Joseph Smith and the Sources

It should be clear, by now, that there is a real relationship between the Book of Abraham, the Apocalypse of Abraham, and the Testament of Abraham. The Old Slavonic Apocalypse of Abraham was first published in 1863 and the (Greek) Testament in 1895. Here there can be no question of convenient rabbis popping out of the woodwork with timely hints and proddings to help the Book of Abraham along. (The definitive study on that subject was made by Professor Louis C. Zucker of the University of Utah, from whom we learn that Joseph Smith’s first Hebrew teacher, Professor Joshua Seixas, arrived in Kirtland on 26 January 1836 and spent only two months there.)1 During those months, however, he was quite close to the Prophet, who had a good chance for some really first-class tutoring. But Seixas not only arrived too late to supply the first chapters of Abraham, but would have been the last man in the world to do so. For he was strictly a conservative Jew, and his sessions with Joseph and the Brethren were closely confined to the translation of the Bible, and not to flights of apocalyptic fancy. Zucker notes that up until that time, Joseph Smith had no need of conventional scholarship in making translations: “Until 1835, Joseph had been content to translate by transcendental intuition. . . . The ‘New Translation’ of the New Testament was finished in February, 1833, and five months later, the Old Testament also. Joseph never laid claim to having in those years a knowledge of Hebrew or Greek.” What? Translate the whole Bible without knowing the languages? It was a special kind of translation, as we have been at pains to insist all along, which, as Professor Zucker puts it, “purported to be no other than a ‘revision'”; and he quotes B. H. Roberts: “What he did was to revise the English . . . Bible under the inspiration of God.”2

Then, at the end of 1835 we find “the Mormon high elders . . . determined to study Hebrew.” This puzzles Zucker. “Why was it Hebrew and not Greek?” he asks, since “Is not Mormonism, above all, a Christ-centered religion?”3 The answer is partly that they had just obtained Egyptian papyri, and the Egyptian connection is all with the Old Testament. Immediately they started looking around for a teacher, and early in 1836 Seixas arrived on the scene just in time: the Hebrew words used in explaining things to Abraham’s descendants appear in the Book of Abraham in the Sephardic accent of Professor Seixas, a Jew of Portuguese extraction. This would indicate that parts of the translation were completed while he was still there, in early 1836. With a real savant on hand, the Brethren were now in business as scholars: It was then that they decided to undertake the “Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar.” But Joseph Smith’s study with “the precise scholarly” Seixas, though it may have been adequate to give him a good start in reading the Bible, “did not,” as Zucker observes, “confirm Joseph Smith in the ways of scholarship.”4 How fortunate! This is the whole issue with the critics today, but the ways of scholarship would have got nowhere with Egyptian in those days; moreover, they had been quite expendable in the Prophet’s many earlier translations—how long would it take the ways of scholarship to produce a Book of Mormon? But for all that, the ways of scholarship do have an irresistible appeal to the curiosity and vanity of the race, and, as we have seen, the Brethren were duly impressed and fell to with a will. The sudden abandonment of their ambitious projects is matched by the equally sudden and complete “silence about the Seixas family, and silence about Hebrew”; after 27 March 1836, the former simply disappeared from sight, and Hebrew “was never taught again to the Mormons in Kirtland.”5

If Joseph Smith definitely did not get the apocalyptic material in the Book of Abraham from Seixas, Professor Zucker thinks he can explain it as part of the Prophet’s Christian heritage: “In theology, Mormonism, like Christianity, derives in part from the Jewish apocalyptic literature; but apocalypse is a fitful, minor force in normative Judaism,” and we can be sure that Seixas viewed it as adversely as did Professor Zucker himself.6 But what our informant overlooks is that Christianity absorbed its Jewish apocalyptic elements anciently, as part of the original message, as an abundance of recent manuscript discoveries makes disturbingly clear both to conventional Christianity and normative Judaism, equally upset and offended by Jewish apocalyptic. The books of Revelation and Daniel are authentic Jewish apocalyptic, to be sure, and never more fervidly studied than in Joseph Smith’s day; but they are not the substance of the Book of Abraham—for that one must go to far more recondite sources than any known to conventional Jewish or Christian scholarship.

One can illustrate this by some of Professor Zucker’s own observations on the vagaries of Joseph Smith’s name-giving. Thus he notes that Mahujah and Mahijah of the Joseph Smith book of Enoch are “off-biblical names,” which at best “resemble ‘Mehujael’ in Genesis 4:18.”7 But now the name of Mahujah turns up in the oldest version of the book of Enoch, that found in Qumran Cave 1 and first published in 1976, in which Mahujah is the central figure of a strange little story that is found nowhere else in the now large and growing ancient Enoch literature except in the Joseph Smith Enoch history contained in the book of Moses, where the man Mahijah goes to the place Mahujah as the hero of the same little story.8 Zucker also notes that of course Adam does not mean “many,” as Joseph Smith says it does, in Moses 1:34 (Joseph would hardly need Seixas to tell him that!); but now a number of recent studies have shown that archaic Atum-Adamu means “many” in a very special and impressive sense, as the one who contains in himself the being of all who have gone before and the seed of all who are to follow after.9 Finally, Zucker would explain the name Baurak Ale as rendered by Joseph Smith as a clumsy attempt to derive a proper name from the Hebrew word for blessing, b?r?k?h,10 apparently completely oblivious to the amply documented fact that B?r?q-?l, “God’s Lightning,” was an important epithet for Enoch, which is just how Joseph Smith uses it.11 If the learned Professor Zucker did not recognize that ancient title, who could have given it to Joseph Smith? Even the most cooperative rabbi in Joseph’s day could have been of little help in putting him on to the Apocalypse of Abraham, for example, a text discovered in 1863 and written not in Hebrew but in Old Slavonic. We are reminded of the Sarah episode in the Genesis Apocryphon: Place it beside the Book of Abraham account and it fairly screams plagiarism. Here is something the critics could really crow about if it were not for that one disturbing little detail: The Genesis Apocryphon was not discovered until 1947—more obfuscation!12

Summary of Study since 1967

Before proceeding further it may be well to take a brief glance backward at some of the terrain we have already covered in a swarm of articles appearing between 1967 and 1970. Our first step was to show that the men of 1912 in their haughty and perfunctory replies to Bishop Franklin S. Spalding’s leading questions never gave Joseph Smith or the Book of Abraham a hearing.13 They considered both beneath them, agreed in calling the whole thing a fraud (though they agreed in little else), and asked to be excused.14 In reply to their repeated charges that the three facsimiles in the Book of Abraham are perfectly ordinary Egyptian funerary motifs depicted innumerable times,15 it can be readily shown by comparing large numbers of such documents that the Joseph Smith papyri differ in significant points from all the others, so much so that Egyptologists have often complained that the Mormons have deliberately redrawn them—an accusation that the discovery of some of the originals disproved.16 Heretofore most of our attention has gone to Facsimile 1, of which the church now possesses the original (fig. 14).17 It is full of quite unique features such as the crocodile, the “pillars of heaven,” the hieroglyphic cryptogram framing it, peculiar aspects of the human figures, the lotus stand, etc.,18 all of which imply (without necessarily proving) the presentation of a special dramatic situation; peculiarities of the drawing supply further evidence that the artist was trying to tell a particular story.19 From first to last, the whole thing represents ritual, a sacrificial scene.20 It was time to bring Abraham into the picture. The past hundred years have seen the publication of a wealth of nonbiblical but very ancient stories about Abraham, most of them fairly recent discoveries, the rest long despised by normative Judaism and ignored by scholars but at last receiving serious attention in some quarters.21 The dominant theme of these stories is the jealousy of a great king who fears for his priesthood and kingship—both threatened by Abraham—from the time Abraham’s birth is foretold by the king’s wise men to the time the king finally recognizes the true God, after an unsuccessful attempt to put Abraham to death on an altar.22 Being placed on the altar at the urging of the king’s courtesans, Abraham prays for deliverance, an angel of the Lord appears, and at the last moment the altar is overthrown and the erstwhile sacrificing priest becomes the victim.23 The Book of Abraham thus has the support of the legends, but where does Pharaoh come in? Abraham’s royal rival, usually designated as Nimrod, is definitely identified with Pharaoh in the oldest versions of the story.24

Among hundreds of Egyptian lion-couch scenes resembling Facsimile 1 are some found in the tombs of great kings that have become the object of special study (fig. 15); they are only incidentally funerary in nature and depict the dramatic climax of the Sed festival of Egypt, the moment at which the king, overcome by the evil power of Seth, lies helpless on the couch, which is simultaneously deathbed, embalming table, and bed of deliverance and rejuvenation.25 In actual practice the person on the couch was a substitute for the king and was really sacrificed; according to the legends, Abraham was chosen to be such a substitute, and after his miraculous delivery (the priest being killed in his place with the overthrow of the altar), he also took the king’s place in sitting upon his throne.26 In the Sed rites the royal person is resurrected from the lion couch to mount the throne as the king for a new period of years.27 Abraham goes through all of this as a substitute, according to the Abraham traditions and the Book of Abraham, the whole thing being at the same time in strict conformity with the Egyptian Sed rites as well as the well-established practice in other lands (we have called it the Procrustes Cycle).28 The substitute motif in the Abraham traditions has quite recently come in for serious study by scholars who see in the sacrifice of Isaac a royal substitute rite of the Canaanites as well as of Israel.29 As in the case of Abraham, the sacrifice is arrested by an act of sudden divine intervention supplying yet another substitute—the ram in the thicket. We have shown that the sacrifice of Sarah follows the same pattern, as confirmed by the newly discovered and very old Genesis Apocryphon of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Sarah must go to Pharaoh’s bed—a lion couch—where she prays fervidly for deliverance (though it is Abraham’s prayer that receives the most attention), which happens when at the last moment an angel arrives and Pharaoh is smitten and helpless—he ends up confessing the superiority of Abraham’s God and loading the patriarch, and especially Sarah, with royal gifts.30

This is enough to indicate that the story of Abraham told in the Book of Abraham has the support of very ancient tradition and that both have peculiar ritual ties with Egypt, confirmed by recent studies of actual Egyptian practice. Facsimile 1 is a symbolic representation of the little-known but well-attested sacrifice of Abraham—not Isaac. All of which bids us take the Book of Abraham seriously, even while it raises many interesting questions.

Stirred by Professor Zucker’s study, the student may well ask, Who put Joseph Smith’s Abraham so completely into the ancient picture? The recent investigations into nonbiblical Abraham material by Geza Vermes (1961), Robert Martin-Achard (1969), George W. E. Nickelsburg, and others (a symposium of scholars in 1972–1976)31 quite overlook many of the sources we cited in our Improvement Era series of 1968–70. Having no access to their studies, how could Joseph have known about the forgotten sources even they ignore?

In 1968 a Jewish rabbi wrote A Critical Analysis of the Book of Abraham in the Light of Extra-Canonical Jewish Writing, a Ph.D. dissertation in which he draws upon the Talmud, Josephus, Jubilees, and Sefer Yetzirah for the life of Abraham, but overlooks all the other sources.32 And you expect Joseph Smith to use them? Even Robert C. Webb, in chapter 8 of his Joseph Smith as a Translator, is impressed only by the contrast between the Book of Abraham and the noncanonical sources available to him—he too apparently knows nothing of that large but neglected body of Abraham literature that is now coming to light.33

The first important collection of Abraham texts was begun by Adolph Jellinek in his Bet ha-Midrasch, starting in 1856, a work so rare in the West that I had never seen a copy of it until its reprinting in Israel in 1967. In 1859 Bernhard Beer’s Leben Abraham’s made available sources hitherto completely unknown to scholars, and extensive and important Arabic sources were first published by Heinrich Schützinger in 1961.34

Going through a list of Abraham sources with their dates of publication is one way of showing how recent most of the stuff is and how highly improbable it is that Joseph Smith could have made use of any of it: Genesis Apocryphon (1956); Apocalypse of Abraham (1863); various Ma?aseh Abraham (Arabic text discovered by Tischendorff, which follows ben Asher’s Commentary on the Pentateuch);35 Ka?b al-Akbar, Qi?a? Ibrahim Abinu (1920); Sefer ha-Yashar (1923); Pseudo-Philo’s Biblical Antiquities (1898); Jubilees (1859); Cave of Treasures (1883); Testament of Abraham (1892); Bar Hebraeus, Chronography (1923). References in the Talmud, Mishnah, Pirkê de Rabbi Eliezer, etc., are few and scattered, while exotic Arabic sources all published late, e.g., the Brethren of Basra, ?Antar, Tha?labi, etc., are out of the question. The Midrash recalls the sacrifice of Abraham,36 but in a form that no one without a clue would recognize, as we have shown elsewhere.37 Classical writers known in Joseph Smith’s day contain brief references to Abraham, consulting which the reader may judge for himself whether he made any use of them: Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica;38 St. Augustine, The City of God;39 Clementine Recognitions (1854);40 Philo, De Abrahamo (very disappointing).41

Absurd as it seems to labor a point as obvious as Joseph Smith’s ignorance of a literature that has always been recondite and is still largely unknown even to experts on Abraham, it has been nonetheless necessary because of the growing practice of assuming offhand that Joseph must after all have had access to this and that apocryphal source whenever such a source strongly confirms some statement of his—a phenomenon that occurs with disturbing frequency. And so we find his learned critics swinging perilously between two extremes, issuing withering comments on his gross and disgusting ignorance on one page only to accuse him of deep and recondite researches on the next. The desperate resort of summoning uniquely erudite and cooperative rabbis to appear whenever he needs them requires us first to discover any such prodigals of learning in the America of his day—or any other. The most eminent Abraham authorities of the present day have assured me that Joseph Smith’s story of the sacrifice of Abraham simply reveals his ignorance of the Bible, in which, according to them, he has got the sacrifice of Isaac all mixed up.

Ebla Changes Things

Everything must wait upon Ebla today. At that ancient site in northern Syria in the last week of digging in 1975 a library of over fifteen thousand cuneiform tablets was discovered. More tablets—sixteen hundred of them—were added in the following year, and who knows what is yet to turn up, for fully ten years before the great discovery the searchers were digging “within one yard of the library room, but were not alerted to it by a single tablet.”42 So much for the argument of silence. For all these years nobody had any idea of where Ebla was—it was just another city mentioned in the Babylonian archives far to the south. And suddenly it emerges as the capital of a mighty empire. Nor has any ancient record beside the Bible ever mentioned Abraham’s five “cities of the plain”; such silence put the whole Abraham story in doubt: “In its heyday the older criticism became quite skeptical about this material, writing it off as legend of no historical worth.”43 Those were the same critics who dismissed the Book of Abraham with a contemptuous glance and flick of the hand. But now in the Ebla records the mysterious cities of the plain emerge in an everyday business document, waiting for the traveler, as large as life on the very route that Abraham was supposed to have followed.44 And along with them there is another city specifically called “Ur in Harran.” “An especially intriguing notice,” write the editors of the Biblical Archaeology Review, “is a reference to ‘Ur in Haran.’ Does this mean that the Ur from which Abraham originally came was near Haran rather than a thousand miles further away in southern Mesopotamia where ‘Ur of the Chaldees,’ is supposedly located?”45 We have noted elsewhere how the Abraham legends and traditions strongly favor that northern as against the southern Ur, a theme to which we shall return presently.46 The name of Jerusalem also appears in the tablets, which abound with biblical matter. Thus the discoverer of the tablets, the Roman archaeologist Giovanni Pettinato, calls the place “Canaanite Ebla” and notes that this big city of over a quarter of a million had a king called Eber and referred to its god as both Ya and El. In fact, in one tablet a man changes his name from Mika-il to Mika-ya, thus adding a new dimension to the long controversy over which was Israel’s special God—Yahweh or El.47 The kings at Ebla were “anointed,” “their governors were called ‘judges,'” and their prophets were nabi?t?m (Akkadian).48 All of which reminds us of Israel. Long ago when “the Egyptian and Mesopotamian texts thrust Israel into a real world,” the picture of Abraham as the simple wandering shepherd should have been erased, though artists and Sunday School teachers still cling to it.49

The Appeal to Authority50

Of all attacks on Mormonism undertaken beneath the banners of science and scholarship, the great campaign of 1912 conducted by the Right Reverend Spalding (fig. 16), Episcopal bishop of Utah, was the one that should have succeeded most brilliantly. Carefully planned and shrewdly executed, it enlisted the services of the most formidable roster of scholars that have ever declared against Joseph Smith as a prophet, while at the same time loudly professing feelings of nothing but affection and esteem for the Saints and a real desire to help them find the light in a spirit of high-minded dedication to truth at all costs.

Bishop Spalding’s grand design had all the ingredients of quick and sure success but one, and if in spite of it the Pearl of Great Price is still being read, it is because the bishop failed to include in his tremendous barrage a single shell containing an item of solid and relevant evidence. If he had any other ammunition than names and credentials, he never used it—he hurled at the Mormons a cannonade of titles and opinions, and nothing more. “The authority of experts in any line of research is always accepted without question unless there is grave reason to doubt their conclusion. There was no such reason here.”51 And who is talking? Spalding’s number one expert, a young man who had just got his degree (not in Egyptology)—he tells us that we must accept his verdict “without question” because he is an expert and sees no reason to doubt his conclusions. This is what we mean by authoritarianism.

But then, who would ever have thought in 1912 that any other kind of ammunition would be necessary? What was there to say after the official voice of scholarship had spoken? The Mormons did what they could. They pointed out that equally great authorities had been proven wrong about the Bible time and again.52 They called attention to the brevity and superficiality of the expert’s comments: “This ‘inquiry,'” wrote Webb, “has been no inquiry at all in any real sense. . . . [It] presents merely a medley of opinions. . . . It furnishes absolutely no assistance to . . . [the] reader.”53 They noted that the judges approached their task in a thoroughly hostile state of mind.54 When an editorial in the Church newspaper pointed out in the most reserved and respectful language that there were indeed some rather obvious contradictions and discrepancies in the views of the experts, and that the Mormons might at least be permitted to ask for “a stay of final judgment,” since (as B. H. Roberts expressed it) “these questions that depend on special scholarship are questions that require time and research . . . and the conclusions of the learned in such matters are not as unchangeable as they seem,”55 the New York Times exploded with indignation: “The Deseret Evening News spent its entire editorial page reviling scholars and scholarship.”56 One did not talk back to recognized scholars—it just wasn’t done.

The Deseret News editorial in question pointed out that the Mormons had some years before already anticipated Bishop Spalding’s investigations by making inquiries on their own among leading British Egyptologists, which “at least serves to show that we have not been lax, nor afraid to learn from whatever light the wisdom of the world might throw upon the illustrations of the book of Abraham and their translation by the Prophet Joseph.”57

Two days earlier an editorial in the Deseret News made a clear statement of policy: “The Latter-day Saints court inquiry, such as this. They want to know the truth, and only the truth. There is no important issue that they are not glad to face, whether presented by friend or foe.”58 And in the discussion that followed, the Mormons proved their good faith and sincerity by printing in the pages of the Improvement Era the letters of Bishop Spalding and his supporters, without deletion and without comment, along with those of the Latter-day Saints defending Joseph Smith.

There was no such dialogue in the non-Mormon periodicals in which Dr. Spalding published, including his own Utah newspaper, the Utah Survey; in spite of his constant protests of impartiality and intellectual integrity, only his own and like opinions ever appeared there.59

The Mormon writers, moreover, never claimed any such religious immunity as might have been conceded to Joseph Smith as a spiritual leader, but always insisted on arguing the case on its merits: “I allow the bishop all his claims to the dire results to ‘Mormonism,'” wrote B. H. Roberts, “if he can, to the point of demonstration, make his case good against Joseph Smith as a translator.”60 Bishop Spalding’s scholarly band, on the other hand, most emphatically did claim immunity—to question them was to “revile” that noble thing called scholarship, and that was the secret of their strength.

When Dr. S. A. B. Mercer, a hustling young clergyman who ran interference for the bishop throughout the game, summed up the case for the prosecution, his argument made a perfect circle: “The failure of the Mormon replies,” he wrote, “is explained by the fact that the unanimous opinion of the scholars is unassailable. In the judgment of the scholarly world, therefore, Joseph Smith stands condemned of self-deception or imposition.”61

Who said that the Mormon reply had “failed”? Mercer did, to be sure. Here we see the great convenience of permitting the attorney for the prosecution to act as judge. Dr. Mercer announces that the Mormon replies to him and his colleagues have failed—because he says so. And what he says must be so because his colleagues agree with him.

When the Mormons pointed out that there was anything but unanimous agreement among the colleagues, Mercer sternly overruled them, explaining that where any ordinary person might find the disagreements rather obvious, “to the expert there is here no discrepancy.”62 Only one had to be an Egyptologist to see it that way. That is why when B. H. Roberts was pressing Dr. Mercer pretty hard, the latter overruled him too, with the observation that the source of the difficulties in the case of Mr. Roberts “is to be found in the fact that the writer is a layman in things Egyptian.”63 What Mercer’s explanation amounts to, as R. C. Webb observes, is the argument, in effect, that scholars in his department can make no mistakes,64 or, in Mercer’s own words, that their opinions are “unassailable.” How can one discuss an “unassailable” opinion? One can’t—that is just the point: the issue is closed; no debate is intended or possible.

