Let’s Talk About the Book of Abraham is an easy-to-read summary of the important gospel topic. In this interview, Egyptologist Kerry Muhlestein looks at the history of Abraham’s book, discusses the facsimiles, and weighs the limitations of current theories—including his own.
What is the book’s origin story?
I have been researching the Book of Abraham for nearly two decades. I have long intended to write a extensive book that would go through all the issues in great detail. I would like to do two versions of that book, one for an academic non-believing audience and one for the typical member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
About ten years ago I thought I was close to being able to write such a book, if I just finished researching a few topics. Instead, as I delve into any given topic, I see several more important topics that I feel I need to research first, so I am not yet ready to write that full treatment even now, a decade later. I also know that it will be a few more years until I can start to work on it, and it will take a few years to write.
Still, as I have been working towards that goal, a little while ago I realized that the topics I felt I still had left to pursue were interesting and important, but were not about the core issues regarding the Book of Abraham. I was sure we knew enough to competently and clearly address the central and important issues.
I also knew that there was a great need to do so. I decided that it was time to write a readable, concise, precise, accurate and forthright book about the Book of Abraham for those who had honest questions. A book similar to this had just come out, but I felt that I wanted to write something that would address many of the same questions, but would also have a focus on the journey of the reader and the process by which they could come to their own answers.
At about the time I was looking to make writing such a book my next project, I was contacted by Deseret Book about a new series they were doing that was aimed at answering questions members of the Church had about important topics. They wondered if I would consider writing such a book on the Book of Abraham. It was more than coincidence, so I jumped at the chance.
I wrote and rewrote and rewrote. I went to the temple until COVID-19 stopped that practice. I found quiet places in the mountains and at home to write. I had a marvelous experience. When I sent the manuscript to Deseret Book, they found three reviewers who were incredibly competent and who were also incredibly willing to help me improve the book. They very frequently did not agree with me. They worked with me quite closely, holding my feet to the fire a number of times. I revised, cut, added, and rewrote some more. I believe the book is much better, so much better, because of their help. I am very grateful that Deseret Book found such reviewers for me, and that those reviewers were so willing and able to help me.
Was the Book of Abraham text on the papyrus used by Joseph Smith?
We cannot tell for sure. There is some evidence that it was. Joseph Smith certainly spoke of it that way, and that is pretty weighty evidence. Further, the more I research the life and interests of the priest who owned the papyrus fragment which contains the original of Facsimile One, the more I become convinced that this priest would have been very interested in the text of the Book of Abraham. That is circumstantial evidence that the text of the Book of Abraham was on the papyrus. If it was, then evidence points to its being on the long roll, which was burned in the Great Chicago Fire and is lost to us now. This is often called the “missing papyrus theory.”
As good as this evidence is, we just can’t be sure. When we look at translation projects the Prophet had engaged in before this, we see that one of them, the translation of the Bible, involved looking at a King James Bible, which served as a catalyst to open his mind to revelation from God.
What was revealed was an inspired text that was not in the King James Version of the Bible. Thus we have to acknowledge that sometimes God worked that way with Joseph Smith, and it is possible that the papyri served as a focal point for him, something that helped him open his mind to revelation from God, which revelation yielded an ancient text God wished to restore to mankind through his Prophet, Joseph Smith. This is often called the “catalyst theory.”
There are variations to these theories. In the end, we just don’t know exactly what the relationship is between the papyri and the text.
What is the relationship between Joseph Smith’s Egyptian alphabet and his work on the Book of Abraham?
I wish I knew! Over the last several years I have spent a great deal of time and energy trying to determine that. So have several other people from many points of view. As I have studied it intensely I have come to the firm conclusion that none of the theories that have been published are correct, including my own.
The evidence does not support any current theory (although I know of some people working on some new theories that I hope will have more power to explain these documents).
