Hugh Nibley and “It Came to Pass” in Ancient Egyptian

   Posted by: Rob Bowman   in Mormonism

Ramesseum Dramatic Papyrus (British Museum)

It could take a team of dedicated and skilled scholars a decade or longer to track down and analyze the myriad of citations in the publications of Hugh Nibley, the most influential Mormon scholar of the twentieth century. In fact, it would prove to be a frustrating task because it seems that in many cases there are no physical publications behind the citations. An interesting example comes in Nibley’s brief discussion regarding the expression “it came to pass” in the Book of Mormon. Here is the entirety of his comment in his book Since Cumorah, originally published in 1967:

Nothing delighted the critics more than the monotonous repetition of “it came to pass” at the beginning of thousands of sentences in the Book of Mormon. Here again is something that Western tradition found completely unfamiliar. Instead of punctuation, the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon divides up its phrases by introducing each by an “and,” “behold,” “now,” or “It came to pass . . . .” Simply outrageous—as English literature, but it is standard Egyptian practice. Egyptian historical texts, Grapow points out, “begin in monotonous fashion” always with the same stock words; at some periods every speech is introduced with the unnecessary “I opened my mouth.”15 Dramatic texts are held together by the constant repetition of Khpr-n, “It happened that” or “It came to pass.”16 In Egyptian these expressions were not merely adornments, as Grapow points out, they are a grammatical necessity and may not be omitted.17 Paul Humbert has traced the origin of prophetic biblical expressions to archaic oracular formulas.18 At any rate they are much commoner in Egyptian than in the Bible, just as they are much commoner in the Book of Mormon. However bad they are in English, they are nothing to be laughed at as Egyptian.[1]

And here are the endnotes[2] corresponding to the numbers in the above paragraph:

15. Grapow, Das Hieroglyphensystem, 23–25.
16. Ibid., 25.
17. Ibid., 31.
18. Paul Humbert, “Der biblische Verkündigungsstil und seine vermutliche Herkunft,” Archiv für Orientforschung 10 (1935–36): 80.

Nibley cites an author by last name only, Grapow, that we can identify (from another citation later of a different book by him) as Hermann Grapow (1885-1967). In this paragraph, Nibley’s citation is to a book he says had the title Das Hieroglyphensystem; he gives no date or publication information. The book apparently does not exist. I checked several places, such as Worldcat. No one ever cites this book except Nibley and those Mormons who are dependent on him. Grapow was an Egyptologist and did write several books that are known, but this is evidently not one of them.

Now let’s address the substantive issue. Nibley claims that according to Grapow, ancient Egyptian texts, specifically “dramatic texts,” used khpr-n, “it came to pass,” incessantly. The word khpr (now commonly transliterated in English as ḫpr and in German as xpr) could mean “to become”; it was also the name of a beetle, the scarab, and in fact the ancient hieroglyphic character for ḫpr was a pictograph of the scarab. The form ḫpr.n (Nibley’s khpr-n) was the past perfect or preterite form of the verb, and so meant “became,” “happened,” “came into existence,” and so on depending on context. It was used occasionally at the beginning of sentences or clauses with the meaning “it happened.” These uses are at least loosely comparable in meaning to the Hebrew wayehî, often translated in the Old Testament as “it came to pass.” Sami Uljas, an Egyptologist at the University of Uppsala, gives examples of sentences translated as follows:

It happened that I was not with (them).
It happened that the royal children descended into two barks.
It happened that the land of Egypt was in a sad state.[3]

The question remains, how common was this usage in ancient Egyptian texts? Nibley gives no statistical data, no specific facts, and no references to any specific ancient Egyptian texts supposedly exemplifying this constant use of khpr-n. All we have is a vague generalization about this word supposedly being used in “constant repetition” and that “they are much commoner in Egyptian than in the Bible.” How does Nibley know this? Did Grapow (if it even was Grapow) count them? What is the evidence? We aren’t told.

However, this sentence-beginning use of ḫpr.n does not occur frequently, let alone constantly, in ancient Egyptian texts, and it is functionally different from the Hebrew wayehî. I wrote to Dr. Uljas to ask him about this matter. He observed that when Nibley referred to the use of ḫpr.n in “dramatic texts” he was probably referring to one such text, the Ramesseum Dramatic Papyrus.[4] In a recent doctoral dissertation, Christina Geisen explained that this papyrus recorded a royal coronation ritual drama from the twelfth dynasty in Egypt (in the 1900s BC according to the conventional chronology), though earlier versions might have existed. This text does use ḫpr.n quite often—over 40 occurrences appear to be extant. The expression occurs at the beginning of each scene in the drama in a sentence that sets the scene, generally with an initial action. Since there were a total of 48 scenes, we can infer that ḫpr.n was used 48 times in the entirety of the text.[5] This usage does not have any functional parallel to the use of wayehî in the Old Testament (or to “it came to pass” in the Book of Mormon). It occurs in a stylized ritual script rather than a prose narrative such as one finds in the historical books of the Old Testament or throughout the Book of Mormon. According to Dr. Uljas, the Ramesseum Dramatic Papyrus is the only text in which ḫpr.n “occurs with any frequency.” He concludes:

So, the best one can say is that there is one “dramatic” (not narrative) text that shows a liking for xpr-n, but that’s all: otherwise the expression is rare, and it certainly isn’t a feature that is in any way a standard part of the Egyptian grammatical oeuvre.[6]

In short, we have a Mormon citation from an apparently non-existent book making a vague claim about an ancient Egyptian word’s usage for which no specific evidence has ever been presented and that is not consistent with the evidence from the extant ancient Egyptian texts. And it’s been over 50 years since Nibley made the claim. The burden of proof for this claim lies decidedly on those who would appeal to it as evidence in support of the Book of Mormon.



[1] Hugh Nibley, Since Cumorah, 2nd ed., edited by John W. Welch, Collected Works of Hugh Nibley 7 (Salt Lake City: Deseret; Provo: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1988), 150.

[2] Ibid., 459.

[3] Sami Uljas, “ḫpr.n and the Genesis of Auxiliaries,” Studien zue Altägyptischen Kultur 35 (2006): 328, 329, 332.

[4] Sami Uljas, email to the author, Feb. 28, 2018. Dr. Uljas has graciously permitted me to cite our email correspondence in this article.

[5] See Christina Geisen, “The Ramesseum Dramatic Papyrus: A New Edition, Translation, and Interpretation,” Ph.D. diss. (University of Toronto, 2012), 8–13, 21–22, 32, 37.

[6] Uljas, email.

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