Latter-day Saints have a unique scriptural canon because it includes accounts of Abraham in the Old Testament—and the Book of Abraham. But there are also many other extrabiblical traditions. For example, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all have unique legends about the Old Testament patriarch. In this interview, BYU’s John Gee explains that the Book of Abraham could be the genesis for later stories found outside the Bible.
Learn more about Abrahamic legends and lore in the article by Stephen O. Smoot, John Gee, Kerry Muhlestein, and John S. Thompson.
Why are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam sometimes called “Abrahamic religions”?
Originally, the Jews and the Arabs claimed Abraham as an ancestor: Judaism through Isaac, and the Arabs through Ishmael. Islam was, in its earliest days, an Arabic religion. Both religions also claim that Abraham was the original, or at least an early practitioner of their religion.
Obviously, both religions have had converts who do not claim Abrahamic ancestry, but they still claim to originate with Abraham.
Christianity, likewise, as an offshoot of Judaism, claims that Abraham was an early Christian.
What are extrabiblical traditions?
The word extrabiblical simply means outside the Bible. An extrabiblical tradition is simply one from a source not in the Bible.
Why are they important to study?
One of the current fads in biblical studies is reception history. Reception history is the study of how a text was used by later authors. If one is doing reception history of a biblical text, then one is looking at how later authors used that particular text. Such sources will, of course, be outside the Bible and thus extrabiblical.
This is different from what theologians are doing when they say that they are doing reception history. When a theologian says that they are doing reception history, they are not looking at how people of the time used a text. They are speculating about how people at a particular time might have used a text rather than looking at how people really used it. It is theoretical and not based on actual evidence.
Over twenty years ago, John Tvedtnes, Brian Hauglid, and I gathered all the texts that we could find that referred to events in the early life of Abraham, before he went to Egypt. We published these in a book, Traditions about the Early Life of Abraham. This was a sourcebook of the raw materials necessary to do reception history on the early life of Abraham.
There were certain materials that were excluded. We knew that there were Chinese references to Abraham from Christians, Jews, and Muslims living China, but since none of us knew Chinese or had any way to get that material, they were excluded. Since that time, a number of previously published Armenian materials have since been published. There was also an account about Abraham from Egypt that we missed, and I have subsequently published. There are potentially other accounts. We also tended to stop before the time of Colombus.
These are the accounts that parallel the time period in Abraham’s life covered by the Book of Abraham. If one wants to know what was discussed about Abraham’s early life in ancient times, then those are the basic sources.
What are some myths and legends about Abraham found outside the Bible?
The legends about Abraham include many details that are found in the Bible, but also materials that is not found in the Bible. We have accounts about Abraham’s father being an idolater. We have stories about an attempted sacrifice or killing of Abraham. We have accounts that connect Abraham with astronomy. All of these are elements found in the Book of Abraham but missing from the Bible.
To what degree do scholars view the Book of Abraham as an extrabiblical tradition?
Scholars are not some sort of monolithic block who always have the same views. This is particularly true in biblical studies where it is difficult to get any sort of consensus on almost anything. You can get biblical scholars to claim that there is a consensus but it is usually those who claim that the consensus backs their particular opinion.
Were extrabiblical sources that parallel the Book of Abraham were available to Joseph Smith?
In the Traditions volume, we were very careful to present in the introductions the information about when the first translation of the tradition into English or into a modern language was.
There are arguably three sources that might have been available to Joseph Smith:
- The ancient Jewish historian Josephus. He was valued.
- The medieval Book of Jasher. This was only recently available.
- The Qur’an. Most Americans of Joseph Smith’s day did not think highly of the Qur’an.
These sources provide some information that parallels the Book of Abraham but are some of the weaker parallels compared to some of the other ancient accounts.
Did Joseph Smith know about Josephus?
We know that Oliver Cowdery had read at least parts of Josephus. He refers to Josephus when discussing the papyri in December 1835. The parallel that he draws from Josephus, however, is to the account of Enoch’s pillars found in Josephus—not to anything about Abraham.
Whether Joseph Smith ever read any of Josephus is speculation. The Book of Jasher also came to the attention of the early Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was used to show that there was scripture not contained in the Bible, and thus was used to support the Book of Mormon, not the Book of Abraham.
It is not known if Joseph Smith read any of it.
Does the Book of Abraham ever differ from the writings of Josephus?
Yes. In the Facsimiles from the Book of Abraham it mentions Abraham reasoning on the principles of astronomy. This implies that the Egyptian already knew something about astronomy. This makes sense as we have astronomical texts from Egypt that predate Abraham.
