Select Page

Estimating the Evidence
Episode 22: On the Book of Abraham

Intro/FAQEpisode 1Episode 2Episode 3Episode 4Episode 5Episode 6Episode 7Episode 8Episode 9Episode 10Episode 11Episode 12Episode 13Episode 14Episode 15Episode 16Episode 17Episode 18Episode 19Episode 20Episode 21 ⎜ Episode 22 ⎜ Episode 23


[Editor’s Note: This is the twenty-second in a series of 23 essays summarizing and evaluating Book of Mormon-related evidence from a Bayesian statistical perspective. See the FAQ at the end of the introductory episode for details on methodology.]



It seems unlikely that the Book of Abraham would disagree with what the most learned academic minds would have to say on the subject, or that a fraudulent one could in any way align with what we’d expect from the ancient world.

For many of those who have left the Church, it was the Book of Abraham that proved fatal to their faith. The disconnect between the Book of Abraham and secular consensus on what remains of the Joseph Smith Papyrus can make it hard to maintain rational belief in the restoration. But if one gives even partial ear to faithful perspectives on the book, one gets the sense that an authentic Book of Abraham is far from out of the question. I stack the available positive and negative evidence against each other, weighting each piece of evidence the same way we’ve done in some previous episodes. Based on that analysis, the evidence actually appears to favor authenticity, with an estimated probability of fabrication at p = .032. However, if we adjust things (unreasonably) in favor of the critics, it might be possible to see the odds of authenticity at 1 in about 40 million. We grant the critics this parting shot, though even that unfair assessment fails to overturn our overall conclusion.

Evidence Score = -8 (reducing the probability of an authentic Book of Mormon by eight orders of magnitude)


The Narrative

When last we left you, our ardent skeptic, you had just finished a brief ponder on the nature of the names you found within the book—the same book that, after almost two long days of reading, has started to leave stains on your increasingly strained fingers. You know you should put the book down. The farm needs tending. The cold hearth needs lighting. But something compels you to continue turning each page. It’s only with great effort that you’re able to set it down long enough to gather a bit of firewood and relight the fire. As you sit back down, the hunger to devour what remains of this book is as strong as ever.

And as you keep going, you notice something that only momentarily troubles you—up to this point your mind had raced to process every objection and question everything that seemed remotely questionable. No longer. Whether your mental muscles had reached their limit or you had merely lost the will to struggle against the tome’s absurdities, you weren’t sure. Either way, you could feel the strictures of your mind loose—your thoughts calm.

You let the words pass over you like a flowing river, and you find you feel them more than read them. You feel the heroism and hope brought by a proclaimed prediction of Christ’s birth, along with its subsequent fulfillment. You feel the despair as war and conflict tear the Nephites apart into base tribal loyalties. You feel anxiety and fear as natural calamity brings unthinkable destruction to the book’s peoples. You feel awe and wonder as that calamity ends with a resurrected Savior descending from heaven to teach and heal them. You feel the serenity of generations of utopic peace and prosperity that follow his brief ministry, and disappointment as greed and pride and strife inevitably creep back in. You find yourself bearing a part of the palpable exhaustion and frustration of the eponymous Mormon, as his people slide into violence, into inhumanity, and, ultimately, into destruction. You even feel interest and curiosity, rather than skepticism, at the tale of Jared and his brother, and their journey from the mythical Tower of Babel.

But it’s finally there that your eyes finally refuse to stay open. You close the book, lay yourself down on the straw mattress, and sleep.

You awake the next morning, relieved that your sleep had been dreamless, completing the morning routines of the farm with a peaceful sense of purpose. You find yourself barely thinking of the book and its remaining unread pages. You remember that you have an errand in town, and that some of your supplies are running low. So, with no particular urgency, you hitch up an old gray mare to a creaky wagon and begin the several-hours ride into the village. You know, as well, that the young man who had given you the book would be there somewhere. That book was now in your pack, ready to be returned to him as you’d agreed three long days before.

The air is cold and the sky is gray and threatening as you ride into town, though the snow hasn’t yet started to fall. You move quickly to get into the general store just as the first flakes hit the dirt road outside. Before you can look through the store, however, a stack of newspapers catches your eye. The name “Joe Smith” almost springs off the page, and you double back to take a closer look. An article details a rather interesting development, recording Smith’s recent purchase of Egyptian antiquities from one Michael Chandler, who had been touring them in various areas around the American frontier. The said Smith had apparently translated some of those materials, purportedly discovering the writings of Abraham, as well as Joseph of Egypt.

The fire of intrigue burns within you. Here, at last, would be the ultimate test of Smith’s translating abilities. It should be a relatively straightforward matter to compare his translation to those of prominent experts, and then see if those translations agree. If they don’t, then such should expose Joseph as the fraud he assuredly is. It seems unlikely that an authentic text would disagree with what the most learned academic minds would have to say on the subject, or that a fraudulent one could produce any degree of agreement with an accurate translation. You immediately buy the paper, eager to learn what you could about this strange turn of events.


