Part 12: CES Letter Book of Abraham Questions [Section C]


by Sarah Allen


As the beginning of the next question in the CES Letter is basically a retread of the previous one, I’m just going to skim over it really quickly as a brief recap.

Egyptologists have also since translated the source material for the Book of Abraham and have found it to be nothing more than a common pagan Egyptian funerary text for a deceased man named “Hor” around the first century C.E.

As we went over previously, the papyri fragments have been translated and do reflect funerary texts, which the Church confirmed just over a month after they received them. As we also went over, we certainly cannot say they were the source material for the Book of Abraham. Joseph himself said otherwise, and even if you don’t believe him, numerous other eyewitnesses all confirmed that it was the long roll that was the source material, not the fragments mounted under glass. Since the fragments are all we have today, we can’t confirm the eyewitness testimony. However, whether you believe in the catalyst theory, the missing scroll theory, or some other theory entirely, if we trust in Joseph Smith, the one thing we know for certain is that the fragments are not the source material for the Book of Abraham, no matter how many times Jeremy Runnells insists that they are.

It’s here that Runnells starts going through the facsimiles one by one. The first thing I want to discuss is the different possible approaches to translating the facsimiles and some of the reasons why there are different approaches. Then next week, we’ll start going through the facsimiles one at a time in more detail like he does.

There are multiple ways to consider the facsimiles, and we don’t currently know which is the most correct. Pearl of Great Price Central (PGPC) discusses several possible approaches:

  • The illustrations were original to Abraham. To interpret them we should look to how Egyptians in Abraham’s day, or Abraham himself, would have understood them.

  • The illustrations were original to Abraham but were modified over time for use by the ancient Egyptians. The illustrations we have as preserved in the facsimiles are much later and altered copies of Abraham’s originals. To interpret them we should consider the underlying Abrahamic elements and compare them with how the Egyptians understood these images.

  • The illustrations were connected to the Book of Abraham when the Joseph Smith Papyri were created in the Ptolemaic period (circa 300–30 BC). To interpret them we should look to what Egyptians of that time thought these drawings represent.

  • The illustrations were connected to the Book of Abraham for the first time in the Ptolemaic period, but to interpret them we should look specifically to what Egyptian priests who were integrating Jewish, Greek, and Mesopotamian religious practices into native Egyptian practices would have thought about them.

  • The illustrations were connected to the Book of Abraham in the Ptolemaic period, but to interpret them we should look to how Jews of that era would have understood of them.

  • The illustrations were never part of the ancient text of the Book of Abraham, but instead were adapted by Joseph Smith to artistically depict the ancient text he revealed/translated. We can make sense of Joseph’s interpretations by expanding our understanding of his role as a “translator.”

Each of these approaches has its respective strengths and weaknesses, but none on its own can account for all of the available evidence. For example, the first paradigm is a more straightforward way of thinking about the facsimiles but is severely undermined by the fact that the Joseph Smith Papyri date to many centuries after Abraham’s lifetime. The second, third, and fourth paradigms are each compelling to varying degrees since they can account for the instances where Joseph Smith’s interpretations of the facsimiles align with other Egyptologists, but no single one of them can account for his interpretations in their entirety from an Egyptological perspective. … “There are aspects of [these explanations] that match what Egyptologists say they mean. Some [of them] are quite compelling. … However, as we look at the entirety of any of the facsimiles, an Egyptological interpretation does not match what Joseph Smith said about them.” This is, however, complicated by the fact that even though none of Joseph Smith’s explanations to the facsimiles in their entirety agree with how modern Egyptologists understand these illustrations, in many instances they do accurately reflect ancient Egyptian and Semitic concepts. This requires us to carefully unpack the assumptions we bring when approaching the facsimiles under any of the theoretical paradigms listed above.

