Question: Is the phrase "by his own hand upon papyrus" an Egyptian title?

Question: Is the phrase "by his own hand upon papyrus" an Egyptian title?

The case for the phrase “By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus” as an Egyptian title

Hugh Nibley, writing in 1981, suggested that “the statement "written by his own hand, upon papyrus"... is actually part of the original Egyptian title: "called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus"—that was Abraham's own heading. This is important, since much misunderstanding has arisen from the assumption that the Joseph Smith Papyri were the original draft of Abraham's book, his very own handiwork.”[1] Nibley, quoting himself from an earlier article,[2] goes on to explain the following, reproduced here at length:

Two important and peculiar aspects of ancient authorship must be considered when we are told that a writing is by the hand of Abraham or anybody else. One is that according to Egyptian and Hebrew thinking any copy of a book originally written by Abraham would be regarded and designated as the very work of his hand forever after, no matter how many reproductions had been made and handed down through the years. The other is that no matter who did the writing originally, if it was Abraham who commissioned or directed the work, he would take the credit for the actual writing of the document, whether he penned it or not.

As to the first point, when a holy book (usually a leather roll) grew old and worn out from handling, it was not destroyed but renewed. Important writings were immortal—for the Egyptians they were "the divine words," for the Jews the very letters were holy and indestructible, being the word of God. The wearing out of a particular copy of scripture therefore in no way brought the life of the book to a close—it could not perish. In Egypt it was simply renewed (ma.w, sma.w) "fairer than before," and so continued its life to the next renewal. Thus we are told at the beginning of what some have claimed to be the oldest writing in the world [the Shabako Stone], "His Majesty wrote this book down anew. . . . His Majesty discovered it as a work of the Ancestors, but eaten by worms. . . . So His Majesty wrote it down from the beginning, so that it is more beautiful than it was before." It is not a case of the old book's being replaced by a new one, but of the original book itself continuing its existence in a rejuvenated state. No people were more hypnotized by the idea of a renewal of lives than the Egyptians—not a succession of lives or a line of descent, but the actual revival and rejuvenation of a single life.

Even the copyist who puts his name in a colophon does so not so much as publicity for himself as to vouch for the faithful transmission of the original book; his being "trustworthy (iqr) of fingers," i.e., a reliable copyist, is the reader's assurance that he has the original text before him. An Egyptian document, J. Spiegel observes, is like the print of an etching, which is not only a work of art in its own right but "can lay claim equally well to being the original . . . regardless of whether the individual copies turn out well or ill." Because he thinks in terms of types, according to Spiegel, for the Egyptian "there is no essential difference between an original and a copy. For as they understand it, all pictures are but reproductions of an ideal original." . . . This concept was equally at home in Israel. An interesting passage from the Book of Jubilees [a text unknown before 1850] recounts that Joseph while living in Egypt "remembered the Lord and the words which Jacob, his father, used to read from amongst the words of Abraham." Here is a clear statement that "the words of Abraham" were handed down in written form from generation to generation, and were the subject of serious study in the family circle. The same source informs us that when Israel died and was buried in Canaan, "he gave all his books and the books of his fathers to Levi his son that he might preserve them and renew them for his children until this day." Here "the books of the fathers" including "the words of Abraham" have been preserved for later generations by a process of renewal. [Joseph's own books were, of course, Egyptian books.]

In this there is no thought of the making of a new book by a new hand. It was a strict rule in Israel that no one, not even the most learned rabbi, should ever write down so much as a single letter of the Bible from memory: always the text must be copied letter by letter from another text that had been copied in the same way, thereby eliminating the danger of any man's adding, subtracting, or changing so much as a single jot in the text. It was not a rewriting but a process as mechanical as photography, an exact visual reproduction, so that no matter how many times the book had been passed from hand to hand, it was always the one original text that was before one. . . .

But "written by his own hand"? This brings us to the other interesting concept. Let us recall that that supposedly oldest of Egyptian writings, the so-called Shabako Stone, begins with the announcement that "His Majesty wrote this book down anew." This, Professor Sethe obligingly explains, is "normal Egyptian usage to express the idea that the King ordered a copy to be made." Yet it clearly states that the king himself wrote it. Thus when the son of King Snefru says of his own inscription at Medum, "It was he who made his gods in [such] a writing [that] it cannot be effaced," the statement is so straightforward that even such a student as W. S. Smith takes it to mean that the prince himself actually did the writing. And what could be more natural than for a professional scribe to make an inscription: "It was her husband, the Scribe of the Royal Scroll, Nebwy, who made this inscription"? Or when a noble announces that he made his father's tomb, why should we not take him at his word? It depends on how the word is to be understood. Professor Wilson in all these cases holds that the person who claims to have done the work does so "in the sense that he commissioned and paid for it." The noble who has writing or carving done is always given full credit for its actual execution; such claims of zealous craftsmanship "have loftily ignored the artist," writes Wilson. "It was the noble who 'made' or 'decorated' his tomb," though one noble of the Old Kingdom breaks down enough to show us how these claims were understood: "I made this for my old father. . . . I had the sculptor Itju make (it)." Dr. Wilson cites a number of cases in which men claim to have "made" their father's tombs, one of them specifically stating that he did so "while his arm was still strong"—with his own hand!

Credit for actually writing the inscription of the famous Metternich Stele is claimed by "the prophetess of Nebwen, Nest-Amun, daughter of the Prophet of Nebwen and Scribe of the Inundation, 'Ankh-Psametik,'" who states that she "renewed (sma.w) this book [there it is again!] after she had found it removed from the house of Osiris-Mnevis, so that her name might be preserved." The inscription then shifts to the masculine gender as if the scribe were really a man, leading to considerable dispute among the experts as to just who gets the credit. Certain it is that the Lady boasts of having given an ancient book a new lease on life, even though her hand may never have touched a pen.

Nest-Amun hoped to preserve her name by attaching it to a book, and in a very recent study M. A. Korostovstev notes that "for an Egyptian to attach his name to a written work was an infallible means of passing it down through the centuries." That may be one reason why Abraham chose the peculiar Egyptian medium he did for the transmission of his record—or at least why it has reached us only in this form. Indeed Theodor Böhl observed recently that the one chance the original Patriarchal literature would ever have of surviving would be to have it written down on Egyptian papyrus. Scribes liked to have their names preserved, too, and the practice of adding copyists' names in colophons, Korostostev points out, could easily lead in later times to attributing the wrong authorship to a work.

But whoever is credited with the authorship of a book remains its unique author, alone responsible for its existence in whatever form.[3]

Thus, according to this line of reasoning, considering how the ancient Egyptians viewed the nature of their texts, namely, that there was no real difference between an original and a copy but simply a renewal of the original text, the phrase “by his own hand upon papyrus” need not warrant the assumption that the text is holographic in nature.

The idiom “by his own hand” in Egyptian thought has a parallel to the Israelite view of the nature of their sacred texts. It has been noted that “it is obvious from reading the Hebrew Bible that the phrase by his own hand is a Hebrew idiom beyadh, which means “by the authority of,” as we can clearly see in the Stuttgartensian Hebrew text that Kohlenberger translates. He renders Exodus 9:35 as “just as the Lord said through Moses,” while the Hebrew has beyadh, that is “by the hand of.” Clearly it was the Lordʼs hand—the Lordʼs authority, which had led Moses against Pharaoh, that is, by the Lordʼs authority. Though we donʼt get it that way in the English, the Hebrew definitely has “by the hand of.”[4]

In addition, we see that “at 1 Samuel 28:15 we see another example—the English translation reads that God would not appear to Saul either by the prophets or by dreams. In the Hebrew we again find beyadh, “by the hand of,” or in other words, by the prophetʼs authority from God. In other words, Abraham may not even have touched the documents that bear his name, the very ones that fell into Josephʼs hands in the 1830s, since Abraham could have had them commissioned and written for him. Yet for all this, the documents would still bear his signature, since they were authorized by him, “by his own hand,” even though a scribe may have written it instead of Abraham.”[5]

It need not be assumed that the phrase “by his own hand” indicates a holographic nature of the Book of Abraham

Thus, it need not be assumed that the phrase “by his own hand” indicates a holographic nature of the Book of Abraham. As Professor John Gee reminds us, there is a difference between the date of a text and the date of a copy of a text. [6] The two are not the same. Thus, while the date of the text of the Book of Abraham could have dated from Abrahamʼs time,[7] the copy of the Book of Abraham received by Joseph Smith could have a later copy dated to the Ptolemaic Era.[8]

The critics scoff at this suggestion. They insist that the phrase “by his own hand upon papyrus” must absolutely be speaking about Abraham literally writing on the papyrus that Joseph Smith possessed. Likewise, they question as to whether the phrase “by his own hand upon papyrus” can even be read as being a part of the ancient title of the text, as proposed by Nibley, since it is not capitalized like “the Book of Abraham” is in the caption.

However, these criticisms are problematic for a number of reasons. It must be remembered that there was no standardized capitalization of letters in Egyptian as there is in English. Thus, if the phrase was a part of the ancient text, the title would have read something along the lines of the following: “the book of abraham written by his own hand upon papyrus”. The capitalization and punctuation would have been the work of the 19th century scribes, who may not have realized that such was the entire title and thus only capitalized the “Book of Abraham” portion of the title since such was most familiar with their 19th century understanding.[9]

It is not a question of what the modern critics think, but what the ancient Egyptians thought

Furthermore, the critics also demand that the phrase “by his own hand upon papyrus” can mean nothing but that the Book of Abraham claims to be a holograph from Abraham. Such an argument, however, is nothing more than a presentist fallacy when analyzed in the light of the Egyptological evidence. It is not a question of what the modern critics think, but what the ancient Egyptians thought.

In 2007, Professor Gee published an article with the Proceedings of the Ninth International Congress of Egyptologists. In it, Dr. Gee explored whether or not the ancient Egyptians considered their sacred texts to be divinely written. In reference to the tale of Setne, Dr. Gee notes that “in this text, the book is said to be written "by his own hand” upon papyrus, which need not be taken as indicating anything more than authorship.”[10]

This newly published evidence bolsters the LDS apologetic claim that the phrase “by his own hand upon papyrus” need not be construed as meaning an autographical nature for the text. As argued by Nibley and Shirts, it could merely be indicative of attributing authorship to Abraham. It is possible that the phrase, indeed the entire title, was redacted by the 2nd century copyist scribe working with the text, assuming that, as argued by Professor Gee, there was in fact a portion of papyri that contained a text like the Book of Abraham. Considering the nature of Egyptian texts, as explained by Nibley, it wouldnʼt have been out of place for an Egyptian, or, as Kevin Barney has argued,[11] a Jewish redactor of the text to insert the phrase. And if this is the case, from the ancient Egyptian perspective the phrase wouldn’t automatically indicate a holographic nature of the text.


  1. Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981), 4. Reprinted in 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), 1–. ISBN 157345527X..
  2. Hugh Nibley, "As Things Stand at the Moment," Brigham Young University Studies 9 no. 1 (1968), 74-78. (needs URL / links)
  3. Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981), 4–7.
  4. Russell C. McGregor and Kerry A. Shirts, "Letters to an Anti-Mormon (Review of Letters to a Mormon Elder: Eye Opening Information for Mormons and the Christians Who Talk with Them)," FARMS Review of Books 11/1 (1999): 90–298. off-site See pages 82–83.
  5. Russell C. McGregor and Kerry A. Shirts, "Letters to an Anti-Mormon (Review of Letters to a Mormon Elder: Eye Opening Information for Mormons and the Christians Who Talk with Them)," FARMS Review of Books 11/1 (1999): 90–298. off-site, 82–83.
  6. John Gee, A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000), 25–28.
  7. This is falling in line with the traditional LDS understanding of the Book of Abraham. Namely, that it is not pseudepigraphical, but was written by Abraham himself. There are, it should be noted, some scholars who do theorize that the text translated by Joseph Smith was pseudepigraphical, dated to the Hellenic world. Other LDS scholars, such as Dr. Nibley, have even compared the text of the Book of Abraham to other Hellenic pseudepigrapha. Such an attempt at textual justification for an ancient Book of Abraham text, however, should not be seen as it is by some as equating the Book of Abraham with ancient pseudepigrapha.
  8. This assumes, of course, that Joseph Smith translated physical papyri and did not receive the Book of Abraham on purely revelatory means as per the “catalyst theory” for the Book of Abraham.
  9. Admittedly, the phrase “and found in the catacombs of Egypt” does cast doubt on the claim that “by his own hand” was a part of the ancient title as it is clearly 19th century editorializing. However, it is possible that it is just that; a 19th century editorializing of the text. It does not completely refute Nibley’s thesis entirely.
  10. John Gee, “Were Egyptian Texts Divinely Written?”, Proceedings of the Ninth International Congress of Egyptologists, ed. J. C. Goyon, C. Cardin (Paris: Uitgeverij Peeters en Departement Oosterse Studies Leuven, 2007), 806. Parenthetically, this article has other implications for Book of Abraham and Joseph Smith Papyri studies, not the least of them being Professor Gee’s discussion of the fact that the so-called “Book of Breathings Made by Isis” text should actually be called the “Letter of Fellowship Made by Isis”. In light of Hugh Nibley’s studies of the Joseph Smith Papyri in 1975 and Professor Gee’s studies published in 2006, this new understanding advances the concept of the Letter of Fellowship text as an more of an initiatory text than an actual “funerary text”. See, respectively, Hugh W. Nibley, Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, 1st edition, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1975), 1. ISBN 0877474850. GospeLink (requires subscrip.), Reprinted as Hugh W. Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, 2nd edition, (Vol. 16 of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John Gee and Michael D. Rhodes, (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Company ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2005), 1. ISBN 159038539X. 1st edition GL direct link; John Gee, “The Use of the Daily Temple Liturgy in the Book of the Dead,” Sonderdruck aus Totenbuch-Forchungen, eds. B. Burkhard, I. Munro, S. Stöhr (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2006), 73–86.
  11. Kevin L. Barney, "The Facsimiles and Semitic Adaptation of Existing Sources," in Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant, edited by John Gee and Brian M. Hauglid, (Provo: FARMS, 2005), 107–130. off-site