Book of Abraham/Evidence for antiquity
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Book of Abraham: Evidence for antiquity
What evidence does the Book of Abraham demonstrate to support its own antiquity?
The stories and worldviews we find in the translated text of our Book of Abraham coincide nicely with what we find from ancient Abrahamic lore. Joseph Smith demonstrated extensive knowledge of these areas, which he then integrated into a theologically rich whole. He could only have received this information through revelation, since there were no resources available to him on this subject at the time.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints responds to these questions
"Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham," Gospel Topics on LDS.org, (8 July 2014)
The book of Abraham is consistent with various details found in nonbiblical stories about Abraham that circulated in the ancient world around the time the papyri were likely created. In the book of Abraham, God teaches Abraham about the sun, the moon, and the stars. “I show these things unto thee before ye go into Egypt,” the Lord says, “that ye may declare all these words.” Ancient texts repeatedly refer to Abraham instructing the Egyptians in knowledge of the heavens. For example, Eupolemus, who lived under Egyptian rule in the second century B.C.E., wrote that Abraham taught astronomy and other sciences to the Egyptian priests. A third-century papyrus from an Egyptian temple library connects Abraham with an illustration similar to facsimile 1 in the book of Abraham.44 A later Egyptian text, discovered in the 20th century, tells how the Pharaoh tried to sacrifice Abraham, only to be foiled when Abraham was delivered by an angel. Later, according to this text, Abraham taught members of the Pharaoh’s court through astronomy.45 All these details are found in the book of Abraham.
Other details in the book of Abraham are found in ancient traditions located across the Near East. These include Terah, Abraham’s father, being an idolator; a famine striking Abraham’s homeland; Abraham’s familiarity with Egyptian idols; and Abraham’s being 62 years old when he left Haran, not 75 as the biblical account states. Some of these extrabiblical elements were available in apocryphal books or biblical commentaries in Joseph Smith’s lifetime, but others were confined to nonbiblical traditions inaccessible or unknown to 19th-century Americans.
The Neal A. Maxwell Institute responds to these questions
Kerry Muhlestein and John Gee,"An Egyptian Context for the Sacrifice of Abraham", Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture, 20/2 (2010)
The existence of human sacrifice in ancient Egypt has been variously debated and denied. While Egyptologists generally admit that the practice existed in the formative periods of Egyptian society, opinions among Egyptologists for later time periods range from claiming that "there is no certain evidence for the practice of human sacrifice . . . from the Old Kingdom onwards" to asserting that there is "indisputable evidence for the practice of human sacrifice in classical ancient Egypt." However difficult it may be for modern societies to accept that a practice we detest, such as human sacrifice, occurred in past civilizations we admire, further research and discoveries necessitate a reassessment of the possibility of this practice within Egyptian culture. While there is not a universally accepted definition of human sacrifice, for the purposes of this paper we will define human sacrifice as the slaying of a person in a ritual context.
Evidence for the antiquity of Joseph's Book of Abraham
There is evidence from antiquity—both in the Abrahamic tradition and in the Jewish recontextualization of Egyptian vignettes and dramas—which lend support to the claim that Joseph translated (albeit by unconventional means) the Book of Abraham from an authentic ancient source.
While Book of Abraham "translations" and "restorations" of the damaged vignettes do not seem to square with the translations of non-LDS Egyptologists, there are several instances when Joseph did get some of the details correct. This is no small thing considering that neither Joseph, nor any one to whom he had access, could translate Egyptian.
The Sons of Horus
Facsimile 2 (shown between Chapters 3 and 4 of the Book of Abraham in the LDS Pearl of Great Price), is known as a hypocephalus ("under the head") and was a small disk-shaped object that was placed under the head of the deceased. The Egyptians "believed it would magically cause the head and body to be enveloped in flames or radiance, thus making the deceased divine." In this drawing (or vignette), stand four mummy-like figures known—to Egyptologists—as the Sons of Horus. Their images were also on the canopic jars (the jars that stored the internal organs of the deceased) that we see under the lion couch in Joseph Smith's Facsimile 1. Joseph revealed that these four figures represented "this earth in its four quarters." According to modern Egyptologists, Joseph Smith is correct. The Sons of Horus "were the gods of the four quarters of the earth and later came to be regarded as presiding over the four cardinal points."
