The recent LDS.org article “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham” attempts to explain a number of problems with the Book of Abraham, the most controversial text in the Mormon canon. The most basic problem is the fact that the Book of Abraham does not correspond to the Egyptian text of the Joseph Smith papyri, a fact for which the LDS Church has no definite answer. However, from another perspective a problem that is just as important, if not as basic, is the relationship of the Book of Abraham to the Bible. The new LDS.org article addresses this problem briefly as follows:

Much like the Book of Mormon, Joseph’s translation of the book of Abraham was recorded in the language of the King James Bible. This was the idiom of scripture familiar to early Latter-day Saints, and its use was consistent with the Lord’s pattern of revealing His truths “after the manner of their [His servants’] language, that they might come to understanding.”

That sounds innocent enough. People were accustomed in the 1830s and 1840s to reading scripture in the idiom of the King James Version (KJV), produced not long after Shakespeare wrote his plays. That was the form that English readers in Joseph’s day would expect a newly translated scripture such as the Book of Abraham to take. The article is not specific, but the reader may be led to understand that the Book of Abraham uses such words as thee and thou, hearken, behold, and yea, just as the KJV does.

The citation at the end of the statement quoted above is from one of Joseph’s modern revelations, in which he quotes God as saying that he gave his commandments to his servants “after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding” (D&C 1:24). These words convey the idea that Joseph’s revelations were communicated in language they would understand, not that they would recognize as scripture by their archaic idiom. But granting that most English readers in Joseph’s day were comfortable reading the KJV, one may allow the uncredited LDS scholar some leeway in citing D&C 1:24 as “consistent with” KJV-like style in Joseph’s scriptural texts.

What the article neglects to mention, however, is that the Book of Abraham does much more than mimic the idiom or style of the KJV. It actually is directly dependent on the text of Genesis in the KJV for much of its material. Here is an example:

Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee. (Gen. 12:1)

Now the Lord had said unto me: Abraham, get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will show thee. (Abr. 2:3)

Except for the word “me,” the above text is verbally identical to Genesis 12:1. The 30-word verse in Genesis appears verbatim in the Book of Abraham, with only the word me added in place of “Abram” and the sentence punctuated differently to make Abraham 2:3 read as an autobiographical statement by Abraham himself. (Abraham 2:3 also modernized the spelling of shew to show.) The use of Abraham instead of Abram might seem to be a difference, but in the handwritten manuscripts of the Book of Abraham the name Abram was actually the one used.

Here is a longer and only somewhat more complex example involving a 78-word passage in the KJV of Genesis:

8And he removed from thence unto a mountain on the east of Bethel,
and pitched his tent, having Bethel on the west, and Hai on the east:
and there he builded an altar unto the Lord,
and called upon the name of the Lord.
9
And Abram journeyed, going on still toward the south.
10
And there was a famine in the land:
and Abram went down into Egypt to sojourn there;
for the famine was grievous in the land. (Gen. 12:8-10 KJV)

20…and removed from thence unto a mountain on the east of Bethel,
and pitched my tent there, Bethel on the west, and Hai on the east;
and there I built another altar unto the Lord,
and called again upon the name of the Lord.
21
And I, Abraham, journeyed, going on still towards the south;
and there was a continuation of a famine in the land;
and I, Abraham, concluded to go down into Egypt, to sojourn there,
for the famine became very grievous. (Abr. 2:20-21)

Most of the differences are again simply a matter of the use of first-person rather than third-person language. In addition, the Book of Abraham makes changes to both of the italicized words in the passage (“there” instead of “having,” “became very” instead of “was”). To be consistent with the second change, the words “a continuation of” are added. For no apparent reason, “went” is changed to “concluded to go.” Finally, the second occurrence of the words “in the land” is dropped, perhaps because they seemed redundant.

All of the differences between the two passages are easily explicable on the assumption that Joseph Smith was editing the Genesis text. What is not otherwise easily explicable is why the two passages should be so similar in wording, given that they are supposed to be translations by different men in different centuries of different texts written in different languages by men living several centuries apart.

There is much more to say about the dependence of the Book of Abraham on the KJV of Genesis. The point that I am making here is a simple one: there is good evidence for such dependence, and the LDS.org article fails to address the issue. Instead, it misleadingly characterizes the relationship as simply a similarity of language.

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This entry was posted on Monday, July 14th, 2014 at 5:16 pm and is filed under Biblical studies, Mormonism. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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