Of all the controversial topics related to Mormonism, the Book of Abraham is one of the most debated — and misunderstood. The goal of this post is to hopefully increase your understanding of this book of scripture and give an example of how recent scholarship can support its claim of ancient origins.
To lay some background info down, the next three paragraphs are from the essay on the Book of Abraham found on the LDS Church’s website (feel free to skim this next part if you’re already familiar with it):
This book, a record of the biblical prophet and patriarch Abraham, recounts how Abraham sought the blessings of the priesthood, rejected the idolatry of his father, covenanted with Jehovah, married Sarai, moved to Canaan and Egypt, and received knowledge about the Creation. The book of Abraham largely follows the biblical narrative but adds important information regarding Abraham’s life and teachings.
The book of Abraham was first published in 1842 and was canonized as part of the Pearl of Great Price in 1880. The book originated with Egyptian papyri that Joseph Smith translated beginning in 1835. Many people saw the papyri, but no eyewitness account of the translation survives, making it impossible to reconstruct the process. Only small fragments of the long papyrus scrolls once in Joseph Smith’s possession exist today. The relationship between those fragments and the text we have today is largely a matter of conjecture.
We do know some things about the translation process. The word translation typically assumes an expert knowledge of multiple languages. Joseph Smith claimed no expertise in any language. He readily acknowledged that he was one of the “weak things of the world,” called to speak words sent “from heaven.” Speaking of the translation of the Book of Mormon, the Lord said, “You cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.” The same principle can be applied to the book of Abraham. The Lord did not require Joseph Smith to have knowledge of Egyptian. By the gift and power of God, Joseph received knowledge about the life and teachings of Abraham.
It’s really important to keep in mind that the papyri that the Book of Abraham (BoA) came from were created in Egypt around 100 BC — which is over 2,000 years after Abraham’s life. These papyri were obviously not created by Abraham himself. The BoA does say that it was “written by his (Abraham’s) own hand”. That’s not a problem, however, when you consider that this is a super common phrase in ancient Middle-Eastern literature used to denote the original author — not the scribe who penned that specific copy.
The papyrus copy of the Book of Abraham that Joseph Smith had was written by either a 100 BC Egyptian or a Jew living in Egypt (there were many Jews living in Egypt at the time).
In fact, a common practice for Jews living in Egypt (and even in Palestine, for that matter) was to use Egyptian stories and illustrations to teach Jewish stories. They would compare Osiris to Abel and even to Abraham. Kevin L. Barney’s article “The Facsimiles and Semitic Adaptation of Existing Sources” explains this in more detail and gives several examples.
So, instead of determining if Joseph Smith’s interpretation of the symbols in the facsimiles matches perfectly with what an an Egyptian would say they mean, we should, rather, see if this interpretation matches what a Jew living in Egypt could say they mean as he adapts the Egyptian source to a Jewish story (the story of Abraham).
When we do this, Joseph’s interpretations not only become reasonable, but it is amazing how accurate they are — especially for just a “lucky guess” by someone who didn’t know Egyptian.
The Book of Abraham – Facsimile 2
For the sake of brevity, I am only going to be looking at the second of the three illustrations (a.k.a. Facsimile 2, or the hypocephalus). However, at the end of the blog post, I will list some further resources.
I will be drawing extensively from the work of egyptologist, Michael Rhodes. All of the following block quotes come from his extensive, well-supported article. You can download the PDF JosephSmithHypocephalus by clicking the link if you want to check his sources.
Before we start looking at the individual figures of the hypocephalus, here’s some important info from Rhodes that will come into play later. It’s also pretty amazing:
Two pseudepigraphic texts dealing with Abraham that were discovered after Joseph Smith’s time also shed interesting light on the relationship between Abraham and the Egyptians.
In the Testament of Abraham, Abraham is shown a vision of the Last Judgment that is unquestionably related to the judgment scene pictured in the 125th chapter of the Book of the Dead, thus clearly associating Abraham with the Egyptian Book of the Dead. One of the Joseph Smith papyri is in fact a drawing of this judgment scene from the 125th chapter of the Book of the Dead.
The Apocalypse of Abraham describes a vision Abraham saw while making a sacrifice to God. In this vision he is shown the plan of the universe, ―”what is in the heavens, on the earth, in the sea, and in the abyss” (almost the exact words used in the left middle portion of the Joseph Smith Hypocephalus). He is shown ―”the fullness of the whole world and its circle”, in a picture with two sides.
The similarity with the hypocephalus is striking. There is even a description of what are clearly the four canopic figures labeled number 6 in the Joseph Smith Hypocephalus. The significance of these documents is that they date from the beginning of the Christian era — they are roughly contemporary with the hypocephalus and the other Egyptian documents purchased by Joseph Smith — and they relate the same things about Abraham that Joseph Smith said are found in the hypocephalus and the other Egyptian papyri.
