Question: Do other ancient documents confirm the details in the text of the Book of Abraham?
This is an amended copy of an article posted by Jeff Lindsay on: http://www.jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/boa.shtml accessed on 2.22.17 – I have added my own conclusion at the end of this article, as well as the addition of several hyperlinks to many texts that are now available online as many of these texts were not available when Mr. Lindsay first made this work public.
This is a reasonable question. After all, if the Book of Abraham really is a portion of an ancient text that was known and circulated in the past, shouldn’t other ancient documents provide confirmation for the many details in the Book of Abraham that can’t be found in the Bible?
Confession: The question above actually is NOT a frequently asked question (FAQ). Rather, it is a FREQUENTLY IGNORED QUESTION (FIQ). But to really address issues around the Book of Abraham, some of us would like to ask how Joseph Smith could fabricate a story with many details that are not found in the Bible or other sources known to Joseph, only to have those details be confirmed in numerous other ancient texts dealing with Abrahamic traditions. Translations of many of these ancient documents have been brought together in an impressive volume, Traditions about the Early Life of Abraham, ed. by John A. Tvedtnes, Brian M. Hauglid, and John Gee (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2001, hereafter “Tvedtnes et al.”). Over 500 pages of text from over 100 ancient documents provide extensive support for numerous key details in the Book of Abraham. There is a breadth of sources, including ancient Jewish sources, Christian sources, Muslim sources, and other sources as well. The support for many details of the Book of Abraham is surprisingly extensive and worthy of careful investigation.
The compilation of Tvedtnes et al. is essential reading for anyone wishing to seriously study the Book of Abraham. We hope that open-minded readers of this Web page will judge for themselves whether there actually is a trace or two of evidence for the authenticity of the Book of Abraham.
Other Ancient Documents and the Book of Abraham Text
Differences between the Book of Abraham and the Bible
The Book of Abraham provides significant information that is not found in the Genesis account in the Bible (see Genesis 11 – 17, particularly Genesis 11:28-31 and Genesis 12). The additional or differing material in the Book of Abraham includes the following points:
- The very existence of a record written by Abraham (the Bible provides no hint that a Book of Abraham ever existed);
- Abraham’s obvious literacy, and his possession of ancient records (Abr. 1:28)
- Abraham’s desire to be one who “possesses great knowledge” (Abr. 1:1);
- His desire to be a High Priest, holding the priesthood, described as “the right belonging to the fathers” (Abr. 1:1-3);
- His successful quest to find God (Abr. 1:1-3 and 2:12)
- The rebellion of his fathers, who had once received the priesthood but turned to idol worship, according to Egyptian practices (Abr. 1:4-10);
- The practice of human sacrifice, including the sacrifice of children, as part of the practice of local idolaters in Chaldea (Abr. 1:7-11);
- The killing of people who refused to worship idols of wood or stone (Abr. 1:11);
- The violent seizing of Abraham by the local priest to slay Abraham also as a human sacrifice (Abr. 1:12; Facs. 1);
- The role of Terah, Abraham’s father, in seeking to have Abraham killed (Abr. 1:30);
- The use of an altar fashioned like a lion couch (Facs. 1), described as a “bedstead” (Abr. 1:13), in the attempt to kill Abraham;
- Description of canopic jars in front of the altar in Facsimile 1 as representing pagan gods (Abr. 1:13), and a reference to the “god of Pharaoh” (Abr. 1:6) depicted as a crocodile in Facs. 1;
- The miraculous delivery of Abraham from death by the power of God, who sent an angel to free Abraham after Abraham cried to the Lord (Abr. 1:15; 2:13);
- The destruction of the altar and idols by the Lord (Abr. 1:20);
- Abraham’s possession of sacred records the past (Abr. 1:28, 31);
- A famine in Chaldea, before Abraham went to Canaan (Abr. 1:29,30; 2:1)
- The repentance of Terah, Abraham’s father, and his subsequent return to idolatry after the famine abated (Abr. 1:30; 2:5);
- Abraham’s age of 62 years when he departed out of Haran (Abr. 2:14 – Gen. 12:4 gives 75 years);
- The winning of souls in Haran, apparently by Abraham’s preaching, who followed Abraham into Canaan (Abr. 2:15);
- Building an altar in the land of Jershon before entering Canaan, where Abraham prayed for relief from the famine for the benefit of his father’s family (Abr. 2:17) – two others altar would later be built (Abr. 2:18-20);
- Abraham’s possession of the Urim and Thummim, given to him by God (Abr. 3:1);
- Abraham’s knowledge of stars, planets, and astronomy obtained through revelation (Abr. 3:1-18);
- Revelation to Abraham about the premortal existence of spirits or intelligences in the presence of God, including information on a great council in heaven where plans were established for this earth and our mortal trial here (Abr. 3:18-28).
Amazingly, these differences find support, to varying degrees, in ancient texts that Joseph Smith did not have available when he translated the Book of Abraham. The tremendous support for the “daring innovations” in the Book of Abraham suggests that more than lucky guesses is involved. The Book of Abraham is remarkably consistent with numerous ancient traditions about Abraham, as one might expect if in fact it is derived from the ancient writings of Abraham. One of many interesting examples is the ancient Jewish text, Jubilees, first published in Latin in 1861 but dating to the second century B.C. or earlier, and used by some of the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Portions of Jubilees are printed in Tvedtnes et al., pp. 14-20, taken from O.S. Wintermute’s English translation of the Ethiopic text, as printed in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, ed. James H. Charlesworth (New York: Doubleday, 1985), 2:78-84, 93-99, 129. In Jubilees, I find following relationships to the Book of Abraham:
- Jubilees states that idolatry was prevalent in Ur, causing people to “commit sin and pollution.” (11:3-6,16)
- Abraham’s ancestors practiced idolatry and learned astrology (11:7-10,16 – see Abr. 1:5).
- Abraham’s father taught writing to Abraham (11:16).
- Abraham’s father, Terah, worshipped idols, but Abraham rejected this (11:16).
- Abraham prays, seeking for God’s help “that he might save him from the straying of the sons of men” (11:17 – cf. Abr. 2:12), and later prays seeking God and to be saved from evil (12:17-20).
- Abraham turns back a famine (11:18-22, cf. Abr. 2:17).
- Abraham preaches to his father against the evils of idolatry; his father knows Abraham is right, but has difficulty in giving it up (12:1-7).
- Terah warns Abraham that Terah would be killed if he stopped assisting the practice and idolatry, and warns Abraham that he could be killed if he does not stop speaking out against it (12:7).
- Abraham destroys idols (12:12).
- Abraham observes the stars to see what the nature of the year would be regarding rain, but then recognizes that “all of the signs of the stars and the signs of the sun and the moon are all in the hand of the Lord” (12:16)
- Abraham took his father’s books and copied them and studied them, and he learned many things (12:27 – cf. Abr. 1:28, 31); he later refers to knowledge obtained “in the books of my forefathers, and in the words of Enoch and in the words of Noah” (21:10).
- Abraham teaches his sons to reject idols (20:7-9; 21:2, 3) and does the same with his grandson, Jacob (22:16-22).
- Abraham refers to pagan idols made of wood and stone (22:18 – see Abr. 1:11, which mentions “gods of wood or of stone”).
- Abraham warns Jacob against marrying “any of the seed of the daughters of Canaan” (22:20) and warns that “because through the sin of Ham, Canaan sinned” (12:21), showing a possible relationship to Abraham 1:21-27, which indicates that the king of Egypt was a descendant of Ham and “a partaker of the blood of the Canaanites by birth,” and was “cursed … as pertaining to the Priesthood” because of his lineage.
