The Book of Abraham Overview: Translation and Source Material

For many, the Book of Abraham is one of the most problematic subjects within Mormonism due to our ability to translate Egyptian after Joseph Smith released the Book of Abraham. We want to give a brief overview of the history of the Book of Abraham, looking at the facsimiles and manuscripts, and then review the church's response to how this can all be reconciled.


Overview of the Book of Abraham

 

For a very brief history of how the Book of Abraham came to be, we quote from the official LDS essay:

In the summer of 1835, an entrepreneur named Michael Chandler arrived at Church headquarters in Kirtland, Ohio, with four mummies and multiple scrolls of papyrus. Chandler found a ready audience... By the time the collection arrived in Kirtland, all but four mummies and several papyrus scrolls had already been sold. A group of Latter-day Saints in Kirtland purchased the remaining artifacts for the Church. After Joseph Smith examined the papyri and commenced "the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics," his history recounts, "much to our joy [we] found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham."

After the church paid Chandler $2,400 for the remaining mummies and scrolls (about $68,000 in today's dollars), Joseph Smith conducted a brief inspection of the rolls and declared that "I commenced the translation [emphasis added] of some of the characters or hieroglyphics, and much to our joy found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham, another the writings of Joseph of Egypt, etc.,–a more full account of which will appear in its place, as I proceed to examine or unfold them. Truly we can say, the Lord is beginning to reveal the abundance of peace and truth." (History of the Church, vol 2: 236)

That same year, Joseph Smith began translating the Book of Abraham papyri. According to his scribe W.W. Phelps, "I (Joseph) was continually engaged in translating an alphabet of the Book of Abraham, and arranging a grammar of the Egyptian language…" While there is not universal agreement on when the Book of Abraham was translated, historian Dan Vogel shows that the evidence points to Abraham 1:1-2:18 being produced in 1835 and the remainder of the Book of Abraham was produced up to seven years later in Nauvoo, likely in 1842.

There is some evidence that Joseph Smith used his white seer stone to translate the Egyptian papyri. Parley Pratt said in 1842 that "The Pearl of Great Price is now in course of translation by means of the Urim and Thummim and proves to be a record written partly by the father of the faithful, Abraham, and finished by Joseph when in Egypt." (Millennial Star, 3 July 1842) This is different than the brown seer stone that Joseph Smith used to produce the Book of Mormon.

The Book of Abraham was serially published in the Times and Seasons beginning on March 1, 1842, and finishing that May. The heading of the Book of Abraham was as follows:

 

"A translation of [emphasis added] some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands, from the Catacombs of Egypt, purporting to be the writings of Abraham, while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus."

Problems With the Book of Abraham

 

When the Book of Abraham was released in 1842, no one around Joseph Smith knew how to translate Egyptian, which is what made Joseph Smith's divine translation of ancient papyri so momentous. While the Rosetta Stone had been discovered in 1799, it took decades to be deciphered and news of its existence was not known to America until around 1858 - well after Joseph Smith's death. This discovery allowed scholars to decipher ancient Egyptian writings for the first time, and this knowledge would lead Egyptian scholars to conclude that the Book of Abraham facsimiles and papyri have nothing to do with the Book of Abraham that Joseph Smith presented as a translation from God.

The discovery of the Rosetta Stone led many early Egyptologists to note that the Book of Abraham was not a true translation along with the advancement in knowledge about the common funerary scrolls that the Book of Abraham was produced from. As early as 1856, Egyptologist Gustav Seyffarth viewed the papyrus rolls and noted the following:

 

"The papyrus roll is not a record but an invocation to the Deity Osiris, in which occurs the name of the person, and a picture of the attendant spirits, introducing the dead to the Judge, Osiris." (Ritner, Robert K. (2013). The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri: A Complete Edition) In other words, Egyptologists were able to look at the facsimiles and know immediately that they were funeral documents with no connection to Abraham. Theodule Deveria, an Epgytologist at the Louvre museum, put it bluntly when he said the facsimiles were "common Egyptian funerary documents, of which he had examined hundreds." (Larson, By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus, 1992)

 

While the papyrus fragments were thought to have been lost in the Chicago fire, the publication of the facsimiles allowed for Egyptologists to assess Joseph Smith's translations, and they continued to show that Joseph Smith got it wrong. The New York Times had a front page story on December 29, 1912 that proclaimed: "Museum Walls Proclaim Fraud of Mormon Prophet." This article was based on comparing Joseph Smith's work on the facsimiles to the hundreds of similar documents that museums had previously studied and translated. (New York Times article)

Compounding this problem for Joseph Smith was the discovery of many papyrus fragments from the Book of Abraham translation in 1966, including the papyrus fragment that includes facsimile 1 with the surrounding symbols that match the Book of Abraham manuscripts, indicating that the source material of the Book of Abraham is now extant.

