Polygamy and the authenticity of the Book of Abraham are probably the two most hotly debated aspects of early Mormonism and Joseph Smith’s prophetic career. In recent years much has been made of the papyri, the Egyptian Alphabet and whether the Book of Abraham is a translation or a revelation.
A lot rides on the Book of Abraham for those invested in Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling and the LDS church in general. Critics have long demonstrated that the papyri are an ancient funerary text, a fact the Church openly acknowledges on its website,
“None of the characters on the papyrus fragments mentioned Abraham’s name or any of the events recorded in the book of Abraham. Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists agree that the characters on the fragments do not match the translation given in the book of Abraham, though there is not unanimity, even among non-Mormon scholars, about the proper interpretation of the vignettes on these fragments.”
Despite this, the Church still embraces the Book of Abraham as scripture. This is very strange position to adopt, but one made of necessity to uphold Joseph Smith as a prophet. Proponents of the book have suggested part of the papyri are missing or the papyri was merely a catalyst that sparked Joseph Smith’s prophetic translation. While the issues of mummies, missing papyri and catalysts are all interesting questions and gives critics and apologists something to argue about in perpetuity, they are ultimately irrelevant. The most important issue the Book of Abraham is the text. What does the text tell us, and does it reveal the Book of Abraham to be an inspired translation/revelation or the product of Joseph Smith’s imagination?
APPROACHING THE TEXT
I once watched a lecture by Dr. Bart Ehrman in which he addressed the tension and contradictions between the Gospels. He said,
“Read [the Gospels for] yourself carefully. You’ve got to read these things carefully. You can’t just breeze over them. You have to read them word for word and think about what you’re reading.”
I think that’s sound advice. I think we tend to read Joseph Smith’s revelations uncritically, assuming that because they are the product of Joseph Smith, they must necessarily be true. I reject that idea. The revelations in the D&C, the Book of Mormon, the Book of Moses and the Book of Abraham must rise or fall on their own merits, not because they come from Joseph Smith. We have to move away from the idea that Joseph Smith’s every revelation and doctrine are divinely inspired truth. Although I really dislike writing that we need to take a “nuanced approach,” we do. Joseph Smith wasn’t immune from the follies of humanity. He, like the rest of us, is allowed to fail, to be wrong, to make mistakes. That’s why we need to carefully read the revelations and books and decide whether or not they are true based on what they teach or reveal. So, we’re going to critically review Abraham 3 and pay attention to what we’re reading.
IDENTYFYING THE SPEAKERS
The first step in analyzing any text is to identify the participants. In Abraham 1 and 2, the Lord God is identified as Jehovah,
“Abraham, Abraham, behold, my name is Jehovah, and I have heard thee, and have come down to deliver thee, and to take thee away from thy father’s house, and from all thy kinsfolk, into a strange land which thou knowest not of… (Abraham 1:16)
“For I am the Lord thy God; I dwell in heaven; the earth is my footstool (Isaiah 66:1); I stretch my hand over the sea (Exodus 14:16) , and it obeys my voice; I cause the wind and the fire to be my chariot; I say to the mountains—Depart hence—and behold, they are taken away by a whirlwind [2 Kings 2:11-12], in an instant, suddenly [Isaiah 29:5]. My name is Jehovah, and I know the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10); therefore my hand shall be over thee.” (Abraham 2:7-8)
I find it interesting that these two verses cite or quote Isaiah three times, Exodus once, and 2 Kings once considering all those writings post-date Abraham by at least 700 years. This is a common occurrence is Joseph’s revelations and gives some insight how he constructs them. They are like patchwork quilts. He takes pieces from here and a piece from there, sewing them together to create a story. It’s actually pretty impressive. I certainly couldn’t do it. He does it here in Abraham 2 and we can clearly see that twice the speaker is named Jehovah/YHWH.
The Wiki entry for “Jehovah” reads,
“Jehovah (/dʒɪˈhoʊvə/) is a Latinization of the Hebrew יְהֹוָה Yəhōwā, one vocalization of the Tetragrammaton יהוה (YHWH), the proper name of the God of Israel in the Hebrew Bible and one of the seven names of God in Judaism…
This is important. “Elohim” is the singular noun for “God” and YHWH is the personal name. It’s not a title.
“Jehovah was first introduced by William Tyndale in his translation of Exodus 6:3 and appears in some other early English translations including the Geneva Bible and the King James Version. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops states that in order to pronounce the Tetragrammaton “it is necessary to introduce vowels that alter the written and spoken forms of the name (i.e. “Yahweh” or “Jehovah”).” Jehovah appears in the Old Testament of some widely used translations including the American Standard Version (1901) and Young’s Literal Translation (1862, 1899); the New World Translation (1961, 2013) uses Jehovah in both the Old and New Testaments. Jehovah does not appear in most mainstream English translations, some of which use Yahweh but most continue to use “Lord” or “LORD” to represent the Tetragrammaton.”
That Jesus Christ is Jehovah is confirmed very early in the Book of Mormon,
“And the God of our fathers, who were led out of Egypt, out of bondage, and also were preserved in the wilderness by him, yea, the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, yieldeth himself, according to the words of the angel, as a man, into the hands of wicked men, to be lifted up, according to the words of Zenock, and to be crucified, according to the words of Neum, and to be buried in a sepulchre, according to the words of Zenos…” (1 Nephi 19)
And lest there be any doubt, we have the recorded words of Jesus at Bountiful,
“Arise and come forth unto me, that ye may thrust your hands into my side, and also that ye may feel the prints of the nails in my hands and in my feet, that ye may know that I am the God of Israel, and the God of the whole earth, and have been slain for the sins of the world. (3 Nephi 11)
“Behold, I am he that gave the law, and I am he who covenanted with my people Israel; therefore, the law in me is fulfilled, for I have come to fulfil the law; therefore it hath an end.” (3 Nephi 15)
And as we near the end of the Book of Mormon we read,
“But behold, I will show unto you a God of miracles, even the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; and it is that same God (singular) who created the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are. Behold, he created Adam, and by Adam came the fall of man. And because of the fall of man came Jesus Christ, even the Father and the Son; and because of Jesus Christ came the redemption of man. (Mormon 9)
That Jesus created Adam is important to remember. “Adam” is the Hebrew word for “man,” and in LDS theology Michael the Archangel is Adam. This will come into play later. Finally, on LDS.org we read that, “Jehovah is the premortal Jesus Christ and came to earth being born of Mary.” We are all in agreement that “Jehovah” is Jesus Christ, is the God of Israel. In the church essay on Abraham, we read that Abraham “covenanted with Jehovah.” He does, but the Jehovah of the Book of Abraham is a distinct being from Jesus Christ.
Curiously, the word Jehovah appears only once in the Book of Mormon: the very last verse.
THE DIVINE COUNCIL SCENE
There are four individuals in Abraham 3, not including “the intelligences” and the “noble and great.” They are,
1. The Lord God – Jehovah
2. One Like Unto God – This is Michael, not Jesus. “Mikha’el” means “Who is Like God?”
3. One Like unto the Son of Man – Jesus
4. Another – Presumably “Satan.”
Let’s parenthetically insert these identities in the Divine Council scene:
“Now the Lord (Jehovah) had shown unto me, Abraham,
the intelligences that were organized before the world was;
and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones;
And God (Jehovah) saw these souls that they were good,
and he (Jehovah) stood in the midst of them, and he said:
“These I will make my rulers.”
For he (Jehovah) stood among those that were spirits,
and he (Jehovah) saw that they were good; and he said unto me:
“Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born.”
And there stood one (Michael) among them (the noble and great) that was like unto God,
and he (Michael) said unto those who were with him (the noble and great):
“We (the noble and great) will go down, for there is space there,
and we will take of these materials
and we will make an earth whereon these (intelligences/noble and great) may dwell;
And we will prove them (intelligences) herewith
to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God (Jehovah) shall command them.
And they who keep their first estate shall be added upon;
and they who keep not their first estate shall not have glory (xr Jude 1:6)
in the same kingdom with those who keep their first estate (heavenly);
and they who keep their second estate (mortal) shall have glory added
upon their heads for ever and ever.”
