“The Jews of Greco-Roman Egypt and the Transmission of the Book of Abraham”

“The Jews of Greco-Roman Egypt and the Transmission of the Book of Abraham” September 20, 2022


Dusk at Newport Beach
Newport Beach, California, at sunset. (Wikimedia Commons public domain image)


Today’s reading in the new issue of BYU Studies was Stephen O. Smoot and Kerry Muhlestein, “Prophets, Pagans, and Papyri: The Jews of Greco-Roman Egypt and the Transmission of the Book of Abraham,” BYU Studies Quarterly 61/2 (2022): 105-134.  Stephen O. Smoot holds a master’s degree in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizationsf rom the University of Toronto and is a doctoral candidate in Semitic and Egyptian languages and literature at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC.  Kerry Muhlestein, who holds a Ph.D. in Egyptology from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), is a professor in the Department of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University  Here are some of my notes from the reading:


  • “One question that remains open for examination is how a purported autobiography of the patriarch Abraham could have been transmitted from his time (most likely circa 2,000-1,800 BC) into the Ptolemaic period (when the Joseph Smith Papyri were created) — a journey of well over a millennium and a half!  How feasible or likely is it that a copy of Abraham’s writings could have been recovered from a point in history so far removed from his own time?  How was the text transmitted, and when?  And by whom?  And for what purpose(s)?  And how likely is it that Abraham’s writings would have been associated with a collection of funerary papyri seemingly unrelated to anything Jewish or biblical?”  (106-107)
  • “To answer the question of how a putative copy of Abraham’s writings could have been transmitted into Greco-Roman Egypt (and subsequently into the possession of Joseph Smith), this paper will first look at the evidence that demonstrates a Jewish presence in Greco-Roman Egypt.  After reviewing this evidence, it will then explore questions related to the direction of cultural exchange between Egyptian and Jewish groups.  Did Jewish migrants coming into Egypt absorb Egyptian culture more than they imported and disseminated their own culture and customs?  Did the Egyptians ever borrow or adapt Jewish ideas and figures?  Was there an even flow of cultural exchange in both directions?  What kinds of exchange are detectable in the surviving evidence?  Finally, this paper will explore how all of this may shed light on a plausible way in which the Book of Abraham could have been transmitted down to the Hellenistic era.”  (107)


Brothers Smoot and Muhlestein acknowledge that their argument for a plausible ancient path of transmission for the Book of Abraham is only relevant on “the assumption that Joseph Smith had in his possession a physical ancient copy of Abraham’s writings” (107).  If, however, one posits the notion that the Book of Abraham came via revelation that was merely catalyzed by an ancient papyrus that didn’t actually contain the text — an idea that they expressly say both possesses some merit and is compatible with belief in the Book of Abraham as genuine ancient scripture — their argument will, as they themselves admit, be essentially irrelevant.  Another possibility is that “the Book of Abraham might be a pseudepigraphic text composed by a Jewish author during the Greco-Roman period.  Much of what is laid out in this paper may be highly relevant to this line of thinking,” as well (107).  Why bring up these two additional possibilities?  Here is their explanation:


“[D]espite the important advances scholars have made in recent years, no one single theory for the origin of the Book of Abraham can account for all of the evidence. . . .  Further, we wish to emphasize that our putting forward this theory [for a plausible means of manuscript transmission for an ancient Book of Abraham text] does not mean that we strongly favor the theory that the text of the Book of Abraham was on the papyrus over the theory that the papyri served as a catalyst to Joseph Smith’s reception of a revelation of an inspired scriptural text.  We are merely exploring ways that the text of the Book of Abraham could have been transmitted if that text was actually on the papyrus Joseph Smith owned.”  (109, emphasis in the original)


Here is my abbreviated summary of their final summary, which occurs at pages 132-134:


  1. “Archaeological and textual evidence conclusively demonstrates that ancient Jews migrated into Egypt beginning as early as the eighth century BC.”
  2. “In addition to founding new communities complete with civic and religious structures (including temples), these Jews not only brought with them their religious texts (including the writings of the Hebrew Bible) but also composed and disseminated new literary works while residing in Egypt. . . .  This evidence provides a plausible route of transmission for a copy of Abraham’s writings into Egypt.”
  3. “Many Egyptianized or Hellenized Jews of the Greco-Roman period maintained their religious heritage and identity while also not hesitating to freely syncretize Greek and Egyptian elements with their own religious traditions and texts.”
  4. “On the other side of the equation, the polytheistic Egyptians, for whom “the very concept of a false god was alien,” likewise imported Greek and Jewish religious elements into their very own religious structures.  They willingly incorporated Jewish religious figures including Moses and Abraham into their magical practices and participated in the broader cultural exchange that occurred at the time.”
  5. “What we know about Hor, the ancient owner of P. Joseph Smith I+XI+X (the Book of Breathings), and his occupation as a priest of Thebes (a city that saw cross-cultural exchange during the Greco-Roman period) could very plausibly account for why he might have been interested in a copy of a text like the Book of Abraham.”
  6. “The Book of Abraham itself would have been right at home in the literary and religious milieu of Greco-Roman Egypt.”


And here is their concluding paragraph:


“Taken together, the evidence above provides a plausible scenario for how a copy of a text “purporting to be the writings of Abraham, while he was in Egypt,” could have been transmitted into Greco-Roman Egypt by a group of Jewish emigrés and eventually [come] into the possession of an Egyptian priest. . . .  When it comes to explaining how an ancient copy of the Book of Abraham could have been transmitted into Egypt, we can, with a fair amount of confidence, position ourselves atop this evidence as a solid starting place to launch future investigations.”  (134)


Posted from Newport Beach, California



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