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The Book of Abraham: Did William the Conqueror Know Henry VIII?

You may have noticed that I added a new category in the left sidebar with links to web sites that have information on the Book of Abraham. I have culled these sites from extensive Internet searches. They represent the best resources available on the web for folks who want to know more about the Book of Abraham. I include a link to a page that links to numerous apologetic sites, including FARMS and Jeff Lindsay’s Mormanity. Having studied the materials of both those skeptical of and believers in the Book of Abraham as an inspired revealed “translation” of an ancient text originally authored by the biblical patriarch Abraham, I think the disputes over this book of LDS scripture focus on three main areas: the text itself (irrespective of translation methods used to produce it); issues regarding the provenance of the papyri and the translation of the text from those papyri; and the translation of the facsimiles included in the canonized text and found on the papyri discovered in 1967. 

In this first of a series of posts on the Book of Abraham, I focus on one aspect of the text itself. I have chosen this as my first installment for two reasons. First, apologists since Nibley have said that critics do not address the text but focus only on the translation issues.  Jeff Lindsay repeats this mantra on his web site. It is simply untrue, as will be demonstrated by this post and as is demonstrated by even a casual review of the materials linked in my sidebar. Second, the apologists presumably make this statement to imply that critics avoid discussion of the text because the text is immune to criticism. Of course, the apologists are wrong on this as well. The text itself presents numerous problems for those who assert that the Book of Abraham originated in antiquity. Among these problems is one which is, in my opinion, most devastating to the apologetic stance: anachronisms. 

In literature, an anachronism is “something located at a time when it could not have existed or occurred.” A famous example of an anachronism is found in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, in which the bell of a clock tower strikes on the hour. Striking clocks, of course, did not exist in Rome at the time of Caesar.  

An anachronism in a work of fiction, even one purported to be based on history, is understandable and forgivable. But with respect to documents that purport to be actual historical documents, anachronisms provide those seeking to authenticate such documents with the means of detecting forgeries. For example, let’s say a document surfaces that purports to be written by William the Conqueror.  It is a personal diary kept during the Battle of Hastings. The William Diary, as it comes to be known, is found by a young man with little formal education and contains details about the type of clothing worn by the soldiers in battle.  Scholars who examine the diary say the details about the type and color of fastenings on the clothing are precisely correct descriptions of 11th-century clothing. Furthermore, professional historians acknowledge that the battle scenes described in the William Diary accurately depict what is known about the Battle of Hastings and such information is far from common knowledge. The young man who discovered the William Diary, most agree, was incapable of producing a document that includes so many accurate details about 11th-century England. Armed with only this information, many might be willing to accept the William Diary as genuine.  

But suppose the text of the William Diary also contains references to the Magna Carta, Henry VIII, and William Shakespeare? The Battle of Hastings occurred in 1066. The Magna Carta was signed in 1215. Henry VIII  lived in the 15th and 16th centuries; Shakespeare  about a century later. These are undisputed historical facts. So, what would these anachronisms tell us about the genuineness of the William Diary? It seems obvious: there is no possible way William the Conqueror could have been the author of the William Diary because it includes references to people and things that would not exist for hundreds of years after the time of its alleged authorship. And no matter how many details the forger “got right” about life in 11th-century England or the battle tactics of the warring factions in the Battle of Hastings, the presence of anachronisms in the text, alone, would rule out the possibility that the William Diary was written by William himself.  

Likewise, the presence of anachronisms in the text of the Book of Abraham would constitute unassailable evidence against its authenticity. Indeed, anachronisms in the text would be even more devastating to the authenticity of the Book of Abraham than the anachronisms in our hypothetical were to the William Diary. Why? Because no matter what theory of translation one postulates, any anachronisms in the text produced by Joseph Smith demonstrate that the Book of Abraham is not an ancient document. The traditional doctrine advanced by the leaders of the church is that the Book of Abraham was written by Abraham’s “own hand upon papyrus.” The initial publication of the Book of Abraham, under the direction of Joseph Smith, contained a statement to that effect, which was also included when the book was canonized in 1880. There is also some evidence that Joseph Smith told visitors that the papyri on display (for a fee payable to his mother Lucy Mack Smith) contained the actual writings of Abraham himself. The church has never retracted or corrected this notion. If correct, there could be no references in the text to people, places, or events that post-date Abraham’s life. 