Kerry Muhlestein echoed this thought in an interview with Stephen Smoot:

Was Joseph Smith giving us an interpretation that ancient Egyptians would have held, or one that only a small group of priests interested in Abraham would have held, or one that a group of ancient Jews in Egypt would have held, or something another group altogether would have held, or was he giving us an interpretation we needed to receive for our spiritual benefit regardless of how any ancient groups would have seen these? We do not know. While I can make a pretty good case for the idea that some Egyptians could have viewed Facsimile 1 the way Joseph Smith presents it, I am not sure that is the methodology we should be employing. We just don’t know enough about what Joseph Smith was doing to be sure about any possible comparisons, or lack thereof.

Some of Joseph’s interpretations of the symbols and figures on the facsimiles are pretty spot-on, as we’ll talk about when we actually dive into those interpretations. Others make sense from a religious standpoint but not from an ancient Egyptian standpoint, so it’s difficult to figure out exactly how we should view the facsimiles and to what source we should be looking for answers. It could be one or any combination of the above options, or even something else entirely.

If the drawings are being interpreted as how the laypeople in ancient Egypt saw those figures, for example, they’d be different from how the priestly class would view them. Those interpretations by the priests would be different still from how ancient Jews living in Egypt would have viewed them. Time and location also play a factor, as different groups of people living in different places and times would have viewed the figures differently. The same symbols could have different meanings depending on the context in which they were used, even among the same group of people.

William Hamblin explains, “In other words, by the Late Period at the latest, the Egyptians had developed religious methods of reinterpreting their own ancient iconographic symbols and images (which were by this time already 2000 years old). Different movements and sects within Egypt produced differing interpretations of the same meanings. This phenomenon broadly parallels similar and roughly contemporaneous developments of different movements of textual exegesis and interpretation among both Egyptians, Alexandrian Greeks, and Jews within Egypt itself. The question for scholars of the Book of Abraham is: does Joseph Smith’s interpretations of the iconography of the papyri represent nineteenth century iconotropy, or a revelation to Joseph of ancient iconotropy?”

Another issue is that Egyptian art was meant to be interpreted differently by different people. It was supposed to have different meanings to different groups. It’s famous for that. The Egyptians were proud of the multiple meanings their art could hold.

As John Watson stated:

The Egyptians themselves were conscious of the ambiguity in their own symbolism and even seem to have encouraged it. Enigmatic statements in religious texts are not infrequently glossed with several divergent explanations, and the principle doubtless applies to representations as well as literary use of symbols. There is often a field or range of possible meanings for a given symbol, and while we may select a specific interpretation that seems most likely according to context we must remember that other symbolic associations may also be involved. This is not to say that ancient Egyptian symbolism is inchoate, inconsistent or imprecise, but that a flexible approach must be maintained in attempting to understand its workings. Successful analysis must avoid unfounded speculation, yet at the same time it must attempt to incorporate the intellectual flexibility that the Egyptians themselves display.

And in his blog, Tim Barker quotes excerpts from Betsy Bryan’s “The Disjunction of Text and Image in Egyptian Art”:

Although in most cases inscriptions are read in concert with the objects on which they are placed, if they are considered separately it may be possible to identify two distinct messages comprehended by different audiences. … Ultimately text and image speak to two distinct audiences with the appropriate message of royal display and power. Egyptian art communicates without text and with it. Although it often does, art does not necessarily coincide with text in the meaning it conveys. … Although many Egyptologists might conclude that the uncomplicated nature of the relief story underscores the dependence of art on text, it is more likely an illustration that Egyptian art was directed at more than one constituency, depending on whether the text was to be read or not. … It is a significant point in this example that the small number of elites who could read would not have interpreted the monuments of Ramesses II in the same way as the vast public. For this last group the temples were in any case distant and restricted centers of authority, royal and religious. Nonetheless a complete message was communicated to both audiences. We cannot estimate with any certainty the degree to which the owner of a monument depended on the separate and combined messages of art and inscription. We are safe, however, in assuming that those who viewed a monument did not take away the same message. … Indeed, this dissonance in text and image can be found on nearly every inscribed object and must assert that the function of text with image was other than caption or explication.

