Cover image: Detail of Facsimile 1 of the Book of Abraham as it first appeared in print on March 1, 1842. Image via the Joseph Smith Papers website.
Many people often ask about how Joseph Smith’s explanations of the Facsimiles compares to those of Egyptologists. This is a question worth asking. As with all things regarding history, symbolism, and interpretations, those who want a simple answer will find themselves unsatisfied with an accurate answer. Sadly, many times people opt for simple answers in order to avoid the messy, complicated situations of which history is made. Here we will not delve into all the complexities, but we will at least consider enough factors to answer the question accurately.
First, we must be clear that we do not know for sure that Joseph Smith authored the explanations of the facsimiles that were printed in the Times and Seasons, (on the acquisition of the papyri and publication of the Book of Abraham, see my earlier column, or my book Let’s Talk about the Book of Abraham, for a more in-depth discussion) which eventually became part of the Pearl of Great Price. While we do not know if Joseph Smith is the original author of these interpretations, we know he participated in preparing the published interpretations and gave editorial approval to them.
For example, on March 1, 1842 his journal records being at the printing office “correcting the first plate or cut of the records of father Abraham, prepared by Reuben Hedlock for the Times & Season” [spelling corrected]. The next day he wrote that he served for the first time as the editor of the Times and Seasons, reading through the proofs “in which is the commencement of the Book of Abraham.” On March 4th he worked again with Reuben Hedlock preparing the cut for the second facsimile. On March 9th he examined the copy of the Times and Seasons in which that facsimile would be published.[i] Thus, while the precise authorship of the explanations may be in question, the Prophet’s approval of them is not.
Even though it is obvious to ask whether or not Joseph Smith’s explanations of the Facsimiles matches with those of Egyptologists, it is not necessarily the right question to ask. For example, as we compare Facsimile One, or any of the Facsimiles, with similar Egyptian vignettes, we may be barking up the wrong tree. What if Abraham’s descendants took Egyptian elements of culture and applied their own meanings to them? We know this happened.[ii] 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.[iii] Maybe we shouldn’t be looking at what Egyptians thought Facsimiles meant at all, but rather at how ancient Jews would have interpreted them.
Or perhaps Joseph Smith is giving us an interpretation that a small group of priests who were familiar with Abraham would have seen in this vignette.[iv] We know that in about the same time period when the Egyptian drawings Joseph Smith acquired were being created, there were priests from the same area who were very familiar with Abraham, and who used him in their own religious texts/rituals.[v] This group of priests could easily have altered a drawing they were accustomed to 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 interpretation Joseph Smith was providing? We cannot know, but it is certainly plausible.
It is also possible that Joseph Smith is providing the spiritual interpretation needed in modern times, regardless of how any ancient people would have viewed this document. Considering all of the above reasons, it seems quite likely that we are not justified in trying to compare Smith’s interpretations with those of ancient Egyptians. Yet that is exactly what we tend to do. This is understandable: It is the only group we have enough information about to which we can make a comparison.
Or is that true? Typically when people have asked what the Egyptians would say these drawings meant, and how this compares with what Joseph Smith said they meant, they actually end up comparing it to what modern Egyptologists say it means. This is, of course, understandable because we do not have access to any ancient Egyptians, and we assume that we modern Egyptologists are reliable replacements. But we know that we Egyptologists are often wrong regarding what Egyptians would have said on the subject. One study demonstrated that in the few instances where we have found Egyptian labels about various figures in hypocephali (the type of drawing that Facsimile Two is), they most often do not match with what Egyptologists have said they represented.[vi] Thus it is problematic to look to modern Egyptologists for what ancient Egyptians would have said various drawings represented. As a result, any conclusions reached by making such comparisons must be tentative at best, and should not be the basis for any conclusions regarding larger issues.
Still, what happens when we do compare the Facsimiles with Egyptological interpretations? For example, it is tempting to say that Facsimile One is a common funerary scene because it has some elements in common with a funerary scene; it is, however, different. It is also clearly not a scene commonly associated with the Book of Breathings (see column 2, insert link here), though many have claimed it is.[vii] This vignette is fairly unique.
