Examining the Book of Abraham
Chapter 8

The Text of the Book of Abraham

So far, our discussion has centered around comparing Joseph Smith's interpretations of the Facsimiles with that of the Egyptologist, which is fine as far as it goes, but what about the text itself? After all, as interesting as the images are, it's the actual chapters and verses that make up the majority of the Book of Abraham. Is there anything the main body of the book can tell us regarding its authenticity?

One of the ways antiquity dealers determine if they are looking at a true historical document or if they are dealing with a fake is by determining if the document includes anachronisms. Put simply, anachronisms are things mentioned in the document that are out of place. For example, let's say we are shown a document that is supposed to have been written in the year 1750. However, when we read the document, we find that it contains a few specific references to the Revolutionary War. By taking note of these out-of-place references, we know that it could not have been written in 1750, but rather, we would know that this document had to have been written no earlier than about 1776, or whenever the last anachronism is dated. In this case, if one of the passages in the document referred to George Washington crossing the Delaware to attack a Hessian Garrison, then we would know that the document couldn't have been written any earlier than December 25, 1776.

Unfortunately, in most cases of forgery or fraud, investigators of old documents don't have the luxury of reading something so obviously out of place. They must rely on recognizing more subtle anachronisms. Maybe this suspected document mentions an object or a name that didn't exist when the document is purported to have been written. For instance, let's say that our document in question refers to New York City as "The Big Apple". We would then know that it can't date earlier than the early-19th century.a

The same is true with the Book of Abraham. If this book really was written "by the hand" of Abraham, then we shouldn't see anything that wouldn't have been known to people living in his time in history. In other words, if we accept that Abraham lived sometime between 2200 B.C.E. and 1500 B.C.E. (again, our Bible Dictionary places his birth at 1996 B.C.E.), then there shouldn't be anything within its pages that could only be known to someone living after that point. If an anachronism should occur, it's clear that it was placed there after the time of Abraham.

Anachronisms Within the Book of Abraham

If we say that the latter of the above dates, ie. 1500 BC, is latest possible date for Abraham, then we're safe in saying that the following are anachronisms1:

  • Facsimile #1 — This vignette is specifically referred to in the text of the Book of Abraham (Abr. 1:12, 14), but the vignette itself dates to approximately 150-100 B.C.E.

  • Chaldea — This name occurs in Abraham 1:1, 8, 13, 20, 23, 29, 30, and 2:4. The Chaldeans appeared in the ninth century B.C.E. in the land south of present-day Iraq (Babylonia), and, apparently, migrated from Syria2. If the Chaldeans appeared in the 9th century B.C.E., and Abraham lived prior to 1500 B.C.E., then the reference to the "Chaldeans" in the Book of Abraham is an anachronism of 700 years or more — a pretty big anachronism.

  • Pharaoh — Abraham 1:6 uses the phrase "Pharaoh, king of Egypt." Abraham 1:20 says that Pharaoh "signifies king by royal blood." And in Abraham 1:25, "Pharaoh" is used as a proper name rather than a title: "...the first government of Egypt was established by Pharaoh, the eldest son of Egyptus, the daughter of Ham." The word Pharaoh comes from an Egyptian term for the king's palace, which in Egyptian could be called "great house". The term "pharaoh" is not used as a title for the ruler of Egypt until 1504 BC. Some apologists have suggested that "Pharoah" might have been Joseph's translation for a word meaning "king", and that the word "pharaoh" never actually occurred in the text. However, we should remember that in Abraham 1:25, "Pharaoh" is used as a proper noun. Also, Joseph clearly considered Pharaoh to be an individual's name as we can tell from his interpretation of Facsimile #3, Figure 2, which reads, "King Pharaoh, whose name is given in the characters above his head."3

    Conclusion: The term "pharaoh" is border-line as an anachronism. If we say that Abraham lived significantly prior to 1500 B.C.E — like, for instance, our Bible Dictionary currently published in the Church's scriptures does when it dates Abraham to 1996 B.C.E. — then, absolutely, the word "pharaoh" is definitely anachronistic. However, if we date Abraham close to 1500 B.C.E., then it can't really be considered anachronistic. Therefore, I'll let the reader decide whether they will consider the word "pharaoh" to be problematic or not.

