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

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 an MA in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations from 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, Ph.D. in Egyptology from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), is a professor in the Department of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University. Here are some of my reading notes:

  • “A question that remains open to scrutiny is how a purported autobiography of the patriarch Abraham could have been transmitted from his time (probably around 2000-1800 BC) to the Ptolemaic period (when the Joseph Smith papyri were created ) – a journey of well over a millennium and a half! How possible or likely is it that a copy of Abraham’s writings could have been recovered at a point in history so far removed from his time? How was the text transmitted and when? And by whom? And for what purpose(s)? And what is the likelihood that Abraham’s writings were associated with a seemingly unrelated collection of funerary papyri with anything Jewish or biblical? (106-107)
  • “To answer the question of how a putative copy of the writings of Abraham could have been transmitted to Greco-Roman Egypt (and subsequently into the possession of Joseph Smith), this article will first examine the evidence that demonstrates a Jewish presence in Greco-Roman Egypt. 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 to Egypt absorb more culture? that they imported and spread their own culture and customs? Did Egyptians ever borrow or adapt Jewish ideas and figures? Was there an equal flow of cultural exchange back and forth? What types exchanges are detectable in the surviving evidence? Finally, this article will explore how all of this may shed light on a plausible way in which the Book of Abraham could have been passed down to the Hellenistic era.(107)

The Smoot and Muhlestein brothers acknowledge that their argument for a plausible ancient route of transmission for the Book of Abraham is relevant only “on the assumption that Joseph Smith had in his possession an ancient physical copy of the writings of Abraham” (107). If, however, one posits the notion that the Book of Abraham came by revelation which was simply catalysis by an ancient papyrus which did not actually contain the text – an idea which they expressly say has some merit and is consistent with the belief in the Book of Abraham as authentic ancient writing – their argument will be, as they admit it themselves, essentially irrelevant. Another possibility is that “the Book of Abraham is a pseudepigraphic text composed by a Jewish author during the Greco-Roman period. Much of what is presented in this article may be very relevant to this line of thinking” (107). Why mention these two additional possibilities? Here is their explanation:

“[D]Despite the significant advances scholars have made in recent years, no single theory about the origin of the Book of Abraham can account for all of the evidence. . . . Furthermore, we would like to point out that our presentation of 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 the catalyst for Joseph Smith’s receipt of a revelation of an inspired scriptural text . We are simply exploring the means by which the text of the Book of Abraham could have been transmitted if this text was actually on the papyrus owned by Joseph Smith. (109, emphasis in original)

Here is my abridged summary of their final summary, which can be found on pages 132-134:

  1. “Archaeological and textual evidence conclusively demonstrates that ancient Jews migrated to Egypt as early as the eighth century BC.”
  2. “In addition to founding new communities 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 in Egypt.
  3. “Many Egyptianized or Hellenized Jews of the Greco-Roman period retained their religious heritage and identity while also not hesitating to freely syncretize Greek and Egyptian elements with their own traditions and religious texts.
  4. “On the other side of the equation, the polytheistic Egyptians, to whom ‘the very concept of a false god was alien’, also imported Greek and Jewish religious elements into their own religious structures. They intentionally incorporated Jewish religious figures, including Moses and Abraham, into their magical practices and participated in the wider cultural exchange that occurred at the time.
  5. “What we know of Hor, the former owner of P. Joseph Smith I+XI+X ​​(the Book of Breathings), and his occupation as a priest of Thebes (a city that experienced intercultural exchange during the Greco-Roman period) could most likely explain 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 found its place in the literary and religious milieu of Greco-Roman Egypt.”

And here is their last paragraph:

“Taken together, the above evidence provides a plausible scenario of how a copy of a text ‘claiming to be the writings of Abraham, while he was in Egypt’, might have been transmitted to Greco-Roman Egypt. by a group of Jewish emigrants and finally [come] in the hands of an Egyptian priest. . . . When it comes to explaining how an ancient copy of the Book of Abraham may have been passed down to Egypt, we can, with some confidence, position ourselves atop this evidence as a solid starting point from which to launch future surveys. (134)

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