The closest iconographic parallels are some similar scenes at the temple of Denderah. One of these scenes is accompanied by a caption that reads that the goddess Bastet had commanded those who followed her to “slaughter your enemies,”[viii] which means that the closest iconographic match to Facsimile One also matches what the scene is supposed to be about in the Book of Abraham, namely that someone in the scene was in danger and received protection.[ix] Other comparable scenes at the Denderah Temple depict Anubis and the sons of Horus defending someone from his adversaries, or list Shesmu, a god associated with human sacrifice, as being part of the scene. They also discuss being hacked to pieces, being burned, or being sent to the slaughterhouse.[x] While I am not certain that the scenes at Denderah are real parallels to Facsimile One, if critics want to associate them with the facsimile, they must also be willing to associate them with the sacrificial elements of the Denderah scenes, which parallel Joseph’s interpretation of this facsimile.
None of this is to suggest that such parallels prove that Joseph Smith was inspired; they do no such thing. They do, however, make it clear that it is plausible that he is conveying to us an authentically ancient understanding. Learning for certain of the Prophet’s inspiration can only be done through personal and spiritual inspiration, regardless of the fact that a segment of our population would like to discount the existence of such a thing. Like a colorblind man who argues against the existence of the color purple, they insist that real experiences they have never had do not exist only because they have not had them. I do not think I will be able to persuade those who have not had revelatory experiences of the validity of such experiences. At the same time they will not be able to convince me that my experiences are not real or valid. On this point we may have to agree to disagree. Still, the case clearly indicates that what Joseph Smith taught is plausible, and from that point agreement or disagreement rests upon one’s ability to receive spiritual confirmation of a plausible point.
Before proceeding, I would like to reiterate that none of the similarities between Joseph Smith’s interpretations and those that we find in Egyptian sources proves that Joseph Smith was correct. They cannot do so. The point is that it presents a case of plausibility.[xi] Arguments against Joseph Smith are not well founded when what he tells us is plausible.
In order to more fully understand the vignettes of the Joseph Smith Papyri that were made into the Facsimiles in the published Book of Abraham, let us look more carefully at the zeitgeist from which the papyri came. The papyri were created in a day of internationalization in Egypt. They were created in a day when the Egyptians were living among a great number of Greeks and Jews.[xii] Each of these cultures borrowed from each other. The Greeks created gods and cultic practices heavily influenced by the Egyptians.[xiii] The Egyptians borrowed from both the Jews and the Greeks in their religious and cultic practices and representations,[xiv] and many Jews were similarly influenced by the Greeks and Egyptians.[xv] All of these cultures found their ways of understanding and representing their own religious beliefs to be changing and evolving as a result of the pastiche of religio-cultural identity they were melding into. As a result, we find curious uses of foreign religious ideas and identities manifesting themselves in each of these cultures’ religious practices and traditions. This impacts the possible interpretations of the Facsimiles.
To illustrate, let us look at some possible scenarios for the Facsimiles. As already mentioned, we know that some Jews were using foreign representations in their own way.[xvi] Besides those already mentioned, let us look at their later use of the Zodiac. In a few synagogues, such as those at Beit Alpha and Sepphoris, a mosaic of a zodiac was incorporated into the floor of the synagogue. Clearly it could not carry with it the full meaning that it would have had in Greek culture and still be compatible with the strict monotheism of Judaism. Thus we must conclude that the Jews who created or worshipped in these synagogues were using representations from the cultures around them but using and understanding them in their own unique way. Isn’t it possible that this was also done with all three Facsimiles? Couldn’t these all represent a Jewish way of understanding Egyptian style drawings? Shouldn’t we expect that at least some of the large number of Jews in Egypt adopted the Egyptian depictions around them and used them in their own way? Wouldn’t we actually be shocked if this didn’t happen?
On the other hand, we also know that at least some Egyptians were using Jewish stories and ideas in their religious practices and writings.[xvii] They used their typical religious rituals but inserted Jewish, Greek, Mesopotamian, and other religious elements into these rituals, texts and spells, thus slightly altering and adapting their ritual and textual representations.[xviii] Would we not expect them to do the same with their religious pictorial representations? Again, wouldn’t we be surprised if they hadn’t? I believe it is absolutely certain that there are some typical Egyptian religious representations that at least some Egyptian priests assigned a non-traditional meaning to as they incorporated foreign religious elements into all parts of their religious practice. Given this, how can someone forcibly argue that something like Facsimile One cannot represent something other than the traditional Egyptological interpretation? Such a supposition is untenable, and would never be made unless an agenda was driving it. This is especially so when we examine all the unique elements behind Facsimile One.
There are more elements that make Joseph Smith’s interpretation of Facsimile One plausible. We are only skimming the surface here, but I go a little more in-depth in my book, an websites such as pearlofgreatpricecentral.org also contain more information.
The story of Abraham’s actions and his near sacrifice by a priest associated with Egypt have long caused pause among people who did not believe that the Egyptians practiced human sacrifice. However, we have since learned that they absolutely did.[xix] Furthermore, the situations that prompted such action aligns perfectly well with the story presented in the Book of Abraham and Facsimile One.[xx] Meaningfully, we also know that in the international religious amalgamation some Egyptian priests were engaged in, they did sometimes associate a somewhat similar scene with Abraham,[xxi] a point which some critics have spent online energy trying to disprove but failed to do so and have eventually backed away from such efforts. There are a number of elements which do match well with what Joseph Smith said.[xxii] Do all of Joseph Smith’s interpretations of Facsimile One match up with either a standard Egyptological interpretation or with one that has been demonstrated through more specialized research? No. Neither do all the elements of the vignette match with what Egyptologists would say about the representations. Clearly we still need to make progress in arriving at both a better LDS and Egyptological understanding of this drawing.
This is also true of Facsimile Two. Again, many elements of Joseph Smith’s interpretations do not align well with an Egyptological point of view;[xxiii] however, a surprising amount is supported by good Egyptological research.[xxiv] The use of the kind of drawing represented in Facsimile Two, a hypocephalus, in such a way is strikingly similar to the use of the Zodiac in synagogues, as was mentioned above. Additionally, some ancient Egyptians associated Abraham with this kind of drawing.[xxv] Again, none of these things prove that Joseph Smith was correct, but they do demonstrate plausibility.
Facsimile Three is similar. It has received the least amount of scholarly study and attention,[xxvi] thus it has the smallest amount of disagreement or agreement attached to it. There are some elements I do not understand from either an Egyptological or an LDS point of view. Yet we do know that this very type of drawing was associated with Abraham by Egyptians.[xxvii]
This leads to one of the most striking points. While, as noted above, the zeitgeist at the time of the creation of the papyri fragments was such that we should expect many Egyptian religious representations to be correlated to Jewish religious elements, we should not expect that every Egyptian religious representation would be. Yet each of the three Egyptian representations Joseph Smith said were associated with Abraham actually was associated with him by ancient Egyptians. The odds of Joseph Smith’s guessing this all three times and being proved right are ridiculously small. While this does not prove the Prophet to be a prophet, it does defy other proposed explanations. Critics who are quick to point out understandable inconsistencies with his explanations do not even try to deal with this, or other, significant instances of consistency. While plausible explanations have been proposed for the inconsistencies, no plausible explanations have been posed for the striking consistencies. I do not ask that anyone eradicate their disbelief because of the supporting evidence for the Book of Abraham. However, it seems unreasonable to suspend one’s belief in the face of such consistency. It is only a willingness to turn a blind eye based on an agenda that would cause one to believe that the Facsimiles demonstrate Joseph Smith is not a prophet. If such agendas are taken away we are left with a number of elements to the Facsimiles that are puzzling, a number that are quite plausible, and a number that are compelling. Such is hardly a cause for suspension of belief, but is very much a cause for further investigation via both our mental and spiritual faculties.
[i] See The Joseph Smith Papers, Journals, Volume 2: December 1841 – April 1843, Andrew H. Hedges, Alex D. Smith, Richard Lloyd Anderson, eds. (Salt Lake City: The Church Historian’s Press, 2011), 39-42.
[ii] See Kevin L. Barney, The Facsimiles and Semitic Adaptation of Existing Sources, in Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant, ed. John Gee and Brian M. Hauglid. (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies and Brigham Young University, 2005),107–30. Also see Kerry Muhlestein, “The Religious and Cultural Background of Joseph Smith Papyrus One,” in The Journal of Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22/1 (2013), 20-33.
[iii] See Barney, “Facsimiles and Semitic Adaptation”; Jared W. Ludlow, “Reinterpretation of the Judgment Scene in the Testament of Abraham” in Proceedings of the Evolving Egypt: Innovation, Appropriation and Reinterpretation, ed. John Gee and Kerry Muhlestein (Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, 2012), 99-104; and Jared W. Ludlow, Abraham Meets Death: Narrative Humor in the Testament of Abraham (New York: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002).
