One of the important but often overlooked issues in the debate over the origins of the Book of Abraham is why the ancient Egyptian owner of the Joseph Smith papyri might have been interested in a biblical figure like Abraham. Egyptians in general were not, but in Hor’s era and vicinity, a group of priests were fascinated with biblical lore. Hor, the Egyptian priest in Thebes around the 2nd century B.C., owner of the papyri that Joseph Smith would later obtain, had interests and motives that add plausibility to the notion that he might have had an interest in Abraham lore. An academic publication, for those who demand such things, from an LDS Egyptologist, is Kerry Muhlenstein, “Abraham, Isaac, and Osiris-Michael: The Use of Biblical Figures in Egyptian Religion,” in Achievements and Problems of Modern Egyptology, ed. Galina A. Belova (Moscow: Russian Academy of Sciences, 2012), 259. A version of this paper was published by the Maxwell Institute as Kerry Muhlenstein, “The Religious and Cultural Background of Joseph Smith Papyrus I,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22/1 (2013), 20-33. The PDF document with several helpful figures, including an Egyptian scene of a lion couch with Abraham listed among the names below it.
Critics have alleged that Egyptians would not create scrolls about Abraham and that the whole idea of a Book of Abraham from ancient Egypt is ridiculous. They have also raised the objection that the Book of Abraham is allegedly from the very old era of the Patriarchs, while the Joseph Smith papyri date to around 200 BC or later. Muhlenstein’s work helps resolve these objections. Here is his abstract, followed by the conclusion, both taken from the Maxwell Institute version of the paper (footnotes omitted):
Throughout its history, ancient Egyptian religion showed a remarkable capacity for adopting new religious ideas and characters and adapting them for use in an already existing system of worship. This process continued, and perhaps accelerated, during the Greco- Roman era of Egyptian history. Egyptian priests readily used foreign religious characters in their rituals and religious formulas, particularly from Greek and Jewish religions. Religious texts demonstrate that Egyptian priests knew of both biblical and nonbiblical accounts of many Jewish figures—especially Jehovah, Abraham, and Moses—by about 200 bc. Knowing this religio-cultural background helps us understand how the priest in Thebes who owned Joseph Smith Papyrus I would have been familiar with stories of Abraham.
While there is much more research to be done, a few things have become clear in this survey that are of interest to Latter-day Saints. First, in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt, biblical stories and characters were employed in Egyptian religious practice. These stories and characters were added to the already existing repertoire of Egyptian, Canaanite, and Greek gods and mythical characters. Biblical figures were used in a manner similar to Egyptian figures. They were used in a variety of contexts with no clear pattern emerging. Two of the characters who loom largest in the Jewish canon—Abraham and Moses—were used in contexts that were in keeping with their biblical stories. These uses demonstrate that the creators of these religious texts were thoroughly familiar with both canonical and noncanonical texts about these characters. Our current evidence indicates that a group of priests from Thebes possessed, read, understood, and employed biblical and extrabiblical texts, most especially texts about Abraham and Moses.
This process likely began around 200 BC and continued for hundreds of years in a pattern that eventually morphed into Christian practices in Egypt. While a few textual examples from elsewhere in Egypt suggest that this practice was widespread, at this time our sample of evidence only allows us to make these conclusions for the Theban area, the area in which the priest who owned the original of Facsimile 1 lived and served. Further discoveries may allow us to refine or expand these conclusions.
As a result of these conclusions we can better understand why Hor, a Theban priest in 200 BC, would possess papyrus associated with Abraham. He was a product of his times who was informed by his culture and in turn had opportunity to inform that culture. His interest in biblical characters and his possession of both biblical and nonbiblical stories about these characters was part of his occupation. Hor would undoubtedly have been interested in any religious stories that could have been incorporated into, and thus given more power to, his priestly duties.
Interestingly, we know that Hor was involved with rituals that had to do with calling on preternatural aid to ward off potential evil forces. These rituals often involved either real or figurative human sacrifice. Now that we know that priests from Hor’s era and geographic location would have used biblical figures to augment their religious rituals and spells, we better understand why he would have been interested in the story depicted on Facsimile 1, that of a biblical figure who was saved from sacrifice by divine intervention. It is likely that Hor sought out appropriate stories, and then used his knowledge of the story of Abraham to add further numinous power to his appeal for preternatural aid in keeping destructive forces at bay. Hor’s possession of this drawing matches what we would expect of a priest in this time and place based on the understanding of that culture gained from this study.
How interesting that the one time and place in ancient Egypt where we know priests to have been employing biblical figures in Egyptian documents, ca. 200 B.C. in Thebes, corresponds to the time and place of the Egyptian owner of the Joseph Smith papyri. It’s also interesting that Abraham was one of the popular figures to include. It’s also interesting that the themes of the translated Book of Abraham appear to be the kind of thing that the priest Hor was interested in.
Muhlenstein’s work provides a helpful background for understanding the nature of the relevant Egyptian documents involved in the Book of Abraham.