Ok, comparing these two books might seem a bit odd, but let me explain. First of all, I’ve already done a few posts on Abraham. In the first, I compared the Book of Abraham to the Koran, and wondered if Joseph might have translated an Islamic text, because the story found in the Book of Abraham where Abraham destroys his father’s idols is quite similar to a Koranic tale. Then my second post on Abraham, I learned that this story is also found in the Jewish Midrash, so there is another non-biblical source for this story.
For those who don’t know the origins of the Book of Abraham, Joseph claims to have translated the Book of Abraham from some Egyptian papyrus that he purchased from a person exhibiting Egyptian artifacts. The papyrus were originally believed to have perished in a fire, though some of these scrolls were actually discovered in 1967, and translated by Egyptologists. The translation has no resemblance to the Book of Abraham, and seems to be a sort of funeral scroll. Therefore, some people charge that the Book of Abraham is really a fraud. Even if this is a fraud, how does this explain the similarities to the Jewish Midrash, and the Koran?
To counter these claims, Hugh Nibley notes that not all of the papyrus was found. Perhaps there were some funeral scrolls mixed in with the Book of Abraham, and perhaps the real Book of Abraham that Joseph translated was not found. Many critics scoff at this claim.
However, I have also been learning about the Gospel of Judas. Scholars have known for centuries that a gospel attributed to Judas existed, because of a reference by an ancient Christian priest named Saint Ireneaus in 180. The Christian canon did not exist in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, and St Ireneaus was of the first Christian leaders to try to create a canon of Christian writings. He was one of the first to make the claim that there should be four gospels, and that many of the other gospels (at least 50 at the time) that were in existence at the time were false. He specifically mentioned the Gospel of Judas as an especially dubious heresy.
Until recently nobody knew the Gospel of Judas existed. Some Egyptian papyrus was discovered in 1978, and shopped on the black market for many years. (It was actually advertised in the classified ads in the New York Times, and sold or stolen several times on the black market.) There was even a National Geographic special announcing the discovery of the Gospel of Judas in 2006.
The discovery is very interesting, and the ancient document was written in an ancient form of Egyptian, called Coptic. (Is this “reformed Egyptian”?) The Coptic Christian Church still exists today, and dates from this early time period. The copy discovered isn’t quite as old at Ireneaus, but dates to about the 1600 years ago. It’s not quite as old as Ireneaus, but it certainly is ancient, and might be the same gospel he was referring to. Ireneaus was talking about a Greek text, but he Gospel of Judas is probably a Coptic translation of the original Greek text. (You may want to learn more about Gnosticism, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Nag Hammadi Library from my previous post on this.)
Prior to the National Geographic special, rumors that the Gospel of Judas had been found were rampant among the academic community. The book was mixed up with several other books (apparently these ancient Egyptians were trying to conserve papyrus), many of which had nothing to do with spiritual subjects. Someone apparently leaked a photograph of some of these papyri on the internet, and most scholars were of the opinion that the Gospel of Judas did not really exist. The internet photograph claimed that the writings were the Gospel of Judas, but the translation was obviously of another book. So, the Gospel of Judas find was deemed a hoax.
However, National Geographic obtained the papyrus, and had some modern scholars translate it. Sure enough, the internet photographs were genuine, but only contained a portion of the entire papyrus. The Gospel of Judas, was mixed in with some other writings, and it is an extremely important and interesting find in ancient Christian writings, because it shows a much greater diversity of Christian thought. The Gospel of Judas is a Gnostic text, which was a competing form of Christianity, and was just as big or bigger in some parts of the Roman Empire. When Constantine converted to Christianity, he converted to Orthodox Christianity, and then set about persecuting the Gnostics. Eventually the persecution forced them out of existence.
So, I want to quote from Bart Ehrmann’s book called The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot. Bart is a professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and participated in the translation of this lost gospel. I just found some of the experiences with the Gospel of Judas as strikingly similar to Nibley’s theory about the Book of Abraham. From page 67,
In chapter 1, I described my trip to Geneva in December 2004. There I laid eyes on the Gospel of Judas for the first time. I was obviously elated by the possibilities. But as I returned from my trip I had more questions than answers. I had looked over some pages of the Coptic text but had no opportunity to study and translate them. What could be found on the pages I had seen?
While still thrilled by the prospects, I found a discussion on the Internet that made my heart sink.
There is a Dutch blogger name Michel van Rijn who runs a very peculiar web site that specializes in debunking claims about modern art and ancient artifacts. Van Rijn had gotten wind of the Gospel of Judas story, tracked down some leads, and learned that National Geographic was planning to spend considerable time and effort promoting the release of the document and its translation-and presumably would make a lot of money off it. Van Rijn decided to explode the entire operation by publishing all the surviving materials before National Geographic itself had a chance to do so.
