the Book of Abraham, including his expertise in Egyptology. It will be a valuable addition to the library of almost anyone with an interest in LDS issues or in the Book of Abraham.
Particular Points of Interest
One of the most interesting and original portions that draw upon Gee’s extensive scholarship is his discussion of the ancient owners of the papyri in Chapter 5. The owners “were among the most literate and educated people of Ptolemaic Egypt” and one of them, Horos, “served as prophet in three different temples in the Karnak temple complex” (p. 59). Situated in Thebes, he would have had access to grant “Theban temple libraries, containing narratives, reference works, and manuals, as well as scrolls on religion, ritual, and history” (p. 61). Further,
Ptolemaic Thebes had a sizable Jewish population; some of them served as the tax collectors. The Egyptian religion of the time was eclectic. Foreign elements like deities and rites—including those from the Greek religion and Judaism—were added to Egyptian practices. The papyri owners also lived at a time when stories about Abraham circulated in Egypt. If any ancient Egyptians were in a position to know about Abraham, it was the Theban priests. (p. 61)
Gee’s discussion of the various roles Horus would have played implicitly suggests he would have had interest and familiarity with various temple themes, creation stories, rituals and other elements found in the Book of Abraham and its facsimiles.
Gee carefully discusses some of the interesting connections between the Book of Abraham and evidence from antiquity, such as the many ancient accounts of Abraham being threatened as a human sacrifice and accounts of his father’s idol worshiping, accounts not available to Joseph Smith. Sometimes there are especially significant points that, from an apologetics perspective, I wish had been given more emphasis or at least an exclamation mark or two. One of these cases involves the unusual place name Olishem mentioned in Abraham 1:10. It turns out that there is in fact such a place name from the ancient Levant in a plausible location. Here is John Gee’s treatment:
Biblical scholars have not agreed on the time and place that Abraham lived, but the Book of Abraham provides additional information that specifies both. In the Bible, Abraham must flee his homeland (môladâ) in Ur of the Chaldees (Genesis 12:1). Later he sends his servant back to his homeland (môladâ) to find a wife for his son (Genesis 24:4, 7). The servant is sent to Aram-Naharaim in modern-day northern Syria or southern Turkey (Genesis 24:10) and not Mesopotamia as the King James translators rendered it. This location of Aram-Naharaim must have been the location of Abraham’s homeland. The Book of Abraham also indicates that Abraham’s homeland was in that area. Olishem (Abraham 1:10), one of the places mentioned near Ur, appears in Mesopotamian and Egyptian inscriptions in association with Ebla, which is in northern Syria. (pp. 98, 101)
The discussion of Olishem is limited to a single sentence casually mentioning that an unusual place name in Joseph’s translation is mentioned in ancient inscriptions. There is further information in the notes under “Further Reading” pointing to valuable sources on this potentially sensational find. But many readers may not notice how interesting or even sensational this issue may be. It was already interesting when Akkadian documents were noted that mentioned the place Olishem, and it got much more interesting when a Turkish team reported finding the site and noted that ancient documents indicate this was place where Abraham had lived. See the press release Prophet Abraham’s lost city found in Turkey’s Kilis in The Hurriyet Daily News, August 16, 2013. On this matter, Gee has noted the potential value but urges patience as more work is needed. See John Gee, “Has Olishem Been Discovered?,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22/2 (2013): 104–7.
Finding the place name Olishem was interesting enough in many ways before the actual archaeological site was found and its connection to Abraham made. In a rather technical 2010 post, Val Sederholm explores the significance of Olishem and related Egyptian and Semitic words in “The Plain of Olishem and the Field of Abram: LDS Book of Abraham, Chapter One,” I Begin to Reflect, April 27, 2010. “Is the place of Ulisum or Olis(h)em the plain of Olishem? Conclusions remain premature, but it would be remiss not to point out the similarity and, by so doing, show that the Book of Abraham merits a second look.” Sederholm then explores the rich association of meanings related to Olishem that may make it an entirely appropriate name for a place with a hill, suggesting the possibility not only of a phonetic connection between the Akkadian account and the Book of Abraham, but also a semantic connection. Indeed, there are many such fascinating issues in the Book of Abraham, leading Sederholm to make a strong but supportable statement:
Exactly how does a book of 14 pages produce dozens upon dozens of linguistic, cultural, thematic, theological, and literary points of comparison to the Ancient Near Eastern record? The numbers are no exaggeration. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with no hesitation whatsoever, not even a hint of abatement, continues to post the canonical Book of Abraham on line and to print copies by the tens of thousands in scores of languages. There is a lot of explaining to do.