Because it is almost certain that the papyri that Joseph Smith possessed date only to the first or second century B.C.E. rather than the second millennium B.C.E., apologists in recent years have advanced the theory that the papyrus from which Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham contained not the writings of Abraham himself but rather copies of a book originally penned by Abraham. If so, that could explain anachronisms creeping into the text. Such is the likely explanation for the anachronisms in the stories about Abraham in the Bible. Scholars believe that the Genesis accounts of Abraham were likely first written and included in the Hebrew Bible around the 6th or 7th century B.C.E. The problem with that theory for the Book of Abraham, however, is that it was translated by Joseph Smith by revelation, not through traditional means of translation. For this reason, any anachronisms that may have been introduced to the text by scribes and copyists between the time of Abraham and the time the papyri were produced should have been excised by Joseph Smith who, presumably, would be revealing the original, pure text written by Abraham. 

To deal with this uncomfortable difficulty, apologists have even more recently advanced a more radical idea: that the text of the Book of Abraham had nothing whatever to do with what was written on the papyri. Instead, the Book of Abraham came fully formed from the inspired mind of Joseph Smith. Under this theory, the documents Joseph Smith purchased from the mummy merchant simply served as a catalyst for Joseph to receive a revelation.  Whether Abraham actually wrote the original text or not, the text of the Book of Abraham is inspired and prophetic, having been given to Joseph Smith by direct revelation from God. To my knowledge, no General Authority of the church has endorsed this view. But while this theory flatly contradicts the canonized text of the Book of Abraham, which says the book was translated by Joseph Smith from the papyrus, it nevertheless may be the only answer to the consensus among Egyptologists that the words on the papyrus and symbols on the facsimiles bear no relation to the text produced by Joseph Smith. However, though this theory may help provide a possible explanation for problems Egyptologists have, if there never was an actual original text, either penned by Abraham or included on the papyri, then Joseph Smith produced the text by “pure revelation.” If so, then God would be the author of any anachronisms found in the text. That God would inspire his Prophet to pretend to translate a record found on papyrus and include in the revealed text anachronisms, it seems to me, is an absurd proposition.  

Thus, there is no explanation for anachronisms in the modern text that does not call into question the ancient origin of the document or Joseph Smith’s inspiration in producing the text of the Book of Abraham. If there are anachronisms in the text, they deal a fatal blow to the notion that the work is of ancient origin and that the text is an accurate portrayal of events as they actually occurred. Even one anachronism would be sufficient to prove that the text of the Book of Abraham is not a work of ancient origin. And no matter how many parallels one might find in the Book of Abraham to ancient Egypt, they are no more relevant to the question of the document’s ancient origin than the things in our hypothetical William Diary that seemed to be accurate depictions of 11th-century England.  

So, are there any anachronisms in the text of the Book of Abraham?  

It appears there are several, beginning with the very first verse: 

“In the land of the Chaldeans, at the residence of my fathers, I, Abraham, saw that it was needful for me to obtain another place of residence.” Abraham 1:1.

According to the LDS Bible Dictionary, Abraham (first called Abram) was born around 1996 B.C.E.  Scholars have debated whether Abraham was an actual historical individual, but those who believe he was place his life between 2400 B.C.E. and 1500 B.C.E. See  http://www.geocities.com/paulntobin/abraham.html.

As  Stephen Thompson points out, the word Chaldea is a gross anachronism:

The first such term, Chaldea, occurs in Abraham 1:1, and subsequently verses 8, 13, 20, 23, 29-30, and 2:4. The Chaldeans (Hebrew kasdim) were a people who spoke a West-Semitic language similar to Aramaic and who appeared in the ninth century B.C. in the land south of Babylonia, and appear to have migrated from Syria. Westermann has noted that the city of Ur could be qualified as "of the Chaldees" only from the tenth to the sixth centuries, in any case, not before the first millennium.