Van Rijn found an American scholar, Charlie Hedrick-a New Testament scholar I have known and liked for years-who claimed to have photographs of the Gospel of Judas and to have already made preliminary translations of them. In order to squash any speculation about the Gospel, and to beat National Geographic to the punch, van Rijn published the photographs and the translations. When I read them, I was massively disappointed.
The first text appeared to have nothing to do with Judas and Jesus. It was a Gnostic document whose main figure was someone called Allogenes, who prays to God and hears God’s answer. The text had Gnostic characteristics, and it would be of some limited interest to scholars of Gnosticism. But as far as Judas and Jesus were concerned, it was a complete bust.
…What I didn’t know at the time, but eventually came to realize, is that Hedrick had translated the wrong text.
My first indication that something was amiss came in July 1, 2005. I was in New York on other business and had set up a lunch date at the Harvard Club with Herb Krosney, whom I mentioned earlier as the investigative journalist who had originally tracked down the Gospel of Judas, found that it was owned now by the Maecenas Foundation in Geneva, interested National Geographic in the story, and more or less single-handedly pushed the story forward-leading eventually to my hurried trip to Geneva six months before. Over lunch in July I expressed my real frustration that the whole story was soon to collapse on itself, that there was not in fact much of a story at all, because I had read the Hedrick translation and frankly couldn’t understand why National Geographic was still interested in pursuing the matter.
…It was only later that I realized what had happened. As we will see in this chapter, when scholars first gained access to this manuscript and were able to determine its contents, they believed it contained fragmentary copies of three texts. Two of which were already known from earlier archaeological discoveries: the Letter of Peter to Philip and the First Apocalypse of James, copies of which had been discovered had been discovered among the writings of the Nag Hammadi library in 1945. The third text was the gold mine: the Gospel of Judas. But it was not until Florence Darbre, the expert in manuscript restoration, and Rodolphe Kasser, the eminent Coptologist responsible for editing and translation the text, had worked on the manuscript for three years that they realized what no one-including van Rijn and Hedrick-had before suspected. The final part of the manuscript contained not just one document-the Gospel of Judas-but two. The other one was a fragmentary copy of an otherwise unknown Gnostic treatise about this figure Allogenes. Hedrick had assumed that his photographs were from the Gospel of Judas. They weren’t. They were from a different text. This changed things drastically.
One of the strangest facts about archaeological discoveries of early Jewish and Christian manuscripts is that the most spectacular finds are almost never made by trained archaeologists. Most of them are the result of pure serendipity. Moreover, they are typically discovered by people who have no idea what it is they have discovered and no sense of their real worth.
…page 71 [formatting slightly changed]
The limestone box contained four different manuscripts in codex form (that is, they were books, not scrolls). Later scholars would identify these ancient codices as follows. None of them, except the Gospel of Judas codes, has yet been published or otherwise made public:
1. A mathematical treatise, written in Greek
2. A fragmentary copy of the Old Testament book of Exodus, also in Greek
3. A fragmentary copy of some of the New Testament letters of the apostle Paul, written in Coptic
4. The codex containing the Gospel of Judas (as I will explain later, we have the complete beginning and end of the Gospel, and much of the middle, but some portions have not been lost because of the rough handling of the manuscript after its discovery; about 10-15 percent of the text is now unrecoverable), along with three other fragmentary texts, all of them Coptic:
a. The Letter of Peter to Philip (in a version slightly different from the one discovered at Nag Hammadi),
b. The First Apocalypse of James (also different from the Nag Hammadi version),
c. And the Gnostic treatise on Allogenes (which is a different work from the Nag Hammadi tractate that is entitled “Allogenes”)
The discovery of the Gospel of Judas, with the initial skepticism of its existence lends credibility to Nibley’s contention that the Book of Abraham might still be still missing, and that they were combined with other non-religious texts. Now, here’s what Bushman has to say regarding allegations that the Book of Abraham is a fraudulent document.
… page 290
The Abraham texts gave Joseph another chance to let his followers try translating. While working on the Book of Mormon in 1829, Joseph invited Oliver Cowdery to translate: he tried and failed. Now with the Egyptian papyri before them, Joseph again let the men with the greatest interest in such undertakings-Cowdery, William W. Phelps, Warren Parrish, and Frederick G. Williams-attempt translations. Parrish was told he “shall see much of my ancient records, and shall know of hiden things, and shall be endowed with a knowledge of hiden languages.”