The Introduction

We come at last to our final piece of evidence, the last chance for our critical hypothesis to grasp victory from the jaws of defeat (at least for now). And for that, I saved what I had perceived to be the best and strongest for last; the evidence that, at least for many of my friends and family, proved to be ‘shelf-breaking.’ For many the Book of Abraham really is a pearl of great price—the book of scripture that outlines most clearly the nature of our pre-mortal existence, one of the defining doctrines of the restoration. But for others, this book—its translation, its lack of connection to the fragments from which it was drawn, and its general dismissal at the hands of non-LDS scholars—has proven more than their faith could bear.

Nevermind that this is supposed to be an analysis of evidence related to the Book of Mormon, and that technically the Book of Mormon (and the Restoration itself) could be authentic even with a non-authentic Book of Abraham. For some, Joseph’s fraud in this case has been so clear and so blatant that it casts fatal doubt on everything he might have touched, regardless of what other evidence might stand in its favor. The enduring strength of this topic in critical circles demands our analytic attention, and for that reason we’ll give it as much a shot at informing our view of the Book of Mormon as any other piece of evidence.

But faithful scholars, from Nibley and Rhodes on down to Gee, Muhlestein, and Smoot, have been far from idle when it comes to countering the critical perspective. Over the decades they’ve managed to put together a well-documented case on behalf of the Book of Abraham’s authenticity. Despite the aspersions that have been cast on the integrity of those scholars, the evidence they’ve uncovered is able to speak for itself. As with other analyses we’ve done, we’ll do our best to weigh the arguments on both sides, being as fair as we can to the points made by critics. We’ll see if it’s enough to undo the rather lopsided position that critical perspective happens to find itself in, given the evidence the Book of Mormon itself has managed to bring to the table.


The Analysis

This isn’t the first time we’ve been given the unenviable task of weighing decades of competing research involving highly technical topics. For that, we again turn to the approach used by the Dales in their Interpreter article outlining the Coe-derived Mesoamerican archaeological evidence for and against the Book of Mormon. That approach involves detailing specific pieces of evidence for either side, trying to ensure that the probability of observing each piece evidence is statistically independent of the others. Then, subjective judgments are made as to whether each piece of evidence is specific (i.e., the evidence can be specified), detailed (i.e., the evidence includes notable and supported details), and unusual (i.e., the evidence could be expected to occur under the conditions of the hypotheses). Evidence in favor of authenticity are assigned probability values of 0.5, 0.1, and 0.02, respectively, based on those judgments, with lower values indicating stronger evidence. Evidence in favor of fraud is assigned corresponding inverse values that are greater than 1 (i.e., 2, 10, and 50). When all of these values are multiplied together, they’ll produce an estimate of the probability of the Book of Abraham being fraudulent and will help us to put together the probability estimates we’ll need for our specific Bayesian analyses.

The Evidence

Those unfamiliar with the history of the Book of Abraham can consult the church’s own Gospel Topics essay on the subject and/or this useful volume. But if you absolutely refuse to click on links, the five-sentence version is as-follows. In 1835 Joseph purchased a set of authentic Egyptian scrolls and papyrus fragments from Michael Chandler, which had been removed from the catacombs of Egypt by Italian adventurer Antonio Lebolo, and which would later be dated to between 100 and 300 AD. Joseph and his scribes would spend some time in the latter half of 1835 studying and attempting to translate these documents, though the exact timing and details of this process remain controversial. During this time at least part of the Book of Abraham was produced (up to Abraham 2:18), with the rest potentially put together, and the entirety prepared for publication, in 1842, which text included copied representations of Egyptian figures and hieroglyphic text, along with Joseph’s interpretations of those figures. After Joseph’s death, most of the original Egyptian scrolls and materials were presumed to have been lost in the Great Chicago Fire, though a limited number of fragments, including the portion containing Facsimile 1, were later discovered within the archives of Metropolitan Museum of Art, opening them to examination and translation by modern scholars. These translations have shown the text on those fragments to be portions of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and study of the fragments and the Facsimiles preserved with the Book of Abraham reveal nothing explicitly connected with Abraham or anything that obviously aligns with the interpretations Joseph provided.

At this point, the critics generally close their case. Joseph was wrong, his interpretations were obviously fraudulent, and the Book of Abraham is therefore proved to be an utter fabrication. But there are a number of additional facts that help to frame the faithful response. The first is that the general idea of a book like the Book of Abraham existing in the hands of 3rd century Egyptian priest is, itself, eminently plausible—Semitic religious figures, particularly Abraham, were an express interest among Egyptians in this period, and a number of similar Abraham-related texts have been found in the same time period and region. The second is that Egyptian artistic depictions and materials were sometimes adapted for other religious purposes, and that Egyptian gods and symbols were sometimes equated with Semitic ones, such as Abraham being equated with and represented by the god Osiris, suggesting the possibility that otherwise Egyptian renderings and interpretations could have been repurposed to help depict the Book of Abraham. The third is that, given descriptions of the material in Joseph’s possession and the likelihood that the majority of those materials were destroyed, it’s not impossible that the text of the Book of Abraham existed, but was contained in scrolls that we no longer have. These general facts help explain how the materials at our disposal could appear to have nothing to do with Abraham, and yet themselves not rule out the book’s authenticity.

These ideas are accompanied by a set of proposed features of the facsimiles and the book itself that some argue are indeed correct, and in ways that Joseph would have been unlikely to get right by chance or by exposure to his literary environment. These have to do with a number of names and words included in the text of the Book of Abraham, as well as ways in which Joseph’s interpretations do, upon deeper study, show connections to ancient Egyptian and Semitic interpretations. The Book of Abraham also includes a number of details of Abraham’s life that go far beyond the biblical story, but that are nevertheless corroborated by extrabiblical tales of Abraham, some of which wouldn’t have been available in English in Joseph’s day. These details are explained in a set of essays available at Pearl of Great Price Central, which, alongside summaries of the critical position, represent my sources for the analyses below.

The Hypotheses

The Book of Abraham is an authentic ancient text. There are a lot of different versions of this theory that I could’ve gone with here. Some prefer the theory that the Book of Abraham was received wholly by inspiration, independent of any of the Egyptian materials in Joseph’s possession. That’s certainly a possibility, though to me it’s an unnecessary and unsatisfying departure from the evidence. For our purposes we’ll hold to the theory that the Book of Abraham was part of the collection of Egyptian documents purchased by Joseph, and that the text itself was in the documents destroyed by fire in Chicago.

As with many other pieces of evidence that we’ve considered thus far, holding to this theory requires letting go of some of our assumptions about the nature of revelation and prophetic inspiration. Many of us have likely assumed at some point that Joseph’s prophetic calling would give him complete and ready access to perfect information on everything contained in the Egyptian documents. As handy as that would be, that assumption doesn’t jive with the reality that revelation is often received darkly, as if through a glass, or with the injunction to study things out in your mind prior to receiving revelation. And whatever we can say about the process of Joseph and his scribes regarding the Book of Abraham, it definitely included firm and flawed attempts to study the Egyptian documents. We don’t know the extent to which Joseph might have mixed the mortal thoughts of his scribes or of himself into his interpretations (say by including strange Egyptian pronunciations in his interpretations of the Facsimiles, perhaps inspired by the conjecture of W. W. Phelps or by Joseph’s nascent Hebrew study), and it might have even been difficult for Joseph to distinguish between the two.

We would also need to mostly let go of any assumption that Joseph’s interpretations should show alignment with a mainstream Egyptological understanding of the Facsimiles. Under this hypothesis, discrepancies between them would be due to the Facsimiles being used and adapted away from their usual purpose and meaning by someone influenced by Semitic religious traditions.

The Book of Abraham is the modern creation of Joseph Smith. According to this theory, Joseph, though potentially influenced by his scribes in some areas, is fully responsible for the Book of Abraham and his interpretation of the facsimiles. From this perspective, any tangential connection that material might have to the ancient world is produced either by chance or by Joseph’s familiarity with Abraham-related stories within biblical or historical sources.

Prior Probabilities

PH—Prior Probability of Ancient Authorship—With all the evidence that we’ve considered thus far, our current estimate of the probability of an authentic Book of Mormon (and our starting value for an authentic Book of Abraham) is p = 1—1.34 x 10-37. This also represents the bar that the critical arguments against the Book of Abraham will have to clear to change our mind about whether the Book of Mormon is authentic. Here’s the entire set, all told:

PA—Prior Probability of Modern Authorship—As usual, that leaves our initial estimate of the probability of a fraudulent Book of Abraham at p = 1.34 x 10-37.

Consequent Probabilities

CH—Consequent Probability of Ancient Authorship—And with that, we can begin to catalogue in more detail the evidence we have at our disposal, beginning with the evidence stacked against the Book of Abraham’s authenticity. Note that as we do this, we won’t be ticking off everything that the Book of Abraham seems to get wrong about the Egyptian material, since those apparent mistakes wouldn’t be independent of each other. We’ll instead be documenting the assumptions we’ve made above that help explain why those mistakes might appear if the Book of Abraham was authentic. Alongside these, we’ll also include the problems that people have noted about the text and narrative of the book itself, as well as factors that would have made the facsimiles more problematic in terms of being adapted to Abraham’s story. Together, you’ll find these “correspondences” listed and briefly described in the table below, along with the weight that I’ve assigned to them. Note that I’ve also included arguments that have been leveled against the Book of Abraham that I see as having little force given the evidence brought to bear by faithful scholars—these I’ve assigned a level of 1, meaning it would have no impact on our results.

