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Scholarly Support for the Book of Abraham

The Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price continues to generate considerable interest (and controversy) among readers. Ever since George Reynolds published his series “The Book of Abraham—Its Genuineness Established” in the year 1879,[1] members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have sought to both make sense of this small yet profound book of scripture and provide evidence for its authenticity and inspiration. Those skeptical of Joseph Smith’s claims to have a divine gift of translation, on the other hand, have argued for the problematic or outright fraudulent nature of the text.[2] “Needless to say,” remarks one neutral observer, “neither side has been convinced by the other, and as a result, the controversy continues.”[3]

Those who wish to hear a representative opinion on the skeptical side of the debate need simply listen to a series of recent podcasts with Dr. Robert Ritner of the University of Chicago, who has vocalized his criticisms of the Book of Abraham and his low opinion of Latter-day Saint scholarship on this text.[4] To help them easily access the Latter-day Saint side of the argument, the following resources have been collected for readers’ convenience. To help orient readers with this material, this blog post will take a few moments to frame the interlocking issues of the historicity of the Book of Abraham, the facsimiles of the Book of Abraham, and the translation of the Book of Abraham and the respective scholarship that has gone into them.

The Historicity of the Book of Abraham

The Book of Abraham purports to be the autobiographical writings of the biblical patriarch Abraham. The question believers and skeptics have debated is whether the text can be plausibly situated in the ancient world of Abraham, or if it otherwise has any historical believability. This is what scholars call the historicity of a text, meaning the quality or degree of authenticity displayed in its historical claims. It is impossible to absolutely “prove” that a text is entirely historical or ahistorical, given the sometimes-considerable gaps in the archaeological and historical record of the ancient world. Instead, scholars have developed methodological tools to argue for overall plausibility (or lack thereof) of a purported historical text like the Book of Abraham (or, for that matter, the historical books of the Bible).

John Gee and Stephen D. Ricks have outlined what is, to date, the most comprehensive methodological approach to evaluating the historicity of the Book of Abraham:

Their methodology has proven especially fruitful and has led to the publication of numerous pieces of scholarship touching on the historicity of the text. Some of these more noteworthy pieces include:

This body of scholarship has, in turn, been summarized and distilled in Insights #1–26 of Pearl of Great Price Central’s Book of Abraham series:

Pearl of Great Price Central has also produced a video summarizing this body of scholarship:

Again, the intent of this scholarship is not to “prove” that the Book of Abraham is authentic, but to demonstrate that many (but admittedly not all) of its historical claims converge remarkably well with the ancient world from whence it purports to derive.

The Facsimiles of the Book of Abraham

Joseph Smith’s interpretation of three facsimiles that accompany the text of the Book of Abraham has proven to be a lightning rod for controversy. For well over a century those skeptical of Joseph’s claims have pointed to incongruities between his interpretations of the facsimiles and those of academic Egyptologists. In order to better understand the facsimiles and account for these incongruities, Latter-day Saint scholars have articulated a number of different paradigms for evaluating the facsimiles and Joseph Smith’s interpretation thereof. Here are some examples:

As explained in a Pearl of Great Price Central Insight (“Approaching the Facsimiles,” Insight #27), these different theories are “each compelling to varying degrees since they can account for the instances where Joseph Smith’s interpretations of the facsimiles align with other Egyptologists, but no single one of them can account for his interpretations in their entirety from an Egyptological perspective.” Still, this has not stopped Latter-day Saint scholars from insisting that there are demonstrable instances where Joseph’s interpretations of the facsimiles find plausible confirmation from attested ancient Egyptian and Semitic concepts. These instances have been discussed in Insights #27–36 on Pearl of Great Price Central:

The Translation of the Book of Abraham

Finally, there is the matter of how the Prophet translated the Book of Abraham. Here there is considerable uncertainty, largely due to the existence of a corpus of manuscripts that comprise what is often called the Kirtland Egyptian Papers (“KEP”). There is no general consensus among Latter-day Saint scholars concerning the KEP and what bearing, if any, they have on the actual translation and what relationship they have to the surviving Joseph Smith Papyri fragments.[5] They have also attempted to answer what kind of a translation the Book of Abraham is and the means by which the Prophet accomplished such. Here are some examples:

Insights #37–40 from Pearl of Great Price Central summarize this scholarship:

It is crucially important when approaching the subject of translating the Book of Abraham to not make the same mistakes made in older scholarship. Falsely ascribing material to Joseph Smith is one such error of which we should be wary. For example, recent scholarship has demonstrated how material once attributed to Joseph Smith was, in fact, composed and ghost-written by W. W. Phelps. This includes the 1843 Appeal to the Green Mountain Boys and other Nauvoo-era material that draws from the (pseudo-)Egyptian words and phrases from the Kirtland Egyptian Papers.[6] Scholars wanting to truly evaluate the Prophet’s own understanding of Egyptian would do well to carefully parse their sources and not rely on outdated approaches or understandings.

Conclusion

The controversy surrounding the Book of Abraham is not likely to diminish anytime soon. Because this controversy involves multiple fields of research (not just Egyptology, but also textual criticism, documentary editing, nineteenth-century American and Latter-day Saint history, and others) that are sometimes highly technical, it is easy for misunderstanding and bad information to circulate on social media amongst those who are sincerely unequipped to evaluate competing claims and counter-claims as well as those who intentionally want to present a purposefully biased and selective narrative. Reading widely and thoughtfully, and not relying entirely on the opinion of just a single scholar who may or may not have the necessary background to handle the complex interlocking issues at play with this affair, is an important part of critically engaging the Book of Abraham. Hopefully, the resources enumerated above, as well as the other resources on the Book of Abraham that have been gathered on Pearl of Great Price Central’s online bibliography, can help readers as they continue to explore this fascinating and important topic.

[1] Published between January–April 1879 in The Latter-Day Saints’ Millennial Star and republished as The Book of Abraham: Its Authenticity Established as a Divine and Ancient Record (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1879).
[2] This includes the critical opinions solicited and gathered in Franklin S. Spalding, Joseph Smith, Jr., As a Translator (Salt Lake City, UT: The Arrow Press, 1912).
[3] Michael Frassetto, ed., The Pearl of Great Price, The Barnes and Noble Library of Essential Reading (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2009), xv.
[4] Many of the views expressed by Ritner in his podcasts were previously published in a volume he edited titled The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri: A Complete Edition (Salt Lake City, UT: Smith-Pettit Foundation, 2011).
[5] Not all of the Joseph Smith Papyri fragments are extant. Some were destroyed. See John Gee, A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2000), 9.
[6] Samuel Brown, “The Translator and the Ghostwriter: Joseph Smith and W. W. Phelps,” Journal of Mormon History 34, no. 1 (2008): 26–62, esp. 59–61.
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