From the LDS Gospel Topics essay on the Book of Abraham:

 

"None of the characters on the papyrus fragments mentioned Abraham’s name or any of the events recorded in the book of Abraham. Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists agree that the characters on the fragments do not match the translation given in the book of Abraham, though there is not unanimity, even among non-Mormon scholars, about the proper interpretation of the vignettes on these fragments. Scholars have identified the papyrus fragments as parts of standard funerary texts that were deposited with mummified bodies. These fragments date to between the third century B.C.E. and the first century C.E., long after Abraham lived." [emphasis added]

To be clear, these two sentences from the paragraph above should put an end to any discussion about the Book of Abraham being an authentic, ancient text:

"None of the characters on the papyrus fragments mentioned Abraham’s name or any of the events recorded in the book of Abraham."

"These fragments date to between the third century B.C.E. and the first century C.E., long after Abraham lived."

The church's own essay admits that the papyri has nothing to do with Abraham and that it dates long after Abraham would have lived, which tells you that Joseph Smith got the translation wrong, and he got the ownership and timing wrong. Again, if any other religion, corporation, or self-proclaimed prophet had made such claims and been proven false, you would never even try to rationalize these problems. In other words, this translation is so badly incorrect that no one who does not need it to be true would ever take this seriously, as you will see as we go through the Book of Abraham translation below.

While the church contends that "there is not unanimity, even among non-Mormon scholars, about the proper interpretation of the vignettes on these fragments," it needs to be stated emphatically that any lack of unanimity is among small differences in translation or interpretation of the facsimiles - not that any non-Mormon scholar thinks that Joseph Smith's translations are correct in any possible way. This is an area of the essay where the church uses small differences in opinion that have nothing to do with their specific truth claims to imply that some scholars disagree on the validity of Joseph Smith's translations, but that could not be further from the truth.

This paragraph of the essay explicitly contradicts Joseph Smith's own claim when publishing the Book of Abraham that it was "A translation [emphasis added] of some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands, from the Catacombs of Egypt, purporting to be the writings of Abraham, while he was in Egypt, called the BOOK OF ABRAHAM, written by his own hand, upon papyrus."

Since Joseph Smith published the Book of Abraham, we have learned that Joseph Smith's translation does not match the actual Egyptian translation and that the papyri fragments date thousands of years after Abraham would have lived, which is acknowledged by the official church essay as noted above. In other words, it would be impossible for the Book of Abraham to be "written by his own hand, upon papyrus."

This has led to a new framing of the Book of Abraham with some LDS historians. Mormon historian Richard Bushman: “Joseph Smith’s books of Moses and Abraham and the writings of Enoch and the Book of Moses bear a resemblance to this large corpus of scriptures in that they came in the form of writings in another persons name. Joseph was producing pseudepigrapha..." (Pseudepigrapha is defined as "falsely attributed works, texts whose claimed author is not the true author, or a work whose real author attributed it to a figure of the past.")

On the other hand, one of the key LDS historians on the Book of Abraham, Kerry Muhlestein, summarizes his approach to the evidence this way: "I start out with an assumption that the Book of Abraham and the Book of Mormon and anything else that we get from the restored gospel is true, therefore, any evidence I find I will try and fit into that paradigm." (Muehlstein, 2014 FAIR Conference) We will explore below why this approach does not hold up to scrutiny (and is now called "abhorrent" by another former church historian who was cited in the church's official essay, and why the church's essay reflects this approach and ends up causing more problems by ignoring the issues with Book of Abraham.


Facsimile #1

Below is facsimile #1 as it appears in the Pearl of Great Price, along with Joseph Smith's translations of the figures compared to what we now know the correct Egytpian translation to be. Facsimile 1 is a section of one papyrus: the "Breathing Permit of Hôr."

Joseph Smith's interpretations are taken from the Pearl of Great Price and the actual Egyptian translations are taken from this summary of Egyptian scholars (LDS and non-LDS).

(Mobile users please tap on the corresponding numbers to see the translations if desired)

Along with the issues regarding the translations of the figures in facsimile 1 is the problem of how Joseph Smith 'finished' what was missing in this facsimile. Below is how the facsimile looks in its original form compared to how it would be expected to look in an undamaged form according to Egyptologist Lanny Bell:

As we mentioned above, this facsimile is a section of the "Breathing Permit of Hôr." Egyptologist Dr. Robert Ritner states this about the problems with facsimile 1: "Comparison of the surviving initial vignette of the Hôr papyrus with Facsimile 1 proves beyond doubt, as the LDS web post (essay) agrees, that it was “the vignette that became facsimile 1.” However, neither Facsimile 1 nor 2 is a true copy, and both contain added forgeries, including the human-head and knife of the supposed “idolatrous priest of Elkenah” (Fig. 3 on Facsimile 1) as can be seen in the crude pencil additions to the original papyrus sheet as mounted and “improved” for publication by the LDS church in 1842." (“Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham” — A Response, Dr. Robert Ritner)

The problem with facsimile 1 goes beyond Joseph Smith's incorrect interpretations/translations of the figures - the areas that he filled in do not correspond to what otherwise amounts to, as the church's essay concedes,"standard funerary texts." These areas where Joseph Smith filled in the facsimile to fit the storyline of the Book of Abraham prove problematic, as Dr. Ritner notes: "If you took a painting of Madonna and Child and you tore off the heads of both figures and you replaced them with a dog and a cat, it would be as obvious to us now that this is as wrong as the replacing of the clearly jackal head with a human head on this Egyptian piece because we know what these images actually look like. In the same way, we know that those figures (from Facsimile 1) would – never under any circumstance – hold a knife. And that’s critical to the text itself (Book of Abraham) because it’s not merely decoration for this text. It goes to the core of the supposed story that accompanies it. If you take the knife away, you take away the story as well. And clearly the knife had no reason to be there."

This quote from Robert Ritner (you can watch the video as well) might seem overly harsh, but these funerary texts are easy for Egyptologists to translate and understand today, so when they see how Joseph Smith reconstructed the images and translated the figures they know immediately that it is incorrect in almost every possible way. There is no wiggle room here - Joseph Smith got this completely wrong.

Last, and this needs to be emphasized, the image on Facsimile 1 is not one of human sacrifice in any way. Joseph Smith incorrectly restored the image to fit the story that he created, but there is no way this is an actual, historical reproduction no matter how many ways the church attempts to create space by playing word games. The church's essay works to speak as if not all scholars agree on these facsimiles. From the essay:

"Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists agree that the characters on the fragments do not match the translation given in the book of Abraham, though there is not unanimity, even among non-Mormon scholars, about the proper interpretation of the vignettes on these fragments."

This is a game that the church's apologists play that we've outlined in other sections as well, where they find some small differences and use that to say 'there is not unanimity, even among non-Mormon scholars, about the proper interpretation.' The reality though, as Dr. Ritner explained, is that while there are small differences between interpretations of specific elements of the facsimiles, there is absolutely no disagreement among scholars that this is not a scene of human sacrifice, that Anubis would never have a human head or hold a knife, and, as the church admits, this has nothing to do with Abraham in any possible way. The church is playing the 'we can't know everything, so anything is  possible' game here, but the evidence simply does not back up that claim, which is why they do not cite a single non-Mormon scholar in the footnote of this statement.

Facsimile 2

Below is facsimile 2, which derives from a separate burial than facsimile 1 and 3, this one for an individual named Sheshonq. (Ritner)  We again compare the interpretations/translations that Joseph Smith gave compared to what Egyptologists now know the figures to represent.

Joseph Smith's interpretations are taken from the Pearl of Great Price and the actual Egyptian translations are taken from this summary of Egyptian scholars (LDS and non-LDS).

(Mobile users can click the corresponding numbers below to see the translations if desired)

Just as with facsimile 1, there are areas where Joseph Smith filled in blank/damaged spots of facsimile 2 as well. Below is an image where the changes are outlined along with the areas of the surviving papyrus that Joseph Smith pulled characters/figures from to fill them in with:

And just as with facsimile 1, Egyptologists now know how this hypocephalus would look based on the other versions that have survived. Below is Joseph Smith's restoration on the left against what Egyptologists would expect to see if it was undamaged/unaltered:

Just as we can see with Facsimile 1, Joseph Smith is again incorrectly filling in the lucanas, in this case using existing material from the papyri fragments in an almost "copy and paste" method. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this facsimile, however, is Joseph Smith interpreting figure 7 as "God sitting on his throne, revealing through the heavens the grand Keywords of the priesthood" when in reality it is the Egyptian god Min with an erect penis. And we know that church is aware of this issue, as they temporarily censored the erect penis in editions of the Pearl of Great Price (image from the CES Letter's Debunking site):

One very important fact about Facsimile 2 that is often lost in the discussion is that it comes to us through a separate burial. In other words, this cannot be a part of the Book of Abraham because this hypocephalus was buried with another person altogether. Yet in the Pearl of Great Price, this is labeled as "A FACSIMILE FROM THE BOOK OF ABRAHAM No. 2." Joseph Smith did not understand that all of these fragments did not belong together, and by incorporating this as part of the Book of Abraham, shows that he could not translate Egyptian nor could he understand how these documents related to each other.

This also indicates that these papyri fragments were separated when Joseph Smith purchased them or shortly afterwards, because if there was a true "long scroll" as we will detail below, it would have been even more obvious to Joseph that this was a separate document from a separate mummy. That is important not just for Joseph Smith's ability as a translator, but for the apologetic argument of a "long/lost scroll" as well.

Facsimile 3

Below is Facsimile #3 as it appears in the Pearl of Great Price, along with Joseph Smith's translations of the figures compared to what we now know the correct Egyptian translation to be. Facsimile 3 is the winding up section of the "Breathing Permit of Hôr," which also contained facsimile 1.

Joseph Smith's interpretations are taken from the Pearl of Great Price and the actual Egyptian translations are taken from this summary of Egyptian scholars (LDS and non-LDS). Please note the Egyptian characters above the figures, because these are critically important in understanding the problems with Joseph Smith's translations of not just this facsimile, but the text of the Book of Abraham itself.

Facsimile 3 is the most troubling to many who study the Book of Abraham because not only are the interpretations/translations of the clear and specific Egyptian characters wrong, but Joseph Smith incorrectly assumes the two females are male along with incorrectly declaring that the one black figure on the facsimile must be a slave.

In addition to these issues, Joseph Smith does not know that the black figure is actually Anubis, who always has a pointed ear and snout. But a recent discovery takes a closer look at the original woodcut used to print the facsimile in the Book of Abraham and you can see what appears to be the area where the snout was chiseled out to make the facsimile fit Joseph Smith's interpretation/translation.

Most importantly, with the writing above the figures in facsimile 3 that identify each figure, it makes Joseph Smith's incorrect translations all the more troubling. As Robert Ritner points out:

 

"In Facsimile 3, Smith confuses human and animal heads and males with females. No amount of special pleading can change the female“Isis the great, the god’s mother” (Facsimile 3, Fig. 2) into the male “King Pharaoh, whose name is given in the characters above his hand,” as even the LDS author Michael D. Rhodes accepts. Here Smith also misunderstands “Pharaoh” as a personal name rather than a title meaning “king,” so he reads“king king” for a goddess’s name that he claims to have understood on the papyrus!"

Even if the papyrus fragments had not been found, Facsimile 3 allows us to measure Joseph Smith's prophetic claims of translation not just by the figures, but by the Egyptian characters that he claimed to be translating. There is simply no way to reconcile a libations table as the signature of Abraham, or the female Isis as the male figure "King Pharoah," which as we discussed just above is a problem not just from the translation of characters being completely wrong, but the misunderstanding of both gender and knowledge that "Pharoah" is a title just as king is.

Put another way, even if the surviving fragments had not been located we would know that Joseph Smith could not translate ancient languages. Joseph Smith's translation of the characters on Facsimile 3 next to figures 2, 4, and 5, which Joseph Smith specifically references the characters in his translations, are completely wrong. There is no reason to think that Joseph Smith could get the translations wrong here and yet get the text of the Book of Abraham itself correct, but as we will see below we now have the source material for the text to assess, and it does not go any better for Joseph Smith's claims as a translator.

Apologists have long attempted to find parallels between Joseph Smith's translations and ancient ideas, but in this case we have the actual Egyptian characters that were translated, and they are 100% wrong. Again, if any other religion, group, or person told you that they could translate languages by the gift and power of God and were proven to be translating them incorrectly, would you continue to donate your time, money, and obedience to them? That might feel like a leading question, but it is an important one to ask because we are raised to privilege the truth claims of the church above the evidence that is attacked as "anti-Mormon," and this is undeniable evidence that Joseph Smith could not translate ancient languages.

Translating the Word "Lake" in the Book of Abraham

To illustrate the problem of Joseph Smith's translation of the Book of Abraham, I want to highlight one example. In Joseph Smith's time, people believed that one Egyptian character contained sentences worth of material as the belief was that hieroglyphs represented ideas and not sounds. Because of this belief, Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham using just a series of characters off the manuscripts, which fit with the milieu around Joseph Smith but was ultimately incorrect as the Rosetta Stone would show just a few decades later.

A really good example of this problem is that Joseph Smith translated the following material from a pair of hieroglyphs that mean "lake" in Egyptian:

"11 and it was done after the manner of the Egyptians.

12 And it came to pass that the priests laid violence upon me, that they might slay me also, as they did those virgins upon this altar; and that you may have a knowledge of this altar, I will refer you to the representation at the commencement of this record.

13 It was made after the form of a bedstead, such as was had among the Chaldeans, and it stood before the gods of Elkenah, Libnah, Mahmackrah, Korash, and also a god like unto that of Pharaoh, king of Egypt.

14 That you may have an understanding of these gods, I have given you the fashion of them in the figures at the beginning, which manner of figures is called by the Chaldeans Rahleenos"

You can see this in the image below, which shows the symbols used by Joseph Smith from the papyrus fragment, and the manuscript where the scribes wrote the corresponding symbol next to the text as Joseph translated them.

If you look at the image above, it is from the Mormon Stories episode where Dr. Robert Ritner takes us through the manuscript to better understand what the characters actually say, and how Joseph Smith and his scribes pieced it together in the process. You can watch this episode starting with this part of the presentation here.