[iv] Much of what is presented here has been used in a slightly modified form at the Mormon Challenges website.
[v] Kerry Muhlestein, “Abraham, Isaac, and Osiris-Michael: The Use of Biblical Figures in Egyptian Religion,” in the proceedings of Achievements and Problems of Modern Egyptology, ed. Galina, A. Belova (Moscow: Russian Academy of Sciences, 2012), 246–59; and Kerry Muhlestein, “The Religious and Cultural Background of Joseph Smith Papyrus One,” in The Journal of Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22/1 (2013), 20-33.
[vi] John Gee, “Towards an Interpretation of Hypocephali,” “Le lotus qui sort du terre”: Mélanges offerts à Edith Varga, Bulletin du Musée Hongrois des Beaux-Arts Supplément-2001 (Budapest: Musée Hongrois des Beaux-Arts, 2001), 325–34; and Kerry Muhlestein, “Egyptian Papyri and the Book of Abraham, in The Religious Educator 11/1 (2010): 98.
[vii] See Kerry Muhlestein, “Egyptian Papyri and the Book of Abraham, in The Religious Educator 11/1 (2010): 99-100.
[viii] Text in Sylvie Cauville, Le temple de Dendara: les chapellesosiriennes vol. x (Cairo : French Institute of Oriental Archaeology, 1997), 232.
[ix] See also Kerry Muhlestein, “Egyptian Papyri and the Book of Abraham, in The Religious Educator 11/1 (2010): 99-100; and Kerry Muhlestein, “Egyptian Egyptian Papyri and the Book of Abraham” A Faithful, Egyptological Point of View in No Weapon Shall Prosper, Robert L. Millett, ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011), 232-234.
[x] See John Gee, “Some Puzzles from the Joseph Smith Papyri,” FARMS Review, 20/1 (2008), 120.
[xi] See, for example, John Gee and Stephen D. Ricks, “Historical Plausibility: The Book of Abraham as a Case Study,” in The Historicity of the Scriptures, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2001), 63-98.
[xii] See, for example, Life in a Multi-Cultural Society: Egypt from Cambyses to Constantine and Beyond, ed. Janet H. Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992); and Thomas Schneider, “Foreign Egypt: Egyptology and the Concept of Cultural Appropriation,” in Ägypten und Levante 13 (2003): 160–61.
[xiii] The cult of Serapis is demonstrative of this. Also see Shanna Kennedy-Quigley, “Ptolemaic Translation and Representation: The Hellenistic Sculptural Program of the Memphite Sarapieion,” in Evolving Egypt: Innovation, Appropriation and Reinterpretation, ed. John Gee and Kerry Muhlestein (Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, 2012), 87-98.
[xiv] Kerry Muhlestein, “Abraham, Isaac, and Osiris-Michael: The Use of Biblical Figures in Egyptian Religion,” in the proceedings of Achievements and Problems of Modern Egyptology, ed. Galina, A. Belova (Moscow: Russian Academy of Sciences, 2012), 246–59; and Kerry Muhlestein, “The Religious and Cultural Background of Joseph Smith Papyrus One,” in The Journal of Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22/1 (2013), 20-33.
[xv] See Erich Gruen, Heritage and Hellenism: The Reinvention of Jewish Tradition, Berkeley, 1998); and Jared W. Ludlow, “Reinterpretation of the Judgment Scene in the Testament of Abraham” in Evolving Egypt: Innovation, Appropriation and Reinterpretation, ed. John Gee and Kerry Muhlestein (Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, 2012), 99-104 and Kerry Muhlestein, “The Religious and Cultural Background of Joseph Smith Papyrus I.” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture22.1 (2013): 20-33.
[xvi] See also Kevin L. Barney, “The Facsimiles and Semitic Adaptation of Existing Sources,” in Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant, ed. John Gee and Brian M. Hauglid. (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies and Brigham Young University, 2005),107–30.
[xvii] Muhlestein, “Abraham, Isaac, and Osiris-Michael.”
[xviii] See Kerry Muhlestein, “The Religious and Cultural Background of Joseph Smith Papyrus I.” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22.1 (2013): 20-33. Print.
