Abrahamic Lore that Supports the Book of Abraham
In 1970 Hugh Nibley published an article in the Improvement Era, "A New Look at the Pearl of Great Price," (volume 73, pages 79-95) in which he wrote of various ancient traditions about Abraham which support the story found in the Book of Abraham but are not found in the Bible. More recently, John A Tvedtnes, Brian M. Hauglid, and John Gee have published a collection of ancient documents-Jewish, Christian, Samaritan, Muslim, Mandaean, and Falasha-dating from the first century BC to AD 1300 that contain elements in the Book of Abraham that are not in the Genesis account of Abraham (Traditions About the Early Life of Abraham, published by FARMS and Brigham Young University). The Mandaeans claim to be descendants of the disciples of John the Baptist and live in Iraq and Iran. The Falasha are the so-called "black Jews" of Ethiopia in Africa, whose Israelite origins go back so early that they don't even have the rabbinic traditions that came later on.
This article will summarize those elements in the Book of Abraham that are not found in the Bible. All are supported by a collection of extrabiblical texts.
Idolatry in Abraham's Day (Abraham 1:5-6)
According to the Book of Abraham, Abraham's fathers, or ancestors, worshiped idols. Six of the Jewish texts, eleven Christian documents, seven Muslim documents, and one Mandaean document all support the idea that Abraham's fathers worshiped idols.
Abraham's father, Terah, worshiped idols (Abraham 1:16-17; Abraham 1:27). This is supported by eleven Jewish texts , four Christian, one Falasha, and nine Muslim texts support the idea that Terah was an idolater.
Terah, after repenting of his idolatry, then returned again to his idols (Abraham 2:5). This is supported by five Jewish documents and six Muslim documents.
Egyptian Idols in the Environment of Abraham (Abraham 1:6-7; Abraham 1:13; Abraham 1:17; Abraham 1:20; Abraham 1:29). Though the Book of Abraham speaks of Egyptian idols, there is no mention of Egyptian idols in the book of Genesis. Egyptian idols are mentioned in two Christian documents, though many texts speak of Abraham dealing with other idols, and destroying the idols his father manufactured.
Children were sacrificed (Abraham 1:7-8; Abraham 1:10-11). Five Jewish documents, six Christian documents, eight Muslim documents, and one Falasha document all mention that children were being sacrificed in Abraham's day. The Christian documents are The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan, The Cave of Treasures, The Book of the Rolls, Kebra Nagast, the so-called Anonymous Christian Chronicle, The Conflict of Adam and Eve, and the Apocalypse of Abraham. All these indicate that in the days of Abraham's father, men began worshiping idols and offering their children in sacrifice. The third book of the Conflict of Adam and Eve says, "The men in the hundredth year of Nahor [who was Abraham's grandfather], God looked down upon the children of men and saw that they sacrificed their children to idols." Apocalypse of Abraham 25:1-2 has Abraham saying, "I saw there the likeness of the idol of jealousy, like a carpenter's figure, such as my father used to make. And his body was of glittering copper, and before it the man, and he was worshiping it, and there was an altar opposite it. And boys were being slaughtered on it, before the face of the idol."
Those who would not worship idols were sacrificed (Abraham 1:11). This is supported by a single Jewish document, two Muslim, one Christian, one Samaritan, and one Falasha document.
An Arabic writer, al-Kisa'i, writes as follows: "The old woman [who had come to listen to Abraham's message] took the bundle, broke the idol with a stone and believed in Abraham's God. After this, she went about the city of Kutarab saying, 'Oh, people, worship God who created you, and has given you substance.' When news of the old woman reached Nimrod, he ordered her hands and feet to be cut off."
Abraham himself was brought to be sacrificed because he would not worship idols (Abraham 1:5-7; Abraham 1:11-12; Abraham 1:15; Abraham 1:30; Facsimile 1, figure 3). We find this supported in thirteen Jewish documents, two Christian, eleven Muslim, one Samaritan, one Falasha, and one Mandaean document.
In most of the stories, Abraham was brought to be killed for the very reason that he would not worship the idols, in some cases because he destroyed the idols. Many of the stories say he specifically destroyed them. For example, the second-century-AD Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, commenting on Genesis 11:28, says, "And it came to pass when Nimrod cast Abraham into the furnace of fire, because he would not worship his idol, the fire had no power to burn him."
The Anonymous Christian Chronicle, which is a Latin text, says: "And Nimrod threw Abraham into a fiery furnace because he did not approve the worship of idols. But the flame of the furnace was changed into pleasant dew." In some texts, the fire becomes roses or even flowering vines.
An Arabic writer, al-Mas'udi, wrote a text called Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems. It says, "Abraham blamed his people for their idolatry. When they were annoyed by the disdain by which Abraham scorned their gods, and which had attracted public notice, Nimrod threw him into the fire. But God converted the fire into coolness, and he was preserved."
A Falasha document from Ethiopia has the following story of Abraham: "Nimrod said, 'Oh, Abraham, let us worship this idol. Perhaps thou dost not want to?' Abraham was obstinate and refused. Nimrod said to him, 'I shall surely cast thee into the oven and burn thee in the flames.' Abraham heeded it not, and would not change his mind and worship the idol. He threw him into the flames.
Abraham's own father Terah was behind the attempt to sacrifice Abraham (Abraham 1:7; Abraham 1:30). This is found in two Jewish documents, one Muslim document, and one Falasha document.
The Muslim document is from the seventh century AD and is the Qur'an, written by Muhammad. Qur'an 19:46 has Terah saying, "Do you detest my gods, Abraham? If you do not cease, I shall stone you!" The book of Jasher, the Falasha Story of Abraham, and several other texts indicate that it was Terah who delivered Abraham to Nimrod.
Abraham was fastened to the altar (Abraham 1:15; Facsimile 1, figure 2). This is substantiated in five Jewish texts and two Muslim texts.
When Abraham's life was in danger as he was about to be sacrificed, he prayed (Abraham 1:15; Facsimile 1, figure 2). This is found in one Jewish document and four Muslim documents.
The Lord sent an angel to rescue Abraham (Abraham 1:15; Abraham 2:13; Facsimile 1, figure 1). This is found in five Jewish documents, seven Muslim documents, and one Falasha.
The Book of Abraham also says that God rescued Abraham from death (Abraham 1:16; Abraham 3:20). This is found in eleven Jewish texts, one Christian, four Muslim, and one Samaritan text.
The altar of sacrifice was destroyed and the priest who officiated at the altar was killed at the same time (Abraham 1:20; Abraham 1:29). These documents say that the person bringing Abraham to be sacrificed is actually killed, and sometimes the instrument, which is not always an altar (is it usually a furnace), is destroyed. This is found in nine Jewish texts, eight Christian, nine Muslim, one Samaritan, and one Falasha text.
The fact that the priest or leader was himself smitten and died, as the Book of Abraham says, is supported in three Jewish documents, three Christian, six Muslim, and one Samaritan text.
Abraham Held the Priesthood (Abraham 1:2; Abraham 2:9; Abraham 2:11; Facsimile 2, figure 1)
This is found in four Jewish documents and one Christian document.
Abraham was an heir to the priesthood of his fathers (Abraham 1:2-3; Abraham 1:18). This is supported in two Jewish texts.
Abraham Made Converts while He Was Living in the City of Haran (Abraham 2:15)
This is not really found in the Genesis account, though it has been read into the Genesis account by many. The Genesis account simply talks about the "souls that he had gotten," which many have understood to be slaves that he had purchased while he was in Haran. The Book of Abraham makes it clear that these are not souls that he had purchased, but rather, these are people he had converted. This is found in many early texts including twelve Jewish texts and seven Muslim texts.
Abraham Was Knowledgeable about Astronomy (Abraham 1:31; Abraham 3:1-18; Facsimiles 2, 3)
We have eleven Jewish texts that confirm this. This earliest of these is from the first century AD, and is in Josephus's Antiquities of the Jews. This, by the way, is the only text that Joseph Smith might have had at the time of the translation of the Book of Abraham. There are also six Christian, seven Muslim, one Falash, and one Mandaean text that say the same thing-that Abraham was knowledgeable about astronomy.
An early Jewish text, a rabbinic work, Pirqe de Rabbi Eliezer 8, says that the calendric calculations of the forefathers were given by Shem to his descendant Abraham. These calculations were to enable them to know when to throw in an extra month in the year, because they followed a lunar system. If you follow a lunar calendar, the year ends up being 354 days instead of 365. So every once in a while, to keep the seasons consistent with the calendar, you have to adjust it, and there was a calculation that they used, and still do use, to do this. The methods they used had been written down, and they were calculating by means of astronomy, of course.
Abraham taught astronomy to the Egyptians (Facsimile 3). It is one thing to know astronomy, but it is quite another thing to teach it to the Egyptians. After all, weren't the Egyptians a knowledgeable people? Why should Abraham be teaching astronomy to them? This story is supported in two Jewish texts, and two Christian texts.
The Genesis Apocryphon, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, talks about Abraham's reading to the Egyptians from the Book of Enoch. This is particularly significant because the books attributed to Enoch that have come down to us and which, by the way, had not been published in English in the time of Joseph Smith, all talk about astronomy. So we have here mention that Abraham is reading to the Egyptians from the Book of Enoch-reading astronomy to the Egyptians which is exactly what is depicted in Facsimile 3 of the Book of Abraham.
Abraham Knew about the Creation (Abraham 1:31; Abraham 1:4-5)
Abraham tells us he obtained this knowledge from the records that had been passed down from the fathers, but he also had a vision by night. The Lord showed him the stars and planets. Three Jewish texts, one Christian, and two Muslim texts support the idea that Abraham leaned from God about the creation of the world.
The Book of Abraham's version of the creation speaks as though the seven days or periods of creation were planning sessions as opposed to actual working sessions.
At the end of each one, the gods are saying in the Book of Abraham "we will do this," "we will do that," "they will obey," and so on (Abraham 4:31-5:5). It sounds like they are just doing some planning. We do have one Jewish text from the first century AD that states that in light of Abraham's knowledge of the creation, these were planning sessions.
Abraham says the premortal spirits gathered in council (Abraham 3:21-24). Abraham was told that some of these would be God's leaders on the earth. This concept-that Abraham saw premortal spirits-is not found in the Bible. It is found in five Jewish texts, one Christian text, and one Muslim text.
The Lord tells Abraham to pass Sarah off to the Egyptians as his sister (Abraham 2:22-25). This is a different spin than is contained in the Bible. According to the book of Genesis, he just does it. It doesn't say where he got the idea. We have two Jewish texts and one Christian text that support the idea that it came from God. The most well-known of these texts is probably the Genesis Apocryphon, which is one of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In this text, Abraham had a dream the night before going into Egypt in which he was shown what would happen to him unless his wife said she was his sister. Based on that, she told the Egyptian officials that she was, in fact, his sister.
Abraham Possessed and Wrote Records (Abraham 1:28; Abraham 1:31)
The Bible nowhere indicates that. The general view of scholars who even believe that Abraham existed is that he was just a nomad who traveled around with a tent and spent time with his herds. It is felt that he couldn't have known anything about writing and wasn't a very sophisticated individual. But in the Book of Abraham, we are told he possessed records that had been passed on from his fathers, some of them going back to the time of Adam, in fact. This is supported in a number early texts. These include seven Jewish texts, one Christian document, and four Muslim documents.
Let us look at Abraham 1:28; Abraham 1:31:
But I shall endeavor, hereafter, to delineate the chronology running back from myself to the beginning of the creation, for the records have come into my hands, which I hold unto this present time. But the records of the fathers, even the patriarchs, concerning the right of Priesthood, the Lord my God preserved in mine own hands; therefore a knowledge of the beginning of the creation, and also of the planets, and of the stars, as they were made known unto the fathers, have I kept even unto this day, and I shall endeavor to write some of these things upon this record, for the benefit of my posterity that shall come after me.
Abraham knew how to read and write. The above scriptural passage makes that abundantly clear. Several documents talk about Abraham's being able to read and write. Jubilees 12:25-27 states that God himself taught Abraham the language of creation and that Abraham then copied the books of his father and studied them. A very old tradition, found in the same book, indicates that he learned writing, not from God, but from his father. Jubilees 11:8 reads: "His father taught him the researches of the Chaldeans in order to practice divination and astrology, according to the signs in heaven."
Abraham wrote a record of his own (Abraham 1:31). While there are many extrabiblical texts that are attributed to him, only three texts speak of Abraham's actually writing, "the Book of Abraham" or "the record of Abraham." These are two Jewish texts and one Muslim text.
Jubilees 39:6 reads: "Jacob used to read the words of Abraham, taken from the heavenly books." The Qur'an, the sacred book of the Muslims, Surah 87, verses 19-20, speaks of what is recorded on "the first leaves [the earliest books], the leaves of Abraham and Moses."
The Babylonian Talmud, which is one of the corpus of documents that serves as an explanation to the law of Moses which is found in the first five books of the Bible. It speaks of "a tradition that the [book] of our father Abraham consisted of four hundred chapters; we have only learnt five [referring to the first five books of the Bible]." The suggestion here is that Abraham wrote the original from which these five chapters were extracted and that the rest of it had been lost to them, but they knew that they had existed. The Babylonian Talmud also mentions the book of Jasher that is spoken of in Joshua 10:13, and says of that book, "It is the Book of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob."
Abraham possessed records from before his time. There is a clear tradition that Abraham kept records, but did he have records from before his time? Did he have records going back to the time of Adam? From Jubilees 21:12, when blessing his son Isaac, Abraham referred to the sacrificial ordinances that he had "found written in the books of [his] forefathers and in the words of Enoch, and in the words of Noah." Enoch, of course, goes back to the time of Adam. Adam blessed Enoch before dying. Thus, they were contemporaries whose lives overlapped.
Hugh Nibley cited a Mandaean text that reads as follows, "The writings of Seth and Idrisi [Arabic for Enoch] were handed down to the time of Noah and Abraham." The Book of Noah and the Sepher ha-Razim (Book of the Mysteries), both of which are medieval Jewish documents, say that there was a heavenly book given to Adam, which was passed down by the patriarchs, and ended up in the hands of Noah. Then, "Noah gave the book to his son, Shem, whence it was passed to Abraham."
The Zohar, which is a thirteenth-century Jewish text based on earlier traditions, speaking of the heavenly book delivered to Adam by the angel Raziel, says, "Adam left it to his son, Seth, who transmitted it in turn to his posterity, and so on until it came to Abraham, who learnt from it how to discuss the glory of his master as has been said. Similarly, Enoch possessed a book from which he learned to discern the divine glory."
The Book of Abraham States that the Egyptian Pharaoh Was a Descendant of Ham and also of Canaan (Abraham 1:21-22; Abraham 1:24-25; Abraham 1:27)
Egyptians are considered to be descendants of Ham. Ham had four sons: Misraim (father of the Egyptians), Cush (Ethiopians), Phut (Libyans), and Canaan (father of Canaanites). Thus, Egyptians are not considered to be sons of Canaan. They are descendants of Ham through Misraim (Ham's son, whose name means Egypt). So how is it that Pharaoh is descended from both Ham and Canaan? It is unclear just how, but there are early documents that support the idea. There are three Jewish texts, one Christian, one Muslim, and one Falasha text that say the same thing.
The First Pharaoh Was a Good Man and Was Blessed by Noah (Abraham 1:26)
Two Muslim documents teach this same idea.
Abraham Was Allowed to Sit on the Pharaoh's Throne (Facsimile 3)
Two Jewish documents and two Muslim texts speak of Abraham's being able to sit on the king's throne.
Famine in Abraham's Homeland of Chaldea (Abraham 1:29-30; Abraham 2:1; Abraham 2:5)
This is confirmed in three Jewish documents, two Christian documents, and three Muslim documents. According to most of those records, the famine was caused by either crows or ravens that came in and ate up the seeds when the farmers planted them. One of the texts, however, attributes this to locusts. Locusts used to be a common source of famine throughout the Middle East and Eastern Africa.
Abraham prayed to the Lord to lift the famine (Abraham 2:17). Abraham's father had remained behind and Abraham didn't want his father's family to suffer the effects of this famine. We have a Jewish text of the first century BC that says that Abraham prayed to God to lift the famine. Two Muslim texts say the same thing.
Haran, the brother of Abraham, died in the famine (Abraham 2:1). A single Muslim text does confirm this. Most of the early texts about Abraham indicate that his brother, Haran, died in the furnace where Abraham was going to be tossed in and burned. According to these stories, Haran either got too close to the fire or they tossed him in and he didn't have enough faith, so he died and Abraham survived.