In my opinion, at the current time we are forced to reject all our theories and go back to the drawing board. We should quit wasting our time pursuing theories that the facts don’t support, and instead try new avenues of research. I would urge people to disregard anyone who is telling them they know how these alphabets and grammars were used. They do not know, and so I wouldn’t waste my time with them. Instead put your energies into figuring out something that might work, or into another topic altogether while you wait for someone else to come up with a workable theory.
To summarize we do not know what the relationship is between the alphabets and grammars and the text of the Book of Abraham. We know what it is not. We know it is not any of the theories proposed to date. Hopefully one day we will know what the relationship is.
What did Joseph Smith mean by “translate” in relation to his work on the Egyptian papyri?
We do not fully understand this either (are you seeing a theme here?). Joseph Smith may have translated a text on the papyri similar to the way he translated the Book of Mormon. We do not know whether or not he used the Urim and Thumim during the translation of the Book of Abraham.
Some evidence suggests he used them as he prepared the text for publication, but we don’t have enough information to know much about that. As noted above, perhaps he was translating a text that was not on the papyri, but came as a revelation similar to how the Book of Moses came as he translated the King James Version of the Bible.
Perhaps the alphabets and grammars represent his studying it out in his own mind, as they had been commanded to do, before he received the revelation.
Perhaps they don’t represent that.
All we know is that Joseph Smith translated it by the power of God, as direct inspiration from heaven.
What was Fragment One?
We have recovered 11 fragments of the papyri Joseph Smith once owned. The two large rolls he owned (one larger than the other), and at least one more fragment (the hypocephalus, or the original of Facsimile Two) were burned. The recovered fragments were each given a number, which has become the name by which they are known.
Fragment One has a little bit of hieroglyphic text, but most of the fragment is taken up by a drawing. That drawing is the original that Facsimile One is a facsimile of.
As a result, many people assumed the text around it was the source of the Book of Abraham. Much ink has been spilled over this assumption, and many testimonies have been shaken over this assumption as people either accidentally or intentionally pretended that this assumption was a fact.
Yet when we recognize it as an assumption, and turn it into a hypothesis by clearly stating it and testing it, we find that this hypothesis cannot withstand testing; the hypothesis is proven negative, or incorrect.
That means it was an incorrect assumption, and all the arguments and heartburn and heartache that surrounded that assumption were a waste.
The only thing that was not wasteful about it was that eventually we started treating it as a hypothesis rather than an assumption. When that happened, it helped us move forward and rule out the assumption. That is the process by which we can progress in our academic knowledge.
It has become clear that Fragment I was not the source of the Book of Abraham. It was not what Joseph Smith was translating from.
What are some examples that establish historicity?
I don’t know that we can “establish” its historicity by any method other than revelation from God. We can certainly establish that it is plausible, that it makes sense, that the text has the markings of being historical. In fact, I think we have come to the point where it requires more faith to believe that the Book of Abraham is not historical than it does to believe that it is.
There is a great deal of research in the ancient world that makes the historicity of the Book of Abraham plausible, and even compellingly likely. I will mention briefly a few here, but the reader can find even more at Pearl of Great Price Central. I do not think the series of articles you will find there are comprehensive, but there are many topics treated there in a very academically sound and thorough fashion that many people will enjoy reading.
Here we will very lightly touch on a few fun examples.
- The Book of Abraham is written in a manner that is consistent with autobiographies from that time period.
- It displays ways of writing that signal that the ancient Egyptian language influenced it.
- It contains place names (such as Olishem) that were not known in Joseph Smith’s days but which correspond to the names of places from the time period of Abraham in the place where the text says the events it describes were happening.
- It mentions Canaanite gods who were unheard of in Joseph Smith’s day but we now know were worshipped in the time and place the text says they were.
- The text of the Book of Abraham contains a word, Shinehah, that it associates with the sun and its path, which recent research has revealed was actually an ancient Egyptian word that was used only during Abraham’s day, which describes the sun on its path.
