Abraham in Egypt, in Persia

In a recent article by John Gee, “An Egyptian View of Abraham,” in Bountiful Harvest: Essays in Honor of S. Kent Brown, Andrew Skinner, et al., eds. (NAMI, Provo: BYU Press, 2012) 137-56, Gee provides a fresh edition of a pair of Sahidic Coptic manuscripts about Abraham.  The updated text and new translation are useful for scholars, though the offering is less than a critical edition because it is not clear from his presentation that he has consulted the original manuscripts.  In his conclusion, he alludes to the fact that this text offers some parallels to the LDS Book of Abraham and the fascimilies.  He points to two parallels in particular:

  • a king puts Abraham to death only to have him delivered by an angel
  • Abraham afterwards attempts to teach the king and his court about the true God through the use of astronomy

These points are indeed notable elements of the text, but also do not adequately summarize what the text is about.  As Gee notes, the text is a midrashic homily on Ps. 47:9, “gathered with the God of Abraham.”  The text explains that a certain Abraham mocked the idols of the people and as a result was thrown into the fire by King Sabor.  The “angel of the Lord” saved him from the fire. The king sent twelve men to learn about the God who saved Abraham, and Abraham teaches them that idolatry cannot adequately represent God.  As evidence of the failure of idols to represent God, this Abraham points to the constellations, the sun, moon, and clouds in the sky.  The people and their rulers then turn to worship God.  The text continues with prayers to David and the apostles and injunctions to the audience how to pray to them.

The text has more parallels to other ancient traditions about Abraham(s) than the LDS Book of Abraham. Numerous traditions known by Christians, Jews, and Muslims held that Abraham had been tossed into a fire (not sacrificed on an altar), but all of these that I am aware of come from late antiquity or the medieval period.  In these texts, there are various debates about whether an angel saved Abraham, or it was the Lord directly.

There are no details in this text that correspond to anything in the biblical tradition about Abraham.  In fact, one of the primary scholarly questions is whether this is about the patriarch Abraham at all.  In the 1908 publication of this text, E. O. Winstedt agrees with Crum that the Abraham referred to here is a conflation of the patriarch with the  martyr Bishop Abraham of Arbela.  Several things would point to this conclusion.  1) the events relevant to Abraham in this text refer entirely to “Mesopotamia,” saying nothing about any time in Egypt or Canaan.  2) the king mentioned here is “Sabor,” a name otherwise unknown to have any association with the patriarch.

The naming of the king as Sabor and the specific repetition that these events take place in Mesopotamia seem to strongly suggest that the Abraham mentioned here is the martyr Bishop Abraham who was beheaded by the Persian king Shapur II (309-79 CE).  Crum first noted this in 1905 and the dominant way the text has been understood since is as an encomium on the Persian martyr, not the patriarch.  This Abraham was martyred for refusing to worship the sun.  The specific use of the sun in the martyrdom account might also explain this present text’s concern with the sun, moon, stars, and clouds.  The mentioning of the fire, a commonly known tradition about the patriarch, and the homily on Ps. 47, are the only things to connect the story to the patriarch at all.  The details of the story seem most likely to be a mashup (mixup?) of the two well known Abrahams.

Gee attempts to explain away the specific mention of Shapur by suggesting that it might be a ruler from the 14th dynasty, several centuries after Abraham.  He also seems to think that the fact that Shapur appears in its Hellenized form is strange, and that the text uses the “native” Coptic term “pharaoh” might point to it being an Egyptian name.  But these are not serious objections to the hypothesis that Sabor is Shapur.  That the story may have initially come from Greek sources, even if the particular homily here does not bear witness to a direct Greek urtext, is the best explanation for the Hellenized Sabor.  Further, the use of “pharaoh” is simply the Coptic term for any king, and does not entail a native Egyptian king at all.

Finally, Gee does not date the text, seemingly suggesting that this text represents an early witness of some sort.  There is no reason to see this text as particularly early.  It shares much with the Muslim and medieval Christian traditions about Abraham.  The manuscript may be as late as the 12th century, according to Wenstadt, though perhaps a bit earlier.

So, what does this text tell us?  Despite some optimism in some circles, very little, I’m afraid, about anything earlier than the 10th c. CE.  It suggests that the traditions about the patriarch Abraham and the martyr Abraham were confused at a certain point.  Could there be some nugget of truth about the historical Abraham here?  Likely not. This text is at least 3000 years after the historical Abraham, and offers almost nothing distinctive about Abraham from any other contemporary texts, except his conflation with Bishop Abraham of Arbela.  The text is better understood as providing a glimpse into its own historical context, not millennia prior.


The Call of Simon Peter in Luke 5:1-11
Biblical Texts and Historicity
John Gee, Biblical Studies, and Credentials
Doubting Our Doubters
  • the narrator

    You just don’t get it. It doesn’t matter if the text comes a couple thousand years after Abraham, or that its context has very little to do with Abraham.

  • Bojangles

    Thanks for pointing this out, TT. These are significant objections.

    “Could there be some nugget of truth about the historical Abraham here?”

    How important to our apologetic is finding connections between the Book of Abraham and the actual historical figure? That is, if we focus the discussion on whether or not the BoA is an ancient text, rather than an autograph, isn’t it enough to show that the Book of Abraham corresponds to at least some ancient conceptions of the patriarch (an admittedly low bar), including a conflation with the martyred King of Sabor? Can’t we (and haven’t we) attempt to argue that the BoA represents ways that ancient people thought about Abraham, even if their conceptions were only loosely tied to the historical figure? I recall at least one apologetic approach (Kevin Barney) that argued for the BoA as not an autograph, but still an ancient text about Abraham:

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    It is an excellent question! I am not opposed, in principle, to the idea that our Book of Abraham is an ancient pseudepigraphical text, rather than a modern one. (I find this hypothesis to be rather interesting theologically, of course, for what it says about pseudepigraphy.) One of the problems, I think, with the way that some apologetics have proceeded is to be very loose with establishing an “ancient” context. The JS Papyri date to a particular time (2nd c. BCE, I believe). If we want to locate our Book of Abraham in the context of Ptolemaic/Roman Egypt, I think that we are free to do so. But amoraic teachers, let alone Muslims and 10th c. Coptic Christians, do not belong to that cultural context. They have their own, very different set of concerns and assumptions, let alone intervening development of ideas and legends. I am suggesting that we need to be more rigorous about establishing a historical context for this text, and not be willing to grab anything from any time and place that happens to mention Abraham and then draw imaginary parallels.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    Not knowing anything about the manuscripts, whether the folios are later copies or not, I am going to say that I think that a 10th-12th c. date for the original of this text is too late. As a Sahidic text, it is probably 6th-8th, but that is entirely speculative. More work needs to be done to date this text, starting with epigraphy and dating the manuscripts.