Official LDS Essay on Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham, Annotated
The following essay is the official LDS released essay entitled "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham." It was released by the church to help explain how it can be possible that Joseph Smith's translation of the Book of Abraham does not match what we now know Egyptian to mean, and how it can still be the word of God when even the church itself admits in this essay that the facsimiles Joseph Smith claimed to have translated by the gift of God are incorrect, and there is no mention of Abraham whatsoever within them. In the below essay, all text in black is the unedited essay from the church essay, with our comments in blue. The essay below can be found on the LDS website here.
The annotated essay below is adapted from the following source, who continues to update the material for those who would like to read the original. You can view that by clicking here.
Many church leaders in the past have considered the statements in this essay to be "anti-Mormon" with some even ex-communicated for their research into church history. It is important to note that the rise of the internet has forced many of these issues to be addressed in these essay, but as you will see below there are a lot of problems with the Book of Abraham that are not addressed in this essay, and some that are dealt with in ways that are akin to gaslighting.
This essay with annotated notes is fairly long, but it is important to include all of this information. Most of the information in the essay is new to many members, and our additional notes are new to almost all members. It is absolutely imperative to get a true picture of what is actually on the papyrus that includes what we are told is the Book of Abraham, as this ties into issues with the Book of Mormon translation as well as the recent study of how Joseph Smith use Adam Clarke's Bible essays heavily in his translation of the Bible (which, again, we were told was inspired by the gift of God). Taken together, there are many questions as to the accuracy of the scriptures that Joseph Smith is responsible for, which opens up many questions about Joseph Smith's authenticity as a prophet.. As prominent LDS historian Richard Bushman noted, "I think that for the Church to remain strong it has to reconstruct its narrative. The dominant narrative is not true; it can’t be sustained. The Church has to absorb all this new information or it will be on very shaky grounds and that’s what it is trying to do and it will be a strain for a lot of people, older people especially. But I think it has to change."
As President George Albert Smith said, “If a faith will not bear to be investigated; if its preachers and professors are afraid to have it examined, their foundation must be very weak.” (Journal of Discourses, Volume 14, Page 216)
As with all of our material, please email us at email@example.com if you have any issues with our comments or suggestions to add. And without further adieu...
Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints embraces the book of Abraham as scripture. This book, a record of the biblical prophet and patriarch Abraham, recounts how Abraham sought the blessings of the priesthood, rejected the idolatry of his father, covenanted with Jehovah, married Sarai, moved to Canaan and Egypt, and received knowledge about the Creation. The book of Abraham largely follows the biblical narrative but adds important information regarding Abraham’s life and teachings.
The basic problem with the Book of Abraham was obvious to people even in Joseph Smith’s time. In 1837 a non-Mormon writer observed: “Is it possible that a record written by Abraham, and another by Joseph, containing the most important revelation that God ever gave to man, should be entirely lost by the tenacious Israelites, and preserved by the unbelieving Egyptians, and by them embalmed and deposited in the catacombs with an Egyptian priest… I venture to say no, it is not possible. It is more likely that the records are those of the Egyptians.” (William S. West, A Few Interesting Facts Respecting the Rise, Pretensions and Progress of the Mormons, 1837)
The book of Abraham was first published in 1842 and was canonized as part of the Pearl of Great Price in 1880. The book originated with Egyptian papyri that Joseph Smith translated beginning in 1835. Many people saw the papyri, but no eyewitness account of the translation survives, making it impossible to reconstruct the process. (This is not exactly true, but is added to avoid addressing the issues with the translation that we will see later. Footnote 31 refers to an 1838 letter in the Painesville Republican in which Joseph Smith’s secretary Warren Parrish wrote: “I have set (sic) by his side and penned down the Egyptian hieroglyphicks (sic) as he claimed to receive it by direct inspiration from heaven.” Remember this point later when the essay suggests that Joseph might have received the Book of Abraham entirely as a revelation without even reading the characters. Parrish makes it clear that the process involved the characters on the papyrus, as did a number of statements in Joseph’s own journal. More about footnote 31 when we get there. Williams W. Phelps and Oliver Cowdery were also witnesses to the details of the translation process.)
Only small fragments of the long papyrus scrolls once in Joseph Smith’s possession exist today. The relationship between those fragments and the text we have today is largely a matter of conjecture. (This is hardly a matter of conjecture, considering that we have the actual character- by-character translation in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers. Also, as we shall see, there is no evidence that the “long papyrus scrolls” mentioned here ever existed. This is an apologetic rationale created to sow the seeds of doubt that the real papyrus was ever actually found.)
We do know some things about the translation process. The word translation typically assumes an expert knowledge of multiple languages. Joseph Smith claimed no expertise in any language.
This is simply not true. In fact, there are a number of examples of Joseph bragging about his ability to speak and understand many languages, including Egyptian. Here’s one example:
“Were I a Chaldean I would exclaim, Keed'nauh to-me-roon lehoam elauhayauh dey - ahemayana veh aur'hau lau gnaubadoo, yabadoo ma-ar'gnau comeen tehoat sheamyauh allah (Thus shall ye say unto them: The gods that have not made the heaven and the earth, they shall perish from the earth, and from these heavens.) An Egyptian, Su-e-eh-ni (What other persons are those?) A Grecian, Diabolos basileuei (The Devil reigns.) A Frenchman, Messieurs sans Dieu (Gentlemen without God.) . . .”(The Voice of Truth published by Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, 1844) Joseph goes on, quoting phrases of Turkish, German, Syrian, Spanish, Italian, Hebrew, Danish, Latin, and other languages.
And here’s another example:
“Were I an Egyptian, I would exclaim Jah-oh-eh, Enish-go-on-dosh, Flo-ees-Flos-is-is; [O the earth! the power of attraction, and the moon passing between her and the sun.]” (Times and Seasons, November 13, 1843, Joseph Smith, editor)
And yet another:
“I have now preached a little Latin, a little Hebrew, Greek, and German; and I have fulfilled all. I am not so big a fool as many have taken me to be. The Germans know that I read the German correctly.” (Joseph Smith, King Follett Discourse)
The “Egyptian” words Joseph uses here are from his own Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar, which he created in the process of translating the Book of Abraham. The problem is that these words are not Egyptian at all, they are nonsensical words invented by Joseph Smith. Whether or not Joseph thought they actually meant something is impossible to determine, but the essay author’s insistence that Joseph claimed no knowledge of ancient languages is patently false. He may not have actually known any other languages but he liked to pretend that he did and he went to great lengths to convince other people that he really could read ancient languages. This backfired on him a couple of times when he claimed the ability to read ancient documents that turned out to be intentional hoaxes. (Look up the Kinderhook Plates and the Greek Psalter for other examples where he claimed to translate items that turned out to be hoaxes.) Some might argue that Joseph Smith was simply being prideful and thus boasted beyond his actual abilities, but the stories fix exactly in line with discovering the Book of Abraham with purchased mummies. More to the point here, the authors are setting the stage to start surrendering any notion you might have had about the meaning of the word “translate.”
Additionally, Joseph made specific claims that he WAS capable of reading the Egyptian characters on the papyri. Of the translation period he said “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). The document that Joseph called a “grammar” is actually a dictionary in which he displayed characters from the papyrus alongside his translation of them, one of the four copies of this document is almost entirely in Joseph’s own handwriting..
Example of character translations in the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language
He readily acknowledged that he was one of the “weak things of the world,” called to speak words sent “from heaven.”1 Speaking of the translation of the Book of Mormon, the Lord said, “You cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.”2 The same principle can be applied to the book of Abraham. The Lord did not require Joseph Smith to have knowledge of Egyptian. By the gift and power of God, Joseph received knowledge about the life and teachings of Abraham.
Whether or not the Lord required it, Joseph did actually claim to fully understand Egyptian hieroglyphic writing. Joseph said he knew the contents of the scrolls upon seeing them because of his “translation of some of the characters of hieroglyphs” (History of the Church 2:296) Additionally, Joseph provided a detailed description of the mechanics of Egyptian writing (although he has since been proven to be entirely incorrect) to demonstrate his thorough understanding of the language. It is very disingenuous for this essay to attempt to convince us that Joseph made no claims of being able to translate other languages, which is vital to try and explain the glaring errors we will soon see.
