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Home Book of Abraham Special Section Another Criticism About Joseph Smith Inventing the Book of Abraham From His Learning Hebrew Answered

Another Criticism About Joseph Smith Inventing the Book of Abraham From His Learning Hebrew Answered

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Did Joseph Smith Invent the Book of Abraham Because He Learned Hebrew?

Research by Kerry A. Shirts

The argument that Hebrew influenced Joseph Smith in his producing the Book of Abraham has been presented as proof positive that Joseph Smith is a fraud. Lets examine this a bit closer. Louis C. Zucker claims that Joseph Smith diligently studied Hebrew from October, 1835 through the winter of 1835-1836, all the while also working on the Egyptian papyri, intimating that Joseph Smith was gathering his ideas for the Book of Abraham from his Hebrew research, since the Book of Abraham obviously has some Hebrew words, i.e., Shagreel, Kokaubeam, Olea, etc.1 So just what are we missing here? It is relevant to keep in mind that Joseph Smith first saw the mummies and papyri in early July, 1835.2 The History of the Church entry of Joseph Smith notes that it was on July 5th that he translated some of the characters from the papyri and found they contained the books of Joseph and Abraham.3 From July 17th to the end of the month Joseph noted that he continually worked on an Alphabet and grammar, as well as translating the Book of Abraham.4 On October 1, 1835, Joseph noted that he worked on the Alphabet and Grammar, and the system of astronomy was unfolded.5 It is interesting that when this account was written in Joseph Smith's History, it read, "the principles of astronomy as understood by Father Abraham and the ancients unfolded to our understanding..."6 From that time forward, Joseph Smith worked on the Book of Abraham sporadically. I list the times he either worked on the book or exhibited the mummies and records.

October 7th, 1835 - translates the ancient record

October 19th - exhibited the mummies

October 24th - more exhibiting

October 29th - examined mummies

November 5th - lectured on Grammar (Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar ?)

November 14th - Warren Parrish called as a scribe to work on Egyptian Records

November 17th - exhibited the records

November 19th - translated more on the records

November 20th - made rapid progress translating Egyptian records7

And on this same date, November 20th, Joseph Smith indicates Oliver Cowdery returned from New York bringing Joseph some books on Hebrew, namely a Bible, lexicon & grammar, and a Websters English Dictionary.8 Joseph Smith had already been working on the Book of Abraham or the Alphabet and Grammar from July and for the next four months before he even had any kind of Hebrew texts to begin studying. That Joseph diligently studied Hebrew and continued on with his study of the papyri is not exactly correct either, at least not in 1835 before he met with Seixas. The contention that Joseph Smith used his Hebrew training as the means of coming up with the Book of Abraham itself is contradicted by the historical record.

The interesting thing also we need to realize is that William W. Phelps was called to be Joseph Smith's scribe in early July, 1835.9 The majority of the Alphabet and Grammar which Joseph worked on with his scribes is in Phelps handwriting, except for a small paragraph in the hand of Warren Parrish.10 Phelps handwriting is dated in the Alphabet and Grammar from July, 1835, through October 1835, until Warren Parrish was called to be scribe for the Prophet.11 Why this is important, is because the Alphabet and Grammar is quoting from the Book of Abraham, as well as including many of the names in the facsimiles, such as Jah-oh-eh, the earth under the governing power of Oliblish, which correlates to Facsimile 2, figure 1. We also note Enish go on dosh, and Kai e van rash, grand key words of the priesthood, powers that govern all the other creations, the fifteen planets (given in their Egyptian names as well), etc.12 All of this is in Phelps handwriting before November 20th when Joseph Smith first came across and had access to Hebrew lexicons and Bibles. Clearly Joseph Smith already has the Book of Abraham from the Egyptian records. Warren Parrish, the scribe for Joseph Smith even noted that "I have set by his side and penned down the translation of the Egyptian Hieroglyphicks as he claimed to receive it by direct inspiration from Heaven."13