Gary Greenberg concurs:

The Mesopotamian city of Ur has a history dating back to at least the third millennium B.C., but the association of the city with the Chaldees dates to only about the eighth century B.C. The name Chaldees refers to the "land of the people of Chaldea," located just south of Babylon in southern Mesopotamia.  Little is known of Chaldea prior to the eighth century B.C.  At this time, it temporarily captured the throne of Babylon and ruled the entire region, including Ur.  From that time on, although it didn't rule continuously in Babylon, its name came to be associated with southern Mesopotamia.  In 587 B.C., the Chaldeans conquered the kingdom of Judah and transferred the Hebrew elite to Babylon.

Confounding the situation further, the biblical Hebrew does not call the city "Ur of the Chaldees." The word translated as Chaldees actually reads "chesdim," meaning either the "people of Chesed' or "land of Chesed." The identification of this city with Chaldea in the King James Version derives from the Greek translation of the Bible, which used the name Chaldee. . . .

. . . Since Abraham was born only 290 years after the flood, there is no way that the Chaldees could have been associated with Ur in his time frame. . . .

. . . The anachronistic Mesopotamian genealogy of Abraham and his relatives shows that it was a late invention intended to place Hebrew origins in the cultural center of the powerful Mesopotamian empires that followed after the defeat of the Chaldeans by the Persians, and intended to enhance Hebrew prestige within the Babylonian community.

Gary Greenberg, 101 Myths of the Bible: How Ancient Scribes Invented Biblical History at 115-116. Available here.

So, the Book of Abraham not only mentions a group of people who would not come into existence for hundreds of years after the time of Abraham, it also incorporates into the text an error from the King James Version of the Bible. This anachronism alone shows that the Book of Abraham was not written by Abraham and is not an accurate history. There are other anachronisms: the use of the name Pharaoh; the use of the name Potiphar; the explanation for the etymology of the name Egypt; Hebrew names for Egyptian gods; Facsimile 1; and the depiction of human sacrifice as an Egyptian ritual.

In sum, no matter what one says about the method Joseph Smith used to translate, no matter what one says about the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar, the potential “missing” scrolls, or any problems related to an examination of the papyri, anachronisms in the text of the Book of Abraham argue convincingly against it being an ancient document of divinely inspired origin.

Comments

rebecca

I knew some of the problems with the BoA, but I had no idea about these ones. Good info - and thanks for the links -- really interesting stuff!

Extremely Disaffected

So is this what you do in your free time? Equality, this is impressive. It seems that apologists want to have it both ways.

1. Anachronisms could have been introduced by scribes copying down the information with the passing of time.

2. Don't worry about the fact that the Book of Breathings has NOTHING to do wiht The Book of Abraham, because it was just a physical object that allowed JS to bring us this marvelous work.

The problem is that while each explanation makes part of the "problem" dissapear. The theories can't work together.

I almost feel guilty for calling my research on The BoA conclusive enough to call it a fraud after looking at the amount of work you have put into this.

joseph's left one

The BofA is really the smoking gun that shows Joseph's fraud for what it is. Ignore the text, and you have problems with the translation. Focus on the text, and you have something that doesn't make sense. Excellent points.

Equality

I think you are correct, J-lo. I am not sure I would go so far as to say Joseph was acting fraudulently with hsi translation activities, though. I reject the traditional orthodox view that the Book of Abraham is an ancient document depicting actual events that really happened. However, I am not convinced that Joseph Smith didn't believe that. I think he really believed in most of the "revelations" he received--the same way Russell Crowe believed he really saw Paul Bettany in A Beautiful Mind. So, is it worse to say Joseph was a fraudulent con-man or that he was mentally unhinged? I will leave that for others to judge.

DaVinci

Awesome logic Equality. I never examined the text myself. You make a strong argument. The translation issue is pretty damaging but this is the nail in the coffin.

Edward Casey

Hey Equality,

First time I've been on your blog though I have been a member of FLAK for over a year. It is a pleasure to read your work.

Insight Driver

Equality

Thanks for the compliment, ID. Your posts at FLAK are always, er, insightful.

raw

I thought this post was great, but the BoA issue sometimes really makes my head spin. Has anyone read Michael D. Rhodes arguments supporting the authenticity? For example: http://home.comcast.net/~michael.rhodes/JosephSmithHypocephalus.pdf

A slightly longer (and somewhat sarcastic at times) treatment of the issue can be found here, if anyone's willing to slog through it: http://www.boap.org/LDS/critic.html

I am having a hard time correlating the arguments for and against and the rhetoric makes me dizzy.

