Title: Introduction to the Book of Abraham
Author: John Gee
Publisher: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, in conjunction with Deseret Book, Salt Lake City.
Genre: Religious Non-fiction
2017, 194p, hardback, ISBN13: 978-1-9443-9406-6, $19.99
Reviewed by Kevin Folkman for the Association for Mormon Letters
The Book of Abraham carries a lot of baggage in the LDS church, especially since the recovery of a handful of the original Joseph Smith papyri in 1966. Those fragments, it turns out, had nothing to do with the Book of Abraham, and critics were quick to point out the mismatch of what we previously believed about the Book of Abraham and this new reality.
Where did The Book of Abraham come from? If the fragments of papyrus that the church has are not the source of the book, was it received by direct revelation, or did Joseph Smith translate it from other scrolls found with the mummies purchased in Kirtland, Ohio, in 1835?
And what about the contents of the Book of Abraham? What are we to think of the geocentric cosmology that is recorded in Chapter 3, or the differences in the creation account that Abraham shares? And what about the Book of Abraham’s troubled legacy in regards to its relationship with the Temple/Priesthood ban?
These are all important questions, certainly deserving of thoughtful consideration and study. John Gee, arguably the church’s leading scholar of Egyptology, is likely the most qualified person to help unpack that baggage.
But that is not the book that Gee has written here. It deals with all of these questions and more, and hints at great things, but attempts to cover it all in a simple, condensed version. Gee makes his intentions clear in his introduction. Based on his earlier Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri, Gee rewrote it from the ground up “to make reliable information about the Book of Abraham accessible to the general reader,” with no specific knowledge about Egyptology or LDS history. It is already a slim volume at 194 pages, but by actual count there are 94 pages of text, interspersed with suggestions for further reading, images of the surviving fragments and other pictures, and sidebar material relating to history, chronology, and the structure of the text. [Fn1]
Still, this book delivers on the premise of a book accessible to the general reader, Jointly published by the Religious Studies Center at BYU and Deseret Book, readers not steeped in Egyptology or history are the intended audience. Gee covers a lot of ground in those 94 pages of text, and makes no excuses about its non-academic nature.
For someone seeking a better understanding of how we got the Book of Abraham, Gee starts with a brief review of the history of the Egyptian mummies and associated papyri, and how they found their way from a newly discovered Egyptian tomb to Kirtland, Ohio. Joseph eventually gave the scrolls and the mummies to his mother as a means of support, who charged 25 cents a person to see them. Upon her death in 1852, Emma Smith and her new husband sold the artifacts to a dealer in antiquities. Gee traces the likely fate of the mummies and scrolls through a few collectors to the devastating Chicago fire of 1871. As a historian, I found myself wanting more detail, but still learned a few new things along the way.
Our current version of the Book of Abraham ends rather abruptly at the end of Chapter 5. This corresponds to the Book’s original publication in the Times and Seasons in 1842, where the second installment ends with the phrase, “To Be Continued.” No additional installments were published. Gee estimates that Joseph Smith likely had additional translated material that never saw publication, and that what we have may only equate to half of what Smith actually dictated to his scribes. The lack of any original transcriptions of the dictated text lends to this mystery. The few manuscripts we have are copies of a portion of the original text, and don’t amount to more than half of the text as published. We end up being in the dark about a lot of the background to the Book of Abraham. Compared to the Book of Mormon text, where we have both a portion of the original transcript and the full copy of the printer’s manuscript, we are unable to apply the same approach to the Book of Abraham.
In a similar manner, Gee addresses other elements of the contents of the Book of Abraham, including Abraham’s own story, the creation account beginning in chapter 4, and other related topics. All are treated briefly, but Gee follows up with references for additional study and reference.
Gee recognizes that the Book of Abraham’s greatest impact is in its treatment of the pre-existence. He rightly points out that while the Old and New Testaments make some reference to the premortal life of Christ, Satan, and a single reference to the prophet Jeremiah, there are no other descriptions or acknowledgments of the universal nature of the pre-existence in any of our other ancient scriptures. The Book of Mormon contains no doctrine of the pre-existence as we now understand it, and a binary heaven-or-hell view of the afterlife. Even the references in the Doctrine & Covenants offer less than the Book of Abraham gives us regarding this signature doctrine. Without these teachings recorded in the Book of Abraham chapter 3, verses 22-28, we don’t have the core doctrine of a premortal life, no songs such as “I Am a Child of God” or Eliza R. Snow’s “Oh My Father,” and no foundation for our belief in a Mother in Heaven.
Gee also argues that the geocentric cosmology that makes up much of Abraham chapter 3 would have been understandable to Abraham as a man of his times. Gee treats this as essential knowledge that Abraham would find useful as he traveled to Egypt, identifying Abraham as well versed in the knowledge of astronomy as understood by the Egyptians. But as I read the descriptions of how the times, placements, and lights associated with the planets and stars are taught in chapter 3 of the Book of Abraham, I sense something different. It may be a lesson in ancient astronomy, but the chapter transitions in verse 16 to something about the relationship of man to God. In verses 18-19, we read “Howbeit that he made the greater star; as, also, if there be two spirits, and one shall be more intelligent than the other, yet these two spirits…have no beginning; they existed before, they shall have no end, they shall exist after, for they are gnolaum, or eternal…I am the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent then they all.” God is greater than us, despite our eternal nature, he seems to be saying. He made it possible for our progression from our premortal life to our mortal probation, and from there to eternal lives and exaltation. It becomes an object lesson in humility and worship that recognizes both our divine heritage and our current imperfection in mortality.
While Gee makes no claims that this book rises to the level of a true academic work, his suggestions for “Further Readings” are intended to point those who want more detail to other resources. These aren’t so much footnotes listing sources, but more like a bibliography provided for additional study. Each chapter has a page or two of such suggestions, and in some chapters the list of additional readings equals the amount of text Gee has written for a particular chapter. There is enough there to entice anyone wanting a fuller treatment of the ideas he has discussed to keep a reader busy for months. However, of the 112 suggestions made, 36 are to papers or articles written or co-written by Gee himself. In the absence of many footnotes, these suggestions for further reading seem intended to serve a similar function. While these articles might be helpful, that much self-referential material can lead one not well versed in Egyptology or history to ask if these are just his own ideas, or are they supported by other scholars?
Gee makes a few broad generalizations without providing supporting evidence. When he discusses the three general theories about how Joseph Smith may have produced the text of the book of Abraham, he states simply that most LDS church members believe Smith received the translation solely by revelation, without referring to any of the papyri. He provides no reasoning behind his conclusion, and only writes about the advantages and disadvantages of such a view. His second theory, that Joseph Smith translated from a scroll that was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 is his preferred theory, but one that he claims is not widely held, again with no explanation for his conclusion. This chapter where he puts forward these theories provides no suggestions for further reading, [83-86]
A different problem arises in connection with Facsimile 1 from the published Book of Abraham. This is the only survivor of the three facsimiles from the Book’s original publication in the Times and Seasons in 1851. It is now known that this figure is part of the Hor Book of Breathings funerary text, what the Church identifies as Joseph Smith Papyrus I. It refers to a common figure in many of the Breathing texts depicting human sacrifice, a not uncommon practice in ancient Egypt. [Fn2] However, in a later chapter, he refers to Facsimile 1 as the only one of the facsimiles that corresponds to any portion of the Book of Abraham. A casual reader may take from this that Facsimile 1 is indeed directly associated with Abraham, instead of meaning it is the only item in the papyri in the church’s possession that was used in the published Book of Abraham. In chapter 1 of the Book of Abraham, Abraham relates his experience as the intended sacrifice at the hands of a priest of Pharaoh. This can be seen as similar to the depiction in Facsimile 1, but should not be mistaken as an actual representation of Abraham’s story. I had to reread the pages about Facsimile 1 several times before it became clear to me what Gee was saying. Pointing out that Facsimile 1 has no direct relationship to the adjoining text in the papyrus adds to the confusion. [147-150]
From a historical standpoint, Gee also makes the claim that the Book of Abraham was not used as a basis for the temple/priesthood ban for those with African-American ancestry until 1895, and has not generally been used as justification since. This is another generalization made without substantiation. In fact, Lester Bush, in his landmark article about the priesthood/temple ban in Dialogue in 1973 points out that Orson Pratt seemed to refer to the Book of Abraham as the source of racial attitudes in church doctrine as early as 1853, and an article in the Juvenile Instructor from 1868 specifically points to the Pearl of Great Price as the source. Erastus Snow and B. H. Roberts both referred back to the Book of Abraham as justification for the ban around 1880. In reading this text [Fn3], I am trusting that Gee know his Egyptology, and at least has checked on his history for accuracy. But from my background in LDS history, this stood out as an immediate issue, and raises unnecessary questions about the level of trust a reader can give Gee regarding his expertise about ancient Egypt, a subject fewer readers are likely to be familiar with than general LDS church history. For those who read only what Gee has written, they may come away with some inaccurate conclusions.
There is still much to like about this book. Recognition should be given to Carmen Durland Cole for the book’s cover and interior design. The many figures and sidebar materials are helpful additions, and provide context and detail that adds to the reader’s experience with otherwise unfamiliar material. It helps with the heavy lifting associated with the baggage attached to the Book of Abraham, making it more accessible to readers who want more than you get in a typical Gospel Doctrine class. I did learn a number of new ideas and gained some greater understanding through this book.
There is much more to the story, and for serious readers, Gee does point to other works where you can learn more with his suggestions for further reading. In the end, it is a good book despite the compromise between what we hope to learn, and what is possible in an introductory text for general readership. A fully academic treatment of these ideas likely reaches a more limited audience, given that some titles published by the Religious Studies Center have printings in the hundreds of copies, not thousands. John Gee’s Introduction to the Book of Abraham will get wider distribution with its simpler and more concise text, and the abundance of helpful sidebars, illustrations, and photos. Sometimes that kind of compromise is the best we can ask for.
[Fn1] By “sidebar”, I am referring to the insertion of figures, charts, lists, and sections of text that are not part of the regular text of the book.
[Fn2] See, Hugh Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyiri, 2nd Edition, Deseret Book and F.A.R.M.S., 2005.
[Fn3] Neither White nor Black: Mormon Scholars Confront the Race Issue in a Universal Church, Lester E. Bush and Armand L. Mauss, eds. Signature Books, Salt Lake City, 1984.