Josephus, on the other hand, said that Abraham introduced astronomy to the Egyptians.
The Book of Abraham more closely matches Abraham’s day than Josephus.
Do later sources reflect an accurate history?
While my co-editors on the Traditions volume thought that these sources reflected the history of Abraham, I have been more skeptical. Elder Maxwell once referred to these sources as containing “doctrinal debris,” which reflects my own opinion of them.
They tell us that traditions like the Book of Abraham were circulating as early as the second or third century before Christ. That is over a millennium after Abraham lived. It was a very different world. I do not think that the later traditions reflect much of a knowledge of Abraham’s day.
On the other hand, the Book of Abraham compares very well to contemporary sources to Abraham’s day. The traditions compare less well.
For example, the sacrifice of Abraham described in the Book of Abraham compares very well to Egyptian accounts of human sacrifice from Abraham’s day and to archaeological finds of human sacrifice by Egyptians in Abraham’s day. The accounts of the sacrifice of Abraham found in most of the traditions, however, do not.
There is a memory that there was an attempted sacrifice of Abraham for opposing idolatry, but the understanding of that attempted sacrifice reflects the understanding of the time periods when the later accounts were written, and not that of Abraham’s day.
This is just one of multiple examples that we could give.
Can extrabiblical sources prove the truth of the Book of Abraham?
1. An ancient account
There are two reasons why the extrabiblical sources cannot prove the Book of Abraham. The first is that one cannot prove the truth of an ancient account. One can offer evidence and arguments in its favor, but that does not prove it. For example, the Egyptian accounts of the Battle of Kadesh say that Ramses II fought off the Hittites by himself. The modern historian may or may not believe those accounts (which are unanimous on the point). There really is not any way that a historian who does believe it can prove to a historian who does not believe it that it happened.
The way I typically think about this is to perform a thought experiment. I try to imagine what sort of evidence would theoretically convince a scholar of a contentious point in ancient history. I then imagine what scholars would do if something like that was found.
For example, what would it take to convince a biblical scholar who did not believe that there was a Davidic dynasty that one had existed. How about the discovery on an archaeological dig of an inscription that mentioned the house of David, which would be the ancient Hebrew term for the Davidic dynasty. They found precisely such an inscription at Tell Dan, and all the scholars who did not believe there was a Davidic dynasty found excuses to discount the evidence.
If someone does not believe something, there is nothing that can make them believe it.
2. A millennium after Abraham
The second reason is that the traditions are all at least a millennium after Abraham. They are not even close to contemporary. They do not prove that things in the Book of Abraham happened. They do, however, offer evidence which supports that accounts of Abraham, similar to what is found in the Book of Abraham, were circulating in the time of the Joseph Smith Papyri.
That part of the story is plausible; one cannot use scholarship to prove it false. One can reasonably believe it even though one cannot prove it true using scholarship.
This means believing or disbelieving the Book of Abraham is an act of faith and a conscious choice.
How might the Book of Abraham explain the origins of extrabiblical stories?
A persistent and often repeated story about Abraham circulating throughout antiquity was that officials tried to kill him. This story is not in the Bible. Where did it come from? The existence of the Book of Abraham in antiquity would account for those stories because it would serve as a source. There are other explanations, but they seem less satisfying.
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About the interview participant
John L. Gee is a Latter-day Saint scholar who specializes in the Book of Abraham. He holds a PhD in Egyptology from Yale University and an MA in Near Eastern Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. In addition to co-editing A Guide to the Book of Abraham, Gee has also published related works such as A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri, Traditions About the Early Life of Abraham, and Astronomy, Papyrus and Covenant.
- What Have Scholars Learned About the Book of Abraham?
- How Did Joseph Smith Translate the Book of Abraham?
- The Ultimate Book of Abraham Bibliography
- Let’s Talk About the Book of Abraham
- Ann Madsen Reflects on Isaiah, Jehovah, and the Temple
Abrahamic lore resources
These resources include Amazon Affiliate Links. As an Amazon Affiliate I earn from qualifying purchases.
- A Guide to the Book of Abraham (BYU Studies)
- The Book of Jasher (Cedar Fort)
- Traditions About the Early Life of Abraham (BYU)
- Apocryphal Writings and the Latter-day Saints (BYU Religious Studies Center)
- Journeys in Holy Lands: The Evolution of the Abraham-Ishmael Legends in Islamic Exegesis (State University of New York Press)