Many papyri from ancient Egypt have been recovered and, by and large, only a handful of specialists pay much attention to them. In June 1835, a small collection of such papyri reached the American frontier town of Kirtland, Ohio. That would have remained merely a slightly surprising historical footnote had they not caught the attention of the Prophet Joseph Smith, who was living there at the time.
The Book of Abraham has been controversial in some quarters since it was canonized by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1880, and it has long been a favorite target of critics. While many believers (very much including myself) esteem it highly for the doctrinal richness of its short text — for, among other things, its invaluable disclosures about the pre-existence of all humanity with God — detractors of Joseph Smith have often sought to depict the Book of Abraham as the “smoking gun,” the decisive and irrefutable evidence that demonstrates his prophetic claims false, and, specifically, discredits his claim to have had revelatory access to ancient documents. If the Book of Abraham falls, some have argued, so too must the Book of Mormon, the keystone of Latter-day Saint faith.
I myself have occasionally waded into the debate. In January 1994, for example, I published an article in the Ensign magazine under the title “News from Antiquity.” It was subtitled “Evidence supporting the book of Abraham continues to turn up in a wide variety of sources.” Later, with John Gee and William Hamblin, I published a 2005 article bearing the title “And I Saw the Stars — The Book of Abraham and Ancient Geocentric Astronomy,” available online at publications.mi.byu.edu. I stand by both of these articles still today.
But nobody has devoted more time, expertise and effort over the past quarter of a century to the study of the Book of Abraham in all its aspects than the aforementioned John Gee. Trained in ancient studies at Brigham Young University and Berkeley and equipped with a doctorate in Egyptology from Yale, he holds the William "Bill" Gay Research Chair at BYU. From that position, he has contributed prolifically to international Egyptological journals and conferences while also researching the 19th-century background story to our English Book of Abraham and keeping an eye on the often-intense debates concerning it.
In 2000, Gee published a short “Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri,” offering general readers what was, nearly 18 years ago, an up-to-date primer on many of the basic issues.
Now, recently returned from a year-long research leave in Heidelberg, Germany, Gee has issued “An Introduction to the Book of Abraham” (Brigham Young University Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book, 2017). It replaces the earlier “Guide” — Gee describes this new book as having been “rewritten from the ground up” — and provides a superb overview of the best information currently available. Moreover, compared to the earlier volume, it considerably expands the range of subjects covered. In calm, lucid, irenic and accessible style, Gee’s new book methodically leads readers to the basic facts that they need to know — and guides them through the arguments with which they may well be confronted.
“The goal with the ‘Introduction to the Book of Abraham,’” he explains, “is to make reliable information about the Book of Abraham accessible to the general reader. Although based on extensive academic research, it is not primarily an academic work.”
The book is divided into 17 concise and clearly written chapters, covering such topics as “Joseph Smith and the Papyri,” “The Contents of the Book of Abraham,” “The Ancient Owners of the Papyri,” “The Egyptian View of Abraham,” “The Contents of the Joseph Smith Papyri,” “The Relationship of the Book of Abraham Text to the Papyri,” “Historical Authenticity,” “Abrahamic Astronomy,” and “The Facsimiles.” In the last chapter, Gee responds to a number of “Frequently Asked Questions.”
“An Introduction to the Book of Abraham” engages virtually every significant issue raised by and connected with this important part of the Pearl of Great Price. Further, it’s elegantly (and often usefully) illustrated, and, beyond footnoted references, each chapter concludes with an annotated guide to further reading — citing not only relevant Latter-day Saint literature and some of Gee’s own academic writing in non-Mormon publications but several works by non-LDS scholars.
This is an admirable book. For any who are interested in deepening their knowledge about the historical background of the Book of Abraham, Gee’s new “Introduction” is indispensable.