# Negative Correspondence Level Notes
1 Lack of connection between papyri and Abraham 50 Critics and faithful scholars generally agree that the material in the papyrus fragments and the facsimiles isn’t explicitly connected with Abraham. However, this sort of innovation and appropriation of Egyptian material to align with a separate Hebraic understanding isn’t necessarily unusual, as exemplified in the Testament of Abraham. Yet to not give this criticism maximum weight would ring exceedingly hollow given the state of the current controversy. We’ll count this as specific, detailed, and unusual.
2 Joseph misunderstanding the nature of the papyrus 50 There’s a substantial amount of evidence suggesting that Joseph was simply incorrect about certain aspects of the papyrus. This includes his likely belief that the text next to the facsimiles represented the text of the Book of Abraham. It could be reasonable to expect the person engaging in a divinely inspired translation to accurately understand certain characteristics about the papyrus, such as which portions actually contained the text he was translating. As we’ve previously discussed, prophets are far from perfect, and it wouldn’t have been unusual for Joseph to have made human mistakes even in the midst of a revelatory experience. Nevertheless, we’ll give this the strongest possible weight, counting it as specific, detailed, and unusual.
3 Joseph providing strange and unlikely interpretations for Egyptian figures 50 Though, as we’ll see below, there is support for some of Joseph’s interpretations, these do not include the strange Egyptian names included in the interpretation of the facsimiles. These could be due to Joseph mixing his own ideas (via Hebrew study) or the conjecture of his scribes into his interpretations, such as W. W. Phelps flawed fascination with Egyptian and other languages. Though our hypotheses allow for this possibility (and it wouldn’t have necessarily been independent of Joseph being mistaken about the nature of the Egyptian materials), the difficulty that many have in accepting this possibility in the context of prophetic inspiration means that we’ll be giving this the maximum weight. We’ll count this as specific, detailed, and unusual.
4 Parallels with Thomas Dick 10 Many scholars have noted similarities between some of the language and concepts used in the Book of Abraham and those used by theologian Thomas Dick in his book Philosophy of a Future State, published in 1829. These include references to the throne of God, to varying levels of intelligences, and revolution around a central point in the universe associated with God. There have been some pointed critiques of these parallels, but influence remains possible. We’ll count this as specific and unusual, with ambiguous details.
5 Egyptus and Pharaoh as anachronistic names 10 “Egypt” is a Greek term that was only applied to the country of Egypt centuries after Abraham, marking this as an apparent anachronism. The possibility of a scribe applying this name later on to align with contemporary (300 AD) usage means that this isn’t necessarily unusual. The same would also apply—and not be independent of—the use of the term Pharaoh as a name within the text, which also happens to have been used as a name for a descendent of Ham in other ancient contexts) means that this isn’t necessarily unusual, though we’ll count it as specific and detailed.
6 Papyrus dated to between 30 and 300AD 10 Both faithful scholars and critics agree that the papyri themselves can be confidently dated many centuries after the time of Abraham. It wouldn’t have been unusual, however, for Abraham’s writings to have been copied and transmitted by Hebrews living in Egypt during the intervening period. The writings may have been written “by the hand of Abraham upon papyrus,” but it didn’t have to be that specific papyrus. Also, “by his own hand” often signified authorship without implying personal penmanship. We’ll be generous and allow this to be specific and detailed evidence, though not unusual.
7 Strangeness in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers 10 Whatever’s going on in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, particularly the grammar and alphabet, it’s clear that no one has a complete handle on it and that there’s very little basis for obtaining said handle. It’s not clear who was ultimately responsible for their content, or whether it purported to be revelation or merely an academic interest in studying the Egyptian characters. In terms of the Book of Abraham manuscripts, it’s not clear whether they represent dictation of the original manuscript from Joseph’s own mouth, or whether these were scribes copying from an existing manuscript to facilitate further study. Though much of their strangeness is already accounted for in item 3 above, and the details themselves are ambiguous, we’ll nevertheless count this independently as specific and unusual, but not detailed.
8 Female figures described as males 2 Since two of the figures identified as males by Joseph are obviously female, it raises the question of why a fraudulent interpretation would have insisted that these represented males. Given that males sometimes dressed as females for ritual purposes, it’s possible that an interpreted gender reversal would not have been out of the question. We’ll count this as specific, but not unusual (since it’s unusual under both theories), with less-than-decisive details.
9 The figure in Facsimile 1 is likely Anubis 2 Critical scholars argue that the representation of Facsimile 1 in the Book of Abraham as cut by Reuben Hedlock doesn’t represent a bald priest with a knife, but would’ve been a representation of Anubis, which generally didn’t include the knife. However, the presence of the knife was reported by non-LDS witnesses who inspected the papyri in the 1830s, and though indications of an Anubis headdress suggest that it was a depiction of Anubis, that doesn’t rule out the possibility that it was a priest wearing an Anubis headdress, and that Joseph and Reuben filled in that missing portion according to their own understanding rather than what would have been originally on the papyrus. We’ll count this as specific, but not unusual, and with ambiguous details.
