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The Book of Abraham and the Ancient Wisdom

By: Steve Fleming - September 29, 2011

Many Christians have found Plato valuable and those who have have often promoted the idea of prisca theologia, or, the ancient wisdom. The idea was the Plato got his ideas from somewhere else, like hermetic or orphic texts, and some thinkers constructed larger narratives of where the ancient wisdom (Platonic ideas that predated Plato) came from. “In order to preserve the uniqueness of the Judeo-Christian revelation,” argues D. P. Walker, “it was usual to claim that pagan Ancient Theology derived from Moses; but sometimes it was supposed to go back further, to Noah and his good sons, Shem and Japeth, or to antediluvian Patriarchs, such as Enoch, or even Adam.” [1]

Phillip Jacob Spener, the father of Pietism, was accused by Lutheran ministers of being fundamentally Platonic in his theology and therefore a heretic. Spener “defended himself in print against these attacks,” says Florian Ebeling, “maintaining that he had built his doctrine exclusively on the basis of the Bible. And since there were incontestable parallels between his concepts and those of Plato, he reckoned that Plato had also read the Holy Scriptures.” [2]

Spener went farther by arguing that Abraham was the source of the ancient wisdom and that this wisdom passed into Egypt via Joseph “who was sent to Egypt by God … bearing the secret wisdom, or the believing spirit of Abraham.” The Egyptians attempted to copy Joseph’s wisdom but corrupted it and “spread false doctrine in its place.” Egypt thus “fell into the most shameful idolatry and blindness … and built temples to the most loathsome creatures … and founded a special, idolatrous cult for them.” [3]

Sound familiar? “Pharaoh being of that lineage by which he could not have the right of Priesthood, notwithstanding the Pharaohs would fain claim it from Noah, through Ham, therefore my father was led away by their idolatry.” (1:27).

With this context in mind, let’s now think about the context of the Breathings of Hor and its parallels with Mormon theology and the Endowment ritual. Let me quote Algis Uzdavinys for context. “This transition may be imagined as a ceremonial movement through temple gates and halls which the initiate must cross in order to reach the place of justification, in the innermost part of the temple, where Osiris sits enthroned.” Uzdavinys then quotes Jan Assman (the leading expert on ancient Egyptian religion) “The path of the deceased to Osiris corresponds to the path of the priest on this way to the innermost sanctuary of the god. The path of the priest is furthermore sacramentally explained as an ascent to the heavens.” [4]

Since the text spoke of Egyptian (i.e. “pagan”) rituals and theology, perhaps there was some utility to having a text that declared Abraham to be the source of Egyptian wisdom, an idea with which some of Smith’s followers might have been familiar. “And the Lord said unto me: Abraham, I show these things unto thee before ye go into Egypt, that ye may declare all these words.” (3:15). Having Abraham sitting on Pharaoh’s throne teaching the Egyptians would have driven the point home further.

The BoA also makes the point that the Egyptians were not all bad, despite their idolatry (worshipping the wrong gods). “Pharaoh, being a righteous man, established his kingdom and judged his people wisely and justly all his days, seeking earnestly to imitate that order established by the fathers in the first generations, in the days of the first patriarchal reign, even in the reign of Adam, and also of Noah, his father, who blessed him with the blessings of the earth, and with the blessings of wisdom, but cursed him as pertaining to the Priesthood.” (1:26) The Egyptians, argued Spener, maintained aspects of the ancient wisdom but claimed that Hermes was the author instead of Joseph. It was from this source that Plato drew his wisdom. [5] They weren’t quite doing it right, but were pretty close.

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[1] D. P. Walker, The Ancient Theology: Studies in Christian Platonism from the Fifteenth to the Eighteenth Century (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1972), 1.

[2] Florian Ebeling, The Secret History of Hermes Trismegistus: Hermeticism from Ancient to Modern Times, forward by Jan Assmann, trans. by David Lorton (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2007), 111.

[3] Ibid, 112.

[4] Algis Uzdavinys, Philosophy and Theurgy in Late Antiquity (San Rafel, Calif.: Sophia Perennis, 2010), 45.

[5] Ebeling, Secret History of Hermes, 112.



12 Comments

  1. This is also the position Hugh Nibley takes.

    Comment by Dustin — September 29, 2011 @ 8:48 pm

  2. Interesting stuff Steve. “Translation” in Mormonism (I mean of course in terms of JS) is a related vein of gold waiting to be mined.

    Comment by WVS — September 30, 2011 @ 9:34 am

  3. I seem to be sounding more like Nibley all the time these days.

    Thanks WVS.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 30, 2011 @ 11:55 am

  4. “let’s now think about the context of the Breathings of Hor and its parallels with Mormon theology and the Endowment ritual.”

    There’s a sense in which I appreciate the efforts to “reposition” the BOA based on the information that has surfaced since 1968, but it just doesn’t work for me (and you have no idea how much I wish it did). I just try to use the gems, like premortal existence, in my religious thinking and try to push to the back of my mind the historical – and astronomical – “challenges” presented by the Book of Abraham.

    Comment by larryco_ — September 30, 2011 @ 1:12 pm

  5. Ah, an unintended pun, because I do find the challenges presented by the existence of the Book of Abraham astronomical.

    Comment by larryco_ — September 30, 2011 @ 1:17 pm

  6. I’m not trying to talk you into anything larry, just to give some context. That said, the Breathings of Hor doesn’t strike me as problematic. That’s my personal reaction.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 30, 2011 @ 1:42 pm

  7. It seems to me the issue isn’t the nature of the snsn honestly but rather the issue of what was on the particular scroll relative to the printed Book of Abraham. That’s where all the controversy pops up relative to the size of the scroll.

    Comment by Clark — September 30, 2011 @ 2:53 pm

  8. I’m aware of the consternation people have expressed over the issue, I just don’t feel it personally.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 30, 2011 @ 3:08 pm

  9. Steve, I’m with you. To the contrary, I’m strongly impressed by the Book of Abraham as the core of an endowment ritual, pulled from the larger source.

    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — October 2, 2011 @ 10:33 pm

  10. I guess I’m just not clever enough to get the point, but what does someone’s opinion (Spener’s) have to do with a document (the Book of Abraham) that itself says that it predates him by many thousands of years? What could he possibly have to say about the issues surrounding it?

    Comment by smallish star — October 3, 2011 @ 3:01 am

  11. That is the big question Star. There was a constant view in the era of late antiquity that different groups originated knowledge. Now there’s something to that. After all the Romans lifted a lot of Greek thought. One can argue that at least some Greek thought had its origins by people studying in the Egyptian “college” (which was a combination of mathematic and obscure Egyptian religion) and many argue from India (there’s a theory that Heraclitus’ ideas come out of Indian traders visiting Corinth). The Jews of course wanted the origin to be them. So already there were claims that the Egyptians got their ideas from the Jews.

    When you get into Renaissance and post-Renaissance Europe you have all these views somewhat jumbled. However because they were Christians there was obviously a bias to make their people (the Old Testament prophets) the real source. (There were exceptions – there was the emergence of a neo-paganism in the Renaissance that was highly skeptical of Christianity) It’s important to remember that the Renaissance partially started when Islam sacked Constantinople and people fled to the west bringing documents that had largely been lost in the west. So you had the rediscovery of Plato (it was largely all Aristotle at this time in the West), various gnostic texts, Islamic texts, and of course the Corpus Hermeticum which we know was a product of late antiquity but which the people of the Renaissance honestly thought was ancient and related to those earlier eras of Egyptian thought. It was at that time a lot of interest in Egyptian really got going as well, albeit with radically erroneous ideas of how the scripts worked.

    Comment by Clark — October 3, 2011 @ 10:29 am

  12. Agreed Stephen (if I understand you correctly). To me the Book of Abraham seems similar to the Book of Moses: an expansion of the Book of Genesis. That said, I find the Breathings of Hor remarkable.

    Right Clark. smallish star, this was more about ways Abraham was understood in early modern times. I wasn’t trying to give context for Abraham himself.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 3, 2011 @ 1:54 pm