  • Potiphar's hill — Potiphar is actually the Hebrew form of an Egyptian name, which might have been odd for Abraham to use, given the possibility that Abraham would have spoken Semitic Babylonian, rather than Hebrew (which may, in itself, be anachronistic to Abraham's day)4. According to LDS Egyptologist Stephen E. Thompson, "The only occurrence of the Egyptian equivalent of 'Potiphar' is found on Cairo stele 65444, which dates to the Egyptian 21st dynasty (1069 - 945 BC)."5

  • Egyptus — Abr. 1:23: "The land of Egypt being first discovered by a woman, who was the daughter of Ham, and the daughter of Egyptus, which in the Chaldean signifies Egypt, which signifies that which is forbidden." Stephen E. Thompson: "First, Egyptus is not a Chaldean word, but Greek, and does not mean 'forbidden' in any language. The Greek "Egyptus" apparently derives from Egyptian hwt-k3-pth, "the house of the ka of Ptah," which was the name of a temple of Ptah in Memphis. During the New Kingdom, this term came to designate the town of Memphis, the capital of Egypt, in which the temple was located. Also there is some evidence that foreigners referred to the country of Egypt by this term as is attested in a Mycenaean Linear B tablet from Knossos, which is usually dated to around 1375 BC, i.e., 125 years after Abraham, as a man's name, presupposing that it was already a name for Egypt. Note also that the text (Abr. 1:22-25) implies that Egypt derived its name from an eponymous ancestor, Egyptus. Given the facts concerning the origin of the word Egyptus, however, this cannot represent historical reality."6

These aren't all the anachronisms found within the Book of Abraham, but they are representative. Based on the five anachronisms above, Facsimile 1 is the one with the latest date. Therefore, the text for the Book of Abraham couldn't have been composed until 150-100 B.C.E. at the earliest. It could have been written anytime after that point, but not before.

Incorrect Reconstruction of History

Egyptologist Stephen E. Thompson:

One of the primary events in the Book of Abraham is the attempted sacrifice of Abraham. We are told that in the land of the Chaldeans the "god of Pharaoh," which apparently should be taken to mean "the god Pharaoh," was worshipped (Abr. 1:7, 9-10, 13, 17). There was even a priesthood dedicated to the worship of pharaoh, and this priesthood offered human sacrifices to him. We are told that a "thank-offering" was offered consisting of a child (v. 10), and that three "virgins" were killed on the sacrificial altar because they "would not bow down to worship gods of wood or of stone" (v. 11). Finally, the priest of Pharaoh attempted to sacrifice Abraham, at which point the Lord intervened, rescued Abraham, and destroyed the altar and the priest (vv. 15-20).

From this we can infer several things. Apparently Pharaoh and several other Egyptian deities were being worshipped in Chaldea. We are not told specifically that the other gods were Egyptian, but we are told that the worship practices were "after the manner of the Egyptians" (Abr. 1:9,11), and the images which are said to represent these gods are Egyptian (v. 14). We can therefore plausibly infer that they were Egyptian deities. Part of the worship of these gods involved human sacrifice. The religion of that time and place was intolerant, anyone choosing not to engage in these worship practices ran the risk of losing his or her life. These practices seem to have been endorsed or promoted, or at least encouraged, by the Egyptian pharaoh. We are told that at the death of the priest who attempted to sacrifice Abraham there was "a great mourning...in the court of Pharaoh" (v. 20).7

First, there is no evidence that human sacrifice was practiced by ancient Egyptians throughout the vast majority of their history — and certainly no human sacrifices involving children! The Egyptians seemed to be, on the whole, a comparatively peaceful, gentle society. The only hints that human sacrifice was ever practiced in ancient Egypt tend to point to Egyptian pre-history and very, very early history, and seem to have been performed in only one or two contexts: either criminals and prisoners of war were sacrificed, or servants were sacrificed to be buried with their master. However, after the 1st Dynasty, human sacrifice was not practiced.7a

Secondly, all the evidence points to the Egyptians being very tolerant of others' religions. J. Cerny wrote:

"Egyptians were tolerant to each other within Egypt itself and they were equally tolerant to the gods of a conquered country. ...Towards the native gods they behaved as they so often did in Egypt towards the god or goddess of another town: they simply considered them as different names and forms of their own Egyptian deities. It is clear that in these circumstances no heresy could arise, and with the exception of a short period under and immediately after Ekhnaton, nothing is known of religious persecution of any kind in Egypt." (J. Cerny, Ancient Egyptian Religion, 1957)8

Third, studies "indicate that Egyptian gods were only rarely worshipped in Syria-Palestine, and then exceptionally. Rather than introducing Egyptian gods into Asia, the most common occurrence was for Egyptians stationed at posts and garrisons in Palestine to adopt the worship of the local Asiatic gods. Stefan Wimmer has recently written that the Egyptians "never thought about forcing the local population [of Syria-Palestine] to forsake their gods in exchange for Egyptian ones."9

Sources of the Book of Abraham

In making the case that Joseph Smith did not use an actual holograph of Abraham as a source for our current, printed version — either in physical form or in revelatory form — it is not necessary to show where he did come up with the book. It's only necessary to provide evidence of the impossibility, or at least the implausibility. However, I would like at this time to look at possible sources for the ideas behind the text (other than Joseph Smith's imagination).

We can group the Book of Abraham into four parts9a:

  1. Part One: "Abraham's Autobiographical Introduction", first published in the Times and Seasons, 1 March, 1842.
  2. Part Two: "Revision of Genesis 11:29; 12:1-13", first published in the Times and Seasons, 1 March, 1842.
  3. Part Three: "The Cosmos, and Spirit Existence," first published in the Times and Seasons, 15 March, 1842.
  4. Part Four: "Revision of Genesis 1:1-2:10, 16-25," first published in the Times and Seasons, 15 March, 1842.

Parts two and four, of course, have a clear basis in the King James Version of the Bible. But many of the concepts behind the new doctrines put forth in the Book of Abraham have other possible origins.

LDS author Grant Palmer explains:

In 1835, the year [Joseph Smith] produced the opening chapters of Abraham, his counselor Oliver Cowdery, in the Messenger and Advocate, mentioned Josephus three times in interpreting the pictures from the "Joseph of Egypt" scroll [Dec. 1835]. In the Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus wrote about how Noah, who had trouble with his son Ham, "cursed his posterity," whereas the lineage of Abraham and others "escaped that curse." Joseph Smith expanded this original curse (Gen. 9:20-27) to include denial of priesthood ordination to blacks (Abr. 1:21-26). LDS scholar Lester Bush, with these Abraham verses in mind, commented: "Mormon scripture [The Book of Abraham] and the contemporary pro slavery arguments are striking". Josephus further identified Abraham as a resident of Chaldea and "a person of great sagacity" who "began to have higher notions of virtue than others had, and he determined to renew and to change the opinion all men happened then to have concerning God." Abraham's preaching was not welcome. They "raised a tumult against him... and by the assistance of God, he came and lived in the land of Canaan. While in Canaan, a land promised to his posterity, Abraham encountered a famine. This brought him and his wife Sarah to Egypt, where he successfully pretended to be his wife's brother. The pharaoh eventually allowed him to "enter into conversation with the most learned among the Egyptians; from which conversation his virtue and reputation became more conspicuous than they had been before. ... He communicated to them arithmetic, and delivered to them the science of astronomy; for before Abram came into Egypt they were unacquainted with those parts of learning..."

This sketch by Josephus, which was available to Joseph Smith Hyrums Josephus[note the signature at the bottom of the page pictured to the right9b], explains why, upon examining Facsimile 1 of the Hor papyrus, Joseph might have assumed that Abraham was being sacrificed for preaching against heathen gods but escaped with God's assistance. Viewing the other end of the scroll, Joseph further saw (Facsimile 3) Abraham teaching astronomy in Pharaoh's court just as Josephus's narrative portrays.10


