Royal Skousen’s Interesting Theory on the Book of Abraham and Its Relationship to the Papyri

A reader raised an interesting question after reading Dr. Royal Skousen’s C.V. at BYU, where he mentions a theory he is exploring that has not yet been published. Under the heading “scriptural studies,” Dr. Skousen proposes the following:

The Book of Abraham was a revelation given to Joseph Smith, who later (mistakenly thinking it was a translation from the papyri he had in his possession) tried to connect the revealed text to the papyri by inserting two sentences, verse 12c and verse 14, into Abraham 1. The secondary nature of these two inserted sentences can be directly observed in the photos of folios 1a and 1b in the document identified as Ab2. Verse 12c is totally inserted intralinearly, not partially (as incorrectly represented in the accompanying transcription – and without comment). Verse 14 is not written on the page as are other portions of this part of the text (instead, it is written flush to the left), which implies that it is a comment on the papyri and that it was added to the revealed text. Overall, these results imply that all the facsimiles from the papyri (1-3 in the published Pearl of Great Price) should be considered extracanonical and additions to the revealed text of the Book of Abraham, not integral parts of the original text of the book.

The reader asked for my opinion. He writes, “I personally like the idea. A follow up question: is there anything in the new Joseph Smith Papers volume that corroborates Skousen’s evaluation of those inserted verses that he mentioned?”

Great questions! I wasn’t aware of this proposal from Skousen and find it interesting. I agree in part: I think Joseph could have received the revealed text without being sure where it came from, but because Facs. 1 and 3 came from one of the scrolls, it’s plausible that he or his scribes thought the text must have some connection to that particular papyrus, the same one used for some of the characters that were placed in the margins of three early Book of Abraham Manuscripts (Manuscript A, Manuscript B, and Manuscript C at the wonderful Joseph Smith Papers Website, where you can review these documents at high resolution).

However, I think Skousen’s statements about the intralinear insertion of comments by Joseph need to be tempered. The text corresponding to our current Abraham 1:12c does look like Frederick G. Williams stuffed that phrase into some open space (see image below) and the JSP volume on the BOA recognizes that Williams has made an insertion of text there (JSPRT vol. 4, pp. 1954-195), but the twin manuscript being written by Parrish at apparently the same time does not show the same feature. Thus, it’s unlikely to represent a dictated on-the-fly correction by Joseph. As for verse 14, it does look like it has a different left margin at the top of page 2 of Williams’ manuscript, but that need not mean it was an afterthought for page 4 of his manuscript also begins with a margin shifted to the left as on page 2.

Final lines on p. 1 of Frederick G. Williams BOA Manuscript A showing an apparent

insertion in the last portion of Abraham 1:12.

There is also adequate vertical space for that text, and if it were inserted after the following paragraph was already written down as some kind of afterthought, the amount of white space that would have been left in that scenario seems excessive compared to his other pages. So it may have been an insertion in Manuscript A but it’s unclear.

Further, the twin manuscript by Parrish has this text flowing nicely and showing no sign of being an afterthought from Joseph’s live dictation.

The really critical issue, though, is whether the apparent dictation represented live creation of newly translated text from Joseph, or whether the scribes were working with an existing translation. Skousen’s proposal only makes sense if Joseph were dictating either newly translated text or previously recorded text with live emendations. But given that there is significant textual evidence that the scribes were working with an existing manuscript and that most likely the reader was Warren Parrish, reading aloud for the benefit of his fellow scribe as they both created Book of Abraham manuscripts from an existing text, the two passages Skousen sees as Joseph’s insertion cannot accurately be said to have been improvised in the session where the twin manuscripts were recorded. Joseph may have made a correction in a previous manuscript, and the correction may have caused Parrish to stumble in his reading to Williams, resulting in the need to insert Abraham 1:12c in Williams’ document.

It is also important to recognize that the purpose of these twin manuscripts does not appear to have been creating new translated text, but creating new more material based on the existing translation to enter into W.W. Phelp’s Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language. See,
for whatever the purpose was of that abandoned and enigmatic document
filled with many characters that are not on the papyri and quite a few
that aren’t even Egyptian. 