On many particulars, the book of Abraham is consistent with historical knowledge about the ancient world.3 Some of this knowledge, which is discussed later in this essay, had not yet been discovered or was not well known in 1842 (Although the author does not give us any examples that do not come from sources that were readily available to Joseph except, as we will see, the single word Olishem). But even this evidence of ancient origins, substantial though it may be (There is zero basis for using the word "substantial” here beyond setting the stage to redefine what the Book of Abraham is and how it came to be), cannot prove the truthfulness of the book of Abraham any more than archaeological evidence can prove the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt or the Resurrection of the Son of God. (In other words the archaeological evidence does not side with the Book of Abraham any more than it does for the exodus, which the archaeological evidence suggests never happened. This is an example of a common LDS apologetic practice of throwing other Judeo-Christian beliefs under the bus in order to make their own problems seem not so bad) The book of Abraham’s status as scripture ultimately rests on faith in the saving truths found within the book itself as witnessed by the Holy Ghost.
This introduction is set up to prepare you for what is to come. You will learn that the Book of Abraham is not what you have been taught it is, and you will be asked to abandon any attempts at researching the facts, but to instead focus on receiving a spiritual confirmation instead. We will discuss later in the essay why this is a problematic approach, but it is important to note early on that even the author of this essay know that the Book of Abraham is a massive problem for the authenticity of the church.
The Book of Abraham as Scripture
(This section has no bearing on whether or not the Book of Abraham is an authentic translation. It is simply an overview of the contents of the book to distract you from the problems that this essay was created to address.)
Thousands of years ago, the prophet Nephi learned that one purpose of the Book of Mormon was to “establish the truth” of the Bible.4 In a similar way, the book of Abraham supports, expands, and clarifies the biblical account of Abraham’s life.
In the biblical account, God covenants with Abraham to “make of thee a great nation.”5 The book of Abraham provides context for that covenant by showing that Abraham was a seeker of “great knowledge” and a “follower of righteousness” who chose the right path in spite of great hardship. He rejected the wickedness of his father’s household and spurned the idols of the surrounding culture, despite the threat of death.6
In the Bible, God’s covenant with Abraham appears to begin during Abraham’s life. According to the book of Abraham, the covenant began before the foundation of the earth and was passed down through Adam, Noah, and other prophets.7 Abraham thus takes his place in a long line of prophets and patriarchs whose mission is to preserve and extend God’s covenant on earth. The heart of this covenant is the priesthood, through which “the blessings of salvation, even of life eternal” are conveyed.8
The book of Abraham clarifies several teachings that are obscure in the Bible. (The Book of Abraham actually has a lot of teachings that help align the church to Joseph Smith's teachings. The Book of Mormon itself does not address almost any of the major doctrines of Mormonism that we know today) Life did not begin at birth, as is commonly believed. Prior to coming to earth, individuals existed as spirits. In a vision, Abraham saw that one of the spirits was “like unto God.”9 This divine being, Jesus Christ, led other spirits in organizing the earth out of “materials” or preexisting matter, not ex nihilo or out of nothing, as many Christians later came to believe.10 Abraham further learned that mortal life was crucial to the plan of happiness God would provide for His children: “We will prove them herewith,” God stated, “to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them,” adding a promise to add glory forever upon the faithful.11 Nowhere in the Bible is the purpose and potential of earth life stated so clearly as in the book of Abraham. (It is also worth noting that the Book of Abraham was integral in the ban on black members of the church from the priesthood and temple through the following scriptures:
Abraham 1:24 - When this woman discovered the land it was under water, who afterward settled her sons in it; and thus, from Ham, sprang that race which preserved the curse in the land.
Abraham 1:27 - Now, Pharaoh being of that lineage by which he could not have the right of Priesthood, notwithstanding the Pharaohs would fain claim it from Noah, through Ham, therefore my father was led away by their idolatry.)
Origin of the Book of Abraham
The powerful truths found in the book of Abraham emerged from a set of unique historical events. 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.12 Chandler found a ready audience. Due partly to the exploits of the French emperor Napoleon, the antiquities unearthed in the catacombs of Egypt had created a fascination across the Western world.13 Chandler capitalized on this interest by touring with ancient Egyptian artifacts and charging visitors a fee to see them.
These artifacts had been uncovered by Antonio Lebolo, a former cavalryman in the Italian army. Lebolo, who oversaw some of the excavations for the consul general of France, pulled 11 mummies from a tomb not far from the ancient city of Thebes. Lebolo shipped the artifacts to Italy, and after his death, they ended up in New York. At some point the mummies and scrolls came into Chandler’s possession.14
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.”15
Specifically, Joseph Smith identified two particular scrolls as the book of the patriarch Abraham and the book of Joseph, who was sold into Egypt. They actually turned out to be the funerary scrolls of a man named Hor and a woman named Ta-shert-min, plus fragments from the document of a third person, which Joseph also mistook for part of the Book of Abraham. There is no longer any dispute about this among scholars, either LDS or non-LDS, as will be confirmed in this essay.
We now know a great deal about the owner of the Abraham scroll and its real purpose. The scroll from which the Book of Abraham was translated is now known as PJS 1, or the Hor Book of Breathings. It was entombed with its owner, Horos (also Hor or Horus), a Thebian Priest of a god named Min Who Massacres His Enemies. This is the same Min who appears in Facsimile 2 and is identified by Joseph Smith as “God sitting upon his throne.” An interesting aspect of Min is that is that he is depicted with an erect penis. When the church realized this they erased the penis from the facsimile, but eventually restored it in later printing.
Hors’ father Osoroeris was also a priest of Min and his mother Chibois was a temple musician. Egyptologists know enough about Hor that they have reconstructed his family tree. We know who his grandparents were as well as his parents, siblings and descendents... eight generations in all. We know the very room where Hor’s mummy was found, its location and dimensions, and we can date his burial to the late 1st century or early 2nd century B.C. Hor’s Book of Breathings dates to the first half of the 2nd Century BC, approximately 2000 years after Abraham.
Hor was actually buried with two versions of the Book of the Dead. The scrolls were separated after the discovery of the tomb; one scroll ended up in Joseph Smith’s hands and the other was found in the Louvre’s collection. Because of the similarities of the two scrolls we are able to compare them and ascertain what was on the missing portion of Joseph’s scroll. Many church apologists claim that the missing portion could have contained the actual Book of Abraham. It did not. It contained more funerary texts and the illustration that we now call Facsimile 3. (Robert K. Ritner, The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri: A Complete Edition)
Translation and the Book of Abraham
Joseph Smith worked on the translation of the book of Abraham during the summer and fall of 1835, by which time he completed at least the first chapter and part of the second chapter.16 His journal next speaks of translating the papyri in the spring of 1842, after the Saints had relocated to Nauvoo, Illinois. All five chapters of the book of Abraham, along with three illustrations (now known as facsimiles 1, 2, and 3), were published in the Times and Seasons, the Church’s newspaper in Nauvoo, between March and May 1842.17
Before we get into the translation of the Abraham narrative itself, let’s take a quick look at one of these Facsimiles, just to get a general idea of the accuracy of Joseph’s ability to translate Egyptian.
Below is Facsimile 3, which occupied the portion of the Hor scroll that is now missing. Joseph numbered the figures in this illustration and gave us translations and explanations for each. Beneath the illustration I have listed Joseph’s interpretation alongside the actual translation, as universally agreed upon by Egyptologists, including LDS scholars:
Joseph Smith Egyptologists
Fig. 1 Abraham upon Pharaoh's throne (X) The god Osiris (!)
Fig. 2 King Pharaoh (male) (X) Isis, the God’s mother (female) (!)
Fig. 3 Abraham in Egypt (his actual signature) (X) A libation table (with wine, etc) (!)
Fig. 4 Prince of Pharaoh, King of Egypt (male) (X) Maat, mistress of the gods (female) (!)
Fig. 5 Shulem, one of the king’s waiters (X) Hor, the owner of this scroll (!)
Fig. 6 Olma, a slave (X) Anubis, god of the underworld (!)
(!) = correct and peer reviewed, (X) = totally missed the mark
Just about anyone in our day, being a bit more familiar with Egyptian symbolism, can tell which of these figures are male and which are female, but Joseph got even that wrong (unless you accept Mormon apologist John Gee’s dubious possibility that the female characters in the image were really men dressed in drag). Another problem is that Joseph identified Fig. 3 as the actual signature of Abraham, which is very problematic considering that this papyrus has been dated to 2000 years after Abraham, even more so when you consider that Fig. 3 is nothing like a signature, but is actually a depiction of a libations table for ceremonial wine and food. Another telling detail is that Joseph misidentified an Egyptian god as a slave simply because he appears to have black skin, and he had the printmaker remove Anubis’ jackal snout to make the image better fit his interpretation, something that is apparent when you examine the printer’s plates. Joseph correctly deduced that the names of the characters are written in the columns above their heads, yet he entirely failed in his claims of translating those names.