- Abraham’s words were preserved in written form, for Jacob used to read the words of Abraham to Joseph (39:6).
Let’s look at a sampling of specifics.
Extra-biblical Texts Support the “New” Material in the Book of Abraham
In the following discussion, unless otherwise indicated, page numbers in parentheses refer to pages in Tvedtnes et al., 2001.
Issue #1: Existence of the Book of Abraham
According to Joseph Smith, there was a Book of Abraham. The Bible never mentions this, and many Bible scholars have assumed that Abraham was an illiterate farmer who would not have written a book. There was nothing in Joseph Smith’s information environment to give him the idea that Abraham wrote a book of scripture. Since Joseph Smith’s day, numerous sources have been discovered that point to the existence of recorded writings from Abraham. The previously mentioned Apocalypse of Abraham, the Testament of Abraham, and Jubilees are examples. Many other documents suggest that Abraham kept written records, or that records containing the words of Abraham existed. The Babylonian Talmud calls the book of “Jashar” the “book of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (p. 123). The Muslim writer al-Masudi (died 956 A.D.) wrote that God revealed ten sacred books to Abraham (p. 353). Vettius Valens (A.D. 102-152) wrote a treatise on astrology that mentioned Abraham, referring to what “Abraham showed us in his books about this subject, clarifying the explanations of others and his own, discovering and testing other things, especially concerning the beginnings of journeys abroad. . .” (p. 477). Firmicus Maternus in the fourth century refers to a “tractate excerpted from the books of Abraham” (p. 479).
Issue #2: The attempted slaying of Abraham
Facsimile 1 in the Book of Abraham shows Abraham on a pagan altar about to be sacrificed by an idolatrous priest, and chapter 1 relates the story of how Abraham was seized, bound, and put on an altar to be sacrificed by a pagan priest, who had previously sacrificed three virgins on the same altar because they refused to worship idols.
All this is wildly innovative, based on what Joseph Smith could have known about Abraham, but it fits well with numerous ancient traditions about Abraham. In fact, so many ancient texts refer to one or more attempts to the sacrifice Abraham that one can wonder why the Bible is lacking that detail. A majority of these texts indicate that the attempted sacrifice was made by throwing Abraham into fire, from which he was delivered by God’s power. Though the Book of Abraham does not say that Abraham or sacrificed victims were thrown into a fire, ancient animal sacrifices typically involved killing the animal and then burning the victim, and the same may have applied to the human sacrifices mentioned in the Book of Abraham. On the other hand, since the name of the Chaldean city, “Ur,” also means fire in Hebrew, perhaps some writers have assumed that Abraham’s escape from Ur of the Chaldeans was deliverance from fire, possibly blending fire into the story of his deliverance from sacrifice.
One very important ancient document is the Egyptian scroll known as P. Leiden I 384 (also called PGM XII and PDM xii), dated to the second century A.D. A figure on the scroll shows a lion couch, much like the lion-headed bedstead/altar of Facsimile 1 in the Book of Abraham. A wrapped mummy is on the couch, with the god Anubis standing over him. The associated text, though fragmentary, includes the words “Abraham who is upon” followed shortly thereafter by “bind them” and then “incinerate her” (p. 502). The words appear to be part of a love spell of some kind, but are significant in that they associate Abraham with the lion couch, as does Joseph Smith’s interpretation of Facsimile 1. (Could these words reflect a tradition about Abraham’s sacrifice on such bed, including the planned incineration of the victim?) A drawing and photograph of the image on the scroll are included in Tvedtnes et al., pp. 502 and 523. The word Abraham appears directly below the lion couch drawing, and the instructions on the scroll tell the user to write the words and the drawing on a new papyrus, showing that the words (including the name Abraham) and the lion couch drawing belong together.
Other examples include the following:
- Philo the Epic Poet who lived in the second or third century B.C., wrote of what he had “heard in the ancient laws” regarding Abraham and the “bonds’ knot” (Abraham tied in bonds, apparently), wherein God “quenched the pyre” and preserved his promise to Abraham in response to Abraham’s prayers (Tvedtnes et al., p. 6). This appears to refer to God miraculously delivering the bound Abraham from a sacrificial fire (though some have suggested it refers to Isaac).
- The midrashic Hebrew text, Tanna debe Eliyahu, possibly dating to 300 A.D., states that Abraham was put in bonds (as the Book of Abraham reports) before the attempt to kill him for his opposition to idols (p. 75). In this case, again, the attempt is made by tossing Abraham into the fire.
- The Targum Jonathan, an Aramaic Old Testament text dating to about the second century A.D., says that “Nimrod cast Abram into the furnace of fire because he would not worship his idol” (p. 66).
- The Midrash Rabbah, most of which dates to near the beginning of the fifth century A.D., explains that Nimrod cast Abraham into the fire because of Abraham’s opposition to idol worship (p. 91, see also pp. 96-97).
- The Book of Jasher reports that Abraham and his brother, Haran, has their hands and feet bound before they were cast into the fire, but the fire burned the bands on Abraham, allowing him to walk freely in the fire, unharmed.
- The Hebrew text, The Story of Abraham our Father from What Happened to Him with Nimrod (pp. 164-174), of uncertain date, describes attempts by king Nimrod to kill Abraham. In the last attempt, Abraham’s arms, hands, and feet are bound, and he is placed on a catapult to launch him into fire (p. 173).
- The Persian Muslim scholar Rawandi in the twelfth century reports that Nimrod had Abraham bound and thrown into a fire, but Abraham was “unharmed and untied from his shackles” (p. 417). Several other Muslim texts contain similar accounts.
- A tale of Abraham told in A Study (Midrash) of Abraham our Father mentions that he was bound and tied to the ground, then surrounded with trees that were burned, for his opposition to idols (PP. 178-179).
- The Venerable Bede (A.D. 672-735), an English monk, reports that Abraham and his brother were thrown into the fire for refusing to worship it, but Abraham was rescued by the Lord (pp. 213-215).
- Rabanus Maurus, a ninth-century abbot in what is now Germany, wrote commentary on the Bible, indicating that Abraham “was sent to the fire because he did not want to worship the fire that the Chaldeans worshiped, and being rescued by the help of God, escaped the fire of idolatry” (p. 232). He also was noted for “rejecting the idols of the Chaldeans” (p. 233). Freculphus Lexoviensis, a Benedictine monk of Germany in the ninth century and later a bishop, repeated the story in similar words (p. 234-235).
- References to Abraham being thrown into fire also occur in the Hebrew text, Pirqe de Rabbi Eliezer, dating to near the second century A.D. (p. 45), and in the Hebrew text, The Story of Abraham (p. 177), and many other texts.
- Though perhaps it is obvious, several texts affirm that the local idolatrous religion of Abraham’s day had priests. For example, Michael the Syrian, a Christian writer of the twelfth century, said that Nahor was “priest of the idol Cainan” (p. 262).