10 No Egyptian influence in Mesopotamia 2 Placing the Book of Abraham in the traditional Ur of Mesopotamia would be problematic, due to the lack of Egyptian influence at the time, though there is some evidence allowing for locating it in northern Syria, which did experience Egyptian influence. We’ll allow this negative correspondence to be specific, but not detailed (there’s no specific details in the Book of Abraham that require it to have taken place in Mesopotamia) or unusual (given the controversy, placing Ur in a spot other than where it’s been traditionally located would not be unusual).
11 Facsimiles not located next to the Book of Abraham text 2 Both faithful scholars and critics agree that the text on the papyrus scraps that we have is not the Book of Abraham, but is the text of the Book of the Dead. However, placing the facsimiles some distance away from the text they’re meant to illustrate was common practice for these manuscripts. Kerry Muhlestein has even attached an estimate that half of similar papyri would show that kind of separation. In that light we’ll count this as specific, but not detailed or unusual.
12 Lion couch scenes were not generally used to represent human sacrifice 2 Though Ritner and others have objected to the idea that a lion couch scene could have been adapted or used to depict the attempted sacrifice of Abraham, Gee has argued (successfully, in my opinion) that such scenes had sacrificial connections to them. There is enough uncertainty about how the fragments of Facsimile 1 should be interpreted (e.g., the spacing of the legs indicating a living person; whether the marks above the head indicate a bird or the fingers of a person in prayer) to suggest that this evidence isn’t dispositive. We’ll count it as specific, but not detailed or unusual.
13 Facsimile 3 as a judgment scene 2 Egyptologists have argued that Facsimile 3 is a common judgement scene associated with the Book of the Dead. However, the facsimile is missing key features associated with representations of those scenes, and could in fact be a presentation scene, which would have made it a better fit to be adapted for use in illustrating Abraham’s teaching of astronomy to Pharaoh’s court. We’ll count this as specific, with ambiguous details, and not unusual.
14 Lack of ancient autobiography 1 Autobiography of the same variety as the Book of Abraham has been attested at an even earlier date, in the account of Indrimi. This criticism does not appear to have substance.
15 Horus scroll is too short to have contained the Book of Abraham 1 Physicist Andrew W. Cook and historian Christopher C. Smith presented an analysis of the fragments of the scroll of Hor suggesting that the missing portion of the scroll would have been about the same size as other scrolls of the Book of Breathings—too small to have contained the full Book of Abraham. However, in their analysis Cook and Smith didn’t validate their approach with scrolls of known length. John Gee has presented data suggesting that Cook and Smith’s approach systematically underestimates the length of known scrolls, and that the scroll of Hor was likely much longer (just over 10 feet). Smoot has also cited a study of length analyses from non-LDS egytologists that characterizes Cook and Smith’s method as “no better than eyeballing”. Unless Cook and Smith can demonstrate that Gee, Smoot, and these other scholars are wrong, I can’t count this as evidence against the Book of Abraham.
16 No human sacrifice practiced 1 Despite Ritner’s assertion that this represents an “impossible situation,” the practice of ritual violence has been attested in an Egyptian context, as well as in a variety of places in the ancient near east.
17 Zeptah as an Egyptian (man’s) name 1 Zeptah is an attested Egyptian name, though in a masculine form. There is evidence, however, that the masculine form was applied to women. There is also the possibility of ancient scribal error. We’ll play nice and allow Joseph’s accurate selection of an Egyptian name to be countered by the apparent discrepancy in gender, assigning this evidence a net level of 1.
18 Lack of Egyptian interest in Abraham 1 During the period the papyrus was written, there was a substantive amount of Abraham-related interest and writing in Egypt, including pseudepigraphal Abrahamic texts sourced in Egypt. This critique does not appear to have substance.
19 The figure of Abraham is actually Osiris 1 The figure identified by Joseph as Abraham in Facsimile 3 is likely identified in the nearby Hieroglyphics as Osiris. However, judgment-related Egyptian myths featuring Osiris are sometimes adapted to represent Abraham when translated to a Semitic context. It thus wouldn’t have been unusual for an Osiris figure to be adapted to represent Abraham, so this wouldn’t be independent of item 1 above.
20 Potiphar’s Hill has not been attested 1 The hill named Potiphar’s Hill in the Book of Abraham has not been attested. I’m not sure why we’d necessarily expect it to be given the likelihood of name change and the common practice of hills and mountains having multiple names.
21 The figure of Pharaoh is actually Isis 1 The figure identified by Joseph as Pharaoh in Facsimile 3 is likely identified in the nearby Hieroglyphics as Isis. Yet the word Isis literally means “seat of the throne,” and had come to represent the rulership of Egypt. Aside from the figure being adapted, which is covered by item 1, the only thing unusual about this identification would be the gender of the figure, which is addressed in item 7.

