Neglected Evidence on the Book of Abraham
by Hugh Nibley
Improvement Era, January 1969
Until now, all discussions of the authenticity of the Book of Abraham
have been based on the assumption that we have to deal with only two really
important sources of information; The Book of Abraham and the recently published
papyri (Era, February 1968). Everyone, it would seem, has taken for granted
that if we know what the papyri really say, we are in a position to pass
judgment on the authenticity of the Book of Abraham--a proposition diligently
cultivated by some who have assumed that a knowledge of Egyptian qualifies
one to pass judgment on matters that lie completely outside the field. Such
a case might stand up if Joseph Smith had specifically designated particular
papyri as the source of his information; but he never did so. Professor
Klaus Baer begins and ends his exceedingly valuable study with the assertion
that Joseph Smith thought he was actually translating the so-called "Breathing
Permit." Such testimony would not hold up for
three minutes in any court of law. The only evidence for what the Prophet
thought is the arrangement side by side of very brief Egyptian symbols and
some lengthy sections of the Book of Abraham, which has led some to the
hasty conclusion that the one column is a would-be translation of the other.
But the strange juxtaposition of the two texts is itself the best refutation
of the argument that it is supposed to present; everyone we know who has
ever looked at the two columns (and that includes many a puzzled student
long before anybody knew what the Egyptian characters really meant) has
been satisfied that the one could not by any effort of the imagination be
a translation of the other. But what Mormon ever said it was? The opposition
has simple assumed it in the face of the clearest evidence to the contrary;
and on their assumption, to which a knowledge of Egyptian has no relevance
whatever, they have declared the Book of Abraham a fraud.
Fortunately we have much broader and firmer grounds for testing the Book
of Abraham than parapsychological reconstructions of schemes and devices
140 years old. Those grounds are furnished by a wealth of apocryphal sources,
mostly Jewish, and an impressive mass of Egyptian and classical references
and archaeological material to back them up. The nature of these sources
will become evident in the course of discussion, but it will be well to
point out some significant aspects of their study at the outset.
- It is fairly certain not only that the Bible account of Abraham's life
is very sketchy indeed, but also that there existed anciently much fuller
written records of his activity. As Father de Vaux noted in a recent and
important study, "We could never write a historical biography of Abraham
. . . nor even write a real history of the patriachal period" on the
evidence supplied by the Bible alone. "There
is strictly speaking," wrote Foakes-Jackson years ago, "no material
for a connected biography of Abraham, the records being taken from a variety
of sources." It is those lost sources that make
up the records to which we referred above: Theodor Boehl recently observed
that there is obviously a vast body of source material behind the history
of Abraham, but that it is nearly all lost. The discovery
of the so-called Genesis Apocryphon among the Dead Sea Scrolls not only
confirms the existence of a very ancient non-biblical history of Abraham,
but also gives us a peep into its contents, which present really surprising
parallels to the Book of Abraham. The world is now
willing to accept a proposition that it denounced as blasphemous in Joseph
Smith's day: "We must not lose sight of the fact," wrote G. Widengren,
"that the Old Testament, as it is handed down to us in the Jewish
canon, is only part--We do not even know if the greater part--of Israel's
- Both the biblical and apocryphal stories of Abraham contain at least
kernels of historical truth. The character of Abraham is so vivid and clear-cut
in both traditions, according to Otto Eisfeldt, that he must have been
a historical personage. While "the 19th century
excluded the possibility that the man Abram or Abraham could have been
a real historical person," wrote Martin Buber, today, "everyone
sees a living person," whose true history, however, "science,
lacking other evidence, will only be able to surmise."
Gustav von Rad describes this peculiar state of things, which leaves us
in the position of the medieval schoolmen, who were completely certain
that God is, but completely uncertain as to what he is: so
it is with Abraham today--". . . in spite of the unprecedented progress
of modern archaeology, there is still complete disagreement as to the historical
reality underlying the patriarchal narratives."
Yet there is no more any doubt that there was and is a historical reality.
In a study of "the legend of Abraham," M. Mauss concluded that
"a number of scholars are beginning to recognize historical foundations
to important parts of the tradition." Today
there are at last enough documents in the apocryphal area to be checked
against each other, so that the resemblances and differences among them
really add up to something. Even apparent contradictions are now constructive,
as Albright pointed out: ". . . reconstructing history is quite impossible
unless we have different versions of just what happened at a given time
and different reactions of contemporaries or successors. . . . Minor discrepancies
do not invalidate historicity; they are necessary concomitants of any true
history of man."
- Taken as a whole, the apocryphal accounts of Abraham, whether in Hebrew,
Aramaic, Arabic, Greek, Old Slavonic, etc., and whether recorded in manuscripts
of early or later date, agree in telling essentially the same story.
This story is not found in the Bible, but is found in the Book of
Abraham--which means that our next point is very important.
- Joseph Smith knew nothing about these extra-canonical sources for the
Life of Abraham.
- They were not accessible to him: E. A. Budge made the significant remark
that "the letter press [in the Book of Abraham] is as idiotic as the
pictures, and is clearly based on the Bible and some of the Old
Testament Apocryphal histories." But what
could Joseph Smith have known about Old Testament apocryphal histories?