She’s talking about inscribed monuments here, but the same idea holds true for drawn art and accompanying text: the literacy of the person viewing the art played a significant factor in their understanding of its meaning. The illiterate common people interpreted art differently than the literate priest class did. And, as stated, Egyptian Jews would have viewed that art very differently, too.

There is plenty of evidence of Jews living in Egypt and not only building temples and copying their records, but also appropriating Egyptian art for their own use. Additionally, Abraham and Moses were both well-known by Egyptians, at least among the literate elite. Abraham in particular was mentioned many times, mostly in religious contexts, though the Egyptian religious context is considerably different from our own.

Regarding the Jews living in Egypt, PGPC states that, “… [T]here is ample evidence that groups of ancient Israelites and other Semitic peoples migrated into Egypt over the course of many centuries, taking with them their culture, religious practices, and sacred texts. … They made copies of biblical texts that have survived today, attesting to the existence a thriving literary and religious culture in their community. … During the Greco-Roman period of Egyptian history (circa 300 BC–AD 400), ancient Jews built communities in many parts of Egypt. The city of Alexandria on the coast of the Mediterranean was home to a sizable Jewish community. Other Egyptian sites such as Leontopolis, Oxyrynchus, Thebes, and locations in the Fayum likewise had a Jewish presence. … Evidence from surviving textual sources confirms that Jewish names (including names such as Solomon, Aaron, Abraham, and Samuel) proliferated throughout Egypt. Summarizing this evidence, one scholar wrote how ‘besides the Greeks, Jews were the most numerous group of foreigners living in Egypt’ during this time. There is also clear evidence that these Egyptian Jews copied their sacred texts and even composed new texts while they lived in Egypt. The Old Testament was translated into Greek in Alexandria during this time, and stories about Abraham and other biblical figures circulated amongst Jews living both inside and outside of Egypt.”

The Egyptians were well-known for folding religious figures and elements from other cultures into their own. One of the more interesting things to note is that Abraham was clearly sometimes associated with the Egyptian god Osiris. Kerry Muhlestein elaborated on that in a paper titled “The Religious and Cultural Background of Joseph Smith Papyrus I”:

The other distinguishable pattern is of a different nature. While the stories associated with Moses dictate the use of his name in Egyptian religious texts, it is not entirely clear why Abraham became associated with Osiris. Again, the pattern is not strong, but it exists. It is curious to note that in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man—a parable that has a number of parallels with an earlier Egyptian tale known as the Setna II story—in the place Osiris would have occupied in an Egyptian context, Jesus instead mentions Abraham. This may indicate that the parallel was first conceived of in Jewish thought, though we cannot be sure.

 In any case, there are enough instances in which Abraham appears in contexts normally occupied by Osiris that we must conclude the Egyptians saw some sort of connection between the two. John Gee has pointed out one of the strongest associations, noting that in a number of instances the phrase “live in the presence of Osiris” was replaced in Greek by “rest in Abraham’s bosom.”

 All these instances occur within an Egyptian religious context, making it clear that for whatever reason, the Egyptians viewed Abraham as an appropriate parallel for Osiris—if not the most appropriate parallel.

This is notable because in Facsimile 3, a figure labeled by Joseph Smith as Abraham is typically identified by most Egyptologists as Osiris, but we’ll get deeper into that when we discuss that particular facsimile.

One of the main issues we face in trying to understand Joseph’s explanations of the facsimiles is that, quite often, modern Egyptologists are simply guessing at what the figures mean, and they’re very often wrong in their guesses. In an article entitled “Towards an Interpretation of Hypocephali”, John Gee explains:

…[O]ne of the glaring problems encountered in the sparse commentary on the iconography of hypocephali [the type of drawing Facsimile 2 is] is that the identifications made of various figures often bears no resemblance to the identification by the ancient Egyptians of the same figures. … If we ignore the ancient Egyptian identifications of the various figures in the hypocephali, we will construct an understanding of hypocephali that bears no resemblance to the ancient Egyptian understanding. We will, in short, not understand it at all.