And the Lord (Jehovah) said:
“Whom shall I send?”
And one answered like unto the Son of Man (Jesus, XR Revelation 1:13, 14:14)
“Here am I, send me.” (xr Isaiah 6:8.)
And another (“Satan”) answered and said:
“Here am I, send me.”
And the Lord (Jehovah) said:
“I will send the first.”
There are some interesting things happening here. First of all, it appears that the “noble and great” are the ones who try mankind, not “Satan.” This is consistent with the Divine Council present in the Book of Job. In Job we read that “ha-satan” has is part of the Divine Council. Far from the malevolent, evil being he became by the early first century AD, “ha-satan” actually works for God as His roving prosecuting attorney. It’s the role of “the accuser” to test people to see if they will remain loyal to God, as he did with Job. Perhaps in Abraham another of the “noble and great” takes Satan’s place after he rebels.
Whatever the case, the problems with this scene should be readily apparent. Jehovah presides over the Divine Council, but Jesus is Jehovah. Does he volunteer to Himself? Further, the LDS church teaches that “one like unto God” and “one like unto the Son of Man” are both Jesus Christ. Under the entry for Abraham on LDS.org we read,
“Among the spirits Abraham saw was one who was “like unto God.” This was Jesus Christ. Jesus said that He would teach the people what they should do, and He would pay with His life for the mistakes they would make if they would repent. All the glory would be the Father’s for giving His children the chance to progress.”
This, as we have seen, is incorrect. One “like unto God” is Michael, who, for the record, doesn’t exist. He is not mentioned in Hebrew literature until the Book of Enoch, around 300-250 BC. In Abraham 3, “Michael” and “Jesus” are both subordinate to “Jehovah.” Recall that in Mormon 9 we read that The Lord God (Jesus) created “Adam.” (“Adam,” of course, is the Hebrew word for “man”— הָֽאָדָם֙ / hā-’ā-ḏām.) This leads to important question: what is hierarchy of heaven? Why does “Michael” seem to be higher in authority than Jesus, if Jesus created Michael, who, in LDS theology, is “Adam?”
If Jesus is Jehovah and “one like unto God,” and “one like unto the son of man,” the Divine Council is a one-man show. Jesus suggests to Jesus that the noble and great go down and organize the earth. Jesus says, “whom shall I send” and Jesus volunteers. Needless to say, this is a logistical impossibility.
Also of note, “Jesus” actually does not volunteer to become “the savior” in Abraham 3, which is a prelude to the creation. After “Michael’ suggests the noble and great go down and organize the earth, “Jesus” responds to “Jehovah’s” call. There’s no mention of a savior, atonement, crucifixion, resurrection or anything else. The creation narrative then continues in Abraham 4,
“And then the Lord (Jehovah) said: Let us go down. And they went down at the beginning, and they, that is the Gods, organized and formed the heavens and the earth. And the earth, after it was formed, was empty and desolate, because they had not formed anything but the earth; and darkness reigned upon the face of the deep, and the Spirit of the Gods was brooding upon the face of the waters. And they (the Gods) said: Let there be light; and there was light… (Abraham 4. The Book of Mormon tells us the world was created by a singular God.)
Despite the fact there’s no mention of a savior in Abraham 3, M. Russell Ballard said,
“I have been drawn to an interchange between God the Father (Jehovah?) and His eldest and Only Begotten Son (Jehovah), who is the ultimate example of living up to one’s premortal promises. When God (Jehovah?) asked who would come to earth to prepare a way for all mankind to be saved and strengthened and blessed, it was Jesus Christ (Jehovah) who said, simply, “Here am I, send me” (Abraham 3:27).” (“Here Am I, Send Me:” Women of God – BYU Speeches)
Neil A. Maxwell likewise said,
“Ages ago in the Great Council, Jesus was the prepared but meek volunteer. As the Father (Jehovah?) described the plan of salvation and the need for a Savior, it was Jesus (Jehovah) who stepped forward and said humbly but courageously, “Here am I, send me” (Abraham 3:27; see also Moses 4:2). Never has anyone offered to do so much for so many with so few words!” (Joseph Smith: “A Choice Seer” – Neal A. Maxwell – BYU Speeches.
I loved Brother Maxwell a great deal. He was my favorite speaker when conference came around, but what he says here doesn’t work. Jesus says, “Here am I, send me” to create the earth. He doesn’t say “Here am I, send me” in the Moses 4, “Satan” does.)
Bruce R. McConkie wrote:
“Let us then, with Abraham, gaze upon the great host of “noble and great ones” in premortal existence. “Among them” stands one “like unto God.” He is the great Jehovah, the Firstborn of the Father. We hear him say “unto those who were with him,” unto Michael and a great host of valiant souls: “We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell.” (Abr. 3:22, 24.)
This is not correct. As previously established, the one “like unto God” is Michael. We read in the under the entry for Michael in the LDS Guide to the Scriptures that “Michael” is “the name by which Adam was known in the premortal life. He is called the Archangel. In Hebrew the name means ‘Who is like God.'” If you are confused, it’s understandable. Truly, there is no religion more dizzying than Mormonism.
We also read on LDS.org:
“We needed a Savior to pay for our sins and teach us how to return to our Heavenly Father. Our Father (Jehovah?) said, ‘Whom shall I send?’ (Abraham 3:27). Jesus Christ, who was called Jehovah, said, “Here am I, send me” (Abraham 3:27; see also Moses 4:1–4)
And in an LDS Old Testament Student Manual, we read:
“The expectation of an Anointed Deliverer is called the messianic hope. This hope was very real for the ancient house of Israel and extended into the distant past, even into the premortal council in heaven. After explaining the need for a redeemer (nowhere is this explained in the BOA), Father in Heaven asked, “Whom shall I send?” (Abraham 3:27). Lucifer replied, “Behold, here am I, send me, I will be thy son, and I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, … wherefore give me thine honor” (Moses 4:1). Jehovah replied, “Here am I, send me” (Abraham 3:27). “Thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever” (Moses 4:2). Jehovah was chosen as Messiah, and Lucifer, with a third of the spirit children of God, rebelled against the Father’s decision. As a result, Lucifer became the devil. He, with all his followers, was cast from heaven to the earth. (see Revelation 12:7–9.)”
It’s incredibly interesting to see how the Church weaves together Abraham and Moses to form the narrative of the Divine Council. Also, it important to note that Revelation 12 doesn’t describe “Lucifer” (who is actually the King of Babylon in Isaiah) falling from Heaven and taking a third of the spirit children of God with him.
It should be clear by now that the Book of Abraham isn’t an inspired text. The experts who have repeatedly and consistently shown the papyri to be a funeral text are correct. But more importantly, in my opinion, it illustrates the bigger problem of LDS theology: it doesn’t have a consistent one. We have seen various men sustained as prophets, seers and revelators misinterpret the text. Everyone who reads the Book of Abraham isn’t paying attention to what we’re reading. We casually gloss over it and accept as scripture because it came from Joseph Smith. As I’ve said many times, this is the peril of having a testimony of a man.
However, most importantly the Book of Abraham is a critical wound to the identity of Jesus Christ within the Church. The Book of Abraham demotes Jesus from the Infinite and Eternal God of the Book of Mormon who condescended in mortality to atone for the sins of mankind to a being subordinate to God and co-equal, or even inferior, to Michael. That’s a significant mistake for a prophet of God to make. Especially one who claimed to have stood in His presence. And unfortunately, it’s not the only time he makes it. (We’ll review the Book of Moses in the future. Interestingly, Sidney Rigdon correctly identifies Jesus as Jehovah in Lecture 5 of the Lectures on Faith.)
I don’t know if Joseph Smith sincerely believed the papyri were actual writings of Abraham. I don’t know if he saw it as an opportunity to flex is prophetic prowess. I don’t know if it was an attempt to impression others around him. In the end it doesn’t matter. What matters is the text and I think I’ve sufficiently demonstrated that the text doesn’t withstand scrutiny. I think we can appreciate the Book of Abraham as an interesting literary document that reflects a curious middle stage in the development of LDS theology. But as a prophetic, revelatory or theological document, you can safely put The Book of Abraham on the shelf.