Joseph acknowledged that on November 21st, the very next day after receiving his Hebrew texts, he studied them. But this could not have been more than a mere acquainting himself with the alphabet and form of Hebrew letters, since Joseph also indicates that on that day he engaged in trying to find a Hebrew instructor for their school of Hebrew.14 Joseph studied Hebrew on November 23rd, and November 27th, but he also notes he was afflicted with a severe cold at that time. His effectiveness of learning could not have been much more than a blocking out of approaches and basically becoming acqauinted with Hebrew. During this time he also admits on November 24th, and November 26th to working on the Egyptian materials.15 On November 30th, four days later, he worked on Egyptian materials, not Hebrew, of which he had, realistically, a mere acquaintance by this time.16 December 4th he spent some time on Hebrew and December 5th spent some time, yet acknowledging that he was "labouring under some indisposition of health."17 December 8th he spent some time with others reading Hebrew (realistically learning the basics with the others), and on December 10th again was showing the ancient Egyptian records.18 December 14th is revealing because Joseph says he spent the day reading Hebrew, yet his account indicates he was showing the Egyptian records in the morning to some folks who were out of town, and attended a funeral, as well as praying and anointing and healing a friend of his. It was a rather busy day, not one spent in solitude and uninterruption in a class room setting and "diligently" studying Hebrew.19

In fact, Joseph's journal accounts show only sporadic research and learning into Hebrew, constantly being interrupted with other church and civil duties, as well as engagement with the ancient Egyptian records. Joseph's real diligent studies into Hebrew did not occur until Seixas appeared to teach the brethren on January 26th, 1836.20 There are several times when Joseph notes that the various interruptions caused him to neglect his Hebrew studies, such as when he announced "These facts with some others hav dis=qualified my mind for studying the Hebr=ew Language at present," said on December 17th, while on the day before he had spent considerable time showing the Egyptian records, and "explained many things to them concerning the dealings of God with the ancients and the formation of the planetary System..."21 It is seriously doubtful that Joseph would have learned all that in a mere 3 weeks of sporadically studying Hebrew, much of the time while he was ill and constantly interrupted. No, Joseph Smith gained his understanding of these things concerning the ancients while he was working on the papyri for those many months before ever seeing a Hebrew text, and then for many months thereafter. His Hebrew learning was not what taught him of ancient planetary Systems, even though later he used Hebrew terms to describe some of the Facsimiles.

On December 23rd, he was learning Greek (!) and showing the Egyptian records.22 January 5th and half of the next day was spent arguing with Orson Pratt about the pronounciation about a Hebrew letter. This more than shows that when Joseph says he was reading Hebrew or learning it, he was merely acquainted with the basics for the first month and a half of having his Hebrew books.23 January 12, 1836 was spent with the Egyptian records, not Hebrew.24 And on January 22nd and 23rd, Joseph admits the group did not feel like studying but their minds were more on the spiritual manifestations they had experienced, and in trying to process and comprehend what had happened to them. Then for the next 4 days they had nothing going with Hebrew until Seixas appeared.25 Then only four days later, on January 30th the entire school, including Professor Seixas, attended to the Egyptian records, displaying them and talking about them. It technically wasn't until February 1836 that a steady and consistent study into Hebrew began to occur and then only for a few more weeks at the most a couple of months, always, of course, with other duties and issues arising and taking Joseph's time.26 It wasn't until March 7th that any comment about translating chapters in the Bible occurred, fully three and a half months after having access to Hebrew texts.27 The historical record more than amply demonstrates that Joseph Smith was not receiving his ideas on ancient Egyptian religion and history from his research into Hebrew at all.28

David P. Wright is another who contends that the reason for the Hebrew in the Book of Abraham, is because Joseph Smith was studying with Seixas at the same time he was producing the Book of Abraham.29 Wright gives no indication though that Joseph already had been translating the Book of Abraham and in fact, had already received information from revelation on the ancient Egyptian astronomy as well as how God dealt with the ancients. This is not to argue that Joseph did not also include Hebrew words in his explanations of some of the figures on the facsimiles in the Book of Abraham. Joseph clearly did do so. Because of the similarity of creation accounts, Wright contends Joseph Smith merely took from the King James Bible. And then Wright contends this is proof that the Book of Abraham is not true history, and was merely invented by Joseph Smith.