He goes on to cite some noted examples, such as where an Egyptologist named Edith Varga identified a particular figure as the boat of the Egyptian god Ptah-Sokar, transporting him during the resurrection of the souls of the dead. This seems to be similar to the Greek myth of Charon ferrying souls across the River Styx to the underworld. However, ancient Egyptians did not associate this figure with Ptah-Sokar, and there is no mention of a resurrection. They identified the figure as meaning “soul of souls.”

In another article, he expands this analysis to include the other facsimiles:

We want to know: does X (the interpretation of Joseph Smith) equal Y (the interpretation of the ancient Egyptians)? But in reality the question is usually modified slightly by asking: does X (the interpretation of Joseph Smith) equal Z (the interpretation of modern Egyptologists)? As I have already tacitly demonstrated elsewhere (at least for Facsimile 2), Z (the interpretation of modern Egyptologists) usually does not equal Y (the interpretation of the ancient Egyptians). Z is therefore irrelevant. Of the twenty-seven interpretations that [Allen] Fletcher gives for the figures in the facsimiles, only two are certainly correct while eight are certainly wrong; the remainder are quite likely wrong.

Gee then outlines four steps for understanding the facsimiles that are useful, that current Egyptologists are not usually doing, and explains why that’s an important issue:

Step 1. If we wish to understand the iconography of the facsimiles, we must pay careful attention to those instances in which the ancient Egyptians actually identify a figure. As a result, we must gather various examples of parallels to the facsimiles and determine when, if ever, the figures are identified. All the various parallels need to come from the time period of the facsimiles and not thousands of years earlier in the New Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, or Old Kingdom. The parallels should be as close as possible, preferably having at least half of the figures in common with the facsimiles. If, after gathering various parallels to the facsimiles, some figures are still unidentified, any identifications we assign them will be merely guesses.

Step 2. Identification of the figure will not tell us what the ancient Egyptians understood by the figure. That understanding will only come as we assemble information from ancient Egyptian sources of the proper time. Sources from the Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, and New Kingdom are only of secondary value to understanding what is meant by Egyptian of Saite or Greco-Roman times of the same figures. As most handbooks on iconography and religion deal principally with the New Kingdom or earlier periods, they are of little to no use in understanding the facsimiles.

Step 3. The various figures are placed in relationship to each other for a reason. One ought, therefore, to pay attention to the placement of the figures. In this regard, explanations in Greco-Roman sources that mention relationships between the figures might be of some importance. We should strive not only to be able to identify a particular figure but also to be able to understand why two figures are placed in a particular relationship in the facsimiles.

Step 4. One should endeavor, where possible, to match the identified figures with the texts that relate to them, whether adjoining or not.

… [T]o date few Egyptologists have produced a methodologically valid explanation of the facsimiles, as an explanation either of the facsimiles or of the class of objects and parallel vignettes. Thus the substitution of X=Z for X=Y is particularly pernicious. … For me, among the more interesting aspects of works on the Book of Abraham are the various tacit assumptions made by the authors about the Book of Abraham or the facsimiles. These assumptions always color, and in most cases overwhelmingly guide, the work done. Yet these assumptions are rarely made explicit. In many cases they are demonstrably false or at least open to question.

