Neglected Evidence on the Book of Abraham

by Hugh Nibley
Improvement Era, January 1969

Until now, all discussions of the authenticity of the Book of Abraham have been based on the assumption that we have to deal with only two really important sources of information; The Book of Abraham and the recently published papyri (Era, February 1968). Everyone, it would seem, has taken for granted that if we know what the papyri really say, we are in a position to pass judgment on the authenticity of the Book of Abraham--a proposition diligently cultivated by some who have assumed that a knowledge of Egyptian qualifies one to pass judgment on matters that lie completely outside the field. Such a case might stand up if Joseph Smith had specifically designated particular papyri as the source of his information; but he never did so. Professor Klaus Baer begins and ends his exceedingly valuable study with the assertion that Joseph Smith thought he was actually translating the so-called "Breathing Permit."[1] Such testimony would not hold up for three minutes in any court of law. The only evidence for what the Prophet thought is the arrangement side by side of very brief Egyptian symbols and some lengthy sections of the Book of Abraham, which has led some to the hasty conclusion that the one column is a would-be translation of the other. But the strange juxtaposition of the two texts is itself the best refutation of the argument that it is supposed to present; everyone we know who has ever looked at the two columns (and that includes many a puzzled student long before anybody knew what the Egyptian characters really meant) has been satisfied that the one could not by any effort of the imagination be a translation of the other. But what Mormon ever said it was? The opposition has simple assumed it in the face of the clearest evidence to the contrary; and on their assumption, to which a knowledge of Egyptian has no relevance whatever, they have declared the Book of Abraham a fraud.

Fortunately we have much broader and firmer grounds for testing the Book of Abraham than parapsychological reconstructions of schemes and devices 140 years old. Those grounds are furnished by a wealth of apocryphal sources, mostly Jewish, and an impressive mass of Egyptian and classical references and archaeological material to back them up. The nature of these sources will become evident in the course of discussion, but it will be well to point out some significant aspects of their study at the outset.

It is fairly certain not only that the Bible account of Abraham's life is very sketchy indeed, but also that there existed anciently much fuller written records of his activity. As Father de Vaux noted in a recent and important study, "We could never write a historical biography of Abraham . . . nor even write a real history of the patriachal period" on the evidence supplied by the Bible alone.[2] "There is strictly speaking," wrote Foakes-Jackson years ago, "no material for a connected biography of Abraham, the records being taken from a variety of sources."[3] It is those lost sources that make up the records to which we referred above: Theodor Boehl recently observed that there is obviously a vast body of source material behind the history of Abraham, but that it is nearly all lost.[4] The discovery of the so-called Genesis Apocryphon among the Dead Sea Scrolls not only confirms the existence of a very ancient non-biblical history of Abraham, but also gives us a peep into its contents, which present really surprising parallels to the Book of Abraham.[5] The world is now willing to accept a proposition that it denounced as blasphemous in Joseph Smith's day: "We must not lose sight of the fact," wrote G. Widengren, "that the Old Testament, as it is handed down to us in the Jewish canon, is only part--We do not even know if the greater part--of Israel's national literature."[6]

Both the biblical and apocryphal stories of Abraham contain at least kernels of historical truth. The character of Abraham is so vivid and clear-cut in both traditions, according to Otto Eisfeldt, that he must have been a historical personage.[7] While "the 19th century excluded the possibility that the man Abram or Abraham could have been a real historical person," wrote Martin Buber, today, "everyone sees a living person," whose true history, however, "science, lacking other evidence, will only be able to surmise."[8] Gustav von Rad describes this peculiar state of things, which leaves us in the position of the medieval schoolmen, who were completely certain that God is, but completely uncertain as to what he is: so it is with Abraham today--". . . in spite of the unprecedented progress of modern archaeology, there is still complete disagreement as to the historical reality underlying the patriarchal narratives."[9] Yet there is no more any doubt that there was and is a historical reality. In a study of "the legend of Abraham," M. Mauss concluded that "a number of scholars are beginning to recognize historical foundations to important parts of the tradition."[10] Today there are at last enough documents in the apocryphal area to be checked against each other, so that the resemblances and differences among them really add up to something. Even apparent contradictions are now constructive, as Albright pointed out: ". . . reconstructing history is quite impossible unless we have different versions of just what happened at a given time and different reactions of contemporaries or successors. . . . Minor discrepancies do not invalidate historicity; they are necessary concomitants of any true history of man."[11]

Taken as a whole, the apocryphal accounts of Abraham, whether in Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Greek, Old Slavonic, etc., and whether recorded in manuscripts of early or later date, agree in telling essentially the same story. This story is not found in the Bible, but is found in the Book of Abraham--which means that our next point is very important.

Joseph Smith knew nothing about these extra-canonical sources for the Life of Abraham.

They were not accessible to him: E. A. Budge made the significant remark that "the letter press [in the Book of Abraham] is as idiotic as the pictures, and is clearly based on the Bible and some of the Old Testament Apocryphal histories."[12] But what could Joseph Smith have known about Old Testament apocryphal histories? Budge was possibly the greatest authority on apocrypha of his day, but that was because he spent his days mostly in the British Museum, among original manuscripts to which nobody else had access. There were indeed a number of important apocrypha published in Budge's day--but in the 1830's?[12a] Who has access to the apocryphal Abraham materials even today? The first important collection of them was Jellinek's Bait ha-Midrasch, first published in 1856, and so rare that we had never seen a copy of it until its reprinting in Israel in 1967. Many Abraham sources were first made known to the world in B. Beer's Leben Abraham's, which did not appear until 1859. The extensive Arabic sources were first studied by Schuzinger in 1961. Though Hebrew has been taught on the "graduate level" at the BYU for many years, until very recently none of the basic sources have been available there.

The apocryphal Abraham literature was not read in Joseph Smith's day: As a specialist many years later, Budge recognized authentically apocryphal elements in the Book of Abraham, and duly charged Joseph Smith with having clearly drawn on them. Yet those sources were unknown to any of his fellow critics of the Book of Abraham; for them, Joseph Smith's account rang no familiar bells. Over and over again they declared the history to be nothing on earth but the purest product of the Prophet's irresponsible imagination, and repeated with monotonous regularity that there was "not one word or truth" in anything he put down. But if the most learned men in the world detected no other source for the Book of Abraham than Joseph Smith's untutored imagination, what are the chances that the young farmer himself would have had any knowledge at all of an obscure and recondite literature never translated into English? Professor Zucker of the University of Utah has done us the service of showing that the influence of Joseph Smith's Jewish friends and instructors, Seixas and Alexander Neibaur, came much too late to have had any influence on the Book of Abraham,[13] and that the Prophet's knowledge of things Jewish before then was less than elementary; indeed, as Professor Zucker puts it, "A Jew was exceedingly rare in northeastern Ohio in those days . . . before November 9, 1835, few of the Mormons had ever knowingly beheld a Jew."[14]

To come down to the present, in 1968 a Jewish Rabbi wrote A Critical Analysis of the Book of Abraham in the Light of Extra-canonical Jewish Writing. a BYU dissertation, in which for the Life of Abraham he draws upon the Talmud, Josephus, Jubilees, and S. Yetzirah, but makes no mention of any of the sources noted so far in this article or many to follow.[15] Even R. C. Webb, in Chapter 8 of his Joseph Smith as a Translator, is impressed only by the contrast between the Book of Abraham and the non-canonical sources available to him, which do not include those really important items. So we ask, if rabbis and researchers in the twentieth century can be excused for not knowing about significant writings about Abraham, what were the chances of Joseph Smith's knowing anything about them? They were nil, though we can confidently predict from past experience that as surely as it begins to appear that the story of Abraham in the Book of Abraham can be matched even in particulars by a number of ancient sources, those same critics who have poured contempt on the total ignorance of Joseph Smith will join Professor Budge in charging the Prophet with having lifted extensively from obscure and recondite sources that even the most learned rabbis had never heard of in the 1830's.

[1] Klaus Baer, "The Breathing Permit of Hor," Dialogue, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Autumn 1968), pp. 111, 133.

[2] R. de Vaux, in Revue Biblique, Vol. 72 (1965), p. 27

[3] F. J. Foakes-Jackson, The Biblical History of the Hebrews (Cambridge, 1917), p. 22.

[4] F. M. Th. Boehl, in Ex Oriente Lux, Vol. 17 (1963), p. 126, noting that Genesis 14 is a surviving fragment of this lost literature.

[5] N. Avigad & Y. Yadin, A Genesis Apocryphon (Jerusalem: Hebrew University, 1956), p. 23: "The scroll explains the story of Sarai and the King of Egypt in a manner different from that of all the midrashim on the subject . . . . this interesting legend which is not found in Midrashic or Apocryphal literature and of which there is no other version known to us, should be studied very thoroughly," coming from the same Essene and Ebionite environment as the Dead Sea Scrolls are the Apocalypse of Abraham and the Testament of Abraham; also first appearing in this century are the Cave of Treasures and the writings on Abraham by Ka'ab al-Akhbar. First published in 1956 in A. Jellinek's Bat-ha-Midrasch are the Ma'ase Abraham, an important Midrash on Abraham Our Father, and a History of Abraham from the Pentateuch Commentary of Bekhayi ben Ashi.

[6] G. Widengren, in S. H. Hooke (ed.), Myth, Ritual and Kingship (Oxford, 1958), p. 158

[7] O. Eissfeldt, in Ex Oriente Lux, Vol. 17 (1963), p. 160

[8] Martin Buber, in Judaism, Vol. 5 (1956), p. 291. By the time of World War I, "practically all scholars of standing in Europe and America considered these stories fictitious."--S. H. Horn, in Christianity Today, Vol. 12 (1968), p. 925.

[9] G. von Rad, in Expository Times, Vol. 72 (1960), p. 215.

[10] M. Mauss, in Revue des Etudes Juives, Vol. 82 (1926), p. 35.

[11] W. F. Albright, in Christianity Today, Vol. 12 (1968), p. 917.

[12] E. A. W. Budge, cited in Era, Vol. 16 (1914), p. 342.

[12a] Rev. William Hales, A New Analysis of Chronology and Geography, History and Prophecy (London, 1830) in 4 volumes, was the most complete and conscientious work available to contemporaries of Joseph Smith. None of the Oriental sources of episodes of the Abraham story appear in this work. It would have been of no help whatever in writing the Book of Abraham.

[13] L. C. Zucker, in Dialogue, Vol. 3. No. 2 (Summer 1968), p. 44.

[14] Ibid., pp. 47-48.

[15] Rabbi Nissim Wernick, A Critical Analysis of the Book of Abraham in the Light of Extra-Canonical Jewish Writings (BYU dissertation in the Department of Religious Instruction, 1968).