Some Scholars though, who work with ancient creation accounts, do not jump so quickly to probable premature conclusions about fabrication in ancient creation accounts. C.F. Whitley noted that though Genesis itself seems to be associated with other ancient Near East creation accounts, especially the Enuma Elish, this does not prove either suspect of being forged and of no use historically. Whitley notes that the writer of the Genesis account, "demanded that he should have a cosmogony... it was natural for him to adapt to his own use systems of creation which were known in his day."30 I would argue the exact same for Joseph Smith in his own day. The Book of Abraham is quite similar to Genesis in many respects, yet there are also significant differences, the same as Whitley noted in his research into ancient Near Eastern accounts. That does not prove that Joseph Smith made up the entire Book of Abraham however. W.G. Lambert noted that "the authors of ancient cosmologies were essentially compilers. Their originality was expressed in new combinations of old themes, and in new twists to old ideas."31 The ritual nature and use of various creation accounts are widespread in ancient civilizations as Stephen D. Ricks has noted. He notes in his study that "clearly, the primal creative acts (and hence their recitation or reenactment) were viewed by the peoples of the Ancient Near East and a host of others as possessing a dynamic and not a static quality."32 The Book of Abraham, by including its own version of the Creation account of ancient times, may actually be reflecting an ancient usage. "By becoming a participant in the victory of the forces of order and in the creation through reciting or reenacting it, the individual or community also becomes a participant in the fruits of that victory."33

But to get back to the main point I wish to make. Joseph Smith used Hebrew in his explanations of the facsimiles in the Book of Abraham. Wright contends that Stephen Thompson has claimed nothing matches in ancient Egyptian thought and the Book of Abraham.34 And then he adds that the Hebrew shows Joseph Smith simply made it up using his Hebrew training. Yet here, as much as with Shinehah, Joseph Smith may actually be correct with his use of Hebrew words to describe Egyptian ideas. Hugh Nibley notes that the Egyptologist Alexander Piankoff said that a figure in King Tut's tomb, which resembles Facsimile 2, Figure 4, the hawk with outspread wings, "this had best be described by the Kebrew word Rakeyah, to express the idea of the expanse of the starry heavens."35 So Egyptologists of our own day are describing ancient Egyptian symbols with Hebrew words as Joseph Smith did.

Finally, it is important to note that the word Shinehah, while certainly having Egyptian correlations, also has Hebrew correlations, since the Egyptian and Hebrew words are cognates. That is as it should be since Egyptian is a Semitic language.36 The Egyptian word "shen" also means brother, while "Shenw" means siblings, or even brothers while "shenwt" means sisters, etc.37 The idea here is a repetition, or a second, a repeating of siblings, etc. The Egyptian "sny" is "they two, them two."38 The hieroglyph is the two barbed arrow head meaning two and the related word brother, showing a repeat of children, the idea of repeating or the notion of duality as Gardiner noted.39 The Hebrew cognate "shanah" means year, the course of the sun, or the changes of the seasons, showing obviously the idea of repetition, repetition of time, 2nd, double, twin, etc.40

The ancient word is certainly tied into the sun, whether from Hebrew or Egyptian, since cognates exist in both languages. Joseph Smith had not studied any Hebrew during his translation of the Book of Abraham until 4 or 5 months later, and then no systematic study of Hebrew occurred until February, 1836, and that only for a few month as the historical record demonstrates. The point of this paper is that Joseph Smith included ancient words into the Book of Abraham which certainly correlates into the two ancient civilizations which were the only ones possible in order to have historical accuracy. We are not disappointed with the Book of Abraham's use of Shinehah. We are also not disappointed with Joseph Smith studying Hebrew either. It apparently had nothing to do with his producing the Book of Abraham.