Forgive me if I've missed more about this issue on this site or one of the ones listed in the sidebar. I endeavor to do my due diligence in researching issues ... but Egyptology doesn't come to me so easy.

Thanks!

David Jones

The author spends much more time on explaining why his argument is irrefutable, than on actually producing supporting evidence. The first red flag. He also introduces a "strawman" by presuming that an inspired translation would remove any anachronisms from the text. This implies that he is an expert on inspired translations and how they work. I won't launch into a detailed discussion of the "Chaldees" issue, since this doesn't really seem to be the central point of article. It's interesting to note that Joseph Smith, in his translation of the Bible, sometimes kept passages in wording closer to the KJV Bible, even when he knew that wording to be inaccurate from his language studies.

The anachronism issue is an interesting point, and it would have been more useful for the author to examine it in a more scholarly manner; rather than dwelling on why his conclusions are beyond dispute, and trying to head off all counter arguments before they come.

Equality

David,

Thanks for commenting. The purpose of the post by the author (hey, that's me! You can call me Equality or even Eric) was not to disprove the literal historicity of the Book of Abraham in a comprehensive and scholarly manner. Others more knowledgeable and erudite than I have already accomplished that task (see my left sidebar under Book of Abraham). Rather, the purpose was to serve as a counter-argument to a specific Mormon apologetic assertion, namely, that critics of the Book of Abraham do not engage the text itself. The apologetic argument is that the text itself proves Joseph Smith's prophetic capabilities and, therefore, the "truth" of the book. In my post, I took up the apologetic challenge and pointed out some things in the text that I think could lead reasonable and open-minded people to conclude that the text of the book was not, in fact, "written by the hand of Abraham upon papyrus."

Much of my post is devoted to a simple logic exercise that, if applied to the claims made for the Book of Abraham by Mormon leaders, demonstrates that those claims cannot be true. Mormon leaders claim that the Book of Abraham was written by Abraham. They claim that the canonized scriptures are reliable; indeed, they claim that the scriptures are the "measuring rod" against which we should judge ideas, assertions, and arguments. But the text itself, and what we know about history, contradicts their claims.

You say I have set up a straw man by arguing that the Book of Abraham should be free from anachronisms. But while Mormon leaders acknowledge that there are certain errors in the Bible, they have never acknowledged errors in the Book of Abraham, have they? You criticize me for not having sufficient supporting evidence to substantiate my claims. Now I ask you for some evidence: give me a statement by a Mormon church President or Apostle or from an official church instruction manual in which errors in the Book of Abraham are acknowledged. I don't claim to be an expert on the "inspired" translation process, but the leaders of the Mormon church do. And they haven't, near as I can tell, ever said that the text that Joseph produced contains errors and anachronisms. Pray tell, how did such errors creep in? Enlighten me and my readers, please. Tell me which parts of the book are original to Abraham, and which were added later. Are you saying that Joseph Smith knew there were errors in the text but he left them in and didn't tell anyone? Or that Joseph the mighty Seer was able to translate the text miraculously with God as his guide, but God wouldn't bother to mention that there were errors that needed correcting? Mormon apologists acknowledge that the text on the papyri does not match the text Joseph translated. They have concocted a theory to explain this: that Joseph simply used the papyri as a "catalyst" to receive pure revelation (similar to the way he received revelations canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants). If that is so, then how do you explain anachronisms and errors? It is not a case of translating a copy of a copy of an original document, where textual errors could creep in. If Joseph received pure revelation, using the papyrus inexplicably as a mere catalyst, then why would God who is communicating to Joseph directly give him false information? Why would God tell him that Abraham wrote something that Abraham never wrote?

The point of the post was to show, examining the text and not the the issues with the papyrus, the facsimiles, etc. (which by themselves disprove the Book of Abraham--perhaps that is why apologists such as Hugh Nibley so desperately wanted to keep the focus only on the English translation and not on the papyri) that the text Joseph Smith produced (i.e., the ideas communicated by the words Joseph produced) could not have been written by Abraham.

Nothing in your comment dissuades me from that conclusion.

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