Issue #3: God rescues Abraham (and the role of an angel)
Abraham 1:15-17 has the Lord speaking to Abraham as he is on the altar, explaining that he has “come down” to rescue Abraham, but this occurs as the “angel of his presence” stood by Abraham. Most of the texts that discuss the attempted slaying of Abraham affirm that he was delivered by the power of God, and many times an angel plays a role in the delivery, as is taught in the Book of Abraham. Some texts say that God himself rescued Abraham directly, others say that God sent an angel, and some mention both. Examples:
- Pseudo-Philo’s Biblical Antiquities, composed around the time of Christ, indicates that God rescued Abraham from the pagans who tried to kill him by throwing him into fire (see Tvedtnes et al., pp. 21,24,25)
- The midrashic Hebrew text, Tanna debe Eliyahu, possibly dating to 300 A.D., reports that Abraham’s entire household made money by selling idols, which Abraham resisted. Abraham courageously condemned King Nimrod for his idolatry, whereupon Nimrod ordered Abraham to be tossed into fire. But he was spared first by rain that quenched the fire, and then in a second attempt, “the holiness of [God’s] great name came down from the upper heaven of heavens [a parallel to the multiple kingdoms of heaven in LDS doctrine] . . . and delivered our father Abraham from the taunts and the jeers and from the fiery furnace” (p. 74).
- Like many other texts, the Midrash Rabbah reports that God saved Abraham from the fiery furnace, and that the angel Michael and Gabriel offered to go down to rescue him, though the Lord himself did it (p. 103). Later, we read that “God came down and delivered him” (p. 111).
- The Babylonian Talmud reports that Gabriel pleaded with God to rescue Abraham from the fiery furnace, but instead God went down Himself, but told Gabriel he would be allowed to deliver three of Abraham’s descendants instead (p. 120).
- The Hebrew text, The Story of Abraham our Father from What Appended to Him with Nimrod, reports that on three separate occasions, God sent the angel Gabriel to save Abraham from Nimrod, in response to Abraham’s faithful prayer for deliverance (pp. 167-168, 171, 173-174). And as usual, Abraham’s life was in danger because of his opposition to idolatry.
- A tale of Abraham told in A Study (Midrash) of Abraham our Father has Michael go down in the name of God to rescue Abraham from the furnace. God also states that “I by my glory shall rescue him” (p. 179).
- Alcuin, a deacon in the eighth century, wrote that Abraham, “surrounded by the conflagration in Babylon because he did not want to worship it, was freed by the help of God” (p. 217).
- Ibn Kathir, a Syrian Muslim authority in the fourteenth century, recorded the tradition that Abraham broke idols, for which he was shackled and tied, then placed in a catapult and thrown into a fire. He was delivered by God. Ibn Kathir reports that some accounts say that the angel Jibril (Gabriel) and other angels appeared to Abraham in the fire, but Abraham did not need their help (pp. 456-457).
- Another recorded Muslim tradition holds that God told Abraham not to “heed the priests and their useless idols,” and that when he was tied to a pole in the middle of a fire for his opposition to idolatry, that an “angel descended from Heaven with a sharp knife and quickly cut the ropes that tied Abraham” (p. 461). But Abraham stayed in the fire, relying on God alone.
Issue #4: The rebellion of Abraham’s fathers
Abraham 1:5 states that Abraham’s “fathers, having turned from their righteousness, and from the holy commandments which the Lord their God had given unto them, unto the worshipping of the gods of the heathen, utterly refused to hearken to my voice.” We also learn that Abraham’s father, Terah, worshipped idols. This is consistent with Jubilees, and other ancient sources. Genesis is silent on this, but Joshua 24:2 states that, “Your fathers dwelt on the other side of the flood in old time, even Terah, the father of Abraham, and the father of Nachor: and they served other gods,” so one could argue that an astute student of the Bible might know this. But there are many other texts which provide further information, such as Abraham’s preaching to his fathers against idolatry (Abr. 1:5). Examples include:
- The Hebrew text, The Story of Abraham our Father from What Appended to Him with Nimrod, teaches that Abraham preached to his father to turn him away from idolatry (p. 168).
- The Damascus Document, first discovered in the 1890s in Cairo, with copies also found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, from which we learn that “the sons of Noah and their families strayed” and “were cut off,” but Abraham “did not walk in it [their wickedness, apparently]” (p. 30).
- The Mishnah in Aboth 5 reports that all the generations from Noah to Abraham “provoked [God] continually until Abraham our father came and received the reward of them all” (p. 62).
- The Apocalypse of Abraham, dating to the first or second century A.D., reports that Terah made sacrifices to “gods of wood, of stone, of gold, of silver, of copper, and of iron” (p. 52). Abraham rejects this (pp. 52-60).
- The midrashic Hebrew text, Tanna debe Eliyahu, possibly dating to 300 A.D., indicates that “the household of Abraham’s father, idolaters all, used to make idols and go out and sell them in the marketplace” (p. 74).
- The Midrash Rabbah, most of which dates to near the beginning of the fifth century A.D., explains that “Terah was a manufacturer of idols” (p. 91, see also p. 111).
- The Book of Jasher states that “Terah with all his household were then the first of those that served gods of wood and stone” (p. 138, see “gods of wood and stone” also on p. 140, cf. p. 141-142), echoing the reference to “gods of wood and stone” in Abraham 1:11.
- George Hamartolos, also called George the Monk, a Byzantine writer of the ninth century, provided information about Abraham in his chronicle of world history. Of Abraham’s father, he wrote that Terah “was a sculptor, molding and selling gods from stone and wood” (p. 237), providing further support to the Book of Abraham phrase “gods of wood and stone.”
- The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan, composed in Egypt in the fifth or sixth century A.D., states that Terah was a maker of idols.
- Michael the Syrian, a Christian patriarch in Antioch in the twelfth century, wrote that Abraham’s grandfather, Nahor, was a priest of the idol Cainan, and that his uncle, Caharon, killed a king because of a gold statue that he had removed from the house of Nahor (p. 262).
- Michael Glycas, a Byzantine historian of the twelfth century, wrote that Serouch (Serug in the KJV), the great-grandfather of Abraham, promoted idolatry by honoring men for their craftsmanship in making idols.
- Epiphanius, the fourth-century bishop of Salamis on Cyprus, wrote that idolatry began with Serug, the great-grandfather of Abraham (p. 198)
- Georgius Cedrenus, another Byzantine historian of the twelfth century, wrote that Abraham’s father and family members had idols (p. 270).
- The Kebra Nagast (meaning “Glory of the Kings [of Ethiopia]”), a fourteenth-century Ethiopic document, reports that Abraham’s paternal ancestors after Shem worshipped idols and sacrificed their children to idols (p. 277).
- George Syncellus, a Byzantine scholar around 800 A.D., wrote that Terah worshipped idols, but that Abraham destroyed them (p. 225).
- A Syriac commentary on Genesis, dating to the twelfth century but quoting Syrian fathers from the fourth to seventh centuries A.D., reports that “from Serug [the great-grandfather of Abraham], idolatry spread throughout the world and therefore vanity explains his name” (p. 243).
- The Arab historian al-Tabari (A.D. 840-923) wrote that Abraham’s father “made his living by making idols, and gave them to his sons to sell” (p. 338) and that Terah “became Nimrod’s custodian of the treasury of his gods” (p. 334).
- Ibn Kathir, a Syrian Muslim authority in the fourteenth century, recorded the tradition that Abraham opposed his father in idolatry, noting that his father was distinguished among the people for his “sincere devotion to the idols” (p. 455).
Issue #5: Terah sought to kill his son, Abraham
A truly surprising part of the Book of Abraham story is that Terah is behind the attempt to kill Abraham. Abraham 1:5-7 indicate that his fathers, in their rebellion, refused to listen to Abraham and “endeavored to take away my life by the hand of the priest of Elkenah” who was a priest of Pharaoh in the land of Chaldea. Interestingly, several ancient texts indicate that not only was Terah an idol worshipper, but that he was the instigator in trying to have the king or his agents kill Abraham. Examples:
- The Jewish commentator called Rashi, who lived from 1040 to 1105, wrote that “Terah complained about Abraham his son before Nimrod [the king] because he smashed his idols, and he cast him into the furnace of fire” (p. 125).