The Joseph Smith Papers volume on the Book of Abraham (JSPRT vol. 4) states that the two passages in question  (v. 12c  and v. 14) appear to be insertions in Williams’ Manuscript A, while  Parrish’s Manuscript B does not show that for either, making the Williams manuscript unique (footnote 64 occurring on p. 239). I discuss those particular corrections and my take on them at

Phelps begins BOA Manuscript C by association one character with a short phrase and another with the name Abraham, using footnotes (1 and 2), but then drops that approach and has one character without footnotes associated with Abraham 1:3. He stops, and the work continues with BOA Manuscripts A and B by Williams and Parrish, respectively, who appear to be taking dictation simultaneously at first. But it’s important to recognize the extensive textual evidence that this was not live dictation of the original translation, but copying of an existing manuscript, and the reader appears to have been Parrish reading aloud for the benefit of Williams while he also makes a copy, up until Abraham 2:2, at which time Parrish quits (perhaps leaves due to his health issues) and Williams takes over, and then shows signs not of receiving dictation but copying visually (a massive dittography of Abraham 2:3-5). However, something is afoot with the verses mentioned by Skousen, perhaps because of editorial insertions in the original manuscript being copied, which may have caused Parrish to stumble in either reading or making his own copy, resulting in some corrections and disparities between the two writers.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

29 thoughts on “Royal Skousen’s Interesting Theory on the Book of Abraham and Its Relationship to the Papyri

  1. Great post, as always! Could it perhaps be the case that Abraham himself originally drew a picture which he referred to in the text, or that someone down the line hundreds of years later did so, but by the Ptolemaic era the picture and references to it had been absent from copies, but when it made it’s way to Joseph Smith, he restored the references to it, and then “translated” Abraham’s original drawing into the vignette, i.e. a translation is always a matter of twisting sounds and symbols in order to IMPERFECTLY convey concepts. Joseph may have intentionally altered the vignette, by adding the knife, taking away the jackal head, etc. as part of translating Abraham’s picture into it. When he saw that there were four canopic jars plus a crocodile, and five idolatrous gods, he may have seen it as a workable solution that would require just a bit of modifying.

  2. After all, Joseph was not trying to “copy” the Book of Abraham (like an ancient scribe) but instead was trying to translate it into a new form, a new language. In that context, translating one picture into another picture makes sense.

  3. I hope that anonymous commenter is able to resolve the problems in his personal life so he won’t feel a need to troll. He will find life is much better when he feels good about himself. People who feel good about themselves, like Jeff Lindsay, never feel a need to put others down, and when they do express disagreement, they are able to explain why they disagree. The world would be a much better place if people would act like Jeff.

  4. I am hoping someone can point out specific problems with the scenario I presented, because I don’t have any emotional investment in it and I’d like to either rule it out or come to a better understanding of how plausible it might be.

  5. Blake Ostler has suggested that the translation of the text may have come from the vignettes, where Joseph correctly related the story built into them. I think the facsimiles are very important to the Book of Abraham story, whether they served as the primary source or catalyst for what Joseph translated, or were related vignettes conveying information on whatever original account may have existed elsewhere. I don't think we need to propose changes by Joseph to Facs. 1 — it's a priest whether he is drawn with a mask or not, and the nature of the figure on the lion couch clearly rules out the "ordinary embalming scene" claims. A common scene has been adapted for a different story. I'm not sure I agree with your proposal, but it's ridiculous for someone to call it "the stupidest thing I've ever read," unless that reader has a very limited range of reading matter.

  6. Anyway, Ryan, thanks for an interesting comment. We should be open to out-of-the-box theories when dealing with lots of unknowns so we can reconsider the data. Sometimes we need a paradigm shift to get us out of ruts in our assumptions. Thanks!

  7. Haha thank you Jeff! Good points. I still would like to more definitively rule it out, and I think sometimes people mistakenly think that because I’m looking at possibilities that I’m trying to push them.

  8. Plus.. the fact that Joseph only refers to Egyptian gods in the context of them being idolatrous, and otherwise just calls them kings, imho. Interestingly, relatively recent research has uncovered an ancient egyptian (pre-ptolemaic) belief that women who died had to become men temporarily in order to be received into the afterlife. So, a lot of sarcophagi would say that the mummies were men, even if they were women. It’s premature to say, but this might have something to do with why Joseph Smith referred to obvious female images as males.

  9. Jeff says above that the facsimiles are immportant to the Book of Abraham. This is not unheard of in other ancient documents. I do not know the extent to which these are related, but I find it fascinating that the Books of Jeu contain diagrams (not as lavishly illustrated or complex as those in Abraham, but still . . .

    As part of their instruction, the books of Jeu contain fascinating diagrams. Many of them appear to be portrayals of “ciphers” or “seals”. (Such diagrams for 2 Jeu are found at Books of Jeu and the Untitled Codex at pp. 142, 144-146, 152-153, 156-158, 160, 182, 184, 186, 188, 190, 192, 194, 198, 200 and 202.) The diagrams, were “active[ly]” used by the participants as some of the “seals”, including, “on the foreheads of the disciples”. (Erin Evans, “Ritual in the Second Book of Jeu”, pp. 137-159, April D. DeConick, G. Shaw, & John D. Turner, Eds., Practicing Gnosis: Ritual, Magic, Theurgy and Liturgy in Nag Hammadi, Manichaean and Other Late Antique Literature, Essays in Honor of Birger A. Pearson, (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 2013) at pp. 148, 152. Evans points out that “The second seal of the final ritual shares the characteristics of the first seals, with two names and no explicit sealing placement.” p. 148, n.24.) While we do not understand at present the specific meaning of the diagrams, it is clear that they were used as part of the rituals involved.

    Unfortunately, we don't have a clue about most of the meaning of these diagrams, but their use in the initiatory rites described in Jeu made me think of the facsimiles, especially when you look at them in the Books of Jeu themselves.

  10. I agree with Ryan, great post, as always.
    I enjoyed the comments from Jeff, Ryan, and Terry… (still luv ya anons❤️). Also, I’ll have to look at the books of Jeu, sounds cool, and, Ryan, that’s interesting about the women. If I remember correctly, all of the deceased had to associate themselves with Osiris, so women were also Osiris, but kings etc would also think of themselves as being one with mother Hathor, Isis and so on. I’ll have to look back at that

  11. I also think Ryan’s proposal is a good one. I’m probably behind everyone on this but I still believe there’s evidence for a missing manuscript. Solving for missing papyri, vs revelation inspired by the known papyri, will help me more quickly understand the facsimiles. For example, the BofA shows possible Ptolemaic influence, eyewitnesses describe a long roll which we don’t have. The extant vignettes seem to relate to parts of the BofA (including judgement), etc.
    So if JRed (or even CRed, etc), gathered Abrahamic lore or had a BofA, and gathered vignettes to match, then the redactor could have added the references to Fac. 1. If the Facsimiles simply inspired Joseph to knock, then Joseph could have added it, or the Lord, or etc through Joseph. Maybe both are happening same time, as per Gump.
    So, where’s Dan when you need a critical point of view to help clarify? Even someone as biased as Ritner or OK would do for some of it….in spite of generally being wrong on everything BofA. 😉❤️

    1. Thank you 🙂 I love exploring options and keeping an open mind – and I’m convinced the Lord will reveal all in due time.

    2. Also, if there is a JRED, it’s possible the copy of the Abraham manuscript he was working from made reference to an image but the image was not copied down over the centuries. So, JRED may have just decided to make do with the tools in his toolbox. He didn’t know what Abraham’s idolatrous gods looked like, so he just used the canopic jars, and didn’t know what a human sacrifice altar was supposed to look like, but he knew how to draw a lion couch, etc.

  12. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Ryan. Yes, I agree that those are possibilities, and there is so much to learn, especially for me. searching with open hearts and minds is the path to truth. I believe Critics fall because they close their minds too quickly, maybe for protection. I see a sharp contrast between them and faithful scholars. Take Jeff for example, he’s always open to ideas and overturns his own theories. Critics tend to cling to misperceptions and etc.

