The ancient owner of the Book of Abraham papyri

Joseph Smith claimed that the Book of Abraham was a translation of some of the papyri he purchased along with some mummies in Kirtland. It is difficult to ascertain the full nature of those papyri since a lot of them burned. But we can learn some about the history of those papyri from the fragments which remain. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog, Kerry Muhlestein discussed some of what we know about the ancient owner of the Book of Abraham papyri. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview.

What do we know about the ancient owner of the papyri? Muhlestein explained:

There are some fascinating things to know about this priest [Hor]. He was a priest of three gods, all in the great Karnak Temple in Thebes (modern day Luxor). He served Amun in his form of king-of-the-gods (also known as Amonrasonter). He also served Min in his form of Min-who-massacres-his-enemies. He served a third god in Karnak, known as Khonsu, in his form of Khonsu-who-overthrew (or governed)-in-Thebes (also known as Chespesichis).

Hor was a “servant of the god” for all three deities, a role which was translated as “prophet” when it was rendered in Greek or Coptic. We do not know all the functions he would have played for these gods, but we do know some. He likely would have participated in the ritual of feeding and clothing the god.

For Amun and Min he also almost certainly participated in an execration ritual. This was a ritual which was aimed at destroying or sacrificing enemies.

We know little of what he would have done for Khonsu, but it probably involved creation rituals as well as rituals oriented towards healing and protection from demons or enemies, which shares purposes with the execration ritual. He would have performed these rituals at around 200 BC.

All of this is interesting because we know that priests from this time period were often influenced in their choice of funerary texts by their temple performances. If the Book of Abraham were among Hor’s funerary texts (which we are not sure of), it would have aligned well with his roles in creation rituals and rituals having to do with being protected from dangerous forces.

He added further information: 

We know that priests in Thebes at around the time period of Hor, who was a priest in Thebes, were interested in biblical figures. They were intertwining Egyptian religious thought and ritual with that of other cultures. This was especially true of Greek and Jewish cultures, which is not surprising since there were a lot of Greeks and Jews in Egypt at the time.

This may seem strange to a monotheistic culture like ours. But in a polytheistic culture it is normal to encounter other gods and want to make them happy and access their powers in addition to their own gods.

Priests in Thebes seem to have been using biblical figures like Jehovah, Michael, Moses, and Abraham in their ritual texts. We can tell that they had access to the stories in the Bible, but also to other stories about these figures.

The owner, Hor, was a priest in ancient Egypt associated with a few different deities .

How do we know this? 

The papyri themselves contain the name of the owners and something about their genealogy. For the owner of fragments I, X, and XI, it also included some of his priestly titles. It is also fortunate that we know a great deal about that particular family from other sources, such as other papyri and even inscriptions on statues.

As a result, John Gee, Marc Coenen, and others, have been able to piece together a fairly detailed family tree and we can plot a fairly precise chronological date for when that owner lived.

There are some pretty good clues through which the information presented above has been gleaned.

For more about Hor—the ancient owner of the Book of Abraham papyri—head on over to the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk.

2 comments for “The ancient owner of the Book of Abraham papyri

  1. I don’t know the particular work, but this seems like a good example of how apologetics can lead to useful scholarship. You might hate the motivation and aims of the research, but the research findings themselves seem interesting and useful, or at least as useful as any other piece of research is likely to be. Discovering everything there is to know about the owner of a 2000-year old book that barely exists anymore is interesting! People ask questions about history or old documents for all kinds of strange reasons, and if there weren’t people with strange reasons, a lot of questions would just never get asked.

  2. JG –

    Along those lines: I can’t recall where I read it (I think it was Bushman), but it was something like “we would know very little about the lives of early 19th century subsistence-level citizens – except if it weren’t that both friends and enemies of the Mormons were so motivated to find out everything they could about Joseph Smith and his neighbors.”

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