“For whom did Abraham write the book of Abraham?” Ensign, June 1982, 35–36
Eric Jay Olson, Church Translation Division. If we are to have a correct understanding of a writing or discourse, we must know the person or persons for whom it was written. A writer or speaker frames his ideas and selects his examples to meet the needs of his readers. He takes into consideration what they know and do not know, and explains accordingly. Facts and concepts which his audience knows need only brief reference; new ideas he explains in some detail. If we keep this principle in mind when we read the book of Abraham, we should be able to identify the audience for whom Abraham intended his words.
In chapter 1 of the book, we first read a biography of Abraham. He describes his flight from his birthplace, his search for truth, and his receipt of the priesthood. He describes his journey through Palestine and down into Egypt. In connection with his visit to Egypt, he gives, starting in verse 20, a brief history of the land. First, he explains the word Pharaoh and then tells us more about Pharaoh the person. (See Abr. 1:21–27.) He also gives some of the genealogy of the Egyptians, tells how Egypt was discovered and settled, describes its form of government, and finally explains the connection between this history and his father’s. We must conclude from this explanation that Abraham’s audience was unfamiliar with the history and government of Egypt but that they were acquainted with the individuals Ham, Adam, and Noah.
In verses 11 and 12 of chapter 1, Abraham describes the attempt to sacrifice him on an altar “after the manner of the Egyptians.” [Abr. 1:11–12] He then refers his audience to an illustration at the front of the book (Facsimile 1) so that they will “have a knowledge of this altar.” In verses 13 and 14, he describes the gods standing before the altar, including one that was “like unto that of Pharaoh, king of Egypt.” [Abr. 1:13–14] He follows this with a statement of his purpose for doing so: “That you may have an understanding of these gods, I have given you the fashion of them in the figures at the beginning.” In the last verse of chapter 1 Abraham says that he has received and preserved the records of the patriarchs “unto this day” and plans to write on them his experiences “for the benefit of my posterity that shall come after me.”
These sections of the book suggest that Abraham was addressing an audience unfamiliar with basic characteristics of Egyptian culture. In his own words, he was writing “for the benefit of my posterity that shall come after me.” (Abr. 1:31; see also Abr. 2:10–11.) And, as we shall see, he was writing in retrospect, at a time when he was no longer in Egypt. His description of his visit to Egypt is included in the context of a personal history, much in the fashion of quotations from a journal of his sojourn in that foreign land.
We can find evidence for this in the change of his name from Abraham to Abram in early versions of the modern publication of the book of Abraham.1 When the book was first published in the Times and Seasons, the first verse included the expression “I, Abraham.” Later, in verse 5 of that publication, corresponding to verse 16 in the current edition, we read “Abram! Abram! behold, my name is JEHOVAH.” As described in the Genesis account (See Gen. 17:5–8), Abram did not receive his new name until after his visit to Egypt. So when he describes events occurring in Egypt, he uses the name he had at that time, just as if he were quoting from his journal. The beginning of the book, corresponding to the time after his name was changed, would appropriately use his name at that time, Abraham.2
A considerable body of legends, stories, and other types of material preserved in sources outside the Old Testament claims to tell about Abraham. Abraham was a popular hero in Jewish traditions and many tales have been preserved about him. For example, the Mishnah Haggada discourses expand on the text and stories of Abraham in the Old Testament. There are also Jewish apocalyptic writings such as the Apocalypse of Abraham and the Testament of Abraham which retell events from Abraham’s life and parallel in some detail the events in the book of Abraham. These books are not preserved in Hebrew, but they are definitely Jewish in origin.3 They are found today in translations in Greek, Slavonic, Romanian, and Ethiopic. The first of these writings became known in 1892 when M. R. James translated and published the Testament of Abraham.4 Since that day other versions have become known and have attracted interest. They claim to preserve episodes from the life of Abraham which are not found in the Old Testament. Finally, ancient historians such as Josephus and Eusebius pass on to us episodes they believed to be from the life of Abraham.5 A good many similarities exist between these sources and the account in the book of Abraham, particularly with regard to some of Abraham’s pivotal religious experiences.6
These non-biblical references parallel information recorded in the book of Abraham7 and give us additional evidence that Abraham left his words for his posterity. And it is in this context that we should seek the proper background for the book of Abraham.