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Interpreting Interpreter
Abrahamic Temple Themes

This post is a summary of the article “Temple Themes in the Book of Abraham” by Stephen O. Smoot in Volume 60 of Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship. All of the Interpreting Interpreter articles may be seen at An introduction to the Interpreting Interpreter series is available at


The Takeaway

Smoot argues that the Book of Abraham contains subtle temple-related themes, including Abraham’s role of high priest, Abraham’s theophany and covenant experiences, Abraham’s description of altars and sacred space, and in the figures included in Facsimile 2.


The Summary

In this article, Stephen O. Smoot expands on a 2022 conference presentation on the same topic, outlining examples of what he interprets as temple-related themes within the Book of Abraham. Following Jeffrey M. Bradshaw’s definition of “temple theology”, Smoot highlights areas of the text that (1) depict elements related to sacred space, and (2) show connection to the modern temple endowment. These examples include:

  • Abraham’s process of becoming a High Priest within the patriarchal priesthood, in an opening sequence that mirrors other ancient catalogues (see Table 1) of heroic achievements. As ancient priesthood service generally involved temple functions, this helps cast Abraham as possessing the legitimate alternative to the counterfeit priesthood of Pharaoh, who himself served important priestly and ritual functions in the temples of Egypt.
  • Abraham’s description of the altar by Potiphar’s Hill, which may have marked the area as a ritual complex. Its location by a hill may link it to the ancient conception of mountains as sacred spaces where man can connect with God. Smoot also highlights Abraham’s construction of his own altars, which are connected to ritual actions of prayer and sacrifice, as well as to experiences with the divine.
  • Abraham’s two theophany experiences when making covenants with Jehovah, wherein Abraham learns the Lord’s true name. Smoot notes that “In both instances the revelation comes at a moment of trial and in a ritual setting that is accompanied by gestures involving the hand” (see Table 2), suggesting that these two passages represent a “conceptual interplay between theophany, name, and covenant”.
  • Facsimile 2, where Smoot observes that the figures in the facsimile “both inform and are themselves informed by the Latter-day Saint temple experience”. Joseph Smith’s interpretations of these figures (specifically Figures 3 and 7, pertaining to the giving of the Key words of the Priesthood) clearly evoke temple language, and Smoot provides commentary on the wedjat-eye being presented in each, noting its Egyptian and Coptic meanings of wholeness, perfection, and salvation as well as its application to divine restoration and resurrection, prayer, sacrifice and kingship in Egyptian temple settings.

In his discussion of Facsimile 2, Smoot also offers his own translation of the figures that Joseph left untranslated. The resulting passage is nearly identical to inscriptions on several Egyptian temple pylon gates, and is conceptually linked to the “Holy of Holies” of Egyptian temples (via a common reference to the “first time” of creation) and to temple-related themes of resurrection and deification.

As Smoot concludes (note that my presentation here is somewhat out of order compared to what you’ll find in the paper):

I have shown how the Book of Abraham can be profitably read as a temple text, or how themes and narrative elements might be identified in the text that amplify its relevance to the Latter-day Saint temple experience… [in them] we begin to see both the logic behind Joseph Smith’s explanation of these figures…as well as how the text may be brought to bear on temple ritual and vice versa. This may also explain why Joseph Smith may have intended to display the Egyptian papyri and the published translation of the book of Abraham in the Nauvoo temple upon its completion.


The Reflection

I hereby cede my time in favor of repeating, with minor modification, another pertinent passage from Smoot’s conclusion, and one that mirrors my own thoughts:

“If nothing else, [Smoot’s findings] should, I hope, encourage readers not to abandon the text because of controversies related to its translation or production. While shallow or perfunctory readings of the Book of Abraham will, regrettably, remain all too common among those who obstinately refuse Joseph Smith the courtesy of taking him even somewhat seriously and on his own terms — be that out of either commitment to ideological priors or just good old-fashioned anti-Mormon spite — that should not stop us from digging deeper into this inexhaustible text that has unmistakable and important ties to God’s holy temple.”

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