Gee, however, is more restrained and focuses rather on explaining to broad audiences the basic of the Book of Abraham and some of the fascinating connections to the ancient world, including hints of evidences for authenticity without making too much of the evidence. This is not an primer for apologists, but one that defenders of the faith will definitely want to study.
There were many other sections that I felt are especially important. His discussion on the so-called “Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language” a.k.a. the Kirtland Papers was clear and helpful (pp. 32-39). He ably demonstrates that this was not the tool Joseph used to translate the Book of Mormon, but appears to be an attempt by others after the translation was done to make sense of Egyptian.
His treatment of ancient connections to the Book of Abraham is especially meaningful (Chapter 4, pp. 49-55), though brief, and the “Further Reading” section points to some significant treasures for further study. In light of many references to Abraham in Egypt by the time the Joseph Smith papyri were created, Gee concludes that “the Book of Abraham fits comfortably with the literature about Abraham that was circulating in Egypt during the general time period of the Joseph Smith Papyri” (p. 52).
In reviewing competing theories for the origins of the Book of Abraham in Chapter 7, “The Relationship of the Book of Abraham Text to the Papyri,” Gee quietly dismantles some common theories on the basis of evidence. For example, the theory that Joseph used the surviving Joseph Smith Papyri fragments for the translation does not fit descriptions from witnesses of the long scroll that he was translating (this and other parts of the collection apparently are what was later sent to the St. Louis Museum and then later to Chicago, to perish in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871). The fragments, in fact, were mounted on glass by 1837, while witnesses saw the unmounted long roll in the 1840s and 1850s (p. 85), so the fragments cannot be what Joseph used as the basis (or pretended basis, if you insist) for the translation, however he performed that work.
Another theory popular in the Church is that Joseph created the Book of Abraham by inspiration without being connected to any papyrus. Gee makes some interesting points in discussing this:
The theory, however, also has some problems. In a discourse given on 16 June 1844, just before his death, Joseph Smith said, “I want to reason — I learned it by translating the papyrus now in my house — I learned a test. concerning Abraham & he reasoned concerng. the God of Heaven — in order to do that sd. he — suppose we have two facts that supposes that anotr. fact may exist two men on the earth — one wiser than the other — wod. shew that antr. who is wiser than the wisest may exist—intelligences exist one above anotr. that there is no end to it — if Abra. reasoned thus.” Joseph Smith prefaces a paraphrase of Abraham 3:16–19 with a statement that he “learned it by translating the papyrus now in my house,” and ends by saying that it is Abraham’s reasoning. This quotation supports the theories that he translated the Book of Abraham from papyri that he had in his possession, but seems to be the only statement from Joseph Smith on the subject other than the preface to the published Book of Abraham that it was “A Translation of some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt” that presumably Joseph Smith authored. The quotation, however, comes from fragmentary and incomplete notes of a sermon Joseph Smith gave and thus the evidence is not as solid as might be desired.
Given our current state of knowledge, the theory that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham from papyri that we no longer have accounts for the most evidence with the fewest problems. Even so, for none of the theories is the evidence as neat or as compelling as one might wish. (pp. 85-86)
Another noteworthy issue is introduced immediately after Gee points to the find of Olishem in a region near the northern Ur that he strongly favors. It is a clue regarding the specific time when Abraham lived:
Abraham’s homeland was incorporated as part of the Egyptian empire under the Twelfth Dynasty pharaohs Sesostris III and his son, Amenemhet III, but it was then lost to the subsequent pharaohs. This provides an historical date for the events of the first chapter of the Book of Abraham. (p. 101)
That date is not given in this section. Sesostris III ruled from 1879 to 1839 BC, and Abraham may have lived in that era as well. That’s a remarkable detail, if accurate, and it may bring several other issues into better focus. For example, Gee explains that around this time, historical and archaeological evidence shows that Egypt did practice human sacrifice as a ritual against religious offenders and it could take place in areas Egypt influenced, consistent with the Book of Abraham account. Gee provides readers with two references from Kerry Muhlenstein to support the statements on human sacrifice. Gee also states that, “Three of the four deities mentioned, Elkenah, Libnah, and Korash, are attested for the approximate time and place of Abraham” (p. 101). I’ve read some of the work supporting such a sensational sounding statement, but it won’t be clear to a reader which of the “Further Reading” sources to turn to. In this case, I believe the relevant source is Daniel Peterson, “News from Antiquity” in the Jan. 1994 Ensign. Sadly, while most of that issue is accessible at LDS.org, Peterson’s article currently is not (a link is there but it gives a “page not found” error), but it is available at Archive.org. The article with all its extensive footnotes can also be accessed on the free LDS Library app. Footnote 5 from Peterson offers the references that should have been cited for this tantalizing tidbit (this is one of a few gaps in the book that I discuss in more detail below).
Many more insights can be gleaned if we can estimate the date of Abraham’s life:
Because Abraham’s life was in danger, he left his homeland, which was controlled by Egypt, and crossed the Euphrates to Haran, which was outside of Egyptian control (Abraham 1:1, 2:3–4). After the reign of Amenemhet III [Jeff’s note: this would be after 1814 B.C., per Wikipedia], he left Haran and went to Canaan, which was then no longer under Egypt’s control (Abraham 2:6–18).
When famine set in, the closest steady supply of grain was the land of Egypt, the northern part of which was now under the management of the Fourteenth Dynasty. These pharaohs were “partaker[s] of the blood of the Canaanites by birth” (Abraham 1:21) and bore Canaanite names. Abraham seems to classify all pharaohs as Canaanite, though the Twelfth Dynasty pharaohs whose servants tried to kill him were not. Since Abraham never met the Twelfth Dynasty pharaohs, he may have assumed that all pharaohs were like the Fourteenth Dynasty ones he did meet.
Although the dynasties in northern Egypt might have changed, pharaonic power and prerogatives had not changed. Abraham was instructed by God to refer to his wife, Sarah, as his sister (Abraham 2:22–25). This takes advantage of an ambiguity in the Egyptian language: the Egyptian word for wife (hime) means only wife, but the Egyptian word for sister (sone) means both sister and wife. Thus, the term that Abraham used was not false, but ambiguous. It was also necessary: since numerous Egyptian texts discuss how pharaohs could take any woman that they fancied and would put the husband to death if the woman was married, this advice saved Abraham’s life. God was willing to save Abraham’s life on more than one occasion. (pp. 101-102)
Fascinating. This brief passage resolves several significant questions regarding Abraham and the Book of Abraham. It’s not the only time in this book that Gee applies his knowledge of Egyptian to illustrate how an Egyptian word play strengthens the text and turns something confusing or troubling into some quite interesting and logical (see also his discussion of astronomy and the word play that naturally allows Abraham to move from talking about stars to talking about matters of the soul and religion, indirectly challenging Egyptian religion without offending others and getting killed, pp. 116-119).
For all its merits, there are also some gaps that I should point out. One gap is the uneven use of footnotes. Most chapters lack footnotes, but key references are listed at the end of the chapter in a “Further reading” section with occasional comments. These are helpful and often adequate, for a reader can usually deduce which reference might be the one that supports an interesting, unexpected, or potentially controversial statement Gee has made, but in other cases one is left to guess when a footnote seems required, as I demonstrated above on the fascinating issue of pagan gods mentioned in the Book of Abraham, a complex and still controversial issue that wold seem to demand more details in specific footnotes and perhaps some additional clarifiers as to how settled or controversial the claims may be.
Some editors strongly dislike abundant footnotes and many readers find footnotes distracting. For the intended audience, Gee’s approach is probably about right, but I would personally like more footnotes, especially for controversial, nuanced, or sensational issues that may be important to serious students of the Book of Abraham. Again, that information is usually there, but there are a few gaps.
Another example of uneven and perhaps problematic treatment in documentation is in Chapter 13, “The Creation,” where 11 footnotes from rather technical sources are provided in a section on the Egyptian background, but none are provided in an arguably more important section, “The Book of Abraham and Source Criticism” on the views of modern biblical scholars. Some relatively strong claims are made in that section that seem to require specific documentation. What is provided on the topic of source criticism in the “Further Reading” section is simply one reference from 20 years ago, which turns out to be rather casual editorial remarks from Daniel Peterson made in the introduction to an issue of the FARMS Review of Books. See Daniel C. Peterson and John Gee, “Editor’s Introduction: Through a Glass, Darkly,” FARMS Review of Books 9/2 (1997): v–xxix. John Gee is listed as a co-author, but the article is written in the first person by Peterson, who relies on an unpublished report of Gee that refers to an unpublished report from an anonymous student who concocted a “test” of source criticism. The student, “Gadfly,” wrote three one-page quasi-biblical stories and had two friends combine these the way biblical redactors might have. He then gave his professor three very short documents for analysis, one written entirely by him, one that had portions from two documents, and one that was changed slightly by a student editor. He gave these to the professor and challenged her to discern which portions of the product came from different sources. I am surprised the professor, whoever she was, agreed to this test. In any case, the professor was mostly wrong. Not a surprise.