    I’ve recently started studying the BofA again and I’ll have to review Barney’s discussion of JRed, but I believe he suggests that Jewish Egyptians either copied ( as you may be suggesting) applicable vignettes, or gathered them. I lean toward gathered. Reuse is frequent among Egyptians.
    As I bounce around, reading from the great minds at, Mormanity, FAIR, blogs, Gee, Nibley, etc I, like you, have formulated theories, and I have no need to cling to them. I came into this knowing that the BofM is true and was willing to accept that the BotA was perhaps a human blunder. I found it is not.
    I’ll share a bit of background info, before jumping in to redactor discussions. In the spirit of brevity, I’ll simply say that most of this originates with others but with it’s interpreted from my “unique” point of view (and if our friends from haven't bravely run away, they’ll probably have more creative words to describe “unique” 😉 luv ya not OKs).
    The evidence from my point of view indicates that the “old man” mummy wasn’t Hor, and he may have been embalmed with papyri from several sources. So, we can label him JRed to simplify.
    I assume you agree that translation by revelation requires a text (extant or not) and an open mind to work through. So, Joseph’s culture, language, etc are limiting factors (think of cureloms) and he was a redactor but, as with the JST, he didn’t correct or adapt everything. Some changes (including by others), were for improving aesthetics, cultural relevance, readability, etc. and occasionally information was, and is, lost from that (e.g.s BofM printer’s manuscripts, the removal of Hebraisms, “purporting” removed from the BofA title, Temples being adapted, filler added to replace lacunae, etc). And, btw, since they left the ear on Anubis in fac.3, I see that as a sign that the absence of his full snout wasn’t necessarily planned, intentional, etc

  13. No Blog. I'll try to check out your videos, they sound interesting.

    And, once again, I was in the middle of that and was distracted.

    So, there's more…and no time to delete that last one for the typos, etc. and same with this.

    As Jeff pointed out, there is definitely something afoot with the scribes copying these phrases (and, as Jeff has shown over the past months, what he calls "the twin manuscripts" are copies of a now lost original)–

    "that you might have a knowledge of this altar, I will refer you to the representation, that is lying before you (<crossed out) at the commencement of this record."

    It’s almost as if Parrish stopped to ask someone (maybe waiting for direction from Joseph?), and Williams added later but, whatever happened, we still have the question of whose words they originally were.

  14. Notes on determining if the references to Fac. 1 were from Joseph, or a Jewish redactor, etc.

    Eyewitnesses accurately describe ancient records which we no longer have, and which were probably not originally part of the scroll of Hor. For examples:
    1- The snake with its tail forming a tripod is legitimate, and not confused with the extant snake with the raised tail. It’s highly unlikely that she’s making this up.

    2- the Books of Joseph/Abraham are spoken of as a single record, but there were plural rolls. These rolls were described as being papyrus but wrapped or encased in linen, which had been dipped in bitumen or embalming salve. I know of no traces of bitumen on the scroll of Hor, etc. and the linen could include multiple rolls in a bundle, or previously unrelated papyri joined together according to theme (BTW, scholars have argued that some Dead Sea Scrolls were likewise wrapped in linen that had been dipped in preserving bitumen. It is now uncertain if the black linen had actually been dipped in bitumen, but the Egyptians did wrap papyri in linen dipped in bitumen, and also mummified papyri with bitumen.)
    Too long…..dang 😂

  15. 3- Realizing I’m not going to have time today to finish arranging this and I’m dumping TMI (which confuses), so I’ll just list a few other interesting details to ponder, until there’s time to discuss, or whatever:

