BoAbr  >  History of Interpretation

Nibley's Illusory Variants
(Abr. 2:15-16, 18b)

Brent Lee Metcalfe


A leitmotif in Hugh Nibley's "The Meaning of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers" affirms that BoAbr manuscripts which correlate Egyptian characters with translation are maladroit products of Joseph Smith's colleagues acting independently of Smith. For Nibley, this absolves Smith of responsibility for writing, dictating, or otherwise being involved in producing the BoAbr manuscripts. On what Nibley identifies as BoAbr Ms. 1 (= BoAbr Ms. 2, based on actual chronology), he summarizes:

Thus B. of A. Ms. #1 [= BoAbr Ms. 2] has the marks of a work in progress, and we can be sure that the final confused and jumbled verse [Abr. 2:18] is as far as he got. It begins with W.W. Phelps's setting out to give us a genuine analytical translation, but fizzles out on the first page; what follows is a simple straightforward copying of Abraham chapter 1 by Warren Parrish; with chapter 2 the writer begins casting about for better wording, rearranging but never changing words; on the last two pages his text differs from the present official version, and ends up in a state of confusion marking the end of the project at Abraham 2:18. It was copying, but copying with discussion. When a reading is changed in one of the three copies of B. of A. Mss. # 1, 2 and 3 [= BoAbr Mss. 2, 1a, and 1b], it is usually altered in the other two as well, showing that men were working together; but the end results are not always the same, as in Abraham 2:15, where the writer has written and then struck out the words that stand in B. of A. Ms. #4 [= BoAbr Ms. 3] and in the present official version. It is as if the scribes were being encouraged to think for themselves.

Among the proofs that Nibley garners in support is his claim that certain verses in BoAbr Ms. 2 (= HWN: BoAbr Ms. 1) differ radically compared with the published BoAbr and BoAbr Ms. 3 (= HWN: BoAbr Ms. 4):

... Was the final text, then, taken from this copy [BoAbr Ms. 2 (= HWN: BoAbr Ms. 1)]? The next two pages show us that it was not, for there the following passages occur:
'... and I took Sarai, whom I took to wife in Ur of Chaldea wife when I was Jer Jurshon, to come to the land of Canaan.' (Page 9.)

This is quite different from the final text of Abr. 2:15:

'And I took Sarai, whom I took to wife when I was in Ur, in Chaldea ... and came forth in the way to the land of Canaan.'

Only at the end of the next verse do we get the rest of the sentence:

'... by the way of Jershon, to come to the land of Canaan.'

And on the last page [of BoAbr Ms. 2 (= HWN: BoAbr Ms. 1)] we read:

'... into the land <borders> of the <land of the> Canaanites, and the land of the idolatrous nation.'

Compare this with Abr. 2:18:

'... into the borders of the land of the Canaanites, and I offered sacrifice there in the plains of Moreh, and called on the Lord devoutly, because we had already come into the land of the idolatrous nation.'

Here the end result in Copy 1 [BoAbr Ms. 2 (= HWN: BoAbr Ms. 1)] is definitely not the official text.

So where does Nibley err? Put simply, his variants for BoAbr Ms. 2 (= HWN: BoAbr Ms. 1) don't exist.

Below are the actual passages from BoAbr Ms. 2 (= HWN: BoAbr Ms. 1):

And I took Sarai, whom I took to wife in Ur of Chaldeea wife when I was in Ur, in Chaldeea, and Lot my brothers son, and all our substance, that we had gathered, and the souls that we had won in Haran, and came forth in the way to the land of Canaan, and dwelt in tents, as we came on our way, there=fore eternity was our covering, and our rock, and our salvation, as we journ=eyed, from Haran, by the way of jur Jurshon, to come to the land of Can=aan.

... into the land <borders> of the <land of the> Canaanites, and I offered sacrifice there, in the plains of Moreh, and called on the Lord devo=utly because we <we> had already come into the land of this Idoletrous nation.

Except for punctuation and orthography the emended readings of Abraham 2:15-16, 18b in BoAbr Ms. 2 (= HWN: BoAbr Ms. 1) are identical to the published BoAbr and BoAbr Ms. 3 (= HWN: BoAbr Ms. 4). How Nibley made such egregious errors eludes me. But this much is certain, Nibley's hypothesis of BoAbr Ms. 2 (= HWN: BoAbr Ms. 1) as a "work in progress" that was "definitely not the official [BoAbr] text" is based in part on "confused and jumbled" textual variations that exist only in Nibley's imagination.

{ Go to Hugh Winder Nibley's Book of Abraham Legacy Contents }

(hAcKed & rEndeReD by bReNt LeE mEtcALfe! Copyright © 2000–2003 Brent Lee Metcalfe for Mormon Scripture Studies: An E-Journal of Critical Thought. All rights reserved.)

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[Bio] Brent Lee Metcalfe is managing editor and Web engineer/designer for Mormon Scripture Studies: An E-Journal of Critical Thought, and is founder and owner of im@go w3 design—a Web technologies consulting venue. He is also a technical editor in the gaming industry. Brent is editor of the provocative tome New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993), and co-editor with Dan Vogel of American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002). His musings on Web design are published on EarthWeb's developer.com and on c|net's builder.com here and there.

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Edward H. Ashment has text-critically demonstrated the correct sequence of the BoAbr manuscripts (see E. Ashment, "Reducing Dissonance: The Book of Abraham as a Case Study," The Word of God: Essays on Mormon Scripture, ed. Dan Vogel [Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1990], 223-26, and passim):

  • BoAbr Ms. 1a, in the handwriting of Frederick G. Williams (BoAbr Folder 2 [Nibley's Ms. 2])

  • BoAbr Ms. 1b, in the handwriting of Warren Parrish (BoAbr Folder 3 [Nibley's Ms. 3])

  • BoAbr Ms. 2, begun by William W. Phelps and completed (incorporating emendations from Ms. 1b) by Warren Parrish (BoAbr Folder 1 [Nibley's Ms. 1])

  • BoAbr Ms. 3, in the handwriting of Willard Richards (BoAbr Folder 4 [Nibley's Ms. 4])

BoAbr Mss. 1a and 1b exhibit textual traits consistent with simultaneous dictation. BoAbr Ms. 2 is a hybrid: features of the opening text (Phelps's handwriting) and closing text (Parrish's handwriting) are consistent with dictation, whereas the central text is essentially a copy by Parrish of his BoAbr Ms. 1b. Only portions BoAbr Ms. 3—the printer's manuscript—are extant.

For evidence that Frederick G. Williams, in lieu of Phelps, was Smith's amanuensis for Ms. 1a see Edward H. Ashment, "The Forgotten Scribe: Frederick G. Williams and the Joseph Smith Egyptian Papers" (privately circulated, 2001).







Hugh Nibley, "The Meaning of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers," BYU Studies 11 (Summer 1971): 386-87 (the table of contents header bears the date "Spring 1971").







Hugh Nibley, "The Meaning of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers," BYU Studies 11 (Summer 1971): 386 (the table of contents header bears the date "Spring 1971").







BoAbr Ms. 2 (= HWN: BoAbr Ms. 1), p. 9 (Abr. 2:15-16), LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City, UT.







BoAbr Ms. 2 (= HWN: BoAbr Ms. 1), p. 10 (Abr. 2:18b), LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City, UT.