The astronomical phrases and concepts in the Abraham texts were also common in Joseph Smith's environment. For example, in 1816 Thomas Taylor published a two-volume work called The Six Books of Proclus on the Theology of Plato. Volume 2 (pp. 140-146) contains phrases and ideas similar to the astronomical concepts in Abraham 3 and Facsimile No. 2. In these six pages, Taylor calls the planets "governors" and uses the terms "fixed stars and planets" and "grand key." Both works refer to the sun as a planet receiving its light and power from a higher sphere rather than generating its own light through hydrogen-helium fusion (cf. Fac. 2, fig. 5). LDS scholar R. Grant Athay, a research astronomer and director of the University of Colorado Observatory, has written, "At the time that the Book of Abraham was translated ... the energy source of the sun was unknown," and "the concept of one star influencing another was also a common concept of the time."11 Further reflecting nineteenth-century cosmology, Taylor (cf. Abraham 3:4-10) describes the progression of time among the universal bodies. Like Abraham 3:16-19, certain people of Joseph Smith's day also believed in progressive orders of orbs and the intelligences that inhabited them. According to Athay:

    They believed that the surface of the sun was solid, and that it was inhabited by human beings. In fact, they believed that it was inhabited by man. They also believed that all the planets in the solar system were inhabited by man, and the moon as well ... [T]he concept of multiple-world systems, multiple dwellings of man ... was a rather common topic of that time.12

Corroborating the fact that this idea of people living on the moon and sun was prevalent within the social structure of the first generation of Latter-day Saints are the following statements.

In 1833, Oliver Cowdery stated:

"It is a pleasing thing to let the mind stretch away and contemplate the vast creations of the Almighty; to see the planets perform their regular revolutions, and observe their exact motions; to view the thousand suns giving light to myriads off globes, moving in their respective orbits, and revolving upon their several axis, all inhabited by intelligent beings..." (The Evening and the Morning Star, Vol. 2 (Dec. 1833): p. 116 - emphasis added)

In a sermon given April 27, 1843 by Hiram Smith on the plurality of gods and worlds, is this comment:

"...every Star that we see is a world and is inhabited the same as this world is peopled. The Sun & Moon is inhabited & the Stars & (Jesus Christ is the light of the Sun, etc.). The Stars are inhabited the same as this Earth. But eny of them are larger then this Earth, & meny that we cannot see without a telliscope are larger then this Earth. They are under the same order as this Earth is undergoing & undergoing the same change." (George Laub Nauvoo Journal, emphasis added)

More specifically, according to Grant Palmer, Joseph Smith owned one particular book that probably greatly influenced his cosmology:

Klaus Hansen, an LDS scholar, has written: "The progressive aspect of Joseph's theology, as well as its cosmology, while in a general way compatible with antebellum thought, bears some remarkable resemblances to Thomas Dick's Philosophy of a Future State, a second edition of which had been published in 1830," Joseph Smith owned a copy of this work, and Oliver Cowdery in December 1836 quoted some lengthy excerpts from it in the Messenger and Advocate [Dec. 1836: 423-25]. Hansen continues:

    Some very striking parallels to Smith's theology suggest that the similarities between the two may be more than coincidental. Dick's lengthy book, an ambitious treatise on astronomy and metaphysics, proposed the idea that matter is eternal and indestructible and rejected the notion of a creation ex nihilo. Much of the book dealt with the infinity of the universe, made up of innumerable stars spread out over immeasurable distances. Dick speculated that many of these stars were peopled by "various orders of intelligences" and that these intelligences were "progressive beings" in various stages of evolution toward perfection. In the Book of Abraham, part of which consists of a treatise on astronomy and cosmology, eternal beings of various orders and stages of development likewise populate numerous stars. They, too, are called "intelligences." Dick speculated that "the systems of the universe revolve around a common center... the throne of God." In the Book of Abraham, one star named Kolob "was nearest unto the throne of God." Other stars, in ever diminishing order, were placed in increasing distances from this center.

Hansen observed further that:

    According to the Book of Abraham, the patriarch had a knowledge of the times of various planets, "until thou come nigh unto Kolob which Kolob is after the reckoning of the Lord's time; which Kolob is set nigh unto the throne of God, to govern all those planets which belong to the same order as that upon which thou standest." One revolution of Kolob "was a day unto the Lord, after his manner of reckoning, it being one thousand years according to the time appointed unto that whereon thou standest. This is the reckoning of the Lord's time according to the reckoning of Kolob." God's time thus conformed perfectly to the laws of Galilean relativity and Newtonian mechanics."

