Some Resources for the Puzzling Facsimile 3 of the Book of Abraham

Latter-day Saints interested in the Pearl of Great Price have much to be excited about thanks to recent scholarship giving us many more insights into the significance and meaning of the Book of  Abraham and the Book of Moses. There’s much to learn and some difficult, puzzling issues to grapple with, but much to appreciate, including some answers to tough questions and remarkable evidences that something interesting is going on in these texts other than just some ignoramus making up stuff. See, for example, my LDSFAQ pages on the Book of Abraham: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

The easiest part of the Book of Abraham to attack, in my opinion, is Facsimile 3. It’s easy to say that this scene is just an ordinary funerary/judgment scene related to the Book of the Dead and that Joseph has grossly misidentified its meaning. The characters don’t give the names we expect and there is something odd going on with gender (the prince and the pharaoh are obviously women). What’s up? Some believing Latter-day Saints may be OK with obvious errors, feeling that the figure is an unimportant add-on to the inspired text and not meant to be canonized, and may feel that the evidences supporting the text and the other facsimiles outweigh whatever possible error happened there. But I think it’s helpful to consider further information about the Facsimile, recognizing the misconceptions that abound regarding what it is.

For an overview and some general answers to common challenges, see:

 Some related posts here on a couple of details and somewhat speculative possibilities:

Some other basic issues around the Book of Abraham are also covered in the Book of Abraham Project’s page, “Criticisms of Joseph Smith and the Book of Abraham.” The apparent weaknesses with Facs. 3 should, in my opinion, also be considered along with the strengths of the text. As a recent example of growing evidences related to the actual text of the Book of Abraham, see the discussion of the place name Olishem, as discussed in my review of John Gee’s recent book, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham. Also see the Gospel Topics publication from the Church, “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham,” which cites some of the significant evidence that the Book of Abraham, however it was translated, has an ancient source.

To evaluate a text that purports to be an ancient text, a reasonable approach should begin with taking that claim at face value and seeing how or if it fits into an ancient setting, before looking anywhere else. A theory for its origins, whether it appears to be an outright fraud or a document with ancient roots, also ought to provide a plausible explanation for the manuscript, including its strengths. (This is true of the Book of Mormon especially.) Can those strengths all be explained as lucky coincidences, outweighed by a section of the document with apparent glaring weakness? The strengths of the Book of Abraham, even the fairly simple stuff like correctly identifying the upside down four Sons of Horus in Facsimile 2 as pertaining to the “four quarters of the earth” or the relationship between the solar barque and 1000 cubits or identifying crocodile god Soebek as the god of Pharaoh should be at least noted, however grudgingly, before declaring a premature victory over Joseph Smith.

Yes, Facsimile 3 is still quite puzzling. I’m not sure what’s going on there and why it has been adapted by Joseph or the author of an ancient text for the story of Abraham teaching astronomy to the Pharaoh (which, by the way,  is one of the areas with good evidence supporting it). But there’s definitely something interesting going on throughout much of the Book of Abraham, and I can say the same for the Book of Moses and the Book of Mormon, though all involve complexity and some difficult issues along with a growing body of exciting issues as well.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

15 thoughts on “Some Resources for the Puzzling Facsimile 3 of the Book of Abraham

  1. Yes, Facsimile 3 is still quite puzzling.

    It's only puzzling to those who assume from the get-go that it is something other than what it really is, and that Joseph Smith is someone other than who he really was. Those who start with such assumptions must indeed find it puzzling that the "translations" are so wrong.

    Jeff, there's something I just don't understand. The Church has shown itself capable of responding to secular scholarship and scientific facts by radically revising some of its most basic assumptions about its scripture. Most notable in this regard is the admission that the Book of Abraham might not be a translation of the Joseph Smith papyri at all, but rather that the role of the papyri was only to trigger "a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri."

    What I don't understand is this: If the Church is willing to countenance such a radical revision as this, precisely because it solves the textual problems without resorting to labyrinthian intellectual gymnastics, why not countenance other radical revisions as well?