[xix] See Kerry Muhlestein, Violence in the Service of Order: the Religious Framework for Sanctioned Killing in Ancient Egypt. British Archaeological Reports International Series 2299 (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2011); and Kerry Muhlestein, “Royal Executions: Evidence Bearing on the Subject of Sanctioned Killing in the Middle Kingdom,” in Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 15/2 (2008). Also “Death by Water: The Role of Water in Ancient Egypt’s Treatmentof Enemies and Juridical Process,” in L’AcquaNell’anticoEgitto: Vita,Rigenerazione, Incantesimo, Medicamento, ed. Alessia Amenta, Michela Luiselli,and Maria Novella Sordi (Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider, 2005), 173–79. As for public presentations, both national and international in nature, see Kerry Muhlestein, “Smashing, Stomping and Spitting: The Protection of Egypt Through the Execration Ritual,” lecture, Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities Annual Scholars Colloquium, Royal Ontario Museum and University of Toronto, November 2007; Kerry Muhlestein, “Smiting, Smashing, Sailing, and Sacrifice: The Evolution and Manifestations of Some Violent Rituals in Ancient Egypt,” lecture, American Research Center in Egypt, North Texas Chapter, July 2007; Kerry Muhlestein, “Sanctioned Killing in Ancient Egypt,” presentation, ARCE Conference, Toledo, April, 2007; Kerry Muhlestein, “The Persistent Question of Human Sacrifice in Ancient Egypt: Was It Real and Unperceived?,” presentation, ARCE Conference, New Jersey, April 2006; Kerry Muhlestein, “The Smiting Scene Referent Reconsidered,” presentation ARCE Conference, Cambridge, Massachusetts, April 2005; and Kerry Muhlestein, “Death by Water: the Use of Water in Ancient Egypt’s Treatment of Enemies and Juridical Process,” presentation, First International Conference for Young Egyptologists: Water in Ancient Egypt: Life, Regeneration, Incantation ,and Medical Prescription, Chianciano Terme, Italy, October 2003. See also Kerry Muhlestein, “The Religious and Cultural Background of Joseph Smith Papyrus I.” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22.1 (2013): 20-33; and Kerry Muhlestein, “Egyptian Papyri and the Book of Abraham: A Faithful Egyptological Point of View.” 216-43.
[xx] Kerry Muhlestein and John Gee, “Egyptian Middle Kingdom Contexts for Human Sacrifice” in Journal of Book of Mormon and other Restoration Scripture 2/2, 2011, 70-77; and Kerry Muhlestein, “Egyptian Papyri and the Book of Abraham: A Faithful Egyptological Point of View.” 216-43.
[xxi] See John Gee, “Research and Perspectives: Abraham in Ancient Egyptian Texts,”Ensign, (July 1992), 60–62; and John Gee, References to Abraham Found in Two Egyptian Texts,” Insights: An Ancient Window (September 1991): 1, 3.
[xxii] See Kerry Muhlestein, “Egyptian Papyri and the Book of Abraham,” in The Religious Educator 11/1 (2010): 90-106; and Kerry Muhlestein, “Egyptian Egyptian Papyri and the Book of Abraham: A Faithful, Egyptological Point of View” in No Weapon Shall Prosper, Robert L. Millett, ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011), 217-41.
[xxiii] On the Egyptological point of view, see John Gee, “Towards an Interpretation of Hypocephali,” «Le lotus qui sort duterre»: Mélanges offerts à Edith Varga, Bulletin du Musée Hongrois des Beaux-Arts Supplément-2001 (Budapest: MuséeHongrois des Beaux-Arts, 2001),325–34.
[xxiv] Michael D. Rhodes, “The Joseph Smith Hypocephalus—Seventeen Years Later,” (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1994).Also Gee, “Some Puzzles,” 136.
[xxv] See Rhodes, “Hypocephalus.”
[xxvi] John Gee, “Facsimile 3 and the Book of the Dead 125,” in Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant, John Gee and Brian Hauglid, eds.(Provo: FARMS, 2005), 95-106.
[xxvii] John Gee, “A New Look at the ankh p’ by Formula,” in Proceedings of IXe Congroes International des Études Démotiques, Paris, 31 août – 3 septembre 2005, Ghislaine Widmer et Didier Devauchelle, eds. (Cairo: Institut Français Archéologie Orientale, 2009), 133-44.