1. Louis C. Zucker, "Joseph Smith as a Student of Hebrew," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 3/2(1968):50-51.

2. H. Donl Peterson, "The History and Significance of the Book of Abraham," in Robert L. Millet, Kent P. Jackson, eds., Studies in Scripture, Vol. 2: The Pearl of Great Price, Randall Book, (Salt Lake City, Utah, 1985): 161-162.

3. HC: 2: 236.

4. HC 2: 238. Cf. H. Donl Peterson, The Pearl of Great Price: A History and Commentary, Deseret Book, (Salt Lake City, Utah, 1987): 42-43.

5. Dean C. Jesse, ed., The Papers of Joseph Smith, Vol. 1, Autobiographical and Historical Writings, Deseret Book, (Salt Lake City, Utah, 1989): 102; Dean C. Jesse, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, Deseret Book, (Salt Lake City, Utah, 1984): 60.

6. Dean C. Jesse, ed., The Papers of Joseph Smith, Vol. 2, Journal 1832-1842, Deseret Book, (Salt Lake City, Utah, 1992): 45, note 3.

7. Jesse, Personal Writings, pp. 62, 64, 66, 72, 83, 89, 90, 91; Cf. Scott Faulring, ed., An American Prophet's Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith, Signature Books, (Salt Lake City, Utah, 1987): 39-41.

8. Jesse, Personal Writings, 91.

9. D. H. C. 2: 236.

10. Phone Conversation with Matt Roper.

11. Parrish's call was in October 29, 1835, as noted by Scott Faulring, An American Prophet's Record, 41. Phone conversation with Matt Roper on Phelps and Parrish's handwriting. Roper has studied personally with Scott Faulring who has identified the handwriting styles of both men in the Alphabet and Grammar.

12. Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Joseph Smith's Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar, Utah Lighthouse Ministry, (Salt Lake City, Utah, no date), p. 24. Cf. pp. 25-26, for explanation of Kolob.

13. Jay M. Todd, "The Historical Background of the Book of Abraham," Pearl of Great Price Symposium, BYU, (November 22, 1975): 40.

14. Jesse, Personal Writings, 91.

15. Jesse, Personal Writings, 92-93.

16. Jesse, Personal Writings, 95.

17. Jesse, Personal Writings, 97.

18. Jesse, Personal Writings, 101.

19. Jesse, Personal Writings, 104.

20. Jesse, Personal Writings, 150.

21. Jesse, Personal Writings, 105.

22. Jesse, Personal Writings, 117.

23. Jesse, Personal Writings, 124.

24. Jesse, Personal Writings, 126.

25. Jesse, Personal Writings, 148-149.

26. Jesse, Personal Writings, 154.

27. Jesse, Personal Writings, 167.

28. H. Donl Peterson, The Story of the Book of Abraham: Mummies, Manuscripts and Mormonism, Deseret Book (Salt Lake City, Utah, 1995): 119-131.

29. David P. Wright, "Egyptology and the Book of Abraham," Sunstone Symposium, (November 13, 1993): 1-2. Copy found on the Internet at

30. C. F. Whitley, "The Pattern of Creation in Genesis, Chapter 1," JNES, 17(1958): 40.

31. W. G. Lambert, "A New Look at the Babylonian Background of Genesis," in John Maier, Vincent Tollers, eds., The Bible in its Literary Milieu, William B. Eerdmans, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1979): 293-294. Other scholars have essentially agreed with this theme, also elaborating on differences as well as similarities and their meanings for the ancient records as a whole from the Ancient Near East, i.e., Cyrus H. Gordon, The Bible and the Ancient Near East, W. W. Norton, (New York, 4th printing, 1997): 42-51; Artur Weiser, Einleitung in das Alte Testament, translated by Dorothea M. Barton as The Old Testament: It's Formation and Development, Association Press, (New York, 1961): 11-20, for ancient Near Eastern literatures affecting the Old Testament; For a comparison and contrasting of the ancient literatures of creation to that of Genesis, see C. F. Keil, F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, 10 vols., William B. Eerdmans, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, reprinted 1986, in Vol. 1): 31, note 1; Lawrence E. Toombs, "Baal, Lord of the Earth: The Ugaritic Baal Epic," in Carol L. Meyers, M O'Connor, eds., The Word of the Lord Shall Go Forth: Essays in Honor of David Noel Freedman in Celebration of his Sixtieth Birthday, Eisenbrauns (Winona Lake, Indiana, 1983): 613-623; Gernot L. Windfuhr, "Where Guardian Spirits Watch By Night and Evil Spirits Fail: The Zoroastrian Prototypical Heaven," in Carol L. Meyers, M O'Connor, eds., The Word of the Lord Shall Go Forth: Essays in Honor of David Noel Freedman in Celebration of his Sixtieth Birthday, Eisenbrauns (Winona Lake, Indiana, 1983): 625-645; Fred E. Woods, Water and Storm Polemics Against Baalism in the Deuteronomic History, American University Studies, (Peter Lang, New York, 1994).

32. Stephen D. Ricks, "Liturgy and Cosmogony: The Ritual Use of Creation Accounts in the Ancient Near East," FARMS, RIC-81(1982): 4.

33. Ricks, "Liturgy and Cosmogony," 4.

34. Wright, "Egyptology," 1.

35. Hugh Nibley, One Eternal Round, The Significance of the Egyptian Hypocephalus, FARMS, 12 lectures on Facsimile Number 2 in the Pearl of Great Price Given June 27 through September 26, 1990, quote in Tape 10.

36. Alan Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs, Oxford University Press, (New York, 1st paperback 1964): 19-25; W. V. Davies, Reading the Past: Egyptian Hieroglyphs, University of Californai Press, 5th impression (Printed in Great Britain, 1993): 57-60; E. A. W. Budge, An Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary, 2 vols., Dover, (New York, 1978): 1: lxvi-lxvii, although noting many similarities, also declared Egyptian to be fundamentally an African language; Alan Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar, Griffith Institute, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, (Great Britain, reprint, 1994): 2-4, showing the Egyptian is related to Semitic as well as African languages; David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, Cambridge University Press, (New York, 1987): 314-316, map on 315 shows areas of related languages, clearly going into the Saudi Arabian penninsula, and up into Palestine and Israel.

37. Mark Collier, Bill Manley, How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs, University of California Press, (Berkeley, Los Angeles, 1998): 56, 71, 75.

38. Alan Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar, 39.

39. Alan Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar, 514, cf. 624, 195, where the adverbial phrase hr means "again", literally "for its second time." See also E. A. W. Budge, An Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary,2: 603, 1st column, sen-nu - "second, fellow;" 604, 2nd column, senn - "copy, duplicate, to make a copy or likeness;" 673-674, sen-nu - "second time, second of two," etc. See also E. A. W. Budge, A Hieroglyphic Vocabulary to the Book of the Dead, Dover (New York, 1991): 399, shenu - "The circuit of the earth."

40. Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, Clarendon Press, Oxford, (New York, 1951): 1040; Gesenius Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures, Baker House, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1979): 839-840; Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, World Bible Publishers, "Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary of the Old Testament," Abingdon Press, (Nashville, Tennessee, 1962): 157, # 8138, 8141; Cf. C.L. Seow, A Grammar for Biblical Hebrew, Abingdon Press (Nashville, Tennessee, 1995): 272, using examples from Genesis 7:9, and Deuteronomy 14:22, showing the idea of repetition.

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