The Book of Abraham is good enough to tell us about the nature of its own transmission into our "own hands." And the transmission has absolutely nothing to do with either later Jewish redactors, as some vaguely posit, or with the grab-bag syncretism of Greek, Hebrew, and Egyptian religions that prevailed in Greco-Roman Egypt. Neither do any of the Explanations of the three Book of Abraham facsimiles show the least trace of later Jewish interpretation of any Egyptian vignettes or ideas.
Yes, the Prophet Joseph Smith is showing us a moment of convergence, a sharing of ideas, between Abraham and the Egyptians of his day--ideas that do persist in the priestly circles down to Ptolemaic times. Yet what's been called iconotropy (coined by Robert Graves for the "turning," or "misrepresentation," of icons, figures, symbols), and applied to the Explanations, makes for a Bridge Too Far. Iconotropy will not be found in Erik Hornung's classic, Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: the One and the Many.
So let's not make things up.
The record of the Father of the Faithful, "preserved in [our] own hands," is "of ancient date" and its transmission follows the pattern Abraham himself plainly teaches, a pattern of preserving and of keeping records in responsible "hands," from "the patriarchs" "even unto this day." Now that the kept, preserved, and pure record has, as the Prophet Joseph expresses, "fallen into our hands," the question remains for each of us What shall we do with it?
Ask Abraham. He exulted in Scripture: "The records have come into my hands, which I hold unto this present time" (Abraham 1:28).
The words ring with pure immediacy, and should we suddenly sense that "this present time" reaches its treasures even into our hands, we sense truly. We are to do the works of Abraham, which includes both receiving and reading the words of Abraham in the very manner in which he once received and read the words of his own fathers (see Doctrine and Covenants 132).
"But the records of the fathers, even the patriarchs, concerning the right of Priesthood, the Lord my God preserved in mine own hands; therefore a knowledge of the beginning of the creation, and also of the planets, and of the stars, as they were made known unto the fathers, have I kept even unto this day, and I shall endeavor to write some of these things upon this record, for the benefit of my posterity that shall come after me" (Abraham 1:31).
In these words we find:
1. A plurality of records--who can say how many?--safely transmitted through the numerous generations. These include records about "the right of Priesthood," "the beginning of the creation," and "a knowledge of the planets, and of the stars." It's a very particular, specific, and peculiar set--a prize of a library--and Abraham knew it. And the subject headings recall specific titles found in the Egyptian House of Life, the ancient repository of knowledge of the stars and the structure of the cosmos.
2. A purpose: "I shall endeavor to write some of these things upon this record, for the benefit of my posterity." The promised benefit to "my posterity" has special reference to Abraham's seed in the Latter-days. We are the seed of Abraham (Doctrine and Covenants 84).
3. A method: Abraham's own record upon papyrus--"this record"--combines knowledge taken directly from the patriarchal records with the further light and knowledge of Heaven, including his own independent revelation through the medium of the Urim and Thummim. Inspired writing thus requires both the study of earlier inspired writings and an independent revelation to boot--as Joseph Smith says. Note the fluidity of the process.
Abraham, in a single but neglected verse, thus teaches us just what we need to know about the transmission of the Word. The verse, at once, gives a genuine thumbnail sketch of the conservative, even rarefied, world of the Ancient Egyptian priests and scribes, "who sought diligently" to record and to transmit, without error, "the rights of the priesthood" and "a knowledge" of the workings of the sidereal heavens and the nature of the "heavenly places." For instance, the priestly centerplace of Heliopolis, prominent in the Egyptian Scriptures, is, according to Dietrich Raue, such a "heavenly place"; it is this very celestial Heliopolis that figures so repeatedly on Abraham Facsimile 2, and in particular, at the apex of the rim.
"If you could hie to Heliopolis."
However conservative, the Egyptian tradition is yet also fully participatory and additive: all seek to participate in the blessings of the fathers, including the blessings of adding to the store of knowledge, "seeking to possess a greater knowledge" (Abraham 1:2). There are always records in the plural, and there is always fluidity in the transmission--new light, new knowledge, comes with the old, never overthrowing, but rather expanding upon those pure sources.
Did Abraham's fathers write? Abraham, no matter what dates we assign him, late or soon, lived in a world that had already known writing of every genre, on a variety of media, and in various scripts, for at least a millennium and a half. Translation was everywhere; so was code-switching.
Even so, did not only (or mainly) the priestly and scribal elites write records?
Since the Book of Abraham describes both Abraham and his posterity, as also his ancient fathers, as priests and rulers (patriarchs), why should we be startled to find a copy of his account, written in Egypt and in hieratic, in intentional proximity to records kept by an elite Theban priestly family (certain scraps of which are now housed in the Church History Library)? And yet it is marvelously startling!
