Kerry Muhlestein discusses the significance of the BOA Header.

Academic / Technical Report
Kerry Muhlestein

Kerry Muhlestein, “Egyptian Papyri and the Book of Abraham: A Faithful, Egyptological Point of View,” in No Weapon Shall Prosper: New Light on Sensitive Issues, ed. Robert L. Millet (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011), 229–231

BYU Religious Studies Center, Deseret Book
Kerry Muhlestein
Reading Public

Both members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and those of other faiths have often assumed that the statement, “The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus,” (Book of Abraham, Heading) means that Abraham himself copied the writings onto the papyrus acquired by the Prophet Joseph. Critics have attacked this assumption because we can date the papyri we have, including Facsimile 1, to a time period after Abraham. We know exactly who the owner of this papyrus roll was, what his priestly offices and duties were, that he served and lived in Thebes, and the names of several generations of his family. The man who owned (and likely created) Joseph Smith Papyri fragments 1, 10, and 11 (which constitute the beginning of the roll that contains Facsimile 1) was Hor (Horus in its Greek form)—an influential priest in Thebes around the time of the creation of the Rosetta Stone (approximately 200 BC). His father was a governor of Thebes and held the same priestly position as his son. Horus would have been highly educated, literate, and likely conversant in several languages; he also would have had access to the great libraries of the temples in Thebes. I have already discussed the evidence showing that priests in Thebes during this time period had access to stories about Abraham. Thus the owner of this papyrus was an educated priest who probably had access to information about biblical figures. Interestingly, one of his priestly roles was associated with Egyptian execration rituals, which sometimes involved human sacrifice—something akin to what Abraham describes in the Book of Abraham and is depicted on Facsimile 1.

Critics say that if this papyrus was written in the second century BC it could not possibly have been written by Abraham himself. In regard to this assumption, I ask, who said this particular papyrus was written by Abraham himself? The heading does not indicate that Abraham had written that particular copy but rather that he was the author of the original. What these critics have done is confuse the difference between a text and a manuscript. For example, many people have a copy of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings; each has a manuscript copy of the text that Tolkien originally wrote. A text, regardless of how many copies of it exist in the world, is written by one author. However, each copy of that text is a manuscript.

The earliest known copies of the book of Isaiah date to hundreds of years after the prophet’s death. Yet this has not led to the conclusion that Isaiah was not the author of the book of Isaiah. Clearly the manuscripts we have are copies of the original text that he wrote during his lifetime. We all know that when an author of the ancient world wrote something, if those writings were to survive or be disseminated, the text had to be copied again and again and again, for generation upon generation. When the heading states that the text was written by Abraham’s own hand, it notes who the author is, not who copied down the particular manuscript that came into Joseph’s possession. If critics had carefully thought through this issue, they would never have raised it.

These issues also highlight the question of how the Book of Abraham came to be in Egypt in the first place. There are a dizzying number of possibilities. Abraham himself was in Egypt, as was his great-grandson Joseph and all of his Israelite descendants for hundreds of years thereafter. After the Exodus, Israelites continued to travel to and live in Egypt. After the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, large groups of Jews settled in Egypt and created longstanding and thriving communities, even to the point that they built a temple. It was during this time period that Joseph Smith Papyri 1, 10, and 11 were created. Copies of these papyri could have moved back and forth between Egypt and Israel during any of these eras.

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