While that anecdote is useful, it was hardly a scientific test nor even a fair one. Peterson’s personal discourse in introducing the FARMS Review of Books surely was not meant to be a solid scholarly challenge to source criticism but an interesting anecdote shared by Peterson with Gee’s assistance to illustrate the need for healthy skepticism with some of the claims of scholars. That point is well taken, but skepticism may also be in order for conclusions based on unpublished, anonymous anecdotes from students trying to trip up a professor.
Apart from the unsuitability of Gee’s sole reference on source criticism, there is a more serious issue that could be used by critics to assail this important work. The issue is a minor gaffe which most charitably can be overlooked as sloppy terminology. In the section “Source Criticism” on pp. 136-138, Gee discusses the tendency of biblical scholars to view the account in Genesis as coming from multiple sources that have been patched together by a redactor:
In the late nineteenth century, a theory called source criticism developed, arguing that the Pentateuch (the five books attributed to Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) was composed by a number of different authors in separate books and then shuffled together in such a way that the separate accounts told one story. This combining of accounts supposedly took place sometime after the Babylonian exile. Source critics claim that their modern separation of the biblical text into narrative strands somehow matches hypothetical ancient sources. (p. 137)
The problem is that the theory Gee refers to is not “source criticism” itself but a specific fruit of source criticism known as the Documentary Hypothesis. Conflating the two is an easy mistake to make for those of us not schooled in biblical scholarship and not terribly serious in my opinion, but it weakens the discussion on that topic and can be used for guffaws from critics. In a general sense, source criticism itself, for all its weaknesses in attempting to recreate long-vanished ancient sources of the Bible, is a valuable tool that has been of great help to Latter-day Saint studies. Efforts related to source criticism from Royal Skousen and others involving years of scholarship on the manuscripts of the Book of Mormon and its various editions have helped us better understand the original text, including the miraculous translation process and the apparent present of Hebraisms and other fascinating artifacts that can enlighten and strengthen our appreciation of the text. Some principles related to source criticism can be examined in action as we explore the complex document of the Book of Mormon where its authors and editors draw upon numerous sources, often stated but sometimes implied, in crafting a complex text that has some of the redundancies (e.g., the small plates of Nephi vs. the lost 116 pages) and other issues that are often a starting point for biblical source criticism. Source criticism is not the enemy, though it can be applied with false assumptions, errant data, or poor methodology to give many erroneous results, and may necessarily involve much speculation.
While I agree that source criticism may lead to excessive dissection of text and has serious limitations, and also agree that some conclusions from the Documentary Hypothesis can be and should be challenged, Gee does not treat this topic adequately or point readers to useful sources to understand the issue. Since he is writing for a general audience, he might well have pointed readers to the very accessible work on the Documentary Hypothesis by Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?, 2nd edition (New York: HarperCollins, 1997) or many other works. And in response to those who argue that the Pentateuch was faith-promoting fiction made up during the Exile, he might have cited works such as Kenneth A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003). The challenges arising from modern biblical scholarship must be considered in treating the Book of Abraham since, according to many scholars, the Genesis account of Abraham not only comes from multiple conflicting sources written long after Abraham’s day, but Abraham himself like the other patriarchs probably did not even exist.
The Documentary Hypothesis and the classification of Abraham as a fictional or mythical character has challenged the testimony of Latter-day Saints and other Christians. It raises questions not just about the Old Testament and the Book of Abraham, but also about the New Testament, where Christ speaks positively of Abraham with no apparent awareness that He was referring to a non-existent character.
In fact, given the tendency of modern scholars to undermine faith in God and Christ and certainly in the Restoration with their views on the origins of the Bible, the evidences of historicity or plausibility that Gee touches upon in several parts of his book may be of great value in reassessing the limitations of scholarship in ways that are far more meaningful than the student anecdote mentioned above. While the discovery not only of the name but more recently apparently also the place Olishem in the Book of Abraham may not be as monumental as the archaeological and linguistic evidence pertaining to Nahom in the Book of Mormon, it nevertheless does, as Val Sederholm said above, “show that the Book of Abraham merits a second look.” In fact, evidence from the Book of Abraham and the Book of Mormon may eventually be just the thing to correct some flaws in the Documentary Hypothesis or other theories, and to anchor and guide future source criticism of biblical texts.
I have said far too much about a few problematic pages. The shortcomings of Gee’s brief section on source criticism are not characteristic of the entire book.
In general, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham is a work of careful scholarship and thought, one that those in and out of the Church can appreciate, with some significant original contributions and exciting directions for further research and discussion.