Years ago, Dr. Nibley pointed out that the critics neglect the ancient Near Eastern Abrahamic traditions that support the story found in the Book of Abraham. Ancient Abrahamic lore and Jewish traditions preserved in ancient texts, show some surprising parallels to what we find in the text of the Book of Abraham. Some of these parallels imply that Joseph (who likely could not have had access to many of these traditions) actually restored authentic ancient Abrahamic traditions. Some of these parallels include early Jewish traditions about Abraham's life—details not found in the Bible. Two such ancient documents that show some surprising parallels to our Book of Abraham are the Apocalypse of Abraham and the Testament of Abraham (the Apocalypse of Abraham dates to about the same time as the Book of Abraham papyri).
Other interesting parallels include ancient names and astronomy. Ancient Egyptian names, for example, that would have been unknown to Joseph Smith, are accurately represented in the Book of Abraham both phonetically as well as in meaning. With regard to astronomy, we find that in Joseph Smith's day "heliocentricity" (as proposed by Copernicus and Newton) was the accepted astronomical view. Nineteenth-century people (including the most brilliant minds of the day) believed that everything revolved around the Sun—therefore the term "heliocentric" (Greek helios=sun + centered). (In the twentieth-first century we generally accept an Einsteinian view of the cosmos.) The Book of Abraham, however, clearly delineates a geocentric view of the universe—or a belief that the Earth (Greek geo) stood at the center of the universe, and all things moved around our planet.
According to ancient geocentric cosmologies and what we read in the Book of Abraham, the heavens (which is defined as the expanse above the earth—no celestial object is mentioned to exist below the earth) was composed of multiple layers or tiers—each tier higher than the previous. Therefore the Sun is in a higher tier than the moon, and the stars are in higher tiers still (compare Abraham 3:5, 9, 17).:5 According to geocentric astronomy, celestial objects have longer time spans (or lengths of "reckoning") based upon their relative distance from the earth. "Thus, the length of reckoning of a planet is based on its revolution [time to orbit around the center, in this case the earth](and not rotation [time to spin on its axis, as the earth does every 24 hours]).":8 The higher the celestial object, the greater its length of reckoning (compare Abraham 3:5). Likewise, in Abraham 3:8–9, we read that "there shall be another planet whose reckoning of time shall be longer still; And thus there shall be the reckoning of the time of one planet above another, until thou come nigh unto Kolob."
Ancient geocentric astronomers believed that the stars were "the outer-most celestial sphere, furthest from the earth and nearest to God.":9 We find in the Book of Abraham that the star Kolob was the star nearest "the throne of God" (Abraham 3:9). In the ancient, yet recently discovered, Apocalypse of Abraham (which dates from about the same time period as the JSP), we find that God's throne is said to reside in the eighth firmament (the firmaments, being another term for the varying tiers in the heavens above the Earth).:9
The Book of Abraham also reveals that those celestial objects that are highest above the earth, "govern" the objects below them (see Abraham 3:3, 9 and Facsimile 2, fig. 5). This sounds similar to the beliefs of those who accepted an ancient geocentric cosmology:
- Throughout the ancient world the governing role of celestial bodies was conceived in similar terms. God sits on his throne in the highest heaven giving commands, which are passed down by angels through the various regions of heaven, with each region governing or commanding the regions beneath it.:10
We find this governing order described in the Apocalypse of Abraham and other ancient sources. All of this makes sense only from an ancient geocentric perspective (such as that believed in Abraham's day) and makes no sense from a heliocentric perspective (which is what Joseph would have known in his day).
A different interesting parallel comes from Facsimile 1 (Abraham on the lion couch). According to Egyptologists, this is a typical Egyptian embalming scene and has nothing to do with Abraham or sacrifice. In fact, the critics assure us, Abraham is not a topic of discussion in Egyptian papyri, and there is no connection with Abraham and the embalming lion couch.
Recent discoveries, however, suggests that the Biblical Abraham does appear in some Egyptian papyri that date to the same period as the JSP. In one instance (thus far discovered) Abraham's name appears to have a connection to an Egyptian lion couch scene.
Plain of Olishem
The Book of Abraham mentions "the plain of Olishem" (Abraham 1:10). No such place name occurs in the Bible, but it does occur, appropriately timed and located, in an inscription of the Akkadian ruler Naram Sin, dating to about 2250 BC.
The god "Elkenah"
- The Caananite [god] El....compares favorably with the information set forth in the Book of Abraham text regarding Elkenah. In particular, the type of sacrifice described in Abraham 1 fits a cultic setting in Syro-Palestinian or Canaanite territory much more readily than it fits a Mesopotamian or Assyro-Babylonian scenario. More to the point, the scene on Facsimile 1, with its representation of a human sacrifice on an Egyptian lion couch, fits extremely well with Egyptian Middle Kingdom evidence for the cultic ritual of human sacrifice....
- [The source of the name Canaan] takes the derived form Kinaʿu as signifying the "Occident," the "Land of Sunset," or "Westland." This is the West Semitic equivalent of Akkadian Amurru "West." In Amarna-era texts and in the Bible, the terms Canaan and Amurru are largely synonymous. It is interesting in this connection that the sons of Horus stood for the four cardinal directions and that Qebehsenuf, which represents "the idolatrous god of Elkenah" on Facsimile 1, was indeed the god of the West. 
- Michael D. Rhodes, "The Joseph Smith Hypocephalus...Twenty Years Later."
- Michael D. Rhodes, "The Joseph Smith Hypocephalus...Twenty Years Later." See also Daniel C. Peterson, "News from Antiquity," Ensign (January 1994), 16-. where a picture (detail of facsimile #1) and text (see paragraph 5, first sentence) both identify the four canopic jars / sons of Horus as "idols."
- Hugh W. Nibley, "The Unknown Abraham," Improvement Era (January 1969), 26.
- See Traditions About the Early Life of Abraham, edited by John A. Tvedtnes, Brian M. Hauglid, and John Gee, (Provo: FARMS, 2001).
- For some of the parallels see Hugh W. Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, 2nd edition, (Vol. 14 of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by Gary P. Gillum, Illustrated by Michael P. Lyon, (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Company ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2000),8–40. ISBN 157345527X.
- John Gee, William J. Hamblin, and Daniel C. Peterson, “'And I Saw the Stars': The Book of Abraham and Ancient Geocentric Astronomy,” in John Gee and Brian M. Hauglid (editors), Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2006),1–16. ISBN 0934893764. off-site
- See Jeff Lindsay, "Could there have been a real Egyptian scroll that actually, literally discussed Abraham?" (accessed 23 September 2005); Michael D. Rhodes, "The Book of Abraham: Divinely Inspired Scripture (Review of By His Own Hand upon Papyrus: A New Look at the Joseph Smith Papyri by Charles M. Larson)," FARMS Review of Books 4/1 (1992): 120–126. off-site; Hugh Nibley, "The Facsimiles of the Book of Abraham," Sunstone no. (Issue #4) (December 1979), 49–51. off-site; Hugh W. Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, 2nd edition, (Vol. 14 of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by Gary P. Gillum, Illustrated by Michael P. Lyon, (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Company ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2000). ISBN 157345527X.
- See John A. Tvedtnes, "Authentic Ancient Names and Words in the Book of Abraham and Related Kirtland Egyptian Papers," presentation at the 2005 FAIR Conference
- John Gee, A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000), 12–13.
- Daniel C. Peterson, "Mormonism as a Restoration," FARMS Review 18/1 (2006): 390–417. off-site wiki; citing See John M. Lundquist, "Was Abraham at Ebla? A Cultural Background of the Book of Abraham (Abraham 1 and 2)," in Studies in Scripture, Volume 2: The Pearl of Great Price, ed. Robert L. Millet and Kent P. Jackson (Salt Lake City: Randall Book, 1985), 233–35; Paul Y. Hoskisson, "Where Was Ur of the Chaldees?" in The Pearl of Great Price: Revelations from God, ed. H. Donl Peterson and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1989), 136 n. 44; John Gee, "A Tragedy of Errors (Review of By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus: A New Look at the Joseph Smith Papyri by Charles M. Larson," FARMS Review of Books 4/1 (1992): 93–119. off-site (see 115 n. 64).
- Kevin L. Barney, "On Elkenah as Canaanite El," Journal of the Book of Mormon and Restoration Scripture 19/1 (2010): 22–35. off-site wiki