This level of inaccuracy is repeated in the other two facsimiles as well. It should also be noted that Facsimile 2 is totally unrelated to the other two and comes from a completely different document, made at a different time and for a different person, someone named Sheshonk. Yet Joseph identifies all of them as the Book of Abraham. Facsimile 2 is actually a hypocephalus, an extract from the Book of the Dead that serves as magical document that is placed under the head of a mummy to help guide him or her through the underworld.
Above is a reproduction of Facsimile 2 indicating some of the missing portions of the papyrus that were reconstructed by Joseph Smith. Joseph simply borrowed hieratic characters (an older form of Egyptian writing than what appears in the rest of the document) from another papyrus, the Hor Book of Breathings, and mixed them randomly and without any apparently strategy among the demotic characters on the hypocephalus, sometimes even copying the characters upside down, demonstrating a lack of understanding of what they said while then attempting to provide translations of them. Incidentally, demotic script did not appear until about 1500 years after Abraham. So, besides the Book of Abraham text, Joseph produced translations of many other Egyptian characters from the facsimiles that are now reproduced in the Pearl of Great Price, and in the case of these restored characters, he translated the same characters in two places with entirely different meanings. Unfortunately, none of these “translations” even remotely resemble what the characters actually say. These discrepancies cannot be written off as “inspiration,” rather than translation because Joseph provided us with a direct one-to-one correlation to the actual characters in the facsimiles. For example, Joseph said that figure 5 of Facsimile 2 “ "Is called in Egyptian Enish-go-on-dosh; this is one of the governing planets also, and is said by the Egyptians to be the Sun, and to borrow its light from Kolob through the medium of Kae-e-vanrash, which is the grand Key, ... receiving light from the revolutions of Kolob," but those characters actually say, “the cow of Hathor, behind which stands a uzat-headed goddess holding a sacred tree." Figure 8, according to Joseph, "Contains writings that cannot be revealed unto the world; but is to be had in the Holy Temple of God." The actual translation is "grant that the soul of Osiris Sheshonk may live."
The book of Abraham was the last of Joseph Smith’s translation efforts. In these inspired translations, Joseph Smith did not claim to know the ancient languages of the records he was translating. (As we noted earlier, he liked to use made up “Egyptian” words in public that he claimed were real Egyptian). Much like the Book of Mormon, Joseph’s translation of the book of Abraham was recorded in the language of the King James Bible. This was the idiom of scripture familiar to early Latter-day Saints, and its use was consistent with the Lord’s pattern of revealing His truths “after the manner of their [His servants’] language, that they might come to understanding.”18 (This is speculation designed to cover serious issues in Joseph Smith's translation efforts as a whole (the Deutero-Isaiah issues in the Book of Mormon are due to using the King James Bible to directly copy scripture from, even though those particular verses could not have been available when the gold plates were supposedly engraved. All of Joseph’s scripture and revelation was in King James English, probably because he was familiar with it, and writing books in King James English was something of a fad at the time of Joseph Smith. It was designed to make them seem more authoritative, some of these other books bear a strong resemblance to Joseph’s scripture (See The Later War by Gilbert J. Hunt and The First Book of Napoleon by Michael Linning).
Joseph’s translations took a variety of forms. Some of his translations, like that of the Book of Mormon, utilized ancient documents in his possession. (This is again church narrative that has been forced to change lately. Please refer to the Book of Mormon Translation essay, where we learn that Joseph didn’t actually use the gold plates to translate the Book of Mormon after all. Instead, he peered at a 'seer stone' in a hat that was pressed tightly against his face) Other times, his translations were not based on any known physical records. Joseph’s translation of portions of the Bible, for example, included restoration of original text, harmonization of contradictions within the Bible itself, and inspired commentary.19 (It needs be noted that a recent BYU study found that this translation of the Bible was heavily plagiarized from Adam Clarke's biblical studies. It is also telling that his largest addition in his Bible translation was to write a prophecy about himself into the Bible. (JST, Genesis 50:24–38). But all of this is beside the point because Joseph clearly and repeatedly claimed that he translated the Book of Abraham from the papyrus, which is claimed to have been written by the hand of Abraham.)
Some evidence suggests that Joseph studied the characters on the Egyptian papyri and attempted to learn the Egyptian language. His history reports that, in July 1835, he was “continually engaged in translating an alphabet to the Book of Abraham, and arranging a grammar of the Egyptian language as practiced by the ancients.”20 This “grammar,” as it was called, consisted of columns of hieroglyphic characters followed by English translations recorded in a large notebook by Joseph’s scribe, William W. Phelps. Another manuscript, written by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, has Egyptian characters followed by explanations.21 The relationship of these documents to the book of Abraham is not fully understood. (“Not fully understood” only to the degree that you are unwilling to accept that they are proclaimed by Joseph to indeed be the a step in his literal translation of the Book of Abraham from the Hor papyrus) Neither the rules nor the translations in the grammar book correspond to those recognized by Egyptologists today (Exactly! The translations are completely wrong when compared to actual Egyptian translation. Joseph created them before Champollion’s decipherment Egyptian was generally recognized, and have been proven to be a completely fraudulent translation). Whatever the role of the grammar book, it appears that Joseph Smith began translating portions of the book of Abraham almost immediately after the purchase of the papyri.22 Phelps apparently viewed Joseph Smith as uniquely capable of understanding the Egyptian characters: “As no one could translate these writings,” he told his wife, “they were presented to President Smith. He soon knew what they were.”23 (In other words, Joseph did claim that this was the actual writing of Abraham and that he COULD read it.)
Here are a few random examples of words from Joseph’s GAEL (Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language) of characters from the Hor Book of Breathings (Abraham papyrus):
Zub zool - The first born
Zi oop hah - A young virgin
Hoe oop hah phat heh - Patriarchal government
Zab zoal - From the beginning
Phah ho e oop - A king who has universal dominion
Zip zi - Women
Tish Zi hoe oop sater: The glory of the Celestial Kingdom
(josephsmithpapers.org - Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language, circa July–circa December 1835)
None of these words, or any others in Joseph’s Alphabet and Grammar or that he used in speeches, bear any resemblance to the actual Egyptian language to which they pretend. They are completely made up, and with them being the only source that we have to confirm Joseph Smith's abilities, are a major problem for the credibility of the church.
After the Latter-day Saints left Nauvoo, the Egyptian artifacts remained behind. Joseph Smith’s family sold the papyri and the mummies in 1856. (One odd question is if these scrolls were truly authentic proof that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, why did the family sell the scrolls?) The papyri were divided up and sold to various parties; historians believe that most were destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 (Fortunately the Book of Abraham and the Book of Joseph scrolls were among the papyri that survived). Ten papyrus fragments once in Joseph Smith’s possession ended up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.24 In 1967, the museum transferred these fragments to the Church, which subsequently published them in the Church’s magazine, the Improvement Era.25
The Era magazine blocked out space for a series of monthly articles for the much-anticipated translation which would prove Joseph Smith’s prophetic stature once and for all. BYU professor Hugh Nibley was chosen to perform the translation (even though some Egyptologists had already done so), but it never appeared in the magazine. Rather than providing the translation, Nibley proceeded to write a series of general articles about Abraham. Why would this be the case if Nibley believed that Joseph Smith had been proven authentic? Nibley admitted. “It is doubtful whether any translation could do as much good as harm.” (Dr. Hugh Nibley, BYU Studies, Spring 1968, p. 251)
The discovery of the papyrus fragments renewed debate about Joseph Smith’s translation. The fragments included one vignette, or illustration, that appears in the book of Abraham as facsimile 1. Long before the fragments were published by the Church, some Egyptologists had said that Joseph Smith’s explanations of the various elements of these facsimiles did not match their own interpretations of these drawings (While the essay uses the word some to leave room for members to ignore the evidence, in fact all Egyptologists, LDS and non-LDS alike, agree on this point). Joseph Smith had published the facsimiles as freestanding drawings, cut off from the hieroglyphs or hieratic characters that originally surrounded the vignettes. The discovery of the fragments meant that readers could now see the hieroglyphs and characters immediately surrounding the vignette that became facsimile 1.26
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.27 (This is an intentionally misleading statement to give the impression that there is no consensus about these papyri. There are slight variations between the translations by various scholars, as would be the case with any translated document, but there is absolutely no confusion about what they are and what they say. Scholars have unanimously identified the papyrus fragments as parts of standard funerary texts that were deposited with mummified bodies from sometime between the third Century BC. and the first Century AD, long, long after Abraham. There are no scholars that believe Joseph Smith's translations are correct on any level, no matter how many ways the essay tries to leave wiggle room.)
