Critics frequently attack the Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price, but it receives intriguing support from ancient documents found during the past two centuries.
For instance, it describes "the plain of Olishem" (1:10), apparently in the land of Chaldea. The Bible mentions no such place, but the name occurs in an inscription dating to about 2250 B.C. and pointing, quite correctly, to northwestern Syria.
Thus far, ancient texts verify the names of three of the four idols in Facsimile 1. They also suggest that the four figures depicted in Facsimile 2, fig. 6, did indeed "represent this earth in its four quarters." The identification of the angled lines below the lion couch in Facsimile 1 as "the firmament over our heads" (fig. 12), now makes perfect sense: They represent the waves of the water in which the crocodile swims; ancient Egyptians conceived the sky as "a heavenly ocean."
Similarly, the identification of a crocodile as "the idolatrous god of Pharaoh" (Facsimile 1, fig. 9) is entirely correct: "The King Appears as the Crocodile-God Sobk," say the Pyramid Texts of Pharaoh Unas (ca. 2350 B.C.), "and "Unas has come today from the overflowing flood; Unas is Sobk, green-plumed, wakeful, alert. … Unas arises as Sobk, son of Neith." In Egypt's Middle Kingdom, Abraham's time, Sobk was viewed as a manifestation of Horus, the god most closely identified with Egyptian kingship.
Middle Kingdom Egypt saw a great deal of activity in the Fayyum, a large oasis southwest of modern Cairo. Crocodiles were common there, and Sobk was the chief local deity. The last 12th-dynasty king called himself Nefru-sobk ("Beautiful is Sobk"), and five 13th-dynasty pharaohs took the name Sebek-hotpe ("Sobk is content").
The book describes an attempt to sacrifice Abraham (1:7; Facsimile 1). Postbiblical literature likewise repeatedly mentions Abraham's miraculous deliverance from attempted murder, and an A.D. third-century Egyptian papyrus associates Abraham with a lion-couch scene like that in Facsimile 1.
The Book of Abraham records that, as Abraham was about to enter Egypt, the Lord advised him to claim that Sarai was his sister, not his wife (2:22-25). The Bible mentions the same tactic, but omits the divine counsel that authorized it (Genesis 12:11-20). However, the Genesis Apocryphon, found seven decades ago among the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, also testifies that the patriarch's behavior was divinely ordained. And with good reason: The Pyramid Texts' tyrannical crocodile-god/king liked to steal wives from their husbands — exactly what Abraham feared Pharaoh would do to Sarai.
Although the Bible attributes no special astronomical interests to Abraham, Facsimile 3 and many postbiblical texts — including both Jubilees (second century B.C.) and the Qur'an (A.D. seventh century) portray him as an astronomer. And the first-century Jewish historian Josephus quotes an earlier description of Abraham as "a man … skillful in the celestial science."
In Testament of Abraham 9–10 (first or second century), the patriarch is caught up into heaven and shown the earth and all its inhabitants; the contemporary Apocalypse of Abraham adds that he beheld "hosts of stars, and the orders they were commanded to carry out, and the elements of earth obeying them." (Compare 4:14-18.) In Abraham 3, the prophet sees an apparently geocentric (earth-centered) astronomical model including the star or planet Kolob, "set nigh unto the throne of God" (3:9).
The 10th-century Muslim scholar al-Tabari says that "the seven heavens were opened to Abraham, up to and including the throne (of God)." Facsimile 3 shows an Egyptian scene bearing the explanation, "Abraham is reasoning upon the principles of Astronomy, in the king's court." Similarly, Josephus tells of Abraham's teaching astronomy in Egypt, and the fourth-century Christian historian Eusebius preserves an even earlier account specifying that Abraham taught astronomy to both Egypt's priests and Pharaoh himself.
Abraham 4-5 records the patriarch's vision of creation, unknown in the Bible but known to al-Tabari. And, though the Bible says nothing of a heavenly council that planned the creation of man, several ancient documents first published in the 20th century describe it.
Finally, Abraham's account describes creation as the "organization" of pre-existing materials, which contradicts traditional doctrines that God made the universe from nothing. But creation from nothing doesn't appear in the Bible. Ancient Jewish writings teach that God created the universe by forming preexistent matter. Christian thinkers, influenced by Greek philosophy, began to teach creation from nothing only in the second century.
It's amazing what Joseph Smith was able to pick up on the western frontier.
Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org. He blogs daily at www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson/.