    Why not also admit the possibility of the most elegant Church-friendly solution of them all, namely, that the BoM and PGP are midrashic and pseudepigraphical rather than historical? (I think you're already familiar with this idea, but if not, see "The Book of Mormon and the Midrashic Imagination" here.)

    This approach solves all of the problems of anachronism, mistranslation, and so on without giving up the core idea of revelation. It even situates the LDS scriptures nicely within the biblical tradition — after all, pseudepigraphy is every bit as biblical as chiasmus and the cognate accusative. (It would also have the advantage of increasing the options for LDS scholars to join biblical scholars in working/publishing in secular academia.)

    So why, if the Church is willing to untether the BoA from the extremely problematic anchor of historicity, why can't it liberate the BoM as well?

    What would be so horrible about a statement like this? — Some LDS faithful believe the Book of Mormon to be a historical account of a group of ancient Americans. Other LDS faithful believe it to be an inspired, pseudepigraphical-midrashic commentary on the Bible that expands our understanding of the gospel by extending it into a New World context….

    Note that I'm not suggesting the Church to give up on historicity as a possibility; I'm not asking it to embrace the midrashic/pseudepigraphical approach as the truth of the BoM, merely to do what it has done with the "catalyst-for-revelation" approach to the BoA: to publicly acknowledge it as a legitimate option for the faithful.

    And, setting aside the Church for a moment, what is your personal view of the midrashic-pseudepigraphical approach? Two questions here, actually:

    (1) Do you think it's at least possible that the BoM is Joseph's inspired midrash? Maybe I've missed something, but AFAIK you've mentioned this approach but never seriously considered it possibility here on Mormanity.

    (2) If such an approach is not possible for the LDS faithful, why not? What's wrong with it? Does this pseudepigraphical-midrashic approach fatally contradict or undermine the Church itself? Personally, I don't see that it does — but there must be some reason why, at least thus far, the Church seems unwilling to publicly allow it as a possibility.

    Your thoughts?

    — OK

  2. OK,

    I'm happy to let Jeff answer the questions at the end. That said, I think you have a point at the start of your argument about relying on assumptions.

    IMO, the difficulty encountered by facsimile 3 lies in equating the Egyptian vignette and Joseph's explanation as the same thing. It seems to me that the defense of Joseph's explanation is pretty solid when it is detached from the vignette. Meaning that the explanations given by Joseph are at home with ideas from antiquity.

    If Joseph really translated the BoA from a section of papyri, and I believe that he did, it seems natural that he would see a vignette from the papyri as describing a portion of Abraham's story.

    It is an unsupported assumption that Abraham would have provided his book with illustrations. So I am perfectly happy if Joseph took an unrelated picture and likened it to the Book of Abraham.

  3. OK, I'm wondering if you have recently read the Church's actual Gospel Topics statement on the Book of Abraham,
    "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham," which is far from the caricature of it that comes through in your comments. This document recognizes that there were other documents in the collection apart from the few tiny fragments we now have, and then acknowledges two possibilities that have been offered for the production of the Book of Abraham: a) that one of the larger missing documents was used, or b) that whatever documents were present, the text was given by revelation and was not necessarily what we would call a translation, just as the Book of Moses was "translated" without a source document before Joseph. Those are two reasonable theories, though as Gee explains in his recent book, the evidence favors Joseph using a document and seeking to translate from it, rather than using the documents merely as a "catalyst" for revelation. And I think that's the better approach.

    But what you seem to miss is that the Church' statement strongly emphasizes the historicity and antiquity of the Book of Abraham. It mentions some pretty interesting evidence for that. Evidence that you can't seem to notice. Wish you would, but I know, I know, that's not in the agenda.

  4. Yes, Jeff, I have read "the Church's actual Gospel Topics statement on the Book of Abraham," and I know that it "strongly emphasizes the historicity and antiquity of the Book of Abraham." Despite that emphasis, I still find it significant that the statement allows for the possibility that the BoA is a revelation-catalyzed-by-an-ordinary-funerary-document rather than a traditional translation.

    I also find it significant that the Church's "Book of Mormon Translation" essay accepts the possibility that the BoM was essentially read off the seer stone — that is, the process was not translation but what we could more accurately term channeling.