Of course, the fragments do not have to be as old as Abraham for the book of Abraham and its illustrations to be authentic (The essay is now redefining the meanings of both “translation” and “authentic”). Ancient records are often transmitted as copies or as copies of copies. The record of Abraham could have been edited or redacted by later writers much as the Book of Mormon prophet-historians Mormon and Moroni revised the writings of earlier peoples.28 (Except that the canonized Book of Abraham itself proclaims that it was written by Abraham's own hand upon Papyrus, and Joseph identified one set of characters as the actual signature of Abraham. But the bigger problem is that these papyri have NOTHING to do with Abraham. They are common pagan prayers and embalming instructions. Do the authors of this essay really expect you to believe that they changed from Abraham’s original text to Egyptian ceremonies merely due to bad reproductions over the years? These documents were very important rituals that were central to the Egyptian religion, and it is impossible to believe the meaning could be changed so much that it would turn the scrolls from a story about Abraham to funerary texts.) Moreover, documents initially composed for one context can be repackaged for another context or purpose.29 Illustrations once connected with Abraham could have either drifted or been dislodged from their original context and reinterpreted hundreds of years later in terms of burial practices in a later period of Egyptian history. The opposite could also be true: illustrations with no clear connection to Abraham anciently could, by revelation, shed light on the life and teachings of this prophetic figure. (Apologists here are literally throwing every possibility at the wall and hoping that something sticks. Occam's razor would tell us that the solution that requires the least amount of assumptions is the correct one, and in this case the only conclusion is that the translation is not from God and not correct.)
Let’s stop here for a moment after the last few paragraphs. We must remember that this essay has been approved by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. Shouldn’t they, working with the church’s best scholars, have some actual answers for us? How many “could have”s and “the opposite could be true”s and “alternatively”s should we expect from an essay that was created by the church specifically to provide answers to these questions?
Some have assumed that the hieroglyphs adjacent to and surrounding facsimile 1 must be a source for the text of the book of Abraham. But this claim rests on the assumption that a vignette and its adjacent text must be associated in meaning. In fact, it was not uncommon for ancient Egyptian vignettes to be placed some distance from their associated commentary.30 (But that is neither here nor there. The Kirtland Egyptian Papers, for which Joseph took credit, which bear his handwriting, and which this essay admitted previously were made with his participation and direction, make it clear that these characters ARE the source of the Book of Abraham. We have translation manuscripts that prove this, which will be shown below.)
Neither the Lord nor Joseph Smith explained the process of translation of the book of Abraham, but some insight can be gained from the Lord’s instructions to Joseph regarding translation. In April 1829, Joseph received a revelation for Oliver Cowdery that taught that both intellectual work and revelation were essential to translating sacred records. It was necessary to “study it out in your mind” and then seek spiritual confirmation. (It is strongly recommended to read the the original revelation and the Book of Commandments version of this scripture and then compare them with the modified version that we find in the current D&C to see how radically these words of God were changed over time to fit Joseph Smith's teachings (Revelation Book 1 April 1829-B, BoC 7, D&C 8). Records indicate that Joseph and others studied the papyri and that close observers also believed that the translation came by revelation. As John Whitmer observed, “Joseph the Seer saw these Record[s] and by the revelation of Jesus Christ could translate these records.”31 (With this footnote the authors have given us a textbook example of cherry-picking the evidence to intentionally present a story that is different from what the source material actually says. It also references a letter written by Warren Parrish, the former secretary of Joseph Smith who fell out of favor because of what he considered improper financial dealings by the prophet, in which Parrish says “he claimed to receive it by direct inspiration of Heaven.” But in this letter Parrish was actually presenting evidence that Joseph was using things like the Book of Abraham and his doomed bank to take advantage of people. In regards to Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon he says, “their lives have been one continued scene of lying, deception and fraud, and that too, in the name of God.” (Warren Parrish, letter to the editor, Painesville Republican, Feb. 15, 1838). The authors of the essay assume most members will not read the source material, but in this case members that do will find a very different meaning than what they have proclaimed.)
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.32 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.
This is another very dishonest attempt to convince us that the existing papyrus is not the actual source of the Book of Abraham. Again, we need only look at the notebook that Joseph and his scribes created while he was translating to see the obvious connection. We can clearly see the translation laid out systematically, character-by-character, using characters directly from the Hor scroll:
Some apologists try to explain this away as an attempt by Joseph’s scribes to reverse-engineer Joseph’s translation, a claim that is entirely unsupportable considering that: a) four pages of the notebooks are in Joseph’s own handwriting, b) Joseph repeatedly took credit for this work in his journal. (History of the Church, Vol. 2: 238, 286, 316), c) Joseph repeatedly used words from this Alphabet and Grammar in his writings and speeches as examples of legitimate Egyptian, as we have already seen, and most significantly, d) analysis of journal entry dates reveals that the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar was written before the translation of the majority of the Book of Abraham text (Vogel, Egyptian Alphabets & Princess Katumin). Besides, we only need to look at the translations of the characters in the facsimiles to know that Joseph was indeed translating from these papyri.
The long scroll theory is pure myth. By measuring the spacing between a damaged portions of the scroll, which repeat rhythmically along the length of the scroll because it was rolled up at the time the damage occurred, the exact length of the scroll has been accurately calculated. It turns out that only about 56 centimeters of the papyrus is missing. There would have been no room for the Book of Abraham text on the missing portion. (Andrew W. Cook and Christopher C. Smith, The Original Length of the Scroll of Hor, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought) By comparing the Hor scroll to other Books of Breathing such as the companion Hor scroll that ended up in the Louvre, we know that space was occupied not by text but by the now-missing Facsimile 3 drawing. Claims that the Book of Abraham actually came from a different, longer scroll are invalidated by the fact that the Book of Abraham itself clearly states that Facsimile 1 is part of the same scroll. Abraham says, “and that you may have a knowledge of this altar, I will refer you to the representation at the commencement of this record” (Abraham 1:12).
The author of the essay mentions “eyewitnesses” of a long scroll but this entire fable comes from a single third-person, third-generation account by Hugh Nibley concerning something that his uncle claimed to have heard from Joseph Smith’s nephew George A. Smith many decades earlier. Smith is rumored to have claimed by Nibley, via his uncle, that he saw a long scroll in the Nauvoo Mansion when he was five years old. Nibley’s uncle heard the story recounted by Smith 63 years after the fact. So this is a retelling of a retelling of a retelling of a 63-year old childhood memory by a man who is a well established teller of tall tales. It is hard to imagine a less reliable source. Additionally, a long scroll makes no sense because these scrolls had to be small enough to be gripped by the mummy’s hand to be accessible to him in the afterlife. A longer scroll would have defeated its own purpose and would have defied the well-attested fact that these scrolls actually came from the mummy’s hands. Even though his name is referenced eight times in the endnotes of this essay, Dr. Nibley’s interpretations should be taken with a grain of salt, considering that his statements about the Book of Abraham have been dismissed by the church’s First Presidency. You have to wonder why the current First Presidency allowed them to occupy such a significant role in this essay.)
But all of this hoopla about the length of the scroll doesn’t really matter in the end. The Facsimiles alone are enough to tell us that these papyri have nothing to do with the Book of Abraham. Just as mentioned above, Occam's Razor tells us that the simple answer is going to be correct, and in this case again the simple answer is that the papyri do not match what Joseph Smith proclaimed them to say.
Let’s take a brief look at Facsimile 1, which the text of the Book of Abraham claims is a picture of Abraham upon the altar about to be sacrificed by an idolatrous priest:
On the left we see a photographic image of the actual papyrus overlayed on the drawing that is reproduced in the Pearl of Great Price. The image on the right is a reconstruction of what the original papyrus would have actually looked like, according to Egyptologists.
