Book of Abraham Insight #23
In the current (2013) edition of the Pearl of Great Price, the Book of Abraham is prefaced with this explanatory note: “A Translation of some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt. The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus.”1 This editorial title is based on the 1 March 1842 printing of the Book of Abraham in the Times and Seasons, with some alteration. A look at the Kirtland-era manuscript evidence for the Book of Abraham reveals a similar phrase: “Translation of the Book of Abraham written by his own hand upon papyrus and found in the CataCombs of Egypt
Some have wondered how the papyrus acquired by Joseph Smith could have possibly been written by Abraham’s “own hand” when the papyri date to circa 300 BC, many centuries after Abraham’s lifetime.3
Before answering this question, the first issue to determine is whether the phrase “by his own hand upon papyrus” was part of the ancient Book of Abraham text or a modern assumption made by Joseph Smith or his scribes about the nature of the papyri they acquired. Some evidence suggests Joseph Smith and the early Latter-day Saints believed the papyri was as old as Abraham himself,4 although caution is necessary in evaluating this evidence since some of these sources are hearsay that “may have confused ‘written by the hand of Abraham’ (authorship) with ‘handwriting of Abraham’ (his personal penmanship).”5
On the other hand, some scholars have argued that the phrase “the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus” was the ancient title of the text itself. As they have observed, the phrase “by his own hand,” or something similar to it, was used in ancient Egypt simply to denote authorship.6 For example, one ancient Egyptian text features this line:
[If it (so) happens] that you want to recite a writing, come to me, so that I can have you taken to the place where this (particular) Book [lit. “papyrus”] is, of which Thoth was the one who wrote it with his own hand, himself, when he had come down after the (other) gods.7
The literal idiom used here in ancient Egyptian is “with his own hand” ([n-]ḏr.ṱ=f ḥˁ=f), which indeed denotes authorship.8 A similar idiom—“written . . . with his own fingers” (m ḏbˁw=f)—is also attested from ancient Egypt as a way to attribute authorship.9
The idiom “in the hand” to denote authorship, authority, or possession (“in the possession, charge of,” “from,” “through,” “because of,” “be done by,” etc.) also appears in the Egyptian language as spoken in Abraham’s day, reinforcing (though not proving) the possibility that the phrase was original to the ancient text prepared by Abraham.10
This phrase also appears in the Bible. For example, some prophetic books speak of oracles or “the word of the Lord” coming through or by certain prophets (e.g. Malachi 1:1; Haggai 1:1; 2:1; Zechariah 7:7, 12). The literal Hebrew idiom in these passages, however, is “by/in the hand” (bĕ yad). In the New Testament, some of Paul’s epistles conclude with a short phrase indicating the apostle wrote “with his own hand,” even though he surely employed scribes in helping him compose his letters, and even after those letters were copied by subsequent scribes (1 Corinthians 16:21; Galatians 6:11; Colossians 4:18; 2 Thessalonians 3:17; Philemon 1:19).11
Significantly, an “autobiography” of a Semitic ruler named Idrimi from Abraham’s time attributes authorship of the text to the ruler himself while at the same time overtly mentioning the name of the scribe who physically wrote the text.12 It would not be difficult to imagine a similar situation with Abraham as he composed his record.
Whatever Joseph Smith and early Latter-day Saints may have thought about how old the papyri were or who physically wrote them, the following conclusion can be safely drawn from the surviving evidence:
The heading [of the Book of Abraham] does not [necessarily] indicate that Abraham had written that particular copy but rather that he was the author of the original. . . . A text, regardless of how many copies of it exist in the world, is written by one author. However, each copy of that text is a manuscript. . . . We all know that when an author of the ancient world wrote something, if those writings were to survive or be disseminated, the text had to be copied again and again and again, for generation upon generation. When the heading states that the text was written by Abraham’s own hand, it notes who the author is, not who copied down the particular manuscript that came into Joseph’s possession.13
Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, 2nd. ed. (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2000), 4–9.
Hugh Nibley, “As Things Stand at the Moment,” BYU Studies 9, no. 1 (1969): 74–78.
1 “The Book of Abraham,” Times and Seasons 3, no. 9 (March 1, 1842): 704. The Salt Lake City 1878 edition of the Pearl of Great Price dropped the phrase “purporting to be” in the title. This omission was retained in subsequent editions, including the 1902 edition prepared by James E. Talmage that serves as the basis for the 1981 and current 2013 editions of the book.
2 Robin Scott Jensen and Brian Hauglid, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 4: Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts (Salt Lake City, UT: Church Historian’s Press, 2018), 219. To view the manuscript online, see Book of Abraham Manuscript, circa July–circa November 1835–C [Abraham 1:1–2:18], online at www.josephsmithpapers.org.
3 Marc Coenen, “The Dating of the Papyri Joseph Smith I, X and XI and Min who Massacres his Enemies,” in Egyptian Religion: The Last Thousand Years, ed. Willy Clarysse, Antoon Schoors, and Harco Willems (Leuven: Peeters, 1998), 2:1103–15; Michael D. Rhodes, The Hor Book of Breathings: A Translation and Commentary (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2002), 3.
4 “A Glance at the Mormons,” Quincy Whig, 17 October 1840; reproduced in Brian M. Hauglid, ed., A Textual History of the Book of Abraham (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2010), 218; Wilford Woodruff Journal, 19 February 1842; reproduced in Hauglid, A Textual History of the Book of Abraham, 220; Editorial, circa 1 March 1842, Draft, online at www.josephsmithpapers.org; Josiah Quincy, Figures of the Past from the Leaves of Old Journals (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1883), 386.
5 Terryl Givens, The Pearl of Greatest Price: Mormonism’s Most Controversial Scripture (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019), 155. See also the discussion in John Gee, “Eyewitness, Hearsay, and Physical Evidence of the Joseph Smith Papyri,” in The Disciple as Witness: Essays on Latter-day Saint History and Doctrine in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson, ed. Stephen D. Ricks, Donald W. Parry, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000), 192–195.
6 Hugh Nibley, “As Things Stand at the Moment,” BYU Studies 9, no. 1 (1969): 74–78; Abraham in Egypt, 2nd. ed. (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2000), 4–9; cf. John Gee, “Were Egyptian Texts Divinely Written?” in Proceedings of the Ninth International Congress of Egyptologists, ed. J. C. Goyon, C. Cardin (Leuven: Uitgeverij Peeters en Departement Oosterse Studies, 2007), 806; “Literary Titles in Greco-Roman Egypt,” in En détail – Philologie und Archäologie im Diskurs: Festschrift für Hans-W. Fischer-Elfert, ed. Marc Brose et al. (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2019), 344–345.
7 Steve Vinson, The Craft of a Good Scribe: History, Narrative and Meaning in the First Tale of Setne Khaemwas (Leiden: Brill, 2017), 114; cf. Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume III: The Late Period (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1980), 128; Robert Ritner, trans., “The Romance of Setna Khaemuas and the Mummies (Setne I),” in The Literature of Ancient Egypt, ed. William Kelly Simpson, 3rd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 456; James Allen, The Ancient Egyptian Language: An Historical Study (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 191.
8Janet H. Johnson, ed., The Demotic Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago (Chicago, Ill.: Oriental Institute, 2001), 60; Thus Wrote ‘Onchsheshonqy: An Introductory Grammar of Demotic, 3rd ed. (Chicago, Ill.: Oriental Institute, 2000), 31; see the discussion in Gee, “Were Egyptian Texts Divinely Written?” 807–810, esp. 809; “Literary Titles in Greco-Roman Egypt,” 344–345.
9 Gee, “Were Egyptian Texts Divinely Written?” 809, citing P. Louvre 3284 2, 8/9 and other texts.
10 Alan Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Griffith Institute, 1957), §178; James Hoch, Middle Egyptian Grammar (Mississauga: Benben Publications, 1997), §81.
11 Lincoln H. Blumell, “Scribes and Ancient Letters: Implications for the Pauline Epistles,” in How the New Testament Came to Be: The Thirty-fifth Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium, ed. Kent P. Jackson and Frank F. Judd Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2006), 208–226.
13 Kerry Muhlestein, “Egyptian Papyri and the Book of Abraham: A Faithful, Egyptological Point of View,” in No Weapon Shall Prosper: New Light on Sensitive Issues, ed. Robert L. Millet (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2011), 230.