Through the fall of 1835, the little group made various attempts. “This after noon labored on the Egyptian alphabet, in company with [brothers] O. Cowdery and W. W. Phelps,” Joseph’s journal notes. They seem to have copied lines of Egyptian from the papyrus and worked out stories to go with the text. Or they wrote down an Egyptian character and attempted various renditions. Joseph apparently had translated the first two chapters of Abraham-through chapter 2, verse 18, in the current edition-and the would-be translators matched up hieroglyphs with some of his English sentences. Their general method can be deduced from a revelation given to Oliver Cowdery after he failed to translate the gold plates: “You must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right, I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you.” One can imagine these men staring at the characters, jotting down ideas that occurred to them, hoping for a burning confirmation. They tried one approach after another. Joseph probably threw in ideas of his own. Eventually, they pulled their work together into a collection they called “Grammar & A[l]phabet of the Egyptian Language,” written in the hands of Phelps and Parrish.
Of all the men working on the papyri, only Joseph produced a coherent text. What was going on as he translated? For many years, Mormon assumed that he sat down with the scrolls, looked at each Egyptian word, and by inspiration understood its meaning in English. He must have been reading from a text, so Mormons thought, much as a conventional translator would do, except the words came by revelation rather than out of his own learning. In 1967, that view of translation suffered a blow when eleven scraps of the Abraham papyri, long since lost and believed to have been burned, were discovered in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and given to Latter-day Saint leaders in Salt Lake City. Color pictures were soon printed and scholars went to work. The texts were thought to be papyri with his translation, and the same pictures appeared on the museum fragments. Moreover, some of the characters from the Egyptian grammar appeared on the fragments. The translation of these texts by expert Egyptologists would finally prove or disprove Joseph’s claims to miraculous translating powers. Would any of the language correspond to the text in his Book of Abraham? Some Mormons were crushed when the fragments turned out to be rather conventional funerary texts placed with mummified bodies, in this case Hôr’, to assure continuing life as an immortal god. According to Egyptologists, nothing on the fragments resembled Joseph’s account of Abraham.
Some Mormon scholars, notably Hugh Nibley, doubt that the actual texts for Abraham and Joseph have been found. The scraps from the Metropolitan Museum do not fit the description Joseph Smith gave of long, beautiful scrolls. At best the remnants are a small fraction of the originals, with no indication of what appears on the lost portions. Nonetheless, the discovery prompted a reassessment of the Book of Abraham. What was going on while Joseph “translated” the papyri and dictated text to a scribe? Obviously, he was not interpreting the hieroglyphics like an ordinary scholar. As Joseph saw it, he was working by inspiration-that had been clear from the beginning. When he “translated” the Book of Mormon, he did not read from the gold plates; he looked into the crystals of the Urim and Thummim, or gazed at the seerstone. The words came by inspiration, not by reading the characters on the plates. By analogy, it seemed likely that the papyri had been an occasion for receiving a revelation rather than a word-for-word interpretation of the hieroglyphics as in ordinary translations. Joseph translated Abraham as he had the characters on the gold plates, by knowing the meaning without actually knowing the plates’ language. Warren Parish, his clerk, said, “I have set by his side and penned down the translation of the Egyptian Hieroglyphicks as he claimed to receive it by direct inspiration of heaven.” When Chandler arrived with the scrolls, Joseph saw the papyri and inspiration struck. Not one to deny God’s promptings of Abraham and Joseph. The whole thing was miraculous, and to reduce Joseph’s translation to some quasi-natural process, some concluded, was folly.
The peculiar fact is that the results were not entirely out of line with the huge apocryphal literature on Abraham. His book of Abraham picked up themes found in texts like the Book of Jasher and Flavius Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews. In these extrabiblical stories, Abraham’s father worshiped idols, people tried to murder Abraham because of his resistance, and Abraham was learned in astronomy-all features of Joseph Smith’s narrative. Josephus says, for example, that Abraham delivered “the science of astronomy” to the Egyptians, as does Joseph’s Abraham. The parallels are not exact; the Book of Abraham was not a copy of any of the apocryphal texts. In the Book of Jasher, Abraham destroys the idols of King Nimrod with a hatchet and is thrown into a furnace; Joseph’s Abraham is bound on a bedstead. The similarities are far from complete, but the theme of resisting the king’s idolatry and an attempted execution followed by redemption by God are the same. The parallels extend to numerous small details.
Joseph may have heard apocryphal stories of Abraham, although the Book of Jasher was not published in English until 1829 and not in the United States until 1840. A Bible dictionary published by the American Sunday School Union summed up many of these apocryphal elements. Whether Joseph knew of alternate accounts of Abraham or not, he created an original narrative that echoed apocryphal stories without imitating them. Either by revelation, as his followers believed, or by some instinctive affinity for antiquity, Joseph made his own late-and unlikely-entry in the long tradition of extrabiblical narratives about the great patriarch.
In light of Joseph’s language study, the Egyptian grammar appears as an awkward attempt to blend a scholarly approach to language with inspired translation.
(A longer version of this post can be found on my blog.) So, what do you make of Nibley’s contention? Is it plausible?