    There were at least 5 different papyri in Joseph’s possession. By December 1835 Oliver had associated 2 rolls with the BofA/Joseph but (and now I’m pulling a bit more from my abused memory cells, so could be wrong) it seems that 1 roll contained the Hor scroll (and if Gee is right, it may have contained the “beginning of” another text. The other contained multiple vignettes and, from what I’m seeing, Abrahamic text (the rest?) and text from Joseph. This was after the EA/GAEL project and they would have learned things by this time. OC seems to have recognized that the vignettes were not drawn by Abraham or Joseph or even a Jew, but only “…written by persons acquainted with the history of the creation, the fall of man, and more or less of the correct ideas of notions of the Deity”. Abraham was obviously quite familiar, and a Jew reading the BofA would be more than “more or less” acquainted with. The inner end of this same roll had a judgement scene. I believe Barney described these “soul weighing” scenes as influencing The Testament of Abraham. The only extant judgement scene was owned by Nefer-ir-nebu, and if he spoke of this one it must have been attached to something else. After he had a Hebrew Grammar, OC wrote that there were Hebrew letters on the “record.” Chandler wasn’t always accurate (and any information about which mummies the scrolls were associated with is thus suspect, both could have been on the same mummy etc.) but when he was on tour, the roll embalmed with the “old man” was described as being “leaves…in length some 10 or 12 inches, and 3 or 4 in width. The ends are somewhat decayed, but at the centre the leaves are in a state of perfect preservation. It is the writing of no ordinary penman, probably of the old man near whose heart it was deposited at the embalming.” This is a large roll (3-4” wide when rolled up) and, again, apparently beautifully written–not the Hor scroll (note: here again, Ritner assumes that Mormons couldn’t tell the difference between bad handwriting and good, red and black, tattered or well preserved, etc. but non-Mormons apparently had the same issue but no one is as smart as Robert ;)). The astronomy in the BofA shows Ptolemaic influence, but also fits with ancient teachings and, in some ways, Einstein. The mummies left behind were mostly decayed and not in coffins, Hor could have been among them. West and others make it clear that the translated writing contained “…the records…of Abraham and Joseph…information respecting the creation, the fall of man, the deluge, the patriarchs, the book of Mormon, the lost tribe, the gathering, the end of the world, the judgment, &c. &c.” And so on….. Gotta go, sorry about the info dump, and will end with—

  16. Much of this evidence supports the idea that a redactor, maybe Jewish-Egyptian, pagan-Egyptian, or even Christian-Egyptian (Thebes, with its significant Jewish population, was one of the first to accept the Gospel) but a redactor could have gathered cached papyri that fit with the BofA and reused it. If the BofA was mostly on the “long roll,” then it makes sense that the sacrificial altar and gods would be at the commencement of the record, or even “lying before you at the commencement”. BTW, Nibley notes that the iron altar was part of much of the Abrhamic lore. The victims were first killed on it, and then sacrificed by burning. A Jewish redactor is more likely to see this in the lion couch. Same with the 5 gods. The theme of the 4 gods of the 4 directions with the king/tree at the center is ancient (and also had among the Maya, and Baalisms, etc.). Their forms and sometimes colors are similar to the 4 sons of Horus, etc. (grabbed from WIKI- "A tetramorph… Archaeological evidence…early man divided the four quarters of the horizon, or space, later a place of sacrifice, such as a temple, and attributed characteristics and spiritual qualities to each quarter. Alternatively the composite elements were carved into mythic creatures such as the ancient Egyptian, Greek and Babylonian sphinxes of antiquity depicting bull-like bodies with birds-wings, lion's paws and human faces. Such composite creatures are found in many mythologies. In Christian art…" etc. lots to learn…yes 🙂

    And, even if the papyri just happened to have vignettes that fit really really well with ancient Egyptian lore that wasn’t available to Joseph Smith, and if he added the reference to Fac. 1, it’s still miraculously amazing.

    Note, this should be edited but won’t be, it'll give our friends something to do 😊…So, if the critics can find fault…have at it :).

  17. Here is where I have a problem, and this problem is probably going to cost me. This entire post and the conversation that follows forgets a very simple fact. This was never put out into the public view as a revelation, but has always been claimed to be a “translation”. I was taught my entire life that the same tools were used to translate this from the papyri as were used to translate the brass plates. Now that the translation has been proven false, even by some of the churches own people, nobody knows what to do with it. This entire line of reasoning that you guys have going here sounds very much as though it falls into the category of trying to make something fit into a box in which it was never meant to go. In the words of the Book of Mormon “looking beyond the mark“. At what point does it become so obviously wrong that the church Is forced to face it and drop these books from canon?

    1. That is y they r inventing the new truth claim that the actual papayri were burn, which also has problems, but the facts force them into this akward claim. This conversation demonstrates that this new claim is still a straw grasp. The constant straw grasps challenge the harmony we feel should be the nature of God. Their claims create a God that is actively planting evidence to deceive investigators of the scene.

  18. Nony you are experiencing the same cognitive dissonance that so many of us have experienced. The realization that we've been lied to for most of our lives by people we were told to trust.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.