What we find in Abraham 3 and the official scriptures of the LDS church regarding science reflects a Newtonian world concept. The Catholic church's Ptolemaic cosmology was displaced by the new Copernican and Newtonian world model, just as the nineteenth-century, canonized, Newtonian world view is challenged by Einstein's twentieth-century science. Keith Norman, a Mormon scholar, has written that for the LDS church, "it is no longer possible to pretend there is not conflict." He continues:

    Scientific cosmology began its leap forward just when Mormon doctrine was becoming stabilized. The revolution in twentieth-century physics precipitated by Einstein dethroned Newtonian physics as the ultimate explanation of the way the universe works. Relativity theory and quantum mechanics, combined with advances in astronomy, have established a vastly different picture of how the universe began, how it is structured and operates, and the nature of matter and energy. ... This new scientific cosmology pose[s] a serious challenge to the Mormon version of the universe.

Many of the astronomical and cosmological ideas found in both Joseph Smith's environment and in the Book of Abraham have become out of vogue, and some of these Newtonian concepts are scientific relics. The evidence suggests that the Book of Abraham reflects concepts of Joseph Smith's time and place rather than those of an ancient world.13

I recently mentioned to someone that LDS doctrine tends to reflect a Newtonian world view, to which they responded rather scornfully, that I hadn't checked my facts. There was no mention of gravity or any such thing in LDS doctrine or scriptures! While this is true, I had to explain that the Newtonian relics which are important to traditional LDS teachings include a universe that has existed forever, and which physically has no borders (i.e., is infinitely large).

Stephen Hawking, in his classic book A Brief History of Time, summed up Newton's reasoning behind the idea of an "infinite universe", which was generally assumed to be true in Joseph Smith's day.

The Copernican model got rid of Ptolemy's celestial spheres, and with them, the idea that the universe had a natural boundary. Since "fixed stars" did not appear to change their positions apart from a rotation across the sky caused by the earth spinning on its axis, it became natural to suppose that the fixed stars were objects like our sun but very much farther away.

Newton realized that, according to his theory of gravity, the stars should attract each other, so it seemed they could not remain essentially motionless. Would they not all fall together at some point? In a letter in 1691 to Richard Bentley, another leading thinker of his day, Newton argued that this would indeed happen if there were only a finite number of stars distributed over a finite region of space. But he reasoned that if, on the other hand, there were an infinite number of stars, distributed more or less uniformly over infinite space, this would not happen, because there would not be any central point for them to fall to.14

Unfortunately, this idea of an "infinite universe" is simply an impossibility. Stephen Hawkings goes on to explain:

This argument is an instance of the pitfalls that you can encounter in talking about infinity. In an infinite universe, every point can be regarded as the center, because every point has an infinite number of stars on each side of it. The correct approach, it was realized only much later, is to consider the finite situation, in which the stars all fall in on each other, and then to ask how things change if one adds more stars roughly uniformly distributed outside this region. According to Newton's law, the extra stars would make no difference at all to the original ones of average, so the stars would fall in just as fast. We can add as many stars as we like, but they will still always collapse in on themselves. We now know it is impossible to have an infinite static model of the universe in which gravity is always attractive...

Another...difficulty is that in an infinite static universe nearly every line of sight would end on the surface of a star. Thus one would expect that the whole sky would be as bright as the sun, even at night. [The] counterargument was that the light from distant stars would be dimmed by absorption by intervening matter. However, if that happened the intervening matter would eventually heat up until it glowed as brightly as the stars. The only way of avoiding the conclusion that the whole of the night sky should be as bright as the surface of the sun would be to assume that the stars had not been shining forever but had turned on at some finite time in the past. In that case the absorbing matter might not have heated up yet or the light from distant stars might not yet have reached us.15

We also know now that the universe had a beginning. How do we know this? Because the universe is expanding — all stars are moving away from each other, and from their point of origin. If we could trace the paths of the stars backwards, we would find a point in space and time when all that matter was once all together — hence, the beginning of the universe. Today's astronomers estimate that beginning to be about 15 billion years ago.

