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Prophets, Pagans, and Papyri: The Jews of Greco-Roman Egypt and the Transmission of the Book of Abraham

TitleProphets, Pagans, and Papyri: The Jews of Greco-Roman Egypt and the Transmission of the Book of Abraham
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2022
AuthorsSmoot, Stephen O., and Kerry M. Muhlestein
JournalBYU Studies Quarterly
KeywordsAbraham (Prophet); Ancient Egypt; Ancient Near East; Book of Abraham; Hellenization

The cultural setting of Greco-Roman Egypt may be interesting to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in its own right, but knowing more about it may help them better understand a possible transmission method for one of their scriptural texts. The Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price purports to be “a translation of . . . the writings of Abraham, while he was in Egypt.” The story (and controversy) surrounding the Book of Abraham and the associated Egyptian papyri once owned by Joseph Smith is complex and multifaceted. Complications and questions abound regarding the historicity of the Book of Abraham, its relationship to the papyri owned by Joseph Smith, the way it was translated, and the Prophet’s interpretation of the three facsimiles that accompany the text. Given the gaps in the historical record (to say nothing of the diverse methodological assumptions that have undergirded different approaches to the text), this subject will give scholars plenty of fodder for continued academic investigation...

...To answer the question of how a putative copy of Abraham’s writings could have been transmitted into Greco-Roman Egypt (and subsequently into the possession of Joseph Smith), this paper will first look at the evidence that demonstrates a Jewish presence in Greco-Roman Egypt. After reviewing this evidence, it will then explore questions related to the direction of cultural exchange between Egyptian and Jewish groups. Did Jewish migrants coming into Egypt absorb Egyptian culture more than they imported and disseminated their own culture and customs? Did the Egyptians ever borrow or adapt Jewish ideas and figures? Was there an even flow of cultural exchange in both directions? What kinds of exchange are detectable in the surviving evidence? Finally, this paper will explore how all of this may shed light on a plausible way in which the Book of Abraham could have been transmitted down to the Hellenistic era.