The first symbol on the right (circled in blue) is the phonetic part of the word lake, and the second symbol below it (backwards looking E) is the determinative symbol for the word. In other words, in Egyptian the first symbol is the spelling of the word lake, but the second symbol is the determinative of water.

 

The Egyptian language is actually more complex than Hebrew, contrary to the Book of Mormon claiming that "reformed Egyptian" is a language that allows for more writing to be included within less space. Again, the belief in Joseph Smith's time was that each symbol contained a wealth of information, which is why the Book of Mormon claimed to be written in "Reformed Egyptian" instead of Hebrew - it allows for Joseph Smith to claim a vast record could be written on a small number of gold plates, even though it makes no sense for it to be written in Egyptian nor is there any such as thing as "Reformed Egyptian."

These records for the Book of Abraham help illustrate Joseph Smith's beliefs about the Egyptian language along with the fascination about Egyptian by many during his lifetime, which is crucial to understanding why Joseph Smith used it for the Book of Mormon narrative.

This particular section of the Book of Abraham is such a great illustration of this problem not just because Joseph Smith recorded over three verses of text from one Egyptian word, but because this is such an important verse in the Book of Abraham. If you look at the verses above, this section refers readers back to Facsimile 1 as  a representation of the alter being discussed in the book itself. As we discussed above, it is not an altar but a couch, but more importantly if you look at the image above you can see these symbols right next to Facsimile 1.

In other words, this section of the Book of Abraham shows us that we have the source material for the Book of Abraham as the symbols are exactly where the writer of the Book of Abraham tells us that they are - next to the representation showing the altar. Again, we know now that the translation is incorrect and that there is no altar (it's a lion couch), but it shows us that Joseph Smith was pulling those symbols because they were next to the image of Facsimile 1, which he was using for his creation of the Book of Abraham.

There is simply no way around the fact that we have the source material, and no matter how much the apologists try to claim the scribes were simply reverse engineering the characters, you can see with your own eyes that their placement matches exactly with where Joseph Smith was telling us they would be on the papyrus, and that is a problem considering those verses actually just say the word "lake."

Defending the Book of Abraham

As we stated near the beginning of this section, the church has already conceded that "None of the characters on the papyrus fragments mentioned Abraham’s name or any of the events recorded in the book of Abraham," but the official essay does outline a few of the arguments that are used to defend the authenticity of the Book of Abraham as scripture and Joseph Smith as a true prophet.

The Long/Lost Scroll Theory

 

The long (or lost) scroll theory can be best summarized by the official essay:

 

"It is likely futile to assess Joseph’s ability to translate papyri when we now have only a fraction of the papyri he had in his possession. Eyewitnesses spoke of “a long roll” or multiple “rolls” of papyrus. Since only fragments survive, it is likely that much of the papyri accessible to Joseph when he translated the book of Abraham is not among these fragments. The loss of a significant portion of the papyri means the relationship of the papyri to the published text cannot be settled conclusively by reference to the papyri."

Essentially the idea is that the fragments that have been recovered only represent a portion of what Joseph translated, and as such the actual Book of Abraham papyri could be forever lost in the Chicago fire. There are multiple problems with this theory, which the church neglects to mention in their essay.

1. We have the manuscripts of the Book of Abraham, and both show the Egyptian symbols being translated for each section which match perfectly and in order with the papyrus fragment that was recovered. In addition to what was covered above, you can see examples of this below, which have symbols that line up in order with the papyrus fragments that we now have available.

2. The Book of Abraham (Abraham 1:12-14) itself clearly tells us that the facsimiles and Book of Abraham are on the same scroll, so there is no chance of a “lost” scroll that would contain the text separately from facsimile 1.

12 And it came to pass that the priests laid violence upon me, that they might slay me also, as they did those virgins upon this altar; and that you may have a knowledge of this altar, I will refer you to the representation at the commencement of this record. [emphasis added]


13 It was made after the form of a bedstead, such as was had among the Chaldeans, and it stood before the gods of Elkenah, Libnah, Mahmackrah, Korash, and also a god like unto that of Pharaoh, king of Egypt.


14 That you may have an understanding of these gods, I have given you the fashion of them in the figures at the beginning, [emphasis added] which manner of figures is called by the Chaldeans Rahleenos, which signifies hieroglyphics.

3. Due to damage on the scroll used for the Book of Abraham, you can use math to determine the length of the overall scroll upon being unrolled. This study was published in Dialogue, and shows that the Book of Abraham text would need at least least 511cm to fit in the scroll's interior, but at most there would be no more than 56cm missing. There is not enough room to fit even 1/10th of the Book of Abraham text in the missing interior of the scroll, let alone the Book of Abraham as published by Joseph Smith.

4. The references to the long/lost scroll theory come from second and third hand stories told 50-60 years later. In fact, the one Hugh Nibley unearthed was something that his uncle claimed to have heard from Joseph Smith’s nephew George A. Smith when he was just five years old – Nibley heard the story 63 years later. (Nibley cites no source for this assertion, but almost certainly refers to the recollection of Joseph F. Smith that Nibley cited earlier that same year. Hugh W. Nibley, “Phase One,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3, no. 2 (1968): 101.)

 

Ironically enough the one citation in the LDS essay for this theory points to Brian Hauglid (Footnote #32, Hauglid, Textual History of the Book of Abraham, 213–14, 222) who wrote on the subject of a long or lost scroll, but due to further study and involvement in the Joseph Smith Papers project (and access to all church materials on the Book of Abraham as part of the Joseph Smith Papers project), Brian Hauglid has since then made two rather shocking admissions:

"There’s also an argument that the Book of Abraham was on papyri that we no longer have–it’s called the missing papyri theory–at least from my perspective, anyway, I’ve found evidence that argues against that [the missing papyri theory] that they were working off of the papyri that we actually have in the Church today." (YouTube video at the 52:46 mark)

“For the record, I no longer hold the views that have been quoted from my 2010 book in these (Dan Vogel) videos. ... In fact, I'm no longer interested or involved in apologetics in any way. I wholeheartedly agree with Dan’s excellent assessment of the Abraham/Egyptian documents in these videos. ... One can find that I've changed my mind in my recent and forthcoming publications. The most recent JSP Revelations and Translation vol. 4, The Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts (now on the shelves) is much more open to Dan’s thinking on the origin of the Book of Abraham. I now reject a missing Abraham manuscript. I agree that two of the Abraham manuscripts were simultaneously dictated. I agree that the Egyptian papers were used to produce the Book of Abraham. I agree that only Abr. 1:1-2:18 were produced in 1835 and that Abr. 2:19-5:21 were produced in Nauvoo. And on and on. I no longer agree with Gee or Mulhestein. I find their apologetic “scholarship” on the BoA abhorrent. My friend Brent Metcalfe can attest to my transformative journey.” (Brian Hauglid, Facebook, 8 Nov. 2018) [emphasis added]

In short, the long/lost scroll idea does not hold up to the evidence, and the church's lone citation in the essay has even come to that conclusion following further research. Some apologists still cling to this idea because it allows for the Book of Abraham to be a real translation as Joseph Smith claimed it was, but unfortunately the evidence is quite clear that this is not a viable possibility.

The Catalyst Theory

​The catalyst theory is the other popular defense of the Book of Abraham as scripture, and again we will use the official church essay to explain what the catalyst theory entails:

 

"Alternatively, Joseph’s study of the papyri may have led to a revelation about key events and teachings in the life of Abraham, much as he had earlier received a revelation about the life of Moses while studying the Bible. This view assumes a broader definition of the words translator and translation. According to this view, Joseph’s translation was not a literal rendering of the papyri as a conventional translation would be. Rather, the physical artifacts provided an occasion for meditation, reflection, and revelation. They catalyzed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri."

By utilizing the catalyst theory for the Book of Abraham, the church seeks to alleviate the problem of why the papyrus has nothing to do with Abraham and why the translations of the facsimiles are incorrect including the Egyptian characters in Facsimile 3. But this theory runs into the same problems we find with the long/lost scroll theory, particularly Abraham 1:12-14.

12 And it came to pass that the priests laid violence upon me, that they might slay me also, as they did those virgins upon this altar; and that you may have a knowledge of this altar, I will refer you to the representation at the commencement of this record. [emphasis added]


13 It was made after the form of a bedstead, such as was had among the Chaldeans, and it stood before the gods of Elkenah, Libnah, Mahmackrah, Korash, and also a god like unto that of Pharaoh, king of Egypt.


14 That you may have an understanding of these gods, I have given you the fashion of them in the figures at the beginning, which manner of figures is called by the Chaldeans Rahleenos, which signifies hieroglyphics. [emphasis added]

Those verses make clear that the text of the Book of Abraham is directly related to the facsimiles (in this instance, Facsimile 1). I know we covered this above, but it is so important that I want to look at it again with different images of the extant papyrus fragment showing that the text of the Book of Abraham is quite literal here:

Now look back at the manuscript that we highlighted earlier, and notice that the text is coming from this papyrus fragment right next to Facsimile 1:

These manuscript images show that Joseph Smith is translating the symbols right next to Facsimile 1, which is exactly what is being explicitly told to the reader in the Book of Abraham. That eliminates both the idea of a lost/long scroll because we can clearly see that we have the source for this text of the Book of Abraham, and it also eliminates the catalyst theory because it would be nonsenical to think that God would give Joseph Smith a revelation that would refer readers to pictures that have nothing to do with the actual text.

In other words, if Joseph Smith studying the Egyptian words and characters led to an inspired revelation/vision of the story of Abraham, why would that vision lead Joseph Smith to direct the reader to something completely unrelated to the vision/revelation. Again, you do not see the church mention this in the official essay, and you can certainly understand why they neglect to do so - the entire theory falls apart when you look at the source materials.

To make that point a little clearer - if you look at Facsimile 1 above, you can see that the portions where Joseph filled in the 'lacuna' (missing gap) in the papyrus do not match what any Egyptologist knows should be there. If Joseph Smith was truly receiving a revelation of this story, wouldn't he then be given the correct inspiration to fill in the lacuna correctly? If the translation being wrong is a problem, Joseph filling in the missing gaps in the papyri incorrectly only compounds it further.

Finally, if Joseph Smith is truly translating the Book of Abraham through an inspired revelation or vision, why does he repeatedly claim to be translating the characters into the Book of Abraham? Here are a few examples that make it clear that Joseph Smith believed he was translating the characters in the most literal and clear sense of the word (emphasis added in each):

  • July 5, 1835: "with W. W. Phelps and Oliver Cowdery as scribes, I commenced the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics, and much to our joy found that one of the scrolls contained the writings of Abraham, another the writings of Joseph of Egypt – more full account of which will appear in its place, as I proceed to examine or unfold them. Truly we can say, the Lord is beginning to reveal the abundance of peace and truth." (History of the Church, 2:236)

  • July 1835: "The remainder of this month, I was continually engaged in translating an alphabet of the Book of Abraham, and arranging a grammar of the Egyptian language as practiced by the ancients." (History of the Church, 2:238)

  • October 7, 1835: "This afternoon I re-commenced translating from the ancient records." (History of the Church, 2:289)

  • November 19, 1835: "I returned home and spent the day in translating the Egyptian records. This has been a pleasant day." (An American Prophet’s Record, p.66)

  • November 20, 1835: "In morning at home. The weather is warm but rainy. We [Joseph and Warren Parrish] spent the day in translating and made rapid progress."

  • November 26, 1835: "At home. We spent the day in transcribing Egyptian characters from the papyrus. I am severely afflicted with a cold." (History of the Church, 2:320-21)

  • June 18, 1840: "He (Joseph Smith) thinks and very verily believes that in the time has now come when he should devote himself exclusively to those things which relate to Spiritualities of the church and commence the work of translating the ejyptian (sic) Records" (Memorial to Nauvoo High Council)

  • March 8, 1842: "Commenced Translating from the Book of Abraham, for the 10 No of the Times and seasons" (Joseph Smith Journal)

  • March 9, 1842: "in the afternoon continud (sic) the Translation of the Book of Abraham. called Bishop Nnights [Vinson Knight] & Mr the Post office <​Mr [Amos] Davis’s​> &c with the Re[c]order. & continued translating & revising." (Joseph Smith Journal)

Joseph Smith was clear all along the way that he was translating the papyrus in the most traditional sense, and the Book of Abraham makes clear that the characters around the facsimiles are illustrations of those characters. The church essay neglects to let the reader know that we have the source material for the Book of Abraham just as it neglects to mention how cleanly the manuscripts line up to the papyrus fragment that surrounds Facsimile 1, which is information that the reader should be given in an honest discussion of the problems with the Book of Abraham.

Furthermore, as some apologists say that "translation" doesn't mean "translation," please look at how Joseph Smith described translation regarding the title page of the Book of Mormon:

"I wish to mention here that the title-page of the Book of Mormon is a literal translation, taken from the very last leaf on the left hand side of the collection or book of plates, which contained the record which has been translated, the language of the whole running the same as all Hebrew writing in general; and that said title page is not by any means a modern composition, either of mine or of any other man who has lived or does live in this generation. Therefore, in order to correct an error, which generally exists concerning it, I give below that part of the title-page of the English version of the Book of Mormon, which is a genuine and literal translation of the title-page of the original Book of Mormon as recorded on the plates" (History of the Church, Vol 1 Page 71)

Joseph Smith absolutely wanted his followers to believe that the Book of Abraham was a literal translation of the Egyptian papyri, and any suggestion otherwise only arises out of a need to explain why Joseph Smith got it wrong. Again, these two theories (long/lost scroll and catalyst theory) are laughable to anyone who does not need it to be true, as the evidence is so overwhelming and Joseph Smith's own journal entries about translating the Book of Abraham make clear what Joseph Smith claimed the Book of Abraham to be - a literal translation.

Conclusion

After looking at the Book of Abraham at face value, it is clear that Joseph Smith's translations are incorrect, and we see that in the following ways:

  • All three facsimiles are incorrectly translated, and in some instances almost inexplicably wrong: Joseph Smith mistakes females for males, black figures for slaves, and incorrectly translates the Egyptian characters that are on the papyrus for the sole purpose of identifying who the characters are. (Facsimile 3)

  • The actual text of the Book of Abraham manuscript is accompanied by the symbols on the papyrus fragment that are right next to Facsimile 1 just as the text tells us. But again, these characters are incorrectly translated as each Egyptian character in the Book of Abrham manuscript produces a block of text, but in reality each character of text would just give us a word or at most a short phrase.

  • Facsimile 2 is not even from the same source text as Facsimile 1 and 3, yet Joseph Smith translated it and declared that it was a part of the Book of Abraham, which shows a very basic misunderstanding of the material he purchased from Michael Chandler.

In addition to these problems with Joseph Smith's translations, we can see the problems in the church's essay along with other apologetic arguments such as:

  • A long or lost scroll with the actual Book of Abraham source material is simply not possible as we detailed above, showing how the characters appear in order on the manuscript as they do on the papyrus fragment. Furthermore, the church's one source for the footnote in their Book of Abraham essay has disavowed his former writings on this subject and called this kind of apologetic argument "abhorrent."

  • The catalyst theory is doomed from the start due to the Book of Abraham itself pointing readers to the facsimiles as a record of this story in Abraham. If the papyri was simply a catalyst for Joseph Smith to receive a vision, there would be no need to be given text that points the readers to something that has nothing to do with Abraham whatsoever, as the church admits in the essay.

  • Last, the idea that Joseph Smith merely thought he was translating the papyrus but was being effectively tricked by God into recording a revelation does not make sense given the many comments that Joseph Smith records about spending the day translating ancient records as outlined above.

The Book of Abraham has been considered a 'smoking gun' by many scholars and critics for these reasons, and why it has caused many of the church's 'best and brightest' to leave the church as they dive deep into the evidence: We have the source material and can see that Joseph Smith got it wrong. As we see in the church's own essay, many attempts are made to dissuade us from taking Joseph Smith's work at face value (the theories of a lost scroll, that Joseph was merely using it as a catalyst for revelation, or that God tricked Joseph into thinking he was translating the papyrus), but if we take Joseph Smith at his word, he was, without question, stating that he was translating ancient texts. And unlike the Book of Mormon, we can compare what he told us he was doing by the gift and power of God with the results, and in this case it is unquestionable that Joseph Smith got it wrong.

The only way to make this work is to engage in Kerry Muhlestein's style of apologetics as we noted above, which is to "start out with an assumption that the Book of Abraham and the Book of Mormon and anything else that we get from the restored gospel is true, therefore, any evidence I find I will try and fit into that paradigm." There is a reason that church historian Brian Hauglid calls this approach "abhorrent," and it is because if you applied this logic to anything in the world, you can make it true no matter how impossible it actually is. In other words, if you would dismiss an idea as nonsensical (moon landing being a hoax, 9/11 being an inside job, or another religion's truth claims) because the evidence clearly disproves it, why would you not apply the same standard to the Book of Abraham or Joseph Smith?

We have the source material, we have Joseph Smith's depiction of how he produced the Book of Abraham, and we now have the ability to to check the accuracy of his work as a prophet. That is all we need to assess the credibility of the Book of Abraham, which is why it became such a difficult item for me upon researching troubling issues with Joseph Smith and the truth claims of the church.

Most importantly - we have the facsimiles. Even if you set aside the long/lost scroll theory or catalyst theory, you can see what Joseph Smith was doing with the facsimiles. Both Facsimile 2 and 3 have Egyptian hieroglyphs on them with Joseph's translation of their meanings and he got them wrong. No matter how much the church tries to find possibilities in their essay, they have published these facsimiles since 1842 with Joseph Smith's translations. As we outlined above, Egyptologists since 1856 have been able to point out exactly what Joseph Smith got wrong, which has been validated over and over again, forcing the church had to admit they have nothing to do with Abraham in their essay.

 

In other words, the best and cleanest summary to the Book of Abraham translation can be taken from the church's essay:

"None of the characters on the papyrus fragments mentioned Abraham’s name or any of the events recorded in the book of Abraham. Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists agree that the characters on the fragments do not match the translation given in the book of Abraham, though there is not unanimity, even among non-Mormon scholars, about the proper interpretation of the vignettes on these fragments. Scholars have identified the papyrus fragments as parts of standard funerary texts that were deposited with mummified bodies. These fragments date to between the third century B.C.E. and the first century C.E., long after Abraham lived."

In this section we have covered why the translation is incorrect and why the theories that apologists use do not hold up, but in the second section on the Book of Abraham we will look at the text of the Book of Abraham itself to assess its claim as an ancient text from Abraham. This will help us to get a fuller picture regarding the truth claims of the Book of Abraham along with Joseph Smith's ability to translate scriptures as a prophet of God.

Next up: Book of Abraham Overview, Part 2: The Text of the Book of Abraham

Resources


As long as this section is, we barely scratched the surface. If you would like to research the Book of Abraham further, I highly recommend the following: