As “the only illustrations in our scriptures,” the facsimiles of the Book of Abraham “attract attention not only because of their rough-hewn quality but by their very existence as a visual medium in the midst of the written word.”1 Latter-day Saint scholars and interested laypersons have offered a number of different approaches to understanding the facsimiles.2 Some of the more common approaches to the facsimiles include the following:
- The facsimiles were original to Abraham. To interpret them we should look to how Egyptians in Abraham’s day, or Abraham himself, would have understood them.
- The facsimiles were original to Abraham but were modified over time for use by the ancient Egyptians. The facsimiles as currently preserved are much later and altered copies of Abraham’s originals. To interpret them we should consider the underlying Abrahamic elements and compare them with how the Egyptians understood these images.3
- The facsimiles were connected to the Book of Abraham when the Joseph Smith Papyri were created in the Ptolemaic period (ca. 330–30 BC). To interpret them we should look to what Egyptians of that time generally may have thought these drawings represent.4
- The facsimiles were connected to the Book of Abraham for the first time in the Ptolemaic period, but to interpret them we should look specifically to how Egyptian priests who were integrating Jewish, Greek, and Mesopotamian religious practices into native Egyptian practices would have understood them.5
- The facsimiles were connected to the Book of Abraham in the Ptolemaic period, but to interpret them we should look to how Jews of that era would have understood them.6
- The facsimiles were never part of the Book of Abraham but instead were completely reinterpreted by Joseph Smith to artistically depict the text he revealed or translated. We can make sense of Joseph’s interpretations by expanding our understanding of his role as a “translator.”7
- The facsimiles were never part of the Book of Abraham, but Joseph Smith, by revelation, perceived the meaning of the figures in their ancient Egyptian context and based on similarities syncretized many of them to details within the context of Abraham’s life. To understand Joseph Smith’s explanations in this approach, it is important to understand that some figures he interprets in their ancient Egyptian context and some figures he overlays with an Abrahamic detail due to perceived similarities between the Egyptian and Abrahamic concepts. This approach still requires an understanding of the figures in their ancient Egyptian context but does not assume all of Joseph Smith’s explanations are how the Egyptians would have strictly understood them.8
Each of these approaches has its respective strengths and weaknesses, but each also requires certain assumptions at the outset in order to accept it, and it appears that no one single explanation on its own can account for all the available evidence. Although not all of these paradigms will be explored here, a few examples illustrating this point are worth bringing up. For instance, the first paradigm is a more straightforward way of thinking about the facsimiles but is severely undermined by the fact that the Joseph Smith Papyri date to many centuries after Abraham’s lifetime.9 The second, third, and fourth paradigms are each compelling to varying degrees since they can account for the instances where Joseph Smith’s interpretations of the facsimiles align with those of other Egyptologists, but no single one of them can account for his interpretations in their entirety from an Egyptological perspective.
Whichever paradigm one adopts, it seems clear that Joseph Smith’s explanations of the facsimiles were original to himself (none of the explanations appear next to the illustrations on the papyri he possessed).10 “There are aspects of [these explanations] that match what Egyptologists say they mean. Some [of them] are quite compelling. . . . However, as we look at the entirety of any of the facsimiles, an Egyptological interpretation does not match what Joseph Smith said about them.”11 This is complicated by the fact that even though not all of Joseph Smith’s explanations of the facsimiles in their entirety agree with how modern Egyptologists understand these illustrations, in many instances they do accurately reflect ancient Egyptian and Semitic concepts.12 This requires us to carefully unpack the assumptions we bring when approaching the facsimiles under any of the theoretical paradigms listed above.
Despite some important advances in scholarship, “we [still] do not [entirely] know to what we really should compare the facsimiles.” For instance, we must ask if Joseph Smith meant to give us “an interpretation [of the facsimiles] that ancient Egyptians would have held, or one that only a small group of priests interested in Abraham would have held, or one that a group of ancient Jews in Egypt would have held, or something another group altogether would have held.” Or, alternatively, “was he giving us an interpretation we needed to receive for our spiritual benefit regardless of how any ancient groups would have seen these?” The fact is that we don’t know for sure. While we “can make a pretty good case for the idea that some Egyptians could have viewed Facsimile 1 the way Joseph Smith presents it, [we are still] not sure that is the methodology we should be employing. We just don’t know enough about what Joseph Smith was doing to be sure about any possible comparisons, or lack thereof.”13
What is clear from all of this is that “much more work needs to be done before we can understand the facsimiles in their ancient Egyptian setting, and only then will it be meaningful to ask whether that understanding matches that of Joseph Smith (to the extent that we understand even that).”14 For example, “Facsimile 3 has always been the most neglected of the three facsimiles in the Book of Abraham. Unfortunately, most of what has been said about this facsimile is seriously wanting at best and highly erroneous at worst.”15 Some valuable work in recent years, however, has helped remedy this by better situating this facsimile in its ancient Egyptian context.16 As that context has become clearer, elements of Joseph Smith’s explanations have become more plausible (although other elements remain at odds with current Egyptological theories).
Whichever theoretical paradigm one adopts in approaching the facsimiles, a respectable case can be made that with a number of his explanations Joseph Smith accurately captured ancient Egyptian concepts (and even scored a few bull’s-eyes with his explanations) that would have otherwise been beyond his natural ability to know.17 Any honest approach to the facsimiles must recognize this and take this into account. At the same time, however, this is not necessarily conclusive evidence that the facsimiles themselves were actually used as illustrations for Abraham’s record in antiquity. For now, then, the best approach to the facsimiles would be to remain open-minded and inquisitive and to keep asking the best questions based on the best available evidence and information.
Gee, John. “Book of Abraham, Facsimiles of.” In Pearl of Great Price Reference Companion, ed. Dennis L. Largey, 54–60. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2017.
———. “A Method for Studying the Facsimiles.” FARMS Review 19, no. 1 (2007): 347–53.
Rhodes, Michael D. “Teaching the Book of Abraham Facsimiles.” Religious Educator 4, no. 2 (2003): 115–23.