Abraham, assuming he actually existed (which is currently debated among Bible scholars), was a mortal man, subject to the prevailing social attitudes and understandings of his day. I can accept that. I can accept that he could have recorded flawed astronomical concepts, thinking they were accurate.

But, why on earth would Abraham give us flawed 19th-century astronomical concepts? Why wouldn't he have given us flawed ancient-Babylonian astronomical concepts (or ancient Sumerian concepts, etc.)? If the Book of Abraham was full of flawed ancient astronomical ideas, I could easily accept the Book of Abraham as an ancient document. But, here again, we see ideas that are clearly anachronisms, which point away from Abraham, and right to Joseph Smith.

Translation of Egyptian Symbols — Facsimile #2
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**** Footnotes ****

a. See http://salwen.com/apple.html - Go back to article

1. This list comes from: Stephen E. Thompson, "Egyptology and the Book of Abraham", Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Spring 1995 - Go back to article

2. Stephen E. Thompson, "Egyptology and the Book of Abraham", Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Spring 1995, p. 154 - Go back to article

3. Stephen E. Thompson, "Egyptology and the Book of Abraham", Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Spring 1995, pp. 154-155 - Go back to article

4. Samuel A. B. Mercer, PhD., "Joseph Smith as an Interpreter and Translator of Egyptian", The Utah Survey, Vol. 1, No. 1, September 1913, p. 22 — Also, check out an interesting site called History of Hebrew by David Steinberg. According to Steinberg, we would have had a "Proto-Hebrew" language around the year 2000 B.C.E., but "Biblical Hebrew" didn't really crystallize until 900 B.C.E. in Jerusalem - Go back to article

5. Stephen E. Thompson, "Egyptology and the Book of Abraham", Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Spring 1995, pp. 155 - Go back to article

6. Stephen E. Thompson, "Egyptology and the Book of Abraham", Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Spring 1995, pp. 155-156 - Go back to article

7. Stephen E. Thompson, "Egyptology and the Book of Abraham", Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Spring 1995, pp. 156-158 - Go back to article

7a. For an overview of human sacrifice practices of Ancient Egypt, see Caroline Seawright Human Sacrifice in Ancient Egypt, October 11, 2003 - Go back to article

8. As quoted by Stephen E. Thompson, "Egyptology and the Book of Abraham", Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Spring 1995, p. 159 - Go back to article

9. Stephen E. Thompson, "Egyptology and the Book of Abraham", Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Spring 1995, pp. 158-159 - Go back to article

9a. Edward H. Ashment, "Making the Scriptures 'Indeed One In Our Hands'," in The Word of God: Essays on Mormon Scripture, ed. by Dan Vogel, publ. Signature Books, p. 245. - Go back to article

9b. This graphic is taken from Grant Palmer's book, An Insider's View of Mormon Origins, publ. Signature Books, 2002, p. 18. Be aware that the handwritten notation "Hyrum Smith's book" was not originally on the title page of Josephus's book, but it was on another page of the book. When Palmer, or the folks at Signature Books, created the graphic, the signature was combined with the title page in order to more clearly illustrate that this book of Josephus was owned by Hyrum. - Go back to article

10. Grant Palmer, An Insider's View of Mormon Origins, publ. Signature Books, 2002, pp. 16-19 - Go back to article

11. R. Grant Athay, "Astronomy in the Book of Abraham," Book of Abraham Symposium (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Institute of Religion, 3 Apr. 1970), ix, 60-61. - Go back to article

12. R. Grant Athay, "Astronomy in the Book of Abraham," Book of Abraham Symposium (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Institute of Religion, 3 Apr. 1970), ix, 60-61. ALSO, Grant Palmer, An Insider's View of Mormon Origins, publ. Signature Books, 2002, pp. 21-22 - Go back to article

13. Grant Palmer, An Insider's View of Mormon Origins, publ. Signature Books, 2002, pp. 22-25 - Go back to article

14. Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time: The Updated and Expanded Tenth Anniversary Edition [1998], p. 5. - Go back to article

15. Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time: The Updated and Expanded Tenth Anniversary Edition [1998], pp. 6, 7. - Go back to article

Translation of Egyptian Symbols — Facsimile #2
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