Kerry Muhlestein, professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, PhD in Egyptology at UCLA in 2003.
As we compare Facsimile One with similar Egyptian vignettes, we may be barking up the wrong tree. What if Abraham’s descendants took Egyptian elements of culture and applied their own meanings to them? We know this happened.i For example, Jesus himself did this when he gave the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, which clearly draws from the Egyptian tale of Setne-Kamwas. The Apocalypse of Abraham and Testament of Abraham are two more examples of Semitic adaptations of Egyptian religious traditions.ii Maybe we shouldn’t be looking at what Egyptians thought Facsimiles meant at all, but rather at how ancient Jews would have interpreted them.
Or perhaps Joseph Smith is giving us an interpretation that a small group of priests that were familiar with Abraham would have seen in this vignette. We know that from about the same time period when the vignette was created there were priests from the same area who were very familiar with Abraham, and who used him in their own religious texts/rituals.iii This group of priests could easily have altered a drawing they were accustomed to in order to fit their specific textual needs, and thus those priests would interpret that drawing differently than other Egyptians. How can we be sure that this is not the case we are dealing with here? We cannot know, but it is certainly plausible.
It is also possible that Joseph Smith is providing the spiritual interpretation needed in modern times, regardless of how any ancient people would have viewed this document. Considering all of the above reasons, it seems quite likely that we are not justified in trying to compare Smith’s interpretations with those of ancient Egyptians. Yet that is exactly what we tend to do. This is understandable: it is the only group we have enough information about to which we can make a comparison.
Egyptologists vs Ancient Egyptians
Or is that true? Typically when people have asked what the Egyptians would say these drawings meant, and how this compares with what Joseph Smith said they meant, they actually end up comparing it to what modern Egyptologists say it means. This is, of course, understandable because we do not have access to any ancient Egyptians, and we assume modern Egyptologists are reliable replacements. But we know that we Egyptologists are often wrong regarding what Egyptians would have said on the subject. One study demonstrated that in the few instances where we have found Egyptian labels about various figures in hypocephali (the type of drawing that Facsimile Two is), they hardly ever match up with what Egyptologists say.iv Thus it is problematic to look to modern Egyptologists for what ancient Egyptians would have said various drawings represented. Thus any conclusions reached by making such comparisons must be tentative, and should not be the basis for any conclusions regarding the larger issues.
Still, what happens when we do compare Facsimile One with Egyptological interpretations? As stated in the video, it is tempting to say that this is a common funerary scene because it has some elements in common with a funerary scene; it is, however, different. It is also clearly not a scene commonly associated with the Book of Breathings, though many have claimed it is. There are actually no other instances of this scene being adjacent to the Book of Breathings, though some continually insist that it is regardless of researchv. This vignette is fairly unique.
The closest iconographic parallel at Denderah is accompanied by a caption that reads that the goddess Bastet had commanded those who followed her to “slaughter your enemies,”vi which means that the closest iconographic match to Facsimile One also matches what the scene is supposed to be about in the Book of Abraham, namely that someone in the scene was in danger and received protection.vii Other lion couch scenes at the Denderah Temple depict Anubis and the sons of Horus defending someone from his adversaries, or list Shesmu, a god associated with human sacrifice, as being part of the scene. They also discuss being hacked to pieces, being burned, or being sent to the slaughterhouse.viii While I am not certain that the scenes at Denderah are real parallels to Facsimile One, if critics want to associate them with the facsimile, they must also be willing to associate them with the sacrificial elements of the Denderah scenes, which parallel Joseph’s interpretation of this facsimile.
None of this is to suggest that such parallels prove that Joseph Smith was inspired; they do no such thing. They do, however, make it clear that it is plausible that he is inspired. Learning for certain of his inspiration can only be done through personal and spiritual inspiration, regardless of the fact that a segment of our population would like to discount the existence of such a thing. Like a colorblind man who argues against the existence of the color purple, they insist that real experiences they have never had do not exist only because they have not had them. I do not think I will be able to persuade those who have not had revelatory experiences of the validity of such experiences. At the same time they will not be able to convince me that my experiences are not real or valid. On this point we may have to agree to disagree. Still, the case clearly indicates that what Joseph Smith taught is plausible, and from that point agreement or disagreement rests upon one’s ability to receive spiritual confirmation of a plausible point.
i See Kevin L. Barney, The Facsimiles and Semitic Adaptation of Existing Sources, in Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant, ed. John Gee and Brian M. Hauglid. (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies and Brigham Young University, 2005), 107–30. and Kerry Muhlestein, “The Religious and Cultural Background of Joseph Smith Papyrus One,” in The Journal of Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22/1 (2013), 20-33.
ii See Barney, “Facsimiles and Semitic Adaptation”; Jared W. Ludlow, “Reinterpretation of the Judgment Scene in the Testament of Abraham” in Proceedings of the Evolving Egypt: Innovation, Appropriation and Reinterpretation, ed. John Gee and Kerry Muhlestein (Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, 2012), 99-104; and Jared W. Ludlow, Abraham Meets Death: Narrative Humor in the Testament of Abraham (New York: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002).
iii Kerry Muhlestein, “Abraham, Isaac, and Osiris-Michael: The Use of Biblical Figures in Egyptian Religion,” in the proceedings of Achievements and Problems of Modern Egyptology, ed. Galina, A. Belova (Moscow: Russian Academy of Sciences, 2012), 246–59; and Kerry Muhlestein, “The Religious and Cultural Background of Joseph Smith Papyrus One,” in The Journal of Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22/1 (2013), 20-33.
iv John Gee, “Towards an Interpretation of Hypocephali,” “Le lotus qui sort du terre”: Mélanges offerts à Edith Varga, Bulletin du Musée Hongrois des Beaux-Arts Supplément-2001 (Budapest: Musée Hongrois des Beaux-Arts, 2001), 325–34. and Kerry Muhlestein, “Egyptian Papyri and the Book of Abraham, in The Religious Educator 11/1 (2010): 98.
v See Kerry Muhlestein, “Egyptian Papyri and the Book of Abraham, in The Religious Educator 11/1 (2010): 99-100.
vi Text in Sylvie Cauville, Le temple de Dendara: les chapellesosiriennes vol. x(Cairo : French Institute of Oriental Archaeology, 1997), 232.
vii See also Kerry Muhlestein, “Egyptian Papyri and the Book of Abraham, in The Religious Educator 11/1 (2010): 99-100; and Kerry Muhlestein, “Egyptian Egyptian Papyri and the Book of Abraham” A Faithful, Egyptological Point of View in No Weapon Shall Prosper, Robert L. Millett, ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011), 232-234.
viiiSeeJohn Gee, “Some Puzzles from the Joseph Smith Papyri,” FARMS Review, 20/1 (2008), 120.