During a March lecture series at Brigham Young University, three Latter-day Saint scholars shared recent research on the Book of Abraham. This research supports the ancient origin and character of the Book of Abraham. Sponsored by FARMS, the free public lectures drew large crowds, filling an auditorium to capacity and necessitating overflow accommodations. (The final lecture, "Abraham's Creation Drama," given by Hugh Nibley on 6 April, will be covered in next month' s newsletter.)
The series began on 3 March with a lecture by John Gee titled "A History of the Joseph Smith Papyri and Book of Abraham." Gee, an Egyptologist and assistant research professor at FARMS, unraveled the absorbing story of the discovery of ancient Egyptian papyrus manuscripts as well as their eventual purchase, translation, and publication by the Prophet Joseph Smith.
Gee noted that although in 1967 New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art returned to the LDS Church 10 papyrus fragments from what were once three separate manuscripts, Joseph Smith originally possessed at least five papyri, two of which were long rolls almost certainly destroyed in the Chicago fire of 1871. The extant fragments probably amount to no more than 13 percent of what Joseph Smith once had, said Gee, who concluded that the Book of Abraham was translated from a part of the papyri that is now missing. Gee summarized theories about the relationship between the Book of Abraham and the papyri, the date of the Book of Abraham, how the text was transmitted from Abraham's day, and the nature and origin of the facsimiles. He concluded that the historical record does not support the theories of critics who dispute the ancient origins of the Book of Abraham.
In a 10 March lecture John A. Tvedtnes, associate director of research at FARMS, addressed the topic "Abrahamic Lore in Support of the Book of Abraham." He shared the results of an extensive search of ancient religious texts that mention Abraham. This material will be fully documented in a forthcoming book compiled and edited by Tvedtnes, Brian M. Hauglid, and John Gee with assistance from others. Thus far, researchers have found that more than 70 texts from ancient and medieval times (including Jewish, Christian, Samaritan, Muslim, Falasha, and Mandaean texts) contain 39 themes of the Book of Abraham account that are missing from the biblical book of Genesis.
As far as can be determined, only one text, Antiquities of the Jews (written in the first century A.D. by the Jewish historian Josephus), was available to Joseph Smith, Tvedtnes said. He noted that Joseph Smith had that book late in his ministry, though perhaps not when he translated the Egyptian papyri years earlier, and that Antiquities contains only one strand of the Abraham account (Abraham's teaching astronomy to the Egyptians) that figures in the Book of Abraham but not in Genesis.
Tvedtnes cited many examples of extrabiblical traditions that support the unique elements of the Book of Abraham, such as details concerning idolatry, human sacrifice, priesthood, revelation, ancient records, Pharaoh, and famine in Abraham's day. After exploring a few of these topics in detail, Tvedtnes expressed amazement that so many extrabiblical texts have recently come to light in support of the authenticity of the Book of Abraham.
On 17 March John Gee delivered another lecture, titled "The Original Owners of the Joseph Smith Papyri." Gee explored territory that very few scholars have surveyed. He focused his remarks on a Theban priest named Hor, who is listed on one of the Joseph Smith Papyri as its original owner.
To answer the question of when Hor lived, Gee began by explaining the methods used to date the Joseph Smith Papyri to the Roman period and why those methods are unreliable in this case. For example, paleographic (handwriting) dating is valid only if there are enough date-specific texts from the period in question available for thorough comparison. But dated hieratic texts for the period after 600 B.C. are few, leaving gaps in the paleographic recordand most of the Joseph Smith Papyri are written in hieratic. In addition, Roman period manuscripts were written with a reed pen, whereas the papyri in question were written with a brush (a stylus made by chewing the end of a stiff rush), a practice abandoned by Roman times. Thus a Roman date for the papyri is very unlikely, Gee said.
According to Gee, a more fruitful approach is prosopography, which enabled one scholar to assemble enough genealogical data to reconstruct Hor's family tree and date the papyri to the first half of the second century B.C.
Gee then discussed Hor's priestly office in Egypt, his superior literacy, and the possibility that Facsimiles 1 and 3 belonged not to the Book of Breathings (since they are not the standard vignette for that work), but to a missing part of the Papyrus of Hor, which may have contained the Book of Abraham. He concluded that, because several Egyptian traditions about Abraham date to both before and after the Joseph Smith Papyri, it should not be surprising that a Theban priest from the Ptolemaic period possessed a copy of the Book of Abraham.
On 24 March professional illustrator Michael Lyon, in a lecture titled "Appreciating Hypocephali as Works of Art and Faith," discussed Facsimile 2 in the Book of Abraham from the standpoint of art history.
Lyon explained that the Greek term hypocephalus (literally "under the head") refers to the Egyptian funerary practice of placing under a mummy's head a document that was believed to bring light and heat to the deceased's body and to benefit the departed spirit in the next life. According to Lyon, who relies on the scholarly work of many others, Facsimile 2 reproduces a hypocephalus that belonged to a man named Sheshonq who lived more than 2,000 years ago in Egypt. Lyon discussed the process by which Reuben Hedlock made an extremely accurate woodcut of the original hypocephalus in Nauvoo in 1842 so that the image (now known as Facsimile 2) could be published in the Times and Seasons together with Facsimiles 1 and 3.
Although the original hypocephalus has been lost, the LDS Church owns an early (presumably 1840s-era) copy of it. This copy indicates the lacunae, or missing parts, in the original, deteriorating hypocephalus once in Joseph Smith's possession. The artifact was probably made of black ink drawn on stucco smeared on a linen base to help prevent breakage. Lyon also suggested that Joseph probably instructed Hedlock to fill in the lacunae in his wood-block reconstruction of Facsimile 2 and that the inserted text came from the Book of Breathings of Hor, part of the Joseph Smith Papyri.
Lyon noted that the foremost Egyptologist working with these ancient texts, Dr. Edith Varga of Budapest, has included Facsimile 2 in her collection of 150 authentic hypocephali. Upon seeing BYU scholar Michael Rhodes's translation of Facsimile 2, Varga agreed that the facsimile"s inscriptions are legible and that the facsimile is thus a reliable copy. Lyon shared a plausible reconstruction of Sheshonq's hypocephalus and explained how the Egyptians made hypocephali. He compared Facsimile 2 to other important hypocephali and speculated on what aspects of astronomy Abraham may have taught the Egyptians that so captivated the most sophisticated court in the world.
In conclusion, Lyon likened Egyptian hypocephali to an archetypal motif known as the "divine center," a diagram of the cosmos using circles and squares that appears in art and architecture throughout the world. He showed many slides documenting this motif across cultures and throughout historya motif typified by the shield of Achilles in the West and the mandala tradition in the East. Filled with great meaning, these artistic patterns express a universal yearning for the divine center and, according to Lyon, may recall father Abraham's teaching of astronomical truths to the Egyptians.
Transcripts of these lectures may be obtained using the enclosed order form.