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The Book of Abraham

For many, the Book of Abraham is one of the more problematic subjects within Mormonism due to the 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 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 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 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 year later in Nauvoo.

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 some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands, from the Catecombs 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, but the Rosetta Stone had been discovered in 1799 by French soldiers in Egypt. This discovery allowed us to decipher ancient Egyptian writings for the first time, and this knowledge would ultimately lead 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.

Compounding this problem for Joseph Smith was the discovery of many papyrus fragments from the Book of Abraham translation, including the papyrus fragment that includes facsimile 1 along with the surrounding symbols which 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."

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 noted that any lack of unanimity is among small differences in translation - not that any of them think Joseph Smith's translations are correct in any way. This is an area of the essay where the church uses small differences in opinion to imply that some scholars disagree on 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 Of some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands, from the Catecombs 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."

We know now that the translation that Joseph Smith gave us does not match the actual Egyptian translation and we know now that the papyrus fragments date thousands of years after Abraham would have lived. In other words, it would be impossible for the Book of Abraham to be "written by his own hand, upon papyrus."

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."

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." Egypologist 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 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, are "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 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 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 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.

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.

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:

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this facsimile 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 is 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):

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 Egytpian translation to be. Facsimile 3 is a section of one papyrus: the "Breathing Permit of Hôr" along with facsimile 1.

Facsimile 3 is the most troubling to many who study the Book of Abraham because not only are the interpretations/translations wrong, but Joseph Smith incorrectly assumes the two females are male, and incorrectly assumes 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 if you take a closer look at the woodcut, you can see what appears to be the area where the snout would be chiseled out.

In addition, with the writing above the figures in facsimile 3, 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!"

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 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/Long 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. You can see examples of this below, which have symbols that line up 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.

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.”

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.