Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Book of Abraham: Case Closed (Or, Sarah to the Rescue)

What Hugh Nibley Meant (about the Book of Breathings). Or, How Sarah Puts the Crowning Touch on the Revealed Book of Abraham


"Since the beginning," writes Hugh Nibley in 2001, "the Pearl of Great Price has been waiting in the wings, held in reserve for a special time. It would seem that time is now, for within a decade of the publication of the Joseph Smith Papyri in 1968 (after their rediscovery in 1967), strange and portentous things have happened" ("Approach to John Gee, Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri," FARMS Review 13:2 (2001), 63-4). Too modest to include his own work among these "portentous things," another's lips will now praise.

The Pearl of Great Price was indeed held in reserve for a special time, the lifetime of a special man, who, even beyond his lifetime, "being dead yet speaketh." So wrote President John Taylor of Parley P. Pratt; now, five years after Brother Nibley's call to "that near-touching land," we learn with joy from his encyclopaedic study of Book of Abraham Facsimile 2, One Eternal Round. The work also brings to a round, full circle, the flurry of criticism encompassing the Book of Abraham: "Come, lay your books and papers by": "The teacher's work is done."

If there ever was a time to discover what Hugh Nibley has to teach us about books of Enoch, Moses, and Abraham, it would seem that time is now.

Things really got going in 1976 with Hugh Nibley's publication of The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment. The volume advanced the once unwelcome thesis that the Book of Breathings, following the pattern of prior Egyptian funerary writings (like the Book of the Dead and the Netherworld Books), constitutes, in theme and structure, a ceremony of initiation. Nibley further showed how the Book of Breathings finds parallels in both early Jewish and Christian texts. Although nearly ignored in bibliography, Hugh Nibley's work made its rounds and proved revolutionary among students of Ancient Egyptian religion. (The official annual notice of egyptological bibliography, while praising the work, cautions readers about some of its "Mormon" ideas.)

Today studies about initiation and mystery meet with greater acceptance. A good introduction to the evidence appears in Heidelberg Professor Jan Assmann's Tod und Jenseits im Alten Aegypten [Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt]. I can't say how diligently Professor Assmann has studied Nibley's work--the theme of initiation (if not salvation!) is now in the air and very popular--but the two volumes do make for powerful bookends. Given the profound influence of Hugh Nibley's thorough work, an influence only at its first stages, I may be excused for putting forward some of his ideas in my own words in what now follows.


According to the Book of the Dead Chapter 162, the purpose of the hypocephalus (Book of Abraham, Facsimile 2) is "to spark a flame under the head" of the deceased. Because the verb bz (to spark a flame) matches the word for initiation (bz) into the mysterious workings of the divine order, we may safely conclude that the hypocephalus, like the Book of Breathings, has to do with initiation (see Nibley and Rhodes, One Eternal Round). As recent studies show, the head of the mummy now corresponds to the sun: the spark blazes into a corona of eternal glory. The hypocephalus symbolizes a new head, and thus a new divine life, for the deceased. Osiris so-and-so, the deceased, finds transformation as enthroned Osiris wearing the Atef Crown, a crown of light, often decorated with solar globes. No wonder Facsimile 1 (which shows the stirring to life of the one on the lion couch), attached as it is to a Book of Breathings, is followed--but only in the inspired Book of Abraham!--by the hypocephalus (as Facsimile 2). And no wonder Facsimile 3, which shows the initiand seated on a throne (according to Brother Joseph) and crowned with the Atef, is preceded--but only in the inspired Book of Abraham--by the hypocephalus. Did the Book of Breathings owned by Joseph Smith feature a hypocephalus? Nibley apparently thought so; at any rate, he saw in the three facsimiles the three stages of progression: death, transformation, glory. The Prophet Joseph Smith does well to place the hypocephalus in the middle, as if to signal the means by which the sacrifical victim, or the deceased, is raised to divine glory. The very intricacy of the hypocephalus, as cosmic chart--so Joseph Smith--evokes the Greek idea of the labyrinth in which the hero journeys round and through an intricate maze.

The round hypocephalus also represents the iris-and-pupil of the Wedjat Eye, and it is the brilliant Wedjat Eye that serves as focus of the life-giving spark (Hugh Nibley and Michael Rhodes, One Eternal Round, 233). The text on the hypocephalus, we should say the text in the Wedjat Eye, is a prayer calling on the "noble" and "great" god, the Ba of bas (Soul of souls, or Power of powers), to descend and rescue Osiris so-and-so in his hour of extremity--another link to Facsimile 1. Facsimile 1 depicts the stirring of the deceased, with hands uplifted to the descending ba.

