LDS Discussions Blog
The Book of Abraham in 1,000 Words (August 26, 2019)
I wanted to quickly summarize the problems with the Book of Abraham and go over why the apologetic responses do not work in just 1,000 words (and a few images). If you’d like a much more detailed explanation of these problems please read our annotated LDS Gospel Topics essay on the Book of Abraham.
Problem: Joseph Smith purchased ancient Egyptian papyri from Michael Chandler in 1835 in Kirtland, and immediately declared that the set of papyri included the Book of Abraham, “written by his own hand, upon papyrus.”
We now know that the papyrus Joseph Smith purchased has nothing to do with Abraham whatsoever as the Rosetta Stone was discovered around this time but that knowledge was unknown to Joseph. From the official church essay: “None of the characters on the papyrus fragments mentioned Abraham’s name or any of the events recorded in the book of Abraham.”
Deepening the problem is that this Book of Breathings that Joseph Smith purchased was written about 2,000 years after the time Abraham is supposed to have lived, meaning that he could not have written them “by his own hand, upon papyrus.” From the official church essay: “These fragments date to between the third century B.C.E. and the first century C.E., long after Abraham lived.”
These are obviously massive problems, and as such the church (and its apologists) has sought to explain why the Book of Abraham seems to be a completely fabricated work in the following ways, and we want to present them with a quick summary of why the main theories simply don’t work.
Lost Scroll Theory
Because of the Chicago fire, we only have some fragments of the original papyri, so the idea is that the Book of Abraham is actually on parts of the scroll forever lost in the fire. This is the common response from Hugh Nibley and currently John Gee and Kerry Muehlstein.
Why it doesn’t work:
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.
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.
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 as published by Joseph.
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.
This is the more current apologetic since the “Long Scroll” theory has been debunked by the manuscripts itself and calculating the scroll’s length. In this theory, Joseph Smith thought he was translating the papyri, but he was actually just receiving revelation from God. This helps to alleviate the problem of why the papyrus has nothing to do with Abraham and why the translations of the facsimiles are entirely wrong.
Why it doesn’t work: The catalyst theory is doomed by Abraham 1: 12-14 which states:
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, which signifies hieroglyphics.”
Joseph Smith makes clear that the facsimiles represent the Book of Abraham story, yet we now know they are completely wrong, which means the catalyst theory simply can’t work because that would mean God also got it wrong. In other words, even if we accept that the symbols on the papyrus were never going to match because it was just a catalyst for revelation, why would God then give Joseph incorrect translations of the facsimiles that have nothing to do with Abraham?
Those facsimiles are still in the Pearl of Great Price with the incorrect translations attached, and if you’ve never read Dr. Robert Ritner’s (LDS apologist John Gee’s professor) response to the Abraham essay, please do so because it's from a respected Egyptian scholar.
We won't even go into the outside sources Joseph Smith used to write the Book of Abraham or how the printers block appears to have been altered to make the one black figure look more like a human slave than an Egyptian god, because the Book of Abraham is proven to be a fabrication on its own.
From 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..."
So while apologists spend hours weaving new narratives to try and save the credibility of the Book of Abraham, this is why none of it can change both Joseph’s own words and the Book of Abraham itself – and they know it.