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.
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.
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.
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respect to documents that purport to be actual historical documents,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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
are there any anachronisms in the text of the Book of Abraham?
It appears there are several, beginning with the very first
“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.