- The Chronicles of Jerahmeel from the twelfth century reports that Terah took his son before Nimrod to complain that Abraham had destroyed his idols (p. 132).
- The Quran in Surah 19 has Terah threaten to stone Abraham if he kept criticizing Terah’s idolatry (p. 293).
- Many Muslim texts build on the Quran’s account. For example, the Arab historian al-Tabari (A.D. 840-923) reported that Terah threatened to stone Abraham if he did not cease his opposition to Terah’s idolatry (p. 338).
- An account from the Falasha Jews of Ethiopia, dating to the fourteenth century or earlier, says that Terah sent Abraham to king Nimrod, king of Canaan, for Abraham’s opposition to idolatry (p. 486). Nimrod cast Abraham into an oven, but God sent the angel Gabriel to quench the flames.
Issue #6: Terah’s repentance
The Book of Abraham reports that Terah, being sorely afflicted by a famine in Chaldea, repented of his evil in seeking to kill Abraham (Abr. 1:30) and then followed Abraham into Haran (Abr. 2:4), but turned again to idolatry after the famine abated (Abr. 2:5). Ibn Al-Tayyib, the Arabic Nestorian Christian of the eleventh century, a source of extensive commentary on the scripture, likewise wrote that Terah repented only half-heartedly (pp. 254-255):
Terah had already started for the promised land, and yet he remained at Haran, because his intention was not pure like that of Abraham, who was the first to turn away from the cultic objects, that is, the idols. Neither Nahor nor Bethuel nor Laban converted perfectly, even after having learned that God had helped Abraham so magnificently.
Further, the Chronicles of Jerahmeel from the twelfth century reports that Terah repented when he saw that God delivered Abraham (p. 133). The midrashic Hebrew text, Tanna debe Eliyahu, says that Terah left his dwelling place in Chaldea “for the sake of heaven,” implying repentance.
Issue #7: The significance of idolatry in Abraham’s story
Though one could easily and correctly assume that idolatry was widespread in Abraham’s day, the Bible offers no details on this topic relevant to Abraham’s life. Yet idolatry becomes a critical issue in the Book of Abraham. Abraham lives in a world dominated by idolatrous religion, with people worshipping “gods of wood or of stone” (Abr. 1:11). Three virgins are sacrificed because of their refusal to worship idols, and Abraham’s life is also threatened, implicitly for the same reason. The influence of idolatry is so great that his own father is led astray and becomes an idol worshipper. But Abraham resists, and though he is nearly killed, the Lord delivers him, kills the evil priest, and breaks down the idols of the land (Abr. 1:20). These powerful collisions between idolatry and Abraham’s life are persistently verified by other ancient texts. Several parallels in this area have already been given above.
- The pervasive nature of idolatry is emphasized in the Pesikta Rabbati, which states that God “saw all the generations that worshipped idols, [saw] Abraham rise up and separate himself from the generations because he would not be like them; [saw] that while they worshipped idols, Abraham rose up and learned wisdom by himself so that he came to worship the Holy One” (p. 80). And this document also speaks of Abraham being cast into a fiery furnace and delivered by God’s power.
- The Book of Jasher reports that in Abraham’s life, “all the sons of the earth in those days greatly transgressed against the Lord, . . . and they served other gods . . . and the inhabitants of the earth made unto themselves, at that time, every man his god, gods of wood and stone” (p. 138)
- The Book of the Cave of Treasures, a Christian Syriac work dating perhaps to the fourth century A.D., describes God’s displeasure with the people of Abraham’s day for their pervasive worship of idols, and states that the “land became filled with idols in the form of men and women,” and further indicates that the people worshipped the sun, the moon, the stars, as well as animals, birds, trees, and stones and other things (p. 190).
- The ancient Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan describes the widespread nature of idolatry that began in the days of Abraham’s grandfather. In the days of Abraham’s father, idolaters began to offer their children to idols. King Nimrud (Nimrod) began to worship fire, and appointed a priest to minister before it and to sacrifice victims to the fire. A large gold statue was placed near the fire, by a pool of water, so those bowing to get water would also be worshipping the idol.
- Michael Glycas, a Byzantine historian of the twelfth century, wrote that Serouch (Serug in the KJV), wrote of how the human race turned to idol worship, in part because of the influence of Abraham’s great-grandfather, Serug (p 265). The worship of crocodiles by Egyptians is specifically mentioned, adding credibility to Joseph Smith’s statement that the crocodile in Facsimile 1 represents the god of Pharaoh (p. 265). [On this issue, see Quinten Barney, “Sobek: The Idolatrous God of Pharaoh Amenemhet III,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22/2 (2013): 22â€“27 (PDF file). Also see “The Crocodile God of Pharaoh in Mesopotamia.”]
- The Book of the Rolls, an Arabic text alleged to come from Clement of Rome but probably written between the sixth and twelfth centuries, describes the spread of idolatry in the days of Serug, and the many things that people worshipped instead of God. It describes God’s use of earthquakes to destroy idols, but idolatry continued nevertheless. It describes the rise of child sacrifice as a practice among the people, and how God sent raging winds to tear down the idols (pp. 208-209).
- Symeon Logothetes in the tenth century reported that Abraham “alone, of those everywhere suffering from the error of idols, recognized the true God” (p. 250).
- Numerous texts refer to the destruction of idols by Abraham or by God, consistent with the destruction of idols by God in the Book of Abraham. One example is the writings of Michael the Syrian, a Christian patriarch in Antioch in the twelfth century, which tells of Abraham burning idols and of God sending a great storm that destroyed idols (p. 263).
Issue #8: The sacrifice of children
According to the Book of Abraham, men, women, and children were offered up as part of the tradition of human sacrifice in Abraham’s day (Abr. 1:7-11). This significant detail find widespread support in ancient sources. A few examples:
- The Kebra Nagast, a fourteenth-century Ethiopic document, reports that Abraham’s ancestors sacrificed their sons and daughters to idols (p. 277).
- The Book of the Cave of Treasures, a Christian Syriac work dating perhaps to the fourth century A.D., describes how idolaters in Abraham’s area “began to sacrifice their sons to devils and to worship idols” (pp. 190-191).
- An anonymous Christian chronicle, written in Syriac and dated to the ninth century, reports that in the days of Abraham’s grandfather, idolatry rose in the land and Satan convinced men “to sacrifice their sons to demons” (p. 229).
- The Arabic Christian text, Book of the Rolls, describes the rise of child sacrifice in connection with the story of Abraham (p. 208).
- The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan, composed in Egypt in the fifth or sixth century A.D., states that the first child sacrifice occurred in the days of Abraham’s father, and this practice spread. About 80 years later (in Abraham’s life), God sent great winds to destroy and bury the idols because he saw that men sacrificed their children to idols (p. 221).
- The Persian historian al-Biruni (A.D. 973 – ca. 1050), one of the greatest Islamic scholars, wrote that in Abraham’s community, it was the custom of the people to sacrifice their children (p. 369).
- Pseudo-Philo’s Biblical Antiquities, composed around the time of Christ, indicates that there was human sacrifice of the sons and daughters of pagan worshippers (4:16, see Tvedtnes et al., p. 21).
- The ancient Christian text, Book of the Rolls, describes the rise of child sacrifice in Abraham’s day (p. 208).
- Chronicles of Jerahmeel from the twelfth century reports that, “The Chaldeans came to dip both Haran and Abraham in the fire, for they were accustomed to dip them in the fire, just as some nations dip their sons in the water” (p. 133).
- Many Jewish and Arabic texts report that Nimrod learned from his astrologers that a child was to be born who would threaten his rule, so he killed many children in an attempt to kill Abraham. One example is the Book of Jasher (p. 138).
A specific example cited in Abraham 1:9-11 is the sacrifice of three virgins by a priest of Pharaoh. Several ancient sources pointing to such practices are discussed by Kerry Shirts on his page, “The Sacrificial Virgins a Genuine Historical Touch.”
2014 update: Scholars have recently discovered more evidence for child sacrifice possibly relevant to the Book of Abraham account. See Kevin Barney, “Child Sacrifice at Carthage,” for a discussion of Patricia Smith, “Infants Sacrificed? The Tale Teeth Tell,” Biblical Archaeology Review, 40/4 (July-August 2014): 54-56, 68.
Issue #9: Abraham’s possession of ancient records
In addition to Jubilees discussed above, other sources confirm that Abraham had access to sacred records from the patriarchs. Examples:
- The Genesis Apocryphon (pp. 26-29) teaches that Abraham had read the words of Enoch.
- The Book of Noah , known from the eleventh century onward, says (in versions B and C) that there was a book of wisdom that had been given to Adam by God, and then passed down among the patriarchs to Noah and Shem before being given to Abraham (p. 124).
Issue #10: Abraham and the Priesthood
The Bible indicates that Melchizedek was a priest to whom Abraham paid tithes, but does not teach that Abraham was a priest. In fact, according to the Book of Abraham, Abraham was not only a priest, but a high priest (as was Melchizedek, according to Alma 13 in the Book of Mormon – another issue challenged by a critics). These alleged innovations of Joseph Smith find strong support in other ancient texts that Joseph did not have. For example, Genesis Explanation 46:5 of Midrash Rabbah (p. 100), states:
“And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly.” (Genesis 17:2)
- Ishmael and R. Akiba [reasoned as follows]. R. Ishmael said: Abraham was a High Priest, as it says, The Lord hath sworn, and will not repent: Thou are a priest for ever after the manner of Melchizedek.
If Abraham was understood to be a high priest on the basis of Psalm 110:4, it was obviously understood that Melchizedek was a high priest as well. (Several ancient texts explicitly state that Melchizedek was a high priest, such as the writings of George Syncellus, a Byzantine scholar around 800 A.D. (p. 225), and others – see the discussion at http://www.jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/FQ_BMProb3.shtml, which treats alleged plagiarism in the Book of Mormon – see the section on Alma 13.)
This argument is further strengthened by the Pesikta Rabbati, a ninth-century Hebrew document that includes discourses from rabbis of the third and fourth centuries A.D., where we find this passage in Piska 40:6 (p. 81):
Another comment on Moriah [the mountain where Abraham was told to sacrifice Isaac]: Abraham said to God: “Master of universes, am I fit to offer Isaac up? Am I a priest? Shem is High Priest. Let him come and take Isaac from me for the offering.” God replied: When though reachest the place, I will consecrate thee and make thee a priest. Accordingly, the term Moriah suggests that Abraham was to be a substitute for Shem, his replacement.
In Jewish tradition, Shem is commonly identified with Melchizedek. This passage from Pesikta Rabbati is of interest to Latter-day Saints for several reasons. It indicates that high priests were a known office in the day of Abraham, making it reasonable that Melchizedek was a high priest and showing that Abraham also became a high priest, both consistent with Alma 13. Naming Shem as a high priest is also interesting in light of the revelation in Doctrine and Covenants 138:41, wherein Joseph F. Smith had a vision in which he saw, among many others, “Shem, the great high priest.”
Further, Ibn Al-Tayyib, the Arabic Nestorian Christian of the eleventh century, provided commentary on Genesis that mentions Abraham as a high priest. He wrote, “Henana says that Abraham was a high priest and son of a high priest” (p. 254). This agrees nicely with the Book of Abraham, which states that Abraham sought and received the priesthood “from the fathers” (Abr. 1:3), and the Lord later states that “I will take thee, to put upon thee my name, even the Priesthood of thy father, and my power shall be over thee” (Abr. 1:18). Thus, there is support not only for Abraham as a high priest, but also for the Book of Abraham teaching that Abraham’s father was a high priest.
The rabbinic understanding that Abraham was a high priest also resonates with the material on Abraham that was provided through Joseph Smith. In light of Alma 13 and other statements about Abraham and the Priesthood, LDS scriptures teach that Abraham was one of the “many” who became high priests anciently (Alma 13:10 – see also Alma 13:6-10, where the whole context of this chapter is about those who became high priests). Doctrine and Covenants 84:14 teaches that Abraham received the priesthood from Melchizedek, and Abraham 1:2 teaches that Abraham became a high priest, “holding the right belonging to the fathers,” desiring to be “a prince of peace” (as was Melchizedek in Alma 13). To the critics, this must appear to be a radical innovation of Joseph Smith. But as we saw above, Abraham was understood to be a high priest in at least some ancient Jewish traditions.
The Midrash Rabbah, Genesis Explanation 55:6 (p. 101 of Tvedtnes et al.), provides further evidence that rabbis understood Abraham to have been a priest like Melchizedek:
- Joshua said: . . . Now Abraham said, Here am I – ready for priesthood, ready for kingship, and he attained priesthood and kingship. He attained priesthood, as is says, The Lord hath sworn, and will not repent: Thou are a priest for ever after the manner of Melchizedek;kingship: Thou art a mighty prince among us..
This rabbinic statement pointing to the priestly/kingly parallels between Abraham and Melchizedek resonates with the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham, where both Abraham and Melchizedek were or sought to become “princes of peace” and high priests.
The Babylonian Talmud indicates that the priesthood was given to Abraham, and that he was a priest because of the words of Melchizedek (p. 120). Genesis Explanation 55:7 in Midrash Rabbah also has R. Judah affirm that Abraham was a priest, citing again Psalm 110:4. Further, Leviticus Explanation 25:6 in Midrash Rabbah reports that:
It was taught at the school of R. Ishmael: The Holy One, blessed be He, sought to make Shem the progenitor of the priesthood; for it says, And Melchizedek king of Salem… was priest of God. But when he blessed Abraham before blessing the Omnipresent and Abraham said to him: “Should the blessing of the servant be given priority over the blessing of the Master?”, the Holy One, blessed be He, took the priesthood away from him and gave it to Abraham; as may be proved by the fact that it says, The Lord saith unto my lord, and after this it is written, The Lord hath sworn, and will not repent: Thou art a priest for ever after the manner (dibrathi) of Melchizedek; this means: after the speech (dibbur) of Melchizedek. Hence it is written, Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Maker of heaven and earth. R. Ishmael and R. Akiba reasoned differently. R. Ishmael holds that Abraham was a High Priest. Thus it is written, “The Lord hath sworn, and will not repent: Thou art a priest for ever.”
(Tvedtnes et al., p. 105)
A similar point in made Numbers Explanation 4:8 of the Midrash Rabbah, stating that Shem passed the priestly office on to Abraham who received it not because he was a firstborn, but because he was a righteous man (ibid., p. 109).
There are other ancient documents which suggest that Abraham was a high priest. For example, Ibn Al-Tayyib, the Arabic Nestorian Christian who lived in Baghdad during the eleventh century and provided numerous writings about religion, appears to have been familiar with traditions regarding Abraham. He writes, “Henana says that Abraham was a high priest and son of a high priest. . . .” (p. 254). Certainly, if Abraham was a high priest, Melchizedek must have been a high priest, also. Thus, LDS scriptures appear to be on solid ground on this point.
Issue #11: Abraham the missionary
Genesis 12:5 speaks of souls that Abraham “had gotten in Haran,” leading many to think this referred to purchased slaves or servants. The Book of Abraham indicates that these were converts that Abraham won. Many ancient documents confirm this concept. Examples:
- Writings from Rabbi Nathan, believed to date to the second century A.D., says that Gen. 12:5 refers to proselytes that Abraham and Sarah had won (pp. 63-64). The Midrash Rabbah also says that these souls were proselytes that had been converted by Abraham and Sarah (pp. 93-94, 102).
- The Targum Jonathan speaks of “all the person whom they had converted in Haran” (p. 66) ; and the Targum Onqelos from the second century A.D. or earlier makes a similar statement (p. 73).
- The Midrash Rabbah reports that Abraham and Sarah converted people – Abraham the men, Sarah the women (p. 110). Later, we read that “Abraham our father used to bring them [people] into his house and give them food and drink and be friendly to them and attract them and covert them and bring them under the wings of the Shechinah [divine presence]” (pp. 115-116). Good grief, Abraham sounds like one of those insidious Mormons doing missionary work with “friendshipping”!
- The Book of Jasher reports that Abraham taught people in Haran to know the Lord, and got about seventy-two men to follow him (p. 150).
- Additional examples are found in the writings of Rashi (p. 126), and in other Muslim traditions that indicate that Abraham was told by God to “convert the people of Palestine” (p. 463).
Issue #12: Abraham teaches astronomy
Facsimile 3 shows Abraham on the throne of Pharaoh, as his honored guest, teaching principles of astronomy. This concept must have seemed utterly ridiculous based on what was known about Abraham in his day, though if he had read enough he might have found a couple of sentences supporting this idea. The hint is buried within the writings of Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 1, chapters 7 and 8), who states that Abraham was skilled in “celestial science” and later that he taught astronomy to the Egyptians. There is no evidence that Joseph studied Josephus prior to translating the Book of Abraham, and even if he had, would had noticed this trivial detail and known to take it seriously? But it’s a detail worthy of serious attention, for numerous ancient texts confirm this point, and confirm additional details of the Book of Abraham regarding astronomy that no one could have gleaned from Josephus. Examples:
- The Jewish writer, Artapanus, who lived before the first century B.C., is paraphrased by Eusebius as saying that Abraham went to Egypt with “his household to the Egyptian king Pharethothes, and taught him astrology ” (p. 7). Tvedtnes et al. explain that in the ancient world, there was no difference between astrology and astronomy. Here is support not just for Abraham teaching the Egyptians astronomy, but teaching it to the king.
- Eupolemus, who may have been a Jew or Samaritan in the second century B.C., is cited by Eusebius as saying that Abraham “sought and obtained the knowledge of astrology” and “pleased the Phoenician king by teaching the Phoenicians the cycles of the sun and moon, and everything else as well,” and that he taught the priests in Egypt, explaining “astrology and the other sciences to them” and attributing the discovery of such knowledge to Enoch (implying access to ancient records, I would suggest, consistent with Abraham 1:28).
- The Babylonian Talmud says that Abraham “knew astronomical speculation” (p. 120). It and other ancient Jewish sources indicate that Abraham used his knowledge of the stars and planets (astrology) to foretell the future (p. 119). The Babylonian Talmud also reports that “Abraham possessed a power of reading the stars for which he was much sought after by the potentates of East and West” (p. 123), implying that he taught astronomy to kings. (This is mentioned in connection with a miraculous stone that he could use to heal people.) A translator’s note on his power of reading stars offers a variant reading: “He possessed an astrological instrument” (p. 123).
- The Chronicles of Jerahmeel report that Abraham knew astrology, which he learned in Egypt from Pharaoh’s magicians (p. 134).
- George Syncellus, a Byzantine scholar who wrote a history around 800 A.D., compiling information from other ancient sources, wrote that it was from Abraham that “the Egyptians learned the place of the stars and their movements and the mathematical science” (p. 225).
- The Clementine Recognitions describe Abraham as an astrologer (p. 185).
- Ioannes Zonaras, a twelfth-century Byzantine historian and monk, wrote that the since the Egyptians “marveled over his understanding, he taught the Egyptians mathematics and astronomy” (p. 261).
- Michael Glycas, a Byzantine historian of the twelfth century, wrote that Abraham was “a consummate astronomer” (p. 266).
- Alcuin, a deacon in the eighth century, wrote that Abraham understood God “from the reasoning of astrology” (p. 216).
- Symeon Logothetes in the tenth century reported that one night Abraham “pondered the movement of the stars, considering the quality of the affixed time, for he was thoroughly instructed in all such learning by his father” (p. 250). The “affixed time” in this passage appears similar to the “set time” that the Lord discusses for heavenly bodies in Abraham 3:6,10.
- Vettius Valens (A.D. 102-152) wrote a treatise on astrology and mentioned Abraham’s “books about this subject” (p. 477).
Issue #13: God teaches astronomy to Abraham
Abraham 3 describes how Abraham learned of the stars and the heavens. He had a tool God gave him, the Urim and Thummim, through which he saw the stores, including the one closest to God’s throne (Abr. 3:1-2). God then explained the stars to Abraham, indicating which were the greatest or governing stars, and revealed to him further details through the Urim and Thummim, such as the “times and seasons in the revolutions” of the stars (v. 4), and information about the earth, the sun, the moon, and planets. In one dramatic portion of Abraham 3, God puts his hand over Abraham’s eyes and shows him all his works:
11 Thus I, Abraham, talked with the Lord, face to face, as one man talketh with another; and he told me of the works which his hands had made;
12 And he said unto me: My son, my son (and his hand was stretched out), behold I will show you all these. And he put his hand upon mine eyes, and I saw those things which his hands had made, which were many; and they multiplied before mine eyes, and I could not see the end thereof.
13 And he said unto me: This is Shinehah, which is the sun. And he said unto me: Kokob, which is star. And he said unto me: Olea, which is the moon. And he said unto me: Kokaubeam, which signifies stars, or all the great lights, which were in the firmament of heaven.
14 And it was in the night time when the Lord spake these words unto me: I will multiply thee, and thy seed after thee, like unto these; and if thou canst count the number of sands, so shall be the number of thy seeds.
15 And the Lord said unto me: Abraham, I show these things unto thee before ye go into Egypt, that ye may declare all these words.
Thus, the information on astronomy that Abraham taught in Egypt was based on revelation from God, in which he saw stars without end. This is attested in the Pesikta Rabbati, a ninth-century Hebrew document that includes discourses from rabbis of the third and fourth centuries A.D. This document states that “God let Abraham first see a definite number of stars, and then turned around and let him see an infinite number. . . . And why did he show him [heaven] in this way? Because by such symbols He showed him how He would increase the children of Israel in the world” (p. 78). Abraham sees first one, then two, then three, then twelve, then seventy, “and finally stars without end” (p. 79). Abraham is also said to be likened to the sun, Isaac to the moon, and his children to the stars.
- The Midrash Rabbah states that “God raised Abraham above the vault of the heavens and said to him: Look now toward heaven, and count the starts, if thou be able to count them; and He said unto him: So shall thy seed be; that is, Just as thou seest all these stars and canst not count them, so [numerous] will thy children be, for none will be able to number them” (p.104). A later section indicates that God lifted Abraham above the earth and told him, “Look from heaven, and behold” in showing him the stars (p. 107), and another section reports God giving Abraham “possession of both celestial and terrestrial regions” (p. 110).
Issue #14: Abraham’s desire to be one who “possesses great knowledge”
Many texts confirm this.
- Philo of Alexandria wrote that Abraham “attained to great progress and improvement in the comprehension of complete knowledge” (p. 38).
- The early Christian Clementine Recognitions, Chapter 33, offers a description of Abraham’s receipt of knowledge from God that is consistent the great revelations described in the Book of Abraham, especially chapter 3:
Therefore Abraham, when he was desirous to learn the causes of things, and was intently pondering upon what had been told him [by an angel], the true Prophet appeared to him, who alone knows the hearts and purpose of men, and disclosed to him all things which he desired. He taught him the knowledge of the Divinity; intimated the origin of the world and likewise its end; showed him the immortality of the soul and the manner of life which was pleasing to God; declared also the resurrection of the dead, the future judgment, the reward of the good, the punishment of the evil, – all to be regulated by righteous judgment: and having given him all this information plainly and sufficiently, He departed again to the invisible abodes.
- George Hamartolos in the ninth century said that Abraham was “deemed worthy of divine knowledge” at the age of 14 (p. 237) and said that Abraham “sought out the God who really exists” (p. 238).
Other documents supporting the notion of Abraham teaching astronomy or being knowledgeable in it include the Greek Orphica and others.
Issue #15: God warns Abraham that the Egyptians will want to kill him to get his wife
According to the Book of Abraham, it is the Lord who warned Abraham that the Egyptians would want to kill him to get his beautiful wife. The Lord then directs Abraham to say that she is his sister in order to save his life. Genesis only reports that Abraham told his wife to say she was his sister, and does not mention that the idea came from God. The added information in the Book of Abraham finds support in several ancient texts. Examples:
- The Genesis Apocryphon from the Dead Sea Scrolls (pp. 26-29 in Tvedtnes et al.) indicates that Abraham had a dream which warned him of the threat to his life in Egypt, and of the need to have his wife claim to be his sister (p. 27).
Issue #16: God shows Abraham the heavens and other souls (including those in the premortal existence)
The Book of Abraham provides some of the richest information in the scriptures on the premortal existence. In Abraham 3, God shows Abraham the spirits that were created before the world was formed, and shows him many great and noble souls. God explains that Abraham was one of these, and was chosen before he was born (Abr. 3:23). This material regarding Abraham and the premortal existence is not in the Bible, but is found in other ancient texts. Examples:
- The Sefer Yetzirah or “Book of Creation,” the oldest known kabbalistic text (no later than the fifth century A.D.) that some writers have attributed to Abraham, indicates that God knew Abraham before he was born: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you” is found in the Long Version of this text (p. 87), and the Saadia version (p. 88) adds that God sanctified Abraham before he emerged from the womb.
- The Apocalypse of Abraham reports that God showed Abraham “the expanses which are under the firmament” and he saw “the expanses under [him], the heavens, opened.” He also saw “a multitude of angels” in glory, associated with fire and light, and “a multitude of spiritual angels, incorporeal, carrying out the orders of the fiery angels who were on the eighth firmament” (p. 57). God then tells him to look “at the firmament and understand the creation that was depicted of old on this expanse, (and) the creatures which are in it and the age prepared after it.” He then sees the souls of many men and has other visions. The Lord later explains that people drawn in a picture represent people that have been set apart, the ones that God has “prepared to be born of you and to be called my people” (p. 59) (see chapter 22 of the text located here).
- The Midrash Rabbah, most of which dates to near the beginning of the fifth century A.D., states that Abraham was considered the greatest man and was “worthy of being created before Adam,” but God chose to have Abraham be born later (p. 89, see also p. 113). The Jews believed in the premortal existence of spirits, and this passage only makes sense in that light.
Issue #17: Abraham honored by kings – or on a throne
Abraham is shown sitting on Pharaoh’s throne in Facsimile 3, where the caption says “Abraham is reasoning upon the principles of Astronomy, in the king’s court.” There is no mention of such a scene in the Bible, no reference to Abraham being honored in the court of the king or being treated like a king. But these concepts are consistent with ancient reports that God made Abraham a king, or that Pharaoh honored Abraham in his court, or that other kings honored Abraham. In addition to previously given examples about Abraham honored by kings for his wisdom or teaching kings astronomy, here are further relevant examples:
- The Book of Jasher states that Pharaoh sought to honor Abraham in the king’s court. Pharaoh told Sarah that:
It is incumbent upon us to make him great, to elevate him and to do unto him all the good which thou shalt command us; and at that time the king sent to Abram silver and gold and precious stones in abundance, together with cattle, men servants and maid servants; and the king ordered Abram to be brought, and he sat in the court of the king’s house, and the king greatly exalted Abram on that night” (p. 153).
- The Midrash Rabbah says God made him “king of the world” (p. 112), and that, in contrast to the foolishness of King Nimrod, wise Abraham was seated on a high platform and praised as mighty prince (p. 114).
- The Babylonian Talmud reports that God made Abraham “rule over kings” (p. 122).
- The Chronicles of Jerahmeel reports that Abraham was made king over Damascus (p. 133) when the local king presented his kingdom to Abraham, and further states that because of his great skill in magic, “all the kings of the East and West waited upon him” (p. 134).
- The midrashic Hebrew text, Tanna debe Eliyahu, reports that Abraham was established as a king while Terah was still alive (p. 76).
- Nicophorus Gregoras, a Byzantine historian in the fourteenth century, wrote that “Abraham the patriarch was crowned not for being executed, but because he became faithful to God” (p. 276).
Issue #18: The famine in Chaldea (the first of two famines)
There were two famines in Abraham’s life according to the Book of Abraham. The Bible tells of just one when he went to Egypt. The other one in the Book of Abraham occurred when Abraham was in Ur of the Chaldees. Several documents confirm that famine in Chaldea played an important role in the story of Abraham:
- The Midrash Rabbah says “There were two famines in the days of Abraham” (25:3, on p. 90 of Tvedtnes et al.; also 40:3, quoted on p. 94).
- Several texts refer to crows that continuously ate all the seeds while Abraham was in Ur, causing famine or hardship for the people. One example is found in the seventh-century writings of Jacob of Edessa, a Christian scholar in Syria, who wrote of the “great famine over the earth in the time of Terah, and the people were barely able to save any of the seed that was sown in the ground because of the multitude of the ravens and birds that God sent upon the land” (p. 213). See also the Catena Severi from the Syrian monk Severus in the ninth century (p. 241).
- Bar Hebraeus in the thirteenth century wrote that Abraham at age 15 prayed to God and drove away the pests (ravens or locusts?) “which were destroying the country of the Chaldeans and eating up their crops” (p. 275).
- The Muslim Qisas al-anbiya (Stories of the Prophets) from the thirteenth century or earlier says that in response to Nimrod’s idolatry and persecution of Abraham, God took away rain and put Nimrod “in dire straits,” using the famine to turn people toward Abraham (pp. 391-392).
A sampling of other correlations
Time does not permit me to relate many of the details uncovered by Tvedtnes et al., but I’ll mention a few more I find interesting:
- According to the Book of Abraham, “Libnah” was the name of an Egyptian god (Abr. 1:13, also Figure 6 in Facsimile 1). One Hebrew text, The Story of Abraham, uses essentially the same word (identical if written without vowels, as was done in early Hebrew texts), meaning “white one,” to refer to Abraham’s brief, misguided worship of the moon on one evening as a three-year-old child seeking to know what to worship (see footnote on p. 175). The Hebrew text makes repeated mention of the moon, but in all other instances uses a different Hebrew word. It’s interesting that in a case where someone is praying to the moon as if it were a god, a text about Abraham would use the same name of a false god listed in the Book of Abraham. (The other Hebrew word for moon used in this text is “yareah,” which may be related to “Olea” in Abraham 3:13, said to signify the moon – based on the fact that in ancient Egyptian, a Semitic language related to Hebrew, the letters l and r were identical (yareah = yaleah = Olea?).)
- The name of the idolatrous god Elkenah in the Book of Abraham (Abr. 1:6-7, 13, 17, 20, 29,;2:13;3:20 and Facs. 1) might be related to the idolatrous god “Cainan” mentioned in various texts, as Hugh Nibley suggested (“A New Look at the Pearl of Great Price,” Improvement Era, Vol. 72, No. 8, 1969, p. 85, as cited by Tvedtnes et al., p. 275). Related names include “Kinos, the idol” (p. 275) in the writings of Bar Hebraeus (Gregory Yuhanna Abu al-Faraj), a Jewish convert to Christianity in the thirteenth century who studied many texts, and other spellings of Cainan.
- The Book of Abraham teaches that Abraham possessed the Urim and Thummim, which we understand to be stone-like tools that allow seers and prophets to see things with divine power (Abr. 3:1-2). Abraham learned of the stars and of God’s works through these tools. A parallel comes from the kabbalistic work, the Bahir, compiled in the twelfth century but attributed to Rabbis from the first century and earlier. It says that God created a precious stone that “included all the commandments” in it. God, seeking to give “a power” to Abraham, gave him the precious stone, though Abraham did not want it.(see verse 190 here). The Babylonian Talmud reports that:
- Eliezer the Modiite said that Abraham possessed a power of reading the stars for which he was much sought after by the potentates of East and West. R. Simeon b. Yohai said: Abraham had a precious stone hung round his neck which brought immediate healing to any sick person who looked on it . . .” (p. 123).
- An Egyptian papyrus, P. Leiden I 383 (not the same papyrus with the lion couch scene mentioned earlier, but by the same scribe), calls Abraham the “pupil of the wedjet-eye,” which is the eye symbol in Figure 3 of Facsimile 2 of the Book of Abraham, said by Joseph Smith to represent the grand Key-words of the Holy Priesthood, as revealed to Adam in the Garden of Eden, as also to Seth, Noah, Melchizedek, Abraham, and all to whom the priesthood was revealed.” The apparent association of this symbol with priesthood and with Abraham in the Book of Abraham fits well with Abraham as “pupil of the wedjet-eye.”
- Multiple documents call into question the age of 75 given in Genesis for when Abraham went to the land of Canaan. The Book of Abraham says he was 62. A variety of other ages are offered in other documents, possibly because he may have made more than one journey away from Haran, as the Book of Jasher reports. Interestingly, a Dead Sea Scroll document, 4QCommGen A, suggests that he was in his sixties when he went to the land of Canaan. It’s hard to know for sure, because the text breaks off after the “six” in what appears to be an age. The translation of Florentino Garcia Martinez gives “sixty-five years,” though the “five” is a conjecture by the translator. The Babylonian Talmud suggests that his age was fifty-two years (p. 122), while the Book of Jasher says he was fifty. (Michael the Syrian in the twelfth century wrote that Abraham went to Haran at age 60, then stayed fourteen more years before leaving.)
- Abraham’s search for God (see Abr. 2:12) is related in many texts, such as the Apocalypse of Abraham (see Tvedtnes et al., pp. 56-57). An Armenian Paraphrase of Genesis says that “Abraham found God and he became like God and the father of all believers” (Version A, p. 285).
- The Book of Abraham has an account of the Creation. Several ancient texts report that God revealed details of the Creation to Abraham (e.g., the Clementine Recognitions (p. 186)).
- Several texts refer to the destruction of idols by God’s action, as does the Book of Abraham (Abr. 1:20). One example is the early Christian text, the Book of the Cave of Treasures (p. 190-191), where an earthquake in one case and later great winds are used to destroy the idols of the land, in a culture filled with idol worship and the sacrifice of children.
- Several texts and traditions provide information about Ham, his descendants, and the founders of Egypt that resonate with the Book of Abraham. For example, as reported in Tvedtnes et al., pp. 458-459, Muslim traditions hold that a son of Ham was the father of all Africans and was appointed king of Egypt by Noah (very similar to the Book of Abraham account – see Abr. 1:21-27, esp. v. 26). The new capital of Egypt was called Menfi or Manfeh (Memphis in Greek – in Egyptian lore, the mound in the temple of Memphis was the first land to appear out of the floodwaters – see Abraham 1:24,25). Consistent with the Book of Abraham account of the first Pharaoh as a righteous man who was blessed by Noah, a Muslim tradition holds that the first king of Egypt never worshiped idols (p. 459). An Armenian document known as Question reports that “the sons of Ham made a king for themselves, whose name was Pontipos” (p. 286)- possibly related to the Pharaoh Apintos mentioned in Bar Hebraeus.
- The Book of Abraham indicates that Egyptian religion was present among the Chaldeans. Bar Hebraeus points to a related connection, saying that the sixth king of Egypt, Pharaoh Apintos, “sent to Kasaronos, the Parthian king, and he brought the writings and the doctrine (religion?) of the Chaldees to Egypt” (p. 274). He also writes that the “Egyptians learned Chaldeeism, and they made an image of gold in honour of Kinos, the idol” (p. 275
- More recently (2016), Val Sederholm observes that the scholarly translation of Hor’s Book of Breathings from the Joseph Smith Papyri done by Michael Rhodes shows an interesting parallel to part of the story in the Book of Abraham: both begin with the concept of making the soul live, with Abraham in the Book of Abraham being in parallel to Osiris. Here is an excerpt from “Why Is It There? Book of Abraham Facsimile 1 and the Opening Vignette of the Joseph Smith Book of Breathings,” in Val Sederholm’s blog, I Began to Reflect (valsederholm.blogspot.com):
The Joseph Smith Book of Breathings opens with a vignette representing Osiris on a lion-couch.
The Book of Abraham opens with a vignette, in facsimile, representing Abraham upon an altar.
The vignette is one and the same–and it’s been a delight to visit the Church History Library of late, where the vignette is on display. For a digitized copy, click here.
So does any of this really prove anything? In my opinion, no, not really. The fact that so many things in the Book of Abraham given to us in our day were now proven to be known anciently is really cool, but it doesn’t prove that Joseph Smith was a prophet, or that Abraham really existed, or that he held priesthood, or that there is a pre-earth life. To me, these are matters of faith. I do have a spiritual witness that Joseph Smith saw what he said that he saw. This witness is further strengthened by evidences of the truthfulness of the gospel that I have seen as I have done my best to live it. But academic exercises really don’t “prove” anything.
On the other hand, it is powerful evidence that we must take seriously. The Lord clearly gives us some evidences in our search for truth. He gives us witnesses that saw more than what normal mortals will see in this life. The preceding examples are strong evidences that Joseph Smith was giving us something very old, and something that had pieces of it (The Book of Abraham) scattered all across the ancient world – Jewish texts and legends, Christian sayings and stories as well as Muslim narratives. Clearly Joseph Smith could not have accessed all of this information with the tools at his disposal. Yet in a short period of time, once again, he was able to produce a record witnessing of many of the facts about the life of Abraham that were not in the Bible of his time. This evidence requires our attention if we want to take the Book of Abraham seriously.