Let’s start with figure 1:
Figure 1 represents the Egyptian god with a double ram’s head named Khnum. According to Egyptian mythology, Khnum is the first creator god. He is the potter who created from clay the souls and bodies of all living things, including the other gods. He held within himself the primeval creative force.
On either side of Khnum are two apes (baboons) praising him while simultaneously absorbing his warmth and light.
To quote Rhodes:
Joseph Smith says that this [figure 1] is “Kolob, signifying the first creation, nearest to the celestial, or the residence of God”. This agrees well with the Egyptian symbolism of god endowed with the primeval creative force seated at the center of the universe.
The name Kolob is right at home in this context [the center of the universe and the center of the hypocephalus]. The word most likely derives from the common Semitic root QLB, which has the basic meaning of ―heart, center, middle (Arabic قِلب (qalb) ―heart, center; Hebrew קֶרֶב (qereb) ―middle, midst, קָרַב (q ra ) ―to draw near; Egyptian m-qab ―in the midst of). In fact, قِلب forms part of the Arabic names of several of the brightest stars in the sky, including Antares, Regulus, and Canopus.
The apes can represent Thoth, the god of writing and wisdom, as well as the moon, but due to their curious habit of holding up their hands to receive the first warming rays of the sun after the cold desert night as if worshiping the sun at its rising, they are often found in connection with the sun. Besides these solar and lunar associations, apes are also found associated with stars and constellations. Joseph Smith says they are stars receiving light from Kolob, which is in harmony with our understanding of their symbolism in Egyptian.
This is Amon-Re, the chief god of the Egyptian pantheon; the two heads illustrate the hidden and mysterious power of Amon combined with the visible and luminous power of Re [the Sun]…The jackals on his shoulders as well as the jackal standard he holds are symbols of the god Wepwawet, the Opener of the Way, i.e…of the dead through the dangers of hereafter to the throne of Osiris where they would be judged, or any other way that needs opening.
Joseph Smith says, ―”Stands next to Kolob, called by the Egyptians Oliblish, which is the next grand governing creation near to the celestial or the place where God resides: holding the key of power.” The symbol of life held by this god was considered as a symbol of a god’s power.
I can find no obvious word in Egyptian that matches with Oliblish, but this puts it in the same category as many of the strange names found in the 162nd chapter of the Book of the Dead, which seem not to be Egyptian but some foreign language.
Joseph also says this figure pertains to “the plan of God’s creations as revealed to Abraham as he was making a sacrifice”. This agrees exactly with the Apocalypse of Abraham account as described above, as well as with the Egyptian concept of the hypocephalus representing all that the sun encircles.
It is important to remember that, in the text of the Book of Abraham, God is teaching Abraham by comparing astronomy to the progression of souls to higher and higher levels. God compares Himself to the star, Kolob, the highest and first of all creations. Joseph said of Figure 2 that it “stood next to Kolob” and is “the next grand creation… holding a key of power”. In the context of the lesson God is teaching Abraham, this celestial body would obviously refer to God’s first-born son, Jehovah – or Jesus as he was known in mortality.
This becomes even more clear once you consider the fact that he is carrying both the “key of life” and a standard that represents the “opener of the way”, which includes resurrection. Add to that the fact that Joseph said that Figure 2 also represented the plan of all his creations (i.e. the plan of salvation made possible through Christ), I think the interpretation is consistent on all 3 layers: 1) The original Egyptian meaning, 2) the astronomical meaning in Joseph’s interpretations, and 3) the metaphorical meaning found in the text of the BoA itself.
A hawk-headed god Re with the sun disk on his head, seated on the solar bark. On either side of him is a Wedjat-eye. In his hand he holds the was-scepter, a symbol of dominion, and in front of him is an altar with a lotus blossom on it.
Re seated in his bark represents the sun in its daily journey across the sky and symbolizes resurrection and rebirth, since the sun was thought to die and be reborn each day. The lotus on the altar in front of him is also symbolic of rebirth and the rising sun. The Wedjat-eye was symbolic of light and protection (among other things) and is thus not out of place in this context.
Joseph Smith said this represented God, sitting upon his throne clothed with power and authority; with a crown of eternal light on his head. The was-scepter, as I mentioned above, represents power and authority, and the sun certainly qualifies as a crown of eternal light.
He also said that it represented the grand key words of the priesthood. The Greek writer Plutarch explained that the Wedjat-eye of Osiris represented pro/noia ―”divine providence” (literally ―foreknowledge), the divine wisdom by which God oversees and cares for all of his creations. It is not unreasonable to see in this the grand key words of the priesthood (The glory of God is intelligence, D&C 93:36).
A hawk in mummy wrappings with outspread wings, seated upon a boat. This can represent either Horus-Soped or Sokar, both hawk gods, which are symbolized by a mummiform hawk.
One outstanding feature of this figure is its outspread wings, which are not normally found in representations of these two gods. The wings show a clear connection with Horus, the personification of the sky, as well as emphasizing the emerging of the the hawk from his mummy bindings in the resurrection.