Of these, I see three as weighing the strongest against an authentic Book of Abraham, and all of these have to do with the core assumptions we’ve had to adopt to explain the nature of the Egyptian documents and Joseph’s interpretations of them. If we hold to more traditional assumptions about how revelation is received, then it would absolutely be unusual for the papyri to lack any explicit connection to the Book of Abraham, for Joseph to appear to misunderstand the nature of the text, and for him to provide strange interpretations for some of the figures. Though adopting more nuanced assumptions does a great deal to negate those concerns, assigning a maximum weight to those items acknowledges the difficulty that many have in looking at the issue in that more nuanced way.

Beyond that, we did give weight to some additional items that don’t seem to fit with an ancient Book of Abraham, such as the use of Egyptus in the text (which is Greek, and wasn’t used in Abraham’s time), female figures in the Facsimiles being labeled as males by Joseph, and the indication that the text was written in Abraham’s own hand despite dating to a much later time. All of these issues have mitigating factors that could explain why we’d see these in an authentic text, but I’ve tried to be as generous as I reasonably can to these critical arguments.

All told, when multiplying these values together, we get an estimate of the odds of seeing this evidence in an authentic document at 1 in 8.0 x 1010, with an associated probability of p = 1.25 x 10-11. That’s what we’ll be using for our consequent probability for this analysis, though we’ll see how much it’ll be countered by what the faithful scholars have to offer.

CA—Consequent Probability of Modern Authorship—Below you can see a similar table outlining the positive evidence that’s been marshalled in favor of authenticity. Note that smaller values here more strongly favor authenticity, and ones marked with a weight of 1 are those that I see as having no impact on the analysis.

# Positive Correspondence Level Notes
1 The four Gods of Abraham 1:6 0.02 The four gods identified in Abraham 1:6 are plausibly attested in ancient sources in the right place and time period. There is some debate as to how unlikely this feat would have been for Joseph, but allowing for this correspondence to be specific, detailed, and unusual is more than warranted. In fact, we could probably separate these out into four separate items, each with maximum weight, but we’ll be kind to the critics on this one.
2 Aligning with other Abrahamic pseudopigrapha 0.02 Details of the Book of Abraham correspond to extra-biblical details found in other ancient Abrahamic literature, such as Abraham being sacrificed, Abraham receiving a vision of God, and Abraham teaching astronomy to the Egyptians. These are specific, detailed parallels, and though some of them can be explained through contact with Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews or the Book of Jasher, or Adam Clarke’s biblical commentary, many of them can’t, such as those found in untranslated sources (e.g., Abraham’s father repenting and turning away from idol worship, Terah being among those attempting to kill Abraham, the practice of human sacrifice, deliverance by angels, the destruction of the gods of the land, and Abraham preserving scriptural records). Dan Vogel tries hard to downplay and diminish these connections, but the depth and breadth of them shine through regardless. It would have been unusual for Joseph to have relied on these additional sources or for these parallels to have occurred by chance.
3 The concept of the circling associated with “governing” 0.1 The concept of a heavenly body encircling or revolving around—and therefore governing—what it encircles fits well with Egyptian concepts of how the sun encircled (and ruled) other heavenly bodies, including the earth. The correspondence appears specific, and would have been an unusual way for Joseph to frame the narrative. However, since there are ambiguities in terms of whether the cosmology presented in the Book of Abraham is geocentric or not, we won’t count it as detailed.
4 Olishem as place name 0.1 There is evidence of a matching place name (”>Ulishum) in an area which some faithful scholars contest represents Abraham’s homeland. Since the evidence regarding Olishem is ambiguous, we’ll rate this evidence as specific and unusual, but not detailed.
5 Shulem’s name and title attested 0.1 In Facsimile 3, the label of Shulem represents an anciently attested Semitic name, and the title “king’s principal waiter” was also applied during Abraham’s time. A Semite serving in this capacity in Pharaoh’s court would also not have been unusual. To have the name and title attested suggested that this is both specific and detailed, though the similarity to biblical names (e.g., Shunem) may mean that we can’t count this as unusual.
6 Shinehah as plausibly connected with “the sun” 0.1 The word “Shinehah” is provided with a gloss in the Book of Abraham indicating that it means “the sun.” The Egyptian word for the elliptical path of the sun matches well with Shinehah. As discussed in our previous episode, it would be somewhat unlikely but not necessarily unusual for the word to show a meaningful etymology based on chance alone. We’ll count this as specific and detailed, but not unusual.
7 Egyptianisms in the Book of Abraham 0.1 Gee notes a couple places where the text could indicate that the underlying language was Egyptian, including an odd grammatical construction (later changed by Joseph) and a plausible wordplay for words that rhyme in Egyptian. As we’ve indicated, finding such wordplays by chance wouldn’t necessarily be unusual, and I’ll assume that the same is true of the odd grammar (which could have merely been a slip of the tongue or the pen by Joseph or his scribes). We’ll count this as specific and detailed but not unusual.
8 Connections between the Apocalypse of Abraham and the Facsimiles 0.1 The Apocalypse of Abraham includes a vision describing words that can be found represented in Egyptian on Facsimile 2, as well as a description of the figures on the four canopic jars in that same hypocephalus. It seems unlikely that the hypocephalus would then, by coincidence, be framed as associated with the Book of Abraham. Given that the hypocephalus cannot otherwise be directly connected to the Book of Abraham text, we’ll count this as specific and unusual, but with ambiguous details.
9 Identification of the cow god Hathor as the Sun 0.1 Joseph explains Figure 5 in Facsimile 2 as the Sun. To identify the figure of a man and a cow with the sun would probably denote insanity in other contexts, but the cow goddess Hathor was the figure that carried the sun as it made its journey across the sky. As the association is indirect, we’ll count this as specific and unusual, but not detailed.
10 Sons of Horus as the four cardinal directions 0.1 Joseph identifies the four figures in Figure 6 in Facsimile 2 as the earth in its four quarters (which would not have been a straightforward label for those four figures). The Sons of Horus, which those figures actually represent, were indeed used to identify the four cardinal directions. Given that this association is somewhat indirect, we’ll count it as specific and unusual, but not detailed.
11 God sitting upon his throne 0.1 Joseph identifies Figure 7 in Facsimile 2 as God sitting upon his throne, being presented with the key words of the priesthood. This matches well with the Egyptian understanding of the creator god Min being offered an Egyptian symbol of wisdom (the wedjat-eye). It could, however, be a relatively straightforward interpretation of those figures. We’ll count this as specific and detailed, but not unusual.
12 God of Pharaoh 1 To identify Pharaoh with a crocodile figure would have been unusual for someone giving a casual interpretation of the text. Yet there’s ample, though indirect support for this correspondence, as the crocodile was used as the symbol for an ancient Pharaoh, and the crocodile was a representation of Sobek, who was a manifestation of Horus, who was associated with the kingship of Egypt. However, since this detail was included in Adam Clarke’s bible commentary, we won’t be counting it here.
13 Pharaoh a partaker of the blood of the Canaanites 1 The Book of Abraham makes the claim that Pharaoh was a partaker of the blood of the Canaanites, and it so happens that a particular Egyptian dynasty potentially contemporary with Abraham likely did have Semitic ancestry. Unfortunately, the details aren’t a particularly good match, since the claim is that all Egyptians were descended through Ham rather than just a specific dynasty. Though Gee makes a good argument for why Abraham might have made that connection, it doesn’t seem to represent strong evidence in the Book of Abraham’s favor.
14 Creation via divine council 1 The Book of Abraham concept of creation via a council of divine beings does indeed fit comfortably in an ancient near east context. However, as it’s possible that Joseph gleaned this from his Hebrew study, we’ll exclude this as evidence in the book’s favor.
15 Creation from existing material 1 The concept of creation from existing chaotic matter fits well with ancient understandings of the creation. But since this is another concept that could’ve been gleaned from Hebrew study, we’ll be excluding it. The gleaning of these creation details also wouldn’t be independent of each other.
16 Foreordination of Abraham 1 The foreordination of Abraham is consistent with Egyptian and other near-eastern conceptions of the divine callings of leaders. However, since there’s enough material in the Bible to provide inspiration for this concept, we won’t count it as evidence in the Book of Abraham’s favor.
17 Covenant of Abraham 1 The Abrahamic covenant in the Book of Abraham follows the general form of covenant outlined anciently. However, since this form is the same found in the Book of Mormon, we wouldn’t count it as independent evidence in the book’s favor.
18 Chiasmus in the Book of Abraham 1 There are a number of clear chiasms in the Book of Abraham, which situate the book nicely in both Semitic and Egyptian literary traditions. However, since this wouldn’t be independent with the chiastic evidence we’ve considered in the Book of Mormon, we’ll be setting this evidence aside.
19 The fall of Lucifer 1 The fall of Lucifer represents an example of a common ancient literary motif that has been attested at the time of Abraham. However, since it would be possible for Joseph to have gleaned this from the brief reference to Lucifer’s fall in Isaiah or from within the Book of Mormon, we won’t be counting this as evidence in the book’s favor.
20 Firmament over our heads 1 It would certainly have been odd for someone to interpret a set of lines below the main figures as a heavenly firmament. Yet that firmament was sometimes referred to as a “heavenly ocean” in ancient sources, so it would not have necessarily been unusual for those figures to have represented a firmament. Given that this association is indirect, that it counters with the usual interpretation of those lines as the Nile, and that it didn’t actually make the cut for Pearl of Great Price Central, we won’t be incorporating this evidence into the analysis.