The Wedjat Eye, in the Prophet Joseph's Explanation of Facsimile 2, also serves as a grand key for unlocking the heavens, a key revealed to all the Hebrew patriarchs. Does the idea recall the Egyptian rites of royal or priestly initiation (bz)? In Ancient Egypt the king alone was permitted to hear and to know the secret words and to navigate and thus to know the hidden nature of the heavens and the netherworld. This knowledge, which embraces astronomy and cosmology, constituted his right to the throne--again Facsimile 3, where the figure on the throne reasons "upon the principles of Astronomy, in the king's court." The setting is significant: teaching the arcane mysteries of astronomy is, properly, a royal prerogative, and one rightly belonging to the "king's court" alone. The Atef crown, says Joseph Smith, "represents the Priesthood," that is, the king as priest. The secrets of the universe remain locked within the royal enclosure and reserved for momentous occasions. The Middle Kingdom (or earlier) text known as "King as Priest of the Sun" sets forth, though discretely, the secret words and cosmic knowledge vouchsafed to the king: see Jan Assmann, The Mind of Egypt). All these things belong to what Professor John Baines describes as the decorum: the royal protocol into which only kings and priests may be initiated.

That is what Brothers Rhodes and Nibley are trying to express.

Since the Book of Abraham describes both Abraham and his posterity, as also his ancient fathers, as priestly, patriarchal initiands, why should we be startled to find his papyrus roll, written in Egypt, in proximity to a Book of Breathings and assorted chapters from the Book of the Dead (certain scraps of which are now housed in the Church History Library)? And yet it is marvelously startling!

Abraham himself claims to possess--"in mine own hands"--patriarchal records of ancient date (Abraham 1:31). The Theban priesthood in Ptolemaic times included direct line descendants from the royalty and officials of Abraham's day. Is the preservation and copying of the sacred records marking lineage throughout the centuries in any way far-fetched? Certainly not. We know both the family lineage and the high offices held by the fathers and sons of Hor, the owner of the Joseph Smith Book of Breathings. Marc Coenen has reconstructed at least six generations of this important priestly family. Abraham himself is good enough to provide us with a description of a like textual transmission from the ancients: copies, abridgments, and all (Abraham 1:31). That's the pattern.

These records of Abraham and Joseph, along with documents of priestly initiation were passed down, either as one set or as associated documents, from fathers of both royal and priestly blood to their priestly heirs in Ptolemaic Thebes. The Egyptians had libraries--in the House of Life were collected the books of ceremony, cosmology, and initiation--but every indication suggests the Joseph Smith papyri belonged to an assortment of family lineage documents. These records, taken together, thus constituted the very authority that confirmed priests like Hor (the principal actor or initiand of the Joseph Smith Book of Breathings) and his father, Osoroeris, in their offices. Hor, a priest of the Ptolemaic Period, aspires to possess the "greater [and ancient ceremonial] knowledge," even as Abraham himself once sought, and even as Pharaoh, through Abraham, sought. Thus we see "the claim of both the King and the Patriarch to exclusive possession of and access to certain written records that went back to the beginning of time and confirmed his particular claim to legitimacy of priesthood and kingship" (Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, 92ff.). To the discerning reader the Book of Abraham narrates not only the stunning travels of the patriarch, it also reveals, with laser-like precision, just how we are to understand all these remnants of papyri that have fallen into "our own hands" today. Case closed.

Latter-day Saint students, running in the track of Professor Marc Coenen's clarifying publications about the ancient owners and dating of the Joseph Smith Book of Breathings (at 200 B.C. "the oldest Book of Breathings text that can be dated"), all take note that Hor's lot in the priesthood includes a rare office associated with Resheph-Min: "Prophet of Min who massacres his enemies." Mention of this office (and of others) appears on the papyrus, just next to the vignette showing Osiris on the lion couch. Does the office somehow correspond to the action depicted on Facsimile 1? Resheph (who dwells in the house of Montu [Manti]), a Canaanite god of war inducted into the Egyptian pantheon, shares an identity in Min, who, in turn, shares a role with Horus as avenger of his father, Osiris. The name of our priest, Hor, is that of Hor, avenger of Osiris. So why not take on Horus' avenging role, which is also the role of Min and of Resheph? Any other likenesses? That the Book of Abraham's violent "god of El-Kenah" bears comparison with Canaan's Resheph, whose name (r-sh-p) bespeaks the vivid lightning and flames of fire, has not escaped the notice of Latter-day Saints! Abraham, the survivor of lightning, flame, and earthquake (see Abraham Chapter One), also escaped Min-Resheph-Hor. Besides, one of Abraham's own descendants, through Ephraim, bears--and here's ritual reversal and the sign of escape--the name Resheph, perhaps now to be understood as descriptive of the God of Israel: "I cause the wind and the fire to be my chariot," Jehovah tells rescued Abraham (Abraham 2:7; see 1 Chronicles 7:25).

