Last week, I ran across an intriguing statement from a 1994 Ensign article about the Book of Abraham:
A number of ancient texts support Joseph Smith’s account, depicted in facsimile 3 from the book of Abraham, that the patriarch taught astronomy in Egypt.
Intrigued, I consulted my oracles (Google), which led me to an article from the Maxwell Institute for Religious Studies at BYU (hereafter “MI”):
The authors–Daniel C. Peterson, John Gee, and William J. Hamblin–make the following statement in support of Abraham as ancient astronomer:
Abraham’s traditional reputation as an ancient astronomer has been previously analyzed.[Here they refer to Mormon apologist Hugh Nibley's Abraham in Egypt.] One of the most interesting texts in this regard is by Pseudo-Eupolemus, as quoted by Eusebius in the fourth century A.D., which states that “While living with the Egyptian priests in Heliopolis, Abraham taught them many things, including astronomy, and other related things. . . . Abraham, having been trained in the science of astronomy, first went to Phoenicia, to teach the Phoenicians astronomy, then went into Egypt.”
If accurate, this is remarkable evidence in favor of the Book of Abraham, as Joseph Smith could not possibly have had access to a fourth-century Roman historian citing an earlier Jewish historian. The implication is clear: this is a major “bullseye” for Joseph Smith, for how could he have guessed that Abraham had a reputation in the ancient world as a great astronomer? Surely, this ranks up there with the discover of NHM/Nihm in favor of the Book of Mormon.
I admit that I was duly impressed when I first read this assertion, so I looked up the primary source. One minor quibble is that Eusebius isn’t quoting pseudo-Eupolemus but Alexander Polyhistor, a Greek scholar from the first century BC. Alexander is summarizing pseudo-Eupolemus, not directing quoting him. Also, it appears that the authors are combining this summary with Alexander’s subsequent summary of Artabanus, a Persian historian from the fifth century BC. Either way, however, the passage does essentially say what the MI article says it does (single quotes denote a direct quote from Alexander Polyhistor):
AND with this agrees also Alexander Polyhistor, a man of great intellect and much learning, and very well known to those Greeks who have gathered the fruits of education in no perfunctory manner: for in his compilation, Concerning the Jews, he records the history of this man Abraham in the following manner word for word:
[ALEXANDER POLYHISTOR] 21 ‘Eupolemus in his book Concerning the Jews of Assyria says that the city Babylon was first founded by those who escaped from the Deluge; and that they were giants, and built the tower renowned in history.
‘But when this had been overthrown by the act of God, the giants were dispersed over the whole earth. And in the tenth generation, he says, in Camarina a city of Babylonia, which some call the city Uria (and which is by interpretation the city of the Chaldees), + in the thirteenth generation + Abraham was born, who surpassed all men in nobility and wisdom, who was also the inventor of astronomy and the Chaldaic art, and pleased God well by his zeal towards religion.
‘By reason of God’s commands this man came and dwelt in Phoenicia, and pleased their king by teaching the Phoenicians the changes of the sun and moon and all things of that kind. And afterwards the Armenians invaded the Phoenicians; and when they had been victorious, and had taken his nephew prisoner, Abraham came to the rescue with his servants, and prevailed over the captors, and made prisoners of the wives and children of the enemy.
‘And when there came to him ambassadors asking that he would ransom them for money, he did not choose to trample upon the unfortunate, but on receiving food for his young men restored the booty; he was also admitted as a guest into the temple of the city called Argarizin, which being interpreted is “Mount of the Most High,” and received gifts from Melchizedek, who was the king, and the priest of God.
‘But when there came a famine Abraham removed into Egypt with all his household, and dwelt there, and the king of Egypt took his wife in marriage, Abraham having said that she was his sister.
‘He also related fully that the king was unable to consort with her, and that it came to pass that his people and his household were perishing. And when he had called for the soothsayers, they said that the woman was not a widow; and thus the king of Egypt learned that she was Abraham’s wife, and gave her back to her husband.
‘And Abraham dwelt with the Egyptian priests in Heliopolis and taught them many things; and it was he who introduced astronomy and the other sciences to them, saying that the Babylonians and himself had found these things out, but tracing back the first discovery to Enoch, and saying that he, and not the Egyptians, had first invented astrology.
‘For the Babylonians say that the first man was Belus, who is Kronos; and that of him was born a son Belus, and Chanaan; and that this Chanaan begat the father of the Phoenicians, and that his son was Churn, who is called by the Greeks Asbolus, and is father of the Aethiopians, and a brother of Mestraim the father of the Egyptians. But the Greeks say that Atlas invented astrology, and that Atlas is the same as Enoch: and that Enoch had a son Methuselah, who learned all things through angels of God, and thus we gained our knowledge.’
‘ARTABANUS in his Jewish History says that the Jews were called Ermiuth, which when interpreted after the Greek language means Judaeans, and that they were called Hebrews from Abraham. And he, they say, came with all his household into Egypt, to Pharethothes the king of the Egyptians, and taught him astrology; and after remaining there twenty years, removed back again into the regions of Syria: but that many of those who had come with him remained in Egypt because of the prosperity of the country.
‘In certain anonymous works, however, we found that Abraham traced Lack his origin to the giants, and that they dwelling in Babylonia were destroyed by the gods for their impiety; but that one of them, named Belus, escaped death and settled in Babylon, and lived in a tower which he had built, and which was called Belus from the Belus who built it: and that Abraham having been instructed in the science of astrology came first into Phoenicia, and taught astrology to the Phoenicians, and afterwards passed on into Egypt.’
I’ve quoted the entire passage, lest anyone think I’m playing fast and loose with the source material. I note that both pseudo-Eupolemus and Artabanus have Abraham using his knowledge of astronomy to invent astrology, which is, of course, soothsaying through gazing at the stars. So, although this passage doesn’t completely square with the Book of Abraham’s account of Abraham’s astronomy, it is a very close match. As I said, I was quite impressed, at first, as this passage seemed to indicate that Joseph Smith not only got something right in the text of the Book of Abraham but provided esoteric insights unknown in the nineteenth century. To borrow from Dr. Peterson, the implication is clear: “How could Joseph know all of this?”
But then I noticed the passage in Eusebius immediately preceding his quote from Alexander. Again, single quotes mark Eusebius’s direct quotations from earlier sources:
AGAIN, as Moses has set forth at large the history of Abraham the forefather of the Hebrews, Josephus says that the foreign historians also bear witness to him, writing as follows:
[JOSEPHUS] 19 ‘Berossus mentions our father Abraham, not by name, but in these terms: “In the tenth generation after the flood there was among the Chaldeans a righteous and great man, experienced also in heavenly things.”
‘But Hecataeus has done something more than mentioning him; for he left behind him a book which he had composed concerning him.
‘And Nicolaus Damascenus, in the fourth book of his Histories, speaks thus:20 “Abraham was king of Damascus, having come as a stranger with an army from the land which lies beyond Babylon, called Chaldaea. But after no long time he removed from this country also, and migrated with his own people into what was then called Canaan, but now Judaea, and so did afterwards the multitude of his descendants, concerning whom I shall relate in another discourse what is recorded in history. Even now the name of Abraham is glorified in the district of Damascus, and a village is pointed out which is called from him the Habitation of Abraham.”
‘When in later times a famine had fallen upon the land of Canaan, Abraham having been informed that the Egyptians were in prosperity was eager to cross over to them, both to partake of their abundance, and to be a hearer of their priests, to learn what they said about the gods; intending either to follow them, if they were found superior, or to bring them over to the better belief, if his own opinions were preferable.’
Then next he adds:
‘And he associated with the most learned of the Egyptians, and the result was that his virtue and his consequent reputation became more illustrious from this cause.
‘For whereas the Egyptians delight in different customs, and disparage one another’s usages, and are for this reason ill-disposed towards each other, he by conferring with them severally, and discussing the arguments which they used in defence of their own practices, proved them to be empty and devoid of all truth.
‘Being therefore admired by them in their conferences as a very wise man, and strong not only in intelligence but also in persuasive speech on whatever subjects he undertook to teach, he freely imparts to them the science of arithmetic, and also communicates to them the facts of astronomy. For before Abraham’s arrival the Egyptians were ignorant of these subjects; for they passed from the Chaldees into Egypt, and thence came also to the Greeks.’
So writes Josephus.
If I didn’t know any better, I would think that this passage from Josephus is further confirmation of Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling. But it isn’t.
The difference between Eusebius and Josephus is simple: Josephus was widely read in Joseph Smith’s day, and Eusebius was unknown to all but a few Latin scholars. Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews had first been translated into English in 1544, and in 1732 William Whiston’s retranslation became immensely popular in the English-speaking world. Many families had Josephus alongside their Bible as standard religious reading. Indeed, the Palmyra, New York, public library had a copy of Antiquities available before 1820, and Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews (1823) and Josiah Priest’s The Wonders of Nature and Providence Displayed (1825) quoted from the book. Early Mormon publications quoted Josephus often in support of Mormon beliefs. For example, in Benjamin Winchester’s 1843 tract, History of the Priesthood, we read:
The apostle holds out the idea, that this priesthood is a kingly one, which appears to be correct, from the fact, that it emanated from God, and He is a King of kings, and Lord of lords; and it is also the authority of his kingdom, and by it, as I have before mentioned, Melchisedec reigned as a king over the inhabitants of the city of Salem. This idea is corroborated by Josephus, who says: “Now the king of Salem met him [Abraham] at a certain place called the Kings’ dale, where Melchisedec king of the city of Salem received him.
Given the availability and knowledge of Josephus’ writings in Joseph Smith’s day, it’s wholly unremarkable that his ideas would have been reflected in a contemporary Book of Abraham. In fact, some have argued that Josephus was a source for many ideas and passages of Mormon scripture (see, for example, Joseph Smith and Josephus). I’m not arguing for plagiarism, but it is clear that this “bullseye” is not impressive in the least.
In the 1994 Ensign article and in a 2012 Deseret News article, “Defending the Faith: How could Joseph know all of this?” Daniel Peterson mentions Josephus as supporting the view of Abraham as astronomer, but the MI article does not mention Josephus at all. The authors tell us that the pseudo-Eupolemus passage is one of the most interesting in support of Joseph Smith, but it’s really not any more illuminating than the Josephus passage. It’s only interesting in the sense of the rhetorical question, “How could Joseph know all of this?”
The answer, alas, is pretty simple: he was familiar with Josephus, as many other people in his day were.
Often I’ve heard that people who discover the problems with Mormon truth claims are “lazy and intransigent” people who can’t be bothered to put any effort into their study of the gospel. But this Eusebius “bullseye” seems to depend largely on the assumption that readers will accept the evidence at face value without engaging the source material. It almost worked on me.