In his final letter, Dr. Mercer divides the opposition into three classes: “First, intelligent and fair-minded Mormons,” namely those who do not challenge the scholars in any way; second, “biased Mormons (perhaps unconsciously),” that is, Mormons guilty of pro-Mormon leanings, including B. H. Roberts, John A. Widtsoe, John Henry Evans, and Janne M. Sjodahl—in fact, all who have presumed to question the verdict of the experts. Fortunately for Mercer, all their remarks can be summarily stricken from the record, since they are “very ignorant in respect to the subjects they pretend to criticize”—it is not for them under any circumstances to talk back; they are all out of order. Dr. Mercer’s third class is “biased and ignorant gentiles,” being any such as may be inclined to give ear to the Mormon replies.65

And so the Doctors must be allowed to sit in judgment on their own case because no one else is qualified; and if they should happen to decide in favor of themselves, why, there is just nothing we can do about it, since their expertise is far beyond the reach of the layman, placing them in fact at “the intellectual summit of the universe” by the ancient professional mystery of “autodeification in the order of knowing.”66

In the Spalding discussion “the prosecution rests its case on the reputations and standing of its witnesses.”67 “In compiling the pamphlet,” wrote the bishop in his summing-up, “I made no claim to a knowledge of Egyptology. I merely wrote an introduction to the opinions of scholars. In a matter of this kind most of us must form our judgment from the opinion of competent experts.”68 Thus he echoes the opinion of his number one expert, cited above, who gracefully returns the compliment, noting that, after all, it was the good bishop’s opinion that in the end would settle all disputes: “The advisers of the Bishop proved to his satisfaction” that glaring contradictions of the judges did not really exist, “that there were no such differences. . . . The apparent discrepancies were proved to be not real.”69 Thus Spalding’s chief adviser declares that his advisers, by satisfying the bishop that all was well, had brought the issue to its final and satisfactory conclusion, binding all thinking men to accept and share his opinion.70

Thus reassured, Bishop Spalding proceeded to demolish R. C. Webb: “We feel that we should be in a better position to judge the value of the opinions of Robert C. Webb, Ph.D. . . . if we were told definitely who he is. . . . If Dr. Talmage . . . would inform us what the author’s real name is, where he received his degree, and what academic position he holds, we should be better able to estimate the value of his opinions.”71 Here it is again: The bishop is not interested in Webb’s arguments and evidence, but in his status and rank—considerations that are supposed to bear no weight whatever with honest searchers after truth—Nullus in verba! What on earth have a man’s name, degree, academic position, and, of all things, opinions, to do with whether a thing is true or not?

In this case the answer is—everything. Dr. Mercer frankly admits that he and the other scholars “did not seem to take the matter very seriously,” and devoted very little time to it indeed: “The haste was justified in the minds of the scholars by the simplicity of the task. Even less time could have been expended.”72

Elsewhere he explains the perfunctory treatment of the whole thing: “They probably felt as I did, that their time was too valuable to spend on such scientific work as that of Joseph Smith’s guesses.”73 Whatever the reason, they never intended to do any real work, but depended entirely on their credentials to see the thing through.

May We See Your Credentials?74

If the knowledge of Egyptologists is greater today than it was in 1912, their authority is less, for it is doubtful whether any living scholar could or should ever hope to enjoy the enormous prestige of a Petrie, Meyer, Breasted, von Bissing, or Sayce. But the appeal is still as much as ever to authority, and that is why it is now high time that somebody ask the question that has never been raised yet, namely, just how well equipped Dr. Spalding’s illustrious jury really were, individually and collectively, to make a pronouncement on the Book of Abraham. That, after all, is the crux of the whole business, and it will remain so as long as it is assumed that whoever knows most about a subject must have all the answers. Bishop Spalding’s boast was that he had made “an extensive inquiry among the scholars of the world,” and had enlisted the services of leading scholars throughout the civilized world, his work being thus an anthology of opinion of authoritative scholars, “judgments of the world’s greatest Egyptologists.”75 At no time did the Mormons or anyone else ever challenge the right of the committee to its claims to learned preeminence. “I took no issue with the Egyptologists,” wrote Dr. John A. Widtsoe. “I shall not allow myself to be drawn into any discussion of the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphics, which you have agreed to make clear to us.”76

The big question of the authenticity of the Book of Abraham is one that must be broken down into many smaller questions, and the questions that will occur to various investigators differ greatly, depending on their various lines of approach. An Egyptologist will ask questions that would never occur to a layman, a Bible student will ask questions that one indifferent to the Bible would never think to ask, and a believer will ask questions that mean little or nothing to an unbeliever. Among such questions, that of the competence of any jury to judge of the inspiration of the Pearl of Great Price is entirely irrelevant. Whatever competence any such jury may have is bound to appear inevitably in the nature of the questions they ask and the answers they supply. But since in this particular case the board of experts asked no questions(!), and since the professional standing of its members turned out to be not merely the principal but the only support for the Spalding thesis, the question of their competence, no matter how impertinent or embarrassing it might be, cannot be avoided. It is one question that should have been asked before all others, and it so happens that it is also the one question that nobody ever asked.

If “in a matter of this kind [as Spalding puts it] most of us must form our judgment from the opinions of competent experts,” the question for all to keep in mind at all times is whether or not the experts have bridged the gap between our world and the world of Abraham. That gap may not be as wide today as it was half a century ago, but it is just as absolute. This is no paradox. Traveling in the “red rock country,” one sometimes comes upon an abrupt canyon with sheer walls hundreds of feet high, and must either turn back or seek to find the head of the canyon and go around it. This can make a trip to Canyonlands a very frustrating experience. It makes little difference whether the walls that drop off at our feet are 100 or 1,000 feet high, and it makes no difference at all whether the big gap is 50 feet wide or a mile across—in either case you are stopped cold.

So it is with the Book of Abraham. We either have the knowledge requisite to understanding it all the way or we do not, and we would be just as far from the mark in claiming such knowledge today as the scholars were in 1912. Knowing a lot is not enough: we have heard moving stories of wandering Arabs who have died of thirst in the night only a few feet from water. It makes no difference how far one has come or how near one may be to the water—he who has not gone all the way cannot drink. None have discoursed more eloquently than the Egyptologists themselves on their perennial predicament, which is that though they may be much nearer their goals than they once were, like the benighted Arab they have no means of knowing how much nearer or even whether they have been moving in the right direction or not. Their uncertainty is echoed in a remark of de Rougé: “Champollion had to contend all his life against lively and obstinate opposition. He died, and scholarship stood still for twenty-five years,” for the great man’s critics “did not even have the courage to profit by his discoveries.”77 The whole history of Egyptology is, as Maspero observed from time to time, a warning against that peculiar overconfidence that is born of a safe and timid conformity. And it is doubtful if any other Egyptologist ever exemplified more fully the predicament of the specialist in that field than Professor S. A. B. Mercer.

As we have seen, the Bishop’s right-hand man throughout the controversy was the “Rev. Prof. C. A. B. Mercer [Spalding got the initials wrong], Ph.D., Western Theological Seminary, Custodian Hibbard Collection, Egyptian Reproductions.”78 The 32–year-old Mercer (fig. 17), with his shiny new two-year-old Ph.D. degree from Munich, had just transferred from a seminary in Kansas to the one in Chicago, there to become “Professor of Hebrew and the Interpretation of the Old Testament.”79 It was Mercer who, after the others had withdrawn, encouraged his superior to carry on: “In this particular case I think you are right in following up what you have already done; and I shall be glad to help you as far as my time will permit.”80 Interestingly enough, in 1956 Mercer sold his splendid Egyptian library, the fruit of a long lifetime of diligent collecting, to Brigham Young University at a price that can only be described as generous.

Of all Bishop Spalding’s helpers, Dr. Mercer was by far the hardest on the Mormons. Had he taken any other position than that of absolute certainty of his own sufficiency and fierce and unrelenting denunciation of Joseph Smith, to whom he conceded not the slightest glimmer of sense or integrity, Dr. Mercer would not have been the legitimate target he is, or invited by way of rebuttal examination of his boasted competence, for never was there a man who was more sure of his scholarship, more wholeheartedly dedicated to the learned establishment as such. The young seminarian is quite intoxicated with the importance of being a recognized scholar; he never lets us forget that he is a scholar speaking with the authority of scholarship. Above all, he prides himself on competence as a linguist. “I speak as a linguist,” he wrote in 1912, “when I say that if Smith knew Egyptian and correctly interpreted the facsimiles which were submitted to me, then I don’t know a word of Egyptian.”81 “Any pupil of mine who would show such absolute ignorance of Egyptian as Smith does, could not possibly expect to get more than a zero in an examination in Egyptology.”82 “If he [Dr. Widtsoe] knew anything about linguistic work of the nature of hyerogly[p]hics he would not ask such a question, for any ancient linguist knows that the unanimous testimony of eight scholars is the same as that of eighty and eight.”83 Any linguist knows nothing of the sort, but what a production Dr. Mercer makes of it!

When in 1953 a zealous collector of anti-Mormon tidbits asked Professor Mercer whether he still maintained his position as of 1912/13, the Doctor replied by letter, “I am sure that my views on the subject have not changed, because the translation was so clear-cut.”84 Still harping on translation, the “clear-cut” translation—and nobody had translated a word! In dealing with the Mormons Mercer clings to the linguistic issue because it is there alone that he has the Mormons at a complete disadvantage. “This will be a purely literary and scientific test. . . . The scholars felt that linguistically . . . the subject was not worth much of their valuable time. . . . They condemned it purely on linguistic grounds. . . . The animus evident . . . is purely because of linguistic, and not because of religious reasons,” etc.85 The translations were absolutely wrong in every detail, Mercer had declared, and he should know, since “many documents from all Egyptian periods . . . can be read with comparative ease.”86

The Mormons, whom Mercer dismisses as mere “laymen in things Egyptian,” need not feel too badly under the lash of his scorn, however, for Mercer’s own colleagues, including the foremost Egyptologists of the time, were not spared his withering rebukes, nay, even fellow members of the Spalding committee do not escape his two-edged sword of science and scholarship.

When the great Breasted, Mercer’s teacher, published his Dawn of Conscience, one of the freshest and most original works ever written about Egypt, Mercer, as editor and reviewer of the short-lived journal Egyptian Religion, could only report, “There is very little that is new revealed in this book,” and chided its author for “excessive use of superlatives, . . . which cannot fail to irritate a bit, especially when some of the superlatives are not justifiable.”87 Mercer never explains why the superlatives are not justified, unless it is because true, sound, cautious scholars are never guilty of using superlatives. He objects to Breasted’s dating of an important document as “an example of too many assumptions by him,” justifying his criticism not by contrary evidence but by the sage and learned platitude that “origins and borrowings are very difficult things to determine and establish.” He should have thought of that when he so lightly brushed the facsimiles aside. Dr. Mercer cautions us that in reading the work of Breasted “the student must be on his guard against the results of an enthusiasm, legitimate in itself, but not always helpful in attempting to arrive at sound conclusions.”88 All very patronizing, very much the cautious scientist and scholar. He tells us that Breasted’s “‘messianism’ cannot be found in the Egyptian texts no matter how sympathetically they may be studied and interpreted. Breasted has done his best to find it, but the reader may be left to judge of his success.”89

Again, instead of doing any real work in showing where Breasted is wrong, Mercer leaves the decision with the reader—an odd procedure indeed for one who worships authority and merely tolerates the layman. As in his dealings with the Mormons a decade earlier, Mercer in his reviews in Egyptian Religion rarely gives the reader anything to go on but his opinion—but when it is his opinion against that of a giant like Breasted, what are we to think?

In another review Dr. Mercer criticized S. H. Hooke for employing exactly the same method in defense of “patternism” that Mercer himself had recommended in attacking the Pearl of Great Price: “After formulating his theory Hooke gets six scholars, experts in their own department of Oriental research, to try to illustrate or prove his theory.” This method he finds altogether too “imaginative” and untrustworthy.90 But was it not Mercer himself who only a short time before had insisted that “the unanimous opinion of the scholars is unassailable,” and that “the practical agreement of eleven admittedly competent Orientalists” should be final proof, and that “the unanimous testimony of eight scholars is the same as that of eighty and eight”? Speaking exactly as if he were attacking the Mormons, Mercer notes that Professor Blackmann “strikes a deadly blow at the ‘pattern’ theory of the editor” by suggesting that “the original ‘pattern’ was not a product of Egypt but an importation thither.”91 Yet Egyptian origin is not an essential condition to the pattern theory at all—Mercer has missed the point, but how familiar his scolding sounds! Shortly before this Mercer had dismissed in two sentences A. Jeremias’s truly remarkable work, Der Kosmos von Sumer, with crushing finality: “Of course, Dr. Jeremias has his own special and peculiar ways of interpreting ancient cosmic ideas.”92 Of course, indeed—that is just what made Jeremias a great scholar, but for Mercer it is the unpardonable sin of deviating from the respectable conventions of the establishment: no explanations are indicated; Mercer dismisses Jeremias with a magisterial wave of the hand.

He is even more patronizing in dealing with Arthur Weigall, who had been the inspector general of antiquities for the Egyptian government since 1905, with an impressive list of important archaeological publications to his credit. “Weigall’s academic preparation did not enable him to enter very deeply into the more intricate problems of editing and translating texts and commenting upon them. . . . His lack of training in philology led him into serious difficulties.”93 Always the language business. More serious is his casual dismissal of the work on Egyptian religion of one of the greatest of all Egyptologists, Hermann Junker: “But, curiously enough,” says Mercer, speaking of Junker’s fundamental thesis, “he believes he has found evidence to prove a primitive belief in one great world god. This to my mind shows a complete misunderstanding of the nature of primitive thought and understanding.”94 Just where has the great Junker failed? “His idea of a primitive universal god in ancient Egypt [is] an idea which really has no foundation in fact.”95

This is a very serious challenge indeed, but Dr. Mercer does not bother to show us what the real factual foundation is: against Junker’s solid and original work he is content to place the opinions of contemporary anthropology.96 We may excuse him for thrusting aside W. O. E. Oesterley and T. H. Robinson’s famous Introduction to the Books of the Old Testament as practically worthless;97 but when he chides the immortal Adolf Erman for negligence in his specialty we wonder if he may not be going too far: “Like many other Egyptologists who have written on this subject, Erman uses such a term as ‘monotheism’ in a very loose sense, without defining what he understands by ‘monotheism'”—though Erman had written a whole book on the subject. Mercer is good enough to explain that he believes in modern, scientific monotheism, whatever that is.98

The last of the auxiliary troops to rush to Dr. Spalding’s assistance when he found himself entangled in the contradictory statements of the other experts was Professor George A. Barton. And how does Dr. Mercer deal with Dr. Barton? Of his Semitic and Hamitic Origins, the Reverend Mercer writes, “All such collections of deductions, possibilities and probabilities are doomed by nature to be superceded,” and this particular book “contains too many fanciful as well as bold deductions for its destiny to be otherwise.”99 In dealing with Egypt in particular, according to Mercer, Dr. Barton “has very often fumbled very badly.” “Throughout the book there are far too many hypotheses without adequate foundation; . . . the reader must be on his guard to check every statement, and especially all words and phrases in Egyptian, Coptic, etc. . . . As to French, German and English the misprints and errors are legion.”100 He recommends that any future edition of the book “should be rigorously revised” and states that “for students of Semitic origins the book will be found to be of considerable value, when used with caution. The same cannot, however, be said in the case of students of Egyptian origins.”101 As ever, Mercer plays up his role as that of super linguist and Egyptologist. Barton’s worst offense, however, is that when he comes to treat the Sumerian flood story he does not ever refer to Mercer’s work on the subject; and though he mentions Mercer’s own work on Babylonian religion, “he could not have read the book which he so lightly brushes aside.”102

Shortly after the Spalding affair Dr. Mercer made his first solid contribution to Egyptology. With dramatic detail he reports in the Recueil de Travaux how “during the summer of 1912 when the writer was in a quiet New England town,” he discovered a collection of Egyptian antiquities brought hither by Lt. Commander Gorringe in 1879 but since ignored for the keeper was in no way “scientifically interested in Egyptian antiquities.”103 The prize piece was a long inscription, which had been known from another but damaged fragment that had been translated in 1905 by Ali ben Kemal.

Mercer’s great discovery allowed him to supply the complete text, which Kemal did not have. But in furnishing the missing lines Mercer simply sent in a photograph, without any translation or commentary. This is remarkable. He had understandingly begged off where the poorly copied hieroglyphics of the Pearl of Great Price were concerned, but here was his first great chance to shine as a linguist and a scholar. This thing was his discovery, and it was the practice and privilege of Egyptologists who discovered texts to publish them in the Recueil de Travaux with their own translations and commentaries. But never a word of translation or commentary from Mercer. He had room for a long description of the document and a picturesque account of how the inscription was found, with the usual pompous references to science and scholarship, but as to the linguistic aspects of the thing—complete silence. In the same spirit of dash and caution, Dr. Mercer, in his last rebuttal against the Mormons, noted in passing: “It might be added that also on the basis of the few easier hieroglyphics which were copied correctly, the Prophet’s interpretation is found incorrect.”104 But true to form he never indicated what those few correctly copied hieroglyphics were or what they said. Instead, he assures us that “many proofs of the correctness of his [Mercer’s] conclusions could be furnished if desired,”105 and lets it go at that. Indeed, we have been unable to find a translation by Mercer of any Egyptian writing that had not already been translated and published by someone else.

When Isaac Russell, a non-Mormon, put in a word in defense of the Book of Abraham, Mercer was quick to light into him. “A man who will . . . jumble up opinions of thirty years ago with the corrected views of recent years, cannot escape contradicting himself and being considered by any scholar a dilettante of the worst type.”106 Forty years later the same Mercer was being taken to task by the reviewers for being hopelessly dilettantish and out of date in his scholarship, but even in his youth his buoyant confidence in his linguistic powers led him to extend himself far beyond the bounds of prudence. Within a decade of blasting the Book of Abraham, Mercer had published, among other things, translations and commentaries of Egyptian, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin texts bearing on the Bible (1913),107 an Ethiopian liturgy (1915),108 Sumero-Babylonian sign lists (1918),109 a translation of an Egyptian grammar (1920),110 an Ethiopic grammar (1920),111 an Assyrian grammar (1921),112 and books on the Babylonian and Assyrian religion (1919),113 and Egyptian religion (1919).114 We know of no savant, including even the immortal Athanasius Kircher, who has ever equaled such a performance for sheer daring.

The reader may be interested to know how Mercer’s efforts were accepted by the learned world. Only two years after 1912 Mercer brought out a work on an Ethiopian liturgy, of which F. Praetorius, the world leader in the field, wrote: “The writer’s knowledge of the Ethiopian language is at present, however, totally inadequate. The numerous errors of translation which he commits provide the reader at times with real comic relief.”115

If Mercer keeps at it, however, “it may be possible for him at a later date to get out a critical edition instead of just a photograph . . . and to answer some of the questions which he has here dealt with prematurely.” In other words, Mercer bites off more than he can chew.116

Fifteen years later Mercer was still having difficulty following the advice of Praetorius, for Henry S. Gehmann, in reviewing his Ethiopic text of Ecclesiastes, notes that as long as Mercer is merely reproducing the text all goes well, “but in his further discussion of the Ethiopic version he is not so fortunate, . . . and he makes statements which upon analysis are seen to be contradictory or at least not clear.”117

In 1929 Mercer published an ambitious book on Egyptian religion that was reviewed by Hermann Kees, a leader in that field: “It is superficially written and in many passages one comes upon familiar ideas of Maspero [to whom the book was dedicated]. But because Maspero never lost contact with the real world of Egypt one is all the more disturbed by the lack of any smell of Egyptian earth.”118 “To uphold his theories . . . Mercer must schematize mercilessly [grausam schematisieren]”; his reconstruction of the beginnings is “a peculiarly artificial picture,” and to explain the distribution of the cults of Egypt “Mercer must invent the most remarkable migrations.”119 Kees notes that “the unnatural way in which things are constructed” is “typical of this whole school of inventing religious history.” Kees refers to his own classic work, Totenglaube der Aegypter, as “a book with which Mercer is of course [freilich] not acquainted.” He takes note of “Mercer’s peculiar way of putting questions and his naive and off-hand conclusions.”120

Our own impression after working for some years among Dr. Mercer’s books and notes is obligingly put into words by an Egyptologist whom few may challenge: “The book is pleasant [nett] to read . . . but it brings no advance,”121 for, “granted that Mercer has taken the trouble to read and cite all sorts of things, the whole thing is done in a disturbingly superficial way [bedenklich oberflächlich].”122 What Mercer’s work does give us of value, Kees decides, is “unfortunately” a demonstration “of how urgent is the necessity for anyone who wishes to undertake the study of Egyptian religion and especially of its beginnings, first of all to handle at firsthand the raw materials presented by the local cults of the land and by its topography . . . and such a study would do greater honor to the memory of Maspero than Mercer has with his International Society of Gods.”123 There is a sting in that!

Almost twenty years later Mercer returned to the lists with another and a bigger book still on Egyptian religion, and again it fell to the lot of Kees to review it. He begins by taking Mercer to task for ignoring much recent archaeological work while making archaeology his defense.124 Especially Dr. Kees “must express profound concern [grundsätzliches Bedenken]” with Mercer’s failure to explain the why in all his glib syncretism. Kees is franker than ever: “Mercer should have omitted things which he did not understand, including annoyingly frequent references to ‘confusion’ in Egyptian thinking.”125 This has become an important factor in the study of Egyptian religion today: more and more the scholars are recognizing that the strangeness and obscurity in the Egyptian texts is probably less due to their ignorance and inability to think clearly than to our own. Kees notes that Mercer displays his usual diligence in the business of collecting and cataloging material, but whenever he digests it, his work is marked by “triviality and irrelevance that predominate over a real grasp of material.” He comments on Mercer’s weakness for making sweeping and pontifical statements “which constantly run the risk of being easily refuted.”126 In concluding his study with a long list of some of Mercer’s many mistakes, Kees says he is trying to avoid giving to “the well-intentioned reader a heightened dread of the labyrinth of Egyptian Religion and its incomprehensibility.”127

But Kees was not the only one. Writing in another journal, Hans Bonnet, the author of the invaluable Reallexikon der aegyptischen Religion, reviewed the same work by Mercer, noting first of all that the author “misses the basic significance [grundlegende Bedeutung] of Egyptian religion,” because he “collects a lot of unconnected data which are never brought into proper relationship,” even while he continues to cling to his favorite but long outdated theories of Egyptian prehistory, “his entire study being controlled by a theory which is not only nonessential to the history of Egyptian religion” but also applies to a field “in which we can never count on achieving clarity.”128 In short, Dr. Mercer misses the point of everything. The assertion that we can never achieve certainty in some matter of Egyptian religion is an important one and was stated even more emphatically in a long review of Mercer’s The Religion of Ancient Egypt by the eminent Eberhard Otto. This work, Otto writes, as “the fruit of a long and industrious scholarly career . . . shows us that a presentation of Egyptian religion which avoids a subjective attitude, but whose foundation lies outside the sphere of science is an impossibility . . . and it shows us the reason why it is now and perhaps always will be impossible to write [a] history of Egyptian religion.”129

Instead of coming to grips with the problems he has raised, Mercer, according to Otto, leaves all the necessary explaining “to casual scattered remarks.” The avoidance of a real method of coping with immensely hard problems “gives his description a rather disjointed and uncoordinated nature.”130 Since he can’t escape facing certain problems of origins, Mercer, according to Otto, simply gets rid of them by thrusting them back into a dim prehistory where he posits a series of invasions or migrations, following Sethe’s lead.131 Instead of going to the basic sources, Otto observes, Mercer relies on “secondary sources,” and even then fails to treat his sources critically. “He is often unclear, sometimes in matters of fundamental importance.” “Many of his apodictic statements should not go unchallenged, . . . many of his interpretations of names cry for refutation by the philologist,”132 his genealogies “contain many errors or theories no longer recognized today,” and his work “belongs to an age of research whose scholarly goals are not in every point the same as those of the present generation of scholars.”133

In his seventies Mercer, undaunted and undeterred, undertook a work that would intimidate the greatest Egyptologist—a translation and critical commentary on one of the oldest, largest, and most difficult books in the world—the Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Rudolph Anthes begins his review of this ambitious four-volume work by pointing out the dangers and hardships that attend any attempt at “translating a paragraph of these texts, in which each word is weighty.”134 Mercer is again charged with underestimating the intelligence of the Egyptians when he sees, for example, in the mysterious Enneads only a demonstration of their muddled thinking, and affects to detect in Pyramid Texts “a lack of common sense on the part of the Egyptians of the 3rd millennium.”135 Instead of accusing the Egyptians of ignorance, Anthes advises, “we should rather acknowledge the fact that we are not yet equal to the Pyramid Texts, although they represent excellent manuscripts.”136

Mercer often attributes his own failure to come through to “corruptions in the text, mistakes in writing, errors in grammar and syntax, contradictions and confusions, expressions which seem ridiculous, and illogical expressions.”137 This is our old friend Reverend Mercer, taking the Egyptians to task, as he once did the Mormons, for being inexcusably ignorant of Egyptian. But Professor Anthes will not go for this; it is not the Egyptians but ourselves who are ignorant, and Mercer’s introductory statement that “we have not yet a definitive text” of the Pyramid Texts “is evidently misleading and I feel compelled,” writes Professor Anthes, “to contradict it.”138 There are imperfections enough in the translation—”imperfection[s] of this kind, I am sorry to say, [do] occur in the translation,”—but they are not due to any Egyptian incompetence. “Perhaps Professor Mercer was right in undertaking this task, for which—if I may say so frankly—hardly anyone is fully prepared,” but instead of chiding the Egyptians, “the problematical situation of our understanding of the Pyramid Texts should have been indicated more often than it actually has been.”139

Professor Anthes is one of a growing number of Egyptologists who suggest in all seriousness approaching Egyptian religious writings with the idea that after all they might make sense, since the Egyptians were not complete fools: “There exists some incongruity,” he notes, “between the sober effectiveness of the Egyptians in the Old Kingdom, which is apparent mainly in politics, architecture and art, and what seems to be their inability for clear thinking in religious matters. This incompatibility is striking, the more so since government and religion did represent a unity which we may call governmental theology.”140 Professor Anthes objects to the illogic of saying (a) that everything the Egyptians did was part of their religion, (b) that their achievements were prodigious, and (c) that their religion was ridiculous. That simply won’t go down with Anthes and others, though the old school of Egyptologists still clings to it. Even Gardiner, a brilliant representative of that school, showed some signs of weakening toward the end of his wonderful career, when he was willing to concede that Egyptian religion was “as alluring as a will-o’-the-wisp by reason of its mystery and even in spite of its absurdity”;141 and he suggested that while it was most dangerous to take seriously such seeming “unmitigated rubbish” as some of the Egyptian hymns, it was still also dangerous (though, of course, less dangerous) to take an “unsympathetic and even patronizing attitude towards the myths and religious practices of Pharaonic times.”142

In reviewing Mercer’s work The Pyramid Texts, T. George Allen, the foremost student of Egyptian funerary literature, did not mince words: “Would that the contents of these handsome volumes were fully in keeping with their appearance!”143 The defects of those contents “spring from two main sources: faulty translation of German and violation of Egyptian grammatical principles.” What a blow! It is bad enough for an Egyptologist to be criticized for ignorance of Egyptian in making translations from Egyptian, but when the reviewer recognizes his dependence on other sources and notes that it is in German that he is at fault, one wonders how this could have been received by the scholar who often lectured others on their ignorance of language. “Mistranslations of German are various,” says Allen. “Egyptian grammar is often mistreated.” Again Mercer is charged with superficiality: “Mercer himself states that analysis of the utterances [in the Pyramid Texts] has not ‘been too meticulous in unessential matters’; the truth is that his definition of ‘unessential’ has been far too liberal.”144

In his pointed remarks about German, Professor Allen was no doubt hinting at what the great French Egyptologist Étienne Drioton said more openly in reviewing an earlier book of Mercer’s on the Pyramid Texts, that Mercer’s words on the Pyramid Texts simply follow Sethe, the great master in that field, who had already translated them into German. Because of this lack of originality, Drioton concludes, “This investigation can bring no new light.” Moreover, Drioton observes that the method followed by Mercer cannot possibly lead to the conclusions he has adopted.145 Mercer has prefixed to his History of Egyptian Religion the remarkable statement that Sethe had placed at the introduction of his own history of the same subject: Wer es nicht glauben will, mag es nicht glauben (“Whoever doesn’t want to believe it doesn’t have to”). This had not been an attempt on Sethe’s part to disarm criticism, however, for he stated his position with a characteristic frankness that Mercer does not follow, when he said in a preceding sentence: “This is how for thirty years the Egyptian religion has appeared to my eyes, or, if you will, to my imagination [Phantasie]; the whole thing is completely hypothetical.”146 This would place Sethe today in the camp of Karl Popper, but one would hardly expect such an admission from the confident Mercer—and one does not get it.

In the same year that his vast work on the Pyramid Texts appeared, this remarkable man published Earliest Intellectual Man’s Idea of the Cosmos, in which he brought his Babylonian philological studies into conjunction with his Egyptian to compare the earliest religious concepts of both lands. Of this work the Sumerologist Salonen wrote that to Mercer, “Sumerian conditions may well be quite hazy. Specifically as regards Sumer . . . the book contains annoyingly many mistakes, incongruities and blunders. . . . Sumerian and Babylonian names and words often appear in wrong forms.”147 Salonen then gives some examples of what he calls Mercer’s “other outrageous mistakes!” He finds “the book is confusedly written and is full of tautology . . . the part relating to Sumer could safely have been omitted.”148 In particular, “chronology does not seem to be one of Mercer’s strong points, hence information which has been doomed several decades ago.”149 This recalls Mercer’s own onslaught on a massively documented work on ancient chronology some years before: “Of course, no other self-respecting chronologist will for a moment agree. . . . One feels that with all that has been said, we shall still feel safer under the chronological guidance, in Egyptian matters, of Meyer and Breasted.”150 Here again, instead of giving the reasons, Mercer had simply appealed with his lofty “of course” to authority, though the chronologies of Meyer and Breasted were even then being seriously questioned.

Our purpose in this long digression about Dr. Mercer has not been primarily to discredit the authority of one whose authority has for years been used as a club to beat the Book of Abraham withal, but rather to provide us laymen with an instructive introduction to the limitations and pitfalls of Egyptology in general. What we have just beheld is the spectacle of some of the world’s foremost Egyptologists laying down the law to one of their colleagues who in turn was never backward in laying down the law to them. From this it should begin to appear that we are not here moving in a world of cold, indisputable scientific facts at all, but rather in an atmosphere of somewhat dazed and bemused speculation. And the puzzlement and bewilderment are if anything greater among the specialists today than they were in 1912.

Was Abraham Real? New Theories

To this day “scholarship has largely ignored exegetical analysis of these narratives,” writes Thomas L. Thompson of the patriarchal stories, with Abraham’s stories at their head.151 Exclusively preoccupied with “theological and sociological trends,” according to another specialist, they have avoided the “historical-descriptive task” of treating the patriarchs as real people, as a result of which “the current situation in Old Testament theology has been described as ‘in crisis.'”152 The trouble is that “archaeology has now thrust the world of the Old Testament into the historic past, and there can be no retreat from the study of parallels.”153 We have been accused of preoccupation with historic parallels where Abraham is concerned, but with Ebla nobody can escape it.