… Does the interpretation of Joseph Smith match the interpretation of the ancient Egyptians, or does X=Y? We know that the interpretations of the Egyptologists typically do not match either those of the ancient Egyptians (Z=Y) or Joseph Smith (Z=X) and so they are simply irrelevant to the issue. But the unquestioned assumption is that the interpretation of Joseph Smith has to match the interpretation of the ancient Egyptians (X=Y). This assumption is related to assumptions and theories (both formal and informal) about the nature of the facsimiles. Several such theories do not require Joseph Smith’s interpretation to be the same or even close to that of the ancient Egyptians. For example, ancient Jewish interpretations for various Egyptian scenes are known that differ considerably from the ancient Egyptian interpretations and to which Egyptological methods give us no clue. Before any conclusions can be drawn from any comparisons between the two, one needs to have an answer to the question: why do Joseph Smith’s interpretations need to match ancient Egyptian interpretations at all? I do not intend to answer the issue here but merely to raise it. Critics should note that unless they can answer this question satisfactorily, they have no case. … One temporary conclusion must be stressed: To date there has been no methodologically valid interpretation of any of the facsimiles from an ancient Egyptian point of view. Much more work needs to be done before we can understand the facsimiles in their ancient Egyptian setting, and only then will it be meaningful to ask whether that understanding matches that of Joseph Smith (to the extent that we understand even that).

So, why am I bringing all of this up instead of just talking about the facsimiles themselves? Because it’s important to understand the errors Jeremy is making when he declares as settled fact what certain figures should be labeled. He does this a lot in this section, declaring his assumptions as fact and then declaring anything that contradicts it to be wrong and evidence that Joseph wasn’t a prophet. But the question is far more complex than he makes it out to be, and it’s important that we all understand that before we dive into the facsimiles.

Kerry Muhlestein gives a good summation of all of this:

Even though it is obvious to ask whether or not Joseph Smith’s explanations of the facsimiles match those of Egyptologists, it is not necessarily the right question to ask; we do not know if Joseph Smith was trying to tell us what ancient Egyptians would have thought of these drawings. What if Abraham’s descendants took Egyptian cultural elements and applied their own meanings to them? We know this happened in other cases. For example, Jesus himself did this when he gave the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, which clearly draws from the Egyptian tale of Setne-Kamwas. The Apocalypse of Abraham and Testament of Abraham are two more examples of Semitic adaptations of Egyptian religious traditions. Therefore, maybe we should not be looking at what Egyptians thought the facsimiles meant at all but rather at how ancient Jews would have interpreted them. Sadly there is not enough information available to fully establish patterns for such Jewish reinterpretations.

 Or perhaps Joseph Smith was providing an interpretation that a small group of Egyptian priests who were familiar with Abraham would have seen in this vignette. We know that from about the same time and place as when and where the Joseph Smith Papyri were created, there were priests very familiar with Abraham, who used him in their own religious texts and rituals. This group of priests could easily have altered a drawing they were familiar with in order to fit their specific textual needs, and thus those priests would interpret that drawing differently than other Egyptians. How can we be sure that this is not the case we are dealing with here? We cannot know, but it is certainly plausible.

 It is also possible that Joseph Smith was providing the spiritual interpretation needed in modern times, regardless of how any ancient people would have viewed this document. While Joseph Smith clearly conceived of a connection between his explanations and the ideas of the ancient world, he too may not have been fully aware of the complex issues underlying his own assumptions.

 Considering all of the above possibilities, it seems quite possible that we are not justified in trying to compare Smith’s interpretations with those of ancient Egyptians, though this is the litmus test usually applied by many who have written about the Book of Abraham.

As stated, I’m going through all of this in so much detail because Jeremy Runnells spends a lot of time in this section of questions talking about what “modern Egyptologists say” the facsimiles mean. But if modern Egyptologists get their interpretations wrong a lot of the time; ancient Egyptians themselves changed their iconotropy over time and even then, there were different interpretations for different groups depending on location, education, time period, and religious affiliation; and we don’t know if we should be looking at a Jewish interpretation, an Egyptian interpretation, or an interpretation given solely to Joseph, what modern Egyptologists say is only one factor of many we should be considering when we look at the facsimiles.


Sources used in this entry:


Sarah Allen is brand new in her affiliation with FAIR. By profession, she works in mortgage compliance and is a freelance copyeditor. A voracious reader, she loves studying the Gospel and the history of the restored Church. After watching some of her lose their testimonies, she became interested in helping others through their faith crises and began sharing what she learned through her studies. She’s grateful to those at FAIR who have given her the opportunity to share her testimony with a wider audience.

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