- Joseph Smith ascribes four characters in one of the facsimiles as representing the four quarters of the earth, and the Egyptians also associated the four quarters with those four characters.
- The ancient Egyptians associated Abraham with drawings similar to all three facsimiles.
- The ancient owner of Facsimile One was the kind of person who, in the time and place he lived, would have been interested in stories about Abraham, and the kinds of activities he was engaged in would have made him interested in the details and storyline we find in the Book of Abraham.
- The cultural setting for the near sacrifice of Abraham matches perfectly with the time and place he lived.
The list goes on and on, but I can say that in general, the Book of Abraham fits nicely in an ancient context. As a specialist in ancient texts I find that it reads as an ancient text. Time and again I find that it fits incredibly well with the ancient world.
What are some examples for which Latter-day Saints don’t yet have answers?
As was mentioned above, we don’t know whether or not the text of the Book of Abraham was on the papyri owned by Joseph Smith. We don’t know what the purpose of the alphabets and grammars are. We don’t know as much about Facsimile Three as we would like.
We don’t know why the hieroglyphic text Joseph Smith refers to in Facsimile Three does not appear to match what Joseph Smith says, though we are coming to be more precise in recognizing that we are not as able to read that text as many have said we are.
Egyptologically we don’t yet understand the kinds of drawings that Facsimile Two is as we well as we would like, which makes it more difficult to get as much out of Facsimile Two as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints want.
I would so love to better understand the Egyptological meanings of that drawing, and I am excited that it seems like we are creeping slowly towards a better understanding.
But it is slow, as it is with many other questions. Still, we are progressing.
How have the Joseph Smith Papers enhanced your understanding?
The way the Joseph Smith Papers have helped the most is how available the alphabets and grammars and earliest Book of Abraham manuscripts are. This has allowed me to do some very detailed and comprehensive studies of the relationship between how the characters are used in each of these different documents.
It was only when I did such an detailed analysis that I came to the conclusion that none of the current theories worked.
Having these documents available in high resolution where I can blow the pictures up and look at things in a very clear manner has made it possible to really understand the relationship between the different documents, as well as the lack of relationship.
What unique doctrines are lost if we rule out the Book of Abraham as inspired?
First, let’s not rule it out! It is absolutely inspired! Second, there are many crucial doctrines in the Book of Abraham, but some of the most important are a greater understanding of the Abrahamic Covenant, and a greater understanding of pre-mortality and the purpose of life.
For example, it is only in the Book of Abraham where we see that when God extended the covenant to Abraham that a very important part of it was priesthood ordinances and the obligation to share those priesthood ordinances with the entire world. That is radically different than how the covenant has been viewed historically.
That difference is so important. It is part of why we are trying to make ordinances available to all mankind on both sides of the veil. President Nelson has certainly been emphasizing this!
It is in Abraham 3 that we get our clearest statement about pre-mortality. It is there that we learn about noble and great ones being with God before creation, and about their presence in a council where the purpose of life was stated, and their apparent role in creation.
It is also in the midst of this that we learn that part of the purpose of life is to see if we will do all things commanded of us, which can lead to our having glory added to our heads forever. That is pretty important stuff!
How has the Book of Abraham impacted Kerry Muhlestein spiritually?
The Book of Abraham has helped me better understand my relationship with God.
Abraham’s relationship with God is a theme of chapter one. The relationship between God and all who make a covenant is the theme of chapter two. Defining that relationship, and the potential to have that relationship grow closer and closer is the theme of chapter three. Taken together, studying the Book of Abraham has helped me realize how much God wants to be involved in my life, and how much he wants me to continue to draw closer to him for forever.
It has helped me see my potential. Seeing God’s intimate love and desire for me has helped me feel an increased love for him. That has impacted the way I see and approach every element of life. It has suffused my life in a greater warmth, trust, comfort, and excitement. The Book of Abraham has helped me have a faith-filled enthusiasm for this life and for the next life as well!
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