Based on this, I gave two items the strongest possible weight in favor of authenticity (a level of 0.02): 1) the fact that the four gods identified in Abraham 1:6 plausibly correspond with gods worshipped in the ancient near east, and 2) that so many of the details in the Book of Abraham are corroborated by other ancient Abrahamic stories. Both of those, in my opinion, are very specific correspondences, supported by well-documented details, and that would have been unusual if Joseph was just making the book up. These are accompanied by several other pieces of evidence which either have somewhat more ambiguous details or would have been somewhat less unusual, such as the association between circling and “governing” alluded to in the Book of Abraham and supported by ancient Egyptian beliefs, the identification of the cow-god Hathor as the sun, the Sons of Horus as indicating the four quarters of the earth, and the clear ancient etymology of the term “Shinehah.” There are a somewhat surprising number of these, as well as a few correspondences that I haven’t counted as weighing in the Book of Abraham’s favor.

All told, when these are multiplied together, we get an estimate of the likelihood of observing this evidence if the Book of Abraham is fraudulent, or p = 4.0 x 10-13. Note that this is about two orders of magnitude lower than the consequent probability of 1.25 x 10-11 we used for the negative evidence above. This would lead us to a rather shocking conclusion—if we give the faithful evidence a fair shake, there appears to be stronger evidence in favor of authenticity than against it, which would mean the Book of Abraham could actually represent evidence in favor of the Book of Mormon and Joseph’s role as prophet and revelator. If we just left things there, we’d estimate the overall probability of the book being fraudulent at p = .032 (dividing the consequent if the book is fraudulent by the consequent if the book is authentic).

But that just won’t do. We’re not in the business of giving the faithful evidence a fair shake. So, as we did for the Book of Mormon’s archaeological evidence, we’re going to adjust our estimate in favor of the critics. You may recall, as detailed in the Dales’ analysis, that there are several ways to make that adjustment, and we’re going to be picking the one that most disadvantages the Book of Abraham. That method adjusts the level of each piece of positive evidence so that they’re all assigned the weakest possible level (0.5). If we do that, our probability of p = 4.0 x 10-13 ends up being reduced to p = .000488, a value that’s orders of magnitude smaller than what we got for our negative evidence. That’s what we’ll be using for the value for our consequent probability; the faithful argument has thus been appropriately hobbled, the Book of Abraham again appears safely inauthentic, and all is right in the critics’ world.

Posterior Probability

PH = Prior Probability of the Hypothesis (our initial estimate of the likelihood of an authentic Book of Abraham, based on the evidence we’ve considered thus far, or p = 1—1.34 x 10-37)

CH = Consequent Probability of the Hypothesis (the estimated likelihood of observing the negative evidence that we’ve outlined if the Book of Abraham is authentic, or p = 1.25 x 10-11)

PA = Prior Probability of the Alternate Hypothesis (our initial estimate of the likelihood of a fraudulent Book of Abraham, or p = 1.34 x 10-37)

CA = Consequent Probability of the Alternate Hypothesis (the adjusted likelihood of observing the positive evidence if the Book of Abraham is fraudulent, or p = .000488)

PostProb = Posterior Probability (our new estimate of the likelihood of an authentic restoration, including the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham)

PH = 1 — 1.34 x 10-37
PostProb = PH * CH
(PH * CH) + (PA * CA)
PostProb = (1 — 1.34 x 10-37) * 1.25 x 10-11
((1 — 1.34 x 10-37) * 1.25 x 10-11) + (1.34 x 10-37 * .000488)
PostProb = 1 — 4.79 x 10-29

Lmag = Likelihood Magnitude (an estimate of the number of orders of magnitude that the probability will shift, due to the evidence)

Lmag = log10(CH/CA)

Lmag = log10(1.25 x 10-11/ .000488)

Lmag = log10(2.56 x 10-8)

Lmag = -8



And there we have it. Even after wrenching the scale on behalf of the critics, assuming that none of the positive correspondences have any substantial weight, the most we could wring out of the Book of Abraham is about eight orders of magnitude away from authenticity. Now, those eight orders of magnitude, corresponding to odds of 1 in about 40 million against an authentic Book of Abraham, is actually quite substantial in absolute terms. It would also make it the strongest negative evidence we’ve considered thus far, which is fitting given the real-world role it’s played in leading as many people as it has away from the Church. But it doesn’t go nearly as far as it needs to in order for us to reject the overall truth claims of the Restoration. And if we, for some reason, decided to give more reasonable weights to the positive evidence, all of a sudden the Book of Abraham becomes a factor in favor of authenticity instead of against it.

It’s important to keep in mind, though, that as with some of our other episodes, this represents only a rough summary of a lot of different evidence both for and against. It would definitely be possible to dig more deeply into each of these pieces to get more refined probability estimates, the same way we’ve done for a bunch of Book of Mormon-related evidence. But nothing I’ve seen from the negative evidence suggests that there’s hidden impossibilities waiting to be explored. It’s reasonable to look with skepticism at the Book of Abraham, and to think it odd that what we have would come through divine inspiration. It’s probably less reasonable to see it as overwhelming proof of Joseph’s fraud, particularly not in the context of the considerable evidence weighing in favor of the Book of Mormon.


Skeptic’s Corner

By now you should be pretty used to the methods I’ve used here and the limitations attached to them. If you think you have a more complete and more fair accounting of the evidence then what I have here, please go ahead and put it together. Better yet, take the gloves off and subject each piece of this evidence to a full Bayesian analysis. I know from experience that doing so won’t kill you, and who knows, maybe that process would even teach us something we didn’t know beforehand.

It wouldn’t surprise me if there are critical arguments that escaped my review. I’ll admit to working with whatever written articles, summaries, and posts I could find online, or in Dan Vogel’s recent book. (For heaven’s sake, if you have an argument, write it down—I’m not wading through dozens of hours of podcasts and YouTube videos.) I’m happy to be educated further if there are serious issues that haven’t been described or addressed here, or that haven’t been accurately presented at Pearl of Great Price Central. For the moment, however, I’ll continue to treat the Book of Abraham, and the doctrine it contains, as inspired, authentic, and valuable.


Next Time, in Episode 23:

When next we meet, we’ll put a tentative end to our journey, with our skeptic doing his best to reach a workable conclusion based on the evidence he’s considered.

Questions, ideas, and authentic pseudepigrapha can go on a traveling roadshow around or submitted as comments below.

Top of Page

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This