    For me, part of the significance here is that in both cases the Church appears to be licensing a position that would render FAIR-style apologetics moot. How so? Simple: If the BoM and PGP were produced by means of channeling (BoM) and revelation (PGP), then their production was wholly supernatural and the physical evidence we have is irrelevant. In this now-acceptable view, the Golden Plates were not used for translation in the traditional sense (and in any event are not available for scholarly consultation), while the papyri, both those we have and those that have been lost, have no linguistic relations to the text of the BoA.

    In other words, in these Gospel Topics essays the Church has okayed positions that significantly downgrade the value of material and linguistic evidence, upgrades the importance of pure unverifiable faith, and renders a great deal of FAIR-style (and Lindsay-style) apologetics moot. Why would it do this? One possibility is that influential leaders no longer find that style of apologetics very convincing. There are plenty of faithful LDS scholars who find FAIR-style apologetics to be not just unpersuasive, but, in light of the evidence, to be embarrassing. (Some of them were presumably behind the recent changes at the Maxwell Institute.) Another possibility is that the Church is carving out a space for evidence-based skeptics to remain in the Church — by discounting the importance of material evidence.

    What I would suggest now is that the time may come when the biggest threat to your style of apologetics will not come from people like me, but from faithful scholars wielding influence within the Church itself. Perhaps the recent dismissal of FAIR was just an opening salvo. This is little more than speculation at this point, but still.

    — OK

  5. I think the ma'at-logos connection has a lot of explanatory power. The feminine elements of the iconography seem to be a function of describing a quality or, perhaps, a position rather than a specific individual–though, no doubt, it can infer a specific identity as well.

    The flow of logical inference may look something like this:

    Ma'at — Logos — Word — Christ — Son of God — Prince.

    And as all are invited to become sons (and daughters) of God by following the Savior, the iconography can point to anyone — regardless of gender — who has inherited that quality or position.


  6. OK, I fear your distance from the Church and the rather hostile filters you use in dealing with LDS information might jeopardize the accuracy of your views. For example, the fact that we are discussing the Church's Gospel Topics publication that draws heavily on LDS scholarship reflects a trend that we apologists appreciate. It shows Church leaders increasingly care about many issues that faithful scholars and low-down apologists like me have been tackling. Tough issues like the Book of Abraham, DNA, etc., are now being discussed much more visibly. Cool! The appreciation may not be entirely one way, as I noted in my recent Aug. 2017 post, "
    Elder Holland on LDS Apologetics

    In addition to Elder Holland's positive comments, I noted that the Church's Gospel Topics, Essays, and Other Resources page not only links to the Maxwell Institute ("Collection of scholarly research designed to deepen understanding of religious texts and traditions"), still laden with apologetic articles and books, but it also links to major new torch bearers for LDS apologetics, with comments like these:

    Book of Mormon Central: Information that was created to explain, engage, inspire, and encourage greater knowledge and appreciation of every aspect of the Book of Mormon.

    FairMormon: Well-reasoned and faithful responses to doctrinal, historical, and social questions.

    Mormon Scholars Testify: Messages of faith from scholars who belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

    The Interpreter Foundation: Nonprofit, independent, educational organization that focuses on the scriptures of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They publish a peer-reviewed journal, Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture.

    If that's shunning apologetics and apologists, keep that shun shining on me!

  7. Further, in General Conference, we are occasionally hearing references to chiasmus or evidences of interest to apologetics, and President Russell M. Nelson talked openly about chiasmus and other cool issues when he was here in Shanghai. Heard it with my own ears.

    The Gospel Topics page on the Book of Abraham simply recognizes, as I have recognized, that there are competing theories among faithful LDS thinkers about how the translation happened for the Book of Abraham. It's a fair question, but the evidence really weighs in favor of Joseph stating that he was actually using scrolls to produce the translation. Neither the Church nor I nor any of us apologists are backing away from the historicity of the Book of Abraham by recognizing such a possibility as one debated by scholars.

    There's not one hint of the Church accepting any notion that the plates were not real, were not ancient, were not actually seen and handled by witnesses, and were not a sacred record which has now been translated by the power of God. But that does not mean it was a translation like we've seen in a painting or two, where Joseph needed the plates open to give the translation in a conventional manner. He was dictating by revelation, apparently always looking into a hat to see or sense something. Right, you can laugh about that and wonder why it was that way, but do you think that simplifies the task for those offering a natural explanation for the text? Dictating Isaiah alone with numerous subtle and sometimes impressive changes without using a text, notes, and a Bible is rather impressive. Doing the whole Book of Mormon that way and created such an integrated, consistent, and impressive text without notes, rough drafts, major rewrites of the story, and doing it all at a tremendous pace is even more of a wonder. That's relevant evidence in its own right that will need to be considered in naturalistic theories of how such a book was created.

    Meanwhile, I'm totally puzzled by your statement that perhaps "the recent dismissal of FAIR was just an opening salvo." Dismissal of FAIR? By whom? How? You dimiss it, I know, but does the Church? is alive and well, as far as I know, and they haven't been dismissed from's collection of useful resources for members to study. Nor has The Interpeter. Can you clarify?

  8. Tough issues like the Book of Abraham, DNA, etc., are now being discussed much more visibly. Cool!

    Yes, the Church is discussing issues like DNA because public knowledge of them has been spreading like wildfire online. With the advent of the Internet, the Church has to discuss such issues if it doesn't want to concede the ever-widening public debate entirely.

    I'm totally puzzled by your statement that perhaps "the recent dismissal of FAIR was just an opening salvo."

    The Maxwell Institute's 2012 sacking of Dan Peterson is widely viewed as reflecting the Institute's desire to shift from FAIR-style pseudo-scholarship to a more broadly respected, genuine peer-reviewed scholarship. The shift is being driven by a faction of the faithful that considers much of the work of FAIR and the Interpreter to be embarrassing. Call it the return of Leonard Arrington.

    Of course, the "horses might mean tapirs" stuff will not disappear from the Church's apologetics overnight; it will take some time. Given the gerontological skewing of the Church leadership, the Old Guard will continue to win its share of battles. But if history is any guide it will lose the war. Theories about "Early Modern English in the BoM" and "Catholicism is the Church of the Devil" will find themselves on the same apologetical ash heap as "blacks were less valiant in the pre-existence." And I think this will happen because one of the Church's most admirable aspects — respect for learning — will ultimate overcome its fundamentalist streak.

    — OK

  9. Sometimes I wonder why we feel the need to say stuff like "gerontological skewing" instead of saying "high average age." It would mean the same thing either way, but us laymen can understand the second way of saying things much more easily. I guess it's fun to sound smart, though.

    Note that this sort of thing happens on both sides of the debate, and I don't mean to single anyone out. I just picked that example because it was the most recent.

  10. Why couldn't those figures of a prince and pharaoh have been females assuming male titles? Like Sobeknefru, for instance. "Only a few artifacts have been positively linked to Sobeknefru, including a number of headless statues that depict her in female clothing but wearing male objects related to kingship. In some ancient texts, she is sometimes referred to in terms using the male gender, perhaps to reinforce her role as pharaoh."

    Egyptian history covers a very long time, and we don't know all of it. Egyptian mythology is changed a lot over the dynasties, and Egyptian "history" often needs rewriting in light of new discoveries.

  11. CT, that's a fair point. When we recognize that of course those two figures are women, some form of representation is clearly occurring in someone's mind, either Joseph's or perhaps the ancient owners or redactors of the scrolls, if they are being used to show a scene related to Abraham. Such role playing could include men portrayed as women or women assuming male titles, as you suggest. Similar theme in either case, but still unusual. On the other hand, it could just be a case of expropriating a handy but not quite ideal scene to portray another scene in a different story.

  12. When we recognize that of course those two figures are women, some form of representation is clearly occurring in someone's mind….

    Good grief, Jeff. Do you have any idea how desperate this makes you seem?

    — OK

  13. It is not desperate at all. Any faithful LDS who has sought to understand the meaning of the temple and has done no more than a cursory study of Egyptian religious iconography will see the obvious connections in facsimile 3.


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