The association with Sokar, the ancient god of Memphis, is even more interesting. In the festival of Sokar, which was celebrated in many parts of Egypt, a procession was held in which the high priest would place the Sokar-boat on a sledge and pull it around the sanctuary. This procession symbolized the revolution of the sun and other celestial bodies.
Joseph Smith sees here symbolism for the expanse or firmament of the heavens, which concept, as stated above, the Egyptians often represent by the hawk-god Horus. Joseph’s explanation that this figure represents the revolutions of Kolob and Obilish agrees favorably with what we know of the use of the Sokar-boat in the festival of Sokar to represent the revolutions of the sun and other celestial bodies.
Joseph also says that it is a numerical figure in Egyptian signifying one thousand. While this is not the standard hieroglyph for one thousand, there is a clear connection between the number one thousand and the ship of the dead. For example, in the Coffin Texts we read, ―He takes the ship of 1000 cubits from end to end and sails it to the stairway of fire. On the sarcophagus of the princess Anchenneferibre is found a description of the Khabas in Heliopolis and Osiris in his ship of a thousand. The term Khabas (Egyptian ua-ba=s) means “A Thousand is her souls” and refers to the starry hosts of the sky, confirming again Joseph Smith’s explanation that it represents the expanse of the heavens.
A cow wearing a sun disk and double plumes with a menit-necklace (symbol of Hathor, Ihet, etc.). This is the cow goddess, Ihet, mentioned in chapter 162 of the Book of the Dead.
Ihet is a form of Hathor, a personification of the original waters from which the whole of creation arose and the one who gave birth to the sun. She is also connected with Mehweret, another cow goddess who symbolized the sky and is the celestial mother by whom the sun is reborn each day. The name Mehweret means, “great fullness”, i.e., the primeval waters from which Re, the Sun, first arose. Standing behind the cow is the goddess Wedjat who is holding a lotus blossom, the symbol of rebirth, here indicating the daily and annual renewal of the sun.
Joseph Smith’s explanation that this is the sun is in agreement with the Egyptian symbolism. Of various names used here by Joseph, I can find an equivalent only for Hah-ko-kau-beam, which is recognizable as the Hebrew הַכּוֹכָבִים (hakôkabîm) ―the stars. But again as stated above, strange, incomprehensible names are typical of this class of Egyptian religious documents.
Okay, for Joseph Smith to label an upside-down cow as “the sun” shows that there is more going on here than just a bunch of “lucky guesses”. Just sayin’.
These four standing, mummy-like figures are the four Sons of Horus. They were the gods of the four quarters of the earth and later came to be regarded as presiding over the four cardinal points.
Joseph Smith is right again describing these figures as representing “this earth in its four quarters”.
A seated ithyphallic god with a hawk’s tail, holding aloft a flail. This is a form of Min, the god of the regenerative, procreative forces of nature, perhaps combined with Horus, as the hawk’s tail would seem to indicate.
Before the god is what appears to be a bird presenting him with a Wedjat-eye, the symbol of all good gifts. In other hypocephali it can also be an ape, a snake, or a hawk-headed snake that is presenting the eye. As for the bird found in Facsimile 2, this could symbolize the “Ba” or “soul” (which the Egyptians often represented as a bird) presenting the Wedjat-eye to the seated god.
Joseph Smith said this figure represented God sitting upon his throne revealing the grand key-words of the priesthood. The connection of the Wedjat-eye with ―the grand key-words of the priesthood was discussed above. Joseph also explained there was a representation of the sign of the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove. The Egyptians commonly portrayed the soul or spirit as a bird, so a bird is an appropriate symbol for the Holy Ghost.
The Rest of the Figures:
Joseph Smith explained that the remaining figures contained writings that cannot be revealed to the world. Stressing the secrecy of these things is entirely in harmony with Egyptian religious documents such as the hypocephalus and the 162nd chapter of the Book of the Dead. For example, we read in the 162nd chapter of the Book of the Dead, ―”This is a great and secret book. Do not allow anyone’s eyes to see it.”
Joseph also says line 8 “is to be had in the Holy Temple of God”. Line 8 reads, “Grant that the soul of the Osiris, Shishaq, may live eternally”. Since the designated purpose of the hypocephalus was to make the deceased divine, it is not unreasonable to see here a reference to the sacred ordinances performed in our Latter-day temples.
To the three of you still reading, congratulations! Hopefully your combination of curiosity and patience has paid off.
As has been shown, Joseph Smith’s interpretations of the hypocephalus are reasonably accurate when you consider the broader meanings of each of the symbols — rather than simply the names of the gods/goddesses (as critics often do). A Jew adapting an Egyptian document to fit a Jewish story would definitely look at the deeper meanings of the figures when creating his adaptation.
Hopefully this has been informative and interesting.
End Note: I know that there is a lot more to the Book of Abraham than just Facsimile 2, so here are a few resources I think are good: