It might seem unlikely that we can know anything about the ancient owners of the Joseph Smith Papyri. However, the Book of Abraham scrolls included names and genealogies indicating that the owners were ancient Egyptian priests. In this interview, Kerry Muhlestein explains what we know about these ancient Egyptians—and how their circumstances may have made them uniquely aware of extra-biblical Abrahamic traditions.
Learn more about the ancient owners of the Joseph Smith Papyri in this BYU Studies volume co-edited by Kerry Muhlestein.
How is it possible to know anything about the ancient owners of the Joseph Smith papyri?
Fortunately the papyri themselves contain the name of the owners and something about their genealogy. For the owner of fragments I, X, and XI, it also included some of his priestly titles. It is also fortunate that we know a great deal about that particular family from other sources, such as other papyri and even inscriptions on statues.
As a result, John Gee, Marc Coenen, and others, have been able to piece together a fairly detailed family tree and we can plot a fairly precise chronological date for when that owner lived.
Is there anything relevant for Latter-day Saints about the identity of the owner of Papyri Joseph Smith fragments I, X, and XI?
There are some fascinating things to know about this priest. He was a priest of three gods, all in the great Karnak Temple in Thebes (modern day Luxor). He served Amun in his form of king-of-the-gods (also known as Amonrasonter). He also served Min in his form of Min-who-massacres-his-enemies. He served a third god in Karnak, known as Khonsu, in his form of Khonsu-who-overthrew (or governed)-in-Thebes (also known as Chespesichis).
Hor was a “servant of the god” for all three deities, a role which was translated as “prophet” when it was rendered in Greek or Coptic. We do not know all the functions he would have played for these gods, but we do know some. He likely would have participated in the ritual of feeding and clothing the god.
For Amun and Min he also almost certainly participated in an execration ritual. This was a ritual which was aimed at destroying or sacrificing enemies.
We know little of what he would have done for Khonsu, but it probably involved creation rituals as well as rituals oriented towards healing and protection from demons or enemies, which shares purposes with the execration ritual. He would have performed these rituals at around 200 BC.
All of this is interesting because we know that priests from this time period were often influenced in their choice of funerary texts by their temple performances. If the Book of Abraham were among Hor’s funerary texts (which we are not sure of), it would have aligned well with his roles in creation rituals and rituals having to do with being protected from dangerous forces.
If any ancient Egyptians were in a place to know extrabiblical details about Abraham, who would it have been?
We know that priests in Thebes at around the time period of Hor, who was a priest in Thebes, were interested in biblical figures. They were intertwining Egyptian religious thought and ritual with that of other cultures. This was especially true of Greek and Jewish cultures, which is not surprising since there were a lot of Greeks and Jews in Egypt at the time.
This may seem strange to a monotheistic culture like ours. But in a polytheistic culture it is normal to encounter other gods and want to make them happy and access their powers in addition to their own gods.
Priests in Thebes seem to have been using biblical figures like Jehovah, Michael, Moses, and Abraham in their ritual texts. We can tell that they had access to the stories in the Bible, but also to other stories about these figures.
If the Book of Abraham were among Hor’s papyri, it should not surprise us. He is exactly the kind of figure we would expect to be using a text like the Book of Abraham.
Who was the ancient Egyptian god named Min-Who-Massacres-His-Enemies?
Min-who-massacres-his-enemies was a god who was associated with execration rites. He was also associated with a Cannanite deity named Reshef. Thus he had a known tie with the area Abraham came from, and was associated with rituals that were aimed at destroying dangerous or chaotic elements. This matches well with the story presented in Abraham chapter one.
What rituals do we know of in which he was worshiped with human sacrifice?
Most execration rituals involved only inanimate objects. Yet we know that some of them, including some that were performed outside of Egypt’s boundaries, included the sacrifice of actual people. Again, it would not be surprising if Hor were interested in the story contained in the Book of Abraham.
- Let’s Talk About the Book of Abraham
- The Ultimate Book of Abraham Bibliography
- Legends About Abraham
- Freemasonry and the Temple Endowment
- What Have Scholars Learned About the Book of Abraham?
Ancient owners of the Joseph Smith Papyri resources
- A Guide to the Book of Abraham (BYU Studies)
- The Ancient Owners of the Papyri (BYU Religious Studies Center)
- Some Puzzles From the Joseph Smith Papryi (Farms Review)
- Let’s Talk about the Book of Abraham (Deseret Book)
- The Religious and Cultural Background of Joseph Smith Papyrus I (Journal of Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture)