The Facts on the Book of Abraham

These are just the facts, as can be clearly found on any LDS site that references the Book of Abraham. All quotes and statistics are from FARMS, FAIR, BOAP, SHIELDS, or related LDS links from those sites. (EWF)

July 1835:  Mr. Michael Chandler, a peddler and proprietor of a traveling sideshow, arrives in Kirtland with the four mummies and some Egyptian papyri. He is told that Joseph Smith is adept at translating Egyptian hieroglyphics, which is still a relatively unknown skill to most linguists. After looking at the scrolls, Smith purportedly said that they were the "Book of Abraham,.written by his own hand". Smith confirms that he can translate Egyptian and a consortium of individuals agree to buy the papyri for $2,400 on behalf of the church.

Smith begins work on an "Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar", based on his translation work on the papyri. W.W. Phelps, Oliver Cowdery, and later Warren Parrish were scribes in the translation work. By 1837, the Kirtland Egyptian Papers (referred to hereafter as KEP) were complete. The entire Book of Abraham wasn't apparently translated and released until 1942. Included in the translation, are drawings and facsimiles of the symbols found on the papyrus. The best known of these is "Fascimile No. 1" which in part can be described as a man lying on a "couch" and another individual standing over him. Smith said this was Abraham lying on an altar, with an Egyptian high priest standing over him with a knife. (See Below)

Fascimile Number One. This was included in the original publication by Smith

1844: Joseph Smith is killed in Carthage. The collection of papyrus apparently is in possession of his family.

1871: The original papyri are thought to be destroyed in the Chicago fire. In reality, they were in the possession of Abel Combs, who had bought them from Emma Smith Bidamon. The actual location of the papyrus is a mystery to the LDS until 1966, when they will be rediscovered in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

During the century interim, Egyptologists in Europe and America began to take notice in the facsimiles from the Book of Abraham. It was stated that even a cursory look confirmed that Smith's drawings were from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Smith's translation is called a "clumsy imposture". The LDS, which at the end of the 18th century declared the LDS book (Pearl of Great Price) which contained the text as "scripture", vehemently denies this claim as an attack by anti-Mormon forces. The essence of the Mormon answer to the critics is that the original papyri were no longer extant. In 1913, Mormon writer John Henry Evans pointed out in an article in Improvement Era, that less than one-seventh of the whole Book of Abraham was represented by the facsimile portion, and even that only as an accompaniment to the text. Evans argued that in order to give a fair test of Joseph's true ability to translate Egyptian, and before the scholars could get away with charging that the entire Book of Abraham was a false translation,

"they would have to examine the original papyrus, or a copy of it, from which the Book of Abraham was translated."

Since the originals that Smith was working with were thought to be destroyed, the LDS organization could neither prove, nor be disproved in their assertions about Smith's translation.

1966: The fragments are rediscovered in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City by scholar Aziz Atiya. The Met the next year hands them over to President Eldon Tanner, who accepts the on behalf of the church.

Finally, the Latter Day Saints can be vindicated on the question of Joseph Smith's ability as a translator. Or could they? The Mormon Church, to it's own dismay, released the news in 1968 that the Joseph Smith Papyri (JS pap) were indeed part of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. (More specifically, the Book of Breathing.) The critics who charged that the facsimiles from the Book of Abraham were taken from funerary texts that spoke of Osiris, Hor, and other Egyptian gods and goddesses were correct all along.

That is what every Mormon scholar now freely admits. Mormon apologist Kerry Shirts, who perhaps offers the most detailed defense of the Book of Abraham on the World-Wide Web, states the dilemma in three basic points in "Abraham Father of the Faithful, or Osiris, pagan Egyptian God?". They are

  1. Neither the Sen-Sen, Book of Breathing papyri, nor the Book of the Dead in the Joseph Smith Papyri collection mention Abraham or have anything to do with him.
  2. The Lion Couch scene in facsimile No.1 (The one Smith himself drew) is not Abraham but rather the pagan god Osiris, the DEAD god being embalmed (emphasis Kerry Shirt's)
  3. The Joseph Smith Papyri date much later than Abraham, around 50 BC to 50 AD.

The Actual Papyri (JS1)behind Fascimile 1. Josesph Smith's attempt at restoring it is clearly visible

Image of section which was "translated" (JSXI). In reality, it is the "sen-sen scroll" of prayers to Osiris

Kerry Shirts does not actually refute any of these charges. There is no actual "official" explanation to the faithful from the General Authorities. Mormon apologists, however, have worked hard to offer a number of possibilities to make this situation more palatable for those who believe in Joseph Smith as a prophet and restorer of Christ's Apostolic church. Since the realization that the JS papyri are really pagan funeral rites with no mention of Abraham or any of the other elements of the alleged translation, the LDS is left with a few possibilities. The first listed, is the charge from anti-Mormons that has been leveled against the LDS church.

Possibility 1. Joseph Smith fraudulently contrived of the whole "translation". This is anathema to Latter Day Saints, because it impugns the character of the Prophet. Moreoever, if the whole Book of Abraham, considered canonical scripture by the LDS, was a fraud, then it is not a reach to consider the Book of Mormon could have been a similar fraud. Both are Egyptian texts that Smith claims to have translated. The only difference is that we have the text behind the Book of Abraham, which would prove that he deceptively concocted the whole ruse. Just the same, most honest Mormon apologists admit that this is the "at face value" implication.

Possibility 2: The JS papyri are not the fragments that Joseph Smith was using in his translation, but are completely unrelated Egyptian fragments. This would be convenient if one wanted to distance themselves from the pagan funerary rites, but there is too much connecting Smith to the fragments. (See Jeff Lindsey's quote in "Possibility 4") Besides the exactitude of the diagrams Smith published as facsimiles which connect his "translation" to the Book of the Dead, some fragments actually have Smith's own handwriting on them, diagramming plans for the temple in Nauvoo. Moreover, Mormon scholars have now definitively identified the succession of ownership of the scrolls from Smith, all the way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Smith possessed these papyri while he translated the Book of Abraham.

Possibility 3: The JS papyri are only a small part of the original documents, the rest which are no longer extant. This is a hypothesis that is offered by the Mormon scholars Hugh Nimbley, Jeff Lindsey, as well as others. One of the primary evidences that is offered is the references to a "scroll" or longer Egyptian manuscript that was seen in Nauvoo in the possession of Smith's mother, Lucy Mack Smith. Following is an account offered on the Book of Abraham Project (BOAP) website, under appendix V. The year of the event is 1843, and it is recorded by Charlotte Haven, a non-Mormon who visited Lucy Mack Smith. The words in parenthesis are those of the BOAP editor, pointing out the supporting elements which support the "missing scroll" theory.

Then she [Mother Smith] turned to a long table, set her candlestick down, and opened a long roll of manuscript (yes it was not a modern document - they didn't come in long rolls! Furthermore, old papyrus scrolls can be remarkably well preserved and "rollable"), saying it was "the writing of Abraham and Isaac, written in Hebrew and Sanscrit [sic]," and she read several minutes from it as if it were English. It sounded very much like passages from the Old Testament-and it might have been for anything we knew-but she said she read it through the inspiration of her son Joseph, in whom she seemed to have perfect confidence. Then in the same way she interpreted to us hieroglyphics from another roll. One was Mother Eve being tempted by the serpent, who-the serpent, I mean-was standing on the tip of his tail, which with his two legs formed a tripod, and had his head in Eve's ear.

The scholars on the Book of Abraham seem to take this as strong evidence that there was another scroll, and considering that by now, the Sen-Sen fragments were supposedly mounted on glass, I can understand their interest in this unusual account. There are a couple of things that puzzle me on this story however. First of all, there is no mention of the "writing of Isaac" in any of Joseph Smith's commentary on the subject. Lucy Mack Smith seems to be privy to something that even the prophet didn't know about. Furthermore, Lucy Mack Smith said it was "Hebrew and Sanskrit", which, besides the fact that the manuscripts Smith had were in Egyptian, also seems to contradict the next sentence which says that she was reading hieroglyphics. Perhaps the most fascinating thing about this is the apparent casual and cavalier manner that Lucy Mack Smith has in being able to pick up these scrolls, and read them as if she had known the languages all of her life. Considering that Cowdery, Phelps, and Parrish along with Joseph Smith labored years to produce the short five-chapter Book of Abraham, somehow Lucy Mack Smith translates these ancient writings quite spontaneously! Based on all of these inconsistencies, I am surprised that Mormons scholars don't recognize this for what it is: a completely ludicrous attempt of Lucy Mack Smith to claim the revelatory gift/ translation abilities that her son claimed. Her absurd "demonstration" of reading these ancient languages casts doubt if she had any old scroll at all, other than one construed for just such a pretense.

To lay this matter to rest, it must also be pointed out that whether there was a missing scroll or not is actually a moot question to begin with. The Sen-Sen scrolls are clearly, at the very least, (evidenced by the Kirtland papers) a large part of the source document for the Book of Abraham, and they have absolutely nothing to do with the biblical Abraham.

Possibilty 4: The Book of Abraham is not a translation at all, but a divinely given revelation: The view that Smith never actually "translated" anything but received the "Book of Abraham" by revelation is another alternative to the LDS quandary in this matter. It is suggested quite frequently that the papyri served merely as a catalyst for Smith to receive the revelation. This is a convenient answer and it gets around the lack of congruity of the actual papyri and the Book of Abraham. The only real question would be then, why did Smith go through such lengths to produce and "Alphabet and Grammar"? Why do the KEPs show a systematic attempt at translating each character from the Sen-Sen scroll? Why also did Smith make sure Chandler certify in writing that his initial translation of a few characters was accurate with the opinions of the scholars of his day? Following is the "certification" that Chandler was asked to sign.

KIRTLAND, July 6, 1835

This is to make known to all who may be desirous, concerning the knowledge of Mr. Joseph Smith, Jun., in deciphering the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic characters in my possession, which I have, in many eminent cities, showed to the most learned; and, from the information that I could ever learn, or meet with, I find that of Mr. Joseph Smith, Jun., to correspond in the most minute matters.


Traveling with, and proprietor of, Egyptian mummies

I have no doubt that Michael Chandler, to make a sale of $2,400 (keep in mind this was a veritable fortune back then), would happily sign about anything. This "certificate" also demonstrates that Joseph Smith believed his "translation" was accurate in the literal sense, rather than a "revelation".

Smith was keenly interested in validating that he was "translating" the papyri. His own journals, as well as those of Parrish and Cowdery, confirm that they were working on a "translation." Joseph Smith himself, in the History of the Church, Vol. 2, p. 238, says that regarding July of 1835:

"The remainder of this month, I 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".

Likewise, he recorded in his own diary that he " . . Spent the day in translating the Egyptian records" (Diary of Joseph Smith, Nov. 19, 1835). Also on Nov. 20th, he "spent the day in translating, and made rapid progress . . . " (Ibid, Nov. 20, 1835). Again on the 24th he says "in the afternoon we translated some of the Egyptian records."(Ibid, Nov. 24, 1835). There was little doubt among the LDS, before 1966, that Joseph Smith was "translating" in the conventional sense from the papyri. William E. Berrett in his book, The Restored Church, says that

''. . . [Joseph Smith's] most notable achievement was the development at Kirtland of a grammar for the Egyptian hieroglyphic form of writing. This was used by him, as well as divine aid, in translating ancient writings of the patriarch Abraham. The Restored Church 1956 ed., p. 133.

There is no doubt that Smith was at least trying appear that he was translating. It seems nearly impossible to escape this conclusion. Particularly when you have all of the characters from the smaller Sen-sen scroll (JSXI) written consecutively with the English Book of Abraham in parallel columns. The English work was undoubtedly a "translation". The Kirtland Papers establish once and for all that the fragments we have today, known as the Joseph Smith papyri are the scrolls that Smith was working with, and that he was presenting a translation. Following is Mormon scholar Jeff Lindsey's assessment of the whole situation. This can be found at his apologetic website under the heading "Questions about the Book of Abraham" and sub-section "What about the Kirtland Papers?"

Some people feel that the Kirtland papers "prove" that Joseph's translation was a fraud. The Kirtland Egyptian Papers are a group of documents written by Warren Parrish, Oliver Cowdery, and William W. Phelps. Two documents in the set have Joseph's handwriting on them (but here there is no attempt at translating Egyptian into English). Some of the Kirtland papers contain the text of the published Book of Abraham with a column of Egyptian characters from the Sen-Sen scroll on the left-hand side of the pages. The critics argue that these papers were working documents for the translation of the Book of Abraham, and that Joseph got the translation wrong. (The assumption seems to be made that these papers reflect the work of Joseph Smith, even though most were not written by him, since the men who wrote them served as as scribes to Joseph at various times.) If these papers were used to do the translation, it could be construed as powerful evidence in favor of the critics, for the characters in the margin do come from the Book of Breathings, not from some other missing scroll, and the "translation" is obviously incorrect

Lindsey offers an honest and sobering view to the whole issue. This also dashes the "missing scroll" theory. The characters from the pagan Book of Breathing, lined up in columns with the Book of Abraham text, written in the handwriting of Smith's scribes for the project, with even some of Smith's own writing on it. Lindsey suggests that because the Alphabet and Grammar are in the handwriting of Phelps and Parrish, that they were working on a translation, while Smith was not. He is at a loss to explain why Smith himself claimed that he was "translating", and the people who were his scribes apparently, as based on the Alphabet and Grammar, seem to have thought the same thing.

Possibility 5: The Sen-Sen fragments are the true papyri behind the Book of Abraham, and Osiris is really Abraham! This possibility, while it may seem the most repugnant to most faithful Latter-Day saints, is actually the last option that Mormons scholars have. Amazingly enough, this is the one that Mormon apologists seem to be predominantly siding with. The claim is that in the pagan Egyptian world-view, when one dies, they can be identified as Osiris, and can rightly be represented in the "couch" scene that Smith depicted. It s not an "either/or" with Kerry Shirts and the BOAP; it is a "both/and". The pagan funerary rite is also Abraham. Here are the words of Kerry Shirts from "Abraham: Father of the Faithful, or Osiris, pagan Egyptian God?" for a fuller explanation:

The most interesting thing to note is that when Joseph Smith equates Abraham with Osiris, and associates Abraham with pagan literature, he hits the nail right on the head! The Abraham literature is saturated with BOTH ancient pagan Egyptian influences and later Christian influences, with heavy rumblings of Jewish influences reverberating throughout! This synthesis was discussed in a symposium of scholars who gathered in 1976 to study just this type of phenomenon, with special emphasis on the Testament of Abraham, an ancient work displaying affinities with Greek, Iranian, Arabic, Ethiopic, Jewish, and Christian, as well as EGYPTIAN influences and religious philosophical concepts!

I would think, that this would be a little disturbing to any Mormon. Particularly those who have always been taught that it was the pagan influences (primarily Hellenistic philosophy) that corrupted the pure gospel and led to apostasy in the early church. Now, Latter Day Saints are being asked to embrace a synthesis of pagan Egyptian influences as a great proof of the validity of Joseph Smith's translation ability. Shirts is saying that the Sen-sen scroll is (in cryptic form) representative of Abraham.

Just so one can fully appreciate how outlandish this really is, following will be the literal translation from the Sen-Sen scroll, (JSXI) which is the subject of much of the Kirkland Papers. From this, much of the Book of Abraham was allegedly translated. Let's see if we can line up the text of the Book of Abraham in a parallel fashion, as Smith seems to have been able to do:

Osiris shall be conveyed into the Great Pool of Khons -- and likewise Osiris Hor, justified, born to Tikhebyt, justified -- after his arms have been placed on his heart and the Breathing permit (which [Isis] made and has writing on its inside and outside) has been wrapped in royal linen and placed under his left arm near his heart; the rest of the mummy-bandages should be wrapped over it. The man for whom this book was copied will breath forever and ever as the bas of the gods do."

The rest of the scroll is in tatters, and contains fragments of prayers to the Egyptian deities.   From this text, Smith somehow derived the story found in Pearl of Great Price about Abraham in Egypt.

For further reading on the Abraham=Osiris connection, it would be beneficial for an individual to search the FARMS and BOAP site for any of John Gee's work on defending the pagan Egyptian occult connection. Gee boldly defends a finding of a similar "couch scene" where he claims the name Abraham is mentioned. Although whether the name actually appears in the text is debatable, should one give Gee the benefit of the doubt, the Mormon apologist can demonstrate that the name of Abraham is mentioned in magical incantations in pagan literature. That still doesn't directly help the Book of Abraham, but it strengthens the Pagan-Mormon connection that the BOAP scholars seem to be supporting.

I will conclude this without pontificating a decisive position. There is no Mormon apologist that I have read that is positively concluding that Smith fabricated the whole "Book of Abraham" fiasco, but I am not sure how many options are left. There are only so many valid choices, and "possibilities" 2,3 and 4 are easily dismissed. It seems that the evidence that is acknowledged by all, including LDS scholars, has left a very narrow avenue. It is either accept that Mormonism is steeped in pagan Egyptian occultism, or examine whether Smith may have just invented the whole "Book of Abraham" text. Which choice is more acceptable, each will have to decide for themselves. (EWF)

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