Some Simple Apologetics
The Book of Abraham is powerful and inspiring. It’s some of my favorite scriptures. There’s no denying the Truth and Light that leaps from its pages.
Perhaps you’ve heard the criticism that the hieroglyphics on the facsimile in the Pearl of Great Price associated with the Book of Abraham don’t match Joseph’s interpretation. It’s been identified as funerary text, so Joseph Smith made it up and is a fraud. Etc.
Here’s a quick example I’m borrowing from the dishonorable and infamous CES letter:
“Common Pagan Funerary Text”
“Egyptologists have also since translated the source material for the Book of Abraham and have found it to be nothing more than a common pagan Egyptian funerary text …it was a common Breathing Permit that the Egyptians buried with their dead. It has nothing to do with Abraham or anything Joseph claimed in his translation for the Book of Abraham.”
It’s tempting (oh, so tempting) to pick apart the gaps that an untrained non-Egyptologist might not notice in the CES letter but let’s get right to the heart of the matter.
It’s Not Funerary Text
Even the author of the CES letter glibs over this little bit before telling you “case-solid” what the papyrus means. Look at this statement and see if you can spot the manipulation.
“though there is not unanimity, even among non-Mormon scholars, about the proper interpretation of the vignettes on these fragments. Scholars have identified the papyrus fragments as parts of standard funerary texts that were deposited with mummified bodies.“
If you don’t read that carefully, you’re tempted to interpret that as, “All scholars have identified the papyrus fragments…”
No, no, they haven’t. Furthermore, the interpretation of those depictions as funerary text (sometimes referred to as the “Book of the Dead” or simply “BD”) has been thoroughly rethought by the leading Egyptologists of our day. Leading experts say it’s not a funerary text. But no one ever mentions that…do they?
I’ve included a more technical rebuttal at the end for those interested, but first, a little common sense.
What About Uncle Bob?
You don’t need any of that expertise to know something is up with that picture being associated and identified as funerary text. Compare these two pictures.
The one on the right is a dead man.
Let’s say you were at your Uncle Bob’s funeral, and you notice that Uncle Bob is kicking his legs and flailing his arms, and his eyes are open. Would you turn to your mom and say, “Mom, Uncle Bob is going to tip the coffin over and disrupt the whole funeral; someone needs to tell him to stop!”
Secret Life Hack: If someone is kicking their legs, waving their arms, and their eyes are open at their funeral, it’s probably a good time to stop the funeral and take them home because they are alive. (remember, you heard that from me first)
A Timeline and Some Facts
More than 90% of the papyri that Joseph bought are lost or destroyed. I’ve heard it estimated we only have 2-5% of it (Thank you, Josh). The Smith family sold the papyri in 1856, and it was dispersed in different directions, most of them being destroyed in the Chicago fire. We have very little left. The remaining fragments don’t match Joseph’s description of the Book of Abraham (i.e., a long scroll). This statement from the Church sums it up best:
“The book of Abraham…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.“
The Greatest Proof of All
Reading the Book of Abraham quickly disperses all of the murkiness and tales surrounding the papyri. When I read it the first time, it about knocked me out of my chair because it’s spiritually brilliant and confirmed without a doubt that Joseph Smith was a seer and revelator. The Holy Spirit testifies with great power of its truths and light. If you want to understand the Book of Abraham, I would start there.
Funerary Text Is an Old Narrative
This part is more technical – but may interest some of you.
Now Egyptologists are recategorizing those funerary texts as daily temple rites for the living – a ceremony designed to seek blessings for this life.
Here are some solid references for what I’m about to share:
“Book of the Dead, Book of the Living: BD Spells as Temple Texts,” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 98 (2012): 258–259.
“The Use of the Daily Temple Liturgy [formula for living religious ceremonies] in the Book of the Dead,” in Totenbuch—Forschungen: Gesammelte Beitrage des 2. Internationalen Totenbuch—Symposiums 2005, ed. Burkhard Backes, Irmtraut Munro, and Simone Stöhr (Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2006), 73–86;
(Link to the whole article and all references at the end of this quote.)
Here is a summary snapshot of some of their findings. Note that each (#) footnote cites a book or article published by universities and museums, etc.
“Because of the connotations of the title “Book of the Dead,” many have simply assumed that the book’s context was limited to Egyptian burials and to be used strictly by the deceased in the afterlife. Lepsius, reacting against Jean-François Champollion’s description of the Book of the Dead as a Rituel funéraire, was adamant that the Book of the Dead had no ritual use. “Dieser Codex ist kein Ritualbuch” (this codex is not a ritual book), Lepsius insisted. This included even any burial ritual use, according to Lepsius, as the contents of the Book of the Dead were strictly for the use of the deceased “nach dem irdischen Tode” (after mortal death)
11 Egyptologists have largely taken this position for granted and have neglected study of the Book of the Dead in the context of its use by the living. Recently, however, this neglect to study the use of the Book of the Dead or even to consider a possible ritual use by the living has been corrected with the work of such scholars as Gee and Alexandra von Lieven.
As Gee explains in his 2004 study, “one purpose of the initiation [of a priest into the Egyptian temple] was to see the god, which is part of the daily temple liturgy. Seeing god also plays a role in the Book of the Dead.” Gee elaborates by indicating that “[t]he initiation element is most clearly seen in the vignette in the Papyrus of Neferwebenef, where Neferwebenef enters a shrine and emerges with shaved head and dressed in linen.” The connection between the Book of the Dead, specifically Utterance 125, and the temple liturgy is more explicit, however, as “[t] he standard initiation sequence [for the living], as illustrated in temples, for example, on 186 • The Temple: Ancient and Restored the exterior of the bark shrine at Karnak is washing, establishing regalia or insignia, and finally induction into the presence of the god in his shrine. Those steps also appear in Book of the Dead 125.”12
Given this connection, Gee summarizes his argument by noting that “the general actions described in the text [of the Book of the Dead] coincide with the general actions depicted in ceremonies depicted on temple walls explicitly described as initiations << what’s that word?>>
”13 Agreeing with Gee on this point is Robert K. Ritner, who indicates that “the concluding rubric provides instructions for utilizing Spell 125 [of the Book of the Dead] in ritual mysticism by the living.”
14 The rubric in question reads as follows. What should be done when being present in the Hall of Two Truths. A man should say this spell when pure and clean, dressed in clothing, shod in white sandals, painted with black eye-paint, anointed with the finest myrrh-oil, and having offered fresh meat, fowl, incense, bread, beer, and vegetables.
Now make for yourself this image in drawing upon pure ground with Nubianochre , overlaid with soil on which neither pig nor goats have trod. As for the one for whom this book is done, he will flourish and his children will flourish. He will be a confidant of the king and his entourage. There shall be given to him a cake, a jug of beer, a loaf and a large portion of meat from upon the altar of the great god. He cannot be turned back from any portal of the West. He will be ushered in with the kings of Upper and Lower Egypt.
Does any of that sound a bit familiar?