Notice that the actual papyrus has pieces missing. Joseph Smith filled in these holes with his own drawings to restore what he thought the original image might have looked like. It turns out that this is a very well known Egyptian funerary image and there are many examples of it still in existence. Just like with the translations, Joseph got these wrong as well. Notice that the only differences between the two versions (blue boxes) are in the missing portions that Joseph filled in from his imagination/inspiration. One interesting mistake Joseph made was in failing to realize that some of the lines to the right of the center box are wing feathers, because the rest of the bird was missing from his scroll. He turned them into the fingers of a second arm of the struggling Abraham. There are many more problematic issues with this facsimile reconstruction, but this gives a general idea. Some claim that this couldn’t be an embalming scene because the characters’ legs are not bound together but, again, there are many examples of this pose in existing Egyptian embalming scenes. Here is another example of this scene from a different scroll. Notice the position of the legs of the person being embalmed (E. A. Wallis Budge, Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection):
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.33 According to this view (Which is in clear opposition to Joseph’s own words regarding the translation process of the Book of Abraham), 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.34
Again, this essay has no answers and just continues to lob one possibility after another hoping that the reader can settle on one of them and just forget that Joseph Smith's own words completely contradict all of them. Among the choices the essay has given are:
It really is the Book of Abraham scroll, but the Book of Abraham portion has been lost. (Which is impossible due to what we now know about these funerary texts combined with using a mathematical formula to calculate the missing portion of the scroll)
The existing scroll really is associated with Abraham and still contains elements of his writing, but it has been corrupted and distorted over time by repeated copying beyond the ability of Egyptologists to find it, but it somehow randomly ended up coherently producing actual Egyptian religious ceremonies. (Again, this just goes against all common sense and makes no sense considering how Joseph Smith detailed the translation in the manuscript and in the book itself
The papyri have nothing to do with Abraham, they were just a catalyst for Joseph Smith to receive the real Book of Abraham by revelation, and the words “translate,” “translation,” and “translator” have nothing whatsoever to do with the act of translating, and we should ignore all of Joseph and his witnesses’ claims that he was actually translating from Egyptian characters.. (This is actually a similar problem with the Book of Mormon translation since he never used the gold plates and has translation errors from the King James Bible which was not available for the gold plates along with anachronisms that would not have been known when the plates were engraved. It is a bit of a "catch all" solution when Joseph Smith's translations contain errors that can not be explained away with any evidence)
The authors don’t seem to know or even care about the actual answer in this essay - they just want to give enough options that members can find one they can live with. Worse, none of these excuses about the Abraham text resolve the problems with the facsimiles, for which Joseph Smith actually provided direct translations. Again, these problems also apply to Joseph Smith's translation of the Book of Mormon and now his "translation" of the Bible that the latest BYU study shows was heavily lifted from Adam Clarke's biblical commentaries.
All of these explanations are the scattered theories of apologists desperately looking for alternative ways to explain away the obvious problem, which is that Joseph Smith obtained a piece of papyrus that he claimed was the actual Book of Abraham, written by Abraham's own hand, and that he then went on to produce what he claimed was a genuine translation of the Egyptian writing on that papyrus… which turned out to be dead wrong. Sadly, all evidence points to the fact that Joseph simply made it up with some help from the books in his library and a number of now-outdated 19th century ideas about the nature of the universe. It sounds harsh to frame it this way, but the essay details this problem pretty clearly.
The canonized preface to the Book of Abraham makes it very clear that that it was actually written by Abraham upon papyrus.:"THE BOOK OF ABRAHAM TRANSLATED FROM THE PAPYRUS, BY JOSEPH SMITH. A Translation of some ancient Records, that have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt. - The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus."
President Wilford Woodruff reiterated that the Book of Abraham was literally written by Abraham himself: "Joseph the Seer has presented us some of the Book of Abraham which was written by his own hand but hid from the knowledge of man for the last four thousand years but has now come to light through the mercy of God." (Diary of Wilford Woodruff, entry of February 19, 1842, LDS archives; also in Jay M. Todd, The Saga of the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 1969), p. 221)
As for the theory that there was never a physical source and that Joseph received the Book of Abraham by revelation, we must ask why then did Joseph persuade church members to come up with the modern equivalent of $150,000 to purchase the scrolls and mummies if they were completely irrelevant? Just as with the gold plates never actually being used to translate the Book of Mormon, why would God go through thousands of years of careful preservation for scriptures that would ultimate just be revealed through a 'seer stone' or inspiration? It makes absolutely no sense which forces apologists to call it a test of faith, which has become a catch all for problems in church history/scripture issues where there are no good explanations.
Last point here - many apologists now claim that the Book of Abraham is a test of faith because *if* Joseph Smith's translations were correct we would have proof he was a prophet and therefore would have no need for faith. That is an insulting theory - Faith is believing in something without proof, not believing despite proof that it is wrong. This is a theory now used with the Book of Mormon issues as well (Deutero-Isaiah, King James errors, changes in later versions to go away from trinitarian view, anachronisms, etc). That leaves me with this question -- If the Mormon church truly is the one true church that is supposed to grow until the second coming, why would God set Joseph Smith up to look like a fraud if he truly wants His children to believe the LDS doctrines/gospel? Occam's Razor would tell you that these scriptures are not what they appear to be, and that Joseph Smith did not translate these by the gift and power of God. If that is the case, why are we supposed to believe anything else when there are so many problems with the Book of Mormon, polygamy, priesthood restoration, the first vision, the recently discovered plagiarism for the Joseph Smith translation of the Bible, polyamory, the ban on blacks receiving the priesthood/temple endowments, etc.
I know this is a very harsh essay because of the many problems laid out here, but facts are facts. The authors of the essay want you to ignore the facts and focus on how you've felt during your lifetime in the church. This is an unhealthy relationship that continues to tell you to think about how you used to feel instead of confronting the reality that they have been dishonest with everyone the entire time.
The Book of Abraham and the Ancient World
A careful study of the book of Abraham provides a better measure of the book’s merits than any hypothesis that treats the text as a conventional translation. Evidence suggests that elements of the book of Abraham fit comfortably in the ancient world and supports the claim that the book of Abraham is an authentic record.
Except that there are many more elements that seem to come from sources contemporary to Joseph Smith. Two sources that Joseph appears to have borrowed from are Thomas Dick’s Philosophy of a Future State (1830) and Thomas Taylor’s The Six Books of Proclus on the Theology of Plato (1816). We now know that Joseph Smith owned both of these books (K. Godfrey, "A Note on the Nauvoo Library and Literary Institute," BYU Studies 14, no. 3).
Klaus Hansen, an LDS scholar, observed that there are many striking similarities between concepts in the Book of Abraham and Dick’s book, including: the idea that the universe is made of indestructible matter that gets reorganized in new ways, that the universe is filled with living entities called “intelligences,” that these intelligences are eternal beings that are always progressing toward perfection, that all of the stars revolve around a central point which is the throne of God, and that time is reckoned based according to the distance from that point. (Mormonism and the American Experience, Klaus Hansen, p.79-80, 110)
Many of the astronomical concepts and phrases in the Book of Abraham text and facsimile translations appear to come directly from Thomas Taylor’s book. Taylor calls the planets "governors" and uses the terms "fixed stars and planets" and "grand key." Both works refer to the sun as a planet receiving its light and power from a higher sphere rather than generating its own light through nuclear fusion. LDS scholar R. Grant Athay, a research astronomer and director of the University of Colorado Observatory, observed, "At the time that the Book of Abraham was translated ... the energy source of the sun was unknown," and "the concept of one star influencing another was also a common concept of the time.” Athay explains that Taylor also describes the same kind of progression of time among the universal bodies as Abraham 3:16-19. Some people of Joseph Smith's day also believed in progressive orders of orbs and the intelligences that inhabited them. (R. Grant Athay, "Astronomy in the Book of Abraham," Book of Abraham Symposium (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Institute of Religion, 3 Apr. 1970)
Our current understanding of astronomy and astrophysics tells us that the Book of Abraham’s astronomical descriptions are wildly inaccurate and they do they not match the beliefs of Abraham’s own time. Why is it that they are uncannily similar to the theories that were popular in Joseph Smith’s day? This follows issues with the Book of Mormon that many anachronisms just happen to match what was known in Joseph Smith's times, but do not match the time of the scriptures themselves. This is why Richard Bushman himself has been forced to admit that the Book of Mormon "is riddled with nineteenth-century Protestant theology and phrasing, but still is an incredible narrative of a civilization's rise and fall."
The book of Abraham speaks disapprovingly of human sacrifice offered on an altar in Chaldea. Some victims were placed on the altar as sacrifices because they rejected the idols worshipped by their leaders.35 Recent scholarship has found instances of such punishment dating to Abraham’s time. People who challenged the standing religious order, either in Egypt or in the regions over which it had influence (such as Canaan), could and did suffer execution for their offenses.36 The conflict over the religion of Pharaoh, as described in Abraham 1:11–12, is an example of punishment now known to have been meted out during the Abrahamic era.