Though Professor Coenen sees in Facsimile 1 not a scene of sacrifice but one of Osirian resurrection and the conception of Horus (and Osiris not only escapes death, he lives to found a dynasty (to beget an avenging Resheph)--the figure on the vignette that Joseph Smith names the priest of Elkenah, or the priest of Pharaoh (who is thus the priest of the living Horus, the living king), does something recall a surviving bronze figure of "Min who massacres the enemy," "dressed in a short kilt, held up by two bands that cross over the breast and back" (p. 1113). We can add sacrifice to Coenen's picture of Facsimile 1. Sacrifice, resurrection, and conception all form a single constellation--an Osirian constellation--that Facsimile 1 delicately manages to display.

Bibliographical Note: Marc Coenen, "The dating of the Papyri Joseph Smith I, X and XI and Min who massacres his enemies," in Willy Clarysse et al. (eds) Egyptian Religion: The Last Thousand Years II, 1103-14, and esp. pages 1111-3 (Leuven, 1998). A detailed review of the Hor Book of Breathings (or Document of Fellowship) and the nature and historical context of the priestly offices of Hor and Osoroeris, including examples of symbolic slaughter and burning with correspondence to Facsimile 1, is John Gee, "Some Puzzles of the Joseph Smith Papyri," FARMS Review 20:1 (2008), 113-157. Professors Kerry Muhlestein and W.V. Smith have also noted the import for Latter-day Saints of Marc Coenen's breakthrough studies. 


The Egyptian record attests a symbolic, ceremonial killing of foreigners, at centers like Philae, Edfu, and Karnak, with special maces, swords, and clubs, including "a particular kind of [bladed] mace much resembling in shape the Dd-pillar, the symbol of Osiris' enduring life and dynasty," as also resurrection (Val H. Sederholm, Papyrus British Museum 10808 and Its Cultural and Religious Setting, Leiden: Brill, 2006, 114). How strange that the bladed mace used to kill foreign victims in royal ceremony also symbolizes the perpetuity of the Osirisan dynasty. But the Egyptians are not finished: "The king, playing Horus-Min, cuts off the heads of his father's enemies at the stroke of a pole-axe [or bladed mace, both sword and club]. The special word for killing at Edfu [also Ddj!] alludes to Osiris and the stability of his dynastic line" (Papyrus 10808, 117). Both name, and action, and instrument of sacrifice thus confirm the dynastic line. No sacrifice; no posterity. (That's also the paradox of Abraham and Isaac.) Did the Pharaoh of Abraham's day sacrifice virgins, children, and Abraham himself (as described in Abraham Chapter One) to promote fertility? So Nibley suggests. Did he himself lack an heir? Not until Facsimile 3, the throne scene, do we first encounter the "prince of Pharaoh," in the form of Ma'at. Ma'at represents the return of order to the disjointed world. In the scenario provided by Joseph Smith, we find all the constituent parts of the play.

At Karnak we see paired depictions of Resheph and "the pharaoh stabbing two prisoners kneeling in a metal kettle [for burning] with their arms tied behind their backs in front of [a representation of] 'Min who [massacres] his enemies' " (Coenen, 1113). Why the doppelganger? Does the depiction show Pharaoh as both priest and king? Or does it hint of both king and his priestly representative at work? Pharaoh, twinned with a Canaanite god, here acts in the office of Min who massacres his enemies; and as Pharaoh, so Abraham's "priest of Pharaoh," who is also the priest of the Canaanite god of Elkenah. Also so also Ptolemaic priest Hor. Behind Min "stands a tree on a hill surrounded by a wall," a setting that evokes for any Latter-day Saint student "the hill called Potiphar's Hill, at the head of the plain of Olishem"; the tree (or, Heliopolitan pillar) likewise recalls the sacrifice of the "three virgins" who "would not bow down to worship gods of wood or of stone" (Abraham 1:10-11; Coenen, 1113; for ceremonial hills marked with standing stones see One Eternal Round, 170-3; for another royal massacre and burning of enemies, 179).