Budge was possibly the greatest authority on apocrypha of his day, but
that was because he spent his days mostly in the British Museum, among
original manuscripts to which nobody else had access. There were indeed
a number of important apocrypha published in Budge's day--but in the 1830's?[12a] Who has access to the apocryphal Abraham materials
even today? The first important collection of them was Jellinek's Bait
ha-Midrasch, first published in 1856, and so rare that we had never
seen a copy of it until its reprinting in Israel in 1967. Many Abraham
sources were first made known to the world in B. Beer's Leben Abraham's,
which did not appear until 1859. The extensive Arabic sources were first
studied by Schuzinger in 1961. Though Hebrew has been taught on the "graduate
level" at the BYU for many years, until very recently none of the
basic sources have been available there.
- The apocryphal Abraham literature was not read in Joseph Smith's day:
As a specialist many years later, Budge recognized authentically apocryphal
elements in the Book of Abraham, and duly charged Joseph Smith with having
clearly drawn on them. Yet those sources were unknown to any of
his fellow critics of the Book of Abraham; for them, Joseph Smith's account
rang no familiar bells. Over and over again they declared the history to
be nothing on earth but the purest product of the Prophet's irresponsible
imagination, and repeated with monotonous regularity that there was "not
one word or truth" in anything he put down. But if the most learned
men in the world detected no other source for the Book of Abraham than
Joseph Smith's untutored imagination, what are the chances that the young
farmer himself would have had any knowledge at all of an obscure and recondite
literature never translated into English? Professor Zucker of the University
of Utah has done us the service of showing that the influence of Joseph
Smith's Jewish friends and instructors, Seixas and Alexander Neibaur, came
much too late to have had any influence on the Book of Abraham, and that the Prophet's knowledge of things Jewish before
then was less than elementary; indeed, as Professor Zucker puts it, "A
Jew was exceedingly rare in northeastern Ohio in those days . . . before
November 9, 1835, few of the Mormons had ever knowingly beheld a Jew."
To come down to the present, in 1968 a Jewish Rabbi wrote A Critical
Analysis of the Book of Abraham in the Light of Extra-canonical Jewish Writing.
a BYU dissertation, in which for the Life of Abraham he draws upon the Talmud,
Josephus, Jubilees, and S. Yetzirah, but makes no mention of any of the
sources noted so far in this article or many to follow.
Even R. C. Webb, in Chapter 8 of his Joseph Smith as a Translator,
is impressed only by the contrast between the Book of Abraham and
the non-canonical sources available to him, which do not include those really
important items. So we ask, if rabbis and researchers in the twentieth century
can be excused for not knowing about significant writings about Abraham,
what were the chances of Joseph Smith's knowing anything about them? They
were nil, though we can confidently predict from past experience that as
surely as it begins to appear that the story of Abraham in the Book of Abraham
can be matched even in particulars by a number of ancient sources, those
same critics who have poured contempt on the total ignorance of Joseph Smith
will join Professor Budge in charging the Prophet with having lifted extensively
from obscure and recondite sources that even the most learned rabbis had
never heard of in the 1830's.
 Klaus Baer, "The Breathing Permit of Hor,"
Dialogue, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Autumn 1968), pp. 111, 133.
 R. de Vaux, in Revue Biblique, Vol. 72 (1965),
 F. J. Foakes-Jackson, The Biblical History of
the Hebrews (Cambridge, 1917), p. 22.
 F. M. Th. Boehl, in Ex Oriente Lux, Vol.
17 (1963), p. 126, noting that Genesis 14 is a surviving fragment of this
 N. Avigad & Y. Yadin, A Genesis Apocryphon
(Jerusalem: Hebrew University, 1956), p. 23: "The scroll explains the
story of Sarai and the King of Egypt in a manner different from that of
all the midrashim on the subject . . . . this interesting legend which is
not found in Midrashic or Apocryphal literature and of which there is no
other version known to us, should be studied very thoroughly," coming
from the same Essene and Ebionite environment as the Dead Sea Scrolls are
the Apocalypse of Abraham and the Testament of Abraham; also
first appearing in this century are the Cave of Treasures and the
writings on Abraham by Ka'ab al-Akhbar. First published in 1956 in A. Jellinek's
Bat-ha-Midrasch are the Ma'ase Abraham, an important Midrash
on Abraham Our Father, and a History of Abraham from the Pentateuch
Commentary of Bekhayi ben Ashi.
 G. Widengren, in S. H. Hooke (ed.), Myth, Ritual
and Kingship (Oxford, 1958), p. 158
 O. Eissfeldt, in Ex Oriente Lux, Vol. 17
(1963), p. 160
 Martin Buber, in Judaism, Vol. 5 (1956),
p. 291. By the time of World War I, "practically all scholars of standing
in Europe and America considered these stories fictitious."--S. H.
Horn, in Christianity Today, Vol. 12 (1968), p. 925.
 G. von Rad, in Expository Times, Vol. 72
(1960), p. 215.
 M. Mauss, in Revue des Etudes Juives,
Vol. 82 (1926), p. 35.
 W. F. Albright, in Christianity Today,
Vol. 12 (1968), p. 917.
 E. A. W. Budge, cited in Era, Vol. 16
(1914), p. 342.
[12a] Rev. William Hales, A New Analysis of Chronology
and Geography, History and Prophecy (London, 1830) in 4 volumes, was
the most complete and conscientious work available to contemporaries of
Joseph Smith. None of the Oriental sources of episodes of the Abraham story
appear in this work. It would have been of no help whatever in writing the
Book of Abraham.
 L. C. Zucker, in Dialogue, Vol. 3. No.
2 (Summer 1968), p. 44.
 Ibid., pp. 47-48.
 Rabbi Nissim Wernick, A Critical Analysis
of the Book of Abraham in the Light of Extra-Canonical Jewish Writings
(BYU dissertation in the Department of Religious Instruction, 1968).