It would be hard to find a time or place in the history of the world where people were not killed for teaching religious concepts that were not in line with the current regime. Many thousands of people died this way at the hands of Christian inquisitors in Medieval and Renaissance Europe. In fact, it is still happening in the Middle East today. But this particular piece of the story concerning Abraham and the idolatrous priests was actually borrowed from Joseph Smith’s own copy of the apocryphal book of Jasher. In Jasher the priests were going to burn Abraham, but Joseph changed the story to fit the drawing on his papyrus.
The book of Abraham contains other details that are consistent with modern discoveries about the ancient world. The book speaks of “the plain of Olishem,” a name not mentioned in the Bible. An ancient inscription, not discovered and translated until the 20th century, mentions a town called “Ulisum,” located in northwestern Syria.37 (Not to belittle this point, but this is the best historic evidence they have for the Book of Abraham - a name that bears some resemblance to the name of a real place? Abraham tells us that he grew up among the Chaldeans. The problem is that all of this happened many centuries before there were any people who could be identified as Chaldeans. Also, even LDS apologists cannot seem to agree on the basic details about this Olishem, like whether the name is Akkadian, Semitic, Egyptian or something else. Some even claim it refers to Jerusalem or someplace in Egypt, rather than Syria, so this is not quite the bullseye advertised here.
Josephus also talks about Abraham coming from Ur of the Chaldees, as does the Bible (Genesis 11:28). Both are anachronisms that were written long after the events described. Additionally, Abraham would never have known either the words Ur or Chaldees since these are English derivatives of Hebrew Scripture that didn’t exist until well after Abraham’s time (Hayes, A manual of Sumerian grammar and text, 36).
Further, Abraham 3:22–23 is written in a poetic structure more characteristic of Near Eastern languages than early American writing style (This is true of the Book of Mormon as well because it was utilizing the writing style of the King James Bible).38
Joseph Smith’s explanations of the facsimiles of the book of Abraham contain additional earmarks of the ancient world. Facsimile 1 and Abraham 1:17 mention the idolatrous god Elkenah. This deity is not mentioned in the Bible, yet modern scholars have identified it as being among the gods worshipped by ancient Mesopotamians.39 (But it’s a mind bogglingly ridiculous stretch of the truth. These scholars, all of whom happen to be employed by the LDS church, and all of whom seem to be named or sourcing Daniel C. Peterson, make the unfounded assumption that Elkenah is a reference to the Canaanite god El, or possibly the use of the generic word El to signify any of a number ancient Near Eastern gods. Elkenah actually is NOT a recognized name from anywhere in antiquity and is only mentioned the Book of Abraham. This claim is disingenuous and it is made on very shaky ground because if they want to tell the whole story they might also point out that Yahweh (Jehovah) made his first appearance as a pagan god in the pantheon of this same El.)
Joseph Smith represented the four figures in figure 6 of facsimile 2 as “this earth in its four quarters.” A similar interpretation has been argued by scholars who study identical figures in other ancient Egyptian texts.40 (Again, these scholars are all believing Latter-Day Saints who likely contributed to this essay. But Joseph entirely failed to realize that these four figures are really the canopic jars that are were used to preserve the internal organs of Hor, further evidence that this is not a sacrifice scene at all, but an embalming scene. These jars were typically made in the form of the four sons of Horus, who, like many things in the ancient world that come in fours, may have also been associated with the four cardinal directions) Facsimile 1 contains a crocodile deity swimming in what Joseph Smith called “the firmament over our heads.” This interpretation makes sense in light of scholarship that identifies Egyptian conceptions of heaven with “a heavenly ocean.”41 (But Joseph really just copied this wording directly from the Genesis creation account: “And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament.” (Genesis 1:7). The Hor scroll says nothing about it.)
There is a manipulative subtext to this essay in which they admit that the Joseph Smith papyri are not the source of the Book of Abraham, yet at the same time they try to convince you that it really does have a legitimate connection to the Book of Abraham. They are trying to play it both ways in the hopes that you will find satisfaction in any one of the theories they are throwing at the wall here. Each one of these theories have massive issues, but by throwing one out after another, the hope is that the reader will lose interest and feel like they don't have to do the thinking. It is insulting that they mock scholars when it does not suit their case, but constantly refer to scholars in these paragraphs even as they are referring to LDS apologists that do not have the backing of anyone outside of BYU.
The book of Abraham is consistent with various details found in nonbiblical stories about Abraham that circulated in the ancient world around the time the papyri were likely created (in other words, not from the time of Abraham at all as proclaimed in the history, but some 2000 years later!). In the book of Abraham, God teaches Abraham about the sun, the moon, and the stars. “I show these things unto thee before ye go into Egypt,” the Lord says, “that ye may declare all these words.”42 Ancient texts repeatedly refer to Abraham instructing the Egyptians in knowledge of the heavens. For example, Eupolemus, who lived under Egyptian rule in the second century B.C.E., wrote that Abraham taught astronomy and other sciences to the Egyptian priests.43 (The footnote refers to “Excerpts from Eupolemus” but these statements are actually writings by Eusebius, who is quoting Alexander Polyhistor, who is summarizing pseudo-Eupolemus in the 1st Century BC. In the same passages Eusebius also quotes Josephus, one of Joseph Smith’s sources, who talks about Abraham teaching not astronomy but astrology to the Egyptians. Again, this is information that comes from thousands of years after Abraham and is found in Josephus, a book that Joesph Smith owned and talked about.)
A third-century papyrus from an Egyptian temple library connects Abraham with an illustration similar to facsimile 1 in the book of Abraham.44
This association is shamefully deceptive and genuinely disrespectful of the reader. The footnote refers to a papyrus from the 2nd to 3rd Century BC called P. Leiden I 384, shown below:
The figure on the couch in this papyrus is a woman and the associated text is actually a pagan love spell which states that the magical document was designed to “inflame” the woman’s “female body” so that she will surrender herself to the owner of the scroll. John Gee, the LDS apologist who originally published this image in relation to the Book of Abraham, recognizes these problems and admits “these texts tell us nothing directly about Abraham,” (Edward H. Ashment, The Use of Magical Papyri to Authenticate the Book of Abraham) Yes, the papyrus does have a picture of a lion couch and a variation of Abraham’s name, along with those of Isaac, Jacob and other prophets and gods whose names eventually came to be used as magical words that in spells created by Egyptian magicians millennia after Abraham’s time. You will also notice that the figure standing over the mummy is Anubis, not a priest of Elkenah. It is very disappointing that the authors of this essay would resort to such a textbook example of what Elder Anderson would call “subtle deception” if it were done by a critic of Joseph Smith.
A later Egyptian text, discovered in the 20th century, tells how the Pharaoh tried to sacrifice Abraham, only to be foiled when Abraham was delivered by an angel. Later, according to this text, Abraham taught members of the Pharaoh’s court through astronomy.45 All these details are found in the book of Abraham. (This is another misdirection, as this Egyptian text is really a document from apocryphal coptic texts which date to almost 400 years AFTER Christ. This actually supports the idea that the story told in the Pearl of Great Price is borrowed from later apocryphal sources. The fact that this particular example in the Nag Hammadi texts was discovered in the 20th century does not diminish the fact Joseph Smith already knew these details by way of the Book of Jasher. In fact, footnote 46 below actually admits that “Some of these extrabiblical elements were available to Joseph Smith through the books of Jasher and Josephus. It states that “Joseph Smith was aware of these books, but it is unknown whether he utilized them.” I think it’s safe to assume he did utilize them, since it has been well established that that he owned and talked about them. The essayists cross their fingers and hope you will overlook these less faith-promoting but more parsimonious explanations.
Another nagging problem is that the Book of Abraham makes repeated references to the word Pharaoh, a title that was not adopted until over 1000 years after Abraham’s time. It also uses Pharaoh as a personal name, apparently unaware that it is a title. This is a serious mistake that is equivalent to someone thinking that Abraham Lincoln's first name was “President.”
Other details in the book of Abraham are found in ancient traditions located across the Near East. These include Terah, Abraham’s father, being an idolater; a famine striking Abraham’s homeland; Abraham’s familiarity with Egyptian idols; and Abraham's being younger than 75 years old when he left Haran, as the biblical account states. Some of these extrabiblical elements were available in apocryphal books or biblical commentaries in Joseph Smith’s lifetime, but others were confined to nonbiblical traditions inaccessible or unknown to 19th-century Americans.46
If any of these "other details" that are not in the books of Jasher, Josephus or other apocrypha are significant the authors should point out which ones are not found in those sources, rather than just reassuring us that there are “other details.” This is especially true since the ones they went to the effort of pointing out have turned out to be available to Joseph Smith through other contemporary sources.
The veracity and value of the book of Abraham cannot be settled by scholarly debate concerning the book’s translation and historicity. The book’s status as scripture lies in the eternal truths it teaches and the powerful spirit it conveys. The book of Abraham imparts profound truths about the nature of God, His relationship to us as His children, and the purpose of this mortal life. The truth of the book of Abraham is ultimately found through careful study of its teachings, sincere prayer, and the confirmation of the Spirit.
After all of the many possible theories thrown around in this essay, the authors of the essay now ask readers to put all of that aside and not make any conclusions based on evidence. Instead they want them to abandon the facts and look to emotional confirmation for our answer.
B. H. Roberts, General Authority, church historian, and one of the greatest minds in Mormonism, once noted, “if Joseph Smith’s translation of the Egyptian parchment could be discredited, and proven false, then doubt would be thrown also upon the genuineness of his translation of the Book of Mormon, and thus all his pretensions as a translator would be exposed and come to naught" (B. H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1930), 2:138.) Brother Roberts wrote this before the papyri were rediscovered. It is unfortunate that the papyri were found and translated too late for him to make a follow-up comment.
All of this focus on the Book of Abraham makes it easy to overlook one more important and fascinating document that I’m sure the authors hope will not enter into the discussion. We must not forget that we still have the intact scroll that Joseph Smith identified, via his initial translation of its “characters of hieroglyphs,” as the Book of Joseph. None of these arguments about a missing scroll or other complications specific to the Hor scroll apply to that papyrus. A translation of the Book of Joseph papyrus that actually tells the story of Joseph should validate all of Joseph Smith’s claims but, as you have probably already guessed, that text has also been translated by Egyptologists, both LDS and non-LDS, and it turns out to be yet another standard funerary scroll. This one was created for an Egyptian woman named Ta-shert-Min, and it has nothing to do with Joseph in Egypt, and was written a millennia later. (J. A. Wilson, Dialogue, Volume 3, Number 2).
It is curious that none of the subsequent prophets, seers and revelators have shown the least bit of interest in producing a “correct” translation for this papyrus, one that tells Joseph’s story. Just imagine the excitement if the current prophet published such a translation. Nor have they tried to shine any light on any of the translations, apart from allowing apologists to find a myriad of theories to deflect members from digging deeper into the truth.
The real elephant in the room is the fact that the leaders of our church have repeatedly demonstrated that they do not really believe that the Joseph Smith papyri actually contain the Book of Abraham. If they actually believed they possess the single most important document in the religious world would they keep it tucked away in a library vault? If the church really believed their own story about the Book of Abraham they would proclaim loudly and proudly to the world that they have the only document in existence that was written by the shared patriarch of all western religions. What a missionary tool that would be!
The reason that the Book of Abraham is such an important issue for the authenticity of the church is that we have the source material to compare to. Consider that Joseph Smith has four areas of scripture,and there are damning issues with each one:
Book of Mormon - King James Bible errors which were not available when gold plates were engraved, Deutero-Isaiah verses which were long after the plates were engraved, anachronisms of plants/items/animals that were from Joseph Smith's time, changes to the trinitarian view in later editions, etc
Doctrine and Covenants - Many major changes from the Book of Commandments to the Doctrine and Covenants, many that completely changed the meanings of revelations. In addition, an *entire section* was removed (D&C 101) which prohibited polygamy so that Joseph Smith could insert D&C 132 which allowed Joseph Smith to take on wives.
Book of Abraham - Essay above and our notes highlight all of the many issues.
Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible - Recent BYU study highlights that a lot of the material Joseph Smith used was lifted from Adam Clarke's biblical commentaries.
What this adds up to is that Joseph Smith's works have a lot of problems, and the Book of Abraham is a critical piece of evidence because we have the source material. As B.H. Roberts said, “If Joseph Smith’s translation of the Egyptian parchment could be discredited, and proven false, then doubt would be thrown also upon the genuineness of his translation of the Book of Mormon, and thus all his pretensions as a translator would be exposed and come to naught." We now have the source material to show that the Book of Abraham in no way matches what Joseph Smith told us it did, and we now know the Joseph Smith translation of the Bible was heavily lifted. Those two combined with the many issues with the Book of Mormon tells a very disturbing story as to Joseph Smith's true prophetic abilities, and as stated multiple times in our notes here - Occam's Razor would tell us that the most obvious conclusion here is that these scriptures are works that Joseph Smith wrote without the gift and power of God.
I know that is a very difficult conclusion, and as a former member of the church I am still angry that the church continues to be unwilling to tell us these truths and instead continues to ask us to pray for answers. The reality is that the only way to get an answer that these works are from God is to go into prayer already looking for a confirmation that they are true. The evidence is too strong and the issues are too large for there to be any reasonable way to conclude these are the works of God. The power of a spiritual witness is a difficult one to question, which is why the church leans so heavily on it. Unfortunately, it is also one that every church uses, and I refer you to this YouTube video which shows how other churches use it, including a polygamous splinter group from the LDS church. It is a powerful video to show how spiritual witnesses happen, and why the church continues to use it when they have no answers about their history.
Thank you for reading this annotated essay to the end. I know it is long, and I know it is very difficult to read these things that were previously unknown to almost all LDS members. I hope that you will continue to research this issue and that you will be willing to research from both LDS and non-LDS sources to get the full picture. It is impossible to believe that God would allow Joseph Smith to look so wrong in order to create a need for faith, and also goes against the writings of the Book of Abraham and Joseph Smith as well. For these reasons it is our unquestionable conclusion that the Book of Abraham is not a writing from Abraham, and thus is a 'smoking gun' against the truthfulness of Joseph Smith and the LDS church as a whole. That is a painful conclusion to come to, but it is better to find the truth than to ignore it, as difficult as it might be at first. There are many resources to help those going through a faith crisis, so please email us if you would like any help. While the church tells us that we will be miserable without it (and "where will you go?"), the reality is that people who do learn the truth and move on are just as (if not more) happy and healthy afterwards.
Please email us with any suggestions, corrections, or if you have any sources that can provide more information that can help enhance this essay. Thank you again!
See, for example, Daniel C. Peterson, “News from Antiquity,” Ensign, Jan. 1994, and John Gee, “Research and Perspectives: Abraham in Ancient Egyptian Texts,” Ensign, July 1992.
Joseph Smith History, 1838–1856, vol. B-1, 596, available at josephsmithpapers.org.
See S. J. Wolfe with Robert Singerman, Mummies in Nineteenth Century America: Ancient Egyptians as Artifacts (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009); and John T. Irwin, American Hieroglyphics: The Symbol of the Egyptian Hieroglyphics in the American Renaissance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980).
The most extensive treatment of Lebolo and his excavations, though dated in some particulars, is H. Donl Peterson, The Story of the Book of Abraham: Mummies, Manuscripts, and Mormonism (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1995), 36–85. On the whereabouts of the mummies after they arrived in the United States, see Brian L. Smith interview by Philip R. Webb, “Mystery of the Mummies: An Update on the Joseph Smith Collection,” Religious Studies Center Newsletter 20, no. 2 (2005): 1–5.
Joseph Smith History, 1838–1856, vol. B-1, 596, available at josephsmithpapers.org.
Brian M. Hauglid, A Textual History of the Book of Abraham: Manuscripts and Editions (Provo, UT: Maxwell Institute, 2010), 6, 84, 110.
Joseph Smith, Journal, March 8–9, 1842, available at josephsmithpapers.org; “A Fac-Simile from the Book of Abraham” and “A Translation,” Times and Seasons, Mar. 1, 1842, 703–6, available at josephsmithpapers.org; “The Book of Abraham,” Times and Seasons, Mar. 15, 1842, 719–22, available at josephsmithpapers.org; and “A Fac-Simile from the Book of Abraham” and “Explanation of Cut on First Page,” Times and Seasons, May 16, 1842, 783–84.
Robert J. Matthews, “A Plainer Translation”: Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible: A History and Commentary (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1985), 253. In Joseph Smith’s day, the word translate could mean “to interpret; to render into another language.” The word interpret could mean “to explain the meaning of words to a person who does not understand them,” or “to explain or unfold the meaning of predictions, vision, dreams or enigmas; to expound and lay open what is concealed from the understanding.” (Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language [New York: S. Converse, 1828], s.v. “Translate,” “Interpret.”)
Joseph Smith History, 1838–1856, vol. B-1, 597, available at josephsmithpapers.org.
Transcriptions and digital images of these manuscripts, known collectively as the “Kirtland Egyptian Papers,” can be found at “Book of Abraham and Egyptian Material,” josephsmithpapers.org.
Joseph Smith History, 1838–1856, vol. B-1, 596, available at josephsmithpapers.org.
W. W. Phelps to Sally Phelps, July 19–20, 1835, in Bruce A. Van Orden, “Writing to Zion: The William W. Phelps Kirtland Letters (1835–1836),” BYU Studies 33, no. 3 (1993): 555, available at byustudies.byu.edu.
John Gee, A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2000), 2. The fragments are known to have been part of the papyri owned by the Church because they were mounted on paper with early Mormon records, which conforms to contemporary descriptions of the display of the papyri.
Jay M. Todd, “New Light on Joseph Smith’s Egyptian Papyri,” Improvement Era, Feb. 1968, 40–41. Another fragment was located in the Church Historian’s Office around the same time as the Metropolitan discovery, making 11 fragments in all.
Michael D. Rhodes, “Why Doesn’t the Translation of the Egyptian Papyri found in 1967 Match the Text of the Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price?” Ensign, July 1988, 51–53.
Kerry Muhlestein, “Egyptian Papyri and the Book of Abraham: A Faithful, Egyptological Point of View,” and Brian M. Hauglid, “Thoughts on the Book of Abraham,” both in No Weapon Shall Prosper: New Light on Sensitive Issues, ed. Robert L. Millet (Provo and Salt Lake City, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book, 2011), 217–58. On the lack of unanimity among Egyptologists, see, for example, John Gee, “A Method for Studying the Facsimiles,” FARMS Review 19, no. 1 (2007): 348–51; and Hugh Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, 2d. ed. (Provo and Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2005), 51–53. For translation of and commentary on the fragments, see Michael D. Rhodes, Books of the Dead Belonging to Tschemmin and Neferirnub: A Translation and Commentary (Provo, UT: Maxwell Institute, 2010); Michael D. Rhodes, The Hor Book of Breathings: A Translation and Commentary (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2002); and Nibley, Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri, 34–50.
Joseph Smith, or perhaps a colleague, introduced the published translation by saying that the records were “written by his [Abraham’s] own hand, upon papyrus.” The phrase can be understood to mean that Abraham is the author and not the literal copyist. Hugh Nibley and Michael Rhodes, One Eternal Round (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2010), 20–22; Michael D. Rhodes, “Teaching the Book of Abraham Facsimiles,” Religious Educator 4, no. 2 (2003): 117–18.
Kevin L. Barney, “The Facsimiles and Semitic Adaptation of Existing Sources,” in John Gee and Brian M. Hauglid, eds., Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2005), 107–30.
Henk Milde, “Vignetten-Forschung,” in Burkhard Backes and others, eds., Totenbuch-Forschungen (Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2006), 221–31; Holger Kockelmann, Untersuchungen zu den späten Totenbuch-Handschriften auf Mumienbinden (Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2008), 2:212–14; Valérie Angenot, “Discordance entre texte et image. Deux exemples de l’Ancien et du Nouvel Empires,” GöttingerMiszellen 187 (2002): 11–21.
John Whitmer, History, 1831–ca. 1837, 76, in Karen Lynn Davidson, Richard L. Jensen, and David J. Whittaker, eds., Histories, Volume 2: Assigned Historical Writings, 1831–1847, vol. 2 of the Histories series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2012), 86. “I have set by his side and penned down the translation of the Egyptian Hieroglyphicks as he claimed to receive it by direct inspiration of Heaven,” wrote Warren Parrish, Joseph Smith’s scribe. (Warren Parrish, Feb. 5, 1838, Letter to the editor, Painesville Republican, Feb. 15, 1838, .)
Hauglid, Textual History of the Book of Abraham, 213–14, 222.
“Joseph Smith as Translator,” in Richard Lyman Bushman, Believing History: Latter-day Saint Essays, ed. Reid L. Neilson and Jed Woodworth (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 233–47; Nibley, Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri, 51–59. See also footnote 19.
By analogy, the Bible seems to have been a frequent catalyst for Joseph Smith’s revelations about God’s dealings with His ancient covenant people. Joseph’s study of the book of Genesis, for example, prompted revelations about the lives and teachings of Adam, Eve, Moses, and Enoch, found today in the book of Moses.
Abraham 1:8, 10–11. Most scholars today locate “Chaldea” (or Ur) in southern Mesopotamia, removed from the area of Egyptian influence, but cogent arguments have been made for a northern location, within the realm of Egyptian influence. (Paul Y. Hoskisson, “Where Was Ur of the Chaldees?” in H. Donl Peterson and Charles D. Tate Jr., eds., The Pearl of Great Price: Revelations from God [Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Religious Studies Center, 1989], 119–36; and Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, 84–85, 234–36.)
Kerry Muhlestein, Violence in the Service of Order: The Religious Framework for Sanctioned Killing in Ancient Egypt (Oxford, U.K.: Archaeopress, 2001), 37–44, 92–101; Kerry Muhlestein, “Royal Executions: Evidence Bearing on the Subject of Sanctioned Killing in the Middle Kingdom,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 51, no. 2 (2008): 181–208; Anthony Leahy, “Death by Fire in Ancient Egypt,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 27, no. 2 (1984): 199–206; Harco Willems, “Crime, Cult and Capital Punishment (Mo’alla Inscription 8),” Journal of Egyptian Archeology 76 (1990): 27–54.
Julie M. Smith, “A Note on Chiasmus in Abraham 3:22–23,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 8 (2014): 187–90, available at mormoninterpreter.com; Boyd F. Edwards and W. Farrell Edwards, “When Are Chiasms Admissible as Evidence?” BYU Studies 49, no. 4 (2010): 131–54, available at byustudies.byu.edu.
Kevin L. Barney, “On Elkenah as Canaanite El,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 19, no. 1 (2010): 22–35, available at maxwellinstitute.byu.edu; John Gee and Stephen D. Ricks, “Historical Plausibility: The Historicity of the Book of Abraham as a Case Study,” in Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2001), 75.
Martin J. Raven, “Egyptian Concepts of the Orientation of the Human Body,” in Proceedings of the Ninth International Congress of Egyptologists (2007), 2:1569–70.
Erik Hornung, “Himmelsvorstellungen,” Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 7 vols. (Wiesbaden: Harrassowit, 1977–1989), 2:1216. For these and other examples, see Peterson, “News from Antiquity”; Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2009), 115–78; Nibley and Rhodes, One Eternal Round, 236–45; John Gee, “A New Look at the Conception of the Human Being in Ancient Egypt,” in “Being in Ancient Egypt”: Thoughts on Agency, Materiality and Cognition, ed. Rune Nyord and Annette Kjølby (Oxford, U.K.: Archaeopress, 2009), 6–7, 12–13.
Excerpts from Eupolemus, in John A. Tvedtnes, Brian M. Hauglid, and John Gee, eds., Traditions about the Early Life of Abraham, Studies in the Book of Abraham, ed. John Gee, vol. 1 (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2001), 8–9. For other references to Abraham teaching astronomy, see, for example, Tvedtnes, Hauglid, and Gee, Traditions about the Early Life of Abraham, 7, 35–43.
Excerpts from P. Leiden I 384 (PGM XII), in Tvedtnes, Hauglid, and Gee, Traditions about the Early Life of Abraham, 501–2, 523.
John Gee, “An Egyptian View of Abraham,” in Andrew C. Skinner, D. Morgan Davis, and Carl Griffin, eds., Bountiful Harvest: Essays in Honor of S. Kent Brown (Provo, UT: Maxwell Institute, 2011), 137–56.
See E. Douglas Clark, review of Michael E. Stone, Armenian Apocrypha Relating to Abraham (2012), in BYU Studies Quarterly 53:2 (2014): 173-79; Tvedtnes, Hauglid, and Gee, Traditions about the Early Life of Abraham; Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2000), 1–73. Some of these extrabiblical elements were available to Joseph Smith through the books of Jasher and Josephus. Joseph Smith was aware of these books, but it is unknown whether he utilized them.
The Church acknowledges the contribution of scholars to the historical content presented in this article; their work is used with permission.