The Theban priesthood in Ptolemaic times included direct line descendants from the royalty and high officials of Abraham's day--they were "priests forever," after the order of the ancient fathers, "seeking earnestly to imitate that order established by the fathers," as so inimitably expressed by Abraham himself (1:26). He explains it all (doesn't he?) for "the benefit of my posterity." Abraham, who certainly holds the keys of his book, wishes us to understand a few of these points with clarity. We owe it to him and to the Prophet Joseph to put aside vague ideas.
We now 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, for Professor Marc Coenen has reconstructed six generations of this priestly family. Six generations! Mathematical models that show our own descent from Old Kingdom pyramid builders would clearly also insist that modern Middle Easterners, Africans, and Europeans can all claim as ancestral the same priestly family tree! And again, Father Abraham himself is good enough to provide us with the pattern of how the ancients transmitted the genealogies and associated priestly documents: copies, abridgments, and all (Abraham 1:31).
And the Book of Abraham is such a priestly copy--written by the hands of sober Egyptian priests--not fanciful Jewish redactors--upon papyrus. Moreover, such a pattern, and such a Theban priesthood, could not be any further from the milieu of the Greek Magical Papyri, that is, the syncretistic spells combining Hebrew, Greek, and Egyptian names (often purposely unintelligible), the amulets, and so forth, in intricate amalgamation. And, by the way, the Egyptian hypocephalus (Facsimile 2 of the Book of Abraham) is neither a "funeral amulet" nor a funerary amulet; neither does it belong to the Greek Magical Papyri. (Don't forget the celestial Heliopolis.)
The Book of Abraham is about "greater knowledge" shared in purity, not about that which glories in obscurity or in the unintelligible for its own sake; it has nothing to do with that which glories in control or manipulation or subjugation; it is about Priesthood and Creation and Stars and Souls--and God. Read it. Intelligence is the (Abrahamic) word to keep in mind. Sober is the word to keep in mind. Take the Book of Breathings. What does it have to do with the hodge-podge of syncretism prevailing in Greco-Roman Egypt? what does it have to do with manipulation? Not a thing.
Because Jewish colonists had by Roman times already lived several hundreds of years in Egypt, where the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures was also effected, such later manuals of magic unsurprisingly, here and there, include the name of Abraham. What has that to do with the rarefied, kept, sealed book of Abraham on papyrus hid away in the Egyptian priestly family collections? Not a sober thing. That the Jewish apocalyptic tradition also includes a Book of Abraham, for which Egyptian themes have also been noted (Nibley, Abraham in Egypt), should not surprise us. Just consider the history of the Bible--hold the breath long enough to consider the historicity, if you please: Abraham in Egypt; Joseph in Egypt; Israel in Egypt; Moses in Egypt.
There was an early split in the keeping of the record. Egypt kept her copy of the Abraham and Joseph Record--in its purity. Moses obtained his own version, copy, or abridgment, which he, in his turn, also abridged. And Latter-day Saint Scripture, and especially the restored Book of Moses, yet boldly upholds Mosaic authorship for the Pentateuch--and ever shall. That claim belongs to our irrevocable Canon. The Church prints hundreds of copies of the Pearl of Great Price everyday, and there are no limits set for its worldwide distribution (now in 57 languages). Numbers 33:2 convincingly sums up the matter: "And Moses wrote" (Vayyikhtob Moshe).
There was a split in the conveyance of Abraham's and Joseph's records early on: We thus have Genesis, the Apocalypse of Abraham, even the Genesis Apocryphon, and so on and on--but we also have this purest of documents, the pure voice of "I, Abraham," direct from the catacombs of Egypt. Vayyikhtob Avraham.
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 extensive libraries--in the restrictive, even prohibitive, House of Life, priests collected the books of ceremony, cosmology, and initiation--though every indication suggests the much of the Joseph Smith papyri were also family lineage documents.
These last records 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 thus ever more ancient ceremonial] knowledge," even as Abraham, looking back to his fathers, 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.). "The most important of such documents were those containing the royal genealogy, and it was to preserve them that the House of Life was built" (Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Abraham, 382). 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 the various remnants of papyri, Abrahamic or not, that have fallen into "our own hands" today.
Such a thumbnail sketch showing how the Ancient Egyptians (and others of the Ancients) transmitted sacred records, whether of Abraham or of Osoroeris, again leaves no room for any theory that posits later Jewish redactors, in Egypt or Antarctica, for Abraham's book. Neither is there any link between Abraham's record and the bizarre syncretism that brings together bits and pieces of Greek, Egyptian, and Hebrew tradition in order to frame words of manipulative power--what Mormon calls "magics." But what of the lion couch scene and the accompanying spell that includes Abraham's name? What of the magical name sequence elsewhere that sports both Abraham and the pupil of the Wedjat-eye? Are these meaningful links? or verifiable semiotic traces between Abraham in Egypt and the kept Egyptian tradition? They are not. Or, even should there appear a trace, does that trace signify that the Greek Magical Papyri and the Book of Abraham ought to be read together?
No. As Brother Edward H. Ashment has long since shown, there is no basis for connecting the two. To build a bridge between Abraham and the Greek Magical Papyri is to build a Bridge to Nowhere.
The marvelous records of priestly authority and Divine marvels were "sealed up" or "kept" "to come forth in their purity," as Nephi says. The first person narrator of the Book of Abraham speaks to his posterity today with a purity and a clarity, an intelligence and a directness, that can only come from a diligently preserved ancient writing. Copies there may have been, copies framed in intent of exactitude, but the book betrays not a hint of any loose or corruptible pattern of transmission.
Abraham advances the culturally specific details of how it was done right in Chapter One. He claims to belong to a linked tradition of writers who record "the right of Priesthood" for specific "ruling fathers," or "patriarchs"--and for very blessed posterity. And as Hugh Nibley notes, ancient writings on the creation and astronomy belong only to the very elect.
No wonder doors flew open for Abraham wherever he went: with his books and charts, he was the custodian of a remarkable body of knowledge, the very secrets of the universe. Abraham the reader, the learned, precedes Abraham the writer. And given the sort of introductory remarks given by Abraham in Chapter One, the telling details of which point to its genuine antiquity, we must insist that Abraham wrote. Here are culturally specific details of which Genesis affords us not a word. Joseph Smith hits the nail on the head here. This is the most authentic of all verses here--but, then, Abraham packs in a whole array of stunners in his brief 16 pages. Count them. No other record from Egypt carries such a burden of authenticity nor of the genuine.
There are many Abraham's, no doubt. Joseph Smith really gave us two Books of Abraham: that of the Pearl of Great Price and that of the New Translation of the Bible, where new Abraham pages nearly match our 16 in number. We overlook this second Abraham. Then there is the Abraham of the Book of Mormon, as well as the surprising Abraham of the Doctrine and Covenants.
The Abraham of Genesis is ever active, on the move, stirring and forging ahead. He is also reflective and questioning. The Abraham of the Egyptian record is all that, yet he is clearly more deeply reflective than active, part of an elitist tradition. His literacy and intelligence explain to his hosts something of the miracles which surround him and buoy him up, even the Divine Spirit in which he lives and moves and has his being. At a loss to capture him fully, the once-and-fleeting kings capture him in part.
Abraham is like a flask of myrrh--and so his book.
It's earthshaking to see Abraham as a writer. Of course he was--and specifics appear on every hand in the 14 wee pages--he is, in breathtakingly condensed fashion, historian, astronomer, prophet, and a bit of a narrative geographer. He wakens the sympathy of his readers from the very first verse--and from the first chilling episode--then he sweeps us up in one of the most expansive visions ever captured in words. And off he goes: adding to, redacting, abridging sources, perhaps even translating--for every reader will see he is working in several languages, interpreting words and explaining ideas along the way. At very least, the record shows him to be trilingual. Yes, Abraham comes to us at full tilt: we have to stretch our minds to the utmost since every word counts and entices, as he juggles languages and cosmogonies and analogies back and forth with the thriftiest of economy. Fourteen Pages, and setting aside the three facsimiles, a mere Eleven Pages. Eleven Pages! Here is Abraham.
If the Prophet Joseph had given us even the fifteenth page, we could not then have handled it. We couldn't handle it even now. We can't bear the sweeping power of it. We resort to magical thinking and mumble an incantation or two about how we know all there is to know about Egypt and the Bible; we repeat, in knee-jerk reaction, that Abraham never existed at all.
We cannot bear the intelligence and the vision of it all. We stop reading, stop reflecting, stop pleading, stop living up to our own dreams of victory. We pour heart and soul into fighting a "book" of 14 pages. We listen to the drum roll of Internet voices--then surrender into empty agnosticism our own freedom to pursue the things Abraham pursued: greater knowledge, happiness, peace, rest.
Some boldly state that the Book of Abraham has fallen.
They forget that Abraham himself has risen.
He lives on.
He names us his seed.
He calls us to read with reflection.
Here is Abraham.