By killing the enemies of Osiris, Pharaoh and his designated priest, or double, reverse the enemies' own act of killing Osiris himself, and thus ensure both Osiris' resurrection and Horus' (that is, Pharaoh's) dynastic claims. It bears repeating: As the priest of Min who massacres his enemies, Hor himself becomes Pharaoh's (Horus') stand-in, a role evoking the sacrifice-mad "priest of Pharaoh" in Abraham's account. The role, however essential, is not without its risks. And here's a genuine touch: "And the Lord. . .smote the priest that he died; and there was great mourning in Chaldea, and also in the court of Pharaoh" (Abraham 1:20). "Great mourning" in Pharaoh's court? for a distant priest? To the Egyptian reader, all is clear: by smiting the Pharaoh's ceremonial agent, God has smitten the Pharaoh himself and has also smitten his dynastic line (cf. the slaying of the firstborn in Exodus and the subsequent swallowing up of Pharaoh in the Red Sea). It's the priest's office, as agent, that matters, and the mourning over his death must then match in intensity and cloud of disaster that which prevails at the actual death of a king. One can picture the choking dust storm at Ur sweeping down to Egypt. A panicked herald runs with the news. Mene, Mene: The king must die.

Hugh Nibley makes much of masking, mummery, and substitutes, including the broadly attested rituals of substitute sacrifice. And substitute mourning reflects substitute sacrifice, priest for king--after all, as Nibley notes, the priest also "is slain in [Abraham's] place" (Abraham in Egypt, 26).

Every ceremonial preparation of a mummy for burial follows a similar, Osirian, pattern: a sacrifice "after the manner of the Egyptians"--the Osirian manner. To wrap (wt) is itself both to kill and also to resurrect; for, without wrapping, there can be no subsequent rising (wt resonates with mwtput to death, die). Addressing "the Asiatic, Libyan, Medjay, and Nubian threat at Egypt's four borders" (matching in exact cardinal order--east, west, north, south--the regional gods of Elkenah, Libnah, Mahmackrah, Korash, as carefully listed and depicted in the Book of Abraham), the priest intones: "You are the rebels that 'made a wrapping,' 'made a wrapping' Father Osiris. Accordingly, Father Osiris commanded that I, in the form of Mekhenty-Irty [~ Horus], should smite this your enemy" (New Kingdom Netherworld Book of the Night II, 87-8 = Sederholm, Papyrus 10808, 126). Wrapping and killing collapse in one: to wrap the Osirian mummy, the action of Anubis is thus also to kill the god with a knife. "Smite this your enemy" (not simply "smite you") is euphemistic, ironic, delicate: the notion of substitutes runs very deep in the Egyptian sacrificial night.

Danger is everywhere.

The act of sacrifice meets the idea of resurrection; each notionally requires the other. Well-known is that paradox of Osirian ceremony in which the sharp-clawed jackal, Anubis, troubler of desert burials, first cuts into the body, then wraps it, preparatory to resurrection. Facsimile 1 at once, illustrates Osiris' resurrection described in the Book of Breathings and the sacrifice and escape (in token of resurrection) of any Osiris, including the special case of Abraham. Abraham becomes as Osiris, for the Egyptians found in Abraham's heralded escape from sacrificial death a living token or surety of Osirian promise. All this makes of Abraham, to Egyptian eyes, a king, Osiris redivivus. No wonder, "by [jittery] politeness of the king," Abraham, as Osiris was allowed broad scope to substitute on the throne, wear Osiris' Atef Crown, and then teach what only the king had right to teach. Not far off, fair Sarah glitters like the desert sun. It's the Ammon and Lamoni story in the Book of Alma all over again: role-reversal, deathlike trance, and the message of salvation. (And can there be any doubt as to the reception of the message?)

That's what Brother Nibley meant to convey, and the latest findings are bearing him out.


In fact there is nothing--not even the recovered Apocalypse of Abraham--that attests more to the reality of an Egyptian record of Abraham and Joseph than the Joseph Smith Book of Breathings (an Egyptian Endowment), along with its vignettes, Book of Abraham Facsimiles 1 and 3. The discovery of the Kirtland papyri, as we now have it, thus paradoxically delivers more evidence of an authentic Egyptian setting for Abraham than if we had simply recovered the very papyrus portions from which the Prophet Joseph translated the record itself (and Doctrine and Covenants 5:7 so attests!).

If that seems a bold claim, consider the following specific and peculiar parallel (not parallel mania so-called) between the story of Abraham in Egypt and the title of the Book of Breathings:

"The very first line of the hieratic text bears a remarkable resemblance to Abraham's words in both Genesis and the Book of Abraham: 'Here begins the writing which Isis made for her brother Osiris to cause his ba [soul] to live.' In the Book of Abraham and the Bible, Abraham says to his wife (and sister), Sarah, 'and my soul shall live because of thee' " (Nibley and Rhodes, One Eternal Round, "The Book of Breathings Bears Witness," 148).

" 'Therefore say unto them, I pray thee, thou art my sister, that it may be well with me for thy sake, and my soul shall live because of thee.' Why not simply, 'I shall live'? Why the awkward Egyptian idiom, 'My ba shall live'? That is an Egyptian doctrine" (Ibid. 148).

"What is going on here? Abraham and Sarah identified with Isis and Osiris? That is just the beginning of the parallels that affirm their identity," a dozen or so of which duly follow to the astonishment of the reader (151).

Astonishment will overtake the diligent student of the Book of Abraham, for, as prophesied, even "the kings will shut their mouths at him; for that which hath not been told them shall they see; and that which they had not heard shall they consider" (Isaiah 52:15).

Of Sarah, as of Isis, are gifts of crown and throne. These gifts must be granted; they can never be bought. Thus it is the egyptological reading of the role of the characters surrounding the throne in Facsimile 3 that paradoxically sheds necessary light on the Prophet Joseph's counterintuitive interpretation which renders King and Prince for Hathor and Isis. We begin to detect, seize hold of, in a word, comprehend, the prophetic light, only after we have seen unfold the dark masking and mumming of the Egyptian drama. Then the prophetic explanation also unfolds (Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, Chapter 5: "All the Court's a Stage: Facsimile 3, A Royal Mumming", 116-148; One Eternal Round, "Isis and Sarah," 155-160).

Pharaoh "would fain claim" the new and everlasting covenant of the Priesthood (Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, I, 223):

"In the love he bore Sarah, he wrote out a marriage contract, deeding to her all he owned in the way of gold and silver. . ."

But it is Abraham who claims the throne.

This is Sarah to the rescue! And we remind the reader that the purpose of having a Book of Abraham and Sarah at all lies in our having had restored to us, by the ministration of Elias to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in the Kirtland Temple, the keys of the Abrahamic covenant, the covenant of eternal marriage (Doctrine and Covenants 110:12). Elijah then conferred the sealing power of the Holy Priesthood. Sarah and Abraham example the new and everlasting covenant of marriage.

We now have the Book of Breathings, that ancient claim to the covenant. Even time shrinks before the pyramids; eternity is another matter. Though lacking contractual efficiency in either time--now spun out--or eternity, the fragmentary papyrus roll, like that old contract or testament called the Holy Bible, concretely serves to remind all mankind of the possibility of true authority and valid covenant. It stirs hope, and hope stirs the heavens. Because Elijah returned Joseph Smith and his prophetic successors hold the key of the ancient order of the Priesthood belonging to the Patriarchs, the order of Adam, the order of Abraham, the Patriarchal Priesthood.

To deny either the genuineness or the eternal worth of the revealed Book of Abraham would accordingly be to deny oneself the opportunity to become "the seed of Abraham" and thus a lawful inheritor of the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant of Priesthood (Doctrine and Covenants 84:34). The Book of Abraham serves as a surety of the promise of eternal life. It amounts to a sefer, a ketubah that secures the heritage of Jacob: "Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah who bare you" (Isaiah 51:2; 50:1). And nothing was more important to Brother Nibley than his own covenantal contract of eternal marriage. And that's how Hugh Nibley lived.

The story of Sarah saving her husband's life from Pharaoh by claiming to be his sister (Abraham's second Osirian escape from death) is a story we can now come to terms with thanks to the latter-day recovery of the lost Document of Breathing which Isis made for her brother, Osiris (as the title of the sefer runs), a more precise reading of which may be the Document of Covenantal Unity (sn-sn). It's a Marriage Certificate. It's a Certificate of Dynasty. (The kings of Europe never produced like certificate; the clergy invented the Donation of Constantine.) It's a document certifying receipt of the royal decorum: the deceased, passing by Orion and the stars, now enters into the fellowship of the sun god and his retinue in The Eternal Round.

And that's what Hugh Nibley meant!

For the like episode of Sarah's escape from King Abimelech (in light of the changes in the Joseph Smith Translation), see the essay, "A Covering of the Eyes," posted 30 June 2010, on

Copyright 2011 by Val H. Sederholm, PhD (Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, UCLA, 2001). Additions and corrections also made in March 2016.