For along with a sudden resurgence of interest in the Old Testament in the 1970s comes an unparalleled concern for Abraham.154 In the new studies, the whole problem of discovering Abraham is one of fitting things together. Given a body of data contained in an ancient document, what period of history, what geographical or cultural setting, what literary conventions fit it best? Students of the most advanced physical theory today confess that they cannot hope to describe or even imagine what the waves and particles they deal with really are; what keeps them going and reassures their faith in the reality of those mysterious entities is the principle of consistency. A hypothetical structure is worth working on if it is consistent within itself and agrees with whatever limited data are available; as long as the known data agree with each other and with experimental predictions, we are on the right track. So it has always been with the study of the past. We never shall know what really happened or exactly what it was like back then, but consistency of sources keeps the game going. For example, we have seen that the Book of Abraham agrees remarkably well with the Apocalypse of Abraham. But will anyone maintain for a moment that the Apocalypse of Abraham is actually the original version of his history? Of course not, but it in turn agrees remarkably well with other writings about Abraham that reach back into various times and regions. In our series in the Improvement Era we showed how the Abraham legends turn up in Egyptian, Babylonian, and even Greek traditions of great antiquity with a richness of detail that can hardly be accidental. “The Egyptian and Mesopotamian texts,” writes Stan Rummel, “thrust Israel into a real world. Specific parallels, grounded on historical and cultural connections, replaced abstract speculation” of Wellhausen’s day—”there can be no retreat from the study of parallels.”155

But even before we consider the parallels, we have firm ground under our feet in the mere fact that the text of the Abraham story of 1835 has been placed in our hands. That someone has produced what purports to be an ancient document must in itself, as Friedrich Blass points out, command

our respect and oblige us to give the benefit of the doubt to its claims until proven spurious.156 The Book of Abraham must have come from somewhere. It is a document rich and clear in specific statements, inviting and never avoiding the closest attention of the critic. It is generally agreed that it could not have come from that papyrus called the Book of Breathings, nor can it possibly be the product of the clumsy and quickly abandoned gropings of the so-called Alphabet and Grammar. The Kirtland Egyptian Papers show us where it did not come from, and that is all. The existence of a very concrete text invites and deserves just the kind of examination to which both the Abraham literature and important Egyptian stories are being exposed at the present moment. If it is a fraud, that should become quickly apparent without any backdoor approaches seeking by a pointless preoccupation with method and intrigue to avoid a head-on confrontation with the text.

Abraham’s emergence as a real person has been comparatively recent, following the fashionable trends of scholarship. For example, only “within the last few decades” has “the basic historicity of the Sumerian epics . . . tacitly been taken for granted by most scholars who have dealt with them.”157 Before that it was, like Abraham, all myth, folklore, superstition, and poetic invention until a sudden “bouleversement radical,” as André Parrot called it, changed everything.158 The weight of the evidence itself has been enough to bring this about, for the experts have come around reluctantly; indeed, “the general line in much modern scholarship,” Bendt Alster observes, is “one that sets itself as a task to deprive the ancient literary sources of actual reality whenever possible, instead of asking what the texts intend to say.” A serious research into any ancient texts, as he notes, requires examining “similar texts from elsewhere.”159 “It has become a commonplace,” writes the Bible scholar Peter R. Ackroyd, “to acknowledge that the understanding of the Old Testament is deficient without a proper appreciation of its ancient context,” meaning how it fits into a giant jigsaw along with “Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Hittite, Ugaritic, and North Semitic” sources.160 Granted that “the fundamental truths of the Bible cannot be demonstrated by archaeology,” an eminent Jesuit scholar notes, “still it becomes clearer and clearer that the Bible has its roots in the history of the Near East,” so that “a new much deeper study is necessary” before we can get to the “true source of the faith of Israel.” In particular the sensational discoveries at Ebla are forcing the world to consider more seriously than ever before the historical reality of the patriarchs, with Abraham at their head.161

Christian theologians who have hitherto disdained to debase their faith by digging for historical evidence now assure us that we cannot overlook what Maurice Wiles calls “the raw material in the light of which our faith judgments have to be made.”162 In the New Testament field, “to the extent that Christians tend to overlook or forget the historical Jesus, they tend to structure Christian life more and more as a religion in the pejorative sense. . . . Access to the Christ of faith comes through our following of the historical Jesus.”163 A few years ago such statements as these by leaders of Christian thought would have been unthinkable. On all sides the discovery of new documents is forcing open the doors that have heretofore safely contained the ancient patriarchs, prophets, and saints in a vague and distant quarantine.

Further Abraham studies insist that something very significant was going on back there, which only increases our frustration at being unable to find out just what it was. The field of speculation is more wide open than ever; Herbert Werner reminds us that the Abraham question requires “investigations, experiments, and new approaches (Angebote)” as never before.164 The big problem for him is how the stories got down to us: were they preserved out of a wealth of tales because they were peculiarly relevant as articles of faith, declarations of principle, and sermons? Granted they are edifying stories and would have been preserved for that if for no other reason, does it follow that they are fables? If they are, why do they lay such insistence on a particular time, a particular place, and particular historical conditions?165 Werner confesses himself at a loss to explain why three different versions of intrigue between Abraham and a king involving his wife are given, and how they are related. He finds preposterous the supposed confrontations between those “mighty potentates and virtually disenfranchised aliens.”166 The reactions of the kings when they discover they have been duped are simply “astonishing,” and make no sense at all. Along with such perplexing oddities, he notes certain overriding motifs that cannot be overlooked: the strange theme of the tribal mother (Stammutter) in danger, the recurrent motif of famine and the need for sacrifice to relieve it, and especially the dominance of drought in the picture. Werner’s astonishing conclusion is that Abraham is really fleeing from “the absurdity of the world,” after he has become convinced that Yahweh has let him down in Canaan, and moves to Egypt seeking a more rational existence. Actually, Werner decides, it is Abraham and not Pharaoh who should have been smitten in the palace.167

The Dutch scholar G. Hamming is led to equal, though different, extremes. He begins with the declaration that Abraham was before all else a writer of history who wrote down the story of the creation, as we have it in Genesis 2:4–12:4, under strong Egyptian influence.168 Whereas Werner insists that the patriarchal narratives are full of such things as dreams and private conversations that no historian could possibly have known, Hamming corrects the proposition: Abraham himself could have known those things, making him alone the author of them: “Abraham himself is necessarily the author of whatever is true in his history.” He reasons that “Abraham wrote a number of short accounts,” setting forth “his view of history, his philosophy of culture and a number of personal reminiscences. Some of these accounts have been lost and some partly preserved.”169 Hamming lays emphasis on the technological sophistication of Abraham’s world, rapidly moving toward economic and social collapse, in which only Egypt retained any virtue and integrity. Like Werner, Hamming cannot understand why the Egyptians took an outsider and an outcast like Abraham so seriously. Also, Abraham’s concern with the priesthood makes him wonder.170

The New Dating Game

Discussions of Abraham today almost all center on problems of dating, with every scholar convinced that he can match conditions set forth in Abraham stories with a real historic setting so exactly that there can no longer be any doubt as to the time of Abraham.

The center of attention is John Van Seter’s book Abraham in History and Tradition, which places the patriarch squarely in the middle of the first millennium B.C.171 This came out just before the discovery of the Ebla tablets, which have pushed the possibility of Abraham back to the middle of the third millennium B.C. So now we have a range of two thousand years in which the experts are seeking to find an exact date for Abraham!

We begin at one end with a theoretically possible date of 2400 or even 2500 B.C. suggested by the Ebla tablets, but too recent and surprising to have any serious champions yet.172 Coming down half a millennium or more, with the greatest confidence André Parrot could announce that “all truly objective specialists are agreed: the way of life described in the accounts of Genesis . . . fits perfectly with what we know today, from other sources, of the beginning of the second millennium, but imperfectly with a more recent time.”173 How early in the second millennium? James L. Kelso puts his finger on the century between 2000 and 1900 B.C. and announces, “Here and only here in all of the Near East can Abraham be dated; but here in Middle Bronze I, he is as much at home as Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War period of the U.S.A.”174 More specifically, Hamming would have Abraham born very near to the year 1955 B.C.175 On the other hand, we are assured that that time, “the Larsa period (2000–1800 B.C.), . . . most scholars believe to be slightly earlier than Abraham,” although conditions would have been much the same “until well after Abraham’s time.”176 William H. Stiebing now moves the date down from the Middle Bronze I favored by Nelson Glueck, William F. Albright, and others, to Middle Bronze II (1900 down to 1550 B.C.).177 Still descending the scale, “Recently there has been a tendency to bring the patriarchs down into the Late Bronze Age (1600–1200 B.C.) or even into the Assyrian period nearly a thousand years later.”178 It was the ancient texts discovered at Mari and Nuzi that brought things down to the Middle Bronze II dating and led Parrot to his dogmatic certitude; but now it is claimed that “the contracts of fifteenth century Nuzi are neither unique to their time and place, nor related to Genesis.”179 In fact, we are assured that those documents describe a world not so different from the Nimrod texts of the sixth century B.C., the time favored by Van Seters. Some have noted how the patriarchal narratives with their romantic and heroic allure suggest most strongly the traditions of the Amarna, Minoan, and Mycenaean worlds which flourished in the Eastern Mediterranean c. 1400–1100 B.C.180 Indeed, the present writer finds abundant and striking parallels between the Abraham traditions and the myths and legends harking back to the bad old days of Greek and Levantine prehistory. The presence of Philistines in Abraham’s history favors such dating, but of course is lightly dismissed as an obvious anachronism by those supporting other dates. But as Noel Weeks notes, “as long as the historian can dismiss inconvenient evidence as anachronistic it is hard to control his theses.”181

Abraham’s camels, long a subject of controversy, have been treated in the same high-handed manner. Albright insisted that the camel was not domesticated until about 1000 B.C., so naturally the camels of Isaac and Jacob had to go. James L. Kelso now brings them back by explaining that “the camel of Abraham’s day was simply a luxury riding animal for the rich,” which Abraham would not use in his caravans. Why not? The beast could cross the desert then as well as it does today.182 To Van Seter’s surprising and much-discussed dating of Abraham to the midsixth century B.C. (which, of course, puts him back into his old nineteenth-century category of a mythical being: only the Abraham story could be so late—no real Abraham could have been walking around long after Moses and the prophets!), telling objections are raised, for example, that the patriarchal narratives are full of accepted customs that would be an abomination to the exilic Jews—they certainly would never have invented the Abraham story, and twenty-seven of the thirty-eight names of patriarchal family members never turn up again in the Bible—they are unique to a much earlier time. In taking things back to the mythical Abraham of nineteenth-century scholarship, Van Seters uses the favorite argument of that school by conjuring up the all-sufficient Sitz im Leben of the exile: the story of Abraham would naturally appeal to people suffering the afflictions of the captivity, who accordingly must have invented it to give themselves comfort and encouragement. But Robert Martin-Achard points out, following Gerhard von Rad, “every generation . . . found itself faced anew with the same task . . . of understanding itself as Israel.”183 The sufferings of Abraham are relevant whenever Israel finds itself in straits.

The greatest windfall of nineteenth-century scholarship was the license to break down any ancient text into as many separate constituent parts as one chose; thanks to that, any scholar could spot the origin of any item of patriarchal tradition in the vagaries of scribes, the imaginations of storytellers by the campfire, the fervor of preachers, the Tendenzschriften (political agenda) of sectaries—in almost anything, in fact, but real history. In particular, oral tradition was the way out of any tight place: “Indeed the whole predominance of oral transmission in modern Biblical studies is a curious phenomenon,” writes Noel Weeks. He asks, “Is the very lack of historical controls . . . the basis of its popularity?”184

So where do we stand? Ever since Albright’s dating of Abraham collapsed “precipitately,” according to Thomas L. Thompson, there has been a lack of any real consensus, so that today one can only conclude that the patriarchal narratives “appear to have taken shape in some still unsatisfactorily explained manner, over a period of time as yet undetermined.” “Possibilities are infinite,” he concludes, “and scholarly preferences are irrelevant. Alternative dates [i.e., to his own—favoring a late date, ‘but this is only a guess’] have not and cannot be excluded.”185


1. Louis C. Zucker, “Joseph Smith as a Student of Hebrew,” Dialogue 3/2 (1968): 44.

2. Ibid., 43.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid., 48.

5. Ibid., 47.

6. Ibid., 48.

7. Ibid.

8. Hugh W. Nibley, “Churches in the Wilderness,” in Nibley on the Timely and the Timeless (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1978), 156–61; reprinted in The Prophetic Book of Mormon, CWHN 8 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1989), 289–95.

9. Hugh W. Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1975), 133–35, esp. 133.

10. Zucker, “Joseph Smith as a Student of Hebrew,” 49.

11. Nibley, “Churches in the Wilderness,” 159; in CWHN 8:293.

12. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Genesis Apocryphon of Qumran Cave I: A Commentary (Rome: Biblical Institute, 1966), 50–59.

13.   Hugh W. Nibley, “A New Look at the Pearl of Great Price,” IE 71 (January 1968): 18–23; partially reprinted in this volume, pp. 86–91.

14. Ibid., IE 71(February 1968): 15.

15. Ibid., IE 71 (March 1968): 20.

16. Ibid., IE 71 (September 1968): 70.

17. Ibid., IE 71 (February 1968): 40.

18. Ibid., 78.

19. Ibid., IE 71 (October 1968): 81; (November 1968): 40–44.

20. Ibid., IE 71 (December 1968): 32–33.

21. Ibid., IE 72 (January 1969): 26–31.

22. Ibid., IE 72 (May 1969): 88.

23. Ibid., IE 72 (February 1969): 64–67.

24. Ibid., 66–67.

25. Ibid., IE 72 (May 1969): 87–91; (June 1969): 126–31; (July 1969): 97–100.

26. Ibid., IE 72 (May 1969): 88.

27. Ibid., IE 72 (June 1969): 126–31.

28.   Ibid., IE 72 (November 1969): 116–20; reprinted in this volume, pp.182–92.

29. Ibid., IE 73 (May 1970): 86–87.

30.   Ibid., IE 73 (April 1970): 79–95; reprinted in this volume as chapter 8, “The Sacrifice of Sarah.”

31. George W. E. Nickelsburg, ed., Studies on the Testament of Abraham (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1976).

32. Nissim Wernick, “A Critical Analysis of the Book of Abraham in the Light of Extra-Canonical Jewish Writings” (Ph.D. diss., Brigham Young University, 1968).

33. Robert C. Webb, pseud., Joseph Smith as a Translator (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1936), 106–17.

34. See Nibley, “A New Look at the Pearl of Great Price,” IE 72 (January 1969): 31.

35. Adolph Jellinek, Bet ha-Midrash, 6 vols. (1853–77; reprint, Jerusalem: Wahrmann, 1967), 5:40–41.

36. Bereshith Rabbah 38:19.

37.   Nibley, “A New Look at the Pearl of Great Price,” IE 72 (November 1969): 120; in this volume, pp. 195–97.

38. Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica (Preparation for the Gospel) VII, 6–22, in PG 21:516–83; IX, 16, in PG 21:705–709.

39. Augustine, Civitas Dei (The City of God) XVI, 15.

40. Clementine Recognitions I, 32–33, in PG 1:1226–27.

41. Philo, De Abrahamo.

42. “The Promise of Ebla” (editorial), BAR 2 (December 1976): 41.

43. F. I. Anderson, “Ebla, the More We Find Out, the Less We Know,” Buried History 13 (March 1977): 10–12.

44. David Noel Freedman, “The Real Story of the Ebla Tablets,” Biblical Archaeologist 41 (December 1978): 148–64.

45. “Promise of Ebla,” 42.

46. Nibley, “A New Look at the Pearl of Great Price,” IE 72 (April 1969): 66–67.

47. Giovanni Pettinato, “The Royal Archives of Tell-Mardikh-Ebla,” Biblical Archaeologist 39 (May 1976): 48.

48. “Promise of Ebla,” 42.

49. Stan Rummel, “Using Ancient Near Eastern Parallels in Old Testament Studies,” BAR 3 (September 1977): 7.

50. “The Appeal to Authority” originally appeared in the series, “A New Look at the Pearl of Great Price,” IE 71 (January 1968): 20–22.

51. Samuel A. B. Mercer, “Joseph Smith as an Interpreter and Translator of Egyptian,” Utah Survey 1 (September 1913): 30.

52. For example, see Janne M. Sjodahl, “The Book of Abraham,” editorial in Deseret Evening News, 17 December 1912, 4; reprinted in IE 16 (February 1913): 326–33. The high critics erred egregiously especially where Egypt was concerned: “Dr. Von Bohlen, the honored co-laborer with Gesenius and De Wette, gave long chapters to the easy task of proving from overwhelming classical testimony that the Bible blundered almost every time it mentions an Egyptian custom. According to this great scholar, the statement that the Egyptians built with brick in ancient times, used asses, cultivated the vine, and used costly materials in constructions as the ark and the tabernacle, proved that the author of the Pentateuch was ‘an absolute stranger to Egypt.'” Charles H. S. Davis, Ancient Egypt in the Light of Modern Discoveries (Meriden, CT: Biblia, 1892), 311.

53. Robert C. Webb, “Have Joseph Smith’s Interpretations Been Discredited?” IE 17 (1914): 313, commenting on the first issue of the Utah Survey (September 1913). Robert C. Webb, “A Critical Examination of the Fac-Similes of the Book of Abraham,” IE 16 (1913): 435, notes that after the great promises made before its publication, Spalding’s book has turned out disappointingly thin and skimpy.

54. N. L. Nelson, “An Open Letter to Bishop Spalding,” IE 16 (1913): 606–7, was more outspoken than the others: “A jury of Gentiles, prejudiced, ill-tempered and mad with the pride of human learning.”

55. B. H. Roberts, “Remarks on ‘Joseph Smith Jr., as a Translator’: A Plea in Bar of Final Conclusions,” Deseret Evening News, 19 December 1912, 11; reprinted in IE 16 (1913): 311. Cf. Junius F. Wells, “Scholars Disagree,” Deseret Evening News, 19 December 1912, 4; reprinted under the same title in IE 16 (1913): 341–43. The editorial to which the Times referred appeared two days earlier in the Deseret Evening News, 17 December 1912, 4.

56. Editorial, “Museum Walls Proclaim Fraud of Mormon Prophet,” New York Times, 29 December 1912, pt. 5:3.

57. Wells, “Scholars Disagree,” 4; in IE 16 (1913): 343.

58. Sjodahl, “The Book of Abraham,” 4; in IE 16 (1913): 333.

59. Attacks from Franklin S. Spalding, “Making New Friends in Utah,” The Spirit of Missions 77/10 (October 1912): 114–18, are cited by Robert C. Webb, “The Galileo of Sociology,” IE 17 (1914): 565–67; Mercer’s long attack, “Joseph Smith as an Interpreter and Translator of Egyptian,” 3–36, has been reprinted photomechanically along with Franklin S. Spalding, Why Egyptologists Reject the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City: Modern Microfilm, 1965).

60. Roberts, “A Plea in Bar of Final Conclusions,” IE 16 (1913): 310.

61. Mercer, “Joseph Smith as an Interpreter and Translator of Egyptian,” 36.

62. Ibid., 17.

63. Ibid., 25.

64. Cf. Webb, “Have Joseph Smith’s Interpretations Been Discredited?” 316: “In the Spalding literature the public has been thoroughly indoctrinated on the sufficiency of scholarly opinions, which, as we read, are ‘always accepted without question unless there is grave reason to doubt'” (emphasis added).

65. Mercer, “Joseph Smith as an Interpreter and Translator of Egyptian,” 12.

66. Charles R. Derchart, “Cybernetics and the Human Person,” International Philosophical Quarterly 5 (1965): 32–33.

67. Webb, “Critical Examination of the Fac-Similes of the Book of Abraham,” 435.

68. Franklin S. Spalding, “Professor S. A. B. Mercer,” Utah Survey 1 (September 1913): 3.

69. Mercer, “Joseph Smith as an Interpreter and Translator of Egyptian,” 30.

70. Ibid.

71. Spalding, “Professor S. A. B. Mercer,” 3.

72. Mercer, “Joseph Smith as an Interpreter and Translator of Egyptian,” 7, 30.

73. Samuel A. B. Mercer, quoted in Franklin S. Spalding, “Rev. Spalding’s Answer to Dr. Widtsoe,” IE 16 (1913): 613.

74. “May We See Your Credentials?” originally appeared in the series, “A New Look at the Pearl of Great Price,” IE 71 (May 1968): 54–57 and (June 1968): 18–22.

75. Franklin S. Spalding, Joseph Smith, Jr., as a Translator (Salt Lake City: Arrow, 1912), 19.

76. John A. Widtsoe, “Dr. Widtsoe’s Reply to Rev. Spalding,” IE 16 (1913): 617.

77. Emmanuel de Rougé, “Conference sur la religion des anciens Égyptiens,” BE 26 (1918): 228.

78. Franklin S. Spalding, Joseph Smith, Jr., as a Translator (1912; reprint, Salt Lake City: Modern Microfilm, 1965), 29.

79. For vital statistics, see Spalding, “Professor S. A. B. Mercer,” 3; Who’s Who 1967: An Annual Biographical Dictionary (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1967), 2087.

80. Mercer quoted in Franklin S. Spalding, “Rev. Spalding’s Answer to Dr. Widtsoe,” IE 16 (1913): 611.

81. Mercer quoted in ibid., 615.

82. Ibid.

83. Ibid.

84. This letter, dated 19 February 1953, has been circulated by LaMar Petersen along with his own letter to Dr. Mercer, dated 16 December 1952 (BYU File M1268).

85. All from Mercer, “Joseph Smith as an Interpreter and Translator of Egyptian,” 7–9.

86. Mercer quoted in Spalding, “Rev. Spalding’s Answer to Dr. Widtsoe,” 612.

87. Samuel A. B. Mercer, review of The Dawn of Conscience, by James H. Breasted, Egyptian Religion 2 (1934): 70.

88. Ibid., 71.

89. Ibid.

90. Samuel A. B. Mercer, review of Myth and Ritual, edited by S. H. Hooke, Egyptian Religion 1 (1933): 84.

91. Ibid., 85.

92. Samuel A. B. Mercer, review of Der Kosmos von Sumer, by Alfred Jeremias, Egyptian Religion 1 (1938): 38.

93. Samuel A. B. Mercer, “Arthur Edward Pearse Brome Weigall,” Egyptian Religion 2 (1934): 75.

94. Samuel A. B. Mercer, review of Die Völker der antiken Orients, by Hermann Junker, Egyptian Religion 3 (1935): 64.

95. Ibid., 65.

96.   Dr. Mercer has great confidence in his own capacity to see into the mind of the primitive: “And just as the imagination of children is less restrained than that of grown-ups, so the imagination of primitive men was vastly more active than is our imagination. So the men of Egypt saw heaven as an immense friendly cow standing over them.” Samuel A. B. Mercer, The Religion of Ancient Egypt (London: Luzac, 1949), 21. In the margin of one of Jaroslav ?erny’s works on the religion of the Old and Middle Kingdoms, Dr. Mercer has written one eloquent word “Absurd!” In his own work, Mercer accepts without question the once fashionable but long-outmoded theory of animism as the key to the understanding of early Egyptian religion; Mercer, The Religion of Ancient Egypt, 299.

97. Samuel A. B. Mercer, review of An Introduction to the Books of the Old Testament, by W. O. E. Oesterley and T. H. Robinson, Egyptian Religion 3 (1935): 115.

98. Samuel A. B. Mercer, review of Die Religion der Ägypter, by Adolf Erman, Egyptian Religion 3 (1935): 160.

99. Samuel A. B. Mercer, review of Semitic and Hamitic Origins, by George A. Barton Egyptian Religion 3 (1935): 160.

100. Ibid., 161.

101. Ibid., 162.

102. Ibid.

103. Samuel A. B. Mercer, “The Gorringe Collection of Egyptian Antiquities,” RT 36 (1914): 176–78, with photograph.

104. Mercer, “Joseph Smith as an Interpreter and Translator of Egyptian,” 11.

105. Ibid. (emphasis added).

106. Ibid., 13.

107. Samuel A. B. Mercer, trans. and ed., Extra-Biblical Sources for Hebrew and Jewish History (New York: Longmans, Green, 1913).

108. Samuel A. B. Mercer, The Ethiopic Liturgy: Its Sources, Development, and Present Form (Milwaukee: Churchman, 1915).

109. Samuel A. B. Mercer, A Sumero-Babylonian Sign List (New York: Columbia University Press, 1918).

110. Günther Roeder, Short Egyptian Grammar, trans. Samuel A. B. Mercer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1920).

111. Samuel A. B. Mercer, Ethiopic Grammar, with Chrestomathy and Glossary (Oxford: Clarendon, 1920).

112. Samuel A. B. Mercer, Assyrian Grammar with Chrestomathy and Glossary (London: Luzac, 1921).

113. Samuel A. B. Mercer, Religious and Moral Ideas in Babylonia and Assyria (Milwaukee: Morehouse, 1919).

114. Samuel A. B. Mercer, Growth of Religious and Moral Ideas in Egypt (Milwaukee: Morehouse, 1919).

115. F. Praetorius, review of The Ethiopic Liturgy, Its Sources, Development, and Present Form, by Samuel A. B. Mercer, ZDMG 70 (1916): 263: “Völlig unzureichend sind aber zur Zeit noch des Verfassers Kenntnisse der äthiopischen Sprache. Die von ihm verübten zahlreichen Übersetzungsfehler wirken zuweilen wie erheiternde Scherze” (emphasis added). It would be hard to put it stronger than that.

116. Ibid.

117. Henry S. Gehmann, review of The Ethiopic Text of the Book of Ecclesiastes, by Samuel A. B. Mercer, JAOS 52 (1932): 260–61.

118. Hermann Kees, review of Études sur les origines de la religion de l’Égypte, by Samuel A. B. Mercer, ZDMG 84 (1930): 191.

119. Ibid.

120. Ibid., 192.

121. Ibid., 193.

122. Ibid., 192.

123. Ibid., 193.

124. Hermann Kees, review of The Religion of Ancient Egypt, by Samuel A. B. Mercer, Orientalia 20 (1951): 98.

125. Ibid., 99.

126. Ibid.

127. Ibid.: “Wir wollen doch bestimmt vermeiden, das dem gutwilligen Leser ein neues Grauen vor der Wirrnis ägyptischen Glaubens und seiner Unverständlichkeit ankommt.”

128. Hans Bonnet, review of The Religion of Ancient Egypt, by Samuel A. B. Mercer, Orientalische Literaturzeitung 48 (1953): 355–56.

129. Eberhard Otto, review of The Religion of Ancient Egypt, by Samuel A. B. Mercer, JNES 12 (1953): 215; cf. Bonnet’s review, 355: “The content and scope [Anspruch] of syncretism are a sealed book to Mercer, and so he attains no insight whatever into the inner life of Egyptian religion and the forces and goals that move it. In spite of the abundance of material supplied therefore, his presentation offers the reader little of value.”

130. Otto, review of The Religion of Ancient Egypt, 215.

131. Ibid., 215–16.

132. Ibid., 216.

133. Ibid., 217.

134. Rudolph Anthes, “Remarks on the Pyramid Texts and the Early Egyptian Dogma,” JAOS 74 (1954): 35, reviewing Samuel A. B. Mercer, The Pyramid Texts in Translation and Commentary, 4 vols. (New York: Longmans, Green, 1952).

135. Anthes, “Remarks on the Pyramid Texts,” 37.

136. Ibid., 35–36 (emphasis added).

137. Ibid., 35, citing Mercer, Pyramid Texts in Translation and Commentary, 8–9.

138. Ibid.

139. Ibid.

140. Ibid., 36.

141. Alan H. Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs (Oxford: Clarendon, 1961), 427.

142. Alan H. Gardiner, “Hymns to Sobk in a Ramesseum Papyrus,” RE 11 (1957): 55.

143. T. George Allen, review of The Pyramid Texts in Translation and Commentary, by Samuel A. B. Mercer, JNES 13 (1954): 119.

144. Ibid.

145. Étienne Drioton, review of Literary Criticism of the Pyramid Texts, by Samuel A. B. Mercer, RE 13 (1961): 148–49.

146. Kurt Sethe, Urgeschichte und älteste Religion der Ägypter (Leipzig: Brockhaus, 1930), 2–3.

147. A. Salonen, review of Earliest Intellectual Man’s Idea of the Cosmos, by Samuel A. B. Mercer, Orientalische Literaturzeitung 54 (1959): 570–71.

148. Ibid., 571–72.

149. Ibid., 570.

150. Samuel A. B. Mercer, review of A Scheme of Egyptian Chronology, by Duncan Macnaughton, Egyptian Religion 1 (1933): 37–38.

151. Thomas L. Thompson, “A New Attempt to Date the Patriarchal Narratives,” JAOS 98 (1978): 77.

152. Marvin E. Tate, “Old Testament Theology: The Current Situation,” Review and Expositor 74 (1977): 279.

153. Rummel, “Using Ancient Near Eastern Parallels in Old Testament Studies,” 8.

154. Nickelsburg, ed., Studies on the Testament of Abraham, 12–22.

155. Rummel, “Using Ancient Near Eastern Parallels in Old Testament Studies,” 7–8.

156. Friedrich Blass, “Hermeneutik und Kritik,” in Einleitende und Hilfs-Disziplinen, ed. L. von Ulrichs, Friederich Blass, Wilhelm Larfeld, et al. (Munich: Beck, 1892), 293–94.

157. Bendt Alster, “The Paradigmatic Character of Mesopotamian Heroes,” Revue d’Assyriologie 68 (1974): 49.

158. André Parrot, Abraham et son temps (Neuchatel: Delachaux and Niestlé, 1962), 11–13.

159. Alster, “Paradigmatic Character of Mesopotamian Heroes,” 50 (emphasis added).

160. Peter R. Ackroyd, “Foreign Theological Literature Survey: 1975–76: The Old Testament,” Expository Times 88 (1976–77): 103 (emphasis added).

161. Jean-Louis Ska, “Les découvertes de Tell Mardikh-Ebla et la Bible,” Nouvelle Revue Théologique 100 (1978): 398.

162. Maurice Wiles, “In What Sense Is Christianity a ‘Historical Religion’?” Theology 81 (January 1978): 13.

163. Jon Sobrino, “The Historical Jesus and the Christ of Faith: The Tension between Faith and Religion,” Cross Currents 27 (1978): 460.

164. Herbert Werner, Abraham der Erstling und Repräsentant Israels (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1965), 25.

165. Ibid., 28.

166. Ibid., 73–79.

167. Ibid., 87–95.

168. G. Hamming, Abrahamisme (Wageningen: Veenman and Zonen, 1967), 7, 13.

169. Ibid., 7.

170. Ibid., 60–63, 97–99.

171. John Van Seters, Abraham in History and Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975).

172. “Promise of Ebla,” 42.

173. Parrot, Abraham et son temps, 11.

174. James L. Kelso, “Abraham as Archaeology Knows Him,” Perspective 13 (Winter 1972): 4–5

175. Hamming, Abrahamisme, 7.

176. C. Davey, “The Dwellings of Private Citizens,” Buried History 13 (1977): 22.

177. William H. Stiebing, “When Was the Age of the Patriarchs?” BAR 1 (June 1975): 18.

178. Anderson, “Ebla, the More We Find Out, the Less We Know,” 10.

179. Thompson, “New Attempt to Date the Patriarchal Narratives,” 78.

180.   Hugh W. Nibley, “A New Look at the Pearl of Great Price,” IE 72 (November 1969): 125.

181. Noel Weeks, “Man, Nuzi and the Patriarchs,” Abr-Nahrain 16 (1975–76): 80.

182. Kelso, “Abraham as Archaeology Knows Him,” 9–11.

183. Robert Martin-Achard, Actualité d’Abraham (Neuchatel: Delachaux and Niestlé, 1969), 58.

184. Weeks, “Man, Nuzi and the Patriarchs,” 79.

185